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Student Warfare

Chapter Text

Haruno Sakura was the student body president. She was ruthlessly efficient, highly logical and determined, thus making her the perfect leader of her peers. Not that they appreciated it. They didn't seem to care that she stayed up most nights reviewing the requests the students had made that week. They didn't care that she was the sole reason the cafeteria now sold salad and vegetables. She was, in her opinion, in charge of the collective health of the students. It just wouldn't do for them all to be struck by bowel cancer in later life, now would it?

Sakura surveyed her appearance in her bedroom mirror. Hm, she looked a little peaky. She pulled at her hair and smoothed it back into a low ponytail. Over the years she had tried dying it slightly less offensive colours – like brown, for example – but it had proved remarkably resistant to hair dye, to her annoyance.

It had taken years for her weary mother to finally prove to the school that pink was, in fact, her daughter's natural hair colour and that there was really nothing they could do to make her look slightly more in-keeping with the dress code. At any rate, the pink endeared her to other people, making them believe she was cute and inoffensive.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

She was cute, admittedly, by most people's standards. But harmless? Not essentially. Every since the tender age of five she had learned that there was nothing more satisfying then to receive a higher grade than anyone else. For her entire academic life, Sakura had pushed herself to beat her classmates and succeeded.

As she went to a highly competitive private school, this was quite a feat to achieve. Of course, there were a few challengers. Uchiha Sasuke, the current boy of her dreams – to her irritation – was extremely intelligent, as were most of his friends.

Sakura never put make up on, unlike the rest of the girls in her year. The school code was that make up was banned on paper, but in practise it was a rare teacher who would point at a student and penalise them for excessive use of cosmetics. Girls like Yamanaka Ino took advantage of this leniency and thus wore ridiculous amounts of mascara and foundation.

Sakura tied the ponytail with a yellow ribbon – another rule of the dress code most students enjoyed ignoring – and bent down to rub at a smear on her shiny black patent shoes.

She examined her reflection once more. She looked perfect. Not in terms of aesthetics – the uniform was unflattering and the shoes were rather young for her – but in terms of following the dress code.

For Sakura, following the dress code was like following the every day written laws of life. They were written, they were eternal, and she lived to follow the rules.

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Her mother was already stirring porridge by the time Sakura made it downstairs.

The smell would be appetising at any other time but for Sakura's delicate stomach, half seven was really not the time for porridge.

"Do you want a bowl?" Her mother asked without turning round. She and Sakura lived alone together. In this case, rather literally they were living alone yet together, because Sakura did not get on well with her mother and they lived separate lives under the same roof. Sakura accepted that the law required she lived with her mother, she was just grateful it did not mean she had to actually converse with the woman.

"No thank you." Sakura said politely and grabbed a banana and some juice. It wasn't an ideal breakfast but would keep her stomach happily digesting until she reached a shop and could purchase something a little more filling.

She ate her little breakfast in peace, her mother still studiously stirring the porridge in order to avoid talking to her daughter. Sakura wiped her mouth and got up, grabbing her school bag and opening the front door.

This, at least, grabbed her mother's attention. She turned with a frown, porridge coating the wooden spoon she held aloft, "You aren't leaving now, are you? You don't have to be at school until nine, do you?"

No, Mother, Sakura was tempted to reply, but before I arrive at school I would like to purchase breakfast. When I eventually arrive at school I will have several library books to return. I also have to sort out even more student requests before first lesson. Then I must spend twenty minutes lurking outside the gates in order to terrify a few youngsters who are bound to have gained confidence during their first few months of school and are now carelessly flouting the dress code.

Instead she just offered a fake smile and replied, "Oh, you know me. I like to be early."

Her mother just raised her eyebrows like she knew of but did not appreciate her daughter's predisposition to earliness.

Any other mother would adore a child like me! Sakura wanted to shout. What would you prefer, that I spent my time injecting heroin between my toes? Just as long as I showed up for school late?

Shaking her head in disgust at her mother's bizarre expectations, Sakura left the house, school bag in hand.

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When she arrived at school, she noticed that the scattered groups of students were all furiously gossiping. As she walked through the school gates towards the library, she picked up phrases like, "And they're new here!" and, "I hear they got expelled!"

Sakura was left feeling disgusted by her peers' preoccupation with new people and delinquency in particular. She was already quite aware that there were new students arriving, she just hadn't been told it was today. Fantastic, she thought, and if they were previously expelled then we're sure to get along! Why were there never any well-behaved new students?

She headed into the library. It was an extremely large room, filled with more books than one could read in a lifetime. There were plenty of places to hide from irritating students, which was why Sakura adored it. She particularly enjoyed curling up in a disused, darkened corner with a good book.

The librarian on duty today appeared to be Shizune, a small dark-haired woman in her late twenties. Sakura liked the woman because they had similar, business-like dispositions and a tendency to overreact.

Sakura reached into her bag and pulled out the library books. There were some privileges to being president, Sakura was allowed to take out more books than other students, a rule she gleefully obeyed.

Shizune looked up with a smile, "Morning, Sakura-san! Busy day today."

Sakura looked up sharply at the lack of questioning inflection at the end of the sentence. Shizune knew she was going to have a busy day, she wasn't asking.

"Why will it be busy, Shizune-san?" Sakura asked, carefully stacking the borrowed books on the counter.

"You didn't know?" Shizune asked.

If I knew, why would I ask? Sakura wondered, irritated.

"No, I didn't." Sakura said, smiling through her irritation.

"Those new students. There is a lot of paperwork to get through because of them, and you were volunteered to help. I can't believe they didn't ask!"

"Why would they?" Sakura said gloomily. Paperwork. Joy, "They knew I'd do it anyway."

She pointed to the red sash she wore. Gold letters were emblazoned on the fabric, declaring her to be 'Student Body President.'

"Yes, well," Shizune looked somewhat disapproving, "I went to medical school and I know the affects your hard work is having on your health, it could be –"

"I know, Shizune-san," Sakura interrupted, having read many a medical text for fun, "I promise you my diet and exercise more than makes up for my busy schedule."

Not true. But there was no point in needlessly worrying the woman who provided Sakura was the much-loved books.

"Well, if you're sure. What would you like to take out today?" Shizune gave her a professional smile.

Sakura shrugged, "I'm in a bit of a shark mood. Surprise me."

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First lesson, typically, was maths and Sakura was so very, very late. I arrived over an hour early, Sakura seethed to herself, running down the hall, but because of some law-breaking brats I am now fifteen minutes late! Where is the justice in that?

She knocked courteously on the door. The glass panel in the door revealed that the entire class was staring at her. Fantastic. She straightened out her clothes and fixed a scary, no-nonsense grin on her face.

Kurenai looked up and gestured for her to enter.

"Haruno-san," She observed, scarlet eyes – Sakura suspected contacts or alien lineage – fixed upon her, "Tardiness is not like you."

Sakura, out of breath, pointed at her sash.

"Official business, hm?" Kurenai said, her smile becoming a little mocking. Sakura was aware that Kurenai disliked a student having so much power.

Little did she know, Sakura never used her power for evil. Except that one time. But it was Ami and she really deserved it.

Sakura sat at her desk, once again keenly aware that the person who was supposed to be sitting next to her had asked to be moved and now there was just an empty seat beside her, mocking her.

She wasn't evil. She wasn't spiteful. She didn't emanate a powerful odour. So why did every student she meet try to avoid her? She had a few friends but she got the impression she was mostly disliked by the majority of the student body.

Kurenai began speaking again and Sakura immediately started to pay rapt attention, hand automatically seeking out a pen to write down what the woman was saying.

The room was silent besides the soothing sound of Kurenai's voice and the quiet scratch of pens.

The door crashed open with a bang and a redhead sauntered in. It was obvious he had kicked the door in, despite the rather handy doorknob, as the door now lay awkwardly on its broken hinges.

Sakura's mouth opened in outrage at this blatant act of vandalism, and turned to Kurenai, in the hope that she would punish the newcomer accordingly.

Kurenai had looked shocked at first but as she focused on the redhead her expression changed subtly.

"Haruno-san, would you mind attending to the class in my absence? I will only be five minutes at the most. You," Kurenai pointed to the redhead, "I will speak to you in the hall."

Kurenai stalked past the redhead. Sakura, jaw working furiously as her anger grew, pushed back her chair and stood at the front of the class. She was not supposed to teach her fellow students, she was not an acceptable substitute for a teacher!

The class, who had begun murmuring the moment the door had been kicked in, immediately paid attention when Sakura cleared her throat.

Though she detested her steely reputation, it did give her a certain pull amongst the students. Uzumaki Naruto, for one, stopped pulling Tenten's hair the moment he noticed Sakura's glare focused on him.

Uchiha Sasuke was watching her expectantly, pen poised to write notes. Ignoring the flutter in her stomach at the sight of her crush watching her, Sakura grabbed Kurenai's abandoned textbook and read aloud.

Thankfully it was nothing complicated and the class asked very few questions.

Sakura was getting into her stride now. Inuzuka Kiba had been chatting quite merrily to his neighbour, the ever silent Shino, who was managing to ignore him quite admirably. Nevertheless, Sakura sought to make an example of this one before he undermined her authority and the class lost respect for her.

She stopped lecturing and slowly began walking up to Kiba's desk. He didn't notice at first, still chatting away.

Sakura brought her book down on his desk, making a satisfying thwack sound. The whole class jumped, but none more so than Kiba. He nearly fell out of his chair.

"Inuzuka-san." Sakura said coldly, "Do you have a problem with my teaching?"

For a moment, Kiba looked up at her and Sakura could see the rebellion in his eyes. Why should he have to answer to a fellow student? For the record, Sakura completely agreed with him.

Then Hyuuga Hinata – one of Sakura's few friends – elbowed him.

"No, Sakura." Kiba gave her a mischievous grin, looking her up and down in her frumpy, ill-fitted uniform, "No problem at all."

"Good," Sakura said, her tone clipped, "Eyes up here, if you will. If I hear you interrupt my lecture once more I will see to it that you do not see daylight again, is that understood?"

A little over the top, but the students appreciated drama. Yamanaka Ino herself looked riveted. Sasuke looked slightly amused.

Kiba looked slightly cowed, which was most important. Sakura had always believed bad apples should be rooted out first to stop them spoiling the others.

A quiet coughing sound from the doorway alerted her to Kurenai and the redhead's reappearance. From the look in Kurenai's slightly impressed eyes and the redhead's stare, they had witnessed Sakura's reign of terror.

Oh dear.

"Give you much trouble?" Kurenai asked, her mouth curled up in a faintly amused grin.

"Nothing I could not handle, Kurenai-sensei." Sakura said respectfully, and sat back down.

"Now, please introduce yourself for the class' benefit." Kurenai turned to the redhead.

He looked mutinous but obeyed. "My name is Gaara."

Sakura waited, wanting to jot down a few details about the newcomer.

He looked at Kurenai. She looked impatient, "Tell them about yourself!"

"I like sand." He said tonelessly. This brought a few titters amongst the students. Gaara was pale, with black ringed eyes like a panda. His eyes were very pale green. He glared at the class. Sakura noticed they immediately fell into silence.

Sakura wrote down: Gaara, likes sand. First act as student, damage classroom door. Did not appear to be punished. Perhaps verbal warning?

"I suppose that will have to do." Kurenai said wryly, "Sit next to… Haruno-san, the pink-haired girl with the red sash."

Just sometimes, Sakura wished she could be less conspicuous. Were there any other pink-haired girls wearing red sashes? No.

Gaara walked past her desk, every inch of radiating tension and danger. He threw himself into his chair so hard it nearly toppled back. He kicked his desk until it wobbled and fell.

Sakura, tidy by nature, reached out to break the desk's fall.

As she did so, she looked up and met the new student's eyes. He was glaring at her incredulously. So was the rest of the class. She couldn't understand why. Was there a rule against letting falling desks fall, like letting sleeping dogs lie?

Almost defiantly, Sakura pulled the desk upright. Unable to resist, she straightened it.

She pulled back and grabbed her pen, ready to transcribe Kurenai's words once more.

Uchiha Sasuke, sitting a few rows in front of her, turned around to stare.

Judging by the silence, Sakura had just done something very, very stupid. Well, Sakura shrugged to herself, she didn't care either way. She pulled the top off the pen and tried her best to ignore the incredulous stares from the rest of the class.

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"Sakura-san, that was so brave!" Hinata said tremulously over lunch.

Sakura looked at her questioningly and began to eat her sliced apple slowly.

"Standing up to the new boy!" Hinata elaborated.

"When did I do that?" Sakura asked blankly.

"He kicked his desk but you stopped it falling. E-everyone's said he's very violent and dangerous, no one else would have dared do it!" Hinata said, pale eyes wide.

"There is a difference," Sakura said, "Between bravery and ignorance. I had no idea he was considered some fabled figure of delinquency."

"You still would have done it if you'd known." Hinata said loyally.

Sakura smiled back at the shy girl. She and Hinata had an entire table to themselves. This was owed to Sakura's fierce reputation.

Since joining this school, the only friend she had ever made and kept was Hinata. Yamanaka Ino didn't count. It was occasionally quite lonely, but Sakura saw no reason to complain. She was the reason she had so few friends, so she couldn't really complain about it.

"O-oh, Sakura-san, I was thinking of starting a study group!" Hinata squeaked almost incomprehensively, face colouring, eyes fixed just over Sakura's shoulder.

"A study group! Hey! Can I join, Hinata-chan?" An obnoxiously cheerful voice said from behind Sakura. She didn't need to turn to know that it was Uzumaki Naruto.

And where Naruto went…

…Sasuke closely followed. He leant over Sakura's shoulder to stare at her lunch. She nearly blushed herself. She and Hinata made quite the pair of blushing lovelorn fools.

"How nutritious, Haruno." Sasuke murmured.

"I try." Sakura replied crisply, pretending her heart wasn't pounding like a drum in reaction to his proximity.

"So! Sakura-chan! Can I join this study group?" Naruto's tanned face joined Sasuke's pale one in staring at her.

Sakura nearly rolled her eyes. "Ask Hinata. It was her idea."

Naruto looked a bit intimidated by her frostiness, but Sakura wasn't out to make friends with the likes of Uchiha or his underlings. Though she adored Sasuke, it was owed to her ridiculous hormones and she was quite confident her little crush would be forgotten by the time she was post-puberty. God, she couldn't wait to be free of raging hormones.

People like Uchiha Sasuke and Yamanaka Ino were the reason she worked so hard in this school.

"Can we sit with you, Hinata-chan, Sakura-chan?" Naruto asked eagerly, clutching his ramen.

Sakura merely shrugged to indicate her neutrality, counting on Sasuke to insist otherwise.

She was saved from having to sit with the boy she liked by a light touch at her elbow. It was Moegi, a younger student, "Haruno-san, Kakashi-sensei wants to see you." She said softly.

Sakura looked mournfully at the remains of her lunch. "Oh well, I shouldn't have expected to be able to eat it all, anyway."

She gathered it up and threw away her rubbish neatly.

Naruto looked a bit relieved to see her go, "Oh, OK, Sasuke-bastard and me will keep Hinata-chan company!"

Sasuke watched Sakura go with those irritatingly unfathomable dark eyes of his.

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"Thing is, Haruno," Kakashi said, lazily sprawled out on a chair, "There is a lot of paperwork to do. And we teachers are busy." He indicated the staff room, in which Anko was playing hangman with Genma.

"Thing is," Sakura mimicked the teacher, "paperwork isn't exactly in my job description. I already do about a hundred things I'm not technically meant to."

"But Haruno!" Kakashi said mournfully, "The Student Body President is supposed to be generous and hard-working!"

"I am." Sakura gritted out.

"You'd be doing us a huge favour…" Kakashi wheedled.

Sakura snatched the papers from his hands and glowered at him, "If this takes me till after four I demand to be paid."

"Deal!" Kakashi said cheerfully, already going off to join Anko and Genma in their game.

Sakura fumed silently, carrying the boxes of papers Kakashi had pointed out to her. She'd have to do it in the library. Ridiculous, utterly ridiculous and probably illegal.

She spotted something on one of the papers. Sabaku no Gaara, it said. So. He was the reason she was forced to do all this paperwork. She dumped the box on a seat in the corridor and tried to catch her breath.

And then, to her disbelief, she spotted the source of all her troubles. Save the hormone related. That was Sasuke.

This was Gaara.

"Right." Sakura said to herself fiercely. She grabbed the box and stormed over to Gaara. He was with two other teenagers. There was a distinct family resemblance in their facial features, despite their different hair colours. Sakura guessed siblings or cousins.

"You." She pointed at Gaara, having put the box down. He looked at the finger she was pointing at him, his expression quietly murderous. Refusing to be cowed, Sakura actually moved nearer to him, accusing finger now inches from his chest.

"Your hair. If dyed, it violates the dress code," The finger pointed to his head, "That tattoo certainly violates the dress code. Get it lasered or get a fringe. Your shirt needs to be tucked in. Your collar is a mess. Where is your tie, exactly? You would have been provided with one. You are wearing completely the wrong sort of shoes." Sakura ranted, straightening his collar as she went and poking his chest to indicate lack of tie.

The supposed siblings had looked increasingly terrified as her rant went on. The girl's eyes kept flickering from Sakura to Gaara and back.

"And you!" Sakura switched targets and honed in on the brown-haired sibling, "Kabuki face paint is most certainly not allowed in the corridors. If it is for Drama class, keep it in Drama class. All stage make up and costume must removed following the termination of class."

The girl had begun to smirk the moment Sakura had focused on the older boy. The smirk vanished as Sakura bore down upon her.

"Your hair, is it bleached or natural? You are not allowed to expose your stomach. Your skirt is entirely too short, are you using it as a belt? And why on earth have you left two buttons undone at the top?" Sakura pulled the girl's top down and buttoned it up for her, her wrath increasing with every second.

As she pulled at the top, a packet of cigarettes fell out. Sakura just stared at them for a moment, inwardly raging, and then looked up to silently demand an explanation.

"They aren't mine; they're my boyfriend's, honest!" The girl said hastily.

"Then why are they on your person?" Sakura said slowly, confiscating the cigarettes, "No cigarettes on school grounds. That is four cases of dress code violation and one harmful substance confiscation on your part," Sakura turned to the oldest boy, "You only had one violation. Well done. And you," She turned to the youngest. His eyes were so cold they were difficult to look at, "You have six dress code violations."

Refusing to be intimidated by the glaring redhead, Sakura added, "That all adds up to detention!"

"That's not fair, it's our first day!" The oldest complained.

Sakura took a step towards him, "Be warned," She said in a low voice, "I am in a very bad mood today. Yes, it might be your first day. But that does not change the fact that you received a letter indicating the rules of the school months ago, does it not?"

She bent down and picked up the box of paperwork, "And I have all this to sort through, because of you three!"

The girl looked more amused than angry the moment Sakura started staggering under the weight of the box. The oldest immediately went to help her with her heavy burden, but Gaara shook his head.

"You have no idea what you are dealing with." Gaara said. The threat was explicitly stated. Sakura could file it down to report for later. If only she had access to a pen.

"I'm dealing with students," Sakura panted, "As is my job. I expect to see you all looking more appropriate by tomorrow."

Gaara leaned closer, so their faces were almost touching, "You do not want to make me angry, little girl."

This would have impressed her more if he was taller than her by more than a few inches. Little girl, as if.

"Haruno?" Sasuke said, sounding surprised.

Sakura swivelled on the spot. "Uchiha-san? What is it?"

She expected a report that the toilets had been flooded again, not the look of concern on Sasuke's face when he saw who she was with.

"Are you alright?" He asked, subtly nodding at Gaara and the others, the cause of his alarm obvious.

"Oh, yes, definitely," Sakura lied, "Just off to do some paperwork."

Sasuke came over and grabbed the box, lifting out of her arms with enviable ease.

"Then I'll help." Sasuke said firmly, his eyes on Gaara, looking almost predatory.

"Oh, there's no need –" Sakura tried to protest, but Sasuke had already started walking off to the library.

Sakura was left in slightly awkward silence with the three siblings.

"I'm sorry about how… aggressive I was back then," Sakura said apologetically, making sure to address her apology to the two marginally nicer siblings, e.g. not Gaara.

"I've never been scared of a Student Body President before!" The older boy laughed.

"I'm Haruno Sakura; it's nice to meet you." Sakura gave a respectful bow.

The older girl barely inclined her head. The brown-haired bow made the tiniest of bows, looking embarrassed. Gaara completely ignored her.

"I'm Kankuro," The older boy said.

"And I'm Temari, the girl you physically assaulted earlier." The girl raised her eyebrows.

"I'd hardly call it assault, more like aggressive buttoning." Sakura shrugged.

"Haruno," Sasuke said, reappearing in the doorway, sounding aggrieved, "Let's go."

Sakura smiled at Temari and Kankuro and went to leave. As she passed through the doorway she heard Gaara say quietly, "So, her name is Haruno Sakura."

Ignoring the chill of foreboding that little statement made, Sakura joined Sasuke and walked away from the oddly threatening sibling trio.

Chapter Text

Sakura was confused, a rare occurrence indeed.

The school's atmosphere had changed completely. Everywhere she went, students stared, giggled and whispered to each other. She suspected a coup.

Sakura stormed through the school, death glaring anyone who dared laugh or whisper in her presence. Her face burned from all of the stares she was receiving. She was beginning to actually feel a little worried. She had already disappeared into the bathroom to try to see if there was anything amusing about her face that would explain the stares.

It was a very miserable Sakura who eventually trudged into the school's sunny courtyard, hoping there'd be a foolish youth with a dress code violation she could verbally maul to cheer herself up.

She always knew she was heavily disliked by her fellow students. She had never cared before, believing it just showed she was doing her job properly. But this was something different. They were all laughing at her.

She saw Naruto frowning at a textbook as he sat on a bench with Sasuke next to him, looking bored.

"Naruto," Sakura said in clipped tones, not acknowledging Sasuke, "I need you."

Naruto's eyes rounded in shock, and she realised the connotations of her words.

"I need your help," She spelled out, "to find out why everyone seems to find me so funny today."

"Oh, that. Well, haven't you looked on the noticeboard, Sakura-chan?"

He always said her name like, 'Saaaaakura-chyaan!' It grew irritating over time.

"Not today, no. Why?" She asked suspiciously.

"Come on, I'll show you."

Naruto led her to the noticeboard, with Sasuke trailing behind them as always.

Sakura put her hands on her hips. There was a large piece of paper clipped to the noticeboard, so large it eclipsed most of the other notes.

A declaration of war, it read.

Sabaku no Gaara hereby declares war on Haruno Sakura. In an effort to show her what she is up against, I will now demonstrate my abilities.

Haruno Sakura's hair is naturally pink. She was gifted the title of 'Student Body President' because no one else wanted it. She is forced to do the jobs of the teachers who can't be bothered to do them themselves.

Her parents divorced when she was twelve, and neither of them wanted custody of her.

Later that same year, Yamanaka Ino -

Sakura stopped reading and savagely tore the paper from the noticeboard, startling Naruto and Sasuke, who had been reading over her shoulder.

She ripped the paper up into tiny shreds efficiently, and deposited the remains into the nearest bin. A few students walked past as she did so, laughing at her.

"I remember that thing with Ino," Naruto said thoughtfully, "It had something to do with Sasuke, right?"

Sakura did not reply. She was staring at the sun, trying to stave off tears.

Her deepest, darkest secrets, laid bare in front of the entire school.

"If he wants war," She said through clenched teeth, "That is what he will get."

"Good," A cold voice said behind her.

She turned to glare at Gaara - no matter how terrifying this sullen, short tattooed redhead was supposed to be, he'd messed with things even she tried to forget, and publicised it all for the world to read. She was never going to be afraid of him, because he had angered her so much that it eclipsed the tiny shred of fear that she had felt before.

He was flanked by his older siblings, both of whom looked slightly uncomfortable. Gaara himself looked especially unapproachable today. He wore a black, tight top with little grey skulls decorating the collar as well as ripped black jeans and big boots.

"I told you that you didn't know what you were dealing with." Gaara said without inflection. It was as though he didn't feel anything, his voice should be coloured by the petty triumph he had somehow won from her. The dull, unfeeling rasping voice was much worse than if he'd smugly said, "I told you so." It was like it meant nothing to him. Her secrets, her private life, meant nothing to him.

"I do know who I'm dealing with." Sakura said fiercely, "A student. I won't back down just because you're either some computer hacking genius or a rich heir with access to his daddy's wallet. Well done for the amount of detail, by the way. You must have dug deep for a lot of that."

"A surprising amount of people were happy to supply me with information about you. There wasn't much of interest. I was surprised to find out that you were prepared to give up your only friend for," Gaara broke off and nodded at Sasuke, "him. It must have hurt when it didn't pay off, hm?"

Sasuke's eyes flashed dangerously, "You don't know what you're talking about -"

"Neither of you do." Sakura interrupted coolly. This was one secret Gaara would never find out. It was between her and Ino. That awful day in the corridor, that horrible confrontation... "You told me, Gaara, that I don't know who I'm dealing with. The amount of research you evidently did should have told you enough to know that you just made a big mistake," She stepped closer, ignoring Naruto's muttered warning, "I get 100 percent in all of my exams. I have never failed any test, any paper, any assignment, any class project. I have never had detention. I am Student Body President, Gaara, not because no one wanted the job, but because no one else could do the job. I am in charge of what you eat, what you wear, what you say and what you do. If you put a toe out of line, I will have you up against the firing squad quicker than you can beg your daddy for a dollar to save you from me."

Gaara's eyes had widened the tiniest bit during her rant, Naruto had stepped away nervously, Sasuke had smirked reluctantly, Temari looked oddly impressed and Kankuro appeared to be a little worried.

The anger that had begun to rage inside her ever since she saw those poisonous lines of her life in black and white for anyone to see -Her parents divorced when she was twelve, and neither of them wanted custody of her - leapt up and boiled in her stomach as Gaara began to smirk.

"Who would have thought a little school like this would have someone as fun as you?" Gaara said slowly, his expression of haughty disdain melting into cruel amusement, "Maybe I'll stay longer than I intended."

"What?" Kankuro spluttered, "They make us wear a uniform! They wri -"

Gaara looked at his older brother. Kankuro was silenced immediately.

"He's right, Gaara," Temari said nervously, "This school is a bit dull."

It was one of the best public schools in the world. It was not dull. Sakura herself edited the school newsletter - declared to be a riveting read by the headmaster herself - and organised student gatherings.

Gaara looked away from his sister. His eyes slowly reached Sakura's face, his smirk widening, "It is not that dull anymore."

"Glad you like it here." Sasuke snapped, "Haruno, dobe, c'mon." He grabbed them both and pulled them away, Sakura and Naruto struggling to keep up with his fast pace.

They reached a corridor well away from Gaara and his increasingly irritating smirk and Sasuke finally released them.

"You," He began, eyes dark and furious, "are completely stupid."

A thousand remarks contradicting that statement sprang up in Sakura's mind but the look on Sasuke's face made her a little hesitant to voice them.

She settled for, "Talking with you is like a warm hug."

"He's right, that actually was pretty dumb." Naruto said earnestly.

If Naruto thought it was dumb, then it must have been mind-blowingly idiotic. Damn, it'd felt good at the time.

"You have no idea who he is, do you?" Sasuke snapped, "He's the son of one of the most powerful businessmen in the world. He could have you imprisoned for falsified charges. He could have your house burnt down with you in it. He could drain your scholarship money for college and ensure that no educational institute would take you. In short, you boasting that you could put him in detention is why he found you so funny when he could do so much worse to you!"

Sakura felt her expression freeze into something resembling awed horror as Sasuke spoke. The way Naruto nodded grimly told her it was common knowledge.

No wonder the whole class thought she was insane for straightening his desk. She'd gone up to him and his siblings and told them off, gave them detention and insulted Gaara over and over again.

She was dead. Or worse.

"Thank you for telling me this before I could seriously offend him. I mean, it's not as though you stood back and let me shout at him, knowing he's a raving psychopath with money to burn!"

"I didn't exactly expect you to threaten him!"

"Urgh!" Sakura groaned, running her hands through her hair wretchedly. This could be the end of her career and/or her life. It was ridiculous. Utterly terrifying, but ridiculous all the same.

A thought occurred to her and she straightened up with a smile, "Oh well, that's that then! I'm doomed. But, since I'm already doomed, I may as well carry on with this war thing."

"Haruno, did you not hear what I said?" Sasuke said, taken aback by her sudden cheer.

"Yes, I did." Sakura said grimly. But Gaara had gone too far. He'd raked up her past hurts and treated them like idle gossip. She was already in deep, why not go deeper whilst getting revenge? "He isn't going to go easy on me if I act like a submissive, meek little girl and not try to fight back. I'm not going to let him get away with what he's done."

xxxxxxxx

The notes began later that day. Insulting notes, always in different handwriting.

Haruno Sakura is a slut, a sneering piece of paper informed her, having been flicked onto her desk.

"Imaginative." Sakura snorted quietly and tossed the piece of paper back from where it had come, smirking at the pained yelp.

She needed a way to get to Gaara.

He was protected by his father's money, his older siblings and his fearsome reputation.

She needed to penetrate his defences, just as he'd done to her.

Hmmm, she thought, how to do that? The weakest member of the group was Temari, she feared Sakura's sash more than the other two, proven by the way she had hastily claimed the cigarettes were her boyfriend's.

Boyfriend...

She could get to them through the boyfriend.

Right.

The rumour mill had claimed Temari's boyfriend was younger than her.

Young, and a smoker. Presumably someone from Sakura's own year, unless Temari often dated underage boys.

It took Sakura a minute to remember every male in her year she had caught smoking on school grounds.

A single name flashed in her mind.

Nara Shikamaru.

Young, a smoker, in her year and surprisingly enough, a ladies man.

It was quite possible.

Shikamaru was one of the few students Sakura would tentatively label, 'a friend.'

They had similar intelligence levels. Shikamaru's was probably superior to her own but he lacked the motivation to do anything with his brain.

Sakura, thankfully, was more motivated than a cheerleader on speed. This was the only reason she was ranked higher academically than Shikamaru was.

Another note was flicked onto her desk in curly, feminine writing, Haruno Sakura looks constipated when she thinks too hard.

xxxxxxxx

Nara Shikamaru was pitifully easy to find.

He sat on the floor of one of the unused corridors, legs stretched out, cigarette dangling from his mouth.

His wrists were bruised, as was his face. Sakura frowned to herself as she approached.

Shikamaru saw her coming, there was a muffled, "Shit," as he tried to dispose of the cigarette.

"No smoking on school grounds! No sitting on the floor!" Sakura sang out as she reached him.

"You got me." Shikamaru raised his hands in easy defeat and blew smoke out in a massive sigh.

"Yep. That's why you're going to do me a favour."

"Hm?" Shikamaru turned to frown at her.

"You are going out with Temari, right?" Sakura asked.

"Yes..." He said slowly, "How did you -"

"I'm brilliant, you know that. Anyway, her little brother's got it in for me. I was wondering what you could tell me about him."

"Gaara, huh? Should've known you'd piss him off. Well, I was dating Temari before she joined this school, I'm kind of the reason they came here - don't glare at me, I didn't ask them to come. Right, Gaara. He's got a history of violence. He hates his old man and the feeling's mutual. Temari and Kankuro are terrified of him. Their mother died when they were little, giving birth to Gaara. He got blamed for it, I guess. He's richer than you probably think he is. His money's all his own, he's got shares in a few businesses, or whatever. His dad never spent a penny on him. Temari says even she can't tell what he's thinking most of the time. He hates authority - er, yeah, guess that's you, huh?" Shikamaru took a deep breath after his long speech, puffing away at his cigarette like an old man.

Sakura scowled. She didn't want to hear about the sad parts of his life, he'd pissed her of and she wanted revenge.

"Is there anything he's afraid of?"

Shikamaru thought for a long time. "Yeah. But I ain't telling you that. Gaara isn't as bad as everyone thinks -"

"He publicised every secret I have to the whole school. I can't go anywhere without being laughed at now. My job relies on the students respecting me." Sakura said quietly.

Shikamaru looked at her thoughtfully.

"He's afraid of something he inspires." Shikamaru said cryptically.

"I'm sorry, be more vague next time, I can't understand you when you spell things out so obviously." Sakura said dryly.

"You don't know him like I do. It wouldn't be fair if I told you."

"Well you've been totally useless." Sakura moaned.

Shikamaru's mouth quirked up in half-grin around his cigarette. Sakura caught sight of his bruised wrist again and frowned.

"Why are you all bruised?" She asked, examining the bruises clinically. Fresh, just beginning to form.

Shikamaru closed his eyes briefly, half-grin gone as fast as it appeared, "Hyuuga Neji took offense to something I said."

Sakura was aware her face had settled into something vaguely demonic. Oh, how she despised bullying.

She stood, hands on hips. "Right, I'll go take care of that then."

"You don't have to -" Shikamaru started to say. She silenced him with a glare.

"No, but I'll do it anyway. I don't like bullies, especially not when they target my friends."

xxxxxxxx

She finally located Hyuuga Neji in the Senior Common Room. He sat in an armchair, reading a thick book with a look of intense concentration. A radio was blasting in the corner of the room. Sakura did a quick scan of the room and discovered several things that dismayed her. One, Naruto was asleep on the floor in a patch of sunlight and Sasuke was leaning against a wall near him. Two, a flash of blood-red let her know that her worst enemy was present. Three, it appeared none of the seniors knew how to do up a tie.

Sakura swept into the room and planted herself in front of Hyuuga Neji. She was well aware that he was Hinata's cousin, but she wasn't going to treat him nicely because of that. She knew he belittled Hinata whenever he could.

Neji looked up from his book as she loomed over him menacingly, a scowl darkening her face.

"Hyuuga Neji," She said civilly, "Are you aware that bullying is not tolerated in this school?"

Neji raised his eyebrows a miniscule amount, "Quite aware, thank you." And he went back to reading his book.

"Well, that's good. I'd hate for you to get confused and beat up a student or two by accident. Because if that ever happened, I hope you are also aware of the consequences?"

Neji smiled, "Expulsion."

"In part, yes. More to the point, I would personally make any student's life very difficult should they get confused ever again."

"Are you threatening me, President?" Neji asked, the smile playing about his lips becoming infinitely more dangerous.

"Don't be ridiculous, I'm Student Body President, I'd never threaten anyone." Sakura said brusquely, "One moment, please."

Neji gracefully inclined her head, effectively dismissing her.

Sasuke was watching her, yet again.

Sakura turned and faced Gaara and his siblings, whom had all been watching her talk to Neji.

"Temari," Sakura said. The older girl looked surprised at being addressed, "your boyfriend is Nara Shikamaru, correct?"

"Yes, he is." Temari said, looking at her suspiciously.

"And, say, should any senior ever take offense to his presence and beat him up, what would be your reaction?"

Kankuro looked shocked. Gaara's face was impassive.

Temari looked murderous. "I would tear up the person that did it and burn the remains." She spat.

"Excellent!" Sakura said pleasantly, "You've met Hyuuga Neji, right?"

The three siblings' eyes fell on the Hyuuga.

"I'm sure you'll get along just fine," Sakura smiled. She turned to face Neji, who was beginning to grow very pale, "I would never personally threaten you, no."

And with that she left the room again, ignoring both Sasuke and Gaara's stares boring into the back of her skull.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura returned home at five that day, having been forced to help the teachers again after school hours. On the plus side, they did pay her for her time.

She was never truly forced to help them, she just felt obligated to.

It was the stupid sash's fault, Sakura thought moodily as she trudged home, it made her feel special, powerful, dedicated. Important.

Better.

She opened the front door with her key, wincing as it got stuck in the lock. A good shove finally got the door open.

Her mother was sat in the living room, watching TV.

"Did you have a nice day, Sakura?" Her mother asked listlessly, not at all interested in her daughter's response.

"Yes." Sakura forced a smile and headed for her room.

She sat on her bed and looked around the room. The walls were covered in report cards, A+ essays, prize-winning poetry and other achievements.

She had taken every one of them home and showed them to her parents. It was the one time of day they would stop arguing with each other, they would examine her high marks and begin to smile.

She worked desperately hard to keep them smiling.

But it didn't matter in the end.

Her parents divorced when she was twelve, and neither of them wanted custody of her.

Chapter Text

Sakura was actually a little ashamed of herself for breaking down the night before, staring at all of the awards and high grades she'd achieved, and wondering why she even bothered.

She headed into the school, a scarf pulled over her face. Winter was approaching quickly, despite the recent sunny weather. Great. That meant frozen pipes and endless amounts of pupils calling in 'sick' on snow days.

She had a green knitted hat stuffed on her head and was wearing a giant pink coat. She was feeling fairly sullen.

There were students milling about chatting excitedly about the cold and hogging the radiators in the corridor.

Sakura heard a little gasp in front of her and looked up sharply.

Yamanaka Ino stood before her, looking stunned.

For a moment they simply stood there, staring at each other, aghast.

Ino opened her mouth to speak, looking stricken.

Sakura pushed past her and ran, past all of the students who looked up to laugh at her, past the staff room where she was originally heading, ignoring the pale figure of her ex-best friend, standing there watching her run away from her.

She ended up in the girl's bathroom, washing her face.

"You can keep it together," She promised her reflection, "It's just Ino." She watched her face tremble in the mirror.

Just Ino, the girl who knew all about her parents' divorce, had seen every tear Sakura had shed over the whole mess, had been there on the nights that her parents had not, who had known her inside and out.

Her old best friend.

Sakura groaned in frustration. This whole messy war with Gaara was making her think of things she had pushed out of her mind for four years. There were things on that list of her life that she had never told anyone but...

Sakura snapped her head up and stared at her reflection, shocked.

The realisation set in.

She became enraged in seconds, storming out of the bathroom, tearing the hat and scarf off, eyes intent on the platinum blonde hair she could see in the middle of a crowd.

As she pushed past people without feeling any guilt, too overcome with anger, she became aware that Gaara was following her. Suddenly, she couldn't care less about his stupid war or his power.

She was far, far too angry.

She finally reached Ino. The other girl looked startled at Sakura's expression. Sakura lifted a hand and, without warning, slapped Ino, hard.

There were gasps from the crowd.

Ino clutched her face, eyes watering from the pain, looking shocked, "Sakura! What did I -"

"You told Gaara every secret I have!" Sakura shouted in her face, pushing her backwards.

Ino stumbled, speechless.

"I trusted you! You were supposed to be someone I could trust, my best friend!"

Gaara moved forwards, eyes intent on Sakura. If Sakura's mind had been focused on anything other than the pure rage surging inside of her, she would have found it odd that Gaara did not appear to be finding this amusing.

Ino's mouth was flapping open and shut, "I'm sorry! He paid me!"

"You sold my secrets? My parents' divorce, my fucking hair colour, what happened between you and me? How much?" She demanded suddenly, rounding on Gaara, "How much did you pay her to spill my secrets?"

Gaara's expression was inscrutable, "A couple of hundred, I can't remember the exact number."

Sakura looked around the crowd that had gathered around them. Their faces looked eager, entertained.

Sakura felt drained all of a sudden.

"Don't ever talk to me ever again." Sakura whispered tiredly, "Either of you."

Ino's face was as pale as milk, her eyes big and watery, "Sakura -"

"Does this mean you give up?" Gaara asked, looking inquisitive.

Sakura hesitated. What she would give, for all of this to be over?

Anything.

Except her pride.

"No." She said angrily, "This doesn't change anything."

"Sakura!" Ino said again, upset, "I'm sorry!"

"Screw you," Sakura said heatedly, "Didn't I tell you never to talk to me again?"

"For God's sake, it was four years ago!" Ino snapped, losing her temper suddenly.

Sakura breathed in slowly, trying to stop herself from punching Ino in the face. Finally she calmed herself down enough to turn around and say coldly, "You never apologised for what happened four years ago, Ino. And I'm angry, right now, because you were bribed into giving up things I told you in confidence, because I stupidly believed that, despite us not being friends you would still have a shred of decency that would prevent you from telling anyone about them."

And it was a shame, really, because her words left Ino looking as though she had been punched in the face anyway, and Sakura regretting not taking that shot when the adrenaline was still kicking.

"Here's another secret you can have for free," Sakura said, her tone sharp and biting, "I would have never chosen Sasuke over you, Ino. You made that choice that day, not me. I don't know why I ever thought you were worth confiding in. God knows it's a mistake I'll never make again."

And she left them all, snickering and staring, ignoring the sound of Ino's sobs as she walked away, the set of her shoulders strong and unapproachable. Even Gaara didn't dare follow Sakura as she pushed her way through the crowd.

xxxxxxxx

Hinata passed Sakura another tissue and sat, wide-eyed, as Sakura sobbed her way through a whole pack of tissues.

They were sitting on the school roof, the cold of the frost-bitten stone seeping through their skirts. They had a lesson in ten minutes, but for once Sakura didn't seem to give a damn.

Sakura sniffed, hard, and wiped her sore eyes again. Her throat was tight, her stomach was in knots and her shoulders shook with convulsive sobs.

"Sakura-chan..." Hinata said, eyes grave, "What happened?"

