Chapter 19

“…wake up!”

Naruto stirred feebly. He had been dreaming, but he could not recall what it had been about. All he remembered was a world buried in snow and ice, and it had been cold, so very cold… but now it seemed someone had lit a fire in his room, for which he was grateful. He sought to edge closer to the flames, but something barred his way.

“Wake up!”

This time the voice was loud enough to reach Naruto, and some of its urgency carried over. His eyes opened languidly, and as he looked at his surroundings he blinked. He was lying in a pool of colourless liquid, and between him and the fire there was a titanic gate, iron bars reaching up towards a ceiling so high that it made him feel as though he were falling. At last the memory of what had happened came back to him, and he looked to investigate his body. Some of his wounds were so large that he could have stuck half a hand through, and the foul black liquid that seeped out slowly added to the pool of water and tainted it.

“Hurry, child. Your time is running short. Undo the seal on your stomach, and let my restorative chakra flow freely with yours. I may still be able to heal your wounds, but we must act swiftly.”

Naruto looked up at the being of living fire, the flames seeming to dance and flicker before his eyes. It looked smaller than he remembered, and weaker – appearing almost frail in spite of its vast power. “Kyūbi? How… how come you’re talking to me? I thought Jiraiya had to undo the seal for that to happen.”

“All techniques require chakra to function, and this one draws upon your own. As your power fades, so does the seal’s – but there’s no time to consider. If you lose consciousness again, I do not think I could still restore you. Hurry and suppress the chakra flowing through your stomach, before it is too late.”

Naruto’s body half moved to do as he was told, finding it strangely easy to control what little chakra remained, but then stopped. “I can’t,” he said, realizing the truth of it even as he spoke. “I promised… I promised my dad I wouldn’t set you free.”

A single crimson eye appeared in the centre of the flames, and it stared at him, uncomprehending.

“A promise? You do not understand, child. You are dying, and even if you were willing to accept that, the seal would be undone regardless. Though my chakra might be scattered to the winds, I would still be made anew within a few years’ time. You have no reason whatsoever not to call upon my power.”

He shook his head. “I can’t. Made decision before, was smarter then. No reason to change mind.” It was difficult to explain himself properly – his tongue was too thick, his thoughts were too slow, and he was tired; so very, very tired. He wanted nothing more than to go back to sleep, and dream a dream more pleasant than the one he had before. Though even dreaming of nothing at all did not seem so terrible to him, now. It was becoming harder to remember, why that prospect had once made him so afraid.

The fire lashed out like a claw, dragging its molten talons along the bars with a terrible screeching sound that jolted Naruto awake. “I do not know what manner of tales you grew up with, child, but there is no blissful afterlife waiting for you upon your death. Did they fill your head with dreams of eternal sunshine? There is no such thing! No rebirth, no torment, no fire or judgment… only darkness!”

“I know.” The fire was starting to go out, and Naruto clutched himself tightly, and shivered. “But I made a promise to my dad.”

“Your father is dead.” Naruto looked up. “Is that what moves you? Do you imagine yourself to be a hero like him? The Fourth sacrificed everything and died for nothing – they raised him up to be a martyr and trod on his dreams not even ten minutes after he fell. My mind touched upon his own as he sealed me, so I know: Losing his team and winning the war, becoming Hokage and losing his wife… he would have taken it all back if he only could. In the end, all he wanted was for you to be safe.”

“…it doesn’t matter.” Naruto looked away, for the fire had grown brighter, and the heat was stinging his eyes. “That doesn’t change anything at all…” He still had a father left, and that one had never asked him to stay safe. “I already know,” Jiraiya had told him back then. There had been no doubt in his voice at all.

There was a long moment of silence, and Naruto almost fell asleep again, but then the voice spoke once more, sounding strangely subdued. “I did not tell you the whole truth before. If you die and my chakra is scattered, I will be reborn eventually, yes… but in what form? I once had a family, ever so long ago… one of my brothers was called Ibosu, the Three-tailed Leviathan of the Sea. After his host died, I waited long years for him to return, but when he did I could not recognize him. His memories and everything that defined him was simply… gone. One by one, I watched the same happen to all the others, watched as my brothers and sisters were reduced to mere shadows of their former selves, knowing the same would one day happen to me and there was nothing I could do to stop it. I am the last one left.”

