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XIV. When Sakura wakes in the early hours of the morning, it’s with a sick feeling in her core. It’s close enough to the feeling of your stomach rising up into your throat that comes with nerves that, still groggy and gritty-eyed, she decides that’s what it is and heads off to make use of the onsen one last time.

The feeling doesn’t ease when they head out. But that isn’t enough to rouse her suspicion. Her nerves have been frayed and raw ever since they left Ryūchi Cave, no amount of soft futons and warm water would change that.

As they make their way towards the harbor, the feeling only grows. Sakura’s breathing comes in quicker and shallower the closer they get. When Jūgo asks her what’s wrong, she tells him she’s fine. A lie, but one she’s told often enough that she knows he won’t press her.

Once they arrive at the edge of the harbor, the water and their ship in sight, Sakura starts to think it through. It’s not just nerves. Her heart is beating like a rabbit’s and her palms are sweating despite the stormy morning chill. And it isn’t just her. While Zhàdàn is as calm as ever, Suigetsu is fidgeting and holding his shoulders tense, while Jūgo has been at the edge of a meltdown since the moment he woke. Woven through it all is a prickling chill running up and down her spine. But that can’t be right. This feeling, the only precedent she has for it is when she was near Orochimaru, or Zabuza, or any other ninja whose well of chakra was so vast she knew instinctually they could destroy her.

But she’s only felt that when very close to ninja of that caliber. The only ninja close to her now are Jūgo and Suigetsu. The only other explanation would be a ninja whose power is so great their chakra can be felt over greater distances…

Sakura shudders at the thought and roughly shoves it down. They need to get to their ship. Sakura’s pace quickens with her nerves and she almost overtakes Zhàdàn. Her eyes dart to the water. The tide is rough, the seas crashing hard against the shore, foaming like the mouth of a rabid dog. If it stays like this, or gets worse, they might be stuck here for Sage knows how much longer.

Suigetsu stops in his tracks. His eyes won’t stay still, flitting from the sea to the sky and back again faster than Sakura can track before going wide.

Suigetsu whips around to face them all and hisses, "We need to get away from the water. Now."

Sakura jolts back; "What? What is it, what’s wrong?"

"There’s no time," he bites out through grit teeth, backpedaling off the road and towards the buildings, "It’s too late, we have to run–!"

Sakura glances over her shoulder to see the tide receding farther than any low tide she’s ever seen. It keeps pulling back, the water swirling up into a wave that casts a shadow over the whole harbor. Sakura’s heart leaps into her mouth. From the corner of her eye she catches Jūgo sprinting after Suigetsu, Zhàdàn stumbling after him. Zhàdàn.

There’s no time to be clever. Cursed chakra bursts from her shoulder. Sakura sprints as fast as Orochimaru’s power will let her and wraps both arms around Zhàdàn’s middle. Without this chakra, she wouldn’t be able to lift him. With it, she throws him over her shoulders in a fireman’s carry and races after Jūgo and Suigetsu. Suigetsu leads them down a side-street and hooks a left, putting a whole row of buildings between them and the sea when the tidal wave finally crashes onto Chukyō.

It hits hard enough to shake the earth. Buildings break beneath the wave, sending hulking chunks of stone and steel hurtling in all directions. Sakura doesn’t need hand signs for Practice Brick Jutsu anymore. As she runs she sends Earth chakra down into the cobblestone through her feet. A wall shoots up from the ground at a diagonal, sheltering Sakura’s team from the water and rubble. They all roll to a stop beneath it. The wave washes up and over the incline, coming down in a white waterfall that blocks their view of the chaos beyond. Zhàdàn forces his way off of Sakura’s shoulders only to huddle in tight with the rest of the team as they wait it out.

The last of the seawater sloughs off their shelter. Chukyō’s waterfront is in pieces. All the windows in what buildings still stand have broken, the shattered glass floating in the flooded roads. Wood and stone debris are scattered across the waterfront like oracle bones. The electric lights have all gone out. There’s an eerie silence that lasts for a few moments, where the only noise is the churning of the sea. It’s broken by a shrill roar Sakura hears with her whole body.

Sakura presses her hands to the ground and sends the Practice Brick back into the road. She concentrates cursed chakra in her shoulder blades and grits her teeth against the burning, splitting pain of her wings bursting from her back. She leaps into the air, wings beating faster and faster, sending her up past the tallest still-standing buildings. She spins in midair to face the sea.

In the midst of the bay, surrounded by whirlpools, is a snapping turtle the size of a mountain. But calling the creature a turtle is like calling an ocean trench a hole. Its shell is covered in spines sharp enough to cut through iron. Its jaw looks like a piece of construction equipment meant to dig canyons. It pulls itself through the water not with flippers or paws but hands. Its one eye burns a wrathful crimson. And behind it lash three armored tails.

Sakura drops back to the ground so hard pain shoots up her legs, then turns to her team and yelps, "What the hell is the Three Tails doing here?!"

"I don’t know," Suigetsu shouts, voice cracking, "It usually stays out in the open ocean! I’ve never heard of it going into a bay like this, it’s never happened before–!"

Another bone-shaking screech from the Three Tails rocks them all. It brings one titanic arm up into the air and slams it back down. Spikes of coral taller than the city watchtowers shoot up from where the Three Tails struck in a line, cutting clean through roads, buildings, and people. Sakura’s jaw falls open.

"Goes without saying, I suppose," Zhàdàn calls above the chaos, "But there’s no fucking way we can sail out of here with that thing in the harbor, right?!"

"Even if our ship’s still intact, which is a huge 'if'," Suigetsu replies, "The whirlpools alone would be a deal breaker! Combine that with the everything else, yeah, no, we’re stuck here!"

"We need to run," Jūgo growls, raking his hands through his hair, "We need to run, run to the mountains, run from the ocean, run run run run run–!"

Sakura almost agrees with him. But then she takes a wider look around. There are people running in every direction, trying to pry loved ones and prized possessions out of the rubble, helping others flee to higher ground, standing around in frozen shock. They’re panicking, scrambling like ants whose hill has been crushed beneath a great boot. Where are Hot Water’s ninja? Why is no one coordinating evacuation procedures? Why is no one facing the creature, or at least trying to lure it away?

She hops into the air again to get a better view. Sakura searches high and low for the Hot Water ninja and eventually finds a scant few trying to set up a defensive perimeter around one building in the center of town. The building looks like a cross between a palace and an administrative building. For a moment, just a moment, she thinks it’s being turned into a shelter. But then they slam the building’s gates shut, barring anyone else from getting in.

Sakura sinks back to the ground.

She turns back to her team; "We can’t leave them."

Suigetsu’s face screws up in confusion; "What?! Who?!"

"These people," Sakura exclaims, "The ninja aren’t–! I don’t know why, b-but they’re just swarming around one building and they’re not–! They’re not helping the people and if no one helps them they’ll–! The city’s going to–!"

Zhàdàn takes Sakura by the shoulder, turning her towards the Three Tails as he yells, "You seriously want us to go toe-to-toe with that?!"

Sakura throws her arms out wide and shouts, "Who else will?!"

Zhàdàn stares at her, eyes wide and oddly bright, for a moment before he straightens up; "Then what’s the plan?!"

Sakura shrinks back; "What?!"

"You’re the brains of this operation, Sakura, that means you make the plans! So how are we gonna fight a Tailed Beast?!"

Sakura looks around to get an idea of what she’s working with. There’s no way they’re gonna be able to take this thing on in a straight fight. Their best bet is to try to keep it’s attention off Chukyō, maybe even lure it out of the harbor. Jūgo will be the least useful in that arena. He’s a beast when you’re fighting on the scale of human beings, but even he’s an ant next to this creature. Zhàdàn’s mortar can at least annoy it, but he’s going to need protection. If the gambling parlor survived, they can easily find allies there. And if Suigetsu can wrest control of the sea back from the Three Tails–

Sakura squares her shoulders and barks, "Jūgo, Zhàdàn, you’re with me! We’re heading for the gambling parlor, we need to see if Zhàdàn’s allies are still alive! Suigetsu, I need you in the water–"

Suigetsu’s eyes bug nearly out of his skull; "You need me WHERE?!"

"I need you in the place where you’re gonna do the most good," Sakura counters, "I need you to fight the Three Tails every time it tries to use the water! If you can make it work for it, it’s going to make it that much harder for it to drop more tidal waves, and it’ll do that much less damage! And I’m not sending you in by yourself! Everyone, back up!"

They give her a wide berth as Sakura rips her left glove off and runs through the hand signs for Summoning Jutsu. She pulls the chakra from her back, dismissing her wings, and pours it all into her hands. Sakura bites her left thumb hard enough to break skin and drops to one knee, slapping her bloodied hands on the wet stone ground. The seal unspools from beneath her palm before it explodes into a cloud of white smoke, filling the street. The texture beneath Sakura’s feet changes from sodden stone to smooth scales.

A gust of wind clears the smoke, revealing the gigantic form of Manda towering above the wreckage. His scales gleam like amethyst in the stormy daylight, and his piercing green eyes flick from the Three Tails up to Sakura in clear annoyance. Distantly, Sakura hears another surge of screams, no doubt at the sight of another gigantic monster.

"I suppose I don’t need to ask why you summoned me," Manda growls, "I will instead ask if you really think you can find enough sacrifices to make this worth my while."

Sakura opens her mouth, but is interrupted by Suigetsu crowing up at Manda, "Really? You need sacrifices for this? I thought the glory of being the first snake in living memory to defeat a Tailed Beast would be enough for you!"

Manda’s tongue jets in and out before he abruptly leans down to Suigetsu’s level, nearly throwing Sakura off his head; "Child of the Ocean. You’re arrogant and presumptuous as always. What is glory worth if it kills you to gain it? Do you think me a fool?!"

Suigetsu grins, stiffly folding his arms behind his head to put on a mask of relaxed confidence; "No. I just think you a coward."

Manda’s eyes go wide. He bares his fangs, each twice as tall as Suigetsu. Sakura is certain he’s going to swallow Suigetsu whole. Then he swerves, actually throwing Sakura off. Jūgo catches her, just in time for her to see Manda slithering faster than she thought a creature his size could towards the shore. Suigetsu shoots her a glare that clearly says You owe me one before sprinting after Manda. Sakura swallows hard. She owes him far more than just one.

"Head in the game, Sakura," Zhàdàn grunts, jostling her shoulder slightly to bring her back to the present, "You said we got somewhere to go, we’re going!"

Sakura nods rapidly, dropping out of Jūgo’s arms and breaking into a run. The ground shakes again beneath her feet, punctuated by another bellow from the Three Tails. She keeps her course steady. She’s going to make it to the gambling parlor no matter what. And whatever is next can wait until she gets there.

