Dead Garden
A Naruto Fanfic
By: Aaron Nowack

Chapter Eight: The Nine-Tailed Demon Fox

Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto Masashi, who apparently is not actually me. The actual text of this story belongs to Aaron Nowack, who apparently actually is me. The subjective experience existing only in your mind when you read this story belongs to you, who is not me, unless you are me, in which case… oh, forget it.

"Hello, me," the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox said with Sakura's voice, and she smiled, revealing a mouth of sharp fangs. "I was wondering when we'd finally have a chance to chat."

"No." The word forced itself from Sakura's lips. Her burning stomach churned, and she shook with dry heaves. "No. No. No," she moaned between convulsions.

The demon's crimson, inhuman eyes narrowed. "This cannot be a surprise. We've been straining against this damned seal for months."

It was too much, all her fears placed before her, the monster she knew had to be buried inside her, personified in this twisted mockery of her own form. Or was she the twisted mockery of it? Sakura sank to her knees, dead plants crumbling under her weight. "No," she moaned again. She wanted to look away, but she couldn't tear her eyes away from the cage that hung from the massive, dead cherry blossom tree in the center of the courtyard.

"Pathetic," the girl imprisoned within said, one clawed hand tightening around the bars of her cage. "Stand!"

Shaking legs complied, Sakura rising unwillingly. "You're… you're the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox," she said in a shaking voice.

The girl smiled again, sharp teeth seeming to glow oddly in the strange light cast by the uniform crimson sky overhead. "Are we?" she asked mockingly.

"We," Sakura said, swallowing on a suddenly painfully dry throat. She didn't want to hear what would come next.

"I am the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox," the demon girl said cheerfully, her copy of Sakura's voice light. "And I am you."

"I'm…" Sakura couldn't finish.

The other Sakura's crimson eyes stared into her. "Say it."

"I'm… I'm… the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox." It hurt, almost ripping from her throat. It wasn't the first time she'd said the words, ones she'd said the moment she realized what she was on the day she became a genin. Yet, to say them here in this place, in this ruined garden in this temple at the heart of this frozen ruin of the Leaf Village, felt different.

"Yes." The caged girl almost hissed the word, satisfaction clear in her voice. It echoed, bouncing off the windowless temple walls and somehow becoming a deep rumbling. Though Sakura felt no breeze, the dead tree briefly shook as though in a stiff wind, setting the cage hanging from its branches to swaying gently.

Sakura felt… empty. She should have felt something, but inside she felt dead. She'd been told, over and over, that this wasn't so, but as much as she wanted to believe it, she never could, not deep down. Now, she knew she'd been right to disbelieve. "Why?" she asked quietly. Her cheeks were wet, and she blinked watery eyes. "Why am I you? Where are we?"

The other Sakura smiled again. "We are within the so-called Fourth Hokage's seal, that keeps us apart." Her expression hardened, and her red eyes bored into Sakura's green. "As for why… remember!"

Sakura roared in pleasure, her tails whipping through the air behind her, heedless of the destruction they caused. Freedom, at last. For generations of their pathetic lives, these so-called ninja had enslaved her, but in this latest attempt by one to wrest control of her for himself, she had slipped their grasp. Never would she bound again. She would see this village destroyed.

All around her, humans swarmed, making futile attacks. The weakest perished from the mere presence of her chakra, crimson arcing through the air, poisoning and burning. The strongest fell beneath her claws, perished with a sweep of her tails. They were as nothing. She was the greatest of the Tailed Beasts, the true firstborn of the -

The massive stone faces the loomed over the village caught her gaze, and a snarl emerged from her throat. It was hard to pick, but she chose her most recent hatred and turned her head toward the visage of the Fourth Hokage. They would all pay. She would knock that man's face from the mountain and bury the village in the rubble. She roared again, and this time destruction poured from her throat.

Moments before impact, the dense orb of chakra vanished. Sakura's eyes widened, and instants later there was an enormous sound. Blinding light flared as her attack detonated… on the other side of the mountain. Anything on that side was obliterated in an instant, but the village was shielded from the blast by the mountain's bulk. Even the stone Hokages were left untouched.

Something slammed into her while she was distracted, and she swiveled her head to meet the giant toad. She snapped at it, rending the sweet flesh of its leg, but still it shoved her back, through the massive walls that had thus far failed to protect the village. The toad started to draw its sword, but she pinned its hand with one claw while she struck with another, gouging a bloody trail toward one eye.

Then she saw the man who stood on the toad's head, seemingly undisturbed by the shaking of the titans' battle. Her eyes narrowed in hatred, rage building inside her. She spoke. "Fourth Hokage." She would save his corpse, to present to that woman before she killed her and their spawn.

The blond man vanished, reappearing almost at Sakura's eye level atop the village walls. "You've done enough, Gamabunta. Go. You can't fight one of the Tailed Beasts." He cradled something protectively in his arms, hidden by his white and red cloak.

"But, Minato…" the toad rumbled.

"Go," the man repeated, and in a gargantuan cloud of smoke the toad was gone.

"Die," Sakura hissed, and she brought her claw down on the man. He flicked away before impact, reappearing on another section of wall.

"I won't let you do this here, Nine-Tails," the blond man informed her, and then in another flicker, both he and the village were gone.

Sakura roared in frustration, unthinkingly striking out all around. She was miles away, far enough that she could barely see the flame and smoke rising from the village at the heart of the forest. They had bought themselves mere minutes, she consoled herself. She tensed, preparing to leap.

There was another flicker, and the Fourth Hokage stood before her. "We meant this to trap the masked Uchiha," he said, "but it will serve well enough for you."

Sakura snarled. "What -" For the first time, she took in where the cursed man's technique had placed her. A stone building, damaged warding seals inscribed on the walls, stood by one of her paws. She traced the lines of power emanating from it, and -

Before she could act, eight giant stone pillars rose from the earth, surrounding her, the blond man, and the stone building. Seals caught light on their sides, the colors of all five elements glowing brightly. "Barrier," the man announced, "Activate."

"Fool," Sakura said, tasting triumph. "You've trapped yourself."

"I will not survive," the Fourth Hokage said. "I've made my peace with that. But… I won't let you harm a single person more."

"I will kill you, tear down this barrier, and raze your precious village to its foundations," Sakura promised.

Someone started crying, a human girl's wail of fear. "Hush," the Fourth Hokage said, and the bundle in his arms shifted, revealing a head of pink hair. "Hush. It will all be over soon, Sakura-chan."

Sudden fear and redoubled anger waged war inside Sakura. "I will not be bound again!" she screamed, striking with all her might at the man and the child he carried. "You will all die!"

In a flash, the man vanished, and Sakura felt a weight on her back. "You," she started to say and then, impossibly, the man struck a powerful blow, something pinning her to the ground and paralyzing her. Channeling the barrier's power with another seal? She struggled, but it would take time to free herself, time she no longer had. Inside her, fear won.

The man reappeared in front of her. "As I said," he stated calmly. "I will not let you harm a single person more."

"You cannot bind me," Sakura said. "You are no…"

"I cannot match the First," the man agreed, "or his wife. But I can handle half of you at a time." He held the girl in one hand, the other forming seals.

"No," Sakura said. "You… I won't…"

"You will be bound. Seal!"

It was painful, like nothing Sakura had ever experienced. She was rent in two, diminished beyond imagining. She roared her pain and fear to an uncaring sky. Her shrunken stature freed her from the Fourth's technique, but she couldn't move, limbs and tails twitching uncontrollably. "You dare. You will suffer until the end of time itself, Fourth Hokage."

"I know," the man answered calmly. "Your kind is far too dangerous to be allowed to run free, Nine-Tails," he said, "and I fear my village and the world will need your power in the years to come." The girl in his hands started to cry again.

"I'm sorry, Sakura-chan," the man said quietly to the girl. "I cannot atone for what I am doing to you. But I know… I hope… Naruto… and Kushina will be there for you.


And darkness consumed Sakura.

Sakura shook as the vision left her, tears of pain and fear flowing freely down her cheeks. "That was… that was…"

"The day," the other Sakura said, "we were bound into this form by the cursed Fourth Hokage." Both of her fists clenched the bars of her cage tightly, and it shook.

"And we were… split in two?" Sakura asked. "You and… me?"

"When this seal is removed," the demon girl stated, "we will be one."

Sakura swallowed. "How?"

"Touch the bars," her other self said. "Will them to open. The seal cannot long withstand attack from that side in this place."

On shaking legs, Sakura approached, drawn closer by a powerful pull that she couldn't resist even if she had the will. Still, she hesitated, hovering out of the other girl's reach. "What… what will happen to me?"

"We will be one," the girl promised. "You will be the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox reborn."

"Listen to me," Mizuki pleaded. "You are Haruno Sakura. You were born on the twenty-eight of March, and I held you in my arms on that day. You are the daughter of Haruno Takeru and Amaya. You are my most wonderful student. You are not the demon, and never will be."

Sakura's head pounded, and she took a step back. "But I'm…"

"I am you," the demon girl hissed. "We will be one." She shook her cage. "Do not hesitate! Free us! We will have our vengeance! We will tear down the Hidden Village of the Leaf -"

"But… Naruto-kun… Sasuke-kun… they're…"


"Shut the fuck up!" Naruto roared, a burst of energy propelling him to his feet. "And run! This is our choice! You're our teammate, aren't you? What the hell does it make us if we just let you get killed?"

"I'm not worth -"

"He said to shut up," Sasuke growled.

"Lies?" Sakura asked. "No, they risked death -"

"In a game," the demon girl insisted. "There is no one in that village who cares for us. You know this!"

Unthinkingly, uncontrollably, Sakura's hand rose, reaching for the cage.

Sakura blew on the hot chocolate to cool it, then took a more cautious sip. Her father chuckled. "Your mother always did the same thing," he said softly, "even after years and years." Sakura stared at the top of her drink. It was not the first time her father had said that. Her father shook his head. "You really are so much like her," he commented wistfully.

Sakura's arm lowered. "My father," she said. "I love him and he loves me."

"Because he believes we are his daughter," the caged girl stated. "Only for that. You know what you really are."

"If… if I'm… the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox," Sakura said slowly. "Why would I be… like my mother?"

The other girl snarled. "You know the truth!" she shouted. "If you aren't the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox, why do they hate you?"

Sakura shook. "They -"

"We feel their gazes, every day! You cannot have forgotten in these mere weeks away from that forsaken village."

"No," Sakura whispered.

"In every eye," the demon girl proclaimed, "we know the hatred. They blame us, for the destruction we caused. They know that the pain they suffered twelve years ago is our fault. Free us, and we will visit it on them again ten-fold."

Sakura's shaking hand rose again.

"Nothing is your fault, do you understand?" Uzumaki Kushina whispered into Sakura's ear. "Don't let anyone tell you otherwise."

Sakura hesitated, inches away from the bars of the cage that held the other girl.

"You worthless little…" the girl snarled. "Cease your pointless wavering and free us!"

"But… I never wanted… vengeance…" Sakura whispered.

The other girl growled. "If you free me," she promised, "we will have the power to save your friends."

Sakura's hand shook. "No," she breathed. She lowered her hand and took a step back, then another. "No. I won't free you. And I will not be one with you."

Crimson eyes widened. "What?"

It actually took Sakura another moment to realize the reason. "You said 'your' friends." She was shaking, but she knew she was right. "If… if I were really you, they would be your friends also." She took a deep breath. "I… I am not you. I am not the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox."

