The aristocracy of the Land of Fire is divided into houses, which are in turn divided into landed nobles. Together, the hundreds of noble houses form the Assembly of Lords, which elects Ministers to the Cabinet. There are twelve Ministries, and the Minister of each is responsible for implementing policy as directed by the Daimyo.

Each house holds one standing vote in the Assembly, and can nominate one Lord as a Minister. The Assembly also holds the power to overrule the Daimyo in any matter by a two-thirds majority vote, though this is a rare occurrence with severe consequences for the Daimyo in question.

Often, major blocs of houses with common interests ally, forming parties that can control one or even several ministries at once. Smaller, independent houses often shift allegiance to the parties that can currently offer them the best deals and committee positions, though it is not unknown for smaller houses to be effectively in the pockets of more powerful ones on occasion.

It is important to emphasize that votes for a Minister are standing, not periodically renewed, and can be withdrawn at any time. This has often made for sudden, major shifts in the internal power structure of the government, though as always, the Daimyo remains in control of general policy.

— Takumi Kichirou, "A Simple History of the Land of Fire", Konoha Academy sixth grade material.

Never was anything great achieved without danger.

"Yeah." Naruto grinned. "We have to save a princess."

I glanced at Ino, not wanting to bail in the middle of dinner.

"Go," she told me. "Though you owe me another night out when you get back."

"Thanks," I said, and followed Naruto from the restaurant. He led me out of the old parts of downtown to the nearest training ground, which was adjacent to the Academy. Kakashi and Izanami were already there, at the edge of the training ground beneath the branches of a large tree, sitting on either side of a wooden table with benches attached.

Izanami slumped over the table, resting her chin on her folded arms while she listened to something Kakashi was saying. She straightened up immediately when she saw us arriving, mumbled a greeting to Naruto as he sat down, then turned to face Kakashi without even acknowledging my presence. I returned the favor and went to lean sideways against the tree without looking her way.

Kakashi shot a glance my way, stood, and moved away from the table to face us. The faint, yellow electric light of the street lamps outside the fence which ringed the training ground illuminated his face. He studied us, looking between Naruto and Izanami sitting together by the table and me.

I crossed my arms, locking them together to keep my hands from fidgeting, and consciously kept my foot from tapping on a root beneath it. I still felt shaken after my conversation with Ino, and my nerves hadn't settled yet.

"There's been a kidnapping," Kakashi said after a few more moments. "From the mission outline, it sounds like negotiations with the kidnappers have already come a long way, since our job is to provide security for the ransom exchange. First, however, we're going to the Fire Court to meet with our client."

Nobody spoke for a second.

"Who's the client?" I asked.

Kakashi looked at me. "The mission client is Lord Minwanabi Masanori, and the victim is his daughter, Kensha."

I blinked. "Isn't that—"

"That's the Minister of Commerce," Izanami cut in, confirming my hazy knowledge of Fire Court politics. "He's richer than me. Why is he hiring a team of genin when he could hire a dozen squads of jounin? Or send in the Royal Guard, for that matter?"

"Apparently the kidnappers have refused to meet with more than a single genin team, threatening to kill Kensha if he doesn't comply, and he's agreed to those terms. In fact, Lord Minwanabi has specifically requested our team for this mission, and called in quite a few favors in the Administration to get us assigned."

Minwanabi must have read the newspaper sometime around the graduation, I thought. There'd been dozens of articles mentioning that the Last Uchiha had graduated with the famous Copy Ninja Kakashi as her sensei. For a while, it had been among the hottest topics. I'd even been mentioned occasionally, as I'd discovered when Dad began to read excerpts of articles out loud over breakfast with a huge grin on his face, much to my embarrassment.

Izanami muttered something under her breath about media bloodhounds. Naruto grinned and clapped her on the shoulder. "Cheer up! This means no more D-ranks. Silver linings, remember?"

She shook her head and rolled her eyes.

Naruto looked up at Kakashi. "Hey, what about our—"

"They'd stay back when the time comes, to be sure," Kakashi said. "If it does."


Naruto frowned. "What do you mean, 'if'?"

"I didn't pick this mission," Kakashi said. "I don't like it; usually leaders of the rookie teams are given plenty of leeway in the beginning to pick which missions they go on. I have enough pull to get the mission reassigned, although it would look bad."

"Why?" Izanami asked. "Every other first-grade team has done at least one C-rank by now, some of them have done three already, and you've had us doing nothing but D-ranks for three weeks."

"I'll admit I'm kinda curious about that, too," Naruto said.

"And me," I added.

Kakashi stuck his hands in his pockets and shrugged. "I don't see a reason to rush into it. We've got plenty of time to make sure your teamwork is solid and work out a few more kinks before we start going out and doing things."

Huh, I thought.

"And when exactly were you planning on starting out?" Izanami asked. "You may have all the time in the world, but some of us don't."

Kakashi looked at her and raised an eyebrow.

"Well?" she asked.

"I'd prefer to wait a month or two yet," said Kakashi.

A month? I thought. What happens then? Oh.

"What for?" Izanami said.

"The chuunin exams," I blurted out. "Konoha is hosting them this year. That's it, isn't it?"

Everybody looked at me and I hesitated for a moment, then continued.

"I just thought—well, maybe that's why you've been acting so oddly, only doing small missions and kind of laying low? We're one of this year's prize teams, and there'd definitely be pressure for us to attend if we'd completed enough C-ranks, or even just a B-rank or two. Just enough to not look like it was nepotism. But we haven't really been doing anything noteworthy at all. You don't want us to attend."

I frowned as an alternative struck me. Or I guess he could just be really, excessively careful and want to be absolutely sure we can make the cut before we do anything serious. Actually, that sounds a lot more likely.

I looked up to see that Kakashi had narrowed his eye at me and was studying me with a mix of consternation and surprise.

Izanami stood up, staring at Kakashi. "Sakura's right?"

"She's not entirely wrong," he admitted.

Oh, I thought. Lucky guess.

