Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 85

It happened so quickly that Sakura almost couldn't believe she was awake, and not in some dream.

One moment, she was parrying Kakuzu's blows, using earth jutsu to wall herself away from Kakuzu's lightning and redirect it away from her body. Earth jutsu was weak to lightning, but Onoki had thankfully shown her a couple techniques for redirecting it should the need ever arise. (And boy was she grateful for his foresight.) Make high pillars to attract the lightning. Weave towards and away from trees to encourage the lightning to strike the taller object. Most importantly: never stop moving. Lightning attracted, but it was still at the whim and aim of the user, and Kakuzu was not a native lightning user. Skilled as he was, Sakura was beginning to learn that even Sasuke had a better grip on the art than him. Kakuzu's hearts gave him control over elements, but not mastery.

Not to say, of course, that Kakuzu was weak. Far from it. It was more that, despite the century of honing his techniques, he was still limited by his true body's alignment. Kakuzu was earth-focused, like she was, running on borrowed power and not natural talent.

It was the only reason she was still alive.

But even she was beginning to doubt she'd last much longer when it happened. That familiar metal tang built in her mouth, and she prepared to dodge, but realized at the last minute that Kakuzu wasn't charging a jutsu.

Instead, all at once, the world lit up around her in a brilliant flash of blue.

With a crack that caused her ears to ring, he appeared, wreathed in lightning chakra to such an extent that Sakura immediately ducked back several steps. The man was dangerous by chakra alone, notwithstanding that a glance at him revealed pure muscle, arms that might have been as thick as her waist, a man that stood at least a foot taller than her. Shinobi wasn't a good enough word. This man was a warrior.

He was facing Kakuzu, but he spoke aloud to Sakura as his chakra settled, dispersing sparks into the air.

"Ambassador Haruno?"

"A-at your service." Sakura hastily replied.

"I thank you for ensuring the safety of my shinobi. I will take it from here."

My shinobi? It hit her all at once...this had to be the Raikage. Nobody else could command such intimidating chakra, not unless they were Jinchuuriki. She'd sent Sai to get help and somehow he'd managed to get the fucking Raikage to come personally...or perhaps the Cloud Jinchuuriki had spoken on their behalf. Either way, Sakura had never felt so grateful.

"Let me know if I can assist." She offered, but it was abundantly clear from her voice that she was exhausted from the effort of managing Kakuzu. Any help she could give would be sparse at best. It didn't seem to matter to the Raikage, for with a snap of chakra he was at Kakuzu's position, arm outstretched so that he slammed into Kakuzu's neck with the inside of his elbow.

"Lariat!"

There was a crack of force, and Sakura saw Kakuzu's eyes widen in shock as the black armor on his skin broke from not just the sheer power of the technique, but from the incredible burst of lightning chakra. Yes, there was no doubt from this technique alone...this was the Raikage. She didn't know much, but the Lariat technique was infamous, as was the Raikage's mastery of lightning chakra.

Ask and Jashin answers...I did pray for a way to get past that armor of his.

That was the last she saw of Kakuzu, for the moment anyway, as the force of the technique sent the shinobi flying backwards into the woods so rapidly that Sakura couldn't even see where he landed. She heard the Raikage huff, a sort of satisfied sound that seemed to represent pleasure in a hit well landed.

"You're a lifesaver, Lord Raikage." Sakura admitted as she folded up Kasayari. "Kakuzu is well over a century old, and that armor technique was proving difficult."

The Raikage snorted at that.

"I got a letter the other day." He told her, wiping a small bit of sweat from his shoulder as he turned to face her. "Something about Orochimaru stepping down as Otokage, something about 'please hear out Sakura Haruno' from a certain Uzum-"

He suddenly froze, his eyes lingering on a spot at Sakura's neck. Instinctively, she reached up, realizing that he was looking at her Jashin medallion.

"This?" She questioned, holding it out slightly so that the man could see. "It's...well, it's a religious token. You may or may not have heard of Jashinism. If you want I could-"

Before she knew it, a hand was at her throat, and the Raikage was looking down at her with murderous intent.

"Tell me why I shouldn't kill you right here and now, murderer."


Gaara knew something had changed when the masked heart pursuing him suddenly pulled back, dashing off into the woods before he had time to even consider pursuing. Something had happened to Kakuzu's main body to cause the heart to retreat. Had Sakura managed to get an edge?

He felt a small burst of pride as he turned back in the direction she'd fled. Of course she'd found a way. It was Sakura, after all. No matter what had happened, she'd always found a way.

He reconnected with Hidan first, who was holding his own torn right arm in his left hand. "Bastard nailed me." He told Gaara with a grin. "But he got scared and ran off. Think Pinkie got the killing blow? Kind of sad I missed it."

"That still leaves two hearts." Gaara countered.

