Disclaimer: Everything belongs to Masashi Kishimoto.
AN: Last chapter. Let's roll.
Lines in the Sand
And so we draw the lines, in sand that is;
Here, we say, is what we stand for;
That, we say, is our conviction!
One gust is all it takes . . .
Following Kakashi's orders, Sakura hurried through the remains of Hajim, Sasuke and Naruto right beside her. The sight that met them with every step was a cruel one. The streets were stained with blood and soot, a blackish sludge that painted the cobbles in the colors of war. Each inch she moved, the smell of burnt hair and waste, of death and all its ugliness surrounded her.
Another ruin flew by, timbers jutting out of the rubble. Sakura was already past it when a sound came from far behind as though the world was torn apart. She heard the city crumble, felt a rush of hot air as it pushed through the alleys and against her body. Looking back now would do nothing though; she knew where it came from, and so she kept running. Kakashi would manage. That was all there was to it. Faith. In him. In themselves.
Near the docks Sasuke took the lead. He looked straight ahead, grim-faced. All tired, yet unwavering; grit and determination equal to Naruto's when it mattered; she admired both for that.
From nearby Sakura still heard the sound of clashing metal, of skin hitting skin, a cry, a shout, the next explosive tag, another technique of shredding wind. It mingled in a brutal melody, each chord another death.
Naruto stopped to look down the thoroughfare toward the docks. Eight water clones rose from the puddles his wave had left behind in the street and fanned out in that direction. It was a nice gesture, she thought. They might not help much in the fights that still raged in the harbor, but they could do little things. Things just as important as killing. Distracting, perhaps. Or pulling the wounded out. It didn't matter much what they did, as long as they helped their friends down there.
Then they were off again. The sounds grew quieter as they left the area of the docks behind and made for the district where she had sensed Gaara earlier. Sakura rounded another corner when a blast made her stop cold. It was large and loud, and at that moment she had no doubt it had been heard by everyone in a radius of miles.
Sasuke stopped, same as her. "Unreal," Naruto whispered beside them.
Sakura followed their stares to the hole in Hajim's walls. Her breath hitched as big chunks of debris rained down onto the city. First taking the tip of a tower; then a dome, half of a house, two buildings right next to them.
She held her arm up against the billowing clouds of dust thrown up by the impact and heard Naruto cough next to her. "That's the direction Danzō took Senyaku to," she said.
"You think he won?"
"I sure hope so," she said. If that blast had been Senyaku's fault, things would become worse before long.
"We'll notice in time," Sasuke said. "Let's move."
So they did. They crossed another district, a field strewn with ruins, and then finally came upon Gaara. At the sight of him Sakura felt something coil in her chest, a hard knot like a fist. Her mouth was suddenly very dry.
Gaara's right arm was a monstrous limb of sand, sharp-clawed and lined with blue veins. Robe torn where the arm had grown out of his body, he swiped the limb sideways, caught a brace of senbon with the whole width of it, then pressed forward, pushing away five puppets at once.
He twisted his left hand to steer the sand around himself and nets of it exploded forward to catch Deidara's clay bombs. The air was awash with noise—muffled explosions like the crackling of fireworks. Then came an ocher drizzle that rained down on them.
When Gaara glanced over at their sudden appearance and revealed his face, Sakura had a short moment of light-headedness. The sand manifestation ran up to Gaara's hair, covering half of his face, his right eye a sickly yellow with a black star inside.
The left eye, however, was a clear turquoise. Narrowed, yes; but full of clarity as well. Gaara was in control, then. Sakura took a deep breath, her attention returning to her prior target. Sasori stood on top of a ruin, and she felt herself tremble at the sight. All the calmness her deep breathing had conjured evaporated.
I will rip your heart out, she thought, anger a searing-white point in her chest. I will rip it out and stuff it right down your throat.
In the end she was a creature ruled by emotions still, despite all her training to the contrary. Seeing Sasori stand atop the ruinous hill of debris, looking down at her with an expression that seemed like contempt for all its indifference, she forgot about plans and being careful, about everything that ran counter to her driving her knives into him. The world dissolved in nothing but thunder in her head and the hammer in her chest.
She charged up the ruin; her hands blurred, the earth rose and a last step delivered her in front of Sasori. The illusion slid off yet the earth around his feet took hold. He still wore some kind of cloak but that was alright. It would be sliced to ribbons soon enough, along with the man himself.
Sasori pointed his arm at her; wooden paneling was blasted off it with a clicking sound. Recognizing the flamethrower now facing her, Sakura managed to get her hand on it and turned it upward, where it shot a flower of fire into the air.
The metal cylinder in her hand grew scalding but she held on with her left as her right palmed a knife and she thrust it forward. The knife sheared through the cloak up—up—up. Almost through! The head was close—then she felt a rope look around her feet.
Sakura lost balance and let go of the knife to claw at his cloak. The rope, which she now saw was more like a garden hose dripping with oil, swung this and that way. It fastened, then loosened, and at last she lost the battle against gravity. She stumbled down the mountain of ruins, but not before ripping the cloak off with a tug that had all her weight behind it. She smirked up viciously as she fell backward and the sound of cloth splitting at the seams rang out.
Small victories. That was all she had. But in the end it would be enough. It had to be.
Before she landed on her back Sasuke caught her with his good arm. The left one flapped uselessly at his side and twitched like a fish deprived of water whenever he tried to do something before remembering that he wasn't able to.
Together they looked up at Sasori.
"He's a puppet," Sasuke said, and beside the analytic quality of his voice there was something else she heard: Sasuke was impressed. Disgusted maybe, but impressed nonetheless.
Sakura shot him a queer look, then concentrated on Sasori again. She had thought only parts of him were made of wood—prosthetics, maybe, with built-in weapons to make them viable for combat—but the whole man? Where his heart should be was a cylindrical protrusion with the imprint 'Scorpion,' and behind him swung blades as if he had two sharp ceiling fans mounted to his back.
The question of where Naruto was became moot when she heard his cry. He suddenly appeared between them, hitting the pavement with his shoulder before crashing into a wall with another shout. Gaara appeared a second later, shoving them away. There was the sudden presence of sand, then Sakura, wide-eyed, found herself being held by a hand suffused with the Ichibi's chakra that brought her away from—
Black, then roaring white; a flash of heat and pressure; a high static warble in her ear, slowly giving way to more noise—shouts, but who? Naruto, Sasuke. Gaara was talking too, his lips moving. She shook her head; another voice entered, droning impersonal cold, entirely untouched by her earlier fury. "Finish this, Deidara. The Jinchūriki will survive it."
"If you wish, Sasori no Danna. Here it comes. True art!"
She looked up and Deidara pushed his hands into the bags at his hips. Tongues ate material—an illusion? But she had no time to think. Gaara's voice: "Move!" Cold, too, but not nearly as untouched, a chilling determination threading through this single word.
Deidara's lips writhed; the ball of clay in his hands ballooned. One motion, then the clay came at them.
"Enjoy!" Insane laughter that swelled swelled swelled, while the bomb on its way surged to the size of a house.
