"I've got to hand it to Naruto," thought Shikamaru. "He's come a long way. Seven years ago when he first became Hokage, he would have thrown these guys out a window. He's showing remarkable restraint."
So you see Hokage-sama The Daimyo of the land of fire is most concerned about the drop in revenue from the Hidden Leaf village. Each year shows lower gains and thus a lower return on the percentage paid to the Daimyo." The old man delicately coughed into a lace handkerchief.
Naruto sighed and rubbed his temples. "Look, I don't know how we can just keep dancing around and around the same subject. We are at peace for the first time in decades. The five great nations and almost all of the smaller ones are at peace with one another. We have all negotiated our treaties so that we each have more than enough to support ourselves." Naruto gestured out the window. "Yes, the income of the village is slowly dropping year by year. What about other sources of income from the Fire Country? How much more do the farmers produce now that their fields aren't being burned? How much more do the craftsmen produce now that their shops are not being destroyed? How much more do the merchants make now that they don't have to hire as many guards as they used to, how much more when their caravans aren't being raided?"
The older ambassador frowned. "There is much more at stake than just money Hokage-sama. I remember when the Fire nation was the strongest of all nations. Our enemies would tremble with fear at our strength. What has happened to our prestige?"
"I would much rather be happy in this world surrounded by friends, than be lording over enemies, always fearful for the next attack," said Shikamaru, cleaning his fingernails with a kunai. "Personally I've seen enough of war."
"Yes... Nara-san. You are well renowned for being very... cautious." The old man's lips twitched in a smile.
Shikamaru laughed. "Heh, I think you mean to say I'm a coward, right?" He went back to cleaning his nails. "I'll be the first to admit it, I find fighting to be too troublesome to make a habit of it... and yet... I served in the fourth great ninja war. I watched many brave men and women die trying to protect the people of this land. I saw unspeakable horrors on the battlefield." Shikamaru smiled. "And yet... I did not see you... So, if I am a coward... then what does that make you I wonder?"
The old man's face turned crimson, his mouth turned into an angry slash. Before he could speak, Naruto raised a hand and spoke to Shikamaru. "Shikamaru please, I am certain that our honored guest meant no insult to you." Naruto turned to the old man. "Please accept my humblest apologies. However, Shikamaru brings up a valid point. While conflict may be profitable in the short term, its long-term cost far outweighs the benefits. Look there..." He gestured to a corner of his office where Sasuko and Fugawari sat playing with paper, ink, and brushes. "During war they pay the future price. They pay it in fear, in a lost childhood, and if they are unlucky enough, they pay it in blood. You do not know what you are suggesting gentlemen. Our world is in a legendary period of prosperity right now. I will not jeopardize it because you want to return to the days of glory."
The old man opened his mouth one more time as if to speak, but he shut it quickly when the young man closed his fan quickly with a snap. "Hmmm..." said the young man. He had a long delicate face, pale skin, and long black hair. His eyes were hidden behind a pair of tinted glasses. "You have given us much to consider Hokage-sama. We will report what you have said to the Daimyo and we will ponder your wisdom."
Naruto studied the young man. "I don't believe we have met before, may I ask your name?"
"I am known as Daikiro, Hokage-sama."
"Do you have a family name?"
"Just Daikiro, Hokage-sama. I came to the Daimyo's household as a foundling child. Through hard work I have been recently attached to the Daimyo's retinue."
"Well, Daikiro. I am pleased to meet you. I am sure we will have many productive discussions."
"I am certain of that Hokage-sama," Daikiro said giving a small smile. "In fact I believe that it may be the right time to have one of them right now." Naruto leaned back in his chair. "I have had reports from many trusted sources of bands of thieves roaming the borders of the Fire country. They seem intent on attacking other nations, but mysteriously they do not attack within our own borders. I have heard of towns being sacked, outposts destroyed, even military storehouses emptied. Yet the moment that any news of these mystery marauders seems to enter official channels of the Fire country it appears to disappear. Now why is that?"
Naruto frowned. "I have no answers for you at this time. To tell you the truth, we have only recently found out about these bandits ourselves."
