Second Tenant of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact:
All villages who henceforth sign this agreement are to be considered in alignment. The implications of such are that no village under the pact shall actively declare war, sabotage, or otherwise harm either the other villages in the pact, or the shinobi under each village's jurisdiction. If a village is suspected to have broken this tenant, unless evidence is otherwise undeniable, the village will be put to trial to determine guilt. Upon guilty verdict, the village will be suspended from alliance and subject to retaliation.
Every village has a right to a trial consisting of both members of the Shinobi Neutrality Project, as well as peers from their own village and other villages within the alliance.
Sakura was the only one who slept soundly at night.
At first, Gaara wasn't sure if Kakashi Hatake slept at all. Despite the fact that Gaara truly did not sleep, (and had been more than willing to take up permanent night watch), shifts had still been agreed upon so that Gaara would not have to be constantly alert. Still, even the slightest movement caused the Konoha jounin's single eye to open and scan the area, even if the movement was just the falling of a leaf or a squirrel scampering across a branch. There were times, rare times, where movement wouldn't stir the man, Gaara's only clue that Kakashi was capable of sleep, but those times only came, interestingly enough, when it was Sakura's shift.
Sai, in contrast, clearly tried to sleep, but was incapable of more than hour long rests before his body began to twitch and he woke up in a state that was far more emotional than his usual blank slate. Nightmares. Gaara had seen Sakura experience them occasionally, but never nightly. Gaara had never understood why one's mind would force a person to live through horrific scenes at a time when they were supposed to be resting, but then again, there had been little in Gaara's life that unnerved him. For Sai to experience nightmares nightly...what had he been put through, under Root? Was Konoha's underground truly so terrifying, so brutal?
Gaara wondered if that was why Kakashi didn't sleep. When Gaara considered nightmares...well, he was grateful that he couldn't experience them himself.
The woods were louder at night than he had expected. Insects, rodents, and nocturnal birds all chattered and chirped, and the wind on the mountain whistled through the spindly leaves of the trees around them. As far as he knew, they were still in Iwa territory, but had yet to come across any patrols or any merchants traveling the main road. The only other sign of sentient life had been the chakra signature Sakura had picked up on days before...and even that had yet to reveal itself again.
A man whose skin was black and white, with strange, plant-like growths...it sounded more like a nightmare than an actual real being.
Amazing, then, that Sakura could sleep so soundly. Was it a testament to her trust in him? With others around, Gaara found himself too embarrassed to ask.
Just a matter of time, he reminded himself, before Sai and Kakashi would return to Konoha, and it would be just the two of them again.
It was Kakashi's shift now, so Gaara allowed himself to stand up and stretch his legs. Kakashi, he trusted more than Sai, which meant during his shift he could wander the immediate area to keep himself from getting stiff and scout for anything that Kakashi might miss. On top of that, Gaara could continue to familiarize himself with forest environments, which were still...strange, compared to the flat, rocky deserts he had gotten used to navigating. Trees, being living things, exuded a very small amount of natural chakra that made it more difficult for his feet to grip onto, and unlike stone they swayed and buckled with wind and weight. Leaves could fall and create noise with the tiniest of touches, an animal could alarm if you came too close to its nest...all these things, Gaara had to learn, things that other shinobi had grown up learning and taken somewhat for granted.
An hour passed as Gaara practiced stepping lightly from branch to branch, pine needles sticking to his clothes and his hair. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw it.
The animal was small, the size of the cats he would often see running around the streets of Iwa, but unlike cats, this animal was stockier, with a fat tail and striped markings on its face. It was near silent as its pawed its way closer to the fire his comrades slept around, snuffling at the ground as it walked.
Dangerous? Probably not. Gaara doubted the animal was some sort of predator that could harm Sakura, and if it had been, Kakashi would have killed it in a heartbeat. He briefly saw the jounin look its way before the man turned back to that strange, orange book of his. No, the animal was not a threat...but it was very curious, to come so close to people without fear of death.
In a strange way, the animal looked...familiar. Had he seen such markings before?
It's a tanuki, brat, it better damn well look familiar.
A tanuki, so that was what it was. Gaara had heard the term used to describe Shukaku, knew vaguely that the animals existed, but he'd never seen one before. How was it, he wondered, that Shukaku came to be in the desert, if other tanuki lived out here in the woods? If the animal was so curious, would it be friendly? Gaara had become admittedly fond of the cats he would sometimes run across in Iwa, understanding, after a time, why others valued the animals as pets. If this tanuki was calm enough, perhaps he could…
He heard a snort inside his mind from Shukaku. So...probably not. But Gaara had nothing better to do this late at night, and even if the animal did try to attack him, there would be no fangs or claws that could break through the sand he kept over his skin.
