Knee Deep in Sand

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto; beta-ed by randomsome1 in the livejournal community NarutoBetas.

A/N: EDIT--No longer a one-shot! I've decided to make it a multi-chapter, for your reading pleasure. Enjoy it!

Haruno Sakura had never been much of a "desert person."

In fact, she absolutely despised the desert. She was the type to be extremely susceptible to sunburns; extremely susceptible to heatstrokes; extremely susceptible to any and all afflictions that had any direct—or even indirect, in some cases—tie-ins with the brutal, harsh climate of the desert. And it didn't help matters much that this particular man who they were told to escort, going by the name of Kenji, just had to be a whiny little baby about anything and everything they did.

Travel for a few more hours? Oh, no. He was much too tired to do that.

Make camp under this projection of rock in the endless sand for the day? Oh, no. He was much too afraid of the bugs crawling on it to do that.

Take Sakura's advice and use the water sparingly so that the rest of team seven could get some, too? Oh, no. He was much too thirsty to do that.

Quite frankly…Sakura was tired of it all.

Finally, Kakashi managed to calm the man's insistent fear of insects, urging him to rest while he could; because as soon as dusk came upon them, they would be heading for Sand again.

Naruto and Sasuke weren't having a particularly easy time with it, either. Occasionally Naruto would complain about the "gallons of sand" that had somehow managed to seep inside his sweat-bathed sandals; but other than that, it seemed his limitless supply of cheerful energy had finally been—if only to some limited extent—eroded down by the unrelenting heat of the sun. Sasuke hadn't really talked the whole trip—only once or twice to ask Kakashi a question about their location or request that they stop and gather more water and food—but it was obvious he was feeling the effects of their travels, too. And now, as the afternoon sun stayed stubbornly affixed in the middle of the sky, Sakura inwardly wondered whether or not they'd all make it out of this alive. Easy mission though it was, the brutal travel through the desert would surely leave them wishing to never set foot near any kind of sand ever again.

"Sakura," Kakashi said suddenly, catching her attention as she fanned herself. "There is a little bit of water a ways down from here. You can see it in the distance."

She turned her head around to stare in the direction he was pointing—and, indeed, there was an oasis sticking out in the desolate landscape like a very green sore thumb. "Yes, I see it."

"Good." He leaned back against the rock, smiling behind his mask. "Play rock-paper-scissors with Naruto and Sasuke to see who gets to go refill the canteens." She gave her teacher a glare of certain death, but not feeling quite in the mood to argue, obliged and approached her other two teammates.

The two of them were sitting a few feet away from the rest of the group, and Sasuke was closing his eyes as Naruto periodically tormented a lizard. Said blond boy looked up at her and smiled. "What's up, Sakura?"

She held out her fist on her palm. "Rock-paper-scissors," was her reply in a grunt.

Sasuke gave her a lame look. "Are you serious?"

"Kakashi told me to play rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to go fill up all our canteens at the oasis." She urged the two of them to join in, scowling.

After a very rousing game with the virtually unbeatable Naruto, it was down to Sasuke and Sakura.

Naruto laughed in the background. "That's what you get for challenging the rock-paper-scissors champ!"

"Shut up, Naruto!" Sakura snapped.

Sasuke growled. "Let's just get this over with."

"Right," she said, fixing her attention on Sasuke's hand and began the countdown. "One."

"Two," Sasuke continued tiredly.

"Three!" Sakura shouted, hoping for the best.

In a slow, lazy movement, Sasuke's hand covered her fist, imitating the infamous paper-beats-rock move.

"Man!" She let Inner Sakura let out a string of rather harsh obscenities as Sasuke smirked and handed her his canteen.

"Hey, Sakura, I can go if you don't really want to go," Naruto said, taking out his canteen also.

She snatched it out of his hands, refusing his offer. She wasn't about to let Naruto give her pity. Especially in a ridiculous situation such as this. "I'm fine."

Passing back by Kakashi and Kenji, she put her hands on her hips as she stood over their sitting forms.

"You lost?" her teacher asked slowly.

She pouted, holding up the canteens. "What do you think?"

He laughed and handed her his, and the man's as well. "At least you were smart enough to not challenge me, also."

