I've been looking at this one for way too long . . .

ooo

Sakura told him about her little outreach that night, while seated at his side on the cool roof of his building. She didn't know if it'd worked or even changed anything—but she did have an actual, non-hostile conversation with the one girl, and she figured that was a start.

Gaara, on the other hand, had wasted another afternoon on mock- and semi-hostile correspondence with Leaf. As best he could gather, Naruto'd started to put things together: Sakura's absence; Sasuke's detailed research of family ceremonies; the muted, snappish interaction of council members at Tsunade's door; the flurry of back-and-forth messages to and from Sand. He might be dense at times, but Naruto wasn't stupid any more than Tsunade was dishonest. So Naruto'd gone to Tsunade . . . and Tsunade'd let him see the message scrolls.

"Oh," said Sakura. She hadn't actually seen what Gaara'd been sending, but couldn't imagine it'd been very light-hearted.

"The Hokage said he might be upset."

"Oh," Sakura said again, and wrung her hands.

"It'll be all right," Gaara said, and smiled up at the sky, relishing the thought of the coming battle. "What are you going to tell him when he gets here?"

"What I know, I guess. I don't want to be with Sasuke and I'm afraid someone at Leaf will try to force me into it." She winced. "It really doesn't sound like much when you put it that way, huh?"

"I don't think I'd put it that way."

"That's because you understand." She shuffled a little closer; she hooked her arm through his, unfamiliar softness crowding against his triceps.

"I don't know if I'm seeing the bigger picture or looking at things through a limited focus," he confessed.

"Can't you do both at the same time?"

"I don't know."

"I wouldn't put it past you," she smiled, then paused. The limited focus; the offhanded comment he'd made that morning; the stories he'd told her about his family . . . Together, they were fabric for a pattern she'd be blind to not recognize.

"Hey," she said, and lay a hand on his arm. "I'm not her."

He froze—a beast spotted mid-stalk, an assassin caught in sudden light. "I know," he heard himself say, but his calmness was only an outward affect.

When had he given her such insight? When had she figured it out?

She'd seen the worst of him, he was certain; she'd seen the parts that even he couldn't dwell upon for very long . . . and still, she leaned closer.

"You know it here," she said, and poked him between the eyes. "You need to know it here, too."

Her hand against his chest, warm and dry; his fingertips against it, reveling.

"I can do that."

He could, now—because she'd seen him from every horrible angle, she knew . . . even if some quiet, realistic part of him questioned just how much she knew, how much she'd deduced, how she'd react if she saw all the terrible twisted segments put together like macabre puzzle pieces.

I can, he thought, and drowned that part of himself out.

And his hand curled around the back of her head, strands of pink hair slipping between his fingers, the two of them leaning closer so smoothly he couldn't have said who'd moved first; then her lips moving against his in a careful, bloodless kiss.

Then smiles, close and hesitant, gaining in ease as they realized yet again that they had nothing to fear from the other. Their fingers linked, they wandered along the darkened streets in the quiet, dead hours.

Their kiss was an affirmation, a suggestion that maybe, perhaps, there were some things he'd be capable of after all. Sakura saw the open door it presented and knew where it would lead, knew it with the certainty of stone, of solid and permanent things: she was going to end up in bed with him. But . . . She frowned to herself. But where would they go from there?

She had the sneaky, unpleasant feeling she'd been waiting for him to rescue her; that she'd expected, against all logic, to be swept off her feet in mimicry of a children's fairy tale.

She could have him snarling, him shielding her, him opening up to her and listening as she did the same . . . but she couldn't imagine him draping either of them in wealth like some snooty lordling, giving gallant speeches about her looks, slaying a—okay, so she could see him slaying an evil monster or two. But that'd be either for Sand or for kicks.

So what was she waiting for?

