"Put your hats on the table, and we can begin."
Mifune definitely looked older, and there were a few more scars on his wizened face, but his manner as he assumed the head of the room had lost none of its dignity. "Thank you all for coming to this meeting of the six Kages. This meeting has been arranged by the Hokage, so he shall be the first to speak."
Naruto had been waiting for the summons, and stood to his feet. "Well… guess I'll just start by reminding everyone what we're here for." He gave a nervous little chuckle. Look at Gaara. At least HE doesn't want to kill you. "Only a year ago, the Five Elemental Countries and the Iron Nations united to stand against Madara and the threat of his Moon's Eye Plan, resulting in the Fourth Shinobi World War." He made it a point to give a commiserating gaze around the room. Don't stare at the Mizukage, don't stare at the Mizukage, don't staaaaaare… "All the nations, and all the villages, suffered greatly in that war. Suna lost many of its best shinobi, the Iron Country sacrificed its time-honored neutrality, and Kumo and Iwa both lost their Kages, even as the rigors of war forced Konoha's own Hokage into early retirement. Many fought, and died, for the cause of peace."
"We are met here today to make sure their deaths are not in vain. To close the final page on the war against Madara and begin a new age of peace and prosperity. Things have been understandably tense since the war, but it's time to put all that aside and set the course for the future."
Nodding to Shikaku (it felt weird to have his friend's dad as an adviser), Naruto took the scroll from him and spread it out on the table. "We are met here to discuss the treaty allowing for the formation of a sixth Hidden Village within the Elemental Countries."
"I just don't know… it's a different dynamic, adjusting to more of them."
Hana Inuzuka snorted. "You disappeared for practically half a year, Kiba. What'd you expect Akamaru to do in that time, pine away for love of you?"
"I was a little afraid of it, yeah," answered Kiba, glaring up at his sister. He was seated on the floor, scratching a comatose Akamaru's ears.
"He just about DID, if that makes you feel better. Kept getting skinnier and skinnier, that first month you were gone, until we were afraid of losing him. Then mother got the bright idea of kenneling him with that brown-haired bitch of Tsuchika's, and… well, he started eating again."
"Well, yeah, that part makes sense. And I'm glad mom did it." Kiba looked down fondly at the huge dog. "My time away just made me realize how much I depend on Akamaru. I don't know what I'd do without him."
A rumbling sound of contentment arose from Akamaru's inert form.
Glancing back up, Kiba continued, "The part that doesn't make sense is why I'm expected to bring all five puppies WITH me whenever I go on missions from now on. I mean, what the heck? Aren't they supposed to be meeting their new partners? At the least it seems like they should be Tsuchika's problem, not mine."
Hana's eyes narrowed. "See, THIS is why I wanted to talk to you away from all the others. I had a feeling you'd be either clueless or stupid."
"Huh?" Kiba's forehead wrinkled in confusion.
With a mixture of affection and exasperation, Hana smacked her brother upside the head. "Tsuchika's dead, you idiot." She sighed. "And her partner too. If you haven't noticed—and apparently, you haven't—the Inuzuka got hit pretty badly in the war. We don't HAVE partners for those dogs, and they're too rabid to sell as pets, because when we started to raise them we thought we were going to need all the soldiers we could get. Now, between the casualties we've had and the troop cutbacks they're talking about…" Hana's voice trailed off.
Kiba's face slowly faded from shock to understanding. "Is this some… new kind of soldier program then?"
"No." Hana sighed. "Just a way of dealing with leftovers, really. Without partners, and with their mother dead, there's really not much we can do for those dogs. Akamaru's their father, so hopefully he should have some attachment to them, but even so… they're probably not going to last long, out in the field." Seeing Kiba's face, she hung her head. "I know, I know. But it's either that or put them down. We can't sell them, we can't release them into the town, we can't release them into the wild…"
"They're DOGS. Wild dogs are worse than wolves, they hang around human settlements and pick off livestock, you know that. Those six would destroy a farming village's economy in a week."
"I guess," grunted Kiba, folding his arms and looking away. "And I suppose another reason I'm getting this job is because Akamaru and I are kind of… detached since that whole mess."
Hana shook her head. "Just the opposite, actually. You and Akamaru have always had a deeper connection than any of the other Inuzuka pairs. Mom thinks that might make it easier to bear the strain. Anyone else, and the dogs might start getting jealous of each other, but with you two…" Hana smiled. "It just might work."
"Maybe." Kiba's glance strayed down to the huge dog at his side. "I guess I'm more versatile now—working constantly with Akamaru I was getting in something of a rut—but I still didn't enjoy the time away from him. From now on, there's nothing that'll separate us."
"Hokage," grunted the Tsuchikage, a big, barrel-chested man with thick black hair—Naruto hadn't caught his name. "You are aware, of course, that Iwa's troop reserves were greatly exhausted by the war."
Naruto nodded. "As were Suna's. And Kiri's. My own country has experienced grave losses from the war effort."
"Yes, yes." The Tsuchikage waved impatiently. "But nothing compared to our losses. At present we can barely cover the missions assigned to us. Already some of our clients have started shifting their contracts to other villages." He brought his hand down heavily on the table. "This is a poor reward for the sacrifice of Iwa, Hokage! Our soldiers died so the men of Konoha and Kumo could live, and in return, you steal the bread from our mouths? And now you introduce a new village to help you with it?" He folded his arms across his massive chest. "Iwa will not stand for this, Hokage."
"Sorry to tell you this, but by your own account, that's not much of a threat." A yawn broke loose from the new Raikage and he rubbed his eyes. "If Iwa is as weak as you say, there's not really much you can do to hinder or aid this treaty."
