Title: Sudden Exposure (On Her Sleeve)

Chapter eleven: A Kunoichi

"Thanks for bringing me home Sasuke. It was…very kind of you," Sakura said softly as the stoic Chuunin wheeled her inside her apartment.

"I heard what you said," Sasuke grunted in response.

Sakura chuckled softly, and then hung her head.

"I don't know what you mean," she said quickly and wheeled her chair into the kitchen.

With a deep frown, Sasuke grabbed the handles and stopped her in front of the refrigerator. Sakura gulped and tried to remain calm. Even after so many years, she was still uneasy in Sasuke's presence.

"That…bastard. You love that bastard?" Sasuke snapped.

Sakura winced beneath his gaze, but then turned her fear into fury

"Don't you dare call him that!" she bit back.

For a moment, Sasuke seemed taken back at her response, but a split second was all he needed to compose himself. Slowly, he backed up and put distance between them. Sakura watched him take his trademark nonchalant stance, but she could swear the temperature in the room had dropped at least 20 degrees.

"Ever since you were released from the hospital…all you've done is talk about him. Even in your sleep…" Sasuke hissed, his hands were clenched tightly by his sides.


Sakura started to protest, but was silenced by the look on Sasuke's face.

"—I was the one who was by your side when you were sick, I was the one who changed your sheets, watched you sleep, I cared for you! Not him!" his voice seemed to be breaking slight as he shouted, but in his eyes, Sakura could only see rage and disappointment.

"And what was he supposed to do Sasuke, wake up and care for me? Wake up for me and change some damn sheets!" Sakura screamed back.

She could barely contain the tears that threatened to spill at that point, but the words felt liberating as they sprouted from her lips.

Immediately, Sasuke turned his back on her and signaled the end of 'the discussion'.

He would always have that power over her.

"I'm out of here," Sasuke snapped suddenly, and walked out of the kitchen.

Sakura watched him disappear with watering eyes and clenched a fist against her chest.

It would be a week until she spoke to him again.

"Hey Pinkie! You're getting along good with the wheelchair I see!" Kankuro gave a broad smile and a wave as he passed Sakura on the road.

"Hey Kankuro…going to see Gaara?" Sakura muttered sourly, and gave the older boy a wave. She hated that nickname.

Kankurou didn't seem to sense her discomfort.

"Nah, not today. Temari and I have to take care of some business with the hokage. Some stuff about punishment for wrecking your apartment and injuring several of the leaf's guards," he ruffled his brown locks with a grimace and then smiled back up at her.

"Need a push somewhere?" he asked suddenly.

Sakura pulled on a pair of black leather gloves and shook her head no.

"I've got to put these wheels to use while I still have 'em. Besides, Tsunade-sama says that at this point of my healing, wheeling myself around will only serve to strengthen my muscles," she gave Kankuro a thumbs up.

"Are you going to see Gaara?" he asked, although he already knew the answer.

"Yes. I brought fresh flowers for his window. I think he likes them…he stares at them when he's conscious." Sakura gave a little smile, as though she was pleased with herself.

"Yeah…" Kankuro shoved his hands into his pockets and looked down. "That sounds nice."

Sakura raised an eyebrow and blushed.

"Was there…something else?" she pressed the puppet master.

"I had a drink with Sasuke last night…" he met Sakura's eyes briefly, and then dropped his gaze to the ground; "his treat of course."

Sakura went stiff in her chair and immediately thought back to their fight. She had said things she didn't mean…or at least…the wrong way. They hadn't spoken since then and every time she saw him, the tension in the air was just too much.

"Oh?" Sakura gave an indifferent smile.

Kankuro came closer and frowned in discomfort.

"The Uchiha wanted to make it clear that…" he paused. "'He always gets what he wants.'"

Sakura clenched the fist on her good hand and growled.

"Is that so?" she snapped.

