Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 23

Perhaps Sakura had been spoiled by Konoha, but Iwagakure had to be the ugliest village she'd ever set eyes on.

And it wasn't that it wasn't large or grand, but all of the buildings were the same shade of rock, the same shape, the same height...only one building in the center of the village stood taller than the rest, the Tsuchikage's no doubt, but even that was just barely less bland than everyone else.

Iwa wasn't at the mountain's peak, like Sakura had been thinking. Rather, the mountain peaked in various places around the village, forming a protective barrier not unlike that Suna had found for themselves out in the desert. There was only one main road in and out of the village, and that had been the one Sakura had come in on. Trying to come in from any other angle was probably suicide, and Sakura knew that the Iwa shinobi likely counted on that. Despite its ugliness, Iwa was its own fortress, and it definitely held its defense leagues over that of Konoha's. (Sakura still remembered how easily Orochimaru's snakes had torn down Konoha's walls...she doubted the snakes could breach a mountain similarly.)

What was interesting, however, was the transportation that the village implemented. Oh, there were sidewalks and people using them, but Sakura soon realized that the real common form of transportation in Iwa was an underground tunneling system that the shinobi simply referred to as 'The Carts'.

The carts themselves were large, roofed wagons that could fit several dozen people inside of them. Each ran along a track that had been molded out of metal, and Sakura noted, after seeing a small spark, that some sort of electric current was running through the track. Whatever this current was, it gave life to the carts, allowing them to thunder their way through the depths of the mountain and come back up to whichever 'station' was next on the track. Sakura wondered just how many carts were running at a time, and how long it had taken to get the timing just right so that the carts wouldn't run into each other, never mind the fact that they were using electricity in a way that Konoha hadn't dreamed of yet. They still used horse-drawn carts...Iwa had automated carts.

"You're impressed." The woman escorting her smirked as she eyed Sakura. "Konoha prides itself in the power of its clans and unique jutsu. Other villages have to make up the slack in other ways."

"Other villages?" Sakura questioned. "So villages other than Iwa have carts like these?"

"Haruno, you are going to be learning quite a bit about how far behind Konoha has fallen."

The thought was enough to sour Sakura somewhat, but she kept face. She was supposed to be playing the part of a turncoat, not a loyal Konoha shinobi. And if she survived this, if it was possible to survive this…

Though, there was another part of her that inwardly flinched at the idea of sharing Iwa's secrets with Konoha so freely. That they were being so open about it with her clearly meant that they weren't that intent on keeping the news of their technological prowess a secret, but...Konoha didn't know yet for a reason.

But if she didn't tell Konoha everything she knew, then...she really would be a turncoat.

She mulled on her thoughts as the cart took her deep into the heart of Iwa. Gaara was silent next to her, but never strayed very far from her side, even as the cart shifted and swayed. Sakura found herself wanting to lean against him, to find some sort of stability for her shaking legs. This was so much to take in, and all before a meeting with the Tsuchikage.

How was it that Iwa knew about her to begin with? That was as good a place to start as any, Sakura supposed, if she was going to gather information during her time here. So she spoke to the woman again.

"I'll admit, I wasn't expecting you to know who I was."

"It's as much a surprise as us as it is to you." The woman answered. "Lord Tsuchikage had been in correspondence with Lord Hiroshi for some time, in the hopes of building trading routes between Iwa and Plains. Imagine our shock when we heard that he'd been overthrown, with the aid of an as-of-yet unheard of rogue shinobi who had a penchant for earth jutsu."

Sakura couldn't help but blush. She had a reputation? "I had just been passing through. I didn't find Hiroshi...palatable."

"Can't help but agree with you there." The woman actually smiled. "He was trash, but he was valuable trash. Fortunately, the woman you left in charge was more than willing to continue our negotiations, and she did us the favor of warning us of your existence, and that you were headed in our direction. Lord Tsuchikage was wary that you might try to usurp him too, but seeing as you've so willingly disarmed yourselves, I'm thinking you might have a different reason for trekking all the way up this mountain."

"That would be correct."

"Well, you can discuss it with Lord Tsuchikage. We're almost there."

