Try listening to Aaron Copeland's 'Rodeo.' I did.


By Geno Calamari

"We're looking for Sasuke. Have you seen him?" the blonde spoke softly, but no one could miss the tense undertone in his voice. Fingers crept slowly down his leg, trying to reach the holster without being noticed.

It was useless. The question and the attempt at stealth. Naruto was ten years too early to be trying to pull something over on Uchiha Itachi. But if he could just get through this in one piece… and it order to do that he'd need something sharp and metal in his hands.

The grey-haired Uchiha scion said nothing, but seemed to be considering the movement of his hand. Naruto stopped his desperate reaching and looked from one Akatsuki to the other.

Or tried to anyway. There was something that just about those eyes…. those damn Sharingan eyes that held his own. He struggled, feeling the muscles tighten in their sockets, but he couldn't focus on anything but the Uchiha's measured gaze. And that bastard seemed to know he was fighting to look somewhere, anywhere but him, because the corner of his mouth twisted up ever-so-delicately for just a second. It was gone so quickly, he was almost certain he had imagined it.

"No." Itachi still didn't move, but Naruto caught his partner fidgeting in his peripheral vision. The shark-like man's hand shifted on the handle of his massive cleaver in a way that the fourth member of this odd-little group found to be almost… nervous. As though Hoshigaki Kisame didn't want to get caught flat-footed in the confrontation between the two.

But, had she been in the proper frame of mind, Haruno Sakura would have been forced to admit her feelings were exactly the same. Right now, however, conscious Objective-Sakura was completely hysterical and her body was acting on all brain-stem right now. And that part of her anatomy told her to stand the fuck still and shut the fuck up and hope they'll fucking forget about you because you are prey.

So far, Itachi hadn't actually taken an offensive action and, for all she knew, he hadn't even drawn a weapon. He had appeared in front of them when they were inquiring into Sasuke's whereabouts about the market-place of this city and displayed himself. Apparently Naruto rated highly enough that he warranted a fair fight (or at least as fair as face-to-face got between ninja.) Which was wonderful because Sakura was positive Itachi could have killed them both before they had even spotted him.

And Naruto, the brave fool, was staring Uchiha Itachi down. Though, the boy had a penchant for putting himself into a position for his opponent to use his prime technique or ability. Remember when he decided to fight in close quarters with the Hyuuga? Yeah. At least he has that whole 'tough as a bag of giant titanium nails' thing going for him.

He gasped as his vision collapsed in upon itself, narrowing down to just one pin-point of color, the deep vermillion, black-spotted Sharingan. Though never the sort to be frightened by anything, Naruto would admit that he was scared now. He jerked his head from side to side, but his eyes moved to track almost subconsciously. A visceral thrill washed down his spine as the black marks began to rotate. Okay, that's enough of this. The blonde boy grit his teeth and pushed with all his will in a last-moment gamble to look away. The blackness expanded outward in a sudden burst of color and light, and the sight of the world rushed back to fill in the void around the Sharingan. But he still couldn't look away.

Itachi's eyes narrowed fractionally. It was very uncommon that an opponent figured out a defense against that technique. It simply forced the victim to see only the Sharingan, and it calmly stroked the instinctual sense of terror the Uchiha bloodline limit often evoked. Occasionally, the target even went so far as to claw their own eyes out to look away. Even if they resisted it was of little consequence. It merely meant the target was worth his time.

"The organization has ordered us to capture the vessel of the Kyuubi and prepare it for extraction."

The kunoichi bit her lip as Naruto visibly flinched. Naruto never flinched when he was bantering with the enemy. Usually it was the other way around, as the blonde drove almost everyone up the wall. He had a gift for stirring up the passions of others and clouding their judgment.

It was momentary. In the next instant, Naruto had gathered his legendary nerve and smiled dangerously.

"You assholes just think I'm gonna give it to you?" the blonde made a noise of disgust, then proceeded to tell them exactly where they could shove that idea. He was beginning to gain steam from his own bravado. Sakura could feel her own nervousness decrease. That guy really was an idiot, but he sure knew how to be optimistic.

"No," Itachi murmured, "I expected no less from you." The Sharingan eyes that had seen so much pain and suffering closed tightly for just an instant. It was enough for the taller man to draw a short breath.

Those same eyes snapped open, their Sharingan having mutated into a small black circle with three curving blades spinning radial from the epicenter. The Uchiha's teeth ground together as he forced his eyelids as wide as they would go, almost as if he were trying to pop the eyeballs from his skull.

Sakura gasped, her hands flying to her mouth.

Naruto's face twisted into a painful grimace as his hands fisted in his wild hair. His back arched.

They held that way for an infinite second, then Naruto crashed to his knees, breathing heavily, his eyes wide in shock or fright or horror or… something she hoped she would never know. The bladed Sharingan slowly eroded into the familiar triple-orbiting iris. She detected the faint noise of the Uchiha breathing out heavily for just a moment, and then it was gone.

