Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 62

At first Sakura heard voices, echoes around her, bits and pieces as she clung to the edge of consciousness tooth and nail. Everything hurt, a deep aching hurt that she'd never felt before in her life. Not even chakra drain had hurt this badly. But despite the hurt, the voices were somehow just as clear.

"You promise there's an exit this way?"

"Danzo wouldn't have put himself somewhere he could not have escaped from."

"And how do we know for sure the bastard's dead?"

"My seal is gone."

Sakura felt warmth around her, warm arms gently holding her close. There was a rush of air around her, a gentle caress compared to the throbbing pain, but the pain was starting to fade to background noise now. Easy to ignore in favor of other things.

She let herself drift away from her own thoughts, from the voices, focusing on that warmth. She could have sworn she heard a heartbeat somewhere...maybe her own? No, it was...too steady to be a heartbeat, it was more a rhythmic thumping that she knew she'd heard somewhere before, but she couldn't quite put her finger on where. The thumping was important. The thumping was…

The thumping was...

She saw Konoha, a strange, distorted version of it that seemed to have a red film plastered over it haphazardly, and her lungs burned from having held air within them for so long, and she could walk on her own, damn it all, she didn't know why Gai always insisted upon trying to carry her. What was more important now was finding Sakura, but the way that Ogano had suddenly woken, as if released from a dream, had made him wonder if maybe she'd gotten Danzo after all…

But she was Sakura, wasn't she?

And there was thumping, thumping, thumping.

The world turned even darker red and blurred to the point of difficulty, but even so Sakura could see black flames licking at a small pile of ash and she felt equal parts vindictive and lost, what did it mean now? What had any of it meant?

He'd promised, he'd promised, he'd promised.

And the world thump, thump, thumped behind her ears.

She saw light at the end of a tunnel, and she looked over to see (Brainless) Naruto carrying (Blondie) Ino piggyback, and she knew Sakura would be happy that the two were unscathed.

(But she was Sakura)

And she looked behind to see Gaara carrying…

(How could she be there when she was here?)

And the thumping stopped.

And Sakura woke with a desperate gasp, clawing at Gaara's shoulder as she was thrust back into consciousness, and at first she was overcome with such a violent vertigo that she almost heaved onto her friend. The group stopped as she came to, and Gaara hastily set her onto the ground.

"Sakura, it's okay, we're safe."

"I was...Sai was…" Sakura tried to pull together thoughts, looking back and forth between her comrades as she tried to figure out how she'd somehow been running with them moments ago, only to be with Gaara now. She remembered fighting Danzo, she remembered burning Danzo, she remembered Sai being dead but he was…

He was here.

Sakura forced herself to take a breath, the initial panic working its way out of her body and replacing itself with an almost agonizing relief. As Sai knelt down to check on her she let herself throw her arms around him. "You were dead." She whispered. "You were…"

Sai said something in turn, probably something cheeky, but Sakura just pulled him in tightly and for a moment refused to let go.

The aftermath of the battle was something of a blur. She felt shaky as she walked, and every now and then her mind would flash back to the pain and the thumping, and even though she didn't want to worry her companions she occasionally had to stop and just let the experience pass over her.

Kakashi had fretted over her upon finding her in a way that was surprisingly endearing, despite the fact that he looked about as dead on his feet as she did. It was from him that she eventually learned some of the more important details: the civilians had been successfully evacuated prior to the skirmish, thanks to his friend Tenzo, and though there were shinobi casualties, the quick mobilization of the Kage had prevented too much bloodshed. Not a perfect end to a civil war, but not a bad one either.

Still, that there were any casualties at all

Sakura hadn't really believed they could take down Danzo peacefully, but perhaps as an ambassador she'd hoped.

Managing the aftermath was the job of the Kage, so after Sakura had confirmed that the skirmish was well and truly over, she joined her companions in making their way to the Nara compound, where each of the Konoha rookies, plus one very exhausted looking Team Gai and one very chipper looking Fuu, had gathered under similar mindset.

They'd done it. Somehow, despite everything, they'd won.

"Can't believe the mother fucker tried to bring a cave down on us." Kiba was growling to anyone who'd listen. "All his talk of 'the best of Konoha this' and 'for the good of the village that' and he was really ready to just kill a bunch of clan heirs for daring to call him out."

"Wait so...who was Danzo again?" Fuu asked, the most confused of the bunch. "I'd just thought everyone had gone crazy all the sudden. The elders always said the other villages would fight over nothing."

"So just up and decided to join in?"

"Hinata was in danger!"

The banter only grew louder as Naruto and Ino joined in, each of them more than willing to complain about 'Danzo's bullshit eye-arm', which reminded Sakura of a very important question: where had Danzo's arm gone? Had it been destroyed along with the rest of his body?

"No." Sai informed her as they sat. "Naruto actually had the foresight to grab the thing while we were fussing over you. He might not be as brainless as I thought." He reached into his back pouch and pulled out a small sealing scroll, handing it to Sakura. "To be honest, I'm not quite sure what to do with it."

