Disclaimer: I do not own Naruto. Beta'd by drowsyivy

It is maybe a month later when things go to hell in a handbasket yet again.

Largely, if only because the good days were not meant to last.

It starts, as many horrid things do, with a tax meeting.

Specifically, new regulations and codes regarding clan taxation, which no one really wanted to talk about in any detail or length, because that would involve figuring out how much each clan has been actively or passively avoiding paying their taxes. This was more a matter of principle than anything else.

Since the village is at a point of economic stability and prosperity (for most people at any rate) the passively missed paying x amount of taxes didn't really harm the bottom line per se as much as it could be swept under the rug.

Actively attempting to not pay one's taxes, however, is a more regrettable offense that often came to light during tax meetings. Which is why we held them so often and why no one appreciated them.

And even though I generally regret going to tax meetings, I regret this one the most for reasons that have very little to do with taxes.

It starts, as many things do these days, with Hyuga Hiashi, taxes, and too much of a good thing.

The first two are self explanatory; the third, however…

"There seems to be an urgent matter that I was only recently made aware of, Hokage-sama." The discussion had wound around to the Hyuga clan estates and holdings, which is, of course, why stalling tactic number two has appeared suddenly, though with prior warning.

Shikaku-san snorts. "If it were truly urgent, you'd have come to visit Hokage-sama twenty minutes after you heard about it. It's not really urgent, is it?"

"It," Hyuga Hiashi says stiffly, as though Shikaku-san had shoved rotting natto under his nose, "is a matter that concerns the security of our village, and I thought it was best to have the matter confirmed before coming to the Hokage with baseless claims."

This garners no particular cheers of joy from anyone sitting at the council table.

We'd been at this for five hours. We did not break for lunch.

Everyone is at least hungry and more than a little bit upset. Feelings are running high.

Which means I'd been standing for roughly three of them, ferrying paper back and forth, because Okami knows none of these people could stand to pass the paper around the table like sane adults.

Except for perhaps Kaa-san and Choza-san, but two does not a paper passing line make.

The Sandaime, with his pipe between his lips and his hands steepled before him, makes a brief "go on" motion.

Maybe he was tired of tax reform, but Shishou isn't. Then again, I'm unclear if Shishou ever got tired of baiting clan heads and making life hard and boring. Baiting people is his bread and butter, because nothing delighted him more on the day to day than seeing someone squirm under the lash of his tongue.

"Is this really the time for such things?" Shishou rumbles. "Hyuga-kun has, for some years now, obfuscated whenever it's come time to talk about his taxes. Might we suspect instead that there is something that you are hiding from us?"

"It concerns The Child."

I could practically hear the capitalization bleed off of the statement like water off a mountain in the spring thaw.

But then, Hyuga Hiashi always seems to bleed a sort of posh that no one else happened to. Not even other clan heads have the same airs as he does, but…

He does remind me of the nobles in the capital, frittering away their lives with the sort of attitude that people of leisure do.

But Hyuga Hiashi is not a man of leisure, despite putting on the airs of a nobleman and owning more money than people probably knew what to do with, a dragon upon his hoard, gathering riches and sharing none.

Everyone's gazes flicker towards me for a moment.

There can only be one "child" of note in the village spoken about in such a way.

But I'm not supposed to know about that.

The last time the topic of conversation had come to The Child, I'd been sent away. This time, no one even says anything to me, much less attempts to send me away.

I wonder what changed.

I wonder what changed, or if it's just that I am so ubiquitous in the Tower now that I seem like part of the staff. I'm not sure I like the connotations of that.

There are more dangerous secrets in the Tower than the identity of one small boy.

There is more that I should not know about that I do.

"The Child's circumstances are the affairs of the Tower." Elder Utatane cuts in. "They do not concern you, Hyuga-kun."

"The Child's circumstances have changed."

Normal people — barring clan heads, the powers that be in the Tower, and the ones who have always known, are not supposed to know about Uzumaki Naruto or his circumstances.

But I know.

I know, and that fills me with ice.

Well, Hyuga Hiashi's certainly doing a good job of tax evasion once again, for the third year running.

Everyone's gotten thoroughly distracted by the plight of one blond child who is…

Currently living with Sensei and Kiho-bachan.

Which, I suddenly realise, is the "too much of a good thing."

Had Sensei or Kiho-bachan cleared the adoption with the Tower?

