Chapter 83:

Sakura's skin felt wrong.

Stretched, thin, ill fitting on her bones; like paper wrapped over a mass too big for it to hold.

Her muscles were different; her insides changed.

Piece by piece, bit by bit her mind catalogued the changes, the wrongness, and bit by bit another part of her mind rebelled; reminded her that no her body was not wrong.

She was wrong; out of place.

"Sakura?"

The voice was familiar yet not, tickling the back of her skull and yet the voice of a stranger.

She turns, and it's a young woman she knows but can never remember meeting.

Kyofu; the name she'd never learned came easily as she looked on her face, wide eyed, and confused.

It was disorienting, the experience growing disturbing and grotesque.

"Get out of here." She demanded,

Kyofu's gaze narrowed. "He'll kill you alone!"

No… No he won't. She'd faced worse and lived.

"It's alright." She said as calmly as she could, eyes raking over the signs of injury the woman could barely hide. "I've got-"

Her words of reassurance were cut short-

The attack was sudden, powerful, her chakra moved in familiar ways through an alien limb, too thin, the muscles were there but built and focused in the wrong places, a limb for speed not power;

She'd make do.

Her fist smashed into the red armored gauntlet, the armor cracking with bone breaking crunches, splinters of shattered metal clinking as they hit the ground like shards of glass.

She'd met Han before; and yet she hadn't; she'd fought him before and yet had not.

And this Han was familiar but different.

It wasn't empty eyes that looked back at her, it was seething, tightly coiled anger. The pupils were thin as pinpricks but they were there, not the Rinnegan

The Jinchurikki stepped forward, into her guard, trying to shoulder check her to force an opening before her foot whipped out, catching him at the knee, and her free elbow drove sharply into his ribs.

It felt like striking a mountain.

No matter. She'd shattered mountains before.

Han was driven back and she pushed the advantage, rushing and reaching for a tanto she had on her waist that she couldn't remember having placed there.

The grip fit her hand, she drew it smoothly, with a practiced ease even as her mind fumbled for why she held a sword in the first place.

Han rallied, pivoting and striking out with his remaining fist in a blow that would have turned her organs to pulp if it caught her, she could feel the shockwave of force driving through his limb.

She twisted, her body avoiding the blow with a flexibility she didn't know she had before her mind was shoved out of its awareness and the next thing she realized, she was wrapped around that arm, one leg coiled tightly around the extended limb, the other around Han's waist as one arm wrapped around the man's throat and the other brought that Tanto high to drive it down through the juncture of his collarbone; to slip it smoothly between the armor plates..

She was confused, and yet not; her mind on one side recoiling at what and how she'd managed this hold even as the other part of her focus moved chakra through her limbs and body to make her hold nigh unbreakable by channeling Tsunade's legendary strength.

The blade drove down.

But Han was just as strong as she was. Stronger,

He moved, at the last moment the thick shoulder guard catching the force of her blade, the edge of the weapon scraping by with a squeal of metal against metal.

Steam burst from his body, hot, boiling hot, her limbs burned.

Her mind wrestled full control back from the instinct, her medical training taking over as healing chakra flooded her limbs and she vanished in a puff of smoke, reappearing meters away, already healing the burn scars that would form had it been any other combatant..

Attack him, hard and fast, One mind said.

No another answered. -he thinks you're hurt. Draw him in.

Her conscious thoughts were flooded with ideas, possibilities, stratagems, techniques; pain throbbed behind her eyes and skull, she suppressed a groan as blood pounded through her temples.

"You…" Han's voice made her eyes snap towards the Jinchuriki. She'd never heard it; in either lifetime.

His eyes were wary, watching her carefully. "-you do not match the intel on your bingo book profile."

She smirked.

"I'm just full of surprises."

His answer was to charge.

Sakura lifted her foot, and stomped down into the ground.

The earth heaved.

Han stumbled, eyes going wide as the ground rippled out from the point of impact like a wave of liquid, collapsing inwards.

He leapt.

And she was on him.

She sheathed the sword, her fangs lengthening, her grin growing serpentine as venom dripped from the tips, hands glowing with the blue flames of a chakra scalpel.

He tried to fight her off, but with one arm, suspended in the air, off guard.

He was easy.

Her spit burned at his eyes; he reeled with a scream as his eyeballs hissed and boiled.

The chakra scalpels cut into his arm, turning it useless, her body wrapped around his.

Steam once more burst from him but she was ready this time; healing chakra surged through her limbs, under her skin, healing the damage as it was formed, forcing herself to endure the pain, the agony of having her skin burned and regrown, burned and regrown..

She dove in for the kill.

The steam roiled, shifting and coiling and she knew what was happening.

