The most comprehensive notes had come from Onoki. Sakura had remembered Deidara being mentioned once or twice in her time there, mostly in regards to various things he'd blown up in or outside of the village. Deidara wasn't just a bomber, he was the bomber. He viewed explosions as a form of art and had even stolen an Iwagakure kinjutsu that allowed him to mix his chakra with clay to make...well, even more explosives, outside of the typical 'explosive release' kekkei genkai that he'd mastered during his time in the Iwa Explosion Corps.
Onoki had referred to Deidara as a 'talented shitstain of a brat', which Sakura had translated to mean that he'd been fond of Deidara before his rather violent departure. Hidan was fond enough of Deidara that he'd asked Sakura as kindly as he was capable to not 'kick his ass beyond salvation'. As far as Hidan knew, Deidara had been 'bullied' into joining Akatsuki by 'that crapass pretty boy Uchiha', which meant that there was a fair possibility that Deidara could be persuaded out of helping Akatsuki if the right motivation presented itself.
There were two problems with that assumption, however. One: Deidara hated Uchiha. Hated them. And Sasuke was with them, which meant that regardless of anything Sakura presented, it was likely that Sasuke's mere presence might just push Deidara into an explosive rage anyway. Two, and this was the cincher, how the hell was she going to get a chance to try diplomacy if this man was going to literally come in bombs blazing?
She wasn't stupid, and Karin wasn't stupid. Deidara and Sasori had likely done their research regarding her, Gaara, and Sai, and their tactics would likely be divide and conquer. Deidara would try to scatter them, Sasori would pick off Gaara when they weren't looking, which would leave them down a protective Jinchuuriki and at the mercy of very big booms.
And speaking of Sasori…
Puppet master, that much Temari had been able to account for in her own documentation. Master of poisons, hidden within a large armored puppet called Hiruko that was as deadly as it was defensive, head of the Akatsuki's foremost spy network, veteran of the Third Shinobi War...there was little that Sasori didn't have under his belt, and though Sakura was strategically best suited to help whatever team was taking him down, that didn't mean she was extremely nervous about doing so. She'd trained at the Enclave for several months, yes, she'd studied under the Tsuchikage, yes, but this was...this was Akatsuki. She was allowed to be worried. She was allowed to over-prepare. She was allowed to-
"Sakura, go to sleep."
Sakura admittedly started as Gaara's voice distracted her from her notes. She had been mulling over these notes for several hours now, but still…
"You're one to talk, you know."
"I have Shukaku."
"He lets you sleep now, just because you grew up not sleeping doesn't mean you shouldn't be trying to catch up now!"
"He is the best suited for night watch." Sai commented from across the room. "He doesn't experience sleep deprivation like we do."
"Shut it, Dart Boy, you're still in the doghouse for pissing off Uchiha."
"Not my fault he doesn't have Sharingan eyes on the back of his head."
"Why don't you go to bed?" Sakura groaned. Still, another look from Gaara had Sakura packing up her notes for the night and turning in. He was right. If she wasn't well rested, she wouldn't be at her best for taking on Akatsuki when they came, and no amount of preparation would solve that.
The problem was...well, a certain vision was making it very difficult to sleep.
Shinobi are cursed to seek violence…
...I will bring about the peace we have desired for so long…
Sakura woke with a start three hours after her initial turn-in for the night, just as breathless and anxious as the first time she'd had the dream weeks ago. The anxiety soon faded into anger, anger that she still didn't know why Jashin was so insistent on this vision when there were a million more useful visions she could be tapping into instead, like maybe Deidara or Sasori or even fucking Orochimaru at this point.
The anger slowly bled into apathy. Either she had somehow broke Jashin's gift, (entirely possible and horrifying to consider), or there was something that she was just missing and she'd get it sooner or later. Maybe Jashin wasn't showing her visions of her looming Akatsuki problem because she was competent enough to handle it! Maybe she didn't need any edge on Orochimaru! Maybe mysterious worrying crow man was just far more important than any of her immediate problems and sooner or later, she'd see the truth of it!
Sakura was already out of bed, shrugging on shoes and a jacket before she remembered that she wasn't at the Enclave, and that there wasn't a small kitchenette with hot water and tea leaves waiting for her to help her calm down after a hectic night's sleep. She hesitated in the middle of the living room.
