They were waiting in the dark, he and Sasuke and Naruto, alongside Jiraiya and the Kazekage, and while his brother was a silent coil of near-undetectable chakra and intent, Naruto was softly restless, though not to the extent that he felt the need to chide him for it. His control over the kyūbi’s chakra had become remarkable, but more remarkable yet was the man who’d replaced the brash and thoughtless boy.
He only wished his brother had come so far.
As for Itachi, his body was still and his chakra quiet in ways that would have been impossible a year ago, but his mind was uneasy in ways that were inexcusable in the face of the coming conflict. Itachi had tried to be satisfied with this, standing next to Sasuke in battle instead of against him, in the way he used to be satisfied with things: a complete and finished sort of feeling.
A laying down of things, a preparation to let them go.
He could not quite let go of Sakura’s words before she’d left him, her in that stark uniform and with her dragon eyes unconflicted as she’d kissed him like it was both their first kiss and their last. That lack of hesitation, which had defined so much of their relationship, told him that she wouldn’t relent on this thing that she asked of him; he had been too caught up in the kiss itself for it to sink deep and shake him as it later would.
Emotional vulnerability like this was new to him. He wasn’t certain he liked it—he was even less certain that he’d have had courage enough to express it and wasn’t that a strange thing?
His eyes shifted to Sasuke, weighing. Thinking. Uncertain and feeling that it wasn’t the time for uncertainties, especially for something that had been more idea than they’d ever had the time and opportunity for in reality.
But ideas had worth and weight, else people would never fight for them.
He just had to decide whether he was willing to let old dreams fade to embrace a new one.
There was a liminal moment between night and day, when the sun was nothing more than a burning line on the horizon that cast bloody shadows on the bellies of the clouds. Sakura felt caught in that moment as she looked out over the city she was about to entrap, only instead of awaiting the breaking of dawn on a new day, she felt like she was about to pull down the night and drown in it.
Or maybe cover this city in the color of that terrible bleeding sky.
Perhaps she should have felt powerful, poised on one of the flying swords that Sai had created to minimize their profile in the sky, but all she could think was that her hands felt clammy and she might be sick if she thought too hard about what she was about to do.
Not that she’d be able to avoid that, in the end.
She was more the dragon than she’d ever been for any length of time, her antlers proudly jutting through her hood, her talons shifting against the ink that kept her from falling from the sky, her claws sharp as the wind tugged softly at her hands. The length of her tail draped over the sword and spilled over the side, her scales shimmering scarlet in the dawn. Deep inside, in a place invisible to human eyes, in the dark ocean where that pearl of natural chakra was usually spun tight, it had bloomed through her veins and she could feel the subtle pulse of it in her tearing teeth.
Everything was in place—already, the shells of people-that-once-were had been filled with the elite of Suna’s Puppet Corps in areas of high shinobi residency and were waiting for her to fall upon this city. In her mind’s eye, she could almost see the others in their demi-human forms, like kami or yasha or asura, their swords surrounding the city like the points of an evil star.
Exhaling slowly, Sakura raised her hands and folded her fingers into a familiar handsign.
Invisible currents filled the space between them as her team became extensions of her power, natural chakra being fed into the link until their individual chakras welled over into the jutsu and formed something truly catastrophic. It built for only a moment and in her mind’s eye Sakura could see thunderclouds welling up, before the storm broke and it became a drowning city.
She fed everything she remembered of drowning into the illusion—the strangely muted sounds, the burn of lungs desperate for air, the sear of water in sinus passages, the panic at searching for a surface she never found, the confusion and distortion of her fading vision.
Even from high above the rooftops, she could hear the screaming begin, and Sakura imagined the illusion pouring deep inside them like the water would have. The Puppet Corps had been supplied with some drug that was probably lethal in large doses to jolt them from the genjutsu, but there were thousands upon thousands of minds that had been unprepared for this attack.
A real Sage would have sensed when they began to die, swathes of the young and the old and the weak finished before any blow could be struck by a puppetmaster, but Sakura wasn’t a Sage.
She was something else, and she did not regret that as she watched the slaughter begin. Tsunade-sama’s orders had made clear that they weren’t to target the civilians directly, and so long as they remained unconscious inside their homes that would be more easily accomplished, but it had been made equally clear that they weren’t to curb their techniques for fear of injuring bystanders.
Uncurbed puppetmasters were monsters; she had seen it in Sasori and now, on a scale both smaller and grander, she was seeing it again as the sun rose over Ame.
Sakura tore her attention from the streets below, meaning to turn her gaze to their next target as Operation Cloudburst softened the defenses of the city and opened paths to their true destination: that four-faced tower that loomed over Ame’s skyline.
Her eyes caught on the sky and the moon that hung in it in a sky full of dawn, too full and too close and coming down—and she was eclipsed, caught between present and possibility.
