Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 66

When Sakura was able to think clearly again, an hour had passed. This, Shiro informed her, was common after receiving so many visions in succession. Such visions were taxing on the mind, and generally only shared to devotees in small bits at a time. It was perhaps a compliment that Jashin had thought her worthy of receiving so much at once during an introductory meditation.

If that was the case, Sakura wasn't so sure she wanted to be worthy anymore.

She still felt it, felt the raw emotions that had pulsed through her with the same intensity as it had run through each of the people she'd 'experienced'. She could still feel Kaguya's pain and betrayal, still feel Madara's rage and Hashirama's despair, could still even feel Naruto and Sasuke, each so desperate for their best friend to understand each other even when both were destined to walk different paths. She wasn't sure a person was meant to feel so many emotions at once, and every time she lingered on the memories, she felt her stomach curl inward on itself and felt the need to simply cry all over again.

"Why?" was the first word she managed to ask.

"What did you see?" Shiro asked her in turn.

It took time, but Sakura told them. She remembered far more than she wanted to, remembered details that sometimes even seemed odd to remember. (Hashirama never saw Madara's death blow, he'd closed his eyes, he'd closed his damn eyes.) She remembered what Sai had said aloud, holding up eight fingers in the exact pattern he had. Sai's response helped bring her back from her emotional stupor.

"That's creepy as fuck, Sakura."

She'd snorted, and the warmth of laughter and her own emotion seemed to help push away what she'd received, and from there she began to feel herself bleed back in, bit by bit. It hurt less to talk about the memories, and she was able to perceive the present clearly again.

"It was a timeline." Shiro began to explain. Sakura settled in to listen, while Gaara gently rubbed at her back. (A gesture she appreciated, as it helped keep her grounded in herself.) "The timeline was shown to you in reverse, which is also common. It helps give you a connection to the past. The two boys you spoke of, the Jinchuuriki and the Uchiha, mirror the struggles of Hashirama Senju and Madara Uchiha, who in turn mirror the struggles of Asura and Indra Otsutsuki. This is likely no coincidence. Our disciples have followed the Otsutsuki curse through generations, and we believe that the brothers have reincarnated over the years, and those who are bound to the brothers' souls are cursed to turn against each other. It is a curse that stretches back even beyond Asura and Indra. Can you think of where such a curse would have begun, given everything you've been shown?"

Sakura nodded. To her, perhaps, it was obvious. "Kaguya." She answered simply. "The agony she felt at her sons' betrayal, it was...it was a curse, wasn't it?"

"We believe so." Shiro smiled with the confirmation. "Though there were many that first believed the curse started with Indra and Asura, it is now believed the curse truly began with Hagoromo and Hamura, Kaguya's sons. Though their fallout did not result in some legendary battle, there was fallout. As humanity was freed from Kaguya's control, there was disagreement about how they would guide humanity to prevent the war and bloodshed that had led Kaguya into her despair and madness to begin with.

"Hagoromo believed in a direct approach. He wanted to guide humanity directly, give them advice, lead them towards peace and understanding of the world. Hamura, however, believed that their direct influence would only lead to disaster. He believed in influencing the world from the shadows, watching over it and nudging it back in the right direction should something drastic be about to occur. This disagreement led to their separation. Hagoromo went out into the world, and Hamura faded into the background. They had united against their mother to defeat her, but her final act in this world was to curse them so that they and their descendants could never work in such harmony again. The curse spread down both family lines. You, Sakura, were shown Hagoromo's, because Hagoromo's line in particular has led to the events that now threaten the stability of the world."

"Madara." Sakura concluded. "It was Madara. He claimed he knew how to bring the world to peace. He...he was talking about Kaguya's technique."

"The Infinite Tsukuyomi. A genjutsu of monstrous proportions that is capable of dominating the world and all the people within it. The genjutsu is reflected onto a full moon and back across the world, and until the caster is destroyed the genjutsu cannot be removed. Hagoromo and Hamura were shielded from this by their mother, but that in turn led to her downfall. The brothers learned of humanity's fate and moved against her. But though they were successful in defeating their mother, they were too late to save those who had been affected."

