Author's Note: I really wanted to get the Konoha Crush arc done and over with. I never realized how long it was until I skimmed through the multiple episodes in the anime that constituted the canon that this chapter is based around. Yeah I also skimmed over Orochimaru's death and Kabuto's implied death really quickly. So the scenes jump around quite a bit. It's been a few months since I updated and for that, I apologize. I won't lie, I've kind of lost interest in this fic, and there's a very good chance it will be discontinued. Or rewritten in the far future. I don't know. Like I mentioned from the beginning, I'm more of a read than a writer. There are some plot bunnies and waiting-to-fall-asleep imaginations I want to write out. But I don't want to give anyone false hope. I just wanted to thank everyone who's read, visited, followed, and favourited this story from the beginning. I'm sorry I couldn't meet your expectations.

Chapter 18

"We should hurry and report this," a chuunin dug into his pouch and pulled out a piece of paper to write a quick missive. He tied it to the hawk on his partner's shoulder and sent it on its way.

The Konoha pair looked down into the ravine, at their shared border, as their Suna counterpart examined the body of their deceased Kazekage.

x

Sakura told Sasuke to have 'a good time' as he made his way down the stairs to the arena floor. Meanwhile she looked down as Kiba was escorted out by medics after his loss. Just like her and her boys, Kiba had been furious at the Hyuuga for what he did to his own cousin. As for as Inuzuka's were concerned, betraying and hurting pack was unforgivable.

Gaara appeared with a swirl of sand, opposite Sasuke with Hayate in the middle. Once the field cleared of all other occupants, the proctor commenced the next round.

She stood together with Naruto and watched their teammate test the boundaries of Gaara's own ultimate defence. He tested until he had gathered enough information, but by then Gaara's patience had run out, he began to go on the offensive, driving Sasuke into the defensive.

This was all in accordance with the Uchiha's plan. He displayed the necessary skills, worthy of being titled chuunin. After all, this public match was mostly just a power display for everyone watching who wasn't a shinobi.

Three minutes in, he decided he lasted a good while. He finished up with a fire jutsu, with the flames burning blue, almost white. He had stunned the crowd silent. With the sand shield up but cracked because he had turned a patch of it into glass, he lifted his hand and announced his forfeiture.

x

Shikamaru eyed his fellow classmate on the other side of the arena. Naruto stood with his hands behind his head in leisure, the proctor having yet to announce the beginning of the match.

Naruto had won his match against Shino and it took almost little to no effort on the blonde's part. Once Shino realized Naruto's chakra was doing his colony more harm than good, he had conceded defeat. Shikamaru wanted to sympathize with the Aburame, demonic chakra had to be a bitch.

Being the genius that he was, it wasn't too hard to put together that Naruto was the vessel for the Kyuubi.

The blond stood in cheer, his own chakra stores replenishing quickly by the minute, his injuries entirely healed. If the Nara was reading the situation right, the blonde could fight for days. Even if he managed to defeat the blonde, he would have to go up against Gaara next and that was a big hell, no.

Shikamaru heaved a sigh so deep, he felt it in his bones. He glanced between the proctor and Naruto, and raised his hand first, "I forfeit."

x

Neji watched as Sakura made her way down to the arena from the stairs after himself. He took the time to analyze her, and compare how she had changed from their team practice match, to her matches against Kabuto and then Kankuro.

To him, her strengths were earth techniques, medical jutsu, and poisons. Genjutsu, he would count as null because he had the Byakugan, it would not work against him.

He looked forward to seeing how she had improved in the last month, even though he was going to win.

Hayate announced the match to commence and the Neji moved. He wasn't going to give her a chance. And the less time and chakra he wasted, the better. His next opponent would prove to be a tricky one.

He thrust his open palms out, striking for her tenketsu, but as expected of a medic, she dodged all his strikes with precision and grace. She dodged one more hit and dropped to the ground, swinging a leg out to sweep his feet, be backed out of her range, but not before she dropped her heel entirely, releasing chakra to create a crater. Desperately trying to find footing, Neji was forced to jump back to the other side of the clearing.

"My, my, Neji-san," Sakura rose with sinuous grace and a little something else, "What smooth moves you have." The look and smile she gave him was, he couldn't describe it, but it sent shivers down his spine. But he refused to let it show. It wouldn't be till years later when he looked back on this match, that he would recognize the look as 'seductive'.

