Opening - Rolling Star by Yui

X

Third... Kazekage?

Sasori smiled down at Kimimaro and Karin, noting their wide-eyed expressions. "It looks to me like you don't fully understand what I'm showing you... That's good. I like to provide a commentary on my favorite artworks. The Third Kazekage, revered as the strongest of the four previous Kazekage, disappeared many years ago. No one ever figured out what happened to him, and no one ever found him dead or alive. As you can see, I was responsible for that incident."

Kimimaro glimpsed a flicker of dark movement near the bottom edge of his vision, and glanced toward the ground in time to see a spike of solid black material growing toward Karin with tremendous speed. He jumped into the path of the attack to catch it with his shield, but the burned and weakened shield cracked loudly on impact. Fortunately, the heavy gauntlet of bone he wore under it stopped the rest of the attack's momentum.

He swung his cracked shield aside, dragging the tip of the iron spike along with it before stabbing his greatsword into the side of the material, testing its strength. He was shocked to see the tip of his sword easily scythe in and out of the iron, which promptly smoothed over the cut he had made.

Karin leapt backward away from Sasori, and was shortly followed by Kimimaro as he discarded and replaced his shield. "Kimimaro, you know what that means, right?"

He nodded grimly. "It means he's stronger than any previous Kazekage, even without that puppet. This is only going to get harder." He paused, glaring up at the black-robed puppet that flew around Sasori in circles, resembling a vengeful ghost of the Third himself. "It's sand. That jutsu he's using is some kind of sand control, like what Gaara uses, and the gold dust of the Fourth Kazekage. Maybe it's a bloodline of some kind... do you think you can make some clones to study his moves?"

"No problem," she grinned, crossing her fingers in the clone seal. "I'm not even close to running out of chakra. Multiple Shadow Clone Jutsu!" Several dozen clouds of white smoke bloomed up around Karin and Kimimaro, settling down to reveal the same number of shadow clones. The army of Uzumaki redheads raised their swords and charged without hesitation.

The Third Kazekage settled into place next to Sasori and began directing his iron sand to attack the clones, forming increasingly fine and complex branches of the material to attack them and chase them back. However, slowly but surely they pushed onward, deflecting and dodging the lethal spikes to reach closer and closer to Sasori, who watched the scene without a hint of concern.

As one particular clone drew very close to the puppeteer, she dodged a thin blade of iron sand closely enough that it scratched her right temple, pulling off her glasses and drawing a thin stream of blood but not dispelling her. She saw the Third move to intercept her attack on Sasori, but she swatted him aside with her left sword before leaping across the final stretch of distance between herself and Sasori, extending the tip of her right cutlass toward his chest.

Sasori swerved out of the way, and instead of stabbing into him the blade grated along his chest to produce a few dim orange sparks, slicing through his Akatsuki robe as well. Karin twisted onto her back in midair, whipping her left sword across his chest as well before flying past him and landing on her back atop a tree limb, where she finally dispelled.

Sasori dispelled the other clones as well, and none got close enough to land a hit after that one. With that done, he turned his attention to the real Karin. "Hm... tell me, is that incredible speed and reaction time of yours the result of a kekkei genkai, or is your body perhaps just releasing an abnormally concentrated flow of adrenaline?"

"I dunno," she shrugged, "but what does it matter to you?" To Kimimaro she added quietly, "The sand's poisoned; don't get hit."

"If it's a bloodline, I can count on you to move that quickly once I've remade you as a puppet, but if your speed is the result of a normal adrenaline rush, then I'll have to keep a supply of adrenaline within your body once I've modified you. You'll still move that quickly, but I'll only be able to use you for a certain length of time."

"You keep talking like you're going to win this fight," Kimimaro spoke up with a frigid, hateful tone, "But you need to realize that I haven't used this sword on you yet." he hefted the pearly white blade. "Actually, I think it's about time for that."

Kimimaro vanished in a flicker of white, reappearing directly in front of the Kazekage. This surprised Sasori greatly, since he had thickened the wall of iron spikes in front of himself rather than the puppet, in response to the knight's threat. Kimimaro slammed the edge of his shield into the Kazekage's chest hard enough to draw a loud cracking sound from it, then raised his greatsword for a second attack which he called off as the puppet retreated.

He gave chase, easily keeping up with his Pulse Step, aiming another swipe of his long blade for the Kazekage's throat. I know where its weak spot is, thanks to you, Karin! He vividly recalled the scene of Karin's clone decapitating Sasori's first puppet as it stabbed her with its huge bladed tail. Its neck doesn't have nearly as much armor, so it can turn its head!