"The eyes deserve some sort of burial, but…" Sakura looked forlornly in the distance, towards the Uchiha compound. "I don't really know Uchiha customs. And someone could just dig them up again if we're not careful."

"Well, eyes tend to rot fairly quickly…though I suppose they hadn't rotted away in that arm."

"That arm." Sakura frowned. "It's got a weird chakra. And when it just turned into a tree like that, I couldn't believe it. What do you think it's made of?"

"I might know, but I won't say it here. My Root seal might be gone but the village might still kill me." Sai shrugged. "Considering we've survived to continue our journey as ambassadors, I should probably try not to make Konoha hate me."

"'re staying with us?"

"Of course. Why wouldn't I?" Sai blinked. "Don't tell me you've become brainless?"

"N-no, I just…" Sakura flushed, looking away. "Well, now that Root's going to be disbanded, I could probably convince Tsunade to take you back, and you wouldn't have to worry about Danzo trying to take your life. You don' don't have to come with."

"You have become brainless."

Sakura flinched as Sai suddenly reached out to gently rap at her forehead with his knuckles, much in the same way Sakura would often get him and Naruto when they argued.

"Don't be stupid, Fisticuffs. We're a team."

And maybe Sakura had known it before, but hearing it for sure now, really knowing that it was true, it brought a warmth to her that finally put her mind at ease. She smiled, reaching out to take Sai's hand, and then reaching to take Gaara's with her other.

For a moment, for even just a little while, with her childhood friends around her and her team at her side, Sakura was home.

"I won't lie to you, Princess. This is a damned mess."

Onoki was ever the blunt one, and Sakura couldn't help but smile fondly as her mentor paced back and forth in the meeting room. There was a straight-forwardness to Earth Country folk that she'd missed.

"I know it's a damned mess, it's my fucking village." Tsunade grumbled. In front of her, the Kusakage and Tanikage were tied up and sealed with chakra restraints, as well as several of the Suna nobles. Temari was unbound, but only because she had turned at the last minute and refused to fight against Konoha. There were several bound members of Root as well, the 'upper management' now that Danzo had been taken care of.

"No one said pulling 'roots' was easy." Shibuki offered kindly. "If it didn't happen now, it would have destroyed you from the inside or gotten far uglier to deal with in the future."

"We've been through two minor wars in two years, one of which was a civil war. If not for the actions of children, Konoha might have been lost to Danzo. And now we face Kumo and Kiri, who are going to hear of this and-"

"And what?" Onoki challenged. "Face four united villages in combat?"

"I'm amazed you'd want to stay in this treatise after all of this." Tsunade blinked in shock.

"Of course I will, I helped draft the damned thing. And considering what Danzo managed to pull on these two idiots…" Onoki gave Ogano a small kick, and Sakura had to suppress a snort. "...I daresay nobody smart is going to hold what he's done against you. For all we know he turned his Sharingan on you at some point."

"The problem, Onoki-sempai, is that most people will not accept that excuse." Sakura offered. "I've seen a bit of it already. Clan heads are searching through Root agents and finding lost members. Shinobi are wondering if their children really died in combat or were just recruited. The majority of the Konoha is questioning...well, not just Tsunade, but all the previous Kage for allowing Danzo to move about unchecked. The Third, the Fourth…Danzo has existed under all their reigns."

"I've heard some of the civilians claiming that the current system isn't good enough." Tsunade groaned. "They're questioning the goddamned system that's been in place since my grandfather, and they're right. Hiruzen's sentimental mistakes nearly cost us the village. Danzo cost us an entire clan."

"And now all the Kage will be forced to question their own subordinates and what goes on beneath their notice." The Plains leader, Satomi, spoke solemnly. "While shinobi will now question whether their own leaders are in their right minds. We don't know the extent of Danzo's jutsu and we don't know how under those effects these people still are."

"Well, that's just proof of why we need the ambassadors, isn't it?" Sai offered. "After all, it was due to Sakura's determination that we were able to address this situation."

"And Shikamaru's planning." Sakura pointed out. "It was a joint effort. I can't possibly hope to understand the nuances of every village like I understand this one. I'm going to need people on the inside to assist me if I come across a situation like this again. Shikamaru was able to pull together all that evidence because he was here and had help. Ambassadors are not always going to be in the village, so-" She froze, letting her thoughts run. That was it, that was the key right there! " they need help."

She clapped her hands together, and at the same time she saw sparks of understanding in the Kages' eyes.

"You're talking about an investigative task force, local to the village, to aid the ambassadors with understanding local situations and how best to handle them." Tsunade offered. "A group who serve both their Kage and the ambassadors in keeping the peace. Shinobi who are loyal to the village but willing to look into the village's faults and improve them."

"You said before that your biggest concern was that the ambassadors wouldn't be in every village all the time to maintain the tenets of the treaty." Onoki pointed out. "A handpicked group that can help do that for you, however, and not have to leave the village proper…"

"It would have to be people I could trust to keep an eye on the village." Sakura added. "I might have to come up with some sort of testing system, or maybe in person interviews. They could give us monthly reports, let us know if a village directly needs ambassador influence…"

"Someone that any village member could go to with concerns. And if the concerns are legitimate, that could lead to an ambassador summon to handle the problem."

