Chapter 70

"Rabbit!" I turned around at the enthusiastic shout, just as Yugao walked into the locker room and gave me a hug.

"Oh, hi?" I didn't expect her to do that, so my hands just hang in the air awkwardly while clutching onto used kunai.

"You can be a little more welcoming," Yugao complained jokingly as she released me from her hold, allowing me to throw the metal weapons back to their boxes.

"You know you're always welcome here. I just thought that there's no need for such formality between us," I said with a smile. Yugao was transferred to our Anbu team and the order was issued today. Team Kō had been running on four members after Keishi was killed, it was about time that we got assigned a new member.

The vacancy would have been filled earlier if I wasn't on leave due to injury 80% of the time - the other 20% was spent in Takigakure - and the team was as good as disbanded as the members got slotted into positions in need.

"You're correct on that part," Yugao replied with a laugh.

"The lockers with masks hanging on them are occupied; otherwise, pick whichever empty one you want." I waved my hands at the lockers leaning by the wall. There was a moment of pause when Yugao's eyes landed on a particular locker.

The Falcon mask was still hanging on its door untouched.

"I'll remove it when new members join," I explained when I noticed her gaze. Anbu frowned upon the reminiscence of the dead, at least, in spaces reserved for work. It wasn't healthy to dwell on the past, feeding on the guilt and the regret.

Rationally speaking, the longer I kept Falcon's mask in front of his locker, the harder it would be for us to let go - but that was a price I was willing to pay. The fact that my teammates left the mask exactly where it was while I was in a coma told me that it was the same for them. In fact, if it were anyone other than Yugao who was transferred to my team, I would have put the mask away.

Yugao shook her head in understanding and said nothing else. Quietly, she picked an empty locker and stuffed her belongings in. Finally, she hung her Otter mask on the locker door before taking a step back to take in the scene.

"Well then, I'll be under your care, Captain," Yugao teased, making me let out a burst of laughter as I finished documenting the weapon stocks. With a gentle kick, I pushed the box under the bench - got to remember to restock the ninja wire.

"Ah, young recruits, how nostalgic," Yugao exclaimed when we left the room. Beneath the railings, the newest batch of trainees was working their hardest, rebuilding and strengthening their foundations in Taijutsu.

"I wouldn't call the 'thirty-day hell' nostalgic. That would imply that I miss it," I said, those days where I kept waking up exactly after three hours were still fresh in my mind. Anbu took on jobs of different intensity and urgency, which meant that our ability to adapt to extreme schedules must be top-notch.

"It's only their first week. If I recall correctly, I still had the illusion that things were not that bad at this time," Yugao said with a shudder. Needless to say, we didn't have the most pleasant memory regarding this experience.

But the initiation training was crucial; it focused on the basics of the basics, the foundations of the foundations so that once a recruit joined a team, they could at least keep up and stay alive.

I paused a little in my steps as I observed the dozen or so new recruits, all donned the same black training uniform and the same blank mask. These recruits were mostly young, still teenagers or young adults. They had varying heights, varying skills, and varying experiences.

Among them was my little brother who has chosen one of the hardest ways to advance as a shinobi. But that also meant that he would learn much more and much faster than if he was just training with me or Itachi.

So you're on your own, Sasuke.

"So this is what you mean by 'enjoy it while you still can'," Fuu said as she flopped on the back porch, looking so bored that she might have considered sinking herself into the pond to escape this world.

Right after that night, Sasuke started his Anbu training, Itachi was busy designing the sentinel and defence measures with Jiraiya, Ryuu was completing his assigned posts, and I was dealing with Anbu chores to prepare for missions. Unfortunately, this meant that very few of us were home at a given time, if any. And Fuu, once she got over the initial foreignness, was definitely the type that enjoyed the company over quietness.

"You could have gone anywhere in the village, if the Uchiha Compound is poisoning you with boredom," I told her. Immediately, Fuu gave me a pained expression.

"But without you around, it feels weird to walk around the village, like I can't help but feel the gaze of your Anbu," Fuu answered with a pout.

"Well then, I'll make sure to let Hokage-sama know that our Anbu were not doing a very good job." Upon hearing my words, Fuu shook her head furiously.

"That's not what I meant! No one needs to get in trouble." Of course, Fuu being Fuu, didn't want to trouble those who were just doing their job. "Even without sensing their presence, I still know that they're around. At least when you're with me, I can ignore that fact."

With that, she glanced at me with her own brand of puppy eyes, begging me to take her somewhere to do something. As much as I'd hate to see her dying of boredom, I had to resist promising anything I couldn't deliver.

"What about Sakura and Karin. You've grown familiar enough with them, haven't you?" I asked instead, remembering the times that Fuu joined their training sessions out of curiosity.

"Yeah, they're great. It's just that when I'm training with them … no offence, they're kind of fragile." Fuu breathed out the words after much contemplation, even then, she sounded apologetic. But I understood what she meant.

As a Jinchuuriki who had learned to utilize the tailed-beast power within her, it would be all too easy to defeat Sakura and Karin, whose foundations were weak to begin with. Then, the more worrying issue for Fuu was how not to hurt them.

Such a disparity in power level wouldn't bring any benefits for the parties involved, for training purposes, at least. Despite Fuu's individual prowess, she was not used to modulating her skills and power to guide and teach others.

"I see," I muttered, crossing my arms as I wondered how much I would regret my decision. Oh, whatever. "Okay, let's go."

"Wait, what?" Fuu raised herself from the wooden floor and stared at me in confusion.

"Let's go somewhere to train," I explained as I pulled her up by the arm so that the mighty Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki wasn't sagging on the floor like wet noodles. "The best way to chase boredom away is some good old sparring, for shinobi, at least."

As soon as she heard my words, Fuu gave me a once over until her gaze landed on the scar running across the right side of my neck. The skepticism in her eyes was hard to miss. Clearly, she also placed me in the 'fragile' category.

"Don't worry about me, consider it rehabilitation," I told her, already heading for the door without a care.

"Okay, you and I have very different definitions of rehabilitation," Fuu managed to say.