He lashed out furiously with both his greatsword and shield, but the puppet kept retreating away as quickly as it could. He chased it deeper into the forest, until he was blindsided by a massive wall of iron sand that slammed into his back and kept flying forward. The Kazekage sidestepped it to reveal a comparatively sized pyramid-shaped spear of sand with the tip pointed at Kimimaro's head.

"It'll take time and effort to repair your head after this," Sasori murmured, "but it'll be worth it to craft you into a true, lasting masterpiece."

Kimimaro fought against the momentum that held him pinned flat against the iron wall, vaporizing his armor to make himself lighter while already using the full strength granted by his Cursed Seal of Earth. He managed to raise his shield over his face angling it upward as well before focusing his Shikotsumyaku to make the shield as thick and dense as he possibly could before the iron spear struck home.

The tip of the weapon stabbed into his shield and sheared upward, letting off a shower of blue and orange sparks before it struck the wall above and behind Kimimaro's head. Both the wall and spike splashed apart into a shower of black sand at the point of impact, and the wall stopped flying forward. Kimimaro, however, maintained his momentum and shot into the forest while growing a fresh suit of armor.

He brought himself to a stop by extending a skeletal arm from his right shoulder, catching a tree limb as he passed it by. He stretched out the arm to gradually slow himself, then landed on the ground and discarded the arm in favor of another newly grown greatsword. He wasted no time in using a Pulse Step to engage the Kazekage again.

This is our chance! "Shadow Clone Jutsu!" Karin declared fiercely, directing a fresh wave of clones toward Sasori while his puppet was still isolated deeper in the forest and engaging Kimimaro. On instinct, he blocked several cutlass slashes with his mechanical forearms, but abandoned that tactic once a white blade cut deep enough into his right arm to spill a thin stream of golden oil from a hose concealed within.

Sasori tried and failed to concentrate on fighting both Kimimaro and Karin, defending against their bone blades with bars of iron sand. His movements became increasingly rushed and sloppy, and it was only a matter of time before one of them landed a serious blow. It happened to be Kimimaro, who broke through the Kazekage's defense and mightily swept his greatsword through the puppet's neck, sending its head tumbling away.

And now I'm coming for you, Sasori.

As the complex formation of iron sand surrounding Sasori collapsed, he sprang back away from Karin and whipped off his damaged Akatsuki robe, then aimed his right palm at her and his left at the knight that appeared next to her. Karin dodged away from the jet of vivid flames from his left wrist, while Kimimaro directly caught the pressurized stream of cerulean water on his shield.

A small but forceful splash of water was deflected off the shield to hit Karin's arm just before she stepped behind Kimimaro, where she flicked her sleeve dry. "Are you alright?"

"I'm fine," he replied, holding back both the fire and water attacks, which together gave off a scalding cloud of steam. Fortunately his whole body was protected by plate armor, and Karin was at a safe distance.

Eventually, Sasori ran out of both water and oil, which prompted the first flicker of concern he'd yet shown. He reached behind his back with both hands for the scroll containing his last puppet collection, but this was the opening Kimimaro and Karin were waiting for.

They lunged as one, raising the three swords they shared between them, and attacked Sasori while his arms were behind his back. He stepped back once and pulled his arms forward, holding a huge scroll in his right hand, but it was sliced in two by Kimimaro's greatsword as Karin continued to hack away at his chest, maintaining the strategy she'd used against Kidoumaru and Jiroubou while Kimimaro aimed for his neck instead.

Karin's right cutlass nicked his core of living flesh, drawing a pressurized stream of vivid red blood. Given the placement of his heart, it was completely inevitable, only a matter of time. A weak spot! Her eyes went wide, and she redoubled the ferocity of her attacks. "Kimimaro!"

"I see it!" he drew back his sword with both hands, aiming to stab through Sasori's heart. Despite not having any other available body to pilot, Sasori ejected his heart from his back as a desperate final move, but it came too late. The knight skewered through his puppet body and the living heart behind it in midair, spilling a much greater flow of his blood. The puppet slumped forward on Kimimaro's blade lifelessly.

The Scorpion of the Red Sand was dead.

After a long, hesitant silence, Kimimaro pulled off his helmet and panted, "We did it."