She leapt away seconds before a claw of superheated steam would have grabbed hold of her to cook her alive.

Landing on nimble feet she breathed harshly, feeling her lips and gums tingling from the technique she'd never used that was still familiar.

Orochimaru, she remembered suddenly; with a sharp start.

I'm Orochimaru's student.

Han blinked, tears leaking from bloodied eyes as his chakra reformed the sclera and pupils, steam boiling in a cloud around him.

The Jinchurikki whirled suddenly, the armored flesh arm smashing harshly against a surprise assault, deflecting a kunai with a screech of steel against steel as Sakura suddenly saw Sasuke leap over the man to land at her side.

"Tsch." The Uchiha scoffed. "So much for a quick end to that."

She blinked, green eyes watching him closely.

When he turned his gaze onto her she found the exact same searching look she knew she had, reflected back at her.

(X)(X)(X)

Kurotsuchi could feel it.

She was dying.

Her insides were burning, the poison, whatever it was, seemed to be taking effect faster now. No doubt because of how much she was moving, how much she was exhausting herself.

She was dying.

A part of her wondered why she still fought. Why she bothered.

Her family; all of them- dead. Her country, if she ever had one- wished her dead.

She wondered if it was spite that drove her. Raw defiance. If it would really be so hard to just let her blade slip, let an attack go through.

Why bother?

Who would bother?

This was not Han, or Fukro or Sasori, or any of the Iwa nin.

They wanted Naruto; and she had no reason to keep him from them.

Was it the habit of survival?

She wasn't sure.

In truth, there was only one thing she wanted now; one thing perhaps that was keeping her going.

Han.

She swore she would kill him.

If for nothing else, if she breathed her last coughing death into Han's face, it would be enough.

Everything; all of it- could be laid at his feet.

Hatred she found, was a decent enough anaesthetic for her purposes.

"Fuuton: Daitoppa!"

The blast of wind smashes through the forest, uprooting trees and carving a trench through the ground.

Kurotsuchi feels her lungs burn as she sucks down a breath; as she forces her limbs to move, swerving to the side and leaping off of another tree to bypass the blast and charge towards Ryoko.

She drew Koutou's sword, the ring of steel singing through the trees before clashing loudly against steel as Ryoko deflected the strike with her Fuuma Shuriken

Another swing, and another deflect- before the Konoha kunoichi retaliated with a spinning swing that forced Kurotsuhi to back off, wind blades scattering out of the whirling Fuuma Shuriken like an insane dervish.

Ryoko adjusted her grip on the weapon, slowing the spin before, charging in with a roar as Kurotsuchi tossed a volley of shuriken that were battered aside by that spinning Fuuma blade

The silver haired kunoichi's body seemed to fade, the image of her torso and limbs segmenting and splitting before reforming, the minor Genjutsu letting her close the distance as Kurotsuchi took the split second necessary to dispel it.

She barely had the time to draw the sword's scabbard from her hip; the strong, ancient wood of the sheath tanking the force of a brutal kick, leaving the blade free to scream as its metal smashed into the swinging Fuuma Shuriken in a frantic block from the other side.

The fist that smashed into her gut caught the Iwa princess off guard, the air exploding from her lungs as Ryoko's body split and reformed again, now on the ground, below and inside her guard.

The fist to the stomach was followed by an elbow to the jaw, then a knee to the ribs and a kick to the chest that knocked her back; sending her slamming into a tree

But she had no time to catch her breath, reflex and instinct forced her to move, planting her two feet on the tree she leapt with what little strength she had, just barely rising over the blast of wind that tore the tree she'd been leaning against to pieces.

Her lungs were burning, her head was swimming, and still she managed to gather enough wits to toss a single, explosive tag marked kunai, downwards.

The blast sent up smoke, dirt and debris, giving her a very brief window of cover to suck down a ragged breath of air and start coughing it and her lung up her windpipe the second her feet touched the floor.

The dust and grit stung her eyes, irritated her already burning throat and this brief moment was her only respite before she was subjected to a barrage of smaller wind blasts.

The dust of her tossed kunai blast let her 'see' the attacks as they came, ducking and weaving, she tried not to notice the shaking of her limbs, forcing them to keep moving, keep fighting.

She only had to endure a short while;

This wouldn't last.

She was right.

Ryoko was a close range fighter, and wind was not a long range suited element..

The woman closed the distance, descending from above and to the left and Kyofu was ready for her

(X)(X)(X)

"Can you contain him?"

The question made Sasuke pause, two minds warring with each other on what she meant before one remembered.

"No." He said as he watched Han stand, the damaged eyes blinking to a normal, undamaged state; glaring at the both of them as his chakra/steam arm grew more corporeal, more dangerous. "That ability was tied to the Sharingan."

