It has been a while, hasn't it? Life hit me hard these past three months. A lot of times my motivation to sit down and write was just drained. But lately I've really been missing the adventures of Sakura and her ragtag animal boys. That means a rare weekday update. Writing while waiting to ride out the stormy weather coming my way due to the hurricane helped.

So now for the big trial…the next two or so chapters will be dedicated to it, and expect some intensity as they fight to prove Gaara's innocence. Special thanks to AlaricatheCat who had a hand in helping me get unstuck from my slump to organize my thoughts with this chapter.

The bumpy landing woke her up right away. Sakura let her eyes open slowly, blinking away the last dregs of exhaustion as she stared out the window at what was clearly a desert landscape. They had arrived in Suna, thanks to the invention of modern technology that made crossing two countries a mid-morning trip at best.

The pilot came over the intercom, making it known they had arrived as if the scenery outside the windows didn't make that obvious. Naruto stretched with a loud groan. "So this is Suna, huh?" He gave Gaara a surreptitious glance. "Yep. It's fitting."

Just as before, it didn't get any notable reaction. Sakura was hoping that meant Gaara, despite everything, would be another cool head to add to the dynamic. One of the security officers slid from his seat before the plane had even fully slid into the hangar, holding out the impressive magical cuffs. "We're going to need to place these back on before you can exit."

Without a word her new Summon let them put him in chains again, making Sakura look away. Hopefully after the fiasco they were about to face was said and done, it would no longer be necessary. Tsunade joined them from her spot near the back of the plane, and they exited with the intimidating group of armed men and women.

Sakura's mind was a flurry of emotions. They had explained there would be a lawyer who would meet them before the trial began tomorrow, but the man waiting for them when they stepped outside the aircraft with guards of his own wasn't at all what she'd been imagining.

Young, average height, with messy brown hair and comfortable robes, he stepped forward and sized up each of them carefully. When his eyes met the redhead's, his lips pulled into a grin. "Gaara!"

'Okay…so not an enemy then?' Sakura wondered as the tanuki allowed himself to be embraced. She'd had the feeling that their rooftop encounter was a special circumstance and he wasn't generally one to be touchy-feely. It was possible she just didn't know him well enough yet though, because the man that had grabbed him in a hug wasn't being pushed away.

"Man," he stepped back with a sigh. "Is it ever good to see you again! You know, you had us worried there. And so much shit has gone do—" Seeming to realize they weren't alone, he cleared his throat. "It can wait. I'm just glad you're home, little brother."

"Brother?" Sakura's curiosity piqued, and suddenly the security with him made sense. There was also the faintest resemblance, though the distinctions between them were pronounced enough to wonder if they each took after separate parents.

Her voice drew his attention, and what had been an eager, boyish smile was suddenly full of flirtatious interest. "Ah, you're Gaara's new Summoner?" He reached a hand forward, and still slightly bewildered she took it.


Prince Kankuro appraised her with reverent eyes. "So you're the one, huh?" he repeated. "Thank you for saving my brother."

Sakura let her eyes slide to the redhead in question. "Don't thank me so soon…"

Kankuro sobered, letting go of her hand. "Right. Still a lot of work we need to do," Turning to his brother, he scratched at his scalp. "Sorry Temari's not here. She wanted to be, but well, you know how it is…someone had to stay back at the palace."

Gaara inclined his head slightly.

Naruto shook his head, yipping quietly. "I still can't get over this guy being a prince even when proof's right in front of me. But I mean, he's about as prickly as a cactus so the only place that makes sense is a desert kingdom anyway."

To further the embarrassment, Sai casually leaned into Gaara's personal space, studying him as one might an abstract piece of art. "His skin's texture isn't particularly unusual. Is this another figurative saying?"

Sakura closed her eyes, breathing in through her nose and out through her mouth. When it was all said and done she still had so much work to do with each of them individually, Sai's ignorance to social nuances topping the list.

"Apologies," One of the guards who had rechained Gaara stated stoically. "But our transport is waiting."

Sakura's shoulders slumped forward, Tsunade rubbing her back supportively.

"Fine," Kankuro grunted. "Let's get a move on,"

Gaara was taken off first, still weighted down by lengths of heavy chains. His cool eyes met hers briefly, and she couldn't get over how composed he appeared. His life was literally on the line! But outwardly at least, he remained stoic and unruffled. She could almost assume the guards were just going to bring him to a quiet brunch.

