Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto, or anything associated with it whatsoever. Alas, and woe.
Journey Through Night
Sakura vaulted across the expanse of the cavern floor, nimbly leaping from one scant patch of open, ancient rock to another. What had been an undisturbed, hidden ecosystem beneath the sand was now littered with corpses in various states of dismemberment, the fluids from burst circulatory systems and organs gathering into rivulets and trickling into low lying depressions to swirl into growing scarlet pools, complete with a topping of foam.
The medic landed lightly beside the hunched over form of the jounin, sharp eyes flicking over her shaking frame and that tight grip of her fingers on the metal of her fan, evaluating, before feeling her hackles rise in indignation.
All that work I did healing you and this is what you do?! Sakura allowed herself the luxury of gritting her teeth. You're as bad as Naruto…
"Temari, please go over to where Matsuri and Sari are." She silently congratulated herself on maintaining a neutral tone despite, now that the threat had passed, feeling incredibly pissed off.
"Why is that?" The blonde didn't even lift her head.
"Because I want my patients in one location," she ground out passed chapped lips. 'Cause I SAID SO.
The jounin through her head back and laughed, causing congealing blood to collect in her smile lines. She turned weakly to look at the medic, blue eyes sparkling. "Oh, so there's your spine. I was wondering where it went."
Sakura gaped in disbelief as the blonde pivoted on one wobbly leg to walk towards the genin. She closed her jaw with a click while fighting the urge to simply grab Temari by one of her ponytails and haul her over to the entrance at a faster pace.
No international incidents. Almost done. No international incidents.
Corridor after corridor passed in his peripheral vision, the tunnels and passageways he had examined for telling idiosyncrasies now simply blended together. What had once been plainly unique and memorable rock surface became monotonous. They fact that many torches had gone out wasn't helping anything.
Their squad raced through the maze, one of Gaara's clones leading while the other guarded the rear. Even with everything else on his mind, Kiba couldn't help but notice the way the clones flowed in a rush of grainy sand through the tunnels rather than ran was just creepy.
The clones had only gone so far as to reassure the shinobi that all the other members of the joint mission where alive and waiting in a cavern near one of the many exits to the surface. He was so done with this cave.
And what had they wanted with Sakura? He inhaled deeply, his lungs expanded and reminding of just how sweat soaked his clothes were, too well-trained to not maintain his guard as he considered what the sick excuse for a leader had told them. That made no sense. None. He obviously wasn't worried about patching up his canon fodder. So he didn't want her medical knowledge. And there was nothing to suggest he could manipulate or force Sakura to cooperate with him in any capacity anyway. They probably intended to torture her, but why Sakura specifically? She had no connection to the Gold nin unless it was spite for her part in rescuing Suna, but that applied to them all.
Akamaru huffed faintly from his possession bounding along beside him, the dog's way of asking what was bothering his partner. Kiba snorted lightly in response, telling the canine not to mind. He guessed the Kazekage would get that answer for them. No, he knew that. When somebody was intense as the Kage, they could fixate like nobody's business.
The increasingly dense acrid and musty odor of filth and rot, combined with the hot and coppery smell of blood told him about the approaching battle site before the team actually rushed into the large cave and its carpet of fresh corpses. He looked around the swirling silhouette of the lead Sand Clone, revealing fangs as she smiled brightly at the site at the far end of scene. His teammates called out.
The trip over the sand was almost surreally calm compared to frenetic violence and sensory overload that accompanied a life or death confrontation. The biochemical whiplash that accompanied the sudden change from boredom to mind-numbing adrenal overload to near boredom was well-known and well-documented, but a thorough study of the phenomenon wasn't enough to complete override it's effects.
Sakura concentrated on the flow of chakra circulating under her hands as her monitored Matsuri's convalescence, keeling beside her laid out patient. The genin was out still completely unconscious, her pulse was firm and steady, though her breathing somewhat short, the remaining damage within in her abdomen painful enough to restrict the expansion of her torso upon inhalation.