The cart squealed as it came to a halt at their final destination. Sakura swallowed nervously. She'd heard stories about Onoki and his fearsome battle prowess during the Third Shinobi War, and knew from her history books that he had ruled over Iwa for decades. This wasn't Tsunade she was going to speak with, Tsunade who, despite her sternness, Sakura had never been afraid of. With Onoki, she had no idea what to expect.

To Sakura's surprise, she wasn't brought to the tall building she'd noted before, but rather a large one-story that dominated the majority of the street it stood by. Though it seemed a major building, Sakura saw none of the passersby entering it, and when she was led inside, the first room was empty. It was only once she was brought into the main room that she realized that the building had to be used for training.

At first, it looked like a disaster zone. Broken boulders and pillars of stone lay all across the room which would otherwise have resembled an empty arena. The arena itself had been dug about a story down into the earth, likely so that others could watch the goings-on from above without fear of harm to themselves. As Sakura peeked down into the arena, she saw six shinobi, all looking to be about her age, fighting each other with gusto. The boulders and pillars became weapons as earth jutsu summoned whatever happened to be closest, and as Sakura watched the shinobi get battered back and forth by stone, she couldn't help but think that, if this was some sort of training, it was brutal.

She tore her gaze from that battle and looked across the room, and there she caught sight of the Tsuchikage for the first time.

He was old, and the fact that he could still command the village at such an age spoke leagues about the man's leadership and battle prowess. She had thought the Third Hokage had been in office for too long, but Onoki took the cake. He was surprisingly small, shorter than her by at least several feet, and it did not help that he appeared absolutely dwarfed by the man that stood at his size. (The biggest man Sakura had seen in her life...and she'd seen some large Akimichis back home.)

Sakura was led around the room to the Tsuchikage, every now and then ducking to avoid the splinters of rock that were shot across the room. The woman escorting her did not seem phased, so such training was likely something they were used to. (Even in the chuunin exams, Sakura hadn't felt such danger being on the sidelines.) Eventually, she and Gaara stood at the Tsuchikage's side, waiting as their escort spoke.

"I've brought Haruno, as you requested."

"And she can wait." Onoki insisted, shifting in his chair as he kept his eyes glued on the battle in front of him. "The chuunin exams only come once a year, and I think one of these might just have a bit of a backbone in him."

There was a loud blast, and Sakura flinched as a boulder was redirected right at them. But Onoki did not flinch, or even move a muscle; he simply sat as the large man next to him swatted away the boulder with a casual flick of his arm.

Sakura wondered how often this arena needed repairs.

The escort returned to stand by Sakura and Gaara, now watching the match as intently as her superior. "We haven't had a chuunin promotion in three years." She admitted to Sakura. "You're lucky. It sounds like the Lord Tsuchikage might be in a good mood."

Promotion...Sakura remembered vaguely that Iwa had not been at the her own exam. Did the village prefer their own test? It had seemed as though every other village in the country had come but Iwa...no, they definitely hadn't been there. Of course, now that she thought about it, it made sense. Distrust of Konoha and all.

She watched the battle too, watched in awe as one shinobi countered a boulder missile by redirecting it upwards with an earthen pillar. The timing and precision required for such a feat...and then the boy followed it up by summoning a horizontal pillar from the wall, sending the boulder right back at his assailant. None of the shinobi, Sakura realized, were using weapons, only earth techniques. She supposed there was little a kunai could do against stone, but a well thrown shuriken could take out an opponent with ease...so were they purposely limiting themselves?

It was over soon after. The boy's redirected boulder took out two of the opposing team, and from there a three on one battle was a near guaranteed victory. As soon as the third opponent was down, a nearby shinobi blew a whistle, calling a halt to the match.

"Winner, Team Anabe!"

The three victors looked exhausted, but they each turned in the direction of the Tsuchikage and gave a respectful bow. Sakura saw the Tsuchikage smile before giving a curt wave of his hand.

"Bah! I don't need to see anymore. Give Itsuki the damn jacket already, he's more than earned it."

Despite his exhaustion, a large grin came to the boy, Itsuki's, face, and he bowed again, even lower. "Thank you, Lord Tsuchikage!"

From there, the team dispersed, though not before a few cheers were given to the newly promoted chuunin. Nurses flooded in to take care of the injured genin, and with that the arena began to empty until only the group with the Tsuchikage remained.