With a slight tip of her head, she looked at him through her lashes, and he could have sworn they flashed amber, before she charged at him. He had expected a punch, but he had not expected her to fight with his family's style!

She mimicked the movements perfectly, and he felt every brush of her chakra as he was quick to learn to dodge or redirect her palms from his person.

The stadium was enraptured by the display between a Hyuuga and a non-Hyuuga both using the same style. Hinata worriedly looked over at her father across the stadium. The frown lines on his face worsened by the moment. The girl looked down at her classmate and cousin duking it out. But it was impossible for Sakura to know how to fight like they did. She's just messing with Neji, right?

Sakura continued her onslaught and although she had yet to land a single hit, everything was going according to plan. Neji came to realize that something was amiss as well, and it began with the itching sensation in his abdomen and grew to quickly spread over his entire upper body. The urge to scratch and scratch became worse.

He cursed when he saw her devious smile and chose to disengage from this dance, and backed away a few paces. Not surprisingly, she did not give chase. Sakura merely stood, relaxed but ready to spring, and observed him. He risked a glance down at his arms, dotted with red angry bumps and spreading by the second. He could feel the skin under his shirt doing the same, and spreading up to his neck.

It seemed utterly beneath himself to scratch but whatever was happening to him was worse than poison ivy. Before he had realized it, his hand was already rubbing at his other arm, anything, anything to sooth the itch.

Neji raised his eyes and promised death to her in his look. Sakura let out a low whistle. Two shapes rose from the earth, made of mud but shaped like beast, clamped their jaws around his shins and dragged him to the knees into the ground.

She shushin'd over and quickly flicked his forehead plate with a little chakra, sending him falling on his behind. The nasty rashes and covered his entire upper body from the neck down and it was threatening to break around his chin from what she could tell.

"That," she sniffed, "was for Hinata."

Neji glared for all it was worth, his hands clenched at his sides to resist scratching himself. It was humiliating.

Sakura cocked an eyebrow at him, "Fate and destiny might be a true concept," she thought back to Ookami-sama, "But look at Lee-san and Naruto. Don't hide behind divine forces as an excuse to not try and change your own situation. A very old being once told me that arrogance is just a kingdom without a crown."

Neji felt his anger and frustration melt away a little at that. He was still upset about his defeat, but he was coming to terms with accepting a lot of things he willfully ignored up until now.

"Forfeit," Sakura grinned, "And I'll give you the antidote and make sure you're blemish free." Neji reluctantly nodded and looked at Hayate, "I forfeit." Hayate announced Sakura as the winner and a medical team came by with a stretcher to carry Neji down to the infirmary. Sakura went with them to deliver on her promise.

x

Nobody was sure what the cue was, but one second a hawk was stretching overhead, and the next thing anybody knew, hell had broke loose.

The earth trembled throughout the village, civilians and weaker nin dropping like flies to the pull of an illusion. Naruto cancelled the technique with little thought and stared hard at the redhead before him.

Gaara spared the blond a glance, "It begins," his siblings appeared beside him and in a flash they were gone.

x

Sand ninja stormed the village from all directions, each accompanied by snake summons not of their own. "Break through the wall!" a Suna-nin shouted as his squad breached the top near the mountain, they were instructed to secure this side of the village.

The snake slithered forward with its equally giant siblings. A pop accompanied by a giant plume of smoke off to the side caught their attention. The wind blew the smoke away to reveal twin giant wolf summons, a priest atop the head of one. "Monks! We must protect our home!" Kizashi shouted and his temple of monk warriors charged forward, engaging with the Suna nin while he and the wolves handled the snakes.

x

Ibiki heard the shout of a summoning being made in the midst of his own battle and when the dust cleared, he looked at the toad summoning and then further up to find a white-haired man on its head. "Yo, Ibiki! Long time no see!"

"Jiraiya-sama!" Ibiki's exclamation stunned his subordinates. Quickly he shushin'd up beside Jiraiya to update him on the situation. "We have the situation under control, having received pre-emptive warning of Orochimaru's interest in the Chuunin Exams since last month. They are collaborating with Sunagakure, but the Fourth Kazekage has been reportedly found dead, assassinated most likely. We believe that Orochimaru entered the village disguised as him."

