Closing Of The Circle
"Love is a driver, bitter and fierce if you fight and resist him, easy-going enough once you acknowledge his power."
"And you're quite sure Danzo was interrogating her on who she'd informed of the Uchiha massacre?" Tsunade asked, her eyes piercing.
Sai nodded. "She asserted it once when she was still drugged, and then I confirmed it when she became coherent once again."
Something in Tsunade relaxed. She'd been worried if Danzo's conspiracy to abduct Sakura proved that Madara's version of the massacre was the truth, or if she'd tacitly permitted the assassination of her council on misinterpreted evidence.
But it seemed that the council had indeed been involved in the massacre, or why would Danzo have been interrogating Sakura on who she'd told? No, this was proof that there had been a conspiracy, and that Danzo had acted in an effort to silence Sakura before word of that conspiracy could spread.
Now, she had to deal with the situation she herself had engineered. Search parties were marshalling all over the village, searching for Uchiha Sasuke, the escaped traitor. And because Sakura's arrest wasn't common knowledge, it was all the more damning for Sasuke – instead of two criminals escaping, the searchers believed that Sasuke had kidnapped her...again.
'Now let's see, how to explain this away?' Tsunade pondered as she dismissed Sai from her office. 'We won't go into the details, but I can say that the council was conspiring with the Akatsuki, knowledge of which was brought to me by Sasuke. I can say that they were going to kill Sakura because she interfered with their plans...somehow...and that Sasuke removed her from the village on my orders, for her own protection. That should buy him leniency for his crimes in light of service to the village, and I'll say that the council has been dealt with.'
In a ninja village, 'dealt with' could mean anything from thrown into jail, placed in interrogation or assassinated. No one questioned the Hokage when they said someone had been 'dealt with'.
But that issue wasn't her only problem – she had Root to handle as well. Danzo was dead, yes...but the rest of the organisation was still intact. And frankly, that could be even more dangerous than if Danzo were still alive and leading them. Now they could go in any number of directions, none of them appealing. The most likely was that they would fracture into small groups without their leader, but that still left Tsunade with many ninjas harbouring secret resentment against Konoha and possessing more than enough skill and connections to make her life extremely difficult.
What could she do? She couldn't lock them up – not on the justification that they might do something – and there were far too many to have them watched.
It suddenly struck the Hokage that she had a perfect advisor in the room. Sai had been a member of Root – one of its most loyal members, by all accounts – and now...he was in her office, after having calmly informed her that they were justified in seeking the council's death; in seeking Danzo's death.
"Sai?" she asked, prompting the young man's dark eyes to meet hers. "What changed?"
At his obvious puzzlement, Tsunade elaborated. "You were loyal to Root and to Danzo once...and now you're not. What changed your mind?"
"They did," Sai said quietly. Tsunade didn't bother asking who 'they' were. "At first I didn't understand them, the things they said, the things they did...they made no sense, not as I understood the world. I was curious, and I tried to get closer to learn more about them. And then I found that the closer I was, the more attached to them I became, the more I understood them."
Because by then he'd become their friend and understood what lengths a person would go to for that sort of bond, Tsunade assumed.
But it did suggest another method of dealing with Root: rehabilitation. If they were put into teams, forced to interact with people outside of Root...they may not like their new teammates, but they'd certainly be forced to feel something for them. Maybe they'd be able to overcome their conditioning and bond with them as Sai had, and perhaps they were capable of greater loyalty because of it. Sai had thought nothing of Naruto and Sakura when they first met, but now...now Tsunade thought the only way he would leave them was if he were killed.
Sasuke stared at Sakura, waiting for her to say something. She'd said she had something to ask him, but nothing more had passed her lips. It was difficult to tell in the candlelight, but she looked as though she were teetering on the brink of some internal struggle.
His first impulse was to move closer, to ask what was wrong, but just as he was about to take a step towards her, her head suddenly jerked upwards, staring straight into his face, green eyes flashing like emerald flames.
"Why did you kiss me?"
Sasuke blinked, the only startle reflex he would allow himself as his whole body tensed. Completely blindsided by her question, he found himself wondering what would be the best response; tell the truth, or lie to save face?
"Because I wanted to," he said at last.
Sakura scowled. "You'll have to do better than that, Sasuke. Why was kissing me something you'd even want to do in the first place?"
