Chapter 44: The Meaning of Power, Part 1

"So the masked man really is Obito, after all…"

Kakashi confirmed bitterly. "Yes, Hokage-sama. And just like we thought, Rin had gone to that place after she was released from Kirigakure, and there was no such thing as 'having the Three-Tails sealed inside her' bullshit. But it is still unknown where she went, or whatever happened to her after that…"

"So basically, we are back to square one again," the Hokage concluded. "But at least we managed to confirm the force the Akatsuki is holding in their hand at the moment. If that's the case, we might have to hold another Kage summit soon; we will not be able to fight against that number alone…"

But he stopped mid-sentence when he saw Kakashi's face. Even though he couldn't see under his mask, he could still feel despair in the limited expression he could figure out.

"I see…" he said quietly. "You're still unhappy you couldn't convince Obito to give up."

Kakashi sat down on a chair nearby. His left hand gripped his headband, where his Sharingan was lying under. Never before had anyone seen him looking so… miserable.

"What the hell…? What is this power in my body even for, if I cannot use it to do anything good to the ones I love…?"

When Naruto regained his consciousness, he realized he was lying on… something. That something is not as hard and cold as the ground, but also not as comfy and bouncy like the cloud.

Then it shouldn't be hell or heaven he was at now. If he were at hell, it should be like he was in a blast furnace, and if he were at heaven, there should be pretty things like chimes and angelic songs echoing around him that he could hear. So that could only mean he wasn't dead.

Of course he wasn't; he could still feel his body aching from the fight. Although, at the moment, the pain wasn't as intense; it just felt like a truck had just ran him over, and to a ninja, pain like that was nothing. He opened his eyes, and was surprised when very gentle sunlight peeking through a wooden roof met his irises. He was lying in a small cottage, on top of a hemp mattress with a blanket covering his body. It meant someone had rescued him after he sank into the sea.

He pushed himself up, but immediately groaned in pain when a massive headache hit his brain. It seemed the exhaustion was greater than he thought; he might have to stay in bed for at least a day.

"Oh, you are awake!"

A voice rose from behind him. He turned, and saw a girl sitting next to a hearth, looking at him with a bright smile. She looked familiar… but for a second, Naruto couldn't remember who she actually was.

"Who… are you…?"

His voice came out of his throat in a croaking tone. The girl answered, still with the gentle smile.

"My name is Isaribi. Want some porridge?"

Naruto blinked. Isaribi… the girl who was transformed into a sea monster under the experiment of Orochimaru who he met in the Land of the Sea. At the time they first met, she was also the one who rescued him from drowning, just like this time. In his timeline, she went back to Konoha with him for Tsunade to find a way to cure her from her… condition. But after the legendary medic failed to reverse her condition, she left the village, and he never heard about her again.

But now she looked… different from how he remembered her. Before, when he first knew her, she was a gloomy and distant girl who only opened up to Naruto after he showed her the burden he had to bear himself. Before that, he had never seen her smiling. But now, he could see that this time she had opened herself up a lot without him even doing anything. She didn't even bandage her body up to hide her condition anymore; the blue, scaly patches of skin could easily be seen on her face, her neck and her arms. But even those were not as ugly and horrid as before; instead they looked like something usually seen on beautiful mermaids on pictures.

For a second, Naruto's stomach twisted dangerously. Was he somehow swept by the current all the way to the Land of the Sea?

He blinked again at the sweet, attractive aroma when Isaribi raised a bowl to his face.

"I didn't poison the porridge, you know," she said, still with the same smile on her face, and Naruto suddenly realized he was starving. He received the bowl from her hand and took a small sip. His eyes widened immediately; the porridge was made only from rice, seaweed and some kind of shellfish or clam meat, and yet the taste was so awesome, as if it was made by a chef at a five-star restaurant.

Then again, it might be because he was too hungry to ask for anything else. He devoured the bowl in three seconds, and Isaribi giggled seeing that.

"Wow, you must be really hungry."

"Of course," Naruto answered her, wiping the corner of his mouth in the process. "I've just finished fighting a life-or-death battle, believe it. I was completely drained. I'm a shinobi, you know."

