Chapter 6

A/N: The arc proceeds steadily towards its inevitable conclusion. This storywill diverge from canon, increasingly so as time goes by. In-universe, thestory starts very close to canon, but from there deviation can only increaseas the differences stack with each other to throw the story off its originalcourse. Out of universe, starting close to canon allows me to get comfortablewith the characters and the AU, and get my writing skills up to scratch beforethe greater challenge of opening up wholly new territory (the timeline forwhich has already been decided).

It can be inferred from the behaviour of Zabuza’s clones that while he ishappy to spare the Genin if convenient, he will not take any actual risks inorder to do so. Trying to avoid a lethal first strike before he had a chanceto gauge his opponents’ level of skill would most certainly have been a riskto him.

Assuming Kakashi’s techniques are literally a thousand in number (which isfar from given), they are likely to contain many with overlapping functions,as well as many specialised ones only useful in specific situations, and manyhe doesn’t actually like but knows inside out so that he can counter them ifnecessary. He may have an extraordinary technique “vocabulary” compared tomost ninja, but like all human beings, his passive vocabulary must be farbigger than his active one.

Due to my limited lair situation, and present lack of funds for new minionupkeep, I request that readers refrain from offering firstborn children astribute at this time. An exception may be made, subject to extensive securitychecks, for firstborn old enough to commit financially profitable acts of evilwith minimal supervision.

-o-

Morino Ibiki was a frightening man. He was not like Iruka-sensei, whosometimes tried to act tough but was really a big softie underneath. He wasnot like Mizuki-sensei, who was all smiles until the moment he thought someonewasn’t showing him respect, when he suddenly lashed out like an angry snake.He wasn’t even like Kataoka-sensei, who had scary shiny glasses and anobsession with discipline, but also bought the class sweets at the end of termif everyone passed the test. Morino Ibiki acted like the second he thought youwere a threat, even if you were his best friend or his brother, he would knockyou out and have you taken away, and then nobody would ever see you again.When they first met him at the special guest lecture at the Academy, none ofthe children were aware that this was literally true.

“Members of the civilian population often ask me,” Ibiki began, “‘what is aninja?’ Who here can tell me the answer?”

No-one responded for a while. Then, a blonde girl in the middle of theassembly hesitantly raised her hand. Ibiki nodded at her.

“Someone who fights bad people to protect the village.”

“Good. Anyone else?”

A boy wearing a pair of sunglasses raised his hand next.

“Someone who carries out missions to bring money to the village.”

Ibiki nodded, and let a few more children offer their definitions. Heespecially liked one particularly serious-looking girl’s idea of a ninja as“someone who uses knowledge as a tool to get what she wants”. He made a noteto find out her name.

“Those are all reasonable definitions,” he told the audience. “But there’s oneyou’ve all missed out, and it may be the most important.”

“A ninja is a killer.”

He instantly had everyone’s total attention.

“You were told when you entered the Academy that the life of a ninja is fullof sacrifice. You were told that one day, you might be called upon to giveyour lives for the sake of your comrades and the village. But the firstsacrifice you must make to become a ninja is both simpler and more cruel. Youmust sacrifice your innocence.”

The children listened to Ibiki, wide-eyed. The deep, rock-solid convictionthey could see in his eyes was proof that he’d personally lived every word ofwhat he was now telling them.

“Every single one of you, if you graduate and become Genin, will face enemiesof Leaf in battle. You will have to kill. At that time, if you hesitate foreven a second, you will be killed first. This is why, among the many qualitiesyou need to be a ninja, the most important one is killing intent.”

He paused to let the idea sink in, and slowly let his gaze sweep over theassembly. Each of the children felt like the tall, imposing man was lookingdirectly into their eyes.

“In the coming months, many of you will drop out of the Academy because youhave no killing intent. There is no shame in this. There are many ways you canserve the village, and just as some of you have the qualities needed to serveas ninja, so the rest will discover their own unique skills in time. Acommunity that could do nothing but kill would not be worth protecting.

“For those who stay, understand what you are sacrificing for the village. Theother man may not be a villain. He may be fighting for his comrades and his_village, and doing what _he believes to be right. He may be just like you inevery possible way. Yet he is the enemy.”

Ibiki let every word of his final sentence fall into place in an exact,inexorable rhythm. “And you must kill him before he kills you.”

-o-

That day and that speech were burned into the mind of every single Academystudent. In accordance with Morino Ibiki’s prediction, the number of studentsdropped sharply, the first wave leaving in the immediate aftermath, then moreas they began the special classes designed to condition them to kill, and manyfound themselves unable to murder a living enemy, even when that enemy wasreally a clone or an illusion.

Leaf, Naruto’s reading told him, had been the pioneer of a form ofconditioning that did not involve forcing young shinobi to suppress theiremotions in order to be able to treat enemies as simple targets rather thanliving human beings (as every village had done before). Instead, they weretaught to find motivations which reinforced their personalities, allowing themto face the full impact of killing without crumbling under the stress. Thusthe zealotry of those who believed in the Will of Fire, thus the emphasis onwilling sacrifice, on the centrality of the village to their lives, and on thepreciousness of bonds and the need to protect them. Instead of tough, brittleninja that believed in nothing and obeyed orders perfectly, at the price of asizeable chunk of their psychological health and overall potential, Leaftrained ninja who fought with genuine passion, and thought that their beliefsand values were freely chosen. Of course, the textbooks didn’t quite frame itthat way, being more along the lines of “Leaf became the strongest villagebecause it allowed its shinobi to fulfil their full potential as humanbeings”, but Naruto’s status as a social near-outcast left him perfectlysituated to read between the lines.

He hadn’t been in a position to reflect on his first kill during the NightFrom Hell, nor during the chaos of the day that followed. Afterwards, they’dmade double time to the next inn on their route, since having half the teamdisabled left them extremely vulnerable out on the road, and any othermercenaries might not yet have got the memo that Zabuza wanted to get his ownrevenge. So now, here Naruto was, lying awake and wondering: as someone whowasn’t taken in by illusions like “community” and “comrades”, what was hefighting and killing for? Why had he found it so easy to take lives when he’dnever internalised the beliefs that absolved others of guilt for things donein the line of duty?

