Chapter 10: Eve of Hostilities

Tsunade was having a horrible day. First, she received news from the patrols on Hi no Kuni‘s western borders that the trio of smaller hidden villages were infringing on Hi no Kuni‘s land along the rather long and poorly maintained western front. Their forces were quickly driven off Hi no Kuni‘s hinterlands, but it was another sign that war was imminent.

As individual villages, Tani, Kusa and Taki were not anything spectacular. They produced average to mediocre shinobi, only unearthing a gem every once in a while. But together, their numbers were even larger than Suna, albeit of worse quality. Prior to the invasion by Suna, Konoha and Hi no Kuni‘s western borders were relatively safe. Taki was a long time ally of Konoha’s, and Kusa was neutral. Ame was embroiled in internal strife, posing little threat. And Tani was born from the Second War, a buffer state between Suna and Konoha. Their village was the worst out of the four, being that their people often went to Suna or Konoha to hire the better ninjas there. But post-invasion, they obviously saw the chinks in the armour of Konoha that were first exposed by Iwa in the Third War. Konoha was no longer as strong as it was, and it could no longer maintain its dominance in the world. Hi no Kuni was ripe for the picking.

Then, a year and and a half after that, Konoha and Hi no Kuni wiped out Otogakure and Ta no Kuni. It was a warning to other countries and villages that while Konoha was in the process of recovery after numerous wars and conflicts, they were still a force to be reckoned with. Along with the emergence of Naruto, it was a deterrent against war with Konoha. Even if victory was secured, it would most certainly be Pyrrhic. Two years on, the trio of smaller hidden villages (except Ame, which was still practising isolationism) came together and formed a tentative alliance. It worried Konoha, but it didn’t warrant anything more than increased patrols along those borders. After all, Suna’s alliance with Konoha strengthened considerably after Gaara ascended to the Kage position, and Tani was squashed between them.

But with news that the Sangokudōmei was bold enough to start entering Hi no Kuni, it meant that they were fully prepared to go down the long bloody road of war against Konoha. It was inconceivable for the alliance to gain enough confidence and supplies to even consider invading, unless they had backup from another of the Great Five. And the only one near there, the only one still carrying a massive grudge against Konoha, was Iwagakure. And Tsunade really hated the idea of fighting another war with Iwa. The last one had wrought immense damage to Hi no Kuni, devastating large tracts of land from the fighting. Only with the meteoric rise of Namikaze Minato had Konoha been able to repel Iwa.

After that piece of news, she had to make plans for war. Calling up a war council was simple, but it was far from productive. Arrogance had seeped into Konoha’s upper echelons after Otogakure’s crushing defeat at Konoha’s hands, and half the council was extremely confident in victory against the Sangokudōmei, even if Iwa was lending support. The other half was more ambivalent, unsure if there was that urgent a need to mobilise, given the relative weakness of the alliance’s shinobi forces.

An exhausting five hours of arguments and nothing accomplished later, Tsunade had settled down for a quick drink when Jiraiya barged through her window flamboyantly. He was treated to a first class flight experience across Konoha’s twilight sky, courtesy of a painful fist to the face. Before Tsunade could touch her lips to her bottle, another person burst through her now open (and broken) window. Irritated, stressed and thoroughly unamused, she went through the motions of punching the intruder, only to stop short of crashing her knuckles into Naruto’s face.

“Not a good time, Tsunade-kaachan?” Naruto asked weakly, his feet rooted to the spot.

He was answered with a smothering hug from Tsunade, who mashed Naruto’s head between her prodigous breasts as she happily reacquainted herself with her favourite brat. Only when Naruto’s flailing arms started to wane did she release the Chūnin from her suffocating bosom, beaming widely at the teen. “It’s great to see you, gaki. How have you been?”

“Fine,” the azure-eyed shinobi gasped. “Better than ever.”

“That’s great!” Tsunade grinned, before taking a seat. She hadn’t seen Naruto since the war with Otogakure ended more than a year ago. They solidifed their relationship during the war, and Naruto now addressed the Godaime as ‘mother’. She became the mother he never had, and he became the son she wished she had. “Found a girlfriend yet?”

“Kaachan!” Naruto spluttered indignantly, as Benihime rattled in her sheath angrily.

