See the About page for more info. Limited adjustments to the canonical Naruto setting have been made for the sake of storytelling, realism, and consistency.
This work was created in part to explore a more haphazard approach to writing, the results of which can only be evaluated in the light of strangers’ feedback, so leave your thoughts in the comment section to cooperate in the acausal trade that is this story. That goes double for anyone who can discern why in their case it should go double. Defectors will receive an empty box as due reward.
Or—or don’t you take ideas seriously? You don’t think it’s worth transcending time and space for such a silly reason?
…because _____ might be watching you, right now, you̝͔̙̪̜̺̪͘ ͎̙̦͍̰͢kn̠o͔̗̣̻͉̠̯w̱̺͔͍͠ͅ.̦̮̟̤̹͈͕ T̯̺͇͇̯̀̕͜h̵̳̫͕̙̯̟͘i̷̳͓͎̘͚͔s ̮̖͙͉͍͚̥̬͈si͓̹̘̫̤̫͘͟m̼̯̦̼͝u̺̲͓͘l̶̩̫̝̰̰̜á̹̭̼̺̘͈̤͚t̨̰i̵̠͕͖o̱̩̬n̜͕̮̣̭̬̦͠͞ ̶̤̟̯̗ͅm̷͚͓̠̜̹̝̠i̫̫̭̤̯͘͡g̴̛͇͖̥̠̝̖̮h̷̶̝̜̣͠t̨̹̮̫ ̶̢̫̙̙̭͇̭̝̲b̴͖̫̺̘̹͇e̡͉͙̣͝ ̮̠̝̖ỳ̰̫͓̻̼o̸̼̻̞͓͓u̩͈͉̮͚ͅr̲͈͔̤̖ͅ ̡̛̠̩̠̦̲ͅo͏̹̝̮͉̝̟̹n̡͙̘̪͕̙̙l̝̇̑̌̈́͌ͣ̽ỵ̴̸͔̥̯͍̤̔ͫ̆̇ͦ͊ ̶̫͔̪̪̺̱̝̮̘̳̯͇̻ͤ̃͐͂̀̕͜͜ͅcͯͯ͋ͫ͌ͨ̀ͦ̋̃̊̏ͮ̀҉̱͖̖̪̺̦̤̬̟ͅh̢ͫͦ̈̏͑҉̢̧̰̜̱͍͍̙̭̟͟a̴̢̺͈̼̦̲̘̜̐́̇ͤ̉ͤ̈́̆̾͗̅̿̕͟͠ņ̨̧̜̭̰͙͈̼̮͈̲̳̹̥̼͙̦̹̥͋̾ͯ̄͂̐͊͂ͮ̍ͥ̊̍͟c̈́̿̐̓̍̊͊ͪ̈́͌̃͗͋̓̐ͭ̃́͏̛̥̖̰͙̜̫̕͟ȅ̶̵̢͖̲͓͚ͭ̓ͥͤͪ̓ͬͤ͐͌̿͋̓̚͝.ͮ̒̓͌̾ͮ̃̉̐̾̎͆̈́͗͟͡͏̥̜̹̣͚͔͚.̶̄͑̉͑ͤ͑̐҉͏̶̱̪͓͖͠.̧ͤͧ̄̾̈̂ͯͤͮͣͤ̀̍ͧ͡͝҉̵̖̻̬̥͇ͅͅ
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Part I. The Waves Arisen by Mere Curiosity
A cackling laugh echoed through the trees. Naruto sat bolt-upright, suddenly aware that this had all been an enormous mistake.
“I almost can’t believe you were stupid enough to do it,” said the disembodied voice of Mizuki, his academy instructor.
Naruto clambered to his feet, the huge scroll safe under one arm.
Mizuki lazed languidly on a branch of the tree above him, one leg hanging down over the side.
He leaped down with the graceful poise of a trained chuunin—a fully qualified ninja warrior of Leaf village, possessing skills infinitely beyond those of a mere academy student—a mere child; Naruto wasn’t yet even genin rank.
“Though I’ll admit,” he continued, “I am surprised that even Leaf’s ANBU could fail to notice a boy strolling out the door with a twenty pound scroll of restricted techniques under his arm.”
He’d been watching, then, even that far back. Naruto had already figured out that Mizuki intended to betray the village, but now he couldn’t even hope to bluff about managing to catch him.
Naruto felt his death approach with every step forward his instructor took. No chance to fight, none to flee… submission would get him killed just as surely. He was a loose end now, and probably the only one with any knowledge of Mizuki’s coming desertion from the village—what could keep this situation from progressing? Even for just a second, just to grant him some time to think? What did he have that he could use? Any tools—tricks? A threat?