Naruto closed his eyes, and found it too difficult to open them again. “I’m sorry.”

“Are you waiting for me to beg? Do you wish to see the last and greatest of the Nine plead for mercy? Is that it? Then you may discard that thought right now. I refuse! Even having come this far, I shall not sacrifice my pride. Your kind may have taken everything else from us, but this you will never have.”

“Then… there’s something you value more than freedom, after all.” He’s afraid of the dark, same as me…

“There has to be. There must always be at least one thing that you will never sacrifice for any goal – something that is worth defending purely for its own sake. Otherwise, what is the point?”

The fire crackled softly as Naruto rested, and the bars cast long shadows across his face. He could not see the Kyūbi anymore, but he felt the warmth of the fire on his skin, and he could not help but smile.

“Do you find this funny? Does this situation amuse you, boy?”

“No… I’m sorry. It’s just…” He slowly opened his eyes, and closed them again. “My dad told me that, one day, people would… understand each other. And if, if even we can come to talk like this… maybe, maybe it’s not so hopeless… after all…”

As Naruto slipped into oblivion, the last he heard was a roar of fire as the Kyūbi clawed at the gates with all his might, rattling the iron bars with a deafening sound and screaming his defiance at the darkness. As the flames flickered and waned, the slightest, smallest amount of heat poured through.

-o-

-Minutes earlier-

The shattered remnants of his ice-dome barrier rained down around Haku, as the remainder of the house collapsed in a pile of timber and stone. Even with both hands pressed against the inside of the barrier and focusing chakra into the ice to strengthen it, the explosions had almost been too much – but in the end he had managed. Before him, the summoned metal shell finally stopped ringing with that awful hollow sound, and as it tumbled over his opponent was revealed beneath.

Haku looked at the figure uncertainly: He thought he could see blood, but his vision was still blurred from the flash of light that had blinded him, as well as from the final blast that destroyed his barrier and brought him to his knees.

He coughed. “Are you… the real one?”

Naruto shook his head, and as Haku formed the seals for his next technique, the boy charged with sword in hand. It was not until after Naruto had impaled himself onto a dozen shards of ice that Haku realized his mistake. He was only trying to clear his head…

“Wait,” he said. “I didn’t mean to…”

The boy coughed up blood, then slumped over, falling onto the ground with frozen shards still jutting out of him. The ice did not melt until the technique ended, and when it did the melt water pooled together with the blood and ash, forming a puddle of foul sludge on the scorched and blackened ground.

“I’m sorry…”

Haku stared at the fallen boy for a while longer, but finally he tore his gaze away and forced himself to focus on the present. He felt around his chest for the needle that had pierced his ribs, pulled it out and let it clatter onto the ground. He then formed another ice mirror – this one large enough for him to step through and disappear in an instant if need be – though it took much of his remaining chakra to do so. He skimmed the surrounding area through each of the miniature portals that he had set up all around the village and the forest, searching for any sign of his master. Zabuza was still nowhere to be found.

In the corner of Haku’s vision, the bridge builder was slowly edging his way up the stone stairs and out of the basement – as though a civilian could ever hope to escape a ninja like that. Haku half-considered letting him go in honour of Naruto’s death, but he realized that was foolish – If killing Tazuna had been worth killing Naruto over, then surely it would be inconsistent to let the bridge-builder live now?

Right in that moment Haku sensed a presence behind him, and he spun around with his tantō drawn. There was a figure standing in the snow scant meters away from him, though in the starlit darkness he appeared as little more than a silhouette outlined against the fires that still gripped the village outskirts.

Haku hastily stepped backwards, fumbling behind him with his fingers until he felt the frozen edge of his portal. He did not relax until the translucent barrier of ice could be seen in front of him and the scenery in his peripherals transformed to that of a quiet forest glade. Only when he felt certain he was safe did he examine the figure more carefully, his vision still painfully blurry from the flash tags of before.

“Your name is Sasuke, isn’t it?” he asked. “Are you here to avenge your fallen comrade?”