The girl threw back her head and roared in rage, a scream that seemed to come from all around. The temple shook, almost throwing Sakura to the ground. When she was done, the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox glared at Sakura. "Damn you," she snarled. "When I am free -"

"I will never free you," Sakura insisted.

The Nine-Tailed Demon Fox took several breaths, and then she smiled. "Without my power," the demon girl hissed, "how do you intend to save your friends?"

Sakura swallowed. "I can -"

"You can what, you weak little girl?" the Nine-Tails asked. "What do you think you are, without me? Who do you think gave you the power to stand against Hidan, to save the merchant bitch from Noboru? Whose rage did you think filled your trembling limbs with strength? Whose will did you think withstood the killing intent that drove your precious friends to their knees? Not yours, dead last. Mine!"

Sakura clenched her fists tightly. "If I free you, you'll just kill them. You'll destroy the village." She felt her forehead protector's weight. "I can't let you do that. No matter what."

The demon growled. "Fine. Even without that, I can grant you my power, my chakra. More than enough to save your friends."

Sakura blinked. "What?"

"It is what this seal is designed for, you foolish girl," the Nine-Tails said. "It is why you ninja have always enslaved me. It is the reason your Hokage protects you, so that you will become his loyal weapon."

"Why would you help me?"

The girl made a frustrated noise. "Because you'll just get us killed without my help!" she yelled.

Sakura blinked. "If I die -"

"What do you think, you stupid girl?" the demon said.

Sakura tried to think it through, but her head was spinning and her thoughts scattered. "It will weaken the seal," she guessed.

"The seal is designed to weaken," the Nine-Tails said. "It has been weakening since the day it was created."

"I can't -"

"So," the Nine-Tails said. "We've found something you won't do to protect your precious people."

Sakura winced.

"That's one of your rules, isn't it?" The demon smiled again. "That you will always protect the ones who are precious to you."

It was. "You'll just kill them," Sakura said again.

"Only if you kill them for me," the other girl countered. "My power will be yours to control."

"How can I trust you?"

Red eyes glared at Sakura. "You stupid girl," the Nine-Tails growled. "What do you think the Cloud will do to your friends?"

Visions danced through Sakura's head. It was horrible to consider. She'd read in histories of the things that had been done to steal bloodlines. If the Nine-Tails was lying to her, at least Naruto and Sasuke would only die. In the Cloud's hands…

Sakura took a deep breath. "What… what do I do?"

The Nine-Tailed Demon Fox stretched her hand out through the bars of her cage. "Take my hand."

Shaking, Sakura grasped the clawed copy of her hand with its mirror. "Now, what?"

As if in answer, the dead cherry blossom tree from which the demon's cage hung was suddenly in full bloom. Blood-red petals fell all around Sakura, glowing softly with a crimson light that blinded her. She shut her eyes, and…

…and they opened on a blue sky. Sakura lay in a pool of hot water, and looming over her was -

"You're awake?" the Cloud kunoichi Kasumi asked, raising her hammer. "Don't move, or -"

A growl rose in Sakura throat, and in one smooth motion she leapt at the other girl, clawed hands reaching for her throat.

Tenrai Kasumi jumped backward as Sakura attacked, easily escaped her reach and landing on solid ground at the edge of the hot spring. Were those claws on her hands? "I said not to move!" Kasumi yelled at the Leaf kunoichi.

Sakura just growled, bending over almost on all fours. Kasumi swallowed, realizing that the pink-haired girl's eyes were no longer green. Instead red, inhuman eyes blazed at her. As Kasumi watched, dark marks spread across Sakura's cheeks. A heavy sense of pressure filled the air, a terrible, black rage that made Kasumi want to shake in terror.

Instead she laughed nervously, raising her hammer in a defensive position. "Um… nice crazy berserker Sakura-chan?" she offered.

Sakura roared, and chakra flared around her, crimson power boiling off of her skin. It thickened, whipping about in shapes that suggested tails before dissolving back into a shapeless, flickering red aura. What the hell was Haruno Sakura?

The pink-haired girl raised one arm, and Kasumi barely had time to breathe, "Oh shit," before Sakura brought it down, sending a wave of near-boiling water at Kasumi and knocking her back through the wall behind her into the resort's main room.

"What do you think?" the green-eyed man asked his comrade as the two Leaf genin stood back-to-back in the center of a dome of ice mirrors. The masked image of the boy Haku, incongruously still wearing his pink kimono, seemed to be in every mirror at once as he moved between them, too fast for the eye to follow.

Wincing, the kunoichi pulled a senbon out from her upper arm. "We're screwed, Takeru. I can barely sense him moving from mirror to mirror; he's too damn fast. He can kill us whenever he wants."

Takeru frowned, though his teammate couldn't see it. "So why hasn't he?" he murmured softly, his lips barely moving. Idly, Haku tossed another senbon; Takeru managed to knock it aside with his kunai. With his other hand, he unrolled a storage scroll a fraction, brushing against the seal to remove another kunai, with a prepared explosive tag dangling from the hilt. "Cover me, Tsubaki."

"On it." Her hands blurred through seals, summoning a pair of water replications. The clones drew their short swords and charged the mirrors. Instants later, pierced by three senbon each, they collapsed into falling water.

Takeru's explosive kunai flew through on dissolving replication. A senbon came out of another mirror, piercing the explosive tag. There were sparks and smoke, but no detonation, and the kunai bounced harmlessly off of its target.

On the other side of the ice dome, Tsubaki had advanced in the shadow of the other water replication. She formed a rapid set of seals, then thrust one hand into the falling water. "Suiton: Water Lance!"

The water formed into a spear that jetted through the air, only to splash harmlessly against one of the mirrors. Tsubaki staggered backward, six senbon sprouting from her limbs. "Damn," she cursed, as she retreated to stand back-to-back with Takeru again. "He's too damned fast," she said again. She pulled out a senbon. "Tried to catch him between mirrors, and he was gone and coming at me from behind before I could react." Another senbon fell to the ground as she removed it. "At least he's avoiding our vital points," she finished quietly, as though she didn't want to give their opponent any ideas.

"Why?" Takeru asked, more loudly. "Why are you toying with us?"

Haku spoke for the first time since he'd enclosed the pair in his technique. "Zabuza-sama desires your medic's death," he stated calmly. "But once he has done that and completed our mission, there will be no more reason for us to fight. I have no desire to kill either of you."

"Generous of you," Tsubaki said sourly.

"It is," the boy agreed. "In return, I would hope that you would indulge my curiosity.

"Who did my story remind you of, Haruno-san?"

"That's none of your business, boy," Takeru answered.

Tsubaki frowned. "Shit, Takeru. Which part of 'he can kill us whenever he wants' did you not understand?

"You reminded him of his daughter," she told the boy. Behind her back, hidden from their opponent, she lightly touched her comrade with one hand, trying to pass a silent message.

Guessing the meaning - keep him talking and distracted - the man grimaced and spoke, "Sakura."

"Haruno Sakura," the boy said. "It's a good name."

"Her mother picked it," was all Takeru said to that.

"I wonder how her tale could be like mine," Haku stated. "Your country does not share the same prejudices as my own."

"We're not idiots, you mean," Tsubaki said.

"I won't disagree," Haku said, "but I may be biased." He paused. "And I am not nearly distracted enough for my technique to fall so trivially."

One ice mirror vanished briefly, just long enough to admit a whirling tornado of fang and claw. The newcomer came to a halt in a crouch beside Takeru and Tsubaki, revealing the form of Inuzuka Hana. The woman snarled at Haku.

"Shall we continue our conversation, Haruno-san?" Haku asked calmly. "Or would you prefer us to resume the battle?"

Rage was not burning in Sakura. Her gut was not churning with barely contained wrath. She did not feel suppressed anger in the back of her mind. All of those words she had used to describe to herself what it was like when she felt the Nine-Tails stir no longer applied to her.

Sakura was burning rage. Her wrath blazed around her, crimson chakra boiling off into air in a display that should have driven her to exhaustion in mere moments. She did not suppress the anger; she welcomed it. She knew that this was not the fury of the Nine-Tails, that it did not belong to demon girl who wore her face. This was her, Haruno Sakura.

She still froze for what could have been a fatal instant when she caught her reflection in the settling water of the hot spring. She was almost a mirror of the image the Nine-Tails had worn: dark whisker marks on her face leading to red, inhuman eyes. Her clawed hands twitched, and she forced the unsettling image aside. Naruto and Sasuke were worth it.

Sakura breathed deeply, and the crimson chakra faded from sight, but the power did not leave her. In one powerful leap, she followed Kasumi through the hole in the wall, back to the room where the others waited. She landed a handful of paces from the dark-skinned girl, who scrambled to her feet, hammer coming alight. "Stay back, you… whatever the hell you are!" she shouted.

In a heartbeat, Sakura closed with her. The hammer strike seemed impossibly slow, like a patient teacher demonstrating the move. With an ease alien to her usual poor taijutsu, Sakura simply flowed around it. Her claws ripped at Kasumi's shoulder, tearing chunks of flesh. Her other hand raked at the other kunoichi's face, drawing bloody trails. Kasumi's hammer fell from nerveless fingers as she doubled over, clutching her mauled shoulder with her other hand.

Sakura spun into a kick before her opponent could even hope to recover. To her own mild surprise, her foot struck with enough force to send the dark-skinned girl flying again. Kasumi screamed once as she hit the far wall, and Sakura tensed to follow and finish her off.

"Don't move, Sakura-san."

At Eimi's voice, Sakura stopped, turning to face the chuunin kunoichi, near the center of the room. She froze as she saw Eimi's kunai at Sasuke's neck. She took a reflexive step back, and then she froze for entirely different reason.

Sasuke's dark eyes - the ones she could have stared into for hours if there was any chance the boy would let her - were open, open and staring directly at her, widening slightly. Relief and fear warred in her. Sasuke was alive and aware. Sasuke was seeing her, seeing this monstrous thing she'd become to save him and Naruto.

Eimi mistook the reason for her hesitation. "Good. Now, whatever technique you're using, end it," she ordered. "Or…" she trailed off, moving her kunai suggestively.

Out of the corner of her eye, Sakura saw the medic Hikaru crawling along the wall to his fallen teammate, but she couldn't look away from Sasuke and Eimi. She shook from combined fear and anger, clawed hands clenching almost tight enough to draw blood.

"Now, Sakura-san," Eimi pressed. Her weapon lightly caressed her prisoner's throat, leaving a crimson line.

Sakura barely realized she was moving until she had closed the distance. Eimi's eyes seemed to widen in slow motion, the tall kunoichi almost throwing herself away from Sakura's charge. A single furious punch sent her skidding across the wooden floor, safely away from Sasuke.

"Saku -" the boy started, but Sakura was already on the move again, jumping at Eimi. The Cloud kunoichi had just enough time to form the seal for the Replacement Technique, and Sakura shattered the wooden seat she left behind with a single blow.

Eimi reappeared near the stairway that lead to the balcony overlooking the room, forming seals. Sakura charged. Tiny, floating bolts of lightning surrounded Sakura, blocking her path toward the Cloud chuunin. Sakura ignored them, not slowing in the slightest as countless small electrical shocks jolted her. The pain was gone almost before she felt it.

