Yes, it has been a while. I am still alive. The surgery went well and I'll know by next week whether there's any further cause for concern. I've just been really really tired. Apparently that's a common side effect of having been anesthetized - it's completely normal to be a bit droopy for a few weeks after. It doesn't help that I've been putting in 44-50 hour weeks at work and got back into WoW (bad errihu! Bad girl!)... I'm behind on all my beta jobs and behind on this story.

To be honest I'm not going to have the time to update this on any kind of regular schedule for a bit. However, NaNoWriMo has introduced Camp NaNoWriMo, which lets you pick any month you want to do your NaNo in, and I'm thinking about making August a NaNo month. Plus I have a week's vacation out at a place with no internet so I'm going to bring my laptop and try to get some writing done between the fishing.

So please enjoy this much-belated chapter 19. (Even more belated to chapter 20... 2016, I'm sorry. But I'm writing again. So, if you're stumbling across this fic for the first time and made it this far, don't lose heart. There'll be a new chapter shortly, and when I start posting again, it will be because this story is finished. So, you'll get to read all of it!)

Chapter 19

That evening, Sakura slipped off to the training grounds after finishing her supper. The night was warm, and the humidity spoke of the rainy season that was soon to come. She took a deep breath, enjoying the peacefulness of the night, before she headed off to break that peace.

At the training grounds, two figures were already fighting. Sakura watched the shadowy forms as they moved across the moon-silvered sands. The backdrop of trees that formed the other edge of the training ground meant she couldn't see all the details, but she could see where they were by the contrast of dark bodies on pale sand.

Well, she wasn't fighting right now, so whatever rules these two were using about chakra didn't apply to her. She let her chakra senses expand out of her like a sigh of breath. It was a skill Tsunade had been trying to teach her, that of sensing her surroundings with her chakra. It might be an extension of the sensing she did to diagnose a patient, but that didn't mean she was good at it yet. So far she found it difficult to maintain this kind of sense while doing anything else. It sure wasn't an instinctive act by any means. Sakura acknowledged to herself that she really should practice more. If she'd been in better practice, she would have known it was Gaara in her room the other night and not embarrassed herself trying to attack him.

With the opportunity to relax and let the chakra flow, she could sense decently. She smiled when she found it gave her a much better idea of what both combatants were doing at a given time. That was definitely Gaara out there, and if she was right, it was Naruto he was sparring with. Both were constantly on the move. As in her spar with Gaara the night before, it seemed that they were limiting themselves to kunai and taijutsu, for she sensed no chakra expenditures from either of them, though both practically blazed with restrained power. Was that what set apart the great families of the hereditary clergy from shinobi like herself; the vast power they inherited?

Naruto and Gaara had closed and were grappling, and Gaara was faring somewhat better. Focusing on her chakra senses, Sakura sat in the sand and watched as Gaara deflected Naruto's attempted punch, and then hooked a foot around the blond's ankle and tumbled him into the sand. Naruto's squawk was audible from where Sakura sat, and she smirked as the Gaara-shadow dipped, clearly holding a kunai.

"Yield?" Gaara asked.

"Whatever," Naruto laughed. "You take this stuff so seriously sometimes."

"Staying alive is serious business!" Gaara protested. Naruto just laughed. "Look, you can't count on being lucky all the time."

"Who says?"

"You—argh, never mind. Let's do this again. Here." In the moonlight Sakura saw Gaara offer Naruto an arm up.

"Thanks," said the blond, springing to his feet with Gaara's help. "But aren't you going to say hi to Sakura? She's been sitting over there watching us for several minutes now."

"What? Sakura!" Gaara turned towards her. "You came."

"Well," she said, rising, "you did say you wanted me to come spar tonight. So you got Naruto to join us, huh?"

"Yeah, he nagged me all afternoon about how we all need practice," Naruto said cheerfully.

"I did not nag you," Gaara muttered defensively.