Naruto grinned uncertainly at the blonde-haired Raikage. He liked this new guy—Darui—pretty well, if mostly because the guy was as new to the whole Kage thing as he was, but he had a unfortunate tendency to be blunt at the worst times.
A short cough reminded him of his advisor, and he leant back to allow Shikaku to whisper into his ear. The jounin had stressed that they should do this as little as possible—too much might make Naruto appear weak—but this time it served not only as a helpful advice session, but also a convenient way to break the tension that hung over the room.
Nodding, Naruto leant forward again. "Konoha understands the difficulty of your position." He assured the Tsuchikage. "Suna and Kiri have come to us with similar concerns. But the simple fact is, with the Great Alliance now formalized, the prospect of war is much less likely, and, in turn, the services of ninja much less likely to be in demand." Naruto spread his hands. "We must face facts, gentlemen. All the ninja nations will have to cut operations." Pointing at the Tsuchikage, Naruto continued, "You may find that your newly reduced forces are not yet small enough."
Darui, from his side, studied his fingernails. "Afraid I have to confirm that also. Even with the post-war restoration work going on, Kumo is barely clearing enough operations to keep its ninja occupied." Grinning ruefully, he added, "If things get much duller than this, the Daimyo's likely to cut our funding and we'll have to let some ninjas go."
"As will Konoha." Naruto withdrew a scroll from his pouch—this was a huge security risk, but he'd convinced Shikaku it was worth it. "I have here the budget requisition report from the Fire Daimyo for Konohagakure." He spread it out on the table. "Most of it is sealed off—for security purposes—but you can see by the notation at the bottom, Konoha will also have to make cuts to survive financially."
The different Kages studied the document carefully. Shikaku had suggested falsifying the visible records, but Naruto had thought differently. The ninjas would expect the records to be falsified, why not show them the real ones?
"But, in order that this be understood by all parties," Shikaku broke the silence, reminding Naruto that he really did not need to let them spend too long looking at the records. "There is a clause within the treaty stipulating that all involved nations begin troop cutback preparations."
"Each in accordance to their current state, of course." Naruto affirmed, picking up the thread where his counselor had left it. "The purpose of the treaty is simply to define what everyone in this room already knows—that a large standing army of ninja is no longer practical."
"Quality, not quantity, shall rule this coming age," nodded Gaara, with a look of curious satisfaction on his face. "It is time for new practices to come into play."
The dojo rang with shouts and screams, punctuated by the rapid thuds of fists and feet meeting flesh. A crowd of lower-ranking students were clustered around the circle, watching in awe at the two green-clad whirlwinds in the center.
"Forgive me, Gai-sensei, but…"Lee grabbed his former teacher's outstretched arm and pulled hard, flipping the bowl-haired taijutsu master over his back and sailing to the back wall. The older man did a somersault in mid-air and landed with his feet against the wall.
"Ah-HA! Most tricky, Lee! Your youthful stratagem has momentarily unseated me!"
Lee's feet plowed into the wall where Gai had been two seconds previously. "YOSH! Thank you Gai-sensei!"
Gai shook his finger admonishingly in between the hundred or so punches Lee hurled at him. "Lee, Lee, I am no longer… urk!" Lee had whipped under his blow and delivered a straight chop to the stomach, twisting slightly as he did so.
"You are still depending on blows, Gai-sensei!" He called as the man, his concentration blown, plummeted to the dojo floor. "This fighting style is about holds!"
Gai crashed to the floor, but rolled up from it and mounted up on his feet again, hands at the ready. "Yosh! You are most correct, oh Youthful Master!" As Lee came at him again he caught the young man's arm in a vise and pinched several points on his wrist.
Lee's face shone with pride. "That is correct, Gai-sensei!"
"Lee-ee." Gai shook his head. "I was saying, do not—"
Lee's other arm snaked around his waist and whipped him over backwards, sending him crashing to the mat. Lee hopped backwards a little, shaking his now-useless hand.
Gai lay on the mat for a moment, considering. "I should not talk so much." He decided.
"Perhaps not, Gai-sensei."
"Ah-HA!" Gai leapt up again, wiping blood from his mouth. "You are tricky, but I will show you! I will talk TWICE as much while fighting to beat you, and if I cannot do that, I will…"
But Lee was on him. Arms blurred and clashed in a dizzying series of blows and blocks. The students on the sidelines alternately cheered and winced at the hits. Probably only half of the students gathered had ever actually FOUGHT Master Lee, but even to watch his style was an education. And to watch him fight the Old Master, Maito Gai, was a truly rare treat.
"Truly your spirit is exploding with youth and enthusiasm!" boomed Gai's great voice from somewhere in the flurry of complicated blows. "Tell me, Lee, how goes your quest for the youthful Sakura?"
Lee missed a block in his surprise and Gai's fist sent him staggering. "I am still determined!" He responded eagerly, rolling away from the knee Gai planted into the mat. "My passion and devotion are unwavering as ever! I will win Haruno Sakura's heart, and if I cannot do that, I will win the hearts of twenty other village girls!"
"Ah-HA my youthful Lee, but I think you have done so already!"
"Yosh!" The voice was a little distorted, as Lee was currently somersaulting over Gai's head, but he came down evenly on his feet and whipped around just in time to catch the kick aimed at him. "Then I will win the hearts of FORTY village girls, and if I cannot do that, I will…"
The students shifted a little uncomfortably. Master Lee's self-imposed punishments were not popular around the dojo, particularly as he tended to expect his students to adopt similar practices. And while Lee's feelings for Konoha's top researcher were not exactly secret—last month he'd painted a 'youthful' wedding proposal all over the Hokage Monument—it wasn't exactly something the students cared to hear about.