"So what'll we do with this one?" Kisame asked, speaking for the first time. She started and the gilled man grinned ferociously… all those pointy white teeth glinted at her as though begging to sink into her soft skin. The pink-haired girl could not contain the shivers they gave her. Now that Naruto had been incapacitated, the renegade Mist-nin didn't seem to be nervous anymore.

Itachi didn't spare her a glance as he responded to his partner, "She was not the mission objective." Then, as if that explained everything, he looked away from his accomplice

"C'mon Itachi," the shark-man whined, "That's not like you at all. When was the last time you had some fun?" he allowed the question to sink in for a moment, then pressed on, "I sure can't remember."

"Kisame," Itachi enunciated all three syllables carefully, a clear sign his patience was wearing thin.

The toothy grin spread as his beady eyes swept her from head to toe, "She's a pretty little thing, don't you think Itachi?" Sakura flushed with fear-heightened embarrassment. Quickly outlining the possible escape routes, the kunoichi realized that she had a very slim chance of escaping the Akatsuki confederates. Her teeth had worried away the inside of her cheek now and she tasted the metallic copper taste of blood.

"You leave her alone," Naruto rasped. Her heart skipped a beat as she realized her blonde ally was still conscious. Maybe, just maybe, they had a chance of getting out of this with their skins intact.

"Sakura-chan," he struggled to stand, and her hopes were dashed. They'd never escape if he could barely get himself upright. "Get out of here now," he took a shaky step toward them, his back straightening proudly, "I'll hold 'em off."

For just a moment, she entertained that thought.

But Sakura pushed away the impulse to flee, because she had long ago decided that she was never going to be protected again. When Sasuke left, she had had no one to turn to but Naruto. The blonde fox-boy had comforted her when she was down, held her when she cried, because no one else gave a damn about the Uchiha boy. Better off without him, they said. No one saw how deeply that cut her. No one cared how much pain she felt, because she had gotten mixed up with that boy and she was trouble. No one looked at her anymore. She bled and no one noticed.

No one except Naruto.

He had given every single bit of his sympathy, all of his compassion, and fought as hard as he could to keep her from spiraling away into the bleakness of depression. Because he knew her better than she knew herself. She was a delicate, in the same fashion as her namesake. The blonde had known that if she fell into it, she'd wither away and die… just like that.

Naruto had given her hope. It was he who had proposed this excursion to find Sasuke. It was he who had convinced Tsunade to take her on as an apprentice. It had given her the confidence to stand on her own two feet, a proud kunoichi of the Leaf.

He had done so much for her.

She had never thanked him for it… and she'd be damned if they took him without a fight, and she was just the spitfire to give it to them. Sakura was no coward, dammit! She wouldn't run from a fight!

She just couldn't leave him.

"Hey Naruto," she growled, lacing it with impatience for extra effect, "Didn't I tell you that I wasn't gonna watch your back anymore?"

He froze. Looking over his shoulder, he regarded her for a moment. He was screaming on the inside for her to run, get away, to forget about him and find someplace to hide where they could never get her. If there was one thing Naruto couldn't bear, it was the thought of Sakura dying and him not being able to do anything about it. He had dreams, imagining impossible situations and horrific techniques, where she was screaming and crying and begging him to save her but he was always just a second too late or an inch too far. She'd just slip out of his fingers and he'd grasp only air. Those nightmares always left him sweaty and shaken; he'd have the inexplicable urge to find her, just to see her and know she was alright.

Because he still loved her. He knew it. She knew it. He didn't even try to deny it.

"Naruto," Sasuke's voice was unusually firm but the blonde knew better than to say anything about it, "don't stop loving her."

"Huh?" he replied with his usual intelligence, even though he had heard Sasuke perfectly, "What the hell are you talking about Sasuke-baka?" He knew exactly what the Uchiha meant.

"Don't stop loving her," the pale boy said again, unnecessarily, "because someday I'll be gone and she'll need you."

"Bah," he spat, to cover his own growing unease, "you're not going anywhere as long as I'm around, Sasuke!" The blonde was afraid something like this was coming, but he couldn't bring himself to confront his rival about it.

Sasuke turned and walked away. He was smiling. Naruto remained seated on the boulder, alone with his thoughts.

It was almost a full hour until Naruto spoke again, "Don't worry, Sasuke. I won't."

But a very small part of him, the one that he kept hidden away from prying eyes, was very glad that she had chosen to stay. With him. Even though he had known implicitly that Sakura wouldn't leave him, he still was happy she was here.

He hoped she'd never leave him. Because the only way Naruto could protect was if she stayed right by his side. His face broke into a grin, even as his knees gave way beneath him. But he didn't stop smiling, because he was ready for those sons-a-bitches.

She ran to his side. He shuddered, still trying to drag himself erect again but failing miserably. To her great surprise, she found a kunai ready in her clenched fist. The familiar weight of the cool metal was reassuring and she glared at the Akatsuki members.