The newcomer looked at the prone form of his fallen teammate for a long moment. “No,” he said at last. “He’s… not my comrade. In truth, I think he hated me: I did something to hurt him a long time ago, and I don’t believe he ever forgave me for it. Even now, seeing him lie there, I don’t feel a single thing.”

Somehow, the way he said it, Haku found it easy to believe. “Then I see no reason for us to fight.”

The younger boy exchanged a look with the bridge builder, who grimaced before replying. “It’s all right lad, don’t worry about me. You don’t have to get yourself killed on my account. Just…” He seemed to hesitate. “I know you owe me less than nothing, but…”

Sasuke walked directly towards the open shelter, and Haku tensed in alarm, but all the boy did was to put an arm on the old man’s shoulder. “I understand,” he said. He turned back to Haku, his expression neutral. “I would like to take the fallen with me. In Konoha as in the Land of Waves, we bury our dead.”

Haku could not find it in himself to refuse him. “Do as you wish.”

“Thank you.” The boy walked up to Naruto’s body and kneeled on one leg, yet paused in reaching out to him. “Just one question, before I leave. That man you serve, Zabuza. Does he… matter, to you?”

Haku nodded mutely.

Sasuke completed his movement and carefully picked Naruto up, draping the dead boy over his arms. “You must realize that you don’t matter to him,” he said. “You are only a tool to him, to be used and discarded. Why would you care for someone like that?”

“Reason has nothing to do with it,” said Haku. “For all that we rationalize our actions, it is our emotions that make us what we are, and we can’t choose the ones we love.”

“I used to believe that.” Sasuke slowly stood up, half turning his back to Haku as he rose with his burden. “From a young age, my parents taught me that family is all that matters. Right or wrong, through good times or bad, the clan must stick together. The person who exhibited this quality most of all was my brother, a prodigy who sacrificed everything for the good of the clan and the Village, and I wished to grow up to be just like him.” When he turned to face Haku, there was a glimmer in his black eyes. “But I was wrong: It turned out that the person I admired was only an illusion. So you see; it is possible to be mistaken about who you are, and how you feel.”

Haku stared back at him, a strange sense of apprehension coming over him as he regarded the boy. Still, with both arms full and his guard lowered, his opponent could hardly be in a worse position to fight him.

“I grew up in a snowy village in the Land of Water,” he replied at length. “My mother had a special bloodline, but after years of suffering the horror of civil war, the people of my land had come to hate and fear anyone who carried a bloodline power. So when she discovered that I had inherited the same ability, she sought to hide it from the others.” He gestured towards the snow falling all around them, covering the ground in a white sheen in those areas where the fires could not reach. “When my father found out, he and the others lashed out and killed her, and I was forced to flee. I was… alone, forced to fend for myself in a world that despised me. When master Zabuza found me, I was fighting off stray dogs for the privilege of raiding a trash bin for scraps of food. He saved me from that fate. He gave me a reason to exist, and for that I owe him everything. So you see: It is more than just a feeling.”

“I see. So you’re saying that what matters is not who a person is, but it’s their actions that count. Even if you love someone they can be deserving of hate, and although reason is a slave to emotion, feelings are still ultimately to be dictated by facts.” Sasuke nodded slowly. “…I suppose I can accept that. Thank you.” He half turned again and made to leave, but then he twisted around and his eyes were crimson and spinning inside their sockets-

Sharingan!

Haku staggered in shock as the world vanished around him, and that one moment nearly cost him his life as he flared his chakra and dodged to one side only for the tip of a blade to come scraping against his left shoulder and tearing blood from his arm. He ducked and rolled away from his attacker, and he only then realized that he had never stepped through the portal at all; it had all been an illusion.

He dashed towards the open sheet of ice just scant meters ahead of him, but several kunai attached to wire strings flew from the side and wrapped around the frozen mirror, and he had to shield himself as the blast from the explosive tags attached to the handles showered him with broken ice. Then Sasuke was upon him, his sword raining sparks against Haku’s own. A flurry of rapid blows forced Haku back as his mind finally caught up with what was happening.