"And…" Tsunade got a wicked grin. "I know just who would work for my village."

Sakura blanched when she realized just how violently Shikamaru was going to kill her for this.

It was only a start, and the idea would need ironing out. But having villagers be able to report to her directly…

"It could be civilians too." Sakura thought aloud. "Doesn't have to just be shinobi. In fact, civilians might even be more trustworthy, since they're not necessarily directly tied military activity."

"But civilians don't know the first thing about shinobi life. They can't break out of genjutsu or keep watch on a shinobi moving at five times their speed."

"A bold assumption." Surprisingly, it was Shibuki that spoke up. "Taki civilians are more than capable of keeping tabs on shinobi. The civilian education program includes basic self defense. Doesn't yours?"

The other Kage quieted down at that, and while Sakura was more than ready to get into discussing the merits of civilian influence on shinobi politics, there technically was a more pressing matter at hand.

"Before we get too deep into this…" Sakura looked towards the captives in the center of the room. "We have war prisoners."

"Correct." Onoki smirked. "Some west-side rats need to be dealt with. And Konoha has some dissidents to discipline."

"You'll leave Root to me." Tsunade insisted. "But as for Suna, Kusa, and Tani…"

"I might have been under Danzo's influence before, but I won't make a stupid choice now." Takeshi, the Tanikage, suddenly joined in the conversation. "Resisting your demands now would mean my life and the disruption of my village. We took enough risks today." He looked to Sakura, determined. "I know it will be difficult to trust us, but I ask you allow Tani to sign onto your treaty now. All I want is to take my shinobi home and tend to our wounded."

"Coward." Ogano spat from his seat next to him. "Danzo may have been a manipulative bastard but he had a point. This treaty won't last. Iwa and Konoha look friendly now, but one of them looks at the other funny and suddenly Grass and River are in the middle of another Shinobi World War again."

"You're going to be the only damned village that hasn't signed on this side of the country at this rate." Takeshi countered. "If anything you should be doing it for the economic benefit. The other villages won't trade with River now if you aren't signed on."

"My village is self-sustainable!"

"So you'll refuse, then, Lord Ogano?" Sakura confirmed, raising an eyebrow. "If so, your fate will be left at the hands of the allied leaders, who will vote on how best to deal with you. I will not stop them if they vote for your execution."

"...bah." Ogano frowned. "I hadn't said I wouldn't sign the damn thing. Just that it wouldn't last. I'll take my life and the illusion of peace while it lasts."

Sakura nodded, then turned to Temari. "And Suna?"

"Suna was supposed to be an ally of Konoha." Temari replied. "That we have been manipulated twice against is as much my shame as it is on the elders of my village."

"Some of that shame may be thrust towards Danzo."

"I will carry the burden nonetheless. I ordered the death of brother." She looked towards Gaara, the picture of shame and guilt. "My brother whom was driven from our village due to our treatment of him, of which I played a part. That Suna has survived to have a chance to learn from our mistakes is a blessing. I will sign your treaty and I will discipline my people myself. And…" Temari looked more determined now. "Suna assist Konoha in fixing the damages caused by our invasion. Our shinobi will remain here at your service, Lady Tsunade."

Reparations. It was a decent offer, and Sakura saw a bit of relief pass over Gaara's face. If not for Temari's change of heart, Suna might have fared far worse. Whatever Shikamaru had done to convince her, it had been for the better.

"You're a bit young for a Kage." Onoki commented with a chuckle. "You need to learn to grow a bit of backbone. If you'd been this bold before-"

"Danzo would have brainwashed her with his Sharingan and we'd be even worse off." Sakura pointed out. "I cannot hold any of these villages accountable now knowing what he was capable of. Danzo is dead. Konoha stands. And we now have three new villages agreeing to the neutrality pact. I would suggest keeping these villages under strict surveillance until they leave Konoha's borders, but otherwise my verdict is that they have suffered enough under Danzo's hands. I will not pursue further action unless the other villages insist upon it.

There were no objections, and with that Sakura allowed herself a breath of relief. She'd been dreading the meeting, but it appeared as though the captured Kage had begun to see some sort of reason, even if Ogano was still every bit the shit he was while Danzo had been controlling him.

That just left one village for her to convince that was still within Konoha's borders. A certain Amekage hadn't shown up to this meeting, and Sakura felt a nervous pit in her stomach as she considered why.

Konan had stayed to help protect the city. Where was she now?

As the Kage meeting wound down, Sakura excused herself to attempt to answer those questions, Gaara and Sai leaving with her. They meandered across the rooftops, keeping an eye out for a shock of blue hair or the twinkle of an Ame headband.

They found the Ame shinobi at the gates, and they were not alone. Sakura paused as she caught sight of Jiraiya speaking with Konan, in a somewhat familiar manner.

"Big old Amekage now, Konan? I wouldn't have guessed it of you."

"I could say you taught me well."

