Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto

A/N: Wow, the end is here ... I'm not sure how I feel about it! This chapter is the longest by miles, because I didn't want a pointless cliffhanger (and murderous readers!) or an epilogue – so this is really the end because I don't see any sequels coming, as much as some very kind people have asked for them. I want to take this opportunity to sincerely thank all those people who have supported me through the writing of this fic – whether you reviewed once or every chapter, it truly meant a lot to me. Even though I don't give personal replies, each one really makes my day. This is the first story that I have ever properly finished, and at almost 90 000 words and 163 A4 pages I'm pretty proud of it! The ending may not appeal to everyone, but I hope you enjoy it reading it as much as I did writing it :)

Thanks to BloodRedShadows, LostsoulofRegret, hannah rice, burnt, Lyneia, Ihateflamers and JadeFaeryQueen who reviewed the last chapter and all those who've reviewed the previous chapters!

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Chapter 21

Crimson Tide

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The end. It was supposed to be dramatic, wasn't it? It was supposed to be full of angst and trauma and impossible choices. In that way, the story was probably following the script. But most stories have happy endings ...

Anko had given up on happy endings a long time ago. She couldn't pinpoint the exact time. Maybe it was when her parents didn't come home, or when she first killed a human being. Or maybe it was when she saw a girl floating in green light and she saw herself reflected in Orochimaru's proud, soulless eyes.

Now, fighting Kakashi, she could almost have pretended that they were just sparring – that the last few months hadn't even happened. She could have pretended that, but she didn't. She had made her choice, and a part of her accepted that.

Kakashi didn't.

"Anko, what are you doing? How could you ...?!"

She watched him with a feeling of almost-pity. His feelings for her had weakened him – it wasn't hard to see that. Even through the mask, Anko could see that his composure was cracking.

He leapt out of the way of her thrown kunai, his speed increased by the advantage the Sharingan eye gave him. Kakashi looked strong on the outside – agile, powerful, skilled – but Anko was strong as well and more than she had ever been. In the past, he may have beaten her relatively easily ... but not any more.

"I won't let my feelings make me weak, like they've done to you." Her lip curled in contempt when she saw how he hesitated at attacking her. "Look at you! You're pathetic ... what did I ever see in you?"

Kakashi's fists clenched in anger. "How could you let him turn you into this? How could you forget –"

Anko laughed, spreading her hands in cruel amusement. "Maybe this is who I am! Have you thought of that? Maybe this is who I really am!" She threw fireballs at him from each fist, revelling in the power available to her.

The Copy Nin dodged, but shook his head sadly while he did. "No, you are not a monster ... but you have been deceived. Your power isn't what you think it is, Anko ... it comes at a much higher price than you could imagine."

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"Still hiding the signs of your age, Tsunade?" Orochimaru asked, taunting her. "I can't understand why you are so ashamed of a few wrinkles ..." He slithered aside, dodging her flung fist that had a lot more power behind it than it seemed.

The Hokage glared at her ex-teammate. "Not ashamed enough to kill to hide them ... how do you explain that, you bastard?" She tilted her head to one side, pretending that she had just remembered something. "Oh, I'm sorry – you extend your lifespan for knowledge, how forgetful of me ... What a much better reason for murder!"

"And how many people have you killed, Tsunade-chan?" He smiled, unaffected by her comments. "Or rather, how many people have you watched die?" He lashed out at her with his extended tongue, lashing it through the air like a whip. But it was his words that lashed at her with more poison. His words brought up images of her lover, and her brother ... the people she had watched die. There were more than those two, though they had meant the most to her. As a medic, there had been people she hadn't been able to save, but no lives would haunt her as much as those two.

Orochimaru had tried before to use their lives as bargaining chips in his dealings with her. There was no depth to which he wouldn't sink. He was so intelligent, so powerful ... but so twisted. He managed to inspire a fanatical devotion in a number of his followers with his manipulation and magnetic strength of personality. I wish Jiraiya was here, that old pervert. I think I might need his help.

"I had Anko examined while she was in our care, Orochimaru." Tsunade replied at last, in between their fighting. "How could you do this to her? Don't you care about her at all?"

The snake Sannin sneered. "Nothing is happening to her that she didn't ask for. It has nothing to do with me if she didn't understand the results of her actions."

"You fucking bastard!" the Hokage growled, sickened, "Doesn't she mean anything to you? Or did you just fuck her because it meant you could mess her up more?"

