A mission to Sand, Part 2 Diplomatic Maneuvers

The still panic stricken genin kept looking back and forth from Gaara to Naruto and Sakura.

"It's THEM," he finally stammered out.

"What about them?" Gaara demanded.

"Them. From the forest in the Land of Fire! They were on that team!" he finally stammered out. The statement generated a murmur in the crowd.

"Red Monster! Don't let it get me!" the genin screamed as he managed to break away from the sand and fled through the crowd.

"Uh oh," muttered Sakura. "This could be trouble."

The crowd continued to murmur after the genin had run off. A few hostile voices were beginning to sound as many had heard of the chase through the forest of the Land of Fire. Dozens of Suna ninja had been killed and over one hundred wounded by what turned out to be a single Leaf squad. Now, two of the ninja responsible were standing right there before them.

"Enough," Gaara rasped out. "They are here as friends, not enemies."

"Maybe we should go somewhere else to talk, Gaara-sama?" Sakura said in a respectful tone.

The red haired teen looked at the security force commander and nodded in agreement.

"Come with me," Gaara said in his gruff manner. He then held his arm out for Ino who smiled at him and took it. Naruto and Sakura grabbed the shopping bags and followed behind the couple with the security team escorting the group. A short walk followed as the sounds of the market faded behind them.

After turning one more corner, the team saw a large round structure ahead of them; the Sand's Tower and administration building, office of the Kazekage. Gaara did not pause as he led the Konoha ninja to the front door.

"Good morning, Gaara-sama, Yamanaka-san," the guard said in a crisp voice before looking at Naruto and Sakura.

"They are with me," Gaara rasped out. "The disturbance in the marketplace was them being attacked. Send for Baki-sensei."

The guard nodded and stepped aside to let the entire group pass. The red head led them to a small meeting room a short distance into the building. Gaara sat comfortably while Ino moved to sit next to Sakura with Naruto on the opposite side of the table. She understood this was an official matter but the ambassador likely would not need to get involved yet. As a member of the Konoha delegation, she would have to sit in on the meeting as an official advisor. She reached into her robe and pulled out her headband and deftly tied it into place on her forehead. Gaara looked at her and nodded.

After a short wait, a large man with a sword sheathed on his back and a half veil over one side of his face entered the room. He looked at the Leaf ninja first then at the calm Gaara.

"So, what is going on?" he asked Gaara.

"There was a fight in the marketplace, Baki-sensei. With complications," Gaara began.

"The ambassador's aide and their latest courier team were in the market and the courier team was attacked by some rowdy genin. A brawl broke out with a civilian hurt by a kunai thrown by one of ours. These two just defended themselves and over a dozen genin and chunin injured in some fashion, none seriously. The one that started the fight merely called him," Gaara pointed at Naruto, "the Red Monster and was completely panicked."

Baki nodded slowly as he thought about the information. "So, this is merely a debriefing not a diplomatic incident," he said.

Ino spoke up. "The genin that started things shouted out 'Red Monster. Don't let it get me' at the top of his lungs in the middle of the marketplace. There are bound to be some repercussions if an explanation is not made."

Baki nodded again. "So why would this genin do such a thing?" he asked as he looked over Naruto then Sakura, noting that the girl wore a shade of red and the blond boy had whisker like marks on his face. The pair dressed in non standard outfits like Konoha Elite genin normally do but were more composed than any Elite he had met. Their eyes told him much more than their appearance however. These were no mere genin.

"Was this genin injured in the recent battles on the paths to Konoha?" Sakura asked in a measured tone of voice.

"I believe he was. I would need to check to be certain but a large number of injuries occurred during … that night in the forest," Baki hedged his words slipping into diplomatic talk about the running battle in the woods.

"The last encounter during that night referred to a large amount of chakra released that was red in color. Eyewitnesses say that there was a blond male involved who rescued a female prisoner with pink hair," Baki stated looking directly at Sakura. "The reports say she fought well and alone before being caught. The last fight taking four lives and over a dozen wounded, one of which died later."

