Rubble and sand burst forth in dry, angry blast, knocking Mei off her feet. Even with how fast she could move, it was sheer luck that the bijuudama had missed. Another centimeter to the left, and it would have taken off her entire arm at the shoulder. Behind her, the black ball of chakra landed – and exploded so hard it screamed as it cut through the air. It went wide, crossing several kilometers in a few seconds, and collided with a patch of ocean somewhere out there. Everyone in the vicinity could feel several thousand metric tons of water vaporize in an instant. There was a rumble as the waves began moving to shore. Trillions of tiny droplets of steam and hot rain started to gather.

The sonic shockwave forced Mei hard into the ground. She landed on her shoulder and immediately went into a roll across the hard, rough ground, the sharp rocky remains of what used to be the Mizukage's office digging into her shoulders. She coughed, prodding her ribs. Bruised but not broken. Thankfully. She shot a quick glance around her. Ao was out of the way. Chojuro had managed to escape, too. Good. She needed those two.

Mei struggled to stand and threw another water dragon. And then more bullets, chains, and pillars, interspersing them with acid, and lava, and steam. Not that it was of much use. Each and every single one of them only served to amuse Yagura, and he sent each and every single one of them right back at them with ease. He readied another bijuudama.

She aimed a glob of lava at Yagura's open mouth in the hopes that it could somehow plug up his throat before the second bijuudama let loose. No dice. It just wasn't strong enough. She hadn't managed to stop the Tailed Beast Ball from launching. She had, however, managed to disrupt its formation by making Yagura choke a little bit, so what came out was a fraction of the strength it should have had. The force of Yagura's energy pushed everything out, spraying the lava in little raindrops. Some of them hit her tattered armor, singeing the ends. Only the southwestern half of the village had been completely wiped out by the resulting crater, instead of the entire island and everything on it.

She could feel herself running low. She still had most of her chakra tank left, but at this point she'd depleted enough that she could definitely feel the loss. They had barely been trading their opening salvos for five minutes. Yagura was definitely still running strong. No way a jinchuuriki would be tired out after so little.

"You're going to die," Yagura's shadowy, warped voice called mockingly, interspersed with the bass tones of the Sanbi. "You're going to die and there's nothing you can do about it." The Killer Intent of a bijuu was like a thousand boulders on her back.

Still, she had to get up.

She was the only thing standing between him and everyone else. Between him, and Chojuro and Ao. They had followed her faithfully for so long. She could not give in now.

"If my life is the price," she snarled, "then so be it."

The Hokage's Office

Hiruzen Sarutobi had been in the middle of a nice, relaxing session of Icha Icha I Don't Care when the classic emergency signal came – a disheveled young messenger followed by a bunch of angry guards yelling at him that "the Hokage is not to be disturbed! Get back here! I mean it! Wait – no – "

The Sandaime closed the book and hastily jammed it into the bottom drawer of his desk just in time for the scout to slam open his doors.

What was it with people bursting into his office, out of breath?

"Hokage-sama, our intel teams have found evidence of collaboration between Kumogakure and Iwagakure," the scout breathed, holding out a photograph. "This letter was found hidden by the foot of a bridge in Waterfall during a regular patrol. We left the original where it was, but we also changed a few words around."

Are you kidding me? the Sandaime sighed, burying his face in his hands. First Orochimaru, then that Sand girl, and now this? What is this world even coming to? I could have sworn those two hated each other the last time I talked to them.

"You just found it there," he repeated.

"Yes sir."

"And it wasn't encoded or anything."

"Well…yes sir," the scout said. "They used a standard cipher."

"So how did you decode it?"

"Well, the key was – "

"Let me guess: they used a weak key that you managed to figure out in negligible time."

"…Yes, Hokage-sama."

"Thank you for this information. That will be all. You have done us a great service. Dismissed."

The scout nodded with nervous pride and then immediately fainted, leaving his limp body to be dragged out by the exasperated ANBU guards.

It was probably a lie, set there by someone else. But all lies had a hint of truth to them, for just earlier today, other scouts had detected some suspicious activity near the northern border of the Land of Fire. And the responsible party could be anyone. Temari, trying to start a war between Konoha, Iwa, and Kumo – the big three villages out of the big five – to generate enough chaos and distraction so she could somehow steal her brother back. Iwa and Kumo still smarting from the last war and thinking that this was a good time for revenge anyway. The Akatsuki – starting a war for the same reason, but they wanted all the jinchuuriki, not just the Ichibi. Or maybe just someone who wanted a fucking war for no reason at all.

