AN: FINISHED! Boo-freaking-yah.

Okay, that's enough gloating. Actually between writing this chapter and the last I put a lot of agonizing into how this story was going to end. There were some very happy endings that never saw the light of day. There were also a hell of a of kill-em-all kinds of ends that I considered, but they would have left this story just as dark and fucked up and bloody as when it started.

Some people complained that last chapter got resolved without murder (they wanted to see Naruto die, or the Kyuubi die, or Sakura die or what have you), and I'm not really complaining because that's their opinion to have.

(And frankly if this story gets you arguing and thinking about what would better semantically close this out, I consider my work here done)

But if it'd been Naruto to die, that means Sakura would have never changed. Everything she went through? It would have amounted to nothing and then she would have been the same little stunted girl at the end as she was at the beginning.

When I decided how to write these last two chapters, this is what I asked myself: If we don't end up somewhere different than where we started, then what was the point of me telling you this story?

Disclaimer: The manga of Naruto hasn't ended. This has. That should be your answer on who owns it.

Warzone: 5:59 AM

The scarlet chakra thrummed on her skin, under it, through it. Bloodlust was riding her so hard Sakura was dizzy with it. For some reason it felt more like the Kyuubi's bloodlust than her own, but that was just fine. She'd waited a decade and more for this, for the accumulation of her hopes, for this pinnacle of her ambitions, for the collection of all her mistakes. She couldn't tell which was which anymore.

The demon sidled up next to her; limbs loose like that body had always been his. It was such a facsimile of humanity she nearly laughed. There was a monster riding under that flesh, a veritable god of fury constricted by bone and blood.

And she had put him in that flesh, bound him down in it tight. The power of that was invigorating.

"Is tonight everything you thought it'd be?" The Kyuubi taunted her and his hand was on her neck and splayed up her cheek. The feral smile on his face was almost fond.

"It's more." She assured. Tonight was painful and messy and a million regrets rolled into one. "You promised me damnation and I skipped to war. Your perfect little pet, your queen, your cage."

His chakra—their chakra—snarled around them like a storm and she took it from him and he took it from her. The rage and vindication had sunk so low in her belly it almost felt like arousal.

His lips peeled back, teeth bared. "Aren't you feeling smug tonight?"

"I'm smug because I got what I wanted. I kept my team." Her lashes flared innocently wide. "I started my war." Her grin was wider. "And I held my secret."

That last inescapable secret.


His other hand was on her hip, claws digging in, and he pressed his nose to her cheek. Their eyes were less than an inch apart. Red against red, monster to monster. "Don't take all the credit brat. I think we know who etched this plan into the back of your skull." They were breathing the same air and his exhale felt like fire on her cheek. "Besides, I could have stepped in at any time and then all those secrets would have come crashing down. What do you think that blond bastard would have thought if he saw the demon you were supposed to be carrying given flesh—"

She took a swing at him and he caught her punch. Muscle pulled thin under her and the ridge of his knuckles showed just how little he restrained her by.

She brushed her lips along his cheek, then her teeth. "Shut up."

The Kyuubi didn't even flinch. "I missed you too." They were close enough to kiss but he just smirked. "Are we going to get this massacre started or are you going to keep crying because you managed to pick up a little humanity after all these years?"

Sakura gave serious consideration to biting him but judging by his grin, he would have welcomed it. Then he would have bitten her back because that's how they operated. Violence for violence. Mark for mark.

Her and the Kyuubi were connected in every sense of the word and she could feel it flexing now to find how deep and painful it ran. And that feeling of rage, bloodlust, and almost arousal pulsed between them in a distorted feedback.

The enemy ninja just watched on in stupefied horror. Sakura thought maybe their brains hadn't quite reset over the shock. That, or they were waiting to see if she and the Kyuubi ripped each other limb from limb first.

Either could happen now.

She nudged the Kyuubi's face with hers, cat-like affection, animal-like challenge. "I guess we can start it if you're in such a rush. But I have to say, that warpath you burned through the city while I was busy at the Hyuga compound? That's cheating."

"It was a warm-up." He licked his lips and she saw his blood stained teeth and an even more-stained tongue. "I was getting bored while you were having your hissy fit over your team."

The snarl road low in her throat. "Don't talk about them to me, they're mine and you don't get a say in what I do anymore." She bit off every word. "So back. The fuck. Off."

The hand on her hip tightened and pulled her in. They were practically molded into each other but Sakura felt the miles between them. Once upon a time he'd been riding under her skin like a virus. That'd ended less than a week ago and the balance between them had been swinging like a pendulum since, unable to settle. Master, lover, equal, monster. He'd been all things to her and maybe now he was none of them.

And she missed having him with her, probably always would, even if now she'd like nothing better than to drive an ice pick into his skull. A serrated, snake-venom-coated ice pick. Because screw him.

"Let me think about it." He murmured scathingly.

Serrated, poisoned, red-hot ice pick it'd be. "Jackass." She answered.

If the Kyuubi would have kept the argument going she'd never know, because Kakashi finally spoke. The sheer horror in his voice rang hollow. "What did you do Sakura?"

She gave her old sensei a disinterested glance. "I thought that'd be obvious." There were probably a million explanations she could have given right then, but for some reason none of them came out.

The thing that marked Kakashi as unique (out from everyone else that'd hated her) was the amount to which he hadn't given a fuck about her. During her genin days he could barely spare enough energy to look at her, let alone train her. She had vaguely appreciated the freedom his negligence had given her, but that was the only good thing she could really say about him.

And Sakura just didn't care. A man who had once been a loathed obstacle was now just a ninja, one of hundreds now surrounding her. Kakashi's death was no more pressing than any other, no more meaningful to her then the men she'd already killed laying in charred pieces.

It didn't matter. Kakashi didn't matter.

"I don't care what you do Hatake. Oh, wow—" She looked impressed with herself. "That's new."

The Kyuubi gave an amused snort. "Then you won't mind if I take Hatake apart." It was more statement than question.

"Oh, no." She smirked viciously. "Go for it."

A lightning jutsu ripped the air. The Kyuubi barely glanced at it before their chakra rose, swallowed the jutsu, and swung it back in the direction it'd originated. Some jonin she couldn't name shrieked when it slammed him. He plummeted off the roof.

The Kyuubi swung his eyes back to her like nothing had happened. "We'll finish this conversation later."

It sounded like a promise. It sounded like a freaking challenge.

She nodded. "Most corpses win." But she wasn't talking about their conversation.

Demonic chakra shook the village down to its foundations, rolling out like waves, lapping to every corner and setting ablaze anything it touched. Out in the world, district on district burned and inwardly she smoldered just as much. Fire rolled under her blood, her sinew was made of magma, her bones were molten steel. She was higher and lower than she could have ever dreamed of, ecstatic and euphoric and damn near ripping her own skin off.

It was time. Phase Echo. Her dream. A decade long dream.

All theirs.

Her and the Kyuubi ripped apart from each other and swung into their own battles. They cut paths of devastation in their wakes and Sakura rode it into her first victim. The dark haired jonin she crashed into grappled with her and they went down in a tangle of limbs. Her chakra seared into the jonin and he came apart in pieces under her, screaming the whole way down. She was so tangled in his charred guts she almost didn't catch the two ninja trying to stab her in the back. Her hands closed around their wrists and she used it as leverage to flip over their heads.

Her legs snapped out and she caught each shinobi in the jaw with her heels. Necks snapped and they went down.

As she landed a dozen jutsu slammed into her. Starbursts and blood exploded behind her eyes and she hit the ground with a wet crack. The red chakra mended her back together in seconds, it did nothing for the skin that'd burnt off but she'd worry about that later.

Ninja were screaming orders and formations and insults, some just screamed, and the fires burning around them were so loud (glass shattering, embers spitting, steel screaming) that she couldn't hear much else. Under her feet the asphalt and concrete roads had already begun to melt. The dead men burnt into the air coated her ribs like tar and she welcomed it.

She savored it for one glorious moment. Then she was off like whirlwind into the ranks, twisting and spiraling and weaving around her enemies so fast they couldn't hit her without risking each other.

Murder and violence and hell was under her skin and it wanted out. And she'd let it, let it all go.

Maybe it wouldn't come back.

And maybe, hell would finally stay out here and not haunt her.

Warzone: 6:03 AM

This was how Hatake Kakashi would die. His village burning around him, his friend's guts matted dry on his clothes, his comrade's blood boiling on his skin (literally, actually boiling), and the shriek of fire and the dying so loud in his ears he was almost deaf.

The smell of the air was rancid and he could barely get enough oxygen in as he ran, fought, and bled.

It was all a horrible nightmare, or maybe a bad joke that'd gone too far. The demon he'd seen reflected in Sakura's eyes all that time? The demon he thought might be Sakura? Turned out she'd only been a vessel after all, and the real demon was chasing him into hell piece by piece.

The Kyuubi was driven by some unknown agenda and wouldn't let Kakashi escape it for one second. The Kyuubi fought messy and didn't use ninjutsu or genjutsu and barely used taijutsu. Honestly, the monster-in-flesh just didn't seem to get how to use a human body, but between Kakashi missing an arm and the demonic chakra and the near hundred ninja trying to help the was an even battle.