Daikiro tapped his closed fan in the palm of his hand. "Well, I should not have to tell you about how this lack of information appears to an outsider. Perhaps the Hidden Leaf village skill set is waning?"
"I have an inquiry of my own to make ambassador," said Shikamaru. "Why have we been cut out of the loop for even the most basic announcements of changes made by the Daimyo? I had to discover about the change in the ambassador to the Nation of Wind through my wife on her last visit home. Should we include the Daimyo on our list of intelligence gathering targets?"
Hanzo coughed. "That was a mere formality. The previous ambassador had unfortunately passed away from a sudden illness. A sudden suspicious illness I might add, that he happened to contract in the Hidden Sand village."
Daikiro snapped open his fan again and wafted air across his face. "It was such a shame to lose such a good man. He was exceptional at gathering information. How unfortunate it was that he died before he could send back his latest dispatch. I can only imagine what he had discovered that was worth his life to silence him."
"And once again our discussion turns back on this familiar path..." Naruto rubbed his face with his hands. "Look, we have treaties with all the major villages right?" Daikiro smiled faintly and opened his mouth to speak, but Naruto motioned him to silence. "Let me guess... You were about to say that a treaty is worth only the paper it's written on." Daikiro gave one curt nod with his head. Naruto smiled coldly. "As I said, I tire of having this same discussion over and over again." Naruto sat up straighter in his chair. "Even if there were no treaties between our villages ensuring the peace I would still trust the other villages not to attack us. Do you understand why?"
"Please Hokage-sama, enlighten me."
"When we fought the fourth great shinobi war, we realized that were weren't that different from them. Those "evil" ninjas from the other villages... they fought beside us, they shared our food, shared our jokes, shared and our stories. We died protecting them, and they died protecting us. We became friends. In many cases, more than friends. Do you know how many shinobi from other villages now live here in the Hidden Leaf village because they are in a relationship with someone here? Do you know how many Ninjas who still owe their allegiance to the Hidden Leaf village have settled elsewhere to raise a family?" Naruto spread his arms wide. "What possible reason could the Hidden Cloud or the Hidden Sand have to attack us? They would be attacking their own people. Why would we want to do the reverse?"
"May I say Hokage-sama; I am very impressed by your faith that all other villages desire peace as much as you do," Hanzo rasped. Naruto threw his hands in the air and slumped back in his chair. He muttered something under his breath. "I didn't quite catch that Hokage-sama?" the old man inquired.
"I just said that Shikamaru had a matter that he wanted to discuss with you while you were visiting, and I see no reason not to bring it up now." Shikamaru grinned. He had caught the last part of Naruto's mutter, which sounded suspiciously like "... stubborn, stupid old fool."
"Yeah, I wanted to discuss the lack of cooperation and the lack of intelligence sharing that has been happening with the Daimyo's own guard. If I were a more polite man, I would ask if we had done something to bring us out of favor with the Daimyo. However, since we are all busy men here, I am just going to ask... What the hell is going on?" Hanzo's eyes widened in shock at Shikamaru's statement, but Daikiro just smiled faintly and nodded his head. "You may not like us, you may not agree with us, but that is no reason to put us and yourselves at risk by keeping us in the dark. If you have information why the hell aren't you sharing it?"
Daikiro stepped forward. "Simply put, we do not know who to share it with."
"I would think the Hokage would be a good place to start," said Shikamaru sarcastically.
"Would it?" Daikiro paced in a small circle, his hands clasped behind his back. "From our perspective the Hokage has shown that his desire to trust outsiders has made him quite blind to threats aimed toward the Leaf village." He stopped pacing. "External threats... and internal ones as well," Daikiro glanced over his shoulder to where Sasuko and Fugawari were playing. Seated next to them, his back leaning against the wall, was Sasuke.
"I know you aren't insinuating that Sasuke isn't trustworthy," Naruto growled. "Because I would consider such an insinuation, to be a slight on my honor... and I am afraid that I would have to ask you to step outside to settle that matter."
