Chapter 18

“Snow?” Tazuna said confusedly. “In this time of year?”

Naruto grabbed him by the arm. “C’mon Tazuna-san, we gotta run!”

But before he could take another step the snow coalesced into a rectangular sheet of ice that blocked his path, which transformed into an icy mirror, and the mirror became a portal that reflected a frozen image which spoke to him in a soft whisper.

“Naruto-kun. Please step away from the bridge builder.”

Naruto stared back at the image, noticing for the first time what he had been blinded from seeing before. The thin eye slits in the white metal mask revealed no face, and the long black hair had been bound with metal cuffs rather than hanging loose, but even so… even if the pink kimono had been replaced with a grey uniform and green haori, there could be no mistaking that sad and wistful tone of voice.

“Hello, Haku,” he said. “Are you a boy or a girl?”

The figure flinched as though struck. “I, I truly am sorry, Naruto-kun.”

“What are you sorry about?” In that moment Naruto thought he could understand Tazuna’s strange empty expression, because he did not feel any of the anger he had expected, himself. “Making a fool out of me, just like everybody else always does? Or burning down a village full of innocent people?”

It was quiet for a moment, and Naruto wished that he could see Haku’s face. Instead he found himself watching the snowflakes glide down gently and mingle with the ashes, a beautiful blend of black and white that all turned to sludge by the time it reached the ground.

“It was never my desire to be a shinobi,” Haku said at last. “It is… painful to me. But my dream is my master’s dream, and I shall do whatever it takes to make it a reality. Please do not stand in my way.”

It is only when you have something precious to protect that you are able to become truly strong… that was what Haku had told him back in that training field, and it was only now that Naruto realized just who the ‘cruel person’ was that had forced them out of their home. “Do we really have to be enemies, just because we’ve got different dreams? Does everything really have to burn, just for that?” He remembered arguing with Kakashi about who he thought the real enemy was, but convincing anyone of that seemed like such a distant prospect now.

The masked ninja nodded. “As humans, we can’t help but care for those close to us over mere strangers. It’s for the same reason that you’re trying to protect the bridge builder now, rather than any of the other villagers whose names you do not know. When such values clash the result is conflict, and to refuse to fight in that conflict is not compassion, but a betrayal of those who depend on you.”

“But it doesn’t have to be that way,” Naruto tried. “We could just choose not to fight.”

“Yes,” Haku agreed sadly. “You could just walk away and let me kill the bridge builder.”

“Why are you still trying to kill Tazuna-san, anyway?” He gestured towards the bridge builder behind him, who was watching the exchange mutely. “I thought that was all just part of your plan to trick us?”

“It was. But after engaging Kakashi-san, master Zabuza ordered me to attack you, to force your sensei to go back to protect you and to satisfy the terms of Gato’s contract.” The white mask sank ever so slightly. “I have tried to keep watch on master Zabuza with my mirrors ever since, in case he changed his mind, but I can no longer find him anywhere. It is possible that the White Fang managed to find him first.”

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.” Naruto did not even know if that was a lie. “I’m not gonna let you kill Tazuna-san, though.”

“You cannot protect him,” Haku said, a long needle sliding from his sleeve into his hand. “We both know you are only a shadow clone, so all I need do is–” Haku stopped as Naruto pulled out a kunai and used it to draw a drop of blood from this thumb. A slight pained sound escaped from behind the mask. “I do not want to hurt you, Naruto-kun, but if you force me to I will complete my path as a shinobi and kill the kindness in my heart, just as my master always desired for me to do. For the sake of my master’s dream, if need be I will pierce straight through your body to reach the bridge builder and end his life.”

“I’ve got a lot of bodies,” Naruto retorted as he summoned half a dozen clones between him and his enemy. Diving straight towards Tazuna, he pulled the stunned bridge builder onto his feet and dragged him away from the fire and in the direction of the last of the unburned houses. “C’mon! We gotta run!”

