Chapter 69

"... Maiko …" I heard the voice before I was fully conscious. Instinctively, I buried myself deeper into the pillow and tried to cover my ears with the fabric.

"... Maiko!" With a long sigh, I finally opened my eyes and Fuu's green hair loomed over my head.

"Fuu." It was still a little strange hearing my own voice again, after a few days without it. Thankfully, Shizune prioritized that part of my body for healing so I was able to speak my mind. "Shut up."

"Oh, sorry." Fuu didn't look sorry. "You're not very vigilant for a shinobi of your calibre."

And what calibre is that? sore, tired, and exhausted?

"I'm on leave. There's a reason Hokage-sama thinks this place is on par with Anbu Containment in terms of your safety. It's warded," As long as Itachi is here. Only with his presence that I had a place to return to after walking on the brink of death, that I could sleep without worrying about retribution on my back.

"How's your night here?" I asked Fuu as I dipped my toes onto the ground. It was getting chilly as the season advanced into late Autumn. My room used to be somewhat empty, but not anymore, with the extra futon on the floor and the bed covers that got bunched up and pushed to the side.

Definitely not a very peaceful sleeper.

"It's … okay. Thanks for having me," Fuu said as she rubbed her hair, trying to get the wild strands to fall down. I doubted that she was sleeping very soundly, based on the sounds of fumbling and turning I heard yesterday night. As she said, it would take some big hearts for a shinobi to sleep well in foreign territory.

"Bathroom's down the hall, in case you forgot." I pointed to the door after I grabbed a jacket from the shelf.

"Uh, you go first." Fuu muttered, looking a little distracted. She probably had a lot on her mind, or she was still in the process of waking up. It was only until I returned from my morning routines that I found her sitting on the futon, biting her nails as she stared at the ground.

I let out a sigh as I sat on the edge of my bed. "What is it? Do you not feel comfortable here?"

"No, your place is great!" Fuu yelled out as she shook her head, but after a slight pause, she added, "I mean, you do have a lot of people here, I don't mind the underground containment if it's causing you trouble." She let out a small laugh and said, "The environment was quiet there."

Ah, so that's the problem.

Yesterday, when the Hokage slotted Fuu into the Uchiha Compound, Sasuke had muttered under his breath after I took Fuu into my room, "Uchiha Compound is not a place for collecting strays!"

I supposed he was more pissed at the fact that he was never informed about the decision-making process - which was our fault - than the actual decision made. But he was never good at separating the events to correctly express his anger.

"Okay, it only happened once before," I had tried to argue.

"Yeah, and now it happened twice." Sasuke did not sound impressed at my argument. Somehow, Fuu must have heard the conversation even behind a closed door.

"Don't mind Sasuke, he's a little … territorial. He's just mad that we didn't tell him beforehand." I said to Fuu. Somehow, I felt like I was describing a young wolfling that got its nest taken over. "He doesn't actually have an issue with you and he'll get over it."

Fuu nodded, still looking a little uncertain. Lightly, I nudged her towards the door. "Go wash up, before the breakfast gets cold."

Fuu wasn't the only one who looked like their consciousness had flown out the window and travelled away with the wind. I found Itachi sitting on the back porch, looking into the distance as time seemed to pause around him.

"Are you still worrying your head over Kabuto?" I asked as I picked up the teacup next to his hand. The tea had gone cold already, and the overly sweet aroma was dancing on my nerves.

"Well, not entirely. I do have some ideas to counter Edo Tensei, and given everything, Tobi is unlikely to utilize Kabuto for a while," Itachi answered as he turned his head towards me, telling me that I had his undivided attention.

True, Kabuto's knowledge over Edo Tensei was at best, second rate, let alone the fact that Edo Tensei itself was incomplete. As of now, it wouldn't be up to Tobi and Akatsuki's standards. That was why Kabuto wanted to bargain with Konoha for time and resources for research - as for the project of his interest, I didn't think he'd want to tell us.

Jiraiya and the Anbu were searching for clues pertaining to Kabuto, but Akatsuki was laying low right now, watching Iwa, Kumo, and Konoha struggle to come to an agreement on the Jinchuuriki matter. It was unlikely for anything substantial to turn up.

"I guess I'm just a little … pissed off. Tobi has put me into a bad mood, you can say," Itachi said with a slight frown on his brows.

"That's rare for you to say." I was a little surprised, not because it was impossible for my brother to be in a bad mood - he was a human being, despite what everyone seemed to think - but that it was rare for him to openly admit it.

"I had the chance to talk to Kabuto, to peek into what he is up to and what he can do. I could have realized his … potential for Tobi. Yet, I considered him to be a subpar choice to Orochimaru and overlooked the fact that this quality was exactly what Tobi was looking for." Itachi's voice was calm and his reasoning was rational as if it wasn't himself that he was criticizing.

"Tobi must have some form of surveillance on Kabuto to take him right after he reached out to Konoha - whether Kabuto knows it or not, that's a little hard to say. But we had a short window to act but I didn't realize its importance," Itachi finished as his frown deepened. Having Tobi bested him in this way must have felt like a mockery straight to his face.

Look, Itachi, Tobi seemed to say, I put the clues right in front of your face, yet you still missed it because of your arrogance and complacency.

In hindsight, Kabuto's lack of belonging made it ideal for Tobi to control him, even if his skills were lacking when compared to Orochimaru. But hey, anyone could be a genius of deduction when the results had already settled.

"You're not responsible for predicting every one of his intentions, you know, that's a job for all of us. You're human, not a god," I told him as I sat down on the ledge beside him. "Besides, you know that's exactly what he wants you to feel."

"Oh, I don't doubt that. He hates us, after all," Itachi said as he finally relaxed the frown on his face. The 'hate' he spoke wasn't the kind that was casually spoken in everyday conversation. It was a deep, profound distaste that came from a clash of ideologies.

What Itachi and I believed were roadblocks for Tobi's own ideology, and he was starting to realize that nothing he did could change our stubborn view.

I heard the light footsteps as Fuu walked into the living room. "Oops, I didn't mean to interrupt." She had that look that said she totally wasn't trying to eavesdrop but it just happened.

"It's not secret knowledge. Technically, Akatsuki affairs concern you more than they do us," I said as we got back inside. Jinchuuriki like Fuu were their actual targets. Itachi and I, at most, were collateral damage.

"Oh, do you guys always talk about such depressing stuff early in the morning?" Fuu said after Itachi left the Main House to clean out the side residences. We were going through them slowly for the past few weeks, trying to figure out what we should do with them. I had no idea how long Fuu needed to stay in Konoha, but the futon in my room was not a long-term answer.

