Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 34

Third Tenant of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact

The villages of the pact will stand as one. Any threat by outside force on one village is a threat on all. Villages in the alliance will deal with hostile forces together, in order to preserve the alliance as a whole.

It was official. Judging by the landmarks and how long they'd been traveling, Sakura had officially left Earth Country and crossed the border into the stretch of land owned by Taki shinobi. The land itself wasn't a 'country', not like other places she'd been to in the past, but rather a vast forest that was guarded solely by Takigakure. If there were other towns within the border, they were too small to show up on common maps.

Very few outsiders traveled to Taki. By the sound of things, there was simply very little reason to. Taki shinobi were extremely protective of their village, and most that had attempted to invade the land in the past had been repelled by what Sakura had read to be 'extremely powerful shinobi'. Even her own map only had a crude estimate for where the location of the village was. Sakura just hoped they'd run into a patrol and be able to explain the situation before it escalated into a fight.

Iwa had been known for being fairly protective, and she'd managed to win them over, regardless of the fact that it had been due to luck and fortuitous timing. Maybe luck would keep being on their side now.

There were three things she needed to address in Taki. First and foremost was bringing up the Neutrality Pact. She had literally no idea what Taki would think of such a venture, but she'd hoped, given shinobi history, that they would look at the idea favorably. The only past treaty that was even remotely comparable in scope to what she was attempting had been made back at the founding of the villages, when Hashirama Senju had attempted to unite the five major villages and stop the widespread war. Villages like Taki had supposedly existed back then, but had been considered too small to consider in such a treaty. By including them now, Taki would be considered on equal footing with villages like Iwa and Konoha. It was one of the reasons Plains had signed onto the agreement so readily. Such an agreement was potentially groundbreaking for a small village with little continental influence.

Second, there was a Jinchuuriki in Taki. The only village outside the major five to have one. Sakura had to wonder if part of the reason they were so efficient and repelling invaders was due to the power of their Bijuu. Regardless, Gaara had done well with making friends with the Iwa Jinchuuriki, so she hoped he might be able to work his magic with the next one.

Finally, there was the matter of the Akatsuki member Kakuzu.

She really only had a name and rumors. During her time in Iwa she had investigated the man that she had seen in Plains, and all she had managed to learn was that he was a prolific bounty hunter who wore a slashed Takigakure headband. Taki was the only lead she had when it came to finding out what such a shinobi was capable of, and in turn, it was possible that Kakuzu was the most major threat to them and their Jinchuuriki, given that he no doubt had knowledge of village secrets.

Three goals. That was what she had to focus on.

Of course that was rather odd when her traveling companions were acting so damn odd.

Kakashi had always kind of acted like he had several secrets up his sleeves. She was used to his unnaturally laid-back attitude and the fact that he always seemed to know more than he let on. So really, he was the most easy to ignore amidst the strangeness.

Sai, well, he'd always been a bit strange, that much was true. Sakura had chalked it up to the nature of his upbringing under Root. But even now, as he put on his usual fake smile and attempted to join in on her small talk, Sakura couldn't help but notice that he seemed...distracted. Constantly looking left and right, up and down, as though he was expecting something to come jumping out of a tree at any minute. Paranoid, yes that was the way to describe it. Sai was acting paranoid, had been acting paranoid since the moment they'd left Iwa, and it was making Sakura paranoid. It was bad enough that she'd seen that strange plant-looking man on their way down the mountain, but now Sakura starting to look everywhere too, sending off her sensing jutsu every few minutes and even occasionally looking around for anything resembling an enemy. She didn't like being this jumpy. Sai hadn't been like this before Iwa, so what had changed? And how could she possibly breach the subject without sounding...weird?

She would have brought it up with Gaara, but the kicker was that he was acting distracted too. At first, Sakura thought it was due to him suddenly gaining a new furry companion. She liked the tanuki well enough, and she certainly wasn't going to deny the presence of a cute animal in their group. (Though she did occasionally question how on earth Gaara had gotten it to follow them.) But after a while she realized that he was starting to act somewhat paranoid too. She could almost pinpoint the moment his demeanor shifted. One night, he was normal. The next night, he barely left her side. On top of that, he was always looking at Sai, like he was expecting something to happen that simply hadn't yet.

Everyone was acting weird and Sakura was getting tired of it.

And since her companions wouldn't come out and tell her what was going on, Sakura found she only really had one way to vent.

