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Chapter Nine

"It's true... He died."
Kakashi looked up from Zabuza's corpse, having just confirmed the nukenin's death. There was no pulse, at least none that he could find, and the senbon in his neck had not struck any near-death points that he knew of. He examined the newcomer as casually as he could. They were wearing what appeared to be a thick, dull orange robe worn loosely under some kind of gi. It had multiple places to hide weapons or could be used to obfuscate movement without hindering it. That wasn't what drew Kakashi's greatest concern. It was the smooth, wave-patterned mask bearing the symbol of Kirigakure over the forehead that did that.
The stranger bowed slightly. "You have my utmost thanks. I have been looking for an opportunity to kill him."
"If I recall correctly, that mask identifies you as one of Kirigakure's oi-nin."
They straightened up quickly. "As expected... You are quite well-informed." From the voice pitch, height and build, they weren't that much older than his genin. Yet, already an oi-nin? "Yes, I am a part of the unit which hunts nukenin from Kirigakure."
This was no ordinary kid.
Speaking of his genin, they'd shown up already, with Tazuna in tow. All four of them seemed rather shocked at the sight of Zabuza's lifeless body. Two of them looked particularly incensed, and one of those two decided to act upon it, walking forward angrily.
Naruto looked between the corpse on the ground and the young oi-nin on the tree in front of him. It wasn't until they tilted their head to face him that he finally exploded, pointing an accusing finger at them.
"Who the hell are you?!" His team-mates and client made sounds of confusion, while Kakashi blinked. The Oi-nin didn't respond to him. "Who are you!"
"Naruto. It's fine, he's not an enemy." Kakashi tried to calm his student down before he did something stupid.
"I don't care about that!" He swept his hand over to where Zabuza lay dead. "Zabuza was just killed! And by who!" He pointed back at the oi-nin, still somehow an accusatory action, "A tool! A tool of Kirigakure! They don't even let him have a face! To them, he's not a person! Maybe even to himself, he's not a person! How can someone like that have done what was so hard for us?" Kakashi walked up to stand beside his frustrated student.
So, that's what's bothering him.
"It even looks like, under that mask, he's not even that different from me!" He turned to his teacher, "We look like idiots! I can't accept this!"
"I suppose I can understand how it would be difficult for you to accept... But, this is reality. As ninja, we are expected to kill our humanity and act as tools to find strength. And in this world, there are kids younger than you... and stronger than me." He glanced at Sasuke as he said that, and sure enough, the young Uchiha's thoughts immediately went to his brother, who had become an ANBU captain at thirteen.
And Naruto's problem... Kakashi supposed he could understand. After fighting for so long to get people to recognise him as a person, he's just realised he's being asked to throw that away for the sake of being a ninja.

The oi-nin moved from the branch using some kind of shunshin technique. He hefted Zabuza's corpse over his shoulder, announcing his intent to dispose of the body. It wouldn't do to have someone from another village observe precisely what he intended to preserve and what he intended to destroy.
"Then, I shall excuse myself." That same shunshin was performed and both oi-nin and ex-nukenin disappeared in howling winds. Kakashi's shoulders slumped as he re-covered Obito's sharingan. He couldn't sense the oi-nin's presence anymore. That was no guarantee, but since they had Zabuza's body with them, it would have been difficult to remain stealthy enough that they could observe without notice.
Naruto walked over to the tree Zabuza had died against.
"They're not here anymore, Naruto."
Naruto knew that. He placed his hand up against the trunk, and began shaking, his frustration getting the better of him.
Calm down, damn it. Focus on something else. Breathe. Air. Wind. As thin...
Chakra gathered in his palm.
And as sharp as you can... Like Asuma said.
"Our mission hasn't ended yet." Kakashi announced, "We still have to take Tazuna-san to his home." Naruto hadn't said anything since resting his hand on that tree. The old man chose that moment to try to relieve the tension, forcing his own good humor and making an attempt at blasé.
"Everyone, I'm really sorry about all this! Well, come on and make yourselves at home at my place!" Kakashi cottoned on. While not quite as... enthusiastic as Tazuna, he tried to cheer up his genin.
"All right. Everyone, let's go!"
He took less than three steps before collapsing face first. Most of Team Seven clamored around him, anxiously asking what was wrong. Naruto sighed, releasing the chakra in his palm then, leaving a thin, clean wound through the tree trunk. He moved over to his unconscious sensei, and lifted him up by the shoulder.
"Oi, Sasuke, give me a hand here?" Rather confused by Naruto's calm, he did so.
"You know what's wrong with him?"
"Probably chakra exhaustion. It's happened to me a couple of times when I train."
Sasuke's face turned to him sharply. "You-!"
"Hm?"
Sasuke shook his head and turned away. "No, nothing. Never mind." Naruto was working himself to the point of chakra exhaustion? Even with his insane stamina? If the idiot is training that hard, then maybe...
Naruto's thoughts took a different route to Sasuke's, his jaw set as the two of them carried Kakashi together. He was not going to let things happen the same way from now on. They'd let things happen mostly as before, and the few changes they had made didn't seem to be causing much difference, but now? Now lives were at stake at the immediate moment. If things happened as before, both Haku and Zabuza were going to die. Haku, at the least, didn't deserve that. Zabuza... maybe. It had taken losing Haku and being at death's door himself before he finally admitted what he was doing wrong.
Naruto had long ago resolved to, this time, end this mission with Haku still alive. Zabuza, if he could be saved, would be, but Naruto doubted the nukenin could do so without either losing Haku or dying himself .

