Dear readers, I'm alive! New job, crazy hours (don't ever work more than twelve hours in a row, it can seriously drain you for the following days) and family trouble kept me from writing this as quickly as I'd hoped, but I eventually managed to finish this. I'm really quite happy with it, despite how hard it was to write certain parts of it. Enjoy!

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"Anata?"

Blinking, Fugaku looked up from his paperwork. In the entrance of his study, his wife smiled softly at him.

"Someone's here to see you. Shall I show him in?"

Fugaku blinked, trying to remember if he had an appointment scheduled that day and coming up short. Was it a surprise visit?

"The clan elders?" he asked, steeling himself for her answer.

Mikoto shook her head, hiding a smile as he nearly sagged in relief; the elders were sure able to drain one's energy, vitality and motivation in the span of a few minutes.

"It isn't. Rather, it is a messenger from Myou."

His eyebrows joined his hairline at that.

"The medical village? How peculiar...Make him enter."

By the time she returned with the messenger, Fugaku looked confident and perfectly poised as always he was in the company of strangers—even his family, at times.

He recognized the young man who entered for having heard of him from his eldest son, and nodded politely to him as the other man sat down. The door closed, his dear Mikoto softly saying that she would bring back tea and snacks in a moment.

Tohru introduced himself, looking slightly ill at ease, which didn't fail to rouse Fugaku's interest. Looking at the blond with somber eyes, he enunciated, "What did you wish to see me for?"

Tohru sighed with a self-deprecating smile. "This is a bit of a long story...Actually, I was sent here with a...a strange message. I...think it might be best if I showed you. I came bearing gifts; they're in the entrance. Shall we go there?"

Curiosity more than pity at the clearly uneasy blond made Fugaku agree wordlessly and gesture for Tohru to lead the way. As it so happened, there was a big pile of presents in the entrance of his home, which Tohru told him were thanks for all the Uchiha Clan's help. Among the various crates filled with bolts of silk, scrolls, pottery, medicinal herbs and vials filled with poisons or antidotes, there was one crate that was different from the others. Tohru opened it carefully with a crowbar and rummaged through the bolts of silk, gingerly setting them down on the ground next to him.

And then the crate's real treasure was revealed.

"What in the world?" uttered Fugaku, flabbergasted.

He stepped forward and fingered the seal-laced wood on the inside of the crate, pensively peering into it. The pillows that padded it made for a relatively comfortable bed for the sleeping boy inside.

"Well...May I present Sabaku no Gaara, who for now is asleep and really should remain so until I finish explaining why I've brought him here...Exploding temper and all that..."

Fugaku fought to remain aloof and detached while he closed the crate once again. "Speak up. What has my daughter-in-law gotten embroiled in?"

"I have no idea. Nobody does. She just sent me here with Gaara-san, told me to keep him hidden until we came here and to tell you in person to keep him hidden if at all possible," said Tohru as he followed the pensive but still listening Fugaku back to his study. "She seemed to think it very important that no one knew he was here."

"Strange...Surely the Kazekage had heard he was in Myou so it can't be to hide from him...Continue."

"I admit there's not much else to say...She told me not to come back for a month. I've no idea what she intends to do in that time. She said it's imperative Gaara-san kept hiding here—that, and Itachi-san should not return to Myou for a while, either."

"That is interesting...I'm positive they didn't fight...Maybe Gaara-san will be able to shed some light on this. Wait here. I'm taking no chances with the boy."

-:-

"We're going to have a visitor soon..."

Two males turned in her direction. She smiled to them, chuckling inwardly at their twin looks of annoyance.

"And it appears he's arrived."

She got up to answer the knock at the door while her husband sternly told their son to go to bed. She didn't ask their visitor to explain the motive of his visit, simply beckoned him to follow her.

He did so with a grateful nod. "I need your husband's help, right now and with no questions."

They shared a meaningful glance.

"Alright."

She heard her husband exit the living room and smiled apologetically. And then he muttered, "Mendoukusei."

-:-

"Something real bad is going to happen. You saw the signs; she saw it coming long before you suspected anything. And she acted."

Trapped by a shadow, unable to move, Gaara could only listen in fury as a cool man detachedly explained the situation. Sakura had put him to sleep once before, but he had woken up in familiar territory. This time, she had gone much further than that, deciding on her own that he would be sent to a whole different village, one that wasn't quite on friendly terms with his father's one.

"Don't be angry at her. If she sent you away in this manner, there must have been a good reason. After all, you know her character. Can you remain calm?"

Gaara glared, agitated but willing to give them a chance to explain to him just why he shouldn't kill them for holding him immobile and, apparently, planning to keep him confined in the house he was in.

"Maybe you should get your son in here," suggested the one with the ponytail.

With a nod, the other disappeared. Gaara glared at the remaining man.

"Mendoukusei...I don't want to keep you immobile either, this is so annoying...I'd rather go back home," he said, sitting down with a sigh.

"Release me."

"Can't do that. Itachi-san will be here in a moment and then everything will be explained. I admit I'm curious too. But mostly annoyed."

Gaara was, too, and quietly simmering. His sand swirled in his gourd in reaction to his emotions—wait, something was not normal...

