Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
The Months Between

The first part was patience.

Before Sakura could learn to use the gifts Jashin had bestowed upon her, she had to first learn what was considered by many to be one of the most dangerous and difficult of the shinobi arts: the manipulation and accumulation of natural energy. Sakura had read about the art of senjutsu in the academy, never in her wildest dreams considering that she might one day learn the art herself. As far as Konoha was aware, only certain animal sages were capable of teaching the art at all, and that required one to have signed their summoning contract and proving themselves worthy of the teaching. Not only that, but not everyone was capable of learning the art, and if one learned it improperly, it would irreparably alter them. Sakura vaguely remembered reading about Shinichi the Fool, who was once taught by the toad sages of Myoboku and attempted to learn senjutsu, but was unable to master the art and was permanently turned into a stone statue of a toad.

Sakura had thought the last part was a bit ridiculous. Turning to stone, plausible. Turning into a toad, also plausible. Both? It reminded her of a child's fable meant to scare children away from doing something stupid. But Shiro had insisted that the tale was true, and that those who could not master senjutsu would slowly turn into the form of their animal tutor before becoming petrified by the energy.

Sakura was starting to wonder if the world was actually ridiculous and if she was a fool for attempting to apply logic to it.

Shiro assured her at the start of her training that she would not need to worry about turning into an animal or turning to stone, as those consequences were reserved for those who trained under animal sages. Instead, if the natural energy overcame her ability to control it, her body would instead solidify into wood and turn her into a magnificent tree.

No pressure. And equally ridiculous.

Natural energy was everywhere, but in more abundance at a nexus. As Sakura began her training in the senjutsu art, she was taken to the Altar of Jashin to meditate. The process, as theory, was quite simple: the natural chakra around her must be taken into her body and blended with her physical and spiritual energies in perfect balance. Too little natural energy and nothing would happen; too much, and her body would become overwhelmed and begin to turn.

It was scary, but Sakura had resources. The disciples of Jashin had learned that there were methods of aiding a person in regulating natural energy. Obsidian was one of these methods: the material was found in abundance at each chakric nexus, and early experimentation with it had shown the first Jashinists that it was capable of absorbing natural energy like a sponge. The glass used the natural energy to grow, and thus was uniquely helpful as a medium for helping a disciple learn to use the energy. A disciple was given an obsidian amulet, shaped into Jashin's symbol, and if they generated too much natural energy in their attempts to use it, the amulet would absorb the excess and prevent it from damaging the disciple's body. Too much energy warped the amulet, however, and eventually made it grow into a state that was impractical to keep around one's neck, so the amulets were mostly considered a failsafe. A true user of senjutsu would be one who could make due without it.

Even with the failsafe, most people were incapable of using senjutsu effectively. It required extremely precise chakra control, and was made easier if one had unnaturally large reserves. The most prolific user, in both Sakura's readings and in Jashinist memory, had actually been Hashirama Senju, the first Hokage. It was unknown who exactly taught Hashirama the art, and there were some who theorized he had simply 'figured it out', but regardless of the method Hashirama had mastered the technique and often had used senjutsu to strengthen the effect of his already powerful Wood Release.

Sakura was no Hashirama. Her chakra control was masterful, true, but she did not have the chakra reserves of a Senju. It meant she would have to be discerning in her use of the senjutsu arts. Though using senjutsu lessoned the amount of chakra she would need for techniques by a third, and strengthened them considerably, she was still bound by the limit of her reserves. If her reserves ran out and she continued to pull natural energy into her body? Tree time.

But even just having natural energy within her had its benefits, and Sakura could become a formidable fighter without ever having to expend a drop of chakra. The first time she successfully merged natural energy with her own chakra, the world became alive. Her body felt stronger and sharper, her vision became clearer, and she could sense things without having to lift a finger to make a hand sign. It would have been overwhelming if she hadn't already been teaching herself to comprehend the effect with her sensing jutsu, and even then it was so much crisper than her scroll had ever been able to allow her to sense. It went beyond sensing natures and signatures: it gave her a sense of movement, in a way allowing her to predict where Shiro would move to next within the room without having to look in his direction at all. Senjutsu increased her reactionary ability far beyond what she could achieve on her own…

And the stupidest part about it was, at the moment, that she was unable to act on any of these reactions, because accumulating natural energy required being perfect still.

Patience, Shiro had told her. The first part was the learning. Maintaining the mixture of natural, physical, and spiritual energy while moving was considered an S-ranked technique, and very few had mastered it without some sort of outside assistance. Hashirama had used his wood technique akin to a mount to move himself about the battlefield. The Sannin Jiraiya supposedly had to use the help of toad summons to maintain the technique. Hidan, the only other disciple currently able to use the technique in combat, had to use a blood seal as a focus. It explained the technique that Sakura had seen him use before: the seal he had drawn on the ground with his own blood had little to do with his 'Curse' technique. Though Sakura had little explanation other than 'Jashin's will', the symbol, when used as a seal, also served as a regulator to absorb excess natural energy. So long as Hidan remained within the seal, he could draw upon natural energy with ease and maintain the state of power needed to enact his Curse.

If Sakura wanted to be a master, she would have to do what all of her predecessors could not and use natural energy without a focus. But Sakura wasn't aiming to be a master, not with three or so months to learn. She'd settle for being able to use it at all.

Jashin had somehow forced her into the correct balance in the past and had allowed her to use the art in two life-threatening situations. But those situations had been involuntary. Sakura needed to use the technique at will, for it was only with the assistance of natural energy that she could master the technique that had been bestowed to her alone as Jashin's Chosen Jushisai.

