Sasuke is a Moron

[It started as many things are prone to: With a bet and the Akatsuki. Women are always right. Therefore, whatever happened, it was all his fault.]

A/N: Um. I don't know what's up. I try to write a crackfic and it comes out semi-serious. But, I mean, there's gonna be OOC so I'm not a complete failure, right?

Also, but this thing is super freaking long. I mean, wtf, seriously.

Disclaimer: NM

P.S. Canon is something that happens to other people.

It was a Windsday, Sakura knew that much. Yes, that was a pun, but it fit. Everything and everyone was at the mercy of the gale-force winds whipping through the streets of Konoha.

Irritated, Sakura clutched her hair to her face, trying in vain to keep the pink strands from viciously smacking her cheeks and eyes. Around her the awnings of shops were ripping and spare objects like half-full trashcans and scattered newspaper pages flew through the air.

Like some of the less-stable buildings, people hurried along the sidewalk listing towards one side or the other depending on the direction of the wind. Most people had already taken shelter, but those still outside ran for their destinations, clutching doorframes with white-knuckled hands, wrenching doors open and throwing themselves in before the wind could pick at them again and pull them from the doorway.

Sakura was actually using chakra as she ran to keep her feet firmly affixed to the pavement. But every time she lifted a foot she could feel the wind reach out and attempt to pluck her away. Gritting her teeth, she found the restaurant she was supposed to be eating at, flung the door open and herself inside before pulling the thing shut behind her with a resounding bang.

A dark head of hair at the booth in the left-hand corner of the shop swiveled to regard her. Sakura scowled at Sasuke, ignoring him and looking around for Naruto. The shop was full of people taking temporary shelter until the wind died down, but what chakra she sensed indicated he wasn't there.

Gritting her teeth, Sakura stomped over.

"Where's Naruto?"

"He's been called away." Her scowl darkened. "Emergency mission," Sasuke said.

Sakura's thoughts became very dark. There were very, very many medicinal uses for frogs, and Naruto was just so faint at heart—with a huff, Sakura wrenched her mind elsewhere. It was all well and good for Naruto to leave her alone with Sasuke, but he had to be out in that.

Sakura slid into the booth across from Sasuke and glared sullenly at the tabletop.

"Don't pout. It's unbecoming."

"Don't act like a frozen slab of concrete. It's indicative of unhealthy emotional upbringing, misanthropy, and arrogance," she retorted snidely.

Sasuke's brooding silence crept over their booth, completely ignoring the bubbling chatter around them with a single toss of its head.

Sakura brightened considerably when the waitress bustled over with her usual order and a warm greeting.

"See? She doesn't think it's such a chore to be pleasant. You should try being like her."

"How? By being a civilian?"

"No," Sakura snorted. "By turning the empty buildings of the Uchiha complex into a shelter for the poor and appealing to the Council of Elders and the other clans for alms."

"You don't believe I'm so stupid as to not understand sarcasm, do you?"

"Oh, managed that now, have you? Excellent progress, Sasuke. I'll tell Tsunade to put a gold star on your permanent record."

Sasuke's normal noncommittal frown deepened into actual disapproval. "If you're not going to be civil, I suggest you leave."

"No. I was just out in that and I deserve to sit down and have a cup of tea."

"Hmph," he said, and from his smirk she knew he was thinking deprecating thoughts about her strength and moral caliber.

"Why don't you leave?" she asked harshly. "I'm sure the weather will deign to be sunny for The Last Uchiha to walk back to his dwelling undisturbed."

"I was here first," was all he said.

Sakura rolled her eyes. "Yes, because that's not the sort of rebuttal eight-year-olds routinely use when squabbling over the swings. Of course not."

"Sakura," Sasuke growled warningly.

"Don't start with me, Uchiha," she growled back. "Don't threaten me either. Anything you can throw at me I can throw back double simply because the people at the hospital like me and dislike you."

Sasuke was smirking infuriatingly again. "Is that a challenge?"

Sakura drank the last of the tea before she could lose her temper and waste perfectly good tea by throwing it in his face.

"Oh, please. The last time we had a match I punched your face in and broke your spine in two places. You wouldn't even be walking upright until two months from now if I had told the medics not to heal you."

Sasuke waved her statement aside like a particularly annoying gnat. "I held back."

Sakura smiled grimly. "So did I."

"That's where you're weak," Sasuke bluntly informed her. "An enemy ninja isn't going to hold back."

"Get over yourself. You admitted to holding back as well. You might be willing to swallow those double standards, but I'm not."

Sasuke only shook his head at her. Sakura felt her brow wrinkle horribly in her frustration, and mentally told herself to ask Tsunade for her age concealing jutsu later.

"You wouldn't have had a chance if I hadn't held back. The difference in power between us is palpable."

For a moment Sakura was speechless with rage. "You chauvinistic asshole!" she finally bit out. "Where the hell do you get off? Our last training match I broke your spine with my three-hundred-pound axe! If you and your amazing speed couldn't dodge that, then it's definitely not my fault."

That little tilt to his lips refused to be smoothed back into his usual lack of facial expression. Sakura narrowed her eyes.

"I held back because otherwise the match was unfairly balanced. You, on the other hand…"

Deep in her gut bloomed a dawning sort of horror, something she'd suspected ever since Sasuke's return when his slightly weathered but significantly improved misogynistic tendencies had manifested in his claiming he only ever wanted to fight Naruto.

Sakura had suspected then that whatever illusions Sasuke had held before about her weakness, he now felt fully justified in extending that bias towards all other kunoichi. She'd known for sure that it was misogyny the first time they'd trained together and he'd held back so much she got an actual stomachache from her disgust.

"Shit." She stared at him, in wooden fascination. "Sai was right: You still think I love you?"

His smirk was definitely self-assured.

"You're a moron," Sakura said with deep feeling.

Sasuke's brows drew down again. "I've asked. Ever since I left you've had no significant relationships with anyone."

"That doesn't mean anything."

"No. Just that you're still waiting."

Only the pain in her jaw made Sakura realize how hard she was clenching her teeth. "What, you've been stalking me, trying to make sure I'm still loyal to you after all these years? And just because I'm twenty-three and not married or steady means I'm waiting for you?

"Has it ever occurred to you that a grown woman capable of making a deadly and untraceable poison with the contents of the cabinet under her sink doesn't need a significant other to get ahead in the world? Should I poison you, maybe, and prove it?"

But it was too late. Sakura recognized the signs of full-blown arrogance. She'd met ninja barely a sixteenth of Sasuke's power with the exact same cast about them. Sarcasm wasn't going to get through to him. Bodily harm wasn't going to get through to him—or if it did, it was going to accompany massive brain damage and victory wasn't quite so sweet when the opponent draws stick-figure pictures of puppies and rainbows with crayons and dribbles a bit.

Frustrated, Sakura's infamous temper took over. Even if it didn't help, at least anger made her feel better. Unfortunately, it also made the situation worse.

"Alright, if poisoning won't do the job, what else will prove that I'm over you?"

"Are you even capable of getting a boyfriend?" Sasuke asked, and Sakura's blood pressure soared at his gall.

"Yes," she hissed. "I most certainly can. I don't need to wait around and meet your approval!"

Sasuke's uncaring expression clearly indicated that what with her sub-par ninja skills, he honestly doubted she had any other charms able to attract anyone of the male persuasion.

His expression probably had something to do with why now Ino refused to be in the same room as him and the other members of Team Ten ruthlessly blacklisted the Uchiha. Because if big-chested Ino couldn't meet Sasuke's approval for appearance at least, then what, exactly, was the definition of attractive that met Sasuke's approval?

It was one thing for uncaring Sai who honestly didn't even care about appearance to insult her looks. It was another to take "forehead" comments from Ino, who was her friend. But Sakura was not about to sit and let the stuck-up prodigy dismiss her appearance.

Not when she no longer cared what the flying fuck he thought. She wasn't about to take this bullshit from him anymore. With a low growl, she let her lip curl in a fierce display.

Reading the challenging glimmer in Sasuke's eyes that just dared her to prove him wrong, she glared. "I'll find the most dangerous missing-nins in the world and have them admit in front of your that I'm attractive, if that's what it takes."

Sasuke's eyes glittered. "Is that a challenge?"

"No, it's a bet." Sakura's broiling anger was going to do its duty and get her good and fucked now while it had the chance.

"No time limit, but I won't return to the village until I've won or I've lost. If I lose I'll be your personal medic for two years and give you the same treatment I give Kakashi, Naruto, and Sai."

"And speak civilly to me," Sasuke cut in.

Sakura glared. His version of "civil" probably meant lots of groveling, soft-spoken and meek-hearted talk that all but screamed "I am a weak woman and I know my place."

But she nodded and continued, "But if I win, you have to sign a document I've written notarized by the Hokage and two witnesses of Jounin rank and our mutual acquaintance saying that I am as powerful, if not more powerful than you and that you respect me as a person and kunoichi. Copies will be kept in the Hokage's office and one will be turned into a plaque and hung outside the Uchiha complex at all times."

Sasuke was glaring right back but nodded. "And," Sakura said, because she was not letting him off easily, "when you choose some poor woman to bear your progeny, you can't get married without my permission."

Sasuke's expression was thunderous. Sakura only smiled sweetly at him. "I guess we should maybe make some sort of penalty if someone backs out on their end of the bet…"

"I agree," Sasuke said stiffly, jaw barely moving.

"Then I'd better be going. I have a few S-Class missing-nins to go find. I'll contact you."

Forming a few hand seals, Sakura felt the teleportation jutsu take hold of her and spit her out into the relative safety of her apartment. There was no way she was going back out in the storm, even after her monumentous victory over That Moron.

First, she packed ninja essentials. Extra clothes for various weather, medical supplies, bandages, and food. Next, she made sure she had enough money. She wasn't rich in the oh-look-at-me-I-went-MIA-and-turned-traitor-yet-I-still-inherited-a-fortune way, but she was careful, and it paid off. Especially for spur-of-the-moment trips to find and seduce the world's most bloodthirsty men.

Then, she went in search of weapons. Technically, those were ninja essentials too, but she was treating them special this time because being prepared was just as important as kicking Sasuke's ass.

Lovingly, she made sure she had everything. Cloak, thicker clothing, extra underwear, tampons for emergencies, travel toiletries, unscented soap? Check. Senbon, pre-poisoned senbon, exploding tags, all-purpose rope, special chakra-sealing rope, wire, small kunai, larger kunai, XL kunai, extra kunai, shuriken, special windmill shuriken nicked off Sasuke, short katana, scroll with giant axe? Check.

Assorted medical supplies and poison-making ingredients? Check. Food, money? Check. Sleeping bag, tent, matches, flint, plastic travel cup and cutlery, travel collapsible set of pans? Check. Assorted odds and ends?

Sakura looked around her room. It looked like she'd left a window open and the wind outside had torn through her apartment. Conscientiously, she made her bed. It'd be ready for her to collapse in when she came back tired, happy, and victorious.

Snapping her fingers, Sakura grabbed a few blank scrolls and some pens. Checking her boots and the contents of her pack, she teleported to the Hokage's office.

Tsunade was staring morosely out the large windows when she showed up, an untouched cup of sake sitting balanced precariously on a stack of paperwork. The wind was rattling the thick sheet glass. Tsunade looked like she was waiting for the shaking tower to collapse around her.

Sakura strode up. Drawing her eyes from the windows, Tsunade's gaze swept up from Sakura's boots and over her travel gear, taking note of her pack and the determined set to her expression.

"Going somewhere?"

"Can I take that vacation you keep telling me to go on?"

Tsunade glanced out the window again. "Now?"


She sighed. "Do I want to know?"

Sakura grinned. "Maybe."

"Fine, whatever." Tsunade waved vaguely, grasping her cup and downing the sake in one gulp. "You won't be labeled a missing-nin if you're gone for a few years, yada yada. You can go now."

Sakura smiled and prepared to make hand seals.



"I'd better hear about this when you get back."

"You might even hear about it before I get back," Sakura said.

Tsunade thought this over. Seriously, she pulled open a desk drawer, took out a sake jug, and poured herself another cupful. "Hmm" was all she said. Making shooing motions with her hands, she turned back to the windows.

Sakura had one more stop to make before she left the village. Her teleportation jutsu deposited her in the middle of his living room. She ignored Sai's raised eyebrow and how very domestic he looked curled beneath a throw blanket on his couch with a book. Lucky Sai didn't have to attend the meetings with Sasuke Naruto sponsored.

Digging in her pocket, she pulled out her house key and held it out to him.

Sai looked about to comment on her sudden appearance, but thought better of it, and raised himself into a sitting position.

"Where are you going?"

"Mission. Hang on to this and give it to Naruto when he gets back, will you?"

Sai took the offered key. "And what will I tell him?"

Sakura thought for a moment. "Whatever you tell him, make sure to mention that whatever it is, it's all Sasuke's fault."

Kisame grunted, hefting Samehada up by its hilt and widening his stance. He felt a bead of sweat drip down between his shoulder blades at the impact of the axe. Despite himself, he was impressed. Not bad, for a woman who might not even weigh one-third what he did.

On the other, non-business end of the axe, Sakura smiled grimly. Kisame was unnerved, and as someone who relied more on instincts and less on genius intellect, his distraction was a good thing for her.

With an abrupt jerk of her forearms, she levered the axe upwards and spun, smacking the head of the axe into the ground and using it as a pivot point to attempt to sweep Kisame's legs out from under him.

He jumped out of the way, sword held horizontally and barely clearing the air over her head. Sakura saw a few detached centimeters of pink hair drift past in their wakes before she had the axe up, using the back of the handle to deflect the Akatsuki member's sword edge away from her.

Then she did something no self-respecting swordsman would do, and let go of the handle of her axe. Without any resistance, the already deflected sword fell forwards even more. Kisame, already correcting himself to pull his sword back into a blocking position, was momentarily unsettled by her bold move.

For the single moment she needed, he was more focused on whether or not her giant axe was going to come down on his toes than on her. Sakura snuck in and rabbit-punched him to the base of his neck. From her single hit, the force was suddenly pushing him back in a great rush.

