Second Bite at the Cherry @sakinthra
Chapter 84

They. Were going. To die.

There was something about Kakuzu beyond the fact that he collected hearts like trading cards, and Sakura was logically willing to attribute that to a good century's worth of honing his skills as a shinobi.

Then she remembered that this man had attempted to take on the First Hokage in his prime and realized that maybe Kakuzu had always just been something of a monster.

She'd never before seen someone with such elemental proficiency. His earth jutsu rivaled Onoki's, and that was before he combined it with other elements. Terrain? Whatever the hell he wanted it to be. Sakura found out the hard way that all her chakra control for keeping steady on surfaces was thrown out the window when it came to balancing on mud, and Jashin help her if she tried to land on any of the water he threw out again, considering he could just run electricity through it. Oh, and normal ground? Not around Kakuzu, he could just pump his chakra through it to make jets of fire spew out of the ground like she was by a fucking volcano.

And that. Was just. The terrain.

Hidan had taken at this point (and Sakura had healed): four direct lightning bolts to the chest, two entire bodylength's worth of third degree burns, twenty four crushed bones, and eighteen lacerations severe enough to need immediate attention. That was ignoring, of course, the blows that Gaara had redirected or that she'd managed to parry with her Kasayari. And if any of the three of them got remotely close enough to land a counterblow, Kakuzu simply hardened his skin with that strange technique of his so that any sort of blade just bounced right off.

Sakura was used to luck being on her side. Finding ways out of situations in their darkest moments. Jashin intervening when she needed it most.

For Kakuzu? There wasn't any luck. She couldn't beat him.

His hardening technique was earth-element based; her sensing jutsu confirmed that early on. And while Gaara could nullify techniques with his gold sand, Kakuzu learned quickly, and now used his bizarre body-threads to keep the sand at bay from his actual body. If they managed to restrain him, it really would be luck, and so far the only luck on their side was that Hidan had managed to get two cheap shots in before the fight began.

"We need lightning jutsu." Sakura muttered to herself, tapping her palm to Hidan's back for what felt like the hundredth time. She realized now how Hidan was able to take so many death blows without going crazy; at a certain point, her brain had shifted focus. Oh, the pain was there, and if she thought about it for too long her body threatened to give out. But she couldn't afford that, so instead Sakura compartmentalized.

Maybe having an 'inner' personality all those years wasn't such a bad exercise after all.

"Lightning jutsu." She repeated. "Strong enough to nullify his armor. But they also need to be quick enough to dodge everything else."

"What, you don't have any lightning up your sleeve?"

"Earth and water." Sakura reminded Hidan. "And you could afford to learn an actual jutsu too, you know that?"

"Fuck jutsu, I'm immortal."

"And now look where we're-"

Further protests were cut short by another wave of fire slamming against Gaara's sand. Even with the gold nullification, the heat from the flame was causing sweat to pour down her face. She just couldn't understand how someone without a literal Bijuu powering them could make a flame that intense. Not even Sasuke's fire burned that hot. And maybe, maybe if she had stronger water jutsu she could have countered it, but...

"I'm thinking of letting Shukaku take control."

That...definitely wasn't something Gaara offered lightly. Not that Shukaku was really a danger to them anymore, but if Shukaku's power was frontline, that meant Gaara would be putting less towards defending them. Higher offensive, at a cost.

"It's probably the only way to throw him off his rhythm." Sakura admitted. "Maybe it will jar him enough to let one of us get a hit in. But we probably won't be able to last very long without you keeping up walls, so we do it on our first try or we don't do it at all."

"He was hired to take on a fucking Jinchuuriki." Hidan reminded them. "He's probably expecting it, the bastard."

"Then we need to try something he'll never expect to catch him off guard."

And Sakura knew, right then and there, exactly what she needed to do.

"I need to distract him. I'm the healer, and the leader of the Neutrality Project. If he can take me out, he will. If he's focused on reaching me, he won't be focused on Shukaku. If you two can even get one more of his hearts, it might be enough to persuade him to rout."

The look on Gaara's face told her all she needed to know about the idea, but he didn't protest. It was already desperate enough that they were relying on Shukaku, and if Shukaku moved quickly enough she wouldn't have to be at risk for long.

"And what if he ignores you completely and goes for one of us instead?"

"Then I get the kill shot." Sakura answered. "Essentially our plan is divide and conquer. He may be throwing out jutsu left and right, but he's only got one set of eyes. Plus, he's using those extra hearts to attack. They're...they're like puppets, weirdly, but unlike an actual puppet, if we get a kill shot, it will stay dead. It's a big risk using them, we just need to capitalize on that risk."

"So maybe it would be better if we completely split up." Hidan retorted. "Go one on one with each of the hearts so he can't do any of those fucked up combos."

"While running the risk he sends three after one of us instead."

