"And I'm saying absolutely not!"
Which was hopeless to say, of course, because Sakura had already said it a dozen times now, and here she was, stomping around in Gaara's home while the Jinchuuriki methodically packed his things. She wondered if stubbornness was a trait of all Jinchuuriki or if she'd just gotten unlucky with him and Naruto.
"Did you completely miss my whole explanation of how nine S-ranked shinobi currently are looking to kidnap you?"
"I did not." Gaara replied. Sakura glanced over just in time to see him start to grab toothbrushes. (Somehow she'd just...never pictured him doing the mundane parts of living. It was odd enough seeing he had a house.)
"Well, how about the fact that I am not an S-ranked shinobi and I am probably incapable of distracting one of Akatsuki for more than a minute?"
Gaara didn't respond. Whether to be polite or if he just didn't care, Sakura wasn't sure. Perhaps a bit of both. She wasn't sure which option infuriated her more, so she let herself continue to rant.
"How about the fact that the instant you leave here with me, all of Suna is going to put a huge fucking target on both our heads, on top of the target that Konoha already put on me." It felt strangely good to curse. She'd always held back, wanting to be seen as the mature one, but there wasn't a reason to be mature now. This was Gaara's life he was throwing away. "What if Suna never takes you back? What if you never have a home again because you leave with me?"
Gaara paused and looked back at her, his expression the most angry she'd seen him in a while. "What gave you the impression I considered this a home to begin with?"
Sakura grimaced, biting her lip as she forced herself to pace away from Gaara's glaring eyes. Right. Of course. It wasn't like Gaara had any attachment to his home, not like Naruto did. No, she really couldn't fault him for wanting to leave, and if situations had been different...if it had just been Orochimaru that was the problem and not Akatsuki…
"I can't protect you." She finally admitted, her voice softening. "If you come with me, as far as I'm concerned, I've condemned you to death, Gaara."
She felt a hand on her shoulder, and turned to see a Gaara fully packed, even more determined than before. "I'd rather die with a friend than here."
Here...but that had been the point, hadn't it? If he stayed here, the village could keep him safe.
But then Sakura remembered how just one of the Akatsuki had taken on four jounin of her village and survived, had put Kakashi and Sasuke into a coma that none but Tsunade could have brought them out of, how Itachi Uchiha had gone toe to toe with Jiraiya and scared him enough that he had whisked Naruto away for his own protection.
And that was just one of them.
If all nine Akatsuki decided to take Gaara from this village, could anyone stop them? For that matter, following that thought, why hadn't they yet? Had they captured all of the other Jinchuuriki?
Were Gaara and Naruto the only ones left?
And suddenly Sakura got why Jiraiya had taken Naruto and ran. It wasn't that Jiraiya thought he could stand up against Akatsuki if they came for Naruto, it was that traveling around without a goal made Naruto harder to find, and the longer he could distract Akatsuki, the more time he had to come up with a plan to deal with them.
Which meant that logically, Gaara leaving with her was somehow, stupidly, the safest thing he could probably do. Yes, Suna would try to retrieve him, but Suna wouldn't be stupid enough to announce to the entire world that one of their strongest shinobi had gone missing. After their war with Konoha, it would all but ensure their demise if any other country thought them weaker than they were now.
Which meant that, whether they wanted to or not, Suna would cover them. Akatsuki wouldn't be looking for her, they'd be looking where they expected Gaara to be.
This was such a stupid idea it was actually smart.
"You need to disguise yourself." Sakura finally spoke, moving to some of Gaara's cabinets to look for something, anything. "That tattoo is kind of unique, we could cover it with some makeup. Dye your hair, if you'll let me. And that gourd, can you make it a different shape?" She vaguely remembered his entire gourd being made of his sand, from his fight with Lee. Gaara nodded, and she watched as the gourd began to stretch and elongate until it very distinctly looked the part of a rather large scroll. Scrolls were common enough in the shinobi world, and that still meant his sand was close to him, where he liked it. "Good, that's a good start."
