Disclaimer: The style of warfare described in this fic is significantly inspired by hey-diddle-diddle's magnificent Tryin' to get to Heaven. There have been some problems in this fandom lately concerning the plagiarism of other writer's fanworks, so I thought I'd mention that no such abuse is intended here. Just your usual shameless recc. Everything else is mine, except for the stuff that's Kishimoto's.
So for Kiki, for inspiration and proof reading (thank you!) and, asall my Sakumo drabbles are, for sna.
'And win or lose, just that you choose; this little war is what kills you.
And either or, it's that this war is maybe also what thrills you.'
Ani DiFranco, Reckoning
From the air – Sakumo supposed, as he sent another messenger bird back into flight – it was probably beautiful.
He imagined it looked like the forging of great rivers; snaking trenches cutting between trees and clearings, shaping the earth itself in dance-like advances and flirtatious evasions. Sakumo imagined that there was a party in the bright streams of chakra; music in the whistle of jutsu-bombs and shouted commands; festivity in the crimson invitations that covered every guest. Sakumo hadn't met anyone so far who hadn't received a gift from this great ninja knees up: whether a new scar or a kunai wound, a fractured bone, concussive bruise; or just in the deep weariness that seemed to dampen the very folds of their movements.
Sakumo was getting too old for parties like these. The thought amused him, and he smirked as he repeated it to the kids under his command, watching the huddled Chuunin turn wide, wet eyes towards him. Sakumo was a legend, he could almost see the thought process run its course through the boys' quaking little skulls, and Konoha's legends are nuts.
'Don't you worry, kid,' Sakumo mumbled to one of them, distracted by the colours dancing across their makeshift no-nin's land. He couldn't see the medics, anymore. Tsunade had ordered them all farther back, escapingto some semblance of safety as the reserve trenches so gradually became the front line. The idea of lines in a shinobi war confounded even Sakumo, and Hatake Logic wasn't exactly renowned for its obvious sensibility. 'We're just gonna hold for a little longer.'
The boy nodded fearfully as his commander wandered down the lines, and Sakumo wondered where all the soldiers had gone.
A whoop and spray of dirt announced Jiraiya's harried arrival, and although Sakumo couldn't hear a single word above the din of fireworks he could see the command clear enough.
'Hit the floor,' he roared as the Sannin did, grabbing a Chuunin by the head and half suffocating him in his effort to force the boy to the dusty ground. The barrage passed quickly, and Sakumo idly dusted the kid off as he examined the bags beneath Jiraiya's beady eyes. 'Yo,' he said, not bothering to hide the frown that lingered beneath the dusty mask on his face.
'How's it going?' Jiraiya asked, and a few of Sakumo's Chuunin smiled at their superiors' greeting, just a little. Sakumo wondered how he could encourage that small happiness, but the chill whistle of another bomb a few sections down the line forced him to give up the feeble hope of pleasing his kids in favour of keeping them alive a little longer. Most of us are dead or dying, he wanted to tell Jiraiya, we're out of long-range ammo, and none of these kids have enough chakra between them for a decent jutsu attack. It's over now, for them, Sakumo wanted explain, but that was a lie. It had been over for hours.
'We're partying pretty hard,' he said instead. 'What's the news?'
Jiraiya held a filthy slip of scroll between his fingers, grinning at the surprised that briefly lit his friend's pale eyes. Sakumo had sent the mini report to the Hokage's tower hours before; the cold account of his command's situation, the lists of dead and wounded, all clamped tight in shaking talons, and so much of nothing had happened since that it seemed a lifetime ago.
Squad 7: Holding pos. under heavy fire, twenty-three hours cont. Count: 9d, 5w of 25. Back up requested + lunch if poss. bored of ration bars.
'Orochimaru-kun was gonna come instead,' Jiraiya was saying, and Sakumo looked up from the crumpled scrap of paper – an eerie echo of himself in these dark times – to see Jiraiya shaking a large brown bag, and he couldn't help but laugh. 'But we figured he'd bring extra ration bars just to spite you.'
Instead, under a sky raining sparks of Catherine's wheels, Squad 7 dined on Jiraiya's stickyrice cakes.
'The Professor's got a mission for us,' the Sannin announced, cool as steel, as the Chuunin struggled into sleep around their commanders. Sakumo dug through his pockets aimlessly, fidgeting in a way he never had before the war. 'We're to get behind their lines, do some damage to their reserves.'
'They're too well equipped,' stated Sakumo, sounding more like a soldier than ever. He was good, now, at putting the mission first. He'd even started to do as he was told. 'They'll retaliate. The kids up here will be slaughtered.'
'That's why we're getting them out.' Jiraiya flipped a scroll case, over and over. 'We're pretty evenly matched, them and us. I know it doesn't seem that way at this end…'
Sakumo didn't buy it, but couldn't think of a point to argue. He knew Konoha had many strong, skilled ninja, but she just didn't have the numbers. She didn't even have a reserve line, anymore. But there was no point in trying; he just ran one calloused thumb across the photograph in his pocket, and bit down hard on the thought of the faces on it.
'So when do we move?' Sakumo asked, and Jiraiya looked, for a second, as scared as he felt.
'Orochimaru's developed another poison,' he sighed. 'Highly toxic, but easily visible. Anti-toxin's been delivered to our side already.'
