Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 41

Ninth Tenant of the Shinobi Neutrality Pact

A village is considered bound to the pact until the village changes leadership. A new leader must sign the pact upon promotion or else the village will be removed from pact agreements.


Even in the the desert, nighttime had always been aflutter with life. Gaara knew this better than anyone. With the shade of night to protect them, wildlife became aflutter in the dark. Birds took to the skies, insects scuttled along the village walls, and sandcats were always on the prowl, looking for stray rabbits and ground squirrels. A foreigner might think the desert quiet. Gaara knew better.

The caves of Takigakure, however, were truly silent at night.

Gaara wasn't certain if it was village ritual, or just the fact that they were far beneath ground, but the only sound that made it to his ears was the far, far off rush of the underground river that flowed into the village's lake. Even then, the lake seemed still. The bats flew on silent wings after glowing dragonflies, and even then Gaara couldn't hear them pushing through the night air. No noise, not a sound from the world buried within the caves.

And perhaps it was the silence that made Sakura's dreaming whimpers even more painful to listen to.

It had been four nights since Sakura had faced down Itachi Uchiha at the border of the Mountains' Graveyard. Four days of Sakura exhausted from chakra drainage and an unknown toll on her mind that the healers could only shrug through. Sakura put on a cheerful face, but Gaara was learning now how to read beneath the masks people wore. Sakura wasn't exhausted, no, that was too generous a term for whatever it was Itachi's technique did to a person. Sakura was empty, and when the night came, so did the nightmares.

For once, Gaara was grateful that he did not sleep. She whimpered less when he kept a hand on her shoulder.

"It gets better." Kakashi had told him. Gaara had been somewhat relieved when Kakashi had told him that he, too, had survived the technique...and Kakashi didn't whimper in his sleep. "But the technique of the Mangekyo warps one's perception of time. Three days can happen in the span of a single moment. It takes a while before the brain catches up to reality."

Kakashi hadn't mentioned how long, and Gaara knew better than to ask. If this was what it was like for Sakura, equally so it must have been for Kakashi. All he could do was trust that Sakura would heal and, for now, be there.

The healers estimated another weak before Sakura's chakra recovered enough for her to be in traveling condition. And they were in one of the safest villages on the continent. Gaara couldn't complain too much. Here, in the Taki caves, they could afford to rest.

Emi bristled suddenly in his lap, her tiny claws raking into the fabric of his pants. Whenever Sai approached, it usually unnerved her. At first, Gaara had wondered if it was the nature of how Sai approached, quiet and unusually quick. However, Emi tended to get antsy even when she saw Sai coming a block away. His demeanor, then, Gaara theorized. He knew that, when he was young, his calm, murderous nature had unnerved most people. Sai didn't exude any sort of nature at all, and perhaps that was even more upsetting to an animal that could only gauge a situation by reading body language and intent.

Sai appeared in the window just as Gaara began to soothe Emi with a back rub. He tended to come to Sakura's room every night, quietly watching for a while before returning to his own room. Something was on the boy's mind, and Gaara had pried time and time again to no avail. Sakura had milked some truths out of him, but he was no Sakura. All he could do was wait and hope that Sai would either figure it out, or figure out how to talk to others.

For about an hour, the two of them sat in silence. Emi took her time before settling back down into Gaara's lap, but kept her eye on Sai at all times. There was a strange tenseness in the air, and Gaara realized for the first time that this was probably how it felt for others to see him at night.

"She shouldn't have gone."

Gaara blinked as Sai finally spoke. He was amazed that the boy's voice didn't wake Sakura, but despite her twitching she remained steadily asleep.

Gaara hated admitting that he agreed with Sai.

"She doesn't regret it." He countered.

"Not this time. But if she continues to act stupidly, there will come such a time."

"Tell that to her, then."

"I don't think she'd listen to me." Sai argued. His face held no emotion as he looked upon Sakura's sleeping form. "But she'd listen to you. You're her partner."

Gaara wasn't sure that Sakura would listen to anyone when she set her mind to something. But Sai had a point. If Sakura was going to listen to anyone at all…

But who was he to lecture her on doing something he might have easily tried himself? Risking life and limb for another...Gaara wouldn't have done it for just anyone, but he would do it for Sakura, no matter who was on the other side of the fight. That Sakura would do it for a stranger was, if one looked at it critically, a 'stupid action'. But Gaara was beginning to understand that sort of action now. To do things for others, to live for others, to die for others…

Gaara had seen people at their strongest protecting others. Who was he to dissuade Sakura from doing what he had seen her do time and time again? First for Sasuke, now for Fuu...it was, Gaara had realized, just who Sakura was.

