Disclaimer: I do not own Inuyasha or Naruto. The only thing I own is the plot.

Jiraiya Interlude: An International Puzzle. Hello, Sunagakure!


The Konoha ambassadorial office was located in the same district as Sunagakure's central administrative complexes. It was slightly to the east end of the district, near the tail of an off-traffic road. Jiraiya had been to the office several times before, when it was newer, when he was younger, and when the relation between the two villages was not yet as wrought as it was these days.

He sat in the same spot today, looking out the biggest window overviewing a space where a public sand park used to be. Well, there was still a park there, but it was a much different one. He watched an old couple sitting underneath the shade of a wizened wisteria tree, on top of a lush carpet of grass. Under a canopy of blooming purple flowers, the woman—a retired kunoichi if the concealed needles in her silver hair and the pockmark scars that could have only been caused by weaponized poison on her hands were anything to go by—unpacked a picnic basket and took out homemade sandwiches, a salad, and fresh fruits kept in a plastic bowl. As she did this, her partner, the old man, wrapped one hand—which looked to be missing a finger from a kunai cut—around her waist, leaned back against the trunk of the wisteria, closed his eyes, and smiled in a tender way most unbecoming of their profession.

A short stretch from the pair, a gaggle of academy-age children played. One looked over, saw the glistening, fresh grapes and peaches in the bowl, got brave, came over, and asked for some. The woman took one look at the child's grass-stained cheeks before handing the bowl over, an easy smile on her face.

Immediately, Jiraiya thought of the first time he met a Sunagakure ninja. It was decades ago, when he was a wee thing not taller than Sarutobi-sensei's hips. It wasn't war, but it wasn't an easy truce either. The impression he got from seeing them for the first time had rung true for most of his career, up until just now.

The folks of the desert were as dour and dreary as the land that birthed them. A glum and hardy people who were as stingy with their words and their kindness as their water and their rations. In this land where every resource was scarce, reckless generosity was tantamount to slow suicide. Behavior that would be seen as shockingly selfish and materialistic in Jiraiya's homeland was considered pragmatic and par for the course here.

Had Jiraiya witnessed the same scene now twenty years ago, he would have thought the child to be the old woman's own blood and not some stranger's spawn that had not been taught proper etiquette. In Sunagakure, one did not ask for food and water from complete strangers and expected to be humored.

This scene playing out before him, more than anything else, more than the verdant coat that blanketed a massive portion of the village, more than the waves of refugees, more than the clamor and the hype of a reborn nation, was testament to the impact of the Miko on the very social fabric of Sunagakure. And it had been only a little over a year.

Behind the park and the old lovers, on the other side of the street, a new shop was putting up a glossy name board. Saguaro Wine and Spirit Lounge, it said. White chalk lines on the double-panel glass door boasted that their products used a hundred percent locally grown ingredients. Beneath that, a standing sign announced a price list of the available liquors. Despite the lounge's upscale appearance and location, the prices were half of what he remembered a mid-scale bar in Konoha charged. Jiraiya made a tapping motion at the table in front of him. The sound cut right into Nyudo's impromptu verbal report on Sunagakure's changing conditions.

"Is that true?" said Jiraiya once the Konohan ambassadorial stopped, one hand pointing at the boast on Saguaro Wine and Spirit Lounge's glass door. "They are selling made-in-Suna wines now? Have you tried it?"

Nyudo took a look at the lounge's door before shrugging. "Well, they are certainly trying." He paused, as if recalling something from his memory. "Think I have tried it once or twice. Tasted like fizzy water, to be honest. Grapes and rice grown from a miracle or not, good wines need time to mature, and they haven't got that going. It will be a few years yet until they make anything worthy of actually being called wine."

He made a vague gesture—"For the moment, their product lines amount to a bunch of glorified fermented juice. The beer at least is good though, and last I heard; apparently, the glorified juice is a hit among ladies who can't handle the real deal, not that there are that many of them around in a ninja village."—and eyed Jiraiya speculatively.

"Thinking of getting a souvenir for somebody?"

Jiraiya scoffed. The idea amused him, and he briefly considered it. But no, the people he would actually get anything for wouldn't appreciate glorified juice, made with extra miracle or not. Instead, he pushed the next questions.

"They are making cheap wines and selling them to the wrong targets while maintaining a store in the most expensive district of Sunagakure… and they are still staying afloat? Amidst this crazy real estate price hike?"

This was a detail covered before. With the number of people immigrating to Kaze no Kuni territory and the economic boom that didn't look to be stopping anytime soon, real estate value in Sunagakure, the very epicenter of that economic upwind, was at an all-time high. Rent rates had easily tripled what they were a year ago, never mind sell rates. And this road, despite its off-traffic location, was still among the biggest retail roads of the central district.