On her feet, running, trying to dodge—away, away. God, not like this. Not blown to smithereens and chunks of flesh and bone and a sea of blood. Not!—Gaara shot past her, sand arm bent protectively around his face. The wrist of his normal arm turned like a screw being driven into wood. The sand obeyed: it swelled on the ground, rose to meet his demand, enveloped—
Like a trampoline the sand bounced the bomb back to Deidara who lifted his arm into a seal. Not enough! The bomb was out of range. It would only hurt Gaara if he set it off. Then she saw it, her heartbeat increased, and the warbling noise returned as she felt herself stop moving.
A tendril of sand looped around Deidara's leg. It threw him forward, into the bomb. Hands stopped sealing, yet Gaara was there with him, brow to brow, turquoise staring with razor-sharp fury into panicked gray, behind it the weight of a nation on the verge of being suffocated before its rebirth was complete. One arm held onto Deidara, the other touched the bomb.
A lance of sand, one thrust; the cocoon of white clay was speared, and Sakura's hand flew to her mouth as the bomb went up in a flash of blinding light. A shockwave threw her to the ground and she felt dust rain on her head and a piece of debris hit her leg; she looked up afterward, seeing Gaara fall to the ground, sand armor broken to little pieces. Yards away his opponent did the same. Then both lay on the rubble, unmoving.
Naruto was the first on his feet. He stormed up the ruin and toward the point Gaara had fallen to, his leg holding him back. Sakura followed him a second later, Sasuke on her heels. She barely made it in time, lunging at Naruto and pressing him to the ground before the jet of fire coming from Sasori could burn him to ashes. The heat layered on her skin like a useless blanket in summer and she quickly pulled Naruto into a standing position once the flames subsided.
Sasori stood across them, arms extended and glancing at the victims of the bomb. His right arm had opened like a metallic flower, a small opening for the flames to escape at the front. His left clutched a scroll.
"Foolish man," he said gruffly, as the scroll unfurled itself. "Enough of this. I would have liked to preserve you for my collection, but this has gone too far now. Puppet of the Iron Dance."
In a puff of smoke, a single puppet appeared. It looked like all the others to Sakura, but being the only one he pulled out, she hesitated.
Sasuke shifted into his stance. "That's not a normal puppet."
"I'll still smash it," said Naruto.
"On three," Sakura said.
Naruto's hand showed the first finger, then they lunged at the puppet. Behind her, Sakura sensed Naruto's chakra coalesce into shape. She was barely four steps farther when a beam of condensed water whizzed past her, Naruto behind it, hobbling. The beam cut its way through the rubble up to Sasori.
Sasuke was the first at the puppet. He slashed downward; the puppet grew two more arms and defended itself. Then Sakura reached the thing as well. She flung her fist forward with all her weight behind it.
The fist didn't reach.
A spike of gray broke out of the ground. Then came another, and a third, a fourth, suddenly dozens, a hundred, the whole field. A scream clawed its way out of her throat. The spike severed her tendons and she fell to the side and into more spikes spearing her arms and stomach, and she felt her guts leak out, adorning the spikes like creepers in a jungle of iron. Ahead, Naruto was stuck like a pig on four of them. He looked like the curved roof of a porous tent that leaked blood instead of water. Head craned back he was looking at the sky, gargling a moan.
One spike was all it took for Sasuke. It speared him right through the head.
Sakura lost consciousness.
Only to awake a second later. She was lying on the floor, no spikes inside her. Naruto and Sasuke on the pavement a yard away, equally undamaged. She jumped to her feet. She touched the parts of her body that had been severed and found no wounds. In a circle of five yards all spikes had vanished. Team Seven was the single point of serenity inside the forest of iron around them.
"You are careless, Team Seven. As always. You should know better by now."
Sakura's heartbeat pounded away at the familiar voice. She hadn't thought she'd ever be in a position where she thanked the stars for that man's appearance.
Danzō limped up to them and past the remaining iron spikes, covered in blood from head to toe, the sword in his left hand dripping red. And he looked furious with them, which showed even more now that he had no bandages covering him up. His arm was outstretched toward them, old and wrinkled but free of any blemishes; a perfectly normal set of eyes glared at them from the place where once half his head had been hidden.
Had he worn those bandages to give the illusion of weakness? But whatever he had done had saved them. Big time.
Danzō positioned himself next to them, his eyes never leaving Sasori.
"Sasori of the Red Sand."
"Shimura Danzō. You killed my puppet then."
"So it was your work after all," Danzō said, more to himself than any of them. Then he gave a miniscule shake of his head. "Team Seven," he said, and all three of them snapped to attention at the iron in his voice. "I will take the puppet of the third Kazekage. Assist with the puppeteer."
Then Danzō dashed right past her.
And for all his faults, and all the hate she held for him, at that moment Sakura had no doubts that he would have made Konoha great had he been the Hokage. Terrible, but great.
They heaved themselves up to take on Sasori, while Danzō fought the monstrous puppet that was apparently the third Kazekage. Another name on the list of people they should never have had to face in the first place. But that wasn't the problem, not anymore.
Worse by far was that their juices were running out; they had been running out for days now. Sakura felt much like a leaking bucket. From the storm on Ike to the infiltration of Hajim it had become a question of endurance. The Kyuubi, Senyaku, Akatsuki, Rōshi, Akatsuki again…There was a sense of cosmic screw-up prevalent in her thinking by now. She didn't know what they had done to offend them, but the deities that were did not love them, that much she could tell.
Naruto was limping as bad as Danzō had done when he was faking, just that Naruto's injury was real and he broke into a grimace each time he moved his leg. He had a higher pain threshold than most, but even that had its limit. He still had chakra. He always had that. But this wasn't about chakra. He was exhausted. They all were, mentally as well as physically, and against someone like Sasori a misstep meant death.
Sasuke concealed his exhaustion better. He breathed in strong gulps like them, but his face stayed in the same contemptuous expression he always wore when fighting.
Next to Sakura, Naruto hurled a barrage of high-pressure water bullets at Sasori. He didn't move from his spot, only trying to keep the puppeteer himself away from Danzō's fight with the puppet.
Sasuke followed the path of the bullets with his eyes.
"You got a plan?" Naruto asked him before resuming his attack.
Sasuke shook his head.
"Not much to it then but attack and hope for the best," Naruto said, shooting them a tired grin.
So they did.
Sakura took off, past Danzō—who was slicing his way through a host of wooden arms—and then Sasuke overtook her, blade ready to do the same to Sasori himself. Naruto lagged far behind but kept cutting off Sasori's escape paths with more water bullets, mixing the compact but insanely dangerous ones with the larger garden shed-sized varieties that could, with a small change in the seal sequence, morph into glue on impact.
All that was left for them, Sakura thought as she slipped into a crouching stance to avoid the sharp blades on Sasori's back, was to do what they could and had trained in.
It sounded so simple, but they had no other plan than this. And curiously enough, as the knives slipped into her hands and the earth rose in small increments to support her stance, and as she was thrusting the knives up and forward, was slashing this way than that, her arms moving to a rhythm only she heard, yes, curiously enough, then and there she felt no shame for having no plan. Because not in her life could she have planned for an encounter like this, even had she known about it beforehand.
She ducked to the side, avoiding a continuous stream of fire. Then Naruto's water hit; the fire sizzled and became fog. Sasuke sprinted past her, sword on the rise. Sasori blocked him, but for a second it seemed as if not all his concentration was on them. And Sakura still knew that she was battling a monster, since she had never before heard of a puppeteer who could control such a puppet and then even himself while fighting so many opponents at once.
