Naruto held onto his unspoken promise for days, certain that his silence about the plan involving Sasuke was for Gaara's protection. But the more he thought about it, and the more he picked up from Gaara's impromptu diplomatic sessions about the intricacies of leading others . . . the more he became sure that something was horribly wrong.
The relative warmth of the administrative building wrapped around him as he closed the door to the outside and scowled at it for good measure. He hated the climate there, hated how Sand's burningly hot days and freezing cold nights made it a miserable place to live—but he'd weather whatever it could throw at him tonight, if it meant he got the chance to speak to Gaara in private.
"You can't hope to keep control of everyone all at once," Gaara'd said offhandedly that afternoon. "But if you can convince them that they're doing something of their own volition and for some intangible greater good, they'll control themselves for you."
It'd still taken hours for it to click that that's what was being done to him.
So he was going to try to talk sense into Gaara, who'd been honing his own abilities to manipulate people for years, who'd been manipulating him for the past week . . . and who'd just succeeded in convincing Sakura to spend the night with him. Naruto scowled to himself as his mind ran through the possibilities—possibilities Gaara'd taught him to recognize. It wasn't really his business—okay, so Sakura would beat the hell out of him for being nosy if she thought that's what he was up to—but with Sasuke a factor, there wasn't any way things wouldn't get—
"What are you doing here?"
Gaara's voice coming from right behind him pretty much scared the shit out of him, and he whirled to cover how much he'd jumped. "Looking for you." Then, offended that he'd been snuck up on: "How'd you know I was out here?"
Half-hidden in the shadows, Gaara gestured towards the sand-covered stones of the hallway. "I can tell where you're walking."
But he could've sworn there hadn't been that much sand laying around a few days ago. That could only mean . . . "How much do you have like this?"
"The entire building. I reassigned the sentries; tonight, this is mine."
He'd be less disturbed if he was sure Gaara wasn't capable of burying the whole structure, them included, if something went wrong. Or if he was sure this demonstration of power wasn't a subtle warning.
But if it was a kind of warning, if it was Gaara effectively trying to chase him out of his territory . . . Then he couldn't back down.
He scowled defiantly and dove headfirst into his reason for coming. "Did you tell her yet?"
"Tell her what?"
Naruto wasn't in the mood for any more games. "About your plan, how Sasuke might come back."
The redhead's chin lowered, his standard scowl becoming a little more pronounced. "No."
For the first time, he saw a second of hesitation as Gaara balked at answering. But as soon as he'd noticed, the moment was past. "I have no reason to."
"Yes you do!"
The response was as smooth and mild as the questions Gaara'd asked to walk him through how he'd teambuild or strategize in a fight: "Tell me why."
"Because . . ." Because Gaara'd made this another mock battlefield, and he couldn't back down without losing face. But because he'd learned to listen, Naruto heard the hint of desperation in his own voice. "It's not right. That's not something you do to the people you care about, you know?"
Gaara watched him owlishly. "Why?"
"Because . . ." His fists clenched as he fought for a reason Gaara wouldn't be able to blow off. Rationale, he told himself, make it seem reasonable, give him a solid consequence to worry about. "How do you think Sakura-chan's gonna feel if Sasuke just shows up and you haven't warned her?"
"But if he doesn't, then I'll have upset her for nothing."
Naruto clenched his teeth and reminded himself that Gaara didn't exactly get to be Kazekage by being kind to people. But if that's how things were going to be . . . He had one last weapon, one last terrible thing he could say to bring things into perspective. Now it was his turn to balk.
Gaara took his silence as an opportunity to press his point. "It's not dishonesty, it's just that I haven't told her." He shrugged. "It was just an idea, anyway. If it works I'll deal with the consequences—I'll tell her why I made my choices. But if it doesn't, I'll have gotten time . . . time with both of you."
The faint touch of the compliment swayed his resolve—and as Naruto felt it waver, he set his feet and spit out the question he hadn't wanted to use.
"Didn't you say that using and misleading people like this was what your father did?"
Gaara's mouth tightened and chin lowered. He seemed to take on mass from the shadows around him, suddenly appearing taller and that much more dangerous, practically oozing black malice. "I am not. Like. Him."
Well, now he'd gone and fucked things up. He'd shoved Gaara out of his comfort zone with threats to the thing he wanted, then slapped him with a comparison to a man the redhead obviously hated—and now the guy'd gone feral. Going head-to-head with Gaara like this seemed about as sensible as getting into a staring match with Itachi—but damn it, someone had to cut him off. "I never said you wanted to be. I just need you to tell me where you'll draw the line."
Gaara suddenly seemed his own size again, and that much less sure of himself.
"I know you have to lead people, and that sometimes you have to not tell them absolutely everything . . . but tell me how you'll know when to stop."
No response. Nearly beside himself with frustration, Naruto snapped, "Damn it, Gaara, you—"
"I know." The redhead sighed and looked away. "Would you believe me if I told you I didn't want it to come to this?"
"I'd want to."
Green eyes focused on the floor, and Gaara's arms folded uneasily. "When I'm assigning missions, I have to know how far I can push the teams while keeping anyone from getting hurt. Here . . . I thought I was keeping her from getting hurt."
But if the tension on Gaara's face was any indication, he'd been trying to protect himself as well. The realization made some pained, tense thing in Naruto's chest relax—if what Gaara was doing was something he could understand, he could find a way to talk the guy past it.
"I can see why you didn't wanna tell her," he tried. "Sakura-chan gets . . . weird sometimes, you know? But . . . Right now she trusts you. Do you think she'd trust you if she found out on her own?"
"She said she could love him even though she doesn't trust him," Gaara glowered; then he straightened, jaw clenching determinedly. "But I'm better than him."
He'd taken the thought path right to where Naruto'd hoped he'd go. The blond shot his friend his best, cockiest smile before delivering his final challenge: "Then prove it."
