Sakura woke up staring at the hospital ceiling. She knew it was a hospital ceiling because of the pain that hit her while she was looking at it. It was a different ceiling from the hospital in Konoha, though, and it took her a minute to figure out where she was. She felt the grit of sand all over, and it came to her.
"Suna," she said suddenly, trying to get up.
"Yes, Suna," her shishou said. "Don't sit up. How do you feel?"
Gaara's disheveled red hair was visible behind Tsunade's shoulder. He stepped forward and she recognized his "did I break her?" look.
Sakura lay back and took inventory. "Not as bad as it might have been."
Sakura had a surreal moment, possibly assisted substantially by painkilling drugs, where she realized that two-fifths of the world's kages had been waiting for her to wake up. She giggled, and then her face fell.
"Naruto and Sasuke didn't end up in the hospital," she grumbled.
"Irrelevant," said Gaara, reaching up to flatten his hair.
"It was a close thing in Naruto's case," Tsunade said. "Also, I had to check Gaara in long enough to heal his ribs, so you two are even," said Tsunade, reporting with proud complacency the partial maiming of a foreign kage by her violent apprentice. "And if he hadn't dropped you on your head again, you'd have come out clean."
"How long have I been out?" asked Sakura.
"All night," said Tsunade.
"Yes. If I hadn't been here, it would have been longer. You did get a bit of a knock on the head. But if you promise not to strain yourself, I'll have you discharged and we'll keep that part to ourselves."
Sakura looked at her shishou.
"Let's not give the boys a reason to gloat, shall we?" her shishou said with a wicked smile.
Sakura continued to stare at her.
"Plus, Gaara won't leave until you do." She turned around to glare at Gaara, who stared back, unperturbed as usual.
At that moment, Naruto exploded into the room, followed by Kakashi and Sasuke. He had a battered-looking bouquet in his hand, and he nearly took Tsunade's eye out with it as he waved his arms with enthusiasm.
"Sakura-chan, you're awake!"
"Shut up, dobe. Can't you see she's still in pain?" said Sasuke.
"Hi guys," said Sakura.
"That was AMAZING!" said Naruto, with his characteristic flair for understatement. "Wasn't it amazing, teme?"
"Well fought, Sakura. Any residual effects?" asked Kakashi.
"I've got sand in places I didn't even know I had places," Sakura said, glaring at Gaara, who failed to look appropriately contrite for this violation of her person.
Kakashi snickered, and Tsunade threw the box of tissues at him hard enough to dent the wall.
Sasuke shoved Naruto and Kakashi out the door. "Come on, dobe. Let the harpy get dressed. We'll catch up later." He snatched the bouquet out of Naruto's hand and chucked it at Sakura's head.
"Hey!" Sakura screeched from her bed and fielded the bouquet. "Watch your mouth! Morons!"
But she was smiling. Sasuke had called her a harpy. It was what he occasionally called Tsunade, and it was practically a confession of utmost respect.
She subsided once more when she saw the slight smile on Gaara's face. "What?"
"Nothing," he said, turning to leave. "I need to go tell Temari that she may now plan a celebration for tonight, since we know that you will be discharged from the hospital."
"Ah, she doesn't have to do that," said Sakura.
Gaara shrugged. "She wants to," he said with a finality that spoke of the general incomprehensibility of women. "And we have many friends here with which to celebrate. I am glad you are not badly injured." And he left.
Tsunade checked Sakura's head once again once they were alone in the room. "I think you impressed him," she said neutrally.
Sakura looked up at her shishou. "Why did you pick him?" she asked.
"Because you couldn't fight Orochimaru."
"Seriously, Sakura. I could have had you do it. If he wasn't still a missing-nin, I mean. And a murderous asshole. You realize that, right? You may have been joking, but I wasn't. Yes, he'd have beat you. Handily. But you would have given him an interesting fight. And I'd wager he'd love to chat with you about your original medical jutsu. A chat that will take place over my dead body, by the way."
Sakura stared into space. That took some wrapping her head around.
Tsunade sighed. "The problem was, Orochimaru wouldn't have stopped when it was appropriate. He'd have seriously tried to murder you simply to prove his superiority. Gaara, well. Gaara, because I knew you could figure out how to counter his sand with your chakra control. And if you could do that, it would increase your combat capabilities exponentially. And achieve something nobody had ever done before."
"Because I wanted to see you learn something from the trial, each of you." She paused, as if working through something in her mind. "And Gaara is as protective as Naruto, but much more thoughtful. I confess," said Tsunade, slyly, "I was interested to see what you would make of each other without Naruto as a mediator."
Sakura rolled her eyes and then regretted it, as it made her head hurt worse. "Yes, but it was just a match, shishou, not a date. And now it's over. It wasn't like we had a lot of personal time."
"Is that so?" Tsunade said, neutrally.
