Chapter 4: Weapons of the Gods

C&A Productions Presents

A Work of Blatant Self-Insertion

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Go! Unashamed Reincarnation Protagonist Sakura

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Chapter 4: Weapons of the Gods

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It was always the eyes that Momochi Zabuza remembered.

As a ninja, death was always close at hand. At times it felt almost like an old friend – but a friend you kept at arm’s length. Zabuza had known shinobi who dared and courted that friend, who couldn’t keep their distance, who behaved as if they longed for its touch. They always got their wish.

Twice, though, Zabuza had himself come within a hairsbreadth of touching death. And twice, it was the eyes that transfixed his memory of that almost fatal encounter.

Cold, emotionless, eyes. Without blinking, without pupils, without mercy, without humanity, their inhuman appearance blending perfectly with the inhuman cruelty behind them.

“You didn’t come prepared.”

Those were the only words Yagura had bothered to say to him. The tyrannical Mizukage, whom Zabuza had tried to overthrow, was not wrong: their struggle had been brief but decisive. And for a moment, looking up at those eyes, Zabuza had felt that touch of death: soft as a feather, weighty beyond reckoning.

Only the timely sacrifice of a foolishly brave follower had allowed him to escape. And for what? A life on the run, disgraced and outcast, pursued by the shinobi that had once been his unloved but relied-upon companions. Against the odds, he had survived, driven only by his need to ensure that the next time he would be prepared, that he would be ready, that he would never feel that blood-freezing touch again.

Yet he had felt it again, mere days ago, and once again his first and strongest memory was of an eye.

Blood-red. Inhuman. Seeming almost to whirl and spin, a mocking dance.

“I foresee… your death.”

And the infamous Copy Ninja, Kakashi of the Sharingan eye, had not been wrong either. Once again, Zabuza should have felt that touch. Once again, he had been spared by the actions of a subordinate.

For some, these experiences would shake their confidence. Their horror, the sudden closeness of the spectre that every ninja must run with, would leave them a fragile shell of their former self.

Zabuza was not one of them. If the third and final touch of death brushed his cheek, so be it. Until then, he held it at arm’s length once again.

Fortunately, the subordinate that had saved him this time still lived, and could still be an invaluable trump card.

As if summoned by his thoughts, he felt more than heard the tread of Haku’s sandaled feet behind him on the boat’s deck. Zabuza glanced over his shoulder. The kid was still wearing the mask they had scavenged from the last group of shinobi hunters that had tracked them down.

“Are you ready?”

“I have made myself ready,” Haku replied immediately. Zabuza stared down at the kid. This was going to be Haku’s first real battle. Until now, he had been strictly support. His talent needed to be fed carefully. Haku had helped from the shadows, but it had been up to Zabuza and the demon brothers to do the actual killing.

The Copy Ninja and his apprentice brats had bested him once, but that was an unplanned, hasty encounter. This time, he had carefully planned out how to defeat them.

Of course, no plan long survived an encounter with the battlefield. Zabuza felt the chill as the prospect of death drew closer, but shrugged it off. There was no path forward but to succeed. That too was a situation all ninja had to face sooner or later. It was well-trodden ground for Zabuza.

He turned back to the shore, resisting the urge to scowl with impatience. He could run faster than this. The boat was crawling along; obviously the pilot was afraid of grounding on hidden reefs in the darkness. He forced himself to relax. After all, he was in no hurry. Ambushing Kakashi and his brats in the night would gain him very little. He shifted his grip on his great blade, frowning behind his mask.

“Hey, maybe we’ll actually get to see him use that big kitchen knife of his this time.”

Zabuza glanced over his shoulder. He had heard the arrival of Gato’s two third-rate samurai wannabes on the deck, but had dismissed them both. They were thugs with pretensions; good only for terrorizing civilians and murdering the weak.

He despised them, as he despised the man they all worked for, but for the moment, they served the purpose of hiding the actions of Zabuza’s dwindling group of once-revolutionaries, a tsunami of violence that their particular eddy hid within as he continued to train Haku and grow their strength to challenge the Mizukage again.

“Are you kidding? Why would you ever want to see that thing in practice?” the taller thug said.

“Oh?” The shorter one replied leadingly, playing along.

“That’s the Kubikiribocho,” the tall one said. “I read up on it once.” He stroked the hilt of his katana. “One of those famous swords from the Village of Hidden Water.” He grinned mockingly. “But unlike the others, the only special power it has is the ability to repair itself using the blood of its victims.” Zabuza turned his face away. He wondered where the fool had heard the story of his sword. It was even almost true. Kubikiribocho did repair itself, but it used the iron in the blood of its victims, not just the blood.

“What use is a sword whose only special quality works when it’s broken?” The short one laughed.

“You’re wrong.”

Both Zabuza and the thugs looked at Haku, who spoke quietly but with fierce determination. “The sword is not Master Zabuza’s weapon.”