That required the stillness of meditation, and it required patience.

The first part was perception.

Shikoku was an island with a sprawling forest and quaint 'staged' village, in which the tanuki practiced their deceptive transformations. The tanuki who had escorted Gaara to Shikoku, who referred to himself simply as 'Tanuko', gave him a brief history of the village as they made their way through it. Long ago, he explained, the tanuki and kitsune were rivals. The kitsune, proud kin of the Nine-Tailed Fox, prided themselves in their ability to make mischief for humanity and disguise themselves among them. The tanuki, who followed the noble Shukaku, prided themselves similarly. It was hotly debated who among the animal tribes were the first to come up with the ancient transformative techniques, and each of them claimed they were the ones to teach transformation and deception to shinobi.

"If it isn't abundantly obvious," Tanuko said with a wink. "It was the tanuki, of course."

Gaara was no trickster, and had only ever rarely used transformative jutsu. Back when he had called upon Shukaku's power, sand had overlaid his body and technically 'transformed' him, but that was a rather severe example. He'd simply had no need for such techniques. His specialty had been defensive and assassination techniques; why disguise oneself when sand could kill a man from afar? Why disguise when nothing could penetrate his defense and threaten him? Suna had known Gaara was no true 'infiltrator', not like certain shinobi who pretended to be another to get closer to a target, to learn information and manipulate others to their own schemes.

He told this to Tanuko as they discussed tanuki history, and the tanuki had just chuckled.

"See, that's your problem, kid. You're only thinking one way. You're never going to pass the trials like that."

The concept of the trials were simple. Gaara was to be allowed free reign of the tanuki village for seven days. During this time, the tanuki of the island would be fully disguised as humans. Gaara's task was to identify which of the tanuki were the Three Great Tanuki Sages. The other disguised tanuki would attempt to fool Gaara from discerning these identities. Once Gaara discenned all three Sages, the trials would be over, and Gaara would be allowed to bond with the tanuki.

The catch, of course, would be that Gaara would not be allowed to use any chakra.

At first Gaara simply thought that he would be trusted to abstain from chakra use, until Tanuko pointed out that chakra was used subconsciously, especially by a Jinchuuriki with a symbiotic Bijuu bond. Shinobi used chakra to enhance their muscles and senses, to perceive the world around them, and even the slightest bit of chakra would likely make it easier for Gaara to determine the Sages from the ordinary tanuki. Tanuko took Gaara to a small shrine within the village and painted a complex but temporary seal upon his body with golden paint, and all at once Gaara felt his sand armor fall to the ground and no longer heard Shukaku's voice within himself. He felt weak, like he'd suddenly lost all the energy in his limbs, and even his very clothing felt heavier.

The tanuki believed that chakra was a tool and that overreliance upon a tool made the mind and body degrade. This was different than the kitsune, who viewed chakra as a necessity that should be used in tandem with every action. As Gaara began his first day of the trial, he wondered to himself if he wouldn't have preferred the kitsune instead. It was rough moving about without chakra, like trying to push through one side of a river to the other. Senses he didn't know he'd relied upon were dulled, and it took several hours before he felt fit to even begin attempting the trials.

There were rules to help him. Each of the disguised tanuki would tell Gaara three facts: two of which were lies, and one of which was true. Gaara was given a scroll to keep track of these facts, and with good reason: there were several hundred tanuki within the village, each with facts to share, and Gaara realized that he'd never really pushed his mind in such a manner and his head was beginning to ache with the overload of so many new sensations at once.

At least five of the tanuki had claimed that Danzaburou was wearing blue, but three claimed Danzaburou was wearing red, and a single had claimed gold. Shibaemon was a merchant, but nobody seemed to be able to agree on what he was selling. Yashima Hage was the greatest warrior of the Sages, but though nine tanuki claimed he carried a sword at his hip, another nine claimed it was an axe.

The trials required Gaara not just to find the three Sages, but to ensure he had gotten information from every tanuki within the village, and to know that he had done so. Which meant he had to memorize every face and every outfit, to learn every name and be able to tell apart those with the same name, and all this without a drop of chakra.

Gaara admittedly had never been good at remembering people. He'd never needed to before, people hadn't mattered to him before Naruto, before Sakura and Sai. He'd known he'd had something of a deficit in social education growing up, but he'd always taken a sort of comfort in his belief that, despite this, at least he wasn't as bad as Sai, who seemed capable of pissing people off with a single, badly-placed nickname. Now, however, Gaara was starting to doubt this belief. Sai had been trained in reconnaissance. He might not understand social etiquette, but he at least could remember a name and a face, at least could know what their affiliations were, their abilities, their history…

Gaara had never learned any of these skills, and it was only now that he realized the potential hindrance that could be. He was working with Sakura to become an ambassador, which meant he would need to understand people. He'd need to be able to remember details about everyone he met, what they liked and disliked, what they'd done to reach their positions, and it wasn't just about the leaders of the villages, it was about the villagers themselves. They would be working to monitor trade between villages, which meant an understanding of economics, an understanding of what resources were pulled up by individual towns within the country's jurisdiction, understanding the relationships between daimyo and Kage…

And Gaara was having trouble keeping track of a single damned village.