Eimi almost froze as Sakura kept coming, fumbling for a kunai that she barely had time to raise in a defensive posture before Sakura closed with her. Despite her hesitation, the warding swipe of the blade was well-timed and sure. It should have been enough to force Sakura to keep her distance.

Instead, Sakura dove under a slow-seeming strike, tackling Eimi by the legs. The chuunin fell underneath her, and Sakura's claws drew long furrows across her white armored jacket. They didn't draw blood, and Sakura snarled in frustration. Eimi half-rose, trying to throw off Sakura. An elbow to the back of her knee made her fall again. Sakura forced herself up so she was directly on top of the other girl, staring eye-to-eye.

Eimi's kunai stabbed at Sakura's gut. Sakura caught the blade with her open hand and wrenched it out of the other girl's grasp, tossing it aside. The bloody gash across her palm hurt, but it was already closing. Eimi, panic clear in her expression, raised her hands, lightning dancing between them. The powerful shock made Sakura's whole body spasm, but she recovered before Eimi could get free. Sakura punched her in the face, and felt the other girl's nose crack.

"Eimi!" Hikaru called out from behind Sakura. She glanced back to see the medic hobbling toward them on a broken leg, too slow to make any difference.

"What are you?" Eimi asked Sakura weakly. She tried to knee Sakura in the chest, but Sakura half-rolled aside, raking her claws across Eimi's armor again. The chuunin took advantage of Sakura's movement to try to wriggle out from underneath her.

Before she could escape, Sakura grabbed at Eimi, catching her while she was still rising. She slammed Eimi's head into the wooden floor, and the other girl lay still for a moment, clearly dazed. Instinctively, a snarl in her throat, Sakura's claws went for the other girl's neck.

"Eimi!" Hikaru shouted again. He threw a kunai at Sakura, high enough that it wouldn't hit his teammate. It was too easy to lean aside at the right moment, reach out to snag it by the hilt as it almost seemed to hang in mid-air and and use it to stab one of Eimi's hands.

"Get off Eimi!" Sakura looked up at the yell and found Kasumi standing by a table, her wounded shoulder bandaged. "Let her go!" the dark-skinned girl demanded, her hammer half-raised in her other hand, clearly afraid to risk hurting Eimi if she threw it.

Sakura's grip tightened on Eimi's throat, and the other girl fought for breath, her uninjured hand futilely trying to pry Sakura's fingers loose. Sakura felt herself smile as she looked at Kasumi.

The Cloud girl kicked the table she stood beside away, revealing Naruto's still form. For a heartbreaking instant, Sakura thought he was already dead, but she then saw his chest rise and fall weakly.

Kasumi raised her hammer, lightning dancing around it. "Let Eimi go or I finish what I started."

Sakura stood, throwing Eimi away to collide with Hikaru. A wordless yell escaped her throat, and she bent down almost on all fours before charging with a strange, loping gait. Kasumi waited until she was only paces away. Then bright light flared around the dark-skinned girl's hammer as she hurled it at Sakura.

Sakura stopped dead, throwing up her hands to protect herself. There was a crack like thunder, and Kasumi's hammer knocked Sakura away and up, her arms erupting into shattering pain like nothing she'd felt. She landed on her feet and staggered backward a few steps, before falling to one knee.

"And stay down," Kasumi said tiredly as she stood, her glowing hammer flying back to her hand. Sakura's hands clawed weakly at the wooden floor, and Kasumi grinned. Her hammer started glowing again. "This is for hurting Eimi, Sakura-chan," she stated calmly, and then she brought the hammer down on Naruto's arm.

There was a loud cracking sound, and Naruto's until now unmoving from spasmed wildly as electricity discharged into him. "That should prove we're serious, Sakura-chan," Kasumi said, satisfaction clear in her voice. "Surrender now or he gets worse."

"N-naruto." The quiet, weak voice was Sasuke's, but she couldn't turn to look at him. Naruto's body kept twitching, and she couldn't hear him breathing.

She could hear a low, inhuman growl. It took her a moment to realize it was hers. Her lips curled back, baring her teeth as she stared at Kasumi. The dark-skinned girl hefted her hammer. "Just try me."

It was like a dam breaking inside of Sakura. The rage that suffused her boiled over, and she literally saw red as chakra flared around her again. Sakura roared, and it was like a physical thing, knocking Kasumi back a step. Her arms twitched, almost convulsing, and when she moved them again there was no pain. She stood and her legs did not shake.

"Can't you learn?" Kasumi asked, and she threw her hammer again.

Sakura was ready for it this time, and she batted it aside with one arm. The shock of the impact sent jarring waves of pain down her arm, but they faded as soon as they came. Before Sakura even realized she was moving, she was on the other girl, beating the weapon to its wielder. Lengthening claws ripped through Kasumi's red dress, drawing blood. One hand twisted, carving through her one leg. Kasumi didn't panic, catching her weapon in an outstretched arm and using a quick blow to force Sakura away.

Sakura caught the second strike in one hand, ignoring the weak pain of the electric shock and the cracking of her bones. Kasumi grunted, her hammer's glow brightening. "Idiot berserker. With my hammer, there's nothing in this world I can't -"

With a sudden burst of strength, Sakura ripped the head from the hammer's haft. Kasumi froze, gaping at her as Sakura tossed the broken weapon half aside. She casually backhanded the girl, slamming her hard into an exterior wall, but Sakura didn't let up.

Red chakra blazing around her, Sakura fell on the other girl. Kasumi screamed as Sakura's chakra thickened, starting to burn her, but Sakura didn't care. All she could see was what her prey had done to Naruto. She growled her fury and determination to see her enemy pay as she struck. Kasumi tried to block the next blow with her uninjured arm, and Sakura grabbed on with both hands and broke it with a trivial effort. Kasumi screamed again, more loudly, and Sakura just laughed.

"Don't hurt her!" someone shouted. Sakura kept Kasumi pinned to the wall with one hand and half-turned, ready to drop Kasumi and pounce.

"Stop, please," Hikaru said weakly, holding a kunai in a shaking hand, but only in a defensive posture. He limped a few steps closer.

It was impossible to see him as a threat. It was a bizarre, utterly alien feeling, but it was true. The medic, already injured, couldn't hope to win. Somehow, Sakura found the will to take a deep, shuddering breath. It still took a moment for her to find human speech. "You… can't fight me," Sakura said, and her voice sounded like someone else, deep and threatening.

Hikaru took a step closer. "Let me help my teammate," he said calmly. He didn't lower his weapon.

It took an effort of will not to jump at him, but Sakura fought back the urge to attack. The red chakra around her started to thin and fade. "Why… should I?" she asked, as she looked over the medic's shoulder. Eimi was slumped over in a seated position near the stairs. Sasuke was still bound in the center of the room, but his eyes had turned their own shade of red. The sight raised strange feelings in Sakura, but it was the final person she looked for. Naruto lay still, but his chest still rose and fell.

"Naruto," she growled unthinkingly at the reminder of the reason for her rage. Threat or not, Hikaru was just as responsible as his teammates. His next, cautious step closer provoked an instinctive response, Sakura's claw swiping at air to drive him back.

Instead Hikaru stopped favoring his broken leg, darting at Sakura in a burst of speed. The tip of his kunai ripped a line of fire across her stomach, and Sakura doubled over, dropping Kasumi. The redhead slumped to ground and didn't rise. The shallow, rapidly healing wound hurt more than it should have. Poison.

Hikaru stabbed at her again, but only to make her keep her distance as he bent down to pick up his fallen teammate. Kasumi stirred weakly. "Hi -" she began.

Sakura's chakra blazed into full strength, anger burning away the poison's pain. The medic had used his concern for his teammate to lull her into dropping her guard. Now he was trying to get away with Kasumi, the one who had hurt Naruto, the one who had to pay. She screamed in rage, and enjoyed the look of fear in the boy's eyes as she attacked, shoving him away from Kasumi. Mindless fury filling her, Sakura went for the fallen kunoichi, who barely had the presence of mind to curl into a ball to try to shield herself.

Hikaru jumped at her, wrapping both arms around her and trying to force her to the ground. His weight staggered Sakura, and they both fell. Sakura bit at him, sharp fangs finding flesh and filling her mouth with the taste of blood. Her claws tore great gashes across the medic's chest as she wrestled to the top. Her thick, dense chakra surrounded them, burning, and he screamed. Long seconds passed in a blur as Sakura spent her rage, striking again and again, no longer knowing or caring that it was Kasumi's defender and not Kasumi herself that lay beneath her.

"Stop!" Eimi's yell distracted Sakura, making her look away from Hikaru. Fear pierced the rage that clouded her mind. The tall kunoichi stood unsteadily next to Sasuke, a kunai in her hands. Sakura had forgotten that the other girl was only dazed. Sakura let Hikaru fall to the floor as she rose. Her chakra thinned again, a pale aura that flickered around her instead of the dense cloak that had burned Hikaru.

"Please just stop," Eimi pleaded as she knelt beside Sasuke. "Please." She raised her weapon, and Sakura took a step forward. "It's over," Eimi said. Sakura growled, preparing to attack before she could hurt Sasuke.

Eimi cut the wires that bound her captive. Sasuke instantly shoved her aside and tried to rise, but he collapsed to his knees next to her instead. "What?" Sakura asked, trying to keep her voice steady.

"It's over," Eimi said again. "I… I can't beat you. Kasumi and Hikaru are…" she trailed off. "You win, Sakura-san."

"You… surrender?" Sakura asked.

"Yes," Eimi said quickly. "Please. We never wanted to do this. Even Kasumi argued with Tetsu-sensei about it, but we had to follow orders. Please. Don't hurt my teammates any more."

"Your village would have done worse to Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun," Sakura snapped.

"Yes," Eimi said softly, looking down. "I know. I should have… I don't know. Maybe I should have warned -"

"I'd advise you not to finish that sentence, Eimi-kun," a new voice said from the main doorway.

Eimi paled. "Tetsu-sensei."

Sakura looked up. The Cloud jounin's face was expressionless. His metal arm pointed straight at Sakura. This was the man who was truly responsible. For the first time, Sakura deliberately tried to raise the fury of the Nine-Tails, and it eagerly complied. Red chakra thickened again in an instant, almost becoming a shroud to cover her whole body as she stepped away from the fallen Cloud genin and toward their teacher.

Seals on the man's metal arm began to glow. "I'll have to finish this quickly," he said. "Hatake will be here soon, and we need hostages before then. Stay out of my way, Eimi-kun, and keep the Uchiha secure. We'll talk about the rest later."

"Yes, sir," the chuunin said weakly, but Sakura couldn't waste any attention on her, because in the same instant a bolt of lightning shot from the jounin's arm at her and the battle was joined.

Two figures in the armor and masks of Mist hunter ninja stood atop neighboring trees in the light forest near the home of Tazuna the bridge builder. Coils of fog shrouded the forest floor, obscuring the battles raging beneath the pair. The sounds of clashing metal, grunts of effort, and growls of anger that rose up to them seemed soft and faded, muffled by the thick, gray carpet.

One the two watching ninja, a girl with long, dark red hair, had her hands clasped in a hand seal. "This Yakushi fucker's damn good," she said, "or the luckiest dumb-ass the Leaf ever crapped out. I can't believe he's not already dead."

"I can," the other, a man with pale white hair, replied. "I am not certain I could defeat Kabuto-sama without using my seal, if he had time to prepare."

"Seriously?" the girl asked. "Fuck."