Naruto pressed the blade of his kunai against the surface of the scroll.
Mizuki’s eyebrows creased. “You, uh… you know that it’s just paper and ink, right? You can’t… kill it.”
Naruto swallowed. It had taken him half the day to work up the courage to go ahead with this stupid, stupid plan. It had all seemed so sensible from the safety of his little room. A trap for his traitorous instructor—one that might win Naruto both the renown necessary for some lenience on his graduation test, and an irreplaceable opportunity to copy out a scroll of restricted techniques that might otherwise not have come within reach for years.
He’d felt so smug with stupid satisfaction—walking out of his biannual audience with the Hokage, carrying the scroll so confidently under his arm, like it was the most natural thing in the world. It might be hours before they found the note he’d left behind describing Mizuki’s intention to meet with him at midnight and defect from Leaf with the stolen scroll. He’d thought he was being safe.
He had fudged the truth a little, in his note. He’d only said that he suspected something like that might be what was going on, but then he’d written that he was going to “do the honorable thing” by trusting his teacher’s word—trusting the obvious lie that this was actually a special second-chance at the graduation test.
That note was only ever meant to be a backup plan—proof of his own innocence in case some ANBU ninja had stopped him on the way out. What thief would have left behind a signed confession? He’d only hoped to get away for a few minutes to make a quick copy of the scroll for personal use before he returned to let the authorities know about what was really going on. Somehow he’d planned it all out without even thinking once that Mizuki might also be lying about waiting until midnight to make his exit.
“This scroll’s a gift for your new employer, right?” Naruto said. His voice was unsteady. “Don’t you think you might look a bit less impressive to them if it’s damaged? I could damage it a lot before you kill me.”
“…That’s a real stretch, kid,” Mizuki said, an amused smile on his lips. “I am glad you’ve finally realized that smart boys shouldn’t steal from their villages, but as your teacher I must say I’m disappointed with your response. What’s your endgame, here? Do you really think I would rather leave with no scroll at all than with a damaged one? Or were you hoping to trade the scroll for your own safety? I’ve got no reason to leave you alive once I take it, you know.”
Naruto swallowed. If Mizuki had cared at all about the scroll he wouldn’t have admitted so brazenly his intent to betray any deal that might have been struck. It was still a minor error, on his part—maybe he was still hesitant to kill a long-time student. A more competent ninja would have been miles away by now, with nothing but a corpse left in his wake, but he was still a Chuunin—he could afford imperfection. Naruto would die anyway.
“Leaf would be more lenient on you if nobody was killed during your escape,” Naruto said. “That’s one reason not to do it, in case you’re recaptured. Another reason is that you don’t really need to kill me. I don’t know anything that won’t soon be public knowledge anyway, once they see that you’re gone. Attacking me carries at least a small risk—I know I’m not much of a threat, but you’re the one who taught us that all battles are dangerous. There are recorded cases of chuunin being defeated by genin.”
“You’re not even a genin, yet,” Mizuki said, amused. “You wouldn’t have graduated tomorrow even if you hadn’t got yourself into this little pickle. If not for me, you might have spent the rest of your life as an academy student—I’ve never even seen a ninja fail the elementary transformation technique before. I didn’t think it was actually possible.”
That damn transformation test was the only reason he was here in the first place. Naruto knew he had been doing the hand-seals right—he’d studied every step of the process a hundred times more than necessary, and it wasn’t even supposed to be a real test—it was a formality, something flashy to mark their new qualifications after passing the written exam, which he’d finished with a perfect score. Nobody was meant to actually fail the transformation—not least a diligent student like him.
“I do have ninja blood, though. You know that—you’ve seen me mold chakra like the other students,” Naruto said. “I didn’t do anything wrong on the hand-seal test, either. I don’t know why I couldn’t cast the transformation—I don’t know what happened, but it doesn’t mean I’m necessarily harmless.”
Naruto tapped against the scroll under his arm. “I was sitting here studying this thing for a while before you stopped me, remember, and you know how powerful these restricted techniques can be. Even if there’s only a tiny chance that I can cast it, do you really want to risk your life against something called The Shadow Clone technique?”
Mizuki burst into laughter. Naruto almost chose the moment to attack, but it would have meant his death just as surely as if the battle had begun any other way. He had to find some way to talk his way out of this.
“Kid, you really have no idea, do you? I’ve seen a jounin using that before. All it does is create a second copy of your body, and it’ll vanish again as soon as you so much as scratch it. It’s a spying technique, not a weapon.”
