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AN: Little shorter than I usually write -and that actually bugs me- and I'm a bit behind the update schedule. Even worse, I don't like this chapter much at all. 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. In point of fact, it might finally be time for me to bite the bullet and start looking for new betas/sounding boards. The two I had either have real world commitments to deal with, or I have a hell of a hard time getting in touch with. 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 23 of Naruto: Shadows of the Mind.



Chapter Twenty-three

Haku moved through the early morning forest as quietly as she could, taking great care to avoid any human contact lest they end up being one of Gato's men. Upsetting Gato –not to mention breaking his arm- had been more than worth it just for the satisfaction of putting that rat in his place. Killing his men when their hands inevitably strayed however, would only come back and place Zabuza-sama in danger. So she needed to avoid the patrols, almost as much as she needed those herbs for Zabuza.

To make matters worse, Haku was exhausted, mostly from sitting up next to Zabuza all night, but also from the constant state of alertness she'd been forced to keep up since the death of the Demon Brothers and Zabuza's injuries. Haku couldn't allow herself to rest easy while she was the only thing standing between Zabuza and his many enemies. She didn't want to lose Zabuza, as she would have nothing left then. So until he could defend himself, she would have to protect him at all costs, even if it meant staying up long hours into the early morning light.

She yawned, placing a hand over her mouth as she spotted a clearing in the distance and made her way towards it. Almost as if drawn to the sound, a bird fluttered down to perch on her shoulder, chirping far too cheerfully for Haku's mood. Still, her irritation bled away as she gazed at the creature fondly, carefully reaching up to stroke the bird's head with a finger. For whatever reason, small animals like birds and rabbits had always been strangely affectionate with Haku and her mother. It made her wonder if her own children would have such an adorable affinity for them.

Of course, as a kunoichi –and a wanted criminal in Kiri to boot- Haku doubted she'd ever have the opportunity to find out. After all, with the sorry state of Kirigakure since the Yondaime Mizukage took power, it was highly unlikely she'd ever have children of her own, seeing as she was likely as not to die before leaving her teens. And that was before she took part in a failed coup d'état.

Now if she had remained a civilian, and somehow hidden away her dirty blood, things would have been different. In fact, Haku could have already married and had a child by now back in her home village. Of course, while it wasn't unheard of for a girl her age to marry and start having children back in Mizu, it wasn't really all that common either. No, Haku was sure she would have waited several more years -perhaps even studied herbs and medicine under the local healer- before she even contemplated settling down with a family of her own. Of course, now that she was thinking about it, Haku couldn't help but wonder what kind of man she would have pursued for herself. She didn't really have any type of criteria really, though she wasn't too surprised by that. After all, she hadn't even begun to think about boys as anything but playmates before she…left… her home village. All she really had to go on was the various bits of gossip she'd overheard from some of the older girls. And those tidbits only added to the confusion. What did it matter which man –or boy as the case may be- was the tallest, or had the broadest shoulders, or the prettiest face? Was that really so important that a girl could decide who she'd spend the rest of her life with based on that alone? Perhaps if she'd remained in the village longer, she would have learned from her mother or one of the other girls her age and it would have all made sense?

Kirigakure certainly hadn't taught her about such things any better than half-listening to gossiping girls did. In Kiri, the situation was both easier to understand, and horribly complicated at the same time. Under the Yondaime, there was a belief in desiring power for power's sake. This extended into relationships as well. Those kunoichi she'd had the opportunity to observe had often been attracted to whichever shinobi had the most power, though it seemed to vary on whether it was physical power, political power, or the power of money that was most important. On the other hand, many shinobi seemed to feel that any woman –whether a civilian or kunoichi often made no difference- they could control belonged to them. These men were the ones Haku worked hard to avoid during her time in Kiri.

Then there were the Blood Purists who seemed to care only for the ancestry of their prospective spouse and little else. A difficult notion due to Mizu no Kuni's bloody history, as there were so many orphans and separated families throughout the long years of civil wars that it was far more common for a man to know that he had a grandfather at one time, then it was for one outside the nobility to know their bloodline all the way back to Kirigakure's founding.

If the two parties were content with the purity of their counterpart's familial history, then they were satisfied. It went without saying that even a hint of tainted blood in a potential spouse's past led to their vicious murder at the hands of their suitor. Haku even knew of a Purist shinobi who wished to marry a Purist kunoichi who was in negotiations with a man descended from nobility before his great-grandmother married a shinobi. Knowing that his own heritage couldn't compete, the Purist forged documents to show the man had a distant cousin -one so far removed as to be recognized as not even family by any rational person- to have a Bloodline. The Purist kunoichi killed the man before he could even attempt to refute the charges, and the Purist shinobi was able to claim the kunoichi for himself. Madness.

