Book Three

1.

I went downstairs for breakfast one morning shortly after the invasion, and my mother handed me a letter absently on her trip by. (She'd just retrieved our mail from the mail box.)

"What's this?" I asked in confusion, holding up the envelope.

"I don't know," said my Mom, her eyes focused on what looked like a bill. "It just came in the post for you."

I looked down at the envelope. The handwriting was very good, almost intimidatingly so, the sign of a professional trainer. It spelled out my name and village, but not my exact address, which meant I probably hadn't gotten the letter for several days after it arrived in Konoha. The inter-village post office box was a general place for a huge assortment of letters, two reserve ninja with pityingly boring jobs assigned to go through each individual letter and find the address of the person it was intended for, after assessing that there was nothing dangerous inside the letter.

That was when I saw the return address: this letter came from a place in Suna.

I held the letter as though it were a snake. The envelope had already been opened, so surely the insides had been checked for any sign of danger. But still, what other business could someone from Suna possibly have concerning me?

At last, curiosity getting the better of me, I did a quick chakra scan before slitting open the envelope and taking out the letter to read its inside contents.

The message was short and to the point:

Sakura -

I am sorry. I don't expect you to forgive me, or even to believe me, but I am.

Gaara


It was absolutely unbelievable. I stood there gaping at the letter until my mother finally asked me in vague concern, "Sakura? Are you alright?"

A whole mess of reactions welled up within me, and I couldn't decide which to express first. Anger finally won out, anger and bewilderment:

"That - that - that asshole!" I threw the letter down and went to storm up the stairs. Paused. Went back down the stairs. Grabbed up the letter. And then proceeded to storm indignantly back to my room!

I paced up and down the floor inside, my cat watching me from the corner with his tail swishing as if he understood exactly what was going on and held the entire affair in utter contempt. I'm sorry? I'm sorry?! After all that, that was what he had to say?!

I reminded myself of all the reasons I had to hate Gaara: his wanton sadism, his crippling of Lee, his attempt to kill Shino, his attempt to kill Naruto, his threats to kill me, his utter insanity, all the bloody murders he had probably instigated with little provocation -

I had every reason not to respond to the letter at all, or to respond back with furious words. I had every reason to hate Gaara!

So why did my anger feel so... hollow?

I sat down slowly on my bed, trying to puzzle this out. I realized after a while that my anger simply masked a deeper emotion: I had no idea how to respond. There was just something so raw about those few simple words and the utter humility it must have taken to write them. I thought about it: he had made the decision to write the letter, he'd written that and then left the letter there because he knew there was nothing else he could say, and then he'd sent the letter in the general direction of my village hoping (possibly in vain) that it would reach who it was intended to reach. And he'd done all that instead of doing something like looking me up in a telephone directory, as if the idea of a conversation frightened him. The way he avoided anything like face to face conversation indicated - incredibly - some sort of shame.

I had heard him apologize to his siblings. He'd made them leave without fighting us, as if he no longer had a reason to.

The idea was almost impossible, but... was Gaara trying? Was Sabaku no Gaara, of all people, genuinely trying to be a better person?

The possibility threw me, and I almost dismissed it out of hand. He was basically stalking you, I reminded myself. It's amazing he hadn't memorized your home address. Gaara had admitted that not even he knew why he was so fascinated by me, though it was obvious in retrospect that it was because I reminded him of his more human history.

That brought me to the question: Why write to me?

And all of a sudden, I realized I was going to respond to him, because I wanted to know. Gai had warned me about being fascinated with Gaara, but what could even Gaara do, trapped in his own village whole countries away?


Gaara -

Why apologize if you don't expect me to believe you?

I've decided not to hold onto any hatred. It would just be unhealthy. I'm not sure if you really mean what you say, but either way, if it matters to you, you have my full and free forgiveness.

Why did you decide to write to me?

Sakura


Sakura -

I don't know what else to do. I've been apologizing to a lot of people. I've had several doors slammed in my face. How does one go about convincing a whole village full of people who hate them that they are capable of being... human?

I don't even know if I'm capable of being human. But you and Naruto claim that I am.

I wrote to you because you said that you'd have been friends with me if I'd allowed it. You said the only thing keeping me from friendship was myself. I didn't believe you, so I decided to write to you to silence your voice in my head.

And yet you responded. If you're writing to feel better about yourself, you really shouldn't.

Gaara


Gaara -

I'm not writing to you to feel better about myself. I'm writing to you because I want to.

