Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 19

"I spy with my little eye, something that is...green."

Gaara looked over to her with a confused expression, and Sakura realized that, considering the boy's childhood, he might not have ever played silly games like I Spy. "It's for passing the time on the road." She explained. "I look around for something and I tell you what color it is, and you have to guess what it is I'm looking it."

Gaara's face wrinkled as he thought harder on this concept. "But Sakura...we're surrounded by nothing but grass."

"Makes it a challenge, doesn't it? Was I bold enough to choose the grass? Or is there something green that you missed?"

The real Gaara might not have spent so much time debating this, but, Sakura reminded herself, she was speaking with a sand clone, and unlike Naruto's clones (virtually indistinguishable from the original), Gaara's clones were a bit lacking in the thought department. But this was fine. She wasn't walking through acres of grass with a sand clone because she'd wanted intellectual stimulation. The clone was a distraction. Someone, according to a sadistic Akatsuki member, was following the two of them, and Sakura had more than confirmed it with several sensing pulses back in the Plains village. Neither she nor Gaara had any solid guesses as to who that someone could be, but what they had come up with was a rather simple plan to catch this watcher and figure things out straight up.

Once Sakura had fully recovered from her injuries fighting Hiroshi, the two of them solidified their plans to continue northward to Iwagakure, looking for other Jinchuuriki. They'd packed their things, and Sakura and a sand clone had left the inn, heading north.

The real Gaara, someone who Sakura knew from experience was almost impossible to detect when he was trying to be stealthy, stayed behind. And why would their attacker think anything of the situation. Hidan had whispered the revelation into Sakura's ear, and she'd kept her planning with Gaara down to the most careful whispers. Hopefully, their watcher wasn't aware that they knew of their existence, which meant they had no reason to believe that the Gaara walking next to Sakura wasn't a carefully crafted clone.

And all Sakura had to do was play casual while the real Gaara located the watcher and caught them.

"Is it the grass?" Gaara's clone finally decided.

"Nope." Sakura said with a grin. "I bet you'll never guess it."

"Hm." Gaara's frustration was...somewhat adorable to watch. There was really only one other thing than the grass that was green out here, and Sakura was willing to bet the clone didn't think of it before the real Gaara did his job. She stretched, partly because she wanted to, and partly because stretching was a good way to conceal a quick hand-sign that would allow her to send out a sensing pulse. Sure enough, there were two chakra signatures behind her, one slightly closer than the other. Their watcher, and Gaara, catching up. Only a matter of time.

She readied herself, in case the watcher proved difficult. She'd sharpened her kunai and shuriken, but if there was a spat, there was something else she was itching to try. She'd successfully managed to coat her fist in rock during her fight with Hiroshi, and the resulting punch had been oh so satisfying. Sakura had decided relatively quickly that she was going to master that move, use it like second nature, improve upon it if she could. The Rock Fist was going to be her Chidori. Only cooler. She'd find a way to make it cooler.

Sakura was startled by her thoughts by a small yelp of surprise, and the sound of rushing sand. She turned around just in time to see Gaara encasing a writhing someone in a thick layer of sand. Well then. That had been...way easier than expected.

But hell, she'd settle for an easy win at this point.

"Nice, Gaara!" She called out, rushing over to join him as Gaara's clone faded into the earth. The person entrapped in the sand had stopped struggling...or rather had lost the ability to struggle, which was perfect. They couldn't use jutsu if they couldn't move their hands, right? Though Sakura was actively learning to cast jutsu without hand signs. She drew a kunai, just in case. Better to be prepared.

The person was masked, she realized as she approached. Their hair was short and black, and anything else she could see (not covered in sand) was simple dark clothing, nothing special. Very ordinary. Only the mask really stood out, and Sakura got the feeling she'd seen a similar sort of mask before.

It came to her all at once, and she couldn't prevent herself from letting out an audible gasp as she put two and two together.

"You're an Anbu agent!"

