A/N: Still not a fan of the power levels in this part of canon. Makes it feel a little like we're in the territory of that 'cheap power fantasy' that I am occasionally accused of writing. (I don't mind this. That is basically the definition of the shounen genre.) Enjoy! Or not.

Kill Your Heroes

-Chapter Seventy-One-

Gaman (Part IV)

She'd had nightmares like this after the bridge—sometimes it had been her burning, instead of that man. By the time she'd met Gozen-san, she'd had them more rarely, but the old woman had made certain she knew with excruciating clarity exactly what fire felt like.

This was something worse than fire—that was often deceptive in the sheer trauma that could appear minutes or hours after encounters where the victim was never touched by visible flames. It could even create a kind of giddy delirium, where someone could feel no pain at all and pass on convinced that they were fine and all would be well.

Even if you felt pain, there was only so much the mind was willing to endure before shock took you and the soul left the body to whatever end. That was what made genjutsu so dangerous—Sakura's could convince the mind the body was in so much suffering that she could kill without ever touching a person.

The Sharingan could trap the mind in a cycle that shock could not interrupt until the jutsu was finished.

Sakura had never been trapped in Tsukoyomi, but she thought this might be like that.

Or at least she thought that in fragments around the sensations that were everything—she might have been screaming, if only she hadn't gasped from the sudden pain and her muscles locked like there was some sort of neurotoxin present in the mix of acids that were trying to dissolve her into—something.

Bones, maybe, and maybe she'd felt grimly blasé about the possibility of death before the battle, but when faced with it—shinitakunai. Not like this. Not when the things she'd been living for all this time were almost in her hands.

Zetsu could try to eat her, but maybe she would eat him first.

Gozen-san had warned her to never block out her own pain with genjutsu—that having done it once, she would do it again and again and again until she couldn't bear even minor pain without it.

So she tried to gather the shreds of herself and turn her mind inward, away from the physical pain and she sort of managed, though she just about lost herself to it when her visualization of her interior landscape showed her chakra pathways like choked rivers being invaded by mangrove roots.

The sea where the pearl rested in her dantian was still free of Zetsu's influence and she curled herself around it like her consciousness could become the walls of a city to defend against siege.

She set the pearl to spinning, drawing in natural chakra with more speed and force than she'd done since the early experimental days of laying in the seal.

How much water does it take to make a sea overflow? Sakura was more than willing to discover the answer.

Even if it hurt.

What was a little more pain, after all, when she was already awash with it and there was no sign that she could even lose consciousness under this technique. She didn't know whether that was on purpose or if, as prey, she was a little hard to chew.

It was entirely possible to rupture one's own chakra channels due to an unregulated influx of natural chakra, which was what the Seal of the False Sage was designed to avoid, but after manipulation of the seal by Otsutsuki Kaguya, their seal caused the regeneration normally only observed in the jinchuriki.

Sakura was gambling everything on this one thing—if she could pull in enough power, the seal would create even as it destroyed.

She had to fight to do it—her body was receiving so much trauma that chakra was continually flowing out to keep her alive—but with a roar that made her jaw ligaments tear, chakra began to flood in like she'd opened up at pit at the bottom of that sea and all the rivers that fed it had to feed its endless hunger.

Something seemed to split between her eyes and suddenly all of this wasn't only something she visualized in her inner landscape—chakra became something that she could see and everything was limned in light of varying strengths and colors.

She had enough strength and freedom to be violently sick now, her knees giving way as she vomited until there was nothing left in her stomach, sweat and something sour-smelling sizzling as it evaporated off her skin. The bones in her forearms snapped where they were supporting her weight and now she did scream, because it felt like her bones or maybe the marrow in them had become a living thing that was trying to force its way out.

Sakura lost time then—probably not for the first time, but this was the first time that she recognized it—and came back to herself with a singular thought that had to be wrong—had to be the result of being sick and disoriented—lying almost in her own vomit. She rose shakily to her knees, head hanging, looking dumbly down at the objects that were suffused with opalescent chakra.

