Chapter X – COURAGE TO PROCEED

~xxx~

Anger, as in many instances in his life, was proving to be his saviour.

Gaara held on to it, cloaking himself in ire until he became one with it. Yet this was not the mind-fumbling rage that was wont to overwhelm him whenever he lost his temper. No, this was very different. It was an altered version of the hot anger that tended to burst out of him like a volcanic eruption.

This time around, the rage had turned cold.

His mind was in perfect working order. The fury was not clouding his thinking. On the contrary, it made his mental objectives all the clearer and allowed him to make decisions with irrefutable determination that would lead him with towards his goal.

The process of slipping back into his military mind-frame had been effortless. He'd wrapped himself in the mantle of his previous life willingly. The emotionless thinking process with which he'd survived for the entirety of his adult life would now prove to be his ally once again. This was all that mattered. The experience of those long years in Phantasma would finally pay off and be worth all the many sacrifices he had made along the way.

Things were different this time; very different. As he had realized some days back, he was fighting for something this time around. And such a stance would now prove decisive.

He had Sakura to thank for this realization. It had been her friendship and her proximity that had allowed him to look at his life with new eyes. It had been her acceptance as well as her genuine enjoyment of his company that had pushed Gaara that last inch into the niche where he unconsciously desired to be.

No matter how much resistance he worked up or how many excuses he invented, the truth was that after years of being cast adrift, he now had a place where he belonged.

And he would fight with everything he had to preserve it.

Somehow, the winding paths of his stubborn resilience had led him to this place and time. He had walked persistently without ever backing down and without shirking the effort that his injured arm had demanded. He had given it his all and by doing so, Gaara had surprisingly arrived to a place he had never really thought existed. Now, his was a life where people genuinely smiled whenever he arrived, where people included him in their activities not because they were afraid of him but because they desired his company. It was a marvel, really, to have the chance to be himself and be truly appreciated for it. To open his mouth and say whatever was on his mind without there being any kind of long-lasting negative repercussions.

To go about life without the need to conceal the jaded aspects of himself and in return, receive the warmth of smiling emerald eyes.

And that was the crux of the matter. He would do anything, sacrifice it all without second thought, in order to preserve the light in those beautiful eyes.

The admission, once made, was easy to accept. Sakura was the doorway, the entrance through which he might find that second chance at life he was being given. She held the world in her hands and she was offering it to him, no strings attached. There was no hidden agenda where she was concerned. She offered him solace, comfort and friendship without any guile; despite the many difficult experiences she had lived and the emotional distress she was herself overcoming, she was willing to share her heart.

It made Gaara stop for a moment, the realization that someone could be so selfless. It rekindled a long-ago discarded hope in him: the knowledge that there were genuinely good people out there in the world. For Gaara, after spending all those long years as a member of the brutal Phantasma, such a notion had been relegated to the category of myth. Pointless destruction, devastation and death had always taken centre stage, eclipsing the possibility of there being any positive aspects to life.

His reality, after stepping into the Kyuubi Clinic, had been abruptly inversed. He was still coming to terms with the way his life had turned topsy-turvy; with the way all the premises with which he'd previously faced life were refuted. In a relatively short period of time, Gaara had been able to experience first-hand the good he'd been certain didn't exist in the world. And Sakura had been the trigger; the spark that made him wonder what things might be like if he took a step in that never-before-contemplated direction. What things might be possible for him if he allowed himself the chance to seize all that was being offered to him?

There was no point in denying how much he wanted it all. Self-delusion had never sat well with him. He might have forced himself to adhere to the harsh reality of his present during his long years in the military, honestly believing there was no alternative; at least not for someone like him. But now, things were different. He'd been able to glimpse an alternate reality where the things his soul unconsciously craved for were his for the taking. Only a fool would fail to admit he desired such a possibility.

It was a difficult position to be in, though. If he wished to truly embrace the humanity he'd been courting, he would have to renounce certain aspects of himself once and for all. To be able to step forward meant Gaara would have to reject and discard everything he'd once been; to admit that the basic principles with which he'd lived his life up to this point were now useless. There was no place for them in his world anymore. All he'd ever believed in, all he'd ever thought was true during his time in Phantasma was null. His old persona needed to be discarded categorically, like a useless shell, for him to move forward. As he'd been experiencing for some time now, it was not a shift easily made.

