I am such a liar. "Indefinite hiatus" was supposed to be code for "dead and I'll never think of it again." Then Kurama just had to be awesome and pull Naruto out of a sludge of filler and remind me why I liked the series in the first place. So here you go: fruits of my fickle madness.
Kurenai clapped her hands loudly. "First rule of genjutsu," she declared, "is to play on your target's expectations. The same rule can be applied to ninja missions. Now, Naruko, what are Zabuza's expectations?"
"That those two barely-chunin twits would take us out?" Naruko asked.
"Probably," Kurenai agreed. "But we can't really work with that since they really aren't in a position to deliver misinformation."
"I suffer…" one of the Kiri ninjas moaned weakly.
"Yeah," Naruto drawled, deliberately not looking at the fallen foe. He rather liked being able to sleep at night, thank you very much. "So he'll expect us to continue to Wave or turn back."
"If I turn back, Gato wins," Tazuna pointed out.
Kurenai nodded. "Exactly. So Zabuza will plan for us to continue forward, since any other possibility means he's won already. What is he expecting?"
"That we'll cross on a bridge?" Naruto asked.
Tazuna stared at the blonde idiot.
"Oh, right, no bridge yet. So we'll fly."
Kurenai joined in with the staring. "Fly?"
"Sure," Naruto said. "How else would we get across the water? Walk?"
Kurenai was more than capable of exactly that, but no one else in their group could. "Fly?"
"I think he'd expect a boat," Hinata said softly. "He doesn't know we can fly."
"Oh yeah," Naruto said. "Well, the boat sounds like a bad idea. We should just fly across."
Tazuna looked to Kurenai. "I know he's an idiot, but isn't this a bit much? There's no way we can fly to Wave."
Tazuna stared at the water below as they flew to Wave. "I am not nearly drunk enough for this," he declared.
"You don't have to smell your breath!" Naruto snapped. "You're plenty drunk enough, dattebayo!"
Naruto was carrying Tazuna, Naruko was carrying Kurenai, and Hinata was flying point with Gentle Arc deployed and two area search seekers scanning their flanks. With Gungnir in standby mode, Naruto was easily the slowest flier, and he was always the clumsiest of the trio, but he was more than capable of keeping a brisk pace.
"At this rate we'll get to Wave a full hour ahead of schedule," Kurenai said quietly.
Hinata fell back to them. "The bridge is hidden by the mists, but it is…very large. Tazuna was not exaggerating its importance."
"Any sign of Zabuza?" Kurenai asked.
Hinata shook her head. "I believe he is lying in wait for us to reach the mainland by sea."
Kurenai nodded and looked over the island below. "We'll land a mile inland," she decided. "That should give us enough breathing space."
Hinata nodded and returned to her position on point.
Zabuza scowled at the empty road. "Haku. Didn't you bribe the rower?"
"And you told him to drop the bridge builder off on this road?"
"And he agreed?"
"Fine. Haku, go kill the rower."
As his accomplice vanished, Zabuza turned from the empty road and grumbled, completely missing the three specks flying overhead as he hid in the trees. "Fucking rower."
"Now, Inari, be nice," Tsunami chided.
"But mom, these people are all going to be dead soon," the little boy complained, pointing to the group of ninja.
Kurenai raised a calm eyebrow at that remark. Naruto scowled. Hinata ducked her head.
Naruko whacked the brat in the head. "What the hell is that supposed to mean, runt!?"
Tsunami grabbed her son by the shoulders and hauled him away from the ninja before he had a chance to respond…or get his brain to stop rattling around in his skull. Pretty colors.
"I'm very sorry for my son's outburst," she said quickly. "Everyone who has attempted to stand up to Gato has ended up dead, many of them…" her voice trailed off.
"Publicly?" Kurenai asked softly.
Tsunami just nodded.
Tazuna sighed and gave his grandson a sad look before wandering off. "Whatever. We need to get back to the bridge in the morning. Tsunami, make sure they're comfortable or whatever."
"Yes, dad," Tsunami sighed. "Dinner will be a bit late; I wasn't expecting so many guests."
"That will be fine," Kurenai said amiably. "We need to secure the house anyway."
"What does that mean?" Tsunami asked.
"Traps, mostly," Kurenai explained. "Do you get any visitors coming through that we need to be aware of?"
"No," Tsunami said. "No one wants to risk Gato making an example of them, too."
"Right," Kurenai said with a grimace. "We'll leave an open path for you and Inari, then. Naruto, Hinata, get to it."
"Right, dattebayo!" Naruto enthused, running out of the house and already pulling a spool of ninja wire.
Hinata frowned a bit and followed, glancing over her shoulder. "O-okay, Kurenai-sensei."
Naruko gave Kurenai a look. "You know Hinata can't make a trap worth a damn, right?"
"And Naruto can?" Kurenai asked. Frankly she didn't expect traps either genin put down would stop Zabuza or the mysterious ice-wielder.
Naruko gave a dramatic shudder. "My master can be frighteningly devious. One time, he managed to get Nanoha and Fate wrapped up together in a big red ribbon and then tricked them into stumbling into the cafeteria on base."
