Title: From Winter To Spring

Disclaimer: I don't own any characters from the anime, Naruto, but they are superb story fodder, aren't they now?

Summary: After the first time Sakura took part in the chuunin selection exams and failed, she tried once more before undergoing intensive training to better herself, while Naruto and Sasuke both passed and moved on. Their team split, but now that Sakura's all alone an unlikely antihero steps up to make her exam taking team complete: Gaara of the Desert. (GaaraSakura as best as I am able, which may not be very promising, because it is my first fanfiction piece ever.)

Author's Note: This thing took me forever to do, didn't it? It's been a year since I messed with this story. I've been working on my original stories lately and haven't had the time to actually download Naruto and watch/read it. Such is life.

Chapter 8: Damn Cake

"Sorry for earlier. I figured you needed some time to yourself," Sakura slipped out of her shoes inside the door and placed them on the tile before stepping onto the carpet. After a moment's contemplation, he also removed his shoes.

His feet were dirty from his open toed sandals, though Sakura barely noticed such a trivial detail. She did take in his overall state of sweaty disarray as she led him to the living room and motioned for him to sit. "You must be thirsty. Would you like something to drink? Water, tea, coffee...?"

"Water," he replied slowly, unclasping his gourd and placing it gently against the wall before sitting on the sofa. He commended himself for his self-control. The flaring pain in his skull made it hard to see, the lurching in his gut made his breathing laborious, but obviously Sakura hadn't noticed.

She returned from the kitchen carrying two bottled waters in one hand and a small packet in the other. A warm smile spread across her lips as she set the waters down on the coffee table and opened the packet, shaking out two small capsules into her hand and giving them to him. "This is a pain killer. Non-drowsy, of course. I've taken it myself a few times when I've had really bad… um... head-aches."

He raised an eyebrow as he stared down at the capsules. "Why would I need those?"

"Are you joking?" she asked in a deadpan. "I've had SOME training as a medic, you know. You're in pain. At first I wasn't sure, but after watching you closely for the past couple minutes... yeah, you're about to collapse."

"What makes you think I'd take something that could be such a blatant attempt to poison me?" he inquired in a level voice. He was not angry or even insulted, he was merely stating the obvious. "It's happened before. People try to poison my food all the time."

Rolling her eyes, she dumped out the last two pills from the packet and took them herself, tossing them into her mouth with a swig of water. Swallowing easily, she opened her mouth to prove she hadn't hid the capsules under her tongue. "You know, if I didn't know any better, I'd think you were trying to be a pain in the ass."

Not bothering to dignify her with an answer, he gulped the capsules with a drink of water. He leaned back to rest on the couch cushions, closing his eyes against the horrible waves of nausea. Without realizing it, he kept his eyes closed even as Sakura walked around the couch to enter the kitchen again.

His eyes were still shut when she called his name an hour later to inform him of dinner being ready. At the loudness of her voice, his eyes snapped open and he leapt up from the couch to glare around the room as if expecting an assassin to attack from the shadows. He was disoriented, but the pain in his head had dulled a little. I was... asleep? Almost. Shit. What's wrong with me today?

"Hey, feeling better yet?" Sakura walked in carrying a tray with their dinner. He glanced at her from the corner of his black rimmed eyes, taking in her appearance. Her bright personality, her bright appearance...

"I don't belong here." he muttered, turning to pick up his gourd.

Sakura watched him, confused at his sudden switch from comfortable to irritated. Placing the tray on the table, she faced him and said, "I really wish you wouldn't go yet... not until you've had dinner."

"Are you playing with me?" he demanded in a quiet tone. "Have you any idea what today means?"

"No... tell me. I want to know."

His eye twitched without him realizing it. Did she really believe it was so simple to understand someone like him? That he could find the right words at her request? His childish reply burst out before he could stop, "I don't want to tell you! I shouldn't have to tell you."

"You brought it up," she pointed out, her patience finally wearing thin. "If I have to be your partner, I should at least know what makes you tick. How am I supposed to trust you with my life on the battle field if I barely know anything about you!"

"Why should I tell you? So you can turn on me after this stupid exam is over?"

"Do I look like an idiot?" she laughed. "You and I both know that if I ever 'turned' on you, I wouldn't be alive for very long."

Her laughter at the absurdity of the idea, instead of irritating him, calmed his irrational anger. Without thinking about it, he smirked at her words. "True."

"I'm so glad the thought of my death makes you smile," she said dryly, rolling her eyes at their similar sarcasm. "I was beginning to worry you never found anything funny."

"With a life like mine, humor is a luxury. Though I suppose you could call my very existence a joke." he muttered so quietly that she continued to walk back into the kitchen as if she hadn't heard. Not quite sure why, he found himself still seated upon her return and she beamed even wider at him, setting the silverware in its place.

"Here we go," she dished out the rice into serving bowls and served the curry topping to the side. "It's not the best I've ever made, but it'll do!"

He accepted the meal without a word of gratitude, though it was flattering enough that he ate it at all. With a grim expression, Sakura remembered the first time Naruto and Sasuke ate a meal she had prepared. So many years before now, her cooking had been awful. It hadn't improved very much since.