Sakura shivered, despite the sun beating down brightly on them. If anything she needed to find the nearest store and invest in the strongest sunblock available, or maybe just have Tsunade whip up something natural.

Nevertheless, the heat didn't stop the cold fear that she would make a mistake and land them all in even more danger. Gaara was certainly placing his trust in her. He had to, as she was now bound to him through the sanctity of magic older than all of them combined.

As she followed her guardian and the their escorts to the separate armored vehicle they'd be taking, Sakura swore by that magic that she would do her part to fix things. They would go home. Together.

Of all the humiliations he expected to suffer, never had he dreamed of being muzzled.

While he'd been dealing with the bestial side of his nature becoming increasingly unstable for a while, normally he wouldn't resort to biting anyone. Except the pat down felt just a little too thorough, and out of instinct he'd bared his teeth and glowered dangerously at the officer.

That apparently had been threatening enough to warrant them bringing out the muzzle. The device appeared to be an ordinary ball gag, but when they slapped it against his lips it expanded to encompass the entire lower half of his face, locking at the nape of his neck.

Gaara heard the heavy door swing shut, and knew that he was trapped in the device indefinitely. Shuffling his legs, he leaned back against the wall of his cell, thinking about the past day and a half of events. He was growing tired of being incarcerated. Being on the run provided more freedom.

There was, of course, one major difference in his predicament, besides the amount of mobility he was afforded. He'd been on his own while in hiding, expecting any day he would have to sacrifice himself before he could be saved. Now, whether he wanted it or not, he had more people than ever by his side. Namely, one very stubborn fae.

Gaara couldn't help but wonder if she regretted their encounter. She was just as bound to him as he was to her. For her, seeking out a Summon with less baggage would have been the best option. And she already had two. It hadn't dawned on him before, but that alone meant Sakura was exceedingly rare.

Maybe pity had moved her to take him on, but…time would tell if she found him worth keeping at her side. The manacles covered part of it, but he was still able to see the red leather of his Limiter under the tight, chafing magical metal.

The connection was dampened maybe, but no restraint, magical or otherwise, was going to sever it so easily. Regardless of whether she felt his presence, he sensed hers. She wasn't close, probably miles away, but Gaara shifted around in discomfort at her anxiety leaking through the new bond. Didn't she know she was projecting, how annoying it was going to be for him to sit and feel what she felt with no way to tune it out? The low growl that escaped him echoed in the mostly empty space.

"Quiet in there!" Someone barked from outside his door. "If we need to come in there I'll be making a report about you being violent in custody."

To think he was on his own kingdom's soil and being threatened… It wasn't a great surprise, though. Gaara knew the people of Suna had been wary of him for years. That wasn't something that could easily be undone, especially now when he was the supposed murderer of their late king.

"You'll be meeting the lawyer appointed to you tomorrow. Heard it's someone your sister pulled strings to get on short notice, so good news for you I guess." The guard outside grunted.

Gaara stared down at his shackles. Staying up with no sleep was nothing new, but in this condition it was going to be more unpleasant than usual. And he had that silly girl's feelings buzzing in his head.

Leaning back, the prince managed to swing his legs up onto the cot. Being on the run had its perks.

As was customary every time he found himself in a brand new location, Sai mentally ran a perimeter check. Among the staff of their lavish accommodations, armed guards from palace security hid in disguise. He, along with his Summoner, her guardian and the rambunctious kitsune, had been brought to stay at a hotel Prince Kankuro assured them was one of the finest.

Not that anyone could doubt that. The large sink top in the bathroom he'd found was a rare obsidian marble, the mahogany cabinets sporting pure silver handles. Tsunade had been impressed by the tank-sized walk in shower, going on about pulsating showerheads, whatever that meant. Naruto peered into the shiny alabaster bathtub and whistled over its depth, commenting that he could fill it with ramen and swim in it.

The room had a space twice as large as the living room at the cabin they lived in, complete with a fully stocked kitchenette, more rare marbling on the island counter, an attached fish tank built underneath filled with all sorts of exotic marine life, and shiny leather furniture situations in front of a large television.

The bedroom area was separate, soft mattresses covered in sheets with high thread counts tucked in just so, and candy arrangements piled on the pillows. It connected to a terrace with a generous view of the heart of the humid city.

While he wasn't accustomed to luxury during his time serving Compellers, he recognized it when he was surrounded by it. All it meant for him was more space to familiarize himself with.

Taking note of the most strategic routes to escape and going through the best fighting tactics for close quarters should it be necessary made him feel less restless.

