I apologize for the size of this in advance, but I aim to finish it here and now.
I believe I intend to pull out all the stops this time, as things may go.

(Music: Tori Amos & Trent Reznor – Siren, Dieselboy - Hostile, VNV Nation – Epicenter, Aphrodite & Tori Amos – Precious Things)


The hands at her sides tightened momentarily as Gaara pulled back, as if to confirm the truth of her reaction, then slammed into the mattress under her to propel him away. His confusion and shock were both evident in his expression, his voice.

"What? What's wrong?"

Sakura struggled to an upright position, knees locked together, her shuddering breath further destroying her ability to speak. "I... I shouldn't... I, I'm a... I..." She choked back a sob, wiped futilely at her eyes. Perversely, all she found she wanted was to have him hold her until the guilt went away, but he watched the hand she stretched out towards him as if it would bite.

Damn it, Inner Sakura said. You had to go have a psychotic break in front of the person with absolutely no conflict resolution skills.

His breath hitched when he looked down at himself. Her blood on his body only served to hammer home the reality of their actions.

"I hurt you."

The shame coloring his words jolted her into a semblance of coherency. "No, you –"

"I'm sorry. I'll go..."

"No!" She lunged forward to catch his wrist before he could stand. The glance he turned to her hand was cold, hard, and she realized that his pain had shifted to his next logical emotional step – anger.

There was nothing of the person she had gone to sleep against in his expression as he sat beside her, thigh pressed tight against hers. His voice was harsh, sharp, as if to remind her that the wrong word, the wrong hesitation would send him out of her door. "What's wrong?"

"I... I told Lee that I would tell him first, once I figured out what my choice was. And I told myself that I wouldn't let things go too far here, but then they did. And –"

"You didn't want to."

Possibly, maybe, her hand on his could touch the semblance of the human underneath of the shell. "Yes, I did."

As if moving independently of the rest of him, his hand turned palm-up, fingers clamping lightly around her wrist.

"But you regret me?"

Dangerous questions. Dangerous, loaded questions.

"No." Her shame might be strong, but she refused to lose him again. "Never."

But to just go leaping into bed with someone because it seems like the thing to do at the time... That's not how I work. It wouldn't make me noble, a better person. To pass up the rational in favor of only the possibility of something right would make me...

The coldness seemed to be relenting slightly from the eyes that met hers.

It would make me him.

Come to terms.

"Then tell me what's wrong."

She closed her eyes and squeezed her knees to herself, searching for the true root of the problem. It wasn't hard to find at all.

"Sasuke."

His grip on her wrist tightened almost imperceptibly.

Damn it! Clarify, fast! "Since I've been meeting with him, he's been accusing me of sleeping with you. With all of you, actually. He's been calling me a horrible person, a whore for years... And... It just felt like I had proven him right."

A pause. "Why did you even pay attention to him?"

"I heard it so many times..."

Paying attention has nothing to do with it. Tell me you understand. You do. We've been hardwired by those around us. If the word monster slipped from my lips now, your reaction would already be determined.

Silence. Then a soft snarl. "You should have just let me kill him."

"Never the easy way." She stared at the wall and smiled faintly, bitterly. "Besides, then who would help you find Orochimaru?"

"Fuck Orochimaru." The venom in his voice brought her head back around. "Fuck him. Fuck Sasuke too. They don't matter. You do."

Speak so that I may be buoyed by the strength of your conviction. Grant me sureness such as yours.

When her arm slid around his chest, carefully, slowly, when she brought herself closer to press her cheek to his shoulder, he didn't pull away. Long minutes later, his free hand began to trace her spine.

"You're not horrible."

She squeezed him, said nothing. The steady rhythm of his breathing was soothing, calming.

"You're not a whore either. You'd be one if you really had gone through all of us. But you didn't."

My blood on your body is proof enough of that.

Guilt shivered, twisted gently. "I kissed Lee."

"That's nothing. This was something." Fingertips traced over her arm, her side, before digging into her skin.

"He's your friend."

"It was your choice."

This vicious comfort somehow makes me whole.

His breath was soft against her hair. "We need to get cleaned up."

My blood on your body... "Yeah."

They took turns in the shower, each cautious about the new ground before them. She smiled faintly when he handed her a towel, murmured unintelligible thanks. When he reached for the towel she offered, she tried and failed to not look him over. He smiled faintly, fingertips damply brushing her face before he dried himself off, wrapped the towel around his hips.

Maybe things will be okay after all.

What was turning around in the back of her mind suddenly decided to come to the forefront. He told me he loves me.

And I didn't say anything back. I just broke down.

Shit.

His words, from the night before. From before everything went completely out of control. "Is this love?"

I don't know. I still don't. All I know for sure is that I want to be with him, too. But this, I have to figure out.

He turned, facing her as she moved towards him. I wonder if he... Of course he noticed, he had to of. It's just a matter of how upset he'll be that I didn't say it as well.

The almost cautious way he returned her embrace told her that though he was upset, he wasn't going to let on too easily, make an issue of anything.

I really am an awful person. But I have time. Don't I?

Time!

She jumped. "Oh, no. I was supposed to meet Naruto this morning for our run. I'm late!"