"No." Gaara shook his head. "I don't think she'd listen to me either."

"Then maybe you will listen to me."

Gaara looked to Sai, unsure of what the boy meant. "I'm listening to you now."

"I mean really listen. You want this peace treaty to succeed, don't you?"

"Yes."

"Then you should see the problem. People like you and I...we shouldn't be around her. Sakura acts stupidly when it comes to others. She tries to protect them at the expense of her own wellbeing. She can't possibly juggle vying for peace and keeping you safe from Akatsuki at the same time. If you stay with her, you'll just be putting her and the treaty in danger."

Emi growled at this, her fur bristling again. It took a few determined pats before Gaara could calm her. He was convinced, at times, that the tanuki somehow perfectly understood spoken word, but in this case...the intent Sai was giving off now was a confusing one. Gaara wasn't sure if Sai was acting hostile or...something else.

And of course Sai had a point. It was much harder to be angry with him when he was logically sound.

"So what are you going to do about it?" Gaara decided to try a different approach. There was no winning an argument with Sai, only getting to the heart of the matter. "I was under the impression that you cannot return to Konoha."

"No." Sai agreed. "I cannot."

"And I will not return to Suna. There is no life for me there. None who see me as more than a weapon."

"Iwa would take you in. Taki, too, with how much they value the Bijuu. You are more than capable of finding a place in the world away from Sakura."

"The same could be said of you. A skilled shinobi would be welcomed in almost any village."

Sai shook his head. "Root will find me no matter where I go. It is only a matter of time."

There was an awkward silence then. An impasse. Nothing Gaara could say would sway him, and Sai sure as hell wasn't going to convince him to leave Sakura's side. Even if it was dangerous, even if it meant difficulties...even if that meant he was selfish, Gaara couldn't leave her now.

Naruto had once referred to her as a precious person, someone he would do anything to protect. How ironic, now, how Gaara had come to fill that very same role.

There was a quiet flutter of movement and Sai was gone. But in his place on the windowsill, Gaara saw a familiar book. Sai's sketchbook. The boy carried it with him everywhere, so why would he leave it now? Curiously, Gaara reached out, his sand wrapping around the book and bringing it towards him. As he opened it to look, Emi popped her head through his arms, her eyes glancing over it as well.

Drawings. Pages and pages of drawings. Many of them were simple drawings. Birds. Mice. Deer. Trees. All things they had likely run across in their time at Iwa and during the journey to Taki. Gaara even caught sight of a few drawings of bats and dragonflies. But those weren't the pictures that interested him.

It was instead the pictures of Sakura and himself that caught his eyes. Dozens upon dozens of portraits, all trying to capture the same expression. Sakura, smiling. Him...not quite smiling yet, but Gaara could see a sort of peace in his eyes that had been much more common on his face as of late. His first thought was that it was a bit strange that Sai had been drawing them so much, but he realized all it once that it wasn't them in particular he was trying to capture, it was the expression. The feeling. Happiness. Joy. Peace.

And then, Gaara turned to the final page, and his heart froze in his chest.

A single word.

Farewell

He's going to do something stupid. Shukaku's voice echoed in his mind, and Gaara found himself agreeing with the Bijuu. Sakura must be rubbing off on him.

But what?

If there was nowhere Sai could go that Root wouldn't find him, wasn't the best option to stay here with them where it was safe? Why leave? And where would he go to?

And perhaps it didn't matter, because Gaara knew Sakura well enough to know that she would pissed if he allowed Sai to do something stupid on his watch. And damn it all, Sakura had been through enough.

He'd wasted time going through the book, and Sai was hard to track. Gaara pocketed the book, not wanting Sakura to find it if she woke. He plopped Emi onto the ground and made his way to the open window. Emi, surprisingly, followed him.

"Can you sniff him out?" Gaara asked.

Emi let out a small bark in response. She hobbled her way to the windowsill, her nose scrunching as she sniffed the air. Then, without more prodding needed, she scampered off into the night.

Well, it was as good a lead as any.

Gaara followed, which was surprisingly difficult. Tanuki were fast, and they could scamper through holes and alleys that were difficult for someone of Gaara's size to get through. But the tanuki had caught onto something, and Gaara had reached the point where he was willing to trust the animal's instincts.