It was Sasuke's turn to scowl. Didn't she know? Hadn't he been blindingly, humiliatingly obvious? Did she derive some malicious pleasure of dragging it out him, making him say it so she could laugh in his face?
But he knew Sakura wasn't like that, and that only made it worse.
He pressed his lips together mulishly and didn't answer.
Sakura felt a sickeningly familiar pain begin to radiate from somewhere in her chest. She should have known. She shouldn't have listened to Ino, shouldn't have listened to her stupid, lovesick heart – she should have known it would be like this...
Sasuke expected her to press the point – perhaps was even hoping for her to press the point – but her eyes clouded in a way that made his throat sting, and she turned away, her lips twisting into a self-depreciating grimace, her face full of regret and recriminations...
And something in Sasuke snapped. He lunged forward, seizing her shoulder and spinning her around to face him.
"I kissed you because I wanted to," he repeated, his voice low and furious. She wanted to know why – fine, he'd tell her why, and if she didn't like it then that was her problem! "I was letting you go – I was trying to do the right thing by you for once – but before you went I wanted...I wanted..."
Sakura was bewildered, her brain running in circles like a neurotic hamster. She wondered if Sasuke was consciously aware that he was shaking, practically vibrating with anger and accusation...and something else, something she couldn't quite put her finger on.
"I wanted to kiss you," Sasuke said again, his voice rising. "I wanted to know that no matter what happened, I at least had that – I at least knew what it was like to, to..."
Sakura's face went slack as she finally understood what was written on Sasuke's face. Her lungs collapsed inwards in shock, forcing her breath out in a surprised huff as her heart rate rose so suddenly it was almost painful.
Ino had been right.
Sasuke could see comprehension settle in Sakura's eyes, her face softening. Expecting scorn – or worse, pity – Sasuke lashed out like a whipped dog, settling a sneer on his face and speaking in his most condescending tone.
"Are you happy now?"
And Sakura smiled. But there was no pity in it, no mockery, and Sasuke's grip on her arm loosened in confusion.
Then Sakura's arms were around him, hugging him tightly, her head resting against his chest.
This was not the reaction he'd been expecting – he hadn't anticipated her sunny smile, nor the embrace, nor the way she seemed so elated. As though she were honestly happy about this...as though she were...
"You..." 'feel the same? Still?' was what he was going to say, but she simply nodded silently after the first word.
A relieved huff of breath forced its way past his lips, and if he had been a different man, Sasuke might have laughed.
Sakura was grinning into Sasuke's chest, feeling almost giddy, and wondering if jumping for joy or something equally childish would give Sasuke the wrong impression. But any display like that would require letting go of him, which Sakura didn't feel like doing anytime soon...
So instead, she stood on tiptoe to press a kiss against his cheek. But Sasuke, apparently noticing her movement, tilted his head and leaned down, slanting his lips over hers.
Sakura – expecting to touch smooth skin and instead feeling soft, slightly moist lips against her own – made a little noise of shock, her body tensing. She might have stepped backwards in surprise if Sasuke hadn't been holding her; a gentle pressure at her lower spine and the back of her neck to keep her pressed to him.
Some small, still-lucid part of her brain not whooping in glee or silently basking in the moment noted that Sasuke seemed to have gotten a lot bolder since their last kiss. But that was probably to be expected – he hadn't had any idea how she'd react to the last one, but he knew that his gesture was welcome this time.
Then Sakura told her ever-churning brain to shut up and enjoy the moment because she was kissing Sasuke! Despite knowing it was medically impossible, her heart felt like it was doing cartwheels behind her ribs.
But the mood was slaughtered when a puff of smoke and dust rose to the side of them, and Naruto's loud voice cut through the air like a serrated blade.
"Hey – oh my god, I'm blind!"
"You're not blind," Kakashi said dryly as Sasuke and Sakura sprang apart in shock.
"Well, I wish I was!" the blonde wailed theatrically.
"Considering that you traveled around Fire Country for almost three years with Jiraiya, I'd imagined your tolerance was stronger than this," the jounin commented.
He glanced at the couple that had inspired such a dramatic reaction – not that anything about Naruto was ever mundane – and tried not to laugh aloud when he saw Sakura covering her cheeks in an effort to conceal the blush that was spreading across her skin while Sasuke scowled at Naruto, looking as though he were contemplating punching his friend in the mouth.