She made for the next attack when she heard the tearing of clothes and the ripping into flesh beneath that sound. Sasuke heard it, too. They turned.
A stake of iron tall as a lamp post lanced through Danzō. With a slick noise his body was sliding down the stake.
God, not him, she thought, trying to get her shaking knees under control. Not him. Anyone but him! He's the only one keeping us alive. He's—
The air around Danzō's corpse shimmered and she sensed his chakra. But that wasn't possible. Then the shimmering stopped, the stake vanished, and Danzō stood there, completely fine, arm outstretched once more.
He moved his lips but Sakura couldn't hear him. A sudden heat was prickling on her skin and she began screaming, stumbling away from the sudden flames at her legs. The fire seared her thigh, leaving angry red blotches on her skin. It spread the smell of burnt hair and drove a curse of pain past her lips.
Taking your eyes off an enemy was foolish, and Sasori turned out to be a demanding and cruel teacher.
Sasuke knelt down beside her. A new pair of slices ran across his chest. They weren't deep, but still bled and were almost a mirror image of the scars he had earned in his fight against Kimimaro.
"—not careful," she bit out between a gasp. "Fuck."
"Stay here," was all Sasuke said before going up against Sasori alone; and all she could do was oscillate between holding her burned thigh and trying to catch Sasori in a web of illusions that grew weaker as her reserves started to run out.
Naruto dragged himself across the rubble. The fire in his eyes still hadn't died yet, and again she wondered, how? One day she would learn his secret, she decided, and maybe the world wouldn't look as bleak then anymore.
Sakura watched Sasuke, then, eyes blurred by pain, and what he did looked like a row of circus feats. He wheeled around the puppeteer, both legs intact but only one arm working, and sheathed his blade before shifting into a one-armed hand-stand. He flipped away, then unsheathed the sword again the minute he went on the offensive once more.
Naruto sounded sincere as he said, "He's good."
And Sakura was only realistic when she answered, "He's getting slower."
Yet she could've watched him forever, because what Sasuke did—injured or not—was a work of art, at least to her. The sheer desperation behind each attack as he drove against Sasori like the tide against the shore was breathtaking in all its madness. That he did it so for them, for Team Seven, almost brought a smile to her face.
When a tremor went through the ground, her eyes were momentarily drawn to Danzō again. He had escaped certain death a third time just then, and Sasuke suddenly let go of Sasori, leaping at the sky as if charging the clouds. At the highest point of his jump he faced Danzō, eyes narrowed. A confused expression settled on his face.
He landed near them in a crouch.
"His arm isn't normal."
"Danzō's?" Naruto said.
Danzō was blasting a huge gale at the puppet, while Naruto kept shooting water bullets from his sitting position, still listening in.
"It bloats with chakra. I copied his Jutsu."
"And?" Naruto asked.
"I tried using it, but the chakra travels up to my eyes."
That was worrisome.
"I don't like this," Sakura ground out, still holding her leg.
"But he's winning," Naruto said, then continued firing.
And it was true. Little by little Danzō was pushing back the puppet, slicing off arms and disabling the weapons it had.
"I'll get a closer look. Keep Sasori off me."
Whatever Danzō's arm did, Sasuke had a bad feeling in the pit of his stomach. For now it was unfounded, but there was something to the Jutsu that was deeply unsettling. He had felt it briefly when trying it out: as if he'd lose an eye over it, quite literally. He had stopped his experiment just as quickly.
Danzō still had two eyes though. And why did the technique originate from his arm?
From the corner of his eye he noticed Sakura and Naruto doing their best to box in Sasori with water and earth—how effective that would be without him was questionable. He was the only one still able to move, so leaving their formation now was dangerous.
But it was necessary. There was an innate drive that kept him moving toward Danzō right now. Not just curiosity in general, but the search for definitive answers. Most of all it was the question of why the chakra he felt had been familiar, even though he couldn't place it just yet. His first guess had been the Kyuubi, but that wasn't it.
Ahead of him, the third Kazekage brought down a man-sized mace of iron on Danzō, who sidestepped, swiping his sword vertically, and Sasuke landed behind the puppet, thrusting his own blade forward.
With two people they'd definitely get the puppet. But that was not his reason for being there.
He ducked away from a lance of iron, eyes spinning and focusing on Danzō's arm. First there was nothing. A vast emptiness around the arm as the world became clear and well-defined. He leaned to the side, away from another wooden arm. When he came up from his dodge though it suddenly clicked. The tomoe in his eyes spun faster, and slowly the arm began shimmering. Then, like a smudged window that was rapidly cleaned, he saw it.
Momentarily his eyes widened, his movement slowed and his perception of his surroundings faltered. This couldn't be—
The last he noticed was the acidic bite of poison that corroded the insides of his lungs, and clouds of green blossoming all around him. He fell to the side, a last thought lamenting his lack of attention.
Only to be reborn again, outside of the poison cloud. He stared at Danzō, who squared off against the puppet again, and inside him he had a feeling as though he'd rend the world asunder.
"Help your team, Uchiha," Danzō grunted, "you're hindering me."
And Sasuke did just that, eyes narrowed to tiny slits, but thankful Danzō hadn't noticed anything and thought his death an honest mistake. Sasuke's breath ran rapid, and at any given moment he had to keep himself from turning around and sticking his blade into that decrepit corpse.
Fighting with two broken legs was unwise, Naruto knew. And having the second one break because your teammate went out to explore the depths of an old man's arm did not make the situation any better.
Sasori was a fucking monster. But that was nothing new.
Sakura sat beside him in the rubble, being in a similar predicament. Leg burned, arm sliced but functional, she was shaking from exhaustion. From his meager sensing skills he knew that she had juice for two more attacks, maybe three.
Around them lay the remains of two very special puppets. From the one with the long brown wig he smelled a common perfume he had noticed often in Suna. The other puppet's head, now with a hole between the eyes, had a shock of mousy red hair and looked quite familiar. In fact, both puppets shared a likeness to Sasori that was uncanny.
"This is fucked up," he told Sakura. "He made his parents into puppets."
"—you're telling me nothing new."
"Fuck that guy."
"You go first."
Turning on his side painstakingly, he looked for Sasori. The man had sicced, quite literally, his parents on them and now, having almost fully immobilized them, he could concentrate on his magnum opus. To control the puppets of his parents had been something instinctual to him, as if he had done it a million times over and needn't even look their way to steer them.
Yeah, well, look how that turned out, Naruto thought with a certain amount of vindictiveness, and if he'd had any spit left, why, he'd spit on the floor right here and now. A lot of kindling, that's how. Still impressive though.
These bastards with their black cloaks and red clouds were always so damn impressive. It was frightening, really.
Naruto had just located his target again and brought himself into position, when Sasuke was suddenly engulfed by cloud of poison. For a moment Naruto's heart stopped. He felt tendrils of red writhe up and down his chakra system, dulled to the extreme but felt for the first time since Ike. And despite everything that had happened, for a moment he was tempted. One thought. That was all it would take. But the memory of his father's sacrifice held him back.
Should've known you'd come out the moment this turns ugly, he thought, and maybe he even heard a laugh, rumbling and malicious. That was the problem. You never quite knew if it was your subconscious or the real deal.
Then Sasuke was alive again and settled a minute later in a crouch beside them.
