Effloresco Secundus

Chapter 33: Desert Grit

Hyuuga Den turned out to be a wealth of information about useful herbs, and her stories about the last war kept Naruto riveted. All in all, it was a quick day's journey to Fire Country's western border. They encountered teams back from skirmishes around the country – but there were less of them than there had been when team seven been on the hunt for Tsunade.

"Think we should stop for the day?" said Shikamaru. They'd been traveling side by side for most of the day, making up the front while Genma took the rear.

"Sounds good," Sakura said. They were on the edge of one of River Country's infamous swamps and the spindly trees growing out of the water would hide them from view until the morning. She signed for the group to stop and it was a bit of a thrill to have them all comply immediately. It had been a very long time since she last led a team.

The area was so heavy with vegetation that all colors but green seemed to have disappeared from view. Water lilies and cattails dotted the edges of the water and duckweed floated like a green sheet on the surface.

"We should probably make a hanging camp," Sakura said. Iruka had mentioned that the chinampas of River's various swamps were notoriously unreliable.

"You always listened carefully to the Academy lessons, didn't you?" Shikamaru said, the corner of his lips rising in a half-smile.

Sakura slanted a deadpan glance his way. "You recognized the source of my suggestion without prompting."

They made camp in the trees, binding up fabrics to cocoon themselves in. A watch schedule was set up and rations shared between them. The night remained quiet and clear, and the dirtwater smell that wafted up from the swamp below wasn't strong enough to be a nuisance.

All in all, a good start. For once.

Sakura laid in her cocoon, peeking up at the sky through the treetops, and found herself feeling less tense than she had for the past few days. Yes, there was war happening and it scared her. Yes, everything had spun out of control on the home-front. But distance made it easier to think things through logically and she resolved that by the time they got back to Konoha again, she'd have sketched out a plan to deal with the Juntoku.

The whole night passed uneventfully, and she was grateful for the respite. When morning arrived, the air was pregnant with swampwater mist and the smell was finally becoming overpowering.

"Hmm. It's a bit strange that we're being sent out on a mission like this," said Shikamaru, stretching and yawning as they packed away their camp.

Sakura gave him a questioning look.

"Well, you're basically an assault team and my team are recon specialists. But this mission is diplomatic in nature."

She frowned as she looked at him, recognizing the truth of those words. But on the other hand… "Diplomacy is something a shinobi should be reasonably well-versed in."

"Jounin, yeah. Some chunin too, I guess." He paused, rearranging his packing. "Whatever. There's probably something more going on here."

Sasuke and Naruto were clearly listening, but none of the adult shinobi paid them any particular attention.

They continued towards Wind's border and an hour later, they reached one of Suna's outposts. It was little more than a hut on top of a pylon, staffed by a leather-skinned kunoichi who greeted them with a silent glance.

Shikamaru produced the mission scroll and she read through it carefully several times, like she thought there might be some hidden message in there she needed to decipher. Naruto fidgeted at Sakura's side, clearly impatient, but everybody else seemed content to wait.

"This looks to be in order," said the kunoichi and waved them away.

'How high-handed', thought Sakura. It wasn't particularly clever of a Suna-nin to act anything but respectful, considering their current position. But then, Suna had a reputation for borderline excessive pride, same as Kumo.

"Does anybody have any experience with diplomacy?" asked Sakura as their made their way over Wind's craggy mountainous region and towards the desert.

"Yep," said Genma and hooked at thumb over his shoulder. Izumo, walking behind him, waved a little.

"My parents were diplomats," he said. "So that was my original aim. I got a little sidetracked, though."

He sounded sheepish and Genma grinned at him. Sakura could guess who got him sidetracked.

"You wanted to deal with politics and stuff?" Naruto asked, clearly boggled at the idea.

"Yes. People are fascinating." Izumo smiled. "Especially when they're lying politely through their teeth."

"So you will lead the diplomatic overtures, then," Sakura said, glancing at Shikamaru for his agreement. He shrugged.

"We are very much at an advantage, which makes the situation less delicate than most diplomatic issues of this sort normally would be," Izumo said.

Shikamaru made a thoughtful sound. "What bargain are we supposed to make? That they get the kids back if they cough up whatever it is we want from them?"

Izumo nodded. "We want several things, foremost among them a trade agreement. Suna exports ceramics, pure clay, some luxury glass goods, oil and minerals."

"Doesn't sound like merchandise we are in dire need of," Sasuke said, taking a sip from his water bottle.

"They make some interesting pottery," Genma commented, popping a piece of dried fruit into his mouth. "And anyway," he continued while chewing, "The network is the interesting part. They trade with the Western Territories on the reg and import some tempting stuff. Who knows why the Territories focus so much on ceramics."

"So we want to take over this… ceramics network?" Sakura said, though privately she thought that seemed rather odd.

"We want access to it, at any rate," said Den, scratching absently at the scars on her face.

