Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.
~~~~~~~~~~~ Konoha's Maelstrom ~~~~~~~~~~~
~ Chapter 7: The Demon of the Mist ~
There was something different about the air in Wave.
The cool, salt-tinged breeze was strangely refreshing. Even the colors seemed to be subtly different. Naruto had never noticed just how many shades of green he was used to seeing around him until they were mostly gone. The grays and blues weren't as drab as he would have imagined.
It wasn't that he liked Wave better than Konoha, but the newness of the sights, smells, and even the sounds was just so exciting! He'd never stepped foot outside the borders of the village before the mission, and Wave was just so different from Fire Country. Perhaps the novelty would wear off, but he was getting the urge to try and get missions all over the Elemental Nations to see all the other interesting places out there.
Naruto snuck a guilty glance to the side at Tazuna as they walked in silence.
The circumstances should have tempered his enjoyment. The threat of enemy ninja trying to kill their client, and them, should have been sobering––but that just seemed to add to the experience.
Naruto wanted to believe that he was just itching to make up for how unprepared he had been for his first taste of combat.
He wanted a do-over damnit! It wasn't fair that they'd ambushed him when he wasn't expecting it!
But while that was definitely a part of it, it wasn't all of it. In the midst of that chaos, underneath the anger of Kakashi's 'death', there was a part of Naruto that had been exhilarated. Sparring was fun––that made sense. Real fighting, with the opponents trying to kill them… that was fun too. That didn't make sense in any way that Naruto wanted to admit to.
Tazuna was a good guy who was just trying to help out his country. Naruto's doubts on that matter had been whittled away to nothing.
The man who had smuggled them into Wave on a small boat had been terrified of Gatou's men catching them. Nonetheless, he'd been willing to risk it for Tazuna's sake. The glimpse they'd caught of the bridge in the fog had been awe-inspiring. Naruto hadn't realized just how impressive the 'super bridge' the old man had been raving about would actually be. What he'd thought was prideful exaggeration turned out not to be far off the mark.
The mission had been a lot more fun when the client had just been a crotchety old bastard. Not that Naruto would have wanted to see the old man get hurt before, except maybe in a minor and hilarious way involving a squirrel somehow, but now he was actually invested in the old man's cause.
He wanted Tazuna to succeed in freeing his country from this Gatou person, who sounded like he was a pretty bad person. He also sounded like he was a cake.
Maybe that was the problem, and all his megalomania stemmed from the fact that nobody would take him seriously because of his name? Naruto could sort of relate to that, although squeezing the life out of countries wasn't how he'd go about dealing with it. Kiba, yes. Countries, no.
Naruto meant maelstrom. Not fishcake. Maelstrom. Stupid mutt.
Even though his desire to see Tazuna get mauled by a squirrel had all but disappeared, the desire for something to happen had not. Intellectually, Naruto knew that pretty much any kind of action would necessarily put Tazuna in danger. Which would be bad. But that didn't stop him from wanting another fight. And that just made him feel guilty.
In order to assuage his odd feelings of guilt, Naruto had been extra diligent his escort duties. He had a few clones discretely around them looking for ambushes, and he'd been leaving a few behind every once and a while to brainstorm about better ways to prepare for or react to attacks.
Kage Bunshin was so awesome.
They'd also been reporting anything vaguely interesting to him, in the hopes that maybe he'd be able to piece together their disjointed observations into an awesome epiphany like Kakashi-sensei had done with the puddle.
On that note, every puddle within a 30 meter radius of the group had been scrutinized suspiciously, just in case the enemy would be stupid enough to use the same method twice. Those 'Demon Brothers' had really jumped the gun on that trick. Annoyingly, Wave had a lot of puddles. A lot of water and humidity in general, really.
Naruto frowned as he stepped around another puddle, his clones having already checked it out before they'd come into sight and given the okay. Tazuna, Sasuke, and Sakura gave it a wide berth, eyeing it carefully, as they had with every other puddle they'd seen since the ambush. Kakashi didn't appear to give it any notice, but by this point Naruto knew better than to think that meant he wasn't paying attention.
Those missing-nin had been Chuunin from Kiri, so it wasn't an unreasonable assumption to think that they'd have been better off attacking in an area with more water. Sure, just because they were from Kiri didn't mean they specialized in water or mist techniques, but their Mizu Bunshin had been convincing and more durable than he'd have expected. Not to mention the whole 'we can hide in a four inch puddle of water!' thing.
It seemed like attacking in a dry area had been a stupidly hasty move for them. Kakashi-sensei had admonished them for their lack of forethought, so maybe it was just a case of carelessness or stupidity. But that just wasn't sitting right with Naruto, although it would make sense. They'd apparently been operating out of Wave, which was hazardously close to Water Country for a pair of C-Class missing-nin.
Next time, ask for all the relevant information, Naruto told himself. Kakashi hadn't mentioned how long those two had been missing-nin, and Naruto hadn't thought to ask at the time. The specifics of Tazuna's situation had been much more pressing. Now that he was reflecting on their competence, how long they'd managed to stay alive on the run might give him some insight into their skills. Bringing it up now would be distracting from what they were supposed to be doing––protecting Tazuna. He shouldn't even be dwelling on it in his thoughts, but he couldn't shake the feeling that he was skirting around the edges of something important.
Hey, anyone want to think about how stupid the Demon Brothers were? Naruto threw out mentally to his clones.
The message actually had more to it than that, attached concepts and thoughts that couldn't quite be put into words that gave it a more serious meaning than the words would imply.
He'd managed to make the technique a lot more versatile and efficient under Yamanaka Inoichi's guidance. It was totally worth the annoyance of letting Ino train the strength of her mental probes against his defenses in exchange. Naruto had been a bit leery at first, but Inoichi-sensei had assured him that Ino was a long way off from being able to make any headway into his brain. Plus, it was fun irritating her by giving obviously false explanations when she pestered him about why she couldn't do more than flail uselessly against his mind.
Ooh, me! I'll do it! came an almost immediate, highly enthusiastic response from one of his clones.
You know, I didn't mean that literally, Naruto sent back, thinking that maybe he hadn't gotten across what he'd meant to.
I'm taking it seriously! the clone defended himself, the message still tinted with an odd happiness. I found a bunny! He's so warm and fluffy and cuddly! I'll just sit down with Onigiri-kun and try and figure out what's off about those missing-nin.
Naruto rolled his eyes, amused and a bit exasperated. The clone was supposed to be running a perimeter, not playing with animals. And who the heck names animals they don't intend to eat after food? The damn clone better not be intending to eat it.
I saw that, the clone sent petulantly. You wouldn't be able to resist Onigiri-kun either!
Suddenly, for just a moment, Naruto wasn't walking beside his team. He was standing the forest, a white rabbit snuggled contently in his arms. A smile tugged at his mouth in spite of himself.
That's what I thought, the clone sent smugly.
Yeah, yeah, Naruto conceded.
One of the things that he was working on to try and develop with Inoichi-sensei was modifying the messaging technique to send full perception, essentially allowing him see through his clones eyes. It wasn't really working out that well as far as his end goal for it was concerned, but they had managed to get it to the point where he could transfer brief moments.
It was too limited and impractical for use in combat as it was, but it functioned well enough for a clone to share exactly what kind of bunny would sway it from its duties. It turned out to be not quite what he'd been expecting. Naruto had been picturing something quite a bit more like the rabbits that he'd seen in the forests around Konoha, aside from the obvious difference in color. The rabbits he was used to were cute enough, but they had nothing on Onigiri-kun.
He was fluffier, cleaner, and most importantly friendlier than them, perfectly ok with being held and petted. Rather than a wild animal, he was more like…
Naruto almost stumbled as the realization hit him. Onigiri-kun was a pet. That meant that someone had named him before Naruto! Wait, that wasn't the the important part of the epiphany. Well, not the most important part.
How did you find Onigiri? Naruto asked tensely.
He was answered by a flurry of images and thoughts. The clone had been utilizing its meager chakra sensing skills, and thought it might have picked up on something. While Naruto had gotten quite used to sensing traces of his own chakra, sensing others was still kind of hit or miss when he wasn't blanketing the area with his power. Mostly misses, to be honest. But the clone had thought it was onto something, and a rustling sound had led it to Onigiri.
Was the rabbit a distraction, or just a runaway pet? They were in the middle of nowhere, and Onigiri was just too clean to have been out long.
Code Anti-Orange, Naruto sent out to his clones. One of these days he was going to figure out what the opposite of orange actually was.
"Ne, Kakashi-sensei," Naruto whined, dragging out the last syllable until the Jounin looked over to him. "I'm hungry." He patted his stomach with his ring and little fingers curled inwards.
If he remembered what he'd skimmed over in the book that his sensei had given him back in Konoha, he'd just signed 'possible enemy presence'. Or 'possible indigestion'. He probably should have read that section more carefully. Well, with how ridiculously tough their trail rations were the other interpretation was just as true, if not terribly useful.
Kakashi's bored expression didn't change in the slightest, but his gaze seemed to harden briefly. He flashed the same hand sign back at Naruto with the hand holding his book, either affirming that he'd received the message, confirming that there was an enemy presence… or saying that he also possibly had indigestion.
Naruto definitely had to reread that stuff on covert communications.
"Naruto," Kakashi sighed in a long suffering manner, "can't you wait until–get down!"
Naruto shot towards Tazuna in a blur, tackling the old man to the ground even as his eyes tracked the spinning hunk of metal that was carving its way through the air. The air disturbed by its passing ruffled his clothes as it passed through the space previously occupied by the bridge builder's head.
The accumulated experience of perhaps hundreds of clones falling to Tenten's weapons had him instinctively judging the path of the weapon and snapping his gaze to where its flight must have originated. There was nothing there but a lightly bobbing branch.
An image flashed in his mind courtesy of a clone, showing that he was looking in the wrong direction. He jumped to his feet, turning as a loud thunk heralded the spinning projectile burying itself into the trunk of a tree, about four meters up, revealing it to be a truly massive sword. A tall figure landed on it the instant it stopped.
