November 4, Yondaime Year 5
The Kazekage’s palace was as impressive as the Hokage’s in its own way. It was bigger, with massive stone and clay walls to keep out the heat. Tall, latticed windows let in any breezes to be had, and broad-bladed fans turned overhead, drawing warm air up and trapping it against the high ceilings. The floors were cool tile, mosaiced in geometric patterns of blues and aquas. And that was just the main level.
It was also, unsurprisingly even for early November, and despite the fans, stiflingly hot. Genma had to resist the urge to push his mask off and smooth escaped tendrils of sweaty hair back from his face. Pale, travel-soiled cloaks hid Raidou’s and Ryouma’s backs, but the set of their shoulders said their black underpinnings were as gritty with sweat and sand as Genma’s. Gods willing, there would be someplace to take a bath once they’d delivered their messages.
The Palace lobby, if that was the word for it, held a few dozen people: Suna shinobi in their dust-colored uniforms, civilian officials and visiting dignitaries dressed in gauze-thin robes. Curious eyes followed Team Six and their six-person guard. Two Suna elite shinobi to each one Konoha ANBU. Genma decided to take it as a compliment.
The guards walked them towards an arched opening that led to a broad set of tiled stairs down. If they hadn’t already been briefed that the Kazekage’s offices and residence were underground, Genma might have been worried.
By the time they’d descended two levels, the air was noticeably cooler. Plush rugs overlaid the tiles, and the curving walls were decorated with bright tapestries of oases and gardens. Every few meters, ornately carved wooden doors, leafed in gold, led towards some unseen center, like the spokes on a huge wheel. The silent guards, who had already proven impervious to Raidou’s homespun charm and Ryouma’s overt flirting with the two women among them, stopped in front of a double set of those doors, where another pair of Suna elite stood at attention.
Kage guard duty in Suna didn’t look like it was any different from Konoha’s version. Except it did allow those guards to spend the day in the cave-like cool. Maybe it was considered a perk to be assigned to guard the reception room door. In any event, they pretended not to be wildly curious about their ANBU visitors as they held the doors open.
Inside, the floor tiles and rugs were intricately patterned in shades of soft orange and rosy tan, perfect color counterpoints to the dozens of lush, water-hungry plants that lined the walls. Each plant was in an ornately decorated ceramic urn—one of Wind Country’s highly prized arts—so that any individual one of them would have been opulent. Massed together, they made the room almost feel like a Mangrove Country jungle, and spoke plainly of the Kazekage’s wealth.
Carved doors, each one attended by a uniformed guard, were arrayed along the curving walls of the room. There were benches and chairs in the middle, about a third of them occupied. At the far side of the room stood another double set of tall, gilded doors with yet more sentries.
Guard duty in Suna had to be a perk, not a punishment. Otherwise it was ridiculously overstaffed for the small number of quiet-looking people, most of them civilians, waiting for their turn with the Kazekage.
Genma expected that their signed and sealed travel pass with Hokage-sama’s personal message to the Kazekage would get them through the second set of double doors immediately, but their guards turned to the right and led them around the periphery to one of the smaller doors.
The woman standing there saluted in Suna fashion, consulted inaudibly with the leader of their escort, then set her hands into seals and shaped chakra in an almost-familiar unlocking jutsu. She pressed her palm to a faintly worn spot at the door’s edge, eased it open with a subtle creak, and gestured them inside.
As soon as he crossed the threshold, Genma’s breath caught in his chest. The plastered rock walls were laced with strong chakra, enough to send a tremor up his spine. The room may have looked like any mid-sized conference room, with a broad table and a set of matching chairs drawn up around it, but it was a trap.
And it was too late to turn around. “Wait here,” their escort’s captain told Raidou. “Please help yourselves to water.” She gestured at a trio of decorated ceramic pitchers and a set of cups on a narrow table at the back of the room. No other doors. There was only one obvious way in and out of this room.
“Thank you,” Raidou told her, perfectly polite. The door swung shut with an audible click. Hinges on the outside of the room, Genma noted. Raidou took a breath, then dropped into one of the chairs with a tired grunt. When he tugged at his pale cloak so it wouldn’t drag on the floor, a faint haze of dust rose from it and hovered in the still air. “Hope no one needs a bathroom break,” he said.
“I think I’ve sweated out all my water already,” Ryouma said, settling into another of the chairs. He brought his hands up close to his chest and signed, caution and they listen.
“Probably,” Genma said. He signed maybe back. ‘Probably’ was a better answer to both Ryouma’s spoken and silent statements, but there wasn’t a hand sign that nuanced. He started towards the small table with the water, which made Ryouma jump up with a guilty, “I’ll do that, Fukuchou.”
“Thanks,” Genma said. He walked purposely along the wall, trying to sense the different threads of chakra that powered the seals embedded in the plaster. A chakra limiter, not currently activated. Something that laced the walls, ceiling and floor, woven like a cargo net. An absence where the chakra of the people outside the room should have been. And something else he couldn’t differentiate, but that gave him a faintly sick feeling.
He pushed the hood of his cloak off, raising his own cloud of dust, and took a chair opposite Raidou. “Interesting room,” he said. “I’m impressed by the tapestries.” He signed trap, which Raidou and Ryouma had both surely figured out by now.
Ryouma set a filled cup on the table directly under Genma’s hand. He’d already given Raidou one. Taking the same seat again, he poured a silvery stream from the pitcher into a third cup, but didn’t drink yet. His eyes were on Genma. So were Raidou’s.
If they were being watched and this was still a diplomatic situation, it would be beyond rude to test for poison. If they were one step away from being political prisoners, it would be the height of stupidity not to. Genma took a breath to think, pulled his cloak hood back up and his mask off, and bent over the cup in a way he hoped would hide his actions from any unseen eyes.
It smelled like water and nothing more. If only Kakashi were here with his sensitive nose. Here in this room. He’d better still be here in Suna, and at liberty in the Embassy offices. Recent construction in the parts of the village they’d passed through hadn’t been fully revealing, but if the Ichibi had really been rampaging, there ought to have been a lot less of Sunagakure standing.
