Chapter 7

A/N: Because the next chapter is fairly short, I’m uploading it together withthis one as a bonus. Please be sure to read this chapter first.

If you want a personal reply to a question in a review, please make anaccount so I can PM you, as I obviously have no way of contacting guestreviewers.

I’ve decided to rule that the Sharingan does not let you bypass needingelemental affinities, both based on canon evidence and for reasons oflogic/balancing.

“Kyubey” is a joke from the original HPMOR omake chapter which inspired thisfic. It’s a pun on “Kyūbi” as in “Nine-Tails” and Kyubey the extremelyintelligent and manipulative (and, at a stretch, fox-like) creature in theanime Puella Magi Madoka Magica.

Hunter-nin, as Naruto explained before, are specialist ninja dispatched tohunt down missing-nin, assassinate them and dispose of the bodies so thatother ninja can’t extract village secrets from them.

Vash is indeed a Trigun reference. I’ve decided to keep references sparse,since to me excessive or unsubtle use of pop culture references wreckssuspension of disbelief, doubly so in settings which don’t have access toreal-world pop culture. I should also note that the name came after thecharacter when I was planning, so it was a case of “might as well throw thename in as a bonus” rather than “let’s shoehorn in a reference to one of myfavourite characters as a plot point”.

-o-

“Nngk.” Why was it so dark? And why did he have such a headache? Narutostaggered up and out of the middle of a thick clump of bushes, earning himselfa few minor cuts and the eternal wrath of a hedgehog in the process. He had noidea where he was, although he had an inkling that this was somewhere near theroute he and Haku had taken at the start of their date.

Haku. Gaah. She- er, he had poisoned him. It made perfect sense, as a finaloption after negotiations had failed, but it still hurt to think about. If ithadn’t been for the Nine-Brains watching over his body…

Wait, he’d been unconscious. Oh, crap. That meant his clones had all popped.Dammit. He’d specially planned to use some of those all-nighter pills he’dborrowed way back when from Kiba (who had them for exam study purposes) inorder to keep the clones in action overnight, but now he’d lost so muchprecious time.

As his muddled consciousness gradually sorted itself out, the clones’ memoriesflooded back to him. Huh. He hadn’t expected that. OK, the situation was stillsalvageable - just. His clones had worked very hard indeed yesterday, and someof what they’d discovered in the process gave him hope that this unexpectedsetback wasn’t fatal. In a way, the unconsciousness had even helped, givinghis brain time to process everything they’d learned and make it easy to drawconclusions on how to proceed.

He dispatched a new set of six clones. There was still hope as long as theycould complete their mission in time. Wait, what was the time?

Oh, crapcrapcrap. The sun was already high in the sky.

Naruto set off for the bridge at a dead sprint.

-o-

As he approached, he scanned the area, and he did not like what he saw.

At the far end, Kakashi-sensei was busy fighting Zabuza. He was clearly at adisadvantage. Zabuza was surrounded by water on all sides, which he couldmanipulate for many of his techniques rather than having to spend chakra oncreating it from scratch. Kakashi-sensei had to worry about friendly fire atthe fairly defenceless Sakura and Tazuna (though at least the battle appearedto have started before any of the other builders could arrive), and aboutminimising damage to the bridge, while Zabuza had no such compunctions. And tomake things even worse, Zabuza was wearing some kind of sparkling visor, whichkept reflecting light into Kakashi-sensei’s eyes and stopped him being able tolook at Zabuza’s face.

Sakura and Tazuna, meanwhile, had sensibly taken cover between a couple ofstacks of construction materials. This shielded them from random rangedattacks, and limited melee ones to frontal and aerial approaches, though atthe cost of leaving them nowhere to dodge. Fortunately, Zabuza seemed intenton settling the score with Kakashi-sensei before worrying about completing hismission.

All, of this, however, was a picnic compared to what was happening on the nearside of the bridge. Sasuke was trapped inside some incredible technique thelikes of which Naruto had never even heard of - a dome made of floatingperson-sized mirrors of some translucent, ice-like substance. A masked figurein a loose green outfit whom Naruto immediately recognised as Haku kept flyingbetween these mirrors at impossible speeds, throwing needles at Sasuke as she,er, he moved. Sasuke was looking increasingly like a human pincushion.