Orochimaru smiled, amused. "I should have known that you would be one of the first to pick that up." His golden eyes had never seemed more alien to her. "Why should I care what happens to her? I will just have to find a better tool. A better fuck."

Her fury at his words stopped her from seeing a glint of something else in his eyes – something that wasn't pure selfish arrogance.

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The truth in his voice made her pause for a moment. "That snake you share your soul with ... it's killing you, Anko." Kakashi said, his eyes pleading with her to believe him.

"You're lying." her voice was as flat and forbidding as her eyes.

"Your body can't handle the stress the extra chakra is putting on it – that's why you fainted when I saw you last. The results came up when Hokage-sama had the medics examine you. Your body is falling apart, Anko, and Orochimaru knows all about it – I would wager my life on that!"

The kunoichi shook her head, but she couldn't blot out his words.

"You're dying, Anko."

"No." she refused to think about how his claims fit in with the facts. She had coughed up blood before, hadn't she? It was nothing new. And it didn't matter whether that added to the possible reasons why Orochimaru changed bodies so often. It was only the fact that he'd stolen them that caused them to deteriorate ... wasn't it? It couldn't be because this soul-sharing jutsu ... it couldn't be that it slowly killed the host. That was impossible. I would know, wouldn't I? I would know if I was dying ... Of course. There is nothing wrong with you ... that he can't fix. That last whisper was added so softly that she almost didn't 'hear' it. It set a chill in her hidden heart, because it leant weight to what Kakashi claimed as the truth.

If her body was deteriorating, then only Orochimaru would be able to help her ... because he was the only one who knew how to move a soul to a different body.

She had to know the truth, and there was only one person who could give it to her.

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Sakura flung a kunai at Sasuke. He stepped to one side, but when he saw the explosive tag fluttering from the hilt he rolled quickly further away. The kunai harmlessly hit a tree behind him. The Uchiha curled his lips in a contemptuous smirk until the explosion of that tagged kunai broke off a large portion of the tree ... which started to fall towards him.

Even that wasn't enough to ruffle his confidence. But Sakura had planned her strategy well – the tree took out another and another, falling in a domino effect that kept him dodging the falling debris as well as keeping an eye on her for other tricks. The groaning of splintering wood continued until the last domino had fallen, and there was a wide circle of devastation caused by Sakura's one kunai.

Sasuke stood silently, looking and listening for any sign of his ex-teammate. "Do you only have one trick?" he said at last, taunting her.

"I've got a few more," she replied, but her voice echoed strangely. Four Sakura's leapt out at him from behind fallen branches, but the deception didn't faze him. He ignored the harmless shadow-clones and twisted to throw a shuriken at a 'branch' a few metres away. Sakura launched herself to the side, giving away what he already knew – that she had used a jutsu to camouflage herself there so that she could take advantage of the distraction her clones were supposed to give her.

Sasuke's eyes widened suddenly when he felt a movement in the air behind him, and he fell into a crouch to avoid the blow from the real Sakura. She had pretended to be one of the clones that jumped out at him, knowing that he would see the clone still hiding and would think that that was her. He had underestimated her, but he would learn his mistake soon enough.

"You've improved." he admitted, seeming faintly surprised.

Sakura smiled grimly. "You have no idea how much." And she raised her fist, and brought it crashing to the ground between them.

Sasuke was taken aback when the ground shook with the force of Sakura's hit. He realised then that she had learnt more from the slug Sannin than medic skills. She had learnt how to focus her chakra to give her immense strength. He also realised that he better get the hell out of the way of her fists.

The Uchiha leapt to a safe distance away, and studied the girl who he'd thought was far less able than she really was. He'd known that she had amazing chakra control, but took it for granted that it was just because she had so little chakra to control. But her capacity, and her skills, had improved. She had improved.

"I suppose I should take you seriously then." he said shortly, his eyes bleeding to crimson swirls. Sakura immediately dropped her gaze so that she wouldn't be caught by those eyes. She had no intention of failing so easily. She had no intention of failing at all.

The kunoichi took up her fighting stance again, ready to counter any move he made. But Sasuke had been training with Orochimaru, and he'd been studying only fighting skills while Sakura dedicated a lot of time to healing. Sasuke was also driven by something that the kunoichi couldn't even comprehend – a rage, a hate, so deep and dark that even hell couldn't accommodate it. It had forced him to train rather than do such menial things like eating or sleeping. He also hadn't had the distraction provided by friends or trivial missions.

Sasuke was a tool honed for nothing but the kill, and as hard as Sakura tried she wouldn't be able to best him.

