A Drop of Poison

Chapter Thirty-three: In the Know

Disclaimer: Naruto belongs to Kishimoto. Ramen belongs to Naruto. Enough said.

Thanks go to Mad Mad Reviewer, Ordo Hereticus, Speaker4thesilent and Alico on SpaceBattles (and elsewhere) for giving coal to all the errors they found. This chapter wouldn't be as good without their support.

Prank Day 234

While the meetings of Those in the Know weren't always fully attended, this one was short on more people than usual. This was unsurprising, given that this meeting had been called in a hurry and Team One was on a C-ranked mission at the borders of the Land of Fire.

Still, Naruto had once more made the journey from San no Kuni to Konoha to preside over this meeting, even if the council was already missing five members.

The message they had was that important.

"Welcome to the latest meeting of Those in the Know," Naruto said from his spot at the end of the council table. "There's only one subject today, and that is the request we received from Grass Country's merchant network," he continued, mostly for the non-clone members of the council.

"Which is?" Iruka asked.

Naruto turned to the clone in charge of the western part of the merchant network, who rose. "The Mizu Rebels are looking to hire a number of members of the 'Hidden Spirit Village' to support their operations in preparation for and leading up to an attempt at taking down the Fourth Mizukage," the clone explained, reading from a scroll that had traveled straight to Konoha from Kousou-cho by jumper.

"The Hidden Spirit Village?" The chuunin replied, curious.

"That was the nickname given to the forces who took down Gato in Wave, of which I was part," Niko answered proudly. "We could easily create a large enough force to help, that's for certain," he added.

"Creating more clones isn't an issue here," Jiraiya continued. "The main question is: do you want to get involved in something like that? This is a civil war you're talking about, and those are never any good even when they are necessary. Are you sure you want to take part in that?"

"I'm not, and that's why I'm asking," Naruto replied. "I don't know what's best in this case, for either Konoha or Mizu. The network hasn't spread much in that direction, and they tend to stay out of ninja villages unless otherwise specified. One thing is sure, I'm not planning on setting foot in Mist myself anytime soon, unless a mission sends me that way. Any opinions?" He asked the non-clones around the table.

There was a moment of silence before Hiruzen finally spoke up. "I don't have much information on the Water Rebels themselves, but the current Mizukage is another issue. He's currently the youngest of the four living kages, and has ruled for surprisingly long considering his age."

"Unfortunately, that isn't a good thing," Jiraiya pointed out.

"Explain?" Naruto asked.

"There are… reasons… why Mist Village is currently in a state of civil war," Jiraiya continued. "Yagura, the fourth Mizukage, is a hard and cruel man, and somewhat paranoid at best. He's more feared than respected in Mist, and he hunts down whoever he suspects is a traitor bloodily and relentlessly. He also did nothing to oppose the bloodline purges that have been happening in Mist, and him staying his hand has been taken by most as tacit approval of removing the bloodline-carrying clans from the country."

Hiruzen nodded. "Yes. Three bloodline clans are already known to have defected from Mist, two of them to Kumo and one to Iwa."

"Four," Jiraiya corrected. "The few remaining Ryugawa have left Kiri last month. They haven't resettled anywhere, which is why the news hasn't spread yet."

"Four, then," the Hokage amended. "There are those who fear that, once Kiri has finally pushed away or eliminated all of the bloodline clans inside their own borders, they'll turn to the other villages with theirs and start the next great ninja war."

"A war could start that easily?" Naruto asked.

Both the Hokage and Jiraiya nodded sadly. "Unfortunately, yes," the former pointed out. "It only takes one village attacking another, and the wars would start all over again. The only reason a war didn't start when Sand and Sound invaded was that Konoha and Suna were nominally allies, and because it happened and ended so fast nobody really had time to react. Konoha won decisively enough that Kumo didn't want to get involved, and both Iwa and Kiri weren't ready, the former not having yet recovered from the end of the previous war, and the latter too involved in the issue we're talking about right now. The grudges that led to the Third Shinobi War still haven't faded, and there are still hot embers ready to fan the flames of battle once more."

Naruto digested that for a moment. "So, you're saying that this civil war could lead to another shinobi one?"

