A/N: The long-awaited battle scene. I made Kakeru's battle scene long to help show a passage of time, and ended up giving Kiba and Genma more screen time in the process. Honestly, I didn't realize it would spin out to be the 28 pages it turned out to be. Truth be told, I have had the end scene planned for almost three years now and I channeled my inner Buffy fan for it since that is where I drew most of my inspiration for this. If it seems random to you, I have been dropping clues since the middle of the story, so it might be a good idea to reread Fix You and look at them.

Also, I've fixed Sakura's OOCness last chapter as pointed out by some of you. I realize now that I rushed to post last chapter and I apologize for showing you incomplete work. My past failure is pretty much why I took so long to finish this chapter. As some of you know, this kind of story isn't easy to write and is highly taxing emotionally, but I wanted everything to be perfect. Now, there will only be two chapters left.

Warning: This chapter contains dark psychological themes and graphic violence, and I mean graphic. (If any of you read Sea Foam, you know my affinity for gore.) If you wish not to read it, skip the scenes with Kiba and begin at the next scene involving Kakashi.

Last time:

Apprehension weaved between her veins. She could easily see Naruto and Sasuke standing where the trees gave way opposite their side of the field. The others of the party weren't as visible. Where was their back up? Where was he? Where was—?

"You've arrived." Hisoka's calm comment ruptured the tense air, sending waves of nervousness skittering through all their veins. Following his focused, mildly mocking gaze, she saw him.

There, across the field from her, was Hatake Kakashi.

Chapter 19: Drowned




Sakura stared at the man across the field from her. She saw his tall stature, the familiar uneven shock of grey hair, the firmly-clenched jaw of her rescuer; the man she called her husband and her friend. Though she knew and fully expected Kakashi to be part of her rescue team—she would've been more shocked if he hadn't been—it was still surreal to think of him as there. She could feel her heart beat in her chest—a feeling that was almost akin to love and excitement at seeing his face, and yet, oddly enough, not quite that.

Perhaps it was this odd emotion that was making her act strange then. After all, the man she married herself off to was ready to risk his life for her and she knew the threat of death loomed over him, hovering like a knife poised to strike, yet it all felt so distant. All she could bring herself to do was gawk and not utter a word.

Hisoka's voice brought her back to reality.

"You four. Get down from there."

Nothing. A small wrinkle creased Hisoka's brows as he threw three shuriken into the foliage. A hollow 'thunk' told him they had hit their mark in the trunks of the trees he'd been aiming at, producing Lee, Genma, and Kiba with Akamaru at his side.

"Hatake Kakashi," the dark-haired man greeted calmly, holding the silver-haired nin's gaze.

At the sound of Hisoka's voice, Akamaru growled low in his throat. Kakashi ignored the sound and kept his gaze on the man. "Are you the one who sent the letter?"

"Yes," he replied as Naruto quietly scanned over the group responsible for kidnapping Sakura. The one in the vest reminded him of the Idiot Brothers he faced as a genin, while the green-haired one seemed almost identical to Sai. The leader, however, took him most for surprise. Given his description, he expected the leader to this missing-nin cell to be bigger, more muscular; this man's frame was only slightly larger than his own. However, he knew he shouldn't be so quick to judge. After all, the person responsible for destroying Konoha and putting Tsunade into a coma all those years back was a mere skeleton of a man who could barely function without the help of a machine.

Silence. A breeze crossing the clearing rippled what little grass there was in the ground; Kakashi stared ahead unwaveringly. "Let Sakura go."

"How direct," Hisoka smiled. "However, you must have known that coming here would've meant a fight. I must avenge my fallen comrades after all, and it wouldn't be as fun if I just surrender her to you. Besides, how often does one get the opportunity to fight against the legendary Hatake Kakashi?"

Kakashi held firm. "Let Sakura go."

Hisoka smirked. "A man who knows what he wants. I respect that. However, if you want her, you'll have to take her back."

"You bastard!"

"Naruto!" Genma shouted, but it was too late. Naruto had already begun charging across the field. Though he knew that it wasn't part of the plan, Naruto just couldn't do it. He couldn't just stand there and be so close to her without doing anything. He missed her—they all did—and he'd be damned if those three were going to stop him.

Immediately, Kakeru and Atsushi went to cover their leader, eyes trained on the fast-approaching blonde. Closing his eyes, Hisoka inhaled a calm even breath. Slowly opening his eyes, the battle began with a single command.


Naruto stared down at the ground, air whipping between his legs. After hearing the order, he'd followed Sai's look-alike into the air; however, the green-haired man and the other man in the yellow vest were now nowhere to be seen, leaving an opening to their leader. Given their teams' numbers, he wasn't surprised that the men would be distracted by his teammates. Though it was strange that they'd leave their leader open to attack, Naruto would take any chance handed to him.

His ascent steadily increasing in speed, he trained his eyes on the dark-haired man in front of Sakura. His eyes fell to the sword that had remained in his hilt. They'd all seen it when the group arrived at the clearing, and he wondered why Hisoka hadn't drawn it yet. In any event, he was wary of it. Though swords were commonplace in battle, he'd seen a variety of blades with special properties over his lifetime and he wasn't about to let his guard down around this one.

Pulling his fist back, he twisted his body to ready his punch. If he could time his punch correctly, he could snatch Sakura and run her back to Kakashi's side, but everything about this seemed too easy.

Just then, the man with the vest appeared, blocking the path. Naruto's eyes widened for a second, but narrowed. Like hell he was going to let some fatso get between him and rescuing one of his best friends, and with that, he let his hand fly into the man's stomach only for it to bounce off harmlessly.

The man giggled. "Hehe, that tickles. How did you know Atsushi was ticklish?" he giggled as Naruto stared up at the man bewilderedly. His punch didn't work? And it made him…laugh?

"Oh, I'll give you something to laugh about," he muttered as he reeled back for another punch. It hit its target and Naruto smiled for a second as he felt it connect with the man's round stomach, only to realize something was wrong. A look of horror flitted over his face.

'It's stuck,' he thought as he frantically tried to dislodge his hand. Atsushi merely chuckled at Naruto's actions and smiled gleefully. "My turn!" he said jovially as he extended his hands out at his sides, palms open. With that smile on his face, he let his hands fly towards the center and Naruto watched, shocked, as they came towards his face.

'Come on! Come on!' he thought as he desperately pulled at his hand as Atsushi's large hands came towards his face. He didn't know about Atsushi too much. The bingo book had very little written about him, but there had been a warning to watch out for his physical attacks. The only problem was that he didn't know what to look out for, but it didn't stop his blood from chilling as the hands were only mere inches from his face.

A sudden jerk and Naruto found himself becoming dislodged as he watched the hands come together where his face had just been. The clap sent out a boom of air that sent him and his rescuer flying. Had his head still been there, it would've surely popped like a grape.

Landing on a nearby tree branch, Naruto grinned, wiping away a trail of saliva. "Thanks teme," he said before turning to the man on the ground still searching for where he had gone. "What the hell was that?"

"From what I could tell, that wasn't from chakra manipulation. It's his own strength," he explained as his mind mentally flipped through the medical reports stuffed into the files Tsunade had given for this mission. This explained the carnage in the coroner report photos, and why the only witness died shortly after giving that warning. This "Atsushi" was extremely strong, and if a mere clap could send them flying back, there was no telling what a punch from him could do.

"I could've told you that!" Naruto shouted. "My question is how do we touch him? Our only way to Sakura is through him and my punch only tickled him while the second one nearly got my hand eaten off. My hand was in his gut, teme. And that clap sent us flying."

To this, Sasuke nodded gravely. This would certainly be a problem.