Though she had successfully landed a hit, his muscle reflex had his arm snapping his sword back in front of him so he could drive the blade into the ground and use it to help stop his careening progress. Though the motion wasn't consciously meant as an attack, Sakura was a bit too slow and the great blade bit into the side of her left arm briefly.

She didn't feel it at first, drawing a hand up to heal the shallow and sluggishly bleeding cut, but as soon as the fresh wound was gone, a slight throbbing in her skull alerted her to the dip in her chakra reserves.

Sakura glanced up at the shark man. He had his hands wrapped around the hilt of Samehada, the sword's blade driven into the earth in front of him. Kisame was also taking the opportunity to catch his breath, and was watching her from behind his sword.

She hadn't said a word their entire battle. He had been very innocently traveling through a sparsely forested area near the border between River and Fire when he had felt her chakra signature approaching.

At first, he had tried to speed his pace, expecting her to only be a scout or messenger soon to go on her way. When she had doggedly continued to pursue him, he had increased his speed. She continued to follow, and he gave up and began searching for a good clearing where the trees wouldn't get in the way of his sword swings.

Kisame had been slightly surprised to see the small woman who alighted before him. Her distinctive pink hair marked Sasori's killer and the Fifth Hokage's apprentice. He had no idea why she was after him, considering Itachi was dead, but he was Akatsuki and she was Leaf so it was fair game.

Normally, Kisame might have called out some sort of mocking nonsense or said something to gauge whether she knew anyone from Leaf he had fought personally. But she had an odd glint in her eyes, and a small smile about her lips that had dissuaded him for some reason.

He'd stood still, Samehada at the ready, and watched as she pulled a scroll out and summoned a giant war axe, almost twice as big as she was and with a pink handle and blade guard to match her hair, no less.

Then she'd come after him, as relentless as her pursuit had been. The first time he blocked a hit, Kisame felt his eyebrows rise because blocking her hits felt like he imagined other people felt when blocking his hits.

After that, he had seriously been worried. Fighting her was working up a sweat and he had no idea why she was coming after him. If maybe he knew what she was after, he might be able to manipulate her during their battle. Her silence was complete, however, and he continued dodging her debilitating swings.

Her punch to his throat was rendering breathing difficult. Hands clenched around Samehada's hilt, Kisame panted and watched her carefully. Sakura glanced at him, assessed that he needed a few, and went over to retrieve her axe.

Bending down to grasp the handle, Sakura hefted the axe's weight and rested it against her shoulder. Then she looked out towards Kisame and frowned thoughtfully to herself.

"Hey," she called, across the rubble of their battlefield. Kisame gave no answer, but she saw his eyes narrow. "Do you think I'm attractive?"

Kisame gaped at the kunoichi before he realized her words were obviously a ploy and got himself back together. His throat was constricting painfully anyway, so not having to talk was actually a relief.

Pouting because obviously it wasn't going to be that easy, Sakura sighed and planted her axe into the ground, head down. "No, seriously. Do you think I'm attractive?"

"What?" Kisame gasped intelligently, eyes boggling again.

Sakura rolled her eyes, pointing a finger at him first and then at herself. "Do you think I am attractive?"

"Are you propositioning me?" Kisame frowned.

"Well, I'm trying to get a few people together for a barbeque," Sakura quipped. She gave up, because Kisame looked like maybe the confusion was too much for him and killing her would make everything easier and less complicated.

"Okay. On a scale of one to ten, how attractive am I?" She spread her hands, trying her best to radiate goodwill.

"Kunoichi. You chased me down to ask me if I thought you were attractive."

"Yes!" Even if he had to repeat what she had just said, at least he seemed to finally be getting the idea.

"Really." And then Kisame threw his head back and laughed. Sakura frowned, crossing her arms over his chest as he clutched at his sword helplessly and roared.

Abruptly, his boisterous chuckling died and he gasped soundlessly for a moment before croaking "Ow" and coughing a bit.

Sakura would have helped him out, but there was always a good chance he would take the opportunity to cleave her in two, so she stayed put.

"Just massage your neck muscles a bit, and take small sips of water," she advised.

Warily, Kisame did as he was told, darting suspicious glances at her. Sakura waited until he was apparently in less pain.

"You want to know if I think you're attractive," Kisame asked, just to see if he'd got it right.


"You chased down an S-Class missing-nin, Akatsuki member, and former partner to Uchiha Itachi to ask if he thought you are attractive."


"You know who I am, right?"

"Sure. You're Hoshigaki Kisame."

"Okay, just checking. Now, kunoichi, why are you really here?"

"But you just said!" Sakura shouted in frustration. "I want to know if you think I'm attractive! It's a fairly simple question. You can just say yes or no."

Kisame hesitated. Then again, it wasn't like his saying yes or no was going to make it easier for her to kill him. "Yes?" he ventured.

"You didn't sound very certain," Sakura said dubiously.

"Yes, alright, you are an attractive, nubile young kunoichi, and I am a forty-something missing-nin who hasn't seen any specimens of the fairer sex in quite a while. Is that what you wanted to hear?"

Sakura colored slightly, but stood her ground. "Yes." She firmed up somewhat. "Yes, and can I get that in writing?"

"What?" Kisame asked again.

"Can you maybe write that down for me?"


"So I can shove it in the face of the utter moron who still thinks I'm in love with him and won't accept that I don't need him if I want to get a boyfriend---which I will get when I am good and ready," Sakura said hopefully, but with the necessary amount of force.

Kisame blinked at her. "Don't laugh, it'll hurt your throat!" Sakura cautioned quickly. He sobered immediately, one hand clutching protectively over the base of his neck.

Kisame looked at her owlishly, as if she was aboveground and he staring up at her from underwater. This kunoichi was powerful enough to chase him down, survive a brief tussle, and only did so to prove that somebody found her attractive? His mind sluggishly churned through the bewildering thoughts.

"What the fuck? And you have to track me down to do this?"

"Um. I kind of made a bet that I could get the most dangerous and bloodthirsty missing-nins in all the land to admit to my being attractive."

"That's the stupidest fucking thing I've ever heard."

Sakura winced. "Who the hell would think you're not attractive? I've met kunoichi whose swords packed less of a punch than your fist, even when I was drugged."

Sakura's face split into a wide grin and she beamed. Kisame felt uncomfortable suddenly, and shuffled his feet a bit.

"Really? That's great! Only, I've broken the majority of the bones in his body and he still won't admit that I might be as good as he is."

"Who the hell is this moron, anyway?"

The dirt on her boots was actually very interesting, Sakura frowned. "He's an asshole. And a bastard." She glared at the dirt. "But if I win this bet I will own him and he will never talk down to me again," she finished with obvious glee.

Kisame quickly assessed how deeply his sword was buried into the ground. This Leaf kunoichi was scary.

"Damn Leaf ninja," he muttered to himself.

When he looked up, Sakura was staring at him again.

"What?" he asked for the third time.

"So… can I get that in writing?"

Kisame sputtered. "And take it back to Leaf? Kunoichi, do you think I have no self-preservation instincts?"

She was pouting again, looking at him with puppy dog eyes. Kisame felt very glad his cautiousness had saved him from the same doleful look appearing in the eyes of any offspring he unintentionally sired.

"Kunoichi, just because I'm currently amused at your situation does not mean I will willingly walk into a trap."

"Okay, fine," Sakura said mulishly. "But what about that barbeque? What if I held it in neutral territory?"

"How neutral?"

"Former sound."

Kisame thought it over. "Maybe, if I don't have to go to much trouble. The minute the situation stops being entertaining, you will know." He flashed one of his best shark grins, the one that displayed all his prominent teeth.


Internally disgusted with how easy he was turning out to be when presented with a decent opponent who was also adorably naïve and beautiful, Kisame only grunted vaguely. Sakura took it as affirmation.

"Great! Okay, now, if you wouldn't mind directing me to a few of your colleagues…?"

Kisame balked all over again. "You're not seriously going to attempt to persuade the rest of the Akatsuki to your little soiree?"

"I did kind of say 'most dangerous missing-nins in all the world,' and that kind of means Akatsuki."

"Good luck with that," Kisame scoffed. "Considering that most of us are dead."

"Oh, that's right." Tilting her head to the side, Sakura tapped her chin in thought. "But that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Summoning the dead is probably a lot easier than finding that subterranean plant man."

Maybe this was why he hadn't been with a woman for a while, Kisame reflected. They made no sense. Meanwhile, Sakura was wondering to herself how to go about contacting Sasuke.

She darted a hesitant glance in Kisame's direction. If he was truly interested in what she was doing, there was a chance he would follow her. In that case, she wouldn't be able to dissuade him without killing him or knocking him unconscious, at which point he would probably refuse to testify to her beauty.

Though she'd admitted about the bet, she wasn't sure how she felt about him knowing that it involved his former partner's younger brother. She also didn't want him near the forbidden jutsu she was going to have to perform.

As she strode forward to claim her axe, Sakura repeated her mantra over and over inside her head: It was all Sasuke's fault. It was all Sasuke's fault.

Kisame spoke up then, "Zetsu. The one you're talking about is Zetsu. As for the rest of us, there's only me, Uchiha Madara, Pein, and Konan. Convincing them is your problem."

Sakura nodded absently. "We didn't really talk about it, but I kind of assumed the bet only meant men. You don't think Konan will feel left out if I don't include her? I can still ask her."

This kunoichi was certifiably insane. That said, whatever she had coming to her was probably going to be entertaining. "She won't care."

"Oh, okay then." Inside, Sakura was reeling. Summoning the dead was going to be a lot easier, but no way was she backing down now that she'd come this far. Her honor was at stake here!

Sasuke had obviously formed some weird possessive notions while away. Sakura wasn't surprised, considering that the way Orochimaru chose his vessels was by biting them. But if she let Sasuke win, his head was going to inflate even more and he would probably twist the situation into a stupid clan marriage proposal and then she would really be fucked.

She would take the Akatsuki, even all of them at once, over marriage to Sasuke.

"You won't help me find them?" she asked hesitantly, just to make sure.

"Nah, I'm sure you'll be fine on your own." For an insane woman, the way she hefted that giant battle axe was damn sexy. Kisame gave her a once over, reminded himself that she was young enough to be his daughter… if he'd had her around his twenty-first birthday, he desperately told himself—and vanished.

"I didn't expect to see you so soon."

"Oh, shut up. I didn't return to Konoha, did I?"

If nothing else, beating him would hopefully make him more angry than arrogant. Raging fury and bloodlust she could handle. Sasuke's stupid pride just drove her up the wall.

"If you have to meet me so soon, I can already foresee who the winner of our bet will be."

"Didn't I already tell you to shove it? For your information, I'm well on my way to victory."

Sasuke raised an eyebrow, inviting her to continue, but Sakura ignored him and stared across the table they were sharing in the small café.

"Tell me, Sasuke, how many of Orochimaru's forbidden techniques did you learn?"

Uchiha Itachi opened his eyes and blinked languidly. This was the real world, again, and not the careful construct of his Mangekyou Sharingan with its monochromatic color scheme.

He felt his return was altogether sooner than he had expected. But he would no doubt go back to his eternal peace soon enough. Slowly, his eyes dropped from the trees and birdsong he recognized as being from his Fire homeland and to the chakra in front of him.

There was a woman standing before him with pink hair and bright green eyes. Sakura was peering up at him with a good cheer reanimated corpses didn't normally inspire. Not that he could hurt her, seeing as she was the one who had resurrected him and all, but he hadn't said anything yet, so she might actually have a chance at success.

Itachi recognized her as one of the kunoichi responsible for Sasori's death. She had been present at his fight with Copy-Ninja Kakashi. Her hair also identified her as one of his brother's teammates. When word had reached Akatsuki of Konoha's attempts to find the wayward Uchiha, and who was leading the efforts, Itachi had brushed up on what he knew of Sasuke's background and his former teammates.

Seeing her standing before him, obviously having been the one to summon him, was surprising, but he casually waited for her to state her purpose. Whatever her reasons were, he was pretty much above such things.

Before the silence could lengthen even more, Sakura took the opportunity to speak. "So… it's like this then: Do you think I'm attractive?" She fidgeted a bit, nervously, then reminded herself that this was Uchiha Itachi and he could, like, read minds or something.

"Did you summon me just to ask that question?"

"Um. Yes."

Itachi stared at her. Sakura bit her lip, caught herself, then gave up and bit it again.

"I know I look similar to my brother," Itachi began quietly, feeling like he was tip-toeing around eggshells, caught in her intense gaze. "but if you are having trouble in… courting him, I'm not sure I'm the best person to come to for advice."

"Oh my god!" Sakura exclaimed, turning her back on him and throwing her hands in the air. "It was one crush, one crush when I was twelve and nobody will let me forget it! I swear to Naruto's appetite for ramen that if I don't win this bet I am just going to commit hari-kari and save myself the incredible, debilitating stupidity this situation is dumping on me!"

Itachi furrowed his brow and Sakura fumed, refusing to look at him.

Finally he ventured, "If you are not here for my brother, and you have not summoned me to fight, then the only other thing you could need me for is…" he trailed off, unwilling to voice something so crass after having been peacefully dead and therefore beyond such rudimentary things.

Confusion overtaking frustration, Sakura whirled back around and planted her hands on her hips. "What are you talking about?"

"Somehow… I had gathered you were more sensible than this."

"Than what?"

Oddly, Itachi seemed uncomfortable. His eyes were a non-Sharingan black and staring fixedly over her head. "Necrophilia," he said, mouth down-turned in distaste.

"What! T-t-that's—NO! You're as much of a moron as Sasuke is! God, I can't believe this. I'm getting accused of grave-robbing, literally, by Uchiha fucking Itachi.

"This is great, you know?" she shot at him irritably, holding her head in her hands and bemoaning her fate. "I asked you if you thought I was attractive, not if-if having sex with dead people is safer because I can't get pregnant!"

"I know, I heard you."

"Then why didn't you answer the question? It's a simple yes or no answer! For a genius prodigy, you're just as slow as Kisame. Men!" she huffed. "Frankly," she muttered darkly, "I prefer poison."