Both Jiraiya and Hiruzen nodded in confirmation. "Yes, and that on both sides of the issue. If the rebels win, they may weaken the current stalemate enough that one of the other great powers takes a shot at them, while even if the current Mizukage maintains his rule the same could happen. That is not to speak of the lesser powers that could see the current turbulences as an opportunity to steal the seat of one of the five powers."

There was another moment of silence.

"So, what you're saying is that the best case scenario for maintaining the current peace is for the rebels to end this war as decisively as possible, and with the least amount of losses, correct?" Naruto asked.

"Pretty much," the Sannin admitted. "It may be that nothing can stop the beginning of a fourth shinobi war, but that's the scenario where peace has the most chance."

There was a moment of silence.

"I'm going, then," Naruto concluded. "I at least want to see what these water rebels are like. Maybe they're no better than the current Kiri leadership, or even worse, but I don't lose anything by listening to them."

"You're not thinking of you going, right?" Iruka asked, and the emphasis on the 'you' was clear.

"I have to agree with that opinion," the Hokage added, and the Sannin nodded beside him.

Naruto shook his head. "No worries," he replied. "I wasn't planning to. The Hidden Spirit Village is well known to field clones only, and I'm not going to take the risk." Not to mention that he was going back to San no Kuni as soon as the meeting was done. After what had happened to Shippou on his watch, he wasn't willing to take the risk of something else harming her.

Iruka sighed in relief. "Thank god for that."

That broke whatever tension was there.

"Anyway, from what my sources tell me, the Mizu rebels are a lot more reasonable than the current administration. They're heavy in bloodline users, of course, but outside of that they are closer to actual Konoha policy than any time before."

"Any other information you have?" Naruto asked.

"Nothing I can see as useful, unfortunately," the sage admitted. "I'll have to reach out to my sources for more."

"Please do." He paused. "Is there any other subject that can't wait until the regular meeting?" Naruto then asked.

There was a chorus of negative answers.

"Meeting adjourned, then," he said. "Next meeting will be scheduled when Team One returns from the border."

He then banged his gavel, and the meeting broke up.

Prank Day 239

As a Naruto clone, he was nameless. He was actually one of the older clones, created during the second wave of technique training. He was part of the group who'd originally chosen the Earth technique Tsuchioni no Tsuno, and who'd failed to make any significant progress during the entire time of the competition.

After that he'd flitted here and there, mainly working in the technique library they'd been building. He'd ended up as part of the wave of new technique training, and was actually still training in the specific jutsu he'd chosen.

But now, for the first time since the invasion, it seemed a mission called.

"The original isn't available," Niko said, standing before the assembled clones in the Uruhara basement. "So we need for clones to step up. For those who don't know, my team and I have been working on finding out who burnt down Ichiraku Ramen…" there was a growl at that, "and who has been going after our suppliers. We don't have exact details on the who yet, from what the information we have points to the fact that they are linked to the Konoha Merchant Council, who has at least been funding said group, paying for such attacks."

The Naruto Council member looked around to make sure he had everyone's attention. "And a new payment has just been filed for said group, one greater than the one made when Ichiraku burned down."

"Jiraiya agrees with me that this is probably the precursor to another wave of attacks on our suppliers. As such, we need reinforcements helping the Network make sure we don't lose more of our sources."

"This is, in effect, a defend and capture mission," he explained. "Protect our people, and capture whoever is responsible for this. We need information, so either people we can interrogate, or enough info that we can find where they're based from. If not, we're going to be stuck in this cycle for a long time, and while Jiraiya is pretty certain we'll win in the end, better to cut down the losses as much as possible." There were nods all around.

"So, anyone willing to take part?" Niko called out.

The nameless clone stepped forward. Given the subject of his latest studies, that seemed right in his branch, and that might actually allow him to prove he'd mastered his latest technique.

He, of course, wasn't the only one. Dozens stepped up, and were split into squads after making as many clones as they could. Time was of the essence; they had no clue how long before said attack happened, and no idea on the actual target or targets. They need to protect everywhere, and that soonest.

And they weren't going to fail again.