Several times his master has already turned to him questioningly, likely feeling his apprehension through the bond. In turn, he felt her worry. For the tanuki no doubt. It was still miraculous. Sai would have never thought he'd bind himself to an anchor strong enough not only support him, but two other powerful yokai.

Currently though, instead of a teenage girl of considerable power, his Summoner looked more like a teenage girl, weary from travel. Her pink hair was somewhat messy, flyaways full of static. She slung an arm over the back of the seat and sighed.

Naruto popped up near the back of the couch she was sitting on, face uncomfortably close to her own. She swatted at him lazily, but he only took the opportunity to sniff the hand used to shoo at him. "You don't smell sick." A wavering, relieved grin briefly surfaced. "That's good. You're probably just tired then."

"None of us brought any luggage." Sakura reminded him. "This was supposed to be a one day trip where they'd tell us when the trial date would be set and we'd meet the attorney representing Gaara. But now they're saying it's going to be expedited." She took a glance at her Evoker, the colors of the bloodstone swirling under the room's lighting.

The sound of the refrigerator closing was clear in the quiet that followed, and Tsunade straightened, drinks in hand. "I can understand the sentiment," she said, "I'll have to ask Shizune and Genma to stay at my shop and cover it." Sai watched a can of juice fly through the air from the toss, and Sakura fumbled to catch it in her distraction. "But one thing I know we shouldn't be worried about is clothes. Push comes to shove I could spell something up for us," The older woman plopped herself down on the free space of the couch and rolled her shoulders, getting comfortable. "I doubt it'll be necessary though. You're basically a Royal Summoner now. Don't expect any expense to be spared."

Naruto looked up, eyes bright and quizzical. "Uh, Royal Summoner? Y-You mean Sakura-chan's royalty now just cause Gaara is?"

"Becoming a Royal Summoner is a high honor here and in kingdoms elsewhere," Sai mulled it over as he walked to join where the others had congregated.

His master looked up at him with interest. "So you know about it then?" She popped the tab on her drink and took a few long sips.

He nodded, figuring that now that he was in her service, it was alright to tell her all the information he'd memorized. "While I was with my former master, it was important that all operatives study details about other cultures and countries, in the case that we were ever sent to infiltrate them."

The witch cocked her head back after taking a long pull of her drink. "Espionage, eh? Standard fair for Compellers."

There were a lot of dark skills standard fair for Compellers to expect of their Summons. Many of which Sai had mastered long before he had a true name or a master with a conscience. As such, he wasn't sure exactly how much of what he'd learned would actually serve his new master well. After all, what had been one of the most essential skills before, killing, Naruto had pointed out would greatly upset Sakura.

"So being a Royal Summoner, what's that really mean?" But she was looking up with big, curious eyes. Telling her what he knew certainly wouldn't do her harm.

Sai stroked his chin in thought. "Occasionally members of a royal family may require a Summoner of their own. Special accommodations are made, and a Summoner may remain in the kingdom as a consort to keep the close physical proximity. At other times a royal may step aside from the throne of succession to become a private citizen and better keep their Summoner's lifestyle. Though a Royal Summoner keeps their title as long as they keep their royal-blooded Summon. When that occurs it's usually a bloodline that doesn't take well to just any match. You being compatible with Prince Gaara under normal circumstances would be a celebrated match."

"He's right," Tsunade agreed, crossing her legs and sinking further back in her seat. "The Sunan royal family had been looking for a suitable Summoner for a while I hear. They brought in some of the world's oldest lines that have produced Summoners in the past. But no matches. Then efforts got quiet a year and a half ago." The witch had a thoughtful squint to her cinnamon eyes. "It's crazy that out of the blue you'd be the one to run into him and the connection would take."

"Don't remind me." The young fae rubbed at her temples with a groan. "It's not his fault, but I'm not really relishing this situation. I don't see it getting better for a while but I'm at least hoping it won't be getting worse."

Three strong knocks came at the door, and Sai's eyes zeroed in on the entrance, sniffing the air.

Tsunade stood with a stretch, her back popping. "It's a little too early for room service…" She peered through the hole and then tossed a smirk over her shoulder, specifically at a wide-eyed blonde kitsune. "Heh. This ought to be good."

The smell got even stronger when she tossed the door open, and Sai could identify that the reason he recognized the scents of the people at the door was because he'd met them before, however briefly. Uzumaki Kushina and Namikaze Minato. "That was quicker than expected, I suppose flying private helps."