"True, but at least we have a minute to breathe. And one less heart to have to juggle." Hidan spit what looked like a bloodied tooth from his mouth before he wiped his lips with his arm. "You know, I gotta admit, I never thought any group would be able to take Kakuzu on. He's one tough piece of work."

"You sound like you almost admire him."

"I mean, yeah, of course I do. Can you imagine if he dedicated himself to Jashin as much as he dedicated himself to money? Like, shit, I'd probably be out of a job." Hidan shrugged. "This fight isn't really that personal. As much as I bitch at the heathen, I kinda wish he'd taken Pinkie's offer."

"A man that old is too proud to let a child entice him." Shukaku spoke through Gaara, which was...still jarring, even after all this time, to have his mouth move without him prompting it. "And we're delaying too long. Even two hearts will be too much for Sakura to handle."

"Right, right, let's go, let's go. I need my arm back on anyway."

They ran, conserving energy but still maintaining haste as they scanned the woods for signs of Sakura's fight. Lightning struck trees indicated they were getting closer, until suddenly Gaara caught a glimpse of two people in the trees.

An unfamiliar man, dark skinned and muscular, was gripping Sakura by the throat. Kakuzu nowhere in sight.

Still, Gaara saw red, sand writhing around him to defend before he was briefly halted by Hidan calling out.

"Oi, asshole, put her down!"

Hidan lunged forward, and Gaara saw the man twitch just enough to indicate that Hidan had startled him. He let go of Sakura as Hidan...wait, had he just thrown his severed arm at the man? Effective, certainly, as the man ducked to avoid it, giving Hidan ample time to draw his scythe and stand between him and the now-coughing Sakura. Gaara moved as well, ready to defend if the man charged again.

"W-wait, Hidan…" Sakura managed to gasp. "He doesn't...he's not an enemy…"

"Don't toy with me, girl. I've tracked ten deaths over the past month, and each of the crime scenes has that symbol drawn all over them." The man pointed towards Hidan's necklace. "Not only that, now you've got Akatsuki defending you-"

"I'm a mole, by Jashin, I'll take the damn coat off if it makes it easier." Hidan groaned before shrugging off the tattered cloak. "As for crime scenes, the fuck are you even talking about? Kakuzu didn't let me kill shit the whole time I've been here."

"And Sakura has been in Otogakure. We have alibis." Gaara spoke up. "Just ask Lord Orochimaru, or Karin Uzumaki."

The man thought for a second, and to Gaara's surprise, he actually nodded. "Right. Haruno's got an alibi. But you sure don't." He pointed to Hidan. "And unless you've got something better than the word of a man I just sent to the other side of the woods, I'll be bringing you in."

"Er, well…"

"Hidan, you haven't killed anyone since you've been in Lightning Country?" Sakura confirmed. Gaara helped her to her feet, but noticed she was still leaning on him for support. She looked exhausted...had this man rescued her from Kakuzu?

"I swear to Jashin I haven't touched anyone other than that Jinchuuriki chick, and even then I barely even got a chance before you stepped in. Cross my fucking heart."

"One's word isn't evidence." The man countered. "And you're the first two I've seen carrying that symbol since the murders began."

Gaara felt Sakura take a deep breath. Eventually, she nodded.

"Then arrest us both."

"Wait, what? Sakura-"

"We're Ambassadors, Hidan. We're not here to cause an international incident by resisting the Raikage. We're innocent and we know it, so let's comply and clear things up." Shit, the Raikage was the man in front of them? Gaara felt himself tense. No, they definitely didn't need to piss him off...and the man's lightning jutsu would most definitely be more than a match for his sand anyway.

"Fuckin' Peace Path." Hidan rolled his eyes, but to Gaara's surprise he actually listened to Sakura, sheathing his scythe onto his back. "Can you at least let her put my arm back on before we go in? And what about Kakuzu?"

"If you're referring to the man I just sent to the other side of the woods, I know no man that can survive my Lariat."

"I'm not doubting you got the hit, but the guy's got two more lives left in him. He might be coming back for round two."

At that prompting, Sakura shakily put her hands together. Gaara recognized the hand sign for her sensing jutsu, and though the Raikage tensed at the motion, Sakura spoke to put him at ease. "Sensing jutsu. I'll see if he's returning."

The Raikage settled, and Gaara watched as Sakura sent out a pulse of her chakra. "He's...he's retreating." She told them with a relieved smile. "I don't think he's stupid enough to try and face the Raikage again after that hit...that...Lariat, you called it?" The word sounded strange, like it was from an entirely different language. Sakura struggled a bit on the pronunciation, but Gaara noted that it seemed to bring a small smile to the Raikage's face that she'd tried.

"Lariat." He repeated. "It is the signature technique of the Raikage of this village. And what I'll turn on you should you try and run before these murders are solved."

"Don't worry." Sakura promised him. "We're not going anywhere."


