Experiments in fiction blathering...
Project Human – No longer just another uber-cool Dieselboy cd.
The standard disclaimer applies. I don't own any characters, any of the songs I mention, etc. I'm just out to see if I can make it work again. I did promise the other side of the coin, after all...
Am running off of the manga & what I understand it to have said. At the point this was written, I was up to 232 and tired of waiting around.
And I believe I'm blaming this all on a residual Goth boy fetish.

Music: Mogwai—Hunted by a Freak (Attention Deficit's mix)


It wasn't until right before Sakura's second chuunin exam that Sasuke decided he wanted to see her. So she went, at first uncertain, hesitant, then angry, for the first meeting with the reason for so much trouble in months.

And she'd been so eager, so anxious when they started coming back from the mission to retrieve him from Orochimaru's henchmen . . . But that had evaporated in the face of the results.

ooo

At first she hadn't really noticed anything except the blond head she darted to, hoping upon hope that Naruto had fulfilled his promise to bring Sasuke back, but had slowed upon realizing that he was alone and beyond miserable. Her surroundings came into focus as he threw himself into her arms and started bawling out his story.

"Yeah, he won, but there wasn't anything we could do by the time we found him. There would have had to have been a medical ninja on the spot to save him, but the wounds Neji took . . ."

Hinata and Tenten were locked together, keening.

"And Chouji... Shikamaru carried him back. He wouldn't let anyone else touch him. He refused. Kiba was wounded, but he'll be ok."

To their side, Kiba and Kankurou worriedly circled Temari, who exuded protectiveness as she cradled a sobbing Shikamaru against her shoulder.

She hated herself for asking. "Sasuke?"

"I did it. I told him I'd bring him back if I had to break both his arms and his legs, and he wouldn't come back, so I did. But... he was lucid. He wanted to go. He wanted power. And because he wanted it..."

Because he wanted it, all of this happened. Something in her hardened. Later on, she would look back on that point as her first step to truly growing up.

Detachedly, she noticed one person trying to evade the proceedings, only to be headed off by Konoha's recently resurrected Beautiful Green Beast. Rock Lee's stance said that he had a declaration to make, and Gaara's expression said that he had never been the recipient of such a declaration and didn't know to run for his life yet.

Lee clenched his jaw against his quivering chin and straightened his shoulders, determined. "Gaara of the Desert, I have given thought to our discussion from earlier! I have decided that there has been too much hurt done to all of us, and that I will try to allay that, starting with you!" He pointed. Gaara blinked. "As long as I live, know that there is no longer a reason for you to be lonely!"

Lee's thumb turned up and teeth flashed in his official Good Guy pose.

Gaara's mouth dropped open. For a second, he looked like nothing more than a lost, bewildered child. Then his mouth snapped shut and forehead wrinkled in consternation. "And they try to tell me that I'm insane," he said, then turned and walked off.

But in less than a week, he was back.

In the meantime, Sasuke's broken limbs had been set but not healed. Tsunade questioned Naruto thoroughly on the workings of their battle, of Sasuke's new abilities, and assigned eight ANBU to guard the Uchiha's room at all times.

"They really don't trust him," Naruto told her later, on their way to work on taijutsu with Lee. "But right now..." He watched the ground in front of him, face twisted with misery. "I don't trust him either. You didn't see him. The only thing that mattered was power, and he didn't care if he had to help our worst enemy or kill me to get it."

"That's not the Sasuke we knew."

"Sometimes people change, though."

Sometimes they found Gaara with Lee, contentedly drilling taijutsu. The Sand ninja wouldn't be away for more than three weeks at a time, but wouldn't stay longer than three days.

"Don't you worry sometimes, Lee?" Naruto asked one day, between visits.

Lee grinned at him innocently, honestly. "No. All he really wants is someone to talk to, to be friends with, I think. Anyway, what's the worst he can do? Kill me? After all I've been through these past few months, I really don't think I'm afraid of anything he could do to me."

Naruto nodded thoughtfully, accepting. In a week and a half, she found the three boys trying to work out a three-man taijutsu sparring situation, and spent the afternoon laughing at them while trying to avoid being dragged in. Eventually her protests were worn down by Lee and Naruto, who promised to go easy on her before proceeding to beat her silly. Collapsing, laughing, away from their game, she looked over to see Gaara watching her bemusedly. "And I thought I was bad."