I guess the only thing I can tell you is to keep trying. Keep being kind to people and protecting people. Don't just give up after the first few tries. Try to stay calm, and be patient. I know you're not very good at that, but try anyway.

I can't imagine how alone you must feel. Is there any possibility you could reach out to your siblings?

There are a lot of changes going on in your village, aren't there?

Sakura


Sakura -

I am used to being alone. I have gotten a lot of strange looks recently, though. Especially from Kankurou and Temari. I just went to them and told them I wanted to show people I am capable of being kind. They looked at me as if I had grown another head. It was very irritating.

My brother said, "It's that Leaf bitch, isn't it?" My brother is confusing.

My father is dead. I hated him, so I am not sure how to feel. No one dared make me go to his funeral. We have been moved out of the Kazekage's place and we each now have our own quarters in a complex close to the center of the city. There are no servants here. It is very strange.

Suna's pride has been tarnished. That is what the council says. Things here have been rather quiet. No one was expecting the betrayal.

Perhaps it was unwise to ally ourselves with a powerful ninja who had already betrayed another village, but no one dares question my wise father.

And as to your village?

Gaara


Gaara -

You didn't threaten to kill them, did you?

I would think you would be glad your father is dead. No one's trying to kill you anymore. But he was still your father, so maybe that's asking for too much.

In Konoha, things have mostly moved on. Maybe that sounds strange, but there was no real damage done, so we held a funeral for those who had died and then we went back to normal. I've been hanging out with my friends and training with my teammates. I haven't had any big missions as a Chuunin yet.

Sakura


Sakura -

No, I didn't threaten to kill them. What an odd question. Why would that be significant?

Gaara


Gaara -

Just trust me. It is. Try to hold off on the whole "threatening to kill people" thing, see what it does for your reputation. Just a piece of personal advice.

Sakura


Our letters moved from there, slowly, into other topics. We quickly forewent the usual post in favor of messenger hawk, which was actually faster - Gaara appeared fond of them, in any case. I found out Gaara was a reader, like me. He didn't always while away those long, sleepless nights by painting the walls with other people's blood, as it turned out. Sometimes, while everyone else was sleeping, he just read. We started recommending and sending books to each other. I had never had anyone I could really talk to about stuff like that before. Gaara was actually very intelligent.

I also found out that he grew cacti. He sent me a tiny one in a pot once and I put it next to my window. It was kind of pretty in its own weird, prickly little way, with red flowers along its length.

I tried to turn him on to all my favorite music. He listened to it, discerned it was mostly pop, and told me he was bewildered by my odd taste. I feigned indignation, and then he didn't get it and sent me back a letter full of apologies, which was endearing in its own stiff, socially awkward sort of way. I sent him another letter telling him I had just been kidding.

I don't suppose people kidded with him very often.

We also traded information about missions, both of us purposefully vague on any details. I told him about my experiences, and I discerned that he was mostly sent out on missions that were solo and extremely bloody, focused on things like guarding and assassinations. He was still treated like a weapon by the Suna council, and that made me sad, which he told me he didn't understand.

We kept in touch. I didn't tell anyone else about it, except for Naruto, who actually got really emotional and told me it was an incredibly positive thing I was doing. "You're like his Iruka," he tried to explain, and I wasn't sure what that meant, but I took it that it was good.

All throughout the rest of this book, after I got back from missions or important events, when I got a chance I would send a letter to Gaara. He always wrote back, and except for the occasional pause during a mission, his replies came back faster and faster. I thought maybe it helped him, to have a connection with the outside world. I never got any hints of insanity or any sudden murders. I took that as a good sign.


That day started out as a day much like any other. Ino, Hinata, and I walked to team seven's meeting bridge together, chatting idly about this and that. We met Naruto there, who kissed Hinata as I smiled and looked away uncomfortably. Hinata would be beaming and Naruto would be smiling and they'd murmur to each other with their faces close together and it was all very gooey.

Then, when Ino and Hinata left, Sasuke would show up. He'd be sweaty and covered in dirt from training and extremely satisfied - Kakashi was giving Sasuke intensive training not only in Sharingan usage, but also in chakra control, water spells, and in more advanced weaponry. Sasuke had told us with pride that Kakashi was thinking of putting Sasuke into contact with a master in swordsmanship.

Sasuke, Naruto, and I would then set to sparring.

We were about halfway through this when a voice suddenly said from directly behind Naruto, "Huh. You're kissing girls and you don't have bad form. Not often you see those two things together."

