Author's note: Hey… (I say casually as I slink back into existence.)

In all seriousness, I don't like talking about personal stuff on here, but… let's just say it's been a rough year.

I believe that this will be the penultimate update before I complete this story. The next update will contain scenes and moments that have lived in my head for years and which I cannot wait to share with you. But, you know, the writing needs to be just so. And so my work continues.


Chapter 33

With Kimimaro's blessing obtained during their 'negotiation session,' Sakura redoubled her work on the Clan Plan project. She visited Hinata with a handful of queries and Hinata was able to confirm some of Sakura's suspicions that the written accounts of clan histories were rather sanitized versions of the facts. Sakura found that the parts that really interested her – such as how those clans joined the Leaf in the first place – tended to be missing, or addressed only tangentially, or replaced by altogether fictitious accounts, because perhaps those moments didn't quite fit into the lofty narratives the clans had constructed about themselves…

It took Sakura many hours of study and discreet interviews with the younger members of various families to pull together something approximating factual histories. This was a daunting exercise, but a necessary one, as much of her plan hinged on presenting the Council with such a hefty list of precedents that they would find it difficult to object to her request.

The bulk of Sakura's preparations were just about done when, one morning, Shizune appeared in her office in a puff of smoke.

"You still looking to meet the Council ASAP? I have an opening," said Shizune, rapping her pen against her clipboard.

Sakura looked up from a stack of requisitions with a start. "Shizune! Yes, definitely! When?"

"Eleven," said Shizune, scribbling something off her list. "A bid for a new bridge just got deferred, so I've got a fifteen minute slot."

"Eleven?" repeated Sakura. "Eleven today? As in, an hour from now?"

Shizune gave Sakura a look over her papers. "You told me ASAP, didn't you?"

"Well, yes, but this is no notice at all..."

"The next opening won't be for a month," said Shizune. "You want to postpone till then?"

Sakura ran her hands through her already disheveled hair. On the corner of her desk was a stack of five folders, identical copies of her presentation to the Council. A presentation that was pretty much ready – well, mostly ready. Seventy percent ready. She'd wanted to do some fact checking on a few of the Nara statistics and maybe tweak the wording on her recommendations…

"I can't wait another month," said Sakura, more to herself than Shizune. "I'll take today's slot. I'm ready enough. Here – can you see that the Council gets these files before the meeting? I made them each a copy..."

"Will do," said Shizune, hoisting the folders into her arms and balancing her clipboard on top. Her businesslike demeanor slipped a little and revealed a look of friendly worry. "Tsunade told me about this project of yours. I hope you know what you're doing…"

"I do," said Sakura.

However, when Shizune had vanished in another cloud of smoke, Sakura looked down and added, in a small voice, "...I think."


"This is a most unusual request, Ms. Haruno."

The members of Konoha's Council were peering at Sakura with eyes variously tired, bespectacled, or half-closed. It seemed to her that the predominant mood in the Council chamber was a questioning one at this stage; that is, "Why is this girl bothering us again?" and also, "When is lunch?"

"I am aware," said Sakura. "And I very much appreciate you granting me an audience to talk to you about it."

Councilwoman Utatane was flipping slowly through the pages of the documents in front of her. "Highly unconventional. It's been a long time since the Leaf has added any clans to its roster."

"A very long time," said Councilman Mitokado, looking equally unconvinced.

Tsunade, who had been briefed by Sakura on her newest venture and already told her that she was crazy, gave her a look that had grown familiar over the years: I told you so, Haruno.

"Yes," said Sakura. "A very long time. 82 years, to be precise. The Aburames."

Mitokado studied her. "You've been doing your research, then."

"I have."

"Then you understand that naturalizing new clans isn't something that the Hidden Leaf does lightly – or with any kind of frequency."

"I do understand that," said Sakura. "Though – I can't say I always understand why. It seems to me that it would be a good thing to bolster the Leaf's strength with new clans, especially with a bloodline as rare and powerful as the one in question."

Councilman Hageru shook his bald head at Sakura like she was a naive child. "Bolster our strength...? The clans serve a purpose far more vast than this, my girl. Would you reduce them to mere soldiers? They are political players, financial players, guardians of our secrets and lore..."