Kisame's grin looked a little fixed now, and Itachi knew it was because he didn't like defiant women. No, the shark-man preferred them pliable and (if possible) blind. It was hard having gills and razor-sharp teeth. Killed his social life quicker than any suicide jutsu.

"Leave him," Itachi reasoned, looking at her for the first time, "You are not the target. You will be spared."

In response, Sakura moved to shield her fallen comrade even more. "Ha!" she laughed, "Going soft, Uchiha?" the name came out as a curse, but it was oh so hard for her to harden it as such, "Killed an entire clan and you don't have the stomach to finish off one little kunoichi?" She was shocked at her own bravado, never thinking herself capable of it.

He said nothing, but Itachi did not expect such blatant hostility from the girl. As such, the ronin Uchiha was ill prepared to deal with the girl. When she had refused the opportunity to run, she had dashed aside his meticulous expectations of the rose-haired shinobi. He frowned.

"Very well."

His eyes closed once again. Chakra burned through the inner coils surrounding his eyes, itching behind the lids to be released in the devastating doujutsu, the Mangekyou Sharingan. The Uchiha prodigy steeled himself for its use, and opened his eyes.

There was a doubt… a little, niggling sticking point that Itachi just couldn't ignore though…

Naruto hadn't cried out. And that worried him in a way he couldn't explain.

Sakura could not look away, despite her best efforts. There, looking her straight in the face, was the awful triple-bladed Sharingan that he had used against Naruto.

It was all she could do to brace her mind against the sudden, violent wrenching feeling that assaulted her senses. The red sky and black moon of the Tsukiyomi came into being before her eyes. Vertigo threatened to push her to her knees, were she not bound upon a cross.

"This is the world of the Grasping Moon," Itachi intoned, his voice solemn with a twisted sort of reverence, "All of time, all of space, all matter. Everything is under my control."

Ten, twenty, a hundred, a thousand Itachi clones appeared, each holding a wickedly sharp katana.

It's not real, Sakura screamed, though her mouth did not move, It's just genjutsu! They took a step closer to her, preparing to strike her defenseless body.

Itachi spoke, his voice heavy and slow. "Now, for 72 hours… you will be continuously stabbed by these katana."

As the cold steel darted in, she forced her eyes closed and concentrated, repeating one thought over and over again in the silence of her mind. THIS IS GENJUTSU!

The Tsukiyomi was genjutsu. She knew that to be true. It was not a physical attack, and therefore did not fall under the domain of taijutsu. It was not a technique that appreciably altered reality in some manner, either elementally or scientifically, and thus was not categorized as ninjutsu. This was a mental attack, twisting her perceptions of the world into what Itachi wanted her to feel and see. The doujutsu was incredibly complex, a pattern she could never hope to understand, but that was not the point.

A genjutsu can only effect the target if it plays upon the preconceptions and emotions of the target, but only as long as the target didn't know they were under the influence of genjutsu. Thus, any genjutsu can be redirected or resisted, theoretically. Some of the more obvious genjutsu, such as ones which duplicated the effects of high-level ninjutsu, could be turned aside by merely understanding that the technique can't physically harm you and through sheer force of disbelief. Disbelieving was always the key step to resisting any genjutsu.

Was it her imagination, or was the sky a more faded color of red than before? And why were so many painful memories available to the Uchiha? He hadn't witnessed them, so how could he know?

And suddenly, she understood. This was her mindscape, twisted to fit his designs… With that realization, Sakura smiled. Her mind made a sharp, ninety-degree turn in the last moment she had. It could not have come too soon. She could fight too.

The katana crashed against her skin, bouncing off like water beading on white jade. She laughed, her skin as hard as diamond now. She was impossibly strong, infinitely quick, but the concentration was wearing at her mind now, and pain split her head as the Uchiha fought her for control. They may have been in her mind, but the Tsukiyomi neutralized any home-ground advantage she might have had.

That's the secret! He batters down the target's defenses, and then uses the strength of his will to inflict pain and suffering upon his victim. He can access any memory he wants, because he's mind-raping the target!

Sakura clashed with Itachi, attempting to force him from her mind, but did not succeed. He fought with words and memories and her deepest fears. Sasuke as Orochimaru's host body, the powerful, wonderful Naruto dying in her arms, her hidden self-loathing for her useless, weak, pathetic…


Her mental projection swelled, skyrocketing far above the thousand's of Itachi clones. As one, they looked up at the massive Sakura before them, staring at her with scorn-filled eyes. She faltered for just an instant, and it was enough for Itachi to materialize a wall between her and that damnable moon.

Waitaminute… who cares about the moon? And then it came to her. Itachi had made a mistake by throwing up a barrier. The moon is the central nexus of the jutsu! If I destroy it here, this world should unravel.