"Your hair, too?" Gaara pointed to her. Sakura frowned as she considered her rare color. She liked the pink. Maybe it wasn't a very shinobi-like color, but it was her color.
"It's not like Akatsuki's looking for me." She countered with a pout.
"Then no dyeing."
Sakura looked over just in time to see...wait, was Gaara sulking too? He looked like he was trying to mimic her expression, but, well, failing horribly. It was like the poor boy hadn't exercised his facial muscles in years. She couldn't help but giggle.
"Fine, fine, so we find something to cover our heads with. I'm sure a headscarf or two would do us fine, and we still need to cover that tattoo whether you want to or not."
One hour of sifting through Gaara's clothes later, Sakura finally considered the two of them 'disguised'. It was awkward wearing a boy's clothes, but they were about the same height and Sakura would have been stupid not to take advantage of the opportunity. Once they were out of the desert, she could change back. Their heads were covered, defining traits concealed, and Sakura doubted even experienced jonin would notice them unless they were given enough time to determine something was off...and if they were successful, nobody was going to get that chance.
Looking at her map, as well as using what little knowledge of existing Jinchuuriki she had, Sakura began to put together a plan. "We need to take the route that will let us get away from Suna quickly, but also avoid Konoha. Which is difficult, Konoha is right smack in the middle of everyone, so we're going to need to keep to the edges of the map. And that actually works out perfectly for us." Sakura grinned as she began to draw a line on the paper. "First we go to Iwagakure. My readings claim that the First Hokage gave at least one of the Tailed Beasts to the first Tsuchikage as a sign of goodwill. Iwa's always been a bit warmongering in the past, so we'll have to tread carefully, but since we're both technically missing-nin…"
"They won't have cause to think our villages are moving against them." Gaara nodded. "We find the Jinchuuriki, and then?"
"Warn them of Akatsuki." If they hadn't been captured yet. "Get whatever information from them we can. Then we move on." Several more lines were drawn on the map. "From there, Takigakure. It's not confirmed but it is rumored there's a Jinchuuriki there. Worth looking into. And-"
"You put Otogakure on the path." Gaara pointed out. "After Waterfall."
"Y-yeah." Sakura nodded, sheepish. "Well, I also want to try and learn about Orochimaru if I can. That place is going to be the most dangerous out of all of them. Orochimaru knows I'm Sasuke's teammate, and he'll have probably heard you've left with me by then. But I'm hoping we can use my lie to Konoha to our advantage and have him think I've turned traitor."
"You want to find Sasuke."
"Of course I do. And if he's so stubborn about not wanting to go back to the village, well, that's fine. He can just come with us to Kumogakure." Sakura pointed to the next location on her route. "Confirmed two Jinchuuriki there, and then finally to Kirigakure to investigate the rumors there."
"And when we're done?"
Sakura looked to Gaara, taking a deep breath. "If we make it that far, I think I'll quit being a shinobi and turn to religion, because someone divine is going to have to have our backs if we're that lucky."
One step at a time, anyway. They still had to escape Suna and get to these places, and Sakura still wasn't quite sure that first step was going to go well. Gaara seemed confident, however, and he did know the village better than her.
They made their way to the roof, checking the immediate area for any signs of shinobi. In the distance, the north wall of the village stood strong, a massive cliff-face that was higher than Sakura had probably climbed in her life. And yet, that was their goal. North to Iwa.
"As long as we keep a natural pace, we shouldn't draw suspicion." Gaara spoke so softly, Sakura wasn't sure how she could even hear him. Damn, she needed to learn how to be that quiet. "My only concern is the standard patrol. If they see us, they might question us."
Sakura suddenly couldn't help but grin.
For the first time in a LONG time, Sakura was going to be useful.