Naruto's prepared words lodged in his throat like a fat lump of lead. In all their time together as Team Seven he could remember only a single moment of ever having seen an expression like this on his teammate. It was slaughter and blood. Hatred and confusion. All destruction, nothing more.
"He's got a Sharingan," Sasuke bit out. The leather around the hilt of his sword crackled under his grip.
"That's impossible," Naruto said.
"His arm's full of them. One after another." Sasuke closed his eyes, as if to suppress the memory. "A few are closed. They close when he reverts the situation . . . whatever he's actually doing with them."
Sakura asked, "How?"
"I don't know."
There was a silence that followed, which was only interrupted by the sounds of fighting as Danzō pressed against the third Kazekage and Sasori. They said nothing, each stewing in their thoughts, watching Danzō, who was no Uchiha but had the eyes of one, several at that—just on his arm. It was a monstrous fight, and while Danzō kept gaining ground, Sasori's traps were insidious and vicious, demanding far too often for the reversal of death.
In all this, Naruto only thought that Danzō definitely had more eyes than was healthy, or appropriate.
Kakashi wasn't an Uchiha either, but he had acquired his eye through an acceptable channel. Somehow Naruto doubted Danzō had asked the Uchiha for them, back when the clan had still been among the living. And that made all the difference, because there existed but one event in recent history that lent itself to a harvest for such an armful of purpose.
After another reversal Danzō did what none of them had managed alone; the puppet fell apart under a blast of wind shredding it from every direction.
They heard Sasori speak, agitation entering his voice now. "Death can neither be defeated by parlor tricks nor by running away from it, Danzō Shimura. You will learn this in time."
Danzō remained silent, walking up to Sasori.
"He's got one eye left on his arm," Sasuke said.
When Danzō arrived before Sasori and the hose dripping with oil and poison unwound itself to meet him, lashing out in a last attempt, Danzō sliced clean through it, blade sheathed in audible wind. The rotors at Sasori's back followed; the sound of two forces grinding against each other resounded as they joined the cut-off hose.
The puppeteer lay before Danzō, cylindrical heart exposed. Danzō lifted his sword for the final thrust.
A cavity in Sasori's heart opened. A cluster of needles, sharp and quick, pierced Danzō just as he was about to stab the heart. Danzō didn't move a muscle, just stood there, shimmering, and the needles and wounds vanished.
Sasuke ground out, "The last."
Before Naruto could reply, Sasuke was rushing up to Danzō and Sasori. Naruto stopped himself from screaming his name: any noise could give his teammate away, and that would be even worse.
Are you really doing it?
Sasuke landed next to Danzō, who was so focused on finishing Sasori at last, he barely took notice of him. And Sasuke . . . he ran his sword through Sasori's heart with all his might, and left it sticking there, swaying around with a metallic sound.
"That was unnecessary, Uchiha," they heard Danzō say.
When Sasuke looked first at the cripple and then at them, Naruto finally knew what he wanted. And he realized that then and there, Sakura and him would decide what was going to happen next.
Sasuke gave them the choice. Say nothing and things would proceed like always . . .
Beside him, Sakura held her hands ready, and in that moment Naruto made his decision. One more strike; another sin to the growing list. He had fought for so long now, had been thrown around at every conceivable possibility . . . That moment he didn't have it in him anymore to deny his family. In all this storm, in all this chaos, they were there. Had always been there, the anchor that made sure he wouldn't lose himself in madness.
It was a hard realization, but in this moment he realized it for the first time in full bright clarity, a brightness that could be dangerously blinding perhaps: He would follow them, no matter where they went.
"Oi, Shimura!" he hollered, and Danzō's head snapped around while Naruto, grimacing from the pain in his leg, righted his body as much as he could to become more visible among the rubble. "You banged any grannies lately?"
Danzō stopped, eyes flashing dangerously to Sakura, whose strongest Genjutsu took him barely a second to dispel.
But that was enough.
Sasuke rammed his sword through his body, bloody tip protruding from the front. Before anything more could happen he turned his wrist and sliced clean through to the left. A scarlet arc fountained out of Danzō's side, spattering all over Sasuke. He stood in the crimson rain and looked down at the slumped body, his face drawn with exhaustion, confusion and the grim realization of what he had just done.
Sakura lifted Naruto on her back, grunting and heaving and puffing air, and trudged with him over to Sasuke and Danzō's corpse. The body lay in a lake of blood. Tufts of black hair were colored red, and like a thriving underbrush seeking more space, his guts leaked out.
Why did you do it, you old bastard? Naruto thought, observing the scene from behind Sakura's shoulder. I knew you were a damn prick, but I thought you were from Konoha, too. And after all this invasion business I didn't even think you should have died, because you actually did your damn job. But this? You were Jiji's friend for God's sake. How could you do that?
He wondered and questioned, but dead men gave no answers. And maybe that was exactly the problem, he thought looking at the corpse. The death of Councilor Danzō, then, a last brick in the palace of absurdity Team Seven built for themselves. He thought that Danzō's expression wasn't much of anything. But why expect something in the first place, and even then, what? Happiness, for the struggle was over? Betrayal, since it could be called nothing else? Or acceptance after all, because whatever he did could have had no other consequence in the end? No, nothing of this fit the man, and so the expression of nothing was fitting in its own way. He denied them that last understanding and that, if nothing else, was entirely like him. The shinobi code said: The greatest weakness of a shinobi was to show emotion. Well, then, there had never lived a man who had embodied this philosophy more than him.
Slowly though the shock wore off, and Naruto found himself calculating his next steps as the rational part of him asserted itself. They had just murdered one of the highest officials in Konoha's hierarchy in a place that couldn't be more public if it tried. They had to deal with this, fast at that.
"Sakura," he said sharply. "Is anyone close to us?"
She concentrated, then shook her head. "Not right now. The next signature is two districts away. The fight must've scared them off."
"Good," Naruto said. "You got a scroll?"
"An empty one," Sasuke said.
Naruto took the scroll from him. "Lower me to the ground, Sakura. Yes—there, right there. Okay, stop, a bit to the left." He glanced over his shoulder. "Sasuke, make sure no one sees us here. If someone comes . . . " He trailed off, shook his head. Then, slowly, and with further instructions to Sakura, he lifted one of Sasori's rotor blades with the scroll as a makeshift glove. Palace of madness indeed; a bright light that blinded easily. "You don't have to look," he told Sakura.
Then Naruto began his work, hacking and slashing into the wound Sasuke had created, making it unidentifiable as being the result of a clean sword strike. The blood was all over their clothes and faces, and the sound of organs being halved turned their stomachs around, but he kept going until nothing could point to Sasuke anymore. Naruto directed Sakura to move him a bit forward, and he sliced off the arm housing all the Uchiha eyes at the shoulder, repeating the process of mutilating the flesh afterward.
"Crude," he said in a low voice, "but it works . . . I hope." To Sakura, "Let me down somewhere, I need to write. Anyone coming, Sasuke?"
Sakura lugged his body to a wooden beam rising from the rubble and propped him against it. There he spread the empty scroll on his lap. He turned it to get at the less bloody side and dipped a finger in Danzō's arm, which he had taken with him. Then he began to write in long squiggly waves. Three minutes later the storage seal held Sasuke's sword and Danzō's arm. Naruto threw the scroll at Sasuke.
"One seal of blood. Take good care of the arm if you want to keep it, and get rid of the sword once we're in Konoha."