It wasn’t just because of the kill-or-be-killed situations, he knew. Peoplefighting for their lives could still freeze up just like anyone else. Nor wasit because, in the purest technical sense, he hadn’t killed anyone - althoughit was true that Sasuke had been the one to deal the death blow to the DemonBrother, and Zabuza’s water clones had never really been alive in anymeaningful sense to begin with. Try as he might to be satisfied with a simpleexplanation like that, Naruto couldn’t rid himself of the feeling that therewas a deeper, truer reason why he had always seen becoming able to kill asless of a tragic sacrifice and more of a broadening of options.

-o-

Sakura wasn’t sleeping either. Yesterday she’d watched Sasuke kill an enemyninja without hesitation, his movements beautiful, precise, and utterlywithout mercy. She’d tried to put it out of her mind, tried not to questionwhat that meant - about Sasuke, about ninja in general, about her future - butthen today another ninja had very nearly done the same to her, as if to say“reality is brutal, and it’s not going away”.

Was this going to be her life from now on? Was she going to have to wadethrough rivers of blood like Zabuza and Kakashi-sensei? Was this what she’djoined the shinobi Academy to become?

Then she heard the voice of Inner Sakura, who did not sound pleased. “Quitmoping around, you moron. I’ll tell you what you didn’t want to become, andthat’s some angsty little girl who starts having a crisis in the middle of herfirst serious mission.”

“But… what am I supposed to do?” Sakura asked. “I’m not like Sasuke. I can’tkill people just like that, without hesitation, just because they’re theenemy. I thought it would be easier. I thought as long as I was fighting forthe village, and for my parents, and for my friends, I’d be able to doanything. But what if I can’t?”

Inner Sakura rolled her eyes. “You’ve really forgotten, haven’t you?”

“Forgotten what?”

Inner Sakura waved her hand. Inside their shared mind, there was an image - amemory - of a little pink-haired girl hiding timidly behind a taller blondegirl while everyone around them played or picked flowers in the wide greenfield.

The pink-haired girl’s feelings washed through Sakura. Fear of stepping out onher own. Gratitude to her protector. A desperate need to cling to her, andfear of being abandoned. And more and more as time went by, shame. Shame madeonly deeper every time her parents compared her to Ino in the bizarre beliefthat telling her all the ways in which she was bad would somehow make herbetter.

“Now do you remember?” Inner Sakura demanded. “You swore, you swore toyourself that you would never be that girl again. You made me because youwere so terrified of going back.

“You wanted to be strong, ” Inner Sakura told her. “You wanted to be what shecouldn’t, to have what she couldn’t. To have them look at you and see you,not her. You decided to be a ninja, to do whatever it took. You studied untilyour head was ready to explode, just because you knew you were book-smart andshe wasn’t.”

Sakura nodded, her eyes moist with tears. “Yeah.”

“Am I getting through here?” Inner Sakura asked rhetorically. “Good. Now, ifyou want to throw all that away because you don’t have the guts to face whatbeing a ninja really means, that’s your call. I can go. You can be that littlegirl again to your heart’s content.”

Sakura shook her head rapidly. “No. That’s not what I want.”

“Or… you could get your ass in gear and show Sasuke that you’re a realkunoichi, and twice the woman Ino is.”

Sakura was quiet for a few seconds. Then she nodded. “Three times the woman.”

“Atta girl,” Inner Sakura grinned. “You’re gonna do just fine.”

“Hell yeah!”

-o-

Sasuke did indeed have his complaints about Sakura’s behaviour, but it wasnothing to do with her status as a kunoichi. Last night, he’d heard Naruto gointo Kakashi-sensei’s room. Then Sakura went in as well. Then they’d both goneto Sakura’s room - which was fine, as he had things to think about, and wasmore than happy being left undisturbed in the room Kakashi-sensei had socruelly made him share with Naruto. But then the noises had started.

The sounds of physical exertion would have been pretty innocent on their own,but then Naruto started moaning and groaning, and saying things like “No,Sakura, not there…” and “I can’t keep this up much longer” in an out-of-breathvoice, and Sakura was no better, with exclamations such as “oh, that felt sogood,” and “summon more clones - we’re just getting started” and “you callyourself a man with stamina like that?”, delivered with increasingexhilaration. The noise went on all night, leaving Sasuke unable to sleep orto concentrate on anything whatsoever (and there was no way in hell he wasgoing over there to tell them to shut up).

He gave them a proper earful in the morning, of course, after finding out whatthey’d really been up to, but as with most things with Naruto, it was in oneear and out the other (though Sakura did at least try to act apologetic).

But now he could finally get some peace and quiet and reflect on the missionso far. They were clearly in over their heads. Kakashi-sensei had told themthat he’d spoken to the leader of the support squad that had come to take thesurviving Demon Brother away, providing a detailed description of their routeand requesting an A-rank team to catch up to them as soon as possible to handover the rest of the mission. It was a good call, to Sasuke’s mind. If he’dsent the request for help and the route description with the dog, it couldhave been intercepted, allowing the enemy to lay some devastating ambushes.Keeping it as verbal information memorised by a ninja squad was far safer. Itwould have been even safer if they’d turned back, or stayed still to wait forbackup, but apparently there would only be one window for Tazuna’s Wavecontacts to sneak them past Gatō‘s blockade in the nearby future, and theycouldn’t risk missing it.

As for the mission itself… they were cutting it very fine indeed. He stilldidn’t know how that last fight hadn’t been a total wipeout, since he’dregained consciousness after Kakashi and Naruto had both gone to sleep. Sakuradidn’t know either. Still, his brush with death and the dubious competence ofhis team (or at least of Sakura - he didn’t know what to make of Narutolately) aside, it had been everything he’d hoped for. As long as he keptfighting enemies like these, he would grow stronger quickly. Every victorywould be another step towards his goal.

Except… he hadn’t even hesitated before killing that Demon Brother. It hadn’toccurred to him to question what he was doing, or to make a conscious decisionabout taking lives. Had he _hesitated before killing their parents in thename of _his _unknown ambition? Or had it been this easy for _him too? Wasthis how it happened? Was there a slippery slope where you had no troubledispatching your enemies, then moved on to your friends, then your family? Wasit Sasuke’s destiny to become the next Itachi?