The safe house, Naruto thought fervently as he ran. If I can just get him to the rower’s house, Sakura and Sasuke can help…

“We won’t make it,” Tazuna wheezed, his breath coming out in ragged gasps as he vainly struggled to keep up with Naruto’s ninja speed. “He’s, too fast, and I’m… too old.” Even as Naruto struggled to deny the fact, he knew that it was true: Already the memories of his dead clones were catching up to him, every last one of their bodies pierced by merciless needles. Seconds later, a portal of ice opened up scant steps ahead of him, and the frozen image of a masked figure silently blocked the way before them.

That’s not fair, he thought helplessly.

“Just, leave me be.” The fear on Tazuna’s face slowly gave way to acceptance as they stumbled to a halt. “It’s okay… it’s not your fault.”

“I don’t wanna hear it,” said Naruto, as he summoned more clones to delay the enemy while pulling the bridge builder down a side street. As he ran through the snow as fast as his feet could carry him, an odd sense of familiarity came over him, and he paused as the memory of their first day of travel came back to him. And he remembered Mizuki’s speech, all that time ago, about making certain necessary sacrifices…

“Get on my back,” he said. “I’ll carry you!” The bridge builder’s eyes widened, but this time he did not refuse. With chakra-enhanced strength, his wiry old body seemed surprisingly light on Naruto’s back.

I’m not gonna let you die, Tazuna-san. Even if everything else burns down and there is nothing left but ash, I’ll save at least one person. I can do at least that much…

Through the falling snow and ash they went, faster than before.

-o-

In the house of the rower, now deceased, Sakura was tending to the injured civilians. She knew, on an intellectual level, that she could not help them all. Reason and logic told her that she could save more people by fighting to protect them than by healing those already injured, a fact that was made evident by the increasing press of wailing bodies all around her. And yet, despite that fact, she found she could not bring herself to leave.

I’m making a mistake. I know I’m making a mistake, but somehow I’m still here making it, she thought to herself in puzzlement.

She was in the middle of attempting vainly to heal a man with a ruptured spleen when one of Naruto’s clones burst into the building. A cold wind blew inside the room and carpeted the floor with ash and snow, and she almost yelled at him to close the door, but the expression on his face stopped her.

“Haku’s after us,” Naruto said, pausing only to catch his breath with ragged gasps. “I’m trying to bring Tazuna here but he keeps teleporting after us, and I don’t think we’re gonna make it!”

Sakura instantly stopped trying to heal the dying man before her, the news bringing her out of her stupor like a splash of ice-cold water to the brain. They’re here. Kakashi-sensei failed, he’s dead and now we’re all going to die too. For a moment her heart pumped acid through her veins as images of their deaths flashed through her mind, but then the reality of Naruto’s words sank in.

“Wait, just Haku? Momochi Zabuza is not with him?”

Naruto furtively shook his head, still panting as he shut the door behind him, and Sakura felt her heart rate slow with a small measure of relief. “Okay,” she said. “We can deal with this. Just use your shadow clones to lure Haku away from here. Have them carry Tazuna-san as far away as possible, hide him somewhere if you can, but don’t feel too bad if he gets caught.” She stood up and gathered the contents of the medical kit her sensei had provided her, ignoring the pleas of the wounded villagers lying all around her. “While your clones distract him, we’ll make a run for it and get out of the village.”

“I don’t think I can,” Naruto said, and the wretched expression on his face caused her breath to catch. “Because I’m, I mean, the real me is carrying Tazuna-san right now, and I think Haku would notice if I tried to switch.”

“You–”Her speech stalled, and she had to repeat the words in her head to make sure that she understood them correctly. “You used your real body to look for Tazuna?” He nodded mutely, and Sakura could feel her blood rising to her forehead in frustrated disbelief. “You stupid, foolish… what in the Sage’s name would possess you to do such a thing?”