The Anbu was silent, staring at her through the mask with an almost cold indifference. Sakura knew that Anbu were elite shinobi, and having caught one so easily was enough to make her gleeful. She wasn't just getting stronger, she and Gaara were getting smarter. Not even an Anbu had seen this coming.

But, perhaps the more important question, why was an Anbu agent following them in the first place?

"Can your sand disarm him?" She asked Gaara. "Take away his weapons, tools, anything he has on him? Or maybe you can just restrain him and I can do it."

Gaara opted for restraining, and once the Anbu'd had their arms tied behind their back with thick sand, Sakura began to rifle through the pouches on their belt. There were standard shinobi tools: kunai, shuriken, wire...but in even more abundance were what looked to be scrolls, ink pots, and brushes. It was clear that this shinobi was a specialist in information gathering, as a couple of the scrolls held detailed accounts of herself, Gaara, and the scenes that the Anbu had been witness to. She kept hold of those scrolls; no point in letting the Anbu send out anything else that could let others know of their location or plans. However, what was curious was that the majority of the Anbu's scrolls were blank, and there was at least a dozen of them. How much information had the Anbu hoped to gather? One of the scrolls, that had been tied to the shinobi's back, was almost three feet long. Was that one really for writing down information?

The Anbu only had one other noteworthy possession, and as Sakura took hold of it and began to flip it open, for the first time the shinobi began to struggle.

"Don't touch that." The Anbu warned.

"Well now I really wanna touch it." Sakura replied in turn, looking at the first couple pages. They were...drawings?

Yes, drawings. Dozens of them. The book seemed to tell two stores: one starting from the front and heading towards the middle, the other starting at the back and heading in reverse towards the middle. They were drawings of shinobi, one light haired, one dark, looking to be defeating various foes on various battlefields. The end, the middle of the book, perhaps when the two shinobi would have met, was completely blank. An unfinished story? How curious. Perhaps it was the Anbu's pet project, something to complete while waiting for something interesting to happen. She showed the book to Gaara, which only seemed to make the Anbu more on edge.

"Who are these shinobi? Did you make them up?" Sakura asked, flipping through the book a second time. "These drawings are actually really good."

"It's not important." The Anbu answered.

"Okay, well, sorry for looking through your personal stuff, but you have been following us. We have every right to try and figure out why." She held onto the book. The Anbu seemed attached to it, and the logical part of her brain figured the Anbu might be willing to cooperate for it. "So, are you going to tell us why you've followed two low rank missing-nin across the country to the northern border of Suna?"

The Anbu was silent. Sakura hadn't thought so.

Which was unfortunate, because Sakura really wasn't an 'interrogation' kind of person, and while she didn't have much doubt that Gaara could be intimidating when he wanted, he'd been trying to get away from that sort of attitude, so it was best not to encourage it. Which meant that unless they could convince the Anbu to talk, they wouldn't get much out of them.

Which was...fine, she supposed. She now knew that Konoha was interested enough in them to send Anbu, either because of the fact that somehow they'd caught wind that Gaara was with her, or because Konoha was still under the impression that she was headed to Sasuke and wanted to learn where the Uchiha's location was. It was either that or the very very slim possibility that Konoha wanted to know what she was up to, but Sakura wasn't quite at the mental point to convince herself that it was a real possibility.

With the Anbu disarmed, and the fact that Gaara had so easily nabbed him, Sakura didn't feel too threatened. (And boy, what a weird feeling that was, not being threatened by a Konoha elite.) So she decided that maybe it was time to take a small gamble.

"I'm keeping all this." She told the Anbu, gesturing to the scrolls he had written on already. "But I'll let you have the other stuff back, and I'll even have Gaara let you go. But that's if you can meet one condition for me."

More silence. Good god, even Gaara was chattier than this once.

"It's nothing you probably wouldn't want to do anyway." Sakura admitted, taking one of the scrolls and grabbing a brush to write. "I want to send a message to the Hokage, and you'd probably have the best way of doing that. Either that, or I have to wait until we reach Iwa and hope they'll let us use an eagle or something." She began writing down everything she remembered of Hidan and Kakuzu, including physical descriptions, Hidan's disturbing jutsu, and the information on Jashin she'd been provided with.