Gaara nodded as he released her. "I'll wait here. Sasuke gets his walk in the morning today, and I can't be seen by him." Lips pulled back from his teeth slightly. "And you may not want him to be seen by me."

And now we're back to that.

His watching her dress made her feel more than a little self-conscious. Trying to hurry without seeming it, she strapped on her weights and headed for the door.

Wait.

Spinning to meet him, she pulled his face down to hers. If he was still brooding, it did nothing to hinder his response.

Arms locked around her. "Stay with me," he growled against her lips. "Just for a little while."

I want to. "I won't be long."

She wasn't ten feet outside of her door before Naruto met her, a bundle of agitated energy. "Back inside, get what you need, now."

"What?"

Gaara met them at the doorway as Naruto continued. "Sasuke bolted twenty minutes ago. We've got to go. Now."

Snarling, the red-haired ninja whirled and went for her room, returning seconds later with his sand and another brace of kunai for her. She stripped off the training weights before reaching for them.

"Lee and the others will meet us at the northern gate as soon as we're ready."

"I am."

Sakura checked the weaponry where it was strapped to her thighs. "Me too."

ooo

"Kiba?"

Akamaru yipped at her as his owner waved greeting. "Hey, Sakura. The Hokage attached me to this mission as of a few minutes ago, so all I'm really sure of is that it's another Sasuke recovery deal. Mind telling me what else is going on?"

When Gaara stepped up behind her, Akamaru whined and cowered. The Sand ninja spared the small animal a glare. "If he's going to do this the entire time, you may as well just stay here."

Both human and canine males bristled, Akamaru coming out of his crouch. "If we stay here, how else will you know where and how far away Sasuke is? If time is of the essence again, you can't waste time tracking him. You need our noses."

Gaara snorted, folded his arms. To their side, Lee jogged up, followed by two unfamiliar others. "Guys, these are the two top runners from our village."

"Maps?"

"Here," Naruto said. Gaara accepted them without looking.

Lee. Shit!

Is there any way to do this without it seeming unbelievably sudden and blunt?

No.

"Lee?"

He blinked over at her, tense yet innocent.

So innocent...

I have to. Now. Screw the situation, he deserves to know.

"I decided."

Lee searched her face for only a second. His jaw clenched and eyes closed, but then he nodded. "It was your choice."

She bit her lip, tried not to rush through. "Thank you for understanding."

"Thank you for telling me."

She cringed inwardly. Things won't be the same here for a long time.

In the meantime, Gaara knelt on the ground and spread a map between himself and Kiba, the two others looking over their shoulders. "We'll follow him out. After a certain distance, when his line straightens, we mark our time and location and send it on with one of the runners to where one of the pockets of Sand's forces are waiting – here, or here, or here. The second runner repeats our distance and position to another pocket. Those pockets will use the figures we give them to plot out distances and times, and then alert the rest of the line. It's all jounin that are coming, so they should be able to loop around behind us without a problem, and by following us, reach Orochimaru hopefully at the same time we do."

Kiba's hands flexed against his knees. "Can't we wait for them?"

"It would take next to no time for Orochimaru to transition from his body to Sasuke's. Once one of you smells him, we need to catch up as quickly as possible to try to prevent that from happening."

Sakura spoke up. "Then the plan you mentioned to Gai?"

He scowled. "Only if combat can't be avoided. From there we play it by ear."

The Inuzuka stood, still obviously agitated. "What if the jounin don't get there at the same time as we do, though?"

"If, for some reason, that happens, and we have to fight, then you, Sakura, and Lee slow Sasuke. Leave Orochimaru to me and Naruto."

Lee scowled, sounding offended. "Why you two?"

Naruto and Gaara exchanged glances before the blond elaborated. "It's because... We're the ones most likely to be able to hold him off. Strongest chakra, stuff like that."

A shrug. "Fair enough."

She coughed. "Guys. Talk later."

With a few nods of agreement, the maps were rolled up and they were off.

ooo

For a while, things were as simple as the fluidity of movement, the drive of feet into soft soil, as simple as targeting the next branch to land on. They checked their direction three times before it was clear enough that Sasuke was indeed headed in a straight line. Once that was certain, their first runner was off.

"You guys are banking an awful lot on his following this line," Kiba grumbled.

"He has no reason to break habit," Gaara replied. "And now it seems that he hasn't."

If they start growling at each other, or peeing on trees in some sort of territorial display, then I vote for knocking their heads together, Inner Sakura said.

But his fingers brushed against her arm as he started forward again, eyes meeting hers, and she blushed, remembering.

Better to run, to think about time and their proximity to their prey, to think about marking down their position on one of the remaining maps, then to consider how his muscles bunched and flexed under his skin, the slightest sheen of sweat over his upper lip.

Noon found them still moving. The points on their maps continued to show a single direction.

Their second runner was off.

If Sasuke keeps it up, he's going to come awfully close to Sound.

Naruto jabbed Kiba. "Tell us when you pick up the others."

"Of course."

More hours passed, to the point that Sakura started to wonder if they'd be in any shape to fight whenever they finally did reach their target's destination.

"He's slowing," Kiba said suddenly.