Sakura braced herself: the ancient Councilman looked like he was gearing up for some rambling. His eyes disappeared under his white eyebrows as he frowned at her. "In times of war, clan heads make up the entirety of the war council. They are privy to Konoha's strategies. They are trusted with her defense. You are young. You do not remember the days of war… I remember them. I remember the fears, child. The spying, not knowing who to trust, the backstabbing. We could only trust ourselves: the old, established clans… New blood does not mix well with old."

Councilwoman Utatane sniffed significantly.

"Is there something my esteemed colleague would like to add?" asked Hageru, turning to her.

"As we discovered not so recently, not even the old, established clans can be trusted," said Utatane, her steely half-moon spectacles glinting. "The Uchihas were one of our oldest. And they were planning a coup along a scale never seen before, or since."

"This is an – unfortunate – truth," conceded Hageru, sadness softening the deep lines of his face. "A heartbreaking truth. We can only hope that it was the first and last time that one of our own clans could consider betraying us in such a way."

"All the more reason not to add a new one whose loyalty is untested," added Mitokado.

General nods greeted this intervention. Sakura looked at Tsunade, who gave her the tiniest shrug: what had she expected?

Sakura's heart began to sink until Councilwoman Furui piped up. "Untested loyalty? Mitokado, my dear, did you not read Yamanaka's findings on the Kaguya boy? I've never read a cleaner report in my life. It makes me wonder if we shouldn't implement such testing as a matter of course, on all of the clan heads – then there would be no further chance of a coup attempt. Think of the tragedy that could have been avoided, if only we had..."

A lively discussion on the merits, or not, of this suggestion, took place – and indeed, took up the bulk of the rest of the meeting.

Sakura found herself booted from the room at noon sharp, the lunch hour apparently having precedence over everything else, and was told that she would be summoned when the Council was ready to pursue the discussion, thank you, goodbye.

She stalked away from the Council chambers in a foul mood: she'd managed to speak for all of two minutes, had her request dismissed by an irrelevant war story, received no support whatsoever from Tsunade, and then, just so to make it perfectly clear how unimportant she was, she'd been superseded by sandwiches.

Her angry steps took her around a corner – and smack-dab into Ambassador Biwa.

"Ambassador," gasped Sakura among her apologies. "I hope you aren't hurt…"

The envoy from Mist straightened out his fine silk vest with a chortle. "Not at all, Miss Haruno – not at all. I have quite the formidable defense mechanism here, you see," he said, patting his belly. "I suspect a distant relation to those Akimichis of yours, though I haven't looked into it more than that…"

Sakura handed him his briefcase, still flustered. "Here you go. Are you here on business?"

"I suppose you could call it business," said the Ambassador, collecting the briefcase from her. "Though speaking with the Lady Tsunade is more of a pleasure. I am meeting her this afternoon."

"I'll walk you," said Sakura, falling into step with him. "She was just in a Council meeting. They just broke for lunch, so she'll be out soon."

They meandered through the corridors, their progress marked by respectful bows to the Ambassador by Leaf staffers. For his part, the Ambassador kept up a pleasant conversation about his possible kinship with the Akimichis, all old-world manners and quiet jokes.

They reached the seating area outside of Tsunade's office.

"Well," said Biwi, settling into a sofa, "we've chatted about me all the way here. I must be a good diplomat and keep things bilateral, you know – and so, tell me, how are things with you, Ms. Haruno?"

"Busy, but good," smiled Sakura. "I mean, my job doesn't involve keeping shinobi villages at peace, so – no complaints."

"Nonsense," tutted Biwa. "If it weren't for the efforts of you and your colleagues, there wouldn't be shinobi left in those villages in the first place."

"Keeping the peace would be easier that way," laughed Sakura.

"Indeed." Biwa glanced at his pocket watch and then down the hall: Tsunade was late. "Now, tell me – how are things with the Leaf's new protégé? This Kaguya boy?"

Still the mood of light chit chat prevailed, but Sakura detected something a bit more intent in the way Biwa was watching her. Recollecting Biwa's odd visit when Kimimaro had arrived, Sakura grew suddenly wary.