At some point during her tirade, Itachi realized the pink-haired woman had not in fact come to besmirch the Uchiha name even after death. Rather, her irate ranting gave the whole situation a comic quality. When Sakura continued muttering under her breath, Itachi found her hard to take seriously. Instead of being annoyed with his resurrection, he was amused, and determined that if her request continued to be amusing he might just be willing to be magnanimous.

Sakura was, of course, unaware of his mental decision. Itachi's placid face hadn't changed, and he weathered her verbal abuse silently and with a deceptively docile air. Winding down, Sakura was unnerved by his stare, but refused to release the stability her anger provided.

"Well?" she griped. He raised an eyebrow in the infuriating manner she was starting to believe was genetic for all Uchiha. "Am I attractive or aren't I?"

"That's all you want."

"Yes. I want to know if you, thinking from the perspective of your formerly alive state of mind, believe that I am attractive."

"You used a forbidden technique for this."

"Yes, okay, are you going to answer the question or aren't you?"

To her utter surprise, one corner of Itachi's mouth quirked up and he smiled at her. Rather than being annoyed at her short temper, he found her snarling to be amusing.

Humoring her because he had already decided to do so and her request did suit his purposes, Itachi examined her carefully from toe tip to crown, his gaze giving every part of her equal attention. Sakura sucked in the urge to squirm and stood his assault.

Itachi was really just a soul inhabiting a reanimated and rejuvenated corpse supported through jutsu, but his mind was still his own. Here in this world his memories were intact, and he knew what sort of woman met his approval.

Sakura squared her feet subconsciously when Itachi's eyes once again met her own, widening her stance defensively.

"You are attractive," Itachi said plainly. Sakura released the breath she had been holding in a rush, then felt annoyed with herself.

"Oh, good," she said, not without a certain relief. "You'll remember that when I summon you again, right?"

"I don't know. Why do you need to summon me again?"

"Um. Just that I made this bet about my being attractive and it kind of involved the Akatsuki. And, um, yeah."

"I see."

Sakura bit her tongue. Itachi had said "I see" in the same tone of voice Tsunade used when ninja in her office for debriefing skimped on the details.

Pretending the forest over his shoulder was very interesting, Sakura missed the narrowing of his eyes.

"Kunoichi, I don't actually see."

"You're kind of dead," Sakura said mildly.

"And you are too intelligent not to understand that when I say 'I see' I expect you to explain yourself."

This command didn't make sense to Sakura. She was the one who summoned him, not the other way around. Petulantly, she made the mistake of glaring at him. The tomoe in his Sharingan were spinning, and she instantly dropped her eyes to his feet with a gasp and waited for the pain of his jutsu.

"Kunoichi. What bet was this?"

Dammit all, Sakura growled to herself. From that brief glimpse he already had her trapped in the Mangekyou. Her options were between truthful embarrassment and prideful silence. Sakura was no Sasuke. She knew which option to take.

"Your brother is an asshole." No sign of opposition from Itachi. "He won't fucking admit that I might be as powerful as him, and he keeps holding back during our training matches. I could stand that. Honestly, I don't fly off the handle the way everyone seems to think I do.

"But that's not the worst of it," Sakura said bitterly. "Oh, no. That self-serving, arrogant prick still has the gall to think that I am waiting for him, and that I hold back not because I don't want to sever his head cleanly from his body with one punch, but because," she furiously gnashed her teeth, "I still love him. Ugh! If Tsunade didn't routinely give him dumb escort missions with fawning damiyo daughters, I might just be tempted to do something really drastic—"

"Kunoichi," Itachi interrupted hastily, before she could continue expounding upon his brother's many flaws, "the bet."

"Oh." Backpedaling, Sakura tried to marshal her thoughts of kicking the elder Uchiha for seeing through her ploy and getting her back on track. "I bet Sasuke I could get the most dangerous missing-nins in the world to admit I was attractive."

There, she was out with it and damn the consequences.

Itachi's reply was unremarkably bland. "Now I do see. What will you be getting in return?"

"Victory!" Sakura burst out before she could stop himself. The projection of Itachi in front of her did that eyebrow raise again. "I get to irrevocably castrate his pride and humiliate him by walking him down the aisle on my arm and handing him off to his bride."

Itachi couldn't help his small smile this time. "Ah. Those are worthy rewards." He chuckled softly at her shell-shocked expression. "Don't be so surprised, kunoichi. My foolish little brother is frequently stupid."

Rising through her incredulousness, Sakura cocked an eyebrow right back. "Frequently? How about all the time?"

"I'm afraid it may be genetic. All the better if you control who he marries."

"Wait. So you're not, I don't know, upset about this? Or at least appalled that I'm using forbidden jutsu to bring you back from the dead for something as frivolous as a spat with your little brother?"

"No, not really. What you do is none of my concern now, and would have been even less of my business when I still walked the earth."

"Hmm. Okay then. By the way, you wouldn't know how I could convince Pein and Uchiha Madara to answer my very straightforward question, would you?"

Itachi gave this the due consideration it deserved. "Pein would be the easiest of the two. This jutsu, for example, might be worth an answer. As for Madara, you might be bargaining the secrets of Konoha when you negotiate a price."

His dark look was sending shivers down her spine. "…That was a joke, right?"

"No," he said shortly. "He will take nothing less than something granting him power over Konoha." Sakura felt her determined sense of purpose falter. Winning a bet with Sasuke did not mean betraying her village.

"Although," Itachi added, "he may be tricked."

Sakura glanced up at him, saw his considering look, and smiled. She was about to thank him when he continued.

"If you are targeting the entire Akatsuki, then you no doubt mean to summon those of my colleagues who are also already dead. I suspect Sasori and Deidara will give you little trouble. Kakuzu and Hidan, however, are more prone to hold grudges."

"Oh god, you're right! I completely forgot about them. I don't know what I have to bargain with, I mean, I can't offer Kakuzu money because he can't exactly take it with him. And that Hidan person was completely batshit insane. No way can I convince him to admit that I'm attractive."

Abruptly, Sakura was struck with a horrifying notion. "And weren't they both zombies? What if they just don't… like that sort of thing?"

"You will have to figure this out on your own," Itachi advised. "But you are the summoner and they cannot hurt you, even though they may refuse to meet your demands."

"Alright then. Thanks," she said, hesitantly meeting his eyes. He nodded in acknowledgement and stepped back.

Briefly, Sakura waited for something to happen. Then she shot him a look. "Don't you need to release your jutsu before I can dismiss you?"

"What jutsu?" Itachi replied evenly. The barest hint of a smirk danced around his mouth.

Sakura's mouth dropped open and she sputtered. Itachi glanced once, meaningfully, at the green of the trees and the blue of the sky before she dismissed him.

Sasori blinked slowly, letting his eyes lazily examine his surroundings as he tried to place where he was. The sun was shining, and the dappled light drifted through the noontime haze that enshrouded the forest.

With a turn of his head, he pivoted. All around him were trees. Various territorial birdsongs drifted through the canopy. It was peaceful, and probably somewhere in the Fire Country if his memories hadn't decayed too badly.

Finally, he faced front again, tilting his head questioningly and staring at the pink-haired kunoichi in front of him.

"Ah. Wasn't killing me once enough for you, kunoichi?"

Sakura felt a momentary trepidation rise in her chest. Sasori was staring at her evenly, but he was somehow scarier than Itachi, because Itachi hadn't been killed at her—and Chiyo's—hands.

"Um," she said descriptively. What did one say to one's defeated opponent, now returned from beyond the grave? In her peculiar circumstances, her single word encompassed a great deal.

Across from her, Sasori calmly crossed his arms. He was curious as to why this kunoichi needed to speak to him again. Did she want more information on Orochimaru? He wouldn't be sorry to disappoint her, because it was really her fault he was dead in the first place, and he didn't have any more information on his former partner's doings.

Sakura fidgeted nervously, trying to ignore the stare of the man in front of her. Sasori waited in the silence, and became aware of a strange pounding that echoed loudly in his ears. Confused, he looked to the girl, but she wasn't the source of the odd, but hauntingly familiar sound.

If he concentrated, he could tell the sound was actually coming from him. Curiously, he stared down at his own chest, then lifted a hand and laid it over the left side of his chest, where his heart had once been. He was startled to feel a steady heartbeat pulsing under his hand. It was rather ironic that he only regained a heart after having died.

Still thinking of how to phrase her request, Sakura paused when Sasori started pulling up the sleeves of his cloak. Expecting him to send out chakra strings and unleash an equally zombified puppet, she was about to jump back when he ceased moving.

"This is odd."

Sakura looked in the direction of his eyes and nodded mutely. His puppet joints were missing. The skin of his arms was smooth and unblemished. Now that she was looking properly, his fingers were unjointed as well. He was also not wearing his Akatsuki cloak, but more traditional coverings from Sand.

Something seemed to occur to Sasori then, and he reached down and casually fondled himself. Sakura's eyes bugged out and she blushed scarlet.

"Wow, it's been a while," Sasori remarked. He took one look in Sakura's direction and dropped his hand. Sakura stood in shock, watching a brief grimace of embarrassment cross Sasori's features.

Everything about this was just so weird! First of all, every single Akatsuki member so far had called her "kunoichi" like it was her actual name. Second, they all acted almost completely different than how she was expecting them to. Okay, so for Itachi and Sasori to act different they had to be dead first, but Kisame hadn't been too bad, and she had heard absolute horror stories about him from Team Gai.

It was kind of hard to forget Hinata telling her in strictest confidence that she was worried about her cousin because he'd awoken screaming silently from a nightmare where he and his teammates had slowly drowned while sharks encircled their sensei to find he'd wet the bed.

"You're not a freaky puppet anymore?"

Sasori decided to overlook her remark about his "freakiness" and the insult such a comment was to his art.

"If this is Orochimaru's Worldly Resurrection technique you're using, then it has probably returned me to my prime for more efficient use as a killing tool."

Wisely, Sakura chose not to point out that he had just indirectly insulted his own artistic vision. If the jutsu thought Sasori was more powerful before he'd mutilated his own body and turned it into a living puppet, she wasn't about to draw attention to it.

"So you were most powerful as an adolescent fifteen-year-old boy?" Sakura winced when Sasori scowled and pretended the words had not just slipped from her lips.


"Now that I think about it, Itachi wasn't in his Akatsuki cloak either. He probably wasn't as myopic either, but I'll have to ask him next time, I guess."

Sasori's eyes widened. From her words, he gathered that this was not the first time she had performed this secret jutsu. He was reminded that this was one of the women who'd brought about his downfall. "Uchiha Itachi is dead?"

"At the hands of his brother."

Sasori snorted inelegantly. "For him it was only a matter of time."

Though Sasuke was a bastard, she couldn't deny that the Itachi beneath the infamous and cold-blooded clan killer was actually kind of decent. Frowning, she bit back her heated retort, contenting herself that Sasori was in the same boat as Itachi now anyways.

And, on that same train of thought, wasn't she doing even better than both of them because she was still alive? Sakura grasped the small amount of triumph this train of thought gave her, and posed her question.

"Do you think I'm attractive?"

Sasori was too dignified to drop his jaw and let the sudden "What?" fly from his lips, but it was a near thing. Surely the kunoichi's mental capabilities hadn't deserted her in such a short time. She was now definitely a woman, but she couldn't possibly be decrepit just yet.

Then again, Sasori himself had lived to be almost forty. There was no telling how many years had actually passed since his death, and it was well known that the Fifth, the girl's teacher, used an age-suppression technique.

"How old are you?"

"Twenty-three," Sakura said automatically in the snap-to fashion that, when accompanied by a scowl, usually prevented her from getting carded.

Sasori raised an eyebrow. "Really. And how old were you when you killed me?"

"Fifteen." Sasori frowned thoughtfully. Sakura frowned at her instinctual responses. "Does this have a point?"

"Have you suffered massive cerebral trauma sometime in the recent past, kunoichi?"

"No, why?"

"Because there must be a reason for you to summon one of your former opponents with a forbidden jutsu to ask about your appearance. The easiest solution is that you are very old, using an illusion to disguise your age, and have taken to extravagant usage of chakra in your madness." Sasori used his voice to communicate his skepticism.

"Yes or no," Sakura snapped irritably.

"What does—"

"Yes or no?" she said again, cutting him off.



Sasori's once-over was brief and much brisker than Itachi's careful observation of her person. In contrast to the unease stirring in her stomach from then, this time she felt like a piece of meat on the butcher's block awaiting a customer's specified cut.

"…I think the answer should be obvious."

He wasn't going to answer her question. The way he was stalling and watching her with calculating eyes revealed he was fishing for information.

Giving in, Sakura said, "Alright, fine. If you must know, it's for a bet."

"A bet," Sasori said, wondering if maybe he had misjudged her and some brief hallucination had overcome him during their fight that convinced him she was a worthy opponent.

"Yes, a bet."

"And what—" he cut himself off. "None of my business," he snorted.

"Right," Sakura said brightly. "So yes or no."

"Do you think I'm stupid enough to overlook one of the women capable of defeating me?" At Sakura's steady look, he sighed. "Yes, of course. Even with help, you survived me. At fifteen I doubt I could have survived a match with myself at thirty-five."

Surprised at his honesty, Sakura blinked dumbly. That was number three for her list of weird things resulting from this bet. So far, the Akatsuki she'd confronted all seemed to have rather high opinions of her. Sasuke was so in for it when she won.

"Besides," Sasori went on, covering his heart with a hand, "even if I had thought differently, this would convince me otherwise." He looked downwards. "Oh, and that too."

Sakura gaped at him, her jaw working furiously open and shut without a word passing her lips.

Rolling his eyes, Sasori dropped his hand. When she finally managed to snap her mouth closed, he shook his head. "That was a joke." Seeing her expression, he stared blandly down at his flesh-and-blood hands. "You're as bad as Deidara. That brat never thought I was funny either."

"It might help if you didn't say it so seriously," Sakura pointed out, "I can't figure out when you're being serious or not."

"Hmph," was all he said.

"But I was wondering," she said suddenly, "how can you have a heartbeat if you're a reanimated corpse?"

