AN: Hey, everyone! It's been a while, huh? Unfortunately, all I can do is apologize, without promising faster uploads. Work and real life come first, and that leaves me with few chances to dedicate myself to writing (made worse by the fact that I've got an original story in the works). However, I have not, nor will I abandon this story, or any of my other pending stories. You will get your complete story regardless of my other commitments. That's a pledge.
In any case, I've gotten my laptop back, so that should help me write faster. In fact, most of this chapter was written on it, and I started this chapter this past weekend!
Now, to head off some criticism: yes, this chapter may feel a bit rushed. The fighting, in particular, seems to wrap everything up too nicely. However, let me assure you that this was always going to be the case. Tazuna's fate, whatever that may be, and the events which unfold in this chapter, were always going to happen. Believe me, I'm just as sick of Wave as you are. :P
However, I'm afraid I have to crush your hopes at this point, because there's one last chapter to go before Wave is 100% done. Not even one chapter...like, half. Maybe. Just some loose ends needing tying up. The important bits are covered in this one.
Anyway, thanks for sticking with me for so long!
Gato may have had the advantage of numbers, but the Wave magnate had forgotten one crucial thing…
His opponents were shinobi.
In a fair fight, the overwhelming numbers of Gato's mercenary army may have indeed tipped the scales irreparably, but as none of his opponents intended to fight fairly, that calculation was somewhat flawed. This was best demonstrated when Kimiko blew up.
Well, blew up was perhaps a bit misleading.
Rather, the redheaded enforcer of the Uzumaki Clan bit her non-bleeding thumb and, together with her already bleeding thumb, ran both digits down her clavicle, causing her entire being to shine as Fuin characters glowed bright green.
"What the fu—?" Zabuza could be heard yelling, just before Kimiko cried out.
Kakashi winced as the glow became unbearable, and looked away. All around him, he heard hundreds of mercenaries similarly yell out in pain as their eyes were beset by the powerful shine of Kimiko's body. Honestly, Kakashi had some money down in his head that she was about to self-destruct.
Nothing of the sort happened, of course.
Rather, when the glow died down just as suddenly as it'd appeared, Kimiko was no longer in her prior attire. Gone was the ceremonial looking armor, replaced now by a much more reinforced suit of armor. Her traditional dou, a collection of steel plates, was now gone, replaced by a single steel cuirass. Her helmet, too, became more rounded, with a slit of steel protecting her nose. Her sode were also forged in the same vein as her new cuirass, and her legplates seemed ready to withstand a lot of punishment.
In short, she had transformed into a walking fortress.
"Minamikaze no Yoroi," she declared firmly, crossing two yari spears in front of her before sliding into a ready stance.
Kakashi chuckled. "Nice trick," he observed, unsheathing a kunai and smiling under his mask as he observed the mercenaries actually hesitate for a moment at the sight of Kimiko's new armor.
"Hmph," Zabuza grunted. "Flash isn't everything to a shinobi, Red," he remarked disapprovingly, burying his sword's blade into the ground in front of him while he raised his hands into a familiar seal. "First rule of stealth kills: if they can't see you…"
All around the foursome, thick mist rapidly morphed into being, quickly hiding them from Gato and his mercenaries' view. As the mob of mercenaries began to get swallowed up by the mist, the first cries of panic and surprise began to emerge.
"...they can't stop you," Zabuza's ghostly voice finished, just before someone screamed in the mist.
Kakashi smiled grimly under his mask as he privately agreed with the missing-nin's assessment and tore through a lone mercenary's jugular with his kunai. Despite Zabuza's skills having noticeably dropped during his stint as a missing-nin, he couldn't help but appreciate the man's extensive stealth abilities. He imagined that if Zabuza had consistently been in top form, he might've even had a bit of trouble dealing with the former Kiri nin.
But right now, they were on the same side, and that was a small measure of comfort, he supposed.
To his left, he heard more screaming, followed by a dark chuckle. It prompted a raised eyebrow, as he reflected that perhaps Zabuza was enjoying himself a bit too much.
To his right, however, he heard a woman give out a battlecry, just before the sound of tearing flesh hit his ears. Kimiko, too, was adapting well to her current circumstances, despite her admitted hatred for Kiri and all persons affiliated, however loosely, to it.
Then, to his front, he felt a stiff, cold breeze, and took note of the strange silence coming from that direction. Unlike Zabuza or Kimiko, Haku seemed content to just carry out his kills without the added psychological shock value.
He could respect that. As a former ANBU operative, Kakashi hadn't much liked the idea of making statements with his kills — all that really mattered was that it was carried out as per the Hokage's orders. Therefore, quick and efficient was the best way to go.
Besides, his renowned kill count served as sufficient deterrents for most run-of-the-mill shinobi.
Kakashi eyed his student's still body behind him. While Kimiko, Zabuza, and the one called Haku seemed at ease with going on the offensive, Kakashi hadn't forgotten that his primary duty was to safeguard his students. He knew that there were many in Konoha who wouldn't have minded something untoward happening to Naruto, but he'd be damned if it happened on his watch.
He snapped his gaze to the right, just as a mercenary blindly stumbled towards him, and quickly dispatched the man by snapping his neck.
Silence was his greatest weapon, after all.
Two more mercenaries managed to find him, and both met with equally final fates. As he stood over their bodies, however, he couldn't help but notice that the screams were becoming less and less common, which made little sense, given the sheer amount of mercenaries Gato had brought with him.
In fact, by his estimation, their human wave tactics ought to have caused the amount of deaths to increase consistently over time; yet, the opposite was now taking place. He knew Zabuza, Kimiko, and Haku couldn't have finished off the mob by themselves already – not with the way they were fighting – so the lack of activity within the fog made no sense…
…Unless the mercenaries were retreating and no longer advancing into the fog.
