Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 37

Sixth Tenant of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact

Any person, civilian or shinobi, from any village, has the right to join the Neutrality Project as an ambassador, or as support to the ambassadors. Any person who invokes their right to join shall face no retaliation from their home village. However, a person with a criminal record shall not be allowed to join the Project without appropriate sponsorship from both a member of their village and a member of the Project.


"He wants to talk to Shukaku?"

Sakura couldn't fault Gaara for his look of disbelief. The cranky old Bijuu wasn't friendly on the best of days, downright murderous on the worst. It was nothing short of miracle that somehow Gaara had managed to get on the tanuki's good side, and even then Sakura was sure the boy was walking the fine line between begrudging respect and another all out battle of wills between the two. And despite that, despite all of Sakura's warnings to Shibuki…

"Yes, he really wants to talk to Shukaku." Sakura insisted. "He's insisted that he doesn't want to trust our word on your relationship, or what our intentions are. He thinks Shukaku will be more honest with him."

"...is he sure what kind of honesty he's looking for? Shukaku's always been a bit…" Gaara suddenly winced, a sign Sakura had come to note meant that Shukaku had yelled something crass in Gaara's mind. "...blunt."

"He's sure." Sakura replied, giving a small sigh as she plopped down into a chair. "He won't move forward with any sort of negotiation until he does. I hate to put this on you, Gaara, but-"

"Don't." Gaara shook his head. "I'm part of this too. All it means is that I'll be able to pull my weight."

"Who said you weren't pulling your weight?"

"I've protected you. But I've stood by and let you handle negotiations until now. If I want to help you with this, I need to learn how to speak with others. It's...a skill I lack."

"Not by your choice."

"But a skill I lack nonetheless."

"...maybe so." Sakura huffed. "There's another caveat though. Shibuki doesn't want you to serve as a mediator. He has no way of knowing that you're actually conveying Shukaku's words. Supposedly he has a way of communicating with Shukaku directly, with your cooperation, and that's what worries me."

"Worries?" Sai spoke up suddenly, having been quiet until then. "Wouldn't it be a good opportunity to learn how Taki handles Bijuu?"

"That's not why we're here." Sakura argued. "And what if it involves releasing Shukaku in some way? I don't have a guarantee that Shukaku won't go on another rampage if he's given an opportunity."

"Aren't you supposed to be proving to Shibuki that you're friends with your Bijuu?"

"Yes, Sai, and that is the goddamn problem because I don't know if we really are." Sakura fumed. "So...Gaara, I know you're okay with doing this. But what does Shukaku even think about this whole ordeal anyway?"

Gaara was quiet, listening. A minute passed, and then another. Then, Gaara gave a small shrug.

"He says it...would be fun to get to terrorize someone other than me."

"Great." Sakura rolled her eyes. "Just great."

Their relationship with Taki hinged on a centuries old being of chakra who, as far as she was aware, hated the guts of every member of humanity. It hinged on whatever tentative relationship Gaara had managed to form with the beast in the few months he'd been away from Suna. At the end of the day...it was out of her hands, it was out of Gaara's hands, and until it was done, all she could do was wait.

It was another hour of sitting about in the small hut that had been designated for them before a pair of Taki shinobi came for Gaara. Sakura gave the boy a long hug before letting him go, wishing him luck, then watched as he and the shinobi made their way back into the bulk of the city. Emi left as well, trotting along after her favorite member of the party, and then it was just her, Kakashi, and Sai, for however long it took for Shibuki to get what he needed to know.

What she needed was a distraction. Onoki had told her once that her mind liked to latch onto problems and fixate until the problem was taken care of. It was why she still thought of Sasuke and Naruto, why this neutrality project kept her up at night, why the mere thought of Akatsuki could send her spiraling into a series of anxious worrying.

So what was a problem that she could solve?

There was one thing on her list, one thing that had been briefly mentioned before they'd been whisked away into Taki proper. The 'ten out of ten' secret Gaara had mentioned before, one that could threaten the safety of the party, one that most definitely involved…

Sai.

But how to approach that problem?