The kunoichi was strong, and she fought fiercely and passionately, but in the end it didn't take long for the Uchiha to catch her with his eyes, and pull her into his world of crimson illusions.

...o..o.o..o...

Sakura's heart pounded wildly when she saw the red landscape, the red sky with red clouds. She knew what the bloodstained scenery meant. Sasuke had caught her, and there was no way she could escape from the grip of his Sharingan. Even now, her body was frozen in place – a puppet in the world that he commanded.

And there he was – the master of this illusion. Sasuke walked up to her slowly, his expression inscrutable. Sakura couldn't stem the rising terror in her breast, but she couldn't do anything but murmur his name.

"Sasuke ..." she whispered, staring into his still-red eyes. Her own turquoise eyes were wide and couldn't hide her fear from him.

"You shouldn't have tried to stop me, Sakura." he said to her, feeling no satisfaction at her obvious signs of fear. "You will never understand where your place is. You will never understand how insignificant you are, how powerless. It doesn't matter how much you learn – you will always be looking at others surpassing you. You will always be looking at my back."

Sasuke made her see the images supporting his words. He made her see the times she had failed, the times she had fallen behind. The failure, the weakness, flowed over her soul and cracked her heart – the heart that always held her love for him. The love that he had always spurned.

He was still speaking, but Sakura couldn't hear him any more. Something else was rising up inside her, lashing out at the bonds he'd put on her body and mind. Sasuke's eyes widened when he saw a shadow-Sakura rise over the real kunoichi – it rose over her, larger and fiercer with a wild rage that he would never have associated with his ex-teammate.

The clone pulled in a breath, and roared at him as it ripped the chains his Sharingan held over Sakura. "How DARE you talk to us like that?! You FUCKING bastard – you have absolutely NO right! You are a coward and a traitor, and a selfish arrogant PRICK who doesn't deserve to have friends willing to die for him! We're your family Sasuke! If you don't WAKE UP and realise what a mistake you've made pretty soon, then we're going to kick the fucking stuffing out of your pretty-boy hide!"

...o..o.o..o...

Sakura fell back, shaking her head. What happened? She wondered, when she saw Sasuke staring at her in complete shock. We told him what's what, that's all. her inner self replied, horribly smug at finally being able to have her own say. Sakura remembered – falling into his Sharingan, the ... horrible things he said to her, and then ... and then her inner self made herself known. I can't believe we said that! she thought, in a shock of her own. It's about time.

"S-Sasuke?" she ventured timidly, unsure whether he was going to attack her again, unsure of where they stood. Just then, she felt a faint tremor in the rock of the mountain beneath her feet. "What's that?" she asked.

"Orochimaru has rigged the monument. It's going to collapse when he gives the sign." Sasuke answered her, but she couldn't make out his tone.

"But the villagers!" Sakura cried, horrified. "They are all being led to the caves in the mountain with the children to hide! If it collapses ..."

"They will all die." Sasuke finished the sentence she couldn't. He stared at her with dark eyes, and then seemed to straighten. "You must go warn them – get them out of harms way."

"Sasuke ..."

"I'll go and try stop him from triggering it, but it might be too late." he continued, ignoring the question in her voice, or the compassion.

But Sakura couldn't be distracted. "Sasuke ... why? Why are you helping us now?"

"Sometimes ... sometimes dreams are important. You can ... you can tell Naruto that I said that." His expression darkened, "And I am not a child-killer, I am not a monster. I am not my brother." He glared at her, pushing her away with his anger. "But that doesn't mean I am coming back. Nothing has changed."

He turned and left almost faster than she could follow with her eyes. Sakura turned immediately towards the village, and her mission. But even though disaster hung overhead, ready with its scythe to take away her home and innocent lives, her heart lifted.

'Nothing has changed' ... That's not true. Everything has.

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Orochimaru was using his tongue and a serpent extending from each wrist to chase Tsunade, distracting her from the trembling in the cliff below them and the cries of the villagers below. He watched her, his amusement not fading when she sliced off the head of the one snake in a lightning move. Soon ... he thought, excitement growing as his triumph neared, soon she won't have the heart to defy me. When this cliff falls ... it will be the end. He watched her blond hair whip through the air as she somersaulted to evade the remaining snake. It reminded him of when they were both younger, when she had watched him with longing eyes. Perhaps I may let her live ... if it pleases me. But then again, perhaps not.

He felt two presences nearing, and smiled in satisfaction. So predictable ...