Kakashi froze in place, quickly running that line of thought down.
Why would the mercenaries stop their advance? As far as they knew, they had advantage in numbers, and he and his companions were tired from subduing Naruto. That was the logical conclusion to this situation.
Furthermore, given Gato's character, the idea of the business man abandoning his attack over something as commonplace as mist seemed odd. Everything about the man screamed overconfidence and bluster.
Unless they had misjudged him?
Kakashi eyed the place on his arm where the Uzumaki tattoo had been temporarily placed. Quickly, he sent a chakra message over the link, hoping he was wrong.
Unfortunately, he wasn't.
Kimiko quickly confirmed his auditory observation that the mercenaries were charging less and less. Many of her most recent victims – the screams he could still hear on occasion – happened to be lost mercenaries, not members of a vanguard.
He had little doubt this also applied to Zabuza, whose dark chuckles had also lost their gleeful edge.
Which meant Gato wasn't as much of a stubborn idiot as they'd first thought. The wily businessman had clearly some brain cells left in that insidious pit of filth he called a mind.
But if that was the case, then it was Kakashi's job to counter the counter-move. Sending another message through the tattoo, he hoped his strategy had gotten through effectively enough, because otherwise this one-sided battle could turn ugly very fast.
It was laughable, really; being gifted with the ability to use chakra, modern shinobis should have had no problem with mercenaries, especially A and S Rank shinobis like his current makeshift team. However, all it really took to kill a shinobi was a solid plan and a lucky shot.
Both of which became considerably easier to achieve if you had the numbers to carry out the sort of plans this would require, and had the pick of the battlefield. Both advantages which Gato held.
Zabuza's mist had managed to rebalance the scales for a bit, but Kakashi personally doubted that Gato's numbers had been significantly affected by the mist slaughter.
Maybe two dozen jutsus flew through his mind that he knew would put an end to this situation, with Gato's forces wholly routed and his team out in one piece. Unfortunately, most of them would also cause substantial collateral damage, and he couldn't confirm whether or not there were still civilians in the area who hadn't been able to get out since Naruto began his rampage.
A Kiri or Iwa nin might not have cared and gone through with the devastation, but Konoha had a public image to protect, handicap or not.
That meant he would have to keep things localized, and ensure that Zabuza did the same.
Beads of sweat began to accumulate on his brow as his mind raced through every possibility. The mist's humidity was causing him to feel a bit hazy, which wasn't all that surprising – in fact, if the mercenaries had kept up their charge, this would've been a boon to him and his squad.
"Zabuza!" he called out. "They're not going to fall for the mist anymore. Best take it down," he observed.
He heard a soft, disgruntled grunt, before his eyesight began improving, until he could see the bodies of his victims on the ground once again, followed by hazy figures nearby, and finally the buildings and mob of mercenaries waiting about twelve meters from the edge of the mist.
Within moments, Kimiko, Haku, and Zabuza rejoined him, all of them distinctly bearing spatters of blood on their clothing. None of it seemed theirs, either.
"Only three, Kakashi?" Zabuza growled in what seemed like a mix of irritation and amusement. "You're getting soft."
"Someone had to keep an eye on Naruto-sama, you thick-headed brute," Kimiko sneered.
The glare Zabuza shot her could've melted ice. "Ah? You want a go, bitch?" he snarled.
"Knock it off, you two," Kakashi stepped in then. They couldn't afford arguments right now, not with Gato still looking so confident. Anyone else, and Kakashi would've called it hubris, but the man gave off a vibe that said he wasn't as stupid as he looked. "Focus that anger on the one who really matters."
Both Kimiko and Zabuza exchanged a hateful glance before turning their attention forward, weapons ready. "Gato," they agreed, almost in unison.
"Thank you for that, Hatake-san," Kakashi heard Zabuza's assistant say softly. "This is hardly an opportune moment to settle any grudges."
Kakashi nodded in acknowledgement before eyeing the rest of their surroundings. The mob at their back seemed to have thinned the most, while the one in front seemed grimly determined. In both cases, it seemed as though their center had become remarkably more sparse, but he had no doubts this was just bait.
"They're baiting us to move, to charge head on," he observed. "I'll bet you anything they've taken over those buildings on the flanks and are lying in ambush."
Zabuza growled. "You know, these infantile tactics are starting to piss me off," the missing nin said, glaring at his foes. "Treating us like common grunts. I've got half a mind to lay waste to the town!"
Judging from Kimiko's expression, Kakashi surmised that she felt quite similar.
Unfortunately, collateral damage was something Konoha tried to avoid at all costs. It came with the whole "good guy" image they'd been trying to sell to the general public. As such, it was absolutely necessary to exhaust all other possible options before going nuts.
Fortunately, he wasn't considered one of the smartest shinobi in Konoha for nothing.
"We don't need to play their game," he told his comrades, rubbing his shoulder. "Just keep them busy for a little while longer."
Kimiko eyed him with a narrowed gaze before nodding, followed by Haku. Zabuza was far less obliging.
"What the hell's crawling up your sleeve, Kakashi?" he asked, that feral gleam in his eyes returning.
Kakashi kept his gaze fixed upon the enemies to his front. "Just a little surprise."
Well, as far as Naruto could tell, his rampage was over with.
That was the good news.
The bad news, on the other hand, was somewhat more precarious — even if he was done being a small force of doom and destruction, he still couldn't seem to wake up. He eyed the open pipe that had funneled the Kyuubi's chakra before, and saw it had actually disappeared, revealing only a flat surface where once there had been a ditch.
Looking behind him, he saw the endless expanse of the sewer tunnel he seemed to be stuck in. He had tried to walk, then run down its length as far as he could, in the hopes of finding an exit of some kind, but nothing had worked. The moment he turned back to look at the cage, he found himself standing no more than a dozen meters from its gigantic bars, the Kyuubi looking quite bemused by his futile escape attempts.
