There were small vents in the rock, tiny holes that filtered in outside air to prevent any of Root's denizens from suffocating deep beneath the earth. As they headed further into the tunnel's depths, Shikamaru began to see light: integrated ceiling lamps that hadn't been damaged by the cave in. They didn't appear to be attached to any electrical wiring, and Shikamaru couldn't help but passively wonder how Danzo had managed to hook them up. Root had to be off the city's main electrical grid, otherwise it would have risked civilians knowing the location. Had Root set up their own generators? Had they used lightning chakra in some way, storing it within seals to slowly power the lamps over time?
If they survived this, Shikamaru decided he was going to petition Tsunade to let this be his new secret base. Nobody would bother him down here, it was dark and quiet, he could study how the lamps worked...and he'd earned a ridiculous reward for the amount of trouble he'd went through for this. The only problem was...surviving.
There was an eerie quiet to the tunnels, nothing from ahead of them, and no sounds indicating that there might be a multi-village war raging in the village above them. Shikamaru wondered if this was intentional, this quieting of the tunnels. Maybe there were seals somewhere that kept away outside noise, muffled the steps of those within...the silence was even a bit much for him, if he had to admit it. He preferred a silence that was dotted with the rustling of leaves and grass, the chirping of birds and the buzzing of insects. Not silence, just calm. Here in the unnatural silence, Shikamaru could easily see himself just losing it. No people, no nature, no noise...how had Root lived in these conditions?
(He thought of Sai, thought of what Sakura had told him about the boy and how he'd repressed his emotions, repressed his entire sense of self. Sai hadn't really been living at all, had he?)
Neji's voice rang out, thankfully breaking the monotonous silence. Shikamaru pumped chakra to his feet and stuck himself to the floor, the easiest way to come to an abrupt halt after jogging. He instinctively reached out to grab at Chouji's scarf, stopping him just in time. He would have missed it in their run, but Neji certainly hadn't: a tripwire. It was so thin that it was barely visible in the light, and as Shikamaru squinted he could see a few more ahead of them, expertly stretched out so that if you had missed one, you might have certainly ran into another if you hadn't been careful.
"More traps." Shikamaru sighed. "Naturally it wasn't going to be an easy jog out."
"There's a large room up ahead." Hinata continued to look outward. "It's...got those seals again, that make it difficult to see. It looks like there's one person in the room, but it could just be another dummy."
"There's a large concentration of those seals on the ground, and...a lot of tripwires." Neji added. "But no movement."
"Most likely another dummy." Shikamaru concluded. "But...in the case that it isn't, we need to tread carefully."
If only Shino or Kiba had been here, he lamented, or even Gaara with that strange sand-eye ability that let him see in places he wasn't at. Usually the Byakugan's reconnaissance abilities were more than sufficient, but naturally Danzo would have expected that on his home turf. "We need to just take it slow." Shikamaru continued. "Neji, Hinata, you keep an eye on the trip wires. Chouji, you take point and start making your way through. I can use my shadows to catch you if you misstep."
"R-right." Chouji was naturally nervous, but Shikamaru figured if the largest of them couldn't make it through tripwire hell, they'd have to find an alternate method through anyway. If Chouji could make it, they could.
It was a slow process. Whomever had set up these traps was a true expert, layering wires under wires and using the shadows to attempt to make it more difficult to see them. Shikamaru recognized the true trap beneath them all; this was just here to slow them down. The more cautious they were, the slower they were, which meant it would take longer for them to reach the end of this tunnel.
But, that had certain implications. Shikamaru smiled.
"There's going to be an exit at the end of this." He told the others. "That's why it's been trapped the way it has been. The other passages likely led to Danzo, but he figured some of us would have gotten trapped this way. All these wires means it takes longer for us to get help."
"That makes me believe that there isn't a dummy waiting for us." Neji added. "He wouldn't have left our escape up to the chance of us potentially getting past these traps."
"...yep." Shikamaru sighed once again. "Seems like that's the likely option."
There was an enemy waiting for them. Potentially more, if the seals were skewing the Byakugan enough, but Hinata had seemed certain it was just one. If it was only one, it was likely a Root agent that Danzo thought capable of taking on multiple people. Someone strong, at least jounin level. And, most likely, the person who had set up all of these ridiculous tripwires.
This person had the benefit of setting up their arena to their liking. A trap master in particular thrived off of controlling their surroundings. The only benefit Shikamaru could attribute to his group was that the enemy would have no way of knowing their own abilities, but even that was an iffy advantage at best. Sai had seen a dossier on clan abilities, so he had to assume everyone in Root had seen it. And there were four clan children here...none of whom he knew had original, non-clan techniques. The enemy might not know them yet, but after a few moments of battle, it would become painfully obvious. That meant they only had one true advantage, and that was that they would be getting the first move.
Shikamaru pulled out an empty scroll. It was possible they'd be close enough to the enemy now that they could be heard. His plan now depended on a measure of stealth, and it involved sending three of his fellows into an unknown, potentially deadly scenario...while he stayed behind.
All with the fate of Root potentially on the line. But no pressure, of course.
Shikamaru drew his companions in close and began to write.
"There's water ahead. Muddy water, really muddy water and...a person, though they've hidden their scent. They might be waiting in the water."
"Do you think it's an underground lake?" Tenten asked. "It might be a cave exit where the runoff has built up."
Kakashi held up a hand and quieted the genin. While an exit was admittedly an exciting prospect after maneuvering through cave tunnels for what had to be close to half an hour now, Kiba had already scented an enemy, and it was foolish to think they'd be able to sneak on by without the enemy catching on. Plus, if it was only one...it was someone that Danzo had thought more than capable of preventing an escape. Jounin-level at least, but most of Root were considered Anbu-level to begin with.
But Kakashi had an ace up his sleeve. Something that not even Danzo had known he had. If they planned things right, if he had time to build it up, Kamui could take out any opponent, no matter how skilled they were.
"Lee, you remember what Shikamaru told you back when we first entered here?"
