Chapter 53: Suspicions

"Nothing, Hokage-sama."

Nothing, all was well, no unusual activity – these were the common phrases reported back to Hiruzen by the Anbu sent to observe Danzou. Yet, though this was indication that his old friend was not involved in any suspicious activity, the sinking feeling in Hiruzen's chest irrationally persisted. His instinct was warring against all physical evidence, and Hiruzen didn't know which to believe.

Perhaps he was being foolish.

Or perhaps there was something more under the surface.

Just after Minato's report on the suspected Root operative who had tried to kidnap his ward, as an aside, Minato had also relayed to Hiruzen Danzou's unusual interest in Kakashi. Root was a top-secret division of Anbu, with a confidential level above that of the normal Anbu designation. The man in charge of Root was on a need-to-know level even higher than that. So, the fact that Minato had been able to uttered Danzou's name along with the word Root without knowing the connection between the two, immediately set alarm bells in Hiruzen's head.

On a hopeful, and perhaps too optimistic whim, Hiruzen had checked the old Root brackets and came up empty handed. Everything was as it was years ago; there was a coat of dust layering the floor and the sparse furniture that hadn't been relocated. It was musty, damp, and clearly unused for a long, long time.

Of course, it was foolish to believe Danzou would use such a well-known dwelling to restart his Root (if it indeed had been restarted), but the Hokage hadn't known where else to begin looking.

There was a polite knock on his door.

"Hokage-sama, Danzou-sama is here to see you," the secretary said from the other side.

"Let him in."

The bandaged man strolled through Hiruzen's door with confident strides, walking in grandly like the distinguished shinobi he was. His eye swept once through the room before ending on Hiruzen, prim and tight, despite the amiable smile stretched on his face. Danzou looked all for the world a man with no concerns. Somehow that only put dread for the restrained verbal sparring Hiruzen knew was to come.

"I like to believe there is trust between friends," Danzou began without any preamble, starting things off immediately after a courtesy greeting.

There was a subtle rebuke of Hiruzen recent actions hidden amongst those vague words of his. "Indeed, my friend," Hiruzen answered, already with an idea of the topic to be touched upon in this impromptu meeting of theirs.

The smile on Danzou's face didn't quiver, but his next words were tailored sharper than his last. "There has been some unsavory shadows lurking nearby lately," the man hinted.

"Oh?" Hizuen continued, sounding a careful mixture of surprise and interest.

Sadly, Danzou had more than enough experience, in both the shinobi arts and Hiruzen himself, to see the act for what it was. The elder didn't lose his composure or the pained smile on his face. "Would you know anything about it?" he asked, much too direct for his words to be out of anything but knowledge rather than of mere guesswork.

Hiruzen held onto his position for as long as he could, knowing it wouldn't last. "I can't say I do."

"Hypothetically, if you did, what would you say they were searching for?"

"I really can't say I know."

That seemed to be the last straw. It was obvious Hiruzen knew about them; it was even more so that Daznou knew he knew. "Spare me the lies," the man said, as his hands swiftly reached into his sleeves and procured snapshots of figures in a familiar ceramic mask lurking in the shadows that Hiruzen recognised as his own men. The thing about his Anbu was that while they were proficient at their jobs, they could still be caught by someone whose skills were superior to their own. "I can only be patient for so long. Tell me, Hiruzen, we are friends, are we not?"

He let out a sigh. "All I can say is that certain allegations have been presented before me. I was merely following up on them," Hiruzen allowed empathically, in a show of good will. Lying that he had no part in it would only draw more distrust, especially when Danzou was already so rightly certain.

"It is your job to keep the village safe, of course. You were only doing your job. Might I enquire what you have found?" Danzou asked. There was smugness in that voice so smooth and velvet.

Hiruzen gave a cool stare. "Such information, as you are aware, is privy to no one but myself," he said, warning in his tone.

"Of course, of course," Danzou agreed readily. Still, the unwavering amusement, so barely concealed in his voice was provoking. Hiruzen had a feeling it was so obviously detectable for this reason exactly, and he couldn't call him out on it with nothing to back up such accusations. "Were I truly guilty of any horrendous crimes you seem to have been informed of, I would no doubted been arrested by now already, hmm?"

Hiruzen held his tongue.

"No?" Danzou urged.

Hiruzen offered his old time friend a non-answer of "If that is what you believe," before rummaging through his drawers for a match to light his pipe. He took a long puff, letting the silence between them stretch on. His movements were deliberately slow and relaxed as he kept an eye on Danzou, trying to re-set the pace of their conversation.

Danzou seemed much too aware of the game Hiruzen was attempting to play, undaunted by it all. They'd been friends, and taught by teachers of the same era and village – of course whatever tactics Hiruzen knew, Danzou did as well.

