Chapter 81:

When Fukuro landed, it was on his feet, his bones creaking within his limbs at the abuse.

Damn body.

Useless old thing.

Fukuro brought his eyes up to his attacker, green, bowl cut hair.

The green beast?

No. Too young, an apprentice or protege of some kind. Maybe a son?

The young man, whatever he was, stared at him severely, teeth grit behind closed lips, the muscle's of his jaw bunched.

The boy was angry. Good.

It would make him sloppy.

"You hurt Tenten." He said- as if that should mean something. "I am Rock Lee. I will be your opponent."

Fukuro snorted, unimpressed as he slowly brought his blade to a more ready stance. "Your funeral, boy."

The young man rushed forward. He was fast, his form near flawless, Taijutsu master then, confident enough to try matching him at close range without drawing a weapon of his own.

His foot lashed out with a kick and Fukuro slashed at the approaching leg with his blade, but the boy pivoted, redirecting the kick so his orange shin guards smashed harshly against the edge instead, the steel bit but didn't cut through.

The force of the kick and the sheer power and weight behind it put the old mercenary on the back foot. The tip of his massively long sabre dug into the ground where he let it go, dipping low under the boy's kick to emerge behind him, drawing a knife to slash at his exposed ribs.

But the boy was fast still, and had enough of a sixth sense to already have his hand in place when he turned, forearm striking forearm as he shunted his thrust to the side and in that same spinning movement lashed out with his foot to kick Fukuro's sword out of reach with a clatter of steel.

The old mercenary smirked. The boy was good.

The blade spun in the air, it's edge digging into a tree meters away as the boy stepped forward, into Fukuro's guard and exploded into a rush of flying fists, knees and elbows.

Fukuro tried to retreat, but the boy was on him, never letting up, never relenting, not providing an inch of room.

Was it his natural fighting style of choice? Or had he already dissected that the more room he allowed the greater the chance the wily old owl had to arm himself with a trick or two to turn the fight?

Didn't matter much in the end.

His blow's hit hard; his fists like iron weights, his elbows like pointed hammers and his speed was superb.

But still he was young.

And the young were stupid fighters. They relied too much on bodies that hadn't yet failed them.

Fukuro took the blows, dodging where he could afford it, absorbing the strikes where he couldn't.

He noticed when the boy let his guard down slightly, ever so slightly. After all, why be on guard with an old man that could barely keep up?

That's when he struck.

He ducked, deftly slipping past a straight drive punch, stepping into the boy's guard, a powder bomb slipping into his hand.

He shoved it forward, his other hand snapping out, a single chakra string latching onto his sword meters away.

The bomb went off, the burst of fire and force burning his well calloused hand; he barely felt it, he made the sound coincide with the crack of his blade being yanked free of the wood.

He would give the boy this… he was fast, and good.

He hadn't avoided the blast, not completely, but enough to not be completely blinded. Only one eye was shut tight, slight burns singing that half of his face the other still clear, the eye open and the boy furiously suppressing the pain in order to not leave himself exposed to the counter.

Still, no doubt his ears were ringing too much to notice the skittering of a blade coming up behind him.

The boy lashed out with a kick, one that was so fast and precise it slipped straight through Fukuro's guard, hitting him dead center of the chest, knocking the wind out of the old owl, forcing him back.

No.

His singed hand lashed out, grasping a tight hold onto the bandaging around one of Lee's forearm, pulling the fabric in a fistful, yanking the boy closer to him, keeping him in range.

Lee's leg struck out again, hammering a solid blow into Fukuro's inner knee, and the elbow that followed it up as the old man nearly lost his footing would have taken his head clean off if he hadn't blocked it.

Fukuro twisted the bandages in his hand, wrapping them tight around Lee's arm, tight enough to hurt, to bend the boy's arm enough for him to start twisting his body a bit to avoid the reflexive pain, leaving his chest open as Fukuro drove a knee up into the boy's sternum smashing the air out of him.

Lee coughed. But in the exchange Fukuro allowed his concentration to slip.

With a glint of reflective sunlight, his blade twisted in the air, catching the bright midday sun.

The boy was slightly deaf. But he wasn't blind.

Lee twisted around with the force of a rampaging bull, fully tearing the bandages Fukuro had gripped him by, narrowly avoiding the blade that would have cut into his spine as the weapon slipped into Fukuro's hand.

This time, it was the old man who stepped forward, driving into the attack as Lee was the one off balance.

Even so, the boy ducked and weaved, dodged and spun on the rough, unhewn ground like it was the flat mats of a dojo, surefooted and skilled.

When Lee looked like he would regain his balance and begin to counter attack Fukuro knew not to press, tossing an arc of black powder into the air, he swept his blade in the same arc, the mechanism hidden in the spine sparking to set the whole thing alight in a blinding flash.