Deidara, he knew, was struggling with such a conundrum. It was one of the realizations Gaara had come to during their previous conversation. His ex-comrade, after being confined to a wheelchair, was being forced to consider the possibility of a life outside Phantasma. Being someone who had dedicated his life solely to the errant platoon, Gaara empathized with such a challenge. None of them had ever truly thought there was anything for them outside their brigade; Phantasma defined their existence. They all believed, without a sliver of a doubt, death would catch up with them during some mission or other. It was the only possible end for men like them. That some of them had been able to survive as long as they had was a testament to their skill; yet they were very much aware of the reality of their chosen profession. None of them would be able to escape the reaper when he came calling. As such, Deidara's position would certainly not be a comfortable one. If the time came, Gaara wasn't sure the bombs' specialist would be able to make the transition. He'd much rather go out with a bang.

To be able to begin anew, to genuinely start from scratch, a special kind of motivation was required. An incentive to push you forward, to force your eyes open even though you did not want to see, was essential. Where Deidara might ever find this, Gaara did not know. In his personal situation, fortunately, such inducements had generally come in the form of the so-called Physiotherapy Brigade and specifically, in the shape of a cherry haired doctor recovering from a knee injury.

They provided the momentum with which Gaara was now propelling forward.

Although the path was clear before him, he couldn't walk through the gateway just yet. There were things he still needed to take care of. His military persona could not be discarded so soon. Because his past was not done with him, his old self was still needed to face it. It was the only way to put it behind him once and for all.

So Gaara let the anger rise and his mind-frame shift, resuming old habits like a cloak. If he was to face Pein and emerge victorious, he would have to be at his very best; he would have to call forth all the skills he'd garnered across the years to be able to protect what had now become so precious to him. There was, in effect, no room for softness. Only unfeeling logic and strategy could have a place in his world at the moment. To be able to stand and defend, Gaara could not allow himself to bend. If he did, Pein would see that as a weakness and would have no qualms in exploiting it.

Gaara willed Sakura to understand this.

The realization of his vulnerability had been made painfully clear when he'd been ambushed by Deidara and Sasori in the park. Fortune had been good to him in that it had been them who had crossed his path; though they were ungracious members of his former platoon, they hadn't harboured any ill intent towards him. However, what if it had been Pein who had intercepted him in the park? With Sakura so evidently in his arms, what would Gaara have done then?

Fear was never a comfortable emotion yet it was necessary to acknowledge so one could learn from it. The chill of apprehension that had travelled up his spine after considering such a scenario left Gaara with no option: never again would he endanger Sakura's life in such a way. Making such amateur mistakes was something he simply could not afford. As such he would force himself to embrace the implied paradox that if he wanted to keep Sakura safe, he would have to keep her at a distance.

It wouldn't be easy, he knew. To alienate the one person he wanted to protect the most would have tried a weaker man's sanity. But Gaara had no use for weakness. Risking Sakura was not an option. He would do what he needed to do.

And when all was set and done, Gaara hoped Sakura would comprehend.

In the interim, he had an enemy to take down and nothing, not even the possibility of her hurt feelings, would come between him and his objective.

When the time came, Gaara would just have to make it up to her.

-XXXXXXXXXX-

As the days progressed, the apprehension just kept growing and growing, overwhelming Sakura with an anxiety she was finding very hard to keep hidden.

This was especially so when Gaara ceased to show up at the clinic at the same time she did. From one moment to the next, he arranged for his rehabilitation sessions to take place at differing times and would come in whenever she wasn't present. She had no idea how he managed this so effectively; then again, she knew her physiotherapist friends would find nothing strange with him asking about her schedule.

After a couple of days of having him avoid her, Sakura decided to arrive early at the clinic and stay there all day until he showed up. It only resulted in him calling to arrange for an outdoor session with Naruto.

Sakura was at the end of her tether.