Inner Sakura screeched with outrage. Outer Sakura bit her lip and glared, then grumbled: "Are you gonna get pissed off and kill me if I throw something at you?"

He blinked, startled. "No?"

"Good!" With that, she ripped up a chunk of grass and pitched it at him. He caught it and threw it back in time to almost get hit by her second missile. Plants, mud, and small rocks flew. Luckily for her, his sand shields had to drop for him to be able to throw things back at her. She managed to hit him once in the chest with a clod of dirt before something whuumped down around her and she found herself digging out of a pile of sand to the boys' laughter.

Gaara folded his arms, smirked arrogantly at her. "Can't you do better than that?"

She spit out sand, shook her head to send it flying. "You son of a –"

"We can't leave you two alone for a minute," Naruto choked out, then dropped, clutching his sides and rolling with laughter.

Gaara looked up at Lee, expression blank. "I need to work on shielding and deflecting while returning fire, apparently."

While still standing, Lee didn't look like he'd stay up too much longer. "I think you get to work on that with her."

And with that, they had pulled her in. Guiltily, she still avoided the bad days, the days that Lee and Naruto tried to walk Gaara through his rages, through understanding something that managed to elude him while still giving him skull-splitting migraines. But even though she avoided the problems, she still became somewhat more comfortable around him.

ooo

Tsunade met her at the door to the building housing Sasuke. Late afternoon's sunlight cast a golden sheen over both her and the door at her back. "Before I ask you anything, I'll tell you that he may not be the person you knew before."

"I understand."

"He's been pretty calm for the past few weeks, which is why I decided that he can see a visitor. Naruto would be a bad choice, since he's the one who brought him back. You're innocuous enough that you shouldn't set him off." She chuckled. "That, and he can't go see the final chuunin battles if he acts up any more."

"He acts up?"

Tsunade considered her, as if trying to decide on what she could say, then nodded. "He hasn't been bad lately, but at first he was out of control. That's why I left his arms and legs to heal naturally. To help keep him from getting past the ANBU before they understood what they were dealing with."

What, Sakura thought. Not who. What. "I'll try not to upset him."

"On the contrary. Talk to him like you normally would. I can't be sure that Orochimaru no longer has a hold on him, but I can't keep him locked up forever. If he can handle your presence without flying into murderous rages, there's a better chance that he can handle normal social interaction, and therefore a better chance that I'll be able to let him out at some point. And also... From what I understand, you were close to him, so you may be more able to see the good in him than another."

"Close to him." Sakura sighed. "Yeah, I guess you could say that. At one point, you could even say I thought I loved him."

ooo

One night, a few months after Naruto carried Sasuke home, broken and unconscious, she had gone over to Lee's for a friendly dinner to find Gaara in the corner, observing the proceedings quietly.

"When'd you get in?"

"About an hour ago," he replied, watching Lee dash frantically between the kitchen and table.

She wasn't sure when she'd realized that he was fun to provoke, but figured it was after one of their dirt wars. Raising an eyebrow at him, she quipped, "So instead of helping, you lurk in the corner."

He met her eye and glared. "I am not lurking."

"Ok, hiding."

He huffed and strode past where Lee, having burnt his hand on something, was jumping up and down, yelping. Seconds later, he emerged from the kitchen with a dripping towel. By that time, Lee was bouncing around the room.

"So instead of helping, you hide by the door?"

She laughed. "I'm lurking. Get it right."

He smirked. She grinned back, and together they advanced on their gibbering friend.

After dinner, Sakura picked up one of Lee's books and sat on the floor to start on it, leaning against a wall with her legs stretched out in front of her and crossed at the ankles. Audaciously, Lee lay down beside her and pillowed his head on one of her thighs, grinning up at her indignant shriek and even accepting the smack she gave him. His good-humored over-the-top pleas about being a wounded warrior needing comfort won her over, though, and eventually he fell asleep.

Sometime later, she looked down from her reading, then put the book aside. While sleeping, the arch of his cheekbones and curve of his lips made his face seem almost noble. She was trying to figure out how she could get scissors and trim his eyebrows into a normal shape when, from a spot on the floor across the room, Gaara spoke.

"Do you love him?"

