Sakura's rear hit the bare dirt at Shêtân's hooves. 'Ok… I moved my legs, but when I went to stand, instead all I get is wet noodles for muscles? You know what? This horse riding stuff is for the birds…' She muttered loudly, "Ooooow… dammit…"

After days of riding, Sakura's leg muscles had apparently decided that straddling a horse, while healing, was quite enough punishment and had gone on strike. The chuckling of her companions around her didn't help her mood any, and she glared at her legs as though they'd personally insulted her. 'What the hell, I spend all that time healing you and this is the thanks I get?'

"If you need help down, you only need to ask." Gaara stoically looked on her from atop his horse, thankfully not laughing.

'Oh shut up you godforsaken, arrogant, horse-flea-ridden Kazekage jerk…' Sakura glared up at the man, still unable to make her legs respond to her commands. "Of course I don't need help, why would I possibly need help getting off a horse taller than me, when I've never ridden so much in my entire life, and oh yeah, I spent all of the past day healing my own body!" she spat sarcastically.

The picture of grace and the very antithesis of Sakura, Gaara dismounted. Crouching beside her, he examined her closely before asking, "Are you all right?"

Sakura stared back for a moment, slightly caught off guard by the thoughtful question. "Yeah… I'm all right, I finished healing both my leg and shoulder earlier, but I think now my muscles are just temporarily atonic. I should be able to move in a bit."

"Very well." Gaara stood again, and moving the massive bulk of his horse slightly away, began removing the horse's tack and slinging it over a nearby wagon's side walls to dry.

Sakura sat in the dirt, mute with astonishment. When Gaara started brushing the horse down for the night, she'd had enough, yelling out, "HEY!! Are you just going to leave me here or what?"

Not even looking up from grooming the stallion, Gaara spoke, "And where would you move to? We are not camping for the night, but taking a short rest. When Tsunade finishes setting up your bedroll I will move you to it." Adding slyly, "If you are still unable to do so yourself."

Naruto's cackling from a short distance away as he and Hinata set up their own temporary sleeping roll made Sakura's vision run red. 'DAMN him, letting my mommy lay out my bed and tucking me into it? Hell no will I let that happen!' Pumping chakra into her legs, she got on her hands and wobbly knees, then, slowly, tried flexing her right leg forward. When her right foot was securely against the ground, she transferred her arms to brace against that knee, and began to deliberately straighten her leg.

She was far too concentrated on the simple task of standing to notice Gaara watching her intently. After an agonizing minute Sakura succeeded in straightening her right leg, then pulled her left to stand firmly below her. Trembling visibly, she reveled in the feeling of success. 'I'll show that conceited little twerp just who's the Second Captain of ANBU in Konoha! I heal my own leg and shoulder good as new, which none of them except Tsunade can even dream of doing, but my legs give out in fatigue and that's all they see! Dammit!'

One foot slowly in front of the other, Sakura began to walk to where she saw Tsunade unpacking their bedrolls. She got a few steps away from Gaara's horse, when just like before, she moved her leg forward for the next step, and all the muscles refused to respond. Gaara had been watching for just such a possibility however, and with a ninja's speed caught Sakura's elbow in a vice-like supporting grip, preventing her from falling. "Doesn't a medic usually caution the patient to not strain themselves shortly after injury?" He asked calmly. 'I'll have to watch out for her prideful streak.'

"I don't need your help!" she spat defiantly, irrespective of the fact that his support of her arm was all that kept her from collapsing again. She straightened wobbly legs under her and attempted to wrench her arm away from his touch. But having little leverage against Gaara's steely grip, she failed rather miserably, and settled for giving his helping hand a sour look.

'Of course not,' he silently thought, walking toward their resting place while still supporting Sakura's arm. With trembling steps and Gaara's steadying hand, Sakura made it to Tsunade without further incident and settled onto her bedroll.

Gaara was as good as his word on a short rest, awakening the sleeping caravan at two hours past midnight. The previous day spent passing over the rocky plateau had been mercilessly hot, but they had not stopped until they reached the edge of the desert itself. Sakura and the others donned the warm, loose clothing they had been instructed to pack before leaving, to protect against the frigidly cold desert night, and prepared to leave.

Sakura was happy to find that her legs were functioning perfectly normally at the moment, and observed the others packing in the half-moon's desert light. Seeing Gaara already mounted and awaiting the caravan members, she decided it might be better to see if she could ride in Tsunade's wagon. The aggravation of the previous night mingled with a strange uncomfortable feeling in her stomach when she thought of riding through the day with the man. Unlike the previous days, she wouldn't be sleeping or in a healing trance through much of it, and being so intimately close for hours…

Putting on her best innocent smile and walking up to her mother, Sakura asked, "Can I join you today Tsunade?"

