"If that makes the Council feel better," she'd said back then, when they told her the condition to participate in the tournament. "I don't mind. To be frank, I like it better that way."
And she'd smiled at Tsunade-sama, and allowed them to place another flow-restrictive seal on the chakra pipeline between her and Naruto. Because even though she'd only been Tsunade's apprentice for a couple of weeks, already she felt stronger and more confident; and she didn't want the crutch of Naruto's chakra to be too easy to lean on. There were too many strings attached.
Chakra to feed the child, that was all she really asked for, and chakra to keep herself alive in case everything else failed, though it might burn her to death before it could do any good.
It burned now, molten metal in her belly, breaking past the damming seal, forcing its way through her coil system. She fell to her knees with a little gasp. Her first instinct was to resist the flow, but it would just end up bursting through anyway. Convert -- she needed to grab hold of it and convert it into something she could use -- but there was so much of it.
Sitting duck, she realized through the shock. Move, move, move! She knew it had been too long; their enemies wouldn't have the decency to wait until she got a handle on the demon chakra flood. But holding it back was taking so much of her concentration. She allowed some chakra to slip through, pour up her spine and down her arms, through her skin, making her fingernails ache and her muscles clench, and she climbed back up on her feet and forced her eyes open.
The world was painfully bright at first, a hundred snapshots too vivid for her brain. Colors felt -- off. Not the right spectrum.
But not off enough to mix up red and blue.
Naruto's eyes weren't blue.
He was sitting where he'd fallen, only two steps away from Sakura. The enemy nin, the tall, broad one who'd touched him and made him fall like a puppet with a dead puppeteer, stared at him in disbelief. The other enemy, with the pale green hair, was swaying on his feet, dark skin turned grayish and eyes unfocused, all the hallmarks of severe chakra drain.
Not-Naruto smiled then, or smirked, or bared fangs maybe. "...Heh."
Red-gold chakra boiled over, covered his bare chest and poured down over his pants and onto the ground, blackening it. Sakura's belly pulsed painfully and the world seemed to dance under her, like trying to stand on a moving swing. She didn't know how she kept her footing; sheer stubbornness, maybe.
"Naruto!" she yelled, praying he would hear and put a stop to it.
He glanced at her over his shoulder, and threw his head back, and laughed. It wasn't even a cruel laugh, but deeply amused, like life was just that hilarious. It chilled her to the bone. It wasn't Naruto laughter at all.
"What the fuck--" the green-haired nin growled, and fished a couple of kunai out of his pouch with a hand that shook with exhaustion.
Naruto's head tilted slowly as he considered the two strangers. Sakura opened her mouth, closed it, swallowed. They were enemies... but it wasn't war. It was serious -- it was important -- but in the end it was just a test, just a way to see how every country measured up.
There would be no measuring up if she didn't do something. There would just be a very one-sided slaughter.
"No!" she snapped, trying to get their attention. The tall one threw her a wary look, listening, but the green-haired one seemed too angry to bother. "No! Just run away --"
Naruto laughed softly, with a rough, pleased voice that made her feel queasy. "Oh yes. Run."
And then everything just kind of happened together -- green-hair throwing the kunai and Sakura throwing herself at Naruto and Naruto throwing his hand out, and -- chakra, enough to liquefy metal in mid-flight, a paw of fire that stretched faster than her eye could see.
Blood sizzled, splashed the rocks; the big guy yelled, "Kon!", as his teammate was swatted away like a mosquito, body clawed open in four separate lines. Sakura fell to her knees. Something was trying to burn its way out of her belly.
"You'll kill the child!" she screamed, hands clenched on her stomach.
A tan-and-black blur raced to his fallen comrade and carried him away as Naruto turned to look at her. Sakura's body still burned all over, a deep ache spreading through her chakra system. Convert, convert, she repeated to herself -- there should have been a seal to do that for her, but Kyuubi bursting through -- it wasn't there anymore.
What other safeties had been torn away? Oh god -- the baby, the baby -- possessed, monstrous -- dying, burned alive inside her where it should have been safe --
"If it's so weak," he started with disdain, and she didn't think past the sudden rage. Naruto's head snapped to the side, cheek sliced open by her lengthening nails.
Panting, hand smarting where his chakra had sparked at her skin, she glared at the creature. Not Naruto, never Naruto -- they didn't even look alike, the demon's eyes a malevolent, narrowed red.
He lifted a hand to his already-healing cheek, and wiped the blood with his fingers, and licked them, his red eyes fixed onto her, and she was going to die.
Sakura hit the ground. A blue and black shape flew over her head, crackling with lightning. Impact. Explosion. She rolled away, skidding down the slope. Crap, no, the canyon wasn't safe, she couldn't let herself fall. She dug her fingers into the earth and screamed again as her own weight tried to tear her long, curved nails out. She kept moving -- got her footing, scrambled up. Sasuke and Kyuubi were rushing at each other, crashing and then coming apart again.
The katana-wielding woman who had been sparring with Sasuke was crouching on a boulder, her long, black tail of hair singed at the end, watching the fight in utter confusion.
"Run already!" Sakura snarled at her as she reached the boulder.
