((AN: To all you lovely readers, my fiftieth chapter is coming up, and it happens to coincide with the next big intermission chapter. I want to do something special for this chapter. I did this before with a previous intermission, but I am going to be opening up a poll so that you readers can choose the characters that you would like to see featured in the chapter! The poll will allow you to pick your top five characters, and will be open for the next week. The top five characters chosen by all my readers will feature in the chapter, so please make sure to vote if there's a POV that you would like to see!
I attempted to put the poll link here, but as FF is a bit more finicky than AO3, I ended up having to put the link on my profile instead. Please visit there for the link to the poll.
As always, thank you all so much for your supportive comments; I read and cherish every one of them.))
It was still raining when they returned to Ino's, which worked well enough for them. Sakura disguised herself as a small book, Shikamaru passed her on to Ino under the guise of 'returning it', and without much more effort Sakura was back amongst her companions and no longer under threat of discovery. They had taken four scrolls from the Uchiha compound in total, all of which Shikamaru had decided to keep for now. It would be better that way, Sakura had agreed. Shikamaru was the one orchestrating this now, and it was better if he knew all the cards he'd be playing with.
She did her best to hide her stab wound from the others, as well as the few cuts she'd received. It would probably be impossible to hide it from the boys later, but for now there was no point in making them worry more than they had that night. Sakura could have sworn she even saw relief on Sai's face when she'd materialized in the room, and if it had been bad enough a scenario to make him worry…
Well, it didn't matter now. She was back, they were safe, and once the three of them had gotten home, Sakura could allow herself some much needed sleep.
Though, of course, it was hard to sleep when there was so much to think about.
The worst part was not being able to voice her thoughts, not yet. The next time she'd be able to would be the next time they met the group at the Nara compound, and Shikamaru hadn't wanted to draw suspicion with them meeting there too frequently. It would be another week before the group met again, which meant that until then, Sakura was locked in her own thoughts.
Gaara and Sai both picked up on this, and while Sai was used to letting secrets lie, Sakura could tell it was frustrating Gaara to no end. All she could give him for hints was paying Emi some special attention and giving Gaara that promised hug once they'd returned home. It was enough, Sakura figured, to give him a small bit of relief, but she knew questions would be weighing on the boy's mind until the next week.
The next day was perhaps the most stressful. Sakura was summoned for a meeting with Tsunade in the early morning, and the last thing Sakura wanted was for the renowned medical genius to notice she was holding her arm a bit stiffly and to ask how she'd gotten so prominently injured in the two days she'd been in Konoha. She wrapped her wound as tightly as she could justify, and made a note to herself to just...move her arms as little as possible. Tsunade didn't know her mannerisms. Tsunade wasn't looking for an injury. She would be okay as long as she kept it together.
As it turned out, Sakura hadn't needed to worry. There were plenty of other distractions to keep the Hokage occupied, first and foremost being the Amekage.
Sakura recognized her immediately as the woman she'd seen on the rooftops two nights prior, though she had heard from her mother that the Ame group had supposedly only arrived yesterday. Sakura didn't linger too much on that thought; Ame and Konoha had been at war in the past, and this was perhaps the first time the two villages had interacted on peaceful terms since then. That the Amekage might want to scout out the state of the village before allowing her shinobi to enter was probably just healthy suspicion.
Seeing her in the light, Sakura had to admit that the woman really was beautiful. She'd never seen such a lovely shade of blue for hair, and the woman had decorated her hair with what looked to be an origami flower, far more intricate than anything Sakura had made in her childhood. Otherwise, the woman dressed simply, wearing a long black overcoat that was likely more for strategy than appearance; she could be hiding any manner of weapon or scroll beneath it, and most would be none the wiser. This was a woman that screamed not only elegance, but competence.
"Sakura, this is Konan, the current leader of Amegakure." Tsunade introduced them. "She came to me expressing a desire to speak with you personally."
"About the treaty, I am assuming?" Sakura gave the woman a polite bow. "I'm more than happy to answer any questions you have, but I had been planning on organizing a meeting with all the Kage prior to the start of the exams, so I wouldn't have to repeat myself as much."
"I see." Konan replied. "I would still wish to speak with you in private, just you and I, if you do not mind. Tsunade assured me she could provide a place where we would not be disturbed."
