Zero Hour - Chapter 1: Phoenix
Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
World: Branches off after the Rescue Gaara Arc.
Notes: Sequel to Schadenfreude and Aces & Eights. I strongly recommend that you read those two fics before starting this one, as their plots and events will play a significant role here. Fair warning, there will be quite a bit of NejIno and SasuKarin in later chapters.
"The phoenix must burn to emerge." - Janet Fitch
Here, atop jagged rocks and splintering wood, listening to the incessant drip, drip, drip of water—or was that blood? Here, straddling the line between life and death and losing her balance with each drip, drip, drip, was where she found herself. It wasn't all bad.
At least she had done her job. At least, in the end, she could be useful. Needed.
"Chiyo-baa-sama, are you all right? Can you still move?"
Every breath was agony. The pain reminded Sakura that she still had one foot planted firmly on the side of life, though her balance wavered with every passing second.
"Huh, she's still worrying about others with that wound?"
He hadn't expected things to drag on this long, hadn't expected things to fall apart like they were. Sakura had pushed him further than he'd been pushed in a very long time. She managed to feel some satisfaction at the thought even as he drove his poisoned blade deeper until she felt it pierce through the back of her.
Drip, drip, drip.
"If you're a medic nin, then you should understand your own situation."
The sound of his voice was like polished steel: hard, cold, and razor sharp. In the last two hours, Sakura had come to abhor the sound of that voice with every fiber of her being.
He smirked. "You're one hell of a girl, but I wonder how long you can last like this?"
Drip, drip, drip.
Blood from the katana's exit wound trickled down the back of her thigh, warm. There was no way she was going to drop dead like this. She was the apprentice of the famed Godaime Hokage, a medical ninja in a league of her own. She was notdone living yet.
Rigorous training and incredible inborn talent worked in tandem to summon green healing energy, which tried in vain to reverse the damage. Delirium must have been kicking in now because she could have sworn she saw Sasori's splintered, wooden face contort in shock.
"Chiyo-baa-sama, I'm okay," she said. "Hurry, take the antidote!"
A violent coughing fit wracked her body and she fought to hold it. Sasori laughed.
"It looks like the poison's finally working, since this katana is also poisoned."
He's right. My body's going numb from the poison. I can't control my chakra anymore.
All she wanted to do was sleep.
Without warning, Chiyo stuck Sakura with the antidote needle.
Chiyo collapsed onto the dusty ground in a heap. Sasori rolled his eyes.
That was it. Sakura was going to kill him if it was the last thing she ever did. When he pulled on the katana impaling her, she gripped it with all her remaining might and held fast. They locked eyes and faced off in the most lethal game of tug-of-war.
"I'm not letting go."
Drip, drip, drip.
She didn't flinch as the blade sliced her palms to ribbons. She entertained the thought that some of her strength was returning as the antidote coursed through her system. Behind her, Chiyo attempted to pull herself upright.
Sakura whipped her head around in time to witness Sasori detach his arm at the elbow, revealing another hidden dagger. He bounded away from her, shifted his weight, and lunged straight for her. Shocked and still impaled, Sakura was too slow to dodge.
But the blow never came, and Sakura forced herself to open her eyes. Sasori's Mother and Father puppets suspended him off the ground, high enough so that his wooden feet hung helpless. Two katana pierced through the canister in his left breast.
He looked between his Mother and Father puppets, and then he finally noticed the ruined state of his chest canister.
"You let your guard down at the last second, Sasori," Chiyo said.
"How—" He had to cut himself off as he coughed up sticky, black liquid.
"Now you can't move. It's fitting, isn't it? No matter how much of your body is artificial, there must always be a part of you that can use chakra. That's your weakness. And the only part missing from your original shell is that canister in your left breast. You must have transferred it to another puppet the moment just before my jutsu was completed. Your puppet bodies are just that—puppets." Chiyo panted and Sasori continued to stare at her in silent shock. "The real you is the canister that holds your life force."
Sakura had barely heard a word of Chiyo's deduction as she swayed on her feet. Her body bent and sagged to the ground, disturbing the blade inside her and sending fresh waves of pain through her.