Hidan steps forward, grins, and crows, "Excuse me, ladies and gentlemen, but do you have a moment to talk about Jashin?"

Tenten is the first to answer by flipping a scroll off her back, unspooling it, and releasing a bevy of kunai at the two intruders. Neji rushes in from the other side, Byakugan active and palms primed to strike. Kakuzu stomps one foot. The ground ripples like a wave, walls of stone rising up to meet Tenten’s projectiles and knock Neji off-balance.

While Tenten and Neji reverse course, the Akatsuki take off. In seconds they’ve cleared two thirds of the room. Lee and Guy almost land a strike each as they dart past, but Hidan whirls around in a circle, his scythe spinning with him and knocking them back. Genma bites out a swear around his senbon, his eyes darting to Tsunade. She grits her teeth, but nods.

Genma looks to Raidō and barks, "Let’s go!"

Raidō’s jaw tenses. Genma takes his senbon out from between his teeth and throws it towards the rapidly approaching Akatsuki. Hidan and Kakuzu leap in opposite directions away from the projectile. Genma and Raidō each form one half of the Tiger sign and vanish. As quickly as they disappeared, they reappear behind Genma’s senbon. Genma grabs the needle out of the air and lands in a roll, bearing down on Kakuzu. Raidō draws a sword with a blade blacker than night and strikes for Hidan.

The three Guardian Ninja and Kabuto’s ANBU close ranks around the dignitaries. Guy lets out a high whistle and his team immediately responds, falling into a defensive position around Sasuke and Naruto. Sasuke pushes Naruto behind him with one arm and takes stock of the room. There are doors leading deeper into the palace in the back corners, but now that he’s seen the speeds the Akatsuki can reach they might as well be miles away.

Naruto pushes against Sasuke’s arm, a panicked edge to his voice as he exclaims, "No, no, let me out there, I fought the gray haired guy, he’s–!"

"Here for you," Raidō cuts in mid-swing, "You all need to retreat and you need to do it now!"

"They’re not going anywhere," Kakuzu snarls, voice like a pair of cement slabs grinding against each other, "You’re not fucking with my bottom line."

Kakuzu attempts to maneuver around Genma, but with a flick of his wrist Genma has a senbon between each finger. He lets them fly, forcing Kakuzu to pull back to avoid the flurry of needles. Sasuke hears the whine of metal cable an instant before Hidan lobs his scythe towards their pillar. Raidō sprints after the scythe and leaps up to grab it by the shaft. He lands and heaves hard enough on the scythe to pull Hidan off his feet. Hidan’s eyes go wide and his grin wider. A hand dips into his cloak and the cable screams, dragging the scythe back and bringing Raidō with it.

The two of them meet in the middle, Hidan tearing his scythe out of Raidō’s hands and Raidō bringing his blade up to block his next strike. He parries and ripostes with lightning speed and inhuman precision, forcing Hidan to block with the whole length of his scythe. Raidō leads their dance, moving in a wide circle and reversing their positions so Hidan’s back is to his partner. Raidō stabs for Hidan’s stomach, but Hidan drops his scythe. The blade hits home, plunging six inches into Hidan’s flesh.He looks up. Hidan is grinning.

Raidō’s scarred face warps in a look of terror. Instinct makes him pull back, but Hidan’s arms shoot out, one grabbing Raidō around the wrist and the other taking hold of the blade itself. He wrenches Raidō and the sword forward, pushing the blade further and further in until it comes out the other side. Raidō goes with it. He wriggles and thrashes against Hidan, but Hidan doesn’t budge. He pulls Raidō in until his face is flush against Hidan’s chest.

Hidan looks over his shoulder and shouts, "Got him pinned for you, Kakuzu!"

Kakuzu whips an arm up and points it towards his partner. The skin on it shifts to a deep black before his forearm shoots out from his sleeve like a missile, dark gray tendrils streaming along behind it. Genma’s eyes go wide and he tosses his senbon to one side, forming a hand sign. He disappears and reappears behind his senbon, out of the line of fire. Hidan doesn’t move. Kakuzu’s hand pierces Hidan’s torso and comes out through the back of Raidō’s skull. It keeps going through a support pillar, breaking it in half, and only stops when it hits the wall.

Raidō’s body goes limp, but the tendrils connecting the halves of Kakuzu’s arm keep it suspended, hanging like a broken puppet.

There’s a moment where it feels like all the air has been sucked out of the room.

Then a scream tears the world in two. Sasuke has never seen Genma anything but calm and collected. Now his face is twisted with fury, his eyes wide and burning. He lobs the senbon towards Hidan and disappears. Hidan rips the sword from his stomach and swings to parry the senbon. Or, at least, that’s what Sasuke thinks he’s doing.

He’s proven wrong when Genma materializes inches behind the senbon and Hidan slices clean through his throat.

The cut is so deep it nearly severs Genma’s head from his shoulders. It doesn’t. No, Kakuzu is the one who finishes that job as his hand shifts back to a cool brown, pulls back through the support pillar, Raidō, and Hidan, then whips around to grab Genma by the scalp and twist. The sound of Genma’s head being literally torn off burns itself into Sasuke’s brain like a branding iron. Kakuzu’s hand retracts all the way back into his sleeve. He throws Genma’s head over his shoulder without a second look.

"What a waste of time," Kakuzu growls, "Let’s speed this up."

Kakuzu doesn’t give them time to breathe. He whips a hand towards the negotiating table. His hand disappears up his sleeve as it starts to bulge like a horde of squids are trying to force their way out. Kakuzu’s body lights up in Sasuke’s eyes, lightning and water chakra surging up, molding together, and racing down his outstretched arm. Sasuke catches six glowing points in the depths of Kakuzu’s sleeve before three beads of violet lightning fire out from the darkness at a dizzying speed.

Sasuke knows this jutsu. And he knows they barely have any time to counter.

"Those are homing, we need to bait them away from the–!"

That’s all the information the three guardian ninja need. They leap forward over the negotiating table just as Kabuto is vaulting the other way, joining Tsunade as they both tackle Ogasawara to the ground. The guardian ninja share a quick, silent look with Kabuto’s ANBU guards as they dart past. The ANBU nod and backpedal to stand guard over the leaders.

The guardian ninja move at speeds Sasuke is sure no one else can see, sprinting nearly up to the beads of lightning before breaking off in three different directions. One keeps running down the middle of the room, one breaks off to the back-right corner, and one veers towards the back left corner behind Sasuke’s pillar. Picture perfect technique.

The beads of lightning home in on them, speeding up and closing the gap in the space of a breath. Sasuke’s heart lodges itself in his throat, but the guardian ninja don’t flinch. They all run through the same seal signs and call out the jutsu’s name in harmony– Stoneskin Jutsu! The color leeches from their skin as it hardens into rough rock and they all slide to a stop. Earth chakra to absorb the force and ground the lightning. Brilliant.

Sasuke looks to Kakuzu and sees his eye twitch in the telltale sign of a hidden smirk.

Sasuke has seen this jutsu before. When the beads of lightning hit their targets, the resulting blast is about a meter across and the damage is only surface-level. These beads hit the three guardian ninja and fill the room with blinding light. The resulting explosions are wide enough to hit the floor and ceiling. Team Guy tackles Naruto and Sasuke off of the pillar seconds before one of the blasts hits it, destroying it. When the light dies down, Sasuke whips his head back towards the damage.

The ANBU and the dignitaries are untouched, but the three guardian ninja… Their stone skin didn’t do them much good. Their bodies are charred like the logs of a dead fire, their chests blown wide open and their insides burnt black. Pieces of them are splattered all across the scars cut into the stone. Sasuke’s mind is racing. That jutsu shouldn’t– It can’t do this, not normally, not unless– It clicks. The water chakra. If Kakuzu had somehow merged the two natures perfectly, that could have created a combination style, but he didn’t. He just fed the water chakra into the lightning chakra. Feeding chakra of one nature into the nature it’s weak to must–

Sasuke shouts the end of his thought as everyone struggles to get back to their feet; "He combined water and lightning chakra to make the lightning stronger! Be careful!"

Kakuzu’s eyes zero in on Sasuke, narrowing into annoyed slits; "Right. The Uchiha brat. Hidan, make sure that one’s eyeballs are intact at the end of this. They’ll be worthless if they’re damaged."

Hidan rolls his eyes with a groan, "Of course that’s what we’re doing. Come on, one eye should be enough, right? Kakashi gets on just fine with one, I’m sure any potential buyers would be fine with that, too."

"No," Kakuzu snarls, "One isn’t nearly as valuable as the full set."

Sasuke’s stomach twists. He hears Naruto growl beside him. His muscles tense and he starts moving chakra down into his fists, gathering it for his first strike–

Guy’s voice, steady and stable, stops Sasuke before he takes his first step; "Neji, keep them safe and keep them moving! Lee, Tenten, with me!"

From the corner of his eye Sasuke sees Naruto open his mouth to argue, but Neji glares over his shoulder and snaps, "No. We’ve lost five men already. We aren’t losing you, too."

Sasuke grits his teeth. He’s right. He hates it, but he’s right. Naruto’s the target. If they let him fight Hidan and Kakuzu, that’s as good as handing him over to them. Naruto shoots a pleading look over to Sasuke, who can only shake his head.

A grunt from Kabuto draws Sasuke’s attention back to the head of the room. While Tsunade helps Ogasawara up into a crouch, Kabuto rolls to his feet. With his teeth grit and eyes sharp, he looks exactly like the man Sasuke fought three years ago. He tosses his haori and helm aside without a care for where they’ll land. Teal chakra courses across his skin in the blink of an eye, mending what nicks and scratches the shrapnel left him with.

He drops into a defensive stance, the sharp, sparking edge of chakra scalpels flickering to life around his hands, and calls to his guards, "Protect Naruto! Tsunade and I will cover Ogasawara!"

Sasuke is sure he and Tsunade are wearing the exact same shocked expression. But there’s no time for that. Kabuto’s guards nod and are on Sasuke and Naruto’s flanks before he can blink, standing side by side with Neji. Tsunade and Kabuto break off towards the right corner of the room, dragging Ogasawara behind them as they make for the door.

Kakuzu doesn’t even look before throwing a hand up in their direction and firing a high-pressure jet of water at them. Tsunade hooks a foot under the negotiating table and flips it on it’s side, shoving Kabuto and Ogasawara down behind it. The water hits the table with enough force to break it in two. Kabuto hits the last sign in a quick sequence and thrusts a palm out to meet the incoming jet of water. Instead of cutting them all to pieces, the water sprays in all directions as a fine, harmless mist.