“I suppose he carries it just for the sentimental value,” the tall one said with a mocking smile.

I am Master Zabuza’s weapon,” Haku said. “For I am a ninja. And it is our purpose to be a weapon, wielded until we breaks and spills our blood.” He tilted his head slightly. “In this way, the blade is a symbol of his status as a ninja. But I am the only weapon he needs.”

The two thugs did not seem impressed by Haku’s declaration, but Zabuza found himself wondering about it. A weapon was to be used until it was broken, huh? The sentiment pleased him. Yet also left him uneasy.

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*

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Zabuza’s body flickered onto the bridge; Haku appeared, as silent and sure as his shadow, a heartbeat later. They had arrived at the perfect location; close enough for the enemy to see him, but sufficiently distant to be protected from the hypnotic gaze of Kakashi’s Sharingan.

The bridge was almost finished, only a few dozen meters of open water between its ragged edge and the far shore. The trio of ninja and the bridge builder were near that edge – Zabuza and Haku were now between them and solid ground. True, it was not an insurmountable distance for trained ninja. Even putting aside the advanced skill of water-walking, most ninja could swim or leap or use some combination of wires and other ninja tools.

He smirked beneath his bandages. There wasn’t a chance that any of them would try it. Fleeing from a Kiri-trained ninja on the open ocean was the surest way Zabuza could think of to commit suicide.

His water clones had already surrounded his enemies as a distraction. They had fallen into a defensive circle, prepared to protect Tazuna at all costs. The orange-haired mouthy one wasn’t there this time, Zabuza noted. Could be lurking somewhere to be a nuisance. Well, the kid had guts, but he couldn’t alter the outcome of this battle.

A single tense moment passed, but to his surprise, the dark-haired ninja brat moved first. With blazing speed, he spun a kunai through the air in a sharp circle, and in its wake the clones collapsed back into puddles. Some sort of wire tied to the kunai’s pommel-loop to conceal how he controlled it in mid-air, most likely. No matter.

“I admit, brat, I’m impressed.” Zabuza shrugged theatrically. “You seem to have grown from that quivering faker at the lake.”

“Even if the clones are only ten percent as strong as the original, it is an accomplishment to go from a child who could barely outmaneuver a single clone to defeating five of them in a single blow.” Haku’s normally emotionless voice was betraying a hint of eagerness.

“Don’t talk so big,” the black-haired brat said with a growl. “You think we’re going to believe a single word you say after that ham acting back at the lake?” He rubbed a thumb along his chin. “Why don’t you come over here? I’ll show you just how strong I am.”

“A remarkable spirit you have,” Haku said. “I would hate to kill you. But if you insist.” Haku turned his face, still hidden behind his hunter-nin mask, towards Zabuza. “Would you allow me the honour?”

Zabuza narrowed his eyes. ‘I would hate to kill you…’ Did Haku really mean that? Despite his training and skill, he had yet to prove himself with blood. Zabuza turned his attention back to his enemies. Kakashi looked to be fully on guard, one hand holding a kunai and the other formed into a neutral seal in front of his face. The third one… was smiling dreamily at him.

That expression… it was the exact same expression she had worn at the lake. Even when he had unleashed the full force of his killing intent, paralysing the black-haired novice ninja, she hadn’t lost that dreamy smile. The kind of smile that showed absolute confidence that he was no threat to her.

He couldn’t escape the feeling that had been growing ever since he had confronted these Konoha whelps at the lake. It was as if he was walking blithely to his own death – a feeling he was bitterly familiar with. When he had confronted the Mizukage, felt that demonic chakra overflowing from the monster’s body, he had felt it as well.

Still… a weapon existed to be broken in service to its master.

“Haku, go.”

“Yes!” Haku flashed forward, his entire body spinning like a top. The air whirred as the kunai he was holding slashed the air. The boy in the shirt sprinted forward. A sound like a bell rang out as their kunai clashed. Haku was jarred to a halt, but didn’t so much as stumble.

Zabuza smirked and crossed his arms. For a moment, the two young ninja struggled and shifted, their feet sliding across the soaked ground where Zabuza’s water clones had been destroyed.

“You should not have picked this fight,” Haku told his opponent.

The black-haired boy only grinned. “Don’t flatter yourself. You’re fast. But I’m faster.” He pushed, the kunai held in his right hand slowly pushing back the kunai held in Haku’s right. “And stronger, too.”

“Perhaps.” Then Haku lifted his right hand up to face level. “Perhaps not.” With that, Haku began to fold and flick his fingers through specific forms. The Konoha shinobi’s eyes widened.

“Hand seals! With one hand?” The boy flinched back. Even Kakashi seemed nonplussed.

It was a perfect trap. Already the area was soaked with water. The boy’s hand was caught holding the bind, which meant he only had one to defend himself. Haku could activate the seals of his special bloodline one-handed. Which meant this wasn’t a battle of taijutsu, but of-

There was a crack and Haku went flying backwards. He impacted the concrete of the bridge with his shoulder and skidded before twisting and using the momentum to leap back to his feet. A sliver of ceramic fell from his mask and clattered to the bridge.