"Hard to believe as it is, they are," replied Nyudo with another shrug. "In no small part thanks to the local business incentive programs Suna is rolling out." He tapped the documents on the table between them, then gestured at the faraway silhouette of a green-topped mesa.

"You have been briefed on the public gardens?"

Jiraiya nodded and motioned for Nyudo to continue.

"Well, they are a bit beyond mere gardens now. Industrial plantations would be a better descriptor. And there are many of them out there. Enough to cover the entire Southside expanse. And the variety. They've got everything and then some. They've got some massive fields of hemp and cotton for textile production. They have entire rubber tree plantations several times bigger than the old plantations in our territory. I don't have to tell you how many heavy industries kickstarted in Suna, let alone the greater Kaze no Kuni. Timber, of course. There are too many fast-growing wood trees for that not to be a thing, which leads to the resultant wood economy and all the industries in it: construction, transportation, and even crude energy through charcoal and plant-derived oil and biofuel. Certain factions in Kaze court are making… noises about potentially losing their monopoly on oil production in Kaze no Kuni…"

And Kaze is the single biggest exporter of crude oil on the continent. It was a massive pie, and losing a slice of that, even if it was a small slice, had got to sting, thought Jiraiya.

"... but with the Miko in their hand, Suna holds all the cards right now. Their political clout is not easily circumvented. The Kazekage is also out for blood. Those factions are not getting anywhere, not anytime soon or without some sort of ace of their own at least. What else? Pharmaceuticals, big, big pharmaceutical companies considering the sort of rare herb gardens they can build and the sheer production number. I can do this all day," Nyudo slowed down here, looked Jiraiya in the eye. "We send regular reports of course, but the analysts back home don't quite get it. They are too mired in the misconception that her power is a free-hand mirror of Shodaime-sama's Mokuton. It's not. The similarities are there, certainly. But the Mokuton's limitations are well studied and documented. It has the greatest effect in wood trees, less so in shrubs and other soft-bodied plant varieties. Some don't respond to it at all. And of course, its greatest limitation—vulnerability to environmental factors. It doesn't matter how many great trees Shodaime-sama brings into being or how much chakra is put into the technique; if the environment is not sufficiently nurturing, those trees will die. The Miko, on the other hand…" Nyudo drew a long, heavy breath. "If her power has any limitations… then Suna has not found them yet."

That's not all either, thought Jiraiya. Based on his observations on the way here, the Miko's creations were evolving… adapting to the unique condition in the desert, growing in new, unexpected ways, and forcing their transformation onto the environment itself. Truly, this power was in a class of its own. He made a mental note to rewrite that part of the record on her power. Nyudo was right. Folks back home were underestimating what she could do… even with heavy speculation that she was the origin of the Suna Sungate. They thought she was planting a handful of cute little rice farms in the desert. But what she actually was doing was remaking this entire nation under the guidance of the Yondaime Kazekage. And wasn't that a thought that both amazed and alarmed Jiraiya?

But Nyudo was not yet done. "And the kicker," he said, slowing down somewhat. "Uses of these plantations are free for the general public of Sunagakure."

Jiraiya raised an eyebrow, thinking of calculations, costs and revenue, and the sheer number of business magnates that would jump at the opportunity.

"All of them?" he asked. This new piece of info had been mentioned nowhere in the reports before his coming here.

"Not all, actually," Nyudo allowed. "But close enough that it doesn't matter as much as you think." He pulled a couple of papers from the stack of records by his side, flipped them around so that Jiraiya could read them.

"Under new social welfare policy, the food farms have always been free for citizens of Suna and any Kaze citizens willing to go to the farms themselves or pay a team of genin to do the legwork for them. The industrial plantation being mostly free is a continuation of that—free for the normal citizens, that is. If you have an at-home woodshop or chemical lab or any such things, you can go in, take what you want, within reason, of course, and not have to pay a single thing. Now, if you are a business that needs raw supplies from the plantations in large numbers, this is what you sign up to…"

He tapped one of the papers, which appeared to be a list of options followed by different percentage numbers.

"Like private citizens, businesses big and small are not charged for supplies from state-funded plantations. However, they do have to pay a tax calculated bi-annually. The tax is a percentage based on their stated revenue."

Jiraiya didn't even glance twice at the columns of options and numbers.

"I take it the percentage is not an issue, and that's how our novice winemaker on the other side of the street is still staying open?"

Nyudo nodded once.

