BONUS #30:


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The Konoha General Hospital

"He's not going to die; stop freaking out." Tsunade lifted a glowing green palm to Hiashi Hyuga's face – or what was left of it. All the blood should have scared her – except that the fist-shaped sinkhole in his face was too funny to ignore. Maybe she was finally getting better. Inoichi Yamanaka had informed her that things like phobias took a while to disappear, and people rarely mustered up the willpower to overcome them in an instant.

Hanabi Hyuga pulled herself up over the side of the hospital bed. "Will he be okay?"

"No brain damage except for a minor concussion; it's just the front of his face that's been obliterated. That will take a bit longer to fix. He'll look a little…lumpy in the meantime." She frowned, and stooped over to pick a patch of splinters out from a wound on Hiashi Hyuga's upper lip. It glinted in the light – laminated, and waxed over. Probably a piece of furniture or floorboard. "But, may I ask, how did he get these injuries?"

Furniture or floorboard – it didn't matter which. The fact that either of those things had been splintered to pieces was frightening enough. From the patches of pulsing chakra still dancing around his broken face, Tsunade could tell that he had been forced to expel a great deal of power through his tenketsu to soften the blow somewhat. If Hiashi Hyuga had been any less of a ninja –if he hadn't managed to call up that much chakra, or if he hadn't had fast enough reactions to be able to create that defensive pillow around his head in time – he would have suffered a lot worse than a minor concussion.

Maybe a piece of his own skull going through his brain…

"Hinata hit him," Hanabi Hyuga said.

Wait – what?

Hinata, as in the "disappointing" daughter? The one that was supposed to be super shy and quiet all the time?

Tsunade looked skeptically at her patient's smashed face. "She…hit him? As in, the Gentle Fist, hit him? Really?" The Gentle Fist did internal injuries, harder to spot and harder to heal. Not…whatever this was.

"No. It was not the Gentle Fist. She just…punched him," Neji Hyuga said slowly.

Hanabi chewed her lip. "To be fair, he did say that the first person unconscious…of course, he's the clan head, and he can't be branded, even if he did lose face." She looked down. "Technically, I'm supposed to be, too, but since Hinata's gone

So she snapped. The girl finally snapped. Tsunade had been wondering when.

"Thank you, Neji, Hanabi. You may go home." Tsunade turned back to her patient. "I know you're awake, Hiashi. I've already finished healing your face. Stop pretending."

Hiashi grunted.

"What the hell happened to that girl?" Tsunade asked.

Hiashi grunted again.

"Hyuga…" Tsunade warned.

"I will not deny respect for strength when I see it," he acknowledged grudgingly, completely avoiding the question. "Now she is gone and not my problem anymore."

Tsunade didn't even have to search his blank eyes for that obvious lie. "Really."

Hiashi Hyuga did not answer.

"The Hyuga clan is the most powerful and numerous clan in Konoha," Tsunade snapped. "If there is any instability, the Hokage will need to know. I'm not an idiot, Hiashi; I grew up in a powerful clan too. To allow her to leave without consequence will no doubt fracture the clan, but since she's clearly proven herself strong enough to be heir, punishing her will also make you seem weak and insecure."

"Do you think I don't know that?" he growled. "Yes, she defeated me. I cannot lie about that. But she did not use the Gentle Fist. It goes against the Hyuga way – "

"Neji Hyuga was defeated with genjutsu in the Chunin exam finals. I'd say the Hyuga way needs a bit of restructuring," Tsunade muttered under her breath.

"Watch your tongue, woman."

A shame Hinata had only smashed his nose and not his jaw. As it was, however, Hiashi Hyuga was perfectly capable of forcing her to listen to him talk. "Or what?"

"The weight of your grandfather's name recedes every day – "

"I don't give a damn about the weight of my grandfather's name. The strength of my fist is more than enough for any of you pansies. Take me on. I dare you." Tsunade slammed the bedside tray down with unnecessary force. Hiashi Hyuga remained silent. "That's what I thought."

She was about to leave the room when Hiashi Hyuga spoke again. "If I let her go, I cannot win; if I punish her, I cannot win. But hypothetically, if someone were to interfere in such a way that I would not have to make a choice in the first place…"

Tsunade turned around and put her hands on her hips. "Really? You're really suggesting this?"