“Because!” Naruto spluttered indignantly. “Because, I mean, you said so! You said my clones wouldn’t fight unless I fought with them and that it wasn’t fair for you to be in danger if I wasn’t too. I only ever did what you told me to!”

“I never meant that you should put yourself at risk! I only said–” What had she said? “–I only meant that you should be willing to fight yourself, not that you should actually do it! How could you possibly think that’s what I meant?” Sakura was about ready to tear her hair out in frustration with the oblivious boy, but she forcibly composed herself. “Oh, forget it: Just get your real body out of there while you still can!”

“I can’t,” Naruto protested weakly. “The only reason Haku hasn’t killed Tazuna-san yet is because I’m carrying him and he doesn’t wanna hurt me, too! If I leave now, he’ll kill him for sure!”

Sakura’s hands went to her face, but she forced them down and composed herself once more. “Okay, fine, just tell your real body to stay alive. We’re coming to help you.” She got up and turned her head, needing only a second to find what she sought. While the rest of the house was filled with wounded and dying villagers, there was one dark space in the corner that remained empty but for a shadowy figure resting silently against the wall. “Naruto is in danger, Sasuke-kun. He needs our help.”

But the solitary figure remained there, and stared at his lap, and said nothing.

Naruto’s clone walked up beside her, a frown on his face. “What’s wrong with him?”

“I don’t know!” she cried. “I think he must have hit his head or… or something. I mean, I healed his wounds and everything and he should be okay, but he’s just sitting there.” She called his name again, but received not so much as a glare in reply, and her stomach sank further still. I don’t know what I’m supposed to do… Kakashi-sensei, please come back soon.

“Forget about him; I don’t think he’s gonna be any help.” Naruto had a stubborn look on his face as he spoke the words. His eyes suddenly widened, and his hand jerked towards his shoulder as though something had bit him. “Ah! Haku just got another one of me.”

She half-raised her hands to his shoulder as though to heal him, but of course there was no injury to be seen. She could do nothing but watch as Naruto teetered on his feet, struggling to hold onto his Shadow Clone technique despite the repeated shocks to his system.

“You’ve gotta help me, Sakura-chan,” he whispered. “I don’t think I can keep this up much longer.”

“What do you want me to do?” She lowered her hands again, uselessly. What could I possibly do?

-o-

A portal opened up in front of Naruto, and he skidded to a halt on the streets that were slowly growing wet with sludge, Haku’s image becoming harder to make out as the curtain of snow grew ever thicker. He threw a kunai at his foe, but it was deflected just as easily as all the others he had thrown before. In response, a storm of needles burst out of the mirror and impaled several more clones, which were becoming increasingly difficult to summon as Naruto’s chakra reserves dwindled.

“This is pointless,” the figure called out. “You cannot evade me, Naruto-kun.”

This is hopeless, Naruto thought to himself as he carried Tazuna into another side-street, still no closer to his destination than when he started. I can’t get away from Haku, and if I try to fight him he can always just teleport away and attack from a distance. On his back, Tazuna-san was no longer speaking, but the man’s weight and his persistent shivering reminded Naruto that he was there. The air was growing colder by the second, and one by one the fires that had gripped the village were starting to go out.

“Naruto, you have to stop running away from Haku; it’s only working to his advantage!”

Naruto nearly tripped as the memory caught up with him: Sakura was giving his clone advice back at the safe house, and then his clone distributed this knowledge to his other bodies by creating a second copy and dispelling himself. Naruto felt warm hope kindle inside of him at the realization that he was not fighting all alone. He was just about to create a clone to ask Sakura what he was supposed to do, when one of his existing clones dispelled itself, making it unnecessary. I don’t even need to do anything other than carry Tazuna-san, Naruto realized. My clones and Sakura will take care of everything else.

“It’s just like Kakashi-sensei taught us”, came the memory of Sakura in reply. “The enemy has the initiative, so you need to either wear him down or force him to make a mistake. Take Tazuna-san somewhere Haku can’t get to easily, then set up a trap and ambush him when he steps out of his portal.”