It nearly knocked the boy on his ass and the old Owl leapt away to catch his breath.

He let out a low laugh as Lee rolled to his feet, slipping back into his guard seamlessly.

This one was fun.

(X)(X)(X)

Deidara was down an arm, his knees shook with every heavy step with weakness brought on by bloodloss, his chakra reserves were all but exhausted.

A pardon and a reward did him no good if he was dead.

The problem was, the bitch that had cornered him was not letting him go.

Like a dog clamping onto a bone she hounded him through the trees, pursuing him with a tenacity that bordered on vindictive.

Perhaps if he weren't injured he could escape.

Hell, if he weren't injured he'd probably have blasted the up-jumped bitch to hell and back already.

But he was injured, and she was hardly going to give him the chance to catch his breath, recover and find himself a new arm.

He saw her then, moving like a ghost through the trees, long pink hair, a scarred eye glinting like a jade knife.

She circled him like prey.

Not today He hissed.

The mouth of his remaining hand chomped and chewed as he reached into his satchel of explosive clay.

He didn't need a forest for cover.

She did.

When he threw out his hand the rain of tiny explosives fell across the forest like cast pebbles, thrown in every direction.

After a moment, everything went up in flames.

The explosion hit him with the force of a hammer to the chest, knocking the wind out of him, trees creaked as they collapsed

Try hiding in that.

The fires burnt out quick, leaving little more than a circle of burnt ruin, wide open space for him to see any attack coming.

So she made it obvious.

She stood in the charred field, stepping closer as though she didn't have a care in the world.

Deidara grit his teeth at the insult.

She thought him weak. Easy.

He saw her smile beneath her mask.

(X)(X)(X)

It took him long, longer than he cared to admit- but eventually, he pieced it together.

With every exchange of blows, every moment they fought that went without the surge of chakra, even in minute spurts and small flares he knew.

"You're the one." Fukuro laughed as he leaped away, gaining some distance. "The girl's teammate."

He smiled then, something wild and feral as his blade danced across his hands. "The one that's just like me."

The boy was breathing hard. He was faster, stronger than these withered old bones, but more than one trick had nearly killed him, set his strong heart racing in his chest.

Sharp spikes of adrenaline could drain you once their effects began to wear off.

He would still be fast, still be strong but just that ever bit more sluggish, that bit less refined.

It was the little things, stacked atop one another that won battles like this.

And Fukuro did indeed have every intention to win.

Then he felt it, there at the edge of his senses, drawing closer, faster and faster.

The boy's friends, or those well enough and strong enough to make a difference.

They split off, each one going to a different fight and individual rescues.

Stupid. Should have focused on one target, overwhelm it, and move on.

Even so, it was little surprise who it was that came to help the boy, not with what he knew now.

A rain of knives fell on him, and his blade sang with the sound of ringing steel as he deflected the deadly hail while his boot cracked into the sole of the Lee boy's heel, meeting him kick for kick as they both sent each other backwards.

The girl was there, weapons ready falling into her familiar place behind her teammate.

Fukuro couldn't help but laugh ruefully at the sight of them.

Of course it would be her.

Damn kids. Always needing crutches to walk.

He looked at Lee.

That one should know better.

The old Owl reached into his vest, pulling out a chakra storage scroll as the two rushed forward, falling into an attack pattern that seemed so practiced they barely needed to think about it.

The scroll unfurled and he grasped the chakra within.

It felt oily, thick. Sludge in his veins, tar between his bones. Foreign. Not his. Never his.

He'd learned to shape it all the same.

He slashed open his hand, the blood dancing over the seals folded into the metal of his blade and the hilt.

With a burst of smoke, an Owl, pale with feathers of smoke and ash emerged at his side.

Its talons and beak sharpened like blades, its eyes gleaming with intelligence as it rose high into the air.

(X)(X)(X)

She tore through his puppets like a scythe through wheat.

It was galling, infuriating, and though he would never admit it aloud, frightening.

The Hyuuga woman moved like living water, her body twisting and slipping seamlessly between row upon row of blades and thrown projectiles.

Those damnable eyes were seeing every angle every possible attack that would have normally seen other men dead a hundred times over.

Her blade sliced through wood and metal like paper, and where it didn't, her ghostly touch severed the chakra strings he used to control his puppets utterly, leaving them to flop uselessly to the floor before he re-exerted his hold over them again. But by then she'd slipped away,the danger passed.

Brute force did not work and was costing him more and more of his puppets, and so he pulled away, drew them all back and bombarded the Hyuuga with long range projectiles, hoping to overwhelm her through sheer volume.

Graceless, artless, but it could work.

