Chapter 20

Team Seven stood in silent remembrance. Four graves were arrayed before them, mirroring the four ninjas with almost perfect symmetry. The birds were chirping merrily, the sun shone with not a cloud in the sky and all seemed right in the world once more – yet appearances are oft deceiving, and if the people on that hill had no outwardly visible injuries, that did not mean that they had no wounds to bear.

They were standing on the same hillock where Zabuza and Haku had stood, each side overlooking the village from their own perspective while discussing the coming battle. The events of that day and the next kept repeating themselves in Naruto’s head, over and over, as he sought to make sense of it all.

He turned to his teacher, and asked the same question of before. “Kakashi-sensei… why is there war?”

His teacher gave him a lengthy sidelong glance before replying. “You know why: You just witnessed it.” Kakashi still relied on a makeshift crutch to stand – the result of overexerting himself in his fight against Zabuza and the events leading up to it. Although he was not leaning on it as heavily as two days ago, it still felt wrong to see the famous ninja look so very mortal. “In order to be effective tools, shinobi must be relied on to obey their orders unquestioningly,” he added. “But different people are loyal to different masters, who each have different aims. When those aims conflict, the result is war.”

It was almost the exact same answer as the one Haku had given him.

“It shouldn’t have to be that way.” Naruto gestured sullenly at the burned-out wreckage of the village below, which had proven impossible to salvage. After healing the injured as best they could, the surviving villagers had been forced to move inland, in search of other places to make their home. “These people had nothing to do with any of this. The only reason they were killed is because we didn’t want them to die! Can’t everyone agree to just… not do that sort of thing?”

“We could,” Kakashi agreed. “We could all agree to never kill or steal or lie, and the world would be better for it if we did. But then, the moment one party became stronger than the others, they would realize it’s to their advantage to break those rules. That’s why the First Hokage made it his mission to capture the nine Tailed Beasts, and divide them amongst the elemental nations. He believed that if we were all equally powerful, it would no longer be to anyone’s advantage to wage war. We would have no choice but to cooperate.”

“But it didn’t work,” Sakura said softly. “The wars only became bigger and bloodier, and they lasted longer. It made no difference that it wasn’t to anyone’s advantage; people simply aren’t rational. They fought because they were angry about friends who had died in the past, because they were afraid others would attack first, or because they believed things that simply weren’t true and were too stubborn to admit they were wrong about.”

Naruto stared hard at the graves before him. “But then we should have less war as people learn more and become smarter. Instead it’s like it doesn’t change anything at all: Smart people only invent better reasons for doing the same stupid things.” He clenched his fists as he recalled the realization which had not even come to him until after the immediate danger ended. “Haku had the ability to teleport. Instant travel and communication, and he used it to kill people. He could have helped to save the world…”

“But he didn’t want to save the world,” Sasuke pointed out. “He wanted to do whatever his master told him to, and Zabuza wanted to take over the Land of Water.” He shook his head. “That’s the mistake Hashirama made, and the reason he and Uchiha Madara had their falling out. Hashirama was naïve enough to think that people were innately good and desired peace, and so he wanted to give the Tailed Beasts away. Madara thought humans were bastards who would always long for war, and decided that the only way to secure peace was to gather so much power that nobody would ever think to challenge their might. Hashirama won their final duel, but it seems to me that Madara won the argument.”

Was that what it had been about? Jiraiya had made Madara out to be some sort of violent madman, but wanting to protect his Village from his best friend’s naivity seemed almost commendable. Even if he were still alive, would someone like that really have burned down the Leaf just to kill Naruto’s father?

Naruto kept staring at the graves before him, as well as the simple wooden posts that marked them. There were four of them in a row, one for each of the people whose names they knew. The rest of the villagers had been buried by their surviving kin or had their remains gathered in a mass grave close to the ruins of the village. It seemed wrong, that so much death would change so little – that the rest of the world would keep on going like nothing happened, but that was the way it was.