"He'll tear out your guts and dance in them if Sasuke can't hold him back!"
As her teammates rolled downhill, Sakura chanced a glance their way. Red-gold chakra still danced, burning Sasuke's skin whenever he darted close enough to strike -- burning inside her belly like an echo. Her fingers still ached, though the claws had stopped growing. She swallowed the bitter desire to go and help. She would only be a hindrance. Even Sasuke was barely fast enough to stay ahead of Kyuubi's harshest attacks. If she went, she would get in their way and die. Or get Sasuke killed -- even worse.
The whole valley shook, a cloud of dust racing her up the slope, overtaking her in a second. She couldn't hear the crackle of the Chidori over the roar of earth and rocks tumbling down the cliffs, and she coughed in the dust.
In a minute there wouldn't be a cliff left anymore -- no canyon, no slope, no bowl-shaped valley.
"What the hell is going on?" the enemy girl snarled as she burst out of the dust on Sakura's flank. The giant wolf followed, ears flat on his neck, the old, graying three-tailed fox dangling from his mouth like a cub.
The smaller foxes were like a wave of fur through the rocks, a torrent running upstream, nothing in their eyes but blind animal panic; Sakura almost tripped on one of them.
The ground was pulled out from under her feet like a carpet even as she ran, and she could see the trees lining up the edges of the basin slowly topple inwards. Rocks started rolling down, loose soil flowing and piling up in strange spurts, tripping her up. She didn't have time to trip!
"Run, run, run!"
Katana-girl and her wolf darted ahead of her. Through the smoke she could see a hulking shape, the tallest ninja struggling to carry his teammate.
"Ride!" the girl snapped, sending the wolf at them, but when the big guy tried to jump the earth slid out from under his feet and he landed on his knees. A green-haired head lolled bonelessly.
Sakura could already see Naruto's face when he woke up and found out he had gutted a guy, killed him. She veered to meet them, snatched a hold on the big guy's arm and heaved to get him back up. The katana girl's hand flew to her weapon, but she held herself back at the last moment and helped him clamber on, and then the wolf was bounding up, leaving the two girls behind.
Channeling chakra to her feet, Sakura kicked off and vaulted over a rock; she landed wrong, rolling and bruising her shoulder, but it didn't matter. She'd passed the most dangerous point of the landslide. There it was -- lower bushes, flatter ground, the sea wind.
"There!" Sakura pointed out; there were deep-rooted rocky formations straight ahead, a more solid shelter than bushes and unsteady earth.
Behind them the ground trembled and dust rose to block out the sun as the avalanche of earth hit the canyon and crumbled it closed.
She couldn't see her teammates. Bile in her throat, Sakura turned around to keep an eye on the enemy trio.
They were from Grass, she noticed without really caring, and they weren't paying much attention to her at the moment. The forehead protector was probably the only thing that had saved green-hair's eye from being clawed out; his artfully layered pretty-boy hair had been burned off on one side and a small cut on his brow bled profusely.
It was nothing compared to the exposed ribs and pierced abdomen muscles on the rest of him. Kyuubi hadn't missed his organs by much, and if he got an infection it would be irrelevant.
Sakura sent a ripple of soothing chakra through her belly, seeking the fetus, assuring herself that it was still living. It was, but that was all she could tell. She didn't know if it had been injured. Her control wasn't fine enough to tell; she would have to wait for Tsunade-sama to check. In the meantime there were other things that needed to be done.
She took a step forward. There was a snik-sound and then she had a long blade at her throat. The wolf snarled low in his throat at her. The white of his eyes was still showing. Sakura stilled. The animal's nerve might break first, and then no amount of logic and calm would help.
Sakura ground her teeth. "Listen, I'm trained as a medic--"
But on the ground where he'd laid down green-hair, the big guy was taking his glove off with steady professionalism. He had blood on his clothes, from his friend's wounds and from sharp cuts made from Sasuke's kunai no doubt -- but underneath the skin was whole. And then she understood that she and Sasuke had guessed wrong. Despite his bulk and the big quarterstaff he favored, he wasn't their heavy-hitter -- he was their medic-nin.
"We don't need your help, Leaf," the black-haired girl said, and her lips twisted in a cultured sneer that meant she was thinking worse.
Sakura's fists clenched and she glared, wishing nothing more than to punch her in the jaw. But the sword was still under her neck; and if the girl was fast enough to hold her own against Sasuke, even for a short time, then she was too fast for her.
Sasuke. Sakura needed to conserve her chakra for when she had to heal him, anyway. But. But.
Sakura stepped back out of reach and swung her fist at a close-by rock, so frustrated she could have screamed. What was she supposed to do? Go back, to watch the fight so she could intervene? Or -- no, make sure they got the hell out of the area first, and learn how to fix it.
"What the hell did you do to Naruto?"
The big guy didn't look up, hands gloved in green chakra, but he tilted his head toward her a little. "I didn't do that. Berserk fits -- that's not a trick I know."
"I know you didn't. What were you trying for? How do I fix it? You just -- touched him..." She narrowed her eyes. Just a touch, and Naruto had fallen. "... Medical jutsu, huh."
"Stop distracting him," katana-girl snapped.