His head hurt. But better now, he thought, then out in the human world where failing to keep track of such things might mean the failure of Sakura's project. Gaara realized that finding the three Sages wasn't really the trial, it was proving he was capable of keeping track of the nuances of a single village and using the knowledge he obtained to figure out something about it that wasn't immediately obvious. It wasn't just about knowing who the Sages were, because in order to know that, he had to know what they did, how they affected the people around them. Four tanuki claimed that Shibaemon traded with them directly, and twenty nine tanuki claimed they came into Shibaemon's wares by trading with the earlier four, which meant that if he kept track of who traded with the four, he could narrow down Shibaemon's identity. And that meant spending a day watching merchant trading and comparing every possibility with his other notes on Shibaemon, until…

On the third day, Gaara correctly guessed Shibaemon's identity. He was exhausted, his mind stretched beyond what he thought himself capable of, and he had only four more days to find the other two. He understood nothing about why the tanuki were testing him on this specifically, but by that third day he knew that he'd needed this. He was a Jinchuuriki, he had an arsenal of shinobi techniques already refined to his unique status, he'd trained to be a shinobi all his life...but he knew nothing of people, nothing of villages, nothing of civilian habits, nothing of people simply existing.

"Ain't your fault, kid. You were raised as a weapon. You only got half your education. All those stupid humans out there, they think too big, too grand. You gotta start learning to see the little things."

I have to learn to see at all, Gaara thought. To see the world beyond a shinobi's view, beyond a target to kill or a point to defend. He had to learn to see people.

"And then," Tanuko told him with a grin. "Then we can teach you the fun stuff."

The first part was perseverance.

One couldn't survive as a Hageshisai without. On days that the crew did not take on missions, they trained and trained and trained, and it was that in particular that Sai took to like a fish to water. He was used to regiment; Root had insisted upon it. But Root had never trained like this.

The Hageshisai threw themselves into battle, almost literally so, almost expecting to suffer injury in pursuit of their opponents. At a time when a well put kick to the groin would have left any shinobi reeling on the ground, the Hageshisai took it with a smile and just kept coming.

"Pain," Ran told him with a grin, "is what lets us know we're alive. It is a celebration of the human experience."

"It's a sign you did something wrong." Sai countered.

"Absolutely." Ran agreed. "And what happens when you fail? Do you sit there and cry like a child, or do you grow from it?"

Ran was scarred almost as much as the T&I head, Ibiki, back in Konoha. Every single one of her scars she touted as failure she'd survived. The Hageshisai didn't seek out pain, but they also didn't run from it. They embraced pain, embraced failure, as a lesson to be learned. Got a kunai to the arm? Should have dodged quicker. Bruised a knuckle on armor? Don't punch metal next time.

And it wasn't just the lessons, but truly the experience of it. Every time a disciple was injured in training, it was really, truly celebrated. The first time Sai took a shuriken to his leg, the Hageshisai said a prayer around him as he was healed, in what could only be described as jubilation.

Praise for the warrior who bleeds. Praise for the warrior who fights on anyway. In watching Sai's failure, all had learned. In surviving his failure, Sai had grown stronger.

It was an interesting contrast to the mentality of Root. Root had damned failure. Those who failed were worthless, were dead. But the Hageshisai seemed to think failure was a blessing gifted to them by their god, and that the only way to truly live was to experience failure. One who was perfect never grew. One who didn't not grow was stagnant, and the Way of Pain was about overcoming and challenging stagnation.

And in a way, perseverance was a form of battle in and of itself, and it did not take Sai long to see the pattern. Focusing on never getting hit took away opportunities. Sure, he could dodge the shuriken, but if he instead took the shuriken in a spot that would only minimally hinder him, that left an opening that his opponent might not be able to cover. It took time to draw another shuriken, after all, or to prepare a hand sign for a jutsu, and the opponent had already wasted movement throwing the first shuriken.

In Sai's professional opinion, it was a stupidly risky way of fighting. But since no ordinary shinobi would expect an opponent to purposely take a hit, it would change the nature of a fight. Shinobi fought under the expectation that their enemy would trying to dodge their moves. Hageshisai played on that expectation and used it to a tactical advantage.

What resulted was a relentless assault upon an opponent, forcing them to have to think on their feet and not giving them the proper time to plan a retaliation. Shinobi already fought fast but the Hageshisai were on another level. They pumped chakra into their legs to fly into their enemy at incredible speeds, and the first time Sai had been thrown into a spar, his opponent had knocked him unconscious with a single propelled blow.

That had been the day Sai truly understood the concept of 'embarrassment'.

The Hageshisai took on missions to bring income to the enclave, which in turn was used to provide food, clothing, and amenities to all of Jashin's disciples. Most of the time, the missions were simple, C ranks by village standards. Protecting a Yugakure merchant from bandits, delivering a message through untamed and hostile territory, chasing a volatile missing-nin from the borders...and sometimes even straight up mercenary work from other countries. Sai's first mission had actually been requested of the enclave by a shinobi from Kumo: one of their own had gone rogue and had fled to Yu's borders to escape justice. That day, Sai had joined Ran's group in hunting and taking down the rogue, and from there escorting the rogue to Kumo's border. The job itself had started easy, especially with Sai's tracking experience. They'd found the rogue within a day of setting off for the job, and it was then that Ran had given Sai the honor of taking the rogue down.

"To first blood." Ran had instructed him. "And no long distance cowardice. When you have tasted your enemy's first failure, then we shall join you in the revelry."

Sai didn't necessarily think ranged fighting was cowardice, but he had joined up with the Hageshisai to have something to do while Sakura trained, so he couldn't deny the request. And this was technically training for himself as well. He'd never been a strong close-ranged fighter, so...he considered it practice.

