Wind whistled along the top of the battlements, bringing with it an icy chill that invaded coats and coverings, let alone standard desert shinobi gear. Gaara felt his sand armour thicken, individual layers of it snaking and condensing over his skin, as he watched Naomi in quiet conversation with the daimyo. Kankurou and Temari too were fidgety and nervous behind him, unsettled by the turn of events, but he ignored them. His gaze was on her.
The breeze whispered through her grey-brown hair, messing up the tired stands still further. Her part of the conversation was held through private genjutsu, but she kept her eyes fixed on the horizon rather than the only one who could hear her words. Whatever was said was clearly making the daimyo angry, his face distorting further with every minute spent under the grey-blue sky. She on the other hand remained almost immobile and heavily hunched in her chair. Her whole body seemed tense as her gaze swept over the misty landscape and only her fingers twitched awkwardly in her lap. Gaara could see the way worry-lines that marked her face deepened with every passing sentence. She was even biting her lip, drawing her arms closer to herself as her genjutsu continued speaking for her. The bloodied fabric of her fluted short-sleeved top still clung awkwardly to her torso and the once flouncy lace skirts were weighted down by encrusted red stains. Around her shins, the ribbons that secured her shoes were starting to unravel.
Oblivious to the cold, the still bare-chested old man paced the floor, his arms folded. Apart from his evident preoccupation with the voice that echoed in his ears alone, he remained as seemingly insensible towards his second-in-command as everyone else. His chains clanked with every movement and his blades rattled menacingly at his sides. Imbibing the protruding part of his lower lip, he clenched his jaw and seethed, even if his rage appeared to be directed more at himself than at her. Stomping his boots on the floor, he barked questions at his second-in-command – seemingly always unsatisfied with the answers. A knot worked on his forehead, distorting the long scar over his eye with every twitch. Genuine worry seemed to haunt his features and every time he seemed close to a resolution a fresh burst of angry questions would spew from his mouth, sending him into a fresh frenzy.
Gaara clenched his fingers slightly as he observed the conversation, fighting the frown that hovered around his non-existent eyebrows. Naomi's skin still looked so pale. Instead of the milky and white splotches he was used to, her whole complexion was slowly turning increasingly ashen, becoming greyer and almost translucent in colour. Dark sagging circles marked her eyes and her once brown freckles seemed to be mere monochrome smudges on her face. Something about her expression and her movement seemed unusually stiff to Gaara as well. Her eyes felt more vacant and distant than the polite formal smile she usually employed around the castle guests. He guessed she was in pain and, knowing she would fight any traces of it out of her countenance, he figured it had to be pretty severe if it was showing enough for him to notice.
Beside him, Tsunade was also eyeing the Seishin princess. As she did so, however, her face was twisted into a scowl so thick she might have spread it on toast. Haori draping down from her squared shoulders like a cloak, she folded her arms beneath her colossal cleavage and let a notable tick work away on her forehead. The toe of her high-heeled sandal ground itself against the stone so hard that it was bound to leave a mark. Just standing next to her was giving Gaara goosebumps and the ever-attendant Shizune was cowering behind his dumbfounded siblings, pet pig clutched protectively to her bosom.
Clearly the Hokage did not appreciate having a critical patient from less than twenty-four hours earlier up, active and organising civic defences. Said patient on the other hand, as quick as she normally was to pick up on her guests most minor discomforts, showed no sign of responding to Tsunade's brewing temper… and the Hokage did not like being ignored.