We all whirled around, freaking out - I went for a hand seal, Sasuke threw weapons, and Naruto launched himself bodily at the intruder, only for the intruder to hold him back boredly by the head.

"Down, Fido," said none other than Jiraiya-sama, the tall, broad shouldered Sannin with the long white hair.

"J-Jiraiya-sama -" I began, bowing. I kicked Sasuke in the shin, for he was staring at the intruder with open suspicion.

Jiraiya chuckled. "Ah, I always love it when cute girls call me that," he said. Then he struck a pose. "Yes, it is none other than I, Jiraiya-sama, the Toad Sage!"

"What are you doing here?" Naruto asked rudely; he might not have exactly gotten over the 'Fido' comment.

"I'm here, you jumpy little shit -" Jiraiya rolled his eyes. "To offer you training!" he finished with a grand kind of sarcasm, spreading his arms wide.

Naruto gaped. He wasn't the only one. "Why would you take an interest in Naruto?" Sasuke asked at last. "No offense intended this time. But he's usually the last one people look at."

"Yeah, the whole 'troublemaking demon' thing tends to put people off, for some reason," Naruto added.

Jiraiya shrugged. "I saw you at the Exam. You impressed me."

"More than Sakura?" Naruto questioned, raising an eyebrow. I was impressed. I think Naruto just pulled a Me.

Jiraiya was uncomfortable for a moment. He looked around. "Look, kid," he muttered. "Just accept, alright?"

"I'm not accepting anything without Kakashi-sensei -!"

"He's already agreed for you!"

"Ha! And I'm supposed to believe that?!"

"I knew your parents, you whiny little shit!"

The Great Uzumaki Naruto was struck silent. He stared at Jiraiya with very big, round eyes. But I knew in that moment that Naruto was going to give in.

"Oh," said Naruto at last. "Well. That's different." He looked at the ground and scuffed a shoe sheepishly.

"There, see?" Jiraiya grumbled. "Funny. I expected that to be easier."

"How do all these people just know Naruto's parents?" I wondered aloud. Sasuke and Naruto looked at me curiously. "I mean, what, one of them couldn't have taken him in? I get that this village has sort of an 'eh, the village will raise them' attitude toward orphans, but it seems a little weird to me."

"Actually..." Naruto frowned. "I was just so happy to know people who knew them. I'd never thought about that before."

Three sets of glares were turned on a suddenly nervous Jiraiya. "Kakashi was barely a teenager," I said, hands on my hips. "What's your excuse?"

Jiraiya stared at me for a moment. "I don't like you," he announced at last. I tried not to let this get to me, despite how important a person he probably was. Old Me would have been bothered. New Me was too busy protecting her friend Naruto.

Jiraiya shifted uncomfortably. "Look, let's just say I wouldn't have been an ideal parent," he said. "I like women. I like alcohol. And I like them both a lot. What can I say? Essentially, I'm selfish. I wasn't willing to give all that shit up. Figured it was probably better to wait until the kid was older and could handle himself." Jiraiya shrugged philosophically.

"Well." I crossed my arms. "Then I don't like you either."

"I'm hurt," Jiraiya assured me sarcastically.

"I don't know if I want to go off and train with someone like that!" Naruto announced then, and Jiraiya's eyes widened in alarm and also something like disbelief.

"You're telling me," he said, "that I have to ask you to train with a legendary ninja who wants to offer you lots of awesome techniques? Seriously?"

Naruto faded. "Well... when you put it like that, it seems kinda dumb," he muttered.

Jiraiya brightened and clapped him on the shoulder. "I knew you'd see it my way!" he said. "Meet me here tomorrow, we're going on a little training trip!"

Jiraiya ran away. "Hey -!" Naruto began, and then Jiraiya suddenly disappeared. "I never said... yes..." Naruto faded, glaring at the spot where Jiraiya had disappeared in annoyance. Then he turned to us.

"Well," Sasuke said at last, "have fun with the drunken womanizer, Naruto. Don't forget to write."


All jokes aside, we actually were both there at the bridge to see Naruto off the next day. We had become a family of a sort, and this felt natural. We both envied Naruto his good fortune, but we supported him at the same time. Naruto had his pack of things with him and was standing there at the bridge when we walked up.

"He hasn't arrived yet?" I asked. Naruto shook his head.

So we settled in to wait. More time passed... and then more... "What is it with powerful ninja being late to things?" I asked at last.

"It's a curse," said Sasuke immediately. "The Curse of the Tardy Jounin."

"Sounds like a murder mystery," said Naruto decisively.