Then there were the courting rituals of the clans of Kiri –those few that hadn't already fled the Village to go into hiding- which varied from clan to clan, differing even further depending on whether it was between members of the same clan, members of two different clans, or a clan member and an outsider. For instance, before the Kaguya drove themselves to extinction, they sought out only those who were as vicious and bloodthirsty as they were. A difficult task to be sure, so the Kaguya tended to marry within the clan as a result. And then there were those indecent Terumi women! Always slinking around with their kimono practically hanging off their shoulders! Haku was generally sympathetic to the Bloodline wielding clans –for rather obvious reasons- but the Terumi were one clan she was glad to see driven into hiding.

So no, Haku really didn't have the slightest clue as to what she would have looked for in a potential husband. 'I suppose I'd want him to be kind, and caring.' Haku thought idly. 'And it would certainly be preferable if he wasn't a Blood Purist, or at the very least, if he cared for me and our children enough to set those beliefs aside. Even if he could never love me again for letting him marry one of the Tainted, so long as he cared for our children, that would be enough for me.' Haku paused for a moment to tilt her head thoughtfully, before giggling quietly. 'Of course, it would be nice if he was a good kisser.' She blushed uncontrollably at such an improper thought.

As quickly as the moment of childish joy came, it disappeared, leaving her solemn and self-loathing as she reminded herself of the reality of her life. She shook her head, scolding herself for her fanciful daydreams. She was not a normal girl, and she never would be, no matter how often she wished she could be. The entire thought was ridiculous, and such delusions were merely another symptom of how tired she really was. Still, it was nice to dream-

Haku froze, coming out of her wishful thinking as her combat senses slapped her in the face. She wasn't alone in the clearing she'd wandered into. Someone was here with her, and they weren't one of Gato's men either. As she fixed him with a fierce stare, Haku realized she knew this young man. It was the blond shinobi from the other day, the one who had somehow not only snuck past her and Zabuza-sama, but actually had the gall to draw his blood, not to mention somehow blocking the Kubikiribocho with a simple knife!

Haku stared at the seemingly asleep and unaware boy lying there helplessly. Really, his lack of awareness was almost insulting to her as a kunoichi.

Still, she should probably decide how she wanted to handle this. She could try to kill him, right now while he was "sleeping". Haku knew she was certainly capable of it, seeing as how even if he was awake, the boy was still lying on his back with his eyes closed. Haku assumed he was listening to her footsteps as a way to track her, so it would be child's play for her to kill him from a distance. Her Sensatsu Suishou would be the perfect method. A single half seal and one step, and the Konoha shinobi would be smothered in senbon. Barring an almost impossibly quick Shunshin or Kawarimi, there would be no way he could escape. She felt anger curling in her belly at the thought of this person who had not only surprised her yesterday, but had been the cause of Zabuza-sama's defeat and subsequent injury. Haku desperately wanted to kill him for that reason alone.

On the other hand, Haku had to acknowledge that the blond had already shown considerable talent in the shinobi arts. His deception the other day had been perfect, allowing him to seemingly flee the battlefield uncontested, only to return and blindside both herself and Zabuza-sama with an amazing –in that it more or less succeeded- sneak attack. Haku could respect that if nothing else, as deceiving your opponent and catching them off guard, that was the art of the shinobi.

If he somehow did survive her first attack unscathed, it was entirely possible that he could end up killing her. While she was willing to die for Zabuza-sama, Haku couldn't allow that to happen while her master was still bedridden and all but helpless. If she died now, Zabuza-sama would be left vulnerable, enough so that Gato might decide to try to dispose of him while he was helpless. Or his injuries might get infected while Haku wasn't around to care for him, or –after realizing that she had died- Zabuza-sama might do something foolish like trying to go after the Konoha ninja while still wounded. Even worse, this Konoha shinobi might defeat her and take her alive, using drugs or Genjutsu or torture to force her to reveal Zabuza-sama's location and condition!

No, Haku didn't dare risk Zabuza-sama's safety unless there was no other choice, especially when the Konoha ninja thought he was dead. Giving it a few moments thought, Haku wondered if she could avoid the risk of trying to kill this boy, while trying to gain some information from him? Her acting abilities really were top notch, and whether it was because of her background before Zabuza-sama took her in or just natural ability, her act as a simple village girl had always worked wonderfully. Yes, that's what she'd do. Act like a simple, curious girl, and try to allay his suspicions and get him to unwittingly reveal information to her. Haku knew she was considered attractive by many, and she had no problems using that to her advantage. A little harmless flirting had gone a long way to gaining her the information she sought in the past.

Mentally nodding, Haku suppressed all aspects of a kunoichi from her personality with practiced ease as she studied her prey intently; looking for anything she could exploit to make her task easier. His clothing didn't really give her anything to work with, his legs covered by dark pants and most of his torso covered by his jacket. All she could really tell was that he had the standard shuriken holster most ninja wore on his right leg and at least one pouch on his hip.