Halfway through the meal, a loud banging on the front door made Sakura jump to her feet, heart pounding in her chest. "What the? Who does that to someone else's door?"

Gaara watched her, his face expressionless as she raced to the door. He was certain he knew who stood beyond the door frame.

"Naruto, you IDIOT!" Sakura's angry shriek filled the apartment seconds after opening the door. "Sasuke, what's the big deal letting this dumb shit hammer down my door like he's got the money to pay for repairs!"

"Where is he! Sasuke told me Gaara's acting really creepy… oh my God! He's eating your food! Nooooo!" Naruto fell to his knees inside the door and cried out fallen-hero style. "Sakura, you're killing him!"

One swift blow to the head later, Naruto was a crumpled heap on the ground and Sasuke was stepping over him to enter the small apartment. "Hey."

"Hi, Sasuke. So you guys came to check up on me?" Sakura asked, hands on her hips as she raised one eyebrow in irritation. Sasuke shrugged, hands in his pockets, far too awesome to use words. "Okay, still haven't developed mind reading yet, Sasuke, but I'll let you know when I do. You guys want to have dessert with us? We're almost done with dinner."

At the mention of sweet stuff, Naruto revived himself, springing up to flex his muscles and pose. "Yes! What's for dessert?"

Gaara watched the entire scene play out in front of the door, his hand still holding a full spoon of curry and rice halfway to his mouth. They were all so… stupid… the sheer intensity of it distracted him. He dropped the spoon back onto his plate and leaned against the couch, pressing his hands against his stomach to settle it. Just the sight of Naruto made him lose his appetite. The horrible nausea rippling through him didn't help his stomach very much, either.

Once everyone was happily seated around the low coffee table, Sakura cleared away dinner and brought in a massive chocolate cake with a cherry on the very top. Naruto whistled as Sakura sat the cake down on the table. "Wow, you've gotten way better at cooking since we were little, Sakura-chan! That actually looks edible!"

Sakura's grip on the cutting knife tightened and she fought against her urge to slice Naruto a new mouth somewhere else on his body. Sasuke rubbed his eyes and muttered, "Naruto, you do realize she's the one with a knife right now?"

Gaara watched in silence, confused as to the interaction between these three. It was obvious Naruto irritated both Sasuke and Sakura. Why did they let him stay? Sure, the fox demon-possessed boy was handy in a fight, but so was Gaara and yet his siblings never kept him around during their off time.

What was so different here? What made Naruto special?

"Idiot! I'll have you know that my cooking is a thousand times better than the last time you tried it," Sakura stated, shoving the knife into the cake to make the first, clean cut. Before she could finish cutting the slice, Naruto grabbed the knife and cut away a good sized slice that consisted of 1/3rd the total cake.

"Anything times zero is still zero, Sakura," Sasuke informed her as Naruto gulped down the large chunk of cake while Sakura shook with indignation.

Naruto held his hands to his throat and made gagging noises, twisting his face into expressions of exaggerated pain as the cake went down his throat.

"I can't believe this! It's not that bad!" Sakura frowned, eyebrows drawn together in frustration as Naruto continued to fake die all over her coffee table.

The noises in the room mingled together into one large clatter of pain for Gaara's ears. He squeezed his eyes shut and bit his lower lip as he struggled to maintain a balance within his psyche. Vaguely, he realized Sasuke and Naruto continued to tease and taunt Sakura over something as meaningless as her cooking.

What use did a ninja have for cooking?

Before he could consider a logical answer, Gaara grabbed the serving knife and hastily slashed out a handful of cake. Knife in one hand, cake in the other, Gaara bit off a mouthful of the chocolate mass as he glared at Naruto and Sasuke, wordlessly daring them to say another word about Sakura's cooking.

The room grew silent as Gaara continued to chew and swallow before growling, "There's nothing wrong with the damn cake."

Sakura stared at the red haired ninja, his mouth smeared with chocolate, and could think of nothing to say. Sasuke and Naruto finished their dessert quietly, except for the occasional gag from Naruto. They left within fifteen minutes of the uncomfortable scene.

Seeing them to the door, Sakura waved as they departed. Sasuke turned to her and hesitated, looking passed her to where Gaara still sat on the floor of the living room. After a moment, he shook his head and said, "If you need anything at all, you know where to find me."

Taken back by the worry in his voice, Sakura smiled and nodded. "Thanks, but I'm fine. I'll see you tomorrow, Sasuke."

"Hn," Sasuke turned abruptly and strode away into the night. Sakura watched him fade into the distant street, the memories of her girlish crush on him returning without warning. She had pleasant feelings about those times, but unrequited love, puppy love, could only go so long…

A voice near her ear startled her out of her thoughts. "How long do you plan on standing there with the door open? It's cold."

Spinning around, Sakura found herself inches away from Gaara. He stared at her with eyes bright blue-green, his pale face even more ashen as he struggled with the sickness inside him. Before she could get a grip on her surge of emotions, he was walking toward the living room again.

Sakura stood, dumbfounded for a few more seconds before a little grin wormed its way across her face. She shut the front door and sighed, tired after a long day. She prayed that tomorrow would work out better for her and her newfound teammate.