Life Without Kurama @axleboost
Chapter 12

12 - Belly of the Beast

The day was bright and sunny. Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura walked along a dirt path through the forest behind Kakashi and Genma. Birds chirped and bugs buzzed from within the lush forest, creating a tranquil vibe. Naruto looked around, wide-eyed, observing all that this new land had to offer. The Land of Waves' forest was similar to that of The Leaf. However, tall, spindly trees took the place of the more sturdy ones found back home, and there was so much moisture here, even the air felt wet. Naruto's baggy outfit stuck to him like glue whenever he exerted himself even a little bit.

He glanced at Sasuke and Sakura; Sakura's hair was damp and had lost its usual volume, and Sasuke's arms were littered with beads of moisture. Regardless of the humidity, the place had a certain charm to it that he would've stopped to appreciate under normal circumstances. There would be time for that later. Right now, he couldn't keep from shaking with excitement knowing that his next phase of training was on the horizon.

Sasuke peered at him over Sakura's shoulder. "Naruto, you'll mess up if you're too eager and lose concentration," he said with a calmness that surprised his brother. Where was the usual snark?

The blond hid his confusion behind a competitive glare. "Whatever. I'm gonna get it on the first try, believe it!"

Sakura held out her hands, smiled nervously, and said, "Let's just try to do our best, okay?"

Her warm smile melted Naruto's heart, and he grew red in the face. "O-okay, Sakura!"

"Actually, since you mentioned it, Sasuke," Genma added with a shrug, "chances are you'll both mess up. No one gets it on their first try, or even their second."

The Uchiha raised an eyebrow in curiosity. Kakashi raised an arm to signal the group to stop at a fork in their path, balancing on one crutch with surprising ease.

"We're splitting up here," he said. "Follow me, Sakura."

"Uh...yes, sensei!" Sakura shuffled along behind Kakashi, hands clasped in front of her in a cute way. Naruto couldn't help but worry while he watched her go. Something told him Kakashi-sensei was going to be ruthless in his training methods again.

Genma said, "This way, Naruto. Sasuke." He shoved his hands in his pockets, taking the right path. Kakashi and Sakura were hidden by dense underbrush as they disappeared down the left one.

Once he found a suitable open area, Genma changed course and walked onto the grass; Naruto and Sasuke joined him. Their shoes made an audible 'squeak' with every step. The brown-haired Jonin tipped his head back, splayed his arms, and breathed in the fresh air. Both boys stood idly by, watching him smile to himself.

"Um, Uncle Genma?" Naruto said. "Weren't we supposed to be training?"

Genma flicked his chin to one side, and the boys followed him with their eyes. All they saw was a cluster of trees walling off part of the forest. They looked back at him, no more enlightened than they were at first.

He opened his eyes and saw their confusion. "Relax! There's a stream over that way. That's where we'll be training."

"Ooh, ooh!" Naruto piped up. "What are we learning? A new jutsu?"

Sasuke hummed thoughtfully to himself. "And we need water nearby for this?"

"Yeah, we do." Genma started toward the wall of trees with his students close behind him.

"How'd you know about this stream?" Naruto asked.

Genma chuckled. "I've been to this region before, Naruto. Do you think I always stay in the village?"

Naruto scratched his face, struck by his teacher's words. "Well, I guess I kinda did think that. Don't you have to protect Dad all the time?"

"All of us Jonin, even those with three-man squads or special assignments like mine, get the occasional mission outside of the village. And I had a life before I worked under Minato, too, you know."

Sasuke stepped over a thick tree root and let out an amused huff, earning a wrathful glare from Naruto.

"What are you laughin' at, Sasuke?" he demanded to know.

"You're so narrow minded sometimes. It's just funny."

"We'll see who's narrow minded when I learn this faster than you!"

Genma interrupted their banter with a cough. "I hope you've both been honing your chakra control, because you're going to need those skills today. Ah, here it is!"

The Jonin pushed aside a branch in his way and exited on the other side of the thick growth of trees, revealing a glistening stream surrounded by bushes and wildlife. He led them toward the water and stepped into the shallow end. A deer drinking from the stream raised its head and bolted at the sight of the newcomers.