They couldn't possibly have not cleared it; given who they were, both of them people who worked in Intel connected to the events of the Tower, surely they knew about the consequences if they didn't.

But then, if they had, how did they do it?

I recall there were reasons why Naruto could not be adopted.

I don't remember exactly why, but I remember they were convincing and important.

"The Child's circumstances are the affairs of the Tower." Elder Mitokado Homura says, clearly annoyed. "Hyuga-kun is overstepping his bounds."

"He is now in the hands of the Nara." Hyuga Hiashi says, radiating a faintly smug air. "With all due respect to the Jonin Commander, is it wise to let one clan be in charge of The Child's welfare?"

I hear Shikaku-san's teeth grind. He's been put on the spot, then, though Sensei is his second cousin or thereabouts, so not close, close family, but close enough that it matters.

They all wear the same name.

Clan loyalties die hard, even for clans who do not put loyalty in their clan words like us. The Nara are no different in that regard.

"Gotta problem with me and mine?" When Shikaku-san speaks, it's with a lazy, lazy drawl.

For a moment, I reflect on how I'd never heard him angry before. Shikaku-san is a laid back man at the council table, preferring witticisms and slight barbs, but he has an even keel and a steady temper, not prone to throwing insults on the day to day.

Which is why, despite being equals in intelligence if not in wisdom, Sensei is the notorious Head of Crypt and Shikaku-san is the Jounin Commander.

But when he is, he sounds a lot like Sensei, biting at the bit, words a dare and shoulders thrown back, slathered in the same drawl that most Nara seem to come with.

"I never said anything about the affairs of the Nara." Hiashi does not grin, does not even flinch or change his expression, but the power in the room has tipped.

He's the one holding the cards now. He's wrested this discussion away from taxes.

He's the one holding the cards against everyone else, and that chafes under my skin like a bloody knife.

Someone who would use a child's life and happiness to dodge his tax returns somehow seems to gnaw at my moral conscience more than the Darkness of Shinobi who sits right in front of me.

It shouldn't be that way, but it is.

"I do believe, however, that when The Child first came to the notice of the clans and of the Tower, that we agreed there would be no unilateral action."

I do not know if that is true, having been five years old and change at the time, barely even remotely aware of the wider world around me, head stuffed too full of stories and preconceived notions to make the connections.

But I suspect there had to have been some discussion, some agreement that everyone had come to, however grudgingly. Otherwise, the dust would not have settled.

Chichi is oddly silent.

Saying nothing.

Didn't he say something the last time the topic of Naruto came up?

I don't entirely remember the details, but he'd been so in favor of something being done — Aunt Mikoto is still Naruto's godmother and her rights are being blatantly—

Kiho-bachan had volunteered at the orphanage a bit post her miscarriage because Aunt Mikoto had suggested it.

Sensei and Kiho-bachan adopted Naruto.

Suddenly, Chichi's smug air and silence made sense.

The awkward silence post Hyuga Hiashi's declaration stretches.

"Otter-san," the Sandaime sighs, "fetch The Child's adoption records for Hyuga-san to look at."

An ANBU agent flits down from wherever they'd been earlier, and in half a minute, reappears, a thin manila folder in their grasp.

This is passed over to Hiashi whose smug look slides off of his face upon seeing it, Byakugan suddenly active as his gaze flickers up to Chichi. "You," he spits.

And that is when it all descends into chaos.

By the time the dust had resettled, Chichi on one side of the table and Hyuga Hiashi on the other, the long and short of the matter had come to light.

As it turns out, as the captain of the military police force and the head of one of two clans who had founded Konoha, Chichi has more intricate knowledge of Konoha's actual laws than anyone else in this room, and probably even more than Suzaku-san who likes historical information of a different sort.

And it'd been Chichi who'd found the law that allowed Sensei and Kiho-bachan custody of Naruto, and he who had authorized the adoption.

No wonder he had been so self satisfied.

"I broke no laws," Chichi says whilst looking at the Sandaime, entirely unrepentant. The hard clench of his jaw says that he's dug his teeth into this and is entirely unwilling to let go.

No, he hadn't broken any laws; he made sure of that.

He had twisted the letter of the law until its spirit shattered into pieces and he built it back bigger and shinier.

Unfortunately, the Sandaime looks very caught out by this.

There's an ugly tension in the room, bleeding like a stuck pig, and it catches in my throat.

