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AN: Whoo hoo! Over half a million hits! Now I just need to shoot for that elusive thousand reviews and I'm set. 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. Sent it out for betaing to two different people, both of whom I promptly lost all contact with. I almost feel like I'm in the Pelican Brief, and if something happens to you after you read this chapter, you have my sincerest apologies. 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 22 of Naruto: Shadows of the Mind.



Chapter Twenty-Two

In a mist laden clearing, the stillness was disrupted by an inexplicable tornado of wind and leaves. When the wind dissipated and the leaves lazily floated to the ground, a diminutive masked figure was left hunched over by the combined weight of the much larger Demon of the Mist and his legendary sword. The figure glanced around the clearing quickly, anxious to be on with their work, yet not so careless as to proceed without first ensuring their privacy.

Finally satisfied, the masked ninja laid the fallen missing-nin on the ground, before stabbing the massive sword into the earth near his head. Kneeling down beside him, the figure absentmindedly went over the fight they had witnessed between Zabuza and the famous Sharingan Kakashi while unrolling a tool kit filled with various nasty, sharp instruments crucial for their work. Everything had seemed to be going well for Zabuza at first, barring the initial failed sneak attack. The Konoha Jounin was trapped by Zabuza, the older and likely more experienced of the remaining Genin had fled, and of the two who remained, only the male seemed to be a possible threat, going toe to toe with one of Zabuza's Mizu Bunshin and successfully defeating it. The sole female and the bridge builder seemed to be all but frozen in fear; easy targets for the Kiri Swordsman were not for the man's unfortunate habit of toying with his prey.

And then everything seemed to go wrong for the missing-nin. The third student had returned, somehow getting close enough to actually draw blood from Zabuza and forcing him to release the jutsu that held Kakashi prisoner. The Oinin paused in their examination of the damage done to Zabuza's body with a frown. They didn't have the slightest idea how the blond had managed to get so close without their notice, let alone Zabuza's. In fact, the only warning had been a slight tugging on their senses just before Zabuza had spun to meet the new threat. Even more amazing was the fact that the blond actually managed to block the Kubikiribocho with nothing more than a seemingly plain knife. Quite a feat considering that sword was known to cut through damn near anything.

The masked ninja's head shook in vexation as they swore to get to the bottom of all of this as they expertly selected a pair of deadly looking shears from the kit and reaching for the bandages covering Zabuza's face. They really were in the way, and the Oinin had a job to do-

"Stop." Zabuza suddenly growled as he seized the shears, his other hand tugging the bandages from his face. "I'll do it myself."

"Oh…" the masked ninja sighed with a mixture of respect and disappointment. "You're already awake. I expected you to be out for at least a few hours before-hey!" they objected as Zabuza ripped the first senbon from his neck. "Be careful! You could kill yourself by doing that!" the Oinin scolded disapprovingly as they lightly pushed Zabuza's hand away and gently removed the second needle.

Zabuza just grunted and painstakingly pulled himself into a sitting position. "How long do you plan on wearing that ridiculous thing anyway, Haku?"

Haku smiled nostalgically as she pulled the mask off, running a finger over the symbol of Kiri on its' forehead. "It reminds me of the old days. And besides, it was useful in getting you out of there without any trouble. If I hadn't stepped in when I did, you definitely would have been killed."

"You could have killed me if your aim was even the slightest off." Zabuza pointed out gruffly. "If you had to put me in a near death state, you should have aimed for a safer acupuncture point than my neck."

"My apologies, Zabuza-sama." Haku said with an apologetic bow. "But I had to make it look as realistic as possible, and the neck has fewer muscles, so it's easier to hit the acupuncture point." When Zabuza didn't rebuke her further, Haku assumed she was forgiven and continued. "Your injuries are rather debilitating, but if I can find the proper herbs, I'm confident that you'll be up and moving again in a week or so."

"Damn that Kakashi!" her master growled angrily. "Next time, I'll take his head and that blond rat's as well!"

Haku wisely kept silent as she gently patched up his wounds, allowing him to vent his anger silently until he addressed her again. "You saw what happened then? Have you figured out what Kakashi did?"

"Yes Zabuza-sama. I believe I have a strategy to deal with his Sharingan, but I'm concerned about the blond one. I haven't been able to figure how he was able to get so close to you, or what he did to allow his knife to stand up to your sword." Haku delivered her report easily enough, not displaying any of the confusion or shame she felt at the blond ninja's abilities. After all, all that mattered was that Zabuza would be prepared to defeat the Konoha ninjas next time.

'What is it with this country's sense of architecture?' Naruto grumbled to himself as he studied Tazuna's home from the cover of the trees. The two story building was apparently built on a dock, stretching out over the water on numerous stilts. There seemed to be several more docks, ostensibly for boats to tie up to, though there didn't appear to be any present, as well as a windmill of some type rising from the water next to the house. "What do you think?" he murmured quietly, receiving a reply almost instantly from the foliage to his right.

"Looks clear from here, but there's no way to be certain without getting closer." Sasuke answered just as quietly as he too scanned the area. "I'm not sure I like that dock only having one way to shore. It might slow us up if we have to find another way to leave, especially if we have to carry Kakashi and Tazuna."

Naruto nodded in agreement before adding. "Still, if we booby-trap the docks and keep up our guard, we shouldn't have to worry about any non-ninja threats catching us off-guard. And if ninja do show up, if they're good enough to make us abandon the house, then we should probably cut our losses and leave the old drunk."

Sasuke just snorted wryly. "You know Naruto; you're awfully skittish for a Rookie of the Year on his first mission outside the village. I never pictured you to be the type to cut and run."

"It's called being pragmatic, Sasuke." Naruto returned just as sarcastically. "It's what separates the young living ninja from the idealistic dead children." When they had a chance to relax, Naruto would marvel at how easily the two of them were bantering and even managing to work seamlessly together to keep their team alive on this disaster of a mission. For now though, they had a job to do. "Let's get the others and get inside before Pinky does something stupid again."

Sasuke grimaced distastefully -though whether it was because of Naruto's words or because he agreed about Sakura, Naruto couldn't tell- before nodding in agreement, and the two boys silently made their way back to the small clearing where they'd left Tazuna and Kakashi under the "guard" of Sakura. Upon arriving, Naruto silenced Tazuna with a look, while Sasuke did the same with Sakura, preventing any further complaints or arguments the two might have had as to why they didn't need to be so cautious since Zabuza was already dead.

Gathering the group up, Naruto and Sasuke led the way back to the house, and moved quickly to the front door, only for their precautions to be for nothing when Tazuna just shouldered past and entered the house, dragging Kakashi and Sakura along with him. "Tsunami? I'm home!"

There was a clatter from what Naruto assumed was the kitchen, and a woman about Kurenai's age came rushing out. "Father! You're safe!" she cried happily as she hugged Tazuna tightly.

Tazuna gave a boisterous laugh in response. "Of course I am! After all, I'm not about to let the likes of Gato and his goons stop me!"

"You're welcome." Sasuke drawled sarcastically as he and Sakura carried Kakashi in from the entryway where Tazuna had left them. "Now if you're done congratulating yourself for lying to the Hokage, Kakashi-sensei still needs to rest."

Tsunami jumped slightly, apparently just now noticing the Konoha ninjas' presence, as well as Kakashi's condition. "Oh my! What happened?! Is your sensei alright? Please, come this way and put him down in here."

As Naruto returned to the kitchen following his inspection of the house, he caught the end of Sakura's retelling of the situation, as well as Tsunami's reaction.

"Father! How could you?!" She demanded angrily as she rounded on the old man. "You put all of their lives in danger, especially Sakura-chan and Sasuke-chan! Their sensei might even die! How could you be so thoughtless!?"

Naruto found the look of contrition on the old drunk's face to be quite satisfying, though it was the twin looks of indignant mortification on Sasuke and Sakura's faces that brought a grin to his. "For what it's worth, I don't think Kakashi is in any danger." Naruto interjected as he joined them at the table. "I gave him a couple of general purpose antidotes just in case, but it looks like he just has chakra exhaustion. We'll know more when he wakes up."

