Disclaimer: I still don't own Naruto

The Scorned Son

Chapter 9

The morning dawned cold and clear, heralding the beginning of a new day for Konoha. In contrast to many other days there was none of the usual hustle and bustle. The streets of the village were deserted, the markets abandoned and the shops closed. A curfew had been declared and the only people moving around were squads of grim-faced shinobi. No one was allowed to leave the village, although shinobi returning from missions were allowed to enter. Civilian traffic was blocked completely. All in all life in the village had ground to a halt. In a few places buildings had been destroyed, the ruins and the occasional splatter of now dried blood the only signs of nightly violence. One after another persons who had fallen under suspicion were sought out and escorted away. Most came quietly, but occasionally someone tried to resist. The ensuing violence was always short, brutal and mercilessly squashed.

Ibiki Morino, head of Konoha's Torture & Interrogation Department, didn't take notice of the new day. Since last night he was at the center of everything in the dungeons, coordinating the purge. For the most part he only organized the effort of dividing the prisoners up, but occasionally he had to take a hand himself.

In contrast to what most civilians and far-too-many shinobi believed torture wasn't the be-all and end-all of interrogation. In fact, inflicting physical pain was a mostly minor aspect of his job. Now, psychological suffering was an entirely different matter and Ibiki could proudly say that he was one of the most skilled experts in that area. Unfortunately such things took a great amount of time; time they simply didn't have. There were far too many prisoners to interrogate.

The answer to that problem was a variety of mind probing techniques, normally applied in concert with more mundane methods. All villages possessed some of them, but Konoha was in the lucky position of being the home of the Yamanaka clan. Only a minority of Yamanaka shinobi specialized in outright mind-reading (telepathy for battlefield communication, taking over foreign bodies and acting as sensors were all far more common) and not all of them were exceptionally skilled, but they gave Konoha a distinct advantage. They were in dire need of that.

The sheer scale of enemy infiltration was staggering. They needed answers and they needed them now. The mind-readers were working as fast as they could without exhausting themselves. It also meant that they couldn't afford to be gentle. Far too many prisoners ended up as broken shells after they were done being mind-raped, but as long as they got all information out of a given prisoner's head that was acceptable. More than once innocents had been caught in the ongoing purge. Ibiki was very unhappy about that. Unfortunately it was unavoidable. Where wood was chopped, splinters must fall.

Ibiki was interrupted in his tasks when he received another call to personally attend another prisoner who had proven to be difficult. Leaving the command centre, he wondered what this one was about. When he entered the cell in question he paused a moment to examine his newest victim.

An unconscious grey-haired man had been strapped down on a table. His body was in bad shape. From the looks of it both arms had been violently removed. One side of his face was a single wound, the damaged facial bones clearly visible in places. His right leg was missing completely and the rest of his body was dotted by wounds. Obviously a medic had stabilized him, but he still looked more at home in an intensive care unit than in an interrogation cell.

The security measures belied that pitiful image. Straps and heavy chains were wrapped around the man. The sheer number of chakra-sealing, paralysis and other sealing tags covering him was staggering. In addition to the two interrogators there were four shinobi guards in the room that kept their eyes glued to the prisoner. More guards were placed outside.

"What have we here?" Ibiki asked one of his subordinates.

"Kabuto Yakushi, genin, twenty years old. The subject was to participate in the chunin exams, but his team bowed out a few days before it started. Originally we had pegged him as a relatively low-ranking spy who facilitated communication between different groups." the woman replied before handing him a file.

"Judging from his state that assessment was in error." Ibiki remarked while he flipped through it.

"Indeed. We gravely underestimated the subject's skills. We tried to apprehend him early last night for his assumed knowledge of a wide range of contacts. At first he pretended to come along quietly, but then he wiped out a team of five of our shinobi. Fortunately another team was nearby and was able to interfere before he could get away. Unfortunately he would have killed all of them, too, but a third group including two jonin heard the commotion and managed to put him down. The subject displayed combat skills befitting of a top jonin and was actually able to heal himself from crippling wounds to a battle-ready state in a matter of seconds. Until now the medics worked to stabilize him enough for an interrogation. Inoichi-sama oversaw things at first, but he was called away to another case before the subject was ready."

Ibiki winced when he read the section detailing the battle. Genjutsu at jonin level, earth jutsu of at least chunin level, taijutsu at low-to-mid jonin level, all those skills made Kabuto quite dangerous, but the worst part was his use of adapted medical techniques in combat. The use of chakra scalpels in particular could be devastating, especially because Kabuto seemed to have integrated them smoothly into his fighting style. A battle medic like this was an extremely nasty opponent. All in all he was solidly among the most skilled A-rank shinobi. Combined with how he had joined the village (he had been found on a battle field and taken in as a child) all these formerly unknown skills proved that he was an enemy agent. In the end Kabuto had been defeated by one of the Konoha jonin ripping his arms and a leg off and smashing him repeatedly against a wall until his chakra ran out, but the jonin had suffered considerable injuries in the process.