Getting out a test kit was out of the question if he wanted to preserve the illusion of neutral-alliance. Genma took a cautious sip. Water. It was just pleasantly cool, faintly mineral-tasting water—the hardest substance to hide even a “tasteless” poison in, because no poison was truly flavorless. And more to the point, there was no tingle of reacting nerves in his lips or throat from a poison he had tolerance to, no tell-tale wooziness of a sedative hitting hard and fast.
Suna wouldn’t want to kill them, anyway. That would start something with the Hokage that Genma would bet anything the Kazekage was smart enough to know not to do.
Genma sat back up, pushed his hood off, rolled his shoulders, and took a long drink. “That’s better,” he said, and meant it: refreshing, not-drugged water was a very good thing on a hot day in what seemed like a semi-hostile ally’s clutches.
Raidou tipped his chin up in acknowledgement of Genma’s unspoken all clear, and took his mask off as well. His face was still ruddy and damp from the heat, and his eyes mission-sharp. He regarded his cup of water thoughtfully, then downed it in a single swallow and pushed it back to Ryouma for a refill. “Might as well get comfy,” he said, with a pointed glance at the closed door. “Looks like we’re gonna be here a while.”
Ryouma refilled Raidou’s cup, and reached for Genma’s without prompting. “It’s not like we came here with important, time-sensitive information or anything…”
Genma hid a laugh behind drinking more water. “I suppose they’re going to find out what we came here to tell them one way or the other. I just hope it’s our way first.”
Torture, at least, wasn’t on the menu. Or: not yet. Eventually, after half an hour or so for the Konoha nin to drink water, cool down, and idly contemplate naps under the conference room table, a bespectacled bureaucrat arrived to soften them up first.
Ryouma wasn’t putting on his best behavior for anyone short of the Kazekage. He stretched his legs out, slouched further down his chair, and listened to Raidou politely stonewall the bureaucrat. Yes, they had a message from the Hokage to the Kazekage. No, they weren’t delivering it to any hands but the Kazekage’s. A senior assistant might be negotiable, someone with S-class security clearance. They were all busy? He was prepared to wait. It wasn’t his village at risk.
That got them a higher-ranking bureaucrat. She was dressed almost identically, in shapeless layers that made Konoha Intel greys look like high fashion, but the pen tapping against her clipboard was gorgeously inlaid with brilliant enamelwork. Expensive enamelwork, Ryouma decided, narrowing his eyes behind his mask.
He didn’t sit up straighter, but he did stop his advancing slouch before he actually slid onto the floor.
Raidou began negotiating his way up the ladder again. Five minutes in, the woman set down her pen.
“Excuse me,” she said. “I think you need to speak with Yondaime-sama’s chief of staff.”
“That seems wise,” Raidou agreed.
“I’ll have more water sent in, and some food. You may need to wait a little longer; Tamazuki-san is extremely busy. Of course I’ll make sure Konoha’s ambassador is informed of your arrival here. Is there anything else you need?”
“Where did you get your pen?” Ryouma asked.
She stared at him. He lifted a shoulder in his most charming shrug. “Assuming we’ll have some time for shopping before we leave.”
“Oh— well, yes, of course, our artisans are widely renowned. Look for Shigeru, in the metalworkers’ arcade. Anything else?”
Genma cleared his throat. “Is there a toilet we can use?”
There was. The poker-faced guards were summoned again to escort them, one at a time, to a washroom tucked away between offices. At least Sunagakure had modern plumbing, even if the soap was depressingly boring.
Food arrived shortly after he got back: buckwheat noodles in a chilled broth, topped with slivered cucumbers and pickled radish, and drenched in a spicy-sweet sauce. Raidou took his mask off and studied his bowl thoughtfully. “Garyuu,” he said after a moment. He tilted an ironic look at Genma. “Maybe don’t eat it all.”
Genma dipped his head to sniff his bowl. He chuckled. “I remember it. It has to be better here, prepared by people who know what they’re doing.” He mixed the sauce deftly with his chopsticks and took a fearless bite.
That sounded suspiciously like an inside joke. Ryouma poked at his noodles, avoiding eye contact with either of them.
It’d been — weird, these past few weeks, working and studying and training and traveling with Raidou and Genma, and knowing the whole time how they were spending their off-duty hours together (and sometimes with Kurenai). They never mentioned it, of course. They were as carefully professional as they’d always been, except in the rare moments like this, where something a little warmer gleamed. A joke that seemed to take on new meaning, just for the two of them; Raidou’s arm slung over Genma’s shoulders as they left the training fields; the morning both of them showed up for wall-guard duty with neatly manicured and moisturized hands, all roughness and hangnails soaked and polished away.
(They’d picked up a short mission the next afternoon, a two-day trip to Kiyomizu and back, and all three of them returned with new mountain-climbing calluses on their hands. Ryouma had deliberately avoided noticing when and whether Raidou’s and Genma’s disappeared.)
He wasn’t jealous. He’d discovered this, with some shock, while clinging upside-down to some extremely cobwebby rafters in that remote mountaintop temple in Kiyomizu. They’d arrived early, and there’d been a long few hours of waiting for the newly shorn monk they’d been sent to (nonviolently) extract and return to his grateful (non-family-approved) lover. Ryouma’d had plenty of time to consider spiders, the itching nose he couldn’t scratch, and the vagaries of lust and love.
He’d been jealous, yes. He wasn’t anymore.
Envious, certainly. Hakone had explained the difference over late-night beers, along with covetous, which wasn’t quite the same, and maudlin, which was just rude. And didn’t apply once Ryouma was sober again, anyway.
The actual word, Ryouma decided in Kiyomizu, achingly conscious of two veiled ANBU sparks on the fringes of his awareness and the cavernous absence of the third, was lonely.
He missed Kakashi.
The first few days had been easy enough to fill. Cramming for the Field Medic Grade Five Qualifying Exam took all the energy he had to spare and then demanded more. The exam itself was almost suspiciously easy, after months of study and practice, but then there’d been days of waiting for results, scrutinizing every possible mistake: would they disqualify his dictated answers for the written exam, after all? Had he given his practical exam volunteer cancer along with that superficial wound closure?
