A/N: Sorry about the slow update. Had a rough few weeks (months, actually). To make it up to you guys, the holidays are getting close so hopefully I'll be able to rebuild my update buffer then. Shooting for getting the next chapter out by next week to make up for this month-long dry spell.

By the way, I know this arc is seemingly getting complex, so remember that Shikamaru isn't operating with all possible information. The truth is fairly simple, and Shikamaru's overcomplicating because he is trying to account for all possibilities. To help you out, I've made a quick chart which I plan to post next update.


BONUS #31

Poison

[www] fanfiction [dotnet] /topic/185326/157261502/1/Bonus-31-Poison-Lore


Tanyu

The Head Secretary. Conversing with shinobi. To the point where his resident spymaster felt so threatened that she had tried to get him killed. Now, he was permanently silenced, and the people asking for his power were still unknown.

This could mean one of two things.

One, Konoha really was involved in this, and we had simply been too low in the chain of command to know, either through Jiraiya, or through my own dalliances in the secure mission room. Perhaps this was an emergency silencing, or punishment for breaking a contract, and any moment now ANBU would be dropping from the ceilings to escort us to more secure premises. In this case, the best choice of action would be to get the hell out of here ASAP and pretend I didn't know anything.

Or two, there were third-party ninja involved. A kill like this from non-Konoha nin would make more sense, because surely our ANBU would have at least tried to warn Jiraiya. Waiting until everyone returned to home base to explain why two missions crossed roads was just asking for collisions. Then, the best choice of action would be to let the Hokage know that we knew about these…ninja.

To me, the most obvious answer was, once again, Danzo Shimura, which would satisfy both the case of a Konoha shinobi while also being a third party. And it would also explain how the expenses could be so well-hidden.

Except, I wasn't supposed to know about him in the first place.

(Then there was also the matter of how I was actually completely and utterly wrong, but that was for a different time.)

Fuck, I thought. I came here to make allies and gather blackmail, not accidentally discover a possible consipiracy!

My only hope now was to lie low and act like I was of above-average intelligence. Most shinobi in Konoha knew that I was smart, so I couldn't pull off the same clueless act Naruto normally did, but, as my father had taught me, that didn't mean I had to show everyone exactly how smart I was. All I had to do was invent the most logical but wrong conclusion I could have drawn in this situation. Easy.

(You know how I said I was completely and utterly wrong? I mean it. I was so wrong, that I was actually wrong about being wrong.)

(And if you're confused, don't worry. So was I.)

(I'll explain everything later; promise.)

Anyway, I took a deep breath, and proclaimed quite loudly, "Well, obviously, the Akatsuki had something to do with it."

"The Akatsuki?" Naruto asked, confused at my sudden topic change. "But why would they want to kill the Head Secretary?"

"They probably had nothing against him personally. But anything that would weaken the villages and drive them to war with each other would benefit them." The lie came easily to me, made even more easy by the fact that in any other circumstance, it would be the truth.

"Oh. That makes sense," said Naruto.

I wondered when everything would come tumbling down on me.

I'll explain as much of the truth as I can to Naruto and Ino later, I promised myself. Just as soon as we clean up this ridiculous mess.

I wondered how much Jiraiya knew.

"What are we going to do with her, though?" Naruto said, pointing to Lady Arakawa.

I shrugged. "I mean, murder and framing someone else for murder is a capital crime." I looked at Lady Arakawa. "Theoretically, however, someone could avoid the regular humiliation and pain that comes with a public beheading. Or however they execute people here." Konoha's style was more of making people disappear mysteriously in the night. "It's not impossible for a grieving mother to put her depressed son out of his misery, and then kill herself out of guilt before anyone could question her."

Lady Arakawa burst into tears. Ino crossed her arms. "Shikamaru…"

"I'm not saying she has to," I protested. "But what choice do we have? It's not like we can let her get away with this. If we turn her over to the Daimyo's guards, they'll definitely kill her, publicly and painfully. That is, if they don't decide that she needs more questioning than we already gave her first."

She froze, and then quietly retreated to her chambers with a poisoned sweet from the pink basket in her hand, still guarded by Yamato's team.

We heard some crying, and then silence.

I didn't know if I should have felt bad or not. Catching her had been my duty in the first place, and it wasn't as if I personally knew her. She had brought this upon herself, thinking what she had tried to do was okay.