"Local business tax rate is next to nothing. It's better to call it a token contribution to ensure the plantations stay in operation and open to the public. It's the foreign-owned or funded business that shoulders the bulk of the tax. How much they pay is up to how much foreign ownership is in them. But even for a 60% and above foreign-funded entity, the amount taxed is still... " he paused momentarily, searching for an appropriate word. "... minuscule…" he settled finally, "... compared to what supply costs would be, had they put their production facilities in any other country. And even that higher tax rate can be easily circumvented by letting the local partners take the helm at management. I don't need to point out to you, but this program in effect, means that business in Suna—even in those fields not immediately relating to the plantations—is booming like no tomorrow. Word is that lots of high-profile foreign investors are looking this way, including… some of our own, and with good reason too. Money speaks, whether you are a citizen of Kaze or Hi no Kuni."

He paused, made a chopping gesture with one hand as if to signify the end of that particular tangent.

"But… enough about the economy and business. None of us in this room are merchants. Let's not beat around the bush and get to the main topic of your visit."

"The Miko girl," Jiraiya nodded in agreement, straightening himself from the slouch he was in previously, waiting for the opening salvo from Nyudo. The ambassadorial chief didn't disappoint him.

"My stance regarding the handling of the Miko has not changed since my latest report to central," he said, taking care to enunciate each word clearly and carefully, as if he was standing in a debriefing room or before a military court. Too bad it was just poor, old Jiraiya in the audience, but considering Jiraiya's own status in Konohan military structure, there might have been a reason there. "I object to further reconnaissance missions to gather intel on her, at least for the time being."

Well, it wasn't like Jiraiya wasn't expecting that. He nodded once in acknowledgment.

"May I hear your reasons, chief?"

Nyudo hesitated for perhaps half a second.

"I have stated my full reasoning in my latest report to central intelligence."

"Regardless, I would like to hear it straight from you. Intelligence is detailed work, chief. You and I both work it. We know. There are details that ink and paper don't quite capture. It won't take more than five minutes of your time."

The ambassadorial chief studied him for a couple of seconds, seeming to search for something, before curtly stating.

"It's a waste of time and resources."

As if to demonstrate his point, he spread a sheaf of papers on the table, situated just so that Jiraiya could read them, not that he needed to. He'd gotten the gist of things before coming here.

"The Miko is last year's hot topic in the intelligence community. Incidentally, in the last year alone, expenses incurred by intelligence and reconnaissance allocated to Kaze no Kuni region have more than tripled. And in return, what do we get? A boatload of info, most of which… is junk."

With a flick of his wrist, two-thirds of the papers on the table went to the trash bin.

"The little left that we are moderately sure is not complete bogus—overblown fishwives' tales or Suna's counterintelligence—is just a paltry amount of details that are either irrelevant in the grand scheme of things or completely unactionable. What is the use of knowing that the Miko, despite having no chakra to speak of, actually possesses some strange form of energy if we do not have the details to draw up a plan to do anything about it? And for these next to useless info, we have sacrificed several assets and agents among lower-level Suna ranks that would take months, if not years, to replace. Worse…"

The ambassadorial chief dropped another stack of paper on the table, this one much thicker than the first one, and as it impacted the table, it made a dry thud.

"... because of our activities and Suna's heightened security, several other operations completely unrelated to the Miko but are in the same area have been compromised. We had a small team running surveillance on the appearance of purported members of the mercenary cum suspected terrorist group Akatsuki in the territories and borders of Kaze no Kuni. Had, Jiraiya-sama. The same team was swept up during a counter raid by Suna homeland security. The very same team, a week before their capture, also reported sightings of Orochimaru of the Sannin in several Kaze no Kuni border towns…"

Jiraiya stiffened at the mention of his old teammate. The ambassadorial chief was tactful enough not to point out the connection between him and Orochimaru, but that the man even brought him up at all was intention enough.

"There were speculations that either he or his underlings might have been heading to Suna, but it required further surveillance… Surveillance that we do not have now because it takes time to replace such a well-entrenched and experienced team." Nyudo let out a loud sigh. "The only good thing that came out of that debacle is that we lost none of the team members. Our diplomatic relation with Suna means that they were extradited home and suffered only a lifetime ban from entering Kaze no Kuni territory instead of having their minds ripped to pieces in Suna T&I department before permanent imprisonment or a summary execution… whichever is worse to these sand dogs."

That… did sound worse than the cleanly sanitized balance sheet style report central intelligence gave him. Jiraiya took a swig from the sake bottle on the table and looked at the chief.

"You have received our latest update from the information broker, Saigo no Tsubone? Considering your station, you must know of the Suna Sungate Incident. What Saigo's intel indicates… the importance of it cannot be lost on you. You know we must find out more of this situation or risk a future war in which we have no chance."