Pine branches whipped Kiba's face, breath coming out in harsh pants as he fled into the forest for cover.

'What the hell was that guy?'

"That guy" was the green-haired shinobi of the enemy group. He'd introduced himself as Kakeru—a fact that Kiba found strange since no shinobi he knew was ever polite in battle. Courtesy was a waste in their line of work, but Kakeru seemed to throw all of that out the window. When Kiba frowned at the smell of the scent bomb used to ruin his clan's tracking senses, Kakeru even apologized to him for the choice of perfume he used; and for a few seconds, Kiba actually felt guilty for his crude behavior.

But that was only the beginning; and in the world of ninja, first impressions are generally wrong.

Kiba didn't remember much of it—it came in fragments that shot out through the darkness clouding his mind—only that they arrived at a clearing in the forest where it looked like a village used to be before Kakeru said something about "taking too long" and "Hisoka not liking him to dawdle" and pulled out a flute.

The item, a small greyish-brown pipe in his hand, seemed completely innocuous. Kiba remembered making a crack at it—something about Kakeru serenading them in addition to the politeness he'd shown them, a barb for Kiba's hurt pride at this farce of a battle. By this point, Lee had long-since shed the weights he wore and moved in to strike…

…only to be savagely leg-hammered away, smashing through the trees before skidding to a halt kilometers away. By the time they found him, he was a bloody broken mess of fractures and ruptures, but he was still alive and Kiba was thankful for small miracles.

But that was just the beginning. Not only was Kakeru strong, he was fast. When Genma threw three kunai at the man, he had quickly fended them off with a blur of his hand. Kunai, wire trips, paper bombs—he had rendered them all useless. Both long-range and short-range attacks weren't working; and just when they thought it couldn't get any worse, he lifted the flute to his lips.

It was a short, sharp trill, Kiba remembered. It shot out like a bomb blast, rattling the branches and shaking leaves to the ground. The sound was bright, clear, and haunting, and it would've been almost beautiful if it hadn't been so cripplingly painful that they had to cover their ears; Akamaru howled in agony.

Slowly, steadily, more notes were added as the two men tried to figure out what Kakeru was doing. If it was a death knell, they would've been dead a long time ago. A summon was the next possibility, but he hadn't pulled out a scroll or given payment. Besides, what could he possibly summon out here in the middle of nowhere?

They found out soon enough as a hand gripped his ankle from underneath. Shocked, the men stared frozen with fear at the ground as more limbs emerged from the soil.

Because really, it would be Kiba's luck that their enemy was a flute-wielding necromancer.

The limbs and half-rotted bodies came with no end in sight. Apparently, they were fighting on the village's burial site where a massive crop blight had occurred, leaving many to die of famine. Playing his flute, Kakeru continued to raise his undead army, restless spirits flying up to swirl in a crowd above their heads as he cackled over the idea of the dead villagers consuming his enemy alive. Under his breath, Kiba heard Genma curse over being so easily separated from the others into this trap.

The villagers climbed their bodies like ivy; clammy, spongy digits hooking into skin and clothes as the corpses pulled their way up the Leaf Nins' bodies and the blue-white figures above swirled and morphed in their cloud to the soft dulcet sounds of the flute. A change in the song made the spirits strike, Genma and Kiba hissing as the mass of spirits raked their skin, littering their bodies with scratches and gashes. Genma made a blind grab towards one of them, only to feel wisps of cold air float between his fingers. Through the howls and screams of the ghosts, Kiba could faintly make out Akamaru's whines of pain.

Most of the battle went like that, Kakeru dealing out blows while they just took it because how do you fight an enemy that was already dead? Their attempts to repel the enemy were futile. The zombies may have been easy, but the ghosts were harder, passing through them just like winter air and leaving their bodies a little bloodier, a little more tired than before.

Genma was a leader through and through though, reminding Kiba to keep his head as he tried to hack at the gnarled limbs binding his ankles, punching the head off a woman to prevent another bite to his injured shoulder. In a way, it was a relief that Genma was still with him to make him keep his head straight.

But that relief was short-lived. After all, leaders are the first targets in any attack after the medic; and just as they freed themselves to regroup in the trees, Kakeru caught Genma with a bit of chakra-wire, binding his arms and legs before reeling him in like a fish and flinging him over a branch of a tree. From the cover of the trees, Kiba could see the chakra-wire glint around Genma's body in the low sunlight, catching in Kakeru's crazed eyes, an entirely different person from the man apologizing to Kiba about perfume only a few minutes earlier.

Blood rushed to Genma's face. Above his eye, ruby liquid poured from a gash where he had struck a rock while being dragged. Staring at the Leaf shinobi eye-to-eye, Kakeru merely laughed as he shook off some blood that had fallen on his sandals, kicking a head that had rolled his way.

"You know I was one of the body collectors back when I was still in Anbu?" Kakeru began conversationally. "You won't believe how much blood I saw back then. Grass is so much easier to dispose of bodies. All those swampy marshes are great for dumping corpses in, but when you start getting to the outskirts and into other countries, we don't have that luxury. We use ravens like everyone else. After my wife and kids died, they became like my second family.

"When I was on the run, I didn't have the luxury of waiting for the person to die before letting my ravens go at them, so I trained them. Now they'll eat a person's flesh, even if they're still alive," he told them.

Kakeru lifted one arm gracefully up to the sky, a raven flying down to perch on his hand. "I have at least forty-three in my arsenal. As a warning, they haven't been eating much lately. Maybe after I'm done with you, I'll let them eat your little friends too. And that dog…he should feed them for a while," Kakeru said thoughtfully.

In a move that Kiba approved of, Genma told him what he thought of that idea by spitting on him. "You'll never find them."

Kakeru merely gave an indulgent smile as he wiped the blood on his shirt. "Oh really? If I remember correctly, there's that one boy that I kicked. He can't move, so it doesn't matter when I find him. Actually, it'll be more fun for me; like a treasure hunt!"

Genma's eyes widened. "You wouldn't dare."

"Oh, you'd be surprised what I will and won't do," he purred as he lifted his raven up. It readied its wings and with two flaps of its wings, launched itself at its prey, digging its beak into the first piece of exposed flesh it could find.

Kiba could only stare in astonishment as the raven plunged its beak into the raw flesh of Genma's shoulder, drawing an anguished scream from his friend. His face flushed with anger. How any human being could do this to another person was beyond him. Sure, there weren't many laws governing battle conduct, but this was outrageous. Suddenly, Kiba's vision went white with rage.

The next thing he knew, he was dropping his arm to catch the flute he'd sent Akamaru to retrieve as the sound of a shadow clone popped in the distance.

Now he was running through the trees for his life, leg occasionally bumping into Akamaru—a reassurance that his friend was still there. Branches and twigs slapped his face, razing his skin. His wounds were beginning to clot, the flowing air from his speed making them sting as blood splattered across his face when a branch hit his skin the wrong way. His cheek twitched occasionally—he'd gotten a few scratches on his face, it seemed—but nothing would make him stop. As long as he had the flute, he had control of the situation.

But what control was that? Lee was just barely out of danger; he had no sense of smell; those damn spirit things had robbed him of all his weaponry and scattered them to Kami-knew-where; and Genma was still hanging upside-down from a tree branch. Even if he did have the flute, he was on the run from its sadistic-unstable-necromancer of an owner with no clue how to use it and no way to get out of this mess.

Kiba glanced down at the flute in his hand. This was what Kakeru used to control the cloud of ghosts above their heads; if he could figure out how to use this, he could turn the tide of the entire battle; and in all honesty, as a member of a clan family, where mastery of musical instruments was the norm, he should've known how to. Hinata herself was a master of three instruments.