"Yeah...maybe not well enough." Jiraiya rubbed the back of his neck, uncomfortable. "I heard what happened to the Ame rebels, you know. I'd wanted to go see if any of you had survived but…"

"Hanzo would not have allowed you across our borders very easily."

"No, he wouldn't have." Jiraiya hesitated before offering Konan a smile. "But I can't say Ame's new leader doesn't bring a smile to my face. You've grown into a hell of a woman, Konan."

Sakura held back, not wanting to intrude on a moment between master and student, but it was Konan who looked towards her and beckoned her over.

"I knew you'd seek me out." Konan told her. "You want to know why I didn't meet with the rest of the Kage."

"Yeah." Sakura nodded. "And I still haven't heard about Ame's stance on my treaty."

Konan closed her eyes, and her smile was somewhat melancholy.

"I cannot sign it, Sakura Haruno."

"You can't?" Sakura allowed herself an outburst. "But I would have thought-"

"You have given me a chance to enact revenge on one who has wronged me." Konan continued. "But you know little of my country. Little of the people there, little of how things work. You have been to Iwa, to Suna, to Konoha, to Taki...and you no doubt elbowed Tani and Kusa in, but they have no choice. They cannot afford to say no after losing their invasion so thoroughly. Ame, on the other hand, has no such obligation. Ame has been a middle ground for war for decades. We have been trampled upon by other villages. Beaten down. Why would we ally with those who have thought us beneath them for so long?"

"" Sakura struggled to think of an answer. "I can ensure they won't again-"

"Look me in the eyes, Sakura, and tell me that you think my caution is unwarranted."

Sakura couldn't. Ame's caution was logical.

"Will you at least think on it?" Sakura asked. "Maybe if I gave you time to see what the villages are like under the treaty? If Ame sees that long-term peace can be a reality, that would be a good argument for my cause, wouldn't it?"

"...yes, it would." Konan agreed with a nod. "I cannot guarantee that my people will accept this. But I can guarantee that I will speak highly of you. Perhaps...perhaps with time, you will show them. If not, then Ame has lost nothing."

It was better than a hard no. Sakura had allowed herself to hope, but realistically, Konan was right. She didn't know much about Ame, other than a brief interaction with their Kage and three of their genin. Konan seemed reasonable enough that Sakura hoped they wouldn't be actively antagonistic towards her allied countries, so being allowed time to convince them wasn't likely to end badly. And if she used that time wisely, got other countries like Kumo and Kiri to sign on...eventually Ame would have to join them.

She held out a hand to Konan. "I understand. I appreciate that you were willing to hear me out nonetheless, and I would like to thank each of you for your assistance here in Konoha." She made sure to shoot a grateful smile to the three genin nearby. "Your team here are most certainly chuunin material, if my recommendation means anything."

To her surprise, Konan chuckled. "Perhaps it will." She replied. She reached out towards Sakura, but instead of taking her hand in a handshake, she put one hand beneath Sakura's to hold it steady, and held the other just above it. A long piece of paper floated from Konan's sleeve and folded itself into a small paper crane. "Keep this." She told Sakura. "Consider it an Angel's blessing."

Sakura held the crane gently in her hand, thanking Konan as the Ame shinobi turned to leave. Jiraiya came to stand next to her, and they both watched until the shinobi were long out of view.

"Did she tell you much?" Jiraiya finally asked. "About her companions? The ones she lost in the rebellion."

"No." Sakura shook her head. "And I didn't want to pry, I suppose."

"I see." Jiraiya was quiet a moment longer before reaching out to gently ruffle her hair. Sakura let out a bit of an undignified squeak at the gesture. "Don't worry about it, then. You've done a lot of good for Konoha, kid. You should be taking a break. Leave the world to the adults for a bit."

"Because the adults were doing so good." Sakura stuck out her tongue. "There's too much to do, still. I already promised Tsunade I'd help direct some of the damage control, and there's still the matter of discussing Akatsuki with everyone-"

"I mean it, Sakura. Take a break, or I'll have Naruto make you. Don't get burned out. Besides, don't you want to check on your parents?"

"I already did, thank you very much. And speaking of." Sakura put her hands on her hips, trying her best to look intimidating. It was hard when addressing Jiraiya; he had at least a foot on her, and that was before taking his tall sandals into account. "When are you going to tell Naruto about his parents?"

She saw Jiraiya blanch at this, and to his credit, he looked guilty at the mention. "It was the Third who insisted on secrecy." Jiraiya explained. "I'd always thought it was silly, but Hiruzen thought if word got out that Naruto was Minato's kid…"

"I'm amazed it hasn't already! He's the spitting image." Sakura protested. "Plus, it can't have been much of a secret that the Fourth was smitten with Kushina Uzumaki. If the Third was so intent on keeping secrets, shouldn't he have changed Naruto's surname?"

"...yeah, you make a good point." Jiraiya sighed. "I'd actually planned on telling him, at the end of our training journey, but then he had to run back here and start training under Tsunade too. I decided then that I'd wait and see if he made chuunin and then tell him. But...maybe I've just been putting it off."

"Please don't let your nostalgia get in the way." Sakura pleaded. "He needs to know. If you tell him...I'll take a break."