Her hands shook as they closed over the hilts of the two swords born of dragon bone and suffering and the chakra that bound all things, but her physical strength was returning swiftly and she shoved herself the rest of the way to her feet with a grim determination.

She couldn't truly see how they looked—without physical light, it wasn't that kind of sight—but she could see the shape of them and they were longer than her knives had been.

Head turning toward where chakra—rot green—was knotted tightly outside the earth that trapped her, she prepared to breach the barrier and had to squint against the sudden influx of light that flooded in as it crumbled away.

It was Gaara, face pale with effort and streaked with sweat, breathing heavily, who let his hands fall.

It had not occurred to Sakura, not even when her thoughts were at her most desperate and disjointed, to hope for someone to come for her before she either saved herself or didn't.

There was a sober kind of energy that usually surrounded the Kazekage the few times she'd met him as an adult, a composed kind of reserve that was difficult to break, but she was most struck by him now, the most alive and present she'd ever seen him. He'd grown out his hair in the intervening years, the bottom part worn loose to his collarbones, most of the upper part in a doubled-over tail that gave off a vaguely samurai impression, and sideswept bangs that framed his vivid tattoo.

His eyes took her in from her antler-tips to her toes and his relieved smile seemed to shift his whole aspect for a moment before he ducked his head and his focus—and hers—returned to Zetsu.

He looked almost like a person now, if you ignored the way his hands looked as if they were the nightmare claws of the guardian spirit of some sacred tree, and the thornlike horns that jutted up just in front of his hairline. Neji was engaging him as Sai kept the white Zetsu army at bay, the Hyūga's hands moving with the deftness of a musician, but far more swiftly than any civilian could even follow with their eyes.

It was clear with her new vision that he could harry his enemy successfully, but he couldn't permanently seal the tenketsu and it was only a matter of time before he tired. Sakura flashed to his side, fresh fangs bared, and for moment thought they could turn the tide.

That was before Zetsu caught sight of her.

And before she properly focused on him.

"That third eye—are you watching through it?" he demanded of her. Or rather, of the goddess behind the seal. "I knew that this shallow and chaotic world you left as your legacy wouldn't produce six sages at the same time in any circumstance except one you arranged. Are you fearful? Are you guilty? You should be. This is your fault," he breathed even as he swept aside Neji's seeking hands.

Sakura settled into a ready stance just out of the way of their fight, waiting until she caught the rhythm of Neji's beautiful dance before she risked breaking it—she knew enough of Gentle Fist style from her days as Tatsuo's partner to know it wasn't about force so much as it was about flow. Fighting at someone's side was about more than just charging in whenever you could get up again. It was also about understanding and trust. And perhaps, if you were arrayed against a single opponent that wanted to talk while exchanging blows, waging some psychological warfare without getting in the way.

So she retorted, "Why would she be watching? She can't even stand to look at you."

Zetsu's brows dipped down in rage and he yanked the earth from underneath their feet, causing Neji to instinctively snap open his wings rather than fall. Sakura darted in when Zetsu would have rushed forward to take advantage of that split-second of air resistance and this time her blade did not shatter—it sheered through his arm at the elbow like a sheet of steel thrown by a hurricane cut through a sapling.

She pushed her advantage as his arm fell away, and for a moment thought she had a chance even as thick, muscle-like roots began to sprout from the stub. She was at something of a conventional movement disadvantage, because there was nothing to substitute herself with suspended in the air as they were and her swords, while they could serve as anchors, weren't balanced or shaped in such a way as to fly true when thrown. There was a slight curve to them, like the bones they were born of.

But when skywalking, anywhere she willed could be solid ground at any angle she wished and she launched herself up past his shoulder, pulled her legs in and twisting her body and finding footing standing with her face looking down to the earth. She launched herself at him, but found herself evaded when she would have cleaved off his head, so she manipulated the air and kicked off of it, sending her blades scything toward him.

He deflected them with the flat of his hand, never letting the biting edge of the blade break his skin, using the same principle as the Gentle Fist style, using softness to overcome hardness.