"That's not so bad," Kurenai said.
"No, except they were both in skimpy lingerie," Naruko explained. "Hot pink on Fate, sinful black on Nanoha."
"Okay, that's much worse," Kurenai agreed.
"And apparently they were wearing the other's clothes," Naruko finished.
Kurenai blinked at that. "Did Naruto…?"
"I have no idea," Naruko cut her off, "but I don't want to find out."
Kurenai considered what she had learned. "How long did it take to set that up?"
"According to Naruto? Fifteen minutes."
Kurenai looked outside and saw at least a dozen orange-clad tricksters planting tripwires, pressure plates, and something green, liquid, and unidentifiable.
"Is it wrong to feel sorry for the missing-nin trying to kill us?" Naruko asked.
"No," Kurenai answered.
"Now, make sure you don't go outside the path we taught you," Kurenai instructed.
"Why?" Inari asked sarcastically. "You don't think those traps are actually going to work, do you?"
Naruko calmly shoved Inari off the safe path. "Think fast," she quipped.
Naruto hit the ground and covered his head. Hinata quickly followed suit, as did Naruko. Kurenai, demonstrating reflexes and intuition possessed only by years of ninja life (and wisdom gained from being around her team for more than fifteen minutes) replaced Inari with a log, grabbed Tsunami, and bolted with both civilians. Because she was running away, she didn't see exactly what was making the weird humming noise, but when she glanced back after a probably safe distance, she did notice the pillar of light shooting into the sky. It faded after a few seconds and she saw the genin slowly stand up and examine the ground where Inari had once been. There was a distressingly small hole filled with various burning chunks of log instead of smooth dirt or, as Kurenai had been expecting, a large crater.
Kurenai glanced at Inari and saw him to be slumped, glassy-eyed, and staring. His muscles were slack to the point that Kurenai was surprised he was still standing. "And that is why you should stay on the safe path," she said simply.
Tsunami stared at Kurenai. "He could have been killed," she whispered.
Kurenai scowled. "Naruko and I need to have a talk about impulse control," she growled. The girl was a loose cannon, too loose by far. It was probably from her source of chakra…which did not bode well for her continued survival. She, more than any of the time-displaced team, was on thin ice with the jonin council.
Kurenai was still mulling that over as they rejoined the genin by the side of the house, but shoved the idea aside for the moment. "Naruto, what the hell was that?" she snapped.
Naruto grinned. "One of the books was about this stuff called white phosphorus and how it reacts when supercharged with raw mana. We used them instead of explosive tags back…"
"Stop," Kurenai said sharply, cutting off any more spillage of secrets. "Why are you still using it?"
"Smaller blast radius," Naruto said quickly. "Safer in traps that way. Just don't look at it when it goes off, dattebayo."
Kurenai had to admit that was a positive. "And you just signaled our presence, and our use of traps, to Zabuza."
Naruto winced. "Okay, that's bad."
"Yes it is," Kurenai said dryly. She turned to Naruko. "And you, young lady, what do you have to say for yourself?"
"I thought that was one of the sticky traps," she said sheepishly.
Kurenai glanced at Naruto. He brightened. "One time I mixed a kind of tree sap with this green sand I found on…" he trailed off at Kurenai's glare. "Uhm, I mean, the sticky trap covers the target's feet with a green glue that hardens really quick, dattebayo."
Kurenai nodded. "Naruto, all the white traps replace with green, including this one. Hinata, you're on guard duty with Tazuna at the bridge. Naruko, you just volunteered to be Inari's personal bodyguard."
"What?" Naruko exploded. "No way! Why should I watch over that brat, dattebane?"
Kurenai grabbed one of Naruko's large ears and twisted. "Because you nearly got him killed," she growled. Her red eyes were cold and hard and bored into Naruko's angry expression. "What would have happened if I had not been here?"
Naruko's jaw shifted a bit, but she didn't open her mouth.
"Well?" Kurenai insisted.
Naruko opened up and licked her teeth, her expression showing a bit of a crack. "He…"
"Yes?" Kurenai hissed.
"He would have been blown to pieces!" Naruko snapped. "I didn't know!"
"And that makes it alright?" Kurenai asked.
Naruko folded. "No," she admitted.
Kurenai nodded and let go of Naruko's ear. "That's right," she said. "You made a mistake, Naruko, a terrible mistake. But luckily for you, there's no blood on your hands. This time."
Naruko winced. "I…I'm sorry, Kurenai-sensei."
"Oh, you don't get off that easily," Kurenai said darkly. She turned Naruko around to face Inari. "He's the one you have to apologize to."
Naruko's throat felt like it was in a vice. She stared at her own feet. "I…Inari...I'm…I shouldn't have done that," she mumbled.
Kurenai grabbed Naruko's head and lifted her up to look Inari in the eye. "No, Naruko," she said softly. "You need to do this properly." It was a harsh gamble on her part, but if Naruko was anything like her master, the shame of needing to apologize would burn the memory into her mind and keep her from such recklessness.
