Thanks go to Griever, MageOhki, Cornuthaum, Vasey, Skelethin and the people on TFF. You know who you all are.

Edited by Skelethin

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto.

The Art of the Deal

Chapter 4

"The parade of illusions."

"The operation in the eastern sector was a success, however there are some stragglers, my lady."

Anko frowned, tapping the folder thoughtfully.

"Do they have any support, Kobayashi?" She asked finally.

"Outwardly it does not look so, however..." The SecOps captain hesitated. "there are some... worrisome signs that might point to that, Setsuna-sama."

Anko raised an eyebrow.

"Their training cannot compare to a ninja but... there is a lot of them. Far too many for a simple bandit group. Also, their weaponry and equipment look a little too good for an ordinary ragtag bandit lot." The man looked at his subordinates briefly, who nodded. "They are organized. Not well, but..."

"Mercenaries." Anko frowned thoughtfully. "I want you to monitor them closely, cut them down a little if they get out of hand, but that's not a priority. Find who is paying them, Kobayashi."

The captain nodded.

"Shall I eliminate the source as well?"

"No. Your mission is to find them. Quietly." The golden eyes gazed at the officer. "No unnecessary noise, Kobayashi. Gather the intelligence covertly and without alerting them to our presence. Do not fail me, captain."

"As you wish, my lady."

"I will take care of the rest." The golden eyes narrowed. "It seems that the last lesson was not enough. This transgression will not be tolerated. Whoever is sending those idiots will pay."

Kobayashi bowed, followed by his subordinates.

Sending the SecOps teams would be a quick and efficient way of dealing with a problem and many would do so. But Kobayashi knew that Setsuna-sama was not 'everybody'.

After all, SecOps shinobi would just kill the targets.

Whoever was foolish enough to meddle in Ginsen's business would soon learn a very harsh lesson, of that the Kokuen jounin was very sure.

"Anything else?" Anko got up, two young kunoichi in the unassuming office dresses quietly gathering the folders on her desk.

"No, Setsuna-sama."

The golden eyed kunoichi nodded.

"Keep me posted on the situation. Also..." she tapped her cheek. "Asuka." One of the kunoichi, a nice blonde haired girl looked at her mistress.

"Yes, Setsuna-sama?"

"There is a small matter I want you to take care of. One of the borderland nobles, Takemistsu Chomei, has a daughter. Her name is Kumiko, I believe."

Asuka nodded.

She remembered the girl, she had been on the last festival in the River Country capital that Asuka had been to as Setsuna-sama's attendant.

"She had been boasting of the... favor she believes she has gained in Nagi-sama's eyes." The golden eyes rested on Asuka. "Indeed, she seems to harbor some quaint delusions. I want you to pay her a little visit and remind her that it is not nice for a young lady of her breeding to lie. Especially when that lie involves Nagi-sama." Anko cocked an eyebrow. "Don't you agree, Asuka?"

"Indeed, Setsuna-sama." The blonde said coolly. "I shall endeavor to impart that simple truth to her."

"Good." Anko nodded with satisfaction, turning to the exit, before stopping. "Asuka?"

The kunoichi looked at her lady.

"Kumiko is quite a beauty, isn't she? The long, black hair, pale skin... Yes. Very nice."

Asuka nodded.

"She is one of the prettiest women in River Country, Setsuna-sama." She said neutrally.

"It would be such a shame to let this beauty go to waste... don't you think, Asuka-chan?" Anko tapped her hip with a fan thoughtfully.

"Indeed, Setsua-sama."

"Good girl." Anko smirked. "Carry on, carry on."

"I live to serve, Setsuna-sama." Asuka covered her small smirk with a bow.

"Greetings, Setsuna-sama." The security guards bowed, letting her through.

"Morning Sanji. Takeshi."

Anko nodded, noticing how the two shinobi straightened a little more with satisfaction.

Learning the names of all of the SecOps and ordinary security staff usually in the Tower was a bitch, but well worth it. Such a small thing, but calling a man by his name made them feel more valued. Noticed. A small cog in the large machine, but one that mattered. It went a long way, as she found quickly. Who knew how her life would have gone if she had such encouragment back then?

She nodded to the staff, passing through, receiving greetings and responding to them with a small smile, a wave of a fan or a simple nod.

Sure, she could play the aloof bitch. She sometimes did. She played the crazy bitch... well, not that she needed to play all that much, really. She kept fear. She kept intimidation. But these were her subordinates. A small word here. An encouragement there... Small things.

Small things that built up to the bigger things.

'The devil is in the details.' She thought walking through her tower with an inward smirk.

Her tower.

'Heh. Possessive, possessive, Anko-chan. Oh yes.'

But then it was her tower. Hers and Naruto's. The brat made it clear - Ginsen was not just his - it was Anko's as well. Or should it be Setsuna's?

'Bah. Deep cover can be so fucking confusing at times.' She smirked. 'But then, it is so damn amusing.'

Ginsen made money. Ginsen made a lot of money and kept making even more with each passing month. But that, as nice as it was, was minor. Most people might think that playing a bodyguard to merchant would be boring, but then most people weren't Mitarashi Anko, and Ginsen was no simple trading company. Not with Anko there to help in leading it.

'Me helping to lead a major corporation. Shit, Kurenai would have a heart attack.' Anko smirked inwardly as she walked through the corridors. 'That, or laugh herself stupid. The noisy little Anko-chan deciding the fate of a country. And here Konoha never even gave me a chance to lead some third rate troops.' She scoffed.

Truth to be told, she surprised herself. She knew she was better than what most people thought - Orochimaru's lessons, damn him, weren't wasted on her. Rusty and in slow decline, but the very moment things started to pick up with the whole business thing, Anko suddenly had a use for those half-forgotten bits and pieces. And she not only used to them to simply survive - she thrived.

Sure, she didn't take care of some of the more boring aspects of the administration, but she helped. No matter how bright Naruto was, the first year was thirty percent brains, twenty percent bluff and fifty percent sheer guts and audacity.

Now, after almost three years in the business, she doubted Naruto even realized just how brilliant move he had made setting up in River. In any other major country, the competition would eat him alive in the beginning and some of the things they pulled would never fly. Here, they were free to secure their power base without too much trouble. It was a hole, after all, and since Suna and Konoha had such a close alliance treaty, its position as a buffer country was of little importance. The lack of any real value made both countries dismissive towards the poor little hind end of nowhere. No ninja, no political power, no money.

And no noisy hidden villages, no large rival companies, no powerful nobles.

Despite its image, Anko knew very well that Ginsen's rise to power came not only from the unique goods, fair prices and their trading with Wind. Money gave all sorts of power, especially in a poor and corrupted country where only fishes didn't take. Despite playing the sexy bodyguard, she didn't complain about the lack of work then or now. Naruto was inches from backing out when Anko told him of the first assassination, but it was done and she played it straight with him. Their competitors, the uppity nobles and the yaks among them, didn't play nice - they couldn't afford to either. Fortunately, Anko was an excellent assassin and this or that greedy merchant already tried to kill Saito Nagi by then.

The kid was tough, she had to give him that. Though how much of that was his own nature and how much her own little lessons and the cutthroat nature of the whole game... Because it was a game and Anko hated losing, as did Naruto.

She nodded to Yuna and Maho, the second pair of her kunoichi secretaries (not that all that many people knew them to be kunoichi in the first place), taking the folders from their hands.

The women bowed, walking away as Anko passed the seemingly unguarded doors.

She knew it was false, of course. A team of SecOps elites was stationed on the top floor at all times, not to mention that every person in the staff of the home wing was a shinobi. Taki wouldn't allow any civilians without a security clearance working around her lord.