Then she spun, and her chakra whorled around her like a battering wind, knocking the delicate senbon, and sturdy kunai aside like so much useless junk.

Again and again she did this, and used the time to draw ever closer, inexorably, unfailingly, towards his true body.

She could see him through the near hundred enemies arrayed before her.

And she was coming straight for him.

His long range bombardment rendered useless, Sasori drove forward to attack again, his front line puppets closing the distance with scything blades and reaping talons.

He saw her suck down a deep breath,

When she expelled it it was a thick, black cloud of smoke that plumed from her lips, blanketing the entire forest.

Soon, Sasori couldn't see anything.

Then, as he felt a puppet be lost, then another and another in less than a few seconds he realized that she, with those cursed eyes, still very much could.

He sent his puppets scattering, all of them fleeing in every direction before he himself began to climb, rising high, higher still into the heights of the trees, to the point where he knew he was reaching the very tops and there'd be no room left to climb.

Still the cloud did not abate not even the barest hint of sunlight reached him.

There was a sudden, violent wrenching, the flare of sensation that was not quite pain as the sound of rent metal and shattering wood reached his ears.

He snapped his gaze downward, finding the Hyuuga's iron hard grip on his ankle, the sheer force of it damaging the tempered, hardened material as chakra swirled around her fist in buffeting, cleaving whirls; not dissimilar to the technique she'd used to batter aside his projectiles.

Smoke leaked from between her teeth, white eyes glinting like a predator's in the gloom before she yanked him down towards her.

Sasori's grip held firm, but the wood he was anchored to did not.

With a rending crack of wood it gave and he fell towards her.

The blade in his forearm snapped forward, out of its compartment and he struggled to recall the last time he'd needed to use it in such a way.

Every single one of his puppets turned instantly to rush to his defense.

She pushed off the tree, the two of them descending back to the forest as his blade caught against hers, the tempered steel holding up far better against her own.

He pushed against her, shoving her blade aside. His physical strength in this body was greater than hers.

Her free hand rushed forward, towards his heart, but he was ready, his own arm deftly intercepting and he received a jolt through his entire body for his efforts, as her juuken sought to disrupt the flow of chakra from his last remaining flesh to this body that housed it.

But she couldn't not yet. The body was too unfamiliar, the connections too ingrained and alien to her knowledge.

She would learn if given the opportunity.

Blade cracked against blade in their descent, the sound the only thing to indicate where anything was in the blackened smoke, the sparks of the metal barely illuminating her face with it's bulging veins and milky white eyes.

The closest of his puppets arrived, launching a volley of poisonous senbon and immediately she twisted in mid air, her feet catching against something and stopping her descent instantly as Sasori twisted to get his own feet under him, unsure as to where anything else was or how far he even was from the ground.

She vanished into the dark as he fell

An interminable moment later his feet smashed into the earth and he immediately leapt away as a kunai with an explosive tag stuck itself into the dirt at his feet.

He was nearly too slow to escape the blast, pelted by concussive force, heat and dirt.

Every remaining puppet surrounded him, a fortress of bodies that shot out of their limbs and tensors and fine lines of razor wire like feelers.

He shut his eyes- they were useless anyway- feeling through the puppets and the thousands of tiny sensors.

Trees, rocks, dirt, falling leaves-

There

Immediately more of the puppets converged, moving, and he was rewarded with the clear sound of steel striking steel- he forced every puppet to rush forward, pressing the attack.

He needed to keep eyes on her no matter how many puppets it cost him.

(X)(X)(X)

"You're good, boy."

The complement was sincere.

The girl was keeping him in the fight, it would have been over at least twice now, but she had his back. That was disappointing. But few had ever lasted long once Kamur was summoned.

He brought his arm up, the ancient Owl seeing the gesture in the gloom of smoke and ash before descending to rest on his forearm.

The bird's eyes are hungry, predatory.

"It's been a long time since we've hunted hasn't it?" He mused.

Kamur flared out his wings, flapping them once.

Peering through the gloom, he saw them.

Wearing hastily made masks of their torn clothes to keep the ash from their lungs, the girl hovers around the boy, constantly disrupting the Genjutsu Kamur was subtly trying to lay over them.

Get the girl away from the boy. An easy fight from there.

He couldn't defend against illusions, especially not subtle ones.

The girl unfurled a scroll and weapons exploded like shrapnel in every direction as he calmly stepped back behind his tree, hearing the thunk of steel digging firmly into wood.

"How satisfying was it boy? When you realized you'd left all those who sneered and dismissed you staring at your back as you left them behind on the scales? Hmmm? Or when you killed the first man who by all rights should have beaten you handily."

His voice echoed through the woods; and it was the girl who caught on.

