Disclaimer: Not sure what things I really do own, but I'm pretty sure Naruto isn't one of them.
AN: My deepest apologies. I could have sworn I had posted this months ago. I'll try to add the next chapter soon, but I make no promises.
Rivers of Hades
Naruto made his way towards the Hokage's office. A month had passed since the invasion, and the village was quickly recovering. Damage to the village had been light, confined mostly to the walls of the village and the buildings closest to them. Loss of life had been blessedly small for Suna and Konoha. Naruto had felt a sick sense of relief in that he hadn't known any of them.
The negotiations were going smoothly. The Wind daimyo was willing to give Suna another chance and agreed to start contracting Suna for more higher rank missions. If Suna continued to perform satisfactorily, he would continue to increase their funding and send more missions their way.
Because he wasn't involved with the negotiations, Naruto had plenty of free time. He spent it doing light training or helping with the reconstruction. He also found himself spending a lot of time with either Haku or the Suna genin.
Personally, he was still dealing with the after-effects of what he had done. He had thought he had been prepared for what had happened, but committing the actual deed threw it all out the window. Maybe if he could just get out of the village for a while, he'd be able to make more progress.
Reaching the office door, he knocked, and waited for acknowledgment to enter.
Sarutobi wasn't alone in his office when Naruto entered. Baki, the Suna genin, Shino, Shikamaru, Zabuza and Haku were there as well. Jiraiya entered the office through the window.
"Ah, good, everyone's here. I thought you all could use a break from helping with recovery efforts, so I have a mission for all of you."
Naruto blinked. Hadn't he just been wanting something like this?
Zabuza spoke up first. "What's the mission, Hokage-sama?"
"With the ongoing recovery efforts and treaty negotiations, I haven't had much time to go through reports from the field. I recently had the time to do so, and discovered that a Konoha ninja out in the field has seemingly ignored the emergency recall orders I issued, the secret one issued before the invasion, and the public one sent out after. I want to know why, and given the ninja in question, it would be best that I go meet them personally. According to protocol, if I officially leave the village, I must be escorted by either a full ANBU squad, six jounin, eight chuunin, or a combination. All of you will be accompanying me to my destination. Any questions?"
Shikamaru raised his hand. "No offense, Hokage-sama, but isn't a mission like this a little much for genin, even in relative peacetime conditions?"
"That is true. I wouldn't normally consider genin for such a task. However, Naruto has been on an acting Chuunin mission for over a month and a half, which has been deemed a success, so he will be leaving this office with a promotion. The five of you, however, have been deemed worthy of promotion through your performance in the Exams or during the invasion, and will also be leaving for this mission as Chuunin. Congratulations to all of you."
The genin looked at each other in a stunned silence.
"The six of you probably don't realize this, but this is a break from standard procedure. Normally, there is a mandatory instruction period you would be required to complete before receiving your vests, but I am willing to waive that in this instance, as both villages need the higher-ranking personnel at the moment, and those with more experience are needed for client-paid missions. Essentially, all of you have just gotten a field promotion. You will be given the necessary training upon your return. Is there anything else?"
Zabuza nodded. "Yeah, I have some questions. First off, who's the ninja in question?"
"My other student, Tsunade, and her apprentice, Shizune. Tsunade's temper means that only Jiraiya or I have a chance of speaking with her without the situation deteriorating to violence, and even that is a small chance. But still, I feel I must speak with her to find out why she has seen fit to not respond to a grand total of three recall orders."
From the experienced shinobi present, including Jiraiya, he got a shocked silence. Failing to respond to even one recall order was an instant charge of treason, unless they had a damn good excuse. Finally, Jiraiya spoke, "Wait a second. Three? What was the first one?"
"Following the Kyuubi's attack, one of my first actions upon returning to office was to issue a recall order. Tsunade didn't return at that time either. However, she at least responded to it by way of a letter delivered via summon. She and Shizune were in some remote village at the time. The village was suffering some rather nasty disease, and the entire village was to be quarantined for about a year and a half. The two of them were going to be there the entire time, and planned to spend an additional six months in isolation themselves, so they wouldn't start an outbreak. At that time, I investigated the situation, found them to be telling the truth, and accepted that to be a valid reason for them to stay put. As a result, I didn't list them as traitors. This time, I still haven't heard from her, and I am well past annoyed. What is your other question, Zabuza?"
"Do we have any idea on a location?"
Jiraiya answered, "No, we don't. She's gotten really good at staying off the radar in recent years. She gets plenty of practice avoiding people she owes money to. I've got a couple leads, but we'll still be hunting her down."
Facing the six chuunin-to-be, Sarutobi spoke, "We'll meet at the east gate at six tomorrow morning. We've got a lot of ground to cover, and I want to cover as much as possible. We've no idea who or what we will run into out there, so I want you all armed to the teeth. Pack for war and then some. If you can make storage seals, use them. Be warned, though; whatever you pack, you will carry. So I want you to spend the rest of today getting ready."