"Alright then," Genma said. "Let me show you the basics."

"Wow." Kakashi stared above him in awe. Sakura sat casually on the highest branch of a tree.

"This is fun, sensei!" she called out, smiling down at him.

What's this girl made of? he thought to himself. Her chakra control was astounding, especially for being fresh out of the academy. What she lacked in combat prowess, she apparently compensated for in other areas.

"Alright," he said. "Sakura, that's enough."

She joined him on the ground and stood with her hands at her sides. Her nervous smile became a puzzled stare when he formed a hand sign.

"Sakura, since you're clearly proficient at this already, we're going to try something else."


"Yes. I'm going to teach you about how to detect and counter genjutsu."

Sakura gasped. "Genjutsu? You mean how to break free from illusions?"

"That's right. Listen to me closely, and do exactly as I say. Alright?"

She shook off her apprehension and smiled. "Yes, sensei!"

Kakashi smiled back, pleased to see the level of her trust in him so early in their time as a team. He may have been right to take on these kids as his students after all.

The Jonin called forth a small amount of chakra, activating a Jutsu without any visible indication. Part of him was amused. Another part of him felt bad for the innocent girl. However, showing her mercy here wouldn't help her survive as a ninja.

"Now," he said, "first comes detection."

Naruto fell flat on his butt, splashing water everywhere. Sasuke fell beside him, sputtering and shaking droplets out of his hair.

"Watch it," Naruto complained, shielding himself. "What are you, a dog?"

His brother frowned, not in a mocking mood for once. "Sorry."

Eyeing him suspiciously, Naruto fought the urge to ask what was up with Sasuke. He needed to stay focused on training, but it would be a lie to say the issue didn't nag at him.

Genma laughed and put his hands on his hips. "That was close! Why don't you both give it one more try?"

The boys groaned and sat up straighter, resting on the heels of their palms. The stream beneath them rushed along in a steady flow, further dampening their already soaked clothing. Sasuke stood up first. Then he helped Naruto to his feet. Neither of them were in the mood for any teasing right now. They backstepped out of the water side by side and turned to their teacher.

"I brought you here," Genma explained, "because if you can handle a current, still water should be even easier to balance in." He flinched under the scrutiny of their serious stares. "What? The water's not even that deep, and the current's pretty weak!"

"Kakashi-sensei didn't say you had to make it more difficult for us on our first try," Naruto complained.

"I think I almost figured it out," Sasuke whispered to himself, having already forgotten about Genma's treachery. He looked down at his feet. "The ratio...I'm so close."

"Good!" the bodyguard said with a smile. "Now keep at it."

Sasuke returned to form without a word.

"Ahhh, wait for me!" Naruto cried, assuming a neutral stance and making the appropriate hand sign to mold chakra. There was no way he'd let Sasuke get ahead of him!

Chakra flowed through Naruto's body, from his chest outward to his fingertips and toes. He grunted aloud as he consciously redirected some chakra to pool in his feet. When he was satisfied with the amount built up, he focused on stemming the flow. He took measured breaths and balanced his output of chakra the way Genma had demonstrated. Then he took another step onto the water, peeking at Sasuke mid-step, who was in the middle of doing the same. Naruto winced in anticipation of losing his balance and falling in again.

Seconds passed and Naruto blinked, staring down at his feet, which were safely positioned atop the water's surface. He grinned, shaking with excitement.

"I did it!"

Naruto raised his arms in celebration, then cried out as he fell onto the rocks in the bed of the stream yet again. He looked to Sasuke, who maintained a wobbly stance on the water.

"Ugh, darn it!" Naruto said, pounding a fist against his leg. When the frustration passed, he turned to observe his brother's progress.

I can't lose to Sasuke!

Sasuke didn't look at him, much too concerned with staying balanced. "Don't blame me. You're the one who wasn't paying attention, loser." He stumbled before Naruto could respond, made a big splash, and fell flat.

"Hahahahahaha!" Naruto broke down into a fit of laughter. "Now who's not paying attention, huh?" He stopped laughing long enough to help Sasuke sit up, then resumed his mockery.

