Zabuza’s water clone arrived at the great stone bridge alone.
He had ordered Haku to stay behind just in case Kakashi had planned this meeting specifically to target the boy – Kakashi might well be able to slip away with his team if Zabuza’s teleporting minion perished. Haku was however keeping a careful watch from several different angles using ice mirrors set up along the coast, and he had seen nothing to indicate a trap. Zabuza supposed Kakashi could have trapped the bridge itself, but he somehow doubted that the Leaf ninja would destroy the very object he had come here to protect, just to take out a single water clone when the White Fang himself still stood on it.
There really was no indication that this meeting was anything other than what it appeared to be.
Warily, ever so carefully, Zabuza approached the silhouette waiting for him at the very end of that unfinished bridge. The strands of mist that drifted around the structure was not of his own devising, and in the dark of the night he could see scant feet ahead of him, but that suited Zabuza just fine: He was a former Anbu of the Hidden Mist, and when it came to silent killing there was no greater master. If need be, he could kill by sound alone. It was just another thing that was to his advantage, and not Kakashi’s.
“Ah, Momochi Zabuza-san,” Hatake Kakashi said without so much as turning around.
Zabuza did not let his annoyance show. “Kakashi. What is this about?”
“I wanted to see whether I could come to an agreement with you.” Kakashi calmly turned around, his hands in his pockets, looking entirely at ease. It was a bluff, of course, but it still managed to irritate Zabuza. “I have to admit I’m disappointed, Zabuza-san. I had hoped you were a better man than this.” He took one hand from his pocket and gestured towards the burning village that enclosed the bay, where a tall plume of smoke now rose and from which a smell drifted that clung to a man’s nostrils and followed him wherever he went.
“What, you’re upset about a few dead peasants?” Zabuza scoffed loudly. “You can’t possibly have been a jōnin for so long and still be this naïve, Kakashi. All the people in this dirt village combined are worth less than even one true ninja. Entire countries like the Land of Rain were reduced to rubble by you and your people during the Second War, just because it was a convenient battleground, or did you forget?”
“I did not forget,” Kakashi said softly. “But that was war, and in times of war innocent people die, no matter how much you try to prevent it. These people died for no reason other than to satisfy your personal ambition.”
Zabuza clutched his Great Beheading Blade more tightly. “…and just what do you think that ambition is, Kakashi? I’m fighting a war, too. The only difference is that you have a country to justify your actions, while the Eternal Tyrant still holds onto mine. Do you think that different rules apply to you, just because you have more men?”
“Perhaps.” Kakashi shrugged. “When you have an entire people who support your leader and his commands, it does change certain things. Do you think that if anybody could declare themselves Kage and wage their own wars, the world would be a better place for it?”
Zabuza’s patience for philosophy had run out. “I see Haku was right about you being a hypocrite. Tell me your offer, and quickly, before I cut off your head with this little knife of mine.”
“Of course.” Kakashi’s hand went up to his forehead protector and tapped the armoured cloth where it obscured his left eye. “It’s my Sharingan you’re after, isn’t it? Then I offer it to you willingly, in exchange for my students’ safe return to Konoha.”
Zabuza could not help but smile. The proposal was exactly what he had expected: A desperate move by a desperate man. “And why should I accept your offer, when I can simply kill you and take the eye from your still-warm corpse?”
“Well, that’s because-” in a blur of motion Kakashi raised his forehead protector with one hand and drew a kunai from his pocket with the other, pointing the tip of the knife directly at the centre of his crimson eye. “If you don’t accept my offer, I will destroy the Sharingan right here and now!”
For a moment Zabuza was struck dumb by the sheer audacity of his opponent, but then he burst out laughing. “Very good, Kakashi. Very good! Congratulations, you managed to find a way for both of us to win. I accept your offer: Your eye in exchange for your students to live.”
“I will also find a way to send all of my money to you once I return to Konoha,” Kakashi said as he lowered the knife to his side. “It may take a little while, but if I call in a few favours I should be able to gather several times as much as the bounties on my head, to compensate you for the risk you’re taking.”
“Good, good. I see you have thought of everything. Now carve out your eye and give it to me.”
The White Fang let out a short, sad sigh. “…you’re not going to let my team leave, are you?”