Fine then, you old bastards. Is that how you want to play? I'll show you how the Sandaime Hokage plays.

"Sai, get out here. I know you're there."

One of the ANBU in his office ducked out from behind a potted plant and came to stand before him. "Hokage-sama – "

"No. Shut up. Don't say a word."

He nodded.

"Good. Now run back to Danzo and tell him that his little feud with Shikaku Nara ends now, so help me God, or I will fuck the both of them over so hard they wished they were dead. There are more important things Konoha needs to focus on, and I have need of his very special services and very special brand of thinking. Got it? Good."

Observation Room 6

Ibiki blinked at the video monitor for a few more seconds, and then reached over and turned it off, because he had work to do, and the ANBU training regime hadn't changed at all within the past few years, except for maybe getting a little harder. Then, he reconsidered, and decided that a few more minutes couldn't hurt, so he turned it back on.

It was just a bunch of kids getting beat up and broken down over and over again. He hardly understood what was so amusing about it. Oh, wait – he did.

"Bet you cell 9 cries first," a passing coworker yelled out.

His paperwork partner scratched his head. "What about those little kids?"

"They don't count," Ibiki explained. "They're Hatake's brats." They had already reached the apathy stage. All of them. He had been a bit surprised when he had first began observing their psyche progressions, but then he realized, they had probably had plenty of time to practice against Hatake. Apathy would have been a default state by the first week for them.

There was a collective, sympathetic "Ohhhhh…" throughout the room.

"Oh wait, that's not fair," someone complained. "That means they got a head start on the mental conditioning programme."

"You mean the anti-conditioning programme," someone else chimed in. "They're not snapping like the others. At this point I think actually breaking them would just turn them into useless vegetables, which kind of counterproductive."

"Are you seriously suggesting that we give up before they do? That's like, the opposite of what ANBU is supposed to be all about! We're supposed to make them give up! The entire point is – "

"Point is, I'm done," Shi Masa complained. "We've wasted so many trainers on those little demons – I'm ready to call it quits and just sign off on them. Mark them down as properly desensitized. I'll turn a blind eye if you do. Make them someone else's problem. Preferably Hatake's. He created these little monsters, he can deal with them himself."


"Why don't you deal with them and let's see how well you hold up after getting mauled by that bitch – "

"Wait wait wait shut up!" someone else roared, pointing at the TV for cell 11. The corridor was slowly jamming up as more and more people began crowding around the TV room. "That guy's about to flip his table – yes, he's flipped his table – "

"AND CELL ELEVEN HAS CRACKED! WHOOO!" The whole room exploded in morbid celebration, as if they were watching a sports game where a player had just scored a goal, instead of the ANBU training regime. There was a little bit of yelling, as some people exchanged bet money, much like what the Jonin did in the Chunin exams. Only, here, they were betting on who lost first, not who was still around by the end.

"Hey, I have an idea. Every time one of those recruits does the little eye twitch thing, take a drink. Ready?"

ANBU games. What fun.

"All right, shut up, you lot," Ibiki ordered. "I have shit to do, you have shit to do, we all have shit to do, so stop loitering in the TV room, got it?"

"Come on, two more minutes. I think one of the boys in cell 9 is about to burst into sobs any second now."

"I don't think so – "


"Oh, all right."


Yeah, he was totally going to hell.

Of course, knowing his luck, the edition of hell he'd wind up in was the one that was practically run by Kakashi Hatake. Wherever that man ended up – heaven, hell, or, if neither of those places existed, then his final resting place – he'd turn the entire place inside-out. Maybe he'd prank them from the grave. Hide random things around places to confuse the hell out of the poor drones operating in the Konoha morgues.

Because of his perpetually lazy posture and his resting "I don't give a damn" face, he didn't look like much of a leader, and indeed, he was a pretty antisocial loner by default, but damn if he didn't know how to usurp power in a situation whenever it suited him.

It pained Ibiki to admit this, but, in his tenure as the head of Konoha Torture and Interrogation, he had never, ever, not even once, walked away victorious from an argument with the likes of Kakashi Hatake. Mainly because they usually never made sense. Other people, he could tell with one look all of their fears and hopes and loves and dreams, and exploit them to his purposes, because their fears and hopes and loves and dreams were all logical, as the fears and hopes and loves and dreams of regular human beings were apt to be.