He could only hope he had enough time.


The shinobi of Taki were only too happy to see him leave.

Sakura, they trusted tentatively, but everyone else in her group were 'foreigners' and most Taki shinobi grouped foreigners in a series of two adjectives: untrustworthy and dangerous. When Sai told them that he was returning to Konoha, they let him through without a second thought. Sai couldn't even begin to let himself think how stupid a move it was to let any of them leave at all. (They knew where the entrance to the caves were, they could bring an army.)

But that didn't matter now. None of it mattered. He couldn't allow himself to think about Taki's defensive practices, because in about an hour or so, it wouldn't matter to him at all.

The night was still, and the only sounds were that of his feet hitting the branches of the trees as he ran. Sai was purposeful in his breaking of silence. His plan wouldn't work if the people he was looking for didn't hear him.

Sai had learned two things in his time with Sakura Haruno.

The first was that, despite the fervent claims of Danzo and the senior members of Root, it was impossible to completely stamp out emotion from a human heart. Sai had seen over a year ago what the shinobi Gaara had been like, before the invasion of Konoha had begun. The boy had been more monster than man, ruthless, what Danzo might have even considered a perfect killing machine. It was hard to reconcile the image of the homicidal Jinchuuriki with the boy that Sai had spoken with now. There wasn't a trace of the 'killer' left. So maybe it shouldn't have surprised him when he'd start to feel emotions bubble up through the shell of apathy that he had spent years honing to perfection. Outside of the regiment of Root, outside of Danzo's thumb...he had reverted. He had begun to feel again. He had begun to want things. He had begun to dislike things. And there was one factor that linked him and Gaara, one factor that had absolutely been a catalyst for these emotional changes. Sakura.

Which led him to the second thing he had learned: Sakura was going to change things.

It wasn't necessarily her that had been needed. She had simply been the one to step into a role that had been empty for decades. Not since the First Hokage had anyone ever tried to unite the shinobi world. Instead, there had been war. Deception. Invasion after invasion, skirmish after skirmish. It had become expected. But Sakura had taken the step to upturn the status quo. Even with the mere act of pushing for peace, she was reminding others that it was an option. If she failed, someone else would take her place. Sakura wasn't just starting a treaty, she was potentially starting a movement.

Unless, of course, someone nipped that movement in the bud.

Sai knew as well as any member of Root that Danzo Shimura would not allow a peace treaty to come into effect. Konoha, as far as Danzo preached, was meant to be a dominant, ruling force. A treaty would never ensure that future for the village. Sakura was a threat, one that Danzo would stop at nothing to eliminate.

But Sakura now had the backing of more than just the current Hokage. With the Tsuchikage and the Takikage backing her, Danzo couldn't afford to make a direct movement against her. He had to play things smart. He had to outmaneuver her.

And Danzo had been playing this game for a very long time.

What was absolutely certain right now was that there was no way that Sai would be able to avoid the repercussions of leaving Root. At the very least, Danzo would ensure his death. That outcome, at this point, was near unavoidable. It was possible that he could prolong the inevitable by staying with Sakura, but it was just a prolonging. And if he stayed...that led to the worst option.

Danzo would use him against Sakura.

It wouldn't be outright. Sakura had written enough into the Neutrality Pact to cover Sai's defection. Any person, civilian or shinobi, could choose to become an ambassador, and even if it was by proxy, Tsunade had signed the pact, which meant that any citizen of Konoha was covered by it. Sai included. But that wouldn't stop Danzo from using him against Sakura. He was a master of pulling strings, saying the right words behind the scenes...sure, he would say, Sakura preached peace, but who was to say she wasn't trying to amass a shinobi army to start a village of her own? She'd pulled one of his own loyal agents away, brainwashed him even into believing that the good of the country took priority over the good of his own kin.

If Sai stayed with Sakura, he would simply be a weapon against her.

Sai had known this for some time, toyed with the scenarios in his mind as they'd traveled from Iwa to Taki. But it hadn't been until Sakura had faced down Itachi Uchiha that he'd realized the only course of action that was left for him to take.

Sakura had been willing to risk her life for a near stranger. It had been stupid, but it had been the right thing to do. Saving Fuu from Akatsuki ingratiated her to Taki, and prevented Akatsuki from gaining a valuable resource. If she had died defending Fuu, she would have died for the right causes: the sake of peace, and the safety of the Jinchuuriki. Sakura hadn't thought twice about it. She'd simply done it.