Naruto silently nodded to himself. Right… only I think that sounded a lot easier back in that nice warm house than it does over here.

He reached into his pouch and threw down a handful of smoke bombs, blocking the enemy’s vision with a cloud of grey smoke. At the same time half of his clones jumped on the other half’s backs and used the transformation technique to mimic the appearance of Tazuna, pairing up and bursting out of the smoke in three different directions. The real Naruto and Tazuna hid and waited a moment longer before heading off. That should buy me enough time to hide Tazuna-san somewhere and set up an ambush.

But before he had even run twenty meters, Naruto stumbled with the sharp pain of a needle piercing his thigh, and it took him a second to realize it was only the phantom memory of one of his decoys being taken out. Ten more meters, and the second diversionary team was taken out as well, even though he had moved them away and out of sight of the first.

What? How?

The image of a round face framed by pink hair appeared in his memories. “Naruto, Haku has some kind of sensory technique! It has to be the same as what they used to find us back in the forest. You’ve got to stop him from using it somehow, or this’ll never work!”

A sensory technique? Naruto did not think it likely that a teenager without shadow clones or a clan could have mastered a forgotten bloodline power and learned how to sense chakra at the same time. In that moment one of his clones dispelled itself, and in the memory he saw that the left part of Haku’s mask was now covered by a hemisphere of tiny frozen mirrors, like an insect’s compound eye.

“He’s using miniature portals to spot you,” Sakura said in the same moment, which meant she must have realized it before him. “He must have them set up in the sky, so he can watch everywhere at once!”

…that can’t be right, Naruto thought in reply. Chakra can only affect something if it’s in physical contact with it. If he’s creating those portals by expelling chakra he must have limited range, unless… Naruto looked up at the sky as he ran, snowflakes drifting down in ever greater numbers and covering the world in a thin sheet in ice. Unless he’s got a way to spread his chakra out over a wide area, in which case he can teleport anywhere he wants, whenever he wants.

This time he did create and dispel a clone to inform Sakura of what he had just realized. Without waiting for a reply, he darted into one of the still-smouldering buildings and barred the scorched door behind him, before continuing through the blackened corridor. The smoke burned his eyes and choked his lungs, and the heat from the lingering flames was almost unbearable, but he bore it all the same.

“What… what’re you doing?” Tazuna’s wheezing voice startled Naruto, his presence almost forgotten.

“I had to find a place… his ice can’t reach.” Naruto coughed as he lowered Tazuna from his back, the sudden loss of weight a stark relief, and it was only then that he felt the full exhaustion of everything he had done up until this point. Slowly, painfully, he found his way towards the building’s basement – the kind made of solid stone that could double as a storm cellar if necessary. He ushered the bridge builder inside and locked the thick wooden door behind him. “Please stay there… and hide…”

He pulled a scroll from his pouch and – taking care not to let the smouldering floor and walls of the building scorch them – withdrew one of his last packets of explosive tags. All of that preparation, all that effort to get funding from Sasuke and dad and being called paranoid, and it still almost isn’t enough. One by one, he placed the tags in key locations around the building, carefully memorizing their locations.

Sakura’s worried face appeared in his mind’s eye once more. “Naruto, your clone is almost out of chakra; he can’t create any more copies for me to send messages through. Whatever it is you’re doing, you’d better make it count, because if that masked boy teleports away again he won’t give you another chance.” There was a slight pause in Naruto’s memory, as Sakura seemed to hesitate before speaking again. “And Naruto? Please try not to do anything that I would be unable to forgive.”

“…you too,” he mumbled, as he placed the last of his tags in a smoke-filled room. Unfurling another scroll, he drew forth everything he thought he could use and placed them in his pouch where they would be easily accessible: Knives and bombs and tags of every variety, and anything else he might need.