Izanami pointed a finger at Kakashi. "If you've been holding me back when I could've become a chuunin this year—"

"You'd die," Kakashi cut her off.

Izanami stopped, blinking, and my eyebrows rose. Even Kakashi looked surprised at himself, before he rallied.

"Rank isn't the same as ability, Izanami," he said. "I know you want to get strong as fast as possible, but getting promoted won't help. All it would do is increase the risk of you getting assigned away from my tutelage, and I'm the only one in Konoha who can teach you to use your Sharingan."

Izanami began to say something, but Kakashi raised a hand and said, "I met Itachi once, and without my eye, I would've died for sure. He's without a doubt one of the most skilled ninja I've ever met. I was lucky just to survive the encounter."

Izanami looked like she'd bitten down on something sour. "That's no excuse for—"

I barely caught what happened next. One moment, Kakashi was standing casually before us; the next, he had a kunai on Izanami's throat. She flinched back, eyes wide.

Naruto had jumped halfway to his feet before stopping himself. "Shit," he muttered.

"Itachi would rip you apart unless you can at least match me," Kakashi said softly. "And you're far from that."

Izanami swallowed nervously, staying completely still while staring at the kunai.

Kakashi withdrew the kunai, then turned to Naruto. "And if you're thinking of helping her—"

"I am," Naruto said. "But not like you're thinking. I'm not stupid."

That sounded a little odd, even considering his secret ability. Not that I was surprised he'd want to help her—Naruto was like that, and the two were after all practically joined at the hip.

Still, I frowned. Nobody ever tells me anything.

Kakashi nodded at Naruto. "Good." He looked back at Izanami. "If you contrived to run across Itachi and died because I hadn't trained you enough, I'd find it at least slightly distressing."

Izanami stared silently at Kakashi, still looking a little shocked. Long seconds passed before she finally sat down.

"Fine, I get your point," she grumbled. "But I still don't see why we shouldn't do the mission. Just because we're trying to avoid C-ranks, we shouldn't go out of our way to turn them down when we're literally assigned one."

"I agree with Izanami," I said, much to my own amazement. "I didn't even know doing that was an option, and I don't like how it'd look if we just turned it down like that."

Izanami didn't even acknowledge my comment. Naruto glanced at me, then at Izanami, and his lips twitched as he saw her determined, stone-faced expression. I shot him a dark look, then turned back to Kakashi. He was frowning again, looking between the three of us.

"There's more to the world than what the higher-ups think of you," he said to me. "But don't tell them I said that."

A ghost of a smile traced my lips. "Nevertheless."

"I think it's a slippery slope," Kakashi said. "This opens the door for more assignments like this, when I was hoping we could stay beneath notice for a few more months. If one of you wants me to get the mission reassigned, I will."

He eyed us all. "So?"

"I'm for the mission," Izanami said immediately.

Naruto frowned, glancing aside at Izanami. "Uhm. I don't really care either way, though I don't see why we have to be in such a hurry."

Everybody turned to me. I took a moment to consider the question.

I planned to get out of general mission duty and into a proper division as fast as possible; there were plenty of divisions where you wouldn't get into fights that often. But all that depended on me getting through my first team assignment, and as Kakashi had pointed out, becoming a chuunin was a good way of doing that. The chuunin exams were a good, relatively safe way of becoming a chuunin, though I did nurse doubts regarding my ability to pass the individual component of the exam, even if being on a team with Izanami and Naruto could get me through the group stage.

Besides, being on a team that caused a fuss the moment it got assigned its first C-rank mission probably wouldn't help with any eventual promotions.

Not really a question, is it, I thought.

"Yeah," I said. "Let's do this."

Naruto shrugged. "Fine, I'll go with the majority, then."

Kakashi took a deep breath. "Okay. We need to be in the capital in four days, but we can make the trip in three if we make good time. Use tonight to prepare for the mission, gather the things you'll need for at least a week out of Konoha and get a good night's sleep so you're well-rested tomorrow."

He looked pointedly at me as he said the last part. I tried my best to look innocent.

"That's it," Kakashi said. "I'll see you three at the eastern gate, tomorrow, at seven sharp."

"Alright," said Naruto, jumped to his feet, and looked at Izanami. "Race you home?"

"Grow up," she said, standing up. "Also, you'd never win." She body-flickered away.

"Shit," Naruto muttered, then sped off after her. "I'll get you one day, cheat!" his voice echoed, fading into the distance.

A few seconds passed in silence before I turned to look at Kakashi, who was staring after Naruto and Izanami. If I had to ask him about the missing hours… did it have to be now? We'd have plenty of time to converse while we traveled. Then again, I wasn't even sure if I should just ask him outright. He'd mentioned that ANBU were interested in my work, and as far as I could see, they were the most obvious suspects, but he'd reassured me that they'd let him take care of it.

So either ANBU didn't trust Kakashi and had acted without him and let him think he'd sorted it out, or there was a third party at work, separate from Kakashi and ANBU. Or Kakashi was in on it too—I almost shivered as that possibility struck me. I could always hope that I was just imagining the whole thing, and there was nothing to worry about.

It occurred to me that at least the last two possibilities were testable.

"Sensei?" I asked.

Kakashi turned to me. "Hm?"

"I've… I've been going through all of my notes while I worked on solving that problem you pointed out, and I couldn't help but wonder how much you actually saw, when you were looking through them?"

For a moment that was almost too brief to catch, he froze. "I'm under no obligation to answer that question."


I could tell he was smiling now, from the way his mask creased.

"Asking nicely generally doesn't work so well, between ninja. It's too adversarial a profession for that—everybody's out for themselves."

"Let's say I'm just asking my teacher, as a student. I mean, I get what you're saying on general principle, but you're not my enemy, right?"

He raised an eyebrow at me. "Forgetting my bell test already?"

"Actually, I was just thinking about it."

Again, Kakashi smiled, and while I couldn't put my finger on why, he seemed pleased.

"I didn't see too much," he said after a moment, shrugging. "What I was looking for was right there on the desk." He looked straight at me, his gaze suddenly more serious, though his tone remained light-hearted. "Did I ever congratulate you on being very perceptive in the way you attack problems, by the way? I don't think I did. Congratulations."