Tsunade shrugged, the motion doing some interesting things to her chest. Naruto pointedly kept his eyes away as the blond woman grinned in a shark-like manner. “All mothers want to have granchildren to coddle. And my son is a handsome young lad. I’m surprised girls aren’t throwing themselves at you.”

“Actually…they are…” Naruto rubbed the back of his head embarrassedly. “But Benihime chased them away.”

Tsunade quirked an eyebrow. “You know, if I didn’t know about your sword’s sentience, I would say you have a major fetish for weapons. And as much aa either of you would like to deny it, it’s not a healthy relationship at all.”

Naruto felt like he needed to argue, but as much as his heart fought against Tsunade’s words, his mind knew better. And so did Benihime, it seemed, as she remained still in her sheath. The blond sighed, but before he could say something to try and defend the relationship he had with Benihime, he was halted by none other than the sword. Naru-kun…let me have a chat with Tsunade instead.

Huh?

Benihime rolled her eyes. Stop acting dumb. I won’t do anything crazy, don’t worry. I…I just want to speak to someone else for a change. Privately though.

Naruto scratched his head bemusedly, but acquiesced. “Kaachan…Beni-chan wishes to speak to you privately. I’ll leave her here.”

Tsunade watched as her surrogate son placed his blade on her desk, bowing before leaving via the window, no doubt to Ichiraku Ramen for a few bowls of piping hot noodles. As Naruto left, Benihime’s crimson energy seeped out of the sheath, coalescing into Benihime’s human form. The woman bowed respectfully at Tsunade, who returned the gesture with a nod. “So…what exactly is it that you wish to speak to me about?”

Benihime chewed on her lip gently. “It’s been a very long time since I even spoke to someone. And for the past three years, I’ve only spoken with Naruto. I…I admit, I have little idea of what societal norms are, what is considered appropriate in a relationship. I raised the issue about…family…with Naruto before, but he dismissed my concerns. And I don’t know what I should do.”

“What did Naruto say, when he dismissed those concerns of yours?” Tsunade asked, curious about Naruto’s state of mind.

“I believe he said something along the lines of no girl in Konoha wanting him,” Benihime replied morosely. “His self-confidence took big hits from his childhood, and I don’t think he’s ever truly recovered from it.”

“And you, probably the first woman to ever show any amount of affection to him beyond a friendly greeting, became a pillar in his life,” Tsunade concluded. “I’m guessing he also feels that you have been pivotal in his life as well?”

Benihime nodded ruefully. “I told him countless times it’s his own hard work and talent, but he insists that without me, he would be nowhere now.”

“He has always been rather stubborn,” Tsunade smiled fondly, before her countenance grew more serious. “If Naruto does find a girl whom he loves, will you let him go?”

The spirit nodded emphatically. “Ideally, I wish to be the one to grant him the family he covets so much. But if there is a girl he likes, and if he is willing to give me up, then I will give him my blessings. He has been a wonderful wielder, and a bright spot in my long and admittedly rather boring life. He’s been giving to others since he was born. He, of all people, deserves to be selfish too.”

Tsunade sighed deeply, taking a long draught of her sake. She endured tons of crap as Hokage for the day already, and now she was plagued with her surrogate son’s relationship troubles. She blamed Naruto on both accounts. She eyed the slightly transluscent figure of Benihime critically, sipping her sake slowly as she considered her next words. “You know, if you weren’t the spirit of a sentient sword the gaki found in the Scroll of Seals, placed there by my grandfather, then I would be talking about marriage preparations already. But you are, and that poses a problem.”

Benihime didn’t protest. Tsunade took that as a good sign. “Both of us want Naruto to be happy. And currently, he’s happy with you. Eventually though, he’ll be seeking a way to have a family with you. That’s the truth, and both of us know it. It’s not a situation I relish. To give you a flesh and blood body will definitely require kinjutsu and sacrifices to be made. Naruto is not stupid, but he’ll go to lengths that others will deem bat-shit insane.”

“I don’t know what I can do to resolve the situation,” Tsunade sighed, downing another mouthful of alcohol. “Breaking your current relationship up might crush Naruto, but if we don’t, then he might do extreme things to make it work. From what I see, we can only hope for some miracle to happen.”

“Status quo?” Benihime asked tentatively.

“For now,” Tsunade nodded. “War is looming, and we need Naruto at his peak. Keep the boy safe for me, will you?”