"Are you coming or not?" I asked as I held the door open. Despite everything, it only took Fuu a second to catch up and follow me out of the compound. Anything to chase the boredom away, I supposed.

"As long as you don't break the building, we should be fine," I said as I jumped down from the railing and landed on the stone-hard floor. Fuu nodded absent-mindedly, her attention was occupied by the marvellous underground structure, built by Root to contain a force as destructive as that of a tailed beast or the Mangekyou.

It took her a moment before she peeled her eyes away and jumped down as well. She looked at me, hesitation and disapproval spoke loud in her eyes. "Are you sure?"

With a small sigh, I took off my weapon belt where my swords were hung and threw them all into the storage seal around my arm. With the coating of Tailed-Beast chakra, any metal weapon would have met its demise and I'd hate to have my swords be damaged.

"Trust me, anything that this building can take, I can take as well." On cue with my words, silvery chakra started to appear around my body and formed a skeletal ribcage. I only materialized the partial Susanoo for a second, before dispelling the silvery armour, just to make Fuu stop worrying. "Anything beyond that, let's just not go there."

"Oh, you should have said so sooner." Fuu looked much more relaxed as she rolled her shoulders and stretched her limbs. "Here I come."

A dash of orange zoomed towards me as Fuu coated her body with a thin layer of chakra. I flipped backwards, just in time to get out of the way when Fuu punched the ground with a deafening sound.

Fuu didn't stop there, with a twirl of her body, she turned her back towards me as chakra tails expanded from her fluttering wings. Seven long whips pierced towards me in quick succession and I didn't hesitate to let lightning fill my body.

The tails slammed down on the spot I was standing, but there was nothing left but a spark of electricity. I landed on the side of the wall before dashing forward, weaving myself between the trajectory of Fuu's chakra tails.

Fuu was quick to realize that despite the augmentation of her speed and reflexes, passively trying to aim for me - or rather, where I appeared to be - in her current state just wouldn't catch up. To deal with that, Fuu let out a low hiss as the chakra coating around her doubled in both size and intensity.

She furrowed her brows in concentration as she tried to turn up her senses and reflexes. Her wings seemed to vibrate even faster, like an engine that was ramping up power for a burst of acceleration. Without a moment of pause, she disappeared from where she was. My instinct warned me of danger when she arrived above me in the air with a stunning speed.

Fuu crashed down from above. Her kick narrowly missed my body as I took a step to the right. I didn't have time to loiter around as the girl turned her body and sent another kick to my head. Her foot barely caught the residual current that was leaking out of my skin as I amped up the lightning chakra that circuited my body.

"Is dodging the best you can do?" Fuu said with a snort as her attack followed me without any stop. Once again, she slashed her arm towards my head, only to be evaded again as I ducked at the last moment. Three of her chakra tails drilled towards me from my left, right, and behind, sealing all of my escape route with her in the front. Still, I shifted the weight onto the sole of my feet and pushed myself upwards. The ground below let out a painful thud as I flickered onto the railing. Unfortunately, with just a beat of her wings, Fuu caught up to me again.

"Or, could it be that you can't attack while you're using this … weird electricity." Fuu even had the time to raise an eyebrow at me as she chased me down from the sky. Now, this is more like it.

"You know, trash talk would be more appropriate once you've caught me," I whispered to her just before I escaped another one of her assaults, making her frown in annoyance. While she still couldn't land a definite blow on me, she was right about one thing - It was hard for me to make effective attacks against her while also maintaining this much intensity of Jinrai.

A normal kick in the rib or a stab of the elbow wouldn't do much against her chakra coat other than making my own skin burn. Only a ninjutsu-based attack - not a simple one at that - would hope to make a dent on her.

It was hard, but not impossible. In a sense, this was rehabilitation and its first step was an evaluation of one's current state, against an opponent that would make the flaws as visible as possible.

The moment my toes touched the cold hard floor, I felt the rhythm clicking into place. Fuu, as usual, caught up to me without much delay. Her first strike missed as her leg swiped down beside my body, but before she could relocate my position with her beast-like instinct and incredible reflex, Jinrai receded from my chakra circuit and transformed into a stronger, more violent rush of lightning chakra.

Electricity crackled on my fingertips as they gathered into a dozen senbon. Fuu only had the time to curl her tails in front of her before icy blue needles pierced towards her. She swung her tails in a wide arc and the lightning senbon sizzled against the corrosive chakra before it got dissolved.

The swinging tails didn't end there as Fuu aimed its motion so that it would head straight for me after dispelling my attacks. The tails slammed into each other, once again caught nothing but a faint spark of lightning.

A rush of sensations fed back from my body to my mind - the montage of visual cues, the smell of electricity in the air, the rush of wind against my skin, and finally, the unobstructed flow of my chakra. A simple shape manipulation of one chakra nature, check.

Fuu gritted her teeth as she charged at me again. She knew that I paused Jinrai when I attacked; she sensed the sudden offbeat of my movements at that moment, not as fluid as before, creating a disharmony of rhythm and a deadly opening.

Fiery chakra boiled in my veins as I slapped my hand onto the ground. Just a few meters to my right, Fuu dashed towards me as she pulled her fist back for a punch. However, just before her punch connected, electricity returned to my body. Her chakra coating managed to graze my shoulder and I felt the heat as that patch of fabric melted into dust.

But I did leave her a gift. A ruby red lotus bloomed from the ground - just the size of my palm - right next to her feet as she arrived at my previous position. Instinctively, her shoulders tensed up due to the danger and she shielded her body with the chakra tails without hesitation.

The lotus of flame erupted into a curtain of blazes, searing her chakra-tails and eating them away with an insatiable hunger.

The yin-chakra fire was a more complicated jutsu, requiring the mixing and concentration of two different chakra types, with shape manipulation added on top. Interweaving it with Jinrai against Fuu's reflexes was doable, but clearly, it was cutting close, as reminded by the exposed skin on my shoulder.

Next, was the amount of chakra.

Narrowly missing the slam of her tails, the weak circuit of lightning receded as I drew my hand back like I was firing an arrow. Following the motion of my fingers, an arrow made of flame materialized next to my face.