As Naruto’s run brought him closer, he could just make out Sasuke’s eyes. Theyhad turned bright red, with the only other colours being the black of thepupil and two comma-like dots (he thought they were called “tomoe”) around theedges. This was bad. Very bad. The Sharingan was popularly acknowledged as oneof the most overpowered dōjutsu, and generally one of the most powerfulBloodline Limit abilities in existence. Even without the special techniques itenabled, Naruto knew that it allowed the user to see chakra, including seeingdisguise techniques and non-shadow clones for what they were (which was a bigpart of why the Uchiha had been the village police), and to track enemymovements fractionally before they happened, making the Uchiha deadly taijutsuusers. If Sasuke had managed to awaken his Sharingan and it still wasn’tenough…

Just as he thought this, Sasuke collapsed.

As he came into range, Naruto spotted a gap between two mirrors up in the air,just large enough for a person to conceivably squeeze through. He made thehand seals. “Please don’t work, please don’t work, please don’t work…”

It worked. Naruto was now inside the dome, and Sasuke was somewhere on theoutside. This meant that, for the purposes of Substitution Technique consent,Sasuke presently counted as an inanimate object.

“Naruto?!” Haku exclaimed. “That’s impossible! You should have been out for atleast twenty-four hours!”

“Dammit, Haku!” Naruto shouted. “How dare you?!”

“I… I just wanted you to be safe…” Haku quietly said, grateful for the maskhiding his face.

“At what cost?! Did you think I’d just be OK with you killing my friends?!Multiple Shadow Clone Technique!”

Naruto put his hands together, but the instant his clones were fully formed,they were instantly pierced by needles through the heart.

“I’m sorry, Naruto,” Haku told him. “Please don’t resist. All I can do now iskeep you inside my Demonic Mirrors of Ice Crystals until my master finishesthe job. Once that’s done, there’ll be no more need for us to fight.”

“No more need?!” Naruto was outraged. “You think we can be anything butenemies after you kill the people I care about? Multiple Shadow CloneTechnique!”

This time, too, the clones were annihilated before they could so much as move.

“Then we’ll be enemies,” Haku replied. “But at least you’ll still be alive.That’s all I can do.”

Dammit. Naruto urgently needed a strategy. He hadn’t anticipated Haku beingthis fast or precise with his attacks. At least the mirrors probablyconcealed their fight from the others, giving him freedom to use his specialtechniques.

Naruto quickly threw a series of kunai at Haku, then, in the same movement,made the seals.

“Multiple Shadow Clone Techni-”

He winced. Not only had Haku instantly dodged the kunai and moved to anothermirror, but he’d also thrown a needle through Naruto’s thigh, the slim pieceof metal going all the way through and out of the other side while the paindisrupted his attempt to use his technique.

“Please don’t fight me, Naruto. I know countless areas of your body where Ican throw needles without doing permanent damage. I won’t let you perform anymore techniques.”

Naruto was at a loss. Haku easily had the speed and precision to hit him assoon as he started making seals. He wasn’t going to get back out now thatHaku’s attention was solidly on him, and in his haste to save Sasuke he’dneglected to leave extra shadow clones outside the dome.

So that was basically it. He couldn’t use the Shadow Clone Technique (or forthat matter the normal Clone Technique). He couldn’t use the SubstitutionTechnique. He couldn’t use the Transformation Technique. He couldn’t usetaijutsu. He could use tree walking, but there was nothing to walk on exceptthe mirrors, and he was pretty sure Haku would knock him off the second hetried. And he didn’t have any Uzumaki-style techniques that didn’t rely onsome combination of the above.

He was completely out of options. He’d never felt so frustrated at his ownpowerlessness before. Was this the true face of genius ninja Uzumaki Naruto?He’d been so proud of himself, coming up with technique after technique thatmade the Academy basics look like children’s toys, but in the end, was he justa wannabe doomed to be put in his place as soon as he finally met a realninja? Here he was, no more use than a civilian, and his team was going to diepaying for his failure.

Except… except there was still the Final Option. He could ask the Nine-BrainedDemon Fox for help.

He’d never done it before. He never wanted to. He didn’t even know if itworked like that. And he was pretty sure that having people find out about themonster inside him, and watch him unleash it of his own free will, would putan end to his hopes of not being alone more surely than anything he couldreveal about his intelligence. Assuming, of course, that he lived that long,and that the Nine-Brains didn’t have the power to simply consume him if he wasso foolish as to open its cage of his own free will.