"Nevertheless, I must insist." Daikiro smiled. "If it makes you feel any better, just consider this information to be "top secret" and the fewer people that know about it the better."
Naruto slammed both hand on his desk and stood up slowly. "That man," he said, pointing at Sasuke, "has paid thrice over for his crimes. He has earned my trust and my respect. He has saved my life, the lives of my wife and children, and the village from complete destruction. He is my friend. If you think that I will stand here while you insult him in this manner..." There was a cry from the corner. Naruto turned his head and saw Sasuko looking at him, frightened at his rage.
"Hokage-sama," said Sasuke, getting up slowly and brushing himself off. "I think I will take Sasuko and Fugawari outside to play for a bit. The fresh air out there will do them good." He took each of them by the hand. "Come boys let's feed the fish in the Koi pond, maybe I'll get you a snack."
Hanzo sneered as they were leaving. "Hmpf. The infamous Uchiha Sasuke, reduced to a nursemaid." Sasuke stopped and caught his eye. Hanzo felt his soul shrivel. Sasuke smiled.
"Be thankful I am a nursemaid these days," said Sasuke in a calm voice. "The old Sasuke would have carved out your liver and made you eat it." He closed the door quietly behind him with a click.
"Are you going to allow that monster to insult a person of my stature like that?" Hanzo huffed.
Naruto smiled. "You are right. I will suggest that next time he cuts out your lungs instead. Maybe then you will learn not to waste your breath on pointless insults."
"It was a mistake for you to have unsealed his chakra. That man is a dangerous, unstable monster. If you continue to allow him to walk around unchecked like that he is liable to kill someone," said Hanzo grouchily.
"He has earned my trust and my thanks. That man is a hero, even if everyone else refuses to acknowledge it." Naruto turned to Daikiro. "Well? Will you kindly tell us this top-secret information? Or would you like to peek behind the curtains first to make sure no one is hiding there and listening?"
Daikiro bowed his head. "My message is simple Hokage-sama. The enemy has infiltrated your village. The enemy is here as we speak, and his goal is your death and the destruction of the Hidden Leaf Village." Daikiro started pacing again. "Do you see our problem now? We do not know whom we can trust here."
"Let's start at the beginning," said Shikamaru. "What proof do you have to support your claims?"
Daikiro stopped and stared at him. "The complete breakdown of communication between the Daimyo and the Hokage for one, as you yourself have said, not a single one of our messages has reached you, don't you find that unusual? I find this be quite telling of some form of enemy action. With all these foreigners, living in the Leaf village it is impossible to know who is an enemy agent. If indeed it even is an outside enemy agent."
"Meaning?" asked Naruto.
"Come now," sputtered Hanzo, waving at himself and Daikiro, "do you really think that we two are the only ones who object to your tenure as Hokage?" He grinned humorlessly. "Do you truly believe that you are loved by every last person in the Leaf village?"
Daikiro sighed. "What my esteemed elder is trying to say with more respect is that you have traitors in your midst." He reached into the fold of his sleeve and pulled out a Konoha forehead protector. "This was found in the remains of a garrison in the Land of Rice Paddies."
"May I?" Asked Shikamaru with his hand extended. He took the forehead protector and examined it closely. "It's either one of ours or a very convincing forgery." He looked up. "I could take it to ANBU headquarters, see if they can figure out whose it is?"
Naruto nodded. "Please do." He turned back to Hanzo and Daikiro. "I don't pretend that I am universally adored, but I find it hard to believe that any ninja from the Leaf village would be carrying out attacks on other nations without orders."
Daikiro shrugged. "I do not claim to know the whole truth. I can only tell you how we have interpreted the evidence. You yourself say that the patrols from the Leaf village have not turned up anything suspicious. What better way to hide than in plain sight, as the patrols themselves?"
Naruto nodded to Shikamaru. "While you are at ANBU headquarters getting that forehead protector examined, could you please have a quiet talk with Kakashi-sensei about any rumors that may be floating around about the long range patrols?"
Daikiro smiled. "Ah yes rumors... I was hoping that when we finally met, you might be able to confirm this most troublesome one."
