November 7, Yondaime Year 5
Kirigakure was a beast at war with its own flesh.
Weeks of whole-clan massacres and months of uprisings would throw any village into civil war; add to that Kiri’s notorious bloodlust and love of slaughter, and it was a wonder that they still had any jounin left at all. Even if Danzou had not sent in his agents to galvanize the insurgents, Kirigakure would have torn itself apart.
It was an end long in coming. In many ways, Water Country was one of the five Great Shinobi Countries only in name, having neither the population nor the land mass of the others. Kirigakure’s primary defense, and the reason it had never been annexed by its neighbors, was because its thick coat of fog meant that no one could ever find the damned place.
Konoha could, now, but that knowledge—that hard-won, blood-quenched blade—was currently rusting away in the Hokage’s vault. A golden opportunity to launch an attack and pacify their eastern borders for good, going to waste.
They said soldiers made poor statesmen, and Namikaze Minato was no exception. He was a force on the battlefield, and undoubtedly Konoha’s most significant military asset after the loss of their jinchuuriki. But a soldier saw only the enemy in front of him, understood only that which could be won by the clash of armies.
Minato was young, too young to remember Konoha as anything other than a major power, and too young to know what that power had cost. But Danzou had lived long enough to know better. After fighting in two wars and commanding in a third, he knew that peace was a fragile, unstable thing. That allowing an enemy to limp away just gave them time to regroup and return. Of course Kiri was no threat to Konoha now; Kiri was weak and Konoha strong. If that ever changed, the Mizukage would certainly not extend the same courtesy that Minato was granting them. One only had to look to the ruins of Uzushiogakure to understand that!
Anyway. His long years had also taught him that opportunity was more than just a boon from fate, to be used or squandered. It was also a thing that could be cultivated, carefully tended until it bloomed into fruition. The latest report from his agents in Lightning Country had noted the presence of Kirigakure refugees. When the same news reached the Raikage’s palace, and Kumo sent their shinobi southward—well, at that time, even Minato would not be able to sit idle.
In fact, it might be worthwhile to help that endeavor along. Perhaps a fortuitous capture of a Kiri jounin…
He was three words into a reply for his Lightning Country informants when a papery rustle at the window caught his attention. It was a messenger hawk, perched politely at his windowsill, awaiting entry. It flew inside when Danzou opened his window, and took up a new perch on the crossbar of his brush holder.
The hawk carried a message, which Danzou extracted from its leg, ignoring the bird’s insistent squawks for treats. Working animals ought to be fed by their handlers; additional indulgence only bred bad habits. Once he’d shooed it back outside, he closed the window again and unrolled the message.
It was from his agent in the Nishimori radio tower, whom he’d recruited just under a year ago to be his eyes and ears for relays from the west that might interest him.
The message was encoded, an ANBU-specific code meant for only the two top commanders.
Danzou put down his pen, then pricked his thumb, using his blood to unseal a hidden compartment in his desk. He took out his reading glasses and Kuroda’s latest update to the ANBU codes. A few minutes later, he read: Reported by ANBU Lynx: Ichibi released, then portalled to Summoning Dimension. Hokage in pursuit, also in Summoning Dimension. Kazekage dead. Suna severely damaged. Suspected Suna treachery, Orochimaru involvement. Multiple Konoha casualties.
The Summoning Dimension. Prior to this past summer, he’d thought travel to and from there was possible only for sages. ANBU Team Six had managed it, but that had been an anomaly that had required semi-divine intervention—or so he’d assumed, from the reports he’d been given. But even Minato, as arrogant as he was, would not plunge into a situation from which there was so little chance of return. Which meant either Team Six had figured out another way and informed only the Hokage, or Minato had been caught off-guard.
Kirigakure could wait. On fresh paper, Danzou penned swift, coded messages to Kuroda and Watanabe-sensei at the pre-school, and called for an assistant to deliver them. If Minato’s departure had been as abrupt and impulsive as his secretary’s presence on a battleground implied, he’d have left instructions for Sagara. And he would have made arrangements for his son.
Danzou would make arrangements as well. Messenger hawks were fast, but they couldn’t beat radio relays, so Sagara would have already received the same message. He had perhaps a few hours to prepare his allies for the Council meeting that Sagara would soon be obligated to call.
He’d have Sakamoto Gousuke raise concern over Minato’s reckless decision to abandon his own village and rescue another; have Shibata Tomohiro bare his teeth at the looming threat of Orochimaru. Danzou would focus on Suna’s treachery, the loss of multiple Konoha lives…
The need for decisive, definitive retribution.
Sakamoto favored genou matcha; Shibata, a smoked oolong. At this time of day, Sakamoto would be at home, tending his prized koi. They didn’t have a meeting planned, of course, but that was even better—an innocuous visit from a gift-bearing friend drew far less scrutiny than a formal meeting. Danzou tucked some boxes of tea into his pocket, drew blood to activate his perimeter security seals, and left his office.
The Sakamoto estate was a broad, sprawling affair. Like most such homes in Konoha, it had been built during the Shodai Hokage’s time, to house the multiple branches and generations of a clan at its peak. These days, only a few of Konoha’s great founding clans—the Hyuuga, the Uchiha, the Aburame—still carried the numbers they had in the past. The rest dwindled and shrank like winter-worn trees, their roots overrun with the scrabbling growth of new upstarts.
The Sakamoto clan had suffered a similar diminishment, though they had plenty of wealth to compensate for their lack of numbers. The estate grounds were as well-maintained and luxurious as ever, with elegant displays of manicured trees and pristine ponds full of jewel-like fish.
It could be considered beautiful, for those who saw beauty in such wasteful opulence. Danzou did not count himself among them. There was no value in being cloistered behind garden walls like some civilian nobleman, waited on hand and foot by servants better trained in holding a fan than a kunai. Ninja were weapons of war, honed through discipline and danger. Hunger kept a man sharp; overindulgence led to indolence and the dulling of ambition.
Even Sakamoto Gousuke, who’d fought alongside Danzou in the First Shinobi World War, now sought only peace and prosperity for his own descendants.
At least Sakamoto still had influence, his voice heard in council, his merits remembered.
The servant who’d shown Danzou into the garden and then hurried away to fetch Sakamoto came hurrying back, alone.
“Sakamoto Gousuke-sama is in the bath,” she said, bowing apologetically. “However, Sakamoto Ginta-sama has expressed that he would be honored to invite you for tea and refreshments, until Sakamoto-sama is able to join you.”
Ginta. Sakamoto’s grandson, whom Danzou had met only briefly, years ago, when he’d been a hip-high child brought out to show genjutsu tricks. Sakamoto spoke about him on occasion, to express either his pride at the boy’s accomplishments or disappointment at his lifestyle.
Kuroda’s report on the boy, after the Mist infiltration mission, had been relatively neutral: a competent, if frivolous agent, and less inclined than the Team Six lieutenant to prioritize individual welfare over the entire mission. Still nowhere near the caliber of the ANBU agents of Tobirama-sensei’s era, but hopefully Ginta had at least inherited his grandfather’s taste in fine tea.
“Lead the way,” he told the servant, who bowed again and gestured for Danzou to follow.
They wound down a garden path lined with maples in fiery splendor, then around a pond dominated by a giant, bare-branched willow. The tree had probably been magnificent in the verdant heat of summer. Now, left with skeletal branches and only a handful of browning leaves, it still clung stubbornly to life, in the way of all living things who did not know that their time was past.
The pathway ended at the engawa of a stately, slope-roofed building. One set of shoji doors was open to reveal a low table set for two, already laden with teapot, cups, and a plate of pastries. The young man sitting on one of the zaisu chairs rose to his feet as Danzou approached, and adjusted the sleeves of his blue and brown striped kimono before bowing in greeting.
“Shimura-san, it’s a pleasure to see you. Grandfather will be happy you’ve come to visit. He’s taking a medicinal bath this morning—his old injuries ache in the cold weather, I’m sure you understand. He shouldn’t be much longer.”
Sakamoto Ginta’s voice was high, light, and swift, a stark contrast to Gousuke’s sedate baritone. The physical resemblance was more apparent: other than lacking Gousuke’s height, Ginta looked not unlike someone had left a photograph of a young Gousuke to fade in the sun.
The subtle dig at Danzou’s age was interesting. A genuine insult, or simply the carelessness of youth? For Gousuke’s sake, Danzou hoped it was the former. Better a clever, if impertinent, heir than a thoughtless one.
He laughed, genially, as he stepped onto the engawa and slid off his shoes. “May you also live long enough to complain of aging pains, Ginta-kun. I appreciate you taking the time to accompany me while I wait. I had brought some genou matcha for your grandfather, but that might not be to your taste?”
“Grandfather will certainly be pleased. I wouldn’t presume to open his gift for him, though I do enjoy a genou matcha.” He led Danzou into the reception room and then to the honored guest seat in front of the tokonoma—evidently, the boy had been taught some etiquette—before sitting down himself. “I have only this Tea Country shiranami sencha for us at the moment, but a friend recently introduced me to ummon matcha. It’s a bit sharp for Grandfather’s palate, but I’d be happy to offer you some at another time, if you’d be interested.”
Danzou raised his eyebrows. Tea Country’s famed shiranami sencha was a tea that would not be out of place in a daimyou’s parlor. “Ginta-kun, you didn’t need to bring out such an exquisite variety for me. I’m just an old friend to your grandfather. Save that for a more distinguished guest; the Hokage, perhaps.”
Ginta raised his eyebrows in return. “Grandfather would be the first to rebuke me if I served you anything less.” He leaned over the table and, with excellent posture, began to pour. “We owe our loyalty as ninja to the Hokage, but our loyalty as men to one another, especially to our friends. There have been four Hokage since Grandfather was a young man. I believe your friendship has outlasted three of them so far?”
Only two, in fact; he and Gousuke had been mere acquaintances during the Shodai Hokage’s time. But Ginta’s point was well made. Subtle and clever, this one, assuming Danzou wasn’t misreading him.
“When you get to my age, you grow to appreciate the value of good friends,” Danzou replied, accepting a steaming cup of tea. The fragrance was lovely, almost enough to distract him from the conversation at hand. “The gods and our health willing, we’ll outlast a fourth—or even a fifth.”
He took a sip of the tea, which truly was exquisite, and sat contentedly back. “But enough of an old man’s ramblings. How are you, Ginta-kun? Your grandfather tells me you’re a lieutenant in ANBU?”
Ginta’s mouth twisted faintly. “He tells correctly.” Sipping his tea, he glanced at Danzou over the rim of his cup, then set the cup down with a sigh. “He must have also told you he expected me to be a captain by now. Of course I serve in whatever capacity the village needs, but…” His voice, clearly dissatisfied, faded into a rueful little shrug. “I suppose there’s always next spring.”
Danzou remembered Gousuke’s frustration after the April ANBU trials, though Gousuke had accused his grandson of lacking ambition as much as he’d accused Minato and Sagara of mismanagement.
He let his brow furrow in unhappy surprise. “You received your mask from Sandaime, did you not? That’s at least five years in ANBU, and they still haven’t promoted you to captain?” He shook his head and heaved his own sigh. “Another young talent, going to waste.”
Ginta’s head shot up. “Another?” He huffed a humorless laugh. “You see it too, then. Captaincies always seem to go to the heavy combat types. Like Commander Sagara herself.”
Not lacking ambition at all, if the boy was eyeing the ANBU Commander’s seat. It was remarkable how much Gousuke had misread his own grandson. “Astutely observed, Ginta-kun.” He took another sip of tea, took in the sour twist of Ginta’s mouth, and continued, “From my experience, each kage seeks evidence of their own strengths in their subordinates. The Third Hokage was a scholar, and thus valued wisdom and clear-sightedness. The Fourth, on the other hand, is a soldier.”