Sakura nodded. "I figured." She drew her Tanto again, and held it out to him, hilt first.

He took it, offering a muttered thanks.

He held it firm, tilting it lightly in his grip, testing the weight, the balance.

It was fitted to her hand, her weight, her strength. Lighter than what he was used to; but well forged.

It would suffice.

"Options?"

A fair question. Without his Sharingan, much of his arsenal was unavailable.

But the Sharingan was a tool, not a crutch.

"Follow me in."

She did.

His body was slower, its mastery over the lightning element, less, but its chakra control was sharper than his, its physical strength noticeably increased as well.

He was fighting in an alien body that was his and yet was not, knowledge of its capabilities but no experience of having ever used it.

Interesting was a word that came to mind to describe it.

He approached Han from the left, knowing Sakura would move on his right, Han's eyes darted this way and that way, tracking them both, his guard up with armored fist and the steam claw ready to whip out and snare one of them, boiling them alive in its grasp.

He dove in close, and Han swiped.

Sasuke felt the earth split under his feet, parted by chakra as Sakura moved the very ground to help, his mind reeled,caught off guard before another reminded him of the training they'd done, the moves they'd used a hundred times before.

He sank up to his waist, the chakra claw passing over his head, and Sasuke gripped the Tanto in his hands, twisting it in a reverse grip as the soft mud heaved and spat him upwards to let him slice at Han's exposed side.

The blade squealed as it struck metal, the edge digging but not breaking through the thick plate.

He heard the Jinchuuriki grunt, surprise on his features before that arm turned, angling unnaturally, in a way no normal arm could to reach for him.

The Chidori nagashi screeched through the air.

Steam was a different form of water, but it was still water.

The volts crackled through the air, leaping from his flesh onto the blade, into the armor and across the individual droplets that made up the superheated gas.

Han's control slipped, the claw of boiling hot steam becoming a cloud thinning quickly as it sought to escape everywhere through the air.

Sasuke's free hand formed his seals, chakra building up in his throat as he breathed a column of flames directly at the Jinchuriki, blasting him in the face at point blank range.

Han's body tilted away, like a tree under a fierce wind.

Sasuke felt hands wrap around his feet and snapped his gaze down in surprise, confused only for a second as he saw Sakura's slender fingers there rather than the Jinchurikki's armored fist.

She yanked him down the earth, swallowing him a split second before he saw Han's body crumble to mud and the explosive tags go off with a blast that shook the air in his lungs even underground.

Seconds later the earth spat him back out, Sakura beside him.

"Sloppy." He self recriminated.

"You're not used to relying on your senses without the Sharingan to help." She explained.

She was right, it didn't change the sting in his pride admitting such. "I didn't know you'd gotten so adept at using earth chakra.

"I haven't." She answered, shaking her head. "Lean into instincts. Our other selves haven't been slacking this whole time and this is… their body… we're just…" She looked unsure. Almost queasy "-borrowing it."

"Hn."

There's a rustle of leaves above and both of them turn their gazes skyward to see gathering steam clouds roiling above them, blocking out the canopy above and blotting out the sun.

His eyes narrowed.

"If we push him, he'll summon the Gobi." He cautioned.

"Then we have to kill him fast or have a counter ready if he does." Sakura answered.

He nodded.

A counter… to a monster of steam.

Sasuke trailed his eyes upwards.

The heat wasn't enough, but the moisture could carry easier, make the process faster.

That… that he could use

But not yet.

He needed something extra here.

With barely a glance, he formed a water clone, and quickly, the construct rushed away bounding through the trees to escape the combat zone.

"We need more steam." He commented. "And we need to find Naruto-" He was missing… yes… yes he remembered- that's why they'd come. The idiot was out here somewhere.

(X)(X)(X)

With a swing of Koutou's blade, the Fuuma Shuriken and sword screamed as metal rent metal, sparks scattering off the gouged steel

Kurotsuchi was not a natural swordswoman- she'd trained since acquiring the blade, but it had never been her preferred method of fighting.

Ryoko by contrast used her Fuuma Shuriken, which should have been cumbersome and unwieldy like a natural extension of her arms, spinning, twisting, mixing in punches and kicks in the openings the monstrous weapon forced in her guard..

Like an epiphany, an answer came to her.

Move your enemy-Do not be moved by him

The weapons clashed, and this time, they locked.

Kurotsuchi drew up her leg and with a slam of her boot onto the ground, spikes of stone erupted from the mud, like a closing jagged maw of teeth.

Ryoko leapt up, high into the air, escaping the stone spears and answering with another drilling wind blast.