"Keeps you grounded for the rest of the day, no?" I placed a bowl of congee in front of the younger girl before filling one for myself. By her sour expression, I figured it wasn't something she wanted to hear at the beginning of the day.

"You're different," Fuu blurted out of the blue when I was washing the chopsticks under the running water. She looked like she had something to say through the entirety of the meal, but she managed to wait until we were done.

"I mean, you're different from what I imagined you to be back in Takigakure. Then again, I suppose you were undercover then," she clarified. There was a slight pause before she added, "but … some parts of you are still the same."

"I suppose I should apologize for lying about who I am," I said as I placed the utensils back in the cupboard and turned around. "But I did what I had to do as a shinobi. I had to confirm your existence before we knew which village to warn and I wasn't about to broadcast Konoha's trail for all of Akatsuki to hear." Not that the second part made a difference, considering what happened afterwards.

Fuu shook her head when she heard my words. "I didn't mean to blame you. You did what you had to do as a shinobi and from what I've gathered, you're an exceptional kunoichi at an age not too far from mine."

There was a pause as a realization seemed to dawn on Fuu's face. She sucked in a breath and said, "wait, that's an assumption on my part, isn't it. You're not like … in your thirties and just look young, right?"

"No, I'm still seventeen, so your assumption is correct," I assured her before she could run wild with her imagination.

"Oh good, because I've been treating you like a teenager. It would have been really awkward otherwise," the girl muttered as she placed a hand over her heart as if she had just escaped a mortifying scenario.

I couldn't help but laugh a little as I walked to the entrance. "Now, if you're done, I'm supposed to take you somewhere to write a letter."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"You look like hell." I couldn't help but say when Kakashi opened the door to his apartment, looking like he hadn't slept in three days - which, given everything, was quite likely.

"I don't want to hear that from someone who couldn't speak until yesterday." He wasn't impressed with my observation, of course, but he didn't deny it. He let the door hang open as he turned around and walked back to his living room, where piles of paperwork scattered on the table, bringing the only source of disorganization in his usually well-kept space.

"Um, sorry for the intrusion?" Fuu squirmed as she followed me into the apartment. She was trying to keep her eyes to the ground so it didn't look like she was probing the private space of a stranger - Konoha's Jonin Commander, so she had been told. I, on the other hand, didn't have that concern.

"Do you usually bring work here?" I asked Kakashi as he bundled up the loose paper and returned them to a paper bag accompanied by a seal.

"Only when I can't finish them, or if they keep coming without any stop," Kakashi answered. Despite what he always complained about, he was efficient at his work, hence why he even had time to deal with Team 7 and take missions with them.

However, there were some situations that just wouldn't get resolved so easily. I had no doubt that he had stayed in the Hokage Tower for days prior, only returning to his little apartment for the benefit of running hot water, if the air of humidity and his damp hair were any indications.

"Anyway, have a seat, let me update you on Iwa's most recent demands." Kakashi pointed at the couch as he took a seat on the lone chair across the table. I sat down without any hesitation, even pulling Fuu to sit as she stood there uncomfortably.

"As we expected, Iwa had gotten hold of our communication to Takigakure and thus, they know that we have the Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki in Konoha. They questioned, on Takigakure's behalf, or so they say, about why Konoha hasn't released you back to Takigakure, if all we did was rescue you," Kakashi explained to Fuu while handing me a series of scrolls that had its seals already undone. I ran my eyes through them, taking in the strong words that Iwa had used, not hiding their voice of suspicion at all.

"Speaking of that, when, exactly, can I go back to Takigakure?" Fuu asked from the side, sending Kakashi and me into silence. "You guys are not being reassuring."

"Honestly, probably not for a while. Akatsuki might have reservations about attacking a Major Village like Konoha head-on, but Takigakure is a different matter," I answered her after some thinking. "I can't give you an exact time as to when this whole thing will end, or what Akatsuki is even planning for the finale, but I, and Konoha, was hoping that you can work with us on this until the end."

There was a slight pause before I managed to give her a smile and said, "I want you to be able to return to Takigakure without worrying about the target on your back so that you can do whatever you want with your life."

Fuu stared at my eyes and I stared back unflinching, telling her that I meant what I said. Konoha did not desire her power, because more than that, we feared what would happen if she had been lost to Akatsuki, what would happen if all of the Jinchuuriki had been lost.

"Okay, I will cooperate with Konoha," Fuu answered me after a stretch of silence. Soon, she added again, "But I don't want Shi… Takigakure to worry about me."

"That's why we're here," Kakashi said, handing us another scroll from Iwa, a more recent one. He started to explain as I laid my eyes on the content. "They're asking us to hand over Seven-Tail to prove our intentions, and that Iwa will assist Takigakure in protecting you."

"The shameless audacity they have." I couldn't help but shake my head as I placed the scroll back onto the table. "Assist' my ass, they just wanted to be in control of another Jinchuuriki after their old ones got taken.

"They're using Takigakure as a cover to justify themselves. Which is why we're going to try sending a letter to Takigakure again, but this time, directly to its leader." Kakashi placed a half-filled scroll in front of Fuu. "Tsunade-sama has filled her part; the rest of the space is yours. I would recommend you write something that can prove your identity to Shibuki-dono."

Fuu picked up the pen on the side, but her hands paused in mid-air as she scrunched her eyebrows to think of something to write. As if disturbed by the silence, she tapped the pen on the table, making rhythmic clicks that filled our ears.

"Okay, this is not working. I can't think of things to write when you're all staring at me," Fuu said all of a sudden as a red hue started to creep up on her ears. "Can the two of you, like, turn around and give me some space."

I raised an eyebrow at that. What is this, are you a teenage girl that's embarrassed about writing a love letter? We weren't even staring at her. Kakashi had closed his eyes to catch a bit of rest while I was reading over the communications - more like shouting matches - that Konoha had with Iwa.

Still, Kakashi was the first one to stand up. He turned his back towards the table and walked to the window at the far end of the living room. Since the owner of this apartment had made the decision, I had no choice but to follow his suit.

"How's your arm," Kakashi asked when I leaned over his window for a breath of fresh air.

"It's mostly healed," I replied, waving my right arm to show him what I meant. Given everything, the broken arm was probably one of the less serious injuries of the bunch, in terms of life-threatening issues, that was.

"How can Iwa be so … unattuned to Akatsuki's threats? Have they not seen the state that their dead shinobi was in near Takigakure?" I couldn't help but say after reading over Iwa's accusations and demands for the past couple of days. The images of the torn-up bodies of Iwa shinobi were as fresh as yesterday, and that was only the work of one of the puppets controlled by Pein.

"They're still trying to attribute its cause to something else - or rather, someone else - that they can comprehend," Kakashi said as he cast his glance on me. It took me a second to realize what he was getting at.

