The hot bright sun hung high and pierced the sky, beating down upon the three shinobi, each with a long, shapeless shadow dragging across the uneven ground sewn to their feet as they trudged across the barren scalding sand dunes. The middle figure glanced around the desert for any sign that they'd nearly reached their destination, any sign at all. A particularly strong rare breeze ruffled his already messy bright red hair. He closed his pale green eyes that were rimmed with dark circles caused by the many sleepless nights the insomniac had endured. A red tattooed kanji meaning love was visible on the left side of his forehead. Anyone who beheld his features throughout the fire country was sure to be overcome by respect for he was the fifth Kazekage of Suna.

As Kazekage, Gaara had many responsibilities, including accepting invitations from Konoha to attend the Chuunin exams, held annually at this allied village where he and his older siblings were currently headed. As Gaara reminisced on his first year at the exams, he recalled the time when he was simply a seemingly heartless and invincible monster who believed he could only be made happy only by exterminating any human other than himself. His childhood had been… less than perfect as he was seen, not as the fourth Kazekage's youngest son that he was, but for the monster, the one-tailed Shukaku that was embedded inside of him.

At first, he was believed to be a weapon for Suna, but after the unintentional damage he caused, he was seen only as a threat to their village. He was the target of many elite assassins, sent by none other than his own father, though none came even near to success. He was an outcast; feared by everyone in his village including his sensei, his father, and his own siblings, Temari and Kankuro. His childhood had taught him that he was a monster, only loved by himself, only meant to love himself. He made himself feel alive by killing.

He'd had many victims, and had killed any enemy without mercy. Because of the Shukaku and his mother's dead soul inside of him, he received not even a scratch of harm due to the ultimate defense of his charka-molded sand that protected him from any harm directed at him. All this had happened before he'd even become a chuunin, not even reaching thirteen years of age.

At the Chuunin exams, however, in attempt to kill a leaf nin named Sasuke Uchiha, the first person who'd succeeded in physically making him draw blood, Gaara was forced to battle against a blond boy named Naruto Uzimaki. Despite Naruto's high-spirit and willingness to sacrifice himself to protect his obvious crush Sakura Haruno and teammate Sasuke from harm, the hyperactive blond was more alike with Gaara than anyone he'd ever known. This boy also had a demon sealed inside of him—the nine-tailed fox, Kyuubi. This boy, he who had experienced many things that Gaara had as far as being hated by his village because of the beast inside him, had taught him that even though he had a monster inside him, he was not a monster himself. Naruto had even made friends and had begun to be accepted by his village.

This had given Gaara hope and he'd made it his goal to become Kazekage, just had his assassinated father had been before him. He hoped to earn respect from his village by protecting it from harm as their trusted leader, the fifth Kazekage, a task he'd achieved well until Deidara and Sasori from the Akatsuki had kidnapped him for the demon inside of him. After Akatsuki had extracted the Shukaku from within him, taking with it his life, some Konoha ninja helped to revive him back to life. And for that, Gaara was eternally grateful.

Gaara shook the memories from his head and continued towards Konoha with his sister Temari and his brother Kankuro. As long as he was "eternally grateful" to Konoha, it was the least he could do to accept their invitations.

Ino Yamanaka stood in front of her three pupils, Team 5, all of which seemed a bit nervous. She'd been training the three for nearly a year and believed it was time for them to be entered in the Chuunin exams that were to be held the following week. She told them to meet her at the third training ground so that she could share with them the news and give information about entry. Now here they stood in front of her, Akitoki Chiro, Shikaru Narado, and Hitomi Izuno. The three hadn't quite lived up to their potential, but were definitely eligible for the exams.

Akitoki was a very headstrong boy with bright, messy orange hair and small brown eyes. He was very skilled at close range combat and taijutsu and could hold his own against the tai jutsu legend, Rock Lee, who was now a jonin and sensei of Team 2 genin, though he was less than skilled in both genjutsu and ninjutsu. Akitoki carried many scrolls to summon his weapons, finding in more convenient than carrying them. The only weapon he carried was a large zanbato that the young genin always kept unsheathed and handy. The sword was larger than the boy himself though he was wielded it nearly effortlessly; Ino was amazed by the speed Akitoki was able to manage in battle with it. In fact, he actually used its hefty weight to his advantage in combat.