"Too late?" Sakura blinked in confusion. "How could they have been? Humanity is still here."

"That, you see, is where Kaguya failed." Shiro explained. "She did not put the entirety of the world under her genjutsu, but rather the invading people that had ravaged her country in search of her power. She never looked beyond them."

"She wanted to keep her sons safe." Sakura confirmed. "With the invaders put under genjutsu, there was no need to worry about people too far away to affect them."

"But what of the invaders?" Sai questioned. "Did they simply perish under the genjutsu's control?"

"That is what we have assumed."

"Then why put them in a genjutsu at all?" Sai scribbled notes, thinking aloud as he did so. "Why not simply slaughter them? Would it not have been kinder than prolonged starvation?"

"She wanted peace, I think." Sakura continued the thought. "Maybe in her own twisted way, that was a mercy. Maybe she thought she was better than them for not making them suffer in death?" But even that didn't seem right, and she knew that Sai agreed when he flashed her a disbelieving look.

"There is still much we haven't learned." Shiro admitted. "The further back in time, the fewer the memories we have. Even what you have received is the bulk of what we know of Kaguya's era. We are uncertain how, but we believe Madara uncovered the secret of the Infinite Tsukuyomi, and intended to use it to dominate the entirety of the shinobi world."

"Then why didn't he? Hashirama wouldn't have stood a chance, right?"

"Madara is no Kaguya. He simply did not have the power required."

And then it hit Sakura all at once. The power of the Tailed Beasts. Why Madara had controlled the Kyuubi, what he had told Hashirama...why Akatsuki was seeking Tailed Beasts now…

"The Tailed Beasts...they were created from the chakra that Hagoromo sealed away from his mother. If the power of the Tailed Beasts came together…"

"Whomever wielded such power would be equal to her strength." Shiro confirmed. "An ultimate Jinchuuriki, capable of crafting the Infinite Tsukuyomi as she did. It is clearly Akatsuki's goal to carry on Madara's will."

"Ironic." Gaara spoke up. "Her curse would then, in a way, lead to her own desires being realized once again."

"If we let it happen." Sakura shook her head. "And we won't."

"We of Jashin's way agree." Shiro's smile only seemed to grow at Sakura's proclamation. "Whatever the flaws of the world, a universal genjutsu will not solve our problems. That, all of us here agree upon. It is why we sent one of our Chosen to infiltrate Akatsuki's ranks. It is why we have trained to defend our world, should the worst come to pass. It is why we have prayed day and night that Jashin second Chosen would come and aid us."

"...and you think that Chosen is me?"

"Sakura, I am certain of it. Jashin has shown all of us visions of you. We have known of your coming for quite some time, and hoped that his gifts and visions would lead you to us. Much as Hidan has been given the gift of Mutual Destruction, so you have been given the gift of Mutual Preservation."

Healing, Sakura remembered. "When I healed Sai, I don't...I never figured out how I did it."

"That is what we must teach you. What we will teach you, should you allow us. Healing, protection, and knowledge we offer to the Chosen of the Jushisai, those who follow the Calm Path."

Sakura certainly wouldn't say no to any of those things. Knowledge and teaching, especially regarding her strange gifts...of course she would agree to it. But…

"I...don't know if I can accept. Not now, anyway." She shook her head. "I wish I could stay and learn, I do, but if anything these visions have just affirmed that I don't have time to waste. Akatsuki might be going after the Kumo and Kiri Jinchuuriki as we speak, they might even be sending people after Gaara. Time is of the essence, isn't it?"

"It is. But not so much as you currently think. Hidan is our intelligence, do you not remember? We see through his eyes and know what he knows. Managing the Tailed Beasts is no easy task. They cannot simply just pull the Beast from its host and shove it into another person on the spot. There is complex sealwork required to maneuver such powerful chakra. Akatsuki's goal, first and foremost, has been creating a vessel to store the captured Beasts until such time as they can be maneuvered into a new host. They have been taking on mercenary work to garner the funds to do so."