Fuu only had the time to widen her eyes when the arrow pierced through the air, burning a hole in her chakra-tail. But she was also learning and evolving. The slight interruption in my rhythm was now more detectable as she focused even harder.

Right as my arrow pierced her tails, her arm arrived at my head. At the last moment, I raised my arm guard and blocked her powerful strike, stalling for a moment before lightning could once more fill my body and grant my escape.

My arm guard dropped on the ground with a clink, already half-melted. My left arm was numb from the impact - and Fuu was already holding back on her power so she couldn't break any bones in my body.

So this was what it felt like to use Jinrai against someone who could react to the speed. It felt like a walk on the tightrope, with a rush of danger every time I had to pause the lightning augmentation for ninjutsu attacks.

Suddenly, a wave of glittering dust spread from Fuu's body, rushing towards me as it rode the wind created by her wings. It wasn't the blinding kind, but the corrosive kind was not any better, especially with the density I was seeing.

Quickly forming a hand seal, I blew out a stream of compressed wind to disperse the powders. Of course, Fuu was not going to waste this opportunity as dozens of chakra webs flew out from the other side of the hall, where the dust turn the air opaque.

I let out a quiet laugh when the trajectories of the webs revealed themselves under my sharingan. Nevertheless, I flashed around the walls, escaping the sticky silk as they kept coming, until finally, it covered my entire side of the building, driving me to the last spot of empty space on the floor. At the same time, the glittering powders encroached further, forcing me to dispel them again using wind releases.

Clearly, Fuu was waiting for me to arrive. She burst through the dust and slammed towards me just as I retracted Jinrai.

There was a loud crash as her tails made contact with something and whipped it back with strong force. "Maiko!" Fuu screamed in panic when she realized that she actually hit something with a force that definitely wasn't light.

"I'm fine." Silver chakra glowed around me as I peeled myself and the Susanoo off of the wall. Very lightly, I rolled my shoulder, trying to ease the pain at the tenketsu that had clogged due to the violent rush of my chakra.

The chakra requirement for Mangekyou was still in a category of its own. If I didn't have the Eternal Mangekyou, I wouldn't be able to gather enough chakra flow in time.

"You could have escaped upward!" Fuu gave me an angry look as soon as the sense of relief left her. True, her chakra webs hadn't covered all the railings yet and I could have escaped the smoke of dust as well. Clearly, she didn't think I would choose to stay there and tank the hit.

Then, she sucked in a breath of disbelief as realization hit her. "Wait a second, were you using me to test your limit? Is this actually your rehabilitation?"

"That's what training is for, to evaluate skills and correct flaws," I said with a shrug as Fuu stuttered in words, speechless at my audacity.

"I could have broken your bones with that hit!" Fuu shouted as she flickered in front of me, her eyes travelling up and down my body, making sure that nothing was broken.

"It's rare that I see someone that can pressure my Jinrai to such a degree. It's worth it." I told her, but the blame in her eyes was still apparent. "But enough about me. The real question is, are you less bored?"

"I … yeah. It's refreshing to be able to fight like this," Fuu admitted, her rage deflated the moment she remembered that it was because of her complaints that I took her here. The rush of power through her veins, the burst of vitality that filled her muscles … I could tell that she was enjoying the release of her power as some restrictions got lifted.

"Don't treat me as fragile, Fuu. I might not have the tenacity and regenerative healing of a Jinchuuriki, but for my entire life, I strive to survive against enemies that can incapacitate those who have." There was a pause as I rubbed my shoulder, where a bruise had started to manifest due to blood vessels being damaged around the tenketsu. "Clearly, I still have lots to work on, but it's got to mean something."

"I'm curious, who taught you to fight with the power of the tailed-beast?" I asked after a while, wondering if her experience might help Naruto in some way.

"Chōmei did, of course." Fuu eyed me like it was obvious. Right, her insect-like friend was much more peaceful to her than the nine-tail fox to Naruto, so I doubt that the same method could be used on the blonde boy. Fuu paused for a second, before she let out a smile.

"Right, he wants to convey his thanks to you, for saving us from a fate with Mr. Creepy Eyes," Fuu said as the insect wings bursted out from her back, vibrating with joy. "It's a shame that the two of you can't meet. I'm sure you would have liked each other."

"Yeah, that might be for the best." Out of the four Jinchuuriki I had met, the three meetings arranged by Mangekyou were definitely not under the best circumstances. "But I think I like him already."

I heard three metallic clinks from above as if someone had tapped the metal railing. When I raised my head, however, I only caught a glimpse of the bear mask that peeked from above, before a scroll fell down.

I caught the scroll with my hands and pulled it open. Immediately, I realized what it was - Shibuki's response to Konoha and of course, Fuu. The ink still looked quite recent, and the scroll was a standard one issued by Anbu for communication. This must be a transcription of the original, delivered by Bear from the Hokage. Then, its receiver should be obvious.

"Your beloved leader has returned his words," I told Fuu as I handed her the scroll. I only glanced through the section that had Shibuki's response to Konoha. The gist was that Takigakure believed Konoha - or rather Fuu's words - and they would distance themself from Iwa's, but instead, requested Konoha to keep her safe. As for how he planned to deal with Iwa's displeasure, he didn't specify.

"Okay, you need to stop teasing me." Fuu's face turned red when I said the word 'beloved'. Still, she practically glued her eyes to the scroll, examining every single word that was delivered with the utmost care.

I didn't mean to pry, but Fuu had yet to learn the importance of hiding one's emotions. There was some relief that flashed through her face, followed by worry, and eventually, contentment. In the end, Fuu had a stupid smile on her face.

"Look, I told you that he'll see reason." Regardless of my intention, Fuu shoved the scroll in front of my face, inviting me to read what Shibuki had written, as if it would prove that his character was exactly what she had described.

'Fuu, please don't cause any trouble in Konoha. Now that you're not in Takigakure, no one will close an eye to all those times you've sneaked out the village against my orders - yes, I know about your little adventures down at Shimizu village every so often, when you claimed that you're training. If the Hokage speaks the truth, then it's not safe for you outside of Konoha.'

