The Tired Shadows
The lamplight flickered, the day was nearly done. Two shinobi hunched over the shougi board, staring each other down.
"The day you win against me, I'll frame the king for you."
A smirk crossed the face of the older jounin.
"Today's that day."
The morning in Suna was cold, as all desert mornings were. Grey dawn crept through the village, preparing for the blazing heat of the day. Sand swirled through the streets and forced the few people already out to wear thick protective clothing. Most wore forehead protectors. There weren't many civilians in Sunagakure no Sato.
The Kazekage's office would open every day at the first ray of sun, just as the night watch was being relieved. Six ANBU would show up first, clearing the perimeter. Ten years before, the Kazekage would have been the last to arrive, long after the sun had risen. But his son, the Godaime, was always there long before the clerical staff.
Gaara rubbed his eyes, alone in his office. Paperwork was always the consuming interest of the Kazekage, and he felt like it had doubled in the past couple of weeks. Things were going wrong. For Suna, for him, for his family, for the Daimyo. An unexplained attack had damaged a town in Wind, the Hokage was expected to announce her successor at the Hinokami Festival, his sister was becoming increasingly erratic and most disturbingly, one of his personal retinue had gone missing, all evidence suggesting that she had left Suna willingly.
He leaned his face gently against his hand and sighed. Twelve years as Kazekage and he felt like it had been an entire lifetime. The papers on his desk were in stacks taller than him and didn't seem to shift no matter how dilligently he worked. He would be glad to be out of this. He was the youngest Kage ever instated, most were given the honour of dying in action, defending their village, but he knew that he would have no such honour.
"Temari," he said quietly. The shadows of the room shifted and her image flickered in front of him, appearing in a split second. She wore her hair down, porcelain mask over her face, indistinguishable from any other ANBU. Aside, he noted with a slight frown of disapproval, from her decision to wear her uniform skirt several inches shorter than the other members.
"Yes, Kazekage-sama?" The blond stood at attention, completely unmoving.
"Nee-san," he said directly, trying not to let on that he was nursing a headache. "Okama Seiya, my taijutsu specialist, has been gone for a week. Please consider her a missing-nin."
"You want me to eliminate her?" Her voice sounded hollow from inside the mask.
"Yes, consider it your main priority. She's dangerous." He handed over a file containing a brand new Bingo Book entry. He watched her posture for her reaction and saw her cock her head. "I'm sure you know where to start."
Temari looked down at the picture of a woman with wild dark hair. Her statistics asserted her to be thirty eight years old, with brown eyes and a noticeable scar along her jawbone. She regarded the entry carefully, thankful for the additional information, as the woman wouldn't be easily recognisable. Mainly because her face was covered to the bridge of her nose with a black mask.
"You suspect Konoha of foul play?" she asked evenly.
Gaara looked at her, his eyes lazy and tired. "No. But if she has connections to their jounin, she may have made contact."
"I'll leave straight away."
"Thank you, nee-san," he murmured, turning back to his paperwork.
Temari turned to leave, then paused, looking over her shoulder. "Gaara, congratulations."
He looked up at his sister, face impassive. Her green eyes were just a hint of colour behind her mask. "Thank you, nee-san."
Tsunade gazed out over her village. It was closing in on sunset, people were finishing their business for the day. Shadows grew long, the villagers growing fewer and fewer on the streets, the gate guards changed shift. It had been a long day. An almost continual stream of messages out of Suna had her working overtime, it seemed that the Wind Daimyo couldn't catch a break. She was glad to see the end of the day. Sundown meant that she could have a drink.
The blonde Hokage sat at her desk with a heavy sigh. She fished in the bottom drawer for the bottle of sake. Shizune felt that drinking at the Hokage's office was inappropriate, as was drinking during work hours or the night before a big day. Jiraiya felt that drinking was fun, and should be done as often as possible. Tsunade thought that sundown was a good compromise. She looked at her reflection in the clear liquid. The illusion jutsu kept her looking twenty years old, but even that seemed to have slipped a few years.
Sakura's shock of pink hair appeared around the door. She smiled at her master. "Shishou, Kakashi-san is here to see you. I'm off for the night."
Tsunade looked at the girl for a few moments before answering, not really wanting to talk at all. Sakura wasn't a girl anymore, she was twenty-six years old, almost unrecognisable from the little slip that was scared senseless of her teacher in her first medical lesson. Still alone, though. Still too proud and too busy for real friends or lovers.
"Send him in. I'll see you in the morning."
Sakura bowed and closed the door behind her. Tsunade wandered out onto her balcony, crossing her arms on the railing and watching the sunset. She knew that she wouldn't hear him come in, so she just waited and watched the horizon light on fire.
"Hokage-sama." Kakashi crouched on the railing next to her, his one visible eye scanning the village.
"Another message from Suna?" she asked, avoiding another sigh. She couldn't let her subordinates see how tired she was growing.
"Seems they have another crisis." He handed over a scroll from Gaara. "Their top taijutsu specialist has left the village with no word of her intentions or whereabouts."
Tsunade opened the scroll and looked at the Bingo Book entry that was included. She raised an eyebrow at the copy-nin. "I see."