Her eyes narrowed, understanding now that she knew the weakness of his jutsu. It's not that easy, you red-eyed freak! Her body became insubstantial at a thought and slipped through cracks in the brickwork of the wall. Almost instantly, it shifted to a solid sheet of metal, but the protection had already been breached.

A thousand Itachi waited for her, striking as she emerged from the metal. Sakura's mind deftly twisted itself into a bird and continued her journey toward the lonely moon. Millions of shuriken followed in her wake, overtaking her and biting at her wings. For a moment, all she knew was pain. Then her bloody feathers drew tight about her body and she became a pebble, darting to and fro between the sharp metal throwing stars. She was still rising, faster than before. He was being pushed onto the defensive, and they both knew it. The girl could taste victory on her lips.

Almost there, she thought, and elongated into an elegant flowered battering ram. She felt Itachi's mind recoil even as the sky became as mud to slow her advance.

It was not enough, for no force in existence could hold Sakura back now. Her hardened psyche crashed into the dark moon, forcing through the weakest link in the genjutsu.

The world of the Grasping Moon cracked like a pane of safety glass. Spider webs of fissures shot throughout her mindscape and for a delicate moment Sakura wonder if it was a good idea to do this in her own head. The genjutsu shattered, leaving her washed in whiteness.

Sensation rushed back to her, and the world crashed over her in on blinding instant. She had done it. The little kunoichi no one noticed or cared about had escaped the devastating Tsukiyomi. It felt good.

Kisame choked. He had watched his partner use that technique more times than he could remember, and he knew right away that something was wrong. That slip of a girl wasn't screaming or falling down or acting even perturbed.

The Uchiha's eyes narrowed into venomous slits. She stopped my genjutsu. Behind his expressionless mask, he ground his teeth as he considered the pink-haired girl. If there was one thing Itachi hated, it was surprises. And this was about as surprising as it got. He had been forced to fight her, and it had cost him much more than that technique normally required. If he hadn't slipped up with that wall, she may never have discovered how to escape, then he could have simply waited until she collapsed from exertion. It was highly inefficient, but if it got the job done.

No matter, he decided. The kunoichi was still no where near his skill level, regardless of her minor victory. Within the sleeve of his cloak, he tightened his fingers about a handful of shuriken.

Sakura maintained her defiant posture even as the aftereffects of the jutsu hit her. Fatigue reached up from the pit of her stomach and attempted to throttle her brain, which was reeling from the migraine she had received just breaking the damn thing in the first place. It caused her to wonder which would have been worse, just simply being devastated by the genjutsu or this horrible sense of imbalance that escaping had left her with. Most likely, her mind hadn't quite recovered from the technique yet.

The tall man bared his sharp teeth again, but was disappointed when she didn't flinch away from his gaze.

The one thing that everyone forgets: Sakura isn't just the name of a flower. It's the name of a tree as well.

Trees grow. Trees resist wind and rain and all the elements without falling. Trees live for an eternity and have the requisite wisdom of the ages.

Sakura was no flower, though they liked to fashion her as such. No, she was a seedling, pushing her way toward the blue sky, struggling against adversity to grow to the greatest heights. A mere cherry blossom petal could not be the vehicle for Haruno Sakura, because she was all of the petals of the cherry blossom at once. A single flower could not contain her greatness, her kindness, her intelligence.

And, just for a second, the shark-man understood this.

"Ku ku, looks like I get to do some slicing today."

Out came the sword, the terrible blade that rent and tore instead of stabbing and cutting. He would fell this tree, this sapling, before she truly became a threat. There was no way for her to avoid him. He wasn't one of the Seven Swordsman for nothing, mind you.

Because a sakura tree is a small, beautiful, and not particularly hearty tree. It isn't a redwood or oak or any other sort of massive, powerful tree. It serves its purpose as a tree should, but it does not protect itself.

It doesn't need to.

A flash of pain shot up his side, the sky spread before his eyes and stars winked. The sensation of overwhelming, boundless, all-consuming rage nipped at the edges of his mind, and Kisame realized the Kyuubi brat was still a threat. The impact with the ground threw him almost ten yards, and the kunai embedded between his ribs jarred painfully against the unyielding earth.

He sat up, drawing himself painfully to his feet using his sword. There, standing protectively before the girl was that damnable blonde. He considered removing the kunai, but then decided that he couldn't risk increasing the blood loss. Especially not when Naruto was manifesting.

And manifesting he was. The crimson-tangerine chakra of the Nine-Tails was leaking from every tenketsu in his body, giving him a visible aura of power. Itachi could taste it in his mouth, even at a distance. But he wasn't sweating, he wasn't breathing hard, he wasn't… even fatigued… Didn't I injured him with Tsukiyomi? It was almost like he had ignored the devastating mind-rape of the genjutsu… hadn't he been stumbling just a moment ago?

"Hey assholes," he growled, his voice taking on an unearthly dual tone from channeling so much tainted chakra, "If you try to hurt Sakura-chan..." he paused dramatically, "I'll kill you."

