It was hard to tell that the village was under attack. There was panicked shouting in the streets and screaming in the distance, but that could have been for any number of reasons. The flames that were spreading to the rooftops at the edge of the village might have been some natural disaster, and the figures crawling along the horizon might only have been carrying torches to illuminate their path in the dark. But when Naruto focussed chakra to his nose he could smell a foul stench upon the air, and though he had never sensed it before, there was no mistaking it for anything other than the scent of death.
“…but sensei, you have already used up most of your chakra,” Sakura was saying, sounding almost pleading, though Naruto was not sure what she was pleading for. “Are you really going to be all right?”
Their teacher gave them what Naruto thought was meant to be a reassuring smile, but it was hard to tell through the mask. His right eye, however, carried all the intended meaning. “Don’t worry. I may not look like it, but I’m actually quite a skilled ninja. I’ll be fine.” Using the tip of a kunai he drew a drop of blood from his thumb, and after forming the necessary seals, he placed his hands on the ground. The expulsion of air that followed saw a pack of hounds manifested before him: Six ninja dogs of varying breeds and sizes, ranging from a tiny pug to a truly massive wolfhound.
“There is a ninja called Zabuza on this island, accompanied by a young man with chakra like none of the others,” Kakashi told the pack. “Can you find them for me?”
The dogs barked their acknowledgement, and scattered on his command.
There was something off about even trained ninja dogs being able to follow commands like that, but there were other things that required Naruto’s attention. Their sensei was swaying visibly from the effort of standing up, and it was clear to Naruto that this technique carried a hefty price in terms of chakra, but there was also no point in repeating what Sakura had already said.
“Then what about us?” he asked instead. He indicated his teammates and the three civilians who stood huddled together behind him, their eyes searching frantically for any sign of the enemy. “What do you want us to do, sensei?”
Hatake Kakashi gave him a contemplative look. “What I want is for you to stay safe, and hide in the house with the others while I take care of everything. But, there is a difference between what I want and what is right: In your position I would probably fight and protect the villagers despite the risk, so I can’t rightly tell you to do otherwise. Who you are and what it is you need to do… that is something you’ll have to decide for yourselves.”
With those words their teacher departed, and then they were alone: A team of genin and three civilians, standing together in the doorway of the rower’s house, watching the village slowly descend into chaos.
Sasuke sniffed, breaking the silence. “And he’s gone again. Useless bastard.”
“You can’t say that,” Sakura protested. “He’s risking his life for us, taking the fight against Zabuza and that masked boy away from the village so we have a chance to survive. He’s a great ninja.” Her expression fell. “Even if he can be a little unreliable sometimes…”
Naruto ignored them both. “We’re gonna help the villagers, right? I mean, after everything that’s happened and everything we’ve done, we can’t just sit here and hide.”
Sakura looked at him incredulously. “Don’t be stupid, Naruto. There’s one, maybe two jōnin-level ninja out there, and even if they don’t really care about us they’ll still kill us if we get in the way. Plus there are all those bandits and samurai, and we don’t have any real combat experience. We should hide.”
“Kakashi would’ve fought in our place,” Naruto protested. “He said so himself.”
“Kakashi-sensei was already a jōnin when he was our age! We’re just not like him. And as amazing as he is, I think he might have forgotten what it was like to be young.” Her brow furrowed. “That is, if he was ever even young at all…”
Naruto turned towards his other companion for support: Sasuke was fingering the hilt of his sword again, a slight tremor in his hand and a dangerous glint in his eyes. “I’m not going to run away and cry again,” he said. “If these people attack us, we’ll fight them, and they’ll come to regret their mistake.”
Sakura looked from one to the other in desperation. Then she turned towards the civilians standing in the doorway, who were staring at the three ninjas in fearful silence. Finally she bowed her head in resignation. “This is madness, complete and utter madness… but it seems that I’m mad as well. Fine then, we’ll fight.” She pointed an angry finger at Naruto. “But if I die it’ll be your fault, you got that?”