She told him how, as a young child, she'd watched a pair of chuunin playing keep-away. They'd been moving faster than she could follow, laughing, teasing each other; they'd been beautiful and wonderful, elated with themselves and each other, and she'd immediately known she wanted to be like them. But she's gotten older, been immersed in the problems and politics of a ninja's duties, and learned just how rare and precious those moments could be. She told him she worried about making the wrong decision; that a bad move here might cost her any hopes of a remotely peaceful life.

"That's how life goes, though," he replied. "If you don't step outside of your normal boundaries, you might not get hurt—but you'll never get what you really want."

"What are your normal boundaries?"

They tended to involve not killing people. He hesitated, then rephrased his response. "Suffering the good-intentioned people who give me trouble."

"Nicer than making them suffer." Sakura grinned, and he once again mentally congratulated himself on his good taste.

He shared one of his more whimsical ideas with her: the comparison of Sand's shinobi forces, all of the hidden villages' shinobi, to the webs of blind spiders that lived in deep lightless places. The threads of some of their lives were long, others short, the joins chaotically haphazard—but cutting one strand would shake the entire structure.

"The web's purpose is still to snare and kill things, though," she said.

"I know."

She didn't flinch; instead she smiled at him as he brushed his knuckles against her cheek.

The next day he slipped through the gardens, the hospital, the medics' storage rooms, gathering what was necessary. Every ninja, regardless of gender or levels of murderous intent, learned about contraceptive recipes and techniques as soon as they reached puberty. When he'd learned about them, sex had been conceptually similar to the ocean floor: he knew it existed, but hadn't a single reason to actually care.

But now he had a reason. Now he had a fairly normal relationship with someone who'd seen half of the proverbial skeletons in his closet, guessed at the rest, and still wanted to spend time at his side. Now he was actually curious about what he'd been missing.

Now if he could only be sure he wouldn't have a flashback in the middle of the act; now if he could only be certain his body would go along with what his mind wanted it to do.

Instead of resting or meditating, he spent his spare time engrossed in fantasy. It didn't work. He wanted to imagine her reactions to his touch; instead he imagined the way she smiled at him on their walks. He wanted to imagine how she'd feel, smell, taste, but his knowledge of female anatomy was mainly patched together from the brief memories of the bodies of kunoichi he'd caught, just before he killed them.

He sat in his quarters, hands on his knees, and scowled at the wall. Just because he wanted to try didn't mean he knew what he was doing, either. And he wanted to please her, not rut on her, fixated on conception. Like Sasuke, like—

Those thoughts were madness; he had to shake them.

He'd fallen into a habit: if something reminded him of his father, his mother, he went to find Sakura to reassure himself of her difference. But at the hospital, paired feminine laughter stopped him from just walking into the room.

He listened, then glided through the door silently to not disturb them. Sakura and Tomoko—one of the kunoichi she'd fought—were trading medics' horror stories.

"And then they always say it was an accident—that they slipped and fell and whatever the thing was just kind of ended up . . . well, up there—"

He didn't want to know. And when Sakura turned around and saw the look on his face, she assured him that he was right.

But then she'd taken a step back to make him the third player in their conversation, including him without hesitation even though he had nothing to add.

And she'd been right—he hadn't wanted to know what they were talking about. Sakura laughed at his expression—then Tomoko stopped boggling at them and laughed at Sakura, and the two went into fits of giggles as Gaara sighed and decided that yes, he did feel old.

Halfway through inviting Sakura to dinner at his place he realized how close they were standing, and the other kunoichi's lack of protest. He took it as a good sign.

After he'd left, Sakura's companion turned to her with a resigned, sad smile. "I thought I'd seen every expression he has . . . but I've never seen him warm up like that before."

Sakura smiled and nodded and wondered if she'd just run into a different side of him. The Gaara they knew was ice-edged and nearly omnipotent, as alien as he was familiar. The Gaara she knew remained accessible, shatteringly human, with stray gray hairs and tiny lines forming at the corners of his mouth—lines that faded as he smiled and welcomed her into his quarters that night.