As Karin watched him sheath his sword in a scabbard that formed on the inside of his shield, she noted that he sounded unsure, as if hoping for her to confirm his statement. "Y-Yeah," she obliged after a moment. Her body still thrummed with a copius flow of adrenaline, and her voice came out somewhat shakily. "We did."

Her hand snapped out and snatched a fistful of his shouzoku an instant after his breastplate crumbled away to expose it. Using this handhold, she hauled him down to her height and planted a kiss on him, unintentionally rather aggressively. After a moment of slack-jawed shock, he eagerly returned that kiss.

"...Um," she mumbled aimlessly.

"Yeah, we should get going now," he quickly answered with a scarlet blush to match hers. "The others could probably use our help."

"Uh-huh," she nodded, nudging Sasori's body with her left foot. "And we don't want this guy somehow getting up and jumping us again."

"Nope. No, we do not."

"So... let's go?"

"Right."

X

Elsewhere, Hinata continued to exchange blows with Kushina, whose Version Two cloak had now advanced to five tails. The green fabric over her forearms was burned away at her elbows, leaving crumbling black bits of ash at the ends of her newly shortened sleeves. Her wrists themselves were only lightly singed.

Without stopping her taijutsu assault, Kushina opened her mouth wide and blasted Hinata in the face with several small spheres of glowing orange chakra, then shoved her back a solid forty feet with a punch to her belly. Hinata tumbled and rolled to her feet quickly, then glanced down at her barrier armor and sighed in frustration.

Where Kushina had struck her barrier armor, there was a gaping hole in the fabric over her abdomen. In addition to this, the cloth over the outside of her right thigh was scorched black from a narrowly dodged hit, and the skin of her left hip was also exposed from an attack that landed more solidly.

As Naruto appeared next to her in a blur, with his Version Three armor completely undamaged, she groaned openly. "I swear, this is a double standard on a cosmic level."

"Heh," Naruto chuckled. "My clothes are already completely gone, ya know. They get shredded every time I use Version Three."

"I know, but yours grow back!" she vented. "And after this, I have to fight some creepy old guy who intentionally turned himself into a tentacle monster! With half of my outfit burned off!"

"...Actually, I forgot to apply that seal to my shouzoku..." Naruto pointlessly scratched the back of his skull helm in embarassment. "So I'm screwed. You, on the other hand... I think I can help you out, Hina-chan."

"Hm?" Interested, Hinata glanced away from Kushina for a moment. "You can?"

"Yep," Naruto answered, then angled his sword to deflect a shimmering orange laser beam Kushina fired at him from her mouth. "Just hold still for a second." Kushina stopped firing the chakra beam, allowing Naruto to throw a Banshou Karu at her as a momentary distraction, which he then used to lay his left hand directly on Hinata's rear.

Naturally, she was less than pleased with this, given their current situation. "N-Naruto-kun, this REALLY isn't the time!"

"Relax, I just put the seal on you!" He held up his hands defensively.

"Did it have to be on my butt!?"

"...No, but that's where mine is. It's behind you so it's protected from frontal attacks, but it's not on your back, where someone would aim to attack you from behind. Seriously, when's the last time someone aimed a jutsu at your butt in a fight?" Naruto paused thoughtfully, then added, "Other than Kakashi Hatake. He doesn't count."

"You just wanted an excuse to feel me up," she crossed her arms and glared at him halfheartedly.

"That too."

"Naruto..."

"Okay, okay. No more flirting in front of my possessed kaachan, I get it. Which reminds me, where is sh-"

With an inhuman snarl, a six-tailed Kushina fly-kicked Naruto in the back of the head. Now partially armored in a layer of sleek white bone over her abdomen and shoulders, with a cracked fox's skull encasing her own head, the older Uzumaki prowled after the younger on all fours, at an incredible speed considering her lack of a movement jutsu.

Naruto crashed through several trees as he flew, knocking them down as he passed, but eventually he came to a stop. Kushina promptly caught up to him and whipped a claw of bone and red chakra toward his face. He caught it on his left forearm, and countered by swinging his sword forcefully at her waist. Kushina flashed backward in a blur of deep red, settling down onto all fours with her glowing mouth wide.

A flicker of translucent black chakra floated up in front of Naruto momentarily, and as it winked out it was replaced by several more like it, all around him. Like a lightless black flame, but as transparent as stained glass, the black chakra flared up more and more until he was completely surrounded by it. It kept growing, shaping itself with increasing speed into the likeness of a huge black fox. Aside from having smaller, catlike ears and only one tail, it was a clear replica of Kurama.