"I had a cousin who traveled to the Territories sometimes," Sasuke said as if he didn't usually avoid mentions of his dead family at almost any cost. "They're wealthy."

"And they spend their wealth on pottery and glass art," said Genma, rolling his eyes. "They could easily have made themselves a Hidden Village. They're insular enough for it."

They finalized their plans and Sakura came to appreciate Shikamaru's attention to detail in addition to his ability to strategize. Briefly, she wondered what it would have been like to be on the same team as the Nara heir. 'Terrible, probably,' she settled on. 'Considering how observant he is.'

They continued towards Suna at a faster pace now that they had a plan. When the enormous crater that cradled Wind's Hidden Village finally came into view, Sakura had to slow down for a moment to stare. The Village was awe-inspiring in its harsh beauty. The buildings were dome-like and made from hard-packed sand, but pieces of quarts and jade mixed in with the sand glittered in the sunlight. The windows were small, like tiny eye sockets peering out at the desert, and the window glass had a rainbow sheen that cast faint colored shadows over their surroundings.

It was little wonder that Sunagakure had once had a sizeable tourism industry, as foolish as that venture had been.

"We need to get to the gates to report our presence. Wouldn't want to start an international incident." Genma stuck a new senbon in his mouth and smiled.

"Not like they're strong enough now that they could do anything about it even if we did start something," Shikamaru muttered, though it was clear he was merely making an observation rather than suggesting that alternative course of action.

They reported their presence to the two young guards, who were far more respectful than the kunoichi at the outpost had been. Indeed they seemed close to nervous, like they thought a wrong word would get them decapitated on the spot.

"The interim Kazekage is not presently in the village. He returns tomorrow and will gladly receive you then. We apologize most sincerely for the wait." The guards bowed as one and seemed very thankful when they could rise back up again with their heads still attached to their shoulders.

"It's weird to have people be afraid of us," Naruto whispered as they made their way towards a hotel in the village center. People threw them harried glances and made warding signs behind their backs, and Sakura had to agree. It was unsettling.

Suna's central neighborhoods seemed very sparsely populated compared to Konoha's, Sakura observed, or else the Village's people stayed indoors at this time of day. Or perhaps they had been advised to stay indoors on this particular day. The few people who did pass them on the street were hard-eyed folk in coarse fabrics and headcloths to protect their faces against the wind that whistled through the alleys.

"Ugh, should have brought better desert gear," said Naruto. Den handed him a long shawl that he wrapped around his head with decisive movements, and then he burrowed deeper into his jacket.

They found the hotel with little fuss and the check-in was smooth, even if they were followed by suspicious eyes until they reached their rooms.

"Doesn't it make any of you guys tense?" Naruto asked, turning to look over at where Den and Genma were divesting themselves of some of their outer gear. "The atmosphere, I mean."

Den looked over. "You get used to it, kid. There are places in the world where shinobi are feared as a matter of course."

"Speak for yourself," said Genma. "I still hate it. Makes you glad to have been born in Konoha, eh?"

"I suppose so," Den said, but her crooked smile looked a tad chilly. Sakura glanced up at her headband, wondering if there was a caged bird seal etched into the skin behind it.

"What are we gonna do until tomorrow? Just wait here?" Naruto asked, turning towards Genma. He raised his eyebrows and nodded towards Sakura and Shikamaru.

"I don't like the thought of being cooped up here for that long." Shikamaru frowned faintly looking over at Sakura with an unasked question in his eyes.

Sakura nodded. "I think we should go and have lunch somewhere. Get a feel for what Suna thinks of us beneath the fear."

From the corner of her eye she saw Genma and Izumo exchange a look. 'Shikamaru is probably right,' Sakura thought. 'There is definitely something more going on here.'

But neither offered any objections, so a few minutes later they were back out the door. A set of shinobi were lounging about in the corridor in the midst of casual conversation, like their presence there was a mere accident.

'Definitely being watched, then,' Sakura thought, unsurprised.

"Me and Izumo are gonna go exploring for a bit," Genma announced suddenly as they made their way out onto the street. "How about you find us some nice, cozy place to eat?"

Naruto looked at him incredulously, but before he or anybody else had a chance to say anything, Genma had grabbed Izumo by the collar and set out.

"'Exploring', tch," said Shikamaru and Sakura agreed. There was no way they'd wander off for such a frivolous reason, no matter how carefree they looked.

"Are they up to something?" Naruto asked.

"Of course they are. But it is not our business," said Den, voice whip-sharp but quiet.

As they meandered through the streets, Sakura noticed far more homeless people than she ever had in Konoha. There seemed to be at least one in every corner. Some were missing limbs or marked by kunai.

"Don't they have a veteran's home?" Naruto said, brow furrowed.

"Suna isn't exactly rolling in money," Shikamaru muttered. Despite his flippant tone, he looked ill at ease.