Ino knew she shouldn't be surprised however. Akitoki belonged to the Chiro clan, the swordsman clan of Konoha; his sword was as much of a part of him as Shino Aburame's bugs of Kiba Izunaka's dog, Akamaru. In fact, because of his skill in combat, Akitoki could have been one of the top students in the Ninja Academy had it not been that he was so… well, stupid, to put it bluntly. But what Akitoki lacked in intelligence, Shikaru Narado made up for.

The blond-haired boy was nine years old and probably the youngest genin entered in the Chuunin exams. He was extraordinarily smart very skilled at ninjutsu and genjutsu due to his advanced chakra control and excelled at fire style attacks. But because of his small frame, Shikaru was weak when it came to taijutsu. His small frame was an advantage when it came to speed however; Shikaru could dodge many close range attacks, and had a high chakra pool. He had the potential to be a great ninja, but he was inattentive, hyperactive, and couldn't get over his crush on Hitomi, despite their three year difference.

Ino smiled when she thought of Shikaru's crush. She remembered the childish crush that she had had on Sasuke Uchiha, a certain cool, handsome boy who had left Konoha to join Orochimaru in a mad, power-hungry urge and the rivalry she'd had with her friend Sakura Haruno over him. It seemed so stupid now, but back then, it seemed to be the most important thing in the world. After she and Sakura had gotten over their mad hormone fueled crush, they'd rekindled their friendship that was sadly destroyed by a simple pre-teen love. She and Sakura, now a medic nin, had made an oath to never let a guy between them again.

Hitomi, however, was the last member and only girl on the team. She was only twelve years old, such a tender age, but could make most men stare for hours at her very feminine shape, long sleek raven hair, and cerulean eyes. Hitomi belonged to the Izuno clan, a small and infamous clan known for their bright blue eyes, their kekkei genkai called the Genkakugan. When activated, the Genkakugan transports the victim to an inescapable state of mentally and physically torturing genjutsu similar to Itachi's advanced Sharingan. Anyone this technique is used on would be unstable for life, if used correctly. Ino shuddered at the mere thought. She could hardly believe that such a gentle kunoichi had such a merciless kekkei genkai at her power.

Hitomi was quiet most of the in a way that was somewhat a mix between Sasuke's cool/calm nature and Hinata Hyuuga's shyness. Hitomi excelled above mediocre level in taijutsu and ninjutsu and had a special likeness to using water jutsus, but didn't have any particularly extraordinary talent in anything but genjutsu because of her Genkakugan, a technique Ino had never seen Hitomi use. The raven-haired kunoichi was frequently annoyed by Shikaru and his unreturned feelings for her, though there were some times when all three teammates seemed like peas in a pod. Ino knew they each had their strengths and weaknesses but as a team, none could be better than her own. They would definitely pass the Chuunin exams. She smiled and began to share the news.

A pink-haired kunoichi sighed as she walked up the steps of the Hokage tower. She'd been thinking a lot about what she wanted lately. She knew what she was: a jonin, a medic nin trained under the legendary Sannin and fifth Hokage, Tsunade. She was Sakura Haruno. But when it came to what she wanted, Sakura had no idea.

"SAKURA HARUNO, GET YOUR BUTT UP HERE!!!" The yell that could most likely travel for miles came from Tsunade's office, and from the sound of it, she was not happy. Sakura winced and sighed again, quickening her pace up the steps. The seventeen year old jonin had been ordered to her master's office that morning to receive a special mission. As she reached the top of the stairs, Sakura pushed open the door and entered the large circular room.

"Yes master?" she breathed. Large windows wrapped around the book-littered space. Across the room from Sakura was a very hungover looking Tsunade. She slumped over her messy desk, propping her head on her right hand that gripped at her blond hair tightly. Her other arms was outstretched across the desk and her golden eyes were half-covered by her drooping eyelids.

"You're late," Tsunade spoke. Sakura winced at the spite embedded between her words and would have reminded Tsunade that no exact time was requested for her arrival, but Sakura knew better than to talk back to her master when she was in such a state.