Floating within the head of the fox, Naruto sheathed his sword and watched his mother forming another Tailed Beast Ball to attack him. He aimed both of his open palms forward, toward the fox's open mouth, and began gathering his chakra there. From the faintest wisps of pale blue chakra, his attack grew with increasing speed until the Rasenshuriken was fully formed.

Kushina let fly her Tailed Beast Ball, aiming it up at the head of the much larger fox without compressing it. Naruto let it approach without firing his Rasenshuriken, and at the last second he blurred and faded out of existence with a soft whoosh. The massive ball of black and orange chakra passed cleanly through the open air where he'd been, and continued its upward trajectory farther and farther until it exploded, and by that point it was too high up to damage the land with anything more than a forceful but ultimately harmless shockwave.

"Rasenshuriken!" Naruto roared as he reappeared above and behind his mother, still shrouded within the black chakra avatar. His attack flew and soundly struck home, vaporizing Kushina and the ground around her to create a crater easily thirty feet across.

"That was clever, Naruto-kun!" Hinata appeared beside him with an Empty Wind, floating at the heart of her Water Deity. Rather than trying to block the Tailed Beast Ball, he dodged it and let it shoot into the sky... this whole forest is still here because he did that.

"Trying to block one of those is a bad idea," he answered, "We found that out the hard way a few minutes ago."

Hinata glanced north in the direction of a rather large crater where Yagura's hideout had once been. "Hm... so what are we going to do now?"

"We have to try and seal her once she starts regenerating... I can close in easily enough with my Empty-" Behind you! Kurama roared, and Naruto jumped to his right as quickly as he could while calling, "Look out, Hina-chan!" she dodged as well, just in time to avoid a volley of a few dozen glowing green chakra chains. He turned in time with Hinata to face his mother, who had seemingly fired the chains from her mouth and was now preparing another Tailed Beast Skill.

"She already regenerated!?"

How the hell did she get this much of my chakra!? The Nine-Tails snarled in Naruto's mindscape. Enough to use a Version Two on herself and a shadow clone! Naruto's eyes widened in understanding, even as he raised one of his avatar's front paws to catch a thin orange beam of chakra from Kushina. If she has enough of my red chakra to manifest six tails, who knows what else she can do? Be on your guard, Naruto.

Thanks, Kurama. Naruto's chakra avatar prowled toward Kushina while he raised his sword high over his head. "Banshou Karu!" he brought the weapon down to form and fling a huge crescent of dark steel at Kushina, who sliced it to pieces with her chakra beam long before it reached her. However, he kept closing in and throwing more blades at her, and the fifth one struck home.

Kushina was vertically sliced in half, but after only a moment the two halves of her chakra cloak reached out to each other and pulled her back together. She threw her right hand forward and a chakra arm extended from it, dipping into the ground between herself and Naruto. She shortly repeated this with her left arm as well.

"Damn it, if she can regenerate that fast now..." Naruto was cut off by the earth shuddering under the feet of his chakra avatar. He was lifted into the air atop a massive slab of the ground by several chakra arms, while almost a dozen more curved around the perimeter of the lifted ground to surround him in a darkly glistening cage of red chakra.

Naruto! Hinata aimed the hands of the Water Deity, the left at Kushina and the right at Naruto's cage. "Water Release!" An oversized Rasengan appeared within each of her chakra avatar's palms, shortly followed by a pair of Hollow Water Dragons that grew out of the water making up the avatar. Their jaws closed around the two Oodama Rasengan with a soft growl. "Great Dragon Rasengan!"

Naruto watched as one of the dragons flew toward Kushina, and the other toward him. Both Oodama Rasengan turned a deep, brilliant blue before they struck. While Kushina dodged the one aimed at herself, the one aimed at Naruto soundly struck the chakra arms surrounding him and exploded, blowing two of them away from each other.

Naruto pounced on the opening, guiding his fox aura to leap through it and land in a crouch next to Hinata's Water Deity. "That really wasn't necessary, ya know. I could've gotten through just by dissolving my fox cloak... but thanks."

"Naruto!" Hinata pointed to the slab of earth Kushina still held up, pointing out that it was rising above them quickly. "Look out!"

Naruto's brilliant orange eyes went wide, and he realized what his mother was about to do. He aimed his hands at the raised section of the forest, just as it began to descend toward them in an arc. "Shinra Tensei!" he pushed against it, shoving it back, but Kushina merely swung it toward them again, more forcefully while his Deva Path was on cooldown. "Crap!"