Naruto pointed a quivering finger, his face pale. "You called my parents?!" he screeched.

Kushina was not amused, marching up to her son with steel in her eyes and fiery hair ignited. "You'd better be glad she did!" she hissed. "You don't want to know what would've happened to you if we'd found out about all this when we saw your face on TV, 'ttebane!"

Cowed, and evidently with no recourse, the young fox bowed his head in humility, shoulders slumped with defeat. "M-Mom…Dad…I'm sorry. I bet you were probably freaked out."

Minato took a deep breath, closing his eyes tightly and then opening them on an exhale to reveal stormy sea blue irises awash in resignation and disappointment. "You could say that. Naruto, we had a list of reasons we assumed we'd be getting calls from Tsunade. We thought you'd mouth off a little too much."

"Or cause property damage," Kushina cut in.

"Run up an outrageous bill with that appetite of yours,"

"Take pranks just a little too far,"

"Maybe break a bo—"

"I get it already!" Naruto put up his hands, eyes desperate. "You guys thought I'd screw up sooner or later," he grumbled.

"No, it's not about screwing up." Sai watched curiously as the blonde man's eyes softened. "We just…understand how hard it can be for you to avoid trouble sometimes."

Naruto's mother seemed to wholeheartedly agree, cupping her cheek with a wry little smile. "You take after me in more ways than I care to admit at times like these. We're kitsune," The redhead winked. "Mischief is in our blood."

Now that she had mentioned it, Sai took note of the fact that while the older blonde male was covered in the scent of fox—which only made sense when he was mated to one—his own scent was not that of a shifter at all. Nor that of a human. Instead he smelt of sunshine and a spring wind, evidence of some elemental entity.

"We just never thought the trouble you'd find would be so…serious," Minato explained. "You were taken in for questioning by the RCMM?" Here he paused to stare between Naruto and his mostly silent Summoner.

"They're going to have to answer for that," Kushina growled, eyes aglow with menace. "But now, you have to testify in a trial for a crown prince."

"I…It's my fault," Suddenly his master had hopped up and was shouldering her way past him to stand beside Naruto. He perked up at her touch, a reassuring hand wrapped around his bicep. Sai blinked. He had always been best at observing, so that was what he had resolved himself to do. Of course, it was possible that since everyone was showing remorse, he needed to as well. Picking up on nuances in these situations had never been trickier. "I didn't mean to drag Naruto into anything like this. It was…really irresponsible of me." She bowed from the waist, her silken pink hair sweeping over her face and hanging to her knees.

Tsunade watched with a helpless frown and the couple traded looks over the pinkette's head. Sai remained tense, in case he had to act. It was unlikely that either of the adults posed an actual threat to his master, but he could never be too careful.

"Sakura, we…" Minato placed a hand on her shoulder.

"We're not blaming you for all this madness," Kushina clarified. "We just wish you'd both been more careful. Although, with the RCMM being the way it's always been it was probably only a matter of time…"

"They're known for being relentless," Minato explained, stepping back. "We're just glad to see everyone safe, and we'll be staying through the trial."

"Wait, who's running the island?" Naruto gaped. "K-Karin?"

"Partially," Kushina giggled, "She has Mito there for council. It won't sink into the ocean before we get back."

Naruto turned away, grumbling to himself.

Minato gave his son a knowing stare. "You're going to have to reconcile yourself with the idea that your cousin will be ruler one day. I know Karin's…difficult to handle at times but she's got the right head for ruling. Or would you rather the responsibility fall to you?"

The thought was apparently so appalling it made Naruto cringe. "I'm fine where I am. Being Sakura-chan's Summon is where I'm supposed to be."

"Had a feeling you'd say that." His mother smirked. "Now that all that's sorted. Sakura, would you mind if we borrowed Naruto for a bit. They barely served anything on the plane and I think this would be a good time for us to take Naruto so you can talk to Tsunade."

The young kitsune shook his head, ready to argue with his mother. The redheaded vixen wasn't having it, her purple eyes flashing with something…ominous as she dragged a complaining Naruto out of the room by his arm.

Minato waved quietly, "Thank you for taking care of Naruto for us," he told them, following after his family.

The Uzushians left a strange sort of silence in their wake, and Sai turned his attention to his Summoner and her mentor, wondering if he was expected to leave the room too. Surely they couldn't want him far when they were still in unfamiliar territory.

