AN: As always, all commentary is appreciated.
Sakura experienced a brief moment of genuine indecision as the two intruders left the shop along with the body of its proprietor. If she were in Konoha she wouldn't have hesitated to confront them. Murder was just about the most serious crime that there was, and she didn't doubt that she could handle these two in a fight. Part of her wanted very badly to take them down.
The problem was that she was not in Konoha. She wasn't supposed to be sneaking around civilian businesses in Kusagakure, and if word got out about what she had been doing the diplomatic repercussions would be severe. She couldn't risk attacking unless she could guarantee that she would not only win, but win so decisively that nobody in the neighborhood would realize there has been a fight at all.
That she could not do. As Sakura finished thinking things through her posture shifted subtly from shocked stillness to the confident stillness of a predator waiting for her moment. She waited until she could no longer hear the murderers' footsteps before springing into action.
The first thing she did was race back into the storeroom and open the hidden safe. She replaced the money she had taken and removed the receipt she had left. It was important that there be no connection between Konoha and the merchant's death. It was also important to keep Koriwan from falling under suspicion, at least until Shizune decided how she wanted to handle this mess.
After checking to make sure that she had left no physical evidence of her intrusion, Sakura headed out through the back door. She took a step outside and stopped while she was still hidden from view in the doorway. Standing still, she strained all of her senses to the utmost. After a good minute or so, she gave up. She couldn't detect anybody.
Of course that didn't mean there wasn't anybody there, which is why Sakura left the shop in a direction almost but not quite completely opposite the way back to the hotel. After walking three blocks, Sakura created a clone and ducked into an alley as her clone continued on down the road. She waited patiently, but no tail revealed themselves.
Sakura engaged in a ghostly game of cat and mouse all through the streets of Kusagakure. The sky was starting to glow with the soft light of false dawn when she made it back to their hotel, not having seen a living soul since leaving the shop. Rather than let the hotel clerk discover her late night, Sakura climbed the wall of the hotel and slipped through the window into the room she shared with Shizune.
Her feet had no sooner touched the floor than a light came on, together with a sharp command.
"Sakura, your report."
Sakura took a moment to absorb the sight in front of her. Shizune had clearly just woken up. The light of the desk lamp revealed that her lower body was still tucked away under the covers, and she was wearing a silk pyjama top decorated with stylized pictures of capering piglets. Despite all that she still looked every inch the jounin commander and Sakura found herself automatically standing at attention.
"The merchant is dead," Sakura said, wanting to get the most important point out of the way first.
Shizune sighed and brought her right hand up to pinch the bridge of her nose. The gesture reminded Sakura of Tsunade, and of the fact that Shizune had worked closely with the Hokage for decades.
"I distinctly remember telling you to be careful," Shizune said, her voice carrying more than a hint of reproach.
"I... hey, I didn't kill him," Sakura protested. When Shizune gesture at her to explain she quickly reprised the night's misadventures, starting with the smooth near completion of the mission, the sudden interruption, and Sakura's attempts to clean up or at least minimize the mess. When she finished Shizune looked pained, but also a little proud.
"You did the right thing," Shizune said, then sighed. "Although I wish it hadn't been necessary."
Sakura nodded, both to accept the praise and to acknowledge the troublesome situation.
"The first thing you need to do is get some sleep."
Just the mention of sleep brought a wave of fatigue crashing over Sakura. She had been ignoring it as best she could, but the fact was that she had been sneaking through the city burning chakra for most of the night instead of sleeping in bed like a normal person. Sakura, like all shinobi, had been trained to do without sleep for a while if the mission demanded it, but she'd feel a lot better if she could get some rest.
Sakura at least managed to keep from visibly sagging, though she suspected Shizune could tell how she felt anyway.
"I'll make a shadow clone to take your place at the meeting tomorrow," Shizune continued, pulling a face.
Sakura sympathized with her. The two of them shared a similar level of chakra stores. While Sakura could create a shadow clone, the effort left her drained and unable to use any other significant ninjutsu. It shouldn't be a problem to get through a diplomatic meeting that way, but it wasn't a comfortable feeling to be so helpless while sharing a room with foreign shinobi.
"You could have Naruto do it. He's better at the transformation technique than you'd think, and he should know me well enough to do a decent impersonation," Sakura said, then continued in the face of Shizune's obvious skepticism. "Just have him try and see if he can fool you."
"I just might do that," Shizune said, smiling. "But I do have an assignment for you besides just sleeping in."