Collecting bounties, Sakura realized, which is what Hidan and Kakuzu had been doing when she'd met them.

"Those funds take time to get. And this vessel is not just a simple container. It will be used to merge the chakra of the Beasts into one chakra, so that a host is not struggling to maintain the consciousnesses of nine separate entities."

Gaara let out a sudden growl at this, and spoke with the voice of Shukaku. "Of course the bastards don't care about the minds they'll be destroying in this process. Just the power they'll be getting."

"They don't care about minds at all." Sai added. "It's not as though someone using a universal genjutsu gives two shits about the minds they're affecting, only that they're affected."

"But fusing nine Bijuu? That must be an insane jutsu to even manage it in the first place! Who would even have the power to do that to begin with?"

"That would likely be Akatsuki's leader." Shiro answered. "It is true that such a statue requires careful construction, and powering such an effect requires a uniquely powerful shinobi. Akatsuki's leader...all Hidan has told us is that it is a man with eyes of great power."

"Madara." Sakura whispered. "It has to be Madara, he survived somehow and worked from the shadows."

"It is a definite possibility. But this knowledge has given us a timeline. The statue is nowhere near completion yet. It will take at least another year, if not longer, for Akatsuki to acquire funding for their project and see it complete. In the meanwhile, they have gathered information on each of the Jinchuuriki so that they may more easily acquire them when the time comes to act, which is why Konoha correctly theorized their true intent. Regardless, Sakura, we do have time. Even if you allowed us but a month, that would still leave you the better part of a year to spread the word of Akatsuki's intent and prepare the world for their efforts. So I ask you again, Sakura, knowing this...will you allow us to teach you?"

A year...supposedly, they had a year before Akatsuki would truly push themselves into motion. A year to prepare herself and the rest of the world. A year, funnily enough, to try and pull Sasuke from the clutches of Orochimaru as well. Everything would be coming to a head a year from now…

They had survived the fight with Danzo, yes, but Sakura still doubted she could hold a candle to Madara Uchiha. Plus, there was still the matter of Itachi and, potentially, Obito, both of whom seemed to have unique Sharingan techniques and both of whom had proclaimed some manner of loyalty to Akatsuki. Not counting the other S-ranked shinobi of course...Sakura now had reason to believe that she at least didn't have Hidan to worry about, if he was simply a Jashinist mole, but there were still others…

Was it selfish of her to want to say yes? To want to try and learn, to get strong enough to take Akatsuki on? Every day spent here was a delay reaching the remaining shinobi countries, was a delay on saving Sasuke...but every day spent here might potentially increase her odds of success. Sakura glanced over to Sai and Gaara, both of whom seemed to be considering the offer themselves, but waiting for her lead. She could imagine, though, what each might be thinking.

Do what you think is right, Gaara would no doubt say, and I will be with you every step of the way.

Supportive, but not necessarily helpful in narrowing down a decision.

And what would Sai be thinking?

Probably, no, undoubtedly he would be trying to consider an option that maximized what she could learn from the Jashinists and still allow time to reach their own goals. Was there a ratio, Sakura wondered, of time spent here and time spent traveling that would allow for the best possible chance of success?

"Three months." Sai suddenly spoke up. "At the minimum, but I would say at the end of three months would be a good time to reevaluate the situation and determine if the timeline has been hastened by factors outside of our control. If things are moving slowly, we could stay longer. Either way, this is a well-guarded, difficult to find enclave in the middle of a country that is known for not having shinobi. If Akatsuki even thought to look for us here, it would take some time to find us, and they would have to get through the entire enclave before even reaching Gaara. And...they need Gaara to complete their goals." He gave a shrug. "So, in a way, we determine the timeline. Not to throw the others under, but so long as Gaara is hidden and safe, they can't merge the Beasts and they can't start the Infinite Tsukuyomi. The true limiting factor of our time here is how much you desire to make sure Akatsuki doesn't harm any of the other Jinchuuriki before reaching us. And...I do know you have a bit of a soft spot for Brainless back in Konoha."

