What can I say? Two months and counting...I appologize.
To tell you the truth, I was thinking of dropping the story, since I didn't feel like this story was worth the distance.
But hey! It seems that a few people are still waiting for it, so...

HERE I AM!!


The entire house reverberated with the appalled cries of a certain woman. But try as they might, the geishas couldn't flee from the dismayed howls, much less calm them. All they could do was cringe as the horrified moans increased to shrilling intensities.

"Ohhh! The horror, the horror! How could this happen to one of my girls? Why, Kami-sama? Why?!"

Sakura resisted the urge to plug her ears and shudder. Instead, she stood forward with a comforting hand in attempt to ease Lady Kurenai's distress.

"C-Come on, Kurenai. It wasn't that bad…"

"Wasn't that bad!" The woman exploded as she twirled around to face the pink-haired geisha. "It wasn't that bad that one of my most talented and yearned for geisha was almost raped, therefore taking her virginity, for the petty price of just 50000 yen? It wasn't that bad?"

The woman collapsed then, with a dramatic flourish, onto a mountain of colourful cushions. Geishas gathered around their flustered headmistress with comforting coos and fanned her with their hands.

Then the lamentations went on and on as the raven-haired woman explained to all the girls gathered in her office how getting raped for a geisha is like losing your arms and legs, thus turning you into a useless stump.

Sakura sighed.

She would've been touched by Kurenai's concern, except her concern wasn't exactly for her health. The woman was just concerned about her merchandise.

And since we were dealing with her next paying load, the woman went to great extremes to make sure that nothing like this would ever happen again. Let's just say that Tai-kun won't be hurrying back to the geisha house any time soon.

"That's it!" Kurenai declared with a sudden firm resolve. "I'm never going to auction Sakura off again!"

"You were planning on doing it again?" The young geisha asked skeptically, quirking a questioning brow.

"Well, yes…" The woman started guiltily as she tried to busy herself with her kimono. "But that's another matter entirely. Right now…" Kurenai veered off toward another subject, hoping that she wouldn't have to explain herself.

"Right now, I'm giving you some time off, from attending our costumers I mean. Since you probably need it for…" The headmistress pursed her lips, trying to think of a more vivacious way of saying 'make yourself look pretty after you've almost been raped'.

But luckily, she never had to finish that sentence, for a pale-eyed, dark-haired geisha stumbled in through the mahogany doors, looking almost as flustered, if not more, than the ebony-haired woman.

"La…Lady K-Kurenai." Hinata rasped, clutching onto the door frame as her slim figure trembled from exhaustion…and maybe fear.

Sakura frowned at the sight before her. It looked like Hinata's been running for miles, for she's never seen her in such a state before. The girl's always so composed, so graceful.

It seemed the headmistress thought so too, for she furrowed her eyebrows.

"Yes? What is it, Sayuri?"

The dark-haired geisha gulped down her uneven breaths as she stood up straighter, pushing herself off the support of the wooden doorframe.

"Lady Kurenai, I-I need to talk to you."

The woman blinked before she exasperated.

"Then go ahead and talk to me."

Hinata stood there then, as she paled visibly, looking like a mouse trapped in a corner. She scanned the clustered room at the questioning faces, as if searching for an answer.

Then she turned her attention back on the headmistress. The next moment she spoke, her voice carried a strange sense of urgency and secrecy.

"Lady Kurenai, it's about…my customers."

A staring contest proceeded then, between the headmistress and the black-haired geisha. Sakura tried to tap down her rising curiosity and anxiousness. What was Hinata talking about?

The atmosphere in the room became stifling, even though everyone was motionless.

Then Kurenai's eyes widened.

"Everyone, out." The steely instruction invited no protests as the woman's eyes never left the unwavering pale ones.

With that said, the geishas silently filed out of the room, brushing past Hinata with probing glances and soft murmurs. What in the world was going on?

