Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto (either the story or the character) or any of its component parts or associated bits of intellectual property. I do think it's pretty cool, and enjoy examining it through the looking glass of "What If". The originator, Masashi Kishimoto, is a creative guy and deserves credit for his work.

"Tell me," Jiraiya commanded as the man walked out of the Third Hokage's hospital room.

"Mixed news," the doctor said. "We found an antidote to the poison in his system, but he isn't improving. When we checked again, we realized there's a second agent, but we don't recognize it. We can't find any way to neutralize or remove it. There are still a few more things to try, but frankly I don't think any of them will work."

"How long does he have?" Jiraiya asked.

"I can't say for sure, but it seems to be slow-acting," the doctor replied. "Days, most likely. Maybe a week until the damage is too much to reverse. We're lucky that the faster-acting agent was easier to counter."

Jiraiya chewed his lip for a moment, lost in thought. He turned back to the doctor. "Keep him alive as long as you can. I'm going to bring help, and I'll be damned if we're going to get back too late to save his life."

"I'll do everything I can," the doctor promised, "but if there's any way to help, it will have to be fast."

Jiraiya nodded and ran quickly out of the building, heading for ANBU headquarters.

"I need the most recent information," the sage said brusquely, "and I need it now. Do you know where she is or not?"

"Is this for the Third?" the ANBU member across the desk from him asked.

"Yes, so don't waste my damn time," Jiraiya snapped.

The masked man nodded, pulling out a folder of reports. He removed the one on top and handed it to Jiraiya. "That is the most recent data we have on her whereabouts. Some contradictory reports, but it should help you narrow things down. She's never caused us trouble, so finding her hasn't been a priority."

Jiraiya nodded absently as he scanned the page, memorizing the information there.

"Thanks," he told the man when he was finished. "I'll be back soon. Make sure you keep a tight guard on his room; the Third had enough enemies that someone might want to finish him while he's weakened, even without Orochimaru."

"We'll increase the protection since you're leaving town," the man told him. "Is that all you need?"

"Yes," Jiraiya answered as he walked out the door.

He was not happy to find two gray-haired figures waiting for him when he left the building. The man, Mitokado Homura, wore small spectacles and robes that were unassuming but scrupulously clean. His beard was thick but also well-kept. The woman, Utatane Koharu, wore similar but somewhat more fashionable clothing, including a sash. Her hair was in a tight bun, and her sole adornment was a pair of earrings that were on the expensive side of simple. Even the pins which bound her hair were fairly simple, although Jiraiya suspected that their points were sharp.

"What do you two want?" he asked without ceremony, beginning to walk toward the village gate.

The man's eyes tightened slightly, but it was the woman who spoke first.

"We must discuss who will be the Fifth Hokage," she said.

"Getting right to the point, huh?" Jiraiya said with some surprise. "It's premature. There may be no need for a Fifth just yet. And if there is, we won't be the ones deciding who will take the post."

"So you are seeking Tsunade," Homura commented. "She has not come here in many years."

"She'll come for this," Jiraiya answered shortly.

"We cannot afford to defer this discussion," Koharu said. "We are at war, now. The village must have a strong leader. You should take the post of Hokage; someone else can be sent to fetch her. There is too much to do, and a small delay now could cost many lives later. You know we're right."

Jiraiya stopped and turned to face them at last. "That old man has given this village a great deal. I'm going to go bring back the one person who might be able to save his life, because she might not come back for anyone else even if they do find her in time. Regardless, I'm not going to be the next Hokage, so get that foolish notion out of your heads right now. And don't tell me that we need a strong leader; the ANBU and jounin can handle things for a week. We're not even sure we'll be fighting the Sand ninjas yet. Their Kazekage is unaccounted for, and he was the one who supposedly dealt with Orochimaru."

"You cannot be that naïve," Homura said, slight disgust creeping into his voice. "Half of the Sand ninjas have wanted this war, and they have no reason to back off now. If we show any sign of weakness they will attack."

"You sound very sure," Jiraiya replied, "but I don't agree at all. While the Sand forces committed were only a portion of their military might, they were a significant one, and the number we killed or captured was extremely high. Peace would give them a chance to get their people back and avoid fighting us. Their Kazekage is missing with no clear successor. And besides, you've overlooked an obvious point."

"And what is that?" Koharu asked, her eyebrows rising slightly.

"The Sand ninjas who want a war don't need it to be against us," Jiraiya pointed out. "Their money problems are a result of contracts being shifted out of the Wind Country, but many of those went to smaller villages as well. A war against the Sound should be even better for them than a war against us right now, especially if Orochimaru did kill the Kazekage as we suspect. Far fewer risks for them, and such a war will force the Wind Lord to throw more support to their village without antagonizing him openly."

"Perhaps," Homura said. "You seem to have made up your mind."

"I have," Jiraiya admitted. "Now I'm short on time, so kindly don't send anyone chasing after me; they'll only slow me down or get in the way. If you send anyone near Tsunade you could screw this up."

Homura looked indignant, but Koharu spoke before he could say anything.

"Good luck, then," she told Jiraiya. "We'll be waiting."

The white-haired sage left immediately, adopting a quick but steady pace as he started out of the village.

Homura looked at Koharu. "He would be a difficult Hokage to deal with."

She looked back at him. "You recall Tsunade's temper, yes? She would be no better. Both lack wisdom and neither is stable. Power isn't enough. Besides, the Sand's treachery shows we have become too soft. Years of peace…they can be pleasant, but it never lasts. And internal divisions often grow in such times."