Anko landed in a half-crouch a few metres away from him, and Kakashi landed next to Tsunade a few moments later. The slug Sannin breathed heavily, looking at the Copy Nin questioningly. "You told her?"

"Yes." Kakashi replied shortly, his eyes locked on Anko and Orochimaru.

"Yes, Anko?" the snake Sannin smiled at her, but he wasn't pleased. "You came back ... without killing him."

Anko ignored the question and the whispers in her head. "Am I dying?"

Orochimaru waved a hand towards his opponent. "My dear, I am a little busy ... Surely this can wait. You would know whether you are dying, wouldn't you? I don't see any injuries."

But the kunoichi knew that it was all a charade. She knew that he knew. "Is this jutsu killing me?" she asked again, voice flat and cold.

Orochimaru smirked. "Power doesn't come cheap – surely you knew this already. Nothing comes without a price ... some prices are merely steeper than others." But his voice was serious when he spoke next. "Perhaps you should have discovered how steep it was before you leapt."

"I'm not ready to die," she murmured, feeling empty at this confirmation. She didn't even really care that the Sannin had known – he hadn't made her use the jutsu. Well, in a way he had – she had used it because she wanted revenge on him. I can't die ... there were things, things I wanted to do- But she couldn't remember what they had been. She couldn't remember what had driven her to live, other than a desire for revenge on Orochimaru. But look how that turned out ... He was her lover, not her target any more. Somehow, things had changed. But some things hadn't. "I don't want to die ..."

"Your body is wearing out ... you will merely need a new one." He watched her closely, seeing her realise what he meant. "And of course, I am the only one who knows that technique ..."

"Anko! No! Don't you see how he's manipulating you?!" Kakashi growled, furious and desperate. "We could find some way to help you! Don't listen to him!"

"Now he has all the leverage he wants," Tsunade said softly, feeling unbearably sad as she watched the kunoichi break. Anko was staring straight into the other Sannin's eyes, and like the snake he was he manipulated her into the exact position and state of mind he wished. She wanted to put her hand on Kakashi's arm, to comfort him, because she knew that Anko wouldn't leave the only man who could save her life. She was under no illusions that she could help – this soul-sharing seal was like nothing she had ever seen. Besides, she had more to worry about than one kunoichi – she had the whole village to care for. One person, no matter how unfortunate, could come before that.

But the Hokage's heart stopped when she saw Sasuke. The Uchiha strolled up to the snake Sannin, unharmed and unconcerned.

"You didn't have any trouble, did you Sasuke-kun?" Orochimaru asked his vessel, his smirk widening as he pulled Anko against his side. She had given in for the last time, and he didn't have to be concerned about her any more – she would do as she was told, and follow the path that was made for her.

"No." Sasuke replied, arrogantly tossing his head. "None."

Tsunade's face went pale as she read into the Uchiha's words. Sakura ... no ... "What have you done? What have you done?!"

Sasuke didn't say a word – he watched her with dark, soulless eyes. Orochimaru rested his hand on the boy's shoulder like a proud father. In fact, the three of them looked like a family – a dark, twisted family from one of Kakashi's nightmares. The sight of them made his heart clench painfully, like it was withering and dying in his chest. It sucked away his hope, but what Orochimaru said next turned him cold like Death was hovering over his soul.

The ground trembled slightly at their feet, and Orochimaru laughed as he watched the Copy Nin and Godaime's puzzled faces. "It's too late for more than that girl. Do you have any idea what is happening beneath your feet while you both have been so occupied with revenge and lost loves?"

"Orochimaru, what-" Tsunade began, horror beginning to overtake her heart. More was going on than she realised.

His golden eyes glowed with fanaticism as he took a step forward. "While your shinobi try to defend this pathetic village, others are leading the civilians and children towards hidden caves in the mountain-face, are they not?"

"How do you ..." Kakashi said, but paused as the terrible realisation hit him. He looked at Anko, but the kunoichi was staring at the ground with hell in her eyes. She was the reason that Orochimaru knew about the caves. She had told him everything.

"What do you think would happen," Orochimaru said, speaking slowly and savouring every word, "if I were to cause this mountain to collapse now?"

The Hokage and Kakashi froze. Enough time had passed for the civilians and children to have reached the caves ... they could imagine them cowering there, frightened by the fighting and the trembling ground. Would any of them think to leave? Would there be anyone there who would realise what the shaking meant? But they wouldn't leave. There was nowhere else to go, and no way that they would realise that the shaking wasn't just from the movements of the giant snake as it crushed their home.

