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A Study in Survival

Chapter Text

There is fire. There is light. She is bloody wounds knitting closed as an afterthought, cold, meticulous and precise sacrifices of chakra for each hit, and the jarring impact of her fist shattering against a goddess' face.

The impact destroys the ground around them for miles.

She is rage, and desperation, and there is a yawning chasm of grief in her, as wide as the world is empty, that she refuses to let consume her.

There is a battle that is a war, an endless fight with an enemy that never tires, and she is alone.

Sakura doesn't remember much of what happens. She has been awake and engaged with Kaguya or her forces for days and weeks. Sleep is rare, stolen moments; each scrap and spare bit of chakra is ruthlessly hoarded and used as efficiently as possible.

She feels stripped down to the bones, ragged with all excess parts of her shorn away. Sakura survives. She fights. She bleeds. She survives.

Another cataclysmic exchange of blows. Around them the earth tries to shake apart. Localized earthquakes and tsunamis herald their blows; what's left of the topography of the planet flattens and crumbles in their wake.

Sakura is tired, though she can't afford to be. Every cell screams in her, a razor sharp focus and intellect bent on living. The beat of her heart in her breast is a desperate thing, a furious and urgent thing, the blood in her ears the only sound she can hear.

It is amidst the usual ache of overextended muscles, the mint-burn of healing, and the push and pull of attack and retreat, bestow damage and receive it, that something changes. Sakura has been a thorn in Kaguya's side for countless hours and sunsets, a snarling wolf that disappears just far enough to lick its wounds, gather resources, and slam back into the melee with a reckless abandon.

Sakura has been trying to kill an immortal for so long that it's all her body knows, and she expects this to be no different, though each hit, each jutsu, each glancing touch of her hand or weapon does devastating damage to the world around them because she refuses to give up hope.

It is a wild thing, a snarling thing, behind the breath in her lungs and the constant drought of her chakra system begging for rest, for replenishment. Her hope is more savage than Naruto's was, the constant belief that he could change the world; her hope is more ragged than Sasuke's was, the child's certainty that if he devotes himself to his goal he can fix things.

Her hope is more enduring than Sai's was, a fragile, just-born realization that life can be marvelous, that love can exist, that there is good in the world, and laughter, and beauty.

Sakura's hope is a bonedeep, feral warsong, a thrumming that gets her through the days, and the nights, that moves her body like a puppet on a string, that lets her heal and kill and force her body past its limits. It's a bulldog's jaws clamped tight on her goal, all thoughts set aside for neverending action, deliberation, movement; it's gravity, and the smiles she won't let herself forget, the dreams and ambitions of everyone she can remember wrapped tight but never safe in the core of her, every precious memory burned one at a time to keep it alive.

Sakura's hope is all she's got left.

So while she hasn't lessened her efforts to murder the being responsible for the destruction of all she loves-- if anything, it's the opposite, eclipsing her old limitations with every encounter, every waking moment, inching millimeter by bloody millimeter closer to her goal with each breath in her body-- she is a being of observations, of rationalization, of cool and collected deductions, lightning-fast assessments and reactions half the reason she's still breathing, and nothing in the encounter has led her to believe something has changed.

Sakura jerks back her fist in surprise, not quick enough to pull the punch but able to change the angle so that it slides past her opponent. In a quarter-beat she's a mile away, still high in the sky.

A mile is nothing.

Sakura turns mid-flight, eyes on Kaguya, feeling the change as it lurches through her body. Probably someone else might not have noticed, but no one else is alive; Sakura is aware of every iota of chakra in her body, and Sakura notices the moment it alters.

There's a new pathway where there wasn't before, like a jutsu half-forgotten, and chakra wants to curl out of her tenketsu, twist in just the right way to-- Sakura doesn't know, and has to stop the quicksilver flash of thought as a wave of Kaguya's hand sends black desolation winging toward her.

Sakura dodges, nimbly, tossing a shuriken that expands outward into a swarm, a flock of thousands, uses the moment's distraction to throw herself from a surviving peak to a valley far in the distance.

Her only saving grace is that Kaguya can't sense chakra, not when it's ruthlessly surpressed with Sakura's perfect control-- though the goddess is more than willing to burn the countryside to ash, destroy any cover, and force Sakura out.

She's learned to rest while running, take solace in the comparatively less exhausting labor of crossing ground faster than the winds of a rasenshuriken.

Kaguya can't-- or hasn't, at least-- used genjutsu on her. Perhaps she senses the futility of it; Sakura can sense the intrusion of foreign chakra on her system the instant it occurs, obvious as a drop of ink on a pristine scroll.

This isn't that; this chakra is hers and hers alone.