He recalled the image of Tsunami, recounting the tale of her husband’s death as she washed the dishes, bowing low before them and begging them to avenge his death. It had been the wrong thing to ask. She should have begged them to take her father and son to Konoha instead, or somewhere else where they would be safe. But Naruto should still have done it, even if she had not thought to ask.

“That’s settled, then,” he said at last. “If we’re going to fix this stupid, broken world, we’re just gonna have to become stronger. We’ll become so amazing that everyone will have no choice but to listen to us, and we’ll succeed even if everybody else failed, simply because we’ve got no choice. Then we’ll make everything better, and we’ll just make doubly sure not to make any mistakes that only end up making things worse like the First Hokage did.”

Both Sakura and Kakashi smiled at him then, and even Sasuke wore that enigmatic little half-smile of his. For the briefest moment, it was like everything was back to the way it used to be.

“Well,” said Kakashi, “I guess that wraps it up. My legs are getting tired, so…” He started walking down the hill with his wooden crutch, but stopped when he realized that only Sakura was following him.

“I’m gonna stay a little bit longer,” said Naruto. “I need some time to think.”

“Yeah,” said Sasuke. “Same here.”

Kakashi nodded. “All right, we’ll see you at the base of the hill, then. Take care, children.” Their sensei walked off into the distance with slow and painful movements, Sakura shooting worried glances over her shoulder as she went along.

As they left, Naruto’s gaze shifted to the smallest of the four graves. They had put Inari’s resting place next to that of his father, because that is what they thought he would have wanted. A set of unused fishing hooks was displayed before it, like a tribute to gods and spirits that none of them believed in. Those rituals had not changed either, for all that they understood the underlying reality of it.

“I gave him an explosive tag,” Naruto whispered, sounding disbelieving even to himself. “I taught him how to mould chakra. I encouraged him to fight, even though he was only a child…”

“Everybody is a child to somebody,” Sasuke assured him. He had his hands in his pockets and he was slouching as usual, but somehow he looked more genuine – as though he had cast off a protective layer and left himself vulnerable. “If only responsible adults were allowed to make decisions, nobody would ever do anything. You can’t hold yourself responsible for the choices other people make.”

Naruto nodded absentmindedly – he was only half-listening. “I’ve spent a lot of time thinking, the last few days, about all the dumb stuff I’ve done. About the mistakes I made, and how needlessly reckless I’ve been. But even now, I still don’t get why Inari changed his mind so quickly. He was so bent on how pointless it was to fight against Gato and how everything would go all wrong, and then the next day he’s suddenly all about gaining power and protecting his family, and I don’t get why.”

Sasuke shifted his weight uncomfortably, moving from one foot to the next. “I don’t think he ever meant any of it. Not really. He was probably just looking for an excuse to change his mind.”

Naruto turned to face his teammate. Perhaps it was the way he said it, or just the fact that Naruto had never seen Sasuke look uncomfortable before, but that was the moment he knew. “It was you.”

“What?”

“That night – you left me and Sakura at the dinner table with Tsunami, while Kakashi and Tazuna were getting the beds set up. Where were you? You went to Inari’s room, and you convinced him to fight, didn’t you? You’re the one that got him killed!”

“No! I never – I never meant to…”

The horrified look on Sasuke’s face was all the confirmation Naruto needed, and the smouldering fury that welled up inside him brought new certainty in its wake. “What Kakashi said back at the training grounds, about how you convinced us to fight Gato just so you could get some combat experience… what did he mean by that?” Before Sasuke could give an answer, the next realization hit him. “You were complaining about the lack of combat missions even back in Konoha, and then we get a C-rank mission the next day – but of course the Lord Uchiha would be able to pull some strings to make that happen! And then it turns out we’re up against one of the Seven Swordsmen, what’re the odds of that? Tricking us into accepting a dangerous mission – was that Tazuna’s plan to save some money, or did you whisper that idea in his ear too?”

“What? No, that’s insane! How the hell could I have known about any of that?”

“You could’ve used the Sharingan to read the minds of any civilians heading for the mission office! You’ve been itching for a fight right from the start. Edging me on to take more risks, keeping Sakura quiet, and then right when it gets dangerous you hide away and let me fight Haku all by myself. Why?”