Inner Sakura clutched her chest, spun, and fell over. Outwardly, she considered Lee, fingers brushing hair back from his forehead. "I don't know."

"How do you not know?"

He hadn't sounded that agitated, that defensive since they had decided that Gai and Tsunade had to know that he was around every so often. She looked up, tried to phrase her answer carefully. "It's not that simple. I just... I think of him as a friend and I –"

"I think I do."

Inner Sakura revived herself for just long enough to fall over again.

He continued, clipping his words, seeming anxious. "It's when you would die to protect someone, right? And you don't want to think about them not being around anymore, right?"

"Oh! You mean... like a friend."

"Of course I do, what else could I..." He blinked, eyes huge, and suddenly was a shocked child again. "No! I mean, that's... Could that even work? And how would -"

She covered her mouth with her hand, afraid to disturb Lee. "I don't know. You might..." Trying to swallow her laughter made her cough. "You might have to ask someone that would."

He shook his head, looking down. Every line of his body radiated bashfulness. And because he seemed open, and human, she had to ask.

"Gaara, why... Why are you here?"

He shifted from bashful to cautiously defensive, muscles tensing like a cornered animal's before she could draw breath. "Why do you ask?"

"I was just wondering... What you get out of this. Here."

His shoulders sank and he looked at the floor. "There I'm alone. Here I have... People I can talk to, and train with, and..." He smiled faintly, the movement disturbing the cruel set of his mouth. "And throw dirt at. Here is... Kinder to me than there."

"But..." She bit her lip and hoped it didn't come out as harsh as it sounded in her head. "From all of this... What do you really want?"

He met her eyes, expression so fiercely needy that her breath hitched. "To understand."

And she might understand. She looked down at her lap. Lee's head was on her left thigh. Her right was free.

You're out of your mind, Inner Sakura told her.

Shut up, you, she replied.

"Gaara... Come here."

He stood, watching her cautiously, then crossed the room to the spot she gestured to. Understanding flickered across his expression, and he lay down, facing away from her, and settled his head against her leg, one hand gently draping across her knee.

Lost child and rabid demon. Monster and human. The haunted look in his eyes wrenched at her heart. Unbidden, she whispered, "What happened to you?"

And he started to talk.

Her fingers crept into his hair as she learned how he went from experiment to liability to weapon. First suicide attempt at age six. First kill before that. And first friends more than six years later.

His fingers didn't tighten, his expression didn't change, but his voice shifted to confused, wounded, a child trying to figure out why bad things had to happen to him. Every sentence started the same way. "And then... And then..."

Family ties not used to nurture, but to control. Loss. Suffering. And over all of that, a mind-shattering loneliness.

Sometime during his story, she realized that Lee was wrong. There were worse things you could do to a person than kill them.

ooo

Climbing the stairs after Tsunade, Sakura reflected on the situation she had unwittingly created. Gaara still trained with them, still talked to them normally, but developed the habit of following her until she either got home or to the nearest secluded area. And then... It was either a murmured "Please?" or "May I?" And she would sit down, and let him put his head in her lap, and would wait, running fingers through his hair, until he seemed ready to deal with the world again. Some nights she fell asleep that way, and would wake up to find a blanket tucked around herself but him still in place, wide-eyed, fingertips brushing her knee absently.

"Are you ready, Sakura?" Tsunade turned, hand on the doorknob.

I'm still not sure if he's really craving physical affection or just comfort... "Oh? Oh, yeah. I'm ready."

"I'll wait out here."

Sasuke turned lazily to meet her as she entered the windowless room. His standard jacket was nowhere to be seen, leaving him in unmarked black clothing. The planes and angles of his face that she had been entranced by before seemed sharpened by his captivity.

He looks haggard, she thought. He looks like he's just getting over a major illness.

"Sakura."

"Sasuke." The word slipped bitterly from her lips.

She eyed the masked ANBU around the walls. He noticed her look and smirked. "Yeah, it's odd. But you get used to them, after a while."

"I'm sorry, Sasuke..."

He made a slashing gesture with his hand, considered her wryly. "Don't be. After all, I brought it on myself, right?"

She clasped her hands in front of herself and said nothing.

"So, tell me. What have I missed out there?"

Shikamaru, sobbing. The dazed, lost look Hinata carried around for weeks afterward.