Naruto winced as his imagination threw up an image of her broken body lying in some nameless, muddy street. “Ah… got it.”
In the distance, manoeuvring through a cluster of panicked civilians scattering in every direction, a group of familiar people approached, though one particular pretty face was conspicuously absent.
“The resistance,” Tazuna cried in relief, as he met up with the two dozen rugged and ragged fighters and greeted them all in turn. When he came back there was a grim smile on his face and a stubborn hope in his eyes. “Looks like you ninjas won’t have to fight alone – Kaiza’s army stands with you, for better or for worse. Now, what would you have us do?”
Naruto waited patiently for one of the others to reply, but found instead that they were looking at him. “Me?” Naruto pointed an unsteady finger at himself. “But…”
“Of course you,” Sakura said irately. “You’re the reason we didn’t just go back to Konoha. You’re the one who trained the villagers, and you’re the one who insisted we should stay and fight. Now tell us your plan already, before I recover my senses and change my mind.”
Black dread flooded Naruto’s systems once again, though now it was a very different kind of fear that pulsed through his veins. He wanted to point out how misguided Sakura’s argument was – that strategy was not the same as leadership and that rank should be determined by ability and not some misguided sense of fairness, but a quiet voice in the back of his mind gave him pause.
This is what I always wanted, isn’t it? Now, for the first time in my life, I have the chance to show them that I can really help improve this world…
“Right,” he said, slowly nodding to himself. I can do this. He breathed deeply as he considered the situation, the enemy they were up against and the tools available. A whole string of cunning ploys and stratagems absorbed from half-read books and scrolls flashed through his mind, and were immediately sorted into categories ranging from ‘not relevant’ to ‘worse than useless’. Mentally, he could hear his teacher’s voice berating him: Being smart is not the same as being clever. The best option is usually the simplest possible strategy that can be made to work.
Rather than being clever, what could I do that I would actually expect to work?
“Have the resistance gather all the civilians to the centre of the village,” he told Tazuna. Can’t hide them inside the buildings, they’d just burn it down along with the rest of the village. “Get them to throw up barricades where the roads are narrowest, use barrels or garbage or whatever else you’ve got lying around. We’ll buy you as much time as we can, but it’ll be up to you to stop them from getting through.”
Tazuna gave a brief nod, and then he and the resistance scattered, shouting instructions to the rest of the panicking villagers as they went.
“Buy them time?” Sakura repeated sceptically. “There must be scores of enemies out there; they’ll run right over us. How are we supposed to-”
“You’re right,” he said, cutting her off. “As ninjas we’re faster and stronger than normal people, but we can still get overwhelmed. So we don’t let them do that. We’ll use hit and run tactics, using our speed to pick our battles, and whenever there’s too many of them to fight we’ll fall back to the barricades, let them bunch up and hit them with area-of-effect attacks. Then we keep doing that until they run away.”
“Simple, but effective.” Sasuke’s head dipped slightly in acknowledgement. “It should work. But what if Zabuza and his teleporting ally show up? What do we do then?”
“We’ll have to trust in Kakashi-sensei to take care of them,” Naruto said quietly. “But if he fails, and they do come here…” He formed the necessary hand seals, and half a dozen identical clones appeared besides them. “Then my clones will distract them for as long as possible, while we run.”
On a faraway hillock, overlooking the seaside village, Haku took his place by his master’s side. Below them the battle was unfolding, though it might more aptly be called a slaughter. The defenceless civilians were hemmed in and herded to the centre like cattle, and while many of them escaped or were captured, many more were cut apart and left to die along the road by the drunk and undisciplined bandits. The fires that had been started all along the outer ring of the village claimed more lives still, and the scent of burning flesh reached them even here.
Zabuza breathed in deeply, his bare chest nearly doubling in size as he took in the foul air. “Ah, the smell of battle. It’s been far too long since we had ourselves a good scrap, wouldn’t you agree, Haku?”