Isaribi giggled again. "Oh, I know. You're from Konohagakure, just like them."

Naruto blinked. "Just like them?"

"Yeah," Isaribi nodded. "Just like Anko-san, Karin-san, Juugo-san and Sakura-san."

"Karin-chan is my sister!" Naruto exclaimed. "You met them before?"

"Then you must be Naruto-kun," Isaribi smiled. She nodded again. "Yeah. They were the ones who helped me three years ago."

"What happened back then?" Naruto asked in thrill, and the girl smiled.

"Well, it's a long story…"


That was the only thing Naruto could say after hearing Isaribi talk about her life. So basically, she was still the experiment of the bastard Amachi, and still terrorized the ships in the Land of the Sea. However, what happened after that was completely different from how he remembered it.

"The Umibozu was unleashed!" Amachi cackled in glee. "Soon, it will devour everything in the Land of the Sea, and there is nothing you can do about it! AHAHAHAHAHA!"

Team Anko, together with Isaribi, could only watch in horror when the creature made of sea water smashed the wall of the chamber open and started rampaging into the sea, toward the nearest coastal town of the Land of the Sea.

"Anko-sensei, Sakura! You two take care of Amachi; we will stop that monster!" Karin yelled, and jumping out of the gaping hole on the wall together with Juugo, she chased after the blob of water. Isaribi hesitated in a moment, then also leapt into the water after the two Konoha shinobi.

"Why are you trying so hard?" she asked when she caught up with Juugo, who was now running on the water surface while firing blasts after blasts of chakra at the water monster. "You are… you are just… you are just a monster like me! Why are you trying so hard to protect the people that you don't even know?"

She didn't mean to say those words; they were only blurted out in a fit of confusion, and Juugo understood that. He answered, while not even stopping his barrage on the water blob to slow it down.

"I know that I was born… different, and I'm not proud of that fact. But even so, I don't care. If I can use that power of a monster that I hold within myself to help others who are in need of me, then I don't mind being a monster."

Isaribi was completely dumbfounded by the declaration of the shinobi in front of her. That… that kind of thinking is just… absurd! It defies all kinds of logic in this world!

As if reading her mind, Juugo continued. "Are you thinking I am a fool? Yes, of course people would think that. But to me, doing that has a bigger meaning than just a foolish dream of a desperate man. That is not only my way to redeem myself from the hideous things I did in the past, but also my way to prove that what people think about ones like me is wrong. What makes a human human lies not within what he looks like or what kind of power he holds, but within what he does with what he has. That is… what living in Konoha, among people who don't judge me for my appearance and power, taught me, and right now… I am sure that is not a wrong thing."

He said those words with a calm, confident and firm voice. And those words were the very same thing that shook Isaribi to the core.

She didn't even remember when she was brought in as Orochimaru's experiment. The only thing she knew was, she had been the target of glares of hatred and harassments from everyone in the Land of the Sea for years. She didn't know why they hated her so much, and quickly (and correctly) came to the conclusion that they hated her because of her strange power and appearance. And she didn't even try to do anything to change their mind; the only thing in her mind was a desperate and selfish wish to turn back into a normal human, no matter what it would take. She was even willing to kill as many people as possible as long as she could be cured of her condition.

A feeling of shame suddenly filled her mind. In some way, she was even worse than a monster.

Then she felt Juugo's hand grabbing her shoulder. She looked up, and saw him looking at her with gentle, but encouraging eyes.

"I understand what you are feeling. I used to have that kind of thought in the past, when I was under Orochimaru's hand. But just remember: it is never too late for a person to change themselves. What matters is who you choose to put your trust in."

Then he turned away, leaping back into the battle. Isaribi clenched her hands into fists, and came to a decision…

"… and after the fight, I decided to leave the Land of the Sea and move to the Land of Water, hoping that they would treat me better than people in the Land of the Sea had done. So… yeah, now I'm here, and I do not regret my decision," she ended happily.

Naruto blinked. "So… this is the Land of Water? Near Kirigakure?"

Isaribi winked. "You can go see for yourself."