Sai had decided to take the Hageshisai's training to heart and had thrown himself at his enemy. He concentrated his chakra and drew a blade, throwing himself into the missing-nin's den and narrowly dodging the carefully laid traps. The missing-nin had woken to Sai's rapidly incoming presence, and was unable to dodge Sai's kunai, instead taking the blow to the shoulder. Sai buried the blade in as far as it would go and twisted, a technique Ran had taught him that shredded muscle and nerve and caused more pain than a normal blow. The rogue had cried out in agony, which turn had summoned the rest of Ran's crew, and from there it had been more of a game than an actual battle. One rogue shinobi versus a half dozen blood crazed battle fanatics? Even Sai wouldn't have wanted those odds.

That night, with the rogue shinobi tied up and a hunted boar roasting over a large campfire, the crew had celebrated. They sang praises to Jashin and attempted to pull Sai into the 'revelry', and though Sai found it a bit difficult to keep up with the energy level the others put out, he could also feel himself...warming to it. The disciples lavished him with congratulations over drawing the first blood and helping bring the shinobi down, each of them in turn coming to clap him on the back and give him their praise. It was part of the ritual, Sai noticed, because every disciple praised every other for something they'd done in the battle, whether it be a well-placed hit or an artful dodge or even diverting a blow that would have been fatal for a comrade.

Root had no concept of congratulations. One did a job perfectly, or one was reprimanded. Sai had learned the concept of praise from Sakura, but the Hageshisai, strangely enough, had it down to an art.

And as the night drew on and the Hageshisai lost themselves to song and music in Jashin's name, Sai strangely felt himself wanting to join along.

When Gaara returned to the enclave for the first time, all three of them were exhausted in ways they'd never been exhausted before.

"I hate tanuki." Gaara said dryly as he laid on the floor.

"I hate nature chakra." Sakura answered in turn, sprawling herself out with her head on Gaara's stomach.

"I think I want to learn to play an instrument." Sai announced, leaning back so that his head was in Sakura's lap. "It's good practice for dexterity. It will enable me to paint faster."

"You know, Sai, you can learn to play an instrument just because you want to." Sakura countered. "It doesn't have to be for any benefit."

"Ah." Sai replied. "I suppose so."

The second part was comprehension.

With nature chakra circling through her system, Sakura could call upon Jashin's power to 'connect' her to an individual. She had to be touching them, and they had to have chakra. Shiro theorized that Jashin connected his Chosen to another person's chakra source and allowed his Chosen to direct the other's chakra to either harm or hurt. For Hidan, that connection was made through the imbibing of his opponent's chakra. Blood had chakra within it, and was the most efficient way to imbibe an enemy's chakra in battle. Once Hidan had tasted his opponent's chakra, Jashin enabled him to connect to his opponent and direct said opponent's chakra to injure its host. It only worked using natural chakra, and Hidan could only direct his opponent's chakra by taking on the wound himself. Jashin kept Hidan alive despite any injury because injury was needed to damage his opponent in such a manner.

It was a bit inefficient, perhaps, but with all the pomp and ritual Hidan participated in to do it, there was very little chance an opponent would be able to tell what exactly was going on. They'd be intimidated by the mention of a curse, put off by the fact that Hidan could take lethal injury without a sweat, and distracted by the mere implication that Hidan could kill them without lifting a single finger in their direction. And even without the connection, Hidan was a force to be feared. He didn't need to connect to every opponent to kill them: immortality and a scythe were pretty fine substitutes. But as far as the Hageshisai believed, killing through Jashin's connection was a uniquely holy experience, and Hidan was encouraged to seek out powerful opponents and perform the ritual, feeling their pain and suffering and taking it all into himself at his enemy's final moments.

"The Hageshisai have always been a bit brutal." Shiro told her. "The Jushisai prefer the healing worship. To give of oneself to see another that not, in and of itself, a holy experience?"

The Hageshisai worshipped the giving of pain, and the Jushisai worshipped the taking of pain. Balanced, and full of debate. Sakura sometimes sat in on philosophical discussions between the older members of the enclave and found herself enraptured by the contradictions, by the proclamations, by every word of it. The power was real, that was undeniable, but the nature of it wasn't even agreed upon within the enclave, and that both fascinated and inspired her.

One didn't need to believe the same things to work towards a common cause. And wasn't that exactly what her Neutrality Project was attempting to recreate?

Both healing and harming required a knowledge of anatomy. Hidan had been put through an anatomy course before, though Shiro mused that he had not really taken to study very well, and so too was Sakura begun on anatomy textbooks and lectures on the functions of the body. Hidan directed chakra to harm. Sakura directed chakra to heal.

Jinchuuriki did it naturally. The Bijuu's chakra circled into their system and directed their own chakra to stitch together wounds and mend broken bones. It was the reason that Naruto had always been so durable, and what Sakura was learning was how to direct another's chakra in much the same way. But she needed to know how to direct it first. It was one thing to know that someone had taken a kunai cut; it was another to understand how to order the body to pull skin and muscle cells together and grow them back into functionality.

"I healed Sai before without knowing any of this." Sakura told Shiro one day. "I remember putting pressure on the wounds, and I remember feeling Jashin force natural energy into me...but I wasn't doing any directing."

"No, I suspect not." Shiro had agreed. "Did you remain conscious, afterwards?"


"Then what you did then was akin to an overload. You had no way of knowing how to direct Sai's chakra, so instead you unknowingly ordered his chakra to repair everything. It requires a very high amount of chakra from you to do this, enough that you could have possibly died yourself from the attempt. Such a thing should only be reserved for very dire emergencies."

Shiro didn't have to tell her twice.

