Iwa food was hearty and warm.
Sakura had been served something akin to a stew, using thick vegetables she'd never tasted before and tender meat from the goats that populated the mountainside. It wasn't spicy, not like Suna food, but it was flavorful and comforting. Sakura found herself wanting to learn the recipe. (And thinking, briefly to herself, that Naruto would love the dish.)
Hearty and warm also seemed to describe Onoki, now that they were no longer on opposite sides of a battlefield. He cracked jokes with his fellow shinobi, gave them hell when appropriate, and laughed loud and long when something caught his amusement. It was strange, at first. Sakura had read so much about Onoki at Konoha, about how menacing he was on the battlefield, how ruthless, distrusting…
But now he could have easily passed for someone's crotchety grandfather.
Which he was, Sakura came to realize. Her woman escort, Kurotsuchi, was his granddaughter, and there was a sort of established banter between them wherein Kurotsuchi would do her best to be respectful and Onoki would go above and beyond to attempt to elicit a reaction.
Sakura thought of her parents, still at home, wondering, perhaps, if she was still alive. She'd never been terribly close with her family, not like this. Her father worked hard, a civilian architect, and her mother volunteered at various places in the village. The Haruno family were hard workers, she'd been told, and even though Sakura was the first shinobi of her family line, it had been expected that she would work hard too, and succeed. There was no time for playing around. No time to tease or taunt.
(So she'd studied and read and played everything by the book and...now here she was. She didn't want to linger on what her parents would think of her now. A missing shinobi. A traitor.)
Gaara too seemed equally quiet in the face of such a boisterous family. He wouldn't have had anything like this, Sakura realized, or...maybe would have been kept from it. She could picture witty Temari and hot-headed Kankuro in a debate at the dinner table...but no matter how hard she tried she couldn't picture Gaara with them.
Something, she supposed, she could relate to him about.
So in the heat of the moment she nudged Gaara with her hand, letting a mischievous grin come to her face. "Come on, Gaara, you need to eat up, or you're never going to get taller than me."
Gaara turned beet red at the statement, something that Sakura couldn't help but giggle over, but she was drowned out by Onoki's sudden outburst.
"Don't you listen to her, boy, I've been Kage for decades and I haven't needed an inch!"
"That's fair." Sakura retorted. "If you'd been a couple inches shorter, Lord Tsuchikage, I might have missed my punch."
The man's laughter seemed to overwhelm the table, and though Kurotsuchi looked abashed, Onoki was only egged on. "See, that's what this girl has that you don't, Kurotsuchi. Gumption! And she's gonna need it to keep the Kage in line, I'll tell you that."
It was as good a time to ask as any. So Sakura cleared her throat and began. "So...what exactly do you think I'm going to be doing for the villages anyway, Lord Tsuc-"
"Bah, just call me Onoki, for now, Haruno, we can't waste time with that mouthful every time you want to speak with me." Onoki pushed away his dish and folded his arms, shifting gears as the conversation did. "Do you know, Haruno, why Iwa is so leery of Konoha?"
"In the early years, when I was quite young, your first Hokage Hashirama tried to broker peace between the five new villages, you see. He was the one who offered us Tailed Beasts, so that there might be balanced power between us. We bickered for weeks on borders and treaties and the like, but eventually my predecessor came to an agreement and we were at peace." Onoki pulled a small pipe out from his coat and began to light it as he spoke. "And then he came."
The name sent a small shiver down Sakura's spine. Not just because Madara was a village founder, not just because he was an ancestor of Sasuke...but because she'd seen the waterfall that had resulted due to Madara's battle with the First.
Madara was a legend. A nightmare.
"Hashirama desired peace. Madara, however, only desired control. He waged battle against myself and the second Tsuchikage in an attempt to get Iwa to bow to Konoha. And while he did not succeed at the time...it was luck that he did not get the chance to come finish his work. Luck and the work of Hashirama. But the seeds of doubt had already been sown. If Hashirama could not control one Uchiha, how could he control an entire clan? And for that matter...how could we?"
