Effloresco Secundus

Chapter 10: Mist rolling in


Posturing was one of those things that had always irritated Sakura when she'd been a witch. Most of the Death Eaters she'd met were prone to it, and Voldemort even more so. That she found it annoying didn't mean it wasn't sometimes effective, though. There was a reason entering a fight with a metaphorical bang was so common.

"Before you commence the killing, I don't suppose you'd be polite enough to explain why you were sent?" Kakashi asked of their opponent, sounding mildly curious and with the uninterested, sleepy expression Sakura herself would have worn if she'd been up for 20 hours straight and was about to drop into bed.

"Heh. Maybe if you manage to put a scratch on me," said Zabuza, grinning with amusement and obvious anticipation. He reached up to grip the handle sticking up from behind his shoulder and in a smooth movement, pulled an enormous sword from behind his back.

"Shit," said Naruto, immediately forming a handseal and scattering even more Kage bunshin around the area. Sakura agreed with both the action and the curse. This wasn't looking good. If Kakashi had been alone, he probably could have handled this fight without getting too badly hurt, but with three genin and a handful of civilians to protect... Those weren't favorable odds.

"I'll put more than a scratch on you," Kakashi said, smiling. And then he was gone. He appeared again below Zabuza, putting a fist into his chest. The missing-nin's shocked expression cleared the air in Sakura's lungs, and she threw a kunai after him. It only barely nicked him before burrowing hilt-deep into the trunk of a tree, but she still felt a little better.

"Go Sakura!" Naruto cheered, pumping a fist into the air before mimicking her and flinging a set of kunai at their new opponent. Sasuke snorted but there was a curl of anticipation in the corner of his mouth as he sent a wave of shuriken towards Zabuza.

The missing-nin was wholly occupied with Kakashi, whose blows came so fast that Sakura could only intermittently catch sight of them, and at least few of Sasuke attacks would have hit Zabuza if they had not suddenly been parried by a rain of senbon from their left.

Sakura glanced back to make sure the civilians were safe, guarded by Naruto's clones, and then she followed Sasuke up into the trees. Naruto had yet another wave of clones follow them, and then took off at ground-level, the three of them all moving towards the source of the senbon.

From her perch in a tree she heard Zabuza first inquire about Kakashi's identity, before taunting him with what sounded like a grin in his voice. He seemed to be enjoying the fight, though Sakura wondered if he would have been half as confident if he'd known he was facing Hatake Kakashi.

"Hello," an androgynous voice piped up, and Sakura's focus stabilized even as her eyes jerked towards the sound. Sasuke immediately sent a kunai flying in the direction of the voice - which was neatly deflected by a young man or woman in a mask.

"You are no hunter-nin," Sakura said lowly, recognizing that mask from one book or other in the Academy library. Mist had been the first village to institute hunter-nin as an individual fraction of their version of ANBU, if she recalled correctly. "Not as you are clearly an ally of the missing-nin currently engaging our teacher," she added unnecessarily. Maybe she could get more information from this new opponent, as he or she was clearly close to their age.

"Ah, so you are a genin team, then?"

Sakura could have cursed herself when Sasuke threw her a glare. How careless. She quirked her lips and said, "Something like that," as though that might not be the truth. 'What a stupid slip-up'.

"As for the mask... well, I suppose it was just habit to put it on. You already know what I look like, after all." A pale hand pulled the mask away to reveal a delicate face with high cheekbones and thin lips draw into a gentle smile.

Sakura immediately recognized the boy as Oshinobu's male companion. The one she'd decided to direct her poems to, that time. She wasn't sure what expression came over her face, but struggled to stop it from forming fully. How silly of her to feel like this was a betrayal. She hadn't known him as Oshinobu's companion and didn't know him now, as their enemy.

"You know this guy, Sakura?" Naruto asked, gesturing with a kunai. He looked like he wasn't sure whether to throw it now that she was apparently acquainted with the teenaged boy.

"No," she said, pulled out her own long senbon and flicked it with a chakra-powered throw into his mask. It broke in two, and she wasn't sure she'd meant to aim for it. "He's one of Ginzou's group's whores," she added, viciously. That wasn't fair, and it wasn't what she'd thought of him and the other companions then.

"My name is Haku," said the boy, a slight frown on his face as he dodged another shuriken rain from Sasuke. "And I don't belong to Oshinobu-san, or to Ginzou-san. I'm Zabuza-sama's-"

"-'kagema'?" finished Sasuke, and aimed a kunai to the left of their opponent. Haku looked outraged, slapping the weapon away. He shouldn't have done that, because the tag Sasuke had wrapped around the handle exploded like a firework the moment his hand made contact. Blood and bits of bone burst from the boy's arm, and Sakura was impressed when he bit off the cry of pain with a lone grunt.

