Kill Your Heroes
Sakura clutched at the pillar, her eyes trained on the shinobi high above. She didn't know if she could avoid thrown kunai from this position. She didn't know if she'd be able to see thrown kunai. Sakura had closed her eyes instinctively at the first flare of the magnesium, but opened them again just as instinctively in time to meet her enemy's final attack.
A still-smoldering enemy that she'd left unnervingly close to other flammable objects, but she couldn't think of that. She could barely keep herself together here. Some part of her was relieved when the shinobi who'd continued so carefully mapping out the pattern that would destroy the bridge and everyone on it sneered, turning his back on her in a blatant display of disregard.
Sakura honestly wanted nothing more than to keep cowering at the waterline, but beyond the white light of corneal flash burns, she saw a man burning. Her hands shook, but the solid weight of his knife in her hand grounded her. She couldn't let that happen to Tazuna and the others. The fear was great, but the fear of surviving the explosion she would have essentially allowed to happen was greater. Not by much, but enough.
She misjudged when she started her ascent up the pillar, her foot coming down on water not nearly as solid as the column and she barked the skin of one knee and just to the side of one eyebrow. It burned as the saltwater seeped into them, but she ground her teeth together and sprinted upward. If she wheezed, so what? It wasn't as if her approach would be any surprise anyway and she didn't know enough about demolitions to judge from this distance whether he was using a mechanical timer or a chakra-pulse type fuse, or how close he was to finishing the inked pattern that would assure that the bridge and everyone on it would be nothing more than rubble and a memory. If he finished before she reached him, if that happened...
She shunted away that train of thought.
She didn't know how to disarm explosives any more than she knew how to set them.
She dug into her pouch for kunai, flinging them at her enemy. Her hands had been shaking, but the cool, familiar feel of the metal loops beneath her fingers brought back the endless conditioning of the Academy. She hadn't understood the countless hours of what seemed like mindless practice then, but now she did. Now it didn't matter that her target was a person rather than a painted target. Her body knew this, even if her mind lagged behind.
But this target reacted, deflecting her kunai with one of his own. She had some sense that he wasn't nearly as fast as Kakashi-sensei or Zabuza, but that offered her no reassurance. He didn't have to be jounin-level to be better than Sakura, especially at this moment. The white flashes had faded somewhat, but she was still seeing odd shadow-lights. She fended off his retaliatory kunai with the knife, but though it sat naturally in her hand, the hilt made for hands not much larger than her own, she was awkward in its use. Sakura had adopted the reverse grip naturally, the hilt and blade formed in such a way as to encourage it, but she'd never defended with a weapon in that position before.
One of his kunai rasped along the flat of the blade and traced a shallow path along her arm and she had to shift herself dramatically to keep from allowing it to continue into the mass of her body. Somehow, though, she couldn't make herself release the weapon she'd snatched up so thoughtlessly. But the exchange of kunai stopped as the gap between them closed, each readying for the other. Sakura simply charged in, but her opponent slipped a scroll from his equipment pouch. And when he unsealed it, it was a weapon unlike anything she'd ever seen.
As tall as he was, it was some kind of warclub, made of what almost looked like a young tree, the rootball at the end made into a mess of sharpened points and serrated blades driven into the wood. It was not a graceful weapon. It was not a proper ninja weapon, wasn't even a weapon most street thugs might have been satisfied with. But it gave him even more of an advantage in reach and skin, bone, and muscle had a surprising lack of regard for craftsmanship when faced with enough force. And those blades looked sharp as razors, with a sick, well-oiled gleam.
The wood was stained a deep, bloody brown.
"Hurry it up, girlie," her opponent grunted, "I don't have all day."
Sakura wished she thought she was skilled enough to play for time. As it was, it took everything she had to continue a battle she didn't want to be fighting, all of her will to keep her feet moving forward. Those few, tense seconds when they'd thought Kakashi-sensei was dead had been bad enough. This was worse.
Maybe it was because she was alone. She'd expected Sasuke-kun to win, somehow, no matter what had happened to their jounin-sensei, but she...
But thinking stopped as he made his first swing, letting it run out through his hand until he held it like a bat. It was even longer than she'd thought and she stumbled awkwardly to one side, because if she forgot herself and leaped, that would be the end of it. Like swatting a fly. Even if she somehow managed to block, he was heavier and leverage was on his side. She needed to shift this battle elsewhere.
Especially as she wasn't certain how much longer she could keep her feet firmly adhered to the underside of the bridge. Would he follow? That was the thought uppermost in her mind as she tried to keep out of range, being pushed back without much difficulty on his part. His fighting style was as ugly as his weapon, wide swings turning to wild thrusts, but in this battleground and against Sakura, it was proving effective.
