Chapter 64

"Why are you here?" Sasuke asked. He was the first one who noticed the fact that Kakashi-sensei had arrived. The moment that particular branch shook more vigorously than the rest in the wind, it was caught by his sharingan.

"That's no way to talk to your sensei," Their Jonin-sensei answered, eyes curving into a smile as he jumped down from the branch.

Sasuke rolled his eyes - now Hatake was just playing dumb - but nevertheless, he clarified, "What made you decide to be on time today?"

Kakashi-sensei shrugged his shoulders and said, "It's best if a boring adult like me don't butt into the precious bonding time between children."

What kind of excuse is that? Sasuke felt his fist tighten as rage built up in his body. The worst part, he couldn't deny the fact that as the months went by where it was expected that their sensei wouldn't arrive on time, the three of them got into a routine of setting up the arena and targets for practice, fuelled by a common rage towards their sensei.

Still, If Hatake wanted independence, he could have at least come up with better excuses for his habitual lateness.

"But I supposed that you all are not children now, are you?" Kakashi-sensei looked at him, reminding Sasuke of the fact that he was a Chunin now. If they wanted, Team 7 could take C-rank missions on their own, without the supervision of their Jonin-sensei because Sasuke would be qualified as a team leader.

"Aren't you busy? Is it okay to waste time on us, then?" Sasuke asked instead. A few meters away, Naruto and Sakura stared at them as well, holding the wooden targets in their hands amongst the training field that was partially set up.

They all knew that Kakashi-sensei, compared to other Jonin sensei, had the added responsibility as the Jonin Commander. His eyes always needed to be on a bigger picture than the three of them. Independence was what they needed to learn quickly, and they had, so there was no need for Kakashi-sensei to worry for them at every turn.

"You're still my precious students and subordinates, at least, until I get kicked out of Team 7. I'll always make time for the team." Kakashi-sensei let out a laugh as he waved his novel at them. "So, are we ready for some team bonding activities?"

"Ne, Kakashi-sensei. Regular exercise is getting old. Now that we're not children anymore, how about you get more serious with us?" Naruto yelled from the side, his hands reached into his shinobi pouch as excitement vibrated off of his face.

"Well, I don't want to crush your newly built confidence," their sensei said without an ounce of shame. To that, Sasuke just let out a 'hn'.

"Then we'll just build it up again. Show us how far we are from the strength of a jonin, Kakashi-sensei," Sasuke said as he walked back to stand with Naruto.

"Mah, I can't say no to my cute students," Kakashi-sensei rubbed his hair as he tucked his novel away. Then he turned to Sakura, "What about you, Sakura, are you going to join them?"

It took Sakura a few seconds to make her decision. "Yes. But as a medical-nin at my current level, my job is to hide and survive, so that I can heal my teammates with efficiency." She would still be a target for Kakashi, but her mission would be different.

"I see. Sounds good to me." Kakashi-sensei said with a smile as he closed his eyes. "I'll give you five counts, then it's all fair game."

"One." The three of them exchanged a glance as they scattered into the forest.

"Two." Naruto made the hand seals as shadow clones popped up around him. The majority scattered into the forest, while one of them followed Sakura as she ventured deep into the forest, but not too deep that she wouldn't be able to fulfill her job as a medical-nin.

"Three." One of Naruto follows Sasuke as they land on a tree branch, Kakashi-sensei's figure just visible behind the layers of leaves.

"Four." Sasuke stretched the ninja wire across his fingers, feeling the familiar metallic texture against his hardened callus. He took a breath, just as Naruto did the same.

"Five." The moment the word was sounded, barrages of Naruto dashed towards Kakashi, assaulting him with a variety of taijutsu.

Kakashi-sensei didn't even flinch as he got surrounded by a wave of orange. His fingers moved with fluidity as he made two hand seals and a whirlwind expanded from his body, pushing the shadow clones back, dispelling those that were hit by blades of wind.

However, as if anticipating such a jutsu of mass destruction, the shadow clones paired up, sacrificing one to push the other side, allowing close to half of the clones to survive, preventing Kakashi-sensei from pinpointing the original body.

Suddenly, Kakashi sensei appeared behind the clones and slammed the blunt end of his kunai into his back, dispelling it faster than Naruto could let out a noise. This was the speed and agility of a Jonin - the Kakashi-sensei that didn't have to tone down his movement to teach them a lesson.

There was no time to be shocked. Sasuke shot the ninja wire out towards the Naruto clone that was about to become Kakashi-sensei's next victim, shattering the clone, replacing it with a web of deadly wires. Kakashi-sensei almost ran into the web with the momentum, his arm missing the lines by a centimetre.

Sasuke pulled his wires, ready to trap Kakashi's arm. But before he could, a touch of lightning ran up the metallic surface, forcing him to drop the wires. From under the tree, Kakashi-sensei glanced at him for a brief second, leaving behind the glow of the red Sharingan.

At least they got him to use the Sharingan.

Sasuke didn't waste any time before blowing out three chains of fire dragons, letting them crash into the silver-haired man, forcing him to backtrack his steps. Just then, Naruto punched forward, a paper seal between his fingers.

Kakashi-sensei narrowed his eyes at the pattern on the paper - the chakra-restraining seal Naruto had used on Neji. Without a pause, the Jonin pivoted his body and kicked Naruto in the stomach, dispelling the clone before it could even touch him.

"Got you."

As the shadow clone dispersed, the seal was left in the air. However, what should just be a harmless paper - now that Naruto wasn't there to activate it - started glowing as another pattern materialized on its backside.

Shinobi should never treat their enemy as static beings. Everyone was evolving, including Naruto. Behind the dud chakra-suppression seal that was used as a decoy, the actual seal laid underneath and was designed to activate when the chakra supply had been cut.

"Well played." Kakashi-sensei let out a small laugh as a blast of explosion enveloped him, drowning his voice with the thick smoke.

Sasuke never thought that the Jonin would be wiped out by one explosive tag. His eyes confirmed as well when Kakashi-sensei's chakra signature disappeared behind the earth walls he had summoned to block the explosion.

More likely than not, Kakashi-sensei was hiding beneath the earth … There. Sasuke filled his kunai with lightning chakra before he threw it towards the ground, where he had seen a tiny vibration.

Lightning spread across the ground as a figure rose from it. Sasuke only had the time to raise his arm before a strong force crashed onto his arm guard and knocked him down from the branch.

During the fall, Sasuke knew that Kakashi-sensei wasn't going to just stand there and watch him fall - no, this was a perfect time for a follow-up attack. So instead of blocking the attack that would come and inevitably get slammed further into the ground, Sasuke shot out a shuriken tied with ninja wire and wrapped it around a thick tree branch.

With one more shuriken, he secured the wire and swung himself out of the way. In the blink of an eye, Kakashi-sensei passed him by an inch as he pulled himself into a different trajectory. Sasuke felt the kunai slicing through his sleeve and licking a thin red line on his shoulder.

Sasuke jumped down and landed on the base of a tree trunk. His hands were already near his mouth and he blew out a great fireball through his fingers. Kakashi-sensei flickered out of its pathway with a speed that Sasuke could just catch with his sharingan.

"Narukami," Sasuke whispered as a bolt of lightning shot down from the sky. It missed Kakashi-sensei by half a metre, but enough to halt him a little and pinpoint his location for Sasuke's teammates to see.