She felt hot and heavy with pain. How could one sword wound be so unbearable?
"Just a little more."
And then she felt a sense of relief like none she'd ever felt before. The scraping edge of the sword was gone, and Sakura sank into the ground, heaving.
"You're wasting your time. I stabbed her in a vital organ. Even without the poison, that girl will be dead soon. She lost too much blood already. You're a medic nin, too, so you should have noticed that I went for a place that's impossible to heal."
"I've already finished administering medical ninjutsu. The technique I'm using now is something different."
Sakura felt like she was being lifted up on a cloud as the pain sloughed off her like dirt under a hot shower.
"I'm sharing my life force with her. It's a reincarnation technique."
"I originally developed it to help you. Only I can use it. This technique could even bring a puppet to life. At the price of my own life, of course."
Sakura squinted and searched for Sasori, the enemy. He was watching Chiyo work with the most uncanny look in his glass eyes, like he was truly listening to her. He probably didn't realize she was watching him because he let his eyes fall and stared unseeing at the split ground.
"What a waste."
His voice was so soft and melancholy that Sakura almost thought she'd imagined it. But when Chiyo smiled sadly, she knew she'd heard right.
Sasori lifted his wooden head and glared that same, bone-chilling glare he'd worn all through their battle. "What a fucking waste. When did you go senile, old hag?"
Sakura registered a level of sadness in Chiyo's expression that she'd seen only in Naruto's rare, unguarded looks. Somehow, some way, Chiyo still cared about Sasori. He was her family after all, and blood is thicker than water. It made Sakura feel the barest traces of remorse for what she knew she would have to do now that she was no longer in critical condition.
She forced herself to stand.
"Sakura, are you all right?"
"Yes. What about you?"
"Hm? That's strange," Sasori said. "I thought that reincarnation technique could only revive someone if you paid with your life."
"Sakura was critically injured, but she wasn't dead. So I didn't have to give my life to bring her back."
"That's a shame."
Sakura could not stand by and listen to this anymore. She didn't care if he insulted her or tried to kill her a hundred times over, but she would not tolerate his total disrespect for the one person in this world who still gave a damn about him after everything he'd done. Chiyo deserved better than that.
She swung her fist around and punched Sasori with all the natural strength she could muster. His cheek splintered under her knuckles and his head spun ninety degrees to the side with a sickening crack. Sakura seethed, and Sasori's pretty, honey eyes turned to glance at her askance.
"Stop it. This body doesn't feel pain. If you keep hitting me, the only thing you'll hurt is your hand."
The way he said it made her blood boil, like he was looking out for her.
He snapped his head back around to give her his full attention, and Sakura had to fight the visceral urge to take a step back. Even reduced to splinters, Sasori's gaze commanded the forces of gravity. He smirked at her, the same smirk he'd had just after she'd decimated his Third Kazekage puppet.
"You women really love to do pointless things. Even if that old hag, my flesh and blood, died right now, I'd feel nothing. She's no better or worse than the hundreds I've killed before her."
Sasori's expression fell until his face became a blank slate. He was no longer looking at her but at the ground, like he wasn't really there.
"Things are much simpler like this."
"You... What the hell do you think a human life is? What family is?"
This got his attention, and honey met jade once more. "Hey, is that really something a shinobi should say?"
Sakura shook her head. This fight was over. "Why is that the only way you can see the world?"
Sasori just stared back at her as her question hung around them unanswered.
"Sakura, enough," Chiyo said.
"Sasori is the way he is because of the cruel teachings of the Hidden Sand."
Unbidden, images of Sasuke, Naruto, even Gaara, drowning in loneliness and pain thrust upon them by the world around them, came to her. Her eyes fell.
"You want to try having a body like mine?"
Sasori was looking at her with an unreadable expression that shouldn't have made her feel as squeamish as it did. She didn't even question the abrupt change of subject.
"Maybe then you'll get what I'm talking about. A body that never rots, that exists in perfect perpetuity... As a puppet I can repair myself over and over."
His honey eyes bore into hers and Sakura felt more afraid now than she had during the entire course of their fight. This compliment, the way he was looking at her...