Reaching into a desk drawer, he removed a storage scroll. Unsealing the contents, he produced six basic chuunin vests, which he handed out. Each village had special insignia that were placed on a vest to denote village of origin and rank within special groups the wearer was a member of. The Academy teachers each had several sets, made to look like textbooks, even if they weren't required to wear them daily.
Seeing an opening, Sarutobi spoke, "I need to speak with Naruto for a moment in private. The rest of you are dismissed."
Once they were alone, Sarutobi stood and walked around to the front of his desk. "I wanted to discuss the changes to your training that will be made once your promotion is final."
"I know I'll have to be more responsible about my personal training. What else is there, sensei?"
"Actually, I was referring to the training for your stated goal, my job. You have a good feel for the day-to-day routine here, and I know I can entrust you to take care of many of those duties if need be. Once you are officially a chuunin, I will be teaching you how to classify missions to their appropriate ranks, as well as assign the right personnel to them. Also, you will start attending the council meetings with me, not to mention the meetings with the department heads. This is all in addition to your regular duties as a chuunin, so personal training time may in short supply for a while. Do you understand?"
"I do, sensei. I have one question, though. I'm not questioning your judgment, but how can I be ready for this promotion? I have almost no field experience."
Sarutobi face broke out into a grin. "Very good. You are learning not to blindly accept things. I was wondering if you would question me on that. The lack of experience is a valid issue that Hiashi and Shibi raised when they signed off on your personal Chuunin Exam, one I had already plans for. I plan on remedying the situation by arranging for you to go on missions with Zabuza and Haku now that they are no longer confined to the village. You will be operating as a three man team most of the time."
"Okay. Well, better go shopping, then. I wonder how Shikamaru will take traveling under full wartime pack. My money's on 'not well'."
"True, it is a lot to carry, especially when we do not have a set destination or a timetable for when we will return, but the pack requirements I stated are standard for escorting a Kage or daimyo, no matter your rank or the fact that we are, hopefully, far from being defenseless ourselves. Now, I believe I have some shopping to do for this trip as well."
The next morning, the group met at the gate. Hiashi, Shibi, and Iruka arrived with the Hokage. The younger ninja present looked at him and blinked. Most of them had never seen the man in anything other than the robes and hat of his office. Seeing him dressed almost like a regular jounin was a shock. The only difference between his outfit and the standard jounin uniform was the stitching of 'Fire Shadow' on his vest.
Iruka looked at his three former students, an amused smile on his face. "I still can't believe it. Not even a year out of my class, and three of you are already chuunin. I wonder how the rest of your class will turn out. Congratulations."
The three former genin in question chorused, "Thank you Iruka-sensei."
"Is everyone ready?" asked the Sandaime. At the nods, he turned to Hiashi, Shibi, and Iruka. "I hereby leave this village in your hands until I return." The three men were the ones chosen to fill in for the Hokage while he was out of the village. Hiashi and Shibi were chosen for their experience as council members and clan heads. Iruka, as an active-duty ninja and senior Academy teacher, had administrative experience and was unaffiliated with a clan, shinobi or civilian, not to mention the work he did in the Hokage's office when the Academy wasn't in session. This was the first time three people would fill in for any one Kage at the same time, but Sarutobi reasoned that if he was allowed to divide up his daily work between himself and two clones before doing what he wanted the rest of the day, it would work well enough to have three entirely separate people do his job so they would be able to take care of their daily routines.
With that, the Hokage and his escorts made their way out of the village, taking to the trees once they cleared the gates.
Around noon, they stopped near a river to rest. Baki wasted no time in having his three charges start getting water to refill canteens. It was a sight to see the three siblings work so well together. Anyone who didn't know better would have thought they had always been that close. After scouting upstream a fair distance to look for obvious reasons not to drink the water, such as an animal that had died in it, they began purifying it for drinking. Gaara was using his sand to filter the river water, Kankuro testing and treating it for toxins, naturally occurring and otherwise, and Temari using a small fire to boil the water, killing anything that may have been left behind.
The three fresh Konoha chuunin were watching their Suna counterparts while they set up for lunch, and almost missed noticing Zabuza and Jiraiya walk up behind them and stop, also watching.
Zabuza turned his head to look at them, and spoke in his usual gruff tones. "Impressive, isn't it? That right there is an example of why Suna is considered a force to be reckoned with, regardless of any economic problems."
Jiraiya answered. "You're chuunin now, so this is something you'll learn eventually if you ever want to get very far in this lifestyle. Each ninja village is basically a business by itself, and each has its own attitudes and priorities that are designed to differentiate them from their competition and attract clients to them."
"For example?" Now Shino was getting interested, and Baki and the Suna genin were listening in, though not slowing in what they were doing. Sarutobi smiled as he rested against a tree trunk.
"Well, limiting this little lecture to just the major villages so we can save time, we'll start with Suna. Any client who goes to Suna can be pretty much guaranteed that they will get professionals to do their job, even if it's a bunch of genin. With the other villages, you can expect genin to do rather stupid things on missions occasionally; acting on impulse, leaving their post to get food or drink, or to relieve themselves. Not with Suna. With their lack of a large population, everyone depends on everyone else to do their job and do it well in order to survive. As a result, they don't have much patience for those who act without thinking, so even the newest Suna genin will often be more of a professional than jounin in some other villages. There's also their absolute loathing of people who are wasteful or gluttonous, but that's due to scarce resources."