"Don't focus on his words." She said. "He's trying to distract you. Listen for the source of the voice, not the echo."

Clever girl.

He thrust his arm up and Kemur rose into the air with a beat of its wings, smoke and ash billowing outwards.

He wasn't sure what was happening in the forest beyond them, the sounds were reaching but it was chaotic, disjointed. No real way to tell who was winning or losing.

So he focused on his own fight, his own objective. Everything else, came later.

One more go.

(X)(X)(X)

There's a burning feeling across her flesh when she hears his footsteps.

He's loud. It's on purpose. It has to be.

He knows she can't run anymore.

She has nowhere left to run to.

It takes more effort than she's comfortable admitting to reach her feet.

Kurotsuchi supposes she should be grateful.

Sasori seems to have stabbed her with one of his… slower poisons rather than a fast acting one.

She swallows to stop herself from coughing.

Her grip on her blade is tight. Too tight. But it's all she can do to keep it from slipping from fingers that are far too numb.

The Jinchuuriki marches out of the forest like an implacable red boulder; his eyes are fixed on her, and she's fairly sure, even if she offered Naruto now… he would kill her anyway.

Maybe for her betrayal.

A part of her suspected that he'd just enjoy it.

She blinks away the spots in her vision, forcing chakra to channel through her whole body, helping her focus… helping her feel… for now. Likely she was just speeding up the process.

She doesn't bother trying to talk. Trying to stall for time. He's not stuppid enough to fall for it, and frankly… she's not sure if her stalling would do more good for her or him.

She's injured, with something burning through her insides that's gonna make her keel over soon enough.

He's a Jinchurikki missing one arm, possibly tired from his previous fight with Naruto..

She's had worse odds.

He attacks first.

She's faster, perhaps, more skilled.

Her control over magma gave her the edge in raw power if she can catch him off balance. He's down one arm and her sword gives her reach.

He's stronger, she knows. He'll outlast her as well, especially now with the poison in her veins.

Hit him hard. As hard as she can. Put him down.

Her sword whistle's as it cuts through the air, like a song bird and Han's gauntlet screeches as metal grinds against metal. He bats the blade aside, stepping forward, into her guard. His arm is gone so he drives forward with his knee, trying to crush it into her stomach.

She steps to the side, the blow glancing off her ribs, even so the force is enough to drive the air from her lungs and the elbow she cracks into his head to counter doesn't have nearly as much force as it could.

His foot stamps down, between hers as he drives the stump of his shoulder forward, into her again, looking to knock her off balance.

She takes a half step back, catching herself before she can trip before raising her leg up to drive it down into his knee with all the force she can muster, chakra enhancing the blow.

He barely budges, but she can see the pain like a pin prick in his eye as she shoves down even harder, her weight putting him off balance now and the swing of her sword is lightning fast.

Again his remaining arm is there, this time catching her blade by the edge itself, the sharpness biting deep into his palm, drawing blood.

She pulls.

I doesn't give an inch.

His hand pivots at the wrist and she can see he wants to snap Koutou's sword in two. He more than has the strength for it.

She lets it go.

The grip slips from her fingers and two kunai are in its place.

She doesn't give him time to move, time to think, she strikes, both knives looking to punch through the weaker parts of his impossibly thick armor.

Her blade is in his hand now, moving with deceptively easy dexterity, his grip slipping from mid blade to the base, then from the base past the guard and into the grip itself. Seamlessly, easily.

He's not stupid enough to let her steel it back.

But he doesn't know all its tricks.

A sword is a weapon.

Every part of it. From tip to pommel; including the grip.

He doesn't expect it. Not like he would have gripping the blade, so she hadn't done it then.

She can do it now.

The kunai in her hands slip and coil, lashing and scarring.

He's stronger than her.

But she's faster.

He sees an opening. Something she leaves there.

He strikes.

Her blades are ready.

One blocks the slash that would have cut her open with a ring of steel against steel.

The other reaches forward, letting go of the knife and grabbing the sword firmly by the guard, her grip just above his.

Her Chakra feels sluggish, molding it is painful, it almost ruins the whole attack.

Almost.

Her Chakra surges into the weapon, the blade, the pommel.

The grip.

Fires burst across the whole length and breadth of the sword, including the guard she holds in her hand.

They're her flames. Born and fueled by her energy. They no more burn her than the lava she spews out of her throat does.

The fires catch. Han grunts, letting go in reflex as she sends the flames dancing up his arm, spreading further, faster and faster, she'll burn the whole of him to cinders.

Then, that same hand, wreathed in fire, lashes out.

It catches her by the wrist.

He's not looking to burn her.