“I went back for you, you ungrateful – I saved your life!”

“I never asked for you to save me! All I wanted was to protect Tazuna-san, but you, you blew him up! We had to scrape his body off the stones of the basement, and there still wasn’t enough left of him to fill his grave!” Naruto clenched his fists, and in tandem with the heaving of his chest he could feel angry tears forcing their way out through his eyes. “All I wanted… all I ever wanted was to save somebody!”

For a second it was silent, only the sound of Naruto own heart beating in his chest as he tried vainly to get his feelings back under control. He looked up again, fearing what he would see.

“Tazuna was already dead.” The compassionate boy of before was gone, and in his place the cold and merciless Lord Uchiha stood once more. “He was dead before I detonated the explosive tag, and he was dead before I placed it. A part of him died when he decided to fight Gato, and a greater part of him died when he got ninjas involved. But even before then, the bridge builder died when he made the fatal mistake of being born a civilian.” Danger seemed to waft from Sasuke as he spoke those words. When Naruto looked he saw that there was nothing there, but he could have sworn the air was colder and emptier than it had been before. “In this world, all people ever do is use and abuse each other; if you have no power your life is worth less than nothing, and you can’t but expect people to treat you accordingly. I thought you would have learned that by now, Naruto.”

Naruto flinched, as much from the raw strength of Sasuke’s presence as from the words he spoke. It had sounded far too much like what he had sometimes thought, silently and only ever to himself, about the way people treated him. When others walked over you like you were not even there, it was hard to think otherwise than that this was simply the way humans were. That if this was the way you were treated if you had no power, if that was how people acted when they had the slightest excuse, then maybe human nature was no more salvageable than the burned-out remains of the village below. And if that was the case, then maybe all his talk of saving the world was just one more instance of Naruto being stupidly stubborn, like the way he had risked everything just to save Tazuna’s life. If that was the case, surely the rational response was to just give up, and find something less painful to do with his time?

Naruto took one more look at the graves, and knew his answer. “No.”

“What do you mean, no?”

“I mean I decline your invitation to join you in depression,” Naruto replied. “You keep saying how dark and hopeless everything is, like you’re trying to convince yourself it’s okay not to try and make things a little better. That’s not even a real worldview: You’re just a scared little boy who’s mad at the world.” He looked up at the sky, where the sun was still shining, and the birds were singing happily to announce the new day. “I don’t really know what happened to you and your clan that made you like this, but I guess it must’ve been pretty bad, huh? It’s okay though, Sasuke-kun… one day I’ll fix everything even if you don’t, and I’ll be sure to fill the world with extra rainbows and puppies, just for you.”

Sasuke looked like he wanted to strike him then and there, but he visibly held himself back. “Sakura was right about you, Naruto,” he bit out instead. “You really are unbearably naïve!”

-o-

From the base of the hill Sakura watched the distant figures arguing, and let out a long sigh. “Can you believe those two? We barely have a moment’s peace, and they look about ready to declare a new war.”

Beside her, Kakashi-sensei gave a mild shrug. “That’s just what boys are like at that age. You should have seen me and Obito, back in the day: The way we used to go at each other’s throats would have made those two look like lifelong friends in comparison.”

His one eye was misting over ever so slightly, as it usually did when he brought up the past, and Sakura frowned as she remembered what he had told them back when all of this started. “You never did finish telling us that story, Kakashi-sensei. What really happened after Rin got captured and you and Obito had your falling out, if you don’t mind me asking?”

He rubbed his masked chin, reflecting. “Well… there’s not much to say, really. I wanted to save my friends, but I didn’t. I wanted to do the right thing, but it all went wrong. And now they’re dead, and I’m not. That’s about it.” Sakura gave him a dubious look, wondering if her enigmatic teacher was just being mysterious on purpose or if there was more to it. “Anyway,” he continued, “I really did mean that part about how you should try to figure these things out for yourself. Just look at how I fought Zabuza – you were able to figure out what I did back then, right?”