Somewhere else in the village, the last of his decoy clones were taken out with thrown needles, and Naruto used the chakra that returned to him to summon two final clones, which took up positions elsewhere in the house to cover every entrance. Then he drew his own sword, found his own hiding place in the blackened rafters, and waited for the enemy to come.

-o-

No sooner had Sakura spoken those last words, than Naruto’s clone staggered on his feet and collapsed. Sakura reached out to catch him, but her outstretched arms clasped only empty air. Naruto was gone.

She clutched her arms, bit her lip, and furrowed her brow, but at last she had to admit that there was nothing else she could do from here. Once more she turned her hopes to the silent figure of Sasuke, who was still sitting by himself in the dark and empty corner of the room. She wanted nothing more than to grasp him by the shoulders and shake him awake, but something in his posture made approaching him unthinkable.

“Sasuke-kun,” she said hesitantly. “Naruto… he’s fighting Haku all by himself. We need to go save him.”

When no reply was forthcoming, she swallowed, and tried again. “He’s your teammate too, Sasuke-kun. We were all in the same class together – you grew up with him, same as me. And he’ll never admit it, but I think in a way he looks up to you, like an older brother. You even had that silly sibling rivalry going for a while, do you remember?” She tried to smile, but faltered. “Does he… really mean this little to you?”

But Sasuke continued staring at his lap as though he had heard nothing. She was about to give it one more try, when at last he whispered his reply. “Why don’t you do it yourself, if it’s so important to you?”

“Me?” She stared at him in bafflement. “Sasuke-kun, I’m a support ninja. All I know is medical ninjutsu and genjutsu, and we’re facing an enemy with a bloodline ability that lets him use ice techniques and teleport. You’re the one with the close-combat ability and fire-style ninjutsu, and you have the Sharingan to see through his secret techniques: You’re the only one who can do it!” When he gave no reaction, her hopes fell further still, and she spoke more softly and intently. “Sasuke-kun, he’s going to die…”

Something twisted on Sasuke’s face, but he shook his head almost imperceptibly. “I can’t. There is something I need to do, before I die.” The air seemed to become thicker and heavier around him, and the shadows on the wall grew darker as he spoke. “There was a time when I still believed in illusions. Back then, as I lay crying, I made a promise to a certain man. I cannot afford to take any more risks.”

She stared at him uncomprehendingly, feeling strangely vexed by his refusal to look at her. “So that’s it, then? You’re just going to sit there for the rest of your life? You think that’s going to make you any stronger, Sasuke?” She gritted her teeth. “You can say what you want about Naruto: That he’s childish, obnoxious, stubborn, and unbearably naïve – but at least he’s no coward!”

There was a stirring then, and at last his dead eyes rose to meet hers. “At least I have a purpose.”

She flinched, but even as she struggled to find a riposte she realized that the effect of his gaze was nothing like it had been before. There was no naked contempt in his eyes this time, no merciless strength; only emptiness, pain and fear. She blinked, and when she looked again, the Sasuke she knew was no more. In his place there sat a boy, talented and brilliant and terribly handsome and strong, with raven hair and smooth skin and such beautiful piercing eyes, yet a boy he was and nothing more.

Slowly the tension that had been building inside her began to recede, and she was left with an odd sense of resigned strength. “I think I understand,” she said at last. “All this time, I‘ve been acting as though you’re invulnerable, and it’s just not fair of me to expect that from you. You’re clearly still hurt, and I shouldn’t have thought that I could heal you so easily. So you just wait there, and focus on getting better, Sasuke-kun. I’ll take care of things myself.”

She turned around and drew her sword, moving towards the door through the momentum of her words alone, but with every step she took a portion of her courage was taken from her and replaced with double its weight in doubt. The enemy is stronger than I am, more experienced by far and with a bloodline-limit that lets him teleport away from any trap I might set up. I’ll have to sneak up on him and take him out in a single hit: That’s my one and only chance. Maybe I can use genjutsu to trick him into making a mistake. Just as her hand brushed upon the door, a voice calling from behind held her back.