She paused, scratching her chin in thought, and Sakura leaned forward slightly in anticipation. Even if her most recent solo mission had gone a bit sideways, she'd rather be out on a task than stuck in a meeting all day.
"While we're in our meeting, I want you to go see Mikio Koriwan," Shizune said. "Tell him what happened and gauge his reaction. If he wasn't involved, he needs to know about it. If he was involved, we need to know about it."
"You want me to take care of that?"
She was surprised Shizune didn't want to handle such an important task herself. Sakura trusted her own judgment but she didn't expect Shizune to put quite so much faith in her.
"I would do it, but the best time to see him undisturbed is during our meetings. I don't think Naruto would do a good job taking my place. Besides, you probably know him better than I do," Shizune said, before raising a finger in warning. "Now, if you do think he's playing us... don't kill him."
Sakura felt a flush of irritation momentarily push the fatigue out of her system. "I really think you're making too much out of one-"
"No, Sakura, listen," Shizune interrupted. "Don't kill him... but anything short of that is up to you."
"Playing little mind games is one thing, but implicating us in a murder is quite another," Shizune said. "At the end of the day Konoha is a major village and Kusa is not. If you think Koriwan needs a reminder of the precise nature of our relationship, you can go ahead and administer it."
Sakura blinked, then nodded. She wanted Shizune to trust her and respect her judgment, but to suddenly have so much responsibility thrust upon her still took her aback. She'd never heard of a chunin being given so much leeway to set the tone of a relationship between villages.
A small part of her wanted to refuse the mission and take refuge in the quasi-cerimonial role Team Seven was supposed to occupy for this mission. A larger part of her was resolved not to screw things up. An even larger part of her just wanted to get to sleep. She nodded to to indicate her understanding of her charge and fell into bed as soon as she was dismissed, asleep almost before her head hit the pillow.
The lunch crowd was just starting to trickle in to the tepponyaki restaurant that served as Koriwan's headquarters when Sakura walked through the door. A pair of chefs were tossing knives back and forth while meat sizzled on the grill built in to the table by the window, throwing off the savory smells that Sakura by now associated with Kusagakure. She dropped her transformation technique as soon as she stepped through the door. There was a time for subtlety and a time for sending a more direct message. This was one of the latter. Besides, Koriwan's guards would not allow anybody truly worrisome to linger inside.
One of those guards moved into her path as she made for the back of the restaurant. Sakura didn't slow her stride but did cock her head to give the guard a considering look. When she was within two paces of him the large man bowed his head and stepped aside. Sakura dismissed him from her attention and slid into a very particular booth.
"Sakura Haruno. Always a pleasure," Mikio Koriwan's voice was, as always, pleasant and conversational. "Although I must confess I wasn't expecting you to drop by. If you want to reserve a table for two my people would be happy to take care of it."
Sakura ignored the innuendo and gripped the table as she leaned forward, staring Koriwan in the eyes. "The merchant is dead."
He was too much of a professional for anything like open shock to show on his face. Still, looking carefully, Sakura saw just a flicker of surprise cross his features. It wasn't much to go on, but it was all she could really expect. Sakura relaxed slightly as it seemed less likely she would be called upon to have out any immediate "reminders."
Koriwan's expression quickly settled into an amused mask, complete with raised eyebrow.
"You do get yourself into the most complicated situations, don't you?"
Sakura bit back a growl. "I had nothing to do with his death. Two thugs showed up to drag his body away while I was carrying out your little errand."
He held up a placating hand. "Please, you misunderstand. The complicating factor is this: I walked past his store today to check on his mood, and he was open for business, just like any other day. How sure are you that he was dead?"
"Completely," Sakura said, then paused, remembering the ashen face of Momichi Zabuza after he had been put into a false death state during her team's first major mission. "If it was simulated, it was near enough that he wouldn't be walking around for a few days yet."
Zabuza had taken a week to get back into shape, and he was an A-ranked missing nin. A civilian put into the same state would have been far more likely to suffer real death than to wake up afterwards. Showing up the next day as though nothing had happened was impossible.
"And yet, there he is," Koriwan replied. "As I said, complicated."
Sakura had been turning over the implications of Koriwan's statement, and she didn't like where her thoughts were taking her. Given what she had seen, the person running the store couldn't be the merchant. That meant that somebody had killed him and slipped in a replacement overnight. Infiltration could be a dirty business, but cold blooded murder of a civilian was usually seen as beyond the pale.
