Author's Notes: School will be the death of me. That is all.
Quote for Chapter 13: "To be trusted is a greater compliment than being loved."—George MacDonald.
Title: Catch 22
Rating: T (or PG-13)
Summary: Sakura isn't weak because she lacks strength. She is weak because they protect her. Sakura-centric
Pairings: None (yet)
Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto.
Spoiler Alert: This chapter contains spoilers from manga chapter 356 and manga chapter 489 of Naruto Shippuden. You have been warned.
Chapter 14: A Greater Compliment
When Kankuro came by the next morning and told her she had the day to get adjusted, she was grateful. She needed to finish unpacking anyway, then there was the matter of grocery shopping and getting all the essentials she hadn't had room in her pack for. When she casually mentioned that she should at least stop by the Kazekage's office to check in with Gaara, the puppet master had spluttered that it wasn't necessary, Gaara knew she was here, and he was the one who had given her the day off…meaning no work (kunoichi or medic or otherwise) at all. None.
So with that said, Sakura unpacked, went shopping, met a few of the locals, ate at a few of the restaurants…did anything she could to make herself more acquainted with the city. The markets pushed copious amounts of sunscreen towards her, but she kindly explained that she had developed a remedy that would temporarily protect her skin from the sun. They were baffled and excited about it, so she offered to make it readily available when she started working at the hospital.
Or rather, if she started working at the hospital. The second day, she learned via a Chuunin she had this day off as well, for reasons the blond brushed aside. There was no need to see the Kazekage and she was free to do whatever she liked. She toured the city some more, made friendly conversation with some of the shinobi, and rearranged the furniture in her new apartment. As a foreign nin, she probably wasn't supposed to be told that there was some fuss in the Kazekage Tower and neither the Kazekage nor the Council had left the premises for days. She had to stop herself from asking what it was about though, because it wasn't her place and it wasn't any of her business.
When the messenger hawk came around the third day telling her she had nothing to do, she toured the hospital unofficially and chatted with the staff. She remembered a few of their faces when she had come here to save Kankuro's life (and a few from when she had spent a few days as a patient here recovering from her interrogation by Akatsuki) but she had forgotten their names by now. She observed them for the day, staying out of the way and not commenting. It was easy to see that her presence made a few of them nervous, even the more experienced ones. They looked over their shoulder at her whilst in the middle of a relatively complicated procedure, and Sakura shook her head at the amateurish move.
She requested to look at employee files and was immediately handed a stack, so she took up a table in the nurses' lounge and spent a good several hours pouring over the information about each and every staff member. They had been trained, but not very well it seemed. Most were still leftover from Gaara's father's rule, which was a time of hardship and the only qualification to be a medic had been to express interest. That was a little troubling, as ones who didn't have the best chakra control were still involved with major surgeries. They had potential, but no one was putting these people where they belonged.
In Konoha, the medics were trained by professionals who had been healing for most of their careers. They were tested for chakra control during the application process, and weren't even allowed practice until they passed tests and read very heavy books. Only after all that was done were they allowed to begin healing, but only on fish and small animals, gradually moving up the food chain until eventually they made it to people. Though Sakura's training had been quite different since she had been directly under the Hokage. It had been more brutal (especially because she was also improving her skills as a kunoichi at the same time) but she was healing people in under a year whereas it took her peers a lot longer.
She looked at their lists of medical texts they were to study from, and found nothing wrong there. She would possibly have to test them first to figure out where their weaknesses were before she could move forward with the restructuring.
It was getting a bit late (had she really been here that long?) so she decided it was time to leave. The medic passed the greenhouse on her way out, and pleasantly found it just as well stocked as she had a few years ago. That was one thing that needed absolutely no modification at all. The plants were well maintained and there were several hundred species there. More than Konoha had access to on a regular basis. Normally if they didn't have an herb they needed, a D or C-Rank mission was concocted to go get it, something which usually took about a day or two. In Suna, such a mission would take close to a week and by then it would probably be too late. She praised the medics in charge of the greenhouse and made her way towards her apartment.
Apparently word had spread about her visit, because people greeted her left and right on the street. They really were very friendly here, even when they were making their way inside to escape the oncoming cold. It was a little annoying how during days Sakura spent her time in a near constant sweat and during the nights she had to throw an extra blanket on the bed because of the icy temperatures. It was a wonder no one in Suna went insane just from the obscure weather patterns.
She ate out, having a rather lovely (if spicy) bowl of curry, before heading out again. She wrapped her arms around herself to ward off the chill, making a mental note to fish out her travelling cloak if she was going to have any more nighttime excursions. The Kazekage's Tower was up ahead and…was that his office light still on? If he was still there, now was a good a time as any to talk to him, especially since all the information was still fresh in her head.
Whether he'd want to see her or not was a different story. It was late, he was probably about to head home, and probably didn't want to have this conversation until morning. She bit her lip for a moment while she warred with herself, and then decided she should at least drop by to say hello and to check in.
Thankfully, she met Kankuro in the hallway. He looked tired and a little pale. "Good evening." She greeted. "Is Gaara-sama still in?"
"Yeah…" He started, scratching the back of his head. "But listen Sakura, now may not be the best time."
"Then would you like to tell me what would be a better time?"
The woman narrowed her eyes, a little fed up. "Or would you like to tell me what is going on?" She put her hands on her hips. "Or why I've been put on leave before my mission has started?"
"Gaara's just been in meetings for the past few days, that's all."
Sakura nodded, knowing how long meetings could go, especially if they were with the Council. It appeared the Suna Council was just as infuriating as the one in Konoha. Still, Tsunade was never in meetings for three days straight. Normally she called it to a close by the day's end, saying the Council could decide something amongst themselves or she would decide it for them. Her shishou didn't have the patience for insufferable idiots.
Although if memory served, neither did Gaara, which made the whole situation even more confusing.
"Will they be taking a break shortly, so that I can at least follow protocol and check in?"
"The meeting will likely close in another three or four hours."
"At one in the morning?!" Sakura asked. It was just then she remembered what they had told her when she arrived…that the Council had gone behind Gaara's back. "Is this about me?" She asked. "Are they still arguing about that?"
Kankuro ran his hand over his face in frustration, and she noted amusedly that his face paint didn't smear, and then wondered if he could teach her how he did that so she could use the trick on her mascara. "Unfortunately, yeah. Council hired this idiot who thinks he knows everything. You're a much better person for the job, believe me."
"Shouldn't I be there to defend myself?"