Too bad for him, he had failed to master any, let alone three. He had been so terrible as a child; he was only allowed to play the recorder.

"A wind instrument is a wind instrument, right? It's the same family, so it shouldn't be too different," Kiba told himself. Trying to conjure up his past lessons, he covered the holes at random, experimenting with the sounds as he gritted through every off-key note he played. The closest thing he got to a result was when he'd managed to summon the cloud towards him, and he'd just barely managed to redirect the eerie stream back into the air when Akamaru began barking wildly.

"Not bad. I'm impressed," Kakeru said with a genuine note of pride in his voice as he hung lazily against a nearby tree trunk, "If you hadn't switched your fingering in time, they would've shredded you. Now give it back before you do something you really regret."

'I'm regretting it already,' Kiba thought dismally as he stared into the eyes of his enemy, the orbs peering back at him like a cat who had finally found an escaped mouse it'd been playing with. At his side, Akamaru growled threateningly and the thought of how comforting his dog's presence at his side was drifted over Kiba's mind. However, it was only that thought that would appear. Nothing would come to him. The fact that Kakeru was looking at him with a thin patience did not help either.

And so, he did the first thing that came to mind. He ran.

Trees passed by him in a blur of shadows and greens as he flew through the forest. Twigs snapped against his arms, scratching his skin, his arms, his face. His heart beat in his head; his throat burned; he was running at twice his previous speed and he would've been impressed with himself if he hadn't been so fucking terrified out of his mind.

In the distance, the sounds of tree branches snapping like the rapid fire of a machine gun reached him. Kakeru was already on the move; he hadn't even waited. His voice through the trees chased him.

"You think just because you can control my cloud, you can save yourselves? You still have my crows to deal with and you're not going to be able to stop them. The only way they'd stop is if something more appetizing came their way!"

Briefly, an image of what Genma must have been going through at that moment flashed before Kiba's mind, but he quickly shoved it aside, refocusing his attention to the flute. Their only hope for going back home was for him to figure this thing out.

Rearranging his fingers in a different position than before, he blew as softly as he could into the instrument, drawing a faint sound. Above him, the cloud shifted north-northwest just as he wanted it to. At the sight, his spirits began to rally and he turned to his right to share his excitement with Akamaru. His friend seemed to sense this and gave a toothy grin in return…

Only to suddenly disappear from the tree line.

The shock of Akamaru disappearing nearly made Kiba fall out of the trees. Panic welled in his throat. Skidding to a halt, he stretched his senses to find where Akamaru had gone, the sound of snapping twigs and heavy thudding landings reaching back to him before he heard a quick 'snap' and the sound of something with heavy tension.

His fears of Akamaru slipping and falling to his death slipped back into the darkness of Kiba's mind; he'd been caught by something and relief washed over him when he heard Akamaru's familiar high-pitched whine.

However, his relief was short-lived as reason took over. Kakeru was not far behind, and the fact he could capture Akamaru meant that he'd been able to see them—he'd been close enough to kill them, but he'd only captured Akamaru, leaving Kiba to run alone in the dark tree line and that fact unnerved him.

'Sorry boy. I'll try to find you later. I promise.'

It tore him up inside to have to abandon his best friend, but there was no way he'd be able to rescue his friend if Kakeru caught him. Refocusing his attention to the task at hand, he shifted his fingers and blew into the flute, watching as the cloud swirled in the air before striking a tree 50 meters to his left, right where he wanted.

Noting his finger position, Kiba felt a familiar bubbling sensation in his chest. He could already taste the relief at the end of the battle—of when this nightmare would over and they could all go home with Sakura and laugh. He knew the battle was far from over, but for the moment, he felt invincible and he couldn't help the grin that split across his face.

"You're happy."

And Kiba could only turn in mute horror to the image of Kakeru squatting on the tree trunk, his hand on the flute. Despair overwhelmed him; in his head, he could hear himself curse, torn between the unfairness of it all and his head's command to run, but he was frozen in place. Paralyzed by shock and fear, he only had time to experience the numbing feeling of his heart plummeting in his chest before he felt a pressure point touched and his eyes rolled back into his head, the picture of Kakeru's cruel, faintly amused smile the last thing he saw before he finally blacked out.

Sakura stared at the field from behind Hisoka. Since the groups' separation, neither Kakashi nor Hisoka had moved a muscle and a tense silence blanketed the area. In the distance, a series of explosions rippled the air, echoing back to them.

"Sounds like our teammates are having fun with each other," Hisoka commented dryly.

"I suppose," was Kakashi's terse reply.

Suddenly, a kunai came sailing through the field. Raising his hand, Hisoka deflected it with his hand guard as Kakashi quickly closed the distance between them, kunai in hand.

'A distraction,' Hisoka observed, watching as Kakashi's kunai came closer and closer to throbbing blood vessels in his neck. At their close distance, he could see the look of determination in the Copy Nin's eyes, as well as a brief look of elation because it might be over…

Only for the kunai to be deflected by a sword. A brief look of surprise flitted over Kakashi's face before leaping back as three more Hisokas appeared on the field. 'So he's capable of doing jutsu one-handed?'

The thought was cut short however as Kakashi leapt up to dodge a sword slash from one of the clones, sending him into a shower of kunai, cursing as he was forced into the trees.

Sakura watched as Kakashi ran towards the treetops, flinching when she heard the clashing of metal and saw the brief sparks of light fly in the air. Branches and leaves rained from the sky as the shriek of metal and sounds of cracking wood pinged back and forth overhead. It was impossible to get a precise reading of their location—the tree cover was just too dense—but it seemed that all of Kakashi's advances towards them were being repelled. The closest of his attacks was forty meters north-northeast, and while the distance was close enough for a pang of hope to throb in her throat, she and Hisoka hovered at the edge of the field, just outside of the raining debris and Kakashi's reach.

That didn't mean he could never get to her though. The space between each meeting of flesh on flesh was getting shorter, and the sounds of screeching ringing metal were coming closer and closer.

"Your husband is quite determined to have you back."

At the comment, Sakura couldn't help the tiny quirk at the corner of her mouth. "I'm not surprised. Kakashi can be very stubborn," she smiled, marveling at the soothing drop of calm that resonated in her.

He stole a glance of her from over his shoulder. "You're very fond of him," he observed.

Though she knew he couldn't see it, Sakura gave a tentative nod. In the back of her mind, she wondered why Hisoka phrased his comment that way—that she was "very fond" of Kakashi rather than "love him"—while another part wondered why she seemed a bit relieved at the peculiar wording. It wasn't as though she detested Kakashi. In truth, she cared about him and respected the man she was married to, but "love" sat oddly in the pit of her stomach. Still…

"I wouldn't have married him if I didn't like him," she said at last.

To her surprise, Hisoka gave a small, quiet laugh, and Sakura watched spellbound at the rhythmic bounce of his shoulders. "My fiancé used to say the same about me," he said a bit remorsefully.

While he hadn't turned to face her, Sakura could imagine the look on his face as he waded through his old memories. In the clearing, the pop of a clone echoed in the silence like a temple gong; Kakashi was coming. Now, it was just a waiting game.

Back still to her, Sakura watched as Hisoka shifted his feet, bracing himself in the dirt. His hands clenched and unclenched at his sides.

"You want to know about me, right?"

The question had caught her off-guard, spoken like an afterthought. There was a strange edge in Hisoka's voice that she wasn't used to hearing, and she blinked as if in a dream. "What…?"

"Before I ever became a rogue-nin, I was an Anbu operative for a small ninja village in the North near Yukigakure," he began. "One day, I was given a mission to destroy a neighboring village to prevent a possible uprising against us. Not wanting to be unprepared, I decided to do some reconnaissance of the area.

