August 16, Yondaime Year 5
There was always a good amount of traffic in and out of the Hokage’s Palace in the mid-afternoon, which made it easy to blend in. Ginta tucked a scroll case under one arm, pulled his mask into place, and was just one more anonymous ANBU on some high-security bureaucratic errand. Of course he’d made sure there was an actual paper trail for his errand, too. He was delivering the latest maps from Intel tracking various threats to Fire Country’s peace and safety. Ordinarily they’d go to the Hokage’s curve-walled office, but Nara met him at the door, dark eyes bland behind his deer mask. “He’s not here.”
Ginta shrugged, hiding instant suspicion behind a casual slouch. “I was told he needs these immediately.”
“Personal residence,” Nara told him. “He’s got company.”
“You could say that.” Nara looked even more bored than before. “If you’re taking those to him, can I give you another thing that needs to be delivered? I really don’t want to walk all the way down there.”
Mystery interesting company, then. Or Nara was fucking with Ginta, which was always a remote possibility. He usually couldn’t be bothered to play pranks, but when he did, they were spectacular ones. They were also a lot fewer and farther between now that he was both a captain and a father, much to ANBU’s collective loss.
“Is it going to explode on me, poison me, or otherwise ruin my outfit?” Ginta asked.
“Your outfit?” Nara snorted, gesturing at his own identical black and white armor.
“If I’m going to the Hokage’s personal residence, I ought to at least look sharp.”
“It’s a scroll,” Nara said. “Don’t open it and you’ll be fine.”
Ginta accepted the scroll—small, gold-linen wrapped, with unadorned end-caps. The only marking on it indicated it was from the accounting office. So it might be trapped, but more likely if Ginta opened it, he’d just be squinting at columns of numbers until he lost his sight. “I’ll take it. You owe me,” he said.
“No I don’t,” Nara told him, with a head-tilt that meant there was a sardonic smile behind that mask. “But you feel free to think that.” He tapped a little salute out and went back to loitering in the hallway or whatever else he was doing.
The Hokage was expecting him, as far as Ginta knew. So if he’d moved the meeting to his personal residence either he didn’t trust his own staff—possible—or he really did have a visitor who took precedence.
Squirrel and Turtle gave him no hints when they let him in, but the oversized pair of geta in the genkan seemed to imply the latter. Ginta bowed politely to the housekeeper—Turtle’s aunt? Turtle’s someone, definitely. He should have done a little more prep work—and explained that he was expected.
A blond blur at about the level of Ginta’s thigh skidded around the corner and collided with the housekeeper’s shins. “Dad said cancel his afternoon meetings ‘cause he’s got better things to do!” Naruto picked himself up and bounced on the balls of his feet. “Oh, but you’re ANBU, that’s okay. We had ANBU here already. What’s your mask? Is anybody dead?”
“Somebody is always dead,” Ginta told him. “And I’m Monkey. See?” He pointed at the curving smile painted on the mask’s slightly protuberant mouth.
Naruto cocked his head, considering this. “Monkeys are funny,” he declared. “And some of them have big teeth too.”
That seemed to have decided it for him—Ginta was friend, not foe. Ginta quietly congratulated himself for having such winning charisma.
“Dad’s in the dining room but they’re talking about kissing so you might not wanna go in yet,” Naruto warned him. “You can come have leftover cake if you want.”
Ginta unlaced his boots and slipped them off, not waiting for further invitation from the housekeeper. She pointed to a cupboard against the wall, which Ginta took to mean, correctly, that he’d find slippers for guests inside. “Thank you for the invitation, but your dad needs the things I’ve brought him before I can have any cake,” Ginta told Naruto.
Also he was, at this point, technically late for his meeting. Which it seemed unlikely was going to be a problem, unless this was a test of the sort petty tyrants like Kuroda liked to play. That wasn’t like the Namikaze Minato Ginta had come to know, however tangentially, in the time he’d been the Fourth’s ANBU. Now Sandaime—he might have. He’d been unpredictable in entirely different ways to his successor.
“I’ll let Hokage-sama know you’ve arrived,” the housekeeper told him. She retreated down the hall, slid open a light wood door with a soft click, and vanished inside. Naruto stayed behind to tell Ginta, “You have yellow hair. Like me!”