The puppet master smirked. "Gaara's doing a pretty good job of that on his own. Your presence might infuriate them more, since they fly into a tirade anytime they hear your name."
Green eyes rolled, but inside she was feeling a little unwanted. Wasn't she good enough? She was the best…why didn't they think so? Then again, Gaara had wanted her enough that he was willing to fight for four days for this, and the thought of that erased all the pain from the last few seconds and made something warm spread through her.
There was a bit of shifting around her feet, and both she and the Suna nin looked down to see a circle of sand around them. "Looks like Gaara wants us both upstairs. Maybe he wants to get them so angry they'll explode."
"What a horrible thing to say." Sakura said, but she hardly meant it if the grin across her face was anything to go by.
They walked up the stairs and the two guards beside the door stiffened at Sakura's presence. Kankuro didn't even acknowledge them except with a slight nod. He opened the door and Sakura was entirely unprepared for the chaos that lay within.
No…chaos was putting it lightly. It was as if a room full of small children were all trying to talk over each other, if the madness progressed any further there might be hair pulling involved.
Kankuro leaned down towards her. "The left half of the table has been swayed in your favor, the right half is still against it. The asshole in the brown coat is the guy they hired from within the village."
Sakura saw him alright, looking calm as ever even though he'd lost half of his support. That was about the only thought she had time to form before she was noticed and the arguing went up in volume. The man in the brown coat clenched his jaw at her. She looked at him dryly before meeting the gaze of her current employer, and in that moment she too wanted to slaughter everyone at the table.
Gaara looked miserable.
Not in the usual way, though. He sat perfectly composed at one end of the table, seemingly unwilling to lower himself to the shouting match in the room. His hair was combed and his Kage robe was pressed and he looked pristine. He looked fine to anyone who didn't know better, but any medic would see that his skin was a little too pale, his eyes tired and a little bloodshot, his posture just a little bit too tense. He didn't look like he'd really slept or eaten a good meal in days. Her sympathy went out to him, and she knew she had to try her hardest to end this stupid argument as soon as possible.
She walked over to him and bowed a little. "Kazekage-sama." She greeted, and it was a wonder he heard her.
"Anything I can do to assist?"
He paused at that. "Perhaps." He raised his hand in a call for silence, and the room gradually died down. Then he turned to the people who were her opposition. "Make your case." He ordered. Several people began talking at once, but when their Kazekage's eyes narrowed in annoyance they all shut up.
The one sitting closest to him sat up straighter. "We feel that someone within the village should be consulted. As a foreigner, Haruno-san has no working knowledge of our ways and customs and could mess up our system irreparably. She has little experience with these things and is far too young to undertake such a major task. Also, our budget does not have sufficient enough funds to make the changes we feel Haruno-san would require."
At the other end of the table, there was an, "If I may?" before the man in the brown coat—"His name is Cho." Kankuro whispered in her ear—stood. "Haruno-san, while your reputation precedes you, I don't believe that you are qualified enough for this job, as your strengths lie mainly within field medicine. Konoha hospital is impressive, sure, but much of that was put in place by your predecessors. With respect, I have far more experience as I have been involved with medicine for twelve years now. I have intimate knowledge of the hospital's workings, as I have been a major consultant and advisor there for several years." He pulled out a folder. "I have here a business model that would only cost the village a few thousand ryo, which would cover the cost of some new equipment and learning tomes. It involves a training model for the staff, which involves starting them at the basics and then moving them to their areas of strength in order to specialize. This, without question, is the best way to improve the hospital."
When it appeared he was through speaking, all heads swiveled to Sakura to see how she would answer. As it was, the pink haired medic could only stare dryly at the man. She was a little speechless, which is probably why a combination of Inner Sakura and Tsunade's influence caused the first words out of her mouth to be, "What utter bullshit."
No one spoke. In fact, an entire room full of idiots that had been ranting just a few minutes ago didn't look like they knew what to say. The only person who looked calm in the whole scenario was Gaara, who had leaned back in his chair and had folded his arms across his chest comfortably, and possibly even a little haughtily.
The first person to speak was Cho-san, who had been in the process of sitting but froze at her words. "Excuse me?"
"You must be joking, to think you can approach a hospital like a business." She put one hand on her hip.
"My business model is more than able…"
"Your business model should be set on fire. How dare you think you can cut corners with people's lives? You're trying to make this into some state-of-the-art project when it doesn't need to be. If you have even set foot inside of the hospital you would know that they have all the resources they need and then some. And starting the entire staff at square one makes all the training they have done until now pointless. There are experienced professionals there that don't need an anatomy lesson. The basics are covered." She took a breath, staring hard at the idiot standing across from her. "Where it is flawed is that there is a lack of knowledge in the more advanced techniques and medics aren't working in the areas where they show the most potential. You don't need a few thousand ryo to remedy that, money has no place in this equation."
Infuriatingly, Cho-san seemed to think about that before saying, "While I appreciate your input, Haruno-san. Your level of experience suggests—"
"Let me tell you a thing or two about experience." She said, narrowing her eyes and giving him her best Sasuke-glare. "You have twelve years of it but honestly I've never heard of you, and I know several people who are the best in their field. And if you're really that good then where were you when Kankuro was dying of heavy metal poisoning and I had to make a three day trip to save him?" Everyone around her sucked in a breath. "Experience isn't deciding you're going to be a medic and then sitting on your ass for twelve years."
"I beg your—"
"You are no shinobi, sir. You have no right to be teaching medics about injuries sustained in battle and how to heal them. In fact, you're barely a medic if the most you've done is consult."
"Don't speak." Sakura growled. "The most you want from this is the paycheck, because you've done little to no research. I was in there just today and saw a hospital that was in decent working condition and, yes, could use a little work but none of the things your idiotic little plan suggests."
"I told you not to speak. You would know all of these things if you actually had as much experience of the hospital's inner workings as you claim. The most valuable resource here is the potential of the people involved and you, sir, are the only one who doesn't see that." She turned towards the right side of the table, facing the council members. "I was trained by the best medical expert in the world, and I am second only to her. If you had any doubts after hearing that then you should have consulted with your current medics, who have not been told, by the way, that there would be a remodel of the hospital but they are entirely willing to make it better. Ask them and I'm sure they'll vouch for me as you still doubt me because I am from Konoha, but let me remind you that I have worked in your hospital in the past and not only saved Kankuro but was able to defeat Akasuna no Sasori based on an antidote I created during my time there. If you have any questions for me after hearing all that, I would love to hear them." She folded her arms and waited, pinning the five men down with a hard stare.