Gaara's posture relaxed a little, and he snorted softly. "Do you always try to protect people from other people's good intentions?"
"Sometimes," he grinned; then sighed and met the other's eyes. "Will you tell her?"
"Okay. I'm gonna . . ." He gestured to the door and gave a wry half-smile. "You know that your weather sucks, right?"
The smoothing of Gaara's forehead and relaxation of his mouth were still steps away from a smile, but they'd do. "I can't do anything about the temperature."
"I figured," he said, and headed towards the door.
"Naruto," Gaara called, and he turned to meet the redhead's calculating gaze. "I want to fight you again sometime."
"Sometime," he echoed with a weak smile, and kept walking.
He'd done it. In less than a week, he'd pushed Naruto until the blond knew how to plot and delegate his way through all sorts of diplomatic mayhem—as well as to recognize when he should stop coercing and go for blood.
And now, Naruto'd turned those new skills on him.
Gaara scowled as he headed back to his rooms. On one hand, it was far too amusing to know he'd soon drop Naruto and his newfound penchant for cutthroat diplomacy in the Hokage's lap like a live exploding tag. On the other . . . It was a long shot that Sasuke'd come back, anyway. Rumor needed time to grow; he'd given it a week. And if he factored in the travel distance . . . he doubted the younger Uchiha would show up in time to see his brother alive at all.
And if he arrived late . . . There was nothing saying that Leaf ever had to know. And if that was the case, Gaara could afford to be generous and send them Itachi's corpse.
He wanted to ignore Naruto's advice, to hold on to the information until Sakura was safely away. The only way he could be sure things would go wrong would be to tell her. Because if he didn't . . .
The memory came almost unbidden: her in front of him at her door, her hand on his chest, and the color suffusing her cheeks as she said that yes, she'd stay with him that night.
Convincing her hadn't been a problem. Sneaking her back into his quarters in order to allay her worries about being seen, about the rumors picking up again, had been no problem. And the way they'd moved around each other, with him on edge and her shyly skittish . . . That'd been the closest thing to a problem they'd had.
Until Naruto showed up to insist he not close his eyes to the possible future.
No, he couldn't just ignore what the boy'd said. And now it seemed his only course of action was to see how Sakura would take his news.
It wasn't that he was afraid of throwing everything away. It was that he was terrified of how she'd react if she thought he was throwing her in particular.
She was where he'd left her, propped up on one elbow on the couch, the blanket he'd already started thinking of as hers draped across her stomach and legs, and he stopped his approach in the middle of the room in order to look her over. It was almost like the nights she'd spent there before her teammates returned—except this time the half-lidded gaze she turned up to his was deliberately, teasingly provocative, and the old black shirt she wore was one of his own. And he had no idea what she had on under it.
And because of her wordless encouragement as well as Naruto's misgivings, he had to tell her.
"Do you remember when you challenged me before our first chuunin exam?" When she'd been the only one in her team who remembered that he had no right to be in Leaf without permission—and the only one with the gall to confront him over it.
She blinked, then brightened. "Now that I think about it, yeah. Why?"
"If you'd known what I was then, would you still have confronted me the same way?"
"If I'd known who you were then," she corrected gently, "I still would've."
The corners of Sakura's mouth turned downward. "Because . . . a shinobi shouldn't let fear stop them from anything, and because it was the right thing to do."
He stood silently, hands at his sides, sorting his thoughts as her worried frown grew.
"Gaara, why are you asking me this?"
Damn her. And Naruto. And both of their tendencies to make him think in terms of morals.
"My shinobi have made no secret of the fact that we will execute Uchiha Itachi in the morning. Tonight would be the last chance Uchiha Sasuke has to come for him."
Her hands clenched in the blanket as she sat up, her interest crumpling to dismay. "You mean . . . You think he'll . . ."
"There's no way to tell but to wait."
Distress shifted to indignation as she shook her head and demanded, "But . . . why?"
"For Leaf. It'd restore one of your oldest bloodlines if we were able to recover him." And it'd be reparation for Naruto's loss, repairs for Sand's status, a buffer for the extra time Leaf's shinobi needed to heal and Sand's shinobi needed to wrest information from the missing-nin—
And it didn't seem that the politics of it concerned her. "No—why didn't you tell me?"
Baki'd told him that folding his arms made him look standoffish, so he clasped his hands behind his back instead. "You knew there would be some things I wouldn't be able to tell you."
"Secrets? Things that had to do with the village? Yes, I knew that." Her hands raised to her hair, then dropped with short, jerky movements. "But this isn't like that."
But he couldn't explain it to her. Not then.
When no further words came, she looked away. Her hands clenched to fists and shoulders shuddered—then she lurched to her feet. "I need a minute."
The door to his balcony opened, letting in a burst of cold night air, and closed behind her just as quickly. After a moment, Gaara took her place on the couch. It shouldn't take her long to see the sense in his logic, after all. She was a ninja—she should be able to push her emotions aside and—
He shook his head in frustration. This was Sakura, whose feelings shifted and churned and overflowed like an open water bottle being rolled down a hill. And as the decision now rested in her hands, held by the whim of her fluctuating emotions, he could only wait for her to come back in from where she was . . . Weighing. Judging. Deciding if whatever they had was something she needed to step away from. The full gravity of the situation sank in, and he remained still, hands on his knees.
This wasn't something he'd wanted.
And she'd want a reason, too—one he refused to fully admit even to himself; one he wasn't ready to give. And if he couldn't give the reason . . .
He shouldn't have listened to Naruto.
But if he didn't know where to draw the line with his important people, if he couldn't trust in their stability enough to be honest about things that might hurt them . . .
Shukaku curled into a satisfied, smirking ball in the back of his mind, cackling faintly about how badly he'd fucked up. After all, didn't he expect this to happen? Hadn't she already let him know where the Uchiha stood in her thoughts and memories?
