Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 77

Suna had many sayings, but one in particular had always hung within Gaara's mind.

"Not even the Third could conquer the desert."

It was somewhat tongue in cheek, a commentary on the mysterious disappearance of their once feared and beloved leader. None had ever known what had happened to the Third, and thus the citizens concluded that he had fallen in the desert, buried beneath the sands and never to be found by a living soul. Shinobi were dangerous, but the summer desert under the full heat of the sun? More lethal than anything.

Gaara had been gifted the title of 'desert' when he was young, for none in the village had been as lethal as he.

He'd felt a twisted sense of pride in it back then, back when he had been determined to bring about the extinction of the human race and labeled himself 'monster'. He had been more than human, more than shinobi, desert incarnate, with each grain of his sand dragging down his foes and burying them beyond salvation. He'd wondered, at times, if he had become stronger than the Third. Would the Iron Sand hold up against his own? Would he have devoured the Third as the desert had, its true incarnation?

As his sand clashed against the puppet's iron, he still continued to wonder.

The iron was relentless, and Gaara couldn't help but marvel at Sasori's ability to engage the others while still keeping him at bay. He was of the desert, but Sasori was the 'Red Sand', named so for the rivers of blood spilt to keep Sunagakure safe.

But Sasori was no Third, and though he wielded puppets with ease, he could not fall into the same mastery of the sand as one who had been wielding it since he was born.

It didn't matter that the iron grains were slick with poison, shaped into countless blades that bombarded the arena with gusto. It was slow, slower than his own, and with each distraction that the tanuki and Sakura dumped upon Sasori, the slower the Third became. Perhaps others couldn't see it, but Gaara had been training to see ever since the tanuki had thrust him into Shikoku. The nuances in the movement, the shift in attention...Sasori was occupied, and he'd never have a better chance of laying the Third to rest within the sand once again.

And Gaara hadn't been wasting time in this fight. He'd been busy.

Making golden sand was an exhaustive technique, and if not for Shukaku's chakra fueling him, he might have passed out from the effort long ago. He couldn't afford to waste his personal sand, no, that had to be dedicated to the fight. So Gaara instead had to slowly pull grains from the earth beneath the floor, weaving it through cracks in the tiling and soaking his chakra within it, changing the composition until it shimmered.

His father had mastered this technique, once upon a time. A part of Gaara found it ironic that he was learning to master it now. He'd wanted to distance himself from his father, distance himself from the man who had tried to shape him into a tool, who hadn't seen him as a son but a weapon to be forged.

I'll wield it better than you ever did. Gaara had decided. And by the time I'm grown, no one will even remember that it was you who used it first.

Sakura had bought him the time he needed, and now Sasori seemed to be distracted with...wait, were they just talking?

Granted, Sasori had Sakura at bladepoint, so it wasn't exactly a de-escalated situation, but of course Sakura would find a way to chat with her opponent mid-spar. He wondered, briefly, if it was a Konoha thing. Even with all the time he'd spent with Sakura, he never found himself wanting to chat with an opponent. A fight was a fight. (And yet, if not for Naruto…)

Still, now he had to sit there and wonder if Sakura wasn't going to find some way for Sasori to work for them too.

No… Shukaku rumbled within him. That man is too far gone. How could a man who turned hundreds into his puppets ever empathize with humanity?

True, perhaps. But Gaara had likely killed hundreds in his lifetime, and was still, even after all this time, willing to kill to keep his loved ones safe. At what point did killing become unforgivable? At what point was someone saveable or beyond saving?

...now that was his problem, Gaara realized. It wasn't that he was a chatterbox while he fought, it's that he thought too damn much. Sasori was distracted, and he had an opportunity.

He raised his golden sand up from the ground around him and honed it in on the Third. As before, even with Sasori's attention elsewhere, the iron sand rose up to challenge him. The sand, of course, was being lifted with the magnet-release technique, a combination of elemental chakras that led to such a specific manipulation of the earth. Gold, as it was taught to him by the tanuki, could purify the elemental chakra in a technique and render it element-less. This did not apply to yin and yang chakra, which technically limited its effectiveness and did not prevent Sasori's puppetry. (Chakra threads were already pure chakra, simply laced with the user's intent.) But all the iron sand that the puppet was being forced to manipulate? Wouldn't work without magnet-release.

Sand hit sand and gold enveloped iron, until bit by bit it all fell to the floor below, useless.

Gaara couldn't help but smile as he saw Sasori falter in the conversation, looking towards the Third as it uselessly tried to manipulate the sand once more.