"You wouldn't ..." Tsunade whispered, knowing as she spoke that that was a lie. There was nothing that he wouldn't do.

Orochimaru took a step closer. His smile was that of a predator. "Then watch, Hokage-sama, and see what I will do!"

He had only begun to raise his hand, when Kakashi flashed forward. There was a gleam of steel, a whistle in the air. And then there was a liquid ripping noise, a flash of crimson. The Copy Nin stood barely a foot away from his target, but he was holding his hands to his chest. Red blood swelled between his fingers, and spilled down his jonin jacket to pattern the grass at his feet. Hatake Kakashi, unbeaten, stared at the opponent he hadn't even seen move. Orochimaru was holding his own kunai, stained by his own blood, between two fingers. The Sannin was untouched, except by an expression of utmost scorn.

He leaned a little closer to the frozen shinobi, venom dripping from his voice. "In what life could you have ever stopped me?"

Tsunade ran forward to catch Kakashi before he fell, and she lowered him on to his back. Immediately, despite the blood that made her phobia rise up and threaten to choke her, she had summoned chakra and was trying to close the wound as fast as possible. Orochimaru didn't do things by halves – he'd pierced the shinobi's lung and nicked his heart. She had to heal Kakashi quickly and then stop him ... somehow.

The snake Sannin, meanwhile, raised his hands again, summoning the chakra he required to finish the village that he couldn't leave behind until it was destroyed. He couldn't move on until he had demolished the place where he'd been rejected, underestimated, passed over. Now, it will end. He closed his eyes, and called the power of his own snake spirit. He may have always had an attraction, a similarity, to serpents, but this jutsu had enhanced them. Orochimaru had been looking forward to this moment for a long time, and he was going to enjoy it.

The next flash of movement was quick, deadly, unexpected. With his focus elsewhere, the snake Sannin may not have been able to react in time. But it didn't matter. When he turned around, it was to see Sasuke with a kunai in his hand, ready to stab where Orochimaru's heart had been. Blood dripped from the blade, but it wasn't the Sannin's. Kabuto had his hand wrapped around the kunai, oblivious to the pain as it sliced his skin. The only thing that mattered to him was that he had stopped Sasuke from killing his master. Sasuke ... who had suddenly swapped sides.

Orochimaru met the young man's eyes, anger and irritation overtaking his surprise at the boy's impudence. His hand swept out, and he struck the Uchiha a glancing blow to the side of his face, sending him to the grassy floor. He glared down at his potential vessel, furious at the interruption.

"And now? Have you suddenly developed a conscience, Sasuke-kun?" he asked, voice full of contemptuous anger. He shook his head, acting disappointed. "It's a pity. I would have thought that avenging the lives of your family would be worth more than this," he waved one hand disparagingly at the village below. "Itachi-"

"I'm not like him!" Sasuke spat blood, and glared up at the man who had been his teacher for the last few months. "I am not my brother! I will not be a part of the mass-murder of innocents!" Those images ... those images of bodies of those who had been his family would never leave him. As much as he wanted to kill Itachi, he couldn't allow something like that to happen again.

Orochimaru's lips curved in a cruel smile. "You already are a part of this ... and none of you are going to stop me."

Tsunade was staring up in shock at the sudden changes in events. That Sasuke had tried to kill Orochimaru, she couldn't deny – even though she could barely believe it. It meant that Sakura was probably safe, but the appearance of Kabuto had broken her heart again. The medic was breathing hard, and seemed to have depleted a large amount of chakra, but despite a few scrapes he was unharmed. Shizune ... Gods, Shizune ... Her emotions were going haywire. First she was certain that Sakura was dead, then she was certain she was alive, and now her dearest friend was probably ...

But there wasn't time for that – she couldn't take her hands off Kakashi, or he would die. Sasuke was slowly getting up, but Kabuto was watching his every move. Orochimaru was readying himself to trigger the collapse of the mountain, and Anko ... Anko looked like she was in hell. The kunoichi's eyes were haunted as she looked from Orochimaru, to Kakashi, to Sasuke and back.

Anko's world was caving in. Sasuke's words echoed in her mind: "I will not be a part of the mass-murder of innocents!" "I am not like him!"

I am not just a product of my past! I am not his

Anko stepped forward, a decision making itself known. It drowned out his manipulation, the snake's voice. It stepped forward, and shouted: Damn this to hell! I'm not anyone's fucking doll!

Orochimaru turned to meet her eyes with faint surprise in his. "Are you going to try defy me as well?" he asked, irritated but unconcerned.