"But something was wrong. What the file listed as a rogue ninja village was nothing more than a gathering of dilapidated huts. I thought it was a ruse, but the longer I stayed, the more apparent it wasn't. The rogue ninjas were nothing more than emaciated villagers. All of them were coughing blood, and in the autopsies I performed, there were abnormalities in their renal systems: the blood vessels were fissured and every liver cell I looked at was shriveled despite no obvious exposure to the elements or dehydration—and the bronchial nodes had all filled and crusted with blood and pus.

"I immediately returned to the village to report it to my superior. Those people didn't need to be eradicated; they needed our help, and for my trouble, I was demoted for 'disobeying orders' while the mission was passed onto someone 'more qualified.'

"After that, I was relegated to desk work. No missions came my way, and the situation seemed hopeless. The only thing that kept me going was my girlfriend, but I never told her what was wrong. I didn't want to make Shiori worry when even I wasn't sure what I was worrying over—if perhaps I had been wrong and that village had been a threat to our security.

"I found my answer a few weeks later when I found a document mixed into one of the files I had been reading for work. It led me to a paper trail, and following it, it proved that I had been right. The rogue village wasn't a rogue village at all. It was the site of an illegal drug-test sponsored by a bio-engineering company in Yukigakure. They were making a biological warfare prototype for our village, but the company had gone bankrupt two months prior in a public scandal case. Funding had gone dry and the village leaders, wanting no evidence that they had been connected to it, wrote it off as a rogue village to be destroyed.

"Days later, I received my first mission in months to retrieve a scroll that had been left behind at a decommissioned border post. I should've been suspicious, but I was too glad to be out in the field again to even care. Combined with the fact my girlfriend and I were now engaged, I was on top of the world.

"The border post was two day trip to-and-from the village. Retrieving the scroll, I had planned to leave immediately, but the weather had soured and I had exhausted myself trying to get to the base to return by morning, so I spent the night in the woods and left that morning. On my way back, however, I was ambushed. They had been waiting for me all night, it seemed. If I hadn't rested, I would've never made it."

Hisoka gritted his teeth. "Once I saw their faces and recognized the village emblem, I knew what had happened. I was never supposed to come back. They had found out that I knew; the mission was just a ruse to get rid of me. I rushed home to warn Shiori to leave, but when I got back, it was all gone. The bodies of my friends were scattered on the dirt path in our neighborhood, and my house was in flames. Shiori only lived long enough to warn me that the village had put a bounty on my head before she died in my arms. No one deserves to die the way they did.

"With little holding me back, I decided to make them pay, and they did. I walked into their offices; I crept into their homes; I watched them say goodnight to their families, and then I slaughtered them like the cowards they were. I had been expecting a challenge, but greed seems to dull skill over time. Even when I shattered the bones in my left hand, it was only because I had hit the concrete floor underneath after pulverizing the elder's skull.

"As I stood there over the bloody smear of organs I had created on the floor, I realized that this is what I had vowed my life to, this selfish lump of pride and greed. You can do all the noble actions and use all the pretty words in the world to prove your loyalty to your home, but it means nothing to them. To your village, you're nothing but a tool to be used. Your loyalty is expendable, and once you lose your usefulness, you can be thrown away. I gave everything to my village, only for them to destroy everything I had; and I swore I would never let myself be used like that again.

"Shiori would probably roll in her unmarked grave if she saw me now," Hisoka said suddenly, the ghost of a smile on his lips. "She and you are actually quite similar. She wasn't a medic—she was a vet, actually—but you both have the same personality. You're both nosy and difficult and always more caring than you need to be.

Leaves rustled in the trees; the banshee wail of kunai scraping a sword preceded the appearance of another clone being kicked into the open, popping in the air. He turned to her. "I don't want to lose you like I did Shiori," he told her. "Start moving back the way we came. If we head to the East, we'll lose them within the hour."

Sakura stared at him, confused. She couldn't wrap her head around it. It was like something out of a bad romance novel. Hisoka was abandoning his men…to run away with her?

Disgust coiled in the pit of her stomach. Atsushi and Kakeru worshipped this man and he was willing to leave them like this?

She wanted to ask if this was a joke. Surely he was kidding—that this was just some horrible, horrible prank to distract her or something because this certainly couldn't be real—but one look at his face told her he wasn't. Suddenly, she regretted ever feeling sorry for the man.

"I'm not going with you."

At the edge in her voice, he smiled like a cat smiles at a mouse. "I understand. You have obligations," he said. As if on cue, the sound of a tree limb cracking split the air, revealing Kakashi as he flew towards them, kama in hand.

Hisoka reached back, placing his fingers on the plain handle of his blade. "No matter. I'll just have to break those bonds then." And then he drew his sword, flying up to meet Kakashi.

The first thing Kiba woke up to was the thick smell of blood. Even with his inability to smell, it was everywhere; in his throat, in his lungs; he could even taste it on his tongue. The copper taste rang through his head like a million pennies falling 'tic-tic-tic' against his teeth.

Slowly, he woke up to the small clearing where he first started. For a minute, he thought he'd dreamed up everything—that he hadn't actually stolen the flute or done all that because the entire thing seemed ridiculous—when he felt a heavy dull throb in his leg and a wheeze in his breathing that he didn't remember being there. His chest burned with every breath he took and he could only see clearly through his right eye. His mouth tasted heavily of metal and his hitai-ate was blood-stained, sitting limply in his lap. When had that fallen off?

"Ah, you're awake."

Looking up with his good eye, he watched Kakeru walk over to him, a smile on his face. "I thought you'd never wake up after I knocked you out."

Despite the cheery tone in his voice, there was a sense of foreboding in his words that made Kiba want to back away, only to find himself cornered by the tree he rested on.

"Of course, I had to punish you for stealing my flute—though it's quite impressive how you actually figured out how to use it. Most people never do—so while you were out, I took the liberty of breaking a few ribs. You'll find a spiral fracture on your left arm—I wouldn't move it if I were you. Very nasty business—and I twisted your ankle—you were awake for a few seconds for that, but the pain made you black out. I also smacked your head around, but of course, it's no fun to torture a person if they're not awake for it, so I moved onto your superior up here," he said, motioning to the man hanging in the tree.

Whatever image he had when he saw Genma again couldn't compare to the reality of it. Nausea churned savagely in his gut. His face, red from the blood rushing to his head, was covered in sores from the ravens. He was fading in and out of consciousness.

The crack of a whip resounded through the forest as Genma arched his back and screamed, beads of blood dripping on the wire to join the small red puddle under him.

"Ten minutes of whipping and he's never failed to give a response," Kakeru sighed almost dreamily before shaking his head. "But enough about that. You've been a very bad boy for giving me all that trouble and for that, you're dying last. But don't think I'm just going to kill you. No, you're going to suffer. I'm going to make you watch me kill your teammates, starting with your dog."

Before Kiba could even react, Kakeru was already besides the netted Akamaru and with a raise of his leg, crushed it straight into his ribs. Frozen in disbelief, Kiba couldn't even force himself to react as Kakeru repeated the action over and over again, Akamaru crying out in pain.

"Your dog is boring me. I thought dogs were supposed to be fun, but your superior was better. Genma, right?" he asked, crossing over and cracking the line of wire against the raw flesh of Genma's back. A spray of blood erupted into the air. Even with his untrained eye, he knew Genma wasn't going to last much longer. If he didn't get down soon, he'd die in this forest.

"Stop it. He can't take much more!"

"'Stop it,'" Kakeru mocked, face wrinkling in disgust as he crossed over to him. "You make me sick—you call yourself a shinobi? And I thought the Inuzuka clan was supposed to be brave. Are they all cowards like you?"