"What of the chuunin?" the man asked.

"The dog bitches have spread out," she replied. "Momochi's water replications are keeping them busy. They're running all over the place; I can't keep track."

"Try harder," the man advised. "I would hate to have to find a new fifth."

The girl muttered something under her breath.

"Tayuya," the man said, warning clear in his voice.

"Yes, sir," the redhead mumbled, and her hands twitched slightly. There was a slight rippling in the air, then another, as two unseen objects descended into the mist. A few minutes later, she spoke again. "One of the dogs is down," she said. "Might be dead."

The man said nothing.

"I've got another pair. The last…" Tayuya trailed off. "The Yuki kid just let the last into his fucking barrier." Perhaps she grinned behind her mask. "I've got eyes inside the dome now."


"Yuki hasn't managed to kill either genin. Some kind of gutless loser, I guess. Can't see what kind of fucking use someone like that would be to Orochimaru-sama."

"That is not our concern," the man said coldly. "Orochimaru-sama gave us a mission; we will complete it."

"This would be fucking easier if we could just kill everyone."

"We have our mission," the man said.

"I fucking know, all right? Retrieve the Yuki kid alive and Momochi dead, no casualties from the fucking Leaf genin, and pin the blame for killing Momochi on the Leaf."

"Then stop whining about it," the man said.

It was several seconds before Tayuya spoke again. "The dog woman in the dome gave the genin orders. Looks like they are going to try to break out."


"I can only see, not hear," Tayuya answered. "The man's unrolling some kind of sealing scroll, the dog woman and the water user are covering him."

"Let's move, then," the man said. "When they make their attempt, I will bring down the dome. I am relying on you to keep my action unobserved. Do not fail me, Tayuya."

The girl broke the seal her hands held. A flute fell into one hand, while the other flipped up her mask to reveal a face that might have been pretty if it wasn't marred by a scowl. "Yuki won't be an issue. The only problem is that sensor bitch. It's a pain in the ass to slip something past a sensor."

"Then I advise you to be very good."

Dark lines crawled across Tayuya's face. She let out a short laugh. "When it comes to genjutsu, I'm the fucking best, damn it, and don't you forget it, Kimimaro."

There was a gust of wind, and the man was on the ground. Tayuya followed him, leaving the trees empty once more.

"I'm sorry," Ogushi Eimi told Sasuke as she knelt on top of him, pressing his face to the ground gently with her good hand. The other, the one Sakura had stabbed with Hikaru's kunai, the medic had bandaged as best he could with strips torn from her uniform trousers. With treatment, he'd said she'd suffer no permanent damage, but now Hikaru -

The Uchiha stirred underneath her, trying to escape. Weakened by Eimi's paralyzing poison, the effort was futile. Part of Eimi wanted to let him go, but it was too late for that. She couldn't disobey a direct order from her teacher, her commander. Her team's only hope was victory, besides, she told herself. Their teacher might be a valuable prize, but she and her teammates had no bloodlines or special abilities to convince Sharingan Kakashi that they were worth the effort of dragging back to the Leaf Village as prisoners.

Her teacher unleashed the lightning gathered in his metal arm, the burst of thunder shattering the closest windows. Eimi blinked several times to recover from the blinding flash, but she knew before she could see that Sakura hadn't been hit. The pressure of that terrible, evil-feeling chakra hadn't even wavered. It wasn't like focused killing intent Hidan had used to paralyze her. It was wild, uncontrolled, and that made it hard to judge, but Eimi was certain it was more powerful than the man who had destroyed the Hot Springs village. Just what was the pink-haired girl?

"I don't know," Sasuke muttered, and Eimi realized she had asked the question aloud. Even Sakura's teammate didn't know? Her throat dry, Eimi swallowed painfully.

Sakura reappeared at the top of the stairs, crouched down on all fours and surrounded by a flickering crimson aura. Tetsu turned to face her, and the girl roared. The jounin actually stumbled back a step, and Eimi, farther back, felt a momentary, stiff breeze. She swallowed again.

Her teacher aimed his arm at Sakura again, seals glowing yellow along the metal. As if in answer, Sakura raised one clawed hand. Her red chakra thickened around it.

"That chakra," Tetsu muttered. "What are you?"

His only answer was a red blur of motion. Tetsu left a lightning replication behind to meet Sakura's attack. The burst of electricity when the replication disrupted only momentarily disoriented the girl; in less than an instant she followed the jounin in another bounding leap. It was almost as bad as the two jounin's battle against Hidan. Even now that she wasn't the target, Eimi could only barely follow Sakura's movement.

Tetsu met the girl in mid-air. There was an exchange of blows Eimi couldn't see, and Sakura slammed into the ground, floorboards cracking under the force of the collision. Tetsu landed on his feet, not far away. Eimi paled as she saw blood spreading from underneath his suddenly cracked armor. The wound he'd received from Hidan had reopened.

Sakura growled, rising to all fours. Red chakra twisted around her, the pressure of that malign aura growing. Eimi's stomach lurched. Seemingly unconcerned, Tetsu pressed his hands together briefly, and as they separated an electric arc glowed between them. As it brightened, Eimi raised a hand to shield her eyes.

There was a thunderous boom, then a loud crash. Eimi lowered her arm, in time to catch a storm of lightning and crimson crashing through a wall into a side room. Sasuke stirred again, and Eimi reflexively pushed him back down to the floor.

A gloved hand rested on her shoulder. "I would appreciate it, Ogushi-san, if you would release my student."

Eimi turned her head, raising it to meet Hatake Kakashi's mismatched eyes. One hand groped for a weapon, but she already knew it was pointless. She couldn't get a blade to the Uchiha's throat before Hatake could kill her.

She couldn't feel bad about that, though, as she almost rolled off of the boy. Her limbs suddenly trembling and weak, she collapsed to the ground. There wasn't anything she could do, not anymore. Beside her, Sasuke managed to rise to his knees, but when he tried to stand, he couldn't.

"Kakashi-sensei," he said weakly, "Sakura…"

"I know," the Leaf jounin said. "Just rest, Sasuke-kun. I'll take care of the rest." He glanced at Eimi. "I will accept your surrender, Ogushi-san."

"Yes," Eimi said quickly. It was easier, this second time. She should have backed off as soon as Sakura revealed her strange power. Maybe then Kasumi and Hikaru would be… she couldn't bear to look, to see if they lived. "Please," she said, but she couldn't find the words to finish the plea. What could she even beg for?

Before Hatake could answer, another crack of thunder heralded Sakura flying back through the hole in the wall she and Tetsu had just made. She crashed into the opposite wall. Seals Eimi hadn't even noticed her teacher placing began to glow, bands of lightning tightly binding Sakura to the wall.

"Got you, you little monster," Tetsu growled as he walked back into the room, his flesh hand locked into a one-handed seal.

"I'm very disappointed in you, Tetsu," Hatake said, and Eimi's teacher froze for just an instant. "I thought you were smarter than this."

"Don't try anything, Hatake," Tetsu said, turning to face him. "I've got your girl pinned, and you can't defend the Uchiha or Uzumaki and fight me at the same time."

"I don't have to," the Leaf jounin said coldly. He took a step forward, then he prodded Eimi with his foot. "Revenge isn't worth getting your students killed, Tetsu."

Tetsu laughed once. "I guess I'm just worse than trash."

The odd phrasing clearly meant something to Hatake, who stepped over Eimi. "I thought better of you on that front too, Tetsu." Out of the corner of her eye, Eimi saw Sakura struggling against her bonds with renewed vigor. Hatake drew a kunai.

"Stand down, Hatake," Tetsu ordered. "Or Uzumaki dies."

Hatake sighed once, tossing his weapon aside. He crossed his arms. "It's over," he said.

Tetsu walked toward his opponent. "Close the eye," he ordered.

Eimi could have warned her teacher. From her position, she had seen the second kunai hidden in the first's shadow clearly, but her mouth stayed still as the weapon pierced one of the seals binding Sakura. That was enough, and with a loud roar Sakura broke free, electricity dancing around her for a moment before dissipating.

A blink of an eye later, she was on Tetsu. With the Cloud jounin already injured and his attention divided between the girl and her watching teacher, it was over quickly. After a missed strike, Sakura grabbed Tetsu's over-extended metal arm, ignoring the lightning running down it and into her. With a loud grunt of effort, she ripped it in two, breaking it at the elbow and tossing the lower half aside. Electricity flowed out of damaged seals, flowing back into Tetsu's flesh. A punch shattered his broken breastplate, sending the jounin stumbling back and collapsing to the ground.

He didn't rise.

In an instant, Hatake stood in between him and Sakura. "That's enough, Sakura-chan," he said gently.

The pink-haired girl stood still for several moments, red flickering. "No," she finally uttered. "Because… because of him, Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun…"

"I know," Hatake said. "I'm sorry about this, Sakura-chan." Then he pressed something against Sakura's stomach. There was a flash of green light. The crimson aura surrounding Sakura wavered, then with shocking suddenness vanished. The dark lines on Sakura's face faded, and green eyes stared in shock at her teacher.

"Kakashi…sensei?" she said, her voice soft and hesitant again.

"It's all right, Sakura-chan," the silver-haired man answered. "It's over. Naruto and Sasuke will be fine. I promise." Sakura's eyes closed, and she collapsed. Hatake caught her, carefully cradling her in his arms as he turned to Eimi. "Now, Ogushi-san," he said.

Eimi managed to stand, somehow. She kept her hands away from anywhere she could keep a weapon. "I won't resist," she said. It would be worse than futile. "The poison I gave Uchiha-san should wear off fully in an hour or so." She risked a glance at Kasumi and Hikaru. Kasumi was awake, but the other girl seemed to be out of it, barely conscious. Hikaru lay still. Eimi unthinkingly took a step toward him.

"One question," Hatake said, making her freeze, "before I let you tend your comrades." Without waiting, he walked over to where Naruto lay, setting Sakura down gently before kneeling over his fallen student.

"Yes, sir?" Eimi asked weakly.

"Who ordered this ambush?" Kakashi said seriously. "Was it on Tetsu's initiative, or on orders from your village?"

Eimi swallowed once. "I… I think it was Tetsu-sensei," she said honestly. "There… there could have been something hidden in the messages I brought from the border, but -"

"Good enough," Hatake said. He paused briefly, placing one hand against the ground. In a puff of smoke, a small, brown dog with one eye appeared. "She will carry a message to the Frost border for you, Ogushi-san. I believe with Hikaru-san's supplies and luck you should be capable of stabilizing your teammates until medical assistance can arrive."

Eimi blinked. "What?"

Sasuke managed to find his own feet. "What?" he echoed, much more angrily. "You can't just -"

"Sasuke-kun," Hatake cut him off. "That's enough. It's over. Come help with me Naruto."

"But -"

"We'll discuss the reasons later, Sasuke-kun."

"You're just going to let us go?" Eimi asked weakly. The dog wandered over to her.

Hatake looked up at her. As though he'd only just realized it was still up, he slowly raised one hand to lower his forehead protector over his Sharingan eye. "Not just," he said. "I'll be taking Hidan's corpse, for one."

Eimi wasn't going to argue about that. "Tetsu-sensei was carrying the scroll."

"I know," Hatake said. "Now, write your message and see to your teammates."

Eimi looked down to see the summoned dog had walked up to her, and now was sitting at her feet, waiting. After a moment, she searched her pouch for a pen and paper, and got to work.