She could always go to the kitchen. She remembered the way from where Karin had shown her earlier. She'd been told she was a guest. Surely Orochimaru wouldn't begrudge her a late night cup of tea?
Strike that, he definitely would. He would definitely milk whatever he could out of her for a drop of tea and she was stupid to think otherwise.
But damn it all, she needed a hot drink.
"Gaara, can I borrow Emi?"
Gaara was up, of course. He did get sleep, contrary to his earlier claims, but it was usually light and complemented by one or more tanuki taking watch whenever his eyes shut. He had elected to ignore a bedroom in favor of the living room, from which he could keep an eye on herself and Sai simultaneously. Sakura saw green eyes peer at her in the dark as she spoke.
"I could go with you."
"And freak out Sai if he wakes up with both of us gone? I don't think so."
"Sakura, we are in Orochimaru's house."
"And he's an inquisitive bitch who won't kill me until he gets information out of me. If something happens, I'll send Emi your way and you can kick his ass yourself."
"Let him try me, if Naruto could pummel him, I probably won't do half bad."
"...okay, maybe he'd have the gall to challenge me to a midnight tussle when we're supposed to be resting for the Akatsuki fight, but it might be a little fun to be the one denying him for once, hm?"
Sakura could have sworn she saw Gaara's eyes roll in the dark.
"You know I don't like you going off into dangerous areas alone."
Alright, he had her there. It was technically true that every time she'd gone off on her own, something bad had happened. Itachi. That weird Uchiha that might possibly be Kakashi's old teammate. That time she'd taken a wrong turn in the Enclave and had walked in on two Hageshisai doing really inappropriate things with knives.
"You might have a point."
"I do have a point."
"I guess Akatsuki could attack at any moment. But you get to go wake Sai and tell him he has to come with us for a five minute tea run."
Sakura could feel Gaara shuddering. Sai didn't wake up easy. Sai woke up wielding all sorts of pointy things and occasionally some very creative curse words that Sakura knew he definitely didn't learn from Root.
Ten minutes later, after Gaara had finished picking shuriken out of his sand armor, they arrived at the kitchen. It was dark and almost unnaturally quiet, but at this point Sakura just wanted her drink and no eerie kitchen atmosphere was going to dissuade her. It was admittedly a bit strange that Orochimaru's inner sanctum ran on candlelight and not electric lights, something her sleepy brain lingered on far too long as she took a match to the nearby holders. The boys waited outside the door as she rummaged through cabinets for a cup and something flavorful to put in water. There were several unlabeled bags of herbs that Sakura wouldn't dare touch with a ten foot pole, but in the back of one cabinet there were some tucked away bags of a brand that was, surprisingly, from Konoha of all places.
Sentiment, Sakura wondered? Maybe Sasuke had asked for some tastes of home.
Sakura even found herself lingering on thoughts of home as she brought water to a boil. She wasn't necessarily uncomfortable being stuck in a dark underground hole for a few days; the Enclave was plenty dark, and she found an odd sort of comfort in cave-like spaces now. But she did miss trees. Whenever her group finally settled down, whenever the ambassadors decided on a home, it needed to have trees.
The tea finished steeping, and as she picked up the kettle, a cup appeared in front of her, thrust her way by a pale hand.
"If you don't mind."
What Sakura would have liked to have done was smoothly pour the man a cup of tea and play it off like she'd heard him approaching the whole time. (And where had Gaara and Sai been that they hadn't heard Orochi-fucking-maru come into the room?)
What Sakura did instead was let a very undignified squeak while deftly juggling a kettle in one hand and a quickly drawn kunai in the other.
Orochimaru in turn raised an eyebrow and continued to hold out a cup.
There was a brief moment of pause in which Sakura's sleeping brain tried to catch up with her now very awake body. She hit a strange half-awake medium that accepted the situation as it was and did what a polite guest would do and poured the man some tea.
In the corner of her eye she saw an open door in the kitchen, one that had looked very much like a blank wall before but now was very obviously a secret door of sort. There was a certain kind of humor to be found in knowing that Orochimaru had gotten a secret passage made to the kitchen instead of just...walking there like a normal human being.