Directionless healing required tons of chakra, whereas a specific direction required less. Sakura would be best in a situation where she could heal single wounds at a time. The severity of the injury correlated to the amount of chakra used, of course, which meant that even with the addition of nature chakra to her system, there was only so much healing Sakura could do before she could heal no longer.

And no, she did not get immortality.

"I feel like I got the short end of the stick." Sakura grumbled over her textbook. "Hidan can't die unless someone chops off his head and starves him to death, whereas I'm still very squishy. Wouldn't I be a better healer if I didn't have to worry about dying myself?"

"Jashin's Chosen were made to work in tandem with each other." Shiro explained. "You need not fear death with Hidan to take every blow meant for you, and you to heal him when he does so. Hidan need not fear being disabled from a fight with you to put him back together, which means, so long as you are touching, there is nothing that can stop you."

"But Hidan isn't here and I'm still squishy."

"That is true, but that does not mean you do not have other abilities that Hidan might envy."

It all came back to sensing, and Sakura wondered more than once how much of a freak coincidence it was that she pulled a sealing scroll from Konoha's library all those months ago. Natural energy enhanced one's sensing abilities, yes, but Jashin's influence helped make her sensing abilities even more special. For one, sensing could be used as a diagnostic. For injuries that were invisible to the eye, for cancers and diseases and poisons, how could one direct healing if they did not know what or where to look for?

As it turned out, chakra reacted to internal damage, and it took a very keen and discerning eye to understand what was the natural flow of chakra and what indicated a chakra disturbed. Sakura learned this in something of a trial by fire. A particular dedicated Hageshisai took poison into their body, and Sakura was tasked with using her sensing jutsu to determine how the poison was taking effect and to use Jashin's power to direct their chakra to nullify it. They started with more benign poisons, but as Sakura's training progressed, they moved on to progressively more lethal applications. It wasn't just nullifying the poison, then, but undoing the damage the poison had managed to do before Sakura had gotten to it. Reversing liver damage, preventing blood from coagulating too much, repairing nerve damage...all these things and more Sakura had to learn, and it was the most intense application of her academic mind that she had ever been put through. She wondered passively one day if this was how Tsunade had learned to heal, and naturally took plenty of notes. (It had been Tsunade's request, after all, to spread the knowledge of healing to every village, and Sakura wasn't sure if even Tsunade knew some of the healing techniques that the Jushisai had perfected over centuries of study.)

Learning to harness natural chakra had been the first step. Mastering both healing and sensing was the next. And Sakura admittedly felt a sense of peace with the knowledge that, should the worst ever happen to her comrades, there was something she could do. If she couldn't keep them safe, she could heal them...and that was something that just felt right.

The second part was control.

Gaara had been more than relieved to have the golden seal pulled away from his body and to feel his and Shukaku's chakra return to him, and had felt no small amount of relief when he'd successfully named the last of the three Sages.

"You've earned our allegiance, kid." Yashima Hage had told him with a smile, no longer disguised but standing before Gaara in full tanuki glory. The Sage was huge, easily twenty feet tall and with a presence that even made Gaara straighten his back a little more and stand at attention. Not even his father had made him feel the need to behave like the Sages did. "But you've still got a lot to learn, don't you think?"

"Yes." Gaara agreed with a nod. "More than I had realized."

It didn't take much more for the Sages to announce that they would take Gaara on. No summoner of theirs, they rationalized, would make them look bad. So it was that Gaara agreed to return for regular training, so long as he could come back to the Jashinist enclave each night and ensure that Sakura and Sai were doing well.

Tanukis were masters of deception, that much he had learned quickly, but they were also masters of puzzles and traps and quick thinking. And most importantly, the tanuki had the ability to make gold.

Golden sand had been a technique passed down in Sunagakure to worthy shinobi. Gaara's father had wielded it, and it was known to be the only thing capable of restraining Shukaku's power when seals had failed. It was a heavier metal, but more malleable. Once it had been created, it could be more easily shaped and used for both offense and defense. But that was not all.

"Gold has further properties." Shibaemon told him. "With proper application, it can purify chakra."


"Remove alterations to chakra. If someone sends a waterfall your way, your regular sand will begun muddied, and it won't eliminate the actual water from pooling around you. Gold, when used correctly, can pull the applied element from the technique and render it pure chakra. A wave hits a shield of golden sand and you no longer have to deal with the aftermath."

Useful, Gaara noted, and it explained how the golden sand of his Father had managed to restrain Shukaku in the past. His father had said that he had weighed down Shukaku with his own sand, but it had been more than that. He had purified Shukaku's chakra from Gaara's own, until Shukaku was docile enough to be properly restrained.

Even more than that, golden sand applied to a seal could nullify it, if Gaara's technique was good enough. Tanuki had perfected the technique in order to counter traps that had been designed by their peers. Tanuki were constantly playing such games: one would attempt to trap the other, and the other would attempt to nullify or escape the trap.

First, Gaara would learn gold manipulation. Then, he'd be playing those games.

It required very precise chakra control to create gold from the earth, which was something Gaara still severely lacked. As a Jinchuuriki, it was far easier to brute force techniques with an abundance of chakra, but if Gaara tried to brute force gold, he ended up creating something molten and useless.

He was started, not on gold, but on the tanuki's signature transformation technique. Gaara was encouraged to perform the technique with smaller and smaller amounts of chakra, all the while maintaining perfect detail as he attempted to replicate a person generated by a tanuki in front of him. When Gaara first performed the technique, he was told to halve his chakra, then halve it again, until Gaara was forced to learn how to perform the technique using a hundredth of what he had used to begin with. His integration with Shukaku's chakra made it even more difficult. Even with he and the Bijuu working in tandem, Shukaku just had so much, and it was difficult for Shukaku to hold his own power back.