As Gaara made his way down the tree and towards the fire, the animal continued to snuffle about, eventually making its way towards Sakura's feet. It nibbled briefly at one of her shoes before moving on...looking for food, Gaara deduced. Food that they could probably spare. He reached into one of his pouches, tearing off a tiny piece of jerky as he approached the tanuki. Eventually, the tanuki caught sight of him, and it let out a small hiss as he came near.
Gaara simply crouched down and held out the jerky. He'd found cats liked it best when he was quiet and low...and after a moment, it seemed, the tanuki thought similarly. It took several minutes before the tanuki was confident enough to come close, grabbing the jerky from Gaara's hands with a quick, harsh movement before running off into the grass nearby. But it took the meat...and out of the corner of his eyes, Gaara saw what looked like a smile pass across Kakashi's masked face.
As they walked the next day, Gaara saw the animal follow them.
You gave it food. Shukaku lamented. Now it'll never leave us alone.
Gaara didn't see a problem with that.
Each night the tanuki would come shuffling into their camp, and Gaara would offer it a small bit of his rations. He could go without a small bit of dinner, he decided, if that meant his new small friend would stick around for a little bit longer. What he did not expect was, after several nights had passed, for the tanuki to start bringing friends.
Sometimes just one. Sometimes several. But each night Gaara found himself surrounded by several furry friends who all were more than eager to share in the jerky bounty that Gaara offered.
Greedy little brats. Shukaku commented. Tanuki were a formidable race, but if this is what they have become…
Gaara wondered if Shukaku had taken on the form of a tanuki before or after meeting the animals. As a being of pure chakra, he could look like anything, Gaara figured, and yet...he'd chosen this form. So one night, during a meditation, Gaara decided to ask.
I didn't choose this form. Shukaku admitted, huffing as he spoke. None of my brethren did. We simply...were. I theorized that the energy that makes up my being resonates with the energy tanuki carry...though, the tiny brats you've been feeding barely have any chakra at all.
"So there are tanuki that do have chakra? Do people summon them?"
Not for years. Decades. Not since I was sealed away. Tanuki can hold a hell of a grudge, and they considered me one of their own. They thought humans were stupid enough before, but after putting me into a tea kettle, they washed their hands of humanity entirely. Shukaku chuckled. Kind of touching, now that I think about it. Makes me wonder what they've been up to all these years.
As the nights slowly passed, Gaara wondered if one day that could change. He and Shukaku had been on much better terms since he'd begun to dedicate time to talk with the beast, so maybe, if he and Shukaku became close...maybe he could see these strong tanuki one day. A far off goal, maybe, but the small ones in the woods had warmed up to him fast enough.
It was one particular night, as a tanuki was tugging a piece of jerky from his fingers, that things suddenly changed. All at once, the tanuki froze, dropping the jerky and turning its head towards the woods nearby. Then, without much hesitation, it ran into the woods, leaving the food behind.
Unusual behavior. It was Kakashi's shift again, and Gaara found himself curious, so he began to walk in the direction the tanuki ran off to. It was dark, but the moon was mostly full, and Gaara had always had a knack for night vision.
What was even stranger was that it seemed as though the tanuki was wanting him to follow. It would scamper off out of sight, but then wait until Gaara caught up before scampering off again. It went far, almost too far for Gaara to want to continue following, until eventually he saw further movement in the forest beyond.
Out of instinct, Gaara leapt into the tree next to him, hoping the pine needles would be enough to cover him. His instincts were correct.
There was a person in the woods.
Gaara watched as the tanuki confronted the person, growling and hissing in a manner that was unusual for the animal. It was only after a few seconds of looking when Gaara realized that the person had killed another tanuki, and had gotten halfway through skinning it before Gaara and his furry friend had arrived. Had the tanuki sensed its companion's death? It seemed...angry, angry at this person who had covered all of their identifying features with cloth and a white mask. There were slits for their eyes, but nothing else, not like Sai's mask which had markings and stripes. Nothing distinguishing on their clothes, no headband indicating a village...nothing.
But the person pushed away the hissing tanuki with a harsh kick, and suddenly in Gaara's mind the person was an Enemy.
His sand poured out from the 'scroll' on his back, slinking towards the person until it was close enough to wrap around their ankles and pull them quickly to the ground. The person struggled for a brief moment before disappearing into a puff of smoke.
A clone. Damn it all.
It would be smart to go for backup, but Gaara wasn't sure if the person knew about the existence of his comrades, and the last thing he wanted to do was lead a hostile stranger to Sakura.