"I saw the look in your eyes, girl." Onoki suddenly spoke, and Sakura realized he was speaking to her. "Finally got to see what real shinobi fight like, eh? Konoha has their special clans and secret techniques, but Iwa has something even more powerful. Innovation."

She heard the shinobi around her chuckle. So was that how Iwa saw Konoha? Haughty and bland? She fought down the part of herself that wanted to leap to Konoha's defense. That would get her no friends here. Instead, perhaps…

"His finesse with earth jutsu was very impressive." She admitted. "It's not something I would be capable of matching."

"Bah! Oh, cut the pandering crap." Onoki suddenly shouted. "I know how you Konoha types are. Diplomatic exterior as it suits you. What do you really think, Haruno?"

Sakura couldn't help but wince. She did think the boy's use of jutsu was effective, that hadn't been a lie. But…

"I would expect such finesse with earth to be a standard of all Iwa shinobi, not just the exemplary ones."

"Now that's a better opinion." Onoki agreed. "I've watched these exams for decades. Our youngest shinobi have not grown up in the heart of war like their predecessors. There's a genius in every generation, but not every can be young Itsuki. Every shinobi here, though, is ten times the warrior of your pathetic Konoha regardless."

Sakura gritted her teeth. She was supposed to be a missing-nin, but hearing the Tsuchikage talk so brazenly about her village was pushing almost all of the buttons she had to push. Had the Tsuchikage brought her to him just to trash talk Konoha? And besides…it wasn't like she was currently associated with Konoha anyway, right?

"I'm not entirely sure where posturing the strength of your shinobi will get you with me." Sakura decided to go for bold. "As I am no longer considered a Konoha shinobi."

"And yet, I've been informed you've been traveling with an agent of Konoha regardless." Onoki narrowed his eyes. "A young Anbu boy. Word has spread that you have supposedly left your village. It would be a rather convenient excuse to allow you to spy upon other villages, claiming to be a rogue shinobi."

"If you're so convinced of my guilt, why are speaking with me?" Sakura lowered her head, a bit of humility reaching her as she realized she was, in fact, speaking with a Kage. "If...I might be so bold as to ask."

"Why am I indeed?" Onoki looked her straight in the eyes, and Sakura got the very distinct impression that she was being judged by some unknown standard. "The new leader of the Plains has spoken rather highly of you. You helped organize a village revolt and aided in the defeat of a man with a rather powerful kekkei genkai. And now, assuming our negotiations continue as planned, Plains and Stone will become powerful allies. Now I have to wonder what exactly Konoha would have to gain from such a thing."

"Maybe I wasn't working for Konoha. Maybe I'd just wanted to do the right thing."

"The right thing? Interfering in village politics and disposing of a man in power simply because you thought it the right thing? Are you going to come for me next?" Onoki suddenly laughed. "Not like a brat like you could stand a chance against me, but I can't help but wonder what your intentions are. You aren't working with Konoha, so why leave? I'd hear it from your own mouth, girl."

This was it. Her chance. In a weird roundabout way, this conversation was going as good as she'd hoped. "I'm here to give you information regarding an organization called Akatsuki that might potentially mean to kidnap your village's Jinchuuriki." Sakura began. "If possible, I would also like to speak with your Jinchuuriki myself, in an attempt to understand the nature of the Tailed Beasts better. My previous companion in Konoha was a Jinchuuriki, and I want to keep him and others like him safe from this organization's influence."

"Akatsuki?" Onoki's face turned into the visage of confusion, and a firm frown grew on the old man's face. "And what evidence do you have that they seek Jinchuuriki? The Akatsuki this village knows is but a simple mercenary group."

"A merc-" Sakura bit her tongue, thinking back to her experience with Hidan and Kakuzu. They had simply been seeking a bounty, that was true, but all of the information Konoha had gathered on the organization had suggested they were after the Beasts. So why would they be posing as a mercenary organization?