I had a feeling that this was not what she wanted me to read - in fact, I was pretty that she forgot that this paragraph existed the moment she read the next one.

'Do whatever it takes to protect yourself, Fuu. I'm not a strong leader; in fact, I am cowardly, thinking that so long as I hide your identity - hide you from the world - I can pretend that your Jinchuuriki status doesn't exist and nothing has to change. That's why I'm unprepared for the sudden changes that arrived at the village, why I ended up making one bad decision after another. But only Takigakure, not Iwa or Konoha, can make decisions that are best for Takigakure. Likewise, only you can decide what's best for yourself. All I can do is try to support your decision.

When it's safe again, come back to Takigakure. Your friends at Shimizu village already miss you - they are working hard as apprentices, so do not worry - and I do too.

"So, you were supposed to be training when we first met," I said and Fuu immediately fumbled to close the scroll, as if that part of the letter had finally returned to her memory.

"Ahh, that's not important! Why does he have to mention that?" When I couldn't stop laughing, she gave me a look full of daggers. It wasn't just a warning to Fuu, but to Konoha as well, hoping that we would pay more attention to her and protect her better.

In fact, I wasn't sure if he had planned for this to be in the same letter as the section that directly addressed Tsunade-sama, knowing that it would be read by Konoha before it would arrive at Fuu. The admission of wrong judgment and the show of weakness did make it hard for Konoha to demand anything more from Takigakure.

Finally, that little advice to Fuu also made it clear to Konoha that Takigakure was done being under the control of another major village, whether that was Iwa or Konoha.

Cowardly or not, Shibuki was definitely not stupid.

"Then what's important, the part that he misses you?" I said instead. Fuu didn't need to know about my thoughts. Shibuki's words served its purpose for her - to placate her worries and reassure her decisions, giving her a peace of mind in a foreign village.

"Maiko!" As expected, Fuu pounced towards me and punched me in the arm. "Fine, tease me all you want! But if I ever find out about your crush on anyone, I'll never let you hear the end of it!"

To her 'threat', all I did was let out a burst of laughter. This was Fuu, who would stutter and blush when I teased her, but she never once denied her feelings and her love

"I'd love to see you try," I said as I escaped another one of her punches by flickering to the railing. "But first, you have to find out about it."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Temari took a deep breath as she raised her fist. She had hesitated for a long time before coming here, so there really was no room for more hesitation as she knocked on the door.

"Come in." Elder Ebizō instructed in a calm voice as Temari pushed open the door. "Temari." The respected elder greeted her with wrinkled eyes, not at all surprised by her entrance.

Elder Ebizō pointed at the chair in front of his desk and Temari sat down after a bow. He didn't rush her as Temari tried to recall what she had planned to say. It was funny, she had practiced her words so many times just minutes before, yet nothing seemed to come to her mind.

Elder Ebizō waited with patience. The water vapours from his piping hot tea rose from the cup, ascending into the sky before fading into nothingness. Kind of like my courage, Temari thought as she mocked herself. Then, she opened her mouth.

"Elder Ebizō, if I may ask, what are your thoughts on the stalemate between Konoha and Iwa?" Temari emphasized the word 'your', drawing a distinction between Elder Ebizō as an individual thinker and as a representative of Suna's government.

She had heard Suna's thoughts on this matter - they just wanted to watch, wait it out as Konoha tried to explain themselves to Iwa, as if none of this Jinchuuriki and Akatsuki stuff mattered to them.

Wait, perhaps it was the opposite - it mattered too much that Suna couldn't take a single action, because in every direction they move, things might crumble down.

"My thoughts?" Elder Ebizō raised an eyebrow at her choice of words. But nevertheless, he gave her his piece of mind. "This stalemate will end soon."

"Because Takigakure had allowed Seven-Tail to stay in Konoha?" Temari asked again. Iwa was using that excuse to demand Konoha to return Seven-Tail - to their custody, she imagined. Of course, there was no way Konoha would relent, given their goal to protect the Jinchuuriki against Akatsuki.

"Yes. Iwa is undoubtedly mad, cursing Takigakure for their cowardness against Konoha. But without that excuse, Iwa had no chance of obtaining Seven-Tail. So their attention returns to the issue of their stolen Jinchuuriki," Elder Ebizō said as he gave Temari a look of approval, confirming that she was bringing up the relevant points.

Temari thought about the Elder's words and quickly, she understood what he meant: The stalemate would end soon, in one of the two ways - either Iwa accept Konoha's explanation about Akatsuki with bitterness, or they said, screw it, and use force to take back the Jinchuuriki from Konoha, whichever Tail they had.

"Will Iwa really declare war for two Jinchuuriki that hadn't been in the village for a decade?" Temari asked again. This time, Elder Ebizō didn't answer her. Instead, he asked, "what are your thoughts, Temari? What do you think will be the end of the stalemate, war or bitter peace?"

After what felt like forever, Temari shook her head. "I'm not sure, but I think that war is not a favorable option for Iwa."

"You're correct, Iwa is not blind. They see how Senju Tsunade consolidated Konoha's forces after she took the Hokage seat. The changing of leadership always marked a decline or a flourish. It's clear that she brought the latter. And as you said, rationally speaking, Iwa is used to their Jinchuuriki not being in the equation. Going to war, not for necessity or survival, but for pride and rage, very few will ever cross that line."

Once again, Temari was reminded of her father's decision to invade Konoha - not for pride to rage, but for the boring and inescapable reason of resources. Ever since the Chunin Exam, Elder Ebizō was generous with his words, allowing Temari to learn his opinion and thoughts, encouraging her to form her own.

With that in mind, Temari bit her lips and finally decided to move on to what she was here for. "So, the most likely outcome of this stalemate is bitter peace. But even then, Iwa will shut Konoha out, refusing to acknowledge, let alone join the effort against Akatsuki. Am I correct?"

Slowly, Elder Ebizō stroked his beard as he took in her words. When Temari found the courage to meet him in the eyes, the knowing look that the Elder gave her said that he had already figured out what was her goal here.