'The rice cakes?' They shared a smirk, and Sakumo suddenly understood why they'd been so sickly. 'And there was I, doubting your culinary genius.'
'The poison's the signal, and the cover. We go when it's released.' Jiraiya was still flipping his scroll case, ignoring his friend's quip, and Sakumo watched his eyes dart guiltily across the night's bright sky. He shuddered at the thought of Orochimaru's poisons, wondered whether if was entirelysane to feel grateful that one of your own allies had deigned to provide an antidote, as well.
It was funny, in a way, how many different reasons there were to fight. Sakumo fought because he couldn't sit still on the sidelines and hope for the best, Tsunade fought because it was in her blood. Jiraiya fought to keep his precious people safe, and Orochimaru, Sakumo suspected, just hungered for the thrill. He was sliding away from them – slithering, perhaps – and Sakumo didn't imagine that any of them were safe anymore, where Orochimaru was concerned. 'He makes his own choices, Jiraiya. We can't save everyone.'
'I know,' Jiraiya admitted; his eyes solemn. His grin, when it eventually came, was all fire. 'But we can try.'
'I'm beginning to get the feeling we're being fucked,' Jiraiya hissed, hours later, though it was hard to hear past the tinny ringing in Sakumo's ears.
He didn't reply, still slightly dazed from the mindless violence of the last barrage. It was as if they'd all given up on training, finesse, skill and strategy. One of the braver Chuunin had spent desperate minutes gathering clumps of dirt into mud-balls for the Toad Sannin to jutsu into weapons, and Sakumo had almost lost an arm trying to throw the katon-hardened balls across the trenches.
It had been fruitless, at best; and there was still no sign of Orochimaru's killer toxin.
'We've got to clear these trenches before we can break through theirs. What is that bastard playing at?' The Sannin's breath was ragged, as intimate as a whisper as he peered out into the now-silent murk. Sakumo just shifted slightly where he lounged, listless against a wall of dirt and cloth (and maybe flesh, but nobody mentioned that), running a rough cloth across a blade he hadn't used in a week.
'We can't wait any longer,' he growled, glancing to his right where one of the elder Chuunin of his command lay writhing; clutching at a leg that wasn't there anymore, wrenching a gut that wasn't holding itself together all too well. He was dying, and giving away their location with his moans. 'Get the boys together and start moving out. I'll see to the dying.'
It was a simple enough command, Sakumo thought. There was only one Chuunin still dying, five left alive and walking. The rest were dead. It took a long moment for Jiraiya to move, and when he did the shrewd look in his eyes was piercing and perturbed.
'We won't get another chance like this, Jiraiya!' Sakumo was almost screeching; tense and deadly and hushed. 'We have to move before they can regroup!'
Logic won out, and Jiraiya hurried his search to find the walking Chuunin some way out of their hole in the ground. Sakumo moved the other way, silently following the scent of charred flesh, ushering his troops along as he did. It seemed like a long path to where a sandy-haired Chuunin lay, moaning through the spasms that shocked his broad frame. Sakumo didn't say anything – couldn't – but sat beside the boy as he tried to speak.
'Hatake-sama!' his puppy-eyes shined feverishly as he groped for Sakumo's hand, finding a finger and tugging weakly at the material of his glove. 'I don't want…don't want to…'
'Alright,' Sakumo soothed, hiding his disgust at the choice he'd have to make, the choice that he was making. 'It's alright.'
Sakumo caught up with his small squad as they were leaving a battered strip of woodland above two of the harshest battles. He quickly wished them luck, clapped each bruised shoulder with a bloody hand, and sat back on his heels beneath the tree Jiraiya had perched in.
'Thought you were a goner when I heard the fireworks,' announced Jiraiya, leaves rustling around him accusingly. Sakumo blanched, scratched at his head, thought of the straw-haired boy he'd left dying in the trenches below, drawing jutsu and weaponry away from the rest of their team like some fallen Scarecrow. The image chilled Sakumo to the hilt.
'They weren't aiming at me,' he replied truthfully. Jiraiya dropped from his branch, crouching in the dirt before his friend for a moment, intrigued and slightly disgusted, and Sakumo was certain that every bad choice he'd ever made was somehow plastered upon his covered face. 'You can't save everyone, Jiraiya.'
For once, the Sannin didn't argue, just gestured about the sloping hill. 'Orochimaru's dropped the toxin,' he said, surveying the manic battlefield as it sprawled out around them. 'That's our cue to start moving.'
'It's pretty,' breathed Sakumo, and he meant it. The poison drifted wildly upon the air, violet wisps of gas that choked the enemy landscape. The quickest of Orochimaru's deadly skills, bruise-purple as it seeped across the landscape, like ghostly heather. He'd been right, after all: the fields seemed beautiful from above.
'Too fruity for me,' scoffed Jiraiya, but Sakumo could see his broad bulk trembling as he spoke. 'He's not really doing any of the work. He's not giving them anything. Just kicking back and watching them die. It's pathetic.'
For a moment, they just watched the poison spread like dry ice, making the music of the battle field that much more manic. Sakumo wondered what the shine of his chakra would look like through that smog – glittering like a disco ball.
'Time to go,' growled Jiraiya, readying a weapon-scroll. Sakumo unsheathed his tanto in one thunderous, grating movement, and they ran to join the party.