"He told me to be prepared to retreat and find assistance." Lee confirmed. "But Kakashi-sensei, I want to-"
"No, Lee. You're the fastest one here, and we're facing unknown enemies. Right now the most important thing is to assess the outside situation and bring help if the Kage have gotten things under control. The four of us will be attempting to take our enemy down, but your primary goal is to get out, and that is an order. If something happens to us, you might be our only hope."
"...I understand." Lee was, of course, sullen at being sent away from a fight, but the boy thankfully knew the value of seeking assistance. He bent down and pulled off his leg warmers, removing the weights he had hidden beneath. Good. He'd be far too fast for most shinobi to keep up with now. With everyone else running distraction, Lee would escape in no time.
"Good. Now, Shino, Tenten, the two of you will be staying back. If there's an underground lake coming up, it will likely be a large chamber, and you two are much better at range. Keep away from the main fight. Kiba, that means you and Akamaru will be providing me with backup."
"Got it." Kiba grinned, baring his sharp canines. "We can knock down anyone that gets in Lee's way, no problem."
"That will be our first goal. Once Lee has gotten through, our secondary objective will be, if possible, a non-lethal takedown of whomever stands in our way. Root operatives can be rehabilitated with proper effort, and Lady Tsunade won't want to waste life if we can help it. If we're given no other option, then I'll do the takedown."
He watched Tenten ready several weapon scrolls, saw Kiba pull out two ration pills for himself and Akamaru, and heard the soft buzz of Shino's insects preparing for battle. They were as ready as they'd ever be.
With a hand signal, his team rushed forward.
True to their predictions, the tunnel opened up into a large area that was nearly filled with water. There were a couple of high rocks and stones, but the dampness of the cave would likely make them too slippery to rely on. They'd have to rely on water-walking, which was likely exactly what the enemy shinobi was hoping for. Kakashi did not see them above the water, and that meant they were dealing with a water-affinitied shinobi. A disadvantage already. Water slowly down thrown weapons, and Shino's bugs likely didn't hold up well in water either.
He did, however, see a speck of light in the distance. An exit. He could almost feel Lee itching to try and run for it, but things were just...too calm.
Kakashi drew a shuriken and threw it towards the water, causing a small splash. For a moment, the water stilled. Then, Kakashi felt a rumble.
The water suddenly burst upwards, and what appeared to be a giant catfish engulfed the area where the shuriken had hit. With a loud splash it landed back into the water, and Kakashi could see its large shadow going back to settle within its depths.
"I should have known Sharingan Kakashi would have come along to help the Konoha brats."
A man rose up from the water, and Kakashi paled as he realized that it was Ogano, the Kage of the River Village. Someone at Kage level was potentially out of his league, out of all their leagues.
"The enemy leaders are under a different genjutsu of Danzo's…"
Sakura's words rang in his ears. Not only was this an enemy Kage, it was a potentially brainwashed Kage, which meant he couldn't, in good conscious, attempt a lethal takedown unless they had no other choice. Not that Kakashi minded taking down an enemy, but the thought crossed him that Sakura might kill him if he took down a compromised leader and put her treaty at risk. That meant, unless there wasn't any other option...no Kamui.
"Should have known the River Shrew would have sided with the Konoha dissidents." Kakashi retorted in turn. "If you think a big fish is enough to deter us, then you've let yourself get overconfident." He raised up a hand and began to summon lightning chakra to it. Water was a good conductor, and a lightning-natured technique would trump any earthen techniques the Kage could pull. There were rumors that Ogano could use mud-style techniques with some proficiency as well, but even if those were true, Kakashi had the advantage.
Then again, he was facing a Kage.
"If you think a little lightning scares me, you've gotten overconfident as well." Ogano grinned. "I know for a fact you cannot use your Chidori for long. Danzo estimated three or four times a day. All I have to do is dodge, and you've lost your advantage."
The Chidori was an assassination technique, not meant for direct assault. Kakashi had the ability to react while using it due to the Sharingan, but even then, he needed to hold an opponent down to ensure the Chidori hit. His dogs would be ineffective at holding down Ogano on water...which meant he needed to time his strike perfectly or else he'd waste a Chidori attempt.
But first, they needed to get Lee out.
"Alright. Let's see you put your money where your mouth is." Kakashi offered, sinking into a ready stance. "Lee, get ready to move."
"You can count on me, Kakashi-sensei." Lee nodded, readying himself as well.
Without further ado, Kakashi pushed himself across the water. He caught a glimpse of the great fish beginning to move beneath him, and he leaped from the water's surface just as the fish lunged for him. For a moment, he prepared to strike below...and then Kiba slammed into it with a joint 'Fang Over Fang' technique, him and Akamaru each hitting the fish with powerful force. Kiba had promised to provide support, and Kakashi was glad the genin had already picked up on what he needed to do. In the distant, he saw Lee sprint across the water, too fast for anything but his Sharingan to even remotely pick up on. Lee had gotten through...now he could focus on the Kage.
He let the momentum carry him downwards towards Ogano, but instead of wasting a Chidori, Kakashi switched to a kunai. Better to see how Ogano moved first, and when Ogano dispersed in a splash of water, Kakashi knew he'd made the right decision. Water clone. Ogano likely wouldn't risk his true body until Kakashi had used up his chakra, which meant they had to find a way to flush him out.
"Kiba, keep the fish occupied!" Kakashi called out. He kept quiet towards Tenten and Shino; for all he knew, Ogano might not have caught wind of them yet, and if they could provide surprise ranged support, all the more advantage for him.
Then, suddenly, he felt a hand grab around his ankle, and Kakashi's world became water.
Sakura sensed Danzo before she sensed the other shinobi. The amount of chakra it was taking to power the Sharingan eye had become near blinding, and now there was a strange other chakra mixing in, one that reminded Sakura of the sturdiness of earth and the anxious flow of water. This strange chakra mingled with the chakra of the Sharingan and created something new, like how red and blue could make purple, only it was a new mixture of chakra and she had no idea what that entailed. Danzo had experimented on himself so much that he'd made new chakra.