"That is the only thing I can think of that can be reasonably implemented in time." He closed his eyes. "An unmarked Hyuga alone in the world is a dangerous thing, and there is nothing more I can do for her."

It had taken an inordinate amount of effort, but Hiashi was finally able to chase the damned Senju woman out. He hated hearing her talk, because her words always made too much sense. Sense was about the last thing he wanted right now. All he wanted to do was lie there and stew in his own miserable failures.

Too much like her mother, Hiashi thought. Always her mother's daughter. Never mine.

Perhaps that was why he preferred Hanabi. Perhaps that was why he and Hinata would never see eye-to-eye.

He did not understand her. He only wanted the best for her. Only wished for her to survive in this world of theirs. Her mother had been a kind woman, and it had not saved her. For shinobi, strength was the only language, the only payment. Her lack of self-assertion would get her killed, both on the battlefield and within this pit of vipers that was Konoha.

The world was not safe. Not even within the walls of Konoha.

He had tried so hard to make her see that. But when he pushed her to become stronger, she gave up on him. And when he gave up on her, she pushed herself – in the completely wrong direction. Where had she come from? What was she, if not a Hyuga?

It mattered not now. She was out of his control. He had already done what he could, to prevent the clan elders from ordering her arrested and branded with the Curse Seal. His only task now was to make sure the clan remained stable. He was not one to wish death on others, and so he did not wish death upon Hinata. But if death came to her, then he no longer had any pretense of power to prevent it, for he was no longer her father.

So Hiashi Hyuga shut himself off from his wife's daughter (for he was not her father, no longer her father, perhaps had never even been her father, even though he had undoubtedly fathered her) and hoped that severing all physical ties would be enough to sever the emotional ones as well.


The Head Secretary looked as Naruto had expected, in an unexpected way. He was a rotund, bepectacled man, a result of too much time hunched over a desk with a pen in one hand and a snack in the other instead of exercising. But he didn't look very much like the most powerful man in the country. Or, as the fancy people at court would say, there was something extremely undignified in death that ill-befitted a man of his stature.

That didn't surprise Naruto much. He had come to learn that everyone was the same in death.

"Definitely shinobi work this time," Shikamaru said, taking care to avoid the wet splotches on the carpet. He couldn't tell if it was blood or some other liquid, because the whole thing was already dyed a dark red. "But why? Lady Arakawa wanted him gone; that much is certain, but she wouldn't have gone through the trouble to demand Konoha shinobi if she could get rid of him this way. Only the Daimyo himself could have ordered this, but the Head Secretary is too necessary to the country to execute without absolute proof of wrongdoing. Whether or not it's related to Lord Isayama's suicide, this is the work of a non-Konoha faction."

"Iwa," Jiraiya muttered.


Jiraiya handed Naruto the tiny torn strip of thick maroon-colored cloth the Hyuga guy had picked up. "No other village makes its uniforms in this color. We use dark colors, same as Suna and Kiri, and Kumo nin wear grey."

The Inuzuka held it up to his nose. "Well, it's definitely Earth Country material."

Naruto felt a shiver run up his arms as his brain went through the possibilities. In his time with Shikamaru, his friend had always taught him to think ahead. "Does this mean we're going to war now, with Iwa?" he asked. He had always wanted attention, and glory, and cool missions. Not war, though. Never war. Never ever.

"War?" said Shikamaru. "Yes. Now? Hopefully not; the Hokage should be able to buy us another year at least, if he plays his cards right. With Iwa? Not necessarily. Although Konoha and Iwa do invariably find themselves on opposite sides in just about any given conflict, I doubt they were the ones who started this. Which is rare, as far as conspiracies in the shinobi world go."

"What makes you say that?" asked Anko.

Shikamaru rolled his eyes. "Come on, really? A very heavily-guarded, high-ranking official assassinated without a sound? How the hell do such high trained, dangerously skilled people neglect to clean up after themselves? And don't tell me they left in a hurry because they weren't expecting the presence of Konoha nin. Iwa nin have a reputation for being brutish and backstabbing, not stupid. Plus, he's been dead for hours. Plenty of time to dispose of something like that. Also? These people were silently killed – no sign of a struggle; these guys were fast and did their job well. Look how thick the cut on this cloth is. How did such sturdy material, designed to withstand rough, rocky terrain, just randomly detach itself like this?"