"Naruto, with me!" Hinata moved and raised her Water Deity's hands to catch the falling island, and Naruto's fox rose to its hind legs in an attempt to help her hold it off.

Their strength made absolutely no difference; the earth simply weighed too much even before factoring in its momentum. The earth, stone and trees crashed down onto them mightily, crushing and burying their chakra avatars.

Panicked, Naruto searched around in the pitch-darkness with his Rinnegan until he found Hinata's chakra silhouette. Like him, she was still maintaining her Water Deity, but it was stretched out face-down on the ground like his black fox aura. Hina-chan... hesitantly, he raised his hands together in the Snake seal, continuing the short sequence of seals and finishing it quickly.

His chakra avatar crumbled into wisps of black chakra that then winked out entirely, allowing the enormous weight of the mountain above him to crash down even as he hit the ground and slammed his palms into it. "Swamp of the Underworld!"

The earth all around him dissolved into thick, smooth mud, and he shot down into its depths just before the avalanche of the now-liquefied earth above him would've struck and crushed him. With his Rinnegan active, he saw Hinata sink down into it and flail wildly in her shock, both with her Water Deity and her real body. He cracked a faint, amused smirk, and flew toward her through the swamp.

He watched her chakra silhouette intently, and was able to see her turning her head toward him as he got close. She nodded once in understanding, and allowed her Water Deity to collapse so he could pass through it and grab her. Since her chakra wasn't infused into this swamp, she was unable to move around in it, so she needed him to catch her and carry her to the surface.

He laid a hand on her shoulder to clean off the thick coating of mud that clung to her, and she nodded in appreciation. "Thanks; that was a nice save."

He crouched and laid his palms on the surface of the swamp, cancelling the jutsu. "If we can't seal her while she regenerates, we can still hold her in place with this jutsu instead."

"Right. Earth Release..." she crouched next to him and touched the smooth earth, not needing hand seals thanks to her sealed gloves. "...Swamp of the Underworld!" the ground liquefied once more, and they stood again. Her gaze snapped to Kushina, who was still perched easily on the surface of the mud and still wearing a six-tailed Version Two. "Um, Kurama-san, I have an idea..."

"Hm?" Naruto repeated the fox's words, imitating his voice and doing a poor job of it. "What are you thinking, that you would address it to me?"

"If Uzumaki-san took some of your chakra without your permission, wouldn't it be possible for you to take it back?"

Naruto's eyes widened, and he repeated after Kurama, "In theory, yes. In practice... it would be difficult. She's modified my chakra with traces of her own, but even so, I could connect mine to hers if I got close enough. I'd have to pull my chakra out of her and off of her, but doing that would risk her pulling out my chakra instead. She's already won this tug-of-war once, after all."

"Doing this could make it much easier to seal her, but if we fail, she'll have more of my chakra. Potentially much more... and through her, Akatsuki could use it against us, or use it to restore the Ten-Tails. It's a tough decision... but I agree, it's worth the risk. Perhaps if all three of us were to pull on her chakra at once?"

"Mhm. We'll all do it at the same time. If it's just as simple as you make it sound, Naruto-kun and I shouldn't have any problems figuring it out. And it's three on one... we can do it, I'm sure."

Kushina snarled warningly, and stalked forward over the swamp while forming another, smaller Tailed Beast Ball. Naruto silently whipped his sword through the air, throwing a dulled Banshou Karu at her and flinging her backward away from the small blue and red chakra spheres, which scattered and faded without her influence. "Let's go, now!"

Both he and Hinata flash-stepped toward a disoriented Kushina together, and when they closed in Kurama sprang forth out of Naruto's seal in his full glory, catching the much smaller red fox and pinning her against the surface of the swamp. Kushina struggled and screeched, but it was too late for her. Naruto and Hinata each laid a hand on her sizzling red cloak and pulled away as hard as they could, taking with them streams of dark red chakra.

At the same time, Kurama released his grip on Kushina and pulled his paw high into the air, stretching out a third stream of chakra. "Pull!"

"Right!"

"On it!"

Kushina howled in fury once more, but she didn't stand a chance of holding onto the chakra against her three opponents at once. The Version Two cloak around her tore apart into three pieces, which flew away from her body and into Naruto's, Hinata's, and Kurama's. She sank motionlessly into the swamp, exhausted.

Naruto fell to his knees as the red chakra burned him, and he quickly laid a hand on Kurama's front left paw to return it.