"Very well. I will begin the information extraction procedure at once."

Placing his hands a short distance from Kabuto's temples, Ibiki began his journey into the subject's mind. At first glance nothing suspicious was visible, but when he dived deeper he encounter truly formidable mental defenses. Practically all shinobi sooner or later underwent mental conditioning to prevent or at least impede mental intrusion. This belonged to the most elaborate defenses Ibiki had encountered in his career.

It took Ibiki nearly two hours to get through them, brute-forcing his way through Kabuto's mind whenever necessary. In the unlikely event the man ever woke up he would be a drooling wreck, but that didn't disturb Ibiki in the slightest. As long as the information survived everything was acceptable. When he reached the first set of damning memories his eyes flew open in shock. A moment later he caught himself and turned to one of his subordinates. "Send a message to the Hokage and the councilors immediately. Get Inoichi in here, too. This is too important for me to handle alone. The prisoner is to be guarded with maximum security. Do not let him die under any circumstances. We have an enormous problem and not much time."

"As you can see this base was in use for years, Daimyo-sama. In my best estimate it was built…"

Sasuke had to work hard to suppress a yawn while Kurenai explained the purpose of the hidden base, but he managed. He still felt tired. Thankfully he didn't have to do anything more strenuous than accompany the group and look presentable to impress the daimyo of the Land of the Sea and his entourage. Still, perhaps he should have stayed in bed. Unfortunately he had argued until Kurenai-sensei let him have his way. Now it was too late to change his mind.

It was only the second day that he was up and about. Despite Kurenai-sensei's best efforts the wounds on his side had festered and he had been feverish for several days. Fortunately the laboratories of the hidden, abandoned base were well-stocked with a multitude of different medicines. Without them… well, Kurenai didn't outright say it, but his chances of survival would have been much lower. There certainly wasn't anything of equal quality available anywhere in the local villages.

'Dying ignobly to an infected wound on my second mission outside the village… that would have been something for the gossipers all over the Elemental Nations to talk about for years.'

It had driven home how easily even shinobi could die. If he had been only a little slower or made a wrong move one of the beasts kept in the base could have easily killed him. The three ragged scars on his left side were proof enough how close he had come to suffering a mortal wound. Kurenai-sensei had done everything she could to heal the injuries as quickly as possible, but since she wasn't a professional medic-nin she had been unable to prevent scarring. Perhaps he would have the scars removed when they were back in Konoha. Good medic-nin could do that although it was rather expensive. Or maybe he would keep them as a reminder. They weren't at a normally visible location and now that the wounds had almost completely healed they didn't hinder him in his movements anymore.

Sasuke had missed it due to his illness, but in the last few days his team had explored the abandoned base completely and disarmed all traps. Then Kurenai-sensei had led different nobles and other important people through the abandoned base, showing them what had happened for years right under their noses. She was very careful not to blame the local holders of powers, though. Instead she subtly questioned the performance of Kirigakure, the shinobi village that had been contracted by the Land of the Sea to see to their defense against exactly this kind of threat.

To ward off the fatigue Sasuke busied himself with subtly scrutinizing this group of nobles. The daimyo of the Land of the Sea was a small man in his early fifties with a perpetually sour look. From what Sasuke and his team had gathered during their stay on the different islands he had a reputation for exceedingly cruel punishments (the flayed skins of some pirates had been on display at the palace's gate when Team 8 visited the capital), but at the same time he was considered a mostly fair lord by his people. As long as you paid your taxes, behaved respectfully towards your betters, followed the laws and didn't cause any trouble you had nothing to fear. People complained about the taxes, but Kurenai-sensei said they were relatively moderate.

During his childhood Sasuke had occasionally seen nobles visiting Konoha. The few times the Fire Daimyo himself had visited there had been a public spectacle for the entire village. From what Sasuke could see the clothes of the daimyo and nobles of the Land of the Sea were still of much higher quality than those of the populace, but they couldn't measure up to those of the mainland nobles. The Land of the Sea apparently simply couldn't support such extravagance. Aside from that the nobles behaved pretty much like those he was familiar with, namely arrogant and superior.