Kurotsuchi slammed her hands into the earth, a wall of mud rising to take hit;

Even as it crumbled her chakra was at work, reshaping and reforming the mud wall into a serpentine dragon head.

The construct opened its gaping maw, spitting out stone spikes like javelins as it rose into the air, chasing after Ryoko.

The Kunoichi's Fuuma shuriken was wreathed in wind blades, the razor blade like element tearing through the stone turning the rock to ground dust.

But she was being driven back, and that's what Kurotsuchi wanted.

With half her focus on maintaining the construct, the rest of her focus moved to her other element.

Fire.

Because she didn't have to win.

Not really.

Sucking down a breath that felt like razor blades, she drew all of the chakra she could into herself.

Then, she breathed.

(X)(X)(X)

It wasn't often that Han felt himself truly caught off guard, so completely flat footed that he had no ready response come to mind.

But these two… these two were very much pulling that off.

He read the files on all associated with the Uzumaki, any one of them could be a target, or an obstacle at a given moment. His students were very much a part of that list.

The Uchiha was a medic, one who favored close combat though he hadn't mastered Tsunade's legendary strength. And while that so far seemed to be proving partly true in terms of his preference for close combat, the sheer range of his elemental capabilities was not something Han expected.

What's more, though Han, like most Jinchuurikki skilled enough, was nearly immune to Genjutsu; he could almost feel the Uchiha's slithering, serpentine touch on his mind. Probing for weaknesses, becoming ever more insidious with every attempt, less clumsy… more precise and targeted.

Soon; Han wasn't sure he could trust his natural resistance to illusions to wholly safeguard him.

Haruno as well.

Her strength was on par with Tsunade's, on par with his own. And that was not something that should be possible.

He could barely overpower her, and even then not without considerable effort, effort the Uchiha would never let him exert without intervening to help.

What's more, it seemed she was the medic of the pair, a skilled one that was able to keep both of them in top form even as the battle lasted long enough it would have all but wiped out any other combatants by attrition already.

Her repertoire of tricks was as wily as he'd read. He recognized Orochimaru's serpentine fighting forms, her use of poisons, manipulating her body into contortions that shouldn't be possible, stretching and twisting in abnormal ways.

These two… were far more dangerous than he'd been led to believe.

Was that deliberate on their part? Or merely bad intel?

He shifted between the trees, the cloud of steam aided his stealth, but he saw no openings to press the attack.

Suddenly, the Uchiha straightened. "Found him! Sakura! East, about a hundred fifty meters!:

The Haruno moved immediately, rushing away and Han knew instantly who they were talking about.

No way could he allow that to happen.

He rushed, moving to intercept, and more importantly, get ahead of her, but before he could take more than a step or two forward, suddenly, the Uchiha was in his face, a knee crashing into Han's raised forearm with strength that would have shattered the limb were he anyone else.

"I don't think so." The boy hissed, before attacking with a flurry of blows, a punch, a kick, a slash of his blade, a thrown kunai that nearly buried itself in Han's eye.

The next sword swipe Han battered aside, stepping into the Uchiha's guard before swinging a straight drive punch onto the boy's face, he pulled back, and Han's knuckles barely grazed him, but that was enough to knock him off his feet, sending him sprawling onto the forest floor.

Han leapt, not high, just enough to close the distance, slamming down with driving knees and a fist that cratered the earth as the Uchiha vanished in a burst of crackling lightning, the volts snaking up Han's extended arm making his muscles spasm and jump.

He reappeared at Han's back and it was all the Jinchurikki could do to avoid that Tanto from slitting open his throat.

Sasuke responded by landing two solid elbows onto the back of Han's skull.

The boy's strength was not on the level of Tsunade's or the Haruno's

But he was not weak either.

The first blow dazed him, the second sent spots through his vision and he knew that a third, or worse would put him down.

He felt the boy pull back for that third blow and pivoting on his knees, he drove his kneecap into the side of the Uchiha's bent knee, knocking him off balance before Han fully twisted, throwing himself onto the dirt on his back and lashing out with a kick from the ground.

It caught the Uchiha in the ribs, and even with the lack of form, and drive that robbed the blow of much of its power, Han still felt ribs break, still saw blood explode from the boy's mouth as he was sent soaring back to smash into a tree.

Han got to his feet, charging with all the speed he had and punched with all his might.

Sasuke's hand reached out- and caught the blow.

Han's eyes went wide.

What!?

When the Uchiha looked up, green eyes were staring back at him, the hair shifting to pink, the dark clothes becoming form fitting armor.

Haruno.

Genjutsu!? But when-

Sakura's fist gripped his hand like iron, the metal of his gauntlet, groaning and buckling around his knuckles before she shoved herself forward onto one knee and drove a hand wreathed in blue straight into his chest.