He’s trying to prevent me from forming seals, but…

Even as Haku parried a powerful sword strike with one hand, his other formed the necessary seal: His enemy’s eyes widened in surprise as Haku slammed his foot down and deadly water needles rose from the sludge to strike his target from every direction. His foe leaped upwards, a burst of chakra from his feet carrying him to safety, but Haku had gained the breathing space he needed: Another hand sign sent more water needles chasing after Sasuke, while his right hand threw a volley of regular needles as well, and though his enemy parried nearly all of them his body was still pierced in several places.

You missed your chance to kill me; from this point onward, all you can do is run.

But even as he thought that, his foe planted his sword into the ground and flicked through a series of hand seals at an incredible rate. All around them the fires of the burning buildings rose up into the air and gathered into a firestorm that lit up the sky, bearing down on Haku and roaring with the smouldering fury of a fully-powered Fire Dragon technique.

Impossible!

With no time to think, Haku dashed back towards the only area that offered shelter, which was the same storm cellar that the bridge builder had gone back to hiding in. Haku ducked and rolled down the stairs, barely managing to close the entrance behind him with a wall of ice as the dragon’s roar reached its fiery crescendo.

There’s no reason to fight – I’ll just kill my target and teleport out of here.

The bridge builder had just enough time to look surprised before Haku slashed his throat open, and the old man fell upon the ground gurgling blood, the sound of his dying matched by the sizzling of an explosive tag placed on his back right where Sasuke had put an arm on his shoulder.

-What-

The explosion threw Haku backwards, pain lancing through his wounded shoulder as his back collided with a wall. Through his blurred vision he saw chunks of blood and rock and shards of ice rain down all around him, and he realized he must have raised another wall of ice in time to save his life. For just one moment there was a ray of light pouring down from the shattered entrance, but then a shadow stepped in its path, and pure darkness roiled into the room-

(Haku’s senses were overwhelmed by pure killing intent, a sense of pain and hate and so much more)

-and at the same time a wave of scorching heat appeared from out of nowhere, and it was all Haku could do to stamp his foot and raise yet another wall of ice to block the attack. The barrier of frozen water appeared just in time to block the vengeful fire, the tongues of flame licking thirstily at its melting surface before receding once more. In the pitch-black silence that followed, Haku could hear droplets of water fall upon the stone floor in tandem with the frantic beating of his own heart.

Twin orbs of red light appeared in the dark, turning and twisting; crimson eyes each with one pupil in the centre but with yet more in the shape of commas all around them. As Haku frantically lowered his gaze, he realized that the boy must be an Uchiha, one that had somehow survived his clan’s massacre, but there was no time to consider the issue. Before him the darkness parted ever so slightly, just enough to show him a sword lit up with white-hot fire.

“Why?” he choked out. “I would have let you leave. There is no longer any reason for us to fight!” Even as he spoke, he shaped the hand seals for the ice-mirror technique behind his back, yet the portals refused to form – as though the oppressive darkness pushing down on him prevented his chakra from spreading. The burning blade began to carve its way into the ice with relentless strokes, and it was all he could do to pour his chakra into the wall to keep it standing.

“Because… it’s possible to be mistaken, about how you feel,” the voice replied in fits and starts, and Haku realized with a start that his enemy was crying as he fought. He did not understand why that knowledge frightened him so much. Right then the blazing-hot sword stabbed through the ice and scorched Haku’s clothes and flesh – the agonizing heat stopping just barely short of his heart – only for it to be pulled back out again for another thrust. He collapsed to his knees, the smell of his own burning flesh filling his nostrils, but he could only watch as the searing blade came at him once more.

No. I can’t die here… master Zabuza still has use of me!

With a desperate effort Haku drew on his dwindling reserves of chakra, forming seals and stamping his foot once more. A dozen spears of ice burst from the ground and stabbed at the darkness, each of them splitting and bifurcating into ever more frozen spikes, filling the entire space with the same technique that had destroyed Hatake Kakashi’s shadow clone. He could feel the walls of the cellar crumble and a section of the roof collapse under the strain, until finally the oppressive darkness retreated. At the top of the stairs, the silhouette of Uchiha Sasuke stood amidst a forest of frozen stalagmites where the entrance to the shelter had been, his slight form outlined against the waning orange light.