Naruto's shadow clones arrived following his cue, surrounding the jonin, with sealing paper interlaced between his fingers. With the varieties of seals that Naruto could use increased, it became more complicated to judge what effect each paper was supposed to have.

Then, Kakashi-sensei's strategy should change from simple taijutsu to area-of-effect ninjutsu.

As expected, Sasuke saw streams of lightning sprouting from his palm, thickening into three wolves as they zig-zagged towards the dozens of Naruto. The wolves howled the sound of lightning as it decimated the clones in its path, regardless if they were holding the suppression seal or the explosion tag.

However, before all the Naruto could be cleared, A fire dragon raced towards Kakashi-sensei. The dragon made of flame roared as it swirled into the older man, forcing him to end his jutsu to blow out a stream of water that wrapped itself around the blazing dragon, quenching the fiery heat.

The next second, Sasuke was above Jonin, slamming his leg down on Kakashi-sensei's shoulder. The ground shook a little as Sasuke pushed his weight down, his body already turning with the momentum to aim another kick to his sensei's head. However, a little spark of electricity danced on his opponent's fingertip. Instinctively, Sasuke pushed himself off and narrowly avoided getting paralyzed by Kakashi-sensei's touch.

A bolt of lightning sped down from the sky right in front of Sasuke. Clenching his teeth, he pushed off of the ground and jumped back, feeling his ankle straining due to the swift movement.

But this was only a distraction as Kakashi-sensei's attention on him was short-lived. Dozens of small, but swift Narukami fell down from the sky, pinpointing each and every Naruto that remained with precision.

All but two Naruto got struck and disintegrated. Once again, Kakashi-sensei flickered behind a Naruto that remained and sent a spark of electricity down his teammate's neck. A puff of smoke exploded as another Naruto went out.

Sasuke moved before Kakashi-sensei, he breathed out a series of Hōsenka right as Kakashi-sensei arrived near the last Naruto that remained in the field. The Hōsenka's trajectories were dense, but they would have been too obvious for Kakashi-sensei's sharingan. Sasuke didn't have a second to waste as he threw out a batch of electro-infused shuriken, willing them to catch up to the small clusters of fire, turning them into a firework of explosions.

Amidst the smoke, Sasuke remembered to streak in his chakra, just as Itachi had taught him. There was just a moment of pause in Kakashi-sensei's movement as he punched Naruto in the stomach. Sasuke's red eyes swirled as he struggled to maintain the genjutsu and as expected, it barely lasted a fraction of a second as the Jonin narrowed his eyes and continued with his motion unhindered.

Naruto was sent stumbling backward, clutching onto his stomach with heavy breaths. Sasuke was assaulted with a row of earth spikes that rose around him. If it were a few months ago, he would have been insulted by the fact that Kakashi-sensei ran right past them, leaving a trapped Sasuke and a half-injured Naruto behind.

Just like it was Sakura's job to stand back as the only medical-nin on the team, it was Naruto and Sasuke's jobs to counter their sensei and protect their medical-nin.

Sasuke stabbed a lighting-filled kunai into the ground and let the web of electricity shock the earth spikes into pieces, then he followed Kakashi-sensei into the forest, who no doubt was going to attack Sakura. He felt his breath being winded as he chased the jonin using body-flickers, barely able to match his speed.

Within seconds, Kakashi arrived at where Sakura was hiding with one of Naruto. As soon as the leaves shook, Sakura wasted no time to flicker away as Naruto stood between her and Kakashi-sensei.

However, with a tap of his palm on the ground, spikes of rock rose up from the ground in various directions, preventing Sakura from leaving and pushing Naruto back a few steps. In such a time, Naruto and Sakura regrouped quickly as Kakashi-sensei flickered in front of them.

Naruto was just in time to block a hit for Sakura, letting Kakashi-sensei's punch crash into his stomach. He barely had time to turn his body so that the impact wouldn't be as bad, had it hit right on the centre. Still, that was enough force to dispel a shadow clone - had it been a shadow clone.

The 'Naruto' in front of Sakura didn't break into a puff of smoke like Kakashi-sensei thought it would. Instead, Naruto drew in a breath of pain as he reached forward. A paper seal slid out of his sleeve right before he plastered it on Kakashi-sensei's arm. Simultaneously, Kakashi's other hand arrived and he pushed his knuckle into Naruto's shoulder, numbing his entire arm.

Still, the smile on Naruto's face said that he had already pushed his chakra in, activating the chakra suppression seal on Kakashi-sensei. Sasuke didn't need another cue as he let a bolt of Narukami crash down on Kakashi-sensei - not directly on top of him, but close enough that it would paralyze him nonetheless.

Without the flow of chakra, all forms of jutsu and body enhancement were eliminated, making it impossible for Kakashi-sensei to escape. Their victory should be certain.

However, at the last moment, an earth wall rose from the ground, enveloping Kakashi-sensei before it got shattered by the Narukami. They didn't have time to be shocked because Naruto was falling down with a touch of electricity from their sensei.

Before Sasuke could yell for Sakura to get away, their sensei already placed a kunai near her neck.

That was the end of their battle and signified their defeat.

"But how? I activated the seal?" Naruto asked on the ground as he struggled to shake off the paralysis in his limbs.

"That's nice thinking, Naruto, trying to convince me that the one with Sakura is a shadow clone while the one near the training ground is the real you." Of course, Kakashi-sensei never answered their questions on the first try.

The Jonin turned to Sasuke with a smile and said, "It was the genjutsu wasn't it? To try to mess up my perception of the power output, so that I didn't hit hard enough for the shadow clone to disperse."

Reluctantly, Sasuke nodded. The genjutsu was never meant to last long or incapacitate Kakashi-sensei, not with his sharingan and decades of experience. Still, as transience as the illusion may be, it could still make an impression. Sasuke just needed to initiate the push, and Naruto could act out the rest.

"Your other teacher taught you well," Kakashi said to him before turning to Naruto again, peeling off the paper seal stuck on his arm and holding it low enough for Naruto to see. All of their eyes widened when they saw the line of blood that smeared on its surface, disrupting the pattern drawn on the paper.

"Seals relied on the accuracy of the patterns and blood is just as conducive of a medium as ink. At higher levels, there are ways to protect the seals from being altered that easily. But at your level, Naruto, you need to watch out for the state of your seals more carefully. Otherwise, it's easy to counter," Kakashi-sensei explained while also raising his other hand to show the cut on his index finger and the smear of blood around it. He must have altered the seal right as Naruto was about to activate it.

"Nevertheless, I'm quite impressed with the teamwork this time. Sakura too, for understanding her role as a medical-nin and a potential bait." Kakashi-sensei stood up and gave a smile to his third student.

"Every shinobi is taught to go for the medical-nin first. If Sensei is truly fighting us as a Jonin, then you would be no different," Sakura said as she knelt down and started healing Naruto. The planning was a joint effort, from the decision to make the real Naruto go with Sakura, to the set-up to fool Kakashi-sensei to think otherwise.

As Kakashi-sensei said, those times when he was late for their training were not wasted - at least for them, god knows what their teacher was doing.

"I see that my thoughts have been read," Kakashi-sensei joked as he pointed at his head.

Sasuke narrowed his eyes at that - surely, his sensei was exaggerating - but nevertheless, he raised his head a little and answered. "At the end of the day, we want to be able to fight alongside you." And they couldn't do that unless they could predict the thoughts of someone at the level of Kakashi-sensei.

"Sensei is touched." Kakashi-sensei rubbed his heart with an exaggerated motion. Immediately, Sasuke regretted saying anything.