Prank Day 243

Hinata walked down the step to the Himitsu compound with a smile. She had a day off, and she was going to spend it as she preferred.

That is, spending time with Naruto.

She'd been meeting him here every time she had a day off, and he'd never failed in helping her become a better ninja. Over the last few months, they'd worked on a close-combat style that she could use in conjunction with the Matsuri, and they'd made good strides on that.

And, hopefully, they'd do some more today.

With her eyes, she saw the half-dozen Naruto clones long before she arrived inside the room they used for training. She didn't mind the clones; a ninja's life was a busy one, and she understood that he had other priorities.

That just made the few times the real Naruto was there more special.

"Good day, Naruto-san," she called out as she entered the training room.

"Ohayo, Hinata!" The group called back. "Here for more training?"

"Hai," she said with a bow. "I have the day off, and continuing work on the Masturi no Odori seems the best use of my time." She paused. "Is the real Naruto available?"

The clone before her shook his head. "Team One has a border patrol mission," he explained, to which she nodded.

Then the clone paused, clearly thinking.

She waited until he'd finished his thought. "Did you know we were all clones?"

"Hai," she confirmed with a nod.

"How could you tell?"

She was the one who paused this time. Trying to explain the details of what she saw with her Byakugan had never been easy, and even now the teams she worked it had issues with that.

"It's about how your chakra… moves? fluctuates? flows?" She tried explaining. "Living people have a pattern to them, an order in which their energy circulates. For clones it's different, and if you know what you're looking for it's reasonably easy to notice. It still took me a while to get it, but by now it's second nature."

The clone thought some more. "Do you think it could be faked?"

She now saw what the clone was working toward. Unfortunately, she couldn't say much about the idea. "I don't know," she admitted. "Maybe different sensors see it differently anyway. It would probably take quite strong chakra control, though." She thought about it for a second. "It might make a good training exercise, actually. I'd be happy to help if you want to try."

"Might be something to think about in the future," the clone before her replied, "but that's not why you're here today. How many clones do you think you can manage today, Hinata?"

She smiled brightly. "I'm fully rested, so as many as you need, Sensei!" It did help that all this training had pushed her reserves far beyond what they'd been before she became a chuunin.

He smiled back. "Give me five, and we'll work in parallel," he turned to the rest of the clones. "Two swords, two fists, two kunai?" He asked them.

"Seems fine," one of the clones answered while the rest nodded in approval.

He turned to her. "Your show, then."

Her hands flashed into a cross. "Kage Bunshin no Jutsu!" She called out.

And the battle was joined.

Prank Day 247

Teuchi didn't know what to think of the Network, as they called themselves.

It wasn't that they didn't follow through on what they promised. No, it was the very opposite; the very day after he'd signed on with them, he had the money to rebuild Ichiraku Ramen in hand.

And not just to rebuild. He had enough to expand, and the funds necessary to rent a better spot. He had all he wanted, and better even.

And that was the issue.

He'd been in business for years, and from his experience businessmen simply did not work like that. They cut all the corners they could, skimming all the margins just to get a little more money in their pockets.

And the Network didn't do any of that.

They had no problems making promises and keeping them, and when they said something you could take it to the bank. He'd worked for them nearly two months at this point, and he'd seen this half a dozen times over.

Still, it surprised him.

When he'd signed on, he'd expected to be a figurehead, a member in name only, existing just for his contacts and no other reason. If that allowed him to bring Ichiraku Ramen back, he was fine with that; the shop had been his life, and he'd always expected to leave it to his daughter. Being a figurehead was a sacrifice he was willing to make.

But it hadn't been the case.

No, he was clearly an equal member here, and he had no clue why. Whenever there was a meeting, his voice carried as much weight as anyone else, and he could tell that everyone was listening intently.

They'd said it was personal; now, he was starting to believe it. Either that or the Network was planning things at the very long term, in decades or more.

He couldn't see the Network making profits before then.

That, however, didn't seem to stop them. In weeks they spent millions of Ryo arranging that the last few banking and insurance companies in Konoha didn't fall under the umbrella of the Merchant Council, and also buying up transportation infrastructure in the villages closest to Konoha. Lastly, he'd been questioned on the various businesses the members of the Merchant Council owned, and Teuchi was pretty sure they were planning something big there.