* * *
Kakashi's head hurt. While this was not the reason he eventually woke up, it was the reason why he did not immediately slip back into unconsciousness. He slowly opened his eye.
So I overdid it with the Sharingan, after all?
Great kami, he was exhausted. It felt like every cell in his body needed sleep. Obito's eye was not being agreeable with him in the slightest. Granted, it had always been draining to use, but it had never been dangerously so until after he'd unlocked it's third tomoe. If this kept up, he was going to end up in serious trouble one day.
"So, are you all right, Sensei?" That wasn't one of his students. He considered the young woman's question nonetheless. Was he all right? He tried moving.
His body quite vividly made known its objection to this course of action.
"No. My body can barely move. I think it'll be stuck like this for a week." A week at least. The first time this happened, he'd been taken unawares and was actually hospitalised for that long. It was another three weeks before he'd returned to active duty. He'd been careful since then, but...
Damn it, Obito, you're still just as obstinate after all these years.
He tried sitting up in the futon, only to receive the woman's chiding, "Then you shouldn't be moving around, now should you, sensei?"
This woman was a mother, Kakashi immediately concluded from her well-practised disapproving tone of voice.
"Of... of course." He lay back down. He could always experiment to find the exact extent of the damage later. When this woman wasn't around, preferably. Who was she? Some relation of Tazuna's?
His students chose that moment to appear with Tazuna. They gathered around his bedside, speaking of the close call they had just escaped from. Tazuna even commented on how much safer he felt knowing that the fearsome jounin after his life was now dead.
Kakashi didn't bother pointing out that there were other nukenin that Gatou could potentially hire, either just as deadly as Zabuza or possibly (though unlikely) even more so. There was also something about that, too. Something about how that fight had ended irked him, just niggling at the back of his mind, taunting him just out of reach.
He ran it through in his mind, even as he explained about ANBU oi-nin to his genin, the client and the woman who was the client's daughter.

The boy, one of Kiri's oi-nin, had waited for Zabuza to let down his guard before killing him. That in itself was not strange. Oi-nin typically preferred to shadow their targets and learn as much as they could about their dealings and any secrets they might have leaked before finally taking them down, but an opportunity like being paralysed and distracted couldn't just be passed up.
The method of killing, however, was slightly strange. Senbon were clean, precise tools of death, and often used for silent assassinations, but why use a method that favored stealth over certainty in this case? More importantly, the apparent target, an instant-death point on the neck, was too small for even a master senbon-user to safely rely on it as an instant kill: a ninjutsu or even just getting right up in Zabuza's face to deliver the final blow would have had a higher chance of success, and just by interfering at all, the oi-nin had announced his presence to Team Seven. Of course, killing someone by stabbing them in the neck hardly requires that kind of precision, and affords at least some margin of error.
Strangest of all, though, was the oi-nin's departure with the corpse. Zabuza's corpse was nearly double the boy's size, and it was all dead weight, so to speak. No ninja would so burden themselves unless there was no other choice, and a dead body could easily be held within a storage seal. The fact that the body had been moved at all was odd. All he needed as proof was the head, and standard operating procedure was to dispose of the corpse on-site, so that any traces that had been left by the death nearby could be easily recovered, rather than risking enemy ninja, or worse, civilians, stumbling across village secrets.
...Come to think of it, there was actually quite a lot that didn't fit in that situation.
There was also the matter of their earlier 'visitor'.
Zabuza was still alive, his gut told him. There were a number of flaws in that suspicion, and that the senbon had struck the opposite side of the neck for a near-death state was first among them, but even if there was a slight possiblity, he needed to prepare for it.