Baki nodded to himself at the rather accurate depiction of Suna's mentality. He was somewhat surprised at the respect apparent in Jiraiya's voice.
"Next, we come to Kiri." Zabuza took over at this point. "Kiri's business model is rather simple compared to some of the other villages'. Kiri ninja will do everything they can to accomplish their goals, regardless of what it takes. That is a major part of the conditioning at the Kiri Academy, and includes sacrificing our lives or the lives of others in a heartbeat, despite personal beliefs or the other person's involvement. Simply put, if you hire Kiri to destroy a bandit outpost where there are hostages, it will be destroyed, and if the bandits try and use the hostages as meat shields, Kiri will go through the hostages without a second thought."
Seeing the new chuunin turn a little green at the concept, Jiraiya chose to move on. "Kumo is different still. They are the village of choice if a client needs something done as covertly as possible. They are experts in deception and the cloak and dagger aspects of shinobi life. They are also continual innovators, and have huge, sprawling labs and testing grounds for whatever project they might be working on.
"Iwa's way of doing things is almost the exact opposite of Konoha's, and is one of the main reasons why the two villages have never gotten along well. Iwa ninja will do the job they are hired for, and nothing more without additional payment. It can be a little infuriating for first-time customers, but appeals to enough people that they have plenty of business."
"How is that the opposite of our policy?"
"Generally, Konoha ninja will do the job we are hired for, and frequently go above and beyond what we are required or expected to do in the process, often going as far as solving the underlying problem that led to us being hired. However, not everyone appreciates an outsider getting involved in matters they don't need to be. They hired us to do one thing, and they would take care of the rest.
"That brings us back to Konoha. In addition to what I mentioned earlier, we actually focus on attracting missions from people who wouldn't normally go to a ninja village. The average civilian, one who has never dealt with ninja, and has only heard the generalizations about us, would be terrified. They see us as silent, cold-blooded killers, and would only make a mission request of us if it was their last resort. Yet, if they come to Konoha, they will be surrounded by shinobi who act like the kinds of people they are used to dealing with. Shinobi running around shopping, playing with their children, getting drunk in bars, laughing and joking, that sort of thing. We use our humanity to our advantage, instead of repressing it, so we appeal to a much wider customer base than any other village. It's a basic idea: most people prefer to deal with people similar to themselves." Turning to the Sandaime, Jiraiya asked, "How was that, sensei?"
"Very good, I'd say. The material was presented in a logical and factual manner, and the propaganda normally present in that particular lecture was kept to a minimum. If only some of the other people in Konoha who present information to me on a regular basis would follow that example. My job would be easier if I didn't have to separate the facts from their opinions for them just so I could make an informed decision."
Baki joined in, "I agree, Jiraiya-sama, and may I say, I am impressed by the respect you show to rival villages. I cannot think of many other ninja who would do the same in your position. Most are too swayed by their village's propaganda."
"Thanks. Always respecting your opponent was a lesson that was beaten into me, literally."
"Now then, let's eat. If we can leave within the next hour, we should make it to the nearest town before dark."
True to the Sandaime's estimate, they group made it to the town before night. Finding a hotel, they got their rooms and prepared to find dinner. Sarutobi was about to head out when someone called out.
Turning, Sarutobi faced Shikamaru, Shino, and Naruto. "Yes? What can I do for you?"
"We've been thinking about what Jiraiya-sama and Zabuza-san told us in the forest, and something doesn't really sit right."
"They said that Konoha attracts clients by not acting like stereotypical ninja, but like the ordinary citizen when off duty. Does that mean our entire village's way of life is nothing more than a giant PR stunt?"
The Sandaime sighed, "Yes and no. Konoha was founded with the belief that the best ninja village was one where the ordinary citizens would not need to fear the shinobi. At the time, the existing ninja villages were all run by tyrants who ruled through fear and violence. Once the village was formally established, we needed something to make it stand out. We had the option to either develop a general personality that could represent the village, like Suna or Kiri, or to choose to specialize in a certain type of mission profile, like Kumo does. The Shodai and Nidaime realized that the beliefs that led them to found the village would make for an excellent way to attract clients, and the Konoha you know took shape from there. So while it is our main method of standing out, it has always been our way of living. So long as you are professional on the job, you can act as you want, within reason,of course, off of it. Does that answer your question?"
"Hmph. I suppose it does. You know, for someone who is against propaganda like you say you are, you sure know how to spread it."
"That is true, I admit it. It comes from years of dealing with political issues. However, my issue is not with propaganda, but with those who cannot recognize and keep it from coloring their thoughts, words and actions."
"That does make more sense. Thank you, Hokage-sama."
"My pleasure. I'm glad to see that Konoha's newest chuunin are not the type to accept things as they are presented to you. That is a good trait to have, no matter your profession."
Next Time: Confrontation between Teacher and Student