He'd bet his hand on it.

Still, for the moment, he was fine with the work he was doing. He was the face of the group in Konoha, as they'd said, and had recruited others tired of the machinations of the Council. It wasn't nearly enough yet, but the more businessmen joined, the better it looked for for the rest. He was even in talks with one of the less active members of the council over joining the Network.

And if one did, there might be others who'd see the way the wind was blowing.

He'd been in Konoha for decades, and had seen the rise of the Merchant Council from the advisory group it was in his youth to the economic powerhouse that it was now.

And, right now, it seemed like he'd get to see them fall.

From what he'd seen on how they did business and what proof he'd been shown of their actions, he couldn't wait for it to happen.

Prank Day 252

Haku was glad to be back in Kiri.

He'd been travelling in that direction for more than two weeks at this point, and even he was starting to get tired.

And that was not to mention the Hidden Spirit Village members accompanying him.

Kusako, the informant he'd been tasked with contacting, had passed the message up the chain just as he'd expected. He'd been prepared to wait days or even possibly weeks until a reply came, as per his orders.

Two days later, there was another clone with Kusako, and he was leaving Kousou-cho, accompanying the new Hidden Spirit Village ninja directly to the water rebels.

This journey was the first time he was in the presence of Spirit ninjas for long periods of time, and given his senses he couldn't help but pick up details.

And they didn't make sense.

These ghost ninjas, as he was starting to call them in his mind, didn't make sense. Their chakra fluctuated abnormally for both what types of clones he knew and for normal ninjas, sometimes diminishing rapidly, sometimes doing the very opposite.

And it didn't help when other such ghosts joined the group.

They joined while on the run, coming up as if expected. There was no stopping, no salutations, no nothing. They just fell in line as if they'd long been anticipated, and kept pace as if they belonged.

It was eerie.

Still, he thought as he saw the hill in the distance, his part was finally over. He slowed down as the group approached the caverns he'd been told would be used as a meeting point, and the clones he was accompanying did the same a second later.

Then he guided them in.

This place wasn't a rendezvous point in common use, but he'd made sure to be familiar with it before leaving with Mei's message. As such, he let the twelve ghosts into the earth, navigating through both the natural maze and the illusions imbedded in the very walls.

Still, he kept ready. He didn't think Mei would be in danger from this group, based on their reactions, but one could never be too certain in such a case.

In the end, they arrived in a room that, unlike the rest of the place, had clearly been shaped by human hands. Three people were waiting there, and Haku was glad to see that his master was one of them.

"Mei-sama, Zabuza-sama, Chōjūrō-san, may I present you the members of the Hidden Spirit Village," he intoned. "Shinobi of the Hidden Spirit Village, the leader of the Water Rebels, Mei Terumī; her bodyguard, Chōjūrō, and my master Zabuza, who you've already met."

"Greetings," Mei stated, while Zabuza grunted and Chōjūrō stood silent.

One of the ghosts stepped forward and bowed slightly. "Good day, shinobi-san. What should I call you?"

"Mei will be fine," she replied.

"So, Mei-san, what can the Hidden Spirit Village do for you," he asked.

"How much would it cost us to hire your services?" She asked.

"Depends on what you want us to do, and what you offer," the lead ghost replied. "Along with your plans once this rebellion succeeds."

Mei took a seat in one of the chairs in the room, and gestured for the ghost to do the same.

"Let's start with the easier one," she started answering. "My goal for this rebellion is to rebuild Kirigakure, and to reclaim the strength needed to let the Village Hidden in the Mist keep its position as one of the five great villages. Currently, Kiri is a hotbed of paranoia, with illusions of treachery everywhere. The current Mizukage rules through terror, and woe betide anyone he sees as a potential enemy. He trusts no one, and his methods are unnecessarily bloody, which is sapping the potential of our village. This environment creates new ninjas just as paranoid and untrusting, making the problem self-perpetuating."

"And how would you make Kiri stronger?" The clone asked.