Just then the group arrived at the harbor. The summoned water giant was still standing there, motionless. His sensei addressed the nobles who looked at the thing with wide eyes. "This harbor was used for the comings and goings of the foreign shinobi. The giant summon you see here was intended to control all shipping in the archipelago. Please do not approach it. It doesn't seem to be hostile now that its master has been slain, but there is no sense in taking risks."

While the nobles examined the harbor in more detail Kurenai approached him. "Sasuke, please make sure the last step of the tour is ready. I will lead them through the laboratories first. Send Shino to meet us at the door."

He nodded. "Yes, sensei."

As soon as Sasuke was out of sight he slumped against a wall to catch his breath. Just walking with the group had taxed him greatly, more than he thought it would. Kurenai had obviously noticed his state and sent him away to get some rest. The group would need at least an hour to go through the deep levels and return.

Sasuke sighed when he pulled himself together and continued on his way. 'And I didn't even activate my sharingan. That would have made all this worth it.'

He had hoped a life and death fight would be enough, but no such luck. If he was very unlucky he might never develop it; not all Uchiha did. It seemed to be somewhat hit and miss. When Sasuke had looked though the stuff left behind by his clan he had found a whole lot of speculation and hardly any facts. There were theories galore for the trigger like emotional stress or facing death, but nothing definitive had ever been ascertained.

Finally Sasuke arrived at the rooms they had appropriated as their quarters: An atrium looking out over the island's interior with three individual sets of rooms branching off. Originally the suites seemed to have belonged to the base's leadership, but as every room aside from those in the high-security area they had been cleared out. Thankfully the quarters of Amachi, the base's leader who had stayed behind when all other forces had left about two weeks before Team 8 arrived, had provided enough furnishings to make it passably comfortable.

Shino was sitting near a window, reading one of the documents they had recovered from the base's bowels. He looked up when he noticed Sasuke's entry. Several stacks of paper were placed on the table in front of him. They had found so many they had no hope of reading them all (especially considering that a good part was written in various ciphers), but they could at least catalogue some of them in their free time.

"Is everything alright?"

Breathing hard from the exertion of reaching his current location, Sasuke sat down before he answered. "So-so. Nothing some rest won't fix. I'm weaker than I thought. Sensei sent me to make sure Isaribi is ready, but I guess she just wanted me to get some rest. She wants you to meet up with the group at the steel door in about ten minutes." Sasuke hesitated a moment. "How is Isaribi? Is she up for her part?"

Shino glanced at one of the doors. "I am not sure. Hinata is still with her. She will tell us if Isaribi is ready in time before the meeting." He stood up. "I have to go."

Sasuke nodded in reply. Isaribi, the girl they had rescued from Amachi's clutches, was still in a bad way. He had missed most of the interactions due to his illness, but the others had brought him up to speed.

Isaribi was the medic-nin Amachi's latest victim. The ex-Konoha and now Oto nin had been obsessed with creating an underwater army. To achieve that goal he had performed gruesome experiments on people abducted from the Land of the Sea and other places. Multiple rooms in the secure section of the base were filled with the horrors he had produced in pursuit of that goal. The preserved corpses of the failed attempts were the fuel of nightmares. Isaribi, a fisherwoman only a little older than the genin, was the first one to survive whatever the madman had done to her. In fact, she was the first one that could count as a success, being able to turn into a man-fish hybrid.

At first the heavily traumatized girl had been too afraid to speak, but Kurenai and Hinata had managed to gently coax her out of her shell over the course of several days. Then things got worse again when they took the girl back to her village on a neighboring island.

From what Hinata had told him the villagers had been happy at first that Isaribi had survived. That lasted until they got a good look at the girl. Random patches of her skin had been replaced by dark green scales even in her human form. Calls of 'monster' and 'abomination' had been raised almost immediately. If not for Kurenai and Hinata the villagers probably would have lynched her on the spot. As it was they had taken a completely devastated Isaribi back to the secret base after collecting her meager possessions. The girl had spent the last days crying in her rooms with either Hinata or Kurenai for company.

'I guess the villagers' reaction was to be expected. At least that is what Kurenai-sensei told us.'

As much as shinobi villages valued bloodlines the normal populace abhorred them. Few places were as bad as the Land of Water where parents would kill their children if they showed signs of possessing a bloodline (if the parents were not killed themselves for producing such an 'abomination'), but it was bad enough. The vast majority of people living in the Elemental Nations were ignorant, uneducated and superstitious. Obvious physical deformities or seemingly unexplainable powers often sufficed for a bloodline bearer to be isolated by his peers. Such things were ascribed to spirits, demons and all sorts of monsters. Even in the more tolerant places they would be used as scapegoats if anything went wrong, like a bad harvest.