"Oh, fine," she said vaguely. "Not much to say, he's kept busy…"

"He has been an excellent ward by all accounts," nodded Biwa. "Quite the change from his clan's previous tendencies, or so they say. I haven't had the pleasure of meeting him yet…"

The statement trailed off, inviting Sakura, if she were polite, to offer to arrange such a meeting. Thankfully, Tsunade's sharp heels were now echoing down the hall, sparing Sakura from having to respond.

The Ambassador shook Sakura's hand. "Ah – the Lady approaches. Ms. Haruno – always a pleasure. Until next time."

Sakura made her goodbyes to Biwa and left the room. Then, suspicion having seized her heart, she backed into a nearby alcove and waited for the meeting between Biwa and Tsunade to end.


When the Ambassador left Tsunade's office an hour later, Sakura paused just long enough to make sure he wasn't turning around before bounding through the door.

She half expected to be chided by Tsunade for barging in like this, but Tsunade merely looked up, a frown on her face, and then gestured to Sakura's usual seat. "Mm. I thought I saw you haunting the halls."

Sakura took her seat. "I'm sorry, Tsunade. I'm just – I spoke to Ambassador Biwa and he asked me about Kimimaro again. It's the second time he's done that – he came to my apartment the night Kimimaro arrived, too – and my instincts are telling me it's not just polite curiosity. I think he wants something, something to do with Kimimaro. Does he? What did he want to talk to you about? If it was village politics, I'll leave right now..."

Tsunade studied Sakura for a moment without answering. Then she said, "It was village politics."

However, when Sakura said, "Oh," and made to rise, Tsunade held up her hand. "Politics as they relate to Kimimaro Kaguya."

Sakura sat back down immediately. "What do you mean?"

Tsunade took her time pouring herself some tea, a pensive look on her face. Sakura declined her offer of a cup.

"Did you know that the Kaguya clan is originally from the Country of Water?" asked Tsunade.

"Yes," said Sakura. "I read about it. Ages ago."

"The Ambassador tells me they were never truly incorporated into Kirigakure. More affiliated… They fought side by side sometimes – when the Kaguyas were paid enough and in the right mood – but they were too unruly to integrate into the Hidden Mist proper. Fierce fighters, apparently, given the right incentive. But reckless and insubordinate to a fault."

Sakura was far more interested in the problems of the present than these tales of the past. "So? What does this have to do with Kimimaro? What does Biwa want?"

"The Mist is very interested in the fact that Kimimaro is a touch more civilized, as far as Kaguyas go. That he's 'integrated so well into village life,' as the Ambassador says. That he's following the rules we've laid out for him, kept to his curfews, and not caused trouble."

"Why does he care...?" Sakura's suspicions grew deeper. Somewhere near her heart, an uncharacteristic flutter of panic was building. "Tsunade," she breathed through the fingers that were now pressed against her mouth, "does the Hidden Mist want Kimimaro back? Are they going to try to lay claim to him?"

Tsunade looked up from her tea to find Sakura staring at her wild-eyed and breathless. "I–"

"We can't let them take him," interrupted Sakura, smacking Tsunade's desk with the flat of her palm. "The Hidden Mist lost their chance when they treated his clan barbarically for decades and mismanaged their relationships with them so badly that they incited a riot. Tsunade, the Mist wiped out the entire Kaguya clan. It was a genocide."

"All except one. Hence our present issue." Tsunade pursed her lips, unruffled by Sakura's outburst. "I don't know what they want yet. Biwa was fishing for information just as much as he was feeding me hints. He's shrewd – and very good at his job. He's trying to figure out how much Kimimaro has been integrated in the Leaf and how much trouble it'll be to get him back – if that's what Kirigakure decides to do."

"We can't let them have him back."

Tsunade surveyed Sakura with her thoughtful hazel eyes, apparently amused at how flustered Sakura was. She swivelled her chair a little from left to right. "Why not? I believe one of your principal arguments to the Council today – very well written file, by the way – was how profoundly unfair it is that he's a missing-nin. That he doesn't deserve such a black mark because his reasons for defecting from the Sound were so capital-G Good. Well – Mist would repatriate him. He'd have a village again."

Sakura found herself barely holding back a snarl. "He didn't defect from the Sound for them. He came to the Leaf seeking amnesty and safety from Otogakure, not to be a pawn in inter-village political games. He came here for me."

