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AN: Alright, finally starting to get back into a semi regular update schedule. This one is a little shorter that has been the norm for me, but I hope you'll enjoy it nonetheless. Please note, this chapter was put together on computer, my phone, and paper, then combined later on, then left untouched for months before I finally got back to working on it again. Anyway, don't forget to check out my other stories and challenges. Thanks to everyone who read and reviewed. I should have responded to everyone, but if I missed you, I apologize. All reviews/criticism is welcomed. So, without further ado, I give you chapter 21 of Naruto: Shadows of the Mind.



Chapter Twenty-One

It had taken them three days to make it to the shore where Tazuna claimed it would be safe to cross. Along the way, Naruto calmed down somewhat and with Tazuna's story bouncing around his head, Naruto began to see ways he could benefit from this mission. Whether this "Gato" was real or not, his support could be the first step in Naruto's plans to accumulate the power needed to back the Old Man into a corner. Naruto had never thought he'd find such a situation so easily, or so early in his career for that matter! He'd expected to have to wait until he was a Chuunin for such an opportunity to come along.

If he played his cards right, Naruto could gain the support of a powerful shipping magnate, along with his not so inconsiderable wealth, and the de facto ruler of a nation, all in one. And all it would cost him was a single "failed" mission. So Tazuna would most likely die, and the Nami no Kuni Daimyo would be replaced by someone of less "noble" lineage. That didn't seem too bad. After all, if what Tazuna said was true, then it seemed the people of Nami weren't really resisting or putting up much of a fight. So it wasn't like Gato was going to butcher the local population, right? What purpose would that serve? And if the people weren't willing to fight, then obviously their situation couldn't be as bad as Tazuna made it out to be.

Really, was the situation even worth fighting over? Tazuna kept making all these grand speeches about "freeing" his country and returning hope and pride to the people. But to Naruto, it just sounded like a bunch of vague nationalistic bullshit.

Who's to say that Nami no Kuni wouldn't be better off under "Gato's" control? Hell, a merchant capable of building a huge shipping corporation and becoming one of the world's richest men in the process, was probably more qualified to run a country than some Daimyo who was only in charge because his ancestors were.

The silhouette of the shoreline in the mist broke Naruto out of his contemplations as he strained his eyes to make out any dangers awaiting them.

"This is as far as I'm going, Tazuna." The boatman muttered quietly as he got them as close to shore as he could without beaching the boat. "I'm sorry, but I can't stick my neck out any further than this."

"You've done more than enough." The old drunk said as he patted the man on the shoulder. "You don't know how much closer you've brought our country to..." he trailed off at the man's less than thrilled look at the prospect of being free. If anything, Naruto thought he just looked terrified that they were going to get caught at any moment.

While waiting for Kakashi and Tazuna to finish discussing their next move, Naruto carefully sniffed, and then Listened for any sign of trouble, until Kakashi gave the signal to move out.

Moving carefully, the team headed off into the woods, being guided by Tazuna as he took them on the straightest course to his house. "I'm sorry about heading cross-country like this, but traveling by the roads is too dangerous for me. Gato's men or collaborators can be anywhere."

"We can handle a little wilderness." Kakashi spoke idly as he stayed very close to Tazuna. Naruto was slightly reassured that the Jounin's eye was scanning over their surroundings with a sweeping motion, picking apart the possible cover areas for ambushes and subtly guiding them away from such places. Between Kakashi and Sasuke, Naruto was confident that they could cover their security, while making up for the…inadequacies of the other two members of the group.

Keeping a decent amount of space between himself and the group of three –Kakashi sticking close to Tazuna and a visibly nervous Sakura following close behind- with Sasuke doing the same on the group's other side; Naruto could feel the adrenaline pumping through his veins, waiting for something –anything- to happen.

Occasionally stopping and going through the motions of glancing around, Naruto would clench his eyes shut for the few seconds it took him to Listen, before opening his eyes again and continuing. Each time he closed his eyes, Naruto felt his already dry throat get dryer, and his tension skyrocket, all the while cursing that he'd yet to figure out how to use his little trick without blocking out his other senses. Between those heart pounding moments, he'd continuously sniff the air as discreetly as he could; all the while hoping that he'd be fast enough to react if he found anything. 'Damn, this is almost as nerve-wracking as watching Kurenai stroll unconcernedly into a meeting with the Old Man.'

It was when they entered a clearing near a small lake that the moment came. His sixth sense went haywire; causing Naruto's survival instinct to jump into overdrive. Catching a slight movement out of the corner of his eye, Naruto threw a kunai into a bush before leaping into the foliage, attempting to flank whatever had been watching them. What he found didn't relieve him in the slightest. Grabbing the trembling rabbit by the neck before it could escape, Naruto quickly retrieved his kunai from the tree and leaped back out into the clearing, the feeling of being watched not having faded at all.

