Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
Notes: Got a request for Edo Tensei SasoSaku. My take on what a meeting between them could have been like.
"I've seen the horror, I've seen the wonders
Happening just in front of my eyes
Will I ever, will I never free myself
By making it right?"
The red flare sent a chill through Sakura's heart. Red smoke meant trouble of the worst kind, something she'd been anticipating and dreading as the war got underway.
"Looks like the Surprise Attack Division's already in need of our youthful assistance!" Gai said, fist-pumping.
Kakashi watched the dissipating red smoke as it bled with the wind, his expression unreadable.
"Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura said. "Should we go help them? We're the closest division."
"Yeah," Kakashi said. "I suppose we should."
Sakura frowned. He seemed down, but she supposed that was to be expected in a war setting. Lee suddenly appeared in her line of sight.
"Do not frown, Sakura-san. We'll surely prevail as long as we work together!" He flashed her a hundred watt grin.
Sakura smile in spite of herself. "Yeah, you're right, Lee."
"Move out," Kakashi said, signaling the rest of the Third Division.
Sakura ran alongside a Mist kunoichi through the thick canopy, her expression grim. Despite Lee's words of encouragement, Sakura was uneasy. She'd never been in a war before, but instinctively she knew it would be hardest trial of her young life. She could die at any minute if she wasn't careful-these enemies were the stuff of nightmares reincarnated. Never had she faced anything like it.
Not since Sasori.
She'd survived him, so she could survive this. She had to.
The Mist kunoichi's warning spurred Sakura into action, and she dove just as a deadly explosion incinerated the spot she'd occupied not seconds earlier. On the ground and rolling, the acrid smell of burning flesh assaulted her senses and she coughed. Black smoke roiled all around, a sentient miasma, and Sakura was forced to cover her face with a long sleeve.
"Ruka!" Sakura shouted through her sleeve.
The Mist kunoichi was nowhere to be found. Whistling drew Sakura's attention, and her body reacted before her mind could process what was happening. Dodge-rolling to the left, she barely avoided another incendiary blast and landed hard against a boulder. The impact shredded her left shoulder, the blood warm as it trickled down her arm and mixed with floating ash.
"Damnit," she swore, tears welling in her eyes. Something told her she wasn't going to find Ruka anywhere. Was this war? To die with no one to hear your final words and your last regrets?
Sakura hated it already.
Kakashi's voice reached her through the haze of smoke and ash, and Sakura took off at a run, not looking back. More bombs detonated in her wake-land mines, lain previously, no doubt. One exploded just yards ahead of her, making her stumble backwards, and she swore. Sakura was no sensor, so she couldn't detect the chakra powering the bombs and giving away their locations. Blind and suffocating, she didn't have much recourse.
Think, Sakura, you're strong!
Yes, she was strong. Very strong. And now, perhaps that could come in handy. Gathering power in her fist, Sakura slammed her knuckles to the ground, shattering the earth and setting off a chain reaction. As she sank into a deep crater of her own creation, fissures rippling outward from her impact disturbed the remaining land mines, setting them off in a symphony of fire and sound. Rubble and burning tree branches rained over her crouched form, and she tried to shield herself as best she could. It was over in a matter of moments.
When Sakura opened her eyes and surveyed the area, the smoke was beginning to clear with an incoming wind. Several acres of forest were completely obliterated, and intermittent fires burned among the remains.
Raising a hand to heal her ruined shoulder, Sakura took a moment to assess her situation. She could make out figures fighting in the distance. Two white birds flew up above, circling each other in an impressive display of aerodynamics.
She had to rejoin her division. If she could just find Kakashi and Gai and Lee, she could help out where needed. Kankuro's division had signaled a distress call, and from the looks of her current situation, it was serious. She made to leave the sunken crater when a voice stopped her.
"And you call yourself a woman with that monstrous strength? I suppose you haven't changed at all."
If words were wind, his were the cruelest tempest to have ever chilled her to the bone. Time slowed down as she turned to face him, a nightmare reawakened. Somehow, whenever she was around Sasori, time was stagnant and close enough to grasp.