“As if genjutsu and ninjutsu weren’t a powerful combat combination,” Ginta muttered. “I know Konoha could make better use of me. If ANBU passes me over again, I’ll talk to Shibata-san and Oita-san about opportunities in their departments.”
Ah. Now it made sense—the flattery, the exorbitantly expensive tea. This wasn’t the first time someone had approached Danzou for career advancement, but at least the boy had made an effort at subtlety. “I understand your frustration. I, too, have worked to bring more balance to Konoha’s upper ranks. Change comes slowly, but with patience and persistence, it does come.”
He rested his empty teacup onto the table, and watched—with approval—as Ginta immediately refilled it. The boy would do well in either Intel or T&I, but Danzou already had contacts in the former, and the latter was less crucial to Danzou’s immediate plans. And he had Shibata himself as a supporter. But the vast majority of ANBU were loyal to Minato, and while he had managed to place Kuroda as their second-in-command, he wasn’t blind to how Kuroda was disliked.
“If I may offer some advice,” Danzou said, smiling. “Five years is not an inconsiderable period of a shinobi’s career. It would be a shame to see it go to waste. Poor leadership is unfortunate, but commanders change. Sagara, for instance, is already in her mid-forties, with three young children at home. Once she retires, you might find her replacement more reasonable.”
Ginta laid down his teacup silently, the earlier sullenness vanished from his expression. “If you’ll permit a moment of candor,” he began, and waited for Danzou’s nod before he continued: “Many on the Council may think the vice-commander would be her natural successor, but in my view that would be a grave mistake.”
Danzou raised his eyebrows. The boy had understood the subtext of what Danzou had said, but this was not the response Danzou had expected. “How so?”
“Vice-Commander Kuroda is disliked to the point of having lost the respect of the majority of today’s ANBU,” Ginta said, voice coolly professional. “In the Vice role, he’s tolerable for the most part, because he doesn’t often interact with agents directly. His role is largely administrative. If he were the commander…” He shook his head. “Retention would be a serious problem, and so would recruiting. Word gets around.”
Sakamoto Gousuke’s grandson, indeed. Danzou remembered that incisiveness, that ruthless clarity Gousuke had had in his youth, before he’d been blunted by age.
“I’m surprised a man like that would even make vice-commander, given ANBU’s recent emphasis on teamwork,” Danzou remarked, keeping his gaze on Ginta. “Have you any thoughts as to how he managed such a feat?”
Ginta sucked in his lips, eyebrows knitting. It was an expression so startlingly similar to Gousuke’s when he was deep in thought that Danzou felt an almost visceral memory of being young again, and at war, staring across a captain’s tent at that same blond, bowed head.
“I can’t say whether or not Sagara likes him as a person,” Ginta said, after a moment. “But she does rely on him. Even someone with no charisma can be valuable in the right role. But if I had to guess, I’d say he has the backing of enough of the councilors that it would be, let’s say impolitic, for Yondaime-sama to replace him.”
Danzou folded his hands, his tea ignored. “You believe those councilors chose poorly, backing someone so universally disliked?”
“I suspect they are unaware of the depth of sentiment within ANBU’s ranks, or consider it an acceptable compromise to have someone so unpopular in the role as long as he is a potential point of leverage for them. Of course this isn’t an issue, as long as the Council and the Yondaime are aligned in their goals for the village.” Ginta spoke carefully, but kept his tone light. His eyes, the same ice-blue as Gousuke’s, gleamed with a predator’s focus. “However, if promoting Kuroda to Commander was under discussion, I would like to think they are smart enough to recognize how that might go badly awry.”
Interesting. He’d initially chosen Kuroda for his skill at acquiring and assimilating information, and had since been relatively pleased at the result. Though young Sakamoto, it seemed, possessed this skill in far greater abundance.
So much for the boy’s earlier theatrics about wanting to quit ANBU. He knew exactly what he wanted, and what Danzou could do to help him achieve that.
“Thankfully, there are some of us on the Council who’ve managed to hold on to our wits,” Danzou said with a laugh. “I appreciate your insight, Ginta-kun. I’ve learned more about ANBU from this conversation than I have in all the years I’ve known Sagara.”
Ginta laughed and shook his head. “I find it hard to believe Sagara-san is so unforthcoming or unobservant, but thank you, Shimura-san. I appreciate the chance to be heard.”
He bowed, not ostentatiously, just the deferential bow of a man to a superior to whom he was grateful.
Sakamoto Ginta was only in his twenties, and only a vice-captain. It would take years and at least one promotion for him to even be considered for vice-commander. Still, so long as he believed in Danzou’s influence, Danzou would have eyes and ears in ANBU.
Danzou drained his cup. The tea had gone tepid, but the quality still shone through. “Truly excellent. I’ve seldom met a young person who enjoys the subtle qualities of tea. I hope you’ll join us the next time your grandfather and I hold a tea-tasting. We’ll do our best to not overly bore you with talk of politics.”
Ginta smiled, baring white teeth and sharp, knowing eyes. “I would be delighted to join you. I sincerely doubt that I will be at all bored, unless Grandfather decides to go into an extensive lecture on koi genetics.”
This time, Danzou’s laugh was genuine. “You have my permission to monopolize the conversation with stories from your missions, then.” He dipped his head meaningfully. “We know so little about what lies behind the mask, after all.”
Ginta shrugged, an insouciant gesture at odds with the sharklike tilt of his mouth. “Only the unclassified bits, of course. But I suspect missions haven’t changed much since Konoha’s founding—only the people who run them.”
Which was, of course, what Danzou was interested in. He smiled back, and slid his empty cup forward to be refilled.
A whisper of presence—faint but familiar—caught both their attentions seconds before the paper door slid open. Sakamoto Gousuke entered the reception room, still damp-haired from his bath. He wore a dark haori over his burgundy kimono, and a stern expression on his face.
“I’m sorry to have kept you waiting, old friend,” he said, turning that expression on Ginta. “I hope my grandson hasn’t been too discourteous.”
“Not at all,” Danzou said, as Ginta rose to his knees, bowed to his grandfather, and scooted around the corner to cede the host’s seat—the picture of filial deference. “Young Ginta and I were having a very interesting conversation.”
Gousuke gave Danzou a doubtful look, and sat down in the newly vacated seat. He let Ginta pour him a fresh cup of tea before nodding a dismissal that sent Ginta—and his own used teacup—out of the room.
Danzou watched Ginta’s silent, swift departure, and took another sip of tea. “Shiranami sencha was a bit much,” he said, once Ginta had left.
Gousuke huffed, shaking his head. “That boy and his exorbitant tastes. I indulged him too much when he was small.” He sampled the cup that Ginta had poured for him, and allowed, “He does know a good tea, though.”
“As bribes go, I’ve certainly been given worse,” Danzou agreed, and smiled as Gousuke’s brows furrowed with surprise. “I thought you’d said your grandson was lacking in ambition.”
“What in the world makes you think he was attempting to bribe you?” Gousuke asked, looking mystified. “And to what end?”
“The position of ANBU Commander, if I had to guess,” Danzou replied lightly, fighting the chuckle bubbling in his throat. He so seldom saw Gousuke this baffled; it made him look almost young again. “Though for now, he’s willing to settle for Kuroda Ushio’s job.”
That seemed to only increase Gousuke’s bewilderment. “Kuroda’s job? That’s delusional. I know Ginta dislikes the man, but surely he doesn’t think he’d be a candidate. He hasn’t even tried to advance to captain.” He lifted the teapot lid and peered into the pot, before adding, “Are you sure this is just Shiranami sencha?”
“Are you sure it wasn’t just hurt pride you saw back in April?” Danzou countered. “Ginta-kun expressed frustration with the captaincy selection criteria—how it tended to favor combat-oriented ninja. Perhaps he’d thought it better to blame his own lack of ambition rather than poor career choices.”
Danzou had done his fair share of swallowing down pride and grinning through disappointment. It had taken him long decades to learn the alchemy of turning that disappointment into fuel for patience, for a slower and more profound ambition. A young man like Ginta would have no such skill.
“In any case, I was impressed by his insight,” Danzou continued, “as well as his clarity in understanding the political situation in Konoha. I know you said he had no interest in joining our cause, but I believe he might have changed his mind.”
“If he has, he certainly hasn’t implied as much to me,” Gousuke said, still looking unconvinced. His gaze slid past Danzou, to a seasonal wall scroll, and his expression turned thoughtful. “Though… I can’t say I’ve had many opportunities for lengthy conversations with him in the last few months. He’s had mission obligations, of course, and he has his own apartment in town. When he is here, his mother and grandmother tend to take much of his time.” He huffed a rueful laugh. “Which may be why he isn’t here often. The boy has a severe allergy to marriage talk, and that’s all the women seem to have on their minds.”
Danzou could believe that. Marriage was a woman’s domain, and childbearing her duty to the village. A man had other duties. “If opportunity is the problem, I’ve invited your grandson to join our tea society. You will be able to speak candidly then. I do think you should talk to him, Gousuke.” He lowered his teacup to the table and leaned in. “We may soon have a chance to undermine Minato, and it would be to our benefit to have eyes and ears in ANBU.”
Gousuke’s brow furrowed again at the mention of Danzou’s invitation, but it cleared quickly. “Then I will talk to him. But we have a man in ANBU. Is there reason to doubt Kuroda’s loyalty?”
“Not his loyalty,” Danzou said, “but certainly his continued usefulness to our cause. His intel has been valuable, but it’s common knowledge that he is disliked within ANBU. Kuroda himself has reported numerous occasions where Sagara has ignored or overruled his recommendations. What’s the point of holding a high position if he has neither the respect of his subordinates nor the trust of his superiors? A shogi piece that can no longer advance will inevitably be eliminated. Better we do it on our own terms, than wait for our opponent to move.”
Gousuke took a contemplative sip of his tea. “We’ll have to make very sure of Ginta first. He’s… Even if he’s come to some sense at least—a relieving thought—he has a history. But assuming he has and we want to move in that direction, it could be a delicate thing to reposition Kuroda.” His ice-blue gaze was sharp and searching. “I hope you aren’t thinking…” He made an abrupt, slashing gesture in the air, as if slicing an imaginary throat.
“His removal will not require his death,” Danzou said. “He cannot divulge the information that he’s passed on to me without implicating his own treachery.” Though, in the disappointing event that Kuroda did, Danzou would have agents in place. “In any case, his removal will not be immediate. I have more pressing news.”
He brought up his hands and cast a swift silencing jutsu that filled the whole reception room, layering it with a genjutsu woven from an old memory of Gousuke pontificating about his koi.
“My sources have informed me that the mission to reseal Suna’s Ichibi was sabotaged,” he said. “Hatake failed, and the Ichibi was released. Minato went to stop it. He is now in the Summoning Dimension.”
Gousuke just stared at him, as though waiting for the punchline of a joke. Danzou blinked silently back, until Gousuke’s eyes narrowed and his shoulders squared.
“Your sources rarely get things badly wrong,” Gousuke said slowly. “But Danzou… The Summoning Dimension? That’s been accomplished—what, once in living memory? By a Sage, which young Minato, gifted as he is, is not. Your sources are either hallucinating or feeding you misinformation.”
“My source relayed a message from ANBU Lynx, in a code that only Sagara and Kuroda should be able to read. So unless you believe the Hokage’s personal secretary is lying to Sagara in order to feed me misinformation…” Danzou gave Gousuke a wry look, to which Gousuke gave a conciliatory head tip. “Also, travel to and from the Summoning Dimension might not be as incredible as we’d previously believed. An ANBU team did just that, this past summer: Hatake Kakashi’s ANBU team, in fact.”