Sakura kept her face impassive but she shifted her feet slightly under the table, preparing to stand and fight if needed. Naruto caught her shift and prepared as well. Baki was impressed at the professionalism of the pair and knew they would be formidable in the future.

The veiled man held up a hand. "You will not be harmed or judged over the actions of that night. I do find it odd that the Hokage would send people from that night to Suna as genin couriers, Elite or not."

"Yamanaka-san and I have been best friends most of our lives, Baki-sama. I assumed that Hokage-sama sent me along to visit my friend. Nothing more," Sakura stated.

"Aww, I'm touched Forehead," Ino said with a smirk.

Sakura glared at Ino but softened a bit seeing her friend's smirk. "This is 'on-duty' stuff Piggy. Be professional," Sakura said tightly.

Ino lost her smirk at Sakura's 'on-duty' comment. She was not entirely sure about the context the pink haired girl meant it in but Ino nodded, returning to her more professional look.

Baki noted the banter was not forced at all but quickly realized the two girls had been trained differently. Yamanaka was from a known clan who filled Elite slots regularly. The pink haired one was an unknown to them but had a family symbol nonetheless. She had not relaxed as much as her posture suggested and remained on alert. The blond boy had yet to speak but he had a clan symbol on his shoulder thought lost to history, the Uzumaki. His posture remained wary as well.

'Likely the son of a survivor', the man thought.

The reports on the battle in the forest were a mass of confusion and Baki had been one of the jonin assigned to compile things. His status as Gaara's jonin sensei and the teen's somewhat romance with the Yamanaka made him close to the situation. The Jonin Commander decided that Baki would be one of the persons assigned to learn as much about the Leaf village as possible due to that proximity.

The numbers of Leaf ninja involved varied widely in estimates from as many as 5 squads to as few as one. The only thing that Suna had to show for that night were a number of dead, many more wounded and a severe black mark on the pride of all Suna ninja. The one prisoner that had been taken had been rescued shortly after her capture and led to the only Suna hostages of the evening, a pair of jonin captured by Jiraiya of the Sannin. The pair had since been repatriated.

It bothered him even more seeing this pair before him. They were calm and more than what their rank suggested. Their apparent age placed them as new genin given that their Hokage had banned any ninja under a certain age in peacetime. Were they the start of a new early training program on the part of the Leaf? The old stories of an intense and harsh training program within Konoha had been floating about for decades but nothing had ever been proven.

Baki shook his head to clear his thoughts. The pink haired one; he had not even gotten her name yet; was friends with a peer from a high ranking clan and claimed friendship. It was a puzzle and he wanted answers.

"My manners are slipping. As Gaara mentioned, I am Baki, jonin of Suna. Might I know who I am dealing with?" Baki asked in a formal tone.

"Haruno Sakura," the girl replied.

"Uzumaki Naruto," came from the blond boy. Baki noted he had been correct about the symbol.

"Uzumaki … Naruto," Gaara said slowly, as if testing the name. All the people in the room looked at Gaara. "Who are you and why does Shukaku fear you so much?"

The trio of Konoha ninja all looked shocked at the question. Each had been informed in different ways of Gaara's prisoner but it was something rarely spoken of in public or to other villages' ninja. The Yamanaka girl looked to Sakura with a new confused look on her face; truly not understanding why Gaara spoke as he did. The Haruno girl looked shocked for an instant before schooling her expression back to a neutral one before both looked at Uzumaki. Baki realized that the Haruno knew more than the Yamanaka on this subject.

The Uzumaki boy just looked shocked as he tried to compose his face back to a neutral state but failed to do so. Baki almost smiled at how well these Konoha ninja acted and reacted. This was the kind if training he hoped Suna ninja could achieve. It took some fifteen seconds before Uzumaki replied.

"It is … complicated," was his reply before falling silent.

Naruto was shocked at Gaara asking so bluntly about something he barely knew about himself. He looked at Sakura for support and saw it in her eyes. He thought quickly framing his words for the best information without giving up everything.

He opened his jacket and lifted the hem of his shirt and armored undershirt. The armor clinked softly as Naruto showed his stomach. He focused charka into his belly and he spoke in a clear voice.