"You are thinking of the Uchiha?" Homura asked. "Yet that treachery was years in the making. I doubt an external war would have done more than postpone the problem."

"Perhaps," Koharu replied. "Either way, we must find a Hokage soon, and Hiruzen may not be around to take part in that process. We must seek another."

Homura looked at her for a long moment. "Do you think it is his time yet? He has waited long."

She looked into the distance meditatively. "Danzou may have waited too long. He's not much younger than we are, and we're certainly too old to be Hokage."

The two lapsed into silence as a few ninjas walked past, escorting prisoners.

"How do you do it?" Gaara asked suddenly.

Naruto turned to face the other boy, whose siblings looked cautiously at their brother within the cell. It was a simple cube with bars on one side, made by a Leaf ninja using earth techniques. All the proper cells were full, as were the parts of the hospital designed to let doctors care for incarcerated enemies. While the Leaf's decisive victory over the attackers was good, and the high number of enemies captured alive was a mark of the defenders' skill level, it had also caused some logistical problems. There simply wasn't enough secure housing available for all of the captured Sand and Sound ninjas. At the same time, the available Leaf personnel were busy patrolling, performing search-and-rescue for unconscious comrades, trying to round up any enemy stragglers, and handling the other tasks that were vital in the aftermath of a major surprise attack.

The result was that Naruto and Sasuke were currently stuck watching Gaara and his two siblings. Kankurou and Temari had surrendered when cornered by a squad of Leaf jounin after they saw their brother's defeat, and the three were being kept together. Their obedience was being assured by the simple method of sticking explosive notes to their foreheads, which Sasuke was prepared to detonate in the event that they attempted to escape.

After looking around for a moment to reassure himself that Gaara was speaking to him, not someone else, Naruto answered. "How do I do what?"

"How do you control it? How did you beat me?" Gaara's typically emotionless speech was contaminated by the trickle of frustration that leaked through. He looked at Naruto intently.

Sasuke saw that Gaara's siblings were watching and listening with expressions of concern and disquiet that looked genuine enough, but maintained his vigilance anyway. All three were demonstrably dangerous, even if they had been disarmed, and that word didn't entirely apply here; Gaara's sand could not be separated from him. Attaching an explosive note to him had been impossible until he had the idea of ordering Temari to do it. She had barely complied, looking terrified the entire time, but her approach had not triggered the sand as his had. He wasn't sure why, but had logged the fact mentally to be included in his report; the strange boy's techniques were fascinating, and he had no doubt that Leaf Intelligence would want to know everything about them.

Naruto stared at Gaara and just barely managed to hide his shock. Did the Sand ninja somehow know about his nature? As he asked himself the question, he thought of the presence he had felt when Gaara became or called forth (he still wasn't sure which) that giant sand monster, and he realized that it had felt familiar. He hadn't noticed at the time since he was busy trying to survive, but it had felt like…like the nine-tails, when Jiraiya had helped him talk to it.

Naruto didn't want to reveal his shock, so he scrambled for an answer. "The toad is my ally, I don't control him," he said, intentionally misconstruing the question.

Gaara's eyes narrowed. "How do you control it?" His hands balled into fists. "Why are you stronger than me!" he shouted. "How? Tell me!"

Sasuke cleared his throat meaningfully, holding up one hand in readiness to set off the explosive notes. Temari looked panicked as she reached over to gently grab Gaara's arm.

"Gaara, calm down," she whispered. "Please. If you cause trouble they'll kill us all."

Naruto and Gaara stared into each other's eyes for several long, silent moments.

"Gaara, please. Listen to your big sister, okay?" she begged. She locked eyes with Naruto, silently pleading for his help in calming her youngest brother.

He hesitated for a moment, and then looked at Gaara again. "I beat you because I worked with my teammates," he said quietly. "That's how. We were fighting for our home. For our families and friends. That's why I beat you."

Gaara blinked and lapsed back into silence. He kept staring at Naruto, but allowed Temari to guide him back into a sitting position. None of them said another word before the two Leaf genin were relieved by a new pair of guards. As they walked away, Naruto glanced back and saw Gaara looking at his siblings in confusion. After a moment the strange Sand ninja seemed to sense his regard and looked at him again, and for a moment Naruto thought he saw a familiar desperation in that face.

Homura and Koharu entered the meeting room last and took their places on either side of the seat reserved for the Hokage himself. The various clan heads were all present, and none appeared to have any serious injuries, although it was clear that they had come straight from battle. Hyuuga Hiashi looked tired, but he was also the only one who had been properly treated at the hospital yet. His clothes were elegant and clean, suggesting he had found the time to change before the meeting. To his left sat Aburame Shirou, who appeared almost completely unmarked despite the recent battle, although it was hard to tell given how little could be seen; his eyes were hidden by dark glasses and the rest of him by a heavy coat. The two men waited in silent, dignified patience, as did Shimura Danzou, who sat nearby on Shirou's other side. He looked as emotionless as usual. The oldest clan head present, half of his face was covered by bandages and he carried his right arm immobilized in wrappings as he had for years, supporting himself with a cane in his left hand. All three men were dark-haired and impassive, like unyielding stone in the face of a storm.

Akimichi Chouza, Nara Shikaku and Yamanaka Inoichi sat together as usual, talking quietly as they waited. The Akimichi clan's head was by far the largest man at the table, still wearing bulky and bloodstained armor after the fighting. His long red hair was unbound and streamed wildly as he shook his head, disagreeing with Inoichi. He gestured with his hands as they spoke, apparently describing some part of the earlier battle. Inoichi was a tall but slender man with a long blond ponytail. His face was harsh as he turned to ask Shikaku a question, and the scarred head of the Nara clan replied deliberately as his two friends listened with care.