That seemed to lighten the mood among the civilians and Sakura, and after a few minutes of bustling around the kitchen under Naruto's discreet but watchful eye, Tsunami began placing plates of fish and rice in front of each of Team Seven and her father, before putting a plate with a slightly larger amount of food on the table and calling out. "Inari! Dinner time!" Once that was done, she took a plate with even more meager –if possible- portions for herself.

"Inari" turned out to be a morose looking eight-year-old wearing a bucket hat. He also turned out to be the one who got the plate with larger portions, though Naruto seemed to be the only one to notice. His respect for Tsunami went up at that, drawing several favorable comparisons of the woman to Kurenai.

Shaking his head, Naruto refocused on the important matters at the time. "We should assume that there's still a threat out there, so we'll have to wait for Kakashi to wake up and –hopefully- recover enough to help us. Until then, you and your family should stay in the house, Tazuna."

"What are you talking about? I have to get to work on my bridge! I can't just stay home, not when we're so close!" Tazuna spluttered angrily. "I might have lied to you, but I'm still your client! So you have to do what I say!"

Naruto just glared at the old drunk, shutting him up, but since the man still looked rebellious, Naruto spoke very slowly, as if to a particularly stupid child. "We can either protect you and your bridge, or we can protect you and your family. Which would you prefer?" Tazuna blanched, but Naruto pressed on. "Don't bother to answer; we're not going to your bridge. Kakashi is too important to our Village to leave him when he can't defend himself. Once he wakes up, and if he decides to continue helping you, you might be able to work on your bridge. Until then, you can either stay put, or you can leave on your own and take your chances."

Not bothering to wait for a reply, Naruto turned back to Sasuke. "We'll need to keep up a round the clock watch until Kakashi wakes up. Do you want the first shift, or the second?"

"Wait, what about me?" Sakura suddenly demanded with an affronted tone.

Naruto just stared at the girl, wondering if she had so quickly forgotten why her hair looked like half of it had been fed through a blender. When she kept glaring at him, he coldly stated, "I'd like to have a warning before someone slits my throat in my sleep."

He might have gone a little too far with that one, judging by the gasps from the civilians and the way her eyes filled up with hurt and anger. Hell, even Sasuke frowned in distaste before breaking the silence. "I'll take the first shift." That said, the Uchiha left, followed swiftly by Tazuna and his family.

When they were alone, Naruto growled lowly. "What? Do you think I'm wrong? Do you still think your damn Academy grades mean shit out here? Or maybe I just imagined how utterly useless you've been this entire mission?" Sakura flinching grew more and more pronounced with each accusation, not that Naruto particularly cared. "If you want my respect, maybe you should prove me wrong. If not, then either stay out of my way, or go get yourself killed. I'm not your fucking keeper!"

Feeling too disgusted with the kunoichi to stay in her presence any longer, Naruto headed back to Kakashi's room, planning on getting what sleep he could before taking over for Sasuke.

'Can this mission get any worse?' Naruto absentmindedly wondered as he ghosted throughout the darkened house, careful to avoid the slightest sound. No easy task considering how rundown the place was.

First they get stuck with an old drunk for a client, and then they get ambushed on the very first day of their mission, by a pair of missing-nin infamous enough that Kakashi knew them by sight. If that weren't bad enough, their conniving client admitted to lying to them, yet still had the gall to expect them to continue the mission. Even worse, his team actually agreed. Of course, that wasn't bad enough, oh no! Then they had to get ambushed by a Jounin who was strong enough to try to assassinate a Kage and live to tell about it, not to mention nearly kill a Jounin like Kakashi. Naruto considered it a miracle that they actually survived that encounter, though that wasn't the end of their troubles, as Kakashi just had to collapse afterwards.

This mission was so fucked up, if it weren't for the fact that Kakashi had nearly died, and Sasuke -someone Naruto pegged as rather important to Konoha- had been in very real danger, Naruto would have been sure this was all a plot by the Old Man to have him killed. The fact that Kakashi had put a stop to the fight with the Demon Brothers, and had actually saved him from Zabuza went a long way to dismissing those suspicions. Still, being stuck in a foreign country, fighting against an unknown enemy, with just Sasuke as his only support was far from how he thought he'd spend his first mission. And this was supposed to be a C Rank!


The sound of a floorboard creaking sounded like an explosive tag going off as far as Naruto was concerned. Adrenaline pumping, Naruto crouched down as he honed in on the sound, before drawing a kunai and quickly scaling a wall and suspending himself from the ceiling near the stairs, wondering if someone had managed to infiltrate the house, and if so, how. The traps he and Sasuke had set up might not have stopped any intruder, but they definitely should have given warning. He remained perfectly still as a shadowed form slowly made its way down the stairs. Naruto relaxed ever so slightly when he recognized the scent as Tsunami, wondering what she was doing awake so early. She stopped at the foot of the stairs and peered nervously into the predawn darkness as if trying to find something. Curious, Naruto just watched her, fairly certain that her eyes were no better in the dark than any other civilian's. What could she possibly be trying to find that she thought she could spot in the dark?

"Naruto?" Tsunami called quietly. "Naruto, are you there?"

Silently dropping down behind her, Naruto grinned as the part of him that had spent far too much time around Anko had a great idea. Wiping the grin from his face, Naruto straightened and expertly approached Tsunami without making a sound. Once he was as close to her as humanly possible without actually touching her, Naruto waited until Tsunami called out once more before asking just as quietly, "What is it?"

Tsunami let out a muffled shriek as she jumped. Her hands shot to her mouth as she stumbled away from him and turned around, where she let out another gasp as she saw the waning moonlight reflecting off his eyes. Struggling to keep from cackling at her reaction, Naruto tilted his head slightly. "Is there something you needed, Tsunami?"

Apparently recognizing his voice, Tsunami started breathing again, holding her hand to her racing heart. "You scared me, Naruto! Did you have to sneak up on me like that?"

Still holding back from laughing, Naruto raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean? I wasn't sneaking."

Looking uncertain, Tsunami eyed him somewhat nervously –which given how close he had been standing to her without her knowledge, Naruto could admit was perhaps justified- before she stuttered, "I just wanted to let you know that I'll be starting breakfast." Tsunami paused again before hesitantly adding, "That is, if that's alright with you?"

Now feeling somewhat guilty for scaring the woman, Naruto nodded his assent with what he hoped was a pleasant smile, before stepping back into the shadows and going still. Judging from the way Tsunami's head whipped around and her nervousness visibly increased, the rather simple stealth tactic only made things worse.

The first thing Kakashi saw when he awoke was a fairly attractive and far more importantly unknown woman standing over him with a grim look on her face. So to anyone who knew anything about shinobi, it would be no surprise that his first instinct was to kill or at least cause grievous bodily harm to her. Luckily for the mystery woman –and much to Kakashi's utter panic- he found that he could barely move and all he got for his efforts was his own weak groan.

The woman might have said something with a worried expression, but by that point Kakashi was already attempting to figure out how she was keeping him immobilized. In the blink of an eye, he'd already considered and discarded every possibility from the coarsest of rope and simplest of knots, to the finest chakra resistant ninja wire and expert bindings, from poison to the severing of the spine, even some of the more unique and little understood techniques like Tsunade's Ranshinsho. In the end, Kakashi decided that Genjutsu was the most likely culprit, and moved to counter it.

Ironically, it was this attempt that showed him the true cause for his condition. A quick attempt at a Kai resulted in absolutely nothing besides pulling another groan from him. 'Ah, so that's what it is…right, now I remember, right after that Oinin took Zabuza…fuck…'

"Kakashi-sensei, are you alright!?" the most emotional of his students cried worriedly as she leaned over him, her eyes dancing with her fear and insecurity. The old Kakashi would have been disgusted by such an open display of emotion, and the new, lackadaisical Kakashi felt a twinge of disapproval that she wasn't presenting an absentminded, carefree front, perhaps while reading a work of literary art. 'Oh well, to each their own.' He mentally shrugged as his eye panned around the room, taking in its occupants.

Besides Sakura and the mystery woman, Kakashi saw his other two students as well as their client. As usual, Naruto and Sasuke both maintained a relatively stoic front, though Kakashi could see the concern for him they each showed in their own ways. Tazuna on the other hand, did his level best to avoid his eye. Kakashi let out a discreet sigh of relief when none of his students appeared to be harmed other than a few bruises. And most importantly, both of his masks were still on, so he obviously wasn't out long enough for his students to get too tempted. He'd never live it down if he was finally unmasked by a trio of rookie Genin after all.