Healing where she had applied emergency treatment was already starting, the tissue that has been torn and ripped was knitting cleanly, the skin, muscle, and connective tissues smoothly meet its other half and renewed previous connections as though the damage had been little more than inconvenient knick or paper cut. Still, the genin was in desperate need of a fluid IV. If she regained consciousness before their arrival in Suna, she'd be certain to have her drink from one of their canteens.
Sakura let part of her attention drift to the cool night air that lightly tossed the sweat and dust matted chunks of hair around her neck. She breathed the cool, clean desert air in through her nose and enjoyed the feeling of the fresh air after the thick rot and decay of the cave. Of course that wouldn't have been possible if Gaara didn't have his flawless control over the sands.
The Kazekage their entire group held perfectly level and without even the slightest sign of vibration, the individual grains of sand making up the platform he had created were held in perfect placement by the micron width coils of chakra. The grit and dust yielded beneath her and Matsuri's weight like a firm mattress while the shield he had created around the group kept the wind the blew between their transport and the stars from moving so much as single grain.
She let her attention drift the coils of chakra drifting from her palms and finger tips to over towards Temari. The jounin was lying on her back with her fan lying at her side. She had dropped her guard completely and was dozing, her system insisting on sleep to speed the healing process.
She moved her senses over to Gaara. Her chakra tapped up against the immense reservoir of the jinchurriki. He had suffused even his robes with chakra, she could feel the fabric move ever so slightly by feeling around the edges of the chakra.
She moved her senses back toward Matsuri. She wondered what awaited them over the wastes back in the canyon city of Suna.
Kiba knew he was smiling like an idiot and he couldn't have cared less. The sand mobile the Kazekage had conjured up was rising like an elevator up the sides of city wall towards what he guessed was all of that active duty shinobi Suna had left.
The blank, featureless tan of the wall gave way to the slightly more colorful, but still mostly brown 'cause of the uniforms, welcoming committee. At the front of the crowd was Baki, who's professionalism couldn't completely mask his anxiety as he made sure all are accounted for and took in the condition of Matsuri and Temari.
A kunoichi with face paint rushed forward, and to Kiba's surprise, pulled out several rolls of fabric. They hospitals and medics had been reduced to using paper to back wounds due to the fabric shortage for a while. How was she using giant rolls of fabric?
"Haruno-san!" The kunoichi called out before starting a jutsu to send the fabric unfurling through the air with an audible flap as it curved towards where Matsuri lay under Sakura's care.
Kankuro's voice came from his spot beside Temari. "Maki, where did you get that much fabric?"
The kunoichi smiled slightly through her focus. "We recently received a shipment of high grade fabrics as a gift from the Hyuuga clan of Konoha."
Kiba turned and looked back toward Neji, who had placed himself between the injured kunoichi to observe them and defend them if necessary, go wide-eyed.
Kiba smirked at him as he watched Matsuri gently lifted into the air on a stretcher that layered itself into mid air with chakra stiffened fabric, and Temari rise determinedly to her feet, using her fan as support, while telling off Kankuro in a gruff huff as he tried to help her. Neji briefly traded a look with Sakura as she rose to her blood flecked feet, silently asking if she was well, before the medic gave the jounin a nod and they followed the stretcher to the wall, Sakura accepting a hand from Baki as she stepped from the platform of sand.
Seemed everything would, despite how totally bizarre this mission had gone, be okay after all.
Kiba felt a chill shiver up his spine. It was like having an air conditioner blast down the back of leather jacket. He stood in the middle of the freaking desert city, sun blazing on the pavement, and he felt like he was being wrapped with cold air. It was on fault, facing this kind of trouble alone when he could have waited for back up.
But that's what an angry Aburame could do.
"Am I to understand," Shino drawled, every word wrapped in restrained vengefulness, "that I missed the climax of our operation and was indisposed when my services were most crucial?"
Kiba shrugged his shoulders guiltily. Beside him, Akamaru flattened his ears and whined pitifully.
Shino glared murderously at his teammate; as much as he could with his eyes and most of his face once again hidden by his shades and heavy coat. Yet he practically radiated malice. Kiba imagined wave of hatred waving in the air cartoonishly and struggled to keep his face straight. He did not want Shino vengeful. The bug nin could hold a grudge like nobody's business and could be really inventive with his revenge. He got itchy just thinking about it. Why didn't he have Neji here to share the blame?