“I think yours is yellower,” Ginta said. “Like your dad’s. But maybe we’re cousins and just don’t know it yet.” He let the monkey’s smile stand for his own, while his eyes darted around the little entryway. The housekeeper’s shoes, a couple of pairs that could be the Hokage’s. Only slightly untidily lined up shoes sized for Naruto’s tiny feet. The geta that Ginta was fairly certain belonged to Konoha’s peripatetic but still loyal Sannin, and not just some favored member of the Akimichi clan. A wall of closets and cubbies that likely hid weapons and traps as much as they did coats and slippers. A ceiling panel that was probably an access point to a crawl space. Were hidden eyes watching him from the heating vents? He itched to sweep chakra out and check, but that would be the height of rudeness in the Hokage’s private home.
The hallway door slid open and the housekeeper emerged. She moved like the retired shinobi she was, all grace and silence, but with a no-nonsense edge that said she spent her days marshalling a toddler. Or a platoon of freshly graduated genin. Pretty much the same thing. “He’ll see you now, ANBU-san.” She gestured towards the open door.
Naruto shadowed Ginta’s heels down the hall. “Come have cake when you’re done!”
“I never say no to cake,” Ginta assured him. Unless it was poisoned. Or probably poisoned. Or possibly poisoned. Or trapped. Or…
“Sakamoto.” Kakashi’s voice rose in greeting, unexpected but not. Ginta took a moment to catalogue the scene he found. A table set for an already-consumed lunch, with several empty plates where departed guests must have been. The Hokage at the head of the table, leaning on one elbow, with a sake cup in his hand. Kakashi, facing the door where Ginta had entered, with open curiosity on his masked face. And Jiraiya, stretched back in his own chair at the opposite end of the table, practically sprawled, if one could sprawl in the high-backed chairs that graced the table.
“Hokage-sama,” Ginta said, dropping to a knee in salute. “Jiraiya-sama. Hatake.” He took his mask off and clasped it to his chest.
“Sakamoto,” Minato acknowledged. “At ease.”
Ginta stood and clipped the mask to his belt.
“I’d apologize for making you track me down here, but I’m truly not that sorry. Have you eaten?”
“I have, thank you,” Ginta said, “but your son invited me to have cake with him after our meeting. Am I correct in thinking that’s a ploy to allow him to eat a second piece?”
“Third or fourth by now, probably.” Minato held out his hand for the scrolls Ginta was carrying. “That’s the danger in teaching him to help with the dishes.”
“That’s the danger of having a housekeeper who’s secretly a soft touch,” Jiraiya said. He dropped his voice to a conspiratorial and urgent whisper. “Don’t ever tell her I said that.”
“Speaking of soft touches,” Kakashi murmured, almost too low to hear.
“I never in my life even once gave you an extra piece of cake,” Jiraiya declared. “Don’t contradict me, sprog,” he added pointedly in Kakashi’s direction, “or you’ll never get another one, either.”
Ginta maintained an expression of bland amusement, highly aware of the Hokage’s eyes on him while this touching family moment played out.
Before Kakashi could muster a response, if he even intended one, Jiraiya turned to give Ginta a once over. “Sakamoto, eh? That makes you Gousuke’s scion. How is the old goat, anyway?”
Ginta glanced at Minato and got what looked like permission to answer. “Grandfather is quite well,” Ginta said. “In fact he’s been hosting tea parties.”
“Ah, so he has.” Minato leaned back in his chair, his eyes still on Ginta’s face. The bright cheer with which he’d greeted Ginta had transmuted to something much darker and heavier. He set the scrolls down beside his plate, and waved Ginta to a seat. “I never did find time to drop in on one of your team’s training sessions,” he said. “Frankly, I wasn’t entirely sure you’d stop by today.”
Ginta perched on the chair’s edge, weight on the balls of his feet, spine straight. “I’m a man of my word,” he said, matching Minato’s gravity. “And I believe you may be…” He considered the Hokage’s dining companions, and chose his words carefully. Kakashi was a confederate. Jiraiya though—history had already shown how the loyalty of the Sannin could be perverted. “Entertained. To hear about a party to which you were not invited.”
