Well, I'm back, after a long hiatus. But that time off was not time spent idle; I've been working on three pieces of work over the last 8 months. This particular fic was my NaNoWriMo project. I finished - in that I reached 50,000 words (50,052 to be exact). The story itself is not yet done, I anticipate there will be another 30K or more words to write before I can call it done. I'm into revision and editing right now, but the first few chapters are ready to go.

This story is AU, meaning it's alternate universe. The characters are from Naruto, but the setting is original. It is NOT 'real life' AU - this setting is a fantasy setting of my own devising. I've preserved some traits of the shinobi world, and those will be recognisable within. However, please remember that this is not Japan, nor is it Five Countries. I will not be using honorifics in this fic and the world is a unique world, so don't expect the culture to match canon. And although I borrow some concepts from the real world, they have been altered for this world. Please note, the term 'god' in this story is gender neutral.

Additionally, the characters have undergone different histories during their formative years, and as such, are somewhat different from canon. I have tried to preserve personality where possible, however there are characters that will be OOC compared to canon. Gaara is one. In this fiction he is not a jinchuuriki and has not been treated as an insane monster. Instead, he has been brought up amidst power and privilege. So he is not a psychopathic, murderous little bastard. He is, however, cocky, impertinent, and full of himself. Hopefully, dear readers, this is a change you can stomach.

This is a NaNo fic, with all the attendant reductions in quality over my usual work. So reader be warned - it's not my best work. I'm hoping that it will be good enough to entertain you, however. It's been entertaining me quite well. :)

As is usually the case with my writing, this work is M, although the truly M (lemon) material doesn't come until closer to the end of the fic.

Coming up the pipe after this is done, I plan to post two more Gaara fics - Redheaded Misadventures (starring Gaara and Karin in an improbable and sometimes hilarious adventure through unknown lands), and Tesseracts: Gaara (a Gaara-comes-to-our-world fic with rare-seen realism, and an OC that is not a Sue!)

Yeah, it's a departure from Grimmjow for a while. I wore the poor kitty out.

Enjoy your read.


Chapter 1

Sakura shifted her weight, sandaled feet pressing through the warm sand of the arena floor. Her opponent this time was a large man, bald and heavily muscled. He looked nothing like the little boy whose eyes she had closed for the last time several hours earlier. Seeing his 16-year old, pink haired opponent, he gave her a smirk; clearly wondering what she was doing there. The young acolyte gazed back, seemingly impassive. Inside, she was anything but.

The big man shifted in the sand, echoing the kunoichi's movements. Sakura sighed and relaxed her shoulders. He frowned at her, apparently thinking about something. Maybe he was thinking twice about facing a teenaged girl on the arena floors.

"You can't be serious about this, girlie," he said.

"I am." Sakura replied. She tugged at the wrist of her fingerless gloves.

"This is a serious fight, you know. Yeah, there's no killing allowed, but still…" He trailed off.

"I know." Sakura said. "Let's get on with it. We're disgracing ourselves before the god with our delay."

The big man shrugged. The subtle movement of his body warned Sakura that he'd apparently decided it wasn't worthwhile to talk her out of it and he was about to fight. Her deep familiarity with the human body allowed her to read his movements well enough to block and dodge his rush and heavy, ham-fisted swing.

Sand sprayed, and the crowd above the pit cheered. Sakura closed her eyes briefly and let her chakra senses read the man. Even with her eyes shut it was child's play for her to avoid his next attempted strike. He might be big, but she was trained. She opened her eyes again.

"I'm sorry," she whispered, though not to her opponent.

Lightning fast, the 98 lb, 5'2", 16-year old girl struck, her fist flying towards the bald man's sternum. Surprised at her sudden speed, he blinked and staggered backwards, barely blocking her strike. There was a slight cracking noise, nearly lost in the cheering of the crowd.

"What the—," The bald dockworker was on the defensive once more as Sakura flew at him, swinging in a closed-fisted, overhand punch. He managed to intercept her swing, but the force of it sent him sliding backwards across the sand.