Exhaustion melted away from all of them, replaced by stark tension, readiness.

Lee rolled his shoulders experimentally. "And?"

Akamaru gave a low whine, the hair of his ruff standing up. Kiba didn't have to interpret.

Naruto stared ahead, towards their still invisible adversary. "The others?"

"I can't tell how close they are yet. The wind isn't right. But..." The Inuzuka's eyes were wide, wild. "They're there, right? They're coming?"

"They'd better be," Gaara growled.

Does he worry that Sand would use this time, this opportunity, to get rid of a ninja that's been a poisoned thorn in their collective sides since he was born?

"We've got to stop them, now," she said.

Their dash was frantic yet controlled, silent, each ducking into hiding as their primary target came into view. Sasuke took cautious steps forward, scanning the area expectantly, hands out of his pockets and ready at his sides.

A shadow unattached itself from beside a tree and glided forward to greet him, stopping some distance away. Though Sakura didn't recognize the form, she still recognized the demeanor, the eyes. Still the theatrics. As long as they take time, Orochimaru, I may forgive you them.

To her immediate right, Gaara muttered something she was glad she couldn't hear, glanced around them one last time, then gripped her hand tightly, painfully. Be safe, he mouthed, then disappeared in a silent swirl of sand.

To her far left, behind Naruto and Lee, Kiba looked bewildered. Naruto caught her eye, spoke silently. What's he doing?

She turned a palm upward. Hell if I know!

With a glare, the blond chuunin bit down on his thumb hard enough to draw blood. Though he drew no chakra in order to draw no attention, she recognized the preparation for summoning.

A chuckle, pitched to carry, came from off to her right. "Uchiha Sasuke."

Gaara stepped from the cover of the forest, eyes a little too wide, smile a little too toothy, his voice rippling, liquid. "So pleased to see you here. Along with my next... favorite individual, at that."

All of unholy hell.

I hope he's faking. I hope this is his best act. I hope he's just killing time. Because if he's halfway in already...

You may not want him to be seen by me, he said. You should have just let me kill him, he said.

Maybe he wants this?

A low hiss came from Orochimaru. Sasuke, though, straightened his shoulders and shot back a hostile glare. "Aren't you a little far from home, Gaara?"

"Since Sand overran Sound, I may go where I choose."

Sasuke's blink said that he hadn't known. Gaara leaped on that. "He didn't tell you? Your priceless benefactor? Your weakling martyr? He didn't tell you that he hid while we razed his village, while the people that looked up to and worshipped him died screaming at my hands?"

"Your Kabuto," he sneered, turning back to the older man. "He, especially, since his skills forced his body to regenerate even as I destroyed him. In the end, though, he couldn't keep up, and his pain was..." He licked his lips. "Exquisite."

He's not faking. Oh no. He's not faking it. He doesn't need to. Everything that he is is already his best weapon.

"You're bluffing," Sasuke said, as if to cover the single step back he had taken. "You've changed. You accepted the leash and collar my old teammates offered you."

"I am as much myself as I was before. The only thing that has changed is my proximity to those you once loved. Do you think Sakura didn't tell me about the things you said to her? Your petty accusations? Of course she did. And because of it, I'm that much more sure of what I told you years ago. You're just like me. The only differences between us are that I don't hide who I am, and I have the balls to take what I want. Did you really think your pitiful games would convince her to submit to you? You played them, though, and all it took was being in the right place at the right time to reap what you had intended to be your benefits."

Her mind reeled. He can't be serious. Sasuke intended – He can't be serious!

The expression on Sasuke's face, though, said that Gaara was spot-on.

It was all a sick sort of flirting?

Beside Naruto, Lee dug clenched fists into the ground.

"And because you didn't take what you wanted, or didn't at least go about it in a more high-minded way..."

"You didn't."

"In its own way, fear is as satisfying as pain, as blood. But in the end she welcomed my touch."

Her skin crawled. He can't be serious. He can't.

But I did.

To her left, Kiba gestured, touched his nose. They're coming.

Sasuke shook his head. "I don't believe you."

"You don't have to believe me. All you have to do is bleed. I still want you dead, Uchiha."

"You forget someone," Orochimaru stated.

"Not in the least. Go ahead, take his body now. It means I only have to deal with one of you."

"Maybe I'll take yours instead."

"Someone like you? A self-absorbed, self-righteous egomaniac, that locked up in your own desires?" Gaara snorted, folded his arms. "You wouldn't last a week in this husk."

"I would let the demon in you devour everything, then, and be content with the destruction."

"You wouldn't be around to see it. You could only hope that he ran unsealed for long enough to complete part of your objective."

"That may be enough."

"Then go ahead." Gaara turned completely towards him, opening his arms. "Free me."

The prickle across her shoulders was her only warning of the forest coming to life around her before Sand's forces began to rain from the trees, diving towards Orochimaru with a collective, full-throated roar. The once-Sannin gave a shout of his own and charged at the red-headed form in front of him, who met him with a howl.

The movement broke Sasuke's freeze. "No!"