The Uchiha clan seat was empty as it had been for years, much like the seat that was kept open for the Senju out of respect for their role in the village's founding. Of course, the Senju's seat tended to evoke feelings of respect and even reverence, while those who saw the empty chair belonging to the Uchiha generally thought of the tragedy they had suffered. Still, enough years had passed to dull the pain of even that severe blow. Sitting next to the empty seats, Sarutobi Asuma was looking a bit uncomfortable at having been drafted to represent his clan under the circumstances, and one of his arms was held close to his chest in a sling. To his right, Inuzuka Hitomi's left hand tapped restlessly on the table as she waited impatiently for the meeting to begin, though she stopped when the Hokage's advisors entered the room, looking expectantly at them. She had the characteristic red facial markings of her clan, reminiscent of fangs, and dark hair that she kept short so it wouldn't be in the way. Her features were gaunt and severe, and one look at her face made it plain that her nose had been broken at some point in the past. She practically embodied her clan's reputation, radiating fierceness and energy even when sitting down. She absently began to pick the blood out from under her clawlike fingernails as she waited.

Finally, the head of ANBU was sitting rigidly as he glanced over the latest reports in front of him in preparation for the meeting, though his mask – carved to look like a bear – made it impossible to see his expression. At his side, the seat belonging to the jounin commander was vacant. When Koharu and Homura took their seats, he looked up and spoke.

"I believe that's everyone, so we'd better get started," Bear said. His left hand gestured to the two guards and they stepped outside, closing the door behind them. At the same time, he shuffled a few of the papers on the table in front of him.

"What about Honoka?" Hitomi asked, looking at the empty seat next to him.

"Dead in the counter-attack," he told her. "We'll have to discuss replacements, but that will be second. First, we have the latest on the Hokage." Bear looked at Homura and Koharu.

"We just came from there," Koharu said. "The doctors say that he has been poisoned with a compound they don't recognize. They are attempting to neutralize it, but expect no success." She turned her head toward Homura, who nodded slightly at her before continuing.

"Jiraiya has already left the village intending to track down Tsunade in the hopes that she will have the skill to save the Third Hokage. There is no guarantee that she will be able to do so, however, even if she gets here in time. He may not even be able to find her." His face grew solemn. "We must face the possibility that we will have to choose a Fifth Hokage without him. Furthermore, we must consider how long the village can afford to go without a Hokage now that we are at war."

Nara Shikaku cleared his throat. "I agree with you, but we should not be hasty. This assault was a major undertaking for both Orochimaru and the hidden village of Sand. They suffered heavy losses. They shouldn't be in a position to mount another such assault anytime soon, and they will likely want to fully understand the results of today before making their next move. I think we can allow a few days for Jiraiya to bring Tsunade back, at least, before seeking to appoint a successor."

"I agree," Yamanaka Inoichi chimed in. "Even if the Third chooses to step down, I believe it would be beneficial for morale if everyone knows he has chosen his own successor. He did well last time. As important as a strong leader is in times of war, we would be doing a disservice to the Fifth Hokage if we rushed his selection. I think we need the Third involved in this if at all possible."

"Perhaps we can compromise," Aburame Shirou spoke up. "I agree that we have some time and should not rush, but ignoring this need will not make it go away either, and we do not know for certain how long the Third may have – or how long it might take him to recover if he does survive. I propose we end this discussion for now, and each spend the next few days thinking about possible candidates. We can compile a list of possibilities. If the Third recovers, then we can submit the list to him as suggestions. If not, it will provide a starting place for our own discussion of his successor. We need the Feudal Lord's approval for any final choice anyway, so there is no point attempting to do more."

There were a few nods around the table at that, as everyone silently tried to gauge each other's reactions. Inuzuka Hitomi spoke up first.

"I think that's the best idea we're going to get," she said, "so let's just agree to it and move on. There's a lot to do. Last I heard our patrols are still tracking down stragglers; we don't have enough time to sit around wasting it."

"Agreed," Hyuuga Hiashi said. "Does anyone have an objection to Shirou's suggestion?"

Danzou spoke for the first time. "It is a reasonable compromise, but we must determine how long we will wait. Two days? One week? We cannot delay indefinitely."

Everyone was silent for a moment.

"I don't think we can afford to delay longer than a week," Asuma said, finally speaking. "The Fire Lord will likely want to visit as soon as possible to discuss matters, with a war beginning. I suggest we wait either a week or until his arrival; whichever comes first."

Homura gave the younger jounin a small but respectful nod; it couldn't be pleasant to discuss his father's possible replacement when the man was still unconscious in the hospital.

"If that's decided, then I suggest we come back to the matter of the jounin commander," ANBU's leader spoke up. "I've given it some thought. Whoever the Hokage is, they have the right to appoint someone to the position, so I think we should choose a temporary replacement and leave it at that. They can fill in until there's time for a more permanent choice."

"That is wise," Danzou agreed. "Given the circumstances, I suggest we put aside the tradition that the jounin commander not belong to any of the clans for purposes of this temporary appointment."

"Some people will object to that," Akimichi Chouza responded. "The smaller families might feel that we're attempting to overturn the tradition for our own reasons."