"You okay, Sakura?"
"Not really," she said, "but I'll manage."
And only then, when he had that last confirmation, when the survival of his family had been secured, did he allow himself to lose control. He bent over, held his palm up to his mouth, though he could not stop the reaction anymore. He felt his stomach turn once more, then he vomited.
He kept retching until it felt as though he was fully empty, and he kept sitting propped against the wooden beam for minutes, Sakura wiping his sweaty hair out of his face.
"Listen," Sasuke suddenly said.
There was no complete silence—there never could be in a city of this size, destroyed or otherwise—but the sound of fighting had stopped.
"Finished at the docks, then," Naruto said, voice threadbare. "And Danzō took care of Senyaku, or he wouldn't have come to save us."
They grew silent and tried to listen. From the direction of the large reservoir peeking out just over the tallest houses came no noise either, which was either very good, or very bad.
"You think he made it?"
"He's Kakashi-sensei, of course he made it."
"Dobe's right. Man's a monster all on his own."
Naruto rotated his shoulder, massaging it for good measure, then reached both hands toward Sakura and waited for her to pick him up and heave him onto her shoulders.
"I don't think I've enough juice to go far," she said.
"Don't need far, just away from Danzō. Next street or so should be fine."
They climbed through the rubble with all the vitality their condition granted them, but when they reached the beginning of what looked like it had been a street prior to being eradicated, they heard an unwelcome noise—not fighting exactly, but the sound of shifting debris as if someone previously thought dead was coming alive.
They turned, and when they saw who arose under coughing and shudders, and bleeding and having lost an arm, Naruto pushed curse after curse out of his mouth.
"Fuck. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Fuck!"
Sasuke wasn't exactly steady on his feet, but he shared the sentiment.
How could they have forgotten about Gaara and that guy? And how was that guy even alive after eating his own bomb?
"Get Gaara, quick!" Naruto said. They set about to move, but Deidara was faster. He did not pay them any attention and pushed his remaining hand into the bag at his hip. The being that emerged a second later was so unfair, for a moment Naruto lacked words.
Deidara swung himself on a birdlike creature that, with strong flaps, lifted itself up into the air, Gaara secured on its back.
"Gaara!" Naruto shouted, but Gaara was unconscious.
Team Seven hurled whatever weaponry they had left after the bird, but Deidara dodged them with ease, swerving from side to side. Then he was past them and flew northeast over the city and toward the horizon, where Team Seven couldn't reach him anymore.
They tried to follow, but exhaustion demanding its tribute at last, Sakura fell to her knees and Naruto tumbled off her shoulder; and he couldn't help it, but he wept as he hit the ground, and he kept weeping even a minute later. He hammered his fist on the ground and thought on failure, and Sasuke and Sakura sat with him, and none of them said a word.
Back pressed against the wall of a former living room, Kakashi lay among heaps of rubble and furniture. Lava, cold and hard, encased his lower body and left arm up to the shoulder, trapping him in a black prison. He would like to escape, even had the chakra for it, but the rest of his body was hurt enough that moving was out of the question. Like many shinobi in this battle, he would have to wait for the teams scouring the city after the battle. Then, and only then, would he be rescued.
Across him lay Rōshi, unconscious, limbs stretched away from him, two fingers missing on his left hand. Kakashi had a good view of him and even though he couldn't move, he was perfectly happy with how things stood right now. The score was one to zero for him, as it should be after the grueling training with Tsunade.
Now and then he looked at the direction his team was in, but as he still felt their signatures—weak as they were—he was content to lean his head back and wait. He had bested a Jinchūriki, after all. That took quite a lot out of a man.
He also did not entertain the notion that Rōshi would wake up anytime soon. In their last exchange, as Rōshi's prison kept advancing, Kakashi had hit him with enough lightning to fry every cell in his body. A normal person would've died from that. Rōshi had fallen backward and started sleeping.
That's a Jinchūriki for you, Kakashi thought. Almost unfair. But not quite, because look at that: you won, Hatake. Now if only your team comes to rescue you, everything will be perfect.
But his team failed to show up, even five minutes later. Instead he felt the air currents shift, heard the wing strokes of a large bird, powerful, droning. A shadow sailed over him.
He had never seen a bird which could throw such a large shadow, so he looked up. The comfortable feeling of having won evaporated like mist. The bird, a monstrosity of clay, flew over him and lowered near Rōshi. On its back was the seemingly lifeless frame of the Kazekage.
Kakashi struggled to get out of the cooled lava, but his body failed to listen. He shouted and Deidara shot him a pained grimace, holding the stump of his shoulder before going back to ignoring him. Kakashi pressed with chakra against his prison, but Rōshi had been quite clever when he invented that Jutsu.
Deidara's bird gripped Rōshi in both claws and set off toward the horizon. Kakashi cursed as he redoubled his efforts to escape.
Deidara was past the first row of ruins, when a blast of wind tore at his bird's left wing. For a moment it looked like it would lose itself to the current of air and spiral toward the ground. Then it managed and swerved away from the blast. Deidara kept holding on to Gaara's body, which had almost slipped from the back during the maneuver.
On one of the last surviving roofs stood Temari swinging her fan. Another squall broke forth, but Deidara saw it coming this time and his bird dodged in time as it continued on its path out of the city.
Kakashi looked around frantically for something to help her with because he knew that like this she'd never make it. There was a kunai lying near him. He tried for the handle with his free arm but couldn't reach it.
Deidara was dodging another attack, now a row of houses farther.
Kakashi kept looking, left, right, left. Then he found it, and almost regretted finding it. A piece of sharpened wood hung from a support beam sticking out of the rubble. It was broken off diagonally. He stretched his torso as far as he could, opened his mouth and chomped down on the stick, tearing it away from the support beam.
Temari was screaming, pure fury behind her.
Kakashi spat the stick into his free hand so he could reach the blunt end with his mouth and have the sharp end stick out once he took it between his teeth again. His mouth a crossbow now, and tasting the half-burnt wood, wetting the blunt end with spit, he took aim. His Sharingan focused on the rear end of Deidara's bird.
One try. That was all he had.
He gathered wind chakra in his lungs, rotated it, amassing more and more, a snowball rolling down a slope. He felt it scrape against his insides, tearing at his flesh; and as the first bit of blood gathered in his mound and mixed with saliva, he knew he'd regret this later because controlling an element not your own without hand seals never turned out well.
Then he released his control of the wind inside him, felt it tear out first from his lungs and then past his lips in a violent storm, taking the wooden stake with it on its journey up the sky. Before the stake was even halfway up there with Deidara, Kakashi screamed in pain because the technique left its marks, as did he on the rubble which was now red with spatters of his blood.
The scream alerted Deidara, whose bird pushed down, out of the way of the stake which hurtled past him.
Then Temari's wind hit the bird frontally, and the bird was thrown back, Rōshi still secure in its claws. Deidara though held onto the bird with all his might and had no free hand to keep the Kazekage on board. Gaara slipped from the back. Before he hit the ground Temari jumped to catch him. She landed on the street below, clutching Gaara's body to her chest.
For a moment it looked as though Deidara would turn around, but then he looked at Rōshi and continued on his flight out of the city.
He was almost over Hajim's wall, when Kakashi blacked out.