It was not Haku’s place to disagree. He kept his gaze dead ahead, focusing his attention on the array of miniature ice portals that he was using to watch the battle. “As you say, Master Zabuza.”
Zabuza chuckled, a deep throaty sound that reverberated within his mighty chest and carried far through the still night air. “You should be pleased, Haku. All of this, everything that’s happened, is exactly as you planned. The White Fang must be almost out of chakra by now, and he and his little genin are trapped inside the village like cornered rats. I never imagined you’d come up with a plan this merciless, you really have outdone yourself. But I still don’t get how you managed to predict Kakashi so well; how did you know he wouldn’t just abandon the civilians the moment he first saw us?”
“It’s obvious if you take your beliefs seriously,” Haku said with just a touch of ice in his voice. He wasn’t sure if his master was provoking him intentionally or if his remark really had been intended as a compliment, but he resolved not to let it get to him either way. He was a shinobi, after all. “You’ve said many times that Leaf ninjas are too soft and that this makes them weak. However, if they really were weak they could never have won three shinobi world wars. So the correct conclusion is that they are hypocrites, motivated not to do good but by a desire to have others think of them as being good.”
“Oh?” His master was looking at him with good humour. “What difference does that make?”
Haku turned away from his crystal ice mirrors and gave Zabuza his full attention. “If we forced Hatake Kakashi to choose between his life and any number of civilians, he would simply turn away, since if he were truly that good a person he would be dead. But if the choice is between the certain death of a civilian he knows and a mere risk to his own life, then he will choose the latter in order to avoid having to think of himself as a bad person. To exploit this, all we need do is to confront him with variations of this same choice, over and over until finally the effect is the same as if he chose to sacrifice his life after all.”
“I see,” said Zabuza, and Haku could see that he was smirking now. “Then if you understand him so well, tell me: What is Kakashi doing right now?”
Haku followed his master’s gaze to the portal array, which showed that the situation had changed: The civilians were busy constructing some sort of makeshift barricade in the centre of the village which they huddled and hid behind, while the Konoha genin harassed and delayed the bandit forces. Hatake Kakashi was nowhere to be seen, and instead the defence seemed to be led by-
“What is he doing?” Haku frantically adjusted the view offered by his ice mirrors, as if that would change the reality that they revealed. The White Fang is supposed to either lead an attempt to break through our forces and flee, or else hide somewhere along with the rest of his genin team, not leave his students out in the open without protection! It made no sense. The kind of person who talks about having something important to protect would never just abandon his team like that, not in a million years!
“He’s only pretending to abandon them,” Haku said, realizing the truth of it as he spoke. “He’s hoping to convince us that attacking his team is pointless since he does not care. However, he must realize it costs us nothing to call his bluff and attack them regardless, so why would he think that this could ever work?”
“It’s because he’s using them as bait,” Zabuza said smugly. “He meant for you to arrive at that conclusion and so trick us into attacking them. If we go after his genin now, he’ll either try to escape the village while we’re distracted or he’ll spring a trap on us. Since he knows I use water clones, his real plan is probably to kill you before you can teleport away, and then flee. A clever ploy, but we won’t fall for it.”
Haku deflated. That makes sense, and yet… would the White Fang really risk his students’ lives like that?
Then again, the infamous copy-ninja was known as cold-hearted Kakashi, the friend-killer. Just as Haku was about to conclude that his instincts about the man had simply been wrong, another thought occurred to him: Now the genin team was effectively safe from attack by the two of them, at no cost to himself, which meant that if Haku’s first guess had been right then Kakashi’s plan worked perfectly.
Hatake Kakashi could not possibly have predicted that master Zabuza would react like this… could he?
