Disclaimer: I still don't own Naruto
Chapter 43: Family matters, part two
Evening was settling over the capital of the Land of Fire. In a small yard near the center of the palace a swordsman began his daily training. The blade flashed red every time it caught the light of the setting sun, sending reflections all over the yard.
Hidekatsu Shibata, the daimyo of the Land of Fire, paid hardly any attention to it while he went through movements that had become ingrained routine long ago. It was an almost meditative experience, only disturbed by the fact that he had to take care to limit his speed. For years he had been slowly growing stronger and faster, changed by the eye that was not his, but there had been no opportunity to really measure the improvement.
The attack of the Wood shinobi had made things clear. He had attained a level of physical prowess only a comparatively small number of chakra users ever reached. In light of the fact that he had been nothing special in his youth and was now in his fifties that was patently absurd. Old age should be catching up to him, but the bit of grey that had crept into his hair had actually disappeared years ago. At least he wasn't visibly getting younger… yet. That would cause all sorts of problems.
He was acutely aware of all the people watching him: guards, attendants and shinobi. Privacy was something extremely hard to come by these days for a man in his position. It had been difficult before the attack on the palace, but from time to time he and his wives had been able to slip away. Now though he was never truly alone.
'The fate of nobility, I suppose.'
It was irritating. There had been no opportunity to talk with his wives or his son about the events of the night without listeners nearby. He had questions that needed answering. At least his young son didn't seem to realize that it was him who had slain all the remaining attackers at the end.
'My son the demon…'
His son not being human was not completely unexpected. At the beginning of their relationship Yoshino and Kikuko had informed him that they couldn't procreate with humans. The plan had been to either rule indefinitely if they could manage it or name someone suitable as heir and retire when they couldn't hide their unaging nature any longer. It wasn't as if there was anyone else with a claim left.
Yoshino's pregnancy had come as a complete surprise to all three of them. To all appearances the child seemed to be human, but they had always harbored doubts.
'Then again, I'm not really human anymore, am I? The eye is changing me.'
If he had been human he would have died dozens of times, not only during that night but long before. Even disregarding the time when he was dying and stumbled upon the two demons, there had been several occasions during the succession wars when a mere human would not have survived.
Nothing had been as extreme as the recent fight against the Wood shinobi, but he had suffered mortal wounds or successful poisoning attempts on multiple occasions. In the time after he had accepted the eye he had not truly cared if he died or lived. The pain of the loss of his first family had been too fresh. All he had wanted was revenge. Since he had become daimyo he had grown far more careful. He had responsibilities.
Hidekatsu normally didn't really fear people trying to kill him; there was little chance they would succeed without a massive effort. He feared what the attempt would reveal about him. His past was too well known to explain it with the knowledge of extremely powerful chakra techniques.
A demon on the throne would be unacceptable; too many would use it as a reason to rebel. It was the reason he and his wives had waited to fight themselves until all their guards had been killed. That had not been an easy decision for him. Some of the guards and servants had been with them for years.
His eye fell on the source of his current unease. Naruto Uzumaki, jinchuuriki of the Kyuubi… and hopefully the only person alive who knew of their true nature. The young man (Hidekatsu refused to think of any shinobi as a 'boy', no matter how young) had been in need of rest for several days. Jinchuuriki were powerful, but that power came not without cost and certain weaknesses.
Letting the Uzumaki live was a serious risk. He could easily bring down everything Hidekatsu had tried to build, plunging the Land of Fire into civil war once more. Even if he only told his superiors it would give Konoha something to hold over his head.
Then again, they had only had a very short window of opportunity to dispose of Naruto and they had been far from certain they wanted to go through with it… or if they could manage it in the first place. Now it was too late. Besides, Hidekatsu was truly grateful for Naruto saving their lives. Kikuko would be dead for certain without his interference. Still, he had witnessed far too much.
'How much does he know?'
Hidekatsu remembered well the expression on Naruto's face when he had first spotted his inhuman, marked eye. Surprise, fear… and recognition. The blond youth knew something about the brand, something Hidekatsu did not.
'I suppose I should have shown more interest in supernatural things.'
Gods, demons and spirits had never interested him. In the past, when he was only a minor noble, he had performed the usual rites more due to tradition than any true conviction. What little faith he had possessed he had lost when his first family died. Later taking his revenge followed by winning the throne and holding it had been his main priorities. He had never asked many questions of his wives aside from those pertaining to the immediate situation. In turn, they had been content to let the past rest. He knew they were several centuries old, but no details.
If he was honest with himself he had tried to ignore the implications of what was happening to him by pushing anything related to the supernatural away. Now that ignorance came back to roost. Apparently gods and spirits were waking up all over the world. He was out of his depth. With the increased security he couldn't even ask his wives the questions he wanted answered the most. They couldn't risk being overheard.
'At least I can deal with the mundane side of things.'
Several ministers, nobles and other important people had died in the attack. Some would be missed… others wouldn't. The repercussions would serve to give him headaches for months. That wasn't even mentioning the losses among the servants and guards.
Finishing with his workout, Hidekatsu accepted a towel from a servant to dry off the sweat. "I will visit the Tower of Morning. Uzumaki, Utatane and Sarutobi are to attend me." he ordered.
The three shinobi left their places among the crowd. Hidekatsu paid special attention to the Uzumaki. If the young man had any concerns about being around him he certainly didn't show it. If Hidekatsu didn't know better he would have thought the façade genuine despite all his experience with courtly politics and scheming liars.
'The young man is an excellent actor. Something to keep in mind.'
Hidekatsu stayed silent until they had left most of the attendants behind. There were still more than a dozen in earshot, but it couldn't be helped.
"Have you finished interrogating all survivors of the attack? Is there any proof of external involvement?" There had been no survivors in the park, but things had been different on the other prongs of the attack.
It was the old kunoichi who answered. "All prisoners have been put to the question extensively, Daimyo-sama. Unfortunately they didn't possess any knowledge of support by outside parties."
"A pity, but not unexpected. They will be publically executed. You may keep the bodies." Then he switched the topic. "When will you choose a new Hokage?"
"Soon. Preparations are already being made. We should have a new Kage in a matter of weeks at the longest."
He didn't say anything else until they climbed the tower. The view gave him mixed feelings. Entire sections of the palace were still uninhabitable, but repairs were ongoing. The city bore the scars of the fires the attackers had used as a distraction, but thankfully the damage was far less than what it could have been.
Finally Hidekatsu left his place at the tower window and turned around to face the shinobi. "You didn't see the attack coming. Just like the invasion."
The shinobi tried to hide their reactions, but Hidekatsu didn't miss the miniscule tightening of the shinobi's facial muscles. Since that night even the vision in his natural eye had improved enormously.
"We did not." Koharu finally admitted. "We should have caught it in time, but we did not."
Hidekatsu nodded. Total security was impossible to achieve, but both the logistics of the attack of the Wood shinobi and the invasion of Konoha were big enough that it shouldn't have been possible to miss them… if Konoha had paid attention.
The daimyo didn't like Konoha or shinobi villages in general. They were ultimately only loyal to themselves, not the countries they were located in. In addition, they were too large and powerful, too arrogant and set in their ways. Konoha's semi-independence and potential ability to interfere in the politics of the Elemental Nations was of great concern to him. Unfortunately he needed them… and they needed him, too. Dealing with shinobi had certainly been easier before the era of the Hidden Villages.
He didn't dare to employ shinobi from the other great villages, but he had tried to balance out Konoha by hiring shinobi from independent clans or shinobi masters. Enough parties to watch the watchers, but in the end he was stuck with Konoha. He couldn't risk antagonizing them too strongly. The other villages were even less trustworthy.
When the silence became uncomfortable he continued to speak. "However, you did arrive in time. For that you have my gratitude." He paused a moment. "I want to thank you in particular, Naruto Uzumaki. If not for your effort I and my family would not be here today."
The young shinobi bowed deeply, but stayed silent.
"Therefore I have decided to reward you accordingly. In three day's time there will be a grand ceremony. You will be raised to the nobility. Suitable lands will be set aside for you. Until the time when you are ready to take your seat the palace will take care of the administration and pay you a pension. I trust there are no objections?"
"I am deeply honored, Daimyo-sama."
Hidekatsu smiled. "It is only appropriate. Good service should be acknowledged."
It was only good sense. If someone saved Hidekatsu's life that someone would be rewarded. It would encourage others to act the same way. Besides, it wasn't as if there was a shortage of land. The succession wars had freed up plenty of territories.
Normally most shinobi stayed in the shadows, but there were exceptions, Naruto Uzumaki among them. Konoha wanted to build up his reputation as quickly as possible to make up for those famous shinobi they had lost. Fame influenced political and military decisions as strongly as real power.
Additionally, it was expected for Hidekatsu to try to get Naruto's personal loyalty under the circumstances. Considering the young man's involvement with the supernatural that was almost assuredly futile, but appearances had to be maintained.