“Of course.”

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Omoi was a worrywart. He had a vivid imagination, that coupled with his slippery slope thinking, led to quite a bit of paranoia. It didn’t help that his job was to kill people and avoid being killed by people, a job that required a fair bit of paranoia in itself. Usually, psyche reports evaluating his mental stability would have been conducted when he was but a child in ninja school, and the teachers would usually relegate him to a desk job. Sure, a healthy dose of paranoia and expect-the-worst attitude was wonderful for their profession, but too much seriously grated on the nerves. He would make a terrible ninja, breaking from the stress in a few years.

But Kumogakure recognised talent and potential, more so than anything else. They didn’t give two hoots if you were gay for the Raikage; if you have the potential to perform your duties as a ninja well, then you’re gonna be a ninja. Omoi was thus thrust into the Raikage’s brother’s team, along with Karui and Samui. Kirābī wasn’t allowed out of the village unless there was a major emergency or need for him, and the academy authorities felt it was a good choice of teacher for Omoi. Some even speculated that he might stop worrying so much when the most capable Genin of his generation, Samui, was placed on his team.

The team assignments did nothing to curb his worrying; hell, it increased it due to exposure to Karui’s general hotheadedness. The only saving grace was that Kirābī, for all his horror rapping, was a capable teacher, moulding the trio into the most efficient and effective fighting unit in Kumogakure, bar none. It allowed Omoi to develop his potential, and turn his worry of death to more mundane things. Such as his current predicament.

“Hmm…I don’t know. I don’t like this,” the dark-skinned teen muttered, as Team Samui and their sensei trudged through the sparse forests that blanketed the landscape of Kaminari no Kuni. “This annexation of Shimo no Kuni sounds bad. What if I accidentally save a woman who falls in love with me, and kills herself in sorrow when I leave? Or worse, what if she’s not a she, but a he?”

“Enough of your crazy worrying!” Karui yelled in annoyance.

“Stop fooling around,” Samui ordered coldly. “We are the vanguard for the main Kumo force, and even if our opponents are merely samurai of the Shimo daimyō, they can still pose some danger.”

“Don’t worry, young Samui!~” Bee grinned, slipping into a ridiculous pose. “Kirābī is there to take care of it!~”

Omoi frowned deeply, the stick of his lollipop bobbing between his lips. “But what if the country is like their namesake? Going there, we might not be able to adapt to the cold, and might even get frostbite! Then we’ll all lose a few limbs, and we’ll be unable to get back to Kumo! I’ll be a cripple, and no woman will want me, and I’ll die a lonely man!”

As Karui violently expressed her thoughts on Omoi’s latest worry, and Kirābī recording down another idea for a rap in his rhyme book, Samui wished she could find a nice young man who could appreciate a sword and was not crazy like most of the ninjas in the world. Preferably blond, lightly tanned and had blue eyes. Strong too; Samui respected strength. She would hate to accidentally kill her boyfriend if she got angry.

Like the last few times.

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Naruto sneezed, before a sudden chill crawled up his spine. The blond shuddered as unbidden thoughts of being skinned, salted and quartered rose to the forefront of his mind before he shook his head vigorously, hoping to shake those disturbing images away as well. The sweet, addictive aroma of the blessed noodles of Ichiraku origin brought him away from his stray thoughts and back to the present. Inhaling the delectable smell that rose from the ceramic bowl of wonders, Naruto cheerfully dug in.

In a puff of smoke, the blond Chūnin found himself slurping a large mouthful of wriggling, live worms. Shima laughed uproariously as Naruto spat out the pink worms, gagging heavily. Fukusaku shook his head, a wide grin splitting his face. “Naruto. The Great Toad Sage wishes to speak to you. He has a prophecy involving you.”

The azure-eyed teen’s eyes widened; he knew of the significance of such an event. He had spoken to the senile toad once before, but it was only asking for advice on whether he should try controlling Kyūbi’s chakra. As vague as his words were, they all came true, which raised Naruto’s respect for the old toad sage. Naruto didn’t know whether to look forward to seeing him again or not; he didn’t know if the prophecy involving him would be good or bad, and he really hated the suspense. Hence, anxiousness bubbling beneath his calm exterior, Naruto followed Fukusaku and Shima towards where the Great Toad Sage sat.

