Disclaimer: They seek him here, they seek him there, those ninja seek him everywhere. Is he in heaven? Or is he in Ibaraki?

That Damned Elusive Uzumaki

(Part three of 'MAW' - 'What If' chapters 20 and 23)

Kimiko groaned in annoyance when the convoy came to a halt. Time to go up and see what the hold up was. It turned out that the bottleneck was a large group of armed civilians blocking entrance to a bridge.

"What's the problem?" she asked calmly. A quick glance confirmed that they weren't any threat, nothing even one of their newly promoted genin couldn't handle.

An old man hobbled to the front. "It's nothing personal, we just get nervous when large well armed groups enter our territory."

"Understandable," she agreed. "Would it help if I told you we weren't planning to stay?"

"It would help if I had some reason to believe you," the old man allowed.

"Why do you have that symbol on your jacket?" a little boy demanded, drawing her attention.

"This one?" Kimiko asked, finger tracing the spiral.

"Yeah!" the boy agreed.

"It's the symbol of Whirlpool and the Uzumaki clan," she explained.

"Are you an Uzumaki?" the old man asked intently.

"No," she replied. "I am traveling on the orders of Uzumaki-sama though."

"What's his first name?" the old man whispered.

"Naruto," she replied. "Why?"

"Describe him for me," the old man persisted.

"About this tall." She held her palm out. "Blond hair, orange outfit, marks on his cheeks."

The whole mood of the crowd changed, looks of grim determination melting into smiles.

"You serve Naruto Uzumaki?"

"Uzumaki-sama rescued us from despair and gave us the will to rebuild our village," she agreed. "When he comes home he will be officially named Uzukage."

"Welcome to Wave," the old man said. A bottle appeared in his hands as if by magic. "If there is anything we can do for you, please don't hesitate to ask."

"Why the sudden change of attitude?" she asked.

"My name is Tazuna, this is my grandson Inari, and this." He waved at the bridge. "Is the Great Naruto Bridge. Named after the hero that saved our country."

One of the new genin, the girl who'd been rescued by Naruto on the first day stepped forward. "Could you tell us about it?"

"I'd be delighted to." The old bridge builder nodded his head. The man turned to look over his men. "Tanaka, go down to the fishing boats and tell them I'm buying half their catch. Kikujiro, start a fire. Everyone else, we're having a festival. You know what to do."

IIIIIIIIII

Junko was an odd sort of nin, one of the few that specialized in diplomacy. Having been plucked from the academy at a young age, she had a relatively poor grasp on some of the flashier ninja skills, but years of training meant she excelled at the more subtle sort. Her usual duty was to accompany her leader when he met with important individuals, to sit at his side and watch for anything that might slip. Another duty was, unfortunately, to act as her leader's voice in situations that were too dangerous or unimportant for the man to attend in person.

She nervously checked her hand mirror one more. Ostensibly to inspect that her makeup was perfect, really to stall and give herself a few more precious seconds of life.

"Do we have eyes on the target?" she asked, voice steady.

"Detected his shadow and went to an open air ramen stand," one of her escort replied. "Owner of the stall is deaf and dumb."

"A relatively public place with a witness that can't witness because they can't listen in," she said with honest admiration. "He really is as good as they say he is."

"The witness could still read lips," the Anbu disagreed.

"He'll use the motion of eating noodles to mask that," Junko said confidently.

IIIIIIIIII

Kamisori Hanzo absolutely hated his life. Granted, he'd obtained a measure of success, much more than some of his fellow refugees, but it was a success that tasted like ashes. He had the misfortune of being the only relatively honest law enforcement officer in Water's capitol, in a department filled with corruption, headed up by his snake of a boss, the most corrupt of them all. At times he wondered if he shouldn't slice open his belly and rejoin the rest of his village.

"Master, are you alright?" one of his underlings demanded.

In a flash, he became aware of the pain in his shins and the weight pressing down on his thighs. A pool of blood was forming beneath him as the stone ridges he was kneeling on broke the skin of his shins. "More weight."

"Master, please, it's enough," his other minion sobbed. "It's too much. Please, don't make us do this to you."

"More weight!" he growled.

Reluctantly, the two men lifted another flat block of stone and carefully placed it on the stack pressing down on his thighs.

IIIIIIIIII

Suzume was late to the meeting, something that was more than a bit surprising considering the change in the woman's attitude after the Uzumaki had come and given the gift of hope to them all.

"They had more stories about Uzumaki-sama than just the bridge," she explained as she took her spot. "It seems Uzumaki-sama is the hero of several countries, at least one of the minor ninja villages, and has a close personal relationship with the current Hokage."

"It's not surprising," Kimiko said. "They're cousins."

"Uzumaki-sama was also instrumental in having her appointed to the position," Suzume continued. "It wasn't just personal power he was gathering, it was political." The woman had tears in her eyes. "He must have dedicated his entire life to rebuilding the village."

"We can do nothing less than follow his example," Yuki said firmly. "To have such dedication at such a young age . . . it's an inspiration," he finished with a wide grin. "I wasn't half as focused when I was twice as old."