Naruto closed his eyes and tightened his fists as he remained hunched over, breathing deeply as he ended his latest escape attempt. The Kyuubi's snide remarks weren't helping, of course, and he was sure it knew as much. It never passed up a chance to belittle him, after all.
"Not appreciating the snark there, hairball," he said irritably.
Another throaty chuckle from the giant fox monster thing.
Well, if he hadn't been sure before, he certainly was now.
"How about helping me out of this hole, instead of flapping your gums?" he snapped, looking back at the Kyuubi, who merely shifted in an attempt to get comfortable.
The giant fox monster snorted, which just seemed wrong to Naruto. Giant monsters shouldn't snort. They should destroy, ravage stuff, and eventually get taken down by the gallant hero...but they shouldn't snort.
And rob myself of the first instance of amusement I have had in decades? I think not.
Great, so now he was the world's largest allergy menace's personal amusement. Somehow, that actually ticked him off more than actually being stuck in this place.
"You think this is funny, jackass?" he challenged, stepping closer to the cage. "If I don't get out of here, we're both screwed!"
An amused growl answered him. Oh? Please, enlighten me, jailer. How could my situation possibly get any worse?
Naruto stared at the fox for a moment, actually a bit stumped. As far as he knew, there may not actually be any way for the beast's situation to get worse, save for…
"You could be dead," he said, managing to stay oddly calm. He didn't know where he'd got the willpower to keep his infamous temper in check, but he was glad for it. "Neither of us knows what's going on anymore, right?"
Silence answered him. For once, the fox's expression betrayed nothing but cool contemplation. It seemed as though Naruto's words had managed to get through to him.
"Considering I've actually managed to shut you up, I'm going to go with a yes on that end," Naruto quipped, before pointing towards the unending tunnel behind him. "So right now, how do you know no one's trying to kill us? Or capture us?" he quickly added, that particular dimension not really striking him until right now. "What if I wake up, and we're forced to act like someone's attack dog?"
I AM THE KYUUBI, MAGGOT! I AM NO ONE'S DOG!
The monster's furious roar almost killed Naruto's hearing, until he realized that he wasn't actually a physical person right now, and was therefore immune to such wounds in here. However, he was pleased to see he'd managed to hit a sore spot. Perhaps the fox monster hated being compared to a common canine, or perhaps it was just a point of pride. Whatever the case, Naruto was happy to exploit it.
"Then help me get out of here, before that becomes a very probable reality!" he argued. "You obviously know more about this place than I do! So how about you drop the asshole routine and help me find a way out?"
The Kyuubi's glare, had it been a physical force, would've likely vaporized him. However, behind that rage, he saw its monstrous intelligence hard at work, until finally its lips curled into a feral smile.
Manipulating me to your own gains? There might be hope for you yet…
The beast chuckled as it curled up again on the floor, apparently once again ready to nap.
"Hey! Didn't we just agree to helping me get out of here?!" Naruto demanded.
Quiet, jailer. Naruto froze, seeing the Kyuubi's golden eyes trained on him. I made no such promise.
The fox then chuckled. However, I have never been so amused by a measly little human maggot. So consider this a one time boon.
The fox brought out a limb and pointed a claw at him. This place is not some random location, jailer. It is an alternate reality formed of your chakra and mine, linking our minds together. What you see is but a meager reflection of our relationship. The more hatred we feel towards one another, the worse the surroundings.
Naruto looked around him and, given that the place looked like a sewer, had a fair guess about how badly the mutual hate was. He hadn't even been aware of it right until the fox threw it in his face.
"So how do I get out?" he asked impatiently.
Patience. The Kyuubi seemed to be enjoying drawing this out. As this place is a link of our minds, then our minds control our ability to leave this reality. At least, that would be the case for myself, were it not for this DAMNABLE SEAL!
The increase in hostility was swiftly accompanied by a swipe of its tails against the bars, which reverberated, but otherwise stood firm.
"Haha, sucks to be you," Naruto mocked childishly.
The glare was back, but the Kyuubi managed to keep it in check this time, as it merely stared at him hatefully.
In your case, however, your ability to leave is directly related to your state of mind. The more you give in to anguish, to hatred, to vengeance, to bloodlust...the easier you will slip into this place, and the more willing you will become in freeing me.
Naruto was about to protest, until he remembered what had happened when he'd "released his senses," so to speak. He had almost released the Kyuubi then.
"So either I become a monk, or I risk losing control. Gotcha," Naruto summed up skeptically.
Silence, before I change my mind! the beast snapped, before lowering its head onto its paws again. As I was saying, if negative emotions anchor you here, then the opposite must be true. You are still here simply because, whatever little speech you gave yourself, there is….a part of you holding you back.
Naruto cocked his head to the side, completely baffled by this concept. Another side to him? That's crazy. He was fully in control of his feelings now, and he was all about kicking Gato's ass as payback, and then getting himself some ramen. Why? Because ramen was the food for champions.
"I don't get it," he said bluntly.
The Kyuubi rolled its eyes, clearly unimpressed by the statement. It was oddly unsettling to see the gigantic force of nature act in such a human fashion.
I am unsurprised. Your intelligence leaves a lot to be desired.
However, as you've managed to convince me — a small miracle by itself — we both benefit if you survive this ordeal and remain with the maggots from your village. Therefore, I will try to lower my vocabulary to your standards.
The giant fox shifted again and brought out a claw to point at him. You think you have accepted yourself, your flaws, your responsibilities...but you are kidding yourself. There is a part of you that remains terrified of all of it, and that is why you remain here, with me, rather than out there, with the other maggots.