Unless…

"It makes sense." She spoke aloud. "Pose as a mercenary group so that a village comes to trust you. It allows you access to a village without arousing suspicion. Iwa is known for having...tight security." She glanced over to the woman who'd escorted her here, and the woman gave a small shrug. "So if they wanted to approach your Jinchuuriki, it's a safer bet to gain your trust, Lord Tsuchikage, that way they can gather information and find the best possible approach with minimal risk to themselves."

It was smart. She wondered now if Akatsuki had tried a similar approach with Konoha, and perhaps failed, since Konoha seemed to know more about them than most. (Konoha, it seemed, had information gatherers a bit more adept than other countries.)

Onoki had gone deep into thought, but all at once, with a way of his hand, he summoned the nearby woman closer. "Kurotsuchi, you'll deal with this, then?"

"At once, Lord Tsuchikage."

The woman disappeared in a gust of wind, and for some reason being without her near made Sakura even more worried about standing in front of the Tsuchikage.

"Giving such information freely is unbecoming of a shinobi. But I am not so dense as to not take advantage of a good thing when it comes my way." Onoki admitted, moving to stand to his feet. Sakura heard several cracks as the older man positioned himself, wondering briefly how lethal he could be if his body was already starting to work against him. "I will not allow strangers near any of my shinobi, especially not my Jinchuuriki. For all you have told me, I still have no reason to believe you aren't working for Konoha in some way." He gestured for another shinobi to come forth. "You will be taken to a holding cell until we decide what to do with you. I suggest, if your intentions are pure, that you do not attempt anything rash."

"...I will not, Lord Tsuchikage."


And Sakura didn't, though she could tell that being put into a cell was not necessarily a comforting experience for Gaara. But what good would resisting imprisonment do? The Tsuchikage hadn't had her killed on sight, which was probably a better treatment than most Konoha shinobi would receive, and getting on the man's good side was the only way she could guarantee any sort of chance of meeting with the village Jinchuuriki.

Still, she felt...guilty. She had no idea where Sai was or what he was going through, but as someone who was definitely associated with Konoha still, she was certain he wasn't getting a royal welcome.

Sakura sighed, plopping down on the floor with an angry huff. For the first time in a while, she felt...powerless. Perhaps a small part of her had been hoping that all the details would iron out as she went, that the Tsuchikage might not be so distrusting, that maybe…

They could just waltz into an enemy village and not deal with the consequences?

She was stupid. Stupid, stupid, stupid.

"I don't want to die here." She admitted to Gaara.

"You won't."

"I don't want to start a fight either. We came here to meet with the Jinchuuriki, and here I was, stupid enough to think it would be easy. At the very best we're going to get kicked out and never allowed back in again. At worst, Tsuchikage figures we're traitors, tortures us, takes the Ichibi from you, and we die."

"That won't happen."

"You don't know that!" Sakura snapped. "I didn't know that! I got optimistic after Plains and I...I shouldn't have."

Gaara crouched down in front of her, and Sakura's eyes met his. Strangely, the boy seemed more determined than she'd ever seen him.

"You're wrong. Optimism is the reason I pulled myself from the darkness. You...and Naruto...you both believed I could be something better. Would you have thought that impossible, when we first met?"

Sakura held her tongue. She would have, but she didn't want to admit it aloud. Not when Gaara had become…

Had become her best friend.

Gaara, the Demon of the Desert, Gaara who had killed more people than she could bear to know about, Gaara who had threatened her and her team, Gaara who had almost damaged Lee beyond all repair, Gaara who had…

Who had done all those horrible things, and yet here he was, at her side in a cell in Iwagakure, ready to fight with her, die for her.

And now...now she might just do the same for him.

She couldn't help but smile, because he was right, and somehow, somehow Gaara was learning exactly what to say to lift her spirits. "Alright, alright. I'll admit you have a point. I won't give up hope just yet. But if stuff goes to hell-"

"It won't."

"...right." Sakura nodded. "It won't."


The next day, she was summoned before the Tsuchikage again.

She was taken to the same training building as before, only this time she was led into the actual arena itself. The room was daunting, and Sakura couldn't help but notice that there were shinobi on the upper levels, watching the scene below.

The Tsuchikage awaited her, with his large bodyguard standing but a few feet behind him. Though he was much shorter than Sakura, his crossed arms and stern glare were still enough to intimidate. Sakura swallowed hard, grateful that Gaara was with her.