"Holy shit, girl, that's some strength!" He said, impressed despite himself. Maybe he'd given his thanks to the battle god a little prematurely. The little pink-haired dynamo was clearly not a pushover.

"Please do not swear on the gods' ground." Sakura spoke softly before attacking again, chakra filling her fists as she flew at her opponent.

She had to dodge his swings as she came into attack range. This wasn't good. His reach was longer than hers. He was well over twice her mass, probably approaching three times her mass, and at least a foot taller than her. But she had the strength advantage. She had the strength advantage over almost any mortal. Thank you, Tsunade.

She closed her eyes again, and lost herself in the battle rush, as she blocked his fists with her crossed arms. That would leave a bruise.

Silently, Sakura slipped into the curious mental state that had always accompanied a serious fight for her. The world narrowed to her and her opponent within the confines of their battlefield. Time seemed to slow. Then, it was only her, her opponents, and the watching gods. She fought, barely aware of what she was doing, letting instinct and years of training take control. Instead, she prayed.

She prayed for the soul of the departed boy, taken too young. She prayed for forgiveness of her failure and her lack of ability. For forgiveness of the curses she had levelled at the gods as she had clutched the boy's hand, watching the light fade from his eyes for the last time as tears streamed down her cheeks. Every movement she made was prayer, penitence, and expiation. Every blow she took helped her shed her inner pain. Every blow she made helped her pour out her anger and frustration.

Sand flew, flesh rippled in uncanny slow motion as her fists lashed out and landed. She took hits, and gave them. At one point she was knocked off her feet and she slid across the sand face-first; her opponent had some strength as well, it seemed. But she got back up, wiped the sand from her face, flicked away the sweat, and went right back at it.

It wasn't long before Sakura won, the blow that ended the fight sending the man flying across the arena to impact against the wall. She knelt in the sand, panting and staring straight ahead as the world resumed. The sound of the cheering crowd around the arena helped to return her fully to her surroundings.

It was over. She had won. Her sins had been expiated in blood, sweat, sand, and pain. Presumably, she had been forgiven of her transgressions.

Acolytes of the battle god entered from the side portals of the arena, bearing a stretcher for the dazed dockworker. A single priest came to Sakura. At least, she assumed he was a priest, with the flak jacket and the shoulder patches.

"Medical attention will be offered to you if you will follow me." The older man said. Sakura didn't recognize him, but that wasn't surprising. She knew a few people in the battle god's priesthood, but not all that many. And most of the ones she knew were novices like herself.

"Just take me to a room. I'm a healer. I can handle it myself," she said.

The priest blinked at her in surprise, but didn't comment. Instead, he transferred the senbon needle he was sucking on from one corner of his mouth to the other. "Alright then. Just come along and I'll take you to a cooldown room," he said.

She followed him. The priest seemed to be a fairly good natured man, chatting amiably as they walked. Sakura figured he was maybe 10 years older than she was. He seemed a little irreverent, which surprised her.

"So you're one of the healing god's?" He asked as they arrived at the cooldown room.

"Yeah," she said. "Don't tell the others I'm here, please."

"Don't worry girl, your secret's safe with me. Do you need anything?"

Sakura looked around the room. There was already water, cloths, bandages, and other medical supplies. Everything was set up just the way it should be.

"This should be fine," she said.

"This your first time in the arena?"

"No."

At her soft negative, the priest gave her another surprised look. It was very rare, but not entirely unheard of, for those sworn to the healing god to take part in arena fights. The news that this wasn't her first time was even more surprising. He didn't comment, though, and Sakura was grateful. Of course, he wasn't supposed to comment. The battle god's arenas promised an opportunity to atone for one's sins, no questions asked. The fights were usually until knock-out or surrender. Win or lose, one paid for one's transgressions in pain, and sometimes, in blood.

"Well then…" He paused, obviously not sure what to say. He seemed to decide. "Why don't you see to those bruises and clean up, and I'll go collect your part of the winnings," he suggested.

Wordlessly, Sakura nodded. She stepped into the cooldown room, letting the priest close the door after her.

