"I'm not going to hide this from you either," the strongest man in all the village said to the young prodigy wearing a white kabuki wolf mask with two red streaks across each cheek, "and as much as I hate to burden you with this, I'm afraid you're the only one I can trust with this mission." He scooched his oak chair back from his mahogany desk with books of laws and bills stacked in high piles waiting to be carried off to other political bodies in the village by secretaries. He walked silently on the carpet wearing his standard white and red long robes and diamond hat with the fiery red symbol of his leadership status in the village on the front for all to see. He looked out the wide window giving him a view of the bright and sunny training fields attached to the back of the compound he lived in, smiling a little at the aspiring youngest among them training diligently for their future. He saw himself in the window as well as the lean young man on the taller side with fair skin and short, spiky silver hair with a face concealed by the mask. "It's a simple premise, but don't underestimate the job."

The young man in the mask leaned against a bookcase on the wall next to the double doors leading into the small but cozy office. "What are we saving Konohagakure from this time, Hokage-sama?"

The Hokage turned around, facing the elite operative with an expression the young man knew too well. "Four months ago, our scouts at the surrounding territory's waterfront noticed battleships from a foreign nation to the Northeast of the Land of Fire, just 450 miles north of the peninsula ports to Kumogakure, it's name literally means 'The Empire.' The men aboard reportedly stuck their own flag into the ground, claiming our land as their own as well."

"Suttle," the agent said bluntly.

The Hokage reached onto the bookshelf and pulled off a scroll, opening it to reveal line after line of detailed reports on the incident. "Those aboard were hostile to our forces and some had to be put down." The Hokage saw the young man fold his arms and he agreed with the sentiment. They were just following orders. "We sent the ship back with most of the crew back to their country of origin, and since then our borders have been assaulted more than forty times. Any token of peace we send is returned."

"They're looking for a fight," the young man said, "have they taken any of our own?"

The Hokage looked down, resenting the invaders. "Four Shinobi on the outskirts died protecting our ports, and three towns were saved from staying frozen."

"Frozen?" the operative said, his interests seemed peaked.

"We don't know if The Empire is run by ice ninjutsu users or by defected ninja from ally villages, but in any case they are not interested in peace. Konohagakure is still recovering from the Nine-Tails attack," the Hokage said, "I need you to travel to this land, discover they are choosing to attack us and report back to me as soon as possible. I have exhausted all democratic methods to reach an understanding with this nation. The next step can only be war, but the village can't sustain intercontinental combat for an extended period of time."

An intel mission was a bit easy for him, although knowing his line of work, his direct interference with diplomatic relations between the two powers wouldn't end pretty. "Is there anything else I need to know about?"

The Hokage turned back toward the window. "Once you gain enough insight as to what we can exploit to deter their war effort or to take them down, send Pakkun back with your findings. You will stay there until I have sent him back with instructions for completing your task. Do whatever is needed to blend in, take every opportunity to learn more about the enemy."

Kakashi understood, although it seemed like it would be a long mission. "How long would I be in The Empire?"

The Hokage scratched his chin, he was an older fellow although his short hair was still brown and his forehead of few wrinkles. "Three months, at least. It's a long time to stay undercover, but this nation has no prior history with us. As much as we have to learn about them, they're no Shinobi village." The Hokage could sense the surprise in the young man's energy, he didn't need to express it. "You are potentially sabotaging the goals of an entire political power. Remember that. You are dismissed, ANBU." He turned around, his years of Shinobi experience boding the natural talent farewell. "And good luck. Your boat leaves tonight at 2100 hundred hours."

Kakashi bowed respectfully and vanished in a cloud of smoke. He reappeared in the center of the village with his mask tucked in the small bag strapped to the thigh of his blue duty suit that had a built-in facemask that covered his mouth and nose. Over the suit he wore his gray flak jacket and blue forehead protector with a steel plate brandishing the village emblem carved in it. The protector was tilted to one side over his left eye. He stuck his fingerless gloved hands into his pockets and kicked up some dirt with his blue sandals. It was a bit of a shock hearing that news, that suddenly he would be across the water for three months. The village center was busy in the evening; everyone was either just leaving work or coming back early, but others were still finishing their afternoon routine. "Hey, Kakashi! Let's go work up a sweat!" a gung-ho voice said from down the dirt path. The silver-haired ninja looked up, watching the bowl-headed picture of youth in a green jumpsuit running toward him.

"Guy, by that you mean jogging and not racing, right?" Kakashi smiled, a slight tilt of the head with the eyes closing and eyebrows arching for anybody that couldn't tell from under the mask, and walked up to him, except the spirit of youth merely started running in place with his winning smile.

"Just jogging," Guy said, "I found this 200 meter stretch of grassland that's going to get turned into a detour around the forest just outside the village, I figured it's the perfect place for a small dash!"

"You said no competition last time," Kakashi said bluntly, folding his arms.