She waved her hand toward the wooden door. Naruto pushed himself up from his bedroll and walked outside, and immediately had to close his eyes because of the bright sunlight outside of the room. Blinking a few times, he finally managed to open them again, and gasped in surprise when he saw what was in front of his eyes.

He was standing on a place higher than the ground. The view in front of him was that of the blue sea, stretching out and touching the sky at the horizon. The sun was descending from the sky; it was already late afternoon. The sea surface was calm and gentle, but the light breeze was more than enough to give Naruto's face a pleasant feeling which soothed him of his pains. He could see something that looked like a fishing village at the corner of his eye, about two kilometers away from where he was standing.

"Before I arrived here, I had expected people here to turn me away just like people in the Land of the Sea had already done," Isaribi's voice rose next to his ears. "But I was really surprised when the people here was more than happy to give me a place to live; they even gave me the job of taking care of this lighthouse. I couldn't even ask for anything more, to be honest."

Then she absently curled a strand of hair in her fingers. "Or maybe they did that because I don't look as scary and hideous as I was before… I really have to thank Sakura-san for this…"

Naruto felt a surge of admiration for Sakura's immense skill in medical jutsu surging within his mind.

Then he remembered something. "But… living near a ninja village like this… surely they would know about your existence, and your power, wouldn't they? What if they tried to force you to join their village?"

"Oh, they already tried, actually," Isaribi answered nonchalantly. "You wouldn't know this, but when I first arrived here, they literally sent representatives everyday to my place, trying to convince me to work for Kirigakure. But of course, I turned them down every single time. I don't have any intention to become a shinobi, nor to use the power I have for anything other than helping people. So after about a year, they kinda got fed up and decided to leave me alone, as long as I promised to protect the Land of Water with everything within my power if there's something bad happen."

Then she smiled. "Well, that doesn't mean they completely gave up, though. Haku-san still visits me every month, bringing me food as well as a lot of stories…"

'So that little Mizukage still have some dignity left in her thick skull, huh,' a voice rose dryly in his head.

'Kurama! You're awake!'

'Of course we're awake,' the vixen snorted. 'After beating up that stupid monkey for putting you in great harm like that, how the hell can we stay asleep? Luckily for both you and us, that kaima girl appeared right in time to pull you back here; had she been just a few more minutes late, we would have been dead. That was the time when I felt closer to death than ever.'

Naruto shuddered.

"What's wrong?" Isaribi blinked at him when she saw his strange reaction.

"Oh, nothing," Naruto waved her down. "My Tailed Beast has just talked to me… She was thankful for your timely rescue, Isaribi-chan."

Kurama snorted in his head.

'Come on now, you don't have to be so tsundere about that, Kurama,' he teased.

The kaima girl blinked. "So… you have a… monster inside your body, too?"

Naruto winced. "Kurama really hates being called a monster, you know."

That made Isaribi wince, too. "Oh… really sorry about that. So that means… you are also the same as me."

"Well, at first, maybe," Naruto chuckled. "When I first knew I had Kurama sealed in my belly, I got the same reaction as you. I had to say, at that time, all I wanted was to find a way to release her and let her destroy the village, and for quite some time, I had also thought she was just something I had to hate and be wary of, and something to exploit to become strong. But over time, I realized that I was wrong. Even monstrous beasts have their right to be understood. And then, after fighting each other for quite some time, we turned up to understanding each other. And now we are… well… kinda like best friends, yeah."

He could hear the sound of small giggles and Kurama's annoyed grumble in his head.

"That's so admirable," Isaribi smiled.

The pair continued staring at the sea for a while. The water was so calm and serene; if not knowing better, no one would expect there had just been a devastating battle happening near there.

Then Naruto remembered something.

"So… I guess you know the way to Kirigakure?" he asked. "I need to go back there now; I have to know what happened during the mission… it was so terrible…"

"What happened?" Isaribi blinked.

"We finished our mission, but during our trip back home, we were ambushed by two members of the Akatsuki," Naruto explained bitterly. "They were incredibly powerful, and we were all exhausted after our missions… so… they killed Chojuro," he punched the rail in anger.

A deathly silence.