He didn't look very happy to see her.
"Sasori," Sakura said, falling into a defensive fighting stance.
He smirked, his face flaking with the effect of the horrible Edo Tensei. When she'd first faced him, he was nothing short of mechanical, perfect in the way an automaton functions at full capacity. Tireless, ceaseless, unconquerable. And yet now, in animated death, he seemed more alive and tangible than he ever had during his true life.
"I was wondering if I'd run into you. I guess you haven't died yet," Sasori said, ignoring her greeting.
He maintained his distance some yards away. There were no puppets in the vicinity that Sakura could detect, but that made her more anxious than if he'd had his army of 100 puppets flanking him. Machines, she could handle. But not shadows.
"I'm not as weak as you seem to think I am," Sakura said. "I did beat you, if you recall."
Sasori blinked, and Sakura had to marvel at how strangeit was to see him reacting in such a human way. Gone were the clicks and clinks of internal gears and weapons working in tandem to make him function. He ran on magic now, an ancient power that was forbidden for a reason. Sakura wondered if he could feel anything in that body, but she couldn't justify why that would interest her at all.
"I recall," Sasori said, raising a hand in her direction, "that you had help from that old hag." Glowing, blue threads wound around his fingertips and shot out in various directions. "But now, it's just you and me."
Before Sakura could find her voice, she had to roll out of the way of a falling boulder that had somehow taken flight and decided to land where she'd been standing. No sooner did she avoid death by bludgeoning than a burning tree trunk careened toward her with a vengeance. Gasping, her initial instinct to meet it with a fist was useless unless she wanted to be roasted. But just when Sakura thought she wouldn't avoid the collision scott free, the fiery projectile swerved and crash-landed to her left. Sakura stumbled to the ground and landed on her injured shoulder, wincing.
"You didn't think I'd let you off that easy, did you?"
Sakura turned to see her would-be savior and felt her heart soar.
"Kankuro," Sasori said. "You're interrupting."
Kankuro grinned and maneuvered his puppet into a battle-ready stance. "What can I say? I like bein' the center of attention."
Sakura pulled herself off the ground and eyed Kankuro's puppet, Scorpion. They'd gone to retrieve it together. Kankuro had insisted that she accompany him, wanting to hear every detail of her fight with the greatest puppet master that had ever lived.
Sakura remembered that day vividly, the day after her fight with Sasori. When they'd arrived at the sight of the demolished cave in River Country, Kankuro had taken his time surveying the damage to the 100 puppets in pieces. He hadn't believed her story that Sasori had summoned 100 puppets all at once in his final attack, but after seeing the wreckage left over from the battle, there was no disputing it.
Sakura had not bothered with the many wooden minions that day, instead focusing on Sasori's fallen form in the embrace of his Mother and Father puppets. For what seemed like forever Sakura had stood there, gazing down at him while Kankuro surveyed the sight of her epic battle. A part of her had wanted to reach out and touch the face of the broken machine that had taken more than her life to shut down. She'd crouched down, gloved fingers tentative as she made to touch his hair, matted with blood-hers or Chiyo's, she couldn't say-but Kankuro's voice had startled her and made her pull away from Sasori.
In the end, looking at the empty shell he'd left behind just wasn't the same, could never be the same. And why? He wasn't alive, technically, so a lack of a heart should have made no difference. But as she and Kankuro hauled his puppet body out of that cave, she couldn't help but wonder why she felt a chill of death in the air. If he hadn't been human, if he hadn't wanted to be human, then why did she notice his absence?
An explosion jarred Sakura from her rampant thoughts, and all eyes turned to the right. Kakashi, Gai, and Sai were facing off against Deidara, who'd momentarily dismounted his clay bird. His cackle made Sakura cringe.
"Reminds me of someone I know," Sasori said.
"Sasori, stop this. This isn't you; we both know it!" Kankuro pleaded with him.
"...How ironic. I finally have the perfect body I'd always wanted, a vessel that will never age or rot." Sasori looked at his hands with dead, dark eyes. "I've truly become a puppet in every sense of the word."