"That was only those stupid books," Naruto snorted, sounding scandalised. "This is Sakura and the bastard! It's like...it's like watching your brother and sister make out! With each other!"
"Naruto..." Sakura groaned.
"Idiot," Sasuke growled.
"Have some pity on them, Naruto," Kakashi snickered. "That was probably their first kiss – did you see how uninspired it was?"
Sakura resisted the urge to break both their jaws. "Is there some reason you two showed up?"
"Awww, don't be like that, Sakura," Naruto whined. "We wanted to make sure you were alright."
Sakura tried for indignation, she really did – reminding herself again and again that they had interrupted her first real kiss with Sasuke (at least, the first one she'd been cognizant enough to respond to) – but she felt her anger melting away when she thought back on what Sai had told her had happened, when she realised how much she must have worried them.
If Naruto ever figured out that all he had to do to avert her anger was tug on her heartstrings a little, she'd be in serious trouble.
"Sai's helping Granny get everything straightened out," Naruto said brightly, apparently forgetting his earlier theatrics. "But you guys have to stay here for a while, so I thought we could keep you company."
He smirked, his tone turning salacious. "I never guessed you guys would be entertaining yourselves..."
"Shut up, idiot!" Sasuke bristled.
Naruto burst into huge whoops of laughter. "Damn, you guys move fast, don't you? Sasuke's barely been back in the village for two days and you're already making with the kissy-face! I thought it'd be at least a couple of months!"
Sakura wondered if it was possible to die of embarrassment.
Apparently sensing that Sasuke wasn't going to stand for much more of Naruto's teasing before he did something violent and messy to the blonde, Kakashi produced a pack of cards, attempting a mollifying gesture.
"We can play poker, at least."
"Oh no, we're not!" Sakura snapped. She could just see a poker match turning into a battle to the death with Naruto and Sasuke at the table.
Kakashi raised an eyebrow, silently challenging her to come up with another option.
"We are not playing something as tense as poker," she said. "We're going to play something calm and harmless – like Go Fish or something..."
"What will happen to Sasuke's 'Team Hebi'?" Yamato asked.
He and Sai were helping Tsunade in her attempt to smooth things over...at least enough so that Sasuke wouldn't have a few murder charges added to his accusations.
"I'll release them as soon as this business with Sasuke is taken care of, but we'll keep an eye on them," Tsunade answered.
Neither Sai nor Yamato commented on this. They and the rest of the ANBU knew of the intelligence several of their spies had gathered that suggested that Akatsuki were preparing to launch an all-out assault against Konoha, and under the threat of war, the village needed every shinobi it could get.
So even if Team Hebi had been a part of Sound and their trustworthiness was rather questionable, Tsunade wasn't above using them to benefit the village – as long as they were watched.
"What was that, Mr. Uncommunicative Asshole?" Naruto asked, his voice dripping false sweetness like thick syrup.
Sasuke ground his teeth and said, in a very carefully contained voice that bespoke murderous rage, "Do you have any fives?"
"Go fish, loser!" Naruto bellowed, making the others wince as his triumphant voice rebounded off the stone walls.
Sasuke snatched at the deck with an audible growl.
"And here I was hoping for a friendly, casual game..." Sakura muttered ruefully. "Where did that go wrong?"
"Your mistake was forgetting that Naruto and Sasuke can turn anything into a competition," Kakashi commented from above his own hand of cards and his usual bright orange book.
"No, my mistake was thinking that my teammates had an ounce of common sense and perspective between them," the medic groused. "Guys, it's a card game – calm down!"
"Yeah, Sasuke, don't be such a sore loser," Naruto smirked. "Accept your inevitable defeat and humiliation at the hands of the future Hokage-"
"Shut up, Idiot."
"I'm not an idiot, Bastard – you're the idiot! You can't even win a game of Go Fish!"
"It's based on chance, not skill!" Sasuke snarled.
"So says the loser! The one who will soon bow down to my awesomeness!"
"Guys?" Sakura tried to interject as the voices rose louder. "Guys?"
They were either ignoring her – unlikely, considering that even if Sasuke hadn't learned not to do that by now, Naruto certainly had – or they couldn't hear her over the racket their own voices were making.
Sakura sighed, and was tempted to throw her cards down in disgust. "Fine, go ahead – kill each other over a stupid card game, see if I care..."