"I'm really sorry about that," Finally, Isaribi said quietly. "But don't rush yourself like that," she continued. "You should stay here with me tonight; your body isn't in any condition to go anywhere. Tomorrow I will take you back to Kirigakure. We need to take a trip by boat in order to get to the village, and no boat is running at this time of the day."

Naruto opened his mouth to protest, but then realized what she said was true. Even though his body was in a much better state now than during that wretched battle, he could still feel the fatigue seemingly calling him back to bed. If a fight broke out now, he wouldn't be able to be at his best condition to face it.

"You're right," he smiled. "Thank you, Isaribi-chan."

Mei Terumi was drunk as a fiddler.

Usually, the Mizukage hated alcohol. But today, the first thing she had done when arriving back at Kirigakure was locking herself in the Mizukage chamber and drinking any kinds of alcoholic drink she could find in her vision. It was as if she was trying to drown herself in alcohol.

But no matter how much she drank, she still couldn't make her brain forget about that moment. She could never forget the last look in Chojuro's eyes. Those empty, haunting eyes… It reminded her about how useless, how weak she was; how the boy had trusted her and yet she failed him…

Screaming in anger, she threw the saucer she was holding at the wall. The poor ceramic creation smashed itself in the wall and shattered into hundreds of tiny pieces.

"Mei! Stop that! You're going to kill yourself if this continues! Open the door, now!"

Someone thumped furiously at the locked entrance. She turned her blurry eyes at the door and screamed in a slurry voice.

"Whozzaaa…att? Gouuuuwaaaaaiiii… limmelooone…"

The voice rose again, firmer and stronger than before.

"If you don't open the door, I'm going to knock it down!"

The drunk eyes of the Mizukage opened a little bit wider. "Dunyuuu… daaaaare…"

Before she could even finish the sentence, the door had been blasted open with a force that it was torn off its hinges and flew across the room in such a speed it smashed the window on the opposite wall into thousands of glass pieces. And the culprit was none other than Zabuza.

"WHOZAFUK DUYUUU THINE YUUUREEE…?!" She screeched, but the effect of her sentence was completely nullified by her slurry voice. "IMMA KEEEEEEL YUUUUUUU…"

Her sentence was cut short as she fell into blissful unconsciousness, courtesy of a quick chop to the back of her neck from Zabuza. He caught her as she fell forward and put her lying down on the couch in the Mizukage chamber.

"That should stop her from drinking herself to death, at least for now," the Captain of the Seven Swordsmen breathed out. He dropped himself on a chair next to the couch tiredly right before Shiro Ichigaki walked into the room.


Zabuza looked at the entering man. "Shiro. Where's Haku?"

"At the lake," the white-haired man answered solemnly. "I think she's trying to drown herself. But from what happened, it is understandable. Not only did she lose the Nuibari during the fight, the mental damage coming from the death of Chojuro was too much for her to handle."

Zabuza sighed. Things are starting to get out of their hands. He hadn't been there, so he couldn't imagine what kind of people could defeat the whole crew of the flagship of Kirigakure's navy, kill one of the elite members of the Seven Swordsmen and damage the two others as well as the Mizukage herself mentally, not to mention making the most powerful jinchuriki disappear and then after everything, get away with that. He looked at Shiro.

"Very well then. Give me a report. Who were the enemies, and how powerful were they?"

The white-haired man nodded. "One of those two called himself Lord Conqueror, and he is very skilled in a type of taijutsu using chakra or something similar. He was defeated by Naruto-san, but was seemingly rescued by someone before he could deliver the final blow. And the other guy… he was a very skilled swordsman. He is very fast, and his proficiency with his sword could rival any legendary swordsmen in Kirigakure's history. But…"

Zabuza narrowed his eyes. "But?"

"Yeah," Shiro nodded again. "It's actually that sword of him that gave us a very hard time. I've never seen any sword like that in my life. That saber is created using a material which glows brightly with a bluish light, and each swing of the sword could send out a wave of ice-element chakra so powerful that even our flagship was frozen easily with just a normal slash… what's wrong, sensei?"

He blinked when he saw his teacher's fingers gripping the knee of his trousers tightly. Sweat started rolling down on the older man's cheeks, and his face was gradually losing colour. "No… it couldn't be…"

"Sensei?" Shiro asked again, hesitantly, and Zabuza snapped out of his trance. He muttered.