She and the swords were learning each other in this battle and she would have made each cut cleaner, more efficient, more deadly if she had not heard—and that word was insufficient to describe the way it resonated in her senses—a wet gurgle that made her look down.

The earth had only sunk perhaps a foot or two and that was little enough that on the upsweep of his wings, Neji's feet had briefly touched the ground. The arm that she'd severed had taken root in that chakra-soaked soil and had first caught his foot, grown up his body, and then run him through the ribcage with five spear-like tips. The whole growth looked almost like a hand and it seemed to squeeze even as it pushed deeper into his organs.

His lips were already flecked with white foam.

She was at his side with a thought, severing the whole thing from its root. Her hands released the swords they held—and the swords fell for only a moment before it shivered and vanished, becoming vivid tattoos that looked not at all like swords along her forearms—and one pressed against his clammy skin even as the other closed over the growths.

Sakura was depending on her ability to feed him chakra if he couldn't muster enough to regenerate on his own. If that failed, well—she wasn't a medic-nin, not really, not in the sense of being a properly trained field medic, and maybe she could stabilize him for some short period but in a battle like this where it was all attrition thus far she doubted she could save him.

She tried to scald the roots out of him like she'd done for herself, and she could feel him struggling to help her, but while she'd trained with this kind of chakra manipulation during the period when Sai and she had been applying the layers of the first seal, Neji and the rest of Ghost Tribe experienced it more like becoming jinchuriki to a voiceless demon and less like becoming something like a real sage.

Even as she forced chakra into the connection between them, she could feel his life force fluttering as the roots inside him began to eat at the chakra keeping him alive.

She began yanking them out physically and had to almost crush him to her a one-armed hug to keep him from thrashing as she did so. They were crouched on a thin, solid layer of her chakra in the air, his back braced against the inside of her knee.

Gaara and Sai were covering them as Zetsu tried to slaughter his way through ink and sand—Sai had made use of his experience fighting the Angel of Ame and concealed his ink inside Gaara's attacks, allowing him to attempt attacks from unexpected angles, but they were having as much trouble as she had with her knives.

She had already torn several of the roots free when she felt Neji's lifeforce begin to dim alarmingly and she made a split-second decision to take the same risk with his life as she had made with her own. His control—the control of all of Ghost Tribe—was extraordinary and she really believed that he could survive the infusion.

Laying him out, she placed one palm over his dantian and the other on his forehead and began to pull chakra actively from the world again, until it was winding around her body in thick white currents that swirled around her arms and dove into the chakra system beneath her hands that had already been invaded by that rot green chakra. It became a battle between the two invading forces and she was so occupied in watching for signs that the magnesium-fire flare of her own chakra wasn't damaging Neji that she missed the moment where a lively and living green joined her own.

It was only when she noticed the roots shriveling that she noticed the chakra and by then it was already too late to make any decisions about it—the body under hands shifting like Neji was drawing a deep breath, but it wasn't Neji beneath her hands any longer. The man that was looking up at her from beneath heavily lashed lids had the same pale eyes, but the shape of his face was subtly different—it reminded her of Gaara's in the shape of the jaw, though perhaps it was the heavy kohl or tattooing around his eyes that made her immediately call the Kazekage to mind. He had horns at his hairline like Zetsu's, except his were a little longer and jutted forward slightly before tipping back. His hair was long and his skin exactly the same shade as that which Zetsu had regrown after they'd stripped away that dark flesh.

Sakura eased back cautiously as he sat up, uncertain as to whether to attempt anything with the way his chakra had coated Neji's own. He must have read the worry on her face, for he said, "Don't worry. I won't cause my vessel any harm—I will return him to you fully recovered from my brother's chakra."

"Brother?" Sakura asked, rising when he did, tail whipping slightly in agitation.

"Hagoromo. The one you're battling—the one whose chakra was eating your companion alive."

Sakura looked at him dumbly for a moment. "Otsutsuki Hagoromo? The Sage of Six Paths? That—no, that shouldn't be right."

