the greatest pretenders
Chapter Two: Lapse
Nostalgia, she was always told, was a filthy liar, that loved to convince its victims that their lives were better the way they used to be. As Sakura grew into a woman she never thought she'd be, she held onto this principle as though it was the only thing she knew, like it was the only thing that would save her from making stupid mistakes that would cost her her life. At times, it worked, like when she was forced to face a missing nin whom she had known when she was a genin, or when she could, without hesitation, evaluate a situation in which she could reap the most benefits. She was constantly praised for her level of intellect, for her tenacity when working to make modern medicine the best version that it could be. As everyone knew, she was the kind of person who calculated the outcome of her decisions without the illusion of nostalgia breathing down her neck.
She had been wrong about Sasuke, who left her for twelves years — and counting — in order to redeem himself and repent for his sins. The lonely nights she spent in their bedroom, looking out at the dark sky, reminded her that even she was human enough to make mistakes. At times, her misfortunes came in the form of misfiled reports at the hospital, or in the form of words that left her mouth and came out as harsh or insensitive. Whenever her eyes moved over to the photo frames throughout the house, she knew that this was one of the few times that nostalgia successfully lied to her face about, promising her happiness when she secretly knew that it was all a mirage.
Truthfully, she thought that life would be kinder to her from that point on.
Yet, nostalgia, along with coincidence, had manifested itself into the blond that stood before her, his dull, tired, blue eyes staring at her as though he was looking at something that had fooled him, too.
"Yo," Naruto breathed, "it's been a while."
Sakura blinked once, then twice, then allowed a half-assed smile to spread across her lips.
"Yeah," she chuckled nervously, "I think it's been more than a decade."
"How are you?"
"Good, good! Just on the way to meet the girls," she responded, her eyes darting to what looked like Yuzuru, making a face behind Naruto as his jaw seemed to drop.
"Heard you got a promotion."
At the word, Sakura's mind snapped back to earlier that day when she had faced her master and her senior, whose expressions were filled with an exuberance that she was certain seemed misplaced. Maybe it was the fact that it was her, which showed that she had worked impossibly hard to get to where she currently was in her life. Still, knowing that he hadn't questioned placing her in a prestigious career position — and even going so far as to insinuate that she was the only perfect person for the job — made it somewhat surreal. Especially because Naruto was acting like he heard the news through word of mouth, and not like he greased the wheels a little bit.
"Yeah," she answered, "but, I'm going to get wrinkles from all this worrying."
"I don't know if I'm up for it."
"Why wouldn't you be?" Naruto raised an eyebrow.
"I guess," Sakura retorted, "it's because I'm so used to having Lady Tsunade in charge, that I feel like, maybe this isn't my job, because it's hers."
As though wracked with some kind of understanding, the corners of Naruto's lips drooped into a small frown. Typical, Sakura thought to herself, thinking that it was just like him, to have to have her spell something out for him. Of course, he was no idiot, and he knew how to read people's feelings, but at times, she always felt like he expected too much of her. It had always been that way, and if she was being completely honest, the only reason that she was able to come so far was because her master was by her side, and he was, too — being her own personal cheerleader.
"I think you don't give yourself enough credit, y'know," Naruto chuckled, "and I think you have to stop being so hard on yourself."
"If I'm not, who will be?"
"No one has to be, Sakura-cha—"
With an abrupt halt, Naruto's sentence cut off and he was left to stare at her as though she had done something to him. Sakura blinked several times, unsure of what to say, of what to do, at the fact that he had almost naturally called her by his nickname for her. He was the only one who ever called her that, and they both knew it. After all, it had been more than decade since he last addressed her. Clearing his throat, he averted his eyes to his shoes and stuffed his hands in his pockets, a universal sign that he suddenly felt awkward.
"I heard," Sakura piped up, attempting to change the subject, "that you actually had a part in deciding who would be the new medical expert in Konoha."
He chuckled, the sound ringing in her ears and reminding her of the time she and Sasuke fed him their lunches (courtesy of Kakashi) while he was tied to a wooden log out of punishment. She could feel her inner self smile.
"It seemed like the obvious choice."