And Itachi understood. A clever deception, Naruto-kun… and he had been suckered into believing it, because he hadn't expected the boy to be so tenacious. That was two mistakes today, and the grey-haired man didn't like where this was going, not one bit. Where Sakura had escaped, stopped the Tsukiyomi dead in its tracks and forced the prodigal Uchiha into the stalemate of mental combat, Naruto had embraced the technique. He had taken every stab and blow, every painful memory and deep, dark secret and come out stronger for it. His indomitable spirit remained intact, even after such a violent assault.

For Naruto had done what he always did. He endured. Grandly.

Radiating power like a beacon, he drew a handful of shuriken and growled, "I'll take care of them, Sakura-chan."

It surprised no one more than herself when she said, "No."

His jaw dropped, and found himself looking back over his shoulder at her again. "But—" his eyes were a shade of crimson she found most distressing.

"I mean it Naruto," her voice cut him off, "I'm not going to watch your back again. No matter the danger, I'm right here with you. I'm gonna help, damn it!" and before he could answer, she stepped into the coruscating chakra surrounding him. It did not burn her, though she had expected as much. Naruto would never hurt her, no matter how lost and angry and crazy he became.

An arm slipped around his waist, another underneath his arm to hug him from behind. His mind blanked at the contact, completely unprepared for what happened next. She pressed her too-wide forehead against the back of his neck.

"Let me help you," she whispered, almost too soft for him to hear over the raging bon-fire of chakra surrounding them. Her hands drew into the seal of the sheep over his stomach.

And she activated her jutsu, the secret, dangerous Two-Mind Union technique.

In an instant, his mind broadened, stretching in ways it had never moved before. Awareness flooded through him as he looked through two pairs of eyes at once, heard through two pairs of ears. He felt the tightness of Sakura's bindings across her chest even as he felt the resistance of the earth between two sets of feet. He had twenty fingers, twenty toes, and he had to force himself to stop breathing so hard. She kept giving, and giving and giving and he wasn't sure how much more he could take.

Sakura gasped as she experienced the frantically broken progression of Naruto's mind. He didn't think in straight lines or angles. It was just all over the place. His mind flitted from possibility to hypothesis, then discarded ideas before they were ever fully-formed. He'd be a genius if he could just concentrate. It was dizzying, but wonderful in its own way. But why wasn't she getting any of his awareness? Was he fighting her?

Then the bloodlust pounded through her veins. The technique wavered, and his thoughts separated from hers enough to make them indistinct. She forced it back, hoping to stabilize the jutsu before they were forced to break contact.

She picked up a stray image collected by Naruto's eyes. Her own eyes were turning that same unsettling shade of crimson. Instinctively, he forced his power back down, trying to free her from the demon fox's grasp, but Sakura trailed his mind down to where he kept his demon.

For the first time, she touched his conscious mind. He recoiled, shocked. The blonde was woefully inexperienced with mind jutsu and it was all she could do to keep her hold on him. Comforting emotions weren't having any effect on him, because Naruto was just plain irrational sometimes. He was fighting her every step of the way, and she was forcing him to accept her presence, because there wasn't any other way.

NARUTO! Stop it right now! His mind paused, considering. He was sure that he knew that sensation from somewhere. Then he felt her, really felt her, and the feeling of recognition was unmistakable. She smiled. I just want to help you, Naruto. Acceptance. The warmth of being held. Safety. Wrapped in a blanket in front of the fire. Sleeping in a comfortable embrace. His eyes were more blue than red now…


She felt rather than heard the Kyuubi's roar, unwilling to have this pathetic female ruin a perfectly good opportunity to cause havoc. But Naruto's mind crashed into her own, embracing and interlocking such that it was difficult to understand exactly who was what and which was who anymore. It was glorious. No secrets between them, memories ran together.

There was a six-year-old boy with pink hair and a wide forehead sitting on a swing, watching as the other children went home with their parents, parents who looked on with such cold eyes. Even his best-friend Ino's parents looked at him that way… They pushed the twisted memory away, focusing on the task at hand.

They were perfect. His power, her control. His strength, her intellect. His will, her wit. Their heart, their passion, their drive… everything cascaded down, feelings and emotions resonating as they reach inner harmony.

Together, they reached out and grasped the Kyuubi through the bars. It fought, trying to scratch and bite its way free, but to no avail. Pulling as one, Naruto and Sakura wrenched the power from the Kyuubi, free of his tainted emotions, his hatred, his rage.

And then they were gone, leaving the monster to beat futilely against the bars of his cage.

They retracted slightly, no longer a single entity but two linked minds. Contact with her rational had left him focused, brilliant, and alive as he had never felt. His primal, wild nature had left her tingling, craving feeling and emotion and sensation. Truly, this must be what it is live.