More explosions wracked the earth, and Kankuro fell to one knee. Sakura's eyes were trained on Sasori, aghast. She knew that look, that feeling. She'd seen it before.
"What a waste..."
"I'm neither a human nor a puppet."
Kankuro began the fight first with Scorpion, unleashing the puppet's hidden flamethrower and aiming directly for Sasori. In retaliation, Sasori used his chakra strings to control the natural debris lying around-anything from solid rocks and trees to inanimate fire itself. Sakura gasped when she saw him stop the flamethrower's fire with only his strings and redirect it toward Kankuro. They were going to kill each other if she didn't do something.
Steeling herself, Sakura summoned chakra to her fists and sprinted toward Sasori. He saw her just as she let out a battle cry and aimed a fist for his chest where she remembered his heart canister had been during their last fight. A flash of surprise was her only greeting as her fist connected with freezing flesh and penetrated him. They plummeted to the ground together, and Sakura grunted in pain when her arm took the brunt of the collision shock. Cold hands locked her arms in a vice grip, immobilizing her.
Sasori looked up at her, his eyes as golden and warm as she remembered in spite of his nature.
"Why are you doing this?" she found herself saying, voice barely above a whisper. Desperate. "I thought... I thought maybe-"
"It's not my choice," he interrupted. "...But even if I weren't being controlled, I wouldn't back away from this fight."
She was angry, so angry. She'd thought he'd changed, that for a small moment in time, hoping beyond hope, he had changed. She had to know.
"Why did you do it? Why did you tell me about Orochimaru?"
Somewhere behind them, Kankuro was recovering from the attack Sasori had reversed on him, and he called for Sakura. Sasori's grip on her tightened painfully, and she had to bite the inside of her cheek to keep from crying out.
"You did something pointless for me. Why?"
"You still give neither of us enough credit," he said.
Sakura's eyes widened, taking in his restored appearance, wanting for breath. But something was pulling her away. Kankuro's chakra threads yanked her skyward, free of Sasori. His grip loosened, hands running down her arms and wrists to her fingertips until they were no longer near enough to touch. She landed next to Kankuro and Scorpion.
"You okay?" Kankuro asked, panting.
Sakura nodded, not trusting her voice to speak for her. Sasori got to his feet, the hole where Sakura had pierced him already sealing with the magic of the Edo Tensei. Sakura watched, suddenly sad. He didn't have to be human or puppet like this: he was perfect. So why was he so disappointed? She could see it in the way he looked at her, resigned and tired. This wasn't the Sasori she'd battled so long ago. That man (and he was a man, this much she'd proven to both of them) had died that day. This was just the pieces clumsily thrown back together. There was no will, no purpose so long as he was being manipulated. There were only the clocks, ticking and tocking an eternity of beautiful nothingness before her eyes. Frozen.
And he wasn't happy.
"Kankuro, this isn't the way," Sakura said. "You know it's not."
They watched their nemesis with wary eyes, waiting for him to make a move, but he simply waited for the Edo Tensei to finish making him whole. Kankuro frowned. Sasori hated to wait.
"I know," he said. "That's why I sent the distress signal."
Sakura turned to her ally, stunned. "Kankuro..."
"Let's finish this."
Sakura nodded, her eyes trained on Sasori's hands as he prepared to start attacking them again.
"He and that blond idiot smashed my other puppets," Kankuro said. "Think you can hold him yourself?"
"Yeah, no problem."
The duo parted ways, Sakura giving Sasori a wide berth and waiting to see what he would do so she could react accordingly. To her surprise, he crouched down on the ground. Kankuro, meanwhile, directed Scorpion to attack with its many hidden blades.
"Kuchiyose no jutsu."
A loud pop and a burst of smoke later, a scorpion larger than any Sakura had ever seen in her life towered taller than any normal man next to Sasori. Its glossy, black carapace reflected the sun's light like black diamond. Sakura felt her jaw drop. Sasori was still surprising her even now.
To her horror, he latched onto the summon with his chakra strings. Usually slow and ungainly, this scorpion moved with unnatural precision. When Kankuro attempted to pierce its hide with Scorpion's whirling blades, Sasori deflected with his summon's giant pincer.