The tanuki had gotten up again, and Gaara noted with glee that the animal had turned to face a certain part of the woods, fur up and still hissing angrily. Aha. His furry friend would be helpful after all. Gaara pushed himself from his hiding spot, now with a new objective in mind. Capture the enemy, figure out why a shinobi was out here in the woods alone. As he lunged forward, several kunai streaked towards him with pinpoint accuracy, deflected on time only due to the speed of his protective sand. A test throw, by the look of things, as Gaara caught sight of the shinobi turning to run once they realized their weapons were useless.
Running, Gaara realized, right towards his camp.
Better kill them quick, brat.
No, not kill. But definitely capture. Gaara sent out his sand ahead of him, lashing at the shinobi's legs to try and bring him down. He tripped the shinobi once, and before he could move in for the capture, the tanuki leapt in out of nowhere, biting down on the shinobi's wrist. Gaara heard the shinobi curse aloud, and that hesitation was all he needed to wrap his sand around the shinobi's body and restrain them.
For a moment, there was more struggling. Then, before Gaara could stop the shinobi, they pulled up their mask and shoved something into their mouth. Gaara heard choking, and saw something bubble in their mouth, and then the shinobi laid dead.
Gaara and Shukaku's thoughts resonated in one single line.
What the fuck just happened?
Gaara brought the body back to camp, dropping it on the ground next to Kakashi, who looked, if anything, even more exhausted once he caught sight of it. He put a finger to his lips before gesturing for Gaara to follow him out of sight of their companions.
"I've been expecting this." Kakashi admitted as he began to examine the body. After a moment, he forced the mouth open, pulling the tongue out so Gaara could see. Though it was swollen from death, and the effect of whatever the person had swallowed, there was a very clear series of black marks on the tongue. "Look familiar?"
"Sai has those markings." Gaara answered. "A Root agent?"
"Yes, though he'll have tried to make damn sure we can't prove it. Those markings will fade away in about an hour, now that he's dead."
"But why?" Gaara demanded. "We already have a Root agent in our midst. Why is he here? And why kill himself?"
"Because we don't actually have a Root agent in our midst." Kakashi countered. "About a month ago, Sai was ordered home. He hasn't responded to his order. As far as Root's leader is concerned, that's treason. Quite frankly, I'm amazed it took them this long to find us."
"They're here to kill Sai." Gaara deduced, frowning. "And what of Sakura and I? You?"
"No idea. But there will be more of them. Danzo isn't one to take a loss lightly. He'll try and catch us off guard a few times before he determines it's not worth the effort."
"Why haven't you told us before?" Gaara turned his frown to Kakashi. "This could mean life or death for Sakura. We needed heavier guard than just a simple night watch. I got lucky with this one, who knows how many more are out there."
"You're right. We do need to be more on our guard. But…" Kakashi sighed. "I was hoping Sai would just come out and tell us. I'm unsure why he's kept it to himself. When I confronted him...he denied it completely."
The two were silent for a moment as Kakashi began to rummage through the shinobi's things. Kunai, shuriken, some traps...but nothing more. Nothing 'damning', as Kakashi had put it.
"One more chance." Gaara decided.
"Sai gets one more chance to come clean. Before the next round of Root tries to kill him again. Otherwise, I'll tell Sakura myself."
"Ah." Kakashi gave Gaara a smile. "Well, I can't say I disapprove of that. But Gaara, just…" Kakashi hesitated. Unusual, for him. "...just, be gentle with Sai. Root is a nightmare. If anything, you probably can understand him better than most, what it's like to be viewed as something less than human."
"You say that like you know it."
"I was part of Root, once." Kakashi admitted. "...fortunately, I got some sense knocked into me before I fell in too deep. I got lucky. Not everyone gets second chances like that."
"No." Gaara admitted. "Not everyone does."
But he'd gotten a second chance. Naruto had knocked that sense into him, and now...now he was better. Not maniacal, not blood-thirsty...he had friends. He had a purpose.
Was Sai...in the same place he had been? Thinking himself hopelessly entrenched in a bloody future, unable to break free, no love, no friendship?
Sakura had reached out to him, tried to bring him into the group. In a way, she had already been doing for Sai what needed to be done. And here Gaara had been, trying to push him away out of...jealousy.
He was a selfish idiot.
Gaara buried the body. For now, Sai would be safe. Maybe he just needed time, time away from the influence of Root to realize that there were better paths, better options. And maybe, this time...maybe Gaara would try to reach out too.
As he and Kakashi made their way back to the fire, the tanuki was sitting there waiting for him, licking its paw to cover a small cut it had gotten in the scrap. As Gaara approached, it went to his side, rubbing its head against his leg in an affectionate manner.
Definitely a friend. It had just taken patience, understanding, and...a willingness to listen. The tanuki had led him to the Root shinobi. The friendship, beyond the simple goal of shared affection, had already proven worthwhile.
He'd just have to show Sai. Somehow. Someway. Friendship was worth it.