I tried to keep my expression blank while my hair stood on end.

"Uhm, thank you," I said. "Anyway, I was just curious. I should probably get going, start preparing for tomorrow, you know."

Kakashi raised a hand at me in a lazy parting wave, and said, "You do that."

I nodded, took a step back, then another, and then I turned and ran.

Kakashi knows.

That thought kept repeating itself while I sat in my room, sealing the last of the things I would need. Arrayed on my bed were a row of small scrolls with seals containing spare clothes, camping supplies, like a small bedroll, and bundles of exploding and flash scrolls, kunai, and shuriken. It was all mostly new, since I'd had to replace everything I'd used in Kakashi's test, using the money I earned off our D-rank missions.

I was bringing everything I thought I might need, since my experiments to create a locking mechanism for storage scrolls had yielded a surplus of empty, regular ones that would only need small modifications to work—I wouldn't have had the time to draw enough seals from scratch to store it all.

I counted myself lucky that I could make my own storage scrolls. They were expensive, even in Konoha, and were difficult enough to learn to make and maintain for extended usage that most people didn't use them without a special reason.

Kakashi knew, and he didn't tell me.

I looked at the small trap I'd set up at my window. Opening the window would rip a small piece of paper and trigger a weak explosive seal that was right next to a bottle ink that I'd tied up. As far as I could tell, you couldn't see it from the outside, so it should catch anybody entering through the window, if they'd managed to unlock it from outside. The trap wasn't lethal or even particularly dangerous, but it would be impossible to hide the fact that it had triggered, and the unfading ink would hopefully mark any intruder as well. It was worth trying, anyway.

Of course, it wouldn't help if somebody just came in through the rest of the apartment and used the door. I couldn't trap that, or I'd have trouble with my parents, and it wasn't like they'd be able to spot a competent intruder.

I bit my lip and turned my attention back to the seal I was currently tweaking. I finished a minute later and sealed the last package I was bringing: a set of empty paper scrolls, chakra ink, and brushes. I threw the scroll on the bed and sat back with a deep sigh, weary from expending so much chakra by filling so many storage seals in a row.

Did he want me to figure it out? Or did I just tip him off that I know?

I looked at my bed, my shoulders sagging. Somehow I didn't think I would get a lot of sleep, tonight, however much I tried. Still, that didn't mean I shouldn't try; I had, after all, been ordered to by my superior.

I twisted and turned, beating my pillow into shape. It was amazing how much the comfort of your bed depended on your state of mind. Tonight there wasn't a single crease in the sheets that didn't bother me, and not a single creak of wood settling or rustling of branches from outside that failed to instantly make me alert again.

I wasn't sure how much time passed before I began to realize that this was futile. I'd be here for hours before I managed to fall asleep, wasting time I could be doing something useful with.

I cursed under my breath, slipped out of bed, and got dressed again. I snuck out the door and down the hallway past my parent's bedroom, using chakra to spread out my weight so the floor wouldn't creak, through the kitchen to the front hallway, and out the door into the night.

The smell of flowers always permeated the Yamanaka compound in the summer. Even at night, the cool breeze carried pleasant fragrances from their gardens into the paved street outside. I stood before an open door, my arms crossed.

"I'm afraid I can't let you in this late, Miss Haruno," the servant in the doorway said with an apologetic bow. "Lady Ino is sleeping and said she didn't wish to be disturbed. You may come back in the morning."

She began to close the door so I shoved my foot in the way.

"Come on," I said. "You know me. Just tell her I said it's important."

The servant looked down at my foot, her lips tightening. "I must insist that you remove—"

"Relax, Izumi," a drowsy voice murmured from behind the servant. "It's fine. Go back to bed."

The servant sighed, shot me a baleful look, and retreated. Ino appeared in the doorway, barefoot and dressed in a pretty, flowing nightgown.

"Hey," she said, stifling a yawn with her hand. "What's up?"

"I want to talk."

Ino blinked drowsily, then stepped aside and gestured inside. "Sure, come on in."

I shook my head. "Not inside. Can we just go for a quick walk? Alone?"

She looked down at herself, idly smoothing out her gown. "I'm not really dressed for that."

I hesitated. "Please?"

Ino stopped, then stared at me for a long moment, waking up a bit. Her features settled into a soft frown. "Alright."

There weren't many tall buildings in the moneyed part of the city, on the hills below the Hokage monument. As the street turned, snaking down towards the city below, we continued onto a gravel path that curved gently along the hill. An old, waist-high cobblestone wall ran along the path, preventing people from accidentally stepping off and tumbling down into the shrubbery. We could see most of downtown Konoha from here, a shimmering sea of lights stretching out before us.

"I knew something was off when you froze like that and went all pale at dinner," Ino said, sitting down on the wall with her back to the city, her arms crossed. She had shrugged on a light cloak and some slippers, and was now regarding me with a worried look. "You're right, if your notes were messed with, that makes the blackout look… very different."

I sat on the wall beside her, dangling my legs and resting my hands in my lap.

"You're sure Kakashi knew?" Ino asked.

"I'm pretty sure, yeah."

"That's messed up."

"I don't really know what to do about it," I admitted. "Or if I even can do anything about it. It's kind of confusing, and scary, and you're the only person I trust enough to ask."

"That's a pretty big question, Sakura," Ino said, looking doubtful. "I'm not even sure what to say."

"Hm." I let my gaze drop to my feet, then felt a hand on my shoulder and looked up again.

"Are you alright, really?" Ino asked. "This is pretty creepy."

I opened my mouth, just about to tell her that, yeah, I was fine really, but I stopped myself and let my shoulders sag.

"It's actually really getting to me," I muttered. "I don't even know what happened."