"Yes, that's quite an accurate scenario. Iwa won't get an answer as to how to revive their Jinchuuriki from Konoha, nor will they be able to find Akatsuki with ease. Therefore, the easiest way for them to proceed would be to wait. If Konoha speaks the truth, then sooner or later, another Jinchuuriki will be taken, and this time for sure, it can't be Iwa's loss." Elder Ebizo filled the gaps with his calm voice, straightening out Temari's immature deduction process, peeling away the fog of uncertainty in her mind.

"The next Jinchuuriki to be taken, it could very well be Gaara." Temari let the words slip out of her mouth - the reason why she was here. "Elder Ebizō, I propose that Suna openly support Konoha's position, making it clear to Iwa that Suna too, treats Akatsuki as a top-tier threat to all shinobi villages."

The hourglass on Elder Ebizō's desk was slowly being filled up with sand. With each speck that fell in silence, Temari's heart dropped a little more.

"Do you understand the amount of pressure that will be placed on Suna for that decision?" Elder Ebizō merely asked her that one question, not bothering to interrogate what personal and selfish desire was driving her proposal.

Well, it's quite obvious. Temari figured that perhaps the added weight of Suna would help convince Iwa to place their anger on Akatsuki, if not, at least Konoha would remember this moment and repay with reciprocity.

As the daughter of the Fourth Kazekage and a shinobi of Sunagakure, Temari was proud of her village. But as a big sister, there was never enough that Temari could do to deter the inevitable threat that could come for her little brother.

"Yes. By doing so, Suna will admit to being in an alliance with Konoha, against a threat that Iwa considers to be nothing more than an excuse. If the addition of our words also cannot change Iwa's mind, Suna's relation with Iwa will suffer too." Temari cleared her throat, trying to enunciate each of her words with clarity. "In the worst case where Iwa indeed tries to meet Konoha with force, Suna will be caught in the conflict as well."

"Good. then you know why Suna's Council decided to remain deaf and mute." Elder Ebizō's words were never more ruthless. But Temari knew that it was a hurdle that she had to overcome if she ever hoped to make a convincing case.

"An alliance comes with expectations. Konoha would understand our decision to remain silent, but our indifference would strain the already shaky alliance between us," Temari argued, her hands feeling slippery under the table. "Akatsuki is set in stone, it's inevitable that they'll come for Gaara. When they do, who is more likely to come to our aid, to share our cost and sacrifice? Iwa or Konoha?"

Temari paused a little, waiting for Elder Ebizō's answer. "Konoha." He indulged her.

"Then I propose that we do our best to make sure that Konoha won't complain about fighting Suna's battle." Revealing Suna and Konoha's alliance might agitate Iwa further and backfire instead of help, but that was just a probability. Akatsuki, on the other hand, was already a reality for Suna.

Despite everything, Suna wouldn't abandon Gaara to Akatsuki. The power that he symbolized - as the One-Tail Jinchuuriki - was too important for the current Kage-less Suna. Besides, Gaara's personality is slowly changing for the better, Temari thought but didn't say.

"That's quite a valid point you made, Temari," Elder Ebizō said. "Do you think you will convince the other Suna Councilmen with your argument?"

"I'm willing to try," Temari answered with determination and Elder Ebizō seemed pleased with his wrinkled smile.

"Tomorrow, there's another council meeting. You and I will make the proposal to the council. So be prepared to be grilled by their questions and differing opinions." Elder Ebizō made the decision before Temari could make sense of it.

"Elder Ebizō, you mean that …"

"Yes, Temari, fight for what you believe in and what you care about - Gaara and Sunagakure." Elder Ebizō said as he flipped the hourglass, counting the start of another hour. "Every Councilman is fighting for what they believe to be the best, just like you are. Because if you don't, nobody else will fight in your stead."

When Temari returned to her home, the room was dark and filled with silence. It often made her feel like nothing had changed from when she was little.

Father rarely returned from the Kazekage's office and along with that, Temari and Kankuro were afraid of being left alone with Gaara. Kankuro ran to the Puppet Corps as much as he could. Temari spent her days in the training ground, spending as little time at home as possible.

When Gaara wasn't on a rampage, she didn't even know what he was doing in his time, or whether he was in his room or not. Temari was afraid to ask and she was afraid to care.

The living room was still dark and quiet, but this time, Temari cared to walk down the hall and turn the corner, to see the light that was seeping through the door and the light noises that came from the room behind.

Temari never needed to knock. A few specks of sand flew out from the slits and soon, the door was opened as Gaara stared at her from the cradle of his sand.

Gaara narrowed his eyes at her - the kind of expression that used to make Kankuro squirm and run the other way - but Temari had come to realize that Gaara was merely asking what she wanted with him.

"You have another letter from Konoha," Temari answered, holding out the letter that looked like it had gone through quite a journey from Konoha to Suna.

In the blink of an eye, a tendril of sand lashed out at Temari … and took the letter from her hand. Temari resisted the urge to laugh when Gaara opened the envelope with impatience.

It was hard to understand how things led to this. The first time the letter came, Gaara shredded it into paper dust using his sand. That continued for two months until one day, Temari would find the letter sitting safe and sound on Gaara's desk, opened and read, probably multiple times.

Until this day, the letter came once a week. Temari didn't know what was written in it, only that it was from the Nine-Tail Jinchuurki of Konoha - Naruto, that was his name. She didn't need to know the content, all she hoped for was for the letter to keep coming.

Perhaps all Gaara needed was to know that he hadn't been given up yet - something that Temari had failed to give him before.

"Maybe you can write a reply to Naruto-kun. Even just to let him know that his letters arrived at the right person," Temari suggested in a quiet voice. Gaara stared at her with his sharp gaze as sand rose around him. It was hard to tell if he was angered by her intrusion, but Temari didn't want to talk to her own little brother with fear anymore.

The silence almost felt unbearable as Temari remained by the door. Then, she heard Gaara say in a muffled voice, "I'll think about it."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"So, Takigakure gave Konoha the custody of their Jinchuuriki," Mei chimed in as Tsurugi finished his report. "Poor thing, getting caught between Konoha and Iwa." But they would survive nonetheless. Now that the Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki was out of their possession, there was no incentive for Iwa to deal with them anymore.