Tsunade stood beside the wagon, waiting for the final loads to be packed in a tired, bored manner. At Sakura's question however, her face alit with a devilish smile. Not hesitating a moment, she answered firmly, "NO."


"NO. And you can't ride in Kakashi's wagon either. In fact I order you not to step foot in any wagons in this caravan." Arms crossed over her ample chest, Tsunade faced her daughter head on, grinning like a Cheshire cat.

Sakura's face contorted in annoyance, and with sarcasm dripping from her voice said, "You know, you can't actually order me to do anything, remember…"

Cutting in, Tsunade said, "Who said the Hokage was ordering you to do anything? As your mother I'm ordering you." Turning Sakura around and pushing her away, she intoned, "You already have a ride, go!"

Stumbling a few steps away from the wagon, she growled and turned to look back to where Tsunade was laughing lightly. 'Evil woman…'

Gaara had observed the whole exchange, and directed his horse over to stand beside Sakura. "If you do not wish my company…"

"No! It's not like that, I just didn't… uh… want to impose on you any more…" she stuttered, trying to cover up her true reasons for avoiding the man.

Gaara didn't respond, simply holding his hand out to help her up. A sinking feeling settling through her body, Sakura looked at the proffered aid and thought, 'Crap, now if I say anything I'm being rude. Damn you Tsunade!'

"Uhh… thanks…" came her unenthusiastic reply as she took his hand, and with Gaara's help she easily slid into the seat in front of him. He seemed to exert no effort at all to lift her up, and Sakura marveled briefly at his strength. 'Hauling around all that sand all the time must do wonders for your muscle tone…'

The chill midnight air blew over the camp once more, and Sakura shivered slightly. But when Gaara reached around her to grasp the reins in both hands, Sakura's shivering continued for an entirely different reason, the warmth of his thighs and chest as they pressed against her suddenly all too apparent. 'I don't know how much more of this emotional, hormonal rollercoaster I can take…'

Calling the caravan to assemble, Gaara led them off surrounded by cool darkness sprinkled with stars.

The caravan traveled all through the night and into morning, only stopping when the sun had reached a quarter of its way across the sky. With the sun's dawning the party could see clearly for miles – they were now in the deep desert, with sandy, rocky dunes surrounding them. Even the glancing light of the morning sun was enough to lift the chill, and the entire party began to shed their warm outer layers. By the time they stopped many from Konoha were feeling exhausted and parched from the unrelenting sun as it beat down upon them.

An ocean of boulder-strewn nothingness seemed to surround them, but with unerring accuracy Gaara had led them to a mazelike wadi - a small canyon carved out by the once-a-century flooding rains. It seemed the Suna party had stopped here before, as the bottom of a large section of wadi was filled with smooth sand. They hid their wagons behind rocks and crags nearby, unhitching the horses to accompany them down into the sandy shelter.

Sakura stood by Gaara and his horse, waiting for the caravan members to finish clambering down the steep path to the bottom. Once everyone was down, Gaara put two fingers to his right temple and closed his eyes in concentration.

Sakura faced a moment's puzzlement at what on earth he was doing, until she heard a rumbling above her, and the sun's harsh rays were shadowed from view. Her mouth open in a silent "Oh", Sakura watched mutely as a curtain of sand moved to bridge the walls of the wadi, spreading across to either side until the entire party was more than covered, and then down almost touching the ground. Once the sand had stopped shifting, there could be seen at the edges of the cover a foot of light, but otherwise they were shrouded in darkness.

'Amazing… We'll stay cool in the shade, protected and hidden in the canyon, and the blowing wind will keep the air moving through our shelter. And he hasn't broken a sweat all day.' Sakura marveled as she stared at the Kazekage in the dim light, her admiration for his strategic thinking increasing. 'He's truly a creature of the desert.'

Gaara, for his part, was feeling weary with the outpouring of chakra controlling the sand, and his concentration was occupied trying to compress the sand around them to hold its shape easier. His eyes still closed but sensing Sakura nearby, he called to her, "Sakura… would you tend my horse and get me a canteen, please."

"Oh, sure!" she acquiesced readily, reaching into their saddlebags to find a full canteen for him. Gaara took it from her, eyes still closed, and sank gracefully into a meditative posture in the sand. Sakura turned around to face the wide-eyed stare of Gaara's intimidating black stallion, thinking with none-too-little trepidation, 'Uh… ok horse! We've been together for just a few days now, but so far you haven't tried to bite me or kick me or anything… So keep it up! I'm a kick-ass kunoichi and I can take a dumb horse on any day of the week!'

Ignoring the ridiculousness of trying to intimidate a horse inside her own thoughts, Sakura reached out to touch the horse's neck tentatively. Other than shuddering his skin and continuing to stare at her, Shêtân took no action. Taking this as encouragement, she trailed her hand along his shoulders to the saddle, and began unhooking all the saddlebags and tack. Once his bridle was off as well she brushed the well behaved animal down, with him leaning into her grooming appreciatively.

