Sai really should have been able to predict by now that he'd never be able to predict what kind of situation Sakura would lead him into.
It was a crapshoot whether it would be horrifying or amusing, though this time it was some odd joke of a blend between the two. He had sent out ink rats to track down his wayward teammates, finding them in a large room that was peppered with broken, inactivated puppets, as well as scorch marks from what was undoubtedly jutsu. Sakura was unconscious, again, he'd really need to impress upon her that passing out wasn't really that good for her health, but he was immediately distracted by this thought upon seeing Orochimaru on the floor, not standing up despite the fact that he'd been perfectly capable of doing so the last time Sai had seen him.
Gaara, somehow, looked just about as confused as he was.
"Sasori's in the scroll." The Jinchuuriki managed to state, nodding his head towards a scroll at his feet.
"I don't think you're supposed to put people in those."
"A fair assessment, but Sasori worked hard to render himself to be less than human." Orochimaru added, reaching out for the scroll. His hand was slapped away by Gaara's sand, and the two looked at each other in a way that was absolutely comical, but Sai knew in his gut that if he laughed, the Sannin wouldn't suffer it.
"That belongs to Suna now."
"He invaded my village, so my prisoner."
"You'd be dead if not for Sakura, so you owe us this."
"I would be fine if not for Haruno, as Sasori wouldn't have traipsed in looking for her and you."
Sai really didn't care who got Sasori at this point, though he supposed if Orochimaru had access to the man it might potentially work against them in the long run, but so long as Sasori was contained and no longer hunting them, that was one check off their list.
Of course, if Sakura really cared about it, he could always sneak the Sasori scroll out later.
"I'm really not sure what I'm supposed to be making of this." Sai heard Juugo speak behind him. The man sounded unnaturally level, almost like Sai had fresh out of Root, though Karin had informed him that it was emotional discipline necessary to keep Juugo's apparently murderous thoughts at bay, rather than any effort to create a 'perfect soldier'.
"If it helps, I don't either." Sai put on his best smile for the boy. "But Orochimaru with paralyzed legs is probably some rather damning information." He let his voice grow over Orochimaru and Gaara's bickering. "If I told Lady Tsunade about this, she might spit her drink over it."
"And what makes you think I care what Tsunade thinks?"
"I don't, but she's Hokage, and she's certainly going to tell every allied leader all about it, if only to spite you."
Orochimaru didn't speak again, but his hand slunk away from the scroll, allowing Gaara to grab it with his sand and float it over to Sai.
And with that, Sai was holding a member of Akatsuki in his back pocket.
He'd never, never be able to predict what sort of situation Sakura would throw him in. But he was starting to find a strange sort of thrill to it.
He left the four to their business; he knew Sakura was safe in Gaara's hands and Juugo would figure out whatever the hell was going on with Orochimaru, and since he'd found the rather mutilated corpse of Kabuto just down the hallway, he knew he didn't have to worry about him either. The only final loose end to tie up was the one he'd left with Sasuke and Karin.
There was a light-heartedness to his step that he'd learned only came with the knowledge that a hard battle was done. He didn't think it would ever top the feeling of seeing Danzo dead and knowing he was free, but dealing with a hard enemy that wanted his friends dead came fairly close.
"And where the hell is Sakura? You said you were getting her?"
Karin's voice jolted him out of his post-battle reverie as he approached Deidara's containment. Sasuke and Deidara were bickering, expected, and Karin looked as though she was ready to strangle both of them.
"She's unconscious." Sai said simply.
"...but not dead, right?"
"No, not dead." Sai pulled Sasori's scroll out of his pocket and held it up with a smile. "Sasori's in here."
"...you aren't supposed to put people in those."
"That's what I said."
Karin let out an audible groan, and Sai felt a rare, natural laugh come to him. At least someone else found the situation as ridiculous as he did.
"Has Deidara spoken about Itachi?"
"Yeah, but not anything useful. It seems like he'd just as soon join Sasuke on the Itachi murder party, surprisingly enough. It's hard to believe they're in the same group."