Kakashi Hatake? The man had lost all of those fears, hopes, loves, and dreams long, long ago. What was left was some twisted, warped replacement version that even Ibiki himself could not make out.

Arguing with the man was like arguing with a black hole. Always, eventually, somehow, he'd suck you into this bottomless labyrinth of demented senselessness where he lived, day in and day out, and then beat you with experience once you were there.

After all, how could anyone break a man who was already too fucked up to notice?

Apparently, by forcing him to break someone else.

ANBU Training Ground 29

When they woke up again, they were outside, and it was cold. But he hadn't felt this well-rested in months, so he didn't complain. The cold was nothing.

Naruto cracked open his eyes.

There was a sword at his throat.

"Rise and shine, children," Kakashi-sensei said.

He didn't scream. He got up slowly to his feet. If Kakashi-sensei was going to kill them then he wouldn't be able to do anything about it. So he didn't care.

"Sir," they monotoned.

"Let's sound a little more enthusiasic, yes?" he asked. "How are you all feeling this morning?"

The sky was dark, and the moon was floating high above the trees. But this was ANBU, and if their commanding officer said that it was morning, then it was morning.

Well, not really. Just like any other successful organization, subordinates had the right to correct a superior who was totally wrong. But this wasn't about correcting facts. It was obvious that Kakashi-sensei knew what time of day it was. He was just testing their ability to blindly obey orders. Whether it was telling everyone they met that the moon was the sun, or torturing a prisoner for information.

If a command was given, they had the freedom to debate how they wanted to do it. But unlike in the regular forces, they had no choice on rejecting a mission they did not want. If he had to stab a baby, he could suggest that strangulation was a quieter and less messy method that would be easier to clean up after, but he'd still have to kill it.

For Ino's sake, Naruto had hoped most of the work they'd have to do would be in interrogation. He was fine with doing that, if it was just the Yamanaka Mind Transfer jutsu. Easy, clean, in and out, no messes.

"Great, sir!"

"Your fake enthusiasm sucks." He withdrew the sword. "But it doesn't matter. Today you will have a practical test. Are you ready?"

"Yes, sir," Ino said.

"No you aren't. It doesn't matter. Today you will be going hunting." He scratched under his mask. "Your target is to be captured alive, for interrogation," he added as an afterthought.

Naruto kept his face straight.

"This mission requires both skilled trackers and chakra sensors. Your team was selected for this mission because of your specific skillsets and your outstanding performance during training. Your mission parameters are in this folder. Note that this is a real mission, not a test. You will be accompanied by fully trained ANBU who will observe you. Depending on how you perform on this test, you could be cleared to pass. Or, you might be recycled and have to redo the entire training batch all over again. Sound fair enough?"

Skill. There was no skill involved in that ANBU training course. Only mental harrassment. The real punishment was not redoing the course. Kakashi-sensei had told them before. They were in a special situation. Their case was either pass or fail, even if technically they could always try again. Pass, and they got to continue training under Kakashi-sensei. Fail, and that could raise questions that their current instructor was not fit to teach them. There was always the danger that they would then be transferred to a different teacher "for their own good".

"Yes, sir!"

Wasting no time, he passed the mission brief folder to them. It was an S-rank. That was funny. It seemed like just yesterday, that Naruto had been whining for one of these. Now they were about to depart on one. "You have until nightfall to prepare. We expect you to be back here and ready to leave at 1900 hours sharp. You leave tonight. You will be accompanied by a group of skilled observers. They will judge your every action and evaluate them for readiness to formally join ANBU. This mission is of utmost importance, and you would do well to complete it successfully. There are no other options. Do you understand?"

"Yes, sir!" It made sense. They wouldn't hand out S-ranks to a bunch of kids – not even rookie ANBU – for no reason, and expect them to work around it perfectly, without any backup plans. Their observers were the backup plan. In the case that they failed, the veterans trailing them would be the ones to swoop in and finish the job, before reporting back to the Hokage and the ANBU commander on their incompetence.


For the first time since the training had started, Naruto detected a slight sliver of humanity peeking through his teacher. Worry. Mostly worry. It made Naruto hate him a little less.

Ready, set, GO.