The multitude of wars involving shinobi didn't help matters any. Bloodline shinobi tended to be more powerful than the average, making them more present in the peasant's tales. According to what was taught at the academy shinobi wars rarely touched the normal population to a significant degree, though, exceptions like the long civil war in the Land of Water notwithstanding. It could happen if someone specifically employed shinobi to cause destruction, but it was usually cheaper to hire normal soldiers or bandits to do that. Off the top of his head Sasuke couldn't remember if the Land of the Sea had ever been affected in that manner. Still, the villagers feared what they didn't understand and a girl like Isaribi made a safe target.

This mindset was so alien to Sasuke that he still had trouble understanding it, but he couldn't argue with reality. It made him appreciate that he had received an education, no matter how sabotaged. Shinobi belonged to the privileged class as high-paid specialists. Heck, the majority of people he had met on his two missions away from Konoha couldn't even read or write.

An indefinite time later Sasuke jerked awake when someone touched his shoulder. He was disoriented for a moment, but then he recognized Hinata. Isaribi stood in the background, not looking at him. Apparently he had fallen asleep.

"Sasuke? It's time. We have to get ready."

With a nod the young Uchiha stood up and followed the two girls out of the room. The short nap had refreshed him enough to reduce his exhaustion to manageable levels. On the way he observed Isaribi from the corner of his eyes. She seemed to be reasonably composed, but didn't look at either him or Hinata. He supposed she didn't want anyone looking at her.

Soon they arrived at the mess hall where they would meet the daimyo's entourage. Hinata talked quietly with Isaribi, but the words were too soft for him to understand. They had already waited about ten minutes when their guests arrived.

Sasuke and Hinata bowed but remained standing while Isaribi immediately assumed a kneeling position on the floor, keeping her eyes firmly on the ground. Sasuke noticed that several members of the group were still green in the face and looked ill.

'If I'm not mistaken the fat one has vomit on his clothes.'

That didn't surprise Sasuke. Amachi had amassed a true collection of horrors. More than once his fever dreams had turned into nightmares. Orochimaru had done the same to Konoha's population according to the tales. It made Sasuke understand far better why he had been driven out of Konoha and declared a missing nin to be killed on sight.

Meanwhile, the daimyo had scrutinized Isaribi. "So, this is the survivor? What is your name, girl?"

"Isaribi, Daimyo-sama."

The old man stepped closer. "Look at me."

Hesitantly, Isaribi raised her eyes to the daimyo, given everyone a good look at the green scales marring her face. Several members of the daimyo's entourage flinched at the sight, but the old man maintained his steady gaze. "I see. There was talk of a transformation."

Isaribi hesitated for a moment. Then she wordlessly removed the outer layers of her clothing, revealing her partly scaled arms and legs. A moment later she transformed into that fish-creature form of hers, drawing shouts of surprise. The daimyo sucked in a breath of air before expelling it explosively, his countenance shaken. Many others averted their faces. After a few seconds Isaribi changed back and hurriedly covered herself again with shaking hands. To Sasuke it seemed as if she was close to her breaking point.

In that moment Kurenai intervened. "Thank you, Isaribi. Daimyo-sama, I already questioned Isaribi extensively. I'm sure I will be able to answer all your questions. She still has not recovered from her ordeal. There is no further need for her presence."

The daimyo signaled his consent with a nod. Hinata immediately led Isaribi away. Meanwhile Sasuke studied the expressions of the group. Most showed some mix of disgust, anger and pity. Others kept their expressions firmly under control.

A short time later the group took seats in another room where refreshments had been laid out by the servants the daimyo had brought along. Hinata slipped into the room unnoticed five minutes later while Kurenai relayed Isaribi's fate in detail.

"Isaribi was abducted from her hut on the neighboring island during a nightly raid several weeks ago. A short time later most forces stationed here left for reasons unknown. Their leader remained behind to complete his experiments. Over the course of those weeks Isaribi was repeatedly vivisected, healed back up, subjected to a variety of extremely painful medicinal procedures and implanted with unknown material. Most of the time she was conscious." Kurenai's voice was completely neutral. "When we arrived and killed her tormentor she was barely hanging on to her sanity. Isaribi's fellow villagers were not very understanding of her situation when we approached them. With your permission I would like to take her back with us to Konoha, Daimyo-sama. Maybe there is a way to reverse what was done to her."

The man nodded. "I agree. If that proves impossible I'm sure other arrangements can be made." He steepled his hands and looked at Kurenai with shrewd eyes. "Now, to the next matter. In light of these discoveries I will not continue the arrangement with Kirigakure. They have failed in their duties. My people have been preyed upon and my territory invaded. What conditions does Konoha offer for providing protection to my country?"