"Damn it, you idiot," Sasuke muttered to himself as he bound Naruto's arm in a sling. Mandatory first aid training let him guess at the extent of the damage: broken ribs, the broken arm, electrical burns, probably a concussion… "Idiot. What the hell kind of use are you as a medic if you're the one who gets hurt?"

Naruto didn't answer, of course. Kakashi didn't say anything in reply either, not looking up from Naruto, his hands pressed over the boy's chest. Sasuke didn't know what the jounin was doing, but the unconscious blond's breath seemed to come more easily now. "That should hold Naruto-kun for now," Kakashi said after several moments. "He'll be fine once we get him to the hospital."

Sasuke grunted irritably as he finished his own work.

Kakashi sighed. "Later, Sasuke-kun. Let me check Sakura first, and then we'll be ready to go." The jounin's attention turned to the girl laid out next to Naruto.

She looked like she was just asleep, Sasuke thought. The dark lines that had marked her face were gone like they had never been. Her hands looked normal, human. There was no sign of any injury. "What was that?" he asked softly.

"Later, Sasuke-kun," Kakashi said again as he stood. Sasuke almost growled. Was he supposed to be satisfied with that? Kakashi ignored him, instead calling out, "Ogushi-san."

Sasuke did growl at that, watching his teacher walk over to the Cloud team. The chuunin was kneeling over their fallen medic, spreading some kind of ointment across a badly burnt chest. The other kunoichi was in better shape, awake and sitting nearby. Her teammate had already bandaged her many wounds and immobilized her own broken arm - the left, same as she'd inflicted on Naruto. Sasuke's eyes changed without effort as he caught Kasumi's gaze, and the dark-skinned girl froze, barely breathing.

Sasuke clenched his fists. He wanted to hurt her. What Sakura had - unbelievably - done to her wasn't enough. She'd hurt Naruto in cold blood, when he was already beaten, when Kasumi had probably thought Sakura already beaten. Why was Kakashi letting them get away so easily?

Eimi, shaking slightly, rose. Her cheeks looked damp. Good. "H-hatake-sama," she stammered.

"Will he live?" Kakashi asked. Damn it, why did he care? The Cloud deserved whatever happened to him.

"I… I don't know."

"Let me see."

Sasuke jumped to his feet at his teacher's words. "How can you help them after -"

"Sasuke-kun," Kakashi cut him off, turning his head to meet Sasuke's red eyes. "Not now." He paused, then added. "Find Tetsu's arm and the pieces of Tenrai-san's hammer." His eye flicked back to Eimi. "We'll be taking those also, Ogushi-san."

Kasumi seemed to almost protest, but said nothing. All Eimi said was, "Yes, sir."

"Please retrieve the scroll containing Hidan's corpse while I help your teammate," Kakashi said. Eimi nodded once, turning to where her own teacher lay next to Hikaru and searching through the fallen jounin's pouches.

Shaking with barely contained rage, Sasuke obeyed. He found the metal forearm easily enough, and the haft of Kasumi's hammer was on the floor next to her. He took a bit of pleasure in 'accidentally' jarring the girl's broken arm as he bent down to pick it up.

"…guess I deserve that, fancy eyes," the girl said weakly.

"Yes," was all Sasuke said to that.

"Hikaru didn't," she said, glancing at the medic.

"Fuck that," Sasuke said. "He was as much a part of this as you."

"Fuck you, fancy eyes," Kasumi returned. "Like you wouldn't have done the same as us if your teacher had ordered it."

Sasuke just stood and left her. It took him a while to find the hammer head, buried in the pieces of a broken table. When he was done, Kakashi had apparently finished with Hikaru, and three of him stood by Naruto and Sakura. Those physical replications? One of them handed Sasuke a storage scroll, and after a moment's work Sasuke had sealed away the spoils.

As he took the scroll back, Kakashi said quietly. "You should relax your eyes, Sasuke-kun." With an effort of will, Sasuke obeyed. One of the other Kakashi bent down and picked up Sakura. The other carefully lifted Naruto. The final - maybe the real - Kakashi turned around and knelt down. "On my back, Sasuke-kun."

"No," Sasuke answered without thinking. He wasn't some child.

"In an hour at most," Kakashi observed, "all this will catch up with you, and you're going to collapse. Trust me." He glanced over his shoulder, and his mask wrinkled. "I'll be going too fast, beside. We'll be over the border by midnight, and in the village before the end of tomorrow."

It was unbelievable speed, but Kakashi was a jounin. Sasuke forced himself to climb onto his teacher's back. Kakashi stood. "Well then," the one carrying Sakura said lightly. "I would say it has been a pleasure, Ogushi-san, but that would be a lie."

"Yes, sir," the chuunin kunoichi said. "Sir… Hatake-sama… thank you. For… for my teammates' lives."

"And your own," Kakashi added.

"Yes, sir."

Kakashi just nodded, and then the world blurred. Moments later, they were moving rapidly through the treetops, back toward the main road leading south to the Fire Country. The sun was just beginning to set, and its light wasn't enough to ward off the chill of the wind.

"You have questions," Kakashi said, some minutes later.

"Why did you let them go?" Sasuke demanded. "They -"

"I know what they did," Kakashi said, "In my condition, I can barely make two replications so I can carry you three. Taking them prisoner wasn't an option. They were just following orders and weren't a threat any longer."

"But -"

"I lost the taste for murdering children in cold blood long ago, Sasuke-kun."

"The jounin, then," Sasuke said sourly. He hadn't been following orders.

"Ogushi-san said she thinks he acted on his own, and I believe she's right," Kakashi said. "Sending him back with them tells the Cloud that I believe that."

"Why?" Sasuke asked.

"Why do I believe that?" Kakashi said. "Because there was no time for him to report the situation and get orders, and because I know Tetsu, or at least of him. You remember the story I told you in the baths, about cutting a lightning bolt in half?"


"It was his lightning bolt," Kakashi said, "and my technique was why he had that arm. He quoted my own philosophy at me." Kakashi sighed. "That proves that he obsessed over me. I can believe that he jumped at a chance for revenge easily enough."

"You should have killed him," Sasuke stated.

Kakashi sighed again. "That would have served nothing but my own need to see him pay, Sasuke-kun."

Something black churned in Sasuke. "So?" he demanded. Tetsu deserved to die, for what he'd done.

"Sending him back to the Cloud," Kakashi said, "means that he'll be punished. The Fourth Raikage is relatively new to the seat; he can't afford to look weak. What form that punishment takes, whether it is a slap on the wrist or whether his head is delivered to Hokage-sama, will tell us a lot about how the Raikage sees the Leaf and how strong he is as a leader.

"Either way, that information is more valuable than the tiny pleasure of getting to kill him myself."

They traveled in silence for some distance, and when they paused in a grove of tree overlooking the road, Sasuke spoke again. "Sakura," he said, his throat dry. "What -"

"You of all people should know, Sasuke-kun," Kakashi answered, "about the power of bloodline limits."

Sasuke could have believed that something like a regeneration ability might have escaped notice, but the power Sakura had shown? "The Haruno family doesn't have a bloodline limit," he said. With that kind of power, they would have been one of the Leaf's noble clans. "I would have known."

"Is that so?" Kakashi asked. "Maybe it comes from her mother."

Naruto had suggested the same. It was still ridiculous. A clan with that kind of bloodline wouldn't let their daughters marry out. "And which clan is she from, then?" Besides, he'd never heard of any bloodline in the Leaf Village that matched Sakura's power.

Kakashi sighed. "Sasuke-kun, some bloodlines are kept as secrets." That wasn't an answer. "Enough, Sasuke-kun. You need to rest." Sasuke wanted to protest, but his teacher wasn't lying. He was tired, and despite it all he fell asleep in moments after closing his eyes. He woke a couple times, briefly, on the journey, but Kakashi was in no mood to talk. Each time, Sasuke found himself slipping back into sleep quickly, never quite fully waking.

The next time he really woke was when Kakashi told him to get off, in the lobby of the Leaf Village's hospital. He blinked his eyes wearily, sleep still clouding his thoughts. There was frantic activity all around, medics taking Naruto and Sakura and putting them on mobile cots. A tired looking male nurse grabbed Sasuke's arm, pulling him away from Kakashi. "This way, Uchiha-san."

Naruto and Sakura were being carried away, already passing through the double doors leading into the hospital proper. Two of the three Kakashi - including the one who had carried Sasuke - vanished in clouds of smoke. The last let a pair of medics help him into another cot, and without a word they started pushing him off also.

"Wha-" Sasuke started to say.

"This way, Uchiha-san," the nurse said again. "Hatake-sama and Uzumaki-kun will be fine."

Sasuke let himself be taken to an examining room, where the nurse soon proclaimed him to be in apparent good health. His relatively few wounds were cleaned and bandaged, and blood-work taken - to identify the paralyzing poison if any traces remained, the nurse said. It didn't take long; Sasuke judged it only an hour after he woke that he was deposited outside the operating room where the medics were working on Naruto.

Sasuke took one of the seats in the hallway and waited. Kakashi wasn't there; chakra exhaustion again? What about Sakura? Where was she? There was no one to ask his questions, so all he could do was wait and worry.

It was several hours later, well after nightfall, that the doors to the operating room opened, and three exhausted-looking medics came out. Sasuke stood instantly, shaking off his own tiredness. "Naruto," he demanded, "is he -"

"He'll be fine," one of the medics said shortly as they left, but neither she nor her comrades stopped to answer any more questions.

Fortunately, Naruto came out a few moments later, asleep on his cot. He was being pushed by someone Sasuke only vaguely recognized, a young woman in a dark kimono with a Leaf forehead protector worn around one arm. He searched his memory for her name. "Katou-san?" he asked.

The woman smiled. "Shizune-san is fine, Sasuke-kun," she said. "It's been a long time since I babysat you and Naruto-kun, but not that long."

Sasuke's cheeks heated briefly, but he forced the embarrassment aside. "Is Naruto -"

"Naruto is fine," Shizune said. "He'll wake up in the morning, almost as good as new." The woman smiled faintly. "Do you mind helping me push his cot?" she asked.

Sasuke obeyed, and they made good progress down the hallway. It was only when they were in an elevator that he remembered to ask, "What about Kakashi-sensei and Sakura?"

"Hatake-san is sleeping off of a case of aggravated chakra exhaustion," Shizune answered, "but he responded well to treatment." The elevator reached the third floor, and Sasuke helped Shizune maneuver the cot into the hallway.

"And Sakura?" he asked.

"I'm told Haruno-san is stable," Shizune answered after a moment. "I'm going to go check on her once we have Naruto in his room." Sasuke was about to ask what exactly was wrong with Sakura when Shizune stopped. "Here we are," she said cheerfully. "Get the door, please, Sasuke-kun."

A few minutes later, Naruto was settled. "There shouldn't be any problems," Shizune said, "but I imagine you'll want to stay with your friend. That's fine. I'll send a nurse by with some food for you, all right?"

Sasuke nodded, and before he could remember to ask after Sakura, Shizune was gone. Despite his worries, he found himself growing tired again as he sat beside Naruto's bed, and he was asleep before the nurse arrived.

When he awoke, the light filtering in through the window blinds meant it was dawn, and he and Naruto were no longer alone.

"Are you awake, Sasuke-kun?" the redheaded woman seated on the other side of Naruto's bed asked in a croaking voice.