Ino frowned. "Sakura…"

"But I'm sure the immediate shock will fade quickly," I added briskly. "I mean, it's already been a while, right? Besides, it can only be so bad, and at least I definitely wasn't—"

I stopped short as Ino put an arm around my shoulder, squeezing a bit. I almost protested, then relented with a small smile. For a while, neither of us spoke, just sitting there in calm silence. Even then it wasn't long before my mind was whirring again, considering my options, outlining the facts as I knew them. Though, right that moment, the thoughts had a little less urgency to them.

Eventually, Ino sighed and let me go again.

"Thanks," I muttered after a moment, leaning back up.

Ino smirked. "Sometimes all you need is a hug."

"I'm not a little girl any more."

The smirk turned into a grin. "Big girls need hugs, too—and sleep," she added as I suppressed a yawn. "You've been skimping, I can tell."

"I haven't been skimping."

Ino raised a single eyebrow at me, skewering me with her gaze.

"Okay, I've been skimping," I muttered.

"I didn't say anything earlier today, but if you're going on a mission tomorrow you should really try to get some rest."

I shrugged. "I didn't think I'd get much sleep tonight, actually, so that's why I'm here instead of in my bed." I chewed my lip, for a second. "Your dad heads Interrogation—he's a Jounin Commander. You've really never heard anything about something like this, from him?"

Ino sighed, unsatisfied with my change of topic, then shook her head. "No. He tends to keep work and family separate." She shifted herself on the cobblestone wall, turning to face me. "How about this, though: I'll just ask him."

"Ino, you can't make your dad—"

Ino waved a hand dismissively. "Oh, he does whatever I tell him to when I make doe eyes at him. And if that doesn't work, I've got a direct line to Nara Shikaku through Shikamaru, and he's the head of the entire Intelligence division, not just Interrogation—it's his job to know stuff. And I've got other family members as well, if none of that pans out. If it's figure-out-able, I'll figure it out, and then you can go sleep and go on your mission and not have to worry about it, alright?"

I blinked. "Uhm, that's really a lot more than I expected. I just wanted to ask some advice, and—"

"But that's what friends do for each other, right?" Ino said, an amused gleam in her eyes. "That's that whole Will of Fire thing the Hokage was talking about. It's not like you could say you wouldn't be doing the same thing for me if our roles were reversed."

I bit my lip and dropped my gaze, my face burning. "Right… I guess I couldn't."

"Besides," Ino added, "you can just owe me one."

"I'd feel a little better about that," I relented.

Ino extended a hand. "Then it's a deal."

I took it. "Fine, fine, it's a deal."

"Then stop worrying about it, and go home to bed. You're no use to anybody dead."

I grinned. "You just don't give up, do you?"

She punched my shoulder gently. "Learned from the best."

I stood up. "Thanks. I feel a bit better now."

Ino got up as well, brushed off her gown, and shot me a worried look. "You look exhausted, and that's no state to be scooting around the Fire Court in. I visited once with my dad—it's cutthroat. I'm not sure there's anything those people wouldn't do to get ahead in the game. Take care, okay?"

I shrugged wryly. "I can at least promise to try my best."

Ino likewise shrugged, smiling. "I guess that's the best we can hope for."

I arrived by the eastern gate ten minutes early, loaded up with storage scrolls in the various belts and bags I'd strapped on. Over that, I wore the standard green flak vest we'd all been issued when we became genin. It hadn't seen much wear and tear yet, having only been used for D-ranks and sometimes in spars. I almost felt embarrassed, standing there while older, more experienced ninja with patched, well-worn vests passed through the gate, shooting me the odd sideways glance.

I leaned back against the wall to the side of the gate, adjusted my forehead protector, crossed my arms, and waited. It really was quite a pleasant morning. The sun hadn't been up for long, so it was still pleasantly cool instead of the typical heat of a Land of Fire summer day which awaited us later.

"Kinda looking tired there, Sakura," came Naruto's voice.

I twitched awake, squinting at the source of the voice. Naruto was grinning at me, and beside him stood Izanami, looking around for Kakashi. They were both wearing their green flak vests, and Naruto was sporting a fairly large backpack.

I yawned. "Just got here a bit early, is all."

"I think I'm getting one of Kakashi's tricks," Naruto said. "Every second early is a second wasted. I should adopt that ideal; means I can sleep in more."

Izanami snorted, a smirk playing across her lips.

"Where's Izanami's stuff?" I asked Naruto, already suspecting the answer.

"Naruto's carrying it, obviously," Izanami said without looking. "The idiot says he doesn't get tired, I tell him to prove it."

Naruto pointed a finger at Izanami. "I don't. And I will."

She made a vulpine smile, and shrugged lightly. "I guess we'll see."

"Where's your stuff, anyway?" Naruto asked me.

I patted a bag on my belt. "I'm all scrolled up."

"Smart," said Naruto.

"Risky," said Izanami.

"I can live with a little risk if it means I don't need to lug everything around," I said.

Naruto shrugged and Izanami didn't deign to respond—she was shooting a determined glare out into the crowd. I followed her gaze, looking around us. We were drawing quite a few looks from bypassers. It made sense, I supposed; here stood the Last Uchiha with her teammates, geared up to go on some excitingly heroic mission. I wondered if any of them would be brave enough to ask for her autograph, but anybody who seemed to consider it never really managed to get close before being deflected by Izanami's malevolent aura.

Naruto stared at me as I succumbed to a lengthy yawn. "Kakashi did kinda say we would be traveling fast, yesterday."

"I'll keep up," I said.

Naruto almost looked ready to argue, but then shrugged. Izanami shot me a judgmental look out of the corner of her eye, but didn't say anything.

An awkward silence passed, only interrupted by my occasional yawns and Izanami's grumbling complaints about being stared at all the time. It seemed we had run out of subjects to discuss.

Kakashi arrived right on time. He gave me an inquisitive look, and I put on my best stubborn face. He shook his head a bit, looking amused.

"Everybody ready?" he asked.

"Let's just get a move on, already," Izanami groaned.

Kakashi shot her a long sideways glance. When nobody said anything against, he shrugged.

"Alright. Let's."