"It's alright, Zenko." He paused, hands resting over his friend's ribs, feeling for breaks. "Yes. It goes directly for the nervous system -- used for surgery, where drugs would be metabolized too fast, temporarily closes the connection between mind and body so pain wouldn't wake them."
Oh hell. Just the thing -- the precise thing to get Kyuubi free from Naruto's control. Suppress Naruto's awareness in such a way that even his subconscious couldn't get in the way. And then -- no, she was still missing something... Otherwise Kyuubi would have been struggling for control every time Naruto got knocked out.
"I'd have to touch your teammate to fix it."
Sakura shook her head grimly. That... would take some doing. "How long does it take to wear off?"
"Eight hours. Ten."
Sakura clenched her fists, and twitched in surprise when her claws pierced her skin. She'd forgotten about them. "... That's not happening."
"What is wrong with him anyway?"
Sakura hesitated. "--Botched experiment." Not too far from the truth. "Teach me how to wake him."
The big guy shook his head with what seemed to be honest regret. "It's a secret Grass Country exclusive."
"Your teammate, your mess," the girl -- Zenko -- added with another cold glare.
Sakura exploded. "Teach me how to wake him because if I don't he's going to track you down and he's going to kill you all -- there, is that good enough for you?!"
Sasuke was fighting. Kyuubi was -- not safe, but manageable, when Naruto was awake to rein him in if he got too far. But Naruto wasn't. Kyuubi was completely free to act for the first time in eighteen years. And she was hiding in the background again because she was still too weak even now, and they were refusing her the way to fix things, and -- shit!
"...Why would he?" Zenko asked, frowning as if she was starting to believe Sakura a little, despite herself.
"Because he's a predator," Sakura said quietly, desperate to convince them. "He's a sadistic predator who stalks and kills for fun. Rabbits aren't going to challenge him, and you three are the closest."
The girl straightened her back and snapped, "Maneki. Get Kon. We're moving out."
Sakura's mouth opened to protest.
"Can't stop healing now, Zen. I'll lose him." The green light intensified under Maneki's big hands, knitting muscle back together. There was still a large slice across green-hair's belly, organs visible underneath.
Sakura sneaked around Zenko and knelt on the other side of green-hair's body. "I'll help. Tell me how to wake up Naruto. I think -- he'll let me get close to him." Perhaps. If she played it right. If Kyuubi was in the right mood -- if he didn't want to punish her for clawing him up. If he underestimated her again.
She placed her hands over Maneki's; after a second of hesitation, he nodded imperceptibly. She concentrated her chakra and gave it to him.
For a moment it was difficult to purify her chakra so that it shone clear green and was suitable for medical jutsu. The raw demon chakra was still tainting her body, and it didn't want to twist that way. She spared a thought to wonder why she wasn't still being flooded by more... Perhaps the distance. It might happen again when she got back to wake Naruto. She had to be ready.
Behind her Zenko fumed, but she turned away on her heel to keep watch. The dust had settled.
"Are they still fighting?" Sakura asked; she couldn't turn to look.
"Can't see them."
Sakura swallowed nervously. Surely Sasuke wouldn't be caught under the landslide -- no, he had learned a couple of basic Doton techniques from Kakashi-sensei. He'd be okay.
The old three-tailed fox crawled closer and gave a long, grave look at his unconscious summoner. His front paws were almost shaped like hands, Sakura saw. One of them was broken -- crushed.
Then he looked up at Sakura and it clicked in her mind. Fox summon. Naruto unconscious, unable to wake up, and someone calling up foxes.
Someone calling up Kyuubi no Youko.
"We did not know," the fox said soberly. "We would not have been so foolish."
She shook her head, still amazed, her hands on Maneki's to offer more chakra. "But this isn't how summoning works. You call up a specific individual, not just ... call."
The green-haired boy muttered something that sounded like "Goddamn Leaf." He cracked an eye open and glared fuzzily. "Old man... shut up."
"Trade secret, huh?" Sakura retorted, rolling her eyes at him. An area summoning, calling up local animals, instead of targeting and displacing an individual beast no matter how far away it was? She'd never heard the thing might be possible. Just their luck.
She took her hands off Maneki's as he finished up. He started closing another, more shallow slice, one that still dug into the muscle but didn't bare Kon's organs to view; Sakura sat back and frowned down at the wounded boy.
"Piece of advice for you -- don't summon again. He'll find you."
Maneki glanced at her and blinked. "Wait. Your ... experiment. He's some kind of fox?"
Sakura shrugged, not meeting his eyes. It wasn't like the village heads didn't know who was the demon bearer for Kyuubi; it didn't matter much if she let that info slip. She didn't want that idiot to light up another 'come and get me' signal flare. What if it worked anytime Naruto took a nap?
...Oh. Was that why he'd started sleepwalking again?
Not the right moment to ponder that question. "So. You told me you'd explain how to stop him."
Zenko glowered for a second before turning pointedly away. Maneki nodded as he gathered his thoughts, still working on his teammate's cut. "How are you with the nervous system?"