Guy chuckled. "Maybe it looked good for a sprinting race."

"You're impossible," Kakashi said, laughing with his friend. "Actually, I can't today."

Guy threw up his hands. "Ooh, what, big bad ninja man is too good to race?" Guy gave Kakashi his best smile and an optimistic thumb up. "Or maybe you can't handle the power of youth?"

"I'm going to be out of the village for a while," Kakashi said solemnly, making Guy's thick and bushy eyebrows burrow, "and I have just enough time to eat, pack, and make my way to the docks."

"You're leaving?" Guy said curiously. "Where are you going?"

Kakashi tapped his thigh pouch pocket on the mask tucked inside it. Guy knew that sound all too well after hanging out with Kakashi for more than a number of years. "I'm leaving tonight."

Guy's smile faded, his thick brows settling on his forehead in an understanding expression. The risk Kakashi took to keep Konoha safe daily was one Guy could relate to but nowhere near the magnitude of Kakashi. His silver-haired 'cool guy' friend had done things for the greater good that would never seem that way out of context. "I see." Guy gestured down the street as the first wave of people exited multiple service and office establishments on their way home. He punched Kakashi's shoulder and stuck his thumbs in his pockets, walking alongside Kakashi toward their neighborhood. "How long will you be away?"

Kakashi turned down a long, familiar street of apartment buildings reaching nearly the height of the daunting walls surrounding and protecting the village. "Three months, at the least."

"Three months?" Guy exclaimed.

"You'll have to settle with our record of 51 to 49, for now," Kakashi said, walking down a small welcoming path between shrubbery into a white apartment building. Guy followed him inside the flower scented lobby with green staircases leading up.

"No! We will have one challenge tonight to settle the score!" Guy proclaimed with all the fire of his youth. "I have to leave you with something to remember me by!"

"Guy," Kakashi said bluntly, opening the door to his residence, "I'm not dying. We'll have plenty of time to catch up once I get back, alright?"

Guy watched Kakashi enter his dim apartment and stopped the door from slamming on his fingers with an angry frown. "Would you at least want to get some dinner with a friend?"

Guy waited a moment before the door opened again to the cold Shinobi's masked face. "Ichiraku?"

That suggestion warranted a wide, sparkling smile from the spirit of youth. "You got it!"

Kakashi smiled. "Alright then. See you at seven."

"And don't be late this time, I know you," Guy warned before turning toward the staircase. "I have to go, these hamstrings won't stretch them-" The door closed before Guy could finish his statement. "Your downfall, Kakashi! That's one more lunge I can do!"

"If it's a trash-talking competition you want, then you win by default," Kakashi said from behind the door. Guy was a great friend, but he could be overwhelming at times. The young ANBU turned around in his small whirlwind of a studio apartment, quickly packing what he thought he needed for three months in his backpack. He slowly untied his forehead protector and tucked it over his heart under his jacket and swept some silver bangs over the uncovered eye. It didn't do the job entirely, but he thought it would be enough. He wouldn't spend too much time looking someone else in the eyes on this trip, it wasn't part of his job. He sat on the edge of his bed with his stuffed, black backpack and reached toward his bedside table for a small, orange book detailing a man and woman kissing passionately. "Two hours before dinner then an overnight boat ride should give me just enough time to finish this. It's been awhile since I started a new series, maybe it'll get my mind off-" He trailed off as he took a look at the picture in a frame behind the book, of him as a young boy standing with a boy and girl his age all held together by a blonde man with a wide, timeless smile. "Things." Kakashi laid back and cracked upon the book. By the time he sat up, he was half an hour late for his meeting with Guy. He calmly walked to the window three stories above the ground with his backpack on over his sword and book inside and opened the door. "I hope he's not angry," he said, walking with a purpose to a small, traditional Ramen stand with three red seats and a lit lantern on a stand off to the side under the setting evening sky.

Guy had his fist planted firmly in the chair as his own special way of saving it, as the other two were taken already.

"Thanks, Guy," Kakashi said, snapping the Shinobi's attention.

"Only 30 minutes, early to being late?" Guy joked.

Kakashi gestured the smiling cook with his young daughter sitting behind the counter. "Hey Teuchi, Ayame's getting big! I remember when you'd carry her around in that hat!"

The tall, sweaty ramen cook laughed, turning around with a pleasant smile on his face at the innocent little girl wearing a chef's hat too big for her head, happily playing pretend with her dolls on the other side of the food. "Kakashi, good to see you! What'll it be?"

"Miso soup with eggplant," Kakashi said, "put some extra spices in the broth so I'll remember the kick."

Teuchi immediately went to work, his skills with a ramen bowl better than any Shinobi's powers. Unrivaled. "You going somewhere?"

"Yeah, but just for a little while," Kakashi said.

"That might explain why you're so talkative today," Teuchi said, "just don't forget who makes the best noodles when you leave. Have a good trip."