Sakura had the same sense she had when she stepped between with Hiraishin; a suspended moment that was outside of time as she knew it. She was still the dragon—more the dragon even, with the concealing uniform gone and in its place the kind of regalia that emphasized the non-human characteristics of a spirit. When she shifted her head, bells chimed softly from where they hung on her antlers; the garments she wore were the red-and-white of traditional Shinto, though there was an element of armor to them as well.
Vaguely, like the ghost of one of her genjutsu, she saw the others similarly attired, their eyes as wide and wary as she felt, but though she saw them speaking, no words reached her ears.
Sakura stood inside a space bound by shimenawa, in front of a small shrine on a rocky white plain that stretched as far as the eye could see.
She had just begun to wonder if this was a genjutsu turned against her, against them—she had felt none of the dissonance, but until the end, Gozen-san had been able to keep her trapped in them, at least for a little while—when between one blink and the next, a woman had appeared in front of her.
She looked as if she’d stepped from some story, perhaps the same story that Sakura and the others were dressed for, clad in jūnihitoe and with her white hair long and loose down her back and spilling over the trailing hem of her robes. The outermost of her twelve layers was white with elaborate patterns woven into the silk itself, below which was a layer of regal purple, then purple of a different shade, transitioning slowly toward a pale blue like the heart of winter and darker blue hakama beneath it all. A gauzy scarf of pale moon-gold silk floated about her like a signal of divinity; in her hands there was a closed fan.
Her eyes were Hyūga eyes, but the third eye on her forehead was Sharingan red and she had horns like branches.
“Hello, child,” she said and her voice echoed oddly in this space-that-wasn’t.
“Hello,” said Sakura cautiously.
The woman observed her silently and Sakura took the opportunity to attempt to break the genjutsu, if an illusion it was, but the world surrounding her didn’t so much as ripple.
“You wear the dragon well,” she said. “And the companions you have tied to you are strong and balanced. This one worried. After so many years of stillness, one begins to fear movement, lest one unbalance the world.”
“You…you were the one who finished the seal,” Sakura hazarded, both alarmed at this and feeling that this was a much more reasonable explanation that than it having become functional on its own.
The woman inclined her head ever so slightly. “This one did so.”
“Why?” Sakura asked, when the woman made no further explanation. “Who are you?”
“This one was once called Ōtsutsuki Kaguya.”
“A name can become a chain to bind one,” she replied, adding after a thoughtful pause, “There has been no one who called this one anything for a very long time. Tsukuyomi-no-Mikoto’s realm is a silent one.”
“Oh,” Sakura said, startled, then, “Why? Why did you finish the seal?”
“There are perhaps stories of this one, if you searched for them, though with the erosion of time and the fallibility of human memory, who can say what has become of them. Even before this one ceased listening to the echoes from the earth, they had become largely lies,” she said flatly, pale eyes narrowed in a show of temper from a face that had been almost as still as a Noh mask. “Meant to enforce the order of this world—to vilify powerful women and glorify the violence of men. The most enduring lies, however, are anchored with truths. You are not interested in this one’s history. You are concerned with the history that is even now being written.
“This one retired from the world long ago, but this one’s descendants live on as mortals do, incarnating in the cycle of souls. Their memories might be shed like the outgrown skin of cicadas in each cycle, but the core of their self remains. Their ambitions. Their antagonistic relationship. And the disaster that follows even their best of intentions. They walk in the human world now,” she warned. “This one can feel the tremors of their passing, but there is something more to it now—something that feels as if it might shake this realm to its roots. Chakra gathers. And quietly, quietly, beneath the clamor, someone this one hoped to never hear from again.”
“Akatsuki. They’re gathering the tailed beasts—their leader intends to use the threat of their power to force peace upon the world.”
A slow blink. “The world moves in cycles. There are few new things in it. This foolishness has been tried before. It will be tried again. And it will not go as they think it will. This one suspects that what this one feared is in motion—that this “Akatsuki” unknowingly serves the plan of something much older than themselves.”
“What kind of plan?” Sakura asked, as jarred in her comfortable worldview by this strange conversation as she had been by her first venture into death. Only this time, her emotions weren’t tepid and tamped down; they jangled, vacillating between suspicion—Sakura was Sakura and therefore of note to herself and not beings like this woman, whatever she was—and a sort of resignation born of Tatsuo’s warning and a childhood full of improbable and terrible happenings. “Why warn me?”
“Rare is the human who dares make use of natural chakra. Rarer yet are those that survive it. Most seem to call upon it only during their battle meditation—and this one speaks to you only through the energy that touches all things and binds realms. So, when you ask this one why, it is because you opened yourself to the hearing and this one admired the strength of will and daring that this one sensed in your song. This one sleeps deeply and no longer watches over the earth or listens to voices such as people speak in. This one cannot give you the faces or the fullness of their plan. This one has no will to wake—but if they manage to do so, this is true: when gods war, it is humans that suffer.”