But Chichi is a bulldog with his teeth stuck in something he wants, and it will take more than ugly tension to reverse it.

The other clan heads are suspiciously silent.

"You have bent and corrupted the duties of your office to seek personal gain," Shishou rumbles. "Such an action is not commendable, Uchiha-kun."

The tension in the room still bleeds.

And bleeds.

And bleeds.

"I sought no personal gain." This comes from Chichi through gritted teeth. "I have had no contact with The Child, and I do not plan to have contact with The Child or attempt to contact him through any means."

And it bleeds.

And bleeds.

"You will be fined," Elder Utatane grumbles, "and then we will send someone to audit your paperwork."

"My paperwork is my duty." There is something else going on here, something public and dark, like a shadow looming the whole council table. "You have no right."

The Station, in so many ways, is the heart of Chichi. His duty.

But also his pride and joy.

He works long hours there for little compensation and even less acclaim, but he has pride in his work there.

He found dignity in the work, even through the indignities — the prejudice and the pettiness, the long hours and little faith.

Having someone else audit him, for however long…

A slap in the face, for all of Konoha to see.

"You have bent the power of your office and your capacity as the Clan Head of the Uchiha to your own purposes." Elder Mitokado narrows his eyes. "By all rights, we should be demanding more than fines and audits for such an egregious overstep of your boundaries."

"I will accept," and here Chichi pauses, still speaking through gritted teeth, "what the Hokage chooses to decide to do in reaction to what I have done." There is rage there, in his dark eyes, fiery and almost frightening. "What I will not accept is someone going to visit a little boy who already has a home and telling him that he must return to the orphanage."

With a long exhale, the Sandaime sets down his pipe, the scent of tobacco smoke filling the room, sharp and pungent.

Across the table, Hyuga Hiashi smirks.

I am struck with the desire to claw it off.

I didn't work at the Station until a day or so after, but the entire building still feels like kindling about to go up in flames.

Everywhere, there are sullen coworkers, muttering angrily to themselves.

San whines and shoves his head under my hand. I pat him twice on the head, about as much comfort as I can muster, and continue onwards.

There's more than one glance cast at me, several none too friendly, but I continue on.

Chichi looks up at me with dark circles under his eyes when I slide myself in after the Triplets.

Typically, however tired he is, there'd be a greeting.

Today, he is silent.

I try not to take it personally as I get to work, filing paperwork in the correct section in the cabinets in preparation for the audits.

But it is harder than it was to ignore the people outside.

We are always the most hurt by the judgement of people closest to us.

"I don't blame you."

It is mid morning when Chichi speaks.

"I know you don't." He is silent because he has nothing to say, not because he thinks I am responsible for what had happened at the Tower.

But it's hard, because I know he does not consider my relationship to Shishou lightly.

And what the Tower is doing, one can reasonably assume that Shishou has some hand in it, for that is Shishou's sphere of influence, besides what else he's been doing across the continent.

And I am tied to Shishou, but also tied to the Station.

I do not know which tie is stronger, and I do not want to find out.

Chichi and I lapse back into silence.

But something has shifted, teetering on the edge of a very steep cliff, and I do not know how to fix it.

"Shishou?" I step into his tower office to find him standing in front of the bookshelf, slowly putting something away.

I catch that it is bound with dark brown leather, that the pages are uneven, a hint of gold and nothing else before he slides it back on the shelf.

"Hana-chan." He sits down at his desk, slower than he did before, dark eyes watching me. "Do you know why I called you into the Tower today?"

I have a good guess.

He'll want to know how much I know about Chichi's actions regarding Naruto's 'adoption.'

But even if I did know anything about it, I wouldn't tell him.

We are bound together, he and I, with our shared sorrows over a man who has been dead for six years and counting now, but that does not mean he does not mean ill will towards all the other people I care about.

It is difficult to conceptualize and even more difficult to understand, but Shimura Danzo is not someone I can trust with other people's secrets.

"You want me to talk to you about Uchiha Fugaku." I take my seat across from him.

This is a game we play, and I play less well than he does, because he is old and ancient and has been playing since before Tou-san and Kaa-san were born.

But this is a game we play, and I'll be damned if I give up the fight so early.

It is one thing to play less well than the expert. It is quite another to refuse to play entirely.

I am prepared for him to ask me questions — ones like "did you know?" and "what did he say to you?" — but I am not prepared for what he does finally settle on asking me.