She certainly couldn't help but wonder what Orochimaru was doing up at three in the morning. It was entirely possible that Orochimaru just didn't sleep. Tsunade had mentioned, now that she thought about it, that her old teammate had been prone to bursts of insomnia while he was still in the village, sometimes even coming to her for sleep-aids or even just a midnight chat. Tsunade had grown uncharacteristically nostalgic talking about those times. Another poignant reminder that, once upon a time, Orochimaru hadn't been the maniac who'd killed the third Hokage or gotten kicked out of the village for child experimentation. Once upon a time, people had cared about him.
That he had fallen away from that for something as silly as immortality would never make sense to Sakura, ever. She couldn't picture an eternal life without her boys in it. She couldn't picture an eternal life taken from the lives of others either.
She sighed and poured herself her own cup of tea. Even with these surprising displays of domesticity, Orochimaru was still Orochimaru. Maybe even showing such displays to let her guard down.
Still, this was a rare opportunity to chat with him pseudo-alone. Maybe she was only halfway awake at this time of night, but maybe it was the same for him. Maybe she could get something through to him that she wouldn't be able to otherwise.
Or maybe he'd just ask her to tell him about the Sharingan again.
She caught sight of sand wisping around her as she turned to face the Otokage again. Gaara had clearly noticed who was in the room, but thankfully had the tact not to immediately try to break whatever tentative peace was there. It was a comfort, though, and what she needed to try yet again to talk with one of the most terrifying men she'd ever met.
"Have tea at three in the morning often?"
Sakura almost squeaked again as Orochimaru was the one to break the silence. He was leaning against the wall now, keeping an insufferable smirk on his face as he did so. The bastard knew exactly how uncomfortable he made her, and Sakura was not, was not going to let him get to her.
"Could ask the same of you."
"Research never sleeps." Orochimaru answered in turn. "Even when the body stops, the mind continues into the far hours of the night, seeking answers to questions that refuse to remain dormant."
It was...weirdly relevant to her current situation. Awake in the wee hours yet again because a stupid dream wouldn't stop nagging her.
Hmm. Well Tsunade had told her to try and intrigue the man. She'd hit a dead end with this dream. Sometimes...sometimes one had to look at unconventional sources for unconventional answers.
"I've been working on a history project." Sakura began, choosing her phrasing carefully as she sat down at the kitchen table. "An old letter of sorts. I've been trying to figure out who wrote it but so far I don't have very many clues. It's esoteric and infuriating."
"Oh?" Orochimaru's tone turned curious, and Sakura knew she had him. Hook, line, and sinker. "History is truly a fascinating mystery, isn't it? In the realm of the past lie gods and myths."
"And monsters." Sakura answered in turn. Even now, with hot tea in her hands and her senses more about her, she could still feel the fear creeping up on the back of her next as whatever avatar of hatred existed in that vision approached.
"There are those who think shinobi monsters."
"Speaking from experience, I take it?"
"Ah, unlike others, I take pride in the name."
There was something a bit surreal in how Orochimaru spoke to her. Even with her title as ambassador, all of the other Kages still spoke to her in a manner that insisted that she was still young, still inexperienced, still somewhat beneath them. Orochimaru...he lacked that sort of inflection.
It hit her, all at once, why it had been so easy for him to draw Sasuke in. Treat everyone like an equal, like you respected them, like you believed in them…
Orochimaru did it in a sinister manner, but in a way, she could learn from it. Having that sort of respect for everyone she met was something she'd need as an ambassador.
It still didn't stop her from jumping somewhat as Orochimaru quietly slunk into the chair next to her.
"I take it you're researching a monster? Not surprisingly, considering your company."
"Yeah, Sai can be a bit of a monster in the morning if you wake him up wrong." Sakura smoothly retorted. She wasn't going to let Orochimaru drag Gaara through the mud on her watch. Instead, she simply pulled out a small scroll at her hip, one of the few she'd always slept with: as complete of a transcript as she'd managed to get of her dream sequence. She rolled it across the table to Orochimaru, watching out of the corner of her eye as he opened it and took a look.
"...I'll admit this is somewhat more interesting than you'd made it out to be. Very few have the knowledge to speak of Kaguya."
So Orochimaru thought the speaker was referring to Kaguya as well. Sakura could almost hear Sai's smug smirk from the other side of the door.
"You didn't think it strange that I knew about her before?"
"I wouldn't have expected another to be researching her. I could inquire as to your source of this transcription."