"More bad news?" smiled Naruto. "Let me guess... The Demon Moryo has once again risen from Hell, and once again we need to stop his thousand year kingdom."
"Laugh while you can boy," snarled Hanzo. "We're telling you this for your own benefit."
Daikiro waved him to silence. "What the senior ambassador means to say is that this is but the smallest whisper of a rumor, but we were so disturbed by it that we felt it our duty to tell you."
Daikiro nodded. "This last but most disturbing piece of news concerns a small but very powerful group of mysterious rogue ninja. We have not had any concrete proof of their existence, but we have heard this tale from so many different sources that we fear it is true. It is a tale of cruel, brutal warriors that perform dark rituals to create a powerful elixir that gives them the strength of many men. The rumor states that they are a small group but vicious and without mercy." Daikiro took a deep breath. "I report this to you because I know of your personal stake in this. I am beginning to fear that the Kurokaze has not been destroyed as we have all hoped. I worry that the band is very much alive and appears to be slowly gaining strength."
"The Black Wind? That bunch of maniacs are still alive? Impossible!" said Naruto. "They were crushed three years ago when they attacked this village. Sasuke killed their leader in a duel."
"It appears they have a new leader," Daikiro said softly. "Do you recall how much they prize strength and savagery? They choose their leaders in a trial by combat, a trial that always ends in death. The rumor is that they praise this new leader as the heir to Orochimaru. They claim that he is the last of the Akatsuki. Does that sound like anyone you know?"
Sasuke, Fugawari and Sasuko walked around the pond pointing out their favorite fish. Fugawari liked a huge, pale white koi with golden spots. It was always hungry and would follow you around the pond with its mouth poking above the water, begging for food. Sasuko liked a large, but lean orange koi that was prone to leaping out of the water to catch a tasty bug. Sasuke's favorite was a small black koi with a single dark orange spot on its back. It would just sit and wait, almost invisible in the dark water, except for its spot. When something sparked its interest, it would flash to that side of the pond. The small black koi would make a fine shinobi, Sasuke often thought.
After watching the fish, pulling both boys out of the mud, playing a game of tag, getting Sasuko unstuck from a thorn bush, climbing trees, and getting Fugawari down from a branch where he was trapped. Sasuke decided that he and the boys needed a break. "I think I'm just about ready for a snack," he said patting his stomach and pointing to a pushcart that was serving up rice balls and hot, skewered shrimp. He watched as a happy couple was served up a tray, thanked the owner, and walked off. "Do either of you feel like eating anything?
"Yes please!" yelled both Fugawari and Sasuko. They laughed as they both ran to the cart as Sasuke sauntered up behind.
"Daddy, can we have dango please?" asked Fugawari.
Sasuke smiled. "Only one, and only after you eat some lunch." He turned to the owner of the cart. "Could I have one adult helping and two smaller helpings for the boys please?"
"I'm sorry sir; I think I have just run out."
Sasuke looked confused. "Really?" He pointed to the couple that had just left. "There seemed to be plenty when they made their order."
"I'm sorry Uchiha-san," said the proprietor in a cold voice. "I have really just run out of everything."
Sasuke clenched his fist. "That's
I guess I will have to find my lunch at another place."
"Daddy I'm hungry," said Fugawari in a pleading voice.
Sasuke turned his back on the proprietor, but asked him anyway. "Do you by any chance have dango, or any other small snack left? Not for me, but for the boys here?"
The shopkeeper gave Fugawari and Sasuko a disgusted look. "Sorry, as I said, I have nothing for you here."
There was a sharp Tak-tak on the paving stones as someone tapped a cane in impatience. "I am so sorry to contradict you Huradi-kun," said a smooth, calm voice from behind the cart owner. "But I believe that if you check the cooking tray to your left you will find just enough rice and shrimp to make two adult and two children's meals." Kakashi leaned over the proprietor's shoulder and smiled at him behind his mask. "Don't worry we all forget things as we get older. Sometimes I'm amazed that I remember to put my pants on before heading out to work."