"Changes to the academy for a start; it isn't as bad as it was in the past, but it still needs improvement," she explained. "Modifications to the laws and greater investigation to erode the atmosphere of paranoia. New alliances to strengthen the village and give it time to recover from the rebellion. In general, make the village more of a meritocracy than it currently is, and stand down on more of the bloodier policies."

The clones looked at each other and nodded. That fit their preferences; more Kiri-centric than they had in mind, but that was a given.

"Also, once the fighting is all done, I'm finding myself a husband," she added as an afterthought, and based on the reactions of her fellow rebels, it wasn't the first time she'd made such a comment.

"What the rebels need Spirit Village for is actually simple: numbers and infiltration," she continued. "The Water Rebels are skewed toward the higher ranks, mostly jonins, special jonins, and high chuunins; we're more than strong enough to tackle the Mizukage and his guard with good chances of victory."

"The lower ranks're the problem," Zabuza interjected with a scowl, to which Mei nodded.

"If fighting starts in the village, and it quite probably will," she continued, "the genin and chuunin will take a disproportionate amount of casualties compared to the higher ranks. This could set back Kiri years if not a full decade in a worst case scenario. Every rank-and-file ninja we remove from the fighting bloodlessly is another possible future jonin, every casualty we prevent makes the village better placed to survive after the coup."

"So you're not planning on having Rei-nin fighting against the Mizukage himself?" The lead clone asked.

"Not particularly," Mei admitted. "I'm planning on taking on Yagura myself, possibly with some of the other rebels. Sure, we wouldn't stop the Rei-nins from joining in, but I'd actually prefer you saving as many of the genin and chuunin as possible."

"Depending on Spirit Ninjas for the meat of the fighting'd make us look weak," Zabuza added with a growl.

Mei nodded at that. "As for price, I doubt we can offer you enough money to make it worth your while; while we're not poor, we have nothing close to the resources that someone like Gato had. However, we can put other things on the table: access to the Mizu archives, training in various techniques, a set number of A or S-ranked missions, even some of the Kiri treasures that the village has accumulated over the past decades. Discussing the details and specifics will probably take a while, but do you think we can agree in principle?"

The Naruto clone in charge nodded. To be fair, the main things they wanted was to prevent another Shinobi war; the rest was icing on the cake. Still, he planned to negotiate as best he could; appearing cheap would weaken the reputation of the group and they'd just end up with other people trying to abuse of their generosity. "We can."

Mei smiled and extended her hand. "It may be a little early, but welcome to the Mizu rebels. We're glad to have you."

They shook.

Prank Day 262

Given Naruto's skill at the Shadow Clone, a border patrol mission was an easy task. Still, that didn't mean he hadn't taken things seriously; between the various checks and surveys he had his team do on their length of the border, Ebisu taught the classics of such a mission: how to patrol efficiently, how to identify important areas, how to check for passersby… the usual lessons a team got on their first border mission.

Still, such a mission along with Naruto's army-on-demand meant that it was easy to arrange for extra training, like the sparring his three students were doing right at this moment.

And he was paying close attention to said spar from his perch. He had a persistent itch that needed scratching.

He was still stuck over the fact that his team either had an infiltrator or a guardian angel.

He'd been paying extra attention to everyone since they'd arrived on the Grass Border, hoping to catch this ANBU member unaware, but nothing on that front. No unexplained tracks, no bizarre shadows, no eyes in the distance.

So, he was currently leaning more towards infiltrator than anything else.

He'd looked toward Ariko at first, given her lightning affinity, but if she was a fake genin she was a better actress than anyone he'd ever seen. She made mistakes understandable of a genin, but ones that a better trained ninja would have difficulty performing, even on purpose. Instincts were what they were, and managing the illusion in the middle of combat was difficult. Still, there were other details he noticed.

Which amounted to a massive number of puzzle pieces that didn't fit together.

He had an example right before him. Below, in the clearing the team had claimed as a base, Team One was fighting a trio of his Shadow Clones. To make things more challenging, Naruto had been forbidden from using the Kage Bunshin, so it was three-on-three.

And, as the fake ninjutsu specialist of the opposing team sent forth a wave of flame hiding blunted shurikens, all three dodged.