He looked around, through the gaps in the mirrors. Somewhere in the distance,Kakashi-sensei was fighting for his life. Sakura was wide-eyed, tryingdesperately to control her breathing and not panic. Tazuna had his eyes openand watching the battlefield, but at the same time his hands were together andhis lips were moving soundlessly. And Sasuke was probably dead, and would dieof blood loss very soon even if he wasn’t.

As Haku watched him silently, Naruto thought about a lot of things. He thoughtabout Vash and the one mistake that had defined that man’s life. He thoughtabout the Hokage’s rambling and ridiculously idealistic-sounding lecturesabout the Will of Fire which supposedly united the people of Leaf (though itapparently didn’t unite them with Naruto). He thought about Haku’s envy of thefriends he hadn’t entirely realised he had. He thought about the streetchildren, and the adults with empty eyes. He thought about Hinata announcingher grand ambitions in a tiny, trembling voice. He thought about Kakashi, theadult, the team captain, who had told him to make his own choices.

Naruto closed his eyes.

-o-

With a click, a bookshelf rotated out of sight, to be replaced by another one.In front of it, a comfy armchair was illuminated by a gas lamp that gave justenough light for comfortable reading while shrouding the rest of the room in agentle shadow. The lamp itself was suspended on an elaborate ironwork framefilled with abstract spiralling designs.

This was Naruto’s mindscape, equal parts clockwork and library. It had startedout as a simple visualisation technique, a mnemonic trick called geniusloci¸ but then Naruto had got into a manga about an oracle who did most ofhis fighting in mindscapes. Now, greatly expanded with ideas borrowed from avariety of stories, this was the place where Naruto came to rest while otherpeople just thought he was spacing out during particularly boring classes.

But he wasn’t here to rest now. He was here for the one door he’d never daredopen, a feature of his mindscape that he had not created, and did notunderstand.

He took a few steps forward. There were a couple of distant clicks, and thenthe floor he was standing on, in fact a giant gear covered with an elegant redcarpet, rotated out, moving through a hazy blue void until it came tointerlock with another. Here was where he’d found the door.

In size and shape, it was much like the other doors - not too large, not toosmall, a simple rectangle fitting perfectly in the middle of a gap between twobookshelves. However, it had no handle, and rather than being made of carveddark red wood, it was simply a solid slab of white. It was decorated with anabstract pattern of overlapping circular bands of every colour, like the firstripples of rain falling onto still water. They were too many to count, butthey still left plenty of white space within them, so the door was as white asit was multicoloured.

Naruto had never dared go near it before, but now he walked right up to it.Nobody else would die like Sasuke. He wouldn’t let them.

He put his hand on the door.

Suddenly, he was in utter darkness, with no sense of space, standing on anarrow circular platform that he knew rather than saw to be there. It was notwhat he’d expected. He thought he’d be seeing some kind of cage, or a shrinecovered with seals, or at any rate some kind of mystical barrier with him onone side and the Demon Fox on the other. Instead, he felt very small, and veryalone, with absolutely no idea what he was supposed to do next.

Then, before he could get his bearings, the eyes opened all at once.

They were all around him, far away but also vast, thousands of eyes of everycolour watching him from every possible angle, even above and below. There wasno hiding, no escape and no defence. Naruto screamed, stumbled and nearly felloff the platform into the endless abyss.

Something stopped him. A gentle golden glow seemed to provide some sort offorcefield that pushed against his back, keeping him on the platform, while atthe same time illuminating its meagre one-metre diameter.

Naruto looked down. There were four bands of golden light around the edge ofthe platform, between him and the darkness. Inside each one, strange blacksymbols he did not recognise were moving very fast, clockwise in the even-numbered bands and counter-clockwise in the odd-numbered ones. This, hedecided, must be the Fourth’s seal.

He looked back up. The myriad eyes were watching him with cold, dispassionateinterest. None of them blinked. Naruto felt very small indeed, like aninsignificant insect trying to bargain for favours with a power infinitelybeyond his comprehension, with only four narrow strips of light between himand a fate more terrifying than he could begin to imagine. Every last elementof his being was screaming at him to flee at once, to push this place away tothe most distant corners of his mind and to seal even the memory of it behindevery psychic lock he could get his hands on.