"Konoha is quite wealthy, Naruto," Sakura said quietly, linking her arm with his. Mostly to stop him from approaching one of the beggars. Sakura wasn't sure how that would be construed, but it was unlikely they would believe that a foreign national talking to one of Suna's ex-shinobi had good intentions.

"Yeah, but it's not like we don't have homeless people." Naruto frowned. "There are lots in the Hana district. But they're civilians."

"What were you doing in the Hana district?" Den was frowning.

Naruto shrugged. "I live nearby."

They ended up at a small restaurant on the main street, one with views of the whole street and all the larger, more popular restaurants scattered about. Most were pretty empty, to Sakura's total lack of surprise. Even if they hadn't been told to stay indoors, Suna's people probably couldn't afford to eat out much right now. Or else they were too paranoid to move freely about.

Genma and Izumo appeared just as they were ordering their food, looking for all the world like they really had just been out for a stroll.

"All done?" asked Shikamaru as he sat down, scraping the chair against the floor and thus hiding the sound of his voice.

"Mostly. And now we're hungry!" said Genma with a grin.

For all that they pretended to be relaxed, they ate quickly. Genma had checked the food for tampering and given them a subtle all-clear signal when he was done. It made it difficult to truly enjoy the food, though it was certainly well-prepared.

In the midst of their quite conversation, voices floated in through the opened window, getting louder as they approached. The croaky voice of an old woman and a lower voice of indeterminable gender intermingled.

"—and to be careful. Respectful. Feelings don't matter."

"That's easy for — Konoha — want to see them, at least!"

Shikamaru and Sakura exchanged a look. Naruto stretched his neck to catch sight of whoever was speaking so carelessly. 'Must be a civilian,' Sakura thought. 'Shinobi wouldn't be that careless.'

"She certainly sounds mad," said Izumo, stirring his soup idly.

The voices drifted away and Sakura was beginning to relax again when the doors slammed open. An older woman with gray hair partially covered by a dark headband strode in. Or stomped in, really. She squinted in their direction, lips taut. It was unlikely that she was going to start a fight in the middle of a restaurant, but Sakura still prepared herself. She'd been wrong to think the voice had belonged to a civilian, because this was clearly someone with shinobi training. It was all in the woman's gait, in her deeply calloused hands.

"Elder, please don't -" said a younger woman dogging the old woman's steps. A Suna headband glinted on her forehead.

"Konoha," the old woman greeted as she strode up to their table. At least Sakura thought it was meant to be a greeting. It sounded close to an accusation.

"Uh, hello," said Naruto, giving her a little wave. "Nice to meet you?"

"You haven't changed," the old woman said, squinting at Naruto. "Sweet and harmless on the outside, dangerous as desert vipers on the inside."

"Elder Chiyo!" said the younger woman, putting a hand on the Elder's shoulder. Her low voice was sharp with warning. "That is enough."

Sweat glinted on her brow and Sakura caught the nervous twitch of her hands when she turned to bow. "My apologies for disturbing your lunch, Konoha-tachi. My honored Elder appears to have forgotten her manners."

Elder Chiyo scoffed. "These kidnappers are getting the kind of greeting they deserve."

"So it's like that?" Genma said, talking in between bites of his fish. "You lost a few of your most precious brats in the stupidest maneuver since Kumo's attempt to overthrow their Daimyo and now you want to pretend to be offended."

Elder Chiyo's face tightened with anger. "I curse your village."

"You do that," said Genma, leaning back on his chair languidly. It was a very obvious display of irreverence and Sakura had to wonder if that was the most practical way to handle this confrontation, for all that their village was currently at an advantage.

"Pardon us," said the younger woman icily, grabbing a hold of the Elder's elbow and forcing her to follow along with the movement when she stepped back.

"Was that smart?" said Shikamaru, eyeing the women's backs as they stepped out the door.

"We can't let them get away with insulting us," said Izumo quietly, serene as a statue. "They are at fault and any attempts to blame us for the consequences must be nipped in the bud. We can't tolerate disrespect if we want to approach them from a superior position."

They left the restaurant a few minutes later and this time Sakura thought she noticed a few hostile stares as they made their way back to the hotel. Perhaps some of the people outside had overheard the exchange.

"What a bother to miss Tsunade-sama's installation for this," said Genma when they reached their hotel.

"You just want an excuse to party," said Izumo drily. Genma grinned in his general direction.

"I didn't know they were doing the Hokage ceremony thing now," said Naruto, voice a little plaintive.

"Yep. Apparently Sandaime is really eager to retire. Can't say I blame him," Genma said. "Having the worst job in the village for that long…"

"It's not the worst job," said Naruto firmly. "Far from it, even with the stress and administrative work."

"And how would you know?" said Genma.