As he lunged towards the combatants, Leaf's own lunged towards him. Sharingan gave Sasuke more than an edge against his determined opponents. The twin results of Kiba and Akamaru's beast-human bunshin leapt in from either side, but were avoided. She saw a flash of steel in Sasuke's hand before Lee attacked. Only her teammate's Gate-heightened speed saved him from taking a lethal blow.

Damn him! We're supposed to capture him if we can, and he's going to try to kill us!

She skidded to a halt as the transformation began. What the hell?

White skin darkened to gray, black hair lightening and lengthening. With a snap, Sasuke sprouted webby, inverted wings.

The second form?

Undaunted, a dozen Narutos attacked him anyway.

I must, also. Drawing a kunai, she entered the fray.

Lee darted back in, aiming a kick for Sasuke's midsection, but missed and went down. Either Kiba or Akamaru sprung off of Lee's shoulders but was caught, clipped across the clearing and out of sight. Caught up in his fight with the others, Sasuke didn't notice her until she slashed the membrane of a wing open. The impact of its frame against her torso was surreal, as was her brief flight into a nearby tree trunk.

It's a good thing there's this many of us, attacking at once. If he was allowed to follow up on any of these hits, we'd be dead.

Someone bellowed her name, and she staggered upright.

I will not give up.

Naruto tried for Rasengan, but Sasuke landed on him before he could complete it. Lee came in from the side, tried to knock him away, but fell back with a cry, his hand going to a wound on his stomach created by suddenly overdeveloped nails.

She went for the raised hand that was starting to crackle with Chidori's energy, intending to at least slash Sasuke enough to give him something to think about other than killing the blond under him, but caught an elbow to the solar plexus instead. Exhaling hard helped her get past the initial shock in order to get up and keep going, and gave her just enough time to jerk out of the way to avoid the shockwave of Chidori and Rasengan's meeting.

He's stunned. Now.

Naruto drew both feet back and kicked the Uchiha squarely in the chest. She intercepted his impromptu flight in order to connect her foot solidly with his skull. One of the Inuzukas slashed at him as he landed, but was smashed out of the way as Sasuke reclaimed his feet.

Landing, Kiba shivered back into his normal form, then dropped to one knee, gritting his teeth and holding his ribs. Also back in his normal form, Akamaru hobbled up to him, snarling at Sasuke as if to say that they may be down, but they weren't...

Shit. They're out.

"He can't use that shape for too much longer," Naruto shouted. "Keep him moving!" As if suddenly remembering it, he slammed his bleeding hand to the dirt. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

The toad that appeared wasn't nearly as impressive as the one from his chuunin exam, but worked well enough. Lee spun in, connecting a kick with the back of Sasuke's knee. Seeing the break as the Uchiha crumbled, the toad wrapped its tongue around him and bashed him off of the ground.

Undaunted, Sasuke rolled to his feet. Chidori flared to life around his hand as he charged Naruto again.

His attention is focused. Go.

Muscle memory brought her Gai's drills. She slammed the instep of her foot into the back of the knee Lee had already hit, halting Sasuke's forward motion if not his momentum as she barreled into him. Wings battered at her as she latched onto his back, trying for a choke. The arm she attempted to wrap around her old teammate's neck was gripped onto with one long-nailed hand right before Sasuke struggled back to his feet and slung her over his shoulder. Luckily, her momentum went forward instead of down, and she was able to roll out of the fall.

Even as his form started to shift away, Sasuke turned his back on her to strike out at Lee.

Going for the weakened, the wounded first?

Naruto and toad leaped towards him, but were clubbed with one collapsing wing.

I won't allow it.

Lee's kick drove Sasuke back into her even as the Uchiha's hair began to return to black, his skin paling to its normal hue. And she was moving, grasping both him and her kunai as he collapsed down with her.

I'll stop you.

Knives don't need big circles, Gai had said. Big circles are for weapons you need momentum on. The edges and point of the blade call for speed more than power.

The metal in her hand made a tight circle past her ear, impacted down, then stopped.

Everything around her stopped.

In her arms, Sasuke made a soft, wet, choking noise.

It's understandable, she thought, arms and legs suddenly heavy, immobile.

No wonder he's choking. He's covered in sand up to his chin.

Naruto staggered to his feet, stood by Gaara. "Let's only break his arms this time. I don't feel like carrying him back to Konoha again."

The redhead nodded, arms folding. "Two places each good?"

"Yeah," Naruto agreed.

Sand shifted against her slightly. Sasuke suddenly gave a short, high-pitched scream, a sound she'd never heard come out of a human's mouth before, then went limp, consciousness fading.

"You can let go of him now, Sakura."

But I felt the impact.

As the sand began to fall away from them, Gaara knelt beside her. "Sakura."

Her voice was breathy, small. "But I killed him."

"Almost." He tugged her wrist, bringing the kunai away from Sasuke's chest. Below where the point had rested was a small spot of bright blood. "But I caught your arm first."

Her hand opened, weapon sliding from nerveless fingers to impale the ground. I tried to...

"It wasn't bad form. I think Gai would be proud."

Naruto spoke up, glanced to the side. "They're good over there?"

"Yeah."

