The gaunt and haunted-looking rower slammed the door shut behind Kakashi and the others, fumbling to lock it with key and chain as the team of ninjas all poured into the hallway. Naruto stumbled and fell onto the floor, Sasuke collapsed against the doorpost in an attempt to regain his bearings while Sakura stood back and watched the door frantically for any sign of intrusion.
“I think we’ve lost ‘em,” Tazuna said in between wheezing gasps of breath, crouched over with his hands resting on his knees for support. “Many thanks for letting us in, old friend. If it weren’t for you…”
Before Tazuna could say another word, Kakashi grabbed him by the shoulders and slammed him against the wall. “Tazuna! Explain to me why Gato would hire a former member of the Seven Swordsmen to kill a simple bridge builder. You said we were up against samurai; I would never have stayed here if I’d known we were up against jōnin-ranked ninjas. If you’ve been lying to us again…”
“No, I swear!” The old man raised both his hands in submission, his grey eyes showing as much fear for Kakashi as they had when they were being chased by Zabuza and his apprentice. “I didn’t know. I must have stepped on Gato’s pride one too many times, that’s all!”
“That’s all?” Kakashi’s Sharingan bored into Tazuna’s eyes, drilling deep into his subconscious to uncover whatever secrets they held. “You really expect me to believe-”
“Wait, everybody stop, just stop!” Kakashi turned and found Naruto staring at him. The boy was sitting on the floor in the middle of the hallway, looking as though he was afraid he’d stumble and fall over again if he tried to get up, and the expression in his eyes was mirrored by that of Sakura and Sasuke, and Inari and Tsunami and their new host as well. “I don’t get what’s happening! Who’s attacking us? What are these seven swordsmen? What’s going on?”
They were all arrayed in a semi-circle around Kakashi, staring at him imploringly in that way he had come to know so well – that look of men and women whose lives depended on his ability to protect them and make sense of senseless situations. “All right, everybody calm down.” He slowly let go of Tazuna and lowered his headband back onto his Sharingan. “Let’s all just take a breather for a moment, why don’t we? We need to take some time to recover, recoup some energy and figure out what’s really going on.”
The group followed his lead towards the kitchen table, where they sat down as though preparing for a family dinner, some semblance of sanity returning to their eyes as they latched on to this specious return to normalcy. As their host hastily gathered up the evening’s leftovers, Kakashi began his explanation, ignoring the trembling of his muscles from both the real and remembered exertion of before.
“The man we’re up against is Momochi Zabuza, a missing ninja from the Hidden Mist,” he began. “The Seven Swordsmen of the Mist are the personal bodyguard of the Eternal Mizukage, Yagura, who stopped aging ever since the Three-Tailed Beast was sealed within him as a child. Zabuza was a member of this group, until one day he staged a coup against the Mizukage and tried to take over as leader of the Mist. He was forced to flee the Land of Water, but he swore to his followers that he would return once he amassed enough wealth and power, and there are those who still await his return to this day.”
“Wait, hold on,” said Naruto, his voice uncharacteristically hesitant. “Why did he stage this coup?”
“Ah,” said Kakashi, “well, there’s some history behind that. Shortly after Yagura came to power, he instituted a new final academy exam that gave the Village Hidden in the Mist its moniker of Bloody Mist: In order to create what he called ‘True Ninjas’, academy students were forced to fight their own comrades to the death before being allowed to graduate.”
“That’s awful,” said Sakura.
“And stupid,” said Sasuke, who seemed to have regained some of his composure. “With a rule like that you lose more than half your graduates: That can’t possibly be worth it.”
“Training new academy students is relatively cheap, and I think they intentionally paired the weakest students with the strongest, as a way of culling the weak and talentless.” Kakashi shrugged with fake lightness. “Anyway, all of that became moot after an academy student by the name of Momochi Zabuza went berserk and slaughtered his entire graduation class during the test, as well as several proctors. After that, not even Yagura could continue to justify the practice, and so the bloodshed was ended.”