"I'm fine, Sakura." He reassured his sole female student with a smile. "I just have a minor case of chakra exhaustion from overusing my Sharingan. Nothing a few days of rest won't cure."

"I don't know anything about chakra exhaustion…" the woman stated hesitantly before asking. "Is there anything I can do to make you more comfortable?"

"No, I'm fine miss, and even in Konoha there isn't much more that can be done." He answered lightly, even as it took everything in Kakashi's power not to giggle at her question. 'Really, this is just like that scene in chapter seven with Yumi and Shiro…' Mentally shaking his head to clear it, Kakashi continued. "I'm sorry to impose, but could you leave us alone for the time being? I need to debrief my Genin and speak to Tazuna about how we'll proceed from here."

The woman blinked unsurely, but Tazuna was the one to speak. "This is my daughter, Tsunami. She can probably tell you more about the current situation here in Nami then I can. Besides, I don't keep secrets from my daughter."

Tazuna's defiant tone garnered him quite a few looks from the rest of the room's occupants. Naruto and Sasuke both narrowed their eyes angrily, while Sakura gave him a scolding look and Tsunami –picking up on the sudden hostility being sent her father's way- looked back and forth between the ninja and her father in confusion.

For his part, Kakashi simply raised an eyebrow and gave Tazuna a measuring look. He was, after all, far too experienced to show what he was really feeling in front of so many people. That the old man would dare show such an attitude to the ninja responsible for saving his worthless hide not once, but twice, despite the fact that he had knowingly and willingly lied to not only his team, but the Hokage himself, was in a word, infuriating. 'Well, if that's the way he wants it, so be it.' Kakashi decided with just a smidgeon of vindictiveness.

"Oh, forgive me Tsunami-san." Kakashi said cheerily. "I had no idea you were so involved in the deception that was played on my students and me. Not to mention our Village. But don't worry; I'm sure you had a good reason to lie to us about the situation."

'Take that you miserable old bastard.' Kakashi mentally crowed as Tsunami glared furiously at her father- though her reaction didn't seem really surprised. Maybe his students had already ratted the old man out to his daughter?

Still, as much as he wanted to watch the old fool fumble through his defense, Kakashi really did need to know the situation. "So my cute little Genin, what's happened since I collapsed?" He asked cheerfully, managing to put up a veneer of unawareness about the hot water he'd just dumped Tazuna in with his daughter.

His Genin exchanged glances, before Naruto shrugged and gestured to Sasuke who quickly filled him in on what had happened. Once he'd finished, Kakashi had to admit that he was rather pleased at how his Genin handled things. They'd taken the necessary steps to protect him, and their client, and despite Tazuna's resistance to the idea of remaining away from his precious bridge, his students had done the smart thing. Perhaps when they were more experienced they could be expected to continue a mission without him, but for now they were fine.

Tuning back in to the civilians' argument, Kakashi scoffed as Tazuna attempted to placate his daughter. "Besides, everything turned out just fine! We even managed to defeat a ninja as strong as that Zabuza fellow. So we should be safe for a while. I might even be able to finish the bridge without any more interference!"

"By the way sensei, who exactly was that masked ninja?" Sakura asked curiously, reminding Kakashi of more pressing concerns. Still, no reason not to turn this into an educational experience for his students.

"That mask is worn by Oinin. They're the ninja responsible for disposing of the bodies of ninja from their respective Villages, especially missing-nin. Though Kiri's Oinin are the ones renowned for their skill in the art, every Hidden Village has them, just like the Anbu." Seeing Sakura about to ask another question, Kakashi continued. "A lot of information about a Hidden Village can be revealed in a ninja's corpse you know. Secrets about their Ninjutsu, information on different chakra types, even things like what herbs are used can all be discovered from a body. For instance, if I were to die on a mission, you'd most likely need to destroy my body to keep the secrets of the Sharingan from being stolen." He was a little disappointed in Sakura's cringing reaction, or at least, how little she did to hide it. They'd have to work on that at some point. "Unfortunately, Zabuza isn't quite dead yet."

"Wh-what are you talking about?! Of course he's dead! We saw him die! That kid put those spike things through his neck!" Tazuna objected with more than a hint of fear. His students hid their fear better, yet it was still there. Sad that the housewife was the only one not to seem shocked to Kakashi's discerning eye.

"Well, that's the thing." Kakashi sighed. "Usually an Oinin would dispose of the body then and there. That this one didn't is very suspicious on its own. That they used a weapon that requires as much precision as senbon is even more so."

Silence reigned for a moment, before Naruto applied his own -usually paranoid- brand of logic to the scenario. "Isn't it more likely that the guy simply didn't trust us? I mean, we did outnumber him four to one. Maybe he just wanted to make sure we didn't try to kill him and take both their bodies? After all, getting the body of one of the Seven Swordsman would be a huge coup for any Hidden Village."

"Yeah, and didn't you check Zabuza to make sure he was dead anyway?" Sakura squawked angrily.

Kakashi nodded wearily before explaining. "That was probably just a temporary death state. The odds of actually killing your opponent with senbon needles without aiming for a major organ are pretty slim. An Oinin would be well trained in anatomy, and putting someone in a temporary death state is something one of them could do. So while it is possible that Naruto's right about the Oinin's motives, we can't ignore the possibility that their objective was to save Zabuza, rather than kill him. Why else would they need to get involved? They could have simply waited for me to kill Zabuza, then step in and claim the body. Besides...my gut tells me that Zabuza is alive."

The room went silent once again, as each of them pondered this new development. Finally, Naruto broke the silence with a seemingly unconcerned shrug. "So we're going to leave, right? We're certainly no more obligated to remain now than we were on the road, and if Zabuza recovers before you do, we're fucked."

"You can't just leave!" Tazuna spluttered angrily. "I paid you ninja good money to protect me and my bridge!"

"No, you paid us to escort you back to Nami no Kuni and to protect you from bandits." Naruto corrected with a disdainful look. "That we continued this mission after you admitted to lying to us was an act of supreme generosity on our part. But since we did get you back here safe and unharmed, our job is done. Your bridge and your country are no concern of ours."

"But you can't just leave!" Tazuna protested in disbelief. "The future of Nami no Kuni is at stake here! You have to help us reclaim our freedom!"

"He's right, Naruto." Sakura said fiercely, obviously taken in by the old man's fiery rhetoric. "As people with power, we have a responsibility to help the people of-"

"Shut up, Sakura." Sasuke interrupted, ignoring the girl's flinch as he continued. "Realistically speaking, we're still only up against a merchant. I doubt he has anyone stronger than Zabuza left, so we should be able to put an end to this. And if he does have any ninja left? They don't know that Kakashi-sensei is incapacitated. As far as our enemies are concerned, we have the upper hand. Besides, how far could we get with Kakashi in this condition anyway?"

Seeing Naruto about to retort, Kakashi finally decided to step in. "That's enough you three. The final decision is mine to make." Fixing a glare that demanded an honest answer on Tazuna, he continued. "How much longer until your bridge is complete?"

"Working sixteen hours a day, maybe three weeks, if I can keep my work crew together." Tazuna answered with a frown.

"Well, that's going to be a problem then." Kakashi mused. "I'll be up and moving in four or five days. It'll take Zabuza two weeks at the most to recover. After that, he'll likely make another attempt on your life. I seriously doubt he'll be scared off after our last encounter. You'll need to push your men harder. Zabuza will have no reason to come after you once your bridge is built. And he won't dare pursue us once we return to Hi no Kuni." It wasn't a perfect solution by any means, and Kakashi knew nothing good would come of letting either Tazuna or his Genin dwell on it for too long.

"In the meantime, you three are going to be doing some training to prepare. But for now, it smells like breakfast is about ready, so why don't you all get something to eat?" Kakashi suggested lazily, waiting until they'd begun moving before calling quietly, "Hang back a moment, Naruto."

The boy in question halted instantly, proving that Kakashi had been right in his suspicions about the blonde's hearing. "Take a seat, Naruto." Kakashi ordered, waiting until his student complied before continuing. "I saw what you did back in the forest, Naruto. You were going to let Sakura die."

