Iga Saizōmi was, by all accounts, a lovely woman to be with. Aging gracefully, she was just entering middle age, with the barest hint of wrinkles adorning her beautiful features. Her smooth, alabaster skin and rose-red, shoulder length tresses marked her out as a mature beauty. Her hair was almost always tied neatly in a top bun, and she was always clothed in the simplest of white dresses and navy blue pinafores. With a kind smile and warm hazel eyes, few would have doubted her role as an orphanage matron, and indeed, she was adored by her charges.
In her prime though, she was known far and wide as Kirigakure Saizōmi, a testament to her unrivalled silent killing technique and use of Kirigakure no Jutsu. Her one and only student, Momochi Zabuza, was forging his name as a monstrously strong ninja in Kirigakure‘s employ, now a full-blown member of Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shū when she handed him the Kubikiribōchō. An orphan who had found her way through the notoriously hard to navigate Mizu no Kuni archipelago to reach Kirigakure proper, she was partial to other orphans. Retiring far earlier than the Mizukage had anticipated or desired, she took up the role of orphanage matron. Zabuza was rather disappointed that a blood-drenched woman like her would dedicate herself to caring for children instead of slaughtering Kiri‘s enemies, but she was adamant. Saizōmi was pretty sure Zabuza was just being whiny about seeing his formerly imperious sensei retiring to be someone as mundane as a caretaker of kids.
She was also the best spy in a certain gallant sage’s network. Approached during a mission against that very man, she was given a choice. She could go back to Kiri and live her life out as another kunoichi, dying on some obscure mission her madman Mizukage sent her out on, or she could work for him and help return Kirigakure to its former glory. Jiraiya had offered her the full resources Konoha could bring to the table without arousing suspicion, which was more than enough to fuel a rebellion. All she had to do was report the comings and goings of people surrounding her Kage.
That generous offer, along with the unspoken threat of death, brought Saizōmi into Jiraiya’s fold. In her years as Jiraiya’s spy, she had never been able to uncover anything useful about the Sandaime Mizukage, who had began the barbaric traditions of Chigiri no Sato. Nor had she found any evidence of manipulation of Yagura, who went from the sweetest teen she knew to the monster that everyone feared. But she, like many others, could tell there was someone powerful controlling their Mizukage. With that investigation cold, Jiraiya casually asked her to be his information relay for another spy he had. Saizōmi was quite surprised to find out Jiraiya had an informant in the upper echelons of Kiri‘s hierarchy, but chalked it up to the man’s aggravating brilliance at all things shinobi.
Then, before she knew it, she was the central hub for Jiraiya’s Kiri network. She hadn’t expected the pit she had stumbled into to grow so big; she was still a loyal Kiri shinobi. Thankfully, the information she passed along was never used for nefarious means to ensure Konoha had an upper hand. It wasn’t even possible to take advantage of the intel anyway; most of it involved the kekkei genkai purges Yagura reinstated, and the civil unrest was so terrible that no other village would even consider approaching Kiri. There was just no benefit to be gained from a country hell bent on tearing itself apart. Some of the information she passed along actually helped Kiri, by allowing Konoha-nin to take out their nukenin in missions that involve those particular traitors.
She supposed Jiraiya had a way with words and threats, to manipulate her into that position. She only regretted being played by the admittedly skilled sage so easily, and that she was essentially betraying her village, one that she had lost all love for. It was nothing like the gentler Kiri of her childhood; the blood that soaked the streets had changed that irrevocably. Her loyalty was now to the children in her care. Then, just as she thought she had done everything one could possibly do as a spy, Jiraiya gave her another surprise. She really should have ceased being stunned by the flamboyant man’s actions a long time ago, but then again, who would be insane enough to hand a former Kiri-nin the only child of the Yondaime Hokage?
It was both a gesture of trust and a subtle test for Saizōmi. She was trusted with the scion of Namikaze Minato and Uzumaki Kushina, and in return, she could drop her duties as his proxy in Kiri. If any harm came to the child, Jiraiya would crush her, body and soul. Then he would lay siege on Kiri and demolish the village until it was nothing more than cinder. It was a silent promise Saizōmi knew Jiraiya had the raw power and iron will to fulfill. She held in her hands the future prosperity of her collapsing nation, and the well being of one of the most important children ever conceived to the world. And that wasn’t even accounting for the bijū in his stomach, which Jiraiya also informed her of.