Sai had come to admire the decision. Root had taught him to act without hesitation for the good of the village. That sort of action was second nature. And it was time for him to apply his training for one final mission.

He wouldn't allow himself to be a weapon. Not against Sakura. She had fought for him. She had offered her life for him back in Iwagakure.

Sai's thoughts lingered on his brother, and he smiled. Yes, the feeling was not unlike what he had felt for his brother back then. This warmth. He couldn't let this warmth die out. He couldn't allow Sakura to fail now because of him. He would ensure that her path forward was just a little bit clearer, even if it was only a little bit. Danzo would be her enemy, but he would have to work harder to get an edge once Sai's final mission was done.

It didn't take long for a Root agent to find him. Now that he was far from the Taki caves, closer to the Konoha border, it was only natural that there would be an agent or two skulking around looking for him. Root were masters of infiltration. There were Root agents stationed in every country. Taki was no exception.

Sai came to a halt in a meadow. The grass had grown to knee height, and with spring in full motion, pink flowers had begun to bloom on the ground around him. It was...kind of pretty. A good place for an end.

The Root agent landed in front of him, sword drawn. Their face was covered in a mask, with no discerning sign that they were working for Konoha. If a Taki shinobi saw them, Konoha would not be held accountable. As far as it appeared, this was simply two rogue shinobi, settling something.

"Agent." The voice sounded masculine. Sai recognized it. An agent only three years his senior, one who had trained him in kenjutsu when he was a child. "Root has ordered your immediate execution and retrieval."

Sai couldn't help but let out a small breath of relief. Danzo hadn't yet considered the benefits of keeping Sai alive and with Sakura. He was still motivated to protect his reputation. Retrieve his assets. He'd moved quickly enough.

"I am aware." Sai answered. "I have...become compromised. I offer my life freely for the good of Konoha."

The agent hesitated. Sai couldn't help but wonder if he, too, felt emotions beneath that mask. They were made to kill their brothers in order to graduate Root's gruelling training. Contrary to Danzo's belief, that didn't make it easier when it came to situations like this. Even before Sakura, Sai would have hesitated too.

"Do you have any final words?"

Sai took a deep breath. Even with recent events, he felt strangely calm now. At peace. This was the right decision, the right thing to do...for her. For everyone. Final words? What more could he say, here and now?

Maybe...it would have been nice to have a final word with Sakura. But she would have stopped him then. Wouldn't have understood.

No...there was nothing left to say.

"I have none."

The agent readied his sword, and Sai closed his eyes.

He heard a clash of steel.

Sai opened his eyes again and saw sand swirling around him. The agent in front of him had been blocked by a hovering wall of it, and he struggled to push through only for a moment before retreating back several hops away.

There was a rush of wind, and then Sai felt chakra.

It was so thick that he almost heaved with the intensity of it. He'd never felt energy this thick before, never felt something dripping with this much anger.

If he'd blinked, he would have missed Gaara flying by him. He wouldn't have seen the sand swirl into place around the Jinchuuriki's arm, forming the shape of a heavy claw. He wouldn't have seen the look of pure fury on Gaara's face. Wouldn't have felt the rage.

There was a sickening crunch, and the Root agent dropped to the ground, still.

For a brief moment, the forest was quiet. Sai held his breath, feeling fear for the first time he could remember. The fear only intensified as Gaara spun towards him and their eyes met. Though the sand claw had started to drop to the ground, Sai could still feel the angry aura dripping from the Jinchuuriki, and he was frozen in place as Gaara approached.

They looked each other in the eyes, and Gaara took a few heaving breaths. Then, Gaara lashed out and punched him.

It was a clean hit. Sai saw a flash, and he dropped to the ground before he could process just what exactly had happened. He reached up, gingerly touching at the side of his face. Definitely going to bruise.

He felt something grab his shirt, and when he looked up he saw Gaara again.

"What were you thinking?"

There was a slight distortion to Gaara's voice still, and Sai couldn't help but tremble. Maybe he'd made a mistake, thinking Gaara wasn't still volatile, especially with what he'd just done.

And then, all at once, the aura began to fade. Sai could breathe again, and Gaara's expression changed from anger to something more similar to distress.

"What were you thinking?" He repeated. "That man was about to kill you."

"I know." Sai gasped. "That was supposed to be the intention."