With a grinding, agonizing snap of bones crushed and ground against eachother; Kurotsuchi hears herself scream as the bones of her wrist and forearm are ground down against each other. Slivers and splinters digging into the sinew and flesh beneath her skin and between the muscle.

Her sword slips from now useless fingers.

Han's grip is like iron, a vice getting tighter and tighter, pure hatred and spite forcing his grip ever tighter even as the flames blacken his arm into charred, stinking meat.

Her other arm still holds the kunai.

She stabs.

Her free hand rises and falls, rises and falls, scratching against armor, punching between the folds of steel, she can feel it see it cut and hack and saw through meat and bone.

It feels like an eternity- before he finally lets her go, cooked flesh and steaming blood hissing as he finally struggles to put out the flame.

She stumbles, falls flat on her ass, cradling the ruin of her mangled arm to her chest as she fights down the tears through hissing, pain filled breaths.

She tries to recover, gathering her mind for combat once again.

She opens her eyes and realizes the breathing techniques she's using to numb the pain are little more than a sick joke next to the rapidly regenerating flesh of Han's arm that she can see mending itself before her very eyes.

The Jinchuurikki stares her down, face impassive.

He can afford to wait.

She doesn't have that luxury.

"You were never on my list." He says, a voice like metal and grinding stones. "But I suppose it's fitting you die at my hands too."

Kurotsuchi feels her eyes snap open, what little breath she can suck down feeling as though it's coming through a straw.

Kotou's voice echoes through the cavernous silence of her mind.

"Killed by traitors…"

(X)(X)(X)

Knowledge is power.

If there had been one lesson Sakura had taken to heart above all others under Orochimaru-sensei, or any of her sensei, in this life or… the other.

It was that.

Knowledge is power.

She was not the fastest, or the strongest. She likely never would be. She didn't need to be.

Because she knew more than nearly any other.

More importantly- she knew how to apply that knowledge.

Her skillset was in stealth. Ambushes. Laying traps.

But traps weren't just physical things.

Deidara of Iwa was an infamous ninja. And infamous ninja hd many advantages.

Notoriety, reputation.

But one disadvantage came with that.

People knew you.

They knew who they were fighting. What to expect.

The explosive kekkei-genkai was almost pretty but useless knowledge. At best, it told her where to engage the infamous ninja. Close range.

No. The true value came from something altogether more banal.

Deidara was prideful

Quick to hold a grudge. Quick to anger. Quick to take insult.

It made him stupid.

Predictable.

And to be predictable, Orochimaru had also taught her, was to be dead.

It was as the reports all said.

It was easy to rile him up.

A smile, a dismissal of the threat he posed, and the man was spitting in anger, nearly frothing at the mouth to see her reduced to a runny aste smeared across the dirt.

When he targeted her with more explosions, she had her opening.

She 'fled' pretending to hide, to seek cover in more trees Deidara pursued. Not realizing his rage and his pride and the very noise and confusion brought on by his explosions let her slip the subtle genjutsu, like one would slip a noose around his neck.

He chased after a ghost, exhausting himself as she slipped close and took some of his primed explosives analyzed as best she could the way he molded his chakra to arm them and set them off.

Risky. But there was a Jinchuurikki to contend with nearby.

In the end. She did not waste any more time once she felt she had what she needed.

Exhausted, in pain, missing an arm and near delirious; blind with his anger and pride- perhaps in another life he would have lived up to the reputation he valued oh so highly.

In this one, she slipped the knife across his throat and saw his eyes widen in surprise as he gurgled and clutched at his gaping neck, stumbling as he looked to her in naked surprise before falling over dead.

She wiped the blood off her kunai before marching off.

(X)(X)(X)

Lee had been in many fights, fought all kinds of enemies.

The only battle comparable to this was one he'd fought in a desert, a rogue Nuke Nin had nearly swallowed him and his team at the time in a sand storm with a wind technique.

This was like that but worse.

The ash burned at his throat, made his breathing heavy. The smoke, stinking and cloying in the air made his eyes water and his chest hitch as he coughed, his stance and strength compromised with each and every involuntary reflex.

Tenten behind him was faring little better. Her neat buns were coming apart, strands of loose hair catching in the wind, he could hear her wheezing through her mask.

They had to end this soon.

"THER-" Tenten's shout was cut short, a screech of metal against metal; it sparked and snapped, sending a flash of fire through the darkened gloom as Lee spun with a kick, the back of his armored boot joining Tenten's riposte to bat the weapon aside. But before he could do more than regain his footing pain exploded across his face and eye.

The Owl's talons were razor sharp, covered by the dark, it flew silent and fast, barely a whisper betraying its passage.

Lee felt his whole face on fire, blood streaming down from his head to sting at his eye as he hissed.

"Lee!"

