Yeah, yeah, been a long time since I updated, blah, blah. But I've said before I refuse to rush my stories, and if that means not writing for awhile, then that's what it means. No matter who keeps coming to me and bugging me over and over to get writing and I tell them to piss off out of my room. Lol.

Anyway, I suppose I have been more delinquent than usual since I sometimes didn't even try to write, but I won't do something if I don't want to. But how about instead of listening to me go on and on, why don't you read the chapter instead?

Naruto belongs to Kishimoto. If I owned it, it would totally be GaaSaku on the canon, and Sasuke would either wake up to himself, or drop dead, depending on my mood. And then he'd totally get with Naruto… or maybe Hinata, if she's not with Naruto, but preferably with Naruto. (Cute little Uke!) And then Shika would admit he loves Temari, no matter how troublesome she may be and… er, whatever. Fix my window.

Chapter Eight – Proven Worth

She gently swung the kodachi in her hand, examining the craftsmanship. It really was a fine blade, light and easy to wield, but also strong and sharp. Sakura had already sliced the roast ham on the table with it, easily cleaving it in two. Naruto had glared at her, of course, but that was just because he was eating it. Jiraiya had thought it was hilarious and had cracked up laughing, which had caused Naruto to throw what looked like a kunai at the old man, who'd caught it easily enough. A nearby cloth was used to clean the blade.

"Are you ready?" Gaara asked, and Sakura nodded.

Gaara had issued his challenge maybe twenty minutes ago, and Sakura had been taken to change into something much easier to fight in. When she'd arrived back at the Hokage's tent, Naruto had given her the kodachi and she'd immediately tested its weight in her hand. The grip was excellent, kodachi had always been one of her favourite weapons along with the katana and tantō.

Sakura followed Gaara out of the tent, and they in turn were followed by Naruto and Jiraiya. The Hokage had insisted that she call him by his name, and after a little awed hesitation, she'd agreed to do so. Now as she basically walked with him to the training area that she'd been told was set up for the warriors to vent frustration and to hone their skills, she focused her attention on Gaara.

Gaara was the same rank as Naruto, leading his own village, but Naruto's name was well known in her time, he was legendary for bringing about peace after a war that had lasted for decades. He was one of many who'd brought about the end of the infamous Snake Charmer, and she'd gathered from bits she'd overheard that it was the very same villain people called Orochimaru. Sakura was walking with living history, and she was a little unnerved by it all.

But she was determined to deal with it as best she could, and resolutely put all the things she'd heard about this war to the back of her mind. It would be like any time she'd met a celebrity at one of the Leaf Museum's launches, and couldn't act like a star-struck idiot because it would have embarrassed her mother.

They'd reached their destination, and Sakura wasn't really surprised to see that there were already people here. The clash of hanbō, kodachi and kunai wasn't overwhelming, but Sakura was amazed at the skill she could see that the warriors had. She watched two people fighting furiously with nodachi, thinking how if Lee were here, he'd probably be crying tears of joy at the opportunity to fight so many seasoned fighters.

"Well Sakura," Naruto said, "what would you like to do first?"

"Um… maybe something with hanbō or something similar?" she guessed.

"Oi! Etsuko!" Naruto yelled, and a woman came over to them, holding a pair of tonfa. "Etsuko, this is Haruno Sakura, a friend of the Kazekage's. Sakura, this is Hyuuga Etsuko, she can be your opponent. Oh and Etsuko, no Byakugan whatsoever! Or chakra for that matter."

"Why not?" Etsuko asked, incensed.

"Because Sakura's never worked with chakra," Jiraiya spoke up then. "This is merely to show us what she can do."

"No chakra, eh?" Etsuko asked, slightly mollified. "Alright then, let's get to it. What're we using?"

"How about the tonfa that's in your hand?" Naruto suggested, then looked at Sakura.

"Works for me," the pinkette agreed.

OoOoO

Gaara watched as Sakura picked out a set of tonfa, weighing them carefully in her hands. He'd figured that she knew something about weapons when he'd seen her handle the kodachi Naruto'd given her with such ease. It was obvious she knew how to fight, just because of her willingness to go up against someone to prove it. But he had no idea what Naruto was thinking pairing her with a Hyuuga, despite the fact that there would be no chakra. It was almost as bad as if he'd chosen an Uchiha.