And did so the exact same way.

It wasn't the first time that Ebisu had noted something like this. Yes, it was common for teammates to have some moves in common, as they picked up on each other's styles, but Team One pushed it farther.

A lot farther.

They had similar stances, similar evasion patterns… even similar tics and reactions, sometimes.

And they hadn't been a team for a year yet.

That attracted his attention, but that was the opposite of what an infiltrator would do. Sure, keeping to the level of the team was necessary, but imitating them to that point would be counter to their plans.

Again! Ariko doing a parry on a kunai, a picture-perfect Sharp Fist block. Normally, he'd take that as a fluke, but after more than a dozen times that excuse felt weak.

But he'd verified, and there wasn't any other Sharp Fist user left in the village, so it couldn't be her being an infiltrator.

Then Muremaru was twisted aside by the man who'd grappled with him, and he took a fireball to the side.

"STOP!" He called out, and Shuushined right beside his wounded student.

Everyone had frozen in place, and Ebisu ordered one of his clones to go grab the first aid kit without even looking at him.

He was too busy with Muremaru.

Taking out a kunai, He quickly removed the boy's smouldering shirt off of him. Leaving it there would only make the burns under it…

There were no burns.

He froze at the sight. Under his shirt, Muremaru had pristine skin, without any trace of damage. In fact, his skin wasn't even hot, just the warmth of someone doing physical exercise, not that of chakra-fuelled flames.

That… that was impossible.

His eyes rose, and Ebisu noticed the boy's hair. There wasn't even a burned end in sight, which made no sense; hair burned so easily there were dozens of fire users (such as he had when much younger) who'd burned their own locks by mistake.

There wasn't even the quite recognizable smell that burning hair had.

"Kai!" Ebisu called out, sending a surge of chakra Muremaru's way. There was no change, so it wasn't an illusion.

Now that he thought about it, he'd never seen his team wounded, save superficial scratches. He wracked his head for anything like that, and finally remembered Naruto bleeding from a few slices that quickly closed, but nothing from his other two students.

And that was the last drop.

"Sit down!" He called out, and he was happy that his team obeyed without hesitation. "Explain this!"

"What?" Muremaru replied, clearly trying to pretend nothing was wrong.

Ebisu didn't fall for it. "You took a fireball to the shoulder, and there's no hint of anything on you."

"Is it my fault that fireball was weak?" He retorted.

"It was strong enough to burn your shirt, so your hair should be a mess," the teacher continued. "And that's not all!"

He chucked the kunai he was still holding straight at the side of Ariko's head, who slapped it aside instinctively.

"That's a perfect Sharp Fist block," Ebisu added, "and you're not even bleeding, regardless of the fact this wasn't a blunted kunai that you blocked with your bare arm."

He glared down at his three students. "Outside Naruto, I've never seen a drop of blood or wound on any of you," he ranted. "No one manages to get out unscathed from training that way. No one! Only Naruto's clones…"

He froze.

Only clones would be that undamaged, as clones would vanish before taking wounds like that.

And Naruto was probably the most talented person in the village at the Kage Bunshin.

Still, that made no sense! He'd have noticed if his students had been replaced by clones one day. There wasn't a town in miles, so there was no real reason for some of his students to play hooky.

What was going on here?!

"Are you all clones?" He asked, and saw all three of his students flinch, then look at each other.

That set his mind up. "I'm not moving from this until you all explain to me what's going on. This has gone long enough, and either I'm getting an explanation from you, or from the Hokage in three days when we arrive back in Konoha."

Ebisu glared at them again. "So, what's it going to be?"

I'm sorry that this took so long.

Life hasn't been the best in the past two years, and this story suffered as a result. I could give details, but they are just the common issues of life: work, family, health...

But they still had an impact.

This story was the worst hit, as I fell off Naruto fanfiction. I was more into my other stories, more interested in their world.

I'm sorry for that also.

Still, this is not dead. I have a plan for this story, and I'm going to follow it to the end. There are still twists I haven't pulled out, and I can't wait to get to writing them.

So, stay tuned.

Anyway, as always, thank you for reading and commenting, and happy holidays for all!