Watching Sakura in general was somewhat soothing, provided she was in one of her exceedingly rare not-particularly-angry or not-particularly-worried moods.

Watching her sleep was downright therapeutic.

And you could say that hovering by her side with your eyes unblinkingly fixated on her expanding and deflating chest and wondering just what you'd do if she up and stopped breathing was a little creepy, but Gaara didn't say those things and he really didn't give a shit.

He stretched his legs out in front of him, because they were getting a little stiff from his unwavering tenseness. Twigs, animals, the wind; it was all driving him fucking crazy. He was on edge, nervous and uncomfortable and ears and eyes strained to their breaking point for any sign of them being pursued. And his ever-present twitchiness was providing him with a nice little reminder of his looming insanity; you didn't accidentally slam your knuckle so hard into your nose it bled a little and not wonder about these things. He was strung tighter than he ever cared to remember and it was grating at him, slowly but surely, and at some point he knew he was going to snap. (He was already breathing funny.) And that was where staring at Sakura like a fucking stalker came in.

She would probably be a little…upset, if she woke up and found him like this. Because they'd gotten past the point where she pretended not to notice and they'd gotten past the point where it made her uncomfortable, and as far as she was concerned they were hurtling straight toward stop looking at me, you red-headed cunt.

Gaara didn't know if he was supposed to pretend the fact that she hadn't said a word to him all of yesterday and hadn't even graced him with an angry look as she settled down on her side to sleep because she couldn't keep going didn't bother him or what, but he didn't know what to do about it. Her being mad at him, that was.

Well, scratch that. He was utterly and completely grounded in her least-favorite-peoples list.

Gaara liked to think he was a simple creature. (He wasn't. But he liked to think it.) As far as he was concerned, he trusted his instincts to guide him safely through most decisions he might have to make. (Except when his instincts were telling him to slaughter someone and/or run his tongue up their bodily appendages. Then he had to throw some critical thinking into the mix.) When his body told him something he listened to it. (Like when his body crippled him with a blinding flash-flood of agony. That was more or less telling him he might want to be on the lookout for anything strange. Like Shukaku popping out of his eye socket.) He really wasn't that complicated. (Okay, so he wasn't fooling anyone.)

So, naturally, having Sakura and all her plentiful mood-swings thrown at him was a little startling.

And when you added in the fact that he didn't know what the hell to do about them he was just plain bothered by it.

If she didn't want to know why had she even asked?

Because Naruto would stop him. Well, it was true. It wasn't a big deal; it wasn't even personal.

And how the hell was he supposed to know she'd end up as more than just precious organ-bag five-six-oh? He wasn't psychic. Who else was he supposed to have chosen? He wasn't about to dump that shit on either of his siblings, and Naruto had been the only other person he really trusted. And where Naruto went, Sakura generally went along. He didn't like the feel of their squad-leader; he was too withdrawn and too hard to figure out and Gaara never would have been able to rest easy with him nearby.

Oh, the irony just made itself.

And the thing that really made Gaara uneasy at the idea of Kakashi accompanying them was the fact that he got the impression, both from just watching and from what Naruto had told him, that if either of Kakashi's subordinates was in danger he would snuff out the source, and without remorse. And while that was sounding like quite a reasonable option right now, Gaara hadn't been thinking anything along the lines when he first decided to attempt this excursion.

So that left him with Naruto, who he trusted and whose whereabouts were currently unknown, and Sakura, who had come along with the package and who was regarding him with all the hostility as though he'd killed her cat.

His people skills sucked.

Sakura snuffled and shifted in her sleep, and for one hazy moment he felt a stabbing wave of jealousy. Then she mumbled something incoherent and snuggled her nose a little into her arm and it faded, distracted as he was by the odd slackness of her lips.

Now that he thought about it, this was edging a little on obsession.

But like he'd said, Gaara was a simple creature and he didn't try to ponder it out when his body was telling him something.

This settled it, sleep was better than sex. Or what she'd heard about sex from Ino anyway. Sakura wasn't going to get into specifics.

Something was nibbling at the corner of her mind, some tiny little alarm that was urging her to move a little faster, get her guard up. But years of deeply ingrained stubbornness overcame her years of deeply ingrained training, letting her sigh and stretch and drift deliciously on the furry edge between rest and awakeness. Mmm, delicious.

