From the Ashes – 1/2 – SilverDragonfly

Reading Time: 177 Minutes


Title: From the Ashes
Author: SilverDragonfly
Fandom: Naruto
Genre: Drama
Relationship(s): No Pairings – Character Focus: Sarutobi Hiruzen, Jiraiya, Senju Tsunade
Content Rating: PG-13
Warnings: Violence – Graphic , Canon Level Violence, Child Kidnappings (mentioned – canon), Human Experimentation (mentioned – canon), Minor Character Death (offscreen), Mention of suicide (past canon event)
Beta: BlueMelodie. Alpha: AriaIno
Word Count: 60,238
Summary: The Yondaime was dead and Konoha was now at its most vulnerable since the village’s founding. Sarutobi Hiruzen must face how he will shape Konoha’s future for generations to come in the hours after the Kyuubi’s defeat. Will he simply react to the threats they face now, or will he prepare for their future for years to come?
Artist: tpena19



Chapter One

Konoha was burning.

A firestorm had been set loose within the very walls in the form of the nine-tailed fox demon known as the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Even now, with the terrible chakra beast sealed away once more, a terrible red haze filled the air. The acidic burn of its demonic chakra on any exposed skin itched while the taste of smoke stuck in Hiruzen’s nose and throat despite any attempts he had made with chakra to clear it.

A muffled whimper from the swaddled bundle in his arms kept his mind on the present as he and his escort landed on the roof of the Hokage Tower. It was but a moment’s work to put the entire structure into full lockdown. No one would be entering or exiting the building without his permission until he released the lockdown. He quickly moved inside toward the hokage’s office. Inside the office that had once been his own for many years. He quickly found a small basket and turned it into an impromptu basinet for the bundle in his arms.

Konoha’s future. Konoha’s hope. That is what this child was. What all the children of the clans and individuals who had sworn themselves to Konoha’s service were. He looked out to the windows that filled one wall of the office and frowned. Konoha was burning and its roots were corrupt. Something more must be done if the whole of it was to survive at all.

He turned his attention back to the two men who had been escorting him ever since he’d followed the trail of the Kyuubi no Kitsune’s abrupt transfer from the village center to beyond the outskirts. The colossal forms of both the toad-boss, Gamabunta, and the fox itself made the change in battle site easy to track, despite being some distance away. Hiruzen had ordered the rest of their forces to continue work on containment of the spreading fire and to begin triage of the wounded. By the time he had traveled to the newer battleground, he had been too late to intervene in the steps Minato and Kushina had taken to deal with the fox and save their child. The only other witnesses to the event were the two men who even now followed him like shadows, just as they had been doing for the Yondaime as part of his dedicated guard team.

“Raidou, Genma, you will accept blood seals that will seal everything you have seen and learned tonight regarding Minato, Kushina, and this child to secrecy of the highest order. This seal can only be released by the Hokage sworn to office by blood oath, the child himself, Jiraiya, or Tsunade Senju. You will not be able to speak of what you have seen and learned tonight otherwise. Do you accept these conditions?”

The two men stiffened and relaxed in turns. Hiruzen was impressed to realize a silent and hidden conversation passed between them even as he watched. Genma stepped a fraction of a step forward. It seemed he had been chosen to be their voice. “Will the kid be protected?”

Hiruzen’s respect for the duo went up as he re-assessed them. The question was not so simple and if these two men had been in Minato and Kushina’s confidence; they knew that. He considered for several long moments all the many paths he could choose to handle the newborn’s circumstances. To ignore that he was the child of Namikaze Minato and openly acknowledge his role as the next host of the Kyuubi would buy them time — temporarily and would no doubt be the path certain individuals would encourage if they knew. Jiraiya would never forgive him, and the rot would only fester further. No; the harder, more painful path would be best. Even if it meant owning up to his own shortcomings rather than hiding from them. Biwako would be amused… he held that thought a moment longer and fought the sudden surge of raw grief. She was gone. For her sake alone, he would move mountains to protect the child. “You have my oath.”

“Then we will accept the seal as requested, sir.”

Raidou moved over to the plain panel on the wall and after several brief hand seals pressed his palm to the wall pane and revealed a large matrix. The wall almost rippled as it revealed a hidden set of shelves that all but glowed with more seal work.

Hiruzen arched an eyebrow, a bit surprised. “Minato did more re-decorating that I suspected.”

“Not everyone can keep their contraband in a false drawer, sir.” Genma offered. “Though he kept that as an excellent decoy.” Hiruzen only gave them a tight-lipped smile at that. There was too much pain in him tonight to banter as he normally would.

“Here you go, sir, this was specially prepped by Lady Uzumaki.” Hiruzen accepted the small ceramic pot gently, already feeling Uzumaki Kushina’s chakra presence echo from the ink contained within. He let the grief rise and then gently pushed it back down again. Later. He would have time to grieve properly later.

“Get comfortable, gentlemen. These seals deal directly with memory and knowledge, so they will have to be placed appropriately.” Hiruzen explained as he pulled a special storage scroll out from a storage matrix in his armor vambrace. He removed two specific vials, each marked with more seals, along with a small needle and syringe, laying them out on the desk so they would be near at hand. He pulled out a third vial and hummed in reassurance as he gentled the baby before quickly drawing the necessary blood and sealing it away into the prepared vial. He made sure the baby was resting peacefully once more before he turned back to the waiting shinobi and approached them with the inkpot and a fine detail brush in hand. This would be delicate, complicated, work that would have to be done more quickly than he normally preferred due to the time constraints of the evening. “Myself, Jiraiya, Tsunade, the next blood sworn Hokage, and the child, when old enough and trained, will be the only ones able to remove this seal. Any last objections?”

“No, sir.” They answered, barely any echo as they spoke as one. Hiruzen dipped his brush and began.

The work went well and with minimum difficulty, despite all its layers and complexity. By necessity, this seal design, at its base, had become common use with special operations. That was unfortunately both a failsafe that protected the village and one that had begun to undermine it, as secrets had been kept by those who had no right to keep them frequently during the course of the last war. The sequence of events earlier this very night had ended in tragedy and disaster. The fact that these events had led to this outcome was yet another symptom of secrecy twisted from protection to vulnerability.

Hiruzen knew he was the last one left alive who should have known the location where Minato, Kushina, and a hand-picked team had secured themselves for the duration of Kushina’s labor, as well as the exact date and timing. That hand-picked team had included his wife, Biwako who was now lost like all the rest of that team. Hiruzen had never expected to outlive her. He pushed those thoughts away to re-examine in more detail later and refocused on the seals he now placed on two of Minato’s most trusted team. With a final flourish of the brush and rush of chakra, the work was done.

“Which of you can most easily gather baby supplies quickly without drawing attention to yourself? Just the basics: formula, bottles, diapers.” Hiruzen asked, already moving to his next steps in securing the child’s safety. Once that was done, he could then refocus on the village at large.

“I can, sir. Chouza-san had a child this last spring, and he often had me and the others of our old team out helping him fetch things.”

Hiruzen nodded. That would do nicely. “Good, do so and return here. Raidou, I need you to find and bring Hatake Kakashi back to the tower with you. Make sure no one sees either of you when you return.”

“Of course, Sandaime-sama.”

Both men gave a brief bow and then left in the quick and silent way all shinobi of their skill were trained to. Hiruzen turned instead to look out the windows and stare at the red haze that almost glowed over the village still. The smoke haze was just barely beginning to clear, but Hiruzen suspected it would take several days for the demonic chakra itself to fully dissipate. That more than anything would cause some lasting damage to civilians and shinobi alike. This terrible attack, and Hiruzen was not going to fool himself into thinking it was anything else, would take years to recover from.

Konoha had only recently begun to show signs of recovering from the most recent of the shinobi village wars. Wars that, if he was being brutally honest, were just a larger and more vicious facet of the previous shinobi clan wars. The clan wars were supposed to have ended with the foundation of the hidden villages; that had been the driving purpose behind their creation. Instead, the power-hungry and warmongering used it as an excuse to launch large-scale attacks that never before would or could have happened. More clans had been driven to their end in the last two decades than in the last hundred years. The decline of the clans had been something Hiruzen had been quietly researching ever since he realized that his own student was, in fact, the last of the Senju line. A clan that at the founding of Konoha had been flourishing was now, after three shinobi village wars, completely decimated.

Village before clan, that was what the founding of the hidden villages had required. This had brought an end to the clan wars and reduced their battles instead to in-village politics. But at what cost to the clans themselves? The children were the future, but if there was no clan left to support their children, then what future did the village, as a whole, have? Somewhere amidst all the battles, something had gone very wrong. It was an ominous echo of the current night’s earlier events.

Minato, Kushina, and the select few elders involved in the discussion had been very careful with the security surrounding Kushina’s pregnancy. They had every faith in Kushina and Minato being able to do what was necessary to see the pregnancy through to a successful delivery without risking the seal that Kushina also held in her body. The only remaining probability of the seal’s failure was outside intervention, which, because of their precautions, should not have happened. This led to the iryou-nin, his wife, and the ANBU assigned as protection, all now dead. Hiruzen knew for a fact that the leak could not have come from either his wife or the iryou-nin. The iryou-nin in question had accepted a sealing oath, despite their own healer’s oaths, and had, in fact, suggested it themselves to protect Kushina’s privacy. No medic trained by Tsunade Senju would do less. It was the only way many of the clan shinobi would even accept advanced care from any iryou-nin who was not also a clan member. Some secrets were for clan only and were hidden in their very bodies. The medical staff of Konoha knew and respected those boundaries, and did the best they could to offer aid, regardless. In this, at least, Hiruzen knew Konoha had been successful in maintaining the spirit of the village founding. The ANBU assigned protection detail had all been from the teams who regularly rotated on Hokage protection detail. Their oaths of service should have been enough, but Hiruzen was not unaware of the roots of corruption threaded through the ANBU. He had thought they had avoided the corrupted when selecting who would be serving the detail, but perhaps that avoidance itself had been a leak.

And yet, he knew, deep in his bones, exactly where the leak that led to tonight’s tragedy had come from. The problem was in obtaining sustainable evidence that would allow him to follow it to its origin. The evidence he would need to have if he wished to dig the corruption out from the very root and stop the rot before it could continue to poison them all.

A whisper of chakra across the wards of the building notified him of Namiashi Raidou’s return with Kakashi. He made the required adjustment to the proper seal ward to allow them both entry and waited for their arrival. The special jounin led the silver-haired teen into the room silently and bowed. “Sandaime-sama, Hatake Kakashi, as you requested.”

“Very good. Please report to Shikaku-san, Raidou, and see if he has any preliminary reports available. Also, let him know I’ll need to meet with the Yondaime’s Advisory Council at dawn.” Raidou bowed once more and left.

Hiruzen eyed the young, the much too young, jounin as he stood in a carefully projected slouch. It had been ten years since the death of Hatake Sakumo which left Kakashi orphaned and the sole member of the Hatake Clan. The young boy, who even as a child, had so closely resembled his late father, that he took up wearing a half-face mask at all times in an attempt to separate himself from the scandal around his father’s last mission and eventual suicide. The orphaned Kakashi had been taken under wing by Minato who had been a teenager still himself, and very slowly he’d begun to overcome that tragedy only to be confronted with the loss of his teammates.

Kakashi stood now before him, his silvery hair swept up and back in its typical style held in place by his hitai-ate which also kept his left eye hidden. He looked relaxed as he stood slouched with his hands in his pants pockets. His posture was meant to hide his unease and tension. It would have worked, if Hiruzen hadn’t known him when so well in his youth.

“How bad is it?” Kakashi asked after nearly a full minute of silence. The baby snuffled and gave out a whimpered cry and Kakashi almost jumped like a startled cat before settling again.

Hiruzen rose to his feet and moved to the temporary basinet, and hushed the baby. He checked the improvised swaddling cloth and hoped Genma arrived with the requested supplies soon. The child needed to be cleaned up from his ordeal. “You know, Minato viewed you as a little brother, as much as his student, and often lamented that you kept him at such a distance. Yet, he was happy when you agreed to move in with him and Kushina.”

Kakashi frowned, looking at the baby, “I might be regretting that, sir. Babies are loud.”

The child let out a loud cry at that moment. Hiruzen smiled sadly. “I would hope not, Kakashi. This is not a child I can have placed in the orphanage. Just as Minato took you in, I hope you will do the same for his child.”

Kakashi stiffened. “He’s gone then. Kushina-neesan too?”

Hiruzen nodded as he continued to gently stroke a whisker-marked cheek, quieting the child. “They both gave everything they had to re-seal the Kyuubi and protect their son.”

Kakashi nodded stiffly, as if expecting the answer, and at this point, Hiruzen suspected he was. “Will you take the child, Kakashi?”

“Naruto,” Kakashi said quietly, his voice strained and muffled behind his usual mask. “Minato-sensei and Kushina-neesan wanted to name him Naruto.”

“Namikaze Naruto then.” Sandaime said gently.

“No, it’s Uzumaki. Minato-sensei had Kushina-neesan formally adopt him into the Uzumaki Clan. Minato-sensei felt it was more important that Kushina-neesan’s clan be kept alive than a new clan started under his own name.” Hiruzen was startled, but let it pass for the moment.

“Uzumaki Naruto it is then. You still haven’t answered my question, Kakashi.”

“I want to, sir. My personal and clan honor demand it of me.” Kakashi answered, his voice firm, but a hint of panic could be heard around the edges. “But I know nothing of the care of a newborn. Even if… I know Kushina-neesan would have insisted I help, but sir, what if I break him?”

Hiruzen smiled at that. “You did babysitting missions with your teammates, Kakashi, just as all young teams do. I know this for a fact as I assigned them to you, even if you and Obito let Rin do most of the work, you would have still observed and learned.”

Kakashi seemed to tremble at the mention of his lost teammates and Hiruzen was reminded of all the trauma this young man carried over the loss of everyone he grew close to. “I… I want to ask you to find someone else. I don’t think I’m fit for it, sir, but… I know I cannot. I swore Clan Hatake to Uzumaki as a vassal.”

Hiruzen turned to stare at Kakashi, his eyes wide in shock. There had not been a recognized vassal clan oath being made since before the foundation of the village. That Kakashi had felt the need to do so said much about how he felt about his own clan’s status and what was owed to the Uzumaki Clan. Hiruzen swallowed as his mind raced over the ramifications of it. Two clans that had nearly been destroyed, banding together yet still falling in order to serve the greater village. This had to be fixed. The oath could not be undone, nor should it be as Kushina had accepted it, but it made what he was asking Kakashi to do now all the more important.

“He must be protected and kept hidden, Kakashi. There is no one else I can trust with this task. You are one of three living who can still access the Uzumaki Clan home. Jiraiya and Tsunade are the only others I would trust with this information. You must take him and protect him from all who would wish him harm simply for being his father’s son.” Kakashi looked up to meet Hiruzen’s eyes quickly at that. Yes, Hiruzen had suspected, that would strike home.

“I understand, sir, but supplies? I know Minato-sensei and Kushina had something prepared, but…”

“I will take care of making sure you remain supplied. I can do that much. Trust in yourself, Kakashi. You and the child are all we have left of both Minato and Kushina. It will be up to you to pass on Minato’s knowledge to his son.”

Kakashi nodded, still obviously in shock, but stepped forward and leaned over the baby to gently run fingers over the child’s soft blonde hair. A whisper of chakra alerted Hiruzen to the return of Genma. He’d been as quick as promised. Hiruzen allowed him entry to the building and returned to the desk.

Special Jounin Shiranui Genma entered the room moments later and glanced between where Kakashi stood near the baby and Hiruzen himself. “I got the supplies as requested, sir.”

“Very good. I want you to escort Kakashi to the Uzumaki Clan compound. It is possible that the area is being monitored despite the current village status. A distraction may be required to allow Kakashi safe and un-monitored entry.” Hiruzen gave his next orders while carefully monitoring the reaction both men had to them. Genma simply nodded as if he had expected as much, but Kakashi stiffened up a bit and Hiruzen was sure there was more of a frown hiding under that mask than before. That was to be expected. Kakashi was no fool, despite his youth, but he knew Minato would have tried to have kept him safe from the ugly politics of his new position as Yondaime. “Let’s get the child cleaned up and ready for travel, then.”

Hiruzen almost laughed outright at the near-identical panicked look on both their faces as he picked up the offered scroll of supplies and quickly extracted what was needed. He went ahead and took care of quickly washing, drying, and dressing the child, all while quietly whispering nonsense at him and getting him properly wrapped up for Kakashi to carry. It had been years since he’d done such tasks for his own children, but it was not one easily forgotten.

“After your escort mission is complete, Genma, please join Raidou in supporting Shikaku-san in the recovery efforts.”

“Of course, Sandaime-sama.” The special jounin affirmed.

“Kakashi, I know the next few days will be hard. Have faith in yourself and remember that Minato and Kushina believed in you as well.”

Kakashi nodded, his hands idly checking the wrap and sling now holding the child to his chest to verify they were secure. “I understand, sir.” Hiruzen gave the pair a final nod and then they were gone, the child with them.

Hiruzen took a long slow look around the office now that he was alone before moving to sit at one of the chairs he had always favored when he had much on his mind. It was several hours yet till dawn when he would be meeting with Minato’s Advisory Council, and he had much to consider in how they would be moving forward from this. He didn’t think there would be much in the damage reports themselves that would surprise him. Years of such reports from two different shinobi village wars left him well versed in the scale of damage that could be inflicted. They had faced the various jinchuuriki of the other villages and seen their damage potential which gave him a projective scale factor as well in relation to the Kyuubi no Kitsune. Even if it was increased by several magnitudes.

No, the factors of most impact would be the loss of shinobi lives and the specific losses of Uzumaki Kushina and Namikaze Minato. Rumors would begin to spread quickly, and Hiruzen would have to make decisions on exactly what the ‘truth’ that was told would be. That the Yondaime was dead was a fact and could not be kept hidden. It would serve Konoha’s people no purpose to keep anyone guessing or suspecting otherwise. It would be a terrible blow to morale in the village and in the threat profile Konoha represented to their allies and enemies alike.

Kushina and Minato’s relationship and their expected child had been more of an open secret. It was not discussed or celebrated, but it had also not been kept heavily guarded. No previous Hokage had been expected to keep their relationships secret, and it had not been asked of Minato, despite the added security risks of Kushina’s own threat profile and position as jinchuuriki. Hiruzen had known that they had, in fact, been married in private, but had not known any of the specifics, and the general public had not even known that much. The details Kakashi had given him this evening had been quite the shock.

Hatake Kakashi was a vassal of Uzumaki.

Namikaze-Uzumaki Minato had been the Yondaime Hokage with all the required oaths, not simply ‘Namikaze Minato.’

Hiruzen considered those two facts and what it meant that the all-but-lost Uzumaki Clan had both blood-adopted a non-clansman and taken a vassal clan. That Minato had joined Clan Uzumaki through adoption and kept that secret really made Hiruzen wonder just when Kushina and Minato had made things official. Such a bond would have allowed Kushina to share clan secrets with Minato that she would not have otherwise. Even with marriage, there were some secrets that were simply for the clan alone to know, and marriage did not always equal clan status. Hiruzen understood this, having had many such secrets of his own that he’d kept from his wife over the years of their marriage. She had come from a smaller clan but had understood, as she too had secrets of her own. Maintaining such a close relationship despite such secrets, as she had never been blood adopted into the Sarutobi Clan, had been a challenge of its own.

Then there was Kakashi’s status as clan head of the Hatake Clan, now a vassal clan to the Uzumaki Clan. Vassal clans had been much more common during the warring clan era, before the hidden village founding. The Nara Clan, for example, had once been a vassal clan to the Senju Clan before they were released from that oath upon the founding of the village. Vassals had helped bring stability and diversity to the clans during those turbulent times. How many times had a clan nearly been destroyed only to be restored by vassals and allies? Why had Konohagakure let the vassals fade out of use? He knew there were provisions written into the very founding charter for it. This was another angle that would require more thought and research.

The oath taken by Kakashi had to have been a clan vassal oath and not an oath sworn as an individual. Otherwise, the Hatake Clan would have ceased to be an individual clan and Kakashi would truly have become a supporting member of the Uzumaki Clan, similar but different to a blood adoption. It gave Kakashi and Kushina both nearly all the same rights as being of the same clan, if they wished it, yet at the same time, allowed both clans to remain separate for the continuation of each. The intent being the survival of both clans secured through the binding of both together.

The Uzumaki Clan had been so close to the start of a revival, and now that start was nothing more than a hope once more. The Uzumaki Legacy left in Konoha’s care was undeserved and languishing, a fact that continued to trouble Hiruzen to this day. He paused at that thought and reconsidered. There was perhaps more than a singular hope, but it was both aggressive and risky and would put the fate of a third all-but-ruined clan in the balance. Hatake, Uzumaki, and Senju. Could it be done? Using the bonds of all three and a bit of aggressive forward planning, could the rot be purged and Konoha as a whole be revived?