"I didn't want to kill you, even after I realized you were in Zabuza-sama's way," said Haku, voice strained with pain as he dodged yet another volley of weapons sent his way. "But I can't tolerate such insults to my master." There was a shiver in the air around him, and it took Sakura a moment to notice the frost creeping over the leaves above his head.

"Bloodlimit," she called out in warning, breathing out sharply as she reassessed his threat level.

"Ice?" Sasuke murmured, face terse and eyes red with Sharingan. "Hyouton. I recognize it. It's a wind-water chakra combination that allows the user to create and control ice." He'd raised his voice slightly, probably for Naruto's benefit, but there was no time for further explanations. Slim shards of ice erupted from the ground, moving towards Naruto in a sharp line- like they could sense his presence. Before Sakura could do more than tense her legs for a jump, ice split the trunk of the tree she and Sasuke were in with a loud crack.

"This area used to be a swamp," Haku murmured, "So while the lack of water is unfortunate, the ground is moist enough for me to use."

'Is he just bragging?' Sakura wondered as she propelled herself into another tree. Why would he share information with them like that? Now they knew he needed an outside source of water to work his bloodlimit. Well, Sasuke might already have known that little tidbit, but why confirm it for her and Naruto?

"We're gonna beat you with or without your ice things!" said Naruto, diving at their teenaged opponent, fists first. Another spike of ice shot out of the ground and as Sasuke covered their blond teammate with a long-range shuriken spear assault, Sakura jumped towards another tree, catching Naruto by his collar before he could be skewered.

What followed was a chain of teamwork attacks that worked much better than Sakura would have expected. Her and Sasuke's coordinated movements, Naruto boxing Haku in with his clones and throwing Sasuke another set of shuriken when his ran out, Sakura sneaking down the tree, senbon in hand, with Sasuke hovering over her head as a second set of eyes, predicting movements as he rained down metal on their opponent-

The physical speed of the fight was what set it the most apart from her days fighting Death Eaters. "Incoming high-kick to your right, Sakura," Sasuke called quietly and she dodged, catapulting herself ahead to give Haku a few more holes to bleed out of. She aimed for nerve-clusters in the neck, the jaw, groin and his temples. He was faster than her and Sakura wondered somewhere below her battle-focus if Sasuke shouldn't have been the one to attempt a close-range attack.

'Stop that,' she admonished herself. While she wasn't quite as fast as Sasuke, she had a lot more experience with real fighting than he did. That counted for something. There'd be plenty of times in the future where she would be the one taking the long-range support role. 'Haku is not as fast as that bone-man,' she thought as she aimed a strike, '- and I managed to put a kunai in him.'

Maybe it was because this wasn't their first fight, or maybe Kakashi's lessons had actually stuck, but whatever it was allowed them to corner their opponent efficiently enough that he was on his knees, bleeding badly, a few minutes later.

The boy smiled wanly up at them, the ice spearing through the ground beginning to melt and pool water around him. "Are you going to kill me?"

Neither Sasuke nor Sakura stopped moving towards Haku, cautiously surrounding him. They were all badly bruised and scratched. Sasuke's arm was hanging at a strange angle, and Sakura had a dozen senbon embedded in her left leg and hip. The boy was good enough that Sakura would put him at jounin-level, and that damn ice would not stop popping up in the most inconvenient of places.

"Uh, guys? Are we really going to kill him?" Naruto looked unsure, even as he and two muddy clones blocked off the last paths of escape not covered by Sakura and Sasuke. He was speaking quietly, and their downed adversary made no movement to suggest he'd overheard Naruto. Sakura turned to look at her teammate over her shoulder, frowning tiredly.

"He's an enemy, Naruto. Killing him is well within Konoha's sanctioned range of responses." Sakura knew that wasn't what Naruto meant, but she was bleeding from a dozen small cuts in addition to the senbon piercing her flesh, and her left leg was slowly going numb. She didn't want to discuss the morals of killing right now.

A teenaged Hermione would have hesitated, stepped back. An adult, war-hardened Hermione would not have, and she was an adult Hermione plus some. He had threatened the lives of her teammates, and led them far enough into the woods that she had no idea how Kakashi's fight was going beyond the ominous-sounding explosions and trembling in the ground she'd heard from a distance throughout their fight. That was done purposefully, without a doubt. This boy was an enemy.