"One more time, please!" Naruto yelled as he got up from the ground, paralysis finally gone due to Sakura's healing.

"Not today. It seems that we have some guests," Kakashi-sensei said as he turned in the direction of the training ground. A moment later, Jiraiya the Sannin walked out from the forest, followed by Maiko-nee from behind.

"I hope we're not interrupting much," Jiraiya said as he strolled in with a string of sake bottles in his hands. "We just need to borrow Naruto for a moment."

"Well then, Sakura and Sasuke can come with me to the training ground." Kakashi waved the two of them along and said nothing else. There weren't a lot of decisions that got passed in the village without Kakashi-sensei's knowledge, especially not ones that involved Naruto.

Somehow, Sasuke didn't think that the conversation would be as straightforward as announcing the results of Naruto's Chunin Evaluation.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Nice explosive seals, by the way. It's quite cleverly designed," I told the boy as he sat down by the tree trunk. Even if their power was no different from the normal explosive tags, it was the surprise factor that really made them useful in battle.

"You saw that? I thought it would be a big surprise, you know." Naruto laughed while rubbing the back of his head. "Ero-sennin helped me design the array that will change the activating conditions so that you have to put in the chakra first then take it away."

I looked at Jiraiya, who nodded his head at me, full of pride in his eyes. It sounded a little counterintuitive compared to the normal explosive tag that only required a streak of chakra or some external stimulation to ignite, but that was exactly why it worked.

"Anyway, Maiko-nee, Ero-sennin, what are you here for?" Naruto asked, his voice suddenly turning quiet. There was a moment of pause as he asked, "Is it about Nine-Tail?"

"Naruto, I've told you before, after the first leakage, the seal on your stomach will slowly weaken as time passes by," Jiraiya explained, picking up a bottle of sake hanging from his belt. Naruto looked skeptical at the fact that the sannin was drinking while explaining something so serious, but it wasn't like he could do anything about it.

"That means your growth must match that of the seal. Too fast, you'll get overwhelmed; too slow, and the power inside of you becomes unstable." At the same time, Jiraiya poured the bottle of sake to make his point.

At first, the stream of liquid was steady and calm. Then, he tilted the bottle in a harsh angle so that the liquid poured out fiercely, making wild splashes on the dirt. Finally, he raised the bottle, until barely any liquid dripped out of the bottle. Still, after a while, the liquid that remained in the sake bottle had to go somewhere. With a slight shake of his hand, the sake rushed out of the bottle uncontrolled and unrestrained.

"Especially with the existence of Akatsuki, they will try to draw out the beast inside of you in order to subdue it. If you lack preparation, it will be easy for them to get you to lose control, especially if your seal continues to weaken," I said a moment later, watching Naruto go silent.

While the Nine-Tail transformation didn't cause much trouble during the Chunin Exam because both Jiraiya and Tenzō were prepared, Naruto had clearly seen the destruction that Gaara went on under the provocation by Akatsuki.

"Right now, we're considering two options. One, to tighten your seal once in a while, making it harder for Nine-Tail to break loose even during moments of your emotional distress," Jiraiya said as he held up one of his fingers.

"And two?" Naruto asked.

"Start learning how to control Nine-Tail's chakra and get used to accessing that power of negative emotions," Jiraiya answered him. "It's completely your decision, how you want to proceed."

Control or be controlled; devour or be devoured, that applied to all sources of great power.

"Naruto, just because you have this power, doesn't mean you have to force yourself to use it-"

"Maiko. Let him decide for himself." Jiraiya cut me off before I could finish the sentence. I supposed he was right - this was his decision. But the fact that the choices had to come up was because of this looming threat known as Akatsuki.

"I'll learn to control Nine-Tail's Chakra." I shouldn't really be surprised by his answer. Naruto added the next second, "Even if we were to seal it over and over, it won't just disappear."

"Let's go somewhere quiet then, to see exactly where you stand with the fox aura." Jiraiya was never the one to be unsure. When he gave Naruto the option to choose, he decided to treat his decision with all seriousness. There were no right or wrong decisions, as long as one was willing to accept the consequences.

"Do you want your teammates to come?" I asked as we walked back to the training ground, Kakashi and his two other students already in sight.

"Can they?" Naruto asked, looking surprised.

"You want to continue running missions with them, right?" I asked instead and received a nod in response. "Then I don't think it's against any rules for them to understand how to support their teammate."

"What did he choose?" Kakashi asked as we stepped out of the forest.

"Well, we're going to the arena, so the answer should be clear. You're all invited," I said to him before following Jiraiya and Naruto towards the Eastern Forest.

Kakashi shrugged, accepting the turn of the event with ease as he waved the children along. "There's no better team bonding activity than the chance to understand your teammate."

"What is this place?" Sakura asked in awe as we descended into the steel-lined halls underground, where Root used to operate.

"Konoha used to have a hidden division in Anbu called Root. However, as time went by, its leader became paranoid and discontent with the power he had. Root's leader was executed for treason last year and the division had been disbanded," I explained to the girl as we looked down on the empty space from the railing.

"This used to be one of their bases, and since it's left in good condition, Tsunade-sama transformed it into a space that could be used for evacuation, refuge, or containment, depending on the needs that arose." It was Konoha's funds that Danzō used to build these places, Tsunade-sama reasoned, so we might as well make use of them.

A few steps in front of us, Jiraiya threw Naruto down into the arena against his screams, before jumping down himself. Naruto landed with an undignified roll, while Jiraiya landed on his frog summon with ease.

I let out a sigh at their antics, shaking my head as I jumped down as well.

"Don't be shy, Naruto, call out your Nine-Tail chakra," Jiraiya said with nonchalance as if it was just that easy. Based on the pissed-off expression on Naruto's face, he didn't appreciate it either.

"I would if I could! What am I supposed to do, asked Nine-Tail?" Naruto yelled with disbelief. Still, he stayed silent in concentration as he tried to conjure up the Nine-tail chakra from the depth of his stomach.

"Nope. He won't answer me." Naruto's concentration disintegrated after a good minute where nothing happened.

Jiraiya gave me the look, telling me to do something. I stared back, asking him if he was serious. His expression didn't change, so I supposed that he must be serious.

Silently, I muttered a sorry to the boy in my mind before I dashed in front of him and sent him flying with a kick. The force knocked Naruto back a few metres as he crashed into the ground with a roll, looking stunned.

"Maiko-nee, what are you-"

"Do you know why you're not made a Chunin?" I asked before he could finish his sentence. Naruto opened his mouth, but nothing seemed to come out, so I answered for him.

"It's because you're like this. Naive and unprepared for any danger." I flickered to his right and Naruto reacted just in time to block my strike with his arm, but within a fraction of a second, I swiped his legs off the ground and Naruto fell down on his butt.

"There's no true equality, Naruto. You're a Jinchuuriki, so you'll be judged harsher than the rest. It always has been, and it always will be," I told him as he crawled up and tightened his muscle in a defensive position.

"Being a Chunin meant that you'll need to take care of yourself on missions outside of the village. But what will you do when someone like me is chasing you, trying to capture you? Will the village have to send Anbu after you at every turn?" In front of Naruto, I disappeared in a spark of lightning and the next thing he knew, I had already kneed him in the back, forcing him back on the ground again.

I could feel the rage and frustration building up in the boy on the ground, not necessarily against me, but what I had said. But it wasn't enough, so I had to keep going.

