Title: Ashes, Ashes
Summary: Naruto finds a scroll and has a brilliant idea.
Disclaimer: Naruto is the property of Kishimoto Masashi. This story used to be posted here when my penname was The Engine Driver.
He finds the scroll by complete accident while rifling through the burnt rubbles that were once the village of Otogakure. When first he sees the charred goatskin among the broken tiles and ashes, he doesn't quite recognize it for what it is, only noticing that the item has somehow managed to escape the flame relatively unharmed.
Later, he will wonder what strange impulse has seized him then, guiding his hand inexorably towards the blackened roll of bamboo and skin.
A sudden movement from behind startles him, and he tightens his grip around the scroll as if by some inborn instinct.
"Any more bodies under there?" Just a random ANBU, faceless behind the painted mask. "That area used to be Orochimaru's personal chamber."
"Nothing else to be found here," he answers, slipping the scroll into the folds of his flak jacket and making a show of dusting off his hands. The ANBU nods once, and walks off to deliver his report.
Naruto allows himself to breathe a sigh of relief. Nobody knows.
He doesn't remember what first put the thought into his head.
Upon returning from Rice Field Country, he collapses heavily onto his bed, not even bothering to peel off his blood-caked clothes, and sleeps like the dead for twenty-eight hours.
When he wakes, a bright beam of sunlight is sifting through a gap in the curtains, pouring across the sheets and bleeding soft gold into the back of his eyelids. Pushing himself up groggily, he reaches down to unzip his jacket, and freezes when his fingers brush against a small cylinder.
Slowly, he pulls the scroll from its hiding place, and unrolls it over the blanket, smearing black soot all over the linen surface.
The content has also survived the fire. It takes a moment for his brain to process the curly text that spreads before his eyes. When it has, he silently gets to his feet, walks out onto the balcony, and lights a cigarette.
The scroll sits on his dining table for three days, in plain view from his position lying sideway on the bed.
Idly, but persistently, a germ of an idea has taken hold in the back of his mind, so wild and unprecedented that he wonders if someone has slipped something into his morning coffee.
The silence of his apartment is a deceptive state. Whenever he closes his eyes, he can hear the whispering of voices carrying secrets only known to him, can feel the creeping of ghostly fingers crawling on his skin, becoming more corporeal with each passing hour.
By the fourth day, he has come to a decision.
The task turns out to be much more difficult than he anticipated. Not for the first time in his life, he bitterly curses his lack of industry and sub par performance back in the days of the Ninja Academy.
Then again, it would probably take more than Iruka-sensei's soporific lectures to help decipher the conundrum he currently has at hand.
He decides that what he needs is more time.
"What do you mean you want to quit taking missions?" Tsunade questions him incredulously over a tottering mountain of paperwork.
"Just for a few months," he says quickly, scratching the back of his head. "I just need some time to myself. Do some thinking, you know?"
The lie works beautifully; Tsunade's scowl instantly melts into a sympathetic frown.
"Alright. But you have to make sure to take care of yourself." She pauses, then adds, "And don't you dare beat yourself up over… you know what I'm talking about."
"I know," he says, "Thanks a lot, baa-chan." He tosses her a convincing smile, and steps out of the office.
That day, on his way home, he stops by the local bookstore and empties his wallet for various books and scrolls on every summoning technique known to shinobi. Upon arriving at his apartment, he immediately sets about turning his tiny bedroom into a research facility.
Not until much later does the humor of the situation occur to him.
This is his new-and-improved daily schedule:
Gets up in the morning at first light. Violently kills alarm clock. Lights his first cigarette of the day. Spends approximately 10.5 seconds staring unfocusedly at the curling smoke.
Boils water for instant ramen, and waits for the coffee to brew. Wolfs down ramen, and pours himself a large mug of thick black coffee. Drags his feet back into the bedroom and sits down at his makeshift desk.
Opens his first textbook/scroll/pamphlet of the day and reads, reads, reads until his eyes blur with stabbing shards of exhaustion.
Many cigarettes and mugs of coffee later, the clock merrily announces the current time: three hours till dawn.
Only then does he crawl back into his blankets and proceed to black out until the next morning, when the ritual would begin anew.
Once in awhile, the coffee would lose its touch and he would topple over right in the middle of some esoteric scroll or other, helplessly caught in the throes of a fitful REM sleep.
In general, he tries very hard to avoid these brief lapses of unconsciousness, for fear that they might plague him with dreams of events that may or may not have ever happened.
