It was surprisingly easy to fall into a routine.
Sakura woke up early, long before she knew Onoki would be able to get himself out of bed, and she and Gaara went to what the locals called Training Ground Zero. It was a mess of a stadium, something more akin to a crater than an actual arena, and the rough rubble made it difficult to keep one's footing.
Kurotsuchi told her that a man named Deidara had dropped an experimental bomb there, once, in the years before he went rogue. The explosion had melted away rock and stone, weakening the ground and leaving the crater behind. The official story was that Iwa had found use for it as a training ground and that was why they hadn't filled it back in yet, but the truth, Kurotsuchi whispered in her ear, was that it would take mining half a mountain to fill it again, and Iwa wasn't willing to waste resources on that.
In a weird way, Sakura was grateful that it existed. With the ground so unstable, few people trained there, which meant for most mornings she and Gaara could train together at their leisure.
Shukaku, it seemed, had been teaching Gaara taijutsu. This was something she jotted down into her own notes, as it not only brought up the interesting thought of Tailed Beasts remembering things like taijutsu to begin with, but also suggested that Shukaku was becoming...easier to work with? She wasn't sure if that was exactly the right way of going about it, but if Shukaku was willingly sharing information with Gaara, willingly teaching him, that meant…
That meant Tailed Beasts weren't horrible, murderous monsters. They could be reasoned with. Won over. Shown friendship and compassion, and show friendship and compassion in turn. Gaara still described Shukaku as a 'grumpy raccoon', but that was leagues better than a year ago, when Gaara had been mad with Shukaku's words in his mind.
(And there was some part of Sakura that wondered if this was some scheme of Shukaku's, some new way of getting to Gaara, but...maybe she wanted to believe the best, despite thoughts of the worst.)
Sakura's styles of taijutsu were basic at best, Academy level. She'd never had a taijutsu teacher, and something about Gaara's forms suggested that they wouldn't suit her. She wasn't a bulky, defensive type fighter; if anything, she was finding herself far more offensive, wanting to have the speed to take fights head on.
Her first sparring session with Gaara had been a disaster. They'd both agreed to no jutsu, save the sand Gaara was now keeping around him for weight training, and Sakura hadn't been able to so much as hit Gaara without wincing from the pain of hitting armor. And that, of course, was when she was able to hit him at all. The new forms Gaara was practicing favored swatting her pathetic punches away with ease, and while it taught her to be clever when it came to her hits, it meant that her wrists and hands were sore by the end of the session from how many times Gaara had tagged her.
Sakura had lamented, at first, that she would never catch up to Gaara now, not without using some sort of jutsu.
And then Onoki had stepped in.
He'd watched her for all of a minute before stepping between her and Gaara. He used his small walking cane with surprising dexterity, turning her around and directing her towards a completely different building.
"You're not going to build yourself up doing that, Haruno."
And then the real routine began.
Weight training. Lifting, pressing, sit-ups, pull-ups, push-ups, all with Onoki's harsh voice cracking down over her as she worked. Onoki told her what she'd do each day, and she'd do it, until her body felt as though it was going to melt.
"Earth-style jutsu is about strength." Onoki would lecture. "As is any sort of taijutsu that's going to break through Sand-Boy's little routine. You have the brain to read a situation and figure out the best course of action, but your body isn't ready for it yet. You'll be lifting weights until you can crack Gaara's sand with your bare damn knuckles."
Sakura didn't believe that was possible, but she was starting to see why others thought Onoki terrifying, and there was no way she was going to back-talk him now.
So began her strength training. Every other day, she'd begin sparring with Gaara, then go straight to training under Onoki until lunch-time. After that came discussion and planning. Onoki, it seemed, had really been thinking of everything when it came to his 'neutrality project'. He had Iwa's dossiers on every Kage, information on Hidden Villages, their trade routes, their borders, their policies...and plans on how best to approach each of them.