He was greeted by the sight of his alerted team waiting for some form of attack or word on what Naruto had seen. Kakashi had a kunai in his hand with a firm look on the visible portion of his face, and Sakura and Sasuke had jumped away from the bush, surrounding Tazuna as best they could.

"Naruto?" Kakashi called to him carefully, the sound of metal being ripped from something having no doubt alerted them before Naruto returned holding the terrified snow hare.

Their reactions varied greatly, from Tazuna, who's expression changed from fearful, to confused, to a mixture of relief and mocking in short order, to Kakashi and Sasuke who continued to scan their surroundings while sending questioning gazes to Naruto, apparently knowing him well enough to still be cautious.

And then there was the little girl's reaction. "Jeez, Naruto, you scared the living hell out of that poor animal." Sakura hissed at him reproachfully as she reached to take the snow hare from him, only to squawk indignantly when Naruto carelessly tossed the creature at her, his eyes darting around the clearing as he continued to search for the source of his anxiety.

The feeling of being watched hadn't faded in the slightest, but no matter how he tried, Naruto couldn't seem to pinpoint their location by scent, and they were being still enough that he couldn't pick up any signs of movement. "Shut up, Sakura!" Naruto hissed tightly as he tried desperately to find their hidden watchers. But between all the salt in the air, and the light mist that was slowly but surely drifting in, Naruto couldn't smell or see anything meaningful. Cursing, Naruto took a desperate gamble and squeezed his eyes shut. It was a sign of how frayed his nerves were that it took him three tries to Listen properly. And he was just in time too.

He picked up a low, droning sound that was beginning to increase in volume as the seconds passed. His eyes shot open as he recognized the sound, diving to the ground almost before Kakashi could shout out, "Get down!"

Glancing out of the corner of his eye, Naruto could see Kakashi and Sasuke were both already down, the former dragging Tazuna down with him. Naruto would have taken a measure of comfort that his estimation of Kakashi and Sasuke's skills were spot on, if it wasn't for the wide eyed look of not quite horror that Kakashi was sending at something behind him.

"Eh!?" Sakura couldn't help but jump when Kakashi suddenly shouted, shattering the tense silence that had befallen the group after Naruto jumped into the bushes. Then one of her greatest assets became a glaring weakness. Sakura had a very bright mind when her emotions didn't cloud her judgment, the fact that she surpassed all others in her class at the Academy when it came to written tests and other academic subjects was proof of that. But she preferred to see all available pieces of a puzzle before deciding how to proceed in any given situation. So when Kakashi-sensei shouted out his warning, Sakura hesitated, fatally so.

She could hear something tearing through the branches coming at them and looked toward the sound as her training had demanded of her, so that she could identify the possible oncoming threat.

At first, Sakura couldn't see anything but the mist that had slowly snuck in around them. Then, as the noise drew closer, she was able to make out something large that glinted in what little light hadn't been obscured by the mist. Something that Sakura was sure was not a flight of bugs coming at her, and she couldn't for the life of her think to move. She knew she needed to act, but her fear paralyzed her, even as everything seemed to slow down around her.

For all the good it did her, she could now identify the seemingly gigantic sword that was spinning towards her. Her eyes widened in terror as her analytical mind deduced just what the blade would do when it reached her, and her rather vivid imagination had no problems showing it to her in gory detail. As she turned her head looking for help, she wanted to scream at how her body seemed to be made of molasses, it moved so slowly. Finally after what seemed a lifetime, her eyes found Kakashi-sensei and Sasuke-kun, both too far away to aid her in time, the sword having already halved the distance between them.

Movement at the very edge of her vision caused her to sluggishly look down. She would have jumped again had she been able, when her gaze met a single eye of her other teammate. Naruto was moving just as slowly as everyone else, still in the process of turning his head to look at her, leaving only the scarred side of his face visible as he gazed at her with a cold, unconcerned look. By now, Sakura could have reached out and touched the blade it was so close and she sent a desperate, panicky look to Naruto. Help me! Her eyes begged, filling up with tears when Naruto's eye sent back, No.