Sakura was the last to leave, partly because she was the farthest inside the office, and partly because she wanted to catch a snippet of the words that will pass between the two dark-haired geishas.

Silently, Sakura closed the mahogany door behind her. But she never left from her spot as she plastered her ear against the wooden structure, straining with all her might to hear.

The first thing she heard was rustling fabric.

Then the whispered, unmistakably firmvoice of Kurenai drifted through the door.

"Now tell me, what's happened?"

More ruffling was heard, making it even harder for Sakura to decipher the gentle murmurs of Hinata.

The pink head hissed under her breath. What were they talking about?

Suddenly, a fleeting though flew through Sakura's mind.

Curiosity killed the cat.

Just as soon as the thought came, it went. Leaving the young geisha feeling rather unsettled.

Nothing would happen to me…I'm just curious to hear what Hinata has to say about her customers. The girl convinced herself as she pressed harder against the frame.

But to her dismay, even more indistinguishable words reached her. The girl let out a huff of frustrated breath.

Sakura wasn't usually this nosy, but this wasn't the first time Hinata has acted in such a strange manner on behalf of her 'customers'.

The first time Sakura noticed her strange behavior was when she was going to visit Gaara for the first time in the infirmary. Kurenai had pulled Hinata aside to talk about her 'customers at the teahouse'.

At first, Sakura had dismissed it as nothing more than a common thing that happens with geishas. But as she gradually grew used to the geisha way of life, she couldn't help but notice how often Hinata or Kurenai had to talk to each other about her 'customers'.

More rustling was heard. And Sakura was about to give up and go, accepting the fact that this was a total waste of time, when she heard it.

"You'll have to go tonight then, right on through the forest. I'll make sure no one stops you."

That was Kurenai's voice, Sakura confirmed.

"But what if the night patrols find me? They'll definitely be suspicious about what I'm carrying."

The nervous tremor definitely belonged to Hinata.

"I'm sure they'll have gotten to you by then." Kurenai reassured.

Sakura frowned. Who were'they'? The night patrols? And who the heck were the night patrols?

"Sakura?"

The young geisha froze.

Ok, either Kurenai was really a man and she just let her voice drop, or there was a man standing right behind her.

Sakura turned her head cautiously, peeping over her shoulders.

Gaara stood there, bearing a questioning expression.

"What are you doing?"

The girl winced as she realized how loud Gaara's voice must be compared to her previous stealthy silence.

My cover's blown!

No sooner did she think that, did she hear approaching footsteps on the other side of the door.

Left with no time to explain, Sakura snatched the redhead's hand and towed himdown the hallway.

Just as the mahogany door swung open, the pair turned the corner, squeezing themselves into the shadows.

Gaara obviously had no idea what was going on. But he was smart enough not to protest as he silently followed the geisha's lead in hiding away in the dark.

Sakura heard a few more murmured words, then the sound of retreating footsteps, followed by the soft 'click' of the closing door.

The girl released the breath she didn't know she had been holding, and then looked to the soundless figure to her left.

"What's going on?" The redhead whispered, his warm breath falling upon Sakura's face.

The girl blinked. If she could feel Gaara's breath, just exactly how close where they standing? Sakura couldn't tell in the shadows, for her eyes still hadn't adjusted to the dark.

So instead of voicing out her question, she reached out a hand to determine the distance.

It didn't take long for her hand to reach the figure beside her. In fact, the moment she had lifted her hand, it brushed against the redhead's body. And now, her hand perched itself on his shoulder, wondering what it should do next.

Gaara's body had stiffened visibly under this sudden contact, but he made no move to brush off Sakura's hand.

"I was eavesdropping," The geisha explained as she tried to pinpoint where the redhead's face was. "I didn't think it would be that big of a deal, but what I heard…" The girl trailed off.

"Turned out to be something that shouldn't have been heard." The redhead finished.

Sakura nodded as she slipped her hand away. Even though she didn't understand what the girls were talking about, she still managed to catch the impression that this topic was a taboo one.