There was a long period of silence as the others digested this information, perhaps finally coming to realize just what kind of enemy they were up against.
“Let me see if I understand this,” Naruto said eventually, shifting on his seat. “There’s a ninja called Yagura, who took over the Land of Water and ruled it for – how long?”
“Forty years,” Sakura said distractedly.
“For forty years,” Naruto continued, “not because of his leadership abilities, but because he is host to one of the nine most powerful daemons in the world which makes him immortal.” There was not a shimmer of sympathy on the boy’s face, though he surely must have realized that he and Yagura were the same in this regard. “He tried to train an army of remorseless assassins by ordering them to kill each other, and when obviously this blew up in his face and some of them tried to kill him instead, the rebels fled the Land of Water and now we’re forced to fight them and clean up his mess?”
Kakashi regarded his number-one-most-obstinate-student with a measured gaze. “We’re not fighting for Yagura, Naruto. We’re fighting Zabuza because he’s trying to kill us.”
“I get that,” said Naruto, his teeth clenching as fear gave rise to frustration, “but why are we even fighting him in the first place? I mean, he doesn’t really care about us and we don’t wanna fight him either, right? So why should we fight each other to the death just because some tyrant went mad with power forty years ago? Can’t we just… I dunno, talk to Zabuza and make some kinda deal or something?”
Sasuke glanced up from his seat at the end of the table, his eyes peering out laconically through strands of dark hair, his own fear masked by what looked to be a veil of cynicism instead. “Sure, let’s try and work with the man who’s got a reputation for killing his own comrades – that sounds like a plan.”
“But that’s not his fault,” Naruto countered. “He was ordered to do that. I mean, it does sound like he went berserk for a while after being forced to kill his own friend, but wouldn’t anyone be traumatized after something like that? That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to talk to him somehow.” He looked to Sakura for support, as the girl looked uncertainly between the two. “Why not try to bribe him at least?”
“Because he’s working with Gato to kill me and destroy my village,” a reedy voice replied, just as Sakura looked about to side with Sasuke. “He came after my family, and if you hadn’t gotten us out in time…” The old bridge builder trailed off as all the ninjas stopped to stare at him. “Ah, begging your pardons, noble sirs and madam…”
Kakashi supressed a small smile at their surprised looks – the genin had probably forgotten the civilians were there; a classic error amongst even experienced ninjas.
“But that’s my whole point,” Naruto bit back. “Can’t you see he’s in exactly the same situation as your Kaiza was?” The boy turned to address Tsunami, who shrank back at the mention of her dead husband’s name. “Zabuza’s trying to get his country to muster up the courage to start a rebellion and overthrow a cruel tyrant, but he knows he can’t succeed because he doesn’t have any money or resources, and so he has to lie and cheat and do whatever it takes to win. He’s in exactly the same position as you!”
A pall of silence fell over the group, none of the villagers and especially Tazuna managing to look Naruto in the eye. The boy hesitated, realizing he had said too much. “I didn’t mean – I just…”
Kakashi gave the boy an exasperated look. “Naruto, we don’t have time for this. Zabuza is after us right now, and believe me when I say that he won’t stop to have a chat and talk things out.” Unless it’s to boast about how great he is, anyway. “We need a strategy. We need to understand – we need…” A sudden pall of exhaustion came over him as his last shadow clone’s memories caught up with him.
“Kakashi-sensei?” Sakura was giving him a worried look. “Are you all right?”
Kakashi held up his head with one hand as the world ran circles around him, though the trembling in his arm did little to alleviate the sudden bout of nausea. “I’m fine,” he lied, giving her an unsteady smile. “I just got word back from my clone. Gato’s left his holdout. He’s gone.”
Inari looked up for the first time since they entered the building. “What? How?”