The sweep of white is her only warning, so fast her eyes can't resolve it into a shape; she doesn't wait for them to, moving back as far as a single leap can take her on instinct. It was a swipe of Kaguya's arm, her senses tell her later, but in the intervening time Sakura has ducked and parried three blows and flipped over a lake, its water rising on on either side of them like a welcoming hug.

Sakura punches the lakebed, lets house-sized boulders rise as asteroids, dances between them for a blink's cover before Kaguya obliterates them with a thought, not even rubble remaining. The skin on Sakura's arms informs her of the heat, even from her new distance. She's behind the goddess now, though-- not that it matters to her sight.

Merely, she's opposite Kaguya's direction of attention for a single moment, and in their battles that's an opening, forcefully torn.

It's a sweeping kick, a dynamic entry that flows into a springboard flip to get away, because any hit that doesn't connect is a liability. Any second of close combat is too long already, Sakura knows, and ruthlessly stifles the frustration in her throat as the move carries her away.

Away, away, away, the endless flight from an enemy too dangerous to engage, and too dangerous not to.

A bright flare of chakra from within her, yin and yang twisting without conscious direction, and it would be terrifying, this loss of control, if it wasn't infuriating. Sakura can't afford any moment of distraction.

She usually engages Kaguya until she only has the energy left for a desperate flight, a retreat to think on what she learned about her enemy during the most recent clash, painstakingly pieced together from the smallest of tells.

She might not have a choice, this time, though each moment of combat is precious, every encounter another chance to learn and capitalize on a weakness, build a strategy up from atoms, and--

Parry, parry, dodge; Sakura slips medical ninjutsu into her enemy's flesh, feels it catch beneath the skin, but where it should absolutely wreck the seemingly human biology, Kaguya shows no reaction.

Sakura keeps her curse contained to gritted teeth, reaches deep and pulls chakra into her hands. She doesn't have the luxury of handsigns, hasn't for longer than she can remember, so each jutsu has to be utterly mastered before she dares use it.

The upside is that she doesn't have any distractions.

It's water molecules slammed into each other, a tsunami raging out, and Sakura uses it to disengage.

She has to figure out what the utter fuck is going on with her chakra before it gets her killed.

The ball of water had been easier than normal, a prison called from the displaced lake, but before she's even ten miles away Kaguya has evaporated it. A rush of seared air, so hot there's not even steam, hits Sakura's back like a shove from a giant.

It spins her and she goes with it, knowing better to have her back to her enemy even as her skin erupts in burns, a line drawn of red drawn over her and erased just as smoothly by her own chakra in a countering wave. Her armor's lost but it did little, anyway.

A blur, and there's nothing to step off of; Sakura replaces herself with a piece of rubble in the distance, replaces again with one of her weapons from before, far enough away that her chakra rips out of her, a sudden void.

The same weird lurch as before occurs, infinitely more disastrous, and Sakura uses precious seconds reaching inward, a step she doesn't have to do ever, trying to isolate the cause.

It's elusive and Sakura would snarl if she wasn't taking to the trees with as little sound as possible, shoving down her chakra with an iron fist.

The hiccuping aberration refuses to be silenced. A frisson of fear lances through her, shock and dismay as a monsoon of wind tears at the forest, ripping trees out of the ground and into pieces. She leaps from trunk to trunk in the sudden tornado, dodging limbs suddenly as fast and dangerous as arrows from Sasuke's Susano'o, really snarling this time when one comes at her at such an angle that she has no choice but to slam her fist through it, giving away her position.

She has to dodge and weave, chakra still suppressed but for that little, disobedient curl directly in the center, and when she multitasks slinging a massive oak opposite the wind-- causing it to crash into its fellows with a sound like ten-thousand exploding tags--

now there's an idea--

and racing to the top of the atmosphere to get over the wall, she pokes at it, a stab of will.

Cooperate!

Instead it comes unraveled, a flower unfurling, and Sakura has just a moment to panic before the winds kick up, slamming her back down to the ground from the seven miles up.

She leaves a crater, leaves the crater barely after it's formed, narrowly dodging the fist dropped into the center of it after her.

The crater is suddenly four times as massive, force delivered with such speed that the landscape is just changed around them, the sound barrier breaking too fast to make noise.

Reinforcing and then still having to heal her spine, in the space between breaths, had taken approximately half of her chakra reserves, but while one part of her mind is cataloging reserves grimly, most of it is still reeling from the golden glow that is sweeping through her, that refuses to be tamped down, that is out of her control.

Fear quickens her breath, and Sakura rips a spear of a stick out of her shoulder, pressing one hand to the place where it impaled her. There's a feeling rising in her that begs to be a sound, a pulsing, a quickening, and she has no idea what it is, has no time to process as she runs for her life, dodging and weaving.

Kaguya has taken the displaced trees in her windstorm and is guiding them at the ground with a single gesture, each huge as only Fire Country trees get-- had they really journeyed so far east, again? The landscapes are mostly unrecognizable, all familiar manmade landmarks destroyed.