Biting his own lip in amused frustration, the Kazekage pushed his hands deeper into the sleeves of his robes and shook his head. His expression darkened. Where they stood, huddled in a group on the battlements of one of smaller castle towers, they had an unrivalled view of the valley around them and the outlook wasn't good. Green smoke still poured down from the eastern sky, swallowing the verdant countryside and destroying everything in its wake. Panic was consuming the city below them. People were milling the streets, shouting and bleating like cattle, as frantic genin leapt across rooftops, attempting to usher them towards shelters. The higher level shinobi had infected the walls of the hidden city and the castle like ants, strewn around the battlements shouting orders or racing from post to post in a kind of mad chaotic dance, but as the daimyo and his second-in-command conducted their hurried briefing, things around them were taking shape. War machines appeared from nowhere, steadily erected beam by beam on the walls by their attendant troops like insects nursing their larvae. Small swarms of tiny black figures clustered around the walls as the close combat teams prepared to defend the city. Like a slowly awakening tiger, Seishin was stretching her claws and arching her back, gearing herself up for battle.
Long auburn hair fluttering in the breeze not far away from the group, the Mizukage leaned over a granite wall to take in the sight. She sighed and shook her head contemplatively, glancing sideways at her stoic bodyguard Ao. His arms were folded over his chest; his dark teal kimono draped over his turtleneck and ninja gear. The body beneath them remained lean and muscular even in late middle age and he provided a tall, imposing presence beside his frowning superior, surveying the landscape with his sliver-blue hair swept back into a spike as pointed as his chin. His countenance remained as much a picture of serenity as a clear, untouched lake; the faintest hint of ripples hidden deep beneath the eye-patch and the fluttering paper tags, hung like earrings on either side of his face.
Where Ao was calm and stoic, his bespectacled counterpart Choujuurou appeared as clashing waves of nerves, full of conflicting currents of agitation and self-doubt. He couldn't stay still, bobbing on the toes of his sandals with his thin fingers sneaking towards the giant blade wrapped on his back. His messy cyan hair was cropped closer to his rounded features and his ninja gear was similar to Ao's, with the long striped sweater and the symbol of Kirigakure, the Hidden Mist, proudly displayed on the front of his small strappy flak jacket, but beside his companions he always appeared diminished – his youth and uncertainty belying his status as one of the elite Seven Swordsmen of the Mist.
Kurotsuchi and Akatsuchi of Iwagakure had no such problems being both far taller – and, in Akatsuchi's case, far wider – than the dwarfish Tsuchikage. They flanked him in their burgundy and brown uniforms, the flowing rounded sleeves and right-sided coattails draping over their shorts and fishnet leg supports. The wide open smile and bright gold of Akatsuchi's scarf contrasted sharply with the dark hair and gloves of the Tsuchikage's granddaughter, but it wasn't just that. Her brow was heavily pinched as she scrutinised the spectacle, something of her grandparent's sharp expression echoing through it even as she glanced at him for assurance. Their leader merely stiffened, the line of his mouth tightening still further under her gaze.
It wasn't a presence of mind shared by the Raikage's team, although the silent glares of the man himself seemed to be trying to enforce it. Darui slumped against the wall of a watch tower, his toned cappuccino-coloured arms folded over his high-collared black vest and his triangular Cloud flack jacket. The slow steady rhythmic rise and fall of his chest and gentle bobbing up and down of his pale triangular fringe suggested that he had in fact fallen asleep.
Broader and wider than his counterpart and in fact anyone other than the Raikage, Killer B was squatting on the flagstone floor beside him, notebook open on his lap as his pencil moved in a continuous scrawl. A great hulking figure of a man, almost completely muscles and nothing else, he hunched over the tiny rectangular shape with rapture. The cold didn't seem to bother him anymore than Seishin's daimyo and the only reason he was wearing more than the old man was for the necessity symbolism of the flack covering his torso in white triangles. It matched the colour of his hair, which was pulled back under the similarly-coloured fabric of his hitai-ate, and also the long scarf draped around his neck. Even his wrist and shin guards, worn over long black trousers and ninja sandals were white with thick red highlights. Despite that though, he remained still on the floor, hunched over his tiny book. Only his lips moved in concentration as he ignored everything else around him. His 'brother', A, looked about ready to kick him.