"I have faith in your youthful passion, Lee!" Gai ducked under a series of jabs and attempted a stab at Lee's midsection, only to have the younger man writhe away from him. "You have truly grown to be an exceptional ninja!"
"Yosh! Naruto-sama wished to remove me from active duty to teach ANBU trainees!" Lee spun around in mid-air and shot a flying kick at Gai's head. The elder man's hands flew up and caught Lee's foot inches from his face, pushing out and over, sending Lee tumbling overhead. "But I declined! I am determined to be a fully capable and active shinobi!"
"But Lee! You are already a fully capable shinobi! Your friends Chouji and Shino have retired, and even your eternal rival Neji has settled down."
"Ah-HA, you are tricky, Gai-sensei! But all three of them have clan responsibilities, and Chouji wishes to open a barbeque. Neji is not only married, but rising quickly in the Hyuuga clan. He will continue to train with them, I am sure! I am determined to remain active and become TWICE as capable a shinobi!"
"Ah-ha, my youthful Lee." Gai shook his head admiringly as he fired a hail of blows at the boy. "You must do more than that. You must become THREE TIMES as capable a shinobi, and catch…"
Lee's arms whipped crossways in front of his face and caught Gai's arm. One hand reversed to grab the arm, but Gai yanked back, pulling him off balance and sending him reeling forward. Gai sidestepped, and, as Lee came tumbling past, touched his fingers to certain key points on Lee's neck.
But Lee bounced back up. "That was not the correct hold, Gai-sensei!" He admonished him. Ducking under Gai's jab, he whipped up closer to the older man, sticking his left leg around the back of the other's right and jerking back. Gai stumbled, nearly fell over backward but corrected himself, only to feel something strike the base of his skull, accompanied by the words "This is."
The dojo erupted into cheers as Gai, temporarily paralyzed, collapsed to the mat. Lee bowed to his inert mentor. "Thank you for the match, Gai-sensei."
Gai, or at least the part of his face that Lee could see, smiled. "Lee-ee." He admonished. "As I was saying, you must no longer call me Gai-sensei. I can no longer be your teacher."
"What?" Lee stopped at the dip of his bow, his eyes wide and alarmed. "B-but Gai-sensei…"
"No." Gai's head moved, the paralysis was wearing off. "No, Lee, now it is I who must call YOU my teacher!"
Lee's lower lip trembled. His eyes grew wide and bright with manly tears. With a dramatic sob of heartfelt emotion he tugged his old teacher's largely unresponsive body upright and hugged him in the sudden sunrise.
"YOSH!" Lee was really in tears now, practically falling over from emotion, fortunately Gai's legs had come back.
The applause from the students faltered and finally stopped. Lee's dojo was the best—and often the most entertaining—to be found for miles, but there was no denying that it was also occasionally a trifle strange.
"This next bit here seems a little weird to me." Darui yawned. "An explicit ban against all bloodline experimentation? What's the point of that?"
"You would wonder about that, wouldn't you," smirked the Mizukage. "Throws a real wrench into your whole kidnapping racket, doesn't it?"
Darui's lidded eyes flickered over to the woman. "I have no idea what you're talking about. Personally I'm not surprised you're supporting it—your village barely has any bloodlines left. No wonder you want to keep others from developing their own."
Mei Terumi smiled sweetly. "There's still me, kiddo."
"Gentlemen." Naruto held up his hand. "And ladies." He added hurriedly, at the Mizukage's cocked eyebrow. "As you've both just demonstrated, bloodlines are an inflammable topic. Prior to the war, the only intensive research being done into them was conducted by Orochimaru. Well." Spreading his hands, Naruto let the weight of that thought sink in. "We all know where that led. Given how the recent war practically revolved around a particular bloodline, isn't it best to forestall such conflicts before they begin by forbidding the research that leads to them?"
The Tsuchikage grunted. "To me it would seem better to DO the research so you know how to prevent such a conflict when it begins. Or at least know which are most likely to cause such conflicts."
It was hard, Naruto reflected, arguing for things that you didn't really believe in. "This ban is very important to the admission of the new village." He said carefully. "Its goal is to establish proper respect for the clans of such bloodlines by treating them as people instead of medical experiments." He waited a moment. "Each village may retain its respective bloodlines, and of course the clans may develop their abilities as they see fit. But there is to be no…" he hesitated, "…outsider investigation into the nature of bloodline abilities."
Gaara shrugged. "It makes enough sense. In any case it certainly does not affect Suna to any great extent."
"Certainly we can all agree with the latter part of the clause—that experimentation on the Sharingan of the Uchiha clan be absolutely forbidden." Naruto gazed around the circle and was relieved to see a few reluctant nods. "And anyway, when you think about it, there's not going to be a lot of money for research, what with the budget cuts and all."
"No, I knew about the budget cuts," replied Sakura. Blood clung to the surface of her long white gloves and fog rose from her masked mouth as she poked at the brain peeking out of the corpse's skull. She and Ino stood in one of the more out-of-the-way operating theatres, containing some of the most advanced ninja medical equipment and several new devices of Sakura's own design. Light music filtered through the cold air of the room as she continued her probing, remarking, "I guess I was just surprised to hear that Chouji and Shino had been… let go like that."
"Oh, and what was I, completely justified?" Ino, similarly attired but standing well away from the corpse on the table, sent a glare at her friend.