"There were a few other people that Granny told me to check out."
"And why not them?"
"I feel safer knowing that you'll be the one people see when they're hurt."
Crossing her arms, Sakura bit her lip, not knowing what to do with the gratitude that was infecting her heart. "Is it because you know me the best, out of all those people?"
"No," he replied easily, "but even if that was the reason, either way, I wanted you to have the job. You deserve it."
Nodding, Sakura cleared her throat and felt anxious at the sudden prospect that she didn't know where to look. Was she supposed to look at his face, and risk him seeing right through her, or look at her feet so that it would be even more glaringly obvious that she was hiding something from him? Was she supposed to put on that fake smile that Sai called her out on, all those years ago during the war, and attempt to mask whatever the hell it was that was supposed to stay hidden?
Unfortunately, she had grown to be such a great liar, that Naruto, who hated liars, didn't even flinch.
"I should get going," Sakura said finally, "I have to meet up with the girls and I'm going to be late."
"Yeah, of course!" he smiled, not as bright and blinding as it used to be, "Tell everyone I said hi!"
"Oh," Naruto said, his eyebrows raised, "we should go get a few drinks sometime soon. Catch up, y'know?"
"Sure," she let out a tiny smile, "why don't you give me a call when you're off duty?"
The blond grinned, the corners of his lips lifted like the way they used to whenever she rolled her eyes at his lunacy. With a wave and a short 'see you soon', he left her to stand in front of Ichiraku Ramen, trying to piece together the influx of information that she was forced to process. For starters, why was he alone? Secondly, despite the fact that they hadn't really been in contact for over a decade, she truly felt as though they were picking up right where they left off. She huffed and blinked, then forced herself to give Yuzuru a smile as he jogged towards her, his expression in awe.
"Was that the Lord Seventh?"
"What did you talk about?"
"Oh," Sakura laughed, "nothing, really. Just doing a five-minute catch up."
"You had a five-minute catch up with the Seventh?"
"Stop calling him that."
"That's who he is, though."
"He also has a name."
"Okay," Yuzuru sighed, "but he is the Seventh Hokage."
"Your point is…?"
"Don't you ever feel in awe whenever you're around him?"
Moving her hand to rub the back of her neck, Sakura shrugged as she began to walk towards the direction of the bar, Yuzuru following closely behind her. He shot his mouth off about how incredibly heroic Naruto had been during the Fourth Shinobi War, delivering blows to Madara and Kaguya, setting an entirely new standard for shinobis to live up to. She listened intently as he rambled on in admiration, noting that Yuzuru's voice seemed to be higher when he talked about her old best friend. Her smile softened.
The question of whether or not she was in awe of him was obvious: of course she was in awe. Naruto had started out as a shunned child who attended the Academy, and was the only other person (apart from Sasuke) that had no parents. Sakura remembered how at the time, that seemed like a reason to be mean to him, but the more she talked to Naruto, the more she realised that he was more determined than anyone else she knew, to be the best, to be Hokage. Needless to say, from the moment that Team Seven fought Zabuza and Haku, to the moment they successfully eliminated Kaguya, she always believed in him and his abilities.
Of course she was in awe of Uzumaki Naruto.
"You said you hadn't talked to him in over a decade," Yuzuru commented absentmindedly.
"It seems like you were talking to him naturally."
"What do you mean?"
"Like," he hummed and his expression turned pensive, "kind of like you two just continued the friendship from where you left off."
Without responding to the assumption, Sakura continued to walk towards the bar, its sign glowing neon in the night, reading Senya. She listened to Yuzuru talk about how excited he was to meet everyone, and that he felt like the very experience of having seen the Seventh was an experience not many got to feel. Smiling, Sakura reassured him that every single person of the Konoha Twelve was normal. Despite her words, Yuzuru's eyes continued to light up as Sakura's hand reached for the sliding door and pulled it open to reveal a table full of her oldest friends, cheering that she finally made it.
"Sakura!" Tenten waved, "You actually came!"
"Ino wouldn't let me not go," Sakura chuckled as she ducked her head inside the bar, "so I had no choice."
