Morning of May 15, Yondaime Year 5

minato 2The first reports of the day brought Sagara Okiku with them, treading soft and relentless on Lynx’s heels. Lynx slid the stack of files onto Minato’s desk, saluted, and pulled up a chair for his commander before he retreated to the anteroom and shut the door.

“I don’t suppose you brought another pot of coffee with you,” Minato said, without much hope.

Sagara tapped her fingers to her tattoo, crisp and correct, and took her seat in front of the desk. Her back was perfectly straight, knees set together, hands resting lightly on her thighs. Sometimes he wondered if she ever slouched.

“I thought the tasks of the day might prove stirring enough,” she said. There was a faint glint in her eye, not yet a smile. “But we can acquire something, if you’re in dire need.”

Minato waved her offer away. “I actually got about six hours of sleep last night. And a decent breakfast this morning. At this rate I may someday regain full cognitive functioning.” He paused, and felt the smile creeping to his lips without any conscious volition. “Naruto sparked chakra last night. Wind nature. He blew out all the candles at Kakashi’s welcome-home dinner.”

The glint grew to a smile, small and swift but genuinely pleased. “Congratulations. It’s supposed to be good luck when a happy event fans the first spark.”

“We could certainly use some good luck around here.” Minato wasn’t inclined to religious sentiment, but for Naruto’s sake, he could pray the sign was an auspicious one. Last night had been one of those rare, golden moments, an evening to be treasured for years to come. Even if the superstition didn’t hold, he hoped the memory of it would.

Still thinking of the wind in the candles, the sound of Rin’s laugh, the barely suppressed delight in Kakashi’s eye, he pulled a file off the stack and flipped it open.

Death benefits.

Far too many pages of them. And in a separate tab, an even thicker stack of forms authorizing injury pay, supplementing the standard active-duty stipend for as long as a shinobi was ruled medically unfit.

Forty-three jounin and special jounin on medical leave this week. Most of those were ANBU.

Minato picked up his pen and signed the first authorization in a steady, careful hand. “What’s the word on Team Twelve?”

Sagara’s smile died. “The recovery team came in last night. We were able to bring back Yamanaka Michiyo’s body, but Hasebe Goutoku’s corpse was too badly damaged for retrieval. His remains were cremated on the scene. They’ll be presented to his parents today.” Her expression didn’t change, but the lines around her mouth and eyes harshened, and the long scar running from her mouth to her ear seemed to pull the skin tighter. She looked briefly older, and tired of consoling parents over their children’s deaths.

“Endou Tatsuya-taichou was released from hospital yesterday,” she continued. “Domen Saburo-fukuchou is slated for another round of surgery, but the medics inform me there’s hope he’ll regain the use of his right leg.”

Two dead, one potentially crippled. All in exchange for one rural lord who thought he was paying too much tax to Hikouto and yielding too much power to Konoha.

Minato signed another form and set it gently aside. The next page was Yamanaka Michiyo. Special jounin, unmarried, twenty-three. No personnel picture, but he could remember her face: a strong-boned, handsome young woman with blue-green eyes and a missing front tooth that had never kept her from smiling.

“Speak to Lynx about scheduling the funerals,” he said. “I’ll be there.”

Sagara nodded. She seldom made notes; she owed it to their shinobi, she’d told him once, to remember. “I also have an update on Fukeda Hajime-taichou. His final round of surgery went smoothly, and Nohara-sensei confirms he’s firmly on the road to recovery. He may even be mission fit before the summer is out.”

“Rin-chan is a miracle, and none of us deserve her. Well, Hajime does, if anyone.” Minato reached the last of the death benefit forms and set his pen down. “That’s one bit of good news, at least. I don’t need to tell you we’re badly short of good officers.” He paused.

The topic had to be broached, and Sagara would do it if he didn’t.

“What about Namiashi?”

Sagara’s eyelids lowered, then lifted: acknowledging the question, but not rushing her answer. Minato resisted the urge to drum his fingers on the table. Sagara’s level-headed and analytical approach to serious issues made her invaluable as a counselor, and it was always amusing to see other people squirm under her thoughtful gaze, but far less entertaining to be the one bearing the weight of her silence.