Anko smirked.

Incidentally, almost all of the Kokuen shinobi staffed there were kunoichi, none older than thirty, if all good at their jobs. In her own way, Anko knew that it was the majordomo expressing her disapproval of Nagi's 'stressed' life without any chance to relax.

'Now, should I call her a mother hen or a kunoichi pimp?' Anko chuckled under her breath.

She swept her hand over the small seal over the door to Naruto's private room.

It was a nice little thing, her own creation and one of the more advanced seals in her arsenal - one of the few she didn't learn how to make from Orochimaru. It was, in essence, a lock. When Naruto had it engaged, like now, nothing short of a high level jutsu or completely shattering the door would open it. Unless one had a chakra pattern that was programmed into the seal.

She didn't bother knocking as she entered Naruto's secondary office. Contrary to his moloch of a room he had for official occasions, this one was more modest and far more cluttered. The desk was positively huge and usually strewn with papers, like now.

Anko raised an eyebrow at the piles of books, scrolls, sealing tags - some even working - maps and other bits and pieces of the mess.

"Busy, aren't you?" she smirked, sweeping some papers to the side and sitting on the desk. Naruto was sitting in his large, comfortable chair staring at a large map. It was a representation of the whole region, as well as several countries around it, all covered in pins, hand-added notes and signs in Naruto's scrawl as well as countless arrows, lines and other such marks in various shades of ink.

Naruto, in his Nagi guise, was staring at it without blinking or moving a muscle, only his breathing indicating that he was still alive.

Anko had seen this map before, though never in such a state of disarray. She had an almost identical one in her own office, frequently updated with intelligence reports from their spies.

The most of the symbols she recognized, through some she had no idea of. Especially the question marks over some countries and cities, particularly the ones in Rock, Cloud and, oddly enough, Konoha.

Wind also had some odd cross-like signs with letters and numbers that she only after some time recognized as the income they had from their ventures in them.

"What are you doing?" She asked curiously.

Naruto kept staring at the map, before cursing and rubbing his eyes tiredly.

"I don't see it. I know it's there but I can't see it." He muttered. "What the hell is wrong with this picture? I know I know I KNOW but..." he slammed his forehead on the desk. "DAMMIT! Where the HELL is it?!"

Anko blinked.

"And you've got mental... when?" She asked finally before frowning and grabbing Naruto's face.

Even in his Nagi guise, the paleness was visible (Anko found that Naruto's odd influence on Shouken made it follow the pattern of his own skin and body perfectly) and his blue eyes were almost completely bloodshot.

She threw a look at his rumpled clothes and a large number of empty coffee cups and the stack of energy bars.

"When was the last time you had any sleep?" She asked suspiciously.

Naruto blinked owlishly.

"What day is it?" He asked finally.

"Thursday. Eleven in the morning."

Naruto frowned.

"Thursday... hmm... I had some sleep on... Tuesday. I think." The blond nodded. "Yeah. I remember I fell asleep for a bit. Bloody annoying, that." He scowled. "Threw me off my rhythm. Remind me to hire some guys who can make better coffee. This shit can't keep me awake enough."

Anko looked into one of the fuller cups, noticing the almost solid state of the sludge in there, despite still being warm.

"Yeah. Riiiiight." She scowled. "You want to kill yourself or something?"

"Or something." Naruto muttered, rubbing his temples.

"What have you done to that map anyway?" Anko asked. "Geeez... it has more colors than the rainbow now. I can barely make it out. What is all that for?"

"I've been trying to find something." Naruto sighed, leaning back in his chair. "But I can't. Dammit."

Anko raised an eyebrow.

"A friend of mine... remember the guy I told you about?"

Anko nodded. Naruto told her of the lessons give to him by that odd stranger.

"Well, before he left he told me something. 'Follow the money.'" He grimaced. "I didn't get it then, I thought he said that about working for cash, but now I understand what he wanted to teach me. All that stuff... countries, companies, people... even noble families, have cash flowing. It goes from one place to another, making waves. Making connections. I'm trying to find them."

Anko looked at the map with a frown for a moment, before turning back to Naruto.

"It's not only money, you know. Military, status, politics..." she pointed out.

"Which all involves money somehow." Naruto rolled his eyes.

Anko shrugged.

"Don't our spies give you enough data?"

"Yeah, but it's not about that." Naruto sighed. "It hit me when I started to compare some reports about our smaller operations, those outside of River." He rubbed his chin. "I can't name it, I can't call it, can't grasp it but... there is something there that doesn't fit. It's like..." Naruto deflated. "Eh. I'll get it somehow. Some way. But another thing..." He pointed at the large red points. "is this."

"Wave... and Tea Count-... Ah. The Omora Clan." She nodded.

"Wave is not just Wave, but Gato." Naruto sighed, rubbing his temples. "Gato is a given. That bastard is none too pleased by our constant refusals and the lost business. The Omora family, now they are pain in the ass as you well know. They've been blocking us like idiots. They could profit from it, but they would sooner die than see an 'upstart' there, goddamn cowardly hardliners."

"We can't use any type of pressure." Anko muttered. "The Tea Country has numerous treaties with Fire and the Omora Clan is damn powerful, they won't budge. Can't we bribe them with something?"

"They'd take the money and backstab us at the earliest opportunity." Naruto snorted. "No. The Omora family has to go somehow."

"We can't afford an hostily war with them. Or a covert one." Anko grimaced. "They are rich, nobility... Ginsen's grasp is here, in the River - so far, we aren't quite up to the snuff anywhere else, save maybe Wind."

"I KNOW." Naruto growled, grinding his teeth. "I just can't believe they... ARRGHH!"

"Calm, brat." Anko tapped his forehead. "We are getting more power and money by the day, but it will take time. Years. This isn't some poor, corrupt backwards end of nowhere, like this place."

"Yeah, yeah... so you say. Dammit." Naruto tubbed his temples. "Why does it all have to be so damn complicated...?"

"Things are starting to thicken." The kunoichi shrugged. "So far, we had mostly smooth sailing, because we had the money when people here had not. It's been easy so far. Now the trouble is going to really start."

"I get it, I get it!" The blond thew his hands up in exasperation.

"By the way..." The woman frowned. "You need to stop looking out the borders so much. We still have enough problems here."

"Chomei?" Naruto snorted. "Yes, I heard. Bastard. He gets fat on my money and he starts to get uppity. Son of a bitch...!" The blond grumbled moodily.

"Chomei is just the tip of the iceberg." Anko warned. "The nobles are starting to get used to Ginsen and familiarity breeds contempt."

Naruto blinked.

"They get used to the money, used to the luxury. And now they want power." The kunoichi explained with a sigh. "So far, they just prod, but..."

Naruto groaned.

"...oh shit... again? What are they, stupid?" He slammed his head on the desk. "Didn't we have it once with the yaks?"

"This is far more dangerous, Naruto. You keep on neglecting them - you can't. They can't either. It is all the matter of face, of power and such stuff. They won't let go."

"I get it." The blond murmured tiredly. "Bastards! Why can't they give me a fucking BREATHER once in a while?! It is ALWAYS something!"

"You made Ginsen an integral part of the local economy, brazenly pushed money where there was none, all but threw your power around and you expect them to just smile and nod?" Anko tapped his head again. "Get real. You are a merchant with more money and power than them and they know it. Worse - everybody else knows it too."

"That was YOUR idea." He glared. "You told me it would shut them up!"

"For a time, yeah." Anko nodded. "But you just left it alone after that. That's not the way. They need to get their show, and need to be shown. Or they will start to scheme."

