Because, sometimes, we are what our adversaries make of us. Because Gatō only needed Zabuza to neutralize Kakashi. He isn't afraid of one little pink-haired genin. But even mice will bite when cornered. A story of where fear drives the most vulnerable member of Team Seven.
A/N: So, while I was away I received another lovely fanart, which was almost enough to make me nostalgic enough for FKftD to consider writing a one-shot epilogue. Almost. But then I came to my senses. You might have ended up with something as belief-wrecking as To Set A Watchman, so be grateful that nostalgia produced this instead. I apologize for nothing.
Kill Your Heroes
Baptism or What Lurks Under Bridges
Sakura shadowed Tazuna through the decrepit settlement, feeling disgusted and being ashamed by that disgust. Everything was worn and dirty, from the buildings to the people, and there was a small, alarmed voice in her head shrilling, Don't touch anything!
It was silly, because she'd done her fair share—more than her fair share, she sometimes thought—of crawling belly-down in questionable smelling mud, but this wasn't a survival exercise. People lived here every day of their lives, bargaining for vegetables she wouldn't have thrown away without first putting on gloves at home. It wasn't quite squalor, as there was evidence of effort to keep things maintained and having once been prosperous, but it was a tired effort, as wilted as the tops of the carrots on offer.
The farmland here was poor, the rivers and winds carrying too much salt for much but the mangroves and buttonwoods to flourish. Once the rivers had offered up fish, the buttonwood a high-grade charcoal, and the pines further inland tar and resin that had been used in local shipbuilding and repair as well as being shipped elsewhere, but when Gatō had come, he'd razed the harbors. Now only his ships could travel freely, crippling the trade that had sustained the islands.
Most of the families that lived here, the ones that hadn't been able or willing to smuggle themselves elsewhere, were making do with what they could coax into growing and the fish they could no longer sell.
It was enough to survive, but it was a life absent of luxury or fiscal security.
It was Sakura's first real brush with poverty and she really, really didn't like it. Not the sight of it, nor the smell of it, strong enough to make her want to crinkle her nose up in distaste. Damp and fish and tar—nothing at all like home. But she persevered. Mostly.
She kept an eye of the children, who'd paused in their play to stare at her. She didn't have much spending money on her, their operating funds doled at the discretion of their jounin-sensei while they were on a mission, but ninja tools were a temptation even to village children who had plenty of actual toys.
As they approached the worksite, Sakura trailed even further behind the bridge-builder. She felt awkward standing on the periphery, but she couldn't exactly help out either, because it was well beyond her current skills to both help and keep a watchful eye on their surroundings. And even if she'd been able to, all her training at the Academy had only prepared her for demolishing bridges, not building them. Even that had been limited to a brief mention, as apparently their instructors didn't think adding a working knowledge of serious explosives alongside the myriad of bladed objects was a wise decision.
So she just sort of hovered, grinding one sandaled foot against the concrete while she eyed their surroundings. They'd covered guard duty quite a bit in class, as it was one of the jobs most often hired out to ninja, but she'd expected a jounin-sensei to be there and instruct her while she was in the field. It was one thing to have run through test scenarios within the grounds of the Academy and sometimes in and around the familiar streets of Konoha, but another entirely to actually be guarding someone.
Technically, she wasn't supposed to be eligible for solo guard duty until she made chunin or met certain requirements as a genin and received authorization to do so. But Kakashi-sensei was their field commander, so she couldn't exactly argue with him. And, really, when she hadn't had time to think it through, she'd been flattered.
Now, however, she was mostly bored. This was her second day of this, but even though it was only morning, she was having flashbacks to how the day before had dragged on and on, the building team working from first light to dusk in order to make as much progress as possible. It meant even taking her midday meal here on the bridge and resigned herself to few and abbreviated bathroom breaks. The only enemy she'd been asked to confront was sleepiness, but she didn't know whether to be grateful for that or not.