The Konoha brat stood, his fist still extended in the arc of his punch. “Was I supposed to be impressed?” He smirked and spun his kunai in his now free right hand. Zabuza narrowed his eyes. He hadn’t even seen the boy move.

“My, that was certainly something,” Kakashi said. He stepped forward slightly. “If I hadn’t been drilling Sasuke in speed for the last… month, that jutsu just might have caught him off-guard.” He glanced at Haku, who was fingering his cracked mask. “I would guess… a kekkei genkai, am I correct?”

“Don’t underestimate Haku,” Zabuza said. “He’s just getting started.” Zabuza forced levity into his voice. “His potential is boundless. No regular ninja, no matter how fast, can hope to defeat him.”

“Sasuke,” Kakashi said. “There is no need to put yourself in any danger. If this boy really does have a bloodline, your trump card would be useless.” He stepped past the boy.

Zabuza snapped his hands into a seal and flashed across the bridge to arrive in front of Kakashi. “No, I don’t think so. Your opponent, Kakashi of the Sharingan, will be-“

“Excuse me!”

Zabuza slipped backwards, grabbing the handle of his giant sword. Where had she come from? Zabuza had meant to appear between Kakashi and Haku, but somehow that dreamily-smiling girl had been between them, standing under his guard! He instantly backed off several steps, raising his hand to grasp the handle of his sword. However, Sakura didn’t make any move to immediately attack. Instead she pivoted to Kakashi, and her expression suddenly became bright and cheerful.

  ”Sensei, sensei!” She raised her hands and bounced on her heels, like an overeager student in middle school. “Oh, oh! Pick me, pick me!”

“Now, Sakura, the adults were talking.”

“Ah, but Sasuke gets his own super-cool rival fight to the death,” Sakura said with a pout. An actual pout. “I want to have a epic ninja fight, too!” She began to bounce back and forth on her heels, her long red cloak flopping around her as she shadowboxed. Zabuza watched her warily. Was the point of this ridiculous display to make him underestimate her? After she had seemingly effortlessly penetrated his guard?

Kakashi rubbed the back of his neck. “Sakura, you’re embarrassing me in front of my mortal enemy.”  

The girl turned to face him, clutching her hands beneath her chin as she gazed up at him like an eager puppy. “Please, sensei!” She then smiled slyly. “Besides… I may be a freak among freaks, but so far all my freak stuff has been pure theory. I need to know how I stack up against a real ninja.” She glanced over her shoulder at Haku and Sasuke, who were approaching each other in a cautious spiral. “And I wouldn’t take this fight from Sasuke.”

“Enough,” Zabuza growled. He flickered behind the girl. Kubikiribocho released from its harness with a snap and he drew it around in a wide arc, all his power behind a one-handed blow. To hell with whatever game this was. He was not about to be mocked by some overconfident brat.

A loud clang, the sound of metal on metal. Zabuza’s eyes widened. He had expected the sound of blood splattering across concrete, of flesh parting like water. He had even expected the clatter of wood or crack of construction equipment scattering across the bridge as the girl managed a last-minute substitution.

What he had not expected was for her to be holding back his great cleaver with one hand, her thick red cloak wrapped tightly around her fist. She was staring over the line of her arm and his blade, her wide green eyes locked on his. Her pupils had shrunk to pinpricks and her lips had pulled back in a rictus grin.

Wait your fucking turn, Zabuza.” Her voice had totally changed character. Rather than the eager student, it was a voice thick with malicious intent. “I don’t have sensei’s permission to play with you. So back off, or they’ll let me out and then you’ll be in all kinds of shit!”

Zabuza launched himself backward. He spun his great cleaver-shaped sword in front of him in a reflexive defensive move. Was he actually retreating? The Demon of the Hidden Mist, retreating from some candy floss-haired brat not even half his size! He began to shake. He, who had once terrorized an entire elemental nation? He, who had challenged the demonic Mizukage?

The girl turned her attention back to her sensei. “Well, Kakashi, how about you give me a chance to prove myself to myself?” Her voice was all sweetness and light and airheaded delight again.

Kakashi looked at her for a long moment. His eyes trailed over her cloak and then looked at Zabuza’s blade. “Very well.” He held up one finger. “But if I think anything is going wrong, I’ll step in.”

Sakura jumped, pumping both fists. “All right!” She turned to face him. “I’ve waited so long for this, you have no idea.” She stepped between him and Kakashi, throwing back her cloak and holding out one hand. “And if you’re going to have a giant sword…”

“Ars magica: restriccione in contrarium inde absolvisti; schola porta quod corium discuteret.” Zabuza shifted his stance as a circle of pink light formed in front of her hand. Some sort of sealing art? He didn’t recognise the form at all. She reached into the circular mandala, and a sword appeared in her hand with a crack of displaced air.