"Blast it!" the daimyo snapped, punching the air above the wheelchair. His blades sang from the force of the thrust, vibrating as they hovered in the torn wickerwork. Biting vehemence sizzled from every syllable in the cry, echoing around the now silent parapet. The man's very limbs shook with fury; his expression, a snarl. Gaara moved forward involuntarily, as Kankurou, and even the Raikage, started upright in alarm. Killer B actually glanced up from his notebook.
The feudal lord closed his eyes, breathing deeply in sudden strangled gasps as he remained tense and bowed. Tsunade and the Tsuchikage exchanged worried looks. Choujuurou had inched backwards a little, annoying Ao. Akatsuchi seemed slightly frightened. Kurotsuchi stared at her grandfather as if demanding an explanation.
Seishin's princess, alone, didn't move at all as the blades grazed the top of her straggly mane of hair. Only her eyes flicked briefly up towards sinewy appendage as it withdrew, lingering for a moment on the weary wrinkled features of her leader. Naomi gave him the briefest of nods and what might have been a smile.
"I figured we wouldn't have these suckers on our backs for at least another four days," the old man sighed, the blades rattling as he rubbed his arm. His voice sounded tired. He moved away, propping his hands on two adjacent raised merlon mounds on the crenelated walls. His body hung in the gap between them, cold wind tugging at his faded chest hair.
All that greeted him below was the sight of the putrid green haze devouring the mountainside of his ancestral home. It slivered ever closer to the city as his shinobi gathered to meet it. Muscles twitched along the length of his exposed spine. Deep welts formed in his wrinkled brow. In the distance, soft wind whipped up the tangled coiling fringes of the expanding viridian cloud, exposing a deep chartreuse underbelly, laden with the thick brown of rapidly dying plant-life. The daimyo's torn lips quivered with suppressed emotion. His fingers clenched, the long claw-like blades protruded over the edge of the wall as if ready to cut into the very fabric of the air itself. The Mizukage straightened up, staring at him with her long tresses falling back into place over her cobalt blue outfit as she did so.
"They shouldn't have been this hot on our tails," the older man hissed under his breath, ignoring her and the rest of the company. A weary growl escaped him, along with a slight slump in the line of his powerful shoulders, "Young Masaru must have been lying in wait for us to pull a move like this for a while now. Sneaky little…" He slammed a fist against the stone and spun around, turning on his unsurprised second-in-command. "Security is back up, I take it? You got them tracked and located?"
He snarled again, spitting on the ground, as his narrowed eyes regarded the young woman. Gaara straightened, but he barely had time to blink before the old man was inches from the hime's face. His blades jabbed the space under her chin, but it never seemed to cause her concern. She closed her eyes with a cephalic quiver of acquiesce, opening them again to return the gaze not just of her own leader but the five Kage and their various assembled attendants.
The Hokage bristled in suppressed indignation at the treatment of one she thought of as a patient. Some of the others shuffled nervously around her, but it was more the placidity of the hime's gaze that seemed to upset them. A less than reassuring mechanical detachment, devoid of human emotion, seeped through her stare. For once she did not even bother to smile, politely or otherwise. Gaara just thought how tired she seemed.
Kankurou scowled, folding his arms as Ton-Ton squealed softly behind him. Ao stepped forwards, eyeing the woman coldly as she sat motionless in her wheelchair. His frown deepened. The chilly air had grown colder still. Akatsuchi moaned softly, fiddling with the edge of his scarf.
"Good girl," the daimyo grunted distantly, ignoring the stirring behind him. His arm dropped away as thoughtlessly as it had threatened her. "Figures I can count on you," a corner of his savaged mouth lifted, but not into a smile. His face remained resolutely hardened as he stared into the face of the seated woman, "Keep it up, you, and get ready to throw one out there like in the old days. I'm going to need your best for this." Seishin's princess merely gave her leader yet another nod, even as he turned his back on her.