"Like you'd pass up a free drink," Ino responded, rolling her eyes.
"I think you're mistaking her and you," Temari chimed in, her tone facetious, "since I don't think I've ever seen Sakura go nuts like you have."
"Hey," Ino warned, "I can handle my liquor just fine."
Glancing beside her, Sakura felt the back of her throat scoff in amusement when she saw that Yuzuru's eyes were widened at the sight of the women before him. Because she was technically part of this group, she didn't feel the same astonishment that the rest of the shinobi world seemed to feel whenever they came across any veteran of the Fourth Shinobi War. Trying to see herself from Yuzuru's perspective, it was conceivable that she, along with her friends, were intimidating, at the very least.
"Who's this?" Ino asked, her tone bright.
"Oh," Sakura breathed, "this is my new assistant, Yuzuru. I invited him out tonight."
She watched as Yuzuru bowed in that way that was becoming all too familiar to her, even after just a few days of knowing him, and she felt a sense of belonging that she hadn't felt in the years that she tried to hide herself away from the people she loved most. Her friends fawned over him like he was a puppy and they pat him on the back as they invited him to sit beside them. With a shy smile on his face, he sat between Ino and Temari and almost seemed to fit in with them seamlessly.
Clearing her throat, Sakura moved to the other side of Ino when out of the corner of her eye, she saw one more person walking towards the table. Her eyes moved to look and at the sight of the Hyuuga heir, her heart sank. Regardless, she forced the corners of her mouth to lift into the widest smile, to which the woman bowed her head in that meek manner she always did.
"Hinata!" Sakura chimed, "It's been so long!"
The wide, lavender eyes that gazed upon her were soft as they had always been, and they squinted when she smiled and breathed words in her quiet voice. The green-eyed woman tilted her head and rested her chin in her palm when she sat down, right across from the woman whose husband was the Seventh Hokage. They had never been close, but on the day of his wedding, she had plastered on that fake smile that a certain ANBU member knew very well, and congratulated them on their new life together, wishing them eternal happiness.
Except, she had felt the bitterness poisoning her throat as the words left her lips.
"How is everything?" Hinata asked as she took a sip of her beer, her face already flushed.
"Things are alright," she replied casually, "Sarada has been training by herself a lot lately."
"It must be difficult without Sasuke at home."
"Naruto hasn't been spending a lot of time at home, either," Hinata lamented, moving her eyes to the food before her, "and I even asked him if he could come back earlier at times, but…"
"That's what happens when you marry important people," Temari commented, "but you know that he will always come home."
The corners of Hinata's lips twitched, almost looking like a frown. "I guess that's true."
"Did you ask him to come back early tonight?" Ino asked.
"Of course, I left the house tonight," Hinata responded sheepishly, "so it doesn't make sense to make him come home." Her eyes glanced at Sakura quickly before her hands reached for the plate of gyoza. "I don't want to burden him."
A prickling sense of uneasiness filled Sakura's throat at Hinata's words, remembering that not even half an hour ago, she had seen the Seventh Hokage at his favorite ramen stall, and he even managed to talk with her for a few minutes. Picking up her pint of beer, she hastily chugged half of it down her throat and made a face at the bitterness on her tongue, like it was forcing her to replay their encounter in her head. A wave of relief washed over her when Hinata finally seemed to notice that Yuzuru was present, and she proceeded to get to know him, laughing politely at his jokes. Quietly, Sakura cleared her throat.
"So," she began, "I'm taking Yuzuru under my wing."
The young man grinned and sheepishly rubbed the back of his neck, as though Sakura's words were something that suddenly made him feel shy. Ino was particularly impressed, while Temari downed another pint of beer and nodded approvingly, her brow furrowed in that way that made Sakura wonder if she was being facetious. While the rest of the women asked him questions, Sakura discreetly ordered another beer and felt an unsettling sense of guilt settle into the pits of her stomach.
Still, changing the subject wasn't going to erase the fact that she had just seen the man that Hinata was talking about so sadly. She cleared her throat quietly and picked up an edamame, chewing tentatively before she realised Hinata asked her a question.
"Does Sarada ever open up to you?"