Kurenai smiled. "I'm glad you brought thus up, Daimyo-sama. You see…"

What followed was the most impressive example of haggling Sasuke had ever seen. Flowery speech and flattery veiled lopsided offers and counteroffers. The daimyo wasn't negotiating alone; three people sat beside him and partook in the negotiation while the rest of the delegation sat in the bakcground. The first man Sasuke thought was something like the minister of finance, the second one the commander of the Land of Sea's navy and military force (small as it was) while the third one was some other kind of advisor. Kurenai was outnumbered, but to all appearances it didn't faze her in the slightest.

Several times Sasuke had to suppress yawns. His stamina was still not recovered, but he didn't want to miss this. The negotiations were interesting. He wasn't sure if he would ever be able to manage something like it, but he hoped he would learn. The exact terms of the contract and responsibilities of both sides were hammered out in excruciating detail. Fees for standard and special services were brought up, wrangled about and set against alternative forms of payment like privileges. It went on for hours.

Finally the negotiations were complete and put into writing. Then daimyo and his delegation left after extending an invitation to the palace. After seeing them to their ships Kurenai returned to the genin. "That went very well. I think I got an excellent deal out of them."

"That was an impressive display, sensei." Shino remarked.

"Thank you. Negotiating contracts is an important skill, especially for a jonin."

"I thought treaties were only negotiated by the Hokage's office or specifically empowered delegations." Hinata said in a questioning tone.

Kurenai shook her head. "No, not always. As an elite jonin I do have the authority to make binding agreements on Konoha's behalf, especially when the distance to Konoha is too large for timely communication. Granted, a treaty on this scale requires the Hokage's approval, but I don't know of a single treaty negotiated in this manner that wasn't upheld outside of minor modifications." She smiled. "Besides, I got very good terms in relation to the resources Konoha will have to invest."

"Didn't we get paid considerably less than Kiri?" Sasuke asked.

"Yes, but it's worth it." Kurenai explained. "The Land of the Sea isn't important on its own. The possible dangers, missions and the daimyo's budget would justify only a small garrison; they simply can't pay enough. Frankly, it doesn't even rate that. Basically, a visit every few months to check if everything is in order and if any local demand for missions came up like Kiri did is the appropriate level of force. They should have picked up on the disappearances and investigated, but luckily for us they didn't. Anyway, what matters are the indirect benefits. The treaty adds the Land of the Sea firmly into Konoha's sphere of influence."

Sasuke nodded in understanding. "It's a matter of politic power games."

"More than that. You will notice I negotiated for Demon Island as part of the payment. The base is already built; we just have to refurbish it before we can move in. With a major stronghold like this serving as a hub we can offer our services to a whole slew of island nations that were out of our reach before. The travel time from Konoha becomes just too long. The Archipelago of Pearls, Reef Country, there are many more. We might even reach the countries south of the Land of Wind if we expand westwards. Or eastwards further into Kiri's territory."

"Why didn't Konoha create an outpost before?" Shino asked.

"That's because we can't simply establish a major base in another country. Konoha is closely tied to the Land of Fire. That makes many other countries wary. Shinobi travelling through or small detachments are one thing, a base with more than a hundred shinobi quite another." Kurenai explained. "Now though things have changed. The Sea Daimyo was quite receptive to having a strong shinobi force here to protect his lands. The treaty actually only sets a lower limit of a dozen shinobi, though; committing more will be the Hokage's decision. This is really something I can't decide on my own."

Sasuke and his two teammates nodded. The lessons about the larger strategic picture were always interesting. There was always so much to consider. It was a far cry from 'Here's a mission, do this and that.' They wouldn't need to make decisions on such a level for many years, sure, but it was still fascinating. To rise to the top of shinobi one needed far more than merely strong combat skills.

"Well, enough of that. Hinata, how is Isaribi? You didn't say anything, so I assume she is holding up."

Hinata grimaced. "She was very shaken. I gave her something that made her sleep before I returned."

Kurenai sighed. "I guess it can't be helped. I hope the medic back in Konoha will be able to help her. Whatever Amachi did to her is far beyond my skills to reverse."

They were silent for a few seconds. Then Sasuke spoke up. "What if they can't help her?"

"Then she will have to live with it. It sounds callous, but there is nothing anyone can do about it." the jonin answered in a sad tone of voice. "She'll either find work in Konoha or return here. I'm sure the daimyo will make some arrangement. Her transformation at least gives her some useful skills. I imagine she would do well as the daimyo's personal messenger; she is a strong enough swimmer to cross between the islands faster than most ships are able to."