Neji and Sasuke share a glance and immediately know what their next move is. They need to get to the door in the left corner of the room while Kakuzu is distracted. Sasuke jostles Naruto’s shoulder to get his attention, then wags his chin towards the door. Naruto nods and takes off towards the door with Neji, Sasuke, and the Sound ANBU on his heels. They’ve barely started running when the screech of metal cable stops them in their tracks. They turn to see Hidan’s scythe sailing through the air like a fishing hook, aiming straight for Naruto.

Neji drops into his defensive stance and barks, "Get down!"

They hit the ground. Neji opens all the chakra points on his body and spins in blinding circles. Wind howls and chakra buzzes. Neji’s chakra forms a perfect dome around them, grinding away the stone floor. The scythe hits the dome and it’s like Hidan threw it at the side of a moving train. It not only bounces off, but goes flying off to one side. The dome drops just in time for Sasuke to hear Hidan let out a litany of foul words while he reels the scythe back in.

With no warning, Kakuzu cuts the flow of water from his hand. He whirls towards Team Guy and from the depths of his sleeve fires off a ball of lightning chakra at Tenten’s feet. Her eyes go wide and she starts sprinting towards the support pillar in the back-right corner of the room. The first shot misses her by a foot. He fires off a second, almost clipping Tenten’s heels the instant before she rolls behind the pillar. Kakuzu fires the third blast directly at the support pillar. It detonates on impact, destroying the pillar and sending Tenten sprawling to the ground with the rest of the rubble.

Kakuzu starts charging the finishing blast, but before he can, there’s a burst of pressure and heat as Guy shouts, "Gate of Life!"

Guy moves like a whirlwind, throwing a spinning kick directly into Kakuzu’s elbow and forcing his blast to go wide. It hits the wall, cratering it. Kakuzu’s eyes widen. In the instant between that strike and the next, the small patches of visible skin on Kakuzu’s body turn obsidian dark. Kakuzu freezes in place. The next three blows from Guy connect, but Kakuzu doesn’t budge. Guy pauses in his assault just long enough for Sasuke to catch sight of his knuckles. They’re drenched in blood. Kakuzu isn't even bruised.

Tenten shoves herself back to her feet. She looks between Hidan and Kakuzu before flipping another scroll off her back and unspooling it on the ground in front of her. She stomps on two of the seals, breaking them with chakra in her sole. Two arquebuses come leaping out from the scroll and into her waiting hands. Tenten levels them both at Hidan and opens fire. Hidan throws his scythe from one hand to the other and blocks the first shot with the flat of the longest blade. Tenten closes one eye and lets off the second shot. The bullet flies between two of the scythe blades and pierces Hidan’s side.

Hidan’s eyes go wide, his hand flies up to the bullet wound, and he shouts, "Oh fucking OW! Do you have any idea how annoying it’s gonna be to walk around with a goddamn bullet stuck in me, you little bitch?! That’s it, I’m doin’ it, I’m killing your friend!"

Hidan whirls on Lee and makes two wild swings. Lee is barely fast enough to juke out of the way of both. The tips of the scythe scratch Lee’s flak jacket like claws. In the half-second opening between the second strike and a third Lee surges in. He throws elbows and hands and knees with intent to break bone. Hidan matches Lee strike for strike, bobbing and weaving between them with boneless grace. Lee grits his teeth. Sasuke sees the First Gate light up within him like a beacon.

The wave of pressure and heat hits Hidan in the chest, staggering him enough for Lee to leap away and come whirling back in; "LEAF HURRICANE!"

Hidan pulls the shaft of his scythe up just in time to block. The force of the spinning kick sends him sliding back across the smooth marble floor like it’s made from ice. He digs his scythe into the ground to stop his momentum, cutting a jagged furrow in his wake.

Sasuke and Tsunade meet each other’s eyes across the room. They nod. Sasuke and Tsunade grit their teeth and make another push for their doors, their charges on their heels. The door is less than a yard away when a ball of flame, no larger than Sasuke’s fist, streaks past his ear. From the corner of his eye he sees Kakuzu firing a twin fireball towards the right corner of the room. Both erupt on impact with the doors into grand fireballs.

Tsunade grabs Ogasawara and Kabuto by the collars and yanks them towards her. She spins so her back’s to the fire and takes the blast on the spine, shielding them both with her body. The force nearly knocks her to her knees, but only burns her clothes. The burns on her back heal as quickly as they appear. Sasuke, Naruto and Neji all send chakra into their soles to anchor themselves against the force of the explosion. The Sound ANBU leap forward and whirl through a seal sequence before throwing their hands towards the fire and letting loose a gout of water. The water collides with the flames and bends back, forming a protective dome over the five of them.

Through the steam and the heat and the sweat, Sasuke sees Kakuzu with a hand pointed towards Guy, charging something bright and sparking in the depths of his sleeve… Before spinning on his heel and firing a lance of lightning at the center of Lee’s back. Lee doesn’t see it coming. But he hears the electricity crackle and Guy let out a wordless cry. That’s all Lee needs. Lee drops, not straight down but at an angle. The bright violet bolt pierces his shoulder. It goes through Lee, through Hidan’s collarbone, through the pillar in the left front corner, through the wall.

Sasuke thinks Kakuzu starts to speak, but it’s drowned out by a leonine roar from Guy. He sees the next three gates light up along Guy’s body. There’s a shockwave of chakra, as strong as the quake that took out the lights. The three remaining pillars crack. The ground beneath Guy’s feet dents, whirling gales of chakra cutting the stone. His hair stands on end, his skin a bright, bloody red.

Sasuke blinks and Guy has kicked Kakuzu into the ceiling. He blinks again, and Guy has leapt into the air to meet him.


Sasuke’s Sharingan is spinning fast enough to make him dizzy as he desperately tries to keep up with the meteor shower of blows Guy drops upon Kakuzu. He punches fast enough to set the air itself ablaze. Kakuzu is a writhing shadow in the chaos, a fan of flames blossoming around him like the tail of a firebird. The blows get faster and faster until they reach their deafening crescendo, a single punch to the center of Kakuzu’s chest that sends him plummeting back to earth.

He hits the floor hard enough to crater it. Guy lands a moment later. Sasuke’s keen vision lets him catch Guy hissing through his teeth, his face twisted in a pained grimace as he slams all six gates shut. Sasuke hears Neji suck in a shaking breath. He can’t imagine what kind of internal damage he’s seeing. Kakuzu lies in the center of the crater, robe smoldering, perfectly still.

His body jerks. Something undulates and wriggles beneath his robe before the burnt fabric is shredded by an uncountable number of dark gray tendrils spilling forth from seams in Kakuzu’s skin. The tendrils recede, and Kakuzu lets out a groan before pushing himself up to his feet. Something clatters off his back and to the ground.

"Not bad," Kakuzu grunts, rolling his shoulder and his neck, "Let’s see you do it again."

Tenten doesn’t waste time gawking. She throws her arquebuses over her shoulders and breaks a third seal with both feet. When the smoke clears, Tenten has a cannon– a ship’s cannon– aimed right at Kakuzu. The instant it appears, Kakuzu starts to move. Tenten grabs the fuse in her fist and sends fire chakra to her palm, burning it down as fast as possible.

The cannon fires with a deafening thunderclap. It rocks back into Tenten hard enough to knock the wind out of her. The cannonball is fast, but Kakuzu had a head start. It misses him by a hair’s breadth. The cannonball punches clean through Hidan’s side, leaving a gaping hole right underneath his left pectoral. The cannonball crashes into the base of the left front pillar. The pillar comes crashing apart, rubbling scattering across the ground like rain.

Only two pillars remain standing. But just as that fact crystallizes in Sasuke’s mind, cracks come spiderwebbing down their lengths. The ceiling cracks, heavy stone bowing in and down, sagging as two weakened pillars try to hold up the weight of an entire second story. Sasuke’s eyes go wide. God damn it, god damn it this whole time

He whirls towards Tsunade; "They weren’t aiming for us, they were aiming for the building!"

"Too little too late, Junior," Hidan cackles, arms thrown out wide, "This whole place is coming down! And who do you think is gonna be left when it does?!"

The two immortals, the jinchūriki, and maybe Tsunade. God damn it, it’s genius, it was genius disguised as carelessness and now– Stone scrapes against stone. The ceiling buckles. The pillars break in half.

Tsunade whirls towards him, eyes wild; "Sasuke–!"

The whole second story of the jito’s residence comes crashing down.

Akamaru had been barreling down one of the many roads leading to Chukyō’s harbor when he screeches to a halt, nose to the ground. He nearly throws Kiba and Hinata off his back. They follow his nose. He picks his face up and points with his nose towards a townhouse on their left. The roof has caved in almost all the way and all the windows are broken, hiding what lies within behind a mess of wood and broken glass.

Kiba hops off Akamaru’s back; "How many you smell in there, bud?"

Akamaru whines, high and thin. He’s not sure. Kiba strokes his ear. With the sounds and smells of a city in chaos all around him, no doubt Akamaru’s having difficulty pulling scents apart. Kiba’s not sure he could do any better. Especially not on incredibly short notice.

Kiba looks to Hinata; "Can you get me a count?"

The veins around Hinata’s eyes bulge out, and after a few seconds of looking up and down the building, she replies, "Two on the first floor, one in the genkan and another in the kitchen. Two on the second floor, both in a bedroom at the back of the building. The front entrance is blocked by some ceiling beams, Akamaru and I could crawl through if you can lift them up high enough."

"Is that really the best we can do?"

"With only the three of us and this structure in a very precarious state? Yes, that’s the best we can do."

"Where the Hell are the Hot Water ninja when we need them," Kiba spits before running up the townhouse’s front steps and throwing the door open. Just like Hinata said, a pair of thick ceiling beams have fallen inward, forming an 'X' in front of the door. There’s a small gap between them and the floor, just wide enough for Kiba to stick his arm through. He crouches down, reaches in, and channels chakra into his arms. With a grunt, Kiba heaves the beams up off the ground, bearing their weight on his shoulder. Sweating and grinding his teeth the whole way, Kiba is able to lift the beams, creating an opening roughly two feet tall and two feet wide.

He forces through his teeth, "Go on, get in there!"

Hinata darts up to the door and crawls through the opening on hands and knees. Akamaru follows, creeping along on his belly with his head as low to the ground as he can get it. Kiba clenches his jaw. Even with chakra boosting his strength, the weight of the beams is a constant strain, threatening to dislocate his shoulder if his grip falters. He can still hear the churning sea and the screaming civilians. He can barely see the shape of the Three Tails and the massive purple snake it’s battling over the city skyline. It thrusts his mind back to waking up in the middle of a Leaf Village under siege from Sand and Sound Ninja, with giant snakes battering down the walls while tailed beasts clashed in the forest.

The Leaf Village had hundreds of ninja to protect it. Chukyō… Chūkyo may only have four.