Something's not right here, Naruto thought to himself as he wordlessly brought a shocked Tazuna back to his feet in case they'd need to move quickly, drawing a kunai. He'd felt the force behind that throw, and it should have cleaved through the tree like it wasn't even there.
"Well, well," Kakashi-sensei said casually, his hands in his pockets. "If it isn't Momochi Zabuza-kun, formerly of Kirigakure. Fancy meeting you out here."
Between his casual stance and customary bored tone, the only indication that the Jounin-sensei was taking the new arrival seriously was the sudden absence of his customary book. If Naruto hadn't just been looking at it, the fact that the Jounin had stashed away his Icha Icha would have gone totally unnoticed by him.
Naruto was pretty sure that any situation could be judged by whether or not Kakashi had his Icha Icha out. If there was the possibility of it getting damaged, or even dirty for that matter, it seemed to magically disappear.
Icha Icha had been safely stowed away, so this Momochi Zabuza character was dangerous.
Even without that indicator, Naruto could felt an inexplicable sense of danger as he scrutinized the missing-nin. There was a part of him that wanted to laugh at the man's getup. He wasn't on Gai or Lee's level, but going bare-chested with pinstriped pants and bandages around his face wasn't going to be winning him any fashion awards.
Curse Ino for him even knowing that there were awards for fashion.
Despite the odd clothing style, and man standing with his bare back towards them practically begging to be attacked, there was still something distinctly menacing about him. Rather than try to capitalize on Zabuza's apparent openings, Naruto decided to follow Kakashi's lead.
"Don't do anything rash," Kakashi said, dropping his pretense of casualness as Zabuza merely stared at them over his shoulder. "I suppose I'd better take this seriously."
What the fuck? Naruto stared in shock as Kakashi shifted his headband covering his left eye, revealing a very distinctive red eye with three slowly spinning tomoe. Sharingan?
"So it really is you… Sharingan no Kakashi," Zabuza spoke for the first time, his voice deep and gravelly. "It's too bad I can't stick around and play, but I'm only here for the old man."
Sharingan no Kakashi? His sensei had evil jutsu stealing eyes like Sasuke might one day have?
Well, one eye, to be precise. The scar running through it suggested that it was a transplant, but that would make it bloodline theft. Sure, the Uchiha clan was all but extinct, but the research Naruto had done on kekkei genkei had strongly suggested that any of the prominent clans of Konoha would put the smack down on that kind of thing. They were damn protective of the idea that bloodlines belonged in clans.
Naruto chanced a quick look at Sasuke, who was staring wide-eyed at Kakashi. The naked shock on his face made Naruto wish he had a camera handy. So, the last remaining Uchiha in Konoha hadn't known about it… that didn't really seem legit. Sasuke's expression shifted into an angry glare as the shock passed.
"Sharingan?" Tazuna asked, his curiosity overcoming his fear. "What's that?"
"The Sharingan is the greatest of the Daidojutsu," Sasuke said, his jaw tense. Naruto could practically hear his teeth grinding. "It gives the user the ability to see through and defeat all ninjutsu, genjutsu, and taijutsu." His pride in his clan's legacy was obvious, despite the fact that he was trying to glare Kakashi-sensei to death so intensely that if he had the Sharingan Naruto wouldn't have been surprised to see lasers. "And that's only the beginning…"
"Hehe, exactly," Zabuza chuckled. "It's even scarier than that. The Sharingan can copy the techniques it sees. There's not a single ninja alive who isn't just a little bit relieved that clan of thieves wiped itself out. Most a lot more than a little."
Sasuke yelled incoherently, charging forward. Kakashi grabbed the irate boy's shoulder as he ran past, stopping him cold.
"Sasuke!" Kakashi barked. "Calm down, he's trying to provoke you."
Naruto didn't think 'trying' was the operative word.
"Surround and protect Tazuna, and stay out of the fight," Kakashi ordered, only releasing Sasuke when he'd completed stopped trying to worm his way out of their teacher's grip. "The best way you can help is to not get tangled up in this."
"Such a little hothead," Zabuza commented, causing Sasuke to bristle. He didn't fly off the handle this time though. "Unfortunately, those annoying eyes haven't completely been done away with… yet. To think I'd run into the legendary Copy Nin, the ninja who is said to have copied over a thousand jutsu… saddled with such a handicap. It would be a shame for a ninja of your caliber to be done in like this, so how about you hand over the old man?"
Over a thousand jutsu? Kakashi… legendary? Naruto was starting to think that he was still underestimating his weird teacher.
Shit. That meant that out of the three surviving Sharingan users left in the world, although Sasuke didn't quite count yet, Naruto had two of them on his team. How was he supposed to be a super awesome Ninjutsu Master if half his team could steal his amazing jutsu with a glance? That just wasn't fair.
At least Sakura wasn't out to steal his techniques. Well, he hoped she wasn't. The way things were going, he couldn't be sure of anything anymore. Maybe years of mooning after Sasuke had given her the Sharingan through osmosis.
"The paperwork if I did that would be seriously annoying," Kakashi returned mildly. "I regret to inform you that I will have to smack you around if you push this. Or you could just walk away. I'm feeling kinda lazy today."
"You're always feeling lazy," Naruto couldn't help complaining.
"Being hard-working might turn me into Gai. Laziness is the only proper defense."
Naruto chuckled while the others just looked confused.
"All this talk is boring me," Zabuza cut in. "I'm going to kill the old man one way or another, and it seems like I'll have to go through you first to do it." He kicked off the tree, taking his giant sword with him as he flew through the air to land on the lake in front of them.
Zabuza was in a position Naruto was very familiar with. Half a tiger seal held a chest level with the other half extended straight up. Naruto could feel the chakra pulsing outwards, and the coils of water frothing upwards around Zabuza in defiance of gravity illustrated just how much power he was shoving into the technique.
The roiling water seemed to burst into a blindingly white fog. The effects and Zabuza's announcement as he was swallowed up by the mist didn't surprise Naruto.
"Ninpou: Kirigakure no Jutsu."
The mist crept out from over the lake, the feel of it washing over him sending chills down Naruto's spine, as well as literal chills through his body. The mist was cold.
Naruto had been able to sense Zabuza's chakra signature clearly when he'd been priming the hiding in the mist technique, but now that it was in effect it was like Zabuza's chakra was everywhere. He could barely make out his team and Tazuna mere feet away from him. Zabuza's menacing presence loomed from every direction, and with the complete lack of visibility all of Naruto's senses and instincts were screaming of danger he could do nothing about.
Holy shit, Naruto thought nervously, with some degree of awe. He'd toyed with this technique a bit before deciding it was interesting, but ultimately trivial and supplementary. In the hands of a master, it seemed anything but trivial.
Was this similar to how his Konohagakure no Jutsu felt from the other end? However blinding his technique seemed, Naruto had always been acutely aware of where other people were in the leaves, but that had to do with his continuous connection to the technique. That wasn't a feature of the original mist version.
But who was to say to that Zabuza hadn't evolved his use of the technique in a similar manner? The missing-nin wouldn't be using it unless he could see through the technique better than they could.
"He'll come after me first," Kakashi stated reassuringly. His voice sounded odd in the mist. Not quite muffled, but dead. The sound wasn't traveling properly. "When he was a member of Kiri, Momochi Zabuza was known as a master of silent killing. He can kill so subtly you won't even notice until you're already dead. It's not like I can use the Sharingan perfectly, so be careful."
Ok, not so reassuringly. That was really, really not reassuring.
"Eight choices," Zabuza voice slithered through the mist. The timbre of his voice was soft, almost a whisper, but it was like he was speaking from only inches away from Naruto. His grip on his kunai tightened as his eyes darted about. "Liver, lungs, spine… carotid, jugular… brain, kidneys… which one should I go after?"
Each target listed was spoken with increasing glee, the pressure of Zabuza's killing intent mounting with each moment. Curiously enough, for all that it put Naruto on edge it wasn't paralyzing him with fear.
It permeated the air around him, promising every manner of death imaginable. It told him all he had to do to escape being smothered by fear was to die. Naruto relaxed as the murderous intent reached its peak. For all its weight it was fundamentally lacking. There was no way Zabuza could match up to the Kyuubi no Kitsune. The hatred of the Nine Tailed Fox had weighed down on every aspect of his existence. It had twisted even his sense of self. At its worst he hadn't been able to move, hadn't been able to think, and hadn't been able to be.
There was no way that Naruto would cower from a mere human when he'd stared down the Kyuubi and made fun of it to its face.
Ok, so the demon had been on the other side of a cage when he'd done it, and he'd apologized right after, but still!
"There's no need to worry," Kakashi said, turning his head to eye-smile at them. "I don't let my comrades die."
So Kakashi could be reassuring occasionally. Very occasionally.
"Liar." Zabuza's voice came from directly behind Naruto.
Before Naruto had even processed what was happening he was reacting. He spun around, back-stepping as he called forth several clones with a half-seal that had become second nature. Two clones materialized nearly flush with Zabuza's sword on either side, a third by the handle, and all of them grabbed onto it in an instant. The fourth appeared in front of him, lunging forward.
Zabuza backhanded the clone with his empty right hand, knocking it away. Naruto dashed in right after it, his left forearm snapping up to collide with Zabuza's upper arm to prevent a return blow as he slammed into the man.
Naruto's movements had been burned into muscle memory by countless hours of clones practicing, so he realized too late the outwards stab perfectly angled to bury itself into the neck of someone roughly his size wasn't going to work quite as well on someone who had a more than 30 centimeters on him. His head came up just short of Zabuza's shoulder.
He quickly altered his swing so that it stabbed up into the missing-nin's armpit, hoping he'd get lucky and not be deflected by a rib or another bone. Against all odds, the kunai sank in to the hilt without a hint of resistance. He must have managed to put it in between the scapula and the ribs, although the angle seemed wrong to him for that. He'd have to brush up on his anatomy later.
Zabuza glared down at Naruto, but he didn't look to be in pain or even particularly angry for some reason.
"Hi?" Naruto greeted, saying the first thing that came to mind as he tried to ignore Zabuza's cold blood dripping down his arm. "Nice weather we're having."