Tazuna apparently hadn't been completely trusting of Kakashi-sensei's less than impressive endorsement of Sakura as a bodyguard, so her pouch contained not only her standard ninja tools but also a few magnesium flares that were bright enough to be seen even through dense fog. Apparently, the residents carried them in case of emergency while fishing and they did have a certain telltale odor that she hoped wouldn't take up permanent residence in her bag. It was bad enough this town reeked like fish, what would Sasuke-kun think if she did?
He might finally notice something, at least, that sour, mood-killing logical part of her brain prompted.
As she rushed to reassure herself otherwise—because Sakura had never not achieved something she'd worked hard for and she'd never worked as hard for something as she did for Sasuke-kun—she did a perimeter sweep. She walked the bridge, peering down into the water, brow creasing as she considered how easy it might be for someone to approach in the heavy fog that wouldn't burn away until well into the day. But it wasn't like she could scale down the bridge's supports and take a look around.
Except, she recollected suddenly, she could. It wasn't a tree, true, but the principle would be the same. It might even be easier, since it wouldn't have the same faint buzz of interference as a living tree. Neither Naruto or Sasuke-kun had said anything about it, but given how much more trouble they were having, she had her first real challenge to her assumption that Sasuke-kun had chakra control much finer and more developed than her own.
She'd never really been better than Sasuke-kun at anything before, except speaking in keigo, and she didn't really know how she felt about that.
The cry of a passing bird disturbed her reverie and she shook free of her Sasuke-kun crowded thoughts, turning away from her view of the water.
It would be fine.
Except she hesitated, glancing back over her shoulder. With the view as perfectly obscured as it was and with the supports of the bridge so vulnerable, her mind couldn't help but recall the easy, effortless way that the two jounin had used the surface of the water as their battlefield. Kakashi-sensei had been certain Zabuza would be too injured to be a threat, but there had been that willowy hunter-nin-that-wasn't. And Gatō was a rich man who'd already sent one other team to attack them while they were on the road. Rumors said he traveled with bodyguards as well and brought out his thugs whenever the townspeople began to show signs of rallying themselves.
No, a lack of personnel wasn't his problem.
A cold breeze swept in off the water and made her shiver, though not at the temperature. Sakura suddenly felt very vulnerable and no longer too reassured by Kakashi-sensei's judgment. Now that the possibility had reared its head, she was compelled to check.
It was just like the monsters she'd been convinced had lived under her bed as a child. Her parents were completely undistinguished but absolutely dedicated ninja and after her Baba had passed away, she'd spent many, many nights where she was the only one home. So it had fallen to her to check, as she'd found it impossible to sleep otherwise.
This was the same kind of feeling, like something had reached into her chest and was squeezing. But she couldn't turn away, not now. Part of it was because of that old childhood terror, that if she turned her back something terrible might happen, part of it was that this was her responsibility, given to her by Kakashi-sensei. Sakura didn't shirk tasks assigned to her by her superiors. It just wasn't in her character, even if she approached said task with a deep feeling of trepidation.
She scurried over to Tazuna to explain what she was doing, so he wouldn't worry if she disappeared—but really, who was looking after who here?—and then she steeled herself to her task. At least with the tree, she'd had the advantage of starting at the bottom. The water looked very solid and very far below from her vantage point.
But just like the tree-climbing, it came easily to her. The worst part was that despite her feet's ability to defy gravity, her hair and dress wanted to succumb to it, so she had to ignore one and wrestle with the other as she scouted underneath the bridge. Her face burned from more than just the blood rushing to her head. It wasn't as if she wasn't wearing shorts underneath, but still.
She decided that tomorrow, since Sasuke-kun wouldn't see her anyway, she would wear something a little more suited to lurking under bridges and change before they returned to Tazuna's home.
Not that there was anything particularly interesting to see underneath. Her paranoia turned out to be just that and she was left feeling both sheepish and a little light-headed.
But when she set out with Tazuna the next day, she wore a dark tank top beneath her dress she'd never intended to see the light of day. She'd only packed it because she'd heard the mornings in the Land of Waves would be damp and cool and she very firmly believed in layering for warmth. Sasuke-kun didn't seem the type to find shivering cute and no matter what Ino said about shivering burning calories, there were some lines she wouldn't cross.