The sound of Akamaru’s claws scratching against the ground pulls Kiba out of his head. He comes crawling back, tail first, through the opening. He’s using his jaws to drag a woman by the collar of her kimono along behind him. Once they’re clear of the steps Hinata comes through next, with a whimpering child- couldn’t be older than four- tucked tight against her chest. Hinata and Akamaru take them all the way out to the street before laying them down on the driest patch of pavement they can find. Kiba takes quick stock of their condition. The woman is bleeding from a wound on her head while the child is covered in bruises, one leg bent the wrong way. They could have gotten worse, but that’s cold comfort. They’re going to need to splint the kid’s leg, then–

The ground bucks and rocks beneath Kiba’s feet. His eyes go wide and he hears Hinata yelp. His grip on the beam falters and all its weight comes down on his shoulder. Before it can crush his arm, Akamaru’s jaws snap down on his collar. He yanks Kiba off his feet and drags him down the stairs the instant before the whole structure comes crashing down. The quake stops as suddenly as it began, leaving the once-fashionable townhouse as nothing but a pile of blackened wood and rubble.

Kiba smells blood. He slowly turns to look over his shoulder at Hinata. The quake knocked her to her knees. Her eyes are wide, her hands slapped over her mouth. She’s slowly shaking her head, her whole body trembling. Akamaru lets go of Kiba’s collar. Kiba jumps to his feet and rushes to kneel at Hinata’s side.

He puts his hands on either side of her face; "Hinata. Hinata. Turn your Byakugan off."

"I-I… I can’t–!"

"Yes, you can. You have to."

Hinata takes a deep breath, squeezing her eyes shut. It takes her another breath to actually turn the Byakugan off. Kiba looks over his shoulder towards the shore. Through the gaps in the buildings he can make out the Three Tail pinning the snake down, trying to force it’s head beneath the water while the snake writhes and hisses. The tide twists and whorls unnaturally, gathering up into something that almost looks like a hand before crashing down on the Three Tails’ flank. It knocks the creature slightly off balance, but it’s grip on the snake doesn’t break.

Kiba clicks his tongue against his teeth and looks back to Hinata. She seems to have breathed herself through the worst of it, her eyes open again as she sets about bandaging the wound on the woman’s head. They make eye contact for just a moment. The stormy frown on Hinata’s face says it all.

Kiba kneels at the wounded child’s side before activating his radio collar and calling out across the airwaves, "Kurenai! Shino! Do you read me? What’s your situation, over?"

The line crackles for a few seconds before Shino picks up, the rasp of his voice only barely intelligible over the static and ambient chaos; "This is Shino, I read you. I’m still near the northern edge of the city, moving towards the city center has been… Difficult. Most civilians are fleeing into the mountains, so I’m swimming upstream. I have no idea when I’m going to reach the jito’s residence, over."

Kurenai comes in right on his heels; "This is Kurenai, I read you! I’m on the east side, a mile out from the jito’s residence! I’ve taken rooftops where I could, but I can’t risk the buildings coming down under my feet so it’s been slower going than I’d like. Assuming I don’t encounter any more civilians who need help, I should be at the jito’s residence in fifteen minutes, over!"

Kiba fashions a makeshift splint for the child’s leg from bits of wooden debris as he reports, "We’re basically trapped here in the south. We can’t take two steps without hitting more people who need help, and with only three of us we can’t–! Have you guys seen any more Hot Water ninja?! Or anyone from the peace talks?! We’re doing what we can, but with the Three Tails still rampaging everything we do gets undone a second later, over!"

"I’ve only seen a few Hot Water ninja," Shino replies, "They were escorting some VIPs out of the city– Members of the daimyō’s court, no doubt. They didn’t pay much mind to the other civilians or me. The bugs I’ve sent ahead have made note of Hot Water ninja locking down the jito’s residence, but beyond that, nothing else. I suppose it is their mission to defend the jito–"

"Bullshit," Kiba barks, "Their mission should be protecting the people!"

"Kiba, you know better than that," Hinata murmurs, eyes downcast, "We all know better than that."

Kiba grinds his teeth to keep from shouting anything more.

"I haven’t seen any Hot Water ninja, but I’ve been keeping an eye on the Three Tails," Kurenai crackles in, "Something about the way it’s acting is– It’s acting strange!"

Kiba’s face twists in a confused grimace; "Huh? Compared to what? It’s a giant monster, Sensei, aren’t they supposed to go on big rampages?"

"Conventional wisdom usually says yes," Shino cuts in, "But conventional wisdom isn’t the same thing as truth."

"Exactly," Kurenai continues, "The way it’s moving, it’s almost like there’s a delay between it thinking of doing something and actually doing it. It’s barely reacting to any of that snake’s attacks, like it isn’t really feeling the pain. It almost seems like… No, it couldn’t be–"

Hinata picks that thread up the instant Kurenai drops it; "Sensei? The way you’re describing it, it almost sounds like the Three Tails is under a genjutsu’s control!"

"That’s what I keep thinking, but, how someone could control the mind of a tailed beast is– They’re beings of almost pure chakra, breaking a genjutsu should be as easy as breathing for them! And this doesn’t just look like genjutsu control, it looks like sloppy genjutsu control. Anyone with strength or skill enough to control a monster like this you’d think would be able to hide it, but this is so blatant it–"

Kurenai is drowned out by a deafening clamor of crumbling stone, shattering glass, and splintering wood. Kiba’s head whips this way and that in search of the source. It was definitely loud enough to be nearby, but it definitely wasn’t another building on this street. Hinata’s Byakugan snaps back on.

After a few moments of her eyes twitching back and forth, she gasps, sharp enough to cut; "T-the jito’s–"

Hinata is cut off by Kurenai shouting through the radio, "The jito’s residence just collapsed in on itself! Shino, are they–?!"

"My sentries haven’t seen any of ours leave," Shino replies, voice coming out in a rush, "In all likelihood, Lady Hokage is still in there."

Kurenai snaps, "We need to get them out of there! Drop everything and get there ASAP, that’s an order!"

Kiba suddenly feels very cold. His mind conjures the image of Naruto, Sasuke, Lee, Tenten, even Neji, crushed between great shards of stone, blood leaking through the cracks. He looks down at the people on the ground in front of him. The woman’s eyes are staring, unfocused and pale, at the sky. The child hasn’t stopped crying since Hinata fished them out.

Kiba looks up at Hinata; "Hinata, go on ahead of me. Tell them we got separated by some falling debris or something. I need to find somewhere safe to take these guys."

Hinata’s brow immediately furrows; "What? B-but Naruto–!"

"Has a monster inside him that will do anything to stay alive," Kiba cuts her off, shaking his head to force the mental image of Naruto’s flattened corpse out of his mind, "It’s way more likely that he’ll be fine without my help than these two. I’m not just leaving them here, orders or no orders. Go."

Hinata purses her lips, staring hard at Kiba for a few moments before jolting forward to throw her arms around him and hug him as tightly as she can. Kiba doesn’t hesitate, hugging her back with all the strength in his arms. It can't last. Hinata runs over to Akamaru and gives him a kiss on the top of the head before standing straight, taking a deep breath, and sprinting towards the city center. She doesn't look back.

The Three Tails squalls in the distance, a reminder that Kiba can’t afford to watch her go. He hefts the wounded woman up and drapes her over Akamaru’s back. Then he goes back for the child, gingerly lifting them off the ground and holding them tight to his chest. He leaps back onto Akamaru’s back and digs his heels into his sides, spurring him into a gallop. He keeps his eyes open for any sturdy-looking buildings that haven’t taken too much damage and are a healthy distance from the water– An order that just seems taller and taller the further he runs.

It’s only when he doubles back towards the waterfront that the universe throws him a bone in the form of a gruff voice shouting, "This way! Bring the wounded here!"

Kiba and Akamaru’s heads swivel towards the voice. A man covered in yakuza tattoos with two swords on his hip is waving to the townspeople, making big, obvious gestures towards a cement warehouse just a few yards down the block. Kiba can’t afford to be picky. Another dig of his heels sends Akamaru bolting towards the warehouse, following the current of people and the directions of more yakuza members. They lead them around the back of the warehouse and down an alley, where a heavy metal door has been thrown wide open for people to surge through. Kiba jumps off Akamaru’s back with the injured child in tow and jogs ahead to the door.

A woman with an undercut and a rifle slung across her back is managing the flow of traffic into the building, but the instant Kiba gets up to the door her eyes narrow and she takes the rifle off her back. Kiba stops in his tracks, scarred face twisting in a scowl. He stays silent and watches her eyes as they go from glaring at his headband to widening at the whimpering child in his arms. They dart to the woman on Akamaru’s back, then fall to the ground.

She lets the rifle drop and mutters, "Take them inside. We got people who can patch them up a bit more before taking them into the basement. They should be safe in there."

Kiba nods; "Got it. If I survive, no one will hear about anything I see here."

The woman snorts, "That’s a big 'if’."

Kiba bares his teeth in a mirthless grin; "Aren’t they always."

Kiba pushes his way through the door and into a gambling hall in disarray. Tables designed for poker and roulette have turned into operating tables as tattooed men and women pull broken glass and spikes of coral from the bodies of still-screaming civilians. Alcohol that had lived behind the bar is now being used to sterilize wounds. The uninjured and the survivors of these quick and dirty surgeries are quickly funneled through a trap door in the far corner into the darkness below the warehouse. Kiba has to imagine that basement is far more used to holding contraband than people. But that’s none of his business right now.

As Kiba passes off his charges to the first open 'medics' he can find and explains their conditions as best he can, he keeps an eye on Akamaru. At first, Akamaru seems only occupied with taking up as little space as he can. But then he sits up straight, sniffing the air. His nose drops to the bloodied carpet and sniffs in a wide arc. Akamaru leaps to his feet and bolts for a set of stairs on the far wall. He knocks aside everyone in his way and shoots up the stairs.

One of the yakuza 'medics' sputters, "The hell’s gotten into your dog?!"

Kiba takes off after Akamaru. He follows the sound of his claws scratching up the cement up two flights of stairs and finds him just as he’s about to run headfirst through the door to the roof.

Kiba sprints up and grabs a hold of Akamaru’s scruff; "Whoa, boy! Easy! What’s the big ruuuUUU–!"

Akamaru bolts forward and bursts straight through what Kiba had been sure would be a locked door. He drags them both out onto the roof and digs his heels in to stop their momentum. Kiba skids to a halt. He blinks rapidly, finally able to take stock of his surroundings. Once he does, he’s tempted to rub his eyes and do a double-take.

Standing on the roof, in the middle of a heated conversation with a hulking redhead and a man setting up a mortar, is Sakura fucking Haruno.