"I am the jailor for the Kyuubi no Yoko, the Nine Tailed Fox that attacked Konoha the day I was born," he said calmly. "The Fourth died sealing it away; doing so at the cost of his own life and soul."

Baki looked shocked but Gaara merely nodded.

"That is why Shukaku fears you Uzumaki Naruto," Gaara said in understanding. "Your potential power exceeds his so he wishes you dead."

Naruto flinched slightly but there was no movement from Gaara.

"Your seal differs from mine greatly, Uzumaki Naruto," Gaara stated.

"It is mainly for containment. It only becomes useful under times of great stress. I have not been trained in using it but if pressed I could pull a lot of chakra out of it. The people of Konoha would not understand if I trained with it openly," Naruto said giving some information along with a warning. Both Baki and Gaara seemed to understand that and nodded. Neither was threatening but both seemed alert as Gaara spoke once more.

"I would like to spar with you, Uzumaki Naruto. My sensei Baki had always tried to get me to practice more but my fights tend to end quickly with dead opponents. Ino has shown me that I do not need to crush everyone at once and that practice fighting can have merits in learning the limits of my capabilities," Gaara said simply. "I still wish to be strong to prove my existence but I learned I do not need to kill everyone to do so."

A hint of a smile appeared on Gaara's face. "If I killed everyone there would be no one left to confirm my existence," he finished with an attempt at humor.

Naruto smiled at the thought of a sparring match. "If my own sensei approves, I accept. Where will we fight?" he asked

"Tomorrow morning in the desert just outside of the village of course," Baki said. "The potential for destruction with two jinchuuriki is vast even if both are just training."

Naruto nodded while Sakura looked a bit miffed at the blond's eagerness. The Leaf trio then headed out to return to the embassy and meet with their sensei.

In the eastern part of the Land of Fire, Team 8 met back with Jiraiya.

"She has fled west, Jiraiya-sama," Shino reported. "My bugs can pick up her residual chakra but the trail is days old at least. We are closing in but she moved quickly out of range when she needed to. Her companion is showing signs of distress in the chakra my bugs could detect."

Jiraiya nodded. He expected this. Tsunade could go for weeks on a chase but Shizune would drain out faster.

"We keep up the chase then," Jiraiya said giving orders. If we get within a day's travel of them, Akamaru and Kiba would be able to scent her companion Shizune or their pet pig, Tonton. Once we do that, she will be run to ground easily. That is the easy part of this mission."

Jiraiya frowned at the time away from his writing and 'research' this mission was costing him. He would get back at Sensei for this somehow. Maybe he could give a cameo as a gay towel boy for the aged leader in the next Icha Icha novel. He would have to think about it once he had time.

Yuugao approved the spar request mainly due to the fact she wanted to see what her student could do when he cut loose/ Sitting around waiting was nice but being in a foreign city did not allow her to relax. Hayate suggested they all show up in full gear. You never know when a chance for additional training could be found.

Sakura nodded and brought her gear as well. Ino was confused at first but the serious looks on the other ninja got her thinking about her lack of training the past couple of months. The last time she had been in a spar Sakura had beaten her in every case. Shikamaru had stopped the final match from being a loss but she had already been ruled 'dead' at that point by Asuma.

The five Leaf ninja met Baki and Gaara at the city gates before heading out into the desert. Ino had shifted out of the center of the Leaf group to walk closer to Gaara. Hayate noted this and nudged Yuugao who smiled at the young couple. A relationship between the youngest son of a Kazekage and the heiress of a major Konoha clan could have profound effects on the future, both good and bad.

The group had walked about a mile to stop near rocky patch in the desert. The sand here was a thin overlay on the solid stone beneath. Boulders of various sizes littered the area. It was an advantage for any Suna ninja ot fight here but it also gave non natives a decent chance. For Gaara, who controlled sand, it was less of one than normal but any nearby sand could be drawn in and controlled by him if given enough time. For the purposes of a spar, it was about as fair as one could get while still in the region.