A couple quick hand signs later, and Sakura reached out to sense nearby chakra. "There's three south of us, five east, two northeast, one west, and… two northwest." She peaked her eyes open just in time to see the look Gaara gave her: one part confusion and one part respect. "I haven't been studying that scroll for the hell of it, you know. It's a sensing scroll. As long as you can chart the best path, I can keep track of everyone." Her grin widened as she turned to face west. "I think we'll avoid most of the locals going that way. I'll need to stop every couple hundred feet or so to recheck the area." A slow pace, but a safe one. And every second they weren't found was one that got them closer to their destination.
Gaara took point, stepping to the roof's edge before looking back to Sakura. "When you're ready, then."
Sakura was definitely not ready and not ever going to be ready to escape a hidden village again. And unlike Konoha, Suna would likely kill her now if they caught her. This was life or death. Equivalent, she was sure, to some sort of A rank mission.
She took a deep breath, and the running began.
The trick to being a shinobi had to be a good poker face.
There was no reason why a couple of high ranking Suna jonin couldn't have stopped them on their escape and asked what they were up to, but Sakura was beginning to learn that exuding an aura of 'I am supposed to be here' was a better disguise than literally any jutsu could accomplish. At one point, when they had reached a junction where crossing the path of a shinobi was unavoidable, Sakura had taken another breath and had simply… walked.
It was a market district, she'd deduced. Strange folk pass by there all the time. There was no need to pay any attention to her or her partner. They were there to shop. No suspicious activity, definitely not trying to flee the village.
It was then Sakura realized exactly how Uchiha Itachi had infiltrated her village so easily. Before they'd known of Akatsuki's trademark robes, there'd been no reason to look for any "suspiciously dressed" shinobi, because there wasn't any known clothing that could have reasonably been considered suspicious. Merchants came and went constantly, and the guards probably just considered Itachi another traveler. Hell, if Akatsuki was smart, they'd ditch the robes and be able to infiltrate every village with ease.
Oh shit, what if they already had?
Now, however, was not the time to panic over what ifs. They had reached the village walls, and now began the more risky part of their journey. Did they dare risk taking the normal path out of the village? Or was it safer to climb over, potentially being spotted on the way up and having to risk climbing down again after?
Another breath. Calm, collected steps. Sakura was meant to be here. She was meant to be leaving the village.
In her mind, she tried her best to pull a persona over herself. It was surprisingly easy. She had grappled with her inner voice for years, taking on the demeanor of a sweet, innocent girl over the real her that was brash and loud and obnoxious. The new persona was a merchant, heading in the direction of Iwagakure after coming to Suna for business.
"Good thing that sandstorm finally broke, huh?" Sakura spoke to the gate guards as she approached, trying her best to seem jovial. Silently, Gaara followed her. "If I'd been stuck here another day, I might have been late for a very important meeting!"
The two guards blinked as they considered her, and then one spoke up, professional and polite. "Be careful out there on the road, ma'am. Sometimes the storms wear away at the road. Wouldn't want anyone getting lost!"
"Thanks for the warning, friend!" Sakura gave the man a pleasant wave and kept walking.
If she hadn't known better, she would have sworn that she'd been holding her breath for the past mile. As their view of the village finally began to fade under the horizon, Sakura stopped, putting her hands on her knees.
"Gaara, holy shit."
Gaara was silent, of course. Sakura took the pause to breathe the anxiety out of her nerves. Merchant persona was gone, and now it was just quiet Sakura who hadn't been so afraid since Sasuke left.
"It was that easy." She found herself saying. "It was that easy to just walk out without any questions, no wonder Orochimaru and Akatsuki haven't been caught yet. I'm a genin with barely any talents and I just walked out of a guarded village without being stopped once."
And to be fair, it was likely nobody had realized yet that Gaara had allowed her to escape (and run off with her). But now Sakura had become seriously worried about her own village's security. The wrong person could walk right through the gates and just… do whatever they wanted! Learn whatever they wanted!
Hell, this whole thing had started with her breaking into Konoha's most secure library!
"I'm starting to think that I have severely been overestimating most shinobi." Sakura concluded. "They're so worried about grand, obvious threats that they let the small, sneaky ones slip right through."