Now, he was the distraction. Sakura took the opportunity to dash forward, slamming her fist into the puppet's chest. There was a small pause and a hint of resistance, but eventually Sakura's force overpowered it, and something popped out of Sasori's back. A grey cylindrical object, with some sort of seal upon it, clattered to the ground, and after a moment so did Sasori's puppet body. No, not just Sasori's body, but every puppet he'd been controlling.

"Perfect timing, Gaara." Sakura called out, giving him a thumbs-up. "That has to be where he stored his life force. If it's not in the puppet, he can't control it!"

"A rather unfortunate weakness." Orochimaru commented. His breathing was uneven, Gaara noticed at a glance, and the once composed shinobi looked...exhausted. Yes, the fight had been going on a while, but enough to exhaust a Sannin?

He's losing his grip on that body.

...so soon and so suddenly? How long had it been since Sasuke had left the village? Over a year, not nearly close enough to three. It's possible that three had been an overestimate, or maybe Orochimaru's jutsu was having a compounding toll every time he possessed someone new. If that was the case, how did he hope to maintain Sasuke's body?

They had time to find out, he supposed. With Sasori disabled, all that was left was seeing if they could rope Deidara away from Akatsuki and they were in the clear. Simple and quick. Technically no casualties, assuming Karin had evacuated the village in time. Sasori's life force was technically still alive, and maybe they could take advantage of that. Get Suna to make a non-lethal puppet that could allow him to talk…

Yo, brat? That's a little fucked up. Are you suggesting we make Sasori a talking piece of furniture?

Gaara couldn't help but chuckle aloud. No, he was definitely not suggesting that. For now, he was suggesting putting Sasori into a locked box and making sure he couldn't hurt anyone else until they figured out what to do with him.

He was tired himself, even with Shukaku supplementing him. Sure, he wanted to talk big by claiming he would use his father's technique better than he ever did, but making gold sucked, and he was pretty sure his father had made gold sand in advance so that he didn't have to in battle. Something he could start doing, if he was bored on the road.

One by one, his tanuki gave their regards and began to reverse summon home. Meanwhile, Sakura bent down to pick up Sasori's life-container, turning it over in her hands.

"Think Sai can figure the seal out?"

"Probably."

"He attacked my village, so I'll figure the seal out." Orochimaru demanded.

"Suna has the rights to this bastard, I can't just hand him over. I landed the finishing blow, so he's my takedown, and that means I take him to Suna!"

...Brat…

Hmm?

If Sasori had to transfer his life-force into that thing, do you really think he wouldn't have a contingency plan for if someone knocked it out? How did he get it into the puppet into the first place?

Gaara thought on this as Orochimaru stalked forward to bicker with Sakura, momentarily distracted by the fact that the two actually were just bickering like they'd known each other forever. Sasori could have started with the container already in the puppet, but how did the container control the puppet to begin with? Chakra strings, it had to be, generated from the container, and that meant…

"Sakura-"

"Hm?" She looked his way as he called out, and as she did the container suddenly flew from her hands. It slotted itself into Sasori's body. Chakra strings. It could move a puppet so obviously it could also move itself.

Gaara's sand exploded forward, instinctively moving around Sakura as the puppet began to move. In the blink of an eye, Sasori struck…

But not for Sakura.

Blades lashed out and cut into Orochimaru's skin. The snake had dodged, but not nearly quick enough to prevent his shoulder from getting slashed by Sasori's weapon.

The two jumped backwards towards Gaara's protection, but the damage had already been done. Sakura looked towards him with a grim expression. Sasori was a master of poisons. All of his weapons were likely coated with poison.

"Soon you will be down one man." Sasori spoke, raising his puppets around him once more. "And since you were kind enough to dismiss your summons for me, this battle is once again in my favor. You were soft."

Should have stabbed the damn thing while we had the chance.

Gaara couldn't use any of his gold without giving the Third its iron sand back, which meant he was down to his usual repertoire of sand. He could protect the two of them here, but only if they stayed within his dome. And Orochimaru…

"Would it be too much to ask for someone to go down simply for once?" Sakura lamented. She had already pulled out a scroll with a sealed-away first-aid kit, moving to Orochimaru's side while Gaara thickened the sand wall around them. It was dark, but Sakura always kept flashlights now for just this occasion.

"Don't bother." Orochimaru insisted. "Unless you know medical jutsu, none of the standard antidotes will be effective."

"I have a tourniquet." Sakura offered. "I could chop your arm off."

"If only you could have done so at the moment of the attack, but I'm afraid Sasori's poisons work far quicker than that." Orochimaru shakes his head, and Gaara can see beads of sweat forming on his skin. "To survive I will need either the creation of an antidote, or to attempt to switch bodies ahead of schedule. Either way, you will be facing Sasori alone."