Kakashi was a study in composed stillness, watching and waiting for threats to reveal themselves.
Jiraiya’s gaze had sharpened considerably. Heat pricked under the high collar of Ginta’s uniform shirt, but he didn’t flinch.
Minato’s brows rose. “Entertained?” He plucked a chopstick from the blue and white ceramic rest next to his plate, and spun it idly between his fingers, like a senbon. “Everyone knows I’ve got no talent for composing poetry or quoting literature—feel free to laugh, sensei—so I never get invited to the classy parties.”
Jiraiya obliged with a smirk, but no laughter.
“I can’t help but feel I’m missing out,” Minato continued. “What kinds of stories do Gousuke and his guests share?”
That was as clear an invitation to speak freely in front of Jiraiya as Ginta could hope for. If Minato trusted Jiraiya, and Kakashi trusted Jiraiya, then Ginta’s trust—for now—was warranted, too.
“Yesterday afternoon,” he said, “Grandfather had an old friend over, with a new acquaintance in tow. Shimura Danzou-san has been to tea with Grandfather many times, but this was the first time Shibata Tomohiro-san was at the Sakamoto estate for tea.”
Jiraiya made a face as if he’d bitten into a rotten piece of fruit. “Those three together? That’s not a party, that’s a cesspool.”
Kakashi flicked a surprised glance at Jiraiya.
“Sensei,” Minato said, in mild rebuke.
“Sorry, sorry.” Jiraiya waved a hand as if he were clearing a fart from the air. “You know how I feel about those two geezers, and Shibata—” He shrugged. “I don’t know him well, but he’s never given me any reasons to like him.”
He looked squarely at Ginta. “I’ll try to refrain from interrupting story time.”
Was that an invitation or a challenge? Ginta met Jiraiya’s eyes. “I’ll continue, then. I think you may find reason to like Shibata-san after all.” He turned his focus back to Minato. “They started with tea and pleasantries in the garden. I’m sure Grandfather showed off his latest koi breeding successes. I found myself with an opportunity to eavesdrop on their meeting when they retired to Grandfather’s tea house.”
Minato’s chopstick spun to a sharp stop. He set it deliberately back on its rest next to its mate, while the force of his focus hardened into something almost physical.
Ginta pressed the back of his tongue against the sharp points of his molars, took a breath, and continued. “Danzou-san and Grandfather seemed to be vetting Shibata-san. At first they told one another war stories from their glory days. That turned into praise of Konoha’s former strength, and that, to criticism of current events.
“They—Grandfather and Danzou-san—were of the opinion that recent events in Kirigakure have created a unique opportunity for Konoha, which you are ignoring.” He waited for a moment, for the backlash the accusation might create, but none came, beyond a grunt from Jiraiya and a flicker of Minato’s eyelids that could have simply been a blink.
“Shibata-san agreed with them, to a degree. He concurred that an opportunity existed in Kiri’s destabilized state, on the verge of civil war. But he suggested that in fact you were aware of the situation, and were waiting for a more strategic advantage.
“I couldn’t see Grandfather, but I can guess at the face he made about that.” Ginta mimicked his grandfather’s scowl. “Danzou-san became somewhat heated. Angry that we—Konoha—were wasting a golden opportunity to take out the threat that Kirigakure has always posed, once and for all. He reminded them, bitterly, about the concessions Konoha made in the treaty that ended the Third War.”
The peculiar tunnel-vision sensation that Ginta often got at the moment before a decisive strike on a mission engulfed him now. He was aware of everything at once, and at the same time only Minato’s expectant gaze.
“Shibata-san said, ‘If the coup in Hikouto had succeeded, that could have been us.’ It was the only time he directly led the conversation. For the most part he let Grandfather and Danzou-san talk, while he gave the impression of agreeing with them.
“Danzou-san is a volatile man. The tatami rained dust on me while he paced and harangued at length about the many failures of the system that had led to the coup. The Guardian Twelve should have all come from Konoha, and been directly under our control. The Fire Temple remains an intolerable threat. The recent Kumo treaty is too equitable—it should have weighed more heavily in Konoha’s favor. Orochimaru remains at large. Iwa is left too much to their own devices despite their atrocities during the war. Suna’s offensive neutrality can’t last, and we’ve done nothing to ensure that when it breaks, it breaks in our favor. Grandfather was in thorough agreement. Shibata-san was— sympathetic.