Naruto stared at the Kyuubi silently for a while, unwilling to betray the internal debate raging within. Was the fox right? Was he keeping himself in here, just to avoid dealing with all the crap waiting for him out there?
His knee jerk reaction was to tell off the Kyuubi and go on about how he was unstoppable, but this recent experience had tamed his wild spirit just a bit. Enough to reflect on another's words, even if they weren't what he wanted to hear.
If he was completely honest with himself, then, he had to concede that perhaps the giant furball had a point. As determined as he'd been to get out there and kick ass and eat ramen, he still felt something holding him back. Something intangible.
"I'm afraid to fail," he said softly, clutching at his black shirt.
The Kyuubi let out a soft, throaty growl. You begin to understand, but you are not yet there, it conceded, before turning its attention to the tunnel behind Naruto. Yet it seems even this small measure of self-reflection has been enough. Your way is open, jailer.
Naruto turned to look at whatever had caught the Kyuubi's attention, and a small smile grew on his face as he observed a door materialize not too far. "A door, huh?" he mused. "How cheesy."
Simple things from a simple mind, the Kyuubi snorted. Leave now, jailer, and thank your gods that this meeting ended as it did. Next time, I will escape this hell.
Naruto turned to smirk at the Kyuubi, raising a fist in challenge. "Dream on, fuzz-butt," he declared. "The only way out of Naruto-sama is over his dead body!"
With that, the blonde would-be hero ran for the door, leaving behind a bemused Kyuubi.
If it comes to that.
"Really hoping that plan of yours starts soon, Kakashi," Zabuza growled as he pulled another arrow from his shoulder. It wasn't too deep, so he wasn't that worried about being significantly hindered.
Even so, Gato had proven to be one wily asshat. The midget businessman had pulled all his mercenaries back from the shinobi group and lined them up near civilian households, in so doing preventing Kakashi, and by extension the rest of the group, from using the most dangerous of their abilities.
A handicap they did not share.
Firing from all sides, the shinobi group was saved from a rather unpleasant time by Haku's incredible ice abilities, which once again drew a raised eyebrow from Kimiko and Kakashi. However, short of creating a solid dome — which would kill their visibility — there was no way to shut out every arrow, and sometimes these got lucky.
That explained the small cuts and gashes each shinobi wore. It also explained why Zabuza's mood and compassion was rapidly dwindling.
"Soon, Zabuza," Kakashi assured him, while mentally wondering what the hell was taking so long. He'd really hoped his plan would have kicked in by now, as he was having just as hard a time trying to keep the arrows from gutting either himself, or his comatose student.
"I really wish they hadn't brought shields, though," Haku's feminine voice spoke up then, the masked shinobi heaving a little in exertion as he kept up the ice walls.
As Haku had stated, the mercenaries, apparently having known of Haku's abilities, had brought out large, metal shields that were protecting the front line from Haku's icicles. The move had been a remarkable stroke of cunning from Gato, especially given that Kakashi had expected him to hire run of the mill mercenaries. Yet, from the looks of his foes, these seemed to be former soldiers and samurai. Meaning they knew how to deal with shinobi, to some extent. On any barren battlefield, that wouldn't have meant squat.
But in the middle of a populated area? Things became trickier.
"Little toad's got something between those ears, then" Zabuza growled.
"I say we charge, Kakashi," Kimiko opined, staring hatefully at the mercenaries before them. "By staying here, we are merely delaying the inevitable. We should send away Naruto-sama with a clone, and take matters into our own hands."
Which would've have been great, were it not for the fact that clones were remarkably fragile and unable to use chakra, unless they were Shadow Clones, and had a limited range of usability.
"Give it a little more time," he insisted. "We won't be let down."
His motley crew of colleagues eyed him skeptically — he knew Haku was eyeing him, even with that mask! — but kept their tongues. Only Zabuza showed his frustration by growling.
And then, just as Kakashi was about to call it quits, his own patience having been nearly exhausted, something blew up at the rear of the mercenary army.
"What the fuck?" Zabuza yelled, even as a few more blasts tore through the mercenary army, which quickly began to lose its cohesion as panic set in. "Who brought the fucking bombs and didn't say so?!" he roared.
Kakashi let out a sigh of relief, even as Kimiko did the same. Both Konoha-nins exchanged a look of tolerant exasperation before nodding and sliding back into combat stances.
"Don't lose focus," he warned the two missing nin. "The cavalry's just arrived."
A gleeful laugh broke through the air then, even as a gust of wind blew up some dust around the defending shinobi. All of them raised their arms to shield themselves, cautiously waiting to see what had happened.
As the dust died down, they were treated to a wonderful sight: a giant eagle, hovering just a bit off the ground. Three people stood upon its back, looking all too pleased with themselves — though one seemed about to faint from embarrassment.
"Hey guys!" Hikari greeted cheerfully, before jutting her thumb behind her. "So, is this a private party, or can anyone join in?"
Kakashi chuckled as he gestured to Haku, who brought down the ice walls. "Good timing, Hikari-san," he commended, before spying his two students. "I see you two are back on your feet."
"Hey sensei!" Kiba greeted energetically, seemingly recovered from his wounds. "We're here to save the day!"
Hinata just nodded in greeting at the group, mumbling a shy greeting.
Behind them, something else exploded, which caused Kakashi to raise an eyebrow.
"If that's not you, then who's blowing things up?" he asked the other Uzumaki clanswoman. Hikari grinned fiercely.
"You know how Gato's got the Daimyo in his back pocket?" she all but purred. Kakashi nodded. "Well, turns out the Daimyo's soldiers weren't that happy with the arrangement."
"A mutiny?" Kimiko asked, coming forward to pet the eagle. For some reason, she had always felt a close affinity to animals, even if she didn't seem capable of taking care of them.