"Is the boy happy there?" he asks in his characteristically deep rumble, giving nothing away.

The boy.

For another moment, I am reminded of his humanity, rare and aching as it is.

Strange, that the Darkness of Shinobi would think that Uzumaki Naruto is a boy.

But I do not know the right answer to this question.

"He seemed so," I say, hedging my bets.

Naruto had seemed happy there, with two people who could give him the attention and validation he so desperately wanted.

The love he so desperately needed.

The love they so desperately wanted to give.

But does Shishou care about that?

"I suppose it is better than nothing," he says and picks up a report instead. "At least now the Nara will see to his education, which is better than nothing."

I...do not know what to say about that. "Then…" I cast about for a brighter way to word this, but don't find one. "Shishou, you agree with Uchiha Fugaku?"

"No." He passes me the report, something almost amused about the quirk of his lips.

He does not elaborate.

I do not look down. "Does the Sandaime's current plan of action not sow discord?"

It'd been a symbolic slap on the wrist for stepping out of line and causing difficulties for the Tower, but the Uchiha are unlikely to see it that way.

I know Chichi hadn't seen it that way; the hard clench of his jaw and the fire in his eyes had spelled something very different.

What good does it do to punish a loyal man for something you wanted to happen but could not do to begin with?

"And if all clan heads could go around bending the law into pretzels, would the village stand?" His voice is sardonic as the winter's wind. "If it was an improvement from previously, that can be considered a happy accident. Give any clan head an inch, and the others will see it as a chance to take a mile."

But push too far, push a man like Chichi too far…

The case here, however, is closed.

Shishou is not someone that I can push against so easily.

"I suppose not," I say and bow my head over the report, still wondering if there is some way that I can explain.

He is loyal, but his sense of honor and justice are not the same as that of the Tower, and the Uchiha long slighted will not so easily forget or forgive this.

And for the first but not the last, I overthink and say nothing when I should have said something.

On a warm day in August, I am woken before the sunrise by Kiba tapping wildly at my door, Akamaru's nails clicking on the floor right behind him. "Neechan," he whispers furiously loudly. "Neechan, are you awake?"

I nearly pull the pillow over my head.

It is a Monday morning, the first Monday of the month, and I have a rare morning off as something else had come up in the Tower, and Shishou had sent me a note carried by Fu saying that he wouldn't request my presence until Tuesday.

But knowing Kiba, he'd be disappointed if I pretended to be asleep.

"I'm awake," I mumble, turning around and rubbing my eyes groggily.

The door pops open, and both boy and dog hurry in, careful to shut the door behind them.

Kiba's bright eyed and energetic, though he's still dressed in his puppy and ball print pajamas. "Neechan," he says, still in a loud whisper. "Neechan, I have to go to the Academy today."



I sit up, and start shoving my feet into slippers.

Kaa-san had mentioned that she's letting Kiba go to the Academy this fall, didn't she?

And while it is still August and not exactly fall, the Academy is due to start this morning.

Just… not quite this early in the morning.

"Kiba-chan, the Academy doesn't open for classes for another four hours."

It is predawn in August, still almost completely dark outside.

Which means that it is anywhere between four to five AM.

He looks entirely crestfallen at this, as though I'd punctured some great balloon of excitement. "Oh."

I throw on a shirt and pants, shooing him towards the door of his own room. "The Academy starts at nine in the morning, Kiba-chan." But since we are up already… "But since you're up, you're just in time for a nice morning run around the village!"

"Awww, Neechan!" I hear him grumble. "Do I gotta?"

"Yes!" I singsong back at him. "Yes, you gotta."

And if I delight in his huffing and puffing, energy turned down after our four mile morning run, it is only because I assume his Academy teacher would appreciate it, if only for a day.

I've never been to Kusa before.

I've heard of Kusa and the Blood Prison before — no one who ended up under Shimura Danzo's tutelage hasn't — but as for ever going there? No, not really.

I'd heard Tou-san talk about Kusa briefly, during his stint on the front during the war, but that doesn't prepare me for visiting Kusa either.

And yet as I pack my bags to visit Kusa that autumn, before the early frost is supposed to hit, I realize it is the first time I am going abroad by myself.

Well, not really by myself, given that three ROOT Agents will be coming with me, Fu and Tokito, and another ROOT agent who couldn't give me a name that I've started calling Senmei, if only because she has such vivid blue eyes.