Wait, cold blood?
The figure Naruto had stabbed fell apart, drenching him in a torrent of damn cold water.
"Shit!" he exclaimed, both at the sudden chill and at being suddenly shoved to the ground. He twisted as he was pushed down, just in time to see Zabuza's giant blade blur through the space he'd previously been standing in.
The space that Kakashi now occupied, having pushed Naruto out of the way.
Naruto didn't have time to do anything but watch as his teacher was bisected right in front of him, a painful blast of memories letting him know that his clones had also been in the path of the blade. He'd had far more than three clones violently dispelled on him many times before, but apart from his mishap with trying to chain Kawarimi he'd never been hit that hard by their 'deaths' before. There was something much more visceral about experiencing second-hand death when the clones knew that his life was legitimately in danger.
Getting drenched by another torrent of freezing water broke his shock, Kakashi's water clone falling apart into water all over him just like Zabuza's had. When the hell had he managed to pull that off?
"Don't move," Kakashi said from behind Zabuza, holding a kunai to his neck. "It's over."
Naruto slightly ruined Kakashi's moment by coughing. It was the white haired ninja's fault for getting water in his lungs, so he didn't feel too bad about that.
"Why is it always water?" Naruto complained under his breath as he stood up. He shrugged off his sodden jacket to wring it out.
"Very impressive. You're definitely living up to your moniker, Hatake. You copied my Mizu Bunshin through the mist and switched at the very moment you were covered by the technique. Reassuring your brats to make me think that was still you while you were out in the mist watching me was a nice touch." Zabuza seemed rather too calm for someone with a blade to their neck. "But you just don't get it, do you? You'll need to be much more than a monkey with cheap imitations to beat me. Thinking you could beat me at my own game..."
"...was a mistake," another Zabuza finished from behind Kakashi.
"Sensei, behind!" Naruto warned, dropping his jacket under the renewed threat of combat.
The Zabuza in front of Kakashi tried to jump at Naruto as the one behind attacked Kakashi. The Jounin-sensei sliced through the one in front even as he spun into a crouch under the sword strike.
Inertia proved to be Naruto's enemy as the Zabuza his sensei 'slew' turned to water, still flying in his direction to drench him once again. He leapt backwards, too late to avoid the water but the point was to get some distance from the clashing Jounin so he wouldn't be a liability for his sensei.
Kakashi better drown the fucker, Naruto thought viciously. There's no way that wasn't on purpose. Three fucking times in a row is not accidental.
The fight was moving too quickly for him to fully follow. One moment it looked like Kakashi had a clear opening with Zabuza's sword overextended behind the missing-nin, the next he was flying through the air towards the lake. Almost directly between the two Jounin were Naruto…
The missing-nin's slight stumble to avoid some caltrops Kakashi had skillfully dropped as he was kicked out of the area probably saved their lives. Before Naruto could think about what he was doing, he'd jumped on Tazuna's prone form protectively, summoning a pile of clones on top of them.
The vast majority of Naruto's experience in combat was through Kage Bunshin. While they didn't mind dying in training, they much preferred staying alive, and they could be surprisingly competitive with their brethren. Consequently, Naruto had gained a lot experience in using chakra to reinforce his durability.
When Kage Bunshin sparred, their limited chakra reserves were an important factor. Barring a clever or spontaneous trick, the winner was often the one that managed its chakra better. While Naruto was accustomed to carefully gauging the timing and the area of a strike he would have to take in order to most efficiently defend against it, there was no way he could employ such finesse against someone so far above his level.
Naruto flooded his entire body with chakra, reinforcing it more than he'd ever done before. His skin started tingling, his muscles tensing, and his bones aching. The chakra cost was such that he knew his clones wouldn't be able to keep it up for long, and he was afraid that it might end up damaging his real body as well. Hopefully he only had to buy a few seconds for Kakashi to get back.
And then a charging bull slammed its horns into Naruto's side. That's what it felt like, at least. The only warning he received was the quick deaths of some of the clones piled on top of him, their reinforcement seeming not to have impeded the sword's path at all.
The reinforcement of his real body fared somewhat better. He must have only been clipped by the tip of the blade, and rather than slicing through his side it sent him flying in the air with blunt force. He was still gripping Tazuna, so the old man came with him.
They didn't go far. Naruto twisted so that when they hit the ground a few meters off to the side, he took the brunt of the impact. Several clones popped into existence around them in a defensive formation. Zabuza had ignored them, going after Kakashi. His attack had merely been one of convenience.
He was Uzumaki Naruto.
This physical body had only come into existence a moment ago, and its lifespan would be measured in minutes rather than decades, but he was still Uzumaki Naruto in every way that mattered.
Naruto stealthily used Kawarimi no Jutsu on the Boss in the shuffle as the other clones provided visual cover. The brief fight between Kakashi and Zabuza had underscored just how useful clone decoys could be.
"Ugh, my bones," Tazuna complained as another clone and the Boss quickly brought them both to them to their feet.
"Mine too, old man," Naruto agreed, gingerly rubbing his side where he'd been hit. Technically, where the Boss had been hit, but as far as his memories were concerned he'd been the one who'd taken a sword to the side.
His hand came away bloody. Luckily, the cut didn't seem too deep, and the ribs underneath felt bruised but not fractured. He'd had worse from Lee. It still hurt like a bitch though.
Sasuke ran to Naruto and Tazuna, followed by Sakura, and they resumed their defensive positions around the client. Sakura eyed Naruto's side, concern obvious on her face.
"It looks worse than it is," Naruto said.
She nodded, but didn't look very reassured.
Zabuza and Kakashi were on the lake, with Kakashi trapped in a large sphere of water. Naruto hadn't seen how that had happened. The mist had faded a bit during the fight, so they were visible even out on the lake, but the Boss had been too busy spinning through the air to pay much attention.
"Trying to escape to the water was your last mistake, Copy Nin," Zabuza said, his voice carrying over the water easily. "My Suirou no Jutsu is inescapable. I guess I should be glad that you had such a handicap, but to be honest I just feel… cheated. Fighting fair is for fools, but fighting smart can be so boring. Maybe I'll let you out after I've taken care of your pesky handicaps… could be fun."
The missing-nin formed a half-seal with the hand not maintaining the water prison. His sword had at some point been secured to his back. Water flowed up, forming a clone close to the shore.
"You think wearing a hitae-ate makes you a ninja?" The clone spoke as it stepped onto the ground. "You're not a real ninja until you've stared death in the face and stained your hands in blood. Coddled little brats from soft nation like Konoha don't deserve to be called ninja. It's not even worth the bother of learning your names if you're not listed in my Bingo Book… I don't need to brag about the bugs I squish. Or remember them."
Naruto's mind worked furiously to try to figure out what they could do. It kept stumbling on the fact that Kakashi was trapped.
That was bad.
That was really bad.
Zabuza may have gotten the jump on Kakashi because the Konoha jounin was handicapped by having to protect four other people, but it was obvious that he was strong enough to decimate the genin as easily as he was boasting.
So why hadn't he killed them yet?
"Back up ten meters. Walk, don't run," Naruto told the others, his anxiety easing slightly as he realized things might not be as bad as he'd feared.
Maybe Zabuza was just toying with them. He did seem like the type of guy who'd savor their fear, torturously drawing out their final moments out of boredom. But despite how much he may or may not enjoy terrifying his prey, Zabuza had wielded their fear as a tool.
Naruto didn't think the missing-nin had made any meaningless moves until now. The purpose of pressuring and scaring them before had been to make them even greater liabilities to Kakashi.
The atmosphere was not the same as then, though. Hidden in the mist, Zabuza was everywhere and nowhere. The feeling that he could strike from anywhere had all but rooted them in place. Now, the threat of getting sliced apart was quite clearly in front of them, monologuing about how insignificant they were to him.
If Zabuza wanted to toy with them, he'd proven he could be a hell of a lot scarier than that… unless that wasn't quite true anymore.
Naruto planted himself halfway between the Zabuza clone and its target, forming clones several meters on either side of himself. He used both hands to make the cross-shaped seal, not because he needed to but because he hadn't given away that he could perform jutsu without seals yet.
Naruto knew he or even the Boss didn't stand a chance against Zabuza, but the enemy was a water clone. He'd researched the various kinds of clone techniques after discovering how awesome Kage Bunshin was. He hadn't been terribly impressed by the Mizu version. Kage Bunshin had it beat on all counts except chakra cost.
Mizu Bunshin had significantly lower physical stats than the techniques user. Proficiency with the technique could lower the gap between them, but it could never be anywhere close to the real thing. Its good points were how cheap it was to use in terms of chakra and the fact that it could think on its own… to a point. The mental acuity of Mizu Bunshin decreased with distance from the original. Too much distance and it lost cohesion.
Naruto wasn't just going to gamble on just a theory though. The clone he'd killed had tried to jerk its sword out of his clones grips, but they'd kept it restrained relatively easily. That was pretty good hard evidence that he could hold his own against Zabuza's Mizu Bunshin.
"Ano, Zibuzu-san, why are you bothering to talk to us if we're bugs?" Naruto asked, his tone flawlessly innocent, thanks to years practice putting on a facade to deny acts of vandalism he certainly didn't perpetrate. He was an artist, not a vandal. "Do you talk to bugs often, because that could be a sign of mental instability. Unless you're an Aburame, I guess, but I don't think they actually talk to their bugs. Or even to people usually, come to think of it."
Zabuza's clone stopped stalking forward, glaring incredulously at the blonde. "Are you trying to piss me off, or are you actually stupid enough to forget my name?"
"Oh, your name isn't Zizuba?" Naruto said. "Sorry, I have a hard time remembering the names of small fries who aren't in my Bingo Book. Since I don't actually have one yet you're just going to have to bear with it Zabubu-san."
"Naruto!" Sakura hissed. "Shut up!"
The Zabuza clone stared at him in sheer amazement. "At first I thought the orange was just color-blindness, or moronically bad taste, but you're actually suicidal, aren't you?"
Calling Naruto a moron was one thing, but insulting orange was crossing a line. He'd been defusing the tension and trying to feel out Zabuza's intentions, but now it was personal.