"You have got to be kidding me." I couldn't believe how much escapism that Iwa was in right now. "They think I was the one responsible for the death of those Iwagakure and Takigakure shinobi because I was sent to kidnap the Seven-Tail."

"No one but you and Fuu is alive to tell the story, Maiko," Kakashi said as he leaned against the window frame. "A pair of Mangekyou, a destructive reputation, and you're sighted in Takigakure moments before the battle. You tell me what kind of conclusion their one-tracked minds can reach."

"Yeah, a wrong and biased conclusion that serves nothing but their own petty interest." I didn't bother to hide the contempt in my voice. As soon as Iwa heard about the missing Seven-tail Jinchuuriki of Takigakure, their goal had shifted to that of obtaining her to make up for what they had lost.

"Let's hope that a letter from the other survivor will put Takigakure's mind at ease so that Iwa can't use them as an excuse anymore," Kakashi replied. I could hear the sound of brush strokes being dragged across the fabric, telling us that Fuu had indeed gotten over her embarrassment and started writing the letter.

"Who's going to deliver the scroll?" I asked a second later. The messenger would need to be able to slip past Iwa sentinels and Takigakure defences, to deliver the scroll to Shibuki with precision.

"Tenzō," Kakashi answered as he looked out the window. I had to admit, Tenzō, with his wood release that could do literally anything, was the most reassuring person for this job.

There was a pause before Kakashi pointed a finger upwards and said, "In fact, I think he's waiting upstairs." I almost choked at his words. Right, Tenzō lived in the same apartment building as Kakashi. This district was built as a dormitory for shinobi, especially for those who lived alone.

"Is there anything I can help with?" I asked after a stretch of silence, even if logically speaking, there was very little I could do in terms of his job.

"Thanks for the offer, if you want, you can go check on team 7 for me. Haven't had a lot of time for these kids recently," Kakashi answered after a moment of thought.

"You're speaking as if I don't see them enough already," I let out a quiet laugh. At this point, the training ground behind the Uchiha Compound became a free practice space for the three of them.

I noticed the sudden lack of sound behind us. Slowly, I turned around and saw Fuu resting her head on her palm as she looked at us. The pen was already placed at the side while the scroll was neatly closed on the table.

"Are you done with the letter?" I asked, trying to bring Fuu's drifting attention back to the present.

"Huh? Oh, the letter, yeah, done. Just … don't read it," Fuu answered in a hurry as she threw the scroll to Kakashi. Just for her reassurance, Kakashi activated the seals on the scroll, showing her that everything she wrote would be locked until it reached Shibuki.

Kakashi knocked on the window frame and to Fuu's surprise, a figure appeared outside the window, his bear mask half showing in the shadow. Kakashi handed the scroll to Tenzō and the next moment, the masked Anbu had disappeared from our view and slipped back into the world of shadows.

"Well, we won't bother you anymore," I said as I exited the door with Fuu behind me. Kakashi gave me a wave before he went back to organizing the documents. By the look of it, he would be taking everything back to the Hokage Tower soon, now that he had his fill with the hot water.

"... It's just that I had to write a lot of embarrassing stuff we did as kids." Fuu felt the need to explain her strange behaviour after we were a few streets away. Truth be told, I would have forgotten about it if she didn't mention it.

"As long as it validates your identity, we can't care less what you wrote," I told her as we strolled the streets of Konoha. The maple leaves were swaying lazily with the wind, some falling down and adding to the carpet of leaves below our steps.

"I hope he believes me too," Fuu muttered as she admired the sheet of ruby red that filled our vision. "Shibuki-sama might not be the strongest shinobi in Takigakure, but he's kind and responsible. I can only imagine the amount of pressure he has to endure, navigating between Iwa and Konoha, all because of me."

I didn't know if she was aware of it, but the amount of adoration in her voice was overflowing.

"Tenzō is very good at his job, so your words will be delivered to him, safe and sound," And along with that, your emotions, I thought as I told her, "some find strength in protecting those they care about."

Fuu rubbed her own cheeks as if trying to rub out all the worries and negativities before she moved on to a different topic. "So, am I stuck with you now? Are you supposed to be watching my every move?"

"No, with your control over Chōmei's power, it will be hard for Akatsuki members - namely the one in the orange mask - to snatch you away unnoticed. There will also be Anbu in the dark that will guard over you, standard procedures." I was afraid that Fuu might have something to say about that, but all she did was nod in understanding.

"As for me, I do have to fulfill my duties soon." Despite the ever-looming threat of Akatsuki, Konoha Anbu did have to complete other missions for the smooth running of our village.

"Oh, what about that boy with you, Sai, is that even his real name?" Fuu asked, still a little hung up with the lies we told at Takigakure, especially since it was clear to her that Sai was not my brother, not even adopted.

"Yes, that's his real name," I confirmed for her with a laugh. I glanced at a tree behind a shop that had grown tall into the sky, only for a brief second that it was barely noticeable. "He's my subordinate. He's a little shy, but who knows, you might see him around here somewhere."

For example, amidst the hidden Anbu that were observing us from the shadows.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Someone tapped Sai's shoulder as he peeled his eyes away from the figures on the street. The horse mask stared at Sai without any emotion as its owner made the signal for 'switch'.

Sai nodded, allowing the other Anbu to take his position as he flickered down from the tree branch, quickly burying himself with the shadow before he found the entrance to the underground passage that would lead to the Anbu Headquarters.

His goal was clear - go to the locker room, return his mask and the Anbu uniform back to his locker, and then exit. It was only after he was under the sun that he was a little lost as to what to do next.

A moment of empty thoughts was all it took for Sai's mind to wander to the event this morning, where he had failed to recruit teammates to enter into the Chunin Exam.

When Kato heard about his proposal, he gave him a polite rejection. Tsubame did the same as well, saying that she didn't want to fight rookie genin. She was curious about what prompted Sai to want to join out of his own volition. After all, the last time the three of them joined as a disguise for their mission, Sai was less than enthusiastic about it.

Sai shook his head and didn't give her an answer. But if he had to say it - as in, if Captain told him to write a report that explained how he came to that conclusion at that exact moment - he would probably cite the reason as his desire to have something attached to his name and his current life.

He wasn't sure, but perhaps if there was some weight being placed on his name, making it unique and real, then he could actually form a connection with others - with Fuu - that didn't feel like it would be blown away by the wind the next morning.

It was unfortunate that Kato and Tsubame declined. But maybe it was because Sai had asked the wrong people. Perhaps, I should ask those who have a clear interest in the Chunin Exam, namely, those who had entered it earnestly but still failed.