"Sorry," the pink-haired nin finally managed. Tsunade grumbled for a bit before Sakura spoke up again.

"Uh, y-you wanted to see me for a special mission?" Tsunade sat up a bit straighter at her pupil's question.

"Ah, yes," she pulled out a binder and flipped through it. Tsunade cleared her throat. "As you know," she began again as she rubbed her temples soothingly, "the Chuunin exams are next week as they are held every year. And as you also know, our greatest ally is the Village Hidden in the Sand, Suna. But after the war, our alliances have weakened. It attempt to strengthen them, we've invited the Kazekage to attend the exam."

'Gaara?' thought Sakura.

"Since most of our jonin are preparing for the exams," Tsunade continued, sighing, "we're asking that you will act as a bodyguard for him."

"A bodyguard for Gaara?" Sakura blurted out. "Doesn't his sand pretty much take care of that?"

"The sand is slower after the Shukaku was removed. Do you remember?" Tsunade spoke. Sakura was silent. Oh yeah. She remembered. "Now, are you going to let me finish?" Tsunade spat. Sakura nodded.

"Alright…" Tsunade began, "Now, if even so much of a scratch of harm falls upon him, our alliance with Suna may very well fall to pieces and I. Will. Have. Your. Head. Do you understand?" Tsunade's gold eyes pierced through Sakura's own pale green eyes. Sakura gulped and nodded. She had worked with the Hokage enough to know not to mess with her when she was hungover. Sakura thought into her mission.

Protect the Kazekage… Gaara. Sakura remember when she'd first met him at the Chuunin exams. She remembered the heartless monster he had been and then the silent leader she had known him to become. However unnecessary, it did seem like an easy enough mission; follow the redhead around, make sure nothing bad happened to him. It wasn't like the Akatsuki was still after him, so how hard could that be?

A hard knock was heard at the door.

"Come in," Tsunade called. The door opened and Sakura turned to see a blond female, a dark-haired male with purple face paint, and a redhead with dark-rimmed eyes as they entered the large room.

"Speak of the devil…" muttered Tsunade barely audibly, but Sakura was sure that the three could her. "Ah, Kazekage-sama, Temari, and Kankuro. You're right on time," Tsunade followed up sweetly. "I was just explaining to Sakura about her duties to be Gaara's bodyguard for the next few weeks." Sakura gave them a small smile. Though both Temari and Kankuro trusted Sakura enough, they both had similar thoughts in their heads; how is she going to protect Gaara? Sakura noticed Gaara staring at her and froze.

"Now, I assure you that Kazekage-sama is in good hands with Sakura. Temari, Kankuro, you may rest here at Konoha and continue to Suna in the morning." Tsunade offered the very best smile she could in her severe state of hangover.

"Hai," nodded Temari. She and her brother headed out of the room.

On their way down the stairs, Kankuro turned to his sister with a smirk. "Planning on staying the night at Shikamaru's are you?" he teased. Temari blushed at the comment and quickened her pace down the stairs ahead of Kankuro, unknowingly confirming his theories.

Even after Temari and Kankuro exited the office, Gaara continued to stare at Sakura who shifted her weight uneasily and turned slowly back to Tsunade.

"Uh, Kazekage-sama, do you mind giving Sakura-chan and me a minute?" Tsunade gave him a smile. Gaara gave a short understanding nod and stepped out of the room. Sakura was surprised. Tsunade had never called her "-chan" before. After Gaara was gone, Tsunade beckoned Sakura closer. Then she spoke again.

"Sakura, please, our village needs this alliance to be strong. Don't let the Kazekage out of your sight. Keep him safe. Keep him entertained," Tsunade gave Sakura a serious look. "Do anything he wants to keep him happy and safe. Please." Sakura nodded, slightly scared by the two uses of "please" that Tsunade uttered.

"Yes Tsunade-sama," Sakura almost whispered. Tsunade held Sakura's gaze for a moment more before nodding as well.

"Okay, well, you're free to go, just keep the Kazekage safe," Tsunade finished. Sakura nodded slowly and walked over to the door. She closed her eyes and sighed, opening the door quickly and shutting it behind her. She opened her eyes and yelped at the sight of Gaara staring at her, only inches from her face.