"Sure sounded like it," Naruto laughed. "Hey Sakura, come join us. This is going to be even more fun with three of us! Betcha can't see my kunai coming!"

It was completely hectic and completely fun. One other person in the sparring match added a whole new dimension to the faux battle. Most shinobi battle drills focused on single opponent or a team against multiples, but a free-for-all was new to her. It was exhilarating. Gaara and Naruto both 'killed' her several times, though she got Gaara once and Naruto twice. She finally realized it had gotten really late when she took a sweat-and-pant break and glanced at the moons.

"Hey Sakura, what's wrong?" Naruto asked cheerfully, a little louder than she would have liked. She winced. She didn't want to get caught out here. It was unlikely she'd be punished for practicing, but she was already in the doghouse and Gaara was here… so she didn't want to chance it.

"It's late, guys. Really late. I need to go to bed or I'm going to be a wreck tomorrow."

She saw the silhouettes of Gaara and Naruto turn to the moons.

"Uh oh, you're right, I'd better get into my bed before old man Jiraiya stumbles back from the taverns and decides to check on me…" Naruto trailed off. Sakura made a face. Taverns? That wasn't exactly setting a good role model for the clergy!

Gaara grunted. "They want me to clean the arena sands again. I suppose I'd better go. I want to see you out here tomorrow night, Cherry Blossom. You too, Naruto. Tonight was good but we definitely need practice."

"You're a crazy man, Gaara," Naruto laughed. "But I'll be here. Don't worry. There's no need to drag me out by my ankles with your sand, I'll come willingly!"

Sakura saw the Gaara-shadow cross his arms, and she goggled. He dragged Naruto out of the Nine-Tails' temple using his sand? She covered her mouth to suppress the laugh.

"You'd better. You're almost as out of practice as Cherry Blossom," Gaara muttered.

"Hey!" both Naruto and Sakura shouted at the same time. Gaara chuckled lowly at their reaction. Sakura suppressed the urge to push up her sleeve and deck him.

"Be back here after the evening hour tomorrow, and we'll continue this. Goodnight," Gaara stated, apparently choosing to ignore the indignation of his friends. Sakura was sure he was smirking, even if she couldn't see it.

The next day she reaped the rewards of staying up too late hurling kunai. She dragged through her tasks, doing her best to hop to it so Yashamaru and the other medics wouldn't notice her drowsiness. She thought she might even have succeeded.

That night at supper, she and Ino got a pleasant surprise; Hinata was back. The young Hyūga girl looked as exhausted as Sakura felt, but she'd obviously had a chance to clean up before hitting the refectory. She was sitting at their usual table, mechanically eating a bowl of soup, when Ino and Sakura came in for the supper rush. She didn't notice either of her friends as they put their trays on the table and sat down with her, she was that spaced out.

"Rough time in the jungle, Hinata?" Ino asked. Hinata startled and dropped her spoon into her soup, splashing all three girls with broth. The dark-haired girl looked up at them both, blushing.

"S-s-s-sorry I d-d-didn't see you sit down," she stammered.

"Are you ok?" Sakura wrinkled a brow at her pale-eyed friend.

"Yeah, j-j-just really tired. I f-f-feel like I could sleep for a week," Hinata replied. Her stutter was back. Sakura suspected it was due to sheer exhaustion.

"What happened?" Ino demanded. "You're back safe, right? You're not some kind of replacement Hinata sent by a jungle monster or something are you?"

Hinata glared at Ino, which looked really funny coming from the shy Hyūga. "I'm not a r-r-replacement Hinata. I'm the real m-me. I had to get a poisonous lizard and that thing was so h-h-hard to find."

"A poisonous lizard? Ewwww," Ino twisted her lips.

"It wasn't that bad, just took a long t-t-time," Hinata muttered into her soup bowl as she resumed eating.

"Hungry?" Sakura commented. Hinata nodded silently and continued eating.