The dress is different, the height is different, the rail thin build is absolutely different, but there’s no mistaking that pink hair. Her voice has hardly changed, as she snaps something about trajectories and wind speeds she sounds just like she would when she told Naruto he was an idiot. Kiba sends chakra up to his nose to smell what Akamaru is smelling. The scents segment, and in the middle of them all is the distinctly clean and floral scent Kiba remembers chasing through the forest three years ago. That’s her. The 'criminal', the 'traitor', the 'rogue ninja'. Right in front of him.

Akamaru drops low and growls like a diesel engine. All heads swerve towards the sound. Sakura’s big green eyes go wide. She takes a staggering step back and the redhead steps in front of her, blocking her with his huge body. He makes direct eye contact with Akamaru, mimicking his stance and his growl. The man with the mortar immediately turns the firearm to point directly at Kiba.

Kiba and Sakura almost harmonize as they exclaim, "What are you doing here?!"

Sakura keeps going, clenching her jaw tight and forcing through her teeth, "I know I’m wanted for treason but you can’t take me in, Kiba, not when I’m–! The Hot Water ninja aren’t helping these people, and someone has to or they’re all going to–!"

"What?! You think I’m here for you," Kiba exclaims, "If anyone in the village knew you were here they didn’t say shit about it! I was supposed to be doing boring old recon for the peace talks when someone decided it’d be a fun cool prank to drop a tailed beast on the city, I–!"

Dots connect like lightning strikes. Three Tails. The Three Tails is under a genjutsu, maybe. Sakura. Sakura knows about genjutsu. Treason. Shikamaru… Shikamaru kept saying… And Kiba remembers, remembers the day they left in search of her, hearing the whole situation and none of it smelling right–

Kiba looks Sakura directly in the eye; "Sakura, tell me right now. Are you really a traitor or aren’t you?"

Sakura’s mouth drops open.

The redhead takes a big step forward, clearing almost half the distance between them; "Enough. Mind games and lies, mind games and lies, let me tear his lying mouth off his face–!"

Kiba takes a step backwards and cranes his neck to keep eye contact with Sakura; "Shikamaru never bought it! He never bought that you’d just up and betray the village! Shino too! And Sasuke… Sasuke never gave up on you! I know those guys, and I trust those guys with my life! So I’m going out on a limb here, and I’m gonna ask you one more time! Are you a traitor or aren’t you?!"

Sakura swallows hard. She looks out towards the sea, her eyes following the Three Tails as it wrestles with the snake.

She turns back to Kiba and says, "No. When I left, I… I thought I was on a mission to protect the village. I don't know what you were told, but I never betrayed the Leaf."

She’s standing straight, eyes forward and hands clenched into fists at her side. No trembling, not in her shoulders or her lips. She’s still as stone, hair and dress whipping in the stormy winds. He believes her. Maybe that’s a mistake, but it’s one he’s willing to stand by. Because he doesn’t really have any other option right now.

"Okay, good," Kiba sighs, "Tell Carrot Top here to back off, then, because if Kurenai was right there’s something more you can do besides just throwing lead and snakes at that thing."

Sakura in three steps crosses the distance Carrot Top cleared in one and places a hand on his shoulder; "Jūgo, step back. We need all the help we can get right now."

Carrot Top AKA Jūgo’s nostrils flare like a bull, his eyes wide with fury. But, just like that, he steps back. Kiba’s eyebrows leap up to meet his headband. That’ll be something to unpack if they all survive.

Kiba nods and gestures broadly towards the harbor; "So like I said, Kurenai’s here too and she has an idea. She thinks the Three Tails is acting weird, like it’s under genjutsu control. Does that track to you?"

Sakura blinks rapidly, brow furrowing; "That actually… That does track, yeah. Suigetsu said when the attack started that the Three Tails doesn’t usually do this, that it usually sticks to open water. And it’s been moving really slowly, and not really with any… purpose? That’s weird, right? Why would you just attack a city for no–?"

"Listen to yourself there, Pinky," the man with the mortar cuts in, "You’re from a village that got curbstomped by a Tailed Beast for no reason! Don’t take too much stock in psychoanalyzing a monster!"

Sakura glares over her shoulder at him; "But think about it, Zhàdàn, at the very least anything with sentience has a survival instinct, right?! Anything that’s alive doesn’t want to die! And ramming yourself right into a city on a bay that can be blockaded goes against that! What it’s doing right now doesn’t make sense!"

Zhàdàn frowns out at the Three Tails; "Alright, I’ll grant you that. But that brings up a new problem. If that thing is under a genjutsu, what do we do about it?"

"The easiest ways to break a genjutsu are to snap the victim out of it or break the caster’s concentration," Kiba cuts in, "And your snake doesn’t seem to be having much luck with the former. Any idea where the caster could be?"

"They’d have to be close, definitely within city limits," Sakura replies, pacing back and forth as she thinks out loud, "Jutsu this strong? You couldn’t do it from far away. I mean, all the stories about when Madara attacked the village with the Nine Tails said he was practically riding on top of it–"

Sakura stops in her tracks. Her eyes go wide.

She slaps both hands over her forehead, turns towards Kiba, and shouts, "Madara! That’s it! That’s it that’s it that’s it!"

Kiba swaps confused glances with Jūgo and Zhàdàn; "What’s it?"

"The only person in history who’s ever controlled a tailed beast was an Uchiha," Sakura exclaims, "I know exactly who we’re looking for! And if he’s doing this?! There’s no way he’s gonna be able to hide himself at the same time! Zhàdàn, start firing on that thing and don’t stop. Jūgo, Kiba, Akamaru, I need you with me. Because if I’m right…"

Sakura swallows hard, trembling from head to toe; "If I’m right, I’m gonna need all the backup I can get."

Sakura doesn’t wait for any follow-up questions. She sprints to the edge of the roof and leaps off, dragonfly wings sprouting from her back and buzzing to life. She shoots up and away. Kiba lets out a strangled swear and leaps onto Akamaru’s back.

He glances over at Jūgo, then at Akamaru, then back to Jūgo with a grimace; "Sorry, Carrot Top, but I don’t think Akamaru’s back could handle us bo–"

Jūgo snarls, drops low, and sprints towards the roof’s edge. The flesh on the backs of his calves morphs and warps into vents. Jūgo crouches at the roof's edge and the vents let off bursts of compressed chakra, sending him flying to the next building over.

Kiba allows himself a moment to gawk. When the moment passes, he grins and digs his heels into Akamaru’s side. Akamaru races after them both, chakra concentrating in his legs. He leaps from the building just as the first mortar shot goes off.

The whole second story of the jito’s residence comes crashing down. Sasuke shuts his eyes, bracing for a moment of excruciating pain before everything stops.

It doesn’t come.

Sasuke pries his eyes open. The ceiling is inches away from the top of his head. He looks frantically around, Sharingan picking dark shapes and chakra signatures out of a sea of red. Instead of caving all the way in, there’s a narrow pocket here at the head of the room where the debris have stopped their fall about five feet before hitting the ground.

Naruto and Neji are at Sasuke’s side, unharmed but deeply rattled as their heads swivel around in search of allies and enemies alike. Tenten, Lee, and Guy are huddled at the pocket’s very edge, Lee bracing himself against some precarious pieces of stone to keep them from falling inward. Kabuto’s ANBU guards were unlucky. One of them has an arm trapped beneath the rubble at the edge of the pocket, while an arm is all that's left of the other. Last but not least, Kabuto and Ogasawara are crouched at the feet of Tsunade, who has her arms braced above her head to hold the ceiling up with nothing but her own strength.

Sasuke can’t help but stare. Tsunade’s teeth are grit, sweat pouring down her face, her arms glowing with more chakra than Sasuke can imagine having in his entire body, let alone concentrated in his arms. He has so much more ahead of him than he thought.

Tsunade’s eyes open and immediately lock onto his; "Sharingan still on, Sasuke?"

Sasuke nods rapidly; "Yeah, Neji’s got the byakugan on, too."

"Good, tell me where those pieces of shit are."

Sasuke and Neji exchange glances before taking wide sweeps of the area. Just past the wall of stone, approximately where the door was, Sasuke picks up two chakra signatures. Well, one chakra signature and one that looks like four chakra signatures stitched together. That’s a dead giveaway. He wags his chin in their direction and Neji squints, veins around his eyes pulsing as more chakra pours into them.

After a few moments, Neji reports, "They’re standing out by the entrance. It doesn’t seem like the collapse harmed them at all. They’re just… waiting."

"Waiting for me to come busting out, all Nine Tails’d up like I did back in the Land of Rivers, I'll fucking bet," Naruto growls, eyes narrowed in a glare.

Guy rubs at his chin; "Neji, any idea of what the safest way out of here would be?"

"At this point? Burrowing straight down," Neji mutters, "The rubble around us is dense and precarious, if we tried picking our way out through it we’re basically risking getting crushed to death over and over again for how ever long it takes to get out– Which would likely be a while."

"Well we need a solution soon," Tsunade bites out through her teeth, "I can’t hold this forever."

Sasuke starts moving chakra to his arms; "I can help–!"

"No," she cuts in, hitting him with a sharp glare, "With the level you’re at right now, you’d need every bit of chakra you have just to help me, and we need your eyes right now. When I need your help, trust me, you’ll know."

Something about those words makes Tenten’s eyes light up; "Wait a minute. What about instead of going down, we go up?"

Lee’s brow furrows; "Up? Up how?"

"Like, the force we exert, we make it go up," Tenten explains, gesturing wildly with her hands, "If we exert enough force upward and outward we can blow all the rubble on top of us out of the way and maybe even at the Akatsuki. That’ll give us both a smokescreen and an opening! I have explosive tags and gunpowder charges, I could–!"

"With how tight this space is those would just kill us all," Kabuto cuts in, adjusting his glasses, "We need more intention than that. We need to make sure we’re pushing everything on top of us up and away, not blasting it. Would Sasuke and Tsunade’s strength be enough?"

"Our strength wouldn’t be the problem," Sasuke replies, "It’d be the area we can cover. If Tsunade and I just pushed straight up from where we are we couldn’t guarantee that we wouldn’t just create a small gap for the rest of the rubble to come falling in."

The ceiling shifts. Bits of stone and dust come sprinkling down over them all. Tsunade lets out a pained grunt, flinching beneath the weight bearing down on her. Everyone holds their breaths for a tense moment. The rubble above them stills. Their collective sigh of relief is felt more than heard.

"If Lee and I open the gates–"

Guy can’t even finish that sentence before Lee exclaims, "Guy-sensei, you cannot! You already opened the Sixth Gate once today, the damage you have done to yourself is too significant, we cannot ask you to take that risk!"

"When his daimyo and hokage’s lives are at stake, I say we can," Ogasawara squawks from where he’s cowering at Tsunade’s feet. That earns him a poisonous glare from the ninja surrounding him on all sides. He shuts his mouth so tight Sasuke can’t see his lips.