Asuma Sarutobi cleared his throat. "Daimyo-sama, there is another matter to discuss. Many of the people I brought along are needed elsewhere. Your security will stay ensured, of course. Replacements are already underway."
Hidekatsu looked at the bearded man. Asuma had been part of his predecessor's personal shinobi guard. He might be one of the relatively few shinobi with a genuine loyalty to the Land of Fire.
"Is the situation heating up?"
"Unfortunately, yes. All villages are recalling shinobi to prepare for war. We have reliable reports that the Mizukage Yagura is dead. Kiri has already descended into civil war. Minor villages are beginning to move against each other. Iwa is staying calm for the time being. Kumo is mobilizing, but we don't know against whom." Koharu said.
"You don't regard the Wood shinobi attack as indication of their intentions?" Hidekatsu asked.
"It is possible this was Kumo's opening strike against Konoha and the Land of Fire, yes. On the other hand it is also possible they only made use of an opportunity to weaken us for almost no cost on their part. They might target other villages first. There is another concern. We have only a single source that connects Kumo to the Wood shinobi. It might be a setup by another party. We can't take anything for granted."
"So the fourth shinobi war is starting."
The old kunoichi kept herself under tight control, but Hidekatsu spotted the reaction she tried to hide: tired resignation. "It is inevitable now. We are sliding into a new period of open war. The balance of power has been upset too strongly. There is nothing we can do about it." She hesitated for a moment. "We will have to talk about the contractually agreed mission quota, Daimyo-sama. Konoha's resources are stretched too thin."
Hours later Hidekatsu prepared to go to bed, his thought still on the matter of the looming shinobi war. He was old enough to have witnessed the last two shinobi wars as an adult. When shinobi warred it was very different from the usual conflicts between conventional armies. Territory and fortified positions were largely irrelevant. There was too much wilderness and shinobi moved too quickly for borders to have any meaning.
The primary way shinobi villages fought each other was by attrition and by attacking the opponents' economic underpinnings by disrupting missions. Smallish groups of a few dozen shinobi at most roamed the land to take out even smaller groups of enemies, trying for local superiority. Large battles were rare. Raids on enemy villages and sabotage happened fairly often, but serious attempts to destroy a village only occurred after a party was sufficiently ground down. The invasion of Konoha was atypical in that way, although Iwa had tried for a similar knock-out blow in the last war.
Hidekatsu's main worry was to what extent the war would spill over. Due to the Land of Fire's relationship with Konoha there would be problems, but the shinobi villages tended to leave the normal population mostly alone. Someone would have to hire them in the future when the war was over, after all. Still, they would inevitably suffer to some degree.
Frankly, Hidekatsu didn't care that much what shinobi did to each other. Anything that weakened the villages was good in his book. What difference did it make to him which village provided the needed services? None. The best result he could hope for was that all the villages weakened each other equally.
Not that he would ever do anything that gave the slightest hint in that direction. The daimyo of what had been the Land of Lakes was a warning example. The idiot had thought to play the villages against each other during the second shinobi war. The result had been the destruction of his country. Now the shinobi Hanzo the Salamander ruled over the Land of and Village Hidden in the Rain in its place.
The Land of Snow, the Land of Reeds and the Land of Valleys were likewise ruled by shinobi, although at least in the first case the ruler belonged to the royal family. That was a worrying trend every daimyo who didn't have porridge for a brain watched with great concern. If a shinobi village grew too powerful and influential in one country it was only too easy for them to replace or control the daimyo.
Hidekatsu had his suspicions about the independence of the current Lightning Daimyo. Similar fears had led the Wind Daimyo to hire more and more shinobi from Konoha instead of the native Suna.
He had been lying in his bed for ten minutes when his wife Kikuo slid under the covers. "Yoshino is staying with Yuko. Did the talk with the shinobi go well?"
"It went as expected. They want to reduce their commitments to us as far as possible in preparation for the war, but they need the money from the missions to support themselves." Hidekatsu replied, conscious of the guards and servants that were still in earshot. "In turn, we need a certain number of available shinobi to meet our requirements. Each shinobi we employ reduces Konoha's available forces and makes them more vulnerable."
"That is a predicament." Kikuko agreed. "You worry what the war will mean for us and the Land of Fire, don't you?"
"I do. A lord without his people is nothing. They are my responsibility."
"You take too much on yourself. What is one man, one country against the world?" She sighed. "But we had this discussion already. This is not the time to repeat it." They were silent for a while. "Yuko has asked about Naruto and the swallows. Perhaps we can ask him to take us for a ride."
The daimyo turned his head in surprise. Then he understood. This would give them an opportunity to talk with the young man without listeners nearby.
"Should I bring it up?"
"Not immediately, no. I feel not safe enough to leave the security of the palace. One or two weeks of rest sound better." Kikuko paused. "Hold me, please."
Hidekatsu did so. Soon he felt his wife's hands wander across his night robe, undoing the cords holding the garment closed. He responded in kind. It would be good to forget all his worries for a little while.
Fetters of coral groaned slightly, straining when the Rokubi moved closer to the edge of its prison. The ever-present pain intensified as they dug deeper into its body. The demon ignored the sensation while it examined the cracks running through the otherwise smooth pearly wall. It noted with satisfaction that the cracks had grown bigger, its acidic chakra slowly eating the shell away. Unfortunately there was little else about the situation that was enjoyable.
Of all the tailed beasts it had been sealed for the longest. Three hundred twenty eight long years ago the hated Uzumaki had first captured it… and kept it contained. On the rare occasions it had managed to break free it had been hunted down and sealed again in short order.
Corrosion of both the mental and physical was central to its very nature. It was not enough to break free of the Sage's dominion, but it had at least partially dissolved the bindings on the demon's inhuman mind. For centuries it had searched futilely for a way to escape. It could feel the tides of an inner world it couldn't quite reach remaining tantalizingly out of its grasp.
Entire countries had broken under the force of the Rokubi's corrosive dreams on its secret quest for freedom. Mind after mind had been corrupted by the demon's poisonous influence, the mortals burning themselves out in their attempts to fulfill the Rokubi's wishes. Alas, all its efforts had proven unsuccessful, although it had discovered hints.
Being sealed by the Uzumaki had been a severe setback. Decade after decade it had been kept under a tight watch, unable to exercise its powers. Still, two and a half centuries of helpless imprisonment had given the demon ample time to consider what it had learned and plan. It was confident it had developed a way to throw off the cursed Sage's dominion. Unfortunately it needed to be free to implement that plan. That was something the Uzumaki were not inclined to allow, although even they couldn't keep it completely under control. Several times it escaped, but it had never had enough time to break the bindings and limits forcing it into its slug-like form before it was inevitably recaptured.
Its last escape attempt had ended with that strange wood user capturing it. Fortunately it had not been returned to the Uzumaki. Instead the wood user had sent it to the newly formed village of Kirigakure, apparently in an attempt to promote peace. When that predictably failed the Rokubi had been used as a power source and weapon.
The destruction of the entire Uzumaki clan some decades later filled it with dark joy. It only regretted that it had nothing to do with the entire event. Human nature had done the work entirely on its own.
That brought it to its current situation. Kiri's seal masters had been considerably more lax than the Uzumaki seal masters. Some of that was pure necessity if they wanted to use its power as a weapon; another part was simply less skill. Whatever the precise reason, it had allowed the Rokubi to spread its influence into the dreams of the mortals surrounding it, albeit greatly reduced from what it had been in the past.
It had subtly steered everything towards a favorable outcome. The seal of its current container had been damaged by the misguided attempt of the boy's master to relieve him of his burden. It had allowed the Rokubi to temporarily take over and kill the man before he could realize his mistake. Misinterpreting the man's actions as a betrayal by his village thanks to the demon's influence, its container had fled Kiri two months ago and was currently hiding in the countryside.
The demon would need around four years to dissolve the seal enough to secure a safe escape. Oh, it could break the seal at any time, but that would kill it along with the host. That was something it always tried to avoid. Dying and reforming was an extremely agonizing process. Worse, even after reforming it would be very vulnerable for a time.
Unfortunately its plan had hit an unexpected problem. Somehow the Ichibi had managed to free itself. Worse, there seemed to be other beings of power involved. The event had echoed through the entire world. Now gods and demons were awakening left and right.
They would need some time to reestablish themselves in the world. Then it would be open season on the tailed beasts. While powerful even in their bound forms they were comparatively easy prey. There was so much power bound in them they couldn't use under the Sage's dominion that it would make them irresistible to enterprising demon lords, dark deities, great spirits and other powerful varieties of supernatural beings.
The Wicked Heart of Death and Slaughter in particular, a god whose activity the Rokubi had noticed for several years, had a score to settle with the Juubi due to a past encounter in the long-gone age of gods. Others might hold similar grudges. The Rokubi wasn't sure. Its memories of that time were almost non-existent; it knew far more about the period starting from the Juubi's release and ending with its shattering.
All in all the Rokubi could only hope for its bid for freedom to succeed before the hunters found it.