There was a small squad of Root shinobi guarding the entrance to Danzo's lair, but even they couldn't stand up against the joint power of two Jinchuuriki working together. Sakura didn't even feel the need to provide backup; while she trusted Gaara to hold back around her, she didn't want to risk getting between the fierce aura of the Kyuubi and Naruto's enemies. It was an aura that slowly peaked to match Danzo's strangeness, only instead of a strange mingle, the Kyuubi's aura was somehow raw, and Sakura could feel a weird bubbling of malice within it that genuinely scared her.
Ino had been talking with the Kyuubi, though, so they could trust its influence...couldn't they? Shukaku had proven an ally, after all.
Danzo's chamber was thankfully not trapped, and as the five of them pushed their way in, Sakura caught sight of another shinobi fleeing the scene, carrying with him several large scrolls. Danzo, however, did not flee. He stood, tall and proud, ready to face them...and he had replaced the used Sharingan in his arm with others that had not permanently shut. There was no way he thought Izanami would work on them again, so what was the point of those eyes now? Was there another technique he had yet to reveal?
Sakura drew the kunai Kakashi had given her and took a ready stance. There was no need for words now, as far as she was concerned. Danzo had threatened the lives of her comrades. Danzo threatened the stability of Konoha. He had led to the destabilization of Amegakure, ordered the death of the Uchiha clan, had the audacity to claim it was for the good of Konoha...no, there was no holding back against a man like this. No chance for peace. No chance for diplomacy.
"You'd better be ready for an ass-kicking, Danzo!" Naruto called out, somehow echoing Sakura's thoughts exactly. Sakura heard a bit of a growl in Naruto's voice, and even in the darkness of the cave she could see that his whisker markings had darkened, and his eyes had taken on a bestial appearance. The Kyuubi's influence was growing stronger, to the point where she could feel its presence even without her sensing jutsu.
"I believe I must admit to being proven wrong." Danzo answered. "I had thought even Izanami would prove difficult to overcome, and yet here you stand before me, Sakura Haruno, no worse for the wear. You might even deserve the title of Sharingan Breaker."
Sharingan Breaker? Had others called her that? Sakura had only heard the negative rumors in Konoha of how she had turned traitor, but she supposed, after surviving Itachi's genjutsu, that word would have probably gotten out…
But Sakura didn't let herself rise to Danzo's statement. She simply settled into her fighting stance, ready to move when her enemy did.
"No words for me?" Danzo asked. "I suppose you've heard enough from me. But I have yet to get everything I desire from you. Whether you hold some new kekkei genkai or you are just lucky...I shall find that out. Here and now...or later when I dissect your corpse."
Gaara and Sai moved in front of her without another word, and Naruto, ever the battle-hungry one, called out for Danzo's attention instead.
"Hey you creepy bastard, I'm the one calling you out here!"
But Danzo seemed to ignore him, instead speaking to Sakura once more.
"I asked you if you were prepared for the trials ahead of you. It seems you were more prepared than I thought. But now, of course, we can see each other clearly. Much as Madara Uchiha and Hashirama Senju fought over their villages fate all those years ago...so now we too fight over that ancient question. Strength or unity?"
"Your problem is that you think them mutually exclusive." Sakura finally let herself answer. "Since you're stupid enough to try and fight us alone, we'll just have to show you what you're missing out on."
Strangely, Danzo smiled at this. "Show me, then. This time, Sakura, we end it."
Sakura was ready, but true to form it was Naruto that moved first. She heard a pop as a clone came into existence, and both Naruto and clone put their hands together and began to generate chakra. It was a spiralling ball, the technique that Naruto had told her was called the Rasengan. However, it was different from the time she had seen it nearly a year ago, when Naruto had faced down Sasuke on the hospital roof. It shrieked for one thing, making a high pitched noise that almost forced her to cover her ears. It reminded her of a howling wind, like the way windstorms would sometimes scream as they were pushed over the mountains in Iwagakure.
A wind transformation of the original technique, it had to be. Naruto had mentioned that Jiraiya had been teaching him wind release, and with Tsunade teaching him chakra control...he'd applied both teachings to create a horrifying technique. Even more horrifying was when Naruto heaved the technique forward and it flew, spinning through the air like a shuriken and slamming directly into Danzo's body. (The man hadn't even tried to dodge, Sakura noticed, why not? Why not try to move?) Sakura saw blood fly as the technique cut through Danzo...no, it wasn't a cut, it was an evisceration, and it didn't stop there, it didn't stop until it hit the cave wall behind Danzo and cut into that too, spinning and spinning through the rock until Sakura had lost sight of it.
Finally, the horrible screeching became too distant to hear, and a blessed silence fell over the chamber.
Was that...had that been it.
"Dumb bastard couldn't even handle my ultimate technique." Naruto said gleefully. "See, Ino, what did I tell you?"
"Naruto, what the hell was that?" Ino demanded. "You could have brought down the entire cave if you'd aimed that wrong!"
"I got Danzo, didn't I?" Naruto protested. "And the cave is fine, it's fine! Tsunade made me practice aiming my Rasenshuriken over and over for days, there's no way I can miss!"
Rasen...shuriken? Not the most original name, but it had a certain ring to it. Sakura let herself smile. Maybe...maybe Danzo just hadn't planned on Naruto's ultimate technique being so strong. Maybe…
"Fortunately for me, it doesn't matter if you hit or miss."
Sakura froze, her hair standing on end as she heard Danzo's voice from behind them. But she'd seen the technique hit, she had seen Danzo's body torn apart! How had he appeared behind them?
"Thanks to Izanagi, I am invincible."
Sakura leaped backwards just in time, taking shelter behind Gaara's sand as Danzo sent forth a wind technique of his own. The sharp gust slammed against the sand but did not break.
But Danzo had survived, and now Sakura had to figure out how. How could someone avoid a technique so powerful and not have a scratch on him? Substitution? A Sharingan technique?
Izanami had been the first technique Danzo had used on them...Izanagi had to be a pair. But so far none of the eyes on Danzo's arm had closed. Either it wasn't a Sharingan technique, or it didn't force the eye closed like Izanami did.
Either way, if she didn't figure it out quickly...they'd be fighting an invincible opponent. And that meant they were doomed to fail.