"Yeah, yeah…" She headed towards the oasis, holding two canteens in each hand by the straps, keeping her one tied to her waist.

The sun, the sand, the actual sight of the heat hissing and dancing just above the ground… It was all enough to drive her completely insane. And the thought that there wasn't relief from this ridiculous climate for hours wasn't exactly encouraging.

Instead she walked slowly, not bothering to wipe at the sweat, not bothering to pay notice to the particles of sand that were accumulating in her sandals and getting between her toes.

Her momentary strife was ended soon enough, though, when the oasis came into view: a simple splash of dull jade and sparkle in the otherwise bland and uninteresting scenery.

"Not that this mudhole is particularly fascinating, anyway," she snorted to herself, settling in the greens that grew around the source of moisture and thrusting her hands into the water.

It wasn't exactly cold and refreshing, but it wasn't warm either. Room temperature at best. She splashed her face and neck with it, heaving a sigh and massaging at the stinging areas of her skin. When she felt as rejuvenated as she could feel at the moment, she turned around halfway, glancing back towards the outcropping of rocks that her teammates were resting under. She could see Kakashi's bright orange book in the distance—a miniscule dot against what was otherwise just some darker shade of grey—so she concentrated instead on the water before her.

Her reflection confirmed her worst fear.

She was terribly sunburned. Which meant that she was red. Which meant that she was unattractive. Which meant that Sasuke would probably never look at her the same way again.

Growling in frustration, she splashed more water on herself, this time scrubbing frantically at her nose, cheeks, and area just above her eyes frantically. As if actually expecting this antic to succeed and make her pale again and slightly less unattractive, she peered cautiously back into the water.

"No!" she wailed, covering her face with her hands. "This can't be happening! I just made it worse!"

Her groaning and wallowing in self-pity continued on for several minutes, finally reducing to whimpers of internal agony when the heat of the sun began to beat quite harshly on her back and shoulders.

And then she hated herself even more when she realized that someone had been advancing on the oasis from her right. She hadn't even noticed it.

Messy red mop of hair, giant gourd strapped to his back, uncaring gait… Oh, yes. That was definitely Gaara of the Desert. She'd learned his name after Naruto had quickly corrected her declaration of him being just "that Sand guy" in her books. She supposed that would probably be some form of disrespect to the mesh-wearing boy, and forbid the day she would ever address him as such.

Inner Sakura shrieked and fell into a defeated pile of rubble at the same time Sakura's hands clenched in the sand. He didn't look like he was ready to kill her—he was actually not even looking at her—but then again one could never trust just outward appearances. Besides, he was a killer; he was a monster; he was Gaara

A quick glance behind her told her that Kakashi wasn't paying any attention, so she cursed under her breath and instead kept her gaze locked on the boy before her.

He came into full view, once more not even giving her a fleeting glare, and got to his knees in front of the water. A hand dug in his pocket, pulling out what seemed to be a broken canteen—completely cracked down the side—and he smashed it into the sand.

She refused to look at him anymore, but instead at the water, and when it distinctly rippled she knew he had plunged his hands into it and had begun to drink.

Casually, curiously, yet fearful at the same time, her gaze moved to rest on his broken canteen. A thought occurred to her and one of her fingers twitched in her now lax fists. How long had it been broken?

She could hear him desperately try to drink the water before it trickled through his fingers, then dip his cupped palms again to gather more.

He must be incredibly thirsty…

Inner Sakura, who had recently been revived, violently protested it. He could kill her! Scratch that, he would kill her!

But she reached for her own canteen anyway, gripping it tight in two hands. She bit her bottom lip first before muttering softly, "Gaara?"

With her eyes still downcast, the only indication that she could tell he had heard her—and acknowledged her—was that the sipping noises had stopped.

There was silence for a few seconds—fifteen, if she counted correctly—and she held the canteen out to him in an offering of some sort. "This…will help."

This time there was a more immediate grunt when she sat it down in the sand between them and looked up. He wasn't looking at her but at her little gift, staring while water dripped from his mouth and chin and his collar stayed soaked. Nevertheless he picked it up, proceeding to fill it and then drink. This act was repeated a few times, each completed with the same hesitant coolness as the last, before he was apparently finished and tossed the thing back to her.