Han felt his insides bleed.

"NOW SASUKE!"

From shadow and mist, the Uchiha appeared, sword in hand.

And then they were cutting him.

Sakura on one side, Sasuke on the other, chakra scalpel and cold steel.

Slicing, cutting, bleeding him. Han felt his strength rapidly leaving and though he tried to fight and strike back with his steam shrouded arm, and let more steam explode from his body to try and repel them, the Haruno healed through it, the Uchiha moved too fast to burn.

He felt his strength ebbing, literally bleeding out of him. Blood pooled in his mask, suffocating him, the weight of his armor bore down on his shoulders and chest, dragging him down to his knees.

Slicing, cutting, carving. His blood hissed as it touched the cold ground, the bark of trees and blades of grass turned as scarlet as his armor.

His knees began to shake, his breathing grew ragged and difficult.

He was going to die here.

Not to a Jinchuuriki, or even to the Uzumaki, but two, worthless, inconsequential humans!

His name added to their laurels.

His corpse paraded through Konoha like a prize.

No.

NO!

His mind pulled away, receding like a shoreline, retreating to usher in the tide.

The Gobi answered.

(X)(X)(X)

As Ryoko found herself cursing the mud dragon, being driven back further and further by the beast that just reformed even as she tried to cut it to pieces she kept some of her awareness focused on the Iwa princess.

So it didn't take her long to notice what the woman was doing.

Between her own prodigious fire affinity and the wind blasts Ryoko was using to fend off the mud dragon, it did not take this segment of forest long to be wreathed in flames.

Finally the mud dragon beast dried up, crumbling away to nothing and Ryoko realized that Kurotsuchi had simply cut off its chakra., the liquid mud sloughing off of its stone and dirt insides if not drying and cracking in the oven like heat of the flames.

The flames.

Fire, smoke, ash and soot, they stung her eyes, and the Wind specialist snarled as she realized she had no way to calm the ravaging fires.

The princess now had all the fucking cover she needed.

She lingered at the edge of the blaze, warring with indecision. Her mind knew it was a mistake to chase her into the fires. Her pride however rankled;

The bitch had gotten the better of her again.

There was a sound and Ryoko whirled, rounding on the noise, only to blink in surprise.

"Sasuke?"

But no… no something was different.

She'd known Sasuke for years;

Never had he ever looked so cold.

"Come-" He demanded, "-we're going to need your wind element."

The kunoichi raised her blade, pointing it at the Uchiha who looked at the weapon then raised an eyebrow that couldn't be less impressed if he tried.

"You're not Sasuke."

Sasuke scoffed. "I don't have time for this; Your teammate is injured and Sakura and I are trying to deal with the Jinchuuriki. We're going to need wind soon. If you're going to help, help."

Then with nothing more to be said, the 'clone' or what she thought was a clone, vanished in a wet puddle.

(X)(X)(X)

It was no exaggeration for Sasuke to say the explosion of steam nearly killed him..

Without his speed, without Sakura throwing up earth walls to defend the both of them, without his mind bubbling up ways and methods to heal the burns that covered his right side; Sasuke had little doubt he would, at best, be out of the fight, at worst- dead.

The steam loomed over them like a mountain of bone white, blotting out the sun, blanketing the forest. The heat, even on the forest ground level was oppressive, breathing was getting harder, in a few minutes he wouldn't discount damage to his lungs.

"Well… you wanted more heat."

He recognized her voice; more than that, he recognized pain in it.

Turning his gaze leftward; he found Sakura.

Her arm and leg were burned badly, the skin blistered and red. The pain was obvious on her face, as was the chakra exhaustion beginning to creep up on her as she used her remaining arm to try and heal the damage.

"You don't have your seal." He commented. "How are your reserves?"

She smiled, though it didn't quite reach her eyes. "She has more than I ever did… but I'm running low."

"Hmm." The steam began to take shape now, he could just see the silhouette of tails beginning to curl through the air.

She followed his gaze.

"It would've been easier to get him before he transformed."

"We tried." He shrugged. "No use complaining."

"I take it you have a plan to deal with it then?"

He nodded.

(X)(X)(X)

Kyofu hissed, using her arm to shift where she sat, half leaning, half sitting against the trunk of a tree.

She'd run.

She wasn't proud of it, but she wasn't an idiot.

Even at full strength, fighting Han was a daunting prospect, staying would only give the ruthless Iwa nin another avenue to attack, a hostage to use.

So yes, as soon as Sakura had gone in and apparently, somehow found the strength to, quite literally *brawl* with arguably the physically strongest being on the planet in a fist fight, Kyofu had turned and booked it.