He wasn't at all surprised when his student suddenly closed up, assuming the stoic mask he used when dealing with…well, pretty much everyone outside of Kurenai and those Hyuuga girls. "She was going to let herself die. That's hardly my fault, Kakashi." Naruto retorted emotionlessly. "It's not my responsibility to babysit her because of her own inadequacies. I refuse to do it in the Village, and I'm certainly not going to do it in the middle of a battle."

Kakashi resisted the urge to sigh, knowing that this was going to be an uphill struggle. "She's your teammate, Naruto. She's supposed to be able to trust you with her life. As a team you should work to cover each other's weaknesses, to help and learn from one another." Struggling to keep the anger and disgust he was feeling concealed, Kakashi put some heat into his next words. "Sakura may not be up to your standards, and she did make several mistakes, but that doesn't mean you can sentence her to death for it."

"I didn't do anything to her. I just let her sink or swim." Naruto retorted with a spark of anger in his eyes. "Both you and Sasuke took the appropriate actions when I gave warning. Pinky just threw a tantrum like a child. When you and I dropped and you shouted your warning, she just stood there like an idiot. Kind of like what she did when the Demon Brothers attacked us. What's the saying? Three strikes and you're out?" Naruto visibly calmed himself, before continuing. "If we're going to be assigning blame here, I'm the one who said we shouldn't continue this mission. I told you then and there that Sakura wasn't ready for something like this, yet you decided to go ahead with it. So if it's anyone's fault that Pinky almost died –besides herself of course- then it would be you, Kakashi. Besides, I did save the worthless girl's life in the end."

Kakashi resisted the urge to groan angrily, wishing he was capable of getting up and beating some sense into his oldest student. He was appalled that any ninja of Konoha would willingly allow a comrade to die, that it was one of his own students only made it worse. Kakashi had to force himself to remember the experiences that had shaped Naruto into who he was today, and not simply go into a scathing rage at the blonde's actions. He knew that the boy was hard-pressed to sympathize or relate to his teammates for multiple reasons, ranging from the age difference, to his rather traumatizing early years, and the fact that he was something of a prodigy in Genjutsu, but the boy needed to learn that he couldn't expect everyone to meet his "standards". Particularly not a first generation kunoichi fresh from the Academy.

Taking a deep breath to calm himself, Kakashi pressed on. "Tell me, if it had been someone like, say, Hinata Hyuuga who froze up like Sakura did; would you have let her die?"

"Don't even try to compare that little girl with Hinata!" Naruto spat angrily, the overprotective rage that Kakashi had noticed when in the company of certain people dancing beneath the surface. "Hinata is nothing like her! How Pinky managed to get the Top Kunoichi title still boggles the mind-"

"Exactly." Kakashi interrupted before Naruto could get too carried away. "Sakura doesn't come from an ancient and powerful clan. Sakura doesn't have an entire clan to turn to for training or knowledge. Sakura doesn't have an overprotective brother figure going out of his way to make sure she's prepared to excel in the shinobi world. All Sakura has is what the Academy gave her, and her team." He paused to study Naruto's reactions, pleased to notice that the boy at least looked somewhat contemplative. Maybe he could get through to Naruto after all. "You must realize that you can't expect her to be a perfect shinobi with so little training."

"…I'm not going to hold her fucking hand." Naruto muttered resentfully, no doubt angered by being proven unreasonable. "She's been incompetent since day one, and she's shown no signs of changing that. You might be right that I can't expect her to be perfect, but you also have to admit that there's no reason why I should throw my life away because of her uselessness."

Figuring this was the best he was going to get without Kurenai or Yoshino's help, Kakashi dismissed his student with a final admonishment. "I know what kind of life you've lived Naruto, but try to remember that not everyone out here is a combatant, and they're certainly not all out to get you. Now, help me up and let's go get some breakfast."

'This…is incredibly annoying…' Kakashi thought to himself that night as he tried in vain to ignore the rather persistent itch on his foot. A harmless enough distraction under normal circumstances. Unfortunately for Kakashi, his chakra exhaustion was still severe enough that he could barely move, making something as simple as scratching his foot damn near impossible. And the sensation, combined with the distinct if suppressed terror he naturally felt at being so helpless, was making sleep equally impossible.

"Kakashi-sensei?" a voice whispered through the darkness from near the door to his room. "Are you awake?"

Kakashi debated whether or not to answer for a moment, before deciding that he really didn't need to deal with one of his students trying to steal his mask. "What is it, Sakura?" he asked just as quietly. "Shouldn't you be asleep? You've got a long day ahead of you tomorrow, and you don't want to tire yourself out even more than being on watch already will."

There was silence for a moment, before Sakura stepped inside and closed the door, leaving Kakashi feeling a little uneasy. A distant, more perverted part of him had honestly been hoping for a scenario like this to occur, though in his daydreams it was Tazuna's daughter sneaking into his room, not his sole kunoichi student. He'd dealt with a lot of affectionate kunoichi in his years, but none of them had been his student, let alone one as young as Sakura. Add in the fact that he could barely move, and you had a recipe for disaster.

Then Sakura started sniffling. "Na-Naruto says I'm not allowed on watch. H-he says I'd just get us all killed…"

Kakashi had to work hard to restrain an aggravated sigh. He'd hoped Naruto hadn't had a chance to tear into Sakura while he'd been unconscious, but that turned out to be a bust. Patting the floor next to his futon –which was about the extent of his ability to move right now- Kakashi smiled reassuringly.

"I've already had a talk with Naruto"-Kakashi decided to ignore Sakura's wince at this as he continued –"and he won't say such things anymore. He was way out of line in talking like that to you, but I hope you'll be able to forgive him for it. Naruto is…a very complicated person…with very poor social skills."

Sakura slumped down next to him, wiping her tears on the collar of her sleeping yukata –which Kakashi now realized must have belonged to Tsunami as it was too large for her. Not by a great margin, but enough to make Sakura seem smaller and younger than she actually was. "No…Naruto's right…I-I'm a terrible ninja…"

"You're a rookie Genin." Kakashi gently corrected her. "That's not the same thing as being a terrible ninja."

"But I froze up! Twice! If it wasn't for Naruto, I would have even been killed…" Sakura objected quietly through her tears. "I've been worse than useless, I've been a liability!"

"Yes, you froze up." Kakashi agreed. "But didn't you move to protect Tazuna first? You were fighting in a real battle for the first time, and reacted as your training dictated by protecting Tazuna. Yes, you could have done more than you did, but like when we were attacked by Zabuza, you spent too much time thinking, and not enough relying on your training." Seeing Sakura deflate at his words, Kakashi hurried to continue. "You made a mistake, Sakura. But that doesn't make you a liability. After all, if you're a liability, what does that make me?"

Sakura's head jerked up as she stared at him in shock. "B-but you're only like this because you fought Zabuza! Any other time you'd be really strong!"

Kakashi nodded sagely. "True, but I'm currently useless to the mission. There are more than one Hidden Village where being like this would be a crime punishable by death." Sakura stared at him in shocked disbelief at this, which Kakashi actually found somewhat pleasing. It was good to see that at least one of his students was taking his teaching on teamwork to heart. "You're young, Sakura…" Kakashi continued gently. "Even when you're my age, you'll make mistakes. That's part of being human. I promise, so long as you learn from your mistakes, you'll never be a terrible ninja."

Sakura nodded halfheartedly before seeming to come up with another argument for her perceived failures. "But what about Naruto and Sasuke? I'm nothing like them and they don't screw up like I do."

"Those two are freaks." Kakashi deadpanned, gaining a slightly nervous giggle from his student. "They're not the kind of people normal Genin should compare themselves to- at least, not as anything other than a goal to reach. But despite that, they're still human, and they are still young. They make mistakes just the same as everyone else."

Sakura seemed to mull that over, which was good because Kakashi was still pretty new to this whole teaching thing himself. Still, he knew how to read people, and the Sakura before him was a mixture of two things. A battered sense of worth and fear. Kakashi let Sakura think on his words for a moment, before asking. "So, why did you need to talk to me? I'm sure you didn't come here just to beat yourself up about how things have been so far?"

Sakura stiffened up, and suddenly was looking everywhere but at him, a look of shame now in her eyes. "I…I couldn't sleep." She slowly confessed. "Every time I close my eyes, I see Zabuza coming at me…so I…I was wondering…since Naruto and Sasuke don't want me around…could I sleep with you?"