It sounded like a good idea, so Sai made his way to Training ground 17, potential targets already in mind.

"Who's there?" Sai didn't expect to have his presence discovered the moment he came near. But nevertheless, the red-haired girl - Karin, he remembered her name - eyed his direction in suspicion. In response, Sai stepped out of the shadow, exposing himself to the two girls who were retrieving projectiles stuck to wooden targets.

"... Sai-kun?" The pink-haired girl - Sakura - asked in uncertainty, having only seen him for a brief meeting during the last Chunin Exam. Even then, she couldn't be sure that it was his real name, which was a problem that occurred often with Sai, apparently.

"Yes, it's nice to see you again, Sakura and Karin." Sai pulled out his most natural smile - which was probably still subpar in terms of naturalness - and greeted them. "Are Naruto and Sasuke not with-" A loud crash from the forest interrupted his words, followed by a tree falling in the distance. "I see where they are."

"Yeah, Naruto challenged Sasuke-kun, saying he got a 'super awesome' new jutsu to show him, so they're at it again," Sakura explained on the side. She flickered the shuriken between her fingers and threw it out with all her might. With a screeching crack, the shuriken stabbed into the target across the field and split the target panel with force.

"I swear, If they come back with broken bones because 'they got carried away', I'm going to …" Sakura tried her hardest to think up a threat, but she came up empty. So instead, she just let out a sigh.

"Must be difficult dealing with their energy." Sai tried to emphasize with Sakura - a key point from his guidebook - pulling up his scarce experience dealing with Fuu.

"Well, they have their good moments." It seemed that Sakura could never have bad words for them - not about Naruto, especially not about Sasuke. "They encourage me to be better, so I can catch up to them."

"Are you here for Naruto-kun?" Karin asked from the side, already recognizing him as one of the Anbu that faked her death in the Chunin Exam.

"Not really. I have something to ask Sakura." Upon hearing his words, Sakura turned to him in surprise, confusion appeared on her face as if she couldn't understand what someone like Sai could possibly want from her.

"Are you planning to enter the next Chunin Exam in Kirigakure?" Sai asked, going straight to the point.

"Yes, of course," Sakura answered without hesitation. Silently, Sai checked the first item on his internal list - definitely a clear interest.

"I will also be entering the Chunin Exam," Sai said - appeal to a common interest, said his guidebook.

He thought for a moment before adding, "Maiko-senpai approved my request. She suggested that I find some teammates." Close the distance using the topic of a common acquaintance, he also learned that recently.

"Would you like to form a team with me for the Chunin Exam?" Sai felt a tiny cloud of pride rising up in his chest. There, he did it; he successfully executed all the techniques he had learned. Surely, she would agree.

However, Sakura just looked at him with uncertainty. Okay, maybe not quite a success.

"Umm, Sai-kun, do you have a mission to complete?" Sakura asked after a long silence.

"No. I just want to join the Chunin Exam," Sai replied. What was he missing … ahh, 'a common goal bonds people together', right. "And pass."

"What about your other teammates during the last Chunin Exam? Wouldn't you work better with them?" Sakura asked another question.

"They didn't want to enter the Chunin Exam. Besides, we're not actually teammates beyond that one exam," Sai answered with honesty. Kato and Tsubame were under the Command of Captain Bear. Even when Root was still alive, Sai didn't know of or care about their existence and the same applied to them.

"Sai-kun, why chose me as a teammate then?" Sai thought about her question as Sakura waited with patience. It was an easy question, all Sai needed to do was explain his thought process.

"First, you have interest in the Chunin Exam; second, since everyone else in your team had passed except for you, leaving you in need of teammates. Also, your specialization is medical-nin, who often do not fare well without the support of teammates …" Sai's voice dropped to silence when he saw Sakura's fist tightened as veins popped on her hand.

Sai was very confused. She looked irritated, but he didn't know what could have possibly caused that.

"So, you're saying that I can't do stuff without my teammates, who had all passed, leaving me as the only one who failed." There was a certain pressure of danger in her voice that made Sai's hair stand. It told Sai that regardless of what she asked, the answer should always be no.

"No, I am merely proposing my observation …" Sai saw Karin shaking her head frantically behind Sakura as if telling him not to go down the path he was on. "... that's probably full of assumptions."

Karin let out a breath of relief, leaving Sai to regroup his thoughts as he tried to pull up something useful from his guidebook. Let's see … 'validating others always works'. "I meant that you're a valuable teammate, Sakura. We can complement each other's abilities as a team together."

"Oh, uh, thank you." Sakura's anger seemed to be brushed away as she looked at him in surprise. It took a moment as she looked down in embarrassment and added, "sorry, I was being a little too sensitive."

Finally, things were back on track and Sai decided to follow up with another strategy - advertise one's strength when looking for cooperation. "I'm skilled in tracking, information gathering, and communication. My ninjutsu also has battle capabilities, versatile in many styles of attack and defence."

I'm useful, Sai thought but didn't say. Usefulness meant survival, after all. It was the one thing he could never lose.

"I believe you on that," Sakura said. She paused for a second before turning to Karin. Sai saw the two girls exchange something with their eyes before Karin nodded at her, barely containing her excitement.

Noticing his gaze, Sakura explained, "Right, Karin and I have already decided to join the next Chunin Exam together as teammates. In fact, we were running into a stalemate with our third teammates. Kiba and Hinata also needed a third teammate after Shino advanced; the same applies to Lee and Tenten. But none of us wants to split our teams. So yes, if you're fine with the two of us being your teammates, let's train for the next Chunin Exam as a team."

"What team? What's going on with the Chunin Exam, isn't it done like months ago?" Sai only had time to nod, before a bright voice interrupted them as Naruto and Sasuke walked out of the forest. It was Naruto who asked the question as he tried to pick out the leaves and splinters that stuck to his hair.

"It's the next Chunin Exam; they don't happen just once," Sakura said, barely containing her urge to roll her eyes. "Sai-kun, Karin-chan, and I will be forming a team for the examination at Kirigakure in three months."

"Wait, Sai? Where did he come from?" Naruto screamed in shock, suddenly recognizing the additional person at the training ground.

"I came from that way." Sai pointed to the direction behind him helpfully.

"No, that's not what I … never mind." Naruto shook his head while Sai tilted his head in confusion. "Why suddenly join the Chunin Exam. I thought that An … people like you don't need to enter that kind of thing."

That was a question Sai was still trying to sort out himself. Still, he answered Naruto, "It's true that the Chunin Exam is not a necessary path for me to survive as a shinobi. But … I still would like to become a Chunin."

Naruto nodded, finding that a good enough reason. "Good luck." Sai caught Sasuke's words under his breath and he returned with a smile of acknowledgement, which in hindsight, was probably not the best decision, given how Sasuke-kun had expressed distaste for his fake smile.