"I've been thinking long and hard about a great many things, Sakura Haruno." The Tsuchikage began. "About your desire to speak with my Jinchuuriki. About the information you have given us. About Konoha...and about where we go from here. Do you still claim to no longer be affiliated with the place of your birth?"

"I...I do." Sakura admitted. She had no choice, really, if she wanted to keep with the Tsuchikage's favor. (Not barring the fact that, well, she still doubted if Konoha would take her back, after everything.)

"Before I even consider allowing you to remain here, I will need proof of your neutrality." Onoki demanded. There was a look in his eyes, a look that Sakura couldn't quite place. With a wave of his hand, Sakura heard footsteps start from behind her. When she turned to look, she saw a familiar face.

It was Sai. A haggard and exhausted Sai, but he was alive. She let out a small sigh of relief, up until the Tsuchikage spoke again.

"This boy has all but confirmed that he is a member of Konoha's Root division. Root has infiltrated our lands and stolen children from within our borders to be brainwashed to its design. Root has attempted assassinations upon my life and the life of other shinobi within my village. What do you have to say to that, Haruno?"

Stolen...stolen children? Sakura looked back to Onoki in disbelief. Already she had deduced enough from Sai to know that Root wasn't the most pure of organizations but...it had stolen foreign children for its program? How the Hokage not known about this? How had the Hokage not done something?

"I…" She stammered as the realization of the Tsuchikage's statement began to sink in. "I think...such actions are deplorable. No one should use a child for their ends, no matter where the child is from."

"That is the answer of a sane shinobi. But Konoha has allowed these transgressions to occur for decades without accepting retribution for their actions, or even accepting that they occur at all. This Anbu boy has been willingly complacent in these actions, and perhaps even participated in them. Since he cannot tell us, due to that troublesome seal, we must assume guilty. He will be executed today to send a message to Konoha."

Executed? Sakura couldn't hold back an expression of disbelief. No, she couldn't allow him to be executed, she just…

He was innocent, right?

She looked back to Sai, desperate, but the boy had nothing to say. Of course, how could he have anything to say with that stupid seal? But maybe, maybe if he could just look her in the eyes, she could know, she would know that he hadn't at least directly participated in any of this…

But he didn't look. He merely hung his head as he was forced to kneel down on the ground, arms restrained.

"I give you this opportunity, Haruno." The Tsuchikage continued. "If you truly no longer have any loyalty to Konoha, then you can admit to yourself that this execution is just. If so, then I ask you execute this shinobi yourself. If you do this, I will allow you and your companion to meet with my Jinchuuriki, and you will have my full cooperation and consent to remain in Iwa for as long as you desire."

Her...execute Sai?

She couldn't. She just couldn't. Already the thought of taking another life made her sick to her stomach. She thought of the Plains shinobi, burnt into a crisp at her hands, an image that still, occasionally, haunted her dreams. That had been more accident than purpose. This...this would be willingly taking a life. She wouldn't be able to turn back from this.

And it was Sai. Maybe Sai was a little rought around the edges, maybe his nicknames a little harsh, but...he was a person, a boy who was just as much a victim to Root as anyone else.

"What if I refuse?"

"Then you will be escorted out of the village and never allowed to return. The Anbu will be executed regardless. It is better treatment than an ally of Konoha deserves."

So Sai was...doomed to death regardless of what action she took. All because he had followed her here.

All because of her.

She really was stupid.

The logical part of her brain argued that she should at least take advantage of the opportunity being offered. Sai was doomed either way. If she got over herself, got over herself, and did what needed to be done...she could meet with the village Jinchuuriki. Do what she came to do. She and Gaara would be safe in Iwa, they could learn, they could…

But she'd be killing Sai, the other part of her brain argued back. She'd be killing someone who could be innocent. Who had spoken with her, listened to her, shared pieces of himself with her.

And he was going to die today, at her hands or the hands of another.

Sakura looked to Onoki, trying not to show how desperately she was arguing with herself. His face was...unreadable. The face of someone who was steadfast in what needed to be done.

The Tsuchikage would not change his mind, Sakura deduced. There was no possible way...no way to save Sai's life today, was there?

No way at all.