Minutes slowly crept past, leaving him to eventually wonder what would bring her back inside first—her decision, or the temperature. But she looked unconcerned with the cold as she slipped back through the door. The utter defeat etched into her face brought him to his feet, though he stopped as she shook her head. "Gaara, I . . ."
Her breath hitched, and he realized she was finally crying.
"I don't understand," she finished. "Are—" Her temper snapped, and her fists clenched. "Are you trying to make me choose now, before anything else happens between us? Is that what you want?"
"I didn't want to tell you at all," he growled in reply.
"Because . . ." Her face fell. "Oh, Gaara. Do you . . . Do you really think that of me?"
"If this worked, you'd be leaving with him. And if you knew, you'd be thinking of him." He looked down. "What am I supposed to think?"
Her movements slowed, lips pressing together as she shook her head. "I . . . I don't know."
He hadn't intended this: the crumbling of her defenses, the breaking of her faith in him. His hands raised towards her in a unconscious gesture of comfort, but stopped.
"Gaara . . ." Light glimmered on the tear tracks on her cheeks. "Just tell me why. Not some made-up reason, not what you think I want to hear . . . just why."
All it took, Temari'd told him once, was just for you to open up so we could understand, and to have enough patience with us that we could open up, too.
It'd be easier to cut himself open, to place his still-beating heart in her battered medic's hands—but words had to make do where demonstrations would fail.
"Because when you leave, then this"—his gesture encompassed the space between them, the empty room, the otherwise silent night—"is all I have left of you."
His fists clenched, and he forced them to relax. "I want these hours without him, without worry . . . because they may never happen again."
There. He'd said it. And now, she'd see him for what he was—weak, not fit to be her shoulder to lean on . . . but instead more needy, more desperate than she'd been when she first stood alone before him.
Silence, and the space between them; as they waited for dawn, for her teammate who might be running into a trap because he didn't know how to let go.
Sakura spoke first. "Gaara . . . Don't think that . . ."
She didn't finish, and he watched her shake her head as she struggled with words. And in the end, she gave up on speaking entirely. Their arms fit around each other with the ease of familiarity, then clenched with the force of matched panic.
We made this weakness in you, Baki'd said. Yes, they'd made it—and now he had to kill it. But to do that he'd have to step back, to make distance, to not rub his hands against her bare arms in an attempt to bring their warmth back. And as she pressed her chilly cheek against his, he realized that this addiction couldn't be broken by his will alone.
"Did you think I'd have spent the week running from you?" she whispered.
"I don't know," he said, and felt her flinch. "I've heard you talk about him. You said you'd still be able to love him, no matter what he'd done. If I gave you the choice between us, I can't . . ."
She pulled back a little to see his face, and he continued angrily.
"If you want someone who wouldn't worry, someone perfect, you've come to the wrong place." He couldn't help but add, spitefully, "But you won't find them anywhere else, either."
"I know." Something hardened in her features, a closing off, and his heart sank. So this was it.
Years of training helped him push the ache aside, to replace it with cold that'd hopefully remain for as long as she would. And if it seemed his emotions would get the better of him . . . he could still have a few more hours with the missing-nin before dawn came.
As long as he didn't take it out on her, it didn't matter what he did.
"Gaara . . . It's not that simple. You both mean something to me, but you're . . . You're you. You're . . . something completely different from what he could ever be."
A demon-possessed bloodlust-driven mass-murdering insomniac with a debatable grip on his sanity? Yeah. Something he was sure Sasuke strove for.
She caught his hand and pressed it against her chest so he could feel the beat of her heart under the softness. "Do you understand?"
That what he'd done would be a proof positive indicator of her own ability to move beyond the past? That, by choosing this means of execution, he'd irreversibly altered his relationship with both Leaf-nin?
That no matter what, the way his hand fit the curve of her body still caused an undeniable physical reaction?
Her hands loosened their grip on him, then let him go entirely as she took a step back. And as his mind raced, presenting him with image after image of her happy, her smiling, her trusting, her close against him, Sakura wiped at her cheeks with the back of her hand and reached for the hem of the shirt she wore, rubbing it consideringly between her fingers.
Even a rejection of his clothing . . .
He wouldn't blame her, hurt her for it. Not when he still fought with himself to make mental distance, to break his own need for her down until he could function again. No—no matter what, she'd walk away unscathed. What would happen to the Uchiha below them, though, would be a terrible accident—and what would befall the other, should he arrive, would be even worse.
"I think I need a shower," she said—and in one fluid motion, she pulled the shirt over her head.
She wasn't wearing anything under it. And as his thoughts tumbled over themselves in an attempt to make sense of the gesture—she was taunting him, she hated him that much, she'd lost her mind, she . . . wanted him?—Gaara moved only to grasp the discarded shirt that she pressed into his hands.
And if he looked beyond the planes and curves, the cream and pale pink of skin the sun wasn't allowed to touch, he could see the tense set of her jaw, the warring emotions in her eyes.
Her fingertips brushed his wrist. "Will you . . ." Then she bit her lip, turned, and strode into the bathroom as if going into battle. She didn't close the door; and in a moment, he heard the water start to run.
And as he forced his racing thoughts into some sort of understandable shape, he came to one: It was not a rejection. He didn't know what it was—a physical manifestation of her decision, a movement towards seduction, a way of telling him where he still stood . . . but it was definitely not a rejection.
Obscurely, it made him angry. She couldn't just say it, could she?
And if he'd read her wrong, she'd . . . Gaara shook his head, frustrated with his own second-guessing. It didn't seem like there was any way this gesture could be misread.
There was no sound from her as he stalked into the bathroom, as he brusquely stripped off his own clothing. He stepped into the shower stall fully aroused yet fully prepared to maul her, and the step she took to the side still felt like a retreat. Impulse tore at him as he reached for her through the water's warm spray: He should, he should . . .
