She had Haruno Sakura to thank for ignoring her health on that time of year when the Five Kage of the five great nations gathered in the Land of Iron. The gathering was a sort of follow-up to the peace treaty they had signed after the war.
And because Sakura chose today of all days to catch the stomach flu, Yamanaka Ino was the second in line as medic nin to take up the job of bodyguard for Uzumaki Naruto along with Nara Shikamaru. Not that Ino had complained when she learned of the sudden changes. In fact, she was a bit excited. It was going to be her first time in the Land of Iron, and having heard of its distinct culture and a climate totally different from the Leaf, she was more than willing to take up the offer, get Naruto's ass on that chair along with the other Kage, and sight-see after everything was done. She had already made a schedule for the visit, and had prepared her outfit for the trip.
Unfortunately, she did not jot down the part where she had to be snowed in inside a mountain cave by an avalanche, with none other than the Kazekage himself, Sabaku no Gaara.
They said luck was what happened when preparation met opportunity. That must mean Ino was just really very unlucky. She was most definitely not prepared for this. And as she looked over her shoulder unseeingly into the darkness and hear the man breathing not a few feet away from her, she could only swallow hard and wait for her eyes to adjust.
It was by pure coincidence that they had bumped into Gaara at the foot of the Three Wolves Mountain with Temari and Kankurou, and it came naturally that they found themselves traveling together through the wind and snow to the Land of Iron. It had been a slow trek, and none of them really minded. Naruto and Gaara had slipped into a silent conversation about the trade between Suna and Konoha, while Temari and Shikamaru had launched into a word battle which Ino thought to be endearing and annoyingly sugary at the same time.
And of course, that left Kankurou to be automatically stuck to Ino. And hadn't the man been disgruntled at finding Ino instead of Sakura? Nonetheless, the puppet master did not drag the disappointment long and was in no time talking to her as he always did when she was dragged by Shikamaru to visit the Sand for 'political and diplomatic purposes', which, if translated, meant a 'date with Temari'.
The samurai had warned them to be careful on their way through the mountains. Because of the later climate changes after the war, avalanches were common in the Three Wolves. And maybe it was really just plain bad luck that one of the rules passed down with the peace treaty was that all ninja were not allowed to use any form of jutsu within the mountain parameter on the day of the Kage Meeting. This was a rule agreed upon by the five nations, thinking that this was a good way of promoting peace and trust between the villages, even if it were just for that day. They were even limited to bringing just one weapon per person. Ino had her trusty ninjato with her.
Too bad a single ninjato wouldn't be able to dig their way out of their snow grave.
When the avalanche came in one rumbling, white wave, their party of six, who had lived in sunny and close-to-smoldering environments, had no idea what to do but scatter like flies. The last thing Ino remembered before she got swallowed up in the sea of freezing snow was a rough hand grabbing her collar, red flaming hair and a one-character kanji that read 'love'. And then everything went painfully cold, painfully dark, and painfully stuffy.
And when she opened her eyes to the darkness of a mountain cave, she had found herself wet, shivering and sprawled over something that was equally wet and shivering, and hard and soft at the same time. Her face was buried against a comforting warmth that smelled like sage and sand. It took her a second to realize that the Kazekage had been the one who had saved her from a cold and untimely death. It had taken her even longer to realize that she was crushing said Kazekage under her weight.
She had apologized profusely, at the same time thanking him for saving her. The man had merely sat up, doing god knows what in the dark, and asked her if she was all right. She had said yes, and that was the last passing words they had in the span of the ten minutes they were in that cave.
That was why Ino practically jumped when he talked again.
"Do you have a flare?"
Ino turned her eyes to the direction of the voice. She could barely make out a vague shadow in the darkness. "I tried lighting one a while ago. They're all wet from the snow, Kazekage-sama."
"Hn," was his reply, then more shuffling.
Ino plunged her shaky hand into her leather satchel containing her supplies and started taking out random objects she couldn't even see. She was cold and everything she had was wet, if not covered in a thin layer of snow and ice. She needed to do something. She knew she should have brought her tinderbox. Serves her right for just thinking about this as some sort of opportunity to go shopping at a foreign land.
But then again, this was a peace treaty follow-up. She wasn't expecting anything of the like to happen.