His face on the other hand told her a different story however. For one, there was no sign of the boy's Hitae-ate, which she knew from the other day that he wore on his forehead. Had he lost it? While it was certainly rare for a ninja to be so careless as to lose their Hitae-ate –most treated it as one of their prized possessions- it did happen from time to time. Even she herself wouldn't throw away her own, seeing as how it was a symbol of her use to Zabuza-sama. Or were the Konoha ninja trying to maintain a low profile? That certainly seemed more likely.

His face however drew the eye even more than his lack of a forehead protector. There were three tattoo-like lines drawn across his right cheek. His left cheek however, was more disturbing. There was a single similar line parallel to the bottom line on his other cheek, yet where the two lines above would be, were instead two deep looking scars. Their placement was too specific and –dare she call it- detailed to be a coincidence. Which meant that one of two things; either he'd been tortured at some point in his life –judging by how old the scars looked, it would have been some years ago, when he was little more than a child- or he'd done it to himself. If Haku had grown up anywhere but Kirigakure, the thought would have chilled her to the bone. But considering her master and his former colleagues in the Seven Swordsmen, as well as their would-be successors all filed their teeth into shark-like points, it was more like an odd quirk to Haku.

Perhaps it was that very upbringing that allowed Haku to feel that the scars weren't really that disfiguring. If anything, the scars made the rest of his face look better by comparison. And since he wasn't ugly by any means, Haku thought it wouldn't be strange if other girls found him attractive. That was important, as if she were to flirt with him to try to pry information out of him, it was important that it seem natural to the boy. After all, it would be suspicious for an attractive girl like herself to flirt with an incredibly ugly or otherwise unattractive male.

Drawn by her thoughts as she knelt down next to the still deeply asleep boy, Haku couldn't help but remember what she'd been considering before stumbling on the Konoha shinobi. Tilting her head in thought, Haku studied him anew, wondering if she would have pursued someone like him in another life. As she had thought earlier, he wasn't unattractive, and unlike what some of the other village girls had said, she didn't find his scars to be ugly or scary. In fact Haku didn't find the thought of standing next to an older version of this boy while holding a blond headed infant to be distasteful. Granted, she didn't really feel all that excited about the thought either. Sighing in exasperation, Haku tried to push those thoughts away, only to be reminded of one of her few criteria for a hypothetical husband, 'it would be nice if he was a good kisser'. Her eyes darted to his lips for a second, and then she blushed uncontrollably at her indecent thought.

She was grateful that no one was around to witness her ridiculous and fanciful foolishness –really, thinking about kissing a complete stranger!- as she leaned over to shake him awake. Haku had just begun to wonder about the odd marks on his face -which seemed to be something other than tattoos now that she was up close- before the boy blearily opened his eyes and blinked up at her for a second. "You shouldn't sleep outside like this, you'll catch a cold." Haku scolded gently, the very picture of a polite, yet concerned young village girl.

"Wha-" the shinobi began groggily before his eyes suddenly hardened so quickly that Haku felt a very real fear that she'd been made. Before she could do anything to try to continue her charade, the boy suddenly lunged up at her, knocking her over and straddling her waist while pinning both her hands to her side with his left. Haku's eyes widened in a very real panic as she saw him drawing a kunai with his right hand. She was about to throw all pretenses aside when she felt something else pressing against her. Something that shocked her for several reasons, not the least of which was because she'd never experienced this before. Thankfully, her civilian "act" had a perfect reaction to this that Haku thought would work perfectly to at least distract him. She screamed shrilly.

"No! P-please, I-I don't have much, but t-there's some food and herbs in my basket! Y-you can sell the herbs in town for some money, just please! D-don't hurt me! Please!" the strange girl whimpered up at him as tears began to stream from her eyes.

Naruto blinked in surprise at her words, caught off guard by how terrified she seemed. Granted, he expected her to be scared at being held at kunai point, but this seemed different somehow. Like her words meant something other than what he thought. Frowning, Naruto shifted slightly before the proverbial light bulb went off as he realized that it was in fact, morning, and he was in fact, a teenage boy, who quite naturally could be aroused by a stiff breeze. Combine his natural state of arousal with the way he'd suddenly thrown himself on top of this girl and- 'Oh God!' Naruto thought in utter horror as he frantically threw himself off her. "It's not what you think!" he babbled uncontrollably as the girl scrambled backwards on her hands until she was huddled up against the tree he'd fallen asleep by, shivering in fear as she stared at him with wide, tearful eyes, her arms crossed defensively in front of her chest.