"Gaara," she breathed, and the sound bled his hostilities away. What he'd intended to be a rough touch instead brushed gently over the warming skin of her sides as her arms wound around him, and he licked the droplets of water off her shoulders so he wouldn't have to look her in the eye. Then her teeth were against his earlobe in the way she knew he liked, her hand at the small of his back pressing his hardness between them and against the soft, wet skin of her stomach . . . and as any last inhibitions fell away, he moved to return in kind, to learn the curves and intricacies of her body with his lips, hands, and tongue. Her hands finally encircled him where he wanted touched most, their grip strong and sure and roughened by hard-earned callus; and since he couldn't bite his own lip, he bit her instead.
It took far too long for her to bring one leg up alongside his hip, to brace her foot on the opposite wall. And as his need drew close to physical pain he felt her guiding him, felt the sensation enveloping him change from wet and strong to wet and slick and tight.
Rational thought fled but instinct took its place, pushing him deeper. Sakura's muscles clenched and shuddered around him, her eyes tightly shut—but her hands at his sides still pulled at him, her hips angling to take him completely in. And carefully, slowly, they found a deliberate back-and-forth rhythm; and as their pace evened out and he decided that she couldn't possibly feel any better, she cupped his face in her hands and kissed him again. Gaara's early life had left him almost completely inured to pain . . . but this he had no defense against. And with her wrapped around him, her skin sliding wetly against his front as the shower's spray pounded against his shoulders, her mouth and tongue and the little sounds she made in the back of her throat as he pushed into her—
"Wait," he gasped, clutching her hips to stop her from moving. But she still ground herself hungrily against him, and every thought to cross his mind was of heat, and wet, and her soft and clenching and caressing him and—
"Gaara," she murmured. Her hand sought his and guided it down between them; and with her fingers over his she showed him how to touch her. Her hips moved to meet his in a new way, a little harder, and when he responded with a quicker caress she gasped. And her hand was against his cheek, her eyes locked with his—and he knew what she was doing.
"Gaara," she repeated, and her legs parted further to take him deeper. And again: "Gaara," with her gaze still fixed on his face, her hips bucking up against his fingers, then down to drive him into her. She repeated his name breathily, desperately, even as her movements became frantically jerky. And when he wrapped an arm around her to hold her still, certain that the feel of her would overpower his control, she punctuated the word with nibbles against his throat, wet kisses against his earlobes and cheeks. Reeling, nearly overwhelmed, he kept rubbing—until he realized she wasn't grinding against him, she was fighting his grip in order to move again.
"Gaara," she gasped, "Gaara, please—" And he let go.
Her arms tightened, hands slipping over the wet skin of his shoulders, her braced leg shaking violently as the drive of her body against his became harder, more uncontrolled, her head tilting back and eyes squeezing shut as she gasped out his name one last time—and then he felt the spasm hit her, her muscles clenching around him and fingertips digging into his back in time with her moans and the bucking of her hips. And at the sight, the sounds, the way she writhed, he had no option but to stifle his own gasp against her throat and let her climax bring his as well.
The water was cooling against his shoulders, the girl warm in his arms. He blinked away the spots swimming in his field of vision and opened his eyes to find her carefully wiping his wet hair back from his face. Sakura smiled abashedly, her arms tightening around him before her lips brushed his. "Gaara."
"Yeah," he replied. "Me."
They ended up back on the couch in the same way they had during their two-hour lunches of the past week: with her head tucked under his chin, her leg over his and their fingers entwined. And now she smelled like him as well—her skin, her hair, her hands where she'd caressed him—and as he pressed his lips to her fingertips, one by one, he realized that he'd never been so thoroughly, completely overcome.
"They're a little worse for the wear," she murmured at his attention, and he fit her palm to his cheek.
"I like them," he told her, as assuredly as if his opinion was the only one to matter, and she smiled, rubbing her thumb over his cheekbone.
He couldn't bring himself to put a name to this feeling—warm and comforting, and as clear and live and fluid as a spring welling up from between stones—but couldn't imagine how he'd gone for so long without it.
"Do you worry, Gaara?" she asked against his shoulder. "For this?"
Gaara decided he'd done enough admitting weakness that night, and shrugged instead.
"I know we're not indestructible," she said. "I know I'm not the best there is, that I could get killed out there any day even if I'm not supposed to think about it. And you . . . This last time, you almost died. I know what's happened to every kage any hidden village has ever had. I know this could be the last chance we get here, to be together like this . . . and . . . I'm scared." She finally tilted her face up to his, her eyes huge with worry. "Do you think less of me for it?"
Her hand clenched against his shoulder. "Gaara, what are we supposed to do?"
He didn't know—and rather than admit it, he kissed her again. Her hands were next, his body covering hers as he reveled in the roughened texture of her calluses against his tongue, tasted the salty spaces between her fingers, gently bit her fingertips and licked the tender skin of her wrists until knowledge of the blood pulsing underneath made him move on. He sought out every scar, every place on her body where something had drawn her blood, his mouth forming apologies against each in turn until she stopped him, drawing him up to see the flush of her cheeks and dilation of her pupils. Her hand trembled as she reached for his face, but her legs fitted themselves smoothly around his waist and her voice held steady: "Again."
Even as the word left her lips, he was in her.
This time, with the initial hunger past, he could relax, could savor the different ways their bodies fit together. And afterwards, another shower—he hadn't known things would be this messy—and then a return to the couch, where he stroked her hair until she fell asleep, her weight warm and comforting where her limbs draped across his.
He'd never be able to give this up, and he had to let her go.
Cheek against her forehead, Gaara sighed and waited for dawn.
It was after midnight when he felt it: the faintest disturbance, running feet on sandy stone. Gaara held his breath, searching with sand-built eyes and the most delicate of airborne structures.
The sand he'd left in Naruto's clothing told him the blond had settled down for the night, and none of his own shinobi should be in the building. There was no one else it could be.