When they had nearly reached the bridge she ducked behind a building to quickly shuck her dress, folding it carefully and stowing it in her pack. When she emerged, Tazuna had finished giving directions to his crew. As she approached him, she rubbed her hands up and down her exposed arms to generate warmth.
"So, keepin' us safe again today?" Tazuna asked in her in that way of his, his tone straddling the border between gruff teasing and outright grouchiness. She smiled hesitantly at him, because she honestly wasn't sure which it was.
"Yes, sir," she replied.
"Well, get to it then," he said, waving her off. She stifled the urge to salute him sarcastically and walked off her perimeter. She glanced askance at barrels of something—she'd guess tar by the smell—that had cropped up overnight, along with coils of cotton and rope. She suddenly recalled a conversation she hadn't paid much attention to yesterday; several of the men on the crew would be leaving in the afternoon, to help other members of the community do some repair and maintenance on their shabby little fishing boats before storm season arrived. Tazuna had been irritated, but grumbled something about understanding the need to eat.
When she was satisfied that no one had sabotaged the bridge during the night or set any traps detectable by genin-senses, she gathered herself, pulled her hair up into a knot, and took that first unnerving step off the top of the bridge. Her stomach seemed convinced for a moment she would fall, she would fall and drown in that mist-covered water, she would die and never get even one date with Sasuke-kun.
But she didn't fall and she would win a date with Sasuke-kun.
That determined, she took the steps that left her in a world where there was solid concrete beneath her feet, but there was a sea where the sky should have been. Plunging beneath the fog was like walking into a cloud and would have been terrifyingly disorienting if she hadn't had a strong sense of direction. She was certain there was a technique to avoid her blood draining down into her brain, but for now she had to be satisfied with walking quickly toward the pillars situated roughly in the midpoint of the current stretch of bridge, where she could at least be properly upright if she perched on the support beams.
It was the ink she noticed first. Chakra-imbued ink, the kind ninja used. And this ink, she understood in an instant as she glimpsed the pair of shinobi kneeling at the center of the construct fiddling with something, was meant to amplify and direct an explosion.
The fist around her heart seemed to squeeze tight and Sakura couldn't breathe for a long moment, couldn't think, almost didn't have presence of mind enough to keep her feet firmly planted on the underbelly of the bridge. But then one of them glanced up, his gaze catching hers.
Dusky lilac hair framed a handsome face, but there was nothing attractive about his expression. As he uncoiled from his crouch, she saw that there couldn't have been much difference in their age, but the impassive thing that slumbered in those eyes of silver wasn't anything that she'd seen in the eyes of any of her classmates.
Almost before she'd noticed him move, he had knives in his hands. Not kunai, knives. They were a design foreign to her with a strange slight curve to the blades, held in a reverse grip at a 45 degree angle to his wrists. She'd seen that grip demonstrated once, though it wasn't part of the standard Academy curriculum. The forward movement would leave a gaping slash, the backstroke would rip flesh more messily.
Her strange paralysis evaporated and all she could think of was the need to get away, get to somewhere where she could set off her flares, where she wasn't at risk any minute of falling.
Sakura sprinted for the edge of the bridge, but she couldn't forget that to misstep was to die, could not lose that single point of contact that kept her from the hungry waters below. That made her slower than she might have been and he almost caught her, surging forward in a powerful bound. It was the sudden absence of pounding footsteps that alerted her to her danger; she did not dodge so much as jerk her body roughly to one side, one hand slapping down against the bridge to keep her balance. She avoided a killing blow, but the blade caught at the edge of her lip and opened up a hot line along her cheek.
Adrenalin leant her the speed to stay ahead of the second knife, though the margin was narrow enough that she could feel the blade bite shallowly into her calf as she managed to flip herself around the edge of the bridge and fling herself upward. Her eyes took in her surroundings in an instant and though escape was her overriding thought, others intruded, more by habit than by design. If it weren't for years of conditioning, nothing would have filtered through her panic.
