It had been days since Sakura had slept.
Initially her insomnia had started out of paranoia. After hours of running, she'd finally found herself a lush tree to spend the night in, but every single noise in the night had served to put her on edge. Maybe the branch cracking in the distance had been some nocturnal creature on the prowl, but what if it was a shinobi sent to hunt her down? What if the occasional chirping she heard from nearby crickets was actually some sort of Anbu signaling technique, letting others know that she'd been found? Even when she did feel her eyes starting to shut, they were quickly opened again by whatever strange sound the forest decided to throw at her next. She spent her first night on the run awake and with a kunai clutched in her hand.
When morning hit, she had no choice but to push herself to move forward. The closer she was to the village, the more likely she was to get caught. She'd given herself a head start, but there were certainly shinobi who would hunt without rest. She figured she still had some time; they'd most likely look in the direction of the Sound Country first, but if someone figured out the ruse, it was only a matter of time before someone with enough speed could catch up to her. She had to keep moving.
The next night she reached the edge of the forest boundary, and only wasted a couple of hours trying to sleep before realizing it was futile. Plus, the desert would be easier to navigate under the veil of night, without the hot sun beating down on her. She would travel through the night, she decided, and then find somewhere to try and sleep once daylight hit.
It was a decent enough plan in her mind, but Sakura ran into a second problem. She was nowhere near as good at navigating a desert as she thought she'd be.
When she could see the stars, navigating was easy. But the desert in Wind Country was…well, full of wind. Clouds too, those were what were holding her back the most. She couldn't navigate if she couldn't see, and she definitely could barely even keep a running pace with the wind whipping up sand into her eyes. Sakura knew there was a main road that could be followed to the Sand Village, maybe even side ones that merchants took to avoid major traffic, but that would be just what someone hunting her would expect, wouldn't it? If she took a road, she might be spotted by others, and even if they weren't Leaf Shinobi, they'd remember her, and that was just one more clue for someone else to find her. No, she couldn't take a road. She had to persevere through the desert, and that meant persevering through wind and cloud and whatever else the desert decided to throw at her. She supposed she should have been grateful that there were wind and clouds; it kept the heat off her, even if the wind seemed to cut at her skin like daggers.
A true shinobi must never show any weakness. A true shinobi must put the mission first. If she couldn't conquer a desert, how could she possibly hope to keep up with Sasuke and Naruto?
Her one consolation was that if she was having this much trouble navigating, anyone looking for her would have that much trouble finding her. The wind ensured she left behind no footprints in the sand, and she doubted anyone could sense her chakra this deep into the desert. (She certainly couldn't sense anything, though whether that was due to fatigue or genuine absence of nearby shinobi was debatable.)
It was Sakura's fourth night when she realized precisely why lack of sleep was such a burden. She'd used her Tunneling jutsu to create a cave to shelter herself through the day, but she had to constantly remove sand that built up at the entrance. Every use of her technique to clear the hole was getting harder and harder. What was worse, she wondered? Being buried alive in the desert or dying to the sun and the sands above? Even during the chuunin exams she had never felt so exhausted.
Seconds seemed to take hours to pass. Sakura's breathing echoed in her mind until it didn't feel like her own. Every movement that her eyes caught made her twitch. Was it more sand coming in? An enemy shinobi?
Day five, and Sakura was no longer certain which direction she was walking. The stars all looked the same, no matter how long she compared them to her map. She was fairly certain one of these constellations pointed the right way to…where was she going again? It was hard to focus…the Sand Village, that was where. She needed to get to the Sand…no, she was already at sand, there was sand everywhere. Village, she had to get to the village…
She felt something rest against the back of her neck, and she froze. Another hallucination? No…an enemy.
"Don't move." A voice rang out from behind her. "What are you doing out here?"
What was she doing? Sakura struggled to form words. Her vision was blurring, or was that just the wind? "Village." She managed to croak out. "I have to get to the village."
"Wait a minute, I think I recognize her..."
Sakura felt her heart freeze in her chest. Recognize? Were these Leaf shinobi? Her hand went to her hip, pulling out a kunai. "Don't." She turned, attempting to raise her blade. "Don't try to…" Her foot slipped, and she felt herself begin to fall backwards. Everything was blurred as she fell, and her grip on her kunai loosened. No, not yet, she couldn't allow herself to pass out yet. She couldn't let herself be brought back to Konoha.
Not yet…not yet…
Sakura's eyes flew open, and her hands went for another weapon. She found nothing at her hip except for a mess of blankets around her. She was on…a bed? She blinked once, twice, looking at her surroundings. Her pouches and scrolls had been laid on a table nearby, though her weapons were notably absent. The room wasn't familiar, definitely not any room she'd ever seen in Konoha before. She could hear the moans of wind outside, and the only light was that of a small candle that had been lit on the table. Not at Konoha, no, but where was she, then?
Her stomach growled, causing her to focus. She must have gotten some sort of rest, and whomever had approached her in the desert had been kind enough to find her a bed. So…not an enemy, and since she wasn't in Konoha, likely not a Leaf shinobi either. Still, she was hungry, and she needed answered. She forced herself to stand up from the bed and make her way to her pouches. She still had water at the very least, and probably some leftover jerky…
As she rummaged through her first pouch, the door to the room opened, and her questions were answered. A young woman with her blonde hair up in ponytails opened the door, a large fan slung across her back. Sakura recognized her almost immediately; this was one of the Sand shinobi that had caused them so much trouble during the chuunin exams. (And had come to the aid of her friends when they'd gone after…)
"I thought I heard something. Looks like the Konoha brat is finally up." There was a sort of condescending smirk on the woman's face. (Temari, had that been her name?) "I knew the Leaf had some dumb kids but I never thought they'd have someone stupid enough to try and walk through a sandstorm. You're lucky to be alive."