“Ōgama-jiji!” Naruto greeted.

The toad sage looked confused for a moment. Fukusaku coughed lightly. “It’s Uzumaki Naruto, Ōjiji-sama.”

“Ah!” the sage nodded, a light upturn of his lips showing his delight. “Yes, Uzumaki Naruto. You are Jiraiya-chan’s apprentice, yes?”

“Hai, Ōgama-jiji,” Naruto answered.

“Good, good. Now, I just saw a prophecy…who are you?” the sage said, confusion tinging his voice. Shima slapped her forehead in exasperation. “That’s Naruto-chan, you old coot!”

“Naruto, yes, yes,” the large toad nodded sagely. “What was I saying again?”

“The prophecy,” Fukusaku reminded helpfully. The Ōgama Sennin exclaimed in acknowledgment. “Yes, the prophecy! Hmm, Naruto-chan, let me recall what the prophecy is…ah, yes. You will lose something precious to you, but in return gain something even more precious. You will fight many battles, and you will be recognised as a strong shinobi. But trouble is never far away from you. Be wary, for many enemies with strong eyes will fight you. But fear not, for your legacy will be strong.”

Naruto scratched his whiskered cheek. “Woah…that’s a lot to take in, vague as it is. But thanks, Ōgama-jiji.”

Fukusaku hopped over to Naruto. “Okay, I guess you might want some time alone to mull things over. But Ōjiji-sama’s predictions have never been wrong, so I suggest you just carry on with life, and you’ll find out what he meant. Off ya go!”

Before Naruto could say goodbye, he found himself materalising back in his (thankfully) empty seat at Ichiraku. His steaming bowl of ramen was still seated on the counter, enticing him with its sweet aroma. Grinning, Naruto was about to devour the godly ramen he had been deprived of when he felt a tap on his shoulder. Annoyed, he turned his head to glare at the offender, only to come face to face with Shikamaru’s bored visage. Irritation draining away, he grinned widely at his friend. “Yo! What’s up?”

“Hokage-sama wishes to see us,” Shikamaru drawled boredly. “C’mon, before that troublesome woman blows her top.”

Naruto sobbed pitifully as he was cruelly separated from his beloved ramen. I swear I will come back!

Enough theatrics, Naru-kun, Benihime rolled her eyes.

Hypocrite.

Careful. Remember, I can embarrass you with utter ease. Your little friend down there isn’t very easy to hide you know.

fine. You win.

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“Woah…this is some serious gathering,” Naruto commented, as various legends of Konoha were all concentrated in a single office. “All of Konoha’s strongest ninjas in one place.”

Sarutobi Hiruzen smiled fondly at his adoptive grandson. “Naruto-kun. It has been a while since I saw you.”

“Jiji!” Naruto grinned. “How’s retirement going for you?”

“Not so good,” the man admitted. “Not when I’m still trying to find leads on Hibashira-kun’s disappearance.”

Naruto frowned lightly, before he dispelled his less savoury thoughts. “I’m sure you’ll find something eventually, jiji. So, what exactly is this meeting for? It’s all the high ranking people here, and while Shikamaru’s a genius, I’m just a Chūnin.”

“Gaki, just pay attention and you’ll find out,” Tsunade rolled her eyes. “Before we start the meeting, I’m officially promoting Uzumaki Naruto to Jōnin. Congratulations, brat.”

Naruto blinked owlishly, before scratching the back of his head sheepishly. “Er…am I supposed to say something besides thanks?”

Various shinobi in the room chuckled, while Gai went into a rather loud rant about the ‘hipness of Uzumaki-san’. Needless to say, it severly grated on Tsunade’s nerves. The Godaime slammed her palm on her desk loudly, her temple throbbing. Everyone wisely shut up. “We don’t have any time to waste. Right now, we could be embroiled in a two-front war, and we have to make preparations for it. The war council I assembled earlier was useless; they can’t see through the rose-tinted glasses they put on ever since we put the smackdown on Otogakure. Hence, I’m assembling a new council, made up of all of you. I should never have consulted those silly civilians in the first place.”