He was working on it.

"Wait, Karin too? Are you going to be okay? The Chunin Exam can get real scary sometimes. Also, aren't you and Sakura both Medical-nin?" Naruto asked and suddenly, Sai felt like he was awfully familiar with the direction of this conversation.

"Huh? Something wrong with Sakura and me on the same team?" Karin shot her cousin with a glance that sent Naruto shaking his head frantically.

"Don't you worry, Naruto-kun, we can take care of ourselves," Sakura said with a smile and she clenched her fist and punched the ground. Immediately, the ground shook at the ridiculous force, and so did Naruto. "Also, I see that you twisted your wrist, want me to heal that up?"

"No, no, thank you, but I'm good; it's healing already," Naruto said immediately. Sai remembered one of the first things that Captain taught him - Never piss off a medical-nin.

"Besides, I don't just have passive healing. I'm a good sensor too," Karin said, raising her chin just slightly to show her pride. She was different from three months ago, Sai gathered. Three months ago, she was being forced to enter the Chunin Exam as a tool for her special healing abilities. When given the chance to leave, she did so without hesitation and regret.

Sai had once wondered if she would want to continue being a shinobi - it would be quite a waste of her Uzumaki bloodline, but she was nevertheless given a choice. Looking at it now, It was clear that Karin had chosen to continue her shinobi career.

She looked more certain about herself and her talents than Sai had ever been.

"We're going to be a great team," Sai said all of a sudden. It felt like a good decision to join the team.

"Of course. With Sai's addition, we'll be a versatile team!" Sakura added.

"We'll be cheering you on!" Naruto gave them a bright smile as Sasuke nodded next to him in silent agreement.

The realization came way later, but eventually, Sai would recognize what he was feeling at this moment as happiness.

He was happy to be connected to others. He was happy to exist in a web that marked him in this world.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Eat this! Ahhh! Rasengan!"

It had been years since Sasuke first trained with Naruto. To this day, that blockhead still resorted to shouting out his attacks ages before he actually landed one.

Nevertheless, the swirling ball of chakra gathered in Naruto's palm, sending waves of pressure as it pulsed under Sasuke's sharingan, shouting out its power and destruction loud and clear.

So this was the 'super awesome' new jutsu that would definitely blow him away - in all metaphorical and physical senses.

Sasuke tightened the ninja wires between his fingers and pulled, swinging himself upward at the last moment before Naruto slammed the swirling chakra into the tree trunk. He felt his skin being crazed by the shredding air as he narrowly avoided the impact.

Then, the entire tree snapped and broke, sending Sasuke down to the ground as Naruto shouted in a panic while avoiding the fallen branches.

"Ouch, that was not the plan," Naruto muttered as he brushed away the thick crowns of leaves all around him.

"You mean that you have a plan other than to slam into me with full force?" Sasuke rolled his eyes as he asked. He would have to be blind to not realize that the jutsu was more power than control - funny how he should judge that, how the table had turned.

"Technically, I was aiming for the tree instead of you, but maybe that was a mistake too," Naruto argued as he rubbed his wrist. How considerate.

"So, that is 'Rasengan'." Sasuke took a moment to recall how the chakra had swirled and turned. "It's a shape transformation of chakra, isn't it?"

Naruto nodded as he scratched the back of his head. "Something like that? You know I'm not good at the theory part." So this is what those broken balloons and rubber balls around the training grounds were for.

"Would be more impressive if you didn't have to split the work between shadow clones," Sasuke commented, remembering how he stood there for a good few seconds, watching Naruto and his shadow clones from the jutsu first. Any enemy would have tried to interrupt him during that time.

"Yeah, I'm working on that. It's like rubbing your tummy and patting your head at the same time. It's weird," Naruto said as he actually tried to pat his head and rub his stomach at the same time. You mean 'multitasking', Sasuke thought but didn't say.

There was a moment of silence before Naruto walked up to him and said, "Nah, Sasuke. Ero-sennin said he would take me to train in Mount Myōboku, you know, where the sage toads reside."

Sasuke didn't say anything, merely waiting for Naruto to continue because he knew that he had something else to say.

"He won't tell me for how long, but … it's probably going to be longer than a few days. I won't be seeing you, or Sakura-chan, or Kakashi-sensei, or Maiko-nee … all of you, for a while." Naruto finished his words.

Jiraiya the Sannin wanted to protect Naruto until Naruto could protect himself. After all, Naruto was a target of some of the worst shinobi in this world, with powers that no one knew how to counter for certain, not Maiko-nee, not Itachi, not the Hokage.

"Then get stronger," Sasuke said, as he brushed the dust off of his pants. "That's the point of training, isn't it?"

"Of course, I don't need you to tell me that!" Naruto shouted as he hit Sasuke in the shoulder. It didn't hurt at all, but Sasuke felt the weight. "When I come back, I'll be ten times, a hundred times stronger, so don't slack off in the meantime."

Sasuke pushed away Naruto's fist with a scowl. "Like hell that's going to happen. Worry about yourself, you idiot."

In the world of shinobi, the lack of power was almost a sin. Without power and strength, dreams couldn't be achieved, freedom couldn't be obtained. Of course, even with power, those things were never a guarantee.

Naruto was well aware of that, more than anyone would realize. What they were training and fighting for, in the end, was merely a ticket - a ticket to pursue one's dream and freedom.

They didn't want others to fight their battle, to die for their freedom.

"Remember what you said, don't come back until you're ten times, no, a hundred times stronger." Suddenly, Sasuke said just before they exited the forest. Naruto gave him a thumbs up, full of confidence and determination. "Same to you, I'll be disappointed if I end up kicking your ass the next time we meet."

Huh, just you try.

Shortly after, they learned that Sakura would be entering the next Chunin Exam with Karin and Sai. That was an interesting combo that Sasuke had never thought of, but somehow, he knew that Sakura wasn't going to stay at the same spot for long.

Team 7 was the designation for their genin team and it would stay with them forever. But for now, it seemed that each of them had their own adventure to clear.

It was just that Sasuke wasn't sure what was his.

"Welcome back." Itachi was still going through the boxes of belongings near the porch. The fact that the Main House would one day be running out of rooms was something none of them ever thought about. But somehow, it became a problem.

"Oh, I have something for you." Sasuke stopped his steps when Itachi called out to him. He turned around just in time to catch Itachi taking out two scrolls from the sleeve of his haori.

"First of all, Hatake-san dropped this off earlier. It's for you to consider." Itachi first gave him the scroll that looked newer. The Konoha symbol was stamped on the surface. The moment Sasuke rolled it open and recognized its words, his eyes widened.