Anko forcefully slapped Hinata's hand away just in time to prevent the young Hyuuga from making contact. Then she brought her leg up in a fluid motion. Hinata managed to twist out of the way, but now she was in the wrong position to press the attack, her momentum broken. Anko immediately capitalized on her advantage and switched to attack. A few seconds later their roles reversed again as the spar continued.
It was simply wonderful to be able to move again. Anko enjoyed every moment as she skillfully deflected Hinata's blows and kicks or tried to get her own attacks to connect.
Anko carefully took note of their performance. She yet had to fully regain her pre-injury nimbleness and strength, but the medics agreed that she would recover in time.
'Hinata is getting better.'
The girl had improved a great deal since Anko had first tested her skills in close combat when she had graduated from the academy more than half a year ago. Then it had been easy to achieve victory. Now she had to work for it.
Oh, part of it was due to her weakened state. Another big factor was Hinata's ability to inflict severe damage with a simple touch. Hyuuga were simply murderously dangerous at close range. Hinata was no exception in this regard. Her pupil wasn't using the true Gentle Fist style, but over the last months they had incorporated elements of it into the custom fighting style they had developed together. It didn't match up completely, but Hinata had a considerably easier time training in it.
'A year or perhaps two at the latest and I won't be able to beat her in taijutsu combat anymore without going instantly lethal.' Anko mused.
Finally she called a halt to the spar. "That is enough for now, Hinata."
"You are getting better." Anko said, voicing her earlier thoughts.
Hinata didn't seem happy. "Not quickly enough. I need to get better faster."
"Give it time. Your body needs to grow before you can reach your full potential."
Her pupil looked as if she was about to object before she sighed. "I know, sensei, I know, but I can't help feeling that way. Everyone knows the war has already begun. Naruto will be in the thick of things and I want to be able to help him. I didn't make a difference during the invasion."
Anko had no good answer to that, at least none she had not already given. Hinata was very good for her age and already a stronger combatant than many shinobi would ever be. Unfortunately objective facts didn't always make a difference on the emotional level.
With a glance at the sun Anko determined that there wasn't enough time left for another training session. Both she and Hinata had places to be.
"It's time to leave. We'll meet at Mizuki's house two hours before sundown. That's enough time for me to return from the assembly and get ready for the festival. Are you sure you don't want to hang out with people your age?"
Hinata shook her head. "It's fine, sensei. Aside from Kiba and Karin none of my friends are in Konoha. At the moment the two are more interested in kissing each other senseless than spending time with others. I would only be in the way. Besides, it isn't as if we have to stay together the entire time." The next part she said in a stage whisper. "I'll make sure you and Mizuki get some time together. Someone has to keep an eye on Moegi and Hanabi, after all."
Anko smiled. "Alright then. Hana and Shizune will be joining us. You know her?"
"Yes, Hana and the swallows introduced us. She is a nice person."
"Then I'll see you later."
Privately Anko wondered how the relationship between Tsunade's apprentice and Naruto's summons had come about. The woman even stayed at Yakumo's house at Naruto's invitation. She and Naruto had met on the Tsunade retrieval mission. While it wasn't impossible for them to strike up a friendship despite the age difference it just seemed a tad too convenient in light of who she was.
Shizune had left the village with Tsunade after the end of the third shinobi war fifteen years ago. She had been newly promoted to chunin. Aside from being Tsunade's chosen apprentice nothing had really stood out about her at the time. While Shizune had maintained sporadic contact with the village she had soon faded from public consciousness. Upon her return she had been an unknown quantity, even to the people who had known her before. Anko vaguely remembered Orochimaru introducing them when he took her as his apprentice, but she didn't think they had ever spoken much.
To all appearances Shizune was a genuinely nice person, but Anko couldn't ignore her political significance. She didn't like to think of people in this way, but thanks to the mentorship of Homura Mitokado she could and did do it. It was a necessity for every jonin.
Tsunade had come as a disappointment to many people once they had to actually deal with her in person. The woman's volatile temper and almost constant drunkenness had already dispelled a lot of hero worship.
In contrast, Shizune was rapidly building a reputation for herself. Talk was that she would soon take over leadership of the medical department, promotion to special jonin included. She would become a notable factor in the village's power structure. Establishing a friendship or even only an acquaintance with her was eminently desirable. Naruto being one of the first to do so was fortunate… and just a little bit suspicious.
'Then again, Naruto has the talent to be in the right place at the right time. It was pretty much the same when he found me in the gutter at that time. Or how he managed to get to Mizuki. Or how he got the friends he did.'
Shaking off these thoughts, Anko headed to the new Hokage's office. It was still a provisional building, but it was better suited than the house that had been originally used after the invasion. As always the office was incredibly busy, but fortunately Anko didn't have to wait long. Two people awaited her.
"Mitokado-sama, Hokage-sama." she greeted her mentor and the Nara clan head. Homura had become Shikaku's main advisor after Koharu's departure.
"It is good to see you up and about, Anko." Homura said.
Shikaku gave her a long-suffering look. "Why does everyone call me that? I am not Hokage yet."
"The election will take place in three hours and there are no other candidates, Hokage-sama." Anko pointed out.
"Troublesome." He sighed. "Anyway, there are a few things I want to talk with you about now that you are ready to return to active service. Firstly, Naruto has been raised to the nobility by the Fire Daimyo."
Anko blinked. "Really?"
"Yes. The development isn't unexpected. Shinobi being raised to the nobility has happened before. Naruto did save the daimyo and his family single-handedly, after all." Shikaku frowned. "I am not exactly happy how Asuma and Koharu risked him, but they were the people in charge on site. What's done is done and it turned out to be for the best."
Anko had to keep herself from making some choice remarks that could have unfortunate consequences for her career. Endangering her students was something that pushed all her buttons. Some of it was unavoidable (they were shinobi, after all), but a solo suicide mission went beyond the pale. Fortunately she had heard the news while she had been bedridden. Poor Mizuki had served as a target for her to vent her displeasure. At least she had gotten it out of her system.
Shikaku continued speaking. "What I want to know if this is liable to influence Naruto's loyalty in any way. You know him best."
"That is very unlikely." Anko answered immediately. "Thanks to our missions Naruto isn't lacking in money. He never expressed a desire for anything beyond a reasonably comfortable lifestyle and founding a family. His view of the Land of Fire and nobility is best described as indifference. All his friends are Konoha shinobi. Besides, he is smart enough to recognize that the village will never allow him to retire somewhere in the outside world because of the Kyuubi. He will make all the right noises and be happy about a new source of income, but nothing detrimental to the village."
Homura and Shikaku shared a look. "We thought so. Another issue has come up I want solved before the election. Jiraiya has asked for Naruto being made his apprentice. I would like to hear your opinion. Please speak frankly. Nothing of this conversation will ever leave this room."
Anko frowned. "Again? He already approached me during the month before the invasion. I blew him off. Naruto did the same. Why is he so persistent?"
"That is a question I would like the answer for, too. Could it be for sentimental reasons? He was Minato Namikaze's teacher. They remained close until Minato's death. I have been informed of the connection to Naruto. Could that be the reason?" Shikaku asked.
"As far as I know he never showed any interest during Naruto's childhood." Homura added.
"I don't know. When Jiraiya talked with me he mentioned Akatsuki after I probed for information, but he was very vague. It seemed to be more of a pretense. For some reason he was unwilling to reveal his true motivation."
"Troublesome. Now that Jiraiya has returned he is putting pressure on me to allow him to train Naruto. I was able to put the matter off for the time being thanks to Naruto's absence, but I need to make a decision soon. Naruto needs a teacher." Shikakur raised a hand to forestall her protests. "My plan was to let you remain in charge of him, but the fact is that you two will be in different locations in the foreseeable future. I have tasks for you that need fulfilling, but it would be ill-advised for Naruto to accompany you."
Anko nodded in acknowledgement. She didn't want to leave her team, but during the long, endless days she had spent in bed she had ample time to consider the future.
"Naruto will have to stay on call so that he is immediately available if we have need of his unique abilities. Originally I planned to leave him under Asuma's command and tutelage, but with Jiraiya's lobbying that might not be possible." Shikaku explained. "What do you think of him taking over Naruto's training?"
"Jiraiya isn't a good choice. I don't mean to question his skills." Anko added hastily. "It's just… how strong is Jiraiya's connection to the normal proceedings of the village? He's barely here. I don't think he spent more than a few months combined in the village during the last fifteen years."
"That is a concern I share." Homura admitted. "Frankly, for all of Jiraiya's talk of needing to maintain his spy network it has not turned out very useful. No proper forewarning of the Sky, Sand and Sound attack, no details about Akatsuki, no information about Orochimaru building his own village. Then there is the time after the second shinobi war when he went missing for years without an explanation. Hiruzen has always been very lenient with him, perhaps too lenient. I spoke with Jiraiya before and after the invasion. There are some undertones in his views that worry me."
Shikaku covered his eyes with his hands and sighed. "Are you telling me you have doubts about Jiraiya's loyalty?"
