Dinner, she found, wasn't nearly as stressful as it could've been. Being in public meant Gaara would keep a proper distance—and, importantly, that she could ask questions without being too distracted.
"I'm okay for the rest of the day now," he told her. "My siblings know where I am, my meetings are taken care of—"
"Temari and Kankurou are okay with everything?" The last thing she needed was his siblings making a human wishbone of her for molesting their little brother.
"They are. Temari even said she figured if I finally did pick a girl, it would be you." His forehead wrinkled as he frowned and tapped an index finger against the ramen shop's counter. "Apparently I've been inordinately attentive."
And now her curiosity was piqued. "Why did you pick me?"
"Because you're smart, and fun when you're angry. Because if I did something wrong, you wouldn't be afraid to let me know," he said. "And because you're interesting. And not crazy."
"Tired of dealing with crazy kunoichi who like you?"
"Yikes," she breathed.
"We need a plan," said Naruto.
"He's doing it right after all," Lee said, thumbing through their book—which by this point looked somewhat worse for the wear. "He's just got the order all mixed up."
"Well, how do we stop it?"
"I don't know." Lee frowned at the pages. "We could tell her he's already married—but then when she found out he wasn't it'd all be over."
Naruto set his chin on his clenched fists and glowered. "There has to be a better way."
"And they won't leave you alone?"
"And they don't listen to reason?"
"Tried," he said. "I've told them. They come back."
Sakura tried to think of something that would frighten away an annoying suitor. "And you can't hit them?"
"Ever told them you like men?"
"Once. Only she liked that."
"Did you . . . try picking up a gross habit? At least around them?"
Gaara thought about that one for a few seconds. "That sounds like it could backfire really easily."
"Good point." And sure, it was baiting—but who cared. "Well, at least now you can go back and tell them you've got a girl in Leaf, right?"
"A mean one. One who put me through a wall and lived to tell the tale." He brightened, his spine straightening as he thought her words through, and she squeezed his arm happily.
Wait—this meant the next time she went to Sand, she'd find parents telling stories of her to their kids at night to scare them. "If you're bad, the Sakura'll get you—and bite off your head!"
"Damn it," Naruto swore. "He got the sympathy angle."
"We're screwed," Lee moaned. "He'll practically be able to get her to do anything now."
Naruto cocked his head and studied the pair. "Even that thing with the recorder and two chairs and—"
"No," Lee said, cutting him off. "I doubt it."
Naruto watched a little longer. It wasn't like Gaara was even doing anything. The two had finished their meal and were just walking, side by side. Granted, they didn't seem able to not look at each other for very long—but seriously? Was this the technique he had to beat?
"I know!" he declared. "We can out-romance him!"
Lee had found one of his favorite scenes, though, where the guy had proved his strength of mind and body (by saving a desperate herd of bunnies from running off a cliff) and was about to accept his just reward from the girl—and her two sisters. The blond glared; Lee hadn't even heard a word he'd said.
"Hey!" Naruto elbowed him.
"I was listening!" Lee tried, though his cheeks colored guiltily.
"What's he done? What makes him so great? He's broken some stuff and pissed her off. We can do better than that, right? Huh?"
Lee squared his shoulders, his chin lifting. "Of course we can!"
"Well, let's get to work!"
As they approached her door again, Sakura took a deep breath and decided to lay down another boundary. "I don't want to be rude, Gaara, but . . . I hope you don't think you're spending the night."
"Are you saying that because you don't want me to, or because you worry about what other people would think if you wanted me to?"
She shouldn't have to think about this . . . but found herself stuck on the question anyway.
At least, until Lee stepped out of the shadows and pointed at her companion. "Gaara of the Desert! I challenge you to a duel for the hand of our dearest Sakura!"
Gaara looked at the green-clad ninja, then back at her, as calmly as if crazy shinobi in spandex challenged him to duels every day.
"This is not just for the love of this most beautiful flower—this is for the fate of the earth! We will put a stop to your wooings, Gaara, in order to defend the world as we know it!" His fist raised to the sky, the other cocked at his hip, and his chest swelled to an almost worrisome level.
She stared blankly; Gaara watched patiently. After a few seconds, Lee's air ran out and he wheezed, deflating to a more reasonable size.
"Lee," Sakura finally said. "Why are you doing this?"
He blinked at her, confused. "Because it's romantic."
"Go on," Gaara said, and gave her a nudge towards the door. "I'll deal with him."
"I can deal with him." Oh, she'd deal with him all right.
