There was a heartbeat of silence, and then puppet and tanuki went to war.
It reminded Sakura somewhat of the recent Konoha civil war, though rather than attempting to mad dash through the skirmish, she was simply waiting, watching as blades clashed and claw and wood scraped together. It was somewhat mesmerizing at first. Sasori was an enemy, but even she couldn't help but be enraptured by the skill it took to wordlessly command an army with nothing but raw chakra control, which is what puppetry assuredly was. She'd been told she was in the top percentile of chakra control in Konoha, and she had no doubt Sasori also fell into a similar category, but this…
So this was what it meant to be an S-ranked shinobi.
Danzo, for all his stolen power, had never reached this height, had never reached the poise and elegance that came from mastery of one's own talents. This was what Sakura needed to become if she was truly to wrangle the shinobi nations together, and right now, it was what she needed to defeat. Even with all her training, she felt herself balk at the prospect. Gaara's sand was busy, defending not just her and Orochimaru, but each of the tanuki as well, countering the strange black sand that the 'Third Kazekage' puppet was manipulating against them. It was easy for Gaara to defend her here, where she wasn't moving, but the instant she charged into battle, things would become that much more difficult for him. Perhaps even impossible. If she couldn't trust herself to dodge on her own merit, she shouldn't be trusting herself to charge at all.
"Having second thoughts, Haruno?" Orochimaru's voice seemed to snake into her ears. "Perhaps you're feeling a bit outclassed?"
A switch seemed to flip then, and Sakura didn't know how Orochimaru knew just what to say to snap her mind back into focus, but she'd never been one to back down from challenging words, not since she and Ino had become Academy rivals.
"You only wish." She answered in turn. Of course, she'd prepared for a moment like this, a moment where she'd have to defend herself and attack. She'd specifically asked to be prepared for this.
She unhooked Kasayari from its sling and let it fall comfortably into her right hand. She saw Orochimaru eyeing it with interest, which only caused her to smirk in turn.
"You didn't think I spent the past few months sitting on my ass, did you?"
"The weapon is certainly new. But against puppets?"
Kasayari was a spear, first and foremost. It wasn't all it was, but in terms of an offensive weapon, she was told it was well-suited for her body type, providing range where she hadn't had it before. The downside was, unlike most spears, it wasn't a light, dextrous weapon. The blade was short, and the body of the shaft closest to the blade was thicker than the rest of the weapon, making it unbalanced and top heavy. Many might have considered the spear useless, unwieldy at best. It had certainly taken some time to learn the nuances.
Spears were offensive weapons. Kasayari was no ordinary spear.
"You know the target?"
"Aim for the heart." Orochimaru licked his lips before bringing his hands together, an unfamiliar hand sign. "Just don't become a liability, Haruno. I've been waiting a long time for this kill."
"Don't let me stop you if you see a chance."
They moved, and Sakura let instincts take over as she ran into the fray. In an instant, it seemed that Sasori's attentions were turned on her and Orochimaru. The puppets abandoned their fights with the tanuki to charge her, only being stopped when the tanuki followed in pursuit. Orochimaru's hands seemed to fly through formation after formation, summoning fire, wind, lightning, all in rapid succession. She'd heard the claim that Orochimaru wanted to learn every jutsu in existence, and now the man was starting to prove that claim.
But he was...slow, much slower than he'd been back when they'd first seen him in the Forest of Death. It was possible that he was preserving energy for Sasori's fight, but equally possible he was just...slowing. He needed to transfer bodies soon or else his current body would reject his soul outright, that Tsunade had insisted upon. That was why he had been so desperate for Sasuke before. He was running out of time. Was the toll of his jutsu already beginning to show?
Sakura didn't have time to linger on it. A puppet had already approached her, swords swinging only to clash with the hard wood of her spear. She was no expert in sojutsu yet, but the Hageshisai had given her a crash course on surviving duels, and it was more than sufficient at keeping the enemy blades at bay long enough for a tanuki to rescue her. It did not, however, stop the puppet's mouth from opening wide and attempting to fire another barrage of poisoned needles in her direction.
But Sakura had sworn she wouldn't be a damsel in distress, wouldn't wait around for Gaara or Sai to protect her, and that was exactly what Kasayari was for.
The front of the spear unfolded, revealing exactly why the weapon had been designed to be so top heavy. It revealed linking panels that spiraled into a circular, shield-like shape around the shaft, interlocking into its new position just in time to intercept the attack sent her way.
Kasayari, the aptly named Umbrella Spear, had two forms. Offensive and defensive. The needles bounced off the hard wood, keeping her safe and allowing her to continue to move forward. She clicked the trigger beneath her thumb and the spear refolded again, resuming its offensive form as she lunged forward and pushed the sharp blade through the puppet's face, removing the head in the process. Maybe Sasori could control the body without a head, but there would be no more needles coming from it at least.