Koriwan could also be lying, but it would be foolish of him to venture such an easily debunked lie. Sakura would check, of course, but she suspected she would find the store as he described it.
"Could Iwagakure be behind this?" Sakura asked.
Koriwan nodded to acknowledge that he had been thinking along the same lines, but then shook his head as he thought through the question.
"There are some cold bastards on the other side of the river," Koriwan said, "but I just can't see the angle. He was already drifting under their influence anyway, and he certainly wasn't in the inner circle of anybody on our side. Though maybe I should be asking you if you can think of any reason a major village would do something like that."
Sakura thought for a moment, then shook her head. She didn't see all of the classified documents that crossed the Hokage's desk, but Tsunade had shown her enough to get a general idea of how the quieter side of shinobi work operated. It was possible she was being kept in the dark about the truly dirty work, but she didn't think so. As Koriwan said, there just wasn't an angle there.
"I could buy it if it was a voluntary extraction," Sakura said, "but that's not what I saw. Killing your own supporters is bad for business everywhere."
"Personally I'm relieved to hear that," Koriwan replied. Sakura couldn't tell if he was joking. "Although it does mean that we have a third party on our hands."
Sakura nodded. A ninja from another faction inserted seamlessly in the place of a Kusagakure civilian would be well positioned to stir up all kinds of trouble.
"The question is what we will do about it," she said.
Koriwan steepled his fingers in front of him in thought, then broke out in a smile. "Why not put on a show? Have tomorrow's meeting break for lunch at that cafe down the street from your hotel. I'll meet with our impostor at the same time and bait him into revealing himself."
"That... could work," Sakura said. Bringing that many shinobi from three different countries into close proximity with an unknown party would make for a volatile situation. On the other hand it would help the aftermath if everybody saw things happen with their own eyes.
"It will," Koriwan said, before a distant look appeared in his eyes. "It will be good to see Kurotsuchi again. I've missed the little firecracker."
The fond note in his voice was unmistakable, and Sakura nearly did a double take in surprise.
"You... and her?"
A soft smile crept over Koriwan's face as he replied. "There's nothing in the world quite like a beautiful woman who wants to piss off her father."
Sakura felt her face flushing as she hissed in reply. "I'm not moving a major diplomatic meeting so you can moon over an old flame."
"Of course not," Koriwan said, spreading his hands as he shrugged. "You're doing it because if I meet with a Yellow-affiliated civilian off by myself and somebody winds up dead, you've got a real problem on your hands."
He paused, then broke into an unapologetic grin. "Anything else is just a bonus."
Sakura was still grumbling to herself as she walked back into the hotel. She liked a little bit of shinobi gossip as much as the next person, but she didn't need to hear first person recounting of the private lives of old people. Honestly, he could at least have had the grace to act embarassed.
She had at least been able to verify Koriwan's story. She had put her disguise back in place before even leaving the restaurant, and then swung by the silk merchant's store. It was open as if nothing had ever happened, just as described. It was creepy to watch somebody walk around talking to customers when she had seen the same man dead the previous evening.
Her team was waiting for her in the front room of their suite. Naruto and Sasuke were engaged in some quiet bickering but went silent when she walked in. Shizune nodded a greeting and looked like she wanted to say something, but Sakura spoke first.
"We have a complication," she said. She related Koriwan's tale of the merchant's apparent survival, their conclusion that an infiltration was in progress, and his plan to expose the enemy spy. She kept the romantic subplot to herself.
"Hmm," Shizune said. "I won't say it's not concerning, but this actually works well with our own complication."
"Your what?" Sakura asked. She looked over at her teammates again. They had appeared unscathed when she walked in, leading her to believe that the meeting had been relatively uneventful. She still didn't see any signs of visible injury, but Naruto looked rather shamefaced. Sakura wasn't surprised when Shizune nodded at him to answer her inquiry.
"You, uh, kind of have a spar set up with one of those Iwa guys this afternoon," Naruto said.
"Naruto," Sakura asked, drawing out the pronunciation of his name, her voice taking on the sugary sweet tone that usually promised impending violence, "why is that, exactly?"
"Well, I was checking out his butt," Naruto said, then paused. "I mean, the me that was taking your place, not like, me, me. Anyways, he caught me, stuff happened, and yeah."
Sakura just blinked. There was so much wrong with what he was saying that it was hard to figure out where to start.