Hikari eyed her clanmate warily for a while, undoubtedly remembering her last encounter. "Full out insurrection," she corrected. "They're calling for the Daimyo and Gato's heads. Seems they're tired of being used as Gato's goon squad."
"That's too sudden," Zabuza spoke up then, instantly putting Hikari and Kakashi's students on edge. "No way you managed to convince them out of the blue."
Hikari glared at the missing nin, before catching Kimiko's nod. Confused by the turn of events, Hikari decided to just let it slide for now. She was about to respond, however, when Kiba decided to answer for her.
"Wasn't us, jackass!" Kiba snapped, pointing at him. "And what the hell are you doing being buddy-buddy with Kakashi-sensei?!"
Zabuza glared right back. "Right now, wondering if it was worth it," he growled, his hand reaching for his sword. He was stopped by Kakashi putting a hand on his forearm.
"They don't know anything about what went down," the masked Konoha-nin pointed out. "Go easy on them."
Zabuza growled throatily, but nodded and put his hand back down. "My question stands: who managed to get those spineless cowards to sack up?" he asked.
"The villagers," Hikari answered. "They've risen up. Don't know how, don't know why, but it looks to me like our being here, fighting for Tazuna, really gave them a kick in the ass."
"Idiots," Zabuza grunted, before turning away. Kakashi glanced at the missing nin.
Zabuza snorted. "Love to, but I'm still one midget head short. I need me that mantlepiece."
The sudden interruption of another voice to the conversation stopped the party cold, as the shinobi turned to see Naruto slowly getting to his feet, looking haggard and perhaps a bit beat up, but no worse for wear. He gave his allies a tired grin, but eventually got to his feet.
"No killing Gato," he said. Hinata eeped at the sight of her crush being so beat up, while Kiba and Hikari were much less restrained, tackling him not a hug. Kakashi gave a sigh of relief, while Kimiko closed her eyes with a satisfied smile. Only Haku and Zabuza did not join in. In fact, the taller of the two seemed downright irritated.
"I'd like to see you stop me from getting what's mine, shrimp," he dared, reaching for his blade handle. Almost immediately, the atmosphere stopped being one of celebration at Naruto's reawakening, and one of imminent conflict.
Everyone's hands seemed ready to either reach for a weapon or mold into appropriate hand seals. Even Hinata seemed ready to deliver a Juuken strike at Zabuza.
Not that this would be necessary, as Naruto rose a hand. "You don't need to kill Gato," he said.
"Yeah, but it'd make me feel good," Zabuza said with a shrug. "It's a matter of principle."
"And what do you think the good people of this country will do to him when they get their hands on him?" Naruto asked. "He hasn't done to you anything he hasn't done to these people a hundred times over."
Zabuza eyed the blonde brat warily. "Then what's the difference between me gutting him now and these idiots killing him later?" he asked.
"Closure," Naruto said, looking pale as he gazed at the destruction around him. He had been the cause of it, he knew, and he felt sick to his stomach for it. If his memory served, this whole area had once been the backalleys of a town block. Now, it was a barren wasteland, with debris scattered about. As though a tsunami had swept the entire place away.
"Naruto," Kakashi spoke up, putting a hand on his student's shoulder. "I get what you're trying to do, but there is no guarantee that Gato will get a fair trial if he's caught by the villagers. Or even taken alive."
Kimiko nodded. "We have seen this often enough," she agreed. "The oppressed tend to lash out against their tyrants when given the chance for vengeance."
"Then we need to capture him!" Naruto argued.
"Enough," Kakashi said, tightening his grip on his student's shoulder. "Gato's fate is not our concern, beyond whatever fate Zabuza has in store for him," he said. "As part of our agreement in securing his help, I promised to leave Gato to him."
Naruto stared up at Kakashi, wide eyed. He seemed about ready to protest, but Hikari shook her head at him once, very firmly.
"This is the shinobi way," she said.
Naruto didn't seem ready to accept that, but stayed silent for now. Kiba patted him on the shoulder in commiseration.
"For now, we should…" Kakashi continued, before noticing something approaching them fast; one of his tracker dogs, Pakkun. "You're back."
The rest of the shinobi turned to see the small pug, panting but unharmed. "Found the old guy," he reported, much to the surprise of Kiba, Hinata, and Hikari. They'd never seen a dog talk. Even Hikari, who actually used wolf summons, had never actually spoken with one of her lesser summons. They just barked at her. The pug looked at the assembled shinobi, finally noticing there seemed to be more than before, before giving a very human-like shrug. "It's not good."
Kakashi eyed Naruto, whose expression turned blank, before nodding. "Haku-san, could you and Hikari go with Pakkun?" he asked the masked shinobi. Said person turned to Zabuza for confirmation, which he gave by way of a silent nod.
"Very well, Hatake-san," Haku agreed.
"Hey, why do I have to go?" Hikari protested. "I want to fight, too!" she made a show of winding up her arms.
"Because with the help of your summons," he nodded at the giant eagle which had been patiently watching the whole discussion, " you can get there faster and get him out faster, safe and sound."
Hikari pouted, but then nodded. "Fine. Alright, mask boy...girl...whatever you are," she pointed at Haku, then Pakkun, "and pancake face. Hop on and let's go!"
"Who're you calling pancake face, woman?!" the pug demanded indignantly, right before he was grabbed by the scruff by Haku and forced to join Hikari on her eagle. Within a moment, the eagle was back in the sky.
Chuckling from Hikari's offbeat nature, which successfully managed to lift the mood a bit, he turned towards the fighting around them. On every flank, the enemy forces had split into the pro- and anti-Gato factions, and it didn't seem as though the fighting was about to die down.