But now Sakura and Etsuko were facing one another, and Gaara settled on the fallen log that had been usurped as a seat, next to Naruto and Jiraiya. "What do you think, Gaara?" Jiraiya asked. "How good do you think Sakura will be?"

"She should be able to handle herself well," the Kazekage said. "After all if she couldn't, why would she have agreed to this? She would be risking her well-being otherwise."

"That's true," the Sannin said, and they settled back to watch.

Etsuko made the first move, lashing out towards Sakura's head, and the pinkette easily blocked it, then quickly moved out of the way as Etsuko came at her with her other arm, ducking down and aiming towards Etsuko's legs. The Hyuuga easily dodged that, and soon the two of them were getting serious. Gaara was impressed with how Sakura was keeping Etsuko on her toes, and even the Hyuuga kunoichi looked impressed. They stepped it up a notch, Sakura going on the defensive for a little while before equalling Etsuko's moves.

Gaara's stomach jolted when Etsuko scored the first hit on Sakura's ribs, but he forced himself to stay still. He watched as Sakura fought back twice as hard after that, soon landing her own hit against Etsuko. The two of them kept fighting, neither gaining the higher ground until Etsuko lashed out, pushing Sakura back, causing her to trip. Etsuko quickly knelt down to place a tonfa at Sakura's throat.

Naruto was on his feet, clapping and laughing happily. "Well done, Sakura-chan!" he crowed, and rushed forward to hug her once Etsuko helped her up onto her feet.

"Indeed," Etsuko said. "Considering I wasn't using any chakra, you gave me quite a workout, Sakura-san."

"Are you done?" Gaara asked. "Or do you want to keep going?"

Sakura looked at Etsuko, who shrugged. "Maybe if you have hanbō?" Sakura suggested.

"We do," Etsuko said. "I'm a little rusty with the hanbō, to be honest, I prefer my tonfa or a katana."

"Then maybe I'll beat you this time," Sakura said with a smirk.

"Maybe," Etsuko said with an answering grin.

Sakura and Etsuko once again faced one another a moment later, hanbō staffs in hand. Gaara watched as they circled one another, and this time it was Sakura who made the first move, lashing out towards Etsuko's middle, which the kunoichi blocked. The fight went much the same as before, only the opposite in that Sakura landed the first blow, to Etsuko's chest. The Hyuuga took it easily enough, and retaliated with a series of blows that rained heavily on the hanbō Sakura wielded. Then she managed to whack Sakura in the leg.

In the end, Sakura feinted a blow to Etsuko's head, only to duck down and trip the kunoichi. "I guess you really were rusty," Sakura smirked, the end of her hanbō at Etsuko's throat.

Gaara felt immensely proud of Sakura, then pushed the feeling to the back of his mind, he'd deal with that later.

OoOoO

As Sakura helped Etsuko to her feet, she felt inordinately proud of herself. This woman was a professional warrior, a ninja, and she'd beaten her, albeit with a weapon that Etsuko hadn't used in a long time. She looked over at Gaara and saw that he was staring at her, and when he noticed her glance, he smirked at her and she quickly looked away, blushing. He'd looked almost proud of her, and she tried to ignore how good that made her feel.

"Wow, you're really good, Sakura-chan!" Naruto exclaimed. "I think you've more than proven you can help us, with or without chakra!"

"Thanks Naruto," Sakura said, then winced when her ribs hurt from where Etsuko had gotten her with the tonfa. "Ouch…"

Gaara was immediately at her side. "Are you alright?" he asked.

"Just a little sore in the ribs," she told him, a little flustered at his concern.

"Sorry about that, Sakura-san," Etsuko apologised.

"Don't worry about it," Sakura waved off.

Naruto looked at her thoughtfully. "Come on, I'll take you to the medical tent, and Satomi-chan can have a look at you," he said, then turned to Etsuko. "You too, Etsuko-chan," he ordered.

"Yeah, yeah," she waved off, but followed meekly when Naruto grabbed Sakura's hand and started dragging her off.