He glanced out the windows and realized the horizon was starting to lighten with the colors of dawn. Just how much time had he spent thinking about all those lost and the impacts on those left behind? He would have to spend the next day getting a better grasp of the present and learning of all that Minato had been working on before he made any decisions. Hiruzen had been well aware of the many problems that Minato had been looking into planning to resolve after he fully stepped into the role of Hokage. Hiruzen had in turn removed himself from that planning, having been battle-worn and weary from too many wars felt that it was best to leave the future planning in younger hands. Now he would have to move forward with care. Too much haste at this juncture would only allow the already smoldering fires of the past wars to rekindle and burn again as he had seen all too often in his lifetime.

.:o:.

The sky had lightened to pale pink and blue by the time those who were known as the Yondaime’s personal Advisory Council arrived and were granted entry into the Hokage Tower. Hiruzen had greeted each of them as they arrived solemnly, as each acknowledged Hiruzen’s own presence in the hokage’s office with resignation and sorrow. These were all men that had worked closely with Namikaze Minato during the last war and after as they tried to bring Konohagakure into a lasting time of peace.

First to arrive just as the sun peeked over the horizon had been Uchiha Fugaku, Konoha’s Military Police Captain. The Uchiha Clan served an interesting and unique role in the village in managing much of the village’s internal security. The man himself was serious and impassive, revealing nothing. This was an attitude and demeanor the vast majority of the Uchiha shared, but Hiruzen knew that the Uchiha Clan members, in fact, felt deeply. If not handled carefully, the events of this night could spiral out of control in terms of accusations and pointed fingers. It had been only at the onset of the attack, but Hiruzen had seen the all too familiar tomoe pattern swirling through the raging Kyuubi’s eyes. It had not remained there for the duration of the assault, but the fact that it had been there at all, and that Hiruzen could not have been the only one to take note of it, would bring trouble.

Next, had been the current ANBU Commander. He was clad in the mostly typical uniform of the ANBU, covered from head to toe in fabric, armor, cloak, and the unique identifying white mask of all ANBU. The only identifying marks on the masks were in the colored swirls of paint and slight variations of form in the masks that gave them their animal monikers. The ANBU Commander’s mask was completely white save for three triangle-shaped marks coming from the brow between the ears, and each cheek and a muzzle-like protrusion over the nose and mouth. The man remained silent but nodded in greeting, his true identity was known to Hiruzen, but as always was irrelevant while on duty and serving his role. Hiruzen was at least reassured that he was not part of the corrupted root threaded throughout the ANBU.

Nearly last to arrive was Jounin Commander Nara Shikaku, the leading member of the shinobi forces after the Hokage, excluding the specialized ANBU and Iryou Corps. The man’s gift for strategy was matched by his dislike of busy work and his expert ability to delegate jobs to those suited for them. The war had left its marks on the man, just as it had many others. However, the village was recovering along with its clans and if Hiruzen was not mistaken, Shikaku was one of many who had a child born since the end of the war.

Head of Intelligence Division, Yamanaka Inoichi, had arrived practically on Shikaku’s heels, not unexpected since the two men had been teammates since their genin days. Like many of the Yamanaka Clan, the man was skilled in various mental gifts both passive and active. This led to his extensive work in the intelligence division during the war and eventual promotion to head of the department. He too had a newborn at home and Hiruzen was suddenly reminded of the gossip about all the clans choosing to produce heirs within months of each other. He had been amused at the time. It wasn’t the first time he’d heard of a sudden increase in births after a war. Many of the current generation of adults had been a product of the end of the first shinobi village war. There had not been enough time between the second and third wars for such a pregnancy surge.

“Gentlemen, please take a seat.” Hiruzen gestured to the small meeting room that was attached to the hokage’s office through a small archway that was often used for such meetings and was only accessible through the hokage’s office. “We have much to cover this morning. It has been a long night and will be a longer day still.” He carried over the tea set he had spent the last several minutes preparing while waiting for all members of the party to arrive. He was certain they could all use the comfort and fortification from the tea, considering the topics at hand. Once done, he took the position customarily occupied by the leader of the meeting. That this seat was usually the place of the oath-sworn Hokage, set the tone for the first bit of business to be addressed.

“As of approximately 22:17 on October 10th, 50 AF, we entered what has been projectively called Situation: Wildfire. The actual release of the Kyuubi no Kitsune may have been initiated anywhere from seconds to two hours before that. As I’m sure you are all aware, Konoha’s shinobi forces responded timely to meet the sudden disaster in our midst. At approximately 22:29 through what appeared to be an adapted use of the Hiraishin no Jutsu, the Yondaime removed the Kyuubi no Kitsune from the village proper to an unoccupied battleground. At that time, I dispatched orders to both Shikaku-san and Fugaku-san to begin triage and damage control, as both of you are already aware. Along with two members of the Hokage guard team, I then tracked the battle to its new location. We arrived at approximately 22:42 and witnessed the defeat of the Kyuubi no Kitsune at the cost of Namikaze Minato’s life.”

“Shit,” Shikaku muttered, laying his forehead on the table in front of him. Inoichi closed his eyes and lines of grief could be seen tensing around his eyes. Fugaku remained silent and stony, but his eyes whirled a dangerous red as the veins in his temple pulsed. The ANBU Commander remained silent, his reactions hidden behind his white mask. Hiruzen gave the four men several long moments before he continued, “I have since then confined myself to the tower as interim Hokage per policies laid out by Namikaze Minato upon his acceptance of the rank of Yondaime Hokage.”

“The other villages will not wait long to test our borders after this news gets out.” Inoichi was the first to speak after Hiruzen’s statement. “Minato did so much to help us end the last war. No matter what happens going forward, we must take the necessary actions, so that his death does not leave us wide open to the start of another war.”

“The damages from tonight’s tragedy in terms of morale, forces, and property is immense,” Shikaku murmured as he slowly lifted his head. “I don’t have any exact counts yet for the dead or injured, as we are still working on search and rescue operations in the damaged districts. However, that damn fox landed right in the heart of the shinobi reserve housing district. A lot of those people would not have been able to evacuate without making targets of themselves until after the Kyuubi was removed. By the time that occurred, severe damage had already been done.”

Hiruzen frowned. The Shinobi Reserve Housing District had been a project meant to give a sense of community, hope, and provide an alternate housing option to various individuals both without a clan, and those who did have a clan, but did not wish to live within clan walls, as well as those shinobi who no longer could serve in an active role in the shinobi forces. After two large-scale wars in as many years, this had ended up being not so many elderly shinobi, but more of those who had suffered injuries that left them unable to leave the village on field missions. Missing eyes, permanently damaged nervous systems, muscles, limbs, and even chakra networks. The reserve gave all of these individuals with these circumstances options to still serve the community in whatever way they were able. That they had now been targeted in this way just made the whole event that much uglier.

“The day clinic was flattened. The fox’s damn tails also took out the Akinaya Greenhouses shortly after the clinic. The wildfires it started burned extremely hot and destroyed a huge section of the fields and forest between the Akimichi and Nara Clan complexes. We will be having food and medicine shortages within eighteen months depending on other sources and inventory after this. I haven’t had a chance to check trajectory against a map, but I suspect at least one of those giant chakra bombs it set off landed in the orchards of Kohakushoku.” Shikaku paused to take a drink of his tea.

“Tensions in the village are already high.” Fugaku began. “Other than the obvious signs of Yondaime-sama’s teleportation jutsu and the short appearance of Gamabunta in the distance, the Yondaime was very absent from the fight itself in the village.” Fugaku paused, scanning the others. “This has already started to spread wild rumors as to how the Kyuubi could have possibly appeared, and in turn disappeared. The truth will need to be delivered publicly and soon to prevent wild conspiracy theories and scared civilians initiating slander campaigns.”

Hiruzen sighed, “That news, I suspected, unfortunate as it is.”

“There is more.” Fugaku continued. “It was reported too freely and from too many sources that in the first ten minutes of the encounter, the Kyuubi no Kitsune’s eyes burned bright with the sharingan. Already there are whispers of Uchiha treason and Madara’s revenge. The accusations against my clan are unfounded, but I have no explanation to refute them. The fact of what I saw myself in the Kyuubi’s gaze is evidence others will not let rest. It is a fact that Madara is the only clansman to be exiled that could have possibly accomplished such a task, and by all reports, he died in his last fight against Hashirama Senju. I worry this will turn the rest of Konoha against the entire Uchiha Clan after these events. We had only barely begun to overcome the original tarnish of Madara’s betrayal.” Fugaku explained.

“Very valid issues to worry about, but the people of Konoha will have other problems to worry about soon,” Shikaku stated. “As long as we don’t give them more reason to turn on your clan, Fugaku-san, I feel we can overcome this slander. Many of the Uchiha Clan out tonight on the search and rescue operations have been invaluable. Your clansmen’s almost innate abilities with fire have also helped immensely in keeping the wildfires from spreading further tonight. The Aburame compound was saved by just such a team, in fact, and their compound is by its very nature, I’m told, unfortunately susceptible to fire once started.”

“Now,” Hiruzen set his teacup down before continuing to speak. “Beyond the Kyuubi itself, there was some other sort of assault. Minato and Kushina, with a chosen security team, had retreated to a secured location. That secured location, was in fact, infiltrated. The entire team with them was killed.”

“I suspected as much.” The until-that-moment silent ANBU Commander nodded at this. “We lost quite a few ANBU squad members last night, but there were four that were often part of the Hokage guard team that I had not heard any reports of being on the field facing the Kyuubi.” The ANBU commander turned to face Hiruzen fully. “Were Tsubame, Fukurou, Yagi, and Kame recovered, sir?”

Hiruzen’s mind flashed back to the entrance of the secluded cave and the first two of the bodies and how they had fallen with their throats slit. He had not made a note of it at the time, but now he realized their own hands had been still holding the blood-soaked blades. Had someone with a sharingan attacked here and driven these men to cut their own throats? He broke himself out of the memory before he could remember the interior of the cave. “Yes Commander, as well as the bodies of my wife, Biwako, Iryou Himari, and Minato.”

“I’m sorry, sir, I didn’t realize Biwako-san was…”

Hiruzen held up a hand to cut them off. “We both know the risks of our life. The events of tonight were no different than any other time. We had a long life together, which is more than many can say after recent years. I’m more concerned that their secured location was somehow leaked to an enemy. The measures taken for their security, both in levels of secrecy and the physical security of the location, should not have left such a vulnerability.”

“What of Lady Kushina?” Fugaku asked. Hiruzen remembered then that Kushina had been named godmother of Fugaku’s youngest child and had been good friends with the man’s wife.

This is where things would get a bit sticky. The facts around Kushina’s involvement in that night’s events would have to be obscured in order to protect her son. “The status of Uzumaki Kushina, including and not limited to her health and location, is at this time an SSS class secret.”

Shikaku and Inoichi traded looks before seeming to come to some sort of understanding. Shikaku stroked his fingers over his short beard and then nodded once more decisively. “Once we get through the search and rescue operations and move fully into recovery, we have several projects Minato was working on that you should be aware of. There are risks involved for all who know, more so I think for you sir, especially while you are only interim Hokage. Will you move to officially take office again?”

Hiruzen frowned at that question. It tugged on the threads of thought he had just barely begun to pull on before this meeting started. “I do not think it would be for the best long term. It may give us the stability we need right now to get through this crisis, but it would keep us from progressing forward as we must.”

“Who would you nominate in your place, sir?” It was Fugaku who asked this question, which was unusual. The man would more often wait out his opponents until they fell neatly into whatever scheme he had planned. That he was being more direct now was a clear sign that the night had left him off-balance along with so many others.

“I will be recalling both Jiraiya and Tsunade. Any decisions beyond that will have to wait until after I’ve spoken to them.”

“The infamous Tsunade-sama… are you certain she will return to Konoha?” Inoichi asked. “She has seemed quite set on her path of burying grief in gambling her way randomly across Fire Country.”

Hiruzen stroked his chin in consideration. “It will not be without challenge.” He winced then at the thought of her reaction upon meeting, “Though I may need medical care upon her arrival.” His only female student’s strength and temper were well known.

“Very well, then. I wish you luck in your future discussions with Lady Senju Tsunade.”

“Shikaku-san, do you know if Tatami Iwashi has survived the night’s events? I could use his aid in managing the office. I know he was serving Minato in that capacity.”

“I can find out and send him your way if he is well, sir.” Shikaku agreed. “I appreciated you sending both Genma and Raidou my way when you did.

“Good, as soon as the search and rescue has shifted into survey and recovery, I want that meeting with you and Inoichi.” Both Shikaku and Inoichi nodded in acceptance.

“Fugaku-san, the village will be needing the support of you and your clan extensively in the days to come. The best thing we can do to avoid accusations of treason is to get your clansmen out there and involved heavily in the recovery. The more your clan is seen working with and aiding everyone else, the less fertile ground any such conspiracies will have to take root.” Fugaku met his gaze steadily and gave a firm nod of acceptance. Hiruzen had not always gotten along well with the members of the Uchiha Clan during his own tenure as Hokage, but he would not quickly undo what work Minato had done to restore that trust between one of the founding clans and the village leadership.

“Good, now before we all scatter, I think it best we have the official statement on Yondaime-sama’s status. It will help to be able to give a definitive answer and to cut off the rumor mongers.” Inoichi added even as he had pulled out a piece of paper and began a draft. After a moment, he passed the paper over to Hiruzen, who read it quickly.

STATUS REPORT

As of 22:45 on October 10th, the being known as the Kyuubi no Kitsune was defeated by Namikaze Minato, Yondaime Hokage. This victory cost the Yondaime his life. Sarutobi Hiruzen, Sandaime Hokage, has resumed his post as interim Hokage. Seek out your immediate superior for follow-up information.

Hiruzen felt his heart constrict at the cut and dry simplicity of the facts. This would, however, be exactly what they needed to send out to all Konoha’s forces, both local and deployed throughout Fire Country. “That will do.” He nodded and turned to the ANBU Commander. “Commander, see to it that secure couriers get this message out to all our outposts and deployed teams as quickly as possible. Recall any non-critical missions that will not end in the next two days amongst the ANBU. Shikaku-san, please see to it that similar messages go out to all our jounin and chunnin teams deployed out of the village. I want ANBU courier teams to carry both the status report and any new orders.”

“I’ll get them out as soon as can be managed, sir.” The ANBU Commander agreed quietly.

“Shikaku, complete search and rescue operations and begin survey and recovery operations as soon as possible. Review all in-field missions and issue new orders as required. All missions that do not fall within critical standards are to be filed under severe, serious, distressed, non-urgent, or chronic categories so they can be dealt with appropriately and timely.” Hiruzen directed, giving more formal order and direction to the plan that had already been loosely laid out.

“Inoichi-san, I will likely need some extra support from the intelligence division until we are through the crunch of this crisis when it comes to properly sort and identifying what missions belong where. We cannot afford to overlook something critical or even severe and have it blow up in our faces. The hospital and medics will probably need help keeping up with patient files. We are in for a rough time for all who have been exposed to that fox’s corrosive chakra without being prepared for it. Also, bring Chouza-san of the Akimichi Clan in on the food problems as soon as you can. We need to get those greenhouses restored or alternatives sourced sooner rather than later.”

“I can arrange that, sir. Chouza and his clan will gladly work on the food problem and can collaborate with both the Yamanaka and Nara Clans to see if we have easily sourced replacements for what was lost in the Akinaya Greenhouses.” Inoichi said as he made a few notes on a scroll before tucking it away again.

“Very good. Fugaku-san, other than the clansmen you have on duty in the force and working with the search and rescue, do you have others who would be willing to fill in non-combat roles? I will be needing individuals who excel at administrative paperwork and legal to assist here and with those who have suddenly lost their homes. Many in the shinobi reserve who had the necessary skills worked here in administrative roles behind the scenes. If our losses are as great as I fear, we will need to fill those roles in the meantime even if those individuals do not want it long term.”

Fugaku nodded, “I understand, sir, and I’ll start making inquiries. If we can set up childcare on site, many of the clan mothers who normally stay at home may be willing to come in and work on-site as long as their children are also near.”

Hiruzen nodded. “That is a good point. Shikaku, make sure you send formal requests to the Hyūga, Inazuka, and Aburame clans for support in your efforts as well. The smaller clans should focus their efforts through the usual command structure. Those three, however, have large enough member groups that routinely are not on active rosters that we should not ignore in this time of need. We cannot afford any clans to suddenly feel they were targeted in all this for any reason.”

“Yes, both Clan Inazuka and Clan Aburame have already been a lot of help with the search and rescue efforts. The corrosive chakra floating about in the air, however, seems to have been causing some harm to the insects of the Aburame members. On that note, per the protocols established for Situation Wildfire, all active shinobi of genin rank or under twenty years of age were kept away from the direct fight. A lot of those kids were possibly orphaned last night. What do you think would be the best course of action, sir?”

Hiruzen sighed sadly. “Setup the Academy as a triage point. Those too injured to aid in rescue and recovery operations can report there for first aid and other tasks. Have the children start collecting names and records of who has survived and if they require housing. We’ll have to open some of the shelters as putting people on a field in tents with the rainy season about to start is asking for more to become sick than stay healthy.”

“That will work. I’ll make sure we get some of the academy staff on site to help as well. That should give any of the younger group feeling unbalanced a bit more grounding in the familiar.” Shikaku offered in thought.

“Let’s plan to meet daily at this hour until determined otherwise, then.” Hiruzen offered.

Inoichi paused then, obviously surprised. “You won’t pull in your own Advisory Council, sir?”

Hiruzen frowned. “They were retired just as much as I was, gentlemen. Just because I have pulled myself back into duty does not mean they are required to do so. You four are now the most up-to-date on events and the current projects. I’ll leave replacing the Advisory Council to whomever officially takes office next, at their discretion, of course. There is wisdom in fresh ideas and new approaches. I choose Minato as my successor for that reason, as well as many others.”

“Of course, I didn’t mean to judge,” Inoichi said hastily, but still seemed uneasy.

“Your former Advisory Council team will expect it,” Fugaku said bluntly.

Hiruzen hummed in agreement. “That they probably will, but you leave them to me.”

“As you say, sir. Better you than us.” Shikaku said as he stood with a stretch and then finished his cup of tea. “Thank you for the tea, Sandaime-sama.”

The others quickly followed suit in finishing their tea and parting.

Hiruzen walked around the office, slowly cleaning up the tea service before he looked out at the very red dawn that had filled the morning sky. Storms were surely building on their horizon. That was certain.

.:o:.

Hiruzen’s fingers, stiff after the last night’s events, despite the warm tea mug he’d been holding most of that morning, still moved swiftly through the required seals, and the required chakra burst through his palm to call forth three of the monkey clan with whom he held a contract. The three he willed for appeared in the usual rush of large chakra usage and displaced air.

“Kikensaru, Ōkamisaru, and Sarujinsoku, I must ask you to carry some very important personal messages, my friends.”

The first of the three to step forward had a wolf fur cloak over his shoulder and was pinned in place by the fangs. “A pleasure to be called upon, old friend. You so rarely summon any of us, and even then, most often, it is that old geezer, Enma.”

Hiruzen smiled. “My request for you, Ōkamisaru is simple enough, but you might need to reach out to the Inu Clan for the required contact. I need this message delivered to Hatake Kakashi. He is secured behind clan walls that even I do not have access to at this time. He does, however, have personal contracts with a pack of the Inu clan should you need their assistance.”

Ōkamisaru huffed but accepted the message scroll. “Consider it done.”

“Sarujinsoku, this message is for Jiraiya-kun. He may very well already be en route back to Konoha and so tracking him may be difficult. “

The second of the trio that moved forward to accept the offered scroll was small and wiry, his only decoration a small, fitted vest with assorted pouches as well as fitted gloves over all four paws. “I understand, Hiruzen-san. Your student will get his message.” Then he, too, was gone.

“It has been a very long time since you have called on me, Hiruzen,” Kikensaru stated bluntly as she settled across from him on the desk. “Just what kind of mess have you gotten into now? That Enma-idiot told us you tried to face off with the Kyuubi? That type of nonsense is not your usual type of risk.”

Hiruzen eyed the contrary monkey, taking note that her apparel of choice, a heavily embroidered obi tied in place over a simple tunic, had not changed in the years. A braid woven up into a crown and resting just above her ears adorned her head. “No, but there was no time and little choice. I need you to bring Tsunade-hime home, Kiken. I gave her the freedom she needed to run from her grief years ago, and she has done nothing but run ever since. She is needed here. I need her. Her cousin needs her. Her clan needs her.” He handed her a slip of paper to read over.