He heard more strikes, heard the desperation in Tenten's voice, the tinge of fear.

Steel rang against steel and he snapped his head upwards to see Fukuro pressing his attack on Tenten as she scrambled to match the older Shinobi's Kenjutsu.

The flashes of metal meeting metal burst behind his eyelids, too fast and too bright by half, disorienting like a strobe and he realized he was in the clutches of a Genjutsu.

He reached up, digging his own fingers into the tear at his face, the pain forcefully ejecting him from the manipulation before he struck hard and sure.

The old man pivoted, dancing away but Tenten was ready, tossing a kunai with pin point accuracy that caught the old Owl in the bend of his elbow, between bicep and forearm.

The man grunted; blood staining the silk fabric of his clothes.

They charged.

Then the Owl flew above flapping its wings and sending a column of smoke and ash into both their faces.

When they could see again, he was gone.

They moved without thought, automatic, practiced, standing back to back again.

"You ok?" She dared to whisper. "Your eye…"

Lee tried to open his eye at her words.

He could see nothing.

He hoped his first instinct on it merely being the blood that made it sting and forced him to shut it was the reality. But now that the pain was becoming sharper, more localized to the damage… well…

No use thinking about that now.

He offered her a smile, though she couldn't see past his cloth mask. "I'll be alright Ten-chan."

There's a laugh, deep and hollow, bouncing through the trees.

"You're like me boy… but also not."

The wind picks up, kicking more ash into his face and he has to shut his one remaining eye. He hears the flap of wings.

Above!

He turns, pushing Tenten away as hard as he can before snapping his gaze upwards.

As he peers into the gloom and sees the massive bird above him, a fleeting thought crosses his mind, staring into those luminous predator eyes.

The owl flies silent.

The sharp, stabbing agony that blooms across his back drives the air from his lungs.

Every muscle turns stiff and he barely hears Tenten's scream his name

He forces himself to look… to see.

The blade juts out of his stomach, bright red blood dripping from a blade too thick by half. His breath is a sharp lance of pain under his ribs, and he barely feels the cut on his fingers as he reaches down and squeezes the weapon on reflex.

There's another pain, another sharp agony across the back of his knee and then he's kicked forward, off the blade, the strength in his legs give as he pitches and falls flat on the forest floor.

His hand trembles, clutching at the wound, and his leg refuses to move, the tendon at the back of his knee's been cut.

His vision swims, bile rises in his throat like acid, and his worry and despair magnify a hundred fold when Tenten moves to rush over but stops, her weapons held at the ready.

The old man looms over him, his mere presence a weight across his back. .

"Get away from him." Tenten hisses. There's fear in her eyes now, fear for him.

Lee tries to control his breathing.

Fukuro laughs, chuckling low as the Owl descends to rest at his shoulder.

Fukuro kneels, beside him, and Lee realizes the old man is talking to him… ignoring her.

"Taijutsu… heh." His laugh is nearly a scoff, dismissive. "People like you and me boy; we need our own bag of tricks. Our own ways to bridge the gap. Just Taijutsu… I'm surprised you lasted this long."

The old Owl shook his head. "Your Sensei should've taught you better."

Lee's breathing stills, his skin grows red and starts to steam. "He did!"

The old man has just enough time to widen his eyes in surprise, before Lee's hand is around his throat.

The Green beast shoves himself off the ground with his remaining arm, one leg useless, the other barely capable of being leveraged to throw his weight onto the old Owl.

Fukuro's blade flashes and Lee has enough in him to feel the pain of that razor sharp edge slice across his chest.

Too close. They're too close for such a long blade, the damage is minimal, he assures himself.

The old man's back hits the ground, Lee straddling him.

His hand reaches for a kunai.

The old man does it faster.

There's pain, and blood, the sound of sliced flesh, the warm wetness.

Again.

And again.

He can feel his grip weakening, even with so many gates open. He hears Tenten screaming.

Lee isn't like the old man, he doesn't stab frantically, he's not in a panic.

His knife rises and falls once.

The old man tries to stop it, but with the gates, Lee's strength overpowers his completely.

The blade sinks into flesh and old Fukuro vomits a fountain of blood as his heart is pierced.

Lee looks straight into his eyes.

There's shock, then realization…

Then… the old man smiles. Looking at Lee in a way that's almost fond before the light of his eyes flickers dark.

Lee rolls off him, and has enough in him to see Tenten as she runs closer, tears streaming down her cheeks.

Don't cry. He wants to say.

You're safe now.

Don't cry.

(X)(X)(X)

Hinata could see, Sasori was getting desperate.

And desperate men are dangerous men.