It's not as if avalanches were a threat to peace or whatever…
She was surprised when something sparked in the corner of her eye, and she gasped when she saw Gaara with his left hand liftied a few inches from his face with… something – spinning so fast that it was emitting an eerie, if not faint, yellow glow bright enough to see each other's faces. Was that… sand? Of course. The friction was probably making the light.
Gaara, who Ino always thought to be quite stoic majority of the time, looked even more emotionless in the shadows cast by his swirling sand.
Ino frowned. "With all due respect, Kazekage-sama, but the treaty states that we aren't supposed to use jutsu within the Three Wolves today."
The movement was so slight but Ino did not miss the narrowing of Gaara's eyes. "It will be our secret, then," he drawled flatly, and he raised their light source as he turned away from her, examining their surroundings. The light was too weak to see anything further than several feet "We're alone here."
Ino looked over her shoulder to eye the wall of snow that had replaced the cave opening. "The others…?"
"They are probably taking shelter somewhere," Gaara said levelly, and he conveniently found a nook on the wall to stick his spinning sand into.
And then he started taking off his clothes.
Ino's hands were instantly over her eyes. "Kazekage-sama!" she shrieked. "Wha-wha-what are you d-doing?"
"Trying to survive."
Ino – damn her womanly urges to watch a hot man undress right in front of her – couldn't help but peek between her fingers nervously. Gaara was down to a pair of plain black boxers and was now neatly trying to arrange his shed clothes on the floor of the cave.
Ino swallowed hard and tried – but failed – in keeping her eyes to herself. Gaara was a sight to behold, for one. For someone who did not look too inclined to physical labor, given that his sand did practically everything for him, he looked… very fit. Well-toned abs, just-right muscled arms and legs. He was pale, and Ino knew it did not have anything to do with the cold, and except for the faint tan line at his neck and wrists where his clothes always covered him, he was like porcelain.
Gaara finished his task in spreading out his clothes, and he turned to her, uttering a single word that nearly sent Ino reeling, "Undress."
Ino's arms were instantly around her. "Err… "
Gaara blinked at her in the dim light, paused, then after a moment he nodded. And the next thing Ino knew they were once again plunged into darkness as their light source faded into a shower of sparkling sand.
Ino bit her lip and fingered her flack jacket, heavy with the snow that had seeped into her clothes and melted with her body heat. Gaara was right. She needed to get out her wet clothes before she froze to death. And god forbid they die on foreign soil.
That would break into international warfare.
Ino groaned. Her dad was going to kill her if she died this way…
She was thankful that Gaara had been gentleman enough to kill the lights for her, but getting butt naked in a cold cave, in the dark, was still not an easy feat, even for a ninja, since she could barely feel her fingers. It took a while, but she managed to peel away the wet layers of clothing off of her and carelessly discard them somewhere to her left. When she was finally down to her underwear, she clumsily felt for her clothes and tried as best she could to spread them out as Gaara did with his. She gasped when she felt something grainy slither over her hand.
"Don't be alarmed. That's just my sand," came Gaara's voice from somewhere to her left.
Ino withdrew her hand from her clothes as she felt them slip out of her grasp, the sand taking over the job for her. She instead wrapped her arms around her, and rubbed her shoulders briskly, trying to bring back warmth to her body.
"Get away from the snow. It's warmer here. Come over," came Gaara's voice again, echoes bouncing across the cave walls.
Ino staggered to her knees, feeling suddenly self-conscious as all her clothes drifted away from her with Gaara's sand. "Come where? I can't see… "
"Follow my voice. I'm here."
Ino pushed herself against the floor and climbed to her feet clumsily, feeling her legs shake beneath her from the cold, and she took a step forward. Her foot snagged against something – probably her satchel – and she let out a yell when she lost her balance. She felt something grab her elbow, and she leaned against it gratefully.
"Are you all right?"
Ino involuntarily took a deep breath when she realized it was none other than Gaara who had helped her regain her balance. His grip was firm, and she suddenly felt self-conscious. "Yes, thank you, Kazekage-sama."
She heard him shift in the dark, and the next thing that happened caught her off-guard. The hand that was gripping her elbow snaked around her bare waist and pulled her against his half-naked form.