No, he told himself. The battlefield was a place only for those who werewilling to risk their lives in the name of a greater goal. He had his goal,and was prepared to risk his life for it. His enemies had theirs, and did thesame. It was right and proper and honourable that one would win and growstronger, while the other would lose and be destroyed. Whether he won or lost,he would respect the law of the battlefield. He would never be as weak as thecoward who killed civilians, even children, with weapons that had been forgedto protect them.

-o-

The rest of the journey to the Country of the Wave was blissfully uneventful,although Sakura and Sasuke did treat Naruto somewhat strangely after learningthat he had taken out two Zabuza clones on his own after they got knockedunconscious. It had taken a week of sustained buffoonery before they relaxedand decided that his victory must have been through sheer incredible luckafter all.

The crossing into Wave had to be done late at night so as to avoid Gatō‘spatrol boats, with a complicated signalling system to bring Tazuna’s boatmanally to them without alerting anyone to their presence. It was almost ninja-like in its level of stealth and precision. When Naruto asked about this, helearned that pretty much all of the survivors from Wave’s former militia(which was a depressingly small number) had flocked to Tazuna’s project,bringing such military expertise as they had with them. They included a fewelderly ex-ninja who had no families left in their home villages, and hadchosen to move to Wave for its idyllic landscapes and excellent climate. Whiletoo old and/or crippled to fight, and unwilling to divulge any ninja-specificsecrets (or willing but unable due to the legitimate fear of assassination byhunter-nin), they were more than happy to share quality strategic advice inthe name of getting back at the man ruining their retirement.

The moral of the story, Naruto concluded, was never to piss off a ninja.

Be that as it may, as morning dawned they finally arrived in one of the largertowns on their way to Tazuna’s home village (which was, in turn, withinwalking distance of the bridge construction site). Kakashi made the call to gothrough the town rather than spend time circumnavigating it, so this is whereTeam Seven got their first glimpse of life in the Country of the Wave.

Streets of empty or nearly-empty shops, many of them boarded up. Unnaturallythin, empty-eyed passers-by, with hunched shoulders, gazes fixed on the groundand faces concealed beneath their bizarre onion-top hats. Streets that weresimultaneously paved with high-quality cobblestones and caked with filth anddirt. And countless homeless children lining the corners and alleyways. Narutowatched the townspeople look past the children with apathetic eyes, as if theysimply weren’t there, and something inside him snapped.

Knowing he might well regret it later, Naruto nevertheless started to givecoins from his frog-shaped wallet to the children they passed. After a littlewhile, Sakura started doing the same, albeit some way away and on the otherside of the street, in case anyone thought that Naruto’s behaviour had in someway influenced her. And before too long, the party of five had an ever-growingcrowd of street children following them, begging for money.

“Nice job drawing attention to us, you imbecile,” Sasuke snapped at Naruto.

Naruto’s anger at the world he was living in immediately extended itself toSasuke. He grabbed him by the collar. “You got a problem with how I choose tospend my money?”

“I do when it affects the mission,” Sasuke retaliated. “And what do you thinkthis is going to accomplish anyway? Those kids are going to get maybe one goodmeal out of your money, and then they’ll be back where they started, andnothing will have changed. Tazuna’s got the right idea with his bridge - it’sbig, meaningful things that make a difference to the world, not playing atbeing everybody’s friend for a day.”

Naruto shoved Sasuke away. “You spoiled little rich kid,” he growled. “Whatthe hell do you know?! You’ve never had to go hungry in your entire life.You’ve never had to look to people for help and have them turn away as if youjust existing was a personal affront to them. You couldn’t begin to understandwhat it means to receive a single act of kindness from somebody who could havewalked away. So I’m telling you right now. Shut the fuck up before I makeyou.”

Sakura, watching the fight develop, felt like she should be intervening. Buton whose side? What Sasuke was saying made sense to her, but at the same timeit felt like he was going all the way through “cool” and into “cold”, and shewasn’t comfortable with that. Sakura’s parents drove her crazy on a dailybasis, but she’d never actually had to think about what it could be like tohave no home to come back to, or the possibility of being hungry and not beingable to afford food. Somewhere, some important part of her had retreated intothe very depths of her being, frozen in shock at what she was seeing, and tothat part Naruto’s rage was like a beacon calling her home.

Before Sakura could even begin to sort out her feelings, Kakashi stepped in.“I’m not going to intervene in your ethical debate, but I will point out thatextra attention is actually an advantage for us. Wave has no ninja village. Tomost of them, shinobi are mystical beings of legend with unimaginablesupernatural powers. Seeing us on their side will be a major boost for morale,which will benefit our work in all sorts of ways.

“From a more long-term perspective,” he added, “Wave has been cut off from therest of the world for a long time. For many, this is their first impression ofHidden Leaf. Right now, it’s an impression of wealth and generosity, not tomention the fact that we’ve defeated the previously unstoppable Gatō twicewith no losses.

“I should also remind you that you can expect B-rank or A-rank pay for thismission, so lack of personal finances is not something you should worry aboutright now.” With that, Kakashi returned to his position next to Tazuna. Narutodid notice, however, that he didn’t give any of his own money away.

-o-

The team’s mood was tense when they finally arrived at Tazuna’s house in asmall village not far from the shore. It was a fairly large house, but it hadclearly seen better days - which figured, since with Tazuna gone, the onlypeople left to look after it had been his daughter Tsunami and her son Inari.

While the black-haired little boy was very quiet, perhaps shy, his mother wasthe very soul of hospitality. It was quite incredible how, without theassistance of shadow clones, she managed to simultaneously get everyone’s bagsput away in the guest rooms, prepare and serve a vast quantity of seafoodbroth, lecture her father for gaining so much weight during his time away,quiz everyone on news from the outside world, and generally make Team Sevenfeel like honoured guests. Sasuke, to his utter horror, became a specialtarget, as Tsunami decided his slight frame obviously meant he wasn’t eatingenough, and proceeded to ply him with extra helpings while cooing about thepoor emaciated boy and how she would restore a rosy glow to his cheeks if itwas the last thing she did. Naruto wanted to laugh his head off, but wasafraid this might draw her attention to him instead.