Naruto opened his mouth, looking at Haku swaying on his knees. "But-"

And that was as far as he got, before the water moistening the grass-covered soil solidified into ice anew, thrusting forward like a lance into Naruto's unguarded stomach. The blond's lips trembled, mouth closing and words cut off, and then he made an awful, wet sound that turned into a hacking cough. Sakura watched specks of blood-darkened saliva spurted from between his lips and slipped down his chin. In the middle of a growing stain of blood blossoming like a rose beneath his shirt, the tip of the icy spike poked out, dripping red-tinged water as the warmth of Naruto's flesh melted the surface.

Sakura heard herself gasp, heard a noise coming from Sasuke's throat, and then she was suddenly crouched in front of Haku, slamming her hand over his heart and feeling something well up within her – static white noise in her head – silence – rage. It bubbled up from below, and no. She would not consent to this. Ron would- Naruto would not die like this. In this place. Somewhere in the logical part of her mind, the pieces fit together, even when she couldn't register them consciously through the haze of furious horror: the ice penetrating Naruto's stomach was due to the enemy's bloodlimit. You could not use a bloodlimit if you were dead. She would make him so.

The rest of her mind was busy collapsing with fear, images of all the dead people she'd bid adieu flowing like a flimsy shawl over her eyes until she felt she was going blind with it. With those images came the unbelievable fury that accompanied the fear, and that familiar, utterly crushing feeling of failure. Sakura felt the ground in her mindscape warm like the inside of a volcano, and then cave in with a mental crack as a deep, cold wave of pure magic exploded out through her physical body- into the boy whose chest was currently under her palm.

She felt his heart give out under her hand with a sense that had no connection to the physical world or to chakra. There was no sound, there were no flashing lights. His heart stopped between one breath and the next, like it had – fittingly – frozen in his chest cavity. Sakura breathed in, a deep gasping breath that made her nauseous, and then staggered backwards. A wave of fatigue bore down on her suddenly and immediately, and she fell from her crouch to her knees.

With eyes half-lidded, she noticed that Sasuke had put a kunai in their opponent's throat, and that the boy was very much dead. Still eyes, face paling and body sagging to the ground.

"Naruto, fuck, don't you die-" Sasuke was saying and Sakura stumbled up to join him at Naruto's side. The blond grinned weakly when her hands joined Sasuke's over his stomach, coughing up more blood when they pressed down on the wound. His tanned faced was tinted yellow-white and his breaths were quick and shallow.

"I don't know much Ijutsu," Sakura admitted, trying to keep her voice from shaking. She'd been through this before, many times. 'Which is why I know how bad a gut wound this severe is,' her mind pointed out against her will. She retrieved a panchrest pill from her pouch and pushed it between Naruto's cold lips, for all the good that would do at this point. Her head was pounding, anticipated grief tearing through her like a migraine.

"Me neither," said Sasuke, swallowing. He blinked rapidly, pushing down harder on Naruto's stomach. Sakura saw the muscles in his jaw tense and release, like he was grinding his teeth.

"Is Kakashi's fight over and done with?" she asked, as the woods had grown silent and still. It was a stupid question, of course. Sasuke wouldn't know the answer any more than she did. Maybe she was talking just to fill the silence.

"Guys, I-" said Naruto, pale forehead furrowing, "I feel better. It doesn't hurt so much anymore." His voice came out stronger, but Sakura thought with sick resignation that the lack of pain meant a large step closer to death.

"Stop squirming, idiot," said Sasuke, voice ragged like he'd been running.

"Wait, let me look," said Naruto and started batting weakly at their hands, still covering the hole in his stomach. Raising his head off the ground, he looked down the length of his body. Sakura's gaze caught his, and she wondered what he saw that made his eyes widen and put a tiny, gentle smile on his too-pale lips. "It's alright, you guys," he said, and pushed their hands away. They both let him. Sakura wasn't sure why.

Naruto laboriously pulled up his shirt, and Sakura steeled herself for the sight of her teammate's butchered body. It took her a moment to actually process what she was seeing, once the shirt was out of the way and his stomach fully visible.

Though his stomach was covered in blood, there was no mass of bloody flesh to accompany it. A small, round hole sitting in a circle of pink scar tissue was still pumping out a trickle of blood- and that was it.

"What," said Sasuke so flatly it wasn't even a question. Sakura stared, her heart like a hummingbird in her chest, and then slowly reached out her hand to touch the scar tissue around what little of the wound remained. It was whitening at the edges at the same rate the hole was shrinking.

"Naruto," said Sakura unsteadily, and meant what is this? Her heart rate was slowing down, the fatigue creeping back into her body and the sudden rush of relief was making everything spin.

"Huh." Naruto stared at himself. "Didn't know I could do that."

Sakura cleared her throat. "But you don't seem very surprised."