For a split second, Sakura wanted to scream and rage and even hit something. This wasn't fair! She wasn't supposed to die like this! She was supposed to prove everyone who had ever looked down on her wrong, and have a long and fulfilling life of bliss with the one she loved! Not die in some backwater country on her first real mission. Then the moment passed and she was filled with nothing but despair as she looked back towards her doom, the spinning blade less than one rotation away from cleaving her in two. She briefly entertained the idea of meeting her death head on, but she cringed away from that almost instantly. 'I don't want to die!' her mind screamed as she squeezed her eyes shut, unable to bear the sight that was to come. Time sped up again, just as she felt something sharp squeeze tight around her legs and tug with a mighty pull, effortlessly sweeping her off her feet. She toppled to her left, feeling a second painful tug, this time on her hair, and shrieked in pain and fear as something cut and ripped a large chunk of her splayed hair. Then the thing continued on passed her as she collapsed onto the ground, the feeling of loose hairs cascading down around her.

She lay on the ground helplessly for a second as the sound stopped suddenly with a crunch, impacting close by. It took what seemed like a lifetime for Sakura to force her eyes open and sit up, distantly noticing the clumps of pink hair that slid off her or floated to the ground around her as she stared at her legs in shock. Wrapped around her ankles, and digging in cruelly to break the skin in some places was a single strand of wire, its end reaching back to the most unlikely person in her mind. Naruto.

Naruto scowled to himself as he released his end of the wire. When he'd seen the situation, he'd made a choice instantly, determined to make Sakura sink or swim. All the stupid girl had needed to do was just fall down, hardly a high level maneuver. Instead, she'd frozen up, all but giving up on herself and Naruto would be lying if he said he'd lose any sleep over her death. The girl had chosen her own fate as far as he had been concerned. But then his conscience –which for some reason always looked like a disappointed Kurenai- had intervened, compelling him to step in, retrieving and using ninja wire to pull Sakura down faster than he had thought he was capable of. Of course, the girl's ankles were now bruised and bleeding from how hard he'd pulled her down, but he figured she should be grateful- after all, the wire was designed to cut through flesh.

Pulling himself into a crouch, Naruto looked around for their hidden watchers again, only to recoil as something that absolutely reeked of blood blurred past him too fast to be seen, before the source of the smell appeared, standing on the hilt of the enormous sword lodged in the tree in front of them. The man just stood there, looking back at the group over his shoulder, seemingly uncaring that he was throwing away his element of surprise to do so. But Naruto couldn't really bring himself to care about that. The smell of blood coming off the man was nauseating, and Naruto could still feel someone watching them all. So the question was, what were they waiting for?

"Well, if it isn't the Kirigakure no Kijin, Zabuza Momochi." Kakashi spoke with a tense sort of forced calm as he moved to place himself between Zabuza and the others. "You're a long way from Mizu no Kuni, aren't you?"

Zabuza turned a little more and stared at Kakashi for a second before recognition lit up his eyes. The sound of the huge blade being ripped free sent Naruto scuttling back, dragging Sakura with him one handed while reaching for a kunai with the other. "I see my reputation precedes me." Zabuza smirked behind the bandages wrapped around his lower face in a makeshift facial mask. Black, spiky short hair shifted as he slung his blade up on his shoulder with one hand as if the blade was made of the lightest materials rather than being taller than Naruto himself and almost as wide. Shirtless, his well-defined muscles rippled as his body adjusted to the weight while his grey pants with vertical black lines running down them swished with a barely audible sound, even to Naruto's sensitive ears.

"I know you as well, Kopi Ninja Kakashi." His left hand flexed as his right tightened on the pommel of his weapon. "Back when I was an Anbu in Kiri, you were ranked pretty high in our Bingo book. Still, I don't really have any problem with you and yours. So what do you say you just hand over the bridge builder and I'll spare your team?"

"Sorry Zabuza, but I can't do that." Kakashi replied cheerfully. "Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura!" Kakashi's voice barked abruptly, snapping even Sakura's attention up to him, though she was still shaky. "Protect Tazuna! I'll deal with Zabuza..." He ordered as he reached up to his headband, shifting it upward as he glared at Zabuza.

The way Sasuke jerked in shocked disbelief as he recognized the eye that had been hidden behind the headband didn't escape Naruto's notice. Of course, he was rather surprised himself. 'The Sharingan? But how? I thought that clan was wiped out?' Pushing the thought aside for the time being, Naruto and his teammates leapt to surround Tazuna in a triangle formation, each scanning their assigned sectors with varying degrees of intensity. Sakura was still shaken and her eyes darted to and fro like a cornered animal, while Sasuke was calmer and more controlled, scanning his surroundings for any possible threat while trying to keep an eye on Zabuza and Kakashi. Naruto on the other hand, knew there was someone else out there still.