Gaara remained silent for a moment, as if deep in thought. Then he cleared his throat.

"Well, we should be going." The shuffling of feet was heard, and the next thing Sakura saw was the dark silhouette of the redhead stepping out of the shadows.

"It's about time you were trained anyways."

xoxox

"So let me get this straight," Sakura started as she tied her lengthy hair back into a pony-tail. "I'm supposed to stand here, in the centre of the courtyard, where everyone can pretty much see me, and snap my fingers until a spark of fire comes out?"

The young geisha stared at the redhead unbelievingly as she perched her hands on her hips. Then she started sarcastically.

"Why not have me juggle and walk on water while we're at it?"

Gaara simply smiled as he crossed his arms over his chest and leaned against a crimson-painted pillar.

"Don't think you can do it?" He teased.

Sakura gave him a pointed look.

"I can stand here until I grow a beard, and I will not make a spark between my fingers."

Uncrossing his arms, Gaara strode over to the young geisha until she had to tilt her head up to see his face.

"Then I suggest you get started."

Sakura blinked. Being at this close a proximity with the redhead did wonders to her rational thinking. So, instead of trying to unravel her jumbled thoughts, the girl decided to give snapping a try.

After taking a steadying breath, Sakura brought her fingers together and snapped.

The only thing the snap produced was the sound.

The geisha tried again, this time harder. But that only created a louder snap as well as sore fingers.

Sakura frowned. This was so not working.

The girl was about to peer up at the redhead to complain, when she realized that he was no longer standing over her. In fact, he was now stationed behind her, his warmth radiating onto Sakura's thin kimono.

The pink-haired geisha resisted the urge to press her body back into the redhead to receive his full warmth. Instead, she stood frozen, her back feeling odd tingles that danced up and down her body from the anticipation of the touch.

Gaara's cheek had found itself over the geisha's ear, making pink and red mix together in strands of hairy mess.

"Remember," Gaara began, his lips nearly brushing the tip of Sakura's ear. And every syllable the redhead pronounced resulted in a wave of lightheadedness that coursed through the geisha's body. She felt like she was going to float off into the clouds with the amount of giddiness she was feeling right now.

Sounds passed from Gaara's mouth, but Sakura had absolutely no idea what they were. Right now, her senses were completely zoned in on the brief touches the redhead was giving her. Still, the geisha could make out that his voice sounded soft and kind, yet the way his hot breath wrapped over Sakura's ear told a totally different thing.

"…you're dealing with fire here. So you have to embrace the fire, become the fire."

Sakura managed to stifle a shocked gasp when her senses detected another movement, this time at her waist.

Gaara had closed what small distance there was between them and braced the geisha's back against his warm front. He let his hands find their way along her slim waist, until he rested them on her upper abdomen.

"Breath from here," The redhead instructed, clearly oblivious to the effect he was having on the geisha.

So Sakura gulped, having no strength to nod, and prepared to carry out what Gaara had told her to do.

The girl brought her fingers up, breathed, and then snapped.

Nothing other than the sound came out.

Sakura's head swam once more as she felt Gaara's hands reposition themselves.

Now the redhead's right hand enveloped the girl's hand from the back, while the left remained where it was. The contact of bare flesh against flesh brought Sakura's senses to new, unexplored heights. She never thought that she could be so attuned to another person's presence before. And yet, there she was, feeling every curve and point where Gaara's hand met hers.

It seemed the redhead also felt the same way, for he continued to stare at their intertwined hands, his expression slightly dazed and surprised.

The warmth had gathered inside their hands when Gaara finally blinked away from his trance. He composed himself with a small smile as he turned his attention back on Sakura.

"Like this," He brought the girl's hand up, preparing her for what's to come.

It was at that moment Sakura realized how safe and at peace she felt. Sure she felt like she was going to faint any second, but she also felt as if she belonged there, safely secured in the arms of the redhead, his face hanging just a breath away from her face.