Perhaps it was a strange form of loyalty, despite a dislike of a partner. Sai made his way over to the barrier, deciding Sasuke had gotten his chance. He'd been trained in interrogation in Root, and now he had an excuse to put it to work for something that actually mattered to him.
"Finally came crawling back, huh?" Deidara, to Sasuke's annoyance, made a heel turn out of the conversation to address Sai. "Can you please let me out for a minute, I won't even use bombs, I just want to kick this brat's ass."
"Maybe in a minute, if he doesn't behave." Sai smiled as Sasuke through an angry grunt his way.
"He's lying about Itachi."
"Of course he is. He's Akatsuki."
Sasuke's eyes met his own briefly, and Sai held firm. He could tell the Uchiha still wanted a chance to interrogate, but to his surprise, Sasuke backed down. Sai wasn't sure if it was out of some newfound respect or the fact that Karin was glaring him down behind them, but he was grateful that Sasuke could at least show slightly more maturity than he'd thought him capable of.
And he could use the window to do some good, anyway.
"Tell me what you know about Itachi and where he is, and I'll let you fistfight Sasuke."
He ignored the sound of Sasuke sputtering behind him and instead focused on Deidara, who had snorted somewhat endearingly before leaning against the barrier to talk.
"I told him, I don't know fuck all about where Itachi is. He's been missing for like a month or so now."
Sai ignored the sound of Sasuke hissing "He didn't say that!" behind him. "Missing?"
"Yeah, him and Kisame both. Sent Leader into a rage. Sasori was supposed to interrogate Haruno about it, but I can see you all don't know either. Personally, the bastard can fuck right off for all I care."
"Akatsuki doesn't seem like it's holding together very well, does it?"
"Hey, quit talking like you've converted me." Deidara protested. "Sasori's out, Itachi and Kisame fucked off, we've still got half a dozen shinobi that are far more capable than I am at kicking your ass. If you keep pissing off Leader…"
"He probably should have just come himself, if he's so strong." Sai countered. "Seems cowardly to send others to do his dirty work."
"...yeah, okay, I can't argue with that." Deidara shrugged. "I can only tell you that he's stronger than me. Plus there's the zombie duo…"
"Hidan and Kakuzu? Oh, we can deal with them."
Deidara grinned. "I really can't tell if that confidence is cute or stupid."
"It's a simple manner of understanding motivations." Sai smiled in turn. "So that brings us back to you, doesn't it? What can we do to convince you to make your art for our side?"
Deidara was quiet, but he gestured with his hand for Sai to come closer. Sai hesitated, but the barrier seemed solid enough, so he walked until he was just next to the barrier. Deidara leaned close, as though he was about to whisper a secret.
Then, Deidara pulled a large lump of clay out of his pouch, shoving it into his mouth without much ceremony. Sai would have commented if not for the fact that Deidara's body immediately began to contort and grow, disturbing even before the realization that Deidara was making himself explode.
He cursed, loudly, only to find Sasuke of all people pulling him away from the barrier. He heard the large sound of explosion and felt the ground shake beneath his feet, and as he looked towards the spot where Deidara once was, he saw...parts.
He really was crazy enough to blow himself up.
"Ugh, do you guys not trust me at all? I told you he couldn't get through my barrier!" Karin called out to them from nearby. "What a waste though. If he couldn't have directed us to Itachi he could have at least given us a little more on Akatsuki. Sorry, Sasuke."
Sasuke grunted, letting go of the back of Sai's shirt. Sai gave him a respectful nod; even though the barrier had held, if it hadn't, he'd have owed Sasuke his life.
Sakura was going to kill him, though, for letting Deidara explode.
He forced himself to look back at the mess as Karin lowered the barrier. Was there anything left to salvage? Any scrolls, any weapons? Probably not. Though for some reason the parts looked strange, as though they were changed color a bit quicker than parts were supposed to…
The son of a bitch had blown up a clone, and now the barrier was down.
He saw the earth open up just in time to catch the real Deidara hopping out of it, having used the Hiding in Earth technique to remain out of sight just until the barrier had come down. With a puff of smoke, a bird appeared, and Deidara was out of the range of the barrier before Karin could throw it up again.