(She was still wearing that necklace Hidan had given her. No reason not to, she figured, especially if they happened to run across another Jashinist in the future.)

"I think this would be considered S-ranked information?" She pondered aloud. "It's information she definitely needs to know. So, if you promise to send it her way, I'll let you go. And...I guess you'll probably still follow us, huh?" Which meant that the Anbu would just rewrite the scrolls Sakura had taken, still get the information out...and she didn't even know how much the Anbu had already sent, if anything. Short of killing them or breaking their legs, she couldn't stop them from following her and Gaara, but there was a part of her that figured that Konoha knowing her movements wasn't necessarily the worst fate in the world. She knew Tsunade was merciful, and she hadn't really betrayed the village or done anything super dire. Just...run off.

Tsunade had run off, once. Maybe she'd understand.

"Ah, fuck it." She put the filled scrolls back in the pile with the blank ones. "I'll give back these two, there's no stopping you from sending them out. I really just want you to send mine. Can you please do that?"

"...I'm capable of sending it."

"You have very conveniently not agreed to anything." Sakura pointed out. "I could ask Gaara to just leave you here covered in sand. Do you know how often people pass by here? Probably never. You'd just die out here, alone in the sand, your tools out of reach…"

"I'll send it."

"Perfect." Sakura giggled as she wrapped up her own scroll. She wasn't a good intimidator, no, but it was still kinda fun to do it. "Okay, here's everything. Gaara, go ahead and let them out."

"You're sure?"

"I mean, if they try anything, just put them in sand time-out again."

The answer seemed to satisfy Gaara, and the sand pulled itself away from the Anbu and back onto Gaara's back. The Anbu froze for a moment, watching Sakura and Gaara with a wary gaze before slowly reaching out to grab their things. When they were done, they reached towards Sakura, wanting the book she was holding.

"Hmm...this?" She held the book out to the Anbu, but at the last minute pulled it away. "Oh, wait, I forgot to say. You only get this back if you tell me what I want to know. Why you're following us and all that."

The Anbu lunged forward, and Sakura quickly moved back, saved from the Anbu's reach only due to Gaara's sand catching his arm just in time.

"You heard her." Gaara spoke. "You won't get it back until you talk."

The Anbu pulled against the sand, and Gaara let go only when the Anbu moved away from Sakura. The Anbu rubbed their wrist before continuing to move away, eventually disappearing in a flurry of leaves and grass.

Sakura rolled her eyes before sending out a sensing pulse. The Anbu was still near, behind her now, and she gestured to Gaara just in time for her partner to intercept another swiping attempt. The Anbu tried twice more, disappearing and reappearing in flashes almost too quick for Sakura to keep up with, before giving up and retreating to a spot some distance away.

"Guess they don't want it too badly then." Sakura said to Gaara with a small shrug. "The offer still stands. I'll just hold onto this until then." She pocketed the book, turning to Gaara with a smile. "Well, guess that means we just keep moving on to Iwa. Plus an extra new friend."

"They don't seem like a friend."

"They haven't killed us, so that's a friend in my book at the moment."

They began to walk again, heading north with the Anbu trailing at a close distance behind them. After a moment, Gaara spoke again.

"So...what had been the green you'd seen?"

"Your eyes." Sakura answered with a smirk. "I told you you'd never guess it."

"Oh."

It was so quick she nearly missed it, but for the first time, Sakura saw Gaara blush slightly.


It was a day of traveling before Sakura saw the familiar sight of forests. It was nostalgic in a way that made her ache for the trees of home, and beyond that her bedroom, her parents, her familiar restaurants, Naruto, Sasuke…

It also meant that she was now more in her element. She knew how to survive in the woods, knew how to use trees and brush to make shelter, knew how to use this sort of environment to her advantage in combat. The earth was harder and more difficult to manipulate, but that just meant more training for her.