Homura shook his head. "Nothing so extreme. I don't want to insinuate anything like that. I can't really put my finger on it, but I think there is something wrong with Jiraiya's priorities." He seemed to look into the distance. "For all their power none of Hiruzen's pupils turned out well in the long run. Orochimaru is an outright traitor; Tsunade is on the way to becoming a total wreck; Jiraiya prefers to live the life of a wandering novelist instead of using his skills for the village's betterment."
"What about Jiraiya's suitability as a teacher, Anko? Please disregard all other concerns."
"From personal experience I can say I wouldn't want Jiraiya teaching anyone without supervision. I'm talking about a haphazard teaching style in combination with a disregard for possible accidents. Additionally, I'm not sure how well their skills match up. Jiraiya uses primarily fire and earth while Naruto uses wind and lightning. Naruto prefers to use weapons at close range, Jiraiya doesn't." She paused for a moment. "There is something else to consider. I don't know the reason, but the swallows and toads hate each other. Forcing their summoners to work together seems like a recipe for disaster."
"Jiraiya has many valuable things to teach, but I don't think he is suited to becoming Naruto's main teacher in my absence."
Shikaku tapped his fingers against his desk while he thought for almost a minute. "This is troublesome. Jiraiya will have the public on his side. I share some of your concerns about his conduct, but I don't see a way around it. Everyone else who might be suitable will be out of the village."
She looked at Homura, but the old man shook his head. "I will be too busy with other duties to take on a student."
Anko didn't know how, but suddenly the solution became clear to her. "Give the responsibility to Danzo." The startled looks on Homura's and Shikaku's faces made her day.
Homura was about to object when his expression suddenly grew thoughtful. "I see what you are intending to do. This might just work."
Shikaku's eyes had narrowed. "That is clever. Danzo is famous and influential enough in addition to being Konoha's foremost wind user. The appointment makes sense."
"He isn't able to leave the village anymore due to his injuries." Homura continued the thought. "He will be able to teach Naruto much. Jiraiya will keep his eyes on Naruto, preventing Danzo from doing anything the public might not approve of."
"…and completely accidentally it will keep him from stirring up any other trouble while he is busy with teaching and keeping Jiraiya from taking over." Anko finished.
A small smile had appeared on Shikaku's face. "I approve. That will solve the matter."
Anko left the Hokage's office, continuing to the area set aside for the assembly that would elect the new Hokage. It would be an hour until the assembly convened, but there were already more than two dozen jonin present. Anko used the time to socialize a bit. There were a lot of missing faces.
Every full jonin of Konoha held a seat in the jonin assembly, but it convened only rarely, usually three or four times a year. From what Anko knew the original intention had been to create a balancing factor to the clans and the power of the Hokage. One jonin had one vote, no exceptions except voting for an absent member. Anko held her friend Kurenai's vote, for example. Theoretically the assembly was Konoha's true governing body. In practice it had lost most of its powers over the decades to the village council and the emerging departments. Still, a few important functions remained.
Firstly, only the assembly could recognize new full jonin. This was perhaps the one true remaining power of the assembly. The village council and the Hokage could bestow the rank, but it would only become valid once the assembly had the opportunity to test and approve the new jonin. Furthermore, upon gathering the support of one sponsor and five additional members any shinobi could ask for promotion. This was the way Anko had achieved full jonin rank. It led to no end of political machinations.
Secondly, it was the jonin assembly who truly elected a new Hokage although the council could recommend a candidate. No candidate had ever been rejected, though.
Thirdly, a jonin could only be declared a missing nin or passed judgment upon by the assembly.
Lastly, the assembly could overturn any law the village council or the Hokage had passed.
In practice nothing apart from the first point really mattered. By the time the assembly convened to deal with an issue it had usually already been decided and all it could do was rubberstamp it. The opinions of the jonin and majorities were mostly being taken into account beforehand, a measure of the influence of the different factions. No decision during Hiruzen Sarutobi's rule had ever been overturned.
'Perhaps it will change with a new Hokage, but it is unlikely.'
Anko idly noted the security. The grounds were meticulously scoured by several people, with good reason. If someone managed to catch the participants in an explosion or area technique Konoha would end up decapitated.
More and more jonin arrived. Jiraiya appeared along with Tsunade. Choza Akimichi hobbled on a new wooden leg. Several old, infirm jonin had to be carried to the meeting, a testament to the fact that one never stopped being a jonin.
Soon she spotted a familiar, friendly face and decided to have some fun. Her approach was undetected until she whispered into her victim's ear. "Boo!"
Ibiki Morino jerked in surprise before he got himself under control. Then he turned around and sent her a look that practically screamed 'I'm not amused'.
"I'm just testing your reflexes. Nervous about your debut?"
Ibiki's glare became more menacing.
Anko put her right arm around the man's shoulders. "Ah, don't give me that face. Rejoice! Today is your great day! You will join our illustrious ranks."
The scarred man sighed. "Don't you have somebody else to bother, Anko?"
"Nope!" she said, grinning widely.
Ibiki sighed again before falling silent. Deciding she had had enough fun at his expense, Anko left him alone to mingle with the crowd.
Several people Anko talked with commented favorably on her students and teaching methods. Naruto and Choji had really distinguished themselves during the invasion. Naruto's rescue of the Fire Daimyo only added to it. Despite not doing anything really notable doing the Invasion Anko found that her status among her peers had increased markedly.
'Heh, the students reflect on the teacher. I'm really glad my stupid attack on Orochimaru didn't become public knowledge.'
Finally it was time to begin. Anko mostly tuned out the ceremonial bullshit. The first order of business was the induction of several new jonin the council had named, Ibiki among them. Those went smoothly and with a minimum of fuss.
Then several more came forth on their own initiative. Their sponsors and supporters spoke in favor of them. Detractors voiced objections. On two opportunities a short fight took place to test the aspiring jonin's skill. Some were welcomed. Others were turned down. All in all it was mostly tedious business.
Finally it was time for the Kage election. Normally Shikaku would head the ceremony as elected jonin commander, but since he was the candidate Choza Akimichi took over in his stead. Anko supposed he had been chosen for his loud voice.
"Our Kage has fallen. Struck down by a cowardly attack of his treacherous pupil, Sandaime Hiruzen Sarutobi is no more. Who will step forward to carry on the Will of Fire? What does the Great Council of Konoha say?"
Homura stepped in front of the crowd. "The council has deliberated carefully. Now hear our decision: There is one person who did more than anyone else to see us through these dark times, who held our village together when it might have fallen apart. Shikaku Nara shall be the one who leads us into the future!"
"A name has been put forward. Shikaku Nara, do you accept your nomination?" Choza asked loudly.
"I do." Shikaku said when he took position at Choza's side.
"Is there anyone here who wishes to put his name forward in challenge?"
Silence reigned. Nobody was stupid enough to try. Jiraiya was the only one who might have succeeded, but the Sannin had made it abundantly and publically clear that he didn't want the job.
"There are no challengers. Shikaku, you might address the assembly."
Shikaku let his gaze wander over the crowd. "You all know me. I have only one thing to say: I promise to do my best to see Konoha through this time of crisis and beyond. We are weakened, but undefeated. We will show the world not to take us lightly!"
The gathered jonin cheered.
Choza took over again. "Is there anyone here who knows any reason the candidate is unsuitable for the office? Speak now or be silent forever."
Once again the crowd was completely silent.
"Then I hereby declare the election closed!"
Hitoshi Hyuuga stepped forward, the ceremonial hat in his hands. Danzo Shimura followed with the matching robes. Shikaku accepted them.
"Let it be known that Konohagakure has a new Hokage! All hail Godaime Shikaku Nara! May his rule be long and successful!"
Cheers and applause filled the meeting place for almost five minutes. Then the crowd dispersed, some jonin returning to their duties while others left to get ready for the festivities that would begin soon.
When Anko arrived at home Mizuki and Hinata were already waiting for her. Moegi and Hanabi were engrossed in some board game. Everyone had already changed into more fitting attire.
Anko gave Mizuki a quick kiss before she retreated into her room to get ready.
"I'll help you." Hinata said before she followed her upstairs.
With Hinata helping everything went quickly: a bath, changing clothes, putting on some makeup, adjusting her hairstyle to something more elaborate than her usual messy ponytail. With the storing of a few weapons in strategic places her preparations were complete. She never went anywhere without being armed, after all.
When Anko returned downstairs she didn't miss Mizuki's eyes lighten up. It wasn't the first time they were going out together, but the reaction always gave her a warm feeling.
"You look beautiful." Mizuki offered his arm. "Shall we?"
Anko took it. Then they headed out into the village, Hinata and the children in tow.
It was the first celebration since the invasion. Everyone could use the morale boost and the opportunity to enjoy themselves. Well, aside from the poor bastards who needed to stand guard, but the festival would repeated on the next evening to make it possible for everyone to participate.
