Tempered in Water

Chapter 1 / The Difference of a Second

By HitokiriOTD

Thick mist had settled oppressively over the bridge. Naruto could barely make out Haku's delicate, strangely feminine features. The other ninja was still speaking and Naruto had, in a move that would have amazed nearly everyone who knew him, chosen to remain silent. Indeed, he didn't know if he could muster the words to speak even had he wanted to. Haku's pained words resonated uncomfortably in Naruto's mind and soul.

"Do you know… the pain of living without a dream? The knowledge that no one in the world needs you?" Those eyes, once full of warmth and determination while they had casually spoken amidst the trees, were now empty and dull as the bored into him.

"What are you trying to say?" Naruto ground out, his confusion and anger reflected on his face.

"Zabuza-san has no need of a weak shinobi. You stole my reason for existing," Haku was smiling, as if amused at a secret joke. Naruto was quickly coming to realize that his smile, his expression, and his tone of voice were all masks under which Haku hid his true feelings.

Naruto's eyes narrowed, "Why…? Why do you fight for the sake of that guy?" He couldn't comprehend it. Zabuza was a terrible person, while Haku was in many ways a reflection of himself. So why…? "He's an evil ninja, who gets money from bad guys and does terrible things!" Naruto's voice grew louder and he began to gesture angrily, "Is that no-brow the only precious person you have!?"

Haku was silent for a moment before answering, "Once, a long time ago, I had people that were precious to me." His eyes dropped, "My… parents."

As Haku's story unfolded, Naruto couldn't help but feel the sense of kinship with the tragic ninja grow. It was a horrifying story, and a part of Naruto, the part that was still innocent, couldn't comprehend that humans could be so cruel to each other. Another, larger part of him understood all too well. Naruto listened numbly as Haku dully described the death of his parents.

"When I came to, I realized that I had just killed my own father. And at the time, I thought of myself as… no, I had no choice but to think of myself as being… I realized that that was the most painful thing a person could feel."

"The most painful thing?" Naruto's voice was small as he voiced his query.

"The feeling that your existence is needed by no one in this world," Haku's dead eyes haunted Naruto, almost as much as his words did.

He's the same as me. Naruto didn't know how to describe the strange mélange of feelings that thought stirred within him. He was relieved that others like him existed, that he wasn't alone in his pain. He wanted to weep in grief, for the very same reason. He wanted to reach out to Haku, but at the same time he was terrified. He understood this person. Conversely, Haku could understand Naruto.

"You said this to me, 'I want to become the number one ninja in my village, and have everyone recognize me.' When someone who accepts you from the bottom of their heart appears, that person should become the most important person to you. Zabuza-san knew that I was from a family with a bloodline limit, yet he still raised me. He wanted this ability that everyone else hated." Haku's head lowered in remembrance.

"A brat like you won't be needed by anyone, and you'll die a beggar."

Haku smiled up at the towering Mist-nin, "You have the same eyes as me."

Zabuza stared at the tiny, hollow-eyed child for a long moment. "Kid, do you want to be needed by someone?" Zabuza asked gruffly. "Can you give everything to me?"

Beggar-child and jounin continued to match gazes. Haku gave a single, slow nod. "Then, starting today, your ability is mine." Haku rose and moved to Zabuza's side. The man patted Haku's head once with his large, calloused hand before drawing Haku close.

"Come with me."

Haku's expression twisted in bittersweet sorrow, "I was happy." Haku still remembered clearly the night that they had left the Country of Water. But that memory brought Haku no happiness. He had failed in his pledge. "I'm sorry, Zabuza-san. I couldn't be the tool you wished for me to be after all." Haku's head lifted, and he began to walk towards Naruto. Naruto anxiously took a step back. Haku stopped and gazed down at him.

"Naruto-kun," Haku spoke, "please… kill me." Naruto didn't understand, couldn't understand, how a person could serenely ask for death like that. Haku had given up. Why was a single defeat so unacceptable? Did Zabuza really mean that much to him? "Please kill me," Naruto clenched his jaw as Haku repeated the request. Dull eyes stared down at him. "Why are you hesitating?" Naruto looked away, pained, and stepped back.

"I can't believe that stupid story! Weapon? Tool? Someone like that is a precious person to you? That's okay with you!?" His hands rose, partly in anger, partly pleading. That's not right… it can't be…

"Is it wrong?" Haku's question, so contradictory to Naruto's inner thoughts, stopped him in his tracks.

"What…?" he drew back in surprise.

"How is that wrong?"

Naruto's expression wilted, "But… that's…"

"Zabuza-san had hopes for me. He needed me." Memories flashed through Haku's mind. "But now, I have lost the purpose that made me who I am. Zabuza-san will no longer need me anymore." Naruto's face reflected his despair, "That's why I am asking you…" Haku paused.

"Now, hurry…" Haku continued almost urgently. Naruto took another step back, agonized. Haku's eyes narrowed slightly, "Why are still hesitating?"

Naruto growled in frustration. "I don't understand!" he shouted, "Is remaining strong the only reason you have for staying in this world!?" Haku's serene expression never wavered, nor did the other ninja offer an answer to Naruto. "You could have made people recognize you for something else other than just fighting," he finished, his tone pleading.