Hatake Kakashi tried to move his facial muscles, but working up a smile in the backdrop of a destroyed city was not going well for him. Still he went for the attempt. To trick the brain into thinking you were happy, even if that was untrue, was an essential skill for any shinobi that had been involved in bloodshed on such a scale.
So the corners of his mouth kept twitching as an exercise in futility while his charges wore the weight of their recent experiences on their faces for the world to see. That, too, was important. Because if there weren't any of the young leaving a war disgusted and looking as much, then too many people would believe that wars were good things, filled with action, heroic deeds, compassion between comrades and maybe even love, an event that strengthened the bonds between friends, made brothers and sisters out of enemies—as long as those were on the same side of the line, of course.
Kakashi sat at a table, pen poised, cream-soaked bandages pressing at his throat. "What happened then?" he asked with a rasp, feeling the folds in his throat shudder at each syllable. "I need a bit more detail than 'He died.'"
Naruto eased out a sigh. "He walked up to him, cane-sword and all—"
"He was already injured?"
"Heavily," said Sakura. "He fought Senyaku before getting to us again. More than enough blood on his clothes already—not sure if all his though."
Senyaku—now, if there ever was a name that made smiling harder, it was that one. The man hadn't just found out about Kakashi way back during the time he was spying on Suna's invasion plans, but had also been the instigator of this whole mess. The poison, leading the rebel forces, the assassination of the Daimyo: Senyaku's list of transgressions went on for quite a bit. Though if his team were to be believed, the man had been controlled by Sasori for some time. How long was hard to tell.
"So, Naruto, Danzō went up to Sasori's body?"
"Yeah, he was still alive at that point though—Sasori, I mean." Naruto scratched his neck. He looked uncomfortable with the topic, but that was to be expected. Team Seven did what they could, but they had still watched their general die without being able to interfere. "He was controlling two puppets—his parents, probably; one got the same hair as him."
"But he was lying on the ground?"
"Never seen anything like it. Man's been a monster with his puppets. Those last two? Felt like fighting real people, sensei. Like . . . like if he knew them better than any other puppet, even that iron thrower of his."
"You fought them and Danzō kept to the puppeteer?"
"Pretty much. Had a lot of problems with those puppets so I can't say for sure what exactly happened on Danzō's end. I think another trick. Poison maybe? Or just a surprise to give Sasori the time to do what he did. He had a ton of these chest cavities for the fire hose, and knives and senbon."
"And you killed him in the end, Sasuke?"
Sasuke looked at him with a face carved out of granite. "Sakura and Naruto can hold their own for a while, doesn't matter which opponent, so I helped."
"What did you see?"
"Councilor Danzō had no chance of survival at that point." A frank assessment if there ever was one. "Sasori had wounded him with his blades. A lot of fresh blood around the stomach and he'd lost an arm. He wasn't screaming though. In pain, but not screaming."
"His arm…" Kakashi murmured. "There were no traces of his arm anywhere near the battle when the search teams went through the rubble."
High-ranking officials and especially the generals of a battle received funeral pyres large enough that their smoke blackened out the sky at night. The teams that combed the battlefields always took great care to search for any lost limb, which would then be stitched onto the corpse to send the person to the Shinigami in one piece. It was a superstition, but shinobi often believed that if you left the world without a limb, you'd still be missing it in the afterlife.
"I didn't see the arm when I was there with him."
"Wouldn't be surprised if Sasori did something with it," Naruto said. He leaned against a support beam, arms crossed and slightly swaying, eyes bloodshot. "The amount of shit he hid in his puppet was unreal."
"He wasn't classified as S-Rank for nothing," Kakashi said. "You did well here. All of you. And I mean that for both years you've been here."
He was still trying to smile. Hearing about this incident didn't make it any easier though. Knowing that his team, at different points in time, went up against three different S-Rankers left a heavy lump in his stomach that wouldn't vanish, no matter how often he saw them now—safe and sound, but also broken by that beast called war.
"Well, except the insubordination thing, eh?" Naruto laughed weakly, the vestige of a grin on his face as he shot his teammates a look. The grin went as fast as it had come, leaving the tiredness alone again.
"Insubordination?" Kakashi asked with a drawn eyebrow.
"Yeah, at the beginning, I think. Been here for a month or so at most. Some douchebags bullying children—Konoha douchebags. Convinced them to leave 'em alone, but Danzō wasn't happy with that—said he'd put it in our files."
"Ah," Kakashi said, nodding. He wouldn't have expected any different. They were quite headstrong when they wanted to be, especially so when they saw something they perceived as injustice. "Well, I've got your files right here, and there's nothing in it—your official records are as clean as always."
"Did he forget it?" Sakura asked.
"Danzō never forgot anything," Kakashi said. "But enough of that. Back to the fight: he was dying and you did what, Sasuke?"
"He was distracted—Danzō did something. I couldn't see what." Sasuke shrugged his shoulders stiffly. "I used that moment to kill him. Sword through the heart. He died instantly after that."
Kakashi hummed, wrote a few more lines on the scroll. "That's all then, I'd say." He rolled up the paper and sealed it. "I'll send this to the Hokage with the other reports. He'll want to know about this."
"Is . . . Do we continue to fight in Suna now?" asked Sakura. "There's still the capital and Iho's brother, and—"
"You don't—None of you will, for now."
Naruto sighed. "We're being sent to the northern border?"
The three looked so tired, it made his stomach fold in on itself. It was a strange form of protectiveness that welled up inside him at the sight. "That's not going to happen either—not now, at least." He lifted another scroll from a staple and presented it to them on his flat palm. "You've been heavily injured—injuries which allow for full recuperation, but only with enough time to heal. Tsunade herself has verified this—though she isn't here just yet. She will be though, at least in writing."
Their expressions eased at that, and Kakashi found that he liked this view.
"Installing Iho as the Daimyo won't be as hard as you believe anyway, so don't worry too much about it," Kakashi continued. "Sawada is current regent through regicide—by now enough people know this, and with all the shinobi gone that supported his rule he won't be able to silence his opposition anymore. I heard his sister broke out of the palace the moment the last shinobi left for Hajim, and she's been spreading the word about what happened—probably more effective than Iho in any case."
"That's good to hear," Sakura said, and she seemed genuinely pleased.
After a beat of silence Naruto asked, "What happens now? We stay at Hajim?"
"I think we overstayed our welcome here . . . No, we'll wait until we combed the city for the last bodies then move back to Suna with the main force. There you'll stay and rest."
A wind swept through the tent, ruffling the fabric and carrying inside the scent of roasted pork and booze, and the bellowing and laughter of drunken people. On command, their stomachs growled. Though it was a sad growl, because neither looked like they would want to eat any time soon.
"You three should be at the feast. You've earned it." A victory feast, as usual, was held after a major battle. How much the end of this could really be called a victory though was questionable. "Team Seven, dismissed."
They straightened up, saluted once, then turned to leave.
"See you around, sensei."
"Don't drink too much," Kakashi said, looking up from the scroll, but they were already gone. Still he said to the empty room, "I'm proud of you," before reading over the reports a last time.
He had no illusions about the nature of the favoritism he showed his team. He doubted the Hokage would see it as anything else either. But as unfair as it was to the other people in this army, Kakashi did not care about being unfair.