"If you get any louder, we might be discovered," Kakashi interjected, his voice mild, as though the prospect wasn't really anything to be concerned about.
Sakura knew there wasn't a large risk – they were underground, and even if the noise somehow made it through those tiny pipes that served as ventilation, it was unlikely anyone would be passing by to hear. But Sakura wasn't willing to take the chance; at the moment, Sasuke was believed to have taken her from Konoha, and she didn't want to think about what would happen if they were founding hiding beneath the Uchiha's shrine.
So the medic threw her cards on the floor, stood up, and played her usual role; that of moderator between Naruto and Sasuke. Even as she pulled the boys apart by their collars, some nostalgic part of her was revelling in the familiarity of the actions – for a moment, she could almost believe they'd never been parted.
Their attention arrested by the jerk on their clothing, both Naruto and Sasuke paused in their ranting for a moment, and a moment was all Sakura needed.
"Both of you, shut up!" she hissed. "Do you want to get us caught? This is a nice, friendly game of cards and it's going to stay that way! Naruto, if you provoke Sasuke again I swear I will hurt so badly not even the Kyuubi will be able to bail you out! And Sasuke, stop rising to Naruto's bait or I'll kick your ass again! I swear, it's like whenever you two are together, all your brain cells just turn off..."
But Naruto, at least, had lost interest in Sakura's rant. "Again?"
Sakura blinked, thrown by the apparent non-sequitur. "What?"
"You said you'd kick his ass again," Naruto said, a grin slowly rising on his face, getting broader by the moment. "So...does that mean you've already kicked his ass?"
Sakura dimly realised that Kakashi had actually lowered his ever-present book, and was studying them with rapt attention. Sasuke had crossed his arms over his chest and was currently scowling at the wall.
"Um...well..." Sakura fumbled for words. "Well, yeah, but you see-"
Naruto had heard nothing beyond the 'yeah'. "You did kick his ass! Sakura kicked the bastard's ass!"
The blonde let out a laugh that was rather on the maniacal side. "I have to tell everyone in the village, right now!"
"Actually, it would be a bad idea to tell everyone right now," Kakashi reminded him. "You'll have to wait until tomorrow."
But Naruto's spirits weren't dampened in the slightest. "So, Sasuke-bastard....coupled with that whole kissing-thing, does that make you Sakura's bitch now?"
Sakura tried not to laugh – she really did. Sasuke was looking as though he were seriously considering flaying Naruto alive, and she was sure her laughing wouldn't improve his mood at all.
But when her stomach muscles started to spasm, Sakura knew she had to let it out before she tore something.
Sasuke's scowl etched deeper into his face as he heard the medic laughing so hard she began to degenerate into hiccups and snorts, before leaving the realm of sound entirely and shaking with silent guffaws. Dammit, he couldn't beat the idiot up now – not if he was making her laugh for the first time since she'd been tortured...
Naruto beamed, looking strangely proud of himself, and Sasuke realised he had probably been clowning around deliberately in an effort to get a laugh out of the pink-haired woman. Naruto really was a lot more perceptive than most people gave him credit for.
The blonde watched Sasuke's irritation grudgingly melt off his face as Sakura continued to laugh, and felt like puffing out his chest with pride. And laughing at the fact that the medic already seemed to have Sasuke twined around her little finger, but that could wait.
He had been shocked to find them kissing, and yet at the same time, he wasn't really surprised. He had been expecting something like this to happen, just not so soon. Naruto didn't know if anyone else had noticed it – no one else really knew Sasuke the way he, Sakura and Kakashi did – but to him, Sasuke hadn't been particularly subtle in his affections. Coming from anyone else, his behaviour would probably indicate mild interest in Sakura, but coming from Sasuke...well, it was practically a declaration of undying love and devotion.
And no matter how much Sakura had tried to pretend otherwise, he knew her feelings for Sasuke hadn't changed. She had probably thought she'd done a good job of smothering them, of burying them so deeply they could be mistaken for friendship and nothing more...but Naruto knew better.
The night after their disastrous encounter with Sasuke in Orochimaru's base, he'd gone to her house with some instant ramen and chocolate ice cream – vaguely recalling her mentioning it as her 'comfort food' – with the idea that they could eat, maybe watch some sort of comedic movie that would make them laugh, and in general cheer each other up. But when he'd climbed onto her balcony, intent on surprising her, he'd found her sitting on her bed, her head bent over the picture of Team 7 they all possessed copies of, tears sliding silently down her cheeks.