Naruto wasn't even surprised anymore. "You think someone else framed Iwa."

"A lot of people would have something to gain if Konoha and Iwa went to war," Jiraiya said. "Both outside and inside the village," he whispered darkly. "In all honesty, the five villages have been due for a conflict for quite some time. Only, someone's trying to accelerate it along." He stood up. "This has to get back to the Hokage. Fast. Another tracker team will be needed. This could be S-rank. And tell him we suspect Akatsuki involvement."

Oh, joy. They were only supposed to be here for a B-rank cover-up. How did it turn into multiple deaths and two conspiracies so quickly? A tiny, immature part of Naruto was excited that he was finally getting to participate in such an awesome, real shinobi mission…but that was quickly squashed out by the amount of responsibility and stress implicated by the new murders. The kid in him wanted to go out and catch bad guys, but his brain told him there was more to it than that. What would become of them, after said "bad guys" were caught?

This is what you get for trying to think ahead, Naruto told himself. You open up a bunch of new problems on top of the ones you already have to deal with. Naruto stole a glance at Shikamaru, who was still staring at the corpse, deep in thought. This must have been what his teammate dealt with on a daily basis. Were all super-smart people stuck like this? Constantly making plans about things yet to come because they were unable to stifle their own curiosity?

Gods, that would suck. The more you knew, the more you worried. No wonder they said that ignorance was bliss. Then again, being ignorant could end in sorrow, too.

Shikamaru quickly glanced up. "Are you sure it's Akatsuki?"

"Or one of the foreign villages," said Jiraiya. "But definitely not us, because we're not stupid enough to alienate our best sponsors by assassinating the Daimyo's closest advisor and risking ending up like another Suna. Right?"

Shikamaru hesitated, and then the cloud over his eyes disappeared. "…Right. Of course. It's definitely Akatsuki or a foreign village, and not someone associated with Konoha in any way," he repeated robotically.

"But what about Lady Arakawa?" Ino asked.

"She'll have to content herself with knowing the man is dead," Shikamaru said. "Her reaction to all of this should be enlightening, to say the least. Although…"

He trailed off and sat in silence. Wonderful. He was having another one of his "idea moments".

Anko walked over to them. "Something wrong?"

"Anko…besides the height of the candle, could we also use poison concentration to figure out how long it's been burning?" Shikamaru asked.

She thought about that. "Yes, I suppose. Why?"

Shikamaru shrugged. "I just want to double-check something."

"I don't know if we can use the corpse; it might throw off our calculations. And the bathroom he died in has been vented, so no go on that either. We'd need a different absorber," Anko said.

"We took a bunch of things from the bathroom earlier and stored them in plastic baggies," Ino mentioned. "Sponges, potted plants, and so on. Surely one of them could work."

"Yes, yes, that might work," Anko murmured. "If you've isolated them in nonpermeable bags then it might work. I'll go take a look at that. Is this important, Shikamaru?"

He shrugged. "It could be."

Ino frowned at the vapor chamber she and Anko had set up. "This doesn't make sense. Did we do something wrong? Is air escaping from here somehow?"

"The indicators show no trace of the poison leaving the box, so no," said Anko.

"But no matter what we do, we're only getting twenty minutes' worth of poison from all of these samples, not an hour. Even if we had experimental error, that's still a ridiculously massive margin," said Ino. "And yet the candle height shows that it was burning for at least that long. Could they have leaked…? But all of them, in equal amounts? How is that possible? We're missing something, here…"

She turned to Shikamaru questioningly, wondering what he was planning. Actually, she was wondering what everyone was planning. What had started as a simple mission had exploded into a tangled web involving, now, five teams. Team 7 and Anko's team, still on the case of Lord Isayama. Two more ANBU teams tracking down the supposed Iwa nin (or whoever it was) that had killed the Head Secretary. And Yamato's team, once guarding Lady Arakawa, now headed back to the capital at Shikamaru's request.

This was all so stupidly complicated.

Shikamaru made no comment. Naruto, wearing gloves and a mask this time, tentatively poked at one of the unburnt candles with a kunai.

A kunai –

"If a candle was cut to be shorter…like, with a knife…you could make it look like it burned for longer, even though it didn't…" She turned to Shikamaru. "You think someone manually messed with the candle height."