Shikamaru had always maintained that fighting girls was troublesome. This was not due to him thinking them weak, or due to some misplaced sense of chivalry. His father had always encouraged him not to fight with girls, that was true, but that was because his father knew the truth that the world had yet to completely realize.
Kunoichi had grown up in a world that had belittled them, delegated them to healing and support roles, and thought them the weaker of the sexes. Perhaps things were better now that the hidden villages allowed women to register as official shinobi, but prejudices from the warring era were still buried within the population, and kunoichi were fighting against those prejudices from the moment they stepped into the academy. Because of this, Shikamaru knew, kunoichi grew up fierce.
So when Shikamaru peeked into the cavern and saw a kunoichi waiting for them, surrounded by dozens of tripwires and exploding tags, he knew he was in for a troublesome fight. Kunoichi were dangerous. A kunoichi raised as a trap specialist in Root was downright horrifying. If they didn't immobilize her quickly, Shikamaru knew they wouldn't be getting out of here alive.
"Three little worms, crawling right into my nest." The kunoichi announced. "Lord Danzo told me I'd get to have some fun today. Will I get to see them dance?"
From his position, Shikamaru saw the two Hyuuga fall into the Gentle Fist stance. Chouji had yet to use his expansion jutsu; rather, he couldn't, not without risking setting off a wire. Still, his hands were at the ready. If the kunoichi came close, he could enlarge his hands in an instant and land a powerful blow.
"Two pretty Hyuuga." The kunoichi continued to speak, and Shikamaru saw her begin to walk across her wires like tightrope. Despite her weight, she wasn't setting the tripwires off...was it some sort of unique technique? Or perhaps they weren't traps at all, but merely something for her to use to keep above her opponents? But Shikamaru knew that couldn't be trusted either. A true master would have mixed walking wires and trap ones, so that anyone else who tried to land on a wire would risk setting something off. "Two pretty Hyuuga with four pretty eyes for my leader. If Lord Danzo has Byakugan and Sharingan, nobody will be able to challenge him."
"That implies you're capable of beating us." Neji countered. "I have fought shinobi far more intimidating than you."
"Oh?" The kunoichi tilted her head, looking curious. "Truly? Then I suppose I shall have to correct that. But first...let's bring your other little friend out to play!"
The kunoichi brought her hands in front of her to make a hand sign, one Shikamaru did not recognize. After a moment, Shikamaru heard a hissing noise behind him.
Somehow, she'd activated the tunnel traps from a distance.
Shikamaru cursed, rushing forward and only just avoiding the traps in front of him as the tunnel suddenly exploded. He landed in a roll, coming to a skidding halt next to Chouji. Behind him, the tunnel began to collapse as large rocks landed and blocked the entrance.
"Now you're all stuck in here with me." The kunoichi announced. "Now I get to watch you dance."
So much for plan A.
Shikamaru had planned to use his shadows to possess the kunoichi from a safe distance, using the cave shadows to elongate his reach while the Hyuuga distracted her. Now, however, the kunoichi would see his hand sign and know the technique was coming, no matter how well she hid it. Plus, in the darkness of the cave, it was hard to get a glimpse of where the kunoichi's natural shadow fell, and even more so when the kunoichi moved. If Shikamaru couldn't catch her when she was still, he wouldn't be able to catch her at all.
Right now, he just had to hope for a chance.
Chouji fell into a defensive position next to him, letting his body grow so that Shikamaru was shielded from the kunoichi's view. "Don't give up yet, Shika."
"I know, buddy, I know." Shikamaru took a deep breath and readied his jutsu. "So long as she doesn't bring the damn cave down on us."
It was a bad matchup no matter how he looked at it, and it became worse as the kunoichi suddenly began to launch an assault of weaponry towards them. The Hyuuga both leapt into action, deflecting the weapons with chakra-enhanced strikes, but they could only move so much without setting off one of the tripwires around them.
Thankfully, their defense was still good enough to buy Shikamaru time. He began to weave his shadow along the tripwires, knowing at some point she would land on one of them. There were, by his count, at least two dozen tripwires in the room, and with the enhancement of the shadows from the cave, he could reach out and cover at least half of them. It was a dangerous waiting game, but one that eventually paid off. The kunoichi landed on one of his covered wires and came to a halt, grimacing as she realized what had happened.
"Shadow Possession complete." Shikamaru announced. "Could one of you go knock her out for me?"
"Gladly." It was Neji who moved forward, expertly avoiding wires until he could get close enough for a blow. Shikamaru timed it, releasing his possession just as Neji aimed for the kunoichi's heart.
And then the kunoichi burst into a puff of smoke.
A fucking clone.
"Naughty, naughty. That's not how you're supposed to dance."
Not one, but two copies of the kunoichi made their way onto the wires now, each cackling with glee as they began their shuriken assault once more. Hinata was now working double time to keep Chouji safe from projectiles, and Neji was prevented from rejoining the group with one clone focusing entirely on keeping him occupied. Neji managed to knock one out with an appropriately time Air Palm technique, but as the one copy was eliminated, two more came to replace it.
"She's evenly split her chakra between them. We can't tell which one is the original!" Hinata called out.
Then, Shikamaru decided, the original likely wasn't there to begin with. Why would a traps specialist risk getting caught in one of their own traps?
Neji had mentioned a large concentration of blocking seals on the ground. He wondered if those seals were setups for traps...or if they were simply hiding the true kunoichi from view. They needed to break the ground somehow, and while Chouji would normally be best for that, expansion only meant a chance that a tripwire would be set off.
They could try to lengthen the battle and wait for the kunoichi to drain herself of chakra from overuse of shadow clones, but every second wasted here was a second that some of their own had to spend potentially fighting Danzo alone.
There was only one thing to do, and that was to try and figure out which tripwires were safe. Once Shikamaru had done that, he could maneuver Chouji to a safe area and attempt to break apart the ground beneath them, and hopefully not set off more traps in the process.
From there, the kunoichi would die.
So Shikamaru watched.