Kiken hummed thoughtfully. “She is stubborn, but cousin and clan, you say? Will I need names or proof to go with those statements?”

“She should already have it. I haven’t left her in the dark, Kiken. I’ve just not demanded she faces her fears and grief.” Hiruzen offered.

“Very well,” the slip of paper between her paws burst into flame and vanished into ash. “If I get pummeled by that spoiled princess of yours, I’m not going to be happy about it.”

Hiruzen scoffed. “You’ve always liked poking her in the tender spots.”

Kiken frowned. “That was when she was smaller than me and didn’t break stones with a finger. She got ridiculous, Hiruzen! Just what were you thinking?”

Hiruzen snorted at that. “That my female student and the grand-niece of my old teacher deserved every advantage she could get.”

“You’ll get my report then when it’s done.”

“Thank you, Kiken.” The words slipped through empty air. Hiruzen took a moment to look outward, finally pleased to see more of a light haze than actual smoke trails now in the morning light. Perhaps the last of the fires had finally been put out and now they could move fully into recovery operations. With that in mind, he got up and moved to a familiar panel on the floor just to the side of the desk. He carefully triggered the required chakra and seal locks and then opened the hidden storage vault. From within, he carefully removed a well-wrapped seal case. Now his next research project would begin.

Chapter Two

Tsunade entered the noisy room with its cheerful mechanically ticking slot machines in a neat row to her left while a set of low tables with cards already moving across their surfaces were laid out to the right. Further back, she could hear other games of chance in progress, from the rotary sound of the roulette and other wheels of fortune, to the oh so familiar sound of dice being shaken.

“Lady Tsunade, welcome back to Jūkyo no Ungaii. How may we be of service?” Tsunade fought back the grimace at the reminder of the previous night’s events. It had started out normally enough, but then she had hit a winning streak that had just gotten hotter the longer she had played. She had finally cashed out for the night and given her apprentice orders to make sure her debts were paid off with the spoils. She hoped to break the hot streak today, and she was sure the so-called ‘House of Luck’ hoped for it as well. Too much good luck had never been a sign of good things in her experience.

“Hot sake.” She ordered as she moved toward the row of slots. It was early, a few hours after the lunch hour, and yet sometime before the dinner and night crowd began to trickle in. This would be a good time to get an easy measure of how the night was likely to go. She inserted her first coin and pulled the lever, her mind barely paying attention as the little images spun past on their dials before locking into place. No matches. The edge of a smile quirked her mouth as the sake she had ordered was neatly slid onto the side table, arranged for just such a purpose. She put in the next coin and pulled the lever. No matches. Threads of anxiety that had been wound through her center slowly began to loosen as she settled into the rhythm of the slots.

Coin and pull. Two matches.

Coin and pull. No matches. Drink some sake.

She felt Shizune join her nearby but didn’t pay her any mind. Shizune’s own luck was as fickle as the wind. Coming and going as it pleased. She only ever joined in the actual playing when they were out of debt, anyway.

Coin and pull. Three matches. A rain of coins from the reward slot. Tsunade collected her winnings on autopilot, the wisp of smile fading. But then dismissed it. No matter, it was a minor match, nothing big. She continued on.

She smiled as she drank her sake, hearing Shizune’s cry of joy as she hit a stroke of luck several machines down. Good, her well-meaning apprentice would have less reason to chastise Tsunade for spending all she’d won the night before today.

Coin and pull. A cheerful alarm trumpeted. Tinkling sounds of hundreds if not thousands of coins filled the air.

Tsunade stared at the slot machine before her in growing horror and as the word JACKPOT flashed, glowed, and shined down at her in all its illuminated glory. Around her, people exclaimed excitedly and praised her good fortune. She wanted to curse them all. Shizune was suddenly at her side.

“Tsunade-sama?”

“It’s time to go,” Tsunade whispered, not able to get more than that out past the sudden lump in her throat as she sat staring at the flashing lights.

“Of course, Tsunade-sama. Let me deal with the housemaster.” A few minutes later, a cheer rang out through the room as a round of drinks for all was provided. Tsunade slowly felt herself start to unfreeze; it was good that Shizune knew what to do to keep the house happy. The last thing she needed was yet another gambling house trying to blacklist her for the destruction of their property. It was only ever when she won big that there were problems. Always had been…

“Full house, queens over tens. Take that!” Jiraiya crowed from where he lay half sprawled along one edge of the traditional low table.

“Try again, idiot,” Orochimaru smirked as he laid down his cards, four eights primly on display.

“You are both idiots,” Tsunade chirped as she laid out her cards. “Straight flush.”

“Not again.” Jiraiya moaned. Tsunade just stuck her tongue out at them both as she reached for the pot. It was hardly her fault if they sucked. A feeling of dread overcame her as she raked in her winnings. A respectful knock on the front door echoed quietly through the hall and into the room they were currently occupying.

“Be quiet!” She demanded at her teammates and turned to stare at the nearly closed sliding door that separated their current space and the hallway leading toward the front entrance. She heard her grandmother move through the hall and answer the door. A Quiet conversation passed, soon followed by a startled cry and gasp. Tsunade scrambled to her feet and into the hallway and slid to a stop at the sight of her grandmother leaning heavily on the edge of the front doorframe. Her uncle standing just beyond in the open entryway, sadness and grief pouring out from them both.

Senju Tobirama spotted her and held out his hand to beckon her closer. Her grandmother reached out and pulled her close as soon as she was within reach.

“I’m sorry, Nade-chan.” Her uncle whispered. “Hashirama… your grandfather, was killed in battle.”

Tsunade suppressed a full-body shiver as she pulled herself free of the memory. That had been the first time her gambling luck had been the harbinger of bad news, but far from the last. She tried to refocus on where she was now, only to realize that Shizune was once more at her side.

“Come on, Tsunade-sama, the housemaster has arranged for us to have an extended stay at the nearby spa resort,” Shizune explained as she offered her arm to help Tsunade rise. Tsunade nodded and accepted the support as she rose from the small stool. It was a much better scenario than the time the housemaster had tried to strong-arm her into staying to ‘spend’ her winnings. That had ended in a destroyed house and, for the first time, a gambling establishment tried to blacklist her.

“Our things?” Tsunade asked as she followed Shizune out of the gambling house and into the street, where the late evening sun was just beginning to settle.

“I’ll go fetch them from the inn after we get settled at the resort.”

Nothing more was said between them as Tsunade followed. The streets, people, and everything just blended together in a washed-out blur as her mind and body tried to deal with the growing panic and anxiety winding its way through her. She had already lost so much. How could she still lose more?

She barely noticed the lovely room Shizune led her into, as she simply settled onto a cushion before the room’s kotatsu and let her mind drift.

Her grandfather had been the first. She hadn’t known at that time to recognize her luck for the omen it was while she had played against her teammates. She was so young back then, still just a child in her first year of service as an active shinobi.

The next time had been a poker night with some of the off-duty and recovering shinobi at one of the meeting halls. She had been on a winning streak just like the time before against her teammates. Just a few precious hours later had come the news of her great-uncle Tobirama’s death and her own sensei’s promotion to the role of Hokage.

Her parents’ deaths had been marked by a lottery win.

Her little brother, she had she taught gambling tricks to as part of the celebration of his twelfth birthday. Just as their grandfather had once taught her to gamble as a child. Nawaki had died just days later. Her lover and finance died just hours after she’d pulled some lucky cards from a fortune shrine while seeking a blessing on their future together.

More recently, a string of good dice rolls in a game of chance had come before she learned of her teammate’s betrayal and his twisted experiments. While that event had not been a death, she had been horrified to learn of the experimentation her old teammate had been involved in.

Her luck and tragedy were inexplicably linked and now she could do nothing but wait for the terrible news or awful accident to strike.

Shizune returned and set their two carry-all bags within easy reach. Neither of them kept much but clothes in the bags; both were too used to having to suddenly leave and were not willing to lose anything of value. But the sight of them reminded Tsunade of something she had recently received.

She pulled out a storage scroll and then, from within, unsealed a stack of letters. They were the only ones she had kept from that village in recent years. The village that had taken everything from her and left her as nothing more than a bitter, broken woman. She had avoided everything to do with it in the years since she had left both active service and her family home.

And yet… she opened the oldest of the letters and ran her finger slowly along the now familiar handwriting.

Nade-neesan, I hope this letter finds you well. It has been many years now since you and I were last able to share tea together, and it seems like everything has changed. I’ve missed your guidance and warmth often over the years, but never so much as when I fully accepted my role in my clan and family. While blood may only name us as distant cousins, you are the sister of my heart and I have so much I wish I could share with you. I miss you, always, Kushina.

That had been the first in a series of letters from her younger cousin who was, in truth, the only blood family she still had left in the world. The letters had always been delivered by toad-summons, a courtesy of her cousin’s lover, Namikaze, Tsunade was certain. Kushina had never demanded anything of Tsunade, just told her of her own life in bits and pieces, and how much she wished Tsunade could share her growing family and clan with her. For the last year, every two to three weeks, a new letter would arrive with news, love, and a sense of family. Tsunade knew she had been thinking about it more and more as each letter arrived. She flipped through the stack to the most recent.

Nade-neesan, every day now feels like time is slipping away from me, and yet dragging out in never-ending expectation. Minato-kun and I finally agreed on a name. I can’t hardly believe it myself, but The Tale of the Gutsy Shinobi was such an amazing story. It’s so hard to believe its author is the same as those erotica books Kakashi-kun has started reading. If only Minato-kun’s sensei hadn’t chosen to embody the role of a perverted lecher with quite such enthusiasm. You know better than anyone what I mean.

Nade-neesan… I’m worried, and scared, and excited, and so many other emotions all the time every day. I want you to know that I want you to be part of my family’s future, in whatever capacity you are able. I miss you, Nade-neesan. With Love, Kushina.

Below that was a scribbled little drawing of a fish cake common on ramen. Tsunade had recognized it immediately and just about cried as she realized what it meant.

She had suspected from all the hints her cousin had been dropping in her various letters that she was pregnant. This one had been the final confirmation of that fact. The Uzumaki Clan was growing. That didn’t even take into account all the other tidbits that left Tsunade guessing if she even really understood what was meant. That her cousin was being careful to not give away family secrets and yet still try to include her was obvious and endearing.

Tsunade carefully sealed the letters back up and tucked them away, squeezing her eyes closed as a feeling of dread welled up even stronger. She blinked, startled, and turned to find Shizune crouched at her side, her apprentice’s hand gently resting on Tsunade’s forearm. Tsunade realized she was checking her vitals and felt a swell of warmth. Her apprentice was getting good at being sneaky like that.

“I brought soup and tea,” Shizune said gently as she removed her hand and then shifted so she could pick up and set the soup and tea tray properly on the table. Tsunade accepted both but paid little attention to either, despite eating and drinking both.

Time slipped away as Tsunade felt varying waves of shock, grief over past losses, and anxiety over what new tragedy she would soon learn of. She blinked into awareness sometime later as she registered another presence in the room other than herself and Shizune. She stared, confused, “Kiki-san?”

The monkey that sat across the table from her sipping tea huffed. “No respect from you. Not since the first day Hiruzen summoned me to aid in your training.”

Tsunade blinked, her mind sluggish. “I don’t understand. Why are you… here?”

“Because Hiruzen asked me to, obviously.” The older monkey clan member’s face softened. “Oh, Nade-chan, what have you done to yourself?” She murmured as a wave of healing chakra suddenly passed between them. Tsunade gasped as the energy passed through her and the fog cleared after a moment. She glared at her self-invited guest.

“I suppose you are bringing bad news.”

The summon simply shrugged as she laid a scroll on the table and refilled her teacup. “News is news, information is information, it’s all how you interpret it. You know that.”

Tsunade let out a heavy sigh, and she eyed the scroll with dread. “I’m tired, Kiki-san. Tired of hearing of nothing but death and tragedy for those I care for.”

“Well, I can assure you, your mentor is still very much alive and is as difficult as ever. The stubborn old fool. He does need your support though, Nade-chan. You are a daughter to him in all the ways that matter.”

Tsunade paused just before breaking the seal on the scroll laid before her at that tidbit. “He has a funny way of showing it.”

“He gave you your freedom when you needed it most, didn’t he?”

Tsunade ignored the response and opened the scroll. Her eyes snagged and restarted over the words at the top, a blunt and to-the-point status report, likely being relayed out to all of Konoha’s forces wherever they were currently posted. She swallowed slowly. The Kyuubi no Kitsune had appeared in Konoha. It had been defeated by the Yondaime, at the cost of his own life. What wasn’t reported, but Tsunade knew to be true from the moment she read the words that the fox had appeared, was that her cousin was dead.

“I have nothing left in that village to go back for. All it does is give empty promises and take away everything else until you are all that’s left. A dried-out nothing.” Tsunade whispered out, but her voice was flat without inflection.

“So, your clan legacy means nothing?” Kikensaru asked calmly.

Tsunade scoffed, “What clan. One individual is not a clan. It’s not even a family.”

“True,” Kiken sipped her tea. “But nor can a clan grow without effort.”

Tsunade scowled. “I lost any hope of giving birth to the next generation years ago. What battlefield injuries didn’t take, grief did.”

Kiken set her cup down with a sharp click. “I’m disappointed in you, Nade-chan. You very well know there are more ways than biological reproduction to expand one’s family. Your cousin was doing quite well in that regard. You are a child descending from two great clans by way of your maternal grandparents. You have been both entitled by and criticized for both your entire life, whether you realize it or not. Or did you think your proficiency and advancements in medical fujinjutsu had no relation to your maternal grandmother’s clan line?”

Tsunade blinked, shocked at the sudden rebuke and reminders of her legacy.

“I know where my legacy comes from.” She finally snarled back, disgusted.

“And will you let it end with you? Who will tell the stories of the Senju Clan if you do not start? How will your cousin’s legacy grow and know their own history if you hide it from them?”

Tsunade froze at that and stared wide-eyed. “Her child survived.”

Kikensaru chuckled. “See? Too lost in your grief and self-pity to see the truth until it smacks you in the nose.”

Tsunade huffed in exasperation.

“He needs you at home, Nade-chan. It’s time you forgive your old teacher for the wrongs done that were not even his fault to begin with. He can’t stand strong if you don’t support him.”

Tsunade rolled her eyes. “I’ve always supported the old geezer, even when he coddled the boys.”

“He coddled them so you wouldn’t crush their fragile egos.” Kikensaru tossed back.

Tsunade bit off a strangled huff of disbelief. “I don’t know if I can go back, Kiki-san. Before I left, everywhere I turned were memories of those I lost. I couldn’t get away from it and I couldn’t move past it.” She wrapped an arm around her midriff as she allowed her mind to truly consider returning. A soul-deep ache pulsed out from her very core.

“You know the realities of grief better than most, but you also know you can’t run from it forever. Your grandmother’s legacy is needed.”

Tsunade froze as Kikensaru’s exact words resonated. “What did you say?”

Kikensaru frowned. “Oh, that means something specific to you, doesn’t it? I wondered when Hiruzen said I’d need to mention it.”

Tsunade eyed the old monkey warily. She may give off the appearance of being humble and unassuming, but Tsunade remembered the lessons she’d been taught by this particular lady well. “What other secrets are you keeping from me?”

Kikensaru shrugged easily, “There was something about the snake-traitor’s mess and it creating something you needed to know about, but Hiruzen refused to go into detail.”

Tsunade stared as her mind started to make rapid connections. The reasons why her old teammate had been accused of treason and then exiled after he fled flickered through her thoughts. Followed quickly by just what it truly meant to have this so very personal messenger from her old sensei come now, and not before, to deliver this particular message. Had Orochimaru done something with the Senju or Uzumaki bloodline in his experiments? Just how far had the snake summoner gone? She cursed. The old man had laid his trap well. There was no way she could ignore any of this. His messenger choice, the choice of messages. They were all a masterwork in manipulation, and as much as she hated it, she couldn’t blame him for it.

She moved away from the table toward her carry sack for a change of clothes.

“And where are you rushing off to?” Kikensaru asked, a bit of surprise in her tone.

“To bed. It’s been a long day. You can see yourself out, Kiki-san. No return message.”

“Will you be returning then?” Kikensaru asked, not willing to let her off the hook quite that easily.

“I’ll think about it.”

Kikensaru huffed once, then vanished in the all too familiar sound of a dispersed summons. Tsunade didn’t dwell on wondering what the little monkey would be reporting back to the old man. In the end, it didn’t matter. She did not doubt that he had known what those messages, delivered as they were, would do.

The next morning brought with it relief from the cloud of anxiety that had held her on the very edge of shock for most of the evening the night before. She rose earlier than she did most days and quickly set about taking advantage of the resort’s facilities; to wash and soothe away the worst of the previous days’ remaining panic and grief. She headed to the hot springs to soak and think.

It didn’t take long for Shizune, her constant companion and apprentice, to find her.

The water moved in soothing ripples as the younger woman moved through the spring until she settled into place just a hand space away from Tsunade. Both women sat in silence, enjoying the comfort and peace that came in the open-air hot spring. This had been at least one good thing that had come from this mess.

“I saw the status report.” Shizune broke the peace, her voice quiet and gentle.

Tsunade hummed in acknowledgment. She had left it laying out on the table after all. She considered all the ways she could ignore, deflect, or answer Shizune’s unspoken questions.

“We are leaving tomorrow.” She said calmly after several minutes went by.

“And our destination?” Shizune asked carefully.

“We have been summoned home.” Tsunade simply offered by way of explanation. She didn’t like her old teacher’s manipulations, but she was adult enough to know herself and that she would have ignored a request to return without the added leverage. Shizune, thankfully, did not question her decision or motives behind it, but simply accepted it.

.:o:.

Jiraiya slipped through the forest surrounding Konohagakure with practiced ease. It had been nearly two days since he had first received word from the toads of Mount Myouboku that Minato had died. He had wrapped up everything he could in the following hours and then started for Konoha at a hard pace.

His nose itched at the lingering scents of large-scale fires and something more: something wild and dark that grew stronger as he came closer to the village perimeter. He took note of the elevated security around the village in approval, already knowing that rumors were flying at a rapid pace across not just Fire Country, but to all their surrounding neighbors as well. The one most commonly reported fact was that a giant fox had appeared in Konoha. Jiraiya knew there would be incursions sooner rather than later from those trying to learn the truth of the matter. Normally he would be hard at work both stopping and contributing to the information flow from allies and enemies alike. However, this incident required him back home as fast as he could manage it and he’d have to trust his network to manage the rest.

He paused to allow a patrol enough time to move past him before moving quickly to a secured entrance that only he and one other had ever known about. An ache tugged at his heart in the memory. His student, his son in all but blood, was dead. He pushed it aside; the middle of stealth maneuvers was not the time to be crippled by grief. Once into the village proper, he might have time to grieve. He paused long enough to get a read on the seal barrier that marked the village perimeter and to send out a group of small toads who he used frequently for information and reconnaissance gathering. Once that task was done, he continued his course and, before long, arrived along the first perimeter of the Uzumaki complex. He frowned as he took note of several shadowed presences who had obviously been sent to monitor the property.

He slipped past the unexpected watchers unnoticed and then on through the security-expected boundaries that both Kushina and Minato had spent weeks on designing and putting into place. Jiraiya continued through the property, silently taking note of the small changes made since he had last been present. He stopped at the edge of a precisely manicured garden. Careful lines were drawn through the finely worn stones. Hope, protection, peace, and growth. All of Minato and his wife’s wishes for their future were carefully laid out in their meditations.

For all that Minato’s primary element had been wind, it had been earth that he used in his meditations. Practicing over and over again to refine and perfect his control. He had developed quite the pattern from those meditations and had taught those he was closest to how to read them. Hidden in the shadows of the larger garden fixtures were more patterns and messages.

Just as Minato was one of very few who could read Jiraiya’s codes, Jiraiya was likewise able to read Minato’s, perhaps the only one if Kushina was also gone. At the moment, Jiraiya was most interested in the particular patterns and markers that would tell him what cipher to use when reviewing Minato’s notes and files, as well as Minato’s personal indicators of current threats both internal and external which would include their current rating on the threat level. He was not surprised to find the internal danger threat at its highest rating. He let out a long, slow breath. Accepting this probably meant that the full events leading to the Kyuubi’s appearance had most likely been caused by an internal source. He would have to proceed with care.

Jiraiya left the garden and moved on toward the main building, blinking a bit in surprise at the sight of light coming from within. The muffled sounds of a baby crying reached out and drew him closer. Jiraiya noted the traps and security as he entered and realized Kakashi was in residence with the crying child. He swallowed past the lump in his throat as he entered the doorway to the main living space and stopped to stare.