“I’m undecided,” she said at last. It was an unusual admission, and she didn’t look happy about it. “The plain facts of the incident are disturbing, and the damage was considerable, but we’ve accepted greater collateral fallout before. And the objective of the mission was achieved. I’m not inclined to burn an entire career to the ground over one mistake.” She grimaced faintly. “A mistake which cost eight lives.”

Sailors on board the Jufuku Maru, the Sanae Maru, and the Reiyo Maru. The Aden Maru’s night-watch crew were the only ones who’d all managed to grab life vests in time. Intel’s agent in Tsurugahama was still at work gathering information on the drowned sailors whose families demanded blood price—and on the outraged ship owners, merchants, harbor master, port authority, and citizens who would have stood by silently at simple assassination, but who clamored for compensation after this indiscriminate destruction.

Sagara made a small gesture, cutting all that aside for the moment. “Namiashi’s team have consistently spoken highly of him, even when challenged by debriefing agents. Including Hatake, which I believe is unusual.” Her gaze flicked up to Minato’s again, wry.

“I’ve spoken to him,” he said, neutrally. “He told me not to let the council sell Namiashi out.” He picked up his pen again, turning it between his fingers. “What’s T&I’s opinion?”

“Shibata should be along any minute now to give it.” Sagara twisted slightly in her chair, and flared her chakra in a tight, controlled burst. Minato recognized Lynx’s answering flicker in the hall a moment before the door slid open on Shibata Tomohiro’s mauled smile.

The T&I commander had a furoshiki-wrapped package in his left hand and a tall paper cup, wafting hazelnut steam, in his acid-dappled right. He managed a snappy bow without spilling a drop. “Good morning. Decided the fate of the world already this morning, or is there still room for input?”

“We saved Earth Country for you,” Minato said, eyeing the coffee enviously. “Along with Namiashi Raidou.”

Lynx slipped around discreetly to draw up a chair near Sagara’s. Shibata nodded his thanks as he settled down, placing his lumpy furoshiki on top of one of Minato’s shorter stacks of paperwork. “Earth Country is a big job, but we might be able to get Namiashi sorted before we run out of breakfast.” He gestured at his offering. “Koemi baked anpan this morning.”

Minato’d eaten rice and miso soup and half a dozen of Ogata-san’s tiny, exquisite side-dishes already that morning, but no one sane passed up Shibata Koemi’s baking. He and Shibata and Oita Gennousuke had once lived on her manju—and copious amounts of caffeine—for nearly 72 hours during the last tense days before the news came that Lightning Country had accepted armistice terms. Hopefully this deliberation wouldn’t take nearly as long.

Lynx rummaged up napkins from somewhere and then withdrew. Shibata unknotted the furoshiki and passed out plump buns with sweet bean paste dotting their tops. Minato settled back in his chair, picking at the shiny soft bread. “Namiashi’s evaluation must have been complex, if you’re here yourself, Tomohiro. Who performed the review?”

“I did.” Shibata broke off a small piece of bun and placed it carefully in the left side of his mouth. He nodded to Sagara. “A worthwhile morning spent, I’d say. I liked him. He reminds me a little of you, actually, Okiku. Holds himself to a high standard, and he’s got a rare chemistry with his team.”

“I haven’t destroyed a shipping port in recent memory,” she pointed out, just faintly ironic.

“We’ve all had our own disasters,” Minato said firmly, before the gleam in Shibata’s good eye could materialize into any reminders of the excesses of his advisors’ shared youth. “The question is, what caused Namiashi’s?”

Shibata shrugged. “There’s no one cause here. There never is, for a major failure.” He dusted crumbs off his fingers, fastidiously, and took a sip of coffee to clear his throat.

“Fundamental to the problem is Namiashi’s disability with genjutsu, which played unwittingly into the hands of his attackers. They weren’t expecting him in particular, but they got lucky, up to a point. That point being Namiashi’s post-traumatic pathology. His adolescence was spent being groomed as a berserker on the northwest front with Iwa.”