He knew the Hyuuga were considering the situation too, and at one point Shikamaru saw Neji attempt to lash out at one of the wires that the kunoichi had been walking on. A smart idea: take away her safe tripwires and she either risked setting off her traps or had to fight on the ground. However, even with chakra enhancing his strike, Neji's hand bled as it came into contact with the wire. The wire was sharp...that made sense. The kunoichi was wearing boots, which protecting her skin from damage, but if anyone tried to cut the wire without a weapon, they were screwed. (And of course, none of them here were really proficient at kenjutsu.) He had kunai he could use, of course, but that required a decent guess to which wires were safe and leaving the comfort of Chouji's protection.
It was a risk he was going to be forced to take. Right now, there were no other options, not unless there was some sort of miracle.
Sakura always wished on that amulet of hers for luck, Shikamaru had noticed, though it had been subtle. She had gripped it and closed her eyes briefly before infiltrating the Uchiha compound, and even before going into battle with Lee. Whatever the amulet meant, she considered it lucky.
It was silly, Shikamaru knew it was silly, but he let himself draw that symbol in the dirt beneath him. He needed Sakura's luck now.
He readied a kunai and prepared to move, looking towards the closest wire that he knew the kunoichi had landed on moments before.
Then, before he could move, the ceiling exploded above them.
Several of the tripwires detonated as someone came through the rock, sending volleys of kunai in various directions. There was even a small explosion off in a corner nearby, but nowhere near any of his comrades. However, one of the kunoichi's clones poofed away in a burst of smoke as a new kunoichi with a shock of blue hair landed a powerful kick onto it.
Shikamaru recognized the newcomer. It was the Taki shinobi, the one called Fuu, only she was alive with a strangely powerful shroud of chakra, and chakric wings sprouting from her back.
"You better leave Hinata alone, you piece of shit!" Fuu announced, drawing a twin pair of katana from her back. "Or else you're going to have to face me!"
Though he was vaguely annoyed that Fuu hadn't really acknowledged the rest of the group's existence, he couldn't exactly begrudge the help. She'd detonated some of the tripwires without taking out any of their allies, and now they had someone with katanas who could help cut the damn things. Or, even better…
She'd broken through the ceiling above them, and Shikamaru could now see the light of day shining through. That meant, whatever technique the kunoichi had used, she could break through rock.
"Fuu!" He called out. "The real one is beneath us, you need to flush her out! Just don't set off any more tripwires!"
"Huh? Tripwires?" Fuu looked around, frowning. "Oh, I guess there's a few of those, huh. But you don't have to worry about those since I'm here."
She floated around the wires, whipping back and forth in a manner that reminded Shikamaru vaguely of a hummingbird. She grabbed hold of a protesting Neji and flew him back towards the group, depositing him on the ground next to Shikamaru.
"Alright, Hinata. Make sure you watch how strong I am, alright?" Fuu's frown turned into a grin. "First, I'll keep you safe from those traps."
And then, with a deep breath, Fuu was suddenly spewing threads around them, weaving them into a cocoon that covered them from every angle. It was a bit gross, Shikamaru had to admit, but Hinata seemed fascinated by them.
"They're...chakra enhanced threads!"
"Damn right!" He heard Fuu call back from outside the cocoon. "They'll keep you safe so stay in there, okay? I'll be done in just a minute!"
For a moment, there was silence. Then, Shikamaru heard and felt a series of large explosions come from outside the cocoon. He instinctively readied his kunai, not sure if that meant Fuu had succeeded or loss. Surely no ordinary kunoichi could survive such a trapped room, could they?
But it seemed as though a miracle had happened, for once the dust had settled it was Fuu that returned to the cocoon, gently peeling it open to let the group out. "All done!" She announced, reaching out to offer her hand to Hinata. "Shibuki told me it might be dangerous, but she wasn't so bad!"
"Man, are you for real?" Shikamaru groaned. "I thought we were toast."
"Then you're lucky the strongest kunoichi in the world came to your rescue!"
"How did you even know where to find us?" Chouji asked.
"I heard you." Fuu rolled her eyes. "Duh. Anyone could feel the rumble of those explosions from outside. I figured you'd just gotten below ground somehow and I took a guess."
So she got lucky too…
Shikamaru would have groaned more, but...they were alive. They were alive, and now they could figure out what had happened to the others.
"Fuu...we need to find our companions. You know Sakura, right? She might need our help."
"Sakura? But she's strong enough to handle anything." Fuu argued. "Still...I owe her one for saving my butt in Taki. I guess I can go lend her a hand. But Hinata, you stay here and keep safe, alright?"
"Um, but...we should really go help too…" Hinata replied, twiddling her fingers in a way Shikamaru hadn't seen her do unless Naruto was around. Was the girl nervous?
"Yeah, we all need to go." Shikamaru agreed. "So...lead the way, if you can find them."
"...alright, alright, I can't say no to a pretty face."
This time, as Fuu took Hinata's hand, Shikamaru definitely saw the Hyuuga blush.
Kakashi was feeling an extreme sense of deja vu today. First the second attempted takeover of Konoha during a chuunin exam, then the cave collapse, now drowning. Ogano wasn't nearly as intimidating looking as Zabuza had been, but that didn't mean the Kage couldn't spin together a nasty series of water jutsu all the same. If Kakashi tried a lightning technique underwater, he'd succeed in electrocuting Ogano and himself, which wasn't the most desirable of outcomes. At the very least he wasn't trapped in a water bubble like Zabuza had managed, but it was almost worst to have the temporary taste of freedom, only to have Ogano drag him back down again with a well-timed water whip. What didn't help was that Ogano had allowed his catfish to kick up the mud in the water until visibility was practically zero. Kakashi didn't know which way was up even with his Sharingan activated, and it was only chance when he managed to get high enough to get a breath of fresh air.
He needed to turn the situation around fast.
He occasionally caught a glimpse of Kiba and Akamaru spiralling through the water, and the pair had done a decent enough job of keeping the giant catfish off his back. However, it also did a very decent job of stirring up the mud further, and sometimes Kakashi had to move just to get out of Kiba's assault.