"But why?"

"It's the only way. The only way Sakura will be safe from Root. I have to remove myself from the equation."

Gaara let go of his shirt, and Sai hit the ground once again. His head was still swimming from the blow, and...well, there was a part of him that was convinced he was dreaming this. Gaara, come to save him? He hadn't been convinced Gaara particularly liked him.

"Why?" Sai forced himself to ask. "It would be easier. One less problem to solve. And you'd have Sakura all to yourself again."

"Because it's not what she wants!" Gaara practically yelled in response. "She's still recovering from that bastard's attack, do you really think seeing you dead would relieve her?"

Sai didn't have an answer to that. It was silly, that she'd gotten so attached to him. Silly that she got attached to others so easily. It was going to get her killed one day.

He felt a hand grab his arm, and suddenly he was heaved upward into a standing position.

"You're coming back." Gaara told him. "And if you try anything stupid again, I'll take Shukaku's advice and knock you unconscious."

"It might be easier to do that anyway. I'm not sure which way is up."

"...oh."

Sai felt his arm get pulled around Gaara's shoulders, until the boy was holding him up. From there, the two of them began to walk. Gaara was fairly steady, and it didn't take long before Sai's head stopped spinning and he could start holding himself up again.

"You realize Root is going to hear about this."

"There are a lot of demons in the woods." Gaara retorted. "He got unlucky."

"Root is going to do everything within their power to bring you and Sakura down."

"We know."

"I'm just going to-"

"Stop." Gaara came to a halt. He shifted so he could look at Sai directly. "Listen to me."

"...alright."

"I used to hate you."

The admission was blunt, but not surprising. Any idiot could have figured out the Jinchuuriki hadn't been fond of him since day one.

"You were annoying. You got between me and Sakura. And you're a liability. But...you're one of us. And…" Gaara let out a small sigh. "And I can't let you make Sakura upset. She cares about you. Which means I have to care about you. And if you keep trying to throw your life away, I'll just keep dragging you back until you get it through your head that we aren't going to let you die for us." Gaara then reached out, jabbing a finger at his chest. "And don't you dare tell me that I'm being stupid."

There was a lot Sai could have said. He'd thought Gaara would understand. To give one's life for another...wasn't that the point? Wasn't that why Sakura was where she was now? She'd said it herself, she'd left her village to find a way to keep her old teammates safe. For the good of others...that was what had started all of this.

Sai turned and began to walk again. No, there was nothing more to say. His final mission had failed. All that was left now was to-

"Sai, what do you want?"

Sai stopped. The question...what did it mean? What did it matter?

"It has never mattered what I've wanted. I existed solely for the good of Konoha. And now, I exist to-"

"That's not what I asked, Sai."

Gaara was determined, it seemed, to get some sort of answer. Sai debated lying, coming up with something to satisfy him. What he wanted...what he wanted

"I want to feel it." Sai answered. "That feeling of peace that you feel with each other. Being sure in each other. Having a purpose that you chose."

His thoughts went to his brother. The only other person he'd let himself care for. He'd forgotten what that meant, to really feel for another person.

"...if Sakura dies because of me, that won't be what I feel."

"Then we make sure she doesn't die."

Gaara held out a hand to him, still just as determined as before.

"We swear it, here and now. No more running. We do this her way, and we keep her safe. Whether it's Root or Akatsuki or...anything. We don't let anything touch Sakura again."

Sai looked at the hand, and then back to Gaara.

It was...more desirable than dying. Even if dying was easier.

But it didn't seem like it was his time just yet. And Gaara, despite everything, had come for him. Had saved his life.

It would be a bit of a dick move to turn his back on Gaara now.

Sai took his hand. "We swear it." He agreed. "Nothing touches Sakura again."

Gaara nodded in approval, and they shook. They began to walk again, and Sai did his best to ignore the throbbing from the bruise that was likely forming on his face.

"...and you promise never to punch me that hard again."

"I don't make promises I can't keep."

"Grumpy."

"Asshole."

Sai stole a glance at Gaara. There was a small smile on the boy's face now, and…

Well, Sai couldn't help but smile a little bit too.


((Author's Note: I want to thank you all for the incredibly warm reception here on FF! Your comments have been lovely, and I hope to continue to provide writing that you guys enjoy! I try to maintain a weekly schedule; SBATC will update Sunday nights unless there's extenuating circumstances. Thank you again!))

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0