Sakura shivered again. Madara Uchiha, strong enough to take one two Tsuchikages. This part, she hadn't known. And why would she? Madara may have turned against Hashirama, but he was still a founder, still an Uchiha.
The clan that was the pride of Konoha...it couldn't take such slander. Even if it was true.
"I couldn't blame him, you know." Onoki continued, sending a small puff of smoke into the sky. "If I'd thought for a moment that I could dominate Konoha, I would have. I have tried, in the past. War is easy when you have doubts and ambitions for your village. We all think of ourselves and our own, at the end of the day. You may not swear loyalty to Konoha anymore, but you cannot deny that you still feel a desire to aid them. That if they called, it would be difficult not to answer."
It was true. Sakura held her head low, unwilling to answer when Onoki already knew the truth. Konoha was her home. Wasn't it?
"This is why, Haruno. Why the villages can never have peace. So long as we seek our own benefit, we will only rarely work for the benefit of others. Only when our goals align. If we want peace, we need someone who is willing to go between. Someone who can force compromises. Someone who can work for the good of all shinobi and not just their own. I am an old man, Haruno. I think now about the village I will leave behind and I am afraid. But if you and I can create something...peaceful. Something everlasting. I could rest easy."
"But you said it yourself, I still feel for Konoha." Sakura protested. "Why me? Why trust an enemy at all? I just saved a Konoha Anbu from execution-"
"But you did not do it because he was of Konoha." Onoki argued. "You did it because it was right. If that Anbu had been from any other village you would have done it, and that was what I saw in you. In our fight. You have ties to Konoha, but now? Now you have ties to others. People. Places. Plains and their leader owe you a debt. How did it help Konoha to aid them? Plains has no alliance with anyone but us here in Iwa, and even that you did not know of. You aided them because you saw a cruel man in Hiroshi and could not help but act. That is what is needed. What will be necessary in the days to come, or else we shinobi will destroy each other." There was another breath of smoke from the man, and he chuckled. "You say you came here to learn of Jinchuuriki. Your teammate...given what Konoha has done in the past, it is correct to assume he contains the Kyuubi? Born to be a tool of war. All Jinchuuriki are."
Sakura avoided giving Gaara a glance. Onoki didn't know yet, couldn't know…
"But in a peaceful world, such things would not be necessary. The Jinchuuriki, just simple containers for the Beasts. You want to protect your teammate? Ensure a world where those like him needn't be used."
"I...I get it." Sakura nodded. "But...I don't know if I'm really the person you want. I'm not Madara. I wouldn't have been able to protect Iwa from him. If I'm supposed to be neutral, I'd need to be strong enough to prevent the villages from killing each other, and I'm not...I couldn't be…"
Sakura blinked as Gaara spoke up, for the first time since dinner had began. "You're wrong." He repeated. "You can be strong enough. But you can also…" He looked away, uncharacteristically embarrassed. "Be kind enough."
And Sakura couldn't help but feel a little embarrassed herself.
"He's right, you know. On both accounts. You will need strength, but more importantly, diplomacy. Stop the fight from happening to begin with." Kurotsuchi spoke up this time. "Diffuse the hotheads and appeal to both sides. There's no need to fight if people are not dissatisfied. And if both sides believe that you understand their perspective, they can trust you."
"I...get the feeling you guys have been sitting on this idea for a while."
"You could say that." Onoki smirked. "We were waiting for an opportunity, you might say. And here you come along, like fate. I had originally intended to groom an Iwa genin but the other villages might be more liable to believe my intentions if I work with someone who is Konoha affiliated instead. You know as well as anyone that we are infamous for our feuds."
"To say the least." Sakura took a deep breath. "I'm...still not sure it's me you want. But I am already planning on traveling to a few places to speak with Jinchuuriki. I could...breach the subject to others."