But he’d made up his mind. It wouldn’t just be him that paid the price if hefailed here. “Hey, Kyubey!” he shouted into the darkness. “We’re gettingslaughtered out there! I know you want this body to stay alive as much as Ido, so lend me your power!”

The eyes continued to gaze at him. There was no response.

-o-

As Naruto raised his hands for another doomed attempt at a technique, Hakuflew out of his mirror and got ready to throw a needle. Then he saw somethinghe couldn’t comprehend.

Out of nowhere, a mask formed in front of Naruto’s face. It wasn’t thatdifferent to Haku’s stolen hunter-nin mask at first, but then he saw it infull. It was a featureless white oval, with no special form - not even eyesockets - and a pattern of overlapping rings of colour that Haku had neverseen before.

The development made Haku hesitate for just an instant, enough for Naruto tocomplete the seal. Suddenly, a shadow clone formed in front of and aboveNaruto. Its hands were already in the Shadow Clone Technique position. Withoutany delay whatsoever, it summoned another such clone in front of itself. Thatone summoned another. Before Haku could even react, and before even his ultra-fast movement could take him out of the way, the final shadow clone in thechain punched him in the face with staggering force.

Haku’s mask shattered. He flew backwards at terrifying speed, his reactiontime being just enough to dispel the ice mirrors before the impact of the onebehind him broke his spine. He landed hard on the stone surface of the bridge.

“Naruto? What is this?!” Haku cried out in shock.

Naruto did not reply, and it occurred to Haku that perhaps this wasn’t Narutoanymore. The masked figure’s body language was completely different as itturned towards him, no hesitation and no wasted movement.

As Haku started to get up, the figure threw a kunai. Moving with hischaracteristic speed, Haku was able to get a kunai up to block, when there wasa brief blur of motion, and suddenly the kunai was a five-metre long steelpipe heading straight for his face, with no time to dodge.

Slam! Zabuza somehow managed to stay on his feet as he absorbed the impactwith his sword. Haku, now a few metres away, quickly reassessed thebattlefield. His master had used the Substitution Technique on him, placinghim out of danger. In theory, he should now have been facing Kakashi, but forsome reason Kakashi wasn’t attacking. He was running towards them instead.

Zabuza wasted no time.

“Water Element: Geyser Blade Technique!”

A thin, broad, high-pressure blade of water instantly erupted beneath themasked figure’s feet.

Then, impossibly, the figure rose, standing on it as if it were any other bodyof water. There was no human with that level of chakra control. As the bladedissipated, it lowered itself back to the ground, its body language asexpressionless as before.

“Truce!” Kakashi shouted.

“What?!” Zabuza turned to him.

“Truce! This thing easily has the power to kill us all!”

Even during that brief exchange, the figure had been busy. An enormous stormof shuriken flew towards the three ninja.

“Earth Element: Flowing Earth Wall!” Kakashi slammed his hands down on theground, and a thick wall of brown stone rose in front of them just in time toblock the first few shuriken.

Then the rest started to change direction to circumnavigate it.

Kakashi was stunned. His Sharingan eye had told him there were no chakrastrings attached to the shuriken. It should not have been possible tomanipulate them remotely. Then, watching the shuriken as they came round theedge, he very briefly saw it.

The shuriken’s paths were intersecting as the Demon Fox kept throwing more,their blades briefly interlocking like clockwork gears and changing eachother’s direction. It required a level of timing and calculation beyond anyliving being - but the Nine-Brained Demon Fox had processing power to spare.

At the last second, Haku threw up a barrier of ice around them, deflecting theattack.

“What the hell have you brought here, Kakashi?” Zabuza demanded.

“That boy is the host for the Nine-Brained Demon Fox,” Kakashi explained.

“The one that created the Leaf Crater where the old village used to be?”Zabuza asked incredulously.

Kakashi nodded, not wanting to waste time. It was true that the new LeafVillage was located inside the enormous crater left by the Nine-Brains’attack. They even used its highest wall to carve monuments to the Four Hokage,as a reminder to the villagers that, even in the face of the most terribledanger, they were being watched over and protected. But the Hokage wasn’t hereright now, and Kakashi was the only one standing between the Demon Fox andunimaginable destruction.

“I have a plan,” he told the others, “but I’ll need your help to keep it busy.Don’t try to outsmart it, because you can’t. Just overwhelm it with bruteforce so its attention is focused on us.”