But then the results had come out, and he’d somehow, inexplicably, succeeded. He was a Field Medic Grade Five, with another six months of supervised practice in the field and 120 hours of further hospital training before he could qualify to apply for certification as an unsupervised Grade Four. He was the undeserving recipient of more accommodations than Konoha’s hospital training system had given anyone in recent memory — “And Nohara-sensei was a preteen genius, not an illiterate ANBU,” he’d overheard one paperwork-pusher complain to another. Ryouma didn’t object. It was true.
He’d had dinner with Genma and Raidou, afterwards, and then gone to The Green Pig with Hakone and Ayane and a few of the others. He bought Ayane’s drinks all night, for her help with the flashcards, and Hakone’s, for his help with bruise-healing practice. He didn’t look over his shoulder more than once or twice. Kakashi didn’t like crowded bars; he wouldn’t have come anyway.
But once Ryouma really noticed Kakashi’s absence, he couldn’t stop. It wasn’t like that fucking Tochigi mission, where Kakashi would’ve been useful and it was perfectly reasonable to miss him. Kakashi was on his own mission now, being useful to a whole entire allied village, and Ryouma didn’t need him around to say ‘Congratulations’ or buy a beer Kakashi probably wouldn’t drink. He didn’t even need Kakashi afterwards, when he stumbled back to the dorms with his arm over Hakone’s shoulders, and managed perfectly well to unlock his own door and peel off his own clothes before tripping into his own bed.
Kakashi was probably huddled in some inadequately padded bed in Sunagakure by then. Had he believed Ryouma and Genma when they warned him how cold nighttime could get in the desert at this time of year? Or was he shivering on his own, too proud to ask for an extra blanket even if he needed one?
(That was the kind of question, three nights later, that made Hakone unsheathe words like maudlin.)
Well, at least he wasn’t alone in Suna, now. Maybe they’d even get to see him soon.
The door opened.
Ryouma straightened. He hadn’t sensed anyone outside, but that was nothing new; even if the chakra-limiters in the walls weren’t presently activated, this room was warded against any penetrative chakra-sensing. Genma pushed back his chair a little, fingers flexing on his chopsticks like he was evaluating their utility as senbon. Even Raidou looked up, still chewing.
Because the woman who entered was a perfect absence of chakra, so tightly contained that only the evidence of Ryouma’s eyes confirmed she was there at all. She was slim, dressed in a dark Fire Country-style kimono, her obi embroidered with maple leaves in blood-red and gold. Her smooth hair was threaded with silver, and her skin was just beginning to soften over delicate, cut-glass bones.
He recognized Kakashi in the fine blade of her nose, and the drawn-bow curve of her lip.
“Ambassador Hatake,” Ryouma said. Somehow he managed to make it sound like actual words in a normal person’s voice. He shoved his chair back, stood, and bowed.
Genma rose smoothly to his feet and bowed as well. “Ambassador.” Raidou swallowed and hastily followed suit.
Her eyes moved over them. Not Kakashi’s quick assessing flick, but a slower, deliberate examination, following the order in which they’d greeted her: Ryouma, Genma, Raidou. Her eyes were dark, too, not Kakashi’s grey. She looked down to the table, where their masks rested beside half-empty bowls, then up again. Nothing at all changed in her face.
“Well,” she said. “You’re certainly making the locals flap. What is Yondaime-sama up to now?”
“Refilling his inkwell with rainwater,” Raidou said.
“He’ll need new brushes by winter,” Hatake Sadayo replied, confirming the most recent code. Her gaze sharpened on Raidou. “Captain, I assume?”
“Namaishi Raidou.” His chin dipped in a brief, professional nod. “My lieutenant, Shiranui Genma. Tousaki Ryouma. We’re the other part of Kakashi’s team.”
Was that, finally, a spark of interest in her eyes? It vanished too fast to tell. “I cannot imagine you’re here for a social visit.”
Raidou passed her the sealed envelope he’d received from the Hokage. “Konoha intercepted intelligence from Iwa. Yondaime-sama wrote this letter for you.” He nodded to Genma, who produced a compact scroll that faintly bent the surrounding air with the strength of its sealing. “This message is for the Kazekage.”
Sadayo studied the envelope, turning it over once in her hands. Then she opened it with a fingertip and a whisper-blade of chakra, so fine and controlled that Ryouma almost missed it. She drew the letter out, unfolded it, and read.
Her expression continued to not change.
After a minute or two she folded the letter again and tucked it into her sleeve. She must read as fast as Kakashi did. Had she taught him? Ryouma couldn’t imagine this impassive, ice-knife woman teaching anyone their first halting kana. On the other hand, it did begin to explain some of the things he’d always accepted as just… Kakashi.
She accepted the scroll from Genma. “How long did it take you to get here?”
“Three days, sixteen hours from Yondaime-sama’s office to this room,” Genma said. “And another two hours waiting here.” His shoulders set into a more rigid stance. “We made several efforts to convey the urgency to our Sunagakure counterparts.”
The corner of Sadayo’s mouth lifted in the faintest edge of amusement. “For bureaucracy, two hours is actually rather good.” The scroll disappeared into her other sleeve. She turned for the door. “I need to speak to some people. You’ll continue to wait here for now.”
The door closed behind her.
“I see a family resemblance,” Genma said, in the silence she left behind.
“I can’t believe Kakashi’s the nice one,” Ryouma said. “Where is he?”
“That’s a really good question,” Raidou said.
Ryouma slumped back into his chair and waited for someone to answer it.
Kakashi took the shortest bath of his life.
When he extracted himself from the pool, yanking water from his hair with a snap of chakra, he found a neat pile of clothes waiting. Not his jounin uniform. Not his ANBU uniform, either. Formal clothes. His mother’s idea of formal clothes.
In Suna weather.
But Sadayo never did anything without a good reason. He summoned a clone to help him and made relatively quick work of getting into costume. Tabi socks, the lightweight under-layer of the hadajuban, a soft grey nagajuban, because absolutely, bring on extra layers, then the han-eri draped around his neck to keep the underkimono’s collar clean. Sadayo’s choice of kimono was not a surprise: silk dyed to a blue so dark it was almost black, with the subtle shimmer of the Hatake family crest just over the spine. He slid it on, and the clone fastened it closed with a sturdy black and grey obi. Then the hakama, a garment designed to represent the seven virtues of samurai, which everyone seemed to have forgotten at some point in the last century, but fine. Kakashi clambered into the cumbersome thing and endured being forced to straighten up as the clone arranged its seven pleats, stiff backboard, and multiple ties.