"Well don't fall asleep at the table and drown in your soup. Your family would never live it down," Ino teased. Hinata snorted softly and then giggled. Hinata's treatment and summary dismissal as a worthless medic by her family had been a sore spot for the girl when she was much younger, and the three friends had dealt with it by making the infamous Hyūga stick-in-the ass attitude a point of humour.

"It would humiliate c-c-cousin Neji," Hinata giggled. "'Cousin of famous Hyūga prodigy drowns in soup, casts d-d-doubt on entire bloodline. Read all about it in the Miyajima Braggart!'"

"Oh no!" Sakura gasped in mock horror, clutching her hands like an outraged society matron. "Our family shall never live down the shame!"

Hinata and Ino both laughed.

"D-d-don't worry, I won't die in my soup. But I think I will sl-sl-sleep for a week."

"Oh," Ino declared, "I got my second task today!"

"Oh yeah?" Sakura asked, while Hinata gave Ino an interested look.

"Yeah I went to the Four Tails. I've got to copy an ancient scroll of techniques. But there's a catch, I have to prepare the parchment and the ink myself," Ino informed them.

"Sounds labour intensive," Hinata said, then yawned hugely.

"Finish your soup and go to bed, girl!" Sakura ordered with a laugh, earning a smirk from Ino and a smile from Hinata. "Ino, that sounds interesting. Learning how to make ink shouldn't be too different from brewing potions, right? I'll bet that Sai guy knows how to make ink if you can't find out how. He's an artist, apparently."

"Sai? Who's that? And yeah, this task doesn't sound so bad. It might take a while, but at least I'm not going to get eaten by a jaguar while doing it." Ino grinned brightly.

"Didn't I tell you two about Sai? I met him at the Seven Tails' temple; he ate with me and Shino while I was working on that tarsier skeleton. He's our age, an acolyte, and a transfer from Kubo. He's a very good artist. Shino says he does the crime scene sketches for the city guards," Sakura explained.

"He probably does know how to make ink, but I don't know if I want to go asking a creepy Seven Tails' acolyte for help. They're weird over there." Ino made a face of distaste.

"Might be worth a shot." Hinata yawned again.

"Finish your soup and go to bed!" Ino barked, and then followed up with a laugh. Hinata smiled tiredly.

"Yes, High Priestess Ino. Whatever you s-s-say, High Priestess Ino," Hinata teased. Ino rolled her eyes. "So s-s-sorry about the stutter, too t-t-tired to concentrate."

"It's no problem, Hinata. I'd noticed that it had almost gone away before tonight, but I didn't want to comment. I know how much it used to hurt you when people teased you about it," Sakura said.

"Yeah," Ino echoed.

"It's ok. I know y-y-you two, you're my friends. It's gotten better. N-N-Naruto has been helping me." Hinata smiled a little secretive smile. Both Ino and Sakura grinned.

"He's a good guy," Sakura said.

"He's kind of goofy. And kind of … blond," Ino pointed out.

"Hey, so are you, Ino-Pig!"

"Shut up, Forehead!" The two shot daggers at each other with their eyes, before breaking off with smiles when Hinata laughed at them both, smothering her giggles with her hand.

Gods, it was good to have both of her friends back.

Sakura kept up her night manoeuvres with Gaara and Naruto, night after night. The long days in Intensive Care, followed by evenings spent mock-fighting with the two boys left her exhausted, but she was noticing an improvement in her techniques. All this night fighting was doing wonders for her chakra senses. By the time the roho seed was ready to turn in to the Five Tails, she was able to maintain her senses while attacking and defending, even if it was only just barely.

Turning in the roho seed was a small triumph that Sakura was eager to finally be able to do. It had indeed almost taken a month for the seed to germinate. She knelt before the Five Tails' shrine with a slight tinge of glee as she cleared her mind for prayer.