"It's been fun, but I'm not sticking around without Sasori to back me up." Deidara gave a cheeky wave. "You'd better practice your art, 'cause the next time we meet, I'm gonna blow you away!"
Sai half expected Sasuke to charge in again, but as he looked towards the Uchiha, the boy merely huffed.
"I'm tired." Sasuke admitted. "And he's not worth it. I'm going to find Sakura."
A sentiment Sai could at least half agree upon, though as he watched Deidara disappear into the horizon, he grappled with a strange and unusual sense of anticipation.
Sakura woke to the familiar feeling of chakra exhaustion and a pressure between her eyes. She groaned, lying still for a moment until the pressure passed and she could allow herself to process reality.
Sasori was captured, and seeing that she was still alive, Deidara had likely been disabled as well.
Two down. Six to go.
She was back in the bedroom Orochimaru had lent to them, and wasn't surprised to see Gaara there, as he usually was whenever chakra exhaustion got the better of her.
"Sai?" She asked, her voice hoarse.
"Alive and well." Gaara answered. "But Deidara got away."
"Really? Karin seemed so sure he couldn't bomb out of her barrier."
"Apparently he's craftier than we thought."
"Ugh." Sakura groaned again as she pushed herself into a sitting position. "So we really only just took care of Sasori." Better than nothing, but with how much Hidan had touted that Deidara might be able to be swayed to their side…
"Hey, you're up!"
The door to the room swung open and Karin walked in, grinning from ear to ear as she made her way to Sakura's side. "Have I told you that I love you?" She continued, sitting down next to her. "I love you. You're the best thing that's ever happened to me."
"Also, for goodness sake, how much chakra did you use in that fight?" The girl rolled up her sleeve, and as Sakura looked at her arm she saw small welts decorating the skin. Welts in crescent shapes, looking strangely like…
"Yes, bite it, I know it's weird, but I can give you a chakra transfusion." Karin explained. "I can keep waxing on about how great you are once you're back to normal."
Sakura shot a wary look to Gaara, who merely shrugged. It wasn't as though she was really keen on the idea of biting Karin but the girl was insisting, so Sakura swallowed her trepidation and leaned forward.
...well, she couldn't say it didn't work, but she was going to make sure she never had to do it again.
"Kabuto's dead, just like I wanted, and now Orochimaru's chairbound, which normally wouldn't have mattered at all if he had Kabuto to wheel him around, but he doesn't, which means he's looking for someone new." Karin began to explain. "Plus, Kabuto kept the pain of the soul-curse at bay. Nobody else knew how to do it, and I doubt he trusts anyone else to learn. He's going to have to either rely on me or risk picking someone else, and I can guarantee that he picks one of mine. You've practically gift-wrapped me Oto on a platter."
"He can use his jutsu more easily, though."
"Oh please, like he'll be able to beat me and Sasuke." Karin rolled her eyes. "And maybe he's stronger now, but without his little minion to go around keeping order, he's going to start losing people to me."
Karin was confident, Sakura had to give her that. She still wasn't sure things were going to be that easy, but it was nice to feel that inkling of hope inside her chest, especially after what it had taken to get them there.
Orochimaru has his arms back…
It was entirely possible the world was going to denounce her just for that. Every Kage currently on the treaty agreed that Orochimaru was a threat, and now she'd gone and...well, armed him. Would this potentially mean Sasuke's end? Would this mean her own, now that she'd gone and offered him information on Kaguya in order to survive the fight with Sasori?
Sakura didn't have answers. All she could cling to was that they were alive and that Akatsuki was down a man, which made them ever so much smaller of a threat.
The infusion of chakra from Karin was more than enough to get her back on her feet, though Sakura took things easy at first, nursing some wounds and checking on her spear, which had weathered the attack but would need repair in the long run.
She allowed herself to take a breath and unwind as Karin prattled on about the future, moving to check her reflection in the mirror. She looked exhausted, undeniably, and her hair had started to get long again. It was strange; after so many years of wearing it long, she'd gotten used to wearing it short. The only reason it had gotten so long again was that, ironically, she'd stopped caring so much about her appearance.