"And if I want company, I just turn more people into puppets—if I think they're worthy. My collection isn't just about quantity; quality is just as important."
Even immobilized and completely at her mercy, Sasori still pummeled her with razor sharp words that cut deeper than the katana he'd driven through her. His praise stung worse than his poison. Why him? Why did it have to be him?
"What are you?"
"If I had to choose, I guess I'd say I'm a human who couldn't completely become a puppet. I'm an incomplete puppet with a living core. In this body I'm neither a man nor a puppet."
He seemed to be speaking in riddles. Odd, since throughout their whole fight he'd been blunt and upfront to a fault. It made it that much easier to resent him, but this new, introspective manner of speaking threw her off guard.
So alive in death.
So human. Sakura was speechless.
He blinked and all traces of emotion were gone from his eyes. "This body will be immovable soon. But before that happens, I'll waste my words for you, too. Consider it a reward for defeating me."
Sakura gasped, but he ignored her surprise.
"You wanted to know about Orochimaru, right? Go to the Tenchi Bridge ten days from now."
"Why? What's there?"
"I have a spy posing as Orochimaru's subordinate. We were supposed to meet...at noon...there..."
Sakura had to strain her hearing to pick up his last words. It took her a second to realize he wasn't going to say anything more. Not because he chose not to, but because he was finally dead.
"It's over, Chiyo-baa-sama."
Sakura could hardly believe her own empty proclamation as she looked at a now prostrate Sasori next to his Mother and Father puppets. This time, he wasn't getting up.
They had won. She had won.
But there was no feeling of relief, no catharsis. There was only a hollow place where Sasori had once been, now silent.
Sakura shivered, finally feeling the cold on her bare, bruised arms.
"Sakura-chan, you look like hell."
Sakura nearly tripped over a lunette and ate sand. The rescue brigade had been walking through the desert back to Sunagakure for the past two hours now, but Temari assured them it was not far. Tired from the most dangerous battle of her life and the emotional drain from losing Chiyo, Sakura didn't have the energy to hit Naruto.
"So do you."
Naruto growled beside her. "I shoulda killed that lunatic when I had the chance, y'know?"
"Don't say that. He's dead, so who cares how it happened? Anyway, Gaara's alive because of you."
"No, he's alive because of us. And Chiyo-baa, most of all. If she hadn't used her technique on him..."
He trailed off, not wanting to think about that possibility. Naruto had lost and reclaimed the one person who truly understood his situation all in the course of one day. It was the longest day of Sakura's life, and it still wasn't over.
She looked over her shoulder at the revived Kazekage walking between Temari and Baki. Kakashi was bringing up the rear of the small shinobi garrison. Various Sand shinobi flanked Gaara while others scouted ahead and behind for any further signs of Akatsuki. Team Gai had already headed back to Konoha.
All she could think about was Chiyo and their fight with Sasori. It felt like remembering a dream, and in a way it was just that. No one alive right now had witnessed the epic battle other than herself, so there was no third party to recount her performance. She sighed. This was not the time or place to be thinking such selfish thoughts when Chiyo had given her life for a Kazekage she barely knew or even accepted until mere hours ago.
"She fought so bravely, Naruto. You shoulda seen it."
"How'd you and Chiyo-baa beat that guy, anyway? I mean, he really got Kankuro good, y'know?"
Sakura shook her head. "We didn't."
"At the end, he let the last attack hit him."
"Why'd he do that?"
"I really don't know."
The greeting drew everyone's attention and Sakura looked up through dirty bangs to see Sunagakure's imposing walls rising up before them. They'd made it.
"About damn time!" Naruto shouted. He turned around and dashed to Gaara's side, gesticulating at the fast-approaching village. Gaara smiled at his friend, and everyone decided to pick up the pace for the home stretch. In no time at all, they were back within the Hidden Sand Village.
Team Kakashi ended up staying the night to recover. Gaara set them up in a hotel near the Kazekage's offices. He insisted they stay longer than just the one night—he could never repay them for the service they'd done Suna and him—but Kakashi politely declined. They would have to report to the Hokage, anyway. Still, Sakura was grateful for the small reprieve before they made the three-day journey back to Konoha.