Kakashi felt his heart stop and immediately went into panic mode as his uneasiness over Sakura's sneaking into his room came crashing back. "…I don't think that would be a good idea, Sakura. Even setting aside our respective ages, it wouldn't really be proper for a sensei and student to do something like that. I know you're shaken up about what's happened, but that just wouldn't be appropriate."

Sakura stared at him in confusion for a moment before her eyes suddenly went wide and her face turned red. "You pervert!" she hissed angrily, clueing Kakashi in to the fact that the redness of her face was not due to blushing. "That's not what I meant you…you…you disgusting old man!"

How she was able to make her words feel like a sledgehammer bashing into him without speaking above a whisper, Kakashi would never know. And he didn't really have the time to wonder as he hurriedly began to backtrack.

In the end, Kakashi allowed Sakura to curl up on his futon with him, though they both insisted that she bring another blanket in so that Sakura could lay under it while remaining above Kakashi's blanket, allowing them both to feel comfortably separate from each other, even as Sakura curled up next to him and fell into a deep sleep, seemingly comforted by his presence.

As Kakashi watched her sleep, he couldn't help but be reminded that kunoichi or not, Sakura was still just a twelve year old child. A child far away from home and likely sleeping in a stranger's house for the first time. And like any frightened child, Sakura wanted to be comforted and reassured, hence the little girl curled up against his side.

Kakashi actually felt like an idiot now for panicking like he did when he heard her request to sleep in his room. Although, as he looked down at her sleeping face, Kakashi couldn't help but wonder if this was what it felt like to be a parent? Well, that and fuming about the fact that he was now undoubtedly closer to the one student he had previously had no real attachment to compared to his sensei's son or his best friend's last living –and loyal- relative, both of whom acted like they'd be just fine if they never saw him outside of training and missions.

Grumbling to himself, Kakashi made himself as comfortable as he could without waking Sakura before dropping off to sleep with practiced ease…just to have his eye snap back open in irritation. 'God damn itch…'

"Tree climbing?" Sasuke's doubt filled voice, quickly followed by a skeptical glance which didn't affect Kakashi in the slightest. "That's your idea of training?"

"How is climbing trees going to help us, Kakashi-sensei?" Sakura asked, running a hand through her recently cut hair as she peered up at the tree in front of her in confusion.

Kakashi wanted to sigh; he wanted to wince in pain, but most of all he wished he had gotten around to teaching them this already. "You're not going to be climbing the trees with your hands. You're going to be climbing them with your feet." He pointed down carefully at his own feet around the crutches under his arms, making sure not to unbalance himself.

Glancing over at his other student, he saw Naruto frown as he eyed his teammates, staring at one in disappointment and barely contained disgust at the other. Not quite the reaction he'd hoped from the boy after their earlier conversation.

"How exactly are we supposed to do that?" Sasuke inquired curiously as he looked speculatively between Naruto, Kakashi and the surrounding trees. "And more importantly, what good will that do us against Zabuza?"

"Like this." Kakashi answered cheerfully as he formed a ram seal, channeling what little of his chakra he could through his strained system, before placing one foot carefully onto the tree, then hobbling himself upward, crutches and all, up the tree and to the nearest branch. Standing upside down and staring at his team, Kakashi studied his students various reactions. Sakura looked a mixture of disbelief and amazement, while Sasuke looked suitably impressed and interested. In fact, Kakashi could almost see the gears spinning in the Uchiha's head as he tried to figure out how to copy Kakashi's actions. Naruto wasn't even watching, instead scanning the surrounding forest suspiciously. If that meant what he thought it meant, then Kakashi knew he was going to have a problem.

"Focus your Chakra into the bottom of your feet and balance it there." Kakashi explained carefully. It wouldn't do for one of his cute little Genin to fall off a tree when he was too weak to catch them. "Too little, and you slide right off. Too much, and you get forced away from the tree instead of gripping it. As for how this will help, not only will you gain a useful skill, it will also improve your chakra control and allow you to waste less chakra when fighting, while using what chakra you have more efficiently." With that done, he carefully drew a trio of kunai and tossed them to the ground at his students' feet. "Use these to mark how high you can get on the trees, and then work on improving. Oh, and make sure to get a running start at first until you get the hang of it."

Carefully hobbling back down, Kakashi quietly sighed in relief and relaxed as much as possible. 'God I hate charka exhaustion.' He thought to himself as he watched his students' efforts. Sasuke had made it about a dozen feet up before he lost his focus and went sailing off the tree. Luckily, he controlled his fall with a midair spin, tucking into a ball till he nearly hit the ground, where he landed without any problems.

"Hey, this is pretty easy!" Sakura called out chirpily, drawing his attention. His sole female student had made it all the way to one of the highest branches capable of supporting her weight.

"Good job, Sakura!" Kakashi drawled happily, hoping to boost the girl's spirits and self-confidence a little. "It seems like you're something of a natural at chakra control. Well done!" Granted, compared to her teammates' chakra levels, she might as well have been a civilian, but he knew he'd never turn her into a competent kunoichi if he couldn't keep her sense of worth from collapsing.

"Kakashi." Naruto called out from higher up, sitting back against the trunk with one leg hanging off the branch, resting his elbow on the knee of the other. "Did you have anything else for me? Or should I take the old drunk to his precious bridge?"

Kakashi raised an eyebrow in consideration, while inside he was cursing his luck. While he'd figured that Naruto had to have decent chakra control in order to perform Genjutsu as well as he did –never mind creating his own as a child- this did put a crimp in his plans. Oh well, nothing for it but to press on. "Let me get them started first, and then I'll find you some place to work on your own." Kakashi waved lightly in Naruto's direction, catching the considering look on Sasuke's face, and the indignation on Sakura's.

"Why does he get special training?" Sakura asked angrily, no doubt offended that Naruto was receiving something that she and Sasuke were not.

"He's not." Kakashi answered with a dismissive wave. "His guardian is a Jounin who's well known for her great skill in Genjutsu. I imagine Kurenai taught you this exercise some time ago, right Naruto?"

"Yeah, she wouldn't let me join the Academy until I had this down." Naruto agreed easily. "I can already do the water walking exercise as well, if that was your plan."

Kakashi nodded, already figuring that would be the case. "Did Kurenai teach you that as well?"

Naruto's full body flinch was noticeable to everyone. "No, Anko did."

"Oh!" Kakashi exclaimed worriedly and feeling more than a little pity for his student. "That must have been…rough. Do…do you want to talk about it? I have some experience with Anko." When Naruto just shuddered and shook his head, Kakashi decided to continue as if nothing had happened. "Anyways, let's get them started first before I take you practicing, Naruto." Sakura was about to protest again, but the sound of Sasuke running up his tree again seemed to switch her from incredulous to fixated on her crush. "You should keep working on it as well, Sakura. The key is to get so you can use this technique on any solid surface instinctively. You're well on the way though, and you have a talent for chakra control. I'm sure you'll have it down in no time." Sakura smiled brightly at his praise, and then quickly began running up and down her tree.

Hobbling away after gesturing for Naruto to head back to the house, he called back over his shoulder. "Both of you should keep training till you come close to chakra exhaustion. I'll be back in a little while to check on your progress."

Naruto followed Kakashi out of the clearing in silence, waiting until they were about halfway back to Tazuna's house before speaking. "So what are you going to teach me, sensei?"

Kakashi chuckled sheepishly before answering. "Well, there's really nothing I can teach you now. The Kinobori no Waza is about the only thing anyone could be expected to learn in so little time, except for maybe the Suimen Hokou no Waza if you were good enough. You'd need the Sharingan to learn anything else of value so quickly, and even then, I don't have the chakra to demonstrate any more techniques." Kakashi stopped and turned to face him before continuing. "Honestly, I was only doing this to boost the team's morale, and give you some confidence that you'll survive the coming conflict. I'd hoped you hadn't been taught these exercises yet, though in hindsight that seems pretty foolish of me."

Naruto frowned as he considered the Jounin's words. It was more than a little disappointing that Kakashi wouldn't be teaching him anything right now, especially after he'd gotten his hopes up over this "training". Although, given Kakashi's weakened condition, Naruto supposed he should have foreseen this. Speaking of which… "Why didn't you use your Sharingan to tell you all this then? You said you can see the future with it, right?"