"The day I met you in the forest, I felt that you and I were alike," Haku said. "That's what I thought," Naruto's eyes widened in shock. "You should understand," Haku paused for a moment before continuing, "I'm sorry that I have to soil your hands."

"Is this… Is this the only way?" Naruto agonized. What was this feeling, welling up inside? Despair? Defeat? Naruto couldn't name it, but he knew for sure that he didn't like it. He didn't like the black ball of misery that had settled in his stomach. He didn't want to kill this person. Haku wasn't his enemy. He wasn't a faceless shinobi anymore; not just some evil nin that Naruto had spent years daydreaming about beating into the ground. Haku was Haku.

He killed Sasuke, whispered something in the back of his mind.

That's true, but… but still…

"Yes." There was no doubt in Haku's voice or posture. The other boy was serene in the face of death. The misery grew bigger and bigger, and Naruto waged a brief internal war with himself. Naruto closed his eyes.

"If I had met you in some other place, we might have become friends." There was a lifetime worth of pain lurking behind Naruto's words.

Why… Why did it turn out to be like this?

When Naruto's eyes snapped open, they were filled with deadly determination. His hand dropped to his right thigh and drew a kunai. He was scarcely aware of that first step towards Haku, but he thought that he could feel every minute detail of the cold, damp handle of the kunai as he drew it from his leg holster. He was moving, perhaps as fast as he had ever moved before. Chakra pumped through his legs, accelerating his movement. For a brief, whimsical second, his mind flashed back to the tree climbing training. He had never considered that he would be using those hard-earned skills to kill someone, especially so soon. It was all about jutsu and dreams, or at least it had been. His newfound knowledge, that he had been so eager to learn, now left a bitter taste in his mouth.

This is what it means to be a strong shinobi and to protect someone!?

Haku was almost smiling. Grab hold of your dream.

A battle cry was sounding from Naruto's throat, though he wasn't aware of it. He had…Sasuke had a dream, too! The vision of Sasuke's still, cold body, filled with senbon, was painfully clear in Naruto's mind. He could remember all too well the humiliation, the shock, and then the desperation and grief that had come before the rage. "That man… I didn't want to die… until I killed my brother." Dark eyes, fading and glossy as the light left from them. Naruto's hand tightened on the kunai.

You're okay with that?

He was closing quickly now. The distance between the two ninja was decreasing rapidly. Naruto's vision narrowed. The beat of his heart seemed impossibly loud in his ears, and his footsteps seemed to reverberate throughout the bridge. He was screaming now, though he didn't know it.

Are you really okay with that?

Haku really did smile, watching as Naruto closed the gap between them. Those blue eyes were bright with anger and determination. Naruto had found his resolution to kill. Thank you. You will become strong. Haku's eyes slid shut as a sense of peace filled him.

I don't understand… I'll never understand it!

The kunai whistled as it cut through the air seeking soft, frail human flesh. A sense of deep foreboding washed over Haku, and his eyes snapped open in alarm. But it was too late, even for Haku's superb reflexes. Cold, dark steel pierced deeply into Haku's side. Haku drew a burbling breath, and blood welled up in his mouth. There was no strength left to speak, or worry, or even think. Soon there was no strength left to draw breath, and then there was nothing at all.

Naruto gazed in numb horror at the blood. There was so much of it. His hands were coated with it, as was his kunai, still lodged in Haku's body. He felt warm drops of blood dripping macabre trails across his face. No thoughts went through his mind as he watched his enemy struggle for breath as blood welled from his wound, from his mouth, from his nose… No.

What have I done?

The mist was clearing. Sakura and Tazuna could only watch and wonder at the two shadows before them. One moved, and then Sakura could barely track it. A strange noise, like the chirping of countless little birds, registered with her senses. There was a flash, a wet sound, and then she saw blood fly. The mist was clearing, and Kakashi-sensei had punched his hand straight through Zabuza's chest.

The chirping noise died away, and the summoned dogs that had sealed Zabuza's movement exploded in small clouds of smoke, their jobs completed. Sakura's stomach twisted at the sight of the dead enemy jounin, but there was also relief that their most dangerous opponent was dead. Her relief was short-lived, however, as Naruto came into view. Quickly, tugging the bridge-building along with her, she began to make her way over to her blond teammate.

"Naruto!" Sakura called. Naruto didn't respond, didn't even so much as twitch at the sound of her voice, which prompted a sliver of worry in Sakura's mind. "Naruto!" she cried again, "Where's…" Sakura trailed off, as she and Tazuna began to truly make out the details of Naruto's appearance. Blood was dripping from the short ninja's hands. It was on his face as well, and there were dark stains on his clothing. Naruto's carriage made it unlikely that the blood was his. The still body of Zabuza's accomplice served as a silent affirmation of that conclusion.