"Now then," he said calmly, lifting his headband to reveal his Sharingan eye, even as Zabuza drew his blade and made a few, stretching moves. Kiba and Naruto, reading the mood, craned their necks and stretched their arms, while Hinata and Kimiko slid into ready stances, Byakugan and weapons at the ready.
"Let's finish this fight, shall we?"
Zabuza grunted. "It's about fucking time."
Gato had a very simple motto for life.
Dream big, live big.
For the most part, he'd kept to that mantra quite faithfully. Despite being a native of Nami, then a backwater outpost of Mizu, he had managed to do right by himself by being cautious with his money and investing in all the right things. What had been a small fishing boat became a larger fishing boat. Then the fishing boat was worked by two men he'd hired to do it for him. Then the fishing boat became two, and the crews and intake doubled. Then he opened his own stall at the market, and used the daily catch to sell under the usual market rate, causing his competitors to go bust.
The wheel turned, and his dreams grew bigger. What was a simple fishing company eventually invested in cargo ships. At first, small ones, designed to bring Nami's products to Hi, then to Mizu. Eventually, his cargo ships reached all the way to Umi and Kaminari. Eventually, even the barbarians who lived further east had traded with him. Eventually, his trading business even included overland caravans, to the point where even the Tsuchikage and Kazekage had a vested interest in keeping his company around.
Money ruled the world, and Gato was an expert at making money.
So, all right, maybe he had dabbled in some illegal trade here and there. Blockade running for eastern warlords, human trafficking here and there...maybe even some drug and weapons smuggling. Who cared? He wasn't hurting anyone important, and the world moved on.
That was why, when he heard that Mizu was thinking of abandoning Nami to its fate, he had seen a golden opportunity.
His company headquarters had been, at the time, located in Hi no Kuni's capital. However, his shady reputation had caused some court officials to begin questioning his continued stay, even if his company's continued business was still in high demand. Therefore, he needed to find a nice, quiet place he could settle down and rule his company without any major interference.
And what better puppet than a bankrupt Daimyo?
So, yeah, he funded Nami's Daimyo. Sure, he extracted unthinkable trading and security concessions. In practice, in fact, Gato effectively ruled over the island's entire armed forces. All two thousand conscripts.
Pathetic, but useful.
Goons didn't need training to be violently effective, after all. As long as they knew where the sharp end went, and obeyed his every command, he didn't much care whether they were the Kaminari Daimyo's renowned Thunder Brigade, or some idiot with a club.
His calculations and plans were precise, far reaching. He oppressed the people of his native country, sure, but at the same time he had known to leave enough breathing room for them to have something to lose. Desperate people made for dangerous foes, while bonds made them indecisive, fearful.
So many plans, so much success.
The moment he had seen the villagers flank his mercenaries from behind, where he'd stationed the Daimyo's troops, he had known something had gone wrong. Yet, he hadn't been worried. Why would his soldiers be in any danger from a bunch of hicks with pans and rakes?
Then a small boy stepped forward and began yelling at them. He'd almost laughed.
Yet said laugh died in his throat when other adults joined him, and he saw the troops slowly change their expressions from grim resignation to resentment and finally, mutiny. He knew mutiny; no one who'd worked on a ship was unfamiliar with that look.
Naturally, he'd fled immediately. His mercenaries were accustomed to dealing with shinobi, certainly, but he had also taken the time to equip and train the Daimyo's troops for such combat, just in case he needed them to take care of Zabuza and other shinobis like him.
However, it seemed as though he had gravely underestimated their discontent at being used as his personal death squads.
Within moments of his flight, he heard the Daimyo's troops charge the mercenaries, an act which was repeated on the other side of the encirclement. The Daimyo's banners were thrown down, and, as he stopped to take a breath, cursing his lack of physical fitness, he saw the mercenaries completely collapse under the surprise attack.
And then he heard explosions.
He had given the soldiers explosives in order for them to have something to keep the shinobi at bay. Yet now, they were being used to tear his mercenaries apart.
Perhaps that was the exact moment he knew everything was over for him in Nami.
Even if he escaped here, even if he managed to reach the Daimyo's palace, there was no trusting the remaining garrison: especially once they heard about what had gone down in this town.
The Daimyo would be hung for his tolerance of Gato, undoubtedly. His offices and warehouses would be ransacked, and he'd lose millions of ryo in lost merchandise.
Yet he would be alive, and still quite wealthy. He could survive such setbacks, and indeed had backup plans for such situations. He hadn't built the empire he had by being some overconfident tool, after all.
Right now, there was a ship he owned docked at the town's river port. Navigating the rivers that criss crossed the island was the fastest method of getting around, and the prime reason he had been able to deploy so many troops as fast as he had. Therefore, he made a point of having a ship anchored at every dock in Nami to ensure that he had a way out if anything went belly up.
Like now, for instance.
He grinned as he saw, through the beads of sweat dripping down his face, the docks ahead. With all the commotion in the center of town, he knew that no one would be around here. Quickly, he made his way down the docks towards the small sailboat he knew would be there. Ideally, he'd have someone else manage it, while he rested. However, given the situation, that was unlikely to happen. Fortunately, he still remembered how to sail.
Jumping into the small boat, he quickly set to task in getting everything ready, not for the first time finding his small stature a bit of a pain. He was just about ready to set sail, a surge of relief building within him, when he heard someone click their tongue.
That wasn't possible. There was no one else around here, save himself.
Slowly, the businessman turned around, and felt his heart figuratively stop. Sitting, easy-as-you-please on the steering bench, was Zabuza, his gigantic blade hefted onto its shoulders, still dripping blood. The masked shinobi seemed a bit scratched up, and there were hastily crafted bandages adorning his shoulder, but no worse for wear.
"Leaving without saying goodbye, Gato?" the masked shinobi rumbled.
"Z-Zabuza!" Gato squawked. "B-But, the mercenaries! The fight!"
