"I'm single."

That was Tsunade's abrupt declaration to Sakura as they met bright and early two days later at the headquarters. Though she was the Hokage's apprentice, Tsunade could not be expected to drop everything on her schedule to see her; That was a fact that Sakura was well aware of, having trained under her for almost five years.

Sakura had returned to the camp the previous two nights, whispers dogging her every step as she deliberately held her head high against the scowls thrown her way. Ino almost tackled her to the ground for turning both their tents into greenhouses, and made Sakura promise to relocate the flowers before the end of the week.

Lilies didn't do very well without sunlight, anyway.

When she went to brew Gaara his chakra tea on those nights, he greeted her as he would in the past with a polite nod and asked her quietly about how her day had been. She responded just as civilly, keeping their conversations light before leaving immediately after the tea was presented to him.

Gaara did not have the chance to wish her goodnight in his customary manner for three days already, and a part of her missed the way he would murmur it against her lips in the past weeks.

The vicious whispers that lingered behind her footsteps always seemed a little louder after her exit each time, but no one dared to approach her to say those unkind statements directly to her face. Her temper (and strength) was rather infamous, after all.

And right now, she could only blink owlishly at Tsunade's unexpected words upon arriving inside the interrogation room that a shinobi guard had led her to (he had coughed awkwardly upon hearing Tsunade's words). Sakura waited until the guard closed the door behind him as he left, and the hum of the seals activating was her cue to speak at last.

"I'm sorry?"

Tsunade reached under the table for a new bottle of sake, and Sakura noted with a frown that there were already two empty tokkuri on the table. Her mentor normally didn't start drinking until closer to sundown.

"I don't have much relationship experience, Sakura, so if you're here to get advice on how to fix things up between you and Gaara, I'm sorry to disappoint you." Tsunade followed up by taking a testing sip from the newly-opened tokkuri.

"I'm not… I mean…" Sakura fumbled her words, a blush working its way into her cheeks. She forced her eyes close, counted to ten mentally, then opened her eyes.

Annoying, Tsunade was still smirking, and Sakura could not help visibly deflating as she muttered, "How did you know?"

One cocked eyebrow from her mentor, combined with the upward curl of her lip, and of course it was because of the damned rumour mill. All her troubles in the Fourth Shinobi World War all seemed to have come from it, and Sakura visualised it being wrapped in chains of explosive tags before it was completely obliterated in the fiery aftermath. Sure, it did absolutely nothing in reality, but it did give her nerves a moment of respite.

Tsunade tapped her finger against the side of the tokkuri, her gaze scrutinising as she took in her apprentice's appearance. Sakura was starting to show signs of developing dark eyebags, most likely due to her recent responsibilities, first in healing the Kazekage, and now from recent revelations about the conspiracies within their villages.

This would not be the first conspiracies that Sakura became aware of, as Tsunade reflected on a time several months earlier when she had summoned Sukura for a mission alongside Kakashi, Gai and Lee. The Hokage was initially concerned that by revealing the plot engineered by their council to remove the Uchiha threat to Sakura, she would become sympathetic towards Sasuke's cause. But upon realising that her apprentice had by then directed her affections towards another, she had felt better revealing that information.

Tsunade didn't need two rogue shinobi running off from her village to end up allied against them, after all.

"Well, if you're not here for that, what did you want to talk to me about?"

"Our village elders and the other councils… do you think they were in cahoots?" Sakura finally asked. As the Hokage's apprentice, she was privy to some of her village's inner workings, and she hoped that now counted as one of those times.

"Very likely. I wouldn't be surprised if the different village councils had been negotiating amongst themselves behind our backs, deciding which kekkei genkai or clan jutsu's they wanted to trade for. Some war, huh? We physically fight to secure their futures for them, and they in turn conspire to secure our future strength through such despicable means," Tsunade scoffed, "We discovered their treachery a little over two months into deployment, and all five of us have been scrambling to rescind or intercept those orders. When it was discovered that some of those missions had borne fruits, that was when we decided to offer the offending kunoichi's another set of options instead of capital punishment.

"You cannot imagine the levels of scheming that our council goes to. I had tried to override as many of their directives to our kunoichi's as I could, but as you know, our elders are highly-regarded within our village. If a kunoichi is given conflicting mission directives between the council and the Hokage, ultimately the kunoichi chooses whose order to carry out."