"This is …"

"Yes, it's a recruitment offer from Anbu." Of course, Itachi would know. The same scroll probably was given to him years ago, and then to Maiko-nee, and now, it arrived again.

The content was short and concise: an introduction to what Anbu was, a warning about its mortality rate, and an instruction to dispose of the scroll after the message had been read. The choice to accept or decline lay at the hand of the recipient, it stressed. Finally, the signature of Tsunade-sama was written in bold strokes at the bottom, recognizing its legitimacy.

For a second, Sasuke was lost for words. He didn't need to ask things such as 'why me?' or 'Am I qualified?'. The fact that it arrived for him said enough. So, all he did was close the scroll and stuff it in his pouch.

Should he accept, all recruits needed to show up tomorrow behind the Hokage Tower. If not, then this message could be ignored and no one would be affected negatively.

"It's your choice, Sasuke," Itachi said from the side. "The offer doesn't come just once even if you reject it. I'm pretty sure Maiko got three letters after her Chunin Exam until she finally accepted the placement."

The hidden words were that it wasn't something Sasuke must decide now for the rest of his career, as long as he kept reaching the standards that Anbu used to select its candidates.

"I'll think about it," Sasuke finally said and Itachi took the hint and said no more. Instead, he held out the second scroll in his hand, showing him the aged fabric with a faded image inscribed on it. Sasuke squinted, making out the shape to be some kind of bird.

"It's the clan's summoning contract with the Hawk," Itachi explained as Sasuke's outstretched hand froze in mid-air.

Hawks, that was something Sasuke thought he'd never hear again after the Uchiha Massacre. Exceptional shinobi within the Uchiha Clan was given the honour to form a contract with the Hawks, the mighty predator of the sky. But the connections between the Uchiha and hawks severed when all of the existing contractors died, like many things about the Uchiha.

"Why are you giving me this?" Sasuke asked as he took the scroll, feeling its weight in his hand. At that moment, he clearly realized that he didn't take it because he wanted to, but because he felt like he had to.

What am I supposed to do with this, Itachi-nii?

As if sensing the mild distress leaking out of Sasuke's body, Itachi said, "Like the Anbu Recruitment offer, it's your choice, Sasuke, whether you want to go see the hawks." There was a moment of pause before he clarified again, "It's not meant to be a responsibility, Sasuke."

No, his brother never meant for this scroll to be a responsibility, Sasuke believed that. It was just his own twisted mind that couldn't straighten things out.

If the Uchiha ever wanted to establish a connection with the Hawk summons again, Sasuke was the only one left. It was Sasuke's undying goal to regain the heritage that the Uchiha had lost, so he couldn't for the life of him figure out why he was wavering.

"I understand, Itachi-nii. I'll be at the training ground." Sasuke forced the words out of his mouth as he turned around, almost fleeing deeper into the compound.

"Sasuke, no one should be forced to take on something just because they're the only one left," Itachi yelled out behind him and Sasuke wanted to scream back that he didn't need to be reminded twice.

Free will, freedom of choice, responsibilities had to be accepted, not forced … his older siblings were walking embodiments of those ideals, whatever.

Sasuke wasn't feeling forced, he wasn't struggling with something as philosophical as personal freedom. It only took him a few seconds to realize that he was just afraid to disappoint, a childish mentality so trivial that it was ridiculous.

Anbu, hawk summons, even this rush of fire chakra that he was building up in his throat, concentrating it until layers and layers of fire was compacted together, he was just mimicking those that came before.

Itachi-nii and Maiko-nee walked before him in Anbu; his father and countless other exceptional Uchiha took the path that lead them to the hawk summon; he learned to concentrate fire chakra from Maiko-nee, in the failed process of learning her yin-chakra fire.

Sasuke just wanted to catch up, but those figures always walked just barely out of his sight.

The frustration - mainly towards himself - erupted along with the fire chakra that he breathed out. That was a terrible idea.

Flames raged forward with so much force that it shocked even Sasuke. During his stupid mental struggle, he had lost track of how much chakra he had actually put in that jutsu and before he knew it, a fourth of his entire chakra reserve was gone in an instant.

The fire chakra was so concentrated that the flame had a tinge of blue and white hues mixed in with the red and the orange, creating spots of pale blue that confused his vision. Sasuke's body moved on its own as he flickered backwards, escaping the sea of flame as the stream of fire chakra expanded out and engulfed the training ground in front of him.

Oh crap. Sasuke took in a deep breath, to steady himself from the sudden chakra loss, and from the fact that everything was burning. In fact, the fire was starting to lick the forest connecting the training ground to the Compound.

Amidst the rising heat, Sasuke's throat felt dry as he tried to find the direction of the river - if the fire wasn't extinguished soon, they'd lose more than a field of wooden targets - but the veils of flame were making it hard to orient himself.

Just then, a stream of water crashed down from a distance, raining down on the fire that danced near the edge of the forest. The fire struggled valiantly before the column of water thickened to contain the spread.

After what felt like forever, the fire was finally contained in the training ground as smoke rose up all around him. Feeling the heat that grilled his body, Sasuke saw Ryuu letting out a breath of relief as he retracted his hand from the river.

"The rest will burn out when the chakra runs out," Ryuu told him as he flickered from across the river. He opened his mouth for a second, but he decided against whatever he was going to say. Sasuke had a feeling that he was going to ask if he was okay, before deciding that Sasuke would definitely not appreciate that.

"Thank you," Sasuke muttered as embarrassment burned his ears, even more so than the residual heat.

"Was it a new jutsu you're working on?" Ryuu asked, already moving on from the fact that Sasuke almost caused an arson.

"Umm, sort of." It wasn't. Sasuke wanted to blow off some steam and he blew more than that.

"Oh, impressive. I don't think I would have been able to extinguish it if not for the river. Even then, it took a huge chunk of my chakra as well." Ryuu said and Sasuke could tell the encouraging undertone. Again, the ingenuity of the Uchiha who had built their training ground near a large flowing river.

"... How's your mission?" Sasuke asked after a long stretch of awkward silence. To be fair, he had nothing against Ryuu since a long time ago, but it was difficult for them to interact because of how immature Sasuke had acted in the beginning. It didn't help that none of them was the type to actively seek out conversations.

"It's still going," Ryuu answered with a shrug. Right, despite all the tales, things were usually not that exciting in Anbu. "Since Captain is still on leave, recovering from her injuries, the rest of us get assigned to in-village duties for the time being."

The conversation died just like that. With nothing better to do, Sasuke turned his attention back to the flame that was finally starting to recede, after burning through everything it could use as fuels. Sasuke couldn't help but let out a sigh when nothing but piles of ashes were left on the field of sand that was scorched black.