"If he does that, try to restrain the main body." Sakura offered. "Maybe we can't get through that armor jutsu, but if he's restrained, he'll have to bring back the heart puppets to assist, and you can go for the kill as they return."

Another massive burst of fire brought their planning to an end. Kakuzu was starting to hit hard, and Gaara's wall wouldn't last much longer. Now or never.

Focus chakra to my feet…

"Is Shukaku ready?"

"What kind of a dumbass question is that?"

It had been a while since she'd heard Shukaku's rumbling voice echoing through Gaara's own. It still made her shiver, but...he was as much a part of the team now as any of them were. Sakura trusted the tanuki. Well, in this case, she had to.

Now, all she had to do was dodge Kakuzu on her own for an undetermined amount of time.

She readied her spear, a last resort if something came her way she wasn't fast enough to run around. Then, with a push, she began to run.

There was a small lull in Kakuzu's onslaught as she ran, no doubt him processing just what exactly her new strategy was. It was an obvious distraction, he probably knew it was a distraction...but he took the bait anyway, and Sakura could see one of those eerie writhing masks head her way. The one that primarily shot lightning, by the look of it. The other heart puppet, the flame one, stayed behind. So they'd divided them, and that meant…

Sakura felt the hair on her body stand on end. A faint metallic taste seemed to hit her tongue, and without thinking, she urged herself forward just in time as an enormous bolt of lightning split the tree behind her. Kakuzu definitely wasn't screwing around with her. He wanted her dead. And here she was running around in metal shinobi armor, a lightning rod on legs. She was starting to question why Iwa relied so much on metal for their protection. Maybe some sort of seal-enforced leather would have been better, or at this point not wearing anything

Another crack sounded behind her, a bit further back. Sakura risked a glance backwards. The twisted masked being was...falling behind. Had Kakuzu decided not to pursue her after all?

Some instinct within her flared, and she skidded to a halt right as Kakuzu's main body suddenly shot forward, slamming an enhanced fist into a tree that she had been about to reach. Ah, so he had decided to come for her, personally.

"I'll admit, Haruno, you've proven far more prepared than any of us expected."

Despite the fact that he'd been busy spewing out S-rank jutsu for the better part of the past twenty minutes, Kakuzu had an almost casual air as he straightened up and turned towards her. He didn't look like he'd even broken a sweat.

"Using Hidan as a mole was clever. Nobody thought him smart enough for espionage. But before I kill you, you'll tell me how you communicated. It wasn't by physical message, so it has to be jutsu. You will tell me about this jutsu."

"Would you believe me if I told you it was the will of Jashin?" Sakura chuckled nervously, taking a step back just to put a little more distance between her and him.

"Your meager attempt at humor is wasted on me, Haruno. The jutsu, or I will make this last longer than you'd like."

Sakura suddenly found herself wishing Sai was here. He'd know a better quip for the situation. All she could do in the face of this titan was just grip her Kasayari tight and, ironically, pray. Jashin had placed her trust in her, had chosen her, and now she was starting to think this was all for nothing.

If she couldn't even beat Kakuzu, how could she hope to defeat Pein?


The man called A was truly at a loss.

There'd been another killing. One of the daimyo's brats, not the heir thankfully, but the death of the second eldest son was enough to send the man into a frenzy. Kumogakure relied on the connections and funding of the daimyo to maintain their village, and if the man was upset, the village would be too. He'd known their unknown killer was a lunatic, but to anger the daimyo

Foolish. If A ever got his hands on the culprit, he'd take his time showing his displeasure.

The murder was gruesome. A had survived war, which meant he had more than enough stomach for it, but the young genin who had first been called to the scene hadn't been able to last in the room for more than a few minutes.

It wasn't just a death, not really. It had been drawn out. Multiple breaks in bones had indicated the man had suffered before his death, really suffered. A sadist killer. There were multiple stab ones, none but one anywhere near lethal. Just there to cause pain. And then there was the blood on the ground, the strange symbol…

A circle with a triangle. He'd never seen such a symbol in his lifetime. The mark of some new organization, perhaps. A had initially wondered briefly if it was tied to the Akatsuki, but they wore distinct red clouds, not anything like this.

Yugito swore up and down that someone had infiltrated the village, and he believed her. Her nose never failed. But they hadn't turned up the rat yet, and if this kept up…

Ten murders in the past month. Ten unacceptable deaths.

A scoffed aloud, but committed the scene to memory. There had to be a clue. Something beyond the obvious. Some connection between the murders, beyond that simple. The victims were all people of influence. Nobles, high-leveled jounin, wealthy merchants...the killer was trying to cause distress among people of power. And they were strong enough to handle jounin.

"Lord Raikage!"

The words of one of his bodyguards distracted him from his thoughts. He turned to face the man, tilting his head to acknowledge him.