"Well, Sakura did her best," Kiba reasoned off-handedly, then kicked himself for shifting the blame to a girl. Yeah, she was a girl that could pulverize boulders with a single blow and save a whole village form an unprecedented jutsu plague, but still!
"I can't believe I succumbed to illness and did not perform my duty to my teammates," Shino growled peevishly.
"Don't be so hard on yourself. You'll get 'em next time, Shino." He flinched mentally at his lame words. Oh kami, somebody kill me. I need Hinata to deal with him when he's like this.
"'I'll get them next time?'" Shino hissed, practically vibrating with fury.
That or his allies were vibrating with anticipation. Bad sign either way. He had to think fast.
Kiba absent-mindedly scratched Akamaru behind the ears, shifting his shoulder awkwardly beneath his jacket, trying to appear nonchalant, and watched Shino out of the corner of his eye.
"Well, next time I'll have a near extinct kekki genkai land me in the hospital and have Sakura-chan strip me naked and run her hands all over me."
Shino stilled, a blush visible under his glasses.
Kiba smiled, his hands in his pants pockets. His dark eyes drifted as he became lost in thought. Sakura. Her long, toned legs that went on forever. How good she looked walking away in those skin tight shorts she wore.
"All over me."
"What?! Really?! How can you not remember me?"
Sari looked aghast, her dark eyes and mouth comically wide as she stared at Matsuri, who looked back at her apologetically, giving her best puppy dog eyes, which didn't work.
Matsuri smiled weakly at the other genin, fidgeting a bit, making her aware again of the patch across her stomach that kept her stitches waterproofed. She hoped to get them out soon. It was an unpleasant reminder of her time in the cave. She felt embarrassed around Gaara-sensei still. Being caught and used as bait was so humiliating. She wanted to bury her face in her hands and hide whenever she thought about it.
Sari had come around to her room after Sakura had given clearance for her to receive visitors. Sari had bounced in with a giant smile and started chattering away, promising to see Matsuri as soon as she was discharged. Matsuri had smiled and nodded her way through the enthusiastic chatter, not having a clue what has happening. She didn't think the other girl actually knew her.
The taller Sari pulled herself to her full height and leaned over Matsuri, and the shorter genin tried not to look away. She was still slightly tired mentally. She wasn't quite up to dealing with forgetting someone to their face.
"You and I grew up together!" Sari insisted, throwing her hands up in the air, making her long her flop up as far as her bandana would allow. "I told Sakura-san about us! She's going to think I'm a liar!"
Matsuri fought the urge to run her finger along the the hitai-itae around her neck. "Sorry?" She tried weakly.
"Sorry?!" Sari flung her hands up again, before putting them back on her hips just under her flak jacket. "Okay, fine! I'm just going to have to make you remember me."
Sari looked around, evaluating where they stood. The paving stones outside of the hospital was not a good place to jog the other genin's memory. People were kinda staring as it was. Well, because Matsuri was the Kazekage-sama's student and Sari was still Sakura-san's assistant, people would be looking at them because of that. They always looked 'cause of that. Dumb.
Sari grabbed Matsuri by her gloved hand and began pulling the surprised girl along beyond her, the shorter genin stumbling at the sudden imbalance and taller girl's longer strides. "Let's go find a place to talk until you remember." She confidently weaved between the remaining patients and legion of genin assigned to help with the discharge paperwork. "There's a cafe near her that I like. Let's get some food."
Oh, now what am I dealing with?
"So I said to the guy, "If you try and say one more thing I'm gonna break off your di-"
"Hello! Anko-san! Shizune-san!"
Anko paused mid story and she and Shizune looked up from their lunches as Yamanaka Ino walked over them, waving a gloved hand in greeting.
The sun was a brilliant yellow high in blue sky dotted with puffy white clouds. The light that came through to the tables was dappled with light blue from the translucent leaves of the shade trees. The flickering light danced of the white-blond hair of the Yamanka as the tree branches swayed in the breeze.
Ino made herself comfortable on a bench across from the two older kunoichi, taking care to fold the purple folds of her dress beneath her.