The left side of his mouth quirked with faint amusement. “You didn’t think I was going to bring Earth Country into this quite so soon, did you? Our friends from Mist accidentally set off a bomb we’d primed ourselves.”

“Was this in his record?” Minato demanded.

“If it was, Intel would have flagged it before now,” Sagara said, narrow-eyed. “Did he mention a specific commander at fault, or a general trend?”

“Hyuuga Nozomi. Dead at Shimanto Creek, so I’m afraid Iwagakure has deprived us of the opportunity to take her to task. Namiashi was under her command for six months and thirteen days, the longest single command he served under during the war.” Shibata tugged a small notebook out of his breast pocket and consulted it briefly. “There was one additional survivor from her squad, Nodo Hitsubara. He corroborated Namiashi’s story, and remembers Namiashi as talented and ‘better to have as a friend than an enemy.’”

You could say the same of any agent in ANBU, but few probably deserved it more than a man prone to blackout fits of berserker rage. If he was actually prone.

Records from the war years were patchy at best, but Namiashi’s service record for the last three years was clean, if not spotless. Kill everyone in sight might have been a valid coping mechanism for a boy who’d grown up on the battlefield, surrounded by dying friends and armed enemies, but at some point he’d made a conscious effort to reframe his life into stubborn control. He had a sharp temper and, according to his rookie year captain, a smart mouth, but in three years of service under the mask, he’d never before pushed himself—or anyone else—over the edge.

Minato’d relied on that record when he’d selected Namiashi for this team—for Kakashi. And Ueno Katsuko and Tousaki Ryouma needed a steady hand no less than Kakashi did. Maybe more, if Minato was honest with himself. If he’d done his duty by Kakashi, the boy wouldn’t need coddling, but Konoha had failed both Ueno and Tousaki in different ways, and he’d wanted so badly to get it right for once…

Was it only a month ago that Namiashi had knelt on the polished floorboards in front of this desk and listed off the qualities of a good ANBU captain? He’d been concerned about a past entanglement with Tousaki, about his ability to handle Kakashi, about the potential clash between the two rookies, but he’d promised to forge them into a team.

In only three weeks, he’d begun doing it. And doing it well enough that even Kakashi was advocating for him.

Don’t let the council sell out Namiashi-taichou because repairs are expensive. We can do more missions. It’s harder to get more captains.

Minato shoved his chair away from the desk, stood up, and took three steps to face the window. His hands locked behind his back. “Whatever the factors, it comes down to one decision. Do we strip a young captain of everything he’s worked for, or do we give him the chance—and the support—to try again?”

“What’s the rule?” Shibata mused softly, behind him. “Thirty-six? Thirty-eight? The one about never wasting opportunities or supplies. We have both here. Give him to me for a few weeks and— Well, I can’t promise results, but I will offer you eight-to-one odds we don’t have to lose a promising captain out of this.”

Sagara said levelly, “Can you afford the time and resources to brace a wall that’s already buckled once? And more to the point, if Namiashi is already folding after two missions, can we reasonably trust him to be the stable influence Hatake, Tousaki, and Ueno need?”

She had a point. No matter that she would have countered Shibata whichever way he’d leaned, ensuring that they examined both sides of the issue.

“His team believes in him,” Minato agreed, “but that doesn’t guarantee they’re safe with him. Of course, they’re ANBU. They aren’t safe anywhere. But that doesn’t excuse us sending them out with a knife aimed at their backs.”

But if Shibata could blunt that knife, or at least give it a safer handle…

He was losing his grip on this metaphor. He scowled at the window, and his dim reflection on the glass glowered back at him. Beyond, the village stretched out, sunlit and bustling: children on their way to the Academy, a small group of friends and family escorting a limping woman out of the hospital, a street vendor selling breakfast buns from a cart.