For the first month, he felt as though he had a headache every day from the strain of learning control. He was attempting to cram years of practice and learning into a much shorter period of time, and that on it own was a new kind of exhaustion that he had never experienced. He would return to the enclave, eat, and then promptly pass out, usually on top of Sakura while she studied. This was further perpetuated by Sai, who had picked up some sort of string instrument and played admittedly soothing music. Gaara had thought he'd never find peace like he had during their time in Iwa, but those evenings in the enclave were equally enjoyable.

More than anything, he realized, he wanted a home. He wanted Akatsuki dead and the shinobi nations united and a place for him, Sakura, and Sai to be able to come to and settle down and just...exist.

Maybe here in Yu, he thought, a pacifist nation with no official shinobi, close to the Jashinists that Sakura and Sai had now truly bonded with. Maybe they could settle here? Build a house in the mountains near a pleasant hot spring, not too far from civilization but not too close…

It was those thoughts, those peaceful dreams, that let him focus enough to make gold for the first time.

The second part was community.

It was something that the Hageshisai secretly prided more than pain, more than religion. It was community with each other, knowing each other's little quirks and secrets and being there whenever one faced hardships. Sai had begun to learn community during his time with Sakura and Gaara, but there was a difference between interacting with close friends and interacting with a people.

When Ran's crew threw themselves into battle, Sai learned to throw himself in right beside them, and because they had fought and sparred so many times he knew how they would move. He could swing a sword with his comrade inches away and know for a fact that he would never harm his comrade, and when kunai and shuriken flew his way he knew the people around him would make sure he didn't get hit. And he in turn kept them safe, fought at their side. He celebrated with them, and while he still wasn't sure about singing, he didn't protest when Ran thrust a shamisen into his hands and told him it was time to learn. The Hageshisai praised Jashin not just through prayer, but through upbeat song and dance that swelled within the enclave and seemed to echo both within him and without.

It took time to learn the shamisen, but Sai had already trained his fingers to be deft and his hands to be strong. More importantly, Sakura and Gaara did not seem to mind his practicing within their quarters, and Sakura even encouraged it. He'd found a hobby, he realized after a time, something to occupy his mind that wasn't training or researching, but something that was simply…


"Well I should hope you're having fun, brat!" Ran teased him after Sai had spoken with her about it. "What's life if you can't enjoy it a little bit?"

As if to prove it to him, Ran began to turn combat training into games. They played tag up in the mountains, weapons and exploding tags allowed, and Sai was allowed to lose himself in the thrill of hunting and being hunted. He made something of a name for himself; many of his ink animals were small enough to sneak exploding tags into hiding spaces and drive out the hiding by explosive force, and Sai found himself enjoying the elated whooping and hollering that sounded when he'd successfully rooted someone out. It was fast and it was direct and Sai was easily both those things without even trying. And there was nothing like settling down after a day of running about. It gave Sakura a chance to practice healing on his superficial wounds, and afterwards he could soak in the hot springs with his comrades and listen to the jokes and tall tales they came up with.

Sometimes they went on trips, and sometimes those trips were commissioned by Sakura herself. As she learned more, she wrote reports to deliver to each of the allied Kage, as well as letters to pass on to her friends. Sai could have just sent them by bird, of course, but going on trips with Ran's crew helped him gauge just how quickly he could reach a specific village, and also allowed him to continually show his face as an ambassador.

"Ya know, you're smiling a lot more." Naruto had told him during a mission to deliver some healing documents to Tsunade. "I mean, you smiled before, but everyone knew you were kinda full of it."

"How do you know I'm not full of it now?"

"I don't know, I just do! It's like, it's the eyes or something. Ino's been trying to show me how to read people and it's like, no matter what you do, it's really really hard to mask what your eyes are showing, ya know?"

"Kind of sounds like you're full of it, Brainless."

"Gah, you're such a prick, Sai!"

It took six days at full sprint to reach Sunagakure from the enclave. It was three days to reach Konoha from Suna, and about four days to reach Iwa or Taki from either of them, so long as they only stopped for minimal rest. Judging by those times, it would probably take a good ten days to cross the continent from Kumo to Suna, and similarly so to cross the continent from Iwa to Kiri. No matter where they were, they would always be able to reach a village within ten days, usually quicker depending on where they were. It was something that nobody had ever really calculated before, mostly because there hadn't ever been a need to do so. But now that Sai was doing it, he hoped that other shinobi might be tempted into visiting villages that they were allied with, if only to learn the culture and gain a better understanding of the people they might be called to fight alongside.

In a way, that was community too. Sai found himself beginning to collect souvenirs from every country, books and snacks and trinkets that he could share with others and even keep for himself. Gemstone pendants from Iwa, spicy dried fruits from Suna, entertaining literature from Konoha, and, perhaps most interestingly, hand-held telescopes from Kusagakure. Stargazing was a popular pastime in the Grass Village, and Sai found that the scopes were not just good for looking up to the sky, but for seeing very far distances. One scope in particular was attached to a headpiece, meant to be worn around one eye to allow a long-ranged fighter to better see their foe.

Suffice to say, Sai had dumped most of his money on getting one of those of the finest quality. And as he passed on his trinkets and snacks to people he knew in each village, he knew he was spreading something good: interest.

The ambassadors were supposed to be promoting trade between villages, weren't they? Sai simply considered it part of the job. And if businesses did well enough from his advertising to start to give him discounts whenever he arrived? He certainly wouldn't complain.