"It's probably some part of the jutsu. Orochimaru always liked something that made a mockery of the dead. He just couldn't let them lie, as it were." He looked up at her, and Sakura cracked a hasty smile. Sasori of the Red Sand told horrible jokes. Who knew?

"I never bothered incorporating something as useless as a pulse into my puppets. All I ever wanted were the abilities of my targets. I'm assuming it has something to do with the live sacrifice necessary to perform this technique.

"Which is something I wonder about. Kunoichi, I always thought you too weak-hearted to meet the requirements needed for this jutsu."

"Oh, that's easy," Sakura shrugged fluidly. "I modified it. You're right in that I'm not about to use live people for this. Maybe if dead bodies were needed and some bandits just so happened to attack, or if I stumbled on some razed village, it would be different."

When she shrugged again, Sasori was aware something had changed in this woman from the many years ago when he had known her briefly. Her words revealed a ruthless nature he hadn't thought her capable of back then.

"I used rabbits for the jutsu instead." Sasori felt his thought processes shudder to a halt. Maybe she hadn't changed all that much.

"You don't have the power a live human sacrifice would grant, but I'm only summoning you to talk, not to battle. And I can't risk something going wrong with the jutsu and you or one of the others killing me. It's safer this way."

Her cheerful tone of voice made it seem like she modified jutsu all the time for fun. Considering she had made an antidote for his poison in less than three days, Sasori couldn't say he was exactly surprised.

"You went to all this trouble for a bet?"

"That's right."

Sasori shook his head. "You're even more impressive than that old hag."

"Oh," Sakura said, fainter. "She's dead in case you hadn't… heard?" She had no idea what it was like being dead. If the spirits of the dead could communicate, then maybe he would already know of her words.

"I'm not surprised; she was ancient," Sasori smirked, not sorry to hear of his grandmother finally kicking the bucket.

"She traded her life in exchange for Gaara's."

Once again, this kunoichi had thrown him for a loop. He would have expected her to fall in battle, not to trade what little was left of her life for the dead Kazekage.

"So why are you telling me this? I don't care what happened to Grandma Chiyo."

Sakura bit her lip, furious for suddenly feeling sad over something that had been settled with this man's death years ago. "Just thought you should know," she murmured.

Faintly, there was an ache from the vicinity of his chest area, something that had still existed in his puppet state, but had been much weaker and buried under cold, chakra-infused wood. It surprised him that he should feel in now, when he'd spent nearly his entire life ignoring it and steadily suffocating it.

"Which of the Akatsuki are still alive?" he asked, urgent to distract her from her emotions and himself from his stupidly beating heart.

"Just Kisame, Tobi, who's actually Uchiha Madara, Pein, and Konan."

"So the brat's gone as well, huh? How did he die?" He shot her a look. "Was it you?"

"No, he died fighting Uchiha Sasuke. As far as I know, he blew himself up."

"Heh. That sounds like him, alright. Deidara was always threatening to take me with him when he detonated his heart. Did he win?"

Mutely, Sakura shook her head. "Sasuke survived the explosion."

"Of course he did, and Deidara killed himself for nothing." Sasori threw his head back and laughed. "That brat ended up in the same place as me inevitably. In the end, neither of our art was superior. At least he got to go out with a bang like he always wanted."

For someone who talked of his victims so callously and showed no emotion over the sacrifice of his grandmother, Sakura was oddly touched as he talked about his former partner. Maybe it was because he had a heart now, but she was sure she wasn't just imagining the faint affection coloring his tone.

"Let me guess: You're going to be talking to all of us and asking us that question, right? Don't bother," he said, before she could so much as nod. "The answer's obvious."

"That almost sounded like a compliment," Sakura said with wonder.

"I don't know who you've talked to already, but one of us is probably going to kill you," he said, cutting straight through her illusions. "Save yourself the trouble."

"What do you care?" Sakura said, pouting at his implication that she wouldn't be able to manage the rest of the Akatsuki.

"I don't," Sasori replied with a smirk. Sakura regarded him for a moment.

"Did you and Itachi get along?"

"What, me and the Uchiha? Not really. He was always a presumptuous, prodigal brat. Even worse than Deidara, because at least Deidara got art. Itachi didn't care about anyone else's style other than his own. Disrespectful," he concluded.

"That's what I thought," Sakura said with a laugh.

"I see you've been busy lately, kunoichi," Kisame said, dropping into the chair across from hers at the table she'd claimed outside of the small café.

Sakura glanced once at the man sitting across from her, casually leaning backwards in his chair, Samehada balanced precariously across his lap. No one in the surrounding area seemed to care about his Akatsuki cloak. She was still in Fire, but close to the borders of Grass and Waterfall. It appeared fewer people cared what the Akatsuki did in these parts.

"Hi," she greeted.

"'Hi'?" he grinned. "That all you've got to say to me?"

"Oh, excuse me." Sakura coughed politely. "Darling," she began, "I've ever so missed you."

Kisame tipped his head back and laughed, smacking the flat of his sword with a palm. He signaled the waiter over, still chuckling. "Knew you'd be an interesting one," he said to himself. Then, louder, "So, how's it going with your impossible bet?"

"Three down, seven to go," Sakura said.

"Who have you talked to?"

"You, Itachi, and Sasori."

"Sasori, huh?" He smirked, looking at her over his cup of tea. "That must have been an interesting conversation."

"If by 'interesting' you mean 'full of bad puns,' then yes."

"It's been a while, but I haven't forgotten Sasori's terrible sense of humor," Kisame said with a laugh. "Some of his jokes actually weren't too bad once he got around to the punch line."

Sakura nodded in agreement. "I think the weirdest part was that he came back as a real person, not a puppet. And I do mean a real person: heart, removed bodily… organs and all."

It wasn't hard to miss the rather telling blush that appeared on her cheeks. Kisame raised an eyebrow, watching her fidget uncomfortably. "No kidding?" he asked. "To be perfectly honest, I think what always freaked me out the most about Sasori was how he didn't even mind being separated from his boys." He shivered at the thought. "Freak."

"Yes, well," Sakura said, over-bright, "while I'm sure you'd love to continue discussing the male reproductive system—" she ignored his comment of "Any time, kunoichi," "—I'd like to know why you felt the need to track me down."

"About that," Kisame grinned, "I brought a friend."

Before Sakura could ask him what he was talking about, or exhibit any paranoid ninja reflexes, she sensed a chakra signature directly below their location. A voice followed closely on the heels of this revelation.

It said: "Unfortunately, my appearance inspires a more violent reaction than does Kisame's. Om nom nom," Zetsu's other half added with dark amusement.

Delicately, Sakura crossed her legs. Even if she was wearing her skintight black shorts under her skirt, Zetsu was still in the perfect position to get an eyeful of the space between her legs. She scooted her chair back just enough that she could barely see Zetsu's head beneath the table while still appearing to be looking up at Kisame.

Kisame shifted restlessly, moving his legs and bringing his feet perilously close to connecting with Zetsu's head.

"Don't even think of kicking me," Zetsu warned, turning in the ground to glare at Kisame's booted feet.

"Why?" Kisame asked in a sing-song voice, "Will you bite?"

"Yes," said the dark half. When his head swiveled back in Sakura's direction, she decided to screw sitting like a normal person, and pushed her chair back some more.

"I heard you have a question for us," Zetsu addressed her.

"Yeah," Sakura shot Kisame a look, but he pretended to be absorbed in taking a drink. Trying to judge what he'd told Zetsu would be impossible, so she went ahead with her question.

"Do you think I'm attractive?"

Zetsu's eyes glowing in the shade beneath the table were very eerie, she thought. Zetsu, on the other hand, had no problems with his location. He had an excellent view of two people doing nothing more innocuous than sitting. In his history as an espionage agent, not everything he'd observed from beneath furniture had been so innocent.

"I see now why Kisame wouldn't tell me the question beforehand because it's stupid."

"Yes or no?" Even if Zetsu had seemingly flat-out rejected her, she found that posing the question as having a simple yes-or-no answer was becoming easier every time she asked.

"From what I can see which is not enough…" Zetsu trailed off thoughtfully. "Has anyone ever told you that those thigh-high boots you wear are delicious?"

Sakura uncrossed and re-crossed her legs in quick succession, coming to the conclusion that no matter what she did with them, from Zetsu's perspective any position would display her legs prominently.

She caught Kisame's eyes from across the table and he grinned at how she bit her lip in discomfort.

"I think that was a 'yes,'" he said. He bit back a grin when she glared at him, holding up his hands. "Don't mind me. Just pretend I'm not here."

"From here, it is very easy to see you have the toned calves of a kunoichi. But your ankles are delicate. And most kunoichi aren't stupid enough to present themselves for the approval of wanted criminals."

"I prefer the words 'bold' and 'determined,'" Sakura retorted.

"Your coloring is bold," Zetsu's voice drifted out from underneath the table. "Haruno Sakura."

"Thanks…" Sakura said hesitantly. She had figured they probably knew her name now, since anyone steadily trying to track them all down would be viewed with suspicion.

In actuality, she was glad Zetsu had left off with his leg fetish. But from what he saw daily, Zetsu didn't find anything odd about staring at her legs. Considering his preferred means of travel constantly put him beneath other people's feet, he had come to judge characters not by faces, but by feet, ankles, calves and thighs.

So he continued his minute observation of her feet, something that didn't go unnoticed by Sakura, who was unnerved to find Zetsu staring intently at her exposed toes.

"Okay," she stood up hurriedly, slapping down money onto the table to cover her tea. "I've got my answer, so I'm going to go now."

"Not so fast, kunoichi," Kisame said, grasping her by the elbow quickly, before she could escape. "Ignore Zetsu if he makes you uncomfortable, but indulge me. I'm gathering information too, you know."

Hesitantly, Sakura sat back down, but she hovered on the edge of her seat, ready to flee if things got beyond her control. "What do you want to know?"

"Who are you going to contact next?"

"At first I was going to go from hardest to easiest, but I kind of ruined that when I stumbled over you. Now I'm thinking of contacting Hidan, since I probably have the least chance of convincing him to go along with me."

With a sigh, she leaned forward and planted her palms flat on the table, making sure she could still slightly glimpse Zetsu from between her arms and the edge of the table.

"I don't want to talk about this now. Two summonings really takes it out of a girl. I was on break before you showed up."

Kisame let Zetsu catalogue what she was saying. He'd gotten caught up when she had basically declared him to be easy, and let a smirk grow on his lips.

"Don't let us interrupt your relaxation then. We won't keep you long."

Sakura let her eyes rest on the entire teapot Kisame had ordered. So far, he'd only had one cup. Kisame purposely misread her expression, pushing the teapot towards her.

"Help yourself."

"Thanks," Sakura said, automatically reaching forward and pouring some into her cup. She put the teapot down in time to see Kisame slip some dango under the table to Zetsu, who calmly reached a hand out of the ground and accepted the skewer.

"Ugh, sesame seeds," he said after a moment's chewing. "I prefer Hanami."

"You and Itachi both," Kisame said with a flash of teeth.

Sakura glanced from the head under the table that was probably oogling her thighs right about now to Kisame. If she didn't know any better, she might think they were very subtly flirting with her.

"Just a tip," Kisame said suddenly, "but you're currently worth 1.8 million ryou."

Sakura blinked, trying to absorb his reasoning from the air by means of osmosis.

"Of course, it'll probably go up to five, or maybe even eight when word gets out about what you're doing here."

Lacking the proper words to reply, Sakura let a single eyebrow reveal her confusion and disbelief.

"Hey, eight milliou ryou isn't a bad bounty. Itachi's little brother's only worth five. Of course the Uzumaki kid is worth twenty, and his bounty's growing all the time, but he's playing host to an entity of pure chakra. Not many people think catching a jinchuuriki's even a realistic aim."

As far as Sakura knew, the Akatsuki were still after the jinchuuriki, and that included Naruto. But Kisame talked about Naruto's bounty as if he didn't believe the Akatsuki could capture her friend either.

Also, his comments about how much her head was worth were kind of a compliment, considering he thought her worth more than Sasuke. So until he made a direct threat on Naruto's life, she wasn't going to worry.

"I was under the impression Hidan was immortal," Zetsu spoke up in the brief conversational silence that had arisen. His dango skewer was conspicuously absent, but he had fangs, so there was no telling what he could eat. "Was that wrong?"

"Oh, no," Sakura shook her head. "I know where he is, but retrieving him would be a big pain in the ass. I'm just hoping that if his whole body got destroyed I might be able to summon a semblance of his head or something."

"His mouth is probably the most dangerous thing on him," Kisame nodded sagely.

"Not the fact that he's a fucking masochist, sadist, and cultist all wrapped up into one convenient package?"

"Well," Kisame hesitated.

"One of us saying that would be like the pot calling the kettle black."

"Ha, hah, Zetsu," Kisame snorted, his mouth full as he ate his remaining dango.

"This jutsu of Orochimaru's is convenient, then?" Zetsu asked Sakura.

"How much do you know of the technique?" she answered, slanting her eyes to conceal her expression and hiding her mouth behind her cup of tea.

"What our organization knows is based solely on the Sound's attack on Konoha in alliance with Sand. I have gathered eye witness reports from ninja there during the attack."

"Then you know everything about how it works, except the initial preparations."

"That's right," Zetsu Two replied.

"Is Pein interested in the jutsu?" She slotted Kisame a calculating look. "Is Madara interesting in the jutsu?"

"They may be. Kunoichi, what's it to you?"

"Tell him I might consider his offer." Without making a distinction between which "he" she meant, Sakura pushed her chair from the table and got up. Of course she remembered Itachi's words. There were preparations to be made if she wanted to challenge the Akatsuki's official and unofficial leaders.

"Was that what you wanted to hear?" She met Zetsu's golden eyes, luminous in the shadow provided by the table. "Next time, you can probably just ask as long as it's not a Konoha secret, and I might just tell you."

With a swipe of her hand, she pulled her money from the table and dared Kisame to protest with her eyes. When he made no move to say anything, simply watching her, she glared under the table at Zetsu's just visible head and flytrap attachment.

"Don't think you'll get a free peepshow every time we meet," were her acidic words.