Tsunade spluttered into life, outrage boiling under her skin until it sizzled its way though to the surface. "You must be joking!" she hissed, marching forwards with quivering fists, "You're going to make her lead this fight? Do you think she's fit for that right now? After the… the thing you pulled last night…"
"Don't you tell me what to do with my soldiers, madam," the daimyo growled, rounding on the Hokage with an indignant glare. She snarled defiance, but he advanced on her, blades rattling, eyes narrowed dangerously, "That girl was born and bred for battle – and don't you forget it. She may not be in top condition to go slugging it out on the front lines, but when Seishin's in trouble her place is right here at the helm of the ship. It's death or duty in these parts and the troops need a captain to function."
Tsunade spluttered loudly, but he cut her off with another wave of his arm. "She'll be fine. She is Seishin's Goddess of War," he murmured in an undertone that might have been intended as reassuring, "Just as Masaru trained her to be."
"And who precisely are we fighting?" the Mizukage interjected, pursing her lips over her folded arms, "You don't think the fact that Kuroppoi trained her works slightly to his advantage?"
The daimyo snorted in amusement, throwing his head back as he did so. "The whelp's not seen the girl since she was a lamb of eight," he sneered, casting a sideways look at the wheelchair. It was empty and its former occupant showed no sign of interest in the conversation. She had lifted herself up into the crenelle gap in the wall above her, her legs curled against the cold stone, her back propped up against a merlon with a single arm stretched out to hold her in place. Blood-stained fushia battledress stood out vividly against the murky sky, her messy hair was tossed back over her shoulders and her shoulders tense. Her gaze was out on the horizon. Only Gaara noticed that she had shifted a little, giving the turret that led downstairs an occasional glace. "That same lamb's been assigned command campaigns since she hit double figures," the daimyo went on, clicking his tongue dismissively, "She can do this job: same as she does any other. I expect no less from my shinobi."
He sighed loudly, apparently resisting the urge to roll his eyes. "And now, perhaps the five honourable Kage would do us the honour of waiting indoors?" The daimyo grunted, stretching his shoulders. He indicated the small rounded arch in one of the castle turrets that concealed the doorway. The Tsuchikage seemed a little taken aback as the daimyo brushed passed him, but Seishin's leader barely acknowledged the other man, waving an arm absently at the assembled group collectively. "This here ain't our job. Things'll be getting a little feisty, if you know what I mean. That's best left to my commander, tempting though it is to stay," he clicked his tongue in dissatisfaction, each spoken tone growing longer with regret, "Us folk with the fancy hats and titles will be better off having a nice little strategy meeting in an anteroom somewhere and barking orders from there. Too many things too protect at once tends to give the rank and file the jitters. Eggs in the same basket and all that…"
"On the contrary," the Tsuchikage retorted, huffing slightly as he folded his arms, "The Alliance seems to have had the best results with all its commanders at the helm, as it were." The Raikage laughed loudly, giving the statement a vicarious nod. Gaara grunted in agreement, his arms folded. Tamari glanced at him. The Mizukage smiled. Shizune adjusted her hold on the pig, glancing at her superior.
"We're not leaving," Tsunade added, her voice extremely cold, "Although your hime should be, if either of you had any sense."
For a long, still moment, the daimyo eyed them, taking in the mutual defiance of all five kage. Then he inclined his head slightly so he could raise his torn eyebrow at his second-in-command.
Her head turned a little, unkempt messy hair falling down against her nose. Something twitched in the muscles around her eyes. For the first time, her attention seemed to be fixed on the conversation the daimyo had been holding with the other leaders. She frowned. Her lip moved and she sighed under her breath, casting a stray glace at the horizon again. The dense green visibly made her shudder.
Pushing her feet against the solid stone, she gripped the edge of the raised merlon against her back, twisting herself around until she was facing inwards again. "The five most honoured Kage and their valued attendants understand, of course," the disembodied voice echoed eerily around the battlements. Her expression remained impassive as the wind played softly with the ends of her hair, "That many of my abilities are telepathic in nature and that when operating at my fullest potential, I cannot guarantee the privacy of the thoughts of anyone in such close proximity to me."