"Say, why don't you just stay in the village and be protected? How much does your dream worth against the weight of an unfair reality?"

An aura of menace started to spread from the boy's body as his eyes turned beastly. Soon, a coat of red started to bubble up from his skin, gathering into the shape of a fox with one tail swinging. Nine-Tail felt his emotions and he would never miss a chance to cause us trouble.

There was a moment of cloudiness in his scarlet eyes, but it soon turned into panic as he realized what he had released. But before his hand could go to his pouch and pull out a suppression seal, I threw out a kunai and knocked his pouch aside to the ground.

"Remember this negativity you're feeling, this rage and frustration. It will always exist because the reality is indeed unfair. But also remember that you do plan to fight it, in your own ways," I said to the boy as he stood up in his cloak of scarlet.

Yin and Yang, negativity and positivity, hate and love … one couldn't exist without another, nor could one be understood without the acceptance of the other. Naruto needed to find a balance of his own against the menacing negativities of Nine-Tail.

"Don't fear this, don't run away from it. Show me what you can do with this power because you're the one who chose this path."

A wave of chakra pulsed outward, pressuring every muscle and every bone in my body. Behind me, Jiraiya narrowed his eyes at the scene as his hand clenched tight on the sealing scrolls hanging from his back.

He might seem like the one that decided everything with whims, but he was also the one who had thought for the longest whenever a decision regarding Naruto came up.

"I don't want to hurt you, Maiko-nee," Naruto said with clarity in his eyes. But he was unsure of his power in this state, just like he was uncertain how long he could stay in control.

"You won't, I promise. Have more faith in me." I returned a smile and that seemed to relieve him of his stress, just a little.

Jinrai stimulated my body with a weak surge of electricity, making me move and react at the speed behind normal comprehension. In a different way, Naruto's Nine-Tail chakra did the same for him, making him stronger, faster, and more agile.

In the blink of an eye, a mob of red appeared in my vision as Naruto slammed his arm towards me. His fist crashed into the ground and shook it loud, but there was nothing left except some residual electrical discharge.

I tapped the wall with the sole of my feet and pushed off again. I zoomed past Naruto's eyes and slashed with a standard Anbu tantō - with the sheath on, of course - and Naruto reacted by taking a step back.

He wasn't fast enough to escape the impact as my sword struck the side of his rib, but the sword still got marks of corrosion on its sheath as it passed through his cloak of chakra. Naruto flipped in the air, landing on the ground with his body lowered. With explosive power, he kicked up his leg. That almost took my shoulder if I hadn't turned my torso in time.

However, I did not expect the make-shift tail that followed. The mass of chakra sliced down in front of my face as I pushed myself to the side. The chakra missed my face by an inch, but a few strands of my hair were less fortunate and got burned by the chakra.

Using the momentum, I turned and thrust the sheath into the boy's stomach, pushing him back with force. But Naruto grabbed my sword despite the pain, his red eyes staring into mine; vertical pupil slits against the tomoe.

There was still clarity that showed me who was in control, but the cloudiness was already spreading.

Naruto swiped his other palm forward and I wasted no time in flashing away, leaving the sword in his grip with its sheath already corroded through.

I made a few jumps in Jinrai and bounced off of a low railing. Below, Naruto was starting to catch my position with a horrifying instinct as he followed my movement, albeit with a beat behind.

I crashed down from the above and smacked my heel onto his back, making him stagger forward. My foot only contacted his chakra cloak for a fraction of a second, and the fabric of my shoe was already peeling.

Naruto let out a gagged cough as he struggled to stand up. It was then that the second tail started to sprout from his lower spine.

"Maiko," Jiraiya called out to me immediately, telling me that it was time to stop.

"Got it," I answered as my eyes swirled into the Mangekyou. Naruto raised his head, eyes clouded with menace. Still, his eyes widened in surprise when my Mangekyou trapped him in a deep pool of water.

The next second, I saw the giant prison gate, the elaborate seal that served as the lock, and the boy that was immersed in a mass of orange bubbles.

"You Uchiha again." A pair of eyes glistened in the dark as the deep voice growled from behind the gate. "Who gave you the guts to come in here and face me."

Who gave me the guts, I wondered.

"First of all, this is the first time we met," I said, stepping forward even if the entire atmosphere here elicited fear. "As for your question, Saiken did. Although, he did warn me that not all of his kin are as kind as him."

"That lazy slug! Would it kill him to stop being a pushover!" Well, he and I had very different ideas on what 'pushover' meant. At this point, I wasn't really sure if his anger was directed towards me or Saiken. Still, I focused on what I needed to do.

I walked towards Naruto and extended my hand. Sparks flew from my palm, igniting the mist of orange and burning it until nothing remained. I pulled Naruto to me as he tapped his chest to steady his breathing.

"Now that you've started this, the boy can't escape anymore, some 'family' you are to him, pushing him to this fate," Nine-Tail mocked from behind the bars, his teeth barely visible in the shadows.

"Hey, that's nonsense. I choose this, okay, my decision!" Naruto yelled out before I could respond. "If you're going to continue being a pain in the ass with all your anger and negativities, that's fine. I'll be positive for both of us.

There seemed to be a moment of silence as Nine-Tail considered Naruto's words. Then, he burst out in laughter. "You think a little brat like you will be able to shoulder my hate and destruction?"

"Try as you might and let's see how long you can last with your 'positivities'. This might entertain me after all in this disgusting prison." Nine-Tail's words dispersed into the air as his pupils retreated back into darkness.

"Let's go back, Naruto," I told the boy as the scene around me shifted, returning us back to the arena lined with steel. The chakra cloak around Naruto had already dissipated as his eyes returned to the colour of ocean blue.

"Two minutes and thirty seconds, that's how long you're able to keep your control when fighting with Nine-Tail's chakra," Jiraiya commented as he glanced at the timepiece in his hand. "How do you feel in that state?"

"I feel like I can move faster and punch harder, like things are more clear to me. But … after a while, I felt overwhelmed," Naruto answered as he looked down on his hands, where he could have easily punched through rocks a moment ago.

"Will I really be able to keep this power in check?" The boy muttered as he raised his head. Despite the brave words he said against Nine-Tail, the burden of Nine-Tail's power remained heavy as an accumulation of the past - a very personal past - the present, and the future.

I thought about his question for a few seconds, before telling him, "To be fair, you already did, for two minutes and thirty seconds."

I took a few steps forward and pulled the boy into a hug. "Sorry for what I said earlier. If you ever hear those words again, you can just punch them back." I rubbed his head and continued, "Get stronger, Naruto, both mentally and physically, not for the sake of protecting others or to reach a standard, but so that you won't have to regret the things you can't do and the dream you can't pursue."

I felt Naruto nodding against my chest and I patted his back one last time before letting him go. Suddenly, I felt like I was forgetting something, that there was something else we came here for.

"Oh, by the way, Naruto, Tsunade decided to promote you to Chunin." Jiraiya's words reminded me of what other news we were supposed to deliver to the boy.

"That's okay, next time then …. Wait, what? I passed?" Naruto yelled as his expression turned from disappointment to disbelief to betrayal in a span of a second. "Ah, you could have told me that to begin with."

"Your mind will be occupied by the news then. We need you to think clearly on the other matter," Jiraiya explained, flicking Naruto's forehead with a smile. "Even if you're made a Chunin, the fact that you're hot-headed doesn't change. Otherwise, Maiko wouldn't be able to rile you up so easily."