"Any words from Kumo?" Mei asked and Tsurugi shook his head. "Figures. They're watching on the sideline to see how things turn out between Konoha and Iwa." Like they all are. "I hope they're at least taking precautions about their Jinchuuriki."

Everyone knew that Kumo's Jinchuuriki were trained and highly skilled, but would they hold up against the threat known as Pein?

Akatsuki had faded into darkness and unknown, leaving behind nothing but testimonies of neighbouring villages to prove their threatening nature. Even if Kumo increased the protection of their Jinchuuriki due to the recent turmoil, how long would it last before they dismiss it as nothing but a false alarm?

Must be nice to be so ignorant, Mei thought in her head. Kirigakure, on the other hand, lived knowing that the day of Three-Tail's rebirth was the day that the village would meet its calamity.

There was a knock on the door and before Mei could say anything, it was already pushed open. Mei raised an eyebrow at Utakata, telling him that she was less than impressed by his antics. Utakata, of course, couldn't care less.

"What is it this time?" Utakata asked with impatience as he leaned back on the closed office door, refusing to sit down like a normal shinobi. It's a shame that he's got such an unattractive attitude and a horrible fashion sense. He would have been a fine and handsome man otherwise.

But the fact that he wasn't covered in chakra-restraining seals meant that they'd come a long way … as if. It was too dangerous to suppress Six-Tail's natural power when the teleporter Tobi was around; they needed Utakata to be able to defend himself. At least Utakata hadn't caused any trouble ever since his forced return.

"An updated report on Akatsuki's members and abilities, fresh from Konoha." Mei threw the file to Utakata. "Please familiarize yourself with this information, especially the part on 'Pein', starting from page 14."

"Minimal six bodies … rinnegan … shared field of vision … chakra absorption. You know, this is starting to sound like something in a fantasy," Utakata said with a frown.

"You share the body with a giant slug; I don't think anything is impossible at this point," Mei added with a serious warning in her voice. "Don't take this lightly. Pein defeated a well-trained Jinchuuriki and a Mangekyou user. This is information gathered from blood."

Utakata paused a little at the mention of the Mangekyou. "Is the Uchiha dead?"

"Uchiha Maiko? No, she barely kept her life." Mei would have felt sad if Maiko was killed - she was quite efficient at her jobs, perhaps a bit too well - just a little, then she needed to get back to work. "I wouldn't worry about her. With Senju Tsunade around, she'll be back on the front line in no time." So long as she didn't lose a limb or two.

"So, is Kiri just going to watch while Iwa accuses Konoha of Jinchuuriki thievery?" Utakata asked again as he flipped through the pages, not at all concerned with the way Mei narrowed her eyes on him.

There were very few in Kiri that would question her like this. Mei wasn't about to sugarcoat reality. Kirigakure was a village of dictatorship - like all other villages with a Kage - and she was the dictator. The decision of Mizukage was absolute, including the one to stay silent about their involvement with Konoha.

"Oh? What would you have me do instead, join Konoha's side of the argument, trying to convince someone who doesn't want to be convinced?" Mei asked instead. Iwa was inflexible as a rock - quite fitting of their name. Ōnoki thought he had seen a lot in the decades that he had been alive, such that the likes of mercenary missing-nin couldn't possibly be more than a nuisance.

"Who cares about Iwa - it's not like they have Jinchuuriki to protect anymore," Utakata said while rolling his eyes. "I'm talking about Kumo. If they don't take Akatsuki seriously, their Jinchuuriki will suffer."

"I never take you to be the soft kind." Mei propped up her head with her hand, watching Utakata scrunch his eyebrows at her words.

"Don't get me wrong. I just hate to see Akatsuki taking advantage of the Hidden Village's stupidity and pride. In the end, it's their Jinchuuriki that has to pay the price." Utakata gave her a challenging look as he added, "Why? Does it make you feel better about yourself as a leader, watching other villages make mistakes?"

"In the time of inter-village conflict, most definitely," Mei said without an ounce of shame. "But I suppose you have a point about making Akatsuki's life harder."

Mei didn't care if Tobi had suffered terrible injustice caused by Kirigakure, didn't care if Kirigakure killed his family or soulmate. All she needed to know was that Tobi had thrown her village into a decade of bloodbath, genocide, and civil war.

Utakata was right in this regard, Mei would also hate to see Akatsuki getting a free pass on their plan because Iwa was bitter and Kumo was clogging their heads with clouds.

"But you know, Utakata, there's no guarantee that it would make a difference to Kumo even if Kiri joined Konoha's narrative. Blood is usually more convincing than words," Mei reminded the Jinchuuriki in front of her. "Kiri was convinced because of the bloodshed during Yondaime's reign; Suna was convinced because of the kidnapping attempt amidst their terrible loss at the Chunin Exam. Kumo suffered nothing."

"So we can just wait until Kumo does suffer, maybe they'll come around by themselves, is that right?" Utakata mocked while shaking his head. Mei closed her eyes for a moment, neither confirming nor denying his words.

"Don't be so harsh, I'm the Mizukage. I have to consider things that have never even crossed your mind." When Mei first became a Jonin, promoted by Yagura himself, she didn't think she'd become the dictator of Kirigakure one day. But now that she was, she became responsible for the thousands of shinobi that still prided themselves as Kiri-nin.

"You're dismissed, Utakata. I don't need to remind you to keep yourself safe, do I?" Mei shooed away their unhappy Jinchuuriki before leaning back on her chair. She had a lot to think about.

Even without Utakata questioning her judgment, she was rethinking Kiri's decision to keep silent in the Iwa-Konoha matter. As the situation progressed from day one, Mei was starting to see the benefit of speaking up for Konoha more than its risks.

Between Konoha and Iwa, Mei wanted Konoha as an ally more than Iwa. After all, no matter how much faith she had in her village, she didn't want to deal with Akatsuki's assault on her own when Konoha was right there.