She drew her kunai, and next to her, she saw Gaara tense.

"Sakura…"

"Trust me."

She had already acted stupid by coming here. Already hadn't thought enough steps ahead to know that this kind of situation had been inevitable. She'd dragged Sai into this, and she was about to drag Gaara into this too.

But, as she'd told Gaara…

They didn't have to be killers.

Something in Sakura clicked. This wasn't just about Jinchuuriki anymore. This was about Iwa and Konoha and it was in her hands. Kill Sai, and Konoha would never take her back. It might even start a war, if it was found out that Iwa was responsible, whether or not her involvement was learned. This action, killing Sai, there was no good ending to that story. Didn't the Tsuchikage know that? Couldn't he see that this wasn't a solution?

If he couldn't...well, she would make him see.

She stopped in front of Sai, looking him in the eyes before reaching down and cutting his bonds free with her kunai. She turned to face Onoki, defiant and feeling...more powerful than she had any right to.

"I won't perpetuate the violence. You have no proof this boy has done anything wrong, and killing him would only spark war between Stone and Leaf. If you're looking for an excuse to start a war, you will not find it with me."

"And are you prepared to die by those words, girl?" Onoki's eyes met her own again, with that same unreadable expression. "Is this Anbu worth your life?"

There was no hesitation from her. Not anymore.

"Yes."

Strangely, Onoki smiled, and Sakura wondered if maybe, just maybe…

Something was up.

"Then prove it, Sakura Haruno." Onoki demanded. "Prove it, and defend him with your life."

All at once, the other shinobi in the arena disappeared. Only Onoki was left behind, and in the blink of an eye, he was coming.

Sakura's first thoughts were that if she fought a Kage, she would die.

Her second thought was that if the Tsuchikage had been taking this seriously, she would have been dead already.

Two paces. The Tsuchikage had taken two paces towards her, and in her mind's eye she began to calculate how much time she had before it was too late.

There had been two shinobi escorting Sai into this arena, and Onoki'd had a bodyguard, all of whom had left. Plus, there were shinobi in the upper area, watching this battle. The Tsuchikage had chosen an arena for this exchange.

(Knowing, perhaps, that it would come down to a fight one way or another. Which meant, of course, that this had never been about Sai to begin with. The Tsuchikage had been testing her.)

Four paces. She saw flickers of sand, and she knew, without a doubt, that Gaara would protect her. (But would he protect Sai?) There was no way she had the skill needed to take down a Kage, and there was no way Onoki hadn't put that together. (Unless, of course, he'd assumed that in her takedown of Hiroshi, she was stronger than she seemed.)

But this wasn't about beating the Tsuchikage, it was about protecting Sai.

And that was something she had just sworn to do with her life.

Prove it, Onoki had asked.

And she would.

Two things happened at once.

The first was that a wall sprung up around her and Sai. Gaara's sand, to Sakura's relief.

The second was that Sakura slammed her hand down onto the ground without thinking, and summoned forth a pillar of earth right where she predicted Onoki would land.

As Gaara's sand crumbled back to the ground, she saw a pile of dirt land where Onoki had once stood. An Earth-style substitution, and a quick glance around the room revealed that the man had reappeared behind her. She instinctively moved between him and Sai, and by that time Gaara had made his way over, already summoning forth more sand around them. As Onoki charged again, the sand gathered and solidified into a ball around them. Gaara's ultimate defense.

Sakura felt a rumbling 'slam' as the Kage's attack landed against the sand...but the sand held.

And there they sat, in total darkness.

Sakura took a quick breath before reaching into her pocket for a match. She'd picked some up at the small mountain village, remembering the last time she'd been in such a situation. The match flickered to life, and she was greeted by the determined visage of Gaara, and a rather confused Sai.

"You should have killed me." Sai commented. "It would have gotten you what you wanted."

"And I told you, I'm not a killer. And...I told you I'd prove you wrong, didn't I?" She gave Sai a smile. "We can make the world a better-" She was cut off as another of the Kage's techniques slammed against Gaara's wall. "A b-better place." She finished, wondering how long Gaara could hold.

"You seem real confident there, Fisticuffs."

"Sai, now is really not the time to sass me, considering we're the only things standing between you and death."