"Sensei?" Kakashi looked up from his train of thought. Sakura was looking at him in concern. "You... You look distracted." Kakashi sighed wearily. His students had a right to know his suspicions.
"There is a possibility that Zabuza is still alive."
"But... but you confirmed his death yourself!"
"I did indeed confirm that he had no detectable pulse. However, senbon have a very low fatality rate unless they strike certain critical points on the body, and the oi-nin did not. They are trained to know the human body very well, so while it was risky to rely on such a thing, I don't find it likely that they would have completely missed the necessary area. Not with Zabuza in that state."
"Not only that, but they deliberately overburdened themselves with his corpse when they left." Sasuke pointed out.
Sakura mused, "If they're meant to dispose of the corpse, why would they move it at all?"
Kakashi smiled under his mask. His genin had already followed his line of thought on their own. There was hope for them yet.
"Correct. There are still some holes in this theory, but it appears likely that the 'oi-nin' was one of Zabuza's allies who, in this instance, saved his life."
Tazuna was rather understandably looking for as many of those holes as he could. "You- You're probably just overthinking things. You said yourself that you could be wrong."
"True, I could be wrong, but there's too much that's out of place for me to simply ignore, either. Once a ninja feels something is strange, he needs to prepare before it's too late. That's an iron rule of being a ninja."
Sakura nodded, "Then, sensei, how do we prepare for this before it's too late? I mean, you can't move for a while, so we'll need to do something about it."
We?
"I'm rather surprised to hear you say that, Sakura." Kakashi's tone was not unkind, but mildly teasing nonetheless.
"Y-You may have had problems with him, but we-" She paused. No, not 'we'. "...Naruto and Sasuke were able to help, anyway."
"No, you were right. 'We' helped." She looked at Naruto who had spoken. He smiled at her. "We are Team Seven, Sakura. Wasn't it you who called us three hearts as one?" Sasuke 'hmm'd in assent, and Sakura smiled, faintly blushing at the praise from both of them.
Kakashi chuckled at that. His cute little genin were quickly becoming a good team. Still, while he would have preferred his students come to him of their own initiative for lessons, the situation demanded a quick increase in skill. Looked like he'd be handing them at least one technique on a silver platter.
"Well, Sakura does have a point, I guess. You three, I'll be putting some training to you."
"Why bother?" That drew their attention to the young boy who had just entered.