“I don’t know,” Kakashi said wearily. He had to stop talking as someone (probably Tsunami) brought some rice to his mouth. He only barely remembered to taste it for poison as he chewed. “He was gone when I got there. Perhaps a ninja carried him out through the window, or it was that masked boy’s space-time technique…” He frowned as he considered the possibility. Had he seen that boy transport Zabuza at any point, or only himself? “…or maybe my informant was simply wrong. I don’t know.”
Sakura looked furtively at the others, then back at him. “But then… what should we do?”
Someone handed Kakashi a glass (probably Tazuna), and he took a deep swig from it. The liquid burned hot in his throat, but as it gushed through his veins some of his strength seemed to return to him. Almost as an afterthought, he took a food pill from the front pocket of his armoured jacket and swallowed it. Some of his exhaustion at least was purely mental, caused by overuse of shadow clones, and from that he would recover soon enough. But the rest would require a good night’s rest to restore, which he did not think he would receive any time soon.
He rested his feet on the table and sat back in his chair, glass in hand.
“Hold on. I need to think…”
Twilight had turned to midnight, and the sickle moon watched over the land below, adrift in a sea of stars that was mirrored by the ocean surrounding the island. From on top of a raised hillock standing close to the quays, Zabuza measured the land with a general’s eye, seeing not a simple fishing village but a future battlefield.
“We’ve lost them,” his minion opined.
“No. We have them exactly where we want them,” Zabuza countered. “Your plan is working perfectly, Haku. All we need do now is flush them out.”
“…yes, master Zabuza.”
Haku was sulking behind his mask, Zabuza knew, and he could not help but smile at the thought. The boy’s reluctance to kill had proved frustratingly resilient, and there had been times when he wished that he had just left the boy lying by the roadside where he had found him, but he had to admit he found it mildly endearing as well. Not that he would ever confess this fact to anyone else, or even to himself unless he felt sufficiently certain no Yamanaka clan members were around to hear him think it.
In the distance, hidden in the black of night, a flotilla approached from underneath the great stone bridge: Long wooden boats, packed to bursting with armed men. The boats slid onto the coast in silence. As they embarked upon the island, Zabuza saw that most of them were no more than rowdy thugs and common bandits, but the lead figures carried an air of quiet danger around them. The foremost of these began to make their way up the hillock towards where Zabuza and Haku stood.
“Say what you will about Gato, but he knows how to raise an army at short notice,” Zabuza murmured appreciatively. It could not compare to the might of even a handful ninjas, but still. Not bad for a civilian.
The ones who approached him were not armoured, but from their bearing there could be no doubt that they were samurai. The first was slight and wore a grey vest, with grey hair and purple markings running down his cheeks. The other was muscled and bare-chested, scarred and wearing an eye-patch. “I am Zōri,” said the first, before pointing to the second. “That’s Waraji. Gato said to follow your orders.”
Zabuza nodded towards the village. “Burn it down. Find the ninjas, and kill anyone in your path.”
The two of them relayed his orders, and soon the entire force was on the move. From their elevated position, Zabuza and his minion watched as his army poured down to engulf the village like a swarm of ants led by torch-wielding fireflies.
Are you comfortable on your throne, Yagura? Please stay seated just a little longer… soon I’ll be coming for you, as well.
Kakashi closed his eyes and relaxed his thoughts, allowing his concerns and confusion to come to the fore of their own accord. So much had happened already, with no sign of stopping: So many events that made no sense. It was too much to tackle all at once, but fortunately Minato-sensei had taught him a technique to deal with that as well.
In his mind he stood once again inside the chamber of the ancient tower, its gates and pillars casting long shadows across the empty room where his informant had believed with such certainty Gato would be. “If he was never there, why was Zabuza defending the place?” he mused aloud. “If he escaped, why was his samurai bodyguard still there? Or if it was a trap, why was there not more of an ambush?”
“Do you mean Gato?” Sakura asked uncertainly. “I don’t really know what happened out there, but there’s not really any way to know for sure, is there?”