Still off-balance by the way he was awoken, and feeling deeply disgusted with himself that he'd put any girl in the position where she thought he was about to rape her, Naruto continued to flail about in his attempts to calm the girl. "I'm not going to hurt you! I mean, I might have to hurt you if you're a threat- but I mean, I'm not going to hurt you…like that!" Realizing that if anything he was just making the situation worse, Naruto scrubbed at his head in frustration. "I mean… it's just that…look, its morning you know, and I wouldn't…I mean, not to say that you aren't pretty or anything…because you are, it's just that-" Naruto clenched his teeth together angrily. 'God damn it, get ahold of yourself!' he growled angrily at himself. 'Pull your head out of your ass and do what needs to be done! There'll be plenty of time to apologize and make her feel better after you confirm that she isn't a threat.'

Taking a deep breath, Naruto fixed an impassive expression on his face as he shifted into a better stance should he need to act quickly. "I'm sorry if I scared you, but I can't let you go until you answer my questions. If you answer truthfully and completely, I can let you be on your way. Do you understand?"

The girl stared at him, her tears slowing but not quite stopping as she sniffled slightly. "Y-yes…I-I understand. B-but who are you? What do you want with me?"

Naruto raised an eyebrow at her slightly hysterical question before remembering that he'd long since removed his Hitae-ate and stuffed it away in one of his pouches. Against regulations to be sure, but there was something about it that Naruto chaffed at. Whether it was because he felt distaste of wearing something that proclaimed his loyalty to the Old Man or the idea of painting an additional target on his back for anyone who happened to have a grudge against Konoha, or the added expectations any of the village's allies would have of him, Naruto didn't know. Regardless, if he had been wearing it and this girl was as harmless as she appeared, it's doubtful she would have approached him, which would have prevented this entire situation. Of course, if she was a threat, she might have killed him in his sleep rather than shake him awake. Kurenai's scolding on his sleeping habits chose that moment to come back and haunt him. He grudgingly admitted to himself that she had been right, and he'd have to do something about that.

Which really sucked, because damn it, Naruto liked his sleep!

Turning back to the task at hand, Naruto answered her question. "I'm a shinobi of Konohagakure no Sato. Do you know what that means?"

The girl huddled back a little more if that was possible at that. "Y-yes, I understand what that means. Are…are you here working for Gato?" She asked nervously.

Naruto looked at her with carefully concealed wariness. She didn't appear to be a kunoichi -which reduced her possible threat level significantly- based on the fact that she hadn't tried to stick anything sharp and pointy in him yet, nor tried to escape, or even use her bare hands against him. Naruto knew full well that one didn't have to be a Hyuuga to kill or cause significant bodily harm with bare hands alone. Still, based on the women in his life, Naruto was fairly confident in his assessment of her. After all, Anko tried to kill him all the time, even without him attacking her first. If he ever did attack her unprovoked, the best he could hope for was that she'd only try to stab him with something, and not get...creative. And Kurenai and even Yoshino -or Hana Naruto added reluctantly- would have reacted with deadly violence as well if they'd been in the girl's position. Hell, even girls like Hanabi and Hinata would have probably defended themselves -though he wasn't sure about the former, what with Hanabi being both a little girl and something of a prodigy.

Still, if she was someone who'd go running to Gato, then he needed to be careful not to give anything of importance away. On the other hand, if she was one of Tazuna's people, or if she had suffered under Gato's reign, the wrong answer might drive her into a more terrified frenzy. And Naruto quite honestly did not want to deal with that. "I'm not at liberty to discuss the missions of Konohagakure." He answered in a measured tone. "But I can tell you that I was not hired by this…Gato." All true, as Naruto had yet to approach the man for a potential partnership. Seeing the girl relax gave Naruto the answer to which "side" she was on. Speaking of which. "Now, who are you? What are you doing out here?"

"My name is Haku, Shinobi-sama. I'm gathering herbs for my master." The newly name Haku answered a little more steadily.

"Master? So you're a servant girl then?" Naruto questioned, attempting to piece together information from what she didn't say as much as what she did. "And what does he need herbs for? Is he some kind of merchant or medicine man?"

"No, my master is a politician, and dabbles in various business interests from time to time." Haku corrected with a hint of her previous gentleness returning, before frowning worriedly. "He was hurt recently when Gato decided he had displeased him. The herbs are to help him recover, Shinobi-sama."

Naruto nodded thoughtfully, beginning to piece together the girl's story. Her master was likely a low ranking member of the Nami Daimyo's court, born into enough wealth that he could dabble in business without any great concern for losing all his money on a foolish enterprise. Though judging by Haku's kimono, the man wasn't well off enough to have live in servants. Her clothes were nice, but they weren't of the make and quality of the sort Naruto would expect from the servants of nobility. "So you're knowledgeable about herbs then? That's quite impressive for someone as young as you."

Haku blushed slightly in embarrassment, yet still smiled happily as she answered. "I've always had an interest in herbs, and I've been able to gain a lot of experience and knowledge while serving master. He's not very good with plants of any kind himself, but he's nice enough to indulge my hobby."