And since she really wasn't sure how long Gaara could hold, she needed to go onto the offensive. She needed to come up with a plan. She had been the smartest kunoichi of her year, she just needed to sit down and think.

The arena...it had been huge, but she could see it in her mind, see the fallen pillars and boulders from the battle before. She knelt down and began to draw an outline of the arena in the dirt, estimating their own position and using a quick sensing jutsu to determine where the Tsuchikage was attacking from. He was moving, rapidly, probably using close range jutsu to attack. The first thing she needed to do was get him away from their defense, or else Gaara wouldn't last.

She reached into her pouch, pulling out some explosive tags. Well, this attack had worked before, and while she doubted she could catch a Kage off guard enough to kill him, she could at least distract him enough to put a halt to his barrage of attacks.

It would require a well timed Tunneling Technique, a rapid use of her sensing jutsu to determine Onoki's location, and...well, a bit of luck.

She took a deep breath, and activated her sensing jutsu.

One pulse. To the forward right, moving to the left. If he kept up that pathway…

She put the match between her teeth, ignoring the heat of the flame as she made the hand-signs required for the technique. A tunnel appeared before her, and without even asking, Gaara handed her a small ball of earth. She put an explosive tag around it, dropped it into the hole, and then resealed the tunnel.

Then, her sensing jutsu again. The Kage's energy had quickly flickered to the other side of the room, no doubt in an effort to avoid her technique. But that had given her a quick break, and Gaara as well, though…

The sand around them began to falter. Even Gaara had his limits, it seemed, though he managed to keep a single wall between them and Onoki. A single wall would have to be enough.

"Just focus on defense, Gaara!" Sakura called out, preparing to make another tunnel. Now that they were no longer encased in sand, she could at least see Onoki, which meant no need to waste chakra on her sensing technique. Now, it was their turn to attack.

Her hands rapidly flew as she created tunnel after tunnel, using bomb after bomb in an attempt to keep the Kage at bay. She couldn't help but notice a smile on the old man's face. (Was he enjoying this battle?) But she couldn't keep this up for long, she only had so many explosive tags, and it wasn't as if she had time to write more in the heat of the moment.

And then she felt a tap on her shoulder.

"Give me a scroll and some ink."

"I...I don't have any blank ones!" Sakura protested. But...was Sai actually trying to help? Well, she supposed it made sense, his life was on the line. "All I have are my storage scrolls, and…" Well, she wasn't going to let him draw all over her sensing scroll.

"It doesn't matter. The storage scrolls will do if I can find a blank space."

Well, if he was sure…

Sakura obliged, handing him one of her storage scrolls, as well as her ink brush. Sai quickly unraveled the scroll on the ground, finding an empty corner and scrolling quicker than Sakura would have thought possible. Small birds came to life from the page, flying past her, around Gaara's wall, and towards the Tsuchikage. Now, Onoki had to deal with Sai's birds and Sakura's attacks. She would be out of explosive tags soon, but since she had line of sight, she could use her Reverse Tunneling to attack the man with pillars instead. If they could land just one hit, it was possible that would buy them enough time to start heading for the arena's exit…

Of course, they'd have all the other Iwa shinobi to contest with. All the shinobi that hadn't joined the fight with their Kage. They were simply watching...as though Onoki himself had ordered them not to interfere.

This wasn't serious. This was a test. Onoki had wanted to see how far she'd go to keep Sai alive, and damn it all, she was going to show him.

What mattered now, more than anything, was that she had to get at least one solid hit on that bastard.

The old man was stupidly fast for his age, and he was small enough that it made him a difficult target. Plus, he had encased his fists in rock, similar to the newest technique Sakura had picked up, and was using it to effortlessly smash through her and Sai's attacks. He was on the defensive, but it wouldn't be for long. These techniques were draining her chakra, and if it was an endurance battle, Sakura would assuredly lose. She needed to make the opening, and fast.

She looked down at the diagram at her feet, and all at once she saw it. The opening.

There was one part of the arena where boulders and pillars had fallen just so...if Onoki was distracted, the shadow of the debris might just disguise a well place tunnel. All they had to do was maneuver him to that spot and then…

Well, she wasn't quite sure she wanted to use the last of the explosive tags on this. She might need them for the escape from the village. But there was something else she could do. Something stupid and reckless that might pay off even more than the explosive tags might.