The glowing vision from his blue eyes assaulted her, and she felt his laughter as her mind considered the fact his eyes were far superior to her own. His hand was tight on the shuriken, so sharp as they dug into the skin of his palm. He relaxed slightly, the incredible healing factor of the Nine-Tails closing the wounds momentarily. She felt her body press against his back, her arms hugging him so tight. Embarrassed, a thought flickered through his mind. He hadn't quite figured out shield thoughts from her, and it came across as a scream. She felt her body pressing into his back, felt what she felt like to him, felt his body react to her own, and blushed. He felt good too, but she would never let him know that.

The Uchiha watched. He saw the girl pull herself to Naruto, saw her activate the Two-Mind Union jutsu… then he saw a host of emotions flicker across their faces. Annoyance, surprise, fright, shock, pain, determination, embarrassment… and finally a placid calm.

Even Kisame, who had no chakra-seeing eyes, could detect the change in Naruto's aura. It wasn't burning, leaping, dancing like fire anymore. Instead, it was glowing, pulsating in time with what he assumed to be their wildly beating hearts. It was more like the radiance of a light-bulb, but impossibly brighter.

Their eyes moved, both tracking different targets. Naruto watched Kisame. Sakura gazed evenly at Itachi, who returned her measured stare. The jutsu was stabilized now, and would only be released when she died or ended it, the Uchiha realized. His Tsukiyomi would affect both of them at once and he wasn't sure he had the ability to fight them both at once like that.

Naruto bent forward, his feet wide, and Sakura stood behind him. Both wore the same manic grin as her hands began to form seals as fast as she could. Itachi raised an eyebrow, recognizing the jutsu right away.

"Doton: Doryuudan!" Kisame wasn't quite sure which one of them had spoken, but he found himself actively dodging the chakra-empowered earth missiles. Itachi simply disappeared, moving himself out of the line of fire.

The shark-man growled, unnerved that his Samehada wasn't consuming the chakra these two were giving off in waves. But if it isn't being consumed, where is it going? Beady eyes wide, he fired off a half-dozen seals before slamming his hand flat upon the ground. The street rumbled, then a ten meter square collapsed in upon itself. The water pipes burst and began to fill the hole left before him, giving him the necessary moisture to perform his techniques. He grinned, he could fight properly now.

Itachi's shuriken flashed, winging out to eviscerate two foolish little Leaf-nin but were deflected by Naruto's own handful. It wasn't important, for he had occupied Naruto's hands, and his own seals were still far faster.

His hands clasped, the Uchiha forced chakra into his lungs, then exhaled violently. "Katon: Ryuuka no Jutsu." Taking the shape of a fiery dragon, the jutsu crashed against a water dragon of equal strength. His Sharingan narrowed as Sakura grinned, her hands clasped in the final seal of the Suiryuudan no Jutsu. But it had come from Naruto, his eyes had clearly shown that. They are sharing techniques.

"OI!" Kisame bellowed, "Don't steal my water, you little punks!" His fingers flashing, he shouted proudly, "Suiton: Suikoudan no Jutsu!" A massive liquid shark smashed into a huge earth wall, obliterating it but the dispersing the technique. The way clear, Naruto grinned.

Their coordination is far better than our own, Itachi noted, and they have the near-infinite chakra of the Kyuubi. He blinked as Naruto raised his left hand, displaying the fully formed Rasengan. He couldn't see what the blonde could possibly do with such a short-ranged technique. Would they move? Could they move, considering their current state?

Kisame was breathing heavily. His partner recognized the signs of fatigue in his odd, blue face that others would have missed. That wound from earlier was starting to drag him down and soon he would be useless. Then Itachi would have to fight them both alone, an eventuality he was unsure of.

But Naruto simply gestured with his hand, and the Rasengan flew from his palm toward the big man. Too startled to move, and far too tired to avoid it, he brandished the Samehada in a last ditch effort to defend himself.

He shouldn't be able to do that. That particular technique shouldn't have maintained cohesion when separated from the user. Is this an effect of the Kyuubi, or a new ability of the boy?

The Uchiha didn't even bother to expend the chakra to defend his ally, because he knew that no defense could stop the spiral shot when it was focused. But perhaps the chakra-consuming properties of the rough skin blade could defuse it instead. He did, however, take the opportunity to create three shadow clones.

In truth, it was neither. The spiral bullet required all of Naruto's concentration to focus, and then required every bit of Sakura's control to keep it together long enough for it to get there. Without either one of them, it would have been impossible.

The ravening sphere of pure chakra crashed against the bandaged edge of the Samehada, the blade attempting to eat the brilliant energy just as fast as the ball tried to dismantle the odd sword. In the end, the sword absorbed the Rasengan, but the ball destroyed the rough skin from the inside out, detonating the stored chakra like a warhead. Kisame didn't have time to gasp as the hard scales of the sword were driven into his body. He collapsed, bleeding from dozens of wounds, and did not move.

But Itachi moved in for the kill, disregarding his fallen ally.