"...of course." Sakura shot a glance back to Gaara and Sai, knowing Gaara hated her going off on her own again. It seemed such scenarios were becoming inevitable. "Please lead the way."
There were a plethora of conference rooms in the building, and most were decorated with seals meant to prevent those outside from listening in. Sakura wasn't sure how well she trusted such seals; if they were Konoha made, than Konoha shinobi could learn how to maneuver around them, Root in particular. Still, it wasn't as though she was going to be discussing anything that sensitive with the Amekage. Sakura was fairly certain that Konan just didn't want them to be disturbed.
They sat, and for a while both of them were silent. Sakura watched as Konan's eyes glanced throughout the room, looking towards each wall and the ceiling. Then, Konan lifted her hand. From her sleeve, paper birds fluttered out, causing Sakura to draw a kunai in defense. The birds, however, flew straight past her, flattening into long strips against the various walls. Sakura saw seals written on each of them, and once they had all been positioned, she felt a heavy aura of chakra fill the room.
"I do not trust Konoha seals." Konan admitted aloud. "But I do trust my own. Now we may speak freely."
Paper, Sakura's mind noted. This Amekage was good with seals, but her origami creations were a jutsu all their own, something she'd never seen before. Much like Sai's art came to life, so too did Konan's. Sakura lamented briefly that Sai wasn't here to see it for himself. Maybe in the future, maybe if things ever reached peace, the two could learn from each other.
"Alright. What did you want to speak to me about?"
"Many things. When I first heard of you, I was curious, you see. Your mission, your purpose...it is familiar to me."
"You could say that in the past, you and I would have been very similar."
Konan leaned forward in her chair, now looking Sakura dead on. "How much do you know of Ame's history?" She asked. "I know you are Konoha born, so I have no doubt what you know will be peppered by propaganda…"
"Don't forget, I've also studied under the Tsuchikage." Sakura countered. "What I know is that in the aftermath of the first Shinobi War, three major countries attempted to expand their territories, and as a result ended up clashing over Ame's lands. There's...admittedly disparity on who started the war. Konoha says Iwa and Suna. Iwa says Konoha and Suna. In Ame's case...I assume it did not matter. There was war over your land, and your people suffered for it."
"Yes." Konan agreed. "It was a very...disturbing time. It did not matter to us which shinobi came from where. All outsiders treated us the same. Ame shinobi were not spared. Ame civilians were not spared. It was during this time, when I was but a child, that I was orphaned and left to die."
Sakura couldn't help but wince. Stories like those were not uncommon in the shinobi world, but that didn't make them easier to hear.
"I eventually came into the company of two others like myself, and we learned to protect each other to survive. But it was not enough. We knew it would never be enough. Three orphan children, attempting to survive a shinobi war? We needed to learn jutsu to survive. We needed a teacher. And in time, we found one. Tsunade likely does not remember it, but she was there when we did. She was there, because by chance we happened upon the Konoha Sannin in the aftermath of battle. It was then and there that we convinced the shinobi Jiraiya to be our teacher, and for two years we studied as his pupils."
Sakura couldn't help but look shocked. This woman had studied under Jiraiya? Jiraiya was here in the village...had he seen her and known? Perhaps felt pride in his old student for becoming a leader?
"Once our training was complete, my friends and I had a goal. We would stop the war. We would stop all wars. We would work for peace, not only for Amegakure, but for all shinobi villages. We founded a group, and the three of us grew in strength and numbers until one day we caught the attention of Lord Hanzo, who sent us word that he was interest in cooperating with our mission." Konan closed her eyes, taking a breath before continuing. "It was a lie, of course. We were ambushed, and all of our group were slaughtered save for myself and one other of my friends. It was then that we learned the truth of this world. There is no desire for peace. The people in it...they are selfish, and desire only their own self preservation. In our wanting of a peaceful world, my friend and I were outcasts. Strangers. And if we did not face the world the way it wanted, if we did not approach violence with strength...we would never see peace. So my friend and I raised a rebellion. We took back control of Ame from Hanzo. And in these following years we have trained and grown strong enough to defend our borders from even those countries that are considered the Five Great Countries. And now here I stand, Amekage, looking upon someone that looked as I did all those years ago."