Then there was also the fact that she knew Konoha nin were potentially involved in the Head Secretary's murder, and as a Konoha nin myself I couldn't let her run away and tell the Daimyo about this in exchange for clemency. Not if I didn't want us to turn into another Suna.

"What about the Head Secretary?" Naruto asked.

Jiraiya paced about on the floor. "Right. Here's what's going on the official report. Lord Isayama attempted suicide, and was found by his mother. She couldn't bear to see him in pain, and, in an emotionally-charged poor decision, decided to put him out of his misery. After realizing what she had done, Lady Arakawa killed herself out of guilt. The Head Secretary himself was killed in an entirely isolated incident, where some third party, most likely the Akatsuki, attempted to drive Iwa and Konoha to war. As far as we're concerned, that's what happened, and no one knows anything else at all. No shinobi were involved, except for the Akatsuki. Is that understood?" Jiraiya asked.

Naruto started. "But – "

"Naruto, please, just say yes," Jiraiya snapped. "I'll take care of it."

"But the Hokage – "

"Naruto. I will personally tell him the truth. The paper reports are for everyone else. Right now, your orders are to keep yourselves above suspicion. Is that understood?"

Naruto hung his head. "I understand."

Jiraiya ruffled his hair. "I'll let the Hokage know; don't worry."

There was protest in his posture, however, and I knew that for him, this wasn't over. Same as me. Of course it wasn't over. Naruto wouldn't give up so easily. But he was better at controlling his timing now, learning to put his attacks where his opponents would be weakest and waiting for the right time and place to ask his armor-piercing questions, rather than throwing barrage after barrage of force right away.

I knew why Jiraiya was doing this. Whether the Hokage had personally authorized this, to get the village more influence, or whether someone else (Danzo) had done this for personal gain, we shouldn't have known about it. There could be trouble, if we revealed our hand so quickly, both from the village and from the Daimyo, who was expecting Konoha nin to work with and not against him. Jiraiya was offering to probe for himself, first.

But I had no doubt that the Daimyo would buy any story we gave him if we just presented it properly, and meanwhile, my friendship with Izumo and Kotetsu ensured that any report we wrote on this would be quickly filed away with little scrutiny.

Funny, how close the Head Secretary had come to getting away with it. If Lady Arakawa hadn't come up with her half-baked "woman scorned" revenge scheme we would have never found out about this in the first place. In a way, we had her to thank for our knowledge

"You'll tell us how it turns out, right?" I asked Jiraiya.

"When I can."

Now the only person we had left to take care of was the informant that had told Lady Arakawa of the "betrayal" in the first place. I closed my eyes and reviewed the memory Ino had passed on to me. This time, instead of reading the letter, I concentrated on the face of the maid, instead.

It was the Butterfly.


Konoha

As soon as the high from her newfound freedom had worn off – which was about a minute – Hinata was back to being terrified.

Oh, gods above, what had she been thinking? How idiotic was she, to think that something like that would work? She was pretty sure that in about thirty seconds, Hyuga clan members would be swarming her, to drag her back to the clan compound and brand her for her dishonor to the clan head. There was nowhere she could run or hide, not with the power and influence of the Hyuga clan.

The Byakugan would root her out of any alleyway or crate; the clan itself would force any lesser clan to turn her over. Not even Choji or Sasuke could interfere in Hyuga matters; it was in the rules of Konoha that a major clan had utmost authority over its own members. And even if that law wasn't there, it still wouldn't work. The Akimichi were a noble clan, but they were nothing compared to the Hyuga. And while once upon a time the Uchiha outranked the Hyuga, that was the past. Sasuke was a boy barely older than she was, with no clansmen to back him up. The Hokage himself could not tell the Hyuga clan how to run itself, or else this business with the Cursed Seal would have been done with a long time ago.

A shadow fell over her. So this was it. They were here at last.

But the voice that spoke was not anyone in her family.

"Heard you got yourself into a spot of trouble, kid."

She looked up, and paled. "Tsunade-sama," she said quickly, getting to her feet.

"Just so you know, I healed your father without any problems. More importantly, where'd you learn to punch like that?"

Hinata could only stare, mouth hanging slightly open. What was she getting at?

"I – I don't know – "

"So you taught yourself?"

"I don't know? I just got mad, and then I – "

"So you never even practiced. It just came naturally to you."