Of course, she had very little time to train. When she wasn't traveling, and sometimes even when she was traveling, she was dodging the Anbu's attempts to reclaim their favorite book.

At first it had started with simple attempts. The Anbu used brute speed and stealth to try and sneak up on Sakura, and Sakura was forced to use a constant combination of her sensing jutsu, her (somewhat improved) physical abilities, and, as a failsafe, Gaara's sand to keep the book out of the Anbu's hands. It was her one bargaining chip, and she wasn't going to give it up without a struggle. Plus, in a strange way, these retrieval attempts were training in and of themselves. With each attempt, Sakura found herself relying less and less on Gaara to bail her out.

That was, of course, until they hit day four in the woods, and the Anbu began to use the Beasts.

She didn't know how else to refer to them. What she did know is that the Anbu would draw onto blank scrolls with ink, and with a single hand sign would cause the drawings to come to life, serving whatever purpose they had (somehow) programmed into them. The first time she had seen the technique, the Anbu had drawn up several birds that had grasped onto scrolls and flown away with them. Convenient for an information gatherer, and Sakura had been happy to note that her own scroll had been among them.

The next time the Beasts were called forward, they were against her.

At first the Anbu tried brute strength, summoning large tigers and wolves to attempt to overwhelm her. Sakura had rather enjoyed that challenge. It gave her an opportunity to practice using her Rock Fist, which, when she pulled it off, proved more than sufficient to destroy whatever was sent her way. It was exhaustive to use the technique at first, but with time Sakura knew her chakra reserves would grow and she could really make the technique her own.

The Anbu got sneakier over time, distracting Sakura with larger Beasts while sending smaller Beasts to crawl up her legs and attempt to grab the book. Gaara had caught onto this first, batting them away with a bit of sand, but afterwards Sakura had done her best to keep them on her mind and look out for them.

As she got better and better at dodging the Anbu's attempts, that led to more and more times where she and Gaara had time to just walk, which Gaara began to take advantage of. Perhaps it had been triggered by the I-Spy game, but Gaara began to ask...questions. Mundane questions, at first. Did all Konoha shinobi know about the I-Spy game? Was it a tactical game meant to teach young shinobi to spot objects that were out of place? What other games had she played as a child? What things did she like? Dislike? It seemed there was no end to the questions Gaara could think up, and Sakura got the vague suspicion that this was the first time he'd ever felt comfortable asking these questions of anyone. Maybe, in a strange way, he was experiencing childhood vicariously through her by her own descriptions of her past. Sakura made sure to be as detailed as she could in her answers, which seemed to bring Gaara some amount of happiness.

More importantly, it solidified the idea in her mind that Gaara was a friend. She wasn't even certain Ino had known as much about her as Gaara learned in a week of travel, and when she was younger, Ino had known everything.

But Ino didn't know about a lot of her time out of the Academy. She didn't know about Naruto and Sasuke and how they'd slowly worked towards functioning as a team, learning to trust each other, growing stronger, passing the chuunin exams…

Ino hadn't known the heartache that Sakura had felt when Sasuke began to grow apart from them.

But she could tell Gaara about it, she realized, and maybe it wasn't a property of Gaara specifically, but rather that she wanted to talk about it, and especially talk about it with someone who wasn't promising to fix things, wasn't sugarcoating the fact that Sasuke had left and she hadn't been able to do anything to stop him...Gaara just listened and understood.

(And the ache that she'd carried on her way out of Konoha, that ache to see Sasuke again, wasn't quite as strong as it used to be.)

When Sakura was in the depths of these conversations, pouring her heart out to Gaara, she noticed that the Anbu's book rescue attempts came to an abrupt halt. They were listening, perhaps, maybe taking notes, maybe trying to find something to use against her. Whatever the case, it almost served to encourage her to talk about herself more. Anything to get a break from defending herself, for a while.

But if they had the patience to listen, the desire to listen...maybe Sakura could try a different approach to the Anbu problem.

After a week had passed, as she and Gaara settled down at the edge of a small lake to make camp, Sakura took the Anbu's book out of her pouch and held it up just enough that she knew the Anbu could see.