No longer was Sasori satisfied with merely using puppets, he'd extended his control via masterful chakra strings to anything and everything that could still be used as a weapon. Discarded knives, senbon, shuriken, jagged pieces of shattered puppets, shrapnel, stone and wood.

Everything.

He was in the center of a storm of whirling debris and though he could not see her within the shroud of artificial darkness that followed her, once she made a move, he would know where she was.

She could see her target. The beating heart within his puppet body, pulsing and writhing in its collow shell of a body.

She could win.

She could kill him.

She just had to get past a few thousand blades to do it.

She gripped her Anbu sword tight, drawing another, longer than average kunai from a special holster.

Then she ran.

Instantly, as her body brushed against one of the whirling chakra strings Sasori's entire arsenal converged, rushing towards her from multiple angles.

She angled herself, leaping between tree trunks, down to the forest floor to remove a whole dimension of attack angles as she expertly avoided the storm of steel.

When she struck the ground, she had a moments reprieve as he struggled to find her again, but only a moment, and the closer she drew to him the more clear his image of her location would be.

Her hand whipped out, weapon at the ready and the clang of steel on steel was loud as her weapon battered aside his projectile and her chakra severed the string holding it aloft in a single, smooth motion.

Again, and again the sound came, again and again she cut and battered aside his instruments.

She dug in her heels, refusing to be driven back, even as she noticed the pain quickly beginning to lance up her arms.

Chakra strings didn't have to worry about the limitations of muscles. His control dictated all the strength he could put into launching these blades.

And his control was likely one of the best in the world.

She felt like she was battering aside warhammers when he threw kunai, greatswords when he launched shuriken. Her sword screamed, her kunai cracked.

He had the strength, he had the control-

But he had no patience.

His tactics here were the same as those of his puppets.

Overwhelm with numbers.

So he threw all he had at her, everything he could.

When the storm abated, when the nearest of his arsenal ran dry and he had to reposition all the others to bring them to bare as he divided his focus on collecting the weapons she'd severed from him-

That's when she ran.

He saw her intent and the last of his puppet vanguard was ready to intercept, moving to physically shield him if needs be as he put all his effort into hurtling more and more weapons her way.

Hinata moved so fast her vision began to blurr at the edges. So fast her legs could barely keep up, nearly pitching her forward.

She ducked and weaved, moving between the weapons and hurled projectiles with all the skill she had as she tried not to slow. To slow was to die.

The first of Sasori's remaining puppets was there, rushing with weapons drawn, scything and sclicing and it was almost childs play to dart past him, then another and a third.

The fourth was a massive thing, too large to get around, her sword and kunai smashed into it, burying themselves up to the hilt as her chakra burst through it, shattering its connection completely as it went slack in her arms.

She slowed. She stopped.

Instantly the puppet army surrounded her, some leaping into the air, hidden compartments for more weapons spitting out poison and metal and fire and death.

Hinata let go of her swords and made a single cross shaped seal.

Four shadow clones appeared around her.

As one, they spun in place.

KAITEN!

The whirling storm of chakra battered aside the weapons, the flames and the attack, kicking up dirt and dust in the darkness with a deafening roar of rolling thunder and sundered earth.

It blinded him, just for a moment.

When he realized where she was, she saw his wooden face snap upwards, high into the air as she fell back to the earth, his puppet with her blades buried in it underneath her.

The attack that came, was desperate.

And desperate men are dangerous.

Weapons, explosions crashed into the shield that was her stolen puppet, ripping it to pieces even as it shielded her. Its body jerked, spasmed and heaved like a dying beast under her, still she held on, clutching her blades tight as she fell towards her enemy.

She saw them before she felt them Senbon that slipped through, hidden in the wash of colors and fire and chaos, they pierced her arm, her legs. He didn't have the precision in his desperation to disable her limbs.

It didn't matter. No doubt they were poisoned.

It wouldn't matter for him either. He was dead now.

The puppet came apart under her feet and she pulled free her blades tearing the last remnant of it to splinters as she fell.

Her mouth opened, and the damaged scream she released was one of defiance as she drew her blade back.

He moved to escape.

Two hands burst free from the earth, holding him in place.

She had enough time to see the naked panic on his face before her body hit the ground like a meteor, her legs absorbing the impact with a crash as her sword sliced his body and heart clean in two, shoulder to hip.

There was no blood… how could there be, the wooden dead face did not act like a human but rather, fittingly, like a puppet with its strings cut.

It fell to the forest floor and lay there, utterly still.

Her breathing was harsh, her heart was pounding thunder and fire through her veins and when she released the enveloping darkness around her, she realized quickly she did not have the strength to stand.

"Hinata!"

That's Sasuke's voice…

When did he get here?

When had she shut off her Byakugam?

Her body pitched forward, she hit the earth realizing she couldn't breathe.