'Maybe you aren't so wild after all…' she thought as she led him over to stand with the other horses for the duration. Flopping down in the sand next to Gaara, she peered curiously at his meditative posture, asking, "Are you ok? Need anything else?"

"No, thank you for what you've done. You should rest while you can, we will leave again in a few hours," Gaara replied.

"I'm not tired, I never really take naps…" she thought aloud, leaning back on her hands and gazing up at the sand dome, eyes unfocused.

"Your body is tired, even if your mind is not. Lay down and rest or you will be in poor condition to travel through the night," he sternly commanded.

Sakura ignored the remark, pondering, "I just don't see how you do without sleep, a human body needs the opportunity to repair itself, consolidate memory, and release hormones to regulate body processes…"

Gaara had no answer to her question, and chose to stay silent. But Sakura's medical curiosity was piqued, and with such a unique case literally within arm's reach, she couldn't let it go just yet. She leaned in quite close to his shoulder, asking, "Gaara… can I examine you? Just a light brush of chakra to see if I can get a hint of how you manage with no sleep…"

For the first time since he put up the shading canopy of sand, his eyes snapped open and he regarded her warily. Studying her harmlessly curious gaze, he paused for several moments in consideration before firmly stating, "Do not probe deeply," and closing his eyes again.

Mildly surprised that he had agreed, Sakura took the invitation and scooted around until she could sit directly beside him, placing her left hand on the firm expanse of his back, between his shoulder blades. Sending out a very mild scanning chakra field, she began to lightly explore the structure of chakra in his body, looking for anything unusual.

She didn't have to look long however, as it quickly became apparent to Sakura that Gaara's chakra paths were radically different than an ordinary person's. Focusing her consciousness to more and more minute levels, Sakura was able to observe how Gaara's chakra paths interacted with his body.

A normal ninja had chakra lines much like a circulatory system, but with only one path, leading away from the cells which generate chakra, to the person's chakra heart, where mind and body chakra were mixed and focused. Sakura perceived Gaara's chakra as a strong golden glow, and the paths away from his cells and through his body flowed like bright molten gold.

What made his body so unusual was a separate chakra system flowing toward his cells. This one burned with an unholy red, and Sakura knew this must be due to the demon sealed inside his body. Fascinated by this arrangement, she reasoned that the demon's chakra must work to continuously restore his cells. 'It's a lot like Tsunade's rebirth technique…' she thought, reaching forward to explore this phenomenon, 'but are his cells actually being forced into accelerated division?'

Sakura delved deeper to find the answer to her questions, but inadvertently touched the demon's red chakra too strongly. Unaware of what she had done, she began to hear a deep, unholy cackling in the back of her mind, and then a rushing wind, pulling her… down… down…

surging gold chakra, flooding her awareness – red chakra retreating… drowning… letting go…

Sakura felt herself brutally jarred out of her meditative state, her eyes suddenly opening. Gaara had apparently violently knocked her hand away, and the look he speared her with brought terrifying memories of their genin days back to the front of her consciousness. "I warned you!" he hissed furiously at her, "Do you realize what could have happened to you?"

Reeling from the petrifying experience, Sakura scrambled backward a bit, stuttering "I… I… I didn't mean to… I didn't think I was probing deeply at all… I just barely touched your outer chakra paths…"

Still furious at the provocation of the demon he kept so tightly sealed away, but sensing her sincerity that she hadn't tried to overstep her bounds, Gaara's vicious countenance softened somewhat. "I cannot be healed by medic-nin - their attempts result in their deaths."

Sakura looked back, her expression fading from terror to a mixture of sadness and horror. Gaara turned forward again, away from her, and closed his eyes once more. Free of his piercing gaze, Sakura collected herself for a moment, then looked around in embarrassment. Apparently their entire exchange had been quiet enough to escape the notice of those resting around her though, as she saw no one looking in their direction.

Turning her roving eyes back to Gaara's still figure, Sakura felt a surge of guilt for what she'd done, but also felt a strong swell of understanding. She'd just experienced a tiny hint of what he must have had to fight with every day of his life. How he had the strength to fend off the madness she'd felt licking at her mind she didn't know, but her respect for him grew yet another few notches.

Scooting back toward him, she quietly said, "I'm sorry."

His forgiving reply came without a single change in outward expression, "Please do not attempt to do such a thing again. Now rest."

Sakura could have left his side, could have gone anywhere in their shaded enclosure, but the thought of moving from her position left her feeling like she would only gain regret by doing so. 'There's no running away from life…' Instead, she stretched out on her back in the soft sand next to him, thinking 'I'll just lay down here and try and rest, I can sleep on the ride later.