"What?" Sakura blinked. "I mean, she's a teenager, and we've all had our fair share of rebellion."
The entire table laughed as though she had told a horrendously inappropriate joke, but Hinata merely lifted the corners of her mouth into a tiny smile — one that was possibly (most likely) fake. Evidently, as the chatter went on amongst the others, Sakura couldn't help but think that she never truly felt close to the Hyuuga heiress. Of course, that meant that she actually had to have an incessant persistence until the woman opened up to her, but truthfully, ever since the war ended, she didn't feel the need to make so much effort, especially because if Hinata really wanted to be friends with her, she would have said something herself.
No matter how she tried to pin the blame on someone else, Sakura couldn't shake the fact that she was the coward.
"Ms. Haruno is very hardworking," Sakura heard Yuzuru say with admiration, "and when I was younger, I aspired to be as kind as she was."
"Ms. Haruno?" Ino chimed, shooting a glance at the pink-haired woman, "You do know—"
"Ino," Tenten responded, an edge in her voice.
"…Oh," Yuzuru mumbled, "I didn't know that… it was a mistake, I'm—"
"I asked him to call me that."
"You spend your whole life," Ino scoffed, "loving someone and waiting for him to come home to you, and you're so ungrateful of the fact that he made you his wife, that you still tell people to call you by your maiden name?"
"Hey—" Temari scolded.
"Ms. Haruno clearly isn't the person I thought she'd be."
"What's your deal?" Sakura scoffed, "Me asking my assistant and my apprentice to call me by a certain name has nothing to do with you."
The blue-eyed woman blinked, then set down her pint. "I'm just disappointed in you, Sakura."
"That was uncalled for, Mrs. Yamanaka," Yuzuru said, his voice low, almost like a growl.
While the rest of the bar bustled with the sounds of glasses clinking and of people's laughter as they became intoxicated, the excitement that Sakura had thought she would feel once she saw her friends again dissipated completely into the air above her, burning and fizzling as it hit the light above their heads. She fingered the rim of her pint and bit her lip as Tenten laughed nervously, making a clear attempt to diffuse the tension.
Sakura loved Ino, she really did. When things became too difficult for her, back before she had even married Sasuke, she was one of the first people that she'd run to. The grew up experiencing a rivalry that blossomed beautifully into a friendship where they lifted each other up, but nonexistent differences became apparent after the Uchiha came back to Konoha. The medical ninja cleared her throat and began to stand.
"You're leaving?" Hinata asked, her papery voice small as it always was.
"I have to get home," she responded coldly, "I'm worried about Sarada."
"I can walk you home?" Yuzuru offered, placing a hand on his knee.
"No," Sakura smiled brightly, "you stay here and enjoy a few more drinks."
"That's an order from your master," Sakura joked, earning a nervous laugh from the guy, and a sympathetic look from both Tenten and Temari.
None of the people sitting at the table said another word as Sakura grabbed her coat and slipped into it, a migraine already making its way into the back of her head. Slipping her feet into her shoes, she waved a final goodbye as she stepped out of Senya, heading towards the suburban area, which was surprisingly filled with more people meandering the streets. She pulled her phone out of her bag and saw that there were two missed calls from her daughter, who was probably at home, hungry and alone.
Guilt was an emotion that she constantly experienced throughout the last decade, so much that she remembered the taste of it in the bottom of her stomach, or on the tip of her tongue. Even more unfortunately, it was not limited to her daughter, but it also extended to the friends she once held so dear.
Sarada had been fast asleep when Sakura came through the front door, her favorite book in hand with her tired body sprawled across the couch.
The TV had been left on that was now playing the late-night news, but the pink-haired woman knew that her teenage daughter had probably been watching one of her old favorite cartoons right before she began to snooze. Because of who her parents were, Sarada was always seen as the person who couldn't screw up, because of the genes she was blessed with. That level of scrutiny placed a high level of pressure on her thin shoulders, which Sakura could relate to very well. It was her daughter, after all.