“Wait, Sakura.”

Sasuke was standing up, rising gingerly at first and then more steadily. “I’ll go.” Sakura’s heart rose as she saw the faintest light in his eyes: There was resignation there, but also a hint of determination… and perhaps it was just wishful thinking, but she thought there was something else in there as well.

“After all,” he said, “it’s a shinobi rule… that the medic should always be the last of the team to die.”

-o-

The enemy’s presence announced itself as an icy wind that entered the building, crawling through the gaps and cracks in the blackened walls. Tendrils of frozen air grasped around the edges of the front door and began to smother the smouldering embers in the room. The icy mist gathered in the entryway and coalesced into a tiny, rectangular shape right in front of the door, and through this open wound in the world poured more of the same frozen air, which in turn–

Oh.

They were almost imperceptible, but by focusing chakra to his eyes Naruto could see them: A sequence of miniature sheets of ice opening up in a chain, starting from the door and spreading through the rooms and corridors of the building like a swarm of frozen eyes. There was a delay of several seconds between the creation of each portal – the time it took Haku to cast the technique – but their march was inexorable, and slowly the flames that still licked the building’s wooden walls started to go out.

Suspended from the roof’s support beams by the chakra on his feet, his skin and clothes coloured black through the illusion woven by his transformation technique, Naruto was passed by unnoticed.

This isn’t fair… If he only uses portals and never shows himself, how the heck am I supposed to beat him?

But even as he thought that, a voice in the back of his mind replied: I wonder if the Fourth Hokage complained about life not being fair, when he had to sacrifice his life to seal the Nine-tailed Fox and save the Village? Or whether Kakashi-sensei ever thought of giving up, when he had to protect us and at the same time fight one of the Mist’s Seven Swordsmen with almost no chakra left?

The last of the rectangular ice-sheets opened up in front of the basement door, but for once the frozen chakra seemed to have some difficulty in manoeuvring through the thick iron-bound door. After a moment’s pause, the portal started to drift towards the key hole. As the ice entered the hole, Naruto heard a small muted sound of bending wood and metal, as if the lock was being forced apart from the inside, while a mound of snow and ice pressed up ever thicker against the base of the door. Sheer necessity burned in Naruto’s veins then, the overwhelming need to figure out Haku’s technique then and there leaving no room for doubt or hesitation.

That technique must have limitations or Zabuza would be Mizukage already – Haku didn’t even try to kill Kakashi like this which means it is either dangerous or unwieldy, and I guess the portals do move slowly but he’s still using them effectively despite that, which means there has to be a risk involved that someone like Kakashi could exploit…

A snapping sound came from the door, and with a low groan the timber was forced apart, ice crusting over and shattering the wooden frame into pieces. The iron lock fell to the ground and tumbled down the stone stairs with an ominous, clanging sound. As Tazuna’s form was revealed in the darkness of the basement, the rectangle of ice grew to the size of a window, and then a needle went flying through. Naruto leaped down from his hiding spot to parry the projectile and sent it clattering onto the blackened floorboards. He swung and struck out at the figure in the mirror, but his sword reflected from the surface as though it were striking solid ice and nothing more.

Why? Why can his needle pass through but not my sword?

The image reflected in the mirror regarded him, a cold and merciless expression offered by the thin slits in the mask and the one eye which was covered by a hemisphere of ice. “You wasted your one and only chance to stop me, Naruto-kun.” Haku formed an unfamiliar hand seal, and a cold waft of snow and frozen chakra washed over Naruto, brushing past him and down the stairs to where the bridge builder was hiding.

He’s just gonna ignore me and kill Tazuna, like I’m not even here… 

At last something akin to anger started bubbling up in Naruto’s stomach, and the waking fire burned away the last of his fear and doubts. It came to him then, the critical memory of Sakura’s voice, which had never left him even if their means of communication was gone: “There’s no point in testing it if it’s been done a million times before. We already know the substitution technique requires the user to coat an item with their chakra before it can be transported. It doesn’t matter if it’s called a space-time technique or not, the only thing that counts is how it behaves – that is what is meant by the word ‘law’.”