And if he killed the Uchiha now, no one would know the difference.
It'd be so easy: to do what he should've done years before, to wrap a sandy fist around the traitor and put an end to him altogether. He knew the number of days it'd been since he killed, could feel them in the same way he felt the passing phases of the moon; like tangible pressure against his blood and bones. Gaara turned the thought over in his mind, tasting it, even letting Shukaku sample the plan. Sand had learned enough from the older traitor—crushing this one to splinters of bone and pulped tissue wouldn't hurt his village, and would prevent Sasuke from ever hurting anyone Gaara cared about again.
Somewhere below them, the intruder skidded to a halt, turned uncertainly, and then headed for the stairway to Itachi's prison.
Snug against him, Sakura shifted in her sleep.
And with a single hand seal, Gaara made his decision.
The sand clone came together with a hiss in Naruto's room, startling the Leaf-nin so badly that he fell off his futon. "He's here," Gaara said through the clone's mouth, and Sakura started awake at his movement. His last sentence was directed at them both: "Be ready for anything."
They were dressed and downstairs in time to meet Naruto, who charged in the door with his jacket still unbuttoned. And without a word, Gaara led the dash to where their teammate awaited.
"I had the building cleared out," he informed them as they ran. "Anyone else that appears is an enemy."
Sakura did a double-take. "You mean you left Itachi by—"
"The people here no longer have any reason to fear him."
They darted down the stairs, sand around their ankles as it raced them there; then slowed at the stairs' end, the sand sliding furtively through the partially-opened doorway, their truncated distance translating the muted sounds of the Uchiha's harsh speech into words.
". . . But in the end, it made you stronger. It made you like me."
"I'm not like you!"
"Don't lie to me, Sasuke." Itachi's voice took on a patronizing, condescending tone. "I can hear it in your voice."
"I didn't kill him," Sasuke whispered. "Even though you told me I'd have to, I didn't."
To Gaara's right, Naruto tensed up even more. To his left, Sakura drew closer, her hands against his sleeve.
"I didn't kill the person I truly cared for, either," Itachi replied. "All of the people I killed were replaceable. You . . . were not."
Gaara didn't understand, but he didn't care. His hands flexed, and the sand gathered itself in anticipation. If he caught the younger Uchiha now, before he'd enacted his revenge, then it'd add insult to injury, it'd snatch the bastard's dreams out from under his nose as casually as Sasuke'd broken his own team. It'd take less than a second to flood the room with sand, and then—
Naruto's hand clenched against his arm, stopping him cold. "If you don't let him," he said softly, "then this will never end. Just let it end."
"Just say it," Itachi rasped. "Validate me."
Gaara took a deep breath and nodded. "For you."
He heard Sasuke take a shuddering breath, and the Uchiha's voice cracked when he finally spoke. "I love you, Itachi."
A grunt, a hiss of indrawn breath . . . and then wheezing panting that slowed, rattled . . . and finally stopped. To Gaara's left, Sakura gave his arm one final squeeze and stepped back. And in another minute, the cause of all their troubles emerged, blinking in the light, to meet them. Something unpleasantly recognizable shifted in Sasuke's eyes as he recognized his audience, and Shukaku's bloodlust rose to meet it. It seemed some things never changed. But there was nothing further on his features, no second glance back through the door to what he'd left behind. Through blood and violence, it seemed, he was finally able to let go.
If the missing-nin made a single move to hurt either of his companions, Gaara would destroy him where he stood. But he didn't. Instead he set his blood-slick kunai on the floor and, as haughtily as if they hadn't just heard him pour his heart out, as if he hadn't just invaded Sand to kill his brother, he finally addressed them.
"I give in."
"Good," Gaara said, and turned to Naruto. "Now get him out of my village."
It wasn't until they were climbing back up the stairs, Sasuke in their midst, that Naruto noticed the sheer volume of sand moving along with them, following at their heels in a creeping wave. Beside him, Sasuke gave no indication he noticed or cared; his expression was blank, almost serene. On the other hand, Gaara looked like he wanted to kill something. They crested the tops of the stairs to find Sand's shinobi waiting . . . and Gaara immediately shifted back into the role of his office.
"Alert the Leaf ninjas. Tell them they're leaving." Then, to Naruto: "Get your things, too."
So now that they had Sasuke, Gaara was basically telling them to get the fuck out of his sandbox. Naruto opened his mouth to say something about that, but Sakura cut him off.
"I left stuff in the hospital—things I'll need."
"I'll walk you there," Gaara replied quickly—and then turned back to him to complicate things even more: "We'll meet you at the gates. The Uchiha's in your charge now." Finally, he turned to Sasuke. "Orochimaru's still alive? He knows you're gone by now?"
"Then I'm not putting Sand in his way." Gaara shook his head and faced Naruto. "Even bringing the Uchiha here was dangerous. Orochimaru killed my father out there, in his own element—but if you stay, you're endangering my entire city."
It hurt that Gaara could discuss Sasuke as impersonally as he'd discuss merchant arrivals. Naruto scowled. "So Sasuke goes out of your hands and into Leaf's."
"No. I don't have faith in Leaf's control, or in their abilities to keep people safe, or in their abilities to see what's wrong with someone and try to help. I didn't say he's in Leaf's hands—he's in yours."
Gaara must've read something from his expression, because he continued: "If it was my choice, I would've killed him back there. You'd tell me that wasn't the 'right' thing to do, no matter how much safer everyone would be. So now I'm giving you the chance to show me what the right thing is."
How was he supposed to know what was right? Especially with Gaara on his heels, in his face, pressing him for an answer . . .
Damn it, the jackass had probably been pushing him the entire week in preparation for a confrontation like this.
"I . . . don't know." He shook his head. "Too many bad decisions have been made. I don't know if I can make the right ones." Naruto closed his eyes, took a deep breath. "But . . . I'd like to try."