“All right,” Zabuza grudgingly agreed. He did not fancy having Haku andhimself at the heart of a new Wave Crater.

In one motion, Haku and Kakashi took down their barriers. The price of beingable to talk without giving the Demon Fox a chance to see or hear them wasthat they hadn’t been able to keep track of it either, and now it had had timeto prepare. Kakashi quickly met Sakura’s eyes, and her look of pure terrorchanged to one of terrified resolve. Then he began to fight.

The following battle was one of the most exhilarating experiences of Kakashi’slife. Had it not been for his ability to keep track of chakra and super-fastmovements with the Sharingan, Zabuza’s near-limitless supply of water-basedattacks, and Haku’s amazing skill at improvising with the exceptionallyflexible Ice Bloodline Limit, they wouldn’t have lasted five seconds.

As it was, the battle was merely incredibly difficult. The Demon Fox had takenadvantage of their discussion time to conceal shadow clones in pretty muchevery inch of the battlefield around them, and Kakashi half-suspected thatthey’d only had that much time at all because it was toying with them. Thesheer brutality of its attacks, however, did not feel like a game at all.

-o-

The Demon Fox moved its head a couple of centimetres to the right to avoid athrown kunai, not even bothering to expend the extra energy to block. Theblade sailed harmlessly over the edge of the bridge.

“Water Element: Water Dragon’s Explosive Bite!”

An enormous torrent of water surged up from beyond the edge of the bridgebehind the Demon Fox, sweeping up the kunai as if it were a weightless leaf,and arced over the Fox’s head, raining down piercing water bullets.

The Demon Fox dodged with precise, economical movements, moving systematicallyaway as it did so. When the water suddenly took the shape of a furious dragonand slammed down on top of it, the Fox was ready to move out of the way beforeit landed.

“Ice Element: Snap Frost!”

The dragon instantly turned to ice in mid-fall, becoming sleeker and moreaerodynamic as it did so, speeding up just enough that there was suddenly notime to dodge.

The Fox promptly thrust a kunai up at the dragon’s maw at _exactly _the rightangle, exploiting a series of imperfections in the crystal to cause the entirething to shatter around it, reverting back to water as it landed in a heavybut completely harmless shower around its target.

With that original kunai still in it.

“Lightning Element: Thunderlash!”

The moment the dragon unfroze, a whip of lightning snapped out from Kakashi’shands, grounding itself through the kunai and electrifying the water.

Or so it should have been, but at the same time, a piece of rubble in betweenKakashi and the Fox flickered through shadow clone form and turned into a tallmetal spike, catching the whip and grounding it early (though beingelectrocuted into oblivion in the process).

Kakashi silently cursed. They’d been at this for over a minute, and the onlyreason they were still alive was that the Demon Fox was apparently limited tothe techniques for which Naruto’s chakra channels were already conditioned.

Even that last three-way combo had been accomplished while simultaneouslyfending off shadow clones from multiple different directions. The clones weretaking full advantage of the Demon Fox’s incredible casting speed, and thefact that it had no need to improve mental focus by calling its techniquenames out loud. In fact, it never made any sound at all.

More specifically, the clones kept using the Transformation Technique toinstantly shift forms in mid-combat. It only took one good hit to destroy ashadow clone, but at the same time shadow clones took on the full propertiesof the objects they were transformed into. It was frustrating trying to impalean opponent, only for them to turn into solid steel plate just long enough todeflect your blow, or to prepare to block a kunai, only for the clone behindthe one you were fighting to suddenly turn into a spear for its ally to wield.

And the teamwork… Whereas the three shinobi were all experienced warriorseasily capable of reading each other’s combat styles and adjusting to match,the shadow clones seemed to act as a single hive mind, for all that the ShadowClone Technique simply did not work that way. Zabuza, Haku and Kakashi’s onlyadvantage was access to a wider variety of chakra-based techniques, and theywere being forced to push it to new, extreme levels.

-o-

“Naruto, you imbecile, what the hell do you think you’re playing at?!”Sasuke’s voice suddenly broke through the silence of the chamber where Narutohad just asked the Nine-Brained Demon Fox for help.

“Bite me, greaseball,” Naruto reflexively snapped. Then he looked up. “Wait,Sasuke? You’re alive?!”