"They'll do it regardless!" Naruto snarled. "I'm not stupid, you know!"

"No. But you're young, and you have no idea how this all goes together. Not yet." Anko said brutally. "Get a grip, Naruto. You can't just get a bright idea and fly with it, for god's sake. It was good when we started, when all we needed was to swindle the deal and close the mouths with some cash. Now this thing is BIG, and we don't just trade. We have ninja, we have employees, we have a city to look after - those are the obvious signs of power. All in one. Single. Hand. Yours."

She sat on the desk, crossing her legs comfortably and propping her elbow on one of the stacks of papers - some intelligence reports, from what she saw.

"And they don't know you. You don't go out there, you don't mingle, you don't show off like any normal trader who makes money does. Like you're too good for them, like you're plotting something. They are afraid, curious and greedy. A bad combination."

"I can't. Dammit, you know that." Naruto rubbed his forehead with frustration. "I can't, I don't-"

"Yes, you do." The kunoichi said calmly. "You have to. So far, you have dealt with them at arm's length, and that's making them afraid. Good for some kind of a warlord, but you ain't. You're a businessman. You must make connections, to make your presence known or soon this place will be rife with corruption, scheming and we'll have trouble on our head that will set us back years."

Naruto glared.

"I hate you." He said petulantly.

"Aww, you know you love me, brat." She patted his head with a grin.

"So... mingle. Dammit." He leaned back in his chair.

He didn't want to. For him, the ideal solution was to just make money, get his company to be richer and stay out of that pit of vipers. That's why he had chosen Ginsen Tenshu. Later... maybe. Not now. If he was discovered, if he slipped up if he-

"You can't avoid it forever. The time to act is now." Anko said forcefully. "If we don't do something now, they will start to doubt. More, they will start to get greedier and power hungry - far more than usual. You saw that the last time, during the negotiations, didn't you? They are getting bolder. They need to buy the illusion that it all goes as they want to - even if they know who holds the purse strings. The face is important for these noble fucks, and you've been basically insulting them, the entire court and the local daimyo by acting how you did until now. We're getting too big just to be ignored and passed over, not anymore. Not when we have relations with Sunagakure, not when we have our own security force that basically tells the magistrates to fuck off and stay out, even if politely."

"Not like they know we have a clan worth of ninja." Muttered Naruto. "Though that would freak them out."

"Yeah. However, one or two nins as security they can swallow. A contingent of them, all armed and armored in a way that looks disturbingly like ANBU, even if they aren't all that visible?" Anko rolled her eyes. "Wake up, brat. No one's that naive."

"We needed them, you said so yourself!"

"Yes, because it keeps others from fucking with us - trust me, there'd be far more trouble from our competitors, nobles, and yaks and all kinds of trash if we didn't. But we must take the good with the bad. You've been ignoring that, and now it's time to stop."

The blond pinched the bridge of his nose.

"Damn... it is all so complicated." He muttered.

"I know." Anko nodded, not a small amount of pity in her eyes. "But you started this, we must pull it together and start thinking bigger, or we can pack the bags and go home."

"Home?" Naruto gave her a wry smile. "Where is that?"

Anko blinked, before frowning thoughtfully.

"Here I am, and here I will stand." Naruto's eyes narrowed. "If they don't like that, well too fucking bad! I'll go forward if they want to or not!"

The kunoichi chuckled, jumping off the desk in a gracefully sinuous move that always left him amazed that the woman - no, that a human - could move like that. Like a snake - sinuous, rapid and oh so fluid...

"Well now, seems like the brat is all fired up!" She gave him that familiar cocky grin, before bowing mockingly. "Your orders, my master?"

"Cut that shit out." Naruto said with embarrassment.

"Ooh, is the great Nagi-Sama troubled by the presence of his servant?" She smirked. "Am I giving my most honorable master a... hard time?"

"...fuck you." Naruto grumbled, looking away. She still managed to get to him, after all those years. Damnable woman.

"In your dreams. Every night." She cackled.

"In yours rather, you shotacon." He said flatly.

"Oooh. Testy, testy." She tsked. "Growing claws now? Maybe growing some balls, too, hmm?"

"I can't win, can I?" Naruto sighed.

"Nope. No way, no how brat." She said gleefully, before unsealing a small scroll. "By the way." She put it on the desk.

"Huh?" The blond peered at it. "Looks kinda official but not ours. So what can it-" He paused his reading, before scowling. "Oh HELL no!"

"Remember what I told you. The face and the appearance." She tapped the scroll. "This is ideal."

"This thing is a PARTY!" He glared at her. "Do you have any idea how many nobles with unattached daughters, cousins, noble-born jihi or even young widows will be there?"

"So?" She shrugged. "You've endured before."

"One at a time, yeah. This will be like... like...!" Naruto shuddered. "An assault, or something!"

"I'd be more worried about the other guests. Some of them did try to assassinate you before and some really don't like us all that much." She smiled cheerfully. "And those at least we know. Sycophants, businessmen wishing to curry favors, nobles with their agendas..."

"Please." Naruto groaned, slumping. "Just kill me now."

"No can do." Anko patted him. "Life's a bitch."

"Yeah, sort of like you." Naruto said darkly.

Anko only smirked, walking out with a cheerful wave.

"She doesn't need to look so damn smug about it." The blond complained to the empty room. "Bitch." He muttered petulantly, grabbing one of the folders.

The stress wasn't going to kill him, the sleepless nights weren't going to harm him - hell, the assassins weren't going to so much as nick him. No. What would eventually kill him would be the paperwork, He just knew it. One day, his servants would find him chocked ro death by the ever-growing mountain of paperwork, each sheet bearing the nice and neat silver fan seal.

With a tired sigh, the blond leaned over the papers yet again, only to stop half way.

"I'm not taking you." He said, glaring accusingly at the scroll. "No matter what she thinks. You are trouble!"

The scroll laid there, the faint gold engravings on the edges, extravagant and far from tasteful. Oh, for some it would be tasteful enough, but he knew well they weren't. In their own way, they were gaudy. Loud, rich, the sort of 'look at me - I have the money!' in your face gaudy. Not something a nobleman, no matter the rank, would send.

But one of the merchant lords, those rich, common men who used every opportunity to flex their financial muscles and buy what they didn't have from birth... oh yes. He didn't understand before. When the life was simpler and gold was gold, cool was cool and a scroll was just a scroll. But now he had to. Over the years of Ginsen's existence, he had learned, or was taught rather. Anko spent almost all her time around him - teaching, mocking, helping and infuriating him. All to push and prod him to action.

He wasn't stupid - after all those negotiations, those smiling men and women who'd like nothing more than to bleed him dry and play him for a fool, he had learned to be as much of a shark as they were. Sure, he lacked experience, but he had Anko, the money and the absolute refusal to back down even an inch. It cost him at times, but in a place like River, it helped. His word was his bond - Ginsen's bond. It was respected, it meant something. Like that time he made that deal with the minor daimyo in Wind - he had sworn the cargo would be by in two months and he had kept his word. Regardless of the conditions that made him lose half of the invested money and, basically, had none of the expected gain and plenty of loss.

But he had given his word, dammit - he wouldn't break it for anyone. And without his goods, the drought would be far more costly than it was - people died in droves as it were. Potatoes, stored in the newly built silos, saved the day once again. Honestly - without them and the soy 'meat', Ginsen would have crumbled several times over. They netted the huge initial gains and allowed for a rapid expansion. Still...

Naruto grimaced, leaning on his chair and staring at the ceiling.