Was it weird to bond over weapons? Sakura wasn't sure, but she'd take happiness where she found it.

The Jashinists had pioneered trick weaponry, after all, and of course Jashin's Chosen and her entourage would be offered the best the enclave's weaponsmiths had to offer.

Sai had been pondering ideas for his own weapon for some time, and ended up coming up with something simple: a custom paint brush, one that could shift into a blowgun of sorts and allow him to both paint his ink creations and quickly switch to darts when the need arose. Simple but deadly: the darts could be poisoned, but he could also roll very thin explosive tags around some of the darts and have a rather bombastic defense if someone threatened to get close.

Gaara provided the metal for his own commission, gold he had made by mixing his chakra with the earth. But Gaara wasn't really a weapons user, so instead he asked for armor: golden chainmail that he could wear beneath his attire and channel chakra into in an attempt to purify any jutsu that managed to get around his sand. Gaara thought of Sasuke Uchiha and the Chidori technique that had torn through his barrier and pierced his shoulder; if he could have nullified the lightning, the technique would have done far less damage. Plus, if he didn't have time to make gold, he could always use his armor, in a pinch.

Sakura's commission was perhaps the most difficult. She wanted something that could be defensive and offensive, but also something that someone with her body type wouldn't have trouble wielding. It took a week before the weaponsmith came to her with an idea.

"Kasayari." The man announced. "A completely unique design for Jashin's chosen."

He explained the concept, and Sakura's eyes lit up.

This...this she could work with.

The third part was acceptance.

Jashin's visions came with increased severity the longer she spent in the enclave, but for the first time since the visions began, Sakura felt something new.

Sakura felt someone looking through her eyes.

She couldn't explain how she knew, and perhaps Jashin was simply giving her a nudge whenever it occurred. But it didn't take her long to realize that Hidan was looking through her eyes, much as she had looked through his and seen into his past.

They were leagues apart, and Hidan was limited in his correspondence with the enclave since joining Akatsuki, but through this they could communicate.

Hey, Sakura thought to herself. So... I found the enclave like you said. But I think I did things a little differently than you wanted.

When she slept that night, she saw through Hidan's eyes, and heard his thoughts as her own.

There you are, you little shit, I can't fucking believe you had to go and get yourself chosen for the Jushisai. Did you not listen to a fucking word I told you? You're too good to be a goddamn pacifist so don't you let them corrupt you.

Hidan cursed, but Sakura still got a sense of resigned acceptance. Hidan accepted her, and these words were just...banter.

You better listen up, Pinkie, 'cause this might be the difference between life or fucking death, and I'm not gonna stand you dying before you get a chance to show me how good you've gotten. See this shit in front of me? That's Kakuzu and he's a heathen piece of shit that won't hesitate to put you in the ground if the price is right, and guess what? The price is fucking right.

Sakura saw Kakuzu again, currently sitting at a desk and going through what looked to be paperwork. They were in a building, and it was raining outside, heavily.

Hidan stood up, cracking his neck, which caused Kakuzu to look up.

"I'm fuckin' bored, I'm going for a walk. If Boss doesn't have anything for us to kill, what's the goddamn point?"

"Don't do anything stupid, Hidan."

"...then what's the goddamn point?"

This, also, seemed like banter, and though there was an underlying sense of loathing that Hidan felt regarding Kakuzu, there was also a begrudging respect. The man was strong, and Hidan acknowledged it.

Hidan walked out into the rain, and for the first time, something clicked within Sakura's mind.

This was Amegakure.

Shiro had told her, but Sakura still hadn't quite believed it. Amegakure was the location of Akatsuki's hideout. Amegakure was compromised...and as far as Hidan had told Shiro, Konan, the Amekage, was part of it.

And Sakura had given her everything she'd known at the time about Akatsuki. If not for the fact that Sakura now had an inside agent, it could have been disastrous. Akatsuki knowing what information she knew meant that they could prepare, and make sure to send people to face her that she had nothing on.

I hate this fuckin' place. Hidan monologued in his own mind as he walked. Wet and cold and fuckin' miserable. But I figure you better see all the fuckers you're up against.

There was a tunnel leading into the ground beneath Ame, and it went deep. As Hidan walked, he passed two others that Sakura did not recognize, though each wore the trademark Akatsuki cloak. One looked to be a young man, with long, blonde hair, and he had a somewhat friendly rapport with Hidan.

"We're off to Oto to take care of your little pink friend. I'll save you an arm, yeah? If there's even that much left."

"You better kill her properly, Dei, you little shit, she deserves that much. Make it painful."

"I'll make it art, I'll promise you that."

The figure next to the blonde man was far harder to get a read on. He didn't even look human, and Hidan was pointedly not looking his way.

Deidara. You spent time in Iwa, right? So you might have heard of him. He's a fun guy, I'd have sent him to the enclave if Akatsuki hadn't gotten him first. The other bastard is Sasori. He was apparently hot shit in Suna once upon a time, but he's a creepy shit and I hate listening to him.

Deidara. Onoki had spoken of Deidara once or twice, and apparently this young man had also been Onoki's disciple once upon a time, before 'artistic differences' had caused him to leave the village. He was only a few years older than she was, and yet already considered strong enough to stand with Akatsuki. He'd be formidable, but she knew Onoki could send her some tips.

Sasori...perhaps Gaara would know of him, and if not, a query to Temari was in order.

The tunnel eventually opened up to a large chamber, and it was within that Hidan showed her the Statue.