"Hm." Tsunade tapped at her teacup with a fingernail. "Maybe I'll ship you off to Mist too, then. I wonder what they'd offer for both of you. I could probably swing a good deal. Get those tariffs on sake imports lifted…"

"Tsunade!" cried Sakura, exasperated.

"I suppose you're of more value to me than that." Tsunade smiled and then grew serious. "Breathe, Sakura. We don't know what they want yet. When they make their ask we can strategize about what's best for the village."

Sakura didn't want to strategize about what was best for the village. She wanted what was best for him. Which was staying with her.

"For all we know," continued Tsunade, "they're just poking around to gage whether or not Kimimaro has a vendetta against them. Whether he's in any way unbalanced. Whether he wants to avenge their slaughter of his clan. We don't know."

"That's an extremely optimistic reading." Sakura crossed her arms. "A shinobi like Kimimaro is worth a lot to a village like Kirigakure."

"It's nevertheless where things stand right now: we don't know. The good news is that Biwa is unaware of your little plan. He doesn't know that it's occurred to anyone to have Kimimaro naturalized as a citizen of Konoha – because he knows the prevailing attitudes here. He doesn't know you've planted the seed of the possibility with the Council. And, right now, the Council doesn't know that Kirigakure might have an interest in Kimimaro–"

"But don't you have some kind of obligation to tell the Council about Biwa?" cut in Sakura with a frown. "As Hokage? You can't keep this from them…?"

Tsunade gave Sakura the most precious little smirk. "Biwa? What about Biwa? He came for his monthly courtesy call and we made small talk about the goings-on in the village. Kimimaro came up naturally, and, just as naturally, Biwa gave me a bit of information on the clan, while asking a few casual questions himself. Beyond that, well... I'm reading between the lines and you're speculating wildly. I'll bring it to the Council's attention when I have something official from the Hidden Mist. Meanwhile, your presentation to the Council will remain confidential, as do all of their discussions."

"Thank you, Tsunade," said Sakura, understanding now that Tsunade was toeing the line a little – and in her favour.

"However," added Tsunade, "if I were you, I'd move whatever timeline you were working with up. Aggressively."

Eyes brightened by fresh determination, Sakura nodded. "Okay. Yes. I will. I need your help with the Council – help me convince them..."

Tsunade shook her head. "I can't help you. If this goes any higher – if the Kirigakure Council moves forward, as I suspect they might, with an ask – I can't be seen to have been involved in a plot to keep Kimimaro here. You're on your own with the Council."

"But – but they're so against it. You saw them today. They're so hung up on their ideas of old stock, and what makes a Leaf clan, and so xenophobic, and set in their ways..." Sakura gasped as a thought occurred to her. "What if we delay until Kirigakure makes an official ask? I could use that as a strong argument – that another village wants him, because he and his bloodline are such an asset… that's speaking their language, isn't it?"

Tsunade considered the idea for a moment before speaking. "No. If Kirigakure makes an official demand for the return of a subject of the Country of Water, the Council will have to hand him over. To refuse the demand, and then adopt him into the Leaf ourselves, would be a direct affront to the Hidden Mist. Two slaps in the face, actually. The Council won't risk – and I wouldn't risk – souring our relationship with them over a rogue ninja who belongs to them in the first place."

"He doesn't belong to anyone," said Sakura with fresh outrage.

Tsunade shrugged. "You wanted to speak their language. In the eyes of Kirigakure, Kimimaro is a subject of theirs, born and bred in the Country of Water. Biwa told me the clan settled there centuries ago."

"But they tried to kill him."

"And? They now have new information – that he'sbiddable, not bloodthirsty. Of course that's going to change their minds." Tsunade swivelled her chair around so that she was facing the window. "The only thing I can do for you, to move this forward with the Council, is get you on an upcoming agenda sooner rather than later. A full half hour, this time."

Tsunade turned her chair back to Sakura. "But, Sakura... you're on your own in that room. When I'm in there, I'm the Hokage of the Hidden Leaf. The Mist can't hear that I'm actively advocating for Kimimaro to stay here. I can't risk our relationship with them."

"I understand," said Sakura.