"Your pants are pinstriped, you're not wearing a shirt, and you wax your eyebrows," Naruto snapped. "You've got no business judging me until you put on a damn shirt and regrow your eyebrows. And if you can't manage it on your own I know a guy who could spare some if you need a transplant." Naruto shuddered as his brain caught up with his mouth. "Actually, you'd make a worse bushy brows than a no brows… maybe a marker?" He grimaced. "Actually, any eyebrows I can imagine on you just make you creepier. You probably made the right call on that."
The clone went from being stock still to charging full tilt at Naruto without seeming to actually transition from one state to the next. While its physical abilities were much diminished, the degradation of skills was so small as to not be noticeable.
There was no wasted motion, no hint of preparation for any action. Just pure, explosive movement. Had it caught Naruto off guard he would have lost track of his foe, but Naruto had plenty of experience with faster and more skilled opponents, thanks to Lee's over-exuberance.
And then the Mizu Bunshin was right in front of him, snapping out a backwards kick. Naruto hopped back, his eyes instinctively focused on the foot still planted on the ground, using it to judge the path of the kick. He turned to the side, grabbing onto the leg as it flew past with one hand and raking his kunai down the length of it with the other. The clone couldn't maintain itself with that kind of damage, and fell apart into water.
A burst of memories and thoughts from the Boss confirmed what he'd been hoping was true. Seeing the brief confrontation from different angle showed that the water clone was actually a bit slower than he was. Zabuza's every movement had been efficient and lacking in all but the barest visual cues, so it had seemed like he was faster than he actually was, but he was slower than Naruto. Not by a lot, but maybe enough to actually pull this off.
"Write this down in your Bingo Book so you don't forget it like your shirt and eyebrows. My name is Uzumaki Naruto, future Hokage," Naruto said, grinning. It was fun pretending he was the Boss. "Except you can't, for the same reason you can't actually kill us. You haven't beaten Kakashi-sensei yet, so I think you're trying to scare us off because that inescapable prison is trapping you almost as much as him. I'm guessing you have a way to finish sensei off, but if it was easy you'd've done it already."
Zabuza chuckled, eyeing Naruto curiously. "You're smarter than you look, brat. More skilled than I expected as well, but honestly that wasn't a high bar to clear. I'm going to level with you; you're right, but figuring that out changes nothing. You can force me to deal with you now, or you can run and buy yourself a little bit more time to live, and if you run in the opposite direction of the old fart I might even decide you're not worth the bother." He shrugged, smiling mockingly. "I'm feeling kinda lazy today."
"Take the client and leave," Kakashi ordered sternly from inside his watery prison. "Zabuza is way out of your league, but he can't move as long as he has me trapped and his clones can't get too far from his real body."
Naruto at the Jounin in shock. "How the heck can you speak underwater! You are so teaching me that. That'd be a bit hard to do if you're dead… so I guess I'll have to save you."
"Leave. That's an order."
"Someone once told me 'those who break the rules are trash, but those who abandon their comrades are worse than trash'. If you die we might get a sensei who doesn't force all the paperwork on me because he's a lazy weirdo, but I guess you do qualify as a comrade. Even if you did try to stick your fingers up my ass," Naruto added, scowling at the memory.
Kakashi groaned loudly, putting his face in his hands. "Naruto…"
"The fuck?" Zabuza said incredulously. "There are rumors about Orochimaru, but I thought he was just a bad egg… and here I was thinking Kirigakure held the record for toughest graduation requirements, but suddenly killing your best friend doesn't sound all that bad anymore."
"Killing your best friend?" Naruto's gut clenched at the utterly casual way Zabuza said it.
"Kirigakure used to know how to craft its weapons," Zabuza said, reminiscing with an eerie grin visible even underneath the bandages covering his face. "The final exam was the only exam. A death match between academy students. The closer you were to someone, the more likely it was that it'd their blood you had to stain your blade with, their corpse you'd have to stand on to reach your dreams. That's how you train a ninja."
"You…" Naruto's throat choked up. There was something about Zabuza's words that rang so brutally honest that Naruto didn't even think the challenge their veracity.
"Not exactly… you see, when I was nine years old there was a once in a lifetime chance to train under Mangetsu Hōzuki, the man who mastered all seven of Kiri's legendary swords. The Seven Swordsmen of the Mist chose their successor candidates by picking the best survivors of the Academy Death Matches. There was one slight problem… I wasn't slated to graduate that year. And even if I was, there was always a chance that someone else might have caught their eyes… so I evened the odds."
The pieces were all there, but Naruto's brain refused to put them together. He knew where this was going, and it was not good.
"Devil Zabuza," Kakashi spoke up, his voice steeped in disgust. It was the most emotion Naruto had ever seen from him.
"Ah yes, that old nickname… I killed them all. First the graduating class, because they were the problem. I did it before their exam, to leave no doubt that I was better than every single one of them. Then I thought to myself, what if they had their eyes on someone not in the graduating class, or they decided to bump up the next class? It didn't seem likely, but why risk it? Plus, it was a great way to show I don't leave things half done. So I killed everyone else."
"Everyone else?" Naruto breathed out, his voice faint with horror.
Zabuza had dropped his menacing aura as he recounted his past, but the happy nostalgia in his voice was infinitely more terrifying to Naruto. He was talking about slaughtering schoolchildren in the same way Naruto talked about Ichiraku's.
Naruto could feel his confidence withering away. He'd scoffed at Zabuza's title before. 'Demon of the Mist'. He'd seen a real demon after all, so how well could a mere human pretender measure up?
Pretty damn well, it turned out.
The sound of Sakura vomiting set Naruto's own stomach roiling. Could Kage Bunshin throw up? It hadn't exactly been something he'd thought to test, and not something he was itching to figure out at the moment.
"Well, it was the only way to guarantee I got what I wanted… and it was fun. Oh, don't look so shocked. This is the job you signed up for! If you don't love your work, what's the point? If Konoha had trained you properly you'd have been smart and ran when I gave you the chance. Hell, you should be thanking me for dealing with this guy. And you," Zabuza turned his head to look at Kakashi, a frown on his face. "Not that I'm condoning that shit or anything, but out of all the kids you could have molested you had to pick this clown? Is it the hair? I think you may have idolized your teacher a bit too much."
"It isn't like… oh screw it," Kakashi groaned, massaging his temples. "Just kill me and put me out of my misery. I'm never going to live this down." He composed himself after a few moments. "Naruto, our duty is to protect the client. There's nothing you can do for me now. The fight was over the moment I got caught. Now, get the hell out of here. The longer you stay the harder it will be, and you can't be a Hokage if you're dead."
Naruto snatched the Boss's wet jacket out of the air, another clone having tossed it to him. He snapped it a couple of times in a futile attempt to dry it out some more.
Sakura was ashen, looking like she was on the verge of throwing up again. Sasuke looked about as shaken as Naruto felt, Zabuza's story having cracked his normally stone-like facade. Naruto could understand that, even sympathize. As much as it had horrified him, it had to be a whole lot worse for his teammate. The Uchiha had lived through the slaughter of his entire family. He understood that kind of tragedy on a level Naruto hoped never to feel himself.
Tazuna looked surprisingly calm. His face was lined by a bone-deep weariness, but his resignation was clear. The old man had accepted his fate before Naruto had even met him.
It won't work, Naruto realized. He didn't know how Kakashi was able to talk submerged in water, but he was pretty sure he knew why the Jounin wasn't drowning. One of the intermediate exercises of water manipulation was extracting oxygen from water. Naruto hadn't learned it himself, given that while Kage Bunshin didn't mind dying in general, drowning to death was a whole other matter. Water manipulation hadn't been a high enough priority to suffer through that kind of experience.
While he didn't have practical experience with the technique, Naruto knew enough about it to know that Kakashi wouldn't be able to keep it up indefinitely. Even if Zabuza did nothing but hold him there chances were he'd lose the battle of attrition, and with the way the missing-nin had been talking he didn't intend to wait it out. He had something else up his sleeve.
Naruto didn't know how long Kakashi would be be able to hold on, but he was betting that half an hour was a ridiculously optimistic estimate. If they pushed it, they could maybe make it back to Konoha in six hours; provided that the tree hopping didn't give Tazuna a heart attack.
"Those who stray from the path of justice have no courage, but under the wing of a strong leader, cowardice cannot survive," Naruto quoted the Yondaime solemnly, donning the damp jacket. He pretended to summon another half dozen clones with the familiar cross shaped seal, the Boss doing the real work behind the scenes. They immediately started ushering a confused Tazuna away. "I can't be Hokage if I'm dead, but I'd rather be dead than be the kind of scum who'd leave my teacher to die."
Sasuke was quietly arguing with the Boss, apparently unwilling to leave the area. Naruto didn't think they could outrun Zabuza or hide from him, but having to worry about protecting them was a big part of how Kakashi had gotten caught.
The only way they were going to survive this was by freeing Kakashi, and round two would hopefully go a lot better if he didn't have to worry so much about them.
"Namikaze Minato." Zabuza shook his head ruefully. "He could say shit like that because he had the skills to back it up. That kind of moronic, self-sacrificing bullshit only works when you can slaughter armies, because that takes the sacrifice out of the equation. I can respect him for having had the power to force his shitty ideals on the world, even if he was too blind to see his words meant nothing without his power. The ramblings of that hypocrite are worthless if you don't have the power to back them up."
"You don't have a fucking clue what you're talking about," Kakashi snarled, the uncharacteristic venom in his voice startling Naruto. "So shut up."
"Hit a nerve, did I? He's dead. Get over it. Filling the heads of impressionable young wannabes with his simple-minded delusions just gets them horribly killed. From what I've heard, you were a splendid Shinobi, Hatake. The last living student of the legendary Yondaime Hokage… it's a shame that legacy will be ended because you threw away your life for a bunch of no-name… brats…?"
Zabuza trailed off, his voice lilting almost questioningly. The amusement on his face was instantly wiped away. His gaze zeroed in Naruto with an intensity that caused a chill to bore down through the blond's spine.