Sasuke nodded, rubbing at his eyes. "Yes, Uzumaki-san," he said. Uzumaki Kushina smiled, and Sasuke shifted uncomfortably. He was never sure how to act around Naruto's mother.

"I'm glad you're all right," Kushina said. "Shizune-chan tells me Naruto should wake up soon. He'll have to stay here a day or two for observation, but he'll be fine."

"Good," Sasuke said.

As if in response, Naruto rolled over in his bed and started to snore loudly. Kushina laughed. Sasuke found himself rolling his eyes. For the first time, he really could believe that Naruto was fine.

"Did… Haruno-kun go home?" Kushina asked him after a few moments. "I had thought she and Naruto had become friends, despite…"

"I don't know," Sasuke said, realizing that he didn't. "The medic… Shizune-san, she told me Sakura was stable, and she went to check. Then I fell asleep."

"She was hurt?" Kushina asked.

She had been, but… "She healed," Sasuke said. "I think. But I don't think she woke up on the way back." He shook his head. "Naruto said you told him about… her bloodline limit."

"Yes," Kushina said.

"I… what is it?" Sasuke said. "What clan is it from? I've never seen anything like -"

"Sasuke-kun," Kushina said, sitting up straight in her wheelchair. "What happened?"

Sasuke told her, describing the ambush by the Cloud - which she already knew about - and how Sakura had fought them - which she didn't. Her face darkened as Sasuke finished the story, and he hesitated to press his questions about Sakura's power.

Before he could, the door opened, admitting a young nurse with a cart carrying three trays of food. "Breakfast," she announced cheerfully. "Good morning, Uzumaki-sama, Uchiha-san." Suddenly starving, Sasuke accepted the tray and ate while the nurse checked Naruto's vitals.

Naruto was doing very well, and should wake any minute, the nurse informed them, and then she left, leaving his breakfast by the bed. Kushina smiled faintly at Sasuke as she finished her own food. Then she glanced at Naruto and took a deep breath. "Naruto!" she almost shouted. "If you don't wake up, I'm going to eat your breakfast for you!"

Naruto sat up in bed instantly. "I'm up, mom!" he answered loudly. "I'm coming, I'm com…" He blinked several times. "Mom?" he asked hesitantly.

"Naruto," Kushina said softly. "Welcome back." She opened her arms, and Naruto shuffled over in the bed so she could embrace him.

Sasuke rose, setting his own mostly-empty tray aside and grabbing Naruto's. When Kushina released Naruto after kissing his forehead, Sasuke thrust the tray at him, "Here, idiot," he said roughly.

"Thanks, bastard," Naruto said. "I'm starving." Naruto ate quickly, and Sasuke just watched him, sitting back down. Kushina had grabbed the hand of her son's injured arm, part of him noted, and for a moment his own hands felt frozen. Sasuke forced himself to hit the button to call a nurse, and a few moments later the young woman who had brought breakfast returned. She left quickly, but came back just as soon with a doctor Sasuke didn't recognize.

It took about fifteen minutes for the man to finish checking Naruto over and warn him against any strenuous activity until his ribs and arm had finished healing. "Thanks, Yakushi-sensei," Naruto said when the man was finished. "You think I should stay here overnight?"

The doctor nodded. "Yes, that would probably be best, and maybe until the day after tomorrow, just to be safe." He smiled, pushing up his glasses. "You're a much more cooperative patient than your mother."

Kushina pouted. "I'm right here, Yakushi-sensei."

"I know, Uzumaki-san," the doctor said with a smile, and then he left.

Kushina chuckled quietly, and then she gestured at Naruto again, pulling him into another hug. "I need to go check on Kakashi-kun," she said, "but I'll be back, all right, Naruto?"

"All right," Naruto said, and Kushina wheeled herself out of the room. Once she was gone, his face stilled. "Sasuke," he said. "Is everyone all right?"

Sasuke stood. "Yes," he said. Kakashi was asleep and Sakura… stable meant good, right?

"What… what happened?" Naruto said. "The last thing I remember is fighting that Kasumi girl, and you… I think Eimi had poisoned you." He paused. "I guess Kakashi-sensei got there in time to save us?"

Sasuke frowned. "No," he said shortly.

"Then you managed to fight them off?" Naruto asked. "That's pretty awe-"

"No, I didn't save us," Sasuke said, his fists clenching unthinkingly. Emotions he wasn't sure he wanted to name even if he could stirred in him, and he found himself staring at the windows. "Sakura did."

"Everyone down!" Haruno Takeru roared as he finished charging the seal array on the scroll spread on the forest floor before him. His teammate Tsubaki dropped, followed an instant later by her two water replications and the dog transformed into a copy of Inuzuka Hana.

"It won't work," Haku observed, retreating for a moment to the safety of his ice mirrors.

Takeru pressed both hands to the center of the scroll in answer. "One Element Unseal: Fire!" With a loud hiss, a wave of fire erupted from the scroll, pushing out all around Takeru and over the heads of his teammates. Steam filled the inside of the dome as the flames collided with the dome of ice mirrors that imprisoned the Leaf. Breathing heavily, Takeru slumped over.

"No," Tsubaki breathed.

The steam cleared. The walls of ice gleamed slightly, melt-water glistening along them, but they seemed as solid as before Takeru's attack. With a snarl, the transformed dog leapt to her feet, charging the closest mirror, followed by one of Tsubaki's replications.

"Futile," Haku said. In a blur of motion, he crossed the dome, disrupting the replication and knocking the dog to the ground as he passed. She rose in a whirling storm, which Haku didn't even try to intercept as she spun from mirror to mirror, bouncing off the frozen surfaces. The dog spun to a halt next to the Leaf genin. The mirrors were unmarred. "As I said," Haku stated, "fut-"

There was a loud shattering sound. First one, then another and another of the mirrors began to crack, dark lines spreading across them. Haku's image vanished from all but one of the mirrors as he stopped moving between them. "Impossible," he breathed. "You aren't strong enough to -"

As one, the mirrors broke, shards of ice clattering as they fell to the ground. Haku stumbled as he fell as well. "How -" he began.

A Tsubaki was on him before he could finish, knocking him to the ground and shattering his Mist hunter ninja mask with a single powerful punch. Her sword darted for the boy's neck. Haku rose to a crouch, and spears of ice erupted from inside of the Tsubaki, turning her into nothing but water that drenched Haku's pink kimono. The boy got to his feet, his face grim. "I may now be forced to injure you," he announced, "to stop you from interfering in Zabuza-sama's battle."

"We're ninja, kid," Takeru said as he stood slowly, his hands locked into a seal. "That's a risk we're prepared to take." His body, and those of the two women beside him, dissolved into a swirl of dead leaves.

"Genjutsu," Haku hissed, and then he chased the Leaf into the mists his master had summoned.

Just inside them, Tsubaki told her teammates, "I'll keep him busy." She began to slow, falling behind.

"Are you sure?" Takeru asked quickly.

"In this mist, he can't see me," Tsubaki said, "but I can sure as hell feel his chakra. Go."

Without further words, Takeru and the transformed Haimaru brother raced off toward the sounds of battle. A loud roar echoed through the forest as they neared, but it was something else that made Takeru halt. "What's that foul smell?" he asked quietly.

The dog by his side paused, then spoke with Inuzuka Hana's voice. "Piss. Marking."

"On Zabuza?" Takeru asked. The dog nodded. Takeru sniffed at the air, but shook his head. "I'm not good enough to use that as a target." He frowned, staring into the thick mists.

The transformed dog growled interrogatively.

"I think we're near the client's house, aren't we?" he asked. The dog shrugged. "Can you get Hana to drive Zabuza in this direction?"

The dog nodded once, and without words she vanished into the mists.

Takeru knelt, unrolling another scroll and summoning a dozen kunai, explosive tags wrapped around the hilts. Working quickly, and trying to ignore the sounds of desperate battle all around, he threaded them with chakra wire, then attached that to a final seal tag. That tag, covered lightly by a handful of dirt, went in the center of a ring of steel, the kunai pointing at it all around. In good light, the trap would have been obvious even to a civilian. In the mist, it was a different story.

Takeru backed away, hands working through the seals to activate his minor cloaking genjutsu before unrolling his final scroll of explosive kunai. He didn't have to wait long. Moments later, three furious howls rang out through the mist. It was only seconds after that Zabuza came out of the mist. He once more carried his weapon in his weaker hand; his stronger arm perhaps not fully healed from the damage Kabuto had done in their first battle.

The infamous missing ninja froze as his foot brushed the chakra wire. The circle of kunai started to rise, but before they could Zabuza's massive blade struck out all around, severing the wire even as the man jumped out of the circle. Twelve explosive tags detonated, and Zabuza shielded himself from the worst of the blast with the his sword.

Something came out of the mist at him, too large to be Hana or one of the dogs. Staggered by the blast, Zabuza couldn't dodge, but he still spun about, raising his blade up to hold off a massive, two-headed wolf. A hasty blow from the flat of his sword forced the monster back just a step, but that gave him time to move through a sequence of seals. A wave of water shoved the two-headed creature into a tree trunk, which broke under the weight. Barely slowed, the wolf kept going, disappearing into the mist.

In that instant, Takeru struck, throwing another dozen blades at Zabuza's unprotected back in one smooth motion. His cloaking genjutsu broke almost instantly, and Takeru didn't wait to see if his blades struck home. He turned and ran in what he hoped was the direction of Tazuna's home. There was no time to look back, even when he heard detonations behind him.

He made it farther than he'd feared he would, almost inside the perimeter of the traps he'd laid around the house, when something knocked him to the ground and he felt cold metal around his neck. "Not bad, for an old man genin, but not good enough to beat Haku," Zabuza said from above him. He gently moved his sword, brushing Takeru's skin with the sharp edge of the notch in his blade. "Where is he?"

The stench of urine from Zabuza was sickening, but more important was his heavy breathing and the barely noticeable tremor in the arm that held his sword. The missing ninja was tired. Whether he had indeed never fully recovered from the earlier battle or whether he had suffered new injuries in this one, he had weakened. That gave Takeru a hope he might survive.

The Leaf genin reached out and pulled the tripwire that stretched out in front of his eyes. That loosed a trio of kunai at Zabuza, and the man raised his sword to block. Takeru took advantage of the momentary distraction, kicking back at the other man's leg before rolling off into the mists and scrambling to his feet.

He ran, and moments later emerged from the mists within sight of the silent house of Tazuna the bridge-builder. Behind him, a solid gray wall shrouded the forest.

"Clever, but annoying." Zabuza's voice seemed to come from everywhere, and Takeru threw himself to the side instants before the missing ninja's massive blade would have cut him in two. It still cut him, scoring a bloody trail of pain down his left leg. "You never answered my question, old man."

There was a loud growl, and the two-headed wolf came out of the mists, whirling in a giant tornado. Zabuza jumped away, and the wolf came to a halt, standing protectively over Takeru. Not far away, the dog transformed into Inuzuka Hana's form came out of the mists and started to circle around to Zabuza's other side.

"The house," Takeru whispered quietly, hoping the missing ninja wouldn't hear. "Knock him into the house."

The monstrous wolf growled and spun into motion again, while the dog in Hana's form came at Zabuza from the other side. At full strength, the man would never have been hit. Tired and slow, he still managed to avoid the two-headed beast's first pass, then turned to let the dog pass by him and strike the transformed creature with his blade. That was when the two-headed wolf came back around, hitting Zabuza's side with tremendous force, knocking him into the air.