From what little he’d read in the scroll Naruto had already known that, but he had been hoping Mizuki wouldn’t. No doubt a “shadow clone” would have been next to useless in a real fight, and scarcely any better for fleeing with, but he was beginning to think that trying to cast the technique and making a break for it in two directions at once might be his best chance at surviving.
“You’re not actually thinking you could get away from me, are you?” Mizuki asked. “For all the ninja blood you might have, kid, you couldn’t outrun a horse.”
Naruto dropped the scroll, rolling it toward Mizuki with his foot as he brought his hands together in the characteristic shape of the Tiger seal. From the Tiger seal to Boar, from Boar to Monkey—the seal chain was long, but he didn’t have the manual control to forego the unnecessary motion.
Mizuki stopped the scroll with his foot and drew a sharp kunai from his thigh-holster, rolling his eyes. “Have it your way…”
From Monkey to Hare, Hare to Horse, to Ox, to Rat! He willed the chakra with all his strength to manifest in his hands, hoping to make up for whatever his errors had been with the transformation technique, and for the difference in difficulty and cost, and the fact that he would die if it failed. He cried aloud the ancient name of the technique, fitting his thoughts to the necessary pattern.
A great eruption of sound reverberated from the trees as smoke flared up around him. Naruto was momentarily disoriented by the din—only slowly regaining his sense of place, confused by the fact that he now found himself several paces behind Mizuki, and surrounded by a crowd of what seemed to be hundreds of cloned bodies. No, even more than that.
Every version of himself had the same puzzled look on their faces, turning back and forth between themselves, until some quicker-thinking version of Naruto called out desperately to the rest of them. “Quickly! Get him!”
Mizuki was momentarily taken aback, but as a chuunin he was no stranger to combat. He reacted instantly as the mass of shadow clones turned toward him.
Clouds of smoke and sound flared up as Mizuki cut into the crowd with his kunai, popping a half-dozen of Naruto’s army noisily out of existence, including what should have been the “original” body—the one who had cast the technique in the first place. He’d burst like any other, and Naruto felt all of the thoughts of the dead appearing now inside his brain. He briefly wondered whether “he” was the real real one, in the sense of the one being conscious—having been chosen at random, or something, but he saw some of the others had already had similar thoughts, and more than one of them had recognized the inopportunity of these circumstances for such philosophizing. One clone had even decided to test the idea, and succeeded in dispelling himself with a hard slap across the face.
Heedless now to the risk of death he ran toward Mizuki alongside his brother-clones, swinging wildly for the closest limb. He missed, and received a quick cut through the abdomen in reply—and then he was somewhere else, a mere memory in the mind of another clone, standing a few paces to one side of his instructor. Naruto’s memories from the defeated clones seemed to integrate into every still-living body, becoming a part of the swarm when they died. He told himself again to focus only on killing—there would be time later to think, if he lived.
Mizuki seemed to be abandoning hope of true victory, so thoroughly surrounded—he leaped for a tree to escape, but already there were dozens amongst the horde who had predicted his next move correctly. They tossed their kunai at him as he flew, more than one knifepoint finding its target. Mizuki flinched with pain and missed the rebound, colliding physically with the tree branch. He fell with little grace into the waiting crowd beneath.
They descended on him without mercy, plunging their knives into every inch of exposed flesh, over and over. Before he could even roll off his back they were holding him down, cutting into him a hundred times more thoroughly than necessary, the brutal slaughter continuing until every last one of his clones felt personally safe enough to finally stop—until the continued absence of that horrible bursting sound had finally convinced him a thousand times over that he had survived, and that Mizuki was dead, and that he could afford, for a second, to relax.
For a moment, things were quiet. His crowd of clones sat down to catch their breath. Those closest to the middle stepped back from their gruesome work, trying to find a place to sit where they wouldn’t have to look.
The blood of his instructor pooled beneath the leaves, soaking into the dirt. Hundreds of him—thousands maybe; he could see the faint silhouettes of heads deep into the trees.
“…What now?” asked one of the clones sitting near to him.
The conversation seemed to start everywhere at once, a thousand questions rising to the fore. It was a strange thing to see himself conversing with himself, and not even being personally involved.
Naruto could barely make out a word over the noise of so many people talking. Soon, a few clones had started trying to shout down the others to establish some sense of order, or presuming that they had some question more important to ask. Too many at once had the same idea, and the chaotic babble only grew louder. Naruto caught something about the words “chakra burning” and made the mental connection himself—a sustained technique like this must require at least a small continuous exertion of chakra to maintain, and he was certain he had never heard of any ninja using thousands of clones to win a battle like that. Whatever he’d just done, the thought of death by chakra exhaustion seemed like almost the inevitable result.
“Cancel it!” someone cried.
“How!” shouted another.