Moving silently at a dead run, all three of his clones seemed to materialize around the two Leaf-nin. Kunai darted in for quick kills, but Naruto and Sakura were imbued with the feral reflexes of the fox demon, so fast they bordered on precognition. They were impossible, wild, and moved with such fluid grace that he could not seem to touch them. They moved as one, the girl lithe and sinuous, fast as the wind, never quite being where the grey-haired man anticipated, while the boy was hard and linear, moving like a juggernaut, his momentum unstoppable. She flitted around him, defending his flanks and performing impressive displays of gymnastic prowess as she vaulted from his shoulders, pushed off from his back, rolled beneath his legs, and twirled about his body. He provided a stable counterpoint to her incredible speed, the anchor to her unrestrained movement, fighting tooth and nail, switching between clones with no obvious signals or warning. Perfect coordination.

But he didn't mind. His clones were meant to die. It was not surprising when the first clone dissipated, giving up the stored chakra in a massive explosion. The other two clones were caught in the blast and detonated in a similar fashion.

Smoke obscured his vision, but it was as clear air before the Sharingan. The massive chakra was still there, still engulfing the two shinobi, much to his disappointment. The boy had shielded the girl with his body, being the more durable of the two by far, and had taken the brunt of the blasts. Had it been anyone but Uzumaki Naruto, they would probably be dead. As it was, he was merely taking advantage of the lull in combat to put himself back together.

The fight, though no more than thirty seconds long, had given Itachi the time he needed to activate his Amaterasu Sharingan, because there would never be a better time to use it and without he had no chance of winning.

His eyes snapped open, even as his veins burned like molten lava were being pumped through them. The Sharingan changed, the center pupil expanding into the tri-blade of the Mangekyou Sharingan, but taking on the bright red of flames while the rest of the his irises faded away into blackness. He could feel the fire, smell the burning even as he breathed, for there were cinders in his lungs. His body temperature spiked, flushing his pale skin. The dark hair atop his head burst into flames and his skin smoked. One thought burst across his mind as he ran toward them with the speed of dry leaves sparking.

I am the inferno. It pleased him.

And they danced, twisting and writhing about one another in a play of ninjutsu and taijutsu. They moved, four arms and four legs a perfect counter to his Sharingan and four-limbed tatsu-ryu taijutsu. There was no cohesion between the boy and girl's styles, and thus they had no weakness. He burned, he scorched, but still they fought. The Uchiha spread, dipping and dying low, then burst forward like an gout of flame. His advance never slowed, for he was the fire and nothing could resist him. Nothing except them. This also pleased him, though he could not understand why.

All three were evenly matched. Itachi could not land a fatal hit, and they could not do more than scratch him. How long had they been fighting? Ten minutes? Twenty? An hour? He could not remember. All he could feel was the inferno, the sheer joy of living and the passion of the fight. This is what Itachi lived for, for any false step would have meant death and it didn't matter. They weren't playing around anymore, but somewhere along the line the battle had become about seeing how far they could take it, rather than killing one another. In that moment, he was perfect and invincible, fighting the ultimate enemies in the never-ending battle for supremacy. They knew as well as he that not one of them would submit before this fight had reached its conclusion.

It was magnificent, incredible, beautiful… awe-inspiring. He was sublime, heavenly, superlative, and a dozen other things for which he had no words. They were unflinching, transcendent, indefatigable… and he never wanted it to end. The reflection in the girl's eyes showed him a man with a wide grin and he realized it was himself. That they sported matching grins and the Uchiha knew they felt the exact same way. Was he laughing? Truly laughing for the pure, undignified ecstasy of it all? Apparently he was.

But it had to, he realized, feeling a pang of loss. If he did not stop soon, his body would give out, because he could not feel the fatigue anymore. They were pulling near the bottom of the well, also, and it surprised him to realize that he did not want to kill such impressive opponents. If he did kill them, then who would ever make him feel this omnipotent again? This certainly would not do…

They broke apart, and Itachi took the opportunity to retreat a few paces. The girl did not follow, but the boy placed himself between the two, displaying a small amount of independence from the mind-union.

For a moment, he stood, examining them both. Then he grinned. And they grinned back. Because it wasn't a death match anymore. It was a dance, beautiful and rhythmic, almost hypnotic in quality. And dances weren't about living and dying. They were all about the motion and the skill, only the dance itself was important.

The Amaterasu Sharingan faded, leaving his eyes their original shade of ebony. They didn't miss the slight sag of his shoulders when the doujutsu was lifted. He was exhausted, but still thrilling on the adrenaline of combat. His hair died out, reduced to little more than ash now. The skin down his arms and across his back was already beginning to flake off. He really needed a drink right now…

The powerful aura of the Nine-Tails melted away into the background and she leaned against him to stay upright. Her limits had been passed long ago, and had they not been sharing the rush she'd have succumbed already. The boy still had a bit of fight left in him, but it wasn't being directed toward Itachi, so it was of no concern.