The good food and pleasant conversation helped everyone relax, and after avariety of small talk, the conversation turned to the bridge, and the progressthat had been made in Tazuna’s absence - less than desired, since Tazuna wasapparently the only person with the necessary expertise who hadn’t beenblackmailed or otherwise intimidated into submission by Gatō‘s goons, butstill enough to hopefully keep things on schedule.

“Relax, Tsunami,” Naruto boasted. “We’re the top three ninja of Leaf’s youngergeneration, and Kakashi-sensei here may not look like much, but he’s a greathero of the Third Great Ninja War. Between our strength and your bridge, we’regoing to kick Gatō‘s ass so hard they’re going to have to rename him Jellō!Believe it!”

Suddenly Inari stood up sharply. “You’re all stupid! You think you’re heroes?Gatō‘s going to kill you like he’s killed everyone else! Nobody can fight him!If you have any brains, you should just give up now!”

“Inari!” Tsunami snapped. “Don’t be rude to our guests!”

She turned to the others. “I’m sorry. My husband - Inari’s stepfather - diedtrying to protect our village from Gatō‘s mercenaries, and we still… feel hisloss very keenly.”

“That’s right!” Inari wouldn’t let up. “He tried to be a hero, but there’s nosuch thing as heroes. If he hadn’t done that, he’d still be alive. And nowyou’re going to die trying to be heroes too!”

“Hey,” Naruto started, “Now you’re just being-”

“Shut up!” Inari cut him off. “I hate being surrounded by idiots like you! AndI hate living like this! It wouldn’t have to be like this if people didn’t goaround trying to be heroes!”

Naruto opened his mouth, but to his surprise, before he could say anythingSasuke beat him to it.

“Shut the hell up, you moron.” Sasuke was apparently in no mood to mincewords. “Did I just hear you dismiss your father dying fighting to protect yourfamily? Did I just hear you dismiss the life your mother works hard every day,on her own, to provide you with? Who the hell do you think you are that youshould have the right to judge them?

“You think your father’s death is a free pass for you to act like a wimp yourwhole life? You think because he wasn’t strong enough you can just throw inthe towel and forget about his killer? Well, you don’t get to do that.

“If you don’t like something, work to change it. If you’re not strong enoughfor that, get stronger first. If you’ve got an enemy you want to beat, man upand train until you’re strong enough, even if it takes years. And don’t youdare dismiss other people for trying to do what you’re too much of a cowardto, whether they make it or not.”

The room was silent for a few seconds. Then Inari burst into tears and ranoff.

Naruto’s first thought was “well done, Sasuke, you just went off on one at apre-schooler”. But his second thought was “I’d have done it if you hadn’t”.There was something simply unforgiveable about someone taking their parentsfor granted like that.

The rest of the dinner was conducted in a subdued sort of silence.

-o-

The next day, Team Seven assembled at a grove of particularly tall trees notfar from the village for what Kakashi termed tree walking exercises. He gavethem a brief explanation of how they worked (push chakra out from the soles ofyour feet, not so little that you slide off, not so much that you fly away),as well as explaining the vast benefits this skill would deliver in terms ofmobility and general chakra manipulation, and sent them out for a first try.

Sasuke’s attempt was fairly impressive - he made his way halfway up his treeof choice before making a mark with a kunai and backflipping off.

Sakura’s was nothing short of astounding - for all that they’d become used toher falling behind in actual combat, she casually strolled to the very top andthen sat on the highest branch blowing raspberries at them. Apparently, herchakra control really was her strong point.

Now it was Naruto’s turn. He started to run up the tree. Adjusting the levelsof chakra in his feet seemed fairly trivial, on the same level of complexityas adjusting his grip to hold onto a moderately slippery bar of soap. Then,with a start, he realised that he was nearing the top, and thereby revealinghis own enhanced chakra control skills. This called for emergency measures.

“Bwaargh!” Naruto “accidentally” channelled way too much chakra into his feet,and shot off the tree with the speed of greased lightning, nearly bowlingKakashi over before coming to rest upside down in a groove made by his headsome way from the clearing.

Wow. That was actually pretty interesting. Naruto suddenly knew how skilledninja managed to instantly accelerate the way they did. This would have someamazing taijutsu applications, to say nothing of his more… special…techniques.

Kakashi, meanwhile, just shook his head.

-o-

Later that night…

Naruto was in bed, just finishing up his reading (the team had patched thingsup with Inari, at least enough for Naruto to borrow some of Wave’sintriguingly foreign manga from him), when he heard a knock on his door.

“Come in!”

Kakashi entered and closed the door firmly behind him. “Do you have a minute,Naruto?”

“Sure. What’s up, Kakashi-sensei?”

“I see you’re enjoying some manga,” Kakashi observed. “I read some myselfbefore the start of this mission. As it happens, Asuma’s nephew has a fullcollection of Ikazuchi Saga.”

Naruto tried to keep his expression blank. Oh, hell.

“Really? And what did you think?”

“I wanted to see the fight Sakura told me you got your Genin exam plan from.Funny thing - I couldn’t find anything remotely similar in the whole series.”

Naruto did his best to give an innocent shrug. “I must have been thinking of adifferent manga after all. I’m sure the title will come to me eventually.”

Kakashi gave him a piercing look. “Naruto, do you mind if I tell you a bedtimestory?”

Naruto was taken somewhat off guard by this. “Uh, sure, if you like.”

“Back in the days of the Third Great Ninja War,” Kakashi began, “there weretwo squad leaders whose mission success rates were far above those of anyother. One was my master, Minato-sensei, and the-”

“Who was Minato-sensei?” Naruto interrupted. The name rang a bell, perhapsfrom one of those history lessons during which he did his best to appearasleep.

“Namikaze Minato, the Yellow Flash,” Kakashi explained. “You know him as theFourth Hokage.”

“Whoa! You were trained by the Fourth himself?!” Kakashi-sensei’s standingwith Naruto suddenly rose astronomically.

Kakashi nodded. “Anyway, he was one of the top squad leaders. The other was aman whose foreign parents had given him an unpronounceable name we allshortened to ‘Vash’. And he’s the one I want to tell you about.