"So, you think you can fight me?" Zabuza tsked as he jumped backwards toward the lake. Forming a half ram seal in front of him and sheathing his sword to his back, he raised his other hand high above his head in the other half of the ram seal, his eyes closed. "Kirigakure no Jutsu!" the Kiri Jounin hissed in a low tone that Naruto barely caught, even with his hearing. Mist rolled in from everywhere, between the trees, from the lake itself, even the clouds seemed to heed Zabuza's summons, causing all visibility to drop down to nothing within seconds.

"Sensei." Naruto called lowly as Kakashi slowly strode into the mist. Whether it was because of the situation, the way Naruto tried to discreetly get the man's attention, or the fact that he had actually called him sensei, Kakashi halted. He didn't do anything else, yet he still gave the air that he was listening intently. Of course, now that he had his attention, Naruto hesitated. He'd never told anyone about his "sixth sense" before. In fact he'd done his best to conceal it, even from the one he trusted most.

Not only did he use it to keep people guessing at just how he knew they were there so easily, but if he revealed it now, the knowledge could spread uncontrollably until it reached the Old Man. And if anyone could figure out how to circumvent his "sixth sense" it was the Old Man.

Finally, Naruto gave in and chose survival now over possible survival later. "There's still someone else out there."

His sensei gave him a searching look with his Sharingan -which caused Naruto a thoroughly disconcerting feeling- before giving the slightest of nods. "Understood." Kakashi answered just as quietly as he began strolling off into the mist. "And Naruto? You and I need to have a talk when this is all over."

"Well now, Kakashi," Zabuza's voice seemed to echo from everywhere as the tension in the air built slowly. "I'll give you a choice on how you want to die, in recognition of the skill you possess." The dark chuckle after he spoke sent shivers up the Genin's backs. "You have eight choices; the lungs, the liver, the spine, the clavicle, the neck, the kidneys, the brain, or the heart. Whichever one you choose, I promise to make it quick."

As Zabuza named off each spot on the body, his killer intent jumped by degrees until it was nearly impossible to think straight. Team Seven and their client were all but paralyzed, Sakura had dropped her kunai and was shivering uncontrollably, lost in whatever waking nightmare her mind had created to deal with this hell, and Sasuke was eyeing his own kunai, drawing it ever closer to his own throat. Naruto was only marginally better off than the others thank to Anko's rather harsh training methods, which involved scaring the living crap out of him whenever she could. Even then, the only thing keeping him from running as fast as he could was the utter terror that his fastest wouldn't be enough to escape Zabuza, leaving his body all but locked up as his instinct to flee warred with his certainty of death if he tried.

The sudden flare of Kakashi's own killing intent, along with a surge of chakra to push back the mist enough that they could see a little further, lightened the terror that had gripped them. Kakashi turned his head enough to send them one of his eye smiles and the whispered words, "I will protect my team with my life." Strangely enough, that was enough to snap the group out of their respective terrors.

"Not today, Kakashi." Zabuza's voice muttered in their presence, all three Genin instantly realizing that it was coming from within their circle of protection. Turning, they could barely see the form of Zabuza maintaining the half ram sign in front of him while one hand held onto the handle of his still sheathed weapon. "Not a chance!" He shouted as he whipped out his sword, aiming for Tazuna.

Naruto doubted he'd ever turned so quickly in his life, yet at the same time, he knew he'd never make it in time. He was only half turned when suddenly; Kakashi was there, a kunai in hand and amazingly enough, blocking the huge blade before parrying it up over his head. Taking advantage of Zabuza's overpowered swing, Kakashi stabbed Zabuza in the neck, aiming for his carotid artery.

For a split second, Naruto thought it was all over, before he noticed something strange. The overwhelming scent of blood wasn't coming off the Kiri nin. His eyes widened as the wetness of arterial spray that splashed against him and Kakashi was cold instead of warm. "Zabuza" smirked before bursting into water and falling to the ground. "What… the…fuck…" Naruto whispered in a terrified awe at the sight, half his mind reeling trying to figure what just happened –a quick Kai revealing that yes, that…just…happened…- while the other half was caught on the fact that 'Holy shit, he just exploded into water!'

"Mizu Bunshin..." Kakashi cursed –answering Naruto's unspoken question- and spinning around to face the sudden spike of killer intent.

"You lose, Kakashi!" Zabuza crowed as he spun his blade down into the silver haired Jounin's body, cutting through him with one swing. His victorious smile dropped as Kakashi's body burst into water just as "he" had done moments before. "That's impressive; you only had a moment to see my Mizu Bunshin fall apart, and yet you still managed to make one in that brief moment."

Naruto couldn't help but grin as he watched a piece of steel slide up to Zabuza's throat from behind. The way the Kiri Jounin froze even as his eyes looked down at the hand holding the kunai to his throat was even better.