The clone held up a black haori. Also silk, also beautiful, also another nail in his coffin of impending heatstroke. Kakashi sighed and lifted his arms. The jacket settled down over the kimono in a whisper of expensive fabric and hugged him like a dark shadow.
“Nicely tailored,” the clone remarked.
“We’re not asking when she got our measurements,” Kakashi said shortly.
The clone regarded him, said nothing for a few moments, and then: “Hair?”
“If you can make it do anything, be my guest.”
Water, a comb, a hair-tie, some quiet swearing, and a few strategically placed pins resulted in a reasonable approximation of a hairstyle. And Kakashi wasn’t prepared to devote any more time to it.
The shoes were wooden geta. He stepped into them, gained six centimeters of height, and spared only the briefest of glances in the mirror.
Ignoring the mask, at least he’d look roughly like every other formal idiot.
The clone gave him a critical once-over. “Needs a katana.”
He needed a lot of weapons, starting with the urgent return of Minato’s kunai, but Sadayo hadn’t seen fit to provide any. That wasn’t an oversight. Kakashi ignored the prickle between his shoulderblades, banished the clone, and got on with things.
A guard and Ono — presumably the supplier of the formalwear — waited outside. Sadayo, notably, did not.
Ono blinked at him. The guard — a woman Kakashi hadn’t met yet — swept a slow look from Kakashi’s hair to his toes. He trusted she was looking for weapons.
“Where’s my team?” Kakashi asked.
“Waiting,” Ono said. “Ambassador Hatake should be meeting with the Kazekage’s advisors right now. You’re expected to join them shortly.”
“I’d gotten that clue, yes,” Kakashi said. “And my team?”
Ono glanced at the guard, who shrugged.
“I’m sure they’ll be along soon,” Ono said diplomatically.
Kakashi ground his back teeth together.
It was an itch to have them so close — in the same building — and not have eyes on them. Not be able to feel their ANBU sparks. He had a hundred questions, starting with: why are you here? Team Six wasn’t built for diplomatic relations. They were murder and mayhem and, when Kakashi or Genma managed to take over, capable of occasional delicacy, but something like this wanted Intel. Kurenai’s people. Shinobi who thought like twisty needles and took nothing personally. That was… demonstrably not Team Six’s strong suit.
So, here for him?
Doubtful thought. If Minato had wanted him to have support, it would have been included from the start.
He tabled the question for now and followed Ono, shadowed by the woman. They picked up a few more guards on their way down.
Three levels below, the air got cold. Ono’s pace was quick and nervous. The guards were expressionless and silent. Kakashi devoted a flicker of attention to making sure his steps were equally soundless: a challenge with wooden geta and stone floors, though stretches of fine woven rugs provided some mission-assist. There was no sunlight this far down, of course; all light came from electricity. Tasteful lanterns and sconces that leaned to the yellow side of the light spectrum, designed to evoke candles. It did beg the question of where Suna drew their power from. Hydro-sources, if Kakashi had to guess: another use for underground rivers.
It smelled like cleaning chemicals — desert pear, wood polish, cleanser — and old breathing stone down here. Moving bodies leaving criss-crossed trails: sweat, stress, metal. He picked out his mother: subtle, like she always was, paper and ink and the absent cleanliness of scentless soap, but he’d know her with his nose broken. Others he didn’t recognize.
Ono turned a corner, stopped at a door in a hallway full of doors, except this one was flanked by more guards. Conversation was exchanged. Kakashi heard his own name. The guards behind him peeled away. The room was chakra-shielded: he couldn’t sense the occupants, or hear them, but he didn’t need to.
While Ono and the guards did their diplomatic shuffle, Kakashi glanced up at the ceiling and tried to estimate how far down they were. I wonder if the Ichibi could dig us out.
The guards opened the door. Ono gestured him inside.
It was a small room. Bare walls. A single long, low table, with its broad side facing the door. Flat cushions surrounded it at equal intervals. In the center, an elegant tea set filled the air with the warm, grassy smell of green tea. On the far left, with her back to the door, sat his mother. On the far side, facing him, sat three people.
All of Kakashi’s attention snapped to a narrow point. ANBU, said the rise of hair on the nape of his neck. The anticipatory tingle between his teeth. But no, they weren’t.
The woman on the left looked like a knife had gained sentience and was annoyed about it. She was tall and hawkish, aggressively lean, with short grey hair that had been slicked back against her skull. Her mouth was long and narrow, her skin deeply creased around the eyes and mouth. She sat exactingly straight, as if the concept of slouching offended her on a personal level, and looked at Kakashi with active dislike. Shimizu Hanako, the youngest of the Kazekage’s advisors. She did not favor Konoha.
The person in the middle was Minpei, and none of Konoha’s files knew if that was a first name or family name. They were an elderly individual of indeterminate gender, no known family, undisclosed war record. Their face was dark-skinned and wrinkled, capped by a downy crop of thin white hair. Unlike Shimizu’s tidy robes of office, they wore a dusty kimono with the sleeves tied back, as if they’d just stepped in from field-work. Their forearms were extraordinarily muscled. Kakashi noticed dark half-moons packed under every fingernail and a faint, dry odor of clay. Pottery hobbyist? Builder of ceramic bombs?
The last person was the oldest and smallest. Kawase Yasutaro, the longest-serving of the Kazekage’s advisors. He was a tiny elderly man, dressed in a light green Wind-country kimono, with a carved wooden walking stick resting against his left hip. His hair had collectively fled the top of his head to gather in a wispy beard on his chin. A dark blue line ran down from the corner of each eye, sweeping along the top of both cheekbones: some kind of clan marking. He sat with a benign smile on his face, the world’s ideal of a sweet old grandfather, and looking at him made Kakashi taste blood.
“My son,” Sadayo said, without looking at Kakashi. “The Hokage’s student, here at your request and with the Hokage’s explicit blessing to offer assistance with your… problem.”
Former student, Kakashi thought mulishly. He bowed to the exact correct degree expected for an ambassador’s family member, which was slightly more than an ANBU would offer.