After draping a blanket over her, Sakura tenaciously prepared for her business trip to Suna, looking through notes of the mission she was assigned, yawning every three paragraphs or so. It wasn't like Naruto to write these long reports filled with information, but they were older now. They were all doing jobs that they weren't doing before and becoming different people than they thought they would be.
Sakura heard Sarada sigh in her sleep, rolling over to bury her face under the blanket.
Blinking, the pink-haired woman pulled out her computer, pressing the start-up button and glancing at the curtains she still hadn't drawn. Her short nails tapped against the mousepad and she cleared her throat when her desktop finally loaded. She swiftly opened the letter icon, loading ten new messages from a few of her subordinates, one of them being from Yuzuru, about the meeting that they were scheduled to have with the Fifth Kazekage the next day.
"Why is he sending emails now?" Sakura mumbled to herself, "He should still be out."
Glancing at the clock, she knew it was still too early for anyone without a family to be home, so that probably meant that all her friends had left Senya and had gone home to their respective families. As though taunting her, her brain kept nagging her about seeing Hinata earlier. The woman looked tired and even wore the same expression of uncertainty that she wore, no matter how expertly she thought she was hiding it. Sakura sighed and leaned back against her chair, letting her neck to roll back so she could look up at the ceiling that she still hadn't managed to completely clean when she had free time.
It's not easy to live in a home where you're doing everything yourself.
She knew this fact to be true.
She knew that it was a feat that wasn't easy to overcome.
Being a mother — and being a wife — without the support of a husband being at home, was one of the most difficult tasks that women were branded with, as soon as they got married. While it was tradition for men to provide for the family, it was also their obligation to make sure that their wives didn't carry the burden of raising a family by themselves. Sakura was not an idiot, and she liked to believe that Hinata wasn't, either.
The only thing that seemed to really bother her was that Naruto's absence from home didn't seem to be like his character, at all. Having a Kage position meant that you were consistently busy, but Sakura knew better than anyone that sometimes, when people didn't like dealing with their home lives, they would provide themselves with an 'escape' in the form of their never-ending piles of paperwork. She was guilty of this, and it wasn't entirely ludicrous to think that Naruto was, too.
The rest of the night dwindled into an atmosphere that felt like loneliness, and Sakura could swear that as her eyes fluttered shut, she could hear the soft sighs of the winds rustling through the trees. Like a lullaby, it lulled her to sleep at the dining table, her phone in hand.
Sarada was already out of the house when Sakura woke up just a few hours later, but there was a cup of green tea set before her that was still hot. Yawning and rubbing her eyes, Sakura checked the time and let a heavy sigh leave her, feeling as though she didn't have enough room to breathe. Her phone, which was charging at the wall near the TV, began to buzz with texts from Yuzuru. The pink-haired woman scratched her head as she groggily made her way to the device, scrunching her brow in disdain.
I hope you're awake, her assistant and apprentice wrote, we don't want to make the Fifth Kazekage waiting!
Shaking her head, Sakura typed out a quick reply and made her way to the bathroom, making a mental note to do some spring cleaning once she wasn't so goddamn busy. She was used to meeting up with the different Kage from all across different countries, and with new developing areas becoming more stable economically and politically, she was beginning to have more of an important role than she realised she had.
It used to be that Tsunade was the one who would go away on trips several times a month, receiving a summons at least every other week or so. Sometimes she sent Shizune in her stead, and other times, it was Sakura. If she was being completely honest, it wasn't the meetings that made her feel inadequate, because it was apparent that she knew what she was doing. What made her anxious was that she was in charge now, and she truly felt that everyone knowing her name was bad enough. To have her name be renowned and to take Tsunade's place made her chest feel heavy.
Even as she brushed her teeth, even as she descended the stairs and drank the tea her daughter made for her, and even as she locked the front door on her way out to the office, she couldn't help but think, yet again, that she was incapable of being as legendary as her master. Sakura had grown up swallowing her feelings, and it was ironic that the one time she was technically allowed to express herself, she felt the need to put up walls even more than she did before.
As she walked into the hospital, her phone buzzed again.
Safe travels! it read, Haven't seen you in a while. Need to catch up.