Minato’s wayward student looked frazzled and a bit wild as he tried to encourage the child in his arms to quiet down. All around the room were signs of the teenager’s attempts and failures in the form of discarded diapers, half drank bottles and a few stuffed toys. Jiraiya simply watched the pair for several minutes before finally stepping fully into the room. “Here, kid, I’ll settle him down.”

Kakashi whirled and Jiraiya was impressed by the sudden appearance of the deadly protector, even as the child was held securely. “You look like you could use a break to clean up and get some sleep.” Jiraiya offered as he ignored the slowly lowering weapon clutched in Kakashi’s fist and moved in to peer at the babe in his arms. “Shit, the kid looks like them both so much already.”

Kakashi all but wilted. “I can’t get him to stop crying.”

Jiraiya nodded even as he gently stroked a few fingers along the baby’s face and the wail cut off with a snuffled sob. “It’s your chakra. You are tense and upset. He can sense that even if he doesn’t understand what it is he’s sensing.”

Kakashi took a deep breath and then relaxed. Relief was evident in his expression as the last of the crying tapered off, and the baby relaxed into his hold more easily.

“They named him Naruto,” Kakashi whispered and Jiraiya froze at all the meaning packed into that simple statement. He smiled, fighting to keep the emotions from turning him into a blubbering mess.

“Is that so?” He whispered in quiet awe, the child already making his heart do funny things just like his father had as a child.

“I was at least able to keep his diaper clean,” Kakashi mumbled, and Jiraiya barked a soft laugh. “Good thing. I imagine your nose would make not doing so a challenge.”

Kakashi shrugged but didn’t deny it. “Want to hold him?”

Jiraiya took the baby with practiced ease from the still awkward teen at the offer and murmured happy nonsense at the wide bright blue eyes watching him with a single-minded intensity. “Why don’t you let me look after him for a few hours. Go get cleaned up and take a nap, kid.”

Kakashi bristled, “I’m not a kid.”

Jiraiya chuckled, “You will never not be that little brat who insisted on kicking me when we first met. So, unless you’d prefer brat or Kakashi-kun?”

Kakashi drooped and groaned, “I don’t know why Sensei put up with you.” He then eyed the baby, settling happily into Jiraiya’s arms. “If you are sure?”

“Yeah, I got this. We’ll be here when you wake up.”

Kakashi nodded, then disappeared down a hallway further into the house.

Jiraiya considered going ahead and searching for any information Minato left him, but a soft gurgle from the bundle now in his arms changed his mind. He settled down on a comfortable cushion and smiled at his godson. “Let me tell you about a gutsy shinobi named Naruto.”

.:o:.

Hiruzen stretched before he settled himself into his seat and began to review his task report. He had been using it to list out tasks that needed to be completed, as well as check them off, add new ones, as well as add notes regarding their progress as he reviewed the list. The teams had finally moved fully from search and rescue operations and on to survey and recovery.

Early reports of their losses were worse than he had expected. Fully half of the village’s jounin and special jounin forces had fallen to the Kyuubi during the attack itself or from injuries afterward. The corrosive chakra that had been released by the Kyuubi, while not the most damaging by itself, made healing much more difficult, if not impossible. Injuries that normally would have been a justified cause for some short downtime had started to spiral into critical injuries and death.

Then there was the near-total loss of the shinobi reserves who had lived where the fox first appeared. Very few had managed to escape the first onslaught as they had feared. This, combined with the sheer amount of property damage, was going to cause the village a lot of shortages in both manpower and resources in the coming months. Konoha was incredibly vulnerable and at-risk if any of their various enemies decided to press their advantage. Hiruzen was not sure they could survive if they did.

A quiet knock and pulse of chakra through the security seals indicated the arrival of his next meeting. He allowed the two-waiting shinobi entry and sent a pulse of chakra into the waiting teapot to start it warming, as had quickly become his practice whenever he had a meeting with the members of the Hokage Advisory Council. The seal design on the teapot had been a gift from Mito Uzumaki and one that had become very popular with those who studied fujinjutsu. The ability to warm or heat food without an actual fire had proven a very useful skill in the field.

“Shikaku-san, Inoichi-san, tea?”

“Thank you, Sandaime-sama. Tea would be perfect.” Inoichi said in response as he and Shikaku settled into the seats waiting for them.

Hiruzen nodded and while waiting for the tea to steep, activated the highest privacy and secrecy levels available for the room.

“Have you gotten any rest, sir?” Shikaku asked as he settled himself and pulled several folders and scrolls out of a storage seal of his own.

“Some. I’ve also met with my daughter and son to let them know of the loss of their mother. I understand they’ve taken it upon themselves to establish a triage point at the edge of our clan compound. Is this action being repeated amongst all the clans able to do so?”

“Yes, sir. It has helped immensely with moving those displaced to new undamaged spaces. As you requested, two of the secured bunkers were opened up to provide housing for the displaced as well. A third bunker is being used for the non-critically injured to keep the hospital from being overcrowded.” Shikaku reported. “Despite the suddenness and large-scale trauma of the attack, our forces have been quick to rally together.”

“That’s true.” Inoichi agreed. “The transition of power back to you, sir, has been smooth. The policies laid out and approved by the council and the Yondaime shortly after his official instatement as Hokage helped with that immensely. Unfortunately, and largely due to traditionalists and politics, he was not able to push through the additional succession policies you two had both discussed. There is no ‘next-in-line’ for the title of Hokage already in place. We are in fact very lucky that we can move so quickly as is since you are still a Hokage in rank and can move so smoothly into even an interim role.”

Hiruzen nodded. This was a topic he and Minato had often discussed. “Yes, I’m aware of the troubles he was having on that issue. We discussed it often during our own meetings. What else did he have in play?”

Inoichi glanced sideways at Shikaku and went about preparing his tea as Shikaku took over.

“Minato, Inoichi, and I had been working on the corruption growing within Konoha that often left us with bad, or misleading, intel during the Third Shinobi War. All of us felt that there was additional personnel involved that kept making ‘adjustments’ to both orders and intel. Those adjustments by themselves didn’t seem like much, but when you started listing them all out and reviewing the data, it revealed a very ugly truth. “

Hiruzen closed his eyes at the truth of the statements, tens if not hundreds of little such inconsistencies quickly coming to mind. “Yes, I know what you mean.”

“The hard part was finding hard evidence leading back to the individual or individuals truly responsible. Some of it we were able to trace back to Orochimaru after his defection. However, there was a great deal that just vanished into the shadows of ANBU and never resurfaced.”

“ROOT. The unsanctioned shadow within the shadow.” Hiruzen murmured.

“Just so, sir. They are extremely good at hiding themselves and burying their work until we only see the end results.” Inoichi agreed. “This makes it hard to trace events to common sources, and it definitely led to unnecessary losses.”

“Minato wasn’t willing to let it continue. Between his own investigative work and additional information we learned about certain types of fujinjutsu thanks to Kushina, the group of us began to pull at various threads and find more than just cut strings and loose ends.” Shikaku explained, “We found more than enough evidence to make us sure of a certain individual’s involvement, and yet there was still nothing concrete enough to bring it before the council for judgment.”

“This must end quickly. We cannot afford to have these manipulations continue if we hope to survive the unavoidable challenges in our future.” Hiruzen said, frowning at the lists of missions and evidence they had uncovered previously that was laid out before him. “Due to secrecy oaths, I can say with absolute certainty that the information leak that led to the attack on the night of October 10th came from an ANBU source.”

“ROOT’s leader knew we were getting close and chose to move more directly against Minato, then,” Inoichi stated flatly.

“Minato, by chance, found records that revealed several acting clan heads who never took their clan oaths to the village upon becoming clan head. This mostly seems to have been an accidental oversight due to the sudden changeovers that were often caused by sudden deaths during the second and third wars, at least at first. The problem is it was never corrected after either war.”

“These clans are in violation of the charter as long as this goes on,” Hiruzen said, as he considered the ramifications. He had studied the charter extensively in his youth, as the document was the very foundation laid out for the village and the position of Hokage. He had started reviewing the charter again in the last forty-eight hours for other reasons, but this had been something they had stumbled upon that was critical now and made his review all the more timely. Based on this new information, it was clear that some had been undermining it now for years. “This will have to be corrected as soon as possible.”

“There’s more. We have reason to believe that ROOT’s leader has been using his position in his own clan to hide and maintain his shadows. There were records found that indicated Danzo Shimura took over Clan Shimura after his grandfather suffered a sudden stroke. There were no records to be found of a medical examination and the funeral was kept private to the family. There were no previous medical records that indicated such an event would be likely, the opposite in fact, so the suddenness of it should have been investigated.” Inoichi explained.

Hiruzen frowned. “How reliable is the source of this?”

“Kushina and Minato found this information in a journal of Mito Uzumaki’s. She paid careful attention to how the clans were handled, particularly as the numbers of the Senju Clan began to dwindle.” Shikaku added.

Deep sorrow welled up in Hiruzen’s heart as he recalled the formidable Mito Uzumaki, wife of the Shodaime and first jinchūriki of the Kyuubi. “She would coach me about making sure I was seeing to the proper transition of the clans in the years before her passing. She often said it was very important that all the clans follow the charter. I did not realize then that such things were not being seen to.” Hiruzen said slowly in consideration.

“I’ve begun reviewing the charter again since Minato’s death in preparation, as I feel some extreme measures will be needed to secure our future. That you found this evidence of violations of the charter makes me only more certain of it. As I reviewed the charter, I noticed any clan that originally signed the charter but has since died out, the ink has faded to the faintest impression on the charter. However, in contrast, there are several I noticed that were glowing a dark sickly red. Shimura was one such clan.” Hiruzen took a blank scroll and wrote down several others who had such changeovers during the wars. “These particular clans… I will have to meet with their acting clan head individually as soon as possible to resolve this issue. Some of the names now showing problems may actually be a result of the most recent attack. Shikaku-san, can you coordinate such meetings without drawing attention to them?”

Shikaku read over the list of the names, “Yes, that shouldn’t be too troublesome. A few of these have fallen almost entirely into civilian lines and could benefit from stronger ties with other village clans as well. I know the taking of vassal clans and members has fallen out of use since the founding, but it should perhaps be revisited. I’m surprised Hatake is not on the list.”

“Kakashi Hatake has always taken his clan responsibilities seriously, despite being the only living member at this juncture. Yuhi, Senju, Kato, and Hagane all need to be handled as soon as possible.” Hiruzen stated even as he refilled his tea. “Tsunade and her apprentice will hopefully return soon, and I will deal with Clan Senju and Clan Kato at that time.”

Shikaku eyed the older shinobi and took a long sip of his tea. “You are planning something.”

Hiruzen chuckled, “Always, my friend. This particular plan, however, will have to wait a bit longer before it can be revealed. Now, is there anything else that Minato had in the works that we should address?”

“Not so much Minato specifically, but Lady Kushina. She planned to open up a clan school to further the knowledge of her clan legacy. She said it was important that it not end with her and her family.”

Hiruzen blinked in surprise. “She planned to train others in fujinjutsu? You are certain?”

Inoichi nodded. “She had been working on a lesson plan system for different age groups and as well as a way to introduce early fujinjutsu theories to the academy as well. She felt, almost compelled, I’d say to go in that direction. Especially after she became pregnant.”

“We failed the Uzumaki clan and our allies in Uzushiro terribly during the second war,” Hiruzen said, his voice heavy. “I’ve never forgotten the shame that followed learning of Uzushiro’s fall. That the Uzumaki had entrusted us with their clan heiress, in order to help secure Konoha’s future, always felt like a cruel irony. That she had still considered the people of Konoha worthy of such a legacy says much about who she was. Despite our honoring the fallen Uzumaki Clan with their symbol on our uniforms, we tried to erase their history to hide our failure in our own history. A decision I did not agree with but chose not to fight at the time.”

“You will have an uphill battle with the council on that topic with some of the older clan heads,” Shikaku stated as he poured his tea. “It is not something we’ve kept hidden within the Nara Clan, so we’ll support it, of course.”

“The Yamanaka Clan as well,” Inoichi said while taking the time to refill his tea. “It’s a perfect case study of how historical records can be used to hide what those involved would prefer future generations forget or never learn of.”

Hiruzen hummed in agreement, “A matter that will likely have to wait, unfortunately.”

“Is there anything else, in particular, you want us to keep an eye on, sir?” Inoichi asked.

“Keep an eye on our active and reserve rosters. We need to make sure no one goes unexpectedly missing in the middle of this upheaval.”

“Understood and agreed.”

“I think we can adjourn for now on this meeting. I look forward to meeting with those on the list,”

“As you say, sir.”

A familiar pull on his chakra told Hiruzen one of his messengers had returned. “If you’ll excuse me, gentlemen, I have another visitor to see.”

“Of course, sir. Until tomorrow then, unless something else comes up.” Shikaku agreed as both men collected their files and then left the room.

Hiruzen opened his chakra to the familiar pull and in a faint whoosh, Kikensaru appeared. Hiruzen sighed in exasperation at her amused face. “What did she say?”

“No return message and then dismissed me as if I was her own summon.”

He arched a brow at that. “No yelling or cursing me out?”

“She very obviously did not appreciate your manipulations, but the only answer she’d give me when I pressed was ‘I’ll think about it’,” Kikensaru explained with a shrug. “She had that stubborn look to her like she used to get as a child, so I thought it best to not push her further.”

Hiruzen gave a hum as he considered the implications. “How far away at a relaxed pace was she?”

“Her luck had been haunting her, so without gambling to further distract her, I’d say a week, maybe less.” Kikensaru explained, “She wasn’t giving any indications of being in a hurry.”

“She’ll move quickly when she’s ready to, but not if she needs time to come to terms with the information you gave her,” Hiruzen said as he considered his students’ most likely reactions. “Her curiosity will probably work in my favor, regardless.”

“If you say so. She seemed determined to enjoy her spa resort stay when I left her.” Kikensaru stated wryly.

Hiruzen frowned but did not comment further on the motivations and movements of Tsunade Senju. “I’ve not heard back yet from Sarujinsoku. Any thoughts?”

“The toad sage of Mount Myouboku is known for his unpredictable movements. That is why you arranged to have the toads carry messages most often. They at least could track his movement if not let him know he had a message by way of their own contract.”

Hiruzen sighed at the reminder. “I’ll just have to wait then.”

Kikensaru smirked at him then. “I thought your age had taught you patience.”

He scowled at her. “Feel free to go pick on Enma instead.”

“He’s more grumpy than you.”

“I thought you liked the risk?” Hiruzen started reorganizing the files on his desk, considering what he could work on next with no other options regarding his still absent students except to wait.

“Hmm, true. Take care of yourself, Hiruzen.” Kikensaru then vanished as summons usually did, leaving nothing but a big of displaced air to mark her passing.

Hiruzen shook his head in exasperation and amusement. That one had always been nearly as much trouble as his kunoichi student. He had long suspected that was why they had surprisingly gotten along.

He pulled open a non-descript scroll and went back to work.

Chapter Three

A strangled cry broke the stillness throughout the house and pulled Jiraiya from the journal he had been reading. He checked the baby laid in a bassinet he’d recovered from the child’s nursery and found him still sleeping soundly. He rose to his feet and headed toward the hall leading back to the bedrooms. Upon reaching Kakashi’s door, he gently tapped on the wood frame.

A rustling of blankets and muffled curse could be heard before the door was opened and mismatched eyes framed by the marks of no sleep peered at him.

“Hey, kid. Cover up that chakra drain of yours and come on out to the main room.” Jiraiya suggested, the signs of uneasy sleep and nightmares were evident on the teen.

“I don’t—”

“I’ll make tea and we can talk about it.”

Kakashi scowled. “I’m not a child that needs to be coddled.”

Jiraiya arched one brow, unamused, “Everyone has nightmares, kid. I’ve always found company and someone to talk to helped.”

The teen slumped a bit at that. “Minato-sensei always said the same…”

Jiraiya nodded and refused to acknowledge the pang of grief that pulsed through him at his own student’s name.

Kakashi sighed in frustration but turned to grab his hitai-ate and soon had it back in its customary place, covering his left eye. “Where’s the baby?”

“Sleeping still.” Jiraiya led the way back to the main room and gestured to the tea service he had already pulled out earlier that night. “Take a seat kid, tell me when you are ready.” He then sat himself down and began preparing two fresh cups of tea. He said nothing more as he worked and finally settled back with his own cup in hand and waited. Kakashi Hatake had always been a contrary and stubborn child, but he had followed Minato around like a little duckling once he accepted the man as his teacher. That the kid had nightmares now after his teacher’s death did not surprise Jiraiya at all.

“It was more like a memory, but not my own.” Kakashi finally whispered as he cradled the teacup between his long fingers. “The me in the dream was responsible for the attack on Minato-sensei and Kushina-neesan. I—he killed everyone there and then used an explosion to trap Minato-sensei and the baby in the birthing chamber. The dream-me hoped it had killed them both. He then used a ritual to pull the Kyuubi out of Kushina-neesan. He also had a sharingan and used it to keep the Kyuubi under his control and sent the fox into the village.” Kakashi swallowed. “Minato-sensei reappeared and tried to stop him and we—he fought. Minato-sensei seemed to think I might have been Madara… but the dream-me only laughed. The dream-me felt our—his control over the Kyuubi break free and ran after taking an injury.”

Jiraiya considered the report-like telling of what certainly sounded more like a memory and he wondered, not for the first time, just what unknown secrets of the sharingan Kakashi maybe taping into. “Have you ever had dreams like this before?”

The teen startled at the question and then went quiet in thought for several long moments. “Maybe? I had nightmares about Obito surviving in that cave with terrible injuries and then some stranger healed him. The nightmares were always from Obito’s perspective. I always thought it was my own guilt and subconscious filling my head with pieced together images since none of it really made sense.”

“Anything more recent that had the same feel to it?” Jiraiya asked, a bad feeling tugging at his instincts.

“I…” The teen struggled with something that apparently bothered him a great deal. “Jiraiya-sensei, are you familiar with the incident that led to Rin’s death?”

Jiraiya winced. Minato had told him about the tragedy that cost him his second student. That the poor girl had been essentially turned into a living bomb and had then begged Kakashi to kill her before she could be used against the village was horrid. “Yeah, I know the details. Bad business, that entire mess.”

Kakashi nodded, “I dreamed that I watched myself kill her as if I was just an observer some distance away, but the memory was just as sharp as if I had been there—seen it happen. As if it was my sharingan eye watching it both as I committed the act and as a spectator. It took months for those dreams to fade.”

“I know Minato said you were having a tough time with the loss of your teammates. Did you ever talk to him about these dreams?” Jiraiya asked.

“No, I… I couldn’t talk to Sensei about it when I was largely responsible for both of their deaths.” Kakashi whispered sounding broken. “I should have taken more care with my team. Their lives weren’t meant to just be thrown away.”

“Ah hell, kid. You got thrown into a no-win situation that led to both of them paying the ultimate price of their lives. All you can do now is to learn and try to be more prepared in the future. Carrying around the guilt for their loss won’t serve either of their memories.”

Kakashi flinched as if struck and hung his head in a defeated slump. “Yes, Jiraiya-sensei. I can’t help but feel this could have all been prevented if I had just made different choices.”

“Is that your experience or the grief from those dreams and memories pushing that on you?”

Kakashi frowned then, “I always feel like it’s my fault. That I’m to blame after I’ve had these dreams. As if the person whose memory I’m seeing blames me… they blamed Minato-sensei too, in the one from earlier tonight.”

“That seems an unusual feeling for you to have, Kakashi. Are you absolutely certain nothing else is influencing you?” Jiraiya asked, concerned.

“There is no such thing as ghosts Jiraiya-sensei, no matter what stories kids tell. Obito and Rin aren’t haunting me, just my own failures.”

A loud wail from the baby interrupted any further discussion. “And sounds like someone needs a diaper change,” Jiraiya said as he sniffed once and then moved to pick up the infant. “I’ll take care of this Kakashi, go try to get some more sleep. I’ll need to report in with Hiruzen-sensei soon and I’ll leave Naruto here in your care again when I do.”

Jiraiya watched the slumped and defeated-looking teenager nod and slink away back down the hall, the baby quieting now that Jiraiya had picked him up. He’d have to do some research about those dreams, but first, he had a baby to see to. “All right, tadpole, let’s get you cleaned up.”

.:o:.

Jiraiya had spent most of the night and the following day after his arrival tending to the baby and reading through the files and journals Minato had kept secured at home. While he had been familiar with much of it, he had been surprised just how many projects Minato had in progress that they hadn’t discussed as well. He took his time to go through everything and make sure he understood the reasoning and motivations Minato had laid out with his research. The time taken to do so had also allowed him to give Kakashi some much-needed coaching on baby care. Jiraiya suspected the teen had delegated much of the babysitting chores his team did to his other teammates and so had been rather at a loss.