"Seriously, though," I said, standing up. "Shouldn't we be looking for him? They can't all be like Kakashi."

"He said he likes women and alcohol," said Naruto. "We should look for him at bars. And restaurants. And onsen."

"Onsen?" I asked, caught off guard.

"Yeah. You know. 'Cause they're good for peeking on women. How do you think I got so good at transforming into naked chicks?"

Sasuke looked vaguely horrified at the mental image. "I want to hit you so hard right now," I promised Naruto, who was blinking at us in all apparent innocence.

So we walked downriver, passing different parts of town, looking for a section that seemed likely. Eventually, we had walked far enough that we saw... "Hey," I said, stopping, squinting, "are those ninja fighting on top of the water?"

Farther downriver, two ninja in black cloaks with red clouds on them were surrounded by five adult ninja, and one of them - We stopped and stared. One of them was Kakashi. Another was Jiraiya. I realized Gai was there too, and Kurenai, and Asuma. They had two enemy ninja surrounded. The killing intent coming from the battle was very, very real. Everyone's expressions were serious, deadly.

"Someone tipped my old Sensei off," I heard Jiraiya say sharply, in a much more dangerous voice. "We heard you were coming."

"Damnit!" I heard one of the ninja hiss. He had a peculiar blue face with sharp teeth and strange gill-like markings. He was wearing a slashed exile hitai-ate from Kiri. "Who would -?" He was looking around himself sharply, shiftily, clutching his huge sword behind him. He looked prepared to do something drastic. I would be too, if I were surrounded by three Jounin, a Sannin, and the Copycat Ninja.

"We won't be able to get through without causing a scene and sustaining deadly injuries," his partner predicted, analytically and with an eerily toneless quality. "We should retreat. He is too heavily protected." The partner had long dark hair and deep-set, velvet eyes and pale, sharp features. He was very attractive. And, I realized with a start, he was oddly familiar. In fact, he looked a lot like an older version of...

Naruto'd had the same thought. "Hey, Sasuke," said Naruto curiously, "that guy looks just like you." We looked over at Sasuke...

Only to find Sasuke's face twisted in hatred, his eyes cold and dark, locked on the unfamiliar ninja. "That's because he's my brother," he spat, and too late I realized the man had a slashed Konoha hitai-ate. That was the man who had killed Sasuke's entire family.

By the time I had processed this, Sasuke was already running toward the fight.

"Damnit -!" I said, and then turned to Naruto. "Come on, let's go, he's our teammate," I sighed in dread, and, my stomach knotted with nerves, because I knew exactly what I was getting myself into, I ran beside Naruto after Sasuke.

The adult ninja turned around. "Sasuke, stay back -!" I heard Kakashi bark instinctively, but Sasuke didn't even seem to hear him. He was still crying out, charging at his brother, who had stilled in surprise, his face still impossible to read.

Then the brother's eyes moved beyond Sasuke, and locked onto Naruto. "Ah. There he is, Kisame," said the Uchiha man, in mild, pleasant surprise. "Our target."

Wait - what?

"Shit," I heard Jiraiya say clearly.

I paused, pulling Naruto's arm to stop him, and then the two missing nin disappeared. I gasped and whirled around; there they were, right behind us, and then there, so fast I couldn't even track him, was Jiraiya, a bodily shield between us and the missing nin after Naruto. "You're not getting him," said Jiraiya in a deadly voice.

"Wait, why the hell would they want me?" Naruto asked, bewildered.

I had already guessed. "Think of what you hold, Naruto," I said, getting into a stance and watching the missing nin warily. They were not getting my teammate, I didn't care who they were. Naruto's eyes had widened in realization.

"So they do know about it," said the Uchiha man, and then he continued, "... Interesting."

Suddenly, a rope of water whipped up out of the river from behind the Uchiha man and wrapped around his neck! The eyes widened briefly... and then the figure turned into a Bunshin made of mud and melted away into the river.

I turned around. Sasuke, his Sharingan activated, had made the water spell, but suddenly an arm burst out from the river below him and wrapped around his ankle. Sasuke's eyes widened and he was yanked down into the depths, only just managing to pull himself free. His brother rose up out of the water and there was a brief and furious taijutsu fight, a quick whirl of fists and aborted motions amplified by the fact that each could predict the other's movements accurately with their Sharingan. The older brother quickly proved superior, which made sense with how much more experience he had. He broke past Sasuke's guard and wrapped a hand around his neck, only for Sasuke to replace with one of the branches of a tree trailing its leaves out into the river.