"I've been reading lots about what Hokages do. Like their duties and stuff." Naruto crossed his forearms behind his head. "It's a lot more complicated than I thought it would be. And involves a lot less ass-kicking than I was hoping for…"

"The Hokage's everyday work is mostly administrative," said Izumo. "But they are certainly called upon to defend the village in times of need."

They walked back to the hotel at a leisurely pace but once they were back inside their rooms, Sakura noticed a moment of tension in all of the adult members of their team. She exchanged a look with Sasuke. He had spent the day in watchful silence but had seemed less bothered by the hostile foreigners than Naruto and Shikamaru.

He was perched in the window and glared out into the street. Though she could only see his profile, Sakura thought she spotted the red sheen of Sharingan in his eyes.

The hours passed so uneventfully that Sakura had to keep herself from nodding off. Genma and Izumo had been deep in conversation for awhile now, Shikamaru was dozing on one of the beds and Naruto was pestering Den about something-or-other. The sun set and darkness descended. With it came a chill wind that made the windows rattle and whine against the windowsills.

"We should create a guard rotation," Sakura said. Shikamaru stretched like a feline and nodded.

"Traditional set-up?" he asked through a yawn. Sakura shrugged assent.

She got third watch and slid into one of the beds gratefully. Two hours' worth of good sleep would leech some of the day's tension from her body, if nothing else. She'd finally developed a field shinobi's skill at falling asleep almost on command and put it to good use.


The night had been so quiet that it had made Sakura's guard rotation feel a little tense. After the meeting with the old kunoichi yesterday, she'd been prepared for something to happen and when nothing did, all her tension had nowhere to go.

Almost as soon as the sun rose, a messenger had come to the door to request their presence in the Kazekage's office 'at two past bright zenith', as he'd put it. His Wind Country dialect had been so strong he'd been difficult to understand even without desert jargon.

"Quite the insult," said Izumo when the messenger left.

It took Sakura a moment to connect the dots. "Because 1400 hours is the hottest time of day?"

Izumo nodded, his brows creasing. "And we can't deny them the 'request' without it impacting the optics of this mission."

"We'll just have to find some other way to politely slap them down," said Genma, shoving a ration into his mouth with a miserable frown. Apparently the hotel's ice coffee supply hadn't been up to his 'caffeine-addict standards', as Izumo had brightly called them.

"Better let me deal out the diplomatic slaps," said Izumo and Genma grunted.

They stayed in the hotel to strategize until the hour of the meeting was upon them. In a collected troop they followed the messenger who came to guide them to the Kazekage's office.

The office was a large onion-shaped building bearing a sign with the kanji for "wind". Sakura wondered idly how many eyes were locked onto their approaching forms through the building's many small, circular windows. As they were led in, she made sure to keep track of the corridors they moved through as well as the occasional marker in the form of a piece of furniture or a potted plant. They were led up a spiral staircase and the halls echoed with their collective steps. They met nobody else on their way up, and that had to be by careful design. The Hokage's tower was always bustling with shinobi presence.

"So, who's the interim Kazekage?" Genma asked, sounding like he couldn't really care less.

"Oh, pardon me. I thought you had already informed yourselves…" the messenger said, pushing his desert shawl behind a shoulder.

'Power play,' thought Sakura, exchanging a glance with Shikamaru. There was no way they hadn't been under constant surveillance since they stepped into Suna, which meant that the messenger knew very well that they hadn't been able to 'inform themselves'.

"Ah, I'm sorry. Since so many of your best jounin passed in the recent – conflict – we were never able to establish who was selected to the position of Kazekage," said Izumo. Sakura had to admire both the subtleness of the insult as well as Izumo's apologetic tone. He actually sounded sympathetic.

The corners of the messenger's eyes tightened, but he only bowed his acknowledgement in return. Not quite confident enough in their village's position to carry on the not-so-playful banter.

"The interim Kazekage is Bedi Tōjūrō," he said instead, voice carefully void of inflection.

"You picked someone from the Western Territories to be your Kazekage?" Genma asked, letting surprise show openly on his face. Suna was notoriously insular and as Sakura had understood it, hadn't always had the best of relationships with their neighbors.

"He might have been born in the Territories, but after decades in service of Suna, he is certainly no outsider." There was a thin, polite frostiness riding the polite explanation. Without waiting for further reaction, he knocked on the polished wooden door leading to the Kazekage's office.

"Come in," said a heavy voice that Sakura immediately recognized as geriatric. Not what she'd expected, at all. Suna's median age was lower than all the other Hidden Villages' put together. 'Perhaps an Elder, then?' she thought.

They lined themselves up before the wooden desk, behind which an elderly man was seated. His hair was braided into a style Sakura recognized from old history textbooks as a "lattice entwine". It had been a common style among the Suna founding clans. His hair was liberally shot through with gray, but he had plainly aged in the same way their Hokage had – with a spine of steel that had rusted not at all.