Suddenly Kakeru was in his face; Kiba watched Genma's blood drip down Kakeru's nose.

"I know your type," he said, repulsed, "Brash, cocky, stupid. We had greens like you back when I was in Anbu. They were always the first ones to go. People like you need to learn their place. You think you know everything, but at the end of the day, you're just a stupid pup."

Kiba sat with his head hung, stung by Kakeru's words and his own helplessness. He knew that he was still green—he still hadn't gone on his own solo mission yet—but he'd always told himself that he'd get there someday. He had the strength to do it after all, he would tell himself, but where had that strength gone now? Even the bravado that had fed those baseless thoughts seemed to have evaporated, leaving him nothing but the reality of things. His team's lives were flickering out in front of him and the only reason he'd survived this long was because he was just damn good at being a coward. He wasn't strong at all; he was just a kid with an ego fattened by wealth and prestige of his family's name.

Still, even he had enough pride to know he had to do something.

"Stop it," he said, his tone as steely as a knife. He wanted to be helpful. He wanted to be useful. But with so many broken bones, all he could do was tell his enemy to stop like a petulant child. It was frustrating and disheartening—it was so pathetic that Kiba felt like laughing at himself.

At his words, Kakeru sent him a side glance. "What? Are you going to cry? Sorry kid, but the truth hurts. If you really think that being a shinobi means being the hero and saving the day, you're dead wrong. I don't know how you can be proud about being a ninja belonging to a village. We're just tools to them; nothing more."

At Kiba's snarling lip, the green-haired nin threw his head back with a laugh. "What? Can't take it? You can't handle the idea that your entire existence has been a lie? Disgusting. Disgusting. It's disgusting the way you people cling to your ideology, kissing ass and following the orders of people who can't even take a shit for themselves.

"I almost feel sorry for you. Hisoka is a god amongst men for letting us live freely," he said with glowing praise before letting his sinister eyes fall on Kiba again, half-nudging, half-kicking the man with his foot. Finding Kiba's limp hand, he ground the heel of his sandal into it, watching as the young pup squirmed in the dirt.

Lids lowering, he stared down at the boy, smirking. His sandal continued its methodical grind. "How does it feel to know that you're going to die soon and this was as far as you ever got? How does it feel to be so weak?"

"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" Kiba roared.

Skidding to a stop, Kakeru dabbed at the cut on his cheek and tried to laugh off his unease. The cloud had evaporated; the crushed remnants of his flute that the boy managed to grab were scattered at his feet. His heartbeat thundered rapidly in his chest, but he ignored it, focusing on the young man leaning heavily on the tree. That boy wasn't supposed to be able to stand—his inverted ankle should be crippling him with pain—but there he was, glaring at him with a sense of foreboding that Kakeru swore the mouth of Hell itself. His killing intent was unnerving; Kakeru's nerves fidgeted under his skin.

'No matter,' he thought with the briefest notions of panic setting in. His plans had been thrown off-kilter; and the tinges of fear made his eyes wide and flighty, but he still had a chance. If he used his crows to finish off the man in the tree and crush Kiba's spirit before finishing the dog, Kiba wouldn't be able to do a thing. He would erase Kiba's disgusting notions of loyalty and honor off the face of the earth, even if it killed him.

Kakeru's face split into a wide grin. "I'll kill you. I'll kill you!" It was perfect; his hands were already making the signs to summon his crows from the trees and he opened his mouth to call out the jutsu when his eyes caught movement and flecks of red filled the sky.

Kiba watched as Kakeru's body slumped backwards. Blood gushed from his lips and the hole in his throat where his windpipe used to be. Panting heavily, Kiba balanced himself against the tree and wiped the blood from his chin, finding the taste bitterer than he expected.

Faint movement caught Kiba's eye. Kakeru was twitching; he was still alive, but he'd be dead soon. Kakeru seemed to realize it too as his hands convulsed over his chest for air before the light died in his forest green eyes and his body was covered in a blanket of scavenging crows. Eyes still trained on the body, he spat out the last remaining fragments of flesh and cartilage onto the ground, watching as three crows swooped down to feast on the leftovers as he fished through the sea of feathers for a kunai to cut Genma down.

Genma's body fell with a dull, heavy sound; Kiba stared at the body with wobbling legs. He was unconscious but still breathing. The blood was already beginning to clot; if they stemmed the blood and got him to a medic soon, he would make it.

Lackluster, Kiba turned his head to check on the cawing birds. Even covered in crows, he could still see bits of Kakeru's cloak and hair peak through. It was strange. Now that the battle was over, the man who'd committed so many unspeakable acts of torture on his team seemed so much smaller now and it was surreal to think that they were the same mold. Even so, Kiba knew he'd never be like him; to torture someone just for the pure hell of it was unforgivable.

Eyes staring down at the fallen figure, he spit out one last bit of blood and wiped his mouth. "Disgusting," he intoned softly before finally collapsing from exhaustion and pain.

Sparks flew as Kakashi licked away the blood from his split lip. Stretching his senses, he could hear the cawing of a murder of crows as the faint uttering of a Katon jutsu reverberated through the trees, a thick acrid smoke billowing towards the sky.

"Eyes on me, Hatake," Hisoka ordered, bringing his tantō down, forcing Kakashi back. Using the momentum, he flipped backwards and rebounded off a tree, only for Hisoka to appear from above, kneeing him in the gut.

He landed on the forest floor with the wind knocked out of him. His back hurt and his vision swam. Blood was filling his mouth again and he had a scant second to raise his blade up to deflect a thrust aimed at his face.

Kakashi hissed as he fought Hisoka's press. His fingernails were biting into his palm through his gloves as the tantō blade balanced precariously between the kunai hilt and his fingers. His arms shook with exhaustion.

"Didn't anyone ever tell you not to bring a kunai to a sword fight?" Hisoka asked, bearing his weight down on the Copy Nin. He had half a mind to spit in his eye, but parried instead and swung his leg to kick the missing nin off of him, flinging him against a tree.

Standing on shaking legs, Kakashi drew down his mask briefly to clear his mouth, savoring the taste of fresh air on his copper-leaden tongue. He was battered and bruised. The fight with the clones had taken a lot out of him, and their battle was drawing out a lot longer than Kakashi thought it would. He figured that Hisoka would be slightly faster than him, but that gap was growing now.

And he was still out of range.

Hisoka was right about not bringing a kunai to a swordfight. That tantō of his was at least twice or three times as long as his kunai. There was no way of touching him; he was already risking his limbs just trying to fend the man off, even with his Sharingan tracking Hisoka's moves. The only way to get on even ground was to retrieve the fuma shuriken he'd lost in the trees, which would leave him vulnerable to Hisoka while he looked for the weapon.

Was it worth it, he asked himself. He could barely stand as it was; his body was bruised and beaten and even broken in some places, and he would be turning his back to the enemy, so was it worth the risk?

Unbidden, his gaze trailed to Sakura huddled at the edge of the field. He had his answer.

Now every seasoned shinobi knows how to read the flow of a battle and when a tide will turn. It could be the appearance of enforcements, the disappearance of a weapon, but more often than not, it was something in the air. There was no test, no sign to empirically prove it; they just knew, and Hisoka could sense the tide shifting here as well. Looking across the field, he eyed the Copy Nin critically as bi-colored eyes stared back. A measured gaze was exchanged before a shower of kunai flashed in the air, just missing Kakashi as he dashed into the trees.

"Damn it," Hisoka cursed softly to himself, looking up into the leaves. It was too dense to see through, and to follow him meant losing his hostage. He'd lost him…

...for now. Kakashi would have to come out sometime and Hisoka could be patient for that.