"But if you're out here, you'll just be encouraging him."
That sounded reasonable. But . . . "Don't kill him," she warned.
"I mean it."
Gaara looked back over his shoulder exasperatedly. "I like Lee."
"Okay," she sighed, and closed the door behind her. Outside, she heard a thump, a yelp, and then, quietly, something like conversation.
It was a very, very strange day when she relied on Gaara to talk sense into anyone. She got the feeling Ino wouldn't believe a single word of this story.
Wait . . . Lee'd said "we" needed to put a stop to things.
Where the hell was Naruto?
Not in the kitchen. Not in the living area; not lurking behind the shower curtain in her bathroom. That left one place.
She opened her bedroom door to find her shirtless teammate in her bed with the blankets pulled up to his waist, spitting all over her comforter. "Sthupid fthucking rose sthabbed me in the tongue—"
"What the hell?!"
"Hi, Sakura!" he called—and moved just enough for her to see that he wasn't just shirtless, he was naked. "I brought you a fthlower."
Sakura closed her eyes and took a deep, calming breath.
"How about this for romansthe, huh?"
It didn't work. She took another.
"Sakura-chan? You okay?" He started to stand, holding her pillow—her pillow—in front of himself.
That didn't work either.
She took one more breath, held it for a second—and then screamed at the top of her lungs.
Gaara caught her as she turned to run, sand spreading defensively behind him. "What's . . ." Then he took a look past her and into her room. "What?"
"I'm gonna kill him and if I kill him I'll have to look at him and I don't want to look at him so I need you to kill him for me."
"I really like her," Gaara said, and cuddled her face against his shoulder.
"Calm down, Sakura-chan," Naruto said from somewhere behind her. "It's not like he's gonna—Hey!"
"Move faster," Gaara told him.
"I can't find my pants—Ack! Get that away from me!"
Certain that anything she would see would just scar her further, Sakura closed her eyes tighter and tried to not listen.
"It was supposed to be romantic!"
"I think you need to be on slightly different terms to pull that technique off," Gaara replied dryly.
"Damn it," she wailed. "I need to burn my blankets. And my sheets. And my bed. And definitely my pillow."
"That's a little much," he told her.
"I still can't find my pants . . ." came Naruto's voice.
"I'll bring them to you later," Gaara told him. Sakura gritted her teeth and refused to look up.
Her door closed with a light thud and a click, and Gaara squeezed her. "I like you people," he said, almost happily. "You make me feel normal."
"I need matches—"
"You need a washing machine."
"And a drink."
"And maybe a drink," he agreed.
After a little while, she could rationally agree that washing her bedding would be easier, less expensive, and less alarming to the neighbors than burning it. The laundry room in her building's basement was empty of people, leaving her to sigh and shake her head and mutter with only Gaara as an audience.
Naruto. Naked. Naked Naruto. Naked Naruto in her room.
Sometimes the world just seemed staggeringly unfair.
"So," Gaara asked her, as they stuffed her bedding into the washing machine. "What did Lee and Naruto do that didn't work?"
"Where should I start?" she grumbled sarcastically.
"Wherever," he replied mildly.
Sakura shook her head, then grinned. "Need to analyze strategy weaknesses?"
"Yes." He leaned against the machine as she poured way too much detergent. "Though I got some of them. Nudity without warning—"
"Yeeeeeah," she shuddered.
"Thinking a girl would be impressed by fighting instead of letting her choose for herself?"
In retrospect, though, it all seemed kind of funny.
"Destroying a girl's house?"
She smiled despite herself, turning dials on the machine and feeling a little disappointed that there wasn't a setting for "boil." "Not your best moment—but it could've been worse, right?"
"Fixing things?" He boxed her in with a hand to either side, looming as best he could.
"Helpful," she grinned up at him, and ran her hands up his arms. "And . . . endearing. Even if it was your fault."
He leaned a little closer, and she tried to figure out how she'd explain that to him—that her anticipation of his movements made things so much more fascinating; that the promise of contact and kisses whet her appetite for them almost as much as receiving them. "What else?"
Reasons for his little informational gathering spree sprung to mind, and she turned her head so he nuzzled her cheek instead of her lips. "Why do you ask? So you can go back and test this out on the girls at Sand, or Stone, or—?"
"Why would I want to do that?" And that quickly, he was back to arrogant, drawing her to him for an embrace and tilting her face up so she'd look him in the eye. "I've got more than enough research to do right here."