The summon aimed for the puppet's torso, but Scorpion was too fast. Sasori's summon only managed to snag one of the rotating blades, bending and crushing it under the force of a pincer. Maybe it really was studded with black diamonds to be able to crush steel like it was tissue paper.
Kankuro and Sakura would have to get past this new pet before they could get to Sasori.
Veering off course, Sakura ran toward the giant scorpion with glowing fists at the ready. Sasori was not going to let her sneak up on him again, though. With speed no arachnid should ever possess, the scorpion's stinger smashed into the ground at Sakura's feet, causing her to stumble and trip. The tip oozed a viscous, clear liquid that Sakura took an extra tumble to avoid.
Poison, she surmised. But this time she had no antidote to counteract Sasori.
The stinger dislodged itself from the ground and flew at her again. Sakura dodge-rolled to avoid it. She wouldn't be able to beat this thing if she kept falling to the ground.
"Sakura, hold it!" Kankuro shouted.
"Too slow," Sasori said.
With a wave of his nimble fingers, the giant summon pounded the earth with its pincers and jumped. Sakura struggled to her feet, eyes wide with shock. This thing seemed utterly weightless. Suddenly, Scorpion appeared out of nowhere, its remaining blade pinwheel propelling it through the air. Sakura watched as the giant scorpion reached for it with a pincer, and this time she was expecting that move.
Taking off at full tilt, Sakura lunged at the summon and punched the pincer aiming for Kankuro's puppet with all her might. It snapped back at an unhealthy angle and the summon shrieked, but it didn't break off. Sakura earned a bloody hand for her efforts, and she was quite sure some of the bones were broken.
But it was enough. Kankuro directed Scorpion to released a jet of liquid that doused the summon. It was too thick to be water, but the pungent smell gave it away: oil. Sakura understood what had to happen next.
"Kankuro, follow me!" she shouted, swallowing the pain in her broken hand to deal with later. She had two hands at her disposal; this was a minor setback.
Sasori forced his summon to pop its massive claw back in place, and now Sakura could see it was cracked and bleeding. The sight gave her confidence, and she threw herself at the scorpion once more. It nearly slammed into her with its good pincer, but she'd predicted this watching Sasori's hands move. It seemed she hadn't forgotten his little secrets.
"Here I come!" she said, grinning as she caught hold of her target: the scorpion's tail.
She briefly caught Sasori's eyes trained on her, hyper-focused but not angry. In that split second, Sakura felt as though she knew exactly what he was thinking.
"Move!" Kankuro said from somewhere behind her.
Sakura landed, the scorpion's tail firmly in her grasp. With all the strength she could muster, she swung it up and over her head in Sasori's direction. Kankuro unleashed his puppet's flamethrower right on cue, and Sakura could feel the heat manifest above her head. For a moment she felt like she was throwing the sun itself.
"Sasori!" she said.
Sasori scowled and made to jump back, but Sakura brought down her burning trophy right on top of him with a battle cry. Fire and earth exploded upon the already ruined earth, the heat of which made Sakura sweat from the proximity. The end of the scorpion's tail broke off in her hands and she fell backward. The stinger oozed poison, and she flung it away in a hurry, her skin crawling. It was still wriggling.
"Hey, you okay?" Kankuro asked, offering a hand to help her stand.
"I've been better," Sakura said, wincing.
"Now that that's out of the way, we can try to release him."
"...I'm not sure. But we gotta get through to him somehow."
Sakura faced the smoking mess that was the charred scorpion corpse. This was it, and she had to make it count. The smoke was thick even as she skirted the scorpion's remains. Kankuro attempted to move it with his chakra strings as she searched for Sasori. Her search didn't last long.
Sakura couldn't move her body. it was like time had stopped around her. It was even difficult to breathe like this. Sasori emerged from the wreckage, the Edo Tensei healing the lacerations and burns in his skin as though rejecting their existence entirely. Glowing threads shone in the sunlight, connecting her to him.
"No matter how many times you hit me, this body will never break like my old one," Sasori said. There was no joy in his tone; it was simply a statement of fact.