"An eye for an eye, Lord Orochimaru."
Orochimaru grinned. "Oh, I hardly think signing a binding international treatise is worth that information."
"No." Sakura agreed. "But I'll still let you make other offers."
"Fair trade, of course. But I know so little about what a young lady like yourself might want."
"Hard to have time for wants when there's so much to do."
"Oh, come now. You can't tell me you don't have any...personal ambitions."
"And I told you before, my ambition is the project."
"Such a clever little liar. Even to yourself." Orochimaru carefully rolled up her scroll before sending it back over the table to her. "The greatest lie of the shinobi world is that the duties of the world are more important than the dreams of the individual."
"So the world should suffer for one to thrive?"
"Not at all." Orochimaru countered. "Merely that a country that tampers down the needs of its citizens is doomed to tear itself apart."
"But a country that ignores its own duties will fall apart anyway."
"Balance then, don't you think?" Orochimaru raised up his cup, and in a rather stunning feat of dexterity (and perhaps chakra control), balanced the cup on a single finger. "I should think one that tends to involve themselves in the governing of the shinobi world would not neglect the individuals that make it up. That is how Jinchuuriki grow up outcasts. That is how the Uchiha are drawn into rebellion."
"How you were drawn into child murder?" Sakura could have kicked herself for the quip, but Orochimaru merely seemed amused.
"I gave them a chance to seek greatness. It isn't fault of mine that only one of them survived it."
Still a bastard. And Sakura didn't want to talk in circles forever. She wasn't going to change the man. If Tsunade couldn't, if Jiraiya couldn't, then it plain wasn't possible.
But she could still try to get something out of this.
"Alright." She decided. "Information for information. That's fair, isn't it?"
"You're seeking immortality. A perfect body. The power of Kaguya. So tell me, after you've gotten all of that, then what?"
Orochimaru was quiet for a good long while. Enough for Sakura to finish off the last of her tea and stand up to clean the kettle she'd used to make it. The silence lasted until Sakura was ready to head back to her room once again.
"You know, Haruno, I actually have no idea."
Sakura smiled. She didn't mean to, not really, but something about finding a question that stumped even the Snake himself just brought a weird warmth into her heart. Enough so that by the time she returned to bed, she'd mostly forgotten about the dream.
Warmth didn't last forever, of course.
It was supposed to go like this: Karin would play border watch, using her unnaturally effective sensing skills to determine when Akatsuki were about to cross into the city borders. Deidara's techniques were primarily earth based, which meant that Sasuke's lightning would be a perfect counter for any bomb dropped in the area, so long as he was fast enough. Sai, already practiced as a ranged fighter, would provide eyes in the sky on Deidara's location and actions. Karin would provide support, in both healing and crowd control, directing citizens away from Deidara's bombs and making sure that nobody got caught in the ensuing scuffle.
Sakura and Gaara would stick together alongside Juugo, a powerful close-ranged fighter who was, as it turned out, the origin of Orochimaru's popular curse mark. He could transform himself with nature energy, of all things, but instead of becoming a statue like most, the transformations ended up being somewhat protective in nature. His skin hardened, his strength grew, and all of these things would be a perfect foil to someone like Sasori who dealt in long-ranged puppetry and poisons. If Sasori could penetrate Juugo's armor at all, the high concentration of nature energy would help cycle the poison out, and whatever he couldn't cure, Sakura could heal. She'd play long range support with her earth jutsu, while Gaara kept up defensive barriers for all of them. A solid team, one that Karin seemed to trust implicitly, which gave Sakura some hope as well. With Kabuto keeping Orochimaru out of the way and Karin herding civilians, it would just be them and the fight.
Of course, if Sakura knew anything by now, things never went as planned.
The alarm came early in the morning, about an hour after Sakura usually got up to do her morning exercise. Karin came running to the door, knocking on it rapidly until Sakura could wrench it open.
"They're here. Get to the south training ring like we planned, I'll make sure Juugo meets up with you there before the bombs start falling. Sai, you're with me."
"Take Emi with you." Gaara insisted, practically plopping the tanuki into Sai's arms. "Anything goes wrong, you send her to us, we'll find a way to get to you."
"Focus on staying alive, perhaps?" Sai countered. "I'm with the Uchiha. He's too stubborn to let anyone hurt me but him."