"Dad said Sakura's unit was coming back soon?" Ino asked, blue eyes lit with excitement as she leaned forward on her elbows. "I can't get word through other channels yet but since he said so…" Ino drawled off, holding her lipsticked lips in a 'o'.
Shizune nodded as she took a small bite of her rice ball while Anko all but threw her tea down the back of her throat.
"Two weeks." Shizune confirmed, having already confirmed the departure date with Neji.
"Memo's going out to change their status and get the paperwork ready." Anko chewed on her dango stick. "Glad it's not me filling them out."
Shizune briefly milled over in her head once again what Sakura and Neiji had sent ahead. After the battle with the remnants Gold-nin, a revelation that had shocked both herself and Tsunade, Sakura and the rest of Neiji's squad had written as much as they could while being succinct and putting their time into helping with Suna return to full strength.
"Finally! I want to know all about this mission. I hate being out of the loop," Ino said, wiggling her rump on the chair to get comfortable.
Anko took another giant gulp of her tea so she could hide how hard she was rolling her lavender eyes.
"I want to go shopping, too," Ino continued, ignoring the way Shizune delicately took a studious interest in the design engraved into the lacquered wood of a nearby jewelry stall.
"My underwear keeps disappearing from the laundry."
The daylight coming in through the Hokage's window alighted partially on the sheaves of paper on the desk, creating a line of two tones across the desk of light and shadow. Tsunade's geta clacked along the floor of the office as she approached her chair. She collapsed into it ungracefully, amber eyes flicking over to the top of the pile reports. She delicately tap one red fingernail on the wooded desk top, then looked sideways before muttering, "Kakashi, either get in here get away from my window. You're not a freakin' pigeon."
The ends of her blonde pigtails fluttered minutely and the empty space before her desk was occupied the Copy Ninja.
Tsunade continued to lounge tiredly in her chair, waiting for Kakashi to speak. Kakashi maintained his affected slacker posture for a second, then his shoulder shifted beneath his flak jacket into an actual soft stance, his visible eye straightening as he looked seriously at the only person, aside from maybe Shizune, who understood Sakura quite like he did.
"Your staff has done a good job of spreading several versions of what could have been happening in Suna," he said, referring to the rumors and half-backed speculations that Izumo and Kotetsu excelled at spreading. A single night of drunken karaoke did more for Konoha's counter intelligence then weeks of espionage. "Can I hear from you what I should know before Sakura gets back?"
Tsunade had a slight cramp in the front of her brain. She really wasn't in the mood Kakashi's latent guilt over his only remaining student.
"Why Kakashi?" She looked straight at him, the solo figure in the middle of the space of her office. "Fear what might happen emotionally if you ask her yourself?"
She hadn't raised her voice nor given it any inflection, but Kakashi's hackles raised. Tsunade kept her gaze fixed on him, and he deflated.
"The kind of merciless tactics that makes Tsunade-hime feared across the shinobi word."
Tsunade grinned without mirth. She really didn't have room to talk when it come to emotional cowardice; especially fear of losing precious people in the field.
She straightened in her chair and clasped her hands together on her desk. "Sakura was able to deduce the illness was in fact a jutsu that combined the seal work of the school made famous by Chiyo-baa-sama and the last remaining members of a kekki genkai." Tsunade paused to let that sink. "It required digging into the Hyuuga family archives but I don't believe Hyuuga Hiashi will call in that favor on us." She didn't have to say that other members of the clan might. "With Sakura's treatment plan and the destruction of the original source" -she didn't hesitate in her description of the death chakra engine- "recovery was immediate for all those for weren't in systemic organ failure."
Kakashi processed the information without open reaction. "They were after Sakura," he said. "Why?"
For the first time since the talk began, Tsunade's shoulders went rigid beneath her green robes. She grit her teeth, her lips pressing until they were white. The line of light and dark along her desk and floor broke as a flock of birds flew past her window.
"The investigation is ongoing, but!" -she interrupted her top ninja as he inhaled to argue, glaring at him icily- "… They wanted her to get to me." She glared death down at her desk, the only target available. "She was to be taken to be used by someone who wanted leverage over me." Her jaw clicked shut.