Genma shook his head and smiled. "Good work, you two. You learn pretty fast. Let's try it again. When I feel you have a good enough grasp on this, we'll go back."

Sasuke nodded and returned to his starting place on the grass. Naruto clambered up the lip of the stream and stood beside him. The gear Sasuke donned before they left was in a pile nearby. The Uzumaki couldn't help but wonder why he was using that bow and arrow again all of a sudden. Even more bizarre was the attitude shift. Was this what he meant earlier by "I'm trying something new from here on?" Naruto's musings were cut short when he noticed Sasuke stepping onto the water.

"Starting without me again? Oh, no ya don't!"

For the next half hour, they continued to practice the technique. Naruto had less trouble maintaining his footing with each attempt. The same seemed to be true of his brother, who in time progressed to holding his bow at full draw while standing on the surface of the water.

"Great progress, you two!" Genma said. "We can go back after this, if you'd like."

Naruto threw Sasuke a furtive glance from his own position atop the water.

Look at him, showing off like that!

Sasuke noticed Naruto peeking and cocked his head in confusion.

"What's up?" the Uchiha asked. "Why are you looking at me like I spit in your ramen?"

Genma arched an eyebrow, making Naruto feel uneasy. "Someone's jealous."

"J-jealous?!" Naruto balked. "Why would I be jealous?"

When Sasuke smiled, the knot in Naruto's stomach tightened. Was he mocking him?

"Hey, don't do that!" the insulted Uzumaki said, jabbing a finger at him. Somewhere in the back of his mind, he registered that he hadn't fallen into the stream this time, but his current feelings overshadowed that accomplishment.

"Do what?" Sasuke asked with an innocent shrug.

"Look down on me. You don't have to show off with that thing, you know."

Sasuke frowned, raising his weapon and examining it with a crinkled brow. "Naruto, come on. I'm not showing off, this is for-"

"For what, huh?"

"I just started using it again and I thought this might be a good day to get practice in. Is that a crime?"

The blond's simmering stare analyzed Sasuke to the core, but he relented when the raven-haired boy didn't look away or make a face. Naruto realized he really wasn't being made fun of or tricked. Sasuke was being straight with him the whole time. Here he was acting like a paranoid idiot, when all his brother was trying to do was train. He was the jerk here.

"No, it's not," Naruto muttered. "My bad, Sasuke."

Sasuke backstepped out of the stream. "Don't worry about it."

Genma turned to leave. "You two done for now? Let's head back."

"Actually," Sasuke said, raising a hand, "can we stay? Just let everyone know we'll teleport back to the house when we're done."

Taking a moment to consider the request, Genma nodded. "Okay. Remember, focus on maintaining an even discharge of chakra. Also, leave enough in your tank so at least one of you can make the jump to us when you're done."

Sasuke nodded. "Got it."

Their instructor poofed out of view, his Body Flicker taking him far away in an instant.

Naruto looked at his brother. Now it was just the two of them, alone. It was quiet, apart from gentle splashes in the stream and the sounds of animals and bugs.

"Why'd you want to hang back?" he asked when the tension became too much for him. "And don't tell me it's to keep practicing Water Walking."

Sasuke sighed. "I wanted to tell you something, Naruto."

This was it, wasn't it? The answer he'd been dying to hear from Sasuke about why the hell he up and changed his attitude overnight!

"What is it?" the Uzumaki asked, unable to keep the quivering out of his voice.

Sasuke sat cross-legged on the ground, his bow across his lap. Naruto joined him without a word.

"Naruto, I know the way I'm acting today probably seems like it's coming out of nowhere, but it's not. Not for me. I've been doing a lot of thinking, and I just want to try things differently now."

"You mentioned that before," Naruto said, his knees wobbling with anxiety as he spoke. "What are you talkin' about exactly?"

"It's about where I disappear to every week. You used to ask about it all the time. Minato and Kushina always made excuses for me."

It was true. Naruto had found his disappearing once or twice a week for an hour or more at a time to be odd, but after a while, he stopped asking since it seemed like a taboo subject for Mom and Dad. They got all cagey whenever he pushed the topic.