“In any case, we will have to organise our troops for the oncoming battles, and the few of you will become commanders of our forces on different fronts. Kakashi, you will be overall commander of our forces against the Sangokudōmei, whom we have reason to believe could be working with Iwagakure. Your reputation should precede you there, and it should be a great morale booster for us. Gai and Asuma will also be on that front. Coordination with Suna is key; they are our staunch allies in this conflict, and the Godaime Kazekage has declared full support. We’ll have to thank Naruto for that.”

“With all due respect, Hokage-sama,” Asuma interrupted, blowing a lazy ring of smoke above his head. “But that is only one front. There isn’t anything that indicates another front.”

Tsunade sighed heavily. “Truth be told, I am rather reluctant to rely on nothing but rumours. But they paint a rather worrying picture when placed together, and I don’t want to be caught unprepared from behind.”

Jiraiya picked up from where Tsunade left off. “The possible enemy we have in question here is Kirigakure.”

“They are still in that bloody civil war of theirs, are they not?” Kakashi drawled lazily. “Unless it has ended.”

“Precisely that. Momochi Zabuza has provided some sketchy information, but even with the reservations we have with regards to what sort of intel we get from him, we can’t just disregard it,” Tsunade replied seriously. “From what he told us, Yagura has been overthrown and replaced by a kekkei genkai wielder. That particular bit of information has not been confirmed, but if true, it means that their internal strife is over, and has been for three years or more.”

“That doesn’t mean anything by itself,” Shikamaru pointed out.

“Hai, but the daimyō has brought in some news about his ships disappearing and returning as wrecks. These are not merchant ships, but naval forces of Hi no Kuni. The ships have been attacked off our southeastern coast, and the only military force there that could do such damage to entire fleets is Kirigakure. There’s no substantial evidence of course, but the finger-pointing will start eventually,” Tsunade stated. “And whoever is conducting these operations against Hi no Kuni fleets can’t be stupid enough to do so without adequate preparation for a war, which such action demands.”

“Wait, did you say Momochi Zabuza?” Kakashi asked curiously. “Isn’t he a nukenin?”

“He was hired by Gatō of Gatō Corporation. Naruto captured him when we freed Nami no Kuni from Gatō and brought them under Hi no Kuni‘s protection,” Jiraiya explained casually. “He volunteered all the information he had on Kiri, which is an intel black hole for most ninja villages due to the danger inherent in sending operatives into an openly hostile and chaotic country like Mizu no Kuni. We have eyes on him of course. He was highly reluctant to convert when first captured, but suddenly changed his mind in between sessions with Ibiki. That could mean he’s using Konoha as a platform to launch another coup d’état.”

“Pitting the two countries together in a war so he can slip in and become Mizukage,” Tsunade completed. “He can’t possibly be able to do all this alone too, so there could be a faction that wishes to aid Zabuza into power. In any case, this is all conjecture, and we cannot be sure about anything except the possibility of war.”

“So, what are our chances?” Gai questioned, abnormally serious in demeanour. Tsunade shrugged resignedly. “We have no clue. They were stuck in civil war for so long, they just went under the radar. We always had other concerns than Kiri, and they never participated in a single war outside of the islands. They are almost as bad as Amegakure in that regard. We simply have no clue as to their threat to us, and we’ll have to be prepared to face a Kiri with the capability of fighting us evenly at minimum.”

“So who are you putting on that front?” Sarutobi enquired.

“You and Jiraiya,” Tsunade answered. “We have no idea what they are capable of, and two of you have even stronger reputations than Kakashi. Your presence will hopefully serve as a deterrent. If worst comes to worst, well, you two are the most experienced shinobi we have on our books. You’ll just have to cope with whatever Kiri can throw at us.”

“So, Tsunade-sama, where does that leave me?” Naruto queried embarrassedly. “I know Shikamaru is probably in charge of strategy, so that leaves me the only person in this office without a specific roles to play.”

“You’ll be taking over Sarutobi-sensei’s current role,” Tsunade frowned lightly, her forehead creasing. “As much as I dislike this decision, the daimyō still has not given up on his daughter. You’ll have to pick up the investigation of course, despite your vested interest in the case. Your stock has soared since the Ta no Kuni invasion, and since the daimyō regards you highly, there should be no problems. Of course, Akatsuki is still a threat, so you’ll have to be very wary.”