Thankfully, Gai's student had used the opportunity to plan. Ogano was far too concerned with dealing with him to pay attention to a genin nearby, and Tenten took advantage. Whenever Kakashi broke the surface, he caught a glimpse of Tenten setting up a series of explosive tags alongside a wall, near to where the cave's entrance was. She was planning on trying to drain the lake, Kakashi realized, and Shino had moved to the entrance to try and direct her to a suitable location. It would take a pretty big explosion to make a hole to drain a lake this large, but Tenten had no shortage of tags. More importantly, an explosion that large would likely draw in attention...though whether that attention was friend or foe would depend on how the battle had gone outside. Kakashi, at this point, was willing to take a chance. His Sharingan was muddle, he couldn't summon his ninken, and his Chidori would kill him just as quickly as it would kill his opponent.
But even if Tenten was setting up for something big...he couldn't just sit here and take Ogano's drowning like a water-washed genin. He'd sworn after Zabuza that he'd never allow himself to get trapped in such a situation ever again.
Maybe he couldn't in good conscious use Kamui on a brainwashed Kage...but he could use it on something else.
Kakashi's Sharingan spun to life, and he could feel it morphing at his will, pulling more energy before until his eye strained and began to bleed from the effort of it. In front of him, a vortex began to form. It drew the muddy water inwards like a maelstrom, and in the distance he saw Ogano make a hasty retreat to avoid its influence. With every second more of the water drained, until Kakashi could eventually take a quick gasp of air. And then, with perfect timing, Tenten set off her bombs.
Of course, without the layer of water around to protect him, Kakashi was sent flying with the impact of the explosion. But Ogano was sent flying as well, and the resulting hole in the cave wall was enough to start a good portion of the lake draining. It was less water to deal with all around, less chance of drowning, and less for the enemy Kage to use. Kakashi could only use Kamui once more, however, so he would have to make sure it counted.
It gave the catfish an unexpected advantage, however. Without water to float in, the fish was now floundering about in such a way that it created small quakes that brought down rocks and stalactites around them. Kakashi pushed himself to his feet just in time to avoid getting crushed, and now it was a dance between himself, the enemy, and the terrain around them. Ogano was a quick bastard, but with the water around him drained, the tables began to turn.
Shino entered the battlefield, with a large swarm of kikaichu spreading out from within his sleeves and making a beeline directly for the Kage. Though Ogano spit water bullets to defend himself, the swarm eventually reached him, and from there Kakashi knew it was only a matter of time.
But Ogano, it seemed, wasn't going to go down with a fight.
"Danzo predicted you might prove lucky." Ogano announced with a sneer. "And he told me, should it come down to this, that there was only one thing left that I could do." The man unfolded his jacket, and Kakashi could see even from a distance that his entire body had been covered in paper bombs. Ogano was going to take himself out, and take the entire cave with him. What had Danzo done to the man?
He had no choice. If he wanted to survive, if he wanted to keep these genin alive, he had to use Kamui before Ogano could activate the bombs. He focused, letting his eye shift again and bleed…
And then Gai was there, slamming a foot against Ogano's face with all the power and grace of a taijutsu master, knocking the man unconscious. He couldn't activate the bombs in his sleep, which meant they could disarm him and manage him nonlethally. He wasn't sure how Gai had gotten there so quickly but Kakashi could have kissed the man.
He slumped to his knees, the exhaustion from near-drowning and using Kamui finally catching up with his body.
"Sakura." He managed to tell Gai. "We need to help Sakura."
If Danzo had managed to brainwash a Kage so efficiently, what else was he capable of?
Gaara surrounded Danzo with his sand and crushed with enough force to craft diamonds. Sakura saw the blood ooze from the sandy tomb and saw limbs twitch in death.
And then Danzo appeared behind them and struck again.
She saw Sai land a killing blow, clean, straight through the heart. She saw the light fade from Danzo's eyes, felt his chakra fade.
And then Danzo appeared behind them and struck again.
It wasn't Izanami, Sakura knew he hadn't been misleading them with the name. It was Izanagi. No time loop. Just a strange sort of reset every time Danzo took a mortal blow. And it wasn't until Sakura noticed a small detail that she realized for sure that it had to be a Sharingan technique.
One of the eyes on his arm had closed. It made sense. He had clearly gotten several transfusions to replace his lost ones before the battle had begun, so the eyes had to be doing something. She counted twenty three eyes remaining on his arm...but they had landed far more killing blows than that.
She retreated to a corner, counting on Gaara to cover her from Danzo's wind techniques. The man seemed to be toying with them, lazily shooting techniques whenever they came within range. She let Naruto and Sai trade blows with him for now, and instead Sakura focused on his arm.
She saw another eye close. When that happened, she closed her eyes and sent out several pulsing sensory waves.
That same chakra emanating from his arm was almost overwhelming. But all at once, specifically when Naruto drew near enough to land another fatal blow, the energy changed.
Sakura began to count.
One. Two. Three.
Danzo reappeared behind Naruto once more and slashed out with a short tanto. Naruto took the blow without even flinching, of course; the Kyuubi's aura was more than enough to heal shallow wounds such as though. Sakura was somewhat envious.
Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen.
Ino managed to land several poisoned senbon in Danzo's arm. She was aiming for the eyes, smart, but Danzo simply reappeared elsewhere again, all damage negated. But Sakura could still sense that strange energy…
Thirty two. Thirty three. Thirty four.
Danzo had noticed she was hiding in a corner with her eyes closed. Naturally he'd be suspicious. Several wind jutsu were sent her way, but Gaara came to her side and effortlessly blocked them.
Fifty one. Fifty two. Fifty three.
Danzo lunged for them, only to meet a rather grisly fate on the end of Gaara's sand. It morphed to form a claw on Gaara's arm, and she heard Danzo cough in pain as he was impaled upon it. Two seconds later, he materialized elsewhere.
Fifty nine. Sixty.
The energy stopped.
Sakura opened her eyes and noticed that one more of Danzo's eyes had closed. Ah. So that was it.
She continued to count. Three seconds later, the strange energy activated once more.
That was their window.
"Gaara. Hold your action until I tell you. I need you to be ready to strike the instant I say so."