Sasuke jumped out from the tree, throwing a barrage of shuriken and following it up with a blown fireball spell. He was doing well. I was torn. I wanted to help him, but at the same time I didn't want to draw attention to Naruto beside me. I also knew, deep down, that this was Sasuke's fight. He'd never forgive me if I interfered.

Then Sasuke's brother did something incredible. With one hand, he caught each shuriken with the hole through its center by the tips of his fingers, and then with his other hand he ran through a series of one-handed seals and canceled out the fire spell with a wind one.

Sasuke's brother, like Kakashi, was an expert in all the elements.

Sasuke whirled out toward his brother with a kick; his brother dodged slightly, caught the leg, and flung Sasuke away almost irritably. His eyes had narrowed. Then he turned back toward Naruto dismissively.

Crying out in fury, Sasuke righted himself atop the water and ran back toward his brother, making hand seals for another spell...

Then Sasuke's brother disappeared again. He reappeared right behind his little brother. "Alright," he said sharply. "Fine."

He grabbed Sasuke by the hair, pulled him backward in a way that had to hurt his neck, bent Sasuke's head backwards, and looked directly into his eyes with a more complicated version of the same Sharingan Sasuke possessed.

I don't know what kind of hypnosis spell Sasuke's brother used, but Sasuke immediately began convulsing and screaming.

"Damnit," said Kakashi clearly.

"I knew he couldn't do it. It's too soon. He's not strong enough to kill his brother yet, Sharingan or no Sharingan," said Asuma.

"Sensei," I said, because no one seemed to have noticed, "he's torturing him!"

There was a splash behind me. Jiraiya and the other missing nin, Kisame, were fighting, Jiraiya dodging and parrying blows from Kisame's sword.

"Kurenai," said Kakashi sharply, "get Naruto and Sakura out of here. Asuma, Gai: our new goal is to separate Sasuke from Itachi and deal with Itachi."

Naruto had been running through hand seals, about to go help his friend, but he was pulled back by the arm by Kurenai, who had suddenly appeared behind us. "Let's go," she said sharply.

"But we want to help -!"

"And what would you do?" Kurenai asked, suddenly severe. "He can see through all genjutsu, block all elemental spells, and accurately predict and copy all taijutsu. He's fast, clever, and at least Jounin level. He's actively looking for the Kyuubi's power. What exactly would you do?"

We were pulled away from the fight, Jiraiya blocking Kisame from getting to us and the other three Jounin blocking Uchiha Itachi. I looked around over my shoulder just in time to see Sasuke, limp and unconscious, be pulled away from Itachi protectively by an angry and deadly serious Kakashi. Itachi, though powerless to reach us, was looking in our direction, his crimson Sharingan swirling, his eyes cold and alert and dead.

I shivered, looking away and running after Kurenai and Naruto.


The two missing nin ran away, beating a tactical retreat, deciding the defenses around Konoha's demon container were too strong. I asked the Konoha Jounin, later, why they'd let the two leave. "Because we couldn't have stopped them without dying," said Asuma dryly, and the honesty to his words was incredible. Itachi had left Kakashi with the insensate form of his brother.

We were all gathered later around a hospital bed. Sasuke was in it, pale and still and unconscious. It was so different from how he normally was. I frowned in worry, my hand in his.

"He bore extensive mental damage," said Kakashi. "Itachi put him in an illusive world only accessible to talented carriers of the Sharingan. There, he can give you the illusion that you are being tortured for days in a matter of seconds." There was a deep undercurrent of anger in his words. All the members of the fight were gathered in Sasuke's hospital room.

"So how do we heal him?" I asked, looking up.

There was a long silence. "No one in this village," Kakashi admitted painfully at last, "knows how to do that."

"So... so he'll never wake up?!" They winced at my loud, disbelieving tone.

"There's gotta be something we can do!" said Naruto, standing upright. "Guys, who were those people? Why were they after me?"

Another uncomfortable pause. The Jounin shared glances which were full of meaning and entirely annoying. "They are part of an organization of dangerous missing nin called Akatsuki," said Jiraiya, very serious. "This organization seems to be after demonic magic. No one is sure why. That's all the information my spy ring has managed to gather.

"And Sasuke recognized Uchiha Itachi because Uchiha Itachi is his older brother. Itachi is the one who killed their clan."

"The one Sasuke's sworn to kill," I murmured, remembering. "That's why he attacked him, why he looked so angry." I thought about it. "Why would anyone torture their own brother?" I asked, disturbed.