In response, Nyudo speared him with a hard look. "I am a class B sensor, Jiraiya-sama," he said as if that explained everything. "That may not be terribly impressive on its own, but I was here when it happened, and it happened…" his voice suddenly dropped here, and his eyes suddenly seemed far away, as if he was looking at something else, as if the man himself was no longer in the room. "... it happened… just two blocks away... over there," absentmindedly, he gestured to a spot above Jiraiya's shoulders. "And I was sitting right here when it happened… and my team, my primary sensor... she fainted dead the second it happened… couldn't take it. Overwhelmed. It was too much… too much…"

He fell silent, seemingly lost in thought for a second. Under his breath, he muttered, 'monstrous… monstrous'. But then he shook himself, dropped another big sigh, before soldiering on.

"So yes, the implications of Saigo no Tsubone's intel is not lost on me."

"Why the objection then? We can hardly stand by while twiddling our thumbs."

"Because it is not yet time," he parried right back. Drawing in a long breath, Nyudo started on a long tangent. "We need concrete, actionable intel as soon as possible. This is true. However, you and I both know there are only two ways to go about this to guarantee better results than the junk we have for the last year. Hard operations. Hands-on stuff. None of the pussyfooting we have been doing so far. We either go after the Miko herself, getting our people close enough for a sensor scan to give us something more useful than 'no chakra but some other weird stuff going on probably'... or we go after the high-ranking officers who hold all the intel."

Which, in this case, meant either members of the Go-Ikenban or members of the research division in charge of studying the Miko's powers. Nyudo held up a finger.

"Let's talk about the latter option first. We go for either a Go-Ikenban member or a research division member, subvert them, and get them to talk. Problems are, one, Go-Ikenban members are the highest-ranking officers of Suna, individually below only the Kazekage himself. We do anything to them and get discovered; it constitutes an act of war. Suna either declares war on us or brings us to the international court between Daimyos. From there on, I can see diplomatic shitstorms from here to probably my grandchildren's generation. Two, since word about the Miko and her power surfaced, Suna has upped the ante in the intelligence game. All research and intelligence members are bound by seals of silence. That's a blanket policy the Iwa team had the misfortune of discovering the hard way half a year ago. When their one captive blew up from the seal activating, he took that entire team with him and the safe house they were in. We only knew because our own people have been tailing them since the start. Again, that's a blanket policy applied to all personnel of research and intelligence, many of which haven't even seen the Miko in person. I don't even want to know what they put on the specific team that gets to meddle around with the Miko and her power."

Now he held up a second finger, a grimace on his face signaling what was to come.

"Now, let's talk about the first option. We go after the Miko herself. She's a more visible target, and whenever she makes a public appearance, we can track her. Security is tough, but that's expected for someone like her…. Except… it's on a level we don't even see reserved for Daimyos of the big five. Talking about Daimyo, how's Asuma and his Guardian Ninja squad?"

"He's back home now," answered Jiraiya. "Got himself a genin squad and is apparently seeing this nice kunoichi. We're not supposed to talk about it, but it looks serious. The young scamp is not fooling around."

"Politics and the court not what he expected?" said Nyudo. A decade ago, the ambassadorial chief was a personal acquaintance of the younger Sarutobi. The Asuma he remembered was an untamable hellion with a beef with his own old man and a yearning desire to change the world. It was the reason why he left the village and built his own team of 'gentlemen shinobi' in the name of protecting the Fire crown. Sadly, Nyudo was not at all surprised to hear that evidently, the fire had abated as Asuma grew older and more jaded from what he must have seen in the royal court.

"Must be so," Jiraiya shrugged noncommittally. He had the same thoughts as Nyudo, but it wasn't his place to pry. "Are you saying that the Miko is under the protection of a group even more skilled than Asuma's own?"

It was here that Nyudo faltered for a moment.

"They aren't. However, protecting the Miko is not their primary purpose." With that statement, he pulled several photographs from the paper on the table, flipped them around so that Jiraiya could see them. The photos were of the Miko's public appearances. Behind her, he could see the highlighted figures of what appeared to be her personal handmaidens.

"They are called Snares," he stated simply.

"Official team name?"

"Not as far as we know. But that's what we call them ever since they nabbed the third reconnaissance team from Kumo with a simple sleight of hand. That's what they are. Snares, for foolhardy teams that think they can just waltz in and steal what is probably the single most important strategic asset of Sunagakure right from under their noses." He paused for a moment before going on to explain.