"I heal stupidly fast, but I thought it only worked on small injuries..." He poked at the hard tissue around the slowly disappearing wound and coughed, frowning. "Feel kinda bad though."

"You lost a lot of blood, moron," said Sasuke, glaring at him. His hands were curled into fists. "You could have said you had a bloodlimit before we started thinking you were-" He bit off the sentence before completion, and Sakura finished it quietly in her mind. Before we started thinking you were dying.

"I didn't know it would heal!" Something in Naruto's eyes quivered, and he turned his gaze away, roughly pulling his shirt back over his stomach. Then he sat up with a laborious movement that told Sakura he was still in pain.

'Naruto also thought he would die', she thought, and reached out a hand to straighten his bloodied shirt. It was a useless little gesture, but it calmed something in her. Sasuke roughly pulled their teammate to his feet, probably for the same reason.

"Sorry. Shit. Sorry I scared you." Naruto grabbed a hold of Sakura's arm and Sasuke's shirt, swayed a little, paled and then steadied.

Sasuke snorted, like his bloody, stiff hands weren't shoved deep into his pockets and his shoulders weren't so stiff it looked painful. "Idiot," he muttered, turning away from them to glare out into the woods. But he didn't shake off Naruto's hand.

"What do we do with him?" said Sakura, looking over her shoulder at their dead opponent. It was better than focusing on the large, wet spot of blood still staining Naruto's shirt.

"Take him to Kakashi, maybe?" said Naruto. He turned to stare in the direction they'd last seen Kakashi, pale face drawing taut with worry. It was too quiet.

"We should take off his head," said Sasuke, a thread of viciousness in his voice.

There was a rustle in the bushes to their left, and as one they each put a kunai to the sound. Something huffed, the leaves rustled again, and then a small dog came running in their direction. A pug. Kakashi's summon, upon closer examination.

Sakura realized her hand was clenched, white-knuckled, around one of her would-be wands, for all the good that would have done her if they'd been faced with a new enemy. She put it back into her pocket, feeling strangely rattled that she'd suddenly gone for the currently useless witch's weapon rather than something more sharp and pragmatic. She couldn't afford to fall back on old habits. Not yet, at least.

"There you are," said Pakkun, making a snuffling sound before going around to sniff at them all. "You smell like blood, brat," he said when he came to Naruto.

"Yeah, I know. I'm not hurt. Uh, I'm not hurt any longer." He seemed a bit awkward, perhaps unused to the concern. Or just unused to it coming from a dog.

Sakura pursed her lips. "But he's lost a lot of blood. Where's Kakashi? Is he alright?"

"Did he defeat that missing-nin?" asked Sasuke, pulling his hands out of his pockets. He stared at his palms, still smeared with Naruto's blood, and then wiped them on his pants with a movement too casual to be genuine.

"With a little help from his loyal summons, yes," said Pakkun and stretched proudly. It might have looked more impressive if he'd been something other than a small pug. "He sent me to herd you back to him, if your fight was over and done with."

'What if our fight hadn't been over?' Sakura thought, a swell of irritation rising like a bubble on the surface of her thoughts. Pakkun wouldn't have been of much help then. Or what if one of them had been hurt irreparably? Hell, Naruto had been hurt that badly, and was only alive thanks to his hitherto unmentioned bloodlimit!

"Let's go, then," said Sasuke, turning on his heel to march in the direction they'd come from. His hands were back in his pockets, the muscles lining his arms taut enough to give the impression that he was gripping something in his pockets very firmly. Naruto scrambled to follow, still somewhat unsteady on his feet.

Sakura looked back at the corpse of the young man who'd appreciated her poetry, and felt the skin between her eyebrows crease. The body of the teenager who'd almost killed Naruto. She went to pick him up even as the fatigue pulled at her, and placed him over her shoulder with more care than he deserved.

They trooped back towards their teacher in silence, Pakkun staying by Sakura's side and glancing up at her every now and again. Sasuke and Naruto seemed to be having some kind of quiet, non-verbal exchange of... something. Reassurance, Sakura thought. Did it hurt that she wasn't included? She shied away from continuing that line of thought, from answering that question. Naruto was alive. That was all that mattered.

"Hey, brats," said Kakashi, who was sitting casually atop a badly wounded but clearly still living Zabuza. "You injured?"

He looked worn, poking at a wound in his shoulder, but eyed them intently when they approached. "You took down the other missing-nin," he said with a weary eye-smile. Zabuza growled and bucked against the weight of the other jounin, turning to look at them with a gaze that was near-crazed in its intensity.