When he looked up, though, Gaara'd calmed—even smiled a little. "That's almost word for word what I told myself when I decided to become Kazekage."
Naruto wondered what would happen if he tried to strangle the Kazekage in front of his ninjas and in the middle of his own city.
"They'll accompany you," Gaara said, with a gesture to the ninjas around them. Naruto added things up as they turned to go their own direction: that the pair was hiding where Sakura'd really been from Gaara's own shinobi . . . or from Sasuke.
Sasuke didn't say anything. But after the years of his being gone, Naruto couldn't think of anything he could say that wouldn't make him want to lash out. Was he burnt out? Was this what happened when someone saw the end of their dream, the resolution of years of nightmare? Was there the slightest chance the guy was ashamed of himself?
The Sand-nin with them stayed mostly out of sight, following from a cautious distance on the rooftops and from the shadows. From a distance he heard Tenten protesting that this had to be some sort of joke—and then he came into view, Sasuke in tow, and watched the collected Leaf-nins' expressions go from confusion and aggravation to disbelief.
As casually as possible, he turned to his old teammate. "About how far do you think Orochimaru is behind you?"
"Maybe a day."
"Well," Naruto said, and clapped his hands together, "if we lure him home, you think Old Lady Tsunade'll swing him around by his tongue again?"
Neji looked a little grossed out. Lee stuck his tongue out and skeptically peered down at its tip.
A glimpse of color from further down the street caught Naruto's attention, and he glanced over to see that Gaara and Sakura weren't there yet because they'd been distracted by each other . . . and were fighting. It looked like Sakura was in full form—her whole body moving with her words, her hands gesturing sharply, and her voice almost carrying to where Naruto stood—and then Gaara caught her hands and pressed something into them, and she stilled.
Sasuke couldn't catch him looking.
"Gaara put him in my charge, you know," he said to the others, and made a show of stretching until his spine popped.
"Do you really think that means anything?" Sasuke asked.
"Try to run again and you'll find out," he growled, and fought down his impulse to take a swing at the smart-mouthed bastard, telling himself that it'd look better if he didn't lash out.
Damn it, Gaara hadn't given him a teammate. He'd given him a prisoner.
The thought unsettled his stomach a little.
Suddenly eager to be going, he glanced over at the pair again. They weren't moving. Whatever agreement they'd reached had brought them back together, arms around each other, clinging like some ninjas did when one was about to go on an exceptionally dangerous mission.
Now he understood their reason for secrecy earlier. This was something Sasuke didn't need to see.
Time to distract everyone. "Anyway, the sooner we get back, the sooner I find out if I'm a chuunin."
Neji's eyebrows raised. "Without any test?"
"Gaara said he'd talk to the Fifth for me." Being buddies with the Kazekage had some awesome benefits, even if the guy liked to act like a jerk sometimes. "He said I proved enough out there."
Kakashi rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "You certainly met most of the criteria . . . but no one's gotten a field promotion for years."
He shrugged nonchalantly and tapped a fingertip against his forehead protector. "No one's gotten this without passing the academy test, too."
Sakura slipped into the group without a word and without looking at anyone there. Naruto started to say something to her about his pending rank—then took in her expression, a match for Gaara's uneasy pensiveness. It was much easier to bolt to the head of their group than it was to deal with either.
Temari, Kankurou, and some sour-faced older men—Baki and Shun, that's who they were—showed up to see them off. Naruto hadn't expected a going-away party, but almost anything was better than being ignobly shoved out of the village in the middle of the night. But with the circumstances . . .
Damn it, he couldn't even think of a way to say goodbye, to thank Gaara for . . . Well, maybe not for the declaration of love, but for everything else.
Gaara met his eyes, then Sakura's. He glanced past Sasuke as if the other wasn't even there. "Be safe. I'll hope for the best for you."
That would do. "You too."
He wondered if they could race the coming sun to the desert's edge.
It wasn't that Gaara was standing at Sand's gate and staring after the group like a grouchy lost puppy. Instead, he told himself he was watching just to make sure nothing befell them while he was still able to help. And if anyone happened to offer a contrary comment, he'd bury them alive.
But mercifully, his siblings brought support rather than judgment.
"I think," Temari stated, as she took a step up to stand beside him, "that I'm proud of you."
"I think," Kankurou echoed, "that I'm kinda surprised you didn't try to get her to stay."
Gaara waited, weighing his success versus this failure; then told them. "But I did."
He watched their expressions, watched as they simultaneously gauged the distance between the departing group and their own, saw their shock blur to confusion as they took in his calm demeanor in relation to his news.
"I asked her to stay," he elaborated, "and she said no."
Through her tears, with her fist clenched in his clothing as if she wasn't sure whether she wanted to shake him or hit him, demanding to know what the hell he was thinking as surely as the silence of his siblings begged the same question.
"It's a good thing she went," he said. "If she'd stayed, it'd strain relations with Leaf and she'd become a missing-nin from her own country . . . and if she would breech loyalties with so little thought and leave the people she's supposed to care about so easily, I'd never be able to trust her in Sand. It hasn't even been two weeks."
Silence from his siblings—but Shun spoke up. "Will you trust her if she comes back?"
Kankurou stared at him like he'd grown a second head. Temari stared like the second head had started spouting poetry.
"What?" he asked them. "Did you think I'd have done that without thinking things through?"
If he didn't let Kankurou use the blanket, it'd smell like her for a while longer.
"No," Baki answered for them. "But it's still not something I would've initially expected from you."
Shun shook his head and watched the departing group for a moment before gesturing towards them. "This is one of the best and worst things about your being Kazekage."
Gaara turned to shoot him a suspicious glance, expecting a barbed bite to follow the backhanded compliment, and Shun coolly continued. "Because you've shown that what you want is Sand's greater good after all . . . and that you still won't hesitate to use anyone to get what you want."
Maybe he was right. And maybe she'd understood, and could forgive him for it after all.