Naruko revised her estimates. She had just been a bit choked up before. Now her throat was sealed so tightly it was hard to breathe, let alone speak. She took a long, painful moment to get her lungs working and found herself really looking at Inari. He was terrified. He wasn't the one in trouble at all, but she could see telltale signs of shock and fear all over her face. Suddenly she wasn't seeing the rude jerk that needed to be taught a lesson. "Aw man, I didn't mean 'ta hurt you," she said. "It was a stupid joke and it really wasn't funny anyway. I'm sorry, Inari."
Inari sniffed a bit and nodded. "Okay," he said in a small voice.
Kurenai nodded and let Naruko go. "Good. You all have your assignments. We'll meet back here for lunch."
"The rower is dead, Zabuza-sama."
"Of course he is. Did you see the flare?"
"I do not believe anyone on the island did not observe it, Zabuza-sama."
"It came from Tazuna's house," the older ninja said calmly.
Haku tilted his head. Behind his mask, his expression was utterly unreadable. "A warning?"
"That would be foolish," Zabuza snorted. "They must know by now that we cannot be so easily sent away."
"A signal, then," Haku suggested.
"Correct," Zabuza agreed. "They must be calling for reinforcements."
"Then we must attack quickly."
"Our illustrious employer will already be sending his thugs to the house. We will strike at the bridge. I will neutralize the jonin. You kill the brats."
"Of course, Zabuza-sama."
"So, what do you think of my bridge?" Tazuna asked.
Hinata blinked. "It is a great structure," she said softly. "The economic gains after its completion will be significant."
Tazuna tilted his head. "Didn't expect that," he admitted.
Hinata didn't blink. "What did you expect?"
"Something stupid that a little girl would say," Tazuna said. He smiled and turned his back on Hinata to get back to work. "Good eye, kid."
Hinata smiled slightly and glanced down before turning back to the bridge and the surrounding waters. She was on sentry duty, after all.
Naruko threw a rock onto the water, watching it skip. "That's a rough way to go," she admitted. "But it sounds like he didn't break."
"It didn't help him in the end," Inari disagreed.
"And I suppose that's all that matters," Naruko agreed.
"Yeah," Inari said softly. "He died. Everyone that faces Gato dies."
"I guess it's too bad he wasted all that time on you, then," Naruko said. Her tone was still the same light, pleasant conversation it had been. That alone made Inari's blood run cold.
"What did you say?" he asked meekly.
"Well the only thing that mattered was himself, so all that effort to take care of you was wasted time he could have spent on himself."
Inari stared at Naruko, hanging on every word.
"I guess he was just a fool pretending to be a hero," Naruko wondered.
"Shut up!" Inari screamed. "Just shut up! Kaiza was a good man! A great man! He loved these islands and gave everything to help us! Stop saying such horrible things!"
Naruko waited for Inari's words to stop echoing. The silence lasted maybe a minute before the first sniff, and then Inari was just bawling his eyes out. Naruko sat down on the grass next to him. "Hey," she said softly, "c'mere." She held him close. "You're right, you know. There aren't any heroes. There are just ordinary guys like Kaiza who do great things."
"But then he," Inari started.
"And then he what?" Naruko asked. "He died. Does that mean what he did was wrong? Does it not matter anymore?"
"No," Inari sniffed. "It matters. It matters to me."
Naruko let the boy go and grinned at him. "And you mattered to him. So stop feeling sorry for yourself, hm? Find that something that's important to you and fight for it."
Inari stared at Naruko a bit and nodded. "Okay," he promised.
"Touching speech, freak-girl," an older voice sneered. Naruko turned around to see two rather unwholesome men with swords in hand. "Too bad you're gonna die."
Naruto carefully hid the tripwire and inspected his work. He decided the leaves were too evenly spread and heard a footstep behind him in the same moment.
Naruto spun around with a kunai in hand, coming up in a loose crouch. "Who's there?"
Apparently it was three guys with swords. Naruto relaxed fractionally; they carried their swords like clubs and had the posture of thugs who only knew how to beat up the helpless. Their sort was the kind to scatter if a C rank mage so much as looked at them. Idly Naruto wondered why they weren't running the moment they saw his headband. "What do you want?"
The foremost of the trio snorted. "Put the trowel away, kid, and we won't hurt you. We're just here for the woman."
Naruto glanced at the kunai in his hand and realized that he'd been using it for its actual use – a multipurpose tool – rather than as a deadly implement of death. And deadliness. They thought he was a villager.
He still wasn't entirely sure why they hadn't noticed his headband yet.
"Hey, guys look at his head. Isn't that a ninja thing?"
There we go.
"Yeah, I think it is," the third said. "Hey, brat, you a ninja?"
"That's right," Naruto said proudly. Now they'd run away and-
"Great, now we have to kill you too," the first grumbled. "Such a bother. I'll make it quick, kid." He started walking forward.
Or not. Naruto was trying to decide how to awesome his way out of this when he saw where the man was walking. "Aaah, stop," he yelped. "I haven't fixed that trap yet!"
"Trap?" the man said, stopping. He grinned. "So that's what you were doing! Not bad, kid, but you really shouldn't have told me which ones weren't working."
"No no no, you don't understand, oh man you're going to get me in so much trouble," Naruto tried, but it was too late. He hit the ground.