It remained unsaid that Isaribi's old life was pretty much destroyed. She would never be able to simply live normally. Her physical changes set her apart. The perpetrators of such experiments were truly monsters. It didn't say good things about Otogakure that they practiced such things. Sasuke had never met the man, but he already felt the beginnings of a deep-seated loathing for Orochimaru and all shinobi of his ilk.

Kurenai continued looking at them, apparently to gauge their reactions. "Good. Now that the negotiations are finished our work here is almost complete. We will block up the door to the deep layers of the base. I don't want anyone snooping down there while we travel back to Konoha. The daimyo has consented to post some guards, but I want to make sure. The day after tomorrow we head to the main island. Our ships should arrive soon. We might make it back to Konoha in time for the chunin exam finals."

Koharu Utatane was beyond tired. She felt every day of her nearly seven decades of life, but she still couldn't allow herself to rest. There was so much work to be done. Only when Konoha was truly safe again would she breathe easier. Taking her place at the Hokage's side (or rather on Hiruzen's double's side) in the meeting room, she patiently waited for everyone else to arrive.

Two weeks. It had taken them two weeks to purge their ranks of all the traitors and spies they could find. That included the reorganization of many squads, departments and divisions to make up for the losses. For those two weeks ANBU and the other loyal forces had ruled with an iron fist. Countless people had disappeared into the dungeons, never to be seen again. It broke Koharu's heart to see the fear in the eyes of many of her fellow villagers, but it had been necessary.

Morale was a serious problem. The village at large still thought Hiruzen was in power, but in truth Choza Akimichi had taken over all the truly important duties while an ANBU acting as a double made public appearances. To her great if unspoken relief he had proven up to the task to keep the populace under control. Even more fortunate was that the secret about Hiruzen's true status was still intact despite the relatively large number of people in the know.

Soon the large meeting room filled up. In contrast to earlier, rather limited meetings this one would encompass all clan and department heads as well as other persons of importance like the elite jonin of the village. Koharu already knew most of the news, of course, but they needed to inform everyone else.

Finally all participants were assembled. The ANBU disguised as the Hokage was the one to greet them. "Welcome, everyone. You have been called here for a strategic briefing. As you all know Konoha was almost overrun by enemy spies and traitors, threatening our village's very existence. Over the last weeks we have eliminated that threat. Many of us have made painful discoveries in that time. People we trusted turned out to be secretly working towards our village's detriment. It has been a difficult time for everyone, but I have faith that we will be able to build a brighter future now that we have cleansed ourselves. However, there is something I have to tell you." He stopped for a moment. "In the course of the interrogations we discovered a fact of extreme importance. We are facing a combined invasion of Sunagakure and Otogakure in less than two weeks' time."

For a few seconds shocked silence reigned. Then the uproar started. Shouts of disbelief like "But Suna is our ally!" and "Oto is only an upstart village; there is no way they could threaten us!" were far too common.

Koharu mentally shook her head. The idea that Konoha was invincible had taken root so deeply that many of the younger generation didn't seem to be able to imagine that the village might not last forever. It was different for Koharu and Homura. They had been born shortly after the founding of Konoha. The generation of their parents and even their elder siblings had still known a time when each clan or group of shinobi fought for itself (or rather their paying employers). The first shinobi war had seen both the Shodaime's and the Nidaime's death and threatened the village's very existence. Even the village system itself had not been sure to last; it had been an experiment with uncertain outcome, after all. Neither the second nor the third shinobi war had ever threatened Konoha to that degree again. Over the course of their long lives the old councilors had seen more than one shinobi village destroyed. Places like Soragakure or Uzushiogakure had been known far and wide in their heyday. Nowadays most people were hard-pressed to remember them at all. The Village hidden in the Woods was a more recent example of a destroyed village; one destroyed by Konoha no less. Most people didn't even seem to have taken notice of that, though.

Perhaps it was her age and Hiruzen's illness, but Koharu had been forcefully reminded of the mortality of all things. Nothing lasted forever. The alliance with Suna was a prime example. They had banded together during the third shinobi war, but that was now more than fifteen years in the past. The overall balance of power had changed greatly since then. In the end an alliance survived only as long as it was convenient for both sides, something it had not been for years. The exchange of increasingly hostile acts between Konoha and Suna was proof enough for that.

Finally the fake Hokage had enough of the chatter. "Silence! We have undeniable proof of the planned invasion. Our village is in danger. I expect you to behave professionally and keep your heads. Prepare your subordinates. Further orders will be given soon. I have faith in your abilities. When the time comes we will assemble all our strength and fight! Victory will be ours!"

That served well enough to calm the assembled shinobi down. A few questions were asked and answered. All in all they managed to keep morale up without revealing too many of the true facts.

