The sound of chirping crickets was the only thing that reached Sasuke's ears as the four of them moved through the field. Silence was key; the fewer people they alerted to their actions, the better. At this point, most of Otogakure had sworn some sort of secret allegiance to Karin, but they still couldn't trust everyone, and there were definitely plenty still loyal to Orochimaru. The less potential fighting they had to do before reaching the finale, the better.
Admittedly, Sasuke still couldn't wrap his head around challenging Orochimaru, not after so long studying under the man's wing. Even with his handicap, the man was formidable. Sakura had healed his arms, sure, at the cost of his legs, but he didn't need legs to cast jutsu. The only true disadvantage Orochimaru had now was mobility...and Sasuke was more than certain it was less of a hindrance to him than it would be to others.
In another time, in another life, he might have been tempted to try this alone. But that wasn't him anymore.
"He's in the southern base for sure." Karin spoke quietly, calling them to a halt just outside the entrance. Though there were plenty of labs in Otogakure proper, Orochimaru did much of his research within the privacy of a locked laboratory to the south, one that originally only he and Kabuto could access. Now, with Kabuto gone, it would only be Orochimaru in there.
"What kind of idiot is he, going down there alone? He always talks about how he knows we wanna kill 'im." Suigetsu bared his teeth, pointed and sharp, at the mention of the snake. "Think it's bait?"
"Himself as bait? Wouldn't put it past him." Karin admitted. "He's cocky enough to try it. But he's been acting weird since…"
She didn't have to say it. They all knew. In the few days since Sakura had come and gone, Orochimaru had been...strange.
It was as if he'd given up the concept of being a Kage entirely. Karin had been managing village affairs entirely on her own, and Orochimaru had instead spent his every waking hours in one laboratory or another, not speaking with anyone. They'd originally planned on waiting a bit longer to challenge him, but at this point Karin was already becoming Otokage in everything but name. If they didn't move to figure out exactly what Orochimaru was up to...the village might just up and revolt against him before they could.
"Caution." Juugo advised, to the point as always. He had a calm exterior, but Sasuke could sense the boy's chakra riling beneath the facade. The only reason he hadn't gone berserk was due to the threat of Sasuke's Sharingan, something Juugo both loathed and appreciated all in one. The damage Orochimaru had done to him with his experimentation was severe, most of all on his psyche. The raging had been a curse Juugo had dealt with prior, due to the nature of his abilities, but Orochimaru's poking and prodding had only seemed to worsen the effect. As much as anyone, Juugo wanted the snake dead. It likely wouldn't bring the boy much peace, but any bit counted in Sasuke's book.
He understood vengeance as well as anyone could.
"We need to open the door first. Suigetsu, think you can goop your way in?"
Suigetsu rolled his eyes at Karin's terminology, but didn't protest. His body's unique ability to quite literally turn into water was useful for more than just water fighting; it was also quite the decent infiltrative skill when one could just liquify and pour themself under the crack of a door. Most security seals were triggered if a door was breached or opened a wrong way. This way, Suigetsu didn't need to do either. And opening a door from the inside didn't tend to trigger seals either.
Moments later, a cling and a creak indicated to the rest of the team that the door had opened without a fuss. Swiftly they made their way inside, stopping periodically for Karin to sense ahead for seals and traps, most of which tended to use chakra to activate. There were, however, manual traps still, and Sasuke knew that Orochimaru wouldn't half-ass anything if he intended to keep people out, especially people like Karin with their own methods of seeing chakra. But as they went further and further in...nothing. Nothing at all.
"I don't like this." Karin hissed. "It's too easy. There's no way he'd let it be this easy."
"Where's he at?"
"Just behind the door."
Sasuke had an inkling. An idea. He hated to say that in his time here he'd grown to know Orochimaru well, but he couldn't deny it. The man had insisted on being a part of his life, on cultivating his growth, his 'perfect vessel'. So Sasuke in turn had learned of him, that the man didn't just 'forget' things, every action he took was deliberate. Calculated. Planned. Orochimaru hadn't left things unguarded by accident or misstep. He intended for this group to reach them.
Despite Karin's protests, Sasuke straightened up from his crouched position and opened the door.
"Ah, Sasuke. You're early."
Orochimaru was seated at a desk, facing the door, though he did not look up from his writings as Sasuke entered. He merely gestured with a hand.
"Come in, all four of you."
"Maybe I was wrong." Suigetsu commented, his hands reaching for a shortsword at his hip. "Maybe he did forget we wanted to kill him."
"No, I have not forgotten. But we can talk, first, can we not?"