“Hokage-sama, not to be rude, but Naruto is a damn strong ninja,” Shikamaru knitted his eyebrows. “It doesn’t make sense to pull him away from the battlefront where he can be a massive boon to our forces. Everyone in Konoha knows he took out half of Oto by himself, and having him fighting is far more important than catering to the daimyō’s wishes at this critical juncture.”

“Don’t worry, we’ve already made provisions for that,” Tsunade smiled knowingly. “Jiraiya has crafted reverse summoning scrolls to summon Naruto. With those scrolls, one with Kakashi and the other with Sarutobi-sensei, we can deploy Naruto to the battlefields if need be. I would also rather keep Naruto in reserve, in case there arises another country wishing to take advantage of us in the wars to come. Kumo has been spoiling for a fight ever since we fought them to a standstill twelve years ago. Spies have reported a drastic fall in mission acceptance rates, and that is a cause for concern.”

“Another Great War huh?” Asuma whistled lowly. “We always seem to be fighting in ’em.”

“Geographically, we’re the easiest target out of the Great Five,” Jiraiya shrugged nonchalantly. “There’s nothing we can do about it.”

“Now that we’ve establishing the chain of command, we will have to draw up some battle plans, particularly for the western front,” Tsunade declared, unfurling a huge map of the Elemental Countries on her table. “Shall we begin?”

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“Presposterous!” a man thundered, his face crimson with apoplectic rage. “His demands are over the top!”

The other two men at the table cast unsypathetic looks at their comrade. “Calm yourself down, Oda-san. It is of no use raging about it. We are strong, no doubt, but it is still ridiculous to even contemplate defeating one of the Great Five, let alone the one touted as the strongest of them all.”

“Toyotomi-san is right,” the last man murmured. “Let us discuss this proposal like civilised men.”

“Very well,” Oda Nobunaga growled, his unhappiness clear. Toyotomi Hideyoshi smiled at his ally. “Now, Amegakure’s proposal is not a bad one. This…Pain…has toppled Hanzō singlehandedly. We cannot verify the veracity of these words, but it is clear that Hanzō is no longer in power. He has offered services of ten S-rank ninjas, all highly wanted criminals, to our cause. If he comes true to his word, then we will have an advantage in the upcoming war.”

“And all he seeks is Fū, and if we defeat Konoha, the Godaime Kazekage and Uzumaki Naruto,” Tokugawa Ieyasu completed. “It might seem a tad impossible to capture those two shinobi, but Pain has offered to do it with his own men, leaving us only having to commit Fū to him.”

“And you will let his madman get his hands on three jinchūriki?” Oda hissed, his eyes narrowed to slits. “You two are insane!”

“Losing the Godaime Kazekage will be a massive blow to Suna’s forces,” Toyotomi reasoned calmly. “And the same applies for Uzumaki Naruto. If Pain captures them, then we will have the upper hand in the war. And at the end of it, we can easily turn on Pain.”

“He is a deluded man with a superiority complex,” Tokugawa scorned. “We might not be as strong as a larger nation, but the Sangokudōmei is more than enough to crush a broken country like Amegakure. Even if Pain has galvanised the troops, the wounds inflicted by civil war are not so easy to heal. They have only just emerged from the ashes of internal strife. They are ripe for the picking.”

“And you do not fear the threat of ten S-rank ninja, along with Pain?” Oda asked civily, his previous fury ebbing away. “If he defeated Hanzō on his own, then he is someone to be feared. Hanzō could take over an entire country on his own. And with ten S-rank ninja, who is to say he wouldn’t turn on us and rip us to shreds?”

“We have Iwagakure as our backers,” Tokugawa reminded Oda. “Don’t forget, Ōnoki is still a formidable foe, comparable to Hanzō. There is nothing to fear from Ame.”

“Let us hope you are right,” Oda grumbled.

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Yamana Sōzen inhaled slowly, the tobacco smoke soothing his fraying nerves. Rebelling and plotting a coup d’état took a toll, even for a man as experienced as he. Hair greying, he wondered if it was all worth it. Taking another long drag from his old-fashioned pipe, he casually addressed his subordinate. “Masahiro. How are things?”

Ōuchi Masahiro sighed heavily. Sōzen resolved to teach his troops better control over their emotions. It was embarrassing how easy it was to read them. Children, really, Sōzen mused absently, his mind drifting to a darker time. “I did ask you a question, Masahiro.”