"It's over, Zabuza. Surrender and I'll spare your life." Kakashi ordered tersely, though Naruto thought he should have just finished it then and there. But seeing as how Kakashi was pretty much the only thing standing between him and death right now –both literally and figuratively- Naruto was willing to cut him some slack.

At least, he was until Zabuza just grinned at Kakashi's demand, giving Naruto a very bad feeling. "Give up now? When it's just getting started?" His form blurred before the water holding him together dropped to the ground in a splash. Kakashi tried to spin in place, only for the kick that Zabuza gave him to his gut to knock the wind out of him and launch him backwards, splashing down into the lake.

Even as Kakashi soared through the air, Naruto was bringing his kunai down on Zabuza's exposed back, aiming for the spine. Naruto had been sparring with Anko for years, and that woman was as fast as the snakes she so often made use of. Kurenai was even faster, and while Kakashi was probably the laziest ninja he'd ever met, he was still pretty fast as well. As it turned out, Zabuza was pretty fast too. Naruto's eyes could just follow Zabuza's free arm as he effortlessly knocked his kunai aside, before swinging back towards his face. He could see it, but that didn't mean he could do anything about it. The man's fist smashed down onto his face like an avalanche, sending him crashing into the ground so hard he actually bounced.

Thankfully, Zabuza wasn't really focusing on him, choosing instead to dart onto the lake after Kakashi. Though he was still struggling not to black out, Naruto's ears still managed to pick up Zabuza muttering darkly, "I have you now. Suirou no Jutsu!"

Slowly pushing himself to his feet, Naruto shook his head to clear it, and immediately regretted it. He might have blacked out for a second, he wasn't really sure, but when he could finally see clearly again, he was greeted by Tazuna and his two teammates staring towards the lake, the old drunk and Sakura with almost identical looks of horror on their faces. Even Sasuke looked shocked by whatever was happening. Blinking in confusion, Naruto struggled to understand what their problem was. After a few seconds without being able to figure it out, and feeling like someone had stuffed his skull full of wool, Naruto scratched at his head in confusion, before he had a wonderful idea. He should look at whatever they were looking at. Obscenely pleased with his deduction skills, Naruto turned towards the lake and stared. "Oh…" he murmured faintly as the haze lifted from his mind enough to wonder if he'd been hit hard enough to be seeing things.

Water warped around Kakashi, encasing him in a liquid bubble of water that Zabuza lifted up into the air as if the man inside and the water wrapped around his left hand weighed nothing at all.

"Just sit there and watch as I kill your little team off." Zabuza commented idly as he made a single hand sign with his free hand and the lake water responded, forming a copy of himself out of the water's surface.

"Everyone, run! Get Tazuna the hell out of here!" Kakashi shouted, his voice echoing in the watery prison. "His clones can't move far from him, and he can't move while he's holding onto the prison! Forget about me and run!"

It took a second for Kakashi's words to filter through Naruto's muddled brain, but he didn't hesitate for a second once they did. He turned on his heel and ran into the surrounding forest as fast as he could.

There was a shocked pause following Naruto's abrupt departure, and Kakashi couldn't help but feel the slightest bit of anger that Naruto didn't even hesitate before following his orders to leave him behind. Sure, he and Naruto had had a bit of a rough start, but surely his sensei's son had enough respect for him that he would feel something at Kakashi's impending doom. That Naruto apparently didn't care in the slightest was…annoying. Shaking aside his irritation, he called out to his remaining students. "What are you waiting for!? Get out of here!"

Tazuna was obviously anxious to run, his arm outstretched towards where Naruto had vanished, a cry of "take me with you!" still on his lips. Seeing that Naruto was not likely to come back for him, their client seemed to be waiting for one of his students to go with him, probably hoping that that they would continue to protect him. Sakura certainly looked ready to run, but the way her eyes kept darting between where Naruto had disappeared into the woods and Sasuke for guidance wasn't exactly reassuring.

His heart sank when Sasuke stepped forward, placing himself between Zabuza and the others in a determined stance, kunai in hand. "Sasuke, no!" he shouted out as Zabuza's clone blurred forward, kicking his student aside before the original chuckled cruelly.

"Look at you, children playing at being shinobi." Zabuza mocked as Sasuke scrambled back to his feet and launched himself at the clone in a flurry of punches and kicks. After a moment, he succeeded in destroying the clone, only to be blindsided by a second Mizu Bunshin leaping out of the water and sending Sasuke crashing to the ground once more. "Pathetic! If you're not in my Bingo book, you're not worthy of the title of shinobi!" Kakashi could only watch helplessly as Zabuza's killing intent skyrocketed, leaving his students helplessly frozen in place. "At least the other brat was smart enough to know when he's outmatched. Maybe he'll make something of himself one day. Too bad the rest of you won't be there to see it!"