"What, that?" Zabuza nudged his head towards the fighting behind them. "It got boring real quick. Figured the others could handle it, while I had a real nice chat with my favorite scumbag employer."
Despite the situation, Gato couldn't help but feel indignant at the turn of events. He had paid the man. PAID HIM. There had been a contract, and Zabuza had failed to uphold his end!
"You were paid in full, Zabuza!" Gato snapped. "You did your job, and that was that!"
Zabuza's blade suddenly appeared at his neck, sitting just one millimeter away from slicing it open.
The masked man clicked his tongue and wagged his finger at Gato reprovingly. "Now, now, Gato. No need to get impolite."
"I thought...we had a deal…" Gato said through clenched teeth.
Zabuza nodded. "And we did...right up until you were going to sell me out to Mizu," he said calmly. "Or did you forget to mention that the moment I'd hit Mizu, I'd have Hunter-nin on my ass?"
Gato glared, furious at having been caught out. Yes, he'd planned to have Zabuza killed; even if his reputation was shady, Gato had managed to avoid the stigma of outright murder throughout his entire career. People didn't like doing business with murderers. Therefore, the only way out he'd seen for this little quandary was to silence Zabuza.
"It wasn't personal," he grated out. There was no sense lying; he could see in Zabuza's eyes that he wouldn't believe a word anyway. "Just business."
Zabuza cocked his head sideways, his gaze firm. "Yeah?" he mused. "So's this."
Zabuza's blade retracted from Gato's neck just a bit, and in a flash, all Gato felt was an instant of sharp pain, and blackness.
Main Town Square…
Kakashi had been through his fair share of battles. When he'd been a boy, he'd participated in an actual war. Therefore, when he and his students joined the fray, aided by Kimiko, to him it felt like riding a bike — you could go out of practice for a bit, but once you got started, you fell right back into old habits.
Keeping his steps fluid, he used his kunai to slice his way through the enemy ranks with astonishing speed, making sure never to stop for too long anywhere, to prevent what few archers remained to get a clear shot.
More often than not, however, he was forced to cover for his students, who despite their advanced skills — compared to the average Genin, that is — were still acting rashly and showboating more than was wise.
Fortunately, he didn't see them kill anyone yet, so he supposed that was a plus. The first kill was always hardest, and the younger the killer was, the more screwed up their minds became, if not treated fast enough. He knew; he'd been there.
Though, as previously stated, he hadn't seen Kiba, Hinata, or Naruto kill anyone yet. Hurt, yes; in fact, he was sure a few would never walk straight ever again, or be able to reproduce; but kill? Nah.
Kimiko was another story entirely, however. The redheaded young woman tore through the mercenary forces like an infuriated angel unleashed. Her twin spears skewered, slashed, and tore with almost reckless abandon, were it not for the calculated movements he realized were behind them.
An arrow had once nearly reached him, and in the middle of an upward slash, Kimiko had flipped her grip on one of her spears, locked onto the offending archer, and thrown the spear so powerfully that the man flew for a few meters before falling out of sight, the spear embedded in him.
Fortunately for his peace of mind, however, the battle quickly resolved itself. Without Gato around to harden their resolve with promise of money, the mercenaries, who probably valued their lives over any contract, began to lay down their arms, to the rising cheers of the mutinous soldiers and rebelling villagers.
But while his students joined in with the cheering, especially when Inari finally found Naruto and begged for his forgiveness for acting like a brat, Kakashi's attention was almost immediately redirected towards an incoming eagle.
After making sure the army archers wouldn't fire, Kakashi walked over to the middle of the square, where the eagle landed. Pakkun quickly hopped off, followed by three more people: Haku, Hikari, and Tazuna.
Except Tazuna wasn't walking, or hopping, or anything. Tazuna was currently being laid on the ground by Haku and Hikari, the latter of whom looked grim.
"He's alive?" he asked as he came near.
"Barely," Hikari informed him. "It's...bad, Kakashi," she admitted, seeing the celebrations start to die down around them, probably out of curiosity over what was happening. "If Sora was here, then maybe…"
She looked away, though Kakashi could spy a few tears forming at the corner of her eyes.
He drew nearer and knelt by Tazuna, whose breathing was incredibly shallow. Eyeing the rest of the bridge builder's body, he spied the three areas where the arrows had hit him. Rather than being clean wounds, however, it would appear as though Naruto's rampage had basically caused the wounds to worsen. There was no medical craft short of a trained healer that could save him now.
Kakashi's eyes widened, realizing he had forgotten about his students. Turning, he held up a hand. "Hinata, Kiba, Naruto! Stay there!" he ordered.
"What's going on?" Kiba demanded, pointing to his nose. "I smell blood!"
"S-Sensei?" Hinata asked softly, feeling rather anxious at the way her teacher was acting. What could rattle such a seasoned warrior, after all?
"Just...stay there!" Kakashi insisted, before turning to Hikari. "We've got to get him out of here. This isn't the place for—"
"It's the old man, isn't it?" Naruto asked suddenly.
Kakashi closed his eyes, cut in mid sentence, and cursed softly as he heard Hinata gasp and Kiba swear. Then, moments later, the situation worsened.
Well, if he'd wanted to spare Inari of the trauma of seeing his grandfather die in this state, he had now utterly failed on that end as well.
A shot blur quickly reached Tazuna's other side and looked down at the dying man with tears rapidly forming. Inari grabbed his grandfather's arm and shook it. "Grandpa! Wake up!" he begged. "C'mon, grandpa! Y-You can't...c-can't…"
Whatever else the boy wanted to say was lost in his sobs as he latched onto his grandfather's arm.
"Don't leave me..." the boy sobbed.