It was strangely easy to forget why she'd grown it so long in the first place. Why she'd even begun this journey. Why she, personally, had wanted to come to Oto at all.
There was still one last weight on her shoulders she needed to remove.
"Karin, I need to speak with Sasuke."
"What? Him?" Karin blinked in surprise, midway into talking about communication reforms in Oto. "Oh, he's off sparring with Sai, I think." She grinned, somewhat mischievously. "Ever since Sai nailed him with that dart, Sasuke's had it in for him."
Sakura laughed. Of course he did. Ever the one-track mind, Sasuke, exactly as Naruto was, too. Once they found somebody worth challenging, they wouldn't stop until that somebody had been defeated.
"Take me to them, please." She asked. "And we can talk about Oto later. There's been something I've been putting off, and now that Akatsuki's been pushed back, there's no better time for it."
Karin seemed a little disappointed at being 'ignored in favor of Sasuke', but Sakura was learning by now that the girl didn't upset that easily, and simply preferred to tease or provoke whenever the situation suited her. It was a trait she could see passing on to Naruto; it continued to surprise her how similar the two cousins were at times, despite the completely different upbringing. Perhaps there was something akin to an 'Uzumaki' temperament…
True to her word, Sakura was taken to one of the training rooms, and there she saw Sai and Sasuke going blade to blade, though this time it appeared as though they had agreed to 'light ninjutsu'. Sai used ink birds to force Sasuke to fight at range, only drawing his blade if Sasuke got close enough to be a threat. Sasuke, in turn, was attempting to use what looked to be an extension of the Chidori to run visible current through his own blade. It was likely more effective against living opponents, but fared well at dispersing Sai's birds before they could get close enough to hit.
It was less the charged competition that they had engaged in before, and more a true spar, now that Sakura thought about it. The two boys had succeeded in repelling Akatsuki and had decided to celebrate by training.
"Two peas in a pod." Karin seemed to read her mind as she watched the two spar. "They sort of look a bit similar too, don't you think?"
"What?" Sakura frowned. "I don't see it."
"Dark hair, fair skin, bit of an ego…"
...alright, maybe there was something to it, but Sakura wasn't going to tell either of the boys that.
It was Sasuke who noticed her first, ducking to avoid a stray bird so that he could address her with a small nod. With that, the spar came to a quiet halt, mutual understanding between the two that their time, for the moment, was ended.
"Sakura." Sai gave her a smile as he sheathed his blade. "I hope you're well enough to spar. I don't think this one is going to stand any more delays."
Sakura could have sworn she saw a vein pop in Sasuke's head as he shot the other boy a glare, but she couldn't help but laugh at the comment. "I think you guys got the better deal in the fight, by the sound of things, other than Deidara giving you all the slip."
"He knew nothing about Itachi." Sasuke answered. "There was no use in going after him."
"Other than the whole regrouping back at Akatsuki to share information on our techniques and come back to fight us again point." Sai countered, still smiling sweetly even as Sasuke glared daggers into his back. "I think he's scared of whomever leads Akatsuki, Sakura. If we can convince him that he's safe with us, he'd leave."
"We'll have to keep working him then." Sakura agreed. "But for now, I need to speak with Sasuke alone, if you don't mind."
The look on Sai's face told her that he understood why. Even Gaara, so used to being at her side, took his leave. Not that they didn't already know what was about to be discussed; no, that wasn't the reason for the privacy.
Sakura just didn't know how Sasuke would react to the news. It wouldn't be good, either way...and he deserved his privacy for that.
"So...anywhere that's actually private around here?" Sakura asked, waiting for the room to empty before turning to the Uchiha.
"...you're not here to ask me out again, are you?"
There was a knowing smirk in Sasuke's eyes, a teasing look that reminded Sakura of how he used to speak with Naruto, sometimes, and something in her melted in being able to see Sasuke so...relaxed. Something he'd never really been in Konoha, other than the odd moment where Naruto was able to drag it out of him.