"Then we have a start." Onoki nodded. "If you pledge yourself to this...project, I will openly pledge myself to it as well. Plains will no doubt sign on, given what you've done for them. That's two villages dedicated to a neutrality project already. You just have...how many other damn villages are there again?"
"No more than a dozen." Kurotsuchi answered methodically. "Waterfall is close by, and Sound, that's been newly founded. There's Cloud, Hot Water, Mist, Grass, Leaf, Sand…"
A lot, Sakura realized, a pit in her stomach growing. This project was huge, and the Tsuchikage seemed so confident, but she just couldn't find the 'gumption' Onoki claimed she had. How could she possibly coerce every village to get along? How could she-
Sakura snapped to attention, getting a laugh out of Onoki. "You don't think I plan to send you into this unprepared, do you?"
"...that had been my impression."
"Incorrect. If we do this, we ensure it's done right. And that, my girl...that means training you up so you can knock some sense into us Kage." Onoki grew serious, and his smile turned devious as he looked to Sakura. "And you'll be given the prestigious honor of training under me."
Sakura swallowed hard, and Onoki just laughed.
"I just think he's out of his gourd, Gaara! I am a missing shinobi from Konoha, barely even a genin, I accidentally overthrow one shinobi and he wants to pin this huge diplomatic project on me?"
Sakura needed time to vent, Gaara realized. She was a very loud person, whether she admitted it or not, and sometimes she just needed to get her voice out. He was quiet while she talked, which she seemed to like, and he didn't mind listening. He was suspicious to Onoki's intentions, there had to be more to it than this, but what bothered Gaara was that Sakura couldn't believe herself worthy of the project to begin with.
Buried deep within Sakura, coming out only when it was the two of them, was the shattered remnants of Sakura's self-esteem, if there was anything left of it at all. She always viewed herself as an inferior shinobi. The one who let Sasuke down. The one who couldn't stand at Naruto's side.
She just couldn't see it. Couldn't see what she'd accomplished.
Teenage girls and self esteem problems go hand in hand, kid. You just haven't seen enough women.
"What do you think, Gaara, am I being stupid for even considering this?" Sakura had turned to him now. "He said he'd train me. Me. Trained by the fucking Tsuchikage. Me. Sakura Haruno. A civilian genin with nothing interesting under her belt."
"Sakura." Gaara repeated. "You're wrong."
"I got lucky, Gaara. And you have been protecting me this entire way, it's not like it's me alone doing this."
"And you won't be alone if you continue to do this."
Sakura let out a small sigh, but Gaara caught the hint of a smile on her face. "...yeah, I...I know that, Gaara, I wasn't trying to say I'm kicking you off the team or anything. I just feel like...well, he'd be better off teaching you, you know. You've got...more to you than I do."
She's right, I am pretty awesome.
Gaara mentally told Shukaku to can it. He was about to speak again when suddenly there was a knock on the door. Sakura groaned slightly before going to answer, and as Gaara watched he caught sight of Sai as Sakura opened the door.
"He's being released into your custody for the moment." He heard the woman, Kurotsuchi, announce. "If you can't watch him, he's to be under Iwa guard."
"Oh, so that's why this apartment has three bedrooms."
The Tsuchikage had granted them living quarters, since they were his "guests". Gaara, of course, couldn't tell them that he couldn't sleep without raising suspicion, but he'd been more than curious when he'd found three bedrooms in their little block. Now, of course, it made sense.
He'd been enjoying the privacy with Sakura, damn it all, and now the Anbu was back.
Sai was blissfully silent, at least, and Gaara got the brief satisfaction of seeing the boy in handcuffs before he was promptly relieved of them. From there, it was back to fake smiles and Sakura...well, it wasn't just the two of them anymore.
Gaara had heard about the concept of jealousy, but experiencing it firsthand, he had to admit it was a more souring feeling than others had described it. He remembered vaguely the feeling of jealousy as a child...wishing he had friends, a family that loved him, but all of those feelings had washed away when…
Feeling bitter, Gaara quietly slipped through a window and made his way to a roof.