"Your husband is quite stubborn, isn't he?" Hisoka asked Sakura, goading.

In the trees above, Kakashi frowned to himself. Hisoka had the luxury of being noisy and it irked him that the dark-haired man could so easily consort with his wife. But he pushed the thought aside. He needed to concentrate if he wanted to find one of his fuma-shuriken.

He had brought three with him to the battle, but one had been flung clear out of the area when he deflected an attack from a clone near the start while he lost the other two in the foliage. His only hope was that they were close and not too entangled wherever they had landed.

He stretched his senses, peering into the darkness of the leaf cover. The area had been undisturbed for decades and the foliage was thick, even compared to Konoha's forests.

Suddenly he spotted it. Twenty meters ahead, there was an abnormality in the shadows, and he stole towards it, slipping under and over branches and twigs as easily as a snake. Cautiously, he surveyed the weapon with its four blades splayed out, frozen in the memories of battle. The damage wasn't too bad. Only one blade was stuck, embedded in the side of the tree at an angle, but just because it wasn't the worst-case-scenario didn't mean his troubles were over. The blade was still buried fairly deep and he was caged in by brittle twigs and stubborn branches that would give away his position if he wasn't careful.

A spot of sunshine peered out onto the metal and Kakashi caught the soft glow in the palm of his glove, peering out through the small gaps in the leaves towards the sky. Where it had been grey and overcast just a while ago, the sun now shone in waning afternoon light, and he recalled the temperamental weather conditions in Grass from the northern wind patterns. He would have to be careful about this; hopefully the weather would be kind to him.

Gently, Kakashi began tripping the pins holding the blades outwards, catching the blades to soften the noise as he folded the weapon. It would be easier to pull it out this way, and once all folded, he positioned himself just in front of the weapon, bracing his feet in the crooks of limbs. Sweat fell over his brow as he looked behind him at the sky. The winds were shifting quickly again, bringing thunderclouds across the sky; the sun was now shooting beams desperately through the dark. He had to time this carefully, and placing his hands on the weapon, he held his breath and prayed.

Blade in his hand, he had only seconds to run as Hisoka appeared behind him, a kunai in hand. At the miss, the man cursed and reached into his cloak, showering Kakashi in kunai as he defended with his folded shuriken. Quickly, he dashed for the open area of the ground as patches of sunlight danced over his face. A shadow appeared on his back and he dropped the shuriken under his body, swinging his arm for a satisfying right hook into the face of a clone.

Through the smoke that followed came the first blade, barely missing his stomach. Turning to his left, he spotted Hisoka as he sent out a wave of kunai followed closely another wave. Reaching into his pocket, Kakashi retrieved his own knife and fended them off, watching another one skated harmlessly over his vest.

And headed straight towards Sakura.

Kakashi felt his heart sink. She was shielding her eyes; the glare had swallowed the knife. He shouted her name to warn her, but his voice was drowned out by the sound of Hisoka's cloak fluttering as he fell onto him. A hand fisted itself into the collar of his flak vest; in the back of his head, Kakashi imagined the sound of the knife as it cut through the air. He could feel Hisoka's legs trying to wrap around his; he was trying to pin him while his other hand was going for the shuriken. Kakashi knew he should focus on Hisoka, but his eyes kept rolling towards the pink-haired girl sitting on the forest floor; all he could focus on was the soft "whirr" of knife in his head and the splattered, red image that followed soon after.

Desperately, he tried to roll his body towards her, but Hisoka kept his grip firm as he reached for the fuma shuriken. His other hand gripped his wrist and Kakashi tried to lean his hand, his head, anything to get free. He didn't care what happened to him if he could just stop that kunai.

"Just accept defeat."

In response, Kakashi slammed his head into Hisoka's hand. It was reckless and stupid of him, but it had freed his hand and he was beyond caring. As Hisoka pulled his hand back, Kakashi swiped the kunai at Hisoka's other hand. It missed his fingers, but left a respectable gash on the back of his main sword hand.

Hisoka's attention shifted to his wounded hand and that was all the distraction Kakashi needed, balling up his fist and delivering a savage uppercut that sent Hisoka flying before he threw the kunai in his hand. He watched with bated breath as it soared through the air and the words blurred his mind. Would it make it in time? What if it missed? What if that kunai hit her? The sickening crack of metal meeting bone played over and over again in his ear.

It seemed like an eternity before he heard the banshee shriek of metal on metal. Finally allowing himself to open his eyes, he saw the result. One kunai was embedded in the tree behind her while the second stood up in the dirt before her, both emitting a low, vibrating hum while Sakura sat between them, untouched and unharmed. For a moment, their eyes met and for the first time, Kakashi felt himself match the freefall he found himself in.

Suddenly, she shouted. "Kakashi!"

He turned just in time to see Hisoka's sandal collide with his head before his vision turned black.

When Kakashi woke up to a world of black, he could not say he was much surprised. He had already died once, and that had more or less taken the mystery out of what lay beyond the grave. Rather, he was struck more by the fact that the darkness had stayed the same rather than changed.

He supposed he should get up and look around, but his father was gone; there would be no campfire to greet him this time around and to be honest, he didn't feel like getting off the floor. It was as if his entire body realized how much energy it had taken to keep him alive all these years and was now simply too tired to do anything but lie back in the darkness. His eyelids felt unbearably heavy.

It was said that one's life passes before his eyes upon death and he supposed it was true. Above him, he could see the stream of his life. Rather than one continuous film, however, they were short strips of film, floating and wriggling overhead like fish swimming upstream. They drifted down like ghosts and a mere glance was all it would take to see the memory play out before him.

Lying there on the ground, he watched the contents of his life. It was like walking through a museum of himself, and they played in no particular order. One moment, he was watching Sasuke's retrieval; the next, a childhood birthday party with his parents. Most of the memories were missions though, and if they weren't, they were memories of Team 7. The memory of the rape followed closely on the tail of memories of Team 7, and even that was followed by the memory of his father's suicide before Kakashi turned his head and stopped watching.

In the darkness, he let his mind wander over all he had seen. He thought about his parents, about Team 7, about that birthday party, about the village. He wondered what would happen after he was gone. He wondered what Tsunade would say at his funeral; how Sasuke and Naruto would fair without his tutelage. Tenzou may have known Naruto well and been able to control the Kyuubi container, but Sasuke would never truly accept the wood-user as Kakashi's replacement; he knew that for a fact. Would the Uchiha heir cry at his funeral, he wondered.

And what about Sakura, he wondered? The thought was a singular drop of cold water in his mind. Would the others reach Sakura in time to save her, or would Hisoka slip out of their grasps with Sakura in tow? What would he do to her? What life would she end up living? The memory of locking eyes with her in the field replayed in his head. She looked terrified. Tough as she was, he knew she would never make it as a missing-nin. True to her namesake, she needed a place to lay her roots or she would wither away into nothing over time.

And what about the child? The memory panned to the tiny life she carried inside her stomach. Questions buzzed about in his mind like an angry hive. Would it be a boy or a girl? Would it have his hair or hers? Would it have her eyes? Would Hisoka let it live? What kind of life would it lead if he did? Would the child ever settle down? Would it ever know the circumstances of its birth? Would it ever know who its father was?

Before the child was even born, Kakashi began to pity it. It would end up just like him. That poor child, born under cursed stars; before it ever learned to walk, it would already have one foot in the grave, like a true Hatake. It would even continue the family tradition, growing up without him, another child born without a father.