"Yes, you really need to work on that on your missions," I said to the boy as he rubbed his forehead. "I'd say that you should also work on your taijutsu more. Whether you're fighting with fuinjutsu or just pure strength when cloaked in Nine-Tail's chakra, in order to maximize your advantage, you should hit with strategy and precision."

"Exactly, you might have given Maiko more trouble earlier if your movements are not so predictable," Jiraiya agreed with me. "You'll gain deadly strength and speed with Nine-Tail's chakra, but without the skill, you'll fight no better than a mindless beast."

Behind us, Kakashi took the rest of his team down to the arena. Sasuke and Sakura rushed to Naruto in a heartbeat.

"Are you okay, Naruto? Any injuries?" Sakura asked with worry as she examined the boy with her eyes.

"Not at all, Sakura-chan, you underestimated me!" Naruto raised his chest with pride, showing his teammates that his body was strong and enduring. Well, any bruises he might have gotten would have been healed by now.

"You were getting beaten pretty badly from our perspective," Sasuke added from the side and Sakura nodded in agreement.

"Hey, I was fighting back pretty well!" Naruto argued but was immediately met with skepticism from Sasuke and Sakura. "How about some confidence in your teammate?"

"They're lively," I said with a chuckle as Kakashi walked up to us.

"You have no idea," Kakashi replied, speaking from experience as the victim of their endless arguments. "Two minutes and thirty seconds, is it?"

"More or less. In the first two minutes, Naruto is fully conscious of his own movement and surroundings, and he should be able to apply a suppression seal on himself. The last thirty seconds, that area is a little grey. Either way, his control is confined to the first tail only," I expanded on my observation and Kakashi nodded at my words.

"Tenzō and I will be taking turns practicing with him for the next little while, so we'll send updates," I told Kakashi as I left for the exit. Naruto was already thinking about getting ramen for lunch as a celebration. At this rate, either Jiraiya or Kakashi would get roped in to be the wallet. So quietly, I took my leave.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"I believed that with practice, Naruto will be able to use Nine-Tail's chakra with good control, but the process must be gradual." After a recap of today's events, I concluded my report to the Hokage.

Tsunade-sama leaned back into her chair as she fell silent with thoughts. A moment later, she asked, "And your eyes, how do they fare?"

"Suppressing Naruto's Nine-Tail chakra is easy because it's just a leak. I can offer an alternative method to Jiraiya-sama's sealing and Tenzō's wood release," I answered, seeing Tsunade giving me a nod, asking me to keep going.

I wasn't sure what else she wanted to know. My confusion must be evident on my face, as Tsunade-sama let out a sigh and asked again, "What's the overall status of your eyes, Maiko? Do you still get strains from extensive usage?"

"After repetitive usage, of course. It's still a body part, it's not made of steel," I said, making both of us laugh a little at the joke. "But the deterioration in vision no longer exists. The cost of chakra for using a Mangekyou skill has also decreased, but it's still not something that can be glossed over."

I arrived at those conclusions after Itachi observed me using Amaterasu over and over again to test the capabilities of my new eyes … and to burn the weeds growing in the backyards.

Tsunade-sama looked thoughtful at my answer, which somehow made me uneasy. Before the air could get awkward, Tsunade took out a report from her desk and placed it on her desk.

"Remember Yakushi Kabuto, the spy for Orochimaru? Other than the information on Orochimaru's hideouts and experiments, we also managed to extract some additional details of secret Root missions authorized by Danzō." Tsunade-sama explained as she pushed the report towards me. Without delay, I picked it up and started reading.

This particular Root mission was part of the deal Danzō made with the Leader of Amegakure, Hanzō the Salamander. It described Root's involvement in suppressing a rebellious group that advocated for the end of the war and against Hanzō's dictatorship. The mission, as remembered by Kabuto, ended in both a success and a failure.

A success, because the leader of the rebellious group had indeed been slain.

A failure, because the retribution by the same group resulted in a catastrophic loss of Root's forces.

The aforementioned rebellious group called themselves 'Akatsuki'.

"The leader killed was identified as Yahiko, the same one mentioned by Jiraiya-sama?" I asked as my eyes glossed over the report, seeing the blurry image of the man with bright orange hair.

"Yes, during his stay in the warring region, Jiraiya taught the leaders of Akatsuki - the old one - when they were children. Yahiko, Nagato, and Konan, with Konan also being a member of the current Akatsuki that Itachi identified," Tsunade-sama confirmed for me. I flipped the report several times, and the incongruent details stood out immediately.

"But that would mean … Pein is not Yahiko, if he had already been killed years before," I said, finally arriving at the conclusion Tsunade-sama wanted.

Itachi had only seen Pein in person once and it was barely a shadow. Nevertheless, the bright orange colour of his spiky hair stood out in his memory, along with the pair of Rinnegan, a dōjutsu even rarer than the Mangekyou Sharingan.

The name 'Konan' allowed us to connect this Akatsuki to the 'Akatsuki' that arose in Amegakure decades ago. Naturally, with information supplied by Jiraiya, we thought that perhaps Pein was Yahiko who had been transplanted with Nagato's rinnegan.

"How Yahiko's body walks the earth as Pein, we don't know. Perhaps it's merely a disguise, or maybe it's something like Edo Tensei. Rinnegan is as mysterious and terrifying as it comes." Tsunade tapped her fingers on the table. The tale of how Pein had the power to destroy a village was still fresh in our minds. Itachi didn't know how, but it only took an hour for Amegakure to fall under Pein's solo invasion.

"Are you scared?" Suddenly, Tsunade-sama asked. When the confrontation inevitably arrived, I would no doubt be one of the first that had to embrace Pein's power, trying to withstand the forces of Rinnegan with my own dōjutsu.

"Nobody can be truly unafraid against the unknown, Tsunade-sama. But I'd say that it's a healthy amount to keep me alert," I answered and Tsunade accepted it with a shrug.

"Maiko, you remember what I have been telling you since the beginning of our meeting?" Tsunade-sama asked again, making my mind go back to our time at Kujirai Village over a year ago.

"You told me my chakra conservation sucked." That was the only thing I could remember her telling me repetitively.

"Yes, I see some improvement, but it still sucks," Tsunade replied without any mercy. "You have so many ninjutsu with great power, but if you're not efficient with your expenditure, you'll lose in a battle of endurance, especially against something inhuman like Edo Tensei."

Tsunade let her words sink in as she propped her elbows on the desk and leaned forward, closing the distance between us. "You don't need the same level of precision as Itachi - frankly, his style doesn't suit you. You don't have to shy away from powerful ninjutsu that can bring down the enemy with a single hit. Instead, you need to regulate the scale of your jutsu and thus make sure that very little chakra is wasted."

"As in, adjusting my output to be just enough?" I asked and Tsunade-sama nodded in confirmation.

Before I could say anything else, Tsunade slapped her table and stood up. "That's decided, let's go get you some training."

I wondered how we got to this point, as I stood on top of the Hokage rock, watching Tsunade-sama dump a pile of junk from a storage scroll.

"Is that … training dummy from R&D?" I asked with uncertainty. If my memories served me correctly, those were the models eliminated from years ago, which would also explain why they were in shambles.

"Oh, these are the failed products, so more or less trash now," Tsunade explained as she picked up a block that resembled a torso and weighed it in her hand. "These will be destroyed soon, so you might as well help with the cremation process."