When he looked up, Kawase’s pale eyes were twinkling. “Hatake-san, what a delight,” he said warmly. “I’m sure you hear this all the time, but you look just like your great-grandmother Hatake Shimo. You have her eyes. And I suppose her skill as well, hm?”
Kakashi controlled a blink, then a frown, then his mouth. A few responses flickered by.
Thank you, sir, I’ve always heard the right upper quarter of her face was especially beautiful.
Just one eye.
Literally no one has said that to me ever.
But none of that was the point. It was the little dig at his family tree — acknowledge the great-grandmother, ignore the father. Sakumo was much more well known in Suna, and not because he’d brought philanthropy to the region. Perhaps a dig at his mother, too. Focus on the Hatake side, because Sadayo’s family had almost no connections to Konoha.
Mean old bastard.
Kakashi said, “You have a lovely tea set, sir.”
Minpei smiled, a quick slash that showed a chipped tooth, then looked thoughtfully at Kakashi. Had they made the tea set? In which case, the conversational swerve had been an even better tactic than intended. “Sit down,” Minpei said. “Have a drink. Tell us why the Hokage agreed to send you here.”
Moving gracefully in his seventeen layers of clothes was another trick, but he managed to navigate his way down onto a cushion without upending the teapot on anyone’s lap. Which would have been a shame, because it really was a nice set. A dusty delicate green with a design of pale wheat stalks gathered near the handle. The cups were paper thin.
Kawase nodded slightly. “Yes, I’d like to hear that tale. Tea always tastes best with a story.”
Sadayo poured a cup with flawless technique and set it next to Kakashi’s elbow, reminding him abruptly of Kurenai. How would she answer that question? Skillfully, tactfully, weaving a platform of logic and persuasion – something that would inspire immediate action and agreement. All done with a smile.
Pity they hadn’t sent her with Team Six.
But Sadayo had already tried that — and probably more, with her added years of experience — and the result had been Kakashi’s short holiday in jail, so.
“He wanted to come himself,” Kakashi said. “But we thought your Kazekage would consider that an act of war, so you get me.”
Minpei snorted, unexpectedly. Despite himself, Kakashi was starting to consider liking them.
Kawase glanced sidelong at Shimizu. “It’s always best not to start a war without first considering the alternatives,” he said mildly.
Shimizu, who had blinked approximately once since Kakashi had entered the room and hadn’t touched her tea at all, looked at Kakashi like she was trying to vaporize him with the sheer power of contempt. “And what is your professional opinion regarding this… problem.”
It didn’t actually seem to be a question.
“I think you stuffed a bijuu into an unborn child using an experimental seal, killed his mother in the process, and expected the result to be stable. That’s your first problem.” Kakashi folded his hands around the delicate teacup, letting the warmth leach into his fingertips. “The container shapes the contents. We don’t know a lot about tailed beasts, but we know that. Whenever the Ichibi gets loose and attacks the city, it makes a straight line for the palace, doesn’t it?”
Kawase looked at him calmly. “As you witnessed at least once. Why do you think that is?”
“A kid wants his father,” Kakashi said. “A monster might want revenge.”
A moment of silence followed. He gently flicked a nail against his teacup to hear the porcelain sing.
“In either case,” Minpei said, “we want a solution. You observed the last outbreak and its results. This can’t continue. Since Namikaze Minato couldn’t come himself, what did he send you here to do?”
“Help,” Kakashi said. “If I can. The seal might be salvageable. If there’s a way to repair it or replace it — I bring all of Minato’s knowledge with me.” He tapped his left temple, the corner of the Sharingan eye. “And his blessing to use it.”
Shimizu stirred. Each of the Kazekage’s advisors was calm in their own way. Kawase: thoughtful, curious, looking for explanations. Minpei: practical, pragmatic, interested in solutions. Shimizu’s calm was more like the moment of silence after drawing a knife, right before the blade was used. “Our first problem.”
“It might not be the seal,” Kakashi said. “If the problem is Gaara, what are you prepared to do?”
“We don’t do,” Minpei said dryly. “We only advise.”
Shimizu didn’t look at her companion. She looked at Kakashi with a gaze as flat and cold as a frozen lake. “The Kazekage will always act with the village’s best interests in mind.”
“Then he should start accepting help,” Kakashi said sharply.
Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Sadayo pinch the bridge of her nose.
Kawase just nodded once, expression not changing. “I think we are all agreed on that last point, at least within this room.”
Minpei met Kawase’s eyes, gave a brief nod of their own, and looked back at Kakashi. “For Suna, help has historically come bearing thorns. I’m sure you’ve heard stories from the First and Second Wars. You will understand Kazekage-sama’s reticence. You must be prepared to offer your assistance anyway. For the good of the alliance between our two villages, as your ambassador has already earned.” They dipped their head at Sadayo. “For the safety of Konoha’s own borders, if it comes to that — everyone understands self-interest. You will have one chance to persuade Kazekage-sama of your purpose and your usefulness. Make the most of it.”
Kakashi smiled thinly behind his mask. “I will. But if your Kazekage refuses, we won’t try again.” He stood up, leaving his undrunk teacup on the table. “And you might remember this: Konoha has already defended itself against a raging tailed beast, and that one was not hamstrung by a child host.”
At the end of the table, Sadayo also rose to her feet. She didn’t look at him, but the corner of her mouth had the faintest fragile curve. “If you will, advisors, we are ready to speak with the Kazekage.”
After the ambassador’s departure, Team Six finished their interrupted meal of spicy noodles. Genma laughed when Ryouma broke out in a sweat after a bite that included a large sliver of garyuu. Raidou made Ryouma feel better by telling him about Genma’s near death experience the first time he’d tried the spice. And then they fell back into wary, weary silence, waiting for whatever came next. At least, with the ambassador’s arrival, it seemed unlikely imprisonment or worse was on the table.
The next time the door opened, the high-level functionary with the fancy pen was back, along with a fresh quartet of uniformed guards. “Come with me, Konoha ANBU-san,” she said. New politeness but a sharp reminder they were there in a military capacity. All three of them put their masks back on. Ryouma’s slouch vanished, replaced by full-height alertness at Genma’s back. Raidou, broad-shouldered and sharp-postured, took the lead as they filed out of the door, flanked by the guards.