Sakura gently swatted Sai's arm at the nickname. "Yes, I would prefer it if Naruto wasn't harmed by Akatsuki either. And Fuu, and Han and Roshi as well...and the other Jinchuuriki we have yet to meet. They're all people too, people worth protecting."

"The Bijuu as well." Gaara added. "This isn't just about the Jinchuuriki anymore. The lives of the Bijuu are at stake."

"So...we can't stay here and try to hide away forever. We need to learn what we can, get stronger, and then do what we can to get the world ready." Sakura turned to face Shiro, giving him a respectful bow. "With your permission, then, I would like to request the tutelage of your enclave for, at least, the three months that Sai has mentioned, if not longer should the time allow it."

Shiro smiled and bowed in turn. "Chosen, it would be a privilege and an honor. And if you are willing to assist in the work here at the enclave, we can provide meals and shelter for you and your companions as well."

"Work?"

"We maintain farms on land nearby, and trade for cattle meat with Yugakure. We take on work in neighboring villages to provide income for our disciples, and at times the disciples of the Violent Path will take on mercenary work for the country, clearing out ruffians and bandits that threaten the peace of the land. Work that you will no doubt be used to doing as shinobi."

"Easy enough, then." Sakura agreed. "I think we'll take you up on it."

"Then shall I show you to your rooms?"

"Wait. One more question." Sakura was surprised to see Sai hold up a hand. "You said that Kaguya's curse had affected the lines of Hagoromo and Hamura. Are you not a descendant of Hamura? Would the curse affect us here?"

"A good question, young man, so I will ask you this in turn." Shiro's smile turned into a knowing grin. "Why do you think the Calm and Violent Paths came to be in the first place?"

"...I assumed it was a religious divergence of sorts."

"It was the curse." Shiro answered simply. "But unlike Hagoromo's line, Hamura's line embraced the divide in mentality. As I mentioned to you, one of Hamura's daughters went to found the Hyuuga clan, and the other moved here to Yugakure with her father to meditate and form the Jashinist enclave. That daughter, Soma Otsutsuki, had two children of her own. It is said that Soma's children might have come to fight each other in time, much as Indra and Asura did...but it is also said that Jashin came to the children in dreams, speaking to each of them and showing them that while they were powerful individuals alone...together they could accomplish wonderful things. One founded the Calm Path, the other, the Violent Path. And from them came Jashinism and everything since."

"Then...who is Jashin?"

"Our god." Shiro replied. When Sai responded with a disbelieving frown, Shiro simply laughed. "Anything more than that, you'll have to decide for yourself."


The Chosen were traditionally given access to the rooms first made and used by Soma's children. One section was currently under lock and key: Hidan's rooms. The other section was 'given' to her and the boys to use as they saw fit. There were comfortable beds, an impressive use of indoor plumbing considering how far beneath the earth they were, and plenty of other rooms that could be used for personal training, study, or even just relaxation. The space might as well have been considered a small house, and Sakura certainly wasn't going to complain. There was even a small hot spring in one of the rooms that she fully planned on taking advantage of.

There was a history to the rooms that Sakura found herself wrapped up in. Wall scrolls depicting various Chosen from the past, reading scrolls depicting unique jutsu and personal accounts of history, and even some ceremonial outfits that had been preserved since the enclave's founding. As the three of them settled in for the night, exhausted from both the earlier battle and the tour of the enclave, Sakura picked one of the scrolls to read, pleased to find what appeared to be a diary of a previous Chosen who had lived in a time before the founding of the Hidden Villages, and even before the Warring States. Sai and Gaara settled in their own ways. Sai had essentially claimed an entire table for working on his sealwork, stating that he planned on working out a safer version of the Hiraishin 'even if it killed him'.

Gaara, on the other hand, was still working on the puzzle box.

He had found a comfortable armchair and had sat down with Emi curled up in his lap. For an hour at least he fiddled with the box, and Sakura noticed with a smile that he was getting a bit more adept at using his chakra to manipulate the parts. But it was to all of their surprises when, all at once, the box made a noticeable 'click' and opened.