Jiraiya nodded sagely, "Then Sunagakure is but a willing pawn in his game."

x

Itachi and Shisui stood on the roof outside the barrier, watching their Hokage intently as he fought against Orochimaru. It was unanimously decided, and ordered by the Hokage, and that Orochimaru was the top priority, even if it meant Hiruzen's life.

Being the snake that he was, once Orochimaru made a move to flee, the ANBU unit's instructions were clear: hunt and eliminate the snake.

x

As the stadium above shook with the first wave of attacks, Sakura looked up and over the Hyuuga family. "Hyuuga-sama," she bowed curtly to the elder, "Please watch over your nephew and daughters, I believe we are under attack by Sound and Sand."

Hiashi nodded in understanding, all Clan Heads had been briefed on this matter, "Go, Haruno, I can take care of matters here." She nodded briskly and gave Hinata's hand a firm squeeze before running through the halls back up to the stands where she found Kakashi and Gai knocking around some Oto-nin.

"Kakashi-sensei!" she approached her instructor and met him back-to-back. The jounin gave the girl an assessing glance, deeming her fit, he gave her the orders, "Sasuke and Naruto have already gone ahead after the sand siblings. Take TenTen and Shikamaru over there with you and catch up to them."

She nodded in understanding and quickly relayed the instructions to her new teammates. Within seconds they were jumping through a hole in the wall and leaping through the forest. She reached into her back pocket and palmed a pair of smoke bombs. She channeled chakra and threw them ahead of her, only to have them disperse and reveal a pair of young wolf pups.

"Sakura-sama!" the one on the left chimed. "Finally, I thought we'd never see any action!" the one of the right continued.

She spared the brothers an eye roll, "I trust you can lead us to the boys, you two."

The wolf on the right grinned, "Of course we can, Tomato-breath and Ramen-breath are really hard to miss amongst the woods you know."

The wolf on the left side-eyed his brother, "We've already memorized Naruto-sama and Sasuke-sama's scents, we'll have you know!"

Sakura gave them a considering look, "Just call them Naruto and Sasuke, neither the nicknames or the honorifics are going to do them any good. Also," she glanced back at her friends, "these two troublemakers are my summons, Tsubaki," the one on the left yipped, "and Hibiki" and the on the right let loose a short howl.

Tsubaki sniffed the air, "Sakura-sama, there's a party of ten coming up from the rear, they don't smell friendly!"

"Just Sakura is fine, also," she turned her head to look at Tenten, "Think you two can handle it? I'm going to move on ahead." TenTen and Shikamaru nodded as they dropped to the ground to set up traps. Sakura continued on without stopping until she sensed her boys' signals getting closer.

Upon her arrival, Naruto dispelled the clone he had been using as Sakura took its place next to Sasuke against the older the sand siblings. With merely a glance to communicate, Sakura and her wolves separated Temari from Kankuro and engaged her in battle. Sasuke continued his assault on Kankuro, and Naruto focused his attention on Gaara.

"You will not deny me my existence!" Gaara shouted, half-crazed, his voice not entirely his. Naruto looked at the sand that covered the other boy's arm, forming a more animalistic appendage with purple veins running through it. Naruto knew he had to end it fast before it escalated. Gaara was a jinchuuriki just like him, and based on the scrolls left behind by his ancestor's, Suna wasn't exactly known for fuinjutsu.

"I'm not denying you anything," Naruto calmly stated, "I just think you're going about it the wrong way." Without much notice, he conjured his chakra chains, wrapping them around Gaara securely, pinning him down. In the month that he had been away, Naruto had worked on being able to walk around with his chains activated, and he was really glad he took the time to work on it.

He ambled over to Gaara, careful to keep the chains tight as the boy struggled, the chakra-laced sand no longer crawling further up the boy's body. "You're not the only one who's struggled. What better time than as an impressionable child to be told you're a monster, to go away, to die, to hate me for something they don't fully understand, nor that I knew anything about. I didn't ask to be a container for the tailed beast.

"And neither did you. The pain of being all alone is unbearable, isn't it?" Gaara flinched, "It hurts. I know it hurts. But then I met people, my very important people, who matter more than those faceless crowds full of hate.

"I won't allow you to hurt them, and if you still insist on doing so," Naruto withdrew a kunai and held it at his side, "I will kill you."