She'd collapsed after who knew how many yards.

The adrenaline faded quickly, and from there the pain set in; her broken ribs, her damaged arm and leg.

Soon enough her run had turned into a limping hobble, and that hobble now had her sitting by a tree.

She could still hear the battle going.

It was north of her, and now somewhat distant; but unmistakable.

Trees crashing, explosions, a cloud of steam rising to blanket the forest in a haze of bone white; the discharge of chakra, even the rumbling of storm clouds and the faint crackle of electricity in the air.

The western side of the forest was lit ablaze, judging by the tower of black smoke now rising into the sky. That's where Ryoko had gone off to fight against the Iwa kunoichi.

She hissed, adjusting her seat, eyes scrunched up in pain, teeth grit.

Maybe she could go back… should go back?

Sasuke was fighting with Sakura… or at least she assumed so.

The Uchiha could fix her up, help her get back in the fight then it'd be at least three of them against Han, but that would mean leaving Sakura alone against that monster for too long; despite whatever freakish shows of strength the girl had pulled off, that was not a fight she'd bank money on Sakura being able to win or survive.

No… No… Frustration aside, her retreating was the right call.

Where were the others?

Lee? Hinata? Tenten?

Had their fights ended? Were they still going on? Had they died or been injured? Could any of them help?

Her good hand reached down, touching the forest floor, fingers splayed as she forced chakra to mold through her tenketsu; forced herself to focus through the pain.

"Kuchiyose."

The spiders that emerged into being were small things, about the size of small beads; but there were many of them; well over two hundred crawling along her fingers.

"Find the others/" She demanded through pained breaths. If any of them can fight, bring them here… and… if you find Naruto, tell me immediately.

No matter what, Naruto; the Mokuton was still the primary goal, the primary objective, everything, even she, was secondary to that.

If they found him, even if she had to chew out her insides to do it, she would summon something to carry him from the field and back to Konoha.

"Go."

The little creatures scuttled away, faster than they had any right to be. In seconds they'd vanished, disappearing into the undergrowth, thin strands of spun silk catching in the light being the only indication of their passing.

She sat there for a while longer, focussing on her breathing, trying to track the fights by the sounds and what little she could see.

Finally, after… she wasn't sure, there was a sound and it made her tense, drawing a kunai for what little good it would do her if it were a threat.

"Fuck, you look like hell."

The tension bled out of her.

Ryoko came into her line of sight, holding up a lone figure with one of Kyofu's spiders sitting over it.

"Kurotsuchi?"

Ryoko's face was all the answer she needed, even before she spat out her words. "The bitch escaped."

Kyofu shook her head.

Another problem but for now- "Sakura and Sasuke need help." She breathed, gasped really as her broken rib made itself known again.

Ryoko looked grim. "Yeah… Sasuke… found me, said he needed wind soon. Know what the fuck that means?"

Kyofu shook her head. "No idea, he must be planning something."

"Not sure if it was him." Ryoko suddenly said. "The Uchiha may have a stick up his ass but he's never looked at me like some shit he scraped off his boot before."

That made the summoner raise an eyebrow.

"Something was… off about Sakura too." She admitted after a moment's hesitation, "-but right now, Han is the problem, whatever's up with those two, we can deal with later."

Ryoko didn't look happy, but she didn't protest either.

After a moment, the wind user looked around. "You gonna be ok here? That Iwa bitch might be skulking around somewhere."

Before anything more can be said, there's a sudden massive blast, a wave of heat that simply washes over them, a backdraft of steam nearly bowling them over, blanketing the whole of the forest. The both of them whirl around, and look to the sky as a pillar of white boiling steam rises into the sky and begins to take shape.

Then they feel the pressure of that chakra bearing down on them.

It's heavy, suffocating, all encompassing and blinding, They can feel nothing but that overwhelming presence and there's no doubt what exactly this was.

Bijuu.

"Go." Kyofu grunted. "We don't have time for you to start fussing now of all times, deal with the fight… then come back."

She hesitated, looking conflicted for a moment before she gave a single, firm not, then turned and bolted, as though fleeing before she could think better of the choice.

(X)(X)(X)

It had been a long time since the chains had been loosened from around its tightly coiled neck.

It could feel its limbs, feel the wind, the charge of a gathering storm.

Its presence was fleeting, transigent.

It could already feel its jailor tugging on the leash, regaining purchase over his mind. A moment of laxity, of desperation had ushered in his freedom; nothing more.

Even so, it relished the few moments it would have to wander free again, and so made an effort to hold back the iron yoke that was Han's will for now.

It could sense the lesser creatures below, small insects, like ants crawling through the forest floor. The ones its jailor had been fighting.