Saizōmi didn’t tell her employer, but she was, in reality, quite glad for the sudden turn of events. There was a major reason why Jiraiya had so much faith in her ability, so much so that she was his main contact in Kirigakure over other senior spies in Jiraiya’s network; her identity was completely forged. Her days before her ninja career was a mystery that not even the spymaster could decipher. It was a secret she was planning to take to her grave, given the potential problems it would cause. Until the little bundle of joy Jiraiya brought to her came along.
She finally had a blood relative to hand down all her knowledge to.
Leaving indentations in his steel walking cane, anyone in the vicinity could tell that Shimura Danzō was not a happy man. His attempt to take the new jinchūriki into his fold was foiled firstly by the personal, and unfortunately, competent guards that Sarutobi had appointed to be the child’s protector, and secondly by that thrice-damned Jiraiya, who had put the baby out of the way in some other country. Danzō’s spies from abroad had reported in one by one, but none of them had even a sniff of the presence of the child. Knowing Jiraiya, he probably put him where Danzō had the least reach. And given that Jiraiya was such a well-connected individual, Danzō wasn’t surprised he would have contacts where Danzō didn’t.
If he were a betting man, he would put the location of Naruto in either Kirigakure or Amegakure. His tentative alliance with Hanzō was still there, even if the legendary shinobi was far from pleased with Danzō’s meddling in Ame’s affairs. There was absolutely no news from there anyway. That left Kirigakure, which had a veritable wall even the powerful unit he had assembled couldn’t penetrate. How Jiraiya managed to get a whole army of contacts within the water-locked, xenophobic, disease-ridden and generally mad nation when no one else could, irked Danzō rather badly. He had even tried to hijack the network from Jiraiya once; futile didn’t even begin to describe that particular failure.
Danzō knew that Uzumaki Naruto was already effectively out of his reach for the foreseeable future, and that threw all of his plans for a loop. He was a patient man, and the Kyūbi‘s sudden release from Uzumaki Kushina, and the subsequent death of both her and the Yondaime was an unforeseen opportunity he was more than prepared to capitalize on. Then Jiraiya poked his nose about his godson, and practically demolished all of his plans. His grand plot for the Uchiha Ichizoku was going along fine; the endgame of controlling and using Kyūbi to enhance his and Konoha‘s strength however, was given a premature death. It essentially made decades of strategizing go down the drain.
Still, Danzō could wait. He had been denied the position of Hokage decades ago, and for the next decade or so, it would likely remain that way. But Danzō was a patient man, and he would not be denied of his great prize. Sarutobi was still too sentimental, too blinded by faith to see the truth of their village’s power, or lack of it. Danzō had greater ambitions than just peace with Kumo, who were still spoiling for a fight. He wanted the whole world, and he had been working towards that goal ever since Hiruzen had been chosen over him.
If he had more resources, he would dive right into Kirigakure to snatch Naruto and other kekkei genkai children back to Konoha. It would be a major coup for Konoha, and Kiri didn’t even want them there anyway. He could then build a set of soldiers blindingly loyal to him, all armed to the teeth with bloodline techniques. Orochimaru’s research would help immensely with that; there would be no need for bothersome breeding programs. Orochimaru was in advanced experimentation with the Mokuton already. It wouldn’t be long before the Sannin reached the breakthrough and gift Konoha with the prized kekkei genkai of the Shodai Hokage.
Releasing his vice grip on the cane, he clutched the stump that was once his right arm.
Terumī Mei kicked an innocent pebble alarmingly hard as she trudged through the deserted, misty streets of Kirigakure‘s market district. The citizens were far too fearful of mad shinobi to wander about outside, even in the day. It gave Mei time to think, time to brood, and time to lose all of her brittle ego and nonexistent self-esteem.