It was huge, easily half again as long as the girl was tall. The handle alone was as long as her forearm. The blade was made of some silvery metal, run through with traces of gold etching that formed complex ideograms all up and down the length. It was shaped like an elongated diamond, double-edged and perfectly symmetrical. In the centre of the widest part of the blade was what looked like a cross between a clock face and a series of gears. They spun in lazy circles. The pommel of the blade was balanced by an orb the size of a fist, so black it seemed to drain the light from the air.

“Ars technica: Interfectis Gladio Dei Victoriae.” She bounced the massive blade out of her palm and caught it one-handed. “What do you say we slice each other up like a couple of real-life, honest to goodness sword fighters?”

  Zabuza sneered. Did she think to intimidate him with a fancy toy? “A lesson your sensei clearly didn’t teach you. A huge weapon can’t be wielded effectively by just anyone.” He raised Kubikiribocho.

She glanced at him. “You’re right. This thing is too light for my strength.” She smirked. “Anima Invictus, please increase to two gees.” The cement at her feet suddenly cracked. Zabuza blinked. What was-

Her smirk transformed once more into that vicious grin and then she moved. He heard the bridge cracking in sequence with her oncoming footsteps, so rapid the sound almost dissolved into a single long roar. Her face was suddenly right in front of him, and that monster blade came down in a one-handed overhead strike.

Blood splattered everywhere. There was a curl of smoke and a popping sound. Blood became cement. Pieces of shattered body became the remains of a mixer, flying in all directions as if torn apart by a grenade. The bridge beneath the sword cratered.

Zabuza landed on one of the safety rails, his hands unclenching from the substitution seal. Sakura turned her face towards him, twisting her neck almost unnaturally. Her cloak floated lazily around her. “Hey there!” she called out. “You’re fast.”

“What the hell, brat,” Zabuza snarled. “Did you think such a straightforward attack would actually work?”

Sakura stood up, balancing the haft of her sword on one shoulder. “Nah. At least not without cheating even more.” She held up her free hand. “Ready for round two?”

Zabuza didn’t give her a chance to act. He flung Kubikiribocho so fast it hissed through the air. She twisted sideways to avoid the spinning blade. Zabuza flickered behind her and caught the sword in mid-air, twisting with its momentum. He brought the blade up and around at the gap in her legs. Cement and rebar geysered up as Kubikiribocho tore apart the bridge in its arc.

The blade slammed to a bone-jarring halt. “What-” Zabuza gasped. The girl had brought her free arm down. A hexagon of light had sprung up from some sort of jewel on her wrist, stopping the giant cleaver cold.

“Oy, Sakura, we’re being paid to help build a bridge, not destroy it.” Kakashi sounded flippant.

“Right.” Sakura grinned, a slash bisecting her features just enough for her bared teeth to gleam. “Let’s take this somewhere else. Ai, full combat mode, please.”

Zabuza leapt back, wondering what fresh insanity was happening now. As the girl straightened, her cloak liquified as if it was melting. The material stretched and folded around her body in a flash, before hardening into a skintight bodysuit. Here and there, plates of ceramic armour that she had been wearing under the cloak pushed through. There was a hiss of escaping steam as nearly imperceptible hinges irised open, revealing more of those jewels all over her body. The air around her briefly flared with visible light before it faded.

“Let’s take this fight away from the bridge so we can really cut loose, eh?” she grinned. “Ai, tau shield, level 2.”

Sakura blurred. Zabuza’s eyes widened. No time for another substitution seal! His sword came up to his side, held across his shoulder. The shock travelled through his arms and shoulders with stunning force. It took him a moment to realise he was in free fall.

He spun in midair, body cutting through the mist. The ocean approached from below. He landed in a crouch, not even sinking so much as a millimetre into the water. The girl came after him. And she was running on the mist.

No, not quite… small circles of pink light were blooming with each step beneath her heel. It was like she was charging down a steep ramp straight at him. “Overconfident brat! You think you can beat me on the open ocean?” He spat and brought up his hands in a seal. “Come to your death!”

He cycled chakra through his feet and skated backwards, barely fast enough to avoid having his head removed by the sword. She stepped onto the water and began to chase after him. Her grip reversed as she improved her aerodynamic profile. Great splashes of water were thrown up behind her with every step. Zabuza stayed just outside her reach, fingers flashing through hand seals with desperate speed.

“Water release: Water dragon missile!”

“Ai, Tau Four!”

His jutsu released a massive dragon-shaped water spout, slamming through the air in front of him. The girl did not just blur. She vanished. He cast his gaze around… behind him!

Nearly wrenching his shoulder out of the socket, he managed to grab Kubikiribocho with both hands and place it between them. He felt the ringing impact of a dozen blows across the blade. He couldn’t believe his eyes. It was like there were multiple clones of the girl, but they were all overlapping and striking at the same time. No clone technique could do that!