Sakura had stormed off, putting on a brave face to hide how close she was to tears. She had stumbled across Hinata, dressed in a big puffy white coat like a snowman, and together they'd hidden on the roof to avoid other students.

"Ino." Sakura said, staring at the tissues in her hand, "She sold all my secrets to Gaara. She's the reason the whole school knows about my parents' divorce, what happened with -" She stumbled over her words, not able to finish her sentence.

Hinata was silent for a while before she eventually spoke up, "I never liked Ino. Even before what happened. I thought she was rude..." Hinata paused before continuing, voice growing hard, "What's she's done to you is unforgivable."

Sakura gave a wry smile, nose red from the cold, "Thank God I was never good at forgiving, anyway."

The door to the roof creaked open.

Hyuuga Neji edged onto the roof. His face was a mess of day-old bruises, his lip was cut and he had a black eye. He paused and stared out at them. A girl with dark hair tied up in twin buns peered around the door and frowned. That nice senior, Lee, put a hand on Neji's shoulder and stared at Sakura and Hinata.

Hinata stiffened at the sight of her cousin, "Neji-nii-san," She squeaked, "What're you -"

"Hinata-sama." Neji said in his icy cold voice. He turned to his friends, "Lee, Tenten. Go back to class. I'll be back in a second."

Lee's mouth opened in silent question, but Tenten grabbed him by the collar and pulled him back inside the school.

Neji started towards them. Sakura hurriedly put away the tissues and stood up, sniffing.

"You got me in a fair bit of trouble, President." Neji said, not acknowledging Hinata's little stammers.

"You hurt my friend. I hurt you. That's how I work." Sakura snapped back at him.

"Neji-nii-san..." Hinata said weakly, "Please leave Sakura-chan alone..."

"I don't have to do what you say, honorable cousin," Neji snapped, "I'm allowed that freedom, at least. You, President, you made those -"

"Neji-nii-san! I heard what you did to Shikamaru-san and I'm sorry you got hurt but blaming Sakura-chan won't solve anything." Hinata spoke up with sudden strength.

Neji blinked in surprise.

His face darkened in sudden anger and he started towards them -

"Oi."

Sakura looked past Neji's shoulder. Sasuke stood, hands in his pockets, Naruto by his side.

"Your friend Tenten asked me to let you know you'll be late for class." Sasuke said coldly.

Naruto looked wary.

Hinata was shaking. Sakura put her hand on top of hers in quiet comfort.

Neji hesitated, glared at Hinata, but something about Sasuke's face made him head for the door.

Sasuke watched him go, radiating hostility.

Neji stopped, hand on the door handle, and turned back to look at Hinata, "See you later, Hinata-sama."

The door closed behind him.

Hinata relaxed visibly after he left.

"Hinata-chan, are you OK?" Naruto asked anxiously.

"Y-yes." Hinata stammered, face instantly flooding with red at the sight of her crush.

"Have you been crying?" Sasuke said suddenly, eyes on Sakura's tear-streaked face.

"No." Sakura said fiercely, "Don't be ridiculous."

"I've never seen you cry before." Sasuke stared unashamedly at her face.

"And you never will because I am not crying." Sakura scrubbed at her face and turned away.

"Suit yourself." Sasuke said carelessly.

"What's that guy's problem?" Naruto said in disgust, pointing at the closed door.

"Neji-nii-san? He... my family... it isn't his fault..."

"We should all get to class." Sakura cut in their conversation after catching sight of her sash.

"Dobe," Sasuke said, "Go on without me. Take her with you." He pointed at Hinata, whose blush was worsening with every second.

"What - why, what's going on -" Naruto began.

"Shut up and do it, dobe."

Naruto and Hinata left quickly, his joking comments and her nervous laughter echoed as they entered the school, closing the door behind them.

Sakura stared at Sasuke with suspicion, "What are you up to?"

Sasuke sat down next to Sakura in the space Hinata had just vacated. Looking as though it pained him to do it, he put his hand over hers.

"What're you -" Sakura began, startled, but he just squeezed her hand and looked away.

"Shut up. I'm trying to comfort you, Haruno. You looked like you needed... something."

Sasuke didn't do anything for anyone unless he benefited from it, Sakura thought uneasily.

But the tiny bit of comfort, however manufactured or suspect, was enough to take her over the edge.

Great big tears rolled down her cheeks and she squeezed Sasuke's hand back.

They sat there, not speaking, as Sakura sobbed and sobbed, pouring out every bad feeling that had plagued her since Gaara's arrival. Fear. Sadness. Shock. Betrayal.

It was nice, Sakura realised, just holding Sasuke's hand in silence.

She tried not to dwell on what that might mean.

xxxxxxxx

The classroom was filled with whispers and giggles. Sakura ignored the students around her and focused on Kurenai speaking. She could not believe she had allowed Sasuke to make her half an hour late - she'd had to show up late, pleading that presidently duties had delayed her.

Gaara was not in his seat next to her. Sasuke was writing quickly, his head so close to the paper that the tips of his hair nearly touched it. Sakura caught herself staring and mentally shook herself to regain her composure.

She had begun to notice an odd feeling in her chest whenever she looked at Sasuke. She did not like it. At all.

The door slammed against the wall and Gaara stepped through nonchalantly. Kurenai looked up, startled, but just sighed when she saw who it was.

Gaara's eyes swept around the room, settling for a second on Sasuke. He looked past him and met Sakura's eyes.

"Sakura," Gaara said coolly, "Come with me."

And with that, supremely confident that she'd just follow him like a good little lap-dog panting after her master, he left the room.

The whole class stared.

Sakura played idly with her pen, ignoring the stares once more.

"Sakura," Kurenai said sharply, "I suggest you go."

"I don't have a hall pass." Sakura said, playing for time.

"Sakura." Sasuke said incredulously, "Don't go."

"Your concern is touching." Sakura sighed, "But I'm pretty sure he'd just drag me out if I didn't go and not a single one of you would stop him."

Kurenai's slightly ashamed eyes told her everything she needed to know.

"I would." Sasuke said stubbornly.

"Me too." Naruto piped up.

"I wouldn't." Kiba shook his head, "That guy freaks me out."

Ino remained silent.

Sakura took a hall pass from Kurenai.

It was nice to know that out of the many students in the class, two of them would consider saving her.

How generous.

She shook her head and left the room.

Gaara was leaning against the wall, staring into space.

"What do you want?" Sakura asked suspiciously.

"You're friends with Hyuuga Hinata, right?" Gaara asked.

"Yes..."

Gaara closed his eyes briefly, as though searching for the right words, "Her cousin. Hyuuga Neji. I do not like him. I heard he was going to go after your friend. I would not want him to succeed."

Sakura's insides turned to ice, "You don't care about Hinata."

"No," Gaara said easily, "But I would not want the Hyuuga to get what he wants."

"And what he wants is to hurt Hinata?"

Gaara shrugged.

"When?"

"Now."

"What? Where?"

"Second floor. I'd hurry if I were you."

Sakura was about to run when her manners kicked in. Hating herself, she murmured, "Thank you."

"What was that?" Gaara said sharply.

"Thank you, are you happy now, creep?" Sakura shouted and ran down the corridor, hoping she wouldn't be too late to help Hinata...

Gaara stared at Sakura's disappearing figure, watching her run desperately. His knuckles stung. "No," He said, in answer to her question.

He wasn't happy at all.

xxxxxxxx

When Sakura arrived on the second floor, she followed the sounds of gasps and shouts.

She had already known that the Hyuuga family were all trained extensively in martial arts - an old family tradition - but seeing it happen in front of her...

Hinata and Neji were fighting. Neji kept going to hit her before she slapped his hands away, eyes looking wide and desperate.

"Neji-nii-" She began to shout, only to receive a blow to her throat, causing her to gasp for breath.

There was a crowd of people just watching as Neji kicked out at Hinata, hitting her knee and making her fall to the ground. No one intervened on Hinata's behalf.

Neji made to punch Hinata in the face as she struggled to get up.

Sakura intervened, standing in the way. A few people backed up after seeing her sash, worried about getting in trouble.

"What have I told you about bullying?" Sakura shouted.

Unable to control her anger, she punched Neji in the face, feeling the skin on her knuckles split and begin to bleed.

Neji's eyes widened in complete and utter shock, red blooming on his cheek.

She went to hit him again, but he was too fast for her, and caught her wrists, squeezing them painfully hard.

"Don't interfere, President. You have no power here. You cannot stop me from -"

"No, but I can." Sasuke's cold voice cut through the sound of the crowd like a knife, and everyone fell silent as he approached.

Sakura kicked Neji in a very private place and pulled Hinata towards Sasuke whilst he writhed in pain.

"Sakura-chan." Hinata gasped, her face looking bruised and sore.

Sakura shoved the other girl behind her. She didn't know a thing about fighting, but she wasn't about to stand by and allow Neji to hurt another one of her friends.

"Did you follow me?" Sakura asked Sasuke, eyes accusing.

"Yes." Sasuke admitted, "I was worried about you. Apparently I had good reason to be."

"Uchiha," Neji spat, looking truly murderous now, "You stay out of my business."

"Your business? Beating up your relatives and Student Body Presidents?" Sasuke affected a mock-curious tone, ignoring Sakura's irritated, "He did not beat me up."

"Detention, Hyuuga Neji, Hinata." Kurenai said, pushing through the crowd, "No fighting on school grounds," She sighed, looking at Sakura, "I can't believe I'm saying this but... detention, Haruno Sakura."

The crowd broke out into furious whispers and giggles.

"Detention?" Sakura gaped at the teacher, "But - but I -"

"You hit Neji. In the face. And tried to do it again. I can't ignore that Sakura, I'm sorry."

Sakura felt faint.

Sasuke gave her an alarmed look, "You've gone white."

Hinata touched her shoulder, "Sakura-chan?" She said questioningly.

I've never had detention before, Sakura thought absently, her legs going wobbly.

xxxxxxxx

Her detention took place the next day.

She slunk into the room, feeling as though she should hide her face. The red sash circling her waist mocked her as she sat down at a desk, avoiding eye contact with her fellow criminals.

Oh God, she was a criminal. She'd assaulted another student.

She put her head on the desk and stroked her fingers through her hair, trying to comfort herself.

She felt the broken skin on her knuckles flare painfully as fingers brushed over it. She looked up sharply.

Gaara stood in front of her desk, his fingers trailing over her knuckles.

"Who did you punch?" Gaara asked. His voice was still cold and raspy. It unsettled her. She pulled her hand back hastily.

"Hyuuga Neji." She admitted, feeling ashamed.

Gaara shocked her by cracking a tiny smirk, lifting his own hand and pointing to the scabbed over wounds on his knuckles, "Snap." He said shortly, sitting down at the desk next to her.

She realised he was studying her face, "He didn't hit you back."

"Sasuke intervened before it got that far."

Gaara's jade eyes darkened, "That Uchiha..." He said, sounding irritated.

Sakura tried not to laugh, "He really doesn't like you, huh?"

"No. Neither do you." Gaara said, staring at her so intently that she had to look away.

Sakura realised how odd it was that she was having a normal conversation with her enemy.

"Well, that depends. Are we at war currently?" She asked.

Gaara looked around the room, "No. Detention is neutral territory."

His face was so pale, she thought, contrasting so sharply with the dark rings around his eyes. His hair was carefully spiked to look exquisitely messy, he was wearing another black T-shirt, this one had the word 'Monster' scrawled all over it in red. His eyes were a pale, lesser green than her own.

His arm was very close to her own.

"Can we discuss a treaty?" Sakura asked, half playful, half serious. This war had been so painful, had dragged up past hurts and made her feel vulnerable and raw.

He was silent for a while longer.

"No." He said, his voice having a touch of finality to it.

Sakura frowned, the odd, slightly playful atmosphere between them disappearing instantly.

"Why not?"

"Because this school would be boring without our war." Gaara shrugged one shoulder, "I don't like being bored."

"I don't like having my ex-best friends sell my secrets, or having them put up for the whole school to see." Sakura countered.

"It's a war, not a game. If you don't like it, you can always give up." Gaara's eyes were hard.

"No," Sakura shook her head, "I don't give up."

"You once told me you never have detentions." Gaara pointed out.

"That is entirely Hyuuga Neji's fault." Sakura said stubbornly.

They were both silent for a while.

"Please stop involving Ino in this war." Sakura said, eyes squeezed shut to avoid looking at Gaara, despising showing such weakness.

"Fine. It was getting a little dull anyway. I do not understand the fascination with the Uchiha."

Sakura fought to keep the smile off her face.

xxxxxxxx

When they left detention that day, Sakura turned to Gaara with a smile, but he silenced her with a glare.

"Don't forget our war, Sakura. We are not friends." He said cruelly, turning his back and beginning to walk away.

Sakura felt like a total idiot. Of course they weren't friends. What had she expected? At least he'd given up on the whole Ino thing. Unless he was lying.

Sakura groaned, thoroughly sick of this war and if it wasn't for her pride holding her back, she would have marched straight over to Gaara and surrendered.

This war was bringing out sides of her she never knew she had. Crying on the school roof top. Attacking Hyuuga Neji. Stupidly assuming Gaara would want to be friends even after all he'd done to her.

Sakura examined her sash with a frustrated sigh. A Student Body President couldn't go around attacking students and crying hysterically. Particularly not with exam week coming up.

She didn't like who this war was turning her into.

Chapter Text

Sasuke was being weird. He was acting... nice, to Sakura's astonishment. Naruto looked troubled whenever Sasuke said something kind to Sakura or opened a door for her. Sakura, meanwhile, was finding it difficult to get her mind off of the dark-haired pale teen.

Gaara hadn't made any tactical moves recently, just stared and stared, presumably waiting for her to crack. Well, he was going to be in for a long wait.

Hinata had been pathetically grateful to Sakura and Sasuke for saving her from Neji. Naruto had threatened to jump Neji after school for daring to hurt Hinata, but the shy girl protested. Sakura still felt uneasy that Hinata had to live with someone who obviously hated her enough to hurt her.

One day, Sakura was trudging home after school, her feet slipping on the icy pavement, her gloved hands gripping walls for purchase.

A car pulled up next to her, sleek and black, obviously expensive.

Sakura didn't spare it a glance, trying to avoid a frozen puddle in her path.

The window slid down.

"Haruno." Sasuke called from inside the car, "want a lift home?"

Sakura gave him an incredulous glare, her breath visible in the frigid air.

"I once gave a lecture on the dangers of getting into cars with strangers, you know." Sakura said haughtily, not trusting this nice version of Sasuke.

"I'm hardly a stranger, Haruno." Sasuke said, amused.

Sakura shook her head and struggled on, ignoring the look of growing amusement on Sasuke's face whenever she slipped.

The car drove slowly alongside her.

"Just get in, Haruno." Sasuke said, now annoyed.

Sakura stopped walking and put her hands on her hips. The car stopped driving the moment she halted, making her wonder uneasily how well the driver could see her through the tinted windows.

"Leave me alone, Uchiha. We are not friends. You were never interested in being friends before, why start now? What have I got that you want?"

Sasuke gave a frustrated sigh, "Naruto wanted me to be your friend. He likes that Hyuuga girl - he figured if I was your friend then he'd have an excuse to hang out with Hinata."

There was low chuckle from the driver's seat, "Smooth, little brother."

"Shut up." Sasuke said heatedly.

"What a brilliant plan. Did you forget the part where I would never be your friend? There's always an ulterior motive with you, Uchiha. Stop following me home or I'll tase you."

"You don't have a taser," Sasuke retorted automatically. Sakura raised her eyebrows and reached for her pocket, "Look, just get in the car. I also wanted to talk about what happened, four years ago, with you, me and Ino."

Sakura scoffed and started walking again. The car instantly began to roll down the road beside her.

Sakura's toes had gone numb from the cold and the icy wind was making her face sting.

"It's cold out there!" Sasuke finally said, "The car's warm."

Sakura knew she would have at least twenty minutes left of walking in the cold if she didn't take Sasuke up on his offer.

Pride be damned, her toes were freezing!

"Fine," She snapped. The car screeched to a halt and the door flew open. She gingerly climbed in; relishing the flush of warmth entering the car gave her.

Sasuke had his phone out, a ridiculously expensive new model, as sleek and impressive as the car they were riding in. He paused in his typing long enough to read a text, scowl at his phone and stab out a reply.

"I'm Itachi, Sasuke's older brother." The driver said, turning back to give Sakura a disarming smile.

Sakura's hormones took over momentarily and she gave him a vacuous smile. Her brain regained control swiftly and sent him a cold glare.

The mixed signals didn't seem to bother him, his dark eyes were quietly amused, his mouth a wide smirk.

Sasuke glared at his brother.

"So," Itachi said pleasantly, "You must be Sakura."

"So," Sakura affected a 'pleasant' tone mockingly, "You must be the older Uchiha."

She looked out of the window and experienced a slight twinge of fear, "This isn't the way to my house."

"I asked him to drive us about for a bit," Sasuke said seriously, "I wanted to be able to talk with you, without Naruto or Hinata hanging around."

"Logically, you could have done that at school. I suppose it depends on the length of the chat which, judging by the amount of fuel you've already burnt and the expensive phone in your hand is bound to be quite lengthy, as you have time to waste. I, however, intend not to fail this year and I want to get home to study quickly."

Itachi suppressed a smile.

"Just... just shut up and listen, OK?" Sasuke said wearily.

"No, you listen. I assume the reason why you hounded me all the way home and whined about wanting to be my friend is because you want to explain your side of what happened four years ago. I reserve the right to explain mine first."

"Sure, fine, whatever." Sasuke began to rub his forehead, attempting to smooth away a headache.

Sakura sat back against the leather seats, wanting to be comfortable - she was about to recite her worst memory. She knew it off by heart anyway, she'd been able to memorise it faster than any essay or play. Itachi's head half-turned as though he was curious to hear what she had to say.

She was twelve years old, and she had recently made a new friend. Ino was her platonic, little girl soul mate, they had the same interests, they were good at the same things and liked the same things. Her parents were arguing more than ever, and Sakura had taken to venting her frustrations to Ino, who was a very good listener.

But then, one day, a new boy came to school.

A pale, dark haired boy, with black eyes and a nasty scowl. Every girl in their year had fallen for him. Sakura was not exempt from this. She could not blame it on her hormones back then, as they hadn't emerged yet, so she blamed it on the following facts: he once gave her his umbrella when she had forgotten hers and it was pouring down with rain, he got an adorable crinkle in his forehead whenever he concentrated, and he appeared to appreciate studying as much as she did.

Ino found out that Sakura liked Sasuke too and didn't want to confront her about it. Instead, she decided to spread rumours about Sakura to put Sasuke off - that she only liked older boys, that she hated everyone and everything, that she cheated on her homework, silly, juvenile rumours.

When Sakura tracked the rumours back to the source and discovered that it was Ino who had spread them, she confronted her in the school's hallway.

Surrounded by students, Ino hadn't wanted to apologise, especially when Sasuke came along and started to watch them arguing.

So instead she began to insult Sakura.

Every insult she slung at her was the truth, which made it hurt so much more.

"You are too smart! No one can talk to you about anything because you turn it into a lecture! I can't understand what you say most of the time! I only made friends with you because I felt sorry for you, because no one else wanted to be your friend. You are ridiculously annoying and stuck up! You whine about your parents every day! You are so boring! I hate having to talk to you about school all the time, it's like you don't have a life outside of class! So, I'm sorry about Sasuke not liking you back, but stop trying to turn it on me, he just -" Sakura remembered Ino yelling at her in the hallway, her eyes narrowed with anger, the words flowing without any control.

Sakura remembered sliding down to the floor, shoulders shaking. She had not cried. She felt too numb with shock to cry. Her best friend hated her. She had always hated her.

The worst part of the memory was Sasuke walking up to them both, listening to Ino shout about Sakura's faults, taking in every awful word thanks to his fantastic memory.

Sakura had gone home that day in tears. Her mother didn't look up from the television, grunting, "How was school?" As she always did.

Sakura replied, "It was great." As she always did.

She had gone up to her room to decide what she do. For a moment she broke down in tears, sitting on the edge of her bed, just thinking about how all of the students hated her.

Ino had called her 'too smart.'

Now, she could make Ino feel important and as though her opinion mattered to Sakura - it did, it really did matter - if she dumbed herself down, talked in slang and did worse in exams because of what Ino had said.

Or, she could make her mother happy by consistently bringing home A grade essays and acing every exam, and show Ino that she wasn't going to change for some bitchy twelve year old who had had the gall to pretend to be her friend out of sympathy.

Well, Sakura didn't need pity friends, she decided.

She didn't need any friends.

When she'd finished talking and stared out of the car window, Sasuke and Itachi remained silent.

"I just remember you being upset in the hall one day and from then on you talked to me really politely, not like a friend, calling me 'Uchiha-san' instead of Sasuke." Sasuke admitted, dark eyes intent on her face.

"Well, now you know. Can you just drop me off here? I can walk." Sakura said shortly.

Sasuke shook his head at Itachi, who rolled his eyes and continued to drive the car in circles.

"How did Gaara find out about that day?"

"Ino told him. He paid her to give up my secrets." Sakura said dispassionately, trying not to think about it.

"Your school friends are very dramatic, Sasuke." Itachi said amusedly.

"Of course they are, their parents are rich." Sasuke muttered.

Sakura held back a snort of derision. She was not rich, nor were her parents. She had only gotten into the school through hard work.

She was starting to believe her hard work, all of the studying, all of the stress she suffered, were pointless. What had she achieved except losing her best friend? Her mother had stopped smiling whenever she inspected her daughter's grades. She had come to expect her to do well academically.

The car stopped outside her house.

"How much do I owe you?" Sakura asked dryly, opening the car door.

"A kiss?" Itachi said playfully.

Sasuke shot a murderous glare at his brother, "Itachi! I'll -"

"Can I tase you instead?" Sakura said rudely, patting her pocket and getting out of the car.

"Sakura," Sasuke called after her, sticking his head out of the window, "I'm sorry about everything that's happened. I really do want to be friends, you know."

Sakura paused and looked back at Sasuke. He seemed to be sincere. She breathed in deeply and nodded, "Fine. But being my friend means you have to hang out in the library now."

She could hear the amusement in his voice even as she walked away, "I'll try to manage that."

xxxxxxxx

The next day, Sasuke started to hang out with Sakura and Hinata, sitting with them at lunch, talking to them in corridors and sitting around in the library watching Sakura study. Naruto, of course, was thrilled that he got to see Hinata a lot more often.

Sakura had sat in the library that day, stubbornly ignoring Naruto's attempts to goad her into conversation, obeying the no talking policy. She had looked up from her annotated text book and met Gaara's eyes.

He was just standing there, leaning against the wall facing her, just staring as he always did.

Sasuke turned to look at what she was staring at and scowled darkly at the sight of Gaara, who glared back just as malevolently. He pushed himself off of the wall and headed to Sakura's table.

"Sakura." He said loudly. She shushed him with an accompanying hand gesture, "I'd choose my friends more carefully in the future if I were you."

Sakura slammed her textbook shut and squinted up at Gaara, "I do choose my friends carefully, and that's why you aren't one of them."

"Interesting," Gaara said, "I thought you wanted us to be friends? You asked me to break the war, remember?"

Sasuke looked surprised.

"That was then, this is now." Sakura growled, "Now stop talking to me. You may be exempt from every school rule but I am not."

Gaara gave a little irritating smirk.

"The sash really doesn't come with many advantages, does it?" He mused.

"I put you in detention once, I can do it again. I'd consider that an advantage." Sakura snapped.

Now Sasuke was the one smirking.

"I'm disappointed with your war efforts so far. It has been growing dull lately." Gaara said, eyeing her thoughtfully.

Sakura, flushed with anger, said, "What do you want from me? Do you want me to encase you cement and tip you into a lake? I can do that, you know. With pleasure."

"Never reveal your secrets to the enemy." Gaara tutted.

Sakura snorted with laughter despite herself. Gaara just sounded so serious and disapproving.

Sasuke stared at her as though she had grown a second head. He looked from her to Gaara. They were both smiling in shared mirth, though Sakura did so reluctantly.

"What happened between you two?" Sasuke said incredulously, sounding almost put out. He put his arm around Sakura's chair, meeting Gaara's eyes defiantly.

Gaara's smile disappeared. Sakura realised she had been imagining the warmth in his pale eyes, because they were cold and hard the next time she looked into them.

"Nothing!" Sakura said hurriedly, unsure why she sounded so defensive.

Gaara turned his cold look on her, "Why would anything happen?"

Then he turned to walk away.

Sakura's face burned, "I'll just go get some cement, shall I?" She hissed at his back, half-hoping he wouldn't hear.

He obviously did, because he turned on his heel and bent down to look at her, putting his hands on either side of her chair.

"Don't say I didn't warn you," He said slowly, gazing at Naruto and Sasuke, "You should choose your friends more carefully."

He left the library without borrowing a book or using a computer. He had come all the way down to the school's library, seemingly just to cryptically warn her about her choice of friends.

"Why do you keep talking to that guy?" Naruto whined, face scrunched up in confusion.

"He d-doesn't seem very nice, Sakura-chan." Hinata said earnestly.

"He warned me about Neji going after you." Sakura said, hoping she wasn't defending him. She feared she was judging by the scowl on Sasuke's face.

"He warned me about you going after Neji." Sasuke admitted.

"What?" Sakura said, startled.

"He came back to class and muttered something about you having a fight with Neji."

Sakura was too surprised to comment. Gaara had done something nice for her. As though concerned for her safety. She felt oddly warm and happy.

Sasuke clearly did not share her happiness (or her warmth), as he looked livid. "I keep telling you to stay away from that guy. He's dangerous." He said angrily.

Sakura rubbed the fabric of her sash between her fingers thoughtfully. Gaara was one big contradiction. He did very nice things rarely but did awful things more often. Paying Ino to reveal her secrets. Publicising them to the entire school. But, under the guise of simply not wanting Neji to get his way, he had warned Sakura about him. Then he secretly told Sasuke to go help her. What was his deal? Was he a nice guy? Or a bad guy? Maybe it wasn't that simple. Maybe he was a bit of both.

Whichever he was, Sasuke seemed utterly convinced that he was dangerous. Common sense pointed out that all of the students were terrified of him; the teachers did whatever he said and ignored his indiscretions. Sakura was the only figure of authority that had ever punished him for breaking the rules. None of the teachers ever gave him detention or even a telling off.

Could it be that he was just a thug, violent and intimidating?

Sakura remembered Shikamaru's cryptic words.

"He's afraid of something he inspires." He had said grimly.

What would Gaara inspire?

Sakura was stumped. Cruel as it sounded, she couldn't imagine Gaara inspiring anything.

Except her anger-fuelled war campaigns, naturally.

xxxxxxxx

Exam season was here. Students were holed up in the library, anxious faces scanning textbooks and writing furious notes.

Sakura was in the middle of typing up a particularly long practice essay when something occurred to her. Why had she never searched Gaara online? If his father was that rich, he would be somewhere on the net. She just had to find him.

She typed, 'Sabaku no Gaara,' into a search engine.

A news article flashed up immediately.

Violent Teen Escapes Prison Sentence

Sakura's eyebrows shot up in surprise. Gaara nearly went to prison? She continued reading.

The son of the most powerful and influential businessman in Suna was up in court yesterday, on charges of assault. The victim is said to be a fellow pupil at his attacker's school. Gaara was not charged and was out of court in less than an hour. Rumours persist that the young, troubled teen (also known by the more fearsome title, Sabaku no Gaara)'s father had paid off the jury in order to ensure his son's freedom. A statement was taken from the offender's older brother, Kankuro, shortly before the family entered court to support Gaara. He was quoted as saying, "Get out of my face – Gaara didn't do anything."

The victim of the brutal beating was out of hospital before the trial began, but declined any interviews.

Sakura's hand slipped from the mouse. Gaara had badly beaten someone? So badly they'd been hospitalised?

She scrolled down the search results.

A web page title caught her eye.

The 'Kazekage' of business has beaten out the famed Uchiha Corp.

Sakura read further. It seemed that Sasuke's family, the Uchiha's, had been Gaara's family's rivals for years, but last year something had changed. Gaara's father, the man known as the 'Kazekage of the business world,' had beaten the Uchiha family's record of sales for the first time.

Hmm… Sakura thought to herself. So, Sasuke and Gaara were rivals, in a way. She had vaguely heard that neither of them got on well with their fathers, so maybe they didn't care about the warring businesses.

But then again… Sasuke's repeated attempts to convince her that Gaara was dangerous, his anger whenever they interacted, the way he'd suddenly started being friendly with her after Gaara came to the school…

Sakura felt her suspicion grow.

Never mind what was Gaara's deal, what on earth was Sasuke's?

xxxxxxxx

Sasuke was sitting alone in the courtyard, typing on an expensive cherry-red laptop. His face was very pale, though his cheeks and nose were sweetly painted pink by the cold. He was wearing reading glasses, for once.

Sakura flicked his laptop to get his attention when he didn't notice her loom over him.

He jumped, the laptop sliding sideways, "Harun – Er, Sakura?" He said, dark eyes wide.

"What's your game, Uchiha?" Sakura asked, glaring down at him.

He looked confused, "What are you talking about?"

"Why do you keep warning me off Gaara but never give me any concrete evidence that I should be afraid of him?" Sakura raised her eyebrows.

"I just don't want you to get –"

"Hurt. Huh. Interesting. Cause a couple of months ago I could have sworn you didn't give a damn. Why didn't you tell me Gaara got arrested for beating up a student?"

Sasuke paled even more, "How did you –"

"I know people," Sakura shrugged modestly, "He wasn't charged, Sasuke. There is no real proof that he's violent, or dangerous. So why do you keep telling me to stay away from him?"

Sasuke looked frustrated. He sighed deeply, rubbing his forehead in silence for a couple of seconds. Finally, he spoke up, eyes bright and defiant, "I like you, OK?" He snapped.

Sakura gaped at him, "What? But you –"

"I like you!" He insisted again, teeth gritted, "And I don't want you to get hurt!"

Sakura sat down next to him with an audible thump, mouth still wide open in shock. She sat there, playing with her scarf, trying to compute the bizarre new knowledge Sasuke had sprung upon her.

"You like me." Sakura said flatly.

Sasuke nodded, looking away, his jaw clenched.

There were grey clouds hanging over above them and as Sakura struggled to grasp the concept of Sasuke liking her, it began to snow softly, big white clumps drifting down amongst them.

It was the most exciting romantic moment of her life. Not that she'd had many. At all.

Sasuke still looked a little angry, but his dark, narrowed eyes caught on Sakura's wide, apple-green ones and stayed there.

He began to lean in.

Sakura, panicked and mentally reciting the school rules to see if there were any against kissing on school grounds, pulled away. The rule was probably in the 'Inappropriate Behaviour' section.

Sasuke's eyes opened and he registered the new distance between them that Sakura had created. Then something spooked him and he stood up quickly, staring at the opposite side of the courtyard.

In amongst the falling snow, Sakura's sharp eyes caught sight of a flash of dark red and pale green. Gaara.

He was standing opposite them, staring and smirking.

Sakura's stomach dropped as though she had just swooped down suddenly on a rollercoaster.

Sasuke and Gaara stood opposite each other, Sasuke with clenched fists and Gaara with his trademark supercilious smirk.

The snow continued to fall, blanketing the ground with soft white.

Chapter Text

The three figures in the snow-filled courtyard were silent.

Sakura looked uneasily at Gaara, was it just her or did his smirk seem a little forced?

"What do you want?" Sasuke said rudely.

Gaara slowly looked from Sasuke to Sakura. His expression was almost pitying.

His blazer collar was turned up against the chilly wind, face as white as the snow around them, "It seems that in order to win this war, I have to do nothing." Gaara stated.

"Excuse me?" Sakura snapped.

"You will surrender. But it won't be my doing. Remember that."

"How about you start making sense?" Sasuke narrowed his eyes.

"I would tell you, Sakura, but I think you should figure it out on your own." Gaara said coolly.

Sasuke looked furious at being ignored.

"What? Just tell me, whatever it is!" Sakura said, beginning to grow frustrated.

Gaara's jadeite eyes glittered, "You wouldn't believe me if I told you."

And with that, he turned and walked back into the school.

Sasuke put his laptop on a bench carefully and looked at Sakura, "What do you think that was about?"

"Oh the usual, Gaara being cryptic and hoping I'll give up. Well it's never going to happen!" Sakura said passionately.

"You never stop talking about Gaara." Sasuke said darkly, "I'm starting to think you don't hate him as much as you say you do."

"Don't be ridiculous, Sasuke." Sakura chastised him with a frown. She despised Gaara. Everyone knew that. They were at war, for God's sake!

Sasuke scowled at her. Then, his expression changed slowly. He looked predatory.

He leaned closer to her and wrapped a lock of her pink hair around his finger, "I always loved your hair." He said softly.

Sasuke-kun likes girls with long hair! Ino had informed her gleefully as a child. They had both decided to grow their hair out to give them a chance.

Sakura could feel the hated blush coming on as Sasuke's face neared her own.

"When... when you said you liked me, what did you mean?" Sakura asked hesitantly.

Sasuke twisted the lock tighter around his finger and smiled, "What did you think? I like you, Sakura. I always have done."

Her heart skipped a beat, "Really? But - you never... I never realised..."

"I didn't think you liked me too. But I got tired of waiting to find out." Sasuke's dark eyes had little shreds of blue in them, Sakura noticed.

"The only problem is..." Sasuke gave a funny little grimace, "You can be a bit too much at times. If we were ever going to... be together, I wouldn't want to be lectured all the time... and I'd want to see you a lot, which would probably cut into your study time... I just think..."

He took a deep breath, "I just think you should stop working so hard at school."

Sakura's stomach fluttered. Sasuke cared about her well-being?

"This is kind of embarrassing but... I don't like smart girls." Sasuke admitted.

Sakura stared at him, aghast. "So you don't like me?" She asked, not caring if she sounded big-headed.

"I do like you. But I don't like the way you lecture your friends, or the way you don't seem to care about anything outside class. I don't like smart people, not just girls, because they can be arrogant and difficult to talk to." Sasuke said gently.

No one can talk to you about anything because you turn it into a lecture!

It's like you don't have a life outside of class!

Everything Ino had said to her on that awful day in the hallway. Every bad part of her that she'd tried to bury and ignore, rooted up by Sasuke's gentle, chastising words.

It was the truth.

But... to start failing classes, avoiding studying, lowering her grades...?

Admittedly, they were all so high that a slight dip wouldn't impact her final grades much at all.

And Sasuke, the boy she had admired from afar, admired so much that she had put up a frosty persona and distanced herself from him because that admiration scared her so much, he liked her back!

But he wanted her to change so much about herself. Though... they were the bad things that she despised about herself. The very things that Ino had shouted at her.

"What do you like about me?" She asked waspishly, unable to stop herself from injecting irritation into her voice. Sasuke didn't seem to mind.

His smile was real this time, not a grimace. "I like the way you stand up for your friends. I like how you throw yourself into danger without caring if you get hurt. I like how you really care about the students. I like how you hide your emotions away and put up a front, pretending to be this untouchable ice queen when you're really very kind. I like how you do so much for other people and how you never complain when they don't thank you."

Sakura's eyes widened. She was speechless. Who was this person Sasuke talked about with such fondness? It didn't sound anything like her! And yet Sasuke was looking at her with such open affection...

"Just stop trying so hard, Sakura." Sasuke said softly, "You can be a normal sixteen year old."

Perhaps she should try.

xxxxxxxx

Exam season.

Sakura always prepared for the coming exams - she made sure she ate food that enhanced brain activity, formulated a very detailed revision timetable, bought new pens that wouldn't run out in the middle of the exam, stuck post-it notes with little facts written on them all around her house, went to sleep with listening to a woman reciting the periodic table and much, much more.

Sakura had been studying in advance when Sasuke told her to stop working so hard. She had done as he had asked, and ceased studying.

She sat at the desk, staring at the exam paper. Her forehead was creased into a frown, she was biting her lip and her foot was jiggling about in anxiety.

She knew the answer to every single question.

She could write a poem about every question, could go into such depth and detail that there wouldn't be any room left to write, could ace this exam in her sleep, but she felt torn apart by her indecision.

To pass or not pass?

Logically, if she failed this exam, she could re-sit it later on and pass it easily. But would Sasuke be happy about that?

Sakura's pen slid across the page as she jolted in shock.

Why should she change for Sasuke?

Had she asked him to change in any way?

Why should she do badly in school just to make him like her more?

They were now boyfriend and girlfriend, as odd as it felt. If Sakura had been unpopular before, she was now despised. Not only was she was the smartest student in the school and the Student Body President, she was now dating the most popular guy in school.

Sasuke's name was down in her phone's contact details as, 'Sasuke, bf.'

He had put her down as, 'Sakura x'

If he really liked her so much, he could put up with her lectures and her studying habits.

She finished the hour long exam in ten minutes and handed it in to a frowning old woman, who peered at it suspiciously, thinking Sakura had simply handed in an empty test. No one could finish so quickly... the old woman's eyes flew across the pages, her eyebrows raised.

Sakura had aced the exam with fifty minutes to spare.

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It was still snowing outside when Sakura burst out of the exam hall and out onto a balcony. She stared at the school she cared so much about. It was a beautiful building, made up of red bricks and water features. It was a ridiculous school, really. It was for the rich and famous' offspring to attend for a few years and automatically pass following a generous contribution to the school.

Sasuke was not exempt from that unfairness. His family were probably the richest out of all the students' families. How dare he try to make her lower the grade she worked so hard for?

Sakura's phone buzzed in her pocket.

She flipped it open. Unknown number was calling.

She answered.

"Yes, hello, who is it?" Sakura barked down the phone, still feeling indignant about her boyfriend's hatred of 'smart girls.'

A man chuckled down the phone, his voice like smooth honey.

"You must be Sakura-chan." He said, amused.

"Must I? And who is this?"

"Itachi. I believe you're dating my little brother."

"Have you called merely to state the obvious or do you have something to say?"

Another dark chuckle reverberated down the phone, "Oh, I have something to say."

"Sasuke is using you." Itachi said bluntly.

Sakura stopped mentally going over the exam and gripped the balcony wall, feeling the cold stone even through her gloves.

The snow was getting heavier now.

"Elaborate." Sakura said sharply, not in the mood to listen to this man chuckle anymore.

"Our father, in his infinite wisdom, doesn't care that Sasuke's is one of the smartest in his year, he only cares that he isn't the smartest."

"I am." Sakura said, her mouth going dry in fear, what was Itachi talking about?

"Yes, you are. To father, if Sasuke isn't the best, he isn't worth anything. So my darling little brother formed a plan. That day your friend Ino shouted at you, he memorised all of the things she said. He tried to think of ways he could get you to stop being the best, because he simply couldn't beat your grades. Ino had mentioned something about you 'liking Sasuke.' He decided this year to use what Ino had said against you, to get you to like him so much you'd stop studying to make him happy. Then, he would be the best in his year and Father would be proud of him." Itachi said slowly.

Sakura breathed in sharply, her windpipe feeling constricted. She realised in horror that she was close to tears.

"How do you know all of this?" Sakura whispered.

"He told me." Itachi said simply, "I didn't think he should do it, so I told you. You didn't take his advice, did you?"

Sakura hung up the phone and stared at it. At some point in the short phone call, it had stopped snowing.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura walked in a daze. She was headed to the cafeteria, where the rest of the students were eating after their exams. Sasuke was bound to be there.

Sasuke. Her boyfriend. Her secret crush for four years.

A liar.

I always loved your hair.

All of those sweet things he'd said to her, they were all lies just to keep her sweet. If she'd done what he'd asked, would he simply have dumped her? Or would he have strung her along even more in order to destroy her college career, too?

She began to walk with a little more purpose, feet stomping off the ground, a glare settling on her face. Students scuttled away from her - the Student Body President was on the warpath.

That little speech he'd made about how much he liked her! Who the hell did he think he was?

She shoved the double doors open with a bang, entering the cafeteria. The noise of her entrance drew the attention of most of the students.

She charged over to Sasuke's table, eyes fixed on his lying little face as she approached.

He gave a smile when he saw who it was approaching him.

Sakura picked up his drink and poured it over his head.

He gasped, water spilling down his face and neck, the spikes of his hair quivering from the sudden shower.

"Aw, did Sasuke get wet? Let me wipe that up for you." Sakura said mock-sweetly, picking up his burger and smearing it on his face.

The students around them burst out laughing, their laughter echoing into a mocking chorus designed just for Sasuke's humiliation.

Naruto's eyes were wide in shock, Hinata's mouth had dropped open. Sakura smiled reassuringly at her friend and then turned her loving attention back to Sasuke.

"What the hell, Sakura?" Sasuke shouted, wiping sauce from his eyes.

"'I like you, Sakura. I always have done.'" Sakura yelled back at him, bitterly quoting his own lies back at him, "You liar! You wanted me to fail! To fail all of my exams so you could do better than me, just to impress your rich little daddy. What happened Sasuke? Did he threaten to cut off your allowance if you didn't trick the poor little scholarship girl? And you planned this! You planned it! You made me like you! How could you do this to me?"

And she was crying. Crying, in front of every student in the cafeteria. Her shoulders shook, tears trickled down her face. She had never lost control so publicly before. Ino pushed back her chair and stood up, her face horrified.