“I will take those eyes from you, Uchiha Sasuke,” Haku breathed as he drew himself up to fight once more. “Even if master Zabuza could not kill the White Fang, we both shall still have the Sharingan. We will defeat the Eternal Tyrant if we must kill every last one of his followers by ourselves!”

In response, the darkness formed and gathered around his enemy once more. “No, you won’t,” said the voice of Uchiha Sasuke, sounding strangely warped and distorted. “You’re going to die.” The blackness around him twisted then, stretching and forming into limbs and tendrils of pure darkness that coiled around him, his body reshaping itself and turning into something wrong.

More genjutsu? But I didn’t look into his eyes!

Haku flared his chakra, but though the darkness receded it never vanished entirely, and the moment he let up it came back stronger than before. The world shifted painfully, space itself seeming to bend around his enemy as the creature that was once Uchiha Sasuke sprouted yet more black tentacles. All around him the darkness spread like a plague, taking on countless monstrous shapes and forms, every one of them covered with baleful crimson eyes that looked down on Haku. “Mistaken”, said the dread voice, which no longer resembled anything human, and it was echoed by countless thin whispers coming from all around him.You are so… mistaken.”

No! Stay away!

Haku scrambled backwards, but his back was against the wall. Blood pounded in his head as his fingers blindly struggled to form the hand seals for the ice-mirror technique, but at last his chakra took hold. A portal opened up beneath his feet, and as he began to fall the black tentacles reached for him. I’m not falling fast enough, not fast enough, they’re going to get me-

With a sudden clap Haku struck the forest floor, and he rushed to close the ice portal shut behind him. Made it I made it I made it I made it…

A brief panic rose up in Haku when the world turned dark once more, but it was only unconsciousness that took hold of him.

-o-

Sakura leaped through a window of the building she had used as a vantage point, and hit the ground at a run. The original plan had been for Sasuke to body-flicker into sword-range of Haku while using that strange darkness technique of his, but that plan had been discarded when they saw Naruto fall with Haku’s portal already open. After that Sasuke had improvised, and it had taken several carefully timed genjutsu techniques on Sakura’s part to rescue the situation. Even so it had almost gone wrong, and Haku had escaped regardless…

She nearly tripped over Naruto’s body as she ran. He still lay in front of the shelter where they had fought, mercifully unmarred by the explosions that had ravaged the nearby area. Even so his body had been pierced in a dozen places, ghastly wounds from which so much blood had spread that his clothes were brown with it. She knelt down next to him, and her own heart skipped a beat as she felt for a pulse.

A familiar voice came to her, sounding strangely small and distant. “Is he..?”

She looked up and saw Sasuke standing in front of her. The darkness and the fire had all faded, but even so he was little more than a shadow, covered in soot and standing against the backdrop of waning orange light.

“He’s still alive,” she whispered, her voice sounding strange to her own ears. There was the faintest possible pulse running between her fingers where she touched Naruto’s wrist. “It’d take a miracle, but… I just might be able to save him, if I get started right away.”

“That’s good,” Sasuke said weakly. “I’m glad.” Then he collapsed onto the ground in a heap.

“Sasuke-kun!” She scrambled over to his side, running faster than she knew she could, and as she crouched over him she witnessed for the first time the full extent of his injuries. Several iron needles punctured his chest and stomach, but that was the least of it. All along his body he was covered in piercing wounds from where spears of ice had been cruelly driven into him from every angle. Blood seeped out of him from every point. How did he manage to even stand like this, let alone fight?

“Naruto…” Sasuke whispered, blood trickling from his mouth. “He’s… innocent. You must… save him.”

She half-turned to look at the prone form of her other childhood friend, and for a moment she was torn with indecision. “The time may come when you have to choose between the lives of your friends,” her teacher had told her once, and it was only then that she realized what those two bells truly represented. It had all seemed so distant and abstract, back then, but now the choice was painfully real.

Do I save the person who’s been my friend since childhood, or my crush?

And then, without any conscious decision ever having been made, she began healing the body of the person who was most precious to her. A warm green glow emanated from her hands and passed over his chest, the light slowly closing his wounds as they went.