Blood dripped from Gaara's sand-covered arm, he couldn't understand the blond, "How can you fight so hard for other people?!"

Naruto spared his team a glance as they brought the Sand siblings to surrender. He returned his attention to the redhead, "Because they saved me from hell and accepted me for who I was, that's why."

Gaara stared up at the sky for a long time, he felt the last of his chakra slipping away, the sand losing its hold over his arm. "I've had enough," he was tired, so tired.

Sasuke and Sakura stepped back, making way for Temari and Kankuro to reach their little brother. Naruto loosened his chains and slowly retracted them until they were gone. His teammates flash-stepped to his side. They watched as Kankuro pulled Gaara up and over his shoulder and the siblings retreated without a backward glance.

"So," Naruto hummed with his hands behind his head, "When were you going to introduce us to your new pets?"

Sakura blinked and looked at the wolf brothers ambling out from the bushes. She rolled her eyes, "They're not pets. They're my summoning partner. If crap didn't hit the fan, you would have found out about them during the tournament. Meet Hibiki and Tsubaki."

Tsubaki dipped his head in greeting, "Nice to make your acquaintance." Hibiki's tongue lolled out of his mouth, "Don't worry, we don't bite. Much."

Sakura looked skyward as the boys tugged their sleeves a little lower. "Come on, whatever's happening in the village seems to have ended. Let's go find Kakashi-sensei."

x

"Release!" four voices shouted at the same time. The barrier caging in Orochimaru and the Third Hokage fell. The oto-nin rushed to gather their leader and then leaped into the air. Itachi's captain signalled his unit to go after them, two took to the air and were shot down by a web, but Shisui, Itachi and their third member, a Hyuuga, followed them by rooftop.

Orochimaru would be dealt with.

x

Team seven found Kakashi standing on the roof of the stadium, a mini-forest sprung from the tiles, a group of jonin gathered around a still body.

Sakura grabbed her boys' wrists and held them a distance from the adults. "Hokage-sama has passed," she said quietly. Sasuke and Naruto looked ahead to confirm it for themselves. Quietly they waited for Kakashi to notice them. When the scarecrow did, he broke off from his quiet discussion with his peers and, perhaps purposely, blocked their view of the Sandaime. "I know it's been a tough day, you three, so just a verbal report for now."

Sakura found her voice first, "Shikamaru and TenTen dealt with the Oto-nin that followed us after we set out to find Naruto and Sasuke. I don't know their status, but my summons assure they are alive, but perhaps injured." Kakashi nodded, "Asuma retrieved them earlier."

Sakura let out a quick breath of relief, "We engaged the Suna genin team and Gaara's chakra depleted significantly. He called a stop of the fight, and we allowed them to retreat." Kakashi placed a hand on each of their heads in turn, "You three did well. Go home and rest while you can."

x

Thousands turned up for the memorial service of the Hokage and other victims of battle. It was a somber affair. Sakura decided that she didn't like services like that, and would never ever want to see anyone she knew among the portraits of the deceased.

The following days were spent to rebuilding the village, and everyone had a had in it. As time passed, news would come that the Suna jounin Baki and his subordinates had discovered the body of their deceased Kazekage, and his assigned guards. With the treachery of Orochimaru, they sought to send emissary of peace. Konoha's Elder Council would seek tougher action on their once-allies if they wanted to rebuild their partnership. After all, the Great Tree didn't need to be allied with Sand.

The week after, Itachi's ANBU unit would return, reporting successfully the elimination of Orochimaru and his self-made caves of Otogakure. His labs, experiments, and modified nin were all burned by high-level fire techniques as well as the Uchiha's Amaterasu technique. Without Kabuto at the snake's side, the recovery of his arms was impossible, and it made him weak. Death was dealt swiftly. As far as anyone in the higher ups knew, the only thing that remained of the snake was the curse seal still on Anko's neck.

A few days after that, the gossip mill would explode with rumours: the Elder Council were going to elect Jiraiya-sama as the next Hokage as soon as possible, to prevent other Great Nations from so much as thinking they could target the Great Tree. They were temporarily weakened, but they were not pushovers and never would be.

And precisely four hours after the rumour finished making it's way around the village, team seven found themselves at Ichiraku, which miraculously survived, Jiraiya behind them, peeking into the stall with a wide grin on his face, "Just to brats I wanted to see."