The second he stepped out of the chakra-wrapped room, Genma felt his body come back alive in a subtle but palpable way. Maybe there had been some sort of low-level chakra limiter at work after all. In any event, fatigue sluiced away in a wash of mission focus and physical relief from the oppressive something that room had been doing to them.
Fancy Pen-san led them through the large chamber to the big double doors that Genma assumed would open into the Kazekage’s office. They didn’t. Instead, another curving hallway greeted them, but this one was more ornate. Plush carpets, more tapestries and ceramics, and fancier doors along one wall were clear signs they were in some sort of inner sanctum. Two more guards pushed open a set of double doors to the left, then followed Team Six and their escorts into a new conference room. This one, at least, seemed less like a trap. There were more decorations, and no sick hit of chakra manipulation.
“Please take a seat,” Pen-san said. “The Kazekage would like to speak with you.” She went back out, leaving the door open. The guards—six of them now—arrayed themselves along the wall. Raidou chose a chair near the end of the table on the right side, and pointed to the two next to it. Genma and Ryouma took them.
Adrenaline sped Genma’s heart despite the lack of palpable threat. He took a slow breath through his nose, welcomed the curl of heat of his exhalation against his mask, and told himself to calm down. There was no reason to be so on edge now. He glanced at his teammates. Ryouma sat perfectly straight-backed with his hands hidden below the table. Instead of being loosely folded in his lap, though, Ryouma’s hands were flexing together in a way that stopped short of almost being practice seals. Raidou sat straight-backed as well, but it was his normal excellent posture, nothing extra. His shoulders were square but relaxed. He radiated polite, professional interest.
Bless him. At least in Raidou, the folkloric attribution of unwavering groundedness to Earth-natured shinobi rang true. Even if it was all superstition, Genma focused on his own Earth nature, secondary to Fire, but still a bedrock of his chakra foundation. It was enough. He let excess tension drop out of his neck and shoulders, and took a deeper breath.
Two more Sand shinobi entered the room in distinctive uniforms and masks. Suna ANBU. They took up a position flanking the chair opposite Team Six, pulling it silently back from the table.
The Kazekage followed. Fourth leader of his hidden village. Rasa of the Golden Sand. He was shorter than Genma had expected, and dressed almost unassumingly in a simple black tunic and pants with a mesh underlayer. No hat or coat of office, but he didn’t need them. He projected an iron-willed air of authority that easily rivalled Minato-sama’s. He looked anything but happy to see Konoha’s emissaries.
The three of them stood as one, hands pointedly loose, empty, and visible at their sides. No jutsu. No seals. No weapons. No threat. They bowed to the exactingly correct thirty-degree angle that conveyed respect without actual subservience.
Rasa was a lean, stern man, as expected from such a lean, stern land. He didn’t wrap himself in layers of haughty dignity like Danzou-sama, nor did he give off the impression of petty meanness, like Kuroda. He was a man you took seriously at a visceral level, like and yet entirely unlike Minato-sama. Konoha’s Yondaime had charisma that made you want to follow him forever; Suna’s Yondaime had authority that compelled respect without affection.
He sat down in the chair, placed Minato’s scroll on the table, and said to the Konoha ANBU, “Sit.” Once they did, he continued, “Your Hokage says you are here to assist and defend Hatake Kakashi. I did not expect that his protege would require so much protection.”
“Only when the work is dangerous,” Raidou said levelly. “Konoha perceives a threat and has provided resources accordingly.”
“Kakashi is our squad-mate,” Genma added, using the personal name to emphasize their familiarity. “He’ll know best how to take advantage of our skills. And we his.” He bowed again. “I’m lieutenant of Konohagakure ANBU Team Six. When I’m masked, I go by Tanuki. This is our captain, known as Crescent Moon, and our teammate, Ram.”
Rasa ignored the introductions. “I have thus far been unimpressed with Hatake’s skills. We have our own seal specialists.” A faint, disdainful sneer colored his tone. “They operate with greater prudence.”
Ryouma’s tight chakra control wavered for a flicker of an instant. Enough, Genma was sure, for anyone to sense it. But not enough to represent a threat. If anything, it would probably be seen for exactly what it was: defensive ire at the implied maligning of a teammate.
Raidou paused, letting the insult fall unanswered, then asked, “Hatake has already demonstrated his seal work?”
Maybe those under-construction buildings were being repaired from a recent attack. Given that Sunagakure wasn’t leveled and the palace was intact, Genma thought that spoke rather well for whatever Kakashi had done, if he’d done anything at all.
“No,” Rasa said. The sneer was back, with a healthy side of contempt. “As he is currently imprisoned for espionage.”
Well fuck. Genma did his best to keep the reaction out of his physicality. He was glad he had his mask on. What the hell did you do, Kakashi?
Raidou’s gloved fingers rubbed his mask between the eyeholes, exactly where he would have pinched the bridge of his nose. A familiar gesture Kakashi seemed to elicit from him on a weekly basis. “I see.” He dropped his hands and looked at Rasa, steady but still holding onto being respectful. “Since Konoha hasn’t been informed of that, may I presume that you’re not intending to execute him?”
Ryouma’s chakra didn’t waver this time, but his bare knuckles were clamped white on his knees.
Every bit of Genma’s anticipatory adrenaline seemed justified now. And that raised another important question. Did Ambassador Hatake know? Surely she’d have mentioned it when she met with Team Six, albeit briefly. Uncontained bijuu and surprise attacks from Iwagakure seemed like lesser problems now.
But not to Rasa. He dropped his gaze pointedly to the scroll. “I have since been informed that there are more pressing matters at hand, for which he might prove of use.” He looked up at them, expectant, the purpose of his earlier line of questioning now laid bare.
Ryouma jumped in before Genma or Raidou found the right words to reassure Rasa on that point. “He’s your best chance. Sir. He’s done seal-work that impressed Hokage-sama and Jiraiya the Sannin. If you want your jinchuuriki fixed, you need him.”
Rasa’s expression didn’t change, but he did turn his head enough to look squarely at Ryouma.