"Fire is a living thing," Gaara continued. "It needs air to be able to live and thrive, just like any other living being. That's why you need to provide it with as much oxygen as you can."

The redhead let their bodies sway gently, imitating what he was trying to say through actions.

"Allow the fire to flow through you," Gaara then grasped Sakura's left hand, which had been dangling on her side, and brought it up to where her beating heart was.

Pressing his own hand upon the geisha's, the redhead smiled. "From here." Then he squeezed the hand he had been holding in his right. "To here." Resting his eyes on the green ones, Gaara smiled again to see if she understood.

Sakura barely heard a word, for she had been too preoccupied with the frightened idea that Gaara could feel her racing heart.

"Sakura?" The redhead tilted his head. He couldn't quite read the expression on the girl's face. It was a mix of embarrassment and guilt. Why in the world would she be having those kinds of emotions now?

The pink haired geisha shook away her previous thought upon hearing her name, and nodded almost a bit too eagerly at the redhead.

"I think I get it," The girl lied; anything to stop the rising blush to completely take over her carefully composed face.

But truth to be told, she did understand. She might not have heard every single advice that came out from Gaara's soft, luscious, kissable…ahem, hislips, but she had heard enough to understand what she had to do.

So turning her newly discovered attention away from the redhead, Sakura focused all her energy on the solitary task of bringing a spark to her fingers.

Pressing her hand harder upon her thumping heart, the girl tried to imagine that instead of it pumping out blood, it was pumping out fire. Sakura breathed in deeply and imagined the fire coursing throughout her veins and body. Finally, for the final task, the pink haired geisha closed her eyes and urged her fire to gather in her fingers.

She wasn't sure if it was her imagination or not, but she could swear that her fingers had suddenly climbed in temperature.

This is it, Sakura thought. It's now or never!

The geisha opened her eyes and let out a resolute breath of air as she snapped her fingers with newfound determination.

And there, right before her eyes, a bud of orange sparked into existence and was gone as soon as it came, leaving behind a thin line of white smoke trailing from Sakura's finger.

The girl's face lit up with thrilled amazement at her task, only to be quickly taken over by pained amazement.

Sakura turned her head to face the redhead, while bringing her soot-covered fingers closer to him for inspection.

"I don't know whether to say 'wow', or 'ow'." The girl declared. She had forgotten that whenever fire thrived upon her skin, it would burn her, just like any other fire would.

"Is it going to burn me every time I call upon it?"

Gaara released the geisha then, as his expression was taken over by a thoughtful demeanor.

Sakura never realized how much she had loved the redhead's warmth until he had taken it away. And now the pink haired girl felt like he had taken away a piece of her, leaving her feeling rather frail and lonely.

"You have to learn to trust it," He declared, turning his thoughtful gaze on Sakura. "If you don't trust it, then it obviously won't trust you."

The geisha grimaced as she brought her soot-covered fingers closer for assessment; easier said than done.

"Come on," The redhead urged as he turned away, heading toward the main geisha house.

"We've got some more training to do."

Sakura was about to follow the redhead, when a strange feeling upon her right hand stopped her.

The slight stinging in her fingers from her fire-conjuring was still there, but she also felt something else, something that tingled all over her hand.

Using her other hand to rub her right, Sakura tried to make the strange feeling go away, but no matter what she did, the warm sensation stayed imprinted into her senses.

That was when the realization hit her. This feeling…is the feeling of Gaara's hand.

Sakura looked up at the redhead's retreating back. It seemed that he was totally unaffected. So sighing, the young geisha quietly trailed after him, trying yet again to rid herself of her odd sensation.

If only the Sakura had looked down at Gaara's hand. If she did, she would've seen that Gaara was very much affected by the same feeling as the geisha.

For no matter how many times the redhead flexed his hand as he walked, the feeing of her touch wouldn't go away. No matter what he did, he could not rid himself of this strange new feeling that now brewed inside him.

xoxox

"Wow! Seriously? I can do that?"