"Stuff happened?" She finally asked, deciding to get all the facts before doing anything else.
"You know, I thanked Kurotsuchi for bringing eye candy along to the meeting. Not me, me, but-"
"Yes, I understand," Sakura growled out. "Me, you."
"Right!" Naruto said, brightening for a moment before sobering under Sakura's glare. "So he got all upset and eventually he decided that the only way to prove himself was to challenge you to a fight... I really didn't think he'd be so sensitive. Kind of makes me wonder if there's something going on over there."
"So you accepted his challenge," Sakura said, choosing to ignore the tangent. Kurotsuchi would hardly be the first person in the world to discriminate in favor of pretty people.
"I could hardly back down by that point," Naruto said, shrugging. "I was supposed to be acting like you, after all."
"You were supposed to be acting like me the whole time!" Sakura said, finally losing the battle to contain her temper.
"Well, um," Naruto said, looking back and forth at the other people in the room. Shizune finally took pity on him and decided to jump in.
"He was quite convincing, actually," she said, openly smirking.
Sakura was still gaping at Shizune when Sasuke spoke up.
"I wouldn't have spotted the switch if I hadn't been briefed ahead of time." Although his tone was matter-of-fact, as a long time teammate Sakura could spot the telltale signs of amusement on his face.
"As if you can see through any illusions without your super-eyes," she snapped, before turning to face Shizune. "How can you take this so lightly? Now I'm going to have to fight this guy for an international audience."
"I don't see what the big deal is," Naruto said, speaking up before Shizune could reply. "You've fought a lot tougher opponents than this before. All you have to do is kick his ass this afternoon and the whole thing's over with."
Sakura turned and glared at Naruto. It was somewhat gratifying to seem him grow more and more visibly nervous, but most of her attention was on trying to figure out how to explain to him why she was so upset.
"Shadow clones and Rasengan," she said, slowly. Naruto stared at her blankly. "When somebody fights you, that's what they're going to see. It doesn't really matter if they know what's coming, they still have to deal with a bunch of clones charging at them with an unblockable attack."
Naruto nodded, and Sakura continued.
"I'm not like you, Naruto. I don't have any unstoppable techniques. I do have a lot of little tricks," she said, "but little tricks only work when nobody knows they're coming. Right now nobody really knows what I can do. All they have is rumors, and those are completely wrong. But anything I show off in this spar is going straight into the bingo book."
Sakura paused, then sighed. "I'm tempted just to let him win."
"It's not the worst thing to get some of your strengths in the public record," Shizune said. "It's useful to be an unknown factor, but it's also useful to give people something concrete to fear. If nothing else, you know what the people you fight will be preparing to deal with."
"Maybe," Sakura said, chewing her lip pensively. "I'll think about it."
"In any event, having the spar this afternoon will make it easy to make arrangements for tomorrow. So everything worked out," Shizune said, then paused. "Do remember that this isn't a fight to the death though, will you?"
Sakura just pinched the bridge of her nose and sighed.
The spar was set to take place at a surprisingly traditional training ground maintained by one of Kusagakure's more prominent families. On reflection perhaps it was not so surprising. As alien as the city could be in many ways to somebody who grew up in Konoha, it was still built up around a core of skilled shinobi. It made sense that at least a few families would stick closely to their roots.
Sakura was standing near the center of the training ground, her feet digging slightly into the sandy surface. Behind her was a classically constructed dojo, a reminder of a time when it had not only been practical to train indoors but often a necessity in order to preserve secrecy. The whole area was enclosed by a high wall that surrounded a clan compound that would not have been at all out of place in Konoha.
The clan occupying the compound was largely apolitical but were known to support the Yellow faction somewhat more often than the Green. Perhaps to offset this, Shizune was in the center of the arena between Sakura and the Iwagakure chuunin, ready to act as a referee. The entire diplomatic delegation was standing on the sidelines along with a good number of curious clan members.
Anything that happened today would be sll over the Elemental Countries by the end of the week. Sakura still want sure exactly which skills she wanted to expose. She was honestly still tempted to throw the fight. Whatever Shizune said, there was some value in being underestimated. Still, now that she was standing in the arena, the thought of losing grated on her competitive nature. She could at least display the mastery of basic ninjutsu that she had shown back in the chuunin exam. That ought to give her a good chance to win without breaking out anything fancy.