"What artistry that weapon is." She heard Sasori comment from the other side of the room. "I look forward to adding it to my collection."
"Like hell you will!" Sakura slammed the blade of her spear into the dirt, channeling her earthen chakra through the shaft. The spear had two forms programmed in, but there was a third one that she'd learned after a spark of an idea and a few pointers from Shukaku. Earth molded around the blade, sticking with the input of her chakra, until the spear had transformed into an earthen hammer. It was already top heavy, and since finesse wasn't going to break these puppets apart, Sakura decided she'd try a bit of brute force instead. As the next puppet headed her way, she pushed chakra into her arms for some 'oomph' and slammed the face of the hammer into it as hard as her body could allow. The wood shattered under the blow with a satisfying crunch.
Definitely not what the spear was made for, but sometimes Sakura just really liked breaking things.
The hammer was a bit heavy, though, so she let the earth fall from it as she reassessed the battlefield. She would have thought the puppet army thinned by now, but for every puppet they destroyed, Sasori would simply summon another. She was aware that Sasori was known for being a one man army, but this...this was becoming brutal. Puppets didn't tire, but she would, and she knew the tanuki would, and maybe even Gaara's strength would dwindle if he faced up against a Kage level threat long enough.
"You wouldn't happen to have a bow locked up in that tricky little weapon of yours, would you?" Orochimaru asked as he skidded to a halt next to her. "Or perhaps a flamethrower?"
"Unfortunately, our best long-range support is outside keeping your village safe." Sakura retorted. "I do know the water bullet technique, as well as some improvised earth techniques..."
"That is all? Such pitiful teaching. Onoki was always a brawler, but to neglect such basic training…"
"Well you could stand around bitching about it, or you could deal with this yourself! Why haven't you killed that bastard yet?"
"I enjoy toying with my prey before going in for the kill."
"That's such bullshit right now and you know it." Sakura looked over at the man, and then she saw it.
What the hell was wrong with the man's hands?
Maybe she just hadn't seen it before, or maybe he'd been hiding it with genjutsu that was pointless to keep up now, but where there had been pale skin before, there was now purpled skin that looked more like rotted corpse than true flesh. That Orochimaru could move his hands despite this clearly severe injury was even more of a miraculous feat. That was when Sakura remembered what Tsunade had told her, about the nature of the injury left upon him by the Third Hokage, that which not even body-switching could truly heal.
"He severed the soul of his arms, Sakura. And healing a soul? That's an S-ranked medical technique that not even he has yet to master."
Sakura couldn't even begin to consider what sort of vicious technique directly damaged one's soul, not to mention what sort of jutsu could heal one. Did Karin know of this weakness yet? It was surely one that Kabuto had been trying to treat, but with no Kabuto now…
Orochimaru was truly at his weakest. At the verge of being rejected by his host body, his arms wounded by the Third Hokage...now really was the proper time to try and take the old snake down.
And that of course meant that Sasori had the best chance he'd ever get at killing Orochimaru here and now and turning the fight in his favor.
Sakura unfurled Kasayari into its defensive form once again, intercepting a puppet that had launched several kunai in their direction. "Your arms." She said aloud. "You're not able to use jutsu as effectively with your injury. You're only able to move them at all because you're living on top of a borrowed soul."
"...astute observation, though I suppose Tsunade informed you of this."
"You bastard, you knew you couldn't take Sasori on your own with that injury. You're counting on me to incapacitate him for you!"
"Just as you were counting on me to do the same. Don't play hypocrite, Haruno, it doesn't suit you."
"...fine. Keep the puppets off my back, if you can manage that."
She was supposed to be respectful to Kage, but right now she was soured on the fact that she might not be as safe in this fight as she thought. She was supposed to have Juugo to tank Sasori's hits. She wasn't supposed to be the one taking Sasori head on. She was supposed to be providing backup to a better close ranged fighter.
"Fuck it. I need you to launch me."
Orochimaru glanced at her, clearly baffled. "Launch you?"
"Use wind jutsu. Something to send me across the battlefield as quickly as possible. We need somebody to start occupying Sasori, and I'm not going to get close if he keeps summoning more puppets to distract us. So play support and get me to Sasori, and I'll...figure out how to finish him from there. At the very least keep him from summoning anything else."
"Are you sure I'm speaking to Haruno and not the Uzumaki brat? This is incredibly foolhardy."
"Can it. I'm doing the best with what I have, and I do have a shield I can hold in front of me until I get there."
Orochimaru looked as though he meant to argue more, but surprisingly kept his mouth shut. He began going through another series of hand signs, and Sakura braced herself for whatever he had planned.
"I'll make an opening for you, Haruno, but wind jutsu was never really my best element."