But the Kyuubi just ripped and tore and crushed anything in his path, and Kakashi was in that path.

His backup kept fighting in a cloud, a veritable hail storm of jutsu and steel. None of it touched the Kyuubi and if it did, it healed too quickly for any of them to know.

"Keep it together!" Kakashi shouted to everyone and no one while red chakra seared at his heels. "Concentrate all your jutsu on—"

Seven tails turned to eight and they lashed against the road, sending molten concrete splattering for blocks. Kakashi barely replaced himself to avoid the surge and landed by a chunin, just in time to watch a spatter of it catch her in the cheek and burn through to hit her tongue.

She screamed and tried to spit it out, but opening her mouth only gave it more oxygen to burn and it backslid down her throat. He grabbed her and tried to help her but all he managed to do was watch her die both drowning and burning.

A voice spoke above him and blandly at that. "The dead don't need your concern."

The voice had a low rasp to it, maybe blood drenched gravel. Kakashi looked up.

The Kyuubi no Kitsune hung above and upside down from a burning tree, a languid grin peeled across his face. The sight should have sent Kakashi's heart busting out of his ribs but it didn't. Instead the jonin asked the question he'd wanted to know for sixteen years. "Why Konoha?"

The Kyuubi tilted his head, amused grin still torn wide. "A lot of reasons, but none of them a mortal like you would really understand. Let's just say one of your ancestors ancestors really pissed me off."

All of this hell just for that, the village burning right now and the village burning sixteen years ago, just for that.

"You son of a BITCH!" The chidori burned white and Kakashi leapt.

The Kyuubi leaned sideways and dodged the strike aimed for his skull. The line of blisters Kakashi burned on the demon's temple healed in three seconds flat.

A few tails caught the jonin and flung him . Kakashi tried not to scream, tried not to give this monster the pleasure of that when his skin burned off at the contact. He shoved chakra into his back so he wouldn't sink into the hot muck of the road, and he skipped across it and managed to land on a cooler section of broken wall. It was one of the few things left that wasn't burning.

The Kyuubi dropped to his haunches, chakra channeled in his bare feet keeping him above the molten cesspool that was now the street. And it was viscous concrete and liquefied steel and human bodies turned sticky.

"Headshot? Not a bad try." The demon rapped his knuckles on his skull. "But you should know even if you manage to rip me out of this body? I'll just go ride shotgun with Sakura until she makes me a new one."

The jonin panted. "Then I'll just kill her too."

The other man's (demon's, demon's) lips quirked. "I doubt that. I'll admit I'm still getting used to this body and might accidentally rip the spine out jumping too fast, but Sakura? She's far beyond any of you monkeys now."

"Oh yeah?" A chidori wasn't going to work, at least, not when the demon was still moving.

But that'd be rectified shortly.

A dozen ninja stormed the Kyuubi, water jutsu hitting his chakra and turning to superheated steam, and they pressed the attack by charging the cloud with lighting jutsu and letting anything inside fry. The explosion (of superheated expanding air) ripped an entire block apart like thunder.

Kakashi had already flipped out of the way.

Kunai and shuriken and slabs of earth were hurled after it, flattening anything under the cloud to a bloody paste. For a second there was nothing but the flicker of the fires and steam clinging heavy-damp to his hair. Kakashi dared to hope as he watched the crater smoke.

Hope died.

Chakra exploded and the Kyuubi was flying through them, claws tearing red lines. One man tumbled down completely stripped of his guts.

Someone screamed to Kakashi for help but the jonin was too slow to stop anything, and he watched another man get sliced hip to clavicle. Then the Kyuubi was on Kakashi again and the jonin was trading blows that blurred red. Oddly, he recognized the fighting style as Sakura's but just as he figured that out, a tail slammed into his abdomen and sent him flying.

"You won't lay a finger on Sakura even if this shell of mine dies." The Kyuubi smiled bloody. "You can barely get your eyes on me; sixteen years has my girl moving that brittle human body of hers just right." There was something in that grin that was almost vulgar. And for a second, Kakashi wondered.

Then he crashed into the upper level of a house. He went through one wall, then another, and then finally bounced to a stop on a bed. The house had not yet caught fire on the upper floors but he could smell smoke. He threw exploding tags across the floor and just as the Kyuubi jumped through the gash in the wall, Kakashi flung himself out the window and flipped the ignition seal. Fire and sound roared over his head.

Kakashi landed on the grass and felt it smolder under his feet.

A bored voice spoke up behind him. "Cute, but I know how your tags work."

Shit. Kakashi spun to punch but the demon caught the blow without so much as a flinch. The jonin panted. "How?"

"I saw through her eyes." The demon's teeth were milky and splattered bloody. His eyes burned bloodier. "Every. Single. Fucking. Day. I saw through her eyes and had to watch you morons scrabbling around in the mud. I had to learn about what worms I was surrounded by."

Kakashi slammed his forearm into the demon's wrist. The monster's limb buckled and Kakashi threw a kick into the ribcage. More bone broke and the Kyuubi was sent skidding back. His crumpled rib cage was clearly visible but the Kyuubi barely seemed to notice as each rib snapped back into place.

"I hope it was hell being trapped inside that bitch." Kakashi snarled. "I hope she turns on you like she's turned on every person in her life. Looks like she was almost there a few minutes ago."

The demon looked amused. "That's just my little girl growing up. She's going to start shoving at me to spread her wings, call that bitching of hers growing pains." The Kyuubi snorted but then his eyes lit manic. "Let me guess, you're one of the people who thought Sakura was born a monster, right?"

The fox stalked forward languorously, a predatory grace smoothing his limbs. But the laughter bubbling from his chest was far more terrifying.

That's how Kakashi almost missed the tail angled for his head. The jonin rolled, the air singing with the near miss, and the Kyuubi followed. "So what is it Hatake? Was she a monster?"

Kakashi had to one-hand his seals; and the water jutsu he unleashed was steam less than a foot out of his mouth. "YES!"

The monster let out a pained shout when the steam hit him. But the answer Kakashi had given had it smirking. "Wanna know a secret before you die?" The Kyuubi landed on him, claws digging into Kakashi's shoulders and the jonin saw that the skin had been seared off the demon's face. When the monster grinned, Kakashi could see muscle pulling red over its teeth. "Of course you want to know, so let me tell you."

And everything about the demon dimmed, even his chakra. Eight tails became five. "Sakura was born with a beautiful soul."

Kakashi almost had the Kyuubi flipped off him when he heard those words. All the air in his lungs was suddenly cold. "What?"

"She was born perfect, literally untouched. She came into the world in the middle of all that stinking, putrefied flesh and she was still pure down to the marrow." The Kyuubi breathed in wonder. "Her soul was so clear there was nothing reflected in it, not even me."

"But—" The silver haired ninja scrabbled. "She was—the Uchiha massacre when she was seven, jonin skills when she graduated at twelve. Only something born a monster could of—"

The Kyuubi shook his head, eyes shining vindictive. "No. She was untainted even after they put me inside her, she was what you'd humans would call…divine. There was human goodness inside every inch of her. And trust me, I checked."

Human. Sakura had been human right at the beginning. His head spun so hard from the news, Kakashi thought he'd throw up. Maybe he'd just drown in the vomit. "Liar." He spat.

The Kyuubi tipped his head back, eyes a murky red and half lidded, and it was as if the monster was remembering. "It was a fucking curse being trapped in a body holding that soul. I couldn't touch her and even if I'd tried I would have just burned up on her."

That fond remembrance (of something so twisted) told Kakashi more than anything, that every word here was the truth.

The Kyuubi's lips split and his tongue ran across his teeth. "I couldn't have ever spoken to her if she'd stayed that way, but then you dumb sacks of flesh hurt her. Blades under her skin, poisons forced down her throat, snapping every pretty bone in that body…" He paused then as if savoring the memory. "She was so afraid and the fear you drove into her turned to self-loathing and the self-loathing to rage. And then that beautiful soul cracked."

Kakashi's eyes flared wide with horror.

The Kyuubi grinned like the devil. "And I slipped in the cracks. Dear god, you bastards opened the door for me and I walked right in. She kept shattering and shattering and all right on to a silver platter."

The village had made Sakura, made her ripe for the picking. The Kyuubi had just gotten there first. Kakashi remembered walking right by Sakura one time when she'd laid bloody in the street, a tiny little body strung up like a doll. If he'd just—

If one of the villagers had only—

If they'd just not hurt her—

If that one time Kakashi had just helped her up—

Here was hell and they'd invited it in.

The Kyuubi saw the realization and laughed in vindication. "Sakura wasn't born a monster, but she was when you were done with her."

The realization numbed him. To the fire, to the horror, to the blood soaking up under his skin. Right then Kakashi couldn't feel anything at all except the knowing.

But there was nothing he could do to change it.

He only had one arm but that was all he needed to elbow his enemy across the temple. The Kyuubi crumpled sideways and Kakashi rolled to his feet.

Asuma was suddenly there, wind roaring in a cyclone that picked up flame and embers and threw them straight down. Enveloped by the flame, the demon disappeared with a shriek.

"We need to pin him down!" Kakashi shouted.