“Vash was a genius ninja - as you can see from the fact that he rivalled thefuture Fourth Hokage - but he hated responsibility and did everything he couldto avoid it. So he worked hard to hide his true skill, to the point where evennow most people haven’t heard of him. Do you know what ‘obfuscating stupidity’means?”

Naruto, panicking on the inside, carefully shook his head.

“It’s when you act like an idiot to disguise the fact that you’re actuallyvery clever. Vash was a master of it. His squad would join battle, and he’dslip and fall, or trip over and grab random inappropriate things for balance,or throw a kunai and accidentally cut a rope holding up something heavy, andwhen his opponents stopped laughing they’d suddenly realise he’d obliteratedhalf their squad without a scratch on him.”

Naruto nodded. This sounded entirely like his kind of guy.

“But then one day his squad was caught in a large ambush by Hidden Rocktroops. And Vash didn’t know what to do. There were too many of them to fightwith his usual pretend incompetence, but if he used his full strength andsaved the day, he knew he’d shoot straight to the top of the candidate listfor next Hokage, and everyone knew the Third was planning to retire once thewar was over.”

“So what did he do?” Naruto asked, dreading the answer.

“Nothing. His indecision lasted for entire seconds, and in a high-levelshinobi battle, that can be a lifetime. By the time he made up his mind, itwas too late. Rock had wiped out the rest of his squad. Of course, he thendestroyed them at full power, but that didn’t bring anyone back - not thespecialists he needed to complete the mission, and not the teammates who hadtrusted him with their lives.”

Naruto said nothing.

“Vash gave up being a ninja after the war, and disappeared completely. Somesay he couldn’t live with the guilt. Others think he’s still out there,somewhere, trying to atone.”

Kakashi held Naruto’s gaze. “I’m not going to tell you how to live your life,Naruto. But if you want to be a good shinobi, you need to know what matters toyou most, and what you’re prepared to sacrifice for it. Think about it whilethere’s still time.”

Kakashi left.

Naruto didn’t sleep that night.

-o-

In the morning, after breakfast, Naruto went to Kakashi, and very quietlyasked him what the next step of training was after tree walking, and whetherit was something he could do on his own.

Kakashi decided to send a clone with him to teach him, leaving the original tosupervise Sasuke and Sakura (the latter having excellent technique, butcurrently using up more chakra in the process than someone with her low totalcould afford). Whether deliberately or by chance, he chose a distant clearingas the training site, one where no-one would ever stumble across Naruto byaccident.

“Now, this exercise is called water walking,” Kakashi told him. “Not only doyou have to regulate the amount of chakra emitted from your feet, but you haveto adjust it second by second to the outside environment until it becomessecond nature. Normally you’d start out on a still surface like a lake, buttime is limited and you need this weaponised by the time Tazuna is ready toresume construction work on the bridge next week.”

Kakashi casually gestured towards the nearest source of water, which happenedto be a raging river, deep and terrifyingly fast. An observer of an animistmindset would have had no hesitation in labelling it as a very angry river godhungering for violence and destruction, before running away as fast as theirlegs could carry them.

Naruto gave him a “you’ve got to be kidding me” look.

Kakashi shrugged, and calmly walked over the river to the other side as ifstrolling across a smooth stone floor. “Don’t forget, when you fall in andstart getting carried into the rapids, you can just use what you learned intree walking to touch off the nearest static object and leap out to shoreagain.”

Naruto noticed that he’d said “when” rather than “if”, but there seemed nopoint in arguing.

“Thanks, Kakashi-sensei.”

Kakashi nodded. “Keep at it for the rest of the day. Come back once it startsgetting dark and I’ll talk you through some basic tips if you’re struggling -though it’s always better to work these things out yourself if you can. Andafter dinner, we’ll be working on anti-Zabuza strategy.”

And that, apparently, was that.

-o-

Training sucked. Even with a few shadow clones doing the training alongsidehim, progress was slow and painful, moreso since the clones had a tendency totry to grab onto each other (and him) when falling, getting everyone wet.Naruto promised himself that once he could do Fire Element techniques likeSasuke, the first thing he’d do is learn (or invent) an instant clothes-dryingninjutsu.

Grumbling to himself, he dismissed the shadow clones and started to walk overto a convenient log on the other side of the clearing to take a break.

“Don’t move!”

Naruto froze, his foot still in mid-air. Crapcrapcrap. Zabuza wasn’t supposedto be active until next week at the earliest. Though there _was _hismysterious hunter-nin ally…

Naruto very slowly turned his head while keeping the rest of his bodycompletely still.

The person he saw was not a ninja. It was, in fact, the most beautiful girlhe’d ever seen in his life, with long black hair, large brown eyes, and asleeveless pink kimono that went perfectly with her pale skin. She was alsowearing a light brown choker that brought out her eyes. Looking at her,Naruto’s heart actually skipped a beat.

“You were about to step on a valuable medicinal herb,” she explained beforemoving towards him and plucking said herb from the ground beneath his frozenfoot. “You can move now.”

Naruto stepped down. “Uh, hi. You’re gathering herbs?” What an unbelievablysmooth first impression, his inner critic congratulated him. That eloquencetrophy is surely on its way even as we speak.

The girl nodded. “My master’s feeling sick, and I wanted to make some medicineto help him recover. This area is very good for medicinal herbs. What aboutyou?”

“I’m Uzumaki Naruto, a mighty ninja!” Naruto announced, trying to recover fromwhat he perceived as his earlier gaffe. “I’m out here training.”

The girl smiled. “I’m Haku. Are you really a ninja? Is it true that you canfly and breathe fire?”

“I think you’re thinking of dragons,” Naruto told her. “I do know someone whocan breathe fire, but he’s a bit of a jerk.”

She laughed. “So what are you training to do?”

“I’m learning to walk on water.” Naruto wisely decided not to demonstrate,aware that falling into the river was unlikely to help him impress Haku.

“That’s amazing! Can you show me?”

“Uhh… I’m actually just taking a break. So do you live around here?”

The girl hesitated, then nodded. “Sort of. My master and I used to travel theworld before Gatō trapped everyone here.”

“What does your master do?”

“Oh, he can do everything!” Haku said proudly.