The last few years were profitable. Fun, even. He let the wheel turn, introducing idea after idea, some thanks to that obsolete, yellow paged cookbook he had Anko nick from the Konoha library. Potatoes led to vodka - it was surprising how well alcohol that was not sake sold in some places, especially considering how cheap it was. Vodka was becoming a staple at the parties in Suna, a 'man's drink' as it was referred to.

Hell, the traders from Rock, usually steadfastly opposed to anything of Suna origins, had apparently managed to sneak some bottles over the border and it had been slowly gaining recognition there ever since. Mixers and cocktails were Anko's idea - the sort of companion to the stark, dry vodka that was as harsh as it was powerful. The juices, exotic spices and careful addition of vodka - it was a surprising success.

Softer, offering the variations of taste - like the most of the more luxurious commodities, it sold exceedingly well in Wind, and it was a favorite among both the noblewomen and geisha alike. He could thank the Kokuen Clan for that - it was apparently their choice and a nod towards Ginsen, made in their own, odd way. He was surprised just how much of the houses had courtesans and geisha - some even Tayuu! - that had undeniably both Kokuen and Kunoichi roots.

River was a hotbed for the, undeniably minor, activity of the dispossessed clans. Anko alternated between cackling like a madwoman and jumping around like a little girl in a candy store when she finally grasped the scope and numbers she could crunch regarding the masterless peasant nins that survived day-to-day in the bitter reality dominated by the ninja villages. Oh, it was no army - their numbers were relatively small, they often lacked the modern training, yes. However, those were still shinobi and for a growing company that desperately needed all the power it could grab they were an ideal resource, if one has the money to use it and enough goodwill with them. He knew that she was scheming something to swindle a larger budget - what for, he had no idea. But so far, they lacked the funds for it. So far.

He scowled, glaring at the papers.

As miraculous as the Ginsen's rise was, Anko was right. He wanted too much, too fast. River was River - it was poor, and once the money from Wind started pouring in, they came pouring through one channel - Ginsen. He wasn't so naive - things he did wouldn't fly nearly so well in other countries. Gato already was a problem, and so far it was just in regards to shipments. As loathe as he was to admit it, Anko was once again spot on - it was too early to expand so far. The Omora Clan was an example - they burned him once already. If he tried to do it again, the consequences would be... well, not something he wanted to think about.

Oh he had the money, yes. But so far, he was just one of many, and he needed more if he wanted to play on that level.

The fact those damn stupid idiots of most noble and ancient poorhouses tried to swindle whatever scraps they could from him certainly wasn't helping. The fact that there was power that could go above money, or rather... sideways to it, wasn't helping at all. Damn politics.

"Yes, that's you. You just sit there, you hear me?" He muttered, pointing at the scroll accusingly.

Still, as much as he didn't want to... So far he was just an anonymous face, the guy who kept on making money, kami knows where from and kami knows what for. Sure, people around here knew him well enough. Well, as well enough as they could, which wasn't really much... Okay, save for the tower, they knew jack shit.


He knew what Anko was trying to say - she didn't spend those last few years hammering the ways to read opponents into his skull for naught. It was just... In the Tower, he had the control. He could plan, he could control the environment and he had Anko if he slipped up. Out there? One slip up, and this whole carefully planned spectacle would turn into a farce that would knock Ginsen down, and him with it.

He and Anko molded Nagi, made him what he was. A commanding, ruthless and smart businessman. Young, somewhat naive and a little prone to flights of fancy - Naruto really didn't want those guys in Ijiru to starve. He'd been hungry once or twice - he couldn't imagine people dying from hunger just because a drought came by and destroyed the already meager crops of that province.

Seeing all those people with their bony, hungry faces, starved children who sat or slept in the shade, their limbs so impossibly thin... It gave him nightmares still. Damn, he'd been to that place before, more than once too. Kamojima-san had been an early trade partner and a friend and Rika was just a six year old little girl! Sure, it cost him. Damn, but it cost him, especially since those blasted bastards of his competitors tried to exploit the naivety of the young CEO. It was the first time in his life he flat out ordered a person killed for business reasons alone. By the time he realized what he had done, they were already dead and Anko was looking at him very oddly for weeks afterwards.

He didn't know what was more scary - her looking at him with that odd, calculating gleam for weeks on end, or that disturbing, gleeful bit he learned to recognize as pride in her eyes. He didn't want to know either.

Still, Nagi - even if a recluse - had an image. Nagi negotiated, Nagi was the source of rumors (the blasted ideas made up by Mitarashi Anko, your local manipulator at large) and was enough of the person to exist in the minds of the people. The reputation was everything, and a certain degree of continuous stability was important as well. Shin explained that to him, way back, in what seemed to be another life. The unpredictability was good, but the solid foundation was important. It kept you grounded in the deals you made so people knew what to expect which in turn cashed in the trust they gave you. This was the cornerstone of Ginsen Corporation.

"...even pranking the ANBU wasn't so complicated..." Naruto groaned, rubbing his temples. The days worth of lack of sleep, the constant concentration and the non-stop work left even his considerable constitution fraying at the edges. The splitting pain in his head wasn't helping it any. And now, on top of that, Anko went on her merry way after throwing him another bone. One made of pure iron and really hard to bite. Which was ironic, since it was only paper and some ink.

"Dammit, I'm starting to go crazy." He muttered, before snorting and snagging the scroll. "I get it, I GET it already!" The blond rolled his eyes, getting up from his comfortable chair.

He could feel the seals on his body humming with power as they passed the 'lock' - a weird, if comfortable feeling of home and familiarity. He honestly couldn't remember how it was to live without the seals over his arms, without the security seals all over and without the often times annoyingly loyal security personnel around at all times.

He twirled the scroll, before snapping his fingers.

'Speak of the devil.'

He didn't bother turning at the slight sound of two pairs of feet touching the ground - a courtesy for him, really. Neither of the twins made any sound moving unless they wanted to.

"Nagi-sama." Ai was slightly paler than her sister, though both had skins darker than what would be expected of the proper ladies. Not that they needed to blend in - those two were war kunoichi, even if they looked like sexpet ditzes with large breasts and clothes two sizes too small. Most men looked at those chests and cute faces first - it usually made them miss the deadly, sinuous grace and the toned bodies holding a surprising amount of power.

They weren't delicate flowers by any means, but undeniably beautiful. Troublesome as well, but that was not the point. He had seen them break seven shinobi in less time it took him to give the order to do so, with bare hands and one or two jutsu. That quickly made him shut up about their... habits. Unlike Anko, who was just plain vicious because she was, those two seemed to come with some kind of mental switch. Most of the time they were smiling, cheerful, slightly ditzy young women who made the overly elaborate plans to sneak into his bath, or into his bed - quite literally, at that. Then it was time to fight and poof, the two cheerful ditzes turned into hell on wheels who not only didn't know what mercy was - they probably wouldn't understand if he tried to explain it to them.

It wasn't some simple violence - those two enjoyed breaking those men on a level that would have left him deeply disturbed and flat out freaked out if he didn't get used to Anko well before. As per usual, trying to talk to them about it was met with shrugs, grins and that odd, incomperehensing look from Taki.

He stopped trying months ago - it simply wasn't worth it.

"One of you find Taki and get her to look this through." He threw the scroll in between them, noting with amusement a quick exchange of punches that ended with Mai, smirking and waving the scroll, while Ai pouted. "I want her to check it out." That it was to be done discreetly wasn't even mentioned - he learned not to insult them like that early on.

"Ooh. A party." Ai blinked, looking at him curiously. "Nagi-sama's going?"

"Nagi-sama is." Naruto grimaced, showing what he thought of it.

"Ahh." Mai nodded thoughtfully. "Taki-sama will be happy."