Baki spoke. "This is a simple spar. Full contact is allowed but no killing blows. If you could have one, make a symbolic touch instead and claim the victory by voice. Do you both understand?" he asked Gaara and Naruto.

Both junchuuriki said their understanding and the non combatants moved back from the pair.

Sakura called out, "Do your best, Naruto."

Ino glared at her pink haired friend before also calling out, "Win it Gaara!"

Sakura glared back at Ino who responded by sticking her tongue out. Then both teens smiled at one another. Friendship and rivalry maintained.

Naruto took up a ready position. He knew little about this opponent. Gaara could control sand somehow so he was at a severe disadvantage in the desert. But he trembled with excitement in spite of this fact.

Gaara made the first move by lifting his arm and a wave of sand flowed toward Naruto like water. The blond teen jumped over the wave and sprinted at Gaara pulling out a kunai as he ran. Gaara moved his other arm and the sand quickly rose up before Naruto as a wall.

The boy could not stop in time and ran into the wall, barely managing to prevent his face from impacting directly in it. He rolled to one side avoiding a soft spot in the ground that would have trapped his feet. Gaara smiled at the blond when a cylinder of sand rose up around Naruto without warning. Sand flowed over the open end before Naruto could leap up and out.

"Desert Funeral," Gaara said in his raspy voice. "He is dead."

Sakura panicked for a moment but the sand flowed away from Naruto leaving the blond unharmed.

"First point goes to Gaara," Baki said almost smugly.

Naruto grinned at Gaara and slid the kunai back into its sheath.

"More?" Gaara asked.

"Believe it. This is fun," Naruto replied as he jumped off to a rocky patch with less sand.

In spite of his lack of emotional experience, Gaara responded with a small smile of his own.

Hayate and Yuugao both sighed in relief. The first fall was always the hardest. It set the tone for an entire spar. Naruto had been beaten in a matter of seconds but he still looked to continue. Gaara in turn had kept complete control of his sand. This might work out for the best after all.

Naruto worked quickly attaching low powered tags to his kunai and hurled them at Gaara in a pattern to test the red head's defenses. Gaara simply defended with walls of sand. Naruto quickly saw a weakness and took advantage. Gaara did not bother with throws that would go wide from the onset.

Naruto charged up a single smoke tag to mix with the rest but threw it so it would be well wide behind and upwind of Gaara. It blew up and covered a large area with smoke which slowly drifted at Gaara under the slight breeze. The blond then ran to attack once more hurling more explosives as he ran. Then he made a strange hand seal Gaara had never seen and called out "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu"

Puff of chakra smoke surrounded Naruto and a half dozen identical clones appeared from the smoke. Gaara sent out a new wave of sand. Most of the blonds were hit but one jumped over the wave as he continued his rush at Gaara. With no visible effort Gaara trapped the lone ninja and was about to crow victory when the captive turned to smoke and an explosive tag went off behind him. His sand shielded him from damage but he looked to see another half dozen copies of Naruto come out of the smoke at him.

'Substitution jutsu when he made the first clones,' Gaara thought. 'He must have used a rock hidden under the cover of the smoke while the clones distracted me.' He waved his arm and a cloud of sand grains shot out at the new wave of enemies. All vanished into puff of chakra smoke. The smoke now enveloped Gaara who brought his sand up around himself in defense. A series of small explosions rocked his refuge but did not come close to penetrating it.

Yuugao smiled. If Naruto had used full power tags instead of training ones, Gaara would have been in some trouble there. Baki realized this as well and called it as such.

"Point to Naruto. The thin shield might have not held up under a full barrage of explosions," he said. Gaara paused for a moment before nodding in acceptance of the ruling.

The pair continued to test each other for the next half hour with Gaara finishing with nine points to one for Naruto. Neither had tapped directly into their tailed beast chakra during the fight. Naruto was hot, sweaty and dirty while Gaara still looked fresh as he had not moved once during the spar. The blond walked up to the redhead before they shook hands.

"You fight better than most of my opponents," Gaara said simply. "But most never live long enough to learn from their mistakes. I learned a lot today."