She let the comment roll off her back, shaking her head gently. "No, Sasuke...it really is important. I promise. It's half the reason I'm here in Oto at all, actually, and I would have told you sooner if I hadn't been worried about Akatsuki banging down our door."
Sasuke's smirk faded as he read her tone, and after a moment he gave her a simple nod before gesturing for her to follow. He led her through several winding passageways before coming to a simple door, marked only with a paper seal where the handle should have been. He placed a hand over the seal and the seal glowed: a chakra lock, Sakura realized, no doubt designed by Karin.
Inside was a relatively simple looking bedroom. Sakura did note some hooks on the wall to hang weapons, as well as a shelf filled to the brim with books, no, textbooks on jutsu and chakra theory. It was surprising at first, but Orochimaru was a scholar, so of course he would have required reading for his 'star pupil'.
It was quaint, though almost military, and for a moment Sakura was ready to write the room off as 'boring', until she caught sight of a strange device in the back corner of the room.
"What is that?"
"Mm?" Sasuke looked over to it before shrugging. "Something Karin gave me. It plays music."
"Music, really? Like records or discs?"
"Yeah." Sasuke pulled over a chair from a nearby desk for her before sitting down on his bed. "She keeps wanting me to listen to all of these musicians. Waste of time." There was a slight flush to his cheeks, however, that told Sakura what he really thought of the music, even if he wouldn't admit it aloud.
She wanted to continue to make small talk. It would have been easier to keep talking about music, or training, or even just living in Oto.
Sakura sighed. It just wasn't shaping up to be an easy week.
"Sasuke...well, I have a lot of talk about, actually, and it involves your brother and your family, as well as a particular sect that used to exist in Konoha. What I need to know first is if you know anything about the faction called Root."
She could tell she'd gotten Sasuke's rapt attention with just the mention of his brother, though he shook his head at her question. "Never heard of it."
"Alright, that checks out." Sakura replied. "Now, and I know this question is about to seem even stranger...did you know about your family's plans to stage a coup for control of Konoha?"
She saw Sasuke's hand grip the bed tighter, and his eyes narrowed as they met her own. She saw his Sharingan spin, and she refused to let herself look away; he was trying to figure out if she was lying, playing him for a fool.
"...I didn't come here without evidence to back up anything I'm saying, Sasuke, but I need to know how much you know and how much I need to tell you."
"This is the first time I'm hearing of any of this." Sasuke answered. "And I don't see what any of this has to do with Itachi."
"...you will." Sakura said solemnly. "I'll tell you everything I know."
It took longer than she thought, beginning from when she first learned about Root from Sai, going through her battle with Itachi, her revelations with Shikamaru, the strange Sharingan-wielding 'ghost' in the Uchiha shrine…(and thankfully, Sasuke didn't seem too shaken up about the breaking and entering).
She ended with the trial and brief civil war, going into as much detail as she could recall about the strange Sharingan techniques that Danzo wielded and the horrific realization as to why Danzo had wanted the Uchiha dead to begin with. She pulled out a scroll and handed it to Sasuke, the scroll in which had been sealed Danzo's arm as well as all of the compiled evidence that she and Shikamaru had put together for the trial. The documents of the Uchiha coup, witness testimonies on the activities of Root, her own testimony on Itachi...she'd left nothing out, in the hope that Sasuke could at least find some closure in that justice had been done on Danzo for his actions, though she knew it was likely a fleeting hope.
His entire clan dead, all to fuel one man's ambitions and drive for a power that could usually only be achieved through genetic luck...how could anyone find any sort of peace and closure knowing that?
Sasuke was quiet, so quiet she thought he might have even stopped breathing. His knuckles had turned white from gripping at the bed, and his eyes had never left her own, even when she sometimes found it impossible to meet them. He only moved when she leaned forward to offer him the scroll, and it was only when he unsealed the contents within that he stopped his intense gaze.
He ignored the documents and instead lingered on the arm, perfectly preserved due to whatever strange research had given them the power to wield the couple dozen sharingan running up and down its length. She saw Sasuke bite at his lip as he reached out, his hand getting almost close enough to touch one of the eyes before sharply pulling away.