One bold clone to cut into his own neck, experimentally, as another pricked his finger with a kunai, each managing the same effect as their thoughts flowed back into the wider pack.
Huge clouds of smoke and noise shortly began to flare up as his clones burst themselves away.
He hesitated—maybe it was the fear of just… vanishing, like all those other bodies, or maybe some sense of curiosity made him want to see what was going on himself, but as the crowd thinned out and began to shrink more slowly he saw too many others with the same idea. They couldn’t all be the last one standing. He smiled at them, deciding against hanging around any longer, now that it suddenly seemed a little bit less clever. He could take some pride at least in vanishing faster than those special snowflakes.
As he raised his kunai to his finger he felt something abruptly fall away inside himself. A jarring feeling, like he’d reached the end of some great spool of thread that he hadn’t known he was unwinding. He saw it in the eyes of the other clones, too—they’d all felt it. The strength seemed to vanish from them. Their limbs went slack, and they fell to the ground, smoke rising as they burst.
There was only an instant to regret his mistake, only a single moment to notice that after all that, his own stupidity had been the greatest danger. He felt his memories coalesce as he witnessed the same thoughts a dozen times over, the same farcical observation as his fading awareness passed into nothing.
The sun was a sharp glare in his eyes when he woke, disturbed by the sound of someone opening the blinds.
He was lying in bed. Indoors—not outside, in the forest. He saw a red seal on the white coat of a person leaving the room.
He was in the hospital.
Naruto tried to sit up. He felt a little weak, but apparently he was still alive. He met the eyes of a small man seated near the end of his bed. The headdress of the Hokage of Leaf village was on his lap.
The Hokage. He’d been waiting for Naruto to wake up.
He’d kept the Hokage waiting.
The Hokage raised his eyebrows. “Ah, Naruto, you are awake.”
He spoke with the tender demeanor of a kind old man—something only possible for a ninja so terrifying that nobody would ever mistake it for real softness. Countersignaling, they called it.
“I am so glad to see you are well.”
“I’m—my note,” Naruto stammered, hoping that it had been found by now and that he wasn’t about to be arrested and tortured to death, or—
“Yes, we saw your note. It is a pity you did not heed your sense of caution. I gather you made only a very narrow escape.”
“I—I think I chakra-exhausted myself. I cast the shadow clone. I made too many. I ran out of chakra.”
“A dramatic feat, no doubt,” the Hokage said. “I am sorry that you had to be the one to dispatch our deserter, but still, it is not every day that an academy student defeats a chuunin, you know… Might I inquire as to precisely how many clones you called forth? And for how long you sustained them, before you fell unconscious?”
“Um, I’m not really sure,” Naruto said, “maybe it was for a minute or two, in total, but there were hundreds of them at least. Maybe thousands.”
“Thousands…” he said, sighing. “I feared as much.”
“Feared?” Naruto asked. “Am I going to die, now? From the chakra exhaustion?”
“Die? Oh no, my boy. No, you’ll be quite alright,” he said. “Chakra exhaustion can be dangerous enough, but only indirectly. It is rarely safe for ninja to fall unconscious in hostile territory, you understand, but you had the good fortune to dispatch your enemy beforehand, so on this occasion, you have survived it.”
“Oh… I see…”
Naruto didn’t know quite what to say next. He’d only ever spoken to the Hokage on a few occasions before—he had the legal right to an occasional audience, being a village orphan with ninja blood. He’d only just made use of that right the night before, to steal the scroll, but typically their meetings were little more than brief reports of his circumstances.
“I’m really sorry,” Naruto said, “I didn’t even think to find out where he was going, when we fought. I forgot to do any information extraction—I failed to retain my composure under the stress. I apologize.”
“You made a grave error indeed, last night, in choosing to break village law, even by the direct instruction of a superior. You almost met your death for that error,” the Hokage replied, “but aside from this mistake I believe you behaved commendably for an academy student in recording your suspicions, and in ultimately emerging victorious. As it happens, we were already aware that he had received an offer from a foreign contact, following a recent mission into the territory of Sound village.”
Naruto had never heard of any village called Sound, but he didn’t think that this was the best time to ask about it.
“I do not intend to punish you for your part in his crime,” the Hokage said, “but… it seems that now we shall have to have a conversation which I had hoped to delay a little longer. I had thought this matter could wait until you were yourself a chuunin, or at least until after your graduation from the academy, but I see now that I was in error.”
Naruto looked at him, uncertain. “What conversation, sir?”
The Third Hokage of Leaf sighed, looking out the window as if wondering where to begin.
“Tell me, Uzumaki Naruto… how much do you know of that ancient art we ninja call… game theory?”