"Greetings, people of Konoha," he said when they had introduced themselves, and bade them to sit down in the chairs facing his desk. His eyes were so dark that the pupil could not be appreciated inside the circle of the iris. 'Hawk eyes,' thought Sakura.

"I do apologize for keeping you waiting," he said, bending his head just enough for Sakura to guess he wasn't the least bit sorry. No surprise there.

"It was no trouble," said Izumo with a smile. "We had time to sight-see a little of your lovely village."

'Laying it on a bit thick,' Sakura thought. But Izumo clearly understood political games, so this was his field to play.

"So I heard," said the Kazekage. He asked about their stay, what they thought of the food they'd had the opportunity to try, if they had enjoyed the view from the hotel… and Sakura had to wonder if playing at being a doddering grandfatherly type was a widespread fetish among powerful old men. She banished her distracting irritation and poked Naruto discreetly in the shoulder to stop his slight antsy movements. Yes, this song-and-dance was boring and a waste of time, but at least assassins weren't catapulting in through the windows to rip their throats out. That was something, at least.

Suddenly spider cracks appeared across the glass of one of the small windows, and a man in a mask catapulted in and landed on the carpet. Sakura's hand twitched for weaponry, Naruto half-rose from his chair, Shikamaru's eyes opened fully for the first time in half an hour… and the masked man proceeded to salute both the Kazekage and the gathered Konoha team.

"Quite the entrance," said Genma, who hadn't even twitched. The man removed his mask to reveal a woman's face. 'Oops,' thought Sakura. Though to be fair, she was a very tall, square-looking woman.

"Pardon me. It was not my attention to put your guards up," she said, voice rough as sandstone. That was clearly bullshit, but neither Genma nor Izumo made a move to contradict her. "Urgent message for the Kazekage."

She handed him the message and hopped back out through the now-broken window.

"It must be very expensive to have your shinobi destroying the windows every time they need to deliver urgent messages," said Izumo, in the kind of commiserating voice Sakura sometime heard her gossipy neighbors use. Just as insincere. She was quite certain that noticeable lack of sincerity was by design.

"Sometimes it really is that urgent," said Tōjūrō with a shrug that implied resignation.

Sakura spotted Naruto's skeptical frown before he wiped it off his face. Her heart was slowing down again, but the interruption had been quite a masterful tactic to break their focus.

"And the fact that we have your jinchuuriki is not?" said Izumo, voice so level that it took half a beat for Sakura to parse the words. A ripple of stiffness passed through Naruto, though his expression didn't change. Sakura glanced at him from the corner of her eye. He had recognized something in that sentence.

As had Tōjūrō. His dark gaze flattened into something stony. He was shocked, she thought. For all that he looked angry, that expression read more as stunned one to her.

"You certainly don't mince your words, Konoha-san," he said after a long moment. He dropped the message scroll carelessly into a drawer, which told Sakura all she needed to know about the message's importance.

"We've certainly had a nice chat, but business matters call on our attention." Izumo bowed his head respectfully.

"…They are alive?"

"Yes, all of them." Immediate confirmation, which Sakura hadn't expected. Wouldn't it have been better to make the Kazekage work for the information?

"Is this where I make some pithy comment about the bleeding hearts of Konoha?"

Izumo cleared his throat. "That would be ill-fitting, I should think. Considering what it took to acquire that information."

Tōjūrō's expression sharpened so briefly that Sakura wondered if she just imagined the spiky anger rising in his eyes.

"If you have maimed them beyond repair, there will be no good resolution to this matter." He said it so quietly that Sakura felt a frisson of unease race up her back.

"There has been no maiming, Kazakage-sama," said Izumo, voice calm and slow. "I guess we are bleeding hearts, after all."

The Kazekage snorted. "The reputation you have fostered does your village credit. Very effective."

"I'm sure I don't know what you mean," said Izumo, voice as smooth as sap.

"I'm sure you don't." The Kazekage's voice was dry, but Izumo's words had dispelled the rising tension in the room. Thank Merlin. Sakura had no idea how many shinobi were currently surrounding the office and she didn't particularly want to find that out.

The Kazekage sat back in his chair and gave them all a slow look. "You know, then."

"About the former Kazekage's youngest son housing the Ichibi? Yes."

Sakura was quite certain that Izumo had phrased it that way to inform the rest of them of the matter. She'd have appreciated a heads-up, because now she had to hide the slight reeling sensation that came over her. 'So that's what jinchuuriki means…' she thought, keeping her gaze from slanting towards Naruto. Konoha was clearly in quite the advantageous position, if they had captured the host of the Ichibi.

"I hope he gave you no trouble? Gaara-kun can be quite a handful, I'm afraid."

Izumo smiled politely. "Nothing we couldn't handle."

"Most fortunate. Seals of that nature can be so temperamental." The Kazekage grimaced faintly.

"Especially when they were applied by someone other than a Fuinjutsu master," Izumo said, all but oozing sympathy.