"Thanks," Kakashi said, graciously taking the bowl from the cook himself. Guy watched carefully, waiting to see if he could gaze under the mask. He sighed as the bowl seemed to eat itself. Kakashi was never the type to talk a lot over food, that was one thing he liked about him.

Guy looked over and sniffed, letting the spiciness smack his nostrils. "That's a pretty spicy bowl you got there, how much spice did you put in it?"

Kakashi slowly looked up from his soup and set his chopsticks down on the napkin. He tilted his head back and gripped the table, taking a deep breath. "If I tell you, will you order exactly one unit more spice than this bowl, right here?"

Guy kept a straight face, although Kakashi could tell Guy was struggling keeping his lips from curling up. "No."

Kakashi smiled under the mask and picked up his chopsticks again. "I put in eight spoonfuls."

Guy suppressed his shock under a confident smile. "Teuchi, could I get nine spoonfuls of your black curry spice in my bowl?"

Teuchi locked eyes with Kakashi at first, who advised him to play along with a nod. "You got it!"

Guy received his bowl again, the smell so strong Kakashi had to pinch his nose under the mask. Guy was already tearing up. "That one extra serving must really trigger the kick, but hey, this is gonna taste good!" Kakashi watched calmly as Guy's bright red face darkened several hues as the spice took effect.

Teuchi chuckled at the sweaty Shinobi on the verge of death. "Well? How is it?"

Guy croaked out a few words. "Yup, great." He used all of his willpower to force a smile at Teuchi. He turned to Kakashi and glanced angrily at the empty bowl. "What do you think of that, Kakashi?"

Kakashi shrugged, sliding his bowl forward. "Oh no, you win. 51 to 50 now, yeah?"

Guy slammed his fist on the counter. "Take… this… seriously!" he said, his throat feeling like it was on fire.

"I think I need to train some more before I can get up to your level," Kakashi said, bowing to Teuchi and thanking him for the meal. "You're making it look easy!" He stood up with Guy and chuckled as the bushy browed Shinobi's skin went from red to pink over time. "It's like you're sunburning but backwards."

Guy and Kakashi walked to the gargantuan village gates casting a great protective shadow over those inside the walls in the night. "I'll get you next time," Guy said grumpily, "you don't just give up on the ultimate endeavor of the soul!"

"I just wanted soup," Kakashi said.

"Everything is the ultimate endeavor of the soul!" Guy said. "And that, my friend, is the wisdom I leave to you. Farewell."

Kakashi nodded and went over the gates by running directly up the walls. He leaped over the edges and landed several stories below on the dirt path leading from the village to the rest of the world. He reached the docks and took a medium-sized passenger boat with men of all creeds and nationalities allowing him to blend in perfectly. He made sure to avoid anyone that seemed suspicious- talking meant less time to read, the book was getting good. He found himself below deck in one of the small cabins to himself with the book. It was a little cramped but he found it cozy; the small cot of a bed was pushed up by a small, circular window letting home's starry night sky comfort him with the moonlight that pierced the glass. He slipped his backpack off and put it at the foot of the bed. "I'll read a little then go to bed," he told himself, sitting with his back by the wall next to the window. He reached toward the rickety bedside table and flipped the switch for the caged light bulb above. He flicked it up and down while staring at the bulb, stopping himself before he grew more annoyed. "Oh well. I wouldn't want to waste the whole book by reading it now anyway."

He laid across the bed facing the steel door with one hand resting on the red handle of his katana. He was used to sleeping with one eye open in his line of work. Although his eyes closed, his mind did not, and upon opening them again he was using the moonlight to guide his path as he nosedived into the novel until it faded into the sun's more rousing rays.

He closed the book painfully with half the story remaining and he reluctantly turned toward the sun, squinting and feeling repulsed by its power. "Damn it," he spat under his mask, the sudden jolt of the ship hitting land accompanying his current state of feeling thrown against the wall. He looked in the small mirror opposite the door. "Well," he said, "at least now both my eyes will be red." He gathered his belongings and walked up to the top deck; it was colder here than it would ever get back home and it made him regret wearing short sleeves, but the forests in front of him and the imposing wall to a grand castled Empire upon the horizon all under the bright and welcoming sun on the waterfront let him relax his muscles a bit. Other jobs never welcomed him this grandly, in other cases he'd be swimming to his target. Maybe an entire government as his target granted him better transportation. He walked off the top deck down a long ramp dug into the dirt and figured the dirt path leading into the forests would take him to the capital. He couldn't ask any of the heavily armored guards waiting on the beaches, so he figured he'd start walking and later vanish into the trees. He slipped into a crowd too big for the border watch to count all of them and started his brisk walk down the dirt road for the city on the skyline.