"Boys." Sakura huffed to herself quietly as she ran her hands through the tanuki's soft fur. It was her turn to keep watch, and even with Gaara awake, she'd found the right volume to talk without him being able to hear. "I swear, they think girls like us are too fragile to handle a problem when it comes up, but they're incapable of keeping it from us either. You'd think they'd know by now it's better to talk it out. Isn't that right, Emi?"

The tanuki looked up at her with adorable brown eyes. Sakura was pretty sure it was a girl, but...well, maybe she just wanted it to be a girl. Back at Konoha, at least she'd had Ino to talk to whenever the boys had gotten rowdy. Here...well, here she just had Emi.

(She'd picked out the name. Gaara had seemed to like it well enough.)

"The stupid thing is, they're probably just trying to 'protect me' from whatever drama they've cooked up behind my back." Sakura lamented, using both her hands to cup the tanuki's fluffy cheeks. "I swear, it's like when Naruto and Sasuke started fighting, you know? Like, really fighting. They'd be all mopey around each other but they'd never talk about it or anything like that. And I think Kakashi tries to keep me out of it because he has some weird idea that I still need to be protected from the world."

Sakura sighed. And then she frowned, determination coming to her face.

"What do you think, Emi? Am I a kunoichi or not?"

Emi blinked at her, a sloppy little grin coming to her face.

"That's right." Sakura agreed.

It was time to investigate.

Sakura stood up, taking the tanuki into her arms as she began to walk away from the camp. It was time to check the perimeter, something she typically did on watch anyway. Knowing Gaara, who never slept, he would follow her on the perimeter check to make sure she was safe. This was key to her plan.

She walked until she was just barely out of hearing range of the camp. She could still see the light of the fire, and to be honest she was fairly certain that even with her gone, nobody would be able to get a jump on a Root agent and a Konoha jounin anyway. Her keeping watch was somewhat of a formality. She stopped at a large tree, looking as though she was examining it until Gaara came close enough. Then, she swiveled around, tanuki in one arm, accusatory hand pointing with the other.

"Alright, Gaara. Spill it. What the hell is going on?"

Gaara blinked, his eyes widening in surprise. "I...don't know what you mean." He answered. Stone-faced, of course. If anyone was good at hiding emotions, it was Gaara...for the most part. But Sakura had been traveling with the boy for a while, and she could see what others couldn't. The quick downward glance...he was feeling guilty. The subtle shift in his stance, a slightly defensive posture. To Sakura, he was like an open book.

"You think I haven't noticed everything?" Sakura retorted angrily. "Sai's walking around like a bunny about to sprint off if anything so much as looks at him funny. You're acting paranoid as fuck, and that means a lot coming from Mr. Ultimate Defense. And Kakashi's got that look like he knows something and doesn't want to tell me. So you're gonna tell me, right?" Sakura takes a deep breath, and then puts on her most sweetest begging face, one she practiced in front of the mirror for years for when she wanted to use it to ask Sasuke out on dates. "You're gonna tell me because you're my best friend, right?"

Gaara looked even more surprised at this, and there was something of a sheepish look on his face as he replied. "I'm friend?"

"Duh." Sakura rolled her eyes. "I mean, you left your village to come along with me. You've been with me all this time. Do you honestly think you're not best friend material at this point?"

"I mean...I don't really know how it works."

"There's not a way it works, you're a best friend or you're not. It's easy. And you're distracting me from my question." Sakura pointed a finger again. "Gaara, I need to know what's going on."

Gaara remained quiet for a moment. This time, Sakura can tell, he's thinking, maybe thinking of the best way to approach whatever's going on.

"I...can't be the one to tell you." Gaara finally admitted. "I would like to tell you, but I promised I'd give one more chance before I did."

"One more chance?" Sakura thought on this for a moment. It's...very likely Gaara's referring to Sai, unless somehow Gaara found Kakashi doing something odd.

(For a brief moment Sakura wondered if Gaara and Sai managed to peek at one of Kakashi's books. She'd looked at one of the ones she found at a bookstore once...never again. Never again.)

Sai it probably is.

"So...on a scale of one to ten, how detrimental is this secret going to be to our mission?"

"Um." Gaara thought aloud, looking uncharacteristically worried. "I...well, it's not like I won't be able to protect you. So...maybe...a one."