Then, as he started to listen, he noticed the other sounds beginning to filterthrough. It was pandemonium. There were claps of thunder, the sound of thingsshattering, screams and grunts of pain. At least one muffled “aargh!” clearlybelonged to Kakashi-sensei. A sudden sense of horror dawned on Naruto.

“You can compress time in here, can’t you?” he exclaimed. “All this time I’vebeen waiting for your answer, you’ve been in control of my body.”

There was no answer, and the only motion was that of his reflection in thebottomless depths of thousands of dark pupils.

“That was Kakashi-sensei screaming. You were supposed to give me the power toprotect my friends, not try to kill them!”

Somehow, the silence of the chamber seemed to deepen, its counterpoint thedistant, muted noise of the real world heard as if from deep underwater.Naruto began to understand how naive he’d been, trying to bargain with a vast,completely alien intelligence as if it were a rational partner seeking amutually beneficial exchange. What it wanted, it simply took, and he’d openedthe door for it to do so.

“Let me out! The deal is off!” Naruto shouted. “Give me back my body!”

He looked around desperately, but there was no escape. All around, there werejust the Nine-Brained Demon Fox’s eyes, and beyond them a darkness he neverwanted to see illuminated.

He glanced down at the bands of light, his only allies in this insane space.He couldn’t help noticing that the speed of the symbols in the outermost ringhad slowed to a crawl, and its light was dim.

He knelt down, and placed his hands in the middle of the rings. “Please…” hewhispered. “Please show me the way back.”

And then there was a path. A narrow path of golden light, stretching into thedistance to a familiar white door.

Naruto ran. The myriad eyes watched him go, never blinking.

-o-

As he regained access to his senses, Naruto saw Sakura standing in front ofhim, her body language tense with a fight-or-flight response ready to kick in.

“Oh, thank Heaven!” she exclaimed, relaxing slightly. “You’re back!”

“What… happened?” Naruto asked. “And where’s Sasuke?”

“Kakashi-sensei used his Sharingan to put me under a genjutsu,” Sakuraexplained. “In the genjutsu, he told me to wait until that thing wascompletely focused on them, then use the Transformation Technique to turn intoSasuke and call out to you. He said if thinking Sasuke was dead made you losecontrol to the… the Nine-Brained Demon Fox, then maybe thinking he was alivewould help you fight to get it back.”

“Then he’s…”

“He’s alive!” Sakura told Naruto. “I heard him groan when I was preparing toturn into him. I think with his Sharingan he must have dodged just enough forall those needles to miss vital areas.”

Naruto thought again about Haku’s incredible speed, and wondered if theSharingan had really been the only reason.

Meanwhile, on the other side, a bunch of white-masked shadow clones suddenlyvanished.

“Truce over,” Zabuza announced. “Haku, that thing broke my ice visor, so makeone for yourself and take Kakashi. I’ll eliminate the host boy and come joinyou.”

“Yes, master,” Haku responded helplessly.

-o-

“Uzumaki-style Ninjutsu: Deadly Doormat Technique!”

As Zabuza charged at Naruto, intending to lock him into taijutsu before theboy had time for any techniques, a column of shadow clones went into a slideat his feet, one after the other, each using the Transformation Technique toturn into a narrow slab of very smooth ice. Zabuza suddenly found himselfsliding forwards uncontrollably, with each slab of ice reverting to clone formas soon as his feet were off it, and trying to stab him.

“Water Element: Reverse Water Prison Technique!”

Zabuza became completely surrounded by a sphere of water, including below hisfeet, allowing him to stop sliding, fall onto the current slab of ice with hisfull weight and shatter it. The fall brought him below the stabbing kunai, andhe instantly dispelled the technique, taking out the clones with a singleswing of his sword before they could do anything else.

“Uzumaki-style Ninjutsu: Loving Embrace Technique!”

As Zabuza rose, he suddenly found himself in the middle of a crowd of nakedyoung women. He was not a man unfamiliar with the pleasures of the flesh, butthe situation nevertheless surprised him for the split second it took for themto drape themselves all over him, shout “Transformation Technique!” and turninto intertwined bladed chains (exactly like the one wielded by the DemonBrothers). Zabuza was now unable to move without slicing himself into salad.

The missing-nin wasted no time. “Haku!”

Haku, busy in a kunai-on-kunai clash with Kakashi, quickly formed a few sealswith his free hand, causing Kakashi’s eyes to widen considerably. Zabuza stoodperfectly still as a blast of ice spiked up from the ground around him,freezing the chains while leaving him unharmed.