It took all of Naruto's self-control to keep his body from shaking at the surge of energy flowing through him. Once he'd reached the forest, Naruto had kept running until the sensation of being watched faded away, before stopping to utilize his Konohagakure no Jutsu, only to fumble and fail three times, his head still ringing from Zabuza's blow. Finally, he remembered the contents of his pouches, and after few tries, managed to find and consume a soldier pill. The surge of chakra and energy succeeded in clearing away the last of the fog clouding his mind - allowing Naruto to finally realize that he might have had a concussion- and finally get his Genjutsu to work. The downside of this was that Naruto's energy levels were already near their peak before he'd taken the pill. Now he had so much energy running through him that he had difficulty remaining still.

The last time he'd felt like this was when Anko had given him about a pound's worth of snacks that were almost pure sugar. He'd spent most of that day running around and bouncing off the walls of his apartment.

Realizing that he'd been tapping his fingers against the hilt of his chakra blade for some time now, Naruto clenched his fist tightly to stop, before drawing the blade –unconsciously channeling his excess chakra through it- and a kunai as he studied the situation.

He'd moved as quickly as he could without giving himself away, and from the look of things, he'd made it to the other side of the lake just in time. Kakashi was still trapped in the water sphere held by Zabuza, and what Naruto assumed to be another Mizu Bunshin was keeping Sasuke at bay. Strangely enough, Sasuke appeared to be holding his own against his opponent, even managing to plant a kunai in "Zabuza's" thigh, causing "him" to burst into water once more. Were the Mizu Bunshin weaker than the original? If so, then how much weaker? Did Zabuza himself grow weaker the more clones he made? The second "Zabuza" certainly didn't have much trouble knocking Sasuke back down.

As Zabuza began to taunt the downed Uchiha, Naruto weighed his options. He knew he had to do something if he wanted to survive this catastrophe. The question was what should he do? Did he try to free Kakashi in the hopes that his sensei would be able to beat Zabuza, hopefully without the hidden watcher intervening? Or should he take a gamble and try to kill Zabuza himself? Ignoring for the moment that Zabuza was apparently a Jounin of some renown, if Naruto managed to kill him, then Kakashi should still be freed. And that would mean that it would just be them versus the hidden watchers, who might even flee if they saw Zabuza die. That would be the best outcome they could realistically hope for. But the question remained, could he kill Zabuza? Naruto didn't doubt the man was stronger than him, so if he were to try to take him out, he'd need every bit of surprise he could scrape together, and even then, he'd only have one shot. Even worse, he couldn't afford to wait too long, lest Kakashi drown, or Zabuza get tired of playing with Sasuke.

Glancing around the clearing once more, Naruto made his decision.

Ensuring that his Genjutsu was still active, Naruto carefully stepped out onto the water, and then sprinted forward as silently as he could. As he halved the distance between Zabuza and himself, the Kiri Jounin began taunting Sasuke and Sakura with stories of his days in the Kiri Academy. As he quartered the distance, Kakashi explained the horrors of the "Chigiri no Sato" and the story behind their graduation practice, as well as its abrupt end and the birth of the Demon of the Mist.

As Naruto made it within a few feet of Zabuza, he readied himself to strike though on the inside he was panicking ever so slightly. 'Holy shit, holy shit, please work, holy shit!' Unconsciously breathing a sigh of relief that Zabuza hadn't detected him, Naruto lunged forward, kunai poised to puncture the man's kidney while his chakra blade aimed to sever his spine. At this close range, there was no way he could fail, especially since he remained all but invisible to the bandaged freak.

So imagine his horror when Zabuza suddenly spun around just as Naruto's blade grazed his back, lashing out at him with a powerful and -given the sheer size of the sword- inescapable horizontal swing. Knowing that he was doomed, Naruto nonetheless tried to block with his kunai, only for his stomach to drop when the sword effortlessly sheared through it. All but resigned to death, Naruto made one final, desperate attempt to survive by blocking with his chakra blade.

'Kurenai…' was Naruto's final thought as he gasped in pain, his lungs trying and failing to draw breath as he flew back. The pain in his arm and chest was the only thing keeping him aware, which he distantly knew was surprising. Even more surprising was when a hand caught him where there shouldn't have been anyone. The fact that he was actually still standing drew more than a few blinks from him as well, before he glanced behind him into the eyes of a smiling Kakashi. "Good job, Naruto-kun." His sensei said as he drew Naruto behind him. "Now, leave this to me and help protect Tazuna."