The torso crashed towards my face in the blink of an eye, sailing past my head as I dodged at the last moment. The wooden block slammed into a tree trunk, digging a hole with the force it brought before it shattered into pieces.

"I don't have a lot of materials with me today, so don't waste it, Maiko." Tsunade only gave me one sentence before throwing another broken dummy part - it was the thigh this time - at me. Nevertheless, I finally got the memo for this training.

Gathering the yin-chakra fire in my palm, I positioned my body with a turn and connected my hand with the wooden object. I pushed the chakra in and let the tiny lotus flower bloom under my touch.

The fire engulfed the wooden block in an instant, but I figured that wasn't what Tsunade-sama was looking for. "Too much, Maiko. You're too wasteful." Without even finishing that sentence, she threw out another dummy torso and this one was much bigger.

My sharingan swirled into existence as I took in the dimensions of the dummy block. A little less, I thought as I mixed the chakra again and pushed my hand towards the flying target.

There was a heavy clunk as the wooden block fell on the ground, a hole burned through the centre, but not quite to the edges.

"Concentrate, Maiko." Tsunade-sama didn't even blink as she kicked up another few pieces from the ground and sent them flying my ways. Just like that, the process repeated itself.

Burns marks marked the ground around me as wooden objects incinerated to various degrees littered the field.

"Tsunade-sama, be honest, is this helping you destress?" I asked, opening and closing my fist slowly to shake off the numbness.

"Somewhat, and your performance is kind of pitiful," Tsunade answered as she tapped her feet on the ground. The pile of junk that used to be the height of her waist had all but disappeared.

Well, I can't deny that. Yin-chakra fire was concentrated and dangerous, meaning that a very little amount was needed to incinerate the dummy parts in full. Therefore, to adjust the output, it was akin to separating the difference between one droplet of water and two. Needless to say, I fell short in Tsunade's eyes.

"It's not the results, but the process I'm looking for. You need to get into the mindset of tuning your output to the target. A drop of chakra is not much every time you use your jutsu, but eventually, they add up to the point that it might be enough for something that will save your life," Tsunade-sama told me as she rolled up the empty storage seal.

"I understand, Tsunade-sama." The Eternal Mangekyou was a form of protection, like a supportive embrace that protected one from the blindness and the strains as a backlash for accessing a power as strong as the Mangekyou, but it wouldn't magically make me invincible.

It didn't change what I already had - a human body that was governed by the laws of nature, where exhaustion of chakra was as deadly as a stab to the heart.

At the end of it, I asked her, "Do you have more junk from R&D that I can burn?"

Tsunade raised an eyebrow but said nothing about my word choices. "I'll tell them to send the scrolls over to the Uchiha Compound."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Just saying, when I asked for the junk, I didn't expect there to be so many," I said to Itachi as he rolled open the third storage scroll of the day, with plenty more piled up in the corner of our porch.

"Well, at least we get to keep these storage scrolls. They'll be useful when we have to clean the rest of the compound," Itachi commented and I had to agree. Without another word, he released the content and threw a shady-looking dummy head into the air.

With a kick, he sent the wooden head towards me. I intercepted it with my palm and let the tiny little lotus materialize. The fire turned the dummy head into dust in an instant, but the clusters of sparks that fell on the ground told me that I was still using too much chakra.

"It's much better than before, but you still have a tendency to go over," Itachi said in between his strikes.

"Well, I'd rather see my enemy be a little more dead than a little more alive." I shrugged, making my brother let out a sigh of exasperation as he replied, "and that's the problem with the mindset that Tsunade-sama talked about."

Before we could fully go through the entire scroll, a crimson butterfly fluttered across the sky as it disintegrated in sparks. Then, the doorbell sounded and I had a pretty good guess who it was this time.

"Good afternoon, Sakura-chan," I greeted the girl by the door. "Sasuke is at training ground 17 if you're looking for him."

I thought I had covered all the possibilities, but the girl just shook her head and replied, "Actually, Maiko-senpai, I'm here for you. I want to ask you for a favour."

"Oh," I paused a little, before moving aside from the gate. "You want to come in first?"

"Thank you," Sakura said as I placed a cup of tea down in front of her. "A few days ago, I asked Shizune-sensei if I can fight alongside my teammates, even if it's against the doctrine of being a medical-nin."

"And, what did she say?" I asked, a little curious. The doctrine of the medical-nin was established by Tsunade-sama and was followed diligently by all medical-nin in Konoha. Not engaging in front-line battle was one of its principle rules, designed to reduce the casualty of medical-nin so that they could survive to help others.

Even Zebra, my old teammate in Anbu who was proficient at fighting, mainly acted as our support during battles, only fighting for self-preservation. It was because his medical skills were valued much more than his fighting skills. To be a medical-nin that didn't have the majority of your worth placed on your skills to heal, your combat skill needed to be ten times more valuable than that of the average shinobi and you needed to prove that your survival was never an issue.

So far, only Tsunade-sama stood in that category.

"Shizune-san told me that it will be a path that's a hundred times harder than the one I'm walking now, but she told me that it won't be impossible. Once I made my decision, I should go ask Tsunade-sama." There was a little uneasiness in Sakura's voice, but based on the determination in her eyes, I'd say she had already made her decision.

"I've asked Tsunade-sama, and she has agreed to take me in as her pupil. I thought I would be content with just being useful to team 7, but I guess I'm a little more greedy. I don't want to be left behind, now that I can finally be a part of them," she told me in a small voice, as if it had taken all she had to see what she actually wanted, to come to terms with the fact that she wanted and could do more.

"You've come far," I couldn't help but say. A month ago, the Sakura that showed up at the Uchiha Compound was lost and uncertain of her own worth. Now, she understood that her worth could only be created by herself, grasped with her own hands at her own initiative.

"What favour do you need from me then?" I asked.

"Tsunade-sama can teach me how to be a better medical-nin, and how to control my chakra for the purpose of both healing and attack, but as Jiraiya-sama had said to Naruto the other day, without the skills in taijutsu, strengths meant nothing," Sakura explained her logic with clarity and I listened on. "Tsunade-sama is busy with Hokage duties, so I can't leave every little detail of my training to her. I was wondering if you can train me on taijutsu?"

There was a moment of pause before she added in a panic, "Of course, I don't mean that you're not busy, I just mean that …" The rest of her words fell into rumbles when she realized that she was just making it worse, not that I really cared.

"Don't worry, I'm not offended." I stopped her before she could find a hole to hide. Still, I couldn't help but tease her, "Trust me, when I'm busy, you won't even be able to find me."

"To be honest, your basics in taijutsu are quite weak. It makes me wonder what exactly they teach in the Academy these days," I said, not mincing my words. Sakura nodded at my words as her ears steamed red in embarrassment. "Also, when I trained Naruto and Sasuke, they were not lacking in bruises and injuries."

Are you cut out for it? The silent question hung over the air as I waited for Sakura's response.

"I'll do whatever it takes," Sakura said without an ounce of hesitation. I nodded at her determination and said nothing. Like with Shizune, her words were enough to get her started, but it was the actions that counted.

"When Sasuke has his taijutsu training with me, you should come over too. It'll be good for you to observe as well. After that, I'll train you for an hour," I told the girl. "When I'm busy, you and Sasuke can train with Ryuu, who's my other brother and also very skilled in taijutsu. If Ryuu is also out on missions, then you're on your own, I'm sure you can figure something out."