"Why does Itachi do anything?" Gai asked. "He was a genius, an extraordinarily talented ninja. He was an ANBU captain by the time he was thirteen. People think he couldn't handle the psychological stress of being a ninja at such a young age. One day, he just... snapped. Killed everybody. Ran away. The man's not in his right mind."

I thought of the eerily toneless quality to Uchiha Itachi, and I thought perhaps it reminded me a little bit of Gaara.

"So what do we do about Sasuke?" Naruto asked forcefully, bringing the conversation back around to its central point. "There has to be some way we can get him back to the way he was!"

There was a pained silence. "Whenever something like this happens," Gai said at last, "I always wish she was here. The genius healer..."

"Tsunade?" I asked. Everyone looked over at me. "The last Sannin? I read about her. She was the most brilliant medic ever to hit the ninja world. She's rumored to have incredible healing powers. She'd... she'd have been able to heal Lee as well, wouldn't she?" I shared a glance with Gai.

Jiraiya nodded. "The peace has been broken," he intoned. "Between Akatsuki and Orochimaru... I just got back from a meeting with Sensei. He said we need to bring Tsunade back. I've come back. And now Tsunade needs to come back. It's time she returned."

"So you'll be leaving to retrieve her?" Kakashi asked.

"Yes," said Jiraiya, "and I'm taking one of your students with me." He shrugged and looked over at a surprised Naruto, smirking. "I promised him a training trip. Why not a training trip that will double as an important mission in which he'll get to meet a really hot Sannin?"

"You want me to be there? Really?" Naruto brightened up.

"You seem to have some serious ambition and a way with words, kid. I saw it against that Hyuuga boy. God knows I'll need some powers of persuasion for this little venture. Tsunade hates this fucking place." I blinked at the strong wording.

"Is that why none of the Sannin stayed in Konoha?" I asked. "Do you all hate it here?"

"I'm... of better use on the outside," said Jiraiya carefully. I remembered his spy ring. "I just came back to Konoha to watch the Chuunin Exam. But it's true I'm the only one who ever kept in contact with our old Sensei. Tsunade simply left the village on more... amicable terms than Orochimaru. She left, instead of being exiled. If she came back, she would be welcomed. She just won't come back."

"Why not?" Naruto asked.

"You'll have to come with me to find out." Jiraiya smirked and Naruto scowled. It was a clear bribe.

"What about me?" I asked, and everyone looked around at me in surprise. "Lee and Sasuke are my teammates and friends as well," I said. "Don't I get to come?"

"I don't need you the way I need Naruto," said Jiraiya. "Why would I let you come?" The wording was blunt and rude. I wondered if you stopped caring about people's feelings when you became as powerful as a Sannin.

"Hey! Sakura-chan's even better than I am! If I get to come, she definitely does." Naruto frowned.

Jiraiya looked between us for a moment. "That's right," he said at last, thoughtfully. "You're one of the ones who warned us about the invasion." He eyed the Chuunin vest over my kunoichi dress.

"Damn right I am," I said, more confidently than I felt. I thrust my chin up defiantly and looked him in the eye. "And I'm Naruto's superior now. I also know about what he holds. I think I should be there to keep an eye on him."

I worried Naruto was going to get offended, but instead he kept looking from one speaker to the other as though he were watching a particularly interesting tennis match.

Jiraiya was watching me calculatingly. "What are your abilities?" he asked at last. "You're a genjutsu specialist, right?"

"I'm an illusions specialist, I'm good in close combat, and my element is fire. I've played important roles in two major missions, I killed one of Orochimaru's spies during the invasion, and I helped Naruto and Sasuke defeat Suna's demon container." I tried to sound confident. Sure of myself.

Jiraiya nearly smiled. "Jinchuuriki," he said, almost amused. "They're called jinchuuriki. How's her chakra control?" He turned to Kakashi.

"Exceptional," Kakashi confirmed. "She's quite talented."

I smiled, despite my best attempts to look serious.

"... Alright," Jiraiya allowed at last. "You can come. But only because you remind me a little of her. Of Tsunade," he explained, when I looked confused. "You have a little of her old spirit. I think maybe it would help her, seeing that."


Later, I would send a letter to Gaara, my last before leaving to go track down Tsunade with Naruto and Jiraiya. I couldn't guarantee no one else would read the note, so I made it purposefully bizarre, almost coded.

If the time ever came for him, he would understand.

Gaara -

Be wary of intruders in black cloaks with red clouds on them. They're searching for monsters. Do not engage.

You might not hear from me for a while. Stay safe.

- Sakura