Observe one such incident:
"You'd better wake up now," a phantom voice murmurs softly as phantom lips brush tingling butterfly kisses on the nape of his neck.
He rolls over onto his back with a petulant groan, but doesn't open his eyes. The phantom voice snickers.
"I don't wanna," he mumbles sleepily, dragging the starchy cotton blanket over his head. It gets pulled away immediately. "Five more minutes…"
"Idiot." Now the kisses are moving to the hollow of his throat. He mewls contentedly, leaning into the touch as strong teeth begin nibbling at his skin, lingering at a sensitive spot just below the jugular. His body feels light as air, swimming gloriously in nebulous ether.
"I have to go." The words are whispered into the juncture of his shoulder.
Still not opening his eyes, he mutters sullenly, savoring a scratchy sensation as unruly strands of hair tickle his chin, "You always have to leave."
The presence removes itself from his skin with a low chuckle. "Naruto…"
And then he wakes with a start, to find that he has knocked over his empty mug, and that the wooden spine of the journal ("Summoning for the Adventurous Shinobi") he has been using as a pillow has left a red imprint on his cheek. In that disoriented state, he takes a second to look around at his surrounding.
No cotton blankets. No cheap motel rooms with overflowing ashtrays on the borders of Lightning Country. And definitely no phantom voices with wet, papery kisses.
Time for more coffee. Better make it extra, extra black, enough to drown himself in.
On a cloudy Thursday morning, three weeks into his research, he is jolted out of his stupor by the sound of insistent knocking. He had exactly three minutes to gather up all his reading materials and hastily shove them out of sight under his bed before the door bangs open and Sakura stalks into the room.
With one sweeping glance, she takes in the chaos of the apartment—the ubiquitous dirty paper ramen cups and discarded cigarette butts—and Naruto's emaciated, panda-eyed appearance. Then she steps forward, bridging their distance in three brisk strides, and pulls him up roughly by the collars of his nightshirt.
"What the hell are you doing to yourself?" Sakura grounds out between tightly clenched teeth.
He shifts nervously beneath her grasp. "Sakura-chan! What brings you here?"
She ignores him. "When was the last time you slept?"
On a book somewhere. It was nice. "I don't know what you're talking about."
Sakura rolls her eyes and releases him. Right before she pulls him into a bone-melting embrace.
"Sa…Sakura-chan?" Her arms are warm and firm. Damn, he's so tired.
"Naruto," Sakura chokes, her voice oddly watery. "You can't keep blaming yourself. It wasn't your fault."
But you have no idea, Sakura, no idea at all.
"Don't worry, Sakura-chan," he assuages, patting her back comfortingly. "Look, I'm just taking some time off to improve my skills…"
Thank Kami-sama he's a fast-talker. In five minutes, he's slapped an uneasy smile back on her face. Another ten minutes, and they're talking about the weather and the antics of Sakura's impassioned suitor, Rock Lee. Twenty minutes later, she exits his apartment with a cheery promise to come back the next day to bring food and cleaning supplies.
The moment her shock of pink hair disappears behind a building, he slams the door shut and, sagging heavily against its cold surface, proceeds to bury his head in his hands.
He resolves to buy a better lock for his front door that very afternoon.
Other well-meaning friends come after him, all armed with many questions of the wrong sort. He fends them off with excuses that he won't remember later: apologetic shrugs, shakes of head, brandishing of fists. They work all the same, and protect him from the smothering weight of light-footed pity.
He knows he doesn't deserve it.
He doesn't come out of the house much these days. He has his reasons. Reasons other than his consuming research.
Whenever he walks down the street, he always imagines that a hundred pairs of eyes are staring at his back, boring needles through his skin. The paranoia burns at his stomach like a corrosive, eating at his insides until he feels he might lose his mind.
Nobody knows, he reminds himself. Only me. I was the only one there. Then he goes home and vomits up a sinkful of bile and acid.
It doesn't help that his research seems to have hit an insuperable dead-end. By the end of the second month, he's finally ready to admit to himself that he needs help.
Luckily, he knows just the person to provide it.
"Are you out of your mind?" Jiraiya roars, his eyes growing round as saucers.
"Ero-sennin," he pleads.
"Kid, I don't know where you even got the idea, but you'd better get it out of your head before I rip you a new one," the Sannin threatens. "Do you even realize what you're suggesting?"
Naruto fixes his teacher with a solemn gaze. The Sannin flinches, perhaps noticing for the first time the crazed, feverish glint in his eyes. He's seen it himself every morning in the bathroom mirror, has in fact lost many minutes in fascinated contemplation of the way his reflected eyes seem to be trying to take over the sallow plane of his thinning face.