“Hai, Yamana-sama!” the man straightened, afraid to anger his superior. There was only so much blood a human body could lose, after all. “From the reports of our men posted in Nami no Kuni, Jiraiya of the Sannin was spotted in the country. It is as you predicted; Konoha is most likely going to use Nami no Kuni as a staging point for any war efforts on their eastern front.”

“And Kirigakure?” Sōzen queried, blowing smoke into the cool sea breeze.

Masahiro shook his head. “Ashikaga Yoshihisa reports that the Mizukage is considering the proposal for war, but is not convinced.”

“She will be once Konoha is dragged into war with the Sangokudōmei,” the older shinobi replied matter-of-factly. “After all, they are backed by mighty Iwagakure, and the proposal from Ryōtenbin no Ōnoki himself has included rather beneficial terms for Kirigakure. There is nothing to fear. Our plan will succeed.”

“And the prisoner?” Masahiro questioned, wincing when he realised that he had spoken rather out of line. “Suimasen, I didn’t mean to-”

“Iie, you reminded me of something we have to do,” Sōzen remarked. “Draw a vial of blood from the princess, and send it to the Hi no Kuni daimyō. Keep him in suspense as to the fate of his daughter. It will make him more pliable to our proposal.”

“Very well, Yamana-sama,” Masahiro nodded, before leaving for the dungeons that held the princess.

Sōzen smiled coldly as he gazed upon the open seas. Soon.

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Three years….three years since Hibashira-hime was kidnapped, Naruto knitted his brows together, surveying his surroundings with mild discontent. If there was evidence, jiji and Jiraiya-sensei would have found it a long time ago. My presence here is pointless.

It’s to show support, Benihime reminded her liege helpfully. Even Konoha cannot support itself through a major war without the help of the courts.

Naruto nodded absentmindedly at his blade’s reply, attempting to reimagine the way the kidnappers might have entered the establishment to whisk Asuka from her room in the middle of the day. His attempts were fruitless, distracted as he was by the thought of the missing princess, held in unknown hands for three years. Clenching his fists, the blond took a few seconds to calm himself down. As he was about to clamber out of Asuka’s room window to study the exterior, he was interrupted by a shout from a servant bursting into the room unceremoniously.

“Uzumaki-sama! Uzumaki-sama!” the maid shrieked in obvious distress. “Daimyō-sama has received something with regards to hime-sama! Please come!”

Nodding tersely, Naruto swiftly strode out of the princess’s room, following the distraught maid as she scuttled towards the meeting room where the daimyō convened with his advisors. The maid opened the ornately-designed doors, bowing deeply at the seated leader. “Daimyō-sama, Uzumaki-sama is here.”

“Let him in!” the man ordered, his voice fluttering with anxiety.

Naruto thanked the maid kindly as she scrambled aside to allow the blond Jōnin through, before entering the large chambers where the daimyō awaited him. The room, lavishly decorated, was bereft of human activity. Surprising, given how much trust the daimyō seems to have in his advisors, Naruto mused, as he slid into a traditional seiza position before the seated leader of Hi no Kuni. The man had visibly aged since the last time Naruto had seen him; his daughter’s disappearance had evidently taken its toll on him.

“Uzumaki-kun, I shall not beat about the bush here,” the daimyō began, his tone fluctuating between relief and worry. “We have just received a vial of blood that our iryō-nin have identified as my Asuka-chan’s.”

Naruto’s eyes narrowed. As much as he was glad that Asuka was potentially alive, there had to be more. He had to admit, he wasn’t the sharpest kunai in the weapons pouch, but since his Genin days, he had improved immensely with regards to analytical thinking. “Was there anything else that came with the vial?”

“Iie,” the daimyō shook his head. “But it means Asuka-chan is alive, does it not?”

Naruto bit his lip, unsure of how to answer the question. Blood, with the judicious use of fūinjutsu, could be preserved easily. There was no guarantee. But even Naruto wanted to hope. “Perhaps, daimyō-sama, it would be better to keep your expectations lower. We cannot be sure about this; Hibashira-hime went missing for three years before any news about her arrived. It is rather suspicious, and I intend to get to the bottom of it.”

The hope that had slowly filled the man’s eyes faded in an instant. Nodding solemnly, the daimyō gestured for Naruto to leave, which the blond did so compliantly. He had quite a bit of thinking to do, and a vial to examine thoroughly.