A large part of the forces would be sent to be redistributed in the next month, but there might still be a few unfriendly elements lurking in the desert—you never knew with those rebels. That was a prime reason for the leader of an army and a few capable subordinates to stay until the country was really, well and truly pacified.
In that time he'd train with his team as much as he could. And there was a subtle difference between training a team and training with it.
In any case, none of them would leave this place without a field promotion, though he had abstained from telling them just then. He did not think they would have cared much for it.
One by one, Kakashi sealed all the scrolls into a bigger one which would be delivered to the Hokage as soon as possible.
In the end he wasn't their instructor anymore, he told himself, pushing the matrix scroll in the hands of a waiting courier outside the tent. But that was okay, because they had grown up—all three of them. And what's important, what made all this really bearable, was the knowledge that a teacher faded, but never vanished entirely, not as long as his teachings were remembered by those he had taught.
And he wondered if that was how Minato must have felt when he had made Jōnin, or how the Hokage had felt once Hanzō titled his team as the Sannin.
Izumo appeared beside him. He threw a bottle at him and Kakashi caught it with ease from the ANBU-that-wasn't-right-now. Then they drank as the night began to settle and still the camp fires burned high and the noise swelled farther as people celebrated the death of thousands and the ruin of a city.
The last thought Kakashi gave into, before trying to forget with all his might and the help of his bottle, was that this war—the whole of it—was a feast for the depraved and that becoming a shinobi should be forbidden to anyone young and easy to influence, because their minds were not firm, yet their convictions far too strong, and all that led to in the end was betrayal, lies, and death.
Then oblivion came calling and, leaning into the embrace of sake djinns, he let himself be swept away; because if you couldn't convince yourself to smile, blunting the mind and forgetting seemed just as valid.
The sky was streaked with clouds, cream and white and copper; and over Wind Country settled the heat like a warm blanket to lull the newborn nation and the village of Suna into sleep, two twins in a crib of destitution and ash.
Sweat beading down his temples, Gaara walked the streets of Suna a week after the battle of Hajim.
There was the heady smell of perfume as he went on, past the street of red and brothels and women flashing skin and men doing the same, bringing joy to whoever needed it in times where everyone needed something; past the food vendors now stocked as the country rearranged itself; and past the smell of Rakaji mixed with the smoke of pipes and spices and the stench of sweat and the city.
They celebrated the end. They celebrated the beginning.
He found that for what had happened they were celebrating entirely too much.
Then he was past the district of celebration, which come morning would be the district of sleeping people and waste and then, come evening, of music and dance again. His steps led him up the stairs to the plaza of tiles, now rebuilt, and from there to the balloon-shaped tower of the Kazekage.
Sakura was there, waiting on him. She stood observing the portraits of his predecessors, which hung to the side of his desk.
"Gaara," she said, turning.
Gaara tilted his head. "Do I come at a bad time?"
"Well, it's your office." She laughed; it sounded forced. "I . . . I've been waiting here for you, because I have a favor to ask. Got some time?"
He didn't, not really. There was still a lot to prepare.
Tomorrow he would lead a small group of shinobi past the Sweeping Mountains to liberate Sukoru. Temari would be with him on her last official mission as a shinobi of Suna. And from that moment on, she would stay with Iho, advising him and being the link between Suna and the court, just not in an official capacity. That was impossible after she had fought in the rebellion, and giving this much concession at all made him appear weak already. And still it had felt good to feel her arms around him for the first time he could remember, and feel an embrace that seemed free of fear, from his family no less. He felt himself smile at the memory, even if there was also always now the thought of Kankuro and how his brother had ended in the end.
Shaking himself from these thoughts, he turned his attention back to Sakura.
" . . . I have time, yes," he said. "Is there a problem?"
Sakura hesitated. Then, "I need you to look something up in a file for me. Without a Kazekage the vaults stayed sealed, but you're Kazekage now, so you should have the clearance for that."
"I know it's asking much, but . . . please? It's important to me."
Gaara nodded wordlessly. He began moving for the record chamber, Sakura following.
"What do you need, Sakura? I cannot have you enter the chamber, but I am willing to search myself for what you seek."
"I . . . of course, I understand." Sakura rubbed her right arm awkwardly. "It's about my mother. She was killed here in Suna and I think I killed the bastard who did it. No, I know it. All I want is . . . " For a moment she trailed off. "What I want is assurance. I want to be sure that killing Sasori was the end of this."
Gaara glanced at her. "Sasori of the Sand killed your mother?"
"Yes. I asked around in Suna, you know? It was a while ago, and it fits. All of it. The puppets, the hair. God, I'm so glad that bastard's dead, Gaara." And her expression brightened with relief, as if the word dead brought life to her face. "I just want to know if that's the end. I mean, I do know it. But I want to be sure."
He nodded along.
They reached the record chamber, where two Suna Genin stood guard before the vault. They snapped to attention as Gaara came into view.
"Stay here," he said to Sakura. He pressed his palm on the stone wall, and went inside after the seals stopped glowing.
The door closed behind him with the sound of stone scraping against stone. Privacy seals washed over him in waves as he leaned against the cool wall inside, surprised that his heart was beating a tattoo in his chest. Unsteady. Fast. His breath came in rapid expulsions. In. Out. He staggered forward, almost fell, before gripping the edge of a shelf and steadying himself.
Sasori of the Sand had left the village years before Sakura's birth.
Gaara reached for his chest, hand crooked, as if gripping his heart. What was this feeling? The fabric of his robe twisted and crumpled in his clenched fist, and he stumbled on through the rows of records. He half-hung from the shelves, wondering about this new feeling inside him which spread like wildfire and was jumbling his thoughts.
He stopped before a shelf, fingers brushing over scrolls, twitching as if plagued by arthritis. He pulled one out, unfurled it, read. He threw it to the ground. The next scroll came, and a third, a fourth. The shelf lost more and more, grew emptier by the minute. His search became more frantic as he worked from top to bottom, from now to the past of years best left forgotten.
And then, almost at the end, he found it. He read the scroll, memories flashing before his eyes. He saw himself and a young boy around his age. They were playing with a pair of puppets from the boy, who did not know about the evil Gaara held inside him at all times. They played and they laughed and the traders around them did the same because they, too, knew nothing.
And as they imagined battles between their two puppets, grand fights of epic scale, moving in the shadow of a large acacia with gnarly wood and smelling slightly of sweet bread, laughing on, steady on, his father's men came for the third time in his short life and tried to kill him. One assassin missed with his throw. The shuriken wasn't caught by the sand that shielded Gaara and surrounded by tearing wind it ripped the puppets apart and the hand of the boy with it. The boy shrieked, and Gaara saw only the blood and his new friend and the puppets stained red, and there was a voice inside him, and then came the sand, so much of it that it engulfed all, smothering them, like a deranged mother would smother bothersome children with a blanket.
And he remembered, Mother had been angry that day. So very, very angry.
His chest heaved as he was sucked back into reality. The scroll fell from his loose grasp, hitting the ground and rolling across the floor. He wondered how he would tell Sakura the truth. Then he decided that at the same time he must but couldn't. She had been the first to accept him. Naruto came afterward. But she—
How could he tell her that it was him who had killed her mother?
The acceptance from her and her team was what had kept him sane after the voice in his head had died. She had made him feel not the monster he was, but the human he sought to become.
