Chapter 22

The earth shook as the ghost cat landed, its maw tracking Sakura's retreat. She hit the ground and went immediately into a backflip to avoid the heavy paws that splintered sturdy bamboo stalks like toothpicks. Need to get into the open. The medic wove through the falling debris and the vegetation beyond with the transformed kunoichi hot on her heels, her monstrous bulk plowing easily through the foliage. Can't fight with all this around.

A clearing! Sakura ground to a sudden stop as her escape options fell away in sheer mountain cliffs. Shit. She turned to see the ghost cat's stalking form, canines bared with predatory anticipation. The medic hadn't seen her fight before, but she had seen the sort of damage her overwhelming strength could inflict on ordinary shinobi. But she, Sakura Haruno, was no ordinary shinobi.

The attack came in singular explosion of movement.

Sakura locked her hands against the gnashing rows of slavering incisors. The initial impact was enough to drive her back several feet, her boots cutting deep trenches into the earth. She dug her heels in and steeled herself, pitting her strength against the kunoichi's bestial power. Inch by inch, with the howling chasm wailing at her back, she fought her way back from the brink.

The kunoichi roared in fury, and the heat of her breath dried and intensified. Fire! Sakura tucked and dove forward under the ghost cat's belly, narrowly avoiding the gout of orange flame that scorched the ground she had stood on moments before. She kept rolling, with raking claws and snapping jaws harassing her at every turn.

Her evasion came to an abrupt halt as the twin pillars of the ghost cat's forelegs crashed down around her, pinning her in place. Again, the gleaming canines dove at her, and again, she caught them in gloved fists, but, caught flat on her back, she had no more ways out. Her arms began to buckle under the inexorable weight as the deadly orange glow began to build in the ghost cat's throat again.

o

"I'm sorry, Karui."

"About what?" the redhead asked. Neji exhaled. Of course it couldn't be as simple as that.

"For..." he hesitated, "For not being able to return your feelings." Karui's amber eyes narrowed at him suspiciously as she crossed her arms.

"What's with you all of a sudden?" she demanded, "First you get your ass kicked by that guy–" she jerked her head toward the interrogation room "–and now this?"

"Madara's advances mean that time is running short," Neji said softly, "And the tensions between us are long overdue for discussion." Her scowl deepened.

"What makes you want to discuss any–" Sudden comprehension dawned on her features. "Oh. Fucking hell, Neji." Her hand flew up to cover her mouth in disbelief. "You're going soon, aren't you? On your suicide mission."

"It needs to be done." He didn't bother to contest her choice of words. The Hyuuga knew better than anyone else how slim his odds of survival were. "Thank you, Karui, for being here all these years. I am irredeemably indebted to you."

"That means you're not going to let me come with you, right?" Neji closed his eyes, dipping his head slightly in affirmation. "Fuck. Fuck!" A helpless little laugh filtered out through her fingers. "That's it, then? You're just up and going to throw your life away? Going to leave everyone else behind? What am I supposed to tell the Raikage, when he wakes up? 'Welcome back, A. Oh, by the way, Neji fucked off and got himself killed'?" He had expected the anger. It was hardly unmerited.

"I've already made the appropriate arrangements to inform A, should I fail to return." That wouldn't help, but she deserved the truth.

"That's it, then," she repeated quietly, the bitterness and venom still abundantly present. Her hands balled into fists. "That's it, then." Would another apology defuse her ire? It seemed unlikely. The only thing that would help now was time.

The door opened, and Mabui stepped out, looking apologetic with her silver hair draped over her bandaged eye. She shook her head. No, they hadn't managed to get any information from the intruder.

"Fucking hell," Karui snarled, bulling past the assistant as she bared the knife from the back of her belt, "I'll take care of this shit."

"Karui," Neji called out, starting after her, "He's of no use to us dead."

"He's no fucking use to us alive," the redhead snapped, kicking the inner door open. The guard in the observation room looked to Mabui for the signal to stop her, but she shook her head. He shifted uneasily, but moved out into the hallway. Neji followed Karui into the holding room, with the assistant close behind him.