"You'll make this work," said Tsunade. "I know you will."

Sakura stared at Tsunade's desk, feeling that, in this moment, Tsunade had far more faith in her abilities than she did herself.


Sakura's brain was so stuffed with preoccupations and projects that this new urgency about Kimimaro felt like it was about to split her head. As she walked back to the hospital, she took a deep breath and filed it under 'To Be Dealt With ASAP But Not Right Now'. Right now, she needed to be prepping for her meeting with the Board of Trustees of the General, because she was presenting her proposal for the creation of a children's wing in two days.

That was the plan, anyway. What actually happened was that someone hooked her by the elbow as she passed Ichiraku Ramen. A split second later, Sakura found herself being plopped onto a stool by Ino.

"You, me, lunch," said Ino. She called out an order to Ayame without waiting for a response from Sakura.

"But I–"

Ino turned to Sakura, her blue eyes grave. "We need to talk."

Sakura's objections died in the face of Ino's seriousness. "This can't be good..."

"No, it really isn't." Ino regarded Sakura critically. "You look exhausted. They're overworking you. Is it that Sand delegation eating up your time?"

Sakura perked up momentarily at the mention of this pet project: "Yes! Among other things. But it's so worth it. We're learning so much from each other. Collaboration between medic-nin of different nations needs to become a more widespread thing. I was thinking of putting together a kind of course on poison extraction techniques, actually, and inviting other villages–"

"Oh, yes." Ino clapped her hands together in over-exaggerated enthusiasm. "Putting together a course. Definitely a great idea. Add more to your plate. I don't think you have enough going on right now."

Two steaming bowls of Ichiraku Ramen's dinner special were placed in front of them by Ayame.

"Okay, okay," said Sakura with a rueful laugh. "No course."

Ino snapped her chopsticks open in an irritated manner. "Anyway – I have news. Uchiha news."


Ino leaned forwards and said, in a low voice: "They had me check out Sasuke this afternoon. Full scan. Ordered by the Council."

"Really? I didn't know they were planning that..."

"Shh," said Ino, looking around. "They're keeping it on the down-low. He's scheduled to be discharged from the hospital tomorrow. But apparently the Council decided that, before letting him loose upon the world, it would be wise to have a little look-see in his head. You know, to make sure he wasn't going to run again – or planning a rampage."

Sakura wondered if this unanticipated decision hadn't sprung from Councilwoman Furui's intervention that morning. If so, well, at least one good thing had emerged from that stupid meeting…

Out loud, Sakura said, "That's the first intelligent thing they've done in months. Did he cooperate?"

"Yes, surprisingly..." Ino paused to chew on a bamboo shoot. "It's funny – when they asked me to go in today, I psyched myself up for a big ole genjutsu throw-down, 'cause his brother gave me so much trouble. But Sasuke didn't even resist. I think he could understand the Council's reasoning for putting him through it, after all the shit he's pulled. Anyway, I worked through him, looking for intentions – to run away, to kill us all, whatever…"


Ino's brow was furrowed. "There weren't any."

"But isn't that… good?" asked Sakura, not understanding the frown.

Ino propped her elbows on either side of her steaming bowl of ramen, staring into its contents as though the answer might lie among the miso. "For the Council and the Leaf? Yeah. For Sasuke? I don't know. When I say there weren't any intentions, I mean there weren't any. No real goals, no real drive. He's just... confused. About his brother, about his clan, about his path in life after all this… he's like–" here Ino gesticulated with her chopsticks, trying to find the right analogy "–He's like a compass that's lost its magnet. He was so driven before – crazily driven. I could feel echoes of it everywhere, these well-worn trains of thought, these deep grooves of ambition and purpose. Now there's nothing pulling him on. No brother to kill, no Orochimaru to follow. Just confusion. A spinning needle. No bearings."

Sakura sat back with a sigh. Kimimaro had predicted something like this – a void, he had said. An emptiness. And Sasuke would suffer it doubly because he had lost two crucial motivators at the same time.

"I was thorough," continued Ino. "Wanted to make sure I didn't miss anything – or that he wasn't hiding anything. So I was prodding around and all I was getting was this murk of confused images of Itachi and Orochimaru, all distorted and fading away... And then, just when I was about to call it and pull out, I felt the brush of this peaceful thing…"

"Peaceful? In Sasuke's head?"