Sakura sent a smirk from behind her mask. "Well, not so much justified as expected, Pig-chan. After all, even Naruto can read the writing on the wall. Everyone knows that once you get married…"
"FOREHEAD!" Ino hissed, the section of skin visible above the surgical mask flaming bright red. "That's just a rumor! Sai hasn't even proposed!"
Glancing up, Sakura cocked an eyebrow at her friend. "Well, no, but he did announce in a public restaurant on how he'd like to make a formal arrangement to have regular intercour…"
"FOREHEAD!" A cloud of vapor erupted from the masked girl's mouth.
"I'm just saying." Sakura waved her hands in apology, sending flecks of blood into the cold air. The music began to pick up, building toward a finale. "Also your mother told me about him 'asking permission' from her. Apparently it was pretty juicy stuff."
Ino groaned. "Mother…"
"You could do worse." Sakura shrugged. "He's one of the few shinobi NOT out of work right now. In fact…" She waggled her eyebrows at her friend. "…an inside source tells me that he's Naruto's hand-picked boy to take over ANBU once the current head steps down."
"Look, Sai has NOT proposed, okay?" Ino glared at her. "I don't think he even quite gets the idea of what a marriage entails yet. So he didn't get down on one knee, he didn't get a ring, so it's not a proposal." A momentary crash of cymbals made her pause. "And anyway Mom said no."
Smirking again, Sakura turned back to her work. "Whatever. That's the sort of thing that even Naruto can't ignore. No sense in keeping you on and kicking out some less talented soldier, if he knows you're going to be leaving anyway."
"Well why'd he kick you out?" Ino glared at her friend. "Lee give an especially dramatic proposal? Some of the boys are wondering how he's going to top painting 'Will you marry me' on the Hokage Monument."
Sakura suddenly became very interested in the brain. "Not that it's any of your business, but Naruto didn't kick me out. I quit, so I could focus on my job here at the Science Center. There's too much work to do and Tsunade… well, even she isn't getting any younger anymore."
"Oh…" Ino winced slightly. "Yes. I… stopped by her room earlier today."
"I know I'm never going to use that 'eternal youth' thing of hers. All those years hitting her at once…" Sakura shivered. "It's a wonder she still has her mind." Shaking her head, Sakura picked up a knife and a glass probe. "I'm far too busy to be running around the country chasing cats or whatever they have jounin doing these days. Plus there's still work on Kakashi to do…"
"How is Kakashi-sensei?"
Sakura shrugged. "Hard to say. He can still fight, of course, and he knows all his old jutsus, so he's still pretty deadly. But that eye of his is just about dead… it's healing, but so slowly it practically doesn't even matter. Kakashi might die before his eye comes back."
"Mmm," nodded Ino. "Probably just as well. If it wasn't, that eye might be part of the new treaty. I hear that they're going to call an end to all study of bloodlines."
"Oh yes?" Sakura poked the folds of grey flesh about.
Neither girl said anything for a moment. The strains of music floated up and down in the surgery room. Ino watched her friend. "What're you going to do if they do, Sakura?"
Konoha's chief medic and researcher snorted. "Damn well keep studying them. It's not like anybody's planning to abide by half the rules in that thing anyway. This is a hospital, what're they going to do, stop taking people here? When we've got the fastest growing reputation for treating bloodline-specific diseases? Heck, Ino, even the other villages send their worst cases here." Making a small incision with her knife, she reached for the tweezers and brought out a blubbery looking piece of tissue. "They might keep me from taking records, but they can't keep me from SEEING the things. And if they want progress to be made on the disease, they'll shut up and let me do my work."
There was a short silence.
"I'm sorry." Sakura said, looking up. "I got carried away there, Ino. I shouldn't have… it wasn't very thoughtful of me to…"
"It's alright, Sakura."
"I tend to space out when I'm working and forget…"
"I said it was okay, Sakura."
"It's just…"said Sakura, taking a step back.. "Are you sure you're… okay with this?" Eyes fixed on her friend, she gestured toward the bloody organ between them.
Ino gave a small nod. "I'm sure."
"Because if you're not, I could easily stop, I have plenty of information…"
"Sakura, it's what Daddy wanted," said Ino, laying a hand on her friend's arm. "He said if it would help the clan at large, if it might give some key to help me know how to deal with my… telepathy, he said…" Ino swallowed. "He said it would be for the best."
"He gave you his approval to do this." Sakura glanced back to the sheet swathed corpse on the table, and the bloody yellow hair that had been pealed back from the skull. "Ino, your father was a remarkable man. Do you realize what this means? I'm getting years of insight into my research, groundbreaking stuff that could revolutionize your clan. I can't lie, I still can't say it helps me understand your telepathy, but…" she shook her head. "He did a great thing."
Ino's mouth twitched. "Well in that case, shouldn't we get him sewn back up? The funeral's tomorrow, and there's only so long you can pretend to be embalming him."
"Right." Sakura turned back to the corpse. "Just a few more things to take care of before we do that, though. Hand me that forceps, would you?"
Ino reached out for the forceps, but her hand bumped against something else entirely and she looked down. "Sakura." She said, in a somewhat disbelieving tone. "That's not… Is that…?"
"An MP3." Sakura nodded distractedly. "Or an iSomething-or-other, I forget. Still works, too, as long as you keep it charged with the occasional Raiton jutsu. Forceps?"
"OhmiGOD Sakura you smuggled that back from the other world?" Ino swept over to the table and picked it up. "Does Naruto know you have this?"