“Why?” The man sounded almost curious. “I really am being sincere: If you let me go, you will have both my eye and my money. I can give you more assurances if need be.”
“Nah, I believe you. I just don’t care.” It was probably smarter to leave Kakashi in the dark, Zabuza reflected, but it was just too much fun to watch the infamous ninja squirm. “The ability to see the future, read minds, even bend space and time… I don’t know if that eye has any of those abilities, or if it’s all just rumours and myth. It could be a coloured marble for all I care; the only thing that matters is that everyone believes it can do those things.” He pointed at Kakashi’s Sharingan. “That crimson eye shall be my banner, and once I transplant it all who see it will know: There walks Momochi Zabuza, the man who killed the White Fang. My enemies will run in fear of me, armies will flock to me, and with the full power of the Mist behind me I shall pull the throne out from underneath Yagura’s bloody corpse!”
“In other words, you intend to become exactly what you hate,” Kakashi said dryly.
“No… there is one difference. Yagura never trusted anyone, not even his own followers – the ones who should have been his closest allies.” A foul taste surfaced in Zabuza’s mouth, but he forced it down. “He turned his own people against each other and against himself because of his rampant paranoia, and tore my country apart as a result. I will not make the same mistake: Haku is only the first, but when I reign I shall have thousands of followers, every one of them completely loyal to me and me alone.”
“That sounds like a nice dream to have,” Kakashi said as he leisurely drew his white sword from his back. “But unfortunately none of that is going to happen, because I’m going to kill you right here and now.”
Zabuza could not help but bark an incredulous laugh as he hefted his Executioner’s Blade with both hands. “Brave words, but how do you intend to back them up? Show me, Kakashi!”
He charged directly at the White Fang, who charged right back at him. When he swung his much larger weapon Kakashi did not try to parry but ducked underneath it and sprang up in a roll, slashing at Zabuza while running past him. In response Zabuza slammed the tip of his blade into the surface of the bridge and used his momentum to swing around by the handle, turning a full one-eighty degrees before leaping after Kakashi. He pulled his sword up behind him and swung it directly at his enemy, and this time he briefly felt the tip of the blade connect. Kakashi sprang backwards and the two were separated once more, but the damage had been done: There was a gash across Kakashi’s armoured jacket, from which a steady stream of blood now seeped.
He smiled at the confirmation of what he had already suspected. “Shadow clones don’t bleed, Kakashi.”
“Neither do water clones,” Kakashi calmly replied, as he pointed at Zabuza’s right leg.
Zabuza looked down, certain he would find nothing there, only to recoil at the sight of his own blood trickling down from a cut across his thigh. No, that’s not possible! My real body is still hiding in the water of the bay, I’m sure of it! He had no time to consider the issue any further, as Kakashi took advantage of his distraction to cast a new technique, and Zabuza watched in shock as the legendary ninja flicked through all forty-four hand-seals for a full-powered Water Dragon Technique in a matter of seconds. I have to use the same technique to counter it or I’m dead!
Gigantic pillars of water rose up from the ocean on either side of the bridge in response to their efforts, but Kakashi finished first and his column transformed into a massive water Dragon, taking flight and roaring its defiance with a veritable monsoon of water droplets spraying from its open jaws. Zabuza’s technique completed a second after, and his own dragon burst into life, taking flight and striking towards Kakashi’s dragon, which immediately flew out of the way. The two circled one another in mid-air, their serpentine bodies forming a double helix as each sought to outmanoeuvre the other in their flight to the skies. What’s going on? Why can’t I make contact?
“Master Zabuza! Master Zabuza, what are you doing?”
Haku’s voice was coming from one of his portals, and it was enough to snap Zabuza out of it. Genjutsu! He flared his chakra, and Kakashi’s water dragon vanished entirely, only his own dragon remaining as it flew ever further up into the air by itself. He looked down, and saw that the cut on his leg had vanished as well. When did that bastard find the time to cast genjutsu? He slashed his right hand at his enemy, and in reply the massive Water Dragon descended upon Kakashi, roaring with rage along with its master.
Kakashi formed a single hand seal in reply and body-flickered to the coastal end of the bridge, and it was only then that Zabuza noticed Kakashi’s Sharingan spinning inside its socket. That eye! That cursed bloody eye can cast genjutsu! But before he could do anything else Kakashi formed another hand sign, and the great stone bridge detonated with the sound of a hundred buried explosive tags, taking Zabuza’s clone and his Dragon out with it.