By the time they reached the medical tent, Sakura had managed to reclaim her hand and was walking next to Gaara. Jiraiya hadn't joined them, he'd said something about going to the mess tent. The medical tent was green, the only tent that was a different colour, and Sakura figured that it was to make it easy to find in an emergency. The insignia she'd seen on the headbands that a lot of ninja were wearing was printed on it, kinda like a leaf with a swirl. This was the old symbol for Konoha, well, not so old to these people anyway.

Once inside, Sakura noticed that it was sort of set up the way it was in that old TV show, M*A*S*H*, with a couple of rows of beds at one end, and what looked like a surgical unit at the other. In the middle were a few open boxes containing bedding and bandages. Most of the beds had occupants, and there were a few people wandering back and forth around the tent, tending to them.

"Satomi-chan!" Naruto called, and a rather plain looking brown haired woman looked up at the sound.

"Quiet, Naruto!" she snapped, her face changing from plain to irritated in one go. "You're disturbing my patients!"

"Er… Sorry," he said. "I've… um… got some new ones for you, nothing serious though… Um… Come on Gaara, let's get out of here!"

Naruto grabbed Gaara and dragged him out of there. "What was that about?" Sakura asked.

"Naruto's terrified of Satomi," Etsuko said happily.

"Oh."

The woman Satomi came over to them. "Alright, what's wrong with you two?"

"We were training, Satomi-san," Etsuko said, still as cheery as she was a moment ago. "I'm afraid I got Sakura's ribs a bit too hard, but she got me good too."

"Really?" Satomi asked, eying Sakura with interest.

"Really!" Etsuko said. "And without chakra too!"

"Alright, come here then, I'll have a look at you," Satomi ordered.

Sakura's injuries were healed with chakra, and just like when Kenzo healed her, she was absolutely fascinated. "Can you teach me how to do that?" she asked.

"Not without chakra," Satomi told her. "Etsuko, why don't you show her how to use chakra, tomorrow or something, and when that's done, I'll teach her medical ninjutsu. If she has the aptitude for it, that is."

Sakura beamed happily.

OoOoO

Gaara reluctantly followed Naruto all the way back to the Hokage tent, where they found Kakashi and Jiraiya deep in discussion. "I thought you were going to the mess tent, ero-sennin," Naruto said.

"I did, you little ingrate!" Jiraiya snapped. "But I found Kakashi there and we came back here to discuss Orochimaru."

"Without me?" Naruto asked. "This is my camp, rōjin!"

Jiraiya glared at him. "You are so immature sometimes, Naruto," he said. "This is serious, we are at WAR!"

"I know that!" Naruto yelled. "Now what were the two of you talking about!?"

"WE WERE TALKING ABOUT HOW…" Jiraiya stopped, noting the look on both Kakashi and Gaara's faces. "Er… we were talking about how the latest intel has forces from Sound being spotted up in Earth Country. The Tsuchikage and the Earth Daimyo have it under control for now, but we don't know for how long."

"What are they doing about it exactly?" Gaara asked.

"They have ninja and samurai rounding up anyone suspected of knowing anything to do with Sound," Jiraiya said. "It's crude, but we'll see how effective it is if they get any results. But there's something else I wanted to talk to you about. Has anyone ever heard of a group known as Akatsuki?"

There was a general scratching or shaking of heads, then Jiraiya spoke, "They're a mysterious organisation, I'm unsure of their goals. But I have learned recently that Orochimaru was once a member."

"Do they pose a threat at this moment?" Gaara asked.

"It's uncertain," Jiraiya said. "I only stumbled across a mention of them while I was trying to find leads on Orochimaru before Naruto sent a summons for me."

"Did you find anything on Orochimaru?" Kakashi asked. "Other than our usual intel."

"Just the usual, that he's hiding out in Rice. But none of our scouts have been able to find where he would be keeping his so-called secret base," Jiraiya told them.

"We need a plan," Gaara said. "So far Orochimaru has been using hit and run methods that have left us blindly groping after any attackers. We need to find a way to strike back, or forever be on the defensive."

Naruto looked stumped, so Gaara spoke up once more, "There have been talks in the past of adding extra protection for Wind, but with the knowledge of Orochimaru's base being in Rice, I think that we should send in two teams of ninja to scout the area, locate his base. That way we may actually accomplish the jump to the offensive."