"Who?" His one eye was baleful, looking at nothing out in the sky beyond the Hokage.
"Who wants my position so much and hates me so much that they would orchestrate across several nations and several years a chance to capture one of my proteges?"
Kakashi considered for a moment. "Can you prove it?"
Tsunade blinked. "No. Circumstantial evidence at best. The trade routes have been used by Root with full knowledge and approval in the correct channels. Otherwise, no names that can be linked back." She signed and met Kakashi's gaze. "I don't even know if he manipulated the Gold-nin he found after searching for them, or if he got lucky, or if it was simply opportunistic."
Nothing, in other words. Hung suspended in the air.
Kakashi shrugged his shoulders. "When does she get back anyway?"
"Two weeks if nothing happens," Tsunade said, her mood lightening considerably. "The shinobi who were the most recently infected were healthy enough to resume duties almost immediately, slightly longer in the case of those such as Temari-san who had become advanced enough to require ongoing tests to insure the restored function of the kidney and liver."
"The dead?" Kakashi asked.
Tsunade scowled. He couldn't but dig at his own self-loathing from where he felt he failed. He only did this with her. She supposed she had inherited this from Sarutobi.
"The suddenness and breadth of the onset took those who were already ill, elderly, immnocompromised." She said, rubbing the back of neck. "The others were unfortunate enough to be early victims, in an impoverished neighborhood where people were slow to care." She sighed. Suna had recovered economically from the regime of the previous Kage, but longterm insufficient nutrition, overwork, and the other health consequences of those who suffered under failed governments didn't recover nearly as swiftly. Sadly, many of those lost would be unnoticed by the merchants and diplomats Suna needed to keep up it's international reputation. "Those who were healthy or infected at a later date pulled through, though it meant Suna was low on man power for a long duration of the attack."
Her Copy Ninja nodded and Tsunade rested her head on her hand. Among other things, they didn't have to worry about other countries invading and vulnerable Wind Country. Cruel and cold as it was, Suna hadn't lost many of their productive citizens and only a small fraction of their shinobi.
They stayed in a comfortable silence until Kakashi broke the silence. "So, Hokage-sama, tell me, how did my Sakura-chan show off that cleverness?"
Tsunade responded with a smile, beaming proudly. "Pull up a chair." She pulled open a drawer a fished out a bottle of sake which she dropped on her desk with a ceramic thud. "She's going to make you feel stupid."
Birds were chirping merrily as they sent water droplets flying through the air from the ends of their feathered wing tips, bathing with gusto. The smell of water was nice by itself. The signing and splashing got louder as more birds joined the party in the grey stone water bath, a frenzy of sparkling drops and noise chatter.
Sakura watched the birds have a blast with unfocused eyes as she sat on the sun warmed wooden bench, her mind on other things. All the patients that had been targeted by the jutsu had recovered but those who had suffered complications from unrelated causes. She had tried to increase the survival rates of those patients with organ failure. Temari had, fortunately, from a medical perspective, been a typical example of the recovery of healthy people with tainted chakra. That is if those people were stupid enough to remove all their IV's and stress lung tissue that had an O2 tank hooked up to it for an extended length of time by going straight into a protracted battle. If Temari has been a Konoha shinobi she would have bashed on her on the head the moment she cleared her health check.
Sakura had carefully organized and reviewed a new protocol for kidney transplants to address the number of people who suffered renal failure, but whose liver and hearts were normal. Not too many people need partial liver transplants from living relatives. With the hospital operations reorganized, Tetsubin-sensei didn't need a visiting medic's aid anymore.
Now that the majority of those with tainted chakra were on the mend, either fully discharged or as outpatients, she had to have a real talk with Gaara. She couldn't even hide in paperwork if she wanted to since Neji was insisting on handling all of it he possibly could and was glued to his work desk.
She let her mind drift to the feel of the sun on her shoulders so her inner thoughts could drift through her mind.