Naruto’s brow furrows hard enough that it looks painful, before unfurling with a jolt as Naruto loudly whispers, "I’ve got it!"

Neji blinks; "You do?"

Naruto puffs out his chest with a grin; "Course I do! I’m great at plans! Now listen up."

Naruto explains the plan.

There’s a moment where all anyone can do is stare at Naruto, brows pinched, mouths opening and closing as they try to find some glaring, obvious fault in Naruto’s reasoning.

The moment officially passes when Kabuto pushes his glasses up and chuckles, "Unpredictable as always. I say we risk it."

Ogasawara’s eyes bug out; "You’re trusting our lives to the jinchu–?!"

"To the young man I’ve fought with and against multiple times. I’ve learned not to underestimate him. You ought to do the same, your lordship."

"If this plan is gonna work, we’ve got to work fast," Tsunade snaps, "Everyone, get into position!"

Hidan stamps a foot on the dusty ground and yowls, "How long are we gonna wait for them to come out?!"

"Hidan, we’ve been waiting for five minutes," Kakuzu rumbles, "Be patient for once in your life."

"Oh yeah, be patient," Hidan sneers, "I really want to wait around twiddling my dick while the Three Tails is tearing the city apart! I swear, how are we supposed to work under these kinds of conditions?! This is exactly why we've never worked in groups of four before, everyone just ends up tripping over each other's feet and it's a fucking mess! That’s it, if the Nine Tails doesn’t come out right now–!"

The sound of rock scraping against rock is all the warning Hidan and Kakuzu get before a massive gust of wind explodes out from within the rubble, sending boulder-sized chunks of stone flying in all directions. Hidan leaps and rolls to land in a crouch behind Kakuzu. Kakuzu coats himself in Earth Chakra and seals it tight to his skin, hardening his flesh into diamond-hard stone. Any rubble that hits him breaks like waves against the shore. Kakuzu stands immovable against the stone tide and howling gale.

Once the rocks clear, the source of the wind reveals itself: A wall of Narutos, at least two-score strong, are all blowing a massive, continuous gust of wind in perfect unison. They’ve formed a phalanx so tight that all Kakuzu can see is orange. No sign of the other Leaf ninja. Before Kakuzu can even think of what to do with that, the wind stops. The clones leap for them with a shrill, harmonized war cry. Hidan hops to his feet and presses his back flat to Kakuzu’s, scythe brandished.

Kakuzu doesn’t wait for them to hit the ground. He drops the Iron Skin on all but his left forearm before firing it off his elbow. It pierces through a line of six clones, but the rest come raining down to surround them like a field of poppies. They’re surrounded. Quaint.

"Alright," Kakuzu snarls, "If this is how you want to play it."

Hidan lets out a wicked cackle. He swings his scythe through the clones like they’re a field of wheat and Kakuzu fires off blasts of wind-infused fire into the crowd. Clones go up in clouds of white smoke, merging with the throng of remaining Narutos to form a white-and-orange fog of war. Kakuzu clenches his jaw, a vein twitching in his neck. This is a distraction, but from what, he doesn’t have time to deduce. Annoying.

There’s the thunderclap of an arquebus, seconds before a bullet whizzes past the back of Kakuzu’s head. His eyes whip towards the source in time to see a blur of red, white, and brown disappear into the thinning crowd of clones. The girl with the firearms. At least one other Leaf ninja stayed behind. That means there’s a good chance they’re here to defend the real Naruto. Now, how many more will try to shoot their shots in this chaos?

Kakuzu gets his answer with two harmonized cries of "Leaf Hurricane!"

He grabs Hidan by the collar and yanks him down. Two emerald blurs go spinning over their heads and land on opposite sides of the chaos, tucking themselves back into the fog. Kakuzu’s eyes narrow. The longer this goes on, the more shots they’ll take, and the more likely one might get lucky and hit. The thought of that alone infuriates him. They’re not getting lucky. Not on his watch.

Kakuzu growls to Hidan, "Stay down."

"Don't tell me what to do," Hidan snorts, but stays crouched.

Kakuzu rises and flies through hand signs, feeding Fire and Wind chakra into his hands, then throws them out to either side. He fires off two massive, oxygen-gorged fireballs out from his palms. They explode, white hot and blinding bright, and set every clone they hit alight. Kakuzu hears a chorus of shrill screams being quickly cut short. White smoke fills the battlefield like fog.

Hidan leaps to his feet and tosses his scythe a few feet, metal cable whining along after it. He stops the cable and spins the scythe in massive circles above their heads, quickly clearing the smoke. For a moment, the battlefield is empty. Then, the two taijutsu specialists and weapon master girl slowly creep out from behind large chunks of rubble. And they’re looking far too smug for Kakuzu’s liking.

"The real Nine Tails fled the moment the clones attacked," Kakuzu growls, "Didn’t he."

"You," Hidan sneers, retracting his scythe to point it at the girl, "Are gonna have to work a hell of a lot harder than this to keep us from going after what’s ours."

The girl slides two more pistols out from her sleeves and levels them at the pair; "Oh, we plan on it."

Sasuke almost doesn’t hear it over the sound of his heart hammering in his ears when Tsunade hisses, "Alright, stop! We’ve run far enough!"

He skids to a halt. Naruto and Neji don’t stop quite as cleanly, Neji dropping to one knee and Naruto tripping over his own feet to tumble head over heels for another foot before landing on his back. Sasuke turns to take stock of their progress. From the look of things, they’ve put about two and a half city blocks between themselves and the ruins of the jito’s residence. Tsunade is still standing tall and composed, as is Kabuto. Ogasawara can’t really help looking undignified, considering he’s quite literally tucked underneath Tsunade’s arm like luggage.

Kabuto adjusts his glasses, arching a brow in Naruto’s direction; "Let me guess– The plan doesn’t extend beyond 'me and the VIPs and boys with valuable eyeballs run like Hell the other way', does it?"

Naruto flips onto his stomach and glares up at Kabuto; "Not true! It has a phase two! Phase Two is we call Team Eight, tell them to get their asses over here, and then I don’t know what comes next!"

Another shrill roar splits the air, forcing everyone to wince and cover their ears. The ground rumbles beneath their feet. All eyes shoot to the massive shape on the horizon as it thrashes in the shallows. One of it’s massive arms comes down, displacing enough water to sink three of the docked ships floating helplessly in the harbor. To Sasuke’s Sharingan the creature is of a beacon of roiling chakra, brighter even than the damaged One Tail. He has to look away, otherwise it might burn out his retinas.

Tsunade frowns at it for a long moment before turning to them all and declaring, "Here are your orders. Neji, Sasuke, take Naruto as far out of the city as possible. When you get to the edge of radio range, call Team Guy and tell them to retreat. Kabuto, Ogasawara, you’re with me. We’re going to higher ground, then I’m sending Katsuyu out into the city to tend to the wounded. I’m sure you had your people scope out the city before you got here, Kabuto, so you’re in charge of finding me a safe spot to work."

Kabuto nods and produces a radio transceiver from up his sleeve, taking one step to the side before activating it and speaking down the line to his people. Tsunade follows his lead, turning on her radio collar and tuning into the security team’s radio frequency. Her voice echoes as she calls down the line to Team Eight and Kurenai picks up, breathless, but otherwise unharmed.

Tsunade relays everything to Kurenai in a rush; "I need your team on the ground while Katsuyu works. The instant she finishes treatment on someone I need you to get them on their feet and out of the city ASAP, do you copy?"

Kurenai is quick to reply, "Copy."

Shino’s voice rumbles through the light static; "Copy."

Hinata stammers in on his heels, "Y-yes, I–! I-I mean, copy!"

Everyone holds their breath, waiting for Kiba to copy. They wait five seconds, ten, fifteen, thirty. Radio silence.

Kurenai pushes a breath through her teeth; "Hinata, you said the two of you got separated by falling debris, where was that?"

"I-I– I-it was downtown, heading towards the h-harbor, b-but I don’t–! He wasn’t injured, his radio wasn’t damaged, so I don’t know why he isn’t–!"

"If he’s missing, someone’s gotta go find him," Naruto cuts in, getting to his feet, "Gra- Lady Hokage, I know you just gave me my orders, but I can't just run away! At least let me find Kiba!"

Sasuke finds himself jumping in, "Ma’am, between his nose and Akamaru, Kiba’s the best we have when it comes to search and rescue. We don’t stand a chance of actually helping without him. Let us find him, please."

Tsunade’s face tightens in a scowl, but before she can snap at them, Neji cuts in, "Lady Tsunade, wherever Naruto goes on this mission, I have to go with him. If you send him to find Kiba, you send me as well, and with the Byakugan and Sharingan assisting him Naruto will be able to cover more ground more accurately. We can find Kiba quickly, assist him if necessary, and then evacuate. As always, the final word is yours. But please, consider this, at least."

Naruto and Sasuke both spare Neji a wide-eyed look. Neji shoots them a weary smirk and shrugs a shoulder. Tsunade puts her free hand on one hip and considers them for a few seconds.

She shakes her head; "We don’t have time to argue. I’ll call you when I’m sending Katsuyu out, and if you haven’t found him by then you’re to evacuate immediately, no questions asked. Am I clear?"

"Crystal, ma’am," all three boys reply. Tsunade spares them a nod before whistling to Kabuto and sprinting deeper into the city, towards the foothills. Kabuto falls into step behind her, not sparing the boys a second glance as he passes them by.

Neji’s eyes immediately flicker up; "It’s not the safest bet, but we need to get to the rooftops. It’ll give us a wider range of vision."

Naruto and Sasuke mutter their assent and channel chakra into their feet, running to and straight up the side of the nearest building with a still-intact roof.

When they’re halfway up the building, Sasuke hears Naruto behind him ask, "Hey, do you like, believe what Kabuto said? About Sakura being dead?"

Sasuke swallows hard; "Dunno."

"He lies all the time, right? He would totally lie like that to mess with us, right?"


"Yeah, I mean, I guess we don’t know… But he could be lying, right?"

Sasuke pushes a breath out through his nose, and allows himself to think about the prospect just long enough to reply, "Yeah, he could be."

And as quickly as he lets the thoughts in, he shuts them out. He can’t think about that. He can’t think about her. Not if he wants to get anything done. Loathe as he is to say it, there are more important things than Sakura right now.

Sakura pauses in midair to call over her shoulder, "Pick up anything yet?"

"No, but I don’t know what I’m looking for," Kiba shouts from a dozen feet below her, his nose pointed skyward while Akamaru’s takes wide sweeps of the pavement, "You sure you don’t know what Itachi smelled like?"