"Gaara, Sai, I need you to direct him here." She drew an X on the spot she'd noticed. "And then...Gaara, I'm going to need your help with something."

A few handsigns later, she'd made the tunnel that she needed. This time, she wouldn't be using a ball of sand for ammo.

This time she'd be using herself.

"Gaara, watch me." She ordered, quickly running through the hand signs needed to reseal the tunnel she'd made. "Once I'm in the tunnel, I need you to seal it behind me."

"But Sakura-"

"I'll jump in once the Tsuchikage is in position, so you won't have long. You'll need to be quick, but if we time this right, I'll pop up on the other side, and I can use the momentum to get a hit on him. I'll be like a human arrow under the ground."

"It's too dangerous!"

"But it will probably be hilarious."

Gaara and Sakura both glanced at Sai, who had an unreadable smile on his face. If it weren't for the fact that Gaara was focused on his sand defense, Sakura feared he might have killed the Anbu.

"D-don't worry about me, we just need to do it. Trust me, Gaara, I'll be alright. And I need to know you'll have my back."

"Of course I will." Gaara answered, though he still sounded unsure. But they didn't have time for unsure. Sai had started up his barrage of ink birds again, and the Tsuchikage was almost in position.

Sakura took a deep breath, and she dropped into her hole.

With a crouch, she positioned herself in the direction the tunnel would be sending her. Then, she made a single hand sign.

She felt a push behind her as the tunnel began to seal, shooting her towards the other end. At the same time, she pushed chakra to her hand, and began to draw the earth around her fist.

Sakura Haruno rocketed out of her tunnel faster than even her own eye could process. But she didn't need to see to know that her punch had landed, and it had landed hard. The force sent Onoki rocketing backwards into the nearby wall of the arena, and she heard a sickening crack as both wall and man collided.

She'd...hit a Kage.

She'd hit a Kage.

The old man landed on his feet, of course. A testament to his rank, of course, Sakura hadn't expected to seriously injure the man with her hit, but the fact that she had landed the hit regardless was enough to make her swell with pride for a brief moment.

What she didn't expect was for the man to immediately start laughing.

His laugh was hearty and strong, and as he stood Sakura heard several more crack as he straightened.

"Son of a bitch, you popped my back! Not even Akatsuchi's been able to pull that off!"

Sakura let out a small groan. All that work and she'd just...helped the man out? If all she could manage was to crack an old man's back, then maybe she hadn't gotten stronger after all.

But, even more strangely, Onoki did not make a move to attack them again. He simply continued to laugh as he walked forward towards Sakura. She was wary, but it soon became apparent that, whatever this fight was...it was over.

"You see...that's what I'm talking about. Innovation." Onoki continued. "I've never seen a technique as stupidly reckless as that before, but damn if that wouldn't have knocked most men clean to Kumogakure!" He laughed for a moment longer before clapping his hands together. "Alright, alright, I'm sold. You're the one I've been looking for after all."

"Looking for?" Sakura was, to put it mildly, baffled. "Just what was this whole fight about, anyway?"

"I needed to make sure you had the gumption to back your convictions, Haruno. And you've sure got more gumption than anyone I've seen in quite a long time. Nobody's been able to land a hit that good on me in decades. You've got the strength of mind and the strength of body. Just the kind of shinobi I've been looking for, for something...big."

Something...big. Sakura felt her knees begin to wobble as the weight of the fight sunk in. She felt Gaara's arms around her all at once, holding her up. (Which she was infinitely grateful for; the last thing she needed was to pass out in front of the Tsuchikage.)

"Sakura Haruno." Onoki continued. "What would you say to helping an old man save the world from itself?"

Save...the world?

A million thoughts seemed to pass through Sakura's head all at once. Of all the things she had been expecting out of meeting with the Tsuchikage, hearing those words hadn't been among any of her top expectations. Saving the world? What sort of madness had she gotten herself wrapped up in by coming to Iwa?

"Um." Sakura said eloquently.

"Excellent." Onoki beamed. "Let's talk over dinner."

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