Sakura cut off that line of thought. She couldn't take victory for granted here. This guy might not have her reputation, but that reputation had been built up with a mix of outright lies and fights of her own choosing. She hasn't gone into a match completely blind like this since her ill-fated ambush of Kisame. Everything they knew suggested her opponent was a fairly ordinary chuunin, but they'd hardly done a full intelligence work up of the guy.
Right now he looked pretty nervous. Apparently Shizune saw the same thing.
"You don't have to do this if you don't want to, you know," she said, not unkindly. "I'm sure Sakura is willing to let bygones be bygones."
Shizune accompanied that last bit with a significant look at Sakura. She looked back blankly for a moment, then shrugged. She wasn't about to back down, but if she could avoid this fight it would save her a lot of hassle. Although Shizune's phrasing made her wish she had pinned Naruto down and made him tell her exactly what had been said to lead up to this mess.
"No, I'm fine," the man replied, straightening his shoulders. "Besides, how will I ever get better without facing strong opponents?"
"All right," Shizune said. "You both know the rules. No lethal techniques, and no damage inflicted on a helpless opponent. Other than that, have fun."
With that, she dropped her hand and disappeared in a puff of smoke, leaving the combatants a free run at each other. Neither moved at first, each intent on studying the other. Sakura took a step to her right and slightly forward, and her opponent mirrored the move. They circled around an imaginary point in the center of the two of them, gradually approaching each other.
Sakura felt her eyes narrow slightly. She had decided to start out with a straight taijutsu fight. It wasn't her usual style, but in a relatively friendly spar like this it offered a way to get a feel for her opponent without too much danger of being hit by some kind of instant kill technique. If he did have some kind of surprise capture move she almost wanted to fall victim to it immediately instead of falling victim after revealing more of her ninjutsu arsenal.
Right now the read she was getting from her opponent was arrogance. Borderline taunting, really. His words had been respectful, and even now he was wearing a nervous expression, but those things were easy enough to fake. A ninja never revealed his true intentions on his face. It was all in how he moved.
Sakura was taking carefully measured steps that moved her from defensive stance to defensive stance. She maintained her balance at all times, ready to absorb a surprise attack. She was taking this seriously.
Her opponent was not. He may as well have been taking a walk in the park. Sakura wasn't familiar with the Iwagakure standard taijutsu form, but she didn't need to be. His feet were out of line with his legs, his legs weren't coordinated properly with his upper boddy, and his core was all over the place. His balance was shifting wildly with every step, sending his optimal lines of attack and defense completely at odds with their relative position.
Sakura felt her fists tighten a little at the show of disrespect, but forced herself to relax. One of the first lessons Tsunade had beaten into her was that changing your fighting style based on your emotional state was a quick way to lose.
Soon enough they were in range of each other. Or at least he was in range to take a swing at her. Sakura was giving up a foot or more in reach in this situation. His initial left-right combination looked to take advantage of that fact, but he hardly put any force into the strike. Not nearly enough to deter Sakura from closing the gap between them, easily absorbing his punches with the back of each forearm in turn. She gritted her teeth slightly at the additional evidence that she was being taken lightly.
He tried a looping haymaker, but Sakura stepped in close enough to rob that strike of its power. He tried to fend her off with a rising knee, but that was simple enough to turn aside. Sakura put a little bit of heat on her follow up jab to encourage him to take her seriously.
He immediately doubled over as her punch connected with his solar plexus, clutching his stomach and leaving himself wide open to a follow up strike. Sakura instead took several steps back, keeping her hands up in a guard position.
He was pretty convincing, but Sakura wasn't going to fall for a simple trap like that. She waited to see what his follow up effort would be, but he seemed content to stand there, wheezing.
"Come on, the idea wasn't bad but I'm obviously not falling for it," Sakura said, tapping her toes with impatience. "Overacting isn't going to get you anywhere."
Instead of responding directly, he leaned over even further and threw up. There seemed to be a lot of blood mixed in with everything else, and for the first time Sakura started to worry. If she were back home she would have stopped the fight and started administering medical treatment, but she wasn't at home. She had a role to play here.
"You've got to be joking," Sakura said, crossing her arms with a frustrated huff. "After all that build up I expected a little more staying power."
He fell over and curled into a fetal position. Sakura couldn't tell for sure, but it looked like he might be crying. There was a puff of smoke and Shizune appeared, kneeling by his side. She gently forced his arms to the side and ran a glowing palm over his stomach. She passed her hand back and forth what seemed to Sakura like an inordinate amount of times for a simple diagnostic technique. After a long moment she looked up and smiled.