He stood, then, walking to the other side of the room with clenched fists and a stiff back. Sakura let the quiet fill the air for a while, to allow Sasuke time to process. It was a lot, it was still a lot even after she'd experienced the process of putting it all together. It was personal now, but that had been by choice. She'd chosen to delve in, to expose Danzo and free Konoha of his influence. It was personal for Sasuke too, but in the horrible way of not getting to choose, of having this knowledge and fate thrust upon him.
"That's everything I know at the moment." Sakura finally spoke. "I...have a letter from Lady Tsunade for you. I don't know exactly what she wrote but I'm sure her condolences aren't exactly what you want to hear. Still, she sent them anyway, and I-"
"You're right." Sasuke finally spoke. "I don't want to hear it."
His words were like ice, and Sakura flinched when his voice reached her. She could feel the stillness in the air being stirred by what had to be his chakra, an angry aura swirling about and resonating against her own.
"You killed him?" He asked, turning to meet her with Sharingan still blazing red.
"I...I helped." Sakura admitted. "Sai took the arm off. Naruto landed the finishing blow."
"Naruto…" Sasuke nodded. "Naruto, he knows all of this?"
"He was on the investigation with us, yes. He's the one who found the Third's original decree for Root to disband."
There was a strange sort of relief in Sasuke's eyes in the admission, and Sakura wasn't quite sure why. Perhaps he was grateful that Naruto had fought for his sake, had enacted justice for his sake...but she was no mind reader, and Sasuke had never been one to easily share his thoughts.
"If you hadn't killed him, I would have." He said with finality. "No one in Konoha would have stopped me."
"I don't think most people in Konoha would have."
"He tried to have you killed, too. You...and Gaara, and Sai."
"Of course he did. We were learning the truth." Sakura answered with a shrug. "I mean, if I was in his position, what else could I have done? I don't really hold that against him so much as everything else."
"You shouldn't let it go." Sasuke lectured. "None of it. Not a single bit of it. It's not just Danzo, Sakura, it's everything, everyone around him that failed to act until now. Everyone that was complicit or served a role in keeping him in power. Everyone who ran when he told them to run and didn't think he was worth challenging. Everyone in that stupid village-"
Sasuke suddenly lashed out, slamming his fist against the wall with enough strength to even shake the floor beneath them. Sakura's hand flew to her kunai on instinct, even with the knowledge in the back of her mind that Sasuke didn't have any real reason to want to hurt her.
"Everyone…" Sasuke continued. "Except our classmates. The ones who acted. The ones who put him down. Everyone else in that village can rot."
Though in her mind Sakura could hear herself speaking up in defense of the village, she just couldn't bring herself to actually do it. His pain, she realized, was not something to downplay. To deny his pain, to deny the complacency of the village and the part the system had played in allowing Danzo to keep in power...denial would only make such pain grow. Denial would only lead to more suffering.
No, in order for Sasuke's pain to ebb, he had to confront it in whichever way suited him best. This was Sasuke's pain, not her own...and pain was considered a holy concept under Jashinism. A tool to motivate, a tool for change, a tool to understand others and, with understanding, even a tool to heal.
"Maybe…" She found herself finally speaking. "Maybe it was for the best that you left Konoha."
She looked to Sasuke again and found shock on his face, no doubt not expecting the answer she'd given. But what shocked her in turn was the sudden wave of grief that seemed to overcome him, an emotion she'd never seen on him before. His Sharingan faded and his onyx eyes filled with tears, and when he spoke again it was no longer ice but a crackle of emotion that Sakura couldn't put words to.
"Why did Itachi listen to him?"
Sakura moved, her feet pushing her forward before her mind could even think to tell herself to hold back. Before she could stop, she was wrapping her arms around Sasuke in a tight hug. It was familiar, doing this, the same sort of desperate move she'd done when he'd been overcome by the anger and power of Orochimaru's curse in the Forest of Death. Only this time, there was no anger, only rasping sobs as Sasuke clung to her in turn.
She stayed with him until his tears ran out.