Sakura's eyes narrowed. "...on a scale of one to ten, how detrimental is this secret to the safety of other members of our party?"

" might be a ten."

Sakura groaned, rolling her eyes as she turned around to gently knock her head against the branch of the tree behind her. "You're telling me that you guys have been holding a ten behind my back without bothering to tell me? And you thought I wouldn't find out. Son of a bitch."

"I'm sorry…" Sakura heard Gaara's timid voice from behind her. "But if he isn't the one to tell you then he isn't going to learn."

"It's Sai, you saw how much work it took to get a freaking name out of him!"

" I still your best friend?"

Sakura turned around. Gaara looked distressed, and damn it all if she wasn't feeling sorry for him. She set down Emi so she could go put a hand on his shoulder. "Of course you're still my best friend, I'm not really mad at you. It's just...we really don't need this right now. We're in potentially hostile territory at the moment, we don't know how Taki is going to react to us coming, and the last thing we need is whatever drama Sai's dragged with him to interfere with us getting this treaty signed. If we come in bringing baggage, Taki might turn us away without a second thought."

"I dunno." A voice sounded from the tree above her. "Some of us kinda like the drama."

Sakura and Gaara both looked up. Sitting in on a branch, kicking her legs back and forth in a calm manner, was a girl about their age. She had a shock of blue hair, and wore a distinct Taki headband around her upper arm. She grinned, her orange eyes squinting somewhat as she looked down at them.


Sakura sighed.

It was going to be that kind of night, wasn't it?

The girl's name was Fuu, and that was all that Sakura could get out of her. Which was strange, because the girl couldn't seem to stop talking.

"It's been a really long time since we had visitors at all." Fuu spoke, seemingly oblivious to the hostile stares that were coming at her from the others. "Not that I blame people. The last time a group of bandits passed through, they got really close to the village, so Kegon put water shuriken straight through their brains! It was super gross!" She made a gesture with her hands, and then made a sound like something getting squished. "Sploosh! All over the rocks. I think one of them survived though because every now and then we hear a merchant mention it when we watched them skim the border."

All three of her companions were looking at Fuu with slight disbelief. Here she was, waltzing into their camp in the dead of night, and now she was sitting at their fire and chatting like it was completely natural.

"So are you going to attack us or are you going to keep us up all night?" Sai questioned.

"Yes, I think we'd all like to know the situation." Kakashi added.

"Oh, me? I felt a strange chakra so I came to investigate, that's all. Like I said, we don't usually get visitors. And we especially don't see shinobi. Actually, I don't think I've ever seen other shinobi." Fuu admitted with a frown. "Just bandits and robbers and other ilk that think our forest is their stomping ground. Are you guys planning on invading? I thought I heard Pinkie mention a treaty!"

"Pinkie…" Sakura heard Sai mutter. She had the feeling she'd just gotten a new nickname.

"My name's Sakura." She insisted, hoping to nip things in the bud. "And yes, I'm here with a treaty. It's a part of the Shinobi Neutrality Project. I'm trying to draft up a potential alliance between the Hidden Villages, so we've come to Taki in peace to see if they would be interested in joining."

"Oh! Hmm. Probably not." Fuu admitted, putting a finger to her chin as she thought. "We don't really like strangers. And you guys have tried to invade in the past, so you'll probably try to do it again."

"Well, under the treaty-"

"Besides, you don't even know why you want to ally with us!"

"Um." Sakura blinked, looking back and forth to each of her companions. "I mean, it's the same reason we want all of the villages, I would imagine. We're not prioritizing any village above any other. That's kind of the point."

"Wrong." Fuu held up a finger to Sakura, shaking it back and forth. "Wrong, wrong! You don't know it, but we're the most important village of them all. Do you want to know why?"


"Then I'll tell you!" Fuu answered with a grin. "Takigakure is the most important village in the world, and that's becaaaause…" She leaned in, almost conspiratorial-like. "We keep the rest of the world safe from the demons."

Sakura stared at Fuu for a moment, processing what she said, before looking to Gaara, to Sai, to Kakashi. For that moment, they all looked equally confused.

Then, it hit Sakura all at once.

"Tall, weird plant-looking men?"

Fuu gasped. "You've seen one? Where? That means one got across the border! Crap!" She stood up, looking around desperately for a moment before turning back to Sakura.

"Alright, Pinkie. You're coming with me. Shibuki needs to see you immediately."

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