“You left us,” she whispered. “I tried to convince myself that you were only trying to draw them away from us, but I knew…” She swallowed. “I knew what you did because I asked myself what I would do in your situation, and I thought that you could not hope to defeat Zabuza and Haku at the same time, not when you had so little chakra left. But, if one of them were to be preoccupied for some reason, then…” She stopped, unable to continue, staring hard at the leaf-littered ground.

Kakashi let out a long sigh. “I’m afraid I’m not a very good person, Sakura-chan. I can’t really afford to be, in my line of work. After all the things I’ve done and everything I’ve been through, I consider any mission that does not end with a dead comrade to be a success. I did manage to protect some good people along the way, though… I’m hoping that counts for something. Perhaps one of them can do something about the state of the world for me. Who knows? It might even be you.”

“Me?” Sakura wanted to laugh. “I didn’t even do anything. All I did was to support Naruto and Sasuke-kun with some genjutsu and medical ninjutsu. And then, when Naruto fought all by himself against Haku in the snow and ice, I couldn’t stop him from – I mean, I couldn’t stop Haku from escaping…”

“You’re being too hard on yourself,” Kakashi said. “I don’t know half of what happened out there, but as I understand it you stopped the team from falling apart while I was gone. During your first real mission, you fought off an army of bandits, aided in the defence of a village, saved Sasuke’s life, helped defeat a powerful enemy with a bloodline limit and then saved Sasuke’s life again. That’s not half bad.”

“I suppose,” she said, frowning. “But, if both Haku and Zabuza survived, what’s stopping them from trying again in the future? Will we always have to watch our backs now, knowing somebody could teleport into our room at any moment and kill us while we sleep?”

There was a moment of silence as Kakashi considered this. They looked to the top of the hillock, where two figures were finally starting to make their way back down, keeping as much distance between them as the size of the hill allowed.

“No,” he said at last. “No… I don’t think so. From what I understand, Haku at least was hurt severely, and his range for creating those portals seems to be fairly limited. More importantly, I have a sneaking suspicion that Zabuza will have others things on his mind for the near future…”

She asked him what he meant by that, but her sensei only smiled at her through his mask in reply, seeming to be quite pleased with himself for some reason.

-o-

Using the reflection in his bedroom mirror as his guide, Gato tidied his whiskers with a fine comb, before wetting them and carefully shaping them into a narrow pointed moustache.

It would not make him look any more winsome to either his servants or his enemies, but he thought it important to keep up his personal grooming for the sake of his own sense of self-worth if nothing else. After all, if you did not even respect yourself, how could you ever expect others to take you seriously? That was why he dressed in black formal kimonos and took the time to make himself presentable every morning, even if the rest of the world would still see him as nothing more than a man of below-average height with a homely face and an unfortunate high-pitched voice.

There had been a time when his younger self would have looked at him now and been appalled. Even when he was a child his stature had made him the object of mockery, but back then he still held out hope that he would grow up to be a strong and powerful man. The stories his mother told him had all been about the mysterious ninjas that travelled the world and carried out missions in secret, and so his dream had been to become a ninja like no other.

He had worked tirelessly, taking up odd jobs and saving money until finally he was able to travel all the way to Konoha to sign up for the Ninja academy trials. Yet before he had set even one foot past those he was told that he did not meet their standards. Not one to be dissuaded easily, he had sought out a rogue ninja to train him, but it was to no avail: He had not the strength nor the talent to manipulate chakra. Instead he became a successful shipping magnate, gaining ever more wealth and power until at last he could afford to hire his own ninja and samurai to serve him. In the end, all his rejections and disappointments had taught him the true meaning of power and made him a stronger man for it – even if the rest of the world did not recognize the fact.

He noted with some irritation that one of the hairs in his moustache refused to stick with the rest, and kept jutting out at odd angles no matter how he combed or wetted it. He reached for the clippers on his nightstand, only to let it clatter to the floor when he saw a second figure in the mirror leaning against the wall behind him.

“Hello, master Gato.”