Orochimaru's eyes met Sasuke's own, and he could tell that the man was...sincere, at least as sincere as he was capable of being. But for the life of him, he could not tell what Orochimaru was up to. A bargain? Orochimaru was good at that. Good at bargains and pleas. But there was really only one thing he had to bargain with at this point.
"The title of Otokage. You can have it, Karin." Orochimaru stated as she entered. "No need for such a fuss. I used to put a lot of weight on titles, you know. I created the Sound Village as a tool to challenge my old sensei, and as a resource to be able to continue my research. I relished in the weight and responsibility of being a Kage. What I was denied in Konoha." He continued to write as he talked, seemingly nonplussed by the four of them leaking killing intent into the room. "But...what will being Kage do for me, in the long run? I've thought long and hard about it. I've decided I no longer have need to immerse myself in village politics. I have far greater ambitions than that."
"So you're just abdicating? I find that hard to believe." Karin folded her arms. "And there's a lot of people who still want you dead even if you do step down."
"Me." Suigetsu grinned. "I still wanna stab you. You kept me in a bloody tank-"
"Psychopath." Karin muttered. "If you are abdicating, what makes you think I'll just let you stick around? I don't want my village on edge, worried about if you'll abduct them in the night for some twisted shit."
"Every village has its shadows. Every community has its dark little secrets. You're more than aware by now, aren't you?" Orochimaru glanced towards Sasuke briefly, and Sasuke felt his heart wrench as he remembered what Sakura had told him. Danzo. Itachi. My entire clan.
"We're going to change things." He replied, and was surprised to find that he meant it. "No more shadows. No more secrets."
"Are you as naive as Haruno? There will always be secrets." Orochimaru countered. "She didn't tell you everything she's learned. Where she learned it, and why."
"And I have not told her everything of the Sharingan. These are not the secrets of which I speak."
"Not at a glance, but in the end, does it not intrigue you? How she was able to uncover the truth of your clan when you could not?"
It did intrigue him. But right now, it didn't matter.
Because Orochimaru was also hiding something. Dancing around it. He didn't need whatever mystical force Sakura had to see the patterns here. Sharingan users had always been able to see patterns, to analyze and copy the world around them with inhuman precision, to look…
To look underneath the underneath.
Kakashi-sensei...what do you think of the three of us, now? If you saw me here, would you still be disappointed? And Sakura…
He remembered her warmth. Remembered her holding him close. Listening. Understanding. Seeing what he could not.
He didn't realize how far behind her he'd gotten.
"She got under your skin." He finally put it together, everything clicking into place at once. Many had said he and Orochimaru were alike, and if that were true, then so was this. "She healed your arms without demanding anything in return and you can't handle that. You can't handle that someone can be so selfless and so strong all at once."
There was more to it, he was certain, but he could only guess as he had not been privy to their private conversations. Still, knowing what he did know of Sakura, Sasuke had a feeling.
"She's made you question everything. Why you're doing all this. She could make or break you in a heartbeat and you're still trying to figure out how."
"Insolent child." Orochimaru hissed, his voice suddenly dark. (Which meant Sasuke was on to something, of course, he was close.) "Don't presume that a single girl could influence me so. She has already received compensation for her healing-"
"No, you gave her compensation. She never expected it. Never demanded anything from you. She's uniting the shinobi world while you sit here playing at immortality, and you just can't stand that despite everything, she's becoming more of a name than yours will ever be!"
There was another hiss, and a flash of motion as snakes lunged forth and clashed against the steel of Sasuke's blade. His Sharingan whirled, and his counter to Orochimaru's attack was effortless. (Or was it, perhaps, that the man's heart just wasn't in it?)
"I used to be afraid of you." Sasuke admitted aloud, tempering the quiet tremble in his voice that had grown with his heated emotions. "I used to think...you were some invincible force. Some demon that would forever haunt me, even as you whispered in my ears that you could give me everything. I think for a minute I even believed you."
He cut through the last of Orochimaru's snakes, sheathing his blade as he turned his back on the man who was once his mentor.
"You're just as human as the rest of us."
A piece of his mind seemed to fall apart at the seams. The piece that had held up Itachi in his heart, his nightmare, his enemy, his brother, his everything. Itachi, a boy who had been ordered to kill his family and hadn't thought twice. Just as Sasuke hadn't thought twice about leaving his own family behind.
If our places had been switched, would I have broken too?
They were all human, weren't they? All of them. So fallible and frail. Where was the strength he'd used to see in them? Where had it gone?
Had it ever even been there?
Karin's voice reached him in the dark of the room, an anchor against his own thoughts. An anchor to the realization.
Orochimaru was so very alone, and he was not. Orochimaru was weak…
Itachi was weak.
Sasuke would not be.