"... I'm... not." Sakura looked away, embarrassed; but Sasuke and Naruto needed her, so she lifted her chin and stared him down. "Haven't started on it yet. But if you show me, I'll get it." Sakura looked down at the old fox. "I'm not about to let Maneki-san knock me out, though. Do you mind if he demonstrates with you?"
The three-tailed fox nodded his grey-tinged head. "If it keeps the great one from his revenge, I will accept. Maneki-kun?"
Maneki finished reattaching the muscles and sighed. "Fine. I'll try to show you how to stop him."
"Mmh. Do show her," Kyuubi purred from his comfortable sprawl on a tall rock, on the opposite direction from the ex-valley.
Zenko's hands flew to her pouches before Sakura could even fully realize what Kyuubi being here -- lounging, not fighting -- meant. A handful of kunai flew at him. He didn't bother to deflect them; he inclined his head out of the way, and allowed another two blades to slice through the meat of his shoulder and upper arm.
Then the wounds sizzled closed.
"You aim like shit," he said with dark amusement.
Sakura threw herself at Zenko and tackled her out of the way as a whip of red chakra slashed the air.
Kyuubi growled softly, raked his claws over the rock he lounged on, leaving gouges, and gave Sakura a displeased look. "Bitch, stop getting in the way."
Sakura's belly pulsed painfully and she clenched a hand over the seal inked on her skin. It felt red-hot through the cloth.
"Get off me!" Zenko kicked her off and leaped back to her feet. "I'll just get his heart--"
"I do not think it will work," the old fox said with quiet desperation.
"He's right, it really won't," Sakura said hurriedly. She didn't have a clue, actually -- but he healed so fast, he'd probably fix himself the second the blade came out. Probably. She wasn't going to bet on it. She didn't want Naruto to die.
She didn't want Naruto to die. She'd rather allow Kyuubi to rampage than kill Naruto. Even though he might never forgive her.
Sakura shook her head and clenched her fists, nicking herself with the claws. It didn't matter; the slices were shallow and she was better with fists than with open hands. She couldn't just give up yet; there had to be ways to stop him, even though she couldn't think of one right now with the pressure of his chakra and murderous intent all around --
Escape, she remembered Kakashi saying. Escape, regroup. Then plan.
But she couldn't. Because -- "Where is Sasuke?"
Kyuubi gave an uncaring shrug, not even gracing her with a glance.
Sakura stiffened in rage. "What the hell have you done to Sasuke?!"
Kyuubi growled at her, upper lip curling to bare a thick fang. "Stop screeching. You don't need a tongue to be useful to me."
The threat made her pause. Not very long. "... Where is Sasuke," she repeated, as steady as she could. He couldn't be dead, he just couldn't. There was no way he would have been killed. Especially not in such a short time.
She didn't give a damn about any sleep jutsu, Naruto would have woken up. There was just no way.
Kyuubi's eyes slid away from her like she wasn't worth his attention, taking in the katana in the other girl's hand, the wounded man on the ground, the medic-nin in his combat stance over the wounded boy, the summons. The old fox was so flat on the ground he looked like a moth-eaten carpet.
Kyuubi sniffed the air, Naruto's nose and Naruto's face but the body language was so wrong. "... You're the one with the cat." he said, looking straight at Maneki. "Hm. Might as well start with you."
She saw Maneki twitch back as if to dodge, and then glance down at his wounded friend, and she realized he was going to stand his ground. Because if he ran and Kyuubi switched targets then there would be no one in range to stop him.
She started to move -- couldn't take a second step. Maneki had thrown a handful of kunai to slow Kyuubi down, and Kyuubi had vaporized them in mid-air without breaking stride and she couldn't even scream. Her knees hit the ground and she curled up around her belly.
Chakra overload again, damn it, no -- her muscles started to ache as she redirected it as far away from her womb as possible. She had no chakra-heavy techniques to her name, with how little she could usually spare -- apart from her healing, but the demon chakra just refused to be used that way. How to spend it, get it out, get it away -- what jutsu did she know?
She lifted her head, squinted; the world had gone weird too-sharp colors again. Red-orange fire danced on the hard-packed earth, blackened tall rocks. Zenko stifled an incensed cry as her katana went red-hot, burning her hand. The Grass kunoichi had gotten him -- Kyuubi -- Sakura could see, sword going straight through his side, and he hissed in annoyance between his fangs. Maneki had a knee on the ground and his sliced shoulder bled in fat red drops onto his injured teammate, who was just awake enough to glare furiously and push himself away inch by inch with elbows and heels.
Sakura gritted her teeth and started shaping seals, fighting the red chakra inside her every step of the way.
She could smell cooked meat from there, but Zenko didn't let go of the sword -- just pulled it free and went into a two-handed grip and sliced again, low to the ground, aiming for the back of Kyuubi's ankles.
He jumped over, predictably.
Maneki surged forward like an avalanche and planted two green-glowing hands on the middle of his chest. Sakura almost lost her hand seal in shock as she watched Kyuubi fly back and crash into the ground.
For a second she thought Maneki had dealt actual damage; Kyuubi jumped back into a crouch, but his upper lip was curled up in an angry snarl and he had a hand pressed to his chest.
Then he uncoiled like a spring, flying at the two Grass nins so fast Sakura's eye couldn't follow.