"I'm going." It was a statement, no question behind it, and the renegade didn't wait for their approval. That's simply the way he was.

"Oi!" Naruto called out and he was sure the mind-union had been released now, "That was incredible!" He laughed out loud, still riding as high as Itachi.

The Uchiha looked back over his shoulder, far too calm for a man in his condition, "Aa." Naruto grinned, and Sakura nodded sleepily.

He turned, gathered his cloak from where he'd abandoned it, and strode off down the street. The blonde kitsune had to resist the urge to yell after him, to tell the taller man to 'take care of himself', because that was absurd. Besides, Naruto knew it was useless to tell that one anything. That's just the way he was. They were the same in that respect.

He sighed, shifting slightly so as to better accommodate the sleeping girl. What am I going to do with you? A smile graced his lips and his blue eyes danced in mirth. It really didn't matter now, because whatever happened, happened. Regardless of how improbable or unlikely it seemed, life did as it liked.

Yamanaka Ino rolled her eyes at her best friend, "You expect me to believe that nonsense? Has your forehead grown so big it crushed your brain under the weight?"

Haruno Sakura bounced the small, dark-haired child on her lap and smiled back serenely, "You did teach me the technique, Ino-pig." Ino stewed in silence for a moment, taking a sip of her smoothie (low-fat) as a cover for her lack of witty repartee. She certainly had, damn it.

In the awkward silence, the small boy took the opportunity to enter into the conversation. With all the elegance of an eighteen-month old boy, Kyouji burbled something that sounded conspicuously like 'Ino-pig.'

There was a moment of calm before Ino exploded. "I can't believe you taught him to say that!" the blonde woman screamed. Had it been anyone but a child who said the hated word, Ino would have slapped them silly.

"Must have been Naruto. His bad habits are rubbing off on the poor little guy," she brushed his dark hair, but it always managed to fall back into that 'artistically mussed' look.

When Ino realized that it was all she was going to get in the way of explanation and apology, she sighed. "I still don't believe you. I mean, yeah, Naruto's strong and all, but fighting Uchiha Itachi to a standstill? After killing off his lackey… it's a little far-fetched."

"Here," Sakura smiled and closed her eyes, "I'll prove it to you."

When nothing happened her friend, a skeptic by nature, snorted, "So what's supposed to be happening here?"

"In about ten seconds, Naruto's going to walk through the door." Ino began a silent count.

Sure enough, the blonde man barreled through the door just on time. He cast a glance about before his eyes settled on the two women and child. Kyouji grinned in recognition and called out, "'Tou-san!"

"I thought I heard you call," he laughed.

"Thanks." The roseate lady said, then looked to her friend.

The blonde woman's eyes were narrowed dangerously and the butter knife she had been using to spread non-fat cream cheese on her bagel was twitching dangerously. "Fluke," she declared, though she didn't sound confident.

"Ino doesn't believe me," Sakura pouted, attempting to bring Naruto into the argument. However, he had had much training in avoiding exactly these sorts of situations. So he just said whatever he could and hoped the storm passed him by.

"So what else is new?" he drawled. Then he thought about it, Oops, wrong choice.

She fixed him with a glare and he seemed to wither in his clothes. Oh man, she must want to win this argument really bad. What'd'ya want me to do now? In a flash, he knew.

"If you want me to tell the story again, I think I can manage it," he placated. She seemed satisfied.

"Again, from the beginning," Ino demanded, "And get me another smoothie while you're up."

He rolled his eyes up to the heavens, begging for strength. It was going to be a long afternoon.

He took the cup without complaint.

Author's Notes:

I wrote this one simply to explain why Kisame wasn't around to interfere in the Uchiha fight in 'Brothers.' Then it kind of snowballed out of proportion and I was left with this twelve page monster. My entire purpose was to kill off Kisame, and then… well I just couldn't leave it in the middle of the fight, now could I? And everybody knows that Itachi would be left standing long after the shark-dude goes down. So I had to end it somehow, and that seemed like the right way. I was going for abstract, anyway, because I don't like the way most fight scenes turn out. It's the one part where I feel my writing falls down. This, however, I am comfortable with.

And I wanted to make Sakura cool. Because she is cool. (At least I keep telling myself that…) Yeah.

My rational for this is that Naruto just uses the Kyuubi's chakra without thought or control. So if he's mind-linked with Sakura, who's all thought and control anyway, then they could do something really incredible together with it. And I just kind of made it up as I went along.

And I made the Tsukiyomi my bitch. Because it's gotta have some sort of little weakness or something and I could always see Naruto being like 'Uh huh, is that it? Gosh, that hurt… and seeing as I've never been hurt before and all…'

Chronogically, this fits in after Hardened by Fire, but before Brothers, for those of you who are still paying attention.

So, tell me what you think. Because I'm interested in knowing. Thanks. Geno Calamari is out for the day.