"Good thing we're a small, sneaky one then."
Sakura let out a hollow laugh. When she returned to Konoha, she was going to give Tsunade a lecture.
Assuming she lived long enough. Assuming Tsunade didn't knock her lights out next time she saw her.
From there, Sakura and Gaara ran. The initial escape was done, and now all that mattered was putting as much distance between them and Suna as possible. Sakura noted, as they ran, that Gaara was focusing and allowing his sand to whip at the ground behind them, removing all trace of their footprints. Suna wasn't stupid; they'd check each of the gates once they realized their prisoner and Jinchuuriki were gone, but ensuring they didn't have a noticeable trail would make things easier. (And Sakura could only hope the gate guards didn't think twice about the two 'merchants' that had passed them by.)
Eventually, Sakura allowed her run to leave the safety of the main road. It wasn't quite as scary having a native Suna shinobi at her back; if another sandstorm hit, she figured Gaara of all people would know how to handle it. The main road was winding and 'safe', but off-road would be the most direct path to Iwa. They'd save time, precious time, and once they crossed the border into the Land of Earth, Suna shinobi would be less likely to follow them.
They ran well into the day and deep into the night. Only the past week of jogging in a desert environment allowed Sakura to keep conscious at all under the desert heat, as well as the clothes she had donned. (Despite the fact that she was more covered, the lightweight fabrics breathed well and shaded her skin from the sun's rays. So that was how Kankuro could keep covered all the time.)
It was as the sun began to peek over the horizon again that the two finally stopped for rest. Gaara, in his element, moved the sand beneath them to create a large hole. Then, he pulled his own sand above them, making a solid ceiling and leaving a single hole for air. That, combined with a small oil lamp he'd brought along, made the perfect little hideaway. Sakura couldn't help but be impressed. The sand would blend in with the rest of the desert, and they'd be shielded from the sun while they slept.
Though what Sakura hadn't known what that Gaara apparently did not sleep. Ever.
It explained the bags around his eyes, though Sakura had read about the negative effects of sleep deprivation on one's psyche. No wonder Gaara had been so… unstable.
"Naruto's never had to worry about sleeping." Sakura pointed out as she dug some food from her backpack. "Do you think Kyuubi's not as overbearing as Shukaku?"
"No." Gaara disagreed. "I would guess that the seal used to bind Shukaku is different from the one used on Kyuubi. Shukaku's seal has been notoriously weak. Over the years our elders have tried strengthening it, but it will inevitably begin to decay as I grow old."
"We need to figure out how to fix that." Sakura decided. "It would be a hell of a lot easier for you to deal with Shukaku after a good night's sleep, I would think."
Gaara had nothing more to say on that, and Sakura was already at a dead end anyway. She knew nothing of sealing techniques, and there hadn't been anything written on the seal that was used on Naruto. Though if Gaara could wait a couple of years, they could always petition Konoha for the design, surely Tsunade would see the benefit…
Sakura's stomach tightened. She missed home. She missed her fellow genin, her parents, even Tsunade's stern voice would have sounded heavenly. It had been easy to distract herself at Suna, but now, out in the desert? She missed beds and showers and people.
"How do you feel?" She forced herself to ask. "Now that you've officially left home?"
Gaara looked to her before closing his eyes, thinking. "Nothing." He answered. "Nothing at all."
Well, maybe that was expected. He didn't have friends back in Suna. And he didn't need a bed, so why would he have cause to miss one?
"If we ever go back to Konoha, we'll get that seal fixed." Sakura promised. "And then I'm going to find you the biggest, comfiest bed in the village for your first nap. Then, when you leave, you'll have something to miss."
Gaara said nothing, but even under the dim light, Sakura could have sworn she saw a smile.
Sakura woke to panicked breathing and muttered words.
Before she could even process what was going on, her hand went to her kunai. The oil lamp had long gone out, and the hole in the ceiling wasn't enough to illuminate much of anything. It took Sakura a minute before she realized that the words were coming from Gaara.