There was music, dance and food as well as various entertainments. Time passed quickly. They met up with friends, wandered around as a group for a while before splitting up again. Anko found herself warming to Shizune. Maybe they would become friends in the future. It was around midnight when Hinata took a sleepy Moegi and Hanabi back home, leaving the couple alone.
"Aren't you tired?" Mizuki asked.
"Not in the slightest. The night is still young."
Anko was smiling contentedly when she returned home arm in arm with Mizuki much later in the night. It had been a wonderful evening.
When they reached a small abandoned plaza Mizuki pulled her to a stop. Looking at him, Anko detected a hint of nervousness.
"Is something the matter?"
Mizuki took a deep breath. "I have come to realize something in those terrible hours when I thought I might have lost you. You brought a form of joy into my life I thought lost forever. I love you. Anko, will you marry me?"
Anko didn't have to think about her answer. She just knew. "Yes, a thousand times yes." Then she kissed her husband-to-be.
The Nanabi once again strained against its bonds. Just like earlier attempts it brought no result; the spiral of wood it was fused into didn't budge. The seal was still too strong. Its young container used only a minor amount of its chakra, ever careful not to draw even one full tail. At this rate it would take decades for the seal to erode.
Above all else it wanted to be free and roam across the lands, scouring it with its winds. Being condemned to motionlessness like this was unbearable. It vividly remembered riding the storms it called up, the simple joy of being unbound. The echo had only reinforced that desire. Some memories had appeared, giving the Nanabi the impression of nearly absolute freedom. The Juubi had only answered to its creator.
There was a new pressure there, too. It felt like there were winds penned up inside it that wanted to get free. It also had led to a better understanding of its own nature.
The Nanabi had always been restless and in motion. It destroyed because it was its nature to destroy everything it touched, not because it reveled in suffering like some of the other tailed beasts.
Now it understood. Its purpose was to teach the mortals a lesson. They simply had to learn to let go of attachments and worries instead of continuing meaningless cycles of love and vengeance. Once the demon was free it would scour the world, breaking all who stood against it and stripping away all they held dear, be it loves or hatreds. In that breaking they would find enlightenment even if the lesson proved fatal.
Once again the Nanabi forced its chakra against the seal to no visible effect. Be it one year or ten or a hundred, one day it would be free again.
'Interesting. Interesting and worrisome.'
Kakuzu looked up from the sheet of paper, shifting his gaze to the woman in front of him. "How reliable are these numbers?"
The woman shrugged. "I have received three matching, detailed reports from some contacts of mine in the Fire Capital aside from the usual gossip. The particulars differ somewhat, but the generalities are the same. It seems the Wood shinobi were finally completely annihilated. Trade shouldn't be overly affected one way or another for now, but with them gone the roads should become somewhat safer in the future." She shrugged again. "But who can really say with the attack on our daimyo and Konoha half destroyed? The situation is still very much in flux."
"I see." Kakuzu removed a stack of bills from his clothes and slid it over the table, mentally grumbling about the amount of cash leaving his possession. "You have my thanks."
After checking the bills and putting them away the woman stood up. "As always, it was a pleasure doing business with you, Mushi-san."
Kakuzu remained sitting at the table when she left, staring into the cup of tea in his hands. Contrary to what some people might expect the table was not situated in a dark corner. Neither was the establishment a seedy bar. No, the well-lit and completely respectable tea house was part of the sprawling complex that serviced the untold merchants gathering here, one of the main trading hubs of the Land of Fire.
Nobody paid any attention to two people making a deal for information. It was an everyday occurrence. A henge changed Kakuzu's appearance to that of a fifty year old traveling merchant, making him fit right in. Even if someone managed to overhear particulars it would change nothing. The information he had purchased was of interest to many people and nothing would make him look particularly suspicious.
Kakuzu had already known about the generalities of the attack on the Fire Daimyo due to his own network of contacts. It was neither as large as Sasori's spy network nor were his information sources as highly placed, but it was enough to keep him up to speed on the general developments across the Elemental Nations. He kept it as loose and low-maintenance as possible, using already existing independent organizations and information brokers whenever possible.
The involvement of the Kyuubi jinchuuriki made the event of special interest to him and merited further investigation. The grudge of the Wood shinobi against the Land of Fire was well-known. They had probably been planning an attack for months, gathering all remaining Wood shinobi and moving them into position unobtrusively.
'But in the end they failed.'
Most seemed to have died in several attacks on the palace, worn down in the fight against the defenders. About five dozen Wood shinobi had attacked the Fire Daimyo directly, cutting of all reinforcements with a barrier technique. The daimyo had about twenty guards with him, only three of them shinobi of note. Simultaneously a relief force from Konoha had arrived with the help of a dozen giant swallows summons, but only the jinchuuriki had managed to pierce the barrier. About half an hour later the barrier dropped. Only the daimyo, his family and the jinchuuriki made it out alive.
'Even if each of the guards managed to take out more than one enemy - and that is extremely generous; in such a situation the attackers have the advantage – there would have been ten to twenty enemies left. Considering who the opponents were it is impressive for the jinchuuriki to take them down while protecting civilians.'
People like the Fire Horse, Silver Blade and other famous ex-Wood jonin who had been confirmed dead in the attack had already been on Kakuzu's 'future prey'-list. He had only wanted to wait for some time until their groups fractured more under the difficulties of operating without a village and the bounties rose some more. One, perhaps two years in the future he would have started actively hunting them.
For the jinchuuriki to take them down all at once without simply destroying the entire area in one overpowered attack (and the evidence supported individual engagements)… That put Naruto Uzumaki into Kakuzu's personal 'avoid engaging when possible, otherwise proceed only with utmost caution'-category, a high honor indeed.
Frankly, under normal circumstances Kakuzu wouldn't target such a person at all. A jinchuuriki was far too high profile and attacking him would cause all sorts of repercussions. He had not survived to this day by being stupid and drawing the ire of the shinobi villages. He had a terrible temper, true, but he knew to pick his battles carefully.
'Should I cancel the contract with Akatsuki?' Kakuzu asked himself. It wasn't the first time he posed that question to himself. It was a very lucrative contract, especially considering that he was paid per day and could pick bounties for himself along the way, but now that the organization was targeting the jinchuuriki the danger might not be worth it.
Once the shinobi villages wised up they would gang up on Akatsuki, even with the war brewing. A mercenary organization taking some jobs was tolerable to them. The same organization attacking strategic assets and important loyal shinobi was not. Even with several kage-level shinobi and Pain's control over Amegakure they would fall before the sheer numerical superiority of the other villages. The other members were fools not to expect it. Sasori's death might well be a harbinger of things to come.
Kakuzu had seen similar events happen in the past. A new group rose, gaining in power until they overreached. Then they would inevitably fall. Very few groups ever managed to avoid that fate. It was happening right now in regards to Otogakure. Orochimaru had overplayed his hand with the attack on Konoha. Akatsuki and by extension Amegakure would be next. The only remaining questions were how long it would take… and for how long Kakuzu could risk staying with them to increase his profit.
'It is likely the fourth shinobi war is already starting. Kumo shows signs of mobilizing and the minor villages are doing the same. I should be gone from the Elemental Nations before the conflicts escalate. A visit to the southern or eastern continent sounds nice. It has been decades since my last visit there. Until my preparations are complete I can stay with Akatsuki.' Kakuzu finally decided.
He didn't like the big wars. Normal, limited conflicts gave ample opportunity for a bounty hunter like him, but this was different. Too much chaos made the risks hard to calculate and the bounties difficult to cash in. While the villages ignored him under normal circumstances (he was considered too dangerous to mess with as long as he didn't openly antagonize the major players) that changed when he went about his business during wartime. He was powerful enough that he could tip conflicts one way or the other. That was a threat the big villages couldn't tolerate. He had gone to ground during the first war. During the second and third war he had sat things out on entirely different continents.
Kakuzu sighed. He hated the rebuilding of his contacts that would become necessary in the aftermath of the war. It wasn't important to him who won or lost or which villages were destroyed, but it would shake up the shinobi landscape.
Additionally, there seemed to be something going on with the spirit world and it worried him greatly. He had yet to make contact with the appropriate sources of information, but he literally felt the spiritual unrest in the threads that made up his body. The beginning coincided with the invasion of Konoha and the attack on the Mizukage. Conceivably the events were connected.
'I can use my current missions to initiate the necessary preparations for disappearing. Deidara's flying clay constructs cut down on the travel time enough that Pain and the others will be none the wiser.'
Surprisingly, working with Deidara wasn't as aggravating as Kakuzu had thought. Going from their prior interaction he had expected the ex-Iwa shinobi to go on and on about art. Instead he stayed silent almost the entire time, followed commands without question and seemed to be deep in thought. Apparently Sasori's death had rattled him rather strongly.
A little thought would be good for Deidara. Perhaps the young man would figure out what it took to survive as missing nin in the long term. Before he had been recruited by Akatsuki the young shinobi had been on the fast track to being hunted down by virtually everyone because he made such a nuisance of himself.