The image of wandering dark halls as a child spliced with the image of Sakura's terror-stricken face. He frowned under his mask; under his feet, he could feel the cold press of polished cypress boards as he walked through a home without a heart. It was a fate he wouldn't wish on anyone, but here it was, about to happen to his own child. He couldn't let it. There were so many things he had wanted to learn from his father that he couldn't; so many things he wanted to teach his child. He wanted to see it grow up, wanted to see it laugh and smile and do all the things he couldn't as a child.

And Sakura. Sakura…he knew he would forever be intertwined with that name. Every invocation washed over him like an ocean wave. He wanted to see her again, her and the baby. Before, he would've just let death take him, but now he craved her presence like nothing else. He wanted to see her in the morning when he woke up, he wanted her to be the last thing he saw at night; she was the only thing worth fighting death in his eyes. Even in his mind, he could hear his name fall off her tongue.


He chased after the sound, hanging onto it greedily like a drowning man grips a lifeline. He wanted to see her again. He needed to see her again. Light began to fill the darkness as pain tore through his system. It felt like every molecule of his being was being ripped in two; his cells screamed in agony, but still he ran towards her voice, the sound echoing in his ear.


Blinking, he opened his eyes, quickly rolling to the side as he felt the ground splinter under a blow that would've surely cracked his skull in half. Pain made itself known; it throbbed angrily in his head, his joints—he'd definitely cracked a bone or two in that fall—but he kept a firm grip on the fuma and kunai he still found he had and raised himself on wavering legs.

Hisoka smirked beside himself. "Stubborn, aren't you?"

Kakashi responded with a mild shrug of his shoulders and a smile under his mask. "It'll take more than falling out of a tree to kill me," he replied, parrying a thrust aimed at his intestines and returning with one of his own. In the back of his head, he couldn't help but be amazed. Just five seconds ago, he'd been on death's door, but now he was alive and despite his condition, he wasn't just holding his own…

He was winning.

Another hiss told him his attack had hit home as Kakashi pulled the folded shuriken blade from Hisoka's thigh and a graceful arc of blood followed behind, nimbly avoiding a blow to the head as he caught the dark-haired man's leg with his own and swept him off his feet.

The battle became a blur after that. Victories were meted out in injuries as the storm blew towards them overhead, a low rumble echoing through the woods.

Another cut across a cheek, another slice across the hand. They met each other, blow for blow. When Hisoka sliced Kakashi's arm, he slammed the broad side of the shuriken into Hisoka, cracking his ribs. When Kakashi stabbed Hisoka's forearm, Hisoka knocked him into a tree. Their sweat trickled into their wounds, stinging them, but they fought on, flying at each other with weapons drawn.

Defend. Attack. Parry. The actions came so naturally now that he didn't even think about them any more as he shifted his weight and wielded the weapons in his hand. His breath was labored; his lungs were burning, and breathing through his mask felt like he was breathing through a swamp. Even as he blocked another hit from Hisoka's blade, he swallowed dryly around the sandpaper in his throat. His body was starting to rebel. Even as he delivered a critical wound to Hisoka's side with his kunai, he felt no elation.

Because it hurt to fight like this. His body was being pushed to its limit, but he couldn't stop. Even if he wanted to, he couldn't afford to because one wrong step, one second's delay was fatal in this dance for survival.

Hisoka proved that as he spun his sheath straight into the opening over Kakashi's arm. The sickening crack of bone echoed through the field as both parties leapt away from each other, Kakashi's shuriken falling with a clatter as he tightened grip on his kunai, staring angrily at his left arm dangling uselessly at his side. Every breath he took sent ripples of pain up his spine and he gripped his kunai tighter to keep his head above the waves of fire roiling in his marrow. His only consolation was that Hisoka looked just as battered and broken as he was. Even their chakra signatures had dimmed in their exertion, and Kakashi had to wonder how much longer this war of attrition would last.

For a minute, the two men just stood there regarding each other as they measured the other and clutched their wounds. The smell of blood, sweat, and dirt filled the air and locking eyes, their demeanors suddenly changed. With no words exchanged, the two squared themselves into mirrored battle stances because in those few seconds, it had been decided: This would be the deciding blow.

With no warning, the two sped off towards each other, Kakashi's arm jarring mercilessly against his side as Hisoka clutched his wounded side. Their feet felt leaden, their arms quivered. Their fingers were numb, but they continued to push themselves, streamlining their bodies for the most speed. Pain was a pittance here; it wasn't an option to just quit and give up, and with one final push, their blades crossed.

Springing back, the two returned to their starting points. Silence blanketed the forest. For a few seconds, Kakashi could only hear the muffled sounds of his own breathing. In the quiet, he listened to the thunderous noise of his heartbeat in his head as heat filled his bloodstream.

And then he heard it.

Looking up, he watched as Hisoka pulled his hand away as the two stared bewilderedly at the kunai knife in his chest and two droplets of blood fell on the floor. It was over; Kakashi had won.

Sakura watched as Kakashi sank to the ground amidst a sea of discarded weaponry, gingerly clutching his broken arm as he caught his breath. To herself, she gave her own sigh of relief because he was alright and this—all of this—was over now. They could go home now, and she looked down at her stomach as the small chakra signature inside her squirmed and she felt a kick.

From across the field, Sakura looked up to see Kakashi staring at her. A rush of emotions washed over her: happiness, joy, relief, appreciation, exhaustion, warmth, love, but at the edges of her mind pricked the distinct feeling of unease. Quickly, she pushed the feelings back to the dark abyss they had spawned from. They didn't belong here, but she couldn't help the twinge of nervousness in her stomach. Why was it that the first emotion she had when Kakashi looked at her was unease? In the corners of her mind, she felt a certain shadowy darkness peer out at her but ignored it as she met Kakashi's shy, serene smile with one of her own.

On the other side of the field, Hisoka sunk his nails in the dirt and gritted his teeth. His heart throbbed painfully in his chest. He was dying…

But his mind wasn't focused on that. It was too busy reeling at what had happened because he had lost. Everything from the start of the battle had assured his victory: he had more brawn, more speed—more energy. Just more—than the tired, sorry man he stepped into battle with. Combined with how distracted the Copy Nin had been in battle, he could've won. He should've won and briefly, he wondered how he could've lost? Was there some failing on his part? Did Kakashi just get lucky? Did he have an ace up his sleeve? Or was he simply just better?

'Not that it matters now.' No matter how much he pondered or philosophized, it wouldn't change the outcome. He had lost, and with it, he had lost the spoils of war.

Quickly, he stole a glance up at the two survivors, eyes narrowing at the scene. Even as his life was leaving him, it didn't stop his blood from boiling. He didn't even know why he was so upset—his anger felt childish and petulant. It was irrational to feel this way—but he did and he had to wonder the cause of this burning jealousy. Was it because he had been sure he would come out the victor, or was it because he had lost what could've been a new start towards happiness again? He didn't know. He didn't care. All he knew was that he had too much pride to go out like this.

His vision was getting fuzzy. The steady rhythm of his heart was going astray, but still he dragged his eyes up to the touching reunion of husband and wife, feeling his stomach churn as he burned with envy. It wasn't fair. He was so much more deserving of her and his fingers itched to just gnaw and rip and tear the scene to shreds.

So why didn't he?

He had nothing to lose after all; the blood dripping down his arm into the soil proved that, and briefly, a smile crossed his face.

The sound of the sword dragging across the dirt was like the sharp cry of a guillotine.

There was little that Sakura was afraid of. In their line of work, there was little option for fear. The day she enrolled in the academy, she had to lose her fears of insects, of pain, of the dark. Fear, after all, paralyzed better than any poison and it was the biggest hindrance in battle. As she grew in ranks, she found less to fear. Even death was no longer a threat to her.