Sasuke had looked murderously angry at first, but now he looked ashamed as Sakura sobbed in front of him.

Hinata's eyes had filled with sympathetic tears.

"Well, it didn't work. I'm going to ace every test, every essay, every exam, and I will not let you hold me back. Consider yourself dumped." She said, angry at him for what he did and furious at herself for breaking down in front of him.

"And you, Naruto!" Sakura suddenly rounded on him. He looked startled, "You knew about this. You knew what he was planning. I know you did, because you looked so damn uncomfortable whenever Sasuke did something nice for me."

Naruto looked down at his lap, looking remorseful.

"Sakura, I didn't lie about liking you!" Sasuke shouted, looking desperate, "I really do! More than you'll ever know!"

Sakura couldn't reply, she could barely see through all of the tears and the lump in her throat had swelled to painful proportions.

The students all around them were either laughing or simply staring. The Student Body President had attacked her own boyfriend and broke down in tears in front of everyone.

Sakura ran.

The snow was melting on the ground when she got outside, the sun had come out. It was warmer than before and it was raining, hard.

Sakura made it to the courtyard before finally giving in to the emotions battling inside her. Grief. Humiliation. Raw, haemorrhaging pain.

The rain poured down relentlessly as she howled, hands covering her face.

A hand lightly grasped her elbow and tugged her out of the rain, pulling her underneath shelter.

She choked back a sob and looked around to see who it was.

Gaara.

His range of expressions were usually very limited, but now he looked a mixture of sympathetic, angry and regretful.

He handed her a tissue.

Sakura took it and stared at it. She laughed, because a single tissue wasn't going to dry her anytime soon. She wiped her face with it anyway.

She was dripping onto the floor, her hair lay plastered across her face and she was sure the rain had soaked into her bag, ruining her homework inside. Oh well, she thought. Maybe if I fail this homework, Sasuke's daddy will love him.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Sakura asked, her mouth still trembling. Her eyes ached.

"Would you have believed me?" Gaara replied, his eyes solemn.

"How did you know before I did?"

"I've met his father before. I already knew he wanted his youngest son to do as well as his oldest had. When I got here and the Uchiha was cosying up to you, I figured he was up to no good."

"I feel so stupid! I... I was going to fail for him! I let him convince me that studying wasn't good for me! Well, screw that! If Sasuke wants to beat me, he'll have to do it the old fashioned way." Sakura said fiercely.

"And, by the way, I'm not giving up. I'm not surrendering. I'm still pissed off about what you did, and I'm going to get you back for it, Gaara." Sakura declared.

Gaara's mouth was tugged upwards by his approving smirk, "I wouldn't have it any other way."

"Watch your back, Gaara!" Sakura said, smiling brightly. She handed him the sodden tissue back.

She walked off, determined to start studying again to achieve such perfect marks Sasuke's would look like mediocre rubbish.

Gaara watched her go, his frown growing. He pushed his soaked hair back with a grimace and stared at the tissue, puzzled.

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Sakura sat on her bedroom floor, surrounded by textbooks. She was reading multiple books at once, eyes busily flickering over the pages. Her head ached. She chewed on a pen thoughtfully. It was midnight (or thereabouts, as Sakura hadn't glanced at the clock for a while now), and she was drooping, exhausted. At this rate, she wouldn't even beat Sasuke's results, let alone get a hundred percent on all of her exams.

Her door creaked open.

Her mother edged into the room, wearing her thick dressing-gown to stave off the winter's chill. She was carrying two steaming mugs of coffee.

"Oh, er, I was just - !" Sakura started to explain, panicked, but her mother simply shook her head, amused.

"It's alright, Sakura. You think I don't hear you revising in the middle of the night? You can have this coffee if you promise me you'll start sleeping more. It's not healthy."

Sakura was already reaching for the coffee, absently nodding in agreement. Caffeine, sweet blessed nectar of the gods! She gulped it down happily.

"Why are you suddenly working so hard?" Her mother asked, eyes perceptive. She sat down on the edge of her daughter's bed, sipping from her own mug.

"Revenge." Sakura said seriously, peering at a diagram, barely able to make out her own notes in the margin.

Her mother probably would have looked startled if she was awake enough. She merely nodded, "Fair enough. Why do you want revenge?" She asked, yawning.

Sakura hesitated, "Someone... someone wanted me to fail. So I have to pass. I don't want them to think I failed for them."

Her mother raised her eyebrow, "Someone wanted you to fail...?" When Sakura just looked down and didn't elaborate, her mother sighed, "I think you are working so hard for all the wrong reasons. Don't work hard for them, work hard for you."

Sakura stopped writing and thought. This was just like the time Ino wanted her to dumb herself down. They all wanted to use her, didn't they? Why should she take any notice of them?

She shut the textbook and sighed deeply. Her mother pulled her towards her and gave her a quick hug. The little bit of comfort sent Sakura over the edge and she began to cry softly. Her mother's grip tightened and she patted her back as she cried.

It was time to stop changing for other people.

Chapter Text

The school roof was mostly abandoned, save for the lone figure snoozing under the clouds.

Sakura smiled fondly at the figure, closing the door behind her. She bent down next to him.

"So, I hear you dumped Sasuke." Shikamaru yawned, opening his eyes to peer at Sakura, who was hovering over him. He sat up.

Sakura sat down next to him, "Did you? That spread fast."

"You did shove a burger in his face. That sort of thing is prime gossip-fodder. Was that just a rumour or did you really do it?" Shikamaru asked, eyes fixed on the clouds floating above them.

"Yes, I did. He deserved it."

"What did he do?"

"He lied to me. He made like him so he could get me to lower my grades. And I fell for it." Sakura said bitterly.

They both watched the clouds in silence for a bit. Sakura sighed. It was the day after the whole burger-to-Sasuke's-face-incident, and the events of the day were still playing through her mind on a constant loop.

"I heard he impregnated you and only offered you a pretzel for child support." Shikamaru commented.

"What?" Sakura yelped, "People think he... Oh no..."

"Yup." Shikamaru said easily, "I didn't believe it, though."

"Oh, that's just great. No wonder Hyuuga Neji pointed at my stomach and laughed at me this morning. Urgh. Damn it." Sakura groaned in frustration.

"Yeah, about Neji," Shikamaru said slowly, "I was grateful that you helped me out with that, but you really don't have to fight my battles for me, you know?"

"Shika," Sakura rolled her eyes, "I am Student Body President. Your welfare concerns me, obviously."

"You set Temari on him. That wasn't very presidently." Shikamaru said, smiling.

"I did nothing of the sort," Sakura sniffed, hiding a grin, "I merely insinuated that Neji had hurt you. I didn't tell them to beat him up."

"Temari asked me to thank you for her. And it was mostly her and Gaara who beat him up, Kankuro didn't really get a chance."

"Those three really like you, huh? How did you tame the wild beasts?" Sakura laughed.

"My dad entered me in some crappy martial arts tournament. I ended up fighting Temari. I quit, obviously, but she came up and talked to me afterwards. I still think she's crazy, but that's women for you." Shikamaru pulled out a cigarette, ignoring Sakura's glare.

"Not all women are crazy, Shikamaru." Sakura shook her head, "It's guys that are crazy. Especially Sasuke-bastard and Gaara."

"Ah, double-standard." Shikamaru smiled, "I don't know about Sasuke, but Gaara isn't crazy."

"Yeah, he's perfectly sane once you get past all the crazy." Sakura said scornfully, "He declared war on me! War! For giving him detention!"

"You've not really contributed much in this war, have you?" Shikamaru eyed her uneasily, "I hope you aren't losing your touch. I'd really miss your insane commitment to the school."

"I've had a lot on my mind. Ino and Sasuke-bastard. And I understand you were being sarcastic, but let's examine my insane commitment, shall we? Ino called me 'too smart.' I dedicated the next four years to proving her right. I do every single job the teachers give me. I stay up all night to study for exams. I push myself so hard, and what do I get? Good grades. Really good grades. Really good grades and two friends. I'm beginning to wonder if what Ino and Sasuke said were true, that I work too hard and for the wrong reasons." Sakura said contemplatively, green eyes intent on the hazy clouds floating overhead.

Shikamaru blew out some smoke rings and watched them drift off, "Stop working so hard, Sakura." He said simply, eyes closed.

"I like working." Sakura said, "And I don't want to change for anyone else anymore."

"Stop working so hard, Sakura." Shikamaru repeated, breathing out smoke, watching the clouds intently.

Sakura considered his words.

"Hmm. I don't know… the last person who said that to me was conspiring to become the smartest in the year after defeating my grades. Are you sure you don't have an ulterior motive?" Sakura said jokily.

"I'm not motivated enough to have some evil plan. By the way, it's a little weird to think that all this time, Sasuke's been plotting against you…"

"Do you think he wears a false moustache to twirl whilst he plots evilly?" Sakura grinned. This was good, making Sasuke into a joke. Though the damn bastard could probably pull off a fake moustache.

"I do think his laugh sounds kind of evil, actually." Shikamaru said, raising his eyebrows.

"He needs a cape. And a villainous motto. And he should stop every five minutes and monologue about how evil he is."

"I can see him making villainous speeches in the school hallway."

"And kicking kittens."

"And stealing candy from babies."

They laughed and joked at Sasuke's expense for a while, before Shikamaru stubbed out his cigarette and grew serious.

"You aren't going to get all depressed and woman scorned, are you?"

"Depressed, no. Woman scorned, hell yeah."

"Good, good." Shikamaru grinned lazily.

xxxxxxxx

After Sakura had confiscated Shikamaru's cigarettes, she headed down to her English class, knowing it was the ever-irritating Kakashi teaching today.

She walked down the stairs and froze at the bottom.

Hinata was in the middle of the hall, wearing a tutu and butterfly wings. Standing next to her was an orange fox (Naruto) and a scorpion (Kankuro).

Sakura rubbed her eyes, convinced she was seeing things.

"Sakura-chan!" Naruto said anxiously, his fox tail swishing behind him, "I wanted to talk to you!"

Sakura stared at the talking fox. It was real, she decided. For the sake of her sanity, it had to be.

"I don't want to hear it, fox-boy. All of you, drama costumes are not permitted in the hall, you know that. I'm sorry, Hinata." Sakura said regretfully.

Hinata just nodded supportively.

Kankuro frowned, "That's not fair! Hinata's your friend."

Sakura was about to say, 'friend or not, she knows the rules,' when a curious thought ran through her mind. She didn't have to give Hinata detention. It was a stupid rule. Hinata was her friend. Favouritism was not something she promoted, as a rule, but she was normally the most dedicated Student Body President alive. One little transgression would go unnoticed.

"If you continue on your way and I retreat back up the stairwell, I won't have seen you." Sakura said quickly before she could regret it.

"What?" Naruto said, confused.

"Are you sure, Sakura-chan? I don't mind." Hinata said sincerely.

"Are you mad?" Kankuro demanded, "Quick, go, before she changes her mind!"

"But I want to talk to –" Naruto started to insist, but Kankuro grabbed him by the tail and dragged him along.

Sakura watched them go, smiling. She felt oddly daring.

A thought struck her. Sasuke was in her English class. He even sat near her. Damn it.

She peered through the glass of the door to the English room. Kakashi was waving a ruler around lazily, explaining something to the class. Their attention was mostly on him, but Sasuke was staring right at her through the glass.

She jumped backwards in shock.

"Not going in?" Gaara said from behind her.

She turned, still feeling a bit queasy at the thought of seeing Sasuke again. "Of course I'm going in!"

"Have you ever skipped a lesson before?" Gaara asked, raising an eyebrow.

"Do I look like the type of person who skips lessons?" Sakura gestured to her sash.

"If you skip your lesson and come with me, I'll consider organising a ceasefire." Gaara said, his smile a little irresistible. There was something very tempting about his words… Sakura had never considered skipping a class before, but now…

"Come with you where?" Sakura said cautiously.

Gaara's smirk grew victorious.

xxxxxxxx

Gaara led Sakura straight out of the school.

She fought him the whole way, determined to stay on school grounds. He just smirked and walked off. He casually spoke to the receptionist at the welcome desk, explaining that he and Sakura felt unwell and had been sent home. She seemed suspicious, so Gaara handed her a forged note with Kakashi's signature.

She pushed the button that unlocked the school door, still studying the forged note with a frown.

Sakura dithered in the doorway, feeling like a total fraud. Gaara turned back and pulled her out of the school, her dragging her heels all the way.

"Sakura, you do too much for this school anyway. Just come with me. It's just one day." Gaara said, frowning.

Sakura finally yielded and followed Gaara off school grounds. They rounded the corner and were greeted by Temari.

She wasn't in school uniform. She wore a black silk top that covered very little and a tiny pair of shorts. Sakura noticed that she had a purple fan tattooed on her arm. She resisted the urge to start handing out detentions there and then.

"What's she doing here?" Temari asked, hands on hips. Her voice was cool, but not altogether unfriendly.

"We're organising a ceasefire." Gaara explained. His smirk seemed sly.

"We can't skip school with her dressed like that, Gaara." Temari rolled her eyes.

Sakura flushed. She was wearing the regulation uniform, a white sailor outfit with yellow trim. Her long hair was tied back with a yellow ribbon. Her red sash stood out most of all.

Gaara looked Sakura up and down and sighed. He leant towards her and untied the ribbon, his face inches away from her own. Sakura felt something swoop in her stomach at the sight of Gaara's mouth so close to hers.

Then her hair fell down and he moved backwards.

"Let's just go back to the house." Gaara said after studying Sakura's appearance. She still looked every inch the model student.

"Gaara! We were going to go drink -!" Temari started to protest, only to be cut off by Gaara's glare. He jerked his head towards Sakura and widened his eyes meaningfully. Temari caught on, "Uh, soda. We were supposed to drink soda. Remember?"

Sakura scowled. Underage drinking, tattoos, hair dye, general delinquency, these students were her worst nightmare.

So why was she standing in the street with them in the middle of the day, skipping school and discussing where they should go?

Her desire to stop doing what everyone wanted her to may not have been so good for her after all. At least when she was dull and hard-working she never broke any laws, school or otherwise.

Gaara ignored his sister's annoyance and walked off. Sakura stood on the pavement staring dumbly after him. At least with the school still in sight she could always just go back…

But no. Temari rolled her eyes at Sakura's lack of movement and grabbed her arm, pulling her after Gaara.

xxxxxxxx

Gaara's house was modest. It was large enough, but more of a cottage than a house. The front garden was unkempt.

Temari unlocked the door and they all entered the house. It was surprisingly clean and homey inside. A large decorative fan was mounted on the wall. A few puppets hung from hooks, mouths gaping open, wooden limbs dangling. A gourd was propped up in a corner.

"Aren't your parents home?" Sakura asked, looking around.

Temari waved her hands frantically in warning, saying, do not go there.

"No. Our mother is dead and we don't live with our father." Gaara said flatly.

"Oh." Sakura said, feeling guilty. It occurred to her that Gaara had revealed his family situation to her without hesitation. It appeared he was not afraid of her using it against him and publicising it to the school, as he had done to her.

What was wrong with her? All this time she'd made fierce claims that she would destroy Gaara, that she'd fight back in the war, and yet here she was, in his house, organising a ceasefire.

"You want a drink, Sakura?" Temari asked.

"No thank you." Sakura said politely.

Temari snorted and headed to the kitchen.

Sakura and Gaara were left alone in the living room, looking at each other.

"So why am I here, Gaara?" Sakura asked softly.

"You tell me." He countered.

"I'm here because you mentioned a ceasefire. I just don't know why you wanted me to come here. You can't blame me for being suspicious." Sakura said reasonably.

Gaara's smirk vanished. "You interest me. You put up with all of the shit that school puts you through. At first I just thought you were stupid, too dumb to notice you were being taken advantage of. Then I saw your test scores and heard about your academic reputation. So, you are smart enough to see that the teachers don't give a damn about their jobs, and that they like using you to make their jobs easier. And yet you put up with it. Why?"

Sakura sighed deeply, "I put up with it because… because I love my job. Because I love feeling needed. Because it gives me power over the students that used to kick me about and treat me like dirt. Is that enough for you?"

Gaara tilted his head, his smile reappearing. "Selfish reasons." He commented.

"I never claimed to be a saint." Sakura disagreed, "My job is hard. Did you really think I did it for fun, or for the good of the students? Well guess what! I took the job at first because I wanted to help the students. But then time went by and I realised the students I worked so hard to keep happy hated me."

"Yamanaka Ino does not hate you," Gaara said with a mocking grin, "The Uchiha does not hate you."

"Ino sold my secrets to you!" Sakura exploded, "Sasuke lied to me! He made me fall in love with him!"

"Ino sold your secrets to me because I paid her, yes. But I did not tell her I was going to publish them to the school. Uchiha Sasuke loves you." Gaara said the word 'love' with distaste, as though the word did not fit in his mouth, despite the fact that it was tattooed onto his head.

"Regardless of whether or not Ino knew what you would do with my secrets, nothing changes the fact that she sold them. Sasuke does not love me. He pretended to, in order to make me lower my grades, or haven't you heard yet?" Sakura said angrily

"I've heard," Gaara said simply, "and you're right. Uchiha Sasuke does not deserve you."

Gaara walked towards her, his movements predatory.

Sakura stood her ground, aware that in this den of vice she stuck out like a well-dressed sore thumb. "I don't understand the interest you've shown in my life. I understand that you hate me for the detention thing –"

"What? I don't hate you." Gaara said blankly, still moving closer.

Sakura looked desperately towards the kitchen, where was Temari? Why had she not returned yet?

The news article she had found on the internet flitted into her mind, "Did you really assault another student at your old school?"

Gaara did not look surprised at the knowledge that Sakura had heard of his court case. Of course, it had been widely publicised.

"What do you think?" Gaara asked curiously.

"I don't know. You've never shown a tendency towards violence before." Sakura said, refusing to be cowed. She actually moved forward, hands on hips, a hostile look on her face.

Gaara seemed impressed by her guts. His smile grew wider. "Hyuuga Neji." He whispered.

"He deserved it." Sakura said, surprised by the ugly tone in her voice. Gaara was a bad influence on her. Persuading her to skip classes, leave school before she was meant to and making her enjoy violence. She disliked the idea of changing herself for anyone, especially after the whole Sasuke and Ino debacle.

"Student Body President." Gaara stopped to admire the sight of her, bristling with fury, "In my house, skipping school, advocating violence."

"I'm not advocating violence. I would never do that." Sakura scowled.

"I don't dislike violence." Gaara commented.

Sakura's back hit the door. She glared up into Gaara's face as he neared her.

"Don't touch me." She spat.

An odd expression crossed Gaara's face, "Do you think I'd hurt you?" He asked.

"I think you're unpredictable." Sakura shoved at his chest, moving him backwards, "And I think you've forgotten the ceasefire we were going to plan."

"I think it's called a double cross." Gaara smiled, "I'm going back on my terms."

His forehead was touching hers. Sakura forced down the fear bubbling up inside her, and glared defiantly into Gaara's eyes.

"Veni, vidi, vici." Gaara muttered, eyes on Sakura's lips.

Chapter Text

Gaara's lips brushed against Sakura's cheek as she moved her head away. Her hand found the doorknob and she turned it, moving backwards out of the house, away from Gaara. He frowned and followed her out.

"Sakura." He snapped, "Come back."

"A ceasefire!" Sakura whirled around and faced Gaara, feeling her anger soar at the sight of his mildly annoyed face, "That was all I wanted! An end to all of this! But you just had to take it one step further! It must be so funny, messing with the geeky president! Do you enjoy it? Do you enjoy making me miserable? You've gone too far this time, Gaara! You are just like Sasuke, trying to play with my feelings!"

"I'm nothing like him." Gaara growled, "Sakura, just listen to me for a second."

"No, you listen! I'm sick of this! I quit! Do you hear me? I surrender! I don't care anymore." Sakura shouted.

"I don't accept your surrender." Gaara said calmly, "You aren't thinking straight. Sasuke hurt you and now you think I will too."

"I don't care if you don't accept it. I surrender. That's it. I'm finished."

"Why are you so angry?" Gaara asked curiously, "Is it because I tried to kiss you?"

Sakura flushed, "N-no!" She said defiantly, "'Veni, vidi, vici.' I'm not something you can conquer, Gaara! I'm angry because you just tried to force a kiss on me! It's all a game to you, isn't it? Well, my feelings aren't something you can play with anymore! I'm done with this. I'm going home."

"Do you even know where you are?" Gaara said scornfully.

"No, but I do." Temari said suddenly, pushing past Gaara.

"Temari." Gaara said warningly.

"She wants to go home, Gaara. What are you going to do, kidnap her?" Temari frowned at him.

"Fine." Gaara muttered.

"C'mon, I'll take you in the car." Temari said kindly.

"Thanks." Sakura said, smiling gratefully.

She turned to leave.

"Sakura." Gaara said from behind.

She turned around to yell at him.

Soft lips pressed against hers. A hand curled around the small of her back possessively, pulling her closer. Sakura opened her mouth in shock.

Another hand gripped her arm and yanked her away.

"Gaara." Temari scolded, "She said no!"

She kept her grip on Sakura's arm and pulled her over to the car.

Sakura, in a daze, turned to look at Gaara as she was dragged away.

"Sorry," He said, his eyes oddly dark and intense, "I just wanted to do that."

Temari opened the car door for Sakura. She got in slowly, her mind still wiped blank from the kiss.

Now what was that? Whenever Sasuke had touched her, just his hand on hers or something equally innocent, she hadn't felt anything. But with Gaara… it was a jolt of pure electricity. Clichéd, of course, but true.

Temari got in the car and put the key in the ignition. The engine rumbled to life, and they began to move.

Sakura stared out of the window at Gaara, who was still standing outside his house, staring back at her.

"I'm so sorry about that." Temari shook her head, annoyed, "Gaara promised me he hadn't brought you here to mess with you."

Sakura tore her gaze away from the disappearing figure of Gaara with difficulty.

"Oh that's fine," Sakura said weakly, her lips still tingling from the stolen kiss.

"I asked him to stop this stupid… war thing you and him have got going after you helped Shikamaru out. Thanks for that, by the way." Temari glanced at Sakura and grinned, driving the car so smoothly Sakura stopped worrying about whether or not she was licensed to drive.

"That's fine. I wasn't about to let that idiot get away with beating up Shikamaru!" Sakura said fiercely.

"Well, a lot of people would. Before that I just thought you were a snotty cow. But I'm grateful to you, so thanks."

Sakura returned Temari's smile, trying to force her mind to think about absolutely anything besides that kiss.

Her very first kiss, stolen by her enemy.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura and Hinata walked down the corridor together, arm in arm. Hinata had put her hair in plaits and looked particularly adorable that day, so it was no surprise that Naruto was hanging around them.

"Sakura-chan," He whined plaintively, "I'm really sorry! Sasuke begged me not to tell you!"

"Oh, that makes it alright then," Sakura said mock-cheerily, "So what if you knew he wanted to make me fall in love with him and then fail everything just so he could be number one? I mean, wow, he begged you. God, how you must have suffered."

Hinata bit her lip, looking torn. On the one hand, Naruto was totally in the wrong. On the other, he was totally adorable and sweet and she couldn't help liking him even now…

"It's not the dobe's fault, Sakura." Sasuke's deep voice came from behind her.

Sakura stiffened in alarm. God, not now, she thought desperately. I can't deal with him today.

Inexplicably, she wished Gaara was here. At least he'd be able to take on Sasuke verbally. The way Sakura was feeling right now she couldn't win an argument with a blind pig.

"Go away, Sasuke." Sakura said shakily, "Just leave me alone."

"No," He said sharply, walking around her and forcing her to look at him, "Not until you listen to me."

"Listen to this." She said, and flipped him the bird.

Sasuke's face darkened with rage. He seized her shoulders and pulled her towards him.

"Sakura, I. Love. You." He said through gritted teeth, "I didn't want to fall in love with you! I admit I was just using you at first, but I really care about you."

"But you cared about your grades more." Sakura said simply, ignoring the pain his fingers digging into her shoulders caused her.

Sasuke scowled, "You don't get it. My brother, Itachi, he's the perfect one. He got grades even better than yours. If I couldn't beat you, then I couldn't beat him. It was nothing personal against you!"

"It was personal, it was against me!" Sakura shouted, pushing him away, "It's over, Sasuke! Accept it!"

"No." Sasuke shook his head, "I won't. You're still my girlfriend, Sakura."

"I'm not your anything, Sasuke. I would have done anything for you. Well, not anymore."

Sasuke grabbed the front of her shirt and yanked her towards him, "For God's sake, Sakura!" He shouted into her face. She glared at him.

"Leave her alone." A quiet voice said.

It wasn't Naruto, who was watching, aghast. It wasn't even Hinata, whose mouth hung open in shock and dismay.

It was Ino, her pale face fierce and angry.

"Ino?" Sakura said in astonishment.

"Get lost, Yamanaka." Sasuke snapped.

"I said, leave her alone!" Ino shouted, and shoved Sasuke away from Sakura.

Sasuke looked violently wrathful, his hands clenched into fists. He went to move towards Ino, who was standing in front of Sakura protectively.

"Hey, hey, Sasuke, c'mon, let's go!" Naruto said hastily, snapping out of his shock long enough to start shoving Sasuke down the corridor.

"I really am sorry, Sakura-chan!" He yelled back at her.

Ino looked uncomfortable, fidgeting with the hem of her skirt.

"Thanks, Ino." Sakura said awkwardly.

Ino nodded. Finally, she couldn't seem to keep it in any longer and burst out with, "I hate myself for selling your secrets, Sakura! I'm so sorry! My parents needed the money so badly, the flower shop was failing and Gaara just offered me the money and I just thought of what my parents would say if they knew I'd been offered it and I hadn't taken it and I really am so sorry!" She said, all in one breath.

Sakura breathed in. Four long years of anguish. Until Hinata had come along, she had no friends.

"You picked Sasuke over me too, remember?" Sakura reminded her.

"What can I say? I was twelve. I hated myself for doing that to you." Ino started to cry, "Please forgive me. Please."

Sakura thought about it. By shoving Sasuke away from Sakura, she had chosen her former best friend over her crush.

She pulled Ino into a hug, "I forgive you." She said simply, meaning it.

Ino sobbed in relief, hugging her back fiercely.

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Gaara sat down on the wall outside the school. He wanted to go inside, wanted to see his cute pink-haired president blush at the sight of him, to remember what it felt like to finally kiss her…

He sighed and ran a hand through his spiky hair.

Why had he declared war on her? He'd wanted her to look his way. Little-Miss-Above-Everyone-Else, so holier than thou, she was untouchable. On his first day, he'd seen her smile at her friend, Hinata, and knew he would never be on the receiving end of that angelic smile.

Had Sasuke kissed her first?

"Oi, Gaara." A familiar, drawling voice said.

Gaara looked up warily.

Shikamaru stood in front of him and yawned widely, "Yo," He said lazily, "You not coming in?"

To school? In truth, he hated it. He was only there because he had to be.

Gaara shook his head.

Shikamaru just looked at him knowingly. He threw himself down next to him on the wall, stretching his tired muscles.

"Why don't you want to go in?" He asked.

"I just don't." Gaara said flatly.

"Temari and Kankuro are already in there."

"I don't care."

"So is Sakura."

Gaara looked at him sharply but didn't speak.

"Why are you messing with her?" Shikamaru asked.

"We're at war." Gaara responded, looking down at the ground.

"And yet she's not done a thing against you."

"It isn't my fault she's useless."

"Don't call her useless," Shikamaru said, suddenly angry, "Sakura works harder than anyone."

Gaara laughed mirthlessly and rubbed at his eyes, smearing the eyeliner, making him look feral and dangerous.

"I declared war on her," Gaara began, still not looking at Shikamaru, "because she pissed me off. She pulled at my clothes and yelled at me. I wanted to teach her a lesson. I went too far. I didn't intend to be cruel. Yesterday I took her back to my house so we could talk about ending the war but…"

"But…?" Shikamaru prompted.

"I kissed her instead." Gaara said, trying to sound casual but failing.

Shikamaru whistled, "Wow. So, how hard did she punch you?"

"She didn't punch me. She just stared at me and left."

"And now you don't know what to say to her so you're hiding out here."

Gaara glared at him.

"Just tell her you like her." Shikamaru advised him, "I don't know if she likes you back, but I know she wouldn't –"

"I don't like her." Gaara interrupted.

"What?" Shikamaru stared at him, "But –"

"I don't like her." Gaara repeated stubbornly.

Shikamaru pulled out a cigarette and lit it.

"You're an idiot." Shikamaru said casually.

Gaara grunted in agreement.

"Wanna go inside?" Shikamaru jerked his head towards the school.

"Fine." Gaara said sullenly.

xxxxxxxx

The cafeteria was packed, as it always was. Gaara sat in the middle of it all, glaring at his burger, wishing the people and the noise would just disappear. The only distinct face in the blur of the crowds belonged to a particularly grumpy Student Body President, who, to Gaara's surprise, was eating with Hinata and Ino, of all people.

Sakura looked as grumpy as ever, picking at her food and squinting at it, but Gaara could see the pretty flush on her cheeks from the cold and the sparkle in her eyes.

Temari was saying something to him. He nodded absently, eyes on Sakura. Hinata said something hesitantly and Ino laughed. Sakura smiled down at her pudding.

She lived in a whole other world, one that operated in rules and restrictions. That was not the world he lived in. His world was filled with violence and freedom and no rules.

Just when his head was beginning to hurt from all of the noise of the cafeteria, it all stopped instantly.

Gaara looked to see what had caused it.

Uchiha Sasuke was marching purposefully towards Sakura's table.

Before Gaara knew it, he was on his feet.

Temari tried to tug him back down, "Gaara, no." She said urgently.

He shook her off and moved to intercept the Uchiha.

Sasuke sneered when Gaara approached, "Still sniffing around for my seconds, are you?" He said cruelly.

Sakura's face registered the pain that comment caused her before she wrestled the expression into submission, replacing it with a more neutral look. But Gaara had seen it, and he was angry.

Gaara kicked a chair at Sasuke, who leapt out of the way just in time, looking stunned.

"Stay away from her," He said in a low voice, too quietly for anyone but Sasuke to hear.

Sasuke's face twisted in rage, "Who the hell do you think you are?" He demanded.

Gaara moved closer to him, "Someone with a history of violence?" He suggested.

"Gaara, stop." Sakura said abruptly, "He isn't worth it."

For a moment Sasuke looked hurt, but then anger washed it away, "Screw you, Sakura." He said heatedly.

Gaara punched him.

Sasuke moved back, blood spilling from his split lip.

Gaara kicked him in the stomach, sending him flying backwards.

He went to go kick him again while he was down, but two arms wrapped around his middle stopped him.

"Stop, Gaara." Sakura murmured, her face pressed against his back.

Gaara turned slightly to look back at Sakura. She looked at him steadily, arms still around his waist.

"Detention." Kakashi said coolly, helping Sasuke up. He had been on his way to the faculty office when he heard the commotion.

Sasuke glowered at Gaara, his mouth red and sore-looking.

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Sakura waited outside the faculty office, sitting on an uncomfortable chair.

The door banged open and Gaara stormed out. He paused and looked at Sakura. She stood up and opened her mouth to speak.

He ignored her and walked away.

She bit her lip, feeling oddly hurt and rejected.

"Sakura?" Kakashi said, popping his head around the door, "You can come in now."

She entered the room, straightening her sash proudly. Not many students were allowed in here.

"I just need you to type up a letter for me." Kakashi said, pointing to one of the computers.

"Why, what do you have to do?" Sakura asked, suspicious.

Kakashi gave her a wounded look, "I'm a very busy man, Sakura! Anko's offered to pay for three rounds of drinks if I can get off early."

"One day you are going to hell for misuse of students." Sakura said sullenly.

Kakashi paused, "Please rephrase that."

"No," Sakura said crisply, "Who's the letter to, what's it about, etc.?"

"It's the expulsion letter for that Gaara kid." Kakashi said nonchalantly.

Sakura froze, hands hovering over the keyboard.

"Gaara's being expelled?" She asked faintly.

"Yup. He had a one-strike deal with the headteacher, any display of violence and he was out of here. His record isn't exactly spotless, Sakura."

"You know what?" Sakura said, her voice sounding to her as though it was coming from far away, "You shouldn't call me Sakura. You shouldn't know me well enough to call me Sakura. If I had been allowed a normal student life, you would call me Haruno-san! But no! I only wanted to help this school and all of the students. And you teachers knew it! So you used me! Made me do all the work you couldn't be arsed to do because you knew I'd never say no! What a stupid idiot I've been! Well, guess what, Kakashi-sensei? I quit! I'm not the Student Body President anymore! I refuse to type up that letter; I refuse to help you expel Gaara. Get some other idiot to do it. Or better yet, do it yourself!"

She ripped off her sash and threw it to the ground, stomping on it for good measure.

Kakashi watched, wide-eyed.

"Holy hell," Genma commented mildly from the back of the room.

"Fuck you all!" Sakura said violently, "I'm leaving!"

She stormed out of the room, leaving the ripped up sash behind.

Kakashi looked at the sash mournfully, "Guess I really do have to start writing my own letters now."

"I'll have to get my own coffee." Anko said, upset.

"Well, I'm pleased for Sakura. I'm glad she finally showed some backbone." Kurenai grinned.

"But writing letters is so boring…" Kakashi complained.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura ran out past the school gates, searching for Gaara.

He was long gone.

She groaned in frustration, whirling around the school car park in search of a glimpse of the moody student.

She pulled out her phone.

"Shikamaru?" She said desperately, "I just did something drastic. I need to find Gaara."

Chapter Text

"Hm?" Shikamaru shifted his phone to rest against his cheek as he struggled to light his cigarette. Sakura sounded panicked, something only happened when the school bathrooms got flooded or the students staged a protest, "What did you say?"

"I quit being Student Body President, ripped up my sash and swore at the teachers!" Sakura shouted down the phone.

It was at that moment that Shikamaru managed to light his cigarette, and promptly dropped it into his lap when he registered what Sakura had said. His phone slipped through his fingers as he shouted in pain.

"Ow! Shit! Sakura – ow – Are you joking?" Shikamaru said, wide-eyed, trying to tip the burning ash off of his trousers.

"No, I'm not! The teachers are trying to expel Gaara! I want to stage a rebellion, Shikamaru. Do you know where Gaara is?" Sakura said frantically.

"A rebellion? What the – Temari, where's Gaara?"

Temari gestured for him to give her the phone.

"Sakura?" She said curiously, "Did I hear something about a rebellion?"

"Yes! I have had it, Temari! I am done with this school! Where is Gaara?"

"I have no idea." Temari turned to raise an eyebrow at Shikamaru, who shrugged bewilderedly, "Sakura, are you alright?"

"I'm fine Temari, though it is very nice of you to ask, I just need to find Gaara because I need to tell him what I've done and how awful it is that they're trying to expel him and that –" Sakura gabbled down the phone, sounding increasingly more and more hyper.

"Sakura," Temari cut her off, "Are you on drugs?"

Shikamaru could hear Sakura's outraged squawk, sounding tinny through the phone's speakers.

"I would never take drugs! I'm just sick of it all, Temari. Sick of studying so hard to keep up with rich brats who buy their grades, sick of putting up with all the crap the teachers give me, sick of being used by people like Sasuke, sick of it all! I hate Gaara for all he's done (no offense Temari) but I can't stand back and watch him get expelled for sticking up for me. I won't." Sakura said firmly, still clinging to her outrage, worried that once the adrenaline rush from standing up for herself would wear off and she would regret her rash actions.

Temari listened to it all, her smile growing wider. Her fingers drummed a beat on the side of the fridge as Sakura ranted on.

Shikamaru was trying his best to find new trousers.

"I know a few places he might be." Temari said.

xxxxxxxx

Sakura looked up at the large grey building with a keen sense of trepidation. This building belonged to Gaara's father, the 'Kazekage of business.' According to Temari, Gaara often came here to negotiate business with his father, despite the man's hatred for his son. Gaara's plan was apparently to siphon off his father's profits slowly until eventually the man was left with nothing, as Gaara had been when his father had abandoned him.

Sakura neatened up her appearance, tying her hair back with the school's yellow ribbon, straightening out her uniform. She wished she still had the Student Body President sash; it made her look trustworthy and efficient.

She entered the building, trying not to look over-awed by the lavish decorations and the expensively impressive architecture. She stared at a statue of a woman who was cupping carved sand in her stone hands. It was beautifully carved.

"Can I help you?" A voice said from behind her, his voice clipped and upper class.

Sakura turned, embarrassed.

"Um, I was looking for Gaara?" Sakura said hesitantly.

The man raised one perfectly trimmed eyebrow slowly. He rubbed his chin and examined her subtly, "Gaara-sama is not in today. Can I take a… message?"

"She can come to my office and explain what she is doing here." A tall, impressive-looking man said from behind her.

It was the Kazekage, looking faintly bored and very elegant in his expensive business suit.

"Of course, Kazekage-sama." The other man bowed and quickly left.

"Uh, I'm Haruno Sakura, a school friend of Gaara's, I was wondering –"

"Gaara has been expelled once again, or so I heard," The Kazekage interrupted her, his voice sounding disinterested. Sakura's eyes widened. How on earth had he found out so quickly?

"Follow me." He said, turning on his heel and heading for a lift.

He had the air of a man used to having his orders followed, so Sakura timidly walked into the lift with him.

The lift hummed as it soared upwards at an alarming speed. Its floor was carpeted, the walls were soft to the touch and there was a settee for guests to sit on. Sakura sat down obediently when the Kazekage pointed at it.

She studied his profile as they travelled to what was obviously going to be the top floor, judging by the amount of time it had already taken.

She could see glimpses of Gaara in his face, but he looked more like Kankuro, however, his jaw was more chiselled, his mouth was a touch more cruel-looking and his eyes were hard.

The lift stopped and the doors opened smoothly.

"Come." He swiftly left the lift and headed for the only door at the end of the corridor. Sakura followed and stared back at the lift, feeling slightly anxious.

The Kazekage's office was lavishly decorated, the rug probably cost more than Sakura's house, every wall was covered in mirrors and there was a crystal chandelier hanging from the ceiling.

"So," The man said, sitting down at his large oak desk, spreading his fingers and observing her coolly, "Explain."

"Explain what, sir?" Sakura said politely.

"Kazekage-sama," He corrected her with a sudden look of anger. He composed himself and coughed lightly, straightening out his cuffs, "Explain how you know my son, and what you are doing here."

Sakura stood up a little straighter, "Kazekage-sama, I was the Student Body President at Gaara's school. I was here to see your son, and to speak with him, if possible."

The Kazekage's gaze never dropped from her face for a second, he picked up a glass of already-poured gin and took a sip, "Why are you no longer the President?" He questioned, setting his glass down on the desk with a clatter.

"I quit when I found out that the school was expelling Gaara." Sakura said, refusing to look away from the man, not wanting to be the one that caved and broke their gaze first.

The man suddenly smirked, "What is your relationship with my son?"

Complicated. Her relationship with Gaara was something even she didn't understand.

He still hadn't said Gaara's name.

"We're friends." Sakura said defensively. Well… Gaara had never said they weren't friends…

The Kazekage laughed.

"My son doesn't have friends." He said, tilting his head to look at her, "So what are you?"

"I'm his friend, Kazekage-sama." Sakura insisted.

"He is going to marry an upper class, wealthy girl, hopefully the heir of a fine company. You do know that, don't you?" The Kazekage eyed her curiously, waiting to see her reaction.

Sakura gritted her teeth, "What… what has that got to do with anything?"

"What I mean is," The Kazekage said, standing up, "my son does not associate with anyone who is below him. I sent him to that school because I knew it accepted only the best kind of people. I do not understand how you managed to attend such a school."

"What? I didn't buy my way in, if that's what you're asking." Sakura said, outraged. What, did he think she wasn't good enough to be friends with Gaara?

"Your accent is lower class. Your fingernails are overgrown, indicating you can't afford to get them manicured. Your school uniform is second hand. Even your hairstyle is out-dated. Your shoes are scuffed and worn, showing you have been wearing them for a while. Can't you even afford to buy new shoes? This is why I do not want someone like you associating with my son. People like you are not good for him."

Sakura looked down at her scruffy, worn shoes.

"People like me?"

"Poor people. Unsophisticated. Essentially useless."

"You think I'm not good for Gaara?" Sakura finally looked up at the man, her eyes burning with anger, "It's you who isn't good enough for him!"

"I beg your pardon?" The Kazekage said, raising his voice in anger.

"You ignored him! You abandoned him! You left him with nothing! You are a terrible person! So what if my clothes are cheap and I haven't had my nails done? So what? At least I care about Gaara, unlike you! I don't care what you say, Gaara is my friend and I don't think you are good enough to associate with him!" Sakura shouted, clenching her fists.

"Now you listen here, you little!" The Kazekage began to shout, moving towards her.

"Enough."

The word was softly spoken, but it was enough to freeze the Kazekage in place.

Gaara stood in the doorway, dumping his school bag on the floor. His eyes were roughly smeared with black eyeliner, his hair was a mess and he was wearing his school uniform. He looked as out of place as Sakura did.