With a mighty shrug, Zabuza shattered the frozen transformed clones, just intime to be able to block the new ones trying to cut his throat.

“Water Element: Water Bullet!”

Naruto dodged sideways to avoid the rapid blasts of high-pressure water.

But as he moved, Zabuza swapped with a piece of piping right next to Naruto’snew location. Before the Genin could react, he’d been grabbed by the throat,and his head was moving towards the stone floor at extreme speeds.

“Shadow Clone Technique!”

At the last second, Naruto’s momentum was softened by a pre-transformed shadowclone mattress. He just managed to tuck his head in enough to avoid doinghorrible things to his neck, then quickly grabbed Zabuza and pulled him downinto a reverse over-the-shoulder throw.

As Zabuza went down, Naruto used the momentum to keep going over him and offthe mattress. And the second he was off, the mattress quickly turned into aclone, then, as Zabuza started to fall to the new lower height, into a bed ofnails.

Zabuza, however, failed to be impaled. He calmly got up, completely unharmed,stretched, and picked up his sword again. “Haven’t been on one of those sinceGenin training. Good times.”

He noticed Naruto’s look of stunned horror. “What? I’m sure to you waterwalking must be a big deal, but in the old Mist you were culled if youcouldn’t do it by the age of five. Now spike walking - that was at least aninteresting challenge for a while.”

Naruto backed away out of Zabuza’s range.

“Well,” Zabuza told him, “that was a nice warm-up. But how about you show mewhat you can really do? Or are you just another kid without the fox to do yourfighting for you?”

Naruto risked a quick glance over in Kakashi-sensei’s direction. The battlethere seemed pretty even. Haku was scarily fast, but Kakashi-sensei hadapparently fought very fast people before, and the experience advantage was abig deal when it came to things like setting up openings and taking advantageof the terrain. He was, for example, getting great mileage out of the factthat his Earth Element structures were permanent until destroyed or dispelled,and could easily reshape the battlefield, whereas Haku’s ice requiredconcentration to maintain, and was mainly being used for one-off attacks andbarriers.

He couldn’t slack off either. “Uzumaki-style Genjutsu: Void Prison!”

It took only a second before Zabuza cut through it with a single swipe of hissword. “Interesting idea. But I get the feeling you’re still not taking meseriously. Water Element: Fist of the Water God!”

An enormous torrent of water rose over the edge of the bridge behind Zabuzaand thrust itself in Naruto’s direction. If it hadn’t been for what he’d justlearned about instant acceleration during tree walking training, and hisexceptional chakra control, he’d never have got out of the way in time.

He charged back in, summoning a couple of shadow clones on the way. The threeof them attacked Zabuza with everything they had. Zabuza quickly got rid ofboth clones with an elaborate set of chopping motions, but he was left havingto briefly use his sword as a shield while he adjusted his stance.

Seeing his chance, Naruto tried to stab Zabuza through the hole in his sword,and Zabuza predictably re-angled the blade to turn the opening away from him.

This was when Naruto’s wristband suddenly turned into a shadow clone. At thesame time, a kunai lying on the ground behind it turned into a clone, leapttowards it, and turned into a chain in mid-air. The clone grabbed it as itflew into his hand, and guided it through the hole in the sword.

On the other side, another kunai turned into a clone at the same time,grabbing the chain’s other end. Both clones sharply yanked the chain down,breaking Zabuza’s guard.

Zabuza just had time to realise that the Void Prison’s real purpose had beento lay down all these shadow clones without him noticing. Then the realNaruto’s kunai met his stomach.

However, at the same time Zabuza’s fist met Naruto’s solar plexus. Unable tododge, he instead hit Naruto so hard that the Genin flew backwards before hisblade could penetrate. As Naruto caught himself, Zabuza sharply yanked hissword upwards, pulling the chain out of the clones’ hands, and then cutthrough both in one sweep. As for the chain, he threw it towards Haku, whofroze it in mid-air while trying to impale Kakashi with an ice spike using hisother hand.

“Water Element: Water Clone Technique!”

Naruto froze. Where was the water clone? He couldn’t see it anywhere. Lasttime, they’d turned up next to the caster, but Naruto didn’t know how muchleeway the technique gave. He had to-

Suddenly, he felt someone grab him roughly by the throat from behind, leavinghim completely unable to breathe. And realised he was standing in the largepool of water left behind by the Fist of the Water God technique.