We started running east at an easy pace, following the broad, well-paved road towards Gotama. It ran the whole way to the capital and was heavily traveled. Konoha was in the south of the Land of Fire, whereas Gotama lay closer to the eastern shore, about three hundred kilometers away. Forest surrounded Konoha for more than a hundred kilometers in every direction, nestled into a massive mountain chain forming a northwest pointing V-shape whose southwestern edge bordered up to the Land of Wind, and whose longer northern edge parted most of the Land of Fire into north and south.

On the road, there were other ninja, farmers bringing in their product to Konoha, long wagon trains, and travelers, from those who had nothing but the clothes on their back to nobles carried on litters surrounded by their entourages. We began to pass smaller villages and towns on the road, and it wasn't long before we saw the first logging operation, where hundreds of workers were clearing huge sections of the forest.

Kakashi noticed me goggling. "They're clearing the forest for the railroad between Konoha and Gotama. The wood will be used for its construction."

"That's a lot of wood," I said.

"This is nothing compared to the logging operations in the south."


As we continued, the sounds of sawing kept us company. Men yelled instructions, and cries of "Timber!" occasionally rang out, followed by the thundering crash of a tree. I tried to imagine what kind of operation would make this look like nothing—I was beginning to appreciate just how massive the Land of Fire's industry really was.

We occasionally slowed to catch our breath. By the time the sun stood high in the sky and we paused for lunch, I was dragging my feet. My chakra reserves were already depleted from keeping my legs going. As the day crawled by, I found myself panting constantly, my throat parched and dry with dust. When we finally reached a large town on the border between the forest and the rolling fields that stretched the rest of the way to the capital, I was cursing every lazy time I'd ever skimped on a work-out. Naruto, of course, looked entirely unaffected, and both Izanami and Kakashi were doing well, neither betraying a hint of the bone-deep exhaustion I was feeling.

At least I would be sleeping like a rock tonight.

The setting sun found us searching for a decent inn. Around us, villagers went around with long candlesticks and ladders, lighting oil street lamps. I watched them curiously—I'd never quite comprehended that outside of wealthy cities like Konoha, things like electricity and central gas were still luxuries, though they had been spreading quickly these last few years.

Eventually we found an establishment with both room and decent prices, and Kakashi paid out of the mission allowance. We'd arrived late, so the evening's meal was cold, though at least there was plenty. I wolfed down two portions, paying for the second myself, and then headed off to bed before any of the others. I didn't even complain about the old-style futon I'd been given to sleep on instead of a proper bed—even a floor would feel heavenly.

I laid down, and the next thing I knew, Kakashi was poking me awake.

"Just time for a quick breakfast," he said.

I restrained an impulse to snap at him as he left, and instead forced myself up with a small groan, stretching sore muscles. Breakfast was a quiet affair, and it wasn't long before we were back on the road.

Leaving the forest behind, there was no shade from the baking summer sun. A vast expanse stretched before us, broken only by snaking creeks, irrigation networks, and the occasional village or town. These plains stretched all the way to the capital. Along with the northern provinces, they produced enough food to feed a population of over thirty million people, with plenty to spare for export to places like the Land of Wind. When you added the timber production in the south and minerals from the mountain ranges, it meant the Land of Fire was virtually self-sufficient.

Towards the afternoon we began to see signs of railroad construction, and eventually the road crossed the rails being built. Hundreds of people went about, digging out a trench and filling it with rocks, setting wooden planks, and laying down long steel bars. The government had made a big deal out of this new railroad last year when they started construction, and I'd read plenty of newspaper articles about it. It was one of the first in the country, and would be the longest that had been built so far in the elemental nations.

I noticed a lot of people with unusually dark, golden skin, deep brown eyes, black hair and strange clothes. They were walking with the overseers and calling instructions to the workers with heavy accents, paying special attention to a small group of people crouched over the tracks, all wearing large, blocky helmets. I flinched and had to look away as a blinding, bright light strong enough to hurt my eyes erupted from one of their tools.

We passed close by two of the foreigners, walking together and studying schematics on a paper, speaking in a strange tongue. One was a man, wearing a tied-up bundle of cloth on his head and loose robes with a sash in a style I'd never seen before, the other a woman in a strange but beautiful gold-trimmed tunic, her long, black hair bound elaborately with beads and metal rings.

"Foreigners," Kakashi told me when we'd passed them. "Hired from across the eastern sea to help with the construction of the railway."

Naruto looked around for what we were talking about. His gaze quickly found some and his eyebrows lifted. "Huh."

"I hadn't heard," I huffed while we ran on. "I thought we just had restricted trade with them."

"It's not popular in the Court, so the newspapers didn't carry it," Kakashi said. "It's becoming obvious that the railway is going to be a lot better with the easterners' help and knowledge. Our client, Minwanabi, must be ecstatic; it's his pet project."

"You know a lot about this," Izanami commented.

"Konoha keeps a close eye on happenings in the Fire Court. It's always good to stay on top of things. You probably should, too, now you've graduated and taken your seat on the Council."

"Who said I wasn't on top of things?" Izanami said.

I eyed Izanami, surprised. She's on the Council?

It made sense, I supposed, that Konoha still extended the single remnant of the Uchiha clan such a courtesy. She couldn't have been attending much, though—she hadn't missed a D-rank or training session yet. Perhaps she didn't care that much. Politics, I had to admit, had never interested me, and I could imagine the same being true for her.

Conversation dried out as we continued on. There was still quite a way to the nearest town with a train station where we'd be spending the night. When we finally arrived, we found a traveler's inn, and ate dinner in exhausted silence. Even Naruto looked a little weary when we all crawled into our beds.

"And not an ounce of chakra in this thing?" Naruto muttered as the train slowly gathered speed, carrying us towards Gotama. "Damn."

I had to give it to him, the train was more impressive than I'd expected. Granted, the steam engine at the front of it was massive, but it still didn't feel quite right to me that it was able to pull such an enormous weight behind it, even though I knew the general principles involved. It ran without the slightest bit of chakra involved anywhere. Just water and heat, and nothing else.