He nodded and continued asking questions, feeling more and more certain that Haku was just a simple village girl, working as a servant for some –relatively speaking- well off family in order to get by. She definitely didn't seem to be any threat to him, not with her general openness and lack of any kind of defensive stance other than huddling back against a tree. He learned that she was fifteen, and was an orphan, probably a recent one too given her unwillingness to go into too much detail about the event. No doubt the incident was probably related to Gato in some way given her reactions. Though that explained why she needed to work as a servant in the first place, as she had no one else to support her.

Finally, Naruto was satisfied that Haku –while recklessly naïve with how she approached him- had meant no harm to him, and was in fact genuinely concerned for his health. Which while a good thing, made him feel like an absolute asshole for the way he'd terrified the poor girl earlier. Putting away his kunai, Naruto tried to seem as nonthreatening as possible as he picked up her overturned basket and collected the herbs that had spilled out -subtly checking for any hidden weapons just in case- before placing it near Haku without getting too close to her. After all, now that he'd determined that she was just a normal girl, the last thing he wanted to do was scare her further. "I'm sorry I frightened you earlier, Haku…san." Naruto added a little awkwardly.

It had been a long time since he cared about using the "proper" old forms of addressing people. The Old Ways struck him as archaic and outdated for the most part, only really used frequently among Shinobi, Samurai, and Nobility. Even among Shinobi, other than the names of techniques and a handful of titles for addressing someone, most of the Old Ways were largely forgotten or ignored outside of the most traditional of clans, or those who had lived in the Hidden Clans Era. Although now that he thought about it, Haku probably lacked the education necessary to know the difference anyway. After all, what noble cared enough to educate their servants, let alone a minor, unimportant noble from a backwater semi-nation like Nami no Kuni? She was probably just instructed to address everyone as "sama".

"But still, you shouldn't go around waking up strange men when you're by yourself. Especially with the way things are now." Naruto continued with a frown. "I could have killed you before either of us realized what was happening."

Haku paled slightly and fidgeted with her basket, peering up at him through her eyelashes. "I'm sure Shinobi-sama wouldn't have harmed me. But I am sorry I startled you…I just didn't want you to catch a cold."

Sighing slightly, Naruto shook his head in defeat. Even after everything that's happened, he had no doubt that Haku would react the exact same if she came across another strange man sleeping in some random clearing tomorrow. 'Foolish, naïve girl.' Naruto thought ruefully and with a tinge of wonder. He'd never come across such innocence outside of a small child before. "My name isn't Shinobi-sama. It's Naruto. Naruto Uzumaki."

Haku brightened considerably and shifted so she was sitting seiza style before him. "Pleased to meet you, Naruto Uzumaki-sama." She smiled at him with a small blush.

Slightly dazed by just how beautiful she looked when she smiled; it took Naruto a second for her words to register in his mind. "No, you don't really need to use "sama" with me Haku-san. I'm not really a follower of the Old Ways." He explained as kindly as he could. No need to make her think he was looking down on her for being uneducated after all.

Rather than be offended like he had feared, Haku just covered her mouth and giggled shyly. "I think it suits you just fine, Naruto-sama. But if you like, I'd be honored if you wanted to just call me Haku." Naruto really didn't know how to respond to that, or the odd way she was looking at him. Nor was he given a chance to, as Haku continued. "If you don't mind my asking, what were you doing sleeping out here? Surely Naruto-sama could have found someplace better to sleep, or at least a little dryer."

"Well it's not like I meant to sleep out here." Naruto defended himself as he felt his cheeks warm for some reason. "I came out here to do some training, and I ended up falling asleep while taking a break."

"I see." Haku giggled again, before tilting her head slightly to the side and looking at him curiously. "Why are you training?" She must have seen the way his face suddenly became blank, because she flinched ever so slightly. "I'm sorry, I'm sure it must be something you can't tell someone like me. My master is always scolding me for being too nosy…and…well, it just looks like you're already really strong, and so I was curious…"

Naruto found it rather disturbing how much she looked like a scolded puppy. "Look Haku, I don't mean to be insulting, but I don't think you'd be able to understand without an explanation that would take more time than I have to give." Naruto said with a slight smile as he glanced up at the sun.

Haku blinked owlishly, and then followed his gaze skyward with a start. "Oh! Look at the time! I need to get back and start breakfast!" Haku scrambled to gather her herbs and basket and brush off her kimono.

Naruto couldn't help but shake his head with a rueful smirk at the way the girl was acting. Although at the same time, Naruto couldn't help but worry slightly for her. She was a very pretty, somewhat naive girl, and between having no family to look after her and the current situation with Gato here in Nami, it would be all too easy for someone to take advantage of her. Odd that that would bother him, but it was probably just a side effect of looking out for Kurenai, Hinata, and Hanabi for so many years.

"Would you like me to escort you back to your home?" He offered, figuring it would be the polite thing to do. And it wasn't like it would take him too long anyway. "Things aren't exactly safe in this country these days. It probably would be for the best."