"Sakura, come here." Gaara ordered, turning slightly to meet her eyes. His were narrowed, furious.

Sakura stood by his side, ridiculously pleased to see him.

"Father, what is Sakura doing here?" Gaara asked coolly.

"She wanted to see you." Gaara's father said, looking scornful.

"No, what is she doing here, in your office?" Gaara demanded.

"You know I like to make sure you are associating with the best kind of people…" The Kazekage said smoothly.

"Sakura is the best kind of person there is." Gaara said firmly.

Sakura stared at him, touched. He refused to look back at her.

The Kazekage looked from Sakura to Gaara, a cruel smile playing about his lips.

"Well, well, well," He said softly, "I would never have believed it. My son, in love with a scruffy, poor, insignificant girl."

Sakura felt herself wilt at the cruel words. Insignificant…? And what was that about Gaara loving her…?

Gaara's eyes darkened with rage, "Sakura is better than you will ever be. She is not scruffy, and I don't care about how much money she has."

"You've made your choice then?" The Kazekage said quietly.

Sakura looked at Gaara, confused.

He nodded, still looking furious, "I'm not going to marry some rich airhead."

The Kazekage laughed again, "The girl I was going to pick isn't an airhead, actually. Matsuri's family own a weapons company and –"

"She isn't Sakura. I won't marry her." Gaara gritted his teeth. He still wouldn't look at Sakura.

"But would you marry this Sakura girl?" The Kazekage said, eyes fixed upon his son intently.

Gaara looked away from his father, a dark blush sweeping across his face, "Rather her then some girl you picked out." He said sullenly.

Sakura's eyes rounded in complete shock.

"Excellent… so, my son and heir is going to marry… a nobody. No one knows who she is. She doesn't have any money. This match won't help you or the company in any way…"

"I'm not your son and I'm not your heir. That's Kankuro. I don't have to do anything you say. I don't give a damn about helping you or your company in any way."

Sakura stared at the two of them. They seemed to be under the impression that Sakura was marrying Gaara, no question about it; it was already a done deal.

"Excuse me." Sakura banged the table with her fist. They both looked at her, startled, "That's right. I'm still here. Did either of you consider that I'm not getting married at the age of sixteen?"

Gaara looked at her steadily, but she thought she saw a flash of hurt in his eyes.

"I wasn't suggesting we get married, obviously," He said, rolling his eyes, "I was just saying I would… prefer you over someone else."

"Well… thanks." Sakura smiled. She was still a little confused and slightly worried that she was now engaged somehow.

Gaara shrugged, obviously still not comfortable with dealing with the emotional side of things.

"We're going now, Father." Gaara announced.

The Kazekage simply nodded, sipping his gin.

When Sakura didn't leave quick enough for his liking, Gaara grabbed her hand and pulled her out.

She looked back for a second.

The Kazekage raised his glass to her in silent salute. She glared back at him.

xxxxxxxx

Gaara sat down on the bench and gestured for Sakura to sit next to him. The sun was just setting in front of them, soaking the town in red and orange light..

Sakura sat down, spreading her skirt out demurely.

Gaara reached into his bag and pulled two beers. He handed her one and cracked open his own with his teeth.

Sakura stared at him, appalled.

"Um, I can't drink this, Gaara…" Sakura tried to protest.

"Oh, you can't open it? Give it here." Gaara took it from her and opened it for her.

Sakura was struck by the sweetness of the gesture, but couldn't bring herself to drink from the illegally obtained alcohol, and so just held onto the icy cold bottle tightly.

Gaara took a swig of his beer, eyes fixed on the sunset.

"Thanks for sticking up for me, Sakura." He said quietly, wiping his mouth.

"Oh? It's fine. That guy just pissed me off." Sakura puffed out her cheeks in irritation.

Gaara's eyes softened when he glanced at her, outraged on his behalf.

"They want to expel you, Gaara." Sakura turned to look at him, concerned.

"Let them. I don't care."

"I care." Sakura admitted, surprised at her honesty.

Gaara just stared at her silently, sipping from his beer.

"I'm still angry about everything you did. But I can't let you get expelled for sticking up for me. And," She took a deep breath, closing her eyes, "I can't stop thinking about that kiss."

Her face flushed with embarrassment, she squeezed her eyes tight, not wanting to look at Gaara's face, knowing it would be mocking.

Hands covered her eyes. She opened them in shock, but could still see nothing. A mouth covered hers gently, slowly. It tasted like alcohol, sharp and bitter, an unfamiliar, forbidden taste. Sakura closed her eyes again.

Gaara removed his hands from her eyes slowly, withdrawing from the kiss reluctantly.

"Do you still love Sasuke?" He asked, his eyes darkly intense.

"No." Sakura shook her head fervently, her face still red from the kiss and the cold.

Gaara smiled, gulping down the rest of his beer, "Good." He said, licking his lips.

"You stole my first kiss, by the way." Sakura said, still slightly annoyed by this.

Gaara looked surprised.

Then he laughed, putting his beer down. "Good." He repeated.

Chapter Text

Ino tucked a bit of hair behind her ear and frowned at Sakura.

"Too much?" Sakura asked, pulling at her skirt awkwardly.

"No, no… It's just weird, seeing you like this…" Ino's eyes were wide; she couldn't seem to shift them from Sakura's face.

"I need to look my best, Ino. Sasuke's in that room. I can't slither back in there with a face like the back end of a bus." Sakura said decisively.

"One second…" Ino leant forward and fluffed up Sakura's hair, "Um… put your reading glasses on. OK, good. Your look's kind of Sexy Secretary, isn't it? No? Oh. Never mind, you look awesome. My look? It's Deceptively Chaste Cheerleader."

Sakura pulled a face.

Her pink hair had been ruthlessly chopped to shoulder-length (Sasuke likes girls with long hair! I always loved your hair…) and was now purposefully dishevelled and sprayed to within an inch of its life. Her eyes were lightly covered in green sparkly eye shadow and Ino had attacked her face with some kind of powder. She was still wearing the school uniform, but with trademark Ino alterations – the skirt was hiked up, exposing the knees (to Sakura's horror) her tie shortened, her plaid socks traded in for some sheer tights and she had left her blazer behind.

"You need to walk in there," Ino advised, "Don't apologise for being late. Make eye contact with Sasuke and look away with an enigmatic smile."

"Who tells you these things?" Sakura raised her eyebrows.

"My mother." Ino shrugged.

"Right. OK, I'm going in." Sakura said, ignoring the fluttering of anxiety in her stomach.

"Good luck." Ino graced her with a rare, sincere smile.

Sakura breathed out once and turned, hand on the classroom door handle.

The class looked up briefly when the door opened, and in a rare moment of complete unity, the entire class did a double take.

(Ex) Student Body President, Haruno Sakura, rated the single angriest girl in the school, was walking into the class, late, and well… looking very, very different.

Kurenai dropped her book in shock. The thud it made was timed perfectly for the moment Sakura's kohl-lined eyes connected with Sasuke's.

He looked astounded, his dark eyes wide and his mouth hanging open gormlessly.

Look away with an enigmatic smile, Ino's voice whispered in Sakura's mind.

Sakura did so, her lipgloss-smeared lips stretching into a mysterious smirk, her eyes narrowing, her skirt floating slightly in the breeze coming from the open window.

She took her seat, noting that once again Gaara was absent and she was once again left sitting next to an empty chair.

Kurenai's hands were frozen in place; the fallen book still lay on the ground.

The class were all staring at Sakura, their shock evident in their mutually wide eyes and unattractively hanging open mouths.

Sakura wiped off some excess lipgloss from around her mouth and studied her nails, as Ino had instructed her to.

"Ha-Haruno-san …" Kurenai stammered.

Sakura looked up slowly, her mouth poised in a perfect pout.

"Is something wrong?" Sakura said innocently.

"Sakura?" Sasuke said in disbelief, looking at her as though he had never seen her before.

She didn't look at him but fixed a content expression onto her face, rather enjoying ignoring him.

"I'm going to have to give you detention…" Kurenai said faintly.

Sakura had planned for this.

She crossed her legs and raised her eyebrows, "Oh? What for?"

"You're wearing makeup, your tie is too short, so is your skirt, you aren't wearing your blazer… I could go on…" Kurenai seemed to be trying to regain her composure and failing.

"So are ninety percent of the other girls in this room. The guys are even worse. So why just give me detention?" Sakura smoothed her hair back and glanced around the room pointedly. Girls with heavy makeup like Karin immediately tried to hide their faces.

"I-I…" Kurenai's wide eyes swept over the students, most of whom broke the dress code openly every single day. The majority of them also had parents who paid the school hefty fees to allow them to do whatever they wanted.

What will you do? Sakura wondered, now that I've pointed out the injustice, will you correct it?

"Because it's your first offense, I'll let you off." Kurenai said lamely, trying to skirt around the issue.

Sakura glared at her.

"That sounds fair." Sakura said meaningfully. She looked around the room, "I mean, it's not as though the entire class breaks school rules every single day, is it? I couldn't help but notice that since I left the student council, not a single detention has been given. It's been a week, Kurenai-sensei. Don't you think that's strange?"

"I-I…" Kurenai stammered.

"I could point out twenty-three dress code violations in this room in a second. I can list a series of offences committed by this year and above. Karin has been doodling hearts on her desk for the past two years. Tenten brings weapons to school. Hyuuga Neji beats up anyone who looks at him twice. Rock Lee has destroyed the school gym at least twice in the past. Kiba smuggles his dog into class every day and allows it to use the school's plants as its toilet. Shino is the one who has been secretly releasing the insects from the science labs. Naruto is behind every single major prank to ever plague this school. And don't look so surprised, Kurenai-sensei, because I know for a fact that every teacher knew about all of these offences, and did nothing about them. How do I know this? Because you all made me type it up and file it away under no punishment required." Sakura managed to say it all calmly, though anger was rising.

"In the Faculty Office there is a very slim file of the detentions given out by teachers. My name is in there. So is Shikamaru's. So is almost every other scholarship student who has ever broken a school rule. Do you spot something unfair here, Kurenai-sensei?" Sakura carelessly shrugged her shoulders

Kurenai had gone white. Sakura had always gone along with the rules of the school without complaining… what had happened?

Gaara had happened.

Sakura had been furious about his expulsion until Ino pointed out exactly how much power Sakura had over the school.

"I already said you won't get detention, Haruno-san." Kurenai said warily, "And you know I never ignore any rule-breaking."

"I know," Sakura smiled, "I just wanted to point out a few things."

"Right… well… let's return to the lesson." Kurenai said, picking up her book hastily and turning to face the blackboard.

Job done, Sakura took out her notebook and began to note down what Kurenai was saying, ignoring the urge to laugh. She had argued with the teachers a few times about the rules, but she had never been so public about her opinions. She could see a few students looking puzzled and alarmed, like Kiba and Shino, who obviously had no idea the teachers had known they were behind several rule breaks.

As she wrote, a piece of paper was flicked onto her desk. Sakura tensed, automatically thinking it was Gaara, then she shook herself. Gaara wasn't in school anymore.

The note said: 'Sakura, what is going on with you? You disappeared from school last week, I saw you through the door and you never came in. Everyone's saying you quit as Student President. And now this makeover?'

Sasuke.

Sakura snorted and scrunched up the note. She tore a strip off of her own paper and wrote a terse note of her own.

'I wasn't well last week. I did indeed quit the student council. I got a haircut. Get over it.'

She tossed it carelessly back at Sasuke, who caught it deftly, to her annoyance.

She saw him read it quickly and nearly winced when he turned his dark glare upon her.

When he tried to pass another note to her, she brushed it off her desk and left it for him to retrieve.

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Sitting with Ino meant sitting with all of her friends.

Karin (who had warmed up to Sakura quite nicely upon learning she had dumped Sasuke, and thus he was now single), Temari (to Sakura's surprise), a fair few girls Sakura barely recognised and Tenten.

Unfortunately, Tenten brought Lee… and Neji.

Neji spent most of the lunch hour sitting opposite Sakura and glaring at her. Hinata and Shikamaru sat on either side of Sakura, and were bearing the brunt of Neji's death glare too.

"Are you looking at my boyfriend?" Temari asked casually, buttering her toast with an unnecessary amount of force.

Neji blinked in surprise and then hastily turned his glare on Hinata, a much safer target of his anger. Shikamaru rolled his eyes and stretched his arm across Temari's chair in silent thanks. She smiled at him.

Hinata turned red at the sight of Neji's glower and looked down at her plate miserably. Sakura was about to threaten to punch Neji again when suddenly, Naruto walked past them and casually smacked Neji around the head before continuing on his way.

Neji stood up angrily, knocking his chair backwards with a loud bang.

"What the hell was that for?" He spat, clenching his fists.

"Neji-nii-san…" Hinata murmured, her eyes wide and alarmed.

"Stop glaring at Hinata-chan." Naruto said, his mouth etched in a deep scowl.

"Neji, calm down…" Lee said uneasily. Tenten's hand was covering her face; she shook her head in frustration.

Naruto flipped Neji the bird.

Neji tackled Naruto, knocking them both through the table.

Sakura was left holding her knife and fork, with no food or table. She sighed, putting the knife and fork down.

Hinata was dithering next to Naruto as he yelled at Neji, who was on the floor, his nose bloodied. Temari looked as though she was enjoying herself. Shikamaru was scratching his head, his face nonplussed. Lee was trying to help Neji.

Ino and her gang were not impressed, most of them covered in food.

"Sa- uh, Haruno-san?" Kakashi said from behind her.

Sakura turned around to stare at the teacher, who was doing his best to ignore the fight happening a few feet away.

"Oh. What do you want?" Sakura rolled her eyes at him, folding her arms.

"Um…. Haruno-san. Kurenai has let the staff know about… um… your feelings regarding how things are run here… and… we want you to be Student Body President, if you promise not to report how biased the rules are towards the rich kids." Kakashi said bluntly.

Neji and Naruto rolled past them, locked in each other's grip.

"Hmmm… No can do." Sakura grinned.

"What?" Kakashi was surprised, "Why not?"

"I might… if you do a few things for me." Sakura said, her grin turning mischievous.

Kakashi inwardly groaned. This is what happened when you forced students to listen to motivational speeches about being pro-active.

"Like what?" He said warily.

xxxxxxxx

Two weeks later, and Sakura's requests had almost all been fulfilled.

"I want a new sash." Sakura had demanded. The teacher had nodded. It was a reasonable request, "I want it to be gold. And glittery." Sakura had crossed her arms and refused to budge.

"And I want a whistle. And a cool hat. And unlimited access to the library, all hours."

They had wearily complied with her demands.

Sakura remembered how she had clenched her jaw and glared at them all, the teachers who had used her and pushed her around all this time.

"And I want…" Sakura breathed out slowly, "Gaara to be allowed to return to the school."

Kurenai had spluttered indignantly, but Kakashi had simply looked at Sakura thoughtfully.

"Deal." He said.

"What?" Kurenai said, aghast.

"I won't be Student Body President if Gaara isn't allowed back. I bet you've missed me doing everything for you." Sakura said stubbornly.

Anko had looked wistful, "Those were the days…"

"I'll have a chat with the head teacher. She's a nice woman. And if that doesn't work than I'll just challenge her to a gambling match. Gaara's as good as back." Kakashi said with a twinkle in his eye.

xxxxxxxx

Today was the day Gaara returned. Sakura couldn't help feeling nervous.

Her relationship with Gaara was so weird… She didn't hate him and he didn't hate her, and they had kissed twice. She couldn't figure out what Gaara wanted. She knew next to nothing about him, except that he was a lot nicer than he pretended, and he didn't wait around to get what he wanted.

Sakura stopped on the stairs, ignoring the grumbles of those who had been walking behind her. She leant against the wall and stared at the ceiling.

When did things get so complicated?

Once, she was Sakura the Student Body President, the girl who never broke the rules and only had eyes for the intelligent, serious Uchiha Sasuke.

Now, she was Sakura the Student Body President 2.0, the girl who swore at teachers, skipped school, almost drank beer, hung out with delinquents and didn't know who the hell she only had eyes for.

Gaara?

Impossible. They were polar opposites, and he had hurt her so badly in the past…

In Gaara's absence, Sakura had become good friends with Kankuro and Temari.

To her surprise, she now had many friends, Ino, Karin, Tenten, Lee, Neji (very begrudgingly, after Naruto had beaten some sense into him), Hinata, Shikamaru, Temari, Kankuro… Gaara…

Maybe being Sakura 2.0 wasn't so bad.

A dull thud made her look down suddenly, through the staircase down to the lower level.

Gaara stood on the steps below her, staring at her through the bars.

"Gaara!" Sakura said, shocked, her lipgloss-covered mouth automatically smiling.

He just stared.

Sakura suddenly remembered Ino's influence on her appearance.

Oh…

"Um… do you like my hair?" Sakura said nervously, combing through it with her fingers.

Gaara's head tilted to the side, still staring at her.

Sakura felt herself blush under his scrutiny.

"It's shorter." Gaara finally said. Sakura felt oddly disappointed. What had she expected, compliments?

"Yeah, I had it cut." Sakura smiled weakly.

For a moment Gaara merely stared at her with his cool, inscrutable eyes.

"You look nice." He said, his voice oddly flat, his eyes accusing, "But not like Sakura."

Sakura's eyes widened in shock.

"Not… not like me?" She heard herself say faintly.

"You look like your friend, Ino. I prefer you when you look like you." Gaara said firmly.

Sakura blushed even more. Was that a compliment…?

"In fact… come here." Gaara said, his eyes narrowing. He gestured for her to come closer.

She obediently moved closer, her face almost touching the bars.

Gaara managed to stretch himself up and held her face through the bars on the staircase. He kissed her slowly, ignoring her surprised squeak.

He pulled back, wiping his lips and studying his pink, glittery fingers, "That's better." He said, smirking.

Sakura's mouth was tingling and was no longer covered in lipgloss, thanks to Gaara.

"What the fuck?" Sasuke said sharply.

Sakura jumped in surprise. Sasuke was standing on her staircase, staring at them both, his face a mixture of anger and shock.

Sakura looked back at Gaara and saw him tense up, his scowl deepening at the sight of the Uchiha.

When neither of them answered him he clenched his fists and walked up the stairs to Sakura.

"Were you cheating on me with him before we broke up?" Sasuke snapped, his eyes oddly hurt.

"What?" Sakura exploded, "No!"

Gaara was running up his stairs, trying to get to Sakura and Sasuke quickly.

Sasuke saw him coming and his eyes flashed spitefully.

"I don't know why they let you back in this school, but I'm pretty sure another display of violence will get you kicked out permanently." Sasuke said, his smirk growing cruel.

He grabbed Sakura by her new, golden sash, and yanked her towards him, her lips forcefully connecting with his.

Her sash tore slightly.

Sakura heard Gaara's footsteps getting louder and knew he would definitely display violence. A few people were gathered at the bottom of the stairs. She knew they would report Gaara for fighting, and he would be expelled, yet Sasuke would be treated like a victim.

Sakura shoved Sasuke away and punched him in the face, harder than she could ever have thought possible. There was an audible thud and Sasuke flew back, hitting the wall, his eyes wide in disbelief.

Gaara halted right next to Sakura, his expression murderous. Sakura stood in front of him.

"Gaara, it's OK." She said quietly.

Sasuke wiped his mouth and stared at the blood on his fingers. Sakura could hear the students at the bottom of the stairs talking excitedly.

"You hit me!" Sasuke said, shocked.

"No shit." Gaara snapped, though he looked amused and… proud?

"Sasuke, I never cheated on you," Sakura said calmly, ignoring her aching knuckles, "I loved you when we were together. I'm sure you knew that already. You've already hurt me so much, Sasuke. Please stop trying to hurt me more."

Sasuke stared at her, his eyes still wide.

Gaara grabbed Sakura's wrist and he started to walk down the stairs, evidently under the impression that they were finished talking.

"I am sorry, you know." Sasuke said flatly, his face red where Sakura had struck him.

Now why don't I believe that? Sakura wondered with a rueful smile.

She simply nodded, allowing Gaara to pull her away from Sasuke, who watched with that familiar, impassive expression of his.

xxxxxxxx

They were in the girl's bathroom because Gaara had refused to allow Sakura into the men's.

Gaara was instructing Sakura on how to bathe her bruised and cut knuckles. He held her hand gently and guided it under the tap. Sakura bit her lip against the pain and studied Gaara. The lighting gave him a soft glow, his eyes were gentle and his hands were careful.

"Gaara," Sakura began softly, "What are we?"

He looked up at her briefly and turned the tap off, "Speak more clearly." He chided her.

Sakura sighed. "Are we boyfriend and girlfriend?"

Gaara froze, dropping her hand in the sink. He turned towards her with a frown, "Is that what you think?" He asked.

Sakura looked away, horribly embarrassed and nervous. Her heart was pounding and she was sweating slightly.

"I-I think I'd like to be your girlfriend." She muttered.

"You are Student Body President," Gaara's pale eyes were fixed on her face, "I am a criminal. We are at war."

"So what is this?" Sakura gestured to the sink, to Gaara's wet hand still touching her own, "You don't kiss someone three times and call them your enemy, Gaara!"

"Why not?" Gaara said, sounding somewhat confused.

"You got angry when Sasuke kissed me. Don't deny it. Doesn't that mean something to you, that you don't want me to kiss anyone else?" Sakura asked, quickly growing upset.

Gaara frowned. He leaned closer, putting his hands either side of her waist, holding onto the sink behind her. His face was very close to her own, she could see the love tattoo very clearly and distinctly.

"Yes. It means I don't want you to kiss anyone else." Gaara said simply.

"What are you offering me here? A few kisses? I want more than that!" Sakura said angrily.

"Like what?"

"A relationship!" Sakura said disbelievingly.

Gaara just stared at her.

"You – you said to your father… that you would marry me over any other girl…" Sakura said, trying to ignore the prickling of tears behind her eyes.

Gaara's frown cleared in understanding, "I only meant if I was forced into marriage, I would prefer you over anyone else. I don't want to get married if I'm not being forced. Is that what you're upset about?"

"I don't want to get married yet either, Gaara, but I want to be with you." Sakura admitted, her eyes on the floor, her face flushing darkly. That had been difficult for her to admit.

"Why?" Gaara still looked confused.

Sakura felt her frustration and anger rush up and bubble forth out of her mouth.

"Because I love you, you stupid idiot!" Sakura shouted the words that had been haunting her since the first kiss, the reason why she never broke down and quit the war, the reason why she believed his word over Sasuke's, the reason she'd never been able to hurt him like he could hurt her, why his face occupied her every waking thought and why she'd worked so hard to get him back into the school.

Gaara looked startled.

"Love…?" He said quietly, beginning to frown.

"It's tattooed to your forehead!" Sakura seethed, "How can you stand there and look so confused?"

"I didn't know." He said, still frowning deeply.

Sakura scrubbed her eyes furiously and then caught sight of herself in the mirror. Black mascara and eyeliner was smeared across her face. She looked upset.

"Of course you didn't." Sakura said wearily, lowering her hand, feeling the tears fall thick and fast.

Gaara looked taken aback, "Sakura, what –"

"I'm so stupid," Sakura said, one hand covering her eyes, her shoulders shaking, "I thought you liked me too!"

She turned on her heel and fled the room, the door slamming shut behind her.

Gaara let go of the sink and turned to stare at the closed door, his eyes wide, his hand outstretched as though he could still catch her before she left.

Chapter Text

"I've said it before, but you really are an idiot." Shikamaru said, rolling his eyes.

Gaara was too deep in thought to pay attention to Shikamaru's insults. He just shrugged.

"She said she loved you?" Shikamaru repeated what Gaara had said earlier, his voice incredulous.

"Yes," Gaara replied, studying his faded denim-covered knees in an attempt to avoid Shikamaru's judgmental stare.

"And you said…?"

"I said we were enemies." Gaara said helplessly, "And she ran off, crying."

"Are you still taking this war seriously? I thought you two were just flirting."

"Flirting?" Gaara repeated, his face blank.

"Gaara doesn't know how to flirt." Temari interjected.

"I can see that now." Shikamaru took a sip of his tea and surveyed the teenager sitting next to him.

They were all sitting in Gaara's living room (he had bought the house and allowed his siblings to live him), Temari sprawled on Shikamaru's left, legs tucked underneath her, chin resting on her boyfriend's shoulder. Gaara was fidgety, his legs twitching restlessly, his eyes flicking from side to side as though searching for an escape.

"Look, Gaara… Sakura likes you. Obviously. I guess you don't like her back?" Shikamaru dared to ask, his mug of tea warming his hands up quite nicely.

Gaara looked away from his knees long enough to glare at him. "I don't hate her. She's funny. I had fun with the war. But now I don't know what she wants."

"You kissed her, Gaara," Temari said with a hint of exasperation in her voice, "You can't blame her for thinking you cared!"

"I kissed her three times, actually," Gaara resumed his fierce staring competition with his knees, "And I do care."

"Three times," Temari shook her head, frustrated, "You kissed her three times. Perfect."

"And that's not all." Shikamaru grinned lazily, "He also told her not to go out with Sasuke and that he didn't want her to kiss anyone else."

"Gaara." Temari said his name like a curse and dropped her head back down onto Shikamaru's shoulder.

"What exactly do you want from her?" Kankuro spoke up for the first time.

Gaara didn't answer, seemingly fascinated by the thread in his jeans.

"How would you feel if she went back out with Sasuke?" Kankuro asked cautiously.

Gaara looked up at that, his mouth open in a silent snarl, "What? Did she tell you that? Is she?"

Shikamaru laughed.

"No! Jeez, calm down. So, we've established you don't want her to go out with anyone else." Kankuro said, his tone like a therapist who'd finally achieved a breakthrough.

"I just don't like the Uchiha." Gaara said stubbornly.

"Great. That's just peachy. What if… I went out with Sakura?" Kankuro said, pointing at himself with both thumbs.

For a moment Gaara just stared at Kankuro, the intensity of his gaze and the sudden underlying threat of violence hanging in the air making his older brother nervous. Then Gaara seemed to realise what he was doing and he scoffed lightly.

"I don't care." Gaara said firmly.

"Great! I'll ask her out then. She seems vulnerable at the moment. She'll definitely say yes." Kankuro said, his eyes fixed on Gaara's face to pick out his reaction.

Gaara turned his head slowly and pinned Kankuro with a chilling glare, "Like I said. I don't care. Stop trying to manipulate me. Ask her out. If you really want to."

If you really want to was said like if you feel brave enough.

Temari made a throat-slitting gesture and widened her eyes at Kankuro. He got the message.

"You know what?" Kankuro said carefully, "I don't think I will ask her out, after all."

Gaara didn't smile, but the frostiness of his glare lessened a bit.

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Little shreds of paper landed in the bin neatly as Sakura ripped up her essay, groaning. This was the third attempt she had shredded. Her mind was more complicated things than Hamlet and Ophelia's relationship. She just couldn't concentrate on her English homework.

She sat back down at her desk with a thump. Her pen scratched out rough words. She circled them absently. She blinked in surprise when she registered what she had written. Gaara Gaara Gaara.

Shit.

She hurriedly crossed out the offending words and glared at the smudges of ink that now covered the boy who she had been trying to forget's name.

Gaara.

The delinquent with hard eyes, knuckles scraped raw from fighting, ripped clothes and a general air of danger.

How could she have been stupid enough to fall for someone like that? Someone who had spread her private life around carelessly, someone who had shown his lack of care for her, a boy who had hurt her so much it was as though she carried around a constant ache in her chest.

There was a quiet knock on her door.

Her mother entered the room, her hair tied up in a loose ponytail, her sleeves pushed up.

"Sakura, dinner will be ready soon." She said, eyeing the screwed up pieces of paper in the bin.

"OK, I'll be down in a bit." Sakura tried to smile back, feeling her mouth tremble.

Her mother had always been perceptive.

"What's wrong?" She frowned and put a hand on her daughter's shoulder.

Sakura looked away, her jaw clenched. Her eyes felt sore from all of the secret crying she had done in her room that morning, ever since she came home after being so thoroughly rejected.

"Mum? If – if a guy you like kisses you, and acts jealous if you like someone else, but doesn't want to be with you… what should you do?" Sakura asked, her eyes seeking comfort as she looked into her mother's face.

The older woman paused. She had privately assumed Sakura would not bother with romance and what she herself had deemed, 'the infantile problems of teenagers,' and had been relieved that her daughter would never feel the need to come to her for advice on matters of the heart. How could she advise her daughter when her own marriage had failed?

She sighed, and wiped away Sakura's tears.

"It sounds like you like this person more than he likes you. Teenage relationships are hard, honey. Sometimes girls want more than boys want to give. Sometimes boys want girls to give something they don't want to. If this boy likes being close to you but doesn't want to commit, maybe he isn't worth crying about." Her mother spoke from experience. She pulled Sakura to her and hugged her gently.

Sakura laid her head on her mother's shoulder and breathed in slowly. Comforting, familiar Mum-smells, disinfectant, spices and perfume. She pressed her face harder into the soft wool of her mother's shirt, knowing she was shaking and wishing she could stop.

"Yeah," She said, and her voice sounded hoarse and weak even to her, "Maybe."

"Relationships are all about give and take, Sakura," Her mother said softly, "You shouldn't be prepared to give this boy anything that he wouldn't give you. Even if he seems like a nice guy now, trust me, teenage boys can act like the nicest people on Earth when they want to. I don't want you to get hurt, honey."

Gaara didn't act like a nice guy. He got into fights, he skipped school and drank beer and kissed –

It means I don't want you to kiss anyone else.

That was all Gaara was prepared to offer her. Stolen kisses every now and then, maybe he'd be kind enough to drag her out of school, open a bottle of beer and watch as she tried to drink it, an amused smirk on his face all the while.

Even Sasuke had offered her more than that. She'd been his girlfriend, he'd been her boyfriend. Simple.

Maybe Gaara didn't think she was good enough for him.

Sakura could easily recall the expensive, lavish office Gaara's father had spoken to her in, the large oil paintings hanging up, the crystal decorations, the chandelier. His father himself, dressed to kill in an obviously costly suit, his shoes newly shined and his silk tie perfectly straight.

He'd sat there and eyed her, and priced up her entire life and judged her to be worthless. Even for a son he cared nothing about, she was still not good enough for him.

And no matter how Gaara tried to separate himself from the wealthy lifestyle he had come from, it clung to him in the way the teachers hung on to his every word, the way the students scattered when he approached, the way he'd found Sakura's attempts at being threatening funny.

Maybe she really wasn't good enough for him.

Gaara had been able to buy the teachers and have the school eat out of the palm of his hand, sometimes Sakura struggled to pay for her school lunch.

She was a typical geek, obsessed with studying and grades and following the rules. He obviously didn't care whether he passed or failed and he hated following the rules.

The Student Body President was never meant to be with the delinquent. She was meant to be alone, her head buried in a book, her shiny new golden sash tightening and constricting her with the rules and restrictions Gaara so hated.

Even if Gaara had been willing to start a relationship with her, how could it have possibly worked? They were far too different. They knew nothing about each other. Well, scratch that, she knew nothing about him, whilst he knew far too much about her.

Her mother gently moved away from Sakura's tight hug, her expression still concerned.

"Sakura? Your father called for you yesterday, when you were out. I wasn't sure whether or not to tell you…"

Her father sent birthday and Christmas cards like clockwork, but he never ever called.

"Is something wrong?" She asked.

"No, I think he just wanted to talk to you." Her mother replied, studying her.

Sakura paused. "You can tell him he's four years too late."

"Sakura!" Her mother gasped, face unhappy and shocked. Whoops. Was that something she wouldn't normally say?

She was about to take it back when she saw Gaara's face in her mind, his bare eyebrow raised coolly as though asking, why are you letting him walk all over you again? He didn't want you four years ago and he still doesn't want you now.

Sakura sucked in a breath. The truth hurts.

"I'm going out, Mum." Sakura said in a low voice, grabbing her coat.

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Ten minutes later and she already regretted leaving the house without gloves or a scarf.

It was so cold that the air stung her exposed hands and face, turning her cheeks pink and making her breath come out in clouds.

"So, I hear my brother's an idiot." Kankuro said casually from behind her.

She squeaked in shock and nearly fell over, grabbing one of the neighbour's fences for support. She turned to face the source of her shock.

Kankuro stood before her, loosely gripping a bag bulging with clinking bottles of dark-coloured liquid, his face fresh and uncovered by Kabuki face-paint. He wore a hoodie with two hands dangling a puppet on the front.

"Aaah." She said quietly, her heat beating furiously.

Now Kankuro was looking amused, "Aaah? Did you just whisper-scream? I'm not that scary."

"Says you." Sakura muttered darkly, tucking her hair behind her ear self-consciously. She really didn't want to get into an argument with Gaara's big brother. Not after she'd decided not to bother with Gaara after all.

Kankuro tilted his head and studied her. She shifted awkwardly under his calculating gaze and glared at him.

"Do you love Gaara?" Kankuro asked bluntly.

Sakura spluttered, wheezed indignantly and shook her head fiercely.

"No?" Kankuro looked rather amused.

Sakura continued to shake her head, ignoring her blushing cheeks.

"Don't get all verbally constipated on me now Haruno, I kind of need to know this." Kankuro raised one eyebrow at her.

Sakura flapped her hands at him and tried to fire up her brain again, which had frozen at the mention of love.

"No." She finally said firmly, pointing at him for emphasis.

"Oh really? 'Cause Gaara told me something different." Kankuro said slowly.

Words failing her, Sakura turned on her heel and rather awkwardly made her escape, slipping away alarmingly fast on the ice.

To her horror, she looked to her side and saw Kankuro casually jogging beside her, not even out of breath.

"Gaara's never been a relationship." Kankuro said, cutting in front of Sakura and ignoring her furious glare, "He doesn't understand love. He was brought up to think of it as a weakness, as something people would use against him."

"Well, I wasn't brought up that way so that's one more reason we shouldn't be together." Sakura said angrily, trying to sidestep Kankuro only to have him nimbly dart in her path again.

"Sakura?" Kankuro looked at her closely, disbelief colouring his features as he caught sight of her face, "Are you – are you crying?"

Kankuro had never seen the tough, composed ice-queen Student Body President ever yawn, let alone cry, and yet there she was, standing in the middle of the street, tears trickling down her face even as she angrily tried to scrub them away.

"No!" She said fiercely, "I'm – I'm just… God, just leave me alone, Kankuro." She said, suddenly weary.

"Oi! Look, just calm down! I'm trying to explain why Gaara couldn't understand when you said you loved him! He's all hung up on this war between you, in his world he only cares about what's fun for him, and anything that gets boring he gets rid of. He doesn't want to get rid of you, obviously, but he's worried that without the war he'll get bored again. And a bored Gaara is not something you want to see, trust me." Kankuro held his hands up in a placatory gesture.

"Wow, I'm really sold now, let me go ask him out now." Sakura gave a sarcastic clap.

"Tell your brother he can stick his stupid war. Let him get bored, poor baby. Maybe he'll leave me alone and I won't have to fear for my secrets or whether or not my friends are secretly feeding information about me to him." Sakura shoved past Kankuro and started to walk off.

"He loves you, Sakura." Kankuro said softly.

Sakura flinched. Slowly, she turned round to face the older boy. It was his turn to flinch when he saw the raw pain in her face.

"Then why didn't he say it back?" Sakura said coldly, "Why did he let me leave? I'll tell you why. Because he's a spoilt little rich boy who doesn't care about anything but getting his own way. Other people's feelings get in the way of his fun. He doesn't love me, Kankuro. He finds messing with me fun. That's it. I was stupid enough to fall for it."

This time when Kankuro tried to block her way she just swerved around him and walked away.

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Sakura stormed down the halls of the school the next day, her golden sash glittering and her whistle bouncing on her chest as she charged. Her face was determined.

Reasons not to be with Gaara.

"Detention, Inuzuka, don't think I can't see that dog in your shirt," Sakura pointed at the offending student and his dog as she passed.

He has a violent reputation.

Students were hurriedly tucking in their shirts as she passed, pulling at their ties and desperately trying to hide cigarettes. The school had gotten the message. It didn't matter how rich and powerful your parents were, Haruno Sakura would punish you for any rule-breaking.

Gaara was proof of that.

He published all of my secrets.

Sakura could see Hinata talking quietly with Naruto and Ino. Ino poked Naruto in the chest and gave him a scornful look whilst snapping something at him. Whatever it was she said Naruto obviously didn't like because he batted Ino's finger away from his chest and started gesturing furiously.

He gets bored easily.

Ino put her hands on her hips and glared at Naruto. Hinata was looking nervously between the two. Sakura frowned and started to walk towards them.

He hurt me.

Tenten smiled at her as she passed. Sakura felt pleasantly surprised. Before, only Hinata had smiled at her in the hallway.

Sakura was just thinking about how nice it was to have friends when she got closer to Ino, Naruto and Hinata and realised Gaara was standing opposite them, staring in their direction whilst leaning against the lockers.

Gaara.

He doesn't love me.

Sakura had frozen in the middle of the hallway at the sight of Gaara, a few students bumped into her and scurried away, fearful of her piercing whistle and cavalier attitude to giving out detentions.

Gaara's hair wasn't spiked up as usual, it was neatly flat compared to the messy, ruffled style he always wore it in, He wasn't wearing any eyeliner either, and his eyes looked tired without the usual ring of black around them. His arms were folded and he was frowning slightly as he watched Ino and Naruto argue.

The sounds of the other students faded away until all Sakura could hear was a dull roar in her ears that seemed to be getting louder and louder.

Gaara's eyes slipped from Ino's face and across the lockers, his gaze moving in Sakura's direction.

He first glimpsed Sakura's shoes, neat and shining as always. Sakura watched, unable to move despite the emotions raging inside her, as Gaara stiffened in recognition. His eyes slowly swept up her white tights, the knee-length plaid skirt, the crisp, freshly ironed blouse, the glittering sash across her chest, the whistle around her neck until he finally reached her face.

He doesn't – Sakura tried to repeat inside her mind, even her own mental voice sounding weak. She could remember firmly thinking to herself at home about how when she saw Gaara again she was going to be civil to him and she wouldn't freak out.

She took a step backwards.

Ino very distinctly said, "Bitch, please," and looked away from Naruto, her face exasperated. She spotted Sakura standing in the middle of the hallway, looking shocked. Ino saw Gaara take a step towards her.

Ino's face hardened. She didn't know what Gaara's problem was, but she knew he and Sakura had been feuding for a while but they'd been spotted kissing recently. Ino had been worried when she'd heard about that. She knew Gaara had been expelled but Sakura had persuaded the teachers to give him another chance. Ino scowled at the redhead. If he thought she'd just stand by and let him hurt her friend he was an idiot.

But Sakura took one look at Gaara walking her way and ran.

Gaara had every intention of chasing her if not for the hand that suddenly shot out and seized his arm.

Yamanaka Ino had grabbed him, her long nails digging into his skin and her pretty face murderous.

"What do you think you're playing at? Why was Sakura so upset?" Ino demanded.

Naruto had been angry with Ino before but he now stood next to her, anxious that Gaara would get violent if the blonde girl pushed him too far.

"I don't understand it much myself. Let go of me." Gaara said calmly, though he was itching to find Sakura.

"Not until you tell me why Sakura just ran away from you." Ino said stubbornly.

Gaara sighed.

"I kissed her," He began, his eyes looking far away as though he was lost in his memories, "A few times. I told her not to go out with Sasuke. I told her not to kiss anyone else. She asked me if we were 'boyfriend and girlfriend.' I said no, she cried and ran off. Now she won't talk to me. Now let go of me."

Ino's grip loosened and Gaara pulled his arm away.

"You told her not to go out with Sasuke?" Naruto repeated, scowling.

Gaara regarded Naruto coolly for a moment and snorted.

"You didn't tell her Sasuke was using her?" Gaara said in the same indignant tone Naruto had used. When Naruto looked suitably abashed, Gaara laughed derisively.

Ino glared at him darkly.

He went to go after Sakura, irritated that he'd been delayed this long, when a little voice piped up.

"Please don't upset Sakura-chan." Hinata said quietly, her cheeks flushed and her eyes averted.

Gaara stared at her so long she squeaked and turned bright red.

"Fine." He said finally, walking away from the three of them.

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Sakura burst into the staffroom and slammed the door behind her.

Kakashi, Anko and Genma stared at her.

"Hi. Do you have any jobs for me?" Sakura asked desperately. This was the one place Gaara could not follow her, if she could just hide out here –

"Nope," Kakashi said brightly, "Kurenai made us all do it ourselves. She said using you was child labour."

Sakura stared at him blankly.

"Ridiculous," She said finally, "You must have some paperwork, at least."

"I did all of that!" Genma said proudly.

Sakura gave him a withering look.

"I could do the register for all of the –"

"I did that like an hour ago." Anko interrupted her, scooting around the office on her swivel chair to get a better look at Sakura.

"Letters!" Sakura burst out frantically, "Grading papers, I could tidy the office, er, I could- "

"Kurenai did all that," Kakashi said, now sounding slightly concerned, "If you really want to work, why don't you supervise the kids in detention?"

"Oh." Sakura said, feeling deflated, "I guess so."