"The Raikage and the Mizukage will be the most difficult to approach, discounting that bastard of a snake down in Oto." Onoki explained. "The Raikage is notoriously protective of his people, and among the most powerful shinobi I know. As for the Mizukage...no one has heard from him in quite some time. There's rumors of civil war down in Kiri, and if that's the case there's no telling what you'll find once you cross their borders." He'd paused at the time, looking somewhat troubled. "...admittedly Iwa might have contributed to some of the chaos. Convincing them to enter any sort of agreement with us will be perhaps the most difficult task you'll face."
Sakura had gulped.
"A secondary task would be finding yourself a base of operations." Onoki continued. "If this project is successful, you wouldn't be aligned with any village. You'd need a place to call your home, as well as somewhere to call Kages to meeting without anyone fearing attack. A true neutral ground."
He'd marked several places on her map. The first was the Mountain's Graveyard, a large strip of land between Taki and Oto that no shinobi had claimed for generations. There were many who believed it cursed, or guarded by spirits that would kill whomever set foot upon it.
A lovely first choice, Sakura had pointed out.
Other areas of note were a small island between Kiri and Kumo, and nearby that the small stretch of land where Uzushiogakure had once stood. There were smaller strips of unclaimed land further inland, but they were typically the sites of border disputes, and the last thing Sakura needed was fighting when she was trying to maintain peace. Better to claim lands no one else had their eye on.
In the evenings, Sakura would return with Gaara to their apartment and they would meditate, attempting to increase their chakra stores as well as hone Sakura's sensing jutsu.
In the odd days between Sakura's strength training, she was allowed to rest. Onoki stressed the importance of allowing her body a break, as too much strength training would damage rather than toughen her up. But, of course, Sakura wasn't allowed a true rest. Her odd days were spent studying.
And this began with Onoki walking her through a mineral museum.
Onoki would stop at each exhibit, describing both the various layers of rock and ground that could be found beneath them, as well as the stones and mineral that could be mined from within. He listed every component and what percentage of the earth it made up, where each ratio was most likely to be found, and the physical properties of each. Memorize them, he told Sakura.
And that, she could do.
Sakura had always been booksmart, and she'd grinned from ear to ear when she realized that the little museum had educational books. Though she didn't have much pocket money, she'd bought herself a copy, making sure to study it every night before she went to bed. These lessons, she quickly began to understand. The more she knew about the properties of the earth beneath her, the better equipped she would be to manipulate it. If the ground was soft, she'd need to spend more effort hardening it for her jutsu to be effective. If the ground was hard, it would be more difficult to move. It required perfect control to manipulate all types of earth equally, and Sakura could do control.
Sai was with them, always. He wasn't allowed to go elsewhere without armed guard, and Sai seemed content enough just...sticking around. Whenever Sakura caught glimpses of the boy, he was always sketching or writing down something. Taking notes for Konoha no doubt. But he had seemed different since they'd arrived in Iwa, more openly inquisitive. He would ask why Sakura spoke a certain way, why she'd smiled a certain way, why Gaara was always so livid around him. (The latter, Sakura still wasn't fully sure, but she was starting to suspect there was more to Gaara's dislike than mere suspicion.)
She was allowed one weekend day to herself, which she spent getting to know the town of Iwa. The villagers were leery of her at first, but since she was so often seen with the Tsuchikage, it didn't take long for them to warm up.
Sakura made a surprising friend in Kurotsuchi, whom had certainly been sent to keep an eye on her, but Sakura wasn't going to complain. The woman was a treat to be around. She would show Sakura and the boys a new place to eat every evening, introducing her to the patrons and letting Sakura's name spread around. On her weekends, Kurotsuchi would show her village monuments and talk history.
"I think it would be better to hear about our village through the eyes of an Iwa shinobi, and not your old Konoha dossiers." Kurotsuchi had explained. "And really, you should try to learn about each village this way. Learn what their enemies have to say, and then learn what they think about themselves. Much like you would an enemy shinobi."
There had been two Tsuchikage before Onoki. The First had been Onoki's grandfather, supposedly able to discern the strength and value of any stone simply by looking at it, and had been a prodigy in Earth-style jutsu. There was little historical record on him, simply because there was little of the man's time in general.