Blinking, Naruto stared at his chakra blade in awe. There wasn't even a scratch on the blade that he'd once viewed as little more than a bribe. 'How the hell did such an ordinary blade stop that monstrosity of a sword?' Naruto wondered amazedly as he tried to catch his breath.

"You're brat isn't too bad at Genjutsu, Kakashi. Bastard actually cut me." Zabuza stated with a mocking respect. "He's the one that found me out too isn't he? And he knows how to sneak when he has to. Shame he has to die before he can make something of himself."

"Sorry to break it to you Zabuza, but there's only one person dying here today." Kakashi responded calmly, just before the two jumped further out into the lake.

Trying to shake off how close he'd come to dying, Naruto used a quick Kawarimi to switch with the kunai clenched in Sakura's hands. Not the best target considering how the girl practically shrieked in his ears when he appeared.

After a few moments of unnerving silence, Kakashi and Zabuza moved back into view. "Suiryuudan no Jutsu!" Both of them called out at the same time and two dragons of water shot upward from the water surface before rushing toward one another, canceling the other out.

'Kakashi used the same jutsu as him? Why?' Naruto wondered to himself in surprise as the two Jounin began to run around the lake, Kakashi keeping a perfect distance from Zabuza. The Kiri Jounin began forming new hand seals, only to stop mid-motion, already realizing what Naruto was just beginning to notice. Kakashi was doing the exact same hand seals as Zabuza, at the exact same time. 'What the hell?' Naruto wondered with a slight bit of awe.

"You're probably wondering how I know what you're going to do next?" Kakashi calmly uttered, seizing everyone's attention at his calm tone, and the harsh glare of his spinning Sharingan.

Zabuza snorted derisively. "So you can mimic me, big deal. It's-"

"Nothing compared to the real thing, am I right?" Kakashi cut in smoothly, causing Zabuza's face to twitch in annoyance.

"Think what you will..." Zabuza began and once again, Kakashi followed along, this time, repeating Zabuza's words the same time as he spoke.

"Damn, this is getting plain creepy." Naruto muttered to himself as he eyed the macabre show playing out before them.

"You're just a monkey!" Zabuza looked shocked this time as he finished speaking; Kakashi remained steadfast where he stood. "How are you doing this, you bastard?" Zabuza demanded as both of their hands began making hand signs once again, only for his fingers to falter, his eyes wide in shock and filled with fear and disbelief. Strangely, Naruto was sure the Kiri Jounin was staring at something past Kakashi. 'What's he looking at? Is this some kind of Genjutsu?'

Shrugging off his confusion at least for the moment, Naruto quickly ran through hand signs of his own, more than willing to provide some long range support. "Mizu Kouzui no Jutsu!" Naruto muttered under his breath, feeling the technique take hold and seeing in his mind's eye what Zabuza himself would be experiencing. To the bloodthirsty Jounin, it would appear as if the water surged up from his feet to wrap around his head like a miniature version of the jutsu the Kiri Jounin had used against Kakashi. Naruto grinned ferally as the Jounin instinctively tried to knock the water aside, leaving him wide open.

An opening Kakashi was more than willing to take. "Daibakufu no Jutsu!" Kakashi finished the last hand seal, causing the water around him to spin into a whirling mass that rushed at Zabuza like the waterfall the jutsu was named after.

Zabuza seemed to be frozen in shock as his own jutsu was thrust back against him even as the water blasted him backwards into a tree and pounded against him with bone crushing force. When the water fell away, kunai were revealed to be embedded in Zabuza's upper arms and legs and he moaned painfully as he frantically looked around for Kakashi, finally finding him in a branch just above him.

"How did you...?" Zabuza asked weakly, struggling just to remain standing, never mind attempting to continue the fight.

"This eye can see the future." Kakashi answered ominously as the red eye in his scarred socket glared down at the Kiri nuke nin. "And what it sees… is your death."

Hearing the familiar sound of metal cutting through the air, Naruto cursed as he saw senbon needles as long as his hand fly with pinpoint accuracy…and then ripped into Zabuza's neck, jerking his head to the side with a sickening sound before his body fell to the ground in a boneless heap. Naruto blinked in surprise, before narrowing his eyes suspiciously, prodding his teammates and client to get them moving over towards the dubious safety of their sensei. Kakashi himself had jumped down to the ground and was inspecting Zabuza's body, even as a blue kimono clad ninja wearing a face mask with the symbol of Kiri etched into its forehead appeared nearby.

"My thanks, ninja of Konoha." The figure's voice was a middle ground of octave, young enough to hide the gender in a neutral tone. "I have been hunting this one for over a year now. The Mizukage will be pleased to hear about this one's death."