His village. His to protect, to guide, to strengthen. Danger to Konoha’s people was a fact of life, but threats to Konoha’s security or stability could not be tolerated. And Namiashi’s disaster at Tsuruguhama was a serious threat, swaying public opinion in a region too close to Mist Country and already resentful of the Fire Daimyou’s power and Konoha’s strength…

But Tsurugahama wanted reparations, not a scapegoat. They didn’t know who Namiashi was; he’d come back with an intact mask. They were clamoring for blood money, but not for his blood. Tsurugahama was an issue apart from Namiashi himself, and if he—

Someone knocked at the door, and opened it.

Minato swung around.

Lynx was there, bristling behind his mask. “Yondaime-sama,” he said, pointedly formal. “I informed him you were already engaged—”

Shimura Danzou pushed past Lynx, offering Minato a perfunctory salute. “Hokage-sama, Sagara-san. Shibata-san. Good morning.” He dignified Sagara and Shibata with the barest of nods before switching his gaze to Minato. “I understand the good people of Tsurugahama Port are crying foul now that their harboring of traitors has been exposed.”

That pun surely couldn’t have been intentional. If Danzou had ever possessed a sense of humor, he’d long ago tossed it aside as unworthy of a shinobi. Shibata snorted; Sagara crushed the last crumbs of her anpan in her napkin and scowled. Minato kept his face smooth. “The Council is meeting at 1000 tomorrow, Shimura-san. If you need to discuss anything with me prior, Lynx has my schedule.”

Danzou glanced back with pitying condescension in his single eye. The other was cloudy, blinded by scarring, but Minato had never known him to wear an eyepatch. “Ah, yes, Lynx. I see you’ve taken another of Konoha’s elite and blunted his claws on secretarial tasks. This will only take a moment, and then I’ll let you get back to your pastry appreciation club.”

Lynx bristled. Minato quelled him with a flattened hand, and directed him out again. Danzou’s sharpest weapon might be his tongue, these days, but he’d shed enough of his blood in Konoha’s service to have earned the right to wield it. He’d been the Sandaime Hokage’s contemporary and rival, a jounin leader, then a Councilmember and one of Sandaime’s advisors. A profoundly hawkish advisor, who’d resisted the truce that ended the war and most of Sandaime’s peace-oriented policies thereafter. Including Minato’s appointment as Sandaime’s successor.

Tainted by association, Minato had figured at the time. He’d done his best in the ensuing years to chart his own course, independent of Sandaime’s uneasy legacy. Danzou had supported a few of those initiatives, bitterly opposed and even stone-walled others. Konoha needed not reform, he’d long declared, but strength. Strength at any cost.

Which made it relatively easy to guess his motives for this meeting. “You’d advise us to ignore the port’s demands for compensation, I take it.”

“Not at all. This is no hot-tempered adversary whose taunts should be ignored.” Danzou moved left to circle the desk, away from Sagara and Shibata and whatever lesser counsel they might offer. “I advise we send them back an unequivocal reply: rebellion against the Daimyou will not be tolerated. They sowed this field themselves; they have no place complaining about the harvest.”

Minato grimaced. “That was the point of this whole mission. It’s the scope of the harvest that’s the sticking point, Shimura-san. We sent a scythe. They suffered a typhoon — and not all of them deserved it.”

“And neither a farmer or a weather system are likely to apologize to the crop, but civilians aren’t wheat.” Sagara leveled an edged glare at Danzou. “Bystanders died. There is Fire Country blood on our hands because one of our agents lost control. That is our responsibility. They’re owed compensation, not a reason to run in terror from their own shinobi.”

“Fire Country blood is on Tsurugahama’s hands, not ours,” Danzou countered. “They should learn to fear us. It’s their lack of fear that bred open rebellion.”

“Fear can certainly be an effective tool.” Shibata’s mouth twitched towards a smirk. “Of course it’s always helpful to consider what other fears might be present in a situation like this. For example—” He spread his hands open, invitingly. “What fear might compel Fire Country’s own citizens to turn to a foreign power for aid?”