Naruto – knowing that sometimes, people preferred to be alone to grieve – had slipped quietly back into the night. But he hadn't forgotten that moment, that split-second when he realised Sakura's affections for Sasuke hadn't cooled in the slightest.
So the blonde had sort of been expecting to catch them in a liplock someday...just not quite so soon.
Kakashi's thoughts were much the same as Naruto's. Given Sasuke's track record in dealing with relationships and bonds, he had expected the Uchiha to at first be completely unaware of the fact that he was in love with Sakura, and then attempt to ignore or suppress the emotion for as long as he possibly could.
He'd expected at least a good six months of drama and procrastination before Sasuke and Sakura reached anything close to the point they'd obviously already surpassed – and though he was certainly happy for his former students, some part of him did feel a little cheated that he wasn't going to be able to laugh and tease them as they danced around each other.
Then it occurred to him that they might have already done it – the tiptoeing around the issue part, at least. Sasuke and Sakura had been travelling with Team Hebi for a little over a week only, but they'd been alone together in Sound for some time beforehand, in the same room, in the same bed if Sakura was to be believed (and now Kakashi's Icha Icha soaked imagination was running wild with that information).
It was a surprise when another burst of smoke disrupted the tableau, signalling another person transporting themselves into the room. Shinobi did not take surprises well, and everyone in the room was ready to fight long before they realised it was Sai.
"Hey, Sai," Naruto greeted, looking positively chipper. "Did you know Sasuke is Sakura's bitch?"
Sasuke snarled, Sakura giggled, and Kakashi's visible eye crinkled in a wide, genuine smile of pure amusement. One thing the silver-haired man could always depend on; Team 7 were never boring. Frustrating, worrying, downright scary at times...but never boring.
Sai blinked – a long, slow blink, the kind he used as a stall tactic when he was thinking over his response. "And this is unusual?"
Sakura stopped laughing, looking as puzzled as Naruto, Sasuke and Kakashi felt.
Interpreting their expressions as a request for more information, Sai elaborated, "Kiba had a discussion with me on female teammates, and he said that Ugly was very scary, that Naruto was whipped, and that every male on Team 7 was her bitch. He was a little intoxicated at the time, though, so I'm not certain if his claims can be held as valid."
"Don't call me Ugly," Sakura said automatically into the silence that had followed his statement.
"Yeah...heh...you know Kiba – can't hold his liquor..." Naruto tried to joke. He wasn't about to confirm it and look like an idiot...but he wasn't going to deny it, either, just in case Sakura was in a sadistic enough to mood to prove to him why Kiba had been right.
"Is there some reason you came here?" Kakashi asked. "Is there a problem?"
"The Hokage told me she didn't want my help anymore, and to find my team."
Sakura supposed that made sense. In all the 'smoothing over' she would be forced to do, there'd probably be quite a bit of diplomatic influence needed, alongside her usual aura of 'do what I say because I'm the Hokage'.
And diplomacy simply wasn't Sai's strong point.
So Sakura smiled and, despite knowing she was asking for trouble, invited Sai to join their game.
Sasuke did not sigh aloud, but he slumped a little on his cot, wondering when Tsunade and the newly-appointed council were going to finish deciding his punishment.
Not that he was particularly eager to find out what they were going to do to him, but he couldn't stand the anticipation anymore!
He couldn't deny that he was still a little worried about the possibility of execution. It wasn't unheard of for Hokages to kill off their most dangerous, unstable assassins before they got out of hand – it wouldn't only be easy for Tsunade to order him executed now that he'd gotten rid of the council for her, it would probably be prudent; eliminating him in case he talked.
But of course, if she was going to kill him simply to keep him quiet, she'd also have to kill Sakura, Naruto, Kakashi, Sai, and all the people who'd helped them. And Sasuke didn't think Tsunade would deliberately harm him now that he and Sakura were...whatever they were to each other.
He didn't know if one (well, two) kisses suddenly meant they were in a relationship, but he decided it meant they were on their way to having one. He and Sakura hadn't really had a chance to discuss it further – Naruto, Kakashi and Sai had stayed with them for the rest of night, and he'd had to go back to prison in the morning, to prove to the new council that he was relatively harmless and willing to accept whatever was going to happen to him.