Gaara and Sai looked on at the scene from the other side of the glass.

Sakura and Hidan had both been restrained with chakra-suppressing seals, as well as rope to tie their hands behind their backs. It had taken a lot out of Gaara to let them handle Sakura in such a way, but Sakura was right: they were innocent, and Hidan...well, Gaara would have initially chalked any Jashin-style killing to him, but Sakura believed in his innocence, and that was all Gaara needed.

"You maintain that you were not involved in any of the killings done in this village." The Raikage confirmed aloud. "You maintain that those of your order would have no reason to kill in this village. And yet I have ten crime scenes with your order's symbol and no explanation as to why. Each of the deaths were high profile, targeted disorder among my village's hierarchy. We are on the brink of civil war. The daimyo fears for his life and questions my shinobi's competence. My shinobi are on edge looking for an enemy they cannot see or track. You are the first clue I have to this mystery and yet you claim you can tell me nothing."

"I can offer some speculation, I think." Sakura spoke back, her voice slightly muffled by the glass of her cell. "Someone knew that my group would be coming to you to discuss our international alliance, someone who...I suppose also knew of the Jashinists. Maybe they hoped to turn you against me by committing murders in such a way that you would inevitably have tied them to me when you saw my amulet. Hidan, too...but the thing is, I don't know who would know that or have cause to do so outside of Akatsuki, and they still don't know that Hidan is my mole."

Well, they'd know now, Gaara thought to himself, but that didn't change the narrative.

"You claim you have been framed, then?" The Raikage replied. "I can't deny that narrative. Right now, I can't confirm or deny any narrative. You've been compliant, which is the only reason you're still alive and in such good condition. But the fact remains that I have deaths on my hands and I need to know why."

"Then let us offer our services." Sai spoke up, stepping forward so he could be within the Raikage's vision. "As much as you, we're interested in who would want to frame our group for murder."

"Yes, and it's our mantra to be a neutral group that works for the benefit of all villages." Sakura insisted. "Maybe we can be the extra force you need to get answers."

"Maybe." The Raikage admitted. "But I won't let you two from this cell. Right now, you're collateral. If I find any definitive evidence that points to your group being at the root of this, I will see justice done."

"So you leave it to us." Sai offered. "Gaara and I will be more than capable of assisting."

"I will give you a week." The Raikage decided. "And you will be under watch by my shinobi for the duration of your stay. Any funny business, I will give them standing orders to eliminate you."

Gaara simply nodded. It was a pragmatic choice. The Raikage had a subtle air of desperation to him. He needed answers, and he was willing to trust strangers to get any sort of edge. But a good leader wouldn't endanger his village, and it was only natural they'd be assigned 'babysitters' for their stay, until they'd proven their innocence.

And yet, Gaara did feel a strange sort of confidence. He'd trained for this sort of thing, after all, under the tutelage of the tanuki. Looking for a murderer, hidden amongst the people of Cloud...why, that couldn't be too much more difficult than the tanuki trials, could it?

"A week will be more than enough." Gaara promised. "And being under watch is no issue for either of us."

"That's what I like to hear." The Raikage put a finger to his ear, activating a small device that Gaara recognized as a radio transmitter, not unlike the ones used in Otogakure. Karin had mentioned active trade between the two villages, and it wasn't difficult to see how Kumo had benefited from that exchange.

"Yugito. B. Get in here."

A moment passed, and then Gaara felt a sudden weight on his shoulders. A tall man, of similar build and look to the Raikage, had put an arm around both of their shoulders. He was grinning from ear to ear, and even through the man's sunglasses, Gaara could tell there was a happy light in his eyes.

"Welcome to Kumo, ambassador friends. Let's work together and tie up loose ends!"

Behind him, Gaara glimpsed the woman from before, the Jinchuuriki with the stern glare. She said nothing, but Gaara could almost feel her energy writhe at the sight of the other man, B?, acting so familiar with him and Sai.

And then it hit him, all at once, a subdued energy at the moment, but he'd recognize it anywhere after interacting with four other Jinchuuriki prior. The man called B was a Jinchuuriki too.

"So this is your host, Gyuuki?" Shukaku spoke through him.

B's grin faltered for only a moment as he processed the question. But then his grin returned, and his hand squeezed Gaara's shoulder.

"I'd heard Ichibi was part of the show. It's a pleasure to meet ya, don't ya know?"

"B, stop procrastinating." Yugito finally spoke. "We have a rat to chase, and we're wasting daylight."

"Right on, right on." B withdrew from the embrace before gently pushing Gaara and Sai towards the door. "Let's ditch this joint."

"I can see you all are...to the point?" Sai prompted. Behind them, Gaara saw the Raikage roll his eyes, but B himself just laughed and laughed.

"You know how to rhyme? Then we'll get along just fine…"

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