Sai wasn't stupid enough to attack Sakura here, and Iwa wouldn't have put this much effort into making Sakura comfortable just to assassinate her later. He could allow himself a moment of solitude. (Something he hadn't had in...weeks now, Gaara realized. How long had they even been traveling?)
I still say you should kill him.
Gaara felt bad that he agreed with Shukaku in this instance. But he'd been dealing with those thoughts since Sai had joined them.
He could train, while he was up here, instead of feeling sorry for himself.
Fine, fine, I get the hint. Focus your chakra, brat, and make sure the layer's thick this time.
Gaara did so.
It would be a lie to say this training hadn't been inspired by a certain Konoha taijutsu specialist, but Gaara had been surprised that Shukaku had paid enough attention to come up with the idea in the first place. The point had been made that Gaara's taijutsu was atrocious, and if they ever faced an enemy that could counter Gaara's sand effectively, he would be, as Shukaku put it, shit out of luck.
So Shukaku had devised a training strategy, and the first step was pushing Gaara's body to its limits.
Gaara already had learned to maneuver naturally with a layer of protective sand, which was fairly heavy. Shukaku had shown him, after demanding Gaara release the layer, that this had actually trained his muscles somewhat. (Similar to how Rock Lee's weights had functioned.) If Gaara continued to thicken the layer while he trained, using dense, heavy sand, his body would be that much stronger when the sand was removed.
So Gaara compacted the earth around him, mixing it with his sand and creating a thick layer that weighed him down significantly.
From there, Shukaku began to teach.
Gaara found it odd that the Ichibi knew a taijutsu style, and even odder that it wasn't a style that was taught at any Suna academy. The forms favored deep stances, drawing power from the hips and from the stability the forms relied upon. When his sand layer was on, the sheer weight he carried with him would make him impossible to easily move, if he held stance. When the layers were off, his raw punching power would increase significantly, especially now, as Shukaku said, that he was 'learning it the right way'.
This style existed long before you were born, brat. Shukaku began to lecture as Gaara practiced forms. Each of these kata demonstrates potential killing blows. Now bend your legs further. Push your knees in. This stance is the stance of the Half-Moon. Each breath draws upon chakra and builds it within you. This is the form of a man who will not be moved.
He definitely wasn't going to be moving after practicing these stances. His body was going to hurt too damned much to move.
Don't sass me brat. And straighten your back.
Gaara listened. He'd never been one to disobey Shukaku, after all. But as he practised, he couldn't help but wonder where Shukaku had picked up the knowledge of such forms. The first Jinchuuriki, perhaps?
Nah, it was before that time, kid. Before your shithole of a village sealed me away.
Shukaku sounded wistful. Remembering a better time, perhaps?
You could say that.
Gaara took a deep breath, visible in the air as the temperature continued to plummet with the coming night. Having the sand around him helped keep him warm, but Gaara still found that he wasn't very fond of the cold. It brought a strange ache to his body that he wasn't used to. (He wasn't used to pain at all, really.) Coupled with the soreness of his nightly training...Gaara's body felt absolutely miserable.
But he was getting stronger. And if he got stronger, he could keep Sakura safe.
All at once, energy appeared.
It was like a rush, hitting him all at once and causing his sand to rile around him. Gaara only remembered feeling an energy like this once before, and that had been Naruto. But Naruto couldn't be here, which meant…
He turned to meet the energy face to face, and he saw a giant of a man.
The man towered over him by at least two feet, if not more. He was covered in an armor that was a staggering red and brown, even shrouding the lower half of his face with it. Atop his head was a wide brimmed hat, also red. The man stood out, and yet Gaara had not felt his presence until mere moments before the man's arrival.
And as Gaara saw his eyes squint, he realized the man was smiling at him.
Gaara hadn't realized it, but he'd subconsciously dropped into the new stance, hands held out in a defensive position. Maybe this man was a Jinchuuriki, but...well, he remembered how he used to be. How stable was this man? Or was he more similar to Naruto?
