A/N: Well, I don't often work on multi-chaptered fanfictions, but I got an idea for this and it wouldn't let go. I hope you enjoy it, and criticism is welcome, but please be constructive and enjoy!
It was a quiet day in late autumn when the ANBU border patrol discovered the body. By all appearances it was a sound nin, dressed in full battle gear and equipped with several unique weapons. Not a scratch or wound marred the body, which was propped into a sitting position under an oak. The corpse was promptly bagged and sealed then sent to Konoha's shinobi hospital. The medic on duty, the Godaime's assistant, whisked the body away, and the ANBU returned to their posts as the day turned to night…
Shizune marveled over the body as she examined it, gloved hands slicing cleanly through flesh and bone. Killed some two weeks ago, the man, (she placed his age at approximately twenty four), was perfectly preserved. Not only that, but all of his possessions were intact and unused. Kunai, shuriken, jutsu scrolls, and three vials of clear liquid Shizune hoped was the unidentified poison Sound had been using against them of late. Tsunade-sama would love to examine those.
Cause of death for the Sound nin himself? Poison.
After examining the heart, which was healthy by all accounts, Shizune moved on through the lungs and into the stomach, where she noted a particularly thin inner lining, perhaps evidence of acidic activity or long term usage of orally expelled fire jutsu. What she found, however, was a stomach eaten away by some acidic poison, the bulk of which was still intact, nestled in the upper digestive tract.
Moving carefully, Shizune gingerly transferred the ball of poison to the metallic instrument tray to her right, where she began to dissect the mass bilaterally. Her scalpel met resistance and the scrape of metal on metal. Her medical curiosity piqued, Shizune used the small knife to chip away at the partially dissolved poison. What she found underneath, however, was not what she would have expected: a metal capsule, no bigger than her thumbnail, glistening and new. A small seam revealed where it could be opened.
Washing all traces of acid from her gloves and the capsule, Shizune gently pried open the container under a fume shield. Instead of poisonous gas or the trap she had expected, a small piece of paper drifted to the floor, its white surface covered in a cramped, precise script. Shizune squinted, her eyes scanning the writing quickly, her breath becoming shallow and her eyes widening in excitement.
"You!" She wheeled to face the chuunin in the corner of the room she had earlier been dictating autopsy notes to. "I want this room sealed, no one comes in here but me and the Hokage, got it?" The medic nodded dumbly as Shizune exited the room at breakneck speeds towards the Hokage Tower. The note lay were it had fallen.
My dear Lady Hokage,
It has come to my attention that this war is at something of a standstill. I wish to be on the winning side, you understand.. If you would kindly send a trustworthy representative to the gala celebrating Ame no Kuni's 50th year, I will meet and discuss terms of information exchange. Enjoy the gift I have preserved for you.
Tsunade had changed her appearance since becoming Hokage. She refused to show her true form still, wizened as it was by repetitive uses of medical jutsus, but she had changed her genjutsu to the shape she held at forty rather than twenty. It seemed only fitting as time passed and the undeclared war between the Lead and Sound stretched on.
The war had come to a halt in the past year, with neither side making any substantial moves. The Sound had been beaten in a skirmish last year when one of the Leaf's more promising jounin, Yamanaka Ino, sacrificed herself and took out an entire Sound outpost. While the woman's body was still alive, her mind had been shattered by her own mind-altering jutsu. She had been the first loss of Konoha's famous 'Rookie Nine'.
With a sigh, Tsunade let her eyes wander from the casualty reports of the last year. The tea Shizune had brought her that morning before being called away was cold in its cup.
"Tsunade-sama!" The door banged open as Shizune stood in the doorway, a frantic look on her face.
"Has there been an attack?" Tsunade hastily stood, her mind racing. She needed her medical supplies, they were in the drawer to her right, and her weapons were in there as well. She would need to organize the ANBU…
"No, Tsunade-sama." Shizune hurried forward to the large wooden desk, her palms slapping down on the edge. "There's something you need to see in the Sound nin we found earlier. I think there's a way to win this war in there."
The meeting concerning the operation convened the next day. Those present included the Hokage and her assistant, Hatake Kakashi, Sarutobi Asuma, Sarutobi Kurenai, Nara Shikamaru, Sabaku no Temari, Yamato, Jiraiya, and Mitarashi Anko, the head of Black Ops. The secret message was displayed in the center of the conference table. All had read it, and a sullen silence has settled. Finally, one spoke up.
"I think it must be a trap." Anko moved one leg to cross over the other, her black trench coat, too large and stained with the blood of the former Black Ops captain rustled.
"It makes sense. They'll expect us to send a talented ninja, perhaps one of the Rookie Nine. Losing even one jounin at this point is a major blow." Yamoto placed chin on hand thoughtfully.