"...so, you think I'm naive?" Sakura questioned. "For trying to make this treaty work?"
"No." Konan replied. "I think you are human. To want a peaceful world is a selfish desire, even if such a thing would benefit all. You want a world that is safe for the ones that you love, and you are aiming for it in a way that is logical. There is no need to worry if the countries are put into a position where they never need be at war again. But I have seen the worst that can come from attempting such things. You are Konoha born, and you are hope for your generation. In speaking with you now, I hope to repay my debt to Jiraiya, for giving us strength all those years ago. That is why I must insist that you temporarily put a halt to your goal of uniting the shinobi world."
"...temporarily?" Sakura frowned at this. "I can't temporarily put a stop to things, I'm already in the thick of it. I came here to Konoha at this time so I could speak with as many Kage as possible. I'd be stupid not to take advantage."
"There are already forces moving against you, Sakura. The same forces that moved against myself. Hanzo was not alone when he betrayed us. There were others who wanted my organization dead. Others who profited from war, thrived in it. Others who are watching you and I even now, looking for weaknesses and openings to tear you apart. Those others…"
"Wait." Sakura held up a hand. It couldn't be. It couldn't be that things were this involved, all this time, in so many places… "Please, Lady Konan...please don't tell me this has to do with Danzo Shimura."
This time, it was Konan who looked surprised. Then, suddenly, a small smile grew on her face. "Ah. So...you are already aware."
"Crap…" Sakura let herself moan. "I could write a book on the number of conspiracies this man's been named in. I don't have room for another one. But...wait, wait, do you have proof?"
"Testimonies of dead men." Konan admitted. "Nothing that would be of use to you. But that you already know of how dangerous that man is gives me a small bit of hope. It is he who persuaded Hanzo to turn against us. He who indirectly led to the death of people that I cherished."
"Then I think you and I are going to get along just fine." Sakura replied. "Danzo has many things he needs to answer for."
"He has already approached me. He, too, does not remember my involvement in Ame's history, or perhaps did not know who I was at the time. He desired my alliance. He claimed that Konoha had grown weak, and if my people aided him in 'Konoha's resurrection', we could stand to benefit. He offered us land. Offered us trade. I have no doubt he will be extending that offer to every Kage that has not yet signed your treaty."
That meant Suna, Kusa, Tani...three other villages that had potential to be turned against her treaty. Shikamaru had hinted that Danzo was moving against her, but this wasn't just about her. Danzo was planning a goddamned civil war.
"You...haven't accepted his offer."
"I will not work with that man."
"But that doesn't imply that you are willing to work with me, either."
"No, it does not." Konan stood up. "But if I am here for anything, Sakura, I am here to see what it is you offer this world. You can consider it your one and only chance to catch my attention."
Konan made her way to the wall, reaching out for her paper seals. Sakura spoke up before she could pull it down.
"Testify for me."
Konan turned to face her. Sakura could feel her heart pounding in her chest. It was...it was something, and she had to try for it.
"Testify for your people. I'm doing everything I can to bring Danzo down, but if you testify for me that Danzo interfered in your village and instigated unnecessary death, your words will have weight. You could be the final piece we need. Please, Lady Konan, I'm begging you to testify!"
There was a pause. Then, Konan pulled down her paper, going from wall to wall to retrieve her seals before making her way to the door.
"It was...pleasant speaking with you, Sakura Haruno."
She left, and once again Sakura was left alone with her thoughts.
It was still raining gently as Sakura left the building. A small part of her wondered if the rain was tied to Konan. It was said to always be raining in Amegakure, and ever since the Ame contingent arrived, it had rained almost nonstop.
It was Naruto who escorted them from the Hokage's office, under the stated guise of 'practising being a good host'. Tsunade had seen right through it, Sakura was sure, but she also knew Tsunade was kind enough to the boy to allow him some time to spend with his friends. Sakura was admittedly grateful to have Naruto around as a distraction. He brought a smile to Gaara's face, and even though he and Sai bickered near constantly, Sakura got the feeling that the two were growing on each other.
Feeling hungry, Sakura offered to take the three of them to Ichiraku, and Naruto jumped at the opportunity. It was a short walk to the quaint little stand, and from there Sakura got to see the familiar image of Naruto stuffing himself with bowl after bowl of his favorite.