"There are seven of them, as far as we know. In terms of pure skill and power, only one of them, the team's chief, is worth any note. The rest are chunin to very low jounin level. However, pure strength is not why they were selected. They are all girls of the same age range as the Miko. Same body type, same hair color, similar eye colors, and facial features. They are her maids, her companions, her guardians. They probably live in the same area, in one of the great temples that block all sensory powers, and have been with her for a long time. They have had time to study everything about the Miko. The result is a team of dedicated body doubles that can sub in for the original with some makeup and a change of clothing. They…" Nyudo made a jabbing motion. "... are the reason why reconnaissance teams from Iwa, from Kumo, from Kiri, and even our own village dropped like flies in the first six months of this entire thing."

"On the other hand, the true protector of the Miko, the Kazekage himself and his extensive clan members," Nyudo drew a photo from the pile, this one looking somewhat newer than the rest. Looking at it, Jiraiya recognized the scene of the last Mahara, during the very first portion of the morning ritual. The photo was taken from down below with a good zoom lens. The image was sharp and crystal clear. In it, Jiraiya saw the Kazekage addressing the villagers from a high point of the Kazekage central complex. Standing beside him was the Miko herself. The rest of the Go-Ikenban, the Kazekage's children, and his own entourage must have been behind them but due to the angle of the shot, they weren't visible. It was just the Kage and his charge standing on the balcony overlooking the crowd below. The implications…

"A few months ago, one of the pattern analysts realized something odd in the Miko's public appearance. She rarely appears without a member of the Kazekage's clan by her side."

Jiraiya picked the photo from Nyudo's hand and gave it a long hard look. What did he see in it? The Kazekage, with the blank face of a man used to wearing his title and his job like a second skin, with his body pressed flushed… almost to the point of indecency… against a meek-looking young woman in simple but fine garb. He couldn't see where the Kazekage's hands were, but from the slight jut of his shoulders, he could guess. At her back, pushing her forward into the view of the crowd… or keeping her in place. And there on the girl's neck was a golden glint, the significance of which was not lost on Jiraiya. He put down the photo, looked at the others on the table. Here, the Miko was standing behind, almost hidden from view, by the eldest daughter of the Kazekage clan. There, the two could be seen huddling over books in a posh cafe together. And finally, another photo from the very same Maharra, right before the water passing, showed the Miko's hand grasped by a young shinobi with russet hair and fine-boned features.

"That is Sabaku no Reto, third of the second line, a cousin of the current Kazekage and direct descendant of the first Kazekage," explained Nyudo.

"Surrounded by Sand shinobi royalty at all times huh? I would say they are overdoing it but…"

"... it's hard to argue with the result," Nyudo completed his thought for him. The Chief Ambassador cleared the table with a sweep of his hand. "The point is, their defense is as perfect as it can get at the moment. Mislead, misdirection, bait and switch, and layers of hard defense. That is not to mention, the Grand Temple within this village is of good repute among followers of Soto Buddhism across the continents and in various territories, including our own. The dharma of Kamakura Soto is carried from the streets to the noble courts of both Wind and Fire. Even our own third princess bears the scriptures. And the Grand Temple is the Miko's place of harbor at the moment. It is considered extreme adharma to violate the sanctuary of worship. Should words of our breaching the sacred line be spread… the repercussions…"

are more than Konoha could potentially deal with at the moment, completed Jiraiya in his head. Killers they might be, but there were still lines few ninjas would cross. The sacred sanctity of places of worship was one of those few. It certainly did help that the monks and priests of ninja Buddhism themselves were hardly defenseless. Not that it never happened, of course. Killers and rule-breakers they were. There would always be rouge elements unrestrained enough and strong enough to breach the sacred line of Shinobi Buddhist Temples, but none of them, thus far, had been anything more than lone actors. Established ninja organizations had to answer to powers other than simple might. Money, politics, reputation, the established and interlocking hierarchy of nations and crowns, and the foot soldiers that defended it. What a lone rouge nin might do in moments of greed or insanity would be unthinkable for an organization like a Hidden Village.

"However, Sunagakure won't be able to sustain this forever," Nyudo continued, pleased that Jiraiya was listening with his full attention and nodding along at his points. "The cost for such elaborate operations is significant. The one reason they could even pull it off is the sheer number of able-body ninja without a job they have on hand."

"But that will change," commented Jiraiya, which prompted a curt nod from the Ambassadorial Chief.

"Indeed it will," Nyudo agreed. "Not only will they have to field the full roster for their grand rail line construction project, but their economic miracle is also drawing massive numbers of foreign interests… and not a small amount of internal meddling from their own court. The foreign interests will require local shinobi, either to aid or to monitor. The internal meddling too will require careful handling. Such operations require veterans. Suna is trying its hardest to produce new blood from its own Academy. However, it is simply not enough to keep up with growing demands. Eventually, they will have to take away resources allocated to protecting the Miko. Then, that would be our chance."