Sasuke went on. "They did that because I asked them to, but...but I don't want to hide it anymore. At least not from you. You're an idiot sometimes, but I hope you didn't think I actually hated you or anything."

Naruto froze, stunned by what was taking place right now. He had half a mind to pinch himself and wake up from this crazy dream. He let Sasuke continue, not knowing what to say.

"Yeah, I expected that response. Well, I'm just gonna say it. For the past five years, I've been going to see Ino's dad, Mr. Inoichi, for help with trauma."


"Yeah. Ever since what happened with my clan, and my brother, it's eaten away at me, you know? I never felt quite right. My head was always clouded by thoughts of him, and what happened. I didn't want to open up to people, or admit how I felt."

Naruto tilted his head, squinting as he took in the information. "Why not?"

"It was easier. Easier than going off at the mouth about everything hurting me in my life. That's also why I didn't want anyone to know I was going to therapy. The Yamanaka Clan's mind transfer was perfect for helping me work through my issues, but I didn't want to have to explain why I needed to go to him if people found out. It was just easier. Easier to hide my confusion, my anger, my sadness…. But the problem is—and I have Mr. Inoichi to thank for helping me realize this—when I tried to bottle up those emotions, I was taking them out on the wrong people. Sometimes even on Minato, Kushina, or you. And I wanted to tell you I'm sorry for any time I crossed a line in our friendship." Sasuke gripped his bow tighter. "There. That's it. I got it all out." He looked up with noticeable hesitance. "Well? You gonna say something?"

Naruto rested his chin on open palms. He sat that way for a good fifteen seconds, or maybe more. Sasuke had just laid a lot on him, so it was only fair that he allowed himself time to think it over.

Cutting Naruto's thoughts short, his brother asked, "Naruto, do you forgive me?"

Being in this situation, with Sasuke at the mercy of what he chose to say next, made Naruto feel funny inside. Not in a triumphant, excited kind of way either. He could tell how big this moment was, and how much weight his opinion held for Sasuke right now. Sasuke didn't need to say it for Naruto to know he cared about him too. His brother was vulnerable right now, and Naruto couldn't stand the pressure of what amounted to having the Uchiha's heart in the palm of his hand.

Feigning an upbeat attitude, Naruto smiled and shook his head. "Are you kiddin' me? Why would I be mad at you over something like that?" The tightness in his chest didn't relent, but he refused to let it show by putting on his brightest smile. He slapped his brother on the shoulder, hoping this would be enough to reassure Sasuke. The pools of black that were the latter's eyes stayed trained on Naruto, but something about them was different now. They looked less bold than usual. Less sure.

"Well, that's good," Sasuke said, letting out a sigh. He rubbed his bow with an absent stare.

Naruto couldn't shake the feeling that he hadn't said enough. He turned his attention to the uncomfortable feeling in the pit of his stomach, failing to hold back a slight squirm that, thankfully, went unnoticed by the preoccupied archer.

"Seriously, Sasuke. You don't need to be all worried about stuff like that with me! No lines've been crossed or anything like that."

" seemed upset about the…" Sasuke eyed the stream, not finishing his sentence.

The blond blew a raspberry. "Don't worry about that! I...I just…" Naruto faltered, reaching for the right words. "Well, yeah, seeing you getting the hang of Water Walking a little faster than I did stung a little. But it's not somethin' for you to feel bad about. I mean, you know I wanna prove myself worthy of being Fifth Hokage! So if I'm not able to master things as simple as this, then-"

"Then the less of a chance that you'll measure up to him when you take over?"

"Yeah!" Naruto splayed his arms. "Yeah, that. You get it. Sorry for being so difficult, okay? Really." Pleased that he'd gotten what he needed to say out, he waited on a response with an unblinking stare.

"I'm glad we understand each other," Sasuke said with a soft smile. "You know, you may be an idiot, but you have your moments, Naruto."

Rather than arguing again, Naruto only laughed. He'd been worried that he might lose Sasuke if he said the wrong thing just now. Childish though it was, at least his brother's teasing meant the real Sasuke was still in there. However much he might have changed, all that mattered was keeping their brotherly bond alive.