She smiled and stuffed her phone back in her coat, knowing the last time she saw the Fifth Kazekage was at her wedding. He had, of course, been a charming party guest, and had attracted the attention of quite a few of the young women who resided in Konoha. Gaara was as much her friend as he was Naruto's, and in more ways than one, she was glad that at least one thing in her life stayed the same and gave her a sense of familiarity that she knew wouldn't just dissipate as she got older.
"Oh," Yuzuru uttered, startled when Sakura walked into the office, "you're here."
"You told me to hurry."
"Not that you should hurry…"
"Well," Sakura replied as she set her purse on her table, placing a hand on her hip as she raised an eyebrow at him, "I'm here now. You ready to head out?"
The journey, thanks to newer methods of transportation, only took about half a day as opposed to the three it used to take.
From inside their trailer, Sakura noticed that Yuzuru's eyes kept glancing at her, as though he was biting his tongue and forcing it not to say what was on his mind. An exasperated sigh left her lips and she tilted her head as she stared at him, silently asking him what was wrong.
"About last night—"
"What about it?"
"You kind of… left in a hurry."
Yuzuru shifted his wet from one butt cheek to the other, then crossed and uncrossed his legs, his eyes always looking at the floor. He cleared his throat, the sound nervous.
"Mrs. Yamanaka didn't—"
"I appreciate you looking out for me," Sakura interrupted, "but Ino and I have always had that kind of relationship."
"What," he replied, "her giving you backhanded insults about your life?"
"Call it what you want, Ms. Haruno," the young man sighed, "but I didn't think she had a right to say any of that, and as you noticed, the rest agreed with me."
The pink-haired woman didn't utter a word as her apprentice flipped through pages of the file he was holding, his neck craned so that she couldn't meet his eyes. She leaned her head against the back of her seat and moved her gaze to outside her window, her eyes soothed by all the green around them. Taking a deep breath, she turned to look back at Yuzuru, who still hadn't looked up from the file he was holding.
"Ino taught me to be boisterous."
He looked up, but his mouth didn't move. Sakura allowed a sad smile to spread across her lips.
"I always used to be really insecure about the size of my forehead," she continued, touching the Yin seal there, "and she was the first person who taught me that insecurities can be used as your strength."
"Then," Yuzuru whispered, "doesn't it hurt when she talks to you like that?"
"Why don't you—"
"You wouldn't understand," Sakura shook her head, her expression complacent, "it's just become one of those things about us. There's no question to it, really."
"Don't you want to solve it?"
She looked out the window again. "There are a lot of things I want to solve, Yuzuru," she uttered, "but it can't all be done at once."
It was silent for the rest of the ride and neither person bothered to diffuse the tension in the air that could have been cut with a knife. On some level, Sakura knew that he was right about Ino, but at the same time, he didn't know any of the things that any of the Konoha Twelve had to deal with to get to the point they were all at in their current lives. Ino had been one of the first to console Sakura when Sasuke left Konoha, but it was very possible she was getting sick of it. Even Sakura was getting sick of it, of her situation, and the fact that she knew she wouldn't do anything about it.
It was close to teatime when they finally arrived in the Land of Wind, and Gaara was patiently waiting for them in his office with a smile on his face.
"You made it," he said, his eyes kinder than the last time Sakura saw him, "do you two want a drink or food?"
"Don't go through any trouble!" Sakura exclaimed, "We can always eat later!"
"What kind of Kage would I be if I didn't offer my guests some good hospitality?"
Sakura chuckled politely, suddenly self-conscious of the fact that she was sitting across from the Fifth Kazekage. She definitely felt like Yuzuru, who was, to no one's surprise, fidgeting with the fabric of his shirt. He might as well have been sweating through his armpits, and the thought of that made Sakura want to laugh out loud. Gaara quietly motioned for Baki, his council, to sit down, then he cleared his throat and furrowed his brow.
"You know why you're here, don't you, Sakura?"
"Yes. I read the case file."
"We didn't want to burden you," Gaara sighed, "but considering that this involves experimentation with the Hashirama Cell—"
"I know," Sakura nodded, "there's no one else more well-acquainted with the phenomenon than Konoha."