That gives me a week before Sasori's spy'll be at the Tenchi Bridge.
She'd already decided she was going to meet the spy, but she hadn't told anyone about it yet. There was no reason to hesitate, but still she held her tongue. It was ten days away, so there wasn't any rush to divulge the information, she reasoned.
Deciding to take a walk after cleaning up, Sakura broke off from her teammates and meandered through Suna. Mothers recalled their children playing in the streets as the sun slumped lower on the horizon. Windows of short, domed dwellings glowed with yellow and orange light, reminding Sakura of clusters of fireflies. It was a cool night, but she welcomed the chill. She'd sweated enough for one day.
As she made her way down the street, Sakura couldn't help but wonder if a younger version of Sasori had ever walked down this very road with Chiyo so many years ago. How could Chiyo still care about him? It didn't make sense, not after everything he'd put her through. Knowing that he was the one responsible for the Third Kazekage's death should have turned any loyal Suna shinobi against him. And yet, Chiyo had smiled in the end. Sakura knew that look because it was the look she got whenever she thought about how Sasuke had once been a part of her team.
But even in the grey world of shinobi, Sasori was undoubtedly that rare, black extremity. He was a villain through and through. A true monster.
Startled out of her thoughts, Sakura turned around and came face to face with an ancient man. He wore a turban and had the longest eyebrows she'd ever seen. Maybe it was because of the fading light, but Sakura could have sworn he had two black pits where his eyes should have been. She recognized him.
"Ah, I thought I recognized you. What are you doing out? You must be tired after such a long day."
Sakura shifted her weight. She was exhausted, but the need to get some fresh air after the stifling atmosphere of the cave beat out her exhaustion.
"I just wanted to take a walk before we leave tomorrow morning," she said, offering him a weak smile.
He studied her in silence, and Sakura could have kicked herself for being so rude. She bowed low. "I'm so sorry for your loss."
"Thank you, child." He sighed. "I suppose there's no coming back from it this time."
Sakura frowned but said nothing.
"I wonder if you would tell me a bit about your fight?"
"You want to know about the fight with Sasori?"
"I hope he wasn't too hard on you."
Ebizo seemed a little eccentric, but she was used to dealing with the elderly in a hospital setting, unlike her mentor. Tsunade's patience with the elderly ran notoriously thing.
"He was very strong."
"Yes, I suppose he must've been. My sister trained him, after all."
Sakura nodded. Images of Sasori trying to bludgeon her with two-ton iron sand columns or nearly asphyxiating her with poison gas flooded her mind's eye. Sasori had been very strong.
"She fought valiantly. She's really the one who beat him, not me."
"Oh, I'm sure that's not true. After all, my sister was a loony old bat! You young people have more spunk than us geezers."
Sakura smiled, and they lapsed into comfortable silence as they watched the sun set over Suna. After a while, Sakura voiced the question that had been bothering her since the end of the battle. "Ebizo-jii-sama?"
"What happened to him?"
Ebizo was silent for a long time. "Sasori was always alone. And solitude will drive a man mad, no matter how powerful he becomes or how far he tries to outrun it."
Sakura couldn't help but think of Gaara. She'd seen how far he deteriorated at the Chuunin exams three years ago. It could have happened to Naruto if he didn't have Kakashi and Sasuke and her. If that was the result of extreme solitude, then perhaps Chiyo was right; Sasori was a product of the cruel environment in which he was raised.
But it was a sorry excuse.
"I should be getting back now. It's been a very long day," she said, suddenly uncomfortable. "Please excuse me."
When Ebizo didn't respond, Sakura took the opportunity to slip away.
Snowflakes rained from the sky like ashes as the last rays of sunlight yielded to the height of a western-facing peak. The sublime mountain scenery shimmered red and orange and yellow with the effects of alpenglow. There were no human settlements around for miles, lending the place to tranquility and solitude. A thin smokestack curled out of a short chimney in a nearby mountainside.