As soon as the meeting ended Koharu left the room only to enter another for a second meeting. This one had far less participants: The clan heads, some of the most important department heads, Ibiki Morino, the ANBU leader, the Hokage double, Homura and of course Koharu herself.

"That went well." Choza remarked once he had taken his seat. "How does the interrogation of Kabuto go? Do you have any new information?"

"A few additional details regarding the invasion, but we discovered nothing fundamentally new since the last private briefing." Ibiki replied before he shook his head bemusedly. "We were really lucky to catch the subject. As it turned out Kabuto was Orochimaru's right-hand man and informed about practically everything. Even after two weeks we are still extracting bits of useful knowledge from him."

Choza nodded. "Please bring everyone up to speed. There are decisions to be made and I want everyone to be working with the same facts."

Koharu closed her eyes while she listened to Ibiki and Inoichi expounding on everything they had learned about the impending invasion. As prelude Orochimaru would kill and impersonate the Yondaime Kazekage and infiltrate Konoha in that form. The plan called for Suna's jinchuuriki Gaara to unleash the Ichibi in the center of Konoha during the finals of the chunin exams. A mass sleep jutsu would incapacitate a large percentage of the spectators while Orochimaru himself planned to attack Hiruzen. Infiltrators would strike throughout the village, causing chaos everywhere and hampering the organization of the defense. Meanwhile a number of giant snakes would be summoned to breach the walls, allowing the main invasion force to enter the village. There had even been a subplot to snatch young Sasuke, but it had been cancelled, both because the boy was out of the village and had yet to develop his sharingan.

Finally the retelling was finished. Almost two minutes were spent in silence while everyone considered the implications. Tsume Inuzuka was the first one to speak up. "This plan is stupid."

Shibi Aburame nodded in agreement. "I concur. There are several points at which the entire scheme could easily come apart. Are we sure this is Orchimaru's real plan and not a deception?"

"As sure as we can be considering the circumstances." Inoichi replied. "We caught all of the infiltrators already in the village and they confirm the story. Furthermore, Kabuto himself handed the orders regarding Gaara to the Suna jonin Baki and was involved in the preparations in Otogakure, too. No, this truly is the real invasion plan."

Tsume didn't look convinced. "But why aren't there any contingencies? This assassination and impersonation of the Kazekage might be discovered anytime. Even if that part succeeds Orochimaru will be mostly out of communication with his own forces. The same would have been true for Kabuto. They can't react in a timely manner if something goes not according to plan there. The infiltrators might be discovered, too. Someone could take out Gaara before he can unleash his beast. Even if they know our patrol routes and schedules an irregular patrol might stumble over the approaching forces and manage to send warning. There is just so much that could go wrong."

"We considered that. The answer we came up with is rather simple if hard to believe." Koharu replied. Then she chuckled mirthlessly. "It seems our plague of institutional overconfidence and incompetence affects Orochimaru's village, too."

For a moment the people not privy to the details looked at her disbelievingly. Then, slowly, Shibi began to nod. "I understand. That is logical."

Shikaku took it upon himself to explain things in greater detail. "When Orochimaru defected he took a number of Konoha shinobi with him. They are the nucleus he used to build his own village, but they are relatively low in number. Additionally, most of them were genin and chunin who had fallen under his influence with only a score of jonin and special jonin among them. That isn't enough to properly organize a village of Oto's size. Furthermore, they are affected by the same sloppiness that has plagued us. From what we learned from the prisoners the rest of Otogakure is made up from missing nin or promising children Orochimaru took in. Considering the limited time and scarcity of resources he had available since his defection most are only badly trained. They made do with widespread experimental medical enhancements to bring them up to a useful level, but that can't compensate for their lacking experience."

"They follow Orochimaru fanatically, but they aren't very efficient overall. The institutional knowledge is just not there, yet; Otogakure is simply too young a village. Additionally it is more set up to provide Orochimaru with money and bodies for experiments, not to build a sustainable force. The matter is made worse by Oto's distributed nature. Until he began to concentrate his troops for the invasion they were spread all over the Elemental Nations. A multitude of secret bases is harder to keep running efficiently than a single, concentrated village, especially considering Oto's lack of experienced mid- and high-level shinobi. They simply lack competent leadership." Inoichi said.

It was almost funny how sloppy Orochimaru was going about things. Of course, it seemed far less funny if one considered that he probably would have gotten away with it. Konoha's defenses both internal and external had deteriorated to almost nothing. It was perfectly possible for the invasion force to arrive undetected directly at the village's walls. His agents in Konoha had moved with almost reckless abandon directly under their noses, secure in their knowledge that Konoha was too inept to discover them. Granted, Orochimaru's inside knowledge of the village's workings made that easier to stomach, but it was still a huge problem.