Asuma nodded grimly. "I know."

There were more ninja, more comrades, more of Kakashi's friends falling in around him. They were pouring in from all sectors, driven by more than fear but a steeled resolve to take these monsters with them. They could still do this.

Kakashi recognized Ebisu in the crowd. "Where's Sakura?"

Ebisu looked to one of the few, if last Hyuga left. They exchanged a quick burst of chatter. Ebisu answered. "A mile over! She's tearing into what's left of our southern line and massacring the civilians!"

Divide and conquer, in their arrogance they'd already made this easy by going in opposite direction to fight. Kakashi only needed one point of leverage to get this to work. Once they killed the Kyuubi (and even if his soul did go to ride shotgun with Sakura) they'd just kill her next.

Then both would be gone. Gone. And they'd take the damnned knowledge of what made Sakura with them.

Sweat fell down Asuma's face as he held his jutsu. "Here he comes!"

Kakashi gave his orders just as the cyclone burst apart. The Kyuubi was loose again and shredding any flesh he could reach. But he didn't know how to use that body; he was a fox sitting in a human shell depending on raw power and demonic chakra to pull through.

The demon had been right about one thing: right now, Sakura was the more dangerous of the two of them.

Kakashi charged in and traded taijutsu with the demon. Two more of his comrades joined him in the assault and they all had at least two of the gates open. The Kyuubi fell to defense and they chivvied him into the next street.

"Now!" He shouted.

They scattered and that opened the demon wide to the fire jutsu and explosive tags coming up from the side. They impacted like bombs and like usual, the Kyuubi didn't try to dodge and took the damage instead. The demon skidded farther into the street, legs broken, skin charred.

Then earth jutsu from nine different ninja took that molten street and made a warped cage of arched concrete, twisted rebar, and serrated asphalt . It pinned the animal flat on his stomach, concrete red-hot but turned solid piercing his arms and legs in a dozen different places. Joints, soft flesh, tendons.

The hardened sections pierced through-and-through the Kyuubi and back into the street, pressing him face down into the boiling morass. The Kyuubi seized and screamed as he burned.

Kakashi dropped in from the sky, a long blade from a dead comrade in his hand. It pierced the Kyuubi's spine clean and the thrashing stopped.

Kakashi leapt off to a distance and the demon breathed weakly, eyes rolling, limbs twitching. More blood poured out of his back and it boiled as soon as it hit the air.

Ebisu screamed. "Incomi—"

His neck snapped clean, warning too late. A dark blur, black and pale, landed on that twisted cage that looked like human bone.

The Kyuubi's back was bare, his shirt already burned off. Sakura sat astride him with her legs shin-deep in the festering quagmire. The junction between her legs was pressed right against the blade sticking out of the demon's spine, and her hands rested delicately on the hilt.

She looked down, every movement lethargic. She carried herself with sinuous ease and her voice came out smoky. "You're getting careless again Kyuubi-sama. I've told you this a dozen times: you need a spine."

The demon spat out some concrete and it dripped down his chin . "It took you long enough to get here."

She practically purred and rocked forward on the blade. He hissed in pain as it dug in. She cooed. "But your pain felt good." Her posture hardened, shoulders pulled tight but her voice tighter. "I thought it might teach you not to get so careless, they pinned you down and I'm not in the mood to forge you a new body right now."

Kakashi knew where this was going. "Hurry up and get her off before she—"

But it was too late; Sakura pulled the blade out with a slick-snap and touched the demon's spine. The wound closed before their eyes and as his spine healed Sakura kicked apart the cage. She slung down low across his back again, astride him, and bent down so her lips were by his ear.

Her hair brushed the morass and smoldered but she didn't seem to notice. "Next time you fuck up I'll let you burn."

And she was gone.

The Kyuubi got up rolling his shoulders and he called after her. "Bitch!" But it sounded fond.

The demon cracked his neck, spine shifting back into place. He almost looked rueful. "I was hoping the next time she was on me it'd be as pleasurable as our celebration when I got out. Apparently that was too much to ask for."

Kakashi thought about how they had butted heads when they first came together, a tension the jonin couldn't name between them, faces nudging and lips not-quite-brushing. He thought of the Kyuubi's vulgar grin when he spoke of how Sakura could move. And Kakashi had just personally witnessed the way she'd sat straddling the demon's back with her thighs against that blade.

It shouldn't have surprised him, except that it did. "You screwed her."

Sex and violence. Just like that. And all the secrets Kakashi had been trying to figure out were complete. Here laid jinchuuriki Sakura and there stood the demon that made her.

"I spent sixteen years riding underneath her flesh." The Kyuubi spat out something molten and bloody, and his grin turned feral. "The second I got out I decided: why not see what the ride is like from the outside?"

Kakashi was staggered for a moment just by the sheer insanity of it. "You sick fuck." It was all tumbling together. "But Sakura is with…" And it seemed stupid to be surprised Sakura couldn't handle monogamy considering how screwed up she was.

The demon's head tilted. "I never understood you humans and all those obsessive neuroses you have with sex and fidelity." The Kyuubi crossed the space between them in seconds and the stench of hell hung off him. "I made her thought patterns, I carved her pathways, I mixed her first chakra to meld the physical and spiritual into her flesh."

Eight of his tails spun out and picked up ninja including Kakashi. He barely managed to replace himself with a gnarled chunk of steel. Those less lucky burned up in the chakra.

The Kyuubi kept bearing down on him. "I molded her DNA; I've left my touch on every strand."

Kakashi jumped to a roof and sent kunai and a hunk of plastic explosive behind him. The kunai were blocked and the explosive going up was barely a gnat to the demon, and the monster kept talking. "I was the one to weave her dreams, to keep her nightmares."

Kakashi used a jutsu to turn the roof tile to projectiles and then threw the hundreds of stone hewn kunai.

The Kyuubi wove between them like they were in slow motion. "I triggered every growth spurt she had, I made sure every limb was balanced, that every genetic feature she had was perfect." He slammed one tail down and brought the entire building beneath them down.

Kakashi had nowhere to go but downward and he landed hard on the rubble and bounced. His limb that'd been severed roared in pain as he landed on what was left of it.

The Kyuubi just stood over him, sneering. "Her soul was shattered and I injected my own through the flaws. Her soul. She was mine from the day she was born. Sex was nothing compared to any of that. You humans just get so tied up in the subjective moral details you don't even notice the things that matter: like making monsters you can't put down."

It was getting harder to breathe and Kakashi righted himself. No one was coming to help him or maybe they were dead, he'd been smacked around too much to know which. Another chidori and probably his last ignited. The jonin had no more words left.

The demon cackled. "But you wouldn't understand, would you Hatake Kakashi? You've been alone all your life. You wouldn't even know the meaning of being so close to someone you literally know the patterns under their skin. Keep yourself trapped in that small mind, it probably comforts you." That gravel voice turned slick and mocking. "Sakura was a monster; it's not our fault she turned on us. We couldn't have seen what she'd become even though we tried to kill her every single day. It was her choice to be a psychopath, not ours, we had nothing to do with it."

Every accusation stung like alcohol and acid poured in open wounds.

The Kyuubi laughed uproariously. "Hell, just keep telling yourself that after sixteen years inside her I just got all fucking nostalgic to get under her skin one more time. Keep telling yourself that she did all of this for something as paltry as sex."

The Kyuubi spat the last words with scarlet eyes blazing more vivid than flame. His arms raised to the barrier, to the burning sky, to the molten streets, to the funeral pyre miles wide; to a hell so absolute not even Kakashi's wildest nightmares could have come close.

All of this hadn't been done for sex or love or even loyalty.

It had been done out of pain and fury. It'd been born from a systematic campaign to destroy one little girl so completely only a demon had been able to put her back together.

The Kyuubi marveled. "It's radiant what we made, isn't it?"

The chidori laden arm went up and Kakashi braced his feet.

This was how Hatake Kakashi would die: on a suicide charge with one last jutsu, all against a man that was a demon and the closest thing left of a god on earth.

This was how Hatake Kakashi would die: knowing the mistakes that had led him here and each one with such bitter clarity it took his breath away. He would be too tired to find regret for them.

This was how Hatake Kakashi would die: head held high, dying on his feet, and finally knowing all the secrets he'd searched for.

Secrets that should have stayed buried. Because this was how he would die: losing his mind from the truth.

He charged and it ended in the blink of an eye. Blood splashed, bone snapped, and the Kyuubi watched the body drop dispassionately. His shoulder smoked and mended back together, the strike had been wide and high, barely a scratch.

Kakashi however, had a hand coated with red chakra forced through his chest and straight through the heart. The jonin was already dead.

"This is boring." The Kyuubi scratched at the blood on his face as it burned away. "Fightning down to your level is such a hassle."

He shrugged off the body and for a moment watched it burn. The last Sharingan in the world boiled out of Kakashi's skull.

The sight bored the demon quickly. He let his chakra roll out and it pulsed red over him like a second skin and churned thicker. He looked up and more ninja were already dropping from the sky.

"You run right into it willingly. Humans," His lips peeled back. "You're all fucking insane."

Eight tails turned to nine. Three square blocks disintegrated in a howling wall of scarlet.