Both the bridge builder and the kunoichi were shocked at the sight, though Sakura was far more surprised than Tazuna. Tazuna was shocked that the little loudmouthed blond had killed someone, especially a ninja as skilled as Haku seemingly was, but he had already grow to respect Naruto as a person and as a ninja. Sakura, however, still harbored many of the prejudices and misconceptions that she had developed towards Naruto over the years. In Konoha, labels like genius and dead-last carried a great deal of weight. It shouldn't have mattered much, especially among the older and more experienced shinobi, but it did.

To Sakura, rookie genin, recent graduate of the Academy, and admirer of Uchiha Sasuke, it carried even more weight. She had never questioned Sasuke's superiority or Naruto's inferiority. She had never considered that Naruto would ever become a decent ninja, or that he could really accomplish his dream. However, the mission to Wave Country was disabusing her of many preconceived notions that she had had about the world.

She had discovered that being a ninja could be terrifying and dangerous beyond belief. The genin of Team Seven had all been surprised to learn that the incredibly tardy, perverted, and irreverent Kakashi-sensei was a ninja of almost legendary stature. Sakura had also learned that Sasuke-kun's level of skill and accomplishment meant very little in the wider world, and Naruto wasn't anything like she had pegged him to be.

It was Naruto, not Sasuke, who had remembered Kakashi-sensei's lesson on teamwork and devised a plan to free their teacher from Zabuza's Suirou no Jutsu. He had surprised her again with his determination during training, and though he had started slowly Naruto had ended up completing the training at the same time as Sasuke-kun. Now he had surprised her once again. Sasuke-kun had been the first to engage the fake hunter-nin, but it was apparently Naruto who had finished the job. How Naruto, the dead-last of the Academy, could have finished off the highly skilled masked ninja, Sakura did not know. Nor was she in the mindset to probe too deeply, worried as she was over Sasuke-kun.

"Naruto!" she called again, moving closer and tugging Tazuna along with her. Naruto twitched visibly at her call, which she considered an improvement over his previous unresponsiveness. Encouraged, she went on, "Where's Sasuke-kun?" Naruto flinched, looking away. After a moment, he turned his head towards Sasuke's body. Sakura, now extremely worried, began to jog in the indicated direction. She passed Naruto without a second glance.

Naruto's hands had curled in to tight, white-knuckled fists by the time he heard Sakura begin weeping behind him. Even so, he walked towards the now visible Kakashi-sensei, who was standing over the prone body of Zabuza. The Sharingan was once again covered, and Kakashi's single eye gazed emotionlessly down at his fallen foe. As Naruto approached, he lifted his head and gave his student a glance. The glance quickly widened into a surprised stare as he took in Naruto's bloody, ragged appearance and empty expression. Quickly, he looked for his other students and soon saw the hunched form of Sakura, bent over the still body of Sasuke. Tazuna was standing behind her, sad but unharmed. For an instant, Kakashi's single visible eye seemed to droop in sorrow. The instant was soon over, and the silver haired jounin was all business again.

"Haku?" His tone was emotionless, but brisk.

Naruto's shoulders shook slightly, but otherwise his expression remained hollow. "Dead," he replied. Kakashi sighed, relieved that the two main threats to Tazuna had been neutralized. But he was still worried. Is this the end of Team Seven?

"And Sasuke?" Kakashi was pretty certain of the answer, but he needed confirmation. Naruto opened his mouth to reply, but he was cut off before he could begin.

Raucous laughter echoed across the bridge. Student and teacher turned in unison, only to see a dense crowd of mercenaries arrayed at the unfinished end of the bridge. A boat was anchored off to the right, answering the question of how they had gotten there. Kakashi mentally cursed. This is bad. They must have come in after Naruto's seal began to slip, he reasoned. The feeling of the Kyuubi's chakra had distracted him too much from his surroundings, and now Team Seven would pay the price for that slip. There were too many mercenaries for him to deal with, wounded and low on chakra as he was.

Gatou, the source of the laugh, stood at the forefront of the mercenaries, the very picture of confidence. Of course, Kakashi thought wryly, he has scores of hired thugs, and his opposition is a genin cell with only two effective genin and a jounin with almost no chakra. Gatou's confidence wasn't completely unwarranted, though Kakashi hoped he would be able to change that. Still, it wouldn't be easy. Kakashi had no soldier pills to temporarily boost his chakra, and Naruto and Sakura weren't at a level where they could challenge that many armed men and survive. Retreat wasn't an option either, with Tazuna to worry about and the defenseless town nearby.

The squat man in the suit finished laughing. Gatou sighed in mock disappointment at the corpses of his hired nukenin. "Some demon," he snorted. "For all his big words, he lost that badly." Shaking his head, he turned his glance towards Kakashi, "I was hoping that you shinobi would kill each other off and save me the trouble, and the money, of getting rid of you. I guess he was just a cute little demon after all. Still, good work for getting rid of Zabuza for me." Kakashi's single visible eye narrowed dangerously, but Gatou continued on, "Normally, I would offer to pay you off so that you wouldn't interfere, but it looks like Zabuza and his little brat did some good after all and managed to wear you out."

Naruto growled angrily, taking a threatening step forward. Quickly, Kakashi grabbed his student, "Stop," he cautioned, "don't move carelessly." The blond struggled briefly against his teacher's hold, unable to calmly deal with Gatou's provocation. Seeing Naruto's rage, Gatou chuckled again in amusement.