"Actually it's not mine." Sakura glanced up. "Tenten dropped it off. Said I could have it. Forceps?"
Ino found the desired article and passed it over. "Just like that?"
"Just like that." Sakura shrugged. "Look through it if you like, it's mostly a bunch of weapons instructional videos and action movies, but I think Titanic is in there somewhere, along with some songs by that one Shakira lady. Tenten didn't say anything about wanting it back, so you can probably borrow it if you want."
Nodding, Ino chewed her lip. "Sakura… you don't think…"
"Tenten's as brazen as they come, but she's not stupid… not that stupid, anyway." Sakura shook her head. "She'll play ball. She knows as much as anyone how important this treaty is."
"Hokage, I think you know as well as anyone how important this treaty is." Darui smiled across the table at Naruto. "But at the same time you're also sort of… what is the phrase… At an unfair advantage? here."
Naruto shrugged. "Define unfair. Whatever resources my country has, it has acquired legally and through its own agency."
"But not honorably," grunted the Tsuchikage (seriously, Naruto needed to learn his name.) "Your country's questionable methods have…"
"My country's 'questionable methods' won the war!" Naruto snapped. It was important to play the injured patriot here, to make them feel as if they'd forced him into something. "Whatever else you might say about them, they worked! The ninja alliance was shot to shreds when we stepped up, I didn't hear any of you complaining about 'questionable methods' back then! Without them, we might never have beaten Tobi, and you all know it!"
There was a short, embarrassed pause. Naruto could sense Shikaku's approval behind him. Then the Mizukage cleared her throat. "Yes, Hokage. We understand that. During a time of war, one turns to whatever tool suits the task."
"But we're not at war anymore." Darui pointed out. "Tobi's beaten. Now it's just each other we have to worry about, and quite frankly, Hokage… the other Elemental Nations are VERY worried about you."
"I have to agree." Though Naruto'd been expecting it, the quiet statement from Gaara still felt like a betrayal. "Suna's position is clear. The manufacture of these… guns puts the entire ninja system at risk."
The Tsuchikage crossed his arms. "Cowardly weapons." He muttered. "Putting the basest civilian at the level of the most highly trained shinobi. Their mere existence opens up a whole new market to our sponsors, a cheaper, cruder form of defense, without regard for the spiritual aspect of battle."
"They spark unrest, also," nodded Mei Terumi. "Hundreds of civilians are now armed with your country's 'guns,' and are loath to part with them. They represent a sizeable, growing threat that can only serve to further destabilize the country."
"Let's cut to essentials here, shall we?" said Naruto, waving his hand as if he was bored and angry with all of this talk. "You're all scared of the guns because they even the playing field and let civilians fight on a level with shinobi. And you're worried because right now, Konoha has a monopoly on their production, and you want that production to stop. That's the only reason anyone here is actually agreeing to this, right?"
There was a pained silence. "Not the only—" Gaara started to say.
"Look, I'm new to all this, but I'm guessing my old man would say: 'That's politics,'" drawled Darui. "You give a little, you take a little. None of us here is stupid—that's why we're Kages. We can all see the reasoning behind this new village. But the guns have to go. So if you want Kumo's name on that treaty…" Darui pointed, "…it better have a clause about that."
Naruto nodded, slowly, so as to give a sign of reluctance. "I know," said he finally. "This has all been discussed before. And I'm not one to throw away a chance for peace over something like this. Therefore, in return for the other allowances granted in this treaty, clause 43 states that the manufacture of projectile and chakra-based energy weapons be ceased and that their use and ownership be forbidden throughout the Five Elemental Nations."
The members of the room visibly relaxed. "And the… producer of these weapons?" Terumi arched a beauteous eyebrow. "The illustrious Hyuuga Tenten?"
"She will be required to shut down her enterprise and cease from experimentation in the field," responded Naruto, swallowing the knot in his stomach. He tried to give a reassuring smile. "She's a new mother… I doubt she'll need much convincing."
"I recommend that a joint ninja force be assembled to enforce the ban of this weaponry," growled the Tsuchikage.
"Agreed." There were nods, smiles, all around the circle of Kages.
To Naruto, Mifune's smile seemed just a trifle devious.
"The Land of Iron is going to pick up the business."
Shikamaru cocked a lazy eyebrow at Sai. "You think so?"
"I've seen the treaty. It forbids weaponry in the Five Elemental Countries—it says nothing about the Land of Iron." Sai took a sip from his glass. "The samurai have always been looking for something to put them on a more than equal footing with the ninja, and Naruto's practically dropped it into their lap. Tenten and Neji have been having frequent visitors since the treaty was announced—visitors my sources tell me are Mifune's people."
Nodding, Shikamaru took a bite from his fish. "So you honestly think Tenten's going to run?"
"You don't?" Sai smiled.
Shikamaru sighed and glanced out the window. "No. You're right. I feel bad for Neji and the twins, because there's no way in hell Neji's leaving the clan, but there's nothing for it. That stuff has been her life these past few years, to take her from that to…" Shikamaru shrugged, "..I don't know, an unofficial prisoner under constant watch, forbidden to even experiment with weapons…" He shook his head. "No, she's running." Glancing back at Sai, he added, "What's more puzzling is that you, knowing that, haven't arrested Tenten already."
Still smiling, Sai shrugged. "Until the treaty is signed, nothing can be done. Neji is too powerful in the Hyuuga clan hierarchy to risk angering by arranging a 'disappearance,' and Naruto wouldn't be too fond of it either."
"That's an understatement." Shikamaru grunted.