"Are you nervous about the exams?" Sakura asked him once he'd slowed down. "I mean, the last time the exams happened, there was...a lot of other stuff."
(Next to her, she noticed a somewhat guilty look pass over Gaara's face.)
"Well, it's not gonna be like last time, is it?" Naruto pointed out. "I'm way stronger than I was then, and Ino and Chouji and I have been practising for weeks now. We're gonna be the strongest team there, you better believe it. And especially with you cheering me on, you know? If you guys are watching me, there's no amount of butt I won't be able to kick!"
"You know I'll be cheering you on." Sakura patted Naruto's back. "But I have to do it quietly. I'm not supposed to be showing favoritism towards anyone in any village."
"Quiet's fine. I know you'll still be rooting for me." Naruto replied with a grin. "I have a ton of cool new moves to show off. But...you still owe me a spar, you know! You promised in your letter, don't think I've forgotten."
"How about after you've gotten your chuunin vest?" Sakura offered. "That way I'll get to be surprised by your cool new moves when I'm watching the exams."
"I guess." Naruto pouted. "Alright, but you can't put it off after that, okay? After I've kicked everyone's butt at the exams, you better not hold back on me."
"You know I won't, Naruto."
Naruto kept up a smile for a little while longer, but eventually Sakura saw a hint of sadness in his eyes. The boy turned back to his ramen, poking around at the meat with his chopsticks.
"Do you think he's gotten stronger too, Sakura?"
He didn't have to say it. Sakura knew he was thinking about Sasuke. "Definitely." She answered honestly. "Under Orochimaru, he'd have to be getting stronger."
"Strong enough to beat Orochimaru?"
"...I don't know."
"You're going to have to go that way eventually, aren't you Sakura? For that treaty. So...so you'll be able to check on him, right? If Orochimaru lets you in."
"That's a lot of big 'if's, Naruto." Sakura admitted with a sigh. "Trust me, I want to be able to see how Sasuke's doing, but Orochimaru knows I'm his old teammate. If I show any sign of trying to take Sasuke away from him, he'll probably try to kill me. And if he doesn't try to kill me, that'll pretty much destroy any chance I have of getting Otogakure on the treaty…"
"And why should we let them join the treaty?" Naruto suddenly argued. "They attacked us! Orochimaru killed the Old Man!"
"And we've warred with Iwa and Suna in the past." Sakura countered. "We've killed their shinobi, they've killed ours. This isn't about past grudges. It's about what's best for everyone."
"There's no way Orochimaru is ever going to join."
"Then I'll have tried. That's all I can do, Naruto, and you know I have to try. Even if all I get out of it is just seeing that Sasuke is okay, I have to try to talk with Orochimaru about the pact."
Naruto huffed, shoving a particularly large piece of meat into his mouth. Sakura was amused to see that his eating habits hadn't much improved since she'd left.
"Sakura, I...I don't think Sasuke is ever going to come home."
It was the last thing Sakura expected to hear out of Naruto's mouth. And she didn't want to agree with him, Sasuke meant just as much to Naruto as he had to her, maybe even more at this point. Sakura didn't feel that sinking, dreadful feeling when she thought of Sasuke anymore, but Naruto, at the mere mention of the name, had blown up as he always had.
"But there's somewhere else he could go to be safe. Someone else he could go to. He could go with you, Sakura, don't you think? You're trying to bring peace, but you're also trying to warn everyone about Akatsuki. His brother is in Akatsuki. You could help him kill his brother, and then he could stay with you and be an ambassador. You'll ask him, won't you? You've gotta ask him!"
"Alright, alright, I'll ask him!" Sakura protested. "You don't have to tell me twice. I'll need more ambassadors anyway, if he's willing to join then you know he'll be welcome." But Sakura could almost feel in her gut what Sasuke would tell her if she'd dared ask. The Sasuke she saw last had only cared about one thing, one goal. Sakura had gotten stronger in her pursuit of peace, but would Sasuke see that?
Still, with the way Naruto was looking at her, pleading...she couldn't disappoint her old teammate. Her old friend.