“That masked boy probably just carried him out through a window,” Sasuke said. “Makes sense that he would leave some Samurai behind to slow you down – they wouldn’t be of any use to him, anyway.”
Kakashi shook his head. None of the options made much sense to him; none of it made the outcome of the day’s events feel like the only logical conclusion. He did not stop there, did not attempt to solve the puzzle before he had all the pieces, but guided his thoughts onwards and to the next.
“Wherever Gato is, he’s out of our grasp now,” Tazuna muttered. “Whether they’re from the Mist or the Land of Fire, it seems tyrants always get away with letting others do their dirty work.”
The image that appeared before Kakashi next was that of the masked boy, staring at him as he stood over Tazuna’s empty bed, before destroying the house and disappearing into the ground. He went after Tazuna while I appeared to be gone, which makes sense. If that’s the case, then they planted a false trail to make me go after Gato as a distraction, which explains that as well.
But his confusion remained, and so he kept on thinking. A ninja must look underneath the underneath. The masked boy had almost seemed to expect Kakashi. Why would he attack if he thought Kakashi would be there? And if it was only an attack of opportunity, how had Zabuza arrived there so quickly as well?
“Ah, I’m very sorry, Tsunami-san,” he heard Naruto say haltingly.
“There’s no need to apologize for your words, Naruto-san. It’s true that we lied to you, and so we can’t rightly claim to be better than the enemy. We’re the ones who should be asking for your forgiveness.”
“No, that’s not – I mean that too, but I’m saying I’m sorry we let Gato get away. We promised to avenge your husband’s death, and… well I mean we didn’t really promise anything, but still. You begged us to help you, and all we achieved is that your house is destroyed now, too.”
“Forget it,” Inari said sullenly. “He’s gone now. It’s not like it matters anymore.”
More images flashed through Kakashi’s mind, these ones separate and disjointed. He saw the way Zabuza had waited for him at the tower. The way he had attacked at range, wearing Kakashi down rather than trying to kill him quickly. Did he realize I was using a shadow clone? But how could he have known? Finally he saw himself, slamming Tazuna against the wall, demanding answers that the man did not have and could not give. Why hire someone as expensive as Zabuza to kill a simple bridge builder? The image of Tazuna’s house, cut apart by Samurai, appeared before him. Why wait until after Tazuna hired ninjas before trying to kill him? Why not just wait until after our contract ended and then blow up his bridge with him on it? It’s almost as if…
The truth came to him not as a sudden shock, but rather a slow dawning realization. “Oh, no…”
Sakura looked up at him in alarm. “What is it?”
“They’re not after Tazuna,” he explained. “Their true purpose has always been to kill me. They intend to collect the bounties put on my head by my enemies through the black market, as listed in the Black Book, and to steal this left eye of mine.”
“Eh? Say what?” The bridge builder lowered his glass, which he had been about to empty along with the remainder of the bottle. “Surely, you mean that they’re trying to kill you first, so that they can get to me and my bridge afterwards?”
“No,” said Kakashi, “I’m saying this was never about your bloody bridge. Do you understand? Your bridge is worth nothing, you stubborn old fool! You dragged us into your petty conflict with your lies, and now my enemies are coming to kill us all.” Seeing Tazuna’s dismayed expression, Kakashi passed a hand over his face and rubbed his brow wearily. “I’m sorry, but you were just a part of their scheme, Tazuna-san.”
“That doesn’t make any sense,” Sasuke said, frowning. “If they were really after you, why would that masked boy sneak into the house to kill Tazuna? Unless…” His eyes widened in realization.
“Exactly.” Kakashi nodded in recognition of his student’s unspoken answer. “They did that just so I would think that they were really after Tazuna, in order to trick me into trying to defend him and waste chakra when I would otherwise have attacked or run away. From the start they’ve been playing at third level.”