"He'll be fine," Shizune said, then turned to face the approaching form of Kurotsuchi. "He has some severe bruising of the abdominal wall. I can take care of it-"
"I'd rather have my medic look him over," Kurotsuchi interrupted, continuing to walk until she was standing over her subordinate. "No disrespect intended."
"Of course," Shizune said, although her smile became just a shade more brittle. She stood up and brushed the sand off the knees of her pants. "We'll see you tomorrow afternoon, then."
"Yes," Kurotsuchi replied, fixing Sakura with an unreadable expression for several breaths before turning back to Shizune. "To indulge your paranoia."
With that she reached down and yanked the injured man to his feet. Sakura winced at the rough treatment, but the man himself didn't complain, setting his features as best he could to mask his pain as he followed his commander off the field. Shizune sighed, but didn't say anything as she gathered her charges and led them back to the hotel.
Once the Konoha contingent had separated from the others by a few blocks or so Sakura heard the telltale drop in ambient noise that accompanied the initiation of a privacy technique. At the same time Shizune finally broke her silence.
"I'm very disappointed in you, Sakura."
"What?" Sakura asked, stopping in shock before hurrying to catch up with Shizune, who hadn't broken stride. One look at her face confirmed that she wasn't joking. "I won the spar, didn't have to show off any techniques, and he wasn't even that badly hurt."
Sakura had been proud of how things turned out. Sure, it was a lucky break to have her opponent turn out to be such a wimp, but a lot of the art of being a successful shinobi involved taking advantage of lucky breaks.
"The result would have been very different if I hadn't been there to fix the damage to his internal organs," Shizune said, her tone reproachful. "There's still a chance that Kurotsuchi could figure out what happened, which would obviously be detrimental to our mission."
Sakura just stared at Shizune for a moment. First of all, the fact that she had been able to perform such extensive healing under the guise of a diagnostic scan was seriously impressive. Sakura still needed several minutes even to heal a simple broken bone. Talented as Shizune was, however, the idea that she had done that much damage with a single punch was ridiculous.
"That's impossible!" Sakura finally protested. "I didn't hit him that hard. He must have been injured already."
Shizune just gave her a flat look and shook her head.
"Come on," Sakura continued. "If I don't hit Tsunade at least that hard she won't even acknowledge it."
The consequences that followed Tsunade's determination that an attack could be ignored were invariably quite painful. Getting the Hokage to credit a jab took a perfect effort.
Shizune's expression thawed slightly at Sakura's explanation, and her voice was more relaxed when she spoke.
"When was the last time you sparred with anybody besides the Hokage?"
"It was, hmm," Sakura said, thinking back. There was the spar with Ino, but she had never actually struck the other girl. Before that... "I'm not sure."
She shook her head when she realized what Shizune was implying. It was one thing for her strength to surpass Ino's. She had been working very hard and as talented as Ino was, sheer physical strength had never been her specialty. But to physically out class a large adult male whose focus on taijutsu was written into his muscular development was something else entirely.
"That doesn't explain anything. Tsunade hasn't taught me any of her techniques," Sakura said. "If getting beaten up by her made you that much stronger Jiraiya would be throwing around mountains by now."
Shizune smiled at the comparison, but seemed unconvinced.
"Tsunade was quite strong before she developed her special technique, you know," Shizune said. "You can go a long way simply by honing the basic strength enhancement technique to perfection. A skilled medic can also heal the body to let you push beyond your limits while still receiving the beneficial effects from the exercise."
Sakura stared down at her hand as she curled her fingers into a fist before spreading them out and rotating her wrist. Nothing looked any different than usual.
"The Hokage probably intended it to be a surprise," Shizune said. "Once the mission is over we will do some strength control training so you can surprise her instead."
Sakura listened with half an ear as she repeatedly clenched and unclenched her fist. Even in the Academy-even as a young girl, dreaming of entering the Academy-she had never expected to be an overpowering fighter. She had accepted that. She took pride in her ability to use her intelligence and her versatility to overcome more powerful opponents. She had come to think of raw power as one of the least important attributes of a successful shinobi.
Still, the idea of having the option to throw all of that out the window and simply crush her enemies with pure strength had a certain undeniable appeal.
Sakura felt a tickle in the back of her throat and realized that the slightly maniacal laughing she had been hearing was coming from her. Clearing her throat, she fell silent, blushing slightly under Shizune's amused gaze. In the meantime Naruto and Sasuke had each started edging away from her.