The Nara Clan Compound

"I have to leave in a few hours, so please, tell me everything," I gasped at my father, still slightly out of breath. Upon leaving the training facility, I had, entirely by accident, run into Izumo just as he was getting deployed.

Getting. Fucking. Deployed.

Suddenly the mission we were getting sent on had started to make sense. Tensions were always hovering at an acceptable level in the background, even in peacetime, but "intercept a patrol of Kumo nin heading west" was way, way, way too overt for anything except war. From there, it was all too easy to conclude that, sometime during those three months we had been cut off from the rest of the world, Konoha had discovered evidence – or at least had proper reason to fear – that Kumo and Iwa would band together against Konoha. Perhaps they had discovered both Kumo and Iwa scouts in the vicinity. Perhaps our spies discovered Kumo and Iwa suddenly corresponding more than usual.

They had told us none of this, because proper ANBU needed no justification to follow and order.

But I was not a proper ANBU. Everything I did had to make sense. It just so happened that this one made perfect sense. In a horrible, horrible now everyone was moving. The whole village was – not exactly in chaos, but definitely gearing up. In the scant weeks we had spent in ANBU training, everything had gone to shit so quickly I was surprised it hadn't imploded even faster.

"Iwa. Kumo. What else is new?" my father sighed. "Possibly Suna is behind this too. If we fail to nip this war in the bud it could drag on for quite a long time. Something we can't really afford right now."

"Who's being sent to the front lines?" I asked. "I assume at the very least, team 10."

"Probably. Your team will probably also be deployed, though in different sorts of missions, given your…new training." He frowned and fumbled for a cigarette. Wordlessly, I grabbed a few of the files he had purposely left out on the desk for me and began skimming through them. "They will keep you, Ino, and Naruto together, but it's not certain if your sensei will be included in that group."

My heart sank. Logically, I knew that this could happen. Kakashi-sensei was needed out there, in the same way Jiraiya and Tsunade also were. "They have to send him to the Western front."

The Yondaime and his greatest technique were paramount in knocking out Iwa early. If the military intelligence we had received was correct, Iwa was the single participant in this new coalition actually out for revenge. Suna and Kumo were only in this for jinchuuriki and would likely retreat and leave Iwa to the dust once they had gotten what they came for. They relied on the Rock nin for distraction, and if that was taken away…

"Once your training is complete, you'll be sent to the Western front too, most likely," my father said, trying to be reassuring. "Your missions might not always line up perfectly with your sensei's frontline combat role, but they will be close enough most of the time. At the very least they will keep you away from too many direct engagements with Kumo nin and Akatsuki."

"And Gaara?" Ino's father had died to save him. It would kill her if he ended up getting hurt or captured anyway.

My father smirked. "Some people wanted to send him to the Northern front to distract Kumo. They've been gunning for a jinchuuriki ever since Yugito Nii was captured by the Akatsuki. They prefer the Kyuubi, but they would likely settle for the Ichibi if Naruto was too far away. If Gaara succeeds in killing a bunch of Kumo nin, great. And if he gets captured, it's not too much of a loss, and might even redirect Suna's anger towards Kumo instead of us."

I groaned and sank my face into my palms. "Please tell me at least one person in the room pointed out how monumentally stupid that idea is?"

"Luckily, the Hokage has met Temari in person and knows her well enough to realize she's not going to let go of a grudge just because her brother is no longer in our possession."

"Literally giving up a fucking jinchuuriki!" I threw my hands up in the air, incensed at the idiots that somehow managed to worm their way into our government. Danzo was self-serving and cruel, but not even he was that dumb. "At worst, they'll figure out how to use him against us, or even use him as a bargaining chip and trade him back to Suna in return for something else. Or, he tries to escape back to us, and gets captured by the Akatsuki on the way. The chance that this would actually work out positively for us is infinitesimally small!"

My father chuckled at my anger and frustration. "It's been decided that Gaara will be part of the defense forces and won't leave Konoha."

Well, that was slightly better. "But Naruto can."

"Your team has successfully fought multiple Akatsuki before. Naruto also has more experience controlling his bijuu, a longer period of proper training, a good relationship with capable teammates, and a wider repertoire of techniques – including the capability to reverse summon himself into the Dog Realm to escape any otherwise dangerous situations. Gaara is a fierce fighter should he try, but his training has been stunted," my father pointed out.