"Look…" Kankuro cracked his knuckles threateningly. "If you want me to tell him to lay off…"

"No, that's fine Kankuro. Uchiha-san and I are long due for a talk. Thank you for relaying the message," Sakura clenched the rims of her chair's wheels, and pushed off on the road towards the clinic.

Kankuro stood in the distance, watching her in astonishment.

'Sasuke-brat had better watch out. After all…hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.' He thought with a smirk, and turned off in the opposite direction to join his sister at the Hokage's tower.

Fuming, Sakura wheeled herself to the clinic as fast as she could and breezed past Shizune without their usual morning chitchat. Without a second thought, she rolled into Gaara's room and stopped at the foot of his bed.

Gaara was rolled onto his side, revealing his half open gown and the healing seals scribbled on his back. He seemed to be sleeping peacefully, much to Sakura's delight. It was good to see him resting easily for once.

"Oh yes, I've brought you more flowers," Sakura spoke to Gaara's unresponsive form with a blush on her cheeks.

Carefully, she pulled two daisies from the bag on the side of her wheelchair.

"I picked them myself," she smiled. "It…it's weird right? I mean, they're red. Well, that's because I soaked them in a vase of red food coloring. They were pink for a while…but I added more. I thought you'd like that…maybe."

Sakura twiddled her thumbs and put a shaky hand atop Gaara's head. It was obvious the nerves had yet to wear off. He still had such a powerful affect over her, even when dead asleep. Careful not to wake him, she brushed the stray hairs from Gaara's face and used her fingertips to massage his scalp.

Slowly, she parted his red locks to the side and frowned at seeing the line of sand, dirt and oil that remained.

"Your hair is filthy," Sakura whispered into Gaara's ear, as if he could actually hear her.

From having all her time spent in his room, she knew just how much of a heavy sleeper to even notice if a bus crashed through the room.

With a little smirk, she lifted his bed sheets and the edge of his gown.

"Who am I kidding? You haven't been bathed since the day after you got here, They're afraid that if they move you, they'll hurt you, you know…" Sakura began to lift the sheets further, but then stopped as she saw his leg twitch.

"I'll do my best…" a voice grumbled.

It was so low and strained it was hard to believe it had come from Gaara. Blushing, Sakura wheeled back and stared as Gaara rolled himself onto his back. His eyes were just as clouded and listless as before and stayed fixed on the ceiling.

"Gaara…" Sakura outstretched a hand for his, but stopped when Gaara's eyes settled on her.

"Mother…" he whispered, and Sakura rolled back in shock.

Ever since her last visit, Gaara hadn't spoken a word. It was indeed a breakthrough. With a smile, Sakura began to right his wrong.

"No Gaara…it's…it's me—

Gaara's fist clenched beneath the sheets, but in contrast, his eyes softened.

"I'm sorry. Don't…please…" he pleaded softly.

Sakura heaved a sigh and wheeled herself over to his side once more.

"Don't worry, I won't," she whispered into his ear, and forced herself to pull away just as the door to his room was opened.

Tsunade stood in the doorway with her arms folded over her chest, smiling with a bit of sadness in her eyes.

"I take it he's speaking to you?" she asked innocently, but Sakura could hear the teasing in her voice.

With a frown, Sakura faced her teacher and shook her head in frustration.

"Sure, but he thinks I'm his mother, and those don't seem like good memories."

Tsunade chuckled and then ruffled Sakura's hair.

"He's still disoriented. You should be happy he's even speaking. You know…his stats are improving. Shizune and I have made the decision to lower his medicine dosage later this afternoon. Swing by around twelve. I'm sure by then he'll be able to recognize and hold full conversations with you."

Tsunade's words made Sakura freeze in place, and slowly, a frown spread over her lips. At that moment, words just couldn't come easily.

"I…I don't know what to say," she stammered.

Tsunade placed one hand on her hip as she looked at the chart at the foot of Gaara's bed.

"You really don't have to say anything. We're not lowering it due to your protests. We're lowering it because Gaara's getting stronger," she said simply.

"I-I didn't mean it that way," Sakura blushed.