Haku opened his mouth to warn his master, and immediately closed it again. This is what I wanted, isn’t it? Now the battle is just between us and the White Fang, with no need for the others to die. He turned to look at his master, who was observing the village intently, muscles coiled and ready to spring at the first sign of the copy-ninja. But I’m my master’s weapon… I’m not supposed to have any goals of my own.
…surely the White Fang could not have predicted that I would react like this, as well?
Haku’s thoughts were disturbed by a sound coming up from behind them: A pitter-patter of padded paws upon the moist soil, slowly drawing closer, approaching through the darkness at an almost leisurely pace. The two of them turned around in alarm, their weapons at the ready as they waited for the enemy, Haku gripping his tantō and his needles while Zabuza wielded his great cleaver.
From out of the darkness trod a small brown pug, with a dark snout and floppy ears. It was wearing a small blue vest that marked it as a spirit animal, and in its mouth there was a scroll which it gently placed upon the ground before them. The animal looked up at them expectantly, as though waiting for a reward, but when none was forthcoming it simply vanished with a small popping sound.
There was a long, silent look that passed between Haku and his master, neither of them quite sure what to make of this development.
“It’s probably trapped,” Zabuza suggested at last.
“Yes,” Haku agreed. Forming his unique hand seals with one hand, he pushed his chakra towards the scroll and formed several small ice mirrors that lifted the parchment up into the air, slowly unfolding it so that the text pointed directly away from the two of them. Sweat ran down his brow: Using such small portals required much less chakra, but keeping so many of them open at once still drained him. Finally he viewed the opened letter through his mirror array, preventing any possibility of harm.
“Dear Momochi Zabuza and Haku-kun,” he read aloud, flinching only slightly at the mention of his name. “I deeply regret that we got off on the wrong foot before, and so I would like to take some time off from our busy schedules to repair our damaged relationship. I see no reason why we should be enemies, and I intend to prove my sincerity in this regard by offering you a worthwhile gift. If this proposal is of interest to you, please meet me at the site of the explosion. Sincerely, Hatake Kakashi.”
Zabuza frowned in confusion. “What explosion?”
There was a flash of blinding light followed by a sound like rolling thunder. When they turned around they saw a solitary figure standing right in the centre of Tazuna’s massive stone bridge that spanned across the water, seeming to wait patiently as he looked in their direction.
Haku could sense his master tensing up, his powerful chakra thickening the night air with anticipation. “It’s a trap,” he said with certainty. “You mustn’t go.”
“How could it possibly be a trap? Kakashi chose a place surrounded by water from all sides, with no cover and nowhere to hide from me. He doesn’t have the chakra to keep making shadow clones, while I’m in no danger as long as I use this cloned body. It’s the perfect time and place for me to fight him.”
Somehow this only made Haku more anxious, even more convinced that it was a trap for all that the evidence pointed the other way, but he did not understand how that could be and so he said nothing.
His master’s muscles relaxed and some of the pressure lifted from the air. “No… I think I know what he intends to do.” The bandages twitched in tandem with his smile. “Let’s see what he has to offer us.”
Sakura did not need to focus chakra to her eyes in order to make out each individual opponent amongst the band of angry men opposing her in the middle of the street. Many of them were savage looking brigands wielding crude knives and axes who seemed to have made murder and pillaging their trade, but others looked to be angry youths drunk on alcohol and adrenaline, or gaunt men wearing the same conical hats she had seen so many times before in the Land of Waves. They’re probably just poor locals, without money to buy food or clothes, who turned to Gato out of desperation…
“C’mon big Lu, it’s only a little girl! You’re not scared of a little girl, are you?”
“Shut up, you saw what she did to Chao,” growled Lu, who seemed a bit smarter than the others – or perhaps just a mite less intoxicated. “Why don’t you go, if you’re such a big brave fighter, huh?”