Feeling like she'd made a suitably dramatic gesture, Sakura vanished, leaving Kisame alone with Zetsu to finish his pot of tea.

"Riling the kunoichi, huh, Zetsu? I never took you for that type. You've seen what she can do to the earth; try that again and you just might not make it out alive."

"It was worth it," Zetsu replied evenly, "even if she's probably going to be killed."

The only answer Kisame could provide was a shrug, an ineffective move since Zetsu could only see him from about the waist down.

"Maybe. But, then again, she's won you over as well, hasn't she?"

"…It could never work between us," came Zetsu's blasé reply.

"Oh, thank goodness," Sakura breathed, the moment the dirt-stained crate disappeared, leaving behind Hidan's head and only his head, minus the rest of his body.

"The fuck?" Hidan said, with his usual elegance. From the ground where his head was situated, he felt like a pebble. The trees towered above him and he couldn't move at all. Concentrating, he tried to feel his limbs, but his usual awareness of his body that existed even through dismemberment was simply not there.

Casting his eyes about, he found Sakura sitting a few feet from him and impossibly tall. He was almost on eye level with the ground, but his lack of feeling, lack of pain convinced him this was not the Earth Inner Decapitation Technique.

His short temper snapped, and he fixed upon Sakura as the source of his current situation.

"Bitch!" he shouted. "What did you do with my body?"

"I didn't do anything with it," she growled, affronted by his language despite having known what to expect from Shikamaru's accounts.

"Don't fucking lie to me, you bitch! Where's the rest of my body?"

"Buried in a hole, where Shikamaru trapped it when he defeated you!" she snapped. "You do remember getting your ass kicked and falling into his trap, don't you?"

Hidan glared fiercely at her, opening his mouth, then shutting it was a dark scowl. "Bitch."

Sakura placed her hands in her lap, carefully uncurling her fists. This conversation had gotten off to a fabulous start. Hidan's decapitated head was staring at the ground in front of it mulishly, very obviously fuming at her.

"Do you think I'm attractive?"

One question, and Hidan's temper was successfully diffused. He looked up at her in surprise. "Huh?"

With more hesitation this time, she repeated her question. "Uh, do you think I'm attractive?"

Hidan stared narrowly at her, trying to figure out her game. Uneasy, because even if his decapitated head was less dangerous, his lack of body was still very creepy, Sakura clenched her hands.

"What the hell brought this on? What kind of fucktard brings people back from being dead to ask stupid questions like that?"

"Oh, just answer the goddamn question!" Sakura cried. "Yes, or no."

Speechless, because the insane kunoichi was apparently serious about this, Hidan scrutinized her through narrowed eyes.

"Okay, tell me: Do you own a large weapon bigger than you are?"

"What does that have to do with anything?"

"Oh, just answer the goddamn question, kunoichi," Hidan mimicked, his voice a mockingly high-pitched approximation of her own.

"Yes," she bit out, feeling reluctant to answer him.

"And, let me guess: You've got some sort of shittily underestimated power that lets you fuck stuff up and other shit like that."

"Yes," she said, from between her teeth.

"Thought so," Hidan laughed, a mildly disturbing sound because it had just struck Sakura that Hidan didn't have a voice box to speak with, much less to laugh with.

"Don't get offended, or whatever, but you look like one of those people who'll shatter if looked at the wrong way, but can actually fuck you up six ways from Sunday with their little pinkie finger. Heh," he grinned suddenly. "Pinkie."

Here was another backhanded compliment, delivered from a foul mouth formerly belonging to Akatsuki. That was also another pun right there, considering all Hidan had at the moment was a foul mouth. She was really glad for Shikamaru's foresight in blowing up this particular opponent all of a sudden.

"Smooth," she replied, her tone of voice implying she thought Hidan anything but.

"Kunoichi, you have no idea," he smirked. It was kind of hard to see her, what with the height discrepancy, but he let his eyes run over what he could of her body.

She was a petite little thing, with the sort of innocence that said clearly she wasn't good for a kunoichi's normal seduction missions. Just the way she was sitting, prominently displaying her legs, said she had very little idea as to her own sex appeal. Either that, or she was a damn good actress.

Her coloring practically screamed "Fragile; This End Up," but she had the gall to summon him, tell him she knew where his body was but wasn't willing to retrieve it, and insult him by bringing up the name of his killer in a pointed hit at his dignity.

Hidan concluded briefly that for a kunoichi who was obviously very fucking insane, she was pretty good.

"Okay, Pinkie, you're attractive. And, believe me, I don't tell just any insane kunoichi bitch that."

"I imagine not many other kunoichi bitches, insane or otherwise, are interested in what you have to say. Tell me: Do you kill them after you're done with them?" she said, with clinical detachment.

Mentally, he gave her points for effort, but there was a very unclinical fire burning in her eyes as she spoke.

"Only the ones that would have killed me otherwise. Don't get uppity with my, kunoichi," he snorted. "You're a ninja too and you know how the world works.

"Besides," he said as an afterthought, "I'm celibate. Jashin doesn't like excessive lust among his followers. It distracts his faithful from his true calling."

"Right," Sakura said doubtfully.

"So, maybe I engage in more carnal activities, now and again," Hidan conceded. If he'd still had arms, he would have spread his hands at this point. "I am a damn good follower, and Jashin rewards the loyal."

The kunoichi's face said she wasn't game, but Hidan had to try anyway. "You could earn big points with Jashin for putting me back together. Be well on your way out of this heathen fuckhole and onto salvation."

"Please," Sakura snorted. "I'm more afraid of Shikamaru than I am of you. Besides, I already got what I wanted."

"What?" Hidan scrolled furiously through their previous conversation, trying to track what her objective had been and when she had achieved it. When he thought he had his answer, he fixed the kunoichi with his best deprecating look.

"Pinkie's more self-conscious than she looks."

Responding subconsciously to the threat in his voice, Sakura's hands pulled into fists. "Yeah, I summoned your head because I secretly had a crush on you and wanted your opinion with a burning, desperate passion."

It was very hard for Hidan to keep his dark humor in the face of such blatantly scathing sarcasm. Scowling because the kunoichi was clearly not scared of him, he glared.

"Then, Pinkie, tell me why I'm here and not, literally, ten feet under?"

"I made a bet," Sakura didn't bother to hold her head up. The effect was lost on someone whose perspective already gave him an excellent view of her chin.

"A stupid one. Pinkie, are you trying to get killed?"

"You're one to talk. I was under the impression you were immortal. Was that wrong?" She echoed Zetsu's words, this time placing a taunting derision in her tone Zetsu had lacked. Payback for the way he'd made her voice sound wimpy and high-pitched when mimicking her.

"I still am!" he growled. "My immortality is a gift granted by Jashin to one of his most devout followers! I wouldn't expect a heathen bitch like you to understand my devotion to religion!"

"You're changing the subject," she pointed out. "Tell me: If you're not good and dead, how is it I can summon you through Orochimaru's forbidden resurrection technique?"

"You're using that freaky snake bastard's jutsu? How the hell did you pry one of his beloved techniques from his sacrilegious fingers?"

"Would it really change anything if you knew?" she retorted smugly. "Or has Jashin also granted you the ability to perform seals without your hands?"

On the one nonexistent hand, the fact that the kunoichi had found one of Orochimaru's most-guarded techniques and successfully used it was impressive. On the other, she had just insulted his religion, and that was something he couldn't take.

"Bitch! Watch how you talk about Jashin. Don't sully his glorious name with your fucking heathen mouth."

"Do you realize how repetitive you are?" Gradually, through the course of their conversation, she had begun to see why Shikamaru had made it his personal business to get rid of Hidan.

Sure, he had killed Asuma, but he was also the sort of closed-minded zealot that would annoy broad-thinking Shikamaru the most. That, and she had to admit the guy was definitely "troublesome." Of course, before his death he had been pretty much immortal, so it wasn't like there was much reason for him to change his opinions on anything.

"Now you're starting to sound like that fucker Kakuzu," he told her through narrowed eyes.

"Speaking of him," she began brightly, more to unsettle him than anything else, "do you know the best way to bribe him?"

"That's easy. You obviously didn't do your homework, Pinkie. All that heathen fucker Kakuzu could ever talk about was money. Dangle a fifty ryou coin in front of his face and you'll have his full attention."

"But other than that." Hidan only looked at her, so Sakura elaborated. "He's dead. Money won't help him where he's going."

"Hah! I told him to give up his life of sin and greed in favor of the salvation of Jashin, but that fucker wouldn't listen! See where it got him!"

"Not to rain on your parade, but you didn't end up any different than him, religion or no."

"I am confident Jashin will see my through," Hidan replied, stiffly. Without the rest of his body there, it was hard to tell he'd tensed, but the icy glare he sent her was a very good indication.

"Yeah," she gave him a doubtful look. "Good for you."

Sakura ignored his sputtered cursing and dismissed him.

It was a novel experience for Kakuzu to rise back to the world of consciousness lacking his usual awareness of exactly how much money he was carrying on his person. Ignoring his surroundings, he started to search his clothing, desperate to rectify this situation.

Standing across the clearing she'd been using for the summoning, Sakura couldn't find the words to tell him to stop. Part of her was morbidly curious to see if he was going to follow Sasori's stellar example and scar her poor eyes some more.

The minute Kakuzu discovered that his pants didn't have pockets, he knew it was a lost cause. No pockets meant no wallet, but he persisted desperately. The coins and notes he'd had sewn into his clothing were missing. There was nothing in his sandals. When he lifted a hand to the cowl he wore around his head to find the money he hid in the folds, he discovered it was missing.

Only then did he bother glancing around his environment. He distinctly remembered dying, which could have something to do with why he had no money on him now. But he wasn't sure what to think because he could clearly feel chakra nearby, and the dead probably weren't supposed to feel chakra either.

As far as he could tell, there was only one chakra signature in the clearing, and it was directly in front of him. Without any clues, he let his eyes move to meet those of the kunoichi who was responsible for his current predicament.

Her appearance matched the description Zetsu had given of the still-living kunoichi partly responsible for Sasori's death. She was Haruno Sakura, apprentice to the Fifth Hokage, and teammate of the Ninetails' Jinchuuriki. He'd seen her briefly in person before the battle that had killed him.

Now she was facing him from across a clearing looking nervous and on her guard. He wasn't sure what her purpose was in summoning him, but he was dead and had no money and he found that he just didn't care.

Here was another ninja with weird eyes, Sakura thought. Kakuzu was missing his cowl and the dangerous animal masks. Though he still retained his stitching, he was younger-looking without the furrow between his eyes and his dark hair barely brushed his shoulders. But his creepy, inverted green eyes looked the same from the glimpse she'd gotten of him from before.

"Hello," she called, knowing she sounded insipid, but unable to think of anything better.

"Hello," Kakuzu replied. "Is there a reason I'm here and not where I'm supposed to be?" Then he added, unable to help himself, "Do you know where my wallet is?"

"I think all your money blew up when Naruto killed you," Sakura said, shocked to find her voice was coming out gentle.

Kakuzu sighed and folded his arms over his chest. "That's what I thought. So, why am I here?"

"Do you think I'm attractive?"

Compared to Hidan, Kakuzu's seriousness was a refreshing relief. Of course, when he told her he didn't go for girls who hadn't undergone lobotomies at least twice, he was going to do so with more grace than Hidan's pointless swearing could ever achieve.

Instead of turning her down, he posed a question instead. "How much are you worth?"

Instantly, Sakura became aware of the purpose for Kisame's "tip." She probably owed the shark man for being able to respond to this question without blowing up at Kakuzu's unconscious statement that everything, including looks, could be judged by monetary value.

"One point eight million ryou," she said honestly.

Kakuzu narrowed his eyes at her until the green in his eyes was barely visible. From the way the stitches on the side of his mouth turned downwards, she could see he was frowning.

"You should be worth more," he finally concluded.

"I probably will be, if I don't die," she said with wry amusement. "You're only the sixth Akatsuki I've talked to and not been killed by, after all."

"That," he paused, adding up sums and calculating values, "that should add about three point five million ryou to your bounty. An added five point two million ryou if you survive the remaining five members and live at least six months after that."

Coming out of his money-induced counting daze, he blinked at her. "How did you manage to contact nearly all of our members, even those who, like me, have died?"

"Wait," Sakura interrupted, stepping closer in curiosity despite herself. "Are you sure you computed that correctly? Only how much is it worth to survive one of you guys? Considering also that I killed Sasori."

"I don't know," he frowned, concerned that his absence from the rest of the world was affecting his knowledge of monetary matters like bounties. "It would depend on who is still alive in the organization. The fewer members still living, the more worth it adds to your head to survive the remaining members.

"As for the dead members," he glanced at her, seeing she was watching him avidly and tilted his head in consideration. "Summoning a dead member with what I'm led to believe is Orochimaru's secret jutsu is not the same as 'surviving' a living Akatsuki member."

What Kakuzu was saying made sense, Sakura supposed. She nodded, expecting him to continue.

Her steady nod was confirmation for his suspicions about Orochimaru's jutsu. "Have we captured Uzumaki Naruto yet?" he asked.

"No. And the only Akatsuki members still living are Pein, Konan, Tobi slash Uchiha Madara, Zetsu, and Kisame. I'm not contacting Orochimaru."

All of her information was taken in and added to the constant equation that was his mind. "How much is the Ninetails' container worth?"

"Twenty million ryou. That seems like very little, for a jinchuuriki."

"It is," Kakuzu agreed. "If a few Akatsuki members are still alive, his bounty will only go up with the years he continues to live. When the organization is gone, his bounty will probably increase significantly to an amount so unrealistic no one will expect it to ever need paying."

Sakura sucked in a breath. "Like a Hokage?"

"Yes." Kakuzu broke from her gaze with the realization that his death at the hands of the Jinchuuriki was going to contribute to a massive bounty he would never have the chance to go after. There was a terrible irony in the thought, he confirmed irritably.

At Kakuzu's words, Sakura had felt her pulse speed up and her heartbeat increase. It wasn't the same as hearing Tsunade publicly declare Naruto's her successor, but it was an equally good indication of things to come, regardless.

"So," she grinned. "Attractive?"