"Yugito has returned to the village with an outsider. Someone claiming to be an Ambassador. Yugito was accosted by the Akatsuki, and they're still within our borders to the south."

A didn't need much more than that to rush from the building. The murder could wait. He pulled out a small device, a hand radio commissioned within Otogakure, and turned it on to a specific frequency.

"Yugito."

"Raikage." The woman's rasping voice answered. "Akatsuki is-"

"Are you harmed?"

"No." Yugito's voice softened slightly. "The...Ambassadors stepped in. Two of them are still engaging."

"These wouldn't happen to be the Ambassadors B kept raving about?"

"One and the same."

"Detain the one who brought you here at Cliffside." A let his voice switch into the coded language of his ancestors. Each of their shinobi facilities was named in it, to prevent any outsider from knowing where things were or what they had within their borders. The language was supposedly the language of the place their people had come from, from across the sea. There were none who knew what lay beyond the ocean, but A had believed since he was young that there were shinobi there, his long lost cousins, with their own problems far on the other side of the world.

Sometimes he even envied them.

"Then what?" Yugito prompted.

"Wait. I'll return with the other two momentarily."

"And Akatsuki?"

"I'll bring their heads as a gift."

1. Chapter 1 848 0 0 2. Chapter 2 3162 0 0 3. Chapter 3 2532 0 0 4. Chapter 4 2819 0 0 5. Chapter 5 2551 0 0 6. Chapter 6 2767 0 0 7. Chapter 7 2188 0 0 8. Chapter 8 1950 0 0 9. A Brief Intermission 949 0 0 10. Chapter 10 4053 0 0 11. Chapter 11 3692 0 0 12. Two Worlds Away (Intermission Part Two) 1320 0 0 13. Chapter 13 3836 0 0 14. Chapter 14 2739 0 0 15. Chapter 15 2390 0 0 16. Failures (Intermission Part Three) 2824 0 0 17. Chapter 17 3234 0 0 18. Chapter 18 6529 0 0 19. Chapter 19 4214 0 0 20. Three's a Drag (Intermission Part Four) 2630 0 0 21. Chapter 21 3341 0 0 22. Chapter 22 2924 0 0 23. Chapter 23 6969 0 0 24. Chapter 24 3801 0 0 25. Chapter 25 4158 0 0 26. Alliances (Intermission Part Five) 2667 0 0 27. Chapter 27 6918 0 0 28. Act One Epilogue 30 0 0 29. Act Two Prologue 1 0 0 30. Chapter 30 7214 0 0 31. Chapter 31 3687 0 0 32. Other Worlds, Other Minds (Int Part 6) 7031 0 0 33. Chapter 33 2703 0 0 34. Chapter 34 2734 0 0 35. Chapter 35 3454 0 0 36. Chapter 36 3502 0 0 37. Chapter 37 2836 0 0 38. Sparks (Intermission Part Seven) 3351 0 0 39. Chapter 39 3664 0 0 40. Chapter 40 4064 0 0 41. Chapter 41 4611 0 0 42. Chapter 42 3675 0 0 43. Chapter 43 3720 0 0 44. Alekhine (Intermission Part Eight) 1118 0 0 45. Chapter 45 6405 0 0 46. Chapter 46 6106 0 0 47. Chapter 47 4601 0 0 48. Chapter 48 4531 0 0 49. Chapter 49 3483 0 0 50. Coming Storm (Intermission Part Nine) 7177 0 0 51. Chapter 51 4480 0 0 52. Chapter 52 5763 0 0 53. Chapter 53 3722 0 0 54. Chapter 54 4708 0 0 55. Chapter 55 5271 0 0 56. Chapter 56 5280 0 0 57. Sounding Thunder (Intermission Part Ten) 2812 0 0 58. Chapter 58 9001 0 0 59. Chapter 59 4492 0 0 60. Chapter 60 5379 0 0 61. Chapter 61 9941 0 0 62. Chapter 62 8222 0 0 63. Chapter 63 4430 0 0 64. Chapter 64 4766 0 0 65. Chapter 65 7008 0 0 66. Chapter 66 5769 0 0 67. Act Two Epilogue 2816 0 0 68. The Months Between 9232 0 0 69. Act Three Prologue 96 0 0 70. Chapter 70 5300 0 0 71. Chapter 71 5013 0 0 72. Chapter 72 4580 0 0 73. Chapter 73 5123 0 0 74. Chapter 74 3585 0 0 75. Chapter 75 3963 0 0 76. Chapter 76 4747 0 0 77. Chapter 77 3671 0 0 78. Chapter 78 2347 0 0 79. Chapter 79 5030 0 0 80. Chapter 80 3135 0 0 81. Chapter 81 4371 0 0 82. Arbitrium (Intermission Part Twelve) 3793 0 0 83. Chapter 83 3219 0 0 84. Chapter 84 2189 0 0 85. Chapter 85 2827 0 0