"Hatake-san," said the shopkeeper, making a nervous little bow.
Kakashi waved away Sasuke's wallet. "Don't worry Sasuke; I'll treat you and the boys right now." Kakashi paid, and everyone headed over to a shady spot under a tree. Sasuke followed, balancing the four trays.
"Boys I want you to say thank you to Kakashi-sensei here," Sasuke said handing out the trays. Both Fugawari and Sasuko mumbled a hurried thank you through full mouths. Sasuke handed a tray to Kakashi, then leaned back against the tree and started to eat himself.
"So Sasuke," said Kakashi, toying with a skewered shrimp. "It looks as though Fatherhood suits you."
Sasuke chewed and swallowed. "It is the most difficult thing I've ever done. It's also the most rewarding." He picked up another mouthful. "How is your family doing Kakashi-sensei?"
"Hmm? Well enough I suppose. Anko keeps redecorating the house every few months, and the girls
well, they just turned seventeen. So of course they know better than their father and don't see any reason why they should ever listen to him." Kakashi sighed.
Sasuke smiled. "Hana's only twelve, but I'm beginning to see a little of that. How's the leg?" asked Sasuke pointing to the cane.
"Oh this?" Kakashi lifted up the cane. "The leg is fine, just a little twinge when it's cold. I keep the cane for the added dignity it gives me. Your wife is quite the surgeon you know."
"Heh, I know." Sasuko and Fugawari finished gobbling up their lunch and asked it they could go play. Sasuke nodded the affirmative and watched them go. "So is this a social visit?" he asked Kakashi.
"Of course it is
I don't get to see you as much since your probation was lifted."
Sasuke's face grew hard. "Yeah."
"Sasuke," Kakashi put a hand on Sasuke's shoulder, "I'm glad you came back to us. Don't let these small-minded fools get you down. If they thought about it for a minute, they would be glad you were back with us too." Kakashi looked up. "It looks like something interesting is happening." He pointed. The entrance to the Hokage's office could be seen from the base of the shady tree. Sasuke and Kakashi watched as the door opened and the group of ambassadors, followed by Shikamaru and Naruto left the building. They bowed to each other, and said a few words. Then the ambassadors got into their sedan chairs and left. Naruto and Shikamaru saw Sasuke and Kakashi by the tree and headed over to them. Naruto could be heard swearing indistinctly on the breeze.
"Sounds like it was a most productive meeting," said Kakashi, using his cane to get up.
"Kakashi-Sensei!" called Shikamaru. "We were just talking about how we needed to see you."
"Why do I always feel like I need a bath after I talk to diplomats?" grumbled Naruto.
"I take it the meeting went well?" Sasuke asked, standing up and brushing himself off.
"We have a lot to discuss
" started Shikamaru, but Naruto interrupted.
"Those arrogant bastards would have me believe that the Leaf village is filled with traitors, that every other village has some secret plan to attack us the moment we show a hair's bit of weakness and that you," he pointed at Sasuke, "are consorting with demons and are going to eat all our children." Naruto threw up his hands in the air. "What the hell is the matter with people?"
Kakashi nudged Shikamaru. "What happened?"
Shikamaru sighed. "Apparently the Daimyo has some intelligence for us that they interpret as indicating we have traitors in the village. Oh, and that the Kurokaze is still around, and Sasuke is their new leader."
Sasuke snorted in derision. "Well, that's something I haven't been accused of yet."
Kakashi frowned. "I think we should go back to my office and discuss this."
"Kakashi-sensei," said Naruto, "you can't be saying that you believe them are you?"
"Naruto, their conclusions they are coming to may be completely wrong, but if their intelligence is even the smallest bit correct, then there is a threat to the village that needs to be examined further. Can you all come?"
Shikamaru shrugged. "I can come with you."
Naruto and Sasuke looked at each other. "School is almost out," Naruto said. "Let me drop off Sasuko and Fugawari with Kusumina and Jiraiya, and then we will head right over."
Kakashi nodded. "Please hurry if you can. I don't like the sound of this."