"Maa, who knows… maybe I can." Kakashi mused with a nonchalant shrug. "I don't really know myself, though I suppose it's possible."

Naruto waited for an explanation, yet Kakashi just stared back at him. "How can you not know? That is a Sharingan eye right? It's a pretty straightforward question, can you see the future or not?"

"It's not that simple Naruto." Kakashi admonished as he began limping back towards the house. "I wasn't born with this eye you know. In fact, I spent the first half of my life without it, and I doubt I've learned all of its secrets just yet." Naruto frowned in confusion, only to be silenced by a glance from Kakashi. "You probably don't remember it due to your age, but I fought alongside many of the Uchiha when the clan still existed, and they always seemed to be pulling a new, powerful ability out of thin air whenever the occasion called for it. Honestly, I'm surprised they weren't running the Village after the Senju clan faded away."

"That doesn't make any sense." Naruto objected as they entered Tazuna's house. "If they were so powerful, how'd they get wiped out in a single night?"

Kakashi just shrugged again as he lowered himself into a chair with a sigh. "I couldn't tell you. I was out of the Village that night, and by the time I'd returned, they'd already held the funerals and memorial services for the clan."

Naruto frowned for a moment, before glancing at Kakashi as another question that had been bothering him returned. For his part, Kakashi seemed content to let him ponder whatever it was that as bothering him without interruption. After a few moments of silence, Naruto finally just had to ask. "Kakashi," Naruto began slowly, for once not wanting to come across as too confrontational. "Why did we continue this mission?"

Kakashi returned his stare for a moment before letting out another sigh. "…Hubris Naruto, hubris."

"Wha-" Naruto began in surprise before Kakashi continued as if he hadn't been interrupted.

"When one gets to be my age and skill, it becomes very easy to develop a certain degree of arrogance. Arrogance which, however well deserved, can lead one to forget that nothing is certain in this world. After we faced the Demon Brothers, I assumed that we would run into more shinobi, and I believed it a strong possibility that at least one of those shinobi would be a Jounin. I also believed that I would easily be able to handle any such Jounin." Kakashi paused to shuffle in his seat slightly before continuing. "What you have to understand about me in order to understand my decision Naruto, it that in Konoha there are only a handful whose abilities surpass my own. The Sandaime, Danzo Shimura, Jiraiya and Tsunade of the Sannin, and perhaps Maito Gai are the only ones that I can say with certainty surpass me, with perhaps a few more who can match me. And while there are others in this world whose abilities are beyond my own, none of them are really the type to be sent after a simple bridge builder." Kakashi sighed once again. "I can't be certain which of us is the stronger between Zabuza and me, but I guarantee you, neither of us expected to meet the other here. As one of the Seven Swordsmen, Zabuza would never be given such a simple mission as assassinating Tazuna. And as "Kopi Ninja Kakashi", no one would ever expect me to be assigned the mission of guarding someone as unimportant as Tazuna. But our circumstances allowed it to happen anyway. Zabuza became a missing-nin, and I became a Jounin-sensei, both acts which led us here." Kakashi shook his head ruefully. "But I'm starting to ramble now. The point is, I decided to continue this mission because at the time, I was certain that at worst, I could easily complete it by myself. So here we are."

Naruto stared at Kakashi in surprise, honestly unsure how to respond. He had assumed that Kakashi had decided to continue the mission out of guilt from Tazuna's sob story, or out some misplaced sense of righteousness. It had never occurred to him that Kakashi might have simply gotten too cocky for his own good.

"Excuse me, Kakashi-sensei?" Tsunami interrupted them hesitantly as she entered the room. "I was wondering if it would be alright if I went into town? I don't have the supplies here to feed you and your team, so I need to get to the market and try to gather some food."

"Of course, Tsunami-san." Kakashi agreed easily before gesturing to him. "We'll try to keep from disturbing your daily lives too much, but just the same, Naruto will go with you for your protection. I'm afraid I'll have to ask you to go straight to the market and back as well."

Naruto's eyes lit up at the possibility of gathering some intel on the situation. He disliked making uninformed decisions, and if he was going to betray Tazuna, he'd like to have a better grasp of what exactly was going on. And it would be good to know just how much sway Gato had over the islands from his own investigations, and not just relying on what little Tazuna told them.

Which was how he eventually found himself following Tsunami through the single, most rundown city he'd ever seen. Granted, it was the first "city" he'd ever seen, but come on. The town was bisected by a river, which even now was used to ferry people and supplies throughout the town. The main road into the small city was dotted with boarded up buildings and was littered with trash. There was a large marketplace, filled to the brim with shops and stands, while the streets were packed. The problem was, most of the stores had little to offer, and what little they did was outrageously expensive. Even worse, the crowds in the market were probably fifty percent beggars and thirty percent thieves, with the rest being the few actual shoppers. He'd caught more than one set of shady eyes examining Tsunami, only to be scared off by a single glance from Naruto which was just as strange, seeing as how Naruto didn't do anything other than look at them. No glares, no scowls, not even a frown, yet anytime one of the would-be thieves saw him looking at them; they quickly shrank away from him.

In fact, Naruto was probably the only male in sight that walked upright, rather than slumping dejectedly or scurrying through the nearby alleys. The entire city fairly reeked of unwashed bodies and despair, and Naruto had caught sight of more than one starved looking individual sitting wherever they could find room. What he'd yet to see was any sign of a form of a police force, either from the Daimyo or this Gato. "Odd." Naruto muttered to himself suspiciously. "What's with this city?"

"It wasn't always like this." Tsunami replied with a tinge of depression. "This used to be a thriving city, full of happy, proud people. But ever since Gato came…everyone's just…lost hope. That's why father is trying to build his bridge. He believes it will give the people a symbol to rally behind, and help them reclaim their courage…that if he shows them Gato can be opposed without dying, they'll be willing to stand up to him."

Naruto contemplated that for a second and glanced at the crowds around them skeptically before looking back to her. "What do you believe?" he asked lowly, honestly curious as to what those closest to Tazuna truly thought about his "great struggle".

Tsunami stopped dead, and Naruto absentmindedly stepped up next to her, studying her out of the corner of his eye while keeping watch on the crowd that made sure to part and maintain a distance from them. She looked torn, depressed, and above all, tired. Yet there was a subtle determination to her as well, which struck a chord with him, once again being reminded of Kurenai. "I want to believe he's right…" Tsunami murmured quietly. "I want to have his faith in the people of this country, but…but my father is a coward. And so are the people of this country."

That certainly got his attention. "What do you mean? He seems to think that he's spearheading the fight against Gato. And he is putting his life on the line to build that bridge of his."

Tsunami just shook her head and began moving through the crowd again, leaving Naruto no choice but to follow with a frown. If Tazuna's own daughter had no faith in him…it begged the question of just why Naruto should help the old bastard stay alive. She eventually led him out of the market and over to a stretch of land overlooking where the river flowed out into the sea. Once there, she sat on a stone bench and stared down at a group of warehouses below.

Curious, Naruto stepped up behind her and gazed at the buildings in question, just able to make out the Gato Corp. logos on them. They were surrounded by a simple chain linked fence, which was patrolled on the inside by armed men of various nationalities and arms. No doubt these were the "thugs" that Tazuna had mentioned, though they seemed more like veteran mercenaries than the "thugs" Tazuna made them out to be. And oddly enough, despite the blockade that Gato had supposedly imposed, the warehouses seemed to be doing steady business with several merchant ships in the harbor, bringing in supplies and merchandise from some and sending out local goods and merchandise to others.

"They killed my husband down there." Tsunami suddenly spoke up hoarsely, obviously on the verge of tears. "I was at home when it happened, but father and Inari were there…along with most of the people in this city." She paused to take a shaky breath and struggled to compose herself before continuing. "This was before the blockade…before father's bridge. Gato had summoned the people to witness his execution. He said that Kaiza had been committing terrorist acts against his company, and he was to be publically executed for his crimes with the blessing of the Daimyo."

Naruto stood there awkwardly as she broke down into sobs, unsure of what to do to comfort the older woman. It wasn't like he had any experience he could fall back on, but even he knew he should probably do something. The problem was, he doubted she'd be soothed by him ruffling her hair, or any of the things he'd do if it were Hinata or Hanabi.