Sakura nodded as she noted down my words. After that, she gave me a slight bow as she stood up. "Thank you, Maiko-senpai, for agreeing to train me, and for your advice before."

It was only after Sakura had left that I remembered something important. "Wait a second, why am I doing all these works when they're supposed to be Kakashi's kids?" Sasuke, fine, he was my little brother. Naruto … okay, at least Jiraiya was doing the bulk of the work. But Sakura too? Man, Kakashi needed to get himself together.

Okay, fine, that was a little harsh. In terms of workload, he and Tsunade-sama were not that different. He spent time with Team 7, teaching them macro-level skills to fight and think like shinobi, but he couldn't be a babysitter to his students, teaching them everything they needed to know personally.

It was a good thing that none of the children under him was the kind that would just sit around and wait for instructions.

"It's because they think you are reliable," Itachi commented when he heard my whines. "You're going to be a great Jonin-sensei one day when you have your own team."

"Yeah, that will happen when Akatsuki stops trying to destroy the world." Itachi let out a laugh at my words as he opened another storage seal and dumped out the dummy parts on the ground. Sakura wasn't the only one being scrutinized by Tsunade-sama, after all.

For the next few weeks, I might have pushed Sakura to the brink of crying many times. But the key word was 'brink', she didn't actually let her tears fall. Karma did have its way around, though, as in, while I was training Kakashi's children harshly, I was also being criticized by Tsunade, whenever she had time to visit the Uchiha Compound.

Still, at least her comment changed from 'pitiful' to 'barely adequate'.

It had been a while since so many people gathered at the Hokage's office, staring at a map of the continent, marked with the names of shinobi villages and important landmarks, as well as the predicted locations of the Jinchuuriki.

The Kanji for Nine-Tail rested in the heart of Konohagakure. One-Tail was placed at Sunagakure while Six-Tail was in Kirigakure - Both Elder Ebizō and Mei confirmed their safety. The pieces for Two-Tail and Eight-Tail were placed at Kumogakure, but god knows what their actual location was, considering their Jinchuuriki were trained as elite shinobi that would partake in difficult missions.

The tags for Four-Tail and Five-Tails were missing from the map because Akatsuki had already extracted them. Three-Tail was still being rebirthed, so his location was unknown. That meant the only one unaccounted for was Seven-Tail, the only Jinchuuriki that did not belong to one of the five major villages.

"Jiraiya's intel points Seven-Tail to be in the hands of Takigakure," Tsunade-sama announced as she placed the tag for Seven-Tail on a small area between Fire Country and Earth Country.

There had always been suspicion as to which smaller village took Seven-Tail, but no one could actually be sure. Takigakure was definitely a more likely candidate, given that their village produced skillful Jonin and was situated within a terrain shaped by nature for defence.

"However, I don't have a lot of information on the Jinchuuriki themself. The only piece of information I had gathered came from a description that was a decade old, where the Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki was said to be a Takigakure Jonin, male, in his forties. I wouldn't put my money on it, given the average lifespan of a shinobi," Jiraiya supplied from the side.

"So the tailed-beast might have been resealed into another Jinchuurikri in Takigakure," I summarized and Jiraiya gave me a nod.

"Kakuzu is a missing-nin from Takigakure. I don't know when he had left the village, but he might have inside knowledge that would give Akatsuki a head start, if Takigakure had indeed obtained the tailed-beast from long ago," Itachi added, making Tsunade's frown deeper.

Unlike Kumogakure, Takigakure's position wouldn't allow them to cry in rage if their tailed beast had been attacked. They would have to swallow their losses, the lest they want to draw the attention of the major villages. Therefore, it would make Seven-Tail an easier target among the remaining tailed-beasts.

"What about the urgency of other tailed-beasts?" Tsunade asked after some thoughts.

"The previous Jinchuuriki for Three-Tail - Yondaime Mizukage - died two years ago, taking Three-Tail with him. Given past patterns, the rebirth should be complete in a year, at most two. Akatsuki wouldn't be missing the chance to steal it before it can be sealed away, but we will be coordinating with Kiri when the time comes," Kakashi answered as Tsunade-sama placed the tag for Three-Tail within the vicinity of the Water Country. "As for Kumogakure's Jinchuuriki, the best way might be a diplomatic approach, now that we have the support of both Suna and Kiri."

"A warning from Elder Ebizō and the Mizukage might be enough to get Raikage to take us seriously. Revealing our contact as Itachi could also help with our credibility as it did with Suna," Jiraiya proposed. Tsunade nodded, before turning to Itachi for his opinion.

"My identity would certainly solidify the fact that our information came from the inside of Akatsuki. However, it's likely that Kumo would take my presence with more hostility than Suna," Itachi managed to say after a few seconds, making Tsunade raise her eyebrow, asking him to elaborate.

"During my time in Akatsuki, I had a bounty to assassinate a noble in Lightning Country. The noble hired a lot of Kumogakure Shinobi as bodyguards, but Kisame and I killed them all, along with the noble. I've been on their wanted list ever since then," Itachi explained with a calm voice, but every passing word seemed to make Tsunade's headache worse.

"I see. I'd have to think more on how we should approach Kumo with diplomacy, Iwa as well." Tsunade-sama answered as she rubbed her temple.

Iwa … yeah, I wasn't quite sure what they could do when both of their Jinchuuriki were killed and their tailed-beasts captured. However, Tsunade-sama was hoping that their rage could be directed towards Akatsuki so that they'll help with the alliance.

"So, as of now, it seems that Seven-Tail takes priority," Jiraiya concluded, his hand going for the sake bottle hanging by his waist automatically. However, Tsunade-sama threw a pen and let it strike his hand, making the man let out a 'tsk' in irritation.

"If I don't get to drink while working, you don't," Tsunade warned Jiraiya while pointing her finger at him. Then, she turned to me and said, "Maiko, I'm sending you to Takigakure with a letter to take to their leader. As soon as you confirm that the Jinchuuriki for Seven-Tail is indeed in that village, warn their leader and extend our invitation to the alliance against Akatsuki."

A moment later, she added, "Take a sensor from Anbu with you but make the party inconspicuous. If anything unexpected arises, I trust your judgments."

"I understand, Tsunade-sama. I'll take Moth with me for scouting and communication. When should we leave?" I asked, giving her a slight bow as I accepted the mission.

"Tomorrow at dawn. I will have the letter ready by then."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Side Story: Birth of a Miracle

Uchiha Fugaku's daughter was predicted to be a stillbirth.

Despite the efforts made by the village's medical-nin, the health of their second baby - a daughter - continued to decline ever since the trimester of pregnancy had started. Still, Mikoto was adamant about keeping her until the last possible moment.

The birthing process was torture. What made it worse was the fact that at any moment, the medical-nin could be announcing that the child was beyond saving, that all their hopes would be for nothing.

When the baby arrived on this earth, her breaths were silent, but she stunned everyone with the red irides in her eyes.

Amidst the shock, the baby finally let out a cry, telling Fugaku and Mikoto that their daughter, who everyone thought would die, was indeed alive.

Ever since then, Mikoto believed that Maiko opened the sharingan because she had experienced a moment of death. She doted on their daughter, worried that her health might suffer and her body would be fragile.

It wasn't a good sign, not in a Shinobi Clan like theirs, where expectations were being placed on Fugaku's children, especially a child that seemed to be the birth of a miracle.

However, as Maiko grew, they soon realized that their worries were for nothing. Maiko was healthy, with strength in her body and maturity in her mind that made her suitable for a career as a shinobi.