"Great! I was supposed to do that. Don't tell Kurenai." Kakashi winked at her.

Genma sniggered.

"The next detention's in an hour." Kakashi said.

"There goes my lunch break." Sakura scowled. She couldn't complain, she'd wanted to work. She'd just hoped it would be in the staffroom.

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Detention was no longer just a few scholarship kids in one classroom; the sheer amount of students Sakura was punishing had forced the teachers to expand the detaining areas. She was not looking forward to confronting a room full of angry rich kids that she had put there.

Sakura pushed open the door and slipped inside, slightly late because her last lesson had only just finished. As she had expected, the students were already misbehaving, throwing paper and shouting at each other.

"Settle down!" Sakura said authoritatively, walking into the room and sitting down at the desk at the front of the room.

The students all sat down, grumbling.

Sakura smirked to herself – the students obviously hated her, but they all did as she asked anyway. Would they do the same for any of the real teachers?

Sakura tapped her pen against the desk, bored. She looked up to make sure none of the students were passing notes or doing anything that could be classed as fun.

Gaara was sat at one of the desks, staring at her.

Sakura dropped her pen.

"Class, I'm going to be a few minutes, talk amongst yourselves." Sakura said abruptly, pushing back her chair with a screech and moving towards the door.

"Sakura." Gaara said, standing up hastily.

"Don't follow me." Sakura said quietly.

Sakura had fully intended to get one of the teachers to cover for her with the detention and then go home, but before she knew it she was heading to the roof.

The roof was where she went to think, mostly. Hinata and her and hid up there many times, just to talk away from other students. It was where Sakura had gone the day after Ino had shouted at her in the hallway and she suddenly had no friends. The roof had become a sort of safe haven. Students rarely went up there and if they did they never stayed for too long.

The roof was also the place where Sakura had cried in front of Sasuke for the first time.

She could hear Gaara's footsteps behind her even as she opened the door to the roof.

She ignored him and sat down on the bench where she always sat, breathing out slowly to calm herself down.

The door creaked open again and Gaara stepped onto the roof.

"Boyfriend and girlfriend," He blurted out as though fearing Sakura would interrupt him, "That's what you want, isn't it?"

Sakura stared at him. Was he mocking her?

"Yes," She said slowly, "But that's not what you want."

"I've asked around." Gaara said, gazing intently at her face, "If you were my girlfriend, you would never kiss anyone else. That's what I want."

Sakura put her head in her hands and groaned lightly.

"If you ever get the chance," Sakura said, standing up, "Ask Sasuke what having me as a girlfriend is like."

Gaara's eyes hardened, "Sakura, I'm asking you to be with me."

"Yes Gaara, but you don't know what that means! You don't! You think being boyfriend and girlfriend would mean I would never kiss anyone else and that would be it! Well, that's not what I want. I want to see you all the time and sit next to you in class, I want to go to your house and be friends with your family, I want you to meet my mother, I want to go out with someone who loves me back and would offer me more than just kisses!" Sakura ranted.

Gaara's eyes widened in surprise, "…You want me to meet your mother?"

"I know what your real problem is," Sakura said shakily, "You're perfectly happy to kiss me on park benches and in school, but you wouldn't want to be with someone like me. I'm difficult. I'm a bitch. You have more money than you could ever spend, if you were with someone like me, you'd be laughed at."

Sakura felt her shoulders slump dejectedly. She wasn't good enough for Gaara. She could finally see that now.

She gasped as her back hit the wall next to the roof door. Gaara pinned her there firmly, but not hard enough to hurt.

"Don't assume things about me," Gaara said sternly, "You don't know anything. It's true that if I turned up to a fancy event my father hosted with you on my arm, I'd be laughed at. But that wouldn't be because of you. It would be because those people are morons."

Sakura tried to look away from his stern face just inches from her own.

She jumped when he placed his hands on either side of her head and leaned in.

"This is all you want, isn't it?" She said, glaring into his eyes as he got closer, "Kisses. My mother warned me about you."

"Did she? She sounds like a smart woman." Gaara said, never once taking his eyes off of hers.

"I'm not the kind of girl who'll waste her time pining after someone who doesn't love her back, so let's call this quits, yeah?" Sakura smoothly ducked under Gaara's arm and made for the door.

"I surrender." Gaara said softly.

Sakura froze, hand on the door, "What?" She said weakly.

"I surrender this war. Now we aren't Student Body President and a criminal anymore," Gaara said frankly, "I don't want the war anymore. I want you."

Chapter Text

At Gaara's words a strange look crossed Sakura's face – relief, mingled with distrust.

"You, end the war willingly? You think I'm a fool, don't you? To win me would be just another victory in war to you. I'll accept your surrender, but only because I'm tired of being at war. My pride and my head tell me not to trust you, Gaara, and maybe I wouldn't listen to either of them if not for my mother happening to agree with them. You said it yourself, 'veni, vidi, vici.' I won." Sakura pushed Gaara off of her and gave him a contemptuous glare, "Did you really think I'd trust so easily, after Sasuke?"

Gaara's eyes glittered angrily, "When will you accept that I am not your precious Uchiha?"

"I have no liking for any Uchiha, Gaara. Look at this from my perspective. I have only just recently come out of a relationship that was false, where I was being used. You, a guy who has hurt me in the past out of boredom, claim that you want to be with me. Why should I believe you? Better yet, why would I agree to a relationship with someone who doesn't even want to be with me?"

"How many times do I have to say it before you believe me?" Gaara said heatedly, indignant colour rising in his cheeks, "I want to be with you!"

"Why?" Sakura retorted, "Because, in your twisted little mind, me being your girlfriend would mean I would never kiss anyone else. How romantic. Did it ever cross your mind that if we were in a relationship, it wouldn't just be about you and your needs? I want more than you do. If I said yes now, I would be miserable in a one-sided relationship."

Gaara made a violent movement with his hands, he squashed the gesture quickly but it looked as though he had restrained himself from grabbing her out of anger.

"And that's another thing," Sakura pounced, "Your anger issues. Every time I see you your knuckles are bruised and scraped, you always get into fights, you –"

"I got this," Gaara interrupted, raising his fist, "Defending you."

"What?" Sakura said, momentarily distracted from the matter at hand.

"Some guy took offense to you putting him in detention, so I punched him." Gaara said casually.

Sakura rubbed at her forehead, frustrated, "Another thing," She said exasperatedly, "What makes you think I need defending?"

"You seem to always get into trouble." Gaara said stubbornly.

"Well yes, if a maniac with a knife ever comes at me, feel free to go psycho on him, but not random students! Especially when all they've done is badmouth me."

"He called you a slut," Gaara said, his voice low and menacing, "I didn't appreciate it, and told him so."

"With your fist?" Sakura raised her eyebrows, "You once called me a slut too, remember, albeit in note-form and through someone else – you must tell me how you did that, by the way."

Gaara simply shrugged, his eyes still glued to her own.

Sakura sighed, "Look, Gaara… I'm not going to embarrass myself here but… you remember what I said to you in the bathroom. Forget what I said. My feelings right now are irrelevant. Of course I want to be with you, but I would just get hurt later on, wouldn't I? For whatever reason you want this," Sakura made a vague, sweeping gesture to her body, "And I want this." She pointed to the centre of Gaara's chest, above his heart, "It wouldn't be fair on either of us. We want different things."

Having successfully talked herself out of a relationship with the guy she loved deeply, Sakura took a deep breath and turned away.

She walked through the roof's door, shut it carefully and collapsed in front of it, her head in her hands.

She pretended she couldn't hear Gaara angrily smashing up the roof's storage boxes on the other side of the door.

She had wanted to say yes so badly… But whenever she considered, a tiny, logical voice in her head piped up.

Didn't she deserve more than kisses? Didn't she deserve love?

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Sakura sat in the middle of stacks of paper, absently stamping some and merely glancing at others. Her mind was full of thoughts of how angry Gaara had looked after she rejected him.

Mostly, she cursed her idiocy and wished she could run back to him and beg him to take her back. How ridiculous she was! She had never liked someone as much as she liked Gaara… she liked him so much it scared her. She had not even liked Sasuke this much. But that was the problem. She had been so badly hurt by Sasuke, her trust so utterly broken that she was frightened about how she'd feel if Gaara ever hurt her like that too.

She was also afraid Gaara's sudden request that they get together was merely checkmate in his war, that, as he had previously implied, he viewed her as a 'conquest' to be won, not a person to be loved.

White flashed past her eyes as paper cascaded to the floor.

Sakura blinked. She had knocked down a pile of paper that she had been marking. Damn.

"Sakura?" Kurenai said, sounding concerned, "Are you alright?"

"Because you've been stamping the same piece of paper over and over again for half an hour." Kakashi said bluntly, coming over to stand next to her. He felt her forehead gingerly, "No fever. You aren't ill then. So what's up?"

Sakura batted away his hand impatiently, "Nothing, I'm fine. I'm fine."

She knew from the looks of horror and shock on the teachers' faces that she was crying.

She'd been crying more and more lately. She blamed Gaara completely.

"I'm fine." She insisted, wiping her eyes and giving them a watery smile, "I'm just being stupid."

The teachers all looked at each other over Sakura's head.

"Pub?" Genma suggested.

"She's not old enough to drink." Kurenai pointed out.

"…So?" Genma shrugged.

"I don't see the problem." Kakashi seemed baffled.

Anko nodded sagely.

"So, we aren't taking one of our underage students out to get drunk." Kurenai glared at them all.

"I wouldn't go even if you paid me." Sakura said bluntly, but with a smile.

"Sakura!" Ino said suddenly, her head poking around the staffroom's door, her expression desperate, "There's a food fight going on in the cafeteria!"

The teachers all looked at Sakura.

She leapt to her feet.

"Out of my way," She said impatiently when Genma tripped in her direction.

As she left, she turned back and aimed a dazzling smile at the teachers.

"Thanks for cheering me up." She said gratefully, disappearing through the door.

Kakashi smiled under his mask.

"OK, let's go then." Sakura said determinedly, putting on her no-nonsense face and girding her metaphorical loins. Food fights could get dangerous.

"Go where?" Ino looked confused.

"The food fi- you were totally lying, weren't you?" Sakura said flatly, disappointed. She had been preparing to wade knee-deep through cafeteria food to collar the students and put the fear of God into them.

"Duh," Ino rolled her eyes, "The only way to get your attention is to fake a disaster. I needed to ask you a few questions and I couldn't do that when you were busy being the teachers' bitch."

"I'm not the teachers' bitch." Sakura denied, "But ask away."

"What the fuck is going on between you and Gaara?" Ino demanded.

Sakura paused, "…We're friends." She said delicately.

"Bullshit." Ino raised one pale eyebrow, "You ran away from him!"

"A misunderstanding." Sakura shrugged.

Ino grabbed Sakura's forearms lightly and looked into her eyes, "Hey, Sakura. Stop lying to me. Tell me, what happened?"

Sakura huffed and shook off her friend's grip. She could see that Ino was in no mood to be lied to.

Sakura told her everything, about how she loved Gaara, how he'd asked her out, how she'd said no, how she regretted it…

"Oh, Sakura." Ino sighed when her friend began to cry, "You are very good at not allowing yourself what you want, aren't you?"

She pulled her into a gentle hug and stroked her hair.

"You need to get over this martyr complex," Ino said sternly, ignoring Sakura's muffled protests, "Stop thinking logically! Teenagers don't think before they do things, they just do them, they go out, they have fun, they get their hearts broken and they grow up. If you like Gaara and he asked you out, you should have just said yes. You don't have to plan everything. Life isn't an exam. You can't study and prepare for every possibility. You've just got to suck it up and go for it. Ask him out. Do it!"

"I already got my heart broken," Sakura complained, "I don't want to –"

"Stop whining Sakura! Do you know how many guys have broken up with me? Tons. Do you know how many times I went home to cry and eat shedloads of ice cream? Too many times. Do you know how long it took me to get over those guys? The time it takes to consume a tub of chocolate brownie ice cream. Not long. Don't stress out about getting heartbroken. It sucks getting hurt but you'll never be happy if you don't give anyone a chance to make you unhappy." Ino said wisely, then wrinkled her nose, "I think I kind of lost my point there somewhere."

"Gaara doesn't love me, Ino." Sakura said, looking at her friend steadily.

"Then why's he asking you out?"

"Because," Sakura blushed, "He… likes.. um… kissing me."

"So, he likes you?"

"No…"

"… I don't get it."

"Look, all he wants is to kiss me and all I want is to be with him. But I don't think I should go out with someone who doesn't care about me like I care about them."

"He wants to be with you, you want to be with him… just give it a go, Sakura. Maybe it'll suck, maybe he'll break your heart. Maybe he won't." Ino looked oddly serious for a moment, and Sakura wondered if she was speaking from experience.

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"She said no." Gaara snapped at Shikamaru who had been just about to ask that question. He grimaced.

Gaara was charging through the school hallway with Shikamaru hot on his heels .

"Did she say why?"

"She said I didn't love her and that we wanted different things." Gaara said impatiently.

"Did you tell her you love her?" Shikamaru asked.

Gaara gave him an odd look, "No, of course not."

"Right," Shikamaru said resolutely.

He shoved Gaara against the lockers. He hit the metal with a bang, his eyes wide with shock.

"Do you love Sakura?" Shikamaru asked, his face set in a determined scowl.

"Shikamaru, what're you doing –" Gaara snarled, bucking forwards to try to dislodge Shikamaru's grip on his shirt.

"Making you see sense! You love Sakura! From the first day you saw her you told me you wanted her to smile at you, you started a bloody war to get her attention, you hate Sasuke for meaning something to her, you nearly castrated Kankuro when he threatened to ask out Sakura, you've kissed her three times… need I go on? Tell her you love her!" Shikamaru pushed Gaara a little harder into the lockers to emphasise his words.

Gaara was giving him the mother of all death glares but he didn't move to push Shikamaru away, which spoke volumes about how fond he was of the lazy teen.

"I don't love anyone." Gaara said coldly.

"Listen to me, Gaara," Shikamaru said darkly, "I've known Sakura a very long time. She's a good friend of mine. She's done a lot for me. If you keep insisting you don't love Sakura but keep going after her, don't expect me to give you anymore advice 'cause it seems like you don't listen to it anyway."

Gaara seemed to lose patience and pushed Shikamaru away with enough ease to immediately emasculate Shikamaru.

"I know I don't want her to be with anyone else. I want to be with her at all times. I want to protect her. I hate the Uchiha for hurting her. I'm afraid of hurting her." Gaara couldn't seem to finish and just put a hand over his eyes like the lights of the hallway hurt them.

"And you don't think that's love?" Shikamaru asked gently.

"I don't know." Gaara looked up at him and for a moment Shikamaru could clearly see the helplessness there.

"Well, in my opinion, Gaara, you love her." Shikamaru said simply.

He could see the inner struggle going on in Gaara just by the look on his face, panicked and confused. Gaara didn't like not knowing what to do.

"My father told me love is weak." Gaara whispered.

Shikamaru breathed in deeply. Throttling the Kazekage wouldn't help anyone, no matter how satisfying it would be.

"I love your sister," Shikamaru said calmly, "And I'm pretty sure she loves me. Does that make us weak?"

Gaara looked confused.

"No, it doesn't." Shikamaru smiled, "And you don't care about what your father thinks, do you?"

Gaara thought about it. Back in his father's office, he'd already made his choice. He'd basically said to his father that he would pick Sakura over any other girl. Had he loved her even then? Did he love her now? He cared, he knew that. If anyone ever hurt Sakura…. Well, Sasuke was lucky Sakura didn't want Gaara to do anything because if she did… Sasuke would have lost the use of his legs the moment he made Sakura cry.

He didn't want Sakura to be with anyone else, he didn't even want to smile at anyone else, let alone kiss them…

Love.

If he ever loved anyone, it would be Sakura.

Being her boyfriend would mean being by her side at all times, being the only person allowed to kiss her, knowing she cared about him too…

She had been right, in a way. The first time he'd kissed her, it had been because of a vague idea he'd had that he could win the war by winning her affection, but the only reason he'd thought of the idea was because he had wanted nothing more than to kiss her every time she came up to him, eyes flashing with righteous indignation and a ferocious scowl on her pretty face.

"I've upset her, haven't I." Gaara said, not asking a question. He knew he had. The fierce ice queen, so controlled and self-assured, had cried when he rejected her. Little girl tears, shoulder shuddering, face screwed up…

"Well, yeah," Shikamaru said, a little annoyed, "You kissed her three times and then refused to admit it meant anything to you when it meant the world to her."

"And I took her first kiss." Gaara said gloomily, feeling a little guilty, but soon perked up at the memory. To think he'd been so worried the Uchiha had kissed her first! He felt very pleased with himself.

Shikamaru gave him an odd look, "No you didn't, I did."

Gaara froze. He slowly turned to look at his friend, who seemed to realise his mistake when he looked into Gaara's eyes and saw the pure fury on his face.

"You did what?" Gaara said dangerously.

"I was joking!" Shikamaru waved his hands wildly to signal his remorse, "Really!"

Gaara glared at him suspiciously for a while before turning away.

Shikamaru gave a sigh of relief the moment Gaara removed his death glare from his face. Shikamaru clutched at his heart, feeling rather faint. Admitting he'd once kissed Sakura to Gaara was now listed in the back of his mind as 'a good way to get yourself killed.'

Besides, they'd been so young when they'd kissed that Sakura had promptly forgotten it had ever happened. And Shikamaru had only been in love with her for about, oh, two years and five months, but, judging by the murderous glint in Gaara's eye, he so didn't need to know any of that.

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Sakura trudged home slowly, the snow seeping through her thin shoes as she walked.

Ino had banned her from wearing any form of plaid, glasses, clunky shoes or unflattering blouses to school, so she was forced to wear her favourite clothes at home and dress up as Ino for school. She still felt like she was going trick or treating dressed as a pretty girl every time she got ready for school.

She had gratefully whipped on her thick, black glasses and tied her hair back with the traditional yellow ribbon the moment she left school. She usually wore contacts but it was nice to give her eyes a rest every now and then and just wear glasses.

She had long since passed the street where Sasuke had picked her up in his ridiculous car that probably cost more than slavers would pay for her and her entire extended family. It still hurt to remember that day, because she could see now how Sasuke had been manipulating her, getting her to confess about what really happened between her and Ino, acting like he wanted to be her friend for Naruto's sake… God, he really was a liar, wasn't he?

How could she have been fooled so easily?

If she ever went out with Gaara, she knew there would always be a voice in the back of her mind, warning her that he was up to no good, that he was just using her, that one day she'd receive a call from Kankuro or someone that would tell her she'd been a gullible fool once again.

She didn't think she could take Gaara turning out just like Sasuke.

She turned the key in the lock and pushed open the door to her house.

"I'm home." She said unenthusiastically, her shoulders drooping in sadness and her eyes weary.

"Sakura?" Her mother called from the living room.

Sakura could smell coffee and could have kissed her mother, she so needed a caffeine boost right now.

Her smile was weak but it was there. She entered the living room, eager for some coffee to perk her up.

Gaara sat on her sofa, sipping coffee with her mother.

Sakura dropped her school bag and gaped at him, sitting casually with her mother, holding his mug elegantly as though he was sipping champagne, as out of place as a bear having a nice chat with her mother.

"Gaara?" Sakura said, stunned.

He looked up, his eyes connecting with hers. She ignored the jolt in her stomach she felt at the eye contact.

"Gaara-san was just telling me how you two are great friends." Her mother said conversationally, raising her eyebrows at her daughter as if to say, are you really friends with a boy who wears this much eyeliner?

"Oh, we're the best of friends, Mum." Sakura said, trying to hide her scowl. From the delighted gleam in Gaara's eyes, he was well aware she didn't want him to be there.

"That's nice." Sakura's mother beamed. You could almost feel the glee she felt at her daughter having a proper friend come round her house, like a normal teenager who socialised with people, not just homework.

"I've made you both some sandwiches, you can eat them in your room but I want the door open and no crumbs on the floor." Her mother said, giving Sakura a look that said that she wouldn't stand for any misbehaving.

Sakura begrudgingly headed upstairs to her bedroom, highly conscious of Gaara's presence behind her, a light tread on her stairs, his expensive shoes scuffing against the faded, old carpet.

They reached her bedroom. Sakura nearly groaned when she remembered the sign her father had put up proudly on her door after she received six As in a row, saying 'Genius At Work.' She'd never been able to take it down, even after he left.

Gaara felt the letters of the sign softly, smirking.

Sakura scowled and pushed open the door. Gaara followed her in and stopped dead at the sight of her room.

Posters adorned every inch of the walls of her bedroom, to the point where it was almost impossible to see what colour the walls were. Page after page of revision notes were pinned up, phrases here and there repeated. Most of the furniture was adorned with cheerful little hints – historical facts on her bed like 'World War One, 1914-1918 and World War Two, 1939-1945,' and a sign on her television saying 'terebi,' just in case she ever took up Japanese as a hobby.

She had an entire bookcase dedicated to study guides, books on how to revise properly, books on how to survive being a teenager, books on famous Student Body Presidents, books that she wouldn't need for another two or three years….

The revision she had done last night – to her shame – still lay on her desk in piles, about twenty pages of her scribbled notes on whether or not the Ghost in Hamlet really was his poor, murdered father. In her haste to get ready for school that morning she'd not had time to tidy up and now her manic revision notes lay there in all their glory.

Gaara slowly looked around the room, eyes wide.

He picked up some of her revision notes and peered at them. He put them down just as quickly, apparently not able to understand them.

He gawped at all of the shiny trophies, awards, plaques, certificates and other academic triumphs that adorned her room.

"This is me, I guess." Sakura said awkwardly.

Gaara turned to look at her.

"You really do work harder than anyone else, don't you?" He said, his expression inscrutable.

She gave a self-conscious little shrug.

Gaara stared at her for a full minute, just drinking in the little details that made her who she was, the unfashionably thick glasses, the girlish ribbon in her hair, the little-girl cardigan teamed with a tight black shirt obviously borrowed from Ino, she was a Student Body President from her neatly brushed hair to her perfectly shined shoes…

…and he loved her for it.

"I've met your mother now." Gaara said suddenly.

Sakura looked confused, not sure what he was getting at, "Yeah, so?"

"I already sit next to you in class. You've come to my house and made friends with my family," He walked closer towards her, eyes never leaving her face. She stumbled back a bit nervously, "I spend all my time with you."

"Those were the things you said you wanted me to do if I was your boyfriend. I've done them."

"You told me you wanted to go out with someone who loved you and would offer you more than kisses," Gaara was so close now she could smell the familiar tang of cigarette smoke clinging to his clothes, see every smear of eyeliner on his eyes and feel his every breath on her skin.

"I like you." Gaara said simply, his forehead touching hers lightly. Sakura felt his hands gently take her own.

They stood there for a moment in the middle of her bedroom, holding hands, staring into each other's eyes. Gaara's expression was content, Sakura's was shocked happiness.

And then Sakura let go of his hands and took hold of his face, feeling his body heat melt into hers.

"I like you too." She replied, hiding her smile behind her hand, giddy as a schoolgirl.

They kissed then, Gaara's hands on the small of her back like they belonged there, hers entangled in his hair. The kiss was a mixture of need and relief, with Sakura choking back her happy sobs and Gaara trying not to smirk too much.

When they finally pulled away from each other, Gaara's eyes a little darker than usual and Sakura's cheeks were wet with tears, Gaara leant back with a creak of his leather jacket and smirked down at Sakura.

"So…? Will you go out with me now?" Gaara asked, mentally inserted the word finally, because it felt like the whole bloody war had been leading up to this and now that he looked back on it, he could see that it had. He'd started the war just to get her attention, and because she pissed him off, then everything he did was more to show off to her, then he wanted her to like him and him alone (no damn Uchiha interfering).

"OK," Sakura whispered with a grin, "I surrender too."

Chapter Text

Sakura was just straightening her clothes when someone knocked on the door, an impatient, loud rap. She bit her lip and pulled at her skirt nervously. He was early, of course.

She opened the front door slowly, not wanting to wake her mother on the morning of her first lie-in in weeks.

Gaara stood on her doorstep. Sakura smiled and leant against the doorway, studying her boyfriend. He'd made an effort for their first day of school as a couple, she noticed. His hair was expertly spiked up messily, his eyes were smudged with eyeliner and he was wearing an expensive brand-name ripped shirt and grey jeans.

Sakura was wearing her hair down for once, and had even bothered to wear a heart-shaped hair clip on both sides of her face, the first time she'd ever felt like wearing them. Not liking Ino's 'Deceptively Chaste Cheerleader' makeup style – which involved a lot of dark eye shadow and red lipstick - she'd simply drawn some liquid eyeliner across both eyelids and put some pink lipgloss on.

Her smile slipped when Gaara turned on his heel and headed back up the path.

"Hey – hey, wait, Gaara, damn it, wait!" She dashed back in the house to grab her bag and then chased him.

"What?" He said, frowning at her as she panted next to him.

"Why would you suddenly walk off – you're so weird." Sakura complained, pulling her school bag more securely onto her shoulder.

"I thought we were walking to school together?" Gaara said, confused.

"Yeah, but you don't just walk off, you're supposed to ask me if I'm ready to leave yet."

"Oh," Gaara frowned as he mulled this over. He turned to her with a serious expression, "Are you ready to leave yet?"

Sakura stifled a laugh. Gaara was just adorably awkward at times.

She took his arm and smiled at him, "Yep! Let's go!"

Gaara stiffened at the casual touch – it was so unlike Sakura to initiate any physical contact.

"It's cold." Gaara commented absently as they walked.

Sakura nodded fervently, "Freezing! I have to put up Christmas decorations in the school today, and I'll have to decorate the outside too, so I'm going to freeze to death, probably."

"Hmm, don't do that." Gaara said thoughtfully.

A few other students were walking to school the same way. Sakura noticed they were all staring at her and Gaara.

"Um, should I not hold your arm like this?" Sakura asked.

Gaara looked down at her. "…I don't mind it." He said after a pause.

"I just mean… everyone staring at us!" Sakura said, looking around at all of the students walking near them. She saw one of them do a double take when they caught sight of the Student Body President walking to school with the delinquent, Gaara.

"So?"

"So, it's embarrassing! I've never walked around with a guy before, like, um, holding their arm or anything, so I think, um…" Sakura trailed off, embarrassed. She knew the students viewed her as a celibate monk-like figure who was only interested in disciplining students and getting good grades. Suddenly getting a boyfriend – and a delinquent whom she had previously warred with, at that – was obviously going to catch their attention.

"I just think we shouldn't be so… touchy-feely, we're attracting so much attention…"

She hadn't been with Sasuke that long, and the most affection he ever showed her was opening a door for her.

She suspected not many students believed they actually ever dated, anyway.

"Do you really think so?" Gaara said, perking up slightly.

Sakura nodded again.

Gaara removed her hand from his arm. Sakura laughed, a little relieved, then –

He pulled her into a half-hug, his arm slung around her shoulders.

"G-Gaara!" Sakura squeaked, suddenly pressed up against Gaara as they walked.

"I'm not ashamed of being with you." Gaara said seriously, "But are you ashamed of being with me?"

"No!" Sakura said, horrified he could think that she was embarrassed to be seen with him.

"So, let's not bother hiding." Gaara said, squeezing her tighter.

The students were all openly gawping now.

Sakura stared at Gaara. His cheeks were slightly pink. She thought it might just be the cold but…

She smiled.

xxxxxxxx

"Haruno-sempai…" A boy from the year below Sakura said cautiously, "Are you OK?"

Sakura looked confused, "Huh? I'm fine. Why?"

Gaara's arm was still wrapped around her shoulders. He glared at the younger boy.

He had blonde hair and was ever so slightly adorable. He was blushing furiously, which was probably why Gaara was glaring at him.

"Um, because…" The boy whispered, "That's Sabaku no Gaara! I thought you hated each other?"

"Um," Sakura blushed, "Actually -"

"She's my girlfriend." Gaara cut in, still glaring.

The younger boy blinked, surprised, "Wow, really? I didn't think the President actually dated!"

"What?" Sakura frowned, "Of course I – why do I even bother, honestly."

"I'll spread the word, President-chan!" The boy said with a wide grin before dashing off to join his friends.

Sakura's mouth dropped open, "President-chan? What kind of a nickname is that? How can I command respect from the students if they call me cute names like that?"

"Never mind that," Gaara waved his hand dismissively, "Why did he say he would 'spread the word'?"

They exchanged uneasy glances.

"It's probably nothing." Sakura shrugged.

"Saaaaaaaaaaaakura-chyaaan!" Naruto suddenly yelled from behind her.

"Ah! Naruto, don't scare me like that!" Sakura yelled, pushing him away slightly.

Naruto paused, taking in the sight of Gaara standing next to Sakura peacefully, without any explosions or gunfire.

"What's up with you two?" Naruto asked, pointing to them both, an idiotic expression of exaggerated confusion on his face, "Why aren't you shooting at each other or fighting?"

"She's my gir-" Gaara started to say.

"Naruto, your shirt, it's – um, it's, hanging out! Detention! Right now!" Sakura babbled anxiously, ignoring the death glare Gaara was giving her.

"What?" That's so unfair!" Naruto moaned.

"Yes, yes it is. Now go, shoo." Sakura made flapping motions with her hands.

Naruto stormed off, muttering about evil Presidents with too much power.

"You are ashamed of me, aren't you?" Gaara looked unimpressed.

"No, of course not! But Naruto is Sasuke's best friend, he would tell Sasuke if he found out we were going out!"

"…So?" Gaara didn't seem to understand the issue.

"So, Sasuke would know about us and I don't know how he'd react!"

"Who cares about him?" Gaara shook his head, "He's already seen us kissing. And what's he going to do even if he does find out?"

"Evil things." Sakura said, deadpan, "I don't want to find out what he'd do, so let's make an effort to make sure he doesn't find out, OK?"

"Do you really think you can keep it from him?"

"No, not really." Sakura sighed, "But I'd like to not have to deal with him for a while."

"Che, fine. When are you going to tell your friends? Yamanaka Ino won't stop glaring at me; I would like it to stop."

"I don't know… they'll probably think you're blackmailing me into dating you, or something." Sakura said, laughing.

Gaara studied her for a moment before smirking, "I would never go that far."

"You totally would. It's scarily plausible. I mean, what would you have done if I'd rejected you seriously?"

Gaara ran a hand through his hair as he thought about the question, "…I'd probably keep asking until you said yes."

"That's creepy, Gaara."

"No it isn't."

"It is. You're a creepy creeper."

"I'm not creepy. And you seem oddly carefree."

"I do?" Sakura said, surprised.

"Yes, you keep smiling and making jokes. It's cute." Gaara smirked even wider as Sakura blushed.

"…Shut up," Sakura huffed, red-faced and pouting.

Gaara messed up her hair affectionately.

"Hey, move. You are blocking the hallway."

Sakura turned around.

Hyuuga Neji and his friend Lee were standing behind them. Lee was staring at her, his face uncharacteristically unhappy.

Neji was the one who had spoken and he was glaring at both Gaara and Sakura, arms folded.

"Say please." Sakura scowled at him.

Neji just scowled back at her with deep dislike. Sakura felt confused. Why was he suddenly acting unfriendly once again? Hadn't Naruto beaten some sense into him?

Sakura reluctantly moved out of the way, though Gaara stubbornly stayed in the middle of the hallway so Neji had to edge around him.

Lee suddenly took off, using his athleticism to speed away around the corner before any of them could blink.

Neji went to run after him but turned and looked at Sakura with a serious expression instead.

"…Don't be so careless. You can hurt people without meaning to, you know." He said harshly.

"Careless?" Sakura turned to Gaara, confused.

He just shrugged, though he watched Neji walk off with a frown.

xxxxxxxx

Kurenai was writing something that the class were meant to be copying down, but all Sakura could think about was the fact that Sasuke was only a few seats away. She tried to calm down, but thoughts of his angry face kept flitting across her mind. She hoped he'd be angry rather than hurt. Hurt was so much worse.

She shook herself angrily. She had every right to hurt him like he hurt her! She should be hoping he'd cry remorseful tears the moment he found out, not anxiously trying to keep her relationship from him, for fear of hurting his feelings.

Sakura sighed, chewing her pen. She was such a pushover, despite her bossy personality.

A note slid onto her desk. Sakura looked over at Gaara. He was looking out of the window.

Put your left hand under the table, the note said ominously.

Sakura cautiously slid her hand underneath the table.

She squeaked when it was suddenly seized.

Gaara had grabbed it with his right hand.

"Now we can both write," Gaara said in a low voice, pointing at the blackboard, "and still hold hands."

Sakura blinked. Gaara was left-handed and she was right-handed, so they could both write down the work easily even though they were holding hands.

"W-what if Sasuke sees?" Sakura whispered back, secretly enjoying the feel of Gaara's hand over hers.

"Just shut up and stop thinking about him. It's annoying." Gaara scowled, squeezing her hand tighter.

Sakura suddenly grinned, "You're secretly a big softie, aren't you?"

Gaara didn't reply, frowning even more deeply, his cheeks red.

They spent all of Maths class holding hands under the table.

xxxxxxxx

"That was great!" Sakura cheered, holding her arms up in joy, "No one even suspected anything!"

They were walking home from school. Sakura had finally managed to convince Gaara he didn't need to keep a fierce grip on her at all times as they walked, though he said he'd 'seen it in movies' and assumed it was normal.

"How insulting to have your girlfriend want to keep you a secret." Gaara commented, though he didn't look angry.

"Sorry, I just… don't want Sasuke to…"

"I get it, you're weak when it comes to the Uchiha." Gaara shrugged.

Sakura stopped dead.

"Weak?" She growled.

"Weak," Gaara repeated, "He made you cry a lot, and he manipulated you really easily. You also worry too much about him," He paused, looking down at his shoes, "It pisses me off."

"That's not being weak… He made me cry because he hurt me, not because I was weak! And – I'm not made of stone, I can't help being manipulated by people I care about, or worrying about them." Sakura protested.

Gaara's frown deepened, "That's what people used to say. That you were made of stone, that you couldn't feel anything. And why do you still care about him?"

"They thought I couldn't feel?" Sakura's mouth dropped open, "Those bitches. And I, I don't really care about him, I'm just a nice person!"

Gaara sighed, "I wish you weren't nice. Can't you just ignore him? I want to be able to tell Shikamaru that we're dating. Besides, that younger student knows we're together, so the rest of the school will know soon enough. So you shouldn't bother worrying about him."

"Argh, that's true, isn't it! That damn big-mouthed brat's going to tell everyone!" Sakura panicked, holding her head.

"Calm down," Gaara looked at her oddly, "I won't let the Uchiha hurt you if he gets angry."

Sakura let her arms swing back down by her sides and stared at her boyfriend, "You think I'm worried about Sasuke getting violent? As if! And here I thought I'd be the protector in this relationship!" She laughed.

Gaara didn't laugh. He turned slightly, his usual frown dropping into something a little more serious, "I want to be the one to protect you, not the other way around." He muttered, not looking at her.

Sakura's eyes widened. Gaara actually looked quite bothered, his eyes averted, his mouth downturned.

She smiled and pulled him into a kiss.

"Why don't we protect each other?" She suggested, pulling back from the kiss.

Gaara just stared at her, stunned, his face slowly turning red.

"Hm? What's up?" Sakura asked, tilting her head.

"… that's the first time you've kissed me." Gaara said slowly, still red.

"No, we've kissed like four times now!"

"No, it's the first time you've kissed me." Gaara said, flustered.

Sakura started to blush too, "Oh… it just felt natural to do it…"

"Well… give me a little warning next time." Gaara said, his hand covering his red cheeks.

Sakura grinned, "Softie."

They reached her house quickly after that, Gaara still in a huff about being declared a softie, Sakura still grinning like a maniac.

"Mum?" Sakura called out after opening the front door.

No answer.

"Oh. Guess she's not in." Sakura said, deflated. Alone in the house with Gaara…

Not good.

"OK, bye." Sakura said abruptly, trying to shut the door on him.

He simply slipped through the gap casually, "Rude," He said lightly, "Weren't you going to invite me in?"

He immediately started to head upstairs.

"…No." Sakura said weakly, closing the front door.

By the time she got upstairs Gaara was already snooping through her stuff, picking up some of the framed photographs on the desk and studying them.

"Shikamaru." Gaara pointed at the photo in his hand.

Sakura peered over his shoulder, "Oh yeah, I forgot about that! Ha, he used to be so skinny!"

"This… is Yamanaka?" Gaara frowned, confused.

"Yeah, we used to all be friends together. When Ino broke friends with me, Shikamaru chose me instead of her. Ino was so angry…"

"So, you were twelve in this picture?" Gaara said, gazing at the picture of her looking at the camera with a solemn expression, her fringe too long and in her eyes, clutching a book, "Cute."

Gaara looked around the rest of the photos and froze. He looked at Sakura. "Shikamaru." He repeated again, pointing at a different picture, "And here he is again. And again. And again."

Sakura raised her eyebrows, "Yeah, so? We're friends. He has pictures of me too."

It was the wrong thing to say. Gaara looked even more pissed off.

"Did you kiss him?" Gaara said suddenly, staring at her.

Sakura unwillingly made a horrified face at the thought, "What? No!"

"Why would you even ask me tha –" Sakura started to say, then trailed off when a certain photo of her and Shikamaru caught her eye.

It was the one of her and Shikamaru standing next to each other. Shikamaru was blushing, Sakura just looked confused.

Sakura jolted backwards in shock when she remembered that day perfectly for the first time in years.

It was just after Ino had yelled at her. Shikamaru had consoled her, telling her that Sasuke was no good anyway, and then… then…

Oh good God, it was true.

Sakura's face turned violently red at the memory. Shikamaru had confessed to her and kissed her suddenly. Nothing had ever come of it, partially due to Sakura still being lovesick over Sasuke.

"What, so you really did kiss?" Gaara noticed the blush and looked enraged, "I wasn't your first kiss after all?"

Sakura didn't know how to reply, and just concentrated on willing her blush away.

Gaara stared at her, his fists clenched, "Right," He said, and pulled out his phone, "Shikamaru, when you get this message, flee the country immediately. I am very, very angry with you and I wouldn't like to do something I would regret. I recommend you go somewhere far away. Bye."

He hung up after leaving the message.

"Gaara, call him again and say it was a joke!" Sakura cried.

Gaara turned back to face her, his expression dark, "Why should I? You told me I was your first kiss. You lied to me."

"I didn't lie, I just forgot!"

"How could you forget that? When I heard I was your first kiss, it made me happy. Now…"

"Look, even though Shikamaru and I kissed four years ago, I like you now! I love you, even! So don't worry about a little prepubescent crush! It didn't mean anything."

"What if it meant something to Shikamaru?" Gaara asked.

"Why would it? He loves Temari."

"Do you think so? What if he doesn't? Then I'll have to kill him twice, once for liking my girlfriend and once for hurting my sister."

"Gaara, please don't joke about killing people, it's not good for my heart. I love you, you big moron. Even if Shikamaru liked me, I wouldn't go out with him because I like you now." Sakura said emphatically, getting closer to Gaara.

Gaara's frown lightened slightly, "Oh. I suppose Shikamaru getting rejected by you would be enough punishment. But you'd have to be really harsh about it! Ruthlessly cold. Or he'll think he stands a chance."

"OK." Sakura sighed, knowing Shikamaru only had eyes for Temari and Gaara was just a big, over-protective fool.

Gaara pulled her into a loose hug.

Even though he was all cold and unemotional, maybe Gaara was just as insecure as she was, deep down?

Sakura hugged him back, harder.

xxxxxxxx

"Ino! Wait up! I need to talk to you." Sakura panted, slowing down from a run to a jog.

Ino was in her gym clothes, running on the track field. Her hair was combed back messily and her face was for once free of makeup.

Ino slowed down too, stopping to stretch.

"What is it?" Ino said, not even panting despite the amount of time she'd been running.

"OK, I need to tell you something but you absolutely have to keep it a secret! You can only talk about it to Hinata!" Sakura said fervently.

Ino paused, her face contorting. She was the world's worst secret keeper, and Sakura knew it.

"….'Kay." She said finally, looking wary.

Sakura looked around suspiciously. There were a few people gathered around the field in groups, but none of them were looking their way.

"I'm going out with Gaara." Sakura grinned.

Ino's eyes widened and her mouth gaped open unattractively.

"What the fuck?" She looked horrified.

"Well, I'm glad to see you're so happy for me." Sakura said dryly.

"But you hate him!" Ino protested, still looking absolutely flabbergasted.

"Thin line between love and hate!" Sakura said cheerfully, "He asked me out and I said yes! I really like him, Ino!"

"You really like who?"

Sakura froze. No, not today, God no…

She turned around slowly, already knowing from Ino's shocked expression who was behind her.

Sasuke stood behind her, wearing a tracksuit and an upset expression.

He waited, his expression slowly darkening with every second Sakura failed to reply.

"Um, Gaara." Sakura said timidly, fiddling with the hem of her shirt.

"Oh," Sasuke said, obviously fuming, "I guessed you did, from the way you kissed him…"

"We're dating!" Sakura blurted out.

"What…? You and Gaara?" Sasuke's scowl dropped for a second as he processed the news, "You're dating?"