Glancing around one more time, Naruto carefully laid a hand on her shoulder and gave what he hoped was a reassuring squeeze. Tsunami didn't really react to it other than reaching up and laying a hand on his own, and continued to cry for several more minutes.

Thankfully for Naruto's increasing sense of awkwardness, she eventually calmed down enough to continue her story. "I'm sorry, it is just that I've never really had a chance to grieve, what with trying to take care of Inari and-"

"It's alright," Naruto interrupted as gently as he could, feeling his respect for the woman sky rocket. That she would bury her own grief and pain for the sake of her son struck a chord within him that he couldn't quite identify, though it didn't feel like a bad thing. At the same time, Naruto was incredibly irritated that she would do so for the sake of a gloomy, whiney little brat like Inari. The boy was obviously suffering, presumably from the loss of his father, but that didn't forgive him for showing no concern for the condition of his mother. The little bastard didn't even try to make things easier for Tsunami, instead acting as if his pain was all the mattered. "We don't need to be back anytime soon. Please, take your time."

After all, he could always come back later tonight to scout things out. Though her story did raise some questions… For instance, given the amount of trading that Gato seemed to still be doing, in spite of his blockade, Naruto had to wonder if the blockade was a punishment on the people of Nami for Tazuna's defiance, rather than part of some diabolical scheme.

That his son-in-law had been executed for "crimes against Gato Corp." and that his own daughter called him a coward…well, it didn't exactly match up with the tales Tazuna had been telling. It certainly didn't paint him as the brave patriot standing up for his country.

Tsunami nodded, but while tears continued to trail down her cheeks, she began her story again. "Father and Kaiza never did like Gato. They were always going on about how he was driving good, honest folk out of business…but they always said the same about the Daimyo and his taxes too…so I never thought too much about it. But I asked around about that day, and everyone told me the same thing. Gato only had a handful of men with him when they executed Kaiza, and there were hundreds of people watching…people we knew, people who were our friends, who looked up to Kaiza." She snorted before continuing. "Father had always been going around calling Kaiza the "Hero of Nami" because of this crazy, reckless thing Kaiza did during a storm a few years back! Yet not one of them spoke out against Gato that day. Not one of them did anything to try to stop him, to save Kaiza. They didn't even say anything!" Tsunami all but shouted in fury as she squeezed his hand fiercely. "My father and hundreds of our people stood there against seven men and they just let my husband die. That's why they're cowards. They could have overrun Gato and his men, and saved my husband by sheer numbers, and they didn't even try!" she trailed off into hiccupping sobs.

Naruto stood there, nearly overwhelmed by a gut-wrenching guilt. Because if what she said was true, then he didn't see any other option left. He'd have to kill the old drunk, or at least, allow for him to be killed. It seemed obvious now that Tazuna and his people weren't going to fight back no matter what Gato did to them. Hell, building that damned bridge was their idea of fighting back. And all they'd accomplished was driving their people into poverty and depression. No, as much as it pained him to contemplate a course of action that would no doubt bring even more pain to this woman, Tazuna had to die. Hell, if the old drunk really had stood by and watched the husband she so obviously loved being killed without lifting a finger, than she was probably better off without him.

Although, he'd have to see if he couldn't make sure she and Inari were taken care of once it was all said and done. He did have a rather large amount of cash that he carried with him, but that wouldn't last long with Nami no Kuni's current economy… Then again, Gato had to have some kind of plan for after he achieved total control. Surely a man as business savvy as Gato was reputed to be wouldn't crush one of his own capita sources. He must have various reconstruction projects planned to repair and boost his profits from the small nation. Once Tazuna was dead, there'd no longer be any point to the blockade. Gato could assume complete control of Nami no Kuni and everything would be better for Tsunami and her people.

Naruto resisted the urge to sigh as he glanced at the still shaking woman. God he hoped he was right about this Gato character. He didn't hold any delusions that she'd ever forgive him if she knew he was responsible for the death of her father. Hell, he was sure he'd never forgive himself for bringing Tsunami such pain. But he had to accept the simple fact that a millionaire with such political and economic power that he could seize control of an entire country would be far more useful to Naruto and his cause, than a Daimyo who couldn't even keep control of said country. 'Damn it…gathering support against the Old Man wasn't supposed to be so…guilt inspiring.'

Hearing the sound of approaching footsteps, Naruto tightened his grip on her shoulder in warning, as he gazed down the street.

"Naruto?" Tsunami looked up at him worriedly, tensing up when a man walked around the corner and began swaggering towards them. Naruto studied the man as he approached, subtly palming a kunai as he drew closer. The man wore a well-worn, dark colored outfit though it was his hair style that drew the eye. His brown hair was gathered in four roll like buns, with two long bangs framing his face. Oddly enough, the guy was wearing a maroon cloth across his eyes with holes cut for the eyes, which did little –if anything- to conceal his identity. And judging by the metal staff he was carrying in one hand, he was a mercenary. And in this country, that meant he was working for Gato.

"Hey there, baby!" the man leered as he drew closer, the fumes of alcohol so strong on his breath that even Tsunami could smell it from where they were. "What do you say you and me go out for some fun?" Tsunami didn't answer except to glance up at Naruto anxiously. Something the mercenary actually noticed, his expression darkening. "What, you'd rather fuck this boy when you could have a man?! Why don't you jusy come wit-" As soon as the man began reaching out as if to grab her, Naruto moved, swinging around behind the man, gripping his wrist and twisting sharply, forcing him to release his staff. "Bast-" was as far as the man got before Naruto grabbed the base of his head and slammed his skull into the stone bench with a loud crack. A crack that Naruto doubted came from the bench. The man went limp instantly, and Naruto tugged him back and shoved him down the slope towards the river.

He waited until the man rolled into the water and didn't surface before gently taking a shocked Tsunami by the shoulders and ushered her down the street. "We should be getting back, Tsunami. But I promise you, peace will return to your country."

Tsunami blinked at him, before relaxing into him slightly. "Thank you, Naruto."

Naruto felt another spike of guilt at her gratitude. 'I'm sorry, Tsunami…' he wanted to say, yet he just nodded and led her away. 'Now, if I was Gato, where would I hang out…' he pondered determinedly.

Haku hummed softly to herself as she finished checking on Zabuza-sama's injuries before gently covering him with a blanket. Unable to resist, she tucked him in with a smile.

"Stop treating me like a child." Her master growled irritably as he tossed and turned just enough to render her efforts useless. "Either do something to speed up my recovery, or leave me be."

"Forgive me, Zabuza-sama." She murmured with downcast eyes and bowed head. Though she tried to shrug it off, Haku couldn't help but feel slightly hurt by his words. Couldn't he see she was just trying to take care of him? Zabuza-sama was everything to her. He'd given her a purpose in life, a reason to go on living. He'd saved her from the streets, and when he learned about her filthy blood, he'd embraced it gladly. Yet for all of that, Zabuza could be an incredibly hurtful man, even thoughtlessly cruel at times. And it wasn't like he was a fount of emotional support at the best of times either.

Still, if there was one thing she had mastered, it was keeping up a mask. For whatever reason, Haku was quite skilled at acting, almost to the point of having three very distinct personalities. One being her actual self, another being the epitome kunoichi which she utilized whenever she needed to kill, and the other as a simple village girl. That one in particular was her specialty, able to take everything about being a kunoichi, from the near silent way she walked to her reflexes, and while not quite sealing it away, she was able to push them to the background of her thoughts, allowing her to even react like a civilian would, with no signs of her true abilities. This personality was nothing short of perfect, which she used often to gather information for Zabuza-sama, or when they needed supplies that could only be had in larger settlements where Kiri ninja of any standing –let alone one with Zabuza's infamy- would attract immediate and unwanted attention. And given Zabuza's view on tools being "overly emotional" Haku put her abilities to use quite often to present an ever calm façade around her master, keeping any hurt or guilt she might feel at their actions since leaving Kiri from surfacing. And perhaps even more importantly, she kept any signs of the daydreams or fantasies she had about how different her life would be if she hadn't been born with tainted blood or if she never became a kunoichi, from showing.