Hinata bit her lipped and nodded.

And then Tsunade's grin turned feral.

"How would you like to become my apprentice?"

What.

"Cat got your tongue, girl? I asked you a question."

Tsunade. This was Tsunade of the Sannin. And she was talking to her. Her, Hinata Hyuga, the disgrace to her clan. Being offered an apprenticeship under the most powerful kunoichi in the Five Elemental Nations.

What was happening to her? One moment, she had been going over what she might say to Choji's parents to allow her to stay with them while she figured out what to do, and the next, one of the Sandaime Hokage's students was offering her a job…

"Yes! – I mean, yes. Of course."

"Well, that's the easy part over with. Here's a harder question – what do you think you'll accomplish learning under me? What do you want to accomplish?" Tsunade stopped and looked at her expectantly.

What was she going to say? Hinata was almost afraid to open her mouth. It was – she couldn't speak. What if she said something so unbelievably stupid that Tsunade changed her opinion of her and didn't take her on at all –

No. Not saying anything was the stupid choice. Tsunade-sama was asking her and expecting an answer in return. Nothing was more telling than cowardice.

"I want…something besides the Clan. I want something other than the Gentle Fist. I want to use the Byakugan for its true intended purpose – I want to be known as Hinata – I want to be somebody, and not just another Hyuga! But most of all, I want to be able to help people without being held back by a house built on slavery!"

Tsunade smiled at her. "You pass. Welcome aboard."

Hinata frowned. "…This – was this supposed to – to be a test?"

"It was a test to see if you would say anything at all," Tsunade grinned. "I'm glad to see you're no longer silent. Come on, kid; let's go. We've got work to do."


Kakashi's Hiding-From-Gai-Spot #59

"Dammit, sensei," Kakashi mumbled. The papers scattered across the table and fluttered to the ground. In the back of his mind, he was vaguely aware of the total mess he must have looked like right now.

It wasn't that the work was impossible, necessarily. He definitely was in a better position to decode Minato-sensei's notes, compared to Jiraiya. It was hard to concentrate, though, when his team was a world away, facing some unknown danger. If anything happened, he'd be powerless to help.

You're still powerless here, he reminded himself. You're not going to change anything by moping. Succeed in your mission, prove that you are ready, and only then can you rejoin your students in the field.

Most people only ever thought of one sealing language in existence – the standard script of Uzushiogakure, written in the calligraphy that made up their daily language.

But Minato-sensei, who was very fond of discussing the theoretical – why rely on just one sealing script? Why not make up your own? At the time, Kakashi had snorted in disbelief. Reinventing something that was never broken seemed like a complete waste of time, considering that shinobi didn't have a lot of time to spare. After listening to some of what Minato-sensei had to say, however, he had to admit it was interesting.

Through some extremely complex, yet elegantly simple proofs, Minato-sensei had shown him that the full functionality of Uzushiogakure's standard script could be replicated perfectly as long as they followed a few basic rules, which all summarized the ability to mold and combine chakra in a reliable manner. Because that was a sealing language at its heart, really. Molding and combining chakra on an external surface instead of inside the body, as with hand seals.

The reason why different "languages" could and should be used, Minato-sensei had then told him, was because certain things could be expressed more easily than others depending on what they were. For example, numbers could be represented in words or in figures, but the latter was definitely cleaner even though they both meant the same thing.

The Uzushiogakure script worked well for trapping things in scrolls and sealing away bijuu in people, as the complexities of calligraphy served as natural passcode-operated gates. When it came to the Hiraishin, and probably other space-time ninjutsu, however, Minato-sensei's script was far superior. Mathematical structuring not only made a naturally hazardous endeavor much safer, but also reduced chakra consumption to a level fit for repeated human use.

Whereas Tobirama's method with the standard script could only work for someone with a ton of chakra, or multiple people working together (the reason why the Hokage guard had to work in teams of at least three to transport someone), Minato-sensei could use his technique hundreds of times without breaking a sweat.

He knew, if he could just match up those basic rules to the most repetitive sections of Minato-sensei's work, he could reverse-engineer the entire language. Sadly, for all of their reputation and skills as thorough teachers and organizers, both Tobirama Senju and Minato Namikaze seemed very fond of skipping steps on paper. As in, going from point A to point D without explaining where points B and C went.