At last Hiruzen spoke once more. "Against the final decision given by the council and myself, I have heard you have been seeking out Kakashi for relocation."

Danzou's excuse coloured him in a benevolent shade. "I am merely giving the boy options," he said, sounding so very generous.

"I have been told Kakashi is content where he is," Hiruzen countered.

Danzou only shook his head sadly. "Indeed? Young Minato seemed to have harbored some doubts." He offered the information, sounding too much like he was snubbing Hiruzen by pointing out his lack of knowledge of the issue. Perhaps, Hiruzen decided, it had been much much too long since he'd had a long, proper conversation with his old friend for him to not notice this before. There was a continuous smugness in Danzou's tone which Hiruzen was certain the man didn't realise he was voicing out. Danzou was a man too used to getting away with things under Hiruzen's nose. "However, that issue has been cleared up now. They are now closer than ever."

"Are you suggesting you were playing villain for their benefit?" Hiruzen asked sharply.

"Oh no, not at first. But when I realised how strained their bond was, and what else could I do but help?"

What else indeed? "And where would you have taken Kakashi? I wasn't aware you were collecting orphans."

"What an insinuating way of wording things."

"I do apologise," Hiruzen said flatly.

Danzou's eye flashed, but a smile stayed firmly fixed on his pleasant face, even as he gave out a carefree laugh. "You are aware I help donate funds to various orphanages around the village. Those were my children that I told Minato about." As far as excuses went, Hiruzen supposed that was rather well put together. As for how much Hiruzen held faith to Danzou's word … it seemed like he was slowly distrusting his old friend more and more these days.

"You believed leaving Kakashi in an orphanage a better alternative than with Minato?"

"Oh no, I was willing to find someone to adopt the poor boy. But, I was prepared to introduce him to the children I knew in the orphanage as well. A healthy young boy needs friends."

And if nothing else convinced Hiruzen that Danzou was scheming, those lines did it. Dazou was prepared to do so much for one little boy?

Hiruzen vividly recalled the other man's words when they first gathered to discuss Kakashi's fate. Hiruzen knew Danzou didn't trust Kakashi. Hiruzen knew his old friend well – the man was tenacious and inflexible – for him to sudden change his tone so quickly and drastically meant there was some hidden agenda.

Kakashi seemed to be flourishing under Minato's care – perhaps Danzou finally saw how much of a prodigy Kakashi truly was, realised how malleable that child could be if he played his cards right. If there was anything Hiruzen knew about Danzou, it was that the man loved power and control. The latter could've easily been argued as trust (because within a trusting team, solid control of the situation was never far behind), but of what Hiruzen remember retrospectively, as he thought back to their young and active years, Danzou always preferred to be the leader in teams – to be the one obeyed.

Dazou seemed to be able to read concern of Hiruzen's face. The Hokage wasn't sure how much – likely not a lot; he, like all shinobi trained to keep emotions off –, but he saw enough to realise Hiruzen had cast his mind back to that meeting with Kakashi back when Sakumo just died. "I don't know if you heard of my apology to young Kakashi. I deeply regret my prior thoughtless words directed at his father. Offering my assistance to him was my way of taking responsibility, of course."

"Of course," Hiruzen echoed in agreement. He leaned forwards on his desk, elbows on the table top and fingers laced together as he stared at his old friend. "And seeing Minato and young Kakashi's interaction, you have no further desire to continue your interference?" he asked, with an undertone of something severe.

Danzou's only reaction was a casual shrug. "I assure you, Hiruzen, I would never deliberately tear apart such a wonderful bond."

"Is that so?"

There was a glimmer of something darker in the depth of his eyes, but it was gone when Danzou blinked once more. "However, I won't refuse if Kakashi comes to me on his own accord."

It sounded like Danzou was preparing his excuses already, and Hiruzen didn't like it one bit. "I don't foresee him doing so anytime soon. His bond with Minato is growing stronger by the day," he tacked casually, just to convey how unbelievable he thought that possibility to be. So if it were to happen, Danzou could be certain Hiruzen was prepared to investigate the matter.

"You never know," Danzou said, sounding so ominous and impervious. "Things change so quickly these days. The boy is growing up and seeing things the world can offer him."

Even after Danzou left, Hiruzen was left feeling oddly tainted and dirty – like a hidden evil had seeped into the every cracks of his precious village, unable to be scrubbed out. Hiruzen always expected that feeling from enemies, or fellow Kages as they subtly tried to intimidate each other. He never expected it from a long-time friend.

The old man let out a sigh. He would have to schedule a meeting with Minato and Kakashi soon.