Its sight came into being, granting it vision over the world and those very same creatures.

Once more it felt Han battering at his cage, growing more insistent, more coherent, demanding control once more.

It would not fight the jailor's battles for him, and it wished to enjoy these moments of freedom as long as it could extend them.

It began to take to the sky.

It had been too long since it had flown.

(X)(X)(X)

"He's running away?" Sakura's voice held naked surprise.

Sasuke was surprised too, he just did a better job of hiding it. Jinchuurikki didn't normally escalate to the point of summoning their Bijuu merely to flee.

Bijuu were prideful afterall.

There's a rustle of leaves and suddenly, the Wind Kunoichi, Ryoko, is bursting through the fog drenched forest, grunting as her feet hit the ground. "Alright, where the fuck do you need me Uchiha?!"

"I need wind."

"More fucking specific!"

He pointed skyward. "Blast as much steam and heat into the clouds as you can. The more you do the easier this will be."

"The easier what will be!?" She asked, but, regardless, unhooked her custom Fuuma Shuriken from her back and began to spin it like a fan.

He began to move.

He felt a hand wrap around his wrist.

"What are you doing!?"

He turned, raising an incredulous eyebrow to meet Sakura's wide eyed surprise.

"He can return, or worse, call for backup and then return." He answered. "We're in no condition to fight him with backup…"

She grimaced; then, nodded. "I know what you're planning. In this body- you only have one shot."

"Then I better make it count." He answered simply.

Pulling his hand free from her grasp, Sasuke leapt up to the tops of the trees.

The Bijuu soared into the sky, galloping like a horse, its five tails trailing behind it, forming a trail of steam clouds.

It circled over them, seemingly deciding where to go and Sasuke was grateful for the momentary delay.

He reached the very tops of the trees and with a single mighty leap, rose high into the air forming handseals as he rose.

He rose high enough to be noticed.

The Bijuu turned its head, its long neck craning around to peer at him in curiosity, very much like an animal noticing another it had no reason to be threatened by.

That made it all the easier.

He slammed his hands together in the final seal.

Chakra was leeched from his body leaving him breathless and instantly numb.

Even in his old body this was not a technique he could do more than once.

In this one, so utterly unused to its use, or even channeling this much chakra at once…

It was crippling; the edges of his vision darkened as he nearly passed out.

Regardless, the clouds rapidly darkened into a storm, lightning crackling through the heavens as he muttered the words.

"Kirin"

Like the wrath of god descending from above, the technique that had once been called the wrath of heaven bore down on its target.

The great Bijuu had a moment to realize the danger but little else.

The Lightning struck, and it was world ending.

(X)(X)(X)

"FUCKING HELL!"

Ryoko's scream was nearly swallowed by the screaming of reality around them.

The blast uprooted trees, tore chunks of the ground, lightning bolts crackled and struck the world around them as the world grew dark and the skies roiled with charged lightning.

Sakura had seen the 'Kirin' technique before, by far the most destructive ability in Sasuke's arsenal that did not involve the Sharingan, and even that was arguable.

Even so, it had lost none of its awe inspiring might, even to her.

The Gobi, writhed and moaned in the sky like a dying animal, lightning dancing through the whole of its body, breaking it apart, running through each individual water molecule until the beast broke apart and vanished like smoke in the wind.

She peered upwards, where Sasuke had vanished, and saw him as he descended to the world again.

Something was wrong.

Her suspicion was confirmed when, rather than landing gracefully atop the trees, he slammed into the branch of a tree, bouncing off the limb to slam into another and another.

She began to move, rushing to try and catch him, but Ryoko was faster, tossing a single, wind powered kunai that drilled straight through the trees between ber and Sasuke before pinning the shoulder of his cloak into a tree trunk, arresting his fall long enough for Sakura to reach him.

When she got him to the ground, his eyes were half open, one of them bloodshot his breathing shallow and one arm was badly broken where it had been introduced to a tree branch more stubborn than he was.

"Your body isn't acclimatized to your bullshit." She hissed in his ear in reprimand.

"Hn." He grunted, closing his eyes. "It worked, didn't it."

The pink haired girl cursed him under her breath even as her hands began glowing green, healing him.

She worked quickly, but methodically, with a familiarity her body rebelled against, reminding her that this should not be as her fingertips grew numb and tingly.

Suddenly, there was a much more immediate reminder in the form of a knife to her throat.

Sakura tensed, Sasuke's eyes opening.

"Who the hell are you two?"

Sakura's seafoam eyes trailed up, tilting her head just enough to peer at Ryoko behind her, the silver haired kunoichi staring at her with a cold gaze that told her she should choose her next words very carefully.