"Then what did you mean?" Tsunade asked without turning around.

"I meant…I meant that when he regains full consciousness...I…I don't know what I should say." Sakura twiddled her thumbs against her lap and heaved a sigh.

With a warm smile, Tsunade put the chart down and crossed her arms over her chest.

"Why don't you start out with…your feelings?"

Sakura's cheeks pinkened noticeably. She knew her previous talk with the troublesome hokage would be her downfall.

"I…I can't," she said suddenly.

Tsunade looked taken aback.

"What do you mean you can't?" she protested. "A week ago you told me you loved him!"

Sakura wheeled her chair away so that she was facing the wall.

"Well now I'm…not so sure," she bit her lower lip, thinking of Sasuke.

'"He always gets what he wants.'"

Tsunade twirled Sakura back to face her and pulled up her own chair. It was time for a girl to girl heart to heart.

"Now you tell me Sakura…." she started. "What happened to make you change your mind all of a sudden?"

Sakura said nothing for a while, and just stared at her hand, clenching and unclenching it from a fist to her bare palm.

"I guess I'm scared that I'll be rejected again…and fall into the same path that…."

She paused, but the stern look on Tsunade's face urged her on.

"…that path that got me sidetracked years ago."

"I assume you're talking about your early years with Sasuke," Tsunade made an offhanded gesture.

"Well… yeah," Sakura sighed heavily. "His sudden interest in me is making me both angry and confused. I mean, he's what I've wanted for so many years…but I don't feel he really wants me."

"Well then it's easy," Tsunade said bluntly. "He doesn't want you, he doesn't like you, and he most definitely doesn't need you. Sasuke merely likes entertaining the idea of wanting you…of needing you."

"What?" Sakura whispered.

"You see, Sasuke wants to keep face value, and let's "face" it, Gaara and Sasuke aren't the only ones with their eyes on you. You're a beautiful young woman and you even have a bit of a fan base."

Sakura shook in anger at what Tsunade was implying. However at this point in time, she definitely wouldn't put such actions past the hot-blooded Uchiha.

"So Sasuke wants me as some sort of….prize?"

"Sasuke's not one come in second at something. He sees Gaara as competition, and yeah, you as the prize," Tsunade shrugged, and began rooting in her pockets for something.

"I…can't say I didn't expect it of him, but why would he feel that Gaara's competition? He hasn't shown one bit of interest towards me, Tsunade-sama." Sakura watched as Tsunade plucked a small glass bottle of sake out from between her breasts.

"Ah, there we go," she paused momentarily to take a drink.

Sakura let out a heavy sigh.

'She'll kill herself one of these days…'

"Anyway, trust me. I'm a total expert on matters of the heart," Tsunade grinned. Sakura had to smirk at this.

"Is that or is that not after you've had a couple drinks down you?" she asked with a chuckle.

"Hey, I may be single, but I know exactly how to deal with men. They just can't resist a pretty woman. Gaara may be the biggest ass here and in Suna, but he has feelings for you. If he didn't, he wouldn't have gone through so much trouble for you both," Tsunade gestured to Gaara who was now lying flat on his back, staring at the ceiling.

Sakura gave her a look of disbelief and then readjusted her gloves.

"He needed me to steal the scrolls. That's why," she said defensively.

Tsunade rolled her eyes and stood, obviously fed up.

"Sure," she sighed, placing her mini sake bottle back in its hiding place. "Of course, Sakura."

There was an uncomfortable silence in the room before Sakura spoke again.

"I'm going to leave now, but I'd like to think of coming back to work here as soon as I heal. You know…be your apprentice once more."

Tsunade gave a grin and a thumbs up as Sakura sat expectantly.

"I'm ready for you anytime, Sakura-chan…"

"Great!" Sakura returned the sign and rolled herself towards the door.

"And don't forget Sakura …" Tsunade stopped her suddenly.

"Forget what?" Sakura looked up curiously.