"Are we really that desperate to steal jutsu's and kekkei genkai's? And to do it through…" Sakura could not find it in her to finish her sentence.

All kunoichi's were required to undergo seduction training, in case they ever had to resort to womanly wiles to complete a mission. It was for the good of their village and nation after all. Sakura had devoured the manuals on the process of seduction, but unlike her medical knowledge, these written techniques did not quite translate into practice for her.

The only reason her chunin proctor even passed her despite her disgraceful attempt at beguiling him was only because she had scored full marks in every other aspect of her practical examination.

Do not send on missions that require feminine charm, her proctor had written in the remarks column of her grades.

Sakura would have punched him clear across the village for that comment, except that assaulting a proctor would have disqualified her immediately and barred her from taking the Chunin Examinations for another five years.

"Obviously, I don't condone any of this, yet now that their schemes are out in the open, the Konoha Council has come to me with a list of kekkei genkai as if I can acquire those bloodlines for them like they are ordering off a menu," Tsunade took one especially long drink before slamming it back onto the table, causing several empty tokkuri's to clatter noisily about, "And listen to this: those relentless old geezers want to bring the Magnet Release kekkei genkai to Konoha. Magnet Release! Do you have any idea how rare that is? It's almost as rare as finding a living Sharingan bloodline! Can you imagine all the villages trying to seduce our Uchiha brat?!"

Tsunade started laughing at the visual of the stoic last living Uchiha being surrounded by voluptuous, scantily-clad kunoichi from various nations, each intending on sleeping with him to secure his bloodline while he valiantly guarded his chastity. So caught up she was in her own merriment, that Tsunade did not notice that Sakura had gone deathly pale in front of her.

When her apprentice's silence finally registered for her, Tsunade levelled a curious gaze at the stunned expression on Sakura's face. The pink-haired kunoichi wished she had Gaara's ability to school her emotions as well as he did, but others have frequently said that she wore her heart on her sleeve.

Just as she was doing in front of Tsunade, whose eyes immediately widened in recognition.

"Gaara's ability to manipulate sand is a kekkei genkai, isn't it?" asked Tsunade quietly.

Sakura tried her best not to betray anything with her face or body, but Tsunade picked it up from her, thanks to years of overseeing her training. In short, Sakura was an open book for her to peruse.

"Shit."

Tsunade dropped her forehead heavily into her hands, elbows propped on the edge of the table as a wave of dizziness overtook her. She took several deep breaths to calm her racing thoughts.

When she lifted her head once more to regard Sakura, the kunoichi had not moved from her spot. Instead, her student had brought a nervous hand to her own mouth, knowing that there was nothing left to hide from her Hokage. So it was up to Tsunade to give voice to both their thoughts.

"The Third and Fourth Kazekage's could manipulate sand, but they were the only ones in their generations to do so, leading outsiders to assume it was a secret jutsu. We speculated that they wanted a more powerful version of it, and that it was the reason why they resorted to sealing the sand-wielding Shukaku inside of Gaara.

"But something just doesn't add up. If it was a jutsu, then Suna could train an army of sand wielders. They would have been unstoppable during the attack on Konoha. That only a single child from each generation of the Kazekage bloodline could control sand hinted that it might have been something in their DNA.

"The Konoha Council must be hoping that it is something that the Kazekage or his siblings carried in their genetic makeup - that it was a kekkei genkai that could eventually manifest in another generation." Tsunade could feel her alcoholic buzz fizzling away as the reality of the situation hit home for her, "They wanted Gaara's bloodline, whether or not he actually manifested Magnet Release. They wanted his potential."

Sakura shifted slightly from one foot to the other, fighting off the rising bile that threatened to spill from her. That her village's elders looked at Gaara like he was nothing more than a means to possess a rare kekkei genkai was simply too calculated a way to regard a living, breathing human being for her to comprehend.

"No one else must know about this," the Hokage stated firmly, "An army that can make and weaponise sand - which exists on every part of earth - will be too tempting a prospect for any village. And if Gaara is the third consecutive generation to possess Magnet Release, it reasons that at least one of his children would inherit it as well."

So rare and precious a kekkei genkai that every village would covert it, and Haruno Sakura just happened to be the one perfectly situated to acquire it?