Gousuke frowned, still looking mildly incredulous. “Hatake’s ANBU team went to the Summoning Dimension. And I suppose your source is Kuroda himself, so unless we’re doubting him, which we are not…” His eyes narrowed, as his focus resharpened. “Obviously Hatake was the conduit to Minato about how to accomplish it. Are we positive Jiraiya had nothing to do with this dimension hopping?”
“Jiraiya was nowhere near Konoha until well after the team had returned. Off hunting Orochimaru in Lightning Country, if I recall.” Danzou huffed a dry laugh. “He should have been looking in Suna, instead. Lynx’s message also indicated his suspicion that Orochimaru was involved in the Ichibi’s release.”
Now Gousuke looked annoyed. “Orochimaru’s part of it too. Enough stringing the information out in little seedlings, Danzou. What exactly did the message say? And what of the Ichibi? Is it still running rampant?”
Danzou held up a pacifying hand. Gousuke did his best work when his blood was up, but there were limits to his patience. “Both the Ichibi and the Hokage are in the Summoning Dimension, but not before the Ichibi killed the Kazekage and destroyed a significant portion of the village. Lynx suspects Suna treachery or Orochimaru involvement, possibly both. There are multiple Konoha casualties. That’s all the information I have.”
Gousuke stroked his mustache, seemingly coming to terms with his earlier bout of confusion. “Ignoring the problem of the Summoning Dimension for the moment, Rasa’s death and Suna’s destruction and loss of their bijuu present opportunities for Konoha. It would seem to go against Minato’s…” He paused, considering. “Conciliatory policies. But could he and his assistant have been there to take advantage of the situation knowing it was about to happen?”
Danzou snorted. “If Minato were the type of person to make those types of decisions, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. No, the likeliest scenario is that someone sabotaged Hatake’s attempt at repairing the seal, probably by killing him, and he was able to summon Minato before he died.”
“That fits the facts, certainly. Lynx said many Konoha casualties? He’s neither a diplomat nor a strong commander. If the Embassy staff are among the dead, who do we have to make sure our interests prevail before Minato returns?”
“An excellent question,” Danzou said, tipping his teacup at Gousuke. “One that I hope you will pose when Sagara calls the Council meeting. As well as other questions, such as how we should respond to Suna’s treachery. Minato already squandered the opportunity of a weakened Kirigakure. If we do not take action here, the other nations will believe it is because we could not take action.”
Gousuke’s mouth tilted into a grimly conspiratorial smile. “And then you’ll be able to propose your plans for Suna, when she has no satisfactory answer to my questions.” He tugged on his mustache, gaze turning inward in thought. “Who else on the Council knows that Hatake was sent to Suna? That could become a contentious point, especially from Fugaku and his clan.”
As always, it was gratifying to watch Sakamoto Gousuke’s mind at work, his ability to take a problem apart and scrutinize it from every angle.
“Other than Minato and Sagara, only Oita Gennousuke knows that Hatake had been the one sent to Suna. Kuroda wasn’t privy to the initial mission discussions; he didn’t even find out until the rest of Hatake’s team had to be sent in after him.” Danzou tapped the table, considering. “Why Fugaku? Hatake’s status has always been a point of contention between Minato and the Uchiha, but… Do you think Hatake’s death can sway him to our side?”
Gousuke scoffed. “If you think Uchiha Fugaku will be eager to avenge Hatake’s death, I have some beach-front real estate in western Fire Country to sell you, old friend. If anything, the Uchiha will be delighted to see the end of that thorn in their side. No, Fugaku will be furious that Minato sent Hatake, but it’s bigger than their special grudge against the boy.” He leaned in, half-drunk tea nudged aside and forgotten. “Minato is reckless when he should seek counsel, and cautious when he needs to show strength. He obtained the Council’s approval for the mission to support Suna, but then he unilaterally made the decision to send only Hatake, and three additional ANBU, to handle a matter of grave international security. Then when it went badly, he abandoned his post to go rescue his protege. Now he’s MIA. I presume the ANBU are dead alongside Hatake?”
When Gousuke wished to, he could speak like an avalanche. Danzou remembered several battles in their youth that had been won simply because Gousuke had out-argued anyone who’d disagreed with him.
“Almost certainly,” he said, smiling, “and hardly relevant. Go on.”
“My point is: he should never have had the choice to act so unilaterally. Why have a village council if we aren’t even consulted? He shouldn’t have needed to leave to deal with this problem, because a bigger security force should have been sent with the sealing team in the first place. He should have anticipated the potential weak points, prepared accordingly, and when circumstances changed, positioned Konoha to take advantage of the situation.”
Danzou picked up the argument and continued. “Now look where we are. No kage, no foothold in Suna, no benefit gained to outweigh the cost of our Konoha dead and our current vulnerability. So much loss because of one man’s mistakes. And we must not forget that the kage is as fallible as anyone else. We only have to look to Suna to see that.”
“Just so,” Gousuke agreed. He picked up his teacup, made a face at the taste of the tea gone cold, and put the cup back down again. “When did the message from Lynx come in? It can’t have been that long ago, or Minato’s absence would have been noticed already.”
“Just over half an hour ago,” Danzou said, with a veteran shinobi’s instinctive sense of time. “Sagara will have received the same message at least another half hour before that.”
“Even an emergency meeting of the Council takes time to arrange. I doubt we’ll see a summons before early afternoon.” Gousuke produced a decorative gold and ivory pocket watch from the sleeve of his haori and peered at it. “Have you alerted Shibata already?”
“He’ll be my next visit.” Danzou reached into his pocket and took out a box of smoked oolong. “I’ll be interested in what he has to say once I tell him about Orochimaru’s suspected involvement in all this.”
Gousuke chuckled. “If it isn’t several choice curses, I’ll be surprised. I believe he’d like nothing better than to have, as he calls it, a ’conversation’ with Orochimaru.”
“He may get his wish one day,” Danzou said, rising to his feet. Once Orochimaru outlived his use, of course. A weapon without a war was a liability.
One obstacle at a time. That was how cities were built, how wars were won. Danzou cut the silencing genjutsu, bid Gousuke farewell, and left for his next target.
One of the best things about a traditional home like the Sakamoto estate was the perfectly-crafted-for-eavesdropping space between its tatami floors and the ground beneath. Ginta had shimmied under the house as soon as he’d left his grandfather and Danzou, and crept silently, with his chakra sucked in so tight it made his chest ache, to his favorite listening spot under the reception room. Of course the conversation had moved on in the time it took him to get into position, but he still managed to get there quickly enough to confirm that he’d well and truly set the hook. Set it even deeper than he’d intended, if Danzou thought he was after Sagara’s job.
Which he was, eventually, of course. But that was years off, and he would certainly not in any way be in Shimura Danzou’s—or anyone else’s—debt when he got there.
Danzou’s silencing genjutsu, when he cast it, had been no hindrance, either. Maybe because the Sakamoto home was a safe place, in Danzou’s eyes, or maybe the man was just that carelessly arrogant, but either way the illusion had been cast on the walls alone. All Ginta’d had to do was lie as still as a corpse on the cold, dry river stones covering the ground, and listen.
He lay there for a long twenty minutes after Danzou and his grandfather parted company, listening to the slickity sound of wooden door frames sliding in their polished tracks, and the creak of a maid’s footsteps as she cleared the tea things away and tidied the room for its next use. When he was sure the danger of discovery was past, he crawled upside down from floor joist to floor joist, clinging with static slivers of chakra, until he reached his own room.
The mat next to his bookcase was his favorite entry point, hidden as it was from sightlines of both door and window. He’d used it since he was barely strong enough to lift its corner, and carefully lined the edges with felt to soundproof his comings and goings. (And stripped off his soundproofing before the old mats were removed and replaced every few years, of course.) He eased the mat back into place once he was through. His kimono was askew, and maybe a little dusty, but if anyone were to come in on him now, they’d find him kneeling next to the books, choosing one to read next.
No one did, of course.
He changed quickly from kimono to uniform, combed his hair, and clipped his mask to his belt. He even took the time to kiss his mother and grandmother goodbye before he left, though he stayed out of his grandfather’s way. He didn’t have time for a conversation with Grandfather about Danzou’s invitation to their Secret Society of Tea and Insurrection. Or the spare brainpower to work out how to approach one.
Sagara, presuming she’d received the news about the Hokage already, would have her hands full, but he needed to see her. She needed the intelligence he’d just gathered, before she went to that Council meeting. It took the entire journey through Konoha to come up with sufficient reason to be allowed in to Sagara’s office.
He presented himself masked, correct, and a little performatively breathless, to her secretary. “I have an urgent message for Sagara-sama from Councilor Sakamoto. To be delivered in person.”
The secretary stonewalled immediately. “I’m sorry, Monkey, the Commander is in a priority-one meeting and can’t be disturbed.”
“I know,” Ginta countered. “My message is pertinent to her meeting.”
The secretary gave him a skeptical look. “How would the councilor know what her meeting is about, or for that matter, that she is even in one?”
Ginta gave him a flat look back. “I’m not at liberty to discuss that with you.”
“You can deliver your message to Kuroda-sama,” the secretary said. “He’s in his office. He can relay it to the Commander.”
“I cannot deliver my message to Kuroda-sama,” Ginta said. “I was given explicit instructions to deliver it to Sagara-sama. Immediately.”
The stare off resumed.
“Do you really want to delay a message from a village councilor to ANBU’s top commander?” Ginta asked. “Do you really think I want to interrupt a priority-one meeting if I don’t have good reason to do so?”
The secretary, who looked like he’d already blown through three cups of bad coffee and was working on a fourth, scrubbed a hand over his face. “This is on your head, Monkey. And your captain’s.”
Well great, let’s just get Usagi in trouble too, shall we? Ginta resigned himself to solving that problem once the current one was handled.
He let the secretary knock on the door and announce him before he entered, and stood with his back to the closed door once he was in.
Three faces greeted him.
Sagara looked almost exactly as she always did, in ANBU uniform without gloves or arm guards, with her greying hair bound back and a grimly serious expression on her scarred face. Scowl lines between her eyebrows and shadows under her eyes were maybe a trace deeper than usual, but if they were, it wasn’t by much.
Seated on either side of her were the heads of Intel, Oita Gennousuke, and T&I, Shibata Tomohiro. There was a map of Wind Country spread out on her desk, and a detailed map of Sunagakure.
Unlike Sagara, Oita looked mildly distressed. Balding, a little soft-jawed and round-bellied, his gaze was placid, but his mouth was tense, and he had a hunch to his posture that suggested something hurt. Hopefully not his heart again.
Shibata was his usual forbidding presence, with his acid-warped disfiguration and his sweeping black coat. His appearance and reputation gave most people the creeps under the best of circumstances. Ginta had spent enough time working with T&I on one mission or another that he’d inured himself to the sight of the man, and he knew Shibata was already one of Minato’s eyes on the Tea Society, but he still felt a mission-level rill of adrenaline under the piercing look Shibata was giving him now.
“What is it?” Sagara asked.
Ginta flicked his eyes at her companions, then back to her. “I have some information gleaned from a meeting I happened to overhear at my home,” he said. “It probably— It concerns matters I believe Hokage-sama told you I might come to you with. For project Bancha.”
Recognition lit Sagara’s eyes.
Oita’s eyes narrowed as his gaze swept Ginta, like he could see the face behind the mask. His frown turned into a grimace and a faint hm. Without looking away, he peeled a pair of antacid tablets from a roll that had been lying on the table, swallowed them, and chased them down with a swig of coffee from one of three identical white mugs on the desk.
“Did you need us to step out, Okiku?” Shibata asked, in his raspy lisp.
Sagara studied Ginta for a long, thoughtful moment. “No,” she said at last. “Unless I miss my guess, I believe you’ll both need to hear this. Sit, Sakamoto. You can remove your mask, if you wish.”