To be fair, she'd made the decision of not to telling her friends about the incident at the park; she had decided to respect Gaara's desire for privacy for the time being. More importantly, she preferred to have more information about what was happening before gathering her friends and explaining the situation. At the moment, she ruefully admitted, she didn't have much of a situation to actually explain. She couldn't very well go in there, raising alarms only because a couple of Gaara's ex-comrades had showed up and he had been visibly upset.

Of course he was going to be upset!

The problem was explaining the god-awful feeling of dread that had sunk its claws into her and refused to let go. Though she had only been privy to the few words Deidara had exchanged with Gaara in her presence, something inside her had recognized the warning signs of real approaching danger. Gaara himself had virtually confirmed it for her with his words, telling her she had no idea of what the world he came from was like.

Well, if this applied to her then it applied to him too: he had no idea of where she came from either. Being the ex-girlfriend of a crazed underworld ruffian with a personal vendetta towards his brother had taught her many things about those who existed on society's fringes. It might not be the highly organized and disciplined atmosphere of a secret military unit but it was certainly the same kind of mindless bloodshed and ruthlessness.

Thanks to Sasuke's unintended education, Sakura could easily perceive the rank smell of wrongness in a situation of this nature. And Gaara's ex-comrades had brought with them the worst kind of scent along with them.

This was why she needed to know what was happening as soon as possible. Staying in the dark and accepting Gaara's ruling that she remain on the sidelines was not an option. It was going to be tough going but she would weasel it out of him one way or another. Sakura understood why he would be reticent in sharing any details relating to his past, especially those that brought with them menacing tidings. But she would get to the bottom of this no matter the circumstance. Sakura refused to be left in the dark.

She might not be able to go into battle, guns blazing, along with him; she was painfully of her handicaps, and not just because of her knee. Yet this was not a valuable excuse in her mind. The promise she had made to herself to stand next to him still echoed resolutely within her. There were many ways to support someone that didn't imply throwing yourself directly into the line of fire. Although, if it came to that, Sakura was sure enough of where she was standing to know she would jump in front of a gun for him. Still, she didn't know if this is what was required. As things stood, Sakura had no clue of what the issue really was. And that was the root of the issue, the not knowing; the being pushed aside with no regard to her feelings.

It brought the silhouette of past spectres to the fore.

It was a situation that only reinforced her stance. Gaara might have decided to deny her any kind of involvement but this didn't mean Sakura's feelings would falter. As a matter of fact, they would not budge at all. She'd made her decision and she would stick to it just like she would stick with him through thick and thin. He would just have to come to terms with that.

Thus, Sakura had been resolutely waiting for the right moment to show up so she could corner him. At one point she had considered turning up at his apartment unannounced but she had ruled this option out. It was unlikely for Gaara to be there during the day, especially not when he knew there was a menace coming to get him. Deidara had mentioned something about hound dogs circling closer; this meant someone was actively hunting Gaara and most likely his ex-platoon companions as well. With all this churning in her mind, Sakura attempted to keep her cool and tried to have patience. Gaara, after all, had never had someone showing concern over him or someone genuinely worried over his wellbeing. He didn't know what it was like to have someone willing to risk their lives to protect him; someone who would give anything to keep him out of harm's way.

Because of this, Sakura had made her best attempts to be understanding and give him time.

Until the package arrived.

It was delivered at her hotel early in the day. One of the bellboys had gone up to her room and handed her a small manila envelope, saying it had been delivered last night with instructions for it to be handed to her the next morning.

After he left, Sakura tentatively opened the package, only to find a flash drive and a quickly scribbled note inside.

Have a look at the medical files in the drive. Let me know what the diagnosis is and whether something can be done about it. Leave your answer in the same envelope at the hotel lobby.

Gaara

She had no idea of what to think. A flurry of conflicted emotions flitted through her, leaving her head reeling in bewilderment.

Astonishment was her foremost reaction when she opened her laptop and inserted the flash drive. Her medical training took over instinctively as she browsed through the medical records and test results of a man who had suffered from severe cranial traumas. Even without the military logo glaring at her whenever she opened a document, the source of the man's injuries was telling enough: he had been caught in the explosion of a building during a mission and had sustained skull fractures as a result.