"Making deals now?" Jiraiya smirked, ruffling her hair again. "I guess you're suited to be an ambassador after all. Alright. I'll tell him first chance we get alone."

Sakura would make sure he kept that promise, but for now, Jiraiya was right. She was tired, more tired than she cared to admit after all the work that had gone into taking Danzo down. And even with Root taken care of, she now had more questions than she'd started with. How had she healed Sai? Who was the masked man who had attacked them in the Uchiha compound?

Most importantly...what now?

For the first time in weeks, Sakura settled into her bedroom and didn't worry about the lives of any of her comrades.

She'd already allowed her parents to dote on her for an evening, both sides equally grateful that the other was unharmed. She and her father had worked together to try and recreate an Iwa stew recipe that Sakura had remembered, and while certain Iwa herbs weren't available in Konoha, she was able to find substitutes that made do. The evening was a relaxing affair, even though her father insisted she regale them with everything that had been going on behind their backs since Sakura had arrived home, and once they had all gotten full bellies from stew, Sakura let herself be dragged upstairs by the boys.

It was then that it truly sunk in that Danzo was dead. Each of them simultaneously slumped down onto the floor, and Sakura couldn't help but laugh at the scene.

"Do you think the Kage do this too?" She asked allowed. "After a long battle for their country ends, they come home and throw themselves on the floor?"

"My father would shut himself in his room after a long day." Gaara answered. "But I find it hard to picture him throwing himself to the floor. He wasn't really...emotional."

"Tsunade though." Sakura giggled. "Tsunade would. She'd get a bottle of saké and flop, I guarantee it. And Onoki too, maybe before his back got so bad. Maybe we should make it a tradition. The celebratory flop."

And then Sakura had an idea. She scrambled to her feet, running to her closet and pulling out spare blankets and pillows. It was something she hadn't done since she and Ino were younger, and maybe they were technically a bit old for it now, but Gaara and Sai hadn't gotten real childhoods and celebrating the end of Danzo was more than worth letting themselves act a little childish. "Help me set up!" She told the others.

"What are we setting up?" Gaara asked, though he dutifully took a blanket and began to spread it out.

"Sleepover time." Sakura grinned. "We all pile on the floor and play silly games and tell scary stories until we fall asleep."

"Don't we already sleep in here anyway?" Sai countered. "And Gaara doesn't sleep."

"...right." Sakura paused, then turned to look towards Gaara. "But...your seal is different now. You and Shukaku are kind of like friends now, right? Don't you think he could let you sleep, even just for one night? If we can trust him while you were in Izanami…"

"I...I think I trust him." Gaara agreed. "But I...don't know how to fall asleep. Not without a jutsu."

"If we need to use the jutsu, we will, and I'll wake you up tomorrow." Sakura promised. "But for now, this is a night to have fun!"

She was the only one with pajamas, which was something she'd have to rectify later, but eventually the pillows and blankets were set up, the lights were dimmed, and Sakura began to educate the boys on proper sleepover activities.

Most of the things she and Ino used to do were probably a bit much for Gaara and Sai. They used to spend hours just talking about what sort of kunoichi they would be, what boys were cute and which ones were annoying, or which was better: kunai, shuriken, or senbon. They would do each other's hair and paint each other's nails, and if they were particularly daring they'd play rounds of truth or dare, and that was where Sakura decided to begin.

She made sure that the truths were silly questions at first and the dares even sillier. Sai admitted with some prying that his favorite color was purple, and learned, after daring Gaara to down a spoonful from the bottle of hot sauce that Sakura's parents had downstairs, that Suna food was usually spicy, something Sakura neglected to mention until Gaara had taken the spoonful with a perfectly straight face. Gaara admitted that his most embarrassing moment had been during his time in Iwa, inside the small cave where Roshi and Han had often taken him to meditate. He'd slipped on the damp cave floor, more used to dry sandstone than wet rock, and had fallen into a cave pool. Roshi hadn't been able to stop laughing for over an hour, and after Han had helped him out, even he had let out a small chuckle. And the true highlight of the night was during a dare of Sakura's. Sai had dared her to try and drink a glass of water while doing a handstand, and in the middle of it, Emi jumped into the room and startled her enough for her to dump the entire glass onto her face. All three of them devolved into laughter after that, and between laughs Sakura teasingly scolded the tanuki, who had been missing since the Konoha civil war had started.

"Now she decides to show up." Sakura picked Emi up and cuddled her close. "Where were you when Danzo was trying to kill us, hm? We could have used your sharp little teeth."

It was Gaara who finally realized that Emi was carrying something around her neck. It was a small little scroll on a string, and the symbol on it, a golden leaf, was not one that any of them recognized. Emi allowed Gaara to take it from her, and as Gaara unraveled it, it was revealed as a storage scroll, and within the storage scroll was a large, intricate box.

A puzzle box, as it turned out, and one that Gaara fiddled with and mulled over for a while as the night progressed. The only clue they got as to why or how Emi had gotten the box came from Shukaku, who claimed that it was 'a test for Gaara', and refused to say more. Sakura and Sai each tried to assist, but every time they did, Emi would come and bite at their ankles, first gently, and then not so gently until the two of them got the hint. Whatever this was, it was for Gaara alone, and seeing as Shukaku didn't see any harm in it, Sakura didn't let herself worry.