“Fine then, watch this!” One of the larger brutes finally scrounged up the courage to charge at her – which involved having to jump over the body of the last one who attempted the same – and with a loud roar launched himself at her. With practiced ease now she tossed her shuriken at the target, just as she had done at the academy hundreds of times before, and as always the throwing star struck its mark. He stumbled forward and gurgled, pawing vainly at his throat as blood poured out of his mouth before finally collapsing onto the ground. The others took a step back, visibly paling as they watched him slowly die.
Exactly like at the academy, she repeated to herself. Only, unlike her training under Iruka-sensei and Mizuki-sensei, the targets moved and kept moving even after she hit them. Even now her opponent was rolling around on the mud as though he were on fire, but the dark liquid that was pooling around him did nothing to put out the pain. It took what seemed like long minutes for him to finally stop, and when a foul stench rose up from his body she knew that he was dead at last.
It’s not so bad if they’re far away. I’m better with throwing weapons anyway. I don’t really need my sword at all.
Some of the local drunks – bandits, she corrected herself – started throwing projectiles of their own at her, but they were thrown in wide arcs and painfully easy to dodge. She stepped left, right, then backward and forwards as she dodged each thrown bottle, spear and knife in turn.
It’s just like dancing, really. It’s just a little more important that I don’t miss a step.
Finally there were no more projectiles to be thrown and the thugs went back to hurling curses. That was when she began tossing shuriken into their ranks once more, and they immediately scattered with panicked shouts and frightened yelps.
She knew she should feel pleased about that: They were the enemy, and as a shinobi, it was her duty to destroy them. Rule number twenty-four: A Shinobi must not show mercy to his enemies, for they shall show none in return, she duly recited. She could almost imagine Iruka-sensei congratulating her on getting the answer right, saying that she was simply doing her duty and that she should not feel guilty about it. Only, a small treacherous voice in the back of her mind insisted, and kept stubbornly repeating, that she did not feel nearly bad enough.
The bandits were grouping together again, and Sakura was shaken out of her reverie as she realized they were preparing themselves for a charge. This time they came at her like a roaring stampede, and it was all she could do to run up the wall of the nearest house and leap onto the thatched roof. Just like climbing trees. Peering out over the edge, she could see that they had clustered up at the base of the building, tearing into the structure with picks and axes, howling in impotent rage and almost climbing over each other in their urge to get at her and tear her apart.
Cluster them together and hit them with area-of-effect attacks: That was the plan, right, Naruto?
She formed the Snake seal followed by the Rat, and then she pushed her chakra outwards, letting it waft over the group like an invisible perfume. She probed and prodded, pushing her chakra deep into their minds, and focussing on the very concept of the word nightmare. Of deep, dark fears suppressed and thought long forgotten, only to come bubbling to the surface in one’s most vulnerable moment…
She could see their eyes widening as the Hell-viewing genjutsu took root. Then their screams turned to fright, their arms flailing wildly as they spluttered incoherently, until finally the whole group descended into mindless panic. Some ran, some cowered, and still others started hacking away at their own comrades – perhaps thinking themselves surrounded by monsters, or perhaps filled with paranoid delusions of persecution and betrayal. As soon as the technique was complete she went back to throwing shuriken. She picked each of them off in turn, taking out one foe at a time with meticulous precision, until finally the bandits were all dead or fleeing. A small mound of corpses lay piled against the face of the building she stood on.
Is it possible that I am, maybe, just a little too good at this?
The thought did not seem fair to her. What kind of test was life supposed to be, if you could lose points for doing your work too well? And yet, that small hidden part of her was convinced that it was true, and that it could not possibly be any other way.
She shook her head and forced herself to return to the present. She was standing on a slanted roof, in a village surrounded by enemies, and the fire that had gripped the village’s outskirts was creeping ever closer. Where are Naruto and Sasuke? We should be working together. Are they holding up their part of the streets? She cast her eyes over the village, looking for signs of her blond companion, who had sent his clones to cover a wide area. When she finally found him, her eyes went wide and she cursed inwardly.
…what in the name of the Sage does he think he’s doing?