Tōjūrō's grimaced stiffened. "…Your Intel department has my admiration."

Izumo shrugged eloquently. "Morino-san is ever efficient."

"I should hope I never have cause to experience that efficiency," said the Kazekage with a reluctant, amused twist to his wrinkled lips. Izumo shook his head, smile firmly in place, but said nothing.

"About recent events," Tōjūrō started and now he was clearly more carefully choosing his words. "You are aware of the Snake's involvement?"

"Naturally." Izumo's smile disappeared. Missing-nin were embarrassments, at best, to their respective villages. At worst, they were a sign of weakness that could hurt a village's relationship with outside clients.

"Our Kazekage had been dead for a while before the plans were set into motion." Tōjūrō frowned. "We have yet to establish when he was murdered and replaced by the Snake, but it was before it was decided that Suna should involve themselves with Kumogakure's campaign."

"We appreciate the clarification," said Izumo, bending his neck slightly in acknowledgement. Sakura wondered if they were supposed to believe the Kazekage's words or not. She'd seen Orochimaru rip the Kazekage's face off and reveal his own mien underneath, so that part was undeniable. But it sure was convenient for Suna to claim Konoha's missing-nin had set everything in motion, and that they were without blame.

The Kazekage frowned and there was a long, quite pause before he spoke again. "On behalf of Sunagakure, I would like to extend… an apology."

He looked like he was about to choke on the word. Izumo bowed deeper from his seated position with a fist pressed to his chest in the old, ceremonial way shinobi used to accept formal apologies. Sakura was quite sure they weren't actually interested in allowing Suna to deny responsibility, but she also knew the value in not stomping on proud people when they bent to you from a vulnerable position.

"It should be of little surprise to you that we still expect reparations for damages incurred," Izumo said. "All the same, we thank you for the acknowledgment of wrong-doing on your part."

'He didn't actually acknowledge wrong-doing,' Sakura thought with a flicker of amusement at the Kazekage's increasingly severe frown. 'But he can't exactly deny it now, either. Not without walking back the apology.' Or admitting outright that Suna had been tricked by Orochimaru, which would cast his village in an even worse light. It was one thing to plan a treacherous invasion for tactical advantage and quite another to be the pawn of another Hidden Village's missing-nin. It was better to come across as warmongers than fools. "Fools" and "prey" were practically synonyms in this world.

"What sort of 'reparations' are you looking for, more precisely?" His tone was crisp enough to resemble brittle ice.

"We would need reassurance that these unfortunate events would not be repeated, naturally," said Izumo.

"Naturally," Tōjūrō echoed, but something told Sakura that whatever promise he gave as reassurance would be worth less than nothing. Little surprise there, honestly. Though if Suna did decide to retaliate for this indignity eventually, that would inform both the other Hidden Village's and potential clients that perhaps Suna's promises weren't worth the paper they were written on. Suna would have to be very subtle in acting out any plan of vengeance if they wanted to halt that kind of reputation.

'And it's not relevant at the moment, anyway. They're too weak to do much right now.'

Izumo carefully brokered a deal wherein Suna would not get involved in any coming conflicts on a side opposing Konoha. It was an hour's worth of overly polite haggling, where Sakura started to wonder what the rest of them were even there for. They could have waited outside the office and let Izumo and Tōjūrō duke it out on their own.

'But I guess we're sending a message,' she thought, struggling to keep her spine upright. Shikamaru had been sagging a little in his chair for the past thirty minutes and Naruto looked like his mind had drifted off to greener pastures. Sasuke, Den and Genma all seemed unaffected by the long wait, with Genma having taken to playing with one of his senbon. Also some sort of power play, Sakura thought about that obvious show of boredom.

"In addition," started Izumo when the Kazekage had signed the deal with his personal seal. "We figured we might offer you to repay your debt to Konoha with a small favor."

The Kazekage was stone-faced as Izumo laid out their wish to form a trade agreement. The ability to access Suna trade routes into the Western Territories as well as take part of Suna's trade agreement with the Territories – with Suna working as a proxy on their behalf.

"Is that all?" said Tōjūrō in a tone that suggested he wanted to spit in Izumo's face.

"We have no wish to upset Sunagakure's economy and no plans to interfere with your imports or exports." Izumo's tone suggested that in an informal setting, he would have held his palms up in an attempt to stave off the Kazekage's low-intensity anger. "Nor do we have any interest in establishing ourselves on this market."

'We don't?' thought Sakura. 'What's the point of this diplomatic sideshow, then?'

The Kazekage paused, clearly surprised. Disbelieving too, probably. "Is that so?"

"Yes. We would even sign a deal to that effect, if it would reassure you."

The Kazekage's gaze was shrewd and he slowly drummed the tips of his fingers against the desktop. "You know, then."

"Pardon?" said Izumo.

"What kind of pottery the Territories can make." He said it slowly and carefully, like he wasn't sure he'd read the situation correctly.