"So far, there's only been two cases in Suna," the redhead hummed as he pulled out a different file from his desk, "but there are rumours about other cases in the Land of Water, and the Land of Earth."
"Regarding the Hashirama Cell?"
"That," he replied, "and Jinchuurikis."
Sakura blinked once, then twice, and she could feel her mouth refuse to form words that could begin to question what the hell he meant by Jinchuurikis. She cleared her throat and furrowed her brow, and all the while Gaara was watching her, his own expression pensive and wary. Finally, the person who spoke up was Yuzuru.
"The era of Jinchuurikis died out as the Fourth Shinobi War ended," he mumbled, "so why is it an issue again, in this era?"
"That's the thing," Gaara remarked, "as soon as the notion that Jinchuurikis were no longer needed, it seemed that there are some rogues out there who want to relive that era."
"What's the purpose?" Sakura asked.
"Anarchy?" the Kage shrugged, then sighed, "I don't know, but whoever it is that is doing these experiments, they clearly have a taste for chaos that I thought dissipated with our teachers' generation."
"Who are the two cases?"
Gaara's eyes moved to her face and they were suddenly filled with a weight that Sakura could feel being placed onto her shoulders. He pressed his lips to his knuckles and closed his eyes, taking a deep breath. Even before he opened his mouth, she already knew that he was going to say that the victims were children, who were barely older than Sarada, or Inojin, or Chouchou. She leaned back into her seat, her heart feeling even more heavy with the knowledge that some psycho out there was conducting experiments on kids who barely lived yet.
"How are they holding up?" Yuzuru breathed.
"Hard to say," Baki finally spoke, "both those kids have been in a coma since it was reported."
"How long has it been?"
"Over two weeks."
"What?!" Sakura exclaimed incredulously, "If they're subdued for that long, then that means—"
"Their vitals are still functioning for the timebeing," Baki nodded, "but it's raising questions among the medics, since their bodies don't seem to be rejecting the Cell, either."
The pink-haired woman pinched the bridge of her nose and furrowed her brow, a wild sense of frustration filling every limb and every crevice of her body, not knowing where to start to untangle the web of complications. Not only were rogue ninjas becoming more daring and attempting to tip the balance of political peace, but they were experimenting their theories and agendas on innocent children. She felt her blood boil for just a few seconds before she took a deep, calming breath, through her nose, and exhaled through her mouth. Sakura opened her eyes to find that the three men were staring at her, their expressions wary.
"What kind of tests is the medic team doing? Are these kids in the Academy?"
"They are," Gaara affirmed, "and so far, the only thing being monitored is their chakra reserve, to make sure that their bodies aren't taking damage that they can't handle."
"So far," Sakura hummed, "was there ever talk of any danger of these kids not being able to handle it?"
"Thankfully, no," Baki responded, "but we can't expect that to be a safe zone for too long."
"Especially since it was such a disaster last time…" Yuzuru mumbled.
"It'd be dangerous to wait for results from these cases alone," Gaara pointed out, "so it's better to start investigating these rumours that we've been hearing, and hopefully we can track down whoever is trying to create Hell."
As Baki and Yuzuru spoke in hushed whispers and sifted through some files, Sakura stood up and followed Gaara to the bookcase in the corner of his office. Quietly, his fingers grazed the hardcovers of several books on the shelf before his eyes lit up at a title that he had been looking for. Pulling it off the shelf, he blew on the cover and a small amount of dust flew into the air, tickling Sakura's nose.
"You should take this," he said, handing her the hardbound book, "I think it's a good idea to be overly informed."
"A book about Jinchuurikis," Gaara responded, "the science behind it, the history behind it, and a bunch of other things that you'd definitely want to know if you're working this case in the dark."
"So it's S-ranked."
"Of course. So the people don't get worried."
"Obviously," Gaara uttered, "these kids… they can't be called Jinchuurikis, because of what the technical term defines as being a Jinchuuriki."
"But that doesn't mean they aren't in danger of being put through something just as burdening."