"Irritated, too." The other twin said sagely. "So many guests."

"Not like I can say no." Naruto said darkly.

The twins looked at each other, before giggling.

"Setsuna-sama." They said in unison, an amused glint in their eyes, before they pouted. "So unfair, Nagi-sama! She has one up on us again!"

"Yes, yes. I know." He muttered. He had no idea what that 'one up on us' was, but he was not going to ask. They just might tell him. "Get to it."

"Yes, Nagi-sama!" Mai nodded enthusiastically and knet, before vanishing.

Ai made roughly the same gesture, before being stopped by his wave. She'd be around anyway - they always were. He really doubted they allowed him any privacy save the inner chambers when he was with Anko, even if he didn't see them all the time. They were his personal bodyguards, wherever he wanted them or not with all that it entailed.

"Stay." He said walking through the halls. He had 'I need company anyway' on the tip of his tongue, but he knew better now. They didn't need more encouragement. It was bad as it was.

The young woman nodded cheerfully, her soundless steps positioning her at his back. No matter what he wanted of her, she and her sister always walked in that respectful distance. It was just so bizarre that they had no reservations to break into his bath, or sneak into his room naked to 'warm his bed' as they called it, but he could do nothing to make them walk with him, by his side. Hell, he stopped trying to stop them to kneel each time he gave them orders. While he could order them to die at his whim, changing their ways was something that was apparently impossible.

Kokuen was just so damn old fashioned it wasn't even funny. According to Anko, it was natural - they clung to their traditions since it was what helped them to survive and keep their unity. They were harsh, hard people not made soft by the relative safety of the village, even if their ways would seem utterly barbaric to the ninja of the modern age. 'Throwbacks to the time of Shinobi Wars' Anko had called them. And, to his surprise, she did so with a smile that spelled nothing but trouble. He had no idea what she was thinking about right then, but he honestly preferred not to know. For now, anyway.

Ai kept on walking after her master, calmly observing the blond while also keeping her eye on the surroundings. It was the Tower, the inner chambers at that - it had more Kokuen ninja than most daimyo would bother with on the worst of days, but they were to guard him regardless. Setsuna-sama said so and Taki-sama agreed. It was not hers to wonder why - but it was hers to be content at the fact that Nagi-sama was protected well, every step of the way. She still didn't let her guard down. Not by much anyway. She was there to eliminate any threat that might rise - that was her duty.

Still, the Tower was nice. It gave her time to think, to ponder. Not something most people would think any of the well endowed twins engaged in - not with their bodies, and their happy smiles. Yet the twins did. They were kunoichi, after all. They could watch, they could think, and they could smile, giggle and wear the skimpy clothes that left men drooling. All the better for them. Distractions within distractions, as granny often said. Never underestimate the power of a generous bosom, tight silks and fishnet.

The years had been hard for Kokuen. While they had the skills to sell their services as mercenaries, the Clan had to live in silence, in the deep shadows. The villages wouldn't let them 'poach' on what they thought was their territory and finding patrons who could afford to shelter them, even a little, was almost impossible. Why care about an old, dispossessed Clan, after all? What for when all you had to do was pay a fee and get a jounin out of one of the established villages, instead of keeping ninja on full retainer?

The nobles did, but never in high numbers. A family, a small number of some nukenin offered the place as retainers - that was it. The entire Clan? Ridiculous. The Wars were long over, no one needed them. Not when they drew the ire of rich and powerful twice over. The times after that had been very hard and they lost much - everything, to be honest, bar their lives.

Ai didn't know much about those times, save the tales of the elders. She was born after the War, lived a life that was little better than a peasant's one in a poor village in the mountains that consisted mostly of Kokuen clansmen. Or clanswomen, as it were. Many men died during the last Shinobi War, where kunoichi fared better. For a bloodline that always bore more daughters than sons, it was a blow that they still couldn't quite recover from. Yet they adapted, did what they had to to survive. The geisha and courtesans were always welcome - a beautiful woman could always get away with more than a man would.

When Ai and Mai were born, they were the bright hopes of their mother, a kunoichi spymistress. Her daughters already showing the signs of their future beauty, the woman started to train them in the art from the moment they could walk, only to meet with a bitter disappointment shortly after the girls hit puberty.

Their mother was a beautiful, porcelain skinned woman with hair like a curtain of raven silk and delicate beauty that snared the noblemen at a glance. While far from soft, she was patient and possessed a gentle manner that made her a sublime manipulator. It was one of the reasons she was undiscovered and kept her life as one of the most desired tayuu of the Wind country even after most of the Clan crashed and burned in the aftermath of the Third War.

The twins though, were everything she was not. They were tall, amazon like women with tempers to match. They excelled at the physical side of the Art, but were hopeless when it came to the softer aspects. Excellent fighters, undoubtedly but... Kokuen didn't have much need for such as those tended to draw attention. Assassins - yes. War shinobi? No. The twins wouldn't cut it as geisha either. While their bodies alone would make them just exotic - even if their curves would be called vulgar by most - they had no skill at the small talk, or the careful grace of the tea ceremony. Theirs was the grace of born killers - they were more suited to breaking men than to entertaining them with careful display of beauty, culture and small talk.

Yes, they had been their mother's greatest disappointment, even if she loved them dearly. They both knew that and it pained them.

The fact that they couldn't even use their skill, earned by years of sweat, effort and tears, made them bitter and restless. They could, of course, simply go and make their living as thugs, or even mercenaries but... leaving their kinsmen? Their clan? The Kokuen lost much, but they never lost their pride and adversity only served to bring them closer over the years.

Then the offer came. The most unusual offer, from a source most would consider ridiculous. A merchant. More, a young, upstart merchant. A young upstart merchant who didn't mistake the pretty face of a kunoichi for a meatshield whore and a spymistress for a prostitute that could work for scraps because she didn't have a choice. A young upstart who wanted the entire clan of ninja at his exclusive retainer by yesterday and didn't care about the costs or the image. He wanted spies, he wanted guards, he wanted infiltrators and warriors.

Warriors like her and her sister. Warriors that suddenly became needed, had a purpose and who were beautiful young women trained once as geisha to make hearts melt and also trained to rip those very same hearts out with their bare hands.

They were ecstatic. They could be useful - for the first time, they were really needed. All of their skill, all of their dedication would pay off. To say they were enthusiastic about their duty would be an understatement. They wouldn't fail, not when there was finally a chance for something better for them all. The fact that CEO was a young and handsome man certainly didn't hurt.

Ai smirked as she recognized the way they were taking, straight through the side corridors into the Nagi-sama's personal sleeping quarters. Which meant he'd be taking a bath in the large, private furo. Setsuna-sama wasn't there and Nagi-sama was certainly looking tired enough to forget to tell her to stay away, so...

Her small smirk widened a fraction.

Maybe losing that little contest to Mai wasn't so bad after all.


She blinked.

"Yes, Nagi-sama?"

"You know the drill." He pointed at her lazily, not even bothering to look to get her exactly location, which wasn't that difficult considering she kept the same place all the time.

"Aww!" The young woman whined. "That is so unfair!" She pouted.

Naruto didn't bother to comment or turn. The puppy dog eyes Ai had down pat as well as any of her taijutsu moves.

The Kazekage cupped his hand around the bowl gently, letting it rest in his hand loosely, but with grace. He didn't need to look to know that the woman across the table did the very same thing with no apparent strain.

'And far more gracefully than I can manage on my best day, most probably.' He thought wryly.

Not that he begrudged her that - quite the contrary.