"Ain't that a truth." Karin rolled her eyes before taking Sai by the arm and leading him away. "South ring, get going!"
It was simple enough. Sakura quickly threw on her armor and summoned Kasayari from its containment so that she could let it sling comfortably against her back. Gaara stretched as she prepared, falling into stances that Shukaku had gone over with him time and time again. They were ready, Sakura thought to herself. Ready as they would ever be to face a shinobi terror.
Then someone knocked on their door again.
Sakura opened the door to see Kabuto's pleasantly smiling face. "Sakura. Orochimaru wants to speak with you, if you don't mind. And only you. He seemed rather insistent that it be private."
Sakura glanced over to Gaara, and she was absolutely certain that the same word passed through his head as did hers.
Kabuto was supposed to be keeping Orochimaru out of the way, wasn't he? And surely, if he was a spy for Sasori, he'd be aware that Sasori would be here within the compound any minute? And that Sasori asked for him to keep Orochimaru away?
Something was up. Something had changed. They'd missed a meeting, some change of plans, and now Karin was too far away to get a message to without arousing some sort of suspicion in Kabuto. For now, all they could do was play ignorant to the situation and go along with...meeting Orochimaru while Akatsuki was literally at their front door.
"Sure." Sakura said with her best possible imitation of Sai's fake smile. "Lead the way." She paused only to glance back at Gaara, knowing that he'd probably know exactly what she expected of him: follow at a distance, and don't be seen.
The truth of the matter occurred to her a couple minutes into their walk. Kabuto wasn't leading her to Orochimaru, but rather leading her to a location where she'd be away from Gaara and unable to protect him. Sakura was willing to bet that whatever room Kabuto put her in would end up being empty and quickly locked the moment she was in it.
It would work out, with Gaara tailing them. He'd simply free her once Kabuto had run off, and they'd still rendezvous with Juugo, albeit a little later than intended. So long as they could avoid running into Sasori on the way, their plan could still work.
Of course, that plan backfired when Kabuto opened the door to a large room and Orochimaru was actually in it.
But in Sakura's defense, Kabuto seemed surprised about it too.
"Kabuto." Orochimaru answered with trademark grin. This one, however, wasn't the smug, egotistical grin that Sakura was used to. This one was murderous. "Did you really think I wouldn't find out?"
Had Orochimaru not known? Karin had seemed to think Orochimaru was aware of Kabuto's 'double agent' status, perhaps even believing that Kabuto was truly spying on Sasori for him. But Kabuto hadn't told Orochimaru about Sasori and Deidara's coming assault, per Sasori's orders, which meant that, in Orochimaru's eyes, Kabuto was really Sasori's man through and through.
Karin had spoken of her plan to become Otokage in the coming years. An important part of that plan was ridding Orochimaru of Kabuto, since Kabuto was instrumental in keeping Orochimaru's body healthy after the grueling soul transfer process. Without a trained medic, Orochimaru would be at a disadvantage. Nobody else in Oto had Kabuto's skill, and Kabuto had intended it that way, lest Orochimaru think to replace him.
It was in that brief moment that Sakura got an idea.
"Lord Orochimaru, I really don't know what you're-"
"Don't lie to him." Sakura spoke up, catching both their attention at once. "You know you can't keep that kind of secret from him forever. I will say, though, I'd really thought you'd be smart enough not to stab Orochimaru in the back."
"How dare you even think-"
"She's right, Kabuto." Orochimaru answered in turn. "I gave you chance after chance. I took pity on you after I learned what Sasori had done to your mind to keep you loyal to him. I removed the seal he'd placed on you and still accepted you as my own. And yet you let him into my domain without a single word to me?"
"You said you didn't care what happened to the Jinchuuriki!"
"And I also said I wanted Haruno alive. Not shipped off to Pein for him to do Sage knows what to her."
Well...that had implications Sakura didn't want to think about. Kabuto hadn't just been planning to lock her in here, he'd been planning to ship her off to Akatsuki. She wasn't surprised Pein wanted to get his hands on her; Hidan had warned her of that weeks ago. She was surprised that Sasori would have entrusted Kabuto with the task, of all people.
Sasori thought Kabuto his. Orochimaru thought Kabuto his. Kabuto played both sides. No matter who came out on top, Akatsuki or Orochimaru, Kabuto won. High risk, safe reward.