"War is no time to be paralyzed by traditions," Hitomi said. "We need to pick someone competent who can do the job now. It's more important than ever with the Hokage out of action. I agree with Danzou's suggestion, and I nominate Nara Shikaku for the job. He's one of our best at tactics and strategy, and he's up-to-date on the situation."

Shikaku's eyebrows rose slightly in surprise. While they had no enmity, he and Hitomi often disagreed. He was a deliberate and patient man, where she was decisive nearly to the point of recklessness. He hadn't thought her opinion of him was so high. Before he could comment, however, Sarutobi Asuma spoke again.

"I agree with both recommendations," he said. "While I'd prefer not to ignore too many traditions, we are talking about a temporary measure, and Shikaku has what it takes to get the job done. If not him, then I'd consider Hatake Kakashi."

There were a few moments of silence as everyone considered the two possibilities. Yamanaka Inoichi was looking at Asuma speculatively when he got the discussion moving again.

"You might be a good choice, Asuma," he told him. "Your arm will need some time to recover, and this post is a temporary one off the front lines. The fact that you aren't a clan head might also help, even if you're representing the Sarutobi clan here today."

Asuma's face showed slight surprise, and he shook his head. "I'll do it if you pick me, but I don't think I'm the best choice," he responded. He looked at Shikaku. "I know you've got other responsibilities as a clan head, but I'm sure you could find someone to fill in for you temporarily, and we could use your mind planning our next moves."

"Does anyone have any other suggestions?" Koharu asked. "So far we've heard three recommendations. Are there any other senior jounin that you think might be suitable?"

There was another moment of quiet as everyone considered the matter.

"Of my own clan, Aburame Shibi has the capability, but I believe Shikaku-san would be a better choice," Shirou said.

"I have no other suggestions, and I agree that Shikaku would be a good temporary choice," Chouza said.

"We have a war to begin," Hyuuga Hiashi said. "I agree with the idea of choosing Shikaku until the Hokage – whether Third or Fifth – is able to make his own selection. I also believe the Fire Lord will have no objections."

"Who else will support Shikaku for this post?" Homura asked.

"I will," Inoichi said.

"I already said I do," Hitomi added.

"Shikaku is an acceptable choice," Danzou said.

"It sounds like you're all agreed, then," the head of ANBU said. "Councilors, do you have anything to add?" he asked, turning toward Homura and Koharu.

The two exchanged a glance, then turned back to face the others. "We have no objections," Homura answered. "Nara Shikaku, will you accept the post of Acting Jounin Commander until such time as the Hokage can select your replacement?"

"I will," Shikaku agreed. "Thank you all for your confidence."

"That's two matters decided," Bear said. "Next, I think it's time we go over the preliminary information from the attack. It looks like our initial estimates of our own losses were low, unfortunately. The enemy appears to have made large-scale use of genjutsu in dealing with our close patrols and the guards on the wall, and our losses were heavy in the initial minutes. More than half of those we had posted on the perimeter are either dead or seriously injured and in need of time to recover. It looks like the counter-attack casualties weren't that bad for us, fortunately."

"What about the enemy?" Hitomi asked.

"We have a large number of captives," Bear replied, "including all three of the Kazekage's children. I understand one of them is apparently hosting the one-tailed beast, as well, which gives us a major bargaining chip if we choose to negotiate with them. I'd say we need to thank the kids that managed to capture him; that could be enough to tip the balance in how they act from here on out."

"What do we know about the whereabouts and status of the Kazekage himself?" Akimichi Chouza asked. "I take it he got away?"

"Actually, it looks like he was never here," Bear responded. There was some surprise at that. "The man pretending to be the Kazekage was Orochimaru in disguise; he impersonated the man to get close enough to attack the Third and trap him inside a barrier where no one else could intervene. We're still correlating reports, but there's nothing to suggest the real Kazekage was ever present."

"Could he have stayed in his own village?" Hitomi asked. "Simply moved to a private home and laid low for a few days to trick us?"

Inoichi cleared his throat. "That's possible, but there's something else to keep in mind. I've been working with Ibiki, and it looks like most of the Sand ninjas believed that the Kazekage really was here, leading the attack himself. I suppose he could have lied to his own men for operational security, but I don't see the point; they knew they were going to betray us. While it's far from certain, it seems possible that Orochimaru killed and replaced the real Kazekage in order to engineer this whole mess. If that's the case, Sand may never have truly decided to betray us."

"Are you serious?" Chouza asked in shock. "I don't care how sharp he is, I find it hard to believe Orochimaru could have tricked every single Sand ninja he had contact with."

Danzou leaned forward. "If the Kazekage is dead, we may never know the truth," he began. "It is also possible that Orochimaru colluded with the Kazekage and then disposed of him, or that he had highly-placed sympathizers within their village who assisted him in deceiving the majority of the village. Speculation is pointless until we have more information."

"Agreed," Bear said. "Ibiki is working on that right now, and the intelligence division is doing everything it can to get the most current and complete information possible from our operatives in the Wind Country. Until we know more, we can't even be sure who we'll be fighting in this war. If it's just the Village Hidden of Sound, even with Orochimaru leading, that's one matter. If we have to face Sand as well, then everything is different. Since we aren't sure yet, I think we need to discuss what the other villages are likely to do." He turned toward Koharu and Homura. "What do you think?"

The two councilors conferred for a moment, before Koharu began to speak. "I expect The Village Hidden by Mist will not get involved unless the entire continent is drawn into the war. The Mizukage is still relatively new, and she has been quite busy with internal matters. She seems determined to shake off the name of the Bloody Mist. As long as we don't threaten the balance of power in a way she finds concerning, the Mist ninjas will ignore the war, except to court clients more aggressively in areas where we have traditionally competed with them."