"Angry, little brat?" he mocked. "I see you have blood all over your hands. Were you the one that killed Zabuza's little pet ninja?" Naruto, who had been in the process of calming down after Kakashi's admonishment, lunged forward again. Kakashi's grip was the only thing restraining Naruto from charging headlong into the band of merciless hired killers. Gatou took Naruto's reaction as confirmation. "Good work, for a short little brat like you!" he chortled. "I wanted to do it myself, but I guess I can live without doing the deed personally. After all, I owed him a favor for gripping my hand until it broke." Gatou began to laugh again, loudly and obnoxiously. It was the laugh that sealed his fate.

Kakashi looked at Naruto apprehensively and tightened his grip on the genin. The boy had become uncharacteristically silent and still once Gatou had begun to laugh. His eyes were closed, but Kakashi could see the stark tension in his body language. Naruto was a passionate person by nature, and he grew angry easily and often. However, Kakashi had never seen his student become quiet or stay still while angry, and it gave him an ominous feeling. Was the Kyuubi's influence still present and acting to incite Naruto, or was there something about his encounter with Haku that Kakashi didn't know about?

Inside Naruto, the Kyuubi's chakra was indeed still moving. However, it was mostly due to the rage Naruto was feeling, rather than any designs on the Kyuubi's part. Naruto was angry.

He was extremely angry. Listening to Gatou talk, hearing him demean Zabuza, Haku, and Team Seven like they were trash, was almost too much for Naruto to accept. But the pleased way he spoke of Haku's death, and the way he laughed about it afterwards, that was what truly broke Naruto's already fragile self-control. Gatou was laughing at Haku's death, a death that Naruto was directly responsible for. He was dismissing Haku's worth, his existence as a person, and Naruto couldn't bear that. Haku had been a good person, and more importantly, he had been just like Naruto. Haku had known the same pain, the same loneliness, and the same desire to be needed and acknowledged.

Yet here was Gatou, not even a ninja, a person who could never understand the pain Naruto and Haku had known, laughing. Naruto recognized the laughter; it had been branded into his soul. It was a laugh that mocked Haku and everything he had stood for. It mocked his dreams and ideals, and it degraded his worth. Naruto recognized it, since he had been laughed at and mocked in the same way by countless people throughout his whole life. They had dismissed him, hated him, and stepped all over his dreams and ambitions. Now, someone was doing the same thing to Haku, who was dead and could never come back.

Deep within Naruto, something felt his rage. Massive crimson eyes snapped open, and a cruel smirk tugged at inhuman lips, revealing monstrous canines. Red eyes began to glow faintly with malevolent power.

Naruto opened his eyes. Had Kakashi been able to see Naruto's expression, or the way that his normally round pupils had become malevolent vertical slits, he might have been able to prevent what came next. Naruto, strengthened by the demon's chakra, broke free of Kakashi's restraining hold with ease. There was a moment of absolute silence on the bridge as both Kakashi and the mercenaries went still in surprise and Gatou's laughter stopped. Rapid footsteps echoed across the bridge, and Naruto's kunai whispered as it was unsheathed from his leg holster.

Gatou took a trembling step back, surprise and fear etched in his face. Then he saw Naruto's eyes, inhuman and colored like blood.

They were the eyes of a demon.

Gatou shrieked, stumbling backwards. "Hey!" he yelled, shaking the mercenaries out of their surprise, "Kill those guys!"

He received an enthusiastic response from the thugs. Weapons were readied, and they confidently prepared to meet the enraged charge of the lone genin. The man in front, armed with a large, saw-bladed cleaver, smirked at Naruto. "Idiot!" he scoffed. "Do you think you can beat so many on your own…" he trailed off, his confident voice wavering, as Naruto's charge accelerated. The last thing he saw before Naruto's kunai sliced his throat open was the boy's red, inhuman eyes.

Naruto carved through the thugs with speed and strength far surpassing his natural abilities. Rage left his mind mercifully blank of thought. His shinobi training combined with instincts far older and more primal, allowing him to carve a bloody swath through his enemies as he pursued the retreating businessman. Enhanced, instinctive reflexes enabled him to avoid the many attacks coming his way, but that could not last forever when outnumbered so greatly.

A spear from behind pierced his shoulder, but the pain only fueled his anger. He turned to kill the one who had wounded him, but he was too late. Kakashi had slipped in on the wake of chaos Naruto's charge had created, and the spear wielder was already slumping to the ground, neck bent at an unnatural angle, when Naruto turned. Kakashi's Sharingan was once again revealed, and he countered the attacks of the mercenaries with an air of ease despite his exhaustion.

Kakashi was well aware that he couldn't keep things up for much longer. Still, despite Naruto's reckless stupidity, he was still Kakashi's student and he had to be protected. However, a single glance at Naruto revealed that he didn't need much protection. His eyes, enlarged canines, and jagged whisker marks made for an intimidating appearance, which was only enhanced by the blood dripping from his clawed hands. Raw, unfocused killing intent poured out of the boy, creating a heavy, almost suffocating aura around him. But what was more terrifying, especially to the men around him, was the fact that the spear through his shoulder had been ejected, seemingly by itself, and the wound was healing at an incredible rate.