Funny, seeing as that was the entire…purpose…of teleportation…

The gods of irony must be rolling on the floor.


The REAL Village Hidden in the Mist

The nice thing about the more powerful villages, Mei thought, was that they were so egocentric. Bad if you had to deal with them directly; good if you wanted to use them. Especially good if you wanted to use them against each other while remaining unnoticed yourself. Not being taken seriously for a number of things – such as not having some fancy nickname, or having a mediocre bounty in the international Bingo Books at best, or being from a backwater village that everyone liked to forget about (literally) – suited her purposes quite well, for the time being.

Yagura wore the robes and hat of the Mizukage, but only an idiot would think that he was the one actually calling the shots. He had been selected to rule the Hidden Mist because he had been an intelligent and logical shinobi, not because he was powerful and bloodthirsty. That was not his way; had never been his way. He had been the only one calm enough to successfully tame the Three-Tails after all those years of the Mist not knowing what the hell to do with their bijuu (including one incredibly idiotic plan involving kidnapping some dumb girl from Konoha that had resulted in hundreds of their own shinobi dead).

Yagura should have been the greatest Mizukage they had ever seen, not the worst.

The first time his eyes had flashed red, everyone had pretended not to notice. Then the psychosis set in, and they thought it was the tailed beast that was driving him mad.

But then Mei noticed a pattern to his madness, starting from the categorical genocide of all bloodline limits in the Hidden Mist, and realized that no ancient chakra monster could have manufactured such detailed plans to weaken – no, not just that; systematically tear apart − their village all by itself.

Yagura – or Mr. Sharingan, take your pick – still ruled over the original Kirigakure, but neither of them were aware that there was a second Kirigakure under Mei's control. It had no buildings, or roads, or shops. No one did business with this Kirigakure. But all the same, her people stood tall and proud, for it was simply connected and organized by one idea: freedom.

Or, less eloquently: murder the assholes responsible for all the shit the Mist had been put through. Because, honestly? You knew you hit a new low when your village was getting pissed on even more than the Sand. But never let it be said that Mei Terumi didn't know how to take advantage of a bad situation – because being the ignored village meant that people didn't keep a close eye on your actions, and when people didn't keep a close eye on your actions, they tended to underestimate you.

So let those old men from the Leaf and the Rock and the Cloud argue with each other about who was responsible for the Wave situation. Let them discount the Mist, because the Mist was "too weak and disjointed to be useful in anything." They hadn't bothered to send anyone to thoroughly spy on Kirigakure in years; Kirigakure itself hadn't seen any foreign visitors since Yagura first took power – one of the benefits of having to live under a man who took the definition of the word "paranoia" to the nines.

But that didn't mean the reverse of that statement was also true. Kirigakure was the silent observer. And Kirigakure knew things. Kirigakure sat in the shadows and saw them all, while they were all wasting their time arguing amongst themselves.

Mei Terumi was the true Mizukage, even if she didn't have a nice office or desk.

One day, though. One day she would. One day, she'd be wearing that blue hat and robe for real, and she'd do it while standing over the drawn and quartered body of the person responsible for this entire mess. The Bloody Mist had been called the Bloody Mist for a reason. And she had grown up under that regime. What's more, she had survived up until now, for this long. Everyone seemed to remember Zabuza Momochi as that one demon child that had murdered his entire graduating class (stupid, by the way, because that just decreased the amount of their able-bodied soldiers). No one seemed to remember that she, Mei Terumi – or any other shinobi of their generation, actually – had also killed her own classmates to gain her hitai-ate.

There was a reason why she was still alive, even when all the other kekkei genkai possessing people in Kirigakure were dead.

"Mission report, Momochi."

He rolled his eyes. "Do we have to? Life as a missing-nin is very rough."

"Protocol," she smirked. "And you're not actually a missing-nin. I pardoned you, remember?"

"According to Yagura I am," the man grumbled, but went through with the procedures anyway. "Word from Ao. The Yondaime Mizukage is still being puppeted by a mysterious Sharingan user. Just recently he sent out a team of some of our best ANBU to Tanyu. A high-ranking official in the Fire Daimyo's court was found murdered shortly after, and suspicions have been leveled against Iwa."

"Tanyu," Mei murmured. "Konoha won't like that."