"Seeing as the result of the spar was an accident I won't hold it against you," Shizune said, as though she had never been interrupted. "Although I do think it's a good idea to lean on ninjutsu techniques for non lethal takedowns for the next little while."
Shizune looked at her evenly for a moment, then smiled and reached out to ruffle Sakura's hair. "Kakashi is going to be so jealous that I was the leader present the first time one of his little students went mad with power."
Sakura crossed her arms over her chest and very pointedly did not pout for the rest of the trip back to the hotel.
The cafe had the look of the sort of place Sakura would have considered a perfectly decent lunch spot. Walking in together with the rest of the diplomatic delegation somehow made the place feel shabby with its plain stone flooring, rough-hewn wooden furniture, and rustic decor. It was certainly a departure from the environment provided by the luxury hotel. Of course, they were there for an information gathering session, not a fancy meal.
Their group claimed a booth by one of the windows. Temari and her brother took seats opposite each other up against the window, while the Iwa and Konoha delegations sat together. Naruto and Sasuke engaged in a quick game of rock-paper-scissors before Naruto slid into the booth. Their bodies shielded the result from Sakura so she couldn't tell if Naruto was sitting next to Temari because he had won or because he had lost. She made a mental note to find out later.
Sakura herself had the seat closest to the aisle-she knew Koriwan best, and was most likely to pick up on any subtle messages he tried to send. Kurotsuchi sat across from her, looking surprisingly at ease in such a lowbrow environment. The same couldn't be said for her two bodyguards, who had been spending the whole morning trying to edge away from Sakura without being obvious about what they were doing.
Sakura kept her attention focused on the kunoichi across from her. It would risk giving the whole game away if she had her neck craned around to focus on the entrance, which would be reason enough for her actions, but Sakura had her own personal curiosity to settle as well. She trusted to her ears to tell her when Koriwan entered and maintained her vigil.
She was just starting to wonder if Koriwan had run into some kind of complication setting up his meeting when the distinct jingling of the bell told her that somebody had just entered the cafe. Kurotsuchi's eyes went to the entrance, then down to the table as the tiniest flush appeared above her cheekbones. The blush disappeared as quickly as it had appeared, and Sakura wouldn't have noticed it if she hadn't been specifically looking out for it. But, of course, she had. Hiding a smile, Sakura looked down and pretended to be engrossed in her menu as she let her peripheral vision do the work of keeping an eye on Koriwan.
Koriwan and the merchant were walking through the cafe like old friends. As he just happened to take a seat at the table across the aisle from Sakura, Koriwan heaved out a theatrical sigh.
"You know it's been too long since we've done this," he said. "When was the last time we had a chance to really talk? It must have been that trip out east to the hot springs."
For his part the merchant settled into his seat delicately, almost like a bird. The impression was enhanced when he cocked his head to regard Koriwan curiously for a moment before answering.
"We've never been to any hot springs together," he replied, his voice flat.
"Of course, of course," Koriwan said, chuckling. "My mistake."
The two of them made idle conversation for a while before turning to the topic of lunch. Koriwan made a show of studying the menu.
"They cook up a nice bass filet here," Koriwan said. "Of course, it's not as good as one you've caught yourself. Remember that monster I reeled in, oh, two years ago now?"
"I remember it's gotten bigger every time you tell the story."
"Come on, now," Koriwan said, the very picture of wounded pride. "You were there when I reeled it in. That thing was three feet long if it was an inch. Damn near jumped right back over the side of the boat."
The merchant looked up from his menu and shrugged. "I don't remember every fish you've ever caught."
Koriwan leaned forward, his eyes glinting with triumph. Sakura turned slightly to face him, anticipating some kind of imminent action.
"That's odd. Seeing as you're so afraid of boats you once rode ten miles out of your way to take a bridge instead of a ferry," Koriwan said, then grinned. "I would think a fishing trip like that would have stuck in your mind."
The merchant froze. Completely. It was a type of stillness few civilians could manage, and Sakura started circulating chakra through her own body in preparation.
Instead of saying anything, the merchant through back his head and laughed. And laughed. And laughed. He sounded more than a little unhinged, but more importantly Sakura saw his jaw unhinge slightly as his mouth opened wider than should be possible. She was springing to her feet when the first of a stream of needles spat out of his mouth towards Koriwan.