Izumo looked genuinely confused. "Bowls, cups, gem-laden ceramic jewelry… and beautiful, ornate jars and vases. I think I heard something about tea sets and sculptures as well. Other than that, I couldn't say. I must beg your pardon; the intricacies of the pottery trade escapes me entirely."

"You once had a deal with the Territories, if I recall correctly," said Tōjūrō. "Until about six years ago."

"That deal fell through, I'm afraid," said Izumo. "Very regrettable."

The Kazekage gave him a long stare that Sakura couldn't hope to read. His eyes seemed to lie in shadow, even though there were no actual shadows obscuring his features.

"If you sign an agreement on behalf of your village not to become involved in the pottery and ceramics trade," he said finally, "I will agree to this."

"You needn't deliberate it with your Council?" Izumo asked. Tōjūrō shook his head slowly, deliberately.

"No. This is a deal I have the ability to broker without their council." His subsequent smile was a little grim and made Sakura wonder about Suna's internal politics. After what happened with the invasion, they had to be chaotic right now.

They made courteous small-talk while ironing out the details. Both Tōjūrō and Izumo got in a few polite jibes that Sakura hoped wouldn't set relations between Suna and Konoha back further. The Kazekage looked tight about the eyes, like he was keeping a hot temper in check, and Sakura saw the beads of sweat making their way down Izumo's nape. These political games were clearly tiring for everyone involved. She could barely imagine Naruto committing to this kind of verbal sniping on a long-term basis, but if he was sticking with that ambition of his, this was the sort of thing he'd be doing in the future.

"That will be all for today, I think," said the Kazekage finally, when talks were grounding to a halt. Izumo murmured agreement.

They took formal leave of the Kazekage and as they trooped out the door, Sakura heard the Kazekage's voice.

"I know what you know, Konoha-tachi." It was quiet enough that they could pretend not to hear and indeed only Izumo, Genma, Den and Sakura seemed to have heard him, since they made up the rear of the group.

"If he really 'knows what we know', why agree to it?" Genma asked quietly of Izumo. Sakura pretended she was deaf to the question, though the two of them were right behind her. She didn't really want to get involved in the politics of this diplomatic mess. She had enough messes waiting for her back in Konoha.

They quickly made their way back to the hotel. The stares on the streets were just as hostile today as they had been yesterday, but knowing that they could soon return home, it seemed to matter less.

"You were really good at that verbal sparring stuff!" said Naruto to Izumo, plopping down on a bed. Shikamaru slouched in beside him and seemed to fall asleep between one heartbeat and another. Sasuke stared out the window, looking thoughtful.

"I have gotten used to it over the years," said Izumo, taking a swig from Genma's water bottle. "It's a good skill to have, even if you're not a diplomat."

"Politics are so boring though. But yeah, I guess it is pretty useful." Naruto fell back beside Shikamaru with a sigh. "I guess I'll have to learn…" he mumbled.

Sakura sidled up beside Izumo. He'd impressed her with his handling of the Kazekage, though she'd feel like she was sucking up if she said so outright.

"You're different from that time in the library," she said instead. That's where she'd seen him before the exam, she'd finally realized. It was such a long time ago that it had completely slipped her mind.

Izumo turned to look at her. "What do you mean?"

"You're so much smoother, calmer." Sakura paused. "You could have handled me like that too, you know. Then you wouldn't have set off any of my internal stalker-alarms."

Izumo's brows tilted together. "What are you talking about?"

"Pretty sure Izumo wouldn't stalk a girl," said Genma, rubbing his eyes with a tired frown. The heat didn't seem to be doing him much good.

"I wouldn't stalk anyone," said Izumo, rolling his eyes.

"I didn't mean actual stalking," said Sakura, refusing to let herself be side-tracked. "I meant that time in the library."

Izumo frowned. "I honestly don't know what time you're referring to, Haruno-kun."

The hair on the back of Sakura's neck prickled. He looked completely sincere and had no reason that she could think of to lie to her. She wasn't misremembering, was she? But no, she'd never even seen another shinobi who only covered his chin the way Izumo did.

"We met in the library once…"

"If you mean the shinobi library, I haven't been there in years…" said Izumo. Genma was looking at her now, too. Sakura made sure to keep the unease off her face.

"I must have been mistaken," she said, shrugging. "I thought it was you, but I wasn't sure." Liar. She was sure. But if it hadn't been him, if it had just been someone who looked exactly like him… that meant it had been someone under an illusion. Who had approached her as Izumo for some reason. Without even meaning to, she found herself edging up to Sasuke's side. She didn't know why, because she wasn't going to mention… whatever this was. Not until she'd thought it through.

'But I'm not going to let it become a secret either. No more pointless secrets, if I can help it.' Sasuke looked over at her, but unlike Naruto he made no attempt to break the silence between them. That was just what she needed right now.