Sakura blinked, trying to figure out just what exactly Orochimaru had planned, before his hand slammed to the ground and all Sakura could see were scales.
An enormous snake seemed to spring from the ground, launching itself at Sasori. Puppets attempted to stop it, but Sakura merely lowered Kasayari to shield the snake's face, as well as herself. The snake only stopped when it reached the other wall, slamming into it with enough force to cause chunks of the ceiling to start raining down on them.
Bold, but it had gotten her there quickly. Sakura felt a pang of empathy for the snake, but only briefly as Sasori was right there, and she had only a moment to react before long blades were lashing out at her from Sasori's...back?
Right. Puppet body. She had to assume that it was completely decked out in traps and weapons and poisons. She only just had enough time to block the blade with her metal arm bracers, and she was greeted with her first up-close look at the Akatsuki member.
She could see the wooden grains in his skin now that she was closer, but even so, she could see how it could be mistaken for flesh from a distance. Her thoughts lingered briefly on what it meant for Sasori to have made this body for himself, crafting it in his own image, or maybe the image he'd wanted to remain.
Sakura could never become a puppet. But creating an ideal version of yourself...perhaps that she could understand.
"So it is between you and I now." Sasori spoke, his voice so even that Sakura wondered if he was capable of expressing emotion at all. "I will admit that I am not displeased with these events. With all the strength you have shown, you really will make a fine addition to my army."
Sakura lashed out with her leg, and winced as it clashed against Sasori's own. It didn't sweep him as intended, which meant even his wooden legs had to have some reinforcement.
"But first, before you die...you will tell me what has become of Kisame and Itachi Uchiha."
Sakura paused, looking up into Sasori's eyes in shock. "Wait...what do you mean, what happened to Kisame and Itachi?"
And then, for the first time, Sakura saw emotion on Sasori's wooden face. His eyes expanded, clearly also taken off guard. Sasori had been so certain that she'd known about Itachi and Kisame, but why? Weren't they part of Akatsuki too?
If Sasori didn't know where they were...then what had happened to them?
The downside to fighting alongside shinobi that he'd only just met was that he had no idea how to work his jutsu around them.
Not for lack of effort, of course. Sai was nothing if not professional, and regardless of how he felt about Sasuke Uchiha, they were allies, and he'd be the bigger person and ensure he worked well with them. But not even Sakura was so strange as to sprout wings and literally take off the ground in pursuit of a flying enemy, and Sai just wasn't sure how best to arc his birds so that they didn't hit Sasuke's unruly wings in the process.
But maybe it was for the best. He was simple backup, after all, and if Uchiha could handle things on his own, there wasn't much point getting in the way. Karin was just about done with the evacuation, and from there the two of them could handle the fight.
Still...he wanted to be the one fighting Deidara, especially now that he knew Deidara was a fighter with similar strengths and styles to his own. He'd been itching for a real fight for days since leaving the Hageshisai behind, a chance to prove himself, a chance to show the skills he'd learned and the techniques he'd mastered…
Through his scope, he saw Deidara suddenly dip and swerve out of Sasuke's way. He'd stopped summoning his smaller birds, but he could still see the man's hands dipping into the pouches of clay at his hip. Was he working on something bigger?
...much bigger. The bomb that Deidara pulled forward was triple the size of the last one he'd pulled out, a strange little statue with folded arms.
"Oy, Uchiha!" He heard the man call out. "Can you occupy yourself with this for a little bit? I've got someone else I need to chat with first."
Over the comms, he heard Sasuke grunt, (typical, really), but only silence afterwards as Deidara's stone figure suddenly began to expand. It grew bigger and bigger as Deidara dropped it, big enough to become ominous. Big enough that Sai knew, instinctively, that he did not want to let that thing explode.
"Try a taste of my C3, you Uchiha shit!"
Sai began to draw, furiously working on something big, but could he paint something big enough to catch it in time? He'd never done big before, never done anything large enough to take on a building-sized bomb. Maybe the civilians were out of the picture, but a bomb of that size could take out half the city, let alone cause the underground tunnels below to collapse from the pressure. He saw Sasuke fly beneath the bomb, lightning chakra bursting from his hands, but would it be enough to disable something so large?
Before he could wonder further, he saw something golden shoot from the ground. Long chains sprouted from somewhere, someone, wrapping around the falling bomb and halting its fall. Sai focused his scope, and he saw Karin on the ground below, chains coming from her.
What the fuck kind of jutsu had she been working on? Was this another of Orochimaru's experimentations? No...Sai vaguely recalled reading something on the Uzumaki Adamantine Chains, something that Naruto hadn't developed, but maybe Karin…
Either way, the bomb had been slowed, though Sai knew there was no way Karin could hold the weight of it forever. Sasuke needed to find a way to neutralize it and fast, and meanwhile…
Sai's head whipped forward as Deidara's bird came to a halt in front of him. He kept his ink at the ready, but Deidara...wasn't attacking?