"No relation," he said with an eye-crinkling smile. The Hokage glanced down at the picture again, looking at the masked visage. Shinobi this old were usually retired from active duty, if alive. Then she was in no position to judge a kunoichi by her age. She glanced at Kakashi again and he indicated the message from Gaara. "Sabaku no Temari has been dispatched for the assassination. Kazekage-sama has asked us not to interfere. Sabaku no Kankurou will be travelling with her as the Sand's Hinokami delegate for the festival."
"Do you know if the rumours are true?" She scanned the letter, looking for any confirmation or denial of the whispers that had flitted around their village.
"I haven't heard anything. Would you like me to investigate?"
"No, it's a personal matter. The Kazekage needs his privacy." She offered him a bowl of sake and he accepted it wordlessly. They both downed the drinks without looking at each other. Kakashi examined the Hokage out of the corner of his eye. She wasn't looking good. It was coming up on the tenth anniversary of the death of Jiraiya, closely followed by that of Shizune. Everyone had expected her to resign after the death of her last family member, but she was made of sterner stuff than that. After so many years it was no surprise that she was handing the torch to the next generation.
"Have you decided on the next Hokage?" He changed the subject to one which was a hot topic in the village. The Rokudaime Hokage would be announced at the festival, and whoever won the betting pools would be very wealthy. The Konoha 11 were all hot contenders, Naruto at the forefront.
"No," she replied with a pensive look. "Though I have it narrowed down to five candidates. The council will most likely make the decision."
"Five," he said thoughtfully. "That's a lot to narrow down."
"I'd be happy with any of them leading Konoha." Tsunade downed another bowl of sake, leaning heavily on the railing. "Naruto, Sakura, Hinata, Shikamaru or Neji."
"Naruto will never talk to you again if you don't choose him," Kakashi said with a smile, accepting another bowl.
Tsunade laughed genuinely. "That's true. He's the strongest shinobi in this village, but he's still young, even for his age. Impetuous. Another five years, maybe."
"Maybe." Kakashi's mind was elsewhere. He was interested in their conversation, the future of Konoha was paramount. The only thing was that he had also received a message from Suna, and not from the Kazekage's office. The scroll was burning a hole in his pocket. "I have to attend to some business. Please excuse me, Hokage-sama."
Kakashi bowed his head to her before leaping onto the closest rooftop. He disliked abandoning Tsunade in the middle of a conversation, but apart from the update on the Rokudaime decision he had no pressing business with her. The message he held was surely top priority. He flew across the village, his feet barely touching the rooftops.
The Wind was in trouble, no one doubted it. Sporadic attacks littered their villages, moving dangerously close to the Fire's borders. Their ranks were in disarray, stories of strange behaviour ran rampant, and the rumours about the Kazekage didn't help matters. Whoever the new Hokage was, they'd have a lot on their plate from the get go. With Okama Seiya thrown into the mix, he would have recommended Tsunade postpone her retirement, but that wasn't an option.
Five young shinobi, an ANBU captain, a strategist, a hunter-nin, a medical-nin and... Naruto. Any of them would be capable of running the village, but it would be a hard start. Moving into office while an ally was in crisis was unusual to say the least. But then, Suna's troubles were Konoha's troubles and the continual state of turbulence had people on edge, new leadership was a way to renew faith.
He slipped into his apartment through the window, casting a quick glance around the bare living room. He almost expected someone to be hidden in the shadows. It wasn't a fact that he wanted to enlighten Tsunade about, but he did know Okama Seiya, and she would almost certainly be visitting him soon. There were no unusual chakra signatures in the area, but he lit a few candles anyway. His hands shook a little with the matches and he took a deep breath. A week of no sleep, investigating the attacks on Wind, and the knowledge that his old friend would soon be putting him in a compromising position had him stressed.
The light spilled over Kakashi's desk and he sat down, spreading the letter on the wood. The script was sprawling and hurried, she'd written this on the run.
By the time you read this letter, I will be twenty-four hours out of Konoha. The others have received their orders, they'll be joining us soon. Our deadline is approaching and you know what needs to be done, we've left it as long as possible. The changeover of Hokages is the perfect time, their office will be disorganised and unable to send a proper force after us. I am sure by this time Suna's hunter-nin are after me, hopefully we can avoid Konoha's ANBU joining them.
My scroll has been recovered at great expense, soon the evidence will be discovered and our problems will multiply. I hope that you have already recovered yours. If not, we have a week before the bitch arrives in Konoha, Uruhana and I will assist you in its retrieval.
I can also confirm for you that the rumours regarding Gaara-sama are undoubtedly true. The announcement will be made in unison with the Hokage's decision.
Kakashi sighed heavily. So it was time. He'd known it was coming, but had denied it for as long as possible. The scroll was somewhere that he didn't want to be intruding, he wasn't even sure that he could.
Temari-chan was after Seiya. It had been a long time since the Suna-nin was an academy liaison, now it was very serious that she was after them. The Scarecrow Assassin, they called her in Suna. Her techniques were so destructive that she couldn't draw weapons in civilisation. The victim would find themelves in an open field where she could tear them up at will. They would have to leave Konoha eventually, making it all too easy for her.
Kakashi held the edge of the scroll to the flame of the candle, burning the evidence of his correspondence.