Some part of him was relieved that, no matter what happened now, he and Sakura had at least partly settled things between them.
"Hello, Sasuke." Sai's strangely cheerful greeting pulled him from his thoughts.
Kakashi rose from his deceptively casual pose against the wall, pocketing the book he'd been leafing through and making a vague hand gesture that Sasuke interpreted as a goodbye as he left the bleak corridor outside the Uchiha's cell.
Though the council had been dealt with, Tsunade had thought it prudent to keep a guard posted at Sasuke's cell, just in case Madara conjured up some other plan to strike at them. Naruto was now acting as Sakura's shadow, just in case the Akatsuki tried to attack her again.
Sai took up Kakashi's post at one corner of the cell, withdrew his sketchbook and a piece of charcoal, and started drawing. After a few moments, Sasuke noticed the basic outline of a lakeshore beginning to take shape.
But the dark-haired boy kept sketching – with a speed that rather impressed Sasuke – detailing a fox lapping at the water beneath the shade of a blossoming sakura tree.
Sasuke wondered if it was coincidence that the drawing seemed to contain veiled references to Naruto and Sakura. Sai finished the sketch and eyed it with a critical yet strangely longing gaze, his fingers hovering over it as though he wanted to touch it but didn't want to take the chance of smudging it.
"I...have difficulty drawing people," he volunteered to Sasuke. "I don't really know why."
He didn't really know why he was trying to connect with the Uchiha – perhaps because he had gained a measure of comfort from Sakura's insistence that he was part of the Team 7 family and they weren't about to abandon him, and so he was willing to at least try to accept the man she and Naruto considered so important.
"Someday, I wish to sketch Naruto and Sakura," he continued. "So I am trying to work my way up to actual drawing them by including some representation of them in my sketches."
Sasuke stared at the etching, at the fox and sakura tree that Sai had drawn because he had a mental block against drawing people, and felt a stir of something close to pity.
"Hey, bastard!" Naruto's loud, cheerful voice rang down the corridor, and both Sai and Sasuke turned.
Naruto, Sakura, Kakashi and Tsunade were making their way towards Sasuke's cell, and the Uchiha noted that there was a scroll tucked under the Hokage's arm.
"Uchiha Sasuke," Tsunade began, gesturing for Kakashi to unlock the cell. "You have been found guilty of deserting the village-"
"We know all that stuff, Granny!" Naruto interrupted. "What are they going to do to him?"
Tsunade's eyes narrowed, but she went on, apparently as keen to get this over with as everyone else.
"Your chakra will be sealed," she addressed Sasuke. "And you will remain on probation indefinitely with monthly reviews of your behaviour. The probation will be lifted when I decide you have proven yourself."
"See, that's not so bad, bastard," Naruto enthused. "I was worried they have you do something weird, like cut off a hand or something in penance-"
"I don't think we use mutilation as punishment anymore," Sakura pointed out.
"Yeah, I thought it was a pretty gross idea..."
"Where did you even get the idea in the first place, idiot?" Sasuke muttered as he was released from his cell.
"Sakura lent me this book about samurai; have you ever heard about them? Some of the things they did are creepy!"
"Ninjas did a lot of those things, too," Sai pointed out.
"Well, yeah...but come on – we're so much cooler than stupid samurai! We dress better for one-"
As though on cue, everyone glanced at Naruto's bright orange clothing.
The blonde boy frowned. "Why are you all looking at me like that?"
"Children, if we're finished here?" Tsunade growled. "I'd like to start the sealing now."
Sasuke kneaded at the marks wrapped around his wrist, scowling as it twinged. His body was still trying to adapt to suddenly having his chakra cut off from him, and it wasn't pleasant.
"Hey, it looks like you're wearing a bracelet!" Naruto laughed. "One of those fancy, lacy, girly-type ones!"
"Naruto, be nice!" Sakura scolded.
Sasuke smirked, feeling strangely nostalgic. They were sitting at Ichiraku's, Naruto was taunting him, Sakura was defending him...it was almost as though he'd never left.
"I didn't think Naruto was being cruel," Sai pointed out. "I thought he was merely making an observation. The seal does look like a bracelet."
Sasuke scowled, and Sai gave him a bland smile.