"Lady Otokage." Sasuke gave a small, cheeky bow of his head to Karin. "Leave him. There's nothing he can do to us and he knows it."
He walked away, somehow the easiest decision he'd ever made, and his friends followed without another word.
Onoki had once said only fools dedicated their life to art, and Deidara was starting to suspect he was right. After all, what kind of idiot would go back to face a rampaging god after he'd already escaped once?
Some people had made the assumption that Deidara wasn't a man of honor, but that was more because he hadn't really deemed anyone worth the effort. He still wasn't sure if it had been worth going back for Konan, but she had essentially offered up her life in place of his own, and, well...look, it was from one artist to another and that was all that needed to be said of the matter.
Not that he really considered paper folding an art, not initially, but after seeing Konan pull out what was the equivalent of a C3's worth of paper bombs out of her sleeve, he couldn't really deny that she at least had talent. If she was willing to take out a block of her own neighborhood to save his sorry skin, he could at least try to do the same.
And look, he hadn't really expected his C4 technique to do any damage to Pein, but it had been a good enough distraction while he'd squirreled Konan out of there. Still, if he ever did get a chance to find out how the man had survived microscopic bombing…
He fucking hated the Akatsuki, and he definitely hated Pein. And he threw another curse at Itachi for good measure, for getting him into this mess.
"He'll find us…" Konan gasped, blood tinged on her mouth as she held together a gaping wound in her side. "We can't outrun him."
"If I can outrun the Tsuchikage, I can outrun that piece of shit." Deidara countered. Still, he urged his clay mount onwards. Normally he'd have preferred a winged mount, but those were easy to spot. He'd elected for a lupine shape instead, something speedy and easy to ride. He'd sent out four more, each with clay clones of the two of them, hoping beyond hope that they might distract Pein even briefly. As much as he postured, Onoki was old and had a soft spot for him. He was half convinced the old grump had let him go.
Konan coughed, and Deidara could have sworn he felt her body getting colder. She was losing blood. He needed a healer. He also needed to go somewhere Pein wouldn't expect. Not Iwa, even with Onoki still in charge, that was too obvious. (And he couldn't bring Pein's wrath down on his old home, not after seeing what he could do.)
Unfortunately, he didn't really have 'allies' anywhere else. Unless…
We don't have to be enemies.
But they were way the fuck over in Oto, maybe even beyond at this point. It had been a few days since that scrap, and he doubted a shinobi ambassador was going to stick around for two long. But Sakura Haruno was from Konoha, wasn't she? As well as that boy she had with her, the real artist, so maybe…
Okay, it was a stupid idea. But if Pein could attack a whole village, he would have done it already and taken the Jinchuuriki himself. Even if they ended up captured, it was still a better situation than being dead, and Konan would get medical help if only to keep her alive for information.
Who knew? Maybe he could spin something about 'being a mole for Sakura' and get some sympathy.
To Konoha, then.
He poured more chakra into his mount, urging it ever faster. Thankfully, there were plenty of trees here to weave through, hopefully it would slow Pein d-
His mount skidded to a halt.
There was a man in front of them. A man in dark robes and a swirling orange mask. Deidara had never seen him before, but there was something about him that invoked an uneasy feeling.
"Madara…" Konan whispered, clinging to him desperately. "Don't engage him."
"The fuck do you mean, Madara?" Deidara looked to the man again. No, there was no way this weird masked dude was some ancient Uchiha legend. But as he looked at the single opening in the mask, he saw the man's eyes swirl red.
"A clever trick, Deidara." The man spoke. "Very clever. You might have succeeded, too. Nagato is quite distraught with Konan turning on him so. Not thinking clearly."
Deidara saw his surroundings begin to warp around him. Genjutsu? Easy. Even if this man was Madara, he clearly didn't know Deidara's little secret. That Deidara had been training his eyes to combat the Sharingan for quite a while now.
The warping ceased as he focused his chakra, and his eyes saw clearly once more.
"I must thank the two of you, however." The man slowly began to walk, intending to flank them. Deidara kept looking ahead, pretending he was caught in the illusion. "Because of this, Nagato will no longer be hindered by any lingering thoughts of peace. He will be the perfect weapon. The perfect tool."
Konan spit at the ground in front of them, clearly believing Madara was still there. "Bastard." She hissed. "It was you, wasn't it? You're the one who brought Danzo to Akatsuki all those years ago. You're the reason we failed."
"Clever indeed. But that won't help you now." Madara was next to them now, reaching out with a gloved hand toward Deidara's mount. "Unfortunately, I'll be using you to further Nagato's rage. You won't have to wait long. And I have the perfect place to keep you until he's ready."
Deidara got the sudden, overwhelming impression that he shouldn't let Madara touch them.