Sasuke stood up, ignoring Naruto's fit of laughter. He walked a few paces away before turning back. "Hey, before we head back, would you mind helping me test something out?"

"Uh, sure." Naruto stared open-mouthed, curious to see where this was going.

Sasuke nocked an arrow on his bow and held it at the ready, pulling back to almost full draw. "I'm going to need your clones for this. Let's start with one."

Naruto frowned, reluctantly forming the hand sign to summon a Shadow Clone. Target practice had been furthest from what he expected.

"Ugh," Naruto groaned. "Just make sure you don't hit the real me."

Naruto and Sasuke reappeared in the guest room of Tazuna's household. Both were out of breath, their clothes damp and speckled with dirt and grass. The boys hurried to change, eager to feel dry again.

"We're back!" Naruto shouted as he pulled his shirt over his head. Several voices from another room muddled together, their responses lost in the process.

"Guess we know where everyone is," Sasuke said.

In the next few minutes, they entered the main room in a dry, fresh set of clothes. However, their drooping gaits earned them a couple of raised eyebrows. Genma, Tazuna, and Tsunami were in the middle of a conversation, but paused when they entered. Inari waved to them as he carried a hooked fish into another room.

"There's my two overachievers!" Genma announced with a wink.

"Are you boys alright?" Tsunami asked.

Tazuna crossed his arms. "Hurt yourselves out there?"

"Nah," Naruto said, plodding into the room. "I just need to eat and recharge." He threw Sasuke a cold stare. "Someone had the bright idea of making me create tons of clones and exhaust my chakra. Not to mention I still feel like I've been stabbed a few dozen times in a row!" He nursed a spot on his back where the ghosts of past pains echoed the most.

"Sorry," Sasuke muttered, "but thanks again for helping out."

"With what?" Genma cut in, his eyes lighting up with curiosity.

"An idea for a technique I wanted to test out," Sasuke explained. "It's not perfected yet, but I think I'm onto something."

"Good!" Kakashi said with a clap of his hands as he entered from another doorway, still balancing on crutches. Sakura walked close behind him, dragging her feet. "Because you'll need that creativity for the plan I've come up with, Sasuke."

"Plan?" Naruto raised his head, interest piqued. "Plan for what? Huh, huh?" He noticed Sakura's slumped posture and gasped. "Wait, Sakura! What happened? Are you okay?"

"She's fine, Naruto," Kakashi reassured, waving off his concern. "We just did some intense training is all!"

Naruto shuddered. He didn't want to know what Kakashi considered intense training, if The Bell Test was the Jonin's idea of a normal training exercise.

"Sensei," Sakura groaned, "you're so cruel." She crumpled to the floor, arms flat behind her and knees curled against her chest. The position looked insanely uncomfortable, but it was clear she had little energy for anything else.

"Poor Sakura," Naruto whispered. "What did he do to you?"

"No kidding," Sasuke seconded.

"Once everyone's eaten and rested for a bit," Kakashi said, casting a remorseful glance toward Sakura, "I'll go over our strategy."

Sharing a glance with Naruto, Sasuke tilted his head. "Strategy?"

"That's right. After another day or two of training, we're taking the fight straight to Gato!" The warmth of Kakashi's encouraging smile could be felt even through the fabric of his mask. In that instant, as wild as it was, Naruto felt like whatever crazy plan their sensei had was going to work.

Zabuza sat upright in bed, wincing as Haku finished looping a bandage around his leg for the last time, then pulled until it was snug. His caretaker looked up at him with eyes that were a deep, cedar brown.

"There," Haku said. "I've replaced all of your bandages, Zabuza."

Haku's kind smile betrayed the efficient killing machine hidden beneath the surface. Zabuza never quite got used to this child's dual nature, no matter how much time they spent together. He'd turned the once innocent boy into a tool for his own benefit, and yet somehow, he still looked at him with love and trust instead of the resentment he deserved.

Shaking himself out of his thoughts, Zabuza retracted his outstretched leg with a grunt. "Thanks, Haku."

"My pleasure." Haku's long black hair concealed his face as he bowed. He cleared the bed of all remaining medical supplies and gauze, then returned to his injured ally's side.