"They left the Uchiha," he told Shun. "Find out if there's anything left to be learned from him."
Shun nodded obligingly and turned to the open gates, Baki falling into step beside him. "I still really don't like him," Kankurou muttered at the man's retreating back.
"You still don't have to," Temari replied. "Just don't get caught the next time you jump him."
Sakura looked back over her shoulder at him once, and Gaara weighed and defined the movement: an echo of the worry he felt, but so near to being under control that he couldn't bring himself to fault her.
And he'd just told his advisor and ninjas he was happy with having sent her away.
With only his siblings at his side, he could finally voice his trepidation. "Do you think I did the right thing?"
Kankurou closed his eyes and nodded, and Temari placed a comforting hand on his shoulder. "Yeah. You did good."
Sakura'd put her trust and caring in his hands, then left him holding them as uncertainly as he would a delicate wild animal. And though he hated having lost full control of the situation by letting her leave, his other options—making her stay with lies or force—offered nothing but the promise of that fragile construct's destruction.
"I can wait," he told them, and prayed that he was telling the truth.
They made it out of the desert a few hours after dawn, stopping to get their bearings and fill their water bottles at the first small stream. At the water's edge, Naruto closed his eyes and faced into the morning sunlight. It was a new day, a new chance to set things right, and he'd be damned if he didn't grab onto this opportunity with both hands and force it into the shape he wanted to see.
But behind him, Kakashi and Gai had taken it upon themselves to corner Sasuke.
"It's not going to look good for you at all if you walk back into Leaf acting like you still don't care," Kakashi said.
"I'm tired of caring," Sasuke said; and for a second Naruto saw some sort of emotion on his face.
Then it was gone, and he moved closer in case his help would be needed. It wasn't that he was itching to beat some sense into Sasuke . . . Ok, so he was. Whatever. Plus with how Sasuke'd blown off all the hell he and Sakura'd been through because of him and his stupid fucking brother— "Hey! Why couldn't you have decided that a few years ago?"
For a second, he might've seen something that remotely resembled guilt.
"Naruto." Sakura's hand was on his shoulder, and she stepped up beside him. "If he doesn't care, then he won't mind what happens."
"We'll mind! We've spent to much time, we've fought so hard—Sakura-chan, they execute missing-nin!"
"Probably not this one. He's the last of his bloodline, and he knows it." She looked back to Sasuke, and in profile he noticed the puffiness of the spaces under her eyes. "Tsunade-sama said she'd have your Sharingan sealed away if she ever got you back. When she said it, I didn't think it'd be necessary. I thought you'd show remorse."
"I've done what I needed to, to avenge my family. Leaf can do whatever they want to me now. I will atone."
"Atonement's supposed to be about feeling bad for what you've done," Naruto snapped. "You aren't even acting like you feel bad—how is anyone supposed to feel sorry for you?"
Until the thought tastes like dust and he can only hope the act itself can coerce some sort of feeling, Gaara'd said. He hadn't said anything about what happened once that dream was realized. He hadn't said anything about what someone would feel afterwards.
"This from the one who made up with Sand's monster, despite what he'd done to you," Sasuke said. "And since both of you can forgive him so quickly—"
The tone of Sakura's voice made the hair on the back of Naruto's neck stand up. He'd seen her be happy, be angry, be determined, be near-frantic with worry—but he'd never seen her go cold before. The gaze she turned to Sasuke, though, was as flat, as devoid of emotion as . . .
"Gaara set this up."
It seemed the Fifth Kazekage had rubbed off on both of them.
She stood, slim and cold in front of all of them, and let it out. "And I slept with him."
Naruto struggled to keep his expression blank and refused to look at Lee. Sasuke's mouth twisted with disdain. "Figures. You—"
"It wasn't for you," she interrupted. "I didn't even know about the plan to lure you back until a few hours ago."
The Uchiha turned away and started checking the buckles on his small pack with a show of uncaring that Naruto didn't believe for one second. "What's your point?"
"That I learned more about him in a week than I learned about you in a year."
"If you sleep with people just because you get to know them—" he started wryly, but she cut him off.
"Damn it, Sasuke," she snapped, "two and a half years ago it would've been you. And I would've done it because I'd have thought it'd make you better, make you see that someone cared for you, and it would've been stupid and wrong of me. You've both been through hell, but here's the difference: he tried to move past it. And I got to see that. It's because he wanted to change, and tried to change, and managed to get people to see him differently despite what he's done to them before. It's because he was able to admit when he tripped up over his own good intentions. I can respect him now—I can care for him. But you—I don't even know you anymore. Maybe it's that I never did."
She'd reached out like a plant under stone reaches for light, with faith as blind as its tendrils—and where Sasuke'd failed her, Gaara'd reached back. But the stone had reshaped her. Ino'd told Sakura she'd blossomed years before; Naruto wondered what this moment of evolution could be.
Sasuke finally turned back to her. "You're delusional."
"Because I saw the good in someone and fell for them?" she snorted.
"The good in him . . ." Dark eyes narrowed. Do you think he's some kind of nice guy? Did you even see what he did to Itachi?"
So Sasuke's focus was still on Itachi, even after the guy was dead. Naruto's jaw clenched—no, killing his brother hadn't fixed anything.
It didn't look like Sakura cared. "Why would I care about Itachi? For all the people he's hurt or killed, I hope Gaara did worse to him than I could possibly imagine."
"He was my brother—"
"He did this," she whispered back. "You let him make you do this. And they"—she gestured towards their instructors, towards Leaf—"they let you make that choice."
Sasuke's eyelids lowered a fraction, and Naruto took a step closer in case he decided to lunge.
"What are we supposed to do when the people who are supposed to teach us . . . teach us to look the other way when one of our friends, our teammates, our friends' children is in need?"
"Sakura," Lee started, and shifted forward. Sakura shook her head to stop him, then looked up to Kakashi and Gai.