"Oh God, you scared me," Sakura made no attempt at hiding her surprise. She put a hand to her chest and took a deep breath. Gaara didn't move an inch. Sakura was even more unnerved by the look Gaara gave her. His eyes penetrated into hers as if he was reading every single thought that crossed her mind. There was a thick silence. Sakura didn't know whether to say something, to be frightened, or to smile. But somehow... she wanted to keep the silence and observe his features. His dark-rimmed eyes were jade green, giving a hard gaze, but softer than she expected. His lips were thin and smooth, unmoving to keep a straight face appearance. His tousled red hair had grown longer since she'd seen him last and rested lazily upon his forehead, ears, and back of his neck. And he was so close; Sakura could feel his soft breath on her face.

His pale face looked surprisingly smooth and soft; his cheekbones were high, gentle. Sakura didn't know why but she longed to reach out and touch his cheek, just to feel it. She could feel a blush creep its way to her cheeks at the thought.

'What am I thinking?!' Sakura screamed at herself. 'I barely know the guy; he would think I was weird!'

"Your eyes…" Gaara's words made Sakura snap back to reality and surprised her so much that she nearly jumped out of her skin.

"E-e-excuse me?" A flustered Sakura stuttered the hastened words, trying not to fidget.

Gaara blinked. "Your eyes. They're the same color as mine," Gaara repeated coolly. Sakura blushed and stepped around him, amazed at how she'd lost herself in Gaara's gaze. She stepped off of the first stair, gripping the banister tightly.

"I-I-I didn't notice," she stuttered.

'Why am I stuttering so much today? I'm normally not shy at all!' Sakura thought to herself.

Trying to fool only herself into believing she was confident, Sakura turned her head to look at Gaara and smiled her sweetest smile. Gaara remained emotionless.

"I'm sorry," he muttered and headed down the stairs. Sakura watched him go, giving him a five-stair head start before she took a deep breath and continued down the steps with as much confidence as she could muster.

As Gaara stepped outside into the bright Konoha afternoon, he squinted and struggled to adjust his eyes to the light. He turned as a certain pink-haired kunoichi stumbled out of the building after him. She lifted her pale green eyes up at him. Sakura Haruno. He remembered her. She had been one of the medic nins that had helped to bring him back to life. She had been one of the people that Naruto Uzimaki had fought so valiantly to protect. And her eyes…

"So where to?" she cheerily asked.

"I was hoping you'd tell me." Gaara cast his eyes across the unfamiliar, bustling village.

"Ah, well, what do you want to do? You're basically on vacation until the exams start."

"What about you?" Gaara locked eyes with Sakura. 'Her eyes are so much like mine…' he thought.

"Well, I'm basically supposed to do whatever you do, go wherever make sure you get to do everything you want to do, and make sure you don't get hurt in the process. I believe the exact words Tsunade-sama used were 'Don't let him out of your sight'." Sakura smiled casually. Gaara almost returned it.

"What about when I'm taking a shower?" Gaara said, attempting to get a laugh out of her. Sakura began blushing madly.

"Well, I-I do--…" she stuttered.

"I was kidding," Gaara said, almost sorry that he'd tried. The girl's blush began to fade. "Where are we staying?" he asked, genuinely wanting to know.

Sakura took a moment to think, "I guess at my house. But it's a little small. I can't afford anything larger."

"Can we go there?"

Sakura blinked. "Okay."

"Lead the way." Gaara was a bit surprised at how much he'd been talking. Normally, he was more of a listener. Sakura started walking and Gaara followed her down the street. After every few seconds, Sakura would turn her head to look at him, just to make sure that he was still following her. Gaara thought this to be a bit of a futile effort; where else was he to go? He might as well follow the one of the few people of Konoha that he knew. Gaara watched the way she walked. Right foot, left foot, right foot, left foot. Pretty soon, Gaara set his footsteps to the rhythm of hers, stepping at the same time with the same foot all the time. He watched her feet walking, step, step, step, step, until he was confident that he'd memorized the pattern. Until she stopped.

Gaara bumped into Sakura and looked up apologetically. "Sorry," he mumbled and glanced around to see if anyone had witnessed.

Sakura looked at Gaara and gave him a warm smile. "It's okay. We're here.