(X)(X)(X)

"They… will come after you too."

Kurotsuchi hisses, nearly crawling towards her sword to grasp it with her sole functioning hand, then brandishing it in a defense that seems pathetically small in the face of the monstrous Jinchuuriki.

"It was you."

It's not a question.

He knows exactly what she's referring to it seems.

"It was." He says simply, beginning to march forward again as she struggles to her feet. His arm fully healed and hers… not so much.

"Why!?" She demands, shambling back, keeping her distance.

"Why wasn't the dog loyal?" She could see his sneer, even behind his mask. "Why did it turn and bite?"

He stalks forward, the grinding steel of his armor echoing like rolling thunder through the clearing.

"Even a broken beast will not let itself be killed. And your fucking grandfather never broke me."

When he attacks, now she can't even defend. His armored fist bats away her blade and its all she can do to dance away from the blow that would have cracked open her skull, retreating back into the treeline.

"We don't live like men. You treat us like chained hounds. Muzzled and imprisoned to be brought out when you need someone to fight your battles for you. Discarded once we're no longer useful."

He chased her, physically tearing through the forest in a combination of fury and overpowering strength, years of this pent up emotion finally boiling over now that the tight coil of control was released and allowed to be given voice.

She can't make handseals, her only defense is the sword, channeling fire into the blade to ward him off.

The light dances across the red of his armor, long shadows snaking over the lines of his face and eyes. He truly looks like a monster.

Its not pain that makes her grit her teeth now; its anger. A simmering, seething thing bubbling to the surface, burning a path under her ribs. "It's because of you! All of this! This whole fucking war is because of you!"

His deep set eyes stare at her. "I was a weapon. That was my lot in life. I could accept that. But I will not accept… being expendable. Being discarded."

And the simmering rage finally boils over.

Her rage chokes her. It's a struggle to breathe, a struggle to even get the words out in a way that makes sense, and not just scream until her throat bleeds and her voice fails.

But she does.

"You think you're fucking special?" She doesn't recognize her voice. Something low and hissing. The pain of her arm, the burn of the poison eating at her insides is a distant memory in the face of the blood boiling inside her veins now. "You think you have some kind of monopoly on suffering. On being discarded?"

The blade crackles in her arm, flaring bright as her chakra surges and scratches beneath the surface of her skin.

She laughs.

There's no humor in it, no mirth.

It's a cruel sound, hateful, spiteful.

When she opens her mouth again- "You're wrong… he did break you. A broken, sad little thing who wants to bring down everyone else so he feels safe in the cruel cruel world again."

He goes still. Rigid.

She sneers. "You're fucking pathetic...

Her hand hurts. And she realizes the grip on her sword is white knuckled.

She holds it ready staring down this… thing that had torn her whole world to pieces.

She is going to kill him.

It'll likely be the very last thing she ever does.

But she Will. Kill. Him.

Then there's a sound, something loud, crashing trees and shattered wood, and suddenly she has to leap away as three massive, monstrous reptiles tear through the trees like rampaging bulls, each the size of a multi-story house.

Kurotsuchi has to twist in mid air, using the sword in her hand as a crude pick to snag herself on the trunk of a tree to avoid the massive whirling Fuuma Shuriken that would have bisected her in mid air.

She follows the weapon as it arcs and turns, twisting back around to land easily in the hands of Ryoko

The Silver haired Kunoichi has a snarl on her lips, grey eyes shining like daggers as she stalks forward with unbridled hate at the Iwa princess, her weapon spinning in her hand as it bled off the momentum.

"Round two, bitch!"

(X)(X)(X)

Well boys and girls we're nearing the home stretch :D

3 chapters plus epilogue or so left to go :D

And bonus, Next chapter will be (largely) free of major fight scenes which is a very welcome change of pace for me.

We're getting there bit by bit and scene by scene.

For those of you who expected more from Deidara, honestly I went through his fight the most when I simply realized... it just didn't work.

Canon Deidara couldn't even match Sasuke when he was fully fresh and had been working with/developing under the Akatsuki for years to hunt down Jinchuuriki.

This one doesn't have nearly that well of experience and as described, he was already injured, down an arm, chakra exhausted and on the brink.

This Sakura is not only far more skilled at assassination and Genjutsu (A style that canonically beat Deidara before) she has no injuries and no exhaustion walking into this fight. And other than chucking bombs from a high vantage point Deidara has little else in his arsenal so once she found a way around that- the fight was over.

As she observed, "In another life" Deidara could have been a decent fight but here and now, without some serious favoritism/fiatt on my part to even the scales in his favor, there's just no way he'd be able to really compete anymore against someone who's theoretically his equal/superior while injured and half dead.