There was something in Zabuza's eyes. It wasn't menace, or anger, or anything along those lines. He was thinking something that was causing Naruto's gut to clench and the hairs on the back of his neck to rise.
There had been many moments since Zabuza's monster of a sword had first come cleaving through the air that Naruto had felt fear, uncertainty, and horror. Zabuza's killing intent, the way he ghosted through the mist, even just the words he spoke––everything about the man promised death.
But it was this moment––this moment with no killing intent, no blade seeking his blood, and no stories destroying his faith in humanity, this improbable moment that wasn't permeated by the creeping promise of death that had all of Naruto's instincts screaming at him so loud he couldn't think. There was something hiding just out of his perception, something dangerous, and his mind was scrabbling to grasp even some small part of what he knew was there––and completely failing.
Then the moment was over, and Naruto could breathe again.
Zabuza chuckled. "So that's how it is."
"Naruto, you need to go. Now!" Kakashi shouted.
"I said I'm not going to––"
Naruto frowned. There was something different about the urgency in Kakashi's orders, but there was no turning back now. Tazuna, Sasuke, and Sakura were gone, accompanied by a bevy of clones to a safe distance. The Boss was smart enough to stay off the water, and with Zabuza stuck holding Kakashi that should be enough to keep him safe.
"Damnit." Kakashi sighed in resignation.
"You should be proud," Zabuza told Kakashi. "He's taking after your beloved teacher so well… at least when it comes to the moronic self-sacrificing shit." He chuckled. "He hasn't got the army killing part down, but those clones of his are Kage Bunshin, aren't they? And so many of them… given time, who knows? So, former future Hokage-san… congratulations. Since you lack basic self-preservation instincts, I'm still going to have to kill you, but I will remember your name… Naruto. Uzumaki Naruto, wasn't it?"
The way Zabuza was phrasing things was a bit odd, but Naruto couldn't stop himself from grinning like a fool. There was something so incredibly honest about being acknowledged by an enemy.
"Thanks Ziziru-san!" Naruto chirped. "That's real nice of you."
"Hey, I'm a man of my word, and I still don't have a Bingo Book." Naruto shrugged faux apologetically. Then he burst into a sprint.
He hadn't been standing around talking for the hell of it. He'd been buying time so that the Boss and the strategy clones could try and iron out a plan of action and the others could make it to a safe distance.
Well, safe-ish distance.
Zabuza wasted no time, forming three clones on the water between them.
Punch through, the Boss ordered, coordinating from the safety of the land. What a lazy bastard.
Naruto didn't stumble as the ground under his feet changed to water. Water walking was second nature to him. Two of the water clones starting running for him, the third keeping position by Zabuza.
Don't avoid, but don't attack.
Naruto grimaced, but he trusted himself––most of the time––so he continued running in a straight line to Zabuza. The first clone was directly in between them, not three meters in front of him.
Naruto immediately leaned as far forward as he could while still running, and one of his clones chakra boosted a jump over his head, cutting it so close he could feel his hair being parted by a sandal.
Naruto focused a bit of chakra into his legs, boosting a jump right behind his clone. He grabbed its shoulders, hauling himself over it and kicking hard off the front shoulders. The water clone's sword arced underneath him, falling short of bisecting his shadow clone by less than a foot due to its sharp decline in momentum. A brace of shuriken from above ended its life as Naruto flipped over it.
Naruto hadn't launched himself for airtime so he landed on the water again before meeting up with his next obstacle. He crouched down as he landed, his other clone boosting over his head.
Naruto launched himself up and forward, a good ten meters over the clones grappling in front of him. His fellow clone was dispatched in short order, but it lasted enough for Naruto's purpose. The last water clone jumped up to meet him.
Using the same trick as he had against the Demon Brothers, Naruto created another clone in the air beside him, their feet flush together. Getting his chakra cut in half at this point would have been a big deal if he intended to be 'alive' much longer, but his brief time masquerading as the Boss was about to come to an epic end.
He and the other clone boosted their legs to the point that they nearly dispelled under the strain, and then kicked off each other as hard as they could.
Naruto shot well underneath the water clone like an arrow, his body ramrod straight. The clone's arc would have had them clashing head on had he followed the natural parabolic motion of his jump… but Naruto didn't like to play by the rules.
The air stung his eyes as he lanced towards the real Zabuza, making him wish he'd kept his goggles, but he kept them open by force of will.
Zabuza's face was visibly strained as he formed half of a modified horse seal with his free hand, and in a truly incredible display of water manipulation the lake around him lurched up, a massive hybrid between a wave and a mass of tentacles coiling up to intercept Naruto.
Managing to pull something like that off with straight water manipulation while maintaining another jutsu was nothing short of ridiculous, and far beyond what Naruto had planned for. It was too late to do anything about it, so he might as well follow through.
Zabuza's suddenly clenched his fist, and the incoming mass of water reversed direction and started to form a curved wall in front of him. There was no way a Jounin of that caliber would miss the chakra signature of even a single primed explosive note, let alone the five Naruto had on him.
He was Uzumaki Naruto, and while this facet of his existence had come to its end, this was not his end.
The center of the lake erupted in a blinding flash, a deep reverberating boom washing over Naruto with a shock of hot air, knocking aside the chill that had burrowed its way into his bones from being repeatedly dunked in freezing water.
Fuck, Naruto thought as he anxiously squinted at the place where Zabuza and Kakashi had been. The smoke from the explosion was taking its sweet time to fade away.
He heaved a sigh of relief as the dark outline of a figure and a large circle started to become visible. His breath caught a moment later when the seemed to fade away like a mirage. Had it just been wishful thinking?
No, it had been there. The smoke was fading, but a familiar thick mist was rolling in to replace it. The warmth that had briefly suffused him was chased away the fog creeping over him.
"It seems I underestimated you," Zabuza's voice echoed out from the mist, colored by a definite note of annoyance. "Your willingness to fry your own sensei to get me does you credit… or was that a bonus for you? That's what you happens when you try to get frisky with your students, Hatake." Zabuza tutted mockingly.
"Can you please just let that go already," Kakashi pleaded.
Naruto nearly laughed out loud relief at the confirmation of Kakashi's survival. "It wasn't like that," Naruto defended himself sheepishly. "It wasn't supposed to be quite that… explosive. But hey, no one got hurt, right? And it's not like you have any eyebrows to burn off, so no harm no foul."
Well, that hadn't quite worked out as expected. The loss of his favorite jacket was just salt on the wound.
The exploding jacket trick was supposed to be a hidden ace of last resort. He'd sown five specialized exploding tags into the lining, but he hadn't expected all of them to actually go off.
There was a limit to how powerful an exploding tag could be, determined by the Sealer's skill and the specific matrix used to create it. Sticking multiple tags together and trying to make them go off at the same time to cheat that limit wasn't as elegant a solution as it might initially seem. The natural variability in the time between priming the tag and it actually going off meant that some tags would go off before others. That difference might only be a fraction of a second, but if one tag in a bundle went off before the others had a chance to actualize their payload, that first explosion would simply consume the other tags without giving them a chance to do anything.
Ever since Higurashi Kouseki had first explained to him the importance of exactness and consistency he'd worked very hard to polish those aspects of his sealing. Both because he realized why they were important and because that perfectionist bastard wouldn't buy Naruto's tags unless they matched his annoyingly high standards.
In his testing Naruto had managed to get to the point where he could have two, or three on rare occasions, out of a bundle of five tags go off at the same time reliably. Five times the production time and chakra costs for twice the bang wasn't exactly efficient… but sacrifices had to made in the name of bigger booms. According to Tenten, at any rate, and Naruto couldn't help but agree with her on that.
However, that explosion had to have been at least four tags––maybe even five.
In hindsight, it was almost painfully obvious what his blunder had been. In his experimentation, he'd been focusing on polishing his skills, so he would only make the five tags, trying to make their delays as consistent as possible. The jacket bomb had been produced under a far more exacting standards. Naruto hadn't wanted there to be even the slightest chance that his secret weapon would be a 'dud', so he carefully scrutinized over 40 tags, picking the 5 that thorough examinations revealed to be the most identical in fuse 'length'.
Naruto shivered as he realized that if his plan to free his trapped Jounin-sensei had worked like he thought it would, there was a chance that he could have seriously injured or even killed Kakashi.
There would be time to beat himself up over that later though. He still needed to get Kakashi out of that prison, in a way that wasn't going to blow up in his face––literally or metaphorically.
The fact that Zabuza had bothered to put up the mist again despite the strain it must be to hold that and the water prison was a bad sign. Where before he had been using what he thought was the minimum required effort to deal with Naruto, now he appeared to be taking no chances.
First things first, the mist had to go. There was no way Naruto was going to be able to do anything if he didn't even know where they were.
A burst of information from one of his strategy clones observing the fight gave him what he needed to deal with that. His decision to have clones dedicated to analyzing the fight had definitely come through.
Ram, to gather his chakra.
Naruto held his hands in the seal for a few seconds before switching, the faint blue haze appearing around it highlighting the massive amount of power he was building up.
Horse, Rat, Ox-angled, and then a half-inverted Horse kick-started the crude conversion matrix, changing the nature of the chakra to water.
Naruto wasn't nearly as far into his Water elemental training as he was Wind or even Fire, but he hadn't been neglecting it completely. The crutch he was using wasn't going to give him the kind of finesse that Zabuza had displayed in shielding himself from the Amazing Exploding Naruto of Doom, but it would give him the edge he needed.
Naruto raised one half of a Tiger seal straight up above his head, the other held at his sternum. This was the specialized seal he used for Konohagakure no Jutsu, and more relevantly the one Zabuza had used for Kirigakure no Jutsu. His brow furrowed as he radiated his chakra out into the mist.
The water natured chakra eagerly sought to infuse itself into the mist, but it was impeded by Zabuza's chakra fueling and guiding it.
Naruto winced as his coils protested the the abuse he was putting them through. The amount of chakra wasn't the problem, although he was certainly putting out a lot. It was the way that he was forcing the elemental conversion that was straining them. The wind around Naruto began to pick up as he poured more and more chakra into the air.