Far more was there on the second Tsuchikage, who interested Sakura far more anyway. The man had been a true shadow, able to wield all five elements, revered as a Non-Person who could completely hide his own chakra signature, and, most interestingly, known for having such a keen sensory jutsu that he could avoid attacks that most shinobi couldn't see coming.
(Sakura had looked at her own scroll that night, after learning of the Second, and wondered briefly if her scroll was of Konoha origin after all.)
An easy routine. A simple routine. And Sakura wasn't just getting tougher, she was getting smarter.
And, more importantly...she felt as though she was learning something else. Something she hadn't necessarily been good at before: getting closer to others. To the villagers. To the Iwa shinobi. To the Tsuchikage. To Sai.
In the cold mountains of Iwagakure, maybe she was getting…
For the first time in his life, Gaara was truly and consistently happy.
He could live here forever in Iwa, training with Sakura, learning about the village, and spending his nights in the company of Han. (And occasionally Roshi.) Even if it hadn't been where he'd grown up, even if he hadn't been here long...this place was more of a home than Suna had ever been. Akatsuki meant nothing. The looming danger of it all...nothing.
Here, he was happy.
Though the nights were cold, they were never long enough. Gaara would perch on the roof of their apartment and wait, and Han would eventually appear in a flurry of snow and earth. The man liked talking, and Gaara liked listening. When he'd told Sakura of the appearance of the two Jinchuuriki, she'd been happy for him.
"Make friends with them, Gaara. Learn as much as you can. They're like you, after all."
Gaara had originally thought Sakura would want to take point regarding Han and Roshi, but she seemed more than content to let him build the relationship, and for that he was grateful. It worked out, in the end. Han and Roshi were a careful lot, with Roshi being distrustworthy of pretty much anyone besides Han, and Han only really speaking with Gaara because they had a kinship in their positions, which Roshi could grudgingly accept. Gaara had never seen two men as close as they.
"We needed each other." Han explained. "The village has no love for us, so we had to have love for each other." He gave his trademark smile, barely visible behind his thick armor. "Roshi wouldn't have it, at first. He was slightly older than myself. He'd dealt with things longer. At the time, he told me, 'there was no such thing as camaraderie, so we had to look out for ourselves'."
Gaara was more than intimately familiar with such a mindset. "How did you change his mind?"
"I didn't give up." Han said simply. "And I proved him wrong by looking out for him."
It was so simple it was almost laughable...but Gaara understood.
Sakura...she'd been there. She had just been there. And that had been enough.
Occasionally, Han would take him to a small cave on the outskirts of the village. There was a quiet pool near the back of the cave, kept clear with a small trickle of running water that came down from the mountain top. The trickle echoed through the cave rhythmically, and Gaara couldn't help but feel a sense of peace when he was by the pool. Near there was where the two Jinchuuriki made their home, and the cave itself was somewhere that the two used for meditating.
"Mostly me." Han admitted with a shrug. "Roshi isn't really the type to sit down for more than five minutes. But you wondered how I communicated so much with Kokuo, and this is how. I sit here when I need the quiet, and I can speak with him."
"I've spoken with Shukaku all my life, but...only recently have I ever seen him." Gaara replied. "I think he's the one that tends to drag me in."
"Means the boy's seal is shit." Roshi commented brusquely. "Shouldn't be able to communicate with your Beast so easily unless you will it. I told you the boy was a damn problem, Hoshi, Ichibi's going to break out in the middle of the goddamn night and kill us all."
"Not so long as I don't fall asleep."
"Oh that's extremely reassuring."
With that, Han had prodded until Gaara sat down and showed Han the location of his seal. Both Jinchuuriki examined him, and he heard several hums of discontent. Gaara had known his seal was shoddy for a while, but the extent of it seemed to consistently surprise others.
"There's only one thing you can do unless you can find a sealmaster." Han concluded. "And that's make sure Shukaku doesn't ever have a reason to violently break free."
"And what can I do to ensure that?"