“The Hokage wants you to succeed,” Genma said. “It benefits our alliance if your son is healthy, your bijuu contained, and Iwa stopped. He wouldn’t have sent Hatake or us if he had any other objective.”
Raidou let that settle for only a second before adding, “You know Hatake’s reputation, what he’s capable of. He’s been in the Bingo Book for years.” He looked steadily at Rasa, waiting for Rasa to look back at him. When he had the Kazekage’s focus, he said, almost gently, “If you had a better option, you’d’ve tried it already.”
Rasa held Raidou’s gaze for a moment, then turned to Genma. Dark, penetrating eyes, mouth a thin, unhappy line. The sense of a primed but not ignited exploding tag pervaded everything about the Kazekage. He blinked once, then turned the same hard, assessing look on Ryouma. Then back to Raidou. The room was airless while Rasa made his decision.
He turned to one of the Suna ANBU behind him. “Bring him.”
The woman flicked a sign at the guards closest to the door, went out when they opened it for her, and reappeared only moments later with another masked ANBU, and Kakashi.
For a man who had been in prison for espionage, Kakashi looked surprisingly well-kept. Elegant even. In a stately crested kimono and hakama. Even his unruly hair had been twisted into something of a traditional knot at the back of his head. What the hell kind of undercover work had he been doing?
Immediately behind him was Hatake Sadayo, dressed just as formally. She’d traded her elegant day kimono for a crested robe in subtler colors, though still figured with trees and leaves. Willows in the rain, a pattern Genma recognized as classic not because he was a great expert on fashion, but because Kurenai had worn a similar pattern on their last date, and explained it was traditional for late autumn.
At Genma’s left, Ryouma seemed to have stopped breathing. His chakra, formerly controlled and professional, lurched so hard Genma’d felt it like a sear of sunlight in the eyes. Ryouma was staring at Kakashi like no one else existed in the room. This was….
This was something. Familiar. Concerning. Something Genma’d been trying fairly hard not to see for several weeks, if he was honest with himself.
Something to be considered later when diplomatic issues, threats to allies from within and without, and Kakashi’s transgressions that had landed him in Suna’s prison had all been dealt with. So possibly quite a bit later.
He was absolutely talking to Raidou about it at first opportunity, though. From the flick of eye contact Raidou made with him, Raidou had clocked Ryouma’s reaction, too.
Kakashi didn’t betray much beyond a professional assessment of his teammates for injuries or distress—a not unreasonable concern, given he’d apparently been imprisoned by Suna for unspecified spycraft until very recently. He swept a fast, carefully neutral gaze over each of them in turn, before focusing on Rasa. His brow drew down a millimeter; the angle of his eye narrowed a degree or two; and he bowed with stiff-backed exactitude. Behind him, Sadayo bowed just as crisply—they reminded Genma of a pair of razor-edged katana deferring the first cut without letting you forget how deeply they could, if conditions called for it.
Sadayo straightened to slide gracefully into a chair to the left and one removed from the team. Leaving a place for Kakashi to sit, or making it clear that while she represented Konoha, she wasn’t part of this military deployment?
In any event, Kakashi didn’t take the vacant seat. He stayed just inside the doorway, standing at attention. “Kazekage-sama, you have interesting advisers.”
“They said the same thing about you,” Rasa said, unmoved and unbending. ”Enter. I have questions.”
Genma hoped Rasa was less skilled than Team Six at reading the hint of opposition in the quarter of Kakashi’s face they could see. At least Kakashi didn’t actually roll his visible eye or say, I’m sure you do out loud. He moved silently despite clacky wooden geta and swishy layers of silk and cotton, and took the empty seat between Ryouma and Sadayo.
“The Ichibi’s seal is imperfect,” Rasa said. He emphasized Ichibi in a way that made it clear he did not mean ‘Gaara’ or ‘my son.’ Did he even think of the toddler jinchuuriki as human? Let alone his own flesh and blood? “How do you propose to improve it?”
“With research,” Kakashi said. “I need to know what was done wrong with the original seal first. Do you still have the records? Or the fuuinjutsu-user who created it?”
Good questions, but did Kakashi have to phrase it like that? Sealing bijuu was hardly a common practice. Even if something had been done wrong—badly wrong—Rasa would undoubtedly prefer to preserve face and pretend the failure was an unforeseeable accident. As evidenced by the almost unnatural stillness that descended like the low pressure wave before a typhoon, emanating from a clearly displeased Kazekage. It wasn’t quite killing intent, but it wasn’t quite not, either.
“Theorize,” Rasa countered. “The originator of this seal was also a member of the Uzumaki clan. What can you extrapolate, based on what you saw?”
That seemed to imply the seal’s creator was no longer amongst the living. One of the Uzumaki refugees, like Kushina, who’d made it to Suna before they stopped? There couldn’t be more than a handful of Uzumaki left in the world.
Kakashi put his elbow on the table and leaned his chin on his hand, looking narrowly at Rasa. The tension in the room ratcheted another three steps higher. “Let me be very clear, Kazekage-sama. Our villages have a treaty of cooperation for our mutual benefit. Konoha has honored our side by providing expert assistance in your time of need. We have not asked for anything in return.” He paused just long enough to emphasize the point, then continued, “You have responded by locking the expert assistance in a cell for three days because I looked at the bijuu rampaging through your city.”
Three days? For that?
Genma glanced sidelong at the ambassador, who was neutrally studying the opposite wall. If she wasn’t going to step in and put a leash on Kakashi’s impertinence, then Genma absolutely was not.
“In addition, we have brought news — at risk to our own ninja — of an outside threat to your village. Konoha doesn’t need anything from Suna,” Kakashi went on. “You need us. If you don’t want our help, then I wish you all the best with your son. I’m sure that when his seal ruptures and destroys most of your village, Konoha will be happy to offer asylum to the survivors.”
If Minato had been here, speaking Kage to Kage, he might have said exactly the same thing. But this was coming from the Hokage’s nineteen-year-old protégé. The sheer temerity was almost unthinkable.
At Genma’s left, Ryouma was a flame frozen in place, hands tight on his knees, attention blisteringly focused on Kakashi. His chakra didn’t so much as ripple, clamped down almost to the skin.
