Tsunade was looking unusually grave today.
And for that matter, so was Shizune. It wasn't particularly unusual for the woman to look strained and tense, but there was something different today, a nervous edge to her. And, if the way she refused to make eye contact was any indication, Sakura deduced their current moods had something to do with her.
Naruto was there, too, and a sudden explanation hit her with the force of a PMSing rhinoceros. Sasuke's dead.
But Kakashi should have been there too, shouldn't he? They were a team, after all. His soldiers, she recalled. Kakashi would have liked to know that his favorite G.I. Joe had been taken by the Cobra. And his death wouldn't explain Shizune's anxiety. Sakura relaxed.
Her next thought was only slightly less serious. I'm in trouble. But then, that was stupid. She was an obedient student, if not somewhat violent... and as far as she could remember, she and Naruto hadn't teamed up on one of their...village adventures in quite a while.
She also had a sneaking suspicion Tsunade wouldn't care if she ever caught the Dream Team pulling pranks on the villagers. As her shishou said, too much paper work, too little alcohol...or something like that. It was tricky to decipher what Tsunade said when she was totally stone drunk.
So, with both of those possibilities dead, Sakura felt a sudden blast of intuition, and knew the second she walked into Tsunade's office that things, whatever they were, were not going to work out in her favor.
Naruto grinned at her as she took her seat beside him, and muttered out of the corner of his mouth. "Any idea what's going on?"
She uttered back. "Not a clue."
A masked ANBU shut the door behind her, and Sakura was overcome with the mad desire for fight or flight – but that was ridiculous. She was acting like a child who had been caught doing something naughty, and she didn't even know why.
It was a little embarrassing, really.
Naruto impatiently fiddled with the crystal necklace dangling from his neck, and Tsunade's eyes flickered to it briefly before rising to stare the two teenagers down. Naruto was getting agitated, she could tell, and she didn't like to think what would happen to her if he decided to mouth off.
"...Shishou?" She broke the silence tentatively, not really wanting to draw attention to herself. Tsunade looked at her, eyes surprisingly tolerant. "Was there...something you needed?"
Tsunade's gaze immediately softened, and Sakura's sense of foreboding increased. Tsunade was not a touchy-feely kind of person. Something was wrong.
Seated behind her desk with her chin gently resting on interlaced fingers, Tsunade's brow furrowed. She didn't speak for several seconds, apparently gathering what she was going to say. "You recall Sabaku No Gaara?"
Sakura blinked and opened her mouth, but Naruto beat her to the punch. "What's wrong with him?" He demanded, obviously remembering their last encounter with the young Kage.
Tsunade's eyes flickered with annoyance, a small reassurance that some things were still normal. "Nothing's wrong with him," she snapped. "Shut up and let me finish."
Naruto kept quiet, reluctantly. Satisfied, Tsunade continued. "Obviously, you remember his...behavior disorders from your first Chuunin Exam."
What, you mean being fucking insane? Sakura uneasily watched Shizune pick at the bottom of her sleeve.
"You mean being stressed because his village kept trying to kill him? Yeah, I remember." Naruto narrowed his eyes.
Tsunade gave him an appraising look. "And in order to become Kazekage, he had to overcome that stress. Which he eventually did."
For a split second, Tsunade hesitated. Then she collected herself and ploughed on. "We suspect he's regressing."
Sakura and Naruto both leapt to their feet. "But that's not possible!" "Bullshit!"
"Sakura, it's entirely possible. Naruto, shut the hell up."
"But Shishou, Shukaku was removed, there's no way – "
"Gaara worked for years to get where he is, he wouldn't just drop it all!"
"Naruto. Shut. Up. Both of you, sit down."
Naruto and Sakura exchanged glances, Sakura's nervous and Naruto's angry. They slowly returned to their seats. "Who's we?" Naruto ground out.
"Gaara's advisors and I."
Naruto's gaze darkened. "Don't you think you should ask Gaara?"
"Gaara agrees. He's the one who requested this mission."
Dear God. "Mission?" Sakura inquired.
Tsunade handed her a scroll, and Sakura hastily unrolled it. Her eyes darted quickly across the page, and her jaw clenched with determination. "We accept," she said firmly, handing it to Naruto.
"A diplomatic visit to Wave?" Naruto said. "What for?"
"It's more than that," Tsunade said. "More of a...clinical study. Your job is to observe him. Determine whether he's mentally stable. Safe."
Naruto nodded gravely. "All right."
"But the fact remains." Sakura frowned. "Shukaku was removed. How could his state of mind deteriorate if the problem was fixed?"
"Not entirely. As we've – Gaara included – come to suspect, the Akatsuki didn't have time to finish the job."
"A fragment of Shukaku is still inside him."