Naruto grabbed the bundle of kunai from his pouch – the ones with flash tags wrapped around their handles – and tossed them in the air. Dozens of frozen eyes watched them from every direction as they fell, and when Naruto set them off the world was basked in a brilliant blinding light. There was a scream then, a shriek of pure agony coming from all around him, and in the largest frozen mirror Naruto could see Haku bending over and tearing at the eye of compound portals that let him see everything at once.

I can see him which means light travels through-

Naruto lunged forward and kicked out at the needle that Haku had dropped there, latching it to his sole like the bark of a tree, and hurled the needle straight into the open portal before him. Another scream echoed all around him, and Haku staggered backwards with a thin shaft of iron protruding from his ribs.

Items coated in Haku’s chakra travel through-

Naruto grabbed the storage scroll from his pouch and unsealed the last of his explosive tags, ones that had never even touched Naruto’s chakra before. He packed them together with some of Haku’s snow that had gathered on the floor and shoved the entire bundle through the open portal even as he activated the tags. Then he dodged to the side as the explosives went off and something large hurled past him through the open portal – muffled explosions rocked the ground and air as ice shattered all around him, crystals raining down all around Naruto and someone else

Haku jumped through the portal to escape the blast, I’m not gonna get another chance-

Naruto’s right hand found his sword and he leaped at his enemy who drew his own blade, ninjatō and tantō clashing in a shower of sparks even as Haku weaved seals with one hand and a storm of wind and ice danced all around him. As Naruto staggered backwards the last of his clones burst into the corridor from where they had hid and charged at Haku, but through the wind and the snow the tantō flashed out twice, and the clones fell in quick succession.

Naruto spread his meter-long scroll onto the ground and kneeled down on top of it. Haku whirled around and sent needles flying at him, but Naruto was faster and a hollow cover of thick steel appeared around him like a turtle’s shell, blocking the needles with faint thuds. That was when Naruto set off the explosive tags that he had planted all around the house.

This time the explosion was like nothing he had felt before: Within the darkness of his metal shell, the thunderous roar of splintering wood and blasting fire reverberated hollowly inside his ears. When the roof came crashing down on top of him the steel rang like a bell, and the sound that split through his ears was so deafening that he felt certain it was the last thing he would ever hear. Finally the cacophony subsided, and Naruto saw that a thick beam of broken wood had carved a hole along the side of his shell and nearly impaled him.

Pushing out with both legs, Naruto kicked the heavy cover onto its side and crawled out. There in the open air beneath the pale starlight he found his enemy, crouching amongst the burned and shattered pile of rubble that had been someone’s house. All around Haku lay shattered fragments of ice, and Naruto knew then that his enemy had done the same as him – forming a thick dome of ice to shield against the blast. Haku had lost his mask along with the frozen eye, and Naruto could see his lips moving, but through the ringing in his ears he could not make out a word of what was said.

It doesn’t matter. He shook his head to clear the cobwebs. I’m still not gonna let you kill Tazuna-san, no matter what you say. To his faint relief, he saw that the solid stone basement was still intact, only the entrance having been covered with loose rubble.

Struggling to his feet, Haku started forming a sequence of seals once more, and Naruto had no choice but to throw himself at his foe as well. The distance between them closed slowly, far too slowly, and even before it happened he could see Haku’s seals finishing first. Naruto watched as his ninjatō stopped moving, halting just barely in front of his opponent’s face, its reach just a little too short. Looking down, he saw that the shards of ice had risen up at Haku’s command and impaled his body from every angle.

Oh.

Haku’s lips moved again, and though Naruto could not hear the words, the look on his face said it all.

Yeah… I’m sorry too.

The world blackened as he fell, leaving him blissfully free of pain. Haku had been merciful, after all.

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