Raidou, on Genma’s right, had sat politely attentive the whole time Kakashi was speaking. Now he crossed his arms over his chest, making his muscles stand out in sharp relief. He angled his body towards his team, but his eyes were locked on Rasa.
Sadayo still held herself in reserve.
Genma squared his shoulders and said a silent prayer that they wouldn’t be remembered in history as the instigators of the war between Suna and Konoha. He turned his masked face to stare Rasa down and…
And found, entirely unexpectedly, that Rasa seemed less volatile now. A leader who only ceded respect to those who challenged him?
“Your expertise has yet to be demonstrated,” Rasa said calmly. “You looked at the bijuu, Sharingan no Kakashi. Tell me what you observed. Then we may discuss resources.”
For a moment, Kakashi studied Rasa. Then he sat up, replacing insolence with intensity, and answered the question. “The Ichibi isn’t as strong as it should be. It breaks through, but something is still holding most of it back — either the seal, or the natural limitations of Gaara’s body. Or a combination of both.” He drummed his fingers on the table once, a quiet little cadence of padded bone on resonant wood. “As Gaara grows, the Ichibi will likely be able to force more energy through, which will place more strain on the seal. Though, based on the number of outbreaks, it’s possible that the seal will just rupture outright before that happens. In which case I’d expect Gaara to die and the Ichibi to get loose.”
A dire, but not far-fetched proposition, and exactly why Kakashi — and now Team Six — were there. Which Rasa already knew. He tipped his chin at Kakashi to continue.
“You said the originator of the seal was Uzumaki. I saw Kushina’s seal many times; there are elements of Gaara’s seal that echo hers.” Kakashi shrugged, lifting the winged epaulets of his haori. “At least, what I could see at a distance. But also multiple differences. An Uzumaki didn’t place Gaara’s seal. Whoever did might have drawn inspiration from Uzumaki research, but they tried something new with this seal. Is that person still alive?”
It still felt like Kakashi was treading on a thin crust of cooled lava overlying a caldera, but the Kazekage didn’t seem to take offense. Raidou remained on alert, but less aggressively so. The ambassador didn’t seem to be about to step in. Genma didn’t relax, but he did let a thread of tension fall away from the weave.
Rasa stared at Kakashi a moment more, unblinking, evaluating. “No,” he said at last. There was no hint of emotion in his voice—no regret or disappointment or relief—just fact. “Their death was sudden. The records are incomplete.”
Records from less than three years ago were incomplete?
Kakashi lifted his visible eyebrow. “If you said a few more words, I might be able to offer more insight.”
That was a little rich coming from the master of keeping important information to himself, but he was absolutely right. A dead fuuinjutsu specialist and absent records weren’t going to get them far.
“The completion of the seal caused a chakra backlash that killed him,” Rasa said, still emotionless. “The records he left cover the architecture of the seal, not the implementation.”
Finally getting some useful information ought to have been a relief, but for a moment all Genma could visualize was the same fate befalling Kakashi. He swallowed at the ice climbing up his throat.
Kakashi, unperturbed by the risks, asked simply, “What exactly did that look like?”
Rasa stared at him a moment longer, like a shogi player sizing up his opponent. “Is that relevant to the problem at hand?”
“Potentially,” Kakashi answered. “I don’t know enough yet to know what’s relevant.”
The admission that Kakashi might not know something drained some of the defensive steel out of Rasa’s gaze. Genma took note of that. He still didn’t trust the Kazekage, but he thought he was beginning to understand how the man operated: brutal honesty and unflinching mettle were the best currency here.
“The insertion of the bijuu was successful,” Rasa said. “However, the activation of the seal resulted in a tremendous release of energy. He and his four assistants attempted to channel the energy. It tore them apart instead.”
Kakashi absorbed that information. Not killed. Tore apart. “Interesting,” he said at last. “Was there any visible effect on Gaara?”
“He woke up.”
Kakashi drummed his fingertips quietly on the table again. “How long did it take for the bijuu to start breaking through?”
“The first incident occurred late February of this year,” Rasa said. “Shortly after the jinchuuriki first manifested chakra.”
This year, when suddenly out of nowhere, there were demons in Hayama’s mines, Tanuki ‘rescuing’ supplicants at shrines, and a Dodomeki ravaging Grass Country.
“Each incident, he attacks you personally,” Kakashi said. “Why haven’t you moved outside of the village?”
“Irrelevant,” Rasa said. “The bijuu’s motivations are not your assignment. The seal is.” With that line of questioning unconditionally shut down, he moved on with a question of his own. “What resources would you need?”
“The original notes,” Kakashi answered immediately. “Access to Gaara. Whatever passes for your sealing team. Somewhere safe, large, and distant from the village to practice. And some kind of livestock. Preferably bigger than a human.”
“No access to the jinchuuriki until you can provide a viable solution,” Rasa said firmly. “Otherwise,” he nodded over his shoulder at one of his ANBU, who stepped forward, “the captain of my guard will see to your needs.”
“And if I can’t provide a viable solution without examining how the seal is interacting with the host’s body?” Irritation tinged Kakashi’s voice.
“Try.” Rasa stood, stiff-necked and thin-lipped. His guards snapped to attention. This audience was over.
In the void the Kazekage left, the ANBU captain in question conferred briefly with Raidou, promising to meet at 0800 tomorrow at the Konoha Embassy with more of the details worked out. Sadayo huddled with Team Six to explain they’d be quartered at the Embassy, of course. She cast a critical eye over their travel-worn selves and suggested that baths might be a good next step, as one of the Kazekage’s advisors, Kawase-san, was hosting a dinner and requested that Kakashi and his team attend. She would direct the embassy staff to arrange suitable clothing.
While the ambassador and guards led them back through the labyrinthine halls, Kakashi stalked along briskly and glowered. Ryouma looked like he wanted to say something to Kakashi, but he held back. Wise man. It was usually best to let a hot ingot cool before you touched it.
Genma caught Raidou’s mask-shaded eye again. A ripple of shine on Raidou’s dark irises said he’d raised his eyebrows in response.
There were at least three subjects Genma wanted to compare notes with Raidou on now, besides the obvious mission-related ones. In order: Kakashi; Ryouma; and Kakashi and Ryouma. If they could just find a way to carve out some time alone together.