An idea occurred to Naruto. “Hey, how about I help you out with gatheringherbs, and in return you tell me some stories about your travels? This isactually my first time outside the Fire Country.”

“But don’t you need to train?”

Naruto shook his head. “Don’t worry about it.”

He summoned a few shadow clones and sent them to resume the training. Haku’sjaw dropped.

“You can make more of yourself?!”

“It’s no big deal,” Naruto replied smugly, while trying his best to soundcompletely casual. “So what kind of herbs are we looking for?”

“For a start, more like this one. This is blue-eyed windwort - you can chew itas a mild painkiller, or powder it to help stimulate blood flow.”

Naruto nodded. “Gotcha. All right, tell me a story.”

“Well,” Haku was deep in thought for a second. “There was this time when mymaster and I had signed on with a merchant bringing an order of unusually-shaped turnips to the Country of Tea. Unfortunately, right before we got tothe Daimyō‘s court, the merchant fell ill with stomach flu, and he begged usto complete the deal for him. But what he forgot to tell us was that theDaimyō didn’t want them for eating…“

-o-

“… and then my master says ‘I don’t know what you think, but I swear thatgoat’s horns were facing the other way last night!’”

“Bwahahaha!”

Naruto had been having so much fun listening to Haku that he barely noticed itwas getting dark. He’d never wanted dinner less.

“Will you be gathering herbs here again tomorrow?” he asked.

“Maybe,” Haku told him. “Will you be skiving off your training here againtomorrow?”

“Only if you help me,” Naruto told her.

Haku laughed and gave a nod.

Naruto walked back to Tazuna’s house in high spirits.

-o-

Dinner was a lively affair. Sasuke was sulking at being beaten by Sakura,Sakura was over the moon at finally having something she could impress Sasukewith, and Naruto was practically bouncing, and unsuccessfully trying to hideit. At one point, Kakashi and Tsunami both stared at him for a few seconds,then exchanged meaningful looks.

A few seconds later, Tsunami leaned over and whispered “local girl?” inKakashi’s ear.

“Almost certainly,” Kakashi whispered back.

“What are you two whispering about over there?” Inari demanded. “I’m tellingyou now, I do not want a ninja as a stepdad!”

Tsunami blushed, while Kakashi’s expression was entirely unreadable. Sakura,Naruto and even Sasuke laughed.

-o-

The next day, Naruto was making slow but sure progress (read: only falling inwhenever he stopped paying 100% attention) when Haku turned up.

Today, he took more of an active role in conversation, partly at herinsistence, telling her all about the life of a ninja (and the D-rankmissions, including a number of anecdotes about That Accursed Cat), and abouthis friends, temperamental Sakura, wannabe genius Sasuke, curious but easilyterrified Hinata and the others. Doing so brought into perspective that heactually did have more friends than he’d consciously realised. Haku was anatural listener, and he even found himself telling her about the others,people he wouldn’t exactly describe as “friends”, but whom he still caredabout deeply: the Hokage, Teuchi and Ayame, Raijin, Iruka-sensei, and, herealised to his surprise, increasingly Kakashi-sensei too.

Haku sounded wistful when she questioned him about them. Apparently, her lifeon the road didn’t leave her with opportunities to make friends. It was justher and her master - although it helped that he was the most incredible manever, strong, wise, caring and generally incomparable in every way.

“Sounds like you’re in love with him,” Naruto teased her.

“Don’t be silly,” Haku told him. “My master’s my master. He’s not someone youlove or hate. He’s above all that. It would be like being in love with thewhole world all at once.”

“Oh, so he’s your world, is he?”

“Yes,” Haku nodded, completely seriously. “He is.”

Naruto didn’t have much he could say to that.

From there the conversation turned to what it was like to live in a ninjavillage, surrounded by other people, many of whom also had amazingsupernatural abilities. Haku asked, for example, how you prevented crime in avillage where everybody was an expert at being sneaky and covering up theirtracks. Naruto had to explain about the village police, and how Leaf used tohave a special clan, the Uchiha, whose Sharingan eyes allowed them to defeateven the deadliest ninja criminals. Unfortunately, this meant he also had totell her about the Uchiha Massacre, and how one dark night Uchiha Itachi hadwiped out his entire clan for no reason anyone could fathom, leaving only hislittle brother alive. Haku was deeply moved by the discovery that Naruto’sfriend (“no, no, the word is ‘rival’”) Sasuke was the last survivor of hisclan.

Since she was looking upset, Naruto decided to quickly change the subject. Hecast around for something to talk about, and recalled that yesterday she’dmentioned playing shogi as part of a ridiculous bet in the Country ofVegetables.

“So you like shogi, right? I do too.”

Haku nodded. “I do. Do you have a favourite strategy?”

Naruto beamed. “Oh, sure. I’m a big fan of the Modified Dairin Defence, aslong as your opponent isn’t too big on sacrificial pawns, and the MishimaCross has to be one of the best ways to shut down a bishop offensive ever,and-” he suddenly realised what he was saying. _This _is why he was supposedto watch what he was saying twice as carefully whenever he got excited. OK, somuch for that budding friendship.

Then he realised to his surprise that Haku was staring at him with keeninterest.

“I hate the Mishima Cross,” she announced. “My master gets me with it everytime and I still haven’t figured out a counter.”

“Oh!” Naruto exclaimed. “Well, as long as you have a silver general and a fewpawns handy, there’s the Takeuchi Lance. It’s expensive if you mess it up, butwhat you do is…”

-o-

Naruto was in heaven. Pure and absolute heaven. He had discovered the perfectwoman. Apart from being beautiful and charming and intelligent andinteresting, she actually took his intelligence to be a good thing. Inspiredby the way the day had gone, he even made some very good suggestions duringthe nightly anti-Zabuza strategy meeting, like ways in which he could placehis shadow clones on the bridge to prepare traps before the battle. It wasn’tanything that could dramatically give away his intelligence, but it was stillmore than he would have had the courage to say before.

-o-

“You know,” he told Haku, “it’s not very safe travelling the roads all thetime with just one man to protect you. How about I teach you a little self-defence to balance out all the herbal medicine you’ve taught me?”