The touch of the Five Tails was still unfamiliar, but not unpleasant. Sakura remembered the good humour the god appeared to possess. She felt an echo of it in his acknowledgement of the seedling; the wordless sense that he gave her was that she had done a good job, and now she could leave it to his clergy to grow it to an adult tree. She blushed at that, remembering her dismay when she had thought she was going to have to wait years for the tree to establish.

The Cat was supposed to be the trickster of the pantheon, but the Five Tails, it seemed, liked to play his jokes too. Well, maybe she should expect no less from something called a dolphin-horse. Seriously, the animal itself was a bit of a joke… did those even occur in nature? Isn't that ironic?

She'd gone to the temple of the Five Tails in that short half hour between punishment duty in the IC and supper. She knew she didn't have time to go to the Four Tails. Who knew what the monkey would want. The god of wisdom was said to have tasks that serve multiple purposes; one intention was surely to please the god, but novices almost always learned something from the task. The thing about learning and growth was that sometimes it wasn't always easy or comfortable. She would go the next night, after she'd had a chance to rest.

If it could be termed rest, that is. Gaara and Naruto were quick to congratulate her on finishing her task, but neither of them were particularly interested in letting her have an evening off. Gaara had smirked out a smile she could sense even in the dim light of the moons, and told her that the enemy wouldn't give her evenings off. She sighed and sparred with them.

Going to her cell after their session, she considered that they were getting too used to the dynamic of the three of them. After a couple of weeks of this, they pretty much knew all of each others' moves. It was still fun, and there was no doubt that she was getting better at thinking on her feet in battle and dealing with situational awareness when vision was limited. And her chakra sensing had improved by leaps and bounds. But, she mused, this was getting a little… stagnant. What could they do to make it more interesting?

She slept on it, and was still not sure about the answer when she woke up in the morning. But her duties awaited in IC, and then she had to go to the Four Tails' temple and present her offering. Which she suddenly realized she didn't have… she would have to go into the city after punishment duty and get something suitable. What did one give to the god of wisdom? A scroll maybe? Or some artwork or something? She should ask Ino, Ino was on that task right now.

After IC she tooled around in the library until the supper bell, and then raced off to the refectory to catch Ino. She spotted the blonde sitting with Hinata at their usual table and scooted over with her tray of mystery meat. Ahh… the joys of refectory food.

"Hey Forehead. What's up, you look like you got something on your mind!" Ino greeted her cheerfully. Hinata gave her a smile and a wave; she was currently in the middle of chewing something.

"Hey Ino, Hinata," Sakura grinned. "Yeah, I got something on my mind. I have no idea what to give the Four Tails. What did you do for him for an offering, Ino?"

"Oh that was easy. I found an interesting carving. He seemed to like it. It was a monkey," Ino replied. "Oh, hey, I went and saw that Sai guy. Good looking but kind of creepy with that fake smile and dead stare."

Sakura snickered at Ino's dead-on description of Sai. Hinata grinned, and finished with her mouthful, commented, "So did you learn how to make ink?"

"Yeah," the blonde looked pleased with herself. "It's really easy. Just charcoal ash, water, and vinegar. At least, he said that's the easy kind; there's other kinds that are more difficult, but that will work well for a hide scroll."

"Really? That's it?" Sakura mused. That didn't seem so bad.

"Yeah but don't forget I still have to copy the scroll. That's going to take a while. But at least the ink part's not that bad."

"I finished the Two Tails' task today," Hinata interjected.

"Oh, how was that?" Ino demanded avidly.

"Yeah," Sakura dittoed, shifting in her seat.

"I couldn't believe how I'd lucked out with the task. All she wanted was two bags of flour from a special baker in town. So I went and I got that for her, brought them back and started to pray, and then the entire shrine went pitch black. Before I even thought about using my byakugan, there was this poofing noise and I was coughing. The lights came back on and there was flour everywhere; floating in the air, all over the shrine, all over me… but oddly enough, not a speck was on the obelisk or on any of the acolytes and priests that were nearby. And they were all laughing fit to kill themselves," Hinata told them. "It took half an hour to wash the flour out of my hair. It became glue when it got wet."