"I'll ask him." She promised, putting a hand on his shoulder. "No matter what, I'll make sure he knows he has options. So don't worry about him, alright? You have exams to worry about."
"...yeah." Naruto agreed after a moment, nodding. "Yeah, I..I've got exams."
Days passed. Sakura began work on her speech, what she'd use to try and persuade the visiting Kages once she could gather them for a meeting. She knew now, thanks to Konan, that she was competing with Danzo for these villages' allegiance, and if she didn't sway enough of them, it could lead to another war. Sakura longed to be able to tell Tsunade about the risk, but the more she admitted, the more questions would be asked. Instead, she used her connection to Naruto to her advantage, giving Naruto advice on village security that he could in turn present to Tsunade as 'his idea'. It served to gain him some favor with his sensei, and helped put Sakura's mind at ease. If it did came to some sort of scrap, Konoha would already be far more prepared. The medical corps had been bolstered under Tsunade's rule, and their civilian evacuation protocols updated. Plus, Sakura knew for sure that there would be three villages fighting on her behalf. There was no way Onoki would turn on her, not after helping spearhead the project. Plains more than owed her a favor. And Waterfall wasn't in this for power or land. She doubted Danzo would be able to sway Shibuki, not when it had taken Shukaku to sway him before.
She knew nothing of the Grass and River villages, but Sakura did know Suna. They resented her for 'stealing' their Jinchuuriki, and Sakura had no doubt that they would be the hardest to sway to her cause. All Sakura could hope was that she had the right words to make them realize that she hadn't stolen their Jinchuuriki, their Jinchuuriki had willingly left, and was now working for their sake as much as everyone else's. She wasn't sure who the new Kazekage was, but whoever it was, Sakura couldn't help but worry. Suna was one of the Great villages, and if Danzo ensured an alliance, that would be an enemy to be fearful of.
If Danzo could sway Grass and River to his cause as well, the scales, at least, would be perfectly balanced. One Great village, two smaller villages, and half of Konoha on each side. Sakura knew that Konan wouldn't stand with Danzo, but she might choose simply to not pick a side. But, if Sakura managed to get just one of the three villages on her side, (or in a perfect world, all three), then the scales would tip in their favor, and Danzo would be less likely to risk war. She had to move quickly and decisively to prevent bloodshed, all without letting any side know that she'd caught onto the game.
Shikamaru had likely already put much of this together, but Sakura had yet to figure out his final cryptic hint. Danzo, or someone he'd swayed, was going to ask her to do something, and Shikamaru wanted her to go through with it. She didn't have a clue what it was Danzo could want from her, or why Shikamaru would want it to, but the thoughts weighed heavy on her mind as the chuunin exams drew closer and closer.
She spent her days training, mostly with Lee and his team. There was nothing wrong with getting herself in shape, in case the worst happened, and now that she was physically present, that meant Lee could show her some of his more advanced physical training. That alone was enough to keep her mind focused. While she ran, while she punched and kicked, while she did anything physical it gave her time to think about her speech and the days to come.
It was during her second week in Konoha when the other villages began to arrive. It was Suna that reached them first, and like many others in the village, Sakura made her way to the front gate to great the group as they arrived. It was the first time they would be seeing the new Kazekage, and Sakura wanted to see firsthand who one of her future opponents would be.
Life didn't like to make itself easy for her. Sakura knew she'd gotten lucky in the past, but now it seemed her luck had finally begun to turn around.
How else would it have come to pass that Gaara's sister was given the title Kazekage?
Temari had been a scary girl even when Sakura had first seen her a year ago. But that was nothing compared to how Temari looked at her and Gaara now, sending off enough loathing and killing intent to make her shiver. There was no way she was going to be able to persuade Temari, not when things were oh so personal for her. Gaara was her brother and the village Jinchuuriki. Temari was the one who had put her trust in Sakura, and Sakura had broken that trust.
"We're fucked." Sakura whispered to her companions.
"We're doomed." Gaara agreed.
"Glad to know the two of you finally agree with me." Sai added, his fake smile contrasting to their downtrodden faces.
Sakura couldn't even find the energy to quip back. As far as she saw it now, Suna was in Danzo's hands. If she couldn't sway Grass and River to her way of thinking, war was inevitable.
Shikamaru...I hope you know what you're doing.