It was possible Kakashi knew...no, more like highly probable that Kakashi knew exactly what the secret was, but getting information out of Kakashi was notoriously harder than pulling teeth. He was already enthralled in one of his books, likely more than entertained for the next few hours…

Plus, Sakura really wanted Sai to be the one to tell her himself.

She'd learned a few interrogation techniques in her time at the shinobi academy, some meant to be more torturous, others meant to be more discrete. Kunoichi in particular were taught many techniques for swindling information out of men...and Sakura was certain that absolutely none of them would work on the Root shinobi. She certainly couldn't seduce information out of him. She wasn't even sure Sai had it in him to be attracted to someone, and if he did, he'd pushed it down into the void where the rest of his emotions had been buried. So really, all she had left were a few techniques for 'friendly banter', and then if those didn't work she was back at square one.

Well, no better time than now to start practicing her diplomatic techniques. As Gaara put it, speaking with others had become a fast requirement for her new position.

Sai was drawing, as he usually defaulted to whenever there was down time and he wasn't on watch. Sakura let herself sit down nearby, slowly scooting closer until Sai stopped and gave her a side-eye.

"Can I watch?" Sakura asked, trying her best to seem pleasant.

"Why would you want to?"

"You're a good artist." Sakura answered truthfully. "It's kind of neat to see how you can bring things to life with your brush. Well...figuratively and literally. Come to think of it, I don't think I've ever really asked about your technique."

"I would hope it is because you'd know that I have no intention of telling you anything about it."

"I don't mean tell me how it works." Sakura rolled her eyes. "Besides, even if you did tell me, I'm a horrible artist. Anything I draw would probably just trip and fall the instant I brought it to life."

"So why do you care about the technique then?"

"Maybe I'm just curious about you." Sakura let the conversation turn around. Make it about him. Give him reason to talk about himself. "Did you learn the technique from someone or did you make it? I don't really know anyone in the village who does anything like this, so I'm tempted to think it's the latter."

"...you would be correct." Sai turned back to his art, sketching as he spoke, and Sakura noticed his voice had...softened? Perhaps that was it. "When I was young, I was brought into Root. One of the first things we were taught was seal-work. Converting energy through written symbols in order to produce an effect."

"So wait, this is like a seal?" Sakura asked, skeptical. "But this is a drawing, not a symbol."

"What do you think a symbol is? It's a series of lines that convey an idea. A drawing is no different." Sai turned a page in his book, showing Sakura a blank page, before beginning to draw. First, he wrote, simply putting the word 'bird' on the page. "This symbol invokes the idea of a bird...but it's not complete. It could mean any bird, and that bird could have any purpose." Then, Sai drew, quickly sketching out the linework for what looked to be a small sparrow. "This symbol also invokes the idea of a bird, but the details are filled in quicker by your mind. You know what kind of bird. The size. The shape. Inherently, the potential speed and strength as well. Words are simple. That's why seals often require dozens of words in order to bring an intent to life."

"But your drawings only need the drawing!" Sakura let out a small gasp. "Sai that is so smart!"

"...there's more to it than that, obviously. But you grasp the idea." Sai admitted, turning back to his original drawing.

"It's a cool idea." Sakura insisted. "Root must really put a lot of value in how you think. Sealwork like that is honestly revolutionary, Sai."

Sai was quiet, and then Sakura noticed it. Hesitation. A small grimace that was so brief, she could have missed it if she'd blinked.

"...yes." Sai answered, his voice still just as passive as always. "Root considers my skills quite valuable. Hence why I should not talk about it further."

"That's fine. I was just curious." Sakura's mind had begun to move, working through what she knew in her head. Root...the secret had to do with Root.

"...Sai, doesn't Root need you in Konoha, if you're so valuable? Not that I want you to leave, but...if they need you, shouldn't you stop wasting time with me?"

Sakura noticed that Kakashi had stopped reading his book, his one eye glancing over in their direction. She was right, this did have to do with Root. Was she treading carefully enough? Would Sai come clean?

"My mission is to investigate you."