Having tucked himself back under the covers, Zabuza stared at the ceiling, mulling over recent events. Haku said nothing for a long while, but raised his head when a noise behind him forecasted someone entering the room. Sure enough, the door eased open. Zabuza dangled a hand off of the side of the bed. He brushed his fingers against the hilt of his large blade, which never left his side, even at times like these. Both Mist assassins relaxed when the short, dark-spectacled man who hired them stepped through the doorway, followed by two of his guardian swordsmen.

The chilling atmosphere that entered with them alerted Zabuza that something was about to happen here. He wasn't worried as much for himself or Haku as for Gato. Still, he wanted to get paid, and dead businessmen couldn't make good on their payments. So he found himself with an irritating dilemma here. The Demon of the Hidden Mist gritted his teeth, considering how to proceed as Gato opened his mouth to spout still more self-important drivel. On the bright side, him talking too much would give Zabuza more time to think.

No payment's worth all this, he thought with a sigh.

A day and half of rest had passed in the blink of an eye. Zabuza lifted his heavy blade and rested its dull edge on the back of his neck, relieved that his body was responding well despite his injuries. He shared a glance with Haku, who stood at the opposite end of the room, mask donned in preparation for battle. Dozens of additional guards that Gato hired when Zabuza warned him of their 'little problem,' took up positions around the room, watching the discarded tip of the Executioner's Blade for any sudden movements.

Of course, their ragtag group of guards was short a few men. Where else was Zabuza supposed to have found enough blood to regenerate his shattered sword on such short notice? He broke off the end of the blade the moment he noticed Kakashi's Flying Thunder God marking. Haku's Ice Release came in handy, allowing him to easily weaken the metal. Now, all they could do was wait and watch. Sooner or later, The Copy Ninja and his brats would show up, expecting to catch them all by surprise.

Cursing under his breath, Zabuza thought once again about how this job was becoming more trouble than it was worth. Damn that Gato. He made a mental note to demand an increase in pay from the bastard when this was all over. The new terms would be tough to argue with after he and Haku eliminated Kakashi's squad and delivered the bridge builder's head to Gato on a platter.

Cutting his ruminations short, the uninvited guests arrived in the center of the room, standing in formation around the jagged piece of metal Zabuza dug into the floor. The ex-Mist ninja let off a hoarse, maniacal laugh, drawing the Leaf ninjas' attention.

"Like fish to a net!" he growled, lunging at them with his sword positioned to take their heads clean off. "Here I come, Kakashi of the Sharingan!"

Naruto landed in a wide stance, taking note of how many enemies were in the room. Even without learning Dad's special sensory technique yet, he had no trouble with a group packed this close together.


Kakashi-sensei whipped out a kunai, his Sharingan already exposed. His stance, his demeanor, even his aura was different. He gave off such dangerous energy without saying a word. Sasuke drew his bow and pointed it at the nearest thug. Sakura made a hand sign and closed her eyes with an unsteady breath, trusting her team to hold off any enemies while she did her part.

"Now!" cried Kakashi. He, Naruto, and Sasuke sprang into action.

Zabuza came dashing toward them like a madman, shouting as killing intent oozed from him unabated. Kakashi swept Zabuza's legs, interrupting his momentum and forcing him to roll sideways to avoid a faceplant. Not missing a beat, the silver-haired Jonin struck three of Gato's guards with a single stroke of his kunai. They dropped their weapons, blood spurting from their deep wounds. In the same instant, Naruto summoned a few clones. They fanned out, keeping the rest of the enemies at bay. Sasuke focused his breathing and used his Sharingan to pin anyone who approached Sakura to the wall with an arrow. It wouldn't distract them for long, but she didn't need long for their plan to work.

Watching everyone take enemies out one by one in only the first few seconds since their arrival took Naruto's breath away. Things were going off without a hitch! Kakashi-sensei really was an awesome ninja. Thinking back to the strategy meeting a couple of days ago, Naruto swelled with excitement.