Knocked from his thoughts, Kakuzu looked up at her. He went back to the initial additions he had made to her bounty. Having already survived five Akatsuki members, six counting himself, she had a very good chance of surviving the remaining four she planned on contacting.

"Ten point five million ryou isn't a bounty to scoff at," Kakuzu said for his answer.

Sakura nodded, happy to have yet another Akatsuki member crossed off her list. She was going to start the hand seals to end the jutsu and dismiss Kakuzu when she looked up and caught him watching her.


"Kunoichi, why are you so convinced on speaking to the Akatsuki?"

"It's for a bet," Sakura answered.

Here was number four for her list: Every single member, usually through her own willingness, had learned of her bet. Only Itachi knew what she was getting out of it, but so far every member she had contacted had learned that her motivation was a bet. If she wasn't careful, one of the others was going to wonder what she was getting out of it and ask—

"How much?" Kakuzu asked, par for the course.

Hastily, Sakura gathered up her thoughts, reminding herself that Kakuzu's eyes were simply odd and that he did not possess any mind-reading doujutsu.

"Something worth more than money," was the only suitably vague thing she could think of to say.

Kakuzu wasn't familiar with the thought of anything having a worth not measured in money, but he was starting to realize that such things did exist. His life, for example, was probably being measured even now by snickering Academy children in the number of bounties he would never be able to capture.

This kunoichi's bounty was going to increase from talking to him. Even if he could have gone after her head in order to collect her bounty, he was starting to realize he wouldn't, if such a choice became open to him again. Collecting on her head meant she would die and her bounty would never increase any more than that.

She was Fire, and she was the teammate of the infamous Ninetails Jinchuuriki. She was going to survive, and by the time she died, her bounty would be enormous, and he would never get the chance to collect on it, or even to find out how much she was really worth.

In the midst of his soul-searching, Kakuzu found himself abruptly amused at the quixotic nature of his own thoughts. He was dead, he had no money, and he didn't care at all. Really, what was the point if you couldn't take it with you?

"I miss my wallet," he said sadly, just because for now he was at least operating under the semblance of life.

Sakura blinked, not sure what to make of the wistful note in Kakuzu's voice. Not sure why she was compelled to do so, she pulled out her own wallet in practical not pink brown leather and offered it to him.

Kakuzu shot her a confused look, and she shrugged. "It's not like I won't get it back," she answered the unspoken question.

"Thanks." He made no move to take the wallet from her hand. "But it's too late now."

Slowly, Sakura replaced her wallet, all the while darting glances at him. "Uh," she said, uncomfortably aware that this was a side of Kakuzu utterly different from the monster of living threads that had fought Naruto, "so, did you know Tobi was Uchiha Madara?"

"I had suspected he wasn't what he pretended to be There was always something not-right about Tobi. You don't simply join Akatsuki. It's an invitation-only organization."

"But what do you know about Madara? You were alive around the same time he was."

"I never had the privilege of fighting him myself, but his reputation precedes him. You want to know how to get away with contacting him and not die?"

Sakura nodded, expression determined. It was the sort of foolishly resolute look Kakuzu expected from the young.

"You're a Konoha ninja, from the village that kicked him out, the village that he hates. You're loyal and the thought of desertion physically sickens you. You'd never be able to play the missing-nin card with him."

Now she was feeling shaken. Kakuzu's analysis was straightforward and honest. Unfortunately, that also meant it lacked encouragement.

"So?" she finally ventured. "Itachi told me as much. Only he said Madara could be tricked."

"Is the Uchiha dead?"

Not sure where he was going with this, Sakura nodded.

"Are you willing to risk your life on a gambit? The Uchiha was. You aren't."

Once again, he was speaking the truth. Sakura wasn't willing to go quite that far to win.

"Then what you need is a safety net." Normally, Kakuzu would never have considered what he was about to tell her. But it didn't matter to him anymore, and it might give her a better chance to survive and collect interest on her bounty.

"When I was still alive, bounties weren't the only things I was after. I collected rare objects, scrolls for the dry spells when money was short. It wasn't always possible to go after bounties, and the Akatsuki had expenses that needed to be met.

"You'll need to go to Waterfall," he said, listing off a set of coordinates for her. "Four days journey in from the border with Grass. It takes you very close to the entrance to the hidden village, and Waterfall is constantly scoured by rogue ninja. But you'll know when you get there by the strata of the cliff.

"Four days in, kunoichi, five different layers of rock, six different seals."

Then he lifted his hands, slowly forming each of the seals in the correct order so she could memorize them. He performed the right sequence again, faster this time, and then so fast his hands were a blur of movement and it was impossible for her to make out the individual seals.

"The location is marked by a fossil that looks like Zetsu's cousin. Don't read the scroll you find. Save it for Madara."

"What—" she began, but Kakuzu held up a hand.

"It's not anything Leaf would want, but it's still useful, at least for this purpose. It's actually a good thing I found out its real purpose before I sold it or I might have been in a lot of trouble."

"It's a trap?"

"Are you familiar with the term 'pitfall'?"

Sakura's eyes widened, astonished that the extent to which Kakuzu was helping her. "Why are you helping me?"

"Whatever," Kakuzu shrugged. "It's not like I cared about the organization in the first place. If Tobi is actually Madara then he was probably manipulating the Leader from the very beginning anyway."

"How am I going to explain how I suddenly know where to find your hidden scroll?" Sakura asked, suddenly struck with the horrible realization that Madara was too clever for that.

"Well, it was a scroll from Fire to begin with. I actually learned what it was for when I visited the Fire Temple, where it was originally from. I'm sure there's mention of it back in Konoha somewhere."

Sakura casually skated over why exactly Kakuzu had visited the Fire Temple in her mind.

"Madara's going to be suspicious, no matter what you say. Fine," he sighed, as if she'd worn him down. "it's a scroll on complicated sealing methods for summoned demons, like what the Third Hokage summoned during his fight with Orochimaru."

Something niggled at the back of Sakura's brain, and she furrowed her brow, looking at Kakuzu warily. "You told me it was a pitfall. And, more importantly, how can I trust you?"

"You can't," he said, "but it sounds like you've already taken the advice of other Akatsuki and you're still alive now. It's up to you. But I haven't lied to you about the scroll's contents and I haven't told you the truth either. Make up whatever back story you need; the important thing is that Madara not catch you in an outright lie."

"Thank you," she said.

Kakuzu stiffened, but forcibly relaxed and turned his back on her.

"If the bet isn't worth your life, don't die for it," he said, as she completed the necessary hand seals and he disappeared from view.

She was two days from the border with Fire when she stopped. Sakura had spent the better part of a week locating Kakuzu's scroll, now safely tucked at the bottom of her pack. The fossil it had been hidden below did, in fact, resemble "Zetsu's cousin," as Kakuzu had said. Partly visible rising from the layers of rock had been the fossil of a fish with enormous jaws.

After finding the scroll, two days had passed where she was forced to dodge groups of Waterfall's rogue ninja. As she was now within a safe distance from Fire, Sakura decided a little break was in order.

The rock she chose to sit against was lodged next to the base of a tree, giving her a convenient niche to wedge herself in as she sipped cold tea from a travel thermos.

Only five minutes had passed before the hair at her nape stood up. Calmly, Sakura recapped her thermos and put it away, rising from her reclining position and stretching as if nothing was the matter.

Uchiha Madara was standing not ten feet from her. Sakura focused on the swirl pattern of his mask, avoiding the single eye slit and the flash of red that was just visible beneath it.

"Madara," she greeted with polite familiarity.

"Haruno," he nodded formally. "I heard you were looking for me?"

"Not just you," she smirked, radiating confidence she didn't have.

"Kisame spoke highly of you. Even Zetsu was impressed. But what's not to be impressed by? You are the Fifth's favored apprentice, after all."

Madara didn't bother with any of his fancy space-time jutsu. Instead he stalked forward, letting the space between them dwindle and appreciating how the kunoichi's eyes tracked his every move.

Sakura didn't bother turning when he moved to stand behind her. Madara was trying to disorient her by circling like a predator. She wasn't going to fool herself into believing he was any less dangerous, no matter where he stood.

"So what's your question?"

His voice was right next to her ear, but she didn't feel his breath or any other indication that he'd moved at all.

"You're just going to answer? Without any sort of payment at all?"

"You're not after the Akatsuki." Abruptly he was standing before her again, head tilted to the side in consideration. "None of the others saw fit to eliminate you, so why should I?"

Of course it was impossible to discern emotions from beneath his mask, but when he spoke next his tone was brighter, obviously channeling the voice he has used for his "Tobi" persona.

"Ah. I see. You have something for me?"

It was like talking to a slightly senile old man, his entire demeanor had changed so much. Even his stance, with his arms and legs limp, invited her to drop her guard.

Then she realized what Itachi had meant when he had told her Madara could be tricked. He was an Uchiha, and they were only every after one thing.

"It's not supposed to be payment," she said steadily, eyes fixed to the orange of his mask. "Not for something like this, something personal."

Two could play his acting game. Sakura shot her eyes to the ground, glaring and letting her hair fall over her face as she bit her lip.

"But if I give it to you first, what's to keep you answering honestly once you have what you want? What if you decide it's not even worth keeping me alive?"

"That is a complicated question. And this… bet of yours. You don't intend to bribe me?"

"No," Sakura shook her head furiously, "Never!"

There went Madara's good opinion of her. She was an unflinchingly honest and loyal ninja. He had to hand it to Konoha for raising another perfectly competent ninja into worthless cannon fodder.

"Even the others," Sakura continued, "I didn't bribe them. They answered honestly."

"The dead Akatsuki too?"

Despite not actually being able to see his face, Sakura had a feeling he was falling for it. Just like Kakuzu said, you couldn't let him catch you in an outright lie.

"That doesn't sound like the version of Worldly Resurrection that I know," his tone was polite inquiry only.

"I," she hesitated, imagining the bait at the bottom of the trap, "I modified it."

"Interesting. And would it be this modified technique you plan on offering me?"

"Maybe." Sakura shrugged coyly. "I might have something else."

She was startled when he laughed. "Clever kunoichi," he praised. From beneath the mask his voice was amused, even soft, but she could just barely hear the mocking edge.

"Were you saving it for Pein?"

"Maybe," she admitted again.

So the kunoichi had been planning to try and offer him the same prize as Pein. She gave up gracefully enough when called out, revealing she did indeed have a backup to offer him.

"What was your question?"

She would give him what she had regardless, she was honorable like that, he could tell. As for the technique, he would let Pein have it. He had no use for such a jutsu, and his revenge was nearing fulfillment, one way or another, so it hardly mattered.

"Do you think I'm attractive?"

Madara threw his head back and laughed.

"Do you know, if you had asked me anything else, I would have thought this was a trap. Do you realize how old I am?"

"It doesn't matter to me. I just want your answer," she told him firmly.

"Yes," he said plainly, taking a step forward. "Kunoichi, not many willing seek me out, and you have dared to attempt to fool me. I don't know what your intentions are—"

"A bet," she gasped out, not even pretending because he was close enough that the tomoe in his Sharingan would probably be visible if she was foolish enough to meet his eye.

"It's for a bet."

"Who with?" he asked, drawing back.

Sakura didn't hold back the answer, because he could come closer without any warning the next time he decided to do so.

"Uchiha Sasuke."

"That fool," he sneered, not bothering to conceal his scorn. "No, I should say, more fool you for letting that one use you in whatever plan of his this is. Give me what he sent you to deliver."

Fumbling with the straps of her bag, Sakura pulled out the sealed scroll Kakuzu had sent her to find. Madara plucked it from her fingers, giving it a critical examination.

Evidently it met his approval, for he tucked it away and glanced back up at her.

"Apparently he cares about you enough to send you bearing something that would ensure your survival. I should take back what I said, but an Uchiha's word is law, even if he doesn't uphold our clan standards."

The clearing was empty. Sakura sucked in a giant breath, trying to compensate for the point in Madara's speech when she had forgotten how to use her lungs.

She had been right, of course. The Uchiha were easy to play, except for maybe Itachi. All she had needed to do was answer in half-truths and let Madara's paranoia and prejudices take over to get what she wanted.

Still, she waited four days until she was firmly back within Fire's borders before she celebrated by getting good and drunk.

It was with a weary sort of amusement that Sakura hugged Fire's borders, drifting her way leisurely towards Rain. The intellectual part of her had known from her very first utterance of the bet that she would survive the meetings. It was that very part of her that Sasukue refused to acknowledge, hence why it was the most insulted by his scoffing.

But it was her more instinctual side, concerned with only the physical facts and not the psychological motivations that had believed her death imminent at the hands of one of the Akatsuki. However, she had cleared nearly the entire organization without incident and that side of her was finally starting to quiet down.

Of course, her honest assessment of herself had already revealed Sasuke had underestimated her. She wasn't sure what exactly would happen if she paired that knowledge against a group of unpredictable missing-nins like the Akatsuki.

Apparently the answer was: Nothing. Nothing would happen to her, except that she would find herself talking to a group of sociopaths that liked to compliment her andslashor flirt with her.

So she wasn't exactly worried when she came within spitting distance of Rain in order to make herself more accessible to Pein and his partner. As far as she knew, they stayed mostly in Rain trying to fix whatever plans were now impossible with so many dead Akatsuki.

Of course, if she offered Pein Orochimaru's Resurrection technique, that might change. Pein had quite enough chakra to summon all of the dead members and use his various bodies in battle at the same time.

But Sakura refused to worry. So far, things were turning out in her favor. Just the fact that Madara hadn't hunted her down in search of her blood after discovering whatever trap was concealed in Kakuzu's scroll was proof of that.

Lacking the normal complaints her instincts would be voicing right about now, her intellectual side abandoned rational thinking and decided to trust in luck. She'd convinced the cannibalistic plant man and the religious zealot to go along with her with very little persuasion, after all. What was the Akatsuki leader in comparison to that?

Well, as long as she didn't have to convince all of his different bodies, Sakura reflected wryly.

When she found herself facing down the remaining Akatsuki pair still active, Sakura didn't tense, didn't fall into a battle crouch. She kept her stance lax, even when the two moved forwards, stopping easy conversational distance from her.