"Wait! Sir! Do! You need me to! Assist?!" a man with a strong voice shouted for him. Kakashi didn't look back and faded into the forests. It didn't take all morning to realize that was a carriage company willing to take him to the capital, rather the third horse-drawn buggy that whisked people to the city walls tens of miles away the same voice that beckoned to him earlier slowed down his horses over the hills with the same power.

Kakashi didn't feel bitter although his feet screamed otherwise as he bounced on the tree branches like a shadow. Better safe than sorry. He followed that buggy as the road began to wind and pass over several guard checkpoints as the city that dwarfed Konohagakure tenfold grew closer with every passing moment. "They take security very seriously for a traveling cart," Kakashi said, flipping over a fork and into the center foliage as a silver streak. "Maybe they're expecting some action from overseas, or maybe civil unrest in the countryside- Whoa!"

His toe hit a branch but the wood snapped as the tree shook violently from a great tremor under the Earth. Kakashi stopped with the buggy but kept an observant eye from the trees. Kakashi gripped his katana in apprehension as the ground split in front of the buggy. The horses reared on their hind legs and neighed for their lives before they were tossed aside by the thick, scaly amber arm of the monster hiding just beneath the surface. Kakashi watched the ground make its way for 20 feet of reptilian humanoid beast with red eyes, horns, and woody spikes going from its long tail to up its back. "Ah! It is! A Danger Beast! From! The mud!" the buggy man shouted, jumping off his cart and hiding behind the gnashing goliath. "Who! Will be there! To help! Us!"

The subterranean "Danger Beast" let out a piercing roar that made the tree Kakashi hold onto quiver. The door to the buggy opened and a spry, young fair-skinned man around Kakashi's age with shoulder length, unruly light brown hair and innocent green eyes leapt out with a European short sword to face the demon. "You don't need to worry, sir! This happens all the time back home!"

Kakashi watched the young man take a sloppy fencing stance, although he did appear from his form to have trained somewhat. He wore leather forearm and shin guards over a yellow sweater and white collared shirt underneath and black jeans with a pair of walking boots, maybe this happened often in the countryside. The young man let out a battle cry and charged the beast.

Kakashi watched the 10-foot vertical leap followed by a slash to the monster's arm from the valiant savior. Blood sprayed onto the mud but the hero showed no mercy, hacking and slashing at the legs with all his might until the creature roared in pain and reared both its arms above his head to smash the puny human. Kakashi's attention, however, shifted toward the road again. "Forget my other guesses," he said, darting across the air and cutting its head off with one clean, silent strike of his blade. He landed on another tree, carefully wiping the blood away and sheathing his blade. He sank into the leaves as guards that looked more metal than man stormed the path to examine the kill. The young man was given accolades for his kill, and it even earned him a brown satchel with some gold coinage. Kakashi slipped over the clamor and continued his ascent up the path, seeing the city limits within a short sprint. He slipped back onto the track and looked up in amazement; the wall he saw all the way from the docks merely protected the castle on the capital's peak. "This place is massive," he said, thinking out loud. He walked up to the outer gates to what looked like a small urban village with cobblestone streets, still taken back by the vast physical reaches of The Empire.

"You're damn right it is," one of four guards blocking the fifteen-foot stone gate said. "You gonna state your business or just keep staring?"

Kakashi could hear the Hokage slap his own forehead. "I came here looking for work."

The guards glanced at each other and back. "You don't look like you're from around here, what's wrong? Your village burning down?"

"Is that what happened to your face?" another chuckled.

Kakashi flickered a frown. "It got cut by the Danger Beast that killed my family."

The laughing stopped and they looked at each other again and back. "Well young man, if you want in, you'll have to pay a welcome tax."

"Oh, come on guys," Kakashi said, hearing another buggy roll up to the gates from behind him. "You and I both know that's bullshit."

One guard simply shrugged. "Oh well. Sorry for your family."

"No! Wait!" a familiar voice shouted from the buggy window. The door opened again to the slayer of the Danger Beasts stepping out. "I'll pay his fee!" He walked up to the guards and put ten gold pieces each in their greedy hands.

The gates almost immediately parted for them and the two warriors strolled into town. It was loud, crowded, and bustling, of all people from all walks of life. It seemed roughly as busy as Konoha's restaurants during the lunch rush at Ichiraku or Shushuya, although there were far less men and women wearing the village's forehead protector. He ran his hand across his chest to make sure he still had his. "Thanks, but you know there was no entrance toll, right?" he asked the green-eyed hero walking next to him.

"Everyone in this capital will know my name," he said confidently, "whether there was a fee or not, it doesn't hurt to start your journey with people liking you." He noticed the red-hilted katana sheathed behind Kakashi's backpack. "You're traveling too, huh? Yeah, you don't look like you're from around here."

"I'm here for work," Kakashi said, repeating the lie he told the guards. "If I can rise through the ranks, I can get the government to pay some attention to my village. It's too poor and keeps getting attacked." Kakashi noticed the excitement in the young man's face.