"Haku." He stopped there, slurring out the name, and Sakura noted absently that his bandages were torn away from his face, stained with rust-colored blood. His teeth had been filed into sharp points that made him look more like the demon he supposedly was. "He alive?"

"No," Sakura said, because it was clear that the question had been posed to her. Struggling not to show the weakness that was slowly turning her arms and legs to lead, she placed the boy on the ground in front of his accomplice. Master. Whatever.

"Figures." Zabuza snorted, staring blankly at the boy for a moment before his gaze turned to rest on the ground. "Should've sharpened my tool better."

"What are you talking about?" said Naruto. "He was plenty sharp, stuck me through the stomach and everything."

Kakashi's head jerked up at that admission and Sasuke went to slap the back of the other boy's head. "Idiot, don't say that in front of an enemy."

"Naruto, do you require medical attention?" Kakashi was almost off of Zabuza and on his feet before Naruto shook his head.

"Can't have been all that sharp if you're not even fucking dead," the missing-nin opined and Sakura almost put a kunai in his head.

"Shut the fuck up," said Sasuke with a voice like gravel was rattling in his throat. She'd never heard him curse as fluently as she had today. Some of the clan-bred propriety must be slipping in his stress.

"Why don't you come over here and make me?" He grinned like a butcher, and even in his weakened state, Sakura wouldn't presume to call him harmless. There was something, a spark in his eyes, that reminded her of Bellatrix's awful crazy laughter.

"He started fighting us 'cause he thought we were insulting you," said Naruto, voice thoughtful and maybe a bit indignant.

"We were insulting him," Sasuke muttered. Naruto threw him an irritated glance and then stepped closer towards the missing-nin. Zabuza followed every step with a careful, anticipatory look that would have worried Sakura if not for Kakashi's own observation of the scene.

She would have approached Naruto, maybe put a hand on his arm to try and stop him from whatever he was trying to do, if not for the choice she was suddenly faced with. Either sit down, or collapse to the ground like a marionette with cut strings. Sakura sat down gracelessly, and then took a minute to dig up a chakra pill to try to stave of the exhaustion.

"I think he really cared about you." There was a challenging tone in his voice, like calm blue shot through with stirring, angry red. In the sunlight, from the angle she was looking at him, Sakura thought Naruto's eyes looked more purple than blue.

"He was always weak that way."

Naruto snorted, and then his foot shot out and met Zabuza's ribs. Sakura's brows rose. 'That was unexpected.' Kicking a downed opponent wasn't something she'd ever have guessed Naruto would do. Zabuza grunted, and there was a sound from his midriff that told Sakura that Kakashi had probably broken the man's ribs in their fight.

"Heh. Not what I expected from a cotton-candy Konoha genin. Aren't you fuckers supposed to be the merciful types who piss maple syrup and dole out free hugs?" Zabuza's voice was rough with pain, and from the way his chest worked with every breath, Sakura thought he found it difficult to breathe.

"For the deserving," Naruto said. "Haku wasn't a tool. He cared more about you than you deserved."

"So no hugs for you," Sakura added too quietly to be heard by either Naruto or Zabuza, light-headed and feeling like the top of her skull was starting to float off somewhere. When she'd been Hermione, her bursts of accidental magic had been less explosive and very much not lethal. And they'd never tired her out to the point of unconsciousness.

"Hey. Sakura." Sasuke was in front of her, peering into her eyes with a frown. "You're too pale. Were you hurt in the fight? Besides your leg."

Sakura frowned back, still mostly focused on the ongoing conversation between her other teammate and Zabuza. It was like Naruto to kick someone in defense of someone else's honor, or whatever this was, she thought. Only Naruto would get indignant that a crazy missing-nin isn't paying his murderous accomplice enough respect, even after that accomplice nearly sent him to the other side.

"You think I don't know that, you little fucker?" said Zabuza, speech slurring even further. "You think I don't know he wasn't just-" There was an abrupt silence, like he was swallowing his words. The man was talkative for a captured nin. Maybe he was concussed, or else Kakashi had drugged him.

"Then stop acting like he's less, you prick." Naruto huffed, and Sakura saw him cross his arms. Zabuza said nothing, gritting his teeth and turning away.

"Sakura, focus." Sasuke tapped her lightly on the cheek. "You look like you're about to pass out."

"I am about to pass out," Sakura admitted, and saw Sasuke give her a tense once-over before signaling Kakashi. Then darkness descended over her like a grand drape dropping at final call.


A/N: I know it's a bit shorter than usual, but as the scene after this one wouldn't have fit in with the tone of this chapter, I decided to cut it here. So: what did you think of the fight? The aftereffects of the fight? The character interactions?

And as usual, thanks to Against-The-Current for her help!