Kakashi was extremely worried after seeing his student up close. The Kyuubi's chakra was obviously running rampant through Naruto's body and Kakashi didn't know how to stop it, nor was he in a condition to kill Naruto should he truly grow out of control. Before he could attempt to calm Naruto down, the boy tensed and launched himself forward. In moments, he had torn past the rearmost mercenaries and was rapidly approaching Gatou, who had reached the end of the bridge.

Gatou was quivering in fear at the blood-soaked genin's rapid approach. His legs shivered, and no matter how hard he tried he could hardly seem to move them. Naruto bore in, the very image of death to Gatou's terrified mind. Looming behind the blond ninja, Gatou saw a terrible vision. A massive, canine face with eyes just like the ones Naruto bore now glared down at him, and terrible jaws parted in cruel hunger. Gatou lost control of his bladder.

"A demon…" he whimpered in horror.

Naruto's arm, kunai clenched tightly in his fist, came up. The smooth horizontal arc that followed was too fast for Gatou to see, but when it made contact with his neck he died almost instantly afterward. Gatou's head, his face still frozen in a terrified grimace, sailed over the end of the bridge and into the cold water below. His headless body quickly followed, as a result of a casual kick from Naruto. Several men sought to attack him from behind, but a single glance from Naruto stopped them in their tracks. Naruto's killing intent, enhanced exponentially by the Kyuubi's dreadful chakra, was more than enough to terrify the nearby mercenaries.

A single chakra enhanced leap took him over the group of mercenaries. Kakashi, who had retreated back to Zabuza's corpse as soon as Naruto had killed Gatou, watched his student anxiously. However, the boy made no moves to attack him. Naruto stood still for a long moment. He trembled visibly, and when he began to approach closer Kakashi saw that his eyes were once again blue. Blue, but also dull. The shadows under his eyes made him look as if he had been crying or hadn't slept for days.

Naruto stared down at his bloody hands with a strange, almost bewildered look in his eyes. It was as if he didn't recognize his own hands. Kakashi eyed his student, wondering what he should say in this situation, or if he should say anything at all.

His heart beat was loud in his ears.

Did I die?

The sound of soft, girlish weeping grew louder as each second passed. Sakura. Sasuke struggled to open his eyes. Dimly, he could see the bridge builder standing over him, and Sakura weeping on his chest. I… I…

"Sakura, you're heavy," Sasuke muttered hoarsely. Sakura gasped and jerked up in shock.

"Sasuke-kun…?" Her voice was small, incredulous at his revival, but he could hear the rising hope there as well. Sasuke could only blink weakly in reply. Tazuna gasped. Sakura, tears pouring afresh down her face, reached down and clutched him tightly, burying her face in his chest as she did so. "Sasuke-kun! Sasuke-kun! Sasuke-kun!" she sobbed.

Sasuke gasped in pain. "Sakura," he hissed out between clenched teeth, "that hurts." He shook his head from side to side, as if to escape her painful hold.

Tazuna reached up to wipe the tears from his own eyes as he listened to Sakura's relieved sobs. You must be happy, Sakura.

Sasuke struggled to sit up, his jaw clenching tightly as pain that lanced through him.

"You shouldn't try to move," Sakura scolded worriedly.

He ignored her advice. "Where's Naruto? And what happened to that masked guy?" It hurt to talk, but he had to know.

"Naruto is safe," Sakura replied, "and that masked boy… died." She looked aside, her expression suddenly downcast.

"Died?" Sasuke gasped. He quickly brought his head up to stare at Sakura. "Did Naruto kill him?"

Sakura hesitated, but Sasuke's gaze bored intensely into her. "I don't know the details, but…" she trailed off briefly, not able to meet Sasuke's gaze, "It seems like he did."

Sasuke turned to stare at Haku's still form, and then to Naruto, whose hands were stained red with blood. Naruto… you…

Sakura, eager to change the topic, went on, "I believed in you, Sasuke-kun. You must have dodged the attacks to avoid critical damage, right?" Smiling, Sakura rose to her feet.

Sasuke stared at the ground. That guy… must have done it on purpose from the beginning... Sasuke didn't know what to think. Naruto had killed the ninja that he couldn't defeat. That ninja had subdued him easily, without using lethal violence. Was he really that weak?

"Naruto!" Sakura called happily. Naruto flinched at the sound of her voice. Sakura-chan­. He turned to see Sakura waving, a big smile lighting up her face, and Sasuke slowly rising to his feet. "Sasuke-kun is okay! He's alive!"

"Eh!?" He turned fully around to face Sakura, stunned.

Sasuke looked away, embarrassed, and slowly raised his left arm in response to Naruto's disbelieving stare. Naruto smiled, a deep sense of relief filling him. Tears formed at the corners of his eyes, and he laughed softly in joy. Then he turned to Haku's body, and his expression drooped. I see… So, he…Sasuke was alive after all. Haku hadn't killed him. But Naruto had killed Haku. A renewed sense of grief consumed him. Why…?