But that odd little tingling sensation just refused to go away, and that was tugging at her instincts, and that was just annoying. She could vaguely recall that she was a ninja, and ninja were supposed to pay attention to these things.

And so it was with a deep reluctance that she began the agonizing task of heaving her eyes open, and came face to face with Gaara, who was crouching over her with the utmost focus.

She considered screaming, but that pesky experience was telling her that loud conspicuous noises were a bad idea given their situation. She also considered punching him, but too many seconds had gone by for her to pass it off as a reflex.

So she was left to give him a bleary glare that was probably so pathetic it made Pakkun look ferocious and roll her back to him, pushing herself up and stretching deeply, taking a sadistic kind of pleasure in her body's miscellaneous cracks and pops. She could feel, quite keenly, Gaara's eyes on her, and she studiously ignored him.

She felt…well, achingly sore, but in a weird way really quite delicious. She could feel her chakra, bright and humming and so easily harnessed, and that gave her a sense of security she'd been missing for the past day and a half. It reminded her of her earliest workouts with Tsunade, when she'd wake up with her muscles screaming death in a kind of beautiful way that made her smile the tiniest bit before she dragged her whimpering self to the bathroom for a hot soak in the tub.

"You were talking in your sleep."

Her stomach lurched with embarrassment, and her slight bubble of pleasure burst. She was glad her face wasn't in his line of view. Sleep-talking was something she rarely ever did, but when it happened she could never remember what she'd dreamed about and, since half her nights were spent with other people, it was always highly humiliating. She'd never forget the time Naruto and Sasuke practically caught her having a wet dream about Kakashi; they'd teased her for months. (Which was goddamn unfair, everyone had wet dreams about Kakashi.)

"What did I talk bout?"

It slipped out before she could remember that she wasn't talking to him, but if Gaara realized this he gave no indication. And, well…maybe she could forgive him; surely a day of mentally castrating him was enough to get him off her shit list?


No, no, he was still on.

She didn't even grace him with an "Oh," she just stood up and started brushing herself off and didn't look at him. Well, she'd never done that before. She supposed it had only been a matter of time…

Gaara stayed seated on the ground, looking up at her with all the veiled curiosity she'd become accustomed to, as well as some other hard glinty emotion that she couldn't quite read. And him looking at her always did make her feel too vulnerable for her own liking. Especially if she'd been murmuring Sasuke's name all night.

…it hadn't been a sexy dream, had it? She tried to figure out if she felt aroused.

"You miss him."

It wasn't a question but it was, in that weird indirect way Gaara had because he refused to straight out ask these things. If he thought she was going to answer him he must have been out of his damn mind. Sasuke was a subject that was painful to talk about with Naruto and Kakashi, and as far as she was concerned it wasn't anyone else's business.


She spun around to stare at him, because Sakura had always been an emotional person and that was just a little too much for her. Plus Gaara had this weird gleaming look in his eyes and she didn't feel comfortable turning her back to that.

"Why do you think?" she demanded, already on the verge of being offended. Just that this was such a tender subject and it made everything seem so raw and why was Gaara looking at her like that? Like he was – like she should know better, or like she was saying something that was axiomatically ridiculous.

Never one to spare people's feelings or anything silly like that, Gaara went straight for what he really should have known would set her off. "He's a traitor. You're wasting your time."

Her temper, already bubbling, flared up like an incensed animal and before she knew it she had taken the few steps forward that would put her right in his dispassionate face (and she had to bend over because he was still crouched on the ground but that was okay because was he retarded or what), fists clenching automatically. He looked up at her and for all intents and purposes appeared to be utterly unimpressed.

"Let's get something straight right now," she growled, and resisted the urge to poke a self-righteous finger into his chest because his sand would probably catch it and that would just be emasculating. "You don't get to talk shit about my teammates. Got it?"

And then something in Gaara's face twisted, something between it sucking in on itself and a coiled spring being let loose, and the effect almost had her taking a step back.

"He abandoned your village," he snapped venomously, eyes narrow and bright and just off. "He'd kill you on sight and you still chase after him like a love sick little slave – "

And that just hurt. "Fuck you," she said, half in disbelief because really, where was this coming from? "That has nothing to do with it."

