Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 31

First Tenant of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact:
All villages who henceforth sign this agreement are to be considered equal, regardless of size, economic status, and military strength.


Shinobi equipment, check.

Several months of aiding the Tsuchikage and taking odd jobs around the village had filled her wallet enough to invest in some higher quality supplies. No longer was she carrying shabby, second-rate kunai that she'd only barely been able to afford on a genin salary. Now her kunai were made of rare Iwa iron, sharp enough that she'd nicked herself on accident just handling the damn things. Explosive tags? Hundreds. Storage scrolls? Enough that she probably needed a storage scroll just to put her scrolls in. Medical supplies, food pills, rations, traps, and finally, the most important part…

The signed draft of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact.

Sakura kept this draft in a sealing scroll. She kept that scroll in another sealing scroll that required her blood to unlock, and that scroll was kept in the inner pocket of her jacket, where no one could swipe it from her. There were extra copies of the draft, of course, but this was the signed copy, the important one that she'd be carrying with her from village to village. If anything happened to it...well, it would be a pain to get it all signed again, and Sakura was trying to avoid pain as much as possible for this journey.

All of this gear had to be contained on her person, and though most of the gear could be kept in sealing scrolls for when it was needed, the majority of her new weaponry had to be immediately accessible. Sakura had never had so many sharp objects in her life, let alone within her arms' reach at all times. Kurotsuchi had walked her through places to conceal shuriken and kunai, from simple belt pouches to small slings hidden on the back straps of her bra. She was a diplomat now, Kurotsuchi had insisted, and a woman on top of that, which meant she had to be armed and ready for the worst at all times. Sakura would make enemies. There would be people who who try to take advantage of her. As a shinobi, Sakura had known this, but never in a million years would she ever have been this prepared without Kurotsuchi's help.

(She'd later give a side-eye to Kakashi, who really should have emphasized this with all of Team Seven. But, she supposed, out of the powerhouses that made up Team Seven, she probably was the only one who really needed to be paranoid. No one was stupid enough to sneak up on an Uchiha or a Jinchuuriki.)

The winter months had long faded into spring, with a hint of summer on the horizon. Sakura had long since given up her thick winter coat. Initially she had settled back into her usual cheongsam, but Kurotsuchi had once again stepped in to provide advice. A kunoichi could look fashionable, she insisted, but still practical. A typical civilian cheongsam had no pockets or concealments to store anything useful. There was nothing in the fabric that provided any sort of defense against the elements or against enemy blades. It was better for a shinobi to avoid taking hits to begin with, but in case of emergency, it was better to have something more protective.

Thankfully, Kurotsuchi had said with a grin, Sakura had ended up in the right place. Iwa, more so than perhaps any other shinobi village, was prized for its metalwork and armor.

There were a plethora of blacksmiths and weavers in the village to choose from, and it hadn't taken long at all before Sakura was able to commission something to her liking. One armourer specialized in an extremely lightweight chainmail, not something that would save her from crushing blows or high-powered ninjutsu, but would deflect most common kunai and shuriken. Sakura could layer a more customized cheongsam over the mail, and if she coupled that with a pocketed vest, she gained a look that was one part fashionable and several parts practical.

(Sakura couldn't wait to see the look on Ino's face when she next reached Konoha.)

Sakura was also encouraged to invest in shin guards and arm bracers. The last thing Sakura wanted was to lose a hand or a leg in battle, even if she'd seen a legless Iwa jounin pull off some pretty impressive jutsu. Better safe than sorry was the motto, and by the time Sakura had settled on her new choice in attire, she had to admit that she looked far more like a warrior than the young girl who had snuck away from her village home. Maybe even like someone that the other village leaders would take seriously.

The other leaders…

Sakura swallowed hard as she finished checking her apartment. Really, she was just stalling. She'd gotten so used to living in Iwa that she wasn't quite sure she wanted to leave. Iwa was comfortable. Iwa could be a home, much like…

Much like Konoha had been a home.

But it was easy to get attached to somewhere stable. Easy to get attached to people who treated you with respect and assumed you were every bit as strong as they were. Easy to get attached to somewhere with a bed.

There was absolutely nothing more for her to pack, however. The apartment was as empty as when she first arrived in Iwa.

She made her way to the bathroom mirror, fiddling with her hair in an attempt to get herself another couple minutes. Her hand briefly brushed against the red ribbon holding her hair up...Ino's ribbon. Ever since she'd left behind her Konoha headband, she'd been using the ribbon to keep her hair out of her eyes, but there was also a large bit of sentiment behind it. It was Ino, long before anyone else, who had seen potential in her. Ino who had helped her to find confidence.