"Sorry… bad habit… but if what you said was true, then…"

"Do you know those Akatsuki members, sensei?"

Zabuza shook his head. "I don't know that Lord Conqueror, but the description of the sword you mentioned matched that of a certain sword that I saw in the past. That sword, Shirayuki the Snow-White Saber, was made from a bar of chakra-conducting metal buried for hundreds of years under the never-melt snow mountains of the South Pole, which had absorbed the subzero cold nature chakra of the ice and snow from years to years and acquired the power to change any kind of chakra flowing through it into Ice element. That bar of metal was so cold that it could not be used to forge weapons; any fire coming near it would be extinguished immediately due to the freezing air coming from it. That was why the creator of the sword, a legendary swordsmith whose name has been lost for quite a long time, was forced to create it solely from grinding and filing the metal bar until it formed the proper blade of the sword. And because of that, only some certain people could touch and wield the sword properly; if they don't have the proper abilities, the sword would freeze them to the core immediately when they touch the hilt."

"So it's like… the sword chooses its wielder, doesn't it?"

Zabuza nodded. "In a way, yes. And if that sword is really Shirayuki, then the identity of that Akatsuki swordsman is clear. He must be the last person I know who was the owner of Shirayuki, a swordsman named Honto Warukata."

The unfamiliar name made Shiro blink. "Honto… Warukata? I've never heard about any person with that name before. What kind of shinobi is he, sensei?"

Zabuza shook his head. "Have you ever heard about the term 'wandering swordsmen', Shiro?"

Shiro blinked again. "Are they like samurai?"

"No," Zabuza shook his head again. "Samurai are also swordsmen, yes, but they are usually employed by daimyos and work as an army force of a land or a country, just like shinobi themselves. However… wandering swordsmen don't work for anyone. They travel across the land, doing various jobs for payment, training their sword arts to become stronger… but they don't stay at one place for long, never work under a master, and only fight for what they believe in. That makes them different from shinobi and samurai, who work in groups and with a set codes of law of their own."

"I see…" Shiro mumbled. "If that's the case, how did you know that Warukata man, sensei? I don't think the bingo book would have the name of people like him."

"Of course the bingo book doesn't have his name," Zabuza snorted. "No, I met that man only once during the time I travelled the continent, before I met Haku. I was no match for him… and he stomped me to the ground just after trading a few blows. That fight was the reason why I travelled to Haku's village to find a descendant of the Yuki clan, the people with power similar to that sword of him, to strengthen the power under my wing in the hope of overthrowing the Fourth Mizukage some day. But…"

Zabuza suddenly stopped mid-sentence, surprising Shiro. "But?"

"Yeah, but," the older swordsman nodded. "It is impossible to imagine that guy being in the Akatsuki if you already met him once. I still remember the last thing he said to me after beating the crap out of me…"

A defeated Zabuza lay sprawled on the ground. He wasn't even holding his sword anymore; the mighty Kubikiribocho could be seen buried into the trunk of a tree nearby.

"How?" he gritted his teeth. "How could you be so strong? I've never seen anyone as powerful as you. Even among the Seven Swordsmen…"

The man standing above him just looked at him. A look not of hatred, nor of pride or even victory. More like… it's just a look of pity.

"You said your name is Zabuza Momochi, didn't you?"

Zabuza snarled. "So what if I am?"

The man looked at him from head to toe once again. Then, he sighed.

"It's not like you are not powerful. You are, indeed, one of the most skilled swordsmen I've ever met during my journey. However… you are never going to defeat me in your current state."

Zabuza's eyes flashed in anger. "What did you say?!"

"You have the skills, you have the strength, but what you lack is a purpose," the swordsman continued as if Zabuza hadn't just interrupted him. "You don't know what you should do with what you have beside fulfiling your selfish desires. If you still haven't understood, then I will tell you: true power can only be achieved when you fight for other people you cherish."

Then he walked away, leaving Zabuza there, stunned, confused and seething in rage.