"What – !" she tried to protest, but was just too shaken up to free herself as Gaara pulled her down to a sitting position on the cold floor of that cave. One moment, the freezing air was pressing against her naked body, then the next moment she was being enveloped by something noisy and comfortably warm all around her. It was unmistakably Gaara's sand, slithering under her, forming a sort of sand carpet to shield her bottom and feet from the ice-cold cave floor. The sand barrier grazed her bare shoulders, her back, her neck, and for a brief moment she actually forgot that Gaara's arm was still around her waist, and that one side of his unclothed body was pressed flush against hers.
When the sand finally stopped moving, it was then that suddenly made her fully aware of the body pressed against her. Gaara was breathing evenly through his nose, and she could feel that breath against her right ear. Well, this was not new. Sharing body heat was one of the very basic things they learned in survival training class. Surely, it didn't – shouldn't – matter that it was the Kazekage's body heat that she was sharing, though they never were personal acquaintances. But then again, life and death situations like these didn't really care if it was a personal acquaintance you were trapped with in a cave, almost ready to die of frostbite. She was a ninja, after all. And the Kazekage was a ninja, too.
Like, one of the youngest Suna nin to ever become Kage of the Sand, but a warm body was a warm body. And she should be grateful for the sand coat, right?
Ino swallowed hard, thinking of something wise to say at a moment like this. "Your sand is handy, Kazekage-sama."
Gaara's response was quick. "I don't have much dry, usable sand in my gourd, and I can't make any more from the terrain here. It's too wet."
"Do you have enough to blast a hole through the snow to get us out?"
"You mean enough to start another avalanche if we do? Yes, just about enough."
Ino raised her eyebrows at his unseen face. Sarcasm was the lowest form of humor, and she didn't really know the Kazekage had a sense of humor to begin with. She lowered her chin on top of the bit of sand around her neck and was surprised when it shifted obediently to accommodate the shape of her face perfectly. "What should we do, sir?"
"We shall wait for our clothes to dry, and then we move."
Ino nodded. A lever-headed decision. She raised her face up and looked over to her right to where she could sense the air moving, ignoring for a brief moment that Gaara was still breathing against the side of her face. "Judging from the draft, there could be another way out. This cave must extend further inside the mountain."
She felt Gaara nod, and she could feel his nose brush against the side of her cheek. "You are right. Though judging from the echo of our voices, it must be a long tunnel. I'm using a bit of the sand in my gourd to absorb the moisture from our clothes and your flares. It will only take a moment. Then we can move and find the others."
Ino nodded again, and she turned her head away from him. There was nothing to worry about. Naruto and the others, she knew, were as safe as they were right now, and she could bet that they were looking for them this very moment. Sure, she was not used to this new terrain, but she had a lever-headed man who was as resourceful as she had heard he was. There was absolutely nothing to –
"What the – !" she gasped, suddenly jumping from her place, and had she not been surrounded by Gaara's sand, she would have scuttled as far away from him as she could.
"What is it?" Gaara demanded, suddenly alert.
Ino felt her face burn, enough to warm her whole body. "Pardon me for asking, Kazekage-sama. But did you just fondle my ass?"
Gaara let out a strangled noise in the dark, and he could have choked on his own spit. Nevertheless, he replied in a calm voice, "No."
Ino instantly felt ashamed. She had just accused the most powerful man in Suna of sexually harassing her. "I didn't mean to imply that you… I mean… I swear, something just… just… gah!"
"What?" Gaara asked again, this time very wary.
"There it is again!"
Gaara was silent for a while, then said, "Are you implying that I'm a pervert, Yamanaka-san?"
Ino was scandalized. "I wasn't accusing you!" she cried, then followed it with a respectable, "Kazekage-sama." She wasn't accusing him, but she unconsciously brought both her arms around her chest protectively.
"It must be my sand."
Ino stared at the direction from where his voice was coming from, and she was glad that it was so dark, because she did not think she could bear having to look at the man straight in the face with something still groping her bottom. "Your sand, sir? Please tell it to stop."
"Of course," Gaara said, and at that instant, the pressure against her right butt cheek left and she sighed in relief. "My apologies. It moves on its own sometimes."
Ino felt her jaw crack and she suddenly felt very, very unsafe in the toasty confines of the sand barrier, even if it was probably the only thing keeping her from freezing to death at the moment.
She let her face fall on the sand covering knees as she tried to ignore it as it started poking at the sides of her waist. Good thing she wasn't very ticklish, and that was probably the only thing she was grateful for that day.
She tried to ignore Gaara's breath against the side of her face, and pretended this was not happening to her.