"Ignore him," Sakura said, twirling her chopsticks in her bowl of ramen. "That's what we usually do."
"If you ignore me, why do you get so angry when I call you Ugly, Ugly?"
"Sai, I'm doing my best to eat a meal with you guys in relative peace for once, so I'm going to pretend I didn't hear that."
Sasuke smirked again. Things weren't quite the same as they had been...but maybe that was a good thing. Sakura's hand sneaked into his under the table, fingers intertwining, and he decided that yes, it was a good thing.
"Hey, move over, Princess – we want to pull up a seat."
Sakura spun around, dropping Sasuke's hand in surprise.
Suigetsu, Karin, Juugo and Kakashi were standing behind them.
"Tsunade let them out of prison, but she wants them watched, so they're your problem now," their former teacher informed them.
"We're no one's problem!" Karin hissed indignantly.
"Hey, you can't just dump some stupid guard duty on us just because you're too lazy to do it yourself!" Naruto objected.
"Yes I can – I outrank you," Kakashi pointed out.
"Pulling rank is a sissy's move!" the blonde bellowed. "Hey, don't you wimp out and run away-"
But it was too late – Kakashi had vanished in a swirl of dust and leaves.
"Hey, Suigetsu, Juugo, Karin," Sakura said, nodding to each of them in turn.
Suigetsu and Juugo smiled – Suigetu's grin showing several more teeth than the blonde's – and Karin gave a vague nod back.
"Hey, Sasuke," the redhead greeted, giving the Uchiha a broad, almost simpering smile.
"I'm glad you're okay," Juugo commented to Sakura as Team Hebi took their seats.
"Was there some reason she shouldn't be okay?" Suigetsu asked.
Sakura and Naruto gave Hebi a brief summary of what had happened.
"And hey, thanks for telling us about the arrest," Naruto finished, grinning at Juugo. "Maybe people in Sound aren't such total dicks after all."
Sakura winced, and Karin looked affronted. But before the redhead could say anything, Suigetsu cut in.
"Dammit, I knew you guys were having fun without me!"
"I don't think it was fun," Sai pointed out. "Fun is something you enjoy, and I did not enjoy it."
"Well, what do you know?" Suigetsu retorted. "You look like you haven't had fun in about ten years."
Sakura rolled her eyes and fought the urge to bury her head in her hands – there went her hope for a peaceful meal.
She felt a hand brush her own, and jerked her head up to find Sasuke looking at her, his hand just resting against her own, as though he were somehow unsure of his welcome. Sakura slipped her fingers into his, smiling as a bubble of warmth swelled slowly in her chest.
"I knew it, I knew it!" Suigetsu suddenly crowed. "I knew you were doing her, I knew it!"
"Yes, Naruto informs me that Sasuke is now Ugly's bitch," Sai chimed in helpfully.
Sakura slammed her forehead against the table and left it there as Sasuke scowled. Suigetsu and Naruto were both roaring with laughter, of course, until Karin hit Suigetsu and caused his watery form to splatter across the table.
Naruto stopped laughing in shock, staring as Suigetsu's head reformed from the water. "That's just creepy."
"What, never seen anything like this in your wussy little village?" the white-haired man taunted.
"Konoha ain't wussy!"
Sakura sighed and tuned them out to focus on what Juugo was saying to her. "So you and Sasuke are dating now?"
"Uhh..." Sakura didn't really have an answer. She supposed she and Sasuke were stumbling towards a relationship, but she didn't think she could call it 'dating'. It just didn't seem to fit...but what else could she call it?
"Yes, we are," Sasuke snapped from beside her.
Sakura couldn't contain the grin that suddenly burst onto her face, nor the pleased blush that rose to her cheeks. But as she turned to share that smile with Sasuke, she couldn't help but notice Karin slump a little in her seat. Remembering the redhead's fanatical devotion to the Uchiha, Sakura mentally braced herself for a blistering putdown...
But it never came. Karin remained silent. And now that Sakura thought about it, she realised the other woman had been unusually subdued during their impromptu gathering. Suigetsu and Naruto were arguing about something – Sakura couldn't be bothered to find out what – Sai was watching them with interest and Juugo was now peering at the menu...but Karin was just sitting there, staring listlessly into space.
"Is something wrong with her?" she muttered to Juugo in an undertone.