"I see. Sasuke is safe, too," Kakashi murmured. "I'm glad," he sighed, relieved.

"Oi, oi, oi!" The thug pounded his staff into the ground, glaring at the Konoha ninja and bringing their attention back to the matter at hand. "You guys are feeling too safe," he chided.

A katana wielding mercenary beside him nodded in agreement. "You damn ninja killed our source of money," he growled, emboldened by the mutterings of his comrades.

The mercenaries' fear was ebbing away as greed and anger—and not a little humiliation at being beaten by such a small boy—overrode their recent terror. It helped that the demon that had so effortlessly sliced through their ranks no longer seemed very intimidating. Indeed, the suffocating pressure, the weight that had felt like the hand of Death had fallen across the bridge, was gone. The crimson-eyed, bloody-clawed demon was gone. In its place, there was nothing but a dazed and exhausted little boy.

The staff-wielder smirked cruelly, "Now we'll have to attack the town and steal all of the valuables." The group cheered in agreement. Kakashi frowned in consternation. They've regrouped already…

He put a voice to his thoughts, "This is bad."

Naruto, temporarily shaken from his stupor and all out of anger, whirled to face Kakashi. "Kakashi-sensei, don't you have a technique that can just beat them all at once?" he asked worriedly.

"Not possible," Kakashi replied. "I've used up too much chakra."

The temporary spokesman of the mercenaries whipped his weapon forward. "Let's go!" he roared. The thugs began to charge en masse, yelling as they went.

A steel crossbow bolt arced down and buried itself into the pavement in front of the charging thugs. It served to halt their rush, and they milled about in confusion. Kakashi and Naruto quickly turned to spot its source and gasped in surprise. Inari had fired the bolt, and behind him stood a great many of the island's inhabitants, all armed.

"Anyone who gets any closer to this island will die facing the force of this island!" This firm declaration was met with a fierce cry from the islanders.

"Inari!" Naruto shouted happily.

They boy in question grinned in return. "Heroes are supposed to come late," he said, mimicking Naruto's words to him back at the house.

Tazuna was close to weeping with joy. "Inari… All of you…"

Their numerical advantage clearly nullified, the mercenaries hesitated fearfully. Naruto, spotting their fear, grinned. Right! I'll help, too.

His blood-slick hands whipped up quickly to form the seal for his favorite ninjutsu. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" he cried. Smoke erupted around him, and when it cleared there were five copies of Naruto. Fear in Gatou's henchmen was quickly growing. Kakashi recognized Naruto's intent. I guess I can use about the same amount of chakra as him and use it as a bluff.

Kakashi quickly formed the same seal Naruto had used. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu," Kakashi was enshrouded in smoke. When it cleared, a line of Kage Bunshin stretched across the entire width of the bridge. "Kakashi Version," he called, smirking beneath his mask as terror consumed the mercenaries. "Shall we begin?" Seeing dozens of Kage Bunshin of the blood-splattered jounin glaring and cracking their knuckles was too much for the already terrified mercenaries to take. They routed in panic, trampling over each other in their hurry to escape back to the boat.

Inari watched them flee, a sense of rising jubilation rising within him. "Yeah!" he cried happily. The islanders yelled victoriously as the remnants of their oppressor's thugs fled in terror.

While the inhabitants of the Wave celebrated, the four members of Team Seven were somber as they began to wind down and take stock of the situation. Naruto was perhaps the most affected emotionally, though Sasuke nursed his wounded pride and Kakashi just plain nursed his wounds. Sakura hovered near Sasuke, obviously concerned over the state of her crush's health. However, before Kakashi could order his team to return to Tazuna's house for rest and medical treatment, he needed to confirm the deaths of the missing-nin duo. He started to walk slowly back towards Zabuza's body, saw Naruto standing still with his head bowed, and stopped.

"Naruto," he called quietly. The boy quickly brought his hands up, no doubt wiping away tears, and turned to face his teacher. When he saw that he had Naruto's attention, Kakashi continued, "Go check the other body." He saw Naruto flinch as if struck. "We need to confirm things here. If you're a ninja, act like it." It was cruel of him, but it would hopefully force Naruto to deal with the issue. After all, any ninja who hoped to become a Kage would have to accept the reality of death. Shinobi killed, and were often killed themselves in turn. Naruto had to learn that.

Naruto shuffled over to Haku's body. Mechanically, he knelt, put his fingers over the main artery in Haku's neck, and applied pressure. He waited for several moments, not really expecting to feel anything, but something in him hoped... Of course he's dead. All that blood…He jerked in surprise. Was that…?

Quickly, he reapplied his fingers and waited, a faint flicker of hope stirring within him. Hope quickly began to fade however, when he did not feel anything. A moment later, just as he was about to remove his hand, he felt something again. Eyes narrowed in concentration, his whole body tense, he waited. There! He felt almost as jubilant as the festive islanders. There was still life left in Haku's body, faint as it was.

"Kakashi-sensei!" he yelled, heedless of the happy tears falling from his eyes. "Come quick!" Kakashi was at his side in an instant, motivated by the sheer urgency in Naruto's voice. He stared at the still features of the nukenin, and at Naruto's excited expression, in vague confusion.