The man took one step forward and the air filled with some kind of white dust. He gagged immediately and coughed. "What…what the hell is this?" His eyes widened as he saw a spark somewhere in the haze and suddenly realized he was in a very, very bad situation.
The firestorm was short lived and only hit things two feet above the ground, more or less. Naruto easily avoided the conflagration but the mercenary wasn't so lucky. His luck only extended to Naruto being merciful with the outer layer of traps. Impressive as it was, it burned out too quickly to cause more than second degree burns to the man's face and hands, ruin his clothes, and scare him witless. He collapsed, unconscious but alive.
Naturally, he fell on other traps which quickly glued him to the ground and he was lucky to have fallen face up instead of down.
Naruto got up slowly. "Awww man," he groaned. "Sensei is going to give me an earful, dattebayo."
"What the hell was that?" one of the other mercenaries, the first that had seen Naruto's headband, yelled.
Naruto rubbed the back of his hand. "I don't have a good name for it. I was thinking the Super Uzumaki Fireball of Doom, but Naruko thinks that's too long."
The mercenaries boggled for a moment. "Oh, I'm going to enjoy killing you."
Naruto blinked. "You could just run away," he pointed out. "I'm really much too awesome for you."
"I don't think so," the man growled dangerously.
Naruto sighed. "Guess it's the hard way. Gungnir?"
The mercenaries glanced at the talking bracer in undisguised confusion.
"Set up, dattebayo!"
"On it, boss!" The orange gem quickly unfolded into a black, spade-headed staff with a larger orange gem nestled in the headpiece. "Barrier jacket. Set up, naginata. Drive ignition." As the mechanical voice read off functions they manifested, wrapping Naruto in his armor and long coat ensemble and elongating its headpiece into a nasty energy blade.
Naruto spun the weapon expertly and held it half hidden behind him, a stance that would allow him to quickly bring the spearhead into play at a variety of angles while sacrificing his defense. There really wasn't any need to offer a defensive posture when he had reach over them and they couldn't approach for his traps. He closed his eyes for a moment. [It's hero time, dattebayo!] he enthused telepathically, reaching out to Hinata and Naruko (and really any other mage within a mile or so). [Got a few civvies with swords at the house.]
Then he opened his eyes and swung Gungnir forward. "I need to finish this quickly," he said apologetically. "Sorry."
Naruko shoved Inari behind her. "Inari, run back home as soon as you're clear," she ordered.
"Bad idea, kid," one of the men said. "We got guys burning that shack of yours to the ground right now."
Inari gasped in horror but Naruko merely smirked. "My master's better than that," she said confidently. "There won't be a splinter out of place."
"Ooo, you have a master?" the other man leered. "Good, I like 'em housebroken."
Naruko put one hand on her hip and grinned at his lecherousness. "Like what you see then?" she asked, tail waving gently.
"I've bedded better," the man boasted, "but you'll be fun anyway."
Naruko only grinned wider, her body slowly dissolving into red chakra. Her grin remained, a black gash where her face was supposed to be showing too many, too pointy teeth. "Remember you said that," she said lightly." The amorphous light that was her body twisted into a new shape, a large, lithe dog-like animal with a too-pointy nose and ears. The light flashed once and Naruko stood there, a red-orange fox with black markings whose shoulders stood even with their waists.
Inari shuddered and tried to understand that this animal who stood as tall as he did was the ninja who-
"Inari, run!" Naruko ordered, unimpeded by the lack of a mouth that could possibly enunciate. She turned to look at him out of the corner of one eye. One red, slit-pupil eye that belonged to a demon. "Now!"
Inari scrambled away, terrified out of his wits.
Naruko quickly returned her eyes to the two mercenaries and bared her teeth a little more. Actually, it was a smile. "Well, I suppose there's nothing left to do but introduce you to my wild side," she said idly.
That was enough to break what nerve one of the thugs had and he took a step back. Or, rather, tried to. He looked down in horror to find his legs shackled by red light.
He didn't have time to look up before Naruko leapt at them, and his world became teeth, claws, screaming, blood, and pain.
And then darkness. Blessed darkness.
Hinata's first hint that she was in danger was a frankly irresponsibly large sword crashing into a purple dome exactly 3.1 centimeters in front of her neck.
Or, more precisely, impact was at 12.8 centimeters. The barrier had only managed to stop it at 3.1, buried deep in the chakra construct. "Defenser!" Gentle Arc announced in her typically mild tones, increasing her volume only.
Zabuza blinked. "Kubikiribocho should have taken your head off," he said mildly. He pulled the sword back as the chakra field faded, looking confused and, although he would never admit it, impressed.
Hinata jumped backwards. "Tazuna-san!" she called out. "Get everyone off the bridge! Gentle Arc, taijutsu mode!"
"It is to serve," the ring on her finger reported. Hinata's clothes changed to her jumpsuit and cloak barrier jacket, but no weapon or device appeared in her hands. She settled into a basic juuken stance.
"An unmarked Hyuuga," Zabuza said lazily. "Your eyes will be a nice bonus to my paycheck. Haku!"