Eventually, exhaustion caught up with Sakura and Sai both, and they each laid down in the pillow nest. There was a tense moment as Gaara put himself to sleep with a single hand sign, but instead of a fearsome rush of Bijuu chakra, Gaara simply slept. Both Sakura and Sai watched over him for a long while, not only making sure that Shukaku would keep dormant, but also marveling over the sight of it.

"He told me he's only ever slept in battle before." Sakura told Sai in a whisper. "I guess Shukaku's really warmed up to him. Or maybe it was your new seal."

"Maybe." Sai agreed. "And now Emi brought him that box. There's a registry of summon animals in the Root archives. There's only one record of tanuki summons, and it was more legend than actual record. They say the first Suna jinchuuriki could summon them."

"Summons?" Sakura grinned. "Oh, wouldn't that just be so cool! I've always dreamed about finding a summon contract, but I know they're usually kept within clans. But I think Gaara deserves it, don't you think?"

"I deserve it more. I'm the one who made the seal better." Sai teased back. "But I suppose I don't have a giant tanuki with me."

"And you can just draw any summon you want." Sakura retorted. "And now you have Hiraishin…"

"Not really." Sai shook his head. He reached over to grab one of his scrolls, unrolling it for Sakura to see. "What the Kyuubi told me was rudimentary, meant to do what I needed. He called it a 'simple version', meant for short distance transportation. With these current seals, I still need to be able to see and visualize an area in order for the jutsu to connect. The Fourth could appear somewhere he'd never been before, miles away, and he could do it without risking tearing his body in half in the process. There's a stabilizing factor that the Kyuubi couldn't remember quite right, and it might be linked to one's personal chakra signature…"

"And that sounds like homework for later." Sakura reached over to gently move the scroll away. "We've been up late enough, no need to stay up all night."

"Oh, I'd thought it was equivalent exchange. Gaara gets to sleep, we all stay up the night instead…"

Sakura grabbed a small pillow and thwacked Sai on the arm. "Oh, go to bed, you snarky bastard."

"Fine. But one more question."


"How did you heal me?"

That, Sakura wished she knew. She remembered pain. She remembered the thumping. Remember some sort of power flowing through her. Remembered seeing Sai's wounds just stitch together like they had never existed at all…

"I don't know." She admitted. She glanced towards her amulet, left carefully on a desk nearby. "I have theories, but they're not necessarily good ones. I think it's tied to that amulet. To that weird religion that Akatsuki guy followed, that I met in Plains. Jashinism."

"I remember you mentioning it before." Sai nodded. "But I don't have any knowledge of it. Not even Root had anything, at least as far as I knew."

"I just have one lead. Yugakure. Supposedly that's where other worshippers are, and maybe they'll know."

"It looked familiar to me. It took me a while to put it together." Sai, despite Sakura's protests, pulled out a sketchbook. "Look, this is you. How I remember you. Both when you saved me, and during the chuunin exams. These marks here reminded me of something, and it finally hit me the other day exactly what. Have you seen the monument to the First Hokage? The small shrine at the northeast end of Konoha?"

"I went there once when I was in the Academy." Sakura admitted. "That's supposedly where he was buried, though everyone I know secretly agrees that the real burial site is somewhere hidden."

"Right. But that's not all that's there. Do you remember the paintings and tapestries on the walls?"

"Yes. They depict the various events that the First became known for. There's a large one depicting the Warring States Era, one depicting the founding of Konoha…"

"Do you remember the one that showed his battle with Madara Uchiha?"

It took some thinking, but eventually Sakura could piece it together in her head. She could see Madara, expertly depicted as riding on the head of the Kyuubi, Sharingan blazing, gunbai and scythe in hand…

And Hashirama Senju, bringing forests to life behind him, and his face was covered in…

"He had markings." Sakura remembered. "Markings around his eyes and down his face. And two circles on his forehead!" She gasped, looking down at Sai's depiction of her. "Just...just like my markings."

"They call it Sage Mode." Sai explained. "Only a few shinobi have ever harnessed it. It is taught by animal sages, and it is very secretive how it works. What is known is that somehow, the user harnesses the chakra of nature to enhance their body and chakric abilities, and that causes those markings to appear on their body."

"Are you saying I'm somehow activating Sage Mode?" Sakura asked in disbelief. "But how would I possibly do that on accident? You said it's taught by animal sages, and I've never been taught, obviously."

"I know. But you can't deny that there's a similarity. Maybe that amulet helps you channel nature energy more easily. Or maybe that particular symbol is a seal of sorts." Sai shrugged. "Either way, we need to find out. You being able to heal my injuries so easily is more than a little useful."

"Yeah, but at what cost?" Sakura shivered. "It...hurt, Sai. It was like the worst pain I'd ever felt in my life. It felt like I was the one dying. I blacked out. How useful is that?"