Sakura is forced to bob and weave, dart back and channel her dead teammate, be as unpredictable as possible because Kaguya isn't throwing trees at her so much as where she guesses Sakura will be.

Where such strength should shatter the trees upon impact with the earth, they're sticking in the ground like oversized arrows instead, and Sakura has precious thought to spare deducing how-- obviously, reinforced with chakra-- and how she can turn this around, use it as an advantage--

Maybe catch and redirect one?--

Too late, Sakura realizes this too could be a distraction, just as Kaguya puts a knife-hand through her gut and smiles, beautiful and serene.

Of course she hadn't needed to be physically directing the projectiles, huge though they were.

Sakura's muscles are suffused with deadly memory, though, and hadn't required conscious thought to react; nor had the sudden pain caught her off guard. Her arm had whipped around, tan skin brought to bear in a fierce lariat--

No time to remember Bee's smile next to Naruto's, so happy and sure--

-- even as her head whipped forward, one hard-headed jinchuuriki's move against another, back when the bijuu existed, when any village stood at all.

It's unexpected enough that Kaguya takes it, a forehead to the face, and Sakura smiles grimly through blood as she throws herself off the arm through her chest.

Healing it is something she does without a thought-- or really, isn't even something she does. The healing process starts on its own, fueled by her chakra. She could stop it, it's still under her control, but no command had to be given to begin it.

Thanks to the heatwave earlier, there's not even any fabric to get stuck in the wound, or stuck in newly healed flesh.

Sakura would love to capitalize on her enemy's moment of distraction, the sheer unpredictability of the headbutt that actually worked--

Her love for Naruto rears up like a wildfire, burning her inside out, so fierce an ache that it would unmake her if she were any less used to it, if she hadn't cried out all her tears back when the nights had numbers and the days had names--

-- but so big a wound leaves her with near-dregs of chakra left, just a little more than experience has taught she needs to escape.

It grates at her to leave Kaguya injured and as vulnerable as she ever gets, but-- it grated the first dozen times, too.

Sakura pushes on, ignoring the hurts she can't waste chakra to heal, as well as the blurred quality her vision takes, lines and spots erupting. That hasn't happened in a while-- either she's lower on chakra than her body can handle, right now, or--

She's just focused on real, true escape, fleeing with all the strength and speed she has, when the singed hair on the back of her neck bristles.

It's barely a warning, but it's enough.

Pushing off hard against the ground, Sakura hits the clouds again, arrowing through them even as-- yes, Kaguya slams air in the direction, dispersing the moisture in the air to either side of the horizon.

Sakura is already falling back down, using shaky wind manipulation to speed her flight, fist cocked back and slamming hard into the goddess' face.

Too late, she realizes that in the heat of the battle, deep in the familiar motions of retreat, distract, hit and run-- she'd reached for as much chakra as she could spare. She has perfect chakra control, a precise accounting of how much chakra she has within her at any given moment.

Never before has some of her chakra been off limits.

This chakra, burning gold, had come as readily to her pull as any.

The strange mix of yin and yang, erupted into being of its own accord, rushes to her toes and through her throat and up her arm, but it's too late, she has tolive.

Sakura slams her fist forward with a manic yell, has a split second to register the expression of pure shock on Kaguya's face as the punch connects--

And keeps connecting.

Sakura punches a hole in the space-time continuum.

Or at least, that's what she registers later.

In the moment, it's just a tear in reality, a sudden feeling of give to the air itself, which her fist carries her body through.

There's blackness, a kaleidoscope of color-- dizzying, rushing.

Gravity is suddenly different, pulling her every which way and no way at all, nothing and everything turbulent around her.

The golden chakra is singing through her, warm and wild and choking her, destroying all thought.

It threatens to destroy all sense of self, and that's when Sakura gets over her fear to push back. There's a spasm in the air, in the crowded void of creation, and a surge of-- something.

Sakura struggles for breath, only to discover there's no air.

A sense of urgency overcomes her, the mindless and frenzied struggle for survival, as she claws at her throat, forces her heart rate slower to preserve air, as desperation wicks away all thought.

Sakura has been alone for days and weeks and months, the last alive in a world torn asunder, and through it all hope has sustained her.

Endless and enduring, Sakura's hope is a snarling thing, a calculated predator, a living, breathing monster in her breast that demands survival, precision in all things, self-awareness, and burns a vigil of memories of her lost loves to force her into the best version of herself that she could be.

The vortex widens, or tightens, and Sakura refuses to let this kill her when nothing and no one else has managed, when there's still air in her lungs-- even if her vision is closing in, a blackness creeping in from the edges--

Or is that the tunnel?

A lurch, sickening and final, and spinning, dizzying wind.

It stops.

Sakura breathes.