Flag at Half Mast
The world is headed down the toilet.
Chapter 1: F-Hour
Shimura Danzo, member of General Staff to the Hokageof Hi no Kuni – Oyabun according to the foreign usurpers – strode purposefully through the well-maintained streets of Konoha escorted by his guard. As he walked, citizens and soldiery parted before him. Danzo ignored the masses and kept his eyes on the road.
At an earlier time, he would have been wary of assassination in the open, but these days, internal security was good enough that he did not bother. There was another reason for his attitude towards physical security, of course. No one in the Elemental nations considered Fire country enough of a threat to send spies or assassins. They all thought that the days of Pax Hi no Kuni were in the past and had left the husk they'd left behind to die on the vine.
Only once did Danzo's eyes stray from the path. He thought he espied Hyuuga Hizashi and Uchiha Shisui jointly address a class of students in one of the classrooms of the Shinobi Academy and turned his head to make sure. They were and their students were paying them rapt attention.
Entering the Tower, Danzo was scanned by the guards – security was always tight in the Tower because it was the nerve center of Hi no Kuni's military forces – and was escorted to the meeting chamber.
"Thank you, Corporal," the elderly shinobi said as he reached for the door. "You may return to your duties."
"Yes, Councilor," the worthy did an about-turn and marched around the corner.
"Good of you to join us," Hokage Orochimaru greeted Danzo. "We were wondering when you would join us."
"My apologies, Hokage-sama. I was delayed."
"General Itachi was briefing us on the status of our forces. Please continue, General."
Danzo nodded at the Uchiha heir as he took his seat.
"Thank you, Hokage-sama," Itachi said. "Hidden Village in Rain is hosting the next Chuunin exams. We expect almost all hidden villages to take part in the event."
"The question is, do we use this exam or wait until the next one?" Orochimaru asked.
"The staff believes this exam is our window of opportunity," Itachi replied. "I concur with them."
"Our comestible reserves are at their maximum levels. For the last one and a half year, we have been burning old stock as we took in new stock from the fields and merchants. We're losing money from our war chest maintaining those reserves.
"The army will have just come off a series of major exercises and their skills will be as sharp as it'll ever be. We don't want to waste that. Furthermore, the next exams will be at Mizu, where it would be impossible to achieve strategic surprise."
"And you feel that we can achieve it in Ame?"
"Yes. Hi no Kuni shares a border with them. Smuggling our troops in through that border or through any of the other borders Ame share with their neighbors shouldn't be as hard. We also have our own network in Rain that we can use."
"Furthermore," Itachi continued, "we have no beef with Mizu, whereas Ame is the home of the usurper. Ame's treachery was instrumental in our defeat fifteen years back and they are our enemy."
"Which means that if they'll be wary of us."
"Of course," Itachi conceded, "but in our favor, no one suspects our military strength. We haven't been active as a military force outside of Hi no Kuni and our borders have been tightly shut to outsiders for so long that if we send a team or two to participate in the exams, everyone will assume we're barely a shadow of our old selves."
"Would these teams also have to pretend we're weak?" Councilor Sarutobi asked.
"No, that'd defeat the purpose. We're playing the part of a nation trying to regain face and attract some clientele. If our soldiers' performance is pathetic in the exams, the oldsters' suspicions will be aroused. The veterans will remember the wars our fathers and forefathers fought and they'll refuse to believe that Konohagakure, while diminished had fallen so low since the Day of Shame."
"What do you propose then?"
"We send two superior teams under Kakashi and Gai. The makeup of these teams is being finalized by my staff. Plan A will be that one or more members of our teams will make the finals, which is when we'll launch our attack. If none of them make it, we'll improvise by sending dignitaries for the finals."
"But you expect our young ninja to enter the finals," Councilor Fugaku asked.
"What will be our objectives for this attack?"
"One of our objectives will be to raze Ame to the ground."
"And the others?" Councilor Danzo asked.
"Seize attending noblemen and Daimyos as hostages."
"What will be our end game?" Orochimaru asked.