Well…it wasn't like she was wrong, but Sakura couldn't help but inwardly cringe at the bluntness of Temari's words. "So…the desert isn't normally like that?"
"You definitely caught it on a bad day. Now, what was so important that you came all the way out here on your own? Does Konoha have another crisis?"
"No." Sakura shook her head, turning to start clipping her pouches back on. "I needed to get here to meet with Gaara, and I'm sort of on a time limit. I'm sorry to intrude but it's urgent that I speak with him."
"Urgent?" Temari looked her up and down, and Sakura couldn't help but look away. It was like the kunoichi was seeing right through her. "So Konoha's not in crisis but seeing Gaara is 'urgent'. I'm going to need more to go on than that. I know we're allied with the Leaf, but we found you alone in the middle of our territory looking half dead. That's suspicious as hell no matter how you look at it."
"Yeah, I guess so." Sakura continued to look down, shuffling her feet. "I promise, I'm just here for information. You can keep my kunai if you're suspicious. Once I've talked with Gaara, I'll be leaving." That was the current plan, anyway. If Suna found out that she was now technically a missing nin, well, she wasn't sure what they'd do, but turning her in was a distinct possibility. The less time she spent here, the better. She looked up again to see Temari still examining her, but the condescension was gone, instead replaced by a look of curiosity, and then sympathy.
"Alright, Leaf brat. You look starved. We'll eat, and you'll tell me what you need. Then we'll decide what to do with you."
Sakura got the feeling she had no other choice. At the very least, there'd be food.
The inside of the building was bland, tan stone that winded around in what appeared to be endless hallways, and yet, there were very few people that passed her by as she followed Temari. If this really was the Sand Village, it was incredibly sparse.
Well…they were still recovering from a small war. How many Sand shinobi had died trying to invade Konoha? Sakura didn't want to consider it. How could their villages be allies, after all this? Was it possible that the Sand held no resentment towards the Leaf? Even if it had been orchestrated by Orochimaru, Orochimaru had been Leaf himself, once. And yet, she'd been brought her and given a bed. And they had come to help get Sasuke, back when they'd needed aid.
It was complicated. But Sakura wasn't going to let herself complain about the help, nor the peace that had somehow been achieved. Maybe it was some sort of miracle, but it was the good kind, for now.
Her thoughts shifted gears as she tried Suna food for the first time. Different spices were more common out here in the desert, and the food was spicy enough to make her mouth burn. Sakura tried not to show it. Temari already thought her a weak idiot, no doubt, and shinobi couldn't afford to show weakness. She swallowed down the food and did her best to hold back tears of pain.
"So, Gaara, huh?" Temari spoke as Sakura ate. "Not sure what you want with him after all he put you through. He's out on patrol currently but he'll probably be back in a couple of days."
"A couple days?" Sakura groaned. "That's not nearly quick enough. Maybe you can direct me so I can go meet him?"
"Yeah, because you going out alone in the desert worked out so well last time." Temari laughed. "I know you're in a hurry, but you'd be better off waiting here. The sandstorm should clear up by the end of the week, anyway. You can meet with Gaara and be on your way without losing the road again."
"Right. Losing the road." That was a good enough excuse, Sakura figured. She didn't like having to wait around, but if that was what it took, that was what it took. "Well, this my first time here. I don't want to be a burden on you, so if you direct me to an inn, I can stay there until- "
"Sure, but you still need to answer my questions. What's so urgent that you need Gaara for?"
Sakura frowned. She'd wanted to keep things mostly to herself but…this was necessary too. "I'm researching the Tailed Beasts." She started. "There's an organization called Akatsuki that is hunting them down, made up entirely of S-ranked missing nin. They've already come after my teammate once, and they took down four jounin in the process. It's only a matter of time before they come after Gaara too."
Temari's eyes widened at this. "What? How long have you known about this?"
"Not long." Sakura admitted. "It was right before the incident with…you know, when you came to help us out. I'm trying to find out more about them to help protect my teammate, but to do that I need to know more about the Tailed Beasts and why they want them. Plus, Naruto, he…well, if he understood what's inside him better, maybe he could control it better. And that goes for Gaara as well. I think we can help each other. No, we have to help each other. If an organization like Akatsuki gets ahold of the power of those monsters, I don't even want to think about what might happen."
Temari was silent after this, and Sakura took the chance to finish her meal. It was probably heavy to hear, but it was true. There was a lot more on the line here than just Naruto. Gaara and all of the others who had Tailed Beasts inside them were in danger. She hadn't even considered it before now, but if Konoha was the only village that knew about Akatsuki, then that was a huge danger itself. Akatsuki could have been going after other Jinchuuriki this whole time, maybe even succeeding. If they got even just one of the Beasts…
"I'll have to bring this up with our council." Temari finally spoke. "This sort of information changes things. If what you say is true, the Leaf will have our gratitude for the warning."
Temari still thought she was working for Konoha. Well, she supposed that would work for now. They certainly wouldn't be reporting her to Konoha if they thought she was here on official business. Sakura didn't bother correcting her.
"Well, thank you for the food." Sakura bowed her head in gratitude. "If there's anything else you want to know, I'll tell you. I'm really just here to talk with Gaara, and I can tell you all I know about Akatsuki if you want. I don't know much, but it seems like it's more than you currently have."
With that, for the first time, Temari smiled. She stood up, gesturing for Sakura to follow. "Come on, let's find you a room, Leaf brat. If you're going to be so forthcoming, it's the least I can do. You can tell me about Akatsuki on the way."
Sakura let out a sigh of relief. For now, she was safe. Whether she was destined to be caught and taken back to Konoha, or if she could continue her reconnaissance uninterrupted, either way, all she could do right now was wait.