Which was true enough. Gaara's previous teachers and Jonin sensei had mostly left him to his own devices because they a) were afraid of him, and b) figured that he was skilled enough to protect himself. Meanwhile, Inoichi, Ibiki, and Jiraiya had been too busy shuttling him between various prisons and trying to improve his emotional state and mental health to teach him any new deadly techniques. The result was a ninja who was, while powerful, hadn't progressed much since he first started training, through little fault of his own.

I still didn't like it, even though logic told me this was the best choice. "That still doesn't mean anything unless we can end this war quickly. Every moment we spend fighting ourselves is another moment the Akatsuki has to gain power."

"I agree. Unfortunately, the other hidden villages can't see that. None of them really value their jinchuuriki except for Kumo, and even then, the Raikage sees other villages as the bigger threat than a fringe group in Amegakure."

"So what do we do?" My mind raced, slower than it normally did after spending weeks marinating in the tender mercies of ANBU trainers. There had to be a way out of this. "We can't fight all three of them at once. The best thing to do would be to break up the coalition. If they're fighting each other, they can't fight us," I thought aloud. Yes, that was it. "We have to turn them against each other somehow." But how? We'd need to break their trust with each other first. "Iwa. That's the key. No one trusts Iwa, not really. If we can just…"

"Spreading rumors won't be enough," my father warned me. "The fact that Kumo already decided to join means that they figured the operation was worth the risk. And from their point of view, it makes sense. Iwa hates Konoha more, and any risk of them betraying Kumo is mitigated by the fact that they would be better off cooperating until after Konoha has been destroyed. Iwa is traitorous, not stupid. So whatever we do, we have to make it believable, otherwise they'll just realize that it's Konoha trying to drive a wedge between them."

"But if the betrayal is too mild, Kumo might decide to keep pressing forward with the plan anyway and turn a blind eye to Iwa until after they got what they came for," I pointed out. "They all have existing plans against each other. If Kumo was dumb enough to get into an alliance with Iwa, then they are smart enough to have a contingency plan for anything Iwa might do after."

Something believable, but serious. That was the annoying paradox. Iwa doing anything to attack Kumo before their attack on Konoha was successful was highly improbable, and the Cloud nin would easily see through that too. But what else could be a hard enough betrayal that would lead to Kumo calling off the war altogether, instead of dealing with Konoha now while simply kicking the Iwa can down the road?

Suddenly, I had it.

I slammed my hands on the desk. "Suna started this entire mess because of Temari's brother, Gaara. We can end this mess with A's brother, Killer Bee."

My father lifted an eyebrow. Ruthless. But do go on.

It wasn't a secret, how close A and Killer Bee were. It also wasn't a secret, how notoriously impulsive and hot-tempered the Raikage could get. "Iwa planning to backstab Kumo for money, or missions, or information? That stuff is normal and expected, it's a hidden village's bread and butter. They knew what they were getting into when they shook hands with Iwa. But if we even imply that Iwa was planning something against Killer Bee? Now, it's personal. It's like that nursery rhyme. The hunter had a lion on his left. The hunter had a tiger on his right. But then the lion bit the tiger so the hunter didn't fight."

My father exhaled loudly through his mouth. "It's a highly risky venture. We can't get caught."

"If you have any other ideas that will work, I'm all ears."

My father tapped his fingers on the table. Once. Twice. And then he pushed his chair back and got up. "Come on, Shikamaru. We're going to see the Hokage right now."

What? "I have to leave for my mission soon. How long will this take?"

"I know. This is about your mission." He turned and began speedwalking out the door.

My father. Speedwalking. This was serious. I had never seen him crawl faster than an ambling stroll. I had to make my strides extra large to catch up to him. "You've seen it?"

"Seen it? I was part of the committee that assigned it."

"You're giving us a different mission? Now?"

"No, no, just changing a few parameters. Shikamaru, you said Naruto can externally combine chakra natures, right?" he asked.

"Yeah, why?" I said. Exhaustion and sleep deprivation had left me extremely slow, and I felt like I was seriously missing something.

"And no other people know about it?"

"No other living people."

He stopped, bent his knees so he was eye level with me, and whispered, "How well can he fake a definitely Iwagakure-exclusive kekkei genkai, such as, I don't know, Explosion Release?"

I blinked.

"Oh," I whispered. "Oh."

A/N: I made up the nursery rhyme. I figured it's one of those things ninja would tell their kids, instead of "ring around the rosy".