She followed their gazes to see Sand's jounin forces circling a figure on the ground. Gaara's fingers interlaced with hers. "Sorry they didn't help you guys out, but as far as they're concerned, this one's small fry. And if Orochimaru had gotten away or any of our shinobi had gotten killed while anyone else was dealing with Sasuke, there would have been hell to pay."

Shaking, she couldn't bring herself to care. And as long as Gaara and Naruto were content to talk over her head, she didn't have to.

"The others?"

"I saw Lee take a hit, and Kiba go down. Let's go help them."

Gaara nodded assent. "I'm sure they brought a medical ninja or two with this group. Sakura, are you okay with keeping an eye on... Ah, damn it."

"What's wrong?"

"Shock, I think. You go ahead." Strong hands pulled her away from Sasuke and back into his arms, prodded her body gently. "Sakura? Sakura, look at me."

She shook her head, then yelped when his fingers pressed against her side.

"That hurts?"

Glaring didn't hurt. And if he didn't stop looking so amused, she'd do her damnedest to show him what hurt was.

Even if he said...

"Uh-huh. Can you still walk?"

"Well enough," she grumbled.

When she tried to get up, he held her down with him. "And Sakura. What I said to him... I only was honest enough to make him believe."

Half-truths spun together so well that he couldn't help but believe. In an instant? In the moment between when he left my side and when he emerged? Or has he been thinking about this since I told him, this morning?

His cheek pressed against her ear. "I'm sorry."

Everything that you are.

She drew back to touch his face. "You still worry me, sometimes."

Because he was still damned unpredictable. Because thinking about acceptance and actually seeing him in action were still two separate entities.

Come to terms.

"If I didn't, I'm not sure what you'd be."

ooo

It was with only a little bit of shock that they found that they were supposed to accompany Sand's fighters to what was once Orochimaru's own personal Hidden Village.

"Well, it is a lot closer," Naruto shrugged, rocking back on his heels as he stretched. "So I can appreciate that. And we could use the medics there, and the rest, too."

"Towing Sasuke back along most of a full day's run when Sound is this close doesn't seem reasonable," Lee agreed. Even without his wounds, the damage inflicted upon his body by his use of the Gates had been enough to keep him seated, still.

"And it's where Orochimaru needs to be taken," Gaara said. The tense set of his shoulders and his expression didn't bode well for anyone. He elaborated without anyone having to ask, watching the dirt in front of Lee's crossed legs. "We've broken the village's back. Now it's time to castrate it as well. The execution will be tomorrow morning, and they want Sasuke to be there to see it. After that, he's the Fifth's problem."

The Hidden Village of Sound was nearly silent. Very few faces peered cautiously from windows and entryways to note their procession. Doors loomed open, black. Sakura reached out for Gaara's arm, gestured. "Why?"

"Dissidents. We wiped them out. An open doorway marks an emptied home."

Inwardly, she cringed. "How many?"

"Maybe eighty percent."

This is war. Broken the village's back? Flayed it alive, you mean, torn it to shreds. And it's not done yet.

Draped over Naruto's shoulder, Sasuke came awake once on the trip. His attempts to struggle were halfhearted at best, and when he fell still, defeat was so bitterly etched into his face that Sakura almost felt sorry for him.

Taking up a guard duty position that night, she managed to get a chance to speak to him. Moonlight fell softly across his broken and bound form, illuminating the seals intended to keep him from channeling very much energy should he get free again.

"Sasuke, why?"

Bitterness and pain warred equally across his features, his head rolling to the side to look away from her. "Because I could. Because he offered me power."

"Not that."

"Ah." He almost smiled. "Also, because I could."

And I can see how he would think it would work. Desperate to prove myself innocent to him, I was supposed to throw myself to the mercy of whatever he would chose to do with me. He didn't count on my reaction to the deaths he caused, didn't count on the guys being there for me. It's a good thing, because otherwise... It might have worked.

Not for love. Not even for lust.

"For power."

I was the only thing he was even given a chance to control.

"Possibly." Dark eyes met hers as she crouched beside him. "Gaara spoke the truth, didn't he?"

"He was there for me. All of them were, actually. But yes, he was honest in the respect that he was the only one who really had the nerve to take things that step further."

It was said with no inflection, no spite. "I hope he kills you. I hope you die under him."

She stood, winced slightly as the motion reminded her of her bruises. "There are far worse things you can do to a person than kill them, Sasuke."

Orochimaru tried to escape twice while she stood watch over her once-teammate, but he was apprehended, beaten, and dragged back to his post each time. She saw the end of his second attempt once her guard shift was over, saw his captors effortlessly evade attacks made by a body pushed far past its limits, and couldn't say she felt the least bit of empathy.

So many have died for him, so many more because of him.

If he tried to switch bodies now, they would simply cripple the new one before he had a chance to get used to it, and he would be left even more weak and helpless than he is at the moment.

Should I admire his determination, his hope for the perfect moment, or should I pity his cowardice?

Sakura stopped outside of their assigned housing, a gutted once-home now serving as little more than a barracks, at the sound of the voices. Gaara was already there, talking quietly to a propped-up and bandaged Lee. Even as the temperature continued to drop, she couldn't bring herself to disturb the careful restructuring of their friendship. The air was more than chilly, the wall more than cool behind her as she listened to the voices murmur on, raise in soft laughter, fall silent.