"Me too, small world!" He extended his hand. "The name's Tatsumi, another country boy looking for fame and fortune in the big city, yeah? Watch out for that, I was told this city has some monsters of its own, but all I need is enough money to feed my village!"

Kakashi returned the gesture, shaking his hand. "Kakashi. It's a pleasure. Is there a recruiting station we can visit?" He hoped he'd get a sense of the military's position if he could get some information from the lower generals.

"I was given directions to the barracks," Tatsumi said, pointing down the road.

Kakashi nodded and walked with the country native, discussing Tatsumi's village and the friends that were supposed to meet him at the rendezvous point a few days ago. "So the capital basically ignores the outer regions of the country, Sayo and Ieyasu come to the capital with you to fix that, and now they're gone?"

"They probably just got here earlier, I just have to find them," Tatsumi said, keeping his excited smile as they approached the small building with a round sword-and-shield banner over the door. "Let's go." Tatsumi whipped the doors open, revealing a small room inside inhabited by two plated guards and a squat man in chainmail sitting at a short desk with a pile of forms.

Kakashi walked up to the desk first. "Hello, we're-"

"Two more applicants?" the officer in the chainmail said, "well, welcome to the capital! Please take a form and fill it out, bring it back within the day."

"Can I ask you some questions about what we would be doing during our tenure under the capital's army?" Kakashi said, although Tatsumi seemed to have less time to waste.

"Forms?" Tatsumi read the starting rank indicated by the paper. "I'd be starting out as a grunt!" Tatsumi slammed his hand on the table. "I don't need forms to get into the army! I'm commanding officer material, let me show you!"

Kakashi hopped back. "What the hell are you doing?"

The officer slid back in his chair. "Guards."

Tatsumi saw a flash of gray and before he could swing his blade he was getting tossed on the street by his face. The guards pointed their lances at Kakashi.

"You too," the officer warned.

Kakashi sighed. He'd find another way to get what he needed to know. "Got it."

He calmly walked out and peeled a fiery Tatsumi off the ground. "Why those-"

"Calm down," Kakashi said, holding his angered peer's shoulders before he got himself killed. "If you charge back in there, you'll only get thrown out again."

Tatsumi pushed past the Shinobi and shouted at the officer staring at him through the door. "Hey! At least gimme a chance!"

"We've had a non-stop stream of applicants during the recession that hit the whole damn country three years ago, you think we can just accept any dumbass that meanders in my station?" the officer shouted back. "You want to die for the Empire? Come back in two weeks after the Emperor announces his plan to pull us out of this mess!"

Maybe Konoha was their way out of hard economic times, Kakashi thought. He remembered the boom Konoha experienced during the last war he lived, and fought, through. "Tatsumi, it's not worth it."

Tatsumi watched the door slam and he let his fists uncoil as he slumped to the ground. "Maybe you're right. I could cause a scene and make a name for myself-"

"How about we not," Kakashi said. "You'll figure something out."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence," Tatsumi said dryly. "What are you going to do now?"

"I'm going to find another recruiting station and get a form," Kakashi said, maybe hoping to try what should have happened earlier again. "It was nice meeting you, Tatsumi."

Tatsumi seemed a little sad at his acquaintance's sudden departure. "Would you want to go together?"

Kakashi couldn't just say no. "I have questions I need to ask, and your needs seem very urgent. I wouldn't want to waste your time." He smiled and started a brisk walk for another directory.

Tatsumi hopped to his feet and ran behind the Shinobi, but a crowd later and the mysterious silver-haired man was gone. Kakashi simply waited in an alley for Tatsumi to pass and emerged again. He continued his walk through the village, bouncing to four more stations until early in the evening and receiving the same information.

"The Emperor is going to announce his 'fiscal solution' in two weeks," he wrote in a small, discreet brown journal, leaning up against a street light illuminating the path between a barracks building and a restaurant, "this has led me to believe the attacks on our fronts have been expeditionary, that they have yet to figure out entirely what they're going to do; overall, the country is mobilizing but they have more bodies than soldiers." His stomach started talking too, and this voice seemed the loudest of them all. He looked toward the restaurant he had just enough foreign currency for across the street. He sighed and answered the call, sitting down at an outside table in the corner of the patio, ordering a meal while filling out one of the forms with a fake name and the capital itself as his place of birth.

"Excuse me, sir and madame, your plate is here," the server said, "although you did not mention she would be joining you tonight."

Kakashi looked up at the golden-eyed blonde with designedly wild shoulder-length hair and fair, radiating skin and a mischievous small smile that had joined him a few minutes ago, simply observing him from across the table. He didn't mind, she didn't know him, and if she did, she'd better strike first. He kept a hand on his thigh pocket still, slowly inching his grasp around a kunai knife or two just in case. "My mistake," Kakashi said, "thank you."