"The other two are of much greater concern," Homura said. "The Raikage has been building his village's power for years, and he may see any war as an opportunity to supplant us as the strongest of the Five Great Ninja Villages. We've had numerous incidents involving Cloud ninjas even in times of peace, such as the Hyuuga Affair. If Sand and Sound join against us, then the Raikage may well be willing to consider an alliance with them to weaken or destroy us. The distance between the Sand and Cloud villages means that any war between them would be nearly pointless, so such an alliance might last long enough to pose a true threat to us." He thought for a moment. "If that should occur, we might be able to find a way to draw the Mist ninjas to our side in order to prevent the Raikage from upsetting the current state of affairs too much, but we would likely have to make some significant concessions. The Mizukage isn't overly ambitious, but she is shrewd."

"What about the Hidden Village of Stone?" Bear asked. "I'd like to hear your thoughts on them as well."

Homura grimaced slightly. "They are the greatest unknown. They have no love for the Leaf village, but the Tsuchikage doesn't seem to trust anyone enough to ally with them for long. Their military is still relatively weak, and they wouldn't want to hand supremacy to the Raikage. On top of that, they have grudges against both the Mist and Sand villages. It's possible they might ally with us, under the right circumstances, but I'm not certain how long such an agreement would last."

"As much as I hate to say it, it sounds like we need to explore any possibility of restoring our alliance with the Sand village," Asuma said. "Am I correct in understanding that the Wind Lord has historically supported the alliance very strongly?"

"Yes," Danzou answered. "It seems unlikely that he would have reversed his position so suddenly. While the Kazekage is secretive enough to maintain operational security for an attack like this one, it is also true that he has been obedient to the Wind Lord in the past, even when they disagreed."

"It might be wise to make a political gesture to the Stone and Mist villages now, even if it's transparent," Shikaku suggested. "Something to remind them that we can be a good friend or ally to have. Even if it only encourages them to stay neutral, it could be worthwhile."

Inoichi spoke again. "I think we still have a pair of Mist missing-nin in custody from a few months ago. We might also be able to make some introductions in the Wave Country, given our connections there. We're going to lose contracts in any case; if we make the first move, it could mean a smoother transition and keep doors open for later, with fewer negative consequences for our civilian merchants."

"Hand back a pair of deserters and show off our economic influence without being heavy-handed," Hitomi summed up. "I like it. We don't give up enough to seem desperate, but it sends the right message. The Mist ninjas get more competition for contracts from the Village Hidden by Clouds, anyway, so it shouldn't take much."

"What about the Village Hidden by Stone?" Asuma asked. "Any other thoughts on them?"

Hiashi cleared his throat. "The Tsuchikage is an unashamed pragmatist," he commented. "He will not start anything. In any even conflict, I doubt he will get involved. If the conflict is uneven, he will likely try to tip the balance at minimal risk. Either way, he will wait for the situation to become clear. There is no point in taking action yet."

"I agree," Koharu said. "The Tsuchikage is predictably self-interested. If he sees a chance to settle a grudge at low risk, he will seize it, but he won't do so unless victory seems sure. For now, there is nothing more to be done."

"What of the Village Hidden by the Clouds?" Aburame Shirou asked. "Is there any way we could discourage the Raikage from hostile action in advance?"

"The current Raikage is somewhat unpredictable," Homura responded. "He has quite a temper. On the other hand, while he has sought to improve his village's position, he has yet to initiate any major conflict. It's difficult to say what he might do. If we are able to restore and stabilize our alliance with the Sand village, then I expect he won't attack us; the risks would outweigh the potential benefits."

"In that case, we need to discuss how to handle the Sand Village," Asuma said. "I know we need more information, but how long do we wait before making our next move?"

"I don't think we should wait at all," Shikaku answered. "I propose we release one of our captives and send him back with a message. Demand some answers and make it clear that we hold them responsible for their treachery until and unless they can conclusively demonstrate they were deceived. If we do end up re-establishing our alliance, I also think we need to insist on certain concessions, such as financial reparations. Additionally, we should demand some civilian hostages be sent to us if we release our high-value prisoners. We can't afford to appear weak, even if it turns out they were tricked."

"I agree," Danzou said. "Additionally, we should demand that they share all intelligence on the Hidden Sound Village and any allies or mercenaries affiliated with it, and that they commence immediate military action against Orochimaru's forces, including participation in joint operations which will be commanded by our personnel."

"If the Kazekage is dead, some of his advisors might be as well," Inoichi pointed out. "They'll likely be disorganized. And they'll have to be looking for any agents of Orochimaru's within their own ranks. That kind of internal chaos will slow them down, whether they're hostile or not. Still, I agree we can't go easy on them, even if they were pawns."

"Does everyone agree with the idea of sending a prisoner as messenger?" Bear asked. "I think we should pick a relatively senior Sand ninja – obviously one whom Ibiki has finished interrogating."

"Agreed," Chouza spoke first.

The others soon agreed as well.

"Alright," Bear said, "that's settled for now. The next order of business is to go over the immediate military situation so we can work out our emergency deployments for the next few days."

Asuma cleared his throat. "If I know the Feudal Lord, he'll be visiting soon. We should keep an escort force available. We'll also have to keep a force ready in case of escape attempts by our prisoners."