Warzone: 6:38 AM

She felt the moment the Kyuubi opened the floodgates, felt him detonate in the middle of the district brighter than a nova. For some reason most of the enemy ninja had been focused on him.

Not anymore. They were gone, vaporized, less than dust.

The numbers of their enemy were dwindling and Sakura thought for a minute to unhinge the last locks and let seven tails branch to nine. But that made things too…easy. Sakura wanted challenge and more than that she wanted catharsis, and she'd find it limb by bloody limb if she had to.

There was nothing left not burning. It was so sweltering in here no one was even sweating anymore as it turned to steam the second it hit the air. Sometimes it took living skin with it. The smell of it was foul.

Sakura raised her arm absently and caught a kunai before it impacted her eye. The enemy had learned fast to go for her head with every chance they got, but it was a pity they'd only figured that out when she had culled half their number and the fire had taken another quarter.

They were too few to reach her anymore. Their desperation hung thicker than the ash in the air.

She coated the blade in chakra and chased down the man who'd thrown it. He was easy to find, with fingernails already charred off just holding steel in this heat. They tangled together, steel to chakra, and the enemy chunin snarled at her. Sakura smiled blandly and watched her fellow ninja's kunai melt in his hand. The man screamed when the liquid steel dribbled onto his wrists.

While that seared down to the bone, Sakura calmly buried her blade in the man's eye. It seemed fitting.

Someone screamed below and Sakura glanced down. Six civilians were huddled under a stone outcropping. She had no idea what the stone had once been, but rivulets of it were already running off and turning to slag.

She grinned and dragged the civilians out one by one. She had forgotten what it was like to skin a man with just her fingers. Four corpses rectified that oversight.

"Get away from them!" It was a squad of ANBU, though they'd discarded their masks in the heat. She could see their eyelashes and brows had already singed off. It was probably a furnace in here but Sakura barely noticed, long grown used to boiling alive inside the Kyuubi's chakra. This was practically wintery by comparison.

Her hand flicked and the last two civilians burst into flames. "Whoops." She smirked.

One ANBU let out an incoherent shout and leapt. One of her tails caught him. He immediately started writhing and screaming, trapped in the same scarlet hell as she was.

"Too hot for you babe?" She sighed. "Typical." And snapped his neck.

"You bitch!" One of the ANBU shouted.

She flung herself into them and bared her teeth at the one who'd spoken. "You should be thankful for the small mercies."

A Konoha squad always numbered four. The first was already dead, but the second stabbed her in the back. She barely heeded it and slammed the heel of her hand into his jaw. The jaw bone broke and she kept pushing until his head snapped so far back his neck broke too.

The third was a woman and that ANBU tried to close-line the former jinchuuriki with lightning imbued wire. Sakura still remembered her fourth birthday and the ninja who had tried to garrote her to death. She really hated wire.

Her tails caught the line, snarled it around, then turned it back on the woman and garroted her instead.

Memories like that needed to be shared, needed to be flung out into this hell so they wouldn't stay inside her.

The last ANBU left was the one who'd spoken. He screamed at her. "You call this mercy!"

He should have done less yelling and more fighting. She buried her hand into his stomach and ripped. His guts game out in her palm and he plummeted into the blistering cesspool below. Was it really that surprising, dying?

He fell and if he drowned or burned down there, she wouldn't know.

She dropped the guts and listen to the sizzle of them as they cooked and then burned. Sakura had never been one for human flesh, but some of the Kyuubi's old memories still stuck up inside made her consider it for a brief moment.

Her nose wrinkled. "That's disgusting."

A familiar voice answered her. "Don't knock it 'till you try it."

She glanced up. "Spare me the: it's an acquired taste lecture. Please."

The Kyuubi grinned at her and with the burns on his face; she couldn't tell if the sinew over his teeth was his or someone else's. He smirked. "Your loss."

She rolled her eyes and jumped to a few spires of stone barely supporting a tiled roof. It was one of the few structures left standing that she could see in the flame and boiling smoke.

The demon followed her and absently reached over and ripped out the kunai still buried in her back. She didn't even flinch and arched an eyebrow. "Don't think that makes us even." It had been useful to learn from his screw-up that they could survive spinal cord injuries, but still, she didn't appreciate having to drop everything because the Kyuubi felt some insane need to play with his food before killing it.

He answered dryly. "I wouldn't dream of it."

The blade was flung away and all nine of his tails tangled into her seven. Sakura considering pulling another two to match him but for the moment she was too content to bother. "Is everyone dead?"

He rolled something that looked like melted steel, charred flesh, and blood against his teeth. "No, but the oxygen levels to sustain human life just dropped below the threshold…thirty seconds ago."

Her heartbeat did feel rather sluggish and Sakura realized she'd stared manually creating oxygen and forcing it into her blood nearly twenty minutes ago. It was amazing the non-jinchuuriki and non-medics had survived this long.

Her neck arched back and it was nearly impossible to see the violet flame of the sky. All she saw was the oily orange, hellish red, and gold-made-plasma glow of the pyre of the village reflected against the rolling ash.

This was theirs. Her chest felt like it was made of glass it was so clear and light.

But his voice was a raspy harbinger. "Sixteen years and all for this. All for my pretty little jinchuuriki."

The lightness to her was dragged back down into the muck. The ash was suddenly bitter in her throat. "We filled our deal, you free, them burning."

"Not quite." His eyes settled on her and her chest was molten steel again. He moved towards her with predatory ease. Every second he was out here it got easier to disregard what he'd one been. And yet in the hell of his eyes she would never forget.

"Them burning? You left so many alive out past there." The words rolled off his tongue scornfully. And past there was beyond the barrier: friends and teammates and her Kage and her comrades.

Her hackles went up.

"You know—" One of his hands grabbed up and under the back of her vest, twisting there and pulling her flush to him. "If we made that barrier fall we could burn every inch of the village and no one could stop us. Then our deal really would be complete."

This wasn't what he wanted exactly, to go out there and kill everything and everyone (though he wouldn't say no to it). In the fury and challenge of his gaze she knew what he really wanted was likely far worse.

The growl ripped from her throat. "Don't you fucking even think about it. We agreed the village was mine when we were done, and you promised me I'd get a lifetime with my generation before our game picked up again."

"Do those maggots mean more to you?" The derision hung guttural in his voice. His face pressed to hers and she could feel his lips and teeth and even his mending flesh. "I heard every word you spoke to that team of yours. Sakura, my darling jinchuuriki, you can't martyr yourself on them for forgiveness if you already know they won't kill you."

Her breath hitched.

He kept going. "The minute that Uchiha opened his mouth you knew they didn't have the balls to rip your guts out. You didn't trust them with your life Sakura, you're filled with as many doubts as you were before. None of them went away."

Her blood froze. Before Naruto and Sasuke even tried to charge she had known. We are teammates, aren't we? Sasuke had told her exactly what was happening in those few words. Did it really count letting them choose if she already knew their answer?

His whispering crawled into her skull. "They don't know you as long as you cling to this lie of what I am to you. Do you think if I'd gone there and told that blond bastard how I know you, he would have still held you up instead of cutting you down?"

"Naruto let that secret go." She gritted her teeth. "What you were to me doesn't define what I am to him!"

"Were?" He cackled. "Don't pretend you're suddenly not tangled up in me, this was always just us and it always will be. I don't give a flying fuck if you take human lovers and little friends to pass your days, but I won't let you lie to me." His nails dug into her. "I won't let you lie to yourself."

"I know what I am." She answered flatly.

His head tilted. "Do you? Do they? Maybe if I told them about how you lie and how you kill and how you fuck—"

She broke his shoulder cleanly. The kick she slammed into his gut nearly sent him off the roof and into the morass. He skidded to a stop right at the edge, solar plexus mashed sideways. He pushed it back into place with a snarl. "Hurts doesn't it? They don't know you and they never will. Are you still going to choose them over me?"

Something hotter than a star lanced her chest. "What are you playing at?"

"One last test Sakura." His smirk flayed her apart and his nine tails began lashing the ground.

"For what?" She didn't understand what he was driving at and her chakra flared out like ribbons. Seven turned to eight. "What ultimatum is it this time: them or you? Do you think me wanting to stay in this village, save this village, comes down to just that?"

"Not quite." He beckoned her. "But the question should be: do you know what it comes down to?"

It was always mind games with him.

She was tired of mind games.

Eight became nine.

Tile splintered under her feet as she flung herself into his chest. The tackle sent them flying off the roof and plowing into the quagmire below. They skidded on it but then it rose up like waves and enveloped them. For a second Sakura and the Kyuubi were tangled together, blinded and mouths filled with the molten mess. It was so heavy she was lost for a moment in which way was up.

Chakra flared and a rushing noise filled her ears. The weight left her shoulder and steam screamed through the air. She opened her eyes, melted steel dripping from her lashes, and she saw the morass had been cauterized off and away. Sakura didn't have much skin anymore. Neither did the Kyuubi. Hell, her hair had been shorn and burnt so close to her skull she couldn't even feel it on her neck.

One of his tails grabbed her and threw her. What breath left in her lungs was smashed out as she streaked through the sky. Smoke billowed around her and she wrenched herself around and slapped every single tail against the roof of the barrier.