Shining beauty, indeed, the auburn-haired girl grumbled within, poking at her slightly pudgy abdomen. A quick glance at the reflective glass of a window told her that, no, she had not suddenly become gorgeous in the last ten minutes, nor did she grow boobs out of nowhere. Sighing, she punted the pebble once more, watching it soar through the air. She hated her name, and hated the fact that she had not filled out, nor grown to be the beautiful girl that her mother had promised years ago. She really was never going to find a proper husband, just like all those other girls had taunted her about…
Children being children, they had no clue about tact or societal propriety. Teasing was actually an integral part of social interactions between kids, and that continued into the teenage years. Mei was often the butt of jokes, given her plain, nondescript looks and her slightly chubby body, lacking the well-formed torsos of other teenage girls. It wasn’t her fault all the food she ate went to her tummy and thighs, instead of her chest and hips. No matter how hard she worked on her taijutsu, it only served to increase her metabolism and her hunger. It’s just not fair that other girls get nice bodies and pretty faces, but not me.
Although…she peered at the cylindrical tower that stood far taller and wider than other buildings in the village, sighing wistfully. She was glad that her friend of many years, Yagura, was Mizukage already. But the man she knew, the kind-hearted, generous Yagura…had turned into a demon from the dark depths of hell. He had been her only friend, the one that never judged her for her looks or her abilities. He knew very well the weight of expectation, the burden of reputation; being held to preconceived notions from his very birth. To others, he was a monster of a shinobi, figuratively and literally. To Mei though, he was merely the greatest friend one could ever have.
To everyone but Mei’s surprise, the universally disliked jinchūriki had wormed his way into people’s hearts, and became their leader in record time. He was younger than even the renowned Nidaime Mizukage of the infamous Hōzuki clan when he took over the reins of leadership. His mastery of the Sanbi was unparalleled amongst jinchūriki; only the rumors floating from Kumogakure spoke of another jinchūriki with comparable control over his beast. Mei was terribly proud of her friend, who had been the one to encourage her all throughout their ninja careers. She was still a lowly Chūnin by the time he made Kage, but she was not envious of her friend. She never reckoned she could make it big; it was the family expectations that drove her into the ground, stifling the life out of her.
But now, the man she had admired for so long was evidently destined for the loony bin, given the horrendous policies that have sprung up again during his reign. The bloody academy graduation examinations, the mindless kekkei genkai hunts (that Mei had managed to evade thus far, thank Kami for that), the morbid sport of hunting criminals like game…it saddened Mei to see their once beloved Mizukage turn into the very gory symbol for their bloodthirsty reputation overseas. He had sought to change those terrible ways the Sandaime Mizukage had instilled into Kirigakure by becoming Mizukage. Then the madness descended and the days of Chigiri no Sato merely continued.
She had tried to approach him several times, in hopes to snap him out of whatever mental mire he had fallen into. She was denied entry every time by the most visible and intimidating swordsman of the current generation; Hoshigaki Kisame. She was no chakra sensor, but even she could tell the man was dangerously strong, with a chakra well comparable to even their jinchūriki Mizukage and wielding the deadliest of the seven Kiri blades. And while the Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shū worked to keep others out of the tower, they also seemed to keep the Yondaime Mizukage devoid of human contact. Yagura continued to be cooped up in his tower as a result, never making an appearance outside.
The few times she managed to catch a glimpse of her formerly best friend, he seemed dazed and incognizant of his immediate surroundings. His usually sharp gaze, often softening when he met her, was vacant and unblinking. An oinin she worked with once, Ao, told her in confidence that it appeared as if the Mizukage was held under a genjutsu. Given that he had an acute sense for chakra and an uncanny ability to see everything and anything within a certain distance, Mei was inclined to believe him. The telltale signs of mind control were all there. There just remained the one question: who or what could be so powerful as to exert mental control over their Mizukage, who even possessed a bijū that can counteract most conventional genjutsu?
One day, Yagura-kun, I’ll break into that tower and wake you up from that funk, Mei clenched her fists, glaring at the central tower. I’ll kill whoever is doing this to you, I swear.
Twilight cloaked Konohagakure in riveting oranges and reds. The streets, so often busy with people from all walks of life, were slowly emptying as the last vestiges of daylight filtered away. The dipping sun enshrouded the imposing Hokage monument in a glowing halo as the stone faces watching over the village protectively. It was a view few appreciated fully. But for Sarutobi Hiruzen, it was a vista he cherished from the moment he stepped into the office of Kage, and will to the very last breath he heaved for his beloved village. Through three wars and numerous other conflicts, he was a battle-hardened man that enjoyed the peace and the serene beauty that accompanied. It was why he had installed such large windows in his office. It gave him the perfect view of Konoha, fanning out from the large mountain that shielded their northern flank.