It didn't matter how many guards Prince Kankuro had stationed around the hotel, they were not Sakura's sword and shield. That duty fell to only three individuals and he was one of them. If she required him at a moment's notice, he would be there.

The two women turned to him, and the witch shook her head. "It'd be a waste of time asking you to leave with the way you're glued to Sakura." She turned to the fretful pinkette. "It's your call."

His master came forward, stopping directly in front of him and peering up into her eyes. Evoker on her wrist, and standing so close together, her emotions practically ricocheted right into him. "This has been crazy ever since it started. And maybe some of that's your fault," Her eyes narrowed in a glare but a sincere smile tugged her lips up. "But you haven't gone anywhere, for better or for worse."

"As long as you allow it, I'll be wherever you are." If she had ever doubted his devotion, she couldn't now. Their link telecasted his loyalty.

"He can stay," She told her watchful mentor. "Sooner or later we'll have to fill Naruto in anyway, this makes it one less person."

Tsunade slouched against a wall and crossed her feet at the ankles. "Listen Sakura, I'm not doubting for a second you did what you felt was right. I trust your judgement." The admission softened his master's face.

The witch's approval clearly meant a great deal to her. But Sai could hardly judge her for wanting it. Since binding himself again, he found he too sought to know that his master was pleased with him.

Struggling through the handicap of his stunted emotions, it was…difficult to avoid agitating her. The fuse to her temper wasn't long. But when he was rewarded with bright eyes and brighter smiles, or a remark of praise, it was strong motivation.

"I won't lie to you, this is a tricky situation." Tsunade explained, lowering her voice. "Put bluntly, if they're determined to frame the prince then they're going to throw everything they can at doing that in this trial."

"I gathered as much." Sakura admitted, anxiety clear in her voice. "To cover up that this only got this out of hand because they weren't vigilant enough."

"You're his Summoner now," The blonde woman went on, "and I'm afraid that could mean you'll be another pawn to maneuver for them."

"I can't just leave Gaara to fend for himself, though. I mean…his life is tied to mine now." She pressed her face into shaking palms before her head shot up and they could see the ferocity in the green depths of her eyes. "I did that, so I have to help him fight for it."

"I had a feeling you'd say that," Tsunade smirked. "Just don't be surprised if we get an angry phone call from your mother,"

"My mom knows?" Sakura groaned. Sai remembered their encounter with the couple at the hospital. While he couldn't remember his own parents, he had witnessed enough interactions between parents and children on his missions to know all kinds existed. And his master, it seemed, had a very strained relationship with hers.

"I'm sorry," Tsunade came away from the wall and toward Sakura, gently hugging her. "But I couldn't avoid telling her when you got pulled into custody."

Sakura said some muffled words into the woman's shoulder. "Mwo iss naw your fwal…" Stepping away, she put on a brave face. "I'll deal with it like I always do. Right now I need to prepare myself for this trial."

"Are you going to see the prince?" Sai found himself asking. He knew from experience wherever the tanuki had been taken, it wasn't a comfortable place. Prince or no, his royal status wouldn't prevent him from receiving the treatment most international criminals did. His master's soft heart would probably crack even more over the conditions.

"Yes, tomorrow," Sakura stared meaningfully down at her Evoker. "We'll meet the lawyer then too."

She fully intended to go through with it, and there was definitely no changing her mind. Suggesting she not do it would only anger her. He was her sword and shield, but Sai wasn't entirely confident in his ability to be that for her in the days to come. Physical protection he could provide, but she'd probably need the emotional support she would be better off getting from Naruto.

"We should eat a meal," Tsunade suggested. "It'd probably be too much to ask for a ritzy place like this to give me a nice helping of sake this early though…"

"Like I'd let you day drink at a time like this," Sakura scolded.

"Well," the woman's shoulders lifted, "It was worth a shot."

She hadn't been in the building for very long, but Sakura already had the overwhelming urge to locate Gaara and go. The very air felt as though it were clinging to her, trying to urge her to confess some heinous crime. She was having a hard time telling if the atmosphere was so suffocating or if, perhaps, some spell had been fused into the building to coerce answers prisoners might not otherwise be inclined to give.

'That'd be illegal,' she reminded herself. Shortly afterward a clipped bark of laughter from the voice in her head at the naiveté of her thoughts made her flinch. The law was ironically not above borderline "illegal" when it suited them.