I have to keep Haku and my real body away from this monster, was the last thing Zabuza remembered thinking, and then he was gone.
A gulp of water entered Zabuza’s lungs as the wave of memories hit him, and his real body emerged from the water of the bay coughing and spluttering. He slowly recovered his bearings as he made his way across the water to the bay’s coast, where one of Haku’s frozen mirrors was hidden inside a hollow tree.
“Master Zabuza,” the boy called in a concerned voice. “Is that you? Are you all right?”
“I’m fine, Haku. Kakashi just caught me off guard, that’s all. He made me waste chakra on a Water Dragon, but no more.” He leaned against the tree for support, somehow feeling as though he had missed something, but he could not think of anything else Kakashi had accomplished with his trickery except escape from him. “It seems the Sharingan can cast genjutsu just by looking you in the eye,” he added.
“Should I come over to you, master?”
“No,” Zabuza said immediately. “I want you to go after that damned bridge builder and those ninja brats. They should be easy prey now that we know where Kakashi is, and if nothing else it will force him to go back and defend them again.”
He could hear the boy exit through another portal, leaving Zabuza alone with his thoughts. The events at that bridge kept gnawing at him. There was more to the legends about the Sharingan than he had assumed, he was certain of that now, but he still could not tell which stories to believe and which to dismiss.
The Cursed Eyes of Misery, which can see the future, read and control minds, and bend space and time…
He was starting to reconsider sending Haku away – the boy had a knack for figuring out mysteries like these – when he heard something coming up from behind him. It was the familiar pitter-patter of padded paws upon the moist soil, slowly drawing closer, approaching through the darkness at a leisurely pace. When he drew his Executioner’s Blade and turned around, he found a small pug with a dark nose and floppy ears walking up to him, the same one that had managed to find his clone earlier.
That’s not possible, I was hiding underwater! He pulled out a knife and threw it at the dog with an angry gesture, but the pug vanished into thin air before it was struck. Without delaying another second, he ran off in a random direction, dashing through the forest in a desperate attempt to lose his pursuer. He knew I was hiding in the water. How? His mind raced through the possibilities, trying to find anything he could have said or done to give it away. He nearly tripped over a root when the realization came to him. The Sharingan can read minds! When he first cast his genjutsu, I recalled my true hiding place. He planned all of this from the start. But if he went through all that trouble, that means he must only be able to read surface thoughts, so if I can just shake him off he won’t be able to find my real body again.
He paused and turned around. Perhaps I should head back to the lake…
The sound of dogs howling in the distance disrupted his thoughts, and Zabuza cursed silently. He ran off in another direction, though every path looked the same in the blackness underneath the forest canopy, which the waning moon could not hope to pierce. But robbed as he was of sight he could still hear the baying of the hounds as they circled him, drawing ever closer. They’re all around me, hunting me…
His thoughts went back to the other times he had been hunted, running for his life, chased by ninjas with white masks that hid their faces. The fear he had amassed and suppressed over all those years finally struck him all at once: He was back in the Mizukage’s inner sanctum, right after his assassination attempt had been discovered, running through those cold stone corridors with shadows chasing him from every direction. He was fleeing his own country, a mere handful of chūnin accompanying him, all the others having bowed to Yagura the moment his plan turned sour. At last he was alone, hiding in some forgotten backwater, afraid to carry his weapons openly for fear of being discovered as a rogue ninja. Afraid to even look civilians in the eye, until at last he had turned to Gato out of sheer desperation.
The childlike figure of Yagura appeared before him then, lounging on his throne the way Zabuza had imagined it so many times before. The Eternal Mizukage was sitting there with his white robes and conical hat, laughing at his pitiful struggles, mocking his pathetic existence. All around Zabuza there were hunter-ninjas wearing white masks, and as they closed on him they drew their swords, silent as death.
Zabuza ground to a halt, gripping his Executioner’s Sword and dismissing the image with a burst of chakra. “You think you can frighten me that easily, Kakashi? I know you’re almost out of chakra… I’m not scared of your petty psychological tricks.” He glared at the faint silhouette that appeared in the darkness before him with murderous intent, though he took care not to look anywhere near where he thought the eyes would be. “I’ll have you know that my Haku is chasing down your precious little students even as we speak. In some ways, that boy is even stronger than I am. Your brats won’t stand a chance unless you go back to help them.”