Sakura's face turned almost greenish as the malicious underpinnings of her assignment suddenly became clear to her, but she fought to replace it with anger instead as she regarded the woman before her that she considered a mother figure.

"Is this why I was assigned to the Regimental Commander as his personal medic?" Sakura's voice trembled minutely as she glared at her mentor, "Was the council hoping that I would be able to seduce Gaara and bring back a child with his kekkei genkai for the betterment of Konoha?

"It makes perfect sense, shishou. I am a trained medic. I know all the signs of pregnancy, and consequently, I know all the ways to hide one. If I had timed my mission right, he wouldn't even know that I have carried out my orders successfully."

"Enough, Sakura!" Tsunade barked as she shoved back from the table, coming around to stand directly in front of her student. She tipped Sakura's face up to meet her gaze with a firm grasp of her chin. "I was the one who assigned you the mission, to give you someone's well-being to focus on. We need our field commander in top form, and you have kept him both healthy and sane. I would never reduce you to a womb, fit only to carry out the conniving schemes of our council! I could never…!"

The relief of knowing that it was her own Hokage's orders - untainted by the greed of their council - made Sakura fall heavily onto the floor, her legs suddenly too weak to keep her upright any longer.

Tsunade waited for Sakura to stop trembling before she gestured to the empty seat across from her own. When Sakura finally had the strength to rise and climb into the chair, she found a new tokkuri slid across the table and now placed in front of her.

"Drink up," Tsunade ordered, "You never should have known about this at all."

"So the two kunoichi who had attacked me… they did it because they didn't want to make the choice?" Even Sakura knew the answer was plain to see, and she wrapped a hand around the bottle, though she did not lift it to her lips.

"I guess the intel was half-correct after all. Some kunoichi's have been condemning you as the party responsible for the lingering war that prevented them from being able to keep their pregnancies a secret, when they should instead be splitting the blame between Akatsuki and their village council."

Of course. No matter how skilled a kunoichi was, it would be impossible to maintain a genjutsu to conceal their pregnant state and still remain an efficient combatant, especially against someone as powerful as Madara.

"Sakura," Tsunade tapped her fingers on the table, "Do you want to know the real reason why I assigned you to the Kazekage?"

The kunoichi's fingers wrapped a little too tightly on the tokkuri, and it shattered under her grip, spilling sake all across the surface and dribbling down the edge of the table. She winced at her mistake, and Tsunade only sighed before sliding her a new bottle.

She waited for Sakura to take a small sip of sake, watched her as she smacked her lips against the burn going down the throat, then asked abruptly, "How old was the Kazekage when he claimed his title?"

"Fourteen?" Sakura guessed, searching her brain for that bit of knowledge as she tried to remember the date when Tsunade sent her out scrambling to find something both extravagant and not too expensive (alright, cheap) to send as a token of Konoha's regard. In the end, after much deliberation and her utter failure to come up with an appropriate gift by sunset, Sakura managed to convince her mentor that a congratulatory note penned by her own hand and the offer of a meal at Konoha's nicest dining establishment whenever the Kazekage should arrive in town was the best option they had; Gaara had yet to take her up on the latter.

Tsunade nodded. "Yes. The youngest Kazekage ever crowned. As a matter of fact, he was the youngest Kage ever crowned, period.

"For his entire life, Gaara's sole purpose was to exist as the Ultimate Weapon for his village; a living blade sent out to snuff out lives before he could even understand the value of it. If it had not been for Naruto reaching out to his humanity, Gaara would have never found the strength to become more than what his village had demanded of him.

"He went from a Jinchuuriki to becoming a Kazekage that still hosted Shukaku. The burden of being the man responsible for an entire shinobi village's smooth running and well-being, combined with the mental demands of staying sane under the influence of an uncooperative Bijuu… I honestly had not expected him to last so long as a Kage.

"It probably helped that Shukaku was eventually taken from him, though we almost lost him to that tragedy. But he had to re-learn his powers. Or, as you just told me as much, he had to awaken his kekkei genkai and master it. Most shinobi don't come into their bloodline's unique abilities so late in life, and it must have taken him a great deal of effort to regain his command of sand once more.