The Gaara they knew taught the students at Sand's academy with cool, unsettling seriousness: These are the most delicate cartilage joins in the neck. This is how you break them. This is how you do it with one hand. If necessary, this is how you do it with your feet. The Gaara they knew spoke and demonstrated and made no mention of how, by the time he was the students' age, he'd already forgotten the number of people he'd killed.

The Gaara she knew had admitted he'd never learned how to dance, then let her teach him on an empty public street, their feet moving in tandem to her whisper of, "One-and-two-and-one-and—"

The Gaara they knew could terrify them as easily as he terrified anyone who stood against his village; the Gaara she knew watched her yawn and check the time after their dinner together, then offered her his unused bed since she'd only be back in a few hours anyway.

She knew this was less than proper and would likely fuel even more rumors . . . but the sheets were clean and the mattress comfortable. If cuddling his clothing had helped her sleep easier, an entire room that smelled like him would be . . .

She woke to the sound of people talking about her. Sakura recognized Temari's voice; Gaara's, deeper, carried better. "She's sleeping here right now. I haven't touched her."

The siblings almost always knew the others' locations; like roving planets, each attuned to the other's gravitational field. Sakura lifted herself to an elbow and wondered if that made her a satellite.

In a few minutes Temari left and Gaara appeared in the doorway, watching her silently. There, he thought, was normalcy, waiting in his bed, receptive and warm . . . if he could only handle the contact.

"Things okay?" Sakura asked.

"She just wanted to make sure you were all right."

He sat beside her, his expression strangely blank; he posted an arm to her side and leaned over her, testing his reaction as gingerly as a poisoned trap. Sakura smiled up at him sleepily, knowing nothing of his inner turmoil, and reached up, cupping the back of his head, drawing him down to her.

Softness cushioned his cheek. Under his ear was the comforting double-thump of her heartbeat. Gaara wrapped an arm around her and waited. Aside from the knowledge that there was a soft, warm, interesting-smelling female in his arms . . .

There were some instances, he decided, where a limited focus could serve him very well. So if he let his attention fix on the immediate, here-and-now of their contact . . . If he put his mind to learning the difference between touching her and the half-formed fragments of a fantasy . . .

His hand moved against her side. Here was the curve of her waist; here the swell of her hipbone. He lifted his head from her shoulder to better see what he was doing, only to find her watching as well.

Up, and his fingers splayed against her stomach. She was taut and solid under his palm; he'd expected nothing else. His leg hooked around hers as he coiled, pulling himself up level with her. She reached for his face as if waking from a dream, her fingertips grazing against cheek and nose and lips and chin, and as her hand fell away he moved in to kiss her. Their kiss from the previous night had been an affirmation; this was a promise, sealed by their shared breath and his tongue against her upper lip.

His fingers glided upwards again, beginning a more intimate exploration, teasing her in delicate little spirals, and she gasped; she hadn't realized just how much she wanted him to touch her. As the kiss continued she realized she felt like she was standing on the edge of one of the buildings, the wind around her tugging her closer to the point where she'd lean too far and tumble away into a space where only he could catch her.

One of his legs fit between hers; the weight of his body as he leaned over her was simultaneously warm and comfortable and alarming. Her reasons for holding back wavered . . . But if she gave in here, she'd be binding herself to Sand, to him—and would be taking the first big step towards not returning to her home and family in Leaf.

"Gaara," she whispered, and cupped his face in her hands. "What'll this mean for us?"

It means you're staying, he thought, but instead said, "I don't know."

"Me either." She smiled to take the edge off her words. "Don't you think we should?"

The corner of his mouth quirked upwards, and he leaned his forehead against hers. "Maybe."

She rolled him to his side; then, when he made no move to get up, she snuggled closer to him. "We can stay here for a little while, if you'd like."

It wasn't quite what either'd had in mind, but they found it worked well enough for the time being.