Ginta couldn’t have been more transparent than he was with that tea-themed project codeword he’d thrown out. Sagara knew what this was about. Maybe she knew Shibata was already a confederate too. It stood to reason that Oita was also loyal to Minato, but it still made Ginta’s neck prickle to consider revealing his position to all three of them at once.
Commanded was commanded, though. He removed his mask, bowed, and took the remaining empty chair, across from Sagara.
Sagara steepled her fingers under her chin and looked right at Ginta. “What has Gousuke done now?”
Ginta glanced from side to side once more.
“We’ve been keeping tabs on his meetings with Danzou and others,” Shibata said. “And what those malcontents complain about over tea. After all, I should know. I’m one of them.”
Oita leaned in, eyes on Ginta, but otherwise didn’t react. Sagara shook her head and waved a hand at Shibata.
Ginta said cautiously, “Then you knew I was—”
“I did not,” Shibata cut him off. “If you were privy to any of the meetings I attended, you concealed your presence well. But that’s not why you’re here now, is it?”
“I’m here because an opportunity presented itself for me to ingratiate myself to Danzou-san. I had some time to speak with him before my grandfather arrived. At the end of our conversation today, he invited me to attend one of their tea gatherings. That news could have waited. But after Grandfather arrived and I excused myself from their company, I decided to listen to them from concealment.” He indicated Sagara’s maps. “Danzou is intercepting your messages. He somehow had a decoded copy of Lynx’s report about the Hokage, the Ichibi, and the destruction of Suna. And he plans to take advantage of that knowledge at the emergency Council meeting he said you will be forced to call.”
Sagara’s mouth grew very thin. “Did you overhear how Danzou is intercepting these communications?”
“He just said, ‘My sources tell me,’” Ginta answered. “But he and Grandfather also discussed Kuroda’s continued loyalty to them and usefulness to their cause, especially in light of how much Kuroda is disliked by most ANBU.”
“If Kuroda isn’t the source or at least the code breaker, I don’t know who would be,” Shibata said. “You said that message from Lynx was only for your and Kuroda’s eyes, Okiku.”
“It was,” Sagara said, in a distant, colorless voice. No doubt rethinking every interaction she’d had with Kuroda in the last six months or more.
Oita’s fingers drummed once against his coffee cup, very lightly. “If Danzou received the message with enough time to organize a meeting at the Sakamoto estate,” he said, drawing the words out like they were physically painful to say, “he must have suborned an earlier link in the chain. We change the codes more frequently than the radio relay operators.”
“Wouldn’t it have been encrypted already by Lynx, before it got to a radio operator?” Ginta asked before he could stop himself.
“An encrypted message can still be diverted,” Shibata said softly. “Provided the ultimate recipient also has the encryption key.”
Oh. Ginta swallowed. It was Kuroda and someone at a radio relay. Maybe several someones. The potential vastness of Danzou’s network—and therefore of the breaches in Konoha’s security—was vertiginous.
“He’s going to be looking for you, Shibata-sama.”
“San,” Shibata corrected. “Who is? Your grandfather?”
“Danzou. He said he was going to alert you now that he’d talked to Grandfather, and tell you about Lynx’s suspicion that Orochimaru is involved. I assume he wants you to attend the Council meeting.”
“I’d be there regardless.” Shibata’s half-lipless mouth twisted into a parody of a smile. “He probably has an agenda for me.”
A muscle in Sagara’s jaw clenched and released on a low breath. “What else did you hear, Sakamoto?”
“He speculated that Hatake was attacked to interrupt the bijuu sealing, but that he activated his Hiraishin to summon Minato.” Ginta hesitated, then continued as if he didn’t personally know and care about members of ANBU Team Six. “He believes Hatake and his team were killed. Lynx’s message mentioned ‘many Konoha casualties.’”
The last time he’d had to report on a comrade’s death had been Eizo’s. And he wasn’t even sure this time that anyone he knew was dead. Except he was sure, of course. Lynx wouldn’t report deaths that hadn’t happened, and even if Team Six had miraculously escaped, there would have been other ANBU there with Minato and Lynx.
Sagara and the other commanders had already read Lynx’s message and knew about the deaths, he reminded himself. And there was no place for emotion in a mission report. He took a breath and plunged on.
“Danzou talked about our embassy in Suna. He plans to ambush you at the Council meeting about that. Demand to know who is left in Sunagakure, with no Kazekage and no Konoha embassy, to represent Konoha’s interests. And then Grandfather will press the point. Stir up Uchiha Fugaku about the fact that Yondaime-sama showed favoritism to Hatake, and short-sightedness in sending such a small force with him. He says he wants more Council oversight for the office of Hokage. That Minato-sama is both overly cautious and reckless, to Konoha’s detriment. But I know what I’ve heard in those other meetings. You have too, I’m sure, Shibata-san.”
Shibata made a disturbing, throaty sound. “I have. How long shall we give it, friends, before Danzou proposes himself as the firm guiding hand Konoha needs at the helm in these trying times?”
Sagara smiled thinly, with more irony than amusement. “If I call a meeting in four hours, and I were a betting woman, I’d say about four hours and thirty-seven minutes. But precedent is against him: Minato isn’t dead.”
“All the same,” Oita said quietly, “we should be prepared for his… delayed… return. ANBU Team Six lost more than two weeks in their excursion to the Summoning Realm, and that was with supernatural aid to come back. Minato may not return sooner.”
Sagara shifted a minute amount in her seat. She said nothing, and Ginta didn’t react, but that explanation for Team Six’s lost weeks was a shocking slip from the Director of Intelligence. Unless it was a test. Having been allowed into this chamber and heard so much that was far above his rank, Ginta was a potential liability. In a village that was awash in sedition and conspiracy, a traceable rumor was a good way to identify a leak.
It’s what he would have done, in Oita’s place.
“Assuming he has some sense of decorum, then,” Shibata said, “Danzou might wait two weeks. Or he might not. But it affords us an opportunity to make contingency plans.” He paused to dab at his mouth with a handkerchief. “Danzou thinks I’m one of his. Evidently he thinks Sakamoto here is a potential recruit, too. And we know he detests you, Okiku. Since it’s mutual, there’s all the more reason to count on that. How do we want to play this? Gennousuke as neutral party?”
“Perhaps,” Sagara said. “I don’t know how much value there is in neutrality if Danzou’s influence has become as wide as this breach suggests. Or if he would wait to stake a claim. If he hopes to strike while the Council is in uproar, the iron will be hottest today.” She rubbed her mouth, thumb tracing partway up the scar that stretched from the corner. “The question becomes, do we give him the opportunity, or bury him in what evidence we have, knowing certain councilmembers may still not care.”
Shibata lifted a scar-flecked hand in the flat-palmed hold sign. “It might be best if we continue this meeting without an audience. No offense to you, of course, Sakamoto.”
“Stay in uniform, in the building,” Sagara told Ginta. “On special requisition at my command, if you’re asked.”
Ginta saluted and clapped his mask back on before he left. Sagara’s secretary gave him a long side-eye when he emerged. “Well?”
“It was my day off,” Ginta said with a sigh. “Not anymore.”
“I told you not to interrupt her.” The secretary looked smug.
“I’ll be in my team’s office,” Ginta told him. “When she decides what she’s going to make me do.”
He trudged away and through the hallways to Team 13’s office. That ought to throw Kuroda off the scent, in case he somehow got wind of Ginta’s being here. Extra duty as punishment was fitting for an officer who irritated a commander without committing any actual infractions. And it wasn’t like there was no work to be done. Might as well get started on the next round of rookie performance evals. Ginta spun around on his chair a couple of times, unlocked his desk, and pulled out Kasumi’s and Abe’s files.
An hour and a half later, he’d made less progress than he’d have liked. Hurry up and wait was the classic military way, but when the waiting involved conspiracies, traitors, tailed beasts, destroyed villages, dead and missing kages, and possibly—probably—dead friends, it was hard to focus on how well Abe’s grip-strength was improving.
The knock on the door, when it came, was both expected and startling enough that Ginta dropped his pen and splotched the form he’d been working on.
“Sagara-sama wants you in her office,” the runner said.
The secretary’s smugness was gone, replaced with something almost like sympathy when he sent Ginta back into Sagara’s office.
She was alone this time, with full armor over her blacks, and her Hawk mask clipped to her belt. Scuffs and gouges in the vest and arm guards made it clear she was a working ANBU, battle-hardened.
“Meeting’s in twenty minutes,” she said without preamble. “Mask up. Squirrel will be your flanking guard. I trust I don’t have to tell you not to say anything?”
Ginta nodded an affirmative. This was essentially Hokage guard duty, since protocol called for Sagara to step into the role when Minato was absent. He’d be a silent shadow, with eyes and ears open behind his mask. Since Hajime wasn’t here for this briefing, though, he assumed it was because she had something to tell him and him alone. “Is there anything you’d like me to watch for? Will the entire Council be present?”
Her mouth ticked down at the unscarred corner, her only outward sign of dissatisfaction. “Nara Shikabe is traveling, and both chuunin representatives and one jounin representative are out on missions, which is unfortunate, since none of them have been overly susceptible to Danzou’s rhetoric. But we will make do.”
Ginta nodded. “And we know my grandfather’s position.” He hesitated, feeling the weight of his next question like the weight of the sword at his armored back. “I don’t think the Tea Contingent is organized enough for open insurrection, but… Are you expecting anything more violent than arguments at or as a result of this meeting?”
Her mouth thinned. “Not at the meeting, unless Danzou is more desperate than predicted, and his support is stronger than we know. After?” She gave a faint shrug, setting the future’s problems firmly in the future. “That will depend on the meeting.”
Immediately after, or in the days and weeks to follow? Ginta was about to ask when the door opened and Hajime came in. He stepped up next to Ginta and saluted Sagara.
“Masks on,” she said, and strode out the door. She set a swift pace through ANBU’s halls and down, taking internal stairs to the base of the monument cliff.
“Hey, Monkey,” Hajime said to Ginta, while they still had the chance to talk. “It’s been a while since I’ve seen you pull guard duty.”
“Thirteen’s on a break,” Ginta said. “I was bored.”
Hajime snorted softly behind his mask. “That sounds about what I’d expect.”
When they reached the long tunnel connecting to the Hokage’s palace, they fell silent. Sagara’s posture, always iron bar straight, gave nothing away. Maybe she really was unfazed. She’d stood in for Minato at Council meetings before, most recently during the Hokage’s extended absence after the attack on the Fire Daimyou in Hikouto that spring.
At a junction in the underground passage, Oita joined them, accompanied by two uniformed analysts carrying folders. Oita still looked dyspeptic to Ginta’s eyes. He greeted Sagara and fell into step beside her, and she obligingly slowed her pace.
At the Palace entrance she turned to glance at her escorts. Hajime and Ginta both tapped their tattooed shoulders in salute. She keyed the door with a press of her palm, and led them in. As they neared the Council’s chamber, Ginta took a deep breath, feeling his chest expand against his armor. Sharp mission clarity settled under his skin like icy water. This was nothing like ordinary guard duty.
They weren’t the first to arrive. Danzou, unsurprisingly, was there already, seated at the table at the right of the Hokage’s empty place. He seemed to be in quiet conversation with Shibata. Both men looked up when Sagara took the Hokage’s seat at the center of the table, as his proxy. They all nodded to one another in the shallowest of greeting bows, and ignored the ANBU completely. As was the norm. If Danzou knew Ginta by his mask or stature, he didn’t give the slightest indication.
The door opened again, admitting two men in kimono rather than uniform. Uchiha Fugaku must have been taking a rare day off from his duty as head of Konoha’s military police, but the older man with him was retired. Sakamoto Gousuke actually stopped and gave Ginta a look before he greeted the others in the room and took what Ginta assumed was his customary place at the table. He darted a second glance at Ginta and Hajime when he was seated.