The server tended to the woman's orders, letting Kakashi examine her for a couple of seconds. She wore a tight, black tube top that pressed her considerably large bust together, white, baggy pants, brown shoes and a white scarf around her neck. She seemed like an athletic woman, her physique said so. The server left and the woman set her eyes on the Shinobi again. "Hi there," she said, her voice playful but not childish. "You seemed to be stressed out and not from around here looking for work, and I figured you could use a womanly charm."

Kakashi put down his forms and leaned back into his chair. "I guess when you've lived here long enough, you can tell who isn't from around here."

"You've got that right," she said with a grin, "you seem like a pretty smart guy then, so how about you treat me to dinner and I point you in the right direction to get all the info you need."

Kakashi noticed she said 'info' and not 'job.' His hand edged closer to his kunai blade. "Well, you're already here, so it'd be more rude now if you left."

She covered her mouth when she chuckled. "You're funny, that's cute. Have a name?"

"Tell me yours first," Kakashi said, "so I know who to thank when I'm the best field warrior The Empire will ever see."

"Confidence, I like it. The name's Leone, don't forget it," the golden-eyed woman said, looking up at the arriving platter and gasping in excitement as two frothing glass mugs of beer, shot glasses, and whiskey were slammed onto the table. Kakashi watched in amazement as Leone claimed both cups as hers. "Nothing beats an afternoon drink," she stated, taking a swig of beer and slamming the mug onto the table. "Do you want some?

Kakashi poured himself a small shot glass of whiskey but didn't drink it. "You mentioned you had a source of information for fighting with The Empire. If you wouldn't mind, I would like those details."

Another plate of food snaked its way over to their table for Leone and the blonde quickly took advantage of Kakashi's kindness, chowing down on the meal before Kakashi had taken a bite of his own food. She looked up at the masked man and down at his plate, seeing nothing left. "How do you eat with that mask on? Oh, right, your info." She sat up as the server brought the bill to the table and left it on Kakashi's side. She stood up and pushed her chair in, giving Kakashi a reassuring smile. "Be right back, sit tight, okay?"

Kakashi looked at the brown satchel at her side and recognized it as the satchel of money given to Tatsumi after he killed the Danger Beast. He chuckled. She probably thought she got a meal out of him, but little did she know that her first mistake was letting him know her name. "You got it," he said, watching her walk away victorious. He looked up at the server. "Split the bill, half of it to Miss Leone upon her return." He placed the gold for half the meal on the table, stood up, and left the restaurant. The server rushed after him, but like a phantom, Kakashi seemed to just fade away.

Evening turned into night and the streets had died completely. Kakashi seemed like the only one outside, except for the curious guard here and there.

"Strange," Kakashi said, "I wonder what goes on when the lights go out." He kept walking around, passing into an alleyway when a series of posters caught his eye. He stopped to read them, seeing a picture of a raven-haired woman and a green-haired man side by side. "Akame, Lubbock, Night Raid," he read, but the words following that kept him interested. "Assassins against the royal empire that come out at night to wreak havoc upon the good people of the Empire, stay indoors if you think you have some value of life." He chuckled a little and moved out of the alleyway, sitting up against the building using his backpack as a pillow. "I guess tonight I'll be testing fate."

He waited there for an hour, simply reading and enjoying the silence, however the young woman in the red buggy that stopped on the other side of the street had other plans. Kakashi stood up with one hand over his thigh pouch.

"Can I help you?" Kakashi asked. He could tell by her horses that she was from the bureaucracy, exactly the target of an anti-establishment radical group as depicted on the wanted posters.

The door opened to a petite blonde woman with blue eyes and an innocent, wide smile. "You there! Are you in need of lodging?"

Kakashi smiled. "No, but thank you!"

She wasn't convinced. "You're all alone, out on the streets! Please, let me take you in for the night!"

Kakashi couldn't believe how upfront she was about all of this. "No disrespect, but don't you think randomly picking up strangers in the middle of the night is a bit creepy?"

The young blonde laughed and beckoned him over anyway. "Your friend, Tatsumi, put in a good word for you. I live in the political districts, don't worry!"

The Shinobi wasn't sure if that made him more relaxed or apprehensive. Then again, this was a golden opportunity to learn about the government here. He carefully approached the buggy and stepped inside it, shaking the generous woman's hand. "Thank you so much," he said as the buggy took off at a quick pace. "I apologize for my comments earlier. I can be a bit of a cynic at times."

The blonde in the blue and white dress didn't mind. "Oh, it's no worry at all!"

Kakashi laughed with her and looked out the window, watching the quality of housing increase starkly at the entrance to a small, gated community. Bad distribution of wealth, he reckoned, as they pulled up to a three-story mansion larger than any single house he had ever seen. "Welcome to my father's mansion, he's a member of parliament here. My name is Aria, and yours?"

Kakashi stepped out of the buggy and followed Aria inside the extravagant household. "Kakashi. I'm not from around here."