"I'm Han." The man continued. With a small grunt, he sat down on the roof, still large enough that he was almost at Gaara's eye height regardless. "I heard Miss Haruno was here to speak with Jinchuuriki, but I hadn't heard she was with one."
"We haven't told anyone." Gaara replied immediately. This man...he could put them in danger, if word spread about who Gaara was.
"Oh. Well that's fine."
There was silence, and Gaara held his stance as he regarded the man. Han simply watched him in return, speaking only after the silence had become unbearable.
"So what's your name?"
"And you're with the Ichibi? You must be from Suna, then. I've met a few people from there. Usually had to kill them, though." Han let out a sigh that sounded melancholy. "But I don't like killing them, you know."
Gaara had been told that all of the Tailed Beasts were ravenous, bloodthirsty monsters. And even if he and Naruto had learned not to listen to their beasts, that didn't change that Shukaku enjoyed fresh blood and the Kyuubi had attacked an entire village.
Well, it's the damn horse, that's why. Always a bloody pacifist.
A pacifist Beast?
"Kokuo prefers to stay out of fights, if we can help it. But sometimes the village needs us. That's why we were put together. Now, Roshi on the other ha-"
Energy hit Gaara like a wave all at once again, and in a blink Gaara saw a new man appear, slamming a hand over Han's mouth. Gaara first noticed a shock of red hair, similar to his own, before taking in magenta robes and a pointed headpiece.
"Han, what did I tell you about spouting off to the enemy? You said you were just coming to look!"
Han gently peeled the other man's hand off with ease. "He's the Ichibi, Roshi. He's just like us."
"Oh boy. He'll kill us in our sleep that much easier then."
"I remember when you said that about me." Han answered pleasantly. "And now you can't fall asleep unless I-"
Roshi slammed his hand back against Han's mouth with enough force to rock the man's head slightly.
And the monkey. Great. Now I'm doomed for a headache.
Gaara wondered briefly if he might be too.
But they were here, right here in front of him. Other Jinchuuriki! And even if one of them seemed rather loud and unfriendly, they weren't...like he had been.
And they had each other.
Gaara had been expecting the worst. People like him, shunned, hateful, murderous. Maybe a small part of him had hoped to help other Jinchuuriki like Naruto had helped him.
Whatever the case...he had the feeling he had his hands full with these two.
Sakura Haruno was an illogical oddity.
He had expected strangeness when he had been ordered to trail her. Only a strange shinobi would abandon their home for any reason. He had also expected to find her in the arms of Sasuke Uchiha, given her runaway note and what others in the village had to say about her. In fact, Danzo had been counting on this.
What he hadn't expected had been to find the girl halfway into Suna territory with a Jinchuuriki and a newly formed, freshly revolted Plains village.
And he especially hadn't expect her to locate him nearly instantly without so much as a telling glance towards his location.
The capture and interrogation was expected, after being caught. The letting him go, illogical. By all accounts it would have been better if they'd killed him.
So why had she insisted that he be let go?
And for that matter, after everything, why did she risk her life to protect him from the Tsuchikage?
There was something strange about Sakura Haruno alright. Something that Sai just wasn't fitting together. She preached about friendship and trust, but nobody got this far from home with this many allies on just hopes and whims. Sakura had some sort of plan. Some sort of true agenda.
The logical part of Sai's mind knew this.
Another part, a part he buried, a part he refused to listen to, wondered if he just might like this Sakura Haruno a little bit.
From one Root to another
The target has made contact with the Master of Stones. Target seems to have taken a favorable position under the Master.
She acts as though she has purpose, but this purpose is yet in unknown. She seeks Containers, but perhaps also seeks to elevate her own status in the shinobi world. It is possible ambition motivates her.
It is as though she is a sapling who has branched off from the Tree. I have yet to determine what sort of tree she will become.
No sign of the Heir of Flame. The Sand Container still keeps careful vigilance over the target.
From one Root to another
If the target grows too tall, trim the tree and let the sand fall to dust.