For a second she hung there, half a mile off the ground and gasping. She let the disbelief of how close she'd come to burning up on a barrier of her own making roll over her.

And fuck that.

She wrenched back around and flung herself down with a sonic boom. The Kyuubi was waiting for her. Tails hit tails and each clap was thunder. The sheer force of it dug his feet into the earth and nearly sent her airborne again.

At the last second her tails streaked down and snagged whatever she could grab. It sent her tumbling sideways and there was flame and smoke and then molten quicksand filling her eyes. The burn of it was slap across the face and she dug out of it with a gasp. The Kyuubi was right next to her. "What's the point Sakura, really? They're going to die and you'll be back with me inside a century."

"Because—" Her chakra burst and an earth jutsu bucked under her, sending spires and claws of stone and white-hot steel crashing into him. "It's not about the end result anymore. It's about having something with me, even if it's only memories."

He laughed and sent his chakra slicing into her jutsu, cutting and parting it around him. He strode forward. "If you give me that crap about it being the journey and not the destination, I'll kill you for your own good."

She followed the attack wreathed in genjutsu. It took him a split second to determine what was her and what wasn't, and in that second she had her fingers between his ribs and tore. They went down and she was on his stomach with his blood pooling wet between her fingers. She answered."It's about being happy. In this last decade how many times was I really, genuinely happy?"

One of his hands reached up gently and rubbed at the charred skin along her cheekbones. "Not enough." He rasped.

She paused for a second, fingers loosening from his ribs. In response to her hesitation his hand grabbed her head and shoved sideways. Her skull hit earth and splintered.

"But then again," He mocked. "Your happiness never entered into our equations, did it?"

Her hands were on the ground and she rolled her hips and then her legs into a swing. Her heel caught him in the temple. The crack of it almost alleviated the roaring ache in her own skull. She snapped back. "No it didn't. But guess what? I'm changing the equation!"

She tore after him and went at his chest again. He caught her blows and the rolled and tangled and plowed through a wall. She spat out blood. "I'm not living to fill your desires anymore, I'm living for mine!"

They skidded to a halt and his tails wrapped around her. She grounded herself with her own tails before he could throw her and burrowed them into the ground. She stayed on him. His lips split open to reveal more bone and blood and he cackled. "And your plans are to stay nestled all safe inside your lies? They're not your equals Sakura, at best they're your solace. Those humans are never going to be more."

His eyes darted sideways and she followed his gaze. Somehow, someway, in their brawl they'd blown straight into the middle of the Uchiha compound.

It was barely recognizable broken and burning, but still. She knew it.

"You didn't outrun this sin." His fingers traced an old, old bloodstain on the ground. "What makes you think you can outrun the rest?"

His forearm slammed into her nose. She felt cartilage break and jerked away from him. Her nails tore long, deep gashes in his abdomen as she went. She rolled twice and landed on another bloodstain. The flagstone walkway of the Uchiha was one of the few things still intact.

His voice followed her as he came to his feet. "Your master plan is to try and outlive the lies, and we've seen how well that worked out."

"So?" Her eyelids fluttered wide. "My friends aren't chasing the lies anymore and neither am I. There won't be any new ones between us. I'm going to live." Her hands landed on the old bloodstain, Uchiha blood she'd spilled. It hissed and steamed and then was cauterized away.

Wiped clean. She breathed it in. "I'm done. I'm done being your goddamn pet!" She launched herself off the ground and felt it splinter as she went.

He tried to strike her but her tails lashed the ground, halting her flight path and spinning her up and away. As soon as she overshot him she grabbed the ground and came right back around.

He turned and she slammed into his chest. But instead of breaking him, his chakra cushioned her impact and raised her into the air. She tried to break loose but his control was light-years ahead of hers. She could use his chakra now without losing her mind, but there was no substitute for millennia of practice.

He slung her upside down and blood rushed to her head. Also, the blood on the outside of her body coursed up her chest and neck and into her eyes.

It was boiling.

"I made you." His voice was flat.

The snarl was locked behind her teeth. She wrenched back and used the momentum to grab enough molten concrete to throw into him. It disrupted his grip and she fell loose and right on him and dug her hands in. "And I made this body." Her head jerked unnaturally sideways to avoid his fist and she grinned like the devil. "And I can unmake it."

Chakra went into his skin and she unwound tendons and started pulling at the joints of his bones. She kept speaking. "It's not about you, it's not about Naruto, it's not about anyone. I'm living with them because I want to. I was yours once but I'm not anymore. The only person I belong to is me and it's my choice where I go."

He grinned brightly and then his chakra exploded. The sky and air was filled with red and she was blow so far back her skull cracked the ground a second time. When she came to, this time it was the Kyuubi astride her. He casually wrapped his hands around her throat and began to squeeze.

He asked her. "What are you afraid of?"

Even losing oxygen, her mind cleared. It was always mind games with him.

There was very little oxygen left or strength in her neck, but she spoke. "Nothing. If they know me, they know me." A last hiss escaped her. "I'm done running from myself."

It was amazing how flexible you could be when you didn't mind breaking bones or dislocating them. He was sitting high on her stomach and not on her hips, a mistake no human woud have made, and she wrenched her legs up and hooked her ankles around his throat.

There was surprise in his eyes for a second before she wrenched him backwards. In the ether of their chakra the shadow clones came easily and they all had katanas drawn. They buried the blades into his arms, his legs, his stomach, and even his chest.

It pinned him to the ground.

She breathed. "I'm not asking you anymore, I'm not begging you for scraps and promises. I'm telling you: I don't want to see your face for the next century. And if you come within fifty miles of any of my friends…" She ratcheted up on his chest and lowered her face to within an inch of his. "I'll rip apart this body cell by cell and wrap your soul back up inside me. Then you'll spend the next millennia being able to look but not touch."

His chest vibrated under her and with one lung pierced, it took her awhile to realize he was laughing. It was a wet and raspy sound, but it was open and full. His head was thrown back as he gasped for air.

When he stopped, his voice was a throaty rasp . "I love you Sakura."

The terror and rage warring in her chest stilled. She was glass again, light and airy and free.

"Don't stop changing, don't ever stop growing." His gaze was back to that fondness she had never really recognized, but the hunger in him she recognized well enough. "I'm never going to get bored with you, am I?"

"No." She promised. "You won't."

Only one of his arms was loose and he grabbed her face and held her there. "Don't stagnate; you were the one being that never disappointed me. Don't ever let what those humans want you to be constrain the metamorphosis you're in."

And she understood the test. He didn't want to waste her; he just wanted her to keep growing.

It was about time she stood on her own two feet and found a path that was hers alone. He didn't want to dictate to her anymore, he wanted her to surprise him and challenge through their eternity.

What she had with the Kyuubi was eternal and far past instinctual. It was a love so primal Sakura would never be able to peel it out of her psyche without shattering herself to bloody pieces. She could grow beyond it, grow higher, but in the end it would always lurk at the most base parts of her. He wanted her to know that.

He wanted her to grow beyond it. He wanted her to shed that last loyalty, shed that last trust in him. They'd be together until the stars burned out; it'd be easier this way. And she was okay with that, with who she was.

Sakura was broken, bitter, and untrusting. She could love and hate and hold a grudge lasting a decade.

She could change, had changed, and would keep changing. She was growing and while not yet beyond the messy parts of herself, someday she might be.

They were finally equals.

She removed the blades one by one gently, listening to the scrape of them on his bones. He watched her lazily and when she was done, he pulled her onto the ground next to him. One of his arms wrapped around her shoulders and they stared up into the vastness above.

Sakura closed her eyes. "I was born into hell and even when I grew strong enough to get out of it, I stayed inside. When that wasn't enough and I dragged everyone else into it."

He scoffed. "You say that like a bad thing." One of his hands twined in her butchered hair. His fingers ghosted along her scalp.

It eased her. They would never be together again in the way she wanted, but that was the cost to being truly free.

Her fingers brushed his chest imploringly and he let her go. She rose and opened bloody irises, bloody eyelashes, and ruined eyes to the sky. "I'm leaving it here. All of it. I'm done being angry."

"Maybe." He breathed and rose up next to her. "I'll miss it; your hell is a radiant one."

Their fingers linked instinctually. She squeezed once. He squeezed back.

"I hate you, you know." She told him.

He nodded. "Same to you."

There was a pause but the next words were just as natural. "I love you."

His lips quirked. "I love me too."

She punched his side and he cackled. Then, briefly, he turned to kiss her. Something at that moment ended and their kiss was only a brush. They let go.

"I love you." He echoed, licking her blood off his lips.

She would feel every emotion under the sun for him and he would feel every single one for her, but that wasn't the sort of thing to keep two being together for every waking moment anymore.

They would meet and part a million times from here.

It wasn't perfect and it wasn't meant to be. He wasn't here to make her happy; she had to find that for herself. It'd taken her a long time to realize that but she had. Sakura thought for the first time she might finally know where to find it, too.

There was no need for a real goodbye. "I had Konohamaru clear a path to the western wall, leave through there. Go burn Kumo or Iwa for all I care."

"I'll try not to implicate you." His answer was wry but beneath that he sounded rather impressed. "You always have a plan, don't you?"