Hinata's reaction was very different, her pure white eyes turned to a uniform scarlet glow, and she blinked several times. Her hair grew slightly spikier, and she breathed in sharply at this new and intriguing sensation. After a few moments, she shook her head and returned the chakra to Kurama as well, sighing in relaxation as her body returned to normal. "What a strange feeling... Warm, numb, and ticklish all at the same time..."

"Ahhh..." Kurama closed his eyes and sighed upward. "I feel stronger, much more whole... I even have some of my Yin chakra back now..." he glanced down at Naruto as the young Hokage laid a Sealing Tag on his mother's forehead again. Kushina was now floating on her back in the thick mud, her eyes closed. "Are you alright, Naruto? I know you've never been able to handle any decent amount of pure red chakra..."

"I'm okay." his Version Three cloak crumbled away into small fragments of chakra bone, and he went on, "I wasn't actually using it, so I guess that made it easier to deal with." he sighed sadly down at his mother's motionless, sealed form. "See ya next time, kaachan."

"Um... Naruto-kun..." Hinata pointed down at his chest with her right hand, covering up a grin with her left. "Your clothes..."

He looked down, and recalled that his shouzoku had been vaporized and it wasn't about to regenerate. Now clad only in frayed but not quite tattered boxers, he flashed a scarlet blush moments before reactivating his chakra cloak.

"Aw..." Hinata couldn't help but sigh.

"H-Hina-chan!"

"What? Girls are allowed to be perverts too, and you look good like that!"

"I should probably be going," Kurama rumbled, then disappeared into Naruto's seal. If you need my help, I'll be waiting right here.

Hinata sighed again. "I should've just let you stay like that until you realized your outfit wasn't growing back..."

"I can remove that seal on your butt, ya know," Naruto suggested, and she could hear his smirk even though his Version Three skull covered it. "See how you like having your outfit shredded so you have to run around in your underwear."

"N-No, thanks!" she phased out of Sage Mode, and went on after a moment, "That's not even fair, anyway. At least you can cover yourself up with a chakra cloak..."

"True." Naruto shrugged in acceptance. "Alright, never mind that. We still have to deal with Kisame and Kakuzu... in fact, that reminds me. Did Zabuza-sensei get caught up in our fight?"

"Nope, I stayed out of harm's way easily enough," the former Kiri-nin replied directly behind Naruto, who jumped several feet in the air while Hinata giggled. "I would've helped if I thought it would do any good."

"How the hell...?"

"Silent Killing, coupled with the Empty Wind."

"...Ah."

X

When their team had initially scattered to fight Akatsuki as per Naruto's orders, Sasuke and Sakura had shot off into the forest to the northeast, making good time despite the fact that neither of them had a movement jutsu. "So... what's your team like?" Sakura asked. "I mean, I've talked to them myself, but I haven't known them as long as you have..."

"Hn..." Sasuke looked up thoughtfully. "Who should I talk about first...?" he mused rhetorically.

"How about Kimimaro and Karin?" Sakura offered. "I've been curious for a while now... are they...?"

"In love," he confirmed shortly. "And neither of them has worked up the courage to say anything. Karin seems to think that if she acts like a stereotypical tsundere for long enough, Kimimaro will catch on. And Kimimaro seems to think she's just angry with him most of the time, so he never has a good oppurtunity to tell her how he feels. Then again... Suigetsu's actually been helping them work through that."

"The one following Zabuza around, right?" Sasuke nodded. "I wonder why he'd help them hook up... I mean, he kinda seems like a dick to me."

"He is," Sasuke answered, prompting her to giggle. "When he teases them about their... tension, he's trying to make them uncomfortable around each other, to push them apart. Fortunately, what he's actually doing is pointing out that their feelings are mutual, which is the best help he could've given them. It shouldn't be long now before one of them makes a move."

"Huh... so what's the deal with him and the big guy? Juugo, right?"

"Ah... Juugo has a kekkei genkai that lets him absorb natural energy at all times... the problem is that the energy builds up in his system until he can't take it any more and he snaps. He goes berserk and attacks everything in sight." Sakura's eyes went wide. "Fortunately, Kimimaro claims that he doesn't do that when they're near each other. When he uses his powers with Kimimaro nearby, he can stay sane."

"Hm... so when Kimimaro sent Juugo away with Suigetsu to fight that Hyuuga chick..."