"It has everything to do with it," he snarled. This was going too fast, she couldn't follow – up until yesterday Gaara didn't act like this. He didn't – he wasn't malicious just for the sake of it, and she was having a damn hard time pretending she didn't care. "You're too pathetic to see how worthless he is."

Something deep inside her caught and she stared at him wordlessly, feeling numbness creep up her fingertips.

Her gut reaction was to punch him, but something told her that in this situation she would just make things worse. Her second reaction was to stalk away, but that was conceding defeat and something about his clear resentful gaze directed at her was keeping her locked in place. She wanted to hurt him. She wanted –

"You don't know anything about him," she said lowly, in a last-ditch effort to not let this spiral out of control.

He laughed, then, barked out this tense mirthless sound that made his mouth curl freakishly and his nose wrinkle up, and her knees almost gave out then and there. "No, you don't know anything about him. You don't know because you're still convinced you love him – "

"For someone who hates him so much, you act a lot like him."

She didn't mean it, not really, because once you got past the surface they were nothing alike. But her ears were ringing and she felt damn ready to kill him, and her only other option was to pay attention to the sudden tight burning of her throat and no one wanted that.

He broke off like she had struck him, and for a long, wordless moment they stared at each other, air charged and staticy and palpable and on the verge of splintering.

Then a kunai struck a tree quite close to her head, and they got distracted.

She reacted without thinking, switching her body out with a nearby branch and crouching down under a leafy bush, eyes fixed unblinkingly on the spot the projectile had come from. Which, undoubtedly, the attacker had now moved from. She was still a little shocked, head buzzing with familiar too close I could have died so easy thoughts, but she was accustomed enough to that that she was able to push it down without much trouble. She flicked her gaze between the two spots forty-five degrees from the kunai's origin. She could just barely feel a slight hum of energy, so barely-there it would have been undetectable had she not been so sensitive to chakra. The only thing that spoke of Gaara's joining her was the slight rasp of sand to her left.

She crossed out the idea of it being Tobi or Deidara – from what she'd seen of Deidara he didn't bother with subtlety, and Tobi wouldn't have had a problem completely masking his chakra. Unless he was letting some leak out to throw her off, which was a very real possibility.

She was reaching, achingly slow, to pull a shuriken out of her leg strap when Gaara started panting, and she paused to glance at him cautiously.

He was staring in the same direction she was, lips slightly parted with his tongue just barely poking out. In a flash of perverted insight she was sharply reminded of a snake tasting the air. His eyes were overly bright, gleaming.

She started to reach out to touch his shoulder on instinct – yes, they were in the middle of a fight and yes, for some reason he was on jackass mode, but they were still comrades and they were in danger and she swore, if he collapsed on her again she would fucking kill him.

He twitched, this weird little jerk of his wrist, and that was all the warning she got to dive the hell out of the way before a flood of sand erupted from the ground and virtually exploded.

She rolled, automatically pressing her back flat to a tree in case two tons of granulated rock wasn't enough to distract their attacker. Her heart was pounding furiously, pulsing in her throat and making it hard to think straight. Gaara was acting weird, something was wrong with Gaara. Sand was crashing around behind her, so loud it made her head throb, sounding more like a wild animal than an inanimate object. She swallowed several times and then angled herself slightly to peek around the edge of the trunk.

The sand was flooding through the trees, flowing around some and tearing down others and engulfing everything, leaving no room for escape. Sakura caught a flash of white as the man threw stealth to the wind and attempted to flee – and then Gaara's sand washed over him and dragged him down. She watched his head – masked, hunter-nin – struggle to remain above the surface, arms flailing pathetically as he assumedly gasped for air. She could have sworn she heard Gaara chuckle, and a pocket of sickness swelled in her belly.

She crept out form behind her shield, wanting to approach him but feeling slightly too wary to do so. Then she caught sight of his face, and that convinced her that approaching Gaara right now would be downright suicide.

She teetered, for a second, caught unawares and unsure what to do. If she hesitated too long that guy was going to end up dead, and that just wouldn't do because she'd personally like to know why he was trying to kill them in the first place. On the other hand, Gaara had been shaky all morning and he looked like he'd finally fulfilled his promise of being dangerous, fingers twisted as his teeth glinted exposed in his clear, unbridled delight. She felt her own breath speed up in response, panicfear seeping into her skin like an oily disease.