"All right, you piece of shit." She crossed the room, slamming her knife into the metal tabletop. "Talk. How the fuck did you know where we were?" When the intruder only smiled at her, she rammed her fist into his stomach. He convulsed, bending over double, though the ropes binding his hands to the chair jerked him up short. "I said talk!"

"My name is Sai," the intruder choked out, "ANBU rank. Serial numb–" Karui slugged him across the face.

"Don't give me that bullshit!" she screamed, kicking him in the chest. His chair tipped back, and he hit the floor hard. "I don't give a rat's ass about who you are, if you don't start talking, I will slit your fucking throat!" She grabbed for the knife.

"Karui." Neji got there first, catching her by the wrist. "Enough."

"Don't fucking touch me!" She lashed out at him with a fist, but he was quick enough to snatch it out of the air. "Let me go, you asshole!" She barged into him, and they both went down. Neji held on. Sai was a resource they couldn't afford to give up, and he had no doubt that she was capable of carrying out her threats. She flailed wildly at him, and it was all he could do to maintain his grip.

Out of the corner of his eye, he saw movement. The intruder was standing, knife in hand. How had he gotten it? Had they knocked it loose in their struggle? Neji tried to move Karui clear, but she was too strong to simply overpower, and rage deafened her to his words. The knife lifted. He was not going to make it in time.

Mabui was there, her palm pressed against Sai's chest. Blue light radiated from her hand, enveloping him. The smile evaporated from his lips, replaced by a look of agony as his body twisted, deforming and contorting in impossible angles before pulling taut in a beam of lightning and vanishing into the ceiling.

He came down a second later. Under the ruinous force of the impact, his body simply gave out, splattering the walls with blood and macerated lumps of tissue. He twitched once, and was still.

"Mabui..." The assistant looked ill, and at the mention of her name, she bolted outside, her eyes already tearing. "Shit," Karui swore, rolling off Neji and running after her.

o

Power. She needed more power.

"Your friend is too weak to be useful," Madara said, as casually as if he'd simply mentioned the weather, "You represent a more substantial investment, but do not think your good fortune exempts you from her duties. If you cannot serve me with your strength, then you will serve me with your body. Do you understand?" Sakura nodded, her hands tightening around the man's skull. He whimpered, but she didn't look at his face. She couldn't afford to lose her nerve now. "Do it." She began to squeeze, reaching deep for what she needed.

It wasn't there.

Sweat broke out on her brow. Not now. Not now! Was it nerves? She'd done it time and time before, though never on live subjects. She inhaled deep, acutely aware of his eyes on her. If she failed now...

Before she could protest, he jabbed two fingers into the center of her chest.

Pins and needles swept over every inch of her skin as her body jolted back to life. She didn't know whether to giggle or scream at the pervasive, tingling sensation that left her no refuge from her own senses. Biting down hard on her lip, she felt around for anything to cling to...

But he wasn't there. He was only a memory.

She felt it, though, the surge of energy she had felt before. Focus. It wasn't stillness that she needed. Focus. The heat above her was suffocating, but she burned hotter within. Focus! It receded for a heartbeat, then exploded. Energy, wild and pure, coursed through her veins. Suddenly, the ghost cat's strength seemed laughable as the medic clamped her muzzle shut with the most minute flexion of her arms. Flames spilled out from between her fangs, but the medic was healed before the pain could even set in. It was easy. So easy.

With barely more than a thought, she tossed the hulking ghost cat aside. The ground trembled when she landed, then shuddered as the medic came down on her head with both fists clenched. A yowl of pain split the night air, but the medic was far from finished. She hammered blow after blow into the ghost cat, fracturing the earth with spiderweb fissures. The ghost cat's form wavered and began to dissipate as the rapture continued to bubble in the medic's veins. Easy. So easy.

In a puff of blue smoke, the ghost cat vanished, leaving only the kunoichi's body behind. Just one more! She felt like laughing. How delightful it would be to squash her! She took the kunoichi's head in her hands and began to squeeze.

"Stop! You'll kill her!" What? Who was that? "Stop!" The kunoichi slid with a moan out of her grasp as the power began to fade. No. Nonononono! She needed it. Not now. Not now! The world careened out of control as she clutched at her head, falling into C's arms.

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