"You can't control me," the kunoichi told him. She was standing straight, regaining a shred of her pride, her fierce attitude that had held her up for most of her life. "I'm not going to let you do this."

The Sannin smirked with amusement. "Are you going to try to kill me, Anko-chan?" He sauntered closer, every movement of his body evoking hundreds of memories.

Anko met his eyes, feeling that attraction for him. She wasn't going to fight it any more, but neither was she going to be a slave to it. "I hate you," she said softly, "And I love you. I'm not going to kill you, but I am going to stop you, and I don't care what I have to do to do it."

"If I don't help you, then you'll die," he told her softly, his voice a mixture of unnameable emotions.

She would never understand him, or know how he saw her, or how he felt about her. But some things were more important that her life or her feelings. "Then so be it." she replied, just as softly. And then she pulled together her chakra, and poured it into the ground beneath her feet.

Orochimaru used his own chakra to prevent her from fixing the cracks he had caused in the mountain, and it was a monumental and invisible fight. It was a contest of will and power, and while Orochimaru may have been superior in the latter, Anko was determined to be superior by sheer force of will. As fights went, it was not spectacular. There was no blood spilt, except the blood that began to run from Anko's nose and the corners of her eyes. A trail of crimson flowed from her ears, as she pulled all her power, and all the power of the unwilling serpent, and poured it into the fight going on in the rock beneath them all. There were no cries, except for the faint sigh Anko made as she sank to her knees. They were both standing still, eyes closed or blank as they concentrated on something no one else could see.

Anko fought to contain all the dangerous cracks in the monument with her chakra, while Orochimaru fought to break them wider. The ground rumbling threateningly below them was the only outward indication of the forces at work. But finally it came down to one decision: whether either of them was willing to put all they had into the fight, risking the very chakra that kept them alive. Perhaps it came as no surprise that, as much as he wished for the destruction of Konoha, Orochimaru was not willing to risk his life for that goal.

The Sannin slumped slightly, opening his eyes with a shudder. Kabuto was immediately at his side, using his own chakra to bring Orochimaru's back to normal. The snake Sannin turned to look at Anko, who was still kneeling with her eyes tightly shut in furious concentration as she fought the pull of the cracks already in the cliff-face.

"Orochimaru-sama?" the medic-spy said questioningly.

The Sannin's expression was unreadable as he continued to watch the young woman for a moment, before he finally turned away. "We're leaving," he said shortly to his aide.

"Hai, Orochimaru-sama." Kabuto's eyes slid to where the Hokage was still busy trying to keep the Copy Nin alive, to where the Uchiha was slowly getting up from the floor, to where the kunoichi knelt. They were almost defenceless, all of them, and they could kill them all ... Orochimaru could kill Anko and then collapse the mountain, he could kill another Hokage ... But Kabuto couldn't read that look in the Sannin's eyes, and he knew better than to go against his instincts, which were almost screaming at him to obey, and not question.

In a moment, the two were gone. Sasuke stared at the spot where they had been, the two men who had almost brought Konoha to its knees again. He moved towards the Hokage, and his old sensei. The Uchiha stared down at the silver-haired man, noticing that Tsunade had pulled down his mask so that he could breathe more easily. Sasuke stared at that face, remembering when he, Naruto, and Sakura had spent an entire day trying to see it. They had come up with so many plans, none of which had worked. It was ironic that now, long after he felt any desire to, he would see the famous Copy Nin's face. His lower face was smooth, flawless. Kakashi had a strong jaw-line, an expressive mouth that was flecked with spots of blood from when Orochimaru had pierced his lung.

The Godaime sighed as she finally withdrew her hands from the shinobi's chest. "He'll live," she told the boy softly.

But before she could even get her breath to ask the Uchiha why he had helped them, they were distracted by a cry from Anko that coincided with a lurch of the mountain and sharp cracks and groans.

...o..o.o..o...

Anko was immersed in the mountain – it was more her body now than the flesh and blood that waited for her above. The spreading cracks felt like slices in her own skin, like she was being torn apart. She was trying so hard to stop it, to heal it, but she had never been a healer and she was spread too thin. There wasn't enough of her to stop the imminent collapse ... the collapse that would take innocent lives ...