Some time later, he emerged to stand beside her.

"Things are all right?"

"He understands. He also said that if I talk about you again like I did this afternoon then I'd have to answer to him, and that if I ever hurt you he'll kill me or die trying."

The breath she was carefully holding escaped in a sigh, then a chuckle. For a little while, it was enough to enjoy the night's silence beside him, though he didn't come any closer, didn't reach for her hand.

Do I welcome the distance? Do his words from earlier still bother me?

No. On both accounts.

"You need to sleep."

"Soon. Will you..." Keep me company? Be there when I wake up?

"I'm either on watch or patrol until dawn."

She nodded. Appropriate, I suppose, to put the one that can't sleep to work so everyone else may rest that much more safely.

"Tomorrow morning," he started, eyes unfocused. "You have the option to not be there for the execution."

"I will be, though. It's the least I can do – to stand witness for those lost."

He mouthed the words, repeating her silently, then nodded, jaw tightening, staring straight ahead. "If you come, don't leave. Don't turn your back. Not once."

I'm missing something again.

"I can do that."

With a small noise of approval he moved to her, his embrace tense, his kiss brief. "I will see you in the morning."

ooo

Inside the building, Naruto and Kiba snored in tandem. Lee, the only person still awake, smiled at her as she sat beside him.

Your acceptance speaks for your nobility. She kept her voice low as to not disturb the others. "You okay?"

"Yeah, just a little sore. Nothing major."

"Kiba and Akamaru?"

"Broken ribs with one, a broken leg with the other. They'll be all right in no time, too." He chuckled quietly, glanced over to where their one friend was sprawled gracelessly across one of the mattresses on the floor. "Naruto, though... It just seems like he bounces back from everything, you know?"

She grinned. "Yeah."

Lee paused, then spoke again, doing nothing to stifle her vague sense of worry. "You're going tomorrow morning, too?"

"Yeah."

"Did he seem... weird about it? Or was it just me?"

"Yeah. He did."

Something's up. And Gaara didn't tell either of us.

She waited at his side until he fell asleep.

ooo

The morning saw them closing in on what was once Sound's market square, Sand and once-Sound and Leaf filing in from all directions. To her far right, Sakura saw a robed and veiled form that could only be the new Kazekage. Directly across from him, guards held a silent Sasuke upright. Konoha's own collected quietly around Gaara, who stared at Orochimaru as though he expected him to raise an already thoroughly broken body up in defiance yet again. There were more bruises, more wounds on the captive than she remembered from the previous night. She assumed he had been restrained in the new fashion, useless arms lashed to a beam nailed to the post he was once tied to, after his third escape attempt.

Crucifixion causes a slow death by suffocation, she remembered. But he won't have the luxury of that.

She slid up to Gaara's left side, the back of her hand brushing his, in time to hear him whisper, "Formal, all the way."

Three darkly clothed figures split away from the crowd, moved towards the center where the small ring of guards broke apart, shifted away. The list of crimes they read was lengthy, culminating in aiding the rebel faction in Sand's civil war and the deaths of both the previous Hokage and Kazekage.

The new Kazekage's voice was low, yet carried. "Two hours." And she recognized the three circling Orochimaru as what they were – torture specialists.

Because she had promised, even though Gaara's expression as he watched the men work unnerved her, she stayed. Undeniably talented in their profession, the three coaxed brief cries from silence, screams from brief cries, then more screams from a throat already raw from screaming.

Minutes crept by.

Finally, they broke away, turned to their leader. "Kazekage, the time you requested is finished. We await your orders."

She felt Gaara's muscles flex as if they were her own, starting at his spine, working across his shoulders and down his arms, to where his hands clenched ever so faintly.

"The debt has been satisfied by my standards, and to the degree requested by the Fifth Hokage. However, there is still the blood debt to be called in." The Kazekage stepped forward, scanned the crowd. "Temari."

Temari stepped forward smoothly, perfectly, formally. "I, Temari, eldest child of the Fourth Kazekage, renounce my claim to the blood of the criminal Orochimaru."

The Kazekage nodded. "Kankurou?"

"I, Kankurou, second child of the Fourth Kazekage, also renounce my claim to the blood of the criminal Orochimaru."

Oh no.

Faces turned towards them, towards him. "Gaara."

His lips pulled back from his teeth, voice steel over a whetstone. "I, Sabaku no Gaara, third child of the Fourth Kazekage, shall accept the charge of the blood debt, for my father and in remembrance of those lost."

When he moved forward, back straight, the air itself seemed to rush away to avoid his proximity. He formally accepted the knife offered him, then tossed it down. Blade half buried in the ground, it quivered momentarily, then was still.

He knew.

Lee came up on one side of her, Naruto to another. Blindly, each groped for the other's hands, locked on.

Don't look away, he said.

So she watched as he met Orochimaru's blank, pain-filled eyes, watched as those eyes took on a glimmer of recognition, of comprehension, of apprehension. Watched as the sand rose around him, and knew, as the screams started again, that even the three black-clothed figures backing away from Gaara couldn't tear a person apart with that efficiency.