The room had already been quiet, but it seemed to get a different sort of silence as everyone looked towards the box. Inside, shimmering under the light, was a single golden leaf. After a moment had passed, Gaara reached to pull the leaf out, turning it over in his fingers until he saw a single kanji written on the backside of the leaf.

"...victory?"

As Gaara spoke the word, the leaf began to hiss and smoke. Gaara threw it to the ground just in time as the leaf exploded into a small burst of fireworks and even more smoke. Sand threw up around each of them as the smoke cleared, though it slowly trickled back to Gaara's side as the three of them realized that now standing in the center of the room was another tanuki.

The leaf had been some sort of summoning apparatus, Sakura realized, and this tanuki was recognizable as a tanuki, but at the same time looked nothing like Emi did. This one stood on two legs and wore a stylish red scarf. It carried a large scroll on its back, with gold leaves seemingly embroidered into the very fabric of the scroll. The tanuki looked around for a moment, confused until they finally set eyes on Gaara.

"Ah, so you're the one."

Gaara blinked. "I'm...the one?"

"The one who opened the box. Shukaku's boy."

Both Sakura and Sai couldn't help but snort at the mention. "Shukaku's boy?" Sakura whispered in Sai's direction. "We can't let him live that down."

Even Gaara seemed a bit confused at that, looking downward at himself before looking back at the tanuki. "I...did open the box. And Shukaku is with me."

"Good." The tanuki nodded. "Then you're the boy I'm lookin' for. Took you a while on the box, did it?" They waddled towards Gaara, taking the open box from his hands and examining it. "Well, you didn't break it open, at least, so you must have some promise."

"Why are you here?" Gaara blurted out.

"Oh, that's easy. You wanna sign the scroll, right?"

"I do?"

"Yeah, you do. You'll be the first one to sign it in a century or so, I think." The tanuki maneuvered the scroll from their back to the ground, unrolling it in a smooth motion. "You sign it, you get to roll with us. Didn't Shukaku tell you all about it?"

"...no."

"Ha! That's just like him."

As the two spoke, Emi hopped down from Gaara's lap and sniffed at the scroll. She then sat on top of it, turning to face Gaara with a happy, lopsided sort of grin. It was this that prompted Gaara to lean forward to examine the scroll. There were names written on the scroll, and beneath each name was a series of fingerprints.

"It's a summoning scroll."

"Of course it's a summoning scroll. But it's more than that. You can put your name on the scroll if you think you're ready. But if you wanna summon us, you gotta earn it. You gotta pass our trials. You put your name on the scroll, I take you home with me and we see what you're made of."

Gaara recoiled from this at first. "Home? I can't leave here." He answered immediately. "I have to keep these two safe."

"Then you don't get to roll with us. Sorry, I don't make the rules."

"Is there no other way?"

"You gotta do the trials. No other way."

"And how long will the trials take?" Sakura spoke up. She could tell where this conversation would go already; Gaara was a bit stubborn about leaving her, but in this particular case, Sakura knew it was time to try and push him away from the nest. This was a summoning scroll, she would have killed for a chance at signing a summoning scroll. Most animal summons were passed down through clans or from master to apprentice, and though there were many different kinds of animal summons, it was incredibly difficult to gain the allegiance of a summoning clan unless you knew someone who had said allegiance. Sakura didn't know anyone who summoned tanuki, and this tanuki was claiming Gaara would be the first to do so in over a century. He couldn't turn the opportunity down, he just couldn't.

"A week for the trials. We might drag him back for training, though, if he passes."

"Just a week, Gaara you have to do it!" Sakura insisted. "It's a summoning scroll, do you know how helpful it would be to have summons around?"

"But…I'll be leaving you."

"Leaving me in the most secret religious enclave in the world, I'm as safe as I can possibly get!"

"And what about Gaara?" Sai spoke up. "We established that keeping him safe is a top priority, is it not? We're sending him to an unknown location to meet with unknown entities. That's a pretty big risk."