"A kunoichi is forever underestimated. You set the limit, Sakura. Don't let anybody walk all over you. You don't need a man, or anyone else to hide behind. Remember that." Tsunade said firmly, and then gave Sakura a wink as she turned.

"Thanks Tsunade-shishou…" she whispered, and rolled out with a wave.

It was then Sakura felt an immense and hostile chakra approaching. She closed her eyes. It was familiar—sickeningly familiar.

"Sasuke…" she said quietly without bothering to look up.

Sasuke cleared his throat with a bit of a chuckle and put his hand on Sakura's shoulder.

"Don't you think it's time we stopped this little "evasion dance"…Sakura-chan?" he whispered into her ear, causing her to shudder.

"I do believe so…" Sakura smirked, much to Sasuke's surprise.

Finally, she looked up and straight into his eyes.

"But not for the reasons you think," she said firmly. "I'm tired of your arrogance Sasuke Uchiha, and I'm sorry this is the first time I've voiced such a complaint."

Sasuke scanned Sakura's eyes for any sign of fear, but found none. Even as a raindrop splattered on her forehead, and slid down the bridge of her nose, Sakura refused to blink.

"You're stronger, I like that," Sasuke smirked. "Why is it so hard for you to come back to me?"

"Come back?" Sakura chuckled. "Back to what? Back to feeling used? Pathetic? Weak?"

Sasuke looked up to the sky as the few droplets of rain turned into a light shower, dampening his shirt. "Well, I'm sorry you felt that way, but I have to say…that never stopped you from tagging along in the past."

Sakura clenched and then unclenched her fist.

"Sasuke…I'd like to say first that I'm sorry for all that you've been through in your life…" she whispered, startling Sasuke.

"What?" he snapped.

"You were most likely much happier before all your misfortunes…and I know I wish I could have met you the—

"—you could have done nothing!" Sasuke growled. "So just shut up, Sakura!"

Sakura glared at him in frustration, and swept a lock of dampened, stringy hair from her face.

"It's always that attitude, isn't it! Bitch, moan, hurt, and put others down! Look at what you've become! You never once respected me the way I deserved! You're no better than Orochimaru, or, even Itachi!" she shouted.

Sasuke raised a hand in anger, but Sakura let out a loud, mocking laugh.

"Go ahead, hit me! Hit me Sasuke! Is that what you do to the ones you love!"

Sasuke lowered his hand at this and balled it into a fist by his side.

"Sakura, it seems you've grown far too much for me to restrain. You've seen past the façade. I never loved you," he grinned evilly as they both became soaked through by the rain.

Sakura sniffled, but refused to let herself cry.

"All I ever wanted was for you to reciprocate what I had given you, Sasuke. I was pathetic…and maybe even at times annoying, but I always wanted what was best for you."

"I don't need you for that. I take care of myself," Sasuke frowned, giving no sign of sympathy.

"For once, I wanted to be the one to protect someone. Protect you," Sakura whispered, ignoring his commentary.

"I've gotta tell you Sakura, you're far too weak for that," Sasuke smirked, and gave Sakura's hair a patronizing ruffle.

"Wrong!" Sakura smacked his hand away, scattering several droplets of rain into his face." I don't need you to stand behind any longer! Not you, not Naruto, not Rock Lee, not Ino, not anyone!"

Sakura smiled and took a deep breath.

"I am a woman. I…am a kunoichi. I stand strong and never back down. Not even to you Sasuke."

Sasuke gave another chuckle.

"You gonna fight me now?" he asked.

"I don't need to," Sakura said with confidence as she pulled off one of her gloves.

Before Sasuke knew what hit him, wet leather had connected with the side of his face. It didn't leave a mark, or even a red print, but by the look in his eyes, it had affected him more than any punch or kick to the groin would have.

"The way you made me feel is most of the reason why I'm in this wheelchair Sasuke, but I have to thank you for it. You know why?"

"Why?" Sasuke rasped, his throat suddenly dry.