Mercifully, it was over soon. Sand rushed in, shattered bones with a series of sharp cracks that made her stomach twist. When the red-haired ninja turned towards the Kazekage, when he passed a hand over his forehead, he smeared blood across his kanji.

Somewhere in the crowd, with a ragged gasp, someone was violently ill.

His eyes may have been a little too wild, but his question was close enough to formal. "To your satisfaction?"

A nod.

"With your permission?"

Another nod. Nostrils flaring, Gaara spun on his heel and walked away, crowd parting to let him pass.

In the shocked silence that followed, Temari approached, spoke. "It was appropriate. Nothing any of the rest of us could have done would have compared to that."

On purpose. Used.

Again.

Sakura struggled to get loose from the hands holding hers. "I've got to go."

Temari saw her intentions and turned to her with a horrified stare. "You can't! Not now! He's so far gone... You know how blood gets him worked up! Can't you see? He'll kill you!"

She knew the truth of her reply the second the words hit the air, her voice too soft. "Can't you see you hurt him?"

Shaking herself free, she followed the path he had taken.

Come to terms.

ooo

She found him a few streets down and over, kneeling beside a small fountain, washing himself off. The hand she tried to place on his shoulder was blocked by a sand shield.

Does he see us all as threats, now?

"Gaara. Let me in."

The shield fell as he turned to her. He blinked slowly, then went back to the red-tinged water, words bitter. "You may not want to touch me. I'm covered."

"That's why we have water." The serenity of her voice amazed her.

"There's a lot of blood on my hands. Water can't fix that."

"It's okay." Sakura ran a hand across the back of his neck, because she could, and sat on the lip of the fountain beside him.

For a while he washed with a single-minded intensity, rolling up his sleeves, running wet hands through his hair. She watched them come away red with more than cold.

Wow, he really did get covered.

"You knew they would call you in."

"Of course. It's in all of them. Death may be a frightening thing, but death by something like me..." He laughed, but there was no joy in the sound. "That's the worst, the most terrifying thing of all."

Something.

"You're not a something."

"I'm a weapon. I was made to kill. I was made for this."

Yet your very nature seems to contradict itself.

"It doesn't matter."

"Of course it does." He shook his head and growled, then started to strip the shirt away. "Damned..."

Years ago, you would have reveled in this, would have worn the evidence of your actions until it dried and flaked off solely to gloat at the reactions of those around you.

We show you the one side of yourself, what you can be. They push you into the other.

It seemed wrong to ogle him as he thrust the shirt underwater, but the amount of blood that came off of it drew her attention away from his body. Understanding that he was attempting to clean a lot more than an article of clothing, she let him be up until the point that it looked like he would follow it in.

"You need an actual shower. And a towel. And something warm to wear. It's really too cold out here for this."

"I don't care."

One of the runners that had started the trip with them approached cautiously, watching him the entire time, and deposited a bundle of fresh clothing still some distance away.

My presence apparently indicates some measure of safety.

Or possibly not. It was one of our guys they sent.

"I'll tell the others where you are," the Leaf ninja said, then retreated.

With the village as empty as it is, there's a decent chance that otherwise no one would find us out here for a while.

"I'll go get them," she told Gaara, and started to rise.

His hand landed on her thigh, clamped down hard. She covered it with hers, waiting until the spasm passed and he breathed easier.

Everything that you are.

"Now?"

He nodded and let her go. She retrieved the bundle, setting it down beside him. Her chest tightened, impeding her breathing, as she watched him stare hopelessly into the fountain's basin.

"Gaara, come here."

He didn't move, so she moved to him, sitting in front of him with legs to either side of his, oblivious to how the coppery water he'd splashed everywhere soaked the bottom of her dress. He didn't resist when she pulled him in, pressed his damp head to her shoulder. If the smell of blood offended her on some level, it wasn't the one she was on at the moment, so it didn't matter.

Arms went around her hesitantly, then tightened.

Peace. Absolution.

I accept.

"It's okay," she whispered.

"It's never okay."

The grip on her shifted from barely comfortable to painful, but she refused to pull away, instead forcing a smile into her voice. "You're calling me a liar?"

He pulled back, gave her a glare that fell flat, shifted into a half-smile. "No."

"Then don't talk like that." Her hands glided up his arms, stopped at his shoulders. "You're freezing."

"I'll live."

"If I got this cold, you'd shove me back into the shower again. Or maybe an oven this time."

The arms around her released, hands coming to rest on her thighs. "Keep it up and I'll dunk you in the fountain instead."

I wonder how far in he still is.

She sighed, reached for the black shirt at the top of the bundle of clothing. "Here. Put this on, at least."

He accepted it, sitting back on his heels to button it up as she fished in the frigid water for his old one. Looking back to him, she saw that the new shirt was gratuitously oversized. "They do this every time," he grumbled, rolling his sleeves up.

The memory of you apparently looms larger than life.

Every time meant that there had been more times, enough times for a habit to have formed, but that didn't matter. "That's okay, too."

He snorted, finally looked back to her. "Nothing's okay. Don't you understand? This is what I do. This is what they use me for."

She reached for his hands, bit her lip. Let him see what I mean. "I understand."

