The next morning, when the sand had subsided and the hot desert sun shone with clarity across the village, a solitary eagle made its way into one of Suna's towers with a message taped to its leg.
This, of course, meant nothing to Sakura, who was much more focused on the fact that the storm had finished, and now she had to deal with the hellish landscape that was Suna in the middle of summer. It was hot, it was blistering hot, and now that the skies were clear, that meant it was time for her to leave and she'd have to leave in the middle of this heat. She had no idea how it was possible for so many shinobi to thrive in this heat, especially considering what they wore. (Gaara's brother, Kankuro, wore long sleeves and all black, was the boy a lunatic?)
With frizzled hair and sweat dripping in places she didn't want to think about, Sakura began her final morning of training on the air conditioner that she had become so familiar with in the past week. She'd known she couldn't stay in Suna forever, but now that it was time to leave, she found herself strangely hesitant. It was nice, being in a safe location, not having to be at the beck and call of Tsunade, not having to run stupid missions to make a living. She felt free. She could study what she wanted, train how she wanted, and nobody could tell her otherwise. Was this how Naruto and Sasuke felt right now? They wouldn't have any responsibilities either, other than getting stronger. (At least, she liked to think Orochimaru wouldn't be sending his 'prized Uchiha' on menial missions...though the thought of him having that conversation with Sasuke was enough to make her giggle.)
Maybe she wasn't gaining strength at the rate of her teammates. She certainly didn't have a Sannin teaching her. But even after just a week of Suna training, she was kicking better, running longer...even her sensing jutsu had expanded a bit in range, useless otherwise as it was. Once she was out on the road again, she'd have to waste time surviving, catching her own meals, figuring out where to go next, and she was not looking forward to those problems.
So right now, it was hot, but she could deal with that, would rather deal with that than the problems that were awaiting her.
It was about a hundred and fifty kicks into her reps that Sakura realized that Gaara was late. It shouldn't have been concerning. Gaara was a Suna shinobi and probably had his own menial tasks and missions to attend to. He couldn't be at her side all the time. But a part of her had gotten used to the silent shinobi's company, and now that he wasn't around, she found herself uneasy. If someone found her kicking an air conditioner, she didn't have the previous Kazekage's son to back her up.
It was even more unnerving once she'd transitioned to her village laps. Where once the locals had looked upon her and Gaara with hatred and scrutiny, now they just...glanced her way and then went back to her business. Did they really fear Gaara more than they did a foreign shinobi?
Well, they'd have been right in that fear, but the principle of the matter still bothered her.
It was on her third lap that her routine was brought to an abrupt halt by the sudden arrival of five Suna shinobi. Gaara was among them, but standing foremost at their head was none other than Temari. For a brief moment, Sakura let her hand fall to the hilt of one of her kunai. The way they had appeared screamed hostility, but there was no way they'd attack a Konoha shinobi in view of the entire village, right? Not without risking it getting out, not without their treaty with Konoha being broken…
"We just got a message that you might be interested in." Temari finally spoke, gently tossing her a small scroll. Sakura caught it, curiously peeking at the contents within.
It was a message from Konoha. A message about her.
Shit, fuck, damn, and piss.
The shinobi known as Sakura Haruno is believed to have defected from our village and joined with the rogue shinobi Orochimaru. Any potential information to her whereabouts will be rewarded, as well as any information regarding our other missing shinobi, Sasuke Uchiha. Your cooperation on this matter is appreciated.
"Imagine my surprise when I read this." Temari commented as Sakura finished. "Last I heard, Orochimaru hasn't been in this village since before our little war at the chunin exams. Want to tell me why you're out here spying for him?"
Spying? That was what they thought? Sakura spoke without thinking, her voice raised into an angry yell. "I'd never do a single damn bit of work for that creep in my life, do you hear me? Orochimaru can rot in hell!"
Temari blinked at her outburst, looking shocked. Well, she had yelled a bit loudly, but it was true. Sakura moved her hand away from her kunai, then held both of her hands up in a gesture of submission. The last thing she wanted was to get killed because of a misconception.
"I haven't defected. I mean, I didn't want to defect." Sakura began to explain. "But Sasuke is currently in Orochimaru's hands, and Naruto is being hunted by the Akatsuki. I couldn't just stand by and do nothing while they're both in danger, but that was exactly what Tsunade wanted me to do. She just assigned me to a different team and kept sending me on mission after stupid, dumb mission." She took a breath, glancing over at Gaara as she spoke. Would he believe her, at least? After their conversation from before, he had to believe her. "I left the village so I could try to learn what I could to help my teammates. I wasn't lying when I told you that. I just...never got permission to leave the village in the first place. And since I didn't want them to come after me, I told them I'd left to join Sasuke and Orochimaru. I figured they wouldn't have expected me to come here, and it looks like they didn't."