In a strange way, looking at the ribbon helped steady her nerves. Even if she was heading into the unknown...people believed in her. She could be confident. She could be strong. She was a kunoichi, and she was going to work to unite the shinobi nations.

Sakura took a deep breath and made her way out of the apartment.

She would be taking a side road through one of the surrounding mountains, putting her on a path straight to the Village Hidden in Waterfalls. Takigakure. It was a small village, but it supposedly housed the Jinchuuriki of the Seven-Tailed Beast, which meant that Sakura had double the invested interest in going there. She needed to convince the leader of the village to sign the treaty, and she needed to meet with the Jinchuuriki...or at least let Gaara meet with them. Gaara had made friends with the Iwa Jinchuuriki surprisingly easy. Perhaps Jinchuuriki just...understood each other best.

That was right, she reminded herself. This wasn't just her own mission. This wasn't just about the neutrality pact. She was also helping Gaara learn about himself and meet others like him. She was helping him get out of his shell. Already the boy was almost unrecognizable from the boy she'd seen at the chuunin exams all those months ago. He seemed to be smiling all the time, he talked with her more than ever, and, though Sakura supposed this was half due to Iwa not knowing Gaara was a Jinchuuriki, he had even gathered enough confidence to speak with Iwa residents when the need arrived. She wasn't the only one who had grown out here in Iwa. Gaara, too…

She caught sight of him as she made her way to the side road Onoki told her about. He was still wearing the long, brown coat he'd gotten on the way up the mountain, and it appeared as though his sand 'gourd' had been permanently changed into a sand 'scroll'. Anyone outside of Suna or Konoha would be hard pressed to recognize the sullen Ichibi Jinchuuriki at this point, and Sakura was counting on it.

Several others were also waiting at the village exit. Sai in particular looked ready to go, and Kakashi had brought a small backpack. Konoha would be her next stop after Taki, so it made sense to travel together. Not that she didn't feel safe traveling just with Gaara, but having the Anbu and her old jounin sensei on her team was just extra safety, and there wasn't anything wrong with that.

A smile came to her face as she saw Onoki and several other Iwa shinobi waiting at the exit as well. Kurotsuchi, Akatsuchi...even Han and Roshi had gathered by Gaara, with the latter ruffling the boy's hair roughly as they exchanged words.

Sakura focused on this. Focused on Onoki's grandfatherly smile, Kurotsuchi's proud stance, the way Han and Roshi fathered over Gaara. Every village she would be going to was full of people like these, people with families, with dreams, with fears...people. Not just the legends she read in her history book.

She shook her head. Now wasn't the time to be apprehensive of the future. Now was the time for a bittersweet goodbye.

"Remember every damn thing I taught you, girl." Onoki insisted as he looked her up and down. "Innovation before strength. Every shinobi can throw a shuriken or swing a sword, but you've got a brain. Use it!"

"Yes, sensei!" Sakura gave Onoki a respectful nod.

"And make sure you remember the differences between mountain terrain and-"

"Lord Tsuchikage, I'm sure Sakura doesn't need reminding." Kurotsuchi stepped in, shaking her head. "You drilled earth layers into her head for four weeks straight, remember?"

"And she'd damn well better remember them!"

"I will, sensei, I promise." Sakura bowed. "And I look forward to sending you the good news as everyone else sees the treaty."

"That's my girl." Onoki grinned, and that was that. Goodbyes were said, and before long Sakura was walking through the mountain tunnel and on her way out of Iwa.


"I spy with my little eye, something that starts with 'g'."

It was quiet for a while, before Gaara finally spoke up. "Grass."

"Nope."

"Kakashi-sensei?"

Sakura had never seen the jounin look so annoyed in all her time knowing him. It was clear he wasn't used to playing traveling games, but she wasn't going to stop. Gaara enjoyed them.

(And maybe she got a mischievous sense of satisfaction seeing her sensei forced to play along.)

"Ground." Kakashi mumbled.

"Nope."

"You're all horribly blind." Sai spoke up, fake smile wide on his face. "It's obviously granite. It's what's making up several of the nearby rock formations."

"Got it!" Sakura gave Sai a big smile in turn. "That's seven points to Sai, five points to Gaara, and...one point for Kakashi?"

"Is this really what you were doing the entire way from Suna to Iwa?" Kakashi asked.

"It's not the only thing I'm doing." Sakura admitted. "I'm attempting to master my sensing jutsu while my mind is otherwise occupied. A good shinob is able to maintain their guard while distracted by mundane conversation, right?"