A certain pink haired geisha clapped her hands with glee as she took in all the information Gaara had informed her with.

"I can create fireballs, breath fire, and even teleport to places with fire?" The girl's eyes gleamed as she flashed a happy smile. She felt like such a child.

The pair was currently perched on top of the roof, the same one they had stayed on the night Gaara had awoken. And right now, after a whole day of informative training, the two had finally decided to rest while watching the dawning sunset.

Its rays painted everything in its view with an orange flair, making the world seem alive with fire.

Sakura sighed. After an entire day of talking about fire, she sort of just wanted to sleep, and not think about fire at all.

"Sakura?"

The gentle inquiry of the redhead reached her, and the girl turned her face away from the beautiful red-stroked sun to face him.

"Yeah?"

Gaara's complexion had deemed a golden-touch from the sun, and his flaming red hair gave him the look of a fiery-being from another planet.

After staring at the young geisha for a few moments, the redhead turned back around, his eyes resettling on the setting sun.

"Nothing."

Sakura frowned. "What do you mean?"

Gaara looked at the pink haired geisha, before lowering his gaze in an almost nonchalant manner.

"I… just felt like saying your name." Was his reply as their surrounding scenery darkened along with the lowering sun.

"I like how it…rolls off my tongue, I guess…"

Sakura tilted her head as she re-ran the sentence through her head.

"Gaara?"

The redhead looked over. "Hm?"

The young geisha smiled teasingly. "Nothing."

When the redhead frowned, Sakura continued. "I just felt like saying your name."

Then she shrugged. "I like how it rolls off my tongue I guess."

Gaara scoffed. "Do not mock me," He said as he narrowed his eyes and tilted his chin up in a dignified manner. But the corners of his lips tilted up slightly, betraying his mask of emotions.

Sakura laughed as she locked gazes with her feet.

"It's true though," The young geisha started, scratching her nailsalmost embarrassingly as she began. "I do like the way your name roll off my tongue…"

Along with just about everything else about you.

But of course, the girl kept that thought to herself, hoping that the red blush on her face would be mistaken as the red hue of the sun.

"Sakura?"

The pink haired geisha looked up then, into the sea-foam green eyes of the redhead.

His mouth opened.

What was he gonna say?

"Isn't that your friend? Hinata?" Sakura blinked. What a way to ruin the moment by bringing the ebony-haired girl up. Why were they talking about her again?

"Over there," The redhead nodded in the direction behind Sakura. So the girl turned around, and true enough, below her, and obviously outside the geisha walls, was Hinata. A grey cloak and hood donned her body and head so that the only visible parts of her were the stray strands of her black hair.

Sakura strained her eyes to see.

Hinata was heading into the mountain forest that backed itself up against the southern wall of the geisha house. From what Sakura had heard, there was nothing but a bunch of abandoned tunnels and wild animals in there. What could have possibly possessed Hinata to go in there?

That was when a snippet of her stolen conversation came into mind.

"You'll have to go tonight then, right on through the forest. I'll make sure no one stops you."

That was Kurenai's voice, Sakura confirmed.

"But what if the night patrols find me? They'll definitely be suspicious about what I'm carrying."

The nervous tremor definitely belonged to Hinata.

"I'm sure they'll have gotten to you by then." Kurenai reassured.

Was this what they were talking about? If so, then Hinata must be in some sort of danger, either from getting lost, getting eaten by animals, or getting caught by these 'night patrols'.

With her mind made up, Sakura turned back around to face the redhead.

"Gaara," The girl called with a frown. "I think Hinata's in trouble."

The young redhead let his pondering gaze drift from the girl in front of him, then to the girl below them.

"And you're basing this on what you heard before, correct?"

Sakura nodded slightly. It still amazed her how quick Gaara was to catching on, and how he always seemed to know exactly what she was thinking or feeling.