"I know. Yes, peaceful: it was a vision of the Uchiha compound at night, all lit up with red lanterns. And people in the windows – families. Uchiha families, happy and at peace."

"Like a memory?" asked Sakura around a mouthful of scallions. "From before the massacre?"

"That's what I thought at first," said Ino. "But then, it felt too new to be a memory. It was too fresh. I realized it was more of a… a wish. And it couldn't have been a memory, anyway, because…"

"Because what?" asked Sakura when Ino trailed off.

"Because, in this vision, you were in one of the windows." Ino pressed her lips together hard. "...With him."

Sakura's chopsticks dropped into her bowl. "Ino. No."

"Yes," said Ino.

Sakura searched Ino's face in disbelief. "You're messing with me."

"I would never. Not about this."

"Goddamn it," said Sakura, drawing her hands up to her face. "Why would you tell me?"

"Because you need to know." Ino reached over to peel Sakura's hands away from her eyes. "Listen – Sakura, look at me – it's something he wants, eventually, distantly. I don't think he's even articulated it to himself yet, not fully. It's nothing like his other ambitions were – it's a dream…"

"But it's the only one he has left," said Sakura miserably through her fingers.

"That I could find, yes." Ino sat back and crossed her arms. "Like I said, I was thorough. I needed to make sure he wasn't planning a Konoha BBQ..."

The conversation lapsed for a moment as Ayame dropped by with a fresh pot of tea. The babble of voices around them surged: a chuunin team fresh from a mission was walking in and being hailed by friends. Behind the bar, pots hissed out steam, knives flew across fresh vegetables, pork simmered.

Ino poured out a cup of tea for each of them. When they were alone again, she continued: "It's messed up. How is life so cruel? He fucks off, you pine for years, he comes back, you're over him... and now he's into you."

"Frig," said Sakura, staring at the paper lanterns overhead. "Shizune hinted at this the other day. But I kind of didn't believe her… and I didn't do anything about it, because what was I supposed to do? I don't get it – Sasuke must've noticed how different things are between us. He can't still think..."

Ino gave her a rare sympathetic look. "Boys are oblivious. You needed to spell it out for him when you loved him and he still barely got it. You're going to need to spell out the end of it, too."

"Gah." Sakura's hands found her face again. "Why couldn't the Council just exile him to the boonies and make my life easier…"

Ino straightened up with sudden indignation. "Very good question. Did you hear that the Council's decided not to hold a trial for him?"

"They did? Tsunade mentioned that they were deliberating on it..."

"They decided against." Ino speared an innocent shrimp with great irritation. "General consensus was that he wasn't acting of his own volition over the past ten years. That he was just a kid at the time of his defection from the Leaf, who couldn't be expected to withstand the effects of a cursed seal that strong, or the manipulations of a sannin." Ino lowered her voice. "And, obviously, they want him to stick around and have lots of Sharinganey babies."

"Well, Sasuke's vision is lined up with the Council on that front," said Sakura with a dark look.

"It's gross. Those old farts are pardoning treason, assault, murder – and a shit ton of other crimes – because he's an Uchiha."

Sakura laughed, though it was tinged with something bitter. "Yeah. But those old farts are thinking long term. In eighty years, when we're all dead, all that'll matter is that those Sharinganey babies have had their own Sharinganey babies and that that power stays in Konoha. As long as the bloodline remains, no one will care that Sasuke was a traitor and faffed off for a decade, murdering people to get stronger. It'll be ancient history by then… and believe me, this town forgets fast."

Sakura jutted chin towards her bag, out of which poked a half-dozen books. "That's what all this is about."

Ino examined the bag with a raised eyebrow. "So that's what you're schlepping around? The whole history section of the Konoha Public Library?"

"Yeah. Research."


"Personal curiosity."

Ino rolled her eyes. "Nerd. I can't even make fun of you, it doesn't feel sporting when you make it this easy. So what are you going to do about your Uchiha issue?"

"Ugh. How do I still have an Uchiha issue?"

"You grew up into a bombshell with brains to match." Ino shrugged. "Some would call it a blessing."