Time passed. An eternity, a second; an hour, a minute. At last he pushed himself from the floor, smoothed his clothes, and dragged himself back to the door. He threw the heap of thrown-out scrolls a last look, before turning completely.
Outside, Sakura waited on him.
He looked at her, just looked. A moment came and went, then he said, "You killed him."
Sakura's face brightened even more than before. Having lost the weight on her shoulders at last, she straightened before jumping up to him and closing her arms around him as the Genin busied themselves with looking away, smiling.
He stared at the other end of the wall and murmured over her shoulder, "I'm sorry about your mother."
And Sakura still hugged him fiercely and said, "Thank you, Gaara." Then, letting go and winking, "I know you'll be busy come tomorrow, so I better leave you to your preparations. See you around, Kazekage-sama."
Then she was gone, taking her smile with her.
And Gaara still had no name for the feeling in his gut, but maybe all this was the penance for who he was.
Down below, in the streets of Suna, the people kept celebrating.
The night stood like a monument to the sleeping souls of Suna, and Team Seven used the cover of darkness to their advantage, struggling forward through the strong gusts of wind sweeping around the village. The feasts had stopped two days ago as the winds had picked up. At times the sky now looked like the back of an old veteran, furrowed with white scars as thunder shattered the sky into pieces of black ink.
"Couldn't have asked for better weather," Naruto said as they arrived at the Shard Wall just outside the village. "No one's here to bother us."
Leaning against the wall, Sakura asked, "So you're really doing this?"
"Of course. You're helping by the way, standing guard and all. If necessary you can use a Genjutsu to deter unwanted elements."
"That sounds like you want her to kill them," Sasuke said, arms crossed.
"Which is beside the point anyway," Sakura said, "because I already layered a few illusions when we arrived. You didn't notice that?"
"My bad." Naruto glanced at her. "I'm a bit preoccupied with planning the layout, so that's my excuse right there." He bit his lip, looking up the Shard Wall, and took the measures in his mind. Then, large brush in hand, he turned to Sakura, pointing at her—brush dribbling with black color. "Those illusions make you complicit, by the way. You're now officially involved in this."
Naruto sensed another illusion spring up around the area and traced it back to Sasuke.
"That's sweet of you," Naruto said.
"Get to work."
As Sasuke and Sakura stood guard below, Naruto plunged the huge brush into the bucket with ink. Sticking to the Shard Wall, he began what must look to outward eyes like the scribbles of a child. He looped here and there, swerved around the wall with precision and covered the other side, too. It was hard work. The light was bad and only the occasional lightning illuminated the complexity of his achievement.
After an hour he stopped and returned to the ground. The bucket was empty.
"Done?" asked Sakura.
"Pretty much. Let's go. We shouldn't be here when they notice."
So they went toward Suna, and Sakura and Sasuke let their illusions fall away as they walked. Once inside the village, they climbed one of the now repaired houses—one of the taller structures in the village—to get a good view.
"You really want to do that?"
"You start repeating yourself, Sakura."
Sakura hummed thoughtfully. "Just thought the question bears asking again. You know, with committing a crime and all that. But don't let me stop you."
"As if this would be the worst one."
A heavy silence settled on them. Then Sasuke grunted. "Stop talking, and do it."
"Keep your panties on, I'm doing it already…Three, Two, One—" Naruto's hand shifted into the rat seal. "Fuin: Kai!"
For an instant the Shard Wall lit up in blue, blinding in the black of night. Every scribble, every line, every loop was visible against the backdrop of the wall. The moment passed as the light flashed over their faces. The Shard Wall shrieked. It turned into a thunder, a roar that tore the silence apart.
Blue lines changed place with the red and white flash of an explosion, and the ground trembled. Already they heard the dull thuds of pieces, large and small, raining and hitting the sand below. The strong wind carried the dust into every direction.
"Well," Naruto said, "that's that."
"And you're sure that's wise?"
Naruto would have laughed, but the reason for this made it quite impossible. "Given our situation it's the farthest away from wise you can get, Sakura. But fuck if I let that thing stand there to remind them for all eternity that we've been here and what our war's done to them."
"Two cities," she murmured.
"It's almost comical, don't you think? All we did to reach Hajim in time was worth shit for those people. We didn't stop the poison in time, and even if we had, you know what happened later. Fighting in that city did a more thorough job than any poison could've. So, Kakashi's right. They have well and truly enough of us. No need to remind them."
"It's time," Sasuke said.
They jumped down the roof and onto the street, falling in line with a dozen other shinobi hastening to the scene. There they met Izumo, who had his arms crossed and was eying what was now a field of shards.
"No enemy close right now," he told the assembled shinobi after a few minutes of searching and walking the perimeter. Then, "Team Seven, you're going to investigate this. Find out who did this."
All three saluted, shouting a unified, "Hai!" Slowly but surely the shinobi around them left the site to the now appointed investigators. Not that someone would've found a trace leading to them even if Izumo had chosen different people.
First failed mission for the record then, Naruto thought, bending down and picking up a small piece of black obsidian sticking out from the sand.
"I think I'll keep this."
"Getting sentimental now that it's gone?"
"It was a good job. And if they should forget, then we sure as hell should remember."
Sakura picked up her own piece, then, and a second which she lobbed at Sasuke. "I think I get Jiraiya-sensei now," she said, easing out a sigh. "War's a shit fulltime occupation. You can't really leave this place without getting that . . . And I know it's not all that realistic what he says, but maybe trying for it makes this whole deal better."
Maybe. Trying was, in any case, all they could do anyway. At length they walked back to the village. Investigating the field could wait another night—the perpetrators wouldn't run away from them—and drinking sounded like a great idea right about now.
Halfway through the gate, Naruto slung his left arm around Sasuke's shoulder. A moment later he reached with his other arm for Sakura and took her hand lightly in his own; together they kept walking.
Because to the very end, the underlying nature of this country held true. In black times like these you sought joy wherever you could find it, and maybe, if you looked long and hard enough, you would find light eventually.
AN: Well, folks, that's it; another part of the tale has come to a close. It was a wonderful time in which I wrote Lines in the Sand, and I hope that at least some of the excitement I felt bled into the story itself. I hope that you found some of it yourself, and that in this sense we connected. I hope that you liked the story and the characters, the fights and the tension I tried to evoke, the setting of Wind Country, the world, the prose . . . in short, I hope you enjoyed yourself the same way I did while writing.
If that's not fully true, that's okay, of course. That you're reading this means you made it to this point, so at least some things must have grabbed your attention. To you, I leave the words "I'm sorry." I tried my hardest to bring this story on paper as best I could, and this is what came around in the attempt.
Anyway, I thank everyone for reading the story and enduring the verbiage in these ANs. Beside any comment you want to leave, here's a last batch of questions for you, if you'd like to answer them: what character/scene/moment did you like the most? What fight did you enjoy? What kind of world-building or plot? Likewise, what didn't you like? Hit me, I promise I can take it—even if it might hurt.
Now, before I sign out, there's a last issue I want to direct your attention to: I wrote a short story, Tessen, that also plays in the Naruto verse and utilizes a different narrative structure than most of my other stories. If you want to read something more recent, just hop over to my profile and click yourself into another adventure (admittedly a short one).
Correcting myself here, now comes the truly last issue: My gratitude to the fantastic crew over at DLP. Their advice and editing services made this a much better read than it could otherwise have been, so the last word should go to them. Thanks, guys!