A light silence filled the pair as Gaara considered his options. Both of them knew that he was still weak from being poisoned, so if he were to encounter any serious trouble, he wouldn't be able to protect anyone, much less fight back.

But…

The soundless redhead considered the young geisha before him. His logical side pounded against him, telling him to reject this obviously idiotic request. Yet something else, something the man couldn't quite place, told him to do what the girl silently asked of him.

Gaara sighed. What's the worst that could happen?

So with his mind made up, the redhead stood up and treaded lightly across the tiled roof until he reached the edge. But just as he was about to leap off, a slender hand stopped him.

"Gaara," The redhead turned around to see Sakura bearing a soft expression, yet that softness didn't reach her eyes. Instead, a hard sliver of defiance gleamed in its emerald depths. "Take me with you."

xoxox

Just a little further, The black-haired geisha repeated to herself. Just a little further.

But try as she might to persuade herself that she was almost there, there was just nothing she could do about her pounding heart and rising anxiety. True that she hasn't encountered any dangers yet, but that's what unnerved her so. She should've run into them by now, or maybe they didn't get her message, or maybe…

Hinata shook her head. She refused to think about the alternative, nothing would happen to them, and nothing would happen to her.

The young girl pulled her cloak more tightly around her slender form, cradling the carefully wrapped bundle in her arms.

Not only was it getting steadily colder now, but it was getting harder and harder to see as well, since the sun was beginning to hide below the rolling hills. Poor Hinata shivered with fear as a nearby owl hooted it's 'good morning'. Even the simplest of sounds was scaring her now.

More noises echoed throughout the dark, navy-green trees as the young geisha's feet scrambled over dirt and gravel the colour of her eyes.A slight mist was drifting about now, wrapping around the trees as if they were water, bending around boulders.

A sudden crack jolted the young girl as she whipped around, her eyes frantically searching the forest. She couldn't see anything, anything at all…but that doesn't mean that they're not there.

Hinata jerked back around, accelerating her steps as she gripped the bundle even tighter in her arms. She couldn't let them get their hands on this, not in a million years.

Another crack exploded its way through the forest, bouncing off the trees as if they had a mind of their own. The young geisha couldn't help it anymore.

With tightly held back tears brimming her eyes, Hinata burst into a sprinting frenzy, no longer worrying about concealing her location or making as little noise as possible.

Just a little further, just a little further. Hinata panted as she scrambled, practically on all fours, up a slanted hill. Then, what she had been running away from, what she had feared, materialized all around her.

Dark men, bearing the special forehead protector of the Night Patrols around their forearms, circled the geisha, flashing their kunais in an attemptto scare the girl.

Oh, she was scared alright. But that didn't stop her from trying to break the circle. As she finally reached the top, the young geisha attempted to charge head on through the men. But as the girl did so, the ninjas lashed their kunais at her, aiming just to miss.

One of the sharp daggers grazed Hinata on her thigh, causing her to tumble to her side. The girl breathed in ragged breaths as she pressed the bundle against her body, unable to stop her tears from overflowing down her cheeks.

The young geisha searched the faceless masks of the ninjas, hoping that one of them would spare her and show her a little mercy. But she knew deep down, that that would never happen.

One of the dark men stood forward, sheathing his kunai in his belt. "Give us the bundle, and we'll spare your life."

Such sincere words.

Hinata clenched her fingers with anger. How can someone lie through their teeth like that? Without any emotion whatsoever?

"Over my dead body." This statement would've sounded defiant and rebellious where it not for the slight tremor that escaped Hinata's lips.

The figures stood silent for a fraction of a second, before the one who had stepped forward reached for his dagger once more.

"As you wish." Was his hushed reply.

He strode forward silently and swiftly, bending down just inches away from the young girl's face. Poor Hinata couldn't even move as she lay on her side, trembling.