Kakashi turned his gaze downward, intellectually knowing that he was not responsible for Tazuna's death, but somehow emotionally feeling guilty as hell. He heard Hinata cry softly, while Kiba was sniffing quite intermittently. Naruto, for his part, just looked down. Perhaps, instinctually, the boy knew that his rampage had likely sealed the man's fate.
"Kakashi," Hikari said softly.
The veteran jounin looked up and saw that all around them, men and women from the village and the Daimyo's troops had come near and were similarly mourning Tazuna's fate. The soldiers, less familiar with the man, closed their eyes and bowed their heads in respect.
"Inari," a man spoke up, walking up to the weeping boy and gently laying hands on his shoulders. "I'm sorry, my boy."
Inari just wept on, still firmly latched onto his grandfather's arm.
"It's a damned tragedy," the man continued, looking at the bridge builder's dying body sadly. "But there's nothing that could be done."
Apparently, those were the wrong words, as Inari stopped weeping. "Nothing?" he asked softly, before snapping his gaze back up to Kakashi and the other shinobi. "Nothing?" he asked again, a little louder.
He pointed an accusing finger at Kakashi. "You were supposed to protect him!" he yelled. "That was your job!"
Kakashi looked away, knowing the boy had a point. Yet, even if that was the case, he also intellectually knew that the situation had forced their hand, and saving Tazuna from public execution had been, in itself, a high-risk gamble. One that had both succeeded, and spectacularly failed.
"Inari…" Hinata tried, only to be cut off by the boy's hateful glare.
"No!" he shouted. "You lied! All of you, you lied!" he accused. "You said you'd keep him safe! Keep him from Gato! And what happened, he's going to die because of you! Because you couldn't just leave us alone!"
Despite his sadness at Tazuna's inevitable fate, Kiba started to flush angrily, prompting Naruto to put a hand on his chest, in order to prevent him from doing anything rash. It was a jarring change, considering that a few weeks ago, it would have been Naruto who needed to be stopped from lashing out.
"I hate you!" the boy continued yelling, and Kakashi could see the villagers' mood start to darken a bit. It seemed that, in the absence of another scapegoat, they were rather willing to blame the shinobi for the death of so respected a figure. Already, Kakashi made plans to get his team out of there, blades swinging if need be.
"I hate you! I hate—!"
In a flash, Tazuna's free arm had lashed out and smacked his grandson upside the head.
"Gran...Grandpa?" Inari asked, stunned at the sudden blow from his dying grandfather, and holding his head in pain.
Tazuna sighed, before flinching in pain, slowly coming to once more. "Figures you wouldn't even let me die in peace," the old man grumbled. He flinched again. "Ah, crap, that hurts...Jeez, where's a bottle of booze when you need it?"
"Tazuna…" Kakashi spoke up. This wasn't exactly the way he'd imagined things would play out.
"Yeah, yeah," the bridge builder said resignedly. "I'm super screwed. I can feel it," he said. "Ain't gonna live to see that super jackass Gato get what's coming to him, either," he added. "Pity that; would've loved to see that asshat suffer a bit."
Weakly, the old man raised his arm and motioned to Naruto. "Oi, brat, c'mere. I got words for you."
"Grandpa, no! He got you killed!" Inari protested.
Tazuna snorted, and then flinched. "Right, ow. As if. Damnit, Inari, where the hell did ya get your brains from? 'Cause it sure ain't from your mom," he remarked, before looking at Naruto, who silently knelt by his side, next to Kakashi. "You. You open your ears and listen good, aye?"
Naruto nodded silently.
Tazuna glanced down at his wounds, from which blood was slowly leaking out more and more. "This...this ain't on you. It's on the jerks who shot me. It's on Gato. It ain't on you."
Naruto said nothing for a moment, before shaking his head. "I should've protected you better," he said.
"Naruto…" Kakashi started, hoping to comfort his student, before Tazuna snorted, yelping again in pain.
"Ow, fuck!" the man cursed. "Yer damn right ye should have!" he said with a chuckled. "But what's past is past. You took down Gato; hell! ye freed my country. We're square."
"Naruto-sama," Kimiko said warningly. Naruto glared back at her, but this time, she stood her ground. "To refuse a dying man's words is a grave insult. A man of honor listens to one who dies with honor."
Naruto seemed surprised by the observation, then slowly nodded, turning back to Tazuna.
"You're...welcome, I guess."
Tazuna barked out a laugh before yelping again in pain. "Good lad."
"Tazuna-san," The Konoha shinobi turned to see a man wearing military armor approach the fallen bridge builder. Instinctively, Inari shuffled closer to his grandfather. Even if the soldiers had mutinied, no one had forgotten how they had done Gato's bidding for a while. The soldier seemed unfazed by the act, however, and bowed. "I am Jin, of clan Takayama. I lead these soldiers. I must ask your counsel."
Tazuna eyed the soldier warily, then got into a coughing fit, which sparked alarm in Hikari as she tended to the wound. "We're losing him," she warned.
Kakashi looked at Tazuna gravely, before glancing back at Kimiko. "Uzumaki-san, please take the Genin and conduct a patrol of the area. We don't need any stragglers hitting us now," he ordered as calmly as he could muster. He then turned to the soldier. "Whatever you've got to say, say it quick."
"Wait," Tazuna managed to gasp out, raising a hand to stop Kakashi from sending away the two Uzumaki clansmen. "Takayama-san, I am just a carpenter. I have no power over you, or anyone else here," he said weakly, his skin becoming deathly pale with alarming speed. He managed to feebly point to Kimiko and Naruto before his arm gave out. "Them...ask them...Uzu...maki…"
As Inari's yells of denial grew in volume, Tazuna gave a rattling breath before his head lolled to one side, eyes closed. There was a moment of stunned silence before Hikari placed two fingers on his neck and, after a moment, sighed dejectedly and shook her head.
"He's gone," she declared.