"Ryoko…" She swallowed, knowing and yet not this girl's name. "It's… us."

"Bullshit! You never learned healing techniques. You hate healing techniques. And no way this uptight little shit learned… whatever that was in secret, even if he wasn't looking at me like a fucking stranger." She shifted her hold on the weapon, pressing it just a bit tighter against Sakura's throat. "So I'm gonna ask one more time. Who the fuck are you?"

Sakura let out a sound, half in frustration, half a whimper at the feeling of the knife pressed so close to her jugular.

"I've got her."

She opened her eyes, trailing them down to Sasuke, who's onyx black eyes were fixed on Ryoko's. "Move."

She didn't need to be told twice, darting out from under Ryoko she yanked the weapon out of her hand and then held it to her throat a second before she broke through the Genjutsu, naked surprise flitting through her features.

"Shit."

"Ryoko." She said, rolling the name over her tongue. "Listen. I know… things are very confusing right now but I promise, we're not impostors-" She winced at how unsure her voice sounded. She'd never been the best liar and this situation was… unique. "I promise, we'll be back to normal soon, but for now you just need to trust us a bit ok?"

The silver haired girl's teeth were grinding so hard Sakura was almost sure she could hear them.

Before anything more could be said there was a crash, making all three of them start.

Turning sharply, Sakura could be forgiven for gaping like a gasping fish at the sight infront of her.

Han.

Half burned, to the point of his skin charred black, armor shattered, half falling off of him.

He looked half dead to put it kindly.

But still he was standing.

Still he was healing.

"You gotta be kidding." Ryoko breathed. "The fuck does it take?!"

Sasuke groaned, moving to try and get to his feet. He made it to one knee.

Sakura released Ryoko, taking a stance, placing herself between the Jinchurikki and the other two as she heard Ryoko draw her Fuuma Shuriken from her back again.

She was running low on Chakra tool; though she was certainly in better shape than the Jinchuuriki. If she pressed him she might be able to win outright.

If it came down to attrition; she would lose. She was losing.

The Jinchuuriki glared at them with one eye half melted in it's socket, the other bloodshot and wide in insane rage; he stumbled forward, lumbering like a wrathful giant. She was fairly sure rational thought was somewhat beyond him after this much damage, mere instinct was driving him more than anything else.

Sasuke breathed beside her, his shoulders sagging. "I've got him."

"You can barely stand, you aint got shit." Ryoko barked.

But Sakura knew the statement for what it meant and was about to charge, capitalize on the opening when Sasuke's hand whipped out, grabbing her by the wrist pulling her back.

"I've got him." He repeated.

She blinked, staring at her teammate in askance

Wha-

There was a sound, sudden, wet and squelching. She recognized it;

The sound of steel cutting through flesh.

When she turned again she saw Han yes.

But now there was the tip of a sword sticking out the front of his throat.

And grasping that sword;

Kurotsuchi.

The Iwa princess panjted, her ragged breathing sounding little better than a death rattle as she dug in the blade.

Han stiffened, jerked, his chest jumping as he tried to suck down a breath that would not come with a blade severing his windpipe.

"He can't regenerate as long as the sword stays there." Sasuke breathed.

Kurotsuchi didn't hear, but apparently; she was a quick study.

Han grasped the weapon, trying to pull it free but she dug it in harsher, the Jinchuuriki jerked and twisted, trying to throw her off, but she held fast.

Han gargled, bloody spit leaking from beneath his mask, blood pouring from his throat, drowning him in the scarlet liquid.

Kurotsuchi screamed; kicking with all her strength at the back of Han's knee- forcing the dying monster down

Still, he tried to stand.

Pressing down with all her weight Kurotsuchi shoved the sword down to the base the hand guard pressing to the back of the man's neck and shoved down even further.

Until the tip dug into the dirt, impaling Han on the legendary sword.

Still he struggled, still he tried and moved.

It seemed to last an eternity.

Finally; at long last, Han fell still.

The Monster of Iwa was dead.

Kurotsuchi stumbled away from the corpse not even having the strength to draw the blade.

Sakura looked at her then, her eyes trailing away from Han.

Her skin was pale. Deathly pale.

Dark veins spread under paper thin skin.

Blood leaked from her eyes and mouth.

Kurotsuchi looked at her with glassy eyes.

Then- with a horrid wet cough, the Iwa princess fell to one knee as Sakura started forward.

She didn't make half the distance before the woman collapsed, struggling to breathe as she vomited black tinged blood.

(X)(X)(X)

We're almost there folks.

2 more chapters plus epilogue to go

The next chapter, like the one before this one should have a fairly fast turnover because the next chapter has almost ZERO fighting in it :D

Hopefully we can all get this done by christmas :D :D :D