Sakura nodded, awaiting Sasuke's angry explosion with a wince.

But he didn't explode with rage. He looked back at her, his face icily raging, his fists clenched so tightly they were turning white.

"Right," He said calmly, "Right. I'll go… deal with that."

"What?" Sakura cried, "Go deal with what?"

"I'll go deal with the bastard who forced you into this." Sasuke said coolly, his voice still far more controlled than his facial expression, which was frighteningly dark.

"No one forced me into anything!" Sakura protested.

"I thought he might have, to be honest." Ino agreed, her face pale.

Sasuke seemed to take her words as confirmation and set off across the track field, stomping off angrily.

"No! No one forced me into anything, Sasuke!" Sakura shouted, but Sasuke didn't seem to hear her.

She looked back at Ino helplessly, who simply shrugged.

Chapter Text

She could see the thin, lithe Ino catching up with Sasuke, his tall, muscular form towering over her. Nevertheless, Ino pushed herself to keep up, having caught Sakura's desperation and realised the truth.

The clouds were steely grey and rolled across the entire sky, blocking out every trace of blue.

"Ino! I'm not being forced into anything! I love Gaara!" Sakura shouted.

She could see Ino repeating her words to Sasuke, who shook his head and sped up. Sakura felt a surge of anger. What, did they think she was too weak and wimpy to say no to Gaara when he asked her out? She had rejected him! More than once!

Sakura quickly had to stop for a rest, panting. She could see Ino and Sasuke getting smaller and smaller, disappearing across the track field.

It was freezing cold and Sakura's panting came out in clouds.

"Sasuke!" Sakura yelled desperately, cupping her hands around her mouth, her voice echoing across the field, "If you touch my boyfriend I will kill you!"

Sasuke stopped and turned back to look at her. Sakura could barely see his face from the distance, but she could certainly hear him bellow, "I'm doing this for you!"

"Like hell you are!" She repeated, taking off again.

She was supposed to protect Gaara like he protected her… He couldn't fight Sasuke back, he'd be expelled and Sasuke would get away with it…

Sakura felt a new burst of energy and hurtled forward. She wasn't an athlete, she never exercised, she was much more at home in her room with her books rather than running on a track field.

And yet, there she was, running with all her might, whistle bouncing on her chest and panting. She could not let Gaara get hurt because of her… Never.

I won't let him hurt you. Gaara had said that to her earlier that day, fully intending to defend her if he needed to.

Well, she would do the same for him.

She finally crossed the field and burst into the school, looking around wildly.

"You!" She pointed at a younger student, who yelped in surprise and actually backed away a bit, "Have you seen a tall guy with dark spiky hair and a blonde girl in gym clothes?"

He nodded, still looking terrified.

"Where?" Sakura asked desperately. At this rate –

The younger boy pointed towards the canteen.

"Ah! Brilliant, thank you!" Sakura bestowed one of her rare smiles upon him, not noticing his eyes go wide in shock.

She tore off in the direction of the canteen. Of course Gaara would be in there, it was lunch time, she'd skipped hers to try and find Ino…

She slowed down upon finally reaching the canteen and entered cautiously, expecting to see a bloodbath.

Gaara was calmly eating his lunch with Shikamaru and Temari as Sasuke shouted at him, Ino hanging off him helplessly.

Sakura was ridiculously relieved that there was nothing violent taking place – and the only teacher present, Genma, was doing his best to ignore Sasuke's shouting – and hurried over to Gaara's table.

She reached over and seized Sasuke by his tracksuit jacket and swung him around to face her.

"What's this?" She growled, "Shouting? Disturbing the other students? Threatening another student? Detention!"

She leaned in closer and hissed, "I said, don't touch my boyfriend."

Sasuke glared back at her, "Have you gone mad? This is the guy who tortured you for fun! You cried!"

Gaara put down his sandwich and stared at the back of Sasuke's head until he turned around to look back at him. Shikamaru looked uneasy, Temari was all set to leap out of her chair and defend her brother.

"You forced her into this, didn't you?" Sasuke spat at Gaara.

Gaara took a deep breath and slowly unclenched his fists.

"Actually, he didn't. He may be a lot of things, but my brother would never force Sakura into anything." Temari said seriously, standing up, "Congratulations, Sakura, I always thought you'd make a nice sister."

Sakura was touched, "Really?"

"Yeah, so relax, you big idiot." Ino wheezed, still doing her best to drag Sasuke away and not managing to even shift him an inch, to her embarrassment.

"You… you weren't forced?" Sasuke said, looking at Sakura, confused.

"Of course not! As if he could force me to do anything!" Sakura shook her head.

Gaara smirked.

Unfortunately, Sasuke saw the smirk and grew enraged, "You bastard, I know Sakura. She'd never associate with someone like you. A criminal."

"Sasuke, I will hit you so hard." Sakura glared at him. Nothing she said seemed to penetrate the protective wall of stupidity that surrounded him. He was determined to believe that Sakura hadn't chosen this, that it had been forced upon her.

Gaara stood up abruptly.

"Get out of my way." He said quietly, his eyes blazing.

Sasuke gritted his teeth and stood his ground. Ino let go of Sasuke's neck instantly and slithered to the ground, more than a little terrified of Gaara in a rage.

"You're in my way." Gaara said, beginning to scowl.

"I know I've done some unforgivable things, Sakura," Sasuke said, addressing her without looking at her, "But I still don't want to see you hurt. If you go out with this guy then you will get hurt."

"Stop talking to her as though you care," Gaara said viciously, "Because she doesn't care about you."

Sasuke flinched, "You –"

"In fact, she hates you," Gaara carried on ruthlessly. He looked at Sakura, "Isn't that right, Sakura?"

Gaara was angry, she realised.

Sasuke was staring at her, a naked kind of vulnerability obvious on his face.

But Gaara was subtly appealing to her – he wanted her to side with him, obviously and in public, so Sasuke would have no choice but to think of Gaara and Sakura as a couple, not enemies, on the same side.

"Yes." Sakura whispered, feeling truly awful.

Sasuke was seething with rage, he brought his leg up to kick Gaara, lightning-quick. Sakura gasped, Gaara moved back slightly –

Rock Lee seized Sasuke's leg with ease. He looked at them all steadily, blushing slightly. "Please do not fight," He said formally, "I do believe you are upsetting, um, Sa-Sakura-san…" He said with difficulty.

They all looked at Sakura, Sasuke wobbling slightly on only one leg.

"I'm not upset, just angry." Sakura clarified.

"Get the fuck off of me." Sasuke growled, trying to pry Lee's fingers off his leg. They remained where they were, his grip like steel.

Neji came over, his face like thunder.

"Lee," He said, exasperated, "You idiot, let go."

"Oh!" Lee let Sasuke's leg fall abruptly, wincing when Sasuke let out a pained yelp, "I am so very sorry, Sasuke-san! As punishment for this gross overestimation of –"

"You're both in my way now." Gaara interrupted them both.

Lee backed out of the way respectfully.

Sasuke stood his ground, glaring at both Lee and Gaara. He rubbed his leg resentfully. Shikamaru half-rose from his seat, looking panicked. Temari's eyes were on Sakura, coolly assessing the other girl's reaction.

Neji tugged Lee away, but not before he glared, hard, at Sakura, to her bewilderment.

Gaara lost his patience and shoved Sasuke out of the way, the taller boy stumbling back.

Sakura saw Genma rise from his chair slowly, his eyes fixed on Gaara.

Sasuke's mouth flashed into a smirk for a split second, before he shoved Gaara back.

Gaara's face darkened with rage, and his hands clenched into fists again -

"Sasuke!" Sakura intervened, darting between them, her hands outstretched, "Let's go have a chat, yeah?"

Sasuke paused, examining her face. He looked over her shoulder at a thoroughly pissed off Gaara, and smirked.

"Fine." He said, something like triumph flashing in his dark eyes, though he appeared indifferent.

Sakura winced at the look on Gaara's face as she walked away with Sasuke - he was not happy. At all.

Genma sat back down as the tension in the room lessened and Sakura and Sasuke disappeared through the cafeteria door.

Gaara charged forward, fully intending to follow the two of them, when Temari caught his sleeve and shook her head slightly.

"If she still likes that moron, she's welcome to him. If she's just getting him away from you to stop you getting into a fight, then good on her. Either way, let her go with him." Temari said sternly.

Gaara looked away from his sister's serious expression, his jaw clenched in anger.

"Sakura doesn't love Sasuke anymore, don't worry 'bout it, Gaara." Shikamaru said lazily, his anxiety dissipating the moment Sakura took control of the situation.

Gaara closed his eyes. "And what would you know about Sakura, Shikamaru?" He said calmly, despite his twitching, clenched fists.

Shikamaru frowned, confused, "What do you mean? We're friends."

"Friends." Gaara looked down at his fists, "Then why am I so angry?"

Temari looked between her boyfriend and her brother a few times, "Gaara, what's wrong?"

Gaara had turned around, still seething with rage, but had stopped himself from shouting at Shikamaru when he saw Temari's face. He should not infect her with his jealousy. That was all it was, he told himself. Jealousy, a feeling of strong envy towards someone or something. It didn't matter that he could sense something between Sasuke and Sakura whenever they were near each other.

It didn't matter.

"Nothing," Gaara shook his head, swallowing back his anger and his secret fear, "Nothing's wrong."

xxxxxxxx

Sasuke pulled her into the first empty corridor he could find, pressing her against the wall before she had the chance to react.

"You wanted to chat," Sasuke said, his eyes burning down at her in the dark gloom of the hallway, "So chat."

Sakura squirmed furiously, angry with him for manhandling her and angry with herself for not seeing this coming.

She kicked him in his sore leg, right where Lee had gripped him. He swore and moved away from her to clutch his leg.

"I don't know about you, but I find it difficult to chat when I've got someone I hate hanging all over me." Sakura said scathingly.

His face grew colder at the word, 'hate.' He let his leg fall back to the ground when he was sure it was not bruised, and tilted his head, the dark spikes of his hair tucked against his collar.

He was so familiar to her - this boy who had infected her dreams and her heart for four years, with his dark hair and eyes, his pale, expressionless face. It was difficult to believe that it had ended the way it did, with the relationship souring through his deception. Even now, Sakura had trouble getting her head around the concept of Sasuke lying to her like that, using her. Not after she'd fallen in love with him back when he was a serious little boy who had offered her his umbrella.

"Are you really going out with Gaara or is this some sick power trip he's on?" Sasuke asked, his voice low and intense.

"I'm really going out with him. I love him, Sasuke." Sakura replied honestly.

Sasuke's head dropped down a little further until Sakura could actually feel his breath on her cheek. His eyes were shadowed.

"Since when?" He asked, no inflection or colour in his voice to indicate any emotion he might be feeling. He was a closed book. Sakura couldn't read him - he could be angry, amused, upset, and she'd never know.

"We started to go out pretty recently - I guess I'd always loved him, but I only realised it after I hit you and we were talking afterwards - he was being really nice, nicer than usual, and he was cleaning my cuts and, and, I just... I knew." Sakura said, her sentences running into each other in a confused mess as she tried to gather her memories into something that made sense - not the violent hatred blending into tender love, because that didn't make sense to her.

What she felt for Gaara made no sense.

"Are you ever going to forgive me?" Sasuke asked, but it was impatience, not remorse, in his voice.

"Why should I?" Sakura raised one eyebrow disbelievingly. Was he really irritated because she wasn't forgiving him fast enough?

"Do you love him more than you loved me?" Sasuke's face came closer to hers, and she realised he was once again pressing her against the wall, though his touch was gentle now, both hands lightly grasping her elbows, the heat from his fingertips seeping through her sleeves.

Sakura hated herself as her cheeks practically glowed red, blushing furiously.

"Yes." She answered at once, looking into his eyes and seeing her own, red face reflected there. She looked angry, "Now get off."

"You loved me for four years, Sakura. That doesn't just go away."

"Oh, what would you know about it?" Sakura snapped, suddenly losing her temper for real, "Look at you! You never loved me. You've probably never loved anyone. You didn't want me for me, you wanted me to fail for you. So stop acting like you care! Stop threatening Gaara, stop pushing him, stop cornering me, just stop all of it, now."

Sasuke leaned even closer, his eyes on her mouth, "Or what?" He said quietly.

"Or I'll - I'll,"

His breath was mingling with her own.

Sakura chose to solve her current situation nonverbally.

She kneed him between his legs and stepped around him as he crumpled to the floor.

Then she blew on the whistle around her neck.

Eventually Kakashi entered the dark hallway, stopping short at the sight of the downed Uchiha.

"Oh dear." He said, his eyebrows raised, "Did Sasuke have a little accident?"

"Yep," Sakura said, hoping her blush had gone away, "An unfortunate accident in which he somehow managed to knee himself in the -"

"I see, I see. Did he deserve it?" Kakashi asked, idly scratching his cloth-covered chin, looking down at Sasuke, who was writhing on the floor in agony.

Sakura nodded fervently.

Kakashi gave a little chuckle, "The only reason you're getting away with this is because it's funny."

Sasuke made a choked noise of protest from the ground.

Kakashi shushed him cheerfully and helped him up, draping his arm around his shoulder.

He half-turned, Sasuke safely anchored in his grip. When he spoke, his tone was solemn, "You used to work too hard, and you didn't let yourself feel emotion. Now you do, and it's becoming too much for you. Be careful around this one, he seems to know all the buttons he can push to hurt you. I know us teachers might seem like we don't care, but we do."

Sakura could only nod.

Kakashi led Sasuke away.

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Sakura peeked out of the doorway. Snow was falling gently onto the courtyard. The benches had been buried under mounds of snow. The paving stones were iced over, each one covered with an icy sheen, making it too slippery to cross without hauling yourself over whilst clutching the wall.

Even though she was wearing a woolly hat, scarf and gloves, she could feel the cold very easily. It felt as though a frozen hand was stroking down her spine, making her shiver violently.

She cautiously stepped out into the courtyard. It was mostly abandoned, though she could see a few students spending their free period trying to walk across the iced-over fountain.

She shook her head in disapproval, assuming an icy bath would be enough punishment for their stupidity.

Science class was next, and she never seemed to have a enough time to get there before the late bell sounded. Mind you, she'd never get there if she didn't stop lightly sliding across the paving stones and squealing.

She took a step forward carefully, hand reaching out to touch the cold stone wall -

"Sakura-san." A polite voice said loudly behind her, making her jump.

Lee was standing behind her, holding out an umbrella. He looked serious, tall and lean, muscles obvious even through his school uniform. His overly large eyes were grave and his usually carefree expression had been replaced by a sober, humourless look.

The snow fell gently all around them. Sakura noticed just how much taller Lee was than her.

"I don't need an umbrella, thank you." Sakura waved her hand to indicate she didn't mind the snow. She was impatient to get back inside, she was absolutely freezing. At this point, she was fairly certain her toes had turned black and dropped off.

Lee pulled the umbrella back over his head wordlessly, shaking the snow out of his hair.

"I'm sorry, Sakura-san." Lee said, so quietly she had to lean forward to catch it.

"What? What's wrong?" She asked, worried.

"I love you." Lee said earnestly.

Sakura felt her mind go blank. The only thought buzzing about her mind frantically was, 'What?'

She was speechless.

"I know you are with Gaara-san. I have no intention of trying to split you up. I would never wish to hurt you, Sakura-san." Lee's face was shadowed by the umbrella, but Sakura still caught a glimpse of the pain in his eyes.

Don't be so careless. You can hurt people without meaning to, you know.

Neji had warned her.

"I just wanted to tell you. I thought you deserved to know that someone thinks you are the most beautiful girl in the world. To me, you are perfect." Lee said, his eyes shining.

"Thank you for listening." He said with a small smile, "I'll go now."

He turned and walked across the courtyard, not slipping or sliding at all. He reached the doorway to the school and closed his umbrella, shaking the snow off of it.

Sakura saw his face as he entered the school. It was wet.

xxxxxxxx

Gaara shut his front door behind him and closed his eyes. Images of Sasuke and Sakura kept dancing behind his eyelids, like they were burned on his brain. How could he ignore the fact that Sakura used to love Sasuke? It was so obvious, even in the way she looked at him now, with eyes so full of pain and regret... And the way Sasuke looked back at her... Like she was the only person in the world.

Like they were meant to be together.

Gaara was not a romantic person, every romantic gesture he had instigated with Sakura had been carefully discussed with Shikamaru and Temari beforehand, but even he could see that Sakura and Sasuke were well-suited.

He hated this feeling of being on the edge of a cliff, his precarious relationship with Sakura doomed to fall at some point.

"Is that Gaara or a burglar?" Kankuro called from the kitchen, having skipped school, as per usual. Sakura had already warned Gaara that if he tried to skip school again, she would drag him there by the ear.

"It's Temari." Gaara responded dully, dumping his bag on the floor and kicking it moodily.

"Oh, hi, gimme a second, I'm making cookies." Kankuro said cheerfully.

Gaara aimed an incredulous look at the closed kitchen door. Cookies? And they had thought the puppet-making was bad.

The door opened and Kankuro came in, bearing an oven tray of steaming cookies.

Gaara rolled his eyes and took one.

"So, why the angry face, little bro?" Kankuro asked casually, depositing the tray back in the kitchen to cool.

"I'm not angry." Gaara mumbled through a mouthful of perfectly baked cookie.

"Oh yeah? Is that why Temari texted me to tell me that Sakura had gone off with Sasuke?"

Gaara felt his hands begin to clench and forced them to remain relaxed at his sides.

"She did not 'go off' with him. She went to talk to him."

"And that's why you're pissed." Kankuro said, nibbling a bit of cookie dough and giving his younger brother a knowing look.

Gaara didn't bother arguing, just threw himself down upon the settee and hoped Kankuro would leave him to stew in his anger in peace.

He did not.

Kankuro sat himself down next to Gaara, peeling off his oven gloves.

"You need to let the whole Sasuke and Sakura thing go. He ripped her heart out and tried to sell it on eBay. That sort of thing puts girls off guys." Kankuro said wisely.

"So why can he get to her like that? If he didn't mean anything to her, his pathetic attempts to get her attention wouldn't work. But they do." Gaara scowled at the ceiling.

"Listen, I'm not the person you should be talking to. I guess that's Sakura. If it helps, me and Temari totally approve of her. She's scary, but in a nice way." Kankuro shoved Gaara's shoulder affectionately.

"It's a shame our father doesn't feel the same way." Gaara said absently, his eyes still tracing patterns on the ceiling, lost in thought.

"Huh? Why do you care? You're not the one who has to go to business meetings with the old man. That's me. It's dull. I swear, four executives died in the last meeting. Just died, and no one noticed. Or if they did, they didn't care. I could be next." Kankuro said sullenly.

"Stop complaining. I smell burning, by the way." Gaara pointed to the kitchen without looking.

"My Victoria sponge cake!" Kankuro cried, leaping up and running to the kitchen.

Gaara's phoned beeped at him. He glared at it for surprising him, then flipped it open.

Matsuri is calling, the little words on his phone's screen informed him.

He pressed a button and held the phone up to his ear.

"Yes, dear?"

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Sakura got home a little earlier than usual, guilt making her steps quicker than usual. Every step she took she pictured Lee's tear-stained face. She was such a horrible person for not noticing it sooner! Neji had even warned her, glared at her! How much of a fool was she? Couldn't tell when Sasuke didn't love her, couldn't tell when Lee could!

"Sakura?" Her mother called out as she usually did. Her voice sounded strange, high-pitched.

"I'm home." Sakura called back, pushing the door shut and taking her shoes off, tapping them on the welcome mat to dislodge the more stubborn snow that was encrusted upon them after her long walk home. Her toes had officially migrated to warmer climates.

There was a rhythmic thump of heavy feet hitting the ground and the sofa squeaked as someone got off it.

"Hello, kid."

Sakura felt her face tremble and her knees weaken. It couldn't be. Not after all this time...

"Aren't you going to say hello back? Has your mother raised you with no manners? Sakura, at least do me the courtesy of looking at me."

Snow dripped off of Sakura's coat onto the welcome mat.

She lifted her head, painfully slowly.

Her father was standing in the doorway of the living room.

Chapter Text

Her father leant against the doorframe of the living room, completely at ease, looking as though he owned the place. He looked pretty much the same as ever, same dark hair and eyes, slight thinning on top and thickening in the middle, but he was still handsome.

Sakura felt tears automatically come to her eyes at the sight of him. She ducked her head, wiping at her eyes. She breathed in deeply, staring at the floor from between her fingers, hands pressed against her eyes. Then she slowly, methodically, removed all traces of emotion from her face and looked up at her father, expressionless.

What was he doing back here?

Her mother came into the hall, looking flustered. Her cheek was bright red and her hair was a little messed up. She held her arm awkwardly and chewed at her bottom lip, eyes darting between Sakura and her ex-husband.

"Well?" Her father raised his eyebrows, tapping his watch meaningfully, "I haven't seen my little girl for so long and she won't even talk to me?"

But, Sakura wanted to say, you left us, not the other way around.

Her throat closed up, her mouth dry. None of the angry words bubbling up could make it out.

"Sakura's just tired," Her mother immediately came to her defence, "She's Student Body President, you know. She works hard."

"President, huh? That interfere with your grades?" He looked at her closely.

"No, not at all." Sakura managed to whisper.

"Good. Still getting those straight As?"

Sakura nodded.

"My little genius." He said warmly, smiling at last. Sakura could have cried – her father used to call her that all the time and it hurt, surprisingly a lot, to hear it again after four years.

"What're we having for dinner, honey?" He turned to her mother, slipping an arm around her shoulders.

Her mother blinked, "I was planning on making a cheese and potato pie, but…"

"Honey, I don't like cheese. You know that." Her father chastised her, wagging a finger in her face.

Her mother opened her mouth, probably to apologise, but Sakura cut her off.

"What are you doing here?" Sakura said abruptly.

Something had clicked within her, removing the blockage in her throat, setting the angry words free. How dare he come here after all this time?

He frowned, removing his arm from her mother. He spread both arms out wide and walked towards her.

"Haven't you missed me?" He said, his brow furrowed and twisted, his mouth a hard line.

Sakura put her hands on her hips and forced herself to glare right back at him. There was no point shaking and crying – her father had never cared for hysterics.

"No, I haven't. But then again, it has been four years. You didn't call, you didn't reply to the letters I sent you… Why the hell would I miss you?" Sakura said, shaking slightly with rage.

Her mother's mouth dropped open.

"I called you the other day. And is this what your mother has been teaching you? To disrespect your father?" His eyes had hardened, his mouth a thin line of disapproval.

"Oh, wow, one phone call in four years. Father of the year. Do you think you'll win an award? Maybe they'll build a statue in honour of your fantastic, hands-on parenting skills. I mean, no one could possibly overlook the way you abandoned us the moment a scantily-clad woman crossed your line of sight. No one could overlook the way you didn't even want custody of me. No one could overlook the way you celebrated that woman's son's birthdays but not mine. I called your office, and they told me you were on holiday. For six whole months, I tried to call you. You had your chance with me, so don't come back here and act like you have any kind of relationship to me because for the past four years I've done a pretty good job of erasing you from my memory." Sakura regretted the furious speech the moment she finished speaking, as anger flared in her father's eyes.

"Sakura! Don't speak to your –"

"Now listen here," Her father said, his voice lowering and his hands twitching like he wanted to grab her, "You can't blame me for leaving. Your mother and I agreed she pushed me away with her jealousy. Now, I've tried to be the bigger man here. I've come back and I didn't have to. I shouldn't have to put up with this disrespect from my only –"

"Did she leave you?" Sakura interrupted, perceptive as always, picking up on her father's nervous tension, and the way the lines around his mouth tightened whenever he lied, "That woman you took up with? I bet she dropped you on your ass and now you've come crawling back here like we give a shit about some scumbag who didn't even have the imagination to sleep with someone other than his secretary, like the clichéd moron he really is."

Her mother gasped.

Anger rippled over her father's handsome features, "How dare you speak to me like that? How dare you? Cursing in front of your parents like a common piece of –"

"Parent." Sakura corrected him, arms folded protectively around herself, "I can only see one parent in front of me, and that's my mother."

There was a brief moment of silence as her father digested everything Sakura had said, jaw clenched in anger, a vein bulging in his temple. He pressed his fingers against his forehead as though trying to stave off a headache.

Then Sakura's head collided with the wall, her eye exploding with pain, her vision turning white. She stumbled and managed to cling to the coat rack to stop herself falling.

"Sakura!" Her mother shouted.

She opened her one, non-painful eye and glimpsed her mother grabbing hold of her father's arm, fury written all over her face.

Sakura couldn't choke back the sob that bubbled up, tears welling in her eyes, stinging the one that he had struck. She felt numbed shock, clutching the coat rack like a lifeline, stunned. She had never once been hit by her father, never.

"Look what you've made me do," Her father said coldly, sounding frustrated, "Is it any wonder I left when my daughter acts like this?"

"Get out." Her mother said suddenly.

He looked back at her, confused, "Excuse me?"

"I said, get out. Get out of my house now, and if you ever come near my daughter again I will kill you." Her mother spat.

Her father lifted his hand, seemingly automatically.

"Just leave," Sakura sobbed, barely even feeling her mother's arms wrap around her.

He glared at them both, "Well, remember that I gave you both a second chance. Don't expect another."

And with that, he opened the front door and left.

Sakura collapsed, sobbing, her mother hugging her fiercely.

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The park was empty. She sat alone on the swings, feeling the icy plastic seat seep cold through her trousers. She wriggled uncomfortably, her feet kicking off the ground to send her swinging gently in the air.

A few birds flew overhead, cawing softly, feathers glinting in the weak winter sun.

The frosted-over swings were surrounded by icy, stiff grass and a few discoloured slides and seesaws.

The sky was steely grey and gloomy. The weather forecast had threatened even more snow and ice over the weekend, to Sakura's disgust.

She sat on the swing awkwardly, trying to get her phone out of her pocket.

She scrolled through her contacts and stopped at the name of the only person she wanted to see.

Gaara.

She dialled his number and held her phone to her ear, breathing out clouds from the chill in the air, huddling up in her light clothing, trying to keep warm. The wind stung her bare hands and face.

"Sakura?" Gaara answered, sounding distracted.

"Can you come, please?" Sakura said, her voice shaky.

"What?" His concentration sharpened, his voice alert, "What's wrong?"

"I'm in the park near my house. Don't worry, nothing's wrong, I just need to see you."

"I'm on my way." Gaara said curtly, clearly about to hang up –

"I love you." Sakura blurted out before he could cut off the connection.

There was a slight pause and all Sakura could hear was his breathing.

"I love you too." He said slowly, hanging up.

Why did he hesitate? Sakura ran a shaking hand through her hair, her eye still aching. Gaara was still weird about the whole love issue, having been conditioned by his father to think of love as weak, but she'd hoped he'd get over it when they got together. Evidently not.

She brushed her fingers over her eye gently, wincing as pain flared at her soft touch. That would be a black eye for sure.

Her mother had tried to comfort her after her father had left, but Sakura had burst from the house without even grabbing a coat or her gloves, just desperate to get away.

It had never occurred to her that her father might be violent.

When she was young, he was distant, slightly unfriendly and quite strict. She longed for his attention. She used to sit at his feet when he came back from a hard day at work, presenting him with an essay covered in praises from the teachers and a picture she'd drawn to cheer him up. He would discard the picture with a sneer, but always read through the praises the teachers wrote, his frown unfurling until his expression was almost pleased. It was then that his heavy hand would invariably pat her head in approval, her reward for being so clever.

That was her favourite part of the day.

She had always been a daddy's girl.

Her breath hitched, her hand stilling over her eye, tears spilling.

Not anymore.

A car pulled up and Gaara got out, waving the driver off. The car drove away smoothly, the driver not visible through the dark windscreen. She watched his head turn around purposefully, obviously looking for her.

Before she could call out, his gaze landed on her instantly as though she was a magnet his eyes were inadvertently drawn to.

He strode towards her, kicking up snow as he walked, his expression concerned as he got closer.

Sakura inexplicably felt panicked at the sight of him, not wanting him to see her like this. She put a hand over her sore eye to shield it from sight, shivering from the cold.

He broke into a run, reaching her side quickly, putting his arms around her, his body heat warming her up.

"What happened?" He asked, stroking her hair.

She told him quietly, about her father coming home, about her shouting at him, about him hitting her and leaving.

His arms tightened around her, the side of his warm face touching her own, icy cheek comfortingly.

"It's OK," He murmured over and over again, his hands rubbing her back to get her warm, "Don't cry, it's OK."

She nodded, sniffing, wrapping her arms around him right back, wishing her father had never come back.

"I shouldn't have been so rude to him," Sakura said ruefully, "I really pissed him off."

"Hey," Gaara said, his voice suddenly sharp, "Look at me."

She did so, watery green eyes meeting his confusedly. He squeezed her shoulders and looked at her, hard.

"My father hates me," Gaara said without a trace of self-pity or attention-seeking, "I've pissed him off more times than I can remember, my very existence angers him and he has never once hit me. Don't blame yourself. Blame him. I do."

He rubbed his thumb against her eye lightly, wiping away her tears and peering at the damage. To Sakura's surprise, his touch didn't hurt.

He was trying and failing to supress his anger.

"If he ever comes back," Gaara burst out, "Just call me, and I'll take care of him."

Not wanting to know what Gaara considered 'taking care' of someone, Sakura simply dropped her head down onto his shoulder wearily and said, "Thank you."

"There was something I was supposed to do... But seeing you like this just made me realise how much I love you and how angry I would be if you ever got hurt. I could never be the one to hurt you. So I'll need you to do me a favour. My father wants me to attend an event. He does not want me to bring you. But, if you come, it will show him that he can't stop me seeing you." Gaara said seriously.

"He could just have me thrown out," Sakura pointed out with a wry grin, the pain in her eye dying down as Gaara took her hand, rubbing his thumb over her cold skin comfortingly.

"He won't. He won't want to make a scene." Gaara assured her.

"I've not got anything to wear."

"You can borrow one of Temari's dresses."

"This is all rather random, Gaara. Have you planning this? And what were you supposed to do?" Sakura asked suspiciously.

Gaara took a deep breath, "Nothing. It doesn't matter. If you come to this dance with me, then it doesn't matter anymore."

"I do hope you realise you are being irritatingly cryptic." Sakura said, poking him in the chest lightly until he captured her hand and held it close to him, making the butterflies in her stomach stir and flutter, as they so often did around Gaara. Treacherous bloody things.

He laughed, "Am I? Perhaps. Come back to my house, Temari can fuss about what you'll wear, Kankuro will cook something inedible, it will be… fun."

There was an underlying sense of unease to his words, a false cheer injected into his tone in an attempt to fool her. When he said 'fun,' it sounded more like, 'genuinely awful.'

And yet, she smiled. Gaara was not shy in any sense of the word, he was blunt, forthright and fearless. But he was unbelievably awkward when it came to emotional matters, so she decided to look past the fabricated cheerfulness and help him out.

"OK," She said patiently, the hand not trapped in his own brushing over her injured eye almost unconsciously, "But it better be fun."

Gaara gave a twisted grimace that in dimmer lights might have passed for a smile.

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"I'm going to say no to red, green, brown… probably blue. I'd try silver, but… Maybe… no. Not yellow. White? No. Aha!" Temari said finally, triumphantly pulling a dress from her seemingly endless wardrobe. Sakura genuinely feared that the White Witch of Narnia would charge out any minute now. The wardrobe was unnecessarily roomy by her standards, but Temari had filled it with piles and piles of clothes, shelves groaning under the weight of shoes and bags, infinite rows of coat-hangers littering the floor, and beautiful, expensive dresses carelessly flung at the back.

The dress Temari held was no more beautiful or expensive than any of the others she had previously pulled out from the depths of the wardrobe, and yet Sakura's eyes caught on it and stuck there. She wanted it so badly… She had never once desired an item of clothing before, having dismissed obsessions with fashion as ludicrous and somehow shamefully female, but there was something about the cut of the dress, about the flowing material, the subtle glitter, that made her salivate with sartorial longing.

It was simple. Black and long, elegantly flowing to the floor, diamonds (or fiendishly clever imitations) sparkling at the chest, which, for a dress owned by Temari, was oddly tasteful, not displaying the tiniest hint of cleavage in the slightest.

Sakura had once, out of sheer curiosity and mind-numbing boredom, flicked through a fashion magazine.

It had advised to her to ignore Sasuke completely, which she had, stupidly trusting the word of a stranger simply because it was in print (how like her to take solace in books, and to try to live through their words…) but it had also told her something else.

Arms, cleavage or legs, the writer had advised – show one, but never more. This dress covered both legs and chest, but the sleeves were glittery and see-through, the only thing saving it from being a frumpy mess.

It was stylish and chic. Sakura bit her lip and looked up at Temari hopefully.

"Yep," Temari said, one eye closed as she studied Sakura, thumbs and fingers in a frame as though taking a picture, "This is it. Now, for hair and makeup."

Sakura groaned.

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Shikamaru lay on the sofa, sprawled out casually as though he owned it.

Which he didn't, Gaara thought to himself, irritated. How very like Shikamaru, to take something for his own and act like it had always been his. That was just not right… it was stealing, that was what it was. Shikamaru smoothed his hands over a cushion thoughtfully, probably miles away solving cryptic crosswords in his head, but it was enough to make Gaara bare his teeth.

Shikamaru did not own the sofa. He could claim no rights upon any of Gaara's furniture. In fact, Gaara truly had no idea why the other boy was even here, in Gaara's house, sitting on Gaara's sofa so casually.

Gaara felt a headache approaching. Could it be – was he actually getting possessive over a sofa?

He was well aware that it was not the sofa Gaara felt possessive over, though he had been getting better at ignoring the direction his thoughts often took these days. Jealousy was a truly idiotic burden. It was purely instinctive, Gaara rationalised, he viewed Sakura as something precious that had been difficult to obtain, it was only natural that he, when challenged by another able-bodied male, would…

Fine.

He was jealous.

Insanely, deeply, to-the-bone jealous.

Gaara chose that particular moment to stop lurking in the doorway and stepped into the living room purposefully. He wore a sharp, perfectly tailored suit that made him look every inch the dangerous, yet cultured predator.

Shikamaru didn't even look up, lost in thought.

It made it easier for Gaara to sneak up on him.

Shikamaru was so lost in thought, in fact, that he didn't even blink when Gaara knelt down in front of him and met his gaze.

"Shikamaru." Gaara said, his voice coming out sharper than intended.

"Hmm?" Shikamaru was making wiggling motions with his fingers, probably rearranging some mathematical formulae in his mind.

"Check your phone." Gaara commanded.

Upon receiving a genuine order, Shikamaru came back to earth with a frown. He lay back upon realising how close Gaara was. "What did you say?"

"Why do you even have a phone?" Gaara grumbled, "You never use it or read your texts or answer your calls…"

Shikamaru blinked lethargically, bags under his eyes. He was visibly resisting the urge to yawn. He dug a clumsy hand into his pocket and retrieved his phone.

It was round about the size of an overly large brick, and just as pretty.

Shikamaru switched it on and peered at the screen. "Huh, I have a missed call from you." Shikamaru said, surprised.

When he wasn't looking, Gaara made a split-second exaggerated expression of shock, widening his eyes comically. "Imagine that," He said dryly, "I would never have known."

Shikamaru glanced at him, but his face had reverted to its usual impassive self, the very picture of innocence.

Shikamaru pressed a button and held the phone to his ear, listening intently.

As he listened to Gaara's message, his face grew paler and paler. Gaara's eyes had hardened by this point.

"What – what the, Gaara, what is this?" Shikamaru demanded, shaking his phone dramatically.

"I'm new at dealing with relationship problems," Gaara said slowly, "But you know me. I dislike losing. I dislike having people encroach upon my business. Can you swear to me now, with total honesty, that you retain no romantic feelings for Sakura?"

Shikamaru stared at him, his dark eyes unreadable. People often underestimated him, thinking he was just a scruffy, lazy teenager, when in actual fact there was a brilliant mind lurking behind those enigmatic eyes. Gaara was practically being complimentary, verbally confirming he considered him a threat.

"Sakura is my friend." Shikamaru said carefully, drawing out every word, fearful of saying something inflammatory and angering his friend. Talking with Gaara when he was like this was always littered with verbal landmines, "I don't think of her as more or less than that."

Gaara stared him down for a full minute, his pale eyes flickering over his guileless face, trying to detect a hint of deception in those lazy features.

"Good," He said finally, a touch of apology in his tone, "Feel free to delete that message. It is no longer valid."

"No way, I'm gonna use it as an alarm clock." Shikamaru grinned, "Something that scary is bound to get me out of bed quicker."

Resisting the urge to quip, 'Does my sister not serve that purpose?' because it would genuinely horrify him to verbalise, Gaara merely offered a strained smile. Being around Sakura too much meant that he continually suffered from thinking up tasteless jokes. A rather bad habit, in his opinion.

He was still fuming about Sakura's violent, idiotic, morally reprehensible father. It had taken every ounce of his willpower not to pick up the phone, dial a number and choose the way Mr Haruno would meet his untimely end. Sakura's reaction was the only thing that had stopped him. Well, that and the fact that the only hitman he knew was a rather disagreeable fellow, whom Gaara disliked greatly.

The moment he turned away to peer upstairs and wonder what was taking Sakura so long, Shikamaru heaved a sigh of relief.

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Sakura spread her hands over her hips and turned around to examine her back in the mirror.

Temari truly was a miracle worker.

Despite their differences in size and height, the dress fitted Sakura like a glove, furthering her certainty that it was her sartorial soulmate.

Her hair was softly curled, almost hanging in ringlets, sparkling from the glittery hairspray Temari had teased it into shape with. Silver hairclips held her fringe away from her face. Her eyes were thickly lined, smoky grey eyeshadow painted across her eyelids, her eyelashes coated in mascara, making her eyes look huge. Concealer, foundation, blush… Temari had painted and smoothed so many different products upon her skin that Sakura had feared she would end up multi-coloured. She needn't have worried, however, because all that had happened was every blemish had been hidden and her pale skin had been replaced with a healthy, golden glow. Her lips had been smeared with very pale pink lipstick with a hint of gloss to make them shine.

Temari had been furious when Sakura had shown up with a blossoming black eye, but had kindly covered it up for her.

Sakura held the dress' skirts in both hands, lifting it up and twirling around gleefully, not caring that she looked a fool.

"I am good." Temari whistled admiringly, examining her own handy work.

"Thank you!" Sakura nearly squealed in delight. She had never once felt this beautiful.

Temari laughed, pushing the other girl lightly in the direction of the door, "Don't worry, I'll take my payment in the look on Gaara's face when he sees you. Wait! Let me get my camera."

Sakura slowly walked down the stairs, cursing the spiky heels on her shoes, lifting the hem of her dress up.

Shikamaru saw her first. His eyes widened to the extent of actually looking rather painful, his mouth gaping open.

"Holy…" He said in an awed voice, gazing at her.

Gaara, in his smart suit, his red hair slicked back, adjusting his diamond cuffs, turned to look.

It was not shock, as far Sakura could see, on his face. Some deep emotion was clearly at work, leaving him thoroughly speechless, a vacant smile appearing, his cheeks flushing with colour.

Snap!

Temari, grinning like a maniac, took a picture of Gaara's smiling face.

"That one's a keeper." She waved the camera at him tauntingly, drooping with disappointment as she realised he didn't care one bit that she had taken his picture, still just staring at Sakura as though her face was new to him and he wanted to memorise every inch.

"Right…" Sakura raised her pale eyebrows, hiding a smirk behind her hand, "Shall we be off, then?"

Gaara nodded numbly, offering his arm like a true gentleman.

Chapter Text

The Kazekage sat at the head table. His suit was black and looked to be more expensive than Sakura's entire house. He looked down at them both, his hands in a thoughtful steeple, his face utterly expressionless.

There was a girl sitting next to him, who had short brown hair and tanned skin. She sat as though uncomfortable in her own skin, her dress loose and baggy, her face plain and without makeup. Despite this, Sakura could see her good upbringing in the neat way her ankles crossed, her straight back and raised chin. She stared down at Gaara and Sakura, her face confused and slightly hurt.

"My son," The Kazekage said loudly, spreading his hands across in a sweeping, grand gesture. His tone wasn't mocking, yet the people surrounding them laughed, "How good of you to grace us with your presence."

"It was no difficulty, Father," Gaara said, unaffected by the laughter all around him. Sakura held his hand in hers, and looked around. The people standing near them looked amused or hostile, "I had nothing planned for this evening."

"What a lovely companion you have brought with you." The Kazekage said, with a cold, tight smile. His eyes landed on Sakura, who flinched at the hard glare, "Though I do not recall granting you permission to bring someone with you."

"I saw the guest list, Father, and believed it was sorely lacking." Gaara shrugged. There was muttering from that, the guests finding themselves on the other end of mockery and not liking it one bit.

To Sakura's surprise, the Kazekage merely laughed, "Well, it is not my guest list. But still, Toru, I wonder if my son has offended you?"

The man sitting next to the Kazekage raised his eyebrows and waved a hand drunkenly, "It is more Matsuri's party than my own."

Matsuri? Sakura frowned. Where had she heard that name before?