"He was confident that he'd still be close enough to Juugo for him to use his powers without hurting Suigetsu. Suigetsu, on the other hand, doesn't believe that, and he's terrified of Juugo."

"Okay... so what do you think?"

"On the off chance Juugo actually does snap, Suigetsu won't be killed that easily. In fact, he'll probably have the common sense to run and let Juugo attack Mariko instead. But to be honest, I really think Juugo can keep it together. Kimimaro's ability to calm him is incredible. Even with my Eternal Mangekyou, I haven't been able to see him using chakra to do it. Juugo just can't lose control when Kimimaro is around."

"That does sound amazing." after a moment of hesitation, Sakura asked, "So... what about Itachi? If you don't mind talking about him, I mean."

"He's easy to talk about, but hard to explain," Sasuke shrugged. "By now, someone's probably told you the story of what happened that night."

She nodded. "Naruto told all of us after he became Hokage. I didn't know what to think, until he told us that you knew the story as well, and you were already with Itachi. So... what's he really like, now that he's dropped the act?"

"Like I said, it's hard to explain... the Uchiha have had a tradition going back for centuries, almost like a martial art... we're trained to cover up our real emotions with what you could call a 'mask' at a moment's notice. We're supposed to act as if nothing could possibly faze us, and the enemy we're fighting is barely a threat if at all. It's like a poker face, sort of. Some of us went for a cold, stoic version where we appear to have no emotions at all, and personally, I used to act smug and overconfident instead, like I'm miles ahead of my enemy at all times. It came naturally to me because I was smug and overconfident. You could even say I still am."

Sakura listened, intrigued. I've never heard any of this before... This is probably the first time he's ever told anyone...

Sasuke went on, "I know it sounds sort of... bad, when I put it that way, but it's a tactic we've been using for centuries and it's served us well. My point is, Itachi doesn't do it because he doesn't have to. He's really like that. Always calm, focused, planning out his next sequence of moves while predicting the enemy's. Outside of battle, his emotions are still subdued the same way, but you can really tell that he's happy. Like just being alive with his little brother, and being a Konoha-nin again, is a hundred times better than what he thought he'd get in life, and he's enjoying every second of it."

"So do you..." again Sakura hesitated, "forgive him, for what he did?"

"Hell no." Sasuke chuckled momentarily. "But I understand why he did it. He had two options, and he chose the one that allowed him to save my life over the one where the entire Uchiha Clan died including himself. Not to mention how it prevented the Fourth Shinobi World War..." he glanced around and smirked sadly, "well, delayed the Fourth Shinobi World War. So although I can't forgive him, I definitely understand why he did it. And I'm happy to have niisan back."

For several seconds, the two of them continued to leap side by side through the canopy of the rainforest, until Sasuke looked down with a very slight blush. "Hey, Sakura, can I ask you about something? It's a little embarassing..."

"U-Um, sure," she answered. What is he about to tell me? What could Sasuke-kun consider embarassing!?

"Well... Itachi does this thing when I ask him something... whether I want to train with him, or talk to him about something, or just ask him a question... sometimes he just reaches out and pokes me in the forehead like this..." he reached out with two fingers and gently tapped the center of Sakura's forehead. "He always says 'I'm sorry, Sasuke. Maybe next time.' Is... does that mean something?"

Sakura felt a slight tingling sensation where Sasuke had poked her, likely because she had been storing chakra there for over two years and the White Strength Seal was well on its way to completion. Despite that slight distraction, she answered quickly enough, "It's his way of showing his affection... it just means he loves you."

Sasuke smiled and nodded, turning to gaze straight ahead. "Thanks, Sakura."

Blushing faintly just as he was, Sakura reached up and gently touched her forehead where Sasuke had. I can feel my chakra there now... at least, I think that's what I'm feeling. Is that because Sasuke-kun touched the seal? she shook her head and focused on tree-leaping in time with Sasuke. Weird...

"Sharingan." Sasuke's eyes flashed crimson, and he spoke up, "I thought so... we're getting close to Deidara. He's got sentient Earth Release constructs surrounding him... clones, birds, cat-sized spiders... is that a dragon?"

"That's the Explosion Release," Sakura answered in a more serious tone than before. "An Iwa kekkei genkai, and it does include Earth Release. He mixes his chakra into clay sculptures and sends them after his enemies... they expand to much more impressive sizes and then explode. That dragon of his is particularly nasty, according to the Bingo Book."