She bit her lip. "Not too much."

"Getting ready for the chuunin exam again?"

"Yeah."

"I know they had to restructure the teams since so many people are gone. So who did you guys get?"

So flippant, so uncaring. What are you now?

"We asked to work with Lee. We're technically training with Gai-sensai, but Naruto and I go to Kakashi-sensai to work on our chakra sometimes. And then Naruto trains with Jiraya too."

"Lee recovered from his injuries?"

"Yeah, the Fifth fixed him up completely." She paused. Inner Sakura did a belligerent little dance. Screw it. I'll say it anyway. "He was an unofficial part of the party that went out to recover you."

He sniffed disdainfully. "I know. And I still can't see Lee recovering anything."

Her hands clenched and she glared. "He got up from his hospital bed and got out there in time to save Naruto from something called Kimimaro."

"And who saved him?"

Inner Sakura snarled. Fuck your attitude, you won't see this one coming! "Gaara did."

She was right. His eyes widened and he even backed up a step, but then settled. "Because of the treaty?"

Bloated on ego, sweetly venomous, she continued. "Yeah, but now they're best of friends. He even trains with us sometimes."

Sasuke's expression slid from disbelief to something harder, more hateful. "Does he now."

Faced with what Naruto had surely faced, with her former teammate's suddenly unstable demeanor, her sureness crumbled. She scrambled for handfuls of it, knowing that she was talking too much but unable to stop. "Yeah. He trains hand-to-hand combat with Lee mostly, stuff that requires chakra molding with Naruto, and..." Nope, no normal way to put it, so I'll just avoid all of it. Sasuke, honey, I've been known to throw dirt at one of your biggest rivals under the guise of training, and then he snuggles with my leg. Whatever. "And I do a little of both."

His voice followed his expression, rippling with contempt. "Do you." Without warning he moved forward, grabbing onto her arms and inhaling deeply at the side of her face.

Six months ago you'd have been in heaven right now, Inner Sakura mused.

"Sasuke, what are you doing?" She hated herself for the squeak, for the pitch her voice hit at the end of the question.

"You don't smell like him. You couldn't have seen him recently." He let go of her but didn't back away.

"What?"

"That damned demon Sand bastard." Inches away from her face, Sasuke's expression took on an intensity that frightened her. "Can you smell the blood on his hands? Or do you care? Do you think about what he tried to do to us, or did you just fall onto him as the next strong guy to cross your path?"

"It's not like that. He's a friend." Rage was coiling coldly in the pit of her stomach. If he continued, she'd explode.

"Of course he is. Is that what you tell yourself every time you roll over and let him –"

Crack!

Some quiet, rational part of herself noted that Lee's taijutsu drills had certainly upped her speed. She hadn't even known her hand was moving until it had connected with Sasuke's face; and judging from his expression, he hadn't known it either.

His eyes flickered away from their normal color to the fully-developed Sharingan. "Do that again. I dare you."

She shook. "You don't get it. Can't you get past who's around to see who's not around? Don't you care about the people that died trying to save you? The others that should be getting ready for this chuunin exam too, but that can't?"

"They were weak," he growled.

Her heart sank. Reaching behind her, she felt for the doorknob. "At some point or another, we're all weak, Sasuke. Are we all so deserving?"

Before he could respond, she was out the door.

ooo

Tsunade accompanied her to the front door, but stopped her before she could leave. "I knew that you and your teammates had taken it upon yourselves to socialize Gaara. However, I heard you stumble over your role in whatever it is he does here."

The unstated question shook her moroseness away. Sakura felt the beginnings of a blush start to color her cheeks and tried to fight it down mercilessly. I will not blush. I will not. There's nothing wrong with anything I've done here. "Well, I still work on hand-to-hand combat with him, but we all do. I think he realized how bad he was in that after the last exam, you know? And I work on chakra molding sometimes with him, but he's kind of discouraging, since the little stuff doesn't faze him. And anything I can do apparently counts as little stuff. So he mostly works on that with Naruto, because they can keep up with each other." She smiled self-consciously and ran a hand through her hair. "And for a little bit he decided that he needed to work on projectile defense, so I threw things at him until he got bored, which was when he'd bury me alive."

Tsunade's eyebrows were trying to crawl up into her hairline.