"No!" Anko pulled deeper, straining against the restless earth. She poured herself into the mountain – all of her that there was. Once, she'd had a dream ... a dream to be a good shinobi, to be a credit to her village. She called on that long-lost dream, and poured herself into the faces of the Hokage, drawing her strength from the Sandaime, who had given his life to try to stop the student who had betrayed him, and the Yondaime who had given his life to save his village from a demon fox. If the collapse began, there was no telling where or if it would stop. Anko wouldn't let that happen.

With another cry of pain, the earth began to settle. With another desperate struggle, the cracks began to heal. Slowly, slowly the mountain stabilised. Oh so slowly, the danger passed. And Anko was drifting ... drifting in a tide of crimson water, air, soil. Blood stained the earth – she could feel it. It seeped through her soul as it seeped through the soil. The snake was a faint, powerless presence that followed her as she drifted.

But something was tugging at her free form – something painful and constricting. Sharp hooks were digging into the fabric of her soul, and dragging her towards agony. She cried and twisted, but the pull wouldn't relent. The crimson tide was gathering her together, swelling up and up, until it broke over her and washed her thought away.

...o..o.o..o...

Smoke rose up from the village later that day. Villagers, both civilian and shinobi, started the slow process of recovery. The Konoha shinobi had battled to repel the surprise invasion by both Sound and Rock, and the repercussions from that day would last for a long time. Once again Leaf was left with a huge amount of damage to repair, and losses to mourn.

The giant snake had been eventually destroyed by Konoha jonin and ANBU, and every shinobi from genin level to ANBU had fought for the survival of the village. It was only good fortune that a group of visitors from Sand had been on their way to discuss the next chunin exam with the Hokage, and they had grown suspicious when no ANBU appeared to question them when they reached Konoha territory. The visitors, the new Kazekage Gaara, his sister Temari and brother Kankuro, provided the help needed to eliminate or chase off the attackers. And when parts of the mountain started to fall, it was Gaara's sand shield that saved the people in the way of the falling rock.

When Sakura ran past, leading the civilians and children away from their refuge in the mountain, they discovered Orochimaru's plan to collapse it on the village. Shikamaru, Ino, Shino, Hinata and a number other genin and chunin joined her in evacuating people away from the cliff-face, and provided protection as well. It was a panicked nightmare, especially when the monument seemed about to fall and the tremors threw people off their feet, but ... suddenly the ground settled.

With all the invaders having retreated or been killed, the young kunoichi medic lead a group of shinobi to the top of the mountain where she had left Sasuke, the Hokage, and the others. They had arrived to see Kakashi lying on the grass, pale but alive, with the Godaime kneeling over a more pale Anko. The Hokage's hands were bloodstained, and she was almost as pale as her patients as she swayed, barely able to stay up with almost no chakra left. It was only Sakura's intervention that saved Anko's life by drawing her soul back into her body.

Then it was only a matter of hoping that she would wake up.

.c.c.c..c.c.c.

The first thing she was aware of was red. Red light filtered through her eyelids, and she consciously drew in a long breath. It was so hard just to breathe, and her heart laboured in her breast. Opening her eyes was the next challenge, because the red light reminded her too much of a -crimson tide- ...

Anko opened her eyes, and blinked a few times to clear her vision. She was in a hospital room – she'd been in enough of them to realise that right away. And she wasn't alone.

The kunoichi turned her head, and Kakashi slowly came into view. She had to blink a few times again, so that the tears that welled wouldn't fall. He's alive.

She didn't realise that she'd said it aloud. "Yes. And so are you. Apparently we're very lucky." He smiled a little at her, under his mask. "Hokage-sama tells me that if either of us get so close to death again, she'll bring us back just so that she can kill us herself for taking such risks."

He opened his mouth to speak again, but Anko cut him off. She didn't want to hear what he was going to say. She couldn't, not just yet. "Sasuke?"

Kakashi shrugged. "I heard how he tried to stop Orochimaru – I was a bit distracted at the time." He paused for moment. "He disappeared before help came. I think he probably felt Sakura and the other shinobi coming. It's anyone's guess where he is now."

"Probably gone to find another teacher," Anko replied softly. She could see the boy, the young man, in her mind's eye. The image of him, spitting blood as he said "I'm not like him!" would never leave her. Just like she would never forget the look in Orochimaru's eyes when she defied him. It had combined so many feelings that she couldn't name a single one. "He would never have stayed."

Kakashi nodded. "I suppose not, though Sakura had high hopes. She sent a message to Naruto, to tell him what happened here and he and Jiraiya returned to help. Those two will never give up on Sasuke now."

"He may ... he may go back to Orochimaru."