Gotcha, Naruto thought triumphantly as the massive amounts of chakra he'd thrown out seemed to shift into place.
And for a moment, the mist was his. It had taken many, many times more chakra times than Zabuza had used in setting it up, but he'd wrested control of it with pure brute force. He had no practical experience with Kirigakure no Jutsu, so there was really only one thing he could do with it.
Mess it up.
Naruto flexed his control over the technique experimentally, and almost immediately it began to rain. Under his inexpert control, the water in the air had began to clump and condense. It only lasted a few seconds, but that was enough to soak him in cold water… again.
Naruto and one of his clones started dashing for the water as soon as the mist began to fall apart, both furiously flipping through seals.
"What the fuck?" Zabuza exclaimed, staring at Naruto in abject shock. The air was crystal clear, every bit of the mist having been put into the brief rain.
Naruto and his clone skidded to a stop a quarter of the way between the shore and Zabuza, who had raised his free arm straight up into the air again. The mist was already started to rise from the lake again, but much slower than than the last two times. He could feel Zabuza's chakra slicing through his own in the water.
Naruto took in a deep lungful of air, holding the tiger seal. The clone beside him was still flipping through seals.
Wait for it, Naruto thought to himself, the fire infused mass of air in his lungs beginning to burn. Now!
He felt it the instant his clone's modified Fuuton: Renkudan, the same one he'd used against the Demon Brothers, was ready. The feel of his own chakra was all too easy to sense and analyze.
Katon: Goukakyuu no Jutsu!
The Great Fireball that burst from his lungs was more akin to flickering mass of hot air than an actual ball of flames. He'd spent a great deal of modifying the technique, changing the seals little by little to stop it from actually igniting, and strengthening its containment so that it could hold more and more chakra.
This version of the Goukakyuu was essentially just a container for a mass of Fire natured chakra, not quite agitated enough to actually ignite like it was supposed to. On its own it was a dud, but it hadn't been designed as a standalone weapon.
An instant after Naruto had released the technique, the clone next to him released its Drilling Air Bullet. The version that actually drilled.
When the real Naruto had used that jutsu he'd had to be careful not to let it shred his lungs. A Kage Bunshin didn't have to take the same precautions, so the overpowered drill dispelled the clone as it exploded out of its mouth. Naruto winced as the memories hit him. The feeling of being shredded from the inside out was not a fun one.
The buzzing of the Drilling Air Bullet abruptly became a roar as it merged with the mass of Fire chakra just in front of it.
"Uzumaki Hikonbijutsu: Renkuenyari no Jutsu!"
The air erupted into a drilling bar of fire three feet across, howling through the air as it lanced towards Zabuza.
Zabuza dodged, leaping off to the side. As soon as he was out of the way of the fire he shot forwards, blurring to appear in front of Naruto in an instant, sword coming down too quickly for anything to be done. He could feel the tug of a Kawarimi pulling on him, but it was too late.
A hard thump to the chest sent Naruto sprawling backwards, falling into the water, interrupting the Kawarimi that would have been too late. There was a loud clang as Zabuza's sword was caught between two crossed kunai.
"Good job, Naruto," Kakashi said from in front of him, having knocked him back before locking blades with Zabuza. "Although, we will have to have a discussion of what is appropriate to discuss in front of the enemy… or anyone else, for that matter."
Naruto climbed back up on top of the water, trying to shake off the chill. Why was it is always the damn water?
Another Kawarimi pulled him away from the two Jounin, the clone that swapped with him dispelling immediately so there was no chance of Kakashi thinking that he needed to protect it. While his sensei seemed to always know when he swapped out with a clone, Naruto still didn't want to risk it or distract him in any way.
The Jounin leapt away from each other. Now would be a really good time to get the hell out of the area. That had been the plan, but even now that he wasn't leaving Kakashi to die the thought of running from the fight just wasn't a comfortable one.
I'll just get rid of the mist again so sensei can use his creepy eye better, Naruto told himself. Then I'll leave. Zabuza had started bringing the mist back up, and that was one thing Naruto could help out with, even if it is was a chakra intensive pain in the ass.
Grimacing, he used the crude conversion matrix to shift his chakra nature. If he had even half of Zabuza's proficiency with this element he could avoid the feeling of pushing sludge through his coils by changing the chakra nature as it was being emitted, but having a crappy shortcut was better than not being able to do it at all.
As he was raising his arm to bring down the mist there was a whisper on the wind. It nearly escaped his notice, but instincts forged by the painful deaths of hundreds of clones by sharp and pointy things screamed at him to move.
He jumped to the side, skidding on the water as it rained senbon at the spot he'd just been standing on.
That hadn't been Zabuza, which meant the psycho had at least one other accomplice who'd been waiting for the opportune moment to strike. Why hadn't they done so when Kakashi was trapped?
There was a thundering crash as two massive blasts of water vaguely shaped like dragons slammed into each other. Awe overshadowed his anxiety for a moment at the scale of the renewed battle between Kakashi and Zabuza. They'd abandoned their subtle game of shadows and deception in favor of a landscape altering slugfest.
Unfortunately, Naruto didn't have the luxury of standing around and gawking. He started to run back to the shore so that he wouldn't have to worry about avoiding the crossfire between the Jounin as well as the new enemy.
Water rose up in an arc in front of him to cut him off. A quick boost of chakra launched Naruto up at the same time as another clash of jutsu sent water spraying everywhere. He braced himself to break through a falling sheet of water, hoping it wouldn't knock him too far off course.
But instead of piercing through the water as he should have, he hit against it head first as though it were as solid as a brick wall. And then for a moment there was nothing.
The moment passed.
He was freezing, but his head was on fire.
Naruto groaned in pain, but it came out wrong. The sound was muffled and garbled, like he was underwater. The following breath sucked in water before he figured out that breathing was a bad idea.
He was underwater. Why was he underwater?
Panic set in as the fact that he was drowning. He thrashed around with no semblance of rational thought. He didn't know which way was up or down, but he had to get to the surface because he was fucking drowning.
A foot brushed against something solid that had to be the bottom, so Naruto desperately swam up against it. It was inexplicably smooth and flat, but he didn't care. There was an odd cracking sound as he launched himself off the surface, his chakra boost sloppy and crude in his panic. He felt a surge of relief as he broke the surface, sooner than expected. He expelled the water from his lungs with a basic wind manipulation exercise.
Naruto lay back in the water, breathing heavily and coughing a bit as the burning in his lungs subsided.
He'd been drowning. Why had he been drowning?
There had been a rabbit, and a giant sword. A rabbit with a giant sword tried to drown him in a puddle alongside the road… no, that wasn't quite right. That didn't really add up.
It wasn't like there was any kind of rush. There was no way there was actually a rabbit trying to drown him, sword or no. He could just stay here, floating peacefully in the water, waiting for the throbbing pain in his skull to fade.
Now that he was thinking about it, Onigiri-kun was too nice and fluffy to try and drown him. Plus the clone holding him had taken off to a safe distance when that Zabuza freak had shown up. That guy looked like the kind of monster who would eat cute animals.
Yeah, Zabuza's way more likely to try and drown me than Onigiri-kun, Naruto decided resolutely, happy with the realization there was a far less fuzzy culprit to blame. Wait, Zabuza?
Naruto exploded into motion, scrabbling onto the surface of the water as the past ten minutes started coming back to him. He ignored the pain hastily combing his soaking bangs out of his eyes caused, swaying in place as he tried to focus on his surroundings.
Ugh, I'm seeing double… no, triple… wait, what?
Everywhere he looked, he was seeing the same masked figure in a green haori, all around him in a dome. They were all floating in mirror-like slabs of ice, ignoring gravity as they hung in the air.
Genjutsu? No, Naruto realized as more and more pieces fell into place. He'd jumped up to avoid this jutsu rising up in front of him from the lake, but the top part of the dome had been formed by the errant spray of Zabuza and Kakashi-sensei's jutsu crashing into each other. He could see a spot of red on one of the sheets of ice at the top. His blood, from when he'd bashed his head against it hard enough to briefly lose consciousness.
Forming a single, sustained jutsu from multiple distinct sources of water on the fly… this was bad. Whoever this was, they were very skilled.
So why hadn't they attacked before? And why hadn't they finished him off when he'd been knocked out in the water, or when he'd been floating around in a daze? The masked figure was just standing there in the icy mirrors, watching and waiting.
Naruto's head was killing him, his recollection of recent events was still fuzzy and incomplete, and he was trapped. Now was not the time to solve puzzles, or to even attempt anything more mentally challenging than walking in a straight line. At this point he couldn't afford to care why he was still alive. The only thing that mattered was escaping.
Swimming underneath wasn't an option. The smooth surface he'd used to springboard himself to the surface had to have been another one of those slabs of ice. So he was either going through the ice, or slipping through the gaps between them.
Naruto's eyes gaze had been switching from mirror to mirror, trying to find the slightest indication of which, if any, held the real enemy. Trying anything to attack or escape would be pointless if he was just sliced down from behind.
There was nothing.
Misdirection it was then. Giving the enemy more targets would give him a fighting chance.
A dozen clones appeared all around him, each going for a different gap between mirrors. There was a brief moment when it seemed like every one of them was tangled in the middle, but it was a choreographed move to mix the real him in with the clones for confusion.
Naruto dashed forward, going for an opening two gaps to the right and two above of where he'd been initially facing. The figure in the mirrors finally moved in a blur, the exact same thing happening in every reflection he could see. But it was too late, Naruto was mere feet away from––
There was the sound a hundred branches rustling on the wind, a blur, and pain. Naruto was stabbed a thousand times. He died, his mind going blank. But at the same time, he also died, his mind going blank.
Naruto died, as he died, as he died, as he died. In that moment there was nothing but death, again and again and again. And then he was falling.
It was the sight of the water right before he hit it that broke the dazed state he was in.
No! his mind screamed in panic, the vivid memory of drowning tearing through his catatonia. Not again, never again!
He landed on all fours. The panic had brought with it an unexpected clarity. He was close to the edge of the dome, barely more than a meter from escape. He tensed, preparing to launch himself forward.