Cleanup first. She stripped down to her underwear and used the water and cloths to cleanse away the sweat and the sand. It gave her the opportunity to identify her wounds. She had a few. There were numerous scrapes and bruises, and she thought she might have fractured her radius in one of the blocks. It ached badly.

She gathered healing chakra and focused it into her hand, releasing it over her wounded arm. The livid bruise faded and the pain disappeared as she healed herself. Her investigation revealed that she had indeed sustained a hairline fracture, which she was now healing. A few seconds later it was healed, strong as it had been before and good as new. She turned her healing powers to the worst of the bruises, watching purple and black fade to green and then yellow and then the peach tone of her healthy skin.

She followed with some of the scratches and scrapes, re-knitting skin and flesh and sending grains of sand plinking to the stone floor as she poured healing chakra into her own body. The most minor bruises and scrapes she left, opting instead to use the antiseptic provided and putting a bandage over them. No use wasting her chakra on something so minor.

Her healing done, she inspected herself in the full-length mirror provided, and then shook the sand out of her fighting outfight. The short pants and loose red shirt smelled of sweat and sand, but that was ok. She could launder it when she returned to the novitiate. She put her clothes back on.

A knock came at the door.

"Enter," she said. She watched the door open in the mirror, seeing the priest from before peeking his handsome face in. Seeing her whole of body and dressed, he smiled and stepped into the room as she turned too face him.

"I see you are well. I guess you're really one of hers then after all, huh?" He said, rhetorically.

"Yeah." Sakura said.

"I brought your winnings. You did well. Here you go, by the way. 11,000 ryo."

"Thank you," She replied, accepting the purse.

He seemed to consider something, then apparently made a decision. He grinned at her. "If this isn't your first time in the arena, if you don't mind me asking, how many times have you fought here?"

Sakura blushed. "Three times," she admitted.

He looked impressed. "Three times? Did you win then too?"

"Not the first time." Sakura said. She wasn't expecting that reaction. She wasn't sure what she had been expecting. Disapproval maybe. But not for someone to be impressed. But then again, she was in the battle god's house right now. His standards were different from the standards of the healing god's house. What would be considered something slightly shameful in the healing god's house was probably something worth bragging about here.

"But you did the second time?"

"Yeah," she admitted.

"Way to go, girl. That's some skills. Who taught you your taijutsu?"

"Rock Lee," she grinned, despite herself.

"Haha, I should have known. He's something, isn't he. That kid would have gone far in our house, I think. Well, I got one more thing to do here, then you can go do what you like," he smiled at her, reaching out his hand and passing it over her in the ancient benediction of the pantheon. "Your sins against the pantheon have been paid for on the battle god's sands. Go forth with heart and soul free of care, child of the gods," he spoke the ritual words, the phrase she had heard twice before now in a room very like this.

"Thank you."

"Thank you, girl. You made the pantheon some good money tonight," he winked at her. She smiled shyly back. She knew well enough that the moneys made from gambling revenues in the temples of the battle god scattered across the land made up a large part of the shared funds of the pantheon. Offerings could be made to any particular temple, and they would stay within that god's domain, but the battle god's arenas were an engine for funds for the entire pantheon. It was part of the reason why anyone could atone there, not merely those sworn to the battle god. Anyone from the public could choose to expiate their sins on his ground, not just the clergy. Anyone could do it, even those sworn to other gods. Though it was pretty rare for the dedicated to fight on the arenas. The dedicated, after all, were not known for sinning all that much.

Of course there were those who fought in the arena for fun and profit, too. Sakura wasn't one of them. Sakura came for her own reasons. She was fairly certain that most of the clergy who fought here weren't in it for the money or profit. Though, she admitted privately to herself that she wouldn't be surprised if the battle god's dedicated participated in arena fights just for the fun of it, though.

She said her goodbye to the priest, who cheerfully bade her farewell after asking if she needed to be shown the way out. She didn't. She'd been well trained in the years before she'd found her calling and been dedicated to the healing god. She'd been well trained since. Tsunade had seen to that when it became clear that Sakura was willing to learn. Just because she was a healer didn't mean her ninja training had to lapse, even if most healers ultimately chose not to pursue the advanced combat arts.