"Because I got to help someone this time. I'm now the protector of someone." Sakura pointed at her chest with her thumb.

Sasuke stared her straight in the eyes, and again, when he saw no weakness, broke the gaze.

"What makes you think he'll love you?" he asked.

Sakura looked down at her lap, but was unafraid to answer the question.

"I don't expect his love. The only thing I ask for is his friendship. I won't make the mistake of offering up my heart on a silver platter once again."

Sasuke turned his back on her as he heard her speak.

"Good," he muttered. "Maybe…maybe…Hnh."

He started, but stopped. Sakura breathed a sigh. It was alright. She wouldn't expect the world from him. After all, had never promised it.

"Goodbye Sasuke..." Sakura urged him to leave, signaling the end of conversation.

Sasuke began walking without a word. His parting gesture was a simple upwards flick of his index and middle finger. Not a wave…not a sign of peace…just an open invitation to continue the war of words at another day…another time.

"Hnh. See you later…Sasuke-teme…" She whispered a smile on her lips.

Sakura continued to smile sadly in the downpour, and watched Sasuke walk away, and out of her life. The weight on her shoulders lifted instantly, and she knew that soon, her heart would be light. The feeling of control was new, but she quickly learned to like it. It was instinct, after all.

It was then in the rainstorm, Sakura felt her first bit of peace. Tsunade had said Gaara's medicine dosage would be cut in half and she would be first in line to see him that afternoon.

"You're standing out in the rain. You're going to catch a cold, Sakura,"

Sakura turned around abruptly, and bumped into her mystery speaker. It was Temari, holding a clear colored umbrella over her head. With a smile, the older girl let it hover over Sakura's head, and ushered her towards the direction of her own temporary apartment.

"It's nice to see you Temari. Have you heard the news about Gaara?" Sakura smiled eagerly.

Temari looked down at her fellow kunoichi and saw the happiness dancing in her eyes. She really did care for Gaara.

"Yes, and I'm sure you will be first to see him," Temari nudged her.

Sakura blushed.

"Oh, oh no. You and Kankuro can have the pleasure of going first. You're family," she said with a smile, and slipped her wet socks and sandals off at the door.

Temari did the same and led the way inside the kitchen, humming softly. With a devilish grin, the older girl turned back towards Sakura, and offered her a lukewarm cup of tea that had been sitting on a hotplate.

"No worries Sakura-chan, I'm sure you'll be family soon anyway, if you know what I mean," she chuckled, relishing the look of shock and embarrassment on Sakura's face.

"Temari-san…" she chided, but the young blonde laughed in response.

"Here, hand me your clothes and I'll get you something warm to wear…," Temari brought out a wooden stand and hung Sakura's wet socks over one of the standing poles.

"Sure, thank you," Sakura whispered and tossed off her leather gloves as Temari disappeared into another room.

The rest was easier said than done. Her shirt and shorts took longer for her to wrestle off, and by the time she had finished undressing, she had fallen out of the wheelchair and was lying face down on the hardwood floor, staring up at a rather amused Temari.

"Don't hurt yourself, kid," she chuckled and eased Sakura into the easiest sitting position she could muster.

Temari stepped back and stared at the younger girl in shock. Sakura's stomach looked almost caved in on itself, as though she hadn't eaten in months. Her eyes were sullen, and the dark circles under her eyes left exposed.

"You haven't been taking good care of yourself, Imouto." Temari teased. (A/N: Imouto means younger sister.)

Sakura rolled her eyes and blushed as she slipped into the clothes Temari had brought. A black turtleneck shirt with long fishnet sleeves and a pair of black pants that cut off at the ankle. "I just haven't had the time to relax. I—

"—stop worrying about Gaara. He's doing a lot better. Just let me take care of you like…you really are my sister," Temari lifted a hand to ruffle Sakura's hair, but stopped.

"How long has it been since you shampooed and conditioned?" she grimaced.

Sakura smiled sheepishly.

"Like I said…I really haven't had much time."

