Oneshot. Possibly post-time-jump spoilers.
I own none of the characters of Naruto.

Toad beats slug. Slug beats snake. Snake beats toad.

That was how the children's game was played, how it had always been played. Those were the given rules. It wasn't until later that Gaara put it all together. In the footsteps of their mentors, the Leaf three he'd faced before were acting it out.

Previously, he wouldn't have believed it, wouldn't have looked at the third member of the team as anything but a determined obstacle. That was before everything went even more out of control, though, and he returned to find whispers about the girl flying around Sand almost as fast as the preparations for war.

Saved Kankurou when none of Sand's medics could do a thing to help him, some said. Trained with Leaf's Hokage, the famous kunoichi Tsunade – and then, even softer: Might even surpass her some day. Had been the one to drag the Kazekage out of the jutsu trapping him... But he knew that.

Logically, it didn't make sense. There were so many factors, so many possibilities, that something as simple as the rules of a playground game almost couldn't possibly apply. The entire concept was ridiculous.

However, he'd always found himself more than partial to obsessing.

Toad beats slug. Slug beats snake. Snake beats toad.

He wouldn't believe it. Her.

Sakura-chan, Naruto called her. Sakura-san, from Lee. "My cute nurse," from Kankurou.

It couldn't be.

See, he told himself, as he watched her batter Naruto for some minor transgression. The game is wrong. And when she looked down at the mention of the Uchiha's name, showing her weakness, her willingness to let herself be wounded... Yes.

Of course, that could still indicate that the roles were reversed with the permission of the participants.

Nothing indicated everything and everything indicated nothing. However, even throughout the sheer frustration of the mental circles he'd trapped himself in, he couldn't bring himself to hate her. He could certainly dislike her, of course, keep a close eye on her, wait in a hallway he knew she'd have to traverse in order to see if there was something special about her that he'd possibly missed before. But with how she looked elsewhere when she noticed his attention, then glanced about as if searching for a way to avoid him before she finally met his eyes... No. Nothing different.

She couldn't be. This small, soft, weak creature... Beats snake. Is beaten by toad.

Well, he'd already learned that someone didn't necessarily have to be strong to catch an opponent at a right moment.

His expression must have shifted; that was the only thing to explain her sudden concern, her approach, the hand she hesitantly extended towards him. "Are you all right?"


"You don't look all right." And then her spine was straightening, chin lifting, a determined medic-nin addressing a stubborn patient.

Curiosity mixed with malice held him in place as she reached out again. Sakura hadn't gotten a chance to thoroughly examine him before, her help passed up in favor of Sand's more experienced medics – medics who knew exactly what they were dealing with. Stupid girl. Stupid girl. Stupid for having looked down, looked away, for her uncertainty, for having made him even wonder, for attempting to walk blithely onto grounds that no training from the Fifth Hokage could have prepared her for.

He watched her face as the familiar tingle of a chakra scan began, waiting the half-second it took before she ran headfirst into Shukaku. The tanuki's reaction was as predetermined as hers, a whisper of maniacal mental laughter at her dramatically whitening features, her retreating hand. It's to have been expected, he thought, even as he started to turn away. The way his emotions spiked meant that Shukaku had taken a direct interest in what was going on, and that if he didn't pay careful attention to his own words and actions then the next rumors to grace the streets would be in regards to his control.

What Gaara hadn't expected was for her to reach out again, to catch his sleeve with shaking fingers. When she spoke, her tone was steady even if her voice was hesitant. "That's... a part of you, too?"

He glanced back over his shoulder, doing his best to ignore Shukaku's gloating. Apparently, if the set of her jaw and wideness of her eyes were any indications, Sakura had put her fear aside in the same manner. He'd already learned that she could do that, too, if she thought her cause was worthwhile.

Being a worthwhile cause to others still felt somewhat new, strange.

He nodded once, without lowering his eyes from hers. "Yeah."

The hand still holding his sleeve clenched, then tugged. "Well," she said, tartly, "is it gonna get out or come after me if I try that again?"

Shukaku shrieked in antagonistic glee at her blatant display of disrespect, demanding that Gaara assert his dominance over her now, before she got any other bright ideas. After all, it wouldn't take very much, just a little bit of sand, a little bit of a threat, and if she happened to bleed just a little bit as well –

Apparently he'd found something that pissed the damned demon off almost as much as the restraint necessary to hold the title of Kage.

Interesting. That alone might be enough reason to want to keep her around.

"No. He can't do anything unless I let him."

But for her to be able to stand up, to push her fear away and be brave, to push her weakness aside and be strong... Then maybe...

"Do you mind, then?"

Her smile took the edge off of her words, and he felt an unfamiliar tightness in his cheeks as he responded in kind. "No. I don't mind."

Because if she could stand up to him, ignoring what he'd been in the past in the name of duty, then she could do it again. Then, maybe, the strength of her body wouldn't mean as much when weighed in against the strength of her determination. In relation, he decided, if someone other than him were to take Sasuke down - Put out his pretty pinwheel Uchiha eyes, Shukaku hissed - then it would be supremely satisfying to see the trump come from a direction the snake least expected. But if Konoha's newest slug, in her combination of ability and fragility, should lack a proper defense...

The ever-present sand on the floor stirred at his thought, raised slightly, circled them in a slow whirl. Sakura paused again, sparing it a concerned glance before she looked back to him. "Does this mean I'm a threat?"

Toad beats slug. Slug beats snake. Snake beats toad.

And should he choose to play... He could be the wild card.

"No. Not to me."