"And…" Sai stared pensively at his glass. "I have no wish to stop her." At Shikamaru's raised eyebrow, he shrugged. "She has a great talent, powerful as any bloodline. If a nation is so foolish as to forbid her using it…" He let the statement trail off.
Shikamaru finished chewing before he responded. "That sounded almost human of you." He grinned. "So you think Naruto's being foolish?"
Sai smiled and spread his hands. "It's not my place to criticize the Hokage or his advisors."
"Just to undercut them with 'off the books' missions that correct the mistakes you think they made but won't tell them," responded Shikamaru drily. "Look, I know how it looks, Sai. But Naruto's not banning the weapons just because the other nations want him to. He's doing it because KONOHA wants him to."
"Really?" For a moment Sai looked almost surprised.
Shikamaru nodded. "Konoha's in the same economic boat as the other villages. It's got no need to introduce fresh competitors to the business of warfare. "
"Apart from this new village that Naruto is sponsoring."
"Well… yeah." Shikamaru looked slightly uncomfortable. "But we've been over that. You already know the arguments, it's the best way to deal with a flammable situation."
"I understand it." Sai's smile stretched across his face..
"You just don't like it. But you don't need to." Shikamaru nodded. "Right. And this new village is the only reason Naruto's been holding off on the guns issue—he wanted to save it as a trump card. He knew he'd need it to get this new village pushed through."
"Really?" Sai's look was slightly disbelieving, but he shrugged and raised his glass. "Well, Naruto's not quite the dickless idiot he used to be."
"You ARE feeling sentimental today." Shikamaru grinned. "He's been surprisingly good at politics, though Dad and I give him plenty of pointers. But he knew that the other nations would agree to just about anything in order to stop Tenten's weapon production here in Konoha."
"Except it won't be stopped." Sai pointed out, setting down his glass. "It just won't be 'here in Konoha' anymore."
"Yeah…" winced Shikamaru, rubbing the back of his head. "How much you want to bet 'the Land of Iron' won't be the universal neutral ground much longer?"
Sai smiled. "I've learned not to bet against you, Nara."
"And I foresee no problem with Mifune-sama's amendment, that the Land of Iron be allowed a greater role in future village dealings. Is there any? No?" Naruto glanced around the room. "And we have already discussed the matter of halting researcg into bloodlines." Like THAT'S gonna happen. "Then, if there's nothing more, perhaps to…"
"There is one further matter."
Naruto glanced up. Gaara again. He really shouldn't be mad at his friend for doing his job as Kazekage, but damnit, why did he have to keep bringing up stuff? "Yes?"
"This is not a… treaty matter, strictly speaking, but it is one that I believe enters into these talks." Gaara stared at his hands, folded on the table before him. "Suna, with its… troubled past, has undergone rapid downsizing before. We have often had to lay off a great many ninja in order to continue functioning."
"We're all know Suna's poor." Darui yawned. "So?"
Naruto had to admire the way Gaara didn't even blink. "My point is that Suna has also experienced the inevitable ramifications of such downsizing—large quantities of missing nins. Without village-sponsored employment, many unemployed A-class or even S-class nins will take to less… orthodox means of procuring goods." Gaara glanced over at Darui, and his eyes bored into the Raikage's. "You say that this is a typically Suna problem, but it seems to be that soon it will be a Kumo problem also, indeed a problem for us all."
Naruto chewed his lip. He had honestly not thought of that.
"What do you suggest, Kazekage?" That was Mei Terumi of the Mist. "We cannot support them, and the Daimyo's are not likely to agree to continue paying ninjas who do no work. How has Suna resolved these situations in the past?"
Gaara shrugged. "That is not applicable in this case, unfortunately. Suna's former procedure was to hunt such ninjas within our land relentlessly, but offer bounties only on the most valuable ones." Something akin to a smirk crossed his face. "The idea was to persuade the missing nins to leave the Land of the Wind and go create trouble for our neighbors."
"Ha!" The Mizukage smiled. "Shrewd, Little one, very shrewd."
"But not applicable to a national alliance such as this," interrupted Mifune, glaring at Mei and Gaara alike. "You cannot ALL drive the missing nins into each others' countries."
"We don't exactly have the funds to offer bounties on all of them." Darui pointed out.
"Nor to pay them all off." Gaara nodded. "I have met with the Daimyo of Wind regarding this matter, suggesting a payment program for unemployed ninjas. He was not sympathetic."
"Even well-paid, there is no guarantee that ninja would not turn to crime simply to supplement their income, or even out of boredom," rumbled Kitsuchi (THAT was his name! The Tsuchikage! Kitsuchi! Naruto made a mental note to write it down later.) "It has been known to happen." He nodded in response to the disbelieving looks. "Deidara, for instance."
Gaara spread his arms. "I can offer no solution. I fear there is none, and that our greatest threat in the coming years will come from clanless, villageless missing nins. What I ask is this—how are we to answer such a threat?"
There was a short silence. All the Kage's were thinking. But unbidden, there sprang to Naruto's mind an image of another world, of where heroes lived in a central tower and kept watch over their villages against the constant threat of super-powered criminals and terrorists…
Smiling suddenly, Naruto cleared his throat. "I have a few ideas that you might find interesting." He said to the questioning gazes.
"Well. Those WERE some interesting stories," yawned the black girl—Karui, Hinata reminded herself. Purportedly the future consort of the new Raikage.
"Seriously, though," snickered Kurotsuchi, daughter of the current Tsuchikage. "Did you and all those friends of yours honestly disappear to another world? For, like, months?"