Nothing in the world could make him give up on maintaining that tranquility that has ensconced Konoha in fits and starts since the birth of the shinobi village system. Sure, conflict took much out of Konoha and her citizens. But the village herself has never been taken, never been threatened in a substantial way. And the Sandaime Hokage intended to keep it that way for the remainder of his term. He understood, but could never relate to his rival’s unrelenting desire to stand at the top of a conquered world. Hate only begets hate.
But steel was needed even in times of peace, and Danzō provided ample amounts of that. The only reason Hiruzen kept Ne around even after he disbanded them was the stark lack of manpower Konoha suffered from since the Kyūbi‘s rampage. There was an urgent need to secure the borders, and Ne did that with quiet efficiency. Jiraiya was often too distracted by matters abroad to keep an eye out on internal affairs; Danzō more than made up for that with his covert forces.
The operatives he had planted in Danzō’s unit told him that the man was clearly sidetracked by something important to him though. Diverting small but significant forces away from border security was blatant even to the least astute of strategists. Hiruzen was often touted as the sharpest kunai in the drawer; it obviously wouldn’t escape his notice. The only thing left to uncover was Danzō’s real motives for his actions. Were they a ploy to augment his power via some nefarious and obscure means? Or was it all a red herring, to draw Sarutobi’s attention away from his true targets? The Sandaime loved chess only if it didn’t concern matters of national security.
Given Orochimaru’s even more erratic demeanour in recent months and his close association with Danzō for the past decade, it was all painting a rather disturbing picture. Throw all of that in with the increasing number of disappearing citizens and even ninja, and the swift isolation of the Uchiha and their subsequent demilitarization and segregation from the main ninja force…it was a recipe for disaster. As Sarutobi Hiruzen, he would really like for his rival and his once favoured student to be working towards Konoha‘s peace and prosperity alongside him, but the Hokage within him said to nip the threat in the bud before it could blossom and throw the village into serious jeopardy.
The rumours of a Sharingan controlling the Uchiha were not unjustified. A good look into the Kyubi’s eye during the attack told Hiruzen as much. But to accuse the Uchiha Ichizoku of revolt, when they had been loyal servants to Konoha‘s cause for the past seven decades, was myopic to say the least. It was not inconceivable that a rogue Uchiha was behind the plot that killed his wife, two ANBU and the Yondaime Hokage. Heck, Uchiha Mikoto was Uzumaki Kushina’s best friend. It didn’t add up. But Danzō pushed the allegations as much as he could without threatening his own position, then his old teammates decide to join into the foray on the crippled Shimura’s side.
Given Uchiha Madara’s complete command of the Kyūbi during his legendary clash with Senju Hashirama, it was possible that Danzō’s endgame was to be empowered with Sharingan capable of controlling the Kyūbi jinchūriki. The disappearing men and women were experimentation subjects, and Orochimaru was aiding Danzō in his plans, which coincided with his desire to become immortal and learn the secrets of the world. Sarutobi really regretted telling the young Orochimaru the story about the white snake; it looked like it was going to be a decision that was going to bite huge chunks out of his ass.
Thankfully for Hiruzen, Jiraiya’s action of compassion had brought the Kyūbi out of Danzō’s reach for an extended period of time. And without the worry of Danzō just capturing Naruto and breaking him in as a Ne operative, the Sandaime could plan a proper strategy to counter Danzō’s machinations. Reintegrating the Uchiha was one; it was just folly to let a battle-hardened clan renowned in the world, rot away as the police force of Konoha. Crime rates were low in the generally peaceful village anyway. Granted, Kumo might fight just a bit harder to lure some Uchiha out into battle, and snatch them off to do Kami knows what. But the added firepower from the clan could also serve to intimidate the power-hungry Sandaime Raikage from full-blown war.
Tracking Orochimaru was another. He loathed suspecting his own students of all people, but the man had been displaying far from comforting behaviour for years now. If the time came, well, perhaps he would get his ANBU to kill Orochimaru instead of doing the deed himself. There was a poetic justice about him ending the life of a monster he inadvertently created, but he doubted he could pull the finishing blow. If the lives of his men were in danger, then maybe Sarutobi could end Orochimaru. But he could definitely not go alone. He knew his faults better than anyone, and Orochimaru was a huge chink in his armour.