Sakura felt tendrils of fear snaking up her back, but she couldn't move at all. He had her in his clutches, and there was nothing she could do.
"So is this it? You kill me and move onto the next job your master gives you?"
Sasori paused just short of her, but he didn't respond.
"What are you waiting for? I thought you hated delays."
"Are you so eager to die?"
"Are you?" Sakura shot back.
This earned a reaction, and Sasori stepped closer. If only she could move, Sakura could have reached out to touch him.
"I can't die," he said, expression unreadable. "But I can't live, either. It's like the sands of time have frozen in their hourglass. I just...exist."
"This isn't you," Sakura said. "I know you, and this is all wrong."
"Don't overstep your boundaries, woman."
He was immovable, and Sakura didn't think she had the strength to sway him alone.
"Then why haven't you killed me yet?" Maybe it was desperation or hysteria or blind hope, but Sakura had to try. What she'd seen in him that day hadn't been a mirage. He could change. He had changed.
"Sasori!" Kankuro said, skidding to a halt some distance away when he noticed Sasori had Sakura in a compromising position. "Stop this! It's not what you want to do!"
"Who are you to tell me what I want?" Sasori said, suddenly angry. "Idon't answer to you. I'm a master of puppets!"
"And it's those puppets you put your heart and soul into that are your legacy to the next generation," Kankuro said. "That's the eternity you were after. And you found it!"
Sasori's gaze was heavy upon her, but Sakura could not look away. It was like watching someone awaken in the morning from a deep sleep, slowly becoming aware of the world around him. Sasori's chakra output faltered, and Sakura lurched against his hold. Kankuro, waiting for the opportune moment, wasted no time in attacking with Scorpion from behind.
Wicked knives plunged through Sasori's undead body at all angles, and Sakura gasped. Sasori was arrested in place in Scorpion's steel embrace. Honey eyes that weren't as shocked as Sakura imagined they would be met hers, and suddenly they were no longer here.
They were back in the cave in River Country, and Sasori was once more suspended in the corridor between past and future, unable to live and unable to die. The sands of time could not fall around him. And just as then, he couldn't break free all alone.
"You were supposed to be a world-class puppet master, not some worthless nobody who lets someone else pull the strings!" Kankuro's voice echoed around them, like he was everywhere at once and not with them at all.
Sasori let his eyes fall, the chakra threads that imprisoned Sakura dissipating. "I know that," he said softly.
"Not a human, not a puppet..."
Was that it? He was just going to give up after everything? Those eyes, those hopeless eyes that recognized failure despite his best efforts haunted Sakura. She couldn't abide the sight of his humanity like this if all it did was destroy him, body and soul.
"You're not a nobody. You're just human. You always were."
"It's like you learned nothing that day," Sasori said. "After everything we went through, you still ..."
Sakura shook her head. "You're wrong. You were wrong then, and you're wrong now." She smiled sadly. "Why is that the only way you can see the world?"
Her words seemed to reach him, an echo of the past. "It's the only way I've ever known."
Sakura stared at him, shocked.
"You may be an extraordinary medic," Sasori went on. "But even you can't save what never existed to begin with."
Something within Sakura snapped at his utter flippancy. Cocking her fist, she slugged him hard in the jaw. Sasori's face snapped to the side with a grunt.
"That's enough," she said, panting.
Sasori's honey eyes peered at her sideways, and he slowly turned to face her. His cheek and jaw were cracked and flaking where her fist had connected. Sakura studied him, unsure if she was truly fighting a war or back in that cave in River Country. But unlike then, this time she was certain of her conviction. Sasori was damn good, but even he wasn't perfect.
"Hitting me is pointless. You're wasting your time," Sasori said.
Dream or reality, she couldn't say. Whenever Sakura was around Sasori, she felt like she was running in circles, like they were forever doomed to rise and fall while getting nowhere at all.
But they had gotten somewhere. She wouldn't be here if not for him. Everything she was, everything she'd accomplished since Sasori was because he'd given her a chance when no one else would. She hadn't understood at the time, and he was gone so fast-he hated to make others wait, Death included. But now the clocks had frozen and he had his eternity, if only for a few precious moments.