Even an idiot could have figured out the man's identity; particularly after Deidara had apologized for the behaviour of his evidently neurologically-affected companion.

As this fact registered, it triggered a rather intense response on her part.

What did Gaara think she was, a dimwit? And who the hell did he take her for? Someone whose professional knowledge he could use at his convenience but whose friendship he could deny?

Undiluted rage surged through Sakura. She could not believe him.

His situation be damned, there was no room left for understanding within her. The patience she had been striving to hold on to vanished. He was going to get a piece of her mind whether he liked it or not.

So she told Naruto she would be coming in during late afternoon the next day. She took special care to make sure the rest of the Physiotherapy Brigade was aware of this information. Gaara, evidently, had been using them as informants without them realizing it.

This done, Sakura set her resolve and waited for the long hours of the day to pass. She threw herself even more wholeheartedly into her physical therapy. It was the only way to bite down the seething anger as well as the hurt lurking underneath. Because that was the bottom line, wasn't it? Gaara was pushing her away when what she wanted the most was to stand beside him. Sakura knew he had his convoluted reasons for doing so but, if he didn't explain them to her, how could she avoid feeling hurt?

Theirs had always been a transparent interaction; they'd been honest in all their dealings. Gaara's adherence to telling the truth even to the point of brusqueness was one of the things she liked most about him. You could always count on him to tell it to you straight. It was the reason why their budding relationship had been so assuring; Sakura always knew exactly where she was standing with Gaara.

But when trouble arrived he'd abruptly stepped back, leaving her flailing and with no clear indication of what was happening. The fact that he'd decided not to confide in her inevitably chaffed and not only because she felt she was pushing her out of his life. The thought that he wasn't telling her anything because he didn't trust her was even more emotionally bruising. It might be a stupid notion but it was there; it did her no good denying it.

The whole scenario brought skeletons out of Sakura's closet she very much did not wish to face. But once out, there was nothing but to accept the apprehension they flooded her with. She'd promised herself she would never relive such situations again. Never again would she be left with no clear understanding of lurking danger. She'd overcome all that; the toxic patterns of passivity had been long ago buried and she'd be damned if she repeated them ever again.

This was foremost in her mind when she showed up at the Kyuubi Clinic before opening time the next morning. After verifying there was no one inside, she hid within the 24-hour convenience store across the street. She bought a cup of coffee and a granola bar just to keep up appearances; it wouldn't do for the clerk not to give her weird looks. She stood to one side of the magazine stand near the front window, out of sight but able to keep an eye on the clinic door.

A few minutes later, she saw Lee approaching on the opposite sidewalk, rummaging through his satchel in search of the clinic's keys. He went in, proceeding with the routine of opening business for the day. Now all she had to do was stand-by and wait.

True enough, the object of her stake out proceeded to act as predictably as she'd thought. So much for military intelligence. Wanting to steer clear of her at all costs, Sakura knew he would show up at a time when he was certain to avoid her. Hence, if she had a session scheduled for late in the afternoon, he was sure to show up for his physiotherapy early in the morning. Very early.

As was his custom, he'd jogged to the clinic. Sakura watched him as he did a post-jog stretch in front of the door before walking inside. She gulped down the rest of her coffee, threw the empty paper cup in the trash bin, and made her way across the street as fast as her knee-impaired walking allowed her. If Gaara was here this early, Naruto was bound to show up soon. This meant she would probably have a window of no more than fifteen minutes alone with him.

So be it, it would have to enough.

She entered the clinic cloaked in her resolution, only to find that Lee wasn't at the front desk. He was, no doubt, in the kitchen brewing coffee. Good, this meant she would not be interrupted. Sakura walked down the corridor, going past the kitchen doorway as silently as she could and headed towards the men's changing room at the back.

Opening the door quickly, she shut it behind her just as fast, locking it in the process. She would not chance any intrusion. Emerald eyes looked up to find Gaara, shirtless, standing in front of one of the sinks. He'd stopped in the middle of washing off the sweat from his jog with a damp towel. At the sound of the door, his eyes lifted, looking at her through the mirror hanging above the faucet.