"Jiraiya," he says, not ashamed to beg outright, "please."
Jiraiya turns away, looking as if he might be sick. Then he asks quietly, "Why?"
Naruto freezes in his seat, the cogs and springs in his mind working animatedly as he quickly debates a response. Would he have to tell the truth?
Then he has an idea. "I know you'd have done it," he begins, letting a tiny broken note leak into his tone. "You would have saved Orochimaru if there'd been a chance."
He knows he's had Jiraiya convinced when a wave of tension settles into the line of the Sannin's shoulders. Victorious, he charges forth with, "This is my only chance. Please. Help me."
For a long moment, there is silence. Then Jiraiya emits a deep, defeated sigh, and lays his pipe down on the table.
"The first thing you have to know about this Kuchiyose…"
With Jiraiya's superior knowledge, the plan swiftly comes together before his eyes.
"It'll take a lot of chakra to pull it off," his teacher admonishes.
"That's what I'm good for."
"I assume you know how to procure a sacrifice?" The question is laced with a note of warning.
"Don't worry," he reassures, "I know exactly what to do."
Tsunade's expression can't quite shield her surprise. "You want a mission? Now?"
"Yeah," he chirps, pretending to shuffle his feet abashedly. "I've been feeling a bit cagey. Need some action. It'll be good for me."
She peers at him closely for a moment before shaking her head exasperatedly. "Well, we could always use the help, and I'm glad you've pulled yourself out of your funk."
He smiles winsomely, cocking his head for better effect.
"I've been really worried about you. All your friends too," the Hokage goes on, her voice now soft and easy. He listens to her with half an ear, patiently waiting until she is satisfied with his mental health and agrees to give him an assignment.
"One more thing," he adds, "Can you make it an assassination?"
The day has come. Soon, all his effort will finally pay off.
He would have much preferred to execute the plan in another place; anywhere else would be better than his dingy apartment, where the air reeks with tobacco smoke and the sour stink of stale coffee and moldy food. But beggars can't be choosers.
Jiraiya puffs on his pipe incessantly and regards him with passive eyes as he moves quietly about the room setting everything up for the procedure. "This is as far as I'm taking you," the Sannin says. "I'm not sticking around to watch you do it."
"I know," he replies, testing the tip of a kunai on his fingers.
Jiraiya shrugs and traipses towards the door. At the threshold, he turns around and asks, "You sure you have the right fuda there? Got the incantation correct and everything?"
"Yeah," he mutters distractedly, tying a strip of rice paper onto the kunai's handle. "Thanks a lot, Ero-sennin."
The Sannin makes a disgusted noise and quickly walks out of the room, slamming the door behind him. Naruto doesn't even look up.
This is the moment he's been waiting for. He sees his hands trembling, and steadies them with a whip of steely will.
His fingers begin moving in the complicated seal patterns he's spent the last three months practicing. He feels the pull of burning chakra lashing across his skin, and watches mesmerized as the dirty floor of his apartment rumbles and cleaves asunder.
A million conflicting thoughts fill his head at the sight of the wooden casket, buzzing like hungry locusts in the summer. Maybe I got it wrong somehow. Maybe I'm not good enough. Maybe it didn't work.
But it did. He feels a smile break painfully over his well-bitten lips when the lid is removed.
Black hair, black eyes, and corpse-white skin. So far so good. The scent of decay assaults his nose. No matter. That'll soon be taken care of.
With a strangely firm grip, Naruto raises his kunai and plunges it deep into a blue-clad torso. The blade sinks into the dead flesh like an anchor in tepid water, the red tail of the fuda disappearing smoothly without so much as a ripple.
He waits. And waits. And waits.
The real beauty of the Edo Tensei lies not in the resurrection of souls.
"Welcome back, Sasuke," he manages to choke out, sounding as if he has nails lodged in his throat, before he is lost in a tangle of arms.
"Naruto," Sasuke breathes into his shoulder, "I've missed you."
"Yeah," he says. "And, Sasuke?"
"What is it?"
"I'm sorry I killed you."
The real beauty of the Edo Tensei lies not in the resurrection of souls, but in the power of the jutsu castor to manipulate a soul into complying with his every design. Naruto made sure of this when he painstakingly crafted his fuda out of Chinese ink and red-dyed paper.
Sasuke's mouth tastes of ashes, of dirt and roots and rotting maggots, all those things buried deep in the bowels of the Earth. But that is, after all, not a matter of consequence.