With a series of cracks and pops Kubikiribocho disintegrated under the onslaught. Jagged pieces of the sword flew in all directions. Blood began to leak from multiple shallow cuts across his body. Zabuza staggered back, one foot sinking up to his knee in the water. Great waves rippled across the ocean surface behind him, sending foam into the air. He clutched the hilt of his broken sword in one hand, barely able to hold it up.

“What kind of monster-” Zabuza hissed.

“You don’t have to die here, Momochi Zabuza,” Sakura said, pointing the tip of her blade at him. The fragments of his sword had bounced off her body, tiny hexagons briefly flashing into existence each time.

“Lord Zabuza!” There was a soft splash. Sakura jerked her head to the side as icy needles flashed past her ears. She skipped backward to avoid another hail of projectiles. Haku was charging across the water.

There was a blue flicker and the boy, Sasuke, dropped in front of his rescuer. “You forgot that I am your opponent!”

Kakashi appeared on the water with another flash of pseudomotion, his arms crossed and Sharingan uncovered. “I think I should have warned you that you’re biting off more than you can chew.” Haku tried to unleash another hail of ice needles, but Sasuke seemed to flow in and around them, impossibly finding a gap that allowed him to close and thrust a palm into the other boy’s stomach. Haku staggered back and then Sasuke was behind him, a kunai held at Haku’s throat and one arm deftly wrapping ninja wire around both Haku’s wrists.

“First off, allow me to introduce Uchiha Sasuke. The genius number one student of this year’s academy class, and last of the prestigious Uchiha clan.”

Zabuza stared as the boy looked up from around Haku’s shoulder. Both his eyes had turned blood red, with small magatama spinning in their irises. “The Uchiha clan,” Zabuza repeated slowly.

“Yes. The clan famous for being born with the very same Sharingan that I inherited.” Kakashi nodded towards the girl with her oversized greatsword. “And you’ve also met Haruno Sakura, this year’s most brilliant ninja. Who has developed her own special ninja tools.” Sakura wiggled her fingers at him.

Zabuza chuckled. “So I was walking to my death after all…” He threw his head back and laughed. “What a joke. Did we ever stand a chance?” He dropped his head. “But even if you kill me, Kakashi, you still lose.”

“Oh?” Kakashi seemed willing to hear him out.

“Gato is not the kind of man who puts all his hopes in one plan.” Zabuza grinned viciously. “Even now, his men have fanned out across the island. Every man who worked on this bridge will be dead, and their families with them. Starting with the bridge builder’s own!”

“Really now?” Kakashi seemed unperturbed.

“And you left your charge all alone, you fool,” Zabuza sneered.

Up on the bridge, now in plain sight since the mist from Zabuza’s Hidden Mist technique had faded away, he could see the bridge builder leaning on the safety railing, watching them with interest. Behind the man, the last water clone Zabuza had formed and kept in reserve appeared-

And broke apart into a cloud of vapour. The bridge builder held his fist up where he had casually backhanded the clone away. His face was split with a wide grin – and with a cloud of smoke and a soft pop, he was replaced with the orange-haired ninja brat that had outsmarted him at the lake.

“A transformation jutsu?” Zabuza said, more to himself.

“And last but certainly not least, this year’s most unpredictable knuckle-headed ninja, Uzumaki Naruto.” Kakashi turned to the boy on the bridge. “Hey, Naruto,” he shouted. “Are you all finished?”

“You better believe it, sensei!” Naruto shouted through his cupped hands. “My kage bushin report that every single one of Gato’s thugs have been rounded up and dealt with.” He dropped onto the water, landing slightly unsteadily but walking with confidence.

“Though next time, one of you gets to scour the entire island for the small fry and I get to have the epic ninja duel!” His voice had shifted from triumphant to immature whining.

“Did you find Gato himself?”

“Oh yeah!” Naruto nodded. “He and like this whole army of guys were on a boat just around the cape. I snuck out all ninja stealth with my awesome water walking and was like bam!-” he punched “-crash!-” he kicked “-Uzumaki-style ultimate beatdown!”

Who was this brat? Not even Zabuza could send his water clones more than a few dozen meters away from his real body, and they expected him to believe this snot-nosed kid could summon enough shadow clones to blanket the entire island? Just his luck, a team of absolute monsters.

“Lord Zabuza…” He turned his attention to Haku, who had his face turned towards Naruto. “I’m sorry, Lord Zabuza. I can no longer serve you.”

For the moment, Zabuza didn’t respond.

“Oh man,” Naruto said with a groan. “It’s really all over? I didn’t get to fight a single ninja.”

Haku turned his attention to the orange-haired boy. “You fought to protect the people of this island. Was it just for the money? Or are they precious to you?”

Naruto gave the bound ninja an odd look, almost as if he had heard the question before. “I had the most important job of all!” he shouted proudly. “Saving this nation from bullies. Even if we just met, they trusted me to help them, so I had to do it. That’s my ninja way!”