It wasn’t that his grandfather had never seen Ginta in mask and uniform—he had. But it was one thing to know your grandson was in ANBU and another to see him on duty, Ginta supposed. Fugaku asked Gousuke something, and they resumed their conversation. They seemed to be discussing village policing and the need to encourage more of the recently promoted chuunin to become MPs.
More Council members trickled in as the appointed meeting time neared, until the table was mostly full, with only a few significant gaps. All five permanent Council members from founding clans were there: Danzou, representing the Senju clan in Tsunade’s extended absence. Uchiha Fugaku, Hyuuga Hiashi, Aburame Benjirou, and Sakamoto Gousuke. And four of the five rotating members for this term: Sarutobi Reiko, Nakamura Haiji, Akimichi Chouka, and Inuzuka Manami with her heavily ruffed dog resting under the table at her feet. Nara Shikabe was absent. The final set of councilors, representing the smaller clan and non-clan ninja of the village, was sparser, with several absences. Only one of the jounin-corps representatives was present, and neither of the chuunin reps were there. The final member to arrive was the civilian Village Administrator, Fukunaga Yasuko.
Ginta watched them all. He’d seen a few Hyuuga and other clan members, like Kurenai’s cousin, attend his grandfather’s and Danzou’s meetings, but never any of the clan heads. He couldn’t recall seeing any Aburame at all, but of course he’d been unable to monitor every meeting. Maybe that would change, now that Danzou wanted to recruit him.
He also marked the disconcerted looks most of the councilors gave Sagara in the Hokage’s seat which could only mean one thing: Minato was not in Konoha. Shibata rose to take a chair against the wall, next to Oita, but Sagara motioned both of them back to the table. “We have vacant seats, and your input will be valuable,” she said.
When all were in place, she called the meeting to order.
Thirteen expectant faces focused on Sagara, who delivered her report with calm, direct efficiency. “Earlier today, Yondaime-sama responded to a Hiraishin summons from Agent Hatake in Suna, taking a force of five ANBU agents with him. We have since learned that Agent Hatake’s mission to assist in the re-sealing of the Ichibi was sabotaged, and the Ichibi was released.”
Fugaku huffed and scowled, but held his tongue.
“Suna and Orochimaru are both implicated,” Sagara continued. “Damage to Sunagakure is significant. The Kazekage is dead. We don’t yet know the status of Hatake, his team, or the Konoha embassy, but we know there are Konoha casualties.”
She paused in acknowledgment of the weighty news. Grim tension filled the room. The only sound was the scratching of Oita’s analysts’ pens taking the meeting minutes. Among the councilors there were a few indrawn breaths, but before any of them could interrupt, Sagara said, “However, as we would expect, Yondaime-sama has successfully sealed the Ichibi in the Summoning Dimension, preventing the total destruction of Suna. He is currently in the Summoning Dimension, but will return when his task is complete.”
Shock and consternation rippled over the lined faces of the village elders. Ginta watched Danzou, expecting him to take swift advantage of the unsettled mood. He was surprised when it was his grandfather who spoke first.
“Preposterous!” Gousuke growled. “There are so many things wrong with everything you just told us that I’m not sure where to even start. If we leave aside the impossible—Minato in the Summoning Dimension?—we can start with his reckless disregard for his own village. It took hundreds of our forces to handle the Kyuubi. But Minato abandons Konoha and goes alone—alone, with a mere handful of ANBU—to tackle Suna’s tailed beast? It’s suicidal at best, utterly treasonous at worst.”
“But it worked,” Inuzuka Manami said, with a black glare at Gousuke. Her dog lifted its head, ears back, with a hint of canines exposed in a menacing snarl.
Beside her, Akimichi Chouka put a broad-palmed hand on Manami’s shoulder.
“It did work,” Sagara agreed, an island of calm in a turbulent sea. “Suna is saved, placing them in Konoha’s debt, and the Ichibi is contained, removing a significant threat. Your mistrust of Yondaime-sama is a matter of record, Sakamoto-san, but, once again, misplaced.”
Gousuke gave the Inuzuka pair a cutting look. “‘It worked’ is the catch-phrase of the incompetent bungler who happens to get lucky,” he said. “So perhaps it does fit the circumstance. But we are still left with a gaping hole where our Hokage should be. Has he achieved sage-hood in the last forty-eight hours that let him just vanish into the Summoning Dimension?”
Ginta was fascinated watching Gousuke orate. He’d always known his grandfather was a commanding presence when he wanted to be, but seeing it on display here was chilling.
Oita lifted his chin, and got a nod to proceed from Sagara. “There is recent precedent for a journey to and a return from the Summoning Dimension,” he said, in an even, unruffled tone. “Yondaime-sama ordered the fuuinjutsu classified as a kinjutsu, but this Council agreed in Niidaime’s reign that a Hokage retains the discretion to employ kinjutsu at need.”
“Be that as it may,” Danzou said, without remarking on the revelation about dimension travel, “Sakamoto’s concern is not without cause. Rasa’s death proves, once again, that no kage is infallible. To believe otherwise is simply foolishness. The fact remains, Suna has cost us multiple lives and the displacement of the Hokage. I also seem to remember receiving intel about an attacking Iwa force. Were they intercepted? Is Iwa now aware of the crippling damage this situation has caused Suna and Konoha?”
Sarutobi Reiko, the former Hokage’s daughter, didn’t let Sagara answer. “If Iwa’s involved, how do we know there aren’t other enemies moving against us? The coup-attempt in Hikouto was less than a year ago, and we know for certain Mist was part of that.”
Oita shook his head. “Kirigakure did not participate in the coup attempt in Hikouto. Kiri nin were hired to guard various plotters, later. Unsuccessfully. And Kiri’s civil war gives them enough trouble within their own borders at present.” His voice was dry and a little fussy. A stickler for accuracy, Ginta remembered about him. Fitting for the Director of Intelligence.
“As for Iwagakure,” he continued, “our intelligence has the village in a state of lower alert. Waiting for reports from their own agents, no doubt, but certainly not yet escalating to a wartime footing.”
“‘Not yet,’” Danzou said darkly. “Leaving us at the mercy of either our enemies’ incompetence, or their… temperance.”
“Iwa still hasn’t recovered from the war,” Uchiha Fugaku cut in impatiently. “They might move against Suna, but they wouldn’t dare strike against us. No thanks to the competence of our leadership. This Council approved a diplomatic gesture in Suna’s time of need, but when did we authorize sending Hatake Kakashi? Placing a barely trained, stolen Sharingan at the Kazekage’s beck and call? Is not this Council meant to counsel wise decisions? I would certainly have voted against any such proposal!”
A raspy, hissing voice commanded the room’s attention. “Your personal grudge over a long-settled accusation of murder and theft cannot possibly weigh on this Council more than the fact that Orochimaru is involved in this incident.” Shibata dabbed at his scar-warped lips with a small black handkerchief. “And you said Suna itself is implicated, Sagara? Implicated in what, exactly?”
If Ginta had known this was what Council meetings were like, he would have volunteered for guard duty long ago. He almost wished he could take notes.
“In the sabotage of Hatake’s mission and transitory release of the Ichibi,” Sagara answered. “I expect further reports to clarify the details.”
“Transitory?” Shibata echoed, hissing softly as he emphasized the word. “Are you suggesting someone in Suna thought they could release, use, and then recapture a monster of that scale? If that’s the case, they didn’t need Konoha’s help in the first place.” He turned so his good eye was focused on Danzou. “Perhaps this was targeted on Konoha after all. It would stand to reason if Orochimaru is the ultimate power at work here.”
Danzou closed his eyes for a moment, as though bracing himself against the horror of Shibata’s suggestion. He sighed heavily. “Uchiha, I agree that the Yondaime showed poor judgment in sending Hatake, and poorer judgment still in abandoning his entire village to rescue one former student. But Shibata is right; we have far more pressing concerns. We must take decisive action to secure Suna. If they are indeed working with Orochimaru, I fear that this incident might only be the beginning of a larger attack.”
“Are you intending another war?” Hyuuga Hiashi asked, in his patrician voice. “We are barely recovered from the last one.”
“I have no desire for war,” Danzou said. A bald-faced lie if Ginta had ever heard one. “Nor will one be necessary here. Suna has already defeated itself. If we send in a force to offer humanitarian support, we can simultaneously root out the faction that was working with Orochimaru, and ensure that any continuation of this alliance will work in Konoha’s favor.”
“Since we presumably have no functioning embassy in Sunagakure,” Gousuke added, “we will need to send someone with sufficient authority to assume that role, along with any humanitarian force.”
“Before we start talking about annexing our neighbors…” Akimichi Chouka started, in a half-jovial tone that held a tinge of chastisement.
“They’re not even our neighbors,” Nakamura pointed out. “There are whole countries between us and Wind Country.”
“That also,” Akimichi agreed. “Why would we want to assume control of a distant ninja village in that drought-stricken, impoverished mess of a country that doesn’t even share a border with Fire Country?”
Danzou frowned in Nakamura and Akimichi’s direction. Gently, but intently, like a teacher instructing a slow but promising learner, he said, “Then what would you suggest, that we simply endure this attack? I know this has been the Yondaime’s vision for Konoha—neglect our borders, ignore our enemies, in favor of strengthening our core. Which, to his credit, he has. We have rebuilt since the Kyuubi attack. We are strong enough to endure. But to what end?”
He looked away then, to cast a piercing look around the room, making eye-contact with each member of the Council at the table in turn. Except Sagara, Ginta noted.
Danzou ended with Fugaku and Hiashi. “Can we endure Orochimaru wielding our alliance with Suna against us, again? Or Iwa discovering that Konoha’s greatest threat is missing?” He shook his head. “Endurance only ends in one way, and that is submission. Defeat. When we are strong, we cannot simply endure. We must act.”
It was almost cinematic. And judging by the murmured responses in the room, there were many in agreement.
Kawashima, the jounin rep, leaned over and said something to Inuzuka. She murmured something back, and Kawashima straightened. “We have only one report, correct?” Kawashima asked Sagara, who nodded. “And we don’t know when the Hokage will be back, but it could be any time.” With his facts established, he squared off against Danzou. “I understand the need to manage our relationship with Suna, especially in light of the circumstances, but I don’t feel comfortable recommending Konoha take drastic action when we know so little and Yondaime-sama has been gone less than a day.”
For a lightning-quick second, Danzou’s expression contorted with seething, frustrated rage. Just as quickly it was gone. He slumped back into his seat and huffed a mirthless laugh. “Your point is valid, Kawashima. We have just criticized the Yondaime for recklessness and impulsivity; we should not repeat his folly. You’re right, we should wait.” His focus fixed unexpectedly on Ginta and Hajime. “I’m sure our unavenged dead in Suna would be grateful for our restraint. As would their still-living comrades, however many there are left, at this point. Or perhaps not.” He looked pointedly at Shibata. “If Orochimaru is still in Suna.”
Devious, vicious, and far too effective. Ginta clenched his abs, his calves, his jaw—every muscle that his armor and mask could hide, and tried not to imagine his friends and comrades as the corpses they probably were. Maybe if he hadn’t known exactly who those dead were likely to be, it would have been easier. But Kakashi was at the center of the plot, and his team had been with him. Had they died fighting Suna’s traitors, or were their bodies crushed or incinerated by the Ichibi?
Next to him, Hajime shifted his weight. That was all, but it was enough to remind Ginta that Hajime had been Genma’s captain a year before. He’d undoubtedly put enough together from this meeting to infer that if Kakashi was dead, the rest of Team Six probably was, too.
Sagara had been calm and collected throughout this entire Council meeting, with only the faintest building tension in her shoulders as proceedings have gone on. Now, very suddenly, she slammed a hand down on the table, making her glass of water jump and spill over.