"Leaf's fine with defence," Naruto said. "Are you sure your people can handle their own?"

"We can handle our own," Gaara intoned, "though I suppose help would be welcomed. We may not have the numbers of the Leaf, but we can use Tottori's dunes to our advantage, especially against an enemy unfamiliar with the terrain. I will need to discuss all of this with Baki."

Naruto nodded. "Maybe we should have a proper meeting tomorrow," he suggested. "Bring our Generals up to speed, get their input on the matter."

Gaara nodded, and Jiraiya stood. "Great!" he said. "Now that that's settled, I'm gonna hit the hay. I've got to get going soon to meet a contact, and it would be better done refreshed."

"Yeah, that sounds like a great idea!" Naruto cheered.

"Don't you have paperwork still?" Kakashi asked, and Naruto groaned.

"I can just use clones…"

Gaara stood and left the tent, wondering where Sakura was. He closed his eyes and focused his sand, sending minute particles through the tents, and discovered that she'd gone back to the training grounds. Opening his eyes, he immediately used his sand to transport over there, spotting her right away, sitting on the same log he'd been on earlier when he'd watched her fight with Etsuko.

OoOoO

Sakura stiffened a bit when she realised that Gaara had appeared out of nowhere, using that sand of his. She turned to him as he sat down next to her.

"Hello, Gaara," she greeted.

"Hn."

Her eyes narrowed at his grunt, and she poked him in the ribs. "Rough day?" she asked with an undertone of sarcasm. "I never would have guessed.

"Don't get smart with me," he told her. "What are you doing back here?"

Sakura turned back to look at the people that were training, less than there had been before considering it would be getting dark soon. "These guys are amazing," she said. "Their fighting reminds me of a friend of mine, Rock Lee. Lee is a martial arts fighter. He and Kiba are the ones who taught me and my friends to fight, but they only fought in practice or for tournaments. These people though… They fight to defend those who can't, and I'm sure they would kill for that reason too. But from what I've noticed, I don't think they could match Lee-san in speed!"

There was a hint of pride in her voice at those words, and she looked up at that instant to see a weird look flash across Gaara's face. But then it was gone as quickly and his features were a mask once more.

Sakura stood again, pulling him up by the hand she was still holding. "Come on," she said. "Spar with me, show me how you fight."

"You want me to teach you how to fight?" he asked.

"I already know how," she told him. "I want to learn your way."

"Very well," he said. "Show me your stance."

Sakura immediately got into a stance she'd used with the Sound bandits. Gaara inspected her critically, eying her up and down, and she felt a little self conscious.

"It's a good stance," he told her, "but you're too relaxed."

Moving around behind her, he reached his arms around her, correcting her stance. She felt her heart rate increase, and for some reason knew Gaara was smirking at her, like he knew the effect he was having on her.

"Move your arms higher," he told her, deliberately letting his breath tickle her ear. "And bend your knees more. You need to be ready to move quickly, and this way, it'll be easier."

"I feel silly standing like this," she muttered.

"It's better than the way you were standing before," Gaara told her, moving in front of her and taking up his own stance. "Come at me."

Sakura and Gaara sparred until it started getting dark, Gaara frequently interrupting to correct her moves. By the end of it, she knew for sure that she had his respect, and that thought softened her view of him and she didn't protest when he led her back to his tent, ordering a ninja to get someone to bring them some food.

I was gonna get Etsuko and Sakura to fight with kodachis as well, but decided not to. I think I did really well with this chapter, considering I hate fighting scenes with a passion. Anyway, review, ok?

Glossary:

Kodachi: A Japanese short sword.

Tantō: A short sword used as a dagger, 15-30cm long.

Nodachi: A large, two handed sword often synonymous with the Ōdachi.

Hanbō: A martial arts staff.

Tonfa: A stick with a handle, wielded in pairs, an Okinawan weapon.

Rōjin: Old man, in case you forgot from that other chapter.

Tottori: A prefecture in Japan.

Tottori Sand Dunes: A 100,000 year old icon that's the closest thing Japan has to a desert.