Naruto was twitching imperceptibly once Inari was gone. The meeting had gone much as before, with Inari telling them, very matter-of-factly, that anyone who went against Gatou would die, as well as... well.
No such thing as heroes, huh?
Tazuna had, of course, apologised and told them not to mind his grandson. Then, on that awkward note, both he and his daughter had left. Once Tazuna and his relatives were gone, Kakashi turned more serious.
"Naruto. There's something I need to ask you."
"Good." What? "Because there's something I need to ask you too. No," He said to his team as they stood to leave, "I want you guys here as well. You should hear the answer too." Excepting looks of slight curiosity, they sat back down without complaint, and Naruto turned back to Kakashi sitting up in his futon.
"What did you want to know?"
"Sensei, killing is... hard. Isn't it?"
Naruto had killed before. Well, 'before' before, anyway. If it meant keeping those he cared about safe, he'd do so again, but working through his first kill, after the fact, had been one of the hardest things he'd ever had to deal with. He'd gladly face ten 'Madara's all over again than relive that.
Conversely, Sasuke and Sakura were unblooded right now. While Sasuke knew what it was to see death, neither of them knew what it was to take a life, except from the careful phrasing and justification of Academy instructors, wary not to scare off children who were needed as potential combatants.
They needed to know. They needed to hear the unsweetened truth of murder from a jounin.
"Yes. It is," was Kakashi's quiet response.
"What's it like?"
"It's... not an experience I can compare to anything else. Knowing that you've killed another human being, accepting that burden on your shoulders for the first time... There's nothing anyone can do to really prepare for it. It's something that could easily drive you insane."
"Then, how do you deal with it?"
"There are some ways ninja try to cope. The first is the most common and often expected of most of us: becoming blood-simple. Killing so many times that the mental barrier against it just dissolves, and you don't really feel it when you kill. Killing just... becomes easier. It's the easiest way to deal with it, though if you're not careful, you can become very callous about death. You can become very callous about anything when you can do it without thinking.
"The second is not preferable no matter which way you look at it. It's when a ninja starts to enjoy killing, getting off on murder. Becoming addicted to death is not coping, but it's far more common than it should be, which is why I mention it. I'll also mention that Konoha does not tolerate that, not under any circumstance, and if any of you three turn to this, disappointment would be a mild way to describe my feelings on the matter.
"There's a third way, but it's very rare, because it's incredibly difficult to maintain without eventually going insane. Some ninja refuse to allow themselves to become blood-simple. They refuse to allow themselves to... forget, I suppose. To let go of that mental barrier. They force themselves to remember every kill, and to carry that weight of the death they've caused. For these ninja, every kill is like their first. They constantly force themselves to feel the pain of every life they've ever taken. Which is why they're so rare. Doing that, forcing yourself to live with that every moment of every day... It'd be very hard not to go crazy."
"When you say 'rare'..."
"I only ever knew one person who succeeded. I know of a few who tried, but eventually slipped into the more common method. We just couldn't take it."
"So, sensei, that means that you're..."
"I'm blood-simple. I tried following my own teacher's example after he died, but... couldn't." He let them digest that admission before continuing. "I want to make something absolutely clear. Becoming blood-simple is a natural psychological response to killing. It is by no means a mark of failure, and I do not want you beating yourselves up when it happens to you." Naruto opened his mouth to object, but Kakashi cut him off. "Yes, WHEN. If you can handle the more taxing method, well, all right. But I don't want any of you risking permanent mental harm by trying to hold up a burden you can't."
Kakashi sighed as the genin listening took that in. "Now go get some rest. We're starting early tomorrow." They nodded, and got up to retrieve their packs to turn in. "But first, Naruto." He paused, turning back to his teacher. Kakashi waited until he could tell Sakura and Sasuke were out of earshot. "My question to you. Are you in contact with the Kyuubi?" Naruto turned and smiled in response.
"Shut up before I rip your face off, Kakashi-sensei."
Kakashi's heart almost stopped.
"Just kidding." Naruto stuck out his tongue, "No, I'm not talking with the Kyuubi yet." Kakashi let out his breath in relief.
"Well. That's... that's good to know. Provided, of course, that you're telling the truth..."
"Would I lie to you, sensei?" It was not the first time Naruto had asked this of him, but it was, perhaps, the first time he'd asked sincerely. It was only after Naruto had gone to do Naruto-like things that Kakashi realised exactly how Naruto had answered.
"...'Yet'?"

* * *
"N-Next time! If... If you screw up again next time, you're finished!"
Haku ignored Gatou, his parting threat more to soothe his own ego after having his wrist broken. His hired help left with him. Ugh. Those two... It was mortifying. They weren't worth the trouble of even remembering their names, yet in Zabuza's current condition, they and their amateurish iaijutsu were a possible threat, and consequently had had to be intimidated.
"Haku." Zabuza's voice broke into his protege's thoughts, "That was unnecessary." The nukenin's grip relaxed on the kunai under the sheets as he spoke. They both knew that Haku knew it was there.
"I know. But right now, it's too early to kill Gatou. If we cause a commotion here, they'll pick up our trail again." Haku smiled, "We just have to bear with it for now."
"...True." The short conversation over, Zabuza went back to sleep, to help speed along his convalescence. Haku watched him as he slept, as well as watching over him. Thoughts were allowed to drift in the relative peace, and for some reason, those thoughts went back to what the genin in orange, who could somehow see through Zabuza's water clones, had said.
He had named Haku as a tool. That was exactly what Haku was, and had no problem with that, owing everything to Zabuza. Perhaps, if he hadn't been on that bridge on that day... if he had not found Haku or seen the lonely potential in a young child's eyes...
Haku chased away such thoughts. Thinking on 'what if' or 'what could be' was the path to insanity. Zabuza had granted purpose where there was none. He had given a new life to Haku, who had been simply waiting for the end.
Anything Haku did for him, then, was small payment.