“Grandfather took the conversation in hand, then. ‘We’re not here for politics, we’re here for tea, and the pleasurable company of like-minded men,’ he said. After that, they discussed nothing more of import. Though Grandfather did say he would be glad to have Shibata-san back for tea in the future.”
Ginta took a moment to breathe. To let the report settle. To let the heat in his eardrums subside. He bit the back of his tongue again, and met the Hokage’s gaze. “That was what I accidentally overheard, while cleaning fallen leaves from under the teahouse.”
Minato gazed at him a moment more, then leaned forward and poured the last of the sake from his flask into his own cup. He pushed the shallow vessel across the table to Ginta. “You have an excellent memory, Sakamoto. Have a drink and clear your throat.”
Ginta took what felt like the first breath of his life, accepted the cup with both hands, and bowed as deeply as he could while seated. “Thank you, Hokage-sama.”
“Wait, wait, wait,” Jiraiya said, waving his arms and half rising. “What do you mean I’d like what I heard about Shibata? I don’t like anything about this at all! That traitorous little rat, I’ll skin the rest of what Kirigakure left behind when they turned him into the freak show he is now.”
“Sensei! Have a seat. Have a drink. Shibata already briefed me last night. He’s proven his loyalty to my satisfaction. As Sakamoto has now, too.”
Jiraiya’s thunder subsided to a grumble, but he retook his seat, muttering, “You could have told me that before.”
Ginta didn’t want so much as need the crisp warmth of the Hokage’s sake at the back of his throat.
“Another cup, Sakamoto?” Minato held out his hand to Kakashi, who obliged and provided his own untouched flask.
Ginta held the empty cup up in both hands, and bowed again while the Hokage poured. He was relieved that his hands didn’t shake.
When Ginta had raised his head and downed his second cup, he found Kakashi’s attention on him. “Would your grandfather pull you into his confidence, in time?” Kakashi asked. “Or does he already know where your loyalty lies?”
“My grandfather has been trying to indoctrinate me into his worldview my entire life. He thinks I’m a lost cause.” Ginta shook his head. “Too flamboyant. Too frivolous. Very much too gay.” He shrugged. “But he loves me. He won’t try to recruit me, but maybe I can recruit him. It’s one thing to reminisce with an old war buddy. It’s something else to sell out your village and hand over leadership to an obviously unstable man. Grandfather is friends with Danzou-san, but he’s no fool.”
Minato toyed with the slender flask, tipping it back and forth. “I must assume Danzou isn’t the only war buddy with whom he reminisces, and Shibata isn’t the only guest with an occasional invitation to tea.” Minato looked soberly across the table, with the same weight of intention he’d given to Ginta’s report. “You took your ANBU mask from my predecessor, Sakamoto. You’ve served loyally for five years as the Hokage’s hands. Are you willing now to be my eyes and ears in your own home?”
Ginta met his commander with the same level of gravitas. “That’s why I’m here today, Hokage-sama. My oath stands to the office, not the man.”
“And if the Village Council voted tomorrow to request the Fire Daimyou to replace me with, say, our old friend Danzou?”
“If they did so tomorrow,” Ginta said, weighing each syllable carefully, “I would have to presume that they had been suborned. My oath is to serve Konoha.” Every eye in the room was on him, waiting for a misstep. “Placing an unfit man in the Hokage’s office would be treason. In my opinion, sir.”
Minato cracked a pleased grin. “Well said. There’s always the possibility I could lose my touch in a year or ten, after all. Have another drink, Sakamoto.” Ginta lifted his cup with both hands. While the Hokage poured a silver stream into it, he said, “You’ll need a better method to report. One or two errands to the Hokage’s palace won’t arouse attention, but more may draw notice.”