'But… I'm going to have sand in every crack after this. Maybe…'

"Gaara, would you pull the sand out of my clothes when it's time for us to leave?"

"If you wish."

Knowing that it didn't matter how much sand invaded her clothes now, she shifted in her place until the sand formed a pleasant cushion around her body. "It still might be worthwhile for me to try and learn how your body copes without sleep… Helping a shinobi to go without sleep in extreme circumstances would be a very valuable technique," she pondered aloud. 'Not to mention, if you ever did need to be healed, we need to know of a way to do it.' Gaara made no response, but she knew he must be listening and chose to continue. "I promise, now that I know what might happen, I'll be more careful… I'm not the apprentice of a legendary Sannin for nothing…"

'She's asking me to trust her strength. What she says is true, it would be a very valuable technique… but…' Gaara answered her, "Perhaps later, after you have convinced me that you're capable of doing it without the demon consuming you."

Sakura figured that was probably the best she was going to get, and after the close experience she felt he was probably right. 'At least he didn't dismiss the idea completely out of hand…'

Feeling as though her mind was too full of ideas to ever sleep in such a strange place, Sakura didn't even realize she was tired before the heat and stress of the day had lulled her into slumber.

Gaara awoke them two hours before sunset, simply rolling back the shading sand and letting the sky's brightness shine in. Gaara obligingly summoned the sand out of Sakura's clothes, and the party assembled and left without incident.

Gaara had told them before leaving that if they pushed through the night, they would reach Sunagakure before noon the next day. Eager to get past the harsh desolation of the desert, no one objected to this plan. Through the night Sakura heard her friends chatting, sharing stories and techniques, and mentally cursed Tsunade for not allowing her to join them. Riding with Gaara was mostly a ride in silence, but occasionally she would succeed in drawing a bit of conversation out of him. She asked about his village, their ninja training program, and their medic-nins and hospitals especially.

Eventually the darkness began to recede, pastel hues of pink, red, blue, and green spilling into the sky. The horizon began to melt into the sunrise, and soon it was impossible to tell where one ended and the other began. But however beautiful the sunrise was, the full exposure of the sun soon dominated their awareness with piercing light and oppressive heat.

They did not have to endure long however, for just as Gaara had stated, the cliffs which surrounded Sunagakure began rising out of the ground. As they approached, Sakura began to get a sense of the scale of the cliffs ahead of them, and marveled at the sight. The cliff face had been cut into huge terraces, and directly in the center of the terraced section was an unnaturally sharp pass, running straight up.

She couldn't help exclaiming softly as it became apparent that the tiny figures moving at the base of the cliffs were people. "Woooow… Gaara, how did that pass get cut through the rock so clean and straight? It's huge!"

Having lived with the scenery his whole life, Gaara felt rather blasé about it, but Sakura's innocent wonder gave him cause to be proud of his village. "The first Kazekage knew powerful earth jutsu, and when his clan decided to settle in the sheltered valley beyond, he cut the path for the clan to enter. He cut the cliffs beside it to serve as sentry outposts, to welcome other clans who wished to join them, and to warn clans who might want to fight them for what they had."

"He was your great-great-grandfather, right?" Sakura asked, thinking back to what the ambassador had said about the Kazekage title being inherited.

"Yes," came the simple reply.

"Do you know any of his earth jutsu, passed down through your family?" Sakura asked, her awe at the tale of the village before them making her forget momentarily about just what exactly had transpired between Gaara and his own father.

He answered stiffly, "I know some, but not because I learned it from my father."

Confused, Sakura asked, "Then… how…"

Thick emotion made Gaara's deep voice take on some of the menace that used to lace it as a child. "The first Kazekage died sealing Shukaku into the teakettle that was his prison before myself. I know some of the First's techniques because I have Shukaku's memories inside me."

Sakura gasped, and turned around to look him in the eye, but Gaara ignored her questing gaze and kept his eyes forward toward his home. Turning back around, Sakura began to apologize, but was cut off by Gaara's stern voice.

"I answered your questions because you will need to know much more than that about the family and village you are joining. Both the wonders… and the horrors."

At a loss for words, Sakura only nodded. Silence reigned until they reached the base of the cliffs, where sentries and one familiar face greeted them.

Temari looked up at her younger brother and smiled.

"Welcome back, Kazekage-sama."

Author's Note:

Jenn: I just want to skip to Sunagakure!
Chapter 9: Hah! You wish loser, write me properly dammit!
Jenn: But I'm tired of traveling! I want to get to the good stuff!
Chapter 9: I DEMAND you write me, biotch! Stop slacking off!
Jenn: •whimper• ...jerk.

Pistol-whipped by my own story… Please join me at my livejournal account for discussion about the research that went into this chapter, and much more!! archchic. livejournal. com