* * *
Sakura yawned, stretching out as she did so. The sounds of construction were everywhere, but despite that, she felt tired. Tazuna watched her with mild irritation. Today was the second day she'd come along, and it was the second day she'd just sat there and not helped. Sure, she was there to protect him, but what could she do against someone like Zabuza? Even last time, she and her team-mates knew and accepted the only chance they had was to free their teacher, so why couldn't she help out a little?
Tazuna sighed. That was hindsight talking. Sure, she didn't stand much of a chance against Zabuza, but there was no guarantee that he was the only assassin up Gatou's sleeve. Just because nothing HAD happened in the two days she'd been here, didn't mean nothing WOULD happen.
"Where's that blond kid and the stuck-up guy?"
"Kakashi-sensei set them a training exercise."
"Not you?"
Sakura drew herself up with some pride, "I've already completed it."

It had been four days since Zabuza;s attack, and Kakashi was still recovering under Tsunami's care. Sakura's team-mates had been hidden away in the forest, practising some ninja magic or chakra or whatever that Kakashi had assigned to them. Sakura had been sent to guard him in the meantime, while he worked on the bridge. Speaking of which...
Tazuna looked up towards the very large gap that was the distance still to cover to the other bank.
He squinted, then rubbed his eyes beneath his glasses with his free hand.
Looking at it from the shore, and even from the boat as they passed underneath a couple days ago, he could've sworn it was further than that...
He looked again, set down his load and then looked back over what had already been completed. So much farther! The distance yet to go was nothing next to what they'd already accomplished! If they kept going at this pace, they might even be done by the end of the week! He let his eyes drift over his workforce, wondering if they had noticed as well. He picked out one of the foremen and walked over.
"Oi, Giichi!" The man looked up from where he was organising the placement of the next load of girders and smiled as he came nearer.
"Hey, Tazuna... uh, what is it?"
"Well, I was just looking back over what we've managed so far, and... maybe it's just me, but does it look like we've done more than you thought?" Giichi blinked, confused.
"Tazuna, are you okay?"
"Look, can you just take a look and let me know if my eyes are getting worse or not?" Giichi shrugged and looked back over the completed section of bridge. He blinked. He squinted. He pulled off a glove and rubbed at his eyes with his now bare hand.
"You know... now you mention it. The distance doesn't really look all that much when you look at it from the bank, but now I'm actually looking at it from here..." Giichi smiled and replaced his work glove. "You're right. It does look further." He turned to the distance yet to be completed, "and this little bit we've got left, hell, that's nothing at all!" Tazuna turned around at the sound of a certain young kunoichi's laughter. He frowned. What was so funny?
Giichi's face fell as he considered what he'd just seen. "We... we might even pull this off..."
"Giichi?"
"No, it's nothing. Tazuna. I'm proud to have helped you with this."
"Well, um, great. I'm proud to have built this."
"It's not built yet, though..." Tazuna frowned at that. Giichi's response had been as much to himself as it was to Tazuna.
"It will be, though. Giichi, it will get built, you know that, right? I'll make sure." Giichi nodded. "Well... We should get back to work, right? Not going to build itself, is it?" They went back to what they were doing. As he walked past Sakura again, though, Tazuna couldn't ignore her pleased little smile.
What is so damned...?
"All right, miss kunoichi, what's so funny, anyway?"
"I don't know what you're talking about."
"Don't be coy with me, what were you laughing about when I was talking to Giichi?" Sakura shrugged coyly.
"Who knows...?" Tazuna glared at her. This was not a joke, damn it! This bridge was the hope of his entire country and he wasn't going to let some little girl playing ninja make fun of it!

She looked to see if anyone was listening, then gestured him in closer. He hesitated slightly, but did.
"You know," she whispered, "You were right."
What? What was he right abou-
"The bridge, I mean." Tazuna's mind quickly switched to Panic Mode.
She can read my mind! I didn't think ninja could actually do that!
"See, I thought that if what was done looked longer, and what needed to be done looked shorter, it would be really good for morale, after looking back at how fast they can work. So, I... cheated. A little."
...Wait, what?
"I'm using genjutsu. The completed bridge looks longer... and the space left to cover looks shorter."
Wait, WHAT? Ninja can do that?
Tazuna drew back slowly, a look of amazement on his face. Sakura just giggled and held a finger to her lips in a silent 'shh' gesture.