It was enormous, and there were what appeared to be hundreds of seals overlaid over the parts that were already in position. It was still being built, by the look of things, since it was covered with ladders and workers molding the stone with chakra. At the bottom of the statue stood a man with bright orange hair, who had strange piercings lining his face.

That's the bitch in charge right there. Goes by Pein. Don't know how the fuck he works but his eyes are strong and he can easily kick my ass if I piss him off.

Pein looked towards Hidan, then, and Sakura felt Hidan sneer in turn. Clearly Hidan didn't mind showing his disdain to the leader of Akatsuki, but she felt a small layer of fear nonetheless. Hidan was afraid of someone. That alone was unnerving.

"Hidan." The man spoke, his voice somehow imposing and empty all at once. "What are you doing here?"

"I'm fuckin' bored, cut me a break. Kakuzu hasn't found the next target yet."

"Be bored elsewhere. You know this is delicate work."

"Yeah, yeah, I was just hoping to find Kisame down here for a spar. Get off my ass."

Hidan turned and left, but the message had been sent. This was the place where Akatsuki would be sealing away Jinchuuriki, and the Statue was the vessel.

Itachi and Kisame haven't been back in a long while. Leader's actually worried they fucked off for good, but he'll never admit it. You haven't seen them around, have you? They're strong ass motherfuckers, you don't wanna cross them unless you have to.

If Sakura could have swallowed uneasily, she would have. Itachi and Kisame, unaccounted for by even Akatsuki? What could it mean?

Zetsu's probably skulking around, but he's more intelligence gatherer than a good fight. Fucker turns tail every time I ask for a spar. You could take him, I'm sure. And that's everyone, so you better fucking remember it. I'm not giving you the tour again.

Sakura woke shortly after that, confused. That was...everyone?

Then what about the masked man?

If it was someone that even Hidan hadn't seen, that meant they were operating in the shadows, and they knew that Sakura knew it. Ten Akatsuki members overall, one of which she could trust not to kill her.

She would have liked to place some measure of faith in Konan, but…

Sakura sighed.

When Hidan connected with her again, she sent him her thanks. When he continued to stay connected, it was awkward at first, and even more awkward when it continued to oscillate. She'd connect, then he would, and at first, for the most part, they were silent observers of each other.

Eventually, however, Sakura began to think.

Hidan had unfiltered access to her thoughts, after all, and maybe it was a bit weird but since she couldn't exactly block him out, she might as well take advantage of it. She vented in her mind, vented worries that she'd told to Gaara and Sai but that still nibbled at the back of her mind. She vented about Konan and her deception, vented about her worries about facing S-ranked shinobi to defend her friend, vented about her lessons and the difficult time she had manipulating nature chakra.

Hidan had a mouth, but a strange way of putting her at ease. He'd tell her she was stupid for worrying, to face the challenges head on like she always had and what would be would 'fuckin' be'. He promised her that Konan would pay one day for giving her the run around, and bitched about his own dealings with nature chakra, useful as it was.

Sakura accepted, after a month of the back and forth, that she kind of liked having a penpal, as weird as the medium of communication was. Jashin had chosen them both, and they were very different, or so she'd thought at first, but…

But one didn't share thoughts for weeks on end without sort of becoming something like friends.

The third part was acquaintanceship.

As the time came in which Gaara knew they would soon be leaving the enclave, the tanuki concluded his training by introducing him to each of the tanuki that he could summon. Emi had not originally been one, but after some pleading, the Sages took Emi in and tied her to the summoning contract so that Gaara could summon her if she ever wasn't immediately nearby to help. The other tanuki prided themselves in having 'a bit more to offer', but Emi had been his first and he was attached, and after all they'd been through Gaara just considered her part of the team.

The Sages gave him approval upon seeing the chainmail that had been made with his gold and as a final parting gift gave him a gold leaf pin, as proof that he had passed their trials and earned their allegiance. Gaara wore it with pride, and as he left Shikoku for what might be the final time, he felt a quick pang of something that was akin to homesickness. He had grown fond of Shikoku and its quaint village and forest, and though it wasn't really home, he'd miss it.

But he had the alliance of the tanuki secured now, as well as a strong new technique under his belt, and a sort of mental discipline he'd not had before. He was stronger for this. Stronger for Sakura and Sai, stronger maybe even for himself, and that had been worth everything.

The third part was...arduous.

It had taken a while for Sai to realize that Konoha had never really been a home, right about the same time that he'd begun to consider the enclave one. This happened right when Sakura informed him that they'd stayed long enough, and they would need to be moving on to Oto.

Sai had never really had to give a meaningful goodbye before, and he decided that it was something he never really wanted to do again.

It was especially more difficult when Ran's crew took the goodbye gracefully. The normally rowdy and belligerent group grew softer and even each came to hug him in turn, before Ran presented him with a gift from the group: a beautiful sword that had each of their names engraved into the metal.

"Once you run with us, you're always one of us." Ran told him with a smile. "I knew it wouldn't be for long but you were fun, pipsqueak."

For the first time in his life, Sai understood what it was like to cry and be happy.

A road stretched out ahead of them, and Sakura smiled as she saw the land before her. At her sides, Gaara and Sai stood, different yet the same after five months of various trainings and hardships.

"Well?" She asked them both. "To Oto?"

"To Oto." Gaara agreed.

"Let's go confront a snake, shall we?" Sai answered in turn. "I'm sure absolutely nothing will go wrong."

"Idiot." Sakura nudged him with her arm. "You know what we do if it does?"

"We keep moving." Sai replied with a smile.

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