“…why?” Sasuke’s dark eyes were filled with incomprehension.

“Don’t ask me,” she whispered, her tears falling onto his body as she worked. “It’s not like I understand it, either.”

-o-

As Hatake Kakashi rode through the village on his wolfhound, his apprehension grew with each passing second. On either side of him, the fires that had gripped the village were finally going out. The blackened skeletons that had once been houses were all that still stood upright, except where those too had collapsed in upon themselves, turning into ever more ash and dust upon the ground until the streets were thick with it.

Am I too late? Obito, Rin, please don’t let me be too late again!

At last he arrived before the only part of the village that still stood tall, close to the massacre where the villagers had made their stand. There, at last, he found what remained of his genin team. He dispelled his summoned mount and walked up to his student.

“Kakashi-sensei!” Sakura ran up to him, frantically sobbing, and grabbed him tightly. “You’ve got to help! I stabilized Sasuke, but I couldn’t help Naruto in time, and now he’s, he’s…” She pulled him towards the others as she gave a jumbled account of what had happened, sobbing and heaving all the while.

Sasuke was lying unconscious on the ground, looking terribly injured yet breathing faintly, but Naruto…

On the ground, covered in a layer of soot and clotted blood, the body of Uzumaki Naruto was spread out onto a meter-long sealing scroll, his body covered in wounds from which blood had long since stopped flowing.

“I tried to seal him so we could bring him back to the hospital in Konoha,” Sakura explained, “but I couldn’t figure out how! I never learned to use scrolls, and his body still has chakra and I don’t know how to drain it so I can’t seal him for preservation, and now he’s gone and… it’s is all my fault!”

“Sakura?” He made his voice as reassuring as he could manage, given the circumstances. “Don’t worry, you did a great job. Now let me just take a quick look at him, okay?” He gently disentangled himself from her and strode towards Naruto’s still form, where a quick analysis confirmed that the boy’s heart was no longer beating. By his count, Minato’s son had breathed his last some three minutes ago.

“I’m so sorry. I never meant to let him die, only Sasuke was dying too, and I had to make a choice, and-”

“Sakura, why don’t you go take care of Sasuke while I handle this?” Without waiting for a reply, Kakashi lifted Naruto’s jacket with one hand and exposed the boy’s bare midriff underneath. He sent chakra to each of his five fingers in preparation for the five-element unlocking seal, and drove his hand into Naruto’s stomach before sharply turning it counter-clockwise.

At first nothing seemed to happen. Then, the sprawling lines of the Dead Daemon Seal manifested on the boy’s stomach, and Naruto burst into life: The boy twisted, flailed and moaned in agony as daemonic red chakra spread to cover his entire body. Where the baleful chakra touched him, his skin burned and bubbled with a terrible stench, yet at the same time the flesh around the holes in his body reknit itself. As Kakashi watched, the wounds vanished into nothingness, until only a hale and healthy lad remained. He gave the seal a clockwise turn to close it, and Naruto gasped one more time before falling into blissful unconsciousness, drawing short and ragged breaths as he slept.

“See, he’s perfectly all right,” Kakashi said, hiding his burned and smoking fingers behind his back. He could not help but smile a little at Sakura’s horrified expression. “It’s just a matter of carefully applied medical-ninjutsu. It’s the same principle as healing that trout, really: As long as the patient is none too bright to begin with, no real lasting damage is done.”

“But, that… he…” Sakura’s mouth was slowly opening and closing, much like the fish Kakashi had been referring to. “But he was, he – that’s not possible.”

“Now, now,” he chided, smiling. “What did I say about doubting your brilliant and handsome sensei?”

After making Sakura promise not to tell anybody about his ‘amazing secret medical technique’, Kakashi proceeded to examine Sasuke, and attended to his injuries as well. He watched over his charges until the sun rose on the horizon and basked the area in a new orange light. When he was done he surveyed his handiwork with satisfaction. The mission had failed, the client was dead and the village had burned, but Team Seven had survived without any casualties. In the end, that was all that truly mattered.

All things considered, everything had turned out quite all right.

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