* * *
It had been a long two days. Naruto had been careful not to show off much improvement in front of Kakashi, but even now that he was free of his suspicious teacher's supervision, this was tiring. Granted, he could do this exercise already. He'd practised for who knows how long at home, sticking himself to the ceiling for as long as he could. Still, using this much chakra constantly for hours on end... even with his stamina, this was brutal work, especially when deliberately holding himself back just enough to threaten Sasuke's natural talent.
Speaking of Sasuke, he seemed to have noticed the closing gap between their progress.
"Oi, Naruto."
"What?"
"You asked Sakura for help, earlier, right?" He had. He'd made a show of it, of course, despite not actually needing the advice. That had all been for his team's benefit. It reinforced Sakura's self-esteem, hopefully caught Kakashi's attention and now it was time for Sasuke to benefit.
"...Yeah. Why?"
Sasuke's rather awkward attempt at asking for help remained awkward, "What... what did she tell you?" Naruto's face grew a canny grin.
"Why do you want to know?"
"I'm... I just do." Sasuke attempted to deflect him.
"Tell me why and I'll tell you." Naruto wasn't so easily dissuaded, and Sasuke's temper began to fray.
"I just did te-"
"The real reason, I mean."
"Why do you want me to... to..." He trailed off angrily. Naruto finished for him.
"To what? Demean yourself?" Sasuke's glare was all that was needed for confirmation. "You don't get it, do you? It's not about that. I mean, let's say you're in a fight against someone who specialises in, say... long-range suiton ninjutsu. How would you go about beating him?"
Sasuke's glare narrowed. "...I'd find some way of doing it."
"Well then, let's say that when you meet this enemy, you have on your team a taijutsu specialist well-versed in doton ninjutsu. Then what would you do?" The right answer was obvious.
"I'd leave them to fight the suiton-user."
"Would you?"
"I... yeah. Of course I would." The look Sasuke gave him spoke very clearly about what he thought of his team-mate's intelligence at that point.
"Let's say that you started fighting this guy first, and your team-mate comes along later. Would you still let him fight in your place?"
Sasuke's response was immediate, "Of course no-!" He stopped himself at Naruto's raised eyebrow. "Wait. I mean... I-" Naruto sighed wearily and shook his head.
"This is my whole damn point, Sasuke. If you keep holding on to that overbearing pride, instead of sucking it up and properly asking for help, you're not going to GET any help, and that is going to get you killed! Either because you didn't let someone who could beat your opponent take over the fight, or because you weren't as fast or as strong as you could have been with training that you could have ASKED for; if you keep being such a stuck-up idiot, it will cost you!"
"How the hell would you know?!"
"It's damned common sense! No ninja can learn every fighting style or technique, not even using something like the Sharingan! There's just not enough time! Everyone specialises,  and because you can't do everything yourself, they put us into teams! That was the point of the bell test, remember; So we can learn to rely on others!"
Sasuke didn't have a response to that. The silence in that wood stretched out, until it became an undeniably awkward absence of sound. Eventually, Naruto turned back to his tree, clearing his throat.
"So, unless you needed anything, I'd like to keep trainin-"
"Naruto." Sasuke interrupted him. He turned to see what it was that Sasuke wanted his attention for, and found himself dumbstruck. Sasuke was sitting in seiza, extremely stiff and formal, his hands on the ground in front of him. "I..." His jaw was visibly set as he bowed low, still on his knees. His voice was as stiff as his movements as he spoke from the ground, hiding his burning face. "I would... like to know what advice Sakura shared with you, so that-" Naruto facepalmed.
"Damn it, get up, Sasuke." He didn't move, though he did stop speaking. He seemed confused. "When I told you to let go of that pride, I just meant for you to admit when you needed help. You don't have to grovel like that..." After a moment, Sasuke slowly sat back up, then stood. His face was bright red, either from shame or embarrassment. He fixed Naruto with a look that was something between his trademark glare and gratitude.
"I don't NEED your help. I would... appreciate it, though." Naruto didn't insult his pride any further by chuckling, just giving him a sympathetic smile.
It was a start.