Besides, Mei really did hate making things too easy for Akatsuki. If Kirigakure's warning could somehow make Kumo more prepared for Akatsuki, even killing one or two of those missing-nin, then perhaps it was worth it. If not, when the Raikage turned furious for the loss of their Jinchuuriki - it would be their own fault at that point - Kiri could say that they did their due diligence.

"Sometimes I wonder how Konoha has the energy to deal with all this," Mei said to the leader of her Anbu and one of her most trusted advisors. "But that's just because they're strong in the current era." There was also the fact that their Hokage didn't age - a much-needed ability for someone who took the seat of a Kage.

"What do you say, Tsurugi? Let's go make Konoha our 'friend'." Mei decided after much thought. Kiri had gotten fearful in the past few years, trying to stay out of other hidden villages' radar while pulling itself together. But Kiri was one of the Major Hidden Villages, no matter what it had been through. They shouldn't need to please every other village like a jester in the Daimyo's court.

Besides, if Iwa indeed wanted to start an armed conflict, there was always Konoha, standing between Kiri and Iwa, quite literally in a geographical sense.

"Speaking of our 'friend', are they informed of our operations near the border?" Mei moved on right after the decision was made.

"Yes. The Hokage is aware of our plans and will be sending her forces to clean up those who have run too close to Fire Country," Tsurugi answered with a nod. "As discussed, their Anbu will hand over the corpses to us afterwards."

"Good. It's about time they stop scuttling around like rats," Mei said with a cold voice. This country had been infested with pests known as Kekkei Genkai Extremists for too long. Kirigakure was ready to rid the last infestation once and for all.

On that note, Mei supposed they would get to see their favourite Konoha Anbu with the rabbit mask soon, or maybe she did lose a limb or two

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Tsunade pulled on the second drawer below her desk, where she usually kept her alcohol. Imagine her disappointment when there were none. On a second glance, Tsunade picked up the note placed at the bottom of the drawer.

Tsunade-sama. I have confiscated all your alcohol - on your orders. Please do not ask me where your sake went, or bring more into the office. Your order on January 13th, XXXX made it clear that no matter what you say in the future, I'm supposed to clear your workspace of all types of alcohol. Please remember your determination to remain sober! - Shizune

For a second, Tsunade wanted to go back in time so that her past self never had the stupidity to issue such an order. With a sigh, she threw the note behind her and forgot that it existed - not that it mattered, since Shizune would just write another.

To be fair, things were taking a turn for the better. Somehow, Suna and Kiri had decided to take a visible stance on Konoha's narrative, confirming to Iwa and Kumo the threat of Akatsuki, effectively making it three against one should Iwa continue to insist that Akatsuki was just an excuse made up by Konoha.

Kumo, on the other hand, remained silent despite the numerous warnings that Konoha had sent, making it hard to tell if they were actually taking things seriously.

Kiri and Suna's voices helped lighten the pressure on Konoha - took them long enough hiding in the background, but it wasn't like Tsunade could say anything now. Nevertheless, there was nothing more Konoha could do other than give Iwa and Kumo time to re-evaluate their beliefs.

Surprisingly, that wasn't why Tsunade felt like she needed a drink.

"Tsunade-hime! Do you want-"

"Do not bring sake into this room or I will throw you down the tower." Tsunade stopped Jiraiya just as he opened the door with bottles of sake in his hands. As if sensing her bad mood, the man closed the door without a pause. The next time he opened it, the bottles that were tempting Tsunade's nerves were finally gone.

"I see our Senju-hime is in a bad mood," Jiraiya said as he took a seat on the side, always with that stupid smile on his face. "How may I be of help to our Hokage-sama?"

"Senju, huh. The name that Konoha can't get rid of no matter what." Tsunade couldn't help but laugh at the core of her trouble. "Did you know that Konoha keeps a source of Hashirama cells ever since the time of my granduncle? The same source that Orochimaru stole from when he left the village."

Yes, Senju Tobirama was the one that had allowed the cells of his brother to be preserved after the death of Tsunade's grandfather. After Orochimaru robbed Konoha's research facilities and defected, the Hokage that came after - Sarutobi-sensei, Namikaze Minato, and now Tsunade - had every chance to destroy the Hashirama cells, but none of them did.

To this day, the Hashirama cells sit in a special locker, under the protection of numerous seals that only Tsunade could open.

"Is this about the conversation between Kabuto and Itachi-kun?" Jiraiya asked after a moment of silence, his laid-back smile faded as seriousness took over.

"It's been so long since the Hashirama cells became a topic of Taboo that I forgot why it was collected in the first place." As much as Tsunade hated to admit it, the spy named Kabuto was right on that part - Hashirama cells were originally meant to save lives.

Emergency healing, prosthetics, regenerative medicines … her granduncle had seen so much potential in Hashirama cells that were the definition of vitality. That was why he asked for his brother's donation. That was why her grandfather agreed.

Too bad that Orochimaru and Danzō had tainted that hope.

"Tsunade, then why are you hesitating?" Jiraiya asked the right question.

"If I were to restart the research on Hashirama cells, can we do it right this time?" Tsunade asked instead, directing the question to Jiraiya, to herself, to all of Konoha. But there would never be an answer, for no one could see through the future.

"You see, Tsunade-hime, it sounds like the Hashirama cells are something to be hopeful about. After all, it's not the cells' fault that it's been used for immoral experiments," Jiraiya replied after a long silence. He raised his hand, looking like he wanted to down a bottle, only to realize that there was no sake at hand.

Letting out a sigh of disappointment, Jiraiya dropped his hand and asked again, "But just for curiosity, who will be overseeing the research if it were to be restarted?"

"Me of course. Who else?" Tsunade thought it was obvious. "I'm no scientist, so the progress will be slow - years, decades even, before usable results can be produced. Furthermore, there have to be regulations at every step, proposals and reports on every single experiment conducted, evaluated for its integrity and ethicality …"

Just then, Tsunade heard Jiraiya laughing quietly. "What?" Tsunade felt her fits tighten. If he didn't have a good reason, she would make him part of the floor tiles.