"Here we are," The escort in front of her, a man with powerful wings tucked close to his back, unlocked a very dismal, gray holding room. Sakura shuffled in, glancing back where Tsunade, Sai and Naruto had stopped.

Rules dictated she and the legal representation were the only ones allowed in when the accused was brought from his cell. Sakura would have thought she and Gaara being minors would have allowed for at least one of them to have a legal guardian. The door slamming shut behind her told her all she needed to know. Making her way to the metal table bearing countless knicks, claw marks and dings, made her wonder exactly what had happened during past meetings.

Then again she was likely better off not knowing. No sooner had she sat in the cold chair provided, then the door swung up again, Gaara being dragged inside this time. Her eyes immediately zeroed in on his face, to the muzzle he definitely hadn't been accessorizing with the last time she'd seen him. The chains were still on too, and it was a wonder he was still staying upright with the weight of them.

She glared when the redhead was all but shoved into his seat. "Is that really necessary. This meeting might be kind of hard if he can't speak." Sighing, as if it was the greatest hindrance, a female guard leaned down and unlatched the device.

It shrunk into a small round gag, and the disgruntled prince reared his head back and spit it onto the table. All eyes watched it roll across the metal in its retracted form before falling innocently to the floor.

"We'll be staying until his lawyer arri—"

"No need." The newcomer admitted into the room was…not what Sakura had been envisioning.

She saw a smartly dressed woman with a confident stride in a charcoal pencil skirt and pressed blouse. Or perhaps a middle-aged man with serious eyes. The man who joined them was neither.

His taupe gray hair was shaggy, a pronounced piece sticking off in an odd sweep near the top of his part. The neutral expression on his features were cool, enhanced by a set of scars, one slashed at the bottom of his jaw on the left side, and the other a slightly puckered, wide line across his throat.

He wore a dark green tie against a starch white shirt and plain black pants, and instead of sensible loafers or expensive basilisk-skin shoes—lawyer shoes—he clopped over in steel-toed boots that added to his already impressive height.

While Sakura's jaw didn't drop, it was a very near thing. The lawyer looked less like a legal defender and more like a brawler. Prince Kankuro had insured he only hired the best for his brother, but maybe the attorney hadn't arrived. Maybe this was…a new personal bodyguard for the real lawyer. His light brown eyes swept over her, and he nodded politely before focusing squarely on Gaara. "I'd like some time alone with my client and his Summoner, please."

Sakura gulped softly. So much for the fleeting hope that Gaara's fate didn't rest in the hands of a man who looked like a career delinquent. The guards left, explaining that they would be just outside the door.

Once the three of them were alone, the gray-haired man hummed a sigh, setting his thick briefcase and a folder on the table. "Prince Gaara, it's been a long while."

"You managed to become incredibly successful in that time, Shira."

Sakura whirled around, wide-eyed. "You know each other?"

Shira sat down, nodding slightly. Sakura quickly drew the conclusion that he wasn't scowling, he was just unfortunate enough to have a resting angry face. "For many years my father was the king's retained lawyer. He retired several years ago, and I had been training to take his place. His Highness and I grew up acquaintances, occasionally sparring together."

Hearing that, the girl let her eyes dart down to the scar across his neck. It had to have been pretty nasty when it happened. It was obvious she hadn't been discreet enough when Shira frowned a little at her. "This is unrelated."

"R-Right, I know…I'm sorry." Sakura swallowed. "Um…I hope it doesn't offend you, but if you've only recently become the royal attorney, you can't have taken on many cases this big."

"No, I can't say that I have. The king only brought me in for smaller issues. Princess Temari also required me to represent her once. To serve and clear the name of the prince in the trial of my career is an honor though."

Some form of doubt must have still been showing on her face. "Shira is very competent. He may look brutish, but his mind is incredibly analytical." Gaara's rasping voice drew her attention. Already, he seemed much calmer, so much different to the manic, desperate person he had been on the rooftop, or the jaded loner from the times before. Was this closer to the true Gaara?

"I didn't say…brutish," Sakura argued. "Or incompetent."

"But you had your doubts," Shira inclined his head, not in the least offended. "I understand. You've only just become the prince's Summoner, and the stakes couldn't be higher. I'm fully aware of what's on the line."

Her breath hitched. Behind his passive stare was a well of deep resolve. This Shira character wasn't just feeding her lip service. At least, she didn't think so. "What's going to happen?"