"They know Shukaku." Sakura pointed out. "So Shukaku knows them. So Shukaku should know if it's safe, right?"

They looked to Gaara, who was silent for a moment before nodding his head. "Shukaku is...he knows them."

"Besides, haven't you heard of the summoning lands?" The tanuki looked back towards Sakura. "They're hard as hell to reach if you don't know where you're going. Any other person would have to travel for weeks and know all the twists and turns. Your boy's as safe there as he is here, I'll promise you that."

"Then he has to go!" Sakura insisted. "This is a once in a lifetime chance, Gaara, and you're going to be bored out of your mind just watching me train, aren't you? This gives you something to do too! You know, Lady Tsunade supposedly crafted some of her novel medical jutsu from working with the slugs, so who knows what you could learn from tanuki!"

"My family has a summoning contract…" Gaara protested weakly. "With the weasels…"

"Oh please, do you really think silly weasels are as great as tanuki?" The tanuki puffed up his chest with pride at the statement. "We're masters of disguise and trickery! Great protectors of nature! And we have crafted special ninjutsu that was used by shinobi for generations until our summoners became few and far between. Now you have to come along now, if you think a little weasel can hold a candle to us!"

"Alright, alright, you're not like the weasels."

Gaara stood up at this, pacing around the room slowly and occasionally glancing up at Sai and Sakura.

"Just a week?" He asked.

"Just a week. And if we drag you back after that, we'll have you home for dinner. Your little girlfriend don't have to worry."

Gaara turned bright red at that, and Sakura giggled. "Do it." She insisted. "It'll be worth it, Gaara, you know it will. And we'll be alright while you're gone."

"Every time you say that, something horrible happens while you're away."

"...okay I can't actually argue that one, but we've gotten unlucky. I doubt something bad will happen again, and if it does…" Sakura stood up to scoop Emi off the ground. "We'll send Emi to get you! Because she can find you guys, right? She's the one that delivered the box."

"...you promise you won't do anything rash?"

"She can't promise that, it's Sakura." Sai piped up. Sakura hushed him by dropped Emi into his lap.

"I won't be rash." She insisted. "I'll be here, training with Shiro and the other disciples. When you come back, I will be exactly where you have left me, and so will Sai."

"...alright, then."

Sakura could tell that Gaara was still torn, but even he could see the value of having the alliance of the tanuki. Emi had helped save their lives on multiple occasions, and that was just one tanuki.

"Alright." Gaara repeated. "I'll do your trials."

"Perfect." The tanuki grinned, gesturing towards the scroll. "Sign your name on the scroll with a little blood, and place your fingerprints beneath. Then we'll take you on your way."

Gaara looked at the scroll for a moment, looking as though he was about to find. Then, he suddenly turned towards Sakura again, walking towards her and pulling her into a tight hug.

"Be safe."

"I will."

Sakura was slightly surprised to see Gaara go to say his farewell to Sai as well, and even more surprised when Sai reluctantly allowed Gaara to pull him into an awkward sort of side hug.

"Don't be an idiot." Sai told him.

"Only if you don't." Gaara retorted with a smile.

Gaara returned to the scroll, kneeling down in front of it. He watched it, holding up his hand and looking it over before a frown came to his face.

"...my sand won't let me bleed."

Sakura couldn't help it; this time she burst into full blown laughter, not even having considered the hurdle Gaara might have to overcome to summon. She saw the tanuki put a small furry paw against their forehead in disbelief.

"Really, kid? You can't bleed?"

Gaara shook his head, holding out his hand for the tanuki to see. The tanuki lashed out with a sharp claw, only to be rebuffed by Gaara's sand.

"...well, shit, kid. Can't you ask Shukaku to take a break for a hot minute?"

"It's not Shukaku that controls it." Gaara admitted, which was actually news to Sakura as well. "Shukaku says it's my own chakra, but...I can't control that very well either. So I'm not sure. It's always protected me, ever since I was little."