His eyes widened in surprise, but his lazy captor was looking at the door, sighing in annoyance and wishing Fugaku would come back soon with Itachi.

The door opened and in came the two Uchiha, the younger one faltering almost imperceptibly upon entering.

"This...What is the meaning of this? Did you need to restrain him?"

"It was safer this way. He would have caused a stir, and we need his presence to stay a secret."

"Mendoukusei..."

"Where is she?"

At Gaara's demand, the three black-haired males stopped talking and turned to him.

"Sakura-sensei is still back in Myou," explained Fugaku. "She sent her apologies for the way she handled the situation. Her apprentice told me she seemed in a rush, for some reason. He didn't know why she sent you here, nor why she asked us to keep you safe without anyone knowing."

Gaara glared. "I'll kill her."

Itachi sighed, crouched next to Gaara and shook his head.

"You wouldn't. You know well she did only what she thought best for you. We may not know what prompted her to act this way, but it must have been something very important and dire if she felt she could not tell anyone and acted in such a rush."

Gaara clenched his jaw shut, not refuting Itachi's statement but refusing to agree with it either.

"Gaara-san," said Itachi, "if you do remain here, you'll be treated well, I swear on my honor as an Uchiha. And if you remain hidden, I'll make sure I find out why she sent you here, to be secreted away."

"Regardless of your answer, we can keep you immobile and silent indefinitely, Gaara-san, do be aware of that," said Fugaku sternly.

"Yeah, about that...not really. I'd really like to go home sometime before this day turns into the next," drawled Shikaku unhappily. "Mendoukusei..."

As unhelpful as his comment was, it did give Gaara an idea. Cooperating for a while wouldn't hurt much in the long run, especially if Itachi was true to his word, as he had always proved to be.

"Release me. As you wish, I'll stay quiet. For a time. I want answers, Itachi-san. Answers you will provide me or I'll wreak havoc on this place."

Itachi was suspicious but agreed in relief. The adults were skeptical too, but the room they were in, a prized secret of the Uchiha Clan, was not as innocent as it seemed. Used most often in the past for meetings with other Clan Heads or important officials, it was lined with a web of seals that absorbed chakra, repelled destructive jutsu and were designed to make one's mind peaceful—its work was subtle, influencing one rather than forcing emotions upon one, and more difficult to perceive and counter. Furthermore, despite its appearance, the room was underground, fully soundproof—anything happening within those walls would always remain secret if no one leaked anything once outside.

Thinking back on it, Fugaku remembered that reunions had happened here in a recent past, a man promising his clan power and respect...until his wife had cleanly put a stop to the clan elders' views on this matter. Who knew what that man was concocting now, and with whom...

-:-

Toranosuke entered the kitchen, stomach growling. His eyes lit up upon seeing Satoshi chopping carrots, engrossed in his menial work and completely oblivious to the world outside his head. Grinning, he tiptoed up to the older man and leaned down to blow on his ear. Surprised, the graying man jerked, knife slipping to lightly bite into his index finger.

Hissing in pain, Satoshi stuck his injured finger into his mouth and glared at his lover.

"I love you, but please don't ever do that again if you want a safe bed to sleep in," he uttered calmly.

Toranosuke put his arm around Satoshi's shoulders, lightly saying, "Come now, I'll heal this for you in a jiffy. Don't be angry, hm?"

Satoshi lightly punched the taller man on the arm but let him handle his hand, shivering as Toranosuke first ran a finger down his sensitive palm.

"Don't do that," he berated his lover, "we don't have time for this. Heal me, then wake up ojou-sama."

"Well, then, we have all the time in the world. She's out on one of her solitary walks," said Toranosuke, dragging the other man into his embrace.

"Wait, what?"

Disentangling himself, Satoshi left the room at a brisk pace, leaving behind a pouting man.

"Doesn't she ever rest? Why does she never warn me..."

-:-

The forest was waking up, it seemed. Birds chirped, animals ran in the underbrush, fish swam in glitters of silver in the rivers...and a female jogged upriver, feet treading lightly the surface of the water as she did so.

Gotta get my cardio back to normal...

Breaths puffed out of her regularly as she slowly picked up speed, alert but focused on her body's responses.

So far so good. And I'm far enough...

Lips twitching, she headed for the shore. She was very tired, but this was no time to rest, especially now that her last finger had been regrown. It was tender still, and she didn't know whether or not it would react quite like her original fingers yet, as she didn't have time to muscle it. Such a simple, mundane thing that could be her downfall if she didn't take it into account.

And now that she was far enough from Myou, she would smash a few boulders to test her body.

"Hello, Sakura-sensei."

Her foot slipped, nearly sending her into the water. She righted herself at once, cursing inwardly at having been caught unawares. Tension coiled in her stomach, her heart beat faster, sending blood running through her veins in anticipation of a fight.

"I believe you expect my appearance before you. My name is Uchiha Madara."

For a beat, a moment of eternity, wind swished past her as the both of them remained silent. Then, crazily, she burst into shocked and disbelieving laughter. Her crazy laughs echoed for a long while in the forest, unimpeded by any other sounds as the forest grew silent.

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My apologies for the delay and the lack of real action in this chapter. There should be some in the next one, though!