The years have passed, and yet I do not manage much better naming than eleven years ago when I named my partners Ichi, Ni, and San, given that Tokito means 'victory climb' and Senmei means 'clear, vivid.' Somehow, they don't seem to mind it, taking it as some sort of strange quirk of mine that I insist on calling them something. Something other than 356 (Tokito) and 427 (Senmei).

Fu had never bothered to introduce himself by number, seemingly perfectly accepting that I called him Fu and that this is just his life now. I have learned to appreciate him a little more over the months we'd spent together, since he knows the inside of the ROOT base like the back of his hand, and could guide me whenever I got lost underground.

But it is the first time I go abroad, with only my own word to rely on, no Sensei or Shishou standing before me.

This time, I have to lead the way.

I don't know how I feel about it, how unprepared and small I feel to be leading the way, without someone else to lean on.

In many ways, I still have small hands, incapable of holding the world or keeping the moving parts of this broken system still.

Visiting the Fire Court had been different, even if I went less than a year ago. Somehow, it had seemed more doable.

As I've gotten older, it doesn't seem accurate to say that I now feel twenty-eight instead of eleven, but I don't feel eleven either.

Age does not seem to follow a linear time frame.

Who I used to be and what she was like have lightened with each passing day, and only Inuzuka Hana remains.

Inuzuka Hana is eleven and seventeen and all the years in between, but exactly no years older.

I'd never really learned how young seventeen seemed until I stood looking at myself in the mirror right before this trip and realized with a start that I'd died for the first time six years older than I am now.

I have so many dreams.

So many hopes and plans for the future.

So much left to get done.

Seventeen seems like a cruel and unusual age to die, standing on the cusp of an adulthood never realized.

And I'd been a child once again.

And still am.

Two lives, and no adulthood has ever draped its cloak about my shoulders.

But in this life, I step forward early.

I had taken a deep breath before the mirror then, picking up my traveling bag on my way out the door.

There is adulthood out there, one waiting for me.

Surely, the second time's the charm.

There is adulthood out there. So many other people have made it to adulthood before me. Surely, there's one waiting out there for me to come get it.

All I have to do is claim it.

The mission to the Blood Prison is technically routine as well. Or, routine enough that Shishou feels confident enough in sending me there by myself as a test.

There is a Konoha shinobi there, someone by the name of Morino Iesada, who had been sent to the Blood Prison by Iwa for some sort of shady business that'd probably been a long term deep cover mission commissioned by the Sandaime, who had publicly disavowed that that was what it was. Because of this, he'd been stuck in the Blood Prison to be kept until things cooled down enough that the two nations who nominally held claim to his life could come to some sort of agreement.

And now, some seven years later — it'd been such small news seven years ago, during the waning death of the war, that I hadn't even heard of it, but then who would've heard of it? Morino Iesada had been a chunin back then, at least officially — the Sandaime asks his oldest friend the Diplomat to take care of it. In "whatever way you feel best, Danzo."

Shishou had looked at it for a bit and decided it'd be alright as a first time mission for me to cut my teeth on.

And so in this way, the life and freedom of a loyal soldier had come to the hands of an eleven year old who hadn't even been a shinobi when he got committed.

I can't help but wonder if he feels insulted. I stand barely under five feet tall and hit double digits a rather short time ago.

No matter what my pedigree, having a very small eleven year old, three ANBU agents and three adolescent wolf dogs coming to fetch you from the prison where you'd languished for seven years is… insulting.

At best.

And indeed, what I can even do about the fact that it feels insulting, since in the best case scenario, he'll travel back with us.

But then, I can only worry about that after I assess his mental state myself. Maybe he'd be so out of it that he wouldn't even notice.

I doubt it though.

If he were that out of it, the Sandaime wouldn't care about fetching him.

"Inuzuka-san," the guard at the entrance of the Blood Prison nods to me. Then again, it's easy to know that I'm Inuzuka. I wear the fangs on my cheeks. He still has to look down to look me in the eye, but since I'm eleven, it burns less than it could.

"I assume the Prison Master will see me?" Mui, master of the Blood Prison, is not...entirely an unknown entity. One of the rare elite shinobi of the Hidden Grass village, with a kekkei genkai of his own, though the Hidden Grass kept that secret close to its proverbial chest.