"I am not offended." The girl next to the Kazekage said quietly.

The Kazekage sipped his wine, eyes on Gaara, "Good," He said after draining the whole glass, "I am sure the last thing my son wants is to offend you, my dear. Isn't that right, son?"

He and Gaara stared at each other, some power struggle clearly taking place.

Gaara eventually snorted and jerked his head upwards in an affirmative gesture.

"Gaara, what's going on?" Sakura muttered, squeezing his hand.

Matsuri bit her lip, fiddling with a napkin. Gaara's eyes tracked the movements. He pulled his hand out of Sakura's and smoothed his hair back.

"I won't be a minute," He murmured, "Just going to talk with my father."

Sakura's hand was left empty and slightly outstretched. She placed it at her side, feeling foolish and hurt.

Gaara put his hands in his pockets and strode off into the crowd, but not before glancing at his father meaningfully. The Kazekage smirked and excused himself, getting up to follow his son.

Sakura was left alone in a crowd of smartly dressed strangers, each one of them examining her with undisguised curiosity or disdain. A waiter stopped at her side and offered her a plate of something slimy and black. Her stomach churning, she declined politely.

How could Gaara just leave her alone with these people?

Noticing a fair few people watching her still, she huffed and smoothed down her dress. Morons. Her hair was frizzing up, to her annoyance, so she checked in her bag. Yep, the smoothing hair spray was packed, along with quite a few items she most certainly would not need, no thank you Temari.

She pursed her lips and scanned the room. There. A bathroom, thank God.

Pushing her way through the crowd of faceless morons, she was glad to see there was no queue to the bathroom, so she slipped in gratefully, ignoring the expensive wallpaper and super-soft carpeting. After walking through Daddy-Gaara's tower of terror, no amount of luxurious bathrooms could impress her.

She set her bag down on the sink and peered in the mirror. Oh dear. She was a bit wild-eyed, probably due to the intense weirdness that was this evening, and two spots of colour had risen in her cheeks. Joy. She looked drunk.

She fished in her bag for the hairspray, when a gentle hand caught her elbow to get her attention.

She started, looking up into the mirror.

"Hello," Matsuri said, tucking her hair behind her ear nervously. She went a bit red as Sakura stared at her, releasing her light grip on the other girl's arm instantly, "I am Sakamoto Matsuri. It is a pleasure to meet you."

"Um, likewise," Sakura said, wincing at her rusty manners. She really ought to polish them up sometime.

"I understand that you and G-Gaara-san are attending together?" Matsuri said, obviously fishing for information. Ooh, and the stutter on Gaara's name. That was interesting.

"Yeah, er, I mean yes, we're going out. Seeing each other. Courting?" Sakura tried out as Matsuri's face grew increasingly confused.

"You are his girlfriend?" She breathed out, forehead twisted in a frown.

"Yes." Sakura said, suddenly suspicious, looking the girl up and down. What was her interest in Gaara's personal relationships?

"But you can't be!" Matsuri blurted out, looking horrified.

Sakura did a mock double-take, "Wait a minute, I can't? Damn, I had no idea."

Her mocking words were clearly the last straw. Matsuri struggled to contain herself, her eyes growing bright with tears.

"You can't be," She said in a low voice, sniffing, "Because he's my fiancé!"

The can of hairspray tipped from her nerveless fingers, rolling off the sink and hitting the floor with a dull thunk. Sakura shook her head automatically.

"B-but, he's –" Sakura started to protest, cut off by Matsuri's hand being shoved in her face. A glittering engagement ring sat smugly on her polished finger.

"This is our engagement party, and he has the nerve to bring a date!" Matsuri spat, waving her ringed finger about to punctuate her remark.

"What." Sakura couldn't think. For the first time in so long, her mind had ground to a halt. Matsuri. She had heard that name before. The only sentence, the only tiny semblance of intelligent thought in her shell-shocked mind, was: Matsuri's family owns a weapons company.

Gaara's father had told her recently that his son would marry an upper-class girl, hopefully a wealthy heiress, hopefully someone named Matsuri.

It was like a knife digging slowly into her chest, the pained realisation, the complete horror, shock and ache of it.

Unbelievably, Gaara had been using her. She could see it now. It made sense. Why had he been so reluctant to commit to a relationship? Because he was already in one.

But there was a snag to the latest conspiracy theory.

She glared at Matsuri, who looked taken aback at the violent, angry stare.

"Do Temari and Kankuro know about this?" Sakura demanded. If it was true, if they had even the slightest suspicion of it, they would have told her. They just would have.

"I am not sure," Matsuri said carefully, "I do not believe I have ever had the pleasure of meeting them."

"How could they not know their little brother was getting married?" Sakura said disbelievingly.

Matsuri shifted, pulling awkwardly at her sleeve, "Their father is a very clever man." She said simply.

"Then perhaps I should be talking to him instead of you," Sakura said acidly. She regretted the harsh tone she had used as Matsuri's face crumpled. This was a girl who was used to being trodden on and used.

"I'm sorry, I just – I just don't understand what's going on." Sakura admitted.

"Isn't it obvious?" Matsuri said bitterly, "He's cheating on both of us. He's made fools of us both."

"I think I'm going to have a little chat with him." Sakura said, with a vicious twist to her smirk. She still didn't believe this. She couldn't believe it. Matsuri was mad, drunk or simply making it up. Gaara, who had been so very angry when Sasuke had stomped on her heart, would never, ever betray her like this.

"Oh, no, don't do that –" Matsuri began, her eyes wide with alarm. Sakura ignored her and walked out of the bathroom, not caring that her hairspray was still on the floor and consequently her hair looked like a pile of shite.

She was going to find Gaara, question him thoroughly (potentially beating him within an inch of his life, should it prove necessary), find out his reasons and then the matter would be settled. And Matsuri and Gaara's father could slither off to whatever dark corner they had crawled from to plot in peace.

There he was. Gaara sat at a table with a few strangers sitting all around him, looking about the room impatiently. The sight of him still took her breath away. The cheekbones, the pale skin, even the rebellious eyeliner he'd refused to part with despite the extravagant occasion, the shock of red hair, the curling tattoo; they were all the things she loved about him.

He spotted her and made an impatient gesture, waving a hand over.

She sat down next to him. He immediately clutched her hand, pulling it into his lap, stroking her palm with his thumb. Anyone watching would assume he was trying to comfort her, but she could tell from the wired movements of his hands and the nervous tension bunched up in his muscles that he was attempting to derive comfort from her instead. Whatever his father had said, it had freaked him out.

"Gaara," She said softly, as though speaking to a spooked wild animal, "I've just been talking to –"

"We are here," Gaara's father interrupted her, speaking into a microphone, addressing the whole party. They turned to watch, most of them looking curious. Gaara stiffened, shooting her an agonised glance, "To celebrate a very special occasion."

"Sakura, come on, let's go," Gaara said hastily, getting to his feet and trying to pull her up with him.

"My good friend Matsumoto Toru has graciously just acquiesced to the engagement of my son and his daughter, Matsuri." The Kazekage said, gesturing to the man at his right, who offered a mock-bow in response. Matsuri stood near the head table, eyes on Sakura, white as a sheet.

The party guest clapped and cheered at the news, a few approaching to pat Gaara on the back, but he only had eyes for her.

"Sakura," Gaara said, horrified, "I'm so sorry –"

"That's fine." Sakura said sweetly, "You should have let me know sooner! I would have bought you an engagement present! Now look at me," She laughed, the guest milling around her, the room still filled with the sound of raucous clapping, "Look at how stupid I look!"

And then, ever her mother's daughter, she turned on her heel and casually walked away. Her mother had always been able to bounce back from the blows life dealt her, always able to appear cheerful and just fine, even when everything around her was not fine at all.

Sakura's shoes were hurting. Temari's feet must be tiny, she thought dimly, pushing past a large woman, struggling to get through the crowd.

It occurred to her that she should be upset, but the only thing that seemed important in that one moment was maintaining that painful, fixed smile as she pushed her way through drunken men, streamers and balloons floating eerily around her, the room descending into silence. She could hear nothing but the roaring in her ears and her heart stamping out a beat in her chest.

A middle-aged man with a pale pink smear of lipstick on his cheek winked at her. He was dancing with a woman who was obviously his wife, dowdy and older than him by at least a decade. Her lipstick was dark red. She smelt of spice, he smelt, rather alarmingly, of lilies.

The knife had gone in neatly. Gaara's aim was true. He could not have broken her any more thoroughly or publicly.

She turned around just as the first tear slid down her cheek, and saw Gaara through the crowds of people, through the endless streamers and balloons, through the cruel smirk on the Kazekage's face and the horror on Matsuri's. She saw him clearly, frozen; staring at her, obviously wanting nothing more than to go to her side, but his father had his shoulder in a steely grip.

And that was it, Sakura thought numbly, that was the end of the Student Body President and the delinquent. What a short-lived mistake that had been.

She broke through the noise of the party, reaching the hall. A man in a white suit with tails was instantly at her side.

"Madam, if you would just wait here a moment, Kazekage-san wishes to speak with you." The man said earnestly, presenting her with a tissue so subtly and quickly she was almost certain she had merely conjured the tissue up herself.

"Thank you for the tissue," Sakura said politely, inwardly impressed at her ability to retain basic manners despite her inner turmoil, "But can you tell him to fuck off, please?"

There was a low chuckle at her shoulder, and the noise of the party disappeared as quickly as it had appeared as the door opened and closed.

"No need," The Kazekage said, clearly amused, "I'm here now."

xxxxxxxx

He had been good enough to allow her to wash off the smeared mascara, so she came out of the bathroom in his office newly fresh-faced yet still irritable.

"So," Sakura spat, crossing her arms, "What do you want?"

The Kazekage was sitting at his desk once more, frowning over some papers. He was obviously a workaholic, he hadn't even loosened his tie or unbuttoned his collar, despite the stifling heat of the room.

"Miss Haruno," He said, smiling, "I am aware that, as a sixteen year old girl, you have been living with a very black and white set of morals, as children so often do. You believe that everything should be obtained by good deeds, moralistic behaviour, and so forth. I do not believe that. You seem to believe that my son and I have a poor relationship. This is not so. I only want what is best for him. I have already judged you and found you unworthy of him. Matsuri, however, is perfectly suita –"

"Money," Sakura interrupted him, walking over to his desk and glaring right into his stupid, smug face, "Matsuri has money. She is a rich little heiress. She is also, conveniently enough, a frightened little mouse of a girl, someone who can be moulded into something you deem," She sneered, "Worthy. I am not rich. I am not someone who can be changed or manipulated. I am not stupid, or childish. I operate on a strict set of morals that set me apart from you, not because of their childish nature, but because doing good deeds for the sake of doing them makes you good. It is that simple, Kazekage-san. And please, in the future, if you ever want to speak with me again, can you try to use a less patronising tone and at least attempt to remove the stick buried a foot deep in your arse?"

"I was not finished, Miss Haruno," He said, baring his teeth in a parody of a smile, "Before you ask, yes, my son is indeed betrothed to Matsuri. But consider this. Kankuro has been going to many meetings lately, has he not? This is because I have named him my heir. Don't look so surprised. I never once considered my youngest child capable of running my company, and Temari has no interest in it. But I knew my youngest son could still provide a service to his family's company. My friend Toru's daughter was interested in my son. I knew the marriage would prove useful in the future, so I set about convincing my son to cooperate. But by this point, you had entered the picture."

Sakura didn't see where this was going, she was currently nursing a headache and an expertly shattered heart, and wanted nothing more than to go home and cry in her mother's arms.

"I asked my son to do me a favour. Toru promised me a great deal of money if Matsuri would confirm the marriage would take place. Matsuri agreed to do this on the day of her engagement party. My son had been buttering her up; convincing her he would marry her. But then, he showed up with you on his arm. Though I don't understand her motives, Matsuri still agreed to the marriage even after you stumbled in here in your borrowed dress and two-sizes too small shoes. I took my son aside and told him to dump you publicly in the middle of the party, thereby effectively removing you and assuring Matsuri of my son's fidelity. He attempted to refuse. I reminded him that Kankuro was so looking forward to taking over my company, but I could just as easily leave him a pencil sharpener and an office desk. I intended to destroy my company, unless my son would go through with it. If he did not, Kankuro would be left with nothing."

Sakura's jaw tightened with rage, "You twisted…" She breathed, furious, "You blackmailed one of your sons into marrying a girl by threatening to destroy the future of your other son?"

"No," The Kazekage smiled, "That's the beauty of it. My son will not marry Matsuri. Toru kindly enough transferred the marriage funds into my account personally today the moment Matsuri confirmed the engagement. He was, thankfully, incredibly drunk at the time, so he was quite open to suggestions that I should receive money there and then for my efforts. Just before you made your dramatic exeunt, I informed Toru that I was afraid my son was in love with someone else and therefore could not possibly go through with the engagement. He was, oddly enough, rather upset, and demanded the money back. When I refused, he told me the police would consider this a rather interesting case. I replied that yes, I believed they would too, given that he had attempted to sell his daughter to myson. I do not believe he was aware that that is considered slavery and is thus very illegal. Do you now see the beauty of it? Should the plan have succeeded, I would have gained quite a bit of money, and an obedient, wealthy daughter-in-law. The only drawback to this plan would have been earning my son's hatred. However, I am quite willing to bear the burden of his enmity, so long as he is happy."

"Do you really expect me to believe that you did all of this for Gaara's happiness?" Sakura said disbelievingly, "Do you think me a fool?"

"No," He said musingly, "You are not a fool. Disappointingly enough, I had your family tree checked out and there is no trace of aristocracy or influential ancestors amongst the drooping branches of your family members. The softness of your facial features and the height problem makes it evident that you do not come from noble stock. However, when looking into possible future family members, I do not simply browse by ancestry. I am also interested in intelligence. Though I am told you often let your heart rule your head, there can be no questioning that you are an incredibly intelligent young woman. Intelligence is something our family prides itself on, Sakura-san, may I call you Sakura-san? No? Miss Haruno. Did you really think that, given the choice between having you or Matsuri as a daughter-in-law, I would choose the shrill, needy harpy, who has the equivalent intelligence of a slug?"

"I don't think," Sakura said carefully, because if she didn't rein her anger in then Daddy-Gaara was going to be a bloody smear on the ground, "you have any right to choose the spouses of your children."

He looked almost startled for a second, before smirking once more, "Who do you think steered Temari towards that delightfully intelligent Shikamaru? Who enrolled her in that fighting tournament? Who fixed it so she would be fighting the most intelligent contestant? I did. Admittedly Kankuro has proved difficult, but I am confident I will –"

"You horrible, manipulative little man." Sakura said suddenly, cutting into his smug speech, "How dare you? How dare you interfere with their lives like this? With mine? Whether or not you intended to help Gaara out by giving him a good wife, money still changed hands. You cannot sit there in your five thousand pound upholstered chair, and tell me you didn't do it for the money."

He laughed again, "Oh dear, Miss Haruno. How you have misjudged me. I spoke before, of the moral dilemmas adults face. Of course the money factored into it, but it was merely a perk. I have only ever been concerned with my children's happiness. Unlike you, I do not still believe that you can only do good deed through moralistic means. I manipulated, blackmailed and cheated, but the end result is the same, Kankuro is still the heir to a financially successful company, my son does not have to marry Matsuri, and you are now certain that your boyfriend is completely loyal to you."

"And you got a big fat payment for your troubles," Sakura said cuttingly, "And by the way? Your youngest son's name is Gaara. You have not once said his name in front of me, though you appear to not suffer the same problem when it comes to Temari and Kankuro. You have pictures of Kankuro and Temari, and a woman I assume is their mother, but the pictures of them all together end, I'd say roughly, about the year Gaara was born. You have statues of their mother in your lobby, meaning you still harbour feelings of sentiment and affection for her. You found Temari a suitable boyfriend without causing her emotional pain. You gifted Kankuro with your company. You have no pictures of Gaara," Sakura waved a hand at the walls of his office. He was beginning to look angry, "And you have caused him suffering for no apparent reason, save for the monetary gain, of course. Seeing as the pictures end at around about the time Gaara was born, though you have up-to-date pictures of your other children, I would say that the event of Gaara's birth caused you great pain, or at least, more probably, resentment. Gaara has already informed me his mother is dead. I can only assume, Kazekage-sama, that your wife died giving birth to Gaara, and that you have been punishing him for it since the day he was born. Well, here's what I have to say to that. No more. He does not deserve the punishment you have been giving him and I will not allow it to continue."

"Let's say I agree with you, and that I do resent my son for being the reason my wife is no longer with us, how on earth would you prevent me from punishing him?" The Kazekage asked, though he no longer looked angry now. He looked weary.

"With great ease." Sakura raised an eyebrow, "I might be from a common background," She emphasised the words with a scoff, "But I know a thing or two about causing another pain. For instance, I can inform you that your mistress is indeed cheating on you. The lipstick on your shirt collar matches that of a similar stain on one of your party guest's cheek. Not only that, but the present you gave her," She pointed at the empty perfume box half-hidden in the bin, "Is not simply covering her, it is also covering him. I recognise the scent, of course, a rather heady scent of lilies, an unfortunate choice given their association with death, but I'm sure you were simply mocking your mistress more subtly than most. I could tell you whom she is sleeping with, but that would only benefit you now, wouldn't it?"

Unbelievably, he was smiling now, genuinely amused. Oh, how annoying.

"Fair enough." He held his hands up, grinning, "You have proved that you can obtain information on me from the contents of my bin, and that you could use it against me. Most interesting. But you got one thing wrong, Miss Haruno. I cannot say my youngest son's name; because it is a hateful name his dying mother cursed him with. Ever since her death I have been distanced from my children, because I knew I could never be a good father. You have reacted unexpectedly, Miss Haruno. I assumed you would be pleased to find out that Gaara never wanted to marry Matsuri, but instead you grew angry at me. Please understand," He said, his tone suddenly beseeching, his face looking disconcertingly like his youngest son's, "I truly did what I thought was best tonight."

"Yes, well," Sakura paused, baffled by the Kazekage's sudden change in demeanour, "I won't stand for being manipulated again."

"Miss Haruno?" He called as she went to leave, "I meant what I said earlier. I believe you will make a tremendous daughter-in-law."

Sakura coughed, embarrassed. She finally replied, "You can call me Sakura-san, if you like."

"Excellent." He said sincerely. After a brief pause he looked up again and stressed, "You will still have to call me Kazekage-sama."

"Right, thanks Daddy-Gaara." She said loudly, leaving his office with a dramatic door slam just for him.

The Kazekage smiled and examined his papers.

Haruno Sakura, sixteen years old, no health issues, average weight, slightly below average height, above average intelligence, excellent letters of recommendation, including an interesting report that detailed that Sakura despised Uchiha Sasuke, the son of the Kazekage's own hated rival. So she was highly intelligent, courageous to boot and to top it all off, she hated the Uchihas. All in all, the perfect choice for his son's – Gaara's – wife.

Chapter Text

Sakura walked through the entrance of the school, fastening her glittery sash more tightly, her whistle already around her neck. Daddy-Gaara had apparently arranged for her to have her own limo and chauffeur (perhaps an apology for last night?), but she had politely told the driver she would walk and had no real need for a limo. He'd called Gaara's father even before she'd started to walk away, so she assumed she'd get a lecture from him later on.

She was a girl on a mission. She knew she'd have to see Gaara eventually, and deal with that little disaster then, but for now she had work to do.

It was an hour before the first bell was due to ring for classes, so Sakura had enough time to walk casually in the halls, looking around. There were not many students there yet, just the over-eager nerds like her who wanted to spend an hour in the library before class. The school itself was richly decorated, all gleaming floor tiles and tasteful wallpaper, so much so that Sakura, aged eleven, had felt overwhelmed by the obvious wealth that the school had, the very best teachers taught there, the most important people in the country had children there and the headteacher was rich beyond belief, having come from a very affluent family.

She stopped outside Tsunade's office and knocked on the door.

"Come in." The older woman called.

Steeling herself, Sakura entered the room. She'd met Tsunade once or twice, mostly at student council meetings or award ceremonies, but she'd never really spoken more than two words to her.

The headteacher herself sat at her desk, sipping coffee whilst going through some papers.

"Good morning, Tsunade-sama." Sakura said politely with a bow.

The woman looked up, hazel eyes narrowing as she took in the glittery sash and whistle.

"You must be the girl that kicked up a fuss over the Sabaku brat." Tsunade said with a half-grin. She gestured for Sakura to take a seat.

"Anything wrong?" Tsunade asked, tilting her head.

"Yes, miss, I am very sorry that it's come to this but I believe this has been going on for too long. The scholarship students are treated normally, equally, and are punished for wrong-doing, but the students whose parents can afford to bribe the school can do whatever they like. I, as a scholarship student who knows a lot about the school's policies, do not believe it is a fair system. A school can't operate on unfair, unbalanced rules. I think the school would benefit from following my example and treating students equally, even in punishment." Sakura said stiffly, aware that she had come off as rather posh and uptight, but as she began her diatribe, she had felt all of the old indignation sweep through her again.

"How revolutionary of you." The Headteacher said, her smile growing enigmatic, "So, you want us to give out detentions equally to all students that misbehave?"

Sakura nodded.

"What makes you think we don't punish the rich students?" Tsunade drawled.

"Well, I've looked at the detention records for the past –"

"This isn't about detention, Sakura." Tsunade interrupted her, "We teachers figured out a long time ago that detention did nothing to the rich students. This school is one of the best in the country. The Kazekage's son is here. The Uchihas send their children here. Every influential family has a child here. That makes this school a stepping stone for the children, a mere pause in their lives before they go on to take over the family business. They have no need for spotless academic records, no need for low detention levels, because they aren't aiming to get into college. So, how do we punish them? That was what had concerned me and was what my predecessor, Sarutobi-sensei, struggled with. I realised what we needed to do years back. These kids feed off the relationships they cultivate here with other young heirs, and their reputations mean everything to them. So, if word got out that one of the misbehaving students was untrustworthy…? They'd lose whatever precious connections they'd made. It is known, off the record, that if a student misbehaves in this school, they will be punished according to what would actually be a deterrent for future misconduct. Scholarship students need clean records to get into college, the heirs need good reputations to have good businesses."

Sakura had listened to the woman speak, her lip curling in distaste. "So, you spread rumours about the students to punish them…? How… childish. I fail to see how that works, considering the rich students do whatever they want despite your staff-based game of negative Chinese whispers."

Tsunade shrugged, "It works. Don't ask me how or why, but if we didn't punish them somehow, don't you think the school would have descended into chaos by now?"

Sakura had to begrudgingly admit the older woman had a point. Had they not been doing something right, the rich students would be running completely wild by now, and they weren't. Perhaps Sakura merely underestimated the student's value of reputation.

She wondered what had been whispered about Sasuke when he got into fights with Gaara, and if Kakashi had punished him for breaking her heart.

xxxxxxxx

To her amusement, Shikamaru was exactly where she expected he'd be, smoking on the roof as he did every day.

She sat down beside him and watched the clouds curling around each other for a while, trying not to breathe in Shikamaru's exhaled smoke.

They sat in companionable silence. The sun, despite the wintry season, had broken through the clouds and was warming up Sakura's face nicely as she gazed up into the sky. Shikamaru wordlessly inhaled the smoke and puffed out a few smoke rings that flitted across her vision.

Finally, Shikamaru sighed and put out his cigarette, stubbing it on the roof, "What's up, Sakura?"

"Just a few things." Sakura answered, "Will you tell me what Gaara's afraid of that he inspires?"

Shikamaru gave a ragged chuckle, "You are persistent. You wait all this time and start dating the guy just to get a slice of information? But, I see it like this. When you're a lazy, useless kind of guy, and you do nothing but sleep in class, people stop seeming mysterious or hard to figure out. You look at them like a puzzle, and you work out how to solve them. With Gaara, I knew when I first met him. A guy like that, full of anger, just pissed off at the world for no good reason, isn't hard to work out. Gaara's lonely. Well, he was. He was brought into the world killing the woman who gave him life. That screwed him up a bit, and he was already an outcast in his family, since his dad and his siblings all knew his mother and loved her, and he felt guilty for taking her away. His dad wasn't the type of parent who encourages you to show emotion, so he taught Gaara – indirectly, of course – to be ashamed of his feelings, and he even told him love is weak. So Gaara makes himself stronger by hiding everything he feels. Putting on a tough-guy face, making out that he's violent and unstable, making everyone fear him. But that's it. That's all. The key to Gaara's fear is inspiring fear in others. He's terrified of being a monster, thinks he'll end up like his sad, angry father, and though he can't stop himself acting like a bad guy to make people afraid of him, he hates himself knowing that other people think he's the monster he's terrified of becoming."

Sakura lay back, staring up at the blue, blue sky, musing on the information she'd been given.

"If you'd have told me that, I would have felt sorry for him and ended the war." Sakura said, only the slightest touch of suspicion in her voice.

"Which is exactly what Gaara didn't want." Shikamaru countered.

Sakura grumbled a bit at that, but could understand Shikamaru's motives. He knew the war was important to Gaara – to his stupid pride and his desire to get Sakura's attention – so he didn't push her into surrendering. Understandable, but, after what the war put her through, Sakura was still slightly annoyed.

A particularly fluffy cloud drifted by that Shikamaru seemed fascinated with, so he was unprepared for Sakura asking him, "Do you love me?"

Shikamaru coughed and spluttered, pushing himself into a sitting position so he could stare at her, aghast, "Who told you that?"

"No one, genius. I don't think you love me, but Gaara does. It's pissing him off, so you need to let him know he's wrong."

Shikamaru was silent. He gave a self-deprecating chuckle, "Oh, you don't know anything about me, do you? Why do you think I picked you over Ino? I loved you. I thought the sun shone out of your bloody arse, OK? But then I met Temari and I liked her a lot and I guess… I just stopped loving you."

Sakura was speechless. How did you respond to an impromptu love confession from one of your closest friends?

She blushed and shook her head, embarrassed. She stood up and roughly tugged the cigarette pack from his hand.

"No more of these!" She declared, waving the pack to emphasise her words, "As your President, I demand you give up smoking! It is a filthy habit, likely to shorten your lifespan!"

Shikamaru rolled his eyes at her outburst, but let a lazy smirk spread across his face.

"You're one of my best friends," Sakura said almost tearfully, "I'm sorry I didn't feel the same way about you back when you liked me, but I'm glad we're still friends."

"Alright, don't get mushy on me." Shikamaru grinned, rubbing the back of his head self-consciously.

He stood up and shifted on the spot, eyes still on the sky.

"Awkward friend hug?" Sakura suggested.

"Awkward friend hug." Shikamaru agreed.

They did just that, under the cloud-filled blue sky, just before Sakura ceremonially set Shikamaru's cigarette pack alight.

And then promptly panicked, muttering about fire hazards and doused the pack with Shikamaru's bottled water.

xxxxxxxx

It was getting close to the time for first class to start and Sakura was busy scanning the halls for troublemakers when she spotted an odd collection of people.

First, Yamanaka Ino, who despised getting to school anything earlier than fashionably late, was leaning against a locker, looking tired enough to require caffeine on drip, wearing a tiny top and minuscule denim shorts, clearly taking advantage of the rare thaw of winter.

Second, Hyuuga Hinata, who usually spent this time slowly riding in her limo watching Naruto and pretending he didn't know she was there – Sakura was fully aware he both knew of and enjoyed the attention – stood next to Ino, wearing a thick purple jumper over her school uniform and an anxious look.

Third, and strangest of all, Uchiha Sasuke. He was standing in front of the two girls, hands on his hips, lips pursed in annoyance. He was wearing sunglasses indoors, clearly to make himself look cooler.

Asswipe.

Sakura, despite largely disapproving of lurkers, cared not for Sasuke's precious privacy, and thus hid behind the corner and shamefully eavesdropped.

"U-Uchiha-san," Hinata began, her hands held up in the 'bunny position' Naruto drooled over, a shy little hand clasp that made her look adorable and terrified at the same time, "Ino-chan and I were worried that you were not handling Sakura's relationship with Gaara-san very well –"

"Yeah," Ino jeered, butting in with a nasty smirk, slinging an arm around Hinata's neck casually, "We thought you should know that you should grow the fuck up and stop making eyes at Sakura."

Sasuke's mouth hardened into a thin, angry line. "I fail to see how anything I do is any of either of your business."

"It is our business, Uchiha-san," Hinata said, without a tremor or stutter in her voice, "Because Sakura is our friend and we do not want her to be hurt. I had to watch her being hurt by you once, and I do not want to sit back anymore when there is a chance you will hurt her all over again. If your claim that you love her is real, then you should step back and give her a chance of happiness."

Ino looked surprised, as though Hinata wasn't sticking to the script they had obviously pre-arranged.

The sunglasses made Sasuke's face unreadable, meaning Sakura couldn't see how Hinata's words had affected him.

Sasuke sighed and ran a hand through his hair, managing to look enviably cool even when being harassed by two girls. "And if I do love her?" He asked, moving his face closer to Hinata's, so much so that Ino tensed, "What's left for me if I just let her go?"

"The knowledge that the one you love is very, very happy." Hinata replied, "You had your chance. You and Sakura were in love, b-but you messed it up. It's your own fault. Why should you be rewarded with love for your mistakes? I feel very sorry for you, Uchiha-san, because I know what it is like to love someone who doesn't look your way. But please, for Sakura's sake. Leave her alone."

Sasuke drew back, moving away from Hinata's face. Ino patted her friend on the shoulder and they both walked away from Sasuke, who was still standing there, unmoving.

Sakura felt touched. Her friends felt the need to stand up for her against Sasuke, even though neither of them had had the fortune of finding their very own Gaara. Sakura felt quite certain that Ino loved Shikamaru. Why else would she have been so angry when Shikamaru took Sakura's side all those years ago? Why had she looked so wistful and sad when talking about love before? And Sakura knew all too well that Hinata suffered through her silent admiration for Naruto.

Sakura was close to tears for the second time that morning. A bloody record, she thought wryly. At the start of the year, she hadn't thought she had any real friends. She had thought Hinata stuck with her because she was so kind, and she hadn't known how much she cared for Shikamaru or he for her, but now she knew and she was so grateful. She'd made loads of new friends this year and was so happy it was dizzying.

She looked at Sasuke, standing in the hallway, gazing at nothing, alone.

She went over to talk to him, maybe console him, make him feel better –

But he saw her coming and backed up, perhaps thinking of Hinata's plea for him to stay away from his ex-girlfriend. She saw him bite his lip and place a hand under his shades to rub at his eyes.

She raised her hands and opened her mouth to talk, but he shook his head and took a step backwards.

"Sasuke-teme!" Naruto suddenly yelled, obnoxiously loud, leaping on his best friend, "C'mon, Kiba's taught Akamaru how to sing! C'mon, let's watch!"

Sasuke wasn't alone, Sakura thought with a small smile. He had one very good friend who'd gladly stuck by him even when everyone else had abandoned him.

She headed for class feeling lighter than before, the tiny smirk on Sasuke's face as he was dragged away had left her unburdened of the stress of Sasuke's anger and hurt, she knew he'd be fine.

More importantly, she knew she and Gaara would be fine.

xxxxxxxx

Gaara hadn't been in Kurenai's class, leaving Sakura sitting alone again, occasionally giving the empty chair next to her dirty looks.

Her temporary worry was resolved when she received a text.

I'm in the courtyard.

Gaara. X

She was on the way there when her way was suddenly blocked.

"Kakashi-sensei." She said, annoyed, "I'm in a hurry."

"This'll only take a minute." He blinked his single visible eye at her, probably trying to wink and forgetting it worked better with two eyes, "I heard you tried to take on Tsunade to change the system, you little rebel," He chucked her under the chin, ignoring her scowl, "I'm glad you know the truth now, so you don't think us teachers favour the richer students. We don't, by the way, they're all brats. We wanted to tell you, as teachers, we are so grateful to you for helping out whenever you could. I know you worked too hard. We appreciate everything you've done for this school, so we're going to write you the best letters of recommendation to the most prodigious colleges out there, and we're going to make sure you get in."

Sakura's bottom lip wobbled. "Why is everyone trying to make me cry today?" She wailed.

She glared at the amused teacher for a second before giving him a quick hug, "Thank you." She murmured.

She took off running, ignoring his playful, "No running in the halls!"

The courtyard was virtually empty of students since it was lunch time, but a few were sitting on the grass or the stone benches, and in the middle Sakura immediately spotted Gaara standing alone, looking back at her.

"My father told me about his plan." Gaara said the moment she drew near, "And about how I don't have to marry Matsuri, and how he's going to spend some of the money Toru gave him on you as an apology."

Sakura rolled her eyes, "Tell him I don't need his slavery money. And hi to you too."

They stared at each other, Gaara's face a little frustrated; Sakura was smiling, the noise around them faded away until they were the only two people standing in the courtyard.

They were kissing before she knew it.

Her whistle was digging painfully into her chest as he crushed her against his body, one hand on the back of her head, the other comfortably placed in the small of her back. It was awkward and imperfect, but it was so perfect to Sakura that she couldn't hold back the contented sigh or stop herself from wrapping her arms around his waist.

And for once she didn't care that it was inappropriate for the President to be engaging in PDAs in the middle of the school courtyard, she didn't care that they were being watched, she only cared that she and Gaara were finally OK, no obstacles, no misunderstandings, just the two of them and the stupid, inexplicable love they both miraculously had for each other.

They broke apart to a chorus of wolf whistles and giggles from the students around them, but they were only looking at each other.

"So," Sakura said breezily, pretending her cheeks weren't violently red, "You and Matsuri didn't work out, huh?"

Gaara was looking at her with such soft fondness in his eyes, "She wasn't my type. I prefer girls who dress in cardigans and knee-length skirts, who stay up all night studying to maintain that perfect grade score, who hates injustice, sticks up for people and stands up to bullies. In other words, you."

"Softie." Sakura teased him, "But, don't worry. I prefer guys who wear eyeliner and have scraped knuckles and ripped clothes and a love tattoo, who pretend they don't care about anything when they care about everything, who love their family and would do anything to protect them. In other words, softie, you."

Gaara scowled, flushing, "I'm not a softie. I just have a weak spot for you."

"Same here." Sakura grinned, pointing to her heart and laughing at their cheesy lovey-dovey behaviour, "But I've got something to ask. It's something that's been bothering me for a while now. You were almost charged with assaulting someone. What was that about?"

Gaara frowned at the abrupt subject change and Sakura's sudden seriousness.

"There was another student," Gaara began, looking like he really didn't want to tell this story, "In one of my old schools. He was the son of a rich businessman, like me. He hated me. He did everything he could to get me in trouble. He particularly liked to goad me with personal insults. I never showed how much he irritated me, knowing he just wanted me to fight him to get me expelled. But one day, he showed up to school looking smug, as though he knew he'd struck gold. He had found out about my mother, and how she died. He told me to my face that I was a murderer, that I was a monster, that my mother had killed herself the moment she looked at my face. I snapped. I hit him. Again and again. But it was not as bad as the papers made out. He was out of hospital before the trial even began. My father had heard what I had done, and why, and he made sure I wasn't prosecuted. It was my fault, Sakura. I shouldn't have snapped. I shouldn't have attacked him. I don't want to be a monster." His face crumpled for once second before he forced it back to impassive.

Sakura pulled him into a hug, burning with anger that that brat had said that shit to Gaara's face then tried to get him done for assault, "You are not a monster, Gaara," She said fiercely, "Look at me. I'm the queen of rational decisions. I wouldn't date a monster. Ergo, you are not a monster."

Gaara hugged her back.

"Thank you." He said almost inaudibly.

"No problem." Sakura gripped him harder.

The hug was only broken when Sakura's phone vibrated in her pocket.

She fished out her phone and glanced at the new text message.

I've had some of the top wedding planners pick out the flowers and the doves, but I'm going to need your assistance if you want to pick your wedding dress.

Daddy-Gaara.

Sakura blanched at the text. The Kazekage was planning her wedding? Mostly without her?

She wordlessly turned her phone around to show Gaara.

He laughed and shook his head ruefully, "Knowing my father, he is deadly serious."

"It's silly, isn't it?" Sakura giggled, "How did he even get my number?"

Gaara nodded, smiling.

"I mean, we're too young to get married, right?" Sakura put her hands on her hips and pouted, "I guess I better text your dad back, stop him picking out cakes or confetti."

"Sakura." Gaara said casually, "I love you."

Sakura paused, just about to start typing out a text that would advise the Kazekage that making further wedding plans would be very unwise, "Love you too." She said without hesitation.

"Will you marry me?" Gaara asked slowly, staring into her eyes, his gaze intense.

Sakura dropped her phone.

"What?" She screeched, completely shocked. Gaara, the guy who hadn't even wanted to admit he loved her was suddenly proposing? Was this real life?

"Not now," He amended, "When we're older. But I know right now that I only want to be with you for the rest of my life. I know we haven't known each other that long. I know we're too young. But the whole mess with Matsuri and my father, it made me realise that the only girl I'd ever want to marry is you."

Sakura finally gave in to what had been threatening her all day. She burst into tears.

Gaara looked alarmed.

"I love you too, you big idiot," She sniffled, "Making me cry… Of course I love you. I shouldn't… we aren't well-suited, we made each other miserable, we have nothing in common… but I do want to be with you. Yes, when we're older, I'll marry you."

Chapter Text

The doves were a bit much.

Sakura was sitting on her window seat, peering out of the window anxiously, watching the men in the street below unloading crates of (humanely) stacked doves. She winced when a crate wobbled and nearly crashed to the floor.

She had a piece of paper in her lap. She chewed her pen and squinted down at what she had written already.

Dear Sasuke,

By the time you have received this letter, I will be married. Can you imagine it? Me, married? And yet, somehow, I've slowly gotten used to the idea over the years. Gaara's been great about everything – even when I burst into tears because we had to change the seating plan for the fourteenth time because we'd accidently sat two of Daddy-Gaara's ex-girlfriends next to each other. I can't lie; this wedding has been one big crisis and stress after the other. Though it is debatable whether stress does cause stomach ulcers or not, I am almost certain my stomach is going to be one big ulcer after all of this planning. Who knew marrying the most influential businessman's son would be so complicated?

I'm glad you weren't upset about not getting an invitation. I don't know whether you would have liked to be here, but I know it would have been nice to have all of my friends here with me today. I understand, though. It's a complicated little situation. Believe it or not, when I asked Gaara if he minded if you came, he just made a face and shrugged like he genuinely didn't care either way. I struggled with the issue for weeks, believe me, your invite caused quite a bit of stress! I'm sorry, I'm complaining like it's your fault you couldn't be here.

Tenten called this morning and asked if I minded if she looked a bit fat in the wedding pictures. I, obviously, told her I didn't mind one bit but I didn't think she was in any way 'fat.' She laughed and replied, "You haven't seen me recently." Guess what? She's pregnant! I couldn't believe it! I'm pretty sure you are shaking your head and wondering why I think you care that Tenten's pregnant. This is why – the baby is Hyuuga Neji's! They've been secretly dating for a year! A year! All of those times Tenten said she had to cat-sit for her neighbour, lies! Don't ask me why they hid it from us. I think it's something to do with Neji's family being a bit conservative. Just look at Hinata – she and Naruto have had plenty of trouble over the years, haven't they?

I hear you've started training to be a physical therapist. I was pleased – I can't think of a job you'd be more suited to. The army, or navy, perhaps? No, I can't imagine anyone forcing you into a uniform. Anyway, if you ever want to reply to this letter, tell me all about your clients. Or patients? Which one? I know you'll want to talk. Your dad can't have been happy about your decision. He wanted you to work in the family business, didn't he? Especially after Itachi defected… I'm proud of you for sticking to what you believed in, even if you were just trying to annoy your father, you little rebel.

I'm sitting here in my bedroom right now, looking at my wedding presents, and sitting on my table, unopened, is the present from you. I'm saving it for last, Sasuke, because I know you will have picked the right thing and every other present won't compare. Ino's present was, quite frankly, filthy and disturbing. Where she got the idea that I (words crossed out hastily) is beyond me. Gaara was curious, however. I had to throw it away very sneakily, and now he won't stop searching through the presents, looking for it. Hinata bought me a gold and platinum bracelet with cherry blossoms charms. I love it, I'm wearing it to the wedding. She bought Gaara matching cufflinks, and though he grumbled about looking girly, he still fitted them to his tux when he thought I wasn't looking. Shikamaru and Temari got me a shougi set (though I prefer Go!) and (Temari's idea, I'm sure) a crib. Ha ha, very funny. Insert baby joke here, if you want. Tenten (and Neji, I suppose) bought us a gravy boat and a toaster. The toaster prints pictures on the bread as it toasts, which will be quite amusing in the morning when I'm irritable and tired, making toast. The gravy boat serves no other purpose other than to pour gravy, I assume.

Did you know Daddy-Gaara insisted on doves? I can see a horrible little man in my driveway, trying to force them to fly in sync, for no apparent reason. I'm sure that when I look back on this day, I won't be thinking, "Oh, I can still remember how beautifully those random birds flew as they evacuated their bowels on my guests." I'll be thinking, "Oh, I remember how all of my guests sued me for dry-cleaning bills on my wedding day."