Before he could do anything, two more water clones grabbed his arms.Completely immobilised, he could only watch as Zabuza hefted his sword andcharged in for a one-hit kill.

Naruto’s life flashed before his eyes, a last look back at a world that hadalways hated him and sought to deny his existence. The few individual sparksof light he saw were set against a tapestry full of familiar, dark materials.Cruelty. Apathy. Contempt. After everything he’d been through, he had to ask:was he really so sad to go?

Finally, he reached the end of the flashback - and there, at the last second,brand new memories which changed everything.

The world had always laid down rules to make him suffer. He was the host ofthe Nine-Brained Demon Fox, so everyone had to hate him. People who were toodifferent could not be tolerated, so he had to keep the most important partsof himself secret. And now, it had even made the rule that mission parameterscould not be altered, on either side, so he had to die fighting his first loveand the man at the heart of her- his world.

Well, not anymore. Naruto looked death in the eye… and grinned. Screw therules, he had intelligence.

Every single shadow clone on the battlefield screamed three simple words atthe top of his voice. “Gatō is dead!”

Zabuza stopped, his sword so close to completing its swing that Naruto couldfeel it drawing a line of blood. Out of the corner of his eye, he could alsosee Haku and Kakashi jump back out of each other’s strike range.

“Explain. Now.”

The water clone holding his throat slightly relaxed its grip.

“The shadow clones I sent to assassinate him just popped,” Naruto told him asloudly as his aching throat would allow. “They did it. There’s no-one to payyou for this mission anymore.”

Zabuza narrowed his eyes. “You? Assassinate Gatō? Why should I believe you?”

Naruto described the memories his shadow clones had sent back of the man in asmuch detail as he could, his appearance, clothes, voice, his personalbodyguards, the way he’d begged for mercy - absolutely everything Zabuza coulduse to verify that Naruto wasn’t making it up.

“I sent my clones on the assassination mission yesterday morning. It gotmessed up when Haku poisoned me, but luckily they’d had time to learn thatGatō had just come to Wave and was nearby. He’d brought a heck of a lot ofmercenaries with him, too, almost as if he was planning to betray someone.”

Zabuza frowned. “Haku, go to the location Naruto’s described and check hisstory.”

He looked back to Naruto. “If he takes too long, or if Kakashi makes one wrongmove, the first thing I’ll do is slit your throat.”

Naruto tried and failed to nod.

Kakashi went off to administer first aid to Sasuke, under Zabuza’s watchfuleye, and the silence stretched on.

-o-

“Master, it’s true! I had them show me the body!” Haku sounded like thehappiest boy ever to return from a corpse viewing.

Zabuza sighed. “Great. We’re broke again. I’m half tempted to kill you guysjust for that, but Gatō was an asshole, and Haku’s been trying to convince meyou’re the best thing since sliced bread, so maybe we’ll call it quits fornow.”

Haku blushed.

“I’ve told the kid a thousand times that emotions and attachments are death toa ninja,” Zabuza added, “but does he listen?”

Kakashi shook his head. “That’s the younger generation for you. No respect fortheir elders. I don’t know how we put up with them.”

Zabuza turned to Naruto. “Listen, boy. You managed to find a solution wherenobody we care about has to die, and this little country even gets its shot atsalvation. I appreciate that.”

Then his expression changed, subtly but terrifyingly.

“But if you ever cheat me out of my income again, I swear by the Sage of SixPaths that I will hunt you down and practise every one of the Hundred Torturesof the Bloody Mist on your still-living body.”

Naruto swallowed. “Yessir. I mean no sir. I mean I promise I won’t.”

It was Haku’s turn.

“Naruto, thank you. For everything. I don’t have the words for how glad I amthat we didn’t have to kill you.”

“Yeah,” Naruto replied. “Same here. I don’t even know how to tell you whatmeeting you has meant to me.”

Haku smiled. “Fare well, Naruto. I doubt we’ll ever meet again.”

And before Naruto could say anything else, a blast of icy wind swept over thebridge. When it faded, Zabuza and Haku were gone.

In the silence they left behind, the only sound was Sakura muttering toherself. “Why do I always have to be surrounded by show-offs?”


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