"For this stage of our resurgence, peace talks immediately after the battle."
"And if the peace talks fail?" Hiashi asked.
Orochimaru smiled predatorily.
"Then we unleash the dogs of war. Okay. This what I want done…"
A week and a half later, in Amegakure…
"Hey, Chou, you aren't going to believe this. We got an application from Konohagakure for the Chuunin exams," Chuunin Gorou nudged his partner.
"Yeah, so what?" Chou shot back, uninterested.
"Asshole. No one's seen an active Leaf nin outside of Hi no Kuni in a decade."
"Do their kunoichi have tight pussies to suck the life out of my dick?" Chou asked. After a brief pause waiting for an answer, he continued, "You don't know? Then don't bother me. I'm buried up to my neck in paperwork."
Gorou ground his teeth, stamped the acceptance seal on the Konoha application and threw it into the pile.
At the same time, in Konoha…
"All right, everyone be seated," First Sergeant Rock Lee shouted as Lt. Colonel Shikamaru walked into the secure meeting room.
There was some shuffling of seats as the assorted shinobi took their seats.
"They're yours, Sir," Lee saluted and withdrew to stand at attention behind the seated personnel.
"Thank you, sergeant." To the others, he said, "The seven of you are gathered here because we've got a mission for you. If you volunteer, you'll be volunteering to represent Konoha in the coming Chuunin exams at Amegakure. Major Hatake Kakashi and Captain Maito Guy will be posing as Jounin teachers and the rest of you – the good sergeant included – will be their teams. Your mission is to participate in the exams, make a good showing, and hopefully make it to the finals…"
A short chapter. But this story has been idle for too long and I wanted to update. Anyways, here's a brief debrief of the Half Mast universe so that you have an idea of the major players.
1. Hanzo the Salamander is a kage, even though his Ame is not so big as any of the other four great nations. Thus, he is known as The Usurper in Konoha. He was made a kage because it was he who let Earth forces pass unmolested into Hi no Kuni and did not warn Fire in the events running up to the Day of Shame.
2. Danzo never had contact with Hanzo like happened in canon. Nagato and his group were invited to a peace conference by Hanzo, poisoned and slaughtered. Ame has the Rinnegan. Nagato and Madara do not.
3. Sarutobi abidicated in favor of Orochimaru. Konoha runs his experiments with kids kidnapped from all over the land. Orochimaru did not get a chance to meet Juugo. The cursed seal, as we know it from canon does not exist. Don't ask me what happened to Juugo.
4. The Uchiha massacre did not happen. Sarutobi wedded them close to the village by giving them increased power and responsibility, and the Uchiha pride was also stung by the Day of Shame. Their clan is now more closely entwined with Fire than ever before.
5. Hinata's kidnapping did not happen because Konoha's borders have been sealed to outsiders since the Day of Shame. Trade happens at the border. No foreigner is let in.
6. There was a lot of anger at Naruto because of the Kyuubi and the loss of life and pride that resulted from its attack, but with the shinobi population completely behind Sarutobi, he could afford to be as harsh as he wanted to be. As a result, no one behaved badly to him as happened in canon with hateful glares and such, but his childhood was lonely. But he gained friends – all of them high placed, interestingly –_~.
7. There is no Akatsuki as we know the organization – Nagato and Konan are dead, Orochimaru and Itachi did not defect – and there was no bloodline purge in Mizu, though the clans as hated as ever.
8. Konoha's been spending wealth horded since the founding of the village this last decade and a half, for those interested in the finance side of things.
9. All manner of unethical experiments that you can imagine, Konoha's done and everyone – Sarutobi et al – were totally behind it.
10. Suna is not strapped for cash. In fact, it's positively rich, what with all the acquisitions from Hi no Kuni on the Day of Shame.
11. As of this chapter, Naruto is about 16 years old, just in case people are expecting a 12 year old. He got his Hitaite 6 years back.
12. And… Let me not spoil the fun anymore by revealing more.
Keep reading. If you thought TBLP was bloody and gruesome, you ain't seen nothing yet.