Naruto smiled in return. Gaara was skilled with his sand and it presented a huge advantage for the redhead. "One thing. You might want to think about moving around more. Someone with a lot more power could use your standing there against you."

"You are correct, Naruto-kun," came a voice form the rocks nearby. The teens both were surprised and spun about. Naruto had pulled out his kodachi for the first time that morning while Gaara's sand flew at the source of the voice. It impacted and sent up a large cloud of dust.

The dust cleared off to allow then to see a pair of men in black robes with stylized red clouds on them. One was slight of build and reminded Naruto of Sasuke. The other was huge, had blue skin and a smirk on his face showing pointed teeth. On his back was a bundle that looked like a sword covered in bandages.

"This is bad," Hayate said to the rest of the spectators. "I recognize Uchiha Itachi over there. The other one looks like a missing nin named Kisame from the Mist village. He was one of their fabled Seven Swordsmen. We need to get over there to help."

"You look like Sasuke," Naruto noted out loud. "That means you must be his brother, the one he wants to kill."

"True Naruto-kun. I am Itachi," the Uchiha said in his calm measured voice. "The large blue fellow is Kisame. We plan on taking you and the other jinchuuriki there with us so if you could surrender now it would be a great help."

"We're not going anywhere," Naruto blustered a bit trying to stall for time. He knew the jonin would be heading their way so if he could keep them talking it might work out."

"Perhaps you misunderstand me Naruto-kun. The one tail was part of a plot to destroy Konoha after all. You don't owe him any loyalty. You would be giving your village a benefit by letting us take him," Itachi said trying to charm Naruto.

"What his village planned then is not important. They were led astray by Orochimaru. It was his plan. He is Ino's friend now and for that reason alone I would defend him. And even if he wasn't, Gaara isn't the same person he was a couple of months ago! He is more than just a person holding a bijuu captive just like I am more than that," Naruto said with conviction.

"They're stalling, Itachi. I think we should just cut off their legs and take them that way," Kisame said pulling his wrapped sword from his back. "But it is cute which the blond kid and his toy sword thinking he can have a chance against Samehada."

"I'll deal with Naruto-kun, Kisame. You deal with the one tail. Do not maim him yet," Itachi ordered.

"Fine," Kisame grumped but hefted his sword higher and rushed at Gaara.

Kisame's speed took them by surprise. Gaara's sand jumped up to defend him from the attack as he stumbled back a bit.

Itachi rushed at Naruto while firing a fire jutsu. It forced him to jump to one side and away from Gaara so neither teen could aid the other.

Gaara used his sand to defend against repeated sword attacks but the sand was becoming less responsive with each block. Kisame chuckled as he increased the speed of his attacks

"Samehada like the chakra in your sand boy. It is eating it up like it was candy," the shark-like man taunted. The sand finally fell to the ground as the strange sword absorbed the remaining chakra animating the sand. Gaara was stunned by a blow to the head from the flat of the wrapped blade moments later.

Itachi followed Naruto and pressed his advantage. Naruto landed and took a defensive stance with his kodachi ready but looked directly at his foe. The red eyes of the Sharingan caught Naruto in their gaze. The teen found everything going dark as the world faded into a genjutsu.

He blinked and he was back into the Root warren under Konoha. He tried to fight what he was seeing found he couldn't. The view of unmasked Root members reporting to the leader was visible before him. He could only see the back of their heads but he recognized the hairstyles. Black and Pink,

"No, we escaped from there," Naruto whispered as he fought this vision before him.

The pair turned and blank faces devoid of emotion looked back at him. Dulled brown eyes of Gashi and pale green eyes of Sakura held no life or spirit in them as they walked toward him.

Naruto tried to back away but found he couldn't move.

"We never escaped. We are only being tested. We are Root and will accomplish our mission," the zombie Sakura said in a flat voice as she lifted a blank mask up to Naruto's face.

Naruto could not even scream as the mask slid into place.