He didn't hear her, or he ignored her, and she had to take a step forward and swallow to wet her bone-dry throat, because she couldn't see the hunter-nin anymore and this was just getting out of hand. "Gaara."

His eyes flicked at her this time, and she didn't know if it was her voice or the sight of her standing there white-faced and staying out of touching distance that got to him, but either way his grin slid off his face like something melting. His arm dropped limply and bounced a little bit.

For half a second the world seemed to splinter into contrast, tunneling in on itself until he was the only thing there, stark and edgy and a grain away from flipping.

Then she ignored all that pesky common sense to stride forward and grasp his wrist, avoiding his eyes as she tugged him towards the literal desert he had created with a muttered "C'mon."

She prayed he couldn't see her shaking.

He let her drag him, stumbling a couple of times and saying nothing. She kept her focus ahead of her, away from him, and her eyes on the ground.

She dropped down onto her knees in the general vicinity of where the nin had disappeared, glanced once at Gaara's ankle.

"He's dead, right?" she asked.

Gaara didn't say anything, and she took that as a yes. She started digging.

After a moment or two Gaara joined her. She didn't ask why he didn't just burst him out, and Gaara didn't explain it to her. They worked together in silence.

When her hands first brushed something solid that wasn't a tree branch she almost yelped, she was wound so tightly. She managed to quash it back but Gaara noticed the sudden lurch of her spine, and he plunged his hands down next to hers. Roughly five minutes later they unearthed the body.

Sakura almost vomited all over the ground in front of her. It was mutilated, dented in unnatural placed and splintered bones peeking through the skin. Blood seeped out the eyes and ears, along with a dull grayish substance that was probably forced out when the right side of his skull was crushed in. His jaw hung open, mask crunched into a thousand pieces, half of which had embedded into his face, skin peppered with white and crimson. His tongue hung limp, almost completely severed and hanging at a ninety degree angle by a thread of muscle.

Sakura was no stranger to gore. Back at Konoha she was around it twenty-four-seven when Tsunade decided to put her on hospital duty.

But the fact that Gaara had done this and enjoyed it was revolting her in an entirely different kind of way.

She took a couple of breaths through her mouth to collect herself, face scrunching at the stench. Despite her best efforts her gaze kept getting dragged back to his single open eye, bulging halfway out it's socket.

(She wondered if he had panicked, or if he had kept his cool throughout the entire ordeal. She wondered if he had felt fear, and if that had been his downfall. She wondered if Gaara had shivered at the first crunch of bones, and then her stomach twisted violently again.)

She sat back on her haunches, steadied herself, and then fixed Gaara with a level stare.

"Why did you do that."

Her voice was flat, completely and utterly, and if she wasn't so rattled she would have congratulated herself. As it was she kept quiet and concentrated, because Gaara was looking back at her and that was doing all kinds of things to her nerves.

She saw him swallow, which boggled her because she'd never taken Gaara as prone to nervous habits, and his tongue darted out to wet his bottom lip. "I don't know." He must have seen something in the tension of her jaw, or the way her fingers twitched, begging to clench but being denied the privilege, because he closed his eyes and continued. "I wanted to."

"We don't even know who he is! He could have been – " A horrible thought struck her. "He could have been from Konoha."

When Gaara opened his eyes they were clearer, more sharp and defined and much more like himself. "If they were trying to kill us it's more likely they were from my village.

"Why would your village – " her mouth snapped shut, because she didn't know much about his village and from what she did, assassinating someone who risked everything for them because he posed a minor danger sounding very much like something it would do.

So she turned back to the twisted pile of skin and muscle that had been a working human being just minutes ago. "We should check…" and she trailed off, because right now any words that came out of her mouth just sounded pointless and empty. Instead she reached forward and started patting him down, mentally cringing.

They searched him head to toe and didn't find anything that might have linked him to any village or organization. Finally Sakura was forced to sit back and admit defeat, feeling curiously blank about all the bits of flesh on her hands that she couldn't even comprehend wiping off because then she'd have to acknowledge there was another person's skin on her in the first place.

"We've lost too much time."

Her head snapped around to stare at him, because no one had said anything in too long and hadn't he just crushed someone to death for fun? She couldn't do things like that and think logically the next minute.