Haku just gave him that smile again and shook her head before turning and heading for the edge of the clearing. Just as she was about to leave the clearing, she paused, and turned back to face him with a deep blush. "Although, I wouldn't mind if…that is to say…well, I really enjoyed talking with you, Naruto-sama. Do you think it would be alright if we met again? Just for a little while? I promise I won't take up too much of your time! It's just, well, with master hurt; I don't have anyone to talk to anymore…and well…" Haku trailed as she anxiously awaited his answer.

Naruto just shrugged nonchalantly. "Why not? I could probably come back tomorrow." It wasn't like he had anything else to do with his time. Kakashi might expect him to take the old drunk to and from his bridge for a bit, and Naruto still needed to find a way to get in touch with Gato, but otherwise, there was really nothing to do. Not like it's likely Zabuza really had survived having a couple of giant needles shoved through his neck either, regardless of what Kakashi dreamt up in his exhausted state. Returning Haku's wave, Naruto watched her retreating form until he lost her in the trees before finally turning and heading back to Tsunami's home. Of course, it goes without saying that he was only watching her to make sure she made it away from here safely. Not because he found himself staring at her…parts…which were outlined quite well by her kimono in his opinion.

Haku hummed happily to herself as she walked away from Naruto. Beneath the cheerful exterior and excited giggling however, Haku played over the previous hour or so in her head. A decent shinobi and deceiver Naruto might be, but a skilled interrogator he most certainly was not. It had been almost too easy to give out slivers of truth in answer to his questions and allow him to draw his own conclusions. As a member of the Seven Swordsmen back in Kiri, Zabuza-sama had been involved in politics for many years, even before he began plotting to overthrow the Yondaime Mizukage. And as a ninja, Zabuza-sama was quite the businessman. Of course, that business often involved assassinations, sabotage, espionage, and various other forms of mayhem and murder. And Gato had been angry when the Demon Brother's failed to kill the bridge builder, and Zabuza-sama's injuries happened shortly after.

So yes, Haku was quite pleased with the way things turned out on that front. Add in what she'd managed to learn from Naruto, despite his attempts to avoid giving her anything but the vaguest answers, and Haku was glad she decided not to kill him. For instance, while Naruto likely thought nothing of it, telling her that he was out here training, and that he could "come back tomorrow" so nonchalantly made it seem very likely that the Konoha ninja had no clue that Zabuza-sama was still alive, or that he had Haku to aid him. It was unlikely they'd dare let one of their own go off by himself otherwise. She'd already known why he was in Nami no Kuni, but she'd also learned that Tazuna wasn't being guarded by the whole team either. If Naruto was training, it implied that he'd possibly spend today resting. Which suggested that the bridge builder might be guarded by as few as one shinobi. She'd confirmed his first name while observing their battle with Zabuza-sama, so it seemed unlikely he'd give her a false last name when he could have easily said nothing.

'Uzumaki…Uzumaki…I don't recall hearing about any "Uzumaki clan" in relation to Konoha before.' Haku mused to herself curiously. 'I'll have to ask Zabuza-sama about it.' Judging that she'd gone far enough, Haku "flicked the switch" on her act and veered off of her original path to head back to the fortified compound Zabuza-sama had been using while in this country. She'd check on Zabuza-sama's wounds, and then brief him on what she'd learned and her plans for gathering more information. Maybe he'd be able to piece together something she'd missed from her conversation with Naruto.

Naruto made it back to the house just in time to find Tazuna's family and the rest of Team Seven sitting down to breakfast. It was mildly amusing to see the various greetings he received from everyone. Kakashi and Sasuke both glanced at him for a moment, and then immediately returned to what they were doing. Sakura and Tazuna both ignored him, which was just fine by him, seeing as how he didn't like one, and was plotting the death of the other. Inari glared at him for a moment, and then sniffed disdainfully before going back to his sulking. Tsunami on the other hand, seemed genuinely happy to see him. "There you are, Naruto. I was worried when you didn't come back last night. I hope you didn't spend the night in the forest? You'll get sick doing things like that."

"Maa, you don't need to worry about him Tsunami-san." Kakashi answered for him from where he sat doing light stretches. "Naruto might not be the most pleasant person to be around, but he is a true ninja…most of the time."

Naruto glared at him and gave him the finger as he sat at a spot at the table where he could overlook Tsunami's cooking out of habit. Once breakfast was served, Naruto once again noticed how Inari's portion was larger than everyone else's, while Tsunami's was smaller. This confirmed his earlier suspicions, and he made a note to see if he could find some game out in the forest later on.

"Naruto," Kakashi's voice shook him from his thoughts. "I want you to take Tazuna to his bridge today. You shouldn't have to worry about any attacks from Gato just yet, but just in case, I want you to take a signal flare with you. I trust you to utilize your judgment on whether or not you need to use it, but I would much rather you be overcautious than careless. Understand?"