"It's pretty awesome," I conceded, then sat down and made myself comfortable, leaning into the corner I'd managed to grab in the flat open-air carriage we were traveling in. A C-rank mission budget didn't pay for better tickets, or Kakashi was just being miserly—either way, I didn't care. This corner was nice enough. I spent most of the trip dozing, and actually felt somewhat refreshed when Naruto prodded me awake as we trundled into Gotama.

Gotama itself was the largest city in the elemental nations. Its key position at the fork of two major rivers, one of which passed through the Land of Fire and out into the northern seas meant that if you had goods from the east that needed to move west, or the other way around, odds were that at some point on the journey they would pass beneath the eyes of Gotama's customs inspectors.

I was surprised at how flat everything was, being used to the tall buildings of Konoha's central areas that had been helped along by the First Hokage's wood style. Here, there weren't many buildings taller than three stories, and everything looked dirty—it was like dust hung in the air. Beggars sat in the dirt on every street corner while merchants hawked their wares not two meters away. Nobles carried on curtained litters parted the crowd before them, surrounded by stone-faced guards in polished, well-adorned armor.

And then there were the smells—food, spices, people, animals—everything that a city of millions could bring to bear. There was so much going on around us that I was almost twisting my head off trying to get a look at everything before we passed it.

Eventually, we crossed one of the many bridges that led to the Golden City, the Daimyo's massive palace, lying at the intersection of the two rivers that parted Gotama. The palace was a maze of interlocking buildings, halls and gardens, and its famous golden roofs gleamed in the midday sun.

Is that real gold? I wondered. Or just some kind of paint? I didn't ask, for fear of suggesting they might use paint, just in case it was, in fact, real gold.

Just before we reached the other side of the bridge, we passed beneath a tall torii prayer gate, and I felt a tingling sensation on my skin, like that of passing through the gates of Konoha. Had I been wearing any transformation technique, or performing any other outward manipulation that depended on chakra, it would just have been disrupted. I could spot more than a dozen men armored in the gold and silver of the Royal Guard without even turning my head. I shivered, suddenly glad that I had good reason to be here.

The Royal Guard weren't ninja, but a lifetime of dedicated training in the old samurai arts of chakra muscle enhancement more than compensated for a general lack of techniques—the way they used chakra was simply different, an elite version of the basic enhancement techniques taught to every conscript and ninja. I doubted I could take a Royal Guard in battle, and I thought even Kakashi would have trouble with a squad of them working in concert.

As we stepped off the bridge, we were stopped by a guard, his hand resting on the pommel of his sheathed katana.

"State your business," he said.

"Team Seven of Konoha," Kakashi said. "The Minister of Commerce is expecting us."

"One moment," the guardsman said.

He went to exchange a few words with his superior, a man with an ornate, plumed helmet. A few moments later, a messenger ran off. The guard we'd talked to didn't return to us immediately, so we stayed put. Guards around us shot us occasional looks, but nobody addressed us directly—there were a few other people standing around like us, waiting, while others passed by waving papers at the guards, or even just striding past as the guards nodded in recognition.

It wasn't too long before a man arrived and hurried towards us down the steps of the entrance. He said a few words to the guard captain, who nodded, then walked to us and bowed from the waist with his hands clasped in front of him.

"Are you well, honored guests?" he intoned.

Kakashi blinked, then made a small bow from the waist. "We are well, honored host."

The man's expression flashed briefly in surprised consternation, which quickly turned into a polite smile. "I am Hotaka, the majordomo of House Minwanabi, and I apologize for the wait. I will take you to Lord Minwanabi now, if you please."

"We follow in your footsteps," Kakashi said.

This time, Hotaka looked less surprised. He smiled warmly, though somehow the warmth didn't quite reach his eyes, bowed deeply again, then turned and walked away.

"What just happened?" Naruto whispered under his breath to Izanami as we trailed after Hotaka.

Izanami leaned in towards Naruto. "Hotaka showed us great respect by initiating the ritual greeting, probably because he didn't expect us to know the reply, so we would bring dishonor to ourselves by breaching protocol. Kakashi one-upped him when he did know the reply, then made a double-edged peace offering by saying we'd follow in Hotaka's footsteps, which means we trust him implicitly by following him, but also has the undertone of him having to trust us, since we're behind him where his back is open to us. Probably, it was a test—Hotaka wanted to know just where he had us, and Kakashi told him very exactly. So it's all good."


There was a brief pause.

"What," said Naruto.

Izanami arched an eyebrow at him, the corner of her lip rising. "You mean you weren't taught this stupid shit when you were five?"

Kakashi glanced back at us with a wry gaze. "Hush—whispering in public is considered impolite and amateurish."

I frowned, but held my tongue. Naruto, though, apparently couldn't resist.

"Why?" he whispered in Izanami's direction.

"Impolite, because we could be scheming against the people around us, and amateurish, because we're openly displaying that fact," she whispered, then drew a finger across her throat, her eyes gleaming with amusement at Naruto's baffled expression.

Even I had to smile a little, though I had to agree with Naruto; that was downright insane.

We continued onward in renewed silence as Hotaka led us through wing after wing of the palace. It was beautiful: entire walls of wood were painted in intricate detail, depicting a multitude of scenes, from goddesses meditating in tranquil gardens to renditions of old battles. There were small lotus ponds and rock gardens off the hallways, and occasionally we'd pass over a small bridge across a gurgling stream a few meters beneath us; even down there I spotted well-tended paths and gardens. Everyone was dressed so immaculately that I felt like a barbarian intruder who definitely didn't belong in here, with my utilitarian garb and straps and bags of scrolls, dirty from the dust of the road.

Sometimes, I felt that tingling on my skin again, and noticed an awful lot of guards about. We passed through several such security points before we finally reached a sliding door where two men armored in non-royal colors—green and blue—stood guard. They pulled aside the door, wordlessly, and we entered the area behind it, passing through a few corridors before turning into an empty room. A table of refreshments had been set out, surrounded by traditional sitting pillows.

Hotaka turned to us and bowed. "Lord Minwanabi is currently in session with the Cabinet and the Daimyo. He will join you as soon as he is able."