And since I remember nothing of him, his secret remains as it is, at least from my side. My going has the added benefit that maybe he'd drop his guard enough that Konoha — or at least Shishou — might learn something more of the secretive Hidden Grass and one of its most elite shinobi.

Since I had worked so well on the inner workings of the Fire Court last time I visited anyplace by myself and then had had a nice and polite conversation with the only daughter of the Kazekage when Shishou had brought me to Suna, Shishou had decided to let me try again this time.

As if I could really cause someone to spill their secrets in the space of an afternoon, which is how long I am supposed to be staying.

"The Prison Master is supposed to see someone from Konohagakure no Sato this afternoon, yes."

"Where should I meet him?" Best at least attempt to make a good first impression, even if the first impression will be that Konoha doesn't consider the Blood Prison to be that much of a big deal.

Not for the first time, I wonder if Shishou is purposefully trying to say 'fuck you' to everyone he doesn't want to deal with by sending me.

"The Prison Master is supposed to see someone, yes, but the one he's supposed to see is The Diplomat's Apprentice." The guard looks at me, unimpressed. "Go fetch the apprentice."

I try not to wilt. Given the circumstances, of course Shishou didn't bother reminding the Kusa nin that his apprentice is eleven years old.

"I am the councilor's apprentice." Not that it does me much good.

I am looked over, once.


My hitai-ate is noted, but still, the prison guard doesn't look much impressed. "You expect me to believe that the Diplomat's apprentice is you?"

I take a deep breath, remind myself that I'm short and I don't look like much. "You're not going to get another apprentice of Shimura Danzo unless you want to go dig up a grave."

There's only me, and years ago, there'd been Tou-san too.

That does spook the guard enough to mutter some instructions and let me in.

I sweep past him, the Root Agents and the Triplets on my heels, ready to wait for the Prison Master, for however long it would take for him to come speak to an eleven year old.

"Does the Diplomat intend this as an insult?" The words preface the Prison Master's arrival, but not by much.

The Prison Master is a tall man with dark hair, wearing a dark burgundy and a pair of close toed black boots.

I rise, offer him as polite a bow as I am able, and straighten before he can tell me to rise.

I am Shimura Danzo's apprentice and a titled princess of Fire Country. I don't owe him my pride. I don't owe him my pride, and my age and status as visitor instead of host has already started me on the back foot.

No need to bend any further.

"I believe that Shishou considers this a test of character." While he did intend it to needle the Prison Master and throw things in the faces of Kusa in general, he probably does also consider it a test of character.

The shinobi world is open to all who dare climb the ladder, and Konoha has no shortage of geniuses in her grist mill.

If someone gets so offended that they can't do business with me because I'm eleven years old and short, then they probably would pass up other more important opportunities.

Their loss.

The Prison Master's face doesn't change much, but he offers me the barest hint of a bow. "Spoken like the Diplomat."

I try not to think about what that means. "I suggest we get down to business, then. After all, these things wait for no one."

At my feet, Ichi grumbles something that sounds like "finally," but I'm trying not to think about that so much.

I don't doubt that Shishou will hear everything about this trip from the three behind me, even things that I forget or don't want to tell him.

We are all players in this mummer's farce, so best play it as well as I am able.

"Konoha has written to ask for the release of a man committed by Iwa." Mui steeples his fingers before himself in an attempt to look formidable.

But he isn't, really.

Not compared to Shishou at the council table.

"I assume that Iwa has written asking for him to not be released." It would only be natural.

It would only be expected that the Tsuchikage would prefer that Morino not be released.

And thus, Kusa is now in a bind.

"Seeing as Iwa committed him, it seems only natural that Iwa ought to ask for his release." Not Konoha.

And yet, for me, any return without Morino Iesada would be a categorical failure.

And I don't do failure.

"Seeing as he is a shinobi of Konoha and not of Iwa, it seems as though he ought not to have been committed in the first place."

While each country could commit whoever they wanted to the Blood Prison, it is generally reserved only for high level criminals from one's own country that, for whatever political reason, could not be killed who would be sent to the Blood Prison because one doesn't trust one's own prison security to hold them.

Sending a nominal chunin like Morino Iesada from Konoha to the Blood Prison had been a break in precedent on Iwa's part.

And I intend to use that to lever as much advantage as could be gained in such a situation.

That the Blood Prison had been willing to write to Konoha about the matter says they were ready to reopen the issue.

"And yet, if I release him, Iwa certainly will be displeased."