"We're both still here. We're both alive to talk about it."

"Maybe." Sakura agreed. "But I think speculating isn't going to get us anywhere. Yugakure is on my list. We'll go there and find answers, and if I can use it without putting myself out in the process, you know I will."

"Alright." Sai nodded, looking satisfied as he put his sketchbook away. "So long as we have a plan."

"Well, our current plan is to rest. No more plans for the next week or so help me I'll tie you to a bed and leave you there."

Sai put up his hands in surrender, and before long the two of them were lost in sleep as well.

In the week that followed, the invading shinobi from Tani and Kusa were roped into helping with village repairs, and Temari kept her promise to provide Suna assistance as well. There had been some unavoidable collateral damage, as tended to happen when shinobi of Kage level fought, but by the end of the week most of the buildings had been repaired and Konoha was functioning near to what it had been before the fighting had begun.

Though there was much to discuss with the Kage about the future, Sakura let herself focus on repairing Konoha during that week, knowing that with several major villages and multiple Kage within its walls, even Akatsuki wouldn't dare try to attack. But the clock was still ticking, and despite her insistence to Gaara and Sai that they use this time to rest and recuperate, she couldn't even stop herself from mulling over where they went from here.

There were two major villages she needed to persuade to join her treaty, as well as several minor ones, one of which included Otogakure, Orochimaru's home turf. She needed to figure out whatever it was that Yugakure knew about her new and strange abilities. She had to make sure that the villages were primed to defend themselves from Akatsuki. And she needed to do so all while keeping her own jinchuuriki friend safe.

Not to mention the plethora of other issues, such as what to do about Sasuke, what to do about the other strange and menacing Uchiha from the compound, what to do after all these goals were managed…

She'd known, in the back of her mind, how demanding a job as an ambassador would be. But she hadn't really felt the weight of it until she realized that solving one problem had just led to a dozen more. Was this what her life was to be like forever? Could she be certain that she could still handle it?

Sakura could only be grateful that she wasn't facing things alone. Her boys were more than welcome to quietly discuss ideas with her every time they retired for the evening, and by the time Konoha had settled down, Sakura was already planning another meeting with several of the Kage to discuss plans.

Tsunade, somehow, managed to beat her to the punch. Sakura was called to the Hokage's office for a meeting to 'discuss Konoha's future', and when she arrived she was surprised to find all of the Konoha rookies there, as well as Team Gai.

"Good. That's the last of you." Tsunade spoke up, looking out from her desk to address them. "So this makes everyone who was involved in the...what did you call it, Naruto?"

"Operation Konoha Revival!" Naruto said with a grin.

"And I want to stress that we weren't involved with this…" Tenten spoke up with a grimace. "We helped in the fight, sure, but that's the extent of it."

"Maybe so, but Kakashi has informed me that you provided valuable backup, and your instructor has also given me the highest recommendations of your skills and abilities. Everyone here who is under my jurisdiction and at genin level, I have brought you here to commend you for your work in uncovering Danzo's activities, and for helping to bring him to justice. On top of that, I can say that each of your teams performed admirably in the chuunin exams."

With that, Tsunade unrolled a scroll on her desk, and with a puff of smoke revealed nine chuunin vests. "I think the village might riot if I didn't allow your promotions." She continued. "Each of you have served your village above and beyond chuunin level. Congratulations."

Naruto was the first to respond, letting out a whoop of excitement as he rushed to grab his vest. It didn't take long for the others to move as well, and the room became a bustling of laughter and cheers as everyone pulled on their vests. It was touching to watch, though it made Sakura wonder why her team had been pulled in to watch. Had Tsunade just wanted her to be present for her friends' success?

"Settle down, everyone, settle down!" Tsunade called out. "I'm not done yet so hold your celebrating for later. We have a couple other business matters to attend to. Shikamaru, get up here, you're next."

"Next?" Shikamaru questioned, but as he made to step forward his eyes suddenly widened. "No. No, no, no, you are not-"

"The village council voted on it, Shikamaru. You're the one who kept this group in line, Sakura more than recommended your abilities, and it is well known that you organized the evidence to use in Danzo's trial. By rather popular demand, you have been promoted to jounin rank."

"No, this is such a drag, I'll never be able to get any peace now!" Shikamaru moaned.

"Oh, come on, Shika, this is great!" Ino insisted, throwing an arm around his shoulder. "That means you'll be able to lead the team on missions now, just like Asuma wanted!"

"Asuma wanted this?"

Shikamaru looked equal parts confused and distraught over the news of his promotion, and if Sakura was honest she felt a little bad for the boy. She knew promotions could be turned down, so if he was really against it she knew it wouldn't stick. But Shikamaru really only seemed to be protesting the new responsibilities that the rank entailed, and not necessarily the promotion itself. She'd have to tell him that she knew plenty of lazy jounin; she couldn't remember a time that Kakashi hadn't been late to any of Team Seven's activities, and yet he was one of the strongest shinobi she knew.

But her thoughts were distracted as Tsunade spoke up again, this time pulling out another scroll as she did so.