"Oh dear," Sakura said.

"Oh my gods, I really am not looking forward to doing the Two Tails' tasks, I heard she pranks everyone!" Ino moaned. "I'll probably end up dyed green with purple dots or something ridiculous like that."

"If you try to avoid it, you'll end up embarrassed for sure. I think the Two Tails does it to teach us humility," Hinata suggested. "I sure felt humiliated."

"I've got to tackle the Four Tails first. And then the Three Tails," said the pink-haired teen.

"So you've got that much longer to worry about what she's going to do to you," Ino laughed.

"You're the one who's scared, Ino. Not me."

"Forehead! I'm not scared, I'm just… wisely cautious!"

"Whatever Ino-pig!" Sakura laughed.

"So are you going to go down to the city to get something for the Four Tails, or are you going to vanish like you always do after supper now?" Hinata broke in.

"What? Disappear?" Sakura felt confused.

"Yeah, Sakura, you think your two best friends wouldn't notice that you make yourself scarce every night after supper? Where is it you're going anyway? C'mon, Forehead, you know you gotta tell us because otherwise we'll just follow you. It's Gaara isn't it! Sakura, you bad girl, you!" Ino grinned like a shark.

Sakura blushed. "Erm, well, uh…" she stammered. She knew what Ino was trying to suggest, but it wasn't like that.

"It is too, look at her turn red," Hinata giggled.

"It's nothing inappropriate!" Sakura snapped out. "Look, if you don't believe me, you're free to come along. I've been sparring with him and Naruto every night for the last couple of week in order to get better at night fighting."

"So that's the special training Naruto said he did! He never told me it was with you and Gaara!" Hinata griped. "He never invited me along either."

"Well, did you ask him if you could come?" Sakura asked, pointedly. Hinata blushed.

"Actually, it hadn't occurred to me," the Hyūga confessed.

"Then you can hardly complain about being left out," Sakura snorted.

"Not quite, Forehead. Did you forget about your two best friends entirely while you were out there playing with those boys? I might have liked to come," Ino glared at her.

"What? Ino, you only did combat training because you had to. And sorry, you were both away when we started and I got so used to it being just me and Gaara and Naruto that I hadn't thought of anyone else. But do you know what? I'd been thinking that it was starting to get boring, so maybe with you two it'll be exciting again." It was an elegant solution, that was for sure; her best friends would get to be included, and Sakura knew that this would make the sparring sessions a lot more fun again. "I'll wait to get the carving tomorrow. You two come with me after supper to the training ground.

"Well at the very least if anyone gets hurt, there'll be three medics there to take care of things," Hinata commented. Ino agreed with a laugh, and Sakura smiled at her friends. They cleared up their trays and the pink-haired teen led them both to the training grounds, where Gaara and Naruto were preparing for a spar.

The red-head caught sight of the trio of girls and motioned to Naruto to halt his impending attack. The boisterous novice of the Nine Tails paused and turned to see who was approaching.

"Hinata!" the blond boy bellowed. Sakura was sure he was grinning from ear to ear. "Are you here to come practice too?"

"Of course I am, Naruto! You should have told me about this, because maybe I would like to play too!" Hinata said. In the shadowy darkness Sakura could still see her friend standing with her hands on her hips.

"I also want to practice," Ino insisted.

"Very well, you may both join us. The more of us there are, the more we can simulate the true chaos of the battlefield," Gaara stated.

"So you don't mind?" Sakura asked him.

"Not at all, my Cherry Blossom. This is for the best. Now, all of you prepare! Let's have a free-for-all!"

"A what? But I haven't practiced in months!" Ino protested.

"You'll get practice now!" Naruto laughed.