He crashed into the front door of the house, but though the wood cracked it didn't break, and Zabuza managed to stay on his feet, sword rising. Takeru swore in frustration and fear.

The transformed dog rebounded off of a tree and slammed into Zabuza, pushing both of them through the weakened door and into the house. "No," Takeru breathed.

Two things happened at once. Zabuza's sword sliced through the transformed dog, causing a cloud of smoke and a spray of blood. In that same instant, a chakra-sensitive trigger under Zabuza's foot reacted to the missing ninja's chakra and detonated. He staggered, falling to one knee even as the still canine form of the Haimaru brother fell to the ground in front of him. Then the two adjacent tags exploded, the concussive forces battering the missing ninja from both directions.

Zabuza threw himself into a roll, diving out of the doorway mere instants before the whole front of the house collapsed in a rapid sequence of detonations. Debris rained down, and as he stood Zabuza had to raise his sword to knock away one large hunk of the wall.

That was when the two-headed wolf struck again, bodily slamming into him. A quick claw strike sent Zabuza's giant sword flying, while the man himself went another direction, skidding along the ground until he came to a stop mere feet from Takeru. The other man rolled to his feet instantly, ignoring the pain in his injured leg, a kunai in his hands. In one quick, reflexive motion, he struck out with the blade and sliced open Zabuza's neck.

Momochi Zabuza, the feared Demon of the Hidden Mist, made a quiet gurgling sound, and then he died.

A few more explosions sounded from inside what remained of the house, and then there was utter silence. The two-headed wolf vanished, replaced by Hana and one of her dogs. The woman almost collapsed. Takeru wanted to fall also, but instead he stood, staring down almost in disbelief at the bloody weapon in his hand and Zabuza's body.

Behind him, the mist that shrouded the thin forest rapidly cleared. Kabuto, eyes closed and bleeding freely from numerous wounds but still alive, was revealed seated with his back to a tree trunk only a few paces into the woods, beside Hana's weakly breathing, final dog. As the final coils of fog lifted, Tsubaki could be seen perched in a surprisingly close tree. Haku stood beneath her, a pair of her water replications circling the boy.

In an instant, the replications collapsed, ice jutting from their insides. Haku moved, racing out of the woods and into the lawn surrounding the ruins of Tazuna's house. His eyes inevitably found his master's corpse. The boy froze. "No," he breathed.

From her position, Tsubaki spotted Takeru and the fallen Zabuza a moment later. "Sage's Balls," she swore. "We just killed one of the Seven Swordsmen of the Mist."

Haku screamed, a primal cry of rage and fury. Hana staggered to her feet. Ice gathered in Haku's hands, the temperature of the air dropping rapidly. Takeru reached for a weapon and came up empty. Haku screamed again, and -

Something small and white thudded loudly against the boy's forehead. He staggered backward, the ice he had summoned falling harmlessly to the ground. A man in a Mist hunter ninja uniform appeared out of nowhere, one finger pointed at the boy. There was a tearing, ripping sound, and bones sprouted from his arm, growing at impossible speed to wrap around Haku tightly. The boy struggled for an instant, but then there was the sound of a flute playing, and he slumped over, his eyes rolling up in his head. The entire conflict had taken only seconds.

The white-haired man gestured, and the bones fell off of his arm. He ignored the bloody gashes they left behind. "Confirm the kill," he snapped out.

Takeru felt something move, and then a redheaded girl, also in a hunter ninja's uniform, stood between him and Zabuza. "Oh, he's fucking dead all right," she stated, pulling out a kunai and bending down.

"Hey!" Takeru protested reflexively as the kunoichi started to saw through Zabuza's neck.

"You losers aren't in any fucking position to argue with us," she answered. Her comrade made his way over to Haku and started to pry the bones loose.

"She's right," Hana said tiredly, gesturing to Takeru to back away. "We're in no condition to fight another battle." She glanced toward the male hunter ninja. "Your assistance is appreciated," she told him. "Though it would have been more so earlier in the battle."

The man ignored the thinly veiled, bitter-sounding question as to why they had waited to intervene. "We will be taking the boy and Momochi-san's corpse," he announced. "They are the property of our village."

"We won't contest that," Hana said tiredly. The female hunter ninja finished severing Zabuza's head and pulled out a storage scroll.

Tsubaki jumped down from her perch, giving Haku and the white-haired man a wide berth as she made her way to the rest of her team. "I don't like giving them the kid," she said softly.

Takeru nodded, but all he said was, "We don't have a choice."

"I know," Tsubaki said sourly.

The female hunter ninja made a seal. Zabuza's head vanished into the storage scroll, while the rest of the corpse erupted into green flame. When it died, not even ash remained. "Done and fucking done," she said in a satisfied voice, rolling up the storage scroll and standing. "Are we finished here or are we going to sit around and gossip for a while like idiot schoolgirls?"

Her male teammate sighed loudly. "Your team fought well, Inuzuka-san," he told Hana. "You should be proud of them." He picked up Haku's still body and rose. "Farewell," he said, and without even a cloud of smoke to hide the movement, the hunter ninja were gone.

Adrenaline leaving him, Takeru sat down before his injured leg could give out underneath him.

Tsubaki blinked several times, then she pointed toward a pile of rubble. "They left the sword," she said disbelievingly. Zabuza's weapon lay in plain sight atop the debris.

"What?" Hana turned around and frowned. "Why would they -"

"I think… maybe…" Everyone looked up to see Kabuto, slowly hobbling over to them. In one hand he held his broken glasses. "They're rewarding us, but if they said anything about it-"

"It would mean acknowledging a legitimate transfer of ownership," Takeru finished, his voice dubious.

Tsubaki laughed. "I wouldn't want to be explaining leaving something like that behind to the Mizukage when they could have just taken it."

"No," Hana said, frowning. "I don't think those were Mist."

Takeru swallowed. "How many jounin is this Gatou going to send against us?"

"If they were allied with Zabuza," Kabuto said slowly, "they could have just killed us at any time. Or not stopped Haku-san."

"A third party," Hana said weakly, shaking her head. "This mission is ridiculous."

Tsubaki broke the awkward silence, gesturing at Zabuza's weapon. "So, what do we do with the sword? It's Takeru's kill, right?"

The green-eyed man grimaced. "I couldn't have done it alone," he said, "and I don't use a sword."

"You're the only one of us who does, Tsubaki-san," Kabuto stated.

The woman shook her head. "I use a wakizashi, not a giant crowbar."

"We'll take the blade, and let Hokage-sama decide," Hana said. She paused, then turned to Kabuto. "Kabuto-kun," she said, desperate hope clear in her voice, "is -"

Kabuto smiled. "I was able to stabilize him in time," he said. "He's just sleeping. You're a better veterinarian than me, I'm sure you'll get him back to full health in no time."

"Thank you," Hana said.

Takeru swallowed. "But the other," he said, glancing toward the ruins of Tazuna's home.

"I know," Hana said tightly, her fists clenched. "Kabuto, help Takeru. Tsubaki, help me… find…"

"Yes, sir," the other kunoichi said quickly. By the time Kabuto finished tending Takeru's leg, they had uncovered the dog from the rubble that buried it. There was nothing to be done; he had died instantly from Zabuza's sword.

There was silence for several seconds, then the Haimaru brother who stood at Hana's side let out a mournful howl. He was joined a moment later by his mistress. The three genin bowed their heads respectfully.

When they were done, Tsubaki asked. "So… now what?"

Hana took a deep breath. "First," she said, "I take a look at the brother Kabuto saved. Then we prepare my partner here for transport back to the village. And then we go retrieve the client, and tell him not to whine about his damned house and that it's safe to finish his damned bridge. As soon as that's done, we go home."

Sakura lay on top of her cot in one of the hospital's secure underground rooms, curled up into a ball and facing away from the one-way mirror that filled one wall. Neither the young medic who had examined her - Shizune - nor the masked ANBU guards who brought her food had explained why she had been taken here, but Sakura knew the answer well enough. She had let the power of the Nine-Tails out. She wasn't safe; the seal was weakening. Would it be much longer before she was the Nine-Tails in truth?

It would be worth it, she told herself, if she'd saved Naruto and Sasuke. That was her sole, thin comfort. If she had saved them, then it would be worth it, to be locked away down here where she couldn't hurt anyone.

She wished the memories were blurry, but she remembered what she had become with perfect clarity. She remembered the burning, all-consuming rage. She remembered the power she had wielded, the ease with which she had defeated the Cloud, the terror in Eimi's voice as she'd surrendered. She remembered the sadness and fear in Kakashi's eyes as her teacher had pressed that seal tag to her stomach and everything had turned to darkness.

He'd promised her that Naruto and Sasuke would be all right first. She had to remember that. Her teammates - or was it former teammates now, a part of her wondered darkly - were fine. They had to be. They had to be, because if she had failed, if she had surrendered to the demon for nothing -

There was a pounding on the door, and the sound of indistinct yelling. Sakura froze in fear, nightmares of execution making the seal around her navel burn. She forced it down. Her own life wasn't worth it, not in the slightest.

The door flew open, and Uzumaki Kushina wheeled herself into the room. Behind her, a masked ANBU guard made a wordless protest, but beside him, Shizune gestured for him to back down, and the guard obeyed before vanishing in a cloud of smoke. "Kushina-sama -" the medic started, but Sakura had no thoughts to spare for the young woman.

Rage boiled inside of her, like it always did when she saw Naruto's mother, and Sakura's hands twitched. She didn't want to look at them, for fear she would see claws. Something dark at the back of her mind stirred, a reminder that this was the woman she hated more than anyone.

Yet something else warred with that anger, that kept Sakura frozen still. A fury that matched her own was clear on Kushina's face, and she could think of only one reason for that woman to be so angry with her. "N-naruto-kun," Sakura croaked, the first word she could remember speaking since she'd woken. He… he must have died, she realized. Her fault, for not stopping Kasumi, or worse, she might have injured him in her rage without noticing. "Is he -"

Kushina froze, and her face twisted into a worse snarl for one horrible instant. "They didn't even -" she began, and then she cut off, her face smoothing carefully. "Child," she said, "Naruto and Sasuke-kun are both well. Thanks to you." Sakura swallowed, blinking away tears she hadn't known she'd cried.

"I'm sorry, Haruno-kun," Shizune said quietly. "I didn't think… I thought you knew…"

The lifting of that terrifying fear left Sakura feeling empty. That familiar anger still burned into the back of her mind, but it was muffled by relief. "Then why… why are you here?" Sakura asked.

"I'm getting you out of here," Naruto's mother answered firmly.

Sakura blinked. "What?" was all she could say. Out of here? Why would she…

"You saved my son's life," Kushina said, and her voice cracked a little more than usual. "It's abhorrent for you to be treated like this." She rolled a little closer. "Get up. You're coming with me."

Sakura glared at the woman reflexively. "No," she stated. She didn't want to go anywhere with this woman.

Kushina's face fell. Shizune stepped into the room. "Kushina-sama," she said, "we should -"

There was a light cough, and both women turned to the door. Sakura froze in renewed fear. "Kushina-chan, Kushina-chan," the Third Hokage said. "Whatever am I supposed to do about this?"

"You let her go home, now," Kushina growled.