As it was, the sight of Tazuna stopped her plans for flight, because he and the others were working steadily at the end of the bridge and the shinobi chasing her wasn't the only threat. Her feet were already moving as her mind desperately sought out something like a plan. Nothing came, but her body moved, running towards town because that was the direction she'd been facing. Her hand fumbled in her pouch for a flare, but a sharp blade rasping over the back of her hand made her drop it, leaving it to skitter uselessly across the bridge.
Her hunter still hadn't spoken a single word and somehow his silent, relentless pursuit was almost worse than any taunt he could have made. It made her achingly aware of the fear that rode as a tight knot in her chest, drawing tighter. She had neither Sasuke-kun's speed nor Naruto's stamina—at any moment, the chemicals flushing through her veins wouldn't be enough to spur her forward.
She lurched suddenly toward the tar barrels, not even thinking, just reacting, and she somehow managed to lift one and pitch it at her pursuer. He was so close as she turned he didn't have room to dodge, just space enough to cross his arms and protect his face. Maybe it was the way her chakra was flaring erratically, maybe it was something else, but the barrel gave with a crunch, tar—heavy, stiff, the heat of the sun not having given it much viscosity yet, but still enough to smear and stick—coating his arms and front.
There was no conscious thought to it, nothing that could be called a plan, but she saw hesitation, she fumbled for another flare, and then—
Magnesium burned at several thousand degrees and could not be extinguished by water, from which it could draw oxygen, which was why these kinds of flares were used only in emergencies and even then with extreme caution on wooden vessels.
The flashpoint of tar was much lower than that.
She'd wanted to hurt him, wanted to keep him from hurting her, but...
It was a nightmare, this black, boiling stuff eating into his flesh, his clothes catching fire, the smell of scorching skin, the scream that twisted his lips, the knives that were drawing toward her with a heavy sense of inevitability regardless of any of those things. She managed to catch his wrists, ignoring the heat that scalded her palms, squeezing so tight she swore she could feel her own bones creak.
He was screaming, but she could hardly hear him, just feel the weight and strength of his body driving his knives on a terrible path. They descended like twin fangs, intent to pay her back in kind for the pain. All that terrible indifference had burned away from those silver eyes and a wild light had replaced it, his features so twisted he hardly even looked human any longer.
Whatever miraculous strength she'd had before was gone; now her muscles trembled and she knew that she couldn't hold him off until he died. They had told her that someone would die in fire; they had not warned her that it might take this long.
But this one thing she remembered from the Academy. She let one arm go limp, side-stepping the knife as his momentum pulled him forward, using that moment to switch the grip on his wrist and drive his other knife on a grating trail in past flesh and bone. He fell forward, still burning, still screaming, still dying, and it was with a terrified, wretched whimper that she scooped up the knife not buried under the corpse.
She didn't think to set off another flare for Kakashi-sensei, didn't even in that moment really intend to deal with the other shinobi. Little flecks of boiling tar had leapt to her and like pork frying in a pan, the boiling grease of a human inferno had painted splotches on her shirt. Little flames were trying to gain purchase in the material and they weren't having much success, as the fabric had been treated, but there wasn't enough room for reason when the memory of the burning man was so close.
She was on fire and all she could think about was extinguishing it. Sakura nearly threw herself over the edge of the bridge, recalling only in the last moment in her panic that a fall from this height might finish what her silver-eyed hunter had started. She kept seeing those eyes, kept watching his skin boil, even while her eyes could barely focus enough to make out a pillar. She slid more than climbed, her chakra still uncertain, and plunged deep into the cold water.
It only replaced one kind of panic with another, because for a moment she couldn't remember how to swim, almost gasped and drowned herself, but the first touch of water against her teeth was enough to have her sputtering and thrashing toward the surface. It was not a pretty swim and it was only luck that kept her from cutting herself on the knife she had a deathgrip on. She reached the pillar, clinging to it desperately.
Someone save me, she had space enough to think. Please, someone save me. But there was no shout of reassurance, no hint of rescue, just a pattern like an ugly black spiderweb stretched across the underbelly of the bridge. And another enemy.
She was already coming down hard off her adrenaline high, her muscles quaking, her hair falling down around her face. The cut on her face and on the back of her hand screamed at the saltwater and she was still seeing white suns.
But there wasn't anyone else.