It they both knew they had duty and careers and shinobi. He found meaning as the protector of Suna and she had her purpose in life medic that had reached levels only a handful of people alive had reached. Normal dates were out of the question, and even if they could, Gaara wasn't ever going to be really normal. What did that mean? Would she move to Suna? Would they be like some nobles and marry but stay in their respective realms? It was weird enough she could think 'marry' and not have her mind-boggle, but she couldn't pretend she could go into this without knowing where it would have to lead, just like Temari had said.
But that was in the future, some ways off. They could even decide they weren't compatible after all. Could Gaara even be the kind of person, emotionally and psychologically? He was still a sleepless jinchurriki after all.
A loud tweet and the birds scattered from the water bath, flying up into the sky above the hospital garden. Sakura blinked and came back into the present. The birds had been startled. Maybe a house cat had wandered by. She sighed. She needed to face the music. She stretched her hands above her head, tilting her pink-haired head left and right to loosen her neck.
Here goes nothing.
Gaara stood by his desk, looking at the diminished stack of papers that he needed to review. Giving part of the load to Kankuro as punishment had been made his work far less tedious. Being spiteful was a somewhat beneficial personality trait. Maybe he would keep his spitefulness at it's current level. It would reduce the number of undesirable habits he had to monitor and retrain himself to avoid. It would be nice if he could pass off emotions like paperwork.
He felt her chakra approaching, and felt the Ichibi dig in to his mind, ready for a fight. It loathed the effect Sakura had on his jailer. Gaara pressed Shukaku back and reorganized his thoughts.
His secretary knocked and announced Sakura, by now knowing that the Kazekage never turned the kunoichi away. Sakura walked in and Gaara caught the slight look the secretary gave the Leaf nin and made a mental note to chastise the man latter. No now had yet challenged the favor he showed Sakura, at least not at a volume they realized he could hear, but he would't tolerate disrespect. Especially not due to politics.
She smiled and came over to stand before him, her eyes not on him, but the stacks of papers. "You go through your paperwork faster than Shishou."
"I gave some of it to Kankuro as punishment, but then decided to keep it that way."
Sakura snorted indelicately, and Gaara looked over at her. What was funny?
"I know you know we received our instructions for the final stages of the mission," she began softly. "I'm no longer needed at the hospital as well. It's all routine medicine now."
Gaara nodded. "Two weeks. That will be sufficient time to finish any lingering requirements regarding your mission. Practical and efficient."
"That's Shishou for you. Or at least Shizune." She smiled again.
She looked Gaara in the eye, two shades of green meeting up. "I don't know when I'll be able to see you again." She paused. "Even if I didn't have to go after Sasuke or be there for Naruto, I'm still not through training with Tsunade-shishou and I don't know where else I'll be assigned or when."
"And I can't guarantee I will be here," he said.
Sakura's eyebrows shot up in surprise. He understood it's cause.
"Temari spoke with me about aspects of balancing romance with the realities of my obligations that I would not recognize on my own," he explained.
He stepped forward and gently took her hand, balancing his attention between the cool feeling of her slender fingers against the warm air of his desert office, the fluttery feeling in his chest, and the Shukaku's angry, rasping scrapes along the front of his skull.
"It seems I will need to become more adept at putting my emotions into words on paper," he said, noting how her hands were different from his own. "I do not know when we will meet again." He looked from the fingers he was holding to her face. "I am going to be busy here. Collected intel from a variety of sources suggest that the Akatsuki are changing the pattern of their operations."
Sakura's expression immediately changed from attentive to concerned and determined.
"There was an attempt on the brother of A within Kumokagure itself," he explained, knowing she would know who he meant. "There has been an odd rash of stolen corpses of notable shinobi, but it is not known how this is related to the goals of the organization."
Sakura's eyebrows meet between her eyes. "I can think of a variety of explanations, many of them will require a concentrated military effort in response."
Gaara nodded one in acknowledgement. "My intuition tells me they will make an attempt on me. If they do not try to lure me from Suna than they will likely attack my citizens to draw me out and place me at disadvantage."
Sakura smiled sadly, her green eyes soft and she looked at Gaara. "We're going to be very busy, aren't we?" she said.
Gaara gave her one of his very small smiles in return, which made Sakura break into a happy, white, toothy grin.
"Hopefully, we can be very busy together."