“Oh, I know.” The silhouette was drawing closer now, and Zabuza could see that it was somehow larger than it was supposed to be, and the sound it made was that of claws dragging along the ground. A glowing crimson orb hovered in the darkness above it, casting an eerie red light. “I meant for you to do that, Zabuza-kun. I made you do it, in fact, using this eye of mine.”
Zabuza forced himself to bark out an incredulous laugh. “Even if you had that ability, do you expect me to believe that a soft Konoha ninja like you would sacrifice his students like that? What a pathetic bluff.” He pushed his chakra even further, flaring it until no genjutsu in the world could have held him, but still that eye kept glowing crimson, and still the dogs kept howling, drawing ever closer as they circled him.
“It really is amazing, how stupid people are,” the voice replied. “When I was thirteen, I murdered my own comrades to get this left eye of mine, and I was called friend-killer for it. I spent my life hunting down traitors like you just for fun, and earned the name ‘cold hearted Kakashi’ for my ruthlessness. I’m feared across all the nations of the world as the dreaded White Fang, but all I have to do is put on a casual air and people ignore the facts and believe whatever they please.” The figure strode out of the darkness, and Zabuza saw that it was a massive wolfhound, snarling and slavering as it bared its fangs at him with a visceral hunger. On top of that monstrous creature sat the White Fang, his bone-white chakra blade in hand, while his Sharingan illuminated his masked face with an unearthly crimson glow. Raw killing intent wafted from him like a physical wall. “Zabuza-kun, please allow me to show you… what kind of ninja I truly am.”
Zabuza wavered for just one moment, and then he was running without any conscious decision ever having been made, the ravenous wolfhound following so close behind him he could almost feel its warm breath upon his neck. Distance! If I can just put some distance between us, I could fight him… His hands formed the seals for the water clone technique of their own accord, and three copies of him appeared and scattered in every direction. He felt the wolfhound move further away from him, and for a moment he allowed himself to hope. Then he stumbled as fresh memories struck him, one of his water clones having been torn in half by the monstrous creature. His second body was torn asunder by a whole pack of vicious dogs, leaping from out of the darkness in their multitude and tearing him apart. The third was run down by the rider itself, a glowing white chakra blade bursting through his chest as he ran.
How can he be this strong? He should be nearly out of chakra! But even as Zabuza’s mind told him that he should turn around and fight, his body remembered the pain of dying, remembered falling to the White Fang so many times before, and refused to stop running. “Haku!” he cried in desperation, vainly looking for an ice mirror to save him. “Haku, where are you? I need your help! Haku!”
A feral creature burst out of the darkness, growling and snarling, and Zabuza thrust out his blade in panicked reflex. A small dog nearly impaled itself upon the tip before vanishing as it reached his sword, only its blue coat wrapping itself around his sword, the explosive tags lining the inside already sizzling. Zabuza threw his sword away, but even so the edge of the shockwave caught him and he was thrown across the forest floor by the blast. Five more dogs came out of the shadows and fell upon him, tearing into his limbs with bloody savagery as he struggled vainly to hold them off, until finally the White Fang himself appeared before him. Still seated on his monstrous hound, he looked down at Zabuza with one merciless crimson eye, not even bothering to finish him off himself.
No… I refuse to die like this!
With a mighty shout he flared his chakra and threw the dogs away from him, but a second later they were upon him again, biting and rending his flesh. In blinding agony and sensing death approach, his mind recalled the first time he had been surrounded by worthless braying animals, during the final academy graduation exam. He had been ordered to kill his one and only friend back then, and he had done so out of fear for disobeying, but something in him had snapped. I will show you how good I am at killing, he remembered thinking, as he flared his chakra far beyond what was considered safe or even possible, and killed everybody.
Zabuza flared his chakra again, one last time.