When there was nothing but a long silence, Gaara sat up again. "If we're all agreed," he addressed everyone. "This meeting is adjourned."
There was silence as everyone silently filed out, as if still trying to comprehend everything and accepting their obvious loss. As soon as the door closed behind them, Kankuro ruffled her hair.
"Damn, Sakura. Tsunade rubbing off on you a little much?"
She smiled. "Probably."
The door opened and Temari walked in. "There are three men crying in the hallway, what did I miss?"
Kankuro grinned. "Tell you all about it on the way home!" And then he looped his arm around Temari's shoulders and led her off down the hallway. The door shut behind them and Sakura looked over to Gaara, who was standing and looked to be equally a mix of amusement and relief.
"Your mission will begin tomorrow, then." He said. "Though your paycheck will include the last three days."
Sakura shook her head. "Don't worry about that, Kazekage-sama, you're paying me more than enough as it is."
He nodded. "You can really remodel the entire hospital without money?"
She nodded back. "The things he was suggesting were just for vanity's sake." She paused. "But the nurses' lounge could use some better coffee, if we're going that route." He smirked at that. "And now for you, Kazekage-sama." She said, facing him seriously. "When was the last time you've slept? Or eaten?"
"I've had many things to attend to in the past few days."
She looked at him sympathetically. "Just because you have to take care of a village doesn't mean you can't take care of yourself." She bit her lip. "Do you have anything else pressing for tonight?" When he shook his head, she added. "Then go home, have a decent meal, and then get at least eight hours of sleep. You look like you could really use it."
"Is that an order?" He asked, quirking an eyebrow.
"There is still much I could do…"
She gave him a look. "I just strong-armed your council into accepting me, Kazekage-sama, I am certainly not afraid to strong-arm you into bed." As soon as the words were out of her mouth, she caught their alternate meaning and felt herself go entirely red. By the look in Gaara's eyes, he'd caught it, too. "By yourself. In your house. Alone. And…damn it…" She put her hand to her face before she said something even worse. "Please get some rest?" It was really a last ditch attempt at this point.
She grinned. "Great! Oh, and I'll make sure to get you a progress report by tomorrow night." He nodded. "Goodnight then, Kazekage-sama."
I received an official letter of complaint this morning from the Suna Council regarding your behavior. They explained to me that you were forceful and rude and basically you bullied them into accepting your ideas, belittling another candidate they thought was just as qualified in the process. I just wanted to write you this letter and tell you that I am so damn proud of you right now and to tell you to keep up the good work, as I know you're going to do great things over there.
P.S. Your team (especially Naruto) send their love. I assume Sai does as well, but it's hard to tell with that boy sometimes.
The night before her first day of duty, Sakura ended up not taking her own advice and stayed up half the night creating a series of questions that would evaluate the hospital staff's skill set. The next morning, she set three times to take the exam and divided the staff up. She used one of the larger meeting rooms as a test taking site, reading through answers from the first shift while the second shift took the exams, and doing the same for the third shift. After everyone had taken it, she took the remaining papers to the nurse's lounge to finish her evaluation.
It was clear that some of the nurses knew more than the doctors, and some of the doctors didn't know anything beyond tiny scrapes. She needed to treat each case on an individual level, because it would do no good to just lump a bunch of people together when they were clearly so different. She spent the majority of the rest of the day and night deciding how she was going to make each one of them better.
Some just needed to be educated a little bit better. Some needed experience. A lot needed practice in chakra control. So she set up a schedule, divided the staff into thirds again based on their weaknesses, and in the morning handed out all of their designations. Twice a week she would teach a class on an advanced topic, and there would be demonstrations and hands-on work involved. Twice a week she would work on chakra control in one of the nearby practice fields. Fridays would be testing days, where the staff would have to demonstrate what they had learned (learned, she'd stressed, not regurgitated) during the week. Saturdays she would assign reading assignments, and Sunday would be a resting day.
It was going to be rigorous, but if it saved that many more lives then it would be worth it.
Because of Gaara's fight with the Council, she didn't get to start until Wednesday. So she taught her first class on heavy metal poisoning that day. Instead of talking at them in a large meeting room, she cleared out one of the emptier wards. She wanted them to get actual experience with this, but using Suna's livestock for experimental purposes was entirely out of the question. Clones would have to do for now, so she made several different shadow clones and did a henge to make them all look like a generic man with unremarkable features. At her instruction, they all laid down on their individual beds and fell into a sedated sleep. She injected them all with a small amount of heavy metal and waited for the symptoms to kick in before she started the class.
"I've injected something into all these clones, can anyone tell me what it is?"
Immediately everyone turned and did a chakra scan of the body. Only one person did the right thing and listened to the heartbeat and checking the pupils. He raised his hand meekly, "Is it heavy metals?"
She smiled. "Very good. Your name is?"
"Nao-san is correct, and he's the only one who identified it without chakra." She looked around at the group. "Don't rely solely on chakra. It's just one tool you have, but it's useless if you don't master the basics first."
She showed them how to mix the antidote, where to cut, and how to draw the poison from the organs. She walked around and saw several of them succeeding, and several where the watery bubble broke apart before it could get into the bowl. She helped the ones who weren't quite getting it, and made minor refinements to the ones that were. It was quite exhausting, doing that class twice (the third shift she'd reserved for the nursing staff and taught them advanced first aid for serious wounds) but at the end of the day she felt it was worth it.
Thursday she took them to the training grounds and did something like water walking except with sand. Sakura had noticed that her feet sunk into sand dunes unless she molded chakra to her soles to keep her upright. It was a good lesson for chakra control, so she could evaluate where they all were. Truthfully, water walking would have been preferable to sand, but this was Suna and there wasn't a decent sized body of water for several dozen miles. The ones who had it mastered she moved on to chopping wood planks apart with a chakra scalpel, and the ones who didn't were told to keep practicing. This was a bit harder, because Sakura didn't exactly know how to coach the ones who weren't getting it. She'd had perfect control from birth, and she'd walked across a lake just as easily as on land on her first try. She tried though, and they seemed to be getting it, because by the end of the shift they were at least staying on top of the sand.
Sakura designated Friday as a test day, but she figured there had only been two days in the week so she could skip the test today. Instead she taught a class on healing wounds involving major organ damage.
The next week got a bit more rigorous. She had politely asked Gaara if she could recruit some Genin teams, maybe some Chuunin to evaluate the field medics. At first, the Kazekage had raised an eyebrow at her unusual request, but when she gave her reasoning he'd given her nine Genin and two Chuunin for the afternoon, assigning them an easy D-Rank mission to do whatever Sakura said.