In the year and a half Ginta had served as Hiruzen’s ANBU, he’d learned to recognize a test. He’d passed Minato’s hardest and most important trial; this one was merely logistics. He drank the offered cup, while he considered his options. “Hatake is a frequent and unremarked on visitor to your home. He could carry messages for me. If we take up training together regularly, as lightning-users, for example, then our association would be unsuspicious.” He glanced at Kakashi to see how the suggestion sat with him.
Kakashi lifted an eyebrow. “How many interesting jutsu do you have?”
Jiraiya made an amused sound, and helped himself to another cup of sake.
“Enough to keep you interested,” Ginta said. “And enough to keep us working together if you actually want to refine them and not just copy them.”
Kakashi rolled his eye at Minato. “I suppose I can manage. For the village.”
“You sound like Tsubaki-hime from volume three,” Jiraiya laughed. “Look at the ceiling and think of the good of the clan.”
Ginta was judicious enough not to snicker.
“And the clan survives,” Kakashi said serenely.
“Your training together needn’t go quite that far, unless both consent,” Minato advised.
This time Ginta did laugh. Jiraiya did, too. He took one of the sake cups from an empty place at the table and filled it for Minato. “I knew you read them! He pretends not to like my books,” he added to Ginta, “but he named his own son after the hero of The Tale of the Gutsy Ninja.”
And not after the spiral fishcake in autumn ramen, as village rumor had it. Good to know. Ginta swallowed the rest of his sake and plunged ahead with his plotting.
“Yuuhi Kurenai is another trustworthy person. I don’t know whether or how frequently she sees the inside of your office, but she is presumptive heir to her clan. And she shares our opinion on this matter.
“And there’s Lynx. I made this appointment through him. He and I have had a passing acquaintance since my rookie year. He taught me how to return damaged armor to the quartermaster without getting ripped a new one. So he could also carry reports for me. Obviously they’d need to be sealed and disguised as something else.”
“Three should be enough,” Kakashi said, with a faint air of distrust, probably at involving even that many. “If it’s something truly urgent and none of us are available, you can always go through Sagara.”
Ginta nodded slowly. When Minato didn’t contradict, he said, “If that suffices for you, Hokage-same, then I think that’s covered. I do have one possible issue, though: I maintain rooms at the estate, but I primarily live in my own apartment in town. It may be difficult for me to monitor every meeting my Grandfather has.”
“You also serve as lieutenant on an active ANBU team,” Minato pointed out. “I don’t expect results from every meeting. If you bring Yuuhi in, she should have some Intel tricks for eavesdropping at a distance; otherwise, try to discern which conversations may be highest-value. Just knowing who visits might be useful, when it comes to gauging opinions on the Council.”
Kakashi piped up helpfully, “Or we could break your leg. You can lay up at the family home while you recover.”
Oh the temptation to say something about how Kakashi’d like to see Ginta on his back in bed. But this was absolutely not the time or place. Instead he said, “I think I prefer the Hokage’s suggestion.”
Jiraiya chuckled. “You’ve got a nice little private spy ring forming here, Minato. I’m proud of you.”
Minato saluted his sensei with the celadon sake flask. “High praise from my first and oldest spymaster.”
“I believe you mean, ‘longest serving,’” Jiraiya said.
Minato’s light shrug suggested he’d meant exactly what he’d said. He turned to Ginta “Konoha is fortunate in your loyalty. My oath to you in turn, Sakamoto: I’ll serve it with all my strength, and with the strength of those who support me.”
Ginta took a breath, bowed deeply, then straightened and tapped his shoulder in formal salute. “Hokage-sama.”
“Thank you, Sakamoto.” Minato pushed back his chair, stood, and grinned at Ginta, blue eyes bright. “I believe you were promised cake?”
Ginta rose as well. “I never turn down cake,” he said. “Provided it’s not poisoned. Which I’m sure it’s not, in this case.” He grinned back. The adrenaline hadn’t entirely left his system, but the sake had chased it out a bit, and the solid knowledge that his loyalty to Minato was well placed.
“No one should ever turn down cake,” Jiraiya said. “Let’s go see if Ogata’s put the little rascal down for a nap. If he’s still awake, he’ll probably tell you one of his monster stories.” He stepped around Ginta, slid open the door and led the way to the kitchen.
It was very good cake.