“Do not speak for the dead, Danzou, when all of us know you would sacrifice every life in ANBU to play your war games.” Cold fury edged her voice. “Of course we will send people to Suna, no one is suggesting otherwise, but not to break our treaty. We will send aid and medics, as Suna did in our time of need, after the Kyuubi. And we will send Intel and ANBU, because we are not stupid; if there has truly been a betrayal, we will learn the full extent of it and act accordingly.”
She leaned forward with a predatory edge. “Konoha is strong. We have a strong Hokage, who will return soon, and strong leadership in his absence, and we will not disgrace ourselves out of fear of what might happen.”
There was absolute silence when she finished. Danzou stared her down with sharp-eyed calculation. Ginta’s grandfather’s face was set in a familiar irritated scowl. It was harder to read some of the others in the room, but Sagara’s stirring rebuttal had earned her a few satisfied nods of agreement.
Someone coughed, finally, breaking the brittle moment. “If I may, Sagara-san.” It was the village administrator. “I’m not clear on the mechanics of this Summoning Dimension travel, but I do have plans for the sewer expansion awaiting final review and approval. Do we have an estimate of when Yondaime-sama will return?”
Sagara didn’t look away from Danzou. “A few days at most.”
“A few days in the Summoning Dimension, at most,” Oita clarified. “Time may flow differently there, according to our prior reports. We should not be alarmed if Hokage-sama’s absence is extended.”
“And may the gods help us if Gamabunta takes the man drinking while he’s over there,” Inuzuka put in. “That’ll add days and he’ll come back so hungover the medics will have to hospitalize him.”
There were a few chuckles at that. The standoff between Danzou and Sagara wasn’t over, but the tension in the room shifted to something with a giddy edge.
“If there aren’t any other matters,” Kawashima said, “I’d like to call the vote on sending aid to Sunagakure.”
“Seconded,” Akimichi said.
The vote passed unanimously, unsurprisingly.
“We also need to affirm Sagara-san as interim Hokage until Yondaime-sama returns,” Kawashima said.
Sarutobi Reiko shook her head. “I can think of better candidates,” she said.
Nakamura said sharply, “Sagara-san served us well during the Hikouto crisis in the spring. Who would you suggest that could surpass her experience and capability?”
Reiko’s eyes cut towards Danzou. “I—” she started.
“The Hokage left explicit instructions for exactly this contingency,” Akimichi said. “It names Sagara-san as his proxy. This isn’t a matter for debate, Reiko. It’s a procedural vote.”
She crossed her arms and all but glared at Akimichi, but she subsided.
It was Aburame Benjirou, who’d kept silent until now, who called the vote. He was the most senior member of the Council, at nearly 80 years old. “Sagara-san, you are owed the full support and cooperation of this Council during this unexpected short absence of our Hokage.” There was a faint harmonic buzz under his voice that gave it extra weight and carrying power. “Should Yondaime-sama’s absence prove protracted, we will adjust our response. As you say, we are a strong village, and this is a strong governing Council. Now, may we please proceed with the vote?”
That effectively shut down Reiko and any other objections that the disgruntled faction might care to raise. The Council voted to affirm Sagara’s role as proxy-Hokage unanimously, with one abstention—Sarutobi Reiko, unsurprisingly. She really was quite unpleasant. What a far cry from the genial scholar her father had been.
“We expect daily briefings on the situation until the Hokage’s return,” Gousuke said, speaking as if for the whole room. It was a strong tactic. Anyone who objected would appear uncaring, weak, or both. And it wasn’t an unreasonable demand.
Surprisingly, Sagara didn’t immediately agree. Instead she gave him a cool look. “As circumstances allow.”
Gousuke’s face flushed a warning red. “Explain to me the circumstances that would not allow you to provide us with daily updates on this obviously precarious situation,” he growled.
Danzou held up a cautionary hand. “We don’t need to trouble Sagara-san with daily Council meetings on top of her already heavy workload. After all, she is still ANBU commander as well as substitute Hokage.”
Ginta didn’t think sympathy motivated that particular assessment.
Danzou turned to Oita. “I would be happy to meet with our Intelligence director for a morning briefing, the details of which I will share with the Council at, say, 0900 every day?”
“What fun for Oita,” Inuzuka said, with an ironic snort. Her dog echoed her with a rough sounding huff from under the table. “If there needs to be daily handholding, I’d rather be part of it direct.” Without looking away from Danzou, she said, “Oita, can you just supply a daily update to the Council? One that takes twenty minutes or less, for preference.”
“Of course, Inuzuka-san.” Oita offered her a shallow bow. He sounded as blandly placid as usual.
Gousuke sat with his arms crossed over his chest, but he seemed placated.
“Meet here daily at 0900 for Oita-san’s briefings,” Kawashima confirmed. He glanced at two of the empty chairs. “When our colleagues return from their current missions, it would be smart to advise them to remain in village until this situation is resolved. We will want the full Council to be available.”
Another logical political play—there could be no reasonable objection, but those absent councilors were on the whole younger and more inclined towards Minato’s policies. Kawashima was clearly a man to watch. Ginta made a mental note to look into his background and personnel file.
Danzou sat straighter, looking like he’d just won a skirmish, not lost one. “In the meantime,” he said, in a hearty tone, “we who are present at Council should continue our work; after all, a strong village such as ours is not paralyzed by the absence of one man.”
Which was the whole gambit Sagara had opened with, wasn’t it? Business as usual?
He turned his head first one way, then the other, to catch every councilor’s attention. “Shall we discuss the specifics of the aid we’ll be sending to Suna? Will we be asking for volunteers, or will the heads of each department submit a list of personnel?”
The Council meeting turned pedestrian after that, as they hashed out in painful detail the specifics of aid for Suna (and spies for Suna), then moved on to those sewer plans of the village administrators, Fugaku and Gousuke’s proposal for increasing recruitment to the MPs, and a number of other mundane details that were part of the invisible machinery that Konohagakure ran on.
Ginta’s left arm itched under his arm guard. He became acutely aware of the uneven pull of the sword slung across his back. His feet started to ache, and he shifted his weight as subtly as he could. Hajime did the same, more than once. Poor guy had been out with a nearly destroyed hip only a few months ago, so he was probably in agony. This was why Ginta seldom took guard duty: most of the time it was as dull as ditchwater, and standing at attention in full gear for hours was beyond tedious and uncomfortable.
This—attending dull but necessary meetings—was also why he had no interest in being Hokage someday. He’d much rather work at Sagara’s level. Or Oita’s or Shibata’s. Maybe especially Shibata’s now that he considered it. Sagara seldom if ever took field missions anymore, and Oita’s job never took him out of Konoha. Shibata didn’t leave the village either, but at least he did direct, hands-on work. It wasn’t always savory work—Ginta had watched Shibata interrogate a subject more than once—but it was definitely not boring.
Finally, finally, the meeting wound to a close. The councilors bade each other farewell—some more congenially than others. Sarutobi Reiko was almost as frostily reserved as Hyuuga Hiashi. Aburame Benjirou’s wrinkled face lit with a bright smile as he scrubbed gnarled fingers through the enormous Inuzuka dog’s ruff. Fugaku buttonholed Kawashima to further discuss something or other that they hadn’t quite resolved in the meeting.
Shibata and Oita departed without much fanfare. Gousuke and Danzou were two of the last to leave. Now that the official meeting was past, Gousuke actually gave his grandson a nod of recognition. Ginta couldn’t return it, of course, but he did smile behind his mask so it would show in his eyes.
When no one else remained, Ginta and Hajime escorted Sagara back to her office at ANBU HQ, this time taking an outdoor path at a blessedly brisk pace. She must have been itching to move as much as Ginta had been. At her office door she turned to the two of them. “Squirrel, dismissed, but don’t go far—I’ll be calling a captain’s meeting shortly. Monkey, a word.”
The same secretary who had warned Ginta not to interrupt Sagara’s meeting that morning winced. Hajime pushed his mask off, and raised his eyebrows at Ginta. Ginta shrugged. “If you find Usagi, let her know what’s up? She’s probably in the gym.”
He wasn’t expecting a reprimand, but he was also a little unclear on what Sagara might want from him now. Maybe his observations from the meeting? But Sagara’s office, it turned out, was already occupied. Shibata and Oita, who had departed the Council meeting ahead of them, were both back in the chairs Ginta had first seen them in. The intact side of Shibata’s mouth lifted in a wry smile when Ginta followed Sagara inside.
Ginta removed his mask and clipped it to his belt, and offered both the other directors a salute. Oita barely gave him a distracted nod. He held a creased piece of paper in his left hand, and was writing in a small brown notebook spread open on Sagara’s desk with the right.
“Hatake Sadayo survived,” Oita told Sagara without preamble, before she’d even reached her desk. “We need to speak.”
Sagara paused mid-step. “Monkey, wait for me outside.”
“Commander,” Ginta acknowledged. He turned and let himself out with a quiet click of the door.
“That was fast,” the secretary said. “Are you off the hook?”
“She told me to wait. Here, I think. She didn’t say go back to my office, so…”
“That’s what that bench is for,” the secretary said, pointing at a three-seated beige slab of furniture against the opposite wall. “In case you don’t know,” he added, “the coffee in the break room down the hall is a little better than the stuff downstairs. If you want a cup.” He looked Ginta full in the face this time. “How mad is she at you?”
“I don’t really know,” Ginta said. Truthfully, since he hadn’t been assessing whether Sagara was angry with him in the first place. “I’m hoping she just wants me to do her errands because she likes my hair.”
The secretary’s gaze drifted up to the top of Ginta’s head. Ginta gave him a dazzling smile. “I’m going to just go hit the head. If she comes out for me before I’m back, even she has to understand a person needing to pee.”
“Probably,” the secretary said. “But hurry unless you want extra duty forever.”
Ginta hurried. When he got back to the bench, the secretary gave him a relieved little head shake. So Ginta sat. And considered. Hatake Sadayo was the ambassador to Suna. If she’d survived, maybe that meant… But she wouldn’t have been at the sealing attempt, even if Kakashi was her son, so her survival didn’t actually mean anything about Kakashi and his team. He frowned at himself for interrupting his brief hope with logic.
Still, if she was alive that meant, potentially, a whole different set of concerns for Danzou’s plan of setting up a puppet government in Suna. Ginta didn’t know a lot about her, but he was sure of one thing: Hatake Sadayo was no one’s puppet.
Ginta was about to get up and do some hallway calisthenics to work off some of his tension, when Oita opened the door. “Send someone for Yuuhi Kurenai. She’s in the Fire Country office.”
“I could—” Ginta started.
“Better not,” the secretary counseled. He looked pointedly at the once-again closed door.
“Yeah, I know.” Ginta sighed and went back to the bench, where he contented himself with some hamstring stretches while the secretary sent for a messenger.
It took less time than Ginta had expected for Kurenai to come clicking down the hall. She wore an ‘Approved Visitor’ badge clipped to a front pocket on her tailored Intel greys, and had a uniformed messenger with her to lead her through ANBU’s maze-like halls. Her eyes widened a tiny fraction when she spotted Ginta. He tipped his chin up at her in greeting. And then she disappeared through Sagara’s door.
Six minutes later, the door opened again. This time it was Shibata. “Well, Monkey-san, I guess you’d better come in now, too,” he lisped. “Don’t worry, this isn’t a surprise marriage meeting.”
Kurenai wouldn’t actually have been surprised by an arranged marriage meeting, given the briefly thoughtful look in Yuuhi Benihime’s eye when Kurenai had escorted Ginta to meet with his old teacher earlier that week. But if any such meeting did take place, Benihime and Sakamoto Chihiro would be the ambushers, not the ANBU, Intel, and T&I Commanders. And she had a strategy in mind for that future day, anyway.
She had the beginnings of a strategy forming for this meeting, too.