"Oh! Where are you from?" she asked, leading him up a flight of stairs and into a cozy library with an oak table for tea.

"Far away," Kakashi said under his breath, seeing the brown mop of hair that could only belong to Tatsumi sitting next to a taller, older blonde and a short, stout man in a tan suit with gray hair sipping on tea. "Hey!"

Tatsumi's head perked up and he spun around, smiling at the other young outsider. "Kakashi! I wanted to apologize for messing over our experience with the soldiers today."

"Apologize? I'm thanking you," Kakashi said. "If it wasn't for you, I'd be out on the streets tonight, prime Night Raid prey!"

Tatsumi's expression went cold. "You saw them too?"

"No, but I saw the wanted posters," Kakashi said.

The man of the house scoffed. "Dirty bastards, they are." He looked up and smiled at the young Shinobi. "Please! Have a seat! The butler can fetch you some tea!"

Kakashi sat on the couch with Aria right next to him. The other blonde looked like Aria's mother. "Miss Aria told me you were a politician, so surely you would know something about this 'Night Raid,' yes?"

The parliament member nodded and furrowed his thick brows. "Nasty ones, they are. They think they're fighting corruption and subjugation of the people when they're the reason most people stay indoors after midnight. I've never seen them, but my colleagues have, and they are a blight that must be taken care of. If you're enlisting in the army, be careful of them."

"But for now," Aria cut in as the butler arrived with a platter of wine glasses. "A toast to these young men's military successes!"

Kakashi politely took his glass and touched crystals with the rest of Aria's family. Tatsumi sipped his first, his mind completely undistracted from the six figures darting across the window in the back of the tea room. Kakashi set his glass down and kept watching them bounce closer to the house from tree to tree.

"Oh wow," Tatsumi exclaimed, holding his head. "I must not realize how tired I am."

"That's right, you two," Aria said, standing the visitors up and whisking them through a long hallway to a set of connecting rooms. "Off to bed! You've got big plans for tomorrow!" Kakashi watched Tatsumi stumble through the hall and nearly crash into the doorpost. He eyed Aria with suspicion. He wouldn't be sleeping tonight. She quickly delivered them to their rooms fit with big, comfy beds and white dressers. "If you need anything, I'll be just down the hall!" She closed the main doors but Kakashi opened the connecting door to Tatsumi's room and walked in, standing over the sleeping army hopeful. Kakashi rolled Tatsumi onto his side at the edge of the bed and pushed it up against the wall. He pushed down to hear the bedframe squeak loudly.

"You're not the only one who can set up a trap," the Shinobi said to himself, returning to his room and laying under the covers with his hands fit with kunai knives. What didn't wake him was a sneaky attempt to kidnap him or Tatsumi.

The door crept open to Aria standing with four guards over Kakashi's bed. "You two," she said in a very cold and spiteful tone "extract subject 14. I want to deal with this myself. How dare he call me creepy!"

Another guard kicked down the door. "Miss Aria, it's Night Raid."

Aria seemed to shove that announcement aside. "Take care of them. I have more important matters to attend to."

"Your father gave me orders to take you and the subjects to the workshop until it's over," the same guard responded, grabbing Kakashi by the shoulder. The Shinobi whipped around, throwing his knives through the chinks in their armor at fatal positions. He whipped them back out and stored two of them in his thigh pouch. Aria screamed and fell back, allowing Kakashi to stand unimpeded.

"I don't regret what I said," Kakashi said. Aria screamed for help and darted into Tatsumi's room, shaking him awake. The brunette's eyes slowly cracked open and he sat up, rubbing his

Tatsumi yawned. "Oh hi Kakashi-"

"Night Raid's here, you were drugged," Kakashi said, "I'm going to investigate the 'workshop' one of the guards mentioned, leave this place right now."

"Night Raid's here?" Tatsumi exclaimed, quickly rolling out of bed and slipping on his shoes. He slung his sheathe over his back and drew his sword. "But why? And I was not drugged!"

"The wine had some soft tranquilizer in it, you don't just pass out after two sips!" Kakashi shouted. Aria screamed from downstairs and Tatsumi pushed Kakashi aside.

"Miss Aria!" The noble hero dashed through the halls followed by Kakashi and out the front doors, looking up and pointing his sword at the five shadowy figures silhouetted by the moonlight, floating on glinting strings in the air. Aria had an escort leading her away from the pool of blood quickly growing around the feet of the soldiers attempting to inch any closer to the assassin group.

"Tatsumi, this way!" Aria cried. Tatsumi listened without a second thought and ran; Kakashi stayed behind the guards to watch what was hacking them to pieces and hopped over the crowd of steel to observe from another angle. It was a girl around his age with a slim, curvy figure and long, straight black hair, pale skin, and big red eyes that made her look like she was meant to kill with her long, black blade. She wore a simple black blouse and skirt with white stockings and black shoes that she was surprisingly quick in, darting toward Tatsumi and Aria's position before the Shinobi could land. The remaining guards stepped forward to charge but another assassin, a tank of magic armor with a double-sided lance, had already taken their attention. With masterful and heavy stabs the guards dwindled to zero, and the Shinobi was caught in the crossfire.