Taking his time now also allowed the knot of toads he had sent out upon arrival to report back with information on the current status of Konoha. He needed to have a good understanding of what morale and such, was like in the village, as well as the more foreign and external views of Konoha. He had not received any reports indicating injury to his old teacher who would have resumed his place as Hokage, but that didn’t mean there weren’t problems here.

So far, the information he had gotten was still focused on the immediate response to the attack. Even without official reports, what he had learned was staggering in the scope of long-term impact on the village. They would have to be very careful during the next few years in order to avoid complete catastrophe.

Jiraiya had already let the kid know he would be heading out to meet up with Hiruzen soon, which had in turn led to the kid telling him about the secrecy around Naruto. As much as Jiraiya wished he could brag about his adorable godson, he understood why the secrecy was necessary. Now, as dusk approached, he finished dismissing and sending out the next knot of surveillance toads before making his way through the village to the administrative center and the Hokage Tower.

In the distance, he could hear the various teams and crews still working hard in the damaged areas, but the rest of the village was quiet. Civilians had been cautioned against being out after dark, keeping the streets clear and giving the active shinobi forces freedom to patrol and work more quickly. Jiraiya hid amongst shadows and waited for his next opening to slip into the tower unnoticed, something he had been doing since he was a child himself. He considered the civilian population of the village for a moment as he waited.

The civilian population at first stemmed from the families who had chosen to stay in Konoha after the original village and its surrounding lands had been granted to the newly formed Konohagakure shinobi by the Fire Daimyo with the signing of the Treaty of Fire. Some of those families had chosen to leave and find homes away from the now shinobi-run village, but others had chosen to stay. Of those who had stayed, some members of the younger generations had even gone on to join the villages’ shinobi forces instead of their family craft or business.

However, the civilians at times could get rather vocal in their protests and desires for a more normal village structure. There was nothing in the founding of Konohagakure that gave the civilians those rights, other than what the current village leadership decided to grant them, but it had grown into an expectation, regardless. Jiraiya was well aware, from his own investigations, just how much of a weakness the civilians, who didn’t have anything binding them to the clans and shinobi of Konohagakure, could become.

It was not a policy any of the other hidden villages that had developed shared. The constant wars and irregular periods of calm, not ever truly peace, had prevented any true organization to come up before now. The civilians could organize and regroup to contend with the military-focused administration of the shinobi if given an opening, The events of the recent attack could and potentially would shift that power base if they didn’t take care to prevent it.

Jiraiya saw his opening and moved on into the tower, setting aside his thoughts on the civilian population for the time being. He recognized the lockdown barrier as soon as he reached the tower structure proper and considered ‘knocking’ for entrance or using his usual sneak and drop-in method. Without knowing who his teacher could already be meeting with, just dropping in might give him unexpected insight into how plans were moving. No sooner had he begun to break into the seal network that supported the tower, than a pulse of familiar chakra rippled through the barrier and alerted Jiraiya to a shift in the control and permission to allow for his entry. Seemed his old teacher had been waiting for him after all.

He slipped inside and headed up to the office, noting the lack of even administrative staff in the tower. It Seemed Sandaime-sama was taking his lockdown seriously indeed. He let himself into the hokage’s office and closed the door behind him, feeling the security seals spring back up into place.

“Hey Sensei—”

A whoosh of displaced air announced the arrival of a summons and Jiraiya blinked in surprise as a member of the monkey clan was suddenly in his face. “You are an impossible man to track down!” A sealed scroll was smacked into Jiraiya’s chest, and the monkey clan member turned to face the room’s other occupant. “Your message has been delivered, Hiruzen-san.” He huffed then disappeared.

Hiruzen Sarutobi sighed, “I sent Sarujinsoku with that message over two days ago. Apparently, you made it back before he caught up to you.” The older shinobi paused at that thought. “How did you know to come back?”

Jiraiya strolled fully into the room and settled down on a comfortable lounge chair along one wall, a place he had often taken in the past. “The toads of Mount Myouboku notified me almost before it happened. Minato arranged for the seal key and its guardian to be sent to me directly and I knew as soon as Gerotora appeared that things had gone very wrong. Minato and I had talked about worst-case scenarios during my last visit and what options he might have if things went that badly. It’s always been an intellectual exercise for us as much as a serious discussion.” Jiraiya explained as he broke open the seal and skimmed its contents taking note that his surveillance team had gathered this much information and more. “I wrapped up things where I was as quickly as possible and made the trip back here in less than eighteen hours.”

Hiruzen frowned, “That would have you arriving here almost twenty-four hours ago?”

Jiraiya nodded. “I stopped at the Uzumaki Clan house first to check for whatever Minato may have left available for me in terms of information. Kakashi was a mess.”

Hiruzen grimaced, “Well when one shirks their work on their teammate, it always comes back to bite you sometime down the road.”

Jiraiya snorted at that. “Yeah, well, there was more to it than that. You know Minato saw Kakashi as a little brother and Kushina was just as bad. The kid is grief-stricken and a mess. We’ll have to take care he doesn’t go on a self-destructive work binge. He would be the type to try to bury his grief like that and not care if it nearly gets him killed.”

Hiruzen sighed, “Agreed, and yes, Kakashi told me about the oaths sworn between him and Kushina.”

Jiraiya smiled then, “That red-headed habanero girl, she bullied us all into her family and clan. She wouldn’t take no for an answer from any of us.”

Hiruzen frowned, “Are you telling me now that you have been adopted into the Uzumaki Clan?”

Jiraiya shrugged, unrepentant. “It seemed fitting after they asked me to be a godfather. I had no reason to say no, as it changed nothing for my position.”

Hiruzen shook his head. “No, it just makes you clan regent.”

Jiraiya gave another half-shrug. “It was the right choice. We owe that clan much.”

“Why did you not tell me before?” Hiruzen asked, the sorrow clear in his voice.

“It was personal, and about both family and clan. At the time, it only mattered to those of us involved, and neither Minato nor Kushina wanted anyone outside the family to stick their noses into what was their own personal choices. I didn’t argue that choice with them when I accepted both of their offers; to be named their future child’s godfather and formal adoption into Clan Uzumaki. Minato and Kushina both gave nearly everything to the support of the village. They wanted to keep this for themselves, as long as they could keep it that way.”

Hiruzen let out a long sigh. “I understand. Will you declare yourself as an Uzumaki going forward?”

Jiraiya frowned, “I’d rather not unless we have no choice.”

Hiruzen hummed in thought, “That choice will likely come sooner than you would like. Tell me what you have learned about our current situation?”

Jiraiya settled in and began to tell him all he had learned so far. About both internal and external rumors, and what sort of danger level both indicated the village was in. This included the expected intel inquiries coming from known spies of other villages as well as inquiries from those who were not recognized. He also reported on the rumors he had learned regarding general opinion and morale in the village.

“Right now, everyone is focused on recovery and a lot of mourning. That won’t last for long though and then some will start wanting answers as well as someone to blame.”

“Yes. I suspect I know where the shadowy spearhead of those pointed barbs will come from as well.” Hiruzen frowned at the thought before he took a breath and let it go. “Are you aware of Minato’s recent projects?”

“If you mean his quiet investigations into various operations within the villages? Of course, I’ve been involved in a great deal of it. We can’t afford to let something else like what Orochimaru was up to slip past us. Especially now. It would undercut morale and cripple quite a few of our field operations.”

“Agreed. I’ve been meeting with both Shikaku and Inoichi and learned much of what they know about that matter. I’m working on a solution.”

“That’s… unexpected,” Jiraiya said, honestly stunned. “You ignored a lot of what that warmongering creep did during the wars, which left us in some bad situations at times.”

“I wasn’t as aware of just how much he’d sunk his fingers into until more recently. It’s a problem that has, sadly, led directly to our current situation. Of that, I am certain.” Hiruzen stated, his anger and self-loathing about the topic clear.

“He could take us all down with him if we aren’t careful,” Jiraiya said cautiously.

“Oh, I’m well aware of what he thinks he can do. Fortunately, I’ve found a major fault in his planning. I cannot act on it until certain other pieces are in place, however.”

Jiraiya considered that and then looked wide-eyed at his old teacher. “She’s going to be pissed.”

Hiruzen huffed. “Not an unfamiliar state of emotion for her, and better than being lost in grief. We’ve all lost too much to let our grief control us now. Better for her to be angry and direct it productively. Her family, clan, and village need her.”

Jiraiya winced at the pointed assessment. “I understand sir, I’m just glad she’ll be focused on you for that and not me.”

Hiruzen smiled sadly at that. “Well, perhaps if you had ever stopped trying to get her pissed at you, she wouldn’t be quite so quick to lash out at you? Hmm?”

Jiraiya shrugged then. “Eh, we live dangerous lives. She would suspect something was wrong with me if I didn’t treat her that way after all these years.” Both men acknowledged the truth of that statement and sat in comfortable silence for several long moments. “So, what do you need from me going forward?”

Hiruzen chuckled then, “To do what you already do best. I also need you to start a more detailed survey of the civilian population. If things go as I hope they will, big changes in how we manage the village will be coming. We need to know who actually supports us completely, who is only here for what we can give them, and who is just leeching off our goodwill.”

Jiraiya let out a low whistle. “You really do mean to change things then.”

Hiruzen smiled sadly as he turned to look out the large windows at their wounded village. “We must if we want to hope to survive and thrive without becoming another tragedy like Uzushiro.”

Jiraiya considered that and nodded in understanding. It wasn’t very hard to envision such a shift in inter-village politics and the usual status quo from where things now stood after the Kyuubi’s brief appearance. “I’ll get to work on that right away.”

“One more thing Jiraiya, you can’t speak of this to anyone but myself and Kakashi. The child’s safety, and ours, in turn, depend on keeping him hidden for as long as possible.”

“I understand, sir. The kid’s going to need help though, and both my and Kakashi’s association with the baby will cause people to start wondering about his origins.”

“If things play out as I hope they do in the coming weeks, it won’t be a long-term problem. People will have plenty of other things to focus on soon enough.”

Jiraiya nodded. “I’ll take your word for it, Sensei.”

Hiruzen smiled again. “I am glad you are here, Jiraiya.”

.:o:.

Tsunade stared at the gates in the familiar wall before her. These walls and the solid gates set in them had been a sign of safety and home for most of her youth. However, even now, all she could think about were all those who would never again cross through them to safety. She sensed Shizune at her side offering her silent reassurance and comfort, but Tsunade couldn’t help but wonder how long it would be before she too was taken away.

An unfamiliar voice broke through her shadowed thoughts. “Lady Tsunade?”

Tsunade pulled her mind from the shadow and nodded before she stepped forward, more by way of ingrained habit than an actual desire to move. “Yes, Senju Tsunade and Kato Shizune, checking in.”

“Welcome back to Konoha,” the chuunin gate guard said warmly. “I’m sure Sandaime-sama will want to see you right away. Please follow this route.” The chuunin pointed to a clearly marked travel path on a village map he held out for the pair to see. “All main roads are currently restricted to recovery personnel only.”

“I understand. Thank you for the forewarning.” Tsunade responded and then led the way into the village proper. Her nose twitched at the still heavy scents of ash and smoke that seemed to almost cling to the air and frowned. This was not healthy. They should already have had teams working to circulate and purify the air to avoid further inhalation damage from the lingering ash and smoke. That had been a common practice since the First Shinobi War “Shizune.”

“Yes, Tsunade-sama?”

“Would you prefer to stay with me or go check-in at the hospital?” Tsunade asked, mind whirling. The need to go offer aid with her hard-earned healing abilities was a near physical ache, but she knew that she would be a liability as much as a help. Not to mention the need to confront her old sensei about the message he had sent.

They walked along the paths through the village in silence for several minutes. “I will stay with you, for now, Tsunade-sama. We can decide what aid we can offer after you have met with Sandaime-sama.”

Tsunade accepted the answer with a relieved relaxation of muscles across her shoulders. She hadn’t wanted to admit it, but she would need her apprentice’s support facing her old friends just as much as she would when dealing with her trauma in a healer’s role. They moved through the village silently after that, ignoring the whispers of excitement as some individuals noticed them and recognized who she was.

Ten years had come and gone since the last time she had set foot within the village walls, but Tsunade herself was still a well-known figure. One of the Legendary Sannin trio and known throughout Fire Country and beyond for her abilities as both a healer as well as a front-line fighter. These facts made it almost impossible for her to travel anywhere completely unknown. However, it was her family and clan, more than even her personal skills, that kept her recognized within Konoha itself.

There was no true nobility or hierarchy amidst the various shinobi clans, but the Senju Clan had been well known and respected even before the village’s founding by friend and foe alike. That she was now the last of that clan and had been often called princess as a child by family, friends, and others added to that image and reputation. Tsunade herself hated it. She had no time or patience for catering to political egos and did not appreciate those who tried to earn her favor for their own benefit in the least. Her no-nonsense attitude had earned her friends and enemies alike over the years.

They arrived at the administration complex and paused at the door, taking in the heavy security seals that were active. Tsunade placed her palm on the sealed door and sent a pulse of her chakra rippling through the network. The door cracked open, and she moved inside with Shizune close at her back. She noticed the lack of staffing in the building and considered what that meant for the operations of the village. It was not until she reached the administrative office leading to the hokage’s office that they met anyone.

“Tsunade-sama, you and your apprentice can go right in. Sandaime-sama has requested you see him as soon as you arrived.” The unfamiliar chuunin said with a weary, but sincere smile.

The two kunoichi acknowledged the chuunin working as gatekeeper for the hokage’s office and went inside.

“You owe me some answers, Hiruzen-sensei,” Tsunade demanded as they strode into the office, the door closing securely behind them. She scanned the room, noting that many of the personal touches that had made this the office of her old mentor were gone and instead the marks of the younger and now gone Yondaime were still present.

“Tsunade,” Hiruzen said, his voice rough. “I have missed you. Please, come sit down.”

Tsunade glared at the older man but accepted his invitation to sit. “Sake?” She asked. Knowing the rest of their conversation was going to be brutal, likely for both of them. Shizune huffed at her side, her opinion on Tsunade’s indulgences clear.

“Tea?” Hiruzen countered. “I’ve not had the time or opportunity to stock anything else. The last few days have been terribly busy, and I’ve been kept here all hours with the required work.”

Tsunade grimaced but nodded her acceptance. She watched quietly for several minutes as he prepared tea and then passed them each a cup. Tsunade took a long, slow breath to scent the familiar blend before sipping it appreciatively. She had always enjoyed sharing tea with her sensei, even if she had tended to favor sake more often as the battles and trauma from the war piled upon them both. After several minutes stretched out as they all appreciated the tea, Tsunade finally just asked her question.

“How did it happen, Sensei?” Tsunade asked, frustrated with her limited information. “I received a letter from Kushina not more than a few weeks ago and she only expressed the usual fears I’d expect from a first-time mother.”

Hiruzen blinked in surprise at that statement. “Kushina was writing to you?”

“Don’t change the subject,” Tsunade responded, brows drawing down into a frown.

“I’m just surprised. It seems Kushina was doing much to secure her clan’s future that I was unaware of until just recently. As to how, to put it in the simplest terms, we had an information leak. I’m currently working on plans to deal with it permanently, but there are several other steps that must be taken first to ensure our village’s survival from the repercussions. Some of those steps are dependent on you, Tsunade.”

Tsunade laughed bitterly, “I have no hopes left for this place, you know that.”

“And what of your grandmother’s legacy? Of your own clan?”

Tsunade narrowed her eyes in speculation and anger. “This village doesn’t deserve her legacy. Not after letting Kushina be killed. As for my clan, I have no clan left.”

Hiruzen sighed sadly. “You have options and choices, Tsunade. You don’t have to let the Senju end with you.”

“I cannot have any children of my own, you know that. Fighting in that war cost me personally a great deal, as you are aware!” Tsunade all but growled. Piece by piece, her family and future had been torn away from her in the years of the Second Shinobi War. Her parents, her brother, her lover, her own body. The prices extracted from her in the name of her duty and protection of the village had been steep and long-lasting.

Hiruzen seemed to shrink down on himself a bit, then took a deep breath and let it out slowly. “I regret all that you’ve had to suffer greatly.” He slowly began to prepare a new cup of tea for himself. “I regret even more that the information I have now to give you will likely cause you further grief. And yet, I have to ask more of you, Tsunade. You have always been the strongest of my students where it mattered. Your heart and will have always burned so brightly. That you found ways to bring that strength out into physical skill only highlighted that strength more.”

“And yet,” Tsunade began, her tone wry. “You always gave the other two more of your attention.”

Hiruzen grunted, “They were constantly jealous of you. Your family and clan, your natural skill with chakra, the way you always found new ways to beat them both.”

“How could you let him do what he did?” Tsunade then demanded, shifting the topic fully onto her traitorous teammate.

“I was blind and foolish,” Hiruzen said, his voice strained with grief and guilt. “There were, and are still, shadows moving through the village’s power structure that he used to hide all that he was doing. By the time it came to light, it was too late. I tried to confront him and instead found a lab full of the horrors he was delving into. A purposeful distraction on his part, I’m certain to aid in his escape.”

“And how is that related to me?”

Hiruzen wilted even further. “Shizune, if you could step outside, please? The things I have to tell Tsunade are for her alone at this time.”

Shizune looked back and forth between the Sandaime and her mentor, uncertainty clear.

“It’s fine Shizune, go ahead,” Tsunade said quietly, appreciative of her apprentice’s desire to remain at her side.

“I understand, Tsunade-sama. Sandaime-sama, it is good to see you again.” With that said, she calmly left the office, closing the door gently behind her.

Hiruzen reached out with a flare of chakra and additional high-level privacy seals sprang into an active state. He waited several moments before speaking further. “There is a young boy currently living amongst the ANBU that was recovered from Orochimaru’s hidden lab. He has been given the code-name Neko, and he claims no name of his own otherwise. It is unknown where the child himself originated from, but Orochimaru’s efforts infused him with your grandfather’s DNA. He is a Senju by blood if you will only take your position as Clan Head and accept him.”

“Where is Jiraiya?!” Tsunade sprung to her feet and demanded, her voice strained in the effort to contain the outrage and betrayal at this information.

“Why do you ask?” Hiruzen asked warily.

“I could use a good fight right about now,” Tsunade said beginning to pace.

“Don’t take this out on Jiraiya, Tsunade. Even he doesn’t know about the boy. I sealed that information at the highest level, but I fear others will discover and take advantage of him if you don’t take action to protect him yourself. I do not want further atrocity to befall any member of your family.”

“Why did you wait until now to tell me about this?” Tsunade snapped. She was already furious and heartsore that what she had feared from the cryptic message had been true, if not quite in the way she had feared. “Orochimaru fled over a year ago!”

“I would not have sent Kikensaru after you with such a call home if it was not absolutely necessary. You must take your oaths as Head of the Senju Clan.” Hiruzen stated, his voice both pleading and full of conviction. “We need your help desperately, Tsunade. Do not let the designer of your clan’s destruction win. Help me stop this from tearing everything your grandparents both worked to build from falling apart.”

Tsunade’s gaze narrowed once more at that revelation. “You’ve found proof of a plan to destroy the Senju.”

“Not just the Senju, Tsunade. The Uzumaki are victims of this terrible scheme as well. Konoha must be reborn from this tragedy if we are ever to thrive as your grandparents Senju Harashima and Uzumaki Mito hoped. Your uncle tried to uphold that vision, but too many pieces were left unfinished and were slowly pulled apart by those who should have been helping instead.” Hiruzen explained, rising to his feet to move closer to the proud woman.

Tsunade fisted the edges of her haori tightly and sunk back into the waiting chair. “Do you know what you are asking of me?” She whispered around the knot of anxiety and tension building up inside her.

Hiruzen kneeled before her gently, his weathered hand reaching out to gently cradle the side of her face. “I know, my fiercest student. If I could have let you roam free for as long as you needed, I would.”

“What do I do when they take this unknown child, my Shizune, and everything else I’ve left away from me, Sensei? I can’t take any more loss.” Tsunade half cried and half demanded. “Kushina wanted me to be an active part of the family she was building. She all but demanded it of me in her letters. Doing her best to remind me that we were cousins and must take care of each other.” Tears welled up and blurred her vision. “And now she’s gone, right along with any hope of the family she was offering me.”

“Oh, Tsunade-chan. She did so much more than I ever realized. Kushina’s child lives.” Hiruzen rested his hand gently on her shoulder.

Tsunade gave a strangled cry at the statement. Kikensaru had hinted at that truth, but somehow, hearing her sensei confirm it struck deeply. “Kushina also adopted Jiraiya into the Uzumaki Clan as the child’s godfather. He is family to you now in more ways than that of teammates. Minato’s student, Kakashi Hatake, has sworn vassal clan oaths to Clan Uzumaki as well. The Senju has been allied closely with the Uzumaki since before the village founding. Both clans may be injured, but you can still bring life back into them.”