“Third level?” Naruto looked at him in confusion. “I thought you said that nobody ever plays at third level, because you’re supposed to go for the simplest possible strategy that’ll do the trick.”
Indeed, the more complicated the strategy, the more crucial it was for everything to go just right, which meant that no sane person would ever go for something more complicated than a second-level plan… except that against a ninja as talented as Hatake Kakashi, who only used shadow clones to fight and who used meditation training and stimulants so that he could stay awake for weeks if need be, who had the Sharingan to see through any attack and who could outmatch almost any opponent in terms of raw skill, a third-level plot really might be the simplest possible strategy that could work.
And if the second step of the plan was for me to waste my chakra, then the third step will almost certainly be…
He stood up sharply, his growing sense of urgency finally catching up with the severity of the situation. His chair collapsed onto the floor behind him. “We need to go. Naruto, Sakura, Sasuke. We’re going to sneak out of the village, head for the coast and leave this island right now.”
“But… what about the others?” Naruto gestured towards the frightened civilians. “We can’t just leave them behind! If you’re right, then we’re the only reason they’re in danger to begin with!”
“Naruto, if Tazuna hadn’t lied to us, none of this would ever have happened! In fact, the only reason they’re in danger is because we’re still here.” He staggered towards the door, in the hope that the rest of his team would follow if he just led the way. “I will not let my comrades die for the sake of yet another bloody bridge!”
Just as he reached the entrance, there was the muted sound of panicked shouting coming through the door. As their host made to undo the locks, Kakashi focussed chakra to his ears and opened himself to the world around him. A sick churning swelled in his gut as he heard all that he feared: The village was surrounded, under attack by a host of enemies, and with that all hope of a quiet escape was lost. A former Anbu like Kakashi could have slipped past the enemy lines unnoticed, but his genin team lacked the skills to do the same. They could not leave – not with Zabuza’s water clones watching, not with that boy and his strange technique that let him teleport anywhere he wanted in an instant.
(If the first step was to trick Kakashi into defending Tazuna, and the second step of the plan was to drain him of chakra, then the third step would be to force him out into the open and finish him with overwhelming force. That was the conclusion he had come to, but it had come ever so slightly too late.)
“We’ll gather the resistance,” Tazuna said dolefully, his empty glass still in hand as he stood inside the dimly lit corridor, resting his body against a wall. “You’re right… all of this is my fault for bringing you here, and you shouldn’t have to suffer because of it. You make a run for it. We’ll – we’ll hold them off, and defend the village as best as we can.”
“We’re gonna help you,” Naruto said desperately, turning his hopes to Kakashi. “We will, right? We have to. To protect the innocent and fight back against the darkness… Kakashi-sensei, this is everything the Fourth Hokage always talked about! If we run away now, then what’s the point?”
Kakashi gave his student a weary look. The enemy couldn’t have known that Naruto would react this way, could they? But then, they could not have known how Kakashi would react either, yet they had predicted him perfectly all the same. Even after everything that’s happened, am I still missing something?
His apprehension growing by the second, a new thought presented itself to the front of his mind. “Naruto… That local girl you spent so much time with: What exactly did you two end up talking about?”
As Naruto grew an expression even more horrified than the one he had before, Sasuke turned to his teammate and spoke. “Local girl? Naruto, what is he talking about?”
Naruto began spluttering in response, but Sakura talked over him, distractedly. “Sensei’s referring to that girl Naruto’s been besotted with since we got here. You really didn’t notice?” Then her expression changed as she realized what Kakashi had meant. “Oh no… Naruto, you didn’t!”
Kakashi quietly leaned his head against the doorpost as the others scolded Naruto for his mistake. He wanted nothing more than to collapse on the spot and wake up when all of this was over, but he still had enemies to fight and a team to save – he was on a mission and he could not afford to sleep just yet.
I suppose this is where I find out whether I’m really as clever as I think I am. Because right now, for what might be the third time in my life… I think I really need to be.