"You've been investigating me several months. What more do they need to know? I'm trying to be as open as possible to everyone, if there's something you haven't figured out yet, you just have to ask and I'll tell you."

Sai was quiet at this, too damn quiet, and then suddenly something clicked within Sakura. The answer, the reason the safety of their party might suddenly be in jeopardy.

"...Sai, how long has it been since Root asked you to come home?"

Sai's brush stopped, and his fingers twitched, gripping the handle with what almost looked like an anxious strength. When he spoke again, his voice was so quiet that Sakura almost missed it.

"A month ago."

A month. A month ago they'd still been in Iwa, she'd still been training, and Sai had chosen…

Sai had chosen to stay with her?

Sakura glanced over at Kakashi, who looked unusually solemn. Of course he'd known about it, but how long had he been keeping this secret? And why keep it a secret? Was he still trying not to worry her after all this damn time? Hadn't he learned, hadn't he seen what keeping her out of it had led to? She wouldn't have been here if others had involved her, if people hadn't kept their problems to themselves, she wouldn't have done all this if people had just talked.

She took a deep breath. This wasn't about her. This...this was about Sai right now. Sai who had chosen to disobey the organization that had essentially raised him, doing what essentially amounted to 'going rogue', all…

All to stay with her.

Sakura put a hand on Sai's shoulder, noticing how harshly he flinched from the simple touch.

"It's fine." She insisted aloud. "We take things one step at a time, alright? But we do it together."

"No." Sai shook his head. "The simple truth is that Root will kill me for what I have done, and if you get involved, they will find a way to kill you too. It's better you forget about what I've told you."

"Are you kidding me? I can't just forget. And I won't let them kill you. They can't, remember? Haven't you read the treaty?" Sakura suddenly grinned. "Any civilian or shinobi can choose to join the project without retaliation from their home village. And Konoha's signed it. If Root tries to harm you for leaving, they risk throwing the whole alliance into jeopardy. Lady Tsunade would never stand for that."

"They'll find a way." Sai repeated. "You underestimate Root."

"No." Sakura replied.

"Root underestimates me."


The Chamber of the Beast was dark and damp and covered in more symbols than Gaara had ever seen in his life.

It was here, Shibuki told him, that Taki had traditionally communicated with Choumei, the Seven-Tailed Bijuu that had lived in harmony with the village for generations. Choumei was different than the other Bijuu it in that it willing chose a human as its host, forming a sort of symbiosis to keep the village safe and bring an end to any demons that tried to cross their borders. Once it had chosen a human to reside in, however, it made communication to any beside the host incredibly difficult. A Bijuu could not risk leaving a host without killing them, once the host's body had become accustomed to the increase in chakra reserves. Thus, Taki had developed a way to share a mindspace with Bijuu and host, allowing communication between them. This chamber housed the method, and the seals on the walls brought the method to life.

"You need not worry about your seal being damaged by this technique." Shibuki assured Gaara as he led him to the center of the chamber. "I have no intention on causing unnecessary loss in life. You did not choose the life of a Jinchuuriki, and you will not suffer needlessly for it."

It was a bit of a relief. Gaara was willing to put his life on the line for Sakura...but for this treaty? He'd hesitate.

Shibuki instructed him to sit down in a particular spot before sitting down across from him. Three Taki shinobi took positions in the room, waiting for Shibuki's signal.

"We'll begin when you and Shukaku are ready."

But were they ready?

Oh, I'm ready, brat. You can tell that bastard that I-

"We're ready." Gaara spoke up, not quite wanting to hear what Shukaku wanted passed on. He'd be able to tell Shibuki himself, soon enough.

"Close your eyes and get comfortable. If you can, retreat into the mindspace that you and Shukaku share. I will meet you there."

Gaara closed his eyes and returned to the familiar landscape that was Shukaku's prison.

The tanuki looked eager, which had never been a good sign in the past.

"It's been a long time since I've directly spoken with anyone other than you or that Kyuubi brat." Shukaku admitted with a short laugh. "And that Shibuki looks like fresh meat if I've ever seen any."