She took several field medics to a training ground one day, where her eleven shinobi and their respective Jounin teachers waited. She turned to the medics and said, "Your job, as a medic, is to stay alive and heal your team. To do that you need to be experts at evading the enemy. You only attack in fights if it appears you have no other alternative." Then, she turned to the shinobi. "You all will attack these medics, who will evade you at all costs. Try your best to land a hit."
The Genin looked a bit excited, because it was just a giant game of tag. She assigned the Chuunin team to the most experienced medic and then had the Genin pair up, with one team of three because of the odd number. Then, she let them have at it.
One of the Jounin observed his team on top of a large boulder, leaning back and reminding Sakura a little of Genma's laid back nature. Sakura made small talk with the lone Jounin kunoichi, but kept her eyes diligently trained on the medics the whole time. They were doing all right, but anything past Genin and they'd probably flounder at this point. The medic she'd paired with the Chuunin was doing splendidly, and would need to start facing Jounin to advance his skill more.
Sakura's own training had started out this way, with Tsunade throwing her into the fray. Except instead of a Genin team, she had faced three of Tsunade's clones at full Tsunade strength. The pink haired kunoichi shuddered at the memory of how many times she'd been beaten until finally she'd learned how to save her ass and dodge an attack. Though Sakura would credit Tsunade with a great teaching technique, because now she was quite good at evading attacks. Sakura had originally wanted to use this technique on the field medics, but there were too many of them not to mention it would be a little cruel.
"Some teaching technique you've got here, missy." Remarked the Jounin on the boulder. "But they're not much of a challenge to my team if they don't put up a good fight."
"I haven't seen your team land a hit yet," The other kunoichi turned to him and laughed behind her fan. Sakura guessed she was a wind user like Temari. "I think they're quite enough of a challenge."
The Jounin sat up on his rock. "Watch it." He growled. "Those are fighting words."
The kunoichi batted her eyelashes. "I think I'm a little too much challenge for you to handle."
Sakura had one pink eyebrow raised at the duo. That was until the other Jounin who was leaning against the boulder with her leaned over to her and said, "Don't let them fool you, they're deeply in love and they do this all the time." He sighed and muttered under his breath, "So annoying."
The medic bit her lip to keep from smiling, but couldn't help herself and her mouth twitched upwards anyway.
"Oi, what are you laughing at, missy?" The man growled at her. "I could take you all no problem!"
This time, Sakura smiled cockily and put a hand on her hip. "You're welcome to try."
Afterwards, the medic was proud to note that he couldn't lay a single finger on her.
The medic groaned. She'd stayed up too late preparing things for the coming week and as a result hadn't got much sleep the night before. It was still dark out when she set foot in the nurses' lounge on the second floor and started the coffee pot, something the rest of the staff would thank her for later. Well, maybe. She was getting mixed feedback from the staff. Mostly positive, but she had heard someone mutter bitch under their breath at her once. She'd send that doctor to janitor duty for the day.
The coffee pot gurgled, and Sakura sat down on the windowsill waiting for it to finish, opening the window for some fresh air. At this time of the morning, Sakura was used to hearing birds chirping their songs. Birds in the desert were few and far between, though, so instead there was only a peaceful silence. It was still chilly outside as the sun had yet to come up, but the cool wind felt nice and helped to wake her up a little bit.
She rose and poured herself a cup of coffee, doctoring it to her liking. At one taste, she paused. It wasn't the battery acid she'd grudgingly grown used to over the past few weeks. It tasted rather nice, actually. Sakura looked through the cabinets and found one stocked with the stuff. It was a different brand than the old stuff. This was good news. Maybe the snarky students would be more agreeable if they had better coffee in their systems.
The medic turned and blinked. The furniture was different, how could she not have noticed that earlier? Gone were the hard plastic chairs to be replaced by couches and chairs with cushions. There was only one thing that she thought of that would cause this change, and that had been a comment she'd made to Gaara a few weeks ago. That couldn't be it though, because she had agreed to do this without involving money and she'd meant it. Still, having a bit nicer place to relax would no doubt improve staff morale, and Sakura was grateful.
When she made her report in to Gaara the next day, she asked him about it.
He cocked his head to one side. "Isn't that what you wanted?"
The kunoichi opened and closed her mouth several times before she finally said, "Kazekage-sama…I…I mean I was half joking."
"But you were half serious."
"It was really for vanity's sake but…" She bit her lip. "It has improved attitude, a bit. I think the staff feels a bit more appreciated."
"Then why are you complaining?"
She pouted. She was not complaining, damn it. She actually felt a little guilty. "I told you I could do this without involving money." This made her feel a bit like Cho, in a way, throwing money into the hospital was not the way to make it better. But then again…maybe it had, in a way?
"Funds were already earmarked for the hospital's restoration." He told her. "The Elders and I decided that the village's other needs were met, so the funds stayed devoted to improving the hospital."
"So then you could have hired Cho after all."
"Yes." He said. "However I knew you could do a far better job and from the reports I've been seeing it seems I was correct."
The medic blushed. It was one thing for one of her colleagues in Konoha to compliment her skills, but for the Kazekage to do it? She was flattered beyond a shadow of a doubt. "Um…thank you, Kazekage-sama." She bowed again. "If you'll excuse me I really should go and prepare tomorrow's lesson plan."
"Haruno-san." He said before dismissing her. "If there is anything the hospital needs, do not hesitate to ask, no matter the cost."
She nodded. "Of course, Kazekage-sama. Thank you again." With that, she was dismissed and the first thing she did out in the hallway was put her hand to her fast beating heart. Gaara thought she could do this. He had faith in her and trusted her enough to give her money for whatever she needed. Now that she had it, there was no way she would give him a reason to doubt her. She felt a little empowered, to be honest.
Maybe she had been a little wrong with the no-money thing after all. The nicer accommodations had improved staff morale, and that was just as important as anything else. Just because she used money didn't turn her into Cho, who had suggested replacing all the already-working machines in the building for vanity's sake. And honestly, a whole new realm of possibilities opened up in front of her now, and she dreamed that night of all the things she could do.
"Thank you for letting me down here Ebizo-san." Sakura said as they descended the stairs. She'd asked him if she could see some of Chiyo-sama's notes on the off chance he would agree, and he had.