"No, no, it's ok, it'd never be much and he wouldn't pack it so I could get out easily and -"

She was cut off by the other woman's low chuckle. "And all this time, you guys have been keeping him out of trouble. I applaud you for not making me regret working out the visitation arrangement with the Kazekage."

Something suddenly occurred to Sakura, and she spoke before she thought. "Yeah, we haven't had any problems at all since..." She trailed off.

"Since?" Tsunade's look shifted to predatory, to the expression of a hunter that had maneuvered their prey into a corner.

Her cheeks were burning. Damn it! It's nothing dirty and nothing awful and nothing to be ashamed of so why am I doing this? "I... I guess you could say I'm around more for comfort than the training aspect anymore. I still train with them but... He hasn't had an episode since I let him... Well, he... I..." Nothing sounded right.

"You mean you are sleeping with him?"

Inner Sakura spontaneously combusted. "No! I mean -" Shit. Shit! Spit it out! Her words tripped over each other in their hurry to meet the air. "He uses my leg for a pillow and apparently it calms him down and there's been a few times I've gone to sleep with him like that but- No! Not like that! I mean, what I mean is..."

"Physical comfort as opposed to anything sexual."

"Yes!" Air gusted out of her in relief. Then she laughed. "I've gotten pretty adept at sleeping while sitting up, you know?"

Tsunade considered her for a moment, touching her lower lip with a finger in a pensive pose. "You do understand that, as the main female in his life, you've taken on a lot of responsibility, right?"

She blinked, confused. "How so? I mean, I... Right now, if anything, he's more open with Lee and Naruto, you know?"

"Any chance he's gay?"

She remembered his reaction in Lee's apartment and stifled a giggle. "I don't know."

"How old is he?"

"I think he's thirteen now, but I'm not sure."

A sniff. "He's young still. We'll see soon enough then, I suppose. There's a chance that things will work their way out the more he tries to come to grips with society." Tsunade sighed. "But as for the real reason I brought you here."

Sakura shook her head. Dismay, in Sasuke's form, loomed up out of her subconscious to smirk at her. "I don't know. He's just..."

"Sasuke was actually on his best behavior tonight."

Wow. "That's... not good."

"It means he's trying, so it actually is good."

"Does he even understand that..." Her throat tightened. "That our friends died to save him, and to save us from what would have happened had Orochimaru gotten him?"

"Oh, I believe he understands. I'm not so sure that he cares."

Chouji, munching frantically at the last chuunin exam. Neji's brilliant arrogance. A tear silvered her cheek, unchecked. "I know what we've lost, but... What else has he lost?"

"That's why we're trying to rehabilitate him." Tsunade opened the door for her. Outside, night had fallen. "If I have further need of you?"

Duty numbed her, but not enough. "Yeah. Just let me know. I'll try to help."

ooo

She picked a rooftop and waited, sure that Lee or Naruto would come to find her at some point. Sometimes she cried for what they as a whole had lost. Sometimes she cried at her own foolishness and idealism. It wasn't until time had worn her emotions down to numbness and the air was chilled enough to make her shiver that she heard the step behind her.

She spoke without turning around. "I'd expected you earlier."

The voice was low, cool, night air and river stones. And underneath of that, all of unholy hell. "I'm surprised you expected me at all."

The leather straps holding his gourd on creaked as Gaara sat beside her.

She bit back sudden uncertainty, disappointment that he wasn't one of her teammates. "How's Lee?"

"I didn't see him yet, but I assume he's training. It's about time for him to step things up again."

Which meant that he'd bypassed the training fields to find her. There was only one reason that he'd come to her first. She wondered if he would want to spend the whole night on the rooftop. But it wasn't his usual request that she heard.

"How was your day?" Cautious, hesitant. As if sounding out the words.

Her reply was no less hesitant, but for different reasons. "It was okay, I guess." Up until I got to see the once love of my life and found out that he's a flaming insane, accusatory, remorseless monster, that is.

He made a noncommittal noise.

She felt the need to keep up her end of the conversation, as it were. "Yours?"

"All right. Temari and Kankurou get here tomorrow for the chuunin exam. I came ahead." He set his elbows on his bent knees, gestured with one hand. "Beat the rush, right?"

His hand caught her attention. Wide, with blunt-tipped fingers, it seemed somewhat outsized in relation to the rest of him.