"How long?" said Jiraiya without the need for further clarification. Nothing the Ambassadorial Chief was saying was unexpected. But he would like to hear it from the man himself.

"I would say… no more than two years," says Nyudo with deliberate ponderousness. "The suddenness and ferocity of their protection… point towards the Miko and her ability being an unexpected development."

"In other words, the extreme state of their security right now is a zealous reaction because they do not have backups of the same ability… or bloodline. Their position is strong… but precarious. Should they slacken their protection of her, they stand to lose the keystone to their miracle in one fell swoop."

It would also explain why the Miko was surrounded by Sand Shinobi royalty at all times.

… wait…

Jiraiya blinked. A sudden idea came into his head. It was nothing more than a hunch born of his decades of experience. Jiraiya had no actual proof to prove it conclusively. However…

He shifted in his seat, riffling through the paperwork. The idea was now in the process of lodging itself into his mind. He flashed back to the speculations of the Homebase research team, then through his own observation on the way here.

What was it that Nene said regarding the widespread belief of indigenous Suna citizens? They believed the Miko was a manifestation of a desert spirit, did they not? That was dismissed as pure superstition by neophytes with no understanding of chakra theory and application. However, even their foremost experts could not explain how a person with no discernible pathways could perform such feats. It was this fact that gave rise to the theory that the Miko was some kind of artificial construct used to prop up the nation. That said, if she were truly a construct, would Suna nins have gone to such extreme lengths to protect her? He supposed it could be yet another veil to obfuscate the true origin. However, the money put into said protection was very real. If it were truly misdirection, then it was financially irresponsible to the extreme. Clumsy and awkward. High risk for low gain. The Suna Jiraiya knew would never commit to such frivolous action plans.

More, the energy Jiraiya himself detected bore an uncanny similarity to pure, undiluted Senchakra, the type that would render a man into stone should it make contact. It made sense to use a construct and not a person if one was handling an energy type that could just as easily destroy its user as its target… until one took into consideration the facts that: one; the invocation of Senchakra required sentience and years of mindful meditation, and two; up until twenty years ago, Senchakra and its battlefield application were still considered a Konohan specialty.

As far as combat applications went, it was a poor option, requiring too much in time and resource investment, and having too high a barrier to entry… for all that it offered tantalizing rewards. Ninjas were by and large a practical breed, often working with little to produce big results. Precious few Ninjas would choose Senchakra to advance their craft further, that was to say, if they even had access to knowledge of it at all. As far as Jiraiya was aware, that he even learned Sage Arts was due in large part to the long shadow the first Hogake still cast on ninja as a whole and Konohan ninja specifically. Villages other than Konoha didn't exactly have the privilege of an already existing treasure trove of information on Senchakra (kept under lock and key in the Hokage's tower, but still there and still accessible to ones with the potential); the Summon Contracts capable of Sage Arts, and the social prestige required to dedicate years of one's prime as a ninja to playing hermit with the summoned clans instead of furthering the village's interests on their shadowed battlefields. That Kirigakure produced their own half-baked Sage in the form of Hoshigaki Kisame some eight years ago was already considered something of a mystery. Now, Suna, which had little in the way of Sage Arts knowledge as far as Jiraiya knew, had come forward with something that pushed even the boundaries of what the First had once been capable of… To even speculate that they had produced something that exceeded even the highest level of Sage Arts known to Jiraiya… without the foundation of knowledge from having someone like Hashirama Senju in their village history. Was such speculation even worthy of note at all? Surely the possibility was ridiculous even to consider?

Or rather… perhaps Suna hadn't managed to pull off such a miracle after all? But that they had enjoyed the fruits of that miracle nevertheless?

"Jiraiya-sama?" Nyudo seemed to have sensed Jiraiya's furious thoughts.

"Give me a moment," he replied absentmindedly.

Nene Ojite believed the major populace of Sunagakure was in the dark about the true and full nature of the Miko, and that she was being used as a political lever to resurrect the village and reclaim their glory days. But there was no discernible origin point for the belief that she was a manifestation of desert spirits. This belief persisted with perplexing perseverance despite or perhaps because of the high population of chakra-fluent natives.

Ashikasa Yoshira posited that the Miko was either a first-generation Kekkei Genkai holder or a specific mutation of contract carriers, a hybrid between ninja and sacred summons. He went on to hypothesize that this mutation was the source of the Miko' lack of chakra pathways, perhaps a kind of self-imposed disability to gain power heretofore never seen in recorded ninja history.

Yorie Tomoto pushed the pet theory that the Miko was something completely foreign to Suna itself, merely having appeared there first and claimed by opportunistic Sand ninja and put to work for the betterment of the village. A walking, talking, never-before-seen phenomenon.