“I see.” Haku ducked his head. “Lord Zabuza. The purpose of a weapon is to be broken in service to its master.”

Sakura’s head snapped up. “Sasuke, watch out!”

But it was too late. Red sprayed across the water as Haku threw himself forward. Sasuke’s kunai sliced cleanly through his throat. Sasuke gasped and lost his grip. The wire holding Haku’s wrists loosened.

Even as the boy was sinking into the water, seeming to float in slow motion to Zabuza’s eyes, his hands flashed into a series of seals. Sakura was running past Zabuza, sprinting at Haku. Her sword dropped from her hand, vanishing into a mandala of light. She was chanting at high speed, her hands flashing through the air and creating a geometric pattern of pink light as she reached for Haku’s throat.

Her body was flung back as a series of ice mirrors suddenly formed a circle around Haku and Zabuza. Zabuza landed in a crouch, catching his subordinate in his lap. Haku coughed, blood leaking from under his mask and flowing freely from his neck.

There was a crash. Zabuza looked up. Sakura had punched a fist through one of the mirrors, but even as she drew her fist out to strike again the damage healed itself. “No!” she cried. Her fist smashed another hole but smaller this time. Even as Haku’s life was fading, his chakra was growing stronger.

“That chakra… the Gate of Release?” Kakashi sounded surprised and horrified. “Where did you learn that? Why did you teach…”

Zabuza stared down at the boy in his lap. He gently removed the mask, revealing Haku’s face. He was gazing with adoration up at Zabuza, unmindful of the pain.

“That… that girl!” Naruto gasped.

“Dammit, no!” Sakura slammed her fist into the ice mirrors again but they didn’t even crack. “Let me in! LET ME IN! I can save him! I can still heal him!” She began to punctuate each word with a blow of her fist. “He. Doesn’t. Deserve. To die!”

“It’s her… him? That kid, from before we started the training…” Naruto muttered.

“Kakashi, I have to get inside! I can fix this! I just need to get inside before he dies!”

“Sasuke!” Kakashi ran around opposite the blue-shirted boy. “Snap out of it, Sasuke! It’s time to use that jutsu!”

Sasuke was staring at the bloody kunai in his hand. He seemed to snap to attention and dropped the knife as if it burned. He jumped back a half dozen paces. “R-right!”

“We’ll have to time this perfectly,” Kakashi said. “Our only hope to overwhelm his chakra is to hit from opposite directions at the exact same time!”

Like perfect mirrors, the two began to make hand seals at the same time. Then both dropped their right hand and clutched their forearm with the other. A buzzing sound like a thousand birds taking flight at once filled the air, and the chakra in their hands became so intense he could see it with his naked eyes.

“…zabuza…” Zabuza looked at Haku’s face. “…use my body… my blood…”

“Don’t do it!” Sakura roared and began to smash her fists into the mirrors so hard that the water around her was sent flying backward by the shockwaves. “AI! TAU EIGHT!” Her body became a kaleidoscope, a chimera with a hundred fists. Slowly the mirror began to crack under her attack.

Zabuza looked at the handle of Kubikiribocho. The beheading blade, that regenerated from the blood of its enemies. His eyes narrowed. Yes. Even if he had lost, been outmaneuvered at every step, he could still have his revenge.

He drove the broken shaft of the sword into Haku’s body. It was time for him to remember the demon who had slaughtered a hundred children in a single hour. He began to make hand seals above the hilt of the blade. He could see the mirrors weakening as Haku’s life force drained away. The Uchiha and Kakashi began to sprint towards the mirrors, those deadly glowing palms held behind and to their sides.

“Bloody Mist; Iron Whirlpool.”

He released his jutsu just as the two ninjas shattered through the mirrors. The entire complex disintegrated into mist. Zabuza gripped the handle of Kubikiribocho and swung it in a long arc. The human body was largely made up of water, and most of that was blood!

Haku’s body floated up like a puppet, the centre of a maelstrom that expanded in all directions. Long lines of blood flashed in all directions, twisting into a vortex. Zabuza slashed his sword through it; the blade didn’t so much repair as reform almost instantly. His blow nearly caught the Uchiha, who only barely managed to dodge to the side. He struck with his glowing palm. The blow cracked Kubikiribocho in two.

It hardly mattered. With a flex of his free hand, the sheared-off section of blade twisted through the vortex and came at the boy from behind. A red and pink blur grabbed him by his popped collar and dragged him out of the maelstrom. Kakashi aimed at Zabuza’s heart, but only struck the reformed blade. It, too, shattered into a dozen pieces. But it regenerated just as quickly and Kakashi threw himself out of the vortex as Zabuza just barely failed to chop his legs off. Even so, he was still tagged three times by the swirling remnants of the blade as his chakra pulled them around.