"Because working with you helped to let go of her bitterness." Ebizo had said. Which she supposed was true, considering after the battle with Sasori the old kunoichi had stopped calling Sakura the slug girl's apprentice, even if it was for only a brief time until her death. Though she owed Chiyo a lot, considering she had taught her quite a thing or two concerning fighting techniques and saved Sakura's life in that battle.
The two approached a door at the bottom of the staircase. The old man put a key in the lock and Sakura immediately started hacking her lungs out when she caught a whiff of the air inside.
"My apologies." Ebizo turned to her. "No one has been down here since my sister's death."
"No…" Wheeze. "Problem." She only hoped the dust would settle soon so she could breathe again. Ebizo told her to call when she was finished, and went back up the stone staircase.
Apple green eyes surveyed the small room. There were only a few small bookcases packed with scrolls, and a modest sized desk set to one side. A fine layer of what she guessed to be a combination of dust and sand covered everything. Now…where to begin?
She started at the right, picking up a scroll and skimming it, finding things she already knew. Putting it back, she picked up a few more to repeat the process. Most of them contained things Tsunade taught her, but she did learn some of the weaknesses of sand attacks, and there were a few healing techniques she wrote down for later use.
It didn't take her long at all to go through the bookshelves, even though there were so many scrolls. She had wanted to learn more, but so far her notes only took up about a foot of scroll. Chiyo had been a phenomenal healer in her day, but Tsunade was better and had made sure that her apprentice would come to surpass her one day. By her calculations, Sakura was already far above Chiyo in medical skills.
She was done with the scrolls and had two feet of scroll to study and to teach her own students. She sat down in the chair at the desk warily, because it sounded like it would collapse under her at any moment. The wood held though, and the medic breathed a sigh of relief until her lungs picked up more dust again.
Absentmindedly, Sakura went through the drawers of the desk to see if there was anything to discover. Not much, a couple notebooks about techniques Chiyo was trying to develop, (Sakura wrote all these down, because Chiyo had some great ideas if only she could make them work) some knick-knacks in one drawer, and a drawer with writing utensils. Sakura picked up an old writing brush that looked like it had been around for quite some time. She must have squeezed a bit too tightly because the wood broke in her hand. Oops.
Sakura looked down to where the broken brush had fallen. It landed in the top drawer again, where she'd picked it out of, but the wood underneath it sounded…hollow? Chiyo-baa were you keeping secrets? She asked herself as she probed for some way to open the false bottom. With her luck, Chiyo had kept her Icha Icha stash in here and Sakura would open the old woman's secret collection of porn. The thought of Chiyo reading Icha Icha sent nausea rolling through her, so she pushed those thoughts aside.
Then again, Sakura thought as she couldn't find a way to open the drawer. Maybe there is no false bottom. She could have been imagining things. The medic knocked on the wood a few times. Nope, definitely a false bottom by the sound. Also, she guesstimated where the inside of the drawer was versus the bottom of the drawer on the side, and there was at least a two inch difference.
The pink haired woman bit her lip, looking guiltily back up the stairs. No one would notice…right? With that thought, she channeled a bit of chakra into her finger and pushed a hole in the wood. There was a cracking sound and the wood crumpled under her fingertip. She took out her penlight and shone it inside. Well there was definitely something in there, so the property damage had been worth it. Using her finger again, Sakura worked the hole bigger until she could get the contents of the drawer out.
It was a small notebook with what looked like research notes inside. About halfway through the notebook, Chiyo stopped writing without drawing any sort of conclusion. Well then, better start from the beginning.
She didn't have to read much before she figured out what the old medic was researching. This was how she'd developed the Resurrection Technique that had saved Gaara's life. She debated reading further, because clearly Chiyo hadn't meant to pass this jutsu along and Sakura was prying just by looking at the notebook. Still, she couldn't bear not knowing…especially if something were to happen—
Sakura shook her head. Naruto had already given her the never trade one life for another speech, and she was sure if she were to use the Resurrection Technique he would bring her back from the dead to kill her himself. Of course, that was only if he was fast enough to be the first in line. She had no doubt if she martyred herself in such a way her friends—maybe her family, even—would be lined up to throttle and lecture her. They'd go to her funeral cussing about how dare she and how stupid such a move was.
Then again, she thought, Gaara was alive and no one was complaining. He'd gone on to do great things for Suna and everyone was happy he was on their side. Poor Chiyo, did anyone even remember what she'd done? That she'd given the greatest sacrifice of all?
She read the notebook, diligently scanning every line until she practically had the whole thing committed to memory. Chiyo, like any good medic, had practiced on rats and birds, and then larger animals. None had come back from the dead. She noted the reactions from her life energy, because this technique didn't involve chakra at all. Even after attempting to heal some of the larger animals, her energy had recovered after a few days, replenishing at a rate a bit slower than chakra. She never had the whole technique worked out in the end, and when she was finally onto something she'd stopped writing altogether.
Clearly, she didn't want anyone else to know this jutsu. There was no telling how bad it could be if this fell into the wrong hands. Even though Sakura was hardly the wrong hands, it was still a deadly healing technique. One time use and it had better count. Unfortunately for Chiyo, Sakura was skilled enough to fill in the blanks in her head. She knew how to complete Chiyo's research based on her own experience and watching Chiyo perform the technique first hand. And now the medic wished she hadn't meddled in the old woman's secrets. It was absolutely terrifying thinking of the power she now held…the power to bring someone back from the dead. What a huge responsibility that was. Would she have saved Asuma, so he could see his child's birth and watch her grow up? Would she have saved Akihiko, so he might one day be reunited with his family? Would she have saved Jiraiya, so Naruto could have a father figure and someone to teach him? Or maybe Itachi, so Sasuke wouldn't have to regret killing the one man who had protected him all along?
But then she could only do it once. There was a terrifying thought that what if she'd saved Kakashi in Pein's attack, only for Nagato to turn around and give everyone their lives back. She would have died completely in vain.
So she vowed never to use it. Something like that was too much. There were too many what ifs and questions for her to be comfortable with the idea of ever using it. And giving up her life…she only now just realized how scared Chiyo must have been in her final moments, even though she'd looked so calm.
The thought of that sent shivers through her. Sakura slipped the notebook in her pouch, gathering her scroll of notes and putting everything back where she'd found it. She left the room and told Ebizo she was done, and he went to lock the door back.
That night, Sakura snuck to an open training ground and burned the book to ash. Chiyo had been right in hiding it. No one had the right to play the part of God.