While she bore no makeup, jewelry or the lavish kimono of her trade, the serene grace was like a fine cloak, one worn with the years of practice that few could touch, no matter posses. Even a blind civilian would name Hitomi either a geisha, or a noblewoman of the highest rank with but a look. They would not be wrong... though not exactly right either.

Which was how the Suna's spysmistress wanted it.

She loved contradictions, thrived on them - they amused her almost as much as mysteries and secrets she so loved, that he knew well. Of course, that was one of the few things he knew, and was reasonably certain of. The kunoichi was notoriously hard to read, and her penchant for games and entertaining herself at the cost of the patience of others certainly didn't help. If she wasn't so good at what she did, he'd probably execute her just for that infuriating quality.

Execute, and regret it bitterly for the rest of his reign, however long it might be.

No, odd and occasionally annoying she might have been, but Hitomi was far too valuable to even consider removing.

'And she knows it, damn her.' He thought with wry amusement, looking at the faint smile at the woman's face.

It was impossible to tell how old she was, even without the extensive makeup. Her face had that ageless quality that most women envied with passion and men admired, which made her even harder to read.

'Infuriating woman.' The Kazekage sighed inwardly.

Though he had to admit, it made her excellent at what she did. Invaluable, even, and most didn't suspect a thing when he met with her. After all, wasn't it Kazekage's right to have the finest Suna had to offer, in every way?

'Complacent fools.' The man scoffed. 'As if I let such an important thing as intelligence in the inept hands of the ANBU.'

Oh he had what called itself the Intelligence Department. The problem was it was inherited form his predecessor who might have been a brilliant warrior, but an exceedingly poor politician. The Intelligence, or what passed for it, was rife with people who had far too many connections and who bent to the whims of the more influential Wind politicians a little too readily.

It took years and a truly herculean amount of effort to root out those idiots, and even more sheer will not to kill them where they stood. After all, if he knew who they were, he could lead them around as needed while quietly solidifying his grasp on the important matters. Suna might have fallen on the hard times, but it was no excuse to let some gutless politicians meddle in his affairs. It was his village, and he would control it by any means necessary. Even if he had to suffer annoyingly astute women with far too much wit and eagerness to display it for their own good.

"I must admit, Kazekage-sama," He hated when she used the honorific like that. Somehow, she always made it sound so mockingly courteous and yet not disrespectful at the same time, which made him both amused and irritated. "This is a bold initiative. Indeed, very bold."

He chose not to answer. There was little boldness in it, as far as pragmatism was concerned, though she was right. This would raise some eyebrows, he knew that. Indeed, he was counting on it.

"It is supposed to be." He said calmly. "The question is, can you do it?"

"My most esteemed Kazekage, it is not a question if I can, but if she is able to." Hitomi smiled lightly. "I saw her. Enough of her to know she'd be an... interesting material."

"I don't want to make her into a geisha. She isn't one, nor will she ever be." The Kazekage took a sip of his tea. "That is not the point."

"Oh?" The courtesan raised an eyebrow. "Than what is, if I might ask?"

"Do not play coy with me, Hitomi." The man said blandly. "My patience has its limits."

"I am just trying to understand." She shrugged lightly, a ghost of a smile on her lips. "As you said, she is no geisha, no courtesan. Nor will she ever be. Too much... directness in her, among other things." The kunoichi cocked her head lightly to the side. "What is the point of giving her to me, then? If you require a seductress, there are dozens of women trained to be such in this village. Some of the best mine, and their blood is almost as blue in some cases."

"Don't be ridiculous, Hitomi." The Kage snorted. "A seductress? The boy has women, plenty of them every inch as beautiful as one of your flowers. Ones who are devoted to him enough that they would love to warm his bed at his whim, and that's if you disregard Setsuna." He smiled wryly. "I have no doubt you well know what happened to the last woman who was a bit too pushy in that regard, thanks to that viper."

"It made for an... interesting reading, yes." Hitomi smiled. "I did tell you she's possessive, no?" She frowned slightly. 'Though that was a bit excessive. Which makes me wonder just how much truth is in those rumors...' She thought.

If one thought that relations between those two were simple, he'd be very wrong. There were dozens of trails, pointing into twice as many directions, and all of them feasible in their own way. Even having a far better access to the individuals in question, she was still unsure. A tight bond, yes. But if it was completely as one sided as it appeared...? No. Of that she was sure, if anything. There was far too much intimacy there, far too many hints of something deeper going on. Almost... tailored.

She smiled inwardly. If there was one reason to like Saito Nagi, it was the constant string of puzzling signals, ever growing mountain of mysteries and often times bizarrely conflicting moves the young CEO was making. Find a pattern and the young man would sweep it into oblivion casually as you please a moment later. Needless to say, he was a constant source of amusement for the spymistress.

She was just delighted at the mere thought of the moment the young CEO would move into a little more public spotlight. He had to, of that there was no doubt - the question was when? Either way, the man would make waves around him.

Still, there would be a time for that later.

"So, you want her because she is your daughter." Hitomi nodded thoughtfully. "Trying to make a point?"

"Partially, yes." The man nodded.

"You wouldn't need to give her the additional training then. Unless... you are reaching for something more... substantial." She smiled. "Bold indeed."

"It is meant to be." The Kazekage looked at the kunoichi, his green eyes hard and cold.

"Of course." Hitomi said calmly. "How far would you have this go?"

"As far as it needs to." The Kazekage said coldly. "As far as it can, by any means necessary."

"Ah." The kunoichi nodded slowly. "I see."

"This will be the most important mission of her career." The tone left no room for argument. "Indeed, for the rest of her life."

"I must say it has merit. Beyond the obvious, of course." Hitomi murmured thoughtfully. "So far, the women he surrounds himself with all a posses certain... fire. Something Temari has in abundance."

"I leave the details to you." The Kazekage waved his hand. "Make her ready, Hitomi. A failure is not an option. Not in this case."

"I understand." The kunoichi nodded. "I will do what I can. Time is short, however."

"Then do all you can." The Kage said calmly.

The woman bowed gracefully.

"As you wish." She let the yukata slide off her shoulders even as she let her hair down.

The appearances had to be kept, after all, and shinobi had very sharp senses.

'After all, the best lie isn't the one that just contains the sliver of truth.' She smiled, sliding down on the futon among the whisper of silk. 'It is the one that becomes the truth.'

Leaving the tower felt... odd. He had traveled before, of course, spending some time on the road before Ginsen became what it was now, but the Tower was his home.


Anko slowed down her step so that she walked exactly by him.

"Second thoughts?" She murmured softly, though he could almost feel her smirk.

"Not really." The blond snorted. "But..." He stopped, turning slowly around.

Ginsen Tenshu wasn't exactly big - if he had to guess, it was smaller than Konoha. No matter how thriving the business, the little town took time to grow, though grow it did. He often sat on the top of the Tower, looking down at it, noticing this or that building, sometimes just gazing for the hell of it, but now he felt he really could see it for the first time in his life.

The docks area was nothing out of ordinary - some simple, one-story buildings, solid but unimpressive, the houses beyond - traditional and not poor or rich - just... homes, strewn in a haphazard manner that had none the less managed to look... warm. And in the center of it all, a white solid tower. Not built to impress, but built to last by Suna architects. Not exactly a palace, but still both sturdy and elegant enough to be almost called one. Not quite, but almost.

It stood, in the center of all those houses, streets, inns, and other buildings, but far from a monument, even if Ginsen's silver fan was displayed on it like some mon - a deliberate action on Anko's part, one that used to send local nobles into fits of indignation only to become the city's official symbol barely three years later.

"It is really... big, isn't it?" He said with sudden fascination.