Haku did not object. In fact, it struck Naruto, there was something moreintense about her behaviour from the moment they started, as if she wassoaking up information not just about how to do the moves, but about how hewas doing them. On impulse, he decided to try something… just in case.

The next technique he tried to teach her was not another standard self-defencetechnique. It was a highly advanced ANBU-level assassination move he had seenexactly once in his life, the night he’d carefully inserted a dozen clonesdisguised as pages into Kakashi-sensei’s copy of Makeout Paradise. It was thepage on which the name of Mikoto’s real father was finally revealed, andKakashi would open it and do a double-take at the name, only for the page tovanish in a puff of smoke and reveal a nearly-identical page - with adifferent name. Due to being too afraid of damaging a real page to try todestroy all the remaining clones at once, and too afraid of spoilers to try toflick past them, Kakashi had to suffer through all twelve iterations beforereaching the real revelation.

While Naruto had not managed to learn the full technique, which requiredadvanced chakra control and not being in extreme agony on the one time youwere shown it, he knew enough to try teaching it to Haku and see whathappened.

To his thoroughly concealed horror, she picked it up as effortlessly as allthe others, without seeing any apparent difference.

Wave had no ninja village. All the foreign ninja living in Wave were old andretired, and Gatō‘s blockade prevented any new ones from coming in. Haku, whohad been in close and blissful physical contact with him in the process ofpractising the self-defence moves, was not under the Disguise Technique. Henow knew exactly who she was.

And even though she was clearly a highly skilled enemy ninja, and for all heknew everything she’d said and done so far had been an act, the fact was thathe didn’t want to have to kill her.

As they chatted about ninja village economics, and misbehaving clothiers fromthe Country of Wheat, and the pros and cons of the Hattori Gambit, Narutohastily developed, analysed and dismissed plan after plan. Eventually, as thesun got low, he decided he had something with at least a small chance ofworking.

“Hey, Haku, are you busy tomorrow?”

The girl seemed puzzled. “No, pretty much like today. My master’s gettingbetter, but there are still a few medicines that he could do with.”

“Then do you fancy… uh… going on a d-d-date?”

Haku stared at him. “A date? With me?”

“S-Sure,” Naruto affirmed, while inwardly going “pleasepleaseplease let thiswork!” and also “help! What does one wear for a date?”

Haku let the silence stretch until Naruto was near panic. Finally she nodded.“Meet you here at the usual time?”

“Yes! I mean yes.” And so his fate was sealed.

-o-

Late that night, after everyone had gone to bed…

Naruto knocked on the door.

“Uh, Tsunami, can I talk to you?”

“Naruto? Of course. Just give me a second.”

There was a brief delay.

“Come in!”

Naruto came into the bedroom. Tsunami, in a green dressing gown, was waitingfor him.

“What is it, Naruto?”

“Um… I know I don’t know you very well, but I need advice, and it’s notsomething I can ask anyone in my team…” Naruto admitted awkwardly.

Tsunami nodded sagely. “You want to know how to invite a girl on a date.”

Naruto’s eyes went wide at the uncanny guess. “Actually, she’s already saidyes. I want to know what you do on a date, and how. I really don’t want tomess this up.” Not when there were lives at stake.

“I see. Well, the first thing you need to do is look the part. What have yougot apart from your uniform?”

“Uh… just these clothes I’m wearing now.”

Tsunami shook her head. “No, that’ll never do. How long do we have before thedate?”

“It’s tomorrow.”

Tsunami looked at him. “Dear heavens.”

“Right. Stand up. Arms out. Let’s see if any of Kaiza’s old things fit you.”

-o-

“Arms up!”

-o-

“No, the colour’s all wrong.”

-o-

“Arms out.”

-o-

“Sleeves are too long, but goes well with your eyes.”

-o-

“Stop squirming!”

-o-

“Definitely not.”

-o-

“Maybe if your hair was a bit darker.”

-o-

“Oh, my, I didn’t know he’d kept that. Oh, the way he looked in it when hedanced…”

“Tsunami? Are you OK?”

-o-

That night, Naruto learned the unimaginable power a woman can unleash whenguided by a higher purpose and wielding a sewing machine. He also memorised alist of nearby tourist locations, based on a very old guidebook Tsunami lenthim. According to her, it had once been brought here by a visiting ninjatourist from far away, who had given the thing to her and proclaimed that herencyclopaedic knowledge of the area, as well as her surpassing beauty, madeher a far superior guide. Inside the front cover, there was indeed a messagereading “to Tsunami, from Jiraiya with love”. Naruto also noticed that thebook had various hot springs circled in red.

But there was only so much one could do to prepare, even armed with Tsunami’sadvice, support and promise of absolute secrecy no matter what. Narutoadjusted his black trousers and red jacket, took a deep breath and entered theclearing.

It was just as well he’d taken a deep breath, because it was suddenly caughtin his lungs. Haku was wearing a black kimono with cherry blossom patternsthat somehow managed to make her even more beautiful than she had been before.Her smile was even more radiant, though there seemed to be some subtlemelancholy quality to it - or was that just his imagination now that he knewher to be an enemy?

“You look stunning,” he told her when he could speak.

“I like the way you look too,” she replied. “So where are we going?”

“Right this way.”

-o-

Were he not keenly aware that Haku was an enemy ninja who would soon be tryingto kill him and the rest of his team alongside Zabuza, it would perhaps havebeen the perfect date. He’d plotted a route down a riverside path leading toan old and beautiful temple, with an inn nearby that had largely escaped theravaging of Wave’s economy through exceptional self-sufficiency, and couldthus offer an excellent meal in elegant surroundings. And after an initial shysilence, Naruto and Haku found themselves talking incessantly.

But the main event was still to come.

As Naruto led Haku to the western gate of the city he’d passed through before,he started to bring the conversation in the direction of Gatō and Wave’srecent history. Then they went in, and Haku saw Wave’s urban face.

Something about her expression hardened. She was pained, Naruto could tell,but not by the shock of discovering something terrible. Rather, it wassomething she’d seen before, and had hoped never to see again.

“This is what Gatō wants to preserve so he can keep getting rich off thesepeople,” he told her. “And it’s also what the ninja he’s hired, a guy namedZabuza, is fighting to protect. It’s hard to believe, isn’t it? That someonewould lay their life on the line to keep starving children on the streets, tokeep everyone miserable and scared?”