"I'm afraid there's one other matter to be discussed first," Koharu interrupted. "We've talked about the other four great villages, but there are the minor ones to keep in mind as well; particularly those which participated in the chuunin exams. From the reports I've seen, it appears that most of our guests are dead, whether they were candidates or observers. In particular, all of the visitors from the Village Hidden by Grass perished; they will likely demand an explanation. Only a few of the ones from the Waterfall Village survived, and the visiting Rain ninjas were also nearly wiped out. It's unclear whether this was intentional, but I suspect it was."

"Why would Orochimaru bother?" asked Hitomi. "He's certainly capable, but what would he accomplish?"

"Perhaps he wishes to distance them from us, or at least create tension," Homura answered. "Ninjas from smaller villages often resent us, as we all know. Some will blame us for the loss of their personnel in what they will call our war; it might be enough to keep some of them out of the conflict."

Shikaku shook his head. "That might work, but they could just as easily blame Orochimaru and choose to side with us in the hopes of picking up the pieces when the Sound Village is destroyed. There must be more to it."

"Regardless of what Orochimaru intends, we cannot ignore the situation," Koharu said firmly. "We should take steps to ensure our relationships with the smaller villages remain as they are, and soon."

"How would we go about doing that without making it seem like we're taking responsibility?" Inoichi asked. "The last thing we want is to admit we're at fault when we aren't."

"I'm not sure there is a good option here," Shirou responded. "Orochimaru has placed us in a difficult position."

"Let's look at them one at a time," Bear broke in. "You said the losses among the Hidden Grass Village observers and personnel were total?"

"Correct," Koharu replied. "And our alliance with them has always been a bit tenuous anyway. Many there blame us for the fighting that occurred during the last conflict against the Stone Village, since much of it was fought on their land. The fact that their leader was in attendance here and died in our village may bring past troubles to the surface." She looked at Homura. "I am not certain who is likely to replace their leader."

Homura frowned at the unspoken question. "There are a few possibilities, but I can't say which for certain. Their internal security has tightened a great deal in the last few years." He closed his eyes for a few moments as he struggled to recall the pertinent details. "Of the three possibilities I recall, I believe only one is pleased by their alliance with us. The other two have favored it as a practical matter, but not gladly."

"How much do they dislike us?" Shikaku asked. "Is there a chance they might be persuaded to fight against us on Orochimaru's side?"

That prospect seemed to shock several people at the table, including Hitomi. "If anyone else allies with Orochimaru, we have to come down on them hard. Make it clear that we won't stand for it," she said. "Anything less invites disaster."

"I doubt they would work with Orochimaru unless they truly believed we were at a disadvantage," Homura said. "If anything, the Sand's losses today should convince any other potential allies to think twice. That will be particularly true if it does turn out that Orochimaru double-crossed the Kazekage."

"Still, it would be best to avoid making any unnecessary enemies right now," Asuma said. "We should try to figure out how to handle them. Maybe invite them along to help us go after the Sound, since they killed Grass personnel. Joint operations could be good for both of us."

"It's worth considering," Inoichi agreed.


The meeting lasted late into the night, as the village's leaders tried to plan their next moves. In the meantime, many of the village's ninjas were assigned to guard prisoners, watch the perimeter or patrol the area around the village to ensure a second surprise attack would not be launched. Kurenai found herself leading Hinata, Shino, Kiba and Akamaru in slow circuit around the village as they looked for signs of enemies trying to approach – or trying to flee. While she had misgivings about taking Hinata out on a mission so soon after the battle, particularly since she was still recovering from the beating her cousin had given her, the village was too shorthanded for her to finish her recovery in peace.

Instead of mulling over the things she wasn't happy about, Kurenai thanked her good fortune that all of her students had made it through the battle intact. Not only that, but their immediate families seemed to have survived as well, which was more than many could say. Shino's left arm was broken and they sported an assortment of minor cuts and bruises, but Kurenai knew well that war could have a far harsher toll than that. Even Akamaru had only a fairly small cut on one side, which had been easy for Kiba to disinfect and bandage.

The squad paused occasionally when they detected signs of movement that might be from humans or summoned animals, but fortunately nothing happened except for a few encounters with other friendly units. Her three students were subdued throughout their patrol, maintaining a silence that seemed to be as much due to the shock of the day as it was to their professionalism and skill.

As well as they were doing, Kurenai was relieved when her team's relief showed up, allowing them to head home. They went to the Hokage's building to write out their full reports on the day's battle (having only made verbal ones to cover the bare essentials previously) before she sent her students straight to bed.

"I have no idea what kind of assignment we might have tomorrow," she warned them, "and it's probably going to be like that for a while. So get your rest and meet up early. I think we've got a busy week ahead."

They all acknowledged her words and headed home promptly.

After the meeting ended Sarutobi Asuma went to the hospital to get his makeshift sling replaced and receive some real medical attention. When he arrived, he found the place was still extremely busy. While most of the high-priority cases had been dealt with immediately, that left a lot of people with injuries that weren't life-threatening waiting for assistance. Some were napping in their chairs, clearly exhausted, and the patients were numerous enough that many were in the buildings near the hospital. There, those with lesser skills tended to people with lesser injuries, setting simple breaks or cleaning and bandaging wounds. Burn victims and others in dire need were mostly attended to at this point. The secure section of the hospital, used for the treatment of prisoners, was just as busy as the rest.

Asuma moved with purpose, but he was having difficulty finding Chouji; he knew his other two students were well. He stopped by his father's room only briefly, since he already knew his status. He was surprised when he nearly bumped into Sakura as she sagged against the wall outside one of the hospital rooms.