"I had my suspicions that everything fell into place too perfectly," Shikamaru confessed. "I didn't want them to interfere with your experiments, however. In case I was looking into things too deeply, I wanted to see if someone else could come up with the same conclusion on their own."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, for starters…if I wanted someone dead, I wouldn't poison a gift basket that an entire hallway's worth of servants saw came from me," said Shikamaru. "I don't know why the Head Secretary is dead. I don't know if it even has anything to do with this particular death, come to think of it. But I do know that if we want to solve this case, we have to find out what exactly was in the letter that drove Lady Arakawa to take action against the Head Secretary."

"Conveniently, one of two people who know the answer are dead," said Jiraiya. "That's why you chose to recall Yamato's team."

"Hopefully both Lady Arakawa's team and the ANBU teams make it back safely," Shikamaru said. "We're either looking at one plot or two. And they could be connected, or not at all. Maybe some other enemy was already planning the demise of the Head Secretary, and it was coincidence that he died the same day we went to arrest him. Or maybe they took advantage of us being here to kill him. Or maybe it's the mysterious letter that ties Lady Arakawa, Lord Isayama, and the Head Secretary together. We won't know until they get back."

"So…the poisoned candles?" Naruto said.

The question was, what did they want to believe. Either both Anko and Ino, in all their experience, was making a very stupid mistake that was giving them such massive errors in their time measurements, or someone had tampered with the candles, knowing that they could be used to help with timing.

…As per Lady Arakawa's earlier suggestion.

The woman knew more than she was letting on.

"Lord Isayama didn't hit a major artery when he slit his wrists," Shikamaru explained. "He was bleeding out very, very slowly. No awkward bloodstains or splashes to indicate he moved from the tub after he cut himself, meaning someone else entered the room and messed with those candles as he was dying."

Ino immediately picked up on Shikamaru's train of thought, as did Naruto. She wasn't as good as coming up with things on her own, but given the right hints she could come to the same conclusion as Shikamaru. They were getting better at connecting their thinking lately, even if their specialized skills were starting to take them down individual paths.

Lord Isayama, and a mystery person. Perhaps both of them knew the candle was poisoned, and this was a suicide pact. If the slit wrists didn't go as planned, the accomplice would light the candles and give him a faster death. Or perhaps neither knew – but that was unlikely, because whoever walked in on all that blood would have screamed and gone to report it. No, whoever lit the candle intended to kill Lord Isayama – with or without his knowledge. And their resident Inuzuka had informed them that the only other people that had entered the bathroom today were the guards on duty…or Lady Arakawa.

That was the sloppiest part of the suicide. Murder. Whatever. A proper killer would try to get rid of the evidence, including the candles. Why leave them out there where anyone could pick them up and reveal the poison, like Naruto had? Why increase their risk of revealing the truth and getting caught so highly?

"Because they wanted someone to find it," Shikamaru declared. "Because they wanted to get caught. Because this wasn't a murder dressed up as a suicide – this was a suicide dressed up as a murder. Oh, hello, Lady Arakawa. So nice of you to join us."

Lady Arakawa was naturally incredibly upset at her current treatment. "What are you doing?" she snapped. "Why have you brought me back here? The Head Secretary means to kill me, and here you are playing your little games – "

"Want to hear a hypothetical story, Lady Arakawa?" I asked. Before she could answer, I decided to pull an Ino and said, "What am I talking about? Of course you do."

"Excuse me – "

"Once upon a time, there were two uneasy allies. We'll call them A and B. Now, A has been thinking of replacing B for awhile. But he can't let B walk away with all that information, so the logical thing would be to kill her. Right?"

"Right," she said grudgingly, probably wondering where I was going with this and how long it was going to take.

"So A gives her this gift basket full of poisoned goods. Perhaps a bar of soap or a piece of candy would do the trick. She passes away without any fanfare, and he's free to do what he likes for the rest of his days.

"Unfortunately, B's son – we'll call him C – gets into the gift basket before she does. He borrows a candle, lights it, slits his wrists in the tub, and dies. And now, A is in a great deal of trouble. This is what we're supposed to believe."

Lady Arakawa narrowed her eyes. "It's what happened!"

I put my hand on my chin. "But this is a hypothetical story."

Her mouth twisted into an ugly frown. "We both know that's not true."