Sakura watched as the expression on his face turned from surprised to angry. Very angry.

'Angry?' she thought haughtily, 'I'll show him angry.'

"Do you think I'm stupid?" she asked, her voice a harsh murmur. There was no point in bothering to hide the rage she was feeling. "Do you think I'm dumb enough to let you roughshod me into submission, into doing what you want? Well, think again. I don't play by your rules!"

She put her hand into her jeans pocket and pulled out the crumpled envelope containing the flash drive he'd sent her. She threw it on the bench next to his discarded shirt.

Gaara breathed out slowly, making a visible effort not to respond to her accusations. He continued washing his face, pretending she wasn't there.

"You can try to ignore me all you want but you'll listen to what I have to say," Sakura continued, stepping closer to him. "I'm not an asset you can exploit however you want. I'm not a tool you can conveniently use when the whim strikes you. You cannot come parading in, asking for my professional help while ignoring the rest of our relationship. That's not how friendship works."

He closed his eyes, his hands fisting where he was resting them on the edge of the sink.

"I know you've had little experience in the matter but you're a very quick learner. When you accept someone into your life, you can't choose what parts of them you accept or not. You have to be willing to accept all of them or else the deal's off. You cannot expect for me to comply in helping to diagnose one of the members of your former platoon when you won't even tell me what's going on, when you won't even let me help you."

Gaara lifted his face then, looking at her through the mirror. "Then the deal is off," he said, his words meant to cut.

Sakura felt the barb but refused to let it throw her. "Too late for that, I'm afraid. You signed the deal a long time ago," she told him, "just like I signed it too."

He turned away, moving towards the opened locker where he kept his things.

She turned to follow his movements. "I understand why you might want to keep things from me, why you're pushing me away."

"Like hell you do," he countered viciously, rummaging through his things. "You have no idea of-"

"Of what?" Sakura interrupted, her anger simmering. "Of the fact that you're a cold blooded killer? That you killed countless of people during your military career? That you relished in the bloodshed and it was the only thing you lived for?"

He stopped his movements but did not turn to face her.

"I can understand why you might not want to tell me anything," Sakura continued to say. "But put yourself in my situation for a moment. What would you do if you knew my life was in danger but I refused to tell you about it? What then?"

She watched his back tense, watched as he gripped the door of the locker until his knuckles turned white.

"What if I decided I was going to face it all on my own? Pushing you away and refusing you?"

After what seemed an eternity, Gaara turned to look at her. His face was an impassive mask but the light in his eyes belied the intensity of the rage churning within him.

Sakura swallowed visibly, knowing his ire would be a formidable opponent. But she would not back down. She'd prepared herself for this and she would take as many verbal hits as was necessary until she got her point across.

Yet when Gaara spoke, his voice was steady and controlled. "Bombarding me with 'what ifs' isn't going to change anything. It seems you experienced momentary deafness the last time we spoke. I wasn't joking when I told you about your life being forfeit if you got involved." He pierced her with a pitiless look before continuing. "I credited you with more intelligence than this."

"I'm aware of-" she started to say, but he wasn't finished.

"Let me rid you of your misconceptions," he said. His voice was devoid of emotion, as if he were discussing something as mundane as the weather. "If I involve anyone in this situation, they will be killed. I know that's something you might have a hard time understanding with the sheltered life you've lead. It's a concept you can't bring yourself to fully accept."

His words felt like lead, each one dropping into the pit of her stomach.

"If anyone I involve is killed, the guilt falls on me. It's all on my head," he kept saying. "If they die, their throats cut or shot full of bullets, the weight of their corpses will fall solely on my shoulders. Their lives will be taken because they unwittingly associated with me. Because they extended their kindness to me, they ended up bleeding to death in a gutter."

He cocked his head to the side, as if contemplating some new thought. "But then again, you're aware of that already. So I'm assuming it's a burden you want me to carry with the way you showed up here."

Sakura breathed in deeply, striving for perseverance.

"You're being selfish," he told her. "You say I should put myself in your shoes, then how about you put yourself in mine."