This time, Hinata was ready. And her opponent was sloppier by half. She jumped away from the first handful of senbon. They were coming in from her left so she oriented that way, flooding her eyes with chakra. "Byakugan!"
The veins on her face and only just become visible when she jumped, another brace of senbon flying below her, from behind. She chastised herself for being so predictable. Now, however, she had a bead on her foe and the next senbon, a precision throw that would have taken her in the throat at the apex of her jump, bounced off a round shield instead.
Hinata had no intention of allowing an opponent who preferred to fight at range to stay there. 'Haku' was standing atop one of the bridge supports without any cover to be found, apparently convinced of the unassailability of his position. Hinata curled up into a ball in mid-jump and formed a chakra circle at her feet to kick off and jump at Haku.
She was surprised when a large hand grabbed her ankle and threw her onto the bridge. She crashed into the structure and rolled with it, getting up ungracefully. She had forgotten about Zabuza.
The former jonin smirked under his mask. "Is that all?" he asked.
Hinata didn't close in to Zabuza, and instead moved herself to be between Zabuza and Tazuna. The civilian was not fleeing quickly enough.
"Hmph," Zabuza snorted. "Just another genin, playing at being ninja." He made a quick series of handsigns and the water around the bridge misted. The fog rose to conceal everything.
Hinata wondered at that. Surely Zabuza knew the Byakugan could cut through the fog like it wasn't even there…but then she saw Tazuna stumble around. It wasn't for fighting her; it was keeping the true target from escaping!
Hinata was so engrossed in determining the enemy's tactics that she missed the danger to herself. She just barely dodged under the giant sword and recognized the chakra as some kind of clone technique, almost certainly a water clone. She summoned chakra to her palms and spun her dodge, pushing off the bridge with one hand to deliver a harsh blow to the midsection of the Zabuza striking her. The clone dissolved into water at the impact, spreading across its body like a ripple in a pond faster than a non-Hyuuga could see. The pillar of water shaped like a man without any intestines collapsed as a harmless spray in the same heartbeat, and Hinata caught herself, spun her legs under her, and jumped up to her feet in a single motion.
"Almost too slow," Zabuza noted. "Any last words?"
"How about 'surprise?'" a low, female voice asked. Zabuza spun around only to find that the support structure for the bridge had curled down and even as he watched, it wrapped around him tightly. There was a dark haired, red eyed woman staring at him dispassionately. "Zabuza of the Mist," she identified him.
"Hmm, good to be recognized," the missing-nin said. "But I don't know your face."
"Yuhi Kurenai," Kurenai introduced herself.
"Hmm. You're not in my bingo book," Zabuza said dismissively. "This will not be a challenge at all."
Kurenai raised an eyebrow. "You're the one who is trapped," she pointed out.
"Kai!" was Zabuza's only response. A burst of chakra flooded his system and the bridge untwisted itself, releasing him.
"You recognized my genjutsu," Kurenai noted dispassionately.
"Of course," Zabuza replied, bringing his sword to bear. He froze at the tickle of a kunai point at his neck.
Another Kurenai wavered into view just off to his side, her weapon at his neck. He glanced between the new apparition and the Kurenai he had been talking to. "Very smoothly done," he complimented.
Kurenai didn't react to the compliment. "You don't have the most recent book," she said simply.
Zabuza knew the truth in that. The Leaf jonin wasn't giving anything away, either. One of the kunoichi he could see was the illusion. The other was real. If she layered genjutsu, the real one was at his throat, and he was in trouble. If she chained them, then the blade at his neck was merely another trick. Layering genjutsu so that they would form clearly and survive a basic dispel without so much of a waver was an incredibly difficult skill. Executing a new genjutsu while being observed, without giving anything away, was equally difficult. Even for a jonin, it was unlikely to expect the kunoichi to have mastered both skills. So, which was more likely?
After a moment of indecision Zabuza decided it didn't matter. He instead looked to the Hyuuga and stared at her. She returned his gaze for a few moments, and then her eyes flicked towards her jonin-sensei. Away from Zabuza. Zabuza quickly flushed chakra through his body and repressed surprise when both Kurenai faded from view. So, she can chain and layer her genjutsu seamlessly, he mused. A dangerous talent after all.
Zabuza oriented along the Hyuuga's line of sight and spotted Kurenai. "Enough tricks," he said forcefully.
Kurenai hefted a pair of kunai meaningfully. "Even simple genjutsu cost you time," she points out. "You cannot eliminate Tazuna as long as I am here, and you cannot get to me before I place you in a genjutsu. You cannot achieve your goal."
"And the bridge builder cannot leave the bridge unless you get past me," Zabuza returned. "You cannot secure him."
"Then it would seem we are stalemated," Kurenai said simply.
Zabuza smirked under his mask. "Haku."
The young ice wielder launched himself at Tazuna. "Yes, Zabuza-sama."
Hinata jumped in Haku's way, palms swinging towards weak spots no normal eye could see.
Haku twisted out of the way and summoned water from below to absorb the blows he couldn't dodge. The bridge quickly became drenched in portals as Hinata splashed away the simple defense, and the two ninja found themselves at an almost comfortable distance.