Any good shinobi of the priesthood should be able to find his or her way out of a place after having only been there once. Sakura was no exception. She went down the hallway and ascended the stone steps up to the main level the battle god's temple, sorting her money as she climbed. The roar of the crowd, muffled by the stone, told her that another fight was going on. Good, the shrine would likely be deserted.

At the top of the stairs she hung a left and headed for the shrine. She glanced around and saw no one. The base of the small obelisk was adorned with blood lilies, reputed to be the favourite of the battle god. The offering pile was separated into different varieties of goods; cash, food, flowers, and material goods. The blood lily she had brought before she entered the arena was sitting on top off the mound of flowers.

She bowed before the shrine, paying her respects, and then knelt before it and laid a portion of her winnings among the cash. As she rose, a voice disturbed her reverie.

"You were one of the fighters just a little while ago, weren't you?" The voice was male; his tone casual but curious.

Sakura took several steps back from the offering pile and turned, slightly surprised. She had been certain no one else was in the shrine with her. But there, leaning against a pillar with his arms crossed in front of his chest, was a boy about her age, maybe a year older. He had flaming red hair, cut short in a tousled mess, and very pale skin. On his temple she could see the hint of a tattoo – she thought it might be the symbol for love. How curious. He was slender and wiry, but there was an aura of strength about him all the same. He was dressed in an acolyte's flak jacket – obviously he'd done his tasks already and been accepted. Uncanny, pale blue-green eyes met hers – devoid of pupils and glimmering with a fierce intelligence. She could sense the massive chakra he contained. He must be the child of one of the more powerful priest families, she thought.

"Yes." Sakura answered, for some reason feeling slightly dizzy when she looked at him. Then she blinked and gave her head a slight shake, and the feeling cleared.

"You're one of the healing god's dedicated, aren't you." It was a statement more than a question. Sakura nodded. The ghost of a smile crossed his lips. "How curious. Usually your kind is patching up the unfortunate losers, not creating them." His voice was slightly mocking.

"I know."

"It's unusual for any of the slug's people to be here voluntarily," he said, voice becoming teasing, "you can't mean to tell me a 16-year old novice is so steeped in sin that she needs to come seek absolution on the battle god's sands," he smirked.

She flushed at his casual usage of the term 'slug'. Yes, the healing god was the Six Tailed Slug of Healing, but still, it seemed so irreverent. She flushed even brighter when he questioned her reasons for fighting. He was clearly not acting in any official capacity of the battle god's temple right now, but her motivation was still a sore subject for Sakura, and somewhat taboo. Absolution, no questions asked.

"My reasons are my own," she said, quietly.

"Maybe you're in the wrong temple," he suggested, a hint of a smirk back on his attractive mouth.

"I know my calling," she said, confidently. "Lady Tsunade has a great deal of hope for my healing abilities."

"Lady Tsunade, eh?" He asked, rhetorically. "Still… one can't help but wonder what a novice of the slug is doing throwing large men across the floor in the arena. It's unusual by far. It's not your first time, either. I've seen you here now, what…" he arched a hairless eyebrow "twice before this?"

"Yes," she looked away briefly, feeling slightly ashamed. What did this oh-so-cool, oh-so-collected young acolyte of the battle god want with her? Seriously? But there was something about him that intrigued her, though she couldn't put her finger on it. Maybe it was his confidence. Or his looks. At 16, Sakura was by no means unaffected by boys. She just hadn't given them much thought, what with the need to focus on her studies.

"You should be careful, girl. A healer in the arena like that, and you might just draw the attention of the gods," he warned, again, that slight mocking tone that seemed to be present in everything he said coming through strong. He rose from his leaning pose and sauntered over to the offering pile, scooping up a stuffed bun and biting into it.