Juugo shrugged. "She has been very quiet since we were let out of prison."
"Is she sick?" Sakura wondered. While Konoha's cells were usually clean, germs could accumulate easily and rapidly in such an enclosed environment.
"Suigetsu has been telling her for some time that Sasuke is in love with you – I think she's merely bitter he was right."
Sakura blinked. "We...were we that obvious?"
Juugo shrugged. "In some ways."
Wanting to steer the conversation away from the idea that most of Team Hebi had apparently been anticipating her and Sasuke hooking up from the start, Sakura inquired about his rages.
"I can probably have a look at that as soon as tomorrow – if I can take a sample of your blood I may be able to isolate the chemical compounds that-"
"Geez, Sakura, can't you turn off the workaholic mode for five minutes?" Naruto interrupted.
"At least she's actually doing something useful," Sasuke pointed out. "Unlike you, idiot."
"I do plenty of useful things! Hey, Sai, back me up here!"
"You were just now arguing with Suigetsu over whether Konoha is 'wussy'" Sai pointed out in that deadpan way of his that could make any sentence irritating. "I do not know if that can be classed as useful, seeing as whether Suigetsu believes Konoha 'wussy' or not does not impact our lives in any real way."
There were a few moments of silence, which Sakura took as Hebi finally realising the full scale of Sai's bizarreness.
"You don't get out much, do you?" Suigetsu said eventually.
"I am an active member of the Leaf roster and I go on many missions," Sai replied, with the air of one correcting a simple misunderstanding.
"Anyone done one of those 'special' tests on this guy?" Suigetsu muttered.
Both Sakura and Naruto scowled, but surprisingly it was Karin who spoke up first, with a scathing, "Grow up, imbecile."
Which of course set Suigetsu off. Sakura wondered fleetingly if she should attempt an intervention, but decided not to move since Sasuke was still holding her hand. Juugo rose instead and tried to separate them, which wasn't really working because – apparently loathe to just wrench them apart as Sakura would have done – he was merely holding his hands up placatingly and imploring them to quiet down.
"I'm so going to kill Kakashi for dumping these guys on us," Naruto grumbled. "Big blonde ain't so bad, but the other two..."
"Perhaps they merely need to acclimatise," Sai mused. "I've heard that when you remove an animal from its accustomed environment, they grow irritable. Perhaps the same holds true for humans?"
Sakura snickered. "Actually, this is pretty much what they're like all the time."
"Man..." Naruto whined. "Why'd you have to pick up such jerks, Sasuke?"
"They were useful, and then Sakura grew attached to Suigetsu and Juugo, so she would have objected had I expressly forbidden them from coming to Konoha," Sasuke explained.
Sakura grinned, then leaned over and kissed Sasuke's cheek swiftly...just because she could.
Naruto, spotting the faint blush lighting Sasuke's cheekbones, gleefully recreated the sound of a cracking whip.
"It's quite immature to lash out just because you're jealous," Sasuke retorted.
"Che, the future Hokage can have any lady he wants, and don't you forget it!"
Sakura shook her head, sharing a wry smile with Sai and receiving one of his slightly less unsettling ones in return. Ignoring the background noise of Team Hebi's argument, the medic tucked into her ramen one-handed (seeing as her other was still being held by Sasuke) and prepared to be entertained by one of Naruto and Sasuke's more intelligent fights – that is, one that would hopefully remain purely verbal and wouldn't be the same insults tossed back and forth ad nauseum.
She didn't know what the future would hold for them, and even though cold hard logic was telling her the Akatsuki were bound to become a very present problem soon, she took comfort from the fact that, whatever was coming, they'd face it together.
So Sakura smiled as she ate her ramen, before deciding to test a slowly forming theory in her mind; would Sasuke stop arguing with Naruto if she kissed him in mid-sentence?
It turned out yes, he would.
"For one human being to love another; that is perhaps the most difficult of our tasks; the ultimate, the last test and proof; the work for which all other work is but preparation."
-Rainer Maria Rilke
AN: And that's it! The Ripples saga has finally come to a close. Thanks so very much to justcallmefaye, who faithfully beta-d each and every chapter, and to all my reviewers! Special mention to my anonymous reviewers, who I couldn't reply to, but who helped to raise my count to what it is now – I've never had so many reviews for one story (is it bad that thrills me so much?).