Hinata put on her best smile as she leant forward with the tea. "Kuro-san." She informed the girl. "Do you honestly believe I could make up all that… even if I wanted to?"
"She's got a point there." Temari grinned over the table. "Take it from me, this Hyuuga princess couldn't make up a decent fairy tale if she had to. Personally—" she glanced over at Hinata, "—I'm still astonished that you're able to talk so long without stuttering. Back when I was the Suna liason…"
"One learns many things, Temari-san," shrugged Hinata. "One changes with experiences."
"Particularly when those experiences involve the new Hokage. Eh? Eh?" Kurotsuchi waggled her eyebrows suggestively. "Oh! Oh she's getting red! She's getting red!"
"Oooh, so they ARE true!" Temari crowed. "All those rumors I've been hearing! C'mon, girl, share the details."
"Th-there's r-really not any d-details…" Hinata forced a breath and continued, "…any details to share. We haven't… actually DONE anything yet. My father wouldn't allow it."
"Uh-huh." Karui raised a skeptical eyebrow. "You expect us to believe that you and that hormone-ridden piece of manflesh have been hanging out since the end of the war, even came to this freaking summit together, and never done it, just on your daddy's say-so?"
Hinata smiled sweetly. "My daddy commands a small army of ninjas who can see through walls."
There was a short silence. "Jeez, that'd suck," admitted Karui.
"Ha!" Temari snorted. "Poor Naruto. At least he knows not to push his luck, I suppose, but… HA! Oh, that's hilarious."
"Doesn't that freak you out at all?" asked Kurotsuchi, her gaze just slightly disturbed. "I mean… to know you've got people watching you all the time? Even like… when you're sleeping and stuff?"
Hinata shrugged. "I grew up in the Hyuuga household. It's simply a fact of life there for everyone. Me perhaps more so than most." She added as an afterthought.
Kurotsuchi's brow furrowed. "Huh? Why you more than…"
"Cause we tried to kidnap her when she was, like, three." Karui answered for Hinata.
"Yes," nodded Hinata, with only a slightly pained expression. "I've always been closely watched." She shrugged. "I suppose other people might find it creepy, but you get used to it… find ways to be invisible even in plain sight, if that makes sense."
"Not really." Kurotsuchi shook her head. "Anyway, not important. Hokage! Boyfriend! Details!"
"I j-just told you, there aren't any details." Blushing, Hinata picked up her cup and hid her face behind it. "We've been dating for probably four years now."
"Four years?" Temari shook her head. "Man, Naruto's slower than I thought."
"He's been very busy… with the war and later with the Kage position…" muttered Hinata demurely. "And now this treaty…"
"But even so, it seems like he should've proposed by now." Temari insisted.
Hinata shrugged, a small grin playing around the edges of her mouth. "Naruto-kun is reluctant to discuss his actual feelings with people not trying to kill him." Fingers playing on the rim of her cup, she hesitated a moment. "But…"
"Spill it, girl!"
Hinata blushed again. "Naruto-kun has been trying to conceal a ring box from me this entire journey." She confided quietly.
The other three girls erupted. Kurotsuchi was just not-quite squealing, and Temari laughing heartily. Karui reached over and pounded Hinata on the back, nearly making her spill the tea all over herself. Hinata just sat, her face a rosy glow.
"So?" Kuro asked, when they had all calmed down. "What're you going to do?"
"Say yes, of course." Hinata smiled. "I suppose I should act very surprised also, he's really been most desperate about hiding it."
"Well, go you," grinned Temari, raising her cup in salute. "Have to say, if his newfound respect for manners and procedures is your doing, the diplomatic world thanks you at large. Kankuro used to moan about how Naruto was going to be such a pain as Hokage, but he's really done all right for himself."
"Of course he has! Naruto's always been very bright!" Hinata replied a little too sharply and suddenly became aware that the other girls were grinning at her. "He… just… needed a little help, that's all."
"Of course." Karui smirked.
"H-he's all full of wonderful ideas." Hinata insisted. "Like this treaty. And the Orphan Initiative in Konoha. And those regular Kage Summits he's been calling to smooth things. And…"
"We know, we know, Hinata." Temari held up her hand. "Naruto's really changing the ninja world, there's no doubt about that. Still." She grinned. "You've been doing a fair lot too, haven't you? I mean, sure, every heiress gives out money for war-torn regions and what-not, but uniting your clan like that? Funding Sakura's little 'doctors without boundaries' program? Starting whole new school programs?"
"What?" Karui glanced at Temari.
"They've started it in Konoha, but it's coming into Suna," replied Temari. "Should be in Kumo in a year or so. New researchers looking into non-military uses of chakra, like using earth jutsus to plow fields and stuff." She shrugged. "Most of its stuff that's been around for ages but no one's really ever had a curriculum based around it before." Turning back to Hinata, she shook her head. "You've got quite the urge to change the world yourself, I'd say."
"It's… it's not that." Hinata seemed troubled for some reason. "I just… I feel sometimes like..." She looked away. "I feel like my life isn't really mine." She answered finally. "I'm living on time someone else gave me. Or at least that's what it feels like." Swallowing, she continued, "And I just feel… like I have to give something back."
"Whoah. Deep stuff there." Kurotsuchi raised her eyebrows.
"I had a phase like that, a little after the war." Karui nodded. "Nearly got sliced in half by the Sandaime Raikage. Spent my first three months out of the hospital volunteering at every local charity I could find." Shrugging, she reached for her cup. "I got over it."
"Guess they last a little longer for clan heiresses. Especially ones involved with the Elemental Countries Number One do-gooder." Temari grinned.