"It's possible." Kakashi agreed. There was another moment of uncomfortable silence, which Anko broke before he could.

"And Shizune? Is she ..."

Kakashi smiled. "She's alive. It was a close thing, but it seems that Kabuto didn't have time to finish her off. The rest of the Sound and Rock nin were dealt with. We had a bit of help from Sand." His gaze intensified as he met her eyes. "Sasuke sent Sakura to evacuate the civilians and children away from the cliff-face. We had few losses overall in the fighting, but it could have been a lot worse." He paused. "Anko-"

She looked down at her hands, which were holding the sheets tightly and she forced them to relax. "I can't hear it. I can't hear its voice in my head any more." It was true. The snake spirit's presence was hidden, gone.

The Copy Nin reached out and took her hand. She met his eyes again with an effort. "Jiraiya came back, and he helped me seal it," he told her softly. "You almost killed yourself when you used up all its chakra as well as your own, but it meant that we could seal it while it was weak. It's not gone – it's still inside you. But you ... you aren't going to die, Anko. Not as long as it stays sealed."

Anko almost couldn't believe what he was saying. She didn't want to think about what he and Jiraiya had had to do to seal the snake spirit – something that no one was supposed to be able to do. Something that no one had ever done.

Her mouth went dry when she opened it to ask a question that she didn't want to ask him. Not Kakashi. Anyone but him. "And ..." she coughed, pulled herself together. "And ... what happened to Orochimaru?" Her heart beat painfully. All she could remember was setting herself to countering his jutsu. She could remember contending with him, pouring herself into the fight, but then ... then he pulled away. After she gave all she had, he pulled away.

Kakashi looked away, pulling in a slightly shaky breath. "Tsunade-sama told me that he left with Kabuto. He left, when he could have killed her, or you, or me." He met her eyes again, with his full of hurt and despair and anger and hope. "She doesn't know why. Do you?"

Anko looked down again. "... No."

.c.c.c..c.c.c.

A month or more passed. It took a long time for Anko to regain her strength, and get settled back into life in Konoha. The Council had forgiven her her crimes, as reward for her part in saving the village. Some still looked at her with distrust, but she felt that she deserved it. It took a long time before she could look in the mirror without seeing a snake hovering over her shoulder in her reflection. She had regular appointments with one of the medics to check that the containment seal was still whole.

She and Kakashi were taking things slowly. Some things could never be forgotten, but he was willing to try. Anko hadn't decided yet how she really felt. She cared about him, maybe not as much as he did about her, but she really did. Some part of her may even love him, but only time would tell.

It was a while before Anko followed the force pulling her a few days out from Konoha, but she couldn't resist it forever. She needed to see him again. She needed to ask him so many questions.

But when Orochimaru stepped out from the shadows under the trees on the edge of the clearing where they had fought so long ago, most of the questions slipped from her mind. For once the mocking smirk was absent from his lips, and he watched her with solemn seriousness.

"Why didn't you kill them?" she asked, the question almost forcing itself to be spoken. The words hung between them, and even though she felt a pull to walk closer to him she held herself rigidly still.

The Sannin shook his head slightly, his ebony hair falling over one eye. "There will be another time." he replied. "I will not stab any of them in the back, as easy as it may have been to do so. When Konoha falls, they will see me coming." His golden eyes were intense, powerful. "This is not the end, Anko."

She stood a little straighter. "Then you must know that I will be there – to stop you. You will have to go through me first."

The corners of his lips curved upwards at her challenge. "If that is what you wish." He saw through her. "But you may have changed sides again, when that time comes." His smile was possessive, arrogant and sure.

"I don't belong to you. You don't determine my future." she said, her voice flat as she denied him. But he tugged at something inside her that she couldn't deny.

"You can't change what is, Anko," he replied, starting to turn away.

The question escaped her lips before she could chain it. "Why didn't you kill me?"

His mouth quirked in his typical amused, all-knowing smirk as he turned slightly to reply. After he spoke, he was gone, leaving her alone in the dark, silent, towering forest.

Alone except for his words, which lingered and whispered in her mind long after he had left. It was an echo of another time, when she had been a betrayed child staring at her sensei, and yet it was an echo of the future as well – one that was uncertain, unwritten.

"Just letting you live may be of some use to me."

.c.c.c..c.c.c.

A/N: Sort of unexpected, hey? But the future is never written, and doesn't end here – I'll leave it up to you. I wish you all very happy future years and great stories ahead! Don't leave your dreams behind or let yourself be a mere product of your past :)

Gabriel99/Megs