"The hypothetical part, or the story part?" I asked. "Because even though the height of the candle suggests it was burning for an hour, poison concentrations of not one, but several objects from the site of death indicate it couldn't have burned for more than twenty minutes. You told us you put out the candle as soon as you and the guards walked into the room, and the guards confirmed this. Therefore, the candle started burning after Lord Isayama stepped into the tub.

"We know Lord Isayama never stepped out of the tub after his attempted suicide. That means someone else walked into the room after he slit his wrists, and lit the poisoned candle. Someone who deliberately shortened the height of the candle before lighting it, to make it look like it was burning for longer than it actually was."

She remained silent.

I smiled. "How about another hypothetical story?"

"I would rather not – "

"Of course you want to hear it. Fine. We'll start over with A and B. Now, A has been thinking of replacing B for awhile. But he can't let B walk away with all that information, so the logical thing would be to kill her. Right?"

She was silent.

"Right?" I pressed.

Lady Arakawa looked down. "Right," she muttered.

"But…B also knows this. It's practically a given, in a place like this, that people who outlive their usefulness don't outlive it for very long. So…B prepares a preemptive strike, to get rid of A before he can get rid of her.

"So one day, when her son, C, attempts suicide, instead of trying to save him like all those other times, she puts him out of his misery by euthanizing him. Maybe she really did love him too much; I didn't know him when he was alive so I wouldn't be able to judge the extent of his depression. Or maybe, she was trying to get rid of her worthless suicidal son so that she could take control of his inheritance, possibly using it as leverage for a potential powerful remarriage. I won't go into the moral arguments of an assisted suicide, but even without that, B is still a murderer."

Not a murder disguised as suicide. A poorly researched, attempted suicide turned into a murder disguised as another murder by someone else.

What the hell.

"And, of course, all the evidence is already set up – from everything else in that gift basket poisoned ahead of time, to the servants willing to testify, to the manually shortened candle used to throw off our timing estimations…she had an answer for everything. The Head Secretary's incarceration was practically a given. He's about to go off to the chopping block, and she's won."

"And the shinobi hired have no proof to the contrary," she said coldly, "except for a few trinkets that might just have absorbed poison differently. Too bad."

"Perhaps not," I said, "but it does cause enough doubt to warrant an interrogation. My teammate is a Yamanaka, Lady Arakawa. Surely you know what that means?"

She did know. Her impassive exterior shattered into abject terror. So I was right, then. Everything was her doing. But she was clever; she had an answer for everything, and we have no evidence apart from a mismatched time of death. Had we been any other village, without the Yamanaka clan, she could have gotten away with it.

A solemn chill washed over me. Normally, solving half of such a convoluted mystery would have given me some measure of satisfaction. But I felt no joy in informing Lady Arakawa that there was no way out of this. "By all laws, this warrants an execution."

She fell to her knees.

"Please," she whispered. "He would have killed me anyway. Maybe not with the gift basket, but you know he would have – "

"You still killed someone," I said, signaling for Jiraiya and Naruto to double-check the perimeter one last time before Lady Arakawa began her confession. "You killed your own son and framed an innocent man – well, not so innocent, I'm sure, given his high rank and position, but innocent of this particular crime. Why should I spare your life?"

"Because I can help you," she begged. "I know things! Just let me live; I'll tell you everything you need to know – more! The Head Secretary and I used to have a deal! I gave him information, and he would give me money and legal aid…but then one of my spies – er, maids – informed me that he was going to replace me with real shinobi! How can I compete with that? I knew too much for him to let me live – "

"So you acted first, hoping to take him out in a preemptive strike. Your son was dying anyway and you took advantage of his death to frame another man for murder." I shook my head. Even if I was willing to team up with someone like that, she wasn't exactly the type of person I wanted to attach myself to. How did she ever think she could get away with such a massively complicated plan that hinged upon so many things outside of her control? "Well, I hope you're pleased with yourself, because the Head Secretary is now dead, just like you always wanted."

She froze. "Executed? Already?"

"No. He was also murdered. Only a few hours ago. I had you recalled for questioning, but I suppose you had nothing to do with that."

Lady Arakawa shook her head. "I did not. Assassinations are expensive."

"I imagine an army of shinobi spies must be even more so," I said. "Just how was he planning to pay for them?"

Ino passed me a memory from Lady Arakawa. A maid was whispering in her ear.

"Not money, but votes."