"…And that's why after the duel with him, I decided to travel to Haku's village to find myself a descendent of the Yuki clan, the people with the ability to wield ice element in their blood," he admitted. "At that time, I only thought that the power of her might be a great boon for my plan to overthrow Yagura, but now…"

He chuckled. "Hate to admit it, but beside the blonde brat of Konoha, that guy might be the person whose influence made me the man I am today."

Then he frowned. "But that made the fact that he joined the Akatsuki even more unbelievable. Even in my wildest dream I still cannot believe that an honorable man like him could stoop so low that he became a terrorist."

"Could it be…" Shiro gave a theory, "…that he is under someone, or something's, control? Maybe that Lord Conqueror is hiding something about him. I don't think it's a coincidence that the Akatsuki is letting them work together."

Zabuza grimaced. "If that's the case… then we're in a way more serious trouble than we thought before."

Then he abruptedly stood up from his seat.

"Shiro," he commanded in a sharp voice. "Send the ANBU to find as much information about that Lord Conqueror as possible. And immediately update the bingo book about the two new Akatsuki members, and alert Konoha and Suna about this. They must know about this new development before it's too late."

Another training dummy shattered under the blade of the katana Haku was holding on her hand.

She gasped, stumbling back in exhaustion. Those were just the normal, basic kata she always did when training, but today, somehow… the sword felt so heavy on her hands. Usually, she could do those moves as if she was born with them, but now, all of her movements were awkward and sloppy.

Letting out a scream of anger and frustration, she threw the katana at a nearby rock. The blade of the sword smashed into the hard surface and broke in half.

Of course she understood the reason why she was like this. It was her uselessness that caused everything; not only did she lose the treasured Nuibari, the sword entrusted to her by her own father and the Mizukage herself, she was also the reason why the flagship of the Navy was destroyed, and why her own teammate was dead. Trying to drown herself at the lake didn't help her in any way, so she had resorted to forcing herself to train like a mad woman to forget about that terrible moment.

But until now, it seemed that it didn't work, either.

Tears streamed down her cheeks. Collapsing on the ground, she punched the grassy surface. Again. And again. Blood started dripping down her knuckles onto the ground, but she didn't even care. She just kept punching the ground nonstop while screaming all of her anguish and despair out.

Unknown to her, a person had been watching her since the beginning. And only when he walked out and grabbed her shoulder did she jump in shock and surprise.


Then she gasped when the jinchuriki pulled her into a hug.

"Shhh…" he whispered. "You don't have to hold back anything. Just let everything out."

Those words coming from him acted as the final trigger. Everything inside Haku exploded outward like a bomb; she couldn't stop herself from crying her heart out anymore. She always knows that an assassin isn't allowed to show their emotions like this, but right now, she didn't even care.

Utakata didn't say anything for a while. He just stood there, letting the girl release every bit of pain and sorrow in her heart onto him. After a while, when her crying had reduced to slight hiccups, he looked at her.

"Feeling alright yet?"

She nodded, and the two sat down on the grassy clearing.

"So this is the first time you saw someone precious to you dying?" Utakata suddenly asked.

Haku shook her head. "No, actually… I saw my mother being killed right in front of me, by my own father when I was six. That was a few years before my fa-… no, Zabuza-sama took me under his care and trained me to be a shinobi."

The jinchuriki nodded. "So tell me. How did you feel this time? Is it different from how you felt when you were a kid, seeing your mother being killed in front of you?"

Haku stared at Utakata with wide eyes. That question was a really sensitive one, but at the same time, it hit bullseye at what she's wondering right now.

"How do you know that?" she asked. Utakata didn't answer; instead, he just continued looking at her, waiting for her answer.

"It was true…" Finally, Haku lowered her head. "When I saw my father killed my mother, I didn't actually remember anything except for me going completely mad and murdering everyone in front of me… but this time… the only thing I felt was despair and hopelessness. I… I don't know why but… I couldn't even move a muscle when he… he killed Chojuro-kun. Why am I so weak…?" she finished miserably.

"So that's what it is, hmm…"

She blinked. "Huh?"

"Tell me," he closed his eyes. "Why do you think even though you could slay those people who killed your mother easily, you couldn't when facing that very powerful swordsman?"