She smiled wistfully. "I learned from the best."

Their eyes locked and stayed that way, and for the last time in a century two mirrored beings threw their chakra together and pushed up.

Hell shattered across the sky.

Konoha, 7:17 AM

Dawn came on a smudged sky, the winds silent and the ash falling like snow. When the barrier came down every ninja outside it just stood watching the red column of light pouring up. It splashed crimson on silver, the roar of a fox thundering up to a crescendo of a mournful howl, and then it all faded into mist.

Silence filled the air. The blast had smothered all the fires, sucked in new air to replace it, and let the pillars of smoke free into the clouds. After the screaming of the chakra and the roar of flame, the silence was unearthly.

Naruto felt a lump rise in his throat.

Ino and Hinata were already jumping away, ash dusted on their lashes. Shino and Kiba and Chouji followed, kicking away embers as they went. They tore off into the ruins searching for the only person who could be left.

But Naruto didn't move yet.

Shikamaru looked at him. Sasuke and Hanabi had gone earlier and they were the only two left. The Nara appraised him. "Coming?"

Naruto nodded. "Yeah."

They went looking for Sakura. By the time they caught up everyone else had surrounded her on a stone roof in a tangle of limbs and hugs. They were all laughing and Naruto immediately knew why: Sakura's hair had been butchered off shorter than anyone's there. It hung in a dark, soot smudged halo around her face. It looked ridiculous.

When Sakura saw him she wiggled her eyebrows, which were amazingly not burned off. "What do you think?"

He grinned. "I liked it long."

She threw a roof tile at him and he caught it, tossed it, and swept her into his arms. Everyone else watched them, though Ino soon started complaining that he was hogging Sakura. That started off another round of bickering and passing Sakura around, but eventually they all laid on the roof together in the ash.

They watched it fall from the sky like snow and bury them.

Konoha Hospital, 11:35 AM

When Tsunade stopped for just a moment to rest from all the surgeries, she found a soot covered Nara Shikamaru waiting in her office. She sighed and pulled off the surgeon's jacket and threw it on her chair. "How's Sakura?"

The Hokage had been amazed the jinchuuriki had walked out of that crater with only skin burned off, but Sakura always specialized in the unexpected.

He shifted uneasily. "She's resting at the Aburame compound with Hinata and Ino."

Chouji, Shino, Kiba, and Naruto had unfortunately been wrangled back into sorting out the wreckage and the dead. The girls, however, had quietly slipped away for the showers and feather beds of an empty compound.

The jonin fidgeted with a dusty folder under his arm. It was filled with yellowed papers.

Tsunade frowned. "Why are you here?"

He shoved the folder onto her desk. "Sakura's family history—the one the council sealed—my father squirreled the file away instead of destroying it."

Tsunade immediately jerked it open and looked inside. "Why are you showing me this?"

"I wanted to—" He swallowed. "I wanted to give it to Sakura, but I can't."

Tsunade knew what he was asking of her. "You want me to give it to Sakura for you. Why?"

"I thought it'd be forgiveness for what my family did." He shook his head. "There's no forgiveness for what happened, and nothing for what I did to get that."

He stood with a smudge of black ash long on his cheek and bowed. "If you'd excuse me, my Lady."

Tsunade knew there was no swaying him and dismissed him. There was too much guilt, too much pain, and too much in the past. This file was proof of that.

She read it and hours later, when the sun was getting low in the sky, Sakura breezed into the office. "You called for me Hime?"

The Hokage tapped her desk. "Sit."

The jinchuuriki sat.

Tsunade held up the folder. "Your family history that was sealed? It was recovered." She laid the file on the desk.

For a moment, Sakura stilled with a look of utter longing on her face. It faded just as fast. The jonin pushed the folder back. "I don't need it."

For some reason, the older woman wasn't surprised. "Why?"

"It's just another reminder of what I've already had taken from me." Her head bowed. "I have a family now, maybe not by blood but it's better than looking for the dead. I think it's time I moved on from what's gone."

She rose slowly, stiffly. Her fingers brushed the file for a long moment and Sakura murmured so quietly, Tsunade thought the girl didn't mean for her to hear it. "I'm done being angry."

Tsunade covered the younger woman's hand and they rested together on the folder. "If you ever change your mind it'll still be here."

Sakura smiled and it was faded but warm. "I know."

And the jinchuuriki walked out the door without a backwards glance. It was true: Sakura always specialized in the unexpected.

Hokage Tower, Four Days Later

The civil war ended like most things in their world did, with more questions than answers and bodies to bury.

In Tsunade's desk, Sakura's family file was locked away. Someday if the jinchuuriki could bring herself to look at it, she only needed to ask the next Kage.

But Tsunade's gaze was elsewhere, off to the wane sunlight coming through her balcony doors. A burnt smell still hung on the fall air and the horizon was a splash of vibrant fire. The sky was always the most beautiful after things burned, the ash made a lovely prism.

"I thought we'd get to rest." She murmured.

Jiraiya glanced over. "War tends not to work that way.

Between them, maps and battle plans were strewn out. The village had gone on lockdown after the civil war and her ninja had been allowed to rest. But Konoha burning on the horizon couldn't be hidden forever. The Fourth War outside their walls had never ended, just been put on hold. And the hold was over. With half of Konoha dead the vultures would circle and old grudges would be brought to grind.

Kumo, Iwa, and even Ame.

"Amegakure, with them in the fray…" She was too tired, tired of all this.

Her old teammate smirked bitter. "After Akatsuki what did you think would happen? Sakura killed their god; people usually don't take that lying down."

Pein's legacy of ruin just kept unfurling. There was never an end to war. Not really.

They could only make due.

"I'll miss the view." She stated thoughtfully.

Jiraiya blinked. "You going somewhere?"

"The enemy is already entrenching on our borders. The first assignment I gave was too Naruto. He'll preside over the entire Iwa and Kumo front." She smiled ruefully and the sunlight was a washed out blue on her skin. "When the war ends I'll name him Hokage."

Jiraiya dipped his head. "I'm sure he'll be pleased to hear."

"Oh he already knows." Her lips quirked. "He seemed rather unfazed; I think he had other things on his mind."

"We all do." Jiraiya gathered up the maps. "I need to get to my network and I know you have war assignments to give so…" He threw a rather loose salute and made to leave from the balcony.

He voice stopped him. "Did we bring this on them?"

The war. Every war, from the outside and inside.

"The kids?" He looked to the inked black clouds and fiery sky. "Maybe." His face was lined, aged, and had seen so much and saved so little. "But those kids are willing to pay the debts, all we can do is help them."

And with the debts gone they might just be free.

He left quickly and without a real goodbye, but he always did. Goodbyes meant they wouldn't see each other again and Tsunade wasn't having any of that. She fully intended to retire with Jiraiya and spend their golden years touring every bar and casino from here to Grass country.

Saying goodbye would never happen, not in this lifetime.


The village was put on lockdown with a week of rest given to every ninja involved in the final civil war operation. Sakura had been promised as much time as she needed, but she took only week like everyone else.

A lot of it was spent with Naruto and all they seemed to do was talk. They spoke hours and hours and sometimes through entire nights without sleep. They talked about their lives.

Sakura assured him that no, the Kyuubi was nocturnal and had in fact not given a flying fuck what they were doing most of the time, yes she had been in steady contact with the Kyuubi concerning steering the civil war, no the war wasn't just an opportunity she'd taken advantage of, yes the civil war had been her intention all along.

They mapped out details and timelines and just flat out why she had ever done anything at all. They talked about Itachi a little.

Sometimes they talked about her childhood. Sakura was hesitant at first but when pressed would slide into graphical detail of some of the things done to her. Naruto would get angry at her for deflecting by trying to disgust him out of listening with the gory parts, and then she'd get angry and ask why he was suddenly complaining about getting details.

Then they'd both apologize and leave her childhood for another day. Those were old wounds and they stung terribly, but Sakura felt just a bit lighter after each one was really torn open and allowed to bleed. But doing it all at once wouldn't solve anything.

Sakura knew she'd spend years telling Naruto everything, and Naruto knew that and was patient to take it a little at a time. But the past getting drudged up left the air heavy and when it got too thick, Sakura would look for her friends instead.

Konoha's weakness would soon boil into international war. They only had so much time left to spend together, and Sakura knew that more than anyone.


The nail polish was laid out in tiny, rainbow bright piles that were garish in the noon sun. Each shade glittered its own vibrant shade and Ino toyed with them. "I'm thinking we match eye colors." She held a sky blue bottle to her eyes. "What do you think?"

Sakura laughed and held out a palm. "Sounds good."

Ino crowed in delight and passed her the bottle, then went searching for a shade to match Sakura's eyes. The two girls then put a foot each in each other's laps and got to painting.

They had to keep stopping to let the giggles pass, though.

"You know I've got my war assignment." Ino began languidly.

Sakura paused for awhile. "Where are you shipping out? When?"

"They need an interrogation cell set up on the Iwa front, I'm leading it." Ino flicked a cold, jade green polish over Sakura's nails. "I'll be gone in a week and a half."

"I thought they'd trust Ibiki with that." The former jinchuuriki replied lightly.