"And now our young Kazekage has been made the field general to an army of eighty thousand shinobi. We needed his charisma and optimism to lead. However, while we all signed off collectively on any deployments, Gaara was the one who had to issue the orders. Each time he did so, he was effectively commanding our shinobi to surrender their lives to our cause."

Tsunade's eyes now reflected a sadness that Sakura only ever saw when she was too deep in the bottles and ended up slipping into an alcohol-induced depression, though she was certain that Tsunade had not drunk enough for that to be the cause of her appearance.

"You both kept each other sane in these especially trying times, Sakura. I gave you someone to take care of, and in turn, you were someone important to Naruto that I knew Gaara would consider his top priority to protect. I wanted your presence to distract him from the daily horrors of his duties. And don't give me that look! I've known you to go rushing into danger without considering the outcome." Then Tsunade smirked, her action causing Sakura to swallow her readied retort nervously before she resumed, "I never thought that you'd end up in a relationship with him, of course. I could not have planned for a better distraction even if I tried."

And, as if suddenly recalling an extremely funny joke, Tsunade bit back a bark of laughter that promised more humiliation for her apprentice as she threw her a cheeky wink, and chimed out, "He referred to you as his 'intended' in front of the other Kage's. That boy has it bad for you, Sakura. But then again, I expect nothing less from someone so young and yet so responsible. He's going to make an honest woman out of you before the war ends!"

Oh, stars.

Whether he had planned to do so or not, Gaara did indeed broadcast his plans for Sakura to his fellow Kage's. He was not so much staking an open claim on her, but instead informing the other Kage's that she was to be treated as they would a spouse of a Kage. Sakura's rank in the eyes of the Kage's had risen since Tsunade named both Shizune and her co-regents in case anything should happen to her, but it was a private matter known only to the Kage's. The declaration would only be presented to the Daimyo's after the dust of war had settled to avoid drawing attention to the Hokage's two apprentices on the battlefield.

As the pieces of information finally came together for her, Sakura had to resist the urge to smack her forehead; that she had been named both the Hokage candidate and future Kazehime.

In essence, she was the woman with the most political reach in the Five Hidden Villages as of right now.

"I never thought of becoming a Kage," Sakura confessed at last. There was no need to mention the Kazehime part; the blush on her face gave her thoughts on that matter away.

"Good. There's too much paperwork, too many scheming minds, and not enough time to drink," Tsunade huffed indignantly as she tipped the rest of the bottle down her throat. Wiping her mouth with the back of her hand, she resumed, "I suppose the question now is if you're willing to accept the burden of the other title. And if you never were, I am going to have to smack you for even getting involved with Gaara to begin with, knowing that is where it would lead. Between his duty to Sunagakure and the shinobi world, a partner that can share in his burden will be a welcomed change for once."

"The power a Kage possesses…" She could not imagine being able to command others to lay down their lives for her. And if Gaara was sincere in wanting to change the laws so that she would rule by his side instead of being treated like a trophy wife, she would be expected to harden her heart and choose duty to the village above all else.

"What? You don't already have enough power over life and death in your everyday work? Just think of this as the same thing, but on a larger scale."

If only it was so simple.

The blonde Hokage sighed, "At least you are more prepared for it then I ever was, Sakura. It seems like I've inadvertently trained you for the job all these years. I never wanted to be a Hokage, and our village's sake budget shows it."

There was a blush on Sakura's face now, and Tsunade thought it was the result of the alcohol her apprentice had consumed. It was something else, though.

"Shishou, you're not taking bets on my matrimonial future, are you?" The accusatory tone in Sakura's voice was tinged with annoyance.

"You know what my luck is like, Sakura. I would never bet on that," Tsunade's smile then turned devious, "However, I did bet that our boy king would become a man during the war. But! I swear when I placed that bet, I didn't know he would be dating you!"

Great. She was never getting laid until after the war, then.


Gaara had neither ranted nor raised his voice at Baki the entire time, but the way his shoulders squared as he addressed his former teacher-turned-advisor in a deceptively soft voice hinted to the older man that his temper was running short, and that it would not be wise to test him.

That was how the jonin had ended up in the desert in the middle of the night with Gaara, the ANBU team assigned to him having been chased off by a cloud of sand and kept at bay a great distance away while the redhead wove and slipped from one kata to the next. Baki sat on a sandy dune about fifty metres or so away from his Kage, watching him go through the forms that his taijutsu master had drilled into him.