Hatake Kakashi was watching cautiously from on top of his loyal steed as Zabuza finally fell beneath his pack, when suddenly there was a surge of chakra and raw killing intent emanating from the man that sent him reeling in shock. He looked on in dismay as Zabuza picked up one of his dogs by the scruff of its neck and smashed it upon the ground, and then the man found his Executioner’s Blade once more and whirled it around him in deadly arcs as though it weighed nothing. Kakashi hastily ordered his hounds to fall back, but the damage had been done: All around Zabuza the ground was littered with wounded and dying dogs, and they vanished back to the place of their summoning, one by one.
“Do you think you’re the only one with secret techniques, Kakashi? Now you see why I’m called the Daemon of the Bloody Mist!” Chakra was swirling around Zabuza like a purple mist, wreathing his wounded body, cloaking him like a daemon’s shroud. Kakashi’s eyes widened as he realized just what he was looking at: He’s using the eight gates!
The eight-gate technique let the user flare one’s chakra far beyond what was normally possible, while tearing their own body apart in the process. If he’s using the Eight Gates, I can’t outrun him. Kakashi looked around desperately as he searched through his options. I have no more chakra for ninjutsu, genjutsu won’t affect him like this… He went through his pouch and found only a handful of caltrops, which he scattered around him in the hope of using his superior vision to his advantage. I have no choice but to open the First Gate myself, and together with the Sharingan, hope that it’s enough to defeat him.
But the attack never came. No sooner had Zabuza rid himself of the dogs, or he turned tail and fled towards the water of the bay. He did not stop there, but kept on running across the water at an incredible pace, his shrinking figure swiftly fading into the distance. Kakashi slowly lowered his white chakra sword as he realized how very close to death he had just come. His wolf hound whined softly.
I broke my own rule and executed a fourth-level plan; if even one part of my scheme had gone wrong, I would have died for it. He pictured Minato-sensei chastising him from the afterlife for taking such risks. But no, Kakashi had not left it all up to chance: He had used the Sharingan to plant suggestions into Zabuza’s head to force him to make mistakes, and of course he had made certain necessary sacrifices…
He ordered his dog into a trod, moving back towards the village, but he already knew that even if he arrived in time he would not have the chakra to make a difference. Obito, Rin, forgive me. I betrayed your trust in me once again.
Hidden amongst the fire and the smoke, sitting in the very centre of the ruined village within a circle of corpses and ruined barricades, Naruto finally found what he had been looking for.
“Tazuna-san,” he called, as he gingerly approached.
After Sakura and Sasuke left, Naruto had been forced to spread his clones across the village to fight, and he had not noticed right away when all his clones in one area had been taken out at once. By the time he realized what was happening, it had been too late: His clones soon managed to drive the bandits off, but there was precious little left to save. The few villagers that remained ran off to the rower’s house, which was now being used as a shelter. Sakura had elected to stay there to tend to Sasuke and the villagers, but Naruto had gone back to look for the only civilian left whose name he still knew.
“Tazuna-san,” he tried again. “You mustn’t stay here. It’s not safe.”
“Where else would I go?” The old man did not look up, but kept staring quietly at the woman and child that lay at his feet. All three of them were covered in a layer of black soot, and the pool of liquid on the ground had blackened as well, making their forms hard to distinguish from the shadows cast by the flames all around them. “Those savages destroyed my house. And my village, and my daughter, and my grandson as well… and as for that great explosion earlier, I think that might have been my bridge.”
Naruto grasped for something to say that was encouraging yet not a complete lie, but could think of precious little. “There are still people who look up to you as their leader,” he tried vainly. “You can’t let them down when they need you most.”
The former bridge builder looked up at Naruto, but there was no life to be found in those bespectacled grey eyes. “No… your teacher was right: Everything that’s happened here is because of me. Because I was stubborn and could not admit defeat, I lied and tricked you Leaf ninja into fighting our battle for us, and made this conflict into what it is. It’s only fitting that I burn here, with the others.”
Perhaps there were was something that Naruto could have said that would have made everything better, but if such words existed he had never learned them, and so he merely said what he truly felt as he always did. “I don’t want you to die, Tazuna-san,” he whispered. “Please come with me.”
Whatever the old man would have said next, he did not get the chance to say it, for in that moment a chill passed over them both. It was a sudden coldness that cut straight to the bone, which reached them in the middle of that blazing inferno and caused their spines to shiver. Naruto looked up to the sky in bewilderment, and found cold white flakes drifting gently downwards, melting only slowly as they landed on his face.
It had started to snow.