"How big a threat does Oto pose in reality?" Hiashi Hyuuga asked.

Shikaku Nara frowned. "From a purely military perspective? Not an overly large one. The overwhelming majority of their forces are rabble that is only dangerous due to one or two tricks. Orochimaru himself is of course exceedingly dangerous, one of the most powerful shinobi alive and a match for any Kage. Fortunately he is only one man. He has only a small number of high-level shinobi like Kabuto at his disposal, but aside from him and a disproportionally small number of jonin only two are truly above chunin level. They might even approach kage level. Fortunately both will not be participating in the invasion. Kimimaro, one of the last Kaguya, is suffering from a disease that will kill him in the next few months or even weeks. He is already too ill to participate in combat operations. Another one is a crystal user named Guren. She is currently on a mission to an archipelago in the middle of the northern ocean beyond the Land of Lightning. Thankfully this year the storm season set in very early. That will delay her return for several months, making her a non-factor in the foreseeable future. The rest of Orochimaru's elite are generally chunin-level, but have a curse seal grafted onto them that will boost their combat abilities into the jonin range for a short time."

The group continued discussing what forces they were likely to face. Suna's shinobi were considerably better trained and individually more dangerous than Oto's in addition to being professionally led, but they would not be as numerous. Still, even combined and taking the recent losses into account Konoha would be able to defeat the attacking forces. Not without considerable casualties, of course, but absolutely every little part of Orochimaru's plan had to go exactly right for him to be successful in destroying Konoha. In fact, even then it was doubtful he would achieve that goal. Now that they knew about the invasion the only real question was how they could win without losing too many shinobi. A pyrrhic victory would be almost as bad as losing.

"The Ichibi presents the main problem, but Gaara is still young and rather inexperienced. He is a single point of failure for the entire invasion. Take him out of the game before he can lay unleash the beast and even if we had been caught completely by surprise we still would have won in the end." Choza mused. "What I'm wondering is why Orochimaru didn't see these weak points. Or if he did, why he went with this plan anyway. He is one of the smartest people in the Elemental Nations, after all."

Ibiki shrugged. "Hard to tell. Personally I'm of the opinion that Orochimaru's main problem is that he has no one who is willing to question him and his plans. There is nobody who asks things like 'Is that really a good idea?' or 'Have you considered this and that?', at least nobody who he would be willing to listen to. He is enamored with his own brilliance and keeps most things to himself. His inner circle consists of fanatical believers or schemers with their own agenda. There is little trust there."

"Could we convince Suna to abort the attack if we reveal the Kazekage's death?" Shibi asked. "That would shift the balance of forces markedly into our favor."

Koharu considered that. "Maybe. It is certainly something we should try. If we have to face only Oto our losses would be much lower. Still, for Suna to mount such an invasion there has to be widespread support in the populace. They might decide to continue anyway and only later turn against Oto for revenge of the murder of their Kage."

That was not something Koharu had expected. She had known that relations had deteriorated over the last years (Gaara's presence during the exams was a clearly hostile act, after all), but she had not thought that they had reached a level where an all-out attack was possible. Even the Kazekage being suborned by Orochimaru was not explanation enough. While each Kage was the leader of a village and had enormous influence over politic strategy he wasn't an absolute despot. If a Kage tried to act against the interests of enough sufficiently powerful factions he wouldn't remain Kage for long. Suna's council and populace had to be either desperate or deluded for this invasion to seem like a good idea. Even if they succeeded completely in their goal of destroying Konoha the inevitable losses would weaken them greatly. It was virtually certain that the other villages would use that opportunity to mount attacks of their own to finish off both the 'victor' and the 'loser' or at least expand their spheres of influence.

Choza raised a hand to call for quiet. "To summarize, we have to deal with Gaara and neutralize him as a threat. He is too dangerous to be left alone no matter what else happens. If possible we have to dissuade Suna from attacking. In case of the invasion still happening we have to defeat the enemy outside the village walls while preserving as much of our forces as possible. If it comes to house-to-house fighting our losses will skyrocket and reach unacceptable levels, not to mention the damage to the village's infrastructure and civilian population. Lastly, we will have to find a way to deal with Orochimaru himself. All of that has to happen in less than two weeks and without the enemy noticing." He leant back. "I'm open to suggestions."

Author's notes: Thank you for the reviews.

It's been a long time since the last update. Unfortunately work and family matters have robbed me almost completely of my time to write. Not sure if and when the pace will pick up again.

So long.