Four days. It had been four days since Sakura moved out of their tent.

Four days. Not years, Gaara scolded himself, furious at the turbulent state of his mind.

As the Regimental Commander, he could not afford to be distracted from his responsibilities. And yet here he was, completely unsettled by the confusing emotions stirred up in him by one single kunoichi. Between his duties he had tried meditation, hoping that it would work to quell the storm inside of him; it had been his most effective weapon against Shukaku's taunts and demands for blood offerings.

It did not work. Not this time.

It was alarming.

It was ridiculous.

It was all because of Haruno Sakura.

She had asked for time, and Gaara understood the reason for that request. Time apart for regrouping and assessments allowed his councilmen to return to the table with cooler heads and properly chastised manners - usually to his advantage. Gaara himself had mastered the facade of possessing infinite patience, and combined with his murderous past, those around him tended not to try his temper.

Basically, he learnt that serenely telling his subjects to regroup at a later date usually led to them coming to an agreement with him. That had been his hope when Sakura had asked for it from him. It called for patience on his part, and it was somewhat becoming scarce as of late.

And now, at every single turn, it would seem as if everyone wanted to see who would be the first to make him snap. His ANBU seemed to linger a little too close these days, one of Kankurou's puppets had developed a squeak in one of its joints that the puppet master appeared to be completely oblivious towards, a few kunoichi's had attempted to reach out and physically touch him (quite forgetting about his sand - they wouldn't be forgetting anytime soon now) and the delivery of scrolls from a Suna chunin this evening pertaining to village matters all added up to grinding him down into needing a physical release of sorts before he actually lashed out at someone.

He had swept out of his tent, his ANBU falling into step behind him - all without actually coming into his line of sight, of course - and was contemplating taking to the training grounds to work up a sweat when he paused. Not just because Baki had come up to intercept him with a concerned look, but because he suddenly recalled how cross he would make Sakura if he ended up expending all his chakra on destroying army property.

At that moment, he knew that he had been completely bewitched by her.

And that realisation left him in a bitter snarl directed at no one in particular as he continued striding towards the camp gates. Baki took off after him in a jog, waving the ANBU team back as he did so.

"Kazekage-sama, I must ask where you are headed," Baki kept his tone neutral and polite as he caught up to him.

The startling luminosity of Gaara's eyes, especially at night, gave Baki a moment of pause. Many have commented about the uniqueness of the Fifth Kazekage's eyes even as an infant; they were a shade of jade-green that was rarely seen, and the fact that his pupils blended in with his irises gave him an ethereal look that would have made him a heartthrob from a tender age, had it not been for the Bijuu inside of him chasing his admirers away. At night, those eyes became even more striking, reflecting back the moonlight in an almost cat-like manner, though the intensity of the brightness seemed to have faded with Shukaku's departure. Still, they shone with the stoking of the fire within the redhead, and Gaara's tight-lipped grimace added up to him looking thunderously stern.

The redhead stopped in his steps so suddenly that Baki ended up walking ahead of him before he quickly doubled back. The expression on Gaara's face would come off as an angry one to anyone else, but Baki had known this boy for almost his entire life - the hint of anguish in the knot of his brows and the mild furrowing that was hinted at in the pinch of the kanji on his forehead belied the turmoil within him. Baki stood just outside of Gaara's personal space and tipped his head, silently waiting for Gaara to speak.

"I need to breathe."

The jonin recalled that same look on Gaara's face from three years ago. It had been shortly after the Konoha shinobi left after their successful rescue of the Kazekage, and both civilians and shinobi of Sunagakure alike were still a bundle of nerves. Their young Kage had been given a clean bill of health, and for all outward appearances was completely unaffected by his ordeal.

It was on the third night after Naruto's departure that a member of Gaara's ANBU reported to Baki that the Kazekage had vanished, almost giving the jonin a heart attack at the prospect of losing his charge once more. Baki and Gaara's siblings went into panic mode, quickly summoning the entire ANBU to the Kazekage's office to convene before they embarked on a search for their Kage, when one of the windows to the Kazekage's office cracked open.