"You honor us with your hospitality," said Kakashi.

Hotaka left and shut the screen door behind him.

Naruto set his backpack down in a corner, walked over to the table, plopped himself down on a pillow, and surveyed the food. "Sweet," he muttered to himself, picked out a slice of iced melon and started munching on it.

"Uhm, Naruto," I began. "I'm not sure we're supposed to actually…" I petered off, looking hesitantly at Kakashi and Izanami.

Kakashi was closely studying an inscription on a wooden support pillar, and Izanami was turning where she stood, surveying the room and its delicate decorations. "Not bad…" she muttered. "Not bad at all."

When none of them said anything, I shrugged, went over to Naruto, and sat down, though I didn't really feel that hungry. It was sinking in just how high up the social ladder this really was. A cabinet member like the Minister of Commerce was literally one step beneath the Daimyo in terms of rank and power. There were probably more money in the furnishings here than I'd ever managed to spend in my life, and then some.

"Just… who is this Minister we're meeting, anyway?" I asked in a low voice, a little embarrassed to be asking.

"Really?" said Izanami. "Do you even read the newspapers?"

"I don't," commented Naruto, his mouth full. "Boring as shit."

In truth, I agreed with Naruto. Most of what I got, I got from my dad's comments during breakfast.

"Not the domestic politics sections, no," I said, a little defensively.

Izanami rolled her eyes, saying nothing.

"Minwanabi Masanori's a radical progressive," Kakashi said after a moment from where he stood, his finger tracing the inscription. "He's been making waves talking about reform ever since he ascended to the lordship of House Minwanabi a few years ago when his father died. His house is the force behind the Blue Lotus party, which sits on a small but significant number of committees, and most importantly on the ministry of Commerce—it makes him awfully hard to dislodge for the stodgier types in the Court, since he's got them where it counts: by their purses. And he's probably one of the richest people in the nation, too, on top of that." Kakashi's tone took on a cheery note. "He's not particularly well-liked in the Court, really, but he's very popular with the common folk."

He glanced at me out of the corner of his eye. "Those who've heard of him, anyway."

"I have heard the name before," I said, fighting down an embarrassed blush. "I just didn't know that much about him."

"I'd hope this goes without saying," Kakashi said, "but when he arrives, you three really shouldn't speak unless spoken to first. I'll do the talking."

I nodded meekly. "Alright."

Naruto grumbled assent, and Izanami shrugged.

Soon, I heard several voices come closer. We all turned to look at the door, and I scrambled to my feet, quickly followed by Naruto at my side.

"—Oh, nonsense, Hotaka. Go tell Kanazawai that I'm not building that stupid bridge just for the Daimyo's bloody convenience, and that's final. Maybe I can't keep the procession off my lands, but I'll be damned if I spend millions of Ryo on a useless river crossing when he can just take an extra day going the long way around through the ravine."

The door slid aside to reveal Hotaka, bowing deeply to a man who had to be Minwanabi Masanori, the two of them surrounded by a squad of green-and-blue clad guards and accompanied by another man in finery who stood slightly off to the side. Minwanabi was a tall, hawkish young man, dressed in magnificent green and blue robes of embroidered silk. Green and blue had to be the Minwanabi house colors, from the repetition of the theme.

"As you command, my lord," Hotaka said, and backed away out of sight, his steps quickly disappearing down the corridor.

Several of the guards slipped into the room with their hands on their pommels and eyed us suspiciously, walking around the room and peering into every corner under the watchful eyes of a plumed captain. While they were still halfway through the process, Minwanabi turned from looking after Hotaka and strode inside. The guard captain jumped and stepped aside just in time.

"I hope you didn't wait too long," Minwanabi said to Kakashi.

Kakashi didn't say anything for a moment, as if that wasn't quite what he had expected to hear, then made a deep bow from the waist. "The wait was insignificant."

"Good," said Minwanabi with a smile, then sat down on a pillow across the table from me and Naruto.

The guard captain cleared his throat, and stood straight as a rod. "The area is secure, my lord."

Minwanabi paused halfway through reaching for a platter of spiced apple slices to smile briefly at the guard captain and say, "Thank you, captain."

Well, he seems… different.

The captain nodded stiffly, walked outside and slid the door closed behind him, his silhouette visible as he took up a guard position. Unlike moments before, I couldn't even hear the faintest whisper of his boots on the floor.

Silencing seals, I thought, glancing at the markings Kakashi had studied before, now recognizing them for what they were. Inscribed into wood and made so they can be turned on and off. That's expensive—of course.

The remaining guards distributed themselves to the corners of the room, the transition happening so smoothly that I hardly even noticed it.

"Let us dispense with the formalities," Minwanabi said. "You're not from around here, so there's no need to waste energy on pretense." He gestured at the pillows. "Please, do sit down."

After a moment's hesitation, I sat back down, joined moments later by Naruto, Izanami and Kakashi, and the unnamed man, who sat down beside Minwanabi. I almost jumped as a frosty glass of juice materialized at my elbow, and looked up to spot a woman walking around the table, serving drinks in the most precise way I'd ever seen. As she reached Minwanabi last—there had to be some arcane meaning behind that—he took the glass from her hands as she made to set it down, and took a sip. The woman blinked and hesitated for a moment before she retreated to hover unobtrusively in the corner, looking mildly scandalized.

"I'm honored to meet you, Copy Ninja Kakashi," Minwanabi said as he put down his glass. "And you, Lady Izanami. Your reputation precedes you."

Both Kakashi and Izanami made bows, Izanami's somewhat shallower than Kakashi's.

Minwanabi turned to Naruto. "And I don't believe I know your name."

"It's Naruto," said Naruto, his tone casual.

Minwanabi nodded, then turned to me. "And you?"

"H—Haruno Sakura," I said, and carefully bowed as much as Kakashi had.

"This is Tadao, one of my advisers," Minwanabi said, indicating the man by his side, who made a bow roughly equal to my own.