"Are you…we can't ignore this," she said, feeling mildly disgusted.

"Ignore what?" he stated flatly, raising his eyes to hers.

And just like that, things felt like they were a tiny bit back to normal. She latched onto it.

"I dunno, the fact that you pretty much just lost it?" she said disbelievingly.

He frowned (she considered telling him he was going to get lines but dismissed it as petty), deeply, and when he spoke his voice held a tinge of ever-familiar irritation. "His death was necessary."

"No, his capture was necessary, the killing him part was just a perk," she ground out. "Doesn't your country know how to take prisoners?"

"Are you completely delusional – "

"Let me see your seal."

He broke off and looked at her like she'd kicked a puppy, which made her feel bad, but she dismissed it. Every second they spent here was precious; she could practically feel Tobi catching up to them. No time for all this shifty dancing around each other business they'd adopted. She crawled toward him and, feeling quite adrenaline-chargedly bold, yanked his shirt up.

His instantaneous reaction was to jerk violently away from her, but that only made him lose his balance and topple over backwards. She followed quickly, shimmying up until she straddled his waist and had his wrists pinned above head. The sand shifted nervously underneath them, bulging and twisting into half-formed hills that collapsed mid-creation, making her adrenaline spike again. She ignored it, and his strangled "Gah" of protest, and slapped her hand down against his bare belly.

"Stop pulling this shit," she grumbled at him. "When you need chakra tell me."

He had gone curiously still the second her skin came into contact with his, head tilted back and eyes staring blankly at the foliage behind him. His back was arched and taut, and she watched with a weird kind of fascination as his body quivered from the effort of holding their combined weight up.

"You okay there?" she asked as his seal bled to the surface of his skin in response to the energy being given to it, raising a lofty pink eyebrow.

"Fine," he rasped, lips barely moving.

She shrugged and went back to her task, steadying out her flow so his body would have an easier time absorbing it.

When she glanced up again he was looking at her, eyes hazy and unfocused and – just – um. Her chakra flickered and jumped.

Then Gaara went and opened his mouth.

"Did I scare you?"

Her answering scowl was absolutely ferocious. "You already asked me that."

She figured she'd given him enough, so she let her chakra taper off and die, noticing as she did so that she had smeared his porcelain skin with blood in a bizarre contrast. Foreign blood.

Gaara noticed too, if the obvious flaring of his nostrils was any indication. He slid his gaze down the sloping incline of his curved torso, then moved it to her hand, smeared with bodily fluid, and stayed there. She shifted a little uncomfortably.

"Just now," he said unperturbedly, eyes still trained on her crimson-stained skin. "Did I scare you?"

"N-no," she fumbled out.

He glanced once at her, and for the life of her she couldn't think what else to say because his eyes were so dark and smoldering and hot, and that left her utterly speechless.

"And now?"

"Gaara, what the fuck – "

He tugged her hand up to his face and, as if it was a sugared treat, popped the end of her index finger into his mouth.

Her brain shorted out.

He ignored this, tugging at her until she dumfoundedly leaned forward, granting him better access. He switched over to her middle finger, giving it a hard suck. She almost died when she felt the wet brush of his tongue, hot and slick against her skin, curling around her digit and brushing along its underside.

He methodolically cleaned every one of her fingers, and when he was done with that he moved on to her palm, scraping his teeth over it to get rid of the dried on blood and then removing the leftover traces with his mouth. She spent the entire experience wordlessly frozen, intensely aware of the way his muscles bunched and flexed underneath her when he moved.

He finished off her left hand and pulled her pinky from between his lips with an audible pop that almost made her keel over right then and there.

He looked at her calmly. "Scared now?"

She tilted her head a bit, feeling surreal and on edge and -- well -- her hand was kind of cold, being that it was covered in spit, all at once.

(That almost quirk to the corner of his lip was goddamn fascinating.)

She wordlessly offered him her other hand.

Okay gaiz, lemme reiterate that GAARA'S SEAL IS ON HIS FUCKIGN BACK AND I'VE BEEN WRITING IT AS ON HIS STOMACH DID I FUCK UP OR WHAT? I'm retarded, yes. Let's all pretend we don't notice, and when I finally finish the super duper edit project it'll be fixed.