"Please, Shukaku." Gaara pleaded. "The future of this shinobi alliance might hinge on how you speak with Lord Shibuki. If you really want humanity to improve, this is the first step. What you say here will-"

"Hush, brat. He's here."

Shibuki appeared in the mindscape quietly, like a wisp of smoke instantly taking form. He looked around curiously, taking in his surroundings before letting his eyes rest upon Shukaku. Gaara noticed a look of sympathy in the man's eyes.

"These chains…" Shibuki said aloud. "Lord Shukaku, it is simply deplorable how Sunagakure has treated you. On behalf of humanity, I would apologize for your treatment."

Then, Shibuki got to his knees and bowed low before the Bijuu. Briefly, this seemed to even shock Shukaku. Gaara was certain the tanuki wasn't used to this sort of treatment, especially not from anyone in Sunagakure. But the shock passed, quickly, and soon Shukaku was giggling, then laughing heartily as though Shibuki had just told the funniest joke he'd ever heard in his life.

"You would like to apologize?" Shukaku wheezed. "Do you think your apology actually means anything to me? You intrude into my host's mind demanding to speak with me and me alone, and then you have the gall to act humble? Don't toy with me." Shukaku spat sand onto the ground, a look of disgust now on his face. "If you were truly sorry, your people would have done more to advocate for my freedom. Instead, you sorry lot have wallowed in your cave, pretending to be martyrs when really you're too cowardly to do anything but preach."

Shibuki looked up, baffled at Shukaku's sudden outburst. "Lord Shukaku, our village has never had the manpower needed to confront the other villages. We would have been slaughtered if we'd attempted to free you from Suna."

"Always fighting with you humans. Always war and killing and bloodshed. There's really no teaching the lot of you." Shukaku leaned down to meet Shibuki at eye level, giving the man something that Sakura might have called a 'shit-eating grin'. "Tell me, little human...why is it that a child without even half your knowledge or experience has done more to bring your kind together than anyone who has ever lived in your village for the past hundred years?"

"Well, you mean-"

"Tell me, why is it when this child comes to you offering peace, offering a way for villages to communicate, offering you a way to spread your knowledge about my brethren and those 'demons' that plague your borders, you didn't immediately jump at the opportunity?"

"How can we trust them?" Shibuki almost gasped in outburst. "For years these shinobi have used your kind to squabble with each other. We've tried to tell them these things for years and they have not listened. Why would they listen to us now? Why should now be any different?"

"Why have you stopped trying?"

Shukaku huffed out a large gust of wind, blowing black sand around in spirals of air as he settled. "This brat of mine here had given up on humanity, once. He took my vicious words to heart and declared war against his own kind. He only felt alive when killing. More monstrous than any beast, until a simple boy from the Leaf decided not to give up, not to stand by and let my brat hurt those he cared about. That boy fought until he was bloody and broken, until he couldn't even stand. I'd never seen such determination before. Everyone else in the world had determined this brat here to be a lost cause. There was no saving him. No curing him of his monstrous madness. But the Leaf boy refused to give up. And wouldn't you know it, that damned boy got through and now this brat is an insufferable little git, only thinking about redeeming himself, only thinking about helping Sakura." Shukaku made a retching sound as he spoke. "It's enough to make me sick, seeing a human be so hopelessly kind. My stomach just isn't used to the concept. So tell me, human...do you think your kind are a lost cause? Is there no saving them from their own stupidity?"

"...no, Lord Shukaku." Shibuki bowed his head. "Your wisdom holds weight, and I...I will take it to heart."

"Then get out of here and start trying."

In less than a moment, Shibuki faded into smoke, and they were alone. Gaara let out the breath he hadn't known he'd been holding.

"Shukaku…"

"Don't dwell on it, you little shit. I'm not doing this for you." Shukaku insisted, closing his eyes and rolling onto his back.

"Then who are you doing it for?"

"...an old friend."

Gaara awoke back in the chamber with Emi sitting calmly in his lap. Shibuki was awake as well, deep in thought.

"Well, Gaara...I believe I have much to discuss with Sakura Haruno."

"Yes." Gaara agreed. "I believe you do."

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