"...got it." Gaara nodded, his voice one with Shukaku's. "You've found a weakness?"
"I've found an opening."
They waited, and thankfully the others served a decent enough distraction. Danzo tried several times to get close to Sakura again, but Naruto would distract him with a roar and a flurry of shadow clones, or else Sai would send a flurry of inked birds his way. Sakura counted the seconds in her head once more, certain that this time it would work.
Gaara rushed forward, claw at the ready. Just as the energy faded, Gaara struck...and Danzo dodged.
She saw Gaara's claws graze the side of his strange, white arm, and this time Danzo didn't reappear elsewhere. There was blood, and Danzo staggered as he moved away. Gaara went in for another blow, but at that point his technique had reactivated, and Danzo simply disappeared and reappeared once more.
But the claw mark was still on his arm. The blow had hit.
And Danzo, it seemed, had caught on to Sakura's revelation. He suddenly flew through a series of hand signs and put his hand to the ground, and all at once a large creature was summoned next to him. Sakura had never seen anything like it before. It had a long snout like an elephant, but it was stalkier, and with thicker fur. More impressively was the effect it had on wind techniques. It sucked in the air directly in front of it, and then blew with the force of a hurricane. Danzo added his own wind to it, and it was only due to a sand wall created by Gaara that they weren't blown away towards the opposite wall.
"He's figured out that I know!" Sakura yelled over the roaring wind. "He's going to use that summon to make sure we can't attack during the opening!"
"You found an opening?" Ino called out in turn.
"Every Sharingan he has on that arm gives him a minute of invulnerability. He has a three second delay between eyes."
"That's still like half a fucking hour we can't touch him!"
"That's why we have to time it just right."
"Which we can't do because of that summon's assault." Sai deduced. "He doesn't even have to activate that technique until he's certain he needs to, with that tapir keeping us away."
"Then we need to get him to activate it! That's the only way to guarantee that we'll have a three second window. Then we need to get past the summon and then get someone to his arm before he has a chance to activate another one."
"We need that boy with the weird suit. Lee, was it?" They had to strategize quickly now, and thankfully Sai was just as sharp on these matters as she was. "A way to get there quickly. I just…"
"You just what?"
"Wish I'd figured out the Hiraishin. But the seal is too vague, I'm not sure what makes up each part."
"...the Fox knows."
It was Naruto who suddenly spoke up, and there was a slightly distant look in his eyes that Gaara sometimes got when he was listening in on Shukaku. "Um...the Fox knows." Naruto repeated. "Hey, how the fuck does the Fox know about the Hirai-what's it?"
It hit Sakura all at once. Naruto didn't know yet, nobody had told him yet, and she made a note to rectify it if they survived Danzo, but his father was the one who had mastered the Hiraishin to begin with. And not only that, Naruto's mother, the original Jinchuuriki, had been an immigrant from Ushiogakure, a village known for its sealing process. Had Kushina helped the Fourth perfect the technique? If so…
"Of course he would know!" Sakura exclaimed. "I'll explain later Naruto, but right now you need to work with Sai and figure out how to get that working as soon as possible."
"It'll only work if that summon is disabled." Sai pointed out. "The winds are too strong to throw a kunai."
"I can do it." Ino raised a hand. "I can...if I get in its head, I can prevent it from using wind."
"But that's a summon animal, Ino, not a person." Sakura protested. "Does your Mind Transfer technique even work on animals."
"It's...not recommended." Ino admitted. "Animals are built differently from people, and it can have bad effects on the mind of the person who possesses one. But we don't have a choice do we?"
"If it's going to damage you, Ino, we have to find another choice!"
"No, Sakura. I promised I was in this until the end. I'm doing it." Ino looked as determined now as she ever could be, and Sakura was reminded of their match in the chuunin exams a year ago. Ino had been ready to take her on, ready to fight her as an equal...a different scenario, but the same determination to win.
"...we'll need to hold it down."
"I can do that." Gaara offered. "Sand can hold onto its legs. But the instant I do that, we won't have cover anymore."
"Then I'll just have to hope my own earth wall is strong enough." Sakura concluded. "Naruto, will you be ready to land one of those Rasenshuriken once Sai has his arm off?"
"You know it." Naruto grinned. "Let's take this bastard down. Sai, did what the Fox say make sense?"
"Sort of...the Uzushio method of sealing is very esoteric, but I can translate it into my own style if…" Sai took notes on an empty scroll before he held a hand out to Sakura. "That kunai of yours, can I borrow it? The prongs make it easier to stick into whatever I throw it at. I'll need to make sure it sticks where I throw it long enough to make the transfer."
"Right." Sakura handed it over, and she briefly watched as Sai removed the paper seal around it and began to add his own.
"It's slipshod, but it has a...fifty percent chance of not tearing my body in half."
"Ino said it, didn't she? We're in this to the end. And if it's a chance to take Danzo down...I want that chance." Sai retorted. "Sakura, please...let me have the chance."
She was surrounded by ballsy idiots. But she was a ballsy idiot, so she couldn't really talk.
"Fine. Fifty percent chance it is. I'm ready to put up defenses when you are, Gaara. Ino, make the Mind Transfer count. Sai...don't you dare miss."
They were ready. This was what they'd been fighting for, this chance. They had to take it.
Gaara's sand rushed forward, and at the same time Sakura pressed her hands to the earth and brought forth several walls in front of them, just in time to save Ino from a stray wind blast. Her walls shook with the force, and she knew she couldn't take it for much longer.
"Ino, go!" Gaara cried out, and Ino leapt away from the safety of the wall and thrust her arms outward in the signature hand sign of her clan. Naruto caught her body just as she slumped to the floor, shielding her from the tapir's wind. There was a moment where the wind continued to rush...and then everything stilled.
Sakura ran to take Ino's body from Naruto, and Naruto began his assault. For now, Ino had control of the tapir, and with Naruto rushing in to distract Danzo that meant no more wind was headed their way. Sakura sent out pulse after pulse of sensing jutsu, counting down the seconds and hoping she could get the timing right. She whispered the seconds aloud for Sai to hear, and Sai prepared himself. He was a ranged fighter, hitting things from a distance was his strong suit, but Danzo dodging around Naruto was not going to make it easy. Plus, there was the fifty percent chance…
Don't think about it, don't think about it…
"Fifty five, fifty six...go!"