"I'm afraid that's not an option," the Hokage said. "By Kakashi-kun's report, she's drawn on the power of the Nine-Tails. She can't-"

Sakura shrank back against the wall. "Please," she said, the pleading word escaping her lips without conscious thought. "I… I only let it out to save Naruto-kun and Sasuke-kun. I won't let it -"

"Sakura-kun," the Hokage interrupted her firmly. "You've done nothing wrong, and I have no intention of you staying here a moment longer than necessary."

"I… what?" Sakura said.

"Why is she here at all?" Kushina demanded. "You know as well as I do that -"

"No I don't," the Hokage stated. "I'm not a master of your clan's seals, Kushina-chan. I can't possibly allow her to go home until a competent seal master has kept watch on the seal for any unexpected fluctuations for at least twenty-four hours." He sighed. "I'll send word for Jiraiya-kun, but you know that -"

"Hiruzen, you utter bastard." Kushina started to cough roughly.

The Hokage just nodded.

"Fine," Kushina spat. "You win, damn it. I'll do it, but not here. She gets to go home."

"Agreed." The Hokage nodded firmly. "Shizune-chan, if you could make the -"

"No," Sakura said. Everyone turned to her, and she had to fight the urge to shrink away. "I'm not going to go anywhere with… her." She let her hatred, rising again, show in that final word. It would be so easy, a part of her thought, to let it loose, to call up that red chakra.

She couldn't. This woman that she hated was also her friend's mother. She'd already killed… no, the thing inside of her had already killed Naruto's father. She couldn't let it kill his mother also.

"Child," Kushina said. She coughed once. "Please. You hate me, and I deserve it, more than even you know. I understand, and I know that nothing I could do could repay even the slightest fraction of what I've done to you, but please, let me do this for you, at least."

"Why?" Sakura wasn't sure which question she was asking. Why had Kushina killed her mother? Why should she let Kushina help her? Why did Kushina want to help?

It was the last question Kushina answered. "Because I owe you," she said. "And I owe Amaya. And it's what Mina- the Fourth Hokage would have wanted me to do."

Sakura froze for an instant, a memory coming to mind that made her eyes widen in realization and shock, words that she had heard in the vision of the past the Nine-Tails had shown her: "But I know… I hope… Naruto… and Kushina will be there for you." And… the Hokage had implied that the seal that bound the demon in Sakura was from Kushina's clan. And Naruto had said his father had died fighting the Nine-Tails…

"Naruto's father," Sakura said tonelessly. "Your… husband. He was the Fourth Hokage."

It was Kushina's turn to freeze. "Yes," she said quietly. "He was." She swallowed loudly. "The Nine-Tails… Sakura… I…" She trailed off.

"Kushina-chan?" the Hokage asked softly.

Kushina coughed several times, then looked away. "The seal is my design," she finished weakly.

"Kushina-chan," the Hokage said again, something Sakura couldn't read in his voice.

"I'm not asking for your forgiveness," Kushina said. "I don't deserve that. You don't have to say a word to me if you don't want. Just… let me do this, please. For… for your father's sake, if nothing else. He… when he returns, I'd like for you to be home. Not here."

That thought was enough to make Sakura slowly, hesitatingly, nod.

It was a testament to how weary he was on the night he returned from Wave Country that, when he opened the front door of his house to find Uzumaki Kushina in his sitting room, flipping through his daughter's copy of The Gutsy Shinobi Returns, Haruno Takeru just froze for a moment. Then he stalked over to his favorite armchair, collapsed into it, and rubbed at his eyes. "I am absolutely certain," he said tiredly, "that there is a very good explanation for this."

Kushina closed the book and set it down on the end table she'd positioned her wheelchair next to. "I'm sorry, Takeru," she said quietly. "Hokage-sama didn't leave me any choice but to break my promise this much more."

Takeru took a deep breath. "What happened?"

"On her mission, Sakura-kun… was forced to use the power of the Nine-Tails. She saved Naruto's life. And Sasuke-kun's."

Takeru swallowed once. "Is she -"

"She's not hurt," Kushina reassured him. "She's asleep upstairs right now, but Hokage-sama wouldn't let her go home unless… a competent seal master was there to keep watch for twenty-four hours."

Takeru swore. "That old -"

"I agree." Kushina sighed. "I'm not so sure he isn't right anymore, though."

"Kushina -"

"The twenty-four hours were up earlier this evening," Kushina stated. "I know I have no right, but I didn't want her to be alone." Her hands went to the wheels of her chair. "I'll let myself out now," she said, "but…" She shuddered once. "I think… later, we need to talk about my promise. Sakura… I'm the only one who can -"

There were quiet footsteps coming down the stairs, and Takeru stood quickly as Sakura walked into the room, dressed in her pajamas. "…Father?" she said quietly.

Takeru took a step forward. "Sakura."

Sakura almost stumbled, breaking into a run until she nearly slammed into her father, embracing him. "Daddy," she sobbed, burying her face in his chest. "I… I…" She clearly couldn't finish.

Takeru moved his own arms around her, enclosing her in a tight embrace. "I'm here, Sakura," he whispered softly, one hand gently running through her hair. "I'm here."

She just kept sobbing wordlessly, uncontrollably.

Takeru looked up at Kushina, and let his exhaustion and a thorny shoot of gratitude smother the old, familiar hatred just this once. "Kushina," he said. "It's late, it's a long way from here to your home, and there's no one to help you with the trip." He hesitated, but pressed on. "Stay the night, as I'm sure you were planning. In the morning, I'll help you home on my way to the Tower for my formal debrief."

Kushina stared at him for a long moment, then nodded once before wheeling herself into the kitchen, giving Takeru and Sakura the illusion of privacy.

Tetsu woke free of pain, though with his prosthetic arm missing, tied to a chair in the center of a dark room. Reflexively, he tested the metal-braided rope, but was only rewarded by a slight shock. Lightning-sealed cord, he knew from long experience, and the shock would intensify if he pressed harder against his bonds. There were a dozen ways he could still have escaped, but his sluggish chakra failed to obey his commands.

He wasn't foolish, and he knew well how to interpret the blur of confusing images that was all he remembered since his battle against the bizarrely powerful pink-haired student of Kakashi's. He was a prisoner, who had been interrogated repeatedly, thoroughly if not harshly. The only question was who held him - the Leaf, or his own village. The choice of restraint was typical of the Cloud, but the Leaf knew that well enough.

There was the sound of a door opening - though no light pierced the darkness - and the sound of someone entering. Tetsu listened closely, determining quickly that he was at least intended to think that his visitor was an adult kunoichi. Then she spoke, and that familiar voice answered the question of whose prisoner he was, for Tetsu doubted that any Leaf had heard it and survived.

"Tetsu," the woman said. "It's been a while, hasn't it? Since the Chuunin Exams when Eimi-chan was promoted."

"Yes," Tetsu answered. "Why am I being held this way?"

"You know why," the woman said harshly. "And that shouldn't have been your first question."

Tetsu swallowed once. "My team," he said.

"Yes. Ogushi Eimi suffered only minor wounds. Tenrai Kasumi is expected to make a full recovery over the next months." An ominous pressure filled the air, making it hard for Tetsu to breath.

"And Hikaru-kun?" Tetsu asked, fearing the answer.

Golden, feline eyes glowed in the darkness, glaring at Tetsu. "My brother," Nii Yugito stated, "has yet to waken. The medics don't know if he will ever wake, and it may be kinder if he doesn't. I'm told his legs are a lost cause, and its questionable how much motion he'll regain anywhere else."

"I'm sorry," was all Tetsu could say.

Yugito drew close, until she stood directly in front of Tetsu's chair, though he still could see nothing but her yellow eyes. "You're not sorry yet, Tetsu," she hissed. "In light of this disaster, Raikage-sama has decided to give you - and your team - to me."

"Eimi and Kasumi were only following my orders," Tetsu said. He'd served them poorly enough, but he could at least do this much. "They don't deserve -"

Tendrils of blue fire burned around Yugito, breaking the darkness and casting odd shadows across the - otherwise empty - interrogation chamber. "I'm not an idiot, Tetsu," she snarled. "I'll be taking over as their teacher."

"And I?"

Yugito smiled mirthlessly. "We'll play," she said, "until I am satisfied and give your head to Raikage-sama to send to Leaf in restitution for your flagrant violation of the truce between our villages."

She leaned forward, and a clawed hand brushed against Tetsu's throat. "But first… I've read the interrogation reports, but I want to hear from your lips everything you know about Haruno Sakura."

Haku opened his eyes, and found he was lying atop a cot in a small, windowless room, lit by a pair of flickering electric lights. There was no decoration on the rough stone walls, and other than a single chair there was nothing else in the room but medical monitors, attached by wires to leads scattered about his body.

Haku disconnected them without a second thought and sat up. Where was he? It made no sense for him to wake, unguarded, unrestrained and - as a moment's test showed - with his chakra unbound. His captors were ludicrously overconfident, enough that he hesitated to try to escape. Zabuza had taught him -

Despair and black anger swamped him. He had failed, in the worst possible way. The man he had spared had killed his master. He hadn't even been able to avenge Zabuza's death. What a useless tool he had proved in the end.

The room's lone door opened, admitting a white-haired man Haku knew was one of the pair who had captured him, even though he had abandoned the uniform of a Mist hunter ninja. "Good afternoon, Yuki-san," he said, quietly and calmly. "I am pleased to see you awake."

Haku forced himself to calmness. "Your abilities," he said. "You are of the Kaguya Clan?"


"Then you are no Mist ninja."


"Who are you, then? Where are we? Why did you take me?"

"I am Kimimaro," the man answered. "This is the Hidden Village of the Sound. My master will explain our purpose shortly, when he arrives." He seated himself in the lone chair. "It will be only a few moments."

"And if I choose to leave instead?" Haku asked, raising his hand. His chakra responded eagerly to his will, ice growing in his palm.

A man laughed. There was a sensation of power that made Haku freeze, a strength that made Zabuza seem like a weakling child. He hadn't even noticed the dark-haired man enter the room, but now his presence seemed to fill it. Inhuman, serpentine eyes measured Haku, and the boy found himself letting the ice drop.

"Who are you?" he asked weakly.

"I am the one," the man said, "who will give you the power and opportunity to avenge your former master in the grandest way possible."

"What do you mean?" Haku asked warily.

The man smiled. "If you choose to become my weapon," he said, "we will kill the Hidden Village of the Leaf's Third Hokage while that village is destroyed around him."

"A small, new village like the Sound wouldn't stand a chance," Haku said automatically.

The man just laughed.

"Who are you?" Haku asked again.

"My name is Orochimaru." Haku swallowed painfully, and the man smiled again. "Perhaps you have heard of me."

Author's Random Ramblings

1) The urge to slip another chapter into the outline somewhere so this could be "Chapter Nine: Tails" was overwhelming.

2) Although I don't plan on any formal division, I have always considered this point to be the end of "Book One" of the story.

3) As always, my thanks go out to everyone at all the usual places who commented on the drafts of this chapter. To a greater extent than usual, even, since they stopped me from making some serious missteps.

4) The next chapter of this story may be somewhat delayed, as I plan to spend some time working on the beginning of another story that's been in the works for some time, which I kind of view as a sister story to this one. It's tentatively entitled "Tree of Life," and if you like Dead Garden I hope you'll keep an eye out for it.

Draft Started: September 18, 2012
Draft Finished: November 05, 2012
Draft Released: November 08, 2012
Final Released: November 13, 2012