"Isn't that a good thing, in terms of fire jutsu," Ryuu said all of a sudden. "Only the best flames can reduce everything in its path into ashes in mere seconds. I thought it was Maiko-senpai's flames when I first saw it …"

Ryuu stopped himself before he could continue his sentence and Sasuke couldn't help but let out a snort.

"You can say it, I'm not that sensitive," Sasuke told the older boy. Yes, he used to have inferiority issues - which probably was still here somewhat - but it didn't mean he couldn't stand a little comparison.

"I concentrated the fire chakra, just like she would do, but I lacked the means to stabilize it after it left my body," Sasuke analyzed, remembering the chakra that coursed through his body as he packed them all in that one breath. "It has raw, uncontrolled destruction, but that's all it has."

If he were to do that in battle, it would burn everyone caught in the area - enemies, comrades, even himself.

"Does it need to do more than that?" Ryuu asked, a little confused. For a second, Sasuke's voice got caught in his throat because he couldn't figure out the answer for that one.

"... I supposed it doesn't," Sasuke managed to say after some thinking. All jutsu needed to have a purpose. Sasuke wasn't sure what purpose his fire could have until Ryuu mentioned it.

His fire was subpar and incomplete; it had flaws and caveats, ones that could hurt his teammates and himself if not careful. But it was good at something and that should be enough to make do.

Quietly, Ryuu made a series of hand seals and a breeze of wind rushed past Sasuke, sweeping away the ashes until they disappeared in the river. The scorching field, however, remained as evidence of Sasuke's frustrated anger and would certainly raise some questions.

"Are you staying?" Ryuu asked and Sasuke shook his head. There was something he needed to finish before tomorrow arrived, and he better do it when adrenaline and recklessness were still filling up his veins.

He ran back to his room and along with it, his mind was also racing a thousand miles per second. When he injected his chakra into the summoning array, he even wondered if he would be back before dinner time, so no one would think he was missing.

Chilling air rushed into Sasuke's lungs as he opened his eyes again. Sasuke heard a few rocks rolling on the ground beside his feet. Merely a step forward and he would be falling down a cliff that overlooked the lush forest.

Judging by the types of vegetation, he was still in Fire Country. Just miles away from Konoha, it appeared.

"Look what we have here." Sasuke heard the flapping of wings before he heard the words. A strong rush of wind grazed his face as Sasuke turned around, taking in the giant hawks that landed on the ground.

"Uchiha child, should we pity your clan's tragedy or should we be enraged that it took you this long to find us?" The leading hawk said as he shook his steel-gray feathers. There was no reason to think that the news of the Uchiha Massacre would not reach the hawks when it seemed to reach every corner of the continent.

"The second one, fine, but not the first." Sasuke was still on the high after burning a training ground, it seemed.

"Are you certain? We might be more lenient otherwise. You are the last remaining Uchiha, after all." The hawk raised its head as it examined him once again.

"One of the last Uchiha," Sasuke felt the need to correct. "And I don't need your leniency."

The hawk let out a sound that resembled a snort as he replied, "One of the last. You mean the one that massacred many of our summoners and the one that abandoned the Uchiha tradition for some wolves of foreign origin."

"That's her own choice to make and she has the right to do so," Sasuke defended his sister. On the topic of Itachi, however, it might take a while to explain.

"That matters not because it will make things simple for us. The Uchiha had a contract with us for generations and we won't turn our backs to you as long as your bloodline remains." The steel-gray hawk stared at Sasuke with a glint in his eyes and he immediately understood the hidden meaning of those words.

"But if the last one of your existing bloodline fails to obtain a contract, then we no longer have a duty to answer any Uchiha's calls." Clearly, neither Itachi-nii nor Maiko-nee would remain eligible in their eyes, which left Sasuke as the last Uchiha they had to screen through.

"I assume you know how the process works," the gray hawk said and Sasuke shook his head without an ounce of shame.

"Well, the process starts now, Uchiha child. The contract creates a bond between one of us and one of you, so first, someone from my clan must be willing to give you a chance." The hawk scratched the ground with his sharp talon as he shouted, "Anyone willing to take this child on?"

A dead silence ensued. Maybe the journey would end before Sasuke actually understood what the process was.

"I will." Sasuke followed the direction of the voice until he saw the brown hawk landing next to the gray one. Dark markings outlined his eyes as he examined Sasuke with a piercing gaze.

"Son of Fugaku, am I correct?" the brown hawk asked and Sasuke nodded. "I am Garuda. My father was the one that made a bond with your father."

"So, what's the next step?" Sasuke asked, but Garuda had already walked to the edge of the cliff.

The gray hawk had a glint of mischievousness in his eyes as he drawled, "Next? You take flight and make sure that you survive."

Sasuke rushed forward just as Garuda spread his wings and took off. He barely made it onto the brown hawk's back as he clenched tight on a handful of feathers behind Garuda's neck. In mere seconds, they were soaring into the sky and Sasuke had already lost track of how high above the ground he was.

"The lack of information is quite a disadvantage for you. Good thing that you have the reaction time to make up for it." Sasuke could barely hear Garuda's words as the wind drummed loud in his ears.

He couldn't answer because he was busy pulling himself up so he stayed on Garuda's back, but yes, he was unprepared and would have missed the flight before it started if he was even a second slower.

Well, he did claim that he didn't need the leniency. He had a feeling that it was only going to get worse from here.

Sasuke felt his insides being stirred into mush as the cold wind slapped him around. Garuda was making all sorts of twists and turns as he soared across the blue sky. His wings were unperturbed by the air current as the quills sliced through the skyline like steels.

"Son of Fugaku, be prepared," Garuda said and before Sasuke could react, Garuda turned his body upside down. Unsurprisingly, Sasuke's hand started to slip as sweat covered the feathers in his grasp.

Just then, Garuda made a turn to the right and Sasuke got swung off of his back completely. The harshness of the wind was making it hard to open his eyes in this world clouded by noises. His hands felt so stiff because of how hard he was grasping onto Garuda's feathers earlier.

It was hard to tell what was in Garuda's eyes when he spared him a glance from the above. Perhaps it was contempt, or maybe it was disappointment, but whatever, Sasuke figured that nothing could compare to the fact that he was freefalling from hundreds of meters in the sky.

Biting his teeth together until he could taste the blood in his mouth, Sasuke managed to pull out a shuriken tied to ninja wire. He forced his eyes to focus, to take in every outline, every detail of Garuda's body as the hawk moved with confidence and grace. He felt the wind that battered his body as he gathered strength in his arms. Then, he shot the shuriken upward.