Then the man roughly yanked the girl's dark tresses back, exposing the milky-white flesh of her neck. Slapping the flat of the kunai against her bare skin, the man waited, toying with the fear-stricken girl.

"Is this bundle really worth the life of a beautiful, young girl?" He purred, sliding the cold blade along Hinata's neck. The geisha wanted to scream, to run, and to hide from this place. But she could feel in her heart that this was where she would die.

Choking out tears, Hinata wanted to say something, one last thing to throw in the face of death. But fear had wrung her words dry, and now she laid there, her lips cracked from the cold, her uneven breaths coming out in white puffs.

"I guess it is then." The man answered his own question, and then flipped the kunai so its clean, sharp edges rested on the girl's bare neck instead. Without any words of condolences, the dark ninja lifted the dagger a mere breath away from the exposed skin just before he slashed horizontally across the delicate neck.

Before anyone even knew what was going on, the blade of the kunai shattered into a million pieces as it grazed across Hinata's neck. Its broken shards brushed harmlessly away from the girl.

The man stumbled back, still holding the bladeless-hilt of the kunai, stunned that such an event like this could happen.

"Wha…What did you do?" The ninja breathed. How was it possible that the blade would just shatter like that for no reason, leaving the girl unharmed?

"She didn't do anything,"

A redhead and pink-haired girl had leapt down that very moment from the treetops, landing between the now fainted Hinata and the group of ninjas.

"I did." Declared the redhead, throwing a death glare to all the darkly-dressed ninjas.

Sakura had already gone to the aid of Hinata, crouching down with a worried expression, examining the girl's delicate skin. But seeing that the girl was not harmed, except for that cut on her leg, the pink-haired geisha turned on the group of men.

"Who are you? And what do you want from Hinata?" The young geisha demanded.

Recomposing himself, the man who had gone in for the kill chuckled and threw the now-useless kunai on the ground.

"Not before you tell me how you did that," The man rebutted, pointing his chin in the direction of the worthless weapon on the soil.

Gaara remained silent. He would have to be extremely dumb in order to reveal how he managed to splinter the blade from afar. It was quite simple actually, if you knew the redhead's secret that is.

Being the host of the Earth god, you become capable of moving the earth, recreating the earth, and transforming the earth. Seeing how metal, which is the element the blade was forged in, comes from the earth, shattering that thin piece of steel was no problem for him.

But…Sakura glanced briefly at the redhead standing before her. Gaara has to be very careful of not overdoing it, since he is still weakened from the poison. However, seeing this herd of men dressed in black around them…she wasn't sure if 'not overdoing it' was an option.

Sensing that no one was going to offer him any answers, the dark ninja grunted in displeasure, then swiftly reached for the twin kantana worn on his back, which had been cleverly hidden in the folds of his costume.

"Well then, if you're not going to tell me anything, you're automatically useless." With that, as if on cue, the band of men clustered together, like an invisible string had drawn them toward each other, and then in perfect sync, the men flew through the exact same combination of hand signs.

Even if her eyes could keep up with the movements, Sakura still wouldn't understand what the hand signs meant. But she didn't have to wait long to find out what the result would bring.

There before them, towering over the trees and erasing the moon, grew a long, moaning shadow. It took a lifeless form with the figure of a man, though its torso was greatly stretched, with stringy hands that hanged about itself as if it were useless. The only adornment that etched this being's face were two, unblinking yellow lights. It had no name, and it had no mind of its own. The only substance that it fed on was the dark fear of others.

It moaned a long and hampered melody, before its legs, which were intertwined with the black chakra that oozed unnaturally out of the black men, preceded to move sluggishly toward the youths.

Gaara and Sakura were both stunned speechless. They did not know how to act around a foreign enemy such as this. How does one strike shadow and defeat it? How does one chase it away?

Immediately the thought of light came to mind. But Gaara was not capable of producing such a feat, nor did he know if mere light was able to renounce this rival.