Jiraiya himself had confirmed the strange energy residue to be of similar nature to undiluted Senchakra and capable of feats even the First Hokage would be unable to reproduce. A kind of lateral cognate to the source energy of the World.

Finally, Ha no Nyudo pointed out the abnormality of the Miko being constantly surrounded by royal Sand ninja in all her public and not a small number of her unpublic appearances. This, in turn, hinted at an inherent lack of confidence among Suna upper echelon over their ability to produce a second Miko… or… Jiraiya pondered daringly… their ability to retain control and loyalty of the current one.

The truth, thought Jiraiya, lay somewhere in the intersection of all these postulations. Once one dug deep beneath the surface, none of them truly discounted or contradicted the others.

He finally returned to that photo of the Kazekage and the Miko, in her official debut before the village after months of being put to groundwork and concealed by layers of security and designated hangers-on. This would be the first time the regular people of Suna saw the walking miracle that brought back their village from the brink of economic collapse. He studied the tightness of the Kazekage's feature, the line of tension from his shoulders behind the girl, the hidden hands where he could not see. Her face, in stark contrast with the Kazekage's granite mask, was soft and flush with what was surely untainted gratitude. Like a child being paraded on the honor roll, handed both rewards and the expectation of future contributions.

If the Miko was an artificial construct, as Nene suspected, then the skill of her creator must be beyond that of gods, because no puppeteer Jiraiya knew - or had heard of - could convincingly replicate such human vulnerability. If Suna possessed that kind of genius among their ranks, then the war a little over a decade ago would have had a very different result kind of result. He scratched out the posit that the Miko was artificially made in his own mind. But that didn't detract from the reality that she was, indeed, being used to bring about great changes in Sunagakure. Could the nature of these changes be the reason for the overzealous protection?

Then there was the nature of her power. A new breed of Kekkei Genkai, or the realized prototype of a Secret Technique as the official version pushed by Suna itself. On the surface, both options were equal to each other in terms of feasibility, but their own reports on the Miko's lack of chakra pathway would skew towards Kekkei Genkai. Few Hidden Techniques altered the physiology of their practitioners in such drastic, foundational ways. Even the Aburame clan's technique only imparted cosmetic changes to their chakra pathways, with the bulk of the alteration in the partition between their skin, fat, and muscle layers only. However, Jiraiya did not know of any Kekkei Genkai that would render its host devoid of chakra pathway either. Yoshira's hypothesis that the ability was born from the sacrifice of the user's chakra pathway was definitely a possibility here…

… but so did Yorie Tomoto's pet theory that the Miko was a natural phenomenon that merely occurred within Suna territory, having nothing to do with Suna's weapon and technique development efforts.

In fact, if Jiraiya were to scrape away the surface ridiculousness surely born of Yorie's unhealthy fascination with a certain type of fanciful youth media, his theory would neatly explain most of the discrepancies of the Miko's existence… such as the abruptness of her introduction into Sunagakure's internal situation or her appearance not being the favored match of indigenous Sunan. A phenomenon that simply happened to occur within the territory of Sunagakure, born of chance and not of the buildup of decades of research and development.

Did it explain the zealousness of Suna's protection of her then?

It did, realized Jiraiya. It explained more than that even. If she was born not of Suna's effort, but mere happenstance, and potentially of a recently emigrated linage, it went to reason that Suna would not be confident in their ability to retain her linage because they themselves knew little about her or the origin of her power. Had she truly been the fruits of decades of hidden research, Suna would not be so sensitive to the possibility of losing their Miko, because they would have years of research to fall back on. A windfall of rare power, on the other hand, was a lot harder to incorporate fully into the village in the long term… and a lot easier to completely lose in one fell swoop. Konoha itself had had plenty of budding lineages emigrating to their protection, only to lose them just as quickly either due to lack of knowledge on how to handle them or the inborn volatility of their abilities in the first place. The ill-fated Kurama clan and their much-dwindled prestige was a good example.

In that case, would the thick presence of Sand ninja royalty around the Miko be an attempt to directly tie her lineage to their village then? Such a practice, while exceedingly rare, was not unheard of. It was in the village's interest to consolidate its most central powers to a handful of families that stood at the heart of the village's history and politics. And if any power were worthy of such treatment, the Miko's would be the prime candidate.