"This is why our shinobi run," she murmured. "You give them nothing to look forward to but blood and hate and pain and death . . . and then, by the time someone tries to show them differently, the damage is done. It's too late."
"So you're agreeing with me," Sasuke said, and Sakura turned to him as if she'd forgotten he was there. "Sometimes it is too late. Like with him . . . It doesn't matter what kind of good you think you see in him; it's too late for your Sand-nin. He's spent years being a monster, with no one to keep him in check. Nothing short of divine influence could fix him." His chin lifted, lips curving in a triumphant smirk. "He can't change, and it's stupid to expect anything else from him."
Emotion finally crossed over her face, as her forehead furrowed with hurt and mouth twisted with misery. "You really think so?"
Naruto saw the look in her eyes and knew what was coming as certainly as Sasuke didn't. "No, Sakura, don't—!"
Uchiha Sasuke was already unconscious when he hit the ground twenty feet away. Two of his teeth didn't make it quite that far.
"It'll be harder for him to care now, won't it?" Sakura said to no one in particular. Then: "I'll scout out the area. Don't worry—I won't leave."
Lee started to follow her, but Naruto stepped into his way to stop him. "I'll get her." Then, almost to himself: "I'll bring her back, too."
She hadn't gotten very far. Naruto found her sitting on the ground just out of eyesight and earshot, biting her lip as her hands clenched around something. "I . . . I can't believe I told them all."
"Well . . ." He plopped down beside her as a show of support. "At least you were honest about it?"
"I guess." She sighed and shook her head. "I might've messed up."
"Huh? Nah! You gave him what he deserved, Sakura-chan!" Naruto punched the air for emphasis. "Badmouthing Gaara like he'd seen him for more than ten minutes . . . He didn't know what he was talking about—and then he didn't know what hit him!"
He got the response he was going for: a smile, however faint. "I didn't mean with that, Naruto. I meant about Gaara." Naruto frowned—if she didn't stop chewing on her own lip, she'd probably start bleeding. "Before we left, he told me . . . that as Kazekage, he couldn't spend his time worrying about another village's ninja. That I'd be a liability to his village, and with his position, any liability could get someone killed. I asked him why he let things get that far between us if that's what he thought . . . and he told me that he hadn't been thinking in terms of letting me leave."
Her hands uncurled, revealing a sand-scoured forehead protector. Naruto didn't need to see Sand's symbol stamped into the metal plate, or even to guess, to know whose it had been.
"He asked me to stay. And I told him no, and"—her shoulders shook, breath hitching, and she blurted out the rest—"And now I wonder if I did the right thing."
"Sakura-chan," he mumbled, the words suddenly feeling thick as they came out of his mouth.
"You know what he said after I told him no? He said, 'Good.'" She sniffled, smiling a little. "He really is insane."
"No," she sighed, and shook her head. "Not really."
He waited, scuffing a rut in the dirt with his heel, until it seemed she'd calmed down some. Then another thought struck him, and Naruto scowled over his shoulder. Their comrades would be waiting . . . and not just for their return.
"They'll probably be watching you now," he said. "With the way you talked to them . . . They'll be afraid you'll pull another Sasuke."
"Let them," she replied. "I won't misstep. And if I decide it's the right thing to do, I'll follow every rule for transfers, down to the letter."
"If Old Lady Tsunade doesn't want you to go . . ."
Sakura sniffed. "You've seen him. He'll probably have a way to bully her into it—and he probably has one set up already."
Naruto smiled to himself—until the words clicked, and he blurted out his revelation. "He does."
"He still has Itachi." With all the mess, Naruto hadn't even noticed that Gaara'd shoved them out the gate with only one Uchiha. "There's his leverage point. It's not like Leaf can demand the body of a missing-nin or else, you know?"
"But since Itachi's one of the last two of a major bloodline, Tsunade-sama won't want to just let him go."
"Aw . . ." Naruto flopped back onto the ground. "We're gonna end up going back almost as soon as we get home, aren't we?"
"Probably." Her chuckle came out muffled, a brief expulsion of air and shudder of her shoulders. "And I told him he'd have to have faith that I'd come back to him, too."
He winced. "You know how he feels about trusting other people."
"Yeah." Sakura stared out across the landscape, towards the morning sun. "But he still told me . . . that he'd always have a place for me there. Do you think he understands?"
He thought of everything Gaara'd done to shift them around, his plotting, his dissection of people's motives . . . and smiled, reaching out to touch her arm. "Yeah. I'm sure he does."
It was three days later that the very confused messenger arrived at Gaara's office, interrupting his meeting with Kankurou and Temari in order to pass him a slim tube from a messenger bird's leg. Something inside rattled when he accepted it, and curious, he upended it into his hand.
When the messenger left and his siblings leaned closer to learn the reason for his stillness, he was still staring at the tube's only contents: three cherry pits.
She'd promised them to him, and was following through on her promise.
And now he was left with a handful of seeds, wondering exactly what the hell he was supposed to do with them. If absolutely necessary, he could fumble his way through the basics of gardening: a pot, some dirt, some water . . . but when it came down to it, he'd always left the care of the plant in his apartment to Temari or Kankurou. He didn't know plants. He knew killing things.
But if this was Sakura's way of telling him to have hope . . .
Gaara wrapped his fingers around the seeds and looked up to meet the matched, expectant gazes of his siblings. And as he reached his decision, he sighed, something in his chest relaxing as he turned to them. "Tell me how to keep this thing alive."
Kankurou leaned forward, his elbows against the edge of Gaara's desk. "Tell us what you need to know."
"Everything," he said. His shoulders shook with a silent chuckle at his own silliness; but he smiled anyway, because he knew that with this chance, he could make everything all right. "Everything."
The first main theme was unanswered questions.
Much thanks goes out to my beta readers—all twelve or so of them. This thing is the size of a novel and took me two years to finish. One down; original stuff to go.