Ino snorted. "I love Ibiki, I do, but his psychological torture always has such a time lag. My methods are much more…quick."

"And bloody." Sakura murmured. She spread the blue out carefully as if this was a painting.

Ino smiled. "True."

Silence passed for awhile. Sakura felt Ino's fingers on the sole of her foot. The jinchuuriki had seen her friend peel a man's skin off the heel and then disjoint every bone. It should have been an odd memory to have come up, but not for them.

"You all right?" Sakura asked.

Ino blinked. "I'm fine. My assignment is going to be awesome."

Sakura thought of blood as she finished Ino's toes. "You want varnish?"

Ino giggled. "Oh yes, silver with snake venom."

Sakura clicked her tongue. "I'll take gold with scorpion, if you don't mind."

The life of a kunoichi suited them both too well. They painted each other's fingernails next and talked about straight razors and nerve clusters.

Then Ino asked. "Can you go visit Shikamaru? He's been quiet."

Sakura tasted something bitter. "Sure." In the sunlight, her fingernails glittered jade and gold.


She found Shikamaru holed up in the Intel department in front of a Shogi set. He looked worn. Sakura sat across from him and made an opening move on the board. "Ino's worried about you."

He snorted. "Peachy." And made his own move.

The game was on. They made a dozen moves in silence and Sakura had her leg under the table and her foot hooked behind his knee. She could feel muscle cording in his leg along with a frustrated jitter.

A pack of cigarettes laid on the table unopened. If the jitter hadn't told her, that pack did: it was the end of the world.

"They're sending me as part of Naruto's tactical unit." He rasped.

"That's…" She paused. "Good?"

"I've always been good at maneuvering, figuring out how to make the most people die in the least amount of trouble." He pushed a piece and put her in check.

She examined the board intently. "It's a useful skill." And moved out of check.

Shikamaru kept ruthlessly chasing her pieces down and she watched the annihilation unfold.

"Sakura…your family…" He trailed off and he put her in check a third time.

This time she didn't try and get out. "What?"

There was a darkness to his eyes and she understood. "You fond the file." She affirmed softly.

"I did." His fingers rattled on the table.

She reached out and grabbed his hand. "I'm sorry. I didn't look in it."

He closed his eyes and something went away. When they reopened, there was a brightness she'd been missing. He spoke slowly. "They were dead, all of them. Your parents both went the night the Kyuubi attacked."

All her family. Gone. Sakura sucked in a breath but her chest unwound. This didn't hurt. "It's easier this way. Isn't it?"

He took out a cigarette and lit it. Smoke trailed from his mouth. "Yeah it is."

He shifted a piece and looked at her through heavy lids. "Check mate."

Sakura just stole his cigarette and took a long drag. It tasted like home.


It was barely dawn and the sky was a rolling gray. The ash still hung in the air and some in the village had developed a wracking cough from it. Forward units were already moving out and the streets were so quiet it was like walking through graves.

People were digging in the rubble of what was left from the civil war. Sakura sat waiting in it with a thermos of coffee warm between her hands. Like she knew he would, Sasuke stepped into the ruined courtyard.

Courtyard of the ashes of the Uchiha compound. His head tilted up. "I guess I shouldn't be surprised."

"I missed you." She rapped her hand on the tile next to her. "And I heard you were shipping out in a few days to do hit-and-run Ops in Kumo."

A tension still remained jagged between them, but he sat next to her anyways and they shared the thermos slowly. The coffee slipped warm down her throat. For a moment, she remembered swallowing molten steel and nearly gagged. It passed.

They didn't have much to say.

"The war's going to last a long time, isn't it?" He asked.

She nodded morosely. "It will." Some part of her wanted to move closer to him but she knew she couldn't. She hadn't earned that back yet and might never earn it.

"The years we're away from each other…" She couldn't face him and looked at the courtyard. "It might dull this."

"Maybe." He titled the thermos back and drained it. He handed it to her and got up.

He almost left but stopped short. "Sakura?"


"They're going to rebuild here someday." He was surrounded by the wreckage of their past. "Tell them to let the grass grow instead."

Someday they'd be all right. "I will." It was a promise she could keep.


She found Chouji in a different part of the wasteland that had once been Konoha. He was picking at the pieces of his own home. She stood behind him for a moment uncertain on whether to intrude.

He made the decision for her. "I'm shipping out soon, Iwa division, line-buster."

She joined him and for a moment looked at his armor. It was scarred and pitted, no longer the shining candy red that she remembered. It was a rusted color like day old blood now.

He followed her gaze and his irises went dark. "You know the Akimichi had a specialized blacksmith here. Each of us wrought our own armor; my dad helped me make my first set." He touched his chest plate.

There had been more lost here than just lives. They'd lost legacies whole.

"I can't fix it." His chin dipped.

She hung onto his arm and waited. Brittle, broken pieces of ceramic splintered like bones under her feet.

He rubbed the back of his neck. "We'll have to order it out now, pay for it. Get it made by someone outside the family."

She touched his elbow. "What about rebuilding the smith?"

He brushed his own armor, scarred deep across the chest. "There's not many of my family left, I doubt anyone's going to live together as a clan anymore. We can't maintain a smith." He chuckled bitterly. "None of us even have the money to rebuild it."

They'd destroyed tradition, even the good parts.

Her fingers caressed the sun-warmed platting. They trailed down and then twined in his. "I'm sorry."

His gaze was beyond the horizon. "Me too."


In the Aburame compound, Sakura and Hinata took tea on a veranda.

"I'll miss the gardens." Hinata said wistfully.

The other girl sipped at her tea slowly. "They are beautiful, I'm sorry you have to leave them."

The Lady Aburame laughed lightly. "It's our duty as shinobi to serve, my assignment isn't the worst. I'm going to be part of one of the defensive fronts around Konoha." Her voice dropped. "I'll get to see home at least."

Not all of them would.

They lounged on the cushions for a moment shoulder to shoulder and lost in silence. It was the comfort of being old friends, not needing words all the time.

A humming bird buzzed passed them. Hinata followed it with her eyes. "The Branch Hyuga that survived are reforming into a clan."

"Really?" Sakura watched the humming bird too, ruby throated and emerald winged. "I thought they'd be sick of that."

"I think they're having trouble facing the world alone. They'll outgrow the clan system someday, but not yet." Hinata paused. "They're trying to make Neji the new Clan Head; they're even treating Tenten like the new Hyuga mistress."

Sakura snorted into her tea. "Oh god, I bet Neji loved that."

Hinata smirked delicately behind her cup. "He was rather off put. He's been apart from the clan too long to go running back, Clan Head or not." She shrugged. "But who knows what he'll choose, he always had a sense of duty."

They wouldn't know what Neji would do for some time. Practically every Hyuga was being divvied among platoons and sent out. How they would reform once the war was over was the real question.

"I'm worried." Hinata whispered.

Sakura knew the subject had shifted. "About what?"

White eyes turned grim. "That we all won't come home."

Sakura had no answer. The humming bird flew away.


She wasn't sure if she went looking for Kiba or he went looking for her, but they found each other regardless.

He rubbed the back of his neck. "Hey foxy lady."

They fell into step and Sakura asked him blandly. "What are you doing?"

"Supplying up, my squad will be out of the village in a week." He patted Akamaru. "Me and Shino are on border duty, tracking enemies that try to cross over to get at Konoha."

She nodded. "Sounds fun."

He grinned feral. "It will be."

They walked longer, down twisting streets and alleys and through sunlight and shade. Voices came to them on the wind but the village seemed empty. Sakura thought it might be everyone just giving her wide berth, after what they'd seen.

His fingers nicked at her side. "Hey foxy?"

She made a humming noise.

He took that as an invitation. "How do you…what do you do if you can't get the taste of blood out of your mouth?"

She looked at him and he looked back without flinching. His eyes were haunted and tired but it vanished so quickly she wasn't sure if she'd seen it at all.

"You eat spicy food until you can't taste anymore." She smiled. "My treat."

They went to a restaurant and ate until their eyes watered.

"It's gone." He told her later.

She dimed a little. "It'll come back."

"Always?" He asked.

Her silence was answer enough.


Sakura went to her old orphanage one afternoon, but only because Hinata asked her too. Kiba came with her. They found Shino leaning on the fence watching the kids play. Kiba hung back a bit while Sakura joined Shino and looped her arm through his. She waited patiently.

Shino spoke to her eventually. "See that girl in the yellow dress?"

Sakura followed his hand and saw a tiny, laughing little girl playing in the sandbox. She nodded. "Yeah."

"I killed her mother and brother." He said woodenly. "Her name's Maya."

The little girl saw them at the fence and immediately brightened and ran over. The child hopped in place excitedly in front of them. "Hi, hi!"

The staff watched on warily but didn't interfere. None of them had been working here when Sakura had stayed a decade back, and she thought that was probably for the best.

Kiba scooped up the little girl and sat her on Akamaru. Shino and Sakura watched on.

She murmured to Shino. "If you're expecting some arbiter or jury to forgive you, it's not going to happen."

Shino breathed in sharply. Maya babbled on, yellow dress fluttering, tiny hands lost in dog fur. She looked like a doll.