"Getting the high ground, huh? Pretty smart, took me awhile to put it together. Now that Uchiha's occupied…"
Deidara pushed his hands forward, showing a dozen small birds at the ready.
"You gonna show me what you can do?"
"...we're supposed to be fighting, aren't we?"
"Well, yeah, but that doesn't mean we can't show off a little first, right? Everyone always shits on my art, and here you are with your own little version! I want to see you really work. Show me your art, don't hold anything back!"
Sai hesitated, looking down at the birds in Deidara's hand before glancing at his own scroll. His attempt at something large was mostly finished, but…
But Deidara was giving him what he wanted. Deidara was giving him a fight. One on one, personal, no irritating Sasuke to get in the way...
Alright, maybe this was what he'd really wanted this whole time. And it would take Karin and Sasuke a while to disable that bomb...and Sakura would tell him to keep Deidara occupied while they did so…
Sai let his eyes narrow, and he began to sketch at a rapid pace. He saw Deidara grin as he began.
"That's more like it! Let's light the fucking sky up, hm?"
Sai forced his mount to dive, sending off a wave of his inked birds as he did. Deidara responded with his own dive and his own clay birds, firing one off for every one he drew, until the air around them began to grow hot from the clash of explosions and scorching ink.
It was a furious exchange of blows, but there was something of a dance to it, something Sai had only come to understand when seeing two dueling masters fight who had been sparring with each other for years. It wasn't that he'd known Deidara forever, but how he fought was so similar to his own style that he could almost predict every bird Deidara sent, every direction the attacks would come from, because it was so similar to what he would have done. Their mounts circled each other in the tailspin, only pulling out of the dive at the last possible moment to send them soaring across the rooftops of the city. There was...going to be collateral damage fighting this low, but at this point Sai was more focused on staying alive than worrying about anything around him. One wrong move and Deidara's birds would be on him, one moment of hesitation and he'd be dead in the air.
And it was thrilling, exhilarating in a way that none of his fights had been before. Kenjutsu sparring had been new, but it had never really been his forte in the way his ink had been. Nobody had matched his birds quite like this, and maybe nobody else was capable.
Art, Deidara called it. Sakura had called it art as well, though Sai had really only thought of it as utility before. Root had shunned the use of his ink for something like art, so much so that he'd painted his brother's story in secret, painted for pleasure only when he was far beyond Root's influence.
Now, even under fire, even with death so close at hand, now Sai was really experiencing the art form.
It ended far too soon, with the echoing thud of the now-disabled C3 bomb as it slammed into the ground, but didn't explode. Sasuke's lightning chakra had done its work, and now Sai could see the Uchiha rushing to catch up with them. Deidara pushed higher in the air, attempting to leave Uchiha behind, but there was no saving it: the dance had ended almost as quickly as it had begun, and now this time Karin was pushing in as backup.
"Fuck." He heard Deidara curse. "I suppose you can't ask them to back off for a bit?"
"We are supposed to be fighting."
"Oh come on, you can't tell me you weren't enjoying it. I know that look in your eyes. The Uchiha don't understand, they just don't get it. All he's going to do is ruin the fun."
Sai looked back at Sasuke, seeing his outspread wings and crackling sword. Yes, Sasuke certainly wasn't the artistic type. More brute force, unrelenting power and speed. Sasuke was likely planning on breaking a few of Deidara's bones for daring to drop a bomb of that size on him, and then maybe a few more to get whatever information he could on Itachi.
But it didn't have to be like that, did it?
Sai thought back to when Sakura had spoken to him for the first time. They'd been enemies, then, or so he'd thought. She, the deserter. He, the investigator, and potential executioner.
She'd held out her food to him and told him he was welcome to walk at their side.
Sakura, who'd tamed the savage Ichibi Jinchuuriki. Sakura, who'd wrestled the shinobi nations into peace under her watch.
Sakura who'd freed him.
Maybe...maybe I can be like her…
"It doesn't have to be like this." He called out to Deidara. "We could have all the time in the world to share our art...if we weren't enemies."
Even through the rush of flight, he saw hesitation in Deidara's eyes, and perhaps a sense of longing. Sakura had insisted, through Hidan's testimony, that Deidara didn't want to be part of Akatsuki.
Deidara's gaze turned into resignation. "Sorry, but the world just...doesn't work like that. I've got my obligations, you know?"
His hands filled with clay spiders, and Sai could sense that the real battle was about to begin again.
"What you all fail to understand is that I'm not the scariest thing Akatsuki has to offer."
It clicked in Sai's head all at once. Understanding and determination in one smooth motion.
He's trapped under his master, just like I was.
And Sai decided then and there that he was going to set him free.