"You didn't know?"

"No, I thought—I knew—or I thought I knew—that he was the one that Kaguya was referring to when she was making cryptic references to 'the one gnawing at the roots of the tree', but…why—what…."

He had a serious and very stern look, this stranger, but he seemed to soften a bit at this, though he did not properly smile. "Kaguya-sama was once better at explaining things, but her long solitude and the events that preceded it have made her very unwilling to interact with others. I look in on her from time to time, but she is always asleep.

"I will be brief, so that we can rejoin your companions, but you ought to know what you are fighting if Kaguya-sama told you nothing when she touched her hand to your fate," he said, his words quick but clear, "And what you are fighting for. I am Otsutsuki Hamura and once, a very long time ago for mortals, Otsutsuki Kaguya was my sister-in-law in a land at war. She was a brilliant strategist and tactician who wanted more than anything to bring the fighting to an end. War has always thinned the veil between worlds and this was such a war that there was a tree rooted in both worlds that grew a very magical fruit—you today call the energy it contained chakra, but in my age it was a power only gods and spirits had access to.

"Kaguya-sama was a person of restless energy and often took long walks in strange places to clear her mind so that she could face the next battle with the kind of detached clarity that makes truly good generals—and it was in one of these walks that she discovered the tree. She ate of the fruit, even the seeds, and the power came to dwell within her. She was already powerful in mind, but this power gave her physical strength that made her stronger than any normal human and gave her eyes that could see the energy of things," he made a gesture toward his own eyes at this.

"It was too strong, and she too unpracticed, to be entirely contained within her body. Eventually it would spread to all the known world, but on that first night after she ate of the fruit, my brother's intimate contact with this human goddess gave him power of his own—power subtly unlike hers. She turned hers to the battlefield for the good of the people—and he turned his to his own cultivation. While she was pacifying the world, he grew in knowledge and power and dissatisfaction—his power was not enough. So he sought out the tree that had borne the fruit and ate the roots, like they were ginseng or some other miraculous medicinal herb. His eyes changed then, growing those rings like the rings of a tree, and his power became deep-rooted and overwhelming, but he still remained intent only on his own path—and the path of his sons, who he took with him into seclusion when he emerged from his first closed-door practice and found them old enough.

"Perhaps he meant to accrue enough power to put an end to all the fighting all at once, without the kind of tedious, grinding work that Kaguya-sama exerted to bring about her peace. But somewhere along the way, he began to go astray—by the time my nephews were adults competing with each other to the point of killing, despite having been raised almost exclusively under his tutelage, he was once again unsatisfied by his own power and the transient nature of peace. He began first to merely blame her—and then he entirely turned against her.

"A thousand years after what transpired on that dark day, Tsukiyomi-sama granted me an audience and told me what he knew of what happened—Kaguya-sama was already nearly to the point of ascension, her time in the mortal world almost at its end, when Hagoromo tried to take her power as his own. Despite the fact that he had become almost a stranger to both of us, this broke her heart—and broke her strongest bond on this realm. She retreated from it, beginning her long and bitter self-exile in the white silence of Tsukiyomi-sama's empty plains, and he told the people that he had sealed a demon that would have stolen their power if it had remained.

"People had always been quick to think the worst of her," Hamura murmured, a distant look in his eyes. "They believed him. Even though she had given them the very thing they were so proud of, she was reviled as a monster—and he became a hero for the ages. Shall we remind him of the real history of the world?" he asked.

This was all revealed so quickly that Sakura had little time or emotional space that wasn't occupied with the anxious need to return to her teammates to react to the revelation—it was enough for her it seemed as if this Hamura, like Kaguya, intended to help them.

It wasn't as if she could verify any of it in any case.

But if she had to serve a goddess for the rest of this incarnation, she'd as soon believe her to be a good one.

Clasping her hands around her elbows and dragging them down the length of her forearm, Sakura unsheathed her swords and flashed back to Ze—no, Hagaromo's side as an answer.