"You're not a puppet. You never were! I know because I watched you die that day. You were human, and you changed. Deny it all you want, but you let that last attack hit you because you couldn't stand having to face that reality. Chiyo-baa-sama and I didn't kill you; your humanity killed you."
Sasori remained silent during her tirade, perhaps unable to find the words to repudiate her.
"It also brought you to life," Sakura said, clenching her good fist in frustration.
"You don't know what you're saying," Sasori said. He was beginning to anger.
Sakura squeezed her eyes and shook her head. "Stop it, just stop!"
"Why should I? You never do."
"Because you brought me to life, too!"
"...What?" Whatever anger that had been escalating disappeared. Sasori looked like he couldn't remember even how to breathe as he searched her for something.
"Before you, no one had ever acknowledged me. And I was okay with that because I didn't understand. But then with you, I just..." Sakura forced herself to look up and meet his gaze. "I felt like I was worth something in your eyes. I didn't even realize how much I wasn't living before..."
All her life, Sakura had watched while the people she loved most ran ahead of her, never waiting for her to catch up or even offering her a helping hand. It wasn't out of malice or scorn, but a flower neglected withers and dies the same as if it were ripped from its roots and crushed. She'd been a ghost walking among men until Sasori and Chiyo. All they'd done was give her a chance, a wall to scale, fully expecting her to knock it down or die trying. How could she possibly forget the person who had saved her when no one else even bothered to notice something was wrong?
"And for that, I'll never forget you. Even if you despise me, even we have to kill you all over again, I'll keep your memory with me forever."
"Sasori, your techniques and creations that you put your heart and soul into are already eternal," Kankuro said. "Your art will live forever through the performances of the next generation that inherits your legacy."
Sasori was silent for a long time, the weight of Sakura's and Kankuro's confessions constricting whatever was left of the heart he'd tried so hard to destroy. Sakura hovered close enough to reach out to him, unable to move as she professed what she'd been carrying with her for so long.
When Sasori smiled, a genuine, beautiful smile, she couldn't believe her eyes. Tears blurred her vision. This was what she'd been waiting for. After all this time, he was finally seeing the world for what it was.
"I guess that's always how I wanted my art to be perceived," Sasori said.
Sakura brought a hand up to cover her mouth and stifle a choked sob. "Oh..."
Sasori met her eyes again, the smile still in place. He was so...
"I always wanted to live forever." He raised one arm toward her, though it was half severed by one of Scorpion's many blades. "But I don't believe in promises."
The tears fell freely now, and Sakura wasn't sure if she should take his hand and embrace him or cut him down while his guard was lowered. "I always keep my promises. I won't forget you."
Something strange happened then. Instead of continuing to heal his wounds, the Edo Tensei seemed to disintegrate. Light shone through cracks in Sasori's face, and his skin began to turn to ash.
His time was nearly up. No one can halt the sands of time forever.
"Kankuro, I want you to have my Mother and Father puppets," Sasori said. "And when you die, pass them on to the next generation."
Kankuro, who recognized that this was finally the end, approached Sasori and Sakura. "...You got it."
Sakura didn't have to look at Kankuro to know he was crying, too.
The veins of light glowed brighter with each passing moment, but Sasori didn't struggle. Perhaps he was at peace finally, able to let go of his failures and his pain, trusting that his life had not been completely for naught. He'd had a life, and it had mattered.
Sakura gasped at the sound of her name on his lips. His eyes, those warm, honey eyes that had drawn her in from the moment they first saw each other, softened.
He was fading, and Sakura wasn't ready to let go just yet. She moved toward him, reaching for him but not knowing why. Clocks ticked and tocked in her ears, slower and slower. Just as she reached him, the last of him vanished with the wind. Her fingers curled around thin air and stray ashes, never reaching him.
Sakura stumbled and Kankuro caught her before she could fall upon Scorpion's swords. The wind picked up, rustling her bangs and carrying her tears with warm, wispy fingers.
Amidst a battlefield of blood and bones and broken things, once more, Sakura had won.