Kakuzu was about to leave when three women entered the main room of the tea house. There were always people coming and going, but something about them caught his attention. They didn't look extraordinary in any way. In contrast to that his instincts were telling him that something was unusual about them. He became outright alarmed when the three approached his table and sat down. The black threads inside his body were vibrating with anticipation.
"We have looked forward to this meeting for some time."
"Your reputation precedes you. You are a hard man to catch."
Kakuzu gave them a friendly smile in accordance with his cover identity while he assessed the women. Instantly he began calculating ways to either get out or eliminate them at a moment's notice if they proved a threat.
They were triplets, if he wasn't mistaken. Their age was hard to guess; not old, but not young either. The clothing and conduct gave off an air of respectability. They might just want to do trade with his assumed identity. "Good afternoon. In what way may I help you?"
"We heard you deal in fabrics of a special sort."
"One could say the black thread used is truly unique."
"Why, it seems to be alive."
Kakuzu 's mind went into overdrive to find a way out of this situation. They knew who he was. The allusion to the living black thread inside his body proved it. Whoever these three were, they had him at a massive disadvantage. Another part of his mind noted that people were actively avoiding their corner. In fact, they seemed to ignore the group completely. He couldn't detect any genjutsu. "What would you ask of me?"
"There are certain services we would like to purchase."
"Our manifold business interests have been obstructed repeatedly."
"One might say we wish to put you on retainer as a problem solver."
The ancient shinobi relaxed minutely. He still didn't like the situation, but it didn't seem as if there was any immediate danger. "I am sorry to say I am already under commission. While I am always open to negotiate for odd jobs here and there acquiring my fulltime services is impossible at the current time."
That seemed to amuse the women.
"Contracts can be renegotiated. Money is of no issue. Name your price."
"We understand the matters of value, of compensation for services rendered and adequate payment very well."
"You should already be familiar with our work. The black thread of yours is a fruit of our loom."
Kakuzu looked at them skeptically. By now he was pretty sure he was dealing with non-humans. It wouldn't be the first time, both as client and prey. Still, that was a quite extraordinary claim. "Who are you?"
"You may call us the Weavers of Destiny, Loom child."
"We see past, present and future."
"We have watched you."
"You are not the man you used to be."
"You are stronger and wiser and freer than you ever used to be."
"And now you have come at the crossroads of the destiny. It is time for you to choose."
"We can offer things beyond your imagination."
"We already know your heart's desire." The third woman raised her hands. A softly glowing white thread wound around them, moving of its own accord. "A thread to match yours for your dear wife."
Gyuki , the being more commonly known as the Hachibi, was worried. Something was happening in the world and he didn't know what it was. There was a feeling in the back of his mind that something was very, very wrong with him, but after a while he shoved it aside. It was probably only an expression of his worry.
Instead the eight-tailed being addressed his container. "Hey B, hear anything new from the village?"
"… and Naruto thinks their stay is coming to an end soon. He looks forward to seeing you again."
Hinata sighed, and then smiled. "Thank you for bringing me the message. I already sent him a letter earlier today. You are free to go."
The swallow nodded in acceptance before it dispelled itself in a cloud of smoke, leaving Hinata alone in the sanctuary.
She sighed again. Communication with Naruto was a bit difficult. He could summon swallows, but they had to actually fly the entire way from the Fire Capital to Konoha to deliver messages since no one else could summon them.
'At least he is well. That is something.'
The ruling family of the Land of Fire being demons was a very unexpected development… and a very dangerous one. Spirits and demons were rare, but far from unheard of. Unfortunately she had no idea how to proceed.
"I wish you would talk to me."
Only silence answered Hinata. She felt the presence of Youko and Daiki, but they didn't answer. The presence had gotten stronger since she had first visited the sanctuary after her awakening and was in fact stronger than before the invasion, but it seemed somehow dispersed. She knew from their awakening that they were still alive. Sometimes the wind seemed to caress her, but there seemed to be some problem with contacting her directly. By now she had expected to be pulled into the other world, too. She couldn't help but worry about the possible reasons.
That wasn't the only thing that occupied Hinata's mind. Her dreams had become strange and incomprehensible since she had woken up from her coma. She really needed advice on how to deal with that.
'I have to go back soon.' Hinata thought after a look at the position of the sun. It was always difficult to slip away, but she found it worth it. She felt more at home here in the sanctuary than in the rooms back in the Hyuuga compound she had lived in for more than a decade. Ever since her awakening the feeling had become drastically stronger.
Suddenly Hinata felt something shift in her surroundings.
'Something is happening.'
Getting to her feet, she tried to determine the origin of the feeling. It seemed to come from a specific point in the woods. Suddenly the wind tugged at her clothes. The direction matched those of the feeling.
"You want me to go there?"
Once again the wind tugged at her clothes, stronger this time.
Following the sensation, Hinata left the central clearing of the sanctuary behind, passing the patch of forest that was still in the grip of eternal winter. She didn't need long to arrive at the origin of the feeling. It was a large tree, one of the oldest in the sanctuary.
"I'm here. What now?" she asked.
No reaction was forthcoming, but the strange feeling increased in strength. It felt… expectant, as if something important would happen soon. One by one the noises of the forest felt silent. Hinata waited patiently.
When it happened it was decidedly unspectacular. One moment there was just a tree; in the next a small humanoid figure the size of her hand was standing on the roots. Its body was white and without any detailed features, like a clay doll. The head was overly large and ungainly, three uneven holes indicating eyes and a mouth. It didn't seem to be quite real.
'A tree spirit?'
The tiny thing looked at her in silence. It felt friendly, curious and expectant, not hostile in the slightest.
Hinata knelt down. "Hello there." She carefully held out a hand.
The spirit grabbed hold of her index finger, but it was gentle. She got a feeling of happiness from it. Then it moved its head in a peculiar manner, letting out a rattle. From one moment to the next all the noises of the forest returned, the atmosphere returning to normal.
After a few moments it let go, stepping back until it hit the tree. Then it simply disappeared into the bark. From time to time its head poked out of the trunk or a branch before disappearing again. The occasional rattle accompanied it.
'Curious. Why now of all times?'
They had expected the emergence of various small spirits for years, but nothing ever happened. The lack of newborn spirits despite the local abundance of magic had been perplexing. Something must have changed for that tree spirit to emerge.
'Another question I don't know the answer to.'
Sighing softly, Hinata stood up. Her time was up and she had to return to Konoha.
Several hours later, Hinata carefully sat down in the private rooms of her grandfather Hitoshi, her sister Hanabi beside her. He had called both his granddaughters for a conversation that promised to be very serious. She had not seen much of the old man in the weeks since her awakening. Immediately after he had been there, making sure she was alright, but then his duties had called him away again. The old man had tried to simultaneously handle the positions of clan head, council member and commander of the sentries protecting Konoha.
Every time Hinata had seen him he had looked worse. As an aspiring medic-nin she recognized the signs.
'Too much stress, especially in combination with his poor health. He will die soon.'
"Hinata, Hanabi, it is good to see you. I have called you to discuss your future. I will not live much longer and want to put matters in order."
Neither of the sisters said anything. They knew the truth of that statement. Their grandfather had always been a very distant figure. It was sad, but it didn't affect either of them to a great degree on an emotional level.
"The position of our family inside the clan is perilous. Your father made many enemies during his time as clan head. Others I made in the past. More of our family's allies than of our enemies died during the invasion. I fear the other main house families will try to relegate you two to the branch house as soon as I am gone. There will be no one left to speak for you. Your father leaving the question of heir hanging in the air for years didn't help matters. They will find some reason or make one up to justify it."
Hanabi grew agitated, but Hinata put a hand on her arm to calm her. "Is there anything we can do, Grandfather?" she asked.
"It pains me to say it, but no. People have already formed their opinions. Hinata, if you were a few years older and more skilled in the Gentle Fist I might have been able to persuade enough people to change their opinions and support you. You are good, but not good enough by far. They will use that as a possible pretext. Hanabi, you are simply too young."
Hitoshi's voice remained steady and nearly emotionless, but Hinata detected traces of regret. "Faced with this state of affairs I did the only thing I could to guarantee your continued stay in the main house. I arranged marriages for both of you. Hinata, you will marry Hideo as soon as you turn fifteen. I realize he is much older than you, but he is the best option. He lost both his wife and son during the invasion and is in need of a new heir. Hanabi, you will marry Manabu."
"But he his only a baby!" Hanabi blurted out.
"He is five, three years younger than you. That hardly makes him a baby. As soon as he turns thirteen you will marry. His parents didn't survive the invasion, but his grandmother is influential, alive and well… and a widow as well as past her childbearing years. She harbors many of the same fears I do. This match helps her as much as you. Lastly, Subaru's second son will be allowed to remain in the main house, taking the place of our family. Subaru has a good chance to become the next clan head, especially if I support him. His patronage will be essential until the time of your marriages." Hitoshi paused for a moment. "The betrothal ceremonies will take place in one week's time. I would have wished for you to have more of a say in the matter of your future husbands, but this is the best I can do. I am sorry."