Her lips trembled; the picture he painted was graphic, a horror she never wished to experience. Yet, she couldn't bring herself to walk out the door. Something deep inside her, no matter how austere or terrifying the situation, did not permit her to turn her back on him.

"I have put myself in your situation," she countered. "It's exactly why I'm here. All your life you've stood alone, facing it all on your own. The bloodshed, the violence, the madness; you've taken them all on by yourself, always. But it doesn't have to keep being that way. Although the life you've led-"

"The life I've led?" Gaara cut her off abruptly, his voice mocking. He sneered at her, the gesture cold and cruel. "You would never be able to comprehend the horror, not even if you try. If you had truly placed yourself in my situation, you wouldn't be here. Not only are you childish, you are ignorant and clueless."

The words stung, lacerating her heart. Sakura felt the sting of tears in her eyes. But on the heels of hurt, the crest of her anger peeked, washing over her in a swift and unrelenting wave. With a deep breath Sakura stretched to her full height, her eyes spitting emerald fire despite the dampness behind them.

"How easy it is for you to say I don't know anything of the world you come from when the same can be said about you," she lashed out angrily. "The truth is you know nothing of mine."

Tears escaped unwillingly and flowed down her cheeks. There was nothing she could do to stop them. The mixture of rage, heartache and worry was too overwhelming. But it didn't keep Sakura from talking, from saying what she had to say.

"You do not know how many times I had to nurse the man I loved back to health because he showed up, bleeding and on the verge of death, at my door."

That caught him off guard. Though fleeting, Sakura caught the flicker of distress in his eyes. If it was due to her tears or her words, she didn't know. But she didn't stop; the dam was now broken and it all came rushing out.

"You do not know how many times I sat through the long endless nights because I knew he was out there, unhinged in his mind as he was, involved in the criminal trade of the underworld mafia." Her voice was hoarse, tinged with the misery of the memories she was evoking. "He was out there, stealing, killing and scheming, with absolutely no concern for my regard. He would have happily died if it meant he could achieve his murderous goals. And I could do nothing... just stay home and wait until he either showed up injured or I received news of his death. My hands tied, I watched him expose himself to danger over and over again."

Gaara clenched and unclenched his hands, the only telltale sign of his agitation.

Sakura wiped the tears from her cheeks brusquely before continuing. "But you know what the worst part was? Not knowing what he was doing, not knowing what he was facing. It was the paralyzing fear of being forced to remain ignorant, of being pushed aside like meaningless baggage. It was the dread of having to deal with his wounds, his blood dripping through my hands, without knowing the reasons behind them. Because he knew... he knew very well I would walk through fire for him. No matter what he did to me or how badly he treated me, I would always be there, willing to patch him up whenever he showed up."

Without warning, Gaara lifted his hand and slammed his fist into the metal doors of the locker. "I cannot believe you're comparing me to such an asshole," he hissed, his fury palpable.

"I am not!" Sakura exclaimed, countering with her own anger. "You're different. That's why I'm here. I know you're not pushing me away because you don't care. It's the opposite. You're keeping me at arm's length because you want to protect me."

"If you know that, then why can't you leave it? Why can't you see it's for you own good?"

"Because leaving you to your own means is not something I can do," she replied, her voice breaking. "If you were in my position you would do the same. Gaara, I would go to the ends of the world and back if it meant I could keep you safe."

"I don't need you to keep me safe," he bit back defensively. "I can take care of myself."

"I know you can," Sakura admitted ruefully, "I know you're very capable of doing so. That's how you've managed to survive all this time. But that's the bottom line of the issue. Even though you can doesn't mean you should."

"So you're saying you can protect me," he scoffed, "that you can shield me from the danger? You're being childish again. The people who are coming after me are trained military specialists, Sakura. They were trained to maim and kill, no questions asked. They won't hold back in using the people close to me to their advantage."

His eyes hardened, the planes of his face taking on a ruthless mien. "Risking your life because of anything relating to me isn't something I will ever condone. You'll just have to come to terms with that."

"If it came to that, I would," Sakura told him. "I would willingly risk my life for you. Yet, I know I'm not physically capable of running headlong into the kind of situation you will likely face. I'm handicapped in that respect and not just because of my knee."