She could calculate where he would be, though. And she knew exactly how fast her jutsu traveled.
Water coalesced and shot forward, pulled out of the air itself. It was a basic Suiton jutsu, nothing complicated, just a spurt of water. She fed it all the chakra she could, and it came out like a water cannon instead.
A cloud of steam bloomed when it rammed through Kyuubi's aura, blocking out the battlefield; she couldn't tell what had happened. Water ran downhill back to where she was kneeling, and it was warm to the touch, soaking her dress and shoes. Sakura climbed back to her feet slowly, rebalancing her energies. She'd overloaded the jutsu, and some of the energy had come back to her instead of going neatly into the spell, but it was manageable now.
"Nice," someone said, two steps away from her, and she gave a full-body twitch and jerked around.
He was bleeding, of course, she'd expected as much, but not that badly -- scratches and slices, not the deep red gushing she had feared. Hair in disarray, dust caked over his wounds -- standing on his own two feet, and not appearing to favor anything. She'd imagined so much worse.
A bellowing roar cut her off and she looked up at the battleground again. Kyuubi stood where the Grass team had been, but of the trio there was not a trace. Kyuubi paced angrily, fingers curling, raking his claws through imaginary flesh. Water ran downhill in little rivulets on the hard earth, making just enough mud to speckle his pant legs. He was soaked, blond bangs sticking to his face, water running down bare shoulders, washing down the blood he had shed when Zenko ran him through. The wound was long since closed, of course.
"Doton," Sasuke said quietly to her as he moved to stand by her side.
Sakura glanced down. Underground, all three of them? It made the Grass team a little safer, but not too much. They wouldn't be able to tunnel very far, and if they went too fast Kyuubi would hear them. He definitely had enough chakra to take out a chunk of the hillside.
She'd had all the landslides she could handle today. "We should move up," she said back, just as softly. Sasuke nodded and started moving, giving Kyuubi a wide berth.
Kyuubi kept pacing, staring down at the ground, tilting his head like a dog listening to faraway howls. At least his chakra was calmer; no longer a complete aura, just a handful of gold tendrils curling and rising from his shoulders.
"... What happened to you?" she whispered to Sasuke, her eyes still on the blond creature that wasn't her teammate. "You didn't come back for so long -- did he knock you out?"
Sasuke grumbled something under his breath and pulled a leaf out of his hair.
"... No," he eventually muttered. "Listen, it doesn't matter, we need to figure out what to do. What do we know?"
She shook her head. She was even more curious now, but it could wait. He was there, it was good enough. "Naruto is being suppressed via sleep jutsu. It'll take at least eight hours to wear off. And I think..." She hesitated. "Green-haired guy is a fox summoner."
Sasuke made a little hissing sound as he took that in. "Huh. Tried aiming at the scroll?"
Sakura blinked; she hadn't thought of that, she'd just looked for a solution on the medic side of things. "Didn't see it. I don't think Kyuubi would go back anyway. He summons weird -- attracts local beasts instead of teleporting them to him."
Kyuubi stuck his claws in a waist-high boulder and heaved it out of its hole, sending it rolling away. He peered down at the ground beneath it, scowling. He looked two seconds away from puffing up his cheeks like Naruto did when he felt grumpy, and for a moment she couldn't remember why he had terrified her so much.
"Huh." Sasuke frowned, staring at the fox.
A muscle in his jaw kept jumping. Sakura tilted her head, inquiring. "What is it?"
It wasn't, of course, but he wasn't going to tell her. Frustration about the situation most likely. "We need to do something," she said as she watched Kyuubi slash at the ground with chakra claws, a hand clenched on her belly. The surge was minimal, easily dispersed.
"Backlash," she said tersely, because she didn't want to show how much the situation worried her. "The damming seal is gone."
Kyuubi clawed at the ground again, slashing earth away in deep gouges here and there -- and then his seemingly random pattern started focusing on a specific area. His shoulders straightened slightly, the cant of his head changed. Sakura couldn't see his face and wasn't used to his body language, but she could tell that his predatory interest -- almost catlike in its playfulness -- was coming back.
"He's found them," she said, and bit her lip.
Sasuke didn't say anything for a second, and then answered with a brusqueness that startled her. "We should consider letting him have them."
The muscles in Sakura's shoulders tightened and she forbade herself to look his way. From the tone of his voice, Sasuke didn't like his own suggestion either.
"They're enemies after all," she said tonelessly.
"...Pretend I'm not pregnant."
Sasuke took his eyes off Kyuubi and stared at her, sharingan eyes spinning. "--What?"
"No, pretend I'm Naruto. Now what should we do?"
Sasuke closed his eyes briefly.
"... Fight." He let out a short, irritated breath. "Problem is, in the end it won't do a thing. He wants to kill them first. He'll swat us down, go after them, and then come back and beat on us more. He doesn't want to break us for good. We're better toys."
Which, she understood, was how Kyuubi had treated Sasuke. "But he won't kill us," she replied with more certainty than she felt. Kyuubi was now digging in a specific area, his face turned her way just enough to let her see the fanged smirk. "... He won't beat me up," she said. Not head or body blows at least -- skin, limbs, muscles, yes, but she should be safe from internal trauma. "But be it now or later, he'll beat on you until you can't move and then we'll be sitting ducks."