Hinata felt like she was falling into a bottomless pit, but she managed to keep up a calm façade. She had feared something like this happening for a long time. Now she had a hard time limit.
The being known as Youko, She-who-once-was-the-Kyuubi was feeling unwell.
Their world should be feeling more spacious by now, but it didn't. As always she and her mate were constricted, pressed closely together and unable to unfold their being properly let alone move. The actual physical space available inside their own world was practically limitless, but in a spiritual sense they were severely constrained. Matters were not helped by the considerable part of her chakra that was trapped inside the seal. It always made her feel stretched thin and penned in at the same time.
The fight with the Ichibi and Reibi had cost them some of their metaphysical substance. The amount of themselves they had transferred outside while miniscule in relation to their overall size should have given them noticeable if small relief by now. Instead it felt as if the available space was actually growing smaller. Unexpectedly a sort of quake had disturbed the carefully crafted facsimile of the real world they normally maintained for the children's sake. Until they solved that mystery it would be unwise to allow Naruto and Hinata to visit them again.
Some time had passed until they were able to determine some facts. It was a miniscule amount, but she was getting bigger in relation to her mate. She had to compress one section of her before she could unfold another to properly examine it. Maintaining a habitable area for the children was impossible under the circumstances.
Finally she found the source of the problem. It was surprising, to say the least.
"Oh my. This is quite unexpected."
"Fresh fish! Look, come closer! Fresh, very cheap fish!"
Naruto scrunched up his nose. The fish certainly didn't smell fresh to him. He made certain to keep his distance from the stall and the fat blond merchant with the large mustache. Soon he left it and the smell behind and other stalls with merchants praising their goods grabbed his attention.
The market district near the river harbor was simply enormous, just like the rest of the Fire capital. Naruto found it somewhat intimidating. He had spent most of his life in the much smaller Konoha. While he had visited other cities with his team since his graduation from the academy those had been relatively short visits and the settlements had been not that much larger.
Despite being called village Konoha was a city with a population in the low ten thousands. The Fire capital was many times larger. It wasn't the largest city in the Land of Fire, but it didn't miss that mark by much. Without the river serving as a trading lane to bring in food from a good chunk of the country it would have been impossible to feed so many people in one place.
The fires the Wood shinobi had laid to cover their attack had done considerable damage to some districts, but after a couple of days city life had pretty much returned to normal. Now, just over two weeks later, nobody would notice anything amiss.
Looking up to a balcony overlooking the marketplace in front of him, Naruto saw an old man gesture him to come up. Climbing a set of stairs, Naruto joined a small group of people. Just like him they used a henge to conceal their true forms. His ability to sense chakra was nothing to write home about, but at such a short distance the technique was unmistakable even for him.
"Good, now that we are all here we can begin. Watch out. Yuna has been marked as a target. " the old man whispered.
Naruto unobtrusively scanned the crowd, trying to spot what the older shinobi was talking about. It took him a few moments to see it with all the people in the way. One of the kunoichi of the group was making her way across the marketplace, wearing the form of a much older woman with relatively wealthy clothing. A boy in poor clothing was moving through the crowd, always keeping at a short distance.
"Do you see it? Good. There are five other people who act similarly. They are positioning themselves near their targets, all wealthy looking. Six more have picked out market stands. " the man lectured while subtly pointing things out. "This group of thieves has good organization. Note how they keep their marks in reach, but wait for the right moment. I'm sure they have set up some distraction somewhere… ah, there it is."
A loud crash caused most visitors to stop in their business and look for the source. One large white draft animal had gone out of control and rammed a market stand, launching vegetables in all directions.
In that moment of general confusion the thieves struck. If Naruto had not been looking he would have missed it. One second the thieves were still a few arms' length away from their target. Then they closed the distance before walking away almost immediately.
The commotion continued to draw the attention of the crowd. From his vantage point Naruto could see the thieves continuing in their work for some time, but they stopped and disappeared before anyone noticed their presence.
A short time later Yuna reached them, wearing another form. "Everything went as planned, sensei."
"Well done. The thieves should get the message when they sort the loot." He turned towards the group. "Now, boys and girls, this was a textbook case of mass pocket-picking. The thieves did pretty much everything right."
"Will we follow them and turn them over to the city guard?" someone asked.
The man shrugged. "We aren't getting paid for that... yet. Crime has been on the upturn. If it continues the authorities will call us in. I hope that doesn't happen; we maintain friendly ties to the current leaders of the underworld in this district. They are useful on occasion. Hence the warning message Yuna delivered. If they don't cut back it will be their loss. Back to what I was saying… "
Naruto listened with interest while the man explained the different way of how thieves acted in big cities. Where large numbers of people gathered there were always those who sought to take advantage of others. Widespread poverty didn't help things.
Aside from him all of the listeners belonged to the sizable detachment Konoha maintained in the capital at all times. It was separate from the detachment serving the daimyo. The services it provided were much more centered on non-combat-related work like information brokering, spying, bodyguard duties in all its forms and various errands. Well, and a bit of assassination, but that was much rarer than what most normal people believed. Professional murder was quite expensive and not freely available. In consequence most shinobi stationed there weren't what one would call combat-focused.
There wasn't much to do at the palace and Naruto had decided to use the opportunity to learn more about their work (and put some distance between himself and a certain family of demons). A batch of new graduates had arrived just before the invasion of Konoha and was in the process of being trained on the job. Asuma had granted his request to join them for the day without any problems.
"Look, there are still a few opportunists at work, taking advantage of the distraction. See how disorganized they are? Some of them are practically amateurs and take unnecessary risks. It won't be long now."
"Thief! Stop the thief!" came the shout. Naruto watched when several people tried to get away. Not all managed. Three were caught and dragged away by the market guards.
"And that concludes our lesson. It's time to return. Split up into three groups. Aya, Kenichi, Woodchopper, you will take the eastern route. You may drop your henge."
Naruto groaned mentally. Many famous shinobi had one or several nicknames, many of them rather unimaginative. Kakashi was known as the Copycat, Hiruzen Sarutobi as the Professor and Anko as the Snake Mistress. In the same vein some people had taken to calling him 'Woodchopper' for his defeat of dozens of Wood shinobi. He really hoped it wouldn't stick.
As soon as the group was out of sight the two young shinobi accompanying him dropped their henge, returning to their true forms. They didn't wear their forehead protectors and their clothing made them blend in, not revealing their profession. To all appearances they were simply a group of middle-class teenagers.
"Whew, I don't think I could have kept it up any longer." Kenichi said, a boy perhaps one or two years older than Naruto.
"Same." Aya agreed, wiping several drops of sweat from her face. "I think the old greybeard wants to drive us to exhaustion. Why else would he make us keep up a henge during his entire lecture? As soon as we are back I'll be collapsing into bed."
"Not before you stored your gear away, you don't. You know they are only waiting for one of us to make such a mistake."
Naruto kept his henge up and remained silent. His chakra reserves weren't even measurably used. He could keep going pretty much indefinitely. He was pretty sure none of his friends would have such problems, not after such a relatively short time. It was a reminder of the fact most normal shinobi didn't have all that much chakra, especially at such a relatively young age.
"Hey Naruto, there's something I wanted to ask you the entire day. Are you the Naruto who was in my starting academy class around six years ago?" the girl suddenly asked.
Naruto blinked. He examined the girl again. The face was vaguely familiar, but he had written it off as a passing familiarity from the academy. Then he remembered. "You are the Aya who got her arm broken when you told on that bully. What was his name? Hagu-something?"
"Haguro." She giggled. "A few days later he was found hanging from the academy building clad only in diapers. I could see it from the hospital. That was so funny."
"I refuse to deny or confirm any involvement in those incidents." Naruto replied with mock seriousness. He had almost forgotten that. It seemed so long ago. Besides, he had given up pranking for good.
"You didn't make it to the next year, if I remember right. I sort of lost track of you then."
Naruto nodded. "I was younger than all of you. It was rather difficult for me to keep up with everything."
Aya moved closer to him. "How about I show you where we go to amuse ourselves when our teachers aren't breathing down our necks? Talking about old times, catching up and all that stuff." Her fingers brushed lightly against the back of his hand, tracing random patterns. "I would love to hear what you have been up to. Is it true you destroyed a flying fortress all on your own? That's so heroic!"
'Is she hitting on me?'
Before Naruto could formulate an answer Kenichi snickered. "Smooth, very smooth, Aya. Didn't you say you are tired?"
"Shut up!" she hissed back. "Just becau-"
From one moment to the next everything changed. Naruto didn't even blink; his surroundings simply changed without any transition.
The formerly busy street was empty. The stalls were gone as were his companions. Everything had assumed a dilapidated state. The sky was suddenly heavily overcast.
Naruto didn't feel anything interacting with his chakra, but just to be safe he performed a genjutsu-dispelling technique. Unfortunately nothing changed.
Grey fog began appearing, filling the street and turning everything beyond his immediate vicinity into barely discernible silhouettes. He could hear the occasional scratching sound. It was as if someone was taking sharp metallic objects or claws and testing every available surface.