"Put simply, they're going to bring up incriminating evidence from witnesses likely coerced in some way. I'm sure the council that didn't even grant Prince Gaara a fair trial in the first place isn't going to back off and make it easier now. They'll have a prosecutor that doesn't pull any punches. It's going to be...personal for you, your Highness."

"Shira, there's no need for those formalities," The tanuki bowed his head. "And you speak of it as if it hasn't been personal all along."

"Yes, but you're not the only one on trial, technically speaking."

Sakura straightened as two sets of eyes slowly drifted her way. "M-Me?" she poked herself in the chest.

"Legally, Summons are the property of their masters, and that is no different even in circumstances such as this. Even if you were not bound at the time, you are now. They'll pin blame on you as well somehow."

Something flickered, warm and fierce, spreading through her veins rapidly. "Fine, if that's how they want to play it then I'm ready." She squeezed her fist closed. "Something being out of my control hasn't stopped me up until now."

"Ah," Shira studied her. "Your spirit is admirable. I hope I'm not too forward in saying you'll be a fine Royal Summoner when this is all over."

Sakura blushed, knowing her tanuki partner was still looking her way. "I don't think I'm going to get used to having a title or sway in an official capacity. I'm not…even a citizen of Suna. Maybe we should focus on what's right in front of us first."

"Agreed," Shira rolled his shoulders. "Then I can tell you exactly the way I plan to go about dismantling all the claims until they have no choice but to declare Prince Gaara innocent of all charges."

Sakura scooted into the table, hanging on his every word. Gaara didn't budge, but he was listening.

Prince Kankuro might've just known what he was doing after all.

Her restless nerves were starting to get to her. Sakura watched her own knee bouncing around. She wasn't used to so much pent-up nervous energy. To her left, Sai was focusing on Naruto as he preoccupied himself inspecting buttons and compartments.

Since the armored escort vehicle had arrived to take them to the courthouse, the kitsune couldn't help but let his curiosity take hold. "Naruto, don't you think you should sit on your hands or something?" Kushina scolded, turning slightly from her spot one row ahead of them to narrow her eyes in warning.

Seeing the expression on his mother's face had him withdrawing his fingers from the panel of buttons he'd been keen to press. "Ah, Mom!" he complained. "They've got a tail massager! When's the next time I'm gonna get to check this stuff out?"

"You don't even have tails right now," she clucked disapprovingly. "And can't you see your Summoner is nervous. Be more attentive!" Contrary to the look she'd given her son, Kushina's smile for Sakura was full of understanding and patience. But the pinkette still felt like shrinking away from it, because it had drawn nearly all the attention in the car to her.

"I-I'm alright," she insisted. "Just ready to get this all over with. Thank you for riding with us."

"Thank you for the ride," Minato smiled, turning around too. "Naruto wasn't the only one about to burst with impatience since dawn." He presented his wife with a meaningful stare, to which she scoffed, pushing at his face. "Seeing you all before the trial was important for us."

"We aren't going off to war." Naruto muttered.

"Don't you ever leave well enough alone?" Tsunade scolded from the middle of Minato and Kushina's row. "You can't seriously be that dense. Your parents were worried, brat."

Sakura was expecting it when her godmother and mentor shot her a careful gaze. She was probably afraid Sakura would think of how she'd only gotten a brief text from her own parents, saying they were disappointed, but they would meet them in time for the start of the trial. Truthfully, the fae would almost prefer their support from afar. Very far. No matter the outcome in the courtroom, there was no way her mother was going to let recent events go.

"The worst case scenario won't affect Naruto-kun directly." Sai said, "Prince Gaara will be the one who—"

"Sai!" Sakura warned, already filled with agitation and running on too little sleep. She wasn't above pulling on her feline Summon's cheeks until they were stained red the rest of the day. It would be a great incentive for him to talk much less.

One slow blink from his dark eyes and then he quieted. She wasn't optimistic enough to think he had picked up any social cues. No, their bond just made her irritation a little hard to ignore when it shot straight through their link, amplified by the Evoker.

"We're almost there…" Sakura breathed out, watching the equally striking and ominous stone and marble building that was unmistakably the courthouse come into view.

Her heart hammered wildly at the sight of the crowds of reporters and nosey citizens and law enforcement already swarming the front entrance. Thankfully, because of her status as a minor, Suna allowed for them to enter through a much more private entrance, and the large, unmarked vehicle with its tented windows took them around back.

Prince Kankuro, a blonde woman and royal guards were waiting for them already. So was Shira.