But that was only regarding herself. Even now, the death of her loved ones horrified her to no end as she watched Hisoka charge towards Kakashi, tantō in hand, the sword flashing in the low light. Kakashi was watching too, and the same thought ran through their heads: he would never make it in his condition. His body had been taxed past its brink and he had nothing to stop him with. His left arm was broken, his weapons were gone, and he was defenseless.

He would die here. That was the traitorous thought that crossed her mind. After all that had happened, he would die out here in the woods with a broken arm, run through with a sword by a dying man.

'I can't let that happen.'

But what could she do? She couldn't even bend down fast enough to pick up a weapon to repel the attack—she couldn't even manipulate her chakra properly and for the first time, she cursed her pregnancy for interfering with her chakra flow. She was useless...

But she couldn't just sit here and let him die either. Her pride as a kunoichi wouldn't allow it, especially when she owed him so much. Kakashi had taught her so much about being a shinobi in her genin years, in her years since. He'd been through so much; he didn't deserve to die like this.

But what could she do? Indecision weighed on her heavily as she wracked her brain. From the corners of her mind, the darkness began to creep upon her. It pressed on her temples and bled into the space behind her eyes. It nested under her brain and in her stomach. The familiar twinge of unease fell into just under her heart.

The sword was closer now, gleaming bright as the sun. Above, the sky roared with the cry of rain as she cursed under her breath and pounded the earth. Closer and closer, the sword crept. Out of the corner of her eye, she watched as Kakashi clenched his fist in the dirt. Her throat locked inside her. It couldn't end this way. She had to do something.


Slowly, it dawned upon her. She knew what she had to do.

Gripping the dirt, she began to prepare herself. In the distance, a crack of lightening rippled through the air. For the briefest of moments, she second-guessed herself. Did she really have to do this, a voice in her head asked, but deep inside, she knew she had to. This was her husband, her friend. She already had her answer.

Steadying her legs, she felt the darkness press at the corners of her eyes. It loomed over her like a wave. Blood drained from her hands, freezing her fingers like ice. It was trying to use fear to stop her, and she felt her heart beating madly in her chest as she rolled a black, inky feeling over her tongue. It tasted oddly of malice, but she wouldn't be stopped.

Biting the bullet, she pushed the blood to her feet and ran.

Oddly enough, she wasn't afraid.

The sound of the tantō slicing through flesh echoed in the quiet of the trees, ruby liquid trickling down the edge of the sword to pool on the ground. As the rivulets fell, the sky rumbled angrily above their heads; the storm was here. Kakashi and Hisoka stared with eyes wide in shock.

A gentle hand reached out to him, cupping his face.

"You're alright," Sakura rasped softly, a fond smile on her face. She seemed happy, relieved, but all Kakashi could focus on was the line of blood dripping at the corner of her mouth and how stark it was against her pale skin.

As the light flickered out in his hand, the sky opened up, turning everything to mud. He couldn't believe it; Hisoka didn't seem to either, but it was Kakashi who gave voice to the question.

"Why?" he asked. When Hisoka had grabbed the sword, Kakashi knew his options were limited. His weapons were out of reach and his left arm was a lost cause. The only thing he could count on was his right arm and the small bit of chakra still in his system, and he channeled it to his hand to repel the attack. It was risky. There was a high likelihood that he wouldn't finish channeling it fast enough or that Hisoka would be too close before it discharged, but he had accepted those risks and their possible outcome. He had accepted his death.

And then she rushed between them.

Kakashi caught her as she crumpled against him, leaning her against his frame carefully. Again and again, his eyes flitted to the sword wedged just above the start of the swell in her stomach as he replayed the scene over and over in his head. As much as he hated to admit it, if she hadn't intercepted the sword, he would've never been able to repel Hisoka's attack, but at such price…

She watched as his brows knit in confusion. He was tormented by her decision and she could see in his eyes how lost he was. The two orbs were glassy in their despair. "Why?" he repeated quietly, holding her hand.

She slipped her hand from his grasp to brush her fingers over his masked cheek. "Because I love you," she smiled as if it were the simplest thing in the world. It should've been, after all, and a small glow floated around her heart.

Her answer seemed to break something in him as he turned into a sobbing wreck. Between the taut line of his quivering lips came wretched gasping breaths. His eyes became distant, pained; he looked away.

"I can't…I can't…This isn't fair. It isn't supposed to be this way. You weren't—you weren't…" He drifted off. His voice became desperate, "You weren't supposed to get hurt."

At his resignation, Sakura drifted her fingers over his cheek once more, catching raindrops in her palm. Using his good arm, he caught her hand and held it there, pressing it closer. It felt like ice. Her fingernails were turning blue.

"You're not supposed to leave me like this," he told her. His heart felt like it was being crushed in his rib cage. Through the cold press of the rain, he drew a shuddering breath. "I love you."

"I love you too," Sakura reaffirmed as she drew shallow breaths through stiff, bluing lips. Underneath her, the mud carried a reddish-hue.

Suddenly, a sharp bark of laughter came from the other side of the field. The two looked up to see Hisoka's splayed form in the dirt where he had landed. On his side was a fresh gaping hole where the bottom part of his rib cage had been, and despite his condition, his fitful chest shook with laughter. His eyes locked with theirs.

"Love? You don't love each other," he barked, weakly shaking his head as the blood began to bubble around his mouth. Those poor fools. They still didn't get it.

He spoke through gasping breaths. "You don't love each other," he spoke patiently, "what you have…cannot be called love. No matter how much you dress it up—playing house, calling it noble things like 'love and devotion'—it will never…be love. All you're doing is licking each other's wounds…You two will never love each other. You're just playing pretend."

The two watched mortified as the light died in his eyes. His blank stare was aimed at them, the misty whites of his eyes boring holes into Sakura's skin. On his face was the frozen rictus of a cruel and mocking smile, and while she knew she shouldn't let it get to her, she couldn't shake the thoughts either.


Kakashi forced her gaze to him, but she couldn't see him. She couldn't make her gaze focus while in her head echoed Hisoka's words. Even as he shouted her name over and over again, it was just a muffled sound in the distance as the thought echoed in her head. She didn't love Kakashi? Her feelings were a lie?

The darkness began pressing against her head again and her mind spun. Why was her brain lying to her then? What was it trying to hide? It was becoming difficult to breathe. The inky black was pressing at the side of her eyes. It felt like her mind was stretching and twisting. Something was trying to get free—something that she had buried time and time again so she wouldn't see it again—but she couldn't remember it at all. She couldn't remember anything. All she heard was Hisoka's voice and his painful accusation. The memory was stretching her brain.


'You don't love each other. What you have cannot be called love.'

She could feel Kakashi shaking her. In the distance, under the thunder, she could hear the faint sounds of footsteps, but that seemed trivial. Everything seemed trivial now. She couldn't understand it. Her love wasn't real? Sakura didn't truly love him?

The memory twisted in the dark. Her skin burned. It felt like someone was ripping her body apart atom by atom.

If she didn't love him, what did she feel for him? What was wrong with him?

Tight, tight. It was like something was pulling her apart to wrap her body around the universe. Her chest hurt; she couldn't breathe. Sweat beaded her brow. The footsteps were closer now.

Why wouldn't she love him? It didn't even matter if she had truly loved him now. There was doubt in her heart now. She couldn't breathe. She couldn't see. The darkness was coming closer. It was pressing around her, hurting her. She could feel it crushing her finger by finger, inch by inch, atom by atom. It swallowed her feet. It swallowed her legs. It swallowed her body. It swallowed her head. And then it swallowed her eyes.

In the darkness, she saw it. The memory.

He raped me.

He screamed her name. "SAKURA!"

And with a shudder and a gasp, the darkness claimed her and her vision turned black.