Tsunade let out a slow, shaky breath as she struggled to parse through the surge of information, amazed and surprised at the strength of her cousin’s character to claim more for her clan and still keep it secret. “Why is it so important that I take the oaths for the Senju Clan?”

Hiruzen rose to his feet and returned to his desk before answering. “You know how much I have studied the charter authored by the founding clans and designed in a large part by your grandmother. There is so much potential for more than what we have become, hidden in its calligraphy and flowing words.” Hiruzen explained as conviction filled his voice. “I’m going to fully implement the Charter of Konohagakure with all its requisite clauses. There is such a strong foundation for our village to stand on established in the charter, but Harashima-sama and Tobirama-sensei were never able to fully implement it. I believe this oversight has led to much of our current difficulties and vulnerabilities. That is the first step we must take to guard our future.”

Tsunade stared at him stunned, “If you do that…” Her mind raced at just what sort of groundwork he was laying and then she realized there was another piece to his plan that he had not yet spoken of. “You want me to implement Project Phoenix.”

Hiruzen smiled softly then, “Yes. Konoha must be reborn. It was through your grandmother’s vision for the future that much of our success in those early days came to be. She worked closely with your grandfather and helped shape everything he wanted to accomplish. Her greatest work can save us from our own destruction now.”

“I don’t know if I can do that.” Tsunade all but whispered, still too stunned by the implications.

“Think about it, Tsunade, please,” Hiruzen said gently. “I would not ask if I didn’t believe there was no hope for us without it.”

Tsunade stood and began to pace as her mind raced through the impact of this plan. “You would have us vanish from our enemies’ sight. Just remove the village completely from their ability to locate, let alone target.” She muttered. “Why would you go to such lengths now? Why not years from now when we’ve had time to recover from the Kyuubi?”

“Because I owe Minato, Kushina, and everyone else who has fallen as a result of that attack a debt,” Hiruzen said wearily. “But most of all, I have two paths before me regarding Uzumaki Naruto Uzumaki. I can keep his part in the events of that night a secret, sealed to those very few who absolutely must know, or I can make it a public secret under the highest security level and make him a target within the village, if not without. I cannot, in good conscience, put the child of Minato and Kushina into such a position where he must be left isolated and hated by the majority who won’t even try to understand his circumstances. They will see the Kyuubi, and not the individual protecting us all from the Kyuubi’s rage.”

“You are certain the village would hate him?” Tsunade asked.

“We’ve seen it before in the other villages. The role of a jinchūriki is tantamount to our security, but it is isolating and lonely for the one so charged. I would shield Naruto from that if I can as his mother and Mito were not. Moving forward with Project Phoenix now would distract those who might put the sudden appearance of Kushina’s child, her death, and the Kyuubi’s attack together. By the time they will have the opportunity to think it out for themselves, Naruto will be well established as a member of Clan Uzumaki and under the protection of several adults who the rest won’t question.”

“But would the clans even agree to Project Phoenix? To intentionally destroy everything, we have now and nothing but the hope of building something better? Would they dare to take that step after all the recent battles and the Kyuubi’s appearance?”

“That is why I need your help, Tsunade. You must be the one to present the project to them.” Hiruzen sighed as she glared at him. “I will do what must be done to lay the necessary groundwork, but it is you who must lead them forward on this path.” He held up a hand to forestall her immediate argument. “I’m getting old Tsunade. I’ve seen us through two shinobi wars and watched us slowly bleeding out as we lost more than we could hope to recover. They would not trust me to see us down such a path without your support. In this, the loss of Minato has been a devastating blow. The older generation who have become set in their ways, many of them falling back on older clan traditions that we depended on for survival during the time of warring clans, but do not serve us going forward. You are the one who must give them this hope.”

Tsunade crossed her arms and resumed her pacing. “There is so much that could go wrong with this. Your advisory council would never accept such a plan!”

“Shimura, Homura, and Utatane will not have any say in the matter.” Hiruzen state bluntly. “I will not be reinstating them as advisors. Minato’s advisory team will continue to serve until the next Hokage names their own council.”

Tsunade scoffed. “Danzo will not let that slide.”

Hiruzen stiffened and turned to look out the window at the village for a long moment. “Shimura will not have any choice in the matter.”

Tsunade’s eyes widened. “You are challenging him directly?”

“He has already sealed his own fate years ago. The cost of his choices is finally catching up to him.” Hiruzen stated, his voice going cold.

Tsunade eyed him skeptically, then sighed. “I’ll need a bit of time to think about this. How quickly do you need me to make a decision on any of it?”

Hiruzen frowned, considering her question. “The sooner you swear your oaths as Lady Senju, the better. Shizune will need to decide whether to remain non-clan affiliated and swear her service oaths or accept a clan-based oath in conjunction with a service oath. Regardless of what you decide regarding the project, the changes I’m pushing through will make it impossible to remain a village member without such oaths.”

Tsunade nodded in understanding. “I’ll discuss it with her tonight and let you know by end of the day tomorrow. In the meantime, you should get a team out there to circulate all the village’s air. The longer this haze of smoke and ash remains in the air, the more long-term damage it can cause.”

Hiruzen smiled sadly at that. “I will send a message to Shikaku-san to see it arranged immediately.”

Tsunade let out a long breath and nodded. “Thanks for the tea, old man. You’ll know where to find me if needed.”

“Rest well and thank you for answering my request, Tsunade.”

She gave a wave as she walked toward the door, the high-level security seals falling away as she reached for the door and exited.

Chapter Four

The Senju Clan complex was still secured tightly against intrusions when Tsunade opened the gate for what was likely the first time in a little over ten years. Since she had been the one to seal it before leaving Konoha all those years ago, this itself didn’t surprise her. The overgrown garden and bits of windblown debris were disheartening, nonetheless. Tsunade considered what would need to be done to get things back under control but then realized if she was going to give serious consideration to Hiruzen-sensei’s inquiry about her grandmother’s legacy… restoring her clan home would be something of a futile effort.

“Tsunade-sama?” Shizune gently inquired as they stood in the front courtyard just inside the gate.

Tsunade took a slow breath then moved further into the complex, ignoring the main building, and instead of heading toward another just behind and to the side of the main structure. “Looks like all my seal work has held up and there are no signs of tampering.”

“That’s good. The garden has grown a lot. It’s a bit like a secret and forgotten paradise.” Shizune said quietly as she followed behind her teacher.

Tsunade smiled at that, taking in the vines that had crept over all the buildings, completely obscuring windows and doors in some cases. Trees that had been well-manicured and shaped had overgrown and often intertwined as they grew around the buildings they had been planted amidst. Weeds, of course, had sprouted up in all the walkways regardless of gravel-lined paths. Through it all, a sense of peace and warmth resonated. The garden, started decades ago by her grandparents, still managed to carry the impressions of love from her family.

“Will the buildings still be intact?” Shizune asked as she edged around an overgrown boxwood.

Tsunade hummed, as she moved onto a barely visible path framed by a pergola dripping with wisteria. “Between the wood being sourced from senju trees grown by my grandfather and the seal work added by my grandmother, it would take a lot to tear down these buildings,” Tsunade explained and then moved up onto a raised porch and started pulling vines aside. “Ah, here we go.” She said with a smile before pressing her palm to the door revealed beneath. Glowing lines of chakra spread out in intricate patterns and then faded away. Tsunade reached for the door handle and gave a quick tug to slide it open, causing the entire vine-covered wall to tremble. “These vines need to be cut back. Hopefully, the inner courtyard isn’t as bad. The building’s seal work should have kept it in stasis.”

Tsunade kept moving inside and nodded in approval at the lack of dust and signs of disuse within. “This looks good. We can stay in the bedrooms here just off the inner courtyard.” Tsunade explained, pointing to a few panel doors.

“It’s in really good condition. Do you know if there is any dishware left in the kitchen? The food we picked up should do better if stored properly.”

Tsunade hummed, “I’ll have to get the generators switched on. Tobirama-oji set up the complex to tap into a water-powered generator. We should have plenty of power for the refrigerator once it gets going. Plumbing should still be good, too.”

“Tsunade-sama…”

Tsunade stopped and turned to her apprentice. “Let’s get these few house chores done, make some tea, and then we’ll talk, okay?”

Shizune nodded. “That sounds good, Tsunade-sama.”

The two women quickly set to work opening up rooms and getting power running back through the house. Before long, they were both settling around a low table preparing tea.

“I got quite a bit of information from Iwashi, the chuunin serving as Sandaime-sama’s aide. The recovery teams were able to get all the fires put out within a few hours of the attack. However, there was a lot of damage done by the Kyuubi’s paws and tails as well. The worst of it was in the Akinaya Greenhouses and Shinobi Reserve District. They will not be able to restore everything that was damaged and destroyed before the rainy season fully sets in and the loss of life among the shinobi reserves was very high.” Shizune explained, reporting on what she had learned to her mentor just as she had as they traveled on the roads outside of Konoha.

Tsunade sighed. The Akinaya Greenhouse project had been a huge joint effort between the Senju, Akimichi, Nara, and Yamanaka Clans in the early years of the village’s development. That it had been targeted in such a way would cripple the village’s food and medicine production. With that additional information, Hiruzen’s bleak outlook on Konoha’s future prospects and need for drastic action suddenly made a great deal of sense. That was without even considering all the additional motivations that derived from political and shadow operations. Tsunade was no fool. She had known for a long time that there were those who opposed how Konoha was structured and wanted to make changes to further their own goals. She had heard her grandfather, great-uncle, and grandmother talking about such things often as a child. That this faceless enemy had been so successful at nearly destroying everything her family had sacrificed for was a sharp stab of pain in her very core.

“I hate that Hiruzen-sensei is manipulating me into doing what he wants.” Tsunade said softly, “But I can’t say that he is wrong in his choices to move forward. As much as I hate how much this bloody village has taken from myself, you, and countless others, I can’t stand by idly and let it all fall apart.” Tsunade clutched her teacup carefully. “Nawaki and Dan would never forgive me.”

Shizune reached out her hand to rest it gently over Tsunade’s own, her expression one of concern. “What has he asked of you, Tsunade-sama?”

Tsunade looked up, her golden-brown eyes fierce, for all the pain she kept hidden behind them. “Tomorrow, I swear my oaths as head of the Senju Clan.”

Shizune blinked in surprise. “That… you know I support you in everything, right?”

Tsunade smiled at her apprentice wryly, “I never would have survived these last ten years without you.”

Shizune shook her head in disagreement. “No, you would have managed. You might have fallen further into your grief, but you are too strong to have stayed that way forever.”

Tsunade frowned, “You give me far too much credit. You, too, have a choice to make in this. The Kato Clan was small, but still a clan. Will you take oaths for your own clan as well?”

Shizune blinked in surprise. “You don’t remember?”

Tsunade frowned, “What do you mean?”

Shizune smiled wryly. “I swore myself as vassal to Clan Senju those first few months after we left Konoha. You are not just my mentor or the woman who would have become an aunt to me if things had gone differently. Everything I do, I do to support the Senju Clan, even if it has only been supporting their last daughter in any way I could. I was just waiting for you to be ready to accept.”

Tsunade fought back the tears the confession brought and realized on some instinctual level, that she had always known that Shizune was part of her clan in this way, it had been a type intuitive type of knowing.

“I, Senju Tsunade, recognize and accept your oaths as the last of Clan Kato. I vow to support and honor your clan as you have supported and honored Clan Senju.”

Shizune smiled brightly, “I’m honored, Lady Senju.”

.:o:.

Tsunade stood straight and tall in the center of the hokage’s office. A raised table holding the ornate scroll containing The Charter of Konohagakure spread out before her. She was clothed in a cream and jade green kimono fastened in place by a gold and brown obi embroidered with her clan’s crest. Her blonde hair gleamed in its traditional twin tails save for the long bangs that fell in a gentle caress against her cheeks and jaw, leaving her brow and face clearly visible. The only ornamentation she wore were hand-carved wooden claps pinned around each tail and a simple but special pendant hanging from a chain around her neck. The diamond fujinjutsu mark on her brow centered just above and between her eyebrows was bright in contrast to her pale skin. Her golden-brown eyes looked forward calmly and steadily, meeting the gaze of her old teacher and the current leader of the village who was once more robed in the typical manner of The Hokage. Between them, the open scroll gave off a faint glow of chakra.

“Your vow, Lady Tsunade.” The Sandaime Hokage said calmly and extended a single kunai blade to her with care. She kept her eyes trained on Hiruzen as she accepted the precision weapon and sliced her right palm. Her fist clenched, allowing the blood to well and Tsunade trembled but did not look at her fist, instead maintaining her gaze with Hiruzen.

“I take this oath and vow, on my blood, my spirit, and my chakra, to serve my clan in all ways that are asked of me, to the best of my ability. I will protect, nurture, and defend the legacy of those who came before me and the future of those to come after me. May Clan Senju grow in life, knowledge, strength, and spirit, under my care. I pledge myself and my clan to the service of the Village of Konohagakure, which shelters us in the past, present, and future. I accept and recognize responsibility for all members of my clan by blood and oath.”

With the final words spoken, she slammed her hand down on the open space in the scroll before her, sending a precise pulse of her chakra through it to seal her blood and chakra to the specially treated parchment. The slice on her palm vanished in a wisp of green healing chakra. Before she could even look down at the scroll, she sensed more than saw her blood be absorbed into the paper and reappear instead in artful and precise brush strokes. Her name and clan with her grandfather’s name, now faded, just above it.

“Witnessed and accepted, Lady Tsunade of Clan Senju.”

The buzzing of chakra in the air slowly faded, and Hiruzen nodded in approval as he carefully rolled up the silk-bound charter scroll.

“And so, our village princess rises to her proper place,” Jiraiya said as he watched the proceedings from the side, speculation clear on his face. “That’s the last of them, right?”

“Yes, with Shizune already having sworn herself as a vassal to Senju, this marks all living and recognized clans oath-sworn. I can now make final preparations for dealing with those already in violation of their oaths.” Hiruzen said as he carefully wrapped the protective cover around and sealed the charter scroll closed.

Tsunade frowned, “When will I meet the kid?”

“Kakashi has him tucked away.” Jiraiya offered with a shrug, “I’m pretty sure Kushina made sure you had access to the Uzumaki complex.”

Tsunade eyed her teammate, “While I definitely want to meet my newest cousin, that is not the child I was referring to.”

“I sent a message to the ANBU Commander to have Neko retrieved and brought to the tower. They should be arriving in the next shortly.” Hiruzen said, amused at his students’ familiar banter.

“Neko?” Jiraiya asked, surprised.

“Our bastard teammate experimented with my grandfather’s DNA,” Tsunade stated, obviously very irritated by the fact.

“Wait, that kid survived?” Jiraiya responded as he sat up straight in shock and interest.

“Yes. I arranged for him to be hidden amidst the ANBU for his own safety. Magpie has been watching over him.” Hiruzen explained.

Tsunade huffed. “Magpie? Really, Sensei? That kunoichi mothers the entire ANBU force when the Commander lets her. Are you sure it was wise letting her focus that on a child? I dread to think what they’ve been teaching him.”

Jiraiya snickered.

Hiruzen sighed. “I’m well aware of the questionable nature of the decision. However, the security and secrecy it provided outweighed the possible negatives.”

Tsunade narrowed her gaze. “And if one of those hypervigilant assholes lashed out at him for something innocent that triggered them?”

“That is why Magpie was assigned his caretaker.”

Tsunade opened her mouth to say more but closed it as a knock followed by a pulse of chakra at the door interrupted her.

“Come in,” Hiruzen called out as he disabled the seal lock that had been active.

The ANBU Commander slipped into the room and bowed briefly to all three present. “Sandaime-sama, Jiraiya-san, Tsunade-sama. I have bad news.”

Tsunade hissed a curse and stalked over to the side table to fix herself a cup of tea from the waiting kettle since Hiruzen still hadn’t managed to stock any sake since her arrival in the village.

Hiruzen frowned and motioned the ANBU Commander forward. “Report.”

“I went to fetch ANBU Neko as you requested, but upon checking the rooms assigned to Neko and Magpie, I found them empty. The rooms showed clear signs of a lack of use for several years. Rather than raise the alarm and draw attention to their status, I retrieved all of Magpie’s service records for the ANBU. Any record of her assignment to see to Neko’s care was gone. Furthermore, she was listed as killed in action about four years ago.” The ANBU Commander was forced to pause in his report as both Tsunade and Jiraiya let loose a string of expletives.

“I’m not sure tea is going to be strong enough for this,” Jiraiya grumbled once the initial burst of anger passed causing an irritated huff from Tsunade across the room.

The ANBU Commander held tense for several breaths but then continued his report as no further action came from the two sannin. “Next, I looked into the codename registry. Magpie’s mask was flagged as in transition. Neko, however, was listed as still active and in use. I tried to find a mission record for Neko, but there was nothing. The only record that indicated he had been there at all was the mask code being marked as active.”

“ROOT,” Jiraiya muttered as if the word itself was a curse.

“Yes, I believe so as well.” The ANBU Commander said solemnly.

“That shadow pit hasn’t been disbanded yet!?” Tsunade demanded in surprise. “After the shit, they caused during the second war?!”

Hiruzen sighed heavily. “ROOT’s leader has done a very good job of covering his tracks.” He held up his hand in a wait gesture as Tsunade opened her mouth to argue. She took a long drink of her tea in an attempt at maintaining calm instead. “Unraveling that problem has been a primary concern of Minato’s since he was instated. Now, it is one of my most critical issues to deal with.”

“So, what’s our move, Sensei?” Jiraiya asked from where he was settled in what looked like a relaxed sprawl but to his teammates, knew was anything but. The more relaxed he looked, the more information he was likely gathering.

Hiruzen looked calmly at each of his students and back to the ANBU Commander. “Now, it is time to call all the clan heads to the council.”

Tsunade’s expression turned almost feral as she turned to face Hiruzen. “That is the heart of you lured me back here and needed me to take the oath! You just needed me to help you manipulate the council.” She all but growled.

Hiruzen scoffed as he retrieved a small scroll that was a mirror in design to The Charter of Konohagakure scroll. “I admit, it was one of the reasons, yes.” He stated as he quickly unrolled the small scroll and then deftly pressed a blood-marked finger to the open parchment with a push of chakra just as Tsunade had done on the larger Charter scroll not even an hour past. Tsunade stiffened, her eyes going wide. Jiraiya made a small noise of surprise. “The council is summoned.”

.:o:.

The clan heads arrived at the Hokage Tower individually and occasionally in groups of two or three. Each was admitted into the building and then directed to a conference room that had long been set aside for such meetings. Seats were arranged in a large half-circle arc on each side of the room with open space in the middle and at either end to allow a presenting speaker to be visible to all those seated. Several seats had remained empty for years at this point, as the clan that previously occupied them had died out.

Sarutobi Hiruzen, clan head of the Sarutobi Clan, sat calmly in his seat and watched as the various members arrived. He nodded a greeting to those that looked his way but did not comment even as several of those seated began to mutter quietly with their neighbors. Many cast curious and surprised glances toward Tsunade and Jiraiya who were seated in the customary Clan Senju and Clan Uzumaki seats.

A quiet knock on the door announced the arrival of a young chuunin, Yuhi Kurenai, one of the youngest clan heads now after the recent events. Hiruzen smiled at her in reassurance and directed her to the waiting seat. He surveyed the room confirming she was the last he waited on. He sent a chakra pulse through the seal work that flooded the room and activated all the security protocols. Hiruzen then calmly rose to his feet and moved to the head of the room opposite the sealed doorway. “Thank you all for coming. As you can see, we have some new clan heads now in place. Some of you were acting as clan head before but had not taken the required oaths. That has now been corrected. Tsunade of Clan Senju, Kurenai of Clan Yuhi, Miyuki of Clan Hagane, Eiji of Clan Kamizuki, welcome and thank you, for your and your clans’ service to Konohagakure.”

There was a chorus of excited murmurs throughout the room. “In addition, I am saddened to announce, Kushina, of Clan Uzumaki, has passed away while bringing her child into the world. She had first named Namikaze Minato as regent of Clan Uzumaki, however, as he too has passed, that duty has shifted to Jiraiya until such a time her child is old enough to take their place as head of Clan Uzumaki. Similarly, Clan Hatake has sworn vassal oaths to Clan Uzumaki and will not be present at this meeting. This is also true for Clan Kato, now sworn vassal to Clan Senju.”

These announcements brought out a greater wave of distressed and surprised chatter from those present. Hiruzen let them talk amongst themselves for several minutes before raising his hand to quiet them all. It did not surprise him in the least that his old teammate, Homura of Clan Mitokado, was the first one to speak. “It has been many years since a clan swore vassal oaths. The founding itself allowed several vassal-sworn oaths to be changed to that of an alliance as those various clans joined the village and swore oaths as individual members. Are we sure allowing such a thing now is wise?”