"It's a great pleasure to meet you," Tadao said, his gaze lingering on Kakashi, and then on Izanami, a faint curiosity in his eyes.

"I do apologize for the delay," Minwanabi said. "The Daimyo convened a Cabinet meeting at short notice, no doubt hoping I would miss the memo. That silly anniversary parade-cum-pilgrimage has the entire Court thrown into disarray."

I perked up a bit. For once, something I'd heard about—the Daimyo was throwing a massive parade in the city to mark the one hundredth anniversary of the founding of the Land of Fire. This would be followed by a procession where he traveled with his entourage to honor his ancestors at the site of the signing of the treaty that had formalized the existence of the nation.

Tadao cleared his throat softly.

"But that's of course not why we're here," Minwanabi said, shooting a quick glance at Tadao. "We're here because I've hired you to help me with a serious issue."

"A kidnapping," Kakashi said.

Minwanabi winced, his posture visibly deflating. "Yes. My daughter, Kensha, disappeared a week ago on her way west to the ancestral Minwanabi estate. Five days ago, I was contacted by people who knew things that only Kensha could have told them. Their terms were simple: I would pay a considerable fee for her return, or she would die. Of the rest of her escort, I was told nothing. I agreed to the terms, of course, and when I heard that Hatake Kakashi's team was available, there was no question whom I should hire."

"May I ask what the fee is?" Kakashi inquired lightly.

"Twenty million ryo."

I choked on my juice.

"You seem to have agreed quite readily," Kakashi said.

Minwanabi made a shooing motion with his hand. "Kensha is family; money is of little consequence." He smiled wanly. "Truly, they could have asked for far more, and my answer would have been the same."

"I'm sorry if my questions seem impolite," Kakashi said, "but isn't this a matter for the Royal Guard? Since you are a member of the Cabinet, it seems they would get involved."

Minwanabi's gaze fell to the table, his expression growing closed. For a long, tense moment, I thought Kakashi had somehow blundered and managed to offend one of the most powerful people in the nation. Then Minwanabi raised his gaze again, and glanced around at the guards.

"Leave us," he said.

They left in stoic silence, the woman who'd served us trailing behind and closing the door after them.

Minwanabi was silent for a small while, before he spoke. "Kensha is not my true daughter. She is a bastard born of the Daimyo and my sister. This is no secret—it is well known at Court, though not spoken of much. Many consider my adoption of Kensha a skillful move in the game, subtly shaming the Daimyo by bringing to light his illicit activities while at the same time having an excellent excuse to do so, as if I could have had no other reason to adopt my niece after my sister died. That, along with my, as the Daimyo puts it, preposterous clamoring for political reform, means that there exists a less than warm relationship between me and his royal highness."

Minwanabi smiled bitterly. "So you see, the reason that the Royal Guard are not handling this is that I do not trust them to. I would use my own guard, if it wasn't for the fact that I'm not sure I can trust them either. The contingent of guards I sent with Kensha should have been enough to prevent this from happening."

There was a silence as we absorbed that.

"The mission documents were vague," Kakashi finally said, his tone delicate. "I don't suppose you know yet who did it?"

I frowned. Why would Kakashi ask that, now? Unless…

Ah, I thought. The kidnappers didn't ask for as high a ransom as they could have. From the sound of it, they didn't even haggle. And if they aren't motivated by money, that leaves only… politics.

Minwanabi shook his head in reply to Kakashi, though his calm, measured gaze as he met Kakashi's eyes spoke volumes. "I couldn't possibly give you a name."

"I understand perfectly," Kakashi said.

"Good." Minwanabi straightened up, putting his hands flat on the table. "The task itself is very simple. You are to escort Tadao to the agreed-upon rendezvous, and ensure that he can make the exchange for Kensha safely." His gaze hardened. "Should things go awry, I expect you to protect Kensha to the best of your abilities, and to exact due retribution upon the guilty party. You're a genin team, if an unusual one, so I can safely say that I have followed the agreement to the letter."

His eyes narrowed, his lips tightening as he looked the three of us over with a more critical eye, as if it only then occurred to him that we might very well end up fighting to protect his daughter's life. It occurred to me that he probably knew this was a bad deal for him, but was going along with it anyway in the hopes of getting his daughter back. He was trusting us to do that for him, trusting Kakashi's reputation.

I swallowed nervously at the sudden feeling of responsibility the thought brought with it. People will die if we screw up. But I suppose that was always on the table.

"That's all there is to say, in the end," Minwanabi said, suddenly sounding weary. "Tadao can fill you in on the rest of the details. Help me get her back."

Kakashi nodded. "We will do our very best."

Minwanabi nodded, his expression pensive. "Then you may leave."

We all stood up, and Tadao walked around the table to join us, smiling calmly. In fact, not once during the entire conversation had I seen him look anything but confident and reserved.

"Don't worry," he said, smiling as if everything would be right in the world. "We'll make sure everything turns out for the best."


As a general rule, reviews make authors happy. As a specific rule, reviews make me ecstatic. Click that button. Write those words on your mind. You know you want to. This is your last chance before you delay, and vacillate, and forget all about doing it at some later point.

Author's note: The Naruto wiki states that the buying power of 1 ryo is roughly that of 10 japanese yen, so 20 million ryo is about equal to $1.9 million.

A map of the whole world is in the works, but don't count on seeing it any time soon. (So far, there's only a glorious rendition drawn over a basic canon map in Paint.) If any of you would like to help with that and are experienced with drawing, especially maps or the like, please contact me and we'll talk about it.

Current story status (updated April 8th): The story has begun picking up the pace again, recently. The next arc (Ignition) is currently being written in full, and once complete, I shall post all of the chapters in relatively quick succession. I am counting on (but do not promise) finishing the next arc sometime during the summer, 2015.

This is probably the last time this end-of-chapter note will change, as In Fire Forged now has a blog, which can be found at infireforged dot wordpress dot com. There you will be able to find things like progress updates on the story and various lore and world-building posts reminiscent of the in character lore blurbs that are sometimes at the beginnings and ends of the chapters.