Guards opened the doors for them as soon as the car had stopped. Naruto and Sai jumped out on their own, naturally, and Sakura was prepared to scoot across the seat and climb down when a rough hand was offered to her. "Oh, I think I can manage," she said with a shake of her head. The guard's thick eyebrow raised, but he withdrew his hand. Sakura tried to carefully get out, mindful of her heels (why she had listened when Tsunade told her to wear them was another matter), yelping when hands settled at her waist.

"I've got you, Sakura-chan!" She didn't even have time to bat Naruto away as he lifted her out and set her down on the concrete, his eyes bright with pride.

"Er, thanks Naruto." She tried to avoid the curious looks she was getting from the royals and the smirk she saw from Kushina. "But I could've done it."

"Sorry, it's just I heard heels are hard to walk in, ya know?" The gesture was sweet, thoughtful enough for her to dismiss her indignation. He continued, "Didn't want you going in with an ugly bruise on your face!"

Sakura puffed up, and Naruto wilted away, covering his own face with a quick apology.

A feminine laugh startled them, and Sakura was instantly mortified.

The young woman was a few years older at best, with her wheaten hair tied off at the four corners of her head, and pretty eyes that didn't look like they missed a thing. She didn't bare a very strong resemblance to Gaara, either, but Sakura had a feeling she knew who this was. "Kankuro told me our brother's Summoner was feisty, but seeing is believing." A hand fell to her cocked hip. "I'm Temari, Gaara's older sister." Yes, and the soon-to-be-queen.

It was that thought that had her scrambling to correct her faux paus. "H-Haruno Sakura," she stuttered out, flying into a bow.

"There's no need for that, Sakura," Kankuro patted her shoulder. "You're a Royal Summoner. We're going to be seeing a lot more of each other."

Taken aback by how accepting they were, Sakura could only nod slowly. "R-right, thank you."

"I should head inside. Prince Gaara will be arriving soon and I'm walking into the courtroom with him," Shira said, bowing to the prince and princess and nodding to everyone else before he took his leave.

"I think that's our cue to head in, too." Tsunade mused, to which everyone seemed to agree.

Noticing Sai had been oddly quiet for a while, or at the least, less intrusive, Sakura hung back, gesturing for everyone to walk ahead as she fell in step with her first Summon. "Do you have something on your mind?"

He looked down at her with his usual composed countenance, and then a small wrinkle furrowed his brow. "You're going to great lengths for him, even though you could get hurt, and your initial attempts to help were met with hostility. Similarly, despite the fact that I'm hardly more than a living weapon, you continue to insist my life has value as an individual."

Though she was unsure where it was coming from, she couldn't help but roll her eyes. "Because it does. Sai, we've been over this. You can be…difficult to get along with sometimes, but I don't think you're dangerous. At least not to me," she added, very aware that Sai was ruthless in the right circumstances.

"I still don't understand your reasoning." he sighed in defeat. "But I'd like to one day."

"That could take some time," she elbowed him playfully. "In the meantime try not to be too hard on yourself. I think you've already started changing."

Sai stopped, his feet sticking to the ground as if held by cement. Just to be sure, Sakura peered down to check that they hadn't walked into some. She tapped her foot a few times to find dry, solid pavement. The others had paused at the back entrance to wait on them, and she knew they needed to hurry.

"Was it something I said?"

"I've started…to change?"

"Probably," Sakura tugged him by the arm. "From everything I know, you were raised with no autonomy in a harmful environment. Now you're seeing that it doesn't have to be that way. Free will is better. It's going to take time to adjust."

She let him go when he began to walk on his own, but he was keen on continuing to stare at the side of her face. Heat was beginning to creep up the side of her neck. "Well, we can talk more about it after this is handled." she offered, receiving only an obedient nod as he followed.

The character Shira who appears here as Gaara's lawyer is a character from one of the anime filler arcs! So he's not an OC of mine but reading over his profile and drawing from what I remembered, I thought he might actually fit this role better than one of the better known characters I could've used.

So the trial that will ultimately decide if Gaara's name will get cleared or if he'll be stuck punished for the crime of murdering his father, started toward the end but the real trial-trial is happening next. So think Law and Order but with a supernatural twist. lol I will say, since this is a fantasy setting and the trial is geared toward someone who isn't human, in a society with laws made to accommodate the heavy presence of magic, it won't strictly be following how "real laws" might work. Otherwise Sakura could sue because they'd have violated her rights and the rights of the boys like ten times in the last chapter alone. XD

Remember to comment~until next time!