Team 7 gathered together after lunch, rejuvenated from their first day of training and ready to discuss their plan of attack. Kakashi sat cross-legged in front of his captivated audience, ringed by the equally engaged bridge builder and his family. Genma leaned against a wall near Kakashi, chewing on his senbon as usual.

"So," Naruto said, "how are we gonna kick their butts, sensei?"

Kakashi held up a finger. "Carefully, Naruto. But yes, you're right that if this goes as planned, butts will be kicked, and they won't be ours."

Pleased to hear this, Naruto pounded his fists against his knees with a giddy smile.

"You said we were taking the fight straight to them, didn't you?" Sakura asked, blinking as she stared up at Kakashi. "If I may ask, how, sensei?"

Kakashi leaned forward. "I'm glad you asked!" He took a breath before going into the deep explanation. "Naruto, Sasuke, I know the Flying Thunder God as well. I'm not nearly as familiar with it as Minato-sensei, or the two of you either, really. I'd say from what I've seen, I can mold the chakra to perform a jump a little faster than you can, but I use too much."

"What? Really?" Naruto's mouth hung open. "Wow, sensei! What can't you do?"

"Use the technique several times in a row, for starters. I mean, sure, if I were to rely on only jumping to seals for an entire fight, it wouldn't be too taxing, but I would be limited to using mainly taijutsu because the ability demands so much of my chakra. I wouldn't be able to rely on the hundreds of ninjutsu I've copied in a scenario like that."

"Hmm," Sasuke said after some thought. "Makes sense. How does you knowing the Flying Thunder God factor into this, though?"

"Oh, I get it!" Sakura piped up. "You tagged Zabuza with the marking, didn't you, sensei?"

"Very sharp, Sakura!" Kakashi praised. She flashed a shy smile. "Exactly. Rather, I tagged the end of Zabuza's blade. He can't remove it, because once applied, a Flying Thunder God mark never goes away. Odds are he won't notice until the next time that he cleans or sharpens it."

"But what if he does?" Sasuke was quick to interject.

"But if he does, then in a way, that's even better for us. Why's that, you ask?"

"Because then we know exactly what they're planning, too!" Naruto shouted, a wide grin on his face. "Believe it!"

"Right," Kakashi said. "If they've figured out I have a way to reach them, then they'll be waiting to strike when we show up. If not, that means we'll catch them unawares and we can get to Gato even easier. Either situation works in our favor."

"What'll we do after we get him?" Naruto asked. "Gato, I mean."

The unspoken question on everyone's minds hung in the still air.

Kakashi eyed Inari; the boy was trembling with anticipation. Reading the room, Tsunami led him away, shooting a concerned glance over her shoulder before they disappeared from sight. "Gato will be restrained and his operations here will be shut down. Our primary objective is keeping Tazuna safe, so this course of action should ensure we complete our mission, and that the bridge is finished on schedule. If capturing Gato isn't possible…"

"Then...we'll have to kill him?" Sakura said in a shaky voice.

Kakashi nodded. "Yes, but it shouldn't come to that. Launching a preemptive strike gives us the edge. We're forcing Gato and his hired thugs, as well as Zabuza and the ice user working with him, to play by our rules, not theirs." His gaze fell on Sakura, pulling all eyes in the room toward her like a beacon. "Which brings me to the most important role in this plan. That honor…" Kakashi pointed at the nervous kunoichi. "...falls to you, Sakura."

She gulped. "Me?"

Naruto smirked over his shoulder, watching Sakura in action. She concentrated her chakra, sending an invisible wave of it outward. She'd learned so much from her short time training with Kakashi-sensei, and he couldn't wait to see her grow even further. Snapping back into focus, Naruto parried a blow from one of the gang members and dove back into the fray of combat, using Sakura's impending diversion to his advantage.

"That's right," Kakashi said in response to a confused Sakura. "You see, everyone, Sakura and I have been going over the basics of casting and countering Genjutsu."

"Wow!" Naruto said. "You can do that already, Sakura?"

Sakura laughed and waved him off. "Well, I'm not all that good yet, but Kakashi-sensei said I have talent for it." She turned to the Jonin whose eyes were still on her. "Sensei, why are you trusting me with this?"