Gaara rose back to his kneel, hands clasped with hers, nudging himself between her parted knees. "You..."

"I understand, and I accept."

His face was very close to hers, expression half-guarded though his fear and hope were evident. "Why?"

Because I truly have come to terms with the violence that encompasses your joy and your pain, your hate and your love. Because everything that you are needs everything that I am. Because I never could turn you away, and because you knew it.

The simplest explanation worked just as well.

"Because I love you."

He pulled her tight against him, features suddenly hard, a hand releasing hers to wrap itself in her hair. "Say that again."

"I love you."

His lips crushed against hers harshly, with all the viciousness still left in his system. It was easy to let the force of their combined emotions override thought. Just when she thought that he wouldn't respond any other way, though, he pulled back. "I love you, too."

"Good," she tried to say, trying to lighten his mood, but the word was cut off when he kissed her again.

Everything that he is.

The kiss deepened, hands racing, caressing. An arm around her waist drew her hips to his. When he pulled her to her feet, looking around, she knew his intentions. Half pulled, half pushed through the nearest open door, she had the barest second to wonder if he had been responsible for its occupants' demise, to reflect on how that should disturb her. Then the world narrowed down to the sound of his sand crashing to the floor, the hard thigh he pressed insistently between hers, the wall at her back, the barely controlled brutality of his lips, her hands tearing at his clothing as frantically as he tore at hers.

When she tasted blood on his neck, almost washed away yet still distinct, she ignored it.

His fingers found her dry, and he snarled. "You're not ready." The floor rushed up to meet her, his hand pressing her knee to the ground harshly, but she forgave every harsh thing he had ever done to her at the wet-rough feel of his tongue against oversensitive flesh. Sakura grasped at the floor, at anything, hands finally finding places wrapped in his hair, his discarded shirt, body working against the rhythm of his mouth.

It's surely too much...

She pulled him back up, kissing him, tasting herself on his lips as the curve of his thigh found hers and he slid home. This time she knew what to expect, how to move against him, what muscles to clench. She barely noticed when he pulled away from her kiss to watch her face as her release washed over her with a string of sobbing gasps, but when she came back to herself he was still watching, still moving.

If this would be what it means to die under him, then I accept that also.

His voice was strange, rough. "That felt good."

"Yeah," she agreed, not sure how to deal with the look he was giving her.

"Get up."

Confused, she obliged, kissing him once they both reached their feet. It was harder to kiss him with her back pressed to his front, but still possible.

Hands traced over her. "You like me here?" Without waiting for a response, he filled her again. Her palms hit the wall to brace as his motion picked up.

Lips pressed against her shoulder. "Do that again."

She shot him a hazy, unsure look. He elaborated, this time definitely not talking about her back. "You get tighter. Do it again." The hand on her hip circled around, fingers searching, then working counterpoint to his body. His breath hissed against her ear. "Let me feel it."

The second time, what overran her senses wasn't as gentle but was infinitely better, and she screamed. His muscles locked as he pressed further, harder against her, the soft moan he muffled against the side of her neck satisfying proof that she had driven him over the edge.

Arms wrapped around her as she straightened, twisting to rub her cheek against his, their ragged breath mingling. Wanting to face him but still craving the closeness, she pulled free, then returned, hooking a leg over his hip and enveloping him while he was still able.

Gaara touched her cheek, smiling even as he feigned shock. "What, again?"

She laughed, wound arms around his neck. "No, no thank you. Any more and I'll break."

He chuckled. Fingers brushed along her back as he buried his nose against her throat.

For a moment, things were peaceful.

"Sakura!"

The panicked yell came from outside.

Everything fell into place simultaneously for both of them. Temari's warning. His soaked, bloody shirt by the fountain. Her scream.

"Shit," he muttered, before someone started to pound insistently on the door.

"Sakura!"

As one, they scrambled for their clothing. When the doorknob started to rattle, sand slammed into place to hold it shut. The shouts outside took on a new level of panic.

Naruto, and Lee. And probably Kiba too. And there's a good chance of the runners, and then probably some of Sand's guys on top of that, and...

This is going to be a bitch to explain, Inner Sakura quipped.

"Gaara! Gaara, let us in!"

"Where is she?"

"Damn it, Gaara, what'd you do to her!"

Halfway into his pants, Gaara looked up at her, apparently trying to bite back his laughter as much as she was, then turned towards the sources of the noise. "Guys, go away."

Wrong thing to say...

It had to be Naruto that threw the punch, because the chakra rippling into the door made the sand shudder. "Gaara!"

"Calm down, guys, it's okay," she called.

If anything, the voices grew louder – something about protecting, something threatening involving a shoe, a kunai, and Akamaru that frankly sounded physically impossible, and then something about breaking in through a window or another doorway.

Shit.

"There's no easy way out of this, is there," he asked, humor evident on his face as he briskly re-buttoned his shirt.

"No," she grinned back, as he handed her the sandal she couldn't find, returned her laughing embrace.

It's either laugh or die of embarrassment, right?

"But then again," she said as they parted. "Nothing is ever easy."

"No, never." Hands caught hers, squeezed. "Well?"

"Well," she sighed, chuckling. "Here goes nothing."