A thought suddenly occurred to her, and it wouldn't very well leave her. This boy was walking without water through the desert. There wasn't another place to stop and get more for miles, from what she could tell.

As much as she wanted to just leave him to his own devices and let him fend for himself, it just seemed too harsh to not offer to help him. After all, she knew firsthand how terrible it was to trek through the desert in the heat of the day, thirsty and tired. Hoping with everything she had that he wouldn't kill her for this, she said "I can…I can fix your canteen if you want."

He glared, and her muscles tensed again.

"That's only if you want, though! I just thought I'd help, I mean, you've got a long walk, wherever you're going and it's unhealthy to travel without water, not to mention you could dehydrate and get a stroke and—"

"Shut up," was all he said in a slightly annoyed reply, tossing his canteen to her also.

She looked from his canteen, to his face, and then back again before he spoke once more. "If you're not going to fix it, then why did you offer in the first place?"

She blinked and nodded, pulling some bandages from her back-pouch, wrapping them swiftly around Gaara's canteen. If only with half a mind she noticed that it was extremely battered—scratches littered its surface, it felt hot like it had been set out in the sun for hours, and the texture of it was rough like stone.

Stone. Kakashi.

Sasuke. Sunburn.

Inner Sakura was apparently too…well…dead to make a snippy comment at this.

When she was satisfied, she stood, handing the thing to Gaara.

And surprisingly, he took it from her hand. His fingers didn't brush against hers, though, and it wasn't softly, either. It was harsh and quick, like if she touched him he would spontaneously combust.

A nod, and then he turned to look out towards some point in the far north.

"It won't last long," she choked. "The job I did, I mean. You should replace it or get it mended right as soon as you can."

He scoffed and stooped momentarily to refill his canteen before replacing it to its original spot at his belt. She was about to look away. Really, she was. But the hand he outstretched to her expelled any thoughts of that.

She couldn't help the stutter in her voice. "W—wha…?"

The hand twitched as he spoke to her in a slow mutter. "I'm showing my appreciation." Another twitch, and it became minutely clear to Sakura that he possibly could have been…uncomfortable enough with the situation to denounce enunciation. She waited for him to clarify, which he did. "I'm thanking you."

She still didn't respond, and when about ten more seconds passed—because Sakura was, with all seriousness, counting the time—his hand clenched and then withdrew.

His expression hardened. "Fine. I never asked you to accept." He was about to turn and walk away, but she stopped him with what was intended to be the beginning of a sentence.

"I—I mean… Yes, I accept. I was just surprised."

He shifted his weight a little, but otherwise showed no outward change in expression.

That's when she offered him her hand.

His gaze—or maybe glare; she wasn't too sure—shifted from her hand, to her eyes, and then back again, much like hers had with him and his canteen. Finally, he took her hand and shook it. His held the same feel as his canteen—weathered, heated, and coarse. The handshake lasted less than two seconds, with him firmly shaking hers and then releasing it, continuing along his way to the north. She could feel it even when he was a mere speck among the sizzling landscape.

Inner Sakura decided to wake up at that moment, and kicked her to hurry the hell up: Kakashi and the others were surely worried by now. So she headed back, unable to bring herself to look over her shoulder for a giant gourd strapped to a boy with a mop of messy red hair and an uncaring gait.

When she arrived at the rock, she found Kakashi, Naruto, Sasuke, and even the whiny man Kenji playing an intense game of rock-paper-scissors. Naruto, it seemed, was in the lead. She tossed the canteens to their respective owners, sighed, and plopped down, leaning against the rock. Whether or not she should tell her teammates, she didn't know. Would they check her all over for wounds? Demand that she tell them every little detail about the encounter?

Sighing, she decided that retelling the meeting with Gaara of the Desert wasn't something she was up for at the moment. She listened to the sounds of Kakashi and Sasuke arguing lightly about the copy ninja's potential "cheating ways", feeling relaxed by their familiar voices, when Naruto's voice rang out shrill and clear.

"Hey, Sakura! These canteens are empty!"