"You know, I know I told you that, my darling student, but you could stand to pick something less mundane." Kakashi muttered, pulling out one of his many smutty books as they walked. "Like...where you found the scroll you learned that sensing jutsu from."

"I told you." Sakura said innocently. "I just...found it. You can just find things."

"Ah yes. You just found a scroll with several S-ranked jutsu just lying around, unsupervised, unguarded…"

Sakura frowned. Kakashi was getting way too close to the truth. There was a part of her that wanted to come clean about the scroll, (maybe Kakashi could secretly return it without causing a fuss?), but damn it all she'd worked hard for that scroll and she still hadn't learned everything in it yet. And it was entirely possible Kakashi or Sai could use the scroll against her and the neutrality project, could claim that a thief shouldn't be an ambassador...but Sakura just couldn't bring herself to lie about where she found it. She felt as though Kakashi would see right through anything she came up with.

Thankfully, before Kakashi could interrogate her further, the path wound its way past the walls of mountain and suddenly a clear view stood out in the distance.

The ocean.

Sakura had known they were on the northern end of Iwa territory, but she hadn't expected to travel so close to the sea. She hadn't seen the ocean since the Land of Waves, a time that...suddenly seemed much longer ago than she used to picture it. The ocean to the south had been cold, covered in fog, almost dreary. The ocean out here...well, it was still cold out, but with the sun reflecting on the waves and the bright blue sky above it...there was something warm about how the view looked. Something that made Sakura want to run down the mountain to the water's edge.

And she wasn't the only one, by the look of it. She felt movement next to her, and when she turned she saw Gaara looking out to the ocean, his eyes wider than she'd ever seen.

"Gaara, have you...never seen the ocean?"

"He's from Suna." Sai retorted. "Of course he hasn't. Suna land barely borders the ocean at all."

"It's...big."

Gaara leaped onto the rocks in front of him, squinting as he tried to look to the distance. "Really big."

"Nobody's ever crossed it." Sakura commented, leaping up to join Gaara. "Every now and then, supposedly a boat tries, but it's never heard from again." She laughed. "Some people think the world is flat and that's where it ends, so the boats have just fallen off."

"Flat?" Gaara looked to Sakura, puzzled. "But if it was flat, wouldn't we be able to see the end of it from here?"

"Hey, I never said some people weren't idiots."

"It's more likely that the ocean is too vast for our ships to cross at this point in time." Sai added, leaping up to the rock as well. "The further one goes out into the ocean, the larger the waves become. Simple wooden ships can barely manage."

"It's that large…" Gaara looked back to the ocean. "There could be...a whole continent on the other side. People who've never heard of shinobi or...Jinchuuriki, or anything like that."

"I hadn't thought of that." Sakura admitted. "Do you think they could still use chakra like we do? Maybe there's a completely different style of jutsu that we can't even dream of!"

"Or maybe they can't use chakra at all." Sai countered. "An entire continent of useless civilians."

Sakura frowned before punching Sai in the arm. "My parents are civilians, thank you very much, and they're not useless. Who do you think builds all the houses in Konoha? Works out all the plumbing? Does all the farming? Shinobi are too high and mighty for all that, after all."

"Hmm...perhaps so. But civilians wouldn't be alive without shinobi to protect them."

"And shinobi wouldn't be alive if civilians weren't around to do all the work that the shinobi won't!"

"Symbiosis." Gaara suddenly commented. "Neither can live without the other."

"Exactly." Sakura grinned. "And if anyone tries to call civilians useless again, I'll throw them into the ocean!"

She was pleased to see Sai's fake smile falter a little bit. "Ah, you know, I've changed my mind. You're not really the 'ugly' type, Sakura. From now on, you're 'Scary'."

Sakura couldn't help but be pleased with that new nickname.

Gaara was still looking out to the ocean, so Sakura decided to let him have a moment of peace. She turned, meaning to jump down, when she caught sight of Kakashi.

He looked...well the only way she could describe it was sentimental. Like he was watching a scene that reminded him of something, something he hadn't seen in a long time. A brief look of confusion passed over her before she looked back to Gaara and Sai.

And then she saw it too. A Jinchuuriki boy, used to being alone, wide-eyed with wonder at the new world around him that he'd never seen before. A withdrawn, dark-haired boy with a troubled past, brash, sometimes a bit rude…

Was Kakashi seeing Team Seven too, when he looked at the three of them?

It was...a strange sentiment to consider, albeit a pointless one. Maybe Gaara would be sticking around with her for the future, but Sai would be returning to Konoha at first opportunity. They weren't a team. Just travelers going in the same direction.