"What is it?" he asked his student. Has Naruto snapped from the strain?

"He's alive!" Naruto shouted. In an instant, Kakashi was down on his knees, testing the apparently still-alive ninja's pulse. For a moment, he thought that Naruto really had snapped, and then he felt it. Haku's pulse was extremely weak, but it was still there. He looked at Haku's wound with a critical eye, and soon understood how Haku could still be alive.

Kakashi shook his head in disbelief, "I don't know whether to scold you or praise you. Somehow, you managed to miss all of his vital organs, and you foolishly left your kunai lodged in his body. You left behind your weapon, but it did stem the blood flow a bit, keeping him from bleeding totally to death." Kakashi sighed at the blonde's happy antics. He had gotten up and begun a silly dance halfway through Kakashi's speech. Number one surprising ninja, indeed, Kakashi thought wryly. If he had done it intentionally it would be impressive. But, I know he didn't pay attention to anatomy lectures in the Academy, and was trying to strike a killing blow. The fact that he missed, against a docile opponent no less, is pathetic. Still, only Naruto could be so incompetent and have it pay off. He has luck in spades, that kid. Kakashi returned his gaze to Haku and sobered slightly. If he doesn't get treatment right away, he really will die.

"Naruto," he said firmly, catching the attention of the dancing boy. "Go see if there are any trained doctors among the islanders."

Naruto looked anxiously at Kakashi, "Is he going to be okay? Is he, Kakashi-sensei?"

"Maa, calm down, Naruto. He'll be alright, as long as he gets the proper treatment in time," I think, "so hurry up, will you?" Kakashi made a brisk shooing motion. Naruto, filled with a renewed sense of urgency, took off at a run. Kakashi ignored the blonde's strident shouts for a doctor, and began to examine the wound more closely.

I said all of that to Naruto, but still, it looks pretty serious. I only know some very basic medical techniques, and only because I copied them. Kakashi sighed regretfully. Knowing medical techniques and having the skill and the knowledge to use them well were two different things entirely. Kakashi remembered Naruto's pained eyes when he reported Haku's death and the unabashed tears of relief he had shed when he had found out that Haku was alive. I don't have much chakra left, but… I guess I'll do what I can.

The jounin-sensei of Team Seven took a deep breath. He quickly formed a series of hand seals, all the while drudging up everything he knew about the human body and medical theory. His gloved hands took on a green/blue hue as chakra emitted from them. I hope this works.

It turned out that there were several skilled doctors in the Wave, three of which were in the crowd on the bridge at that particular time. The tiny Wave Country had once had a thriving hospital with quite a few skilled surgeons. Gatou's successful campaign to crush the Wave's economy had forced the hospital to shut down, and most of the doctors had left for other, larger countries. Some, however, had remained behind, mostly because those particular doctors had strong ties to the island. It took Naruto less than a minute to locate Tazuna among the crowd. Upon understanding the situation, the bridge builder had immediately gathered the few medically trained islanders present. Naruto sent one to look at Sasuke's injuries, and then promptly began to drag the other two towards Haku.

"Kakashi-sensei!" he called exuberantly, "I found them! Is he still…" Naruto trailed off uncertainly. His teacher was kneeling over Haku, panting in clear exhaustion. Nonetheless, his hands glowed with chakra, and there was steam rising from Haku's wound. Amazed, Naruto and the doctors stopped. Kakashi had removed the kunai from Haku's side, yet there was no blood coming out of the wound. "Kakashi-sensei," he called again, hesitantly, "what are you doing?"

Kakashi looked up at Naruto, noting the two islanders by his side. Doctors, he assumed with no small amount of relief. "These are the doctors?" he asked Naruto. The boy nodded in confirmation. Kakashi let out a deep breath and stopped the flow of chakra to his hands. "I've performed some emergency treatment," he addressed the pair of islanders, "and the bleeding has been stopped, for the most part. The rest is up to you guys." He stood, wincing in pain as he did so. "Naruto, go get Sakura and help her get Sasuke back to Tazuna's house. I'll escort Tazuna back after things get sorted out here."

Naruto nodded quickly and began to make his way towards his teammates, but he didn't make it more than a few steps before he heard a muffled thump behind him. Turning in alarm, he saw that Kakashi-sensei had fell face down onto the pavement and wasn't moving. Moving quickly, he was at Kakashi's side before the doctors had shaken out of their surprise. He quickly checked Kakashi-sensei's vitals, and was relieved to find a steady pulse. When the doctor's finally voiced their alarm, Naruto waved them away.

"It's just chakra exhaustion," he explained to them, remembering when Kakashi had suffered the same illness in the aftermath of their first encounter with Zabuza, before they had made it to Tazuna's house more than a week ago. Seeing their blanks looks, he tried to recall the explanation Sakura had given him. "Chakra is like life force or something," he explained hesitantly, "so if a ninja uses all of it up, they'll die. Kakashi-sensei used up most of his chakra, so he'll probably be unconscious for a day or two until enough of it comes back. Anyways, don't worry about him. You guys fix Haku up, and I'll take care of Kakashi-sensei."