Sakura purses her lips. Itachi had only been arms’ length from her before he used the Mangekyō, did she get his scent? She dismisses the thought as quickly as it manifests. Between the curse mark, the adrenaline, the Mangekyō’s damage and the medical ninjutsu meant to repair it, it’s hard enough just remembering Itachi’s face.

"Yeah, I’m sure!"

"This is pointless," Jūgo growls from his perch on a roof above Sakura’s head, "Like finding a needle in a needle pile, we can’t find one man in a city that’s falling apart around our ears!"

"We can’t give up," Sakura snaps, "We’ve barely started looking! Now think, Itachi may be strong, but he can’t be performing a jutsu on this scale from far away! He’s got to be either in the city, or out in the bay, and from the look of the water out there–"

"He’d be a fucking idiot to be in the bay," Kiba picks up, "So that narrows down our search area to an entire city! Absolutely genius, Sakura, I can see why you beat me on every test now!"

"Look, it’s something," Sakura fires back, "He might need to be even closer than that! All the art and stories about Madara doing this same thing have him literally riding the Nine Tails’, and while that could be dramatic license, it could also mean someone trying to control a Tailed Beast needs to be exceedingly close to them! So if we narrow our search down to… maybe a few miles…?"

"A few miles?! Sakura, I have done search and rescue on the scale of miles, it’s not the kind of distance you can cover with three people!"

Sakura rakes a hand through her hair; "I know, but it’s something, and we have to start somewhere-!"

Sakura’s eyes pause on Jūgo. He’s staring intently up at the sky, his eyes following flocks of startled seagulls and pigeons flying in panicked circles above the city. His eyebrows shoot up, then he cups his hands around his mouth and lets out a near-perfect set of seagull calls. Sakura barely has time to blink before one bird breaks off from the pack and flies down to alight on Jūgo’s outstretched hand.

Jūgo shouts down to her, "Tell me what to ask it!"

Sakura’s thoughts crash into each other, coming out of her mouth in an excited stream; "O-oh, oh oh oh, uh, people! People in black cloaks with red clouds! Ask if it’s seen any!!"

Jūgo and Kiba frown, but Kiba’s the one to voice the thought going through their heads; "Sakura, it’s a bird! I don’t think it’s gonna know what that means!"

"Simplify, then! Just ask them in a way they’ll understand!"

Jūgo and the gull exchange lower, quieter calls for a few moments before Jūgo’s eyebrows leap up and he translates, "It’s seen four people like that!"

Sakura and Kiba exchange wide-eyed looks of shock before Sakura replies, "Uh, okay, uh, we gotta prioritize, uh, ask about, uh, other features! Anything else on them that looked weird!"

Jūgo relays Sakura’s question in gull-speak and translates as the gull responds; "One had… silver… hair… One was… blue?"

"Blue? Blue how?"

"A… a blue… face? And hair, blue hair!"

Sakura’s heart twists and leaps; "Kisame! That’s Kisame! Itachi’s partner! The Akatsuki always work in pairs, so if he’s here– Ask it where they saw him!"

The gull’s answer makes Jūgo’s brow furrow; "It saw them coming from the harbor and heading deeper into the city, but… That was when this all started, it doesn’t know where they are now!"

Kiba snaps his fingers; "Kisame’s the shark-lookin’ one, right?"

"Yeah, he is!"

"Then we’ve got something! We go deeper into the city and sniff for fish!"

Sakura nods; "Stay on ground level! I’ll look from the sky, Jūgo, keep to the rooftops! Everyone, make sure you can see each other! Let’s go!"

Sakura soars ahead, Jūgo and Kiba on her heels. She climbs higher into the sky to get a wider view of the city. The worst of the damage is concentrated at the waterfront, with jagged lines of coral cutting concentrated lines of destruction all the way to the foothills. One of the government buildings in the city center seems to have collapsed in on itself, dealing damage to surrounding structures in the process. If Sakura had to make an educated guess on where the other two Akatsuki are, she’d put them there. Kisame would know better than to get in their way. She can rule out that area.

As she flies in quick loops above the city, ruling out section after section, she can see Kiba and Akamaru making their winding way along a similar path with Jūgo keeping parallel to them. Occasionally he’ll stop, holding his hand up for a bird to land on, before adjusting his course. Their paths take them to a residential district that leans just on the edge of middle class, where townhouses and single-family homes mingle with high-rise apartments. Sakura has started a slow descent when she spies two dark silhouettes at the top of one of the high-rises. Her eyes dart down to Kiba and Jūgo. They’re heading straight for that very same building.

If she’s right, she can’t risk them spotting her. Sakura dives down towards the ground, swooping upward at the last minute to cut her momentum and keep her from crashing into the pavement next to Kiba as he and Akamaru come skidding to a halt in front of the building. Jūgo comes leaping down from a nearby townhouse roof to land on Sakura’s other side.

Sakura looks to Kiba; "Did the fish smell lead you here?"

Kiba nods, a pensive frown on his face; "From the look on your face I'm gonna guess you saw something spooky up there."

"Two people," Sakura reports, "We can’t know for sure it’s them, but I don’t know who else would be hanging around on rooftops during an emergency."

"Sure it’s not another illusion or clones or something?"

"Clones, we won’t know until we hit them. But I doubt it’s genjutsu. According to Orochimaru-" Sakura can't block out how Kiba winces at her mentioning his name- "Kisame never had much talent for it, and if Itachi is controlling the Three Tails I would be shocked if he could spare chakra or just space in his brain for any other jutsu while he’s doing that."

The ground trembles, and Jūgo struggles to speak over a distant roar from the Three Tails; "But wouldn’t that be dangerous? People could find them up there, or the building could come down, that seems like a terrible place to set up."

"Well the scent leads here, and them being inside the building would be even more dangerous. If it comes down with them in it then that’s two Akatsuki crushed to death. So unless there’s a basement–"

"And there could be–"

"– Then the safest place for them has gotta be up top."

"Okay," Sakura cuts in, "The point is, if they’re up on top of a building, I can break Itachi’s concentration. But I’ll need someone to keep Kisame busy while I line up the shot. So what I’m thinking is, you guys go inside and search the building. If there’s a basement, Jūgo goes down and Kiba goes up. If you find them inside, lure them to the roof. If they are on the roof, keep Kisame busy and as clear of Itachi as you can. Once I break Itachi’s concentration, we retreat to the harbor immediately."

Kiba shoots her a wide-eyed glance; "You want us to bail? On taking down two members of the Akatsuki?"

Sakura fights the shiver trying to claw its way up her spine; "Yes, I do, because when I fought them Kisame nearly crushed my whole rib cage and Itachi… We can’t risk a prolonged, real fight with one of them, and we definitely can’t risk a prolonged, real fight with both of them."

Kiba purses his lips, but nods; "Fair. Anything else we should know before we go in?"

"Kisame’s sword can absorb chakra. Don’t let him get a hit in on you if you can help it. And don’t look Itachi in the eye, no matter what."

Kiba nods, digs his heels into Akamaru’s sides, and disappears through the building’s front doors. Jūgo pauses to frown down at Sakura, mouth opening to voice more concerns, but Sakura shakes her head. He shuts his mouth tight and runs in on Kiba’s heels. Sakura looks up at the buildings surrounding her. Itachi and Kisame’s potential hiding place is five storeys tall. The closest building with an unimpeded view of of the rooftop is another five storey apartment building one block back. A good perch in terms of height and position, but if Kisame or Itachi so much as look over their shoulders they’ll spot her. Usually the sort of problem she’d solve with a genjutsu. But a Wood Style Hama Ya requires almost all her chakra. She can’t afford to waste even a tiny amount on hiding.

Sakura kicks off the ground, zipping over and up to her vantage point. She alights soundlessly on the roof’s edge. Her quarry is a pair of shadows, one tall, one slight, several dozen feet away. Sakura drops to one knee and retracts her wings, the chakra used to form them traveling down her arm and into her palm to start forming the tip of her arrow. She pulls the other arm back like she’s pulling back a bowstring. Sakura breathes deep, goes still, and waits.

Sasuke’s eyes scan the skyline; "Any sign of them yet?"

Neji shakes his head, one of his eyes twitching as the veins on his temple pulse; "No, not even in any of the wreckage."

Naruto frowns over his shoulder at Neji; "You could try to sound a little less upset that they haven’t been crushed to death."

Sasuke frowns. They’ve ruled out the waterfront and any of the more thoroughly destroyed areas of the city, but that still leaves them with everything between the jito’s residence and the mountains to cover in the time it takes Tsunade to drag Kabuto and Ogasawara to some safe spot up there. They don’t have the time or the manpower to cover an area this size, and while the range on the Sharingan and Byakugan is considerable, it’s not unlimited.

"We need to try a different approach," Sasuke says, "Otherwise we’re not going to get anywhere."

Naruto frowns, scratching at his scalp; "What if… What if we look for Kiba how he’d look for us?"

Neji and Sasuke arch an eyebrow each; "What?"

"What if we sniff him out? Just looking isn’t doing us any good, and I really don’t think we’re gonna hear him over the sound of monsters fighting in the harbor, so what if we try sniffing him out?"

Neji nods, slowly at first, then quicker and quicker as the idea clicks; "That’s not a bad idea."

Naruto forms the dog seal; "I’ll take a crack at it. I’ve seen Kiba and Kakashi do this enough I can probably do alright at it, but if I fuck up, Sasuke, you’re on deck."

Sasuke sees Naruto’s chakra move up from his belly and into his nose. Naruto squeezes his eyes shut at the sudden sensory shift, face wrinkling like he bit into a lemon.

After a moment, he blurts out, "Wet dog!"

Neji puts a hand on his hip; "Naruto. Use your adult words."

Naruto cracks one eye open to glare at him; "I smell wet dog," he points Northwest, towards the residential districts acting as a buffer between the city center and the foothills, "Over that way!"

Sasuke nods; "Assuming Naruto didn’t just pick up some stray, I’m gonna bet that’s our man. I’ll lead. Naruto, stay close and keep an eye open."

Without waiting for a reply, Sasuke leaps to a nearby roof, bounding off on Kiba’s trail.

Sakura keeps her eyes locked on the two figures on the roof across from her. She breathes deeply, pulling chakra from her own reserves as well as the curse mark to form the wispy silhouette of the Hama Ya. Sakura stays still and quiet, so still, so quiet that she starts to hear (feel) the low pulse of Natural Energy in the stone beneath her knees and the wind ripping through her hair.

A thought passes through her head. A Wood Style Hama Ya requires the chakra and life force of the caster to feed the wood, to give it life in turn. But Natural Energy is life itself. What would happen if she…?