Haku said nothing.

Naruto kept her moving, down the streets he remembered being most impoverishedon his first time through, using the maps he’d memorised from the guidebook tolocate places of maximum impact, like ruined residential areas and closedhospitals.

“It bothers me,” he told her. “I keep thinking that we might lose, and thenthe whole country will stay like this forever.” He meant it. This was hisfirst mission where something important was actually at stake, and this onlymade it more excruciating that suddenly he was having to weigh so manydifferent things in the balance at once.

Haku still didn’t say anything.

“So I keep telling myself that we have to win. We have to help these peoplebeat Gatō, so they can have food and water, and shelter. And pride. That lookin their eyes… I never want to see anyone looking like that.

“I guess that’s why I brought you here,” he told Haku. “Sorry, I know it’s notgreat date material, but I wanted you to understand what I’m doing here, inthis country, and why.”

Haku managed a smile. “That’s OK. I’m… I’m grateful you want to sharesomething that matters to you with me.”

Eventually, they left. There were a couple of other places Naruto had on hislist, scenic locations that gave Haku plenty of space to think as they staredout at beautiful vistas together. He didn’t get in her way.

As it grew dark, and they were on their way back, she turned to him. “Naruto,I want to thank you for today. It meant a lot to me to go on a date with you.”

He smiled. “Yeah. To me too.”

“Listen,” she went on, “tomorrow is the last day I’m going to get to spendwith you. My master’s feeling better now, and we’re going to move on from thisplace. So make sure you come, OK? There’s something important I have to tellyou.”

His eyes widened a little.

She smiled, a little sadly. “Wait until tomorrow. Goodbye, Naruto.”

And they parted ways.

-o-

It was early morning. In the process of performing miraculous feats ofavoiding Tsunami lest she quiz him about the date, he’d had an idea, one lastplan which almost certainly wouldn’t work, and would probably lead to disastersomewhere down the line even if it did work, and would probably place him interrible danger and not pay off at all, but it had to be done. And it had tobe done now. Tazuna’s itinerary had been drawn up, and starting tomorrow he’dbe working on the bridge in person every day. And the bridge, a confined spacesurrounded by water, with nowhere to run and nowhere to hide, was where Zabuzawould inevitably strike. Naruto dispatched six clones on a special mission.

Then he went and waited for Haku. Happily, his shadow clones had been workingdiligently, even during the date, so he pretty much had the water walkingthing down now. The hard part had apparently been not just staying above thesurface, but managing chakra flow in the horizontal plane to prevent the riversweeping him away like some sort of moving floor.

Haku came soon enough. “Hello, Naruto.”

“Hi, Haku.”

There was an awkward silence.

Naruto hated awkward silences. He’d been stuck in them his whole life,whenever somebody wanted to ignore him or get rid of him but couldn’t quitefigure out how. So he broke this one quickly.

“You know, you never did tell me the end of that story about your master, theten jugs of pig grease and the panicking minister of foreign policy…”

And as Haku obliged, they fell back into the pattern of their previousconversations. Still, there was something between them now that hadn’t beenthere before, and Naruto thought they were both aware of it. A certaintenderness, perhaps, combined with an unspoken sense of sorrow. They both knewthat something precious was ending, and that it could not be protected orpreserved. Even the brief time they’d had together was an illusion, a falsepeace between two people of whom one would inevitably have to kill the other.At least if Naruto failed.

Eventually, evening came, and then there was no more time.

“So what was it you wanted to tell me, Haku?”

Haku sighed. “Naruto, I’m not who I appear to be.”

“I know,” Naruto told her.

“You… do?”

“Your master is Zabuza, isn’t he?”

Haku nodded. “But I don’t want to fight you, Naruto. Please… stay out of thebattle tomorrow. I don’t want to have to kill you.”

Naruto looked at her. “Are you really OK with this? Fighting for Gatō? To keepWave as it is?”

Haku didn’t say anything for a while. “I’m my master’s tool. If he wants me tofight, I have to fight.”

“Even if it’s wrong?”

“You don’t understand,” Haku replied. “I owe my master everything. If he saidthe sky was green, I would do my best to live my life as if it was.”

“But… but you’re better than that!” Naruto exclaimed. “You’re intelligent, andexperienced, and capable of making good decisions! You can’t lie to yourselfjust because someone else says so!”

“I owe him everything,” Haku repeated. “Nothing I do will ever be enough torepay him, so I have to at least give him everything I can.”

Naruto, having rehearsed this conversation extensively in lieu of sleep,decided to try another tack. “You know he’ll die. My team is strong, andKakashi-sensei is incredibly strong. You’re not just letting him fight for thewrong cause. You’re not just letting him kill for the wrong cause. You’reletting him die for it.”

Haku was silent.

Time passed.

“… I’ll talk to him.”

“What?”

“I’ll talk to him,” Haku said. “Maybe he’ll listen.”

Naruto felt a wave of relief.

“But Naruto, if he decides to fight, I have to be there at his side to protecthim. It can’t be any other way.”

Naruto nodded helplessly. “And that goes for me too. I can’t let any of myfriends die.”

“Then I guess that’s it,” Haku said with regret. “I want you to know that,even though I was trying to deceive you about who I was, I meant everythingelse. The time I’ve spent with you has been precious to me.”

“Me too,” Naruto told her. “You’re the most amazing girl I’ve ever met.”

Haku smiled. Then, completely unexpectedly, she stepped over to him and kissedhim. It was warm, and gentle, and soft, and felt utterly incredible. He felt alittle dizzy when she pulled away.

“Oh, by the way…” she added, “I’m a boy.”

The dizziness suddenly intensified. Naruto attempted to make a consideredresponse that would encapsulate all his feelings about this sudden revelation.

It came out as “bwuh?!”

Then he realised something. He wasn’t feeling dizzy because he’d justdiscovered that he had had his first date, and his first kiss, with anotherboy. He was, in fact, feeling dizzy because Haku’s lips had been poisoned. Hehit the ground with a thud.

The last thing he saw was Haku dragging his body somewhere no-one would everfind it.


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