Whispers of concern and surprise flitted amidst several members.

“Vassal oaths are a clan affair, and the creation and dissolution of such bonds is clan business. As long as both clans adhere to their oaths, it is of no issue or concern to this council. To accept a vassal oath is both a privilege and a burden on the clan that has accepted it.” Shibi of Clan Aburame answered, which in itself was something of note, as the man was known for keeping his own counsel. There were many mutters of agreement and acknowledgment following his statement.

“Just so,” Hiruzen affirmed. “Our founders made sure provisions were kept in the Charter of Konohagakure to allow for just such decisions. We may be of one village, and so united, but this does not strip us of our rights as member clans and individuals.” Hiruzen added before anyone could add further negative comment.

“You have explained the presence of Jiraiya, now of Clan Uzumaki, and the absence of Clan Hatake and Clan Kato. Why is Clan Shimura also missing?” Inazuka Tsume inquired, not willing to wait for anyone else to bring up the issue.

Hiruzen smiled darkly, “That is the most pressing reason for our gathering today. Danzo of Clan Shimura has violated his oaths to his clan, his personal oaths to Konohagakure, and led members of the Shimura Clan into clan oath violations. I so name Danzo of Clan Shimura guilty of sedition, treason, and murder of his fellow clan and charter members.” This statement brought with it a new surge of whispered chatter.

“These are serious accusations, Sarutobi Hiruzen. Acting Hokage or not, we require proof.” Hiashi of Clan Hyūga was the one to raise his voice above the rest in support of the protocol.

“I agree, Hiashi-san. The situation is very serious indeed.” Hiruzen stated solemnly, bringing forth all the weight of his experience into that statement. “Shikaku of Clan Nara and Inoichi of Clan Yamanaka, please make your presentation for the council.” Hiruzen’s request was met with more muttered discussion as the two in question rose and moved to the center presentation space.

“All right then, since we have several in attendance who are new to these things, we’ll start from the beginning,” Inoichi stated as the room quieted down once more. “The Intelligence Division has been tracking several common mission trends that started sometime during the Second Shinobi War. The missions in question would have misdirecting objectives listed on their paperwork and often included a high death count of those who completed or failed them. In fact, the more we investigated these anomalies, the more we found that some individuals were assigned to the missions that were flagged in question over and over again until they did not survive. “

“You are saying individuals were sent out with the intent of getting them killed?” Homura asked.

“Just so, Mitokado-san. In fact, the follow-up reports on all these missions indicated the initially assigned teams often had bad or misleading intel originally provided to them.” Inoichi explained.

“Bad intel happens. You, gentlemen, are both well aware of this. How does that make a pattern?” Homura stated, his skepticism clear.

“Because there was a pattern to the bad or missing information itself. Not enough alone to cause an in-depth investigation, but it was noted, and all mission reports that exhibited these traits began to be flagged.” Inoichi explained.

“The biggest problem with the bad information was when it led to significant losses. These were always investigated in full. The bad information in these missions always came down to reports filed by ANBU. ANBU, who were then often killed in missions that came soon after.” Shikaku picked up the thread. “The ANBU may be responsible for the most dangerous of our missions, but they are still matched to individuals of the required skill sets. None of these ANBU should have been killed so easily.”

“ANBU did complete their own investigations on these missions, but the ANBU assigned to the investigation almost always ended up on the list of those killed in action within a few months of starting to dig into the matter. This is around the same time that the subgroup within ANBU, known as ROOT, first became identified.” This revelation caused another round of speculative murmurs, but no one argued against the statements.

ANBU are the shadow of the shinobi. They were nameless, only ever identified by the code names associated with their masks. Most had little to no contact with the ANBU. If you knew someone who served in the ANBU force, it was unlikely you knew their codename. That a second darker shadow had developed under the whispered rumor of ROOT was not a fact anyone liked to discuss. To know ANBU was bad enough, to know ROOT was to disappear and everyone knew it, almost instinctively. Shikaku scanned the room, studying his fellow clan leaders, meeting many of their gazes evenly and without any doubt about the information he was relaying to them. He continued.

“What you may not know was that the ROOT subgroup of ANBU was not sanctioned by the office of the Hokage. When it was discovered, in the midst of war and all its terrible realities, it was set aside. To start an inquisition against our own forces would have been the end of us. We could not afford a potential civil war when we were already fighting enemies in nearly every other direction. This unfortunately allowed the ROOT forces to entrench within Konohagakure’s existing command structure. Eventually, missions began to be reported that had not been sanctioned by the ANBU Commander, Jounin Commander, or the Hokage. This list of deaths that we are about to give you has all been confirmed as sourcing back to ROOT operations. Please take some time to review.”

Both Shikaku and Inoichi moved around the room, setting identical scrolls down in front of each clan leader. “Before you open these, be warned that it is an extensive list.”

Hiruzen unrolled his copy, having declined to see the full detailed list before this moment per his previous meetings with Shikaku and Inoichi. Still, even suspecting it, seeing the first entry was a severe blow. Casualties traced back to ROOT: Uzushiro and The Uzumaki Clan. After that were various names from different clans and ranks, but there were certain trends, even here. At least half of the Senju killed in the last twenty years filled the list along with many other key individuals, the last two entries being the Yondaime and Hiruzen’s wife, Biwako.

“We could technically lay every death that resulted from the recent Kyuubi’s attack as belonging on this list, as we have evidence that a security leak tracked to ROOT was the cause of the Kyuubi’s appearance,” Inoichi added after giving everyone time to read through the list. Hiruzen scanned the room of familiar faces. There were tears and sheer rage on many of them.

“The most glaring piece of evidence against Shimura Danzo is that every identified ROOT operative has been listed as a member of the Shimura Clan, but the Shimura Clan roster itself is in violation.”

“How does an entire clan roster get flagged for violation?” Kurenai of Clan Yuhi asked incredulously. Several of the other clan leaders winced or closed their eyes as if they could hide from the truth. It was Fugaku of Clan Uchiha who finally answered her.

“By the murder of their own clan leader.”

“Shimura Danzo reported his grandfather died of a sudden heart attack. No follow-up investigation was done as Shimura Nobushi was old, but he had no previous medical records indicating a heart condition. This was… within a week after the fall of Uzushiro.” Tsunade informed the group, a menacing edge in her voice.

“It’s possible Nobushi-san discovered his grandson’s actions and was killed for it,” Inoichi said in consideration. “Regardless, the clan rosters are sensitive to such things due to the seals and chakra embedded in them at creation. Each clan roster is linked to The Charter of Konohagakure through their clan leader’s oaths. That the previous clan leader was murdered by kin would prevent that murderer from taking the previous clan leader’s position, no matter the reason for the kill.”

“This is why the Uchiha Clan exiled Madara and struck him from the clan roster. It took every clan member of maturity’s combined efforts to remove that man. Had another Uchiha Clan member killed Madara for his crimes while Madara still held the rank of clan head, it would have marked them, permanently. However, by using the method we did, we kept our clan’s connection with The Charter of Konohagakure secure once Midori Uchiha swore the clan leader oath.”

“You have seen and heard the gathered evidence, council members. As interim Hokage, I, Sarutobi Hiruzen, do name Danzo of Clan Shimura, guilty of treason and murder. Your verdicts?”

“Guilty!” Tsunade all but snarled.

“Guilty,” Jiraiya stated, rage evident in his voice for all that it was stated in complete calm.

One after the other around the room, the rest of the council members all named Shimura Danzo guilty.

“Danzo, of Clan Shimura, is declared guilty.” With a flourish, Hiruzen pulled out the Charter of Konohagakure, and with a deft toss, the scroll was caught in a bracket designed for it and unrolled fully so all could see. “Your blood, council members, if you please.” Each clan head present on the council removed a weapon of their choice to slice open their palms and then dripped blood onto a seal laid into the tables before them for just such purpose. A calligraphy brush and empty vial were removed from a storage seal on the charter itself, seals visibly engraved on both brush and vial. The vial filled with the dark liquid pulled from all those present courtesy of the seals those present gave their blood too freely. With a few deft wrist movements to swirl the dark red liquid into a single blend, Hiruzen dipped the brush into the vial and approached the waiting scroll. “As our founding clans pledged and gave their oaths, so we now have the right to inflict judgment per the charter’s principles. From this day forward, Clan Shimura is struck from the roster of Konohagakure for acts of sedition, treason, and murder.” With those final words, he drew the brush in one solid dark stroke across the Shimura Clan entry in the clan listings and, with a pulse of chakra, sealed it into the scroll.

The bloody stroke sunk into the parchment until it was indistinguishable from the original ink and then beside it, in the darkest red, a listing of the guilty verdict appeared. A surge of chakra filled the room and then vanished.

“What was that?” Kurenai asked, her eyes wide.

“That was the cost of what Danzo reaped finding its mark. The penalties outlined in the charter for such an act is the loss of one’s chakra. Since he violated not only The Charter of Konohagakure but his clan’s oaths as well, there will be no escaping it. It is in his blood. It is highly unlikely he will survive it.” Tsunade said, a hint of smugness in her tone. “It is the very least of what he deserves.”

“I need a team tasked with locating Danzo, alive or dead immediately,” Hiruzen ordered.

“I’ll coordinate with Fugaku-san on the matter.” Shikaku offered, turning to face the Uchiha Clan head. Fugaku nodded and rose to his feet as well.

“I concur with Shikaku-san.”

“Let me know if you need any tracking assistance.” Tsume of Clan Inazuka chimed in. Both men nodded to her and then exited the room to see to the matter.

“Inoichi-san, as of now, all ANBU personnel are on lockdown until cleared by an intelligence team of your choice.”

“Of course, Sandaime-sama.” Inoichi answered then hesitated, “You should be forewarned that we have intelligence suggesting that the members of ROOT are all marked with a silencing seal. We have not yet been able to identify it. We have had operatives die by their own hand when trying to report to us. Any suspicious deaths or suspicious behavior should be treated with care if we wish to free these individuals. It is possible that Danzo’s demise will cause a chain reaction.”

Quiet murmurs spread across the room.

“As soon as you have the seal identified, let me know and I’ll get right to work on a counter.” Jiraiya offered.

“Very good,” Hiruzen said, considering. “We have a very difficult time ahead of us. Missions will be limited to those of critical necessity while we recover from these terrible events. Does anyone else have any matters to bring to this council’s attention?”

“There is a great deal of concern over the damage done to the Akinaya Greenhouses. A lot of our day-to-day produce and medical herbs were sourced from there. We have some surplus storage, but any extra assistance to help recover what we can from the damage and start reconstruction would be welcomed.” Chouza of Clan Akimichi offered. “Likewise, the injuries and casualties from those in the Shinobi Reserves District have reduced the staff of those who normally work on such projects. Anyone who is able and has some skill with crafting, growing or both will help a great deal.”

“There is also some concern over the lingering effects of the chakra haze left by the Kyuubi. It has had a corrosive effect on all living things and has a visible impact on an individual’s chakra network. We have not yet been able to confirm if non-living materials were also affected beyond the immediate destructive force.” This tidbit came from Hiashi, of Clan Hyūga.

“That is grave news. We will have to take extra care with those so injured and working in affected areas. Tsunade-san, do you have any input on this matter?” Hiruzen asked, knowing that even if she was not actively practicing healing, she would be able to assist in diagnosing and treatment plans at the very least.

“My apprentice, Shizune of Clan Kato, is visiting the hospital and clinics today to start assessing where we might both be able to offer aid. Exposure to corrosive chakra will require careful monitoring of the affected individuals’ chakra networks. Overuse of chakra while suffering from such effects could cause lasting and permanent harm. Tsunade answered, her expression thoughtful, it turned serious though as she continued. “If teams capable of circulating the air over the area to help clear any remaining haze have not already been put to work they should be made a high priority. That haze is as likely to cause damage now as still burning fires.”

“Very well. Those of you still working with the Search & Rescue efforts, please make sure that information gets passed onto those coordinating the teams.” Hiruzen stated eyeing the leaders of Aburame, Akimichi, Hyuga, and Inuzuka who all nodded as he met their gazes. “There is one other matter I’d like to bring before this council. That is the subject of clan-sponsored vassals, both shinobi and civilians alike. We have not enforced this aspect of the Charter of Konohagakure previously, and it is now evident it has left openings that can be exploited. In the near future, in order to be a member of this village, one must be affiliated with a membership clan. This affiliation can be achieved by either membership to the clan itself, by either birth or adoption, or by becoming a vassal of said clan. There are provisions for clan-less shinobi, and their oaths of service to the village will give them membership status, but without the extra protections clan affiliation also provides. For civilians, there is no alternative. They must have essential or beneficial skills or services to offer the village and have sponsorship from a membership clan.”

Hiruzen paused there to let the information fully sink in and allow the initial shock to pass. The mutterings that filled the small space were equally eager and yet also hesitant, with a few very pointed negative comments. He raised his hand in a silencing gesture and waited for the room to quiet and settle once more. “This was not enforced in the beginning in hopes of better ties with the people who occupied this village before Konohagakure came to be officially recognized by the Fire Daimyo.” There was a brief scattering murmur of understanding and consideration throughout the room.

“After three shinobi wars and the recent attack within our walls, we can no longer be so forgiving. I would ask each of you as clan leaders to look at those you interact with regularly in the village and consider who would be a good fit for such an association with each of your own clans. Many of the civilians now living amongst us have grown accustomed to the more militant structure and will have no problems adjusting.” He continued, noting who seemed interested and comfortable with the idea versus those who looked more reluctant.

“Have conversations with these individuals and families. Use your resources to verify their dedication to the village and offer them sponsorship if you feel comfortable doing so. On that note, please make sure you register and notify the hokage office of all new vassals.” Hiruzen watched as the group took in the request and information. Some were deep in thought, and several were giving him very speculative glances. He was used to such attention, but this had a new edge to it. Even in the brief not quite two years the Yondaime had been in office, they had started to grow accustomed to the younger man’s leadership approach and style. That Hiruzen was proceeding in a much more progressive fashion than his previous tenure which had grown more conservative the longer he was in office, was giving them all more to think about as well.

“Now we all have a lot to deal with in the coming days. We will meet again soon to verify what progress has been made and our options. Thank you all for coming today.”

Chapter Five

It had been two days since Tsunade had sworn her oaths and sat in the Council of Clan Leaders. They had still not found the child that was missing from ANBU and she worried it meant the worst. The investigation into the silencing seal found on Danzo’s ROOT operatives was limiting the search. The assessment and search for ROOT amidst The ANBU forces had led to the loss of at least ten percent of their forces due to Danzo’s secrecy seal and its embedded kill switch. Another five percent of the identified ANBU operatives had been killed outright when they attacked upon being questioned. There were still more who were waiting patiently for the invasive seal that kept them silent to be removed. Jiraiya was already hard at work on trying to pick apart the seal without triggering its kill function.

Now, Tsunade was headed to the Uzumaki Clan complex to visit her fellow Sannin as well as meet her infant cousin. The complex was adjacent to the Senju Clan complex, but the entry gate was on the opposite side from where the two were adjacent. The Uzumaki Clan complex itself had been gifted to Uzumaki Mito upon the signing of The Charter of Konohagakure as a thank you for all the work she had put into it. After the death of Senju Harashima, Mito had lived in the Uzumaki Clan complex for many years and later gifted it to Uzumaki Kushina. Tsunade had not dared to hope that either complex would be full of life again someday after she lost Dan and Nawaki during the Second Shinobi War. And yet, now more people were calling the Uzumaki Clan complex home than ever before.

She entered the complex after placing her once-again cut palm on the entry gate, allowing the sealed entrance to taste her blood and chakra, taking care as always to not view the blood herself. The last thing she needed right now was to have a panic attack over the sight of her own blood. That traumatic fear was what kept her from volunteering at the hospital or one of the day clinics now as well. She was still an expert in the field of iryou-nin, but the sight of blood still sent her spiraling into what amounted to battle shock. The loss of Dan as he bled out under her hands had proven to be her undoing in more ways than one, and she was not comfortable exposing that weakness to anyone. Shizune had been encouraging her to get help with it, and now that they were within the village walls and she had a clan to see to, she would probably finally agree to it.

She shook off the anxious thoughts as she approached the main building and knocked on the front door before sliding it open and letting herself in. The sound of a baby’s furious crying quickly reached her ears.

“Oi, Jiraiya! I thought you knew how to take care of a baby.” She called out as she entered the house.

A familiar small figure hopped up onto a nearby table and smiled at her. “Hello Tsunade-chan, it’s been a while.”

Tsunade blinked in surprise at the sight of the small elderly member of the Toad Clan of Mount Myouboku. “Shima-san, is Jiraiya slacking off?”

The small elderly toad chuckled, “No, none of that. He’s had a breakthrough on that seal he was puzzling over and asked me to keep an eye on things here. Kakashi-chan is working on changing the tadpole’s wrap, and the little one is not pleased about it.”

Tsunade blinked in surprise, then winced at a particularly loud wail. “That kid has his mother’s vocal cords. There is no doubt about it.” The screaming tapered off a moment later, and Minato’s last student appeared with a swaddled bundle tucked against his chest.

“Tsunade-sama, did you come to help?” He asked, his tone hopeful for all that his expression remained solemn.

Tsunade shook her head in amusement. “Not specifically, no. I came to see Jiraiya, but I do want to meet my youngest cousin properly. Does he need feeding?”

Kakashi’s face scrunched up visibly even under his mask that covered him from the nose on down. “Probably. Eat, sleep, dirty diapers with maybe a nap or two myself is all I’ve been able to manage. Jiraiya’s arrival helped some, but I’m still struggling to sleep.” Kakashi said with nonchalance.

Tsunade hummed in thought. “Tell you what, kid, set me up with the baby and go warm up his bottle. Then you can nap or visit with me and Shima-san.”

Kakashi nodded and followed her into the den where Tsunade quickly made herself comfortable in a waiting chair and then held her arms out in expectation for the baby. Kakashi passed him gently over, much to the child’s protest. “Tsunade of Clan Senju, meet Naruto of Clan Uzumaki.”

Tsunade smiled at the baby and got him settled quickly. Then blinked as the name registered, “Naruto? Really… why am I not surprised? Jiraiya should never be allowed to name anything.”

Kakashi hummed in amusement, “Sensei and Kushina-neesan claimed it was from a book that Jiraiya-sensei wrote, but I thought it had just as much to do with their own fondness of ramen.”

Tsunade didn’t respond as she was too busy quietly cooing over the baby while she ran a health diagnostic over him. “He’s healthy enough at least, but food would not go amiss. We might need to make adjustments to his formula to make sure he’s getting everything he needs. The events around his birth have impacted his chakra network a bit, and he’d have had some special needs just by being an Uzumaki.”

Kakashi slumped a bit in relief but then gave a sharp nod. “I’ll go get that bottle ready.”

Shima hopped up on the lounge chair just behind Tsunade’s shoulder so she too could peer down at the baby in her arms. “Are all human children so helpless at this stage?”

Tsunade laughed lightly, tickling the baby’s nose as she did so, and smiled. “Pretty much, some even more so. For all the danger this one has already survived, he’s strong. Human babies can be quite fragile.”

“I tried to offer some bug paste, but Kakashi-kun said he wouldn’t be able to eat it. He said the tadpole is on a liquid diet at this stage?” Shima asked, obviously fascinated with the child.

“Yes, he will keep to that diet for up to two years, most likely, though moving to more solid foods anytime between one and two is common. Some children stick to liquid with only some soft foods for several years.”

Kakashi reappeared in the room with a bottle in hand and handed it over to Tsunade before collapsing gracelessly on a futon that was laid out along one side of the seating area.

Shima smiled once more at the baby as he began to feed from the bottle with enthusiasm and nodded. “He will be a good summoner for our clan someday.”

Tsunade blinked in surprise. “Isn’t it a bit early to decide such things for him?”

Shima started at Tsunade. “Not at all, but we will, of course, wait until he’s ready for such a thing.” The small toad then grinned wickedly, “Pa is going to be so jealous that I got to meet the tadpole first. I think I’ll go back and tell him about it now.”

Tsunade shook her head in amusement at the elder of the Toad Clan.

“Thank you for staying with me, Shima-san,” Kakashi mumbled from where he was already curled up under a blanket with a pillow half pulled over his head.

Shima all but cackled and hopped over to the teen to pat his arm. “You’ll do fine. Get your puppies to help you if you need them. They’ve always liked children, from what I’ve heard.”

Kakashi groaned as the elder toad vanished. “No way. One of them might accidentally eat him.”

Tsunade huffed in amusement. “I seem to recall you were hardly more than a toddler when you gained your summon pack. I doubt they’d put Naruto at risk.”

Kakashi just grumbled and buried his head further under his pillow.