There were strategy calls to be made, deals to be cut, and murderous deeds to be done. But for now, Sarutobi Hiruzen would enjoy the sprawling panorama that spanned before him.
Momochi Zabuza frowned as his fellow swordsmen gleefully tore through another hidden establishment, filled to the brim with kekkei genkai wielders. The clan was famously known for the Futton abilities they wielded, but remained no match for the full might of the Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shū. The savagery and power that the current crop of swordsmen possessed meant that the clan was decimated in a mere two hours. There were a few who seemed to have escaped, but given the sheer amount of carnage that the elite Kiri-nin caused, they would likely have gone unnoticed.
Zabuza wondered if the blood he had shed since that fateful graduation day meant anything in the grand scheme of life. He was supposedly a monster given skin, a demon in human flesh. But he did not relish senseless violence. His teacher had made sure of that. The infamous Kirigakure Saizōmi was far too compassionate for a ninja of Chigiri no Sato, and Zabuza had inherited that annoying will of hers, even if he never really displayed it openly. To do that would crush his reputation and make him the mockery of his fellow swordsmen, and he had no intention of relinquishing Kubikiribōchō anytime soon.
There was nothing, no advantage to be had from massacring loyal ninja and unarmed civilians like that. Sure, the people were genuinely frightened of kekkei genkai wielders. But the bloodline wielders could defend themselves handily from the citizenry, and the ninjas weren’t that opposed to having strong comrades watching their back. There was something far more sinister going on behind the scenes that would have led to Yagura calling for these illogical cleansings once more. Zabuza had a feeling none of the other swordsmen but Kisame knew; he doubted any of them cared. The opportunity to shed blood, to murder and maim, was far too good for any of the bloodthirsty ninja to pass up. They wouldn’t care for the reasons behind the madness. Besides himself and Kisame, the rest of them were all veterans from before Yagura’s time, and they all supported the Sandaime’s brutal methods.
Kisame was the main messenger to the Mizukage at the current moment, and he had ascended to his position shortly after Yagura started displaying the murderous nature that no one would have expected from the kind-hearted and gentle man. Zabuza didn’t doubt Suikazan Fuguki was a traitor; that oily man only cared for his own health and wealth. But there had to be some tenuous link between the sudden death of Fuguki, the subsequent promotion of Kisame, and the sudden faith and confidence Yagura had in the swordsman. Zabuza knew of the Mizukage’s deep friendship with that Chūnin, Terumī Mei; it was thus a major surprise when Mei was suddenly barred from seeing the Mizukage, who only spoke to Kisame from then on.
There was no one but his former sensei to confide his worries to. He had comrades, but they were more acquaintances than friends and confidants. Given his relatively young age and his status as the newest member of the Kiri swordsmen, he doubted the older ninja within Kirigakure‘s forces would care for his words. Many of them were extremely jealous of his position in the elite group, and would rather stab him in the back than to help him solve the riddle of their Mizukage’s erratic behaviour. Chigiri no Sato was a source of pride for the veteran shinobi too, who reveled in the bloodier side of ninja work. There were only a few that would even consider confronting Yagura to either break him out of his spell, or kill him outright. Such was the apathy that pervaded the Kiri-nin population.
Zabuza personally thought it was ridiculous that people would just accept their leader suddenly diving into a fugue state, just because he continued the insanity his predecessor began and they were comfortable with that kind of life. It stymied the growth of the village, and it didn’t reflect well on Kirigakure ninjas or their suitability to missions that didn’t require murder and cruelty. The civil unrest and the massacres only reinforced the instability of the village, and by extension, the unstableness of Kiri-nin. To continue supporting such dastardly practices, even actively indulging in them, was not a very good indicator of acceptable mental health.
His teacher, the former wielder of the Dantō, confided in him the same views. It was disillusionment that had led to her retirement not long after Yagura took office, and led her to the humdrum life of being an orphanage matron. Zabuza personally thought it was a waste of her prodigious abilities, and that her leadership could potentially redeem Kirigakure. She merely laughed the idea of a coup d’état off, and told him that she had no designs on the position of Mizukage. Beyond his former teacher, there was no one else who seemed suitable enough to lead their broken nation through a likely tumultuous rebuilding process.