"Asuma-sensei!" she exclaimed in surprise, then quickly quieted herself with a guilty glance at the door. "Sorry. I didn't mean to be in the way."

"Are you all right, Sakura?" he asked in a concerned tone.

"Fine," she said with a slight smile. "Just tired. In fact, I somehow got through today with some scratches and bruises, but nothing worse." Her eyes focused on his arm, still in its sling. "I guess you were a little less lucky. Is your arm going to be okay?"

"Sure, it just needs some time," Asuma answered. He glanced at the door, then looked back at Sakura. "One of your teammates?"

"Uh…no, actually," she answered. "Naruto and Sasuke are both alright. It's Lee."

She lapsed into silence after saying his name, and her face was troubled.

"Is it bad?" Asuma asked.

Sakura bit her lip. "I'm not sure," she told him. "Lee didn't get hit badly, but he used a technique called Lotus, or something like that. He said that it had some risks, but not what they were. I know he's not dying – the doctors said he wasn't getting any worse, that's why they didn't get to him earlier – but I could tell when I brought him in that he was in a lot of pain. We were careful but it seemed like just moving him at all hurt a lot."

Asuma grimaced slightly. "I hadn't realized Gai taught him that," he muttered to himself, before turning back to Sakura. "The Lotus is one of the village's most powerful hand-to-hand techniques, but it puts a great deal of strain on the body. It's pretty much guaranteed to tear muscles. It can damage tendons, bones and the rest of the body too. If he's alive and stable, that's a good thing."

Before she could respond, the door opened and Maito Gai walked out of the room, accompanied by a doctor.

"I'm sorry I can't tell you more yet, but frankly Lee is still a relatively low priority. We have a lot of wounded people, both ours and captives, and we're trying to save every life and limb that we can," the doctor was saying. "His condition isn't great, but it isn't deteriorating. One of the nurses will come by shortly to finish on his right arm, and we'll be checking regularly to make sure he remains stable. When he wakes up we'll let you know immediately. For now, it seems like he's asleep due to simple exhaustion, so he'll probably be able to talk to you sometime tomorrow."

Sakura relaxed visibly as she heard the words, but Asuma noticed that Gai still looked tense, if not grim.

After the doctor left, Gai looked over at Sakura. "You look like you need rest," he said. "But before you go, I must thank you for looking after my student. Had you not done so, the enemy might have found him while he was unconscious."

Sakura nodded slightly in acknowledgment. She looked like she was about to speak, but stood there for a moment, staring into space.

"Sakura," Asuma broke in, "you're dead on your feet. Go home." He smiled slightly. "Consider that an order. I don't want you back here until you've slept."

She blinked several times, shaking her head to clear it, and looked back at him. "Right. I mean, yes Asuma-sensei." She turned to head for home, slowly and carefully navigating the hospital hallways to avoid stumbling into people.

Asuma turned back to face Gai. "What's wrong?" he asked simply.

Gai looked back at him for a moment. "The doctor says the damage is severe. Lee has bone fragments in some of his muscles and near nerve tissue. Any strenuous activity could kill him, or paralyze him, or cause other problems. It might be possible to remove them surgically, but he said the risks would be great."

Asuma put a comforting hand on his comrade's shoulder. "He's alive. And he's tough. Don't give up hope yet."

Gai looked back at him. "All Lee has ever wanted is to be a ninja. If he can't return to duty, I have no idea what he will do. This is his life, Asuma."

Asuma couldn't think of a good response. He knew that Lee had no family to speak of; perhaps a few distant relatives somewhere in the Fire Country, but for the most part his comrades were his family. The same was true of many others from genin like Tenten and Sasuke to chuunin and jounin like Iruka and Anko. Many were orphans following in the footsteps of parents they hardly knew, or had never known. Many became ninjas like their parents, perhaps hoping to find or forge some connection beyond the barriers of death and time.

"Don't borrow trouble from tomorrow," Asuma said finally. "Today has enough problems of its own."

Gai let out a deep breath and nodded at his colleague. "You're right, of course," he said, straightening up. "And when he recovers, I'll just have to train him better for next time." Despite his words, Gai still looked a bit saddened, however.

Seizing upon a sudden thought, Asuma looked around and pulled Gai to one side of the hallway. "This isn't for public consumption, but there's a chance we may have some help coming," he said quietly. "Jiraiya is trying to find the Third's last student to help him. Maybe when she's here, we can ask her to take a look at Lee, okay? If anyone can help him, it's Tsunade."

Gai's face brightened with hope. "This is wonderful news!" he nearly shouted, before looking around and lowering his volume to something more appropriate. "Thank you, Asuma."

"No problem," Asuma said, smiling at him. "I think we should both get out of here, but before we do can you help me find Chouji? I heard he was still here."

"Ah, I believe not," Gai told him. "He had to wait because he had minimal damage to his arm, but I heard him speaking to Sakura earlier. He went home not long ago."

"That's good then," Asuma said. "I'll catch up with him tomorrow." He looked around a bit. "Well, if all of our students are okay, why don't we go have a drink or two and get some rest? I was going to meet up with Kakashi and Kurenai at the usual place."

"That sounds like an excellent idea," Gai answered, a bit more brightly than before.

Neji walked into the practice room and sank to his knees, showing respect to Hiashi. After a moment, his uncle signaled for him to sit comfortably, and did the same. They sat silently for a moment, using their Byakugan to look in every direction to ensure that they could converse in privacy.

Hiashi spoke first. "I'm not certain what changes can or should be made," he said quietly, "but if we begin this path it will be my life's work and yours, one way or another."