Sai threw the kunai.
It sailed through the air and landed in Danzo's arm just as the strange chakra began to fade. Sai made a single hand sign, and Sakura saw a brilliant flash of yellow light engulf the cave.
And then Sai appeared in front of Danzo and sliced with his katana, taking Danzo's arm off in one perfect motion. For the briefest of moments, Sakura felt elation. They'd done it, Danzo couldn't use that damn Izanagi technique if he wasn't attached to his arm, and that meant Naruto could finally finish him off…
Then she felt it.
It was a rumble of energy, that strange half earth, half water energy that she'd initially felt before the fight had begun. She saw Danzo's remaining stump ripple as if it was actually water, and then wood shot out, dozens of wood branches that grew and spread outward until several of them impaled Sai through the chest and slammed him against the far cave wall.
Sakura felt her scream freeze in her mouth.
Her feet moved without her thinking, and she only vaguely processed Naruto rushing towards Danzo, the aura of the Kyuubi flaring up in righteous anger as he single-handedly pounded a Rasenshuriken straight into Danzo's chest. She only vaguely processed Danzo's body exploding into tiny shredded pieces, and most certainly didn't process a final pulse of that strange Sharingan energy.
She could only think of Sai, and as she came to a halt at his side the only thing she could process was that bodies didn't survive that.
The tree branches faded to dust as Danzo did, and Sakura forced herself not to look at the wounds. She saw Sai cough, and knew there was blood, too much blood.
"No, no, Sai, no, don't you die, don't you die…"
If only Tsunade was here, if only someone that knew medical jutsu was here, but all she could do was pull bandages from her pouch and desperately try to curb the bleeding. Despite all of this, Sai had a smile on his face, a genuine smile that made her ache.
"Did you see that...Sakura...I flew…"
He was referring to the Hiraishin, and Sakura choked on a laugh as she realized Sai was talking about the technique with his goddamned dying breath.
"I'm finally free…"
No no no no no...
He couldn't die, he couldn't die, he couldn't die…
She felt the pulsing of his heartbeat, heard the pulsing of her own echoing in her mind, and all she could think of was how she'd give anything to keep him alive, anything, even her own life if that was what it took, Sai deserved so much more than he'd gotten, he deserved to live.
And her amulet burned around her neck, burned so hot she was certain that it had to be on fire. And she saw her skin turn back and white, patterns echoing up her arms and across her face. And she felt pain, like there were holes burrowing into her chest, like she couldn't breathe, she couldn't move, and the pain was so intense that she couldn't help but yell, half in anguish, half in agony, all she could feel was pain, pain, pain…
And the holes in Sai's chest began to close.
And Hidan's voice echoed in her mind, How can you possibly hope to understand someone fully until you understand the pains they've been through?
Sai's skin stitched together, and Sai took a confused but powerful breath as life flooded back into his body.
"And through this understanding you will find joy in the connection…"
And just as the final wound stitched shut, the pain in Sakura's body ebbed away, and she felt a blissful, overwhelming relief that Sai was alive, alive, alive.
And everything faded to black.
His right eye bled, having been spent on a final use of Izanagi, and damn it all it had been Shisui's eye that he'd needed to spend to stay alive, Shisui's damned eye that had allowed him to manipulate his pieces of the board to begin with. There was no replacing the Kotoamatsukami. No replacing this particular eye.
But that damned girl had caught on to Izanagi's trick, and that traitor of an agent had somehow mastered the Hiraishin, and everything was…
Everything was falling apart.
His only consolation was that his medic had escaped with the final stock of eyes, and if he pulled a couple strings he could almost certainly get Orochimaru to make him a new arm, perhaps a better one. They wouldn't have known he survived, and he'd have time to plan, time to gather his forces again and make sure he hit them where it hurt.
He followed the tunnel to its exit into the backwoods behind Konoha proper. There was a meeting point where he was supposed to meet his medic, just about a mile from the city. They could not return to Konoha now. With the Kage free of his technique, there was no winning their civil war. They had to head east, regroup, bolster their numbers yet again.
Danzo stopped as he caught sight of blood. He glimpsed unrolled scrolls on the ground, dropped by his medic...and further out a bloodied corpse. A blue-skinned man wielding a giant sword was standing passively.
"He didn't put up much of a fight." The man commented. "Looks like you did, though. He might not be worth the effort, Itachi."
"...it is worth the effort."
Danzo's head sank into his stomach as he heard a familiar voice. Why was Itachi here? Last he'd heard, Itachi was running errands for Akatsuki, not supposed to be anywhere near here…
"I heard everything Danzo. Everything in that meeting. Everything laid bare. And I saw it all."
Danzo caught sight of several crows gazing at him in the trees, and all of them seemed to reflect Itachi's Sharingan within their eyes.
"You used me. You told me it was the only way."
"I-It was!" Danzo protested. "Even now they don't understand, we wouldn't have survived war with the Uchiha!"
"But we would have survived war with you? Konoha would survive this?"
Itachi seemed to fade into existence from the shadows, and the cold stare of his Sharingan paralyzed Danzo on the spot.
"You promised to keep Sasuke safe. You couldn't even keep that."
"He left of his own accord!"
"You could have stopped him. You had the resources. You know how Orochimaru works. Everything you've said to me has been a lie. Everything you promised. Kisame is right. This world is filled with lies, isn't it?"
Danzo stepped backwards and tripped on a stray root, falling over with a grunt of pain. "I-Itachi, you must see reason-"
"I see more clearly than ever, now. The burden you've given me. The burden you've passed onto my brother, onto this village. You're nothing but a stain. A blight upon Konoha. A plague. And do you know what you do with the source of a plague, Danzo?"
Danzo swallowed. There had to be somewhere he could run, somewhere he could go-
"You burn it."
Danzo saw black flames, and began to scream.