The pink haired medic sat in her temporary office, feeling pleased at the sheets of paper spread out over her desk. Over the past few weeks, her students had improved immensely. They showed growth every week, and Sakura couldn't help but feel proud. The past few weeks had been routine except for one incident when a group of Jounin came by with some rather nasty wounds. Sakura vowed not to step into the surgery unless she was absolutely needed, and she wasn't.
By now, Sakura tweaked the staff and moved people around a bit to their area of expertise. Everything was just beginning to show improvement, and things were starting to function like they should. The chakra control was bounds better, and she got excited about how much improvement there would be by the time she left.
It was late into a Friday night as she sat grading papers, but she was too excited about the dedication the staff showed to care about the lateness of the hour. Her mind raced too fast to care and she couldn't help but smile. Her dedication to this mission shone out through her students, and it warmed her a little to know that she was doing well. She was doing what she had nervously and anxiously set out to do a few weeks ago.
A hiss of sand pulled her out of her thoughts and into the otherwise silent office. Suddenly, Gaara was in front of her, and she blinked at his presence momentarily before hastily bowing her head and greeted him with a, "Kazekage-sama."
"I believe someone once told me that just because I had things to take care of, didn't mean I couldn't take care of myself." He looked down at the papers sprawled across the desk. "I did not ask you here to work you into the ground."
Sakura shook her head. "I'm not. I just got really excited looking how much progress there is." She sent him a beaming smile, because she couldn't help it. "They're all doing really well, Kazekage-sama." Which he obviously knew, because even if she couldn't report into him directly every week she at least dropped off a status update in his office.
He nodded. "Do you require any additional supplies?"
The medic thought for a moment about anything they needed, but ended up shaking her head. "No, we're well stocked on everything." Though she had no idea that he would have generously supplied her with anything she asked for. After all, he'd taken every suggestion she'd had to heart and things were gradually starting to resemble the fine mechanics of Konoha's hospital. There were new sheets to replace older ones, more effective cleaning supplies for the custodians…smaller things that Sakura hadn't actually given much thought to in Konoha. At her suggestion, Gaara had replaced all the toys in the pediatric ward and had added lots of new ones. Instead of simply reporting progress with him every week, Sakura sat down and let him know how things were going on all levels. Their meetings took a little under an hour, and she would talk with him about ways to make the hospital more comfortable and the little things that needed to happen.
"I'm going to begin weaning myself away, so that the staff will get used to working without my assistance." It occurred to her that she couldn't just up and leave when she decided everything was satisfactory. She had to make sure they could function on their own first. "I plan on not being here Sunday morning to see how they do."
Gaara nodded. "Then spar with me that day."
She blinked at him. "Wha…really?" Another nod. "That won't get in the way of your duties?" She asked.
He gave a low sigh. "Temari has been telling me that I need to get out of the office more often. It looks like you need the same." He cast her a glance. "And I'm sure the Hokage would not appreciate it if your skills deteriorated whilst you are under my care."
She gave him a look. "Then I would be happy to demonstrate how much my skills have not deteriorated." She said. "You're on."
"Sunday then." He said, forming a seal. "Training ground one." He vanished in a whirlwind of sand.
If there was one thing Sakura hoped, it was that the Kazekage couldn't hear how frantically her heart was beating. It wasn't like she hadn't ever faced him before, but the last time she'd ended up embarrassingly pinned to the floor of the stadium with several hundred onlookers. The time before that he'd bound her to a tree with sand so he could kill Sasuke.
But, Sakura told herself, all that happened years ago. She was stronger now, more confident in herself than she had been when she'd faced him. She'd defeated an Akatsuki almost single-handedly and had the strength to give Sasuke a good run for his money. Surely fighting Gaara would be a little similar.
Except she wasn't really used to fighting nin with long range attacks. She'd done it before, Sasori was one of them, but usually ninja used close or mid-range attacks, making them easier targets. The redhead in front of her was skilled enough and powerful enough to sit in his office drinking tea and attack her with sand while she was on the other side of the city. He was a force to be reckoned with, and his Kazekage title wasn't an honorary one. He'd earned it, because aside from being one of the strongest shinobi in the world, he also was kind of a genius.
Not Shikamaru genius, but smart enough that he had completely restructured Suna in a few short years almost single-handedly and was the man to turn to for a brilliant battle strategy, if the rumors were to be believed. And, having fought him before, Sakura knew he'd been smart enough to take advantage of her overconfidence when she thought being in close range would guarantee her a win.
Her only warning was the slight hiss of sand before she was in the air dodging his first attack. The ribbon of sand only narrowly missed catching her foot before collapsing again. More bands shot up from the ground and she dodged them a little too closely for her liking. They were so fast that she was having trouble keeping up. No matter what, Sakura couldn't get caught by his sand. The only thing anyone knew of to penetrate the sand was the Chidori, and Sakura knew her punches weren't going to cut it. Even a chakra scalpel wouldn't work because even though it was deadly sharp, it wasn't lighting. To end this she was going to have to get close enough to fight him head on.
Lee had gotten caught in the sand once and had spent months in therapy trying to recover his arm and leg. Sakura didn't want to suffer the same fate if Gaara squeezed a bit too tight.
She maneuvered in air, landing on the side of one of the ribbons as it collapsed and propelled herself towards the redhead. Her fist was raised, and she thought that maybe she could shatter the armor of sand he built on his body if she just hit hard enough. It had to be a little bit thinner than a sand wall, right?
The Kazekage stood with his arms crossed, as if he wasn't expending any energy at all. He wasn't smug that he'd kept her on the defensive the whole time, just confident in his skills. His eyes were narrowed in concentration, watching her launch herself into a frontal attack.
The dome of sand went up, and Sakura punched it. Nothing happened, which she'd expected unfortunately. The thing didn't even look like it had gotten hit. The medic jumped back and tried to think of a new battle plan. Gaara was too smart for her to win this on brawn alone.
The dome of sand melted around Gaara, the sand sinking back into the earth. She stood warily, waiting for another attack to come. The breeze rustled the sand around her and made her think she was about to be attacked, but nothing happened for a few beats. And then Gaara uncrossed his arms and shit got real.
Suddenly, she wasn't dodging spires of sand, she was facing down a forty foot wave. There was no way she was going to be able to outrun this. Think, think, think!
According to Chiyo's notes, a sand-user's natural enemy was water, because water made the sand heavier which meant the controller needed to use more chakra to attack. That was good to know, except she was in the middle of the desert without a decent water source for miles. She wouldn't be able to draw water from under the ground because it was too far down. Her only option was to take water from the villagers, which was a bad idea and Gaara might actually use his Desert Coffin on her for that stunt.