"Are there any here?" asked Sasuke quietly a few minutes later. It took Sakura a moment to realize that he was talking about ghosts.

"Not as many as in Konoha," she murmured. "But yes."

Sasuke nodded and didn't ask her to describe them, which was what Sakura thought he would do.

"I want to talk to – my mother," he said a few minutes later. His expression was tense and the words were so quiet Sakura had to read his lips to parse them.

"Alright," said Sakura easily. She'd expected that, of course. And she should have known that Sasuke's mind would still be on her revelation. It was quite the paradigm shift, she couldn't deny that. Sasuke glanced her way and nodded shortly, allowing silence to descend once again.

They went to bed early to be able to rise in the small hours of the night, when the desert air was chill and darkness covered every dune and rock. The evening and early night was as uneventful as the previous one, so Sakura shouldn't have been surprised when the concussive sound of an explosion broke the silence and punched them all awake. She knew it had been too quiet, gone too smoothly. Team seven didn't have "smooth" missions.

With no comments exchanged between them, they armed themselves. Through the window Sakura heard angry shouting and the whizzing of multiple jutsu. Something lightening cracked, something fiery sped past the building. An unnatural wind roared in the distance.

The door to their hotel room was ripped open by the same messenger from yesterday. Dirty and bloodied, he took stock of them as if to assure himself that they weren't the originators of the burgeoning fight.

"Status?" asked Shikamaru.

"Unknown, cloaked missing-nin," the messenger panted. "North, approaching the center of the village. Approaching you."

"Description?" asked Sakura as they all followed him out. People were rushing through the streets, kicking up sand and grit as they moved. Civilian parents were shuffling their children into buildings, shinobi were hopping from rooftops to rooftops and shouting evacuation orders. The desert night was bright with jutsu light tearing through the black sky above.

"Black cloaks with red clouds," said the messenger. "Shark-man, teenager with black hair. I don't know more beyond that."

Genma stopped short where he was and then abruptly rounded on Shikamaru and Sakura. "I'm overriding mission protocol. Your orders are to evacuate the other kids. Get outside of Suna as quickly as you can and don't stop running."

Neither Sakura nor Shikamaru bothered to protest that they were supposed to be the mission leaders. They'd all learned the emergency protocols in the Academy. Izumo took the deals he'd brokered on behalf of Konoha and stuck half of them in Sakura's kunai pouch and the other half in Shikamaru's. Sakura understood that their safe-keeping was also part of their orders.

"Are you staying here?"

Genma, Izumo and Den all exchanged a hurried glance that seemed to convey all the information the three of them needed. "Yes. Now, go!"

Naruto clearly wanted to protest and Sasuke looked none too happy about being sent away, but they all obeyed. Because something was clearly very wrong. They all but stumbled away towards the gates, picking up speed as they went until they were moving so quickly that the wind was whipping up tears in Sakura's eyes as she sprinted. More explosions ricocheted off buildings behind them and new jutsu lit up the night and blotted out the stars with their light.

They ran. The desert swallowed the sound of their steps and the image of their shadows. All Sakura heard were the rasps of her teammates' rapid breaths and her own beating heart. Her head burned cold, though she hadn't called up any of her magic.

They had to stop, finally. Shikamaru couldn't keep up with team seven's speed for long distances. She couldn't hold that against him, though the antsy vibration running through her legs made it difficult to still. A rock outcropping made for both shelter and cover as they pushed themselves behind it. It was so dark that Sakura couldn't see a hand in front of her face. The sound of explosions had faded and the night sky was dotted with stars whose light didn't reach the sands.

"We'll just stop for a few minutes…" said Shikamaru, voice raspy. "Sorry 'bout that."

"We're all ragged," Sakura whispered. The lack of knowledge about what they were running from, coupled with the adult shinobi's obvious alarm, made for a more frightening experience than if they'd been presented with the threat head-on. But her heartbeat was slowing down. They were all used to frightening experiences to one degree or other.

"We need to move," said Sasuke a few minutes later. His voice was tense but not obviously fearful. The need to move pressed into Sakura's bones as well, making her legs jump a little where she hunched beside Naruto.

"You should never have stopped moving, foolish little brother." The deep, masculine voice cut through the dark of the night like an axe.

Sakura could barely see Sasuke's silhouette and yet she felt his sudden tension, saw his stiffening muscles before her inner eye, and understood that whatever had so alarmed the adults had now found its way to them.

The sky lit up with fire. It washed away all darkness, chased away every shadow, and in the stark light she saw a man that looked so much like Sasuke that she didn't need to look twice to realize who he was. This was the Uchiha clan's murderer. Mikoto-san's killer. Sasuke's older brother.

This was Uchiha Itachi.

A/N: Studying + working = close to zero free time. I thought I'd have more time to write, but it just hasn't been possible.

As always, I appreciate your thoughts on the chapter! Things are continuing to heat up in all sorts of ways.