“One presumes the Tsuto conspirators heard about the new hole through Lord Nobunori’s ribcage,” Minato said dryly. He paused. “Except, no, they’d have had to send for the squads from Mist before I killed Nobunori, since Namiashi’s team struck only three days later. They must have sent a message to Water Country for protection as soon as they learned about the failure of the coup.”

“Which should serve as a lesson against outsourcing,” Sagara said, with a flicker of cool satisfaction. “But the point remains. If Intel’s information is trustworthy, we’ve severed the head of the rebellion and dealt an additional warning to villages who might consider testing us: we are still strong.” Her gaze flicked back to Danzou, and narrowed. “So do we use that strength to further crush our own people, and tread salt into their wounds? Or do we offer to rebuild, and perhaps quell further dissent instead of inspiring vengeance?”

“A competent parent doesn’t follow a spanking with cake and apologies. Inconsistency will only prove we have no resolve, and give our enemies courage to strike again.” Danzou half-raised a clenched fist, his scarred jaw hard with conviction. “This viper you think we’ve cut the head from is just the one we saw, and that was only after we nearly lost our Daimyou.”

Sagara bristled, but her tone remained arctic cold. “Perhaps we should dispense with metaphor, Danzou-san, until you condescend to provide the village with actual offspring, in lieu of just parenting advice. A competent leader doesn’t treat his countrymen like children, and he doesn’t equate the murder of their kinsfolk with a ‘spanking’.”

Danzou’s knuckles whitened. None of his three marriages had produced children, though two of his former wives had gone on to remarry and raise families. Sagara, secure in twin sons at home and a daughter in the Academy, flicked her gaze away to Shibata and then Minato. “If we intend to keep peace, then we need to foster trust, not fear, and admit the consequences of our mistakes. We aren’t Iwa.”

Shibata raised his eyebrows at Sagara in a flick of amusement. “The sharpest blade strikes the softest target, eh, Okiku?” He made a small, conciliatory hand gesture. “But I see Danzou-san’s point. This isn’t so much Konoha’s mistake to clean up as the consequence of a series of mistakes. Which, we could argue, started with Tsuto-san, and by extension the town that nurtured his disloyalty. I suspect the tea houses and izakaya of Tsurugahama and Ibaragashi, or the private homes, were full of subversion, to have so emboldened Tsuto.”

Danzou had seized the moment of Shibata’s redirect to recover his composure. He linked his hands behind his back and strolled around the desk to inspect the enormous map of the continent, half-hidden behind sliding panels on the curving side wall. “The aftermath of a sanctioned strike has always been left to civilian authority,” he said, with that air of cool condescension that set Minato’s teeth on edge and always infuriated Sagara. “Konoha does not concern itself with civilian politics.”

“Perhaps Konoha should,” Sagara snapped.

Danzou turned. His heavy-lidded gaze dismissed Sagara to rest on Minato. “Would you become Shogun, then, Yondaime-sama? Would you unite the warring nations under one banner of military authority once more?”

Minato moved a paperweight. “I have no ambitions beyond Konoha,” he said quietly.

“Ah.” Danzou’s gaze dismissed him, too. “A pity.”

Minato set his teeth. I know what you’re doing, old man. Perhaps Danzou did want to see reunification, a return to the ancient shogunate, when the strength to kill and conquer brought the right to rule. Perhaps he only wanted to see Minato caught in a cleft stick of his own devising. Whatever the motive, he’d boxed Minato in neatly. Meddling in civilian affairs now would carry an unmistakable taint of ambition to do more than meddle. Danzou’s report to the Council wouldn’t even have to shade the truth.

You could almost admire the old man’s cunning, if you didn’t want so badly to wring his neck.

But Danzou wasn’t the only one who’d learned on a battlefield to parry and then riposte.

“I’ve spoken with the Daimyou at length,” Minato said firmly. “He fully supports our response to the coup, but he also wants answers. And solutions.”

Danzou opened his mouth; Minato cut him off. “The Guardian Twelve revolted because Yoshihara-sama refused to violate his father’s oath with the First, to break Konoha’s power and leash us to heel. And the merchants and nobles who conspired to seed treachery among the Twelve did it because they were envious of Konoha—and afraid.”