Sakura opens a smattering of her chakra points over her whole body. When she breathes in, she pulls tiny doses of Natural Energy in with the air. It mixes with her chakra, rubbing at her pathways and attempting to settle in her flesh, but she forces it to move along with her chakra. With barely any guidance, it flows into the wooden core of the arrow. Buds pop in along the branches, unfurling into leaves and blossoms, and–

There’s a crash. Sakura’s attention snaps to the building. A four-legged silhouette bursts through the rooftop entrance, a familiar profile on its back. The taller of the two silhouettes at the roof’s edge whips towards them, unsheathing a sword as tall and broad as he is. Sakura’s breath catches. There’s no mistake. That’s Kisame. Kiba found him. Where’s Jūgo? Is he still searching below the building? Is he dealing with some trap in the lower floors? Kiba and Akamaru are alone up there, she has to–

Sakura bites her lip. She has to stay here. She has to build up chakra and Natural Energy, line up the shot, and take out who she now knows is Itachi. That’s the best way for her to help her fr– Her team.

She sees Kiba’s form leap from Akamaru’s back. In a burst of smoke, Akamaru disappears, replaced by another Kiba. Kisame swings for them and they leap and dance around him, fangs crossing fangs, the two of them darting in and out in dizzying circles. Kisame’s strikes are wide and powerful, kicking up bits of stone where they hit the roof, but Kiba and Akamaru keep just barely out of Samehada’s reach. Another burst of smoke sees the number of Kibas doubled. They push at Kisame from all sides, taking the battle all around the roof as the clones dart in for glancing blows and Kiba and Akamaru bait out more swings from Kisame.

Sakura grits her teeth. They’re keeping Kisame busy, just like she told them. And Itachi, at least, isn’t moving. He hasn’t moved an inch since she got here. But that’s the problem. He’s the one still figure in a chaotic maelstrom of action. With Kiba and his doubles bounding back and forth and Kisame swinging for them all, they keep moving into and out of her shot, the constant movement drawing her eyes away from her target. She’s almost there. If she can just find an opening in all this chaos, if she can build up just a bit more chakra, a bit more Natural Energy–

It happens so fast she almost misses it. Samehada cleaves one of the clones in twain, the chakra used to form it surging into the blade. Kisame flips the blade into a reverse grip to stab it through the other clone as it tries to grab him from behind. He whirls the sword up, around, and points it towards the two remaining Kibas. They both start to backpedal, one to the left, one to the right. Kisame pulls the sword back and thrusts it to the left. The Kiba double is not in the blade’s range.

But it doesn’t need to be.

The chakra it absorbed releases from the tip of the sword as a bullet of concentrated water. It shifts into the shape of a shark and it’s hungry jaws close around the Kiba double’s middle. Smoke bursts from the point of impact. Akamaru comes flying out from the other side, the shark’s teeth buried in his fur.

Sakura watches Akamaru sail across the side street, arc over the top of another building, and drop out of sight behind it, his terrified howl ringing in her ears.

"What in the–?!"

Neji’s call and the sound of a terrified canine howl makes Sasuke look up from the street. A large white form, unmistakably Akamaru, comes flying out of a cloud of smoke at the top of a high rise apartment building. There’s something clinging to his side, a shark-?! Sasuke doesn’t have time to think that through. Akamaru flies over the roof of the neighboring building and starts to drop, falling down into the gap between two city blocks. There’s no time or need to talk. The three boys are after Akamaru, bounding across rooftops and dropping down to the street where he fell.

Sasuke overtakes Naruto and Neji and lands in a roll at Akamaru’s side just as the shark biting into his ribs dissolves into seawater. Sasuke tries to block out Akamaru’s pained whining in favor of examining the wound. The shark might not have been real, but this bite wound is, two rows of serrated puncture marks marring Akamaru’s snow white fur. And that definitely isn’t the worst of it.

"Neji," Sasuke snaps, shedding his gloves and bringing healing chakra to his palms, "Tell me what else I’m working with."

Neji stops at Sasuke’s side, eyes running over Akamaru, and grimaces; "Do you want details or summary?"


"Most of the bones on the left side of his body are broken."

Naruto kneels down at Akamaru’s head, stroking his ears; "Is he gonna be alright?"

"If I’m quick," Sasuke mutters, pressing glowing palms to the bite wounds, "And I’m gonna have to be. Wherever Akamaru is–"

"Kiba is never far," Neji picks up, "And if whoever they’re fighting did this to Akamaru–"

"Kiba needs help," Naruto exclaims, jumping to his feet, "He needs us now, Neji, come on, let’s–!"

"No," Sasuke cuts in, "I need Neji’s eyes. And Neji can’t leave you alone."

"But why can’t–?!"

"Naruto," Neji cuts in, "Worry about that later. Right now, worry about helping me set Akamaru’s bones."

Sasuke clicks his tongue against his teeth, whispering as Naruto and Neji crouch over one of Akamaru’s legs, "Sorry, boy. You’re not gonna like this."

Sakura’s heart is in her throat and it’s everything she can do not to scream. Where is Jūgo?! Kiba’s alone up there, running frantically towards the roof’s edge. He needs help, he need help, he needs her help and he needs it now but–

The ground rocks. The Three Tails screams. There’s a screech, in a voice Sakura wishes she didn’t recognize. She looks to the harbor just in time to see the Three Tails grab Manda’s body in one hand, his head in the other, and pull. A burst of white smoke covers the Three Tails and most of the water with it. Sakura starts shaking. She can’t feel the pulse of Natural Energy around her anymore.

Kisame’s hands fly through signs before he thrusts one out towards Kiba. A jet of water sprays from his palm. The head of it shifts into the jaws of a shark and clamps down on Kiba’s shoulder. Kiba tries to wriggle out of its hold but the teeth just dig deeper. Kisame jerks his arm back to his side. The rope of water yanks Kiba off his feet and drags him through the air towards Kisame.

It happens so fast. It happens so fast. Kiba puts up arms and legs to block. Kisame spins Samehada around. He thrusts it forward and it meets Kiba halfway. The blade shreds through Kiba’s stomach, coming out the other side. Kiba freezes. Kisame grabs Kiba by the shoulder, braces a foot against him, and pushes him off his blade. Kiba crumples to the roof.

The door to the roof flies off its hinges. Kisame parries it, only for a blur of orange and gray to hit him like a truck. They go tumbling to the ground. No one else is standing. It’s only Itachi, a lone shadow against the storm. Sakura's hands are shaking, she can barely see past tears, but she has to, it has to be now, it has to be now–

Sakura releases the arrow with a scream.

There’s a burst of light, chakra, petals, and leaves. Sakura hears a wrenching, wet scream. Her head spins, she almost falls, but she catches herself on her elbow at the last second. She’s up. She’s conscious. The chills and shakes of chakra exhaustion are beating at her door, but she’s up. The Natural Energy, it– It did– It did something, but– Sakura shoves herself upright. Itachi is slumped against a tree, smaller than the one Orochimaru rests in, but whose leaves are a brilliant green. Itachi’s arm is bound up in the trunk, bark and branches and blood flowing from a wound in his shoulder.

Sakura swears through her teeth. She’d been aiming for his heart.

Sakura staggers to her feet, taking a few steps back and shoving chakra into the soles of her feet. Kisame shoves Jūgo off of him and rolls to his feet, sprinting for Itachi. The Three Tails thrashes through the smoke, hands clutching at its head.

Sakura takes a running start and leaps. Kisame reaches Itachi, wraps his arms around his middle, and rips him away from the tree. At the apex of her jump Sakura brings the chakra up from her feet and into her shoulder blades, summoning her wings back.

Jūgo scrambles up and after Kisame. Kisame fires another concentrated blast of water over his shoulder at Jūgo. It hits him square in the chest, sending him flying off the edge of the roof.

Sakura shrieks. She swoops down to intercept Jūgo, grabbing his hand in both of hers. The weight of him nearly pulls her down. She grits her teeth and forces more cursed chakra down her arms, giving herself barely enough strength to pull herself and Jūgo the rest of the way to the roof. Kiba is still there. Kisame and Itachi are not. Sakura drops Jūgo like a stone.

She lands hard, buries her hands in her hair, and screams, "Motherfucker! We had them! We fucking had them! And they ran away! That’s all they fucking do, run away like cowards! I’m not gonna let them, I’ll find them, I’ll find them and I’ll kill them! I’ll kill them myself, with my bare fucking hands if I have to–!"


Jūgo’s voice pulls her back down. She turns to find him crouched at Kiba’s side, and– Kiba. Oh God, Kiba. The wound in his stomach is ragged and gaping, the edges shorn and torn by Samehada’s rough skin. Sakura’s stomach lurches with every step she takes closer to her… her friend. Her friend. Her classmate, her friend, a boy she grew up with, who would pull her hair and call her names but let her pet his dog and oh God Samehada isn’t sharp, its tip isn’t pointed, Kisame put it through him with pure brute force and she can see his– his–

"What do we do, Sakura?!"

She can’t throw up. She can’t scream. She can’t cry. Kiba’s still breathing, his eyes are glazed over as he stares at the sky but he’s still, breathing, and that means they can save him but– Sakura drops to her knees across from Jūgo and tries to remember all the tossed-off bits of instruction Kabuto ever gave her about medical ninjutsu. None of them would be enough. In a flash, Sakura remembers why Kiba was even here in the first place.

She brings her hands up to his face and gently slaps his cheeks; "Kiba, Kiba Kiba Kiba, please, talk to me. Tsunade, where’s Tsunade, where is she, tell us where she is so she can help you!"

Kiba coughs, blood spurting up from his mouth, his voice creaking weakly after; "Akamaru… Where’s Akamaru…?"

"I-I I don’t– I don’t know, I don’t know, Kiba, but when we get you to Tsunade and she starts treating you we can go find him so where is she–?!"

"It hurts… It fucking hurts," Kiba chokes on a broken sob, "I want my mom…"

Sakura feels a jolt of pain through her throat and her eyes start to well up again but no, no no no, compartmentalize Sakura for the love of God compartmentalize– Okay, Tsunade’s out, and if Sasuke was with them like Hell is Kiba in any state to say so, who’s next–

Sakura’s eyes go wide and she blurts out, "Zhàdàn, the yakuza, th-they had people, people fixing up the civilians inside the– Under the gambling hall, they had–! Jūgo, take him back to gambling hall!"

Jūgo’s brow furrows; "Are you sure?!"

"No I’m not sure but I don’t know where Tsunade is and he’s going to die if we don’t act now so just pick him up and go!"

Jūgo scoops Kiba up in his arms, drawing a sharp cry and a new burst of pained sobs from him with the motion. Jūgo runs for the edge of the roof and leaps, disappearing behind it. Sakura starts to run after him.

Two sets of footsteps drop onto the roof behind her.

A voice she’d only dreamed about for two years exclaims, "Sakura?!"

She freezes.

She turns.

And there are Sasuke and Naruto, side by side, staring her down.

So much for compartmentalizing.