But Sakura couldn't deny that the idea of a 'Team' still appealed to her. No matter how hard she tried to focus on the new future she was carving for herself, every now and then her thoughts would return to Naruto and Sasuke.

Naruto…

He'd returned her letters with great enthusiasm, though his handwriting had left a lot to be desired. She'd been surprised to hear that he was studying under Tsunade. It was hard to imagine the blonde having the patience for anything that didn't involve a fist fight, but by the sound of things Tsunade had somehow managed to get him involved in bookwork and village politics.

It would be good for him, Sakura thought with a smile. A Hokage would need to be able to excel in all parts of leading a village, not just defending it. And Tsunade was smart enough that Sakura knew she'd teach Naruto well. If anything, Naruto was in the best place he could possibly be.

And he was so damn supportive.

She'd worried that he'd be angry with her for leaving Konoha, like Sasuke had, but nothing in his letters seemed to show anything but support. He seemed enthusiastic at the prospect of the villages coming together, and even more excited when he'd heard that she was training under the Tsuchikage.

"When you come back to Konoha, let's spar and see how strong we've gotten, okay?"

Sakura gripped at her necklace tightly, trying her best not to get emotional. They were out traveling, she could afford to let her feelings slow them down. The Jashin necklace had become a weird sort of comfort to her during her time at Iwa. (Maybe that weird Akatsuki member had been onto something? ...no, she didn't want to admit, or maybe she couldn't.) It wasn't unusual for her to get emotional, but lately she'd found herself getting embarrassed over it. All of the other women shinobi she knew were so calm and composed...and here she was getting weepy over the fact that Naruto wanted to spar with her, see how strong she'd gotten.

Naruto thought of her as an equal.

And maybe he'd said praises about her before, it was nothing like that letter had suggested. A spar wasn't something Naruto would ask because he had a crush on her or wanted to garner her affection. Naruto had only ever asked to spar with Sasuke before, because Sasuke was his rival, Sasuke was someone who could challenge him. But with one written sentence, suddenly Sakura was on his level too. Suddenly Sakura could be a challenge.

She wondered what Sasuke would think of her now. Would he still see her as an annoyance? Or would he…

Huh, how strange. Her first thought wasn't about him wanting to date her, but whether or not he'd want to fight her.

"Sakura?"

Gaara put a hand on her shoulder, jolting her out of her thoughts. She forced a smile.

"I'm fine, Gaara. Just thinking, that's all. The ocean sort of brought back some memories."

"Good ones?"

Sakura blinked. Gaara was smiling at her, something that still occasionally brought her pause. These past months...they'd really changed both of them. She continued to smile as she spoke.

"Yeah, you could say that."

She glanced over to Kakashi, who'd put on a smile of his own, all traces of that sentimental gaze gone. "Shall we get a move on? We've still got a ways to go before we reach Taki."

"Especially if we stop to sight-see every mile." Sai added dryly. Sakura gently punched him again.

"Oh, poo on you, Sai. Now I'm gonna make sure we stop every mile to look at something." She slid back down the rock onto the path, looking around briefly. "Alright, this time...Gaara, you pick things for us to spy, alright?"

"Right." Gaara nodded.

They began to walk again, Gaara mulling over his 'i-spy' choice. Out of habit, Sakura put her hands together and let out a sensing pulse. It wasn't as though she expected to find anyone out here, but every bit of practice mattered. Her energy seemed to spread out around her in a wave, pinging around trees and rocks and…

And…

Sakura froze. There, in a tree in the distance…

That was a chakra signature.

Her head shot in the direction of the tree, attempting to see just exactly who it was that had gotten on her radar. For a brief moment, so brief she might have imagined it, she saw a figure buried within the bark of the tree.

Half black skin, half white skin, strange plant-like growths around him…

Her hand instinctively went to a kunai at her hip, and next to her she felt all three of her companions shift into a defensive stance. But before she could do anything, the figure melted away into tree. Sakura sent out another sensing pulse.

Nothing.

It was like nobody had been there at all.

"Sakura?"

"Gaara...everyone…" Sakura swallowed, drawing her kunai despite the fact that she could no longer sense the figure. "...keep an eye on the trees, will you? I might have imagined it, but…"

But how could she have imagined something so strange?

Her free hand went to her necklace again. She was in new territory now, and who knew what sort of strange shinobi lived out here. Still, there was something about the man that had given her a distinct sense of unease. Something about the chakra, something about it that…

She paused.

The chakra…

It hadn't had any nature at all, when she had sensed it. It was like the energy had been completely blank.

Sakura reached out to take hold of Gaara's hand. Whoever it was, whoever it had been…

She had a feeling it wouldn't be the last time she saw them.

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