That said though… he cycled back to the observation reports on the Miko's ability, crosschecking them with his own knowledge of Sunagakure clan politics. That sort of entwining of lineages carried its own risks. Kekkei Genkai bearers rarely played nice with each other on a biological level. As much as Tsunade joked of ninja's genetics being more like swappable pieces of a toy, the more potent a Kekkei Genkai was, the more unlikely it would tolerate being grafted to another competing Kekkei Genkai. Hybrid children of old lineages typically had the misfortune of being born with ailing bodies at best and horrific birth defects at worst… that was, if they managed to survive to adulthood at all. In the long history of Konoha, many a child born of intermingled Uchiha and Senju and Uchiha and Hyuuga blood had been erased wholly and completely from the village records, their existence remembered only in the ingrained taboo against marrying outside the blood among the big clans.

And those were more or less regular Kekkei Genkai, whose mechanics were well studied. The Miko's supposed Kekkei Genkai… to say it was unknown and deviant to the extreme would be an understatement. A complete lack of chakra pathway, an energy type that was cognate to the source code of the world, the ability to outperform even Shodaime Hokage's manifested Mokuton Sage Art, even possible scrambling of the host's long-term memory if Suna's reports on the Miko's reduced lingual capacity could be believed. Marrying such a lineage to one of the most… if not the most… established and historied bloodlines of Sunagakure did not make sense… if not to say, outright foolish. Suna had no way to know if the resultant children would not emerge warped between the parent's highly potent heritages. Disabled children with neither the father's chakra pathway and ninjutsu ability nor the mother's power to warp the very laws of the natural world. It would be a shortsighted fool to use Suna's most vaunted bloodline for such a task when there existed no lack of other lesser-known and stable candidates to choose from.

Unless… of course…

… they surrounded the Miko not for the hope of producing yet more of her likes… but to tie her ever deeper to Sunagakure itself.

Jiraiya sat still for one breathless moment, his eyes flashing between the mess of documents on the table before him and the patiently waiting Nyudo. What was the saying?

Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. The third time is enemy action.

The saying was civilian in origin, but for ninja, it applied in the double. Theirs weren't a people who believed in coincidences, and this would be the second time Jiraiya's analysis arrived at the same postulated conclusion via a different thread of reasons.

But it made a frightful amount of sense, should he assume he was on the right track, working off of the fragments of multiple hypotheses.

Of course, a clear, concrete confirmation would only be possible with the presence of the Miko in Konoha's grasp. But such a thing was not only tactically impossible considering the unknown but probably highly destructive potential of the Miko's power; it would also be tantamount to kicking off a fourth world war with the fallout of the Konoha-Suna alliance and the spread of information to the current Warhawk Raikage.

That said, that did not mean that there was nothing Jiraiya could do to hedge the bet in his village's favor. It would only need for him to rig the game with some choice moves and make some specific sacrifices.

He turned to the waiting Nyudo, the tension leaving his body as his face spread into a congenial smile.

"I see. The situation is like this. The prize is great, but the pieces are not yet stacked right. If we are too hasty, we might risk destabilizing a highly incendiary situation. Your assessment is the correct one. We should draw back and prepare for long-term surveillance."

He watched the tension bleed minutely from the tense set of Nyudo's shoulders. It wasn't anything so obvious that a regular ninja might see. But Jiraiya wasn't the head of Konohan spy network for nothing.

"Then…" said the Chief Ambassador.

In response, Jiraiya slouched in his seat in a way that made his gut, which wasn't really all that pudgy for all that he had been drinking every day since he left Konoha months ago, protrude forward. He drummed his fingers on the table, sending some errand papers flying sideways.

"I'll write to the Hokage, tell him what you told me and let him know to hold the war hawks until we are in a better place. That should lay off the heat from your office, Chief."

"And my subordinates?"

"Will be recalled with our highest commendation on the termination of their tour, or as soon as possible should they feel unfit for a continued post in Sunagakure. We will send new staffing to your office, and approve of support measures you requested in your previous missive."

The chief didn't even bother to hide his palpable relief this time. The rigid set of his shoulders slumped, and a weary smile stretched across his usually pinched features. He bowed respectfully.

"I don't know what I can do to thank you, Jiraiya-sama…"

But Jiraiya stopped him with a hand around his arm and an easy, disarming grin.

"Don't be like that, my good man. Just doing my job here. No need to stand on ceremony around me. If you want to thank me, how about showing me where I can have a good time before the old man sends me to wherever is next on his agenda, hmm? I think that place next door with the new-fangled miracle fizz might be a nice place to start."

A/N: The next chapter will be the last Jiraiya Interlude. Jiraiya does get to meet Kagome. This will lay the foundation for a ceasefire negotiation years down the line and save the life of Sandaime. It also starts Kagome on the road to becoming a writer of children's books.

I have removed all the non-chronological chapters I posted years ago in anticipation of being unable to continue writing this story due to health issues.

I moved to AO3. The AO3 version has all the fanarts I drew and commissioned for this story. The new cover for this story is commissioned art.