* * *
Two years earlier...

A human-shaped patch of red, black and brown was all that broke the monotonous expanse of sand, the only other color for miles. Such a curiosity did not go unnoticed, even half-buried in sand as it was.
A lone carrion bird circled overhead, ever patient, ever wary. The thing below had not moved for hours now, not a twitch since the buzzard had caught sight of it, but that was no guarantee of safety. Some predators lay in wait for days, feigning death for the sake of the impatient, or the desperate.
More came now, filling the sky, lazily tracing a slow, downward spiral to the waiting meal below. Numbers emboldened them. Even if the thing was a predator waiting for them, it could catch but one, allowing the others to escape. With this many, perhaps even a predator could be brought low and eaten.
What a feast that could be! Bellies filled for days to come!
Numbers, hunger and burgeoning greed brought them lower. Lower and lower still, and no sign of life to shatter their resolve.

The first of them landed. An old bird, it had been many days since he had eaten, chased off his claims by younger wakes, all unwilling to share. His attention was drawn to the eyes. So juicy they seemed, and without even any protection. The left eye, staring at nothing, all cold and glassy; had some kind of discloration above it. The others landed, emboldened by the lack of retaliation against him. They clamored near, eager to begin the feast, and the old bird knew he had to eat now, before he could be shouldered away. He raised his beak, the cruel hook ready to steal the choicest parts.
Pandemonium! Pandemonium and sand, sand everywhere! Was it a storm? No, no storm. No storm cloyed and clung and held fast like this, they tore and bit and stripped flesh from bone, storms did not weight you down and press firm like this, from all directi-

The sand of the Ichibi Jinchuuriki, now stained red, slid back to rest around it's master after pulping the buzzards that had thought to make a meal of him. Eyes continued to stare and see nothing of the desert or the blue horizon, and whispering breaths left the mouth, barely shifting the grains of sand they fell upon. Words of the same force were spoken, and went unmarked by the uncaring sands.
"I am..."
Chapter Nine!
Which features foreshadowing!
Subtle-ish foreshadowing, see if you can spot it. Send me a PM if you think you have, so you don't spoil it for everyone else.
(inb4 Gaara's piece. That is foreshadowing, but not of the subtle variety.)

Ch.1 - [link]
Ch.2 - [link]
Ch.3 - [link]
Ch.4 - [link]
Ch.5 - [link]
Ch.6 - A:[link]
Ch.6 - B:[link]
Ch.7 - [link]
Ch.8 - [link]
Ch.9 - Right here.
Ch.10 - [link]
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:iconthesky9:
thesky9 Featured By Owner Aug 25, 2012
Gaara!!!

Great story. Keep on writing!
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:iconnkvictory:
nkvictory Featured By Owner Feb 14, 2012
This is a very good story. Excellent grammar, great characterization, and intriguing plot. I do hope you're just a slow updater and haven't abandoned it, but either way, I've greatly enjoyed this. I'm going to watch you in case there's more.
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:iconkozinc:
kozinc Featured By Owner Jan 25, 2012
Wooo! Next Chapter!
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:icontitokhan:
Titokhan Featured By Owner Jan 2, 2012
wow, well worth the wait for new stuff..

which reminds me i really should get going on chapter 4 of two hearts
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:icongladdecease:
gladdecease Featured By Owner Sep 10, 2011
As ever, I love what you're doing with this. Naruto's attempts to change things are just subtle enough to work. I hope he manages to bring Haku and Zabuza around.
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:iconnebula1701:
Nebula1701 Featured By Owner Sep 8, 2011
wow YAY!!
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:iconmattwilson83:
mattwilson83 Featured By Owner Sep 7, 2011  Hobbyist General Artist
awesome chapter :)
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:icondaughter-of-ether:
Daughter-of-ether Featured By Owner Sep 6, 2011
I wish this fic had a more memorable name so i didnt have to go back and reread every time a new chapter came out just to remember what's happening :S
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:iconblerg42:
blerg42 Featured By Owner Sep 6, 2011
awwww poor gara...
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:iconsupernovasftw:
supernovasftw Featured By Owner Sep 6, 2011
YES!!!! The year wait was worth it!!! :D
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