Despite how loyal she was to Zabuza-sama, a part of her couldn't help but wonder if she would have ever done any of the things that the girls in her home village took for granted. Would she have had friends to gossip with and tease? Would she have met a boy that she fancied and subtly pursued him like in the stories her mother had told her about her father? Or what if everything had remained the same, with the exception of the Yondaime Mizukage not being a raving lunatic? Would Zabuza-sama have remained a cornerstone of Kiri as one of the few remaining Seven Swordsmen? And as his student, would she have risen to a position of respect and honor among her fellow shinobi? Would she have possibly even become the Mizukage one day?

Haku sighed internally. There were so many things that could have happened, so many what ifs- Haku tensed at the unfortunately familiar sound of a cane striking the floor as an oily voice sneered from the room's entrance. "I heard that you had some trouble killing that stupid old man." Haku's hair wanted to stand on end as she held back the urge to attack the man at the implied tone. "I never thought one of the so-called Shinobigatana Shichinin Shu would have problems killing an old man of all people."

Haku turned and narrowed her eyes slightly at the short man that Zabuza-sama found himself working for. The man was dressed in a dark business suit, his hair spiked upwards in back, framing his thinning hairline, though the moustache made him all the more distasteful to look at. The small smoked glasses balanced on his nose covered his beady eyes, adding an almost mouse-like look, and the cane he carried wasn't for any problem with his legs so much as the greasy man thought it somehow improved his stature.

She wanted to curse herself for not sensing someone entering their hideout, especially someone as disgusting as Gato.

"You're supposed to be some kind of legendary assassin, yet now look at you! You're all but lying on your death bed." Gato tsked mockingly as he walked over toward the resting Zabuza, two hired mercenaries with katana following him at a respectful distance.

Haku kept her mask on, giving away none of the distaste she felt at the old man's presence, let alone how he arrogantly approached her master.

"After such a shitty-not to mention failed! - job, I'm half tempted to take my money and leave you here to die." Gato sneered with a sickening smile on his face as he leered at her. "Although, if you were to offer me some form of…compensation, I just might be willing to give you a second chance."

Haku stiffened in outrage. This perverse little man was eyeing her as if she were some Terumi hussy! She'd never liked killing –in fact, she hated it no matter how necessary it was- but if she was given the chance, she wouldn't hesitate to kill this disgusting little man!

Zabuza-sama continued to lay on the bed, covered up to his chest, his facial bandages still wrapped snugly on his face to hide his identity. Eyes closed, Zabuza was dead to the world, and to Gato's threats and innuendos.

Gato scowled angrily at being ignored and reached for Zabuza, only to have Haku to angrily grab hold of his wrist in a tight grip, just before snapping it cleanly. Gato yelled out in pain, trying futilely to wrench his arm from her grip, causing himself even more pain in the process. "You will not touch Zabuza-sama with your filthy hands, merchant." Haku hissed threateningly, her eyes narrowed in hatred at the thing dressed as a man.

The bodyguards reached for their blades, only for Gato to be tossed into them, preventing them from drawing their weapons as they struggled to get out from underneath their employer.

"Get out." Haku uttered in a dangerously soft tone, daring them to draw their weapons as she held several handfuls of senbon in her fingers. She'd only need one for each of them, but despite being as long as knives and as thick as her fingers; senbon needles usually weren't very intimidating on their own.

"You bitch!" Gato hissed as he stood carefully, holding his broken arm in his hand as he glared venomously at Haku. "Tell your master that he has one last chance to succeed, or I'll turn you both over to the Oinin of Kiri for the reward they have on your heads!" Gato pushed roughly between the two samurai that looked like they were going to draw their weapons anyway, before they abruptly turned and left with their employer.

"I could have handled them myself." Zabuza growled from the bed, his hand coming out from under the sheets holding an oversized kunai that was more of a short sword than a throwing knife.

"It is my place to watch over you as you recover." Haku replied gently as she retook a submissive stance next to Zabuza's bed, hands crossed in front of her and head down as she stood near him.

"I'll tell you what your place is. You are to follow my orders." Zabuza growled as his hand slipped from the handle of the weapon, still too weak to wield it for more than a moment or two.

"Of course, my apologies Zabuza-sama." Haku replied quietly, hiding her sadness as well as she could.

"Isn't there anything you can do to speed up my recovery?" Zabuza somehow managed to growl and yawn at the same time.

Haku tilted her head in thought as she answered. "There are certain herbs that could work, though it would require quite a few days just to find the amount needed to make any meaningful progress that wouldn't sacrifice your reflexes."

"I don't care if you have to go out and stay out all night looking for herbs, just do it!" Zabuza ordered harshly even as his eyes began to droop tiredly once more.

Haku reflexively twitched toward the door at Zabuza's order before bowing to him and heading for the exit of the room. Despite how attuned she was to Zabuza, Haku somehow managed to miss the look of self-admonishment on his face and his muttered "…don't blame the tools for the wielder's failures…"

After returning to the house with Tsunami, Naruto gave Kakashi an abridged report of the situation in the city –leaving both Tsunami's story, and the dead mercenary out of it- before volunteering to check on Sasuke and Sakura's progress. Part of him was genuinely curious as to their progress, as for all her faults, that Sakura had gotten it down on her first try was rather impressive. But for the most part, he just wanted to get away from watching eyes so he could get in some training of his own. And he really wasn't in the mood to put up with Inari right now either.

Stepping quickly through the forest, Naruto marveled at how different it was from the forests of Konoha. More specifically, how much smaller the trees were compared to the ones back home. It made him wonder if the stories about the Shodai Hokage were true. He'd never put much stock in those tales before, but he was at a loss to explain why the trees of Nami no Kuni –and indeed, a great portion of the forests of Hi no Kuni they'd passed through- were so much smaller. 'I'll have to look into that when we get back.' Naruto thought as he ghosted up to the edge of the clearing the rest of Team Seven was using to train.

Sasuke was crouched down at the foot of his tree, breathing hard, but still looking ready to give the exercise another try. Judging by the slash marks, he'd been making fairly steady progress, scaling a little over five feet higher than his first attempt. Far better than Naruto's own initial attempts. 'Looks like the Uchiha were pretty talented after all. Makes you wonder why he was never able to beat me when the rest of the clan was still alive…'

Shrugging to himself, he glanced over to where Sakura was laying slumped against her own tree. She was obviously finished for the day, breathing so hard she was almost hyperventilating. 'Still, I suppose it's a good sign that she was willing to push herself this far. Maybe she won't be useless forever…' Naruto reluctantly admitted to himself as he walked away. On the one hand, this was a good thing, both for Sakura herself, and for the team as a whole. If Sakura was able to carry her own weight, they might be able to count on her, or at the very least, they wouldn't need to babysit her. On the other hand, if she became a competent kunoichi, Kakashi would surely rub his face in it. Naruto could see easily imagine the smug look on the bastard's…eye area? Whatever, the point is, Kakashi would be insufferable about the whole thing.

Shaking his head, Naruto left the clearing as silently as he had arrived. If he'd hung around a little longer, he might have been treated to the sight of Sasuke actually asking Sakura of all people for advice.


Ranshinsho=Body Pathway Derangement, the technique Tsunade used on Kabuto

Did I miss any?


And that is chapter twenty-two. Not too happy with most of the Haku pov scenes, or Kakashi confronting Naruto. And Kakashi has every right to be angry with Naruto, because letting a comrade die because you don't like them personally is not acceptable. Ever. And despite what it might seem like, I'm not trying to bash Sakura. Naruto just has a poor opinion of her. In point of fact, after six years in the military, I've yet to meet a soldier fresh out of Basic Training that wasn't either incompetent, or had their head full of dreams. A lot like Sakura at this point. Tsunami's story however is something that always bugged me. If you actually go back and look at the scene where Kaiza is executed, there are hundreds of people there, standing outside a simple chain-link fence. No barbed wire or anything like that. And inside the fence, there's almost no one. If the people in that crowd really cared about Kaiza, saving him would have been child's play. They wouldn't have even needed to kill anyone. I mean, sure you could make the claim of herd mentality or whatever you want to call it, but to me, if "I was just following orders" isn't an acceptable defense, then neither is "but no one else tried to stop it". Anyway, let me know what you think. Remember, all reviews, criticisms, etc. are welcome.

Peace, Vaan.