"Aahhhh!" Naruto yelled in pain as a foot drove itself into his side where he'd been 'grazed' by Zabuza's giant sword earlier. His hand, still suffused with chakra from holding himself up on the water reflexively grabbed onto the leg attached to the offending foot.
Before Naruto could capitalize on his unexpected luck, the figure's arm blurred down stabbing something into his shoulder. There was a brief pinch, and then Naruto couldn't feel his arm. The leg in his side shoved, sending him skidding across the water.
Naruto kept his eyes glued on the mask figure even as he slid sideways, watching as it stepped into the mirror.
That's got to be a space-time ninjutsu, genjutsu, or both, Naruto thought in awe. He came to a stop roughly in the center of the area, a fact that didn't seem accidental. He got to his feet, careful not to take his eyes off the mirror his foe had stepped into. His right arm hung limply at his side, completely numb.
Naruto ran through a quick set of genjutsu countermeasures, none of which had any effect on what he was seeing. He'd put in a significant amount of time training to deal with genjutsu after the Kyuubi incident. If there was an illusionary element to this cage, it was beyond his ability to detect.
Naruto reflexively glanced towards the fireball splashing against the ice from the outside. The brief warmth that washed over him was welcome. The distraction was not.
In the split second before he managed to snap his gaze back to the occupied mirror, there was a blur of movement. The masked ninja disappeared from the mirrors for just a moment before reappearing.
Naruto blinked as he realized that he hadn't just been blaming the Uchiha in the abstract, as he was sometimes wont to do. Sasuke was literally the cause of the thing Naruto was blaming him for… that was pretty rare. Usually it was just the broody vibes that messed him up.
"What are you doing here, you're supposed to be…" Naruto trailed off, trying to remember where Sasuke had been, and why his showing up was so surprising. "Somewhere else."
"Did you honestly think I was going to rely on you to save Kakashi-sensei?" Sasuke sniped from where he was standing on the shore. "Like I said before, on your own you're just going to drown yourself in a puddle."
Naruto bit down a snarl, his teeth grinding in sudden anger. The gibe was typical of his teammate, and something he was normally happy to reply in kind to, but this time it just hit too close for comfort given what had just happened. With that and how Sasuke had distracted Naruto long enough for the masked ninja to hide again, the blond was not happy to see his teammate.
"In case you haven't noticed, Sensei isn't trapped anymore. You think that just happened on its own?" Naruto was looking at a mirror to his right, glancing down over his shoulder periodically at where he'd been stabbed. He didn't know which mirror to watch, so he had to hope that all of them would at least show a hint of movement before an attack.
"I haven't ruled that out."
"You're an idiot, you know that?" Naruto reached over his shoulder awkwardly, trying to get a grip on the senbon paralyzing his right arm. He'd of created a clone to help pull it out, but it seemed as though the ninja hiding in the mirrors reacted to any overt actions with an overwhelming show of force. There were all sorts of things bugging him about that, but for now he didn't have the luxury of even making a clone to think about it.
"I'm not the one who got himself trapped, dobe."
The needle was cold, and Naruto realized that it was ice and not metal. It was interesting, but not altogether surprising. He hadn't come across any specific jutsu theory involving ice in his studies so far, so it seemed to be a fairly specialized type of technique. It was likely that a significant part of this masked nin's arsenal was ice related.
Naruto winced as he nudged the needle, sending a shock of pain to his spine and not his arm, oddly enough. The angle it was at was just too awkward to remove cleanly. Chances were that he was going to do more damage taking it out than it had done going in.
Sasuke was standing unhelpfully at the shore. His attack from the outside hadn't been completely useless. It had shown that it would take a lot more than a fireball to damage the mirrors. While Naruto did have some heavy hitters like his modified Renkuudan, they weren't the kinds of things he could just spit out in an instant. Any hint of him trying something would result in the enemy taking action against him––most likely in a painful manner.
Well, a damaged arm is better than a paralyzed one, Naruto thought grimly. He tensed, preparing to draw out the ice senbon as cleanly as he could.
It spontaneously melted.
Naruto stared in disbelief at his shoulder for a split second before snapping his attention back to the mirrors, ignoring the sudden rush of pins and needles tingling in his arm as sensation returned. It was a distraction, his instincts screamed, a prelude to an attack.
But there was no attack. The reflections of his enemy in the mirrors remained still.
Another fireball struck his prison from the outside, this one substantially larger than the first. The flames spilled over the mirror it hit, flickering dangerously towards Naruto before they dissipated. The mirror remained utterly undamaged, and the figure in it didn't so much as twitch, confident in its durability.
"Because that worked so well, the first time," Naruto said, but without much venom. The wave of heat had felt amazingly good, chasing away a bit of the chill the had seeped all the way into his bones. He wouldn't mind it if Sasuke kept on spamming useless fireballs, if not for the fact he did need to get out of the damn ice cage.
"I don't see you coming up with a better idea."
Naruto grimaced. It was true that his current plan pretty much boiled down to 'stay still and don't do anything even vaguely aggressive'. Otherwise, it was needle time. He'd gotten the use of his arm back, but that hadn't actually extended his options. Even if he could manage to use an attack that took more than a quarter second's preparation, he wasn't sure exactly how powerful it would need to be. The less effective his jutsu was the quicker he could pull it off, and with no idea of what it would take to even crack the damn mirrors there was no way to even begin to make a plan.
…but he had cracked one.
Naruto fought to keep the dawning realization off his face. He clenched his right fist, wincing at the sudden resurgence of pins and needles in his arm. They weren't as bad as before, but it was enough to keep him from smiling.
The mirror he'd first mistaken for the bottom of the lake had cracked when he'd pushed off of it. That oddity had been insignificant at the time, overshadowed by the fact that he'd been drowning, but now it was anything but. It hadn't been the physical force, but his panicked burst of chakra that had done the trick. He'd messed up, panic botching his control and allowing most of the chakra he'd tried to use to boost with get shoved into the ice. And like the trees he'd ravaged trying to learn tree-walking on, the excess of chakra had resulted in penetrating physical damage.
Naruto would need to do more than just crack the ice, but at the very least he had a basis for how he could damage the mirrors. Getting close enough to physically touch one was going to be a problem though. And even then he could be attacked from any direction before he managed to do anything. Without knowing which mirror to expect an attack from the plan was still lacking.
For some reason Naruto couldn't help but think of how he'd been infusing Tora's ribbon with chakra beacons. He almost snorted in frustrated amusement. All he needed was for the enemy to stand still long enough to be tagged with chakra. Like that was going to… happen?
Naruto's eyes fluttered half closed as he focused on the chakra around him. He could feel something all around him that had to be the jutsu imprisoning him, but that told him nothing. What he was looking for was his own chakra.
There, Naruto thought triumphantly, locking onto just a hint of chakra. It become starkly clear on his senses as he focused on it. When he'd gripped the masked nin's leg he'd been spilling chakra with no thought to control in his desperation not to fall into the water again. It had left enough of a trace for him to sense. It wouldn't last for an hour, much less days, and the range at which he'd be able to feel it was limited… but it was perfect. He only needed it now, and his enemy was no more than four or five meters away.
That was two of the previously insurmountable problems surmounted. The rest was just a matter of strategy.
"Sasuke, the back of your head looks like a duck's ass. The front too, come to think of it."
"Huh?" Sasuke looked non-plussed at the apparent non-sequitur. It took a moment for it to fully sink in that yes, Naruto had just insulted him for no reason in the middle of a death match.
"I said, your head looks like a duck's ass from any angle," Naruto enunciated clearly, as though speaking to a three year old. Sasuke's face flushed, and Naruto thought he could see a vein throbbing in his forehead. The masked figure in the mirror tilted its head in a way that conveyed bemusement.
Come on teme, you can figure it out, Naruto thought, trying to hint at what he was getting at with his eyes. That's it!
The flush on Sasuke's face had receded, and he was wearing his thinking face. It was a lot like his brooding face, but more constipated. And then he got his epiphany face, which was broody plus a weird thing with his eyebrow, like it couldn't decide whether it wanted to go up or scrunch down.
Naruto and Sasuke bantered a lot, in the sense that they insulted each other given even the slightest excuse or reason, and often for no reason at all. It was mostly in good sport, relatively speaking, but they did have their respective sore spots. Having the back of his head compared to a bird's posterior was one of Sasuke's, one that usually earned Naruto a friendly homicide attempt via fire.
That was exactly what Naruto wanted.
Naruto figured he had a pretty small leash when it came to what actions he could take before the masked ninja would feel the need to smack him down. What he could do, however, was provoke… er…give a hint to Sasuke to do something he could predict but the enemy couldn't.
Sasuke spat out a stream of fire, the flames this time going between the mirrors straight at Naruto. The blond genin dodged to the side, putting the fire between him and the mirror containing the masked nin, and ran for the other side of the prison.
Naruto's entire focus was on the feel of the chakra around him. He was oddly calm. Having a plan of action and the warmth of the flames behind him drained all of the tension and anxiety he had built up.
A moment after he started running he felt the masked nin shoot out of the mirror behind him at a speed that would have been overwhelming… but it was as if Naruto could see events unfolding clearly in his mind before they happened, everything matching up perfectly with what they needed to be.
The fire cut off the most direct line of attack, and it was all too easy to predict the blitz attack when he knew which mirror it would come from and where it would have to go. It was still faster than Naruto would have been able to deal with in direct combat, but knowing in advance how his enemy would come from him made it seem almost leisurely.
Naruto bent forward at the waist, a rush of air above him accompanying the passing of his opponent. He continued his forward motion, placing one hand on the water and flipping over it to maintain his momentum, and boosting forward towards the surprised ninja. His masked foe had landed on the water, skidding back as they turned around. The angle required to attack Naruto while avoiding the fire having left them no choice.
With just a quick hop backwards, the masked ninja flowed into a mirror floating just above the water as Naruto closed in. The ice rippled as the ninja merged with it, and in the oddly relaxed state he was in Naruto could appreciate the surreal beauty of the technique.