"Hello, Haruno Sakura," Pein greeted first. "I am Pein." Though of course she knew who he was already, he introduced himself for manners' sake.

"I am Konan," added the woman at his side.

Neither spoke after that, obviously feeling they had made the necessary contributions to the conversation and that now it was Sakura's turn to continue what they had started.

"Do you think I'm attractive?" She smiled briefly at Konan, as if to say "What can you do?" and was surprised when the other woman smiled back in an understanding fashion. Both turned to regard Pein.

Pein looked her over, before turning to his partner and raising his eyebrows. Konan shrugged gracefully, before stepping back with a small tilt to her lips.

This was nonverbal communication of the highest order. Sakura could tell from their unspoken conversation that the two had obviously been working together for quite a while now. She really couldn't blame Pein for measuring her up against Konan, if she was reading his gestures correctly and that was what he had just been doing.

"You are an especially strong kunoichi of the Leaf," Pein remarked. "I will agree to that much."

Then the two were drawing back. Sakura had her answer; the incident was over. Compared to everyone else, there was a relative ease about the entire exchange that almost made her think something more was yet to happen.

What Konoha intelligence knew about this man was not enough. Whether he was indeed operating under Madara's aims or under his own, she couldn't begin to say.

Just as the two reached what they probably considered a safe distance to vanish from, Konan turned back to Sakura.

"Kisame mentioned a barbeque. Will there be one?"

"Oh," Sakura was unexpectedly flabbergasted. "I hadn't thought… but I guess I did say that."

Konan nodded, looking pleased. "We will be there."

The two were gone, leaving a flummoxed Sakura mentally preparing a barbeque shopping list as she considered possible locations for the gathering. She hadn't actually been expecting to prepare the aforementioned barbeque, but what did she expect, for Sasuke to actually take her word for something?

Depending on what was available, she might have to ask him to bring ingredients when she messaged him.

Which left her with one member left to contact. After everything she'd been through, Sakura wasn't worried at all. None of the other dead members had proved a challenge for her, even Sasori whom she had personally helped kill and Hidan, who could only politely be referred to as "insane" when around the tender ears of unconditioned Academy students.

Compared to all that, the Akatsuki member who had killed Gaara didn't rank very highly. In fact, he was probably the easiest member because he was last. As soon as she spoke to Deidara, she would win, and then she could gloat over Sasuke for the remainder of her days.

The thought was very encouraging as she made the appropriate hand seals.

Then there was only the explosive ninja, staring guardedly at her, hands already moving subconsciously for clay pouches that were no longer there.

One startled revelation later, and Deidara's fight drained out of him. He glanced once at his waist, as if his hands were lying to him, before he gave a sigh, a shrug, and sat, staring up at Sakura expectantly.

Not sure what he expected of her, Sakura took a few passive steps forward, hovering closer indecisively as she waited for him to say something.

"So?" he queried, sweeping one hand to encompass the ground he was sitting on in an open invitation for her to join him. "You summoned me to talk, yeah. So talk."

It was perhaps the most open-ended statement any of them had given her, including the point where Kisame had volunteered the information that he had "brought a friend."

Maybe because she wasn't afraid of dead people after so many summonings, maybe because Deidara had a forthright nature that reminded her of Naruto. Whatever the reason, Sakura sat, copying his cross-legged position and folding her hands into her lap.

"Do you think I'm attractive?"

Deidara's sputter was very encouraging. It was the sort of reaction she had expected from all of them, even if it was silly to imagine, let alone think, of the Uchiha sputtering.

"What?" Deidara's eyes boggled at her, and he held up his hands, palm out in the universal gesture for "stop."

"Wait, hang on," he said, lifting his hair away from his face and ears and tossing it behind his back. "Yeah, okay, now say that again. I'm pretty sure I had some crazy in my ears when you opened your mouth."

"Do you think I'm attractive?" Sakura repeated her question, aware her voice this time was amused.

"Yeah, that's what I thought I heard." Deidara stuck a finger in one of his ears, obviously unable to take her at face value. "Never took you for the type, yeah."

Cold dread crawled down Sakura's spine. If she was going to get another lecture about how she was too sensible for necrophilia, she wasn't sure she could restrain herself. Deidara hadn't been summoned for battle, even if he conceivably couldn't feel pain.

"The cold, ruthless kunoichi type, yeah" Deidara affirmed. "I didn't think you were the type to summon a guy from the dead just to make fun of him. Your teammate the Uzumaki brat isn't around here somewhere with that Gaara, is he?"

"You tell me. Can't you feel chakra?"

"A little, yeah. Probably not enough to harness it." Deidara fixed her with a single blue eye, his blonde hair having fallen over the left side of his face once again. "Or are you the Ninetails' Jinchuuriki, under a henge? Trying to get me to drop my guard or something?"

"That doesn't make any sense!" Sakura burst out, though she was fighting a smile at Deidara's seriousness. "Why would Naruto even do that?"

"Well I don't know, yeah! How am I supposed to react when confronted by the pretty pinkette who was the source of those monstrous hits that defeated Master Sasori? 'Yes, that has to be the most destructive force I've ever seen a kunoichi use, take me now, I'm yours'?"

"Yes!" Sakura exclaimed. "That's exactly what you're supposed to say."

"Oh." Deidara looked at her in sudden consideration before his gaze dropped to his hands and turned ironic. "Too late now, yeah. Would you even have taken me?" he grinned crookedly at her.

"Are you even mine?"

"No, I guess not," Deidara said with a scowl. "What a waste, yeah."

"Don't even say something like 'we could have made beautiful artwork together.'"

Deidara looked up, but she cut off his protest with a roll of her eyes. "If you pull that same thing on me Sasori did, I'll deck you, corpse or no."

"You talked to Master Sasori too?" he asked, suddenly excited. "And, wait, but what did he pull?"

"Um, he didn't so much pull it as…" Sakura blushed, gesturing helplessly. "Well, um, he wasn't a puppet when he came back, if you catch my drift."

She rocked back when Deidara burst out laughing, clutching his stomach as he fell over into the dust of the ground and rolled around.

"No way!" he gasped, as he wiped tears with the back of his hand. "So Master Sasori was at his most powerful before he turned himself into a mockery of true human life? I told him, yeah. I told him his view of artwork was wrong."

"No offense," Sakura pointed out, "but you're dead too."

Deidara brushed her words off with barely a wave of his hands. "Yeah, but at least I went out with a bang. He wanted to live forever. I never believed I had that luxury."

Not sure what to say, Sakura simply shook her head.

"So," Deidara continued when she had nothing to add, "are you telling me, I don't know, Sasori groped himself, or something?"

Sakura cursed her face for giving her away when Deidara caught one look at her expression and started laughing all over again.

"Oh, man, he did! Wow, but I bet it must've been a while, since he deserted Sand at least twenty years ago. He just reached down with you standing there and…?"

Mutely, Sakura nodded. Deidara laughed again. "Yeah, and I bet that wasn't the worst part. Did he make some lame joke after that?"

Sakura nodded again. "You'll forgive me if I don't repeat it, but he said you never got his jokes either."

"Who the hell would ever find him funny? Master's sense of humor sucked, it wasn't just me, yeah. That damn Uchiha was the only one who ever even understood that he was making a joke. The rest of us had to wait until he deigned to explain in that I'm-so-superior unaffected Uchiha voice of his what the punch line was."

A sudden thought seized him then, and he leaned forward. "Speaking of Uchihas: Uchiha Sasuke, that bastard I was fighting, did I get him?"

Sakura tried not to take umbrage at his words. After all, it wasn't like Deidara had succeeded. More to the point, she wouldn't even be here if she wasn't trying to win a bet with Sasuke.

"No. He summoned that giant snake Manda to shield him from the blow."

"Tch!" Deidara exhaled in frustration. "After both of us were too exhausted to move he had enough chakra to summon one of Orochimaru's freaking giant snakes?"

"I guess so," Sakura shrugged. "Considering I'm trying to win a bet with him. Though it would probably suit everyone better if you had killed him. That prick was not worth the effort we put into bringing him back to the village."

Either because of the hostility that had seeped unchecked into her voice, or because she was talking about the man he had failed to kill, she had Deidara's full attention.

"I thought he was a former teammate of yours, yeah? Why so bitter? Did you get spurned?"

Glaring at his smirk, Sakura's response was particularly vitriolic. "More like he got spurned but won't admit it." Hardly aware of what she was doing, she stood up and began to pace while Deidara looked on in astonishment.

When Sakura got angry, as previous situations had proven, her emotions tended to take over. In this case, what constituted as her emotions taking hold manifested in an outpouring of her life story to a man long dead, but who had been a known threat to Konoha back when he had been alive.

"I had a crush on him when I was twelve. Twelve, okay! This was back before he decided going with that snake pervert Orochimaru was a good idea, back before I cut my hair in the heat of battle rather than let an enemy think I was too weak and silly to care about mission objectives over personal vanity."

With casual indifference, she steamrolled over Deidara's awed comment of "That's hot, yeah."

"And now that he's back he still thinks I'm the weak kunoichi that needed protecting from everything back in our genin days. I mean, okay, I know I have a temper," she shot Deidara a glare that could melt lead when he grinned and said ruefully "No, you think?", "but he is not allowed to hold back during our training matches when I'm just as powerful as him and I routinely break his bones to make my bread!."

Deidara jumped a bit when her gaze swiveled over him before she locked on a tree, marched up to it, and imagined it was Sasuke's face she was pounding as she unleashed her fist. Of course, the tree didn't stand a chance.

"Fee fi fo fum," Deidara muttered, as she stood in front of the tree panting and trying to see all the other colors in the spectrum besides red.

"And this bet you hatched with him?" Deidara prompted when Sakura appeared to visibly reign in her temper. "Wait, don't tell me, he went and did something stupid like insult your looks to your face, right?"

Sakura shot him a look. Deidara only shrugged. "Hey, even I know kunoichi are like regular women in that you don't point out their physical defects to them if you want children sometime in your future, yeah."

"How very observant of you," Sakura snorted. "Piss off many kunoichi before you figured that out?"

"I don't know how many of us you've met," Deidara said, looking at her warily out of the corner of his eye, "but I'm sure you noticed Master Sasori's a bit of a misogynist, yeah. Of course he's nothing in comparison to Hidan."

"No, I noticed," Sakura said wryly. Answering Deidara's unspoken question, she said "Him insinuating I wasn't pretty enough to get a date on my own without waiting around for him was the last straw. I bet him I could get the entire Akatsuki to admit I'm attractive."

"Tall order," Deidara said, his eyebrow up.

"Maybe," Sakura smirked. "But I guess you wouldn't know. I saved you for last."

Once again Deidara was impressed by the kunoichi before him. "I take it I helped you win your bet?"

"Yeah, but I wasn't really worried," she said, adding on teasingly, "I saved you for last because I knew you'd be easy."

His eyebrows were going to freeze somewhere underneath his forehead protector, Deidara thought wryly. "Are you calling me easy, kunoichi?"

She grinned at him, and he made to rise into a half-standing position before realization struck. With a shake of his head, he sank to the ground again, lifting his hands up so the tongues stuck out tauntingly at her.

"If you'd said that to me back when I'd been alive, I would have made you regret it, yeah."

"Of that I have no doubt," Sakura laughed.

"What a waste, yeah," Deidara said again, with the crazy smile he'd used to rile Naruto.

"Whatever," she snorted, sitting down across from him again. "You say that like you wouldn't try and blow me up after our brief affair ended due to Akatsuki-Leaf tensions."

"Who knows, yeah? I might not. Maybe I'd become so inured to you I'd stick around and we'd have little pink-haired blue-eyed kids with itty-bitty mouths in their itty-bitty hands."

Sakura just looked at him. He held up his hands defensively, though this time the mouths in his palms kept themselves closed.

"It's nice to talk about it now that it's impossible, that's all I'm saying."

"It's a good thing you're dead," Sakura said airily, "or I'd have to hit you. If you claim you're not 'easy' then you must know what happens when you lead a girl on without any intent to follow through."

"The same thing that happened to Master Sasori all the time."

At Sakura's questioning glance, he answered her "Nothing" on a laugh.

Taking advantage of her good humor, Deidara asked "What're you getting out of this bet with the Uchiha brat? If you've talked to everyone else, you're obviously powerful enough not to get killed, but was it worth it, yeah?"

"Oh," Sakura grinned, a facial expression reminiscent of Deidara at his most manic and explosive. "I will own his ass. I'm going to take a chunk out of his pride so he can never claim to be stronger than me ever again. And," she cackled, mad with glee, "he can't get married without my permission. Just the low blow that will tell him never to muck about in my personal life ever again if he wants his own to have even a modicum chance of success."

Deidara whistled, slowly unclenching his fists and telling the mouths in his palms to stop gnashing their teeth. Even though the kunoichi was exuding a fair amount of killing intent, it wasn't directed at him. After all, he was dead, and she apparently didn't harbor any grudge against him for the incident with the Kazekage, something he was beginning to look on as a blessing.

"Always hated that about the Uchihas, yeah," he remarked easily, almost conversationally in an effort to diffuse her temper before she decimated the rest of the surrounding trees. "That damn Uchiha pride. Same exact thing with Itachi. The one thing I regret about my death is never having the chance to kill him."

"Oh," Sakura murmured, anger suddenly sapped from her form. "Sasuke killed him, but Itachi planned it all along. He was on orders to kill his clan from Konoha before they rebelled against the village, and he joined Akatsuki to keep track of Uchiha Madara and make it possible for Sasuke to inherit his Sharingan and survive."

Through the mess of information she had just dropped on his head, Deidara was only able to grasp one thing. "Uchiha Madara? The guy who founded their clan, yeah? He was in Akatsuki?"

Sakura gave him a strange smile, an expression Deidara wasn't quite able to decipher. "He was your partner. The man named 'Tobi.'"

"Tobi was Uchiha Madara?" After his violent outburst, Deidara sat for a least a minute as still as a statue, chewing on his own words before he leapt up and made strangling gestures in the empty air. "That bastard! Why is it always the Uchihas? I get forced into the organization by one, I have to be partnered to one while he fools the whole organization and me by acting like a complete and annoying idiot, and then I die trying to kill one!"