"Hey, you okay?"

She blinked, refocused. "Yeah. You have to take the chuunin exam again? And them too?"

"Yeah." A corner of his mouth twisted up as he stared off across the city. "I obviously didn't make it. Even if my match wasn't cut short, I was out of control. Kankurou forfeited his match, and Temari was paying more attention to her opponent than to what her opponent was doing. None of us passed. But, against the wishes of some, we get to try it again."

"Things are tense this year."

"Yeah. The alliance is strained, so we have to walk carefully."

We get to try it again. Some... Burnt-out emotions flared. Her chin quivered, and she sniffed. And Sasuke doesn't care.

Fingers reached out, tipped her chin up and towards his curious expression. "You're not okay."

She sniffed again. "I'm fine, I just..."

His arm raised, inviting. "Come here." She hesitated. "Comfort," he continued. "Like what you do for me." Somewhere in the sentence his voice cracked, dropped an octave, and he chuckled quietly. "It keeps doing that. I'm starting to think that I shouldn't talk."

"It's okay," she murmured as his arm settled around her, pressing her cheek against his shoulder. He doesn't smell like blood. He actually smells kind of nice. Sasuke, you're an idiot.

I think this is the first time he's really treated me as something other than a sub-standard sparring partner, or an ambulatory pillow.

"So what's wrong?"

"Sasuke asked to see me, so I went and talked to him."

A pause. "And?"

She bit her lip. "And he doesn't care about the people that died to bring him home safe. And he accused me of..." She sniffled again, wiped at her eyes. The arm around her shoulders tightened gently, but he said nothing. After a minute, his hand crept up into her hair, fingers caressing against her scalp in blatant imitation of the way she touched him.

Wow. That is nice.

You know, Inner Sakura piped up. Once he grows into those hands and that voice, you and every girl in Konoha will be in big trouble.

Huh?

Think about it. He's a quiet, pensive, reforming sociopath that just happens to be obscenely strong, and whose ideas of a good time include training and a few hours of asexual physical contact.

Wonder what he'll look like once he gets older. She glanced over, trying to mentally smooth the rounded cheeks into a final, polished version. Her end result...

If you're right, you're in all kinds of trouble.

But for now, he... actually feels kinda safe.

He turned away from the view to meet her eyes. What she saw collapsed all pleasant postulation upon itself. His voice was hard, flat. All of unholy hell. "He hurt you."

Add fiercely protective to the lineup. Fiercely, scarily protective. What'd I say about safe? I lied. "It's okay."

"No it's not."

"But it's done, and there's nothing I can do about it now but get over it."

"I can do something about it."

For a second, she was sure her heart stopped. The hand that wasn't in her hair reached forward to wipe a tear track away as he continued in a conversational tone. "I could fix it for you."

Full implications spun, landed on her as she stared at him, unblinking. "You couldn't."

"The ANBU guarding him would be no problem. The only thing that would take any time would be if he turned into the second form Naruto mentioned."

This casual reference to his abilities shocked her almost as much as what he was offering. She gripped onto his arm. "No, I mean you can't!"

His voice shifted away from conversational and back to flat, his expression vaguely annoyed. "Why not?"

"Because we can't just go around killing the people that upset us!" She tried to pull back, but the arm around her shoulders wasn't budging.

"If he hurt you once, what else will stop him from doing it again?"

If she didn't stop him, he would make good on his offer, and the resulting battle would kill more people than she wanted to think about. The only thing she could do was head him off at the pass. She glared. "If that's how things should work, then what should I do with you?"

He blinked, then grinned, sweeping from one end of the emotional spectrum to the other instantaneously. The arm around her shoulders relaxed but didn't fall away. "Good save."

Inner Sakura stomped. What the hell is that supposed to mean?

Insane. Completely out of his mind. I don't care what he's gonna look like.

Liar, Inner Sakura chortled.

"Well?"

The question's tone came out pleasant, conversational. She looked up at him suspiciously as he stood. "Well, what?"

"You need to sleep. We have the first part of the test tomorrow."

"Yeah." She considered the hand he offered her, then grabbed his wrist and was tugged lightly to her feet. "I guess I should get home."

His fingers still encircled her wrist. She recognized his expression. "When we get there..."

She sighed, smiling faintly. "Yes, you may."