She raised the hand that held the fan slowly, with the kind of deliberate grace that characterized temple dances. Sakura almost flinched when it pressed against her forehead, in echo of the third eye that was less-than-metaphysical on the woman in front of her. “Open your eyes, child,” the woman commanded, “Be wary of those of this one’s mortal line, but beware most the one who, when this one ate of the fruit, began to gnaw at the roots.”
Sakura opened her eyes and discovered herself still perched on a sword above Amegakure and the sense of dissonance and displacement was so great for a moment it was like in the first, worst days after Wave.
“What the fuck was that?” Anko-san’s voice was strident and shaken over the comm, breaking radio silence.
“Taichou?” Kakashi-senpai’s voice asked as Sakura clenched her teeth and tried to refocus on the present. “Is everything alright?”
No, she thought. No, it isn’t. One disaster at a time, she told herself grimly, collecting herself and giving the order. “Operation Cloudburst is complete. Rendezvous for Operation Dawnbreaker.”
Various acknowledgements came across the line and as Sakura began to manipulate the sword beneath her feet, missing the reassurance breadth of a beast—though they too would have been nothing more than ink and chakra and will—she briefly switched channels to report that her unit was moving in and duly received an acknowledgement.
For Operation Dawnbreaker, their destination was the peak of that monolith—Tsunade-sama had decided to take full advantage of their aerial capabilities and ordered that they would put pressure in place from above to flush the members of Akatsuki downwards and hopefully limit dramatic last stands carried out in crumbling edifices many dozens of feet about street level.
There had been something very dry about the way she’d said those words that spoke of personal experience.
The tower only grew uglier as she approached, all exposed pipes and human faces like something out of an architect’s fever dream. Antennae bristled on the highest roofs and as the others came within shouting distance, Sakura gestured brusquely at them. “Take them out!”
Frustrated and very probably feeling the same fear that coursed through her veins, the others obeyed with alacrity; Sakura was glad for the feel of steel sheering beneath her hands. If she felt shaky and sick and very much like she wished that had never happened, well, those were all familiar things. Once, she’d learned not to drown in an ocean of fear—now rage washed up, and she was certain in that moment that if she screamed, it would not be a human sound.
Instead, she shoved more natural chakra down the invisible pathways the seal had set between her team.
Concrete and rebar gave way beneath the white coils of Anko-san’s summoned snakes, which had coiled themselves around the narrow, maintenance-access rooms that comprised the top floors of the tower. They’d briefly discussed using snakes to bring the whole tower down, but while her summons were spirits of a sort, they weren’t made of stone: their bodies weren’t designed to crush hard things like this—even if they managed it, it would be slow going as very obvious targets, and they’d agreed to begin their assault by disrupting any communication equipment housed atop the tower.
Sakura’s tail lashed behind her as the clouds above Ame began to gather in earnest, the winds beginning to tear at them. They’d all retreated slightly to avoid the crumbling walls, and Kakashi-senpai held up a forestalling hand to keep them from regrouping.
“I should be able to cut the power,” he said, leaping easily from his sword to the rubble that remained atop the tower. “Since our Dragon Lord has been so generous in sharing her chakra.”
His hands flowed through a series of handsigns she was unfamiliar with, ending with one hand upturned to the green-black sky. Lightning sparked along the clouds, then erupted downward like a lance, caught ever-so-briefly in Kakashi-senpai’s waiting hand before he thrust it down into the building below his feet. It crackled and arched and screamed as it made the building shudder and all the wiring and lights exploded in sparks, then a more powerful explosion made the building quiver as a main went. Darkness fell in the blocks surrounding the tower.
“Hell of a move, Hatake,” Anko-san called out admiringly, to which Kakashi-senpai replied with a jaunty two-fingered salute, ears tipped forward and tail curled up slightly. “And look, we’ve got a guest.”
Konan, Sakura recalled from their dossiers. A stern, almost sad-looking woman with her blue hair in an elegant twist and a large origami flower in her hair. Large paper-white wings arched out behind her shoulders, rustling softly.
She was awe-inspiring, powerful and serene.
They were on her in an instant. Sai’s animals focused their attack on her wings, plucking and picking and pulling, but each feather they tore away refolded itself and became a knife. Black ink coated their paper blades as she slaughtered the beasts without so much as raising a hand; when all was finished there were only papers floating on the breeze.
Sakura launched herself from her sword only moments after she’d thrown the first of her anchor-kunai, gone neither-here-nor-there almost before her claws cleared the ink, and she channeled her least-favorite element into one of her knives as she came up low behind Konan. Waves of heat eddied from the fire that trailed behind her movement, scorching as she carved a path from the liver to the spine with one had while she reached out to mark her with the other.