The wave got closer and Sakura ran knowing it was fruitless. She suddenly wished she could draw water from thin air, like Kisame of the Akatsuki. Wait a minute…was there any way she could imitate water with chakra? Well, there was certainly no harm in trying.
She formed a few seals, stopped to face the wave, and slammed her hands on the ground. The medic pushed as much chakra as she thought she could spare into the earth, using her control to spread it out quite a ways until it formed a decent sized layer of her energy intermingled with the sand.
The wave crumpled in on itself and collapsed, Sakura following to her knees a moment later. The human body wasn't meant to push out that much chakra in a single go, and it left her feeling shaky and nauseated. She estimated she only had about a quarter of her chakra left, since she knew it would take quite a bit to overpower Gaara. Hopefully, the Kage would stick to Taijutsu and not have anymore chakra-related attacks to direct at her. She was going to have to carefully select her jutsu if she didn't want to faint on him and end the match early.
Even from fifty feet away, the kunoichi saw his jade eyes widen. He clearly tried to move his sand more, but it just bulged up before falling back down again. He must have been using a good chunk of chakra just trying to break the hold she had over the earth. Every time the sand shifted, Sakura waited with bated breath for her efforts to come crumbling down, but her chakra seemed to be holding everything at bay. Good. Maybe now she had a fighting chance.
She stood shakily and stumbled once before catching her balance. She almost used chakra to anchor herself but pushed that reaction aside quickly. With only a fraction of chakra left, she couldn't afford to waste it so offhandedly. Especially since Gaara had the stamina and chakra reserves to rival Naruto's. She only had the chakra for a few large punches, so those needed to be as effective as possible.
The ex-Jinchuuriki made the first move again, balancing on the balls of his feet before pushing off and coming at herfar too fast for someone who carried a heavy sand gourd on their back. Sakura forced her still frazzled body into moving and dodged his first punch. And…when had he pulled out the kunai?! She ducked as he swiped the throwing knife and she thrust her foot out, not hitting anything but managing to give her a little space when he jumped backwards. Sakura quickly rose to her feet and finally put herself on the offensive.
He was good even at Taijutsu, managing to dodge her punches with the grace of an experienced fighter. But then, without warning, he was gone. Where…behind!
The medic swung around, but she was a fraction of a second too slow and found herself on the receiving end of a hit to the stomach. She slid back a couple feet, launching three kunai at him in the process. What she hoped Gaara didn't see was the Genjutsu on the third kunai…the one hiding the attached exploding tag. The redhead jumped backwards, all three kunai landing at his feet. Suddenly, his head shot downwards and he jumped up, only managing to make it a few feet before the explosion rocked the training grounds.
When the smoke cleared, the sand dome stood tall, but then it melted and no one was inside. It was instinct that had her turning around and grabbing his wrist as he attacked from behind again, and she was satisfied to note he looked a little charred. She put a bit of chakra into her hand to keep him in place, and punched with the other hand. But…he didn't go flying. It didn't even impact him because a ribbon of sand was suddenly in front of her fist originating from his gourd.
Sakura cussed. She'd definitely neutralized that gourd! He must have found a way around it somehow! She jumped backwards, having to do some careful mid air twists to keep the pursuing sand from touching her. The sand finally tapered off and she slid to a stop, hard eyes meeting jade. He probably couldn't hear her from this distance, but she growled at him anyway. She'd probably just lost the fight. No way could she hit him now with his sand protecting him, and no way she could neutralize the sand again with chakra either.
Well if she was going to go down anyway, she was going to go down in a blaze of glory.
She attacked, and it was probably out of his desire to continue the match that he didn't end it right there. The closer she approached, the more vulnerable to sand attacks she was. She directed several punches at him, but every time they were blocked by the sand. For variety, she directed a rather low punch and he reached with a hand to stop her.
Sakura couldn't help it. She smirked. Secretly, she liked to compare her chakra-filled punches to Sasuke's Kusanagi. It had to be dodged, because there was no way to block the attack once it was initiated. Gaara's sand had been the weird exception, but now that he was catching her fist…
The results were more than she could have asked for. He realized his mistake a nanosecond too late…and it was a nanosecond later that he flew off. His sand cushioned his landing, making less of an impact than she would have liked, but she'd obviously broken past the sand armor and hurt his arm, judging by the way he held it. That meant no more jutsu at least, so that was something.
Except, as she learned within the next few seconds, an injured Gaara was something like a cornered animal. It was all attack, attack, attack with little regard for structure or planning. Sand from his gourd flung itself at her left and right and it was all she could do to keep up. If she could only get close again...she was almost out of chakra so these next few moments would be her last.
With nothing to lose anymore, she jumped forwards. Instead of punching the approaching sand again, she placed her hands on it and used the remainder of her chakra to neutralize his gourd sand. When that fell, she was still flying towards him and tackled him around the middle. They hit the ground hard and rolled for several beats, Sakura relying on her own strength to help her. She got in a few more hits, managing to pin him once, but he overpowered her and then she was suddenly on her back unable to move.
The medic panted heavily, "Well this is familiar." She mentioned breathlessly. Gaara had pinned her…again. Just like the last time he'd fought her in their Chuunin Exams. "I yield." She said, more for lack of choice than for lack of conviction. She wanted to continue sparring (it was actually kind of fun because his fighting style was one of a kind) but she had no chakra left. Also, now that she was laying down on the ground, she felt a bit boneless and didn't want to move.
Gaara nodded and rolled off of her, dropping heavily to one side in a sitting position.
It was no wonder they'd chosen him to be Kage. He was definitely the most powerful shinobi in Suna. She was still catching her breath and he'd barely broken a sweat. Maybe she should be grateful she hadn't actually fought the Shukaku when she was a Genin. She'd have lost for sure.
"How's your arm?" She asked between breaths.
"It's only bruised."
"Well have them check it out at the hospital anyway. I didn't like the way you were holding it earlier." She sat up painfully and groaned. She was definitely going to feel this tomorrow. It had been a short fight, but she'd had to force her body into so many awkward twists and turns to avoid his sand that her muscles protested. "I'd look at it, but if I use anymore chakra I'm going to faint on you."
His mouth twitched and his eyes got a little softer. She was going to take that as a smile.
"Where did you learn to neutralize my sand?" He asked.
Sakura shrugged. "I read that it was harder for you to control wet sand, so I tried to imitate that." She blew her bangs upwards. "I made it up on the fly though, so I'm glad it worked."