The jonin rushing at them were forced to split up to help both boys. Yuugao took Sakura with her to attack Itachi while Hayate and Ino went with Baki to Gaara's aid. Hayate gave Ino a quick order to pull the downed boys back and tend to their wounds while the pairs engaged the missing ninja.

Kisame almost ran to attack when he saw a pair of swordsmen coming at him and stepped forward to attack. Baki and Hayate had their swords out and attacked with simultaneous Wind Blade attacks once in range of Kisame. The Sand ninja smirked slightly as he watched the attacks close on the missing ninja. His was bigger and sharper than the Leaf ninja's attack.

'Good thing I never fought this guy," Hayate thought. "He is better than me."

Kisame just laughed and allowed Samehada to absorb the chakra of the attacks and only felt the breeze of the air moving past him. He swung back at the two jonin and raked a large amount of their chakra from their bodies but the pair remained fighting. But the distraction allowed Ino to grab hold of Gaara and jump off with him before Kisame could stop her.

The blonde retreated out of immediate range of the Mist ninja and tried to rouse Gaara. The redheaded teen was woozy but did not appear concussed from the head blow. She then looked back to the other fight. Sakura and Yuugao had engaged Itachi with their own blades.

'Geez, everyone here has a sword but me, even the bad guys,' she pouted. 'I want one too!'

Pushing aside her envy, Ino rushed to the second battle to fulfill her assigned task.

Yuugao led the attack on Itachi. The Uchiha merely sidestepped the attack with little apparent effort and leaned to avoid Sakura's follow up. He raised a hand into a one handed seal and sent out his genjutsu at the attackers.

Yuugao tried to her follow up her attack on the Uchiha but he exploded into a mass of sand which swirled around her in a dust devil.

'Genjutsu,' she realized immediately. She tried to dispel it but found it much tougher than normal. Rather than keep attacking nothing and risk hitting her teammate, she moved ito a defensive stance and continued to try dispelling the illusion.

Itachi turned his attention to Sakura but the pink haired girl seemed to shrug it off after a moment. He focused harder on a more complex illusion but Sakura was not even slowed in her attacks this time. Frowning at the lack of success against such a minor opponent he turned to an even more powerful attack.

His eyes shifted from a normal looking three tome Sharingan to a higher form, the Mangekyo Sharingan. "Tsukuyomi," he muttered as he caught Sakura in his illusion and he entered it himself to control it personally.

The landscape in Sakura's mind was not how he had planned it to be. Instead of the black and red realm of the Tsukuyomi it was a mix of red, pink, white and black. He looked about for the mind representation of Sakura but was forced to jump back as a massive axe impacted the ground he had been a moment prior.

Holding the axe was a girl appearing in her late teens. The ANBU armor she wore over skintight pants showed off her curves well. The most shocking sight was the plain white mask over her face with a mass of pink hair spilling freely down her back. The girl wrenched the axe from the ground. The blade of it was easily the length of her torso and the haft inches across but she held it as lightly as one would a kodachi.

The follow up swing proved this insanely huge axe moved as quickly as a sword would. Itachi needed a chance to gain control here.

"So, who would you be? I was expecting little Sakura-chan here," Itachi said in his calmest voice.

"Sakura's not here right now," the girl replied. "But you can call me Ne-chan."

Next Chapter: A Mission to Sand: Resolutions

End Notes: To quote Monty Python, I'm not dead! I know it has been a year since my last update but I have said before, this does not pay my bills, it is a hobby. To those still hanging with me, I thank you. Those that have not won't see this anyway so nothing for them.

Items of Interest Elsewhere ro Reference: I have been looking at DeviantArt a lot lately trying ot help visualize some of my ideas better. I favorited a few pieces that seemed to fit concepts in this story and added a rough sketch of my own. One piece of art by an artist going by 'the_pooper' struck me when I had seen it the first time. The look on the face of Sakura and her posture with kunai in it matched what I visualized her as during her last attack at the end of chapter 13. The outfit is different of course but it makes a good idea of her state otherwise. My DA name is the same as my name here so go look things up and appreciate a nice piece of Sakura art if you had not already. A renewed link should be on my profile soon.