A sand shield was thrown up in time to rebuff the barrage of kunai and shuriken thrown at the intruder from the window, and when it was lowered, the stony countenance of the Kazekage - attired in only his sleep clothes - was visible for all to see.

Temari had tackled him with a bearhug that almost knocked him back out the window, and between her scolding words and Kankurou's grousing of him scaring them all silly, Gaara had only one thing to say:

"I needed to breathe."

No one in the room had an answer to that confession, though Baki had waited until everyone left to mention quietly to Gaara that he would always be there to lend a ear.

Much like now.

"Shall we head to the desert, Kazekage-sama?"

The only answer he received was a nod, the blood-red shock of hair on Gaara's head shielding his eyes briefly.

That was how the two of them ended up on a sand platform, traversing across the forest crossing into drier lands, eventually ending up at a stretch of sandy desert as far as the eye could see. Gaara kept the pace of their travel modulated such that he did not risk leaving his ANBU behind entirely, instead pressing them into a good chase to keep up with him; The last thing he needed was to get another telling-off from the Supreme Leader for ditching his guards once again.

The redhead was into his sixth set of katas when he finally detected the chakra signatures of his ANBU team closing in, and that was when he sent a small cloud of sand in their direction to ward them off from coming any closer. In his mind, the fact that Baki was there to witness his turmoil was shameful enough.

It was about five hours later when Gaara finally dropped heavily onto the sand, his robe having been stripped and tossed aside two hours ago and his clothes completely soaked in his exertions. Baki watched as his charge allowed himself to fall over backwards, arms spread-eagle as he gazed skywards, chest rising and falling with greedy gulps of air.

Gaara did not refuse the small canteen of water that Baki handed to him as he approached. He reached up to accept the canteen, unscrewed the cap, and dumped its contents into his open mouth. He finished about half its contents before holding it back out to Baki, a hand coming up to wipe away the water that had spilt out the corners of his mouth.

Tucking the canteen back into his pouch, Baki sat down cross-legged on the sand next to Gaara's head and waited for him to speak.

The manner in which the Kazekage's chest slowed in its rise and fall, and the quieting of his once-winded gasps almost convinced Baki that Gaara had fallen asleep, and for one moment, he wondered how he was going to get the young man home.

"Baki," Gaara's voice was slightly cracked from his exertions, "I'm glad you're no longer part of the council."

This was a decision that they both came to soon after he was saved from Akatsuki. The fact that his councilmen fought amongst themselves, trying to argue if they should try to rescue him or shove Kankurou under his hat instead - it made Gaara realise how little his life meant to over half of his council. Utilising an older law once invoked by the Second Kazekage, Gaara named Baki his personal advisor. The Second Kazekage was an only child who came to power in his teens, and to avoid political instability should he die without an heir, the presence of a trusted advisor meant someone to rule in his stead until a successor was found (it still had to be someone from the Kazekage's bloodline, naturally). Fortunately, his ancestor went on to have two children of his own, but he kept a personal advisor still.

In this case, Baki's role placed him just below Kankurou in the order of succession, and made him one of the most powerful political figures in Sunagakure. Baki had argued against the bestowing of this title, insisting that he would serve better arguing for the Kazekage's case against the rest of his council as he always did.

"Half of those stubborn councilmen will now see you as an outsider. They cannot attempt to shame you into siding with them, and will instead see you as a figure above them whom they will have to persuade instead of bully. You will become the shield between me and the council's words, a neutral party who must be convinced of the council's wisdom before their petitions can be heard by me," Gaara had reasoned, "You will not be a popular man with the Suna council should you bear this title, but you will have my utmost trust in all matters pertaining to my title and my life. Do you accept this, Baki?"

When the Kazekage put it that way, how could he refuse?

And if Gaara was making reference to the council at this moment, it could only mean one thing…

"I had no idea how far the village councils would dare go behind the five Kage's backs. When you told me of their plans for Sakura-san, I could not believe I was once sitting at the same table as them, not knowing if I was plotting against you for the good of Suna, or just plotting against you, period." Of course Baki had been privy to the councils' plans to swap kekkei genkai's, the silence of his lips something that Gaara knew he could count on.