He twisted around and stumbled back in fear despite himself, scattering the items on his basin with a panicked motion of his arm. “Z-Zabuza-san, I hadn’t expected to see you so soon, after-”

“After you set me up to die, you mean?” The great hulk of a man pushed himself upright with his sword, allowing him to loom over Gato with his full height. The man’s limbs as well as his mouth were covered in bandages now, but somehow this only served to make him look even more fearsome. “I thought it strange that you would pay so much to kill a mere civilian, but it wasn’t until Kakashi pointed it out that I realized just how little your lives are worth compared to ours. You could have easily killed that bridge builder yourself, but you waited for him to come back with the White Fang in tow before arranging for us to fight each other.” He advanced menacingly. “Tell me: Did you have some plan to recover my body after Kakashi killed me, or were you hoping we would kill each other and reap the bounties on us both?”

“No, Z-Zabuza-san, you misunderstand! I trusted in your legendary abilities, that’s all. I-I never imagined you could actually lose to him!” Gato scrambled away from Zabuza along the wall as far as he could, but then he reached a corner and could go no further. He frantically searched around his luxurious bedroom for some sign of rescue, but there was none to be seen.

A throaty chuckle emanated from Zabuza’s chest, low and full of malice. “Your guards are not going to come save you, master Gato. Even if they weren’t dead, mere samurai would be useless against a true ninja. To think that I let someone like you order me around – I was going to kill you for that insult alone, but now I think I’ll take some time to teach you how insignificant you really are.” The bandages lining his mouth twitched dangerously. “Then again… perhaps I’ll just carve up your body right now!”

He hefted his Executioner’s Blade up high, and it was all Gato could do to raise his arms in a vain attempt to shield himself from his onrushing death.

Several seconds later, he was still not dead.

When he opened his eyes he saw that the blade had stopped mid-motion, while Zabuza’s entire body was trembling under the strain of some invisible force. Gato wasted no time in scrambling behind his four-poster bed, ducking down low even as a series of explosions brought down the walls around him. When he peered over his shelter to look, he saw that Zabuza’s shaking body was surrounded by a dozen silent and faceless figures: Men and women in grey uniforms with green haori’s, wearing white masks with narrow eye slits – The Hidden Mist’s hunter-ninja division of the Anbu.

As his panic slowly subsided, Gato rose and dusted himself off with as much dignity as he could muster.

“Finally! What took you so long? I don’t know if you lot noticed, but that lunatic nearly cut me in half with that ridiculously oversized sword of his!” He gestured towards the torn and broken walls around him and the dust covering his fine carpet. “And did I ask you to destroy my bedroom while entering? No, I told you to operate the exceedingly simple mechanism that opens the hidden doors to this room. But, I suppose that was too complicated an order for you savages to understand.”

While the rest of the circle maintained their techniques, the leader of the group slowly turned his head to face Gato, managing to make his contempt clear with a single glance despite his mask. “The Mist’s Anbu are not your pet army, Gato. We do not take orders from you.”

In reply, Gato gave him the most assured sneer he could manage. “No, but you take orders from the Mizukage, don’t you? Yagura has been very happy with our little arrangement so far, and he’ll be even more pleased after I give him the person who tried to usurp his rule twice. I’ll have you know that he already doubts your loyalties, Ao of the Byakugan. We wouldn’t want to give your master reason to think you’ve turned traitor as well, now would we?”

In fact, Yagura had exactly as much contempt for Gato as every other ninja he met, but he saw no reason to mention the fact. Instead he grinned as Ao stepped away to let him pass, and kept grinning as he walked up to Zabuza’s paralysed form. A shame I couldn’t get any more free service out of him: I had hoped Zabuza would kill the White Fang for me so I could reap his bounty too, but it was still good while it lasted.

He idly regarded his frozen and trembling captive, marveling at how helpless the ninja looked despite being so frightening mere moments ago. “Do you see now, Zabuza? True power has nothing to do with physical strength or mystical abilities; this is what you ninja could never understand! The only thing that matters in this world is the ability to devise plans and get other people to follow your orders. If you don’t have that, you’re nothing.” He gave Zabuza a sharp kick in the ribs to drive home his point.