Neji nodded. "Many will resist change, in the branch families as well," he said. He looked Hiashi in the eyes. "If we are to work together closely, I will have to act more obediently," Neji said. That he would bury his resentment went unspoken, though both heard the words. "Fortunately, the combination of the exams and this attack should provide an excuse for me to alter my behavior without too many questions."

"Yes," Hiashi said quietly.

"You know that for this to matter, your daughters will have to become involved someday," Neji went on. "Otherwise, they could undo anything we accomplish."

"Yes," Hiashi acknowledged, "but I think that can be postponed for now. And it would be best if we keep this private for the moment, as others may not understand." He took a deep breath. "On the subject of my daughters, there is one thing I must say." He looked Neji squarely in the eye. "You gravely injured Hinata. You could have killed her. I think she has forgiven you…but I will not do so unless you apologize. And if you ever threaten her or Hanabi again, our collaboration will end in your death."

Neji didn't look away, though his lip twitched slightly. "She has not wronged me, and I will apologize. I no longer bear them any ill will."

They lapsed into tense silence again after that, until Hiashi returned to the conversation.

"The seal is at the heart of our problems," Hiashi said. "We both know this. Yet any attempt to abolish its use completely will be met with overwhelming resistance. I suggest we both take some time to think of alternatives. We will have to be careful in discussing these matters, but in that regard I have a thought. I will take up your training personally – after you displayed the ability to use Kaiten, others will likely see this as appropriate – and perhaps recruit you to practice with Hanabi and Hinata. Having an opponent closer to them in size and age would make a certain amount of sense. "It will also demonstrate to others that I believe you can now be trusted to act as you are expected to."

"I will likely be less available now," Neji pointed out, "and the same may be true of Hinata, for that matter. I won't ask for information you cannot give me, but it is obvious that we are now at war. That means there will be more missions, even for genin as relatively young as myself."

"True," Hiashi agreed. "We will see how frequent and how long those missions will be. But some opportunities will present themselves, and we must work slowly in any case." His eyes flicked to one side. "It appears our kin are approaching."

"We should continue this discussion later, then, Hiashi-sama," Neji said, mindful of the possibility of lip-readers. True privacy could be hard to come by among the Hyuuga, and while courtesy demanded that people refrain from observing others in private moments, curiosity and paranoia sometimes overcame that tradition. Given the past history between Hiashi and Neji, such curiosity was likely to be even stronger than in most cases. "Would you honor me with your instruction?"

"Yes, Neji," Hiashi responded, rising to his feet. "Assume the first stance, and let us begin."


Leaf Intelligence Division Preliminary Analysis: Sound Village Forces

While a more in-depth analysis will take time, preliminary reports suggest a strange discrepancy in training levels and approaches among the Sound ninjas who participated in the recent battle. Many seemed to know few techniques beyond the basics, although their proficiency was fairly high. The rest seemed to be lacking in areas of basic instruction, and often depended almost entirely upon a single ability. Those abilities were sufficiently varied and dangerous to present major challenges individually and as a group, but the odd training standards remain a curiosity.

Currently, the most likely explanation seems to be that training was limited because of how new the Sound Village is; Orochimaru likely had to accelerate and streamline training in order to have so many ninjas prepared for this attack so soon. We also theorize that he did not commit his best-trained forces to battle. Orochimaru would not hesitate to throw away pawns, but these forces were probably not his most effective; he likely kept those at home to guard his facilities and serve as training cadre.

As for the others, who boasted unique and often new abilities, it seems likely that Orochimaru used this battle to field-test them and gain data on their effectiveness. Given that he is always searching for and trying to invent new techniques, he might have wished to stage a major battle partly to test these powers in something larger than a squad-sized engagement. We should expect to see some of these abilities again. He may judge some to be ineffective and close those lines of research based on the results of this battle, as well.

Preliminary estimates for the battle indicate that between 60% and 80% of the Sound ninjas committed to the battle were killed or captured. Most were not trying to escape, suggesting either a fanatical devotion to Orochimaru or that they were led to believe this attack was meant to crush the Leaf Village completely.

Of those we have captured, many seem to regard incarceration as a death sentence. Some seem to believe that they will be tortured recreationally, rather than interrogated purely as a practical matter, and anticipate cruder, more painful methods than those we traditionally rely upon. The Sound ninjas involved in this attack also appear to have a lower average age than would normally be expected of a professional ninja force.

While the information is not yet confirmed, anecdotal evidence in several cases (based on the experience of the Intelligence Division's personnel) suggests that some of the Sound ninjas' weapons may have been manufactured in the Village Hidden by Trees.

Author's Note:

Thanks to all of you who have favorited or reviewed this story; I appreciate it. To reviewers, your input has been helpful, so feel free to keep offering opinions. To readers in general, thanks for sticking with me this far. I think it's fair to say that the writing has improved significantly in quality since chapter 1, and I hope it will continue to do so. While I'm tempted to go back and rewrite earlier chapters, I'm not going to do so, mainly because I want to finish this story one day and I think going back might kill the project in the long run; that way lies frustration and disinterest. In the meantime, I just wanted to acknowledge everyone who's stuck with me through the end of the Sound invasion.

I've found myself working less on humor than I anticipated when I started this project, but sometimes the story and characters override initial expectations. I think they're likely to keep doing so in that regard, but we'll see.

And lastly, a brief warning: don't be surprised if differences become a bit more pronounced from this point forward. I hope you'll continue to enjoy the ride as much as I am.