"Hinata!" Kurenai shouted. She shifted her weight forward only to freeze when Zabuza shifted his own weight.
"Ah ah ah," Zabuza chided. "My weapon against yours. Let's see which comes out on top, without interfering." It wasn't a suggestion so much as it was a threat. Zabuza would not let Kurenai aid Hinata, but by the same token their stalemate prevented him from acting, as well.
Kurenai grit her teeth. "Your 'weapon'?" she asked.
Zabuza nodded. "Haku is the perfect ninja. Emotionless, ruthless, dedicated. An empty vessel to be wielded for another's purpose."
Hinata heard this and looked at the boy that faced her. "You have no feelings?" she asked uncertainly.
The face under the mask was as impassive as the porcelain that hid it. "I am a tool for Zabuza-sama, nothing more," he replied.
Hinata tried to remember her old lessons in demoralizing an opponent, but her hesitation cost her. Senbon in hand, Haku charged her position.
Their exchange was brief, but repeated several times over the next minute. In taijutsu mode, Gentle Arc drew more than enough power for Hinata's barrier jacket to be at full strength, which in turn was enough padding on her hands to parry the senbon with well-aimed strikes. It was not, however, enough to risk a direct blow to her arms, and so they would exchange blows where senbon would seek nerves and tendons and fingers would seek chakra points in turn, with neither finding purchase. Then they would bounce apart and the cycle would repeat.
In one such break Haku broke the tense silence. "What do you fight for?" he asked suddenly.
Hinata's stance loosened slightly. "What?" she asked.
Haku cursed himself for not taking advantage of her weakness, but he wanted an answer. "What do you fight for?" he asked again. "Why are you here?"
Hinata frowned. "I need to protect Tazuna-san."
"A job, then," Haku said sadly. "Such a weak motivation." Hinata didn't know what to make of that before Haku moved into a series of one handed seals. "Suiton: sensatsu suisho."
Hinata saw the chakra flood the air around them and condense vapor into water around her, then sharpen the water into senbon-sharp darts. "Gentle arc!" she called.
"It is to serve, hime." The ninjutsu closed around Hinata from all sides.
Haku frowned. No screams, no blood, not even a sound of impact. It was completely impossible to so cleanly escape the jutsu; it covered every possible angle except…his eyes rolled skyward.
There, hanging above him with a strange lavender staff in hand, was the Hyuuga. "Device mode," the staff reported.
Haku waited a moment before deciding that no, his opponent was perfectly content to not fall back down. "That is suitably impressive," Haku admitted. "I am sorry, Hyuuga-san. I will fight seriously from now on."
Hinata's eyes widened. Escaping into the air was a desperation move for her.
[It's hero time, dattebayo!] Naruto's voice in her mind filled Hinata with hope. [Got a few civvies with swords at the house.]
So much for that. [Zabuza and the ice user are at the bridge!] she sent urgently. [We need help!]
Naruto leveled his spear and surveyed his handiwork. One thug bound in traps, one unconscious, and one with a cauterized stump where an arm used to be, probably in shock. Good enough. [I'm coming, Hinata,] he sent. [Naruko, where are you?]
[Cleaning up some scum,] Naruko sent back. [Inari should be at the house about now. I'll make it to the bridge about the same time you do.]
Tsunami stared from the doorway. "What…?"
Naruto turned and gave her a huge grin that belied the carnage around him. "It sounds like they're focusing their attacks on the bridge, so I have to get there, dattebayo. Inari should be by soon, just make sure you don't open the door for anyone until we're back, okay?"
Tsunami's eyes were nearly as wide as the jinchuriki's mouth and she nodded dumbly. "How do you aaah!" her question cut off with a yelp as orange light exploded under Naruto's feet.
The boy didn't seem perturbed by that at all and turned to his spear. "You have the right spot, Gungnir?" he asked.
"Believe it," the spear replied emotionlessly. "Lock confirmation, ninety-eight percent."
Inari came into sight. "MOM!" he yelled. "Gato's men are attacking!"
Naruto grinned, even as the strange orange light solidified into a fuuinjutsu at his feet that seemed to radiate power upwards, tinting the air around him. "Already taken care of, dattebayo. And I'm about to go after the big fish!"
"You're going after Gato?" Inari gaped. "He'll kill you! He kills everyone!"
Naruto shook his head. "You don't get it," he chided. "It doesn't matter. Someone needs to stop him. If not me, then who?"
Inari shuddered. "No one can stop him."
"I will," Naruto promised. "It needs to be done, so I'm going to do it, dattebayo!"
"Teleport set," Gungnir announced. "Executing."
Naruto dropped into a defensive stance and his body dissolved into orange light. "We'll be back!" he shouted, and then he lost all form and the light faded without a trace. Naruto was gone.
"Inari, come inside," Tsunami insisted.
The boy looked at his mother.
Hinata was in trouble, and she knew it. In a mage battle, deaths were infrequent. Holding back was easy, at least until things escalated to the kind of full-power clashes Nanoha-sempai was so fond of. In a ninja battle, death was a spectator to even friendly spars.