Kakashi gasped and fell to his knees. Blood was streaming from his wounds into the vortex, drawn across the distance between them with an awful gravity.

“Kakashi!” Sakura shouted, appearing at his side. A mandala of light formed around her frantically gesturing hands as she rapidly chanted, touching his wounds. They sealed in bursts of rainbow light and Kakashi staggered back.

Zabuza grinned behind his bandages. He could feel the wounds opened earlier in the fight burning. The technique was indiscriminate. Every wound opened by Kubikiribocho was affected, even his own. He had less than a minute left before his technique drained him like a vampire. Before then, he would take at least one of these arrogant Konoha ninja with him!

“You… you bastard!” Naruto roared.

“Naruto, no! Stay away from him!” Kakashi tried to stand but slumped to one knee. Sakura grabbed his shoulder and leapt back with him.

“Stand still,” she said with a hiss, then began to chant, forming another of her mandalas behind his back.

Zabuza snapped his gaze back to the boy. He was hunched forward, snarling. A pressure exploded from him. “You… fucking…. bastard!” Naruto snapped his eyes open and the pupils had turned to slits. “He was your comrade! He was your friend!”

The whisker marks on the boy’s cheeks grew more defined, furrowing into his face. His canines extended and his fingers curled like claws. Zabuza could only laugh. Oh, yes, he recognised this pressure. He knew this awful chakra.

He had faced it once before.

“What… what is this?” Sasuke cried.

“Damnit,” Kakashi said. “All that training we did, constantly pushing him to the edge in that place; it weakened the seal!”

“You killed him! You killed him because he wanted to help you!” Naruto snapped his hand up and something began to swirl in his palm. “He only wanted to save you, and you killed him!”

“Of course I did, runt,” Zabuza sneered. He felt like spitting in the face of death. “That is what ninja are for. To be used up and thrown away. Just like you will be, one day.”

With a wordless, primal scream, Naruto leapt into the maelstrom. Zabuza swung Kubikiribocho to meet him, but the boy snapped his palm forward and a swirling orb connected with the blade, tearing it instantly to shreds. It reformed in an instant within the bloody vortex, but the orb pressed forward, obliterating the giant cleaver again and again.

The swirling currents were now filled with hundreds of shards of razor-sharp steel. The boy’s body jerked and twitch as they tore into him. Steam rose from the wounds; they closed almost as soon as they opened, but still they ripped out more and more of his blood. Zabuza smirked as the boy fell towards him, the swirling force in his palm ripping Kubikiribocho apart faster than it could reform.

It was fitting that he would escape one demon only to die at the hands of another. He watched his death approach-

Only for the boy to suddenly fly backwards, pulling out of the bloody storm. Sasuke spun, ninja wire extended from his fingers and wrapped around all of Naruto’s limbs. Shuriken were hooked together to keep the net in place.

“Sakura!” Sasuke shouted. “Quick!”

Sakura placed her hand onto Kakashi’s back and a shiver ran through the older ninja’s body. Rainbow light poured from him for a moment as he stood up straight. Then Sakura was flying across the water towards Naruto. The boy seemed to stagger drunkenly, his features returning to normal.

“Sasuke…” The name came out slurred. “I don’t feel…” He groaned and collapsed. The other boy caught him under the arms, his face pale.

Sakura reached him as her mandala formed some impossibly complex shape. Zabuza stepped forward, only to pause as Kakashi appeared between the children and him. Zabuza smiled as he looked into that Sharingan eye.

“Damn…” Zabuza coughed. He collapsed to one knee. “Not even one of you? How pathetic is that?”

“You’re almost out of chakra to maintain that jutsu,” Kakashi said.

“You’re right, I can’t even move.” He looked down, but Haku’s body had sunk beneath the waves. The Iron Whirlpool had used him up and cast him aside.

“You’re dying,” Kakashi said, his cool tone neither triumphant nor pitying. “That technique – it’s a flawed opening of the Gates. Just like the boy used. It burned out your ability to regulate your chakra, and now it’s feeding on itself.”

Zabuza smirked. “The man who owned Kubikiribocho before me was killed by a Konoha ninja using those Gates. I developed my own version, but it wasn’t perfect.” He coughed and collapsed onto his hands, his fingers sinking through the water. “I guess I couldn’t fulfil my dream after all. I could only live my nightmare.”

“Why do this to yourself?”

“I don’t envy you, Kakashi.” He reached up and pulled away his bandages from his face, revealing his sharpened teeth. “You have three monsters. Ninja. And the use of ninja is to be broken and thrown awa-“

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*

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It was dark when Kakashi finally sought out Sakura. The squad was going to be leaving tomorrow. As he expected, he found her at the small memorial. Neither Sasuke nor Naruto had understood why she had built a grave for Zabuza. The hilt of the giant cleaver-sword was thrust into a small cairn, Haku’s mask hanging from it.

There were no bodies under that cairn. For some reason, Sakura had insisted that the bodies be entirely destroyed, burned to ashes and the ashes scattered to the winds.