She didn't have time to think about why Orochimaru wanted her alive specifically. She had a chance right now, a chance to turn this scenario around and help Karin in the long run.
"You know, you're the snake master, Lord Orochimaru, but I think this one's gotten a bit too big for his britches." Sakura folded her arms, making a show of looking disdainful. "He's stupid to cross you, and he's stupid to think he would have stood a chance of 'wrapping me up' for Pein anyway."
Kabuto sputtered, but stopped as he felt a presence crawling up behind them. Gaara's energy was impossible to ignore when he was riled, especially when in perfect sync with Shukaku.
"Should have made sure we stayed behind, you four-eyed cretin."
(Sakura winced at Shukaku's taunt. Didn't the Bijuu have anything better than a glasses insult?)
It was still enough to send Kabuto stumbling back, however, while Gaara took his place at Sakura's side. The man looked back and forth between them and Orochimaru.
"L-Listen, Orochimaru, it's really not what you think, she's playing you for a fool!"
"That's a weak excuse, Kabuto. You'll have to do better than that."
"You...you need me!"
"He doesn't." Sakura countered. A lie, but one she could work with. "Lady Tsunade's implemented a shared medical program with all allied shinobi nations. She'll share her medical knowledge with anyone who signs on, and she's far more knowledgeable than you. Anything you did for Orochimaru can be taught to someone else, even better than you'd ever managed. She was the one Orochimaru went to in order to get a fix for his arms, wasn't she? Nothing you knew could help him with that."
She saw Kabuto pale at that, and admittedly felt the tiniest little bit of vindication in knowing she'd probably just made Kabuto wet himself.
"What an amusing point our little Haruno makes." Orochimaru chuckled. "One I had been considering since I read her adorable little treaty. Why, if I sign on, my dear friend Tsunade won't have a choice but to share her knowledge with me. Perhaps even ways to circumvent a host's rejection. I'd planned on letting you do the honors, but it seems you've chosen your side today."
...wait, he'd been considering signing even without the information on the Sharingan? That fucking snake had been trying to weasel shit out of her-
Focus. She had to focus. She was turning Orochimaru against Kabuto, she was making it so he had to sign her treaty, and she was setting Karin up for an easier takedown in the immediate future...and Kabuto was attempting to run out the door.
Sakura didn't stop him. It wasn't her place, and the weasel deserved a bit of fear after playing the double agent game for so long without consequence. It was Orochimaru that worried her now. Kabuto wouldn't be keeping him out of the way, so what would he do with Sasori and Deidara about to try and hunt down a Jinchuuriki within his borders?
"Foolish." Orochimaru muttered.
"Like I said, stupid." Sakura agreed.
"No." Gaara replied quietly. "That's not what he means. Sasori's right outside."
...and he was about to figure out that Kabuto had failed in separating Gaara from his companions and in keeping Orochimaru out of his business.
Hidan had mentioned one important thing about Sasori: he didn't tolerate failure.
They had moments, it seemed, before their fated fight with Sasori was to begin. There was no Juugo; even if Gaara had sent out a tanuki before coming in, it would take a while for the summon to bring Juugo back. On top of that, Orochimaru was there, and while he seemed to want Sakura alive for the moment, he'd been very blunt about not caring what happened to Gaara.
But in the grand scheme of things, and Sakura couldn't believe she was thinking it: she'd take her chances with the snake.
She backed away from the door, Gaara keeping close to her, until she was standing at Orochimaru's side. "You know," she spoke, "a little bird told me that apparently Akatsuki has some sort of leverage to keep you out of their affairs."
"Have I mentioned you have some extremely curious little birds?"
"You've as good as admitted to me that you'd be interested in signing the treaty for Tsunade's medical knowledge. But I know you want information on fighting the Sharingan. So let me turn the deal around."
It was a gamble. It was the biggest, stupidest gamble she'd made in a while, but as she'd learned early on, sometimes stupid gambles had the biggest payoffs.
"Deidara and Sasori are here to collect Gaara. Help me take Sasori down and I'll tell you everything I know. About the Sharingan, what I know about Kaguya...everything. You have my word."
Orochimaru grinned again, and this time it was the smug grin she'd come to expect from the snake.
"You have a deal, Miss Haruno. But I expect everything."