Or she would have, had the flesh not split and peeled in layers of burning paper. Sakura glimpsed the patterns too late to do more than shout “Tag!” and shove herself backwards into the most uncoordinated Hiraishin she’d ever stumbled through, reappearing just behind Kakashi-senpai on a sword not intended for two people as an explosion rocked the rubble she’d been standing on.
“Nice of you to drop by,” Kakashi-senpai said mildly as she crouched behind him to regain her balance, tail looped around the hilt of the sword, before he shoved off toward the building at the same time Neji-san leaped forward to do the same, preferring the limited but solid space atop the tower to attempting midair combat.
Sai had renewed his assault, flocks of ravens and crows trying to peel away Konan’s defenses, and she spared him just enough attention to send a hail of papers that whirled around him briefly before detonating.
Sakura hesitated only long enough to see that he was still conscious. As the smoke cleared, the tattoos concealed beneath his uniform spilled out in a whole array of winged things, more exotic than usual.
In order to combat similar explosions atop the tower, Kakashi-senpai and Neji-san were fighting back-to-back, the latter with his wings pulled tight to his body to keep them from interfering with his rotation.
Of the group, Neji found his demi-human form the most limiting, but only because Anko-san had gotten very good at making certain she had a tail instead of becoming a snake from the waist down. Sakura had no idea how she’d accomplished it—force of will, maybe, and the same kind of resolve that had earned her Orochimaru’s respect.
They were testing Konan by trying to close—they had less information on the combat abilities of Konan than almost anyone else in the group; Itachi had never had occasion to train or spar with the Angel of Ame.
Konan was making paper-mâché of the most formidable defense of the Hyūga clan, likely intending to crush them when the rotation finished, but Kakashi-senpai had always been and would always be better with fire than Sakura was.
It erupted outwards and then curled into the form of snarling dragons that launched themselves at Konan, who unfolded—for lack of a better term—and reappeared in the sky across from them, only to be met with a barrage of Sai’s creatures; he’d used the time she’d spent keeping the others at bay to reinforce their numbers. Konan seemed to hardly pay him any mind, splattering each of his creations like they were flies as the others tried their best to keep from catching each other in their jutsu.
Kakashi-senpai was especially dangerous in this respect—with a nigh-unlimited supply of chakra being fed through their connection, his whole repertoire was at his disposal and senpai had stolen more jutsu than most shinobi knew existed. Where Sakura had the kind of chakra control that put any technique within her reach with dedicated study, Kakashi-senpai was raw talent compounded with the addition of a Sharingan eye—and in some sense of the word, that made him a monster.
One leashed by duty and dry humor, but—as rubble rose in the form of hounds that opened glowing eyes and sprouted fur of fire as they took their first steps into the air—a monster all the same. The flames that spilled from them began red, but in the few seconds it took for them to cross to Konan, they had begun to blaze blue and the papers suspended in the air began to burst into flame simply from proximity.
When she tried to escape by teleporting using her paper technique, Kakashi-senpai opened a series of black gates around them and Sakura, Anko-san, and Neji-san cooperated to try to push her through them, returning to the sky when Konan tried to take advantage of her ability to take to the air.
She kept slipping through their hands, however, simply shedding paper as they searched for her real body, which proved elusive even when Kakashi-senpai’s hounds began to circle around Konan, chasing in tighter and tighter circles that culminated in a knot that looked like the sun and razed the sky in an explosive ring that boiled away the lowest hanging clouds.
Konan resorted to greater and greater collections of explosive tags that forced them to retreat, creating a war of attrition between them—one that frustrated Sakura, whose skillset was meant to end battles quickly, not make confetti. Though she could make a lot of confetti very quickly, if that wouldn’t have simply multiplied the weapons of their opponent.
Though her frustration wasn’t equal to Neji-san’s, who was muttering to himself about chakra dispersion loudly enough she could hear him even without being on the mic.
Their ROE allowed for mass destruction and civilian casualties, but they’d refrained from truly massive jutsu to avoid potential friendly fire as other teams arrived, including the team meant to enter the tower from the bottom in search of Akatsuki’s leader. The idea was becoming tempting, however, as the battle raged on—it had probably been less than ten minutes since they’d engaged, but it felt like forever.
Then Konan stopped, her face seized in an expression of pain.
“That’s the thing about ink,” Sai said as black seeped along her skin and along her wings. “It gets everywhere if you aren’t careful.”
Her wings shredded themselves, becoming black chains that slithered around her body and bound her—and Kakashi-senpai ripped open another hole in the world that she no longer had the power to escape or avoid.
“That’s one,” Sakura said when it was finished. “And whatever’s still out there is worse.”