Sakura buried her nose in the bedraggled flowers. Was it so? What was the thing that had happened when their hands connected? What had she learned? What had Gaara thought about it?
He didn't seem to be terribly concerned about it. Maybe she'd corner him and talk about it before she left.
Gaara made it back to his office for the first time in three days, and Temari was waiting for him.
"How is Sakura?" she asked.
"Awake and well," he said. He shuffled aside a stack of papers awaiting his signature.
"You seemed to enjoy that match," she said, with a suspicious lack of inflection in her voice.
"I did," he said.
"You can't squish her that easily, can you?"
Gaara leveled a black gaze at his sister. Most people tiptoed around any mention of his history of violence, and if they talked about it openly they did it behind his back. Temari had no such compunction, and he allowed her the tasteless jokes since she had so often been unlucky enough to have a front row seat for most of the worst of it.
"You should invite her back to play," she said, walking out the door.
Gaara stared at the wall, remembering a fire-haired volcano spirit against the noon sky.
"Maybe I will," he said to the empty room.
Sakura realized she was being used as an excuse and didn't mind one bit. She didn't really expect quite as large a to-do, though. She expected a few tables of people, some food, some booze. But, as Kankuro explained to her, in Suna, people tended to just show up. Dinner became a social hour, and that spilled into the streets, and before Sakura realized it, Temari's party was more like a festival.
It was in the enormous courtyard of the kazakage's tower, with large fireplaces warding off the chill of the desert night air. By the time the air was cool and the stars were bright, there was music, there was dancing, and the booze was flowing freely.
Tsunade nixed the dancing and the booze for Sakura, so she sat in front of one of the fireplaces with a tall glass of spiced tea with some sort of cream and accepted congratulations and watched her precious people having fun together.
Eventually, Gaara appeared before her. "May I join you?" he asked. She scooted over and he sat beside her. "How are you feeling?" he asked. "Can I get you anything?"
"No, thank you. This spiced tea is delicious." It was warm and it had some sort of heavy cream in the bottom.
"It's Temari's favorite drink," he said.
"She's the one who gave it to me." It felt weird, a little. Gaara wasn't so much sitting with her as sitting parallel to her. Again with the feeling that he was afraid he'd break something. Was he so afraid of hurting people or chasing them away, even after all this time, all he'd done for his village, all of his new connections? She'd sort of proven herself to be somewhat resilient, hadn't she?
He seemed to be trying to work his way around to something, but passersby kept stopping in to say hello or make their obesiance to him.
"Is there something you wanted to ask me?" Sakura said, delicately the next time they were alone.
"I would like to—would you mind accompanying me to the roof?" he said. "I still have trouble with very large crowds."
They made their way through the crowds into the double doors that led to the residential part of the kazekage tower, and the noise was immediately snuffed out. He led her down the hall and up three flights of stairs, through a steel door and out onto the roof. He motioned her to a bench, himself moving to stand at the roof's edge, looking out. The noise of the party wafted up towards them, but it was filtered by the bulk of the tower that stood between them and the courtyard. The village lay all around them, a tapestry of warm lights.
"It's beautiful," she said.
"Yes," he said as his body visibly relaxed. "It is, isn't it?"
Sakura could see across the city from here and spotted little pockets of people partying. Like they had seen someone else having a good time and decided to make their own little party. "It's the sandstorms," Gaara said, following her eyes. She shot him a confused look and he elaborated. "We are not always able to celebrate holidays when they should be celebrated. People have learned to celebrate when we can. If you were to get married in Suna," he said, "you'd need to be prepared for the entire town to show up to the reception."
"I'll remember that," said Sakura.
"They also have great stories to tell today," he said, with his not-quite-a-smile. "Mount Sunamanjaro was pulled down by a Leaf kunoichi in a grand battle against the Kazekage. You were a minor notable before, being the only female on the legendary Team Seven, and after what you did for Kankuro. Now you're a major celebrity. The few people who were able to see the fight are drinking for free tonight, and everyone else is making up their own stories."
"I'm sorry about that," said Sakura. "The mountain." Somehow a verbal apology seemed inadequate. She wondered if she should write a letter. I'm sorry I broke your geography . . .
"It does not matter," said Gaara. "The location was chosen so that we could rearrange the landscape." He hesitated, and then said, "travelers taking that path will need a new landmark, but I'm sure they'll manage."
They fell silent then, the awkward silence of people with something to say to one another. The sounds of the party below washed in between them like waves.
"During the match," Sakura said, watching Gaara's profile in the moonlight. "What was that?"
He turned to face her. "I don't know."
She thought about it for a minute. "Has it happened to you before?"
"I was sparring with Kankuro once. It was—That was not pleasant."
"What do you mean?" she asked quietly.
He shook his head and looked up at the sky. "I was the source of so much of his pain."