"I won't kill her… I won't."
Sakura froze, and her hand gripped the handle of her kunai tightly. That muttering… that was like how he had been during the chunin exams. When Shukaku's influence was strong. How strong was the Beast now? Gaara was fighting it, it seemed, but how well could Gaara hold up against something so powerful?
"I'm not weak. You're wrong."
An inhuman growl seemed to tear itself from Gaara, and Sakura saw a flutter of movement in front of her. She thrust her kunai out defensively, but didn't connect, and nothing connected with her. There was something large in front of her, and as her eyes adjusted to the darkness she recognized the large claw of Shukaku, made with Gaara's sand, outstretched at her. But it was hesitating… Gaara was holding it back.
"Not her. Not this time."
The claw gently fell to the ground, and the sand began to slither back into the earth. Sakura could see Gaara a bit more clearly now. He was clutching his head, shaking.
He seemed… afraid. Not some powerful, killer shinobi. Just a scared boy. A boy who was trying not to kill her.
"Gaara, take a deep breath." Sakura found herself instructing. "You're stronger than it thinks. You don't have to kill."
"It's been too long." He answered, his voice half a growl as it tore itself from his throat. "There hasn't been any blood. It's not satisfied, it won't be satisfied."
Sakura paused. He was… communicating with it. Even if it was currently murderous, Shukaku was talking.
She didn't know if she'd get this opportunity again.
"Why?" She asked. "Why does it want blood? Does it need it to survive?"
The question was enough to stop Gaara's shaking momentarily. He was confused, and maybe the question had been direct enough to distract Shukaku as well.
"It… it hates us." Gaara finally replied. "It hates humanity. Humanity is… humanity is a blight on this earth, to be killed, to be bled dry."
"Is it because we sealed it away? Does it want revenge?"
The silence seemed to hang for an eternity. A minute passed, another, then another, and just when Sakura had given up hope on an answer, Gaara finally spoke again, no longer in a growl, but strangely calm.
"No?" Gaara's confusion was clear. "Humanity is… cursed. They did not learn. They will not learn."
"Learn? Learn what?"
"They bicker and squabble and kill like animals, so they should be put down like animals."
Well… Sakura couldn't argue with it there. War and shinobi had gone hand in hand since before the founding of the villages. But… "So you think killing us is the answer? We won't learn that way. The only way we can learn is by example, and if you encourage us to kill, we'll never change."
Gaara was quiet again, but Sakura suddenly felt as though a weight off her chest had been lifted. The aura that Shukaku's chakra generated… it was so heavy that anyone could feel it. "It… said we don't deserve its help. Only its judgment." Gaara spoke. "But now it's gone. Just… gone." He looked up at her, now more afraid than ever. "It doesn't just leave."
"Well, I'm sure it's still there, but it seems like I got the better end of that argument." Sakura couldn't help but laugh. The fear she had been repressing finally came forward, shaking its way into her hands and causing her to drop the kunai to the ground.
She could have died.
She could have died but she didn't. She and Shukaku had spoken, even if indirectly.
And there was so much to unpack.
But not now. She'd been woken from her sleep, and her mind wasn't nearly rested enough to consider the implications of the conversation. But before that, before sleep…
She stood, going to Gaara's side and sitting next to him. He shook, still, more than she was. "Can I touch you?" She found herself asking. Gaara looked to her, unsure until she reached out to gently touch his shoulder. He didn't pull away, so she let her hand remain.
"... I tried to kill you."
"Well it's not like it's the first time. What matters this time is that you stopped."
Gaara nodded. "I stopped." He repeated. "I never stop."
"Wrong. This time, you stopped. And that means you'll always be able to stop, whenever you want."
"Whenever I want…" Gaara nodded again. "I can stop."
They sat for an hour in silence, and Sakura didn't take her hand off of his shoulder until exhaustion overwhelmed her and all she could do was sleep.