"Well," he said, "it's because genjutsu will come in handy for this kind of battle. We'll be surrounded by foes, so disrupting their focus, even for the briefest moment, means a higher chance of victory. Naruto, Sasuke, and I will make sure no one touches you while you cast the genjutsu. Odds are Zabuza and his ice user friend will break the genjutsu in no time, but they'll still have to expend chakra releasing the technique. Anyone on Gato's payroll without an activated chakra network will effectively be out of the picture, more than evening our odds."

"I see. But…" Sakura's gaze drifted toward Genma, who had yet to say a word. "But why not have someone like Genma-sensei do it?"

"Oh, me?" Genma looked up at her and smiled, gnawing at the senbon sticking out of his mouth. "Actually, I'm leaving tomorrow."

"You are?" Naruto blurted out. "But why so soon?"

Genma shrugged. "Naruto, my mission directive was to make sure you and Sasuke were safe on your way to Tazuna's house, and I've done that. So I'm going to help with training again tomorrow morning, but then I'll be going back. Besides," he looked at Sakura again, "genjutsu isn't my forté anyway. Don't worry, though. If Kakashi says you've got this, then I know you'll do great."

"T-thank you, sir!" Sakura said, bowing as her cheeks turned red due to all of the attention on her.

The genjutsu took hold almost immediately, slowing or stopping the motion of everyone but Zabuza on the enemy side. Naruto and Sasuke took out the thugs with ease. Meanwhile, Kakashi charged Zabuza, who was about to cleave Sakura in two, and drove him toward the nearest window. They crashed through the glass and fell out of sight, leaving the three Genin alone in Gato's hideout.

"Well," Sasuke said, "that went surprisingly well."

"That's for sure," Sakura agreed, sighing as she released the genjutsu and her posture slackened. "Whew!"

Naruto looked around at the room full of unconscious enemies. "Wow, Sakura! Kakashi-sensei wasn't kidding. You do have a knack for this stuff."

She went red in the face and smiled. "Thanks, Naruto."

"Wait…" Sasuke scanned the room. "Where's the ice user?"

"Right here," said a familiar voice.

The three Genin looked up and gasped. There the masked ice user was, perched upside down on the ceiling. The adversary formed a series of hand signs at an impossible speed. Sasuke fired an arrow out of the window without looking and darted in Naruto and Sakura's direction, pulling them with him as he tried to avoid the incoming attack.

"I won't let you escape," warned the calm voice of the enemy ninja. A chill overcame the room, but Sasuke didn't stop.

Every second counted, Naruto realized. He summoned a large amount of chakra, not bothering with how refined his technique was, and shouted at the top of his lungs. "Multi Shadow Clone Jutsu!"

Kakashi slammed Zabuza against the grass outside of Gato's headquarters, pressing the cold metal of a kunai against the man's open palm, which guarded an otherwise exposed neck. A series of massive trees like the one the thugs' hideout was anchored to towered over them, blotting out almost all sunlight. Kakashi needed to hurry and finish things up here so he could go back and help his students. Grunting, he applied pressure to Zabuza's sword wielding arm with his knee. The rogue ninja's wrist writhed with pain and after a short struggle, he loosened his grip. They continued to grapple with the kunai that was dangerously close to his throat.

"It's over, Zabuza," Kakashi seethed. "We beat you. There's nowhere to run."

Zabuza bit through the bandages around his mouth and laughed despite the blood staining his sharp teeth. "That's what you think!" His ominous laugh blended together with a noise from above. The faint rumbling rose in volume until Kakashi couldn't help but look up to find its source.

An explosion of gigantic ice spikes burst from the windows of the conical-shaped hideout. The building buckled under the weight of the jutsu. One of its support beams cracked from the pressure.

"No! Everyone…" Kakashi rolled away from the building as chunks of the upper floors' wall plummeted to the ground, missing him by an inch. Zabuza took the opportunity to retrieve his sword, then rushed Kakashi.

I have to get to the others!

Kakashi evaded wide sword swings on autopilot, multitasking and trying to concoct a plan to end this madness. If he didn't stop Zabuza soon, things were going to get even more ugly.

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