Naruto slid into place in front of the ice, his whole body flowing into a punch. The floating slab of ice was a stationary target, allowing a form perfect punch, although the force of the punch wasn't what he was counting on. He poured every bit of chakra that he could into his arm, and then some. His coils protested, sending white hot needles of pain lancing all over the limb.
There was a deafening cracking sound as his fist impacted the ice with the force of an exploding tag. Time seemed to slow to a crawl, droplets of water shaken loose from the initial impact floating lazily through the air. Naruto pushed the chakra built up in his fist into the mirror.
Cracks spread lightning fast over the ice. The feeling of his fist trying to stick itself through the cold surface by the force of chakra alone was like his bones were grinding themselves to a dust, but Naruto didn't let up. This was his chance.
He pushed his chakra harder.
And then something gave.
The massive amounts of chakra in his fist blasted outwards. The ice exploded, the figure within it blasted out over the water, skipping across the surface in an uncontrolled tumble.
Zabuza suddenly appeared, catching his masked accomplice with his free arm. There was a deep gash in his side that was bleeding rather freely, and what looked like burn marks on one shoulder.
Kakashi landed just in front of Naruto protectively as well. He looked like his usual lazy self, except a bit more soaked than usual, his gravity defying hair drooping a bit but managing not to be plastered to his head like Naruto's was.
The ice prison fell apart into water, two sections of it falling directly on Naruto, drenching him in the coldest batch yet.
"Seriously?" Naruto couldn't help exclaiming. "Always with the fucking water!"
"This isn't over," Zabuza promised before leaping away, taking his downed partner with him.
Kakashi reached up and pulled his forehead protector over his sharingan, seemingly content that the threat was over.
"I may have used a bit too much chakra," he stated matter of factly. And then he collapsed.
Naruto rushed forward, catching Kakashi as he keeled over. His right arm exploded in pain.
While whatever had happened at the end had managed to break the prison, it had also fucked up his arm. It was at least fractured, maybe outright broken. Some awkward rearrangement of the taller man's dead weight had him entirely supported by Naruto's left side.
"Can I get some help here?"
Sasuke looked off to the side, scowling.
"Seriously," Naruto said, getting pissed off.
"I… can't… walk on water yet." Sasuke's voice got softer and softer as he spoke, barely audible by the end of the sentence.
"Oh." That would explain why he stayed on the shore the whole time.
Naruto lugged Kakashi over to the shore, ignoring the shooting pains in his arm and side. His whole body felt battered, but those were the worst. He heaved a sigh of relief as Sasuke took their teacher off of him.
"Come on." Naruto picked up his pack from where it had been dropped at the beginning of the fight. He started walking briskly out of the clearing, in the opposite direction of where Sasuke, Sakura, and his clones had taken Tazuna.
"I'm not a damn pack mule," Sasuke grumbled, but followed nonetheless.
What little safety they had would be destroyed if their enemies got any hint that Kakashi-sensei was out of action, and there was still the risk of Zabuza having more allies he could send to try and finish the job. And that wasn't the only problem they needed to deal with.
"When we get to that little embankment beyond those trees, I need you to drop Kakashi-sensei off and hurry back to Tazuna and get directions to his house. We need to get his family out of there before Gatou or Zabuza thinks to capture or kill them––if they haven't already. Don't fall in any traps, and make sure you're not followed back by anyone."
"I'm going to keep watch over Kakashi-sensei. Moving him around if he's got chakra exhaustion is a bad idea, and I'd just slow you down at this point. You can set him down right there."
Naruto slumped down heavily on the ground. The endorphins were wearing off and he was starting to hurt all over, even in weird places like his left ear. His right one was fine, for some reason.
Sasuke looked Naruto after he put their sensei down, his expression inscrutable. Then he flipped through few seals, and Naruto was an instant from leaping to his feet in reflex before he realized that Sasuke wasn't trying to kill him. The Uchiha spat out a tame stream of flames that bathed a nearby boulder with a soft orange glow, keeping it up for a good ten seconds.
"Thanks," Naruto said tiredly, realizing his teammate's intentions as he felt the heat emanating off the rock. He was surprised at the thoughtful nature of the act, and grateful. He didn't even realize he'd been shivering until he stopped.
"Drowned rat isn't a good look on you," Sasuke said, a faint smile tugging at his lips.
Naruto growled halfheartedly, as Sasuke leaped away. Comparing him to a rat was Sasuke's equivalent of the duck butt joke, so that was probably payback for earlier. Of all the things with whiskers, rats were the ones Naruto hated being likened to the most. Well, perhaps he'd hate being compared to a fox more, but that was a bit more complicated, and 'fox' had way too much stigma attached to it in Konoha to be thrown around as a childish taunt.
Well, Sasuke had provided a nice heating rock, so he could be forgiven just this one time.
Back to the matter at hand. Chakra exhaustion.
Naruto went over what he knew about treating it. It had come up more than once in his Ninjutsu studies, always accompanied by a stern warning that it could be serious and to go to a hospital. That wasn't exactly an option, so he'd have to work around that. Rest was essential, intravenous fluid and nutrient intake would help with recovery time, and soldier pills or any kind of chakra stimulant was bad bad news.
The resting didn't seem like it was going to be a problem, but Naruto only had a standard medkit in his pack, and that didn't come with banana bags. Even if he did have, he didn't actually know how to set up an IV.
Well, at least I can keep him hydrated, Naruto thought. He could drip water into Kakashi-sensei's mouth with a wet cloth or something, which would have the added bonus of revealing whatever hideous facial deformity was under his mask. This is for valid medical reasons. He grinned.
"Yeowch!" Naruto hissed, yanking his arm back. The instant he'd tried to pull down the mask, he'd gotten zapped, an arc of electricity jumping from the black cloth to his fingers. He shook his hand out, trying to get rid of the sudden biting sting. "What the fuck?"
Naruto glared at his sensei's unconscious form. The freaking paranoid bastard had booby trapped his mask?
"I changed my mind," he grumbled. "Sasuke can help you."
Fuck, now both his arms were hurting.
It's been a while.
First off, I want to thank Last of the Ancients for his feedback, and everyone who reviewed and/or pm'd with comments, appreciation, or demands for moar.
This chapter was a bit of a monster to write, on top of trying to remember all the nuances and behind the scenes stuff that I'd been thinking about. There's a bunch of stuff in my notes that had me going 'how was that supposed to work again?' Motivations and reasonings that made sense at the time that I completely forgot about since I was last in the groove. That took a while to untangle. Zabuza in particular is a lot more complex than he has any right to be.
I reread the fic at some point, and realized that I've been shifting a bit away from the playful kind of narrative I started out with. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it was fun to write like that and it keeps the story from getting too… heavy, for lack of a better word. So I've tried to shift back a bit. Let me know how that went.
This chapter represents a firm divergence from canon Naruto, where the difference in his skills and mindset actually start having tangible effects on big things. In one of the earlier author's notes I promised that it wouldn't just be the same fights with different dialogue, and that's kind of what happened with the Demon Brothers fight. As I mentioned before, I don't really think that changing up that fight actually matters, as it's all just Kakashi pulling the strings there.
So what if the genin manage to take them down? No real effect on the plot. It's a 'safe' change that doesn't require adjusting the plotline. From there it can still follow the boilerplate Demon Brothers - Zabuza - Training - Bridge Fight. There are plenty of spots that can change without sacrificing the overall structure.
But not the first Zabuza fight. It's the foundation for the rest of the arc.
Rereading it, I couldn't help but notice the strength of Team 7's plot armor. Zabuza has many, many chances to kill them, which he neglects to take advantage of due to… arrogance, stupidity, and carelessness? So either Zabuza was monumentally unprofessional and stupid, or something else. I think there's ample room to say that it's something else.
Zabuza has unexpected depths. He's still a psychotic killer, but he's not an uncontrolled one. I don't buy that this famed silent assassin botches up what looked like a sure win because he needs to talk so much. He has a healthy respect for Kakashi's abilities, that much is obvious, so why are his actions after trapping Kakashi so blatantly careless?
Right before he traps Kakashi, after he kicks him to the lake, Tazuna is right in front of Zabuza. The caltrops Kakashi dropped just stopped Zabuza from immediately capitalizing on attacking him, but given their relative positions it wouldn't have stopped Zabuza. A single thrown kunai would have done the job, perhaps still allowing him to capture Kakashi if he doesn't just take the chance to disappear. But he doesn't kill Tazuna.
Rather than incompetence, I think it can be interpreted as strategy. Tazuna, Naruto, Sasuke, Sakura are Kakashi's handicaps. If Zabuza was a hundred percent sure that he'd defeated Kakashi, I don't think he would have hesitated in killing them without any fanfare. Saying that the prison is unbreakable isn't the same thing as the prison actually being unbreakable, as evidenced by events later in the manga, or even that Zabuza thinks its unbreakable. So I figure that he wants to make sure Kakashi is truly dead/dealt with before moving on to the rest of them in case something goes wrong.
It's either something like that, or Zabuza never intended to kill them in the first place (which while interesting and workable isn't actually very plausible)… or Zabuza's just a really bad assassin.
Zabuza was presented as the kind of elite shinobi who is more or less on Kakashi's level, so I think given the choice between 'stupid' and 'strategic' to interpret his actions, without explicitly being told otherwise I'm going to have to look at him as strategic in order to make it consistent with his character and how someone of his caliber is supposed to be later on in the series.
Naruto being skilled enough to actually pose a problem in that particular circumstance changes the dynamic of the situation considerably. Zabuza can't just toy with them until Kakashi drowns or whatever the plan was.
I hope you all enjoyed how it turned out. Lots and lots of foreshadowing going on.
I originally planned to have parts of this chapter from Sasuke's POV, as his actions may seem a bit… odd, out of context. But, the flow just isn't supporting it, and I feel that it'll be more interesting to learn about Sasuke through Naruto's point of view and not be handed it on a platter. The story is Naruto-centric, after all.
Also, the differences between canon Kage Bunshin and what I've done with Naruto's 'special' version are starting to show up more and more.
As always, reviews are much appreciated.