"Shukaku," she corrected. "Shukaku was the source."
He nodded in acknowledgment, in such a way that she knew he'd heard it before and it didn't change how he felt about it. "But after, we understood each other much better. Naruto has mentioned it once, with regards to his friendship with Sasuke."
Naruto and Sasuke. Of course they'd shared an intense combat-centered bonding experience. It was what they did. Sakura let the feeling of once again being left out of the loop in Team Seven wash past her, let it go. Focused on the man in front of her.
"So those were your memories."
"Yes. And yours."
She curled in on herself. Those were intensely personal experiences. Nobody knew about all of them. Well, Gaara did, now. But she had seen his most important moments as well.
"That was so personal," she said quietly.
"There is very little I've done that people don't already know."
Then she realized, Gaara's past was an open book. His most horrifying experiences were on the public record. He very likely had to face people on a regular basis whose loved ones he had killed. He had to allow them their grief, and their hate, and their anger. He had to be the rocks upon which the waves of their emotion broke, and still he had to feel for them, and protect them.
How deep was this man?
She felt shallow then, small, out of her depth, just as she did when she thought too deeply about her own teammates' tragic pasts.
"But our pain is—it's nothing like the same thing," Sakura said bleakly. "I'm not like Naruto. I haven't been through anything that terrible. Petty stuff. Stupid stuff. I still wouldn't dare to claim that I know what it's like to be you, Gaara."
"Is it the way of your team to make misery a competition, too?" he asked.
She huffed at him. "Our team makes everything a competition."
He sat down next to her. "I saw what happened to you. Someone stole your self-respect. They questioned the significance of your existence. It may not have been as bloody a memory as mine, but it's no less painful for you. Losing loved ones is bad enough, but deep self-doubt is a threat to your very existence. You heard Yashamaru. Wounds to the heart are worse than any other kind, and the hardest to heal."
He looked away, down towards the ground, searching it as if the words he was looking for were scattered there beheath their feet.
"And unlike physical wounds, it's not our enemies that do the most damage. It's our precious people that can hurt us the most. And they continue to do it, when we let them. Out of necessity, or ignorance."
Sakura was hurting so much for the memory of brokenhearted little Gaara and the memory of unimportant little Sakura, and all of the broken men in her team that were trying to care for her as best they could, that it was almost a relief when the tears started rolling down her cheeks. It wasn't as mortifying as she thought it would be.
Gaara seemed just as uncomfortable with her tears as Sasuke generally was, but he apparently didn't have any qualms about trying to comfort her in his own clumsy way. Gaara patted her hair awkwardly, and she laughed a wet and snotty laugh.
"I'm glad to know you," she said, sniffling and wiping her face on her collar. "Not just as a friend of Naruto's." And on impulse, she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. Slowly, lightly, as if she was now worried about breaking him.
Except he turned towards her at exactly the wrong (right?) moment, and her kiss landed right on the edge of his mouth. She committed to it then, sliding her lips across his for the briefest second before pulling back. He stared.
"Is this what you do with your friends?" he asked.
Sakura reddened and grinned a self-conscious grin. "Not really. A special kind of friend, maybe."
"And is that the kind of friend you wish me to be for you?" Was that nervousness she saw in his face?
"Maybe. It's a little early to tell." She looked away over the village again, the feel of his lips still warming hers. All of a sudden she wasn't chilled anymore.
When she looked back at him, his face was in profile, and he was in thought.
"Tell me about this surgery that caused so much pride in your master, Sakura," he said. "Is it true that you came to the chuunin exam in Suna with such small chakra reserves? Such a dangerous thing for the sake of your friends?"
She nodded, and they fell into easy conversation.
As the party roared on into the small hours of the morning, Naruto threaded unevenly through the crowd, dragging Sasuke behind him. There had been a drink made of pomegranates. From the extremely twisty path that he walked now, there was apparently other stuff in it, too.
"Dobe, if she wants to be alone, let her," said Sasuke.
"But where is she? This whole party is for her, and she's missing it. And how are you walking so straight? You drank as much as I did!"
"She's there," Sasuke said, nodding his head.
It took Naruto a second to find her, but then there she was, sitting with Gaara on the roof of the kazekage tower. It looked pretty weird from where he was standing. They were sitting with their heads bent very close to each other.
"I suppose you want to go up there," Sasuke sighed.
Naruto watched for another few seconds, swaying on his feet. "Nah," he said. "If they wanted us there, they'd have come to find us."
"That's very mature of you, Naruto."
"That's me, mature." He started looking around for another drink with pomegranates in it. "I want more of that stuff before we leave."
"Well, now that she's got a boyfriend in Suna, I guess we'll have to come out here more often." Sasuke said, and then ran straight into Naruto's back.
"Now that she's got a WHAT?"