Reminded of their purpose, the two doctors quickly went back to work. Naruto formed the hand seal for Kage Bunshin, molded chakra, and was rewarded with two distinctive noises as the shadow clones popped in existence. He sent the two clones to construct a stretcher for Kakashi. After, he waved energetically to his teammates.

"Sakura-chan!" he shouted, catching his pink-haired teammate's attention. "Kakashi-sensei fainted again, and we're supposed take Sasuke and Haku back to Tazuna's house! What do we…"

Sasuke tuned out the blond idiot's shouting, instead focusing on the two Kage Bunshin who were moving among the downed mercenaries, tearing cloth and testing spears and staffs. They were making a stretcher, he soon realized. Then another thought occurred to him. He was exhausted to the point that he could barely move and didn't even have enough chakra for a simple Henge. Kakashi had clearly fainted from chakra exhaustion. Yet Naruto, the dead-last of the Academy who had failed the graduation test three times in a row, still had enough chakra to produce Kage Bunshin, which was a jounin level technique.

Sasuke's eyes narrowed in frustration and anger. Was he really so weak? Had he misjudged Naruto that badly? How could he ever defeat his brother, if he couldn't even keep up with an idiot like Naruto?

Sakura noticed Sasuke begin shaking, but she assumed it was from exhaustion, missing the dark glint in his eyes. Naruto's clones had already finished with the stretchers, and Naruto himself had disappeared into the crowd to collect Tazuna. "Sasuke-kun," she began, "we should be heading back now. You need your rest, and I'm sure the doctor would have an easier time tending to your wounds at Tazuna-san's house than out here." Sasuke considered this. He wouldn't be able to get back to Tazuna's house under his own power as he was now, but being carried back by Sakura or worse, Naruto, would be humiliating. However, he also knew that Sakura was right.

"Fine," he assented. Sakura's barely contained expression of relief, and barely concealed glee, almost caused him to rethink his decision. "Oi, Naruto," he called instead. Several clones looked at him. "Bring me a stretcher," he demanded coolly. Inwardly, his guts writhed in humiliation at asking Naruto for any help, but at least his blond teammate wouldn't get any strange ideas while carrying him.

It was an odd convoy that departed from the incomplete bridge. Three clearly injured people were borne on makeshift stretchers by six identical blond ninja. In front, another blond, looking exactly like the other six, marched with barely contained impatience. Behind them was a pink-haired kunoichi, who kept diverting her attention between one of the wounded and the old bridge builder beside her. Behind the odd pair was a large procession of armed islanders, who had yet to shed their good cheer. To many it would be a very strange sight. To the inhabitants of the island who did not know of the events on the bridge, it would be even more amazing. It was amazing because, for the first time in many years, the citizens of the Wave were smiling and happy. For a time, the poverty, fear, and the ugliness of human nature that had gripped the Country of the Wave for so long had been dispersed by hope and a renewed sense of courage, all due to the actions of a single, inexperienced team of young Konoha ninja.

Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Masashi Kishimoto is the creator, and owns the rights to Naruto and all the characters and situations contained therein. This is a non-profit work of fiction.

Author's Notes:

Well, that was the first chapter of 'Tempered in Water.' I hoped you enjoyed it.

The idea came to me while I was thinking about pivotal points in Naruto's life. The Wave Arc is a very critical time for Naruto, and Haku is the first person Naruto meets who can understand the pain he went through growing up. So I wondered: how would it affect Naruto's life if Haku had lived? And thus, this story was born. I know there have been other stories where Haku lives, but I believe that this story will move in a direction original enough to be worth your time.

You may notice that much of the dialogue in this chapter resembles the dialogue found in the anime. It is, because the divergence point doesn't occur until Naruto attempts to kill Haku. Much of the dialogue is based on the translations of the good people at AonE and ANBU (fan-subbing groups).

There will be no yaoi in this fan fiction. If you ask about it, you will be ignored. You will also not see: Angsty!Genius!-you might as well just call me Sasuke 2-Naruto, Mary Sues, Self-Insertion, overly important OCs, super powered Naruto, incest, good Kyuubi, and sudden romances that come completely out of nowhere.

As for pairings, well, you'll have to wait and see. I will tell you that Naruto will have several relationships, though not necessarily at the same time, since this fic will (hopefully) grow to cover several years of his life. Some pairings that will not happen here include: Sasuke/Anybody, Akatsuki member/Anybody, Sound-nin(including Orochimaru and Kabuto)/Anybody, or any student/teacher romance (sorry, no Kaka/Saku here).

There will be no set update schedule. Writing fanfiction is a hobby, and real life is unpredictable. Please be patient.

Comments and/or criticism are welcome. However, if you're going to criticize, please do it in a constructive manner (in other words, don't just tell me that I fail as a writer, tell me why I fail). I'm still very much an amateur writer, so any help is appreciated. For review responses and detailed progress updates, check my forum for Tempered in Water (the link can be found in my profile).

I alone proofread this chapter, so there may be mistakes that I missed. If you see any, please point them out. I will continue to edit and refine old chapters even as I continue forward with this story.

Thank you for reading Tempered in Water!