She chanced a glance behind her, which revealed she'd lost more ground than she'd thought. She was almost at the edge of the bridge, the hook and cable of the dormant lattice boom crane dangling tantalizing far away.
Her mind was clouded with too much panic to produce something coherent enough to be called a plan, which insinuated more steps and clearer intentions. But she needed to change the battleground. She just needed to survive doing it.
She had a lot more shuriken than kunai and none of them would do her any good if she died here, so she used her supply freely, trying to aim for his feet as they continued their swift, awkward dance. She irritated him, she saw that clearly, and when she finally—with a swift twist of her wrist at the last second and coming dangerously within his range—sent a line of shuriken thudding home, she infuriated him. As he reached down to tug them out, she didn't allow herself to be baited in, instead turning, sprinting, and taking the greatest leap of faith she'd ever attempted.
She caught the cable with her free hand and twisted her feet around it. She was immediately glad she'd only had one open hand, because the cable was steel, cutting remorselessly even past her weapon calluses. Using her chakra rather than her grip strength, she slithered upward, her enemy choosing to come up over the side of the bridge and ascend the crane in a series of leaps rather than duplicate her own jump.
Sakura had only seconds to catch her breath before they met in combat along the length of the crane's jib. They were both more agile now, something that Sakura felt a deep sense of regret about, when she had the space to feel anything at all.
And then it happened.
Sakura was tired, her chakra not flowing as effortlessly as it had when the fight began, and there was a moment when her balance was precarious and her control slipped. She barely managed to catch at one of the bars before she fell and she dangled precariously, her one point of contact a hand that was slick with her own blood. Her arm trembled as she fought against gravity and the weight of her own body. No sparring match at the Academy had prepared her for this. There had always been the safety net of surrender; now there was only a choice about whether or not to let go.
Her opponent seemed eager to hurry her decision. He sneered at her and ground one foot down on her hand, which already had been thoroughly abraded by its encounter with the cable. Sakura screamed, the pain enough to override exhaustion and create an instantaneous reflex. She drove the knife through his ankle.
"You bitch!" he cursed her, shifting his weight to bring that club down, but she'd already used the momentum caused by her movement to swing herself close enough to grab his other foot with her newly free hand. Her grip was solid around his ankle and she yanked it toward her with everything she had left. His entire weight was on that leg and he was just off-balance enough for his foot to slide forward that necessary inch into thin air. Weight and gravity took over where her strength ended and his pelvis met the unyielding steel bar with a solid crunch. He almost pulled her down with him, but she used his trapped body to claw her way up until she was crouched atop the jib. His legs had tangled awkwardly, putting the knife back within reach.
Sakura took it. And without any more hesitation, fear spurring her to new quickness, she ended the fight. Once, twice because fear had made her clumsy and she'd misjudged the first stoke, and then it was over. At first she could only stay there and tremble, braced almost as awkwardly as he was tangled, because she couldn't trust her chakra any more, but then she'd had enough.
She wanted these last minutes of her life to have never happened, she wanted to be home and finding herself waking up from a terrible dream, she wanted it to be one of those rare occasions when her parents were home too, but she had to settle for getting down, for getting the workers off this bridge in case she hadn't made it in time and somewhere beneath her feet was a fuse already lit. Sakura moved with excessive care, trying to move quickly without falling, until her world was a rhythm of moving her feet and hands from one brace to the next.
When her sandaled feet encountered concrete, it felt very strange. Surreal, really.
As she stumbled back toward the work crew, she noticed they'd dumped sand on the other shinobi and soaked it before it could spread. Somehow that made her stare, because it hadn't occurred to her that the civilians might make themselves useful.
Tazuna whistled when he saw her battered form and Sakura winced. If she looked half as bad as she felt, she didn't want Sasuke-kun to see her until sometime well after they'd returned to the village. He turned and called over to another worker, "Masa-kun, why don't you get the first aid kit." He thrust his thumb over his shoulder at the sandy mound of the other ninja's body. "If you want, we can take care of him, but your sensei'll probably want to have a look at him, eh?"
"I guess—I mean, yes," Sakura said, fumbling with the simply affirmative. Proper protocols seemed so far away. "But we need to get off the bridge. Now. They were setting explosives and I don't know enough about them to disarm it if he managed to set it."
Shock crossed Tazuna's features, but it was very brief. He seemed almost less surprised than she had been. In short order, he'd mustered his crew and they'd retreated to a distance Sakura thought was safe while they waited for Kakashi-sensei to arrive. She hadn't noticed, but they'd sent up the flare she'd dropped. And he wasn't as oblivious to his surroundings as she was.