"Hn..." Sasuke drew forth his shashka as his Eternal Mangekyou fully activated. "If these bombs are based on the Earth Release, my Lightning Release has the elemental advantage. Maybe I can defuse them with a well-placed Chidori variant."

"It's worth a shot," Sakura mused. "I heard you'd modified your Chidori... what's it like now?"

"First, I tried combining it with shape transformation, and that was tricky, but I managed to create a Chidori Spear," Sasuke answered with a hint of pride. "it creates a blade of lightning that can extend up to fifteen feet. Then I made the Chidori Katana, which charges my sword with a Chidori, and the Chidori Stream, which sends out a lightning shockwave. Both of those use chakra flow instead of shape transformation."

"Sounds pretty cool," she admitted.

"If you like those, you'll love the new trick I'm working on," Sasuke grinned. "I'm combining the Chidori with the Blaze Release, and I've almost got it down to a science."

"You mean you're putting a Chidori together with unquenchable black flames?" Sakura grinned back. "So the chakra Gundam wasn't awesome enough for you, huh?"

Sasuke chuckled. "Theoretically, I should be able to throw around some of these new jutsu with my Susanoo."

Sakura whistled. "I kinda feel left behind right now... all I can do is punch people."

"Hard enough to reduce them to the consistency of chunky salsa," Sasuke added firmly. "Don't sell yourself short, Sakura. One punch from you would be enough to take out an enemy that could tank through most of my jutsu. My job is just to help you get in close enough." he grew serious again. "Get ready, we're almost there."

"Cha!" Sakura pulled her right-hand glove tight against her hand and made a fist. "Let's do this!"

They burst out into a large clearing with a single, smooth boulder near its center. Seated atop it with his legs crossed, Deidara looked up from his latest artwork and waved, with the mouth on his right palm grinning along with the one on his face. "Hey. So let me guess... you're a couple of the Nine-Tails' friends, hm? Here to get a close-up look at my art?"

"Actually, we're here to kill you," Sakura shot back.

"But," Sasuke interjected, "It would be nice to see some of his work before we do, right, Sakura?" she cast him a curious glance. "That is, if the legendary Mad Bomber Deidara doesn't mind showing off for us."

"Sasuke-kun?"

"Ah..." Deidara stood up. "So you're Itachi's little brother, huh? I didn't expect you to be a fan."

"I'm a shinobi," Sasuke answered with an easy shrug. "We're supposed to have a deep love for things that go boom, and your Explosion Release creations are supposed to be really impressive. In the Bingo Book, you're quoted as saying that 'true art is an explosion...' I don't really understand what that means, so I was hoping you could explain."

Deidara grinned again. "That's simple! It means that an artwork truly worth beholding, is an artwork that excites you with a flash of magnficence before it's gone forever!" he threw a small white bird into the air, and it expanded to a five-foot wingspan in order to soar upward, high into the sky where it exploded with a shimmering ball of fire. "Not a painting or sculpture that just sits there for centuries, never showing anyone anything!"

"Hn..." Sasuke considered this. "Well, that's one way of looking at it..." he saw Deidara's eyes narrow slightly, "but I have to argue that a lasting artwork has its own merits. Something like a sculpture will live on for centuries after the artist dies, continuing to display his skill for all time. Definitely not as exciting, but still worth seeing."

"So which do you like better, hm?"

"Like I said, I'm a shinobi. Our lives are short, so we cram as much excitement and joy into them as we can. Just like your work, our lives are beautiful explosions. Obviously I'd prefer those." he pointed to the huge white dragon behind Deidara. "That one looks like it'll be amazing when it goes off."

"Yeah? Well you'll get to see it up close, hm!" Deidara made a hand seal, but paused when Sasuke held up his own hands defensively.

"Hold on! If you kill the two of us with that explosion, we'll hardly be able to enjoy its full glory, isn't that right?"

"...Hm..." Deidara considered this. "But I'm supposed to kill you anyway... I can tell you're probably just trying to trick me into throwing away my C2 dragon, but you're doing a really good job of it, hm. You know just what to say, to make me want to show off my art... Fine! I'll show you one C2 masterpiece, but then I'm gonna kill you, hm!"

The clay dragon spread its wings and pounded them downward, flying straight up into the air until it was soaring high above even the tallest trees, appearing no larger than the bird Deidara had sent up before.

"Now," Sasuke prompted, and shot forward with his shashka in hand.

Just before the dragon exploded, Sakura drew back her fist and charged with him. "CHAAAA!"

The C2 bomb went off, and the world turned brilliant white.

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