"I'm just saying," said Ino, twirling some noodles up to her mouth. "Finish your food and I'll let you get on with whatever you were rushing off to do – protecting us for the next plague, or whatever…"

"Building a pediatric hospital wing, actually," said Sakura, following suit with her noodles.

"Ah, yes," said Ino, surveying Sakura over her bowl. "Saint Sakura, being beautiful and curing children. And you wonder why everyone's in love with you."

"Could you not...?"

Ino laughed as Sakura kicked her under the table.


The long-anticipated Board meeting took place as scheduled two days later.

It was Shizune who had the misfortune of catching Sakura on her way out of the boardroom immediately after. "Sakura! How did it–"

Sakura rounded on her, ablaze with frustration. "What's the point in being Chief of Patient Care if I can't even care for patients?"

Shizune took a step back and hugged her files to her chest. Sakura realized that she was, once again, morphing into Tsunade II, and that she ought to reel it in.

She took a breath. "Sorry, Shizune. It didn't go well. I wouldn't be taking it so badly if they'd flat out refused, like, 'no, Ms. Haruno, this is a pipe dream and you need to put it away forever, and never bother us with it again.' But they were so passionate about the idea, all of those fancy-pants trustees. They loved it. That's the worst part – having their whole-hearted support, in theory, but not in practice. It feels like I failed that much harder because I was that much closer..."

"Sakura," said Shizune, trotting along to keep up with Sakura's angry strides. "If they said you had their support, you didn't fail…"

Sakura waved a dismissive hand. "Pff. Their support was a given. I had it all laid out too convincingly for it not to be – conservative budget, staffing requirements all lined up, an architect willing to design the wing for a minimal fee, feedback from consultations and focus groups excellent – not a single NIMBY crying about the proposed location, if you'll believe it...

"So then they gave me a lecture about how they understand that it's important to make this kind of investment in infrastructure, and how they understand how overcrowded we are, and how, in an ideal world, it'd be wonderful to fund a new wing – 'but given the current fiscal climate, Ms. Haruno, you must understand that we cannot commit…'"

Shizune looked like she might want to agree with the trustees on the state of the budget. However, in the face of Sakura's mood, she wisely kept this to herself.

"–And!" said Sakura, whipping towards Shizune. "Also! They told me they were aware that the Hokage and the Council fully supported the initiative?! Which wasn't my doing, I haven't even approached them at this stage? So Tsunade must've talked to the Council and the Board at some point…"

"She might've," said Shizune noncommittally.

"...Which makes her a hero, but even that didn't sway them. Anyway, I argued with them, because the consensus was so obviously that it would be an excellent thing for the General and for the Leaf (we could become a hub, you know, for children's health care and research and so many good things). Two hours of back and forthing with them, and they agreed, by the end, to offer me thirty percent of what I'd need to fund this thing, but with the caveat that I can't start building until I've found a source for the other seventy percent…"

Shizune winced: that was a lot of money. "So, basically, you need to win the lottery."

"No. Like, ten lotteries. Multi-million ones. Alternatively, I need to find a really rich donor. Do you know any stupidly generous rich people?"

"No," said Shizune.

"Me neither," said Sakura.

She sank into cranky silence and mulled over possibilities: who did she know that was wealthy? Not just wealthy – absurdly wealthy, because funding a new wing like this was essentially building a small hospital and the costs were astronomical. She didn't know anyone with that kind of wealth – much less anyone willing to part with a large chunk of it. Perhaps she could make a case for state funding from the Country of Fire; she had enough material to put together a convincing proposal, didn't she? But a children's hospital wasn't a sexy project or a warlike one; it wouldn't seize the attention of the Daimyo and his councillors… And she'd have to convince Tsunade to approach them, and Tsunade was adamant, like most Hokages before her, about keeping that gang at arm's length from the Hidden Leaf, for many good reasons…

Sakura's adrenaline from the meeting began to ebb and, as she and Shizune approached the Hospital entrance, thoughts of the project and the trustees and that intense negotiation session began to be replaced by other more pressing questions, such as when had she last slept.

Sakura waved at Shizune as she left, with a mumbled apology for biting off her head.

"I'm used to it," grinned Shizune. "If you start yelling for sake at three in the morning, then I'll start to worry."