"Iwa won't either," Zabuza said, "considering they had nothing to do with this, and are just itching for an excuse to gain back what they lost from Konoha in the past few wars. Meanwhile, there are a factions in both villages pointing fingers at a third party, like Kumo or the Akatsuki, wanting to drive Konoha and Iwa to blows so that they might reap the benefits in the confusion."

"They're half right. Someone wants war." This was bad. Mist was already in a weakened state as it was. If word got out that they were the ones causing strife between Konoha, Iwa, and who knew what else – even if they were doing so against their will – things could get ugly really quickly. She was not yet in a position to negotiate. "Do they suspect us?"

"I don't think so, no. As far as anyone is concerned, Mist is still useless and xenophobic."

"While this is good news, that those other villages are fighting each other, it's also bad," Mei explained. "If I was officially the Mizukage I would be rolling in glee right now…"

Ao understood. "It's the fact that we weren't behind this conspiracy that worries you."

"Mr. Sharingan wants something, and we'll all be destroyed if he gets it. While I'm happy that those three old men are too busy snapping at each other to hurt us, it turns my stomach to know that we are all playing right into Mr. Sharingan's hands. I fear that there is a greater power at play here than just the five Kage."

"War on the mainland benefits us, but it benefits him even more," Ao agreed. "We can't let him gain more power than he already has."

"So what are we going to do about him?" Zabuza asked.

"The problem, Momochi, is that we have no idea who he is. And until we figure out how to stop it, we can't let them know that we are on to them, or else we'll be dead faster than you can draw your sword," Mei said. "At first I suspected Konoha, but it turns out that no one there knows jack shit about anything, and even less so when the Uchihas were wiped out. More likely, it's someone acting individually, trying to get revenge on…something. I suspected Itachi Uchiha for a while, but then I did the math. He would have been a child in the Academy at the time we first noticed Yagura going crazy. According to my sources, he didn't master the Sharingan until he was eight."

"What makes you so sure?" Ao asked.

"Because, if Konoha knew they had people who could mind-control the Kage of other villages long-term like this, they'd have used it already – on the Raikage and the Tsuchikage, who are their most dangerous foes. Not us. We haven't posed any threat to them in a long time. The only thing that we ever did to them personally in recent memory was that attempted thing with the Three-Tails – which I checked, only resulted in the death of one young girl. More of ours ended up dying than theirs, the battle was even, and we retreated. It was a while ago, long before even Yagura. This reaction is…disproportionate." Mei shook her head. "I know old man Sarutobi quite well, though he probably doesn't even know who I am. He doesn't do disproportionate. He's a very cautious player, by nature."

"If you don't mind me asking, which girl got killed?" Zabuza asked.

Zabuza had only meant it to be a harmless question, but to Mei, it was so much more than that. That one question had been the key to the missing piece she had been searching for for this entire time. Mei couldn't believe she hadn't thought about it before.

Which girl was it?

She had dismissed the identity of the girl as an important clue when she first began researching the botched Sanbi jinchuuriki mission, because she hadn't known her personally, and the girl hadn't been some powerful or famous nin anyway. But now that Zabuza had brought it back up…Konoha was big on this teammate thing, weren't they? It could very well be…

"I don't know," Mei admitted, the gears quickly turning in her mind. "The records I found didn't say, and I didn't care enough to dig any deeper. But – thinking about it again, she might be more important than I initially pegged her as. Ao, I want you to find everyone involved in that mess with the Three-Tails still alive today. Track down the identity of that girl. I want her name, her face, and every friend's acquaintance and cousin's cousin she had."

"You really think she might be the whole reason behind this entire mess?" Zabuza asked. "Just that one girl?"

"I don't know, but it would be foolish if we didn't try. Leave no stone unturned, Ao. We find out who she was, and we're one step closer to finding out the man behind Yagura. Momochi, I want you to track down the other Mist missing-nin who are actual missing-nin. Specifically, the ones who went rogue around the time Yagura came to power."

"All of them?" Zabuza deadpanned.

Mei shrugged. "Well. Until you get some answers. Start from the top down; it's unlikely that a Genin who quit because it got too hard will know anything."

"You realize, if I'm doing it that way, the guy I'm going to be starting with will be motherfucking Kisame Hoshigaki," Zabuza pointed out.

Mei clapped her hands. "Oh goody! You two can bond over your giant-ass swords."

Zabuza groaned.