Haku was surprised. "Wha…? Isn't it because I was too weak?"

Utakata's mouth lifted up in a small smile. "Is it true, I wonder?"


"Anything in life has two ways to look at," the jinchuriki looked up into the sky. "In a perspective, it is true that you might be too weak. However, in another point of view, it might just be that you were not strong enough. That's all."

"Eh?" Haku blurted out dumbly. "Aren't they both the same?"

Utakata shook his head. "No, Haku, they are what makes the biggest difference. You see, if you continue thinking you are too weak, you will forever be weak. The only thing you would do when you have to face that powerful enemy again is running away to hide, because in the deepest part of your consciousness, the idea that you can never reach his level has already been hammered down firmly. However, if you are not strong enough, then it only means you haven't been able to reach his level yet. But someday, you will be able to catch up, and that will be the time when you will finally be able to avenge your comrade. I don't know about you, but if I can't protect the people I love, then I will make sure that the people who harm them face proper retribution."

Haku was stunned by these words. For a few seconds, she didn't know what to say anymore.

Utakata stood up. He walked to a tree nearby and picked up a rather large branch lying on the ground. He pointed the makeshift stick at the girl.

"Now, if you want to have a little bit of practice, pick up your sword and come at me. Even though I cannot use chakra yet, I'm sure my swordsmanship would still be able to give you a good fight."

Haku nodded and stood up. She picked up the broken sword she had thrown away before and gripped it tightly in her hand.

Now she understands. Even though that swordsman was incredibly skilled and powerful, that doesn't mean she will never be able to defeat him. She is going to push herself to the limit again, and the next time they meet, she will not lose anymore comrade to the Akatsuki.

"Yeah," she pointed the broken sword at the jinchuriki, who smiled at her. "I'm not going to lose myself again, and the next time, I will definitely surpass him!"

The pair of Konoha shinobi crossed the forest in silence.

Not only because they were getting closer and closer to the place where Fuu had sensed Orochimaru and Sai stopped running. Since Fuu could sense their presences not moving anywhere else, it could be safely assumed that Orochimaru had reached one of his bases. And it also meant Sai hadn't given away anything about her abilities. Therefore they could afford to slow down a bit to save their strength for the incoming fight.

No, it was also because Fuu was having other things in her head to think about. Specifically, about the content of the sketchbook she found in Sai's backpack.

For some reason, she didn't think that the book would end at the fight between the two brothers. Maybe because the number of paper sheets in the sketchbook was even; if the ending would be the victor in the fight of the two brothers, the number of sheets should be odd instead. Maybe there was some other meaning behind that…

Or maybe it was just her hopeful thinking. Being Chomei's jinchuriki, positive thinking was something she had gotten used to since she was a child.

But it couldn't change the fact that right now, Sai was a deserter who willingly went to the side of one of the most dangerous missing-nin in the whole continent, or at least that's what it looked like. And considering he had once tried to kidnap Naruto-kun when he was at his weakest… there was really no reason for her to care about him. Why should she even care about him anyway? She had not even known about him before.

Is this the feeling of being a leader? Always having some care about your teammates and subordinates, even though they had no bond with you before?

The place where they were going to appeared right after they exited the forest. It was a small clearing with a rock formation standing in the middle. Really unimpressive, but both of them knew impressiveness isn't something shinobi should think about when deciding something is dangerous or not.

"This is the place, isn't it?"

Fuu nodded. She gripped the handle of Hyperia tightly. "Yeah. Just wait. We're going to take you back, Sai."

Okay, so I... kinda lied a bit about the content of this chapter in the sneak peek of the last chapter. This chapter isn't about Fuu and Kosuke, but rather about the one who saved Naruto from his demise and the shinobi of Kirigakure after their devastating loss. The reason I made such a last-minute change was because I felt that it would make more sense that way after re-reading the outline.

Still, this chapter gives us some big information about the identity of the mysterious Akatsuki swordsman. And the next chapter would be about Fuu and Kosuke, marching into Orochimaru's lair to find their teammate, as well as to find out about whatever Orochimaru was planning in there.

Stay tuned!