Naruto nodded thoughtfully and glanced from Kakashi to his "teammates" and back before biting back his somewhat scathing question of, "what good would it do if I can't handle whatever's going on and you can't do anything to help?" The last thing he wanted was another lecture on the importance of trust and faith between teammates.

"Finally!" Tazuna grumbled angrily. "It's about time you ninjas came to your senses! Do you have any idea how much you've put back the bridge's completion? Let's go!" He ordered arrogantly as he rose from his seat and left the room, no doubt to gather his shoes and equipment, grumbling what were no doubt insults against his protectors.

Naruto grunted to himself and continued eating, pausing only to acknowledge Tsunami's apologetic look with a shrug. "Hurry it up, boy!" Tazuna yelled from the other room. "We need to hurry if we're going to make any real progress today!"

"And how exactly do you intend to get in touch with all of your workers without getting spotted by any of Gato's supporters?" Naruto called back as he stood up and reluctantly tied his Hitae-ate around his forehead.

"What are you, a moron?" Tazuna shouted back derisively. "My men have been working around the clock for the last week! All we need to do is show up!"

Naruto blinked in surprise at the old drunk's answer, and exchanged confused glances with the others. If the work on the bridge had continued unabated during Tazuna's absence, then why was he so important to the project?

As it turned out, Tazuna was so important because he was the only one at the work site who truly knew what he was doing. Oh, many of the old drunk's veteran workers knew a lot about building a bridge. In fact, if they were simply building a bridge connecting two of Nami no Kuni's many islands, the veterans could probably build it themselves by pooling their knowledge. Granted it would take far longer, and would more than likely to be less to standard than if Tazuna was there, but they could do it. Building a bridge the size needed to connect Nami to Hi no Kuni on the other hand, required the knowledge and skills of a true master of architecture. Everything from the exact angles necessary for the support pillars, to the load bearing weight of any given part of the bridge had to be carefully calculated, while taking in such considerations as how the weather might affect it, to the simple wear and tear of use.

And Tazuna seemed to be the only one qualified to do all of it, and direct his workers, not to mention working alongside them. 'Looks like the old drunk isn't all talk after all.' Naruto mused as he watched them scurrying over the site with the kind of efficiency that only comes from experience and a long time of working together. 'Still…' Not everything was going so smoothly.

"I'm sorry, Tazuna." One of the older workers said guiltily to the old drunk. "I just can't have anything to do with this anymore. You know Gato is going to come after us all any day now. He's probably already got men watching our families, and not all of us have shinobi to protect us. I have to quit."

Tazuna eyed the man -apparently a close friend of his- before letting out a quiet sigh. "If that's how you feel about it, then don't come back." Tazuna murmured as he stepped past him, no longer seeming to be able to stomach looking at him. Instead, the old drunk turned his gaze to those workers who were watching the confrontation. Naruto couldn't help but notice the look of hopelessness in many of their eyes. "In fact, anyone else who feels the same should leave right now. Don't bother coming back, you're help isn't necessary."

"Please, listen to reason Tazuna!" the other man turned around, trying to grab the old man's shoulder to stop him as he walked off to one of the piles of supplies. "You can't build this bridge by yourself!" Naruto watched him very closely, wondering how far the man's fear and desperation might push him. And whether or not Naruto would have to dump his corpse over the side of the bridge to keep the old drunk "safe".

"I've built plenty of bridges by myself." Tazuna stated as he lifted a bag of concrete over his shoulder, walking away from the supplies to head toward a mixer. "One more won't make any difference."

"Fine, you crazy fool!" the man yelled at him, pointing an accusing finger at Tazuna. "Get yourself and your family killed for nothing! I won't die for your lost cause, and I'm not about to let my family die for it either!"

As the man was walking off as Tazuna spoke quietly, his voice somehow carrying despite that. "So letting your family suffer under a tyrant is preferable to having them live free?" Tazuna stared after the man as he continued to stomp off, heading back into the city.

Naruto watched it all in silence. It wasn't his job to make the man stay and help build the bridge, though he couldn't help but wonder how many more of the old drunk's workers were going to run off. Considering how close the bridge was to completion, as well as how long these men must have been working on it to get this far, without being butchered by Gato, it made Naruto wonder what had suddenly changed to start scaring them off. Or what the point was of even finishing the bridge at this point.

"Hey, Tazuna." Naruto called quietly as he moved to stand next to the old drunk. "Say you do finish this bridge…what then?"

"What are you talking about?" Tazuna asked irritably. "What kind of stupid question is that?"

Resisting the urge to punch the old bastard, Naruto instead continued with his point. "Surely you don't expect Gato to just up and leave when the bridge is finished? What happens if the day after the bridge is done, Gato sends mercenaries to claim it for himself? Or if he just hires another ninja to blow it up during the night. What then?"