Sakura was never going to close the gap in time, but Koriwan proved he was no slouch in the combat department. The two hands that had been casually resting on the table heaved up, ripping the table top from its supports and holding it up between himself and the attack. The needles struck the improvised shield with a staccato drumbeat as Sakura finished extricating herself from the booth.
Even as she was standing, she dragged one toe slightly beneath the surface of the stone floor, drawing on her elemental manipulation. When her foot kicked forward it sent a spear of rock towards the infiltrator, guided by a chakra thread she frantically spun out ahead of the attack. The merchant had somehow transformed one of his hands into a spinning sawblade and had aimed a devastating strike at Koriwan's defense. The blow never struck home as the spear hit the infiltrator in the wrist and carried onward, pinning it to the wall. Sakura's second step sent a blob of rock up into her hand to be shaped into a shield, a process she completed just in time to send a wave of needles rattling away as the infiltrator sent an attack in her direction.
Sakura sent another spear out with her next step. The infiltrator had drawn his free hand back for some kind of technique but soon found it pinned in place as well. The two spears together held him spread eagle up against the wall. Sakura didn't break stride as she dashed forward, using the chakra she had pushed into her shield to reshape it into a hood covering the infiltrator's head. She left enough room to breathe, but only just.
"Give it up!" Sakura commanded. "This isn't going to end well for you!"
The infiltrator didn't respond verbally. The only warning Sakura had was a slight hissing sound as a compartment opened in his chest. She desperately twisted to the side as another stream of needles launched past her. This close, she could see a sort of glistening wetness on the end of the needles. She couldn't help but wonder what kind of maniac would store poisoned weapons inside of their own body.
Her twisting brought the rest of the group into view. Shizune stood calmly several paces behind Sakura. Her hands were projecting a swirling disk of green chakra. When the needles came into contact with her technique they dissolved into a fine spray of dust that fell to the floor before it reached her body. Next to her Kurotsuchi had summoned a ball of lava into her hands but seemed content to stand and watch for now. Several copies of Naruto were assembling next to Shizune and waiting for orders, while the two Iwa chunin were still scrambling to their feet. Sasuke... was reclined in his seat without an apparent care in the world.
Sakura only had a brief instant to take in the scene before she forced her attention back to her opponent. It was going to be tricky to incapacitate somebody who seemed so determined to fight to the death. The man would be useless as an intelligence source if she just punched his head off his shoulders, but she could only continue dancing around a stream of poisonous attacks for so long before something went wrong. For that matter, it would have been nice if any of the many other shinobi present got tired of just watching her fight and decided to actually help out.
She saw a puff of smoke in her peripheral vision resolve itself into a solid figure just before he slapped a tag on the infiltrator's chest, causing the man's body to go completely limp. On closer examination, Sakura saw that this was no mere unconsciousness-the infiltrator was dead. Looking up in shock, she saw an uncharacteristically solemn Kankuro studying the man whose body was still pinned to the wall.
First things first. Sakura stood and stalked over to the booth where Sasuke was still casually lounging.
"Were you planning on getting up and doing your job any time soon?"
"Eh," Sasuke said, waving a hand dismissively. "You had things under control."
Sakura threw up her hands in frustration and found the growl that escaped her throat perfectly encapsulated her feelings on the situation. Spinning back around, she strode back to where Kankuro was still crouched over the body. The rest of the delegation followed in her wake, curious to know what had happened but content to let her take the lead for now. Sakura noticed as she approached the body that Koriwan had at some point made himself scarce.
"Where the hell did you get a tag like that?" Sakura asked once she was standing over Kankuro's shoulder.
She had heard rumors of death tags, the supposed highest embodiment of the sealing art. They had a sort of quasi-mythical status as the sort of things produced by seal masters living on secluded mountaintops and used to settle legendary duels. It wasn't the kind of thing she expected to see somebody throw around to end a routine if messy fight. Not to mention that she hadn't expected Kankuro to kill their best lead in such a cavalier fashion.
"I made it myself," Kankuro said, looking up with a grim smile on his face. "I make all of my own anti-puppetry tags."
Sakura looked down at the body, then back up at Kankuro. "You can make puppets out of people?"
"I can't. It's a forbidden technique," Kankuro said, shaking his head. "The last practitioner was driven from the village long ago."
He looked down at the body once more with the air of a man desperately trying to talk himself out of a conclusion. After a moment he grimaced and straightened up.
"There's no doubt. Sasori of the Red Sands has taken an interest in Kusagakure."