Sasuke twitched his head, sending dark locks flying away from his face. "I don't care."
Sakura took a deep breath, braced herself, and buried every single misgiving she had so nothing showed in her voice but determination.
"When they pop up, grab them and run. I'll distract him until he loses your tracks. When the sleep jutsu breaks... I guess you'll know."
"... Sakura, are you joking," Sasuke asked flatly.
"Sasuke-kun. He's going to kill them. Probably by dismemberment." Sasuke opened his mouth but she just kept talking over him. "And then Naruto will wake up, and what will you tell him? 'Sorry, it was easier on us to let you tear them to pieces'?"
"Sakura," Sasuke protested in a quiet voice, his hand closing around her wrist.
Sakura allowed herself to lean on Sasuke's shoulder for a second, and gave him a fleeting smile. "He won't hurt me," she said. "He hasn't yet. He's been all talk with me. I'll be fine. Maybe a bit bruised, but fine. You need to get ready to go."
She started forward.
Sasuke's hand tightened briefly, as if he was thinking of holding her back, but she took another step and it released her and fell away. He followed without another word, spreading out so they would each have more space to maneuver. His jaw was set in a grim, displeased way.
He didn't have to like it, Sakura told herself. She didn't have the chakra to heal him from a bloody pulp back into a human being, much less the know-how. Therefore Sasuke needed to stay away until Naruto woke up. And she needed to do her best to make sure Kyuubi wasn't going to rampage all over the island.
Kyuubi glanced at her when she was a dozen feet away, but by then she was already cocking her fist and swinging it down to the hard packed ground.
She'd never held and released so much chakra in one go before, and the timing was perfect. Destruction radiated out around her. It was strangely exhilarating.
Kyuubi jumped back, landed in a deep crouch on unstable terrain, snarled at her as his claws dug in for purchase. Sasuke blurred from sight, dust swirling behind him; Kyuubi's head snapped around to track him. Sakura couldn't allow him to do that; it was her job to cover Sasuke's back. But with the ground already broken, the impact of another punch wouldn't travel far.
Her fingers flitted through the water-hose hand seals; she got Kyuubi right in the face. The jet was a lot less impressive this time around, but it did its job. Kyuubi snarled, loud and irritated; by the time he had shaken waterlogged bangs out of his face, she'd seen Sasuke, Maneki and Zenko fade from view, the green-haired boy thrown across Maneki's huge shoulders with his head lolling limply.
Genjutsu. One she could see from her peripheral vision for a couple of seconds, like a desert mirage, but they were out of range before she could pinpoint it. She had no idea if Kyuubi was any better at genjutsu than she was -- but it felt like he should be; fox-spirits were known for their illusions.
Naruto was abysmal at it; she felt a twinge at the thought of him. At least he wasn't aware of what he was doing. She told herself it was a good thing.
"You little bitch."
Suddenly the air was flooded with killing intent and burning chakra.
Sakura gasped, a hand flying to her belly, allowing him to see exactly how much it hurt. "You'll kill the child," she gasped. "You really will."
For a few seconds it looked like he wouldn't care, red eyes disdainful and angry. Worry crept up her spine, resolve wavering. Then with a wordless snarl he turned his back on her, stiff and frustrated, and suddenly she could breathe again.
The raging chakra was gone, smothered. She'd been right. She'd been right. He cared. The threats, and the implication that if the child was too weak to survive that was fine with him, it was all talk -- well, maybe not all talk, but... She swallowed a lone, giddy, chuckle and forced herself to sober up. She might have some measure of safety, but the Grass trio didn't. And Sasuke-kun...
Kyuubi scanned the area for his fleeing prey. The ground was deceptively flat, though, and Sakura knew it. If the group had reached one of the numerous canyons then he wasn't going to see them. She hoped they kept away, kept safe. (She also hoped Sasuke robbed them blind, but that was rather secondary at the moment.)
She slowly stepped closer, still not sure what she would do. If she could have guaranteed herself enough lag time to learn Maneki's technique, she would have gone with them -- but Kyuubi never held back against Sasuke; he couldn't be rearguard. And without a rearguard at all, Kyuubi would track them down all too soon.
"If you get in my way again, I'll hurt you," Kyuubi said, his back still on her.
He didn't say 'kill'. It was still all talk, even with the dark murderous vibes he gave off. Sakura felt a twinge of relief, mixed with anger and an odd sort of hurt. Even with Tsunade-sama's punches, she still wasn't an opponent he felt he had to take seriously. Turning his back on her so casually -- it stung. He would never turn his back on Sasuke like that.
For a second she considered acting meek, pretending to be harmless, submissive, trying to talk him out of things. Flattering him maybe, calling him Kyuubi-sama so he'd be in a better mood, and no, to hell with that.
She gathered the demon chakra in her fist. It was unstable; but that didn't matter quite as much if it impacted with flesh as opposed to a stony surface. She cocked her fist back and lengthened her steps.
"It's alright," she said, in what she thought was a pretty calm tone, all things considered. "That's fair. I'll be doing the same."