"Hey, Anbu!"

The Anbu landed on the other side of her newly made campfire, smart enough to be wary of her sudden change in strategy. Sakura kept the book out, but kept it close. She wasn't giving it back yet. But she did need to talk.

"You know, if you're going to be following us, you don't have to camp on your own. We're not enemies, so why don't we just stick together?"

The Anbu was silent, so Sakura reached out for one of her freshly caught fish and put it on a stick. She then held it out to the Anbu.

"You can use our fire." She offered. "I haven't poisoned it, I promise."

The Anbu reached out, at first towards the fish, before lunging once again for the book. Sakura simply pulled it out of arm's reach, rolling her eyes.

"I'm still not giving this back until you're willing to talk."

Then, the Anbu did something she did not expect. They removed their mask.

The Anbu was...a boy, and what was surprising was that he looked to be about her age. His face had a sort of prettiness that reminded her vaguely of Sasuke, though his eyes didn't hold the same kind of fire that the Uchiha was known for. Instead, he seemed almost...blank.

He then stuck out his tongue, which Sakura found odd at first until the light of the fire shone on it just right and Sakura could a strange, black tattoo that had been branded onto the back half of the boy's tongue.

"Is that a seal?" She asked. The boy nodded.

"It looks like a silencing seal." Gaara piped in. "I've seen them before, back in Suna. If someone tries to speak about whomever gave them the seal, it can paralyze them. Or kill them."

"Oh." Sakura made a face at this. Would the Hokage use such an awful technique? That didn't seem like Tsunade's work at all. And if it hadn't been Tsunade…

"You're not working for the Hokage." She deduced.

The boy nodded.

"You're working for someone else in Konoha. Someone I probably don't know of who's probably very powerful."

The boy nodded again.

"And if you talk about them, you die or you get paralyzed. By proxy, of course that means...you can't talk about why you were sent, because that involves talking about the person you work for."

The boy nodded a third time.

"Well, shit." Sakura sighed before holding the book out to the Anbu. "Guess that means this is useless as a bargaining chip. Why didn't you just show me that earlier?"

The Anbu snatched the book away, but did not respond. It was Gaara instead who answered for him.

"He underestimated you. He thought he could take it without revealing he wasn't working for the Hokage."

Ah. Now that made sense. So she'd gained some information out of this, even if it wasn't everything. Someone other than Tsunade was looking for information on her and Gaara. It was someone powerful enough to command an Anbu agent, and skilled enough to know a sealing jutsu to prevent their agent from talking. The mystery grew deeper, and Sakura got a strong sense of foreboding as she thought about the implications of what she'd just learned.

But it wasn't as though she could do much about it. The boy was under orders, and she'd already decided that she wasn't going to kill him, and that meant that his mysterious leader was going to know about her and Gaara. The leader didn't seem to want her dead or captured or brought back, at least, which suited her just fine. Let this mysterious figure know about her. She would still complete her goals and her journey, and one Anbu agent wasn't going to stop her.

Instead, Sakura decided, she was going to keep to her alternate approach.

"Do you have a name?" She asked, holding the speared fish out to the boy once again. "Something I can call you other than just Anbu?"

It was hesitant, slow, but the boy took the fish and allowed himself a small bite. After swallowing, he shook his head.

"I wasn't allowed a name."

"What? That's complete shit!" Sakura protested. "How can you not have a name? How the hell do you keep track of every Anbu agent if they don't have names?"

"We have code names. Sometimes false names as the need arises."

"Then give me one of those."

"Nineteen." The boy began, reciting the names as if they were a common list. "Ink. Tiger. Sai."

"Sai." Sakura focused on that one. It seemed more a name than 'nineteen' or 'tiger' anyway. "How about we call you Sai? And my offer still stands, you can camp with us, if you want."

The boy continued to eat the fish, not talking, not saying a word for the rest of the night. But in the morning, when she and Gaara cleaned up their camp and continued to walk, Sai walked alongside them, his mask kept slung on his hip.

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0