Sakura sighed, the weight on her shoulders making her lungs feel uneasy. While there were going to be other people working on the case in secret — like she was —she couldn't help but feel that if things didn't go well, it could potentially be very dangerous for every subsequent Village. She glanced at Yuzuru, whose expression was baffled and wary, a spitting image of what she was like when she followed Lady Tsunade during medical missions.
"Other than these investigations," Gaara spoke, "how have you been?"
"Mostly good," Sakura smiled, "things have been… hectic."
"You've always been busy," he chuckled, "and you always worked hard. I remember Naruto telling me that."
"He told you that?"
"Why wouldn't he?"
"Ever since we both got married," she began, "we kind of… grew apart."
The Kazekage nodded and pursed his lips, his expression sympathetic. He didn't say another word, even as Yuzuru and Baki continued to sift through different files for more information. His silence made Sakura feel as though she was sitting on the edge of her seat, because she knew that he was a generally well-read person. It was possible that he could see right through her bullshit.
"Do you still talk to him?" he asked suddenly, his eyes glued to the view outside his window.
"The last time I spoke to him," she replied, "was when Lady Tsunade gave me this promotion."
"What about you?" she asked, "He kind of was your first friend, no?"
"It's hard to talk sometimes," Gaara admitted, "but that's because we're both so busy with our own work. I still try to write him when I can, though, and I always get an answer eventually."
He chuckled. "Being the renowned Uzumaki Naruto doesn't exactly give him time to attend to everyone he knows."
At his words, Sakura slowly nodded, wondering if her and Naruto drifting apart was actually a valid claim. She had known him for a long time, and knew that if he cared, he would make time, and ever since he started his own family, his priorities had changed. Of course, that was only to be expected, as even Sakura's priorities became different than what they used to be all those years ago. Yuzuru's gaze moved to her face when Gaara began to move back to his seat, and his expression held a wariness that pulled the pink-haired woman back to Earth, reminding her that she was promoted by Lady Tsunade and the Seventh Hokage for a reason:
She was the best at working until her fingers bled, to make sure that everyone was safe.
The trips from Suna back to Konoha were always long, but they rarely felt so long that it consisted of Sakura chewing on her bottom lip out of anxiety over work that demanded minimal error, although that was somewhat of a specialty for her. While she was always a diligent and responsible worker, that description of character was going to change, what with her taking Lady Tsunade's place. With a compulsiveness that felt eerily similar to obsession, she flipped through the book Gaara gave her.
Across from her, a sleeping Yuzuru leaned his head against the back of his seat, his features soft and seemingly innocent. It was evident that the kid was loyal and would be willing to throw himself into a bone pit for his master, which wasn't entirely unfamiliar to the Uchiha matriarch. She remembered idolising Lady Tsunade, too. She remembered her bones and limbs hurting because of that admiration, too. Sakura smirked and averted her eyes back to the book she had opened, reading up on the phenomena of the Jinchuuriki, and how the manifestation of such shinobis became an incredibly delicate political matter as the world she grew up in developed.
Gaara was a Jinchuuriki, she thought to herself, and his life was in as much danger as Naruto's was.
The book she yielded was research heavy and seemingly historically charged, but that knowledge was based on the idea that such horrifying events had transpired and had numerous outcomes that affected the everyday lives of everyone else. Her eyes fell upon the tale of Otsutsuki Hagoromo, Uzumaki Mito, and the other names of those that she had heard about from her teachers, from the civilians she had spoken with as she passed through towns while on S-class missions. At the thought that such a powerful being was what she and her teammates fought more than a decade ago, she felt the lingerings of war take their toll on her limbs, making her remember how hopeless everything had seemed.
Treating Jinchuurikis' health was no small feat, and this was a fact that she remembered well.
Naruto's heart had stopped beating.
She had felt her own heart begin to fall out of her chest back then, but like Naruto, she refused to give up and pumped his heart until he gasped for air.
Of course, the powers of a Jinchuuriki was no longer a well-kept secret amongst the different Villages. If anything, anyone had access to knowing the actual power of a shinobi whose soul was combined with a Tailed Beast. There was no doubt that whoever was conducting human experimentation with the Hashirama Cell would have known a very important fact:
A Jinchuuriki was an incredibly formidable weapon.