Baki chanced another glance in Gaara's direction, and saw that the redhead was now staring at the stars unblinkingly. Gaara sighed quietly as he curled one hand around the sand beneath him, lifting it up to watch the breeze carry small grains away. The rest of the sand pile in his hand swirled and danced in odd, stuttering movements, almost like a restless heartbeat. It was always mesmerising to watch how sand would react to the Kazekage's emotions, from the uncontrolled violence of it all as a child, to the gentle, flowing movements of it as he gained mastery over himself.

"I cannot blame her for being upset, though I have done nothing that would compromise her." There was a rush of blood to Gaara's cheeks that Baki failed to detect, thanks to the pinkness of his skin from his workout. It took the older man several moments to understand what his charge was implying, and Baki could not help lifting his eyebrows in surprise.

"I don't think… that'd be the issue at hand, Kazekage-sama," Baki muttered as respectfully as he could even as images of his Kage holding a certain pink-haired kunoichi indecently close flashed in his mind's eye.

"Then, what is?"

He sounded so lost.

Baki tipped his head forward slightly so that he was able to look Gaara in the eyes, and that forced the young man to sit up on his elbows before turning to face him.

"Sakura-san is an extremely capable medic-nin, and from the stories that I have heard of her on the battlefield, she is an incredibly powerful kunoichi as well. If the war had not occurred, it is safe to assume that she would most likely end up an exceptional healer like her mentor, the Hokage, and either lead the medic corps of her village or become a civilian medical director.

"The kunoichi's of Suna, though… Those who wish to become the Kazehime someday understand that they will need to give up their years of training to become a suitable consort to the Kazekage. I did not know your mother very well, Kazekage-sama, but I knew from her mission records that she had been an outstanding jonin. In marrying your father, she knew that she would have to give up her career as a kunoichi, as would any Kazehime. We sometimes do very strange things in Suna.

"You have grown much as both a man and a leader, Gaara-sama. And I'd like to think I raised you a little better than for you to ask Sakura-san to throw away everything that she had worked towards for the title of Kazehime," at this, Baki's lips quirked into a grin, and Gaara met him with an even scowl. "I assume she's going to resume her medic-nin post even if you take her as your wife?"

"She has too much potential, too much gift. It will be a real shame, both for her and for me, to ask that of her. I will not hide her away. Should she accept my suit to its natural conclusion, I want her as my equal, both in power and in the laws." He could feel his heart squeeze in sweet anticipation of having her by his side for the rest of time, as someone to walk abreast with and not ahead of. A woman who knew her worth and had challenged him to exceed his own even when they were mere genin, so that they could both grow into greater versions of themselves.

"Then perhaps it is the responsibility that she is concerned with. Sakura-san had trained under Hokage-sama for almost six years, and she has seen the obligations of that title first-hand. She must have seen her Hokage struggle against their own council, and had never hoped to be in the same position. For her to see all five councils undermining their Kage's so blatantly, and the plans that our own council had for her…"

Gaara pondered his former teacher's words in silence. Maybe he had been the selfish one, asking for Sakura to not only rule beside him, but had effectively asked her to turn against her own village as well, thereby asking her to split her loyalties into two. After all, she would have to renounce her citizenship as a Konoha-nin to become the Kazehime, and she would find herself in a foreign land with few familiar faces and even few allies. And to know that his council had plotted against her for their own enrichment - anxiety did not even begin to describe how she must have felt.

"Did I ask too much of her?" Gaara finally ventured, his breath held as he waited anxiously for Baki to answer.

"She is the apprentice of a Sannin, isn't she?" Baki's reply came out more as a statement than a question. "The weight of her duties would have broken her, if she did not have the mental or physical aptitude for it."

Gaara rose to a stand, and that was Baki's cue to do the same as well. The older man's brief observation of his Kage led him to realise that he had grown considerably over the war; not only was Gaara taller, his torso seemed broader and more muscular than before, having kept up his strict daily regime of training in-between his responsibilities.

"So, time is what she needs," Gaara concluded, somewhat nonplussed by the fact that this entire conversation had been a long roundabout way leading back to exactly what Sakura had asked for. "When one doesn't sleep, time seems to take forever to pass."

"Patience."

That was the advice that Baki had given him on the rare occasions that the young Kazekage ever felt the urge to bury his councilmen in sand, and that advice worked as well now as then.

"Very well," he heaved a soft sigh, "For her, I will be."