"Shit, well ain't that a kick in the pants. Alright, we're going to have to work around that somehow, but for now we gotta get you to the other side. If your blood won't do it…" The tanuki looked around before walking over to Sai. "Got some ink? That ain't got any of your chakra in it."

Sai handed them a bottle and the tanuki walked it over to Gaara. "Spit in this. It's still technically got you in it, so we might be able to make it work. Tanuki are masters of improv, don't you know?"

Gaara wrinkled his nose at the idea, but still spit into the bottle. He reluctantly swirled the ink around with his finger before using it to sign his name on the scroll.

"Alright. Let's give it a whirl."

The tanuki rolled the scroll back up and slung it over their shoulder. Then, they reached out to put a paw on Gaara's hand.

"To Shikoku, then!"

With a strange blackened puff of smoke, both Gaara and the tanuki vanished.


For the first time in his life, Sai wasn't really quite sure what to do with himself.

Under Root, there was always something to do. Missions, and if not missions, training, and if not training, research. If you weren't doing one of those three things, you weren't being useful.

Under Sakura, there had never been expectations, but Sai had defaulted to training or research regardless. If not those, he worked on his art, and under Sakura he had a lot more time for his art...but that was all he had. Sakura tried to help him find 'hobbies', but it was difficult to find the motivation to do something that wasn't useful. His art was useful. It fueled his techniques. Games, recreational reading, even simply 'relaxing'...none of those were useful, so why were they worth doing?

He was starting to realize, now, why people outside of Root had hobbies. At a certain point, one just couldn't train anymore without damaging themselves, couldn't research anymore without straining their mind. As Sakura went off into the enclave to begin her training with the Jushisai, Sai realized that a brand new emotion was beginning to make itself known to him.

Boredom.

He wasn't fearing for his life anymore. Danzo was dead, and Root was under the firm thumbs of Tenzo and Kakashi. Akatsuki were around, sure, but the enclave was well hidden and Sai allowed himself to feel a bit of ease in a place that had dozens of 'disciples' to protect it, all of whom would have made more than capable shinobi in a proper hidden village.

He defaulted to art because that was what he had. He picked a room where several people were training and, once he was certain he wasn't going to get kicked out, he drew. But even drawing felt a bit lackluster at this point. It wasn't Sakura...and he didn't want to make her feel guilty by following her around constantly with nothing to do. And the people here weren't particularly interesting at a glance, so they weren't really worthy his artistic eye.

It was on the evening of their first day in the enclave when the solution presented itself rather dramatically.

"You're one of the boys that came with the Chosen. I remember you."

The woman from the outside, the one who had given them their 'entrance exam', came to sit next to him as he drew. Her scars were even more prominent up close; jagged marks that no doubt came from kunai and shuriken cuts, as well as a few other marks from wounds Sai couldn't immediately identify. Her hair was cut short, showing off all the marks on her head rather than attempting to cover them...like she was proud of them, in a way. She grinned, and Sai saw that she was missing a single tooth.

"You're the one with the smart mouth."

"My brain is smart." Sai retorted. "My mouth is incapable of personality."

"Ah, see, that's the kind of funny shit I like to hear from a guy." Sai flinched as she suddenly wrapped an arm around his shoulders. "You've got spunk, you know that? And your little inky things pack a hell of a punch. So what do you say you come have fun with my crew, huh?"

"Your crew?" Well, Sai was bored...and Sakura was always telling him he needed to have more fun. "Who does this involve?"

"My crew. You know, the people who tried to kill you outside?" The woman rolled her eyes. "Besides, you've got talent. And every one of those stinky Calm Path folk needs one of us to look after them, so if you roll with us for a bit, you'll technically count for Pinkie."

One of them…

"You're...of the Hageshisai?"

"Damn straight, now you've got your head one right. Come on. Let us show you what a real disciple of Jashin does for a good time."

Sai looked back down at his sketchbook, filled with half doodles and sketches that definitely weren't holding his interest. Yes...he was definitely bored. And Sakura couldn't fault him for trying something new.

"Alright. Show me what you do for fun, then."

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