And Haku's makyo hyosho was not a sign of a friendly spar. The ice wielder was jumping in and out of ice crystal mirrors faster than Hinata could react, throwing senbon all the time. And while Haku had stepped up his game, Hinata had actually downgraded.
The taijutsu mode of Gentle Arc was an ingenious compromise of efficiency and power. It was visually identical to standby mode but altered the internal components enough to process chakra into mana effectively and facilitate a number of defensive and utility spells. Moist mages would find such a low-power option wasteful and unnecessary, but then most mages did not have the juuken. Hinata used taijutsu mode for exactly what it sounded like; bringing her family's art to the forefront and using spells to support her in other ways.
Hinata had been forced to fly to avoid Haku's water attack, which forced her to activate Gentle Arc's device mode. The staff was a more intimidating device – particularly to mages that recognized the spell-launching platform for what it was – but it was nearly impossible to go on the offensive with the juuken while holding a staff.
Hinata glanced up and shivered at the sight of the dome keeping the sky away. She could fly, but had nowhere to fly to. So she huddled under a defenser while Haku tested the barrier with senbon from all directions. And it was weakening.
Haku launched himself into the air again and Hinata held out Gentle Arc. "Fire," she ordered. A lavender shuriken fired out of the staff and through her barrier at Haku, but he dodged as always. The shuriken spun around of its own volition to chase its target, but Haku slid easily into one of the mirrors and the shuriken shattered uselessly on the ice's surface. Again.
Haku paused in the mirrors. "Your shield is quite durable," he complimented.
Hinata gave a weak smile. "Not…as strong…as Naruto-kun's."
Haku tilted his head. "You're breathing heavily. This jutsu is exhausting you."
Hinata planted Gentle Arc in the ground and leaned her weight on it. "Yes," she admitted. "I'm not that strong yet."
"Then I will not prolong your suffering," Haku said gently.
"Shuriken storm," Hinata whispered.
Small circles of lavender mana formed all throughout the inside of her barrier, each one a firing array for a shuriken.
Hinata turned to look at the true Haku, the Haku her byakugan said was real. "Then we die together," she said softly.
Haku did not hesitate. He launched himself between the domes of mana and ice and threw senbon, hit a mirror, flew out again, threw more senbon. Faster, always faster.
"Fire," was Gentle Arc's reply.
Hinata's dome exploded outwards as her own weapons shredded it from the inside. She couldn't hope to control so many projectiles, they spun about wildly, randomly as determined by algorithms within Gentle Arc designed to turn the space under Haku's trap into a lethal blender of mana-born blades.
Hinata tried to dodge the senbon coming at her in response. Dodge. Dodge. The third grouping struck her shoulder. The fourth grazed her foot. The fifth she dodged. The seventh and eighth were flesh wounds in her arms and torso. The ninth hobbled her left leg, and she fell. Her spell ended, the shuriken fading out of existence.
Haku appeared in the mirrors, and Hinata realized she had dropped her byakugan from the pain. But he was hurt, too. His clothes were torn, his mask had cracked, covering his eyes but revealing his eerily impassive mouth. He was bleeding. "That was impressive, Hyuuga-san," he said. He stepped out of the mirror, a single senbon in hand. "However, you have lost."
[NARUTO!] Hinata screamed.
Haku raised his weapon to deliver a killing blow.
Hinata closed her eyes.
"Hey, what are you doing lying down, dattebayo?"
Hinata's eyes snapped open and stared upwards.
Naruto was standing over her, Gungnir at the ready. A wide wall of orange chakra spread out from the spear tip, a barrier with a round shield embedded within it. Haku's senbon lie in pieces along its surface, one fragment pushing its way back into the boy's palm.
"Naruto," Hinata breathed.
"Hey, Hinata," Naruto grinned. "Looks like I got here just at the nick of time." His grin became impossibly wider. "I guess that makes me the hero, dattebayo!"
Hinata stared, feeling a bit of a blush even with the blood loss. Relief, awe, and something she was too young to fully classify stole the words from her throat before she even had an idea that she should say something. "N…Naruto," she stammered out.
Ironically, Haku saved her. "Who are you?" he asked.
Naruto turned around and his grin became inexplicably menacing without actually changing. "My name's Naruto Uzumaki, and I'm going to be the next Hokage! And you!" he pointed at Haku with his free hand, "Are the guy who hurt Hinata-chan!"
Haku blinked under his mask. "Yes," he admitted guilelessly.
"So I'm going to kick your ass!" Naruto yelled. The barrier between them vanished and he pulled Gungnir back only to slash the weapon forward again.
Haku easily jumped back out of the weapon's reach.
"Naginata blade," the device announced. Mana extended the blade by another foot, and Haku barely had time to duck before being decapitated by the thrust.
Haku reassessed the loud blonde as his severed hairs fell around him and jumped back into the ice mirrors.
Naruto scowled and ran forward. "Don't run away from me!" he yelled. He plunged Gungnir into the ice mirror.
The mana blade shattered.
Naruto's eyes widened in undisguised shock. "What?"
Haku jumped from the mirror and threw senbon at the orange menace, repeating the same pattern he had with Hinata.