So he wants to know what Konoha will offer him for the release of this one chunin.

"They all say that the Prison Master is a man of strict moral principle." I rise and wave to Senmei. "I did not expect such a man to care about Iwa's displeasure when it comes to the release of the unjustly imprisoned."

It seems that I was wrong.

I place my bets.

"You must understand," the Prison Master rises as well, "what you are asking for is no easy task."

"I do not believe that Konoha has asked for anything that she is not due." I nod once to the Prison Master. "One of her own is unjustly imprisoned, and she asks for his safe return, as is only right and proper. However, I see that our business here is concluded."

Tokito hands me my coat.

"You drive a hard bargain." The Prison Master frowns, but his aims have changed. "Perhaps," he says, much more concilatorily than he did before, "we may continue to discuss the matter?"

I drive only as hard a bargain as Shishou insists that I do.

But I had expected this result when I stood up.

I pass Tokito my coat once more and sit back down. "I'm listening."

As expected, Morino Iesada is not thrilled to realize that his release had been negotiated by an eleven year old and three ANBU agents who, by virtue of their height, seem to be in their mid to late teens.

I didn't expect anything less.

But it's still just enough to grate under my skin.

I'm back at home, out feeding the puppies and enjoying the sun, when Kakashi swings by, radiating strong disapproval.

"Are you just going to stand there?" I ask, without taking my eyes off of the puppies rolling around on the grass. "Or are you going to explain why you've gotten so upset this time?"

This isn't the greatest way to deal with Kakashi, who is skittish at the best of times, but I haven't really the energy for our usual back and forth. He's here to say something, it's clearly not a happy conversation on his part, and it's likely about me and not something else, so we might as well get it over with.

"You left the village to go to the Blood Prison." The flat tone of his voice makes this sound more ominous than it is.

"Yes." I raise an eyebrow at him. "I fail to see your point?"

"You left the village to go to the Blood Prison with—" he cuts himself off, running a hand through his hair, already frustrated beyond regular words. "Do you know what self preservation is?"

"Do you know what self preservation is?" His attempts to lecture me about the choices I make do bother me.

On one hand, I'm glad he cares.

On the other hand, he's got no right to try and stand on some sort of moral high ground when it comes to self preservation, because the very concept is foreign to him.

Pot taking shots at kettle isn't exactly appreciated today.

"We're not talking about me today." He makes a face when Ichi headbutts him, but is otherwise undeterred. "We're talking about why you thought it was a good idea to go to a foreign country with only three other squad members as backup."

He practically vibrates with tension.

"It was a diplomatic mission, not an assassination attempt. It wasn't like I was in danger."

Even if he only has only one eye visible, I'm aware that that eye smile is a bad, bad sign.


Of course.

"Oh, of course!" he chirps. "I'm sure you were just taking a shopping trip in Kusa! Nothing to worry about ever! Didn't need to bring along your favorite ANBU, of course!"

"Are you blaming me for going to Kusa without you?" The thought is almost preposterous. "I didn't just decide this was a good idea, Kakashi. It was assigned to me." It wasn't like I had my pick of people to bring with me. Shishou had decided that.

Just like he had decided that the mission to Kusa would be my responsibility.

It's not like I can just refuse.

He slumps. "Can't you make yourself less attractive to danger?"

"I think," and here, I glance back up at his face, which seems more resigned than angry, "I missed the boat on that one a few years back when I decided I wanted to be a shinobi."

I'm resigned to it as well.

A.N. Hana goes on a trip to Kusa, there are things afoot between clans at home, Kiba starts school at the Academy, and Kakashi shows up to grouse.

I've been bogged down with the coming of midterm season and job hunting for this summer. (I have an interview at a lab this coming week! I'm so excited. REEEEEE) BUT, I've also been writing a ton this past month, which is not unusual because I always seem to get more productive when I'm stressed. There's a lot I'm excited to share with you all in the near future, though I do know I will be updating a fic next week, though unclear as of right now about the week after.

I want to thank you all for being wonderful and kind readers, and for being so patient while I update other fics and occasionally stopping by to read them as well. You all are lovely. I've been meaning to ask this for a while given that it's such a huge project, but do any of you prefer to read on ao3? I've been updating more recent works over there as well, but I've been kind of waffling back and forth on transferring Bloodless over just because of how many chapters there are, and would love any thoughts you guys have on it!

Again, thank you all so much.

~Tav (Leaf)