She stood in the center of the ANBU Commander’s office, her back to the door, and waited for the latch to click and Ginta to come join her. Shibata Tomohiro strode past them both, black coat flaring, and took his seat beside Sagara Okiku’s desk again.
Oita Gennousuke extracted the last antacid from a crumpled packet and said, “Can you gain admittance to Danzou’s home, Sakamoto? Specifically, to his office?”
Ginta’s brows knit. “I can,” he said, after a moment’s thought. “With the right pretext.”
“You’ll have one,” Sagara said. “You are to take this information back to Danzou: Hatake Sadayo is confirmed alive. She has sent a message using her own codes to me, which includes details on her establishment of a working relationship with new leadership in Suna. That is all you have been able to glean. As of your reporting, a new Council meeting to disseminate this information has not been called.”
Ginta’s silk-smooth chakra didn’t ripple. He must have been briefed earlier—at least before Kurenai’s five-minute onslaught of a despotic Kazekage, a sabotaged sealing, a destroyed village, and a tattered alliance stitched up by the survivors.
Had he, too, already heard that Kakashi was missing, presumed dead? That the Hokage had vanished into the Summoning Dimension with the Ichibi? If so, his face showed no trace of feeling beyond a polished professionalism. He tucked his chin. “Yes, Commander.”
Sagara looked to Kurenai. “Yuuhi, your role is to infiltrate Danzou’s home and office, unobserved, and record every message he sends and every person he contacts. If possible, obtain copies of every communication.”
No different than half a dozen infiltration missions she’d performed last year, in her rotation as a field agent. Danzou was an experienced jounin, rumored to be adept at genjutsu as well as ninjutsu and fuuinjutsu, but he wasn’t a Yuuhi. And if one of his visitors was a Yuuhi—
Well, none of Kurenai’s cousins would see anything, either. She was confident of that much.
“When should I report?” she asked. “To Director Oita, or here?”
Oita rubbed his jaw. “Danzou will attend a Council briefing at 0900 tomorrow. I’d like to have your report before then, but I doubt you’ll have the opportunity. Plan to report here at 1030. Come henge’d. I don’t want you associated with ANBU any more than we can help.”
Kurenai had already disclosed her close association with two particular ANBU agents to Team Lead Shirotani. But he wouldn’t have communicated that fact up the chain of command to Director Oita unless and until it became relevant.
Genma, Raidou, and their rookie were on another mission. It wasn’t relevant.
“Several of my department members saw me leave the office in response to an ANBU summons,” she said. “I’ll send a shadow clone back to finish the afternoon.” It could gripe to her coworkers about ANBU’s absurd expectations for Intel’s cartographers. The Fire Country office practically ran on similar complaints.
“Don’t be unduly alarmed if my name comes up, or I make an appearance in Danzou’s house,” Shibata croaked. “He thinks I’m a confederate.” He tapped the remains of his scar-eaten nose and winked with his good eye.
Clearly Ginta hadn’t revealed the extent to which he’d already briefed Kurenai on Shimura Danzou’s Tea Society. Kakashi had been his intermediary with the Hokage when he’d first learned about the conspirators’ meetings, he’d said. But Kakashi had left Konoha almost a month ago, and now Yondaime-sama had vanished, too. Ginta must have used what he knew to forge his own connection to the commanders.
He’d always been a fast worker. And he kept his secrets close.
“That’s all, Yuuhi,” Oita said. He glanced at Sagara; she dismissed Ginta with a brief gesture. They bowed and retreated together.
“I need a bathroom,” Kurenai said, as the door closed behind them. “With a locking door and a mirror, preferably.”
“I can give you two options,” Ginta said instantly. “Closest to where we are now, Team Thirteen’s office has a lock on the outer door and a mirror with passable light. My apartment is a little further away, but the light is more flattering, the mirror is bigger, and the refreshments are better.”
“Sweet of you to think of flattering lighting, but I won’t need that yet. Let’s see your office.”
It was a small, windowless room deep in the building’s bowels. A recently reupholstered sofa anchored the space, surrounded by five battered but clean desks. One of the desks, tucked into a corner, still bore a black-banded photograph of a square-jawed, broad-shouldered man: unsmiling in his official portrait, but with a crinkle to his eyes that suggested humor lurking. Tsuda Eizo, lost on that mission to Kirigakure, and still mourned.
Kurenai paused to pay her respects. Ginta opened a miniature refrigerator under one of the desks, pulled out three sweet-scented mikan oranges, and replaced the small stack beginning to shrivel beneath the photograph. His movements were quick and efficient, a regular task, but he stopped afterward to bow his head.
Then he looked up, his gaze troubled. “Kurenai…”
Her spine prickled. How often did he call her simply by name, without that fond, teasing -chan attached? Or look at her like that, with an unfamiliar gentleness, almost a sympathy, in his eyes?
He knew she’d been close, once, to Kakashi; that in recent months they’d been finding their way back to a new rapprochement, albeit one with edges. But Kakashi had been missing, presumed dead at least twice before, and Kurenai wasn’t grieving for him until she had more evidence than a couple of terse radio messages.
She turned away. “Come into the bathroom with me. This won’t take long.”
“You know you’re going to be disappointed if you want anything more than makeup tips.” His voice was quieter than the joke called for, though, and his smile didn’t reach his eyes.
He locked the outer office door and followed her into the utilitarian little bathroom. It had a capsule shower, toilet, and sink wedged in with barely enough remaining space to turn around. Ginta hopped up onto a small filing cabinet tucked next to the sink, its three drawers labeled bandages, toiletries, and girl things. He drew a long breath. “There’s something you need to know.”
Something more. Something the ANBU Commander and Kurenai’s own Director didn’t know, or hadn’t considered worthy of mention.
Kurenai’s fingers slowed on the handseals for a kage bunshin. She shook her head, steadied her chakra, and resumed. The clone popped into being just outside the half-open bathroom door, peered inside, and then tactfully withdrew to poke around the office.
Kurenai met Ginta’s eyes. “I’m planning to attach myself to your shadow. The genjutsu will hold as you move about the village, and I’ll need only a moment of distraction in Danzou’s office to detach myself and assume full invisibility. But if you need to change out of your uniform before you go there, I’ll have to readjust. What else do I need to know?”
He said quietly, “The rest of Team Six were sent to Sunagakure to back up Hatake a little over a week ago. They would have been with him when the sealing attempt was sabotaged and the bijuu released. I know you and Genma and Raidou are…” He shrugged away any defining labels, but his sharp blue eyes were compassionate. “I didn’t want you to hear it from Danzou, if it were to come up.”
“No,” she said. “That might have been… counterproductive.”
Her voice was steady. She touched her fingers to the inside of her wrist and felt her pulse: a little fast. Had her chakra lurched? She didn’t think so. Wise of Ginta to tell her anyway, in a controlled environment where they could be sure.
Kakashi’s attempt to seal the bijuu had been sabotaged. He was missing, presumed dead. If his team were in Suna to guard him, the sabotage attempt must have gone through them, first.
Raidou, honest and strong and stubborn, quick to temper, quick to laughter. Genma, calm and thoughtful and sensual, gentle when he could be, knife-sharp when he had to be. Even if they hadn’t been sent to Sunagakure specifically to shield Kakashi, they would have done whatever they could to protect their rookie.
But if he wasn’t yet confirmed dead, that meant they weren’t, either. The loss or survival of two masked ANBU agents wasn’t nearly important enough to factor into the few words of a radio relay message.
And Kurenai was an Intel analyst. No judgment in advance of the facts was as core a rule as A shinobi must never show emotion. The facts were incomplete. And she didn’t have time to grieve.
“Thank you for telling me, Ginta,” she said. “Now please stand in front of the mirror. I need to disappear.”
He pushed himself off the cabinet and squeezed before her to stand at attention in front of the mirror. Her black curls were still visible behind his straight blond hair; her slimmer shoulders rose above his. “I’ll do this in uniform. With mask or without? I won’t be masked while talking to Danzou, even if I go masked to get there. And is this one I could learn, or does it need your eyes?”
“The silhouette matters, not the mask.” She blinked, and the Meikougan awakened.
Ginta was a dense pillar of glimmering light, his chakra tightly contained. She molded her own chakra with swift hand-seals, set her palms on Ginta’s armor-straps, and cast the net out.
In the mirror’s reflection, her dark hair blurred, faded, and shrank away into the faint shadow Ginta cast against the frosted glass of the shower capsule door.
Ginta turned his head. She moved with him, tethered to him, cloaked in his shadow. Like this, she could slip through a crowd with him, or into a house. His presence, scent, and chakra would completely mask hers. Not even a flicker of movement showed in the mirror’s reflection behind him, or a glimmer of chakra apparent to Meikougan vision. Benihime couldn’t have done better.
Kurenai let herself feel that pride for a moment, the only emotion she could spare. She whispered in Ginta’s ear, “I’ll teach you. But you won’t be this good.”
He spun, arms outstretched, almost hitting the wall. She flowed with him, shadow-light, undetected. He ended smirking at his own reflection. “Is that a challenge?”
“That’s a promise.” She compressed her voice thinner, to the barest hint of a mosquito’s hum. “We should get moving. Escort my clone to the exit, then send her off. You can make your own way from there. I’ll let you know when I’m ready to detach from your shadow in Danzou’s office. You’ll just need to prompt him to turn away.”
“I can do that,” Ginta said easily. “I’m going to look like I’m talking to myself if I need to tell you anything once the clone goes, though. Should I layer another genjutsu over us for now, or just let my reputation for lunacy grow?”
“Surely in ANBU you know how to maintain operational silence.”
Ginta stuck his tongue out at the mirror, and then pulled his mask on.
He left the office with an easy swinging stride, holding the door for her kage bunshin, nodding deferentially to anyone they passed in the corridor. Seeing him masked, and escorting an Intel agent, no one tried to stop him for conversation.
Autumn’s swift dusk had fallen already, and the lighted plaza outside ANBU HQ was busy with agents heading towards or from the barracks. Ginta and the bunshin bowed a polite, formal goodbye. Then the bunshin headed for the slow switchback path down to the village, and Ginta headed for the cliff.
This was payback for that operational silence dig. Kurenai gritted her teeth. She didn’t mind heights, or chakra-running face-first down cliffs. She just didn’t like them at ANBU speeds…
But he took the cliff at a sedate stroll, not an ANBU’s dead run. They reached the bottom without a stumble or a slip in her jutsu. Ginta brushed a jaunty hand through his tousled hair and turned down a side street leading away from the Hokage’s Palace.
He must have done his research ahead of time, which she appreciated; he turned corners and took narrow alleys unerringly, heading for one of Konoha’s older residential districts. Close to the village headquarters but tucked away from the noise and bustle of the commercial areas, it hadn’t suffered from the Fox attack. The buildings were old, narrow townhouses, with no fire-scarring.
Ginta stopped in front of the most severe-looking one, a two-story structure with no potted plants outside the door to soften its harsh lines. He knocked lightly, then stepped an arm’s length back. And was that an ANBU’s unconscious paranoia, or did he have some reason to be wary at Shimura Danzou’s front door…?
The door slid open. A narrow-faced man in late middle age peered out with the sort of frown usually reserved for tardy grocery delivery boys. It swiftly smoothed into blank professionalism as he recognized the ANBU uniform in the dusk. “ANBU-san. A message for Shimura-san?”
“Yes,” Ginta said crisply. “To be delivered in person, with S-class security measures. Tell him Monkey is here.”
“Please step inside, ANBU-san. Wait here.” He left Ginta standing in the genkan, which was small and remorselessly tidy, with a shoe-cupboard and a lamp and nothing else. They heard slippered footsteps on the stairs; a deferential knock, a low voice delivering Ginta’s message. Then footsteps coming back.
“Shimura-san will receive you in his office, ANBU-san. Please follow me.”