"Isn't that the whole point of being in the clergy?" She asked, watching him loot the offering pile with incredulity. Sure, the food there would go to the battle god's dedicated anyway, but in her temple, it was usually received first. But then, if the priest who saw her to the cooldown room this time was any indication, perhaps the battle god's clergy were more irreverent than the healing god's.

"You'd think so, wouldn't you," he smirked again, possibly as much at her discomfort at watching him eat the bun from the offering as from whatever else had him smirking so damn much at her. "Yes, the priesthood wants to be known by the gods. They want their prayers answered and their powers to work, and for the favoured to have their special gifts and blessings. But individual mortals do not truly want to be the focus of the gods' attention. The gods always want something, you know. It's generally not more than a mortal can give, but they always want something," he smiled mysteriously.

"Uh," she said, feeling a little drawn. "I'm just a novice. I'm a nobody. How would that get the gods' attention? I mean, maybe if I was someone like Tsunade or even Shizune…" She trailed off.

"You're a healer, pit fighting, repeatedly. And you're praying while you do it, I'll bet. The gods listen, you know," he said.

She wondered how he knew that she was praying, and then she realized that most people probably prayed on the sands. Well, most of the people who were there to expiate their sins, at least.

"And I'm fairly certain that wasn't 10% you just put down on the offering pile," he continued.

She blushed.

"Tithe. It means 10%, you know," he said to her.

"I'm aware," she muttered under her breath.

"Now unless you won a lot more than I thought you did, that's well over 10%," he raised an eyebrow to her.

"I know that. They teach us math at the Six Tails' temple too," she said, acidly.

He smiled, the first genuine smile she'd seen on him since she first saw him. "What are you going to do with the rest of it?"

"I'll put the same as I did here on the Six Tails' shrine," she admitted.

He snorted, an amused sound. "The tithe is also not meant to represent what you keep for yourself, girl. You won that, fair and square in the eyes of the gods. They don't demand from mortals what they can't afford to give."

"I live off tithes," she returned. "I'm fed and clothed and educated from tithes. The least I can do is give some back. Besides, what's a novice going to do with all that money? It's not like we have space to keep possessions."

He shrugged. "You will some day. When you become an acolyte and then a priest, you'll have larger quarters. Plenty of the clergy amass trinkets and clothes, and those who keep up with their martial studies are known for spending their stipends on special weapons that don't come from the dispensary. You might want to start saving," he finished off his bun.

Sakura gave him a flat look. "I keep 10%," she said, defensively.

He gave a short bark of laughter at her admission. He reached once more into the offering pile and pulled out a blood lily. Her blood lily. Sakura watched as he slipped it into the D-ring of one of the many buckles on his flack jacket.

"Look, I need to get going, Tsunade wants me for an errand this afternoon…" She started. It wouldn't do to be late. She was skirting the lines of acceptability in being here at all. She suspected Tsunade knew about her coming to the arena, but as of yet, the high priestess had said nothing to her about it. Sakura did not want her only outlet for her inner feelings of guilt and sorrow to be taken away. Which it might be, if Tsunade found a reason to disapprove of her visits to the battle god's temple.

"What's your name, girl?" He demanded, before she could back out of there politely and be off.

"Sakura," She replied.

"Gaara," He said, though she hadn't asked. She'd been curious, actually. He gave her another smirk and a calculating glance. "You have to go?"

"Yes."

"Then you'd better get going. I'm sure the slug princess will be upset with you if you're late," he said.

She flushed. He must be highly placed in the battle god's ranks if he could get away with talking about the high priestess of one of the other gods like that, and if he could help himself to the offerings like that. She was silently certain that he was a child of someone highly placed in the priesthood. Only hereditary priests typically had that kind of hubris.

"See you later, Gaara," she said, giving him a quick, tiny bow. He smiled and gave her a deeper bow, which seemed somewhat mocking.

"No doubt, Sakura," He replied, archly.


Special thanks to Musichowler for the beta job - as we all know, NaNoWriMo is about quantity over quality and I'm afraid my first job had a few errors. Also, thanks to danyel for the advance read. If you haven't already, go check out danyel's Marriage in the Sand, a Gaara/Hinata fic that I've been betaing for her.