He stopped and frowned at Sakura. "Your village is a big pain, you know that?"

"Yeah," Sakura nodded mildly. "We get that a lot."

Still reeling, Deidara sat back down. "This is a lot to dump on a guy, especially after he's dead, yeah. Last chance to reveal your hidden blonde teammate and tell me the joke's on me," he pointed out wearily.

"Sorry," she said.

"That's what I thought you'd say, yeah," Deidara grumbled.

"Would it make you feel better if I told you I was holding a bit of a barbeque Akatsuki reunion?"

"It's certainly confusing me more," Deidara said with grudging good-humor.

"Well, I kind of need proof for Sasuke to believe me. I went so far as to contact the entirety of the Akatsuki organization for this bet, even learning Orochimaru's forbidden resurrection technique to do so. It's not like a barbeque is any worse than simply talking to you guys."

"I don't see how you'd have any problems, yeah. You already said you talked to all of the others. I know I wasn't much of a challenge," he grinned, "but some of the others would have given you trouble. If you convinced them, then you should really just kill that Uchiha before he passes any of his genes on, leading to the eventual destruction of your entire village by the inherited stupidity in his spawn."

"The thought had crossed my mind," she said seriously, "but that would go against the whole 'resurrecting the clan' thing. The Sharingan's one of Konoha's most prestigious bloodline limits. People want that kind of thing to stay in the village, y'know?"

"Tell me about it," he grimaced, looking to his open hands.

"At least you're free of that now," she pointed out, trying to be sympathetic.

Deidara just shrugged. "Whatever. So when you say reunion, you do mean 'reunion,' yeah? As in, I can see Master Sasori again and taunt him?"

"Yes, but maybe you should hold back?"

"Why would I want to do that, yeah?"

"I modified the jutsu, so I don't know how any of you will behave in battle. Seriously," she cautioned, "if Madara shows up, please try and not jump him, okay? I don't want an entire Akatsuki conflagration on my hands. I might not actually survive that."

"Fine, fine. I promise not to try and send Madara back to his ancestors, alright? But can I at least give your Uchiha a few digs? I really think he deserves it, and if you loose your temper on him he might not survive in one piece."

Sakura appreciated the dark, conspiratorial look he gave her, she really did. "No, don't taunt Sasuke. His brother will be there, and that should be enough melodrama for a reunion where many of the people present are dead."

"Well," Deidara began dubiously, obviously still against her urge to be sensible during the orchestrated madness, "I guess you're the boss, yeah."

Sakura had not one, but three deer roasting over the spit, plus a whole line of fish and several other woodland critters. She only hoped it would be enough. The dead Akatsuki couldn't eat, but somehow Sakura knew that small fact wasn't going to prevent anyone from trying.

Then there were Kisame and Zetsu. Each of them could probably eat an entire deer all on their own. Sakura had her fingers crossed behind her back in the hopes that the two of them would be polite and save some deer for everyone else.

Barbeque venison, fish, and assorted wildlife wasn't a cooking venture she had tried previously, but Sakura figured she had already gone all out for her bet with Sasuke. Adventurous new cooking experiences were the least of her worries.

So she had felled and smashed up enough trees for a massive bonfire, arranged some of the wood just so, and lit the whole thing up with a Katon jutsu before stringing up her various kills and arranging them so they turned for even cooking over the roaring fire.

After a few minutes she took the meat down, slathered the stuff in the barbeque sauce she had whipped up impromptu, then put the carcasses back up. Making sure the meat wouldn't burn untended, she took the opportunity to summon the five dinner guests who couldn't join the fun with their own power.

Neither Sasori, Itachi, nor Deidara looked surprised to see her again. Kakuzu, if she was reading him right, looked slightly pleased to see she was still alive. Only Hidan bothered to greet her, if his exclamation of "What the fuck!" could be counted as such.

Deidara immediately rounded on his master, jerking the sleeves of Sasori's robes up and grasping the other man's arms, unmindful of Sasori's anger or his complaints for personal space.

"Brat, what—"

"You were more powerful before you made yourself into a puppet!" Deidara crowed. In his happiness, he failed to dodge Sasori's vicious uppercut, jumping back and fixing Sasori with the look of a wounded puppy.

"You told him?" the puppet master hissed in Sakura's direction.

Sakura, standing next to Itachi, shrugged. "It's not like he wouldn't have found out anyways."

"Hmph," Sasori glared at his former partner. "Brat, touch me again and you're going into the fire."

Deidara's eye lit up with his characteristic mad gleam. "Oh, Master, I didn't know you cared."

Sakura ignored them, turning to Itachi and nodding her head politely. Itachi nodded back, ignoring everyone else around them with equal impunity.

"Sasuke's going to be showing up sometime soon."

"It will be nice to see him again," Itachi said, no hint of irony or sarcasm present in his voice.

"I thought you might be worried I ruined the, uh, rather dramatic way in which you died?"

"No," Itachi shook his head. "From what you have told me, I believe my little brother is in need of further scolding."

The thought of Sasuke being scolded in full view of the entire Akatsuki by his older brother wasn't one Sakura wanted to dwell on as long as Itachi was close enough to take offense at her laughing at him.

Meanwhile, as Hidan's partner, Kakuzu had taken it upon himself to pick up the screaming head before someone kicked it. Hidan hadn't bothered thanking him, but his swearing had abated somewhat.

"Kakuzu, you fucker," he growled.

"Nice to see you again, Hidan," Kakuzu said, a hint of a smile about his mouth.

"Not a word," Hidan glared, though he could only meet Kakuzu's eyes because Kakuzu was holding his head up at eye level.

"I didn't say anything."

"I can hear you thinking it!" Hidan shouted irrationally.

It was a lucky thing Kisame appeared when he did. Kakuzu was demonstrating a large amount of patience for someone who didn't have to constantly deal with his partner's annoying shouting anymore, but Sakura had no doubt at some point Hidan's head was going to get strung up over the fire and slow roasted.

"Itachi!" Kisame said, with more cheer than most people expressed at the clan killer's presence.

The large ninja walked up from where he had appeared, hand drawing back as if to pound the Uchiha's back with familiar ease. It occurred to Kisame then that despite being dead, this was still Uchiha Itachi, and he snagged Deidara by the back of the collar and pounded the younger man's back instead.

Deidara almost fell over at the gesture, clutching at Sasori for balance and coughing up a storm. He recovered before Sasori could hit him again, rounding on Kisame angrily.

"What was that for, yeah? I'm dead, not freaking immortal!"

"I heard that!" Hidan snapped. "All of you heathen fuckers judging me! Jashin will judge you! Just wait and see, when judgment day comes—"

His ranting cut off when Sakura offered Kakuzu a roll of bandages. The entire gathering relaxed significantly once the cultist was limited to muffled complaints by Kakuzu's handiwork.

"Hello, Kisame," Itachi told his former partner. "Still alive, I see."

Kisame chuckled, clapping Sakura on the back with a large hand. Sakura noted with amusement he didn't use nearly as much force as he had with Deidara.

"It probably wouldn't matter, with this one here."

"Yes," Itachi said evenly, "Sakura has been busy, I see."

Uncomfortable to find everyone else watching her with respect simply because the Uchiha had referred to her by name, Sakura tried to distract them with food.

"Uh, here's the barbeque I promised."

Zetsu took that moment to appear. "Venison is acceptable," he said.

Sakura handed out plates and let Kisame carve off pieces of meat for everyone. It was interesting, though not exactly a surprise to see them all descend on the food like ravenous vultures. She was probably more surprised at the way Kisame took up position of honorary host.

"Are you going to shut up?" Kakuzu asked Hidan's head.

Hidan glowered at him, but made the closest approximation of a nod he could, letting his pupils flicker up and down. As soon as Hidan's mouth was uncovered, he glared scornfully at the food everyone else was chowing down on.

"Kakuzu," he growled.

Kakuzu just shook his head, as if it pained him to do so. "Sorry," he apologized. "Five ryou per piece."

Hidan opened his mouth, probably to start yelling again, but caught the eyes of Pein from where he and Konan had appeared at the edge of the gathering and shut up.

Pein let his eyes trail over the assembled members, quietly accepting the plates a meek Sakura handed to him for himself and Konan.

"You're not eating?" Konan asked a silent Itachi.

"No," he answered simply.

"I brought corn on the cob," Konan offered, pulling her sleeves back and revealing the large bag of corn husks she had been carrying.

Itachi hesitated a moment before nodding agreeably. "Please," he said.

Sakura, more surprised that Konan had apparently taken the offer of a barbeque seriously than anything else, handed the other woman the wire she had used to string up some of the now-devoured animals.

"Thank you," Konan said, and proceeded to string up the corn over the fire.

"So, Kisame," Deidara said with an evil chortle and a telling smirk in Sasori's direction. "Did you hear?"

"Hear what?" Kisame asked, already having caught on to the joke.

"Brat—" Sasori's warning was completely ignored.

"Master Sasori's a real boy now."

"You don't say?" Kisame's eyes swiveled to regard Sakura. She jumped, looking at him with the flighty eyes of a deer.

"What…?" she asked hesitantly.

"I heard something similar. It's been a while, hasn't it, Sasori?"

The redhead was visibly fuming, his narrow glare focused first on Deidara, then on Kisame.

"Technically," Sakura piped up in a calculated attempt to distract them, "you're all made of rabbits."

"What?" Kakuzu asked. In a gesture that did not go unnoticed, he scraped the remaining food from his plate and into the fire.

"I used rabbits instead of people for the summoning," Sakura shrugged.

"Seriously?" Deidara asked, mouth open in astonishment.

"That's what I said," Sasori mumbled, already having been privy to the information.

"Interesting," Pein and Itachi said at the same time. They glanced at each other before Konan stepped between them and offered Itachi a corn cob he gracefully accepted.

"Hello," Madara greeted from behind the fire's light. "Sorry I'm late."

It was like a chain of dominoes had been set off. Around the fire all except Pein and Konan tensed, some falling into defensive stances but all fixing him with wary eyes.

"Oh," Sakura couldn't contain the small gasp when his gaze fixed on her. She turned back to the fire to avoid his eye only to discover that only half of one deer remained.

"Sorry," Zetsu said, from where he had been standing silently behind her. Sakura jumped, turning to look at him. "That was my fault."

"It's fine," Sakura muttered, actually relieved he was slacking his hunger now rather than later. "Only there isn't any left for Madara."

It wasn't hard to miss how Deidara's visible eye narrowed, nor the way Kisame and Itachi both fell into a side-by-side flank of her person. Pein did nothing, but Sakura didn't miss the way Konan conspicuously failed to offer the Akatsuki's unofficial leader any corn.

"Calm down," Madara said with a chuckle no one was fooled by. "The kunoichi fooled me once. I'm not about to try again. Apparently," he said, when he had Sakura's full attention, "you are a cleverer kunoichi than I realized."

Sakura found both Kakuzu and Itachi watching her with knowing pleasure in their eyes and blushed at the unspoken praise.

It was to this scene that Sasuke arrived. Everyone but Madara had some sort of food, even his brother who was daintily nibbling perfect rows on his corn.

Speechless, Sasuke reacted visibly shocked to his brother's raised eyebrow.

"Orochimaru's not here," he said, apparently the only thing he could say.

"Well, I didn't think he counted," Sakura started with initial irritation, only to be cut off by a sweeping gesture from at least four people around her. Konan turned and gave her a gentle, if quelling look.

"Tch!" Deidara snorted. "Like that matters, yeah."

Sasuke found himself with the attention of the entire Akatsuki, and shifted nervously before remembering himself and drawing to his full height.

Itachi turned from his little brother to nod at Sakura. Surprised, she met his eyes, then looked up into Kisame's amused shark eyes.

Grinning suddenly, she stepped forward. "So, guys, what do you think?"

There was a murmur of approval from the assembled men. The single female Akatsuki member smiled, taking a careful step back, as if to give Sakura the floor.

"Bitch!" Hidan said, ruining the ambience.

Kakuzu lifted him by the hair on the back of Hidan's neck and shook his former partner's decapitated head.

"What?" Hidan scowled at the pointed glares of all the other Akatsuki members. "None of you fuckers will even let me have any food!"

Sighing, Sakura stepped forward and handed Kakuzu fifteen ryou. He glanced at her in confusion, and she shrugged carelessly.

"Really. It's not like I won't be getting it back later."

Hidan fixed her with his best glower, but she just rolled her eyes at him. That, and Madara's piercing Sharingan eye supplemented behind her, convinced Hidan to change his mind.

"Fine," he grouched. "Uchiha," he snapped in Sasuke's direction, "what the fuck is wrong with you?"

"Sasuke," Itachi said, clear, even voice cutting through even the crackle and roar of the enormous bonfire. "I thought I taught you better than that." He chastised his younger brother in obvious disapproval.

"Shannaro!" Sakura cheered, unable to resist. "Victory!"

Sasuke had that mulish, petulant look he got on his face when he was trying to refuse reality and supplement his own, even if the results should prove disastrous.

It was Sakura's dream come true when the Akatsuki, as one conscious entity, fixed him with a look and said:

"You're a moron."

A/N: Shannaro! And, I mean, seriously. You don't get through 22k+ words and 56 pages not thinking that.

Uhhh, I should explain, I guess. Hanami dango is typically eaten during cherry blossom viewing season (so says wiki, anyway), hence why Sakura thinks Kisame and Zetsu are flirting with her when they mention "preferring Hanami dango."

EDIT 7/13/09: I love love love everyone who has taken the time to review this story. I've never gotten this many reviews before and I really appreciate everyone who made that possible for me. Thank you so much.
I never intended this to be any more than a freakishly long one-shot. I didn't intend for a sequel when I wrote it a year ago and I still don't intend one a year later. Please respect that. I work extraordinarily slow and, without inspiration, not at all. But the reviews I received on this story have encouraged me to post other things I've worked on and hesitated to post. Hopefully something else I've worked on will be just as amusing and interesting to read as this one-shot was.

Once again: Thank you!