The shuriken curved in the sky as it threaded itself between Garuda's legs, Sasuke didn't hesitate as he shot out a second shuriken, letting it hit the first one, bringing the wired shuriken to the full circle as it tied itself around Garuda's right leg.

For the first time, the giant hawk faltered in the air as he suddenly got weighed down by Sasuke through the wire. Garuda didn't seem surprised. This was basic bukijutsu expected of an Uchiha, after all. The hawk didn't change his course as he shot for an even greater height, dragging Sasuke upwards as if he was merely a broken feather in the wind.

Sasuke wrapped the wire around his right wrist, already seeing the red marks left on his skin by the straining wire. Sasuke took a breath and waited with patience, until finally, Garuda took another sharp turn. Using that momentum, Sasuke swung upward. He reached out and clutched onto the wire with his left hand, then with a strong force, Sasuke pulled himself back onto Garuda's back.

Sasuke squeezed his thighs around Garuda's body as he cut the wire to Garuda's leg with a kunai. "It's Sasuke, not just 'Son of Fugaku'." The severed ninja wire fell from the sky along with the shuriken, until it was buried by the canopy beneath.

Garuda beat his wings violently, sending the both of them even higher until Sasuke felt like he could touch the clouds if he just reached.

Raising his body from the crouched position, even if he would be more prone to falling, Sasuke reached out his right hand. He didn't touch the clouds - they were far from where the clouds reside, in fact - but he felt the frigid wind that caressed his fingers and saw the vibrant blue background that stained itself in his vision.

"Are you afraid of falling?" Sasuke heard Garuda asking. A moment later, the hawk added, "Sasuke."

"Yes." Sasuke didn't care to lie. He was afraid of falling into his death just as he was afraid of falling into a spiral of confusion and self-doubt. "But the view from the above, it's worth it."

"Indeed it is!" Garuda let out a burst of thundering laughter as he flapped his wings even harder. They rode the current and ascended even higher, to the point that Sasuke felt like the rays of sunlight were getting warmer and warmer.

"My partner must have the will to fly higher and higher, that's the process," Garuda explained, not at all slowing down his violent flight. But Sasuke held on to the hawk, refusing to let himself be left behind.

"You have my recognition, Sasuke, the Son of Fugaku and the last Uchiha." Garuda's solemn voice resonated in the air and Sasuke immediately knew that a contract - a bond - had formed between them from the declaration.

"One of the last Uchiha," Sasuke corrected.

"You're very adamant on that part," Garuda commented with intrigue. "Unfortunately, hawks won't recognize your older siblings as the Uchiha that formed a contract with us long ago."

"With all due respect, they don't need your recognition," Sasuke replied, already prepared to have himself thrown off again. That was fine, he would just have to climb up again using the ninja wire.

"I suppose that's true." Garuda didn't feel offended in the slightest. Sasuke figured that true pride didn't need to be validated by others.

Sasuke thought back to why he was distressed by the notion of coming here, to face what was left of his broken clan as the only one who could reconnect it. Perhaps unconsciously, Sasuke already realized that his obsession with the lost glory of Uchiha was not enough to sustain him.

The shadows of those who came before him were always so big and blinding, but it also meant that somewhere down the line, was a view that everyone sought to find. That was the only reason they were walking tirelessly down the path, the only reason that Sasuke continued to walk this path.

When Garuda returned to the cliff, Sasuke's knee buckled as he almost tripped himself. He could see the suppressed laughter in the gray hawk's eyes and he had to remind himself to calm down and not lash out with fire.

"Ah, it seems that our duty continues," the gray hawk commented in a lazy voice as the rest of the hawks started to disperse after watching the embarrassing show that Sasuke had put on. To that, Sasuke just rolled his eyes.

Despite everything, Sasuke learned to read beneath the lines. If the hawks had truly wanted nothing to do with the Uchiha after the massacre, they wouldn't bother to check on what had happened to the children that were left behind. They wouldn't have known that Maiko-nee signed the summoning contract with the snow wolves, nor would they know that Sasuke had reconciled with Itachi - somewhat.

"Until you need me again, Sasuke," Garuda said as black lines started to expand from under his talons. Soon, the teleportation array started to light up.

"Thank you for the flight, Garuda," Sasuke managed to squeeze in the last bit of words before the scene around him shifted.

Even though he felt like throwing up his insides several times, it was a nice view while it lasted.

The lightheadedness didn't end even as Sasuke opened the scroll in his drawer and imprinted every word in his mind. Then, he made his way to the backyard, passing through the living room in the process.

The sun was starting to set on the horizon, but at least Sasuke didn't miss dinner.

Maiko-nee was back already. She and Fuu were taking out the snacks they had purchased in the afternoon. Somehow, Sasuke felt his nausea getting worse when he saw the packets and packets of daifuku and mochi on the table.

His sister caught the scroll in his hand, already recognizing its content from the Konoha seal on the fabric. Sasuke didn't say anything when he burned the scroll as instructed. He had a feeling that he didn't need to say a word, and Maiko-nee would already know what decision he had made.

"... Why so much food?" Sasuke couldn't help but ask when he saw the dishes that covered every inch of the dinner table, to the point that there was hardly any space to place the bowls of soup.

"Well, never in my wildest imagination do we have this many people at dinner," Maiko-nee said as she forcefully squeezed the bottles of condiments in between the plates. Then, she gave him a smile and said, "Besides, it'll be the last homemade meal you'll get to have in a while, so enjoy it while you still can."

"Wait, what's happening? Why do you always sound so ominous?" Fuu asked as her chopsticks froze in mid-air. Sasuke supposed that the conversation at Uchiha Compound did often get unsettling for people that didn't know the context.

"Oh, don't worry about it," Maiko-nee comforted Fuu. She wasn't about to explain the inner workings of Konoha Anbu to the Takigakure kunoichi, even if she was a guest that would be staying here for the foreseeable future.

In the end, Sasuke still felt like throwing up, but it was debatable whether that was from the roller coaster of a flight earlier or the pile of mochi that they had yet to finish.

A/N: Naruto will be staying in Mt. Myoboku for some training (or somewhere else, whatever was on Jiraiya's whims, I supposed); in the meantime, Sasuke gets shipped to Anbu for some tough love while he figures out what his fire is for; Sakura continues to train under Tsunade's tutelage (with Maiko's help) while she prepares for the next Chunin Exam. Sai really winning in terms of social interaction, while Fuu is starting to understand that the Uchiha are definitely not your average household.

Cue the background music Blue Bird. I was listening to that when I wrote this chapter. It's the age of thirteen, it's time for Sasuke to struggle with the definition of personal choice and the purpose of the path he had chosen, but obviously, with fewer things at stake than his siblings at the age of thirteen.