Naruto didn't have the byakugan. He couldn't follow Haku's movements if his life depended on it. He took three senbon in the side, spun to face his attacker, and was struck from behind with four more. That was when he decided on a plan B.
"Kage bunshin no jutsu," he declared, crossing his fingers and forming a dozen shadow clones. "Bunker it up, dattebayo!" he yelled.
"YOSH!" the clones enthused, even as senbon thinned their number. Between the mist that still clung to the bridge and the chakra smoke of dispersed clones, no one could really see what happened next.
When the smoke cleared, it revealed a box of orange mana. Five Naruto stood inside, each pointing a Gungnir at one of the walls of the box. Each wall had the same hazy look as a protection spell, with a round shield embedded inside. "Barrier wall," the Gungnir said in unison, "bunker formation."
Haku took stock of the situation. No senbon had embedded themselves in the bunker. In fact, the ground was littered with broken and bent needles. "That is a strong barrier," he complimented.
The Naruto grinned and the one maintaining the ceiling spoke. "You'll never get through this, dattebayo!"
"But you cannot protect Tazuna," Haku said easily. His image appeared on the outside of the mirror closest to the bridge builder.
"That's my job," a new, feminine voice declared. Naruko sprinted between Tazuna and Haku, breathing heavily from her long run. She grinned, raising her vulpine head and baring her teeth, claws digging into the bridge and tail wavering behind her. "Care to try me out without those fancy mirrors of yours?" she taunted.
"What is that?" Zabuza asked, taking in the giant fox.
"That is one of my students," Kurenai said easily. Inwardly, she made a note that Naruko needed to tell her what other forms she had up her sleeves.
Haku hesitated and considered his options. He needed to buy time. "What inspires such efforts, Naruto Uzumaki? What do you fight for?"
Each Naruto grit his teeth. "What kinda stupid question is that?" one of them yelled.
"You hurt Hinata-chan and ask what I'm fighting for?"
"What's wrong with you?"
Haku's lip twitched, the only visible sign of his surprise. "You fight for her?"
Naruto looked to Hinata. "All my life I was unacknowledged," he said softly. Well, softly for Naruto. "No one ever looked at me. No one wanted to be my friend until Hinata. She fights for me and I fight for her! So what do you fight for, huh?"
"I fight for Zabuza-sama," Haku said.
"And would he fight for you?" Naruto asked.
Haku didn't even have to think about it. "No," he said. "I am Zabuza-sama's tool, nothing more."
Naruto growled and the one closest to Zabuza pointed at the jonin. "Hey you! What the hell is that supposed to mean, your tool!"
Zabuza smirked. "Haku is a true ninja," he called back. "He's killed his own heart to be nothing more than a weapon."
"Thank you, Zabuza-sama," Haku said.
Naruto turned to stare at the mirror he had randomly chosen to speak to. It was, of course, not at all the right one. "Did, did you just thank him?"
Naruto shook his head. "This is so messed up."
"Ninja," Naruko pointed out.
"You stay out of this!" Naruto yelled. "If that's what being a ninja is, then that's the first thing I'll change when I become Hokage!"
"You will not live beyond today," Haku said quietly, and then he launched himself from his mirrors.
He had watched Naruto carefully. The center one spoke the most; that would be the real one. With each clone maintaining a separate wall, the way to attack was not from all angles, but to focus on a side. Deplete that clone's chakra and the barrier would fall!
The clone flinched as senbon hit his wall, two or three every second, for over ten seconds. He knew he had weathered harder assaults, but that had been at full power, not divided up the way he was. "He's focusing on my wall!" he called out.
"Hinata!" the real Naruto yelled. "Can you get him?"
Hinata stood up shakily. "I…I think so," she stammered.
"Great!" Naruto said. "Go for it, Hinata!"
Hinata forced herself to stop shaking and formed a seal. "Byakugan!" Her veins bulged and Haku came into focus again. Hinata held her staff in one hand. "Arc form," she ordered.
"It is to serve, hime," Gentle Arc replied. It bent towards her, top and bottom, and lavender mana strung the ends together. Hinata put hand to the bowstring and an arrow formed. She pulled back and took careful aim. "I will need you to drop the barrier, Naruto-kun," she said, her voice weak from the strain on her chakra.
Naruto nodded. "Tell me when," he said.
Hinata watched Haku's patterns shift in response to the expected threat. Of course, she was aiming through the wall under assault, so he was now attacking from above.
"Now!" Hinata called.
Naruto dropped the barrier.
The barrier that formed the ceiling.
Hinata bent backwards and fired her bow straight up. "Sparrow!" she yelled.
Haku had less than a second to react to the opening and threw a handful of senbon. The arrow was horribly off target, but it made a greater than ninety degree turn in flight, followed by several others, and ended up lodged in his hamstring just before he found the safety of his mirrors.
"Yeah!" Naruto yelled, putting the barrier wall back in place. "You did it, Hinata!" He grinned at Haku as he dealt with his injury.
"Hinata?" Naruto asked, confused. He turned around and looked down.
Hinata was on the ground.
She was bleeding pretty heavily from the senbon in her collarbone.
And she wasn't moving.
Naruto's world went red.