"Make friends with him."
Gaara could not consider Shukaku a friend. He could barely consider the Beast a teacher. Years of hearing his whispers, of killing for him, of being driven further and further into darkness...how could Gaara trust Shukaku, let alone befriend him? And for that matter, how could he convince the Beast that friendship was worth investing in.
"You don't give up." Han reminded him.
And thus, Gaara's own project began.
It was a difficult project, given that Shukaku knew about it. At first, Shukaku insisted on keeping their relationship 'business professional'. Gaara was there to learn, Shukaku was there to make sure he didn't die young.
But Gaara didn't give up. For several hours, every night, he sat in the small cave and meditated. And every night, once he found himself within Shukaku's massive chamber, he badgered the Beast with questions.
"How long have you been alive? Do you have parents? Can you use any of the five elemental chakra? Where did you live, before Suna?"
Shukaku was tight-lipped, at first ignoring Gaara before eventually outwardly berating him for being an annoyance. Gaara only managed to get one question answered in his time.
"Has there ever been a human that you've liked?"
"One." Shukaku answered. "Though calling him human is a bit of a stretch. Hagoromo was infinitely more interesting than any of the rest of you ants scurrying around."
The name Hagoromo wasn't familiar to Gaara, but that didn't mean he couldn't dedicate some of his hours to researching it. And perhaps, if he looked for long enough, Shukaku might be kind enough to chip in.
Fortunately, he didn't have to look long, for it was Han that actually knew of the name.
"The Sage of Six Paths." Han explained. "Kokuo speaks fondly of him, but little more than that. And from Roshi's brief conversations with Son Goku, we can assume all of the Tailed Beasts were familiar with Hagoromo. Of course, getting Roshi and Son Goku to communicate at all is difficult…"
Gaara didn't doubt that.
The Sage of Six Paths. Gaara knew enough about history to know that this Hagoromo was the ancestor of all shinobi, the supposed origin of chakra, and someone whose power had never been replicated in the generations that came after him. That the Beasts were familiar with him indicated that the Beasts were ancient. Gaara couldn't imagine living for such a long time, seeing all of history slowly go by. And in a way...he could understand why Shukaku might be cynical. After a brutal warring era, followed by three 'shinobi world wars'...humanity had to seem pretty violent.
"Not just that, but we must seem like children in comparison." Sakura had pointed out when Gaara had told her about the Sage. "I mean, from all I remember reading anyway, the Sage had access to the Rinnegan eyes, which can supposedly create or destroy on a whim. Not even the Sharingan is that impressive. And nobody's wielded the Rinnegan since."
No one in all of history? It seemed strange. Unlikely that history wouldn't repeat itself. But clearly there were things Gaara was missing, and Shukaku's lips were sealed.
So while Gaara was not going to relent in his goal of getting on Shukaku's good side, he spent more of his time befriending the Jinchuuriki. And in similar manner, Gaara decided that he was going to specifically befriend Roshi.
Han, thankfully, was all too eager to help.
"Bring him breakfast." He suggested. "Bacon, eggs, pancakes, the works. He's never upset when he has breakfast."
(It was true, Gaara found out. It got Roshi to stay in his presence long enough to see the man's face go from 'angry' to 'neutral'.)
Each day was another challenge in this new life of making friendships. Each day was another training session, with Sakura or Shukaku, getting stronger. Each day…
Gaara was happy.
"No, Gaara, not like that. Put your knuckles closer to the ground, and then flick. It'll make the marble go further."
Sai watched as Sakura Haruno and the Ichibi crouched on a flat plot of ground. A crude circle had been drawn in the dirt, and a collection of brilliantly colored marbles had been set up in the center. Sakura and Gaara each started with a single marble. The goal, Sai had deduced, was to knock as many marbles out of the circle with the starting marble as possible.
A child's game. He had seen it once or twice patrolling Konoha, but had never had interest until now. Why did the two waste time on such frivolous games when they could be occupying themselves with something more productive?