'Took your sweet time getting involved, asshole…' Naruto thought suspiciously as he and Sasuke moved to flank the newcomer from both sides.

Kakashi stood up warily, eyeing the long black hair tied up with a single bun in the back, the rest left to hang to mid back. "You're an Oinin then, I take it." Kakashi asked as he sent an inquiring glance to Naruto.

For his part, Naruto gave the slightest of nods, answering Kakashi's unspoken question. This is the other one.

The Oinin ignored this, merely tilting their head down to the body. "One of the Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shuu… A far way to fall for one who had glory thrust upon them so long ago." Looking back up at them, the ninja spoke directly to Kakashi. "If it's not too much trouble, I'm afraid I have to ask you to turn the body over to me."

Kakashi eyed Zabuza's corpse for a good minute before covering his Sharingan and nodding briskly. "I understand. His body doesn't mean anything to me, and I have a job I have to get back to anyway."

Naruto grimaced as Kakashi stood back from Zabuza's body, signaling Sasuke and him to stand down as the Oinin walked over to it, picking the carcass up effortlessly over one shoulder. Granted, Naruto didn't actually know anything about the process, but Konoha still could have discovered a lot of secrets from Zabuza's corpse. And as one of the ones responsible for retrieving it, Naruto would have surely received both a reward, and a boost in reputation and influence. Still, despite Naruto's less than patriotic feelings towards Konoha, even he couldn't afford to disobey Kakashi in this.

"This is most appreciated, Jounin-san. The Mizukage will be pleased." Making a half ram sign, they departed with a Shunshin, a parting, "Until next time." drifting on the wind.

Naruto breathed a little easier when there was no feeling of being watched, his body once again beginning to shake slightly as the adrenaline rush left him and the knowledge of how close they all came to dying really sank in..

"Well, that went well..." Kakashi managed to get out before he fell face first onto the ground with a thud. For some reason, that caused Naruto to have to hold in a hysterical cackle.

Team Seven stared in surprise at their downed sensei for a moment; before Sakura gave a tentative "Kakashi-sensei?" as she bent down to shake his shoulder.

Taking all of the hysteria bubbling inside of him and forcefully burying it under layers of self-control and the burning desire to not die out here, Naruto walked over and rolled his sensei onto his back, doing his best to figure out what was wrong with the man. Kakashi didn't appear to be injured in any way, and there weren't any obvious signs of poisoning. "I think he's just got chakra exhaustion, so I don't think he's going to die. But we need to go." Naruto commented, eyeing Sasuke who nodded in agreement before looking at Tazuna, who seemed rather shell shocked.

Tazuna seemed to shake himself out his stupor after a few seconds of having Sasuke and Naruto eyeing him. "My house isn't that far away. Can you carry him that far?"

"Of course we could." Naruto snorted disdainfully. "But we're not going to. You and Sakura are." Tazuna looked like he wanted to object but Naruto didn't give him the chance. "Sasuke and I are the only things standing between you and anything else out there. We're not going to destroy whatever chance we have of making it through this by acting like pack mules. Now hurry up, I want to be somewhere secure before nightfall."

Walking past them in the direction Tazuna indicated, Naruto gestured for Sasuke to take up the rear guard and added dismissively to Sakura, "Make yourself useful." with a nod to where Tazuna was struggling to lift Kakashi.


Kirigakure no Kijin=Demon of the Hidden Mist

Mizu no Kuni=Land of Water

Suirou no Jutsu=Water Prison Technique

Mizu Bunshin=Water Clone

Chigiri no Sato=Village of the Bloody Mist

Suiryuudan no Jutsu=Water Dragon Bullet Technique

Daibakufu no Jutsu=Great Waterfall Technique

Mizukage=Water Shadow

Oinin=Hunter nin

Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shuu=Seven Ninja Swordsmen of the Mist

Mizu Kouzui no Jutsu=Water Flood Technique

Did I miss any?


And that is chapter twenty-one. Just another one of those things that always bugged me, how Naruto and crew, as rookie Genin, seem to take almost everything they see an opponent do in stride. I think the first instance I can remember of anyone in Canon actually going "How did he do that?" was Lee after watching Shino fight Zaku. Might be something from the bridge scene, but I can't remember. Anyway, always bugged me when writers make the characters act like seeing a guy get stabbed, and then turn into water, was a common occurrence. Not too happy with the fight scenes again, but at the same time, I can't really justify Naruto beating Zabuza at this point either. Anyway, let me know what you think. Remember, all reviews, criticisms, etc. are welcome.

Peace, Vaan.