"Not all that big, really." Anko shrugged. "The daimyo have more opulent residences usually, but... yeah." She grinned. "For something functional that isn't supposed to just look cool, its rather large."

"I never looked at it this way." Naruto cocked his head, turning slowly to capture as much of the city as he could with his eyes. "It... damn, it really stands in the center, huh?"

"Yeah." The kunoichi chuckled. "Funny thing about that, really. The build permits are given like that, you know. Evenly to the each side, so that the Tower is always in the center even when new stuff is built"

The blond frowned, before looking at his bodyguard.

"You mean to tell me somebody is forcing this?!" He hissed.

"Wha? No, no!" She waved her hand. "People ask for that. Say it should be built like that, hell if I know why."

"Pride, Setsuna-sama." Taki, as always almost soundless, almost made Naruto jump out of his skin, and it was far from the first time she had done that. "Those people... they have pride in this place."

"More like pride in the money they can make here." The purple haired kunoichi snorted.

"Of course." The majordomo smiled. "However, this place..." She tapped her cheek, before looking at Naruto. "Nagi-sama? If I might be so forward...?"

Naruto blinked, but nodded slowly.

"Please, my lord." She stood next to him, gently touching his arm - something the almost overly polite kunoichi never did. "Look at them. What do you see?"

The blond frowned, eying the large crowd of people passing by the streets. Ginsen Tenshu was a crowded city, partially because of the trade route Naruto forced through here, and partially because of the curious people who wanted to try their luck, or were just passing through on the safest route to Suna that went through River. Anko beat into his head the importance of safe roads very early on and Naruto spent a small fortune making sure they were as safe as he could afford them to be.

"A lot of people on a crowded road?" He shrugged.

"Indeed, my lord. However, look at them." Her hand swept discreetly. "That man."

She pointed out a burly, gray haired man in leathers talking to a similarly clad, if much younger and less bulky copy of himself, while several other young people, including a girl that couldn't be older than fourteen but had arms that put some men to shame seemed to be busy around the cart.

"A blacksmith from Wind, and his apprentices. I've seen that man four years ago when he came here with nothing but clothes on his back and a small daughter in tow, desperate for work. Look at his apprentices now, do they not crowd his store? That woman."

She pointed a young, pretty if not exactly eye-catching woman in her late twenties.

"A refugee from Kiri, whose only reason for almost being slaughtered by her own neighbors was the fact she had a bloodlimit in her family. Her husband - a stone mason from Cloud, who hate Kiri with passion. And yet they had a child not three years ago, a beautiful baby girl with her mother's bloodlimit and her father's eyes. This woman, a seamstress from one of the poorer isles to the east, that man a herbalist from Grass, that couple, an innkeeper and his wife who came far form the north who serve cuisine one would not find for a thousand miles around."

Taki smiled softly.

"Cultures, looks, even clothes - they all differ, but they all live here, they all came here for a new start that Ginsen Tenshu can give them."

"Sorta like you, huh?" Naruto chuckled, only to meet clear, focused eyes of his majordomo.

"Yes, Nagi-sama. Exactly like us." She said calmly.

Naruto's eyes widened.

"...oh." He said weakly.

"Exiles, youngsters, adventurers, thrill-seekers, refugees and dreamers." Anko smirked. "Man, what a motley crew..."

"Indeed, Setsuna-sama." Taki said pleasantly. "But they are our motley crew, are they not?"

The purple haired kunoichi quirked an eyebrow, but said nothing.

"All... that..." The women turned to Naruto, who stood, staring at the small town as if he was spellbound by it. "All that... crowd. They are... people, right? People... a lot of people. All of them, here, all those lives... all those families and even you..." The blond trailed off, looking away. "They are... heavy."

Taki blinked, before bowing. "Forgive me, Nagi-sama." She said with shame. "I was out of line, I should not-"

"No!" He grabbed the kunoichi before she could bow again. "Don't! It is okay." The woman stopped, a confused look on her face.


"It is... heavy." The blond said slowly. "It is damn heavy but... it is ours, right?" He smiled, looking at the city wistfully. "This place is heavy but... it is a good kind of heavy. All those lives, all those people... I won't stop." The blue eyes steeled. "I won't stop, I will keep on going and make sure all of that," He swept his hand over the town, "never falls down, no matter what! If I have to do it with my bare hands, I will crush any obstacle to dust, so that this all can stand and grow. All of it." He looked at Taki seriously.

The two kunoichi stood still, and for once Taki had no serene wisdom to share, and Anko had no sarcastic comment to add.

If anything, the purple haired kunoichi felt lighter, even as something in her chest... twisted, for a fleeting moment, leaving both pride and something bitter sweet that she tried to squash but somehow couldn't bring herself to, so she just settled for looking away.

Taki, for once in her life, had no such problems, instead offering a strangely shaky smile to her master.

"Yes, Nagi-sama." she whispered, not fully trusting her voice.

Temari sat in seiza by the low table, her back straight, her posture rigid and almost motionless. Calm and smooth, if stiff, her face held nothing.

Underneath it all, it was a whole another story and she had to all but bite her lip to stop her hands from touching the fan that wasn't there. Such a stupid, childish thing, treating the her dai tessen as some sort of security blanket, but she couldn't help it.

In contrast, Hitomi, who sipped her tea in silence was relaxed, lazy and almost flowing despite not moving much, though it might have been the kimono and her free flowing, raven tresses that spilled down, for once not held in any elaborate fashion or bound in a braid.

Temari knew who the courtesan was, both officially and 'unofficially' and she had her suspicions as to what was not said or even speculated about. She was her father's daughter, after all.

Which is why her posture was so rigid, and her hands itched for comforting steel of her war fan. She knew what Hitomi did. She also knew what she taught others to do.

Temari's fists clenched a little before she forced them to relax in an almost inhuman display of will.

Growing up like she did, in the household of her power hungry father and jinchuuriki psychotic of a brother - even if he could hardly be called that - left Temari a strong woman fearing very few things the world could throw at her. Hotomi, however, Temari was afraid of.

It wasn't a particularly rational fear, either. A daughter of the Kazekage and the descendant of the Wind nobility from both the sides of her family, she was far too valuable of a card to be sacrificed out of hand. One day she would be - of that she was sure.

To seal one important agreement or other, her father wouldn't hesitate to give her off to a complete stranger, she knew that well. She was even prepared for it - for a woman in her position marriage was a thing of pure convenience and love was never a factor. Thinking otherwise was foolish, and Temari was no fool.

Besides, love? An idiotic notion. She was Sabaku no Temari, and no matter how good of a catch she might have been, men would sooner eat glass than date her. If her bastard of a father wasn't enough of a repellent, Gaara most certainly was.

She accepted that. Not like her father would allow any such foolishness anyway. And despite those calm assurances and logical conclusions, that old apprehension still lingered.

Contrary to one might think, she didn't despise, or pity the kunoichi who performed the 'valentine' missions. She was pragmatic, a pragmatism born of Suna's hard situation and even harsher desert, and she was aware how important it was to use every weapon one had. Besides, it was an age-old method, and no matter what some said, all villages used it simply because it worked.

Many a skirmish or volatile situation was averted or nipped in a bud simply because the right kunoichi was in the right bed to hear what needed to be heard or work her softer charms on the right man in a position of power. Hell, the current Forest Country daimyo was a prime example, even though not many even suspected.

Though the man turned the tables on said kunoichi and simply married her without batting an eye. If it was to keep the whole affair quiet out of shame that a minor shinobi Clan successfully pulled such a stunt, or simply because he reached some agreement, no one really knew. Though the fact the marriage held for twenty years meant that whatever it was, it held fast.