Tazuna stared at him blankly for several moments, before returning to his work with a grunt. "This bridge will save my country. Once it's finished, hope will return to the people, and Gato's hold on our nation will be broken. You'll see."

Naruto stared at him with barely masked contempt. Surely he didn't seriously believe things could be that simple? That all it would take to drive Gato away would be to build a bridge, and everything would just magically get better? "So when you finish this bridge, you're going to just what? Sit back and expect everything to go back to the way it was? Do you really think Gato is just going to give up everything he has here, just because the people are complaining about his presence and no longer need his ships?"

"Our people will have hope again." Tazuna repeated firmly. "Once we finish this bridge, Gato's reign will be over!"

'God, he's like a broken record.' Naruto thought disgustedly. 'He literally has no plan for what comes after this bridge. If these people can't even stomach the thought of building a bridge to break Gato's hold, they'll never be able to bring themselves to do what is necessary to get rid of him. This whole project isn't just doomed, it's pointless! All he's going to accomplish is building Gato a bridge for free.'

Gazing out over the water, Naruto's final doubts about his plans evaporated. Tonight, he'd go looking for Gato. Once that was done, all it would take is a little negotiation to keep Tsunami and Inari safe from retribution, and enough money to tide them over while Nami rebuilds under Gato. Of course, it went without saying that Gato would require Tazuna's head, but after learning how the man had let his son-in-law die, led an entire nation into a pointless and quite possibly suicidal endeavor, provoking Gato into cracking down on the nation in retaliation, all without the will to actually fight for his people –a people who had no will to fight for themselves no less- Naruto didn't have any qualms about that.


Sensatsu Suishou=Thousand Flying Water Needles of Death

Did I miss any?


And that is chapter twenty-three. Not too happy with most of this one, mainly because of all the Haku pov scenes, which I'm still struggling with. She's supposed to come across as someone with serious issues, a mental defense mechanism that borders on multiple personality disorder -aka her acting- in addition to the standard teenage hormone fuelled...irrationality is a polite word for it I guess. Basically, I want Haku to act like she went through all the things she did and didn't just shrug it off like she did in canon, but was actually affected by it on a fundamental level.

And since I'm sure someone is going to mention how relatively easy Naruto lowered his guard around her, I'll go ahead and try to explain it as much as I can.

Haku was able to sneak up on him so easily because he's a heavy sleeper, something that was mentioned in earlier chapters. So, she's able to wake him up, and once he wakes up enough to realize he doesn't know her, he reacts instinctively. However, rather than react like an assassin whose ambush has been thwarted, or a spy whose cover has been blown, Haku instead reacted as if she were the harmless civilian she was pretending to be. To Naruto's mind, the fact that she didn't react the way he or any of the ninja he knows would have -aka, trying to kill him/defend herself- mixed with emotional shock and horror at the thought that a girl apparently thought he was about to rape her -keeping in mind that most of the people he cares about are women, as well as the fact that such an act would be crossing a serious line for him- as well as the fact that she didn't take advantage of his distraction to either attack him or escape, all worked together to get Naruto to subconsciously label her as not a ninja, but still a possible threat. From there, it was a combination of Haku's very good acting abilities, half-truths, Naruto's less than expert interrogation skills, plus one other detail that I'm trying out but can't explain just yet.

Or at least, that's what I was trying to go for. It's entirely possible that I failed utterly when it came to actually writing that out. Also, just as a reminder to everyone who might be upset by Naruto's plans to work with Gato, please remember that Naruto doesn't know anything about Gato, or about how the guy took over. From the outside, it looks like most of the population doesn't want to fight the man, or help Tazuna.

Final rant for this chapter, and something that still doesn't make any sense to me. What was Tazuna's plan for after the bridge was built? Because the way canon made it seem -at least to me- was that building the bridge was about the equivalent of all those teenage girls running off to Hollywood to become the "next big star" without any kind of preplanning for things like where they'd live, or how they' support themselves, let alone, how they would go about becoming a star. Pretty much the same thing with Tazuna's bridge. He got the, "if I build a bridge, we won't need ships to trade anymore" but seems to have neglected pretty much everything else that would need to be involved. For instance, if all of Wave's merchants were sea-based before Gato, then they're probably not going to be very knowledgeable about land-based trading. Let alone, any good at it. And beyond that, if everyone in Wave is poor and destitute, what exactly do they plan to trade over the bridge? How do they intend to pay for caravans to take whatever trade goods they can scrounge up out to other markets? I could go on, but you probably get the point. Not to mention the fact that bridges can be destroyed, or Gato could take the bridge for himself, seeing as how no one in the entire country seems willing to actually fight him.

Anyway, let me know what you think. Remember, all reviews, criticisms, etc. are welcome, especially if it can help turn this chapter into what I was trying to make it.

Peace, Vaan.