There was a silence. Ao coughed loudly, making the Mizukage glance at him. Choujuurou shifted nervously at the older man's frown, but it was Gaara who folded his arms, smiling as he shook his head. "I'm not thinking anything I wouldn't wish to share with you," he replied. The Tsuchikage stared at him as if he had gone insane, even his siblings seemed alarmed, but the expression on his face did not waver for a second.
"As you wish then," she shrugged her shoulders absently, letting her eyes drift away towards the turret. The daimyo made a low noise of surprise and she added a vague circular motion of her hand to a second shrug. Her expression was meticulously impassive. "It is not as if it is any less safe here than down below."
Nothing more was said. Tsunade gritted her teeth at being ignored and hissed a sigh, her lips drawn tight, but the hime remained as devoid of expression as she had been before. Kurotsuchi scoffed loudly, her disapproving expression mirroring her grandfather's. The Raikage shifted the weight on his feet, frowning. He glanced down at B, who paused only momentarily in his scribbling to raise an eyebrow back at him before returning to his notebook, tutting to himself.
The feudal lord set his jaw. "Fine," he snapped and his eyes narrowed dangerously, "Suit yourselves, but remember one thing…" He paused, his voice deceptively low as his glare lingered on each of the five Kage in turn. Kankurou's hand hovered suggestively close to some of his kunai. The implied threat caused the Seishin's hime stiffened slightly on the parapet wall, fixing him under her steady gaze, but the daimyo merely flexed his long blades and ignored the Suna shinobi. "The moment that fume-spitting horde set foot in my country," the old man hissed, still glaring at the assembled crowd, "This stopped being an Alliance matter and became a Seishin problem: and that means it'll be Seishin that drives this mess back off our turf. You guys can just sit tight until those brats are back off our shores. Got it?" His fist jerked forward, rattling his blades for emphasis.
The Raikage growled and the Tsuchikage huffed indignantly as Gaara tensed beside him. "I doubt you'd let us forget it," Ao muttered coldly.
A loud intake of breath interrupted them. The Mizukage strode forward, her loose clothes and hair streaming out behind her. Her face was flushed and eyes narrowed as she rounded on the daimyo. "If it weren't for the possibility of another war with Granite, we wouldn't be here at all, would we?" she spat, fists shaking with rage, "You'd push your country until it collapses fighting this thing off on your own. No matter what it took. No matter how many lives were lost. We're offering you aid and you just…"
The daimyo glared at her. "If you think something like this would break Seishin," he growled, "You're severely underestimating my country." Gaara glanced at the hime, attempting to gauge her reaction. There didn't seem to be one. She watched the daimyo with perfect passivity, apparently unmoved by anything other than a direct threat to his safety.
Suddenly the sound of a door slapping echoed up from inside the turret. Footsteps sounded from inside, pelting up the stairs and a voice cried, "Hime-sama. Assigned long-range formations are now in place. The medicals teams are standing by… Oh…" Long blonde hair appeared through the entryway and Yurika stumbled into view, waking Darui up with a jolt as she nearly tripped over him. Her bare feet slid on the stone as she stopped in alarm, eyeing the assembled crowd. If it weren't for the quick reflexes of the Kumogakure ninja, seizing her shoulder, she would have toppled over.
"Tono, assembled Kage-sama, other honoured guests," she added rather lamely, the end of her ponytail slapping against her face with expended momentum, "We're…err…"
"…Ready to begin," a disembodied voice finished for her. Planting a hand down on the centre of the crenelle, Naomi pushed herself upright, her brightly clad body vibrant against the distant green smog. With no more than a sweep of her hand, she fished something out of free-fall from the many flairs of her skirt. The long pink ribbon-like fabric of her heavily embellished hitai-ate streamed momentarily through the chilly air, one end pressed between her fingers. She held the metal plate firmly against her forehead and her free hand swept back her hair, winding it into a twisted bundle at the nape of her neck, before securing it with the ends of the ribbon. "I know, Yurika… and you're late."