In response a wave of pure malevolence washed over Gato: Zabuza was surrounded by a purple shroud like an aura of raw power, and suddenly he was lunging for Gato with one hand outstretched only for watery whips to coil around the massive ninja and bind him to the ground. The hunter-ninja formed a series of hand-seals and in an instant the purple chakra shroud was gone.  All of it had happened in less than a second.

“What the – what the blazes was that?”

“That… shouldn’t have been possible,” Ao said with a note of shock in his normally dispassionate voice. “We calculated the amounts of chakra involved; we could have held even six jōnin-ranked ninja with that combination of paralysis techniques.”

“Not possible?” Gato rounded on him. “You imbecile, do I have to explain to you how redundancy works? Proper planning doesn’t mean accounting for the worst circumstance you can imagine, it means making it so that the circumstances are entirely irrelevant to your plan’s success! Otherwise you fail the moment your imagination is found lacking, which it clearly is! Now, do I need to report this flagrant display of incompetence to Yagura?”

The head of the hunter Anbu shook his head slightly. “No.”

“No who?”

“…no, Gato-sama.”

“Better.” Gato straightened his black formal kimono, still shaking from the shock of having come so close to death in what should have been his moment of triumph. The worst thing was that Ao’s display of submission had not been sincere in the slightest: Gato could force others to acknowledge him in public, even to fear him despite his size, but in the privacy of their own heads they were still free to mock him.

All of them… they all think they are so much better than me…

He strode up to his enemy’s prone form once more, equipping himself with brass knuckles as he went. “You can’t stand it, can you Zabuza?” He slammed the metal into Zabuza’s side, and this time he was rewarded with the sharp sound of breaking ribs, though the paralysis techniques prevented the ninja from screaming out in pain. The next blow was aimed for the chin. “You can’t handle the fact that I am–” there was a loud crack as the iron shattered Zabuza’s jaw “–stronger than you!”

He landed blow after blow, laying into his foe until half the bones in the ninja’s body were broken and all his bandages were soaked with fresh blood. It was exhausting work, but there was a certain satisfaction to it that no other worldly pleasure could replace. This was the only time he would ever be able to beat up a ninja as strong as Zabuza. This is what I have worked for all my life… this is what I have lived for!

“Enough.” At last Ao stepped in to stop him, and Gato only reluctantly allowed Zabuza to be pulled away from him. “Yagura still wants him alive.”

Gato cursed as he threw his brass knuckles to the ground, most of his rage brought on by the rush of adrenaline still unspent. “Don’t think you’re getting off easily, Zabuza: Yagura has ways of making you suffer I haven’t even dreamt of. You’ll pay for every single time you humiliated me!” He hurled some more curses after the rogue ninja as the Mist Anbu carried him to the door, but he halted when a crack appeared in the ceiling, and a section of the roof came crashing down with a thunderous noise.

Gato’s vision was drowned by a pool of inky blackness, pure nothingness that appeared from out of nowhere and shrouded Zabuza and the Mist Anbu both. There was the sound of metal clashing upon metal amongst the din of falling masonry, and then a sudden explosion sent the hunter-ninjas scrambling backwards. For a moment Gato could just barely make out the silhouettes of Zabuza and a smaller newcomer within the shroud. Then Zabuza’s arm made an impossibly swift and blurry movement, as though he were waving Gato goodbye, and with that he was gone – both he and the stranger had vanished, taking the unnatural darkness with them as if they had never been there at all.

Dust and pale light poured down from the broken ceiling, gathering on the carpet while the hunter-ninja stood there uselessly. Gato wanted to shout and curse at them, to call them worthless and order them to chase after Zabuza until the end of days, but something prevented him from speaking. Only when he looked down did he notice the metal object sticking out of his chest. As the ground rose up to meet him, he was acutely aware of the Mist ninjas’ disdainful stares, the weight of their contempt pushing down on him as he fell.

In the end, he had not even been able to see the knife until it killed him.

How terribly unfair…

Advertisements

2 thoughts on “Chapter 20

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s