Sakura's voice went soft. "You can only forgive yourself and let the rest fall where it falls."

He replied gruffly. "Did you?"

Did you forgive yourself?

She smiled bitter. "Not yet."

Kiba brought Maya over and whispered to the little girl conspiratorially. "This is the fox lady I told you about."

Maya looked up at her with wonder fill eyes. Sakura picked up the little girl and swirled her around high in the air once before asking: "Wanna see something cool?"

Maya nodded fervently.

Sakura let her eyes cycle red.

Maya's giggles filled the autumn air. "Do it again, do it again!"

Apartment Complex, 6:32 PM

It was their apartment and Sakura knew each floorboard by heart, knew each scratch on the wall, knew each dent in their headboard. She and Naruto had lived here together for four years. It was strange how easy it was to disentangle their lives as they packed their belongings away.

They were being sent to the outermost fronts and she and Naruto would likely not see their apartment or each other for months if not years. They had to leave here and let it go. It might be open when they got back and it might not.

It wasn't in their control anymore.

With a sigh she lowered herself on the window sill. The shadows were getting long and they trailed across her arms and face. At her feet boxes were piled high. Except for her field kit, her life had been packed away.

Naruto sat on a box with a groan. "I hate packing."

She made a sympathetic noise but looked at the village. From here she could see the blackened scar she'd torn through it. "Naruto?"

He stopped cracking his knuckles to look up at her.

She suddenly knew what she wanted to say. "That thing I made for phase Echo? It's gone."

His irises turned icy for a moment, voice dropping to a controlled octave. "Yeah?"

Her fingers absently picked at her sleeve. "Yeah, we won't be seeing it again in this lifetime."

True to his word, Naruto didn't ask what she meant or what it had been. His hands clasped between his knees instead and when the sun hit his eyes, they were bluer than any sky could ever be. "Was it worth it, the civil war? Echo?"

What was left unsaid was if sending them headfirst into a war with Kumo and Iwa and Ame had also been worth her revenge. If the lies had been worth it. If nearly destroying what they had together had been worth it.

Her hair was still a messy, short halo blacker than the shade. The shadows veiled her and her gaze was lost out the window. "Ask me again when the war ends."

They didn't talk for awhile and eventually she got off the sill and started fussing with her boxes. She picked up a stack and even though they weren't heavy it was awkward to carry.

"Come on; let me help you with that." Naruto grabbed a box from her stack. She made a face at him and he stuck out his tongue in return.

She softened. "Thanks."

He kissed her forehead. "It's my pleasure.

They walked together to the storage locker five blocks down. They had separate units and left their boxes inside.

The sunlight was even longer, burnishing the streets and casting their shadows long when they finished. On the walk back to the apartment their pinkies were linked. Things were still uneasy but they were getting better.

He cleared his throat. "What do you think about getting a house when we get back?"

She looked up at the shining façade of the apartment building. She'd miss this place but it was about time they moved on. And a house of their own sounded good, really good, like she might have a home to come back to.

For a second she was too shy to look at him. "I'd like that."

Naruto grinned brightly, picked her up and spun her around. When he put her down his gaze was serious. "We're going to be happy."

She just smiled. "I know."

Commercial District, 10:45 PM

The party was no one and everyone's idea. The first heavy division would ship out tomorrow and they filled the bar and grabbed a massive, couched off area in the back. The table in the center was long and low and Sakura and Ino danced on it. They tried to coax Hinata up too but the Lady Aburame was having none of it.

Their boyfriends leered and the booze flowed freely, and there were so many of them there they almost all didn't fit on the couch.

There was Chouji and Shikamaru, Kiba and Shino, Hinata and Sasuke, and even Hanabi had been snuck in despite not having official rank (and the implied adulthood therein).

They shared their war assignments and those of friends and family to over the alcohol. Sakura learned that Tenten was heading to Kiri to support the still floundering military there, Neji was part of a forward unit going to observe the border where Naruto's forward command would be set, Lee was providing backup for a squad to be sent behing enemy lines, and Hanabi was soon to be tested for rank then likely sent to one of the defensive fronts like her sister.

Kiba laughed uproariously, his glass of rum sloshing. "You know none of us are on the Ame front. Hell, I haven't met anybody going out there, why is that?"

Music pulsed loud over the speakers and Sakura found herself tapping with the beat of it. "Because there's no front out there."

Everyone looked at her but Naruto already knew what she meant and slung an arm around her shoulder. She settled into his embrace before elaborating for everyone else: "Five ANBU squads. Me. That's the entire force going there." All eyes were on her. "They're going to set me loose on every city until Ame surrenders. The civil war was…a test run to see if I could burn villages alone."

Silence fell for a long moment.

Sakura would fight an entire country. The methods may have changed but war never did.

Hinata interrupted the awkward silence before it could take root. "Come on, I want a picture before everyone goes." The lady Aburame already had a camera and no one really said no to Hinata.

A chunin from the bar was snagged down to take the picture and they all piled on the couch to get in.

Chouji moaned. "There's not enough room."

Ino tapped his forehead. "That my dear is what laps are for." And she promptly threw herself in her boyfriend's lap to demonstrate.

After that it was easy. Kiba and Shikamaru were in the center with Chouji and Naruto flanking them. Sakura was in Naruto's lap, angled inwards, and had her feet hooked on Kiba's knees. Ino had hers hooked on Shikamaru.

Shino and Hinata were to Sakura's left, and off to Ino's right was Hanabi practically draped on Sasuke.

They all shuffled and elbowed and bickered as they tried to get in position.

Kiba kept grabbing at her legs and Naruto kept slapping his hands. Sakura was laughing so hard she couldn't breathe. The Hyuga sisters had two separate arguments to stop Hanabi from making out with Sasuke instead of looking at the camera.

Chouji started complaining when he found a dozen of Shino's bugs on his arm. Shino didn't even pretend to apologize for it.

Shikamaru complained about Akamaru lying on his feet but complained even more when Ino dug her heels high on his thigh. When her teammate turned on her, Ino just fluttered her eyelashes. Chouji didn't even try to get involved.

Finally the shifting and arguments stopped as they shoved together.

"Smile!" The chunin called.

The flash filled their eyes.


They stood outside the convenience store, the smell of burning in their throats and ash coating the road under their feet. Hinata was getting the pictures developed while the rest of them ate cheap ice cream outside the door.

Above their heads, an orange street lamp flickered. Flies buzzed and threw themselves against the glass.

Naruto had an arm slung around her and she nestled against him. She tasted orange and cream and doubted she'd ever forget this night. Naruto leaned over and stole a lick of her ice cream; in return she took a bite from his popsicle.

As a truce they kissed and Sakura had both saccharine flavors in her mouth.

Hinata breezed out the doors. "Got them." And passed out prints.

Sakura took one look at the picture given and all her breath rushed away. They were all smiling in the photo but their damage was laid bare.

Ino's eyes would never be quite bright again, not with anything other than manic glee.

Kiba would always taste blood no matter what he did.

Shikamaru would never smile without slivers of bitterness inside it, harsh as iron.

Shino would regret the things he'd done but mostly regret the things he didn't do.

Chouji would clench his fists again but not without thinking of the people he'd broken with them.

Hinata would never be able to look in the mirror without seeing Hyuga eyes looking back, her family's eyes, the ones she'd killed and the ones she couldn't save.

Naruto would never trust her completely, not really.

Sasuke never should have trusted her at all.

But time would pass and they'd adjust, not heal, that was too much to ask. The scars would never fade but someday her friends would learn how to look past them. They'd learn how to look at the world without blood coloring their sight until all they saw was hell.

Sakura would teach them how and one day she might be able to forgive herself for that, too.

Maybe. Maybe not.

Her fingers traced it. At that moment Sakura knew more certainly than she had ever known that this picture would be carried with her until it crumbled to dust. But that was a very, very long time from now.

Time slipped away from her and everyone was already halfway down the block. The ice cream was melted in her hand. She dropped it.

"Come on, after-party at the Aburame!" Kiba cheered.

Hinata rolled her eyes in exasperation but Shino just smiled fondly. "Fine but you have to clean up."

Kiba groaned and pouted.

Shikamaru, her dearest and oldest friend, noticed she wasn't there and glanced back. "Hurry up, you're making us wait!"

Everyone already had their pictures away and their smiles beckoned her. She folded the picture in half and slid it in her vest and over her heart. The weight of it was nothing but somehow more than everything.

She chased after them. "Count me in!"

Naruto's hand was already there for her and she took it. It would be a warm and solid weight for the time it lasted.

There was a lonely dawn waiting for her tomorrow along with a war countries far from here. It was a path she'd brought on herself and had to take alone. Eventually it would lead her so far away from her friends even the memories would be nothing but blurs.

But that was then and she didn't have to dwell on it.

There was still a lifetime with them right now.

AN: And here we end.

For the record, Sakura's family was no one important. I believe in canon she's civilian but here we'll never know and don't really need to.

Unless there's a massive clamor for an epilogue after this, I think this is where it will end. I'm calling it a wrap.

And thank you to everybody who came along for the ride, Hells Radiance certainly has been a big part of my life and growing as a writer. And I couldn't have done it with all the feedback and support. Thank you.