His eyes widened for a fraction of a second, but he didn't say anything for several moments. Finally, he stood and offered his good hand out to her. A little surprised, she took it and was hauled onto her feet. She was a bit shaky for a moment before steeling herself. She wanted to sleep and then take a shower, in that order.
The medic blinked when he still hadn't let go of her hand. "Kazekage-sama?" She asked. He didn't respond, but instead held up his bruised arm and hand into a seal, and they were suddenly both in Sakura's apartment. "Oh!" She exclaimed gratefully. She really hadn't enjoyed the idea of walking back…and going up all those stairs… "Thank you." She told him. "Can I look at your arm really fast?"
He stuck out his left arm. Yes, it was bruising fast, and by the looks of it she'd bruised several bones in his hand and arm. She didn't dare touch it without the soothing feel of chakra, and probing him with her finger would just hurt him further. "Your sand armor shielded you from the worst of it, looks like." She said. "Otherwise I probably would have shattered your arm." And she would have never heard the end of it from Tsunade if she had. She could already hear the lecture from the older woman…already feel her legs running laps as punishment. Thank goodness for that sand armor. "Go to the hospital as soon as you can, Kazekage-sama."
The medic looked up at him, surprise written on her features. "Sorry?" She knew what she heard, but what it implied…
"My name…is Gaara."
Even though she was tired and hurt and dirty, Sakura's face lit up in a brilliant smile. He was calling them friends. Letting her use his given name instead of his title meant that he'd just put her on the same level as Naruto…the only non-family member who she'd heard call him by his given name. She felt warm inside and happy that he would call her his friend, a word that she knew meant a lot to him.
"Then please call me Sakura." She said by means of acceptance. I'll be your friend…if you'll be mine. He nodded, and she noticed something in his eyes relax, as if he'd been anxious to see if she'd accept him or not. "Now, to the hospital with you. My students need a chance to show off their new skills."
She got an actual smirk from him this time. "Until tomorrow, Sakura." He said, and then he disappeared.
All of Sakura's sleepiness was gone, and she found that she couldn't stop smiling.
Sakura looked at her student's work on a child who had accidentally ingested poison. She did a chakra scan and discovered that almost all of it had been removed, and he was administering an antidote for the rest of the poison.
"Good work." Sakura said. If they kept going at this rate, she wouldn't need to stay in Suna much longer. "This is really impressive for—"
With no warning, the entire building shuddered, groans from the structure echoing throughout the hallways. Sakura stopped talking and snapped her head towards a window, only to see a giant cloud of sand rising in the distance. People were running in the halls, and the only thing Sakura could hear were their gasps and screams. A boom echoed from a distance, followed by another cloud of sand.
Suna was under attack.
Sakura forced her way into the hallway and ran against the crowd, barking orders at medics to calm everyone down and lead them to the lowest levels of the building. In the meantime, she climbed the stairs to get to the top floor, to help evacuate the patients. She couldn't even wheel them out in their beds, so she heaved a patient over each shoulder and ran down the stairs, other medics seeing her example and assisting any way they could.
Sakura bit her lip, setting patients down and running back for more. She had only covered battle-like situations very briefly, wanting to go more in depth when she had more time. She would know all about it, since she had spent her fair share of time in Konoha's hospital before it had collapsed in Pein's attack. Were they ready? She couldn't help but wonder. Sakura took a moment to look around at the staff, who were bustling around like they knew what they were doing. Well that was a step in the right direction, anyway. They weren't panicking.
She rounded the corner and narrowly avoided barreling into Kankuro, who had a small boy thrown over one shoulder. He looked at her in what seemed like relief. "Good!" He exclaimed. "There you are." He handed the child to a medic and looked at her seriously. "Sakura, I know this is a terrible thing to ask, but how willing would you be to fight?"
She blinked at him, but not for long because there simply wasn't time. "But the hospital—"
He grasped he shoulders. "Sakura." He said seriously. "You have trained and coached these people to be the best of the best. Do you trust them?" He asked, and she nodded. "Then let them do what you've been preparing them for." His hands slid away from her. "Gaara needs someone out there with him, and Temari and I have both been ordered to protect the village from within. Please Sakura, you're the only one I trust with something like this. Go and fight with him."
She nodded, mentally making sure that she was carrying all of her weapons. "Tell me where he is."
Gaara was just outside of the city walls, trying to make sure that nothing made it in. She landed next to him just in time to see a huge wall of sand go up around the enemy. She couldn't make out who would be dumb enough to attack a Hidden Village directly through the thick wall of sand.
Jade eyes flickered over towards her. "You should be at the hospital." He said, dropping the sand and crushing the enemy with his Imperial Desert Funeral.
She shrugged. "Your brother makes a compelling argument." There was a tick at his temple, but he said nothing. "We are allies, Gaara, friends even. I'd be honored to fight with you."
He gave her a calculating look before nodding, looking back at the army situated on the horizon. They weren't moving forward. What were they waiting for?
Her only warning was Gaara's sharp intake of breath before several rectangular boxes shot up from the ground, forming a circle around the pair. The front of the boxes dropped open, and Sakura came face to face with Sasori of the Red Sand.
"This is impossible." She whispered, darting her eyes around. Deidara…Kazuku…Hidan…all of the Akatsuki they'd defeated. They were here…alive. How was that even possible? The pink haired medic felt herself visibly quake at the sight.
"Not impossible at all…Sakura-chan." Came a hissing, menacing voice. Both she and Gaara whipped their heads to a cloaked figure stepping out from behind a box. She knew that face all too well. Dreamed about a thousand ways to kill him because of what he had done.
She straightened. "Kabuto." Sakura identified him lowly, watching him smirk. But then…something was wrong. His chakra was completely off from what she remembered it to be…not to mention his eyes were all wrong. This wasn't Kabuto…
No…please, no. It can't be….
She couldn't hide the shock that slipped onto her face. "Orochimaru." She corrected, watching that smirk widen into a familiar snake-like grin. Beside her, Gaara stiffened.
He looked at them confidently. "It's good to be back."
Author's Notes: I was actually going to split this up into two chapters, but that was really the only good stopping place. Besides, you all deserve a long chapter after putting up with my horrible updating record for as long as you have. Thanks to all the people who have kicked my butt into gear and have urged me to keep writing, even if the only time I can do it is from midnight to 3 AM (which it is right now). I promise you I'm trying, just bear with me a bit until finals are over. As always, please review and let me know what you think!