Tsunade only rolled her eyes and focused back on the baby in her arms, who was still happily draining his bottle. “Your brother is being very silly.” She whispered to him in amusement. Bright blue eyes remained half-hidden behind sleepy and content lids. “You’ve got your dad’s blues there, kiddo. Going to be a heartbreaker for certain.”

Tsunade frowned, considering. “Kakashi, did his parents leave any ground rules for Jiraiya?”

The teen grunted but reached out and pointed at a scroll laying on the low table. “Not sure how serious they were about it, though. Kushina-nee was laughing a lot when she wrote it.” He mumbled sleepily from under his pillow.

Tsunade smirked, “Oh, I’m sure she was serious enough. I grew up with Jiraiya after all. I’m well aware of the scandals he enjoys getting tangled up in.”

“Oi, what scandals?” Jiraiya’s voice resonated from the front entry as he finished switching to house slippers and stepped fully into the main living room. Tsunade eyed him as he entered and watched his expression soften as he smiled at the child in her arms. “I see you’ve met your cousin.”

“Kakashi was just telling me about Kushina’s rules for you.”

Jiraiya chuckled, “For some reason, she didn’t appreciate some of the shenanigans Minato and I used to get up to.”

Tsunade shook her head but turned her focus back to the now child squirming as the bottle was nearly empty. Tsunade set the bottle aside and then lifted the child to Jiraiya, “Here you go, make yourself useful.”

Jiraiya picked up a stray towel and tossed it over his shoulder before scooping up his godson and placing him to rest comfortably on his shoulder and began to gently encourage him to burp. “Shima tell you I broke through that seal?”

Tsunade hummed, “Yes, she mentioned you had a breakthrough.”

Jiraiya nodded. “They are working on applying the counter seal now. Before I left, they were already getting intel on where Danzo had established ROOT’s base of operations. They should be forming up a team to take it over before the day is out.”

Tsunade let out a breath slowly in both relief and anticipation. She only hoped that whatever they found was nothing like Orochimaru’s lab that had been uncovered before he was exiled.

Jiraiya chuckled as the baby let out a surprisingly loud burp. “Let me put this guy down and then we can talk more.” He eyed the unmoving pile of blankets and pillow that was Kakashi and shook his head at the teen.

Tsunade got up, moved to the kitchen, and set about making tea, her mind wandering to the next issue she had to deal with. She had been included in the daily update reports related to the damage caused by the Kyuubi attack since her arrival, and she was beginning to really see why Hiruzen-sensei had suggested a need for Project Phoenix.

Tsunade did not want to believe it at first. How could they be in a position where such an extreme measure was required? However, she was now well aware of the tenuous situation that the recent events – both the Kyuubi’s appearance and the death of the Yondaime – put Konoha in relation to power and hostility with the other hidden villages. The choices being made now would determine how much of a struggle Konoha would have for years in the future. Hiruzen-sensei was right in his assessment that everything they were doing, and all the things they had been doing until now, were nothing more than patch jobs on a precarious structure. Their foundation was solid as outlined by the Charter of Konohagakure, and Tsunade could already see the benefits from fully implementing the clauses that had been bypassed early on. Not adhering to them had been meant to be a temporary measure in the first place, after all. It was only the numerous wars that they kept getting pulled into that had prevented their implementation sooner.

She finished fixing her tea and stood leaning against the kitchen counter, considering how to move forward. She would need Jiraiya’s support if Project Phoenix was to be activated. She frowned as she began to consider what else would be required to prepare them for activation. Project Phoenix had been designed to allow for Konohagakure to be reborn out of the ashes of disaster. The village had not been decimated so far to the extreme where activating the project would not cause just as much or more damage than the Kyuubi if they were not careful.

Tsunade exited the kitchen and moved through the house to its secured inner courtyard and garden. She stopped at the edge of a raised garden box in the center of the space and traced the various patterns laid out in stones and well-manicured greenery. Her eyes stopped at the elegant wood carving that had pride of place in the center. It was mostly abstract in nature, despite it having the general form of a seedling.

“Tsunade?” Jiraiya asked as he approached her from behind.

“My grandmother’s greatest work was to plan for our future,” Tsunade spoke softly, her fingers idly clenching and stroking the teacup she had brought with her. “She called it Project Phoenix and before she died, trusted me and later Kushina to see the last of the work be done, as she could no longer travel.” She eyed Jiraiya, but he stood attentive and listening. “Kushina and I both spent years setting the pieces it required into place so that it would be ready in a time of need. The project was then classified under the highest level of security, but a summary knowledge of it was to always be available to the current Hokage and active clan heads. It was meant to give us hope in the face of complete disaster and destruction. Hiruzen-sensei thinks now is the time or we will just risk falling as Uzushiro did.”

“And what do you think?” Jiraiya asked calmly.

Tsunade exhaled loudly. “I’m not certain he’s right, but I also can’t say he is wrong. The activation requirements for Project Phoenix require both living Senju and Uzumaki blood. If we don’t use it now, it may never be possible at all.”

Jiraiya let out a huff at that. “Risky then. What exactly does this Project Phoenix give us?”

Tsunade smirked then. “We would change the landscape of Fire Country itself. Konohagakure would truly become a village hidden in the leaves. No one could attack us without destroying the entire forest, and even that would be no simple feat.”

“That… what did Mito-sama create?”

“She never wanted to see Konoha fall as Uzushiro did. It was a work of love and hope. It remains to this day the most advanced fujinjutsu work I have, or likely ever will see.” Tsunade said softly, remembering Mito’s careful words of explanation, instruction, and in the end, a promise.

.:o:.

Jiraiya fought back a yawn as he made his way to the Uchiha Clan complex. He and Tsunade had sat up late into the night talking about Mito Uzumaki’s greatest work, what it would do if it was needed now, and what would be required to prepare the village for its activation. They had both agreed that Hiruzen-sensei’s decision to enforce the vassal clause of The Charter of Konohagakure was a necessary move before activation of Project Phoenix could be considered. Whether the project itself was the best choice was still up to interpretation. There was no doubt that despite the hardships they would face in the short term, the long-term benefits and security would be exponential. It would also do much to completely secure the village against issues like Danzo and his ROOT operatives in the future. For that reason alone, they were both leaning in favor of it.

Tsunade had gone to meet with Hiruzen-sensei about the missing ANBU child that was her family by blood thanks to their old teammates dabbling in genetic experimentation. It was revealed to be a very ugly situation when it was discovered just how far Orochimaru had been willing to go in his quest for knowledge and power. The only positive out of the whole mess that Jiraiya could see at this point was Tsunade’s potential gaining of a new clan member. Her clan had given almost everything to the service of the village since its founding. It was only right that they could now give something back. This meeting was not one Jiraiya had felt any need to attend himself, which made this an ideal time to reach out to the Uchiha Clan.

Kakashi has continued to suffer from memory-like dreams since the night of the Kyuubi attack. Often, they were of the attack itself. Other times, they were shadowy events that made little sense out of context. Except for one thing, this ‘other’ self that was the perspective from which these dream memories were viewed had met with Danzo recently. Kakashi and Jiraiya had both agreed on that point based on the appearance of Danzo was distinct with scars and armor choices that had only appeared after the end of the Third Shinobi War. This had made Jiraiya more and more suspicious of the source of these dream memories, and the best option for answers was the Uchiha Clan. The clan leader, Fugaku, was unfortunately too tied up in the current recovery operations within the village; both in relation to ROOT and the Kyuubi attack. Thankfully, Mikoto, his spouse, and a good friend of the late Kushina had been available to meet with him.

Jiraiya smiled and waved to various Uchiha Clan members as he entered the complex and headed to the clan leader’s home. He had thought about offering to meet at a more neutral location, but then remembered Mikoto was mother to a newborn herself as well as an academy-age child who was the future pride of the Uchiha if the rumor was accurate. Meeting her in the comfort of her home was the least he could do. He soon arrived at the appropriate building and knocked. There was barely a whisper of movement before the door opened and a serious-looking six-year-old slid the door open. The child bowed in greeting.

“Jiraiya-sama. Okaasan is expecting you. Please come in.”

“Thank you. You must be Itachi-kun.” Jiraiya greeted the child as he entered their home.

The child nodded. “This way. She’s currently feeding Sasuke-kun.”

Jiraiya chuckled as he followed the child. “Ah yes, babies like to make their demands known for such things.”

Itachi nodded and then pulled another door open. “Okaasan, I’ve brought Jiraiya-sama for you.”

“Thank you, Itachi-kun, you can go outside to practice now.” The youth bowed once more to Jiraiya and then exited the room, the gentle closing of the door sounding a moment later. “Please come in and have a seat, Jiraiya-sama.” The woman sat just inside on a comfortable chair with a dark-haired baby tucked up neatly against her with a bottle clutched in chubby little fingers.

Jiraiya set a small package on the low table between them. “I brought some sweets for you and your family. Hungry little guy, isn’t he?”

Mikoto laughed, “More so every day it seems. Fugaku said you had some important questions for me?”

Jiraiya nodded. “First, do you mind?” He asked as he held up a sealing tag with a privacy seal. “We can’t be too careful.”

Mikoto frowned but nodded. “Of course, go ahead.”

Jiraiya placed the seal tag on the table between them and activated it with a small pulse of chakra. Satisfied that it was covering them fully, he relaxed a bit. “How much do you know about how Kakashi received his sharingan eye?”

Mikoto made a sad little humming sound, “The tragedy that befell Minato’s genin team is well known among the Uchiha Clan. Kakashi-kun himself was questioned in detail by elders of the clan about the events. It was a very unusual if noble, thing that Obito did for Kakashi that day. As I’m sure you are aware, Jiraiya-sama, the Uchiha, for all our efforts to appear as emotionless as possible, feel much and deeply. It comes with certain risks related to the sharingan itself, and it was determined that those deep feelings Obito had for their third teammate, Rin, were the driving force behind his actions. It drove Obito to give Kakashi the gift of his eye so Kakashi could, in turn, save and protect Rin. It was considered a violation of clan policy, but the deed was already done and anyone who suggested removing the eye from Kakashi after the fact was overwhelmingly denied. That Obito’s team was also unable to recover his body, was a further black mark that the elders took out on Kakashi, I’m afraid.”

Jiraiya nodded. He had heard quite a bit about the events from Minato after it had happened. His old student had been very distraught over the loss of one of his genin and the events that surrounded it. He considered what he wanted to ask next carefully. “Has a transplant like his ever been done before?”

Mikoto frowned. “For both eyes, when both parties were members of the clan, yes, but our records of a single eye transplant were very sparse. They were investigated very thoroughly after the event with Obito and Kakashi to help determine what we should do, if anything, about Kakashi gaining the eye. When it was discovered that he did not have full control over it, meaning he could not turn the sharingan off, it was determined that the eye itself may have taken some damage in the transplant. Not enough to prevent Kakashi from taking advantage of it, but its constant draining nature, with no way to stop it without an eye-covering of some sort, was considered enough of a limitation.”

Jiraiya nodded. He hadn’t heard it so clearly laid out before, but he had suspected much of it. “I wanted to know if there were any records of memory sharing between those who had transplanted eyes.”

Mikoto blinked in surprise. “That is an unusual question. Never in those that had both eyes replaced. For it to have occurred after a single-eye transplant… Jiraiya-san, that is not possible unless the original owner of the eye is alive.”

Jiraiya frowned. That was the news he had been afraid of. “As you said, Obito’s body was never recovered. There is the slightest chance he was found and healed by someone else.”

“To be left abandoned by his team in such a fashion…” Mikoto trailed off, the sadness and horror at the thought clear on her face. “His emotions would have left him in a perfect position to be manipulated by one skilled in such. Obito was always too honest and a touch gullible as well. He was always doing favors for others, even when it interfered with his plans.”

Jiraiya winced as she elaborated on Obito’s disposition and vulnerabilities. “Does the Uchiha Clan have any way of detecting if clan members are alive or dead from a distance? Any sort of family trees or roster listings that would show such?”

Mikoto shook her head. “I’ve heard of such things that were once used by the Uzumaki Clan from Kushina, but no, nothing like that is used by the Uchiha. Jiraiya-san, why are you really asking about this?”

Jiraiya considered his words carefully. “Since the night of the Kyuubi attack, Kakashi has had some very unusual nightmares that retold more like a memory from another individual.”

“That should not be possible…”

“If it is, Obito may very well be alive and acting against Konoha. As a member of the Uchiha Clan, this creates a security risk that he can exploit.”

“I will speak to the elders about it as soon as I can, Jiraiya-san. It was him then? He brought the Kyuubi down on us?” Mikoto asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“From what Kakashi described, if it is indeed as we have discussed, I do not see any other possibility,” Jiraiya answered her just as quietly. “It is likely he had contact with Danzo as well, but we cannot afford to give Obito any avenue that would allow him to come and go as he pleases without detection.”

“I understand. Should we follow up with you directly or with Sandaime-sama?” Mikoto asked.

Jiraiya considered that. “I think it is in all of our best interest to keep this discreet, so if you could keep communication through me, that will work best. If for any reason I become unavailable, please make sure to notify Sandaime-sama or Tsunade.”

“I understand,” Mikoto said, and then smiled gently at the baby in her arms, who had begun squirming. “If you will excuse me? I believe it’s time to burp this one and get him down for a nap.”

Jiraiya nodded and quickly canceled the privacy seal and removed it. “I will see myself out, then. Thank you for your time today, Mikoto-san.”

“Thank you for bringing this matter to the clan’s attention, Jiraiya-san.” She paused in the doorway, “Fugaku said that you are now regent for Clan Uzumaki?”

Jiraiya smiled sadly, “Ah, yes. Both Minato and Kushina named me as godfather for their child.”

Mikoto seemed both relieved and grieved by the answer. “Her child survived. That is good. Thank you, Jiraiya-san.”

Jiraiya bowed to her and then left the house and complex. He supposed he would have to notify Hiruzen-sensei and Tsunade about Kakashi’s dreams, after all.

.:o:.

Tsunade pushed the hokage office doors open with enough force to create a resounding snap and marched directly into the room, her focus immediately on her old teacher. “You found him?”

Hiruzen sighed as he made a note that the doors may be due for a replacement sooner rather than later. He nodded his thanks to Iwashi, his current chuunin aide, who quietly pulled the doors closed behind Tsunade. Only once the doors were closed did he turn his attention fully to his student. “Was that necessary?”

“Don’t dodge the question, old man,” Tsunade growled.

Hiruzen huffed, “Yes, we found him. Along with about thirty other children between ages six and fifteen. It seems Danzo had started making it a habit to recruit academy students exhibiting high potential, even as early as their first year. Every one of them over the age of eight also had the silencing seal placed on them.”

“That bastard has been child stealing, and you didn’t even know it! Did you learn nothing after Orochimaru’s scandal?!” Tsunade exclaimed and leaned forward on the hokage’s desk, the wood giving a creak of protest under her palms.

“All of them were orphans at the time of their recruitment to Danzo’s ROOT operation, as far as we can tell. With no adults keeping tabs on them, they were easy to vanish into his program.” Hiruzen replied, his tone unimpressed.

“You should make sure they all find homes with clans if they aren’t from one originally,” Tsunade said while thinking about it as she stood up and began to pace in front of the desk.

“They will require blood adoptions to any clan they join, even Neko. Danzo had bound them all to Clan Shimura and that bond will have to be broken if they are to remain with us long term.” Hiruzen explained, his own frustrations on the matter clear.

“That’s… Danzo ruined his entire clan all for the sake of controlling a black-ops private force? Sensei…” Tsunade slumped in the waiting chair, all her bright anger fading. “How did the corruption and rot in Konoha get this bad?”

“Slowly, bits and pieces at a time, he chiseled away and convinced others to join his personal cause. His status and position in the village kept most from thinking twice about his actions. By the time anyone did, he already had the power he needed to silence those who spoke against him.” Hiruzen sighed, his exhaustion evident. “It’s why I have not allowed myself to be reinstated as Hokage in full. Too much missed my notice over the course of The Third Shinobi War. Fresh eyes are necessary to keep it from burrowing back in even deeper.”

Tsunade huffed, “Is there even anyone left who aspires to that role? That dream has led to the death of everyone I cared for.”

“Was it really that dream or just terrible circumstance and their own drive to protect Konoha?” Hiruzen responded.

Tsunade huffed in frustrated grief. “Does it matter? They are dead just the same.”

Hiruzen eyed her. “You know it does. Or does all you did for this village, both on the front lines during the Second Shinobi War and in establishing and advancing our iryou-nin mean so little?”

Tsunade glared at him, obviously not pleased with this line of conversation. “Where is the boy now?”

“He should be at the hospital getting that silencing seal dealt with as well as a general health exam. I’ve asked that he be escorted here as soon as he is cleared.” Hiruzen watched his student as she glared out the window, a clear sign of her own frustrations and anxieties. Not that many would know that. “I hadn’t expected you to be this anxious about a child you have yet to meet.”

Tsunade returned her glare to Hiruzen. “By some terrible twist of circumstances, this child is the only remaining member of my clan beside myself. He’s the same age Nawaki was but has already been through a great deal of hell. Why shouldn’t I be anxious?”

Hiruzen winced. She did have a point.

A knock at the door drew their attention and soon Shizune peeked her head in and smiled at the sight of both. “Excuse me, Sandaime-sama, Tsunade-sama. I’ve brought ANBU Neko as requested. Should I show him in?”

“Please do, thank you, Shizune,” Hiruzen said.

“Neko, do you remember Sandaime-sama?” Shizune asked as she led a young teen into the room. He was short, having yet to hit a true growth spurt, with mousy brown hair.

“Welcome, Neko, I’m glad to see you recovered and cleared by the iryou-nin,” Hiruzen said, greeting the child warmly.

The teen looked between the Sandaime and Tsunade. “Am I in trouble?”

“Not at all.” Tsunade quickly interjected. She studied the young boy, an early teenager at most. His light brown hair was unlike any of the Senju Clan members she remembered. His dark brown eyes were a shade that was nearly black that was completely unfamiliar to her family line. His chakra, however, resonated with her own.

Hiruzen smiled at the youth. “You and all the other children Danzo had lured into ROOT are being treated and then returned to their families, if possible, or found new homes to stay in if not.”

Neko looked impassively at the Sandaime. “I have no family, sir.”

“Ah, that’s not exactly true,” Hiruzen explained. “While there are no surviving records of the family you were born into, the terrible experiments Orochimaru performed did leave you with a family connection.”

“You belong with the Senju Clan,” Tsunade interjected. “If you want it.”

“I belong to a clan?”

“Orochimaru used DNA from my grandfather in his experiments. DNA you now have a unique connection with. This makes us like cousins at the very least.” Tsunade explained.

Neko seemed to consider that, then nodded. “Okay.”

Tsunade blinked in surprise. “Just ‘okay’?”

“I would like to be part of a clan, I think.” The teen said evenly, his inflection giving nothing away of his feelings.

“Good. Neko is the codename you were given while staying with ANBU. Is there another name you would like to be called?”

“Danzo gave me the name Kinoe.”

“Do you like that name?” Tsunade asked, keeping her tone even and gentle as possible.

“It’s a name? I don’t know why he chose it for me.”

Tsunade turned to glare at Hiruzen before turning and kneeling before Neko.

“You are hope for the Senju Clan’s future. I would, with your permission, fully adopt you into Clan Senju with a name of your choice. If you want to keep the name Kinoe, you may, but you may also choose another name.”

Neko stared back at her and blinked. “I… I had a friend who called me Tenzo.”

Tsunade smiled at the hopeful sound that had crept into the boy’s voice. “You like that name, then?”

Neko considered this and nodded. “Yes, I would like to be called Tenzo.”

“Well then, Tenzo, I Tsunade of Clan Senju, do formally adopt you into my clan and family. May our clan shelter you from this day forward. May you grow in life, knowledge, strength, and spirit. Do you accept?”

Tenzo looked at her in awe, his eyes wide. “I do.” He answered after several long moments, his voice clear and strong.

Tsunade smiled, “Come then, let’s get you added to our roster properly. You will live with me and Shizune in the Senju Clan complex.”

Tenzo looked between Tsunade and Shizune and then nodded in acceptance.

Tsunade glanced back at Hiruzen, “We’ll talk more later, old man.”

Hiruzen sighed, “Congratulations, Tenzo, do try not to pick up any of Tsunade-chan’s bad habits.”

Tsunade huffed and led her new family member out of the office, Shizune following the pair with a small wave and a smile on her face.


Post Archive

SilverDragonfly

Fanfiction has been my guilty pleasure ever since I first stumbled across my first Sailor Moon multi-cross disaster that I just could not walk away from. I was intrigued, traumatized, and possibly even scandalized. Then I found my first archive, A Sailor Moon Romance, and well the rest is kind of history. As I’m pretty sure any fanfiction author can attest, you can only read so much before you start writing.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.