'Okay, someone is trying to fuck with me. That much is obvious.'
Naruto decided to take the initiative. "I know you are there. Who are you?"
"I stalk the night with eyes of flame. Beware the jaws that bite, the claws that catch." It was a masculine, cultured voice that seemed to come from every direction at once.
Pairs of glowing eyes began appearing into the mist. All were inhuman. All were different.
Suddenly Naruto spottedone pair of luminescent green eyes he was sure he had seen not long ago. 'The cat.'
"You watched me in the palace park." he said out loud.
"Indeed. How fine you looked when dressed in rage. Your enemies are fortunate your condition is not permanent. You are lucky, too. Red eyes suit so few."
Naruto felt the control over his chakra slipping. Within moments he found himself unable to mould even the tiniest quantity of chakra. An attempt to draw on his mother's chakra was equally unsuccessful. He realized he was in deep trouble. This was an attack… one he was ill-prepared to meet. Only one option remained.
"Who are you? What do you want?" Naruto shouted. At the same time he used his magic to invoke something or rather someone more powerful than him. 'Father of Stars, I call for your help…'
"Someone. No one. Anyone. The proper order of things is often a mystery to me. Enlighten me. What reason has the predator to spare its prey?"
"I don't understand. That doesn't mean anything to me." '… I find myself in mortal peril…'
"The uninformed must improve their deficit, or die." The mist rushed in, countless claws gleaming.
'…grant your son your protection.' Tiny stars exploded outwards from Naruto, forming a protective curtain. A terrible screeching noise erupted when it met the claws. Stars simply winked out of existence, their light extinguished. At the same time the claws shattered into nothingness.
The stars won out, pushing back the fog. Naruto felt enormous power flowing through him. Suddenly the advancement stopped, an equally great power pushing against his. They fought for a moment until an equilibrium established itself. A circle of half a dozen meters was free of fog. Beyond that he could see only vague forms. The eyes had disappeared.
The mists parted slightly to reveal a massive cat hovering in thin air. Large, luminous eyes were constantly changing their color. One thing that immediately caught Naruto's attention were the oversized claws. The creature didn't seem perturbed in the slightest by the ongoing struggle between the fog and stars. If anything it seemed amused.
"Interesting. A reflection sometimes exposes more than the object it echoes. Tell me, starspawn, who are you? You carry a demon and use its power, yet you call on divine protection from your father."
"I am Naruto Uzumaki."
"The name means nothing to me. I can't know everything about your mortal families. Pretend you're an orphan and explain more clearly." The cat stopped his speech and gasped. "That was rude, you are." He made a show of examining Naruto closely. "Or rather you were. I reckon your current parents are very much alive. Two sets of parents, one pair mortal and cut off, one not."
The thing was creeping Naruto out. "How do you know that?"
The cat laughed, showing rows upon rows of needle-sharp teeth in the process. "It is plain to see for those who can truly see. The demon conceals much, but such things never stopped me. A demon bound, a mortal body, yet inside your soul I see the seed of divinity."
Naruto remained silent, not knowing what to do. He couldn't draw on more power. In fact, he found himself tiring rapidly. Whatever the being was, it could bring more power to bear than him. Just when he finished the thought he felt something inside him rise.
"And not any seed. Unplanted seeds dry out and die. Nature has ordained that certain seeds require assistance to fulfill their destiny. Your seed has been nourished and cherished. Stars and sun, you reek of their touch. Newcomers, if my memory is anything to go by."
The cat dissolved into mist. Another appeared; this one mangy looking with poisonous yellow eyes. "Newcomers I owe some thanks to, as it appears. After all, I slept long past my usual naptime… although the wakeup-call was rude and produced no end of trouble. The owl knows a thing or two and I myself don't need a weathervane to tell which way the wind blows. To the great powers of this realm we are all victims in-waiting."
Once again the cat disappeared. In return cats of all shapes and sizes stepped out of the mist, looked at Naruto, poked at the curtain of stars and walked away again.
A sleek beast remained closer, its claws crushing the lights one by one. "Small you are and helpless and therefore prey, yet prey that did me a service. My hunt will remain unfruitful, the quarry allowed to escape. The Weavers weave their web of fate, seeking to ensnare all in their design. How I love to tangle their threads. You, your burden and your parents will serve well for that purpose, godspawn."
The mangy cat reappeared amidst the stream of felines. "Let me give you some advice. Every journey requires a first step. Trite, but true, even for such as us and especially for our spawn. Only a few find the way; some don't recognize it when they do; some don't ever want to. Steps to enlightenment brighten the way; but the steps are steep. Take them one at a time. Cling closely to the path, little godling. A fall will dash your head along with all your hopes."
Naruto was slowly growing frustrated. "What are you talking about? Why are you speaking in riddles?"
The cat that answered was black-and-white. One leg had been replaced with a wooden peg and an eye patch hid one eye. "Because I am what I am. I would tell you what you want to know if I could, but I am a cat. And no cat anywhere, ever gave anyone a straight answer. Besides, it's far more fun this way."
"For you, perhaps." Naruto said. His knees began to buckle. His mind remained strangely clear for all the power he was channeling, but he couldn't continue much longer. The rising concentration of power had almost reached the surface.
"And that is the only opinion that matters." the fat cat replied, sounding smug. "Seek the owl and his great library if you want explanations. He will help… for a price. You won't find him easily, though. Call one of his servants and make a deal. Under northern ice you will find a proper shrine. The influence of knowledge is telling. And that is all I will say. Toodeloo!" At that the cat's grin stretched far too wide, showing far too many needle-sharp teeth in the process. Then it faded away until only the smile hung in the air. Finally even that disappeared into the swirling fog.
From one moment to the next everything returned to normal. A split second later the protective envelope of stars collapsed into Naruto, disappearing from the world.
"-se you don't know any…" Aya stopped, blinking. "Did something happen? I thought I was seeing stars for a moment."
Kenichi snickered again. "Stars, hm? It's more likely you are a bit starstruck."
With an enormous effort of will Naruto suppressed any reaction. His legs felt like jelly. He was pretty sure he had just come within a whisker of an extremely messy death… and he had been unable to do a damned thing about it.
He didn't remember much of the rest of the way. Aya tried to flirt shamelessly, but Naruto kept to short, neutral response. When he left with a vague promise to visit again she looked incredibly frustrated. Kenichi in turn collapsed in helpless laughter as soon as he thought Naruto out of earshot.
When Naruto turned the nearest corner into a side alley he stopped and leaned against the wall of the nearest house to get his head in order. Faintly he heard the voices of his two companions.
"Don't laugh, you idiot. This is my great chance. He just needs a little more time to warm to me."
"I don't think so. You do know that he already has a girlfriend, do you?"
"Seriously, Aya. It was the talk of the village. He's been together with Yakumo Kurama for almost a year. Well, if the rumors one of the newcomers told are anything to go by he's banging Ino Yamanaka at the same time. They live together, you know."
At that point Naruto stopped listening. He didn't need to hear those rumors again. It was astonishing what stories people came up with. He was absolutely sure some of the things he allegedly got up to were anatomically impossible.
Once Naruto felt recovered enough he whistled. A moment later a swallow swept down from the roofs, landing on his shoulder.
"Did you notice anything suspicious while I was with the two?" he asked.
"I have nothing to report." The swallow tilted its head. "You don't look good, Naruto-sama. Is something the matter?"
'So whoever that cat was separated me completely from everyone without them even noticing.' He breathed deeply. "It's nothing."
A minute later he continued on his way. Once back in the palace he retreated into the room set aside for him. He really needed to lie down. Fortunately it was already evening and it didn't seem as if his presence was required for anything.
The familiar pulling sensation he had missed for so long came as an immense relief. He gave in immediately. After a short moment of darkness he woke up in his alcove in a familiar cottage. He immediately got out of bed and into the main room.
Naruto found himself embracing Hinata. Closing his wet eyes, he held her tightly, immersing himself in the sensation. He didn't know how long they stood there in their embrace.
Finally they separated a bit. "I missed you so much. I thought I had lost you."
"I will never leave you." Hinata's expression grew worried when she got a good look at him. "You don't look well."
Naruto shuddered. "I think I just narrowly escaped death. I have to talk with Mom and Dad immediately."
Since nobody was here they headed for the door. As soon as they stepped outside they came to an abrupt halt.
"What the heck happened here?"
The cottage was there, but most of the surrounding landscape was simply missing. Aside from a few trees and parts of the meadow there was only white nothingness.
The forms of Youko and Daiki suddenly appeared in front of them. In the next moment Naruto found himself gathered up in a big hug alongside Hinata. As soon as they were released his father repeated the gesture, albeit a bit more reservedly.
"You have many questions." he said when he released them. "We will do our best to answer them. There are important matters to discuss. But first, we have some news to tell you."
"I'm pregnant!" a beaming Youko announced.
Author's notes: Thank you for your reviews.