As expected of the Clan Head's children. As expected of geniuses, The Clan Elders would often tell Fugaku, when they saw Maiko and Itachi's sharingan, and Fugaku could do nothing but nod in agreement.

"Itachi, you need to protect your sister. Her life is a precious gift." Mikoto would often tell Itachi as his oldest son helped with the chores. Itachi, still just a child then, would nod his head with solemnness. So when Sasuke was born, Itachi didn't need to be told twice as he placed his little brother in his umbrella of protection.

As Maiko grew older, Fugaku realized that she would never fit in with the Uchiha Clan. he had no idea where she became so attached to the idea of freedom, with such an extreme mentality as well. But her life was already being planned out, from when she should graduate from the academy, to when she should become Chunin, to when she should join Anbu, and to when she should get married.

The older Maiko grew, the more she seemed to realize these invisible plans that Fugaku never told her about, and the more she resisted them in her own ways.

The Uchiha Clan always had a summoning contract with Hawks - creatures that exemplified pride and freeness as they soared through the sky and reached for greatness. At some point, the Uchiha became consumed with pride that the freedom of flight must be sacrificed for the greater good.

"Fugaku, the village treats us with no respect. The Uchiha should not allow itself to be ignored and be stripped of power." One of the Elders told Fugaku as he slapped the table with rage. Konoha wanted to cut the budget and jurisdiction of the Police Force, again, for the third time this year.

"They think we're at fault for Nine-Tail rampage. Ridiculous, if we were, then we would have seen it to the end." Another one of them yelled and was immediately met with a chorus of agreement. Fugaku should have seen it coming, really, the seed for their rebellious decision in the future.

"The news arrived that Maiko and Itachi had been promoted to Chunin. Fugaku, it's time to follow through with what we discussed. Itachi would be a splendid Clan Head, and Maiko … should support him from Konoha's Anbu."

There was always a pause when Maiko was mentioned. The Elders expected so much when she was born with the sharingan, yet both Itachi and Shisui had caught up, even surpassing her in terms of the growth of their sharingan.

It was ironic, those who spoke of her as a 'miracle' now sighed in disappointment as if they were regretting over betting on the wrong child. Their expectation towards her dwindled, and so did their patience towards her attitude.

At the end of the meeting, an Elder approached Fugaku with a marriage contract. "You know Maiko has always been rebellious, but her potential talent with the sharingan should not be ignored. Shisui is a good boy, a talented one as well. Their children could be the birth of greatness."

"She's just a child," Fugaku remembered saying those words as he tried to understand how things had come to this point. Her life had barely begun, and it was already written in full.

"Not in a few years, Fugaku. As the Clan Head, you should always think ahead into the future." The Elder said with disapproval as if he was the insane one here. "Besides, they get along well, don't they?"

That very night, Maiko openly defied the plans her clan had for her. Fugaku expelled her from the Uchiha Clan without much thought.

The elders thought nothing of it, believing that Maiko would come back, begging for forgiveness when she realized how much the Clan's support meant. They thought it would serve as a fine punishment, teaching her a lesson on her attitude.

Only Fugaku and Mikoto knew that she was never meant to come back. Once a hawk learned the freedom of flying, it would never want to be tied down again.

Soon, the elders didn't have time to worry about Maiko as rage towards Konoha filled their eyes. Like all Uchiha, Fugaku was angered by how the village they called home treated them, driving them to the edge of the town, isolating them with the excuse for giving them their own space, increasing the surveillance on their household - a job given to his own son and nephew.

By the end of it, the power of the Konoha Military Police Force was close to nothing.

They were seen as criminals, and Uchiha never took threats well.

Did they understand what would happen if their rebellion failed? Yes.

Did they think they would win? Maybe.

Did they think they could make Konoha pay? Most definitely.

The Uchiha were prideful people, stubborn too. In a shinobi world where lives were being shed on a daily basis, somehow, ideals became more important than survival.

But the fever never overwhelmed Fugaku, for he always thought about his children. The son that was being used as a spy in Anbu, the daughter that lived across the village, and his youngest child that slept soundly after a day of exhausting training.

Sometimes, his mind would wander to the tailor down the street, who always sewed the Uchiha insignia onto their clothes with pride, and the old midwife who had once witnessed the birth of all three of his children.

They were Uchiha, but they were not shinobi.

In the end, Fugaku chose ideals over lives, knowing that he had committed a grave sin, whether or not it was a decision pushed onto him by his clanmates, by his responsibility as the Clan Head, and by the weight of the Uchiha name.

He never imagined it was his own son who would do the things he couldn't do - placing his family's lives over everything else.

"It must have been hard for you, Itachi," Fugaku said as his son raised his bloodied blade against him and Mikoto. Tears rolled down Itachi's face, but the determination in his eyes never wavered.

"I love you," Itachi whispered, just loud enough for them to hear the pain that smeared in his voice, moments before Maiko bursted through the door.

Mikoto let out a scream when Itachi pinned Maiko on the wall with a sword through her stomach, but Fugaku knew that they would survive - only they would survive.

Fugaku was not a successful Clan Head, nor was he a good father. In the last moments of his life, he was glad that a little bit of luck descended onto him so that he could say the words that he never had the chance to say.

"I am proud of you, really proud of you," he told Maiko as she tried everything to pull the blade out of her body.

As bleak as everything seemed to turn out while the world around them burned, just like hawks, he wished his children would be able to break free from the restraints that mired them down.

The tragedy, the hate, the sins, the secrets, and the guilt … His death was not the end, it was the beginning. But surely, his children were meant to fly.

Scenes blurred in his vision as Itachi sliced his blade down. For a second, Fugaku thought he had seen something impossible.

He saw Itachi - older, more seasoned - walking into the living room that was no longer covered by the blood. He called out something, and Sasuke, no longer the tiny boy he was, rushed out from the hall and hugged 'him'.

He saw a pair of hands reaching out, ruffling the boy's unruly hair that seemed to never change. The scene around him turned until it passed by a mirror. Finally, he saw the last of his children. Maiko hugged Sasuke, a smile stretched on her face as everything faded.

Shinobi rarely believed in gods, nor did they believe in the concept of heaven and hell after death. But if there was a thing as heaven where all dreams come true, Fugaku was sure that this was it.

A/N: A bit of a transition chapter as we move on from the Chunin Exam to new stories. Updates might be a little slow as I get buried in works and try to solidify my plot that's zooming away from canon at every second.

The last section was a side-story that I wanted to write, to explain Fugaku's decision up until the Uchiha Massacre and Maiko's conflict with her clan a little better. When I wrote the early chapters, my writings were not mature enough to support my ideas (as if they are any better now lol), so it's a little regretful. If Maiko had not transmigrated, the 'original' daughter would have been a stillbirth. The Uchiha Clan is not the worst clan (remember the Hyuga?), but it's not that great either, and they were very extreme during the time of Fugaku. It wasn't so much as the pride, but the underlying ideals that made them willing to sacrifice everything, including their lives and the lives of their children to gain what they think the clan deserved. Fugaku only seemed sane in comparison because he was struggling to act as the Uchiha Clan Head and a father, but the fact that he decided to go with the rebellion meant that he was affected by the Uchiha ideology as well. Also, if any supernatural occurrence doesn't make sense, just repeat after me: Love transcends time and space.

If I ever finish this story, I'll regroup these side stories into a section after the ending, but god knows when that is.