Two options...no, those weren't the only options. Orochimaru didn't know about the third. Gaara looked up to meet Sakura's eyes, seeing that she too was thinking of a third option.

Jashin's power.

But Sakura was hesitating, and at first Gaara couldn't see why. It was simple. Heal Orochimaru, get back into the fight. But if she didn't heal him...

If she didn't heal him, he'd be forced to try and take Sasuke over early. As far as Tsunade and Jiraiya had believed, the odds of this succeeding would be far lower, perhaps impossible. It was a jutsu only meant to succeed once every three years. (Though of course, it was possible that Orochimaru had purposely spread misinformation, but if so, then why hadn't he taken Sasuke sooner?) If it had been a year from now, there wouldn't have been a debate. There was no risking Sasuke, and having Orochimaru on their side against Sasori was more useful than not.

But now? With poison weakening him and a low chance of him being able to take Sasuke at all? Gaara could see why Sakura was hesitating.

It was possible this was their chance to bring Orochimaru down for good.

Hell, if you let the poison weaken him enough to kill him now, you can always pin his death on Sasori.

Shukaku spoke the truth. It meant they'd have to take Sasori down on their own, but they could always bunker down and wait for backup. He had faith in Sai and Sasuke and Karin, faith in their ability to either disable Deidara or change his allegiance. And Juugo was likely still attempting to find where Kabuto had squirreled them away to, he could be there at any minute and then the tables would start to turn in their favor again. He could summon more tanuki if Juugo was around to keep Sasori off their back. They could win without Orochimaru. In fact, they'd always planned on it.

It was objectively the better decision to let this poison do its job. Karin would become Otokage, and Oto would join the treaty. Sasuke would be safe, and a powerful foe would be taken care of.

And yet…

And yet what would it mean? They would live with a lie, live with a scenario they could have fixed for their own benefit. Much like Danzo had justified the genocide of an entire clan for the 'benefit of the Leaf', for his own benefit, they too will have brought death for their own gain. At what point would they draw the line?

At what point, he found himself asking again, did killing become unforgivable?

Sakura's eyes tore away from his own, and he knew that she was asking herself the exact same question.


Sai was starting to see spots whenever he closed his eyes.

Deidara wasn't just a bomber, no no, he was the bomber, he had come into this fight with so much exploding clay that he could probably terraform the entirety of Otogakure into his image if not for the fact that Sasuke was so diligently keep them disabled or too high in the air to damage anyone. Karin, too, was dexterously using her chakra chains to grab whatever bombs Sasuke missed and fling them back towards Deidara with frightening precision. Ideally, she would be using her chains to restrain the man, but Deidara was proving a bit too nimble on that clay bird of his, and exceedingly determined to keep the fight out of her grasp if he could help it.

He'd expected Deidara to double down on trying to keep this fight 'between artists', but the man was fully focused on Sasuke now, and Sai could put together that he was simply trying to eliminate the third wheel so they could get back to their fun. But the Uchiha was far too skilled to fall to a mere bomb; even he had to acknowledge that. Every slash of his lightning-coated blade was made with the accuracy of only someone who had mastered the Sharingan, and there wasn't a single movement wasted as Sasuke leapt from building to building, gliding with the help of the grotesque wings that had been gifted to him by the curse mark. He could almost see the beauty in how Sasuke fought, (and he was certain the Hageshisai would), but it was overshadowed by the curse's transformation.

If Sai wanted to look at wings, he'd look at animals that were meant to have them.

He arched his own bird across the sky, halting in his barrage of ink animals to consider the situation. They could drag this out, sure, but Sakura and Gaara were down there sparring with Sasori, and more than anything Sai wanted to ensure that they were well. He and Deidara could talk art later, after Sasuke's interrogation.

They hadn't been fighting without purpose, after all. Karin had been planning ahead for a while, and she had learned the esoteric Uzumaki sealing arts from scrolls rescued from Orochimaru's eager clutches. Of course, seals had to be placed on flat surfaces, which was a downside when fighting an enemy who preferred to be in the air. But an air enemy could be manipulated, and that's what Sai and Sasuke were for. Two people could push the direction a fight went in, and Karin...well, she was likely perpetuating that she was stuck on the ground, unable to do much besides reach out with chakra chains, but in actuality staying on the ground was the strategy. She needed to be ready to activate her seal the moment Deidara was in range.

A barrier seal, a specialty that she'd honed under Orochimaru's guidance, one that could keep the power of Deidara's bombs contained to a predetermined, safe spot while also containing Deidara himself. He wouldn't blow himself up for no reason, not when there was no chance of escaping. All they had to do was lure Deidara in and then force him to the ground.