For a uniformed ANBU, there was no polite protocol of removing shoes and accepting slippers. Ginta simply stepped up out of the genkan, armored boots hard on the polished wooden floors. Kurenai flowed soundlessly with him.
The stairs were steep and narrow, easily defensible, although Kurenai suspected murder on aging joints. Her Meikougan vision also spotted the glimmer of chakra in seals carved underneath every stair riser, wards set into the hand-rails, alarms in the walls. The door at the top of the stairs was so thickly protected it almost glowed.
It stood open now, and Danzou stood in the center of it.
“Monkey,” he said. His graveled voice was neutral, his scarred face placid, but he stood with a tense rigidity that couldn’t be just arthritis. “I don’t believe I’m expecting you. Is everything all right?”
Ginta gave a bow that would’ve been perfunctory even if he weren’t halfway up the stairs. “Please forgive the intrusion, Shimura-san. I’ve just come from a meeting at ANBU HQ. The message I have for you is S-class Top Secret. I will be able to deliver it only in a soundproofed and warded environment. If there isn’t a suitable space available here, we can confer in one of the conference rooms at ANBU HQ, in Intel, or at the Palace.”
Danzou’s brow furrowed. “Are you delivering a message from the Commander? Or the Vice-Commander, perhaps?”
“The Vice-Commander was not present at the meeting,” Ginta said deliberately.
He stood three steps down from the top of the stairs, his head thrown back to meet Danzou’s eyes. His shoulders were rigid beneath Kurenai’s ghostly touch, with a tension that must have been obvious even to Danzou.
The old councilor’s gaze moved past Ginta, down the empty stairs, then returned. He dismissed his servant with a gesture and stepped back from the open door. “Come in, Monkey. We’ll be quite confidential here.”
Ginta bowed again and took the rest of the stairs at a steady pace. They crossed the narrow landing and came into a room that ran the full width of the house, its walls lined with filing cabinets and map-drawers, armor-chests and scroll-shelves. There was a massive desk with brush holders and paper stacks rigidly regimented across the surface, interrupted only by the slightly human touch of a wooden tray holding a teapot and a single cup. A folding screen—plain shoji paper, no painted cranes or mountains here—partially blocked off the back half of the room.
No wonder Danzou held his Tea Appreciation Society meetings at the Sakamoto estate.
The windows at the front of the house, overlooking the street, were locked and barred. Ginta glanced quickly through them, as if checking whether he’d been followed. Then, with a half-apologetic nod to Danzou, he investigated the narrow space behind the folding screen.
There was a small square table, already set up with a kotatsu against the winter’s chill, and a scattering of painfully thin floor cushions. There was a cabinet with an electric kettle and an array of tea things. At the back, a long open window looked out onto a narrow, utilitarian garden with a laundry line and a single spindly tree. Ginta peered out, then reached up as if to check the overhanging roof-tiles above.
“There’s no need,” Danzou said dryly. He shut the door and touched a seal carved into the wall. Chakra flared, racing around the walls. Ginta pulled himself hurriedly inside, leaving the window open. He was always thoughtful about avenues of retreat. Kurenai squeezed his shoulder in gratitude.
He shrugged back lightly against her grip. Then he walked back around the screen and said, “Sagara-san lied to the Council.”
Danzou stopped halfway to his desk. His face was iron. “Explain.”
“They have no idea how long the Hokage will be gone. Or even if he can return at all. He could even be dead. The Ichibi was uncontained when they both vanished to the Summoning Dimension.”
The corners of Danzou’s mouth compressed very slightly, as if he were repressing a smile. He said nothing, just nodded at Ginta to continue.
Ginta slipped his mask off and rubbed sweat from his face. He clipped the mask to his belt, as if he wanted to give this information as himself, not as ANBU Monkey. “A friend of mine was on the team that made the only known round trip to the Summoning Dimension. It was pure luck that they didn’t die on the way there. They were gone for weeks, but they thought it had just been a couple of days. And the only reason they made it back is—”
An almost infinitesimal hesitation, as if he didn’t believe the words he was about to say. “Supernatural intervention.”
Now where had he learned about the tanuki deal? Kurenai was certain the report hadn’t leaked to any of her friends in Intel. Perhaps Sagara or Oita had fed him the information, because its effect on Danzou was immediate: narrowed eyes, a hiss of breath. A long, evaluating look. And then an obvious moment of decision.
He held up a hand, as if to stop Ginta from continuing. Then he walked past them, around the screen again, to the small kotatsu table. He sat heavily, with a creak of aging bones that Kurenai considered just slightly over-affected, and gestured for Ginta to sit across from him.
There was no tea, but there was Danzou leaning in with a convincingly earnest expression. “Ginta-kun,” he said, a kindly uncle’s tone. “You realize that with Commander Sagara temporarily acting as the Hokage, you giving me this intel may be considered a violation of your oath to the Hokage. Are you sure you wish to continue?”
Ginta drew a deep, steadying breath. “My oath is to Konoha. Sworn to the Hokage, yes. But it’s to protect this village. If the threat comes from within, then…”
Another slow breath through his nose, jaw clenched. He laid his hands on the table, folded one over the other, white-knuckled. “Will you report me for treason for trying to keep the village leadership from falling prey to petty ambition?”
He was utterly wasted in ANBU.
But an Intel agent wouldn’t have the same access, the same avenues of trust. ANBU were the Hokage’s sworn soldiers, lethally sharp weapons who gave up their own will to the wielder. If Danzou saw the opportunity to seize one now, he’d be a fool to hesitate.
“I will not,” Danzou said, swelling with an almost paternal pride. “Please, continue. Tell me everything.”
Ginta settled a little more comfortably on his thin cushion, although his hipbones must have been digging into the floor. “Immediately after the Council meeting, Sagara, Oita, and Shibata convened at ANBU HQ. I wasn’t there for the whole discussion, but their plan seems to be for Sagara to continue to act as Hokage indefinitely. She was making the decisions, the others deferred to her. Not long into their meeting, a runner arrived with a privately coded message for Sagara, from Hatake Sadayo. She is confirmed alive, uninjured. She’s continuing to act as Konoha’s ambassador and has established a relationship with Suna’s new leadership.”
His polished, professional reporting cadence broke. The slightest edge of frustration entered his tone. “They dismissed me at that point. As far as I’m aware, there is not a Council meeting scheduled to share this new information. Acting as Hokage, Sagara could be trying to circumvent the Council and establish new terms with Suna through her personal connection with Ambassador Hatake.”
Danzou arranged his face into its most solemn lines. He drew a deep, bracing breath. “You understand that given what you have told me, I must act?”
Ginta shook his head. “What action do you mean to take?”
“Nothing that will concern you, for the moment,” Danzou said reassuringly. “I need more information. I need to know how far Sagara has managed to sink her influence into Konoha’s politics, how much further her ambition intends to reach.” His gaze sharpened, fierce as a hawk’s. “And I need you, Ginta-kun, to consider your future.”
The ferocity quenched: voice and expression were the kindly uncle once more. “You are risking a great deal, just giving me this information. Are you willing to continue? To be my eyes and ears within ANBU? Consider carefully. No one need know of our meeting, should you decide to choose the path of… caution.”
So polite of him not to say cowardice.
Of course the principled, brave, frustrated young ANBU officer Ginta was portraying would never even hear that insinuation. “I understand. Would you—” His voice rasped, as if he’d been speaking for too long; he broke off in annoyance, clearing his throat, and started again. “Would you permit me to consider this for the evening? I don’t want to make the decision in haste, even if my inclination is to agree. I wouldn’t have come to you at all if I hadn’t been willing to take the risk.” His voice rasped again. He coughed, discreetly, into his shoulder.
“Of course,” Danzou said, inclining his head regally. He creaked up to his feet and fetched a cup from the cabinet behind him. “Just a moment, I left a pot of tea warming.”
In the moment that he disappeared around the screen, Kurenai detached from Ginta’s shadow. She sank away from him, back into the shadows between the other edge of the screen and a tall wooden bookcase. There was just enough gap between the screen and the wall for her to see a slice of the room and most of Danzou’s desk, its numerous locking drawers, the pot of tea still steaming faintly on its tray.
Danzou picked up the pot, revealing a keep-warm seal carved into the bottom of the tray, and filled the new cup. “Too many people mistake recklessness for courage,” he continued. His voice raised slightly to carry, like one of the more pedantic Academy instructors. “Haste erodes wisdom and breeds regret.”
He came back to the table, placing a small woven coaster and the steaming ceramic cup in front of Ginta. “Take the time you need. Should you decide to continue working with me, I would welcome an invitation to tea at the Sakamoto estate.”
Ginta nodded his thanks. He took a long, grateful drink and set the cup down again with one more question. “My grandfather. If I accept this role, would he be involved? I don’t want to compromise his or my family’s safety. Of course I don’t intend to be discovered, but if somehow I were…”
Danzou smiled. “At my age, Ginta-kun, I don’t have so many friends left that I’d be willing to risk one of my closest. Rest assured, your grandfather and his family will not be compromised, no matter what you choose.”
And then only the pleasantries were left. Ginta finished his drink and thanked Danzou for the tea. Danzou thanked Ginta for the visit. He escorted Ginta to the door, excused himself from accompanying his guest down the stairs— “My knee troubles me in the evening—” but waited all the same to watch him go down. Ginta didn’t look back.
Danzou closed the door, locked and sealed it, and limped back towards his desk. The limp appeared to be genuine. So, finally, did his expression: mingled triumph, fear, and fury.
He sat at his desk, breathing heavily. After a moment he ground ink, reached for paper, and began to write. His shoulder blocked Kurenai’s view of the page, but she could guess at the contents. A note for his own files, memorializing Ginta’s leak? Messages to his coterie, preparing them for tomorrow’s Council meeting? Probably both, given his transition from the single large sheet to several smaller pieces.
But once he finished, he didn’t immediately go to the door or summon his servant to carry messages. He unlocked a desk drawer and took out a tiny scroll of tissue-thin paper, the sort that messenger-hawks carried. “Hatake Sadayo’s codes,” he muttered, spreading the message out on his desk. “No wonder Kuroda’s code didn’t work…”
He sat still for a moment, staring down at the message he couldn’t read.
Then he lifted his hand, letting the message roll up. He withdrew a kunai from his sleeve, pricked his thumb, and reached underneath the unlocked drawer. A tiny spark of chakra burst as the blood-seal activated. Danzou slid out a thin wooden compartment and dug through its contents, setting aside scrolls, papers, something that looked very much like the latest version of Intel’s field agents’ code-book…
“There you are.” He drew out a flat paper box, the size and thickness of a pack of cards, and dropped it distastefully on the desk. The code-books and papers went back into their hidden compartment before he turned back, almost reluctantly, to the box. Another swipe of blood opened it. Danzou shook the contents out into his hand.
A tiny glass vial, no more than five milligrams, half-full of a viscous red fluid. A little twist of white paper, folded in sharp curves and corners; origami, Kurenai recognized, after a puzzled moment. An origami snake?
Danzou set the little paper snake down onto the rim of his ink-stone, unscrewed the vial cap, and upended the contents over it.
Smoke bloomed. Kurenai was too far away to cough, but her breath still caught in her throat. She pressed her lips tight against any sound.
Because the tiny origami snake on Danzou’s desk had unfolded at that touch of blood into a real snake, slim and deadly, black-scaled with thin white stripes and a pale belly. It was barely the length of Danzou’s arm, but he shoved his chair back and leaned away as its small, flat head rose sluggishly from the desk.
The voice was a dry slither through leaves. “Why did you sssummon me? I wasss sssleeping.”
Danzou’s tense posture deliberately eased. He dropped the empty vial back into the box and wiped his hands on a handkerchief. His voice was cool, controlled, as he spoke treason. “I have questions for your master.”