But he couldn't deny that the smile on Sakura's face was genuine as she explained the rules, and he couldn't deny that, for a brief moment, he'd seen a hint of a smile on Gaara's face as they played. So strange, Sai thought. Such legitimate smiles.
He'd been placed on 'probation', allowed to wander unchained in Iwa so long as he was near either Sakura or an Iwa shinobi. It suited him fine. He was supposed to keep watch over Sakura anyway, and if she was going to waste hours on a child's game, that made it easier for him. It also gave him time to draw.
Free drawing was something he rarely had the time for. Art was his jutsu, art made him valuable to Root, but it was never meant to be for himself. Yet, there was no real reason for him to spend time sketching Sakura and Gaara, other than for himself. Root already knew what the two looked like, and drawings of them playing games would be considered laughable.
But Sai was drawn to the picture, drawn to sketching it over and over again until he could invoke whatever feeling watching the two brought him. And there was a feeling, something he'd buried but was threatening to burst out of his seams unless he could just…
He watched as Sakura gently took hold of Gaara's hand, showing him the best way to flick. They were from separate villages, by all accounts polar opposites, and yet they moved around each other like they had known each other all their lives.
And all at once, he remembered.
He remembered how his book was supposed to end.
Time seemed to slow down as he pulled his book out, flipping to the middle page. He remembered. Two hands touching. Two brothers. Two people, having known each other all their lives, fighting, getting stronger, and then…
(Pain, and he pushed that down on instinct, couldn't think about it, couldn't dwell on it)
Their hands, together, as they met after their many trials and tribulations. Sai sketched furiously, not wanting to forget the image now that he had it. He didn't even realize that Sakura and Gaara had caught sight of him, and had come over for a closer look. He just had to finish it. For him.
"I like it." Sakura said, jolting him out of his thoughts. "They meet together at the end and become friends."
Sai looked down at his picture again, and felt...something that could only be described as bittersweet.
"It's just a fairy tale." Sai said simply. "Friendship only happens in fairy tales, Fisticuffs. It's a silly book."
"I don't think so."
She held out a hand to him, with a single marble in it.
"You could play too, you know."
He didn't. He couldn't. He wasn't supposed to feel. Wasn't supposed to remember.
(But fuck it all, he wanted to anyway.)
There was another knock on the door, and Sakura yawned as she opened it. It was a rest day, thankfully, but that didn't mean her training hadn't left her sore. "What is it?" She asked, surprised to see Kurotsuchi there so early.
"Get dressed. There's something you'll want to see."
Several minutes later, Sakura had pulled on her clothes, tied her hair back, and woken Sai for their surprise morning trip. It was a cold morning, the near dead of winter now, and the sun had barely begun to rise over the nearby mountain peaks.
"Patrol caught someone rushing to the village borders this morning." Kurotsuchi explained as they walked. "An enemy shinobi...and a nasty strong one at that. It took a dozen shinobi to get him tied up, and we're still not sure we have him fully contained. But what we do know is that ever since he woke up, he's been asking to speak with you."
"Me?" Sakura blinked in confusion. "Why me?"
"Maybe it's better if you see who it is. You might know more than we do."
Kurotsuchi led her down, down below the ground level of the village, to what Sakura deduced had to be prisons and interrogation rooms. The Tsuchikage was waiting for them, along with several other menacing shinobi who parted for her as she walked by.
"Don't let sentiment get the better of you, Haruno. Figure out why he's here for us and we won't have to get dirty." Onoki told her. "We're trying to start alliances here, not wars, and if Konoha is going to make things difficult we need to know."
Sakura didn't wait for another second. With Gaara trailing behind her, she made her way into the prison room.
A man sat in front of her, tied down to a chair. A Konoha headband was pulled down over one eye, and a shock of silver hair flopped down over the man's head. His single, uncovered eye looked up at her with a mixture of both shock and relief.
Sakura took a minute to take in the image of her old sensei, tied up in front of her, exhausted but...here. Why was he here? Had he followed her all this way, all this time?
She folded her arms, but she couldn't help but give him a small smile.
"Hello, Kakashi sensei."