"This last piece of business was actually a joint effort, agreed upon by the Kage, for Sakura, Gaara, and Sai. We agreed that it might be helpful to your cause if there was an easy way to identify ambassadors, and we also agreed it might serve you well if this identification was similar to our own methods of identification."

There was another puff of smoke, and the scroll revealed three objects: headbands. But engraved on the metal was not a symbol of any village Sakura knew. Instead, a single circle was engraved, matching the circle that Sakura wore on her back. She felt her breath hitch in her throat as she realized.

"Onoki made them himself." Tsunade explained. "He and Shibuki both agreed that your little circle would be a good starting symbol. Something about simplicity and unity."

Sakura reached out to take the one in the middle, that had been made with a deep red leather to match her attire. Onoki knew her well, and had guessed well for the boys: the remaining two had leathers of dark brown and black respectively. She reached up to tie her headband around her head, on top of Ino's ribbon, which she was reluctant to let go of just yet. Gaara let his hand on one of the straps holding his sand scroll to his back, and Sai placed his at the more traditional spot over his forehead. Sakura grinned.

"They're perfect Tsunade. Thank you."

"Good. Now you three stick around. The rest of you, go celebrate your promotions. I'm requesting a bonus stipend be allocated to all of you for your troubles, so consider your dinner on me tonight."

There was more cheering, the biggest coming from Chouji this time, and Sakura wished she could join them. But Tsunade grew more serious as the others left, and she knew this was a conversation she couldn't avoid.

"Sakura, I am under the impression that you will be dealing with two things in the immediate future that concern me."

"Probably more than that, if I'm honest."

"I'm referring to your future dealings with Otogakure. Your future dealings with Orochimaru and Sasuke Uchiha."


Sakura sat herself down, knowing this conversation might last a while. Tsunade folded her arms and leaned back in her chair.

"You told me before that you retrieved Danzo's arm."

"That is correct. Will Konoha be demanding that we surrender it?"

"Most of Konoha is." Tsunade answered. "But I spoke against it. That arm and its assets belong to the Uchiha, and unfortunately both of our Uchiha are technically village traitors. However, of those two, one helped perpetuate the Uchiha massacre, and the other is a victim of it. Thus, I've concluded that the arm should now belong to Sasuke."

Sakura let out a hiss of air at this. "Do you really think Sasuke is going to want a reminder of what Konoha let happen to his clan? I've already wondered how badly he's going to react to the news that Danzo planned it."

"No, I don't think he wants it." Tsunade agreed. "But maybe that's for the better. There are many people who want this arm, Sakura. I trust an Uchiha survivor to use the bloody inheritance of his clan more so than I trust anyone else."

"You'd be bringing the arm directly within range of Orochimaru." Sai countered. "Who would be more than happy for the donation."

"I wasn't saying to give it to him now. In fact, unless you think the situation is changing, I would advise you to wait. Wait until Orochimaru has either succeeded or failed in taking over his body. Wait until Sasuke is in a position where he is strong enough to defend it. If that means you hold onto the scroll for the next two years, so be it. What I am saying is that I am trusting you to do what is right with it, and my belief is that the arm should return to the Uchiha clan."

It was better than haphazardly burying it, and it was better than leaving it in the hands of someone who could potentially be the next Danzo. Sakura couldn't find an argument against it. Regardless of what Sasuke's current state of mind was...he was the Uchiha clan now. And Tsunade was right. The eyes belonged to him.

"I'll do as you ask. When the time is right, Sasuke will receive it."

"I'm glad we agree. Now, onto the more pressing matter. Orochimaru." Tsunade leaned forward, meeting Sakura's eyes. "Are you seriously planning on trying to persuade him to sign the treaty?"

"I have to, don't I?" Sakura replied. "To show bias here would be damning against my cause. Orochimaru leads a hidden village. He's a Kage. I have no choice but to try and persuade him."

"You're being stupidly honorable, but I get it. But are you sure you're prepared to speak with Orochimaru on his level?"

"" Sakura admitted. "Quite frankly, he terrifies me. When I last saw him, it was the last chuunin exams, and he was...he was hurting my team. He invaded Konoha. He...he killed the Third and tried to kill you."

"That he did." Tsunade nodded. "He's a scary son of a bitch. Denying that is foolish. Going in to try and persuade him to do anything is even more foolish. He won't just listen to pretty words. He's going to want something. He's going to demand you give something in return, and it may not be something you want to give."

"The arm, maybe."

"If not something worse. But I grew up with him. I know how he thinks. I know most of his repertoire of techniques. And I want to guarantee, if things go wrong, that you're ready to face him."

Tsunade suddenly grinned.

"So, for the next week, I am going to drill you on Orochimaru, and I am going to make sure you are thoroughly capable of kicking his ass if he tries anything funny. I know I can't keep you for long, but I can make sure that you and yours are ready. It's the least I can do for what you've done for Konoha. Does that sound good to you?"

Sakura couldn't help but grin in return. It was an avenue she hadn't considered. Tsunade, and even Jiraiya as well, they had been his teammates. Who better to go for on advice for handling the Snake Sannin than them?

"When do we start?"

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