"Idiot Leaf brat." Temari rolled her eyes. "You have Gaara to thank for the reason you're still standing. If not for him, this lot would have wanted you dead without a second thought."
Sakura lowered her head. Damn it all, she hadn't thought about how the Sand might react to the knowledge that someone 'working for Orochimaru' had been gathering information in their village. Then again, she hadn't expected Tsunade to contact the Sand about her in the first place. She wasn't a strong shinobi, she wasn't a member of a prominent clan, so why had the Leaf been worried about her to begin with?
Any potential information on her whereabouts will be rewarded…
It wasn't her they cared about, it was where she was. If she had defected and gone to Sasuke, that meant she knew where Sasuke was. Leaf didn't care about her at all, they just care about what knew!
But despite this revelation, there was another she had to consider. Someone had cared enough about her to want her alive, and that someone was Gaara of all people. Her life, it seemed, was currently in his hands.
"I swear, I'm not working for Orochimaru." She reiterated. "I'm only working for myself and my teammates. If you're planning on taking me in, I won't resist. I'm not here to hurt anyone."
Temari's eyes narrowed as she listened to her. Examined her. Probably trying to figure out if she was lying or not. Regardless, it seemed as though Sakura wasn't going to die today, as the shinobi around her appeared to relax slightly at her proclamation.
"This changes things." Temari admitted. "I'm placing you in Gaara's custody until we can decide what to do with you. If you're being honest with us, you'll stay put and won't try anything stupid, alright?"
Sakura simply nodded in agreement. What choice did she have? She couldn't run away now, not with Gaara being the one to look after her. All of her earlier fears melted away as one new fear was brought to the forefront of her mind. If she wasn't killed or imprisoned here in Suna for being a rogue, she was definitely going to get dragged back to Konoha. Her streak of rebellion was nearing its end, and all she'd managed to get out of it was a short trip to Suna and a week of uninterrupted training.
She let herself sigh as Gaara made his way to her side. For all her effort, this was as far as she'd gotten? No wonder her village didn't see her on the same level as her teammates.
"It's hot." She spoke to Gaara. "Can we at least wait at the inn so I'm not burning to death out here?"
Gaara nodded, and the (likely final) trek back to her temporary home began.
"Are you afraid?"
It had been an hour since they'd arrived back at the inn, and the first time Gaara had spoken to her all day. Sakura was initially dismissive of the question.
"I mean, I guess I'm afraid of what Tsunade's going to do to me if you send me back, but I doubt she'll kill me. I'm not important enough to get that harsh of a sentence. She'll probably yell at me and put me on D mission duty for a year."
Gaara shook his head. "No. Not that." He explained. "I meant Orochimaru. And Akatsuki. Aren't you afraid to be facing them alone?"
"Oh." That was a question she hadn't really considered. "Well, of course I am. I'm not nearly strong enough to face them."
"But you still left your village. Alone."
"Yeah." Sakura agreed. "I told you I was an idiot. I'd hoped I'd be too insignificant to even matter to them. They're not looking for me, they want my teammates. I was surprised that my own village even though I was worth making any sort of fuss over."
Silence for a while longer. Sakura fiddled with one of her kunai as she waited. The anticipation was the worst part, wondering what the Sand were going to do with her. But then, Gaara surprised her by speaking again.
"Were you afraid back then, when I came for Sasuke?"
It seemed so distant now, after everything, but even so Sakura could remember the maniacal look on Gaara's face as he barreled towards her, half transformed into hideous beast. "Yes." She admitted. "Of course I was. But I couldn't just do nothing. I couldn't let someone I cared about get hurt by you. Those who abandon their comrades...they're worse than scum." She couldn't help but smile a bit as Kakashi's words rung in her mind. She looked back to Gaara. "But why does it matter to you if I was afraid?"
"It doesn't." Gaara admitted. "What matters is that you moved anyway."
Sakura froze as his words reached her.
What mattered was that she moved anyway.
Of course. Of course.
She stood up, pocketing her kunai and making her way to her backpack. Most of her supplies were still packed, just a few odds and ends things that she had to shove in and she'd be ready to go. She pulled the backpack over her shoulder before turning to face Gaara again.
"Are you going to stop me?" She asked.
"No." Gaara replied.
"You're going to get hell for letting me go. Everyone knows I'm not strong enough to stop you if you were trying."
"I won't." Gaara answered. "Because I'm going to be doing something worse than letting you go."
"Oh?" Sakura frowned in confusion. "And what could you possibly do short of killing someone that's worse than letting a rogue ninja escape your custody?"
"I'm going to come with you."