When Kyuubi turned toward her, his expression was irritated enough; but at the last second it changed into offended disbelief.
Then her fist plowed into his face.
She watched him roll on the uneven ground, come to a sudden stop against a jutting rock; the impact almost unseated it.
She felt so calm suddenly. It was strange, a knife's-edge balance between fear and exhilaration. "You know, I really don't like it when you turn your back on me."
He pushed himself up on his hands, shaking his head like a wet dog. He snarled. This time at least his red eyes were looking straight at her.
It was tempting to close the distance, to keep pressing, but she wasn't fast enough to trust her taijutsu against his. She threw herself to the side the second he pounced, knowing how fast he was. He clipped her shoulder anyway; she stumbled, whirled around, found him already coming back for another pounce. She flung an explosive tag straight at him, used the blast to propel herself to the closest boulder. She rolled immediately behind it, before the dust even fell, out of sight. Her back stung all over from the shockwave.
Wear him down -- that was the only way to stop such a force of nature. Slow him down little by little, break his momentum. Keep him from taking control of the fight.
She only had a couple of explosive tags left.
"Hiding?" Kyuubi drawled.
His voice was still far enough that she didn't worry yet. Her eyes roamed over the broken rocks, the dust, the low bushes.
"I thought you wanted to hurt me."
If she could cross this flat, arid area, disappear into the greener hollow the river cut across the island -- there were trees and bushes there. She knew how to use those. She could stall him better.
"Bitten off more than you can chew, have you, bitch."
Well, at least she'd definitely graduated from slut.
She plunged a hand in her pouch. Smoke tag, some candy -- she didn't even have any soldier pills; they were contraindicated in her condition -- a couple of shuriken and ... oh.
Yes, perhaps she could use that.
Kyuubi landed atop her boulder, claws raking the stone. Sakura gasped and took a couple of steps away from him, stumbling, legs visibly shaking. Kyuubi's cold, watchful expression turned into a contemptuous sneer, and he stalked forward with obvious irritation.
"You're not worth my time." He snorted, threw an impatient look at the direction Sasuke and the Grass nin had disappeared. "They'll show more guts... One way or another."
Growling under his breath in a put-upon way, he slipped off the rock, stepped toward her.
Then the wires snapped out of the dust to wrap around his leg with a loud twang.
It was a spider web of steel, wrapping three, four times up his calf, forcing his knee to fold so he stumbled. Anchored to the closest half-dozen boulders, it would take even him a few seconds to rip it out. She'd intended to use the time to flee.
Instead she gathered chakra and charged.
Kyuubi might not want to hurt her. He might not want to fight her. He might not want to see her bleed. It hurt her pride, but it was convenient. She didn't care. But she would never let him hurt Sasuke.
She was close, only a couple of steps away. He was still off-balance, hindered. Her right fist snapped forward.
It glanced off his jaw as he twisted aside with animal flexibility. The chakra exploded out nonetheless, the recoil flinging her hand and his upper body aside, fouling her momentum.
Something hooked her shoulder and threw her to the ground hard enough to leave a gouge in the earth, knocking the breath out of her. He rolled on top of her before she could move, red eyes furious. She raised her other hand, her other fist.
His teeth sank in her left forearm up to the gum. For a second it didn't even hurt; she just felt the pressure. Then her bone cracked in his jaw.
Screaming, she exploded into movement. Feet and knees hammered at his body; he gave her arm a shake. Her blood flew from his mouth, landed in warm drops on her face. Her vision darkened, dizziness and nausea rising together to choke her. She could feel the muscles tear. He'd sliced a vein.
She elbowed him in the temple, screaming again when his fangs were wrenched out.
She didn't even really see the backhand that caught her in the side of the face.
red bridge blue water green sky, all dark, all dirtied, river swelled up with rust-gold and it got the planks all wet under her, all wet and that was just so wrong. water belonged under the bridge, not over it, trying to wash her away. Naruto was there upstream on his island, but he was a curled-up ball of tarnished gold fur and he didn't move at all and it hurt so much she woke up.
She took a little sobbing breath, swimming in and out of consciousness. So stupid to think he wouldn't hurt her at all; her cheekbone was cracked too and her neck hurt. The left side of her tunic was wet with a widening puddle of her blood.
Kyuubi's weight pinned down her thighs. He was so close his blond bangs tickled her forehead. Killing intent roiled off him, choking her. His lips were wet with her blood, as was his chin, like a lion that had just finished gorging itself.
Hadn't killed her yet, she told herself in between two hitching breaths. Nothing was even really broken. Could fix it. Could. If he...
If oh god why was he leaning closer, no, that was more than close enough -- more than close enough, those thick teeth so close to her face, her eyes -- she could still be pregnant without her eyes --
His blood-wet lips brushed her puffed-up cheekbone, his tongue traced the split in the skin his knuckles had left. It stung.
He was growling, so softly it sounded like a purr. Foxes didn't purr, she reminded herself -- threat, not pleasure. The low thrumming sound resonated in her bones. He lifted a hand and she flinched when she thought he'd hit her, then flinched again when it touched her hair instead, tangled messy pink strands around claw-tipped fingers.