He drew a breath.

“I will not weaken one fiber of Konoha’s strength. I will not discount the price we demand for our shinobi’s blood. And I will not leave fear and hatred in our wake, to sprout a new crop of traitors. We struck to punish those who supported the coup, and we struck hard. Now we have the chance to plow and sow that field ourselves. And if mercy comes from the same hand that dealt vengeance, perhaps they’ll learn to see it as justice.”

He swept his gaze over them, daring dissent. Danzou’s mouth had thinned in disappointment, like a teacher surveying a troublemaking child who had, true to form, messed up again. But the quiet triumph in Sagara’s face—and the pride shining in her dark eyes—was more than enough to burn away any sting.

Shibata, of course, kept his ruined face unreadable, but there was a subtle gleam of pleasure in his good eye. He nodded to Minato. “If they fail to learn from this lesson, we can always give them a remedial one at a later date.”

“If we handle it right, we may not need to.” Minato looked to Danzou. “I will tell the Council that I intend to send a detachment of eight jounin and chuunin—two full teams—with strong earth and water jutsu and experience in construction to help rebuild Tsurugahama Port. As for compensation, Namiashi-taichou’s pay for the mission, and Konoha’s portion of the bounty payment for Iebara Shigematsu, will be sent to the families of the eight sailors who died. Namiashi himself will be suspended from duty until he has demonstrated to Shibata’s satisfaction that he will not fall victim to the same loss of control again. Sagara, you’ll supply a trusted captain for Team Six in the interim.”

She nodded curtly. “I have someone in mind. Though the team will be on medical leave for another few weeks.”

“I’m glad to hear it,” Minato said wryly. “Kakashi certainly needs it.” And Ueno, whose medical records reported the same collarbone broken twice in barely two weeks. Shiranui had still been in the hospital when Minato arrived yesterday to liberate Kakashi, and would likely be restricted to crutches for days.

But they’d survived, all of them. Namiashi had brought them back to Konoha whole, and no matter what else he’d done, Minato owed him for that.

“I’ll see Namiashi this morning,” he said. “Before my noon meetings, if you can manage it, Sagara. Shibata, I’d like you there as well, since we’ll be handing him over to your supervision.”

Shibata tilted his head in inquiry. “Any particular time before noon? I was planning to spend some time in conversation with our one-armed guest from Mist, but I’ll schedule around your needs.”

Lynx kept Minato’s schedule, but he always left a second copy on Minato’s desk, ready to consult at a moment’s notice. Minato had to shift two files aside to find it. “Say 1130. It won’t take long.” He looked up. “If you have any recommendations for the construction teams to be sent to Tsurugahama, Shimura-san, we can discuss your list before the Council session tomorrow.”

It was a small conciliatory gesture, but Danzou unbent enough for a stiff bow. “I will bring you a list at 0800. It’s unfortunate you are unable to see the wisdom in my advice, Hokage-sama, but of course, I obey your will.” He offered a much shallower bow to Shibata and Sagara. “Until tomorrow.”

Shibata lounged back in his chair as the echoes of Danzou’s limping steps died away down the hall. “He obeys your will with the same grace most of my subjects answer the questions I put to them.” He smirked.

“So long as he does obey.” Minato sighed.

“If he ever stops,” Sagara said, her eyes still narrowed on the closed door, “I hope I’m the first in line to show him the error of his ways.” She turned back to them, and to the matter at hand. “1130 also works for me. I can bump a meeting.”

“I’ll leave it to you to summon Namiashi, then.” Minato settled back down into his chair at last, brushed crumbs away, and reopened the file of forms authorizing injury pay. “Send Lynx for some coffee on your way out, will you?”

“Cream and sugar?” Shibata asked, collecting his furoshiki and rising.

“Perhaps something with hazelnut,” Sagara told Shibata, with a softening of voice that might almost, in another life, have been fond.

“So long as it’s got caffeine,” Minato said, and picked up his pen.



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