Temari met Chihiro during a diplomatic visit, and if she didn't know any better, she'd call the woman a perfect example of a cultured, elegant and still very beautiful noblewoman, entering her middle age with grace and elegance.

If not for Hitomi, smiling and relaxed as she offhandedly pointed out some details, Temari would never even notice that the middle aged woman was still a very dangerous, perfectly combat-capable kunoichi. Considering she managed to fool even Suna ANBU during their visit told volumes of her still sharp skill, and even more of Hitomi herself.

"Relax, Temari-chan." The courtesan smiled slightly. "Do you know why am I here?"

Temari shook her head once.

She never did. The older kunoichi came and went at her whim or Kazekage's call, and rarely - if ever - explained anything to anybody save him. The older woman poured herself some tea. She didn't offer any to Temari, which the blonde found rather strange. While fond of mind games, the courtesan was unfailingly polite, in that half-amused way of hers.

"Ah." The courtesan sighed. "Predictable. The overt secrecy where it isn't needed, and the lack of it where it truly matters... truly, predictable and very Suna, hmm?" She tssked, before reaching into her sleeve and withdrawing a thin, nondescript storage scroll. She put it in the middle of the table, right in front of Temari.

"This," She pointed to the scroll. "is the single most complete set of data gathered about a certain individual, for the past four years. A set of very nice, very comprehensive data gathered by our agents, even though necessarily limited given the situation. Now..." Hitomi leaned forward, "what does that tell you?"

The blonde frowned, for a second, mulling it over, before rising an eyebrow.

"That we have a complete intelligence report about Saito Nagi?" Temari deadpanned.

"Very good!" Hitomi smiled, clapping. "Congratulations, my girl! Very astute!" The clapping stopped, as if cut. "If rather wrong."

The blonde blinked, somewhat confused. She was sure the answer was correct - the timeline given couldn't allude to anything else, nor the lengths their spies went to gather such data. Only few people rated such an attention, and only one had it on him for the last four years.

"My dear, both you and I are here because this nice bit of intelligence work," She nodded towards the scroll. "is barely worth the paper it is written on, for the most part."

Temari frowned.

"Is it inaccurate?"

"Oh, no, we have plenty of accurate data." Hitomi tapped the maple table. "Actions taken, actions not taken, 'how', if not enough 'why', likes, dislikes, the day schedule..." She tapped her cheek. "The problem is, that when all is said and done, the most if it is garbage."

"I am not sure I follow." Temari said in a puzzled tone.

"Do you know how many intelligence profiles of Saito Nagi had been made in Suna?" Hitomi took a sip of tea.

The blonde shook her head.

"Nine." The older kunoichi said pleasantly. "So far, none of them proved to be fully accurate."

Temari's eyes widened.

"But... that's absurd!" She protested. Even with incomplete data, the profiles were usually fairly solid and reliable, given how through the Intelligence Department was, even when they were concerning ninja. To have one, admittedly bright, businessman confound the shinobi specialists... it just didn't happen.

"Exactly." Hitomi smiled cheerfully. "And that, among other things, is a reason why you are here." The older kunoichi leaned on her elbow, looking at Temari. "This man, this one, single man and his corporation are invaluable to Suna, Temari-chan, and I don not use such words lightly. His money, his goods and services, all of it, are needed. While we can survive without them, given the current situation we can't grow." Hitomi tapped the maple leaf table, a sharp staccato as her nials danced on the wood. "But that's not all. Ginsen became a symbol, my dear girl. For most, it is just a symbol of success, and not a particularly visible one, but for us..." Hitomi smiled, shaking her head. "Have you been to Ijiru province, Temari-chan?"

"Not since I was seven, Hitomi-san." Teamri shook her head.

"I have." Hotomi poured herself some more tea. "Saito's absurd route through the mountains and his equally absurd refusal to back down are a stuff of legends there, Temari-chan. It grew to such proportions that I've heard that there are songs written about it. Our dear Nagi-kun is a local hero, Temari-chan. They even set a yearly festival, from what I hear. The first one is going to be celebrated this season, if I am not mistaken."

"Really?" The blonde frowned slightly. "Though he did save them from that famine, so it isn't so far fetched..."

"Indeed." Hitomi swirled the tea in her bowl gently. "So as you see, Saito Nagi is a very important person, an invaluable existence to us. No matter what, that man must not, under any circumstances, fall."

Temari nodded.

She understood it, quite well at that. You didn't spend your childhood and teenage years as Kazekage's daughter without learning the ropes and the gambits of the political play.

She also had a sneaking suspicion where this was all going.

"Why me?" She asked after a long moment of silence.

"For many reasons." Hitomi shrugged. "You are strong, capable and bright - if not for the current policy you'd have earned your chuunin vest two years ago, and would be on the fast track to jounin by now. You are a young and quite attractive woman with good head on her shoulders."

"Please, Hitomi-san." Temari snorted. "There are dozens of girls and women who fit that descriptions, and some are real beauties."

"None of them is the Kazekage's only daughter, though." The courtesan said calmly.

"Ah." Temari nodded slowly. "So that's how it is."

"Indeed." Hotomi nodded. "Don't misunderstand - after I gave it some long, careful thought, I decided that you are indeed perfect for it, for many reasons. While beauty is all nice and fine, Nagi had shown a preference for strong women who posses a certain fire and some wild streak." She smiled with amusement. "But then you only need to look at Setsuna or those cute amazons following him like well trained attack dogs to see it." The courtesan sighed. "However, aside from that, your father wants to make a... statement, of sorts. Drive the point home, so to speak, but without being overt about it." She shook her head. "Well, not more over than he already is, anyway."

Temari's eyes widened.

"You're joking." She said.

"Not in the least." The kunoichi said pleasantly. "After your training is complete, you will become a personal, close link between Suna and Ginsen, our proof of friendship and hope for continued, mutually beneficial relationship as well as a nod and a veiled warning towards others." There was no need to say who those 'others' where, considering Suna's situation. "A gift of good will, so to speak. You will be his shield when needed, a sword when required and a sheath when necessary." A faint smile appeared on the courtesan's face. "Which might be far less of a chore than you think, my dear, given that you are both young and attractive people. Trust me on that."

"Oh bloody hell...!" Teamri rubbed her forehead. "You might lose the flimsy political cloak and dagger shit and as well marry me off to the guy - there'd be no goddamn difference!"

"We would have." Hitomi was non-plussed. "If not for the fact that Nagi rejects any and all marriage offers out of hand, which would be rather awkward, no?" She tapped her cheek lightly. "Besides, I doubt it would work anyway."

Temari raised an eyebrow.

"It is just a speculation but..." The courtesan shrugged. "I do believe that there is more truth to those rumors of Nagi and Setsuna being married than most think. It would make a lot of sense, given some..." She trailed off. "Well, that's neither here nor now."

"I think I have a right to know things about a guy I will be attached to for the rest of my life." The blonde grumbled.

"You would and you will." Hitomi smiled. "The time and season for all things, Temari-chan. The time and season for all things."

"What about... about my team?" Temari asked hesitantly.

Sure, Gaara was both scary and fairly creepy and Kankuro was dumb and crass but... they were still people she worked with, if not all that much of a family.

"It will all be taken care of by your father. Any previous considerations you had cease to matter, Temari-chan." The courtesan shook her head. "Any life you had here in Suna is over. From now on, Nagi is your only future."

"I understand." The blonde nodded.

"No, you don't." Hitomi said calmly "But you will."

Temari couldn't help but fidget slightly as the small, chilly smile appeared on the courtesan's lips, accompanied by the velvety, smooth tone.

"Indeed, I guarantee that you will."