Zabuza wondered if he was good enough. He probably had the talent; although some would contest that the six-year-old Kijin no Sairai, Hōzuki Mangetsu, had far more potential and the added bonus of his clan being of Kage pedigree. The Hōzuki Ichizoku’s hidenjutsu were still some of the most feared and coveted of abilities, and Zabuza had no doubt Mangetsu would be wielding Hiramekarei soon enough. He didn’t know if the young prodigy had the ambition, but Zabuza certainly had the desire to see Kirigakure rise above the corruption and internal conflicts, and contest the title of greatest village with Konoha.
He would need supporters to pull off a coup, and while it was not impossible to gather sympathizers and people with similar thinking, it was difficult to reach all of them without arousing suspicion. Any ninja could be killed without rhyme or reason; only the slightest bit of doubt from the Mizukage or any of the Kiri no Shinobigatana Shichinin Shū would be sufficient to call for an execution. Already, he had seen many of his comrades killed by his fellow swordsmen for speaking with people possessing kekkei genkai.
But all of that would have to wait. For now, he had to work hard, to be seen as useful, to gain the trust of Yagura. He had to train, to discover the Yondaime Mizukage’s weaknesses, and find a suitable counter for a bijū. Then, once all those personal preparations were complete, he could ponder the possibility of pulling off a proper coup d’état.
Saizōmi was not too sure what the Yondaime Hokage was like before he was known across the Elemental Countries as a man not to cross, but she was pretty certain he was not as exuberant and enthusiastic about the world as his son was. Given the overflowing Yang chakra she could sense, just wafting off the boy’s open tenketsu, she figured it was the Uzumaki genes and Kyūbi‘s chakra that were driving her crazy. She definitely didn’t recall being as annoyingly curious as Naruto during her own childhood years though. Granted, her childhood was one long, arduous journey of training to prepare for the war everyone seemed to be gearing towards, and her teenage years were spent on the run, but that was beside the point.
The toddler of less than a year was terribly adventurous. Intrepidity was good; it would develop nicely into observational skills when the time came for Naruto to be a ninja. But as a child of a few months old, crawling around the entire orphanage with impunity, with no regards to the danger that lurked; being curious could be fatal. Heck, Saizōmi had a poor kid escape the orphanage to explore the big, wide world outside, only to be rendered quadriplegic by a stray kunai from some paranoid, schizophrenic Kiri-nin who thought he was an assassin out to murder. Kirigakure was really no place for children; especially children with as big an appetite for adventure as Naruto did.
Jiraiya better appreciate all this crap he’s putting me through, Saizōmi thought viciously, as she caught the little tyke stumbling through the corridors naked, yelling and screaming all the way. He didn’t look at all apologetic as he grinned toothlessly at his matron, waving his pudgy arms about excitedly. “Naruto-kun, how many times have I told you not to run about like that?”
The boy, though not yet able to speak or understand language in any form, was easily observant enough to note the chiding tone of Saizōmi’s words. Pouting, he widened his big cerulean eyes; somehow making them water in the slowest, most agonizingly cute manner. The baby didn’t bawl, as other children were wont to when reprimanded; he merely gave the impression of a reformed toddler, incredibly sad to have disappointed his beloved caretaker. Saizōmi sighed as her great willpower, honed by years in the brutal ninja service, crumbled instantly in the face of the unbearably cute baby.
“You’re lucky I like you so much, Naruto-kun,” Saizōmi ruffled his hair as she carried him to the dormitory, where his clothes were scattered about. “Just because we’re related doesn’t mean I can tolerate everything you do, hmm?”
The golden-haired child grinned, clapping his tiny hands together and laughed happily at the more cheerful tone of his rosette matron. She smiled as well, before utilizing all her skills as a top-notch Jōnin to dress the constantly fidgeting Naruto. That struggle complete, Naruto clambered off the bed he was perched on, and disappeared from the room faster than most Genin could. Sighing in exasperation, Saizōmi nonetheless had a wistful smile curving her lips as she once more tracked down her wayward ward. She really couldn’t wait until he grew up, and she could punish him for all his misdemeanors in the form of the most brutal training she could devise.
There was a reason why Zabuza went straight into ANBU right after he received his promotion to Chūnin after all.