"You must be a mercenary," the tank man said, spinning his lance and falling into his fighting stance. "I hate to tell you the bad news, but this'll be your last job."

Kakashi didn't need to end them yet. "I'm not here to fight you, nor the lady with the gun pointed at my collar bone from your drop point, nor your scout hiding in the trees."

The tank scoffed. "You're pretty attentive for a dead man."

"Tatsumi and I were drugged, well, he was, and then you showed up," Kakashi said, "I have no quarrel with you."

"And why should I believe that?" Night Raid's muscle said. "You're just going to tell the authorities anyway."

"Considering how Miss Aria was going to kill us in some fashion," Kakashi said, "I couldn't care less."

"Sounds kinda bullshit from a guy with two knives in his hands, doesn't it?" the armored mountain said, charging the man in silver.

"I don't have time for this," Kakashi said, hopping back while performing a quick series of hand signs. He put his hands together for the final sign. "Earth-Style Wall!" he exclaimed, using an intangible and terrifying force to raise a sheet of mud and rock twenty feet into the air. Kakashi reached into his thigh pouch and pulled out a red paper slip with a bright yellow warning on both sides. He wrapped it around a kunai and whipped it at the base of the rock formation as the steel ox barreled through it with his lance.

"No escape!" the assassin shouted, stepping on the knife dug into the ground. He looked down and jumped just before the tag swallowed him in blinding fire, although he failed to protect himself in the air. Kakashi grabbed him by the ankles and turned him upside down. He wrapped his arms around the assassin's legs and spun, driving him headfirst into the dirt. The Shinobi landed on his feet and darted to Tatsumi's location, although it seemed like most of the fighting had ended. The workshop had been opened, and the smell of hundreds of rotting corpses paled in comparison to the sight, the blood, the gore, the torture. He wasn't fazed, but the sight and smell, after seeing enough of it, disturbed him that it was no longer disturbing. Aria laid dead on the ground, blue eyes stricken with fear as her life came to an end. Tatsumi rested on one knee clutching the left side of his chest, while the raven-haired assassin watched him next to a very familiar blonde.

"Tatsumi!" Kakashi shouted, turning the attention of the two assassins in front of his acquaintance.

The blonde turned around, smiling widely at the young man running her way. She looked different than before, with longer, wavier hair, a pair of cat-like ears, and sharp claws instead of squared nails. "Oh, hey you!" Leone said, her partner now turning to face him. He noticed her sword lacked any fresh blood but Tatsumi's did. Tatsumi fell onto his hands, his arms shaking from his body trying to kill a potent toxin.

Kakashi rushed past the assassins to Tatsumi's side, feeling his neck and forehead. "Fast heart rate, hyperventilation, fever and yellowing of the eyes," he said, "that drug in the drink was meant to kill him."

Tatsumi coughed up a mouthful of blood onto the mud. "Aria killed my friends," he said bitterly and hoarse, and now she's paid for it. Akame found the antidote in Aria's blouse, I just have to wait for it to kick in. I'll be fine."

Kakashi turned to Leone and Akame. "He'll still need water if he's going to make it through the night."

"We have plenty in the compound," Akame said, turning from the two visitors with Leone following suit. "Come."

Kakashi helped stand Tatsumi on his feet. "Where and why?"

"Bulat's still stuck in the mud and Tatsumi over here just offed a chunk of the bureaucracy," Akame said. "I think our boss would like to have a word with Tatsumi, and you especially."

Kakashi scowled. "We're not going to join your assassin group."

"You don't have to join," Leone said, "but we have water for Tatsumi and we have bedrooms where people aren't trying to kill you." The sound of horses galloping toward their location made time of the essence. "Your choice, either rot in jail or come with us, for Tatsumi's sake."

Kakashi felt Tatsumi's body go slack as he passed out on his shoulder. He turned back toward the house, watching Bulat slowly walk toward him with the lance, his helmet still caked with mud. "Guys, we better get going or else we're gonna have to start thinking about break-out plans."

"Damn it," Kakashi cursed under his breath, although if they're actively fighting the government, this could prove a good situation for intel.

"Good!" Leone said, wrapping her arm around Kakashi's neck and hugging him from the side. "I think we're going to make good friends, all of us."

Leone and Akame leapt onto the rooftops as more soldiers surrounded the house and leapt again overhead and into the forests. Kakashi reluctantly followed them with Tatsumi on his shoulder as the rest of the assassin group formed ranks in front of him. Kakashi glanced back, seeing the pools of blood around the house that they had left and looked again, seeing the dark, dense foliage of the trees. "The Third's not going to like this."