"Uzumaki-sama has provided for us in other ways," Kimiko stated. "The village leader, Tazuna has asked about a contract to protect the bridge and the village from bandits."

"What are they willing to pay?" Yuki asked, brushing a few strands of snow white hair out of his eyes.

"On going A-rank according to Konoha's price structure."

"Not what we used to use," Suzume snorted.

"It is what they understand," Yuki pointed out, trying to mollify the woman.

"Who can we spare?" the woman sighed. Suzume slapped her forehead. "That's the wrong way of looking at things. Who do we have that's best able to accomplish the mission?" They needed to rebuild their reputation, no corners could be permitted to be cut.

"How about Kenichi?" Kimiko suggested.

"Him?" Suzume scratched her chin. "Fits," she allowed. "He's been spending all his free time since the village fell designing area defense seals."

"Better he and his team should test them here than on the village anyway," Yuki agreed.

IIIIIIIIII

Junko nodded in relief to herself as she approached the ramen seller's booth to hear her target loudly ordering one of everything. There was no reason to shout at a deaf shopkeeper, so therefore the message was meant for her. One of everything sent a very clear signal, too. It meant all options were on the table, reconciliation as well as open and bloody warfare, and everything in between.

She'd feared worse, and had faced more embittered ninja than one willing to proclaim a chance, even a chance, of peace as an opening remark. A ghost of hope fluttered in her chest.

Too bad she had to squash it ruthlessly. Many ninja, especially of his level, were like cats, wanting to play with their prey a little, pretending to give it chances, before destroying it utterly. Cruelty was in the job description, but some took it the next step and derived pleasure from it. To let herself hope could only lead to her miscalculating the deal she about to sacrifice her life for.

Working hard not to set her shoulders, but to remain relaxed and open, Junko entered what was probably the last scene she would ever see in this life, eyes sweeping the small business.

That ghost of hope gave a second flutter in her chest when she saw him sitting at the bar on a stool. Virtually all ninja in his position would have taken a booth in the back facing the entry, forcing her to approach under his gaze like a supplicant before a daimyo, then her opening move would be to request to join him. A very subtle dominance game, but almost standard. Certainly expected.

To have his back to the door clearly stated he did not fear her, and she shuddered a little at how thoroughly that implied he had evaluated her before she'd even arrived. A chakra sensor, certainly. But also more subtle methods, she felt sure.

But also, anyone could join anyone else on a bar stool. It removed the need for her to approach as a supplicant. If she weren't certain it was a move calculated to put her off balance and lend a false sense of security, she might even call it a friendly gesture.

Junko headed for the stool on his right. As almost all ninja were right handed, she was signaling, by taking a place on his stronger side, that she was under his power for the moment, whereas taking a place at his left would have sent a message about trying to maneuver into his weak spots for control, a more combative message than she wanted to start off with.

She took the open stool without incident, noting what ramen he was eating as she did so. Miso. Neutral, common. Another good sign. A more spicy flavor would have indicated other things.

She was quite happy for the signs he kept sending about not holding grudges.

It could all be a ruse, of course. Junko had read thoroughly all of the reports and information on this man in what time she'd had, and noted the Sound heavy combat teams he'd destroyed had also had no indications whatsoever that things weren't going their way up until the very moment they'd been annihilated.

"One of everything," Junko ordered, saying it both aloud and signaling, paying not a whit of concern for the pile of untouched ramen bowls that would leave at the end. Her care was on meeting the S-rank ninja's gesture with one equally open, to confirm that, yes, all options were indeed on the table.

It wasn't difficult to direct the conversation in the direction of the Hyuuga incident, the Uzumaki was surprisingly easy to talk to and also quite willing to do things in the open. It was almost refreshing in a way. 'Perhaps I'm going to live through this after all?' Junko thought optimistically.

"Speaking hypothetically, Uzumaki-sama, what would Cloud have to do in order to gain forgiveness for their attempt to abduct the Hyuuga clan heiress?"

IIIIIIIIII

Kamisori Hanzo glared at the trash he'd picked up. He was in the middle of a murder investigation and there were indications that the unfortunate scum on his rack knew something.

"I don't know," the man sobbed. "Please, have mercy, I don't know anything!"

"Tighter!" Hanzo ordered, causing his prisoner to scream in pain as his joints separated. "Talk!"

"Master!" one of his minions yelled, entering the room. "Shimizu the Rat is at the back door."

"So?"

"He says he has information for you master," the minion said quickly. "Should I tell him to leave?"

"No. Tell him to meet me in the back garden," Hanzo ordered.

"Yes, master," the minion agreed.

"Keep up the tension while I'm gone," Hanzo told his other minion.

"Yes, master," the man agreed.

Shimizu the rat was a traveling merchant, sometimes thief, and purveyor of information. Hanzo knew he'd only come into town the day before, meaning any information he might have on the murder was second hand at best. He found the man in his garden, standing in the center of the dozen stone Bodhisattva statues he used in his daily exercise routine.

"What do you have for me?" Hanzo demanded, glaring down at his snitch.