"Then why the hell are you here?" Gaara asked, his shout finally betraying his impatience.

She moved closer to him, not stopping until she was standing right in front of him. Looking into his eyes, she lowered her voice to a harsh whisper. "Because I needed you to know how I felt. Because I want to share the load. You've been by yourself for so painfully long. Something inside me refuses to allow you to go at it alone. Even if I can't go charging in with you, I can help. Gaara, there are ways of standing firm beside a person that don't imply walking straight into the line of fire."

He stood there, immobile in front of her. Though he gave no outward sign, Sakura could perceive the turmoil churning inside him.

"I'm afraid that isn't the case in this instance," he informed her, his voice impassive once more. "You have no idea of what you're asking of me."

"Of course I don't," Sakura conceded. "How can I know unless you tell me? How can I understand what you're going through if you don't talk to me?"

His jade eyes bore into her, his face frozen. He was like a stone monolith, unmoving and adamant in his stance, refusing to answer her. Silence hovered over them for what seemed a long time.

A fresh tear slid down Sakura's cheek but she ignored it. She finally moved, closing the distance between them until she could feel his breath on her brow. Her free hand lifted of its own accord, her palm resting over his beating heart.

"No matter what, you always push me out of my comfort zone, Gaara," she told him. "This time was no exception. When I looked over the flash drive, I was reminded of all the times I had to keep my mouth shut and do as I was told." The muscles under her hand quivered with tension. "But it also reminded me of something else, of a vow I made to myself a long time ago."

Her fingers clenched, her nails scraping over his skin as her hand turned into a fist. With a deep breath, she turned her eyes up to his. "I promised myself I would never go through such an experience again: never again would I stand by idly when the man I love is in danger."

And there it was, out in the open, hanging in the air between them; an admission that had been necessary to make. All the long months of anguish, all the winding ways of perseverance had led Sakura to his moment. All this time, she'd had no idea of what her destination was until she'd arrived.

Confusion clouded his eyes as he looked at her, as if he was unable to understand what she had just said. But Gaara had always been quick on the uptake. A moment later, Sakura witnessed the instant when her words finally registered, when bewilderment turned to disbelief in his expression.

Before he had a chance to speak, she stood on tiptoe and kissed him fully on the lips.

Although the hardness of his body was a reflection of the hardness of his demeanour, Sakura could tell she'd caught him by surprise. As such, she gave him no quarter. She kissed him with all the raw emotions she had been forced to keep down for days. Her tongue darted between his lips as she raised her hand to grip him at the nape and pull him closer. She gave him no alternative and when he responded to the intensity of her assault, she moved forward before he could bring his arms around her. Digging her crutch against his hip and gripping him by the hair, she pushed him until his back connected with the lockers. Without breaking her scorching kiss, she draped herself against his body, tingling all over at the feel of his damp skin. He smelled of musk, heat and flame, his intoxicating essence driving her onwards.

If her words hadn't gotten her point across to him, then her actions most certainly would.

With a groan, he lifted his hands to her head, gripping her hair as he deepened the angle of their exchange. Sakura allowed it but didn't yield for a moment. Desperation and ferocity coloured their wet and slick kiss. She pushed up against him even more, bringing her hand down from his neck to slither down his magnificent torso. Stepping more firmly between his legs, Sakura wanted nothing more than to melt into his heat. The salty taste of her previous tears mingling in their mouths only heightened the rawness of the feelings he elicited in her. She scraped her nails down the side of his abdomen, intending to snake her arm around his waist.

"Gaara!" Naruto shouted from somewhere down the corridor. "I'm eating my bagels and then we're going to work your ass off. So you'd better be ready!"

Sakura pulled back abruptly. Although his fingers were buried in her hair, Gaara permitted it. They stared at each other, their heated breaths coming out in gasps. She watched as his expression hardened; as if her actions had only reinforced his inflexible position.

She pushed away before he could speak, feeling instantly bereft of his warmth. Although breathing harshly, Gaara made no attempt to pull her back. Sakura forced herself to turn away and make her way to the door. All the tumultuous emotions within her rose to the fore and she allowed them to filter into her voice.