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Sabaku no Gaara frowned as he stared intently at a map of Kaze no Kuni, specifically the northern and eastern borders of his country. Around him were his various advisors, his siblings and his former Jōnin instructor. Spread across the entirety of the gigantic table that was seated in the middle of the Council meeting room, the map was covered with various pins and arrows, indicating movement of troops, weapons and supplies. It also showed the Godaime Kazekage the severity of the escalating situation with the Sangokudōmei.

“I think it’s pretty redundant to say that our patrols have observed a marked increase in enemy movements around the borders of Kaze no Kuni,” Gaara intoned. “However, what is worrying is the pattern that is emerging. The attacks from the eastern border are expected; Tanigakure is there, and situated between Konoha and Suna, it is the most vulnerable and the most suitable staging point for any attacks on either country. However, the attacks along our northern border are less clear. The methodology does not fit the modus operandi of any of the three members of the Sangokudōmei, or even Iwagakure. They most resemble that of Konoha, which is a cause for grave concern.”

“Perhaps they are trying to strain our ties with Konoha?” Temari ventured.

“Perhaps,” Baki nodded. “Or perhaps, it is the work of a Konoha criminal. Either way, it is an attempt to destabilise Suna, and distract us from the larger threat.”

“Gaara-sama,” Yūra spoke up. “Forgive me if I offend you in any way, but is it wise to be so committed to our alliance with Konohagakure? Suna has only just begun the journey of recovery, and being embroiled in a war that is outside our jurisdiction seems a bit foolish.”

“Konoha will leap to our rescue now if we were invaded,” Gaara replied calmly. “It is…an unorthodox approach in the shinobi world, but I am confident that it will succeed.”

Yūra nodded respectfully, allowing his leader to continue the discussion. Gaara gestured at the map, pointing out the general area of attacks. “It seems that the attackers are based in Ishi no Kuni. We are to assume that they are now a hostile force, and deploy more troops to protect the border.”

“And our eastern front?” Kankuro queried. “Shouldn’t we put more focus there?”

“Konoha is more than capable of holding their own against three minor shinobi villages,” Gaara answered. “I am far more worried about our northern borders. There is an unknown variable at work, and thus is far too dangerous to be left unattended. The eastern front is not an issue. Let them attack us. We have territorial advantage. If they step into the desert, then they are as good as useless.”

Unspoken was the fact that Gaara would relish the opportunity to step out of his office for some exercise. Kankuro couldn’t help but snicker.

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Heavy rain pelted the people in the streets, most of them uncaring of the dreary weather. It was normal for Amegakure to be facing a downpour, especially since the rise of their God. Sheltered from the rain, a solitary figure sat languidly on the edge of a tall skyscraper, watching the city below. He made no movement as another person joined him; no intruder could make it that far without notice.

“Pain…is it wise to make such a bargain with the Sangokudōmei?” the blue-haired woman asked softly, befitting her ‘Angel’ moniker. “They have no intentions of giving you the Shichibi jinchūriki.”

The man known as Pain cast a cursory glance towards his most loyal subordinate. “It is not the issue of the Shichibi. Fū is easily captured. The main goal is the capture the Kyūbi jinchūriki. The world is rife with rumours of his so-called achievements in Otogakure. If he proves to be as large a threat as he has been made out to be, then it is difficult to capture him within the security of Konoha. The war will push the strongest ninja of Konoha into the battles, leaving the village less attended and the jinchūriki easier to capture.”

“But is that not the kind of suffering you wish to end?” Konan reasoned, unwilling to support a war that would tear the world apart.

“You are still mortal, and do not see the greater picture. With the capture of the Kyūbi, we can then bring about true peace. The war is the heavy price the world has to pay to enter an era of peace,” Pain explained patiently. “Or did you forget that what we are aiming to achieve here is far greater than the tenuous peace we have currently?”

“Iie, you’re right,” Konan replied unconvincingly. “I shall retire for the day.”

“Very well,” Pain said dismissively, allowing his oldest friend to leave his presence.

Konan sighed as she entered her own simple chambers, removing her Akatsuki cloak. When will you see, Nagato, that we are now merely pawns for Madara? Or that your plan…is far more terrible than the wars which tore our country apart? Oh Yahiko, if only you were here…

The rain poured relentlessly.

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