"Ah, over here, Masa-kun," Tazuna called. "No point in waiting to get you cleaned up a little," he said to her. "Have a little consideration for those who have to clean your blood off the street."
One of the crew members came forward and she allowed herself to be led out of the way, borrowing space on the bench in someone's scraggly front garden. The first aid kit looked more like a repurposed toolkit than anything she was accustomed to and Masa grinned at her. "Sorry. We're a little low-tech when it comes to something short of an emergency. Clean rags to stop the bleeding, alcohol to disinfect, some coldpacks. If it needs more than that, it usually means an immediate trip to the clinic anyway. Anything feel like it might need stitches?" he asked as he coaxed her to sit.
It was a little closer to a collapse, the knife clattering to the road as she finally forced her fingers to let go. She had a flash, instant but overwhelming, of silver eyes creased in rage and pain. She shuddered.
"Cold?" Masa asked. He was perhaps twice her age, with a kind face.
Sakura shook her head. "No," she croaked.
She sat still as Masa tried to carefully shift her hair out of her face, but it was sticking and pulling at her cuts and abrasions. Her headband simply wasn't enough to keep it back after her dip in the sea. Masa tugged free the material that had been binding his own hair out of the way, one of those oversized, fringed things she could never decide if it was a kerchief or a scarf and associated heavily with desert campaigns. Shemagh? Something like that. This one was white, with a simple black gridwork. She noted absently that his revealed hair was a muddy brown, chin length, and raggedly cut. "Go ahead and tie your hair back with it," he coaxed. "It was clean when I put it on this morning."
Sakura managed to undo the knot of her forehead protector, replacing her ineffective ribbon with the far more effective shemagh. Though Masa had to knot it for her. After fumbling at it and getting in his way, she just sat quietly with her hands tucked in her lap, holding a bundle of rags against the back of her bleeding hand. It wasn't deep, but as was the case with head wounds, there wasn't a lot of flesh to protect the veins and it had been bleeding freely. She was so miserable and sick to her stomach she hardly noticed when he turned his attention to her face.
Until he prodded at the cut at the corner of her lip. "Ah, this might scar, " he said. "You might need stitches, too. I'll take you to the clinic when we've finished here. But you're young enough that even if it does, it will fade."
Sakura had a feeling that the idea of scarring on her face was something she ought to care about, but the longer she sat still, the more exhaustion pressed down on her. And the more she felt that, if she turned her head, those fierce silver eyes would be watched her. Hunting her. Thinking that he was dead was no comfort, because that brought on a different kind of terror.
So she didn't look.
Didn't do much of anything, didn't think much of anything, until she heard the murmur of the crowd that heralded Kakashi-sensei's arrival. Before she could even spot him, Tazuna was explaining the situation in a loud, carrying voice. Kakashi-sensei's answer was brief, crisp and then he was gone again and Sakura was left in suspense with everyone else. It seemed a long, long wait, but then there was a cheerful report off, "All clear!"
"Good, then let's get back to work," Tazuna said. Most of the crewmembers shuffled back to the jobsite, though Masa stayed with her. She flinched when Kakashi's hand came down in that familiar, condescending headpat.
Sakura hunched her shoulders forward. "Kakashi-sensei, you're late," she accused. Now that he was here, it was almost a sob.
"Ah," Kakashi-sensei acknowledged. "Sorry about that, Sakura-chan."
She huddled closer, drawing in her knees as she sucked in uneven, ragged breaths. She didn't want to cry. Shinobi mustn't. But with the warm, solid weight of Kakashi's hand resting on top her head, it was proving really, really hard. Someone approached them and she didn't bother to look up, but the soft rasp of something being placed on the ground made her glance at it out of habit.
She kept looking out of horror. Why would anyone think I would want that?
It was the twin to the knife she'd used. But its steel was discolored from the heat, the nylon cord that had wrapped the hilt melted, tar spackling the exposed metal on the hilt. And it was still smeared with the blood of the first man she'd ever killed.
Tentatively, she reached out, fingers ghosting over the melted and burned wreck of cord. She turned, Kakashi-sensei's hand falling away. The workers had unearthed her first victim from his grave of wet sand and her gaze skittered away from even the faint glimpse she'd see from this distance, but her eyes caught elsewhere.
The morning sun finally burned hot enough to boil away the clouds, turning the sky a fierce red-orange, and there in that fiery sky, cast in dramatic silhouette at near the apex of crane—like some kind of gory flag shifting slightly in the breeze—was the twisted body of the second.