A short, mousy woman with thick spectacles and bundled up in a floor-length parka trudged through the snowdrift toward the chimney. There was no living soul around for miles save for wild wolves and deer. She arrived at a spot on the mountainside and executed a few hand seals. The craggy mountainside twisted and groaned until a small entryway appeared and cleared a path deep into the stone. She hurried inside.
The short hike to the heart of the mountain burrow ended in a small but clean room with a single bed and modest kitchenette. She pulled off her winter gear before making her way through a narrow door at the opposite end of the room. A fire bathed the connecting bedroom in a warm, orange glow. Spartan furnishings allowed for only a single wooden chair next to a twin bed. The rest of the empty floor space was cluttered with various medical devices and tools, including an IV stand, a desk shoved in the corner, and a stack of thick medical tomes.
She approached the bed and stared at the face of its sole occupant. He never spoke to her; he never even woke up. All he did was sleep the days and nights away, dead for all intents and purposes. Except his cheeks were flushed and warm to the touch, and his hair that she'd trimmed only a few days ago was soft and clean. He was very much alive.
She wished he would talk to her sometimes so that she wouldn't feel so alone in nature's deafening silence. But her job was simply to take care of him for as long as it took until he woke up one day. She didn't know why or how she'd gotten here, and sometimes she wondered what it would be like to leave. But as soon as such thoughts entered her head, she wound up with the most intense migraines she had ever experienced. It was best not to think; she just obeyed ingrained orders.
The woman adjusted her thick glasses and examined the feeding tube. The bag was nearly empty and needed changing. Supplies weren't easy to come by in this part of Snow Country, but she made the biweekly journey to the nearest civilian town—thirty miles east of here—without complaint. She could not complain. This was the way things were, the way they had always been.
The IV stand was a little tall, so she had to stretch in order to remove the empty bag and replace it with the fresh one. Practiced fingers detached the feeding tube from the old bag, and she paused.
What if she just let him starve to death?
Unbidden, a rush of crippling pain made her cry out as she clutched her head and tried in vain to hold back her tears. She should have known better than to think such traitorous thoughts. Besides, without him she would truly be alone.
After a few deep breaths her hands stopped shaking and the pain dissipated. A quick double-check confirmed that everything was in place and functioning properly. The woman turned to gaze upon her charge to see if he was warm enough—
—only to find that he was looking right at her.
Mortification paralyzed her mid-step and she tripped, bringing the entire IV stand down with her. He sat up in the bed and stared down at her with sleepy, honey eyes.
That snapped her out of it and she scrambled backward toward the door. He looked so angry.
"Master, please, I—"
She stopped. Every instinct was telling her to get the hell out of here, but some unseen force kept her body immobilized.
She got up.
The man she had served for the past two decades here, alone in the frigid arctic away from any semblance of human contact, peered at her as if she were a stubborn smudge on a window that just wouldn't come off no matter how many times he scrubbed it.
"Did you have any problems?" he asked.
"No, sir." A growing headache made her dizzy. "No problems at all. I've done all you asked of me."
He looked so youthful now that he was awake and talking. Even after twenty years, he didn't look much older than the day he'd placed her here to watch over him until further notice. She didn't want to know the details of whatever jutsu he'd used to accomplish that.
"Please, Sasori-sama, you promised."
"That I would be dismissed if you... If you ever woke up, I mean. You gave me your word."
Her master seemed to think this over for a moment before holding his hand out to her. Glowing, blue chakra threads shot out from his fingers and latched onto Yuka's neck. She squeaked in terror and clawed at them. It was no use.
"I recall that I never make promises."
The chakra threads tightened about her throat and her face grew hot. She pictured herself turning from red to blue to purple as the life slowly and painfully left her.
"You're dismissed, my faithful servant."
Yuka twitched and collapsed to the floor. She didn't get up again.
Sasori lost interest in her as he flexed his fingers and took a deep breath, tasting the air. It smelled of cedar pine. A small fire crepitated in the nearby hearth. He stared into it as the torrid flames danced and cast shadows across his face, so warm.
"I suppose it's time for Plan B."
Firelight illuminated Akasuna no Sasori's honey eyes as he cast one last glance at the hearth and walked out the door.