Without turning, she spoke. "Gaara, I can't lose you... I wouldn't survive it. I know you might think I'm exaggerating but I'm not: all my efforts to piece my life back together will be in vain if you're not there. You will just have to come to terms with that."

Without giving him a chance to answer, Sakura unlocked the door and stepped out hurriedly, leaving him to his silence.

-XXXXXXXXXX-

Sometime later, Sakura stepped out of the hotel elevator. The need to lock herself in her room and bury herself in her pillows was adamant. She looked like a wreck and she knew it. The face of the poor taxi driver that had dropped her off just moments before had said it all. Although he was clearly uncomfortable with having a weeping woman in the back seat of his cab, he had done his best to try to alleviate the situation. Sakura appreciated his efforts but remained unconcerned; the commotion of all she was feeling was the only thing she could concentrate on.

All in all, she was satisfied with the result of her encounter with Gaara. Although not in the way she had intended, she had managed to communicate all she'd wanted to tell him in one way or another. The ball was on his side of the court now. After revealing her hand, all Sakura could do now was wait. Depending on his response would she be able to plan her next move.

Depending on how he reacted to the unexpected acknowledgment of her love would Sakura be able to make any decisions.

Would he welcome it? She wondered. Or would he shove it away and pretend it wasn't there?

For the life of her, she had no clue. Just like she had no idea of the situation he was involved in either. Once more, Haruno Sakura was left with an exposed heart and no clear idea of just where she was standing. It was all she could do to prevent the anxiety from consuming her from the inside out.

Still, it was a familiar position. One she was determined to overcome. Sakura may be repeating her noxious patterns but this time around, she would make certain the outcome was different. Life was giving her the opportunity to change the results and she could cling to it for all she was worth.

She was so distracted by her thoughts she didn't notice her backpack slip down her arm as she was fumbling inside it for her room's key card. It fell to the floor, scattering her things on the carpet.

Cursing, she slowly lowered herself down on her crutch to pick up her mess. As she did so, she heard a door down the hallway open and close, followed by the sounds of footsteps coming her way.

Great! Just what she needed right now: another hotel guest witnessing her stupidity.

"Are you alright?" a female voiced asked as if on cue.

"Yes, thank you," Sakura answered without looking up. "I was just being a klutz."

Ignoring her protests, the woman was suddenly on her knees next to Sakura, helping her gather her belongings. "Here's your key card," she said, handing it over.

Sakura lifted her eyes to her face then, thanking her politely. Caught off guard, she was surprised at how beautiful she was. Her calm face possessed a classic sort of beauty; her hair was a deep blue, pinned tightly back into a bun at the back of her head and decorated with a paper flower. She was dressed in an expensive business suit.

Their gazes locked and Sakura watched as her gray eyes widened slightly. It seemed she'd finally registered Sakura's gaunt face and puffy red-rimmed eyes.

She reiterated her question. "Are you alright?"

No, Sakura thought dismally. But out loud, she answered, "Yes, I'm fine."

The woman's eyes studied her, finally settling on the crutch lying on the floor next to Sakura. "Here, let me help you stand," she offered.

Sakura started to protest but the woman was faster. With surprising strength in her willowy frame, she pulled Sakura up into a standing position.

"Thank you," she said, blinking.

"I know it's none of my business," the woman added, handing Sakura her crutch. "But if you need anything, I'm just down the hall. Room 417."

Although the woman didn't smile, there was concern in her gaze. Maybe because she'd been having a very crappy week or because the events of the morning had left her emotionally unbalanced, Sakura couldn't help feeling gratitude at her gesture to a clumsy stranger.

"I'm Konan," the woman said, holding out her hand.

"Sakura," she replied as she grasped it with her own.

They exchanged farewells after Sakura thanked her again for her assistance. Unlocking her door, she watched Konan as she continued to walk purposely down the hallway and towards the elevators. When she disappeared into the lift, Sakura finally walked into her room, feeling slightly better and more centred.

Nothing like a random encounter with a considerate stranger to help you regain perspective.