Before any of them could make a move, the shadow-man forcibly ripped open a gaping hole on his body, tearing and clawing at it with his bony hands. This action not only confused Sakura, but brought about a kind of pity for the creature. For the shadow-man howled and shrieked in pain as it tore itself apart. His wailing grew more fevered as the bottomless pit in his belly grew wider, deeper. Such tortuous sounds this creature was making, that even the birds weren't free to fly away from this death song.

Finally, Gaara gasped. He understood what these men were forcing the shadow to do.

It was realized all too late however, for by now, the shadow that clung to the redhead's feet wavered, as if an invisible breeze were blowing upon it, then it lifted from its earthy home, only to intertwine itself around Gaara's legs, trapping him to where he stood.

"Sakura! Run!" The redhead shouted once he realized what was happening. He was now barely even capable of turning his head, for his shadow had climbed across his body and twisted around his neck.

The pink-haired geisha gasped as she twisted around, looking desperately at her own shadow, fearful for the same fate to fall upon her.

But her shadow never moved. Instead, the young girl heard a piercing wail that rose higher than ever from the dark-monster. This time, darkness shook…literally.

Anywhere there was a shadow, it quivered an under unseen wind and rose up to join the air. All the shadows, that is, except for Sakura's.

The geisha stumbled back, eyes rounding in awe and dread as the shadows became sashes of darkness, slithering its way toward its victim.

Left with no time to spare, Sakura turned to Hinata, ready to heave the petite girl over her shoulders and run.

But it wasn't the sight of a fainted girl that greeted her. Instead, the sight of dark, formless hands consuming Hinata met Sakura's eyes, accompanied by the sound of the girl's body being dragged even further into the obscurity.

Panic welled up inside Sakura's throat and fear clasped its grip around her heart. Don't take Hinata, please…don't take Hinata.

Sakura lurched toward the girl, frantically reaching for the black-haired girl's hand, feet, anything.

And what do you feel when you touch shadow? Nothing. Absolutely nothing. That was exactly what Sakura found under her hands as Hinata dissolved from view.

Tears sprang to the pink head's eyes. Her friend is gone? Just like that?

Behind her she heard the sound of flesh sizzling, soon followed by the agonized cry of a redhead.

My redhead.

Sakura whipped around to find Gaara's shadow squeezing the life out of him, at the same time; it burned away parts of his flesh.

Trails of sand trickled down from the redhead's body. No doubt it was his protective sand barrier. But how much more could he take of this?

"S-Stop it!" Sakura stepped forward, now oblivious to the dark snakes that circled the air around her, hissing venomous threats toward her.

But the huddled men paid no heed to the pleading girl. In fact, they paid no heed to anything except for the task at hand. Right now, with the black chakra that seeped through their bodies, they barely even looked human.

So Sakura turned her cries to the towering monster, whose cries had now lessened into low, wallowing moans that vibrated deep within Sakura's chest.

"Please!" The geisha sobbed, her tears draining out of her eyes.

The monster tilted its head to the side, and kept on going until it was practically bent parallel to its own body. Its eyes never left the girl's face.

"Please! You don't understand!" Sakura choked out the last of her words. "He'll die!"

But the shadow didn't understand. How could it? How could something like that understand anything about love?

Finally, as if it were tired of waiting, the shadow sashes that circled the air attacked, jabbing with all their might, intending to pierce her delicate skin as if it were made of rice paper.

No time to think, no time to think.

Please…let him live…

It was as if the shadows had triggered the wrong button on Sakura's body. For the moment the dark snakes touched the geisha's pale skin, an eruption of sheer light burst from Sakura's body, obliterating the streams of darkness that reached for her. The rest of the shadows screeched from invisible mouths and scattered as quickly as fish do when something frightens them.

A booming sound entered Sakura's mind and blasted its full and thriving voice against the walls of her consciousness.

Seriously Honey, Where would you be without me?


Strange...I could've sworn that was a RAISIN cookie...