I'm getting a bit nervous, if I'm honest. This wedding is a huge production, and I feel very small in comparison. I keep hearing things like, "Have you heard who's coming to Sabaku no Gaara's wedding?" when I'm in the supermarket. As if we have celebrities begging to attend. To be honest, we only have one, and he's an old family friend, apparently. No one ever says anything about me. It's Gaara's wedding. You'd think he was marrying himself. I'm actually afraid I'll show up to the wedding and everyone will turn around in the church and stare at me like they don't know who I am or what I'm doing here. Am I invited to the wedding? I forgot to ask.

But Gaara's been lovely. He hasn't shown the slightest worry or concern about the wedding. Not a bit of cold feet. I think it's because in his mind, marrying me is simply the next logical step, and nothing to worry about. Ah, romance. I'm not going to lie though, we were engaged for four years and every single one of them was perfect. We celebrated the day we decided we were going to get married every year, and Gaara always managed to surprise me. There was that one year when we had a very pink celebration (in honour of my hair colour, I suppose, which Gaara still can't quite believe is natural, even after – crossed out words-). So, we had pink champagne, which was actually nicer than the expensive stuff Daddy-Gaara serves on tap at his parties, and strawberry ice cream and marshmallows, even though Gaara hates sweets.

It's actually very freeing, writing to you about how much I love Gaara. There was once a time that you wouldn't have wanted to know any of this stuff, and I can't tell you how happy I am that we can talk normally about it now. I still feel nervous, but it's more excited than worried, you know? Anticipation. I just can't wait to see Gaara. I can wait to see Daddy-Gaara, though, because he's been so smug lately, saying things like, "It was only a matter of time," and, "I do believe I should receive some credit for this blessed union taking place?" I mean, as if. Yes, he was very excited to find out that my mother is very smart – he actually squealed, "It's genetic!" – and he approves of me and all that, but I can't help feeling very second best. Or at least, like Gaara's father scraped the bottom of the barrel and just sort of tolerates me. I also don't like how most of our conversations revolve around whether or not diabetes runs in my family (or twins. He would have liked twin grandchildren).

Four years is a long time to be engaged. I'm twenty, and I've known who I'm going to be with for the rest of my life since I was sixteen. Isn't that odd? Sometimes I think it is, but then I look at Gaara and melt (isn't that irritating? After four years you'd think the melting would have become less frequent) and my worries and fears wash away. When I told my mother I was engaged at sixteen, she gave me a look that plainly said, "I'm sorry, I thought you had working brain cells? Please go power them up." I'm lucky that she's been so supportive. I'm also lucky she isn't as supportive as Daddy-Gaara. That would be too much.

This letter's turning into a novel! I've not said everything I wanted to say, so I'll summarise.

Thank you for being my friend. I know it was hard. I know it hurt. Thank you.

I'm glad we're still speaking, even after everything. I understand what I didn't back then.

But I have to be honest, there is still some sadistic part of me that is delighted I beat all of your test scores back in the day. Don't look so upset! You remember my P.E. grade, right? You remember how you aced it and I didn't even get a mark? I held a protest against institutionalised torture in the form of physical education, if I recall correctly. Ino's still annoyed you beat her score.

I've got to go, Temari wants to do my hair and pull at my clothes for a while until she's satisfied I look halfway human.

I'll see you later, Sasuke, and I'm glad this war is over.

Sakura.

She put her pen down and allowed Temari and Ino to pull her to her feet and twirl her around.

"You look beautiful!" Ino squealed, squeezing her best friend tight.

"You'll do." Temari said, high praise indeed from her.

Hinata looked teary, her smile quivering violently as she gazed at her best friend.

Sakura raised an eyebrow and smiled at her friends. They were all wearing bridesmaid outfits – pink dresses Sakura wouldn't dream of wearing (she'd look like a giant pig with her pink hair, cheeks and dress), and their hair had been styled already.

Ino's platinum blonde hair was tightly coiled up in a plait pinned to the back of her head, her long fringe curled at the side of her face, her makeup exquisitely done so that she looked even more beautiful than her usual appearance.

Temari had forgone her usual shaggy bunches of hair and simply left it down, straightened and smoothed within an inch of its life so that it now looked immaculate.

Hinata's hair was also down but curling tongs had been run through her locks, so they now hung in waves down her back. She wasn't very comfortable with makeup, but for today she had brushed some pink sparkly eyeshadow and attempted to thicken her lashes with mascara.

Sakura had done her own makeup herself, but a hairdresser had come round to tame her tresses into something more suitable for a wedding. They'd left her with an elegant bun, bangs hanging either side of her face, a white flowery headband in place, securing the bun. Her makeup was as detailed as a former Student Body President could manage – red lipstick and liquid eyeliner, two things she never normally used and felt weird wearing now.

She shook her hands nervously, wanting to do an anxious little jig on the spot, but forced herself to remain calm. I'm calm, she told herself. I'm calm, calm… oh my God, what if he doesn't show up? She began to freak out, what if he stands her up, leaves her at the altar in her stupidly expensive dress and all of the guests (Gaara's guests, not hers) point and laugh?

I'm so completely calm right now, she thought viciously, and if I'm not now, I totally will be.

"Right, dress now, yes?" She asked wildly, her voice coming out a little strained.

Temari and Ino exchanged worried looks. Hinata put a hand on Sakura's arm, looking at her with a concerned expression.

"Sakura, are you alright?" Ino asked gently.

Sakura was standing the middle of her bedroom, the bedroom that would no longer be hers because she was going to marry Gaara and they were going to move into the house they'd picked out (with too much enthusiasm from Sakura and not enough from Gaara), and she'd lived in it for two years, she rented it with her own money that she earned and now she was going to leave…

"Panic attack," Sakura gasped, clutching her chest, "Minor setback. Give me thirty seconds and I'll be in the dress."

It took over thirty seconds for her bridesmaids to calm her down, Ino clutching her hand, Temari rubbing her shoulders and Hinata mumbling comforting words.

"Right, I'm absolutely fine now, thank you, I just need to lie down – oh God, I can't, not with this hair – I'm fine, let go, I need to get in that damn dress."

"Sakura, you are not fine, you are freaking out!" Ino pushed her back onto the window seat and glared at her.

"Are you getting cold feet?" Temari's expression told Sakura that she would not hesitate to eviscerate her if she even thought about standing Gaara up.

"No! I'm not getting cold feet," Sakura insisted. At Temari's sceptical look, she put her hands on her hips and said stubbornly, "My feet are of a lukewarm temperature, mildly warm, even! Downright toasty!"

"Sakura, it's OK to be nervous," Ino smiled encouragingly, "If you weren't nervous, then I'd be worried."

Sakura considered this. Yes, today was a momentous occasion, in which everything in her life was going to change. It was perfectly normal to be slightly anxious about such extreme change. She was a creature of habit, after all.

"Do you think Gaara will be worried too?" She asked hopefully.

Temari let her down easily.

"No," She said bluntly, "He isn't the type. Once he's got his mind set on something, he'll do it and that's that, no hesitation required. He asked you out the moment he realised he liked you, right? He asked you to marry him aged sixteen, when you didn't really know each other that well, and once you said yes, he just assumed that it was set in stone, not a matter of if but when. If I know him at all, he'll be annoyed at being forced into a tux and having to talk to the guests, but he won't be nervous at all."

Oh. That did sound like Gaara.

"Look, Sakura, why don't you sit down and read a good book or something?" Ino suggested, steering her away from the window seat subtly (presumably so she wouldn't be able to see the dove rehearsal and be reminded of the wedding) and towards a chair, "You've got time till you have to get in the dress, so just give yourself a moment to calm down."

Temari was texting someone whilst glaring at Sakura balefully, and Sakura, seating herself in the comfy armchair and accepting the book Ino found for her, had no doubt she was texting either Kankuro or Shikamaru to report Sakura's cold feet.

It took about an hour and a quick re-read of Pride and Prejudice, but Sakura began to feel the excitement she'd felt in the months before the wedding day, thrilled the day she would finally marry Gaara was coming, having endless discussions with him about what food they'd serve, whether they'd let Daddy-Gaara give a speech or not, what the first dance would be…

The door clicked open.

Sakura dropped the book in surprise and then (quietly mourning her flagrant misuse of critically acclaimed literature) felt a smile break out on her face at the sight of who had entered the room.

Her mother, fussing about with her hat, walked into the room and beamed at her daughter.

"Not in the dress yet?" She asked, her smile teasing, wearing a smart purple blouse and a black skirt, her hat purple and very impressive, a large flower stuck to the side.

"Should I be?" Sakura looked wildly at the clock and then turned agonised eyes on her bridesmaids, "I only have forty-five minutes to get to the church." She moaned, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"Because you were getting irritatingly neurotic." Temari snapped, "Dress, now, come on!"

"Temari." Sakura's mother gave her a steely glare, "I hardly think your behaviour is helpful. It's Sakura's wedding day. Be a little more supportive."

Temari scowled, but looked a little guilty, "Sorry, Sakura," She mumbled, "I'm a little nervous too, I guess. It's my little brother's wedding day."

"How do you think I feel?" Sakura's mother winked, "My little girl is marrying Sabaku no Gaara. Do you know how long it took her to tell me who her lovely new boyfriend was? Years. When I first met him, he was wearing ripped clothing and eyeliner, but after they started going out, he came to my door with a bouquet of flowers, wearing a suit, and formally asked for my permission to date my daughter. I'm so proud of you, sweetheart, for finding someone so wonderful."

Sakura made a face.

Her relationship with her mother had been strained at best since the divorce. It turned out her mother had been hiding the fact that her husband beat her, and she'd only feigned indifference on the subject of who Sakura would live with after the divorce because she knew that Sakura's father would fight for Sakura if he thought her mother wanted her, out of sheer spite.

But the four years they'd spent not really talking to each other, with Sakura being bitter and angry over believing her mother didn't want her, and her mother being upset over the divorce, had affected their relationship, like it or not.

If Sakura needed her mother, she was there, but they had reached an understanding the day Sakura left for university. They spoke every Sunday on the phone, but they didn't try to force any kind of bonding. In time, Sakura hoped, they'd become as close as they used to be.

"Thanks, Mum. Can you help me with the dress?"

"Sure, honey."

xxxxxxxx

They were in the car.

They were on their way to the church.

Where Sakura was going to get married.

Aaaaaaaaaah….

"Deep breaths, Sakura!" Ino urged, "You can't go into the church like this!"

"Like this?" Sakura turned wild eyes on her bridesmaids, chalk-white and sweaty, "What do you mean? What's wrong?"

"Nothing," Temari said calmly, "You look beautiful. All you have to do is sit here for a while, then walk up to Gaara. Repeat what the vicar says, smile and kiss Gaara at the end. That's it. Don't worry."

"I- I think you've never looked p-prettier," Hinata said earnestly, "Don't forget how much you were looking forward to today. You told me you could think of nothing better than to marry Gaara. Remember how you said it was like you were both the reigning sovereigns of warring countries and you were getting married to unite –"

"I was young when I said that," Sakura smiled, looking out of the window at the passing scenery, "and more sentimental than I would have admitted. But, thank you. Both of you."

She was remembering the nights she'd spent in Hinata's bedroom, sitting on the floor, engrossed in glossy wedding magazines, engaging in hot debates with Ino and Temari about how much cleavage is appropriate for your wedding day, gazing reverently at pristine dresses behind shop windows.

Aged sixteen, she'd been optimistic and hopeful, not the slightest bit worried about marrying Gaara so soon.

Now, twenty years old, she was far more interested in the emotional and logical ramifications for marrying her first love.

She would never be with anyone else. She'd never have a first date or kiss again. She'd never have butterflies in her stomach upon realising she was falling for someone.

But then she tried to picture herself with anyone but Gaara and failed.

A lot of people had thought she was crazy for going out with Gaara. Sure, just as many people believed Gaara could do better (she was one of them), but she could remember a few of her friends and teachers trying to convince her that Gaara would drag her down, that he was no good, a threat to her good reputation and grades – and she never let them convince her.

After all, she was no man's dream either. Gaara had spent the last four years thoroughly convincing her that he found her attractive, and as she grew older, she found logic triumphed over her self-esteem issues – she had a pretty face and wasn't fat or too thin. So, she was conventionally attractive – big deal. She was also a handful to deal with. She was bossy, insufferable, impatient and impossible to live with, a huge clean freak, totally neurotic and prone to overreacting over everything.

And Gaara loved her anyway, just the way she was.

And she loved him just as much.

Even when his anger management classes weren't going well and he came home with bloody knuckles and an ashamed look on his face, even when his insecurities and jealousy caused arguments, even when his contempt for rules clashed with her morals, even when their personalities proved that living together would always be volatile and difficult.

Because the nights when they sat on the sofa together, her head on his chest, his arm around her, were the best moments of her life, the happiest times she ever had were always with Gaara.

"So, are you alright about the wedding now?" Ino asked cautiously.

She turned her smile on her bridesmaids, "I'm looking forward to it."

xxxxxxxx

The trees around the church were in full blossom, petals floating slowly to the ground on the breeze, thick branches adorned with cheerfully pink flowers. The sky was cornflower blue, the only clouds present were wispy and white, the breeze a soft reprieve from the heat.

As Sakura carefully got out of the car, lifting her dress up to avoid it trailing in the dirt, she could hear insects all around her chirping in song and cameras clicking away.

"Over here, Miss Haruno! How does it feel to be almost a Mrs?" One reporter called out, leaning against a van, his camera pointed in her direction.

Daddy-Gaara's company was still going strong (presumably thanks to both of the potential heirs abandoning the Uchiha Corp.) and because of that, Gaara's relationships attracted the public's interest – especially since Kankuro, Daddy-Gaara's real heir, showed absolutely no interest in creating a scandal – so there had been a few pieces on Sakura in the media.

Her image as a no-nonsense former Student Body President had gained her the affection of the media, who dubbed her 'Miss Haruno' and printed pictures of her looking stern. There were a few catty comments about her sense of fashion (or lack thereof), but, overall, she seemed to be at least liked by the public. At any rate, she hadn't received any death threats for daring to be affianced to one of the most 'swoon-worthy young rich men' in the country, as the magazines liked to put it.

Temari was looking speculatively at the camera, as though judging how long it would take to reach the man and break it, though Ino was smoothing her dress down and preening. Hinata cast the reporters a wary glance, looking away shyly to lift Sakura's train.

"Excited," Sakura readjusted her veil and lifted it to aim a grin at the man, who, with lightning-fast reflexes, snapped a picture. She cursed inwardly, dropping the veil. The papers would have a field day with a picture of the Ice Queen herself, smiling. Damn, "Have you got all the pictures you need for today?" She asked politely.

The man shook his head, "I need a big one of you two leaving the church, with confetti and happy-looking people in the background. Is that possible?"

Sakura, who had up until this point planned to leave via the back door, grimaced and nodded, "Sure. You alright with waiting in this weather?"

"I got a van," The reported shrugged casually, "I tan anyway, I never burn."

"Well, most people think that's a good thing," Sakura began earnestly, "But it's a commonly known fact that a tan is merely a sign of skin damage, and you should always wear sun –"

"Sakura, can we please go in the damn church? Everyone's waiting!" Temari interrupted, rolling her eyes.

Sakura pouted but couldn't keep it up – the anxiety and nerves had dissipated the moment she had stepped out of the car into the bright sunshine and seen the gently waving blossoms – and giggled, covering her mouth with her bouquet, pink roses and baby's breath, with two long white ribbons.

Hinata, as Sakura's Maid of Honour, fixed the train as Sakura took a deep breath and stepped into the church.

She walked through the door, blinking as her eyes adjusted to the sudden darkness. Light poured through the stained glass windows, leaving ripples of light on the floor near the altar. Candles lit the way up the aisle.

Pachelbel's Canon began to play softly on the piano as everyone in the church stood up, looking at her.

Kakashi stepped up to her, his mask absent, wearing a sharp suit and a crooked grin. He offered his elbow.

She took it, shaking with emotion, and began to walk up the aisle as she had practised so many times.

Pure happiness surged through her at the sight of Gaara. Oh, this must be what women meant when they dreamily said the happiest day of their life was their wedding day. Sakura had once felt this was sad – having the happiest day of your life so young surely meant the rest of your life was a disappointment – but she got it now. She could sincerely say she had never once felt happiness like this before.

Kakashi was humming along to Pachelbel's Canon quietly as they walked.

Naruto sat with Kiba, Neji and Lee, all of them sporting huge grins. Naruto's gaze was fond as she walked past him. Neji gave her a little nod of acknowledgment. Lee looked close to tears, thankfully happy ones, since his feelings for her had died down years ago. Kiba winked at her. Tenten sat on Neji's right, one hand caressing her bulging stomach.

Shizune sat with Tsunade, in tears at the sight of Sakura in her wedding dress, Tsunade patting her hand to comfort her.

Daddy-Gaara, never one to follow tradition, stood next to his son despite not being the best man. His expression was softer and more gentle than she could ever have imagined. He gave her the smallest wave. He had been very vocally against her having Kakashi walk her up the aisle, obviously wanting to do it himself, but Sakura had had a quiet chat with him about how kind Kakashi had been to her over the years and he had backed down gracefully, his only act of rebellion had been to release a statement to the press saying Sakura thought of him as a second father, something Sakura did feel but would never admit to.

Shikamaru sat at the front of the church, next to Sakura's mother and the other important guests. His expression was complex – a mixture of happiness and something else Sakura couldn't identify.

She reached Gaara, her eyes focusing only on his handsome face. He wasn't wearing his eyeliner and his hair was neat and free of gel. He wore an exquisitely expensive suit, gloves and a top hat that his best man was holding for him. Though she knew him as a boy who wore ripped jeans and had messy hair, the formal clothes looked natural on him.

She could see him taking in her dress and smiling.

It was heavy, with mounds of glossy white fabric nipped in at the waist, silvery flowers adorning the middle and hem, sleeves made of lacy flowers and a train light enough to walk without needing aid.

She had felt ridiculous in it right up until the moment Gaara smiled at her and then felt like the most beautiful girl in the world.

Kakashi let go of her elbow and grinned at her, backing up.

The vicar murmured some words and it all began.

It felt like it took an hour and she was seeing it all through blurred vision, but later on she could recall the moment she married Gaara with crystal clear precision, right down to the minute details, like the fact his fringe had been combed away from his love tattoo and the way her mother sobbed all the way through the service, along with every single one of her bridesmaids, even Temari, though she later tried to claim she was faking it so she didn't show the other bridesmaids up.

Kankuro had passed them the rings, hers encrusted with diamonds she didn't want and had only accepted after Daddy-Gaara threw a hissy fit and Gaara's a plain gold band he had chosen himself.

Gaara lifted her veil and kissed her slowly.

They left the church as a newly married couple, Sakura's face beginning to ache from smiling so much, Gaara clutching her hand for support as the guests surged behind them, nearly tripping down the church steps.

Mindful of the poor paparazzi, Sakura pointed them out to Gaara and they posed reluctantly, smiles on their faces as the cameras flashed and confetti rained down upon them, the sun still shining brightly.

The people with cameras cheered as they passed them by, the guests casting disapproving looks their way, some elderly women clutching their handbags because they had mistaken them for loitering youth.

They all spilled out of the church messily, Shikamaru seeking out Temari and grabbing her hand, Naruto surprising Hinata and making her giggle, Neji carefully guiding the heavily pregnant Tenten down the steps and Ino walking alone, looking slightly melancholic despite the happy occasion.

The doves fluttered past and shot into the sky, startling shrieks out of some of the guests, feathers landing on their elegant clothes.

Sakura gave Gaara a quick kiss, surprising him and delighting the paparazzi, who responded by taking frenzied snaps of the two of them in seconds.

The cherry blossoms were still spiralling lazily down to the ground as Sakura and Gaara got into the limo, some petals catching on her veil, the clicking of the cameras never ceasing as the wedding party all began to search the car park, middle aged men in wrinkled suits and matching faces clutching car keys and peering at a sea of identical, expensive cars, young, slim women in sunglasses gingerly stepping into their husbands' jeeps, children rushing about and laughing, getting their formal clothes dirty and enraging their parents.

The limo door slid shut noiselessly and Sakura was suddenly alone in the car with Gaara. Her new husband.

He sat opposite her, looking daunted despite himself. The noise of the guests and paparazzi faded away as the car's engine began to purr, and the married couple grinned sheepishly at each other.

Sakura put out her hand and grasped Gaara's, thumb smoothing over his ring. He did the same with hers.

"Well, that's the ceremony over and done with," Gaara said bluntly, though Sakura could hear the bare relief in his voice that the ordeal of having so many people around him was done, "Just the reception left and we can go back to just you and me again."

Sakura leant forward in the car, the leather seats cool against her sun-warmed skin, and let her forehead rest against Gaara's affectionately as the car slowly drove away from the church.

Chapter Text

Why did complete strangers keep coming up to talk to her?

Balding, sweaty men in expensive suits kept coming to her table and dropping comments on how lovely she looked and would the groom mind if he gave this business proposal to his father? Skinny, sour-faced women she had never spoken to or seen her life approached her table, gave her a painfully fake smile and complimented her dress. Even some old man with a bow tie and the faint smell of gin emanating from his suit kept drifting up to comment on how splendid this whole 'affair' was and how Gaara was the spit of his father.

Sakura had grown infinitely tired of strangers talking to her as though they'd been friends for years and desperately needed a catch up – she pulled a face at Gaara, who only smirked in return.

For all his smudged eyeliner and cigarette-smoking, Gaara couldn't really claim to be the bad boy he aspired to be – not when he so smoothly responded to every back-handed compliment, every sneaky attempt to get to his father through him and every tiny flirt with expert diplomatic skills. He might be a blunt, angry little teenager on the inside (with a tendency to sulk), but it was clear that he was more similar to Daddy-Gaara than he'd like to admit.

Sakura sat in the middle of a long table covered in a white cloth, red petals scattered everywhere (she just knew some idiot would manage to accidentally consume enough to complain to them about) and scented candles in real gold bowls. The plates were not gold, fortunately enough, but had a pattern of roses delicately entwining around the china.

Gaara sat on her left, his hand holding hers under the table, as was their wont. Sakura could hear music faintly streaming from the direction of the dance floor where the 'musical supervisor' – as Daddy-Gaara had actually looked at her in horror when she suggested a DJ – fiddled with some CDs and waved at their table.

"Oh God." Sakura groaned in realisation.

Gaara gave her an aside glance, his stiff smile slipping, "What?"

"We – we have to dance, don't we?" She spluttered in horror. Yes, she'd remembered all of the traditional aspects of a wedding and had followed them according to the norm in her small involvement with the planning of the wedding, but for some reason she had completely forgotten she would be required to dance.

With just her and Gaara on the dance floor, awkwardly swaying to some awful power ballad Daddy-Gaara undoubtedly loved, every guest secretly chuckling. The mocking she would get from Shikamaru alone would be unbearable.

"Shit." Gaara cursed quietly, glaring at his empty plate, "Surely they'll serve the food first?"

But Sakura had spotted something truly terrifying, Daddy-Gaara, in his beautiful designer suit, climbing onto the musical supervisor's platform to whisper in his ear, occasionally looking over at her and Gaara.

"No," She said faintly, "Daddy-Gaara's been looking forward to the first dance. He mentioned something about how he couldn't wait to see us dance, but I had assumed he was joking."

Gaara slumped in his chair, "If we don't do it, he'll be intolerable for years. There will be no end to his whining and complaining."

Sakura watched Daddy-Gaara pick up a CD and point to something on the back. Oh dear…

The musical supervisor – who was really just a glorified DJ who had treated her to an immensely long speech full of musical snobbery about modern pop music – picked up his microphone and tapped it, the sound echoing throughout the large hall.

"Ladies and Gentlemen, before we serve the dinner – smoked salmon and other delights! – we will be treated to the first dance between the newly married couple!" The man beamed at them, gesturing for them to come over.

"This is, to borrow from modern vernacular, 'going to suck.'" Sakura said gloomily.

Gaara stood up from his chair, adjusting his silk tie and placing his hat onto the table beside his plate.

He turned to her, hand extended, his expression resigned.

"We may as well please the crowd." Gaara said quietly, a touch of humour in his voice.

Sakura took his hand and they walked down to the dance floor. There was a grating scraping sound as hundreds of guests shoved their seats back and headed to the dance floor to watch.

"Is this some form of ritual humiliation?" Sakura murmured as they both carefully glided down the stairs, "Is there anyone I can sue about it?"

"Father." Gaara smirked.

"Oh goodie."

He led her to the middle of the highly polished dance floor, Sakura's mind bemoaning the health and safety issues of having such slippery floor intended for moving about wildly.

The lights dimmed, the candles still lighting the dinner tables, the floor quiet and dim.

Daddy-Gaara was grinning broadly.

To Sakura's dismay, a spotlight swung around to face them until they glowed in the gloom, their skin ghostly pale and Sakura's diamond ring sparkling.

Then, the music began.

"Don't try to explain your mind, I know what's happening here… one minute it's love and suddenly it's like a battlefield…"

Oh, hilarious, Daddy-Gaara. Yes, it was highly amusing that she and Gaara had had a flirty, angsty teenage war when they were young, but really? Their first dance?

Gaara's resigned expression melted away, his smirk growing amused. He placed his in the small of her back, holding her other hand aloft and suddenly –

They were off.

Like this, with the spotlight wildly veering around to keep them alight, with just her and Gaara clearly visible, Jordin Sparks singing in the background, Sakura locked eyes with her new husband and felt her tight, annoyed frown disappear, beginning to smile.

When it was just the two of them, it was amazingly perfect.

"My world's nothing when you're gone, I'm out here without a shield, can't go back now…"

Her dress swirled as Gaara lead the dance, his feet expertly painting a rhythm on the dance floor in time with the music – which Sakura was certain he had never heard before – the two of them spinning lightly around, hand in hand, never losing eye contact.

"I never meant to start a war, you know I never wanna hurt you, don't even know what we're fighting for…"

Sakura knew she was beaming at Gaara uncontrollably. He was smiling too, his expression soft and tender.

"Why does love always feel like a battlefield?"

As they danced together, Sakura could see familiar faces in the crowd of smiling guests, Ino tearing up but grinning at them, Temari filming it on her camera, Tenten cuddling up to Neji, his hand on her stomach, Kakashi, hands in pockets, posture slumped, trying to conceal his smile…

And Gaara's father, standing at the side of the stage, dabbing his silken handkerchief at his eyes.

When the song finally finished, Sakura and Gaara slowly swirled to a halt, smiling at each other fondly.

Gaara leant forward and pulled her into a hug, her forehead touching his chest.

"Love you, you know." He said gently, his voice almost inaudible.

"Love you too." Sakura pulled back to give him a kiss.

The lights came back on and the spotlight melted away.

Maybe it was too fast to be considered a slow dance, maybe the lyrics were more suited to past love's regrets, but as Sakura gazed at the guests, her cheeks pink and her breathing fast, she thought it couldn't have possibly been more perfect, her and Gaara twirling each other around the dance floor at such a fast pace, Gaara keeping her from falling onto her face, the lyrics spelling out how difficult their love had once been…

Sakura gave her friends an immensely happy grin, startling them.

Hinata returned the smile proudly.

The musical supervisor clapped, "How 'bout it folks? How romantic was that? And now, a selection of hits chosen by the Kazekage himself. Dinner will be served shortly."

Sakura and Gaara headed back to their table, their friends in tow.

"I didn't know you could dance, Gaara!" Shikamaru elbowed his friend with a lazy smirk, "You've been holding back."

"Don't ruin this moment for me," Temari barked, "I need to remember my little brother dancing with his bride for all eternity, OK?"

Even she was a bit misty-eyed.

"OK, I won't kill Daddy-Gaara just yet." Sakura decided.

"Excellent, do I still have time to compose a last will and testament? I'm planning on donating my funds to a local cat shelter, so your murder would be a public service." The Kazekage said dryly from behind them.

"You're pushing it." Sakura gave him a flinty-eyed glare, but it was half-hearted. That song had been the imperfectly perfect choice.

"Gaara, may I borrow your bride for a minute or two?" Daddy-Gaara ignored her threat and instead smiled charmingly at his son.

Gaara looked unimpressed.

"Return her in the same condition and without additional annoyance added." He said flatly, "And don't gush about how pretty she looks, she already knows and I don't want her getting a big head."

His smirk softened his words, making it obvious he was joking. Which was useful, because Gaara could deliver devastating verbal blows with a completely blank face, making it impossible to discern whether or not he meant it.

Daddy-Gaara bowed sarcastically, fluttering his hand in an odd sort of rich-man salute, careful not to spill a drop of his champagne.

"I am enormously grateful and in your debt." His smirk was disconcertingly similar to his son's.

"I have a choice in this matter," Sakura said coldly, in her Student Body President steely tones of pseudo-feminism that she used to adhere to, "And, alright then."

The group of them shared smirks. They always found it amusing when Sakura mocked herself, if only because it happened so rarely.

Daddy-Gaara took her arm and wandered off towards the musical supervisor, helping her up the platform.

Oh God, he wanted her to help choosing the songs.

Wait –

And suddenly, Daddy-Gaara had the microphone and was saying, "Testing, testing, hello everyone! My, it looks as though the most beautiful people in the country have gathered under one roof! To bear witness to –" He pulled Sakura closer to him, ignoring her wriggling attempts to escape, realising it was a speech, "my son and his beautiful fiancée finally tying the knot. I cannot adequately communicate how utterly pleased I am that my son has found happiness with such an intelligent, wonderful young woman. I have gotten to know Sakura over the years and I believe that I have grown to be something of a father figure for her. Her father, dreadful man of course, had that terrible accident in one of my own company cars!" He laughed. The guests laughed with him. Sakura kicked him. He carried on, tears of pain in his eyes, "What a scandal that was. Oh well, he survived, at least. I simply feel privileged to fill the hole in Sakura's life. The happy couple are genuinely lucky to have found each other so early in life. I ask that we all raise our glasses for a toast to the long-lived happiness of Gaara and Sakura, and that their love only grows stronger over time."

The guests all raised their flutes of champagne and chorused, "To the long-lived happiness of Gaara and Sakura!"

Then they broke off into some vague mumbling as they forgot what Daddy-Gaara had said and downed their champagne.

Sakura gave Daddy-Gaara a deeply unmoved look, "For what I can only assume was your gross parody of the Father of the Bride speech, you mentioned yourself a lot more than Gaara or I."

"Father of the Bride, Sakura," He smirked, "I only wished to let them all know you have my blessings and approval."

"Had to fight for it, though." Sakura pointed out coolly.

"There was no contest," He said warmly, "You were obviously in love with my son. That was all I needed."

Sakura coughed and rubbed her red cheeks, "Yes, well… ahem. Thanks."

He leaned closer and muttered, "By the way, I've bought the two of you a rather lovely house. I'll let you go back to Gaara now." He winked and melted into the crowd, calling after some leggy blonde.

Sakura rolled her eyes, feeling secretly thrilled about the house. Daddy-Gaara would never change.

xxxxxxxx

After Puppy Love started playing for the third time – the guests groaning in unison, Daddy-Gaara smirking – Sakura muttered to Gaara she needed some air.

She had seen Ino exiting out of the back where most of the smokers were lurking. Though the air would be tinged with smoke, it would certainly be fresher than the beer-soaked fumes the guests were currently breathing out, especially after the champagne had all been drunk within the first hour.

Sakura pushed the back door open where Ino had disappeared through and slipped outside, holding her dress up carefully to avoid dragging it across the stone steps outside.

The sun had long since set, so the sky was a deep blue speckled with stars, the moon shining down onto her little wedding party.

Ino had her hands on a man's face and she gave him the tiniest peck before drawing back to smile at him.

Sakura, who had assumed Ino had pulled one of the party guests, was just drawing herself up for a lecture when the man looked over at her and the lights from above the door outlined his face in achingly familiar detail.

Sasuke.

Oh my.

He immediately looked embarrassed, his hands on Ino's shoulders. She turned and gaped at Sakura.

"Oh my God –" She spluttered, "I am so, so sorry, I never wanted you to find out like this –"

"Ino," Sakura laughed, genuinely amused, "Don't worry about it. I'm actually really, really happy!"

The two of them looked stunned.

C'mon, she wasn't that much of a steely bitch that her friends had to be shocked whenever she acted nice, surely?

Sasuke hadn't had any steady girlfriends that Sakura knew of, not since their disastrous not-quite-relationship. Whenever he came to social gatherings or reunions, he went with Naruto, but without a date. His letters made out that he was happier alone, but the thought of him being happy with someone made Sakura feel oddly relieved.

"Are you together?" She asked, hardly daring to hope. Ino had been alone in that time too and had to bear hanging out with her friends, most of whom had partners and enjoyed PDAs.

Sasuke looked at her for a long moment, as though assessing whether or not she was being sincere, and then, very slowly, nodded.

Ino looked like she feared an explosion was imminent.

"How long for?"

She noticed the couple things they were displaying, Ino was automatically leaning into Sasuke and his arm was unconsciously around her back and they both kept looking at each, quick little glances like they thought the other would disappear if they didn't keep them in constant sight. Sakura remembered doing that with Gaara for ages.

"A year." Ino said cautiously.

Sakura put her hands on her hips, difficult to do when they were hidden under mounds of fabric, "Why didn't you tell me?"

"I was afraid you would be angry." Ino said, her eyes watery like they always were when she was afraid of being told off.

Sakura smiled without her usual hint of ice or sarcastic twist. She felt a surge of happiness and tugged them both into a hug.

Sasuke seemed bewildered by the embrace, but Ino gladly returned the hug. She smelt of a mixture of flowers, freesias, roses and even the pungent smell of lilies and earth from her flower shop.

"Now you, bugger off," Sakura said teasingly, poking her finger at Sasuke, "Gaara might disembowel you if he sees you!"

Sasuke smirked, sharing another long look with Ino. Sakura absently noted that no matter how much he professed he loved her; he had never once looked at her like that, like she was the most beautiful creature that ever graced the Earth.

Sakura took out the letter that she had placed in her little bag, retrieved some red lipstick and gestured for Sasuke to turn around so she could use his back. He did so with a bemused look on his face.

The letter that she had spent hours composing, the one that poured out her feelings and told Sasuke how glad she was that they were friends, she wrote on the back of the envelope in lipstick: 'You and Ino make a lovely couple.'

Then, she tidied up her hair, flashed them both a quick, sincere grin, and returned to the party.

There was the tiniest feeling of regret, perhaps sadness, but she knew it was about how she and Sasuke had ended things so badly, with him and Ino expecting Sakura to fly into a rage at the idea of her best friend dating her ex. Although the few times she had read a 'social magazine' told her that this situation was unusual and that she really ought to slap Ino in revenge, she had absolutely no desire to. Oddly enough, she was content in the knowledge that the two of them had found each other.

She inwardly smiled smugly, I am such a good person.

OK, maybe not, but points for trying, right?

xxxxxxxx

"I love you Shikamaru…" Naruto slurred, shoving his face in the other man's, smiling dopily at him.

Shikamaru unconcernedly pushed Naruto's face away with one finger. not even turning to look at him. Temari gave Naruto a ferocious glare and marked her territory with an arm slung around her boyfriend's neck.

Hinata good-naturedly held her boyfriend's hand as he came on to every single person in his line of sight. Inevitably, after about ten minutes of this behaviour, he always turned to Hinata, looking aghast, as though he had only just remembered he had a girlfriend.

He was an incredibly loving, touchy-feely drunk. Gaara had once punched him in the face when he tried to kiss Sakura.

"I love you sooooo much, Hinata-chan." Naruto planted a sloppy kiss on his girlfriend's cheek, "Marry me! It'll be in a church with ramen everywhere and… and… ninjas and stuff and…"

He slumped in his seat, snoring lightly.

Hinata stifled a giggle and mopped up some food Naruto had spilled on himself.

It must be love, Sakura thought dryly.

"Ahem." Kankuro coughed into the microphone, looking very, very awkward in his suit standing in front of everyone.

Oh, she'd forgotten about the best man speech.

Daddy-Gaara probably wished it was him, just so he could wax lyrical about how awesome a father he was again.

Gaara was watching Kankuro with no small amount of amusement.

"Er, OK, here it is guys. My bro over there used to have serious anger problems. He was wild and uncontrollable. And then he met a pink-haired, stern Student Body President who wouldn't take his shit lying down. They went through a lot together before they eventually kissed and made up, but I know how hard it was for Gaara, changing like that for someone. I know Sakura appreciates the effort it took him. I also know that no one in the world is more perfect for my little brother than Haruno Sakura. She's tough, badass and scary as hell. She's also funny, kind and has the patience of a saint. The two of them make an odd, but awesome couple. I know they'll last because not only is Gaara stubborn as hell, Sakura is the single most determined individual I have ever met. I've watched her sit with a pile of twisted coat hangers and slowly untwist them for like an hour. Seriously. So anyway, before people start crying or whatever, I made the wedding cake for my bro and my new sister-in-law, and I really hope they like it. They should, it looks fucking awesome." Kankuro spoke into the microphone, grinning stupidly at the two of them.

And then a man appeared from around the corner, wheeling a massive trolley with hugest cake Sakura had ever seen.

She couldn't even tell how many tiers there were. It was white, obviously, with pink icing. It was rectangular and extremely tall. The icing glittered in the candlelight as it was brought past the tables. It had little pink flowers decorating the sides which, as it got closer, Sakura identified them as cherry blossoms with a smile. On the side, a massive red kanji had been drawn in icing, identical to the tattoo on Gaara's forehead.

Sakura laughed out loud when the cake grew closer and she spotted the little figures sitting on top.

The little mini bride had a prim, stern look on her face. She was wearing exactly the same wedding dress as Sakura, only she also had a gold, glittery sash on that had 'Student Body President' in minuscule letters on it. Underneath the glittering veil, the mini bride had very pink hair.

The tiny groom had blood red hair and a kanji drawn on his forehead. He had eyeliner smudged around his eyes. He was wearing a tux. A tiny cigarette dangled out of his mouth. He was holding what appeared to be a detention slip in one hand and a can of spray paint in the other.

Both figures appeared to be heavily armed, presumably a reference to their oh-so-funny past war, and a banner that flowed between announced proudly, 'LOVE IS WAR.'

Good God.

Kankuro pointed at the musical supervisor, who nodded.

A bouncy, screamy song blared out with lyrics like, 'War situation still a drawback, love is blind, yes I will be awaken by your kiss…'

Overall the effect was rather impressive, she and Gaara craning their necks to get a good look at this towering monstrosity of confectionery that appeared to come with its own theme tune.

"Wow." Sakura said, amazed.

Gaara could only nod, awed.

xxxxxxxx

Temari and Shikamaru were slow dancing, both with blissfully happy expressions. Hinata was quietly falling asleep next to her snoring boyfriend, sinking down in her chair, a smile on her face. Tenten and Neji were talking to each other, sitting on some of the chairs that had been abandoned next to the dance floor, Neji massaging one of Tenten's swollen ankles, both of them looking incredibly peaceful and happy.

Sakura had received a text from Ino saying, 'thank you so much. You are my best friend and I'm so happy you aren't upset because it would kill me to hurt you. Sasuke and I started talking for real after he beat my P.E. scores and I complained to him. He offered to train me, help my running be more efficient, quicker. We spent a long time running together, until it got to the point where we both knew how we felt without having to talk about it with each other. The only thing that stopped us from being together straightaway was the thought of losing you as a friend. Thank you for understanding, and congratulations on your wedding! Xxxxxxxx'

Sakura had saved the message with a grin.

She saw Daddy-Gaara drunkenly chasing the leggy blonde (whose legs made her rather fast), her giggling and shrieking the whole time.

The guests had begun to drift out of the door, all of them stopping to make a comment about how wonderful the evening had been, content smiles on their tipsy faces, expensive clothes ruffled from the energetic dancing Daddy-Gaara's music had brought on.

Sakura gave Gaara a meaningful look and stood. He copied her, taking a moment to grab some things from the table.

Without having to say anything, they headed outside and sat down on the stone steps outside, Sakura having realised that she would never, ever wear this dress again and it didn't really matter if she ruined it, and Gaara blatantly not caring about scuffing his suit.

Gaara pulled a cigarette out of nowhere and light it with the lighter that never left his pocket. He inhaled deeply and slowly breathed out smoke, looking up at the stars.

The back door was still open a crack, so they could hear the faint strains of Cheryl Cole's 'Fight for this Love,' and the laughter of the remaining guests.

Gaara handed her one of the beers he had taken from the wedding table after opening it with his teeth.

He took a hearty gulp, she took a delicate sip and grimaced. Though it had become a sort of ritual for them, she still couldn't appreciate the taste of beer.

"Just us again." Gaara commented, turning to gaze at her, his eyes yellow-green under the electric light from above, his smile still a beautiful thing to behold after four years of being privileged enough to see it.

"Looks like it." Sakura agreed, smiling back at him.

They both held the little figures from the cake, Gaara played with mini-Sakura, absently fiddling with the sash and Sakura had mini-Gaara in her lap.

Then, without having to say anything, they both leaned in at the same time and shared another kiss as man and wife, the taste of beer and cigarette smoke distinct and familiar on each other's lips.