"Silly little bitch," he said, so quiet it almost sounded like an endearment.
It wasn't just the eye color and the moods. Something in the way his brow furrowed, his lip quirked, the way he hooded his lids, the way his jaw muscles clenched -- it made all Naruto's leftover baby fat disappear, made the planes of his face subtly different. He looked older than Naruto, and more like a brother than a twin.
He tugged on her hair, forcing her to bare the side of her neck, brushed the tip of his fangs against her skin. A subtle, intimate threat that didn't mean 'I'll tear out your jugular' at all.
He wasn't Naruto, he didn't even look like Naruto, it didn't matter what he did to her. She wasn't going to get flashbacks when Naruto -- later, when he came to her and -- leaned close -- kissed her -- nothing in common to Kyuubi's breath on her face, not the same mood or the same person and it didn't even look like Naruto's body. (it did, it did.)
She breathed out, and in, and out again. Had to be calm, rational.
She'd rather get raped than have an eye bitten out. She was trained to deal with rape.
"Naruto," she whispered back, hand feeling for her thigh pouch. "Naruto, wake up. Wake up." Her finger slipped through a cold metallic ring.
She'd expected Kyuubi to laugh at her, lazy like a well-entertained predator, but the tightly-leashed rage that flared briefly in his eyes caught her by surprise. She'd been wrong, he wasn't satisfied by his win enough to be content with the mental trauma he inflicted. He was still wound up enough he might decide to tear into her again.
If she used that kunai on him, he might kill her out of sheer rage.
If she didn't kill him with the first blow -- sever his spine, pierce his brain -- he would kill her. Sakura didn't want to kill him, and if she just threatened him he would never back off -- he'd counterattack immediately. The weapon was useless.
Kyuubi's hand closed around her bleeding arm and tightened, making her give a short, gut-clenching scream.
"Hey, you! What the hell are you doing?!"
Her first thought was 'Sasuke', but even as she had it she knew it couldn't be. The voice was too high-pitched, for one thing. She lifted her head off the ground to scan what she could see of their surroundings.
Kids. Three kids. Thirteen year old at most. A black-haired girl and a bespectacled boy and one with a blade-tipped staff. Their expressions of shock twisted faces she should have remembered.
Then the one with the staff moved forward, and she noticed the wooden shaft lacked ten inches off the end and had been bandaged, so it wouldn't splinter all the way down. His little round-cheeked face was red with offense and something like betrayal.
"What's wrong with you?! I thought you were a nice guy!"
Kyuubi rolled off her just as she recognized the kid Naruto had sparred with, the one he'd finished with his stupid naked woman jutsu -- was it just this morning? It felt like months ago.
Sakura pushed herself up on an elbow, forced green chakra down her cracked bone haphazardly. Maybe she'd heal herself wrong. She didn't care; Tsunade-sama could fix it later. She needed two working arms right now. But when she managed to kneel up her head swam from the blood loss.
Kyuubi was still advancing toward the kids, body stiff with unexpected rage.
Had they gotten a team of uncooperative assholes to safety just to get three friendly brats killed? No, no, no, hell no -- Naruto would recover from getting rid of three enemies, but not from them, not them -- "Run!" she screamed at them, struggling to stand.
She saw them hesitate, resolve wavering. The guy with the glasses took a step back.
Three tails of fiery chakra fanned out behind Kyuubi; the backlash caught her like a mule's kick to the stomach, dropping her again.
A fourth tail; the world started to blur.
"You'll kill the baby--" she saw him pause, hesitate -- just one second, just one, but then he snarled and shook his head like a dog out of water, and the killing intent was so thick in the air she wasn't even surprised to see two of the kids fall to their knees, sobbing in fright.
The one with the spear was still up, bracing himself heavily on his weapon, eyes glassy as he desperately held his ground in front of his teammates.
"I'll kill the baby!"
It was probably the surprise that made Kyuubi glance back over his shoulder.
She climbed back up to her feet, hands firm as she held her last kunai point-first against her belly.
"I'd rather bleed out right here," she said. "I'd rather bleed out right here than bear a child you'd call yours."
He turned halfway toward her, stared at her with burning eyes, his face and bare chest streaked with her blood.
" ... I'm here. You can hurt me a lot more than this. I'm a medic-nin. I can last longer than a kid ever would. Just let them go."
He hung his head then, blond spikes shadowing his face, and it was such a Naruto gesture she didn't notice the third tail had disappeared from view until the ground exploded under her. She was still desperately trying to twist to face the ground so she'd land on her feet when a returning swing caught her right in the ribs.
Her back hurt. Probably because of the boulder Kyuubi had just flung her at. Should have hurt more, but the red chakra was inside her too, so the rock had splintered instead of her spine.
She vaguely thought that she should move, but even turning her head to the side took so much effort.
Someone was crying up there, big gulping sobs, so she tried again.
His teammates' faces were wet with tears, but his wasn't; it was just kind
of surprised. Kyuubi was sitting on his haunches beside him. The spear protruded
from the boy's stomach, the ribbon at the other end moving like a flag in the
wind of Kyuubi's chakra. And then Kyuubi cocked back his claws.
[Chapter 5] [Chapter 7]