“Sensei,” Sakura said when he joined her on the shoreline. She was gazing out at the water. In the distance, the bridge was barely visible. “How are Naruto and Sasuke?”

“Sasuke is fine, just a little exhausted.” Kakashi found a large stone and sat down. “Even with all that extra training, he wasn’t fully prepared to use the Chidori like that. I’ve forbidden him to use it again until we have a chance to properly build up his chakra.”

Sakura nodded thoughtfully.

“As for Naruto…” Kakashi looked down. “He’s okay. Physically, at least. Psychologically? Who knows.” He looked out at the water with her. “This is the first time he’s seen death with his own eyes.”

“…and I did nothing to stop it,” she said bitterly.

“You wanted to save them?” He gave a pointed look to the dual grave. “Both of them?”

“I didn’t see the harm in letting them live,” she said, mostly to herself. “I mean, how could they have endangered-” She cut herself off and looked at him. “They would have been no danger to us, to Tazuna, to the Land of Waves, or to Konoha. With Gato taken down, there was no reason for us to fight anymore.”

“And yet you fought him anyway.” Kakashi rubbed a hand through his hair. “You came up with the plan of ambushing Gato while his ninja were distracted at the bridge. We could have just stalled until Naruto was finished and then parted peacefully, if that was your intention.”

She clenched her fists, her eyes locked on the grave. “I fucked up. Again.” She blinked, her eyes shining. “My own stupid pride. I wanted to play ninja for real.” She looked at him, tears dribbling down her cheeks. “I said to myself: ‘What did this mission matter in the big picture?’ I told myself that no one would notice if I finally got a chance to let loose.” She stared down at her hands. “Over a hundred subjective years of preparing. Training endlessly, day after day after day. I gave up sleep and food and pleasure. Rewired my own brain to enjoy it. So I wouldn’t skip a single hour. All to make the math work. To maximize return on investment. I became a freakshow so I could do anything but stand on the sidelines and cheer…”

Kakashi placed a hand on her shoulder.

“Fucking useless pride.” She rubbed her fists into her eyes. “Haku didn’t deserve this. But I took away that choice. I knew what could happen, and I fucking chose to show off anyway!” She was shaking under his hand. “This isn’t a game. I have to keep telling myself that. It’s not a game, but I keep goddamn playing.

Eventually she cried herself out. Kakashi rubbed the small of her back as she sat hunched on the shoreline. Some of the blood had stained the sand here. Sakura stared at it for a moment, then gestured sharply and tossed a ball of fire onto the beach, burning away the blood.

“Sakura,” Kakashi said, catching her attention. “Just like I have forbidden Sasuke to use the chidori until he has more training, I’m also forbidding you from using your time stop jutsu.” She looked into his eyes. “I think… I think something about that place outside time is not good for anybody in it.” He stood up.

“You’re talking about what happened with Naruto, aren’t you?”

Kakashi hated himself but he could not answer. He couldn’t. They deserved to know, but he couldn’t answer. He looked away.

“Sasuke saw it all with his Sharingan and I’m a certified genius, sensei.” She smiled sadly. “We can put things together on our own.”

“Nevertheless, I don’t want any of us to be in that timeless space again until I understand why it had the effect it had on Naruto.” He paused. “Or Sasuke for that matter. His chakra didn’t grow nearly as much as it should have from nearly a month of subjective training.”

“I agree,” Sakura said. “I honestly didn’t know it interacted with chakra that way. I suppose I should have guessed being cut off from the natural chakra cycle would be harmful in some way.”

She rose to her feet. “Which I suppose leaves only one question, sensei.”

“Oh?”

“Now that you know more of the truth… who are you going to share that with?”

Kakashi gave her a long look. “This power of yours, Sakura. It’s dangerous and unknown. The Hokage should know.”

Sakura nodded. “If you tell, that’s your choice. I can only say I had good reasons not to tell the Hokage.” She looked away. Her pink hair wavered in a slight breeze that carried with it the scent of flowers. “Somehow, everything the Hokage knows seems to spread to other people.” She looked at him. “And I did the research. Have you ever wondered why the village has never produced a clanless genius?”

“Clanless genius?” Kakashi frowned at her.

“All of the most brilliant ninja in the village come from clans, who zealously guard their progeny. If you believe the standard line, it’s because the clans have better resources and skills to produce truly exceptional ninja.” Sakura turned her head, looking him straight in the eye. “But talent doesn’t work like that. It’s as much nurture as nature. Konoha is a village unusual for its focus on teamwork and cooperation. So why is it also one of the ones with the least number of clanless geniuses that rise up through the ranks?” She stepped away from him. “It’s almost like the truly exceptional ones… just vanish before they can even reach the academy.”

Kakashi watched her leave, his feelings uncertain.

“You have three monsters. Ninja. And the use of ninja is to be broken and thrown awa-“

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