So before she knew it, Sakura was having her hair washed, blow dried, combed and contorted every which way.

"I like these clothes, but they're a bit big. Are you sure they're yours? You only look about one size bigger than me," Sakura squeaked as Temari brushed at her hair violently.

"They're Gaara's, Imouto." She giggled.

"Temari…" Sakura heaved a sigh, but then blushed.

'Aie! I'm wearing his shirt!'

"Anyway, they make you look cute, and hide the fact you've been starving yourself," Temari frowned and placed a clip in Sakura's hair.

"So…what does it look like?" Sakura asked, peering behind Temari's arms.

With a grimace, Temari clamped a hand over Sakura's eyes, and shielded her from the mirror on the wall.

"Nothing good…. I just can't work with short hair!" she exclaimed.

"And since when are you an expert on style? You wear your hair the same way, everyday…onee-chan…." Sakura countered.

Temari rolled her eyes and brushed Sakura's hair out once more.

"Don't give me lip," she snapped and then placed a simple butterfly clip in Sakura's hair to pull back her bangs.

"You should wear a nice necklace. Here…." Temari showed Sakura a long strand of hollow white beans dyed pink.

"Did you make this?" Sakura asked.

Temari nodded, thinking of Gaara.

"Before Gaara was born… I made a bean necklace for my little baby brother or little baby sister to wear. I spent hours on it—ask Kankuro," she smiled wistfully. "But when mother gave birth and we were told what the elders had done to Gaara…I was scared."

Sakura remained silent.

"I was a kid….I heard of Shukaku's powers and I feared for my life. That day, when Gaara was introduced into the family, I threw the necklace into the river, along with all good blessings of happiness for my brother."

"You were a kid," Sakura offered. "You didn't—

"—I was his sister…I never gave him the love and respect he deserved. But to you…for helping him…I made this. A new one. I'm doing something right this time. Good blessings for both of you. Huzzah,"

Temari smiled and rubbed at her eyes for a moment and then burst into teary eyed laughter.

"Now how about some miso soup!"

She's beautiful…poised…strong. A kunoichi. What a day for being brave, Sakura thought as she fingered the pink beans as she slipped the necklace on and grinned.

"Ah…you're too good to me onee-chan…too good."

A/n: Can you tell I hate Sasuke? Anyway, I apologize for taking so long to update, and I hope you've noticed that On Her Sleeve is back! Should I change my name back too?

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"I don't like apples," Gaara snapped suddenly, and then gave a faint blush in reaction to his own heartless behavior. It reminded him too much of what he used to be, and that bothered him.

Sakura gave a saddened look, but it lasted only for a moment. In the seconds that followed, Gaara's heart raced.

Her smile.

It was her smile again. It lit up the room and made him feel dizzier; if possible.

"Why?" she asked, with a new sparkling grin.

Gaara was caught off guard by the question, and was suddenly distracted. Sakura was leaning in closer, flooding his nostrils with the sweet scent of cherry blossoms and some kind of berry soap that was foreign to him. He blushed inadvertently, and bowed his head to respond.

"I can't stand sweet things," he muttered under his breath.

Sakura tucked a strand of hair behind her ear and reeled back, much to Gaara's surprise.

"Don't like sweet tings!" she exclaimed. "That's amazing! I've never heard of anything like that in m life!"

Sakura gave a giggle and put aside the applesauce. Gaara sighed quietly in relief and then lay back against the mattress. Sakura studied him for a long while before Gaara narrowed his eyes in annoyance.

"What? Is there something ridiculous about me?" he asked.

Sakura smiled playfully, and threw her arms around the wounded ninja.

"Nope. It's just so good to see you," she whispered. "So good."

Gaara sat there awkwardly for the longest time, unsure how to respond. Her smell and warmth were intoxicating, and for once, he was unrestrained to show how he felt. With his eyes shut tightly, Gaara limply drew his own arms around her, and pushed his forehead against her shoulder.

"I'm glad you're not all bloody and dead." he mumbled. "'you know."