He dropped two spider bombs in Madara's direction at the same time he urged his mount forward, narrowly avoiding the explosion behind them as the mount hit a dead sprint.
Hate to thank Itachi for my life, but I guess spite's a pretty good motivator for getting stronger.
Fuck Uchihas, though.
He didn't have the time to think about anything Konan had just said about the masked man, nor did he give two shits. Right now, all he had to focus on was staying alive. Him and Konan both.
It was dark and wet within the cave, rivulets of water gushing in from the rain. There were cave pools where the water eventually gathered, but that didn't make the tunnel any more pleasant to traverse. Not that Kisame minded moisture, but caves? Not really his thing. Kiri had been low to the ground, open skies, fantastic clouds to look upon. He'd fallen in love with the sky as much as the sea in his youth, and the deeper underground they went, the more he missed the clouds.
He followed Itachi, however, as he always did, and trusted the man to know where to go. Samehada had sensed a residue of chakra here, something that had once been vast but now long gone, buried within Konoha's earth. Guarded by a creature that looked like half a Zetsu, and...well, Kisame wasn't going to waste time unpacking that when he was already a bit confused as it was.
The tunnels opened up into a larger cavern, and there he saw it.
"Madara Uchiha." Itachi announced with a grimace. "Or what is left of him."
A corpse, rotted away upon a stone chair, and a strange statue of sorts sitting behind it. There were thick vines, no, tubes? Something of the sort, perhaps once having been attached to the corpse, now lying limp at its sides.
"It's like a tomb." Kisame commented. "He was left here, where none should have found him."
"None, unless they knew to look."
They had tracked 'Madara' for days from a distance, seeing the man come and go across nations, but always, always returning to this spot, as though there were something here that was important. Sure enough, they had found the real Madara, as well as what looked like a makeshift living quarters and a collection of reading scrolls.
"So who is our imposter?" Kisame asked, flipping open one of the scrolls to peruse. "An Uchiha for certain. Seems like you missed one."
"I don't miss." Itachi countered. "He must have broken from the clan before my actions. An Uchiha thought dead. I have my theories."
"He uses but one eye. No Uchiha would willingly hinder themselves so. That implies he is missing the other. And it was well known among Konoha which Uchiha had 'died' and given his eye up to a certain jounin…"
"You're saying he's the match to Kakashi Hatake's eye?"
"Obito Uchiha. I'm willing to bet he was rescued by the aging Madara, and groomed to take up his purpose. There's also a tie to Zetsu somehow, but what it is, I know not."
Kisame huffed. The name meant nothing to him, but knowing the man was not actually Madara put some feelings of his to rest. An imposter...an heir that had taken up a mantle. Powerful enough to upend Kirigakure but still needing the assistance of others for his schemes of a 'perfect world'. He'd always wondered why the powerful Madara needed minions, but since it wasn't actually Madara…
"Seems the bastard survived Hashirama Senju after all. But at a cost."
Kisame had picked up a small book, written in with scrawled handwriting. It was old, falling apart. The words of an ailing man who wasn't sure he'd have someone to carry on his legacy.
"Keep that, and gather up what else you can. It won't be long before Obito returns, and I'm not sure we want to face an Uchiha trained by Madara."
"Not even you?"
"I'm handicapped, you know." As if to emphasize, Itachi let out a deep cough. "We need to ensure this information gets to the right location. The right people."
"Right. And who would those be?"
"You know, Kisame. You know of whom I speak."
Itachi handed him another scroll, pulled from under bedsheets. It held an Uchiha crest, and Kisame wondered if Obito had filched it from the Uchiha shrine after the massacre.
"Is it strange to say I can sense it? He's coming for me soon, Kisame, and I will not survive him."
"Go. Finish this mission. Do it for me." Itachi begged. "Ensure my will is received. I'm not doing this for Konoha, or for the Uchiha, or for Akatsuki...I'm doing this for myself. I won't let Obito tear this world apart. And you won't either."
Kisame heard the crack of thunder rumble through the cave tunnels, in time with the cold, icy grip that overtook his heart. He had known this moment was coming. Dreaded it.
"You won't change your mind?"
Itachi, for once, smiled. He put a hand on Kisame's shoulder, more gentle than a shinobi had any right to be.
"You're a good man, Kisame."
Kisame shook his head, but pocketed the crested scroll nonetheless. He wasn't a good man. He had come to terms with that. Neither was Itachi. They were just...two tools, two weapons, used and manipulated until there was nothing left of them but claws and fangs.
"See you on the other side, Itachi."
Kisame left the Uchiha behind, not once looking back, no more considering anything but the task at hand.
Even bad men could get the chance to do the right thing, and by Itachi's will, he'd see it done.