"You're from Uzu, aren't you?" Shimizu asked. The man cringed in fear when he saw the large policeman's fist clench and raise. "I've got information about Uzu!" he said quickly.

"What sort of information?" Hanzo demanded, lowering his fist.

"Refugees from all over the elemental countries are going back to rebuild it," Shimizu replied. "They say the Uzukage is traveling around to gather them all."

"What Uzukage?"

"The last main line Uzumaki," Shimizu replied. "S-class nin, considered a hero in nearly every country."

"Get out!" Hanzo ordered.

"What about my fee?" Shimizu demanded. "You said you'd pay for information."

"I said I'd pay for information about crimes, what happened to Uzu was a crime, rebuilding it is not!" Hanzo snapped. He glared at the man for a few moments, before deciding that while he didn't owe him money for the information he did owe him something. "The head of the merchant association in town is cheating on his wife with a priest in the temple of Water. She doesn't know; he's bribing the head priest to keep it quiet."

"That's not enough," Shimizu said.

"He likes to talk when he's finished, the head priest sells what he lets slip but if you go to the northwest corner and have good ears you'll hear everything for free."

"That's enough," Shimizu said with a pleased smile on his face. "I might even owe you some information."

"Know who killed the girl that turned up in the castle moat?"

"As it happens, yes," Shimizu agreed. "Boy named Takeru."

"The head guard's son?"

"Yes. His father put him on the first cargo boat going down river, don't bother going after him."

"Why? It's only been two days, I can catch him before he gets to to the next island if I use one of the fast courier boats."

"He picked the wrong victim. Her uncle paid Mist to deal with the problem."

"You're right, no need for me to do anything," Hanzo said, a satisfied smile on his face. "Do you know if his father's gotten the news yet?"

"I assume the ninja will tell him . . . if they haven't already."

"Probably," Hanzo agreed. The big man turned and walked back into his house and on to his torture room.

"He talked, master," one of the minions reported. "Said it was the head guard's son who murdered the girl."

"Pack up my things," he told one minion. "Go down to the livery stable and buy a wagon big enough to carry them all. Biggest one I can afford if I don't have enough for the size I want."

"Everything, master?" the first minion said dumbly.

"I'm leaving this cesspit," Hanzo explained.

The minions looked at each other. "Master, why don't you take a bath and have a nap while we get to work," the second minion suggested.

"Perhaps you'll change your mind," the first minion agreed. "It's best to sleep on these things."

"I won't change my mind," Hanzo growled.

"Please, master!" the minions threw themselves on the ground and began begging.

"Fine, now get to work!" Hanzo barked.

IIIIIIIIII

The newly promoted Whirlpool genin paused when they noticed activity in the ruins of what they'd been told was their home village. At a loss, they huddled up to decide how to address the situation. After a few minutes, they determined that they'd been sent to assess the condition of the ruins and that finding out who was in them and why clearly fit their mission profile. It was unlikely the older nin would agree, so it was fortunate that none of them were around.

Michiko, a short blonde girl wearing her mother's chipped forehead protector was elected to go in first while her two companions reluctantly held back. The girl walked into the village, noting signs of new construction and that none of the people she saw made a sound when they moved.

"Hi!" she said brightly. "I'm Michiko, a ninja of the Whirlpool!"

"Hello," the nearest one, a nondescript woman, greeted her. "We are a group of humble Whirlpool civilians, repairing the village as is our duty."

"Okay," she agreed, wondering if this was some gag set up by the geezers on the council. "You don't have a problem with us ninja moving back to the village, do you?"

"It is improper for civilians such as us to meddle in the affairs of ninja," the woman stated calmly.

"Right, um, are you sure you're civilians?" Maybe she'd eaten some hallucinogenic plants by mistake?

"Are you the Uzukage!" the woman asked intently, her blank expression becoming focused.

"No, Uzumaki-sama is still traveling the elemental countries gathering refugees and support for the village."

"Ah, in that case, I am definitely an innocent civilian and not secretly a ninja at all."

"Right . . . uh . . ."

"Per our copy of Uzu's standard operating procedures, you are to report to your superiors that a potentially suspicious group of civilians is in the village," the woman said helpfully.

"Really?" Michiko tilted her head. "I don't suppose I could get a copy for myself could I? I don't think any survived the fall of the village so we don't have one."

"You lack a copy of the standard operating procedures?" the strange woman asked, looking sick. "It will take me nearly three hours to complete a copy. I can either give it to the senior nin sent to evaluate us per subsection B, paragraph six, or I can give it to you if and when you return."

"That'd be great," Michiko said, taking that as a sign the strange nin weren't hostile. "Thanks." She turned and began walking back towards her concealed teammates, more than a bit pleased at how well their first independent mission had gone and more than a bit relieved that the strange ninja in the village were someone else's problem.

AN: Something else that I've apparently forgotten to post. Thought I hadn't finished this chapter, turned out it was the next I was in the middle of. In my defense, I've been a bit preoccupied getting ready for an international move for the past couple months.

Polish by dogbertcarroll

Typos by daenerys5539, polychromeknight

Idea by polychromeknight

Scene by polychromeknight