And as luck would have it, they were almost there. A training ground just on the outskirts of the village, one that Sasuke had used countless times before. Sai scanned the area with his scope, catching glimpses of the various paper seals that Karin had used to decorate the perimeter. The time had come, and he knew the strategy.

He started by urging his own ink bird upwards above Deidara, preparing a series of attacks as he did so. Instead of aiming for Deidara specifically, he set loose a large flock of ink birds that blanketed the sky. He watched Deidara's eyes widen, clearly not expecting the sudden surge, and smiled as the bomber did exactly as he expected: he flew downwards, attempting to buy time as he created a clay counter.

Sasuke stepped up, attacking from the side so that Deidara specifically lowered in the direction of the training ground. Instead of lightning, Sasuke's hands weaved and an enormous ball of fire spewed forth from his mouth. (An Uchiha specialty, if Sai remembered correctly.) Deidara dipped lower and lower, arching closer and closer to the target, and then…

A barrier of chakra, concentrated and pure red, erupted from the ground around Deidara. It formed a dome about fifty feet high, and as it formed, Sai watched as Karin's chakra chains weaved across to form an extra layer.

"Gotcha!" Karin called out. "Try flying out of this one, huh? Nobody escapes the Adamantine Chains of the Uzumaki clan!"

"Son of a bitch!" He heard Deidara curse. He saw several clay birds fly and detonate against the barrier walls, but to no avail. "You fucking planned on trapping me this whole time?"

"Bingo! Fell right for it, didn't ya?"

Karin was answered with more explosions, and Sai was less sure about his earlier postulation that Deidara wouldn't blow himself up for no reason.

He took in a deep breath, letting his ink bird land on the ground and disperse. Maintaining it took concentration and a steady trickle of chakra, something that he didn't want to waste when he had another fight to go interfere with.

But first…

"Deidara." He spoke up, heading to the barrier's perimeter. He waited for the explosions to cease, knowing that he, out of everyone there, would be best at getting Deidara's attention. "We set up this barrier here because of what I said before. We don't have to be enemies."

"So what, you're going to lock me into here until I swear loyalty or something?"

"No. We're going to lock you in there until you tell Sasuke about his brother, and then we're going to attempt to have a civil discussion about the benefits of joining the Shinobi Neutrality Project."

"Do I look fucking neutral to you? What do you think my art is, dumbass, it's blowing shit up!"

"Controlled demolitions are necessary for terraforming areas for human civilization, as well as opening up mining areas for the collection of ores that are used in-"

"I came from fucking Iwa, I know what controlled demolitions are!"

"Ah, right. Then it'll take less time to explain things." Sai put on his best smile. It still looked a little fake...no, who was he kidding, it looked awkward as hell and Gaara was absolutely going to give him shit for it. "Besides, do you really think Akatsuki are utilizing your artistic skills to their fullest extent? Do you think your leader even knows what art is at all?"

Deidara frowned, walking forward until he could lean against the barrier, as close as he could get to Sai.

"You're a bastard, you know that?"

"People usually say that to me when I'm right."

"Move it."

He felt himself getting shoved aside as Sasuke approached the barrier, his curse mark receding back to its spot on his shoulder. Of course, Sasuke was single-minded as always, and he finally had a lead regarding his brother and how to find him. And as he'd recognized before, he had to help Sakura out before he could waste time with Deidara.

"I'll be back with Sakura." Sai promised, mostly towards Karin, who gave him a thumbs-up. "Don't bully him too much."

"You're gonna leave me here with the Uchiha?" Deidara called out, banging his fist against the barrier. "Hey, come on, huh? I thought you liked me! Artists gotta stick together, you can't just abandon me after all that!"

"If you tell him what he wants to know, he'll leave you alone." Sai gave Deidara a small wave. Even if he could stick around, Sasuke assuredly wouldn't let them talk until he'd squeezed everything out of Deidara anyway. Sakura it was, despite Deidara's yells of protest as he turned to head towards the nearest entrance to the underground.

It was quiet, mostly because the shinobi had evacuated to specific bunkers and wouldn't leave until Karin gave them the all-clear. But as he headed closer and closer to where Sakura was due to be fighting with Sasori, he realized it was too quiet.

Shouldn't he be hearing the sound of battle by now?

His question was answered as he turned a corner and bumped into none other than Juugo. At first, Sai was relieved. If Juugo was here, the battle was done, right?

And then Juugo explained that Sakura hadn't made it to the rendezvous point, and Sai's entire body went cold.

If not here, then where?

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