"Ame no Kuni proclaims neutrality, but we know they benefit from a Sound victory. They could be ready to show their hand." Jiraiya's information network had been compromised by Akatsuki twice more since the abduction of the Godaime Kazekage, and he was loath to put his trust in it now. Last time he had the Akatsuki agent Deidara had managed to detonate a bomb inside Konoha's Ninja Academy, resulting in the death of 80 of that year's genin class.
"But what if it is true? We can't pass up this chance." Kurenai's voice was soft, and she squeezed Asuma's hand beneath the table.
"Who would we send, though? Someone we can afford to lose, yet someone we can trust with ending a war?" Kakashi shook his head. "I know of no such person."
"Who do we think sent this, if it is in fact genuine?" Temari tapped her fingernails rhythmically on the table.
"It could be anyone, really. However, it would be hard to pull off from a low rank, so we must assume they have a fair amount of power." Tsunade intently inspected her red fingernail polish. "And that poison capsule either took immense knowledge or research."
Shizune laid out bingo books of known Sound jounin. "There are several possibilities. Shizuka Akane, defector from Kirigakure, a poison expert. Moryu Hideki, defector from Sunagakure, owner of a blood oriented Kekkei-genkai." Temari scowled. "Iira Isshin, defector from Iwagakure, expert on genetic enhancement…" the list ran on.
"Why are Yakushi Kabuto and Uchiha Sasuke not on that list?" Shikamaru, the strategic genius, finally spoke up. The table hushed.
"You of all people should know why Sasuke is not on that list. We may have managed to prevent Orochimaru from acquiring his body three years ago, but he killed three jounin and a chuunin getting back to Sound. Sakura, Naruto, and all of the Rookie Nine have suffered from his constant betrayals. He's not coming back."
"As for Kabuto, he's shown so much loyalty to Orochimaru over the years that I find it almost impossible to imagine him betraying Orochimaru." Tsunade sighed.
"What about the Sound Four? I heard news they were spotted on the border. Asuma ground his cigarette out in the ashtray, running his thumb over the knuckles of Kurenai's hand.
"Impossible. I killed the flutist myself. Saw her broken body lying under a tree." Temari was outraged at the insinuation that she had failed to kill an enemy. "'Kamaru also told me that Chouji killed Jiroubou and Neji took out Kidoumaru. I can personally vouch for Sakon and Ukon, since I helped my brother pull their bodies from his puppets.
"Only the bodies of Sakon and Ukon were recovered. When we went back to retrieve Hyuuga Neji and Akimichi Chouji there were no other bodies were found." Shizune said. "It was always assumed that Sound hunter-nin just got there before us."
"But what if the Sound Four… or three, rather, left of their own power? Alive?"
"That is not under discussion at this time." Tsunade regained command of the meeting. "The person who reported the sighting was wounded and disoriented. What matters here is what we are to do about this possible double agent."
Shikamaru, whose hands had taken on a familiar pose, closed his eyes. The meeting, it seemed, awaited his opinion. It seemed that hours had passed before the young man spoke.
"We're going." The assembled awaited an explanation. "I believe I know who will be waiting there. It's a risk we're going to have to take."
Shikamaru, in his deepest thoughts, considered all possibilities. All the missing-nin… no they wouldn't know the day to day changes in the ANBU patrol routes. They wouldn't know where to place the body where it would be found, how desperate they were to find an end to this war. No… it had to be someone with inside knowledge of Konoha.
Orochimaru. Kabuto. Sasuke. Three main possibilities. Orochimaru could possibly be baiting them; it was like him to do as such. He had led them into false traps before, but their methods of delivery had never been so… covert and overt at the same time. The body was placed so prominently, yet the message concealed so secretively.
Sasuke, it seemed, would never return to Konoha. He had betrayed them over and over, been captured and broken free, and always returned to Sound, and to Orochimaru. Itachi was not yet dead. Until he was, Sasuke was lost to everyone.
This left Kabuto. , who had betrayed once, and was therefore that much more likely to do so again. He knew Konoha, had lived years within her borders, and monitored all their most secret information. It would have to be Kabuto.
But who would take this mission? If it was Kabuto, then it would be impossible to send undercovers, impossible to send more than one person. He would know them, or know their tactics and ways of prying, which only strengthened Shikamaru's conviction.
Whoever went had to be capable with both combat and diplomacy. Even more important, they had to have fought them before, so that if worst came to worse, they would fight him off better with knowledge of his tactics. Only three had fought Yakushi Kabuto and was with them today. The Hokage, who could not go for obvious reasons, Uzumaki Naruto, who, despite his strength, had hardly any tact, and Shizune.
She would have to go.