"Perhaps," answered Hinata, somewhat distractedly. She still seemed somewhat troubled. "Have you ever…" she started, then stopped. "Do you sometimes…What if…" She sighed. "Do you ever wonder what would have happened if things had gone differently?"
"Like what?" Temari eyed her in confusion.
"Well… like… if Gaara had never met Naruto. If Bee-sama had never died. If we and Sasuke hadn't disappeared to the other world all those years ago… what would our world be like now?" Hinata's brow furrowed in thought. "Would so many people be dead? Would the Kyuubi have still been extracted? Would we be founding another village?" Her hand toyed with the fringe of her kimono. "Would Naruto and I… still be together?"
There was a small pause.
"Does it matter?" asked Kurotsuchi. She glanced around at the others. "I mean, forgive me if I'm being insensitive to you guys here, but… I mean, at the end of the day, you guys ARE together. Is it really worthwhile to think about how things might have gone differently?"
"In a way." Temari answered softly. "It helps you understand the importance of some things. I know for a fact that Gaara wouldn't be Kazekage if it weren't for Naruto."
"It's just… I worry." Hinata bit her lip. "I wonder if… everything that happened… if it happened for the best? If things hadn't gone the way they did… would things here be better? Or worse?"
"Well, yeah, but you CAN'T know that." Kurotsuchi insisted. "Not unless you had some crazy time-travel jutsu that let you go back in time and do everything differently. And even then, what exactly would you consider better?"
"Yeah." Karui nodded. "I mean, don't get me wrong, I'd love a world where Bee-sensei and Ai-sama were still alive, but what if saving them meant letting Tobi win? Or killing Naruto? Or…" Karui waved her arms vaguely. "I dunno. Some other thing."
"Bottom line, girl, you can't know," said Temari, placing a hand on Hinata's arm. "And even if you could, it'd be hard to say whether it was better or worse. Who knows, maybe it wouldn't even be that different."
Naruto held his breath as the Tsuchikage (Kitsuchi—he needed to remember that) finished his suspicious squinting at the document and finally, reluctantly, added his signature at the bottom of the treaty.
"And with Iwa, that makes it unanimous." Naruto smiled around the room. To his relief, the air seemed almost relaxed, cordial even. Gaara even smiled at him, and the Mizukage threw him a wink. He still didn't know what was up with Mifune's quiet smile, and Darui looked as bored as he had at the start, but at least Kitsuchi didn't look like he was about to rip anyone's head off. Concessions had been made and given, and for the most part everyone looked happy with the result.
"Well." He said, rolling up the document. "I submit this treaty to the archivist here in the Land of Iron—" this with a bow as he handed it to the orderly who came forward, "—and allow me to be the first to officially welcome Otogakure to the ninja alliance, and the Otokage, Uchiha Sasuke, as a member of the Kage Summit!"
And it might have been his imagination, but it seemed there was just the smallest touch of a smirk on his old teammate's face as he leaned forward to shake his hand. "Thank you, dobe."
A/N: Okay, I swear there's a reason for bringing you all back for something that's essentially another ending to the story you all finished about a year ago. First of all, popular demand. So many people were demanding to learn what happened to the ninjas once they got back to Konoha that I finally got off my butt and wrote a chapter about it, together with an edit to the last chapter (just click back to see it) that shows what happened more immediately on their return.. Sorta messes with the parallel ending I was looking for, but oh well.
I have a book out! The Nephilim Protocol tells the story of unusually tall and universally hated Chad, who discovers enormous strength while saving his classmates from a mass shooter and is immediately spirited away by the government to Attu Island, where the UN imprisons descendants of the half-angel Nephilim, ancient rulers of the earth. Here's a snippet from the intro.
I'm halfway to the nurse's office when I hear the gunshots.
It takes me a bit to actually recognize them because holy shit that's loud what the actual fuck is that. But then I hear a click and turn around to see the window of the door behind me being blacked out.
Everything around me seems to freeze. That's the school security protocol for an active shooter. We practice it every month.
I'd heard the rumor at lunch, but I hadn't really believed it. The first week at school, every single thing scrawled on the bathroom walls freaked me out. But I've been at Andrea Dworkim Academy for two months, and shooting threats now seem sorta … routine. Every week, there's something scribbled on the walls, posted online, or even just bragged about in the cafeteria as a joke or dare or something. Shit, J'son flat-out told me that he gave out last week's "threat", just because he knew his folks would come and take him out of school if they heard about it. I laughed and high-fived him.
More gunshots. Smashing glass. Screams. For some reason, I always envisioned these things as a hail of gunfire, but there are moments of long silence between the bursts. I can't quite tell where they're coming from.… It sounds like downstairs, at least. I immediately feel guilty for being relieved about that.
The door ahead of me locks with a click.
Fuck the teachers are locking up the classrooms I need to get inside one now now now…
I dart up to the next door, but it locks shut before I can reach it.. I glimpse Mrs. Ortiz's terrified face before the opaque sign's placed over the window. I pound on the door. No response.
I knew she always hated me.
It's protocol Chad you know it's protocol you're being unfair you could be the shooter for all she knows.
Bathrooms. Bathrooms are open. I run towards one, and then I remember. Jess. "Fuck." I turn back and run down the hallway, blood pounding in my chest. Can't just leave her.
BANBABNBNABANG! Long, mocking laughter, disturbingly clear and close. I hear doors slam open, echoing. The shooter's on the stairwell. I put on an extra burst of speed and round the corner, just as the stairwell doors swing open.