"Forgive me, Tsunade-hime, but it seems to me that you already have it thought out," Jiraiya said with a large grin. "You know it as well as I do, that you really want it to happen, for Hashirama cells to be a benefit for Konoha, not just a taboo of past sins."

Ah, she supposed that he was right. In her drawer, she had the draft proposal to restart the research on Hashirama cells written up and edited.

If her grandfather was here, she was sure that he would say something along the lines of 'Shinobi lives on the verge of losses. Wouldn't it be great if my cells could save and replace what is lost?' Something like that.

"Keep this a secret from Maiko and Itachi, would you?" Tsunade said as she took out the draft proposal from her drawer. Despite the nights she spent on this, it remained a draft. Much needed to be worked out before anything could proceed.

"Why?"Jiraiya asked with confusion. "You know how much a cure for Mangekyou-induced blindness means for Maiko and Itachi, even if they would never bring it up."

Upon hearing that, Tsunade couldn't help but shake her head. They couldn't bring it up, not after the Uchiha Rebellion. The last thing those two needed was to be associated with the likes of Orochimaru and Kabuto.

"I don't want to give them false hope," Tsunade replied, no louder than a whisper. It could be years before something substantial could be produced. In those years, the research could be halted again if things went wrong again. Hashirama cells sounded like a miracle, but the reality remained that it was full of unknowns.

"In my experience, they'll find out eventually," Jiraiya warned her of the very likely outcome. "But I'll heed your orders, Tsunade. I'm sure you have your reasons."

Just when Tsuande considered the notion of thanking Jiraiya, for helping her clear her mind of the doubts, Jiraiya said, "Now, are you sure that you don't want some sake? I see some wrinkles from the stress. I've got the good stuff from your favourite Izakaya …"

Tsunade was speechless for a second when Jiraiya shook the storage scroll in front of her face, catching the bottles of sake that fell out from the seal.

"Wrinkles, you say," Tsunade repeated to herself when she stood up from her chair. Speaking of relieving stress, there was another thing that always worked other than alcohol.

"Jiraiya, what did I say about bringing sake into the office earlier?" Tsunade asked. making the man shudder at the sudden chill. With a smile, Tsunade opened the window and cracked her knuckles.

At least she waited until Jiraiya had put the sake on the table. They were the good stuff, she'd hate for them to break during Jiraiya's free fall.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Not a fan of sake, are you?" Jiraiya asked when Itachi's cup remained untouched for the past ten minutes.

"I don't tolerate alcohol that well," Itachi answered. Jiraiya thought he had heard that one before.

"Must run in the family," Jiraiya said. Perhaps it was his fault for telling the young man to come to the Izakaya when Itachi asked to meet with him. But this was his territory, where the layout of every corner and every wooden post remained in his memory as privacy seals encircled the booth.

Besides, the sake drought in the Uchiha Compound was terrible.

"Sorry, I'm late." The door was pushed open as Maiko walked into the room. Itachi moved aside to let her sit and she complied without a word.

"You smell like blood," Jiraiya observed as he placed the last privacy seal on the shoji door, completing the sealing array now that all parties had arrived.

"I was cleaning up Kiri missing-nin, what do you expect?" Maiko raised an eyebrow at him. Still, the fact that the scent remained even after she had cleaned up and replaced her clothes meant that it was quite a bloodbath. "Terumi Mei knows how to work people, that's for sure."

"I'm sure she wants those pests gone before the Chunin Exam," Jiraiya commented as he took another sip. "After the example at Konoha, I doubt that she wants to take any chances on the smooth operation of the Kiri-hosted exam."

This upcoming Chunin was a critical chance for Kiri to show other villages and the esteemed Daimyo that they got their shit together. The Mizukage definitely wanted to eliminate as many uncontrolled variables as possible.

"That's too bad, I don't think she'll like what Itachi and I have to propose then."

Uh oh, Jiraiya already had a bad feeling about this. "About that, what exactly do you wish to discuss with me today?"

"Ever since I left Akatsuki, Kisame was paired with Konan. Right about now, they're searching for traces of Six-Tail and Three-Tail in Kirigakure," Itachi answered him, his finger rubbing the cup of sake that he had no intention of drinking.

"They still haven't determined the location of Six-Tail?" Jiraiya asked, somewhat surprised.

"Kisame is pretty certain that Six-Tail is already in Kirigakure - I'm sure Konan too - since they couldn't find his trail outside and Kiri hadn't sent their shinobi all around the country to search for their Jinchuuriki." Jiraiya nodded upon hearing Itachi's words, finding his deduction quite plausible.

"We need to warn Kirigakure then. If we have Kisame and Konan's location, the Mizukage might even be able to counterattack and ambush Akatsuki by surprise." Jiraiya thought it was the obvious route, but Itachi shook his head.

"If Konan and Kisame were ambushed, it's too obvious that one of them slipped their location. In all aspects, Kisame's spy status will be more or less exposed," Itachi argued. "Kisame's abilities come in handy, and I'd like to keep some cards hidden from Tobi."

"Then what do you propose, Itachi? You know that Konoha will have to warn Kiri of such a thing, otherwise, it will be a breach of trust between the alliance. If Mei hears of this, she will send out shinobi to hunt down Akatsuki members before they can hunt Kiri's Jinchuuriki," Jiraiya reminded them. The alliance signed between Konoha and Kiri was clear that information about Akatsuki was to be shared between the village leaders, especially ones as close to home as this.

"No, this has to be dealt with, I agree. But perhaps in a less obvious way," Itachi said. "Konan and Kisame might have deduced that Six-Tail was being kept in Kirigakure, but they're uncertain of his relationship with the village. Kisame once told me that he wouldn't be very surprised if the Six-Tail Jinchuuriki had already defected from the village, like many during the era of the Bloody Mist - 'Kirigakure is a shitty place', his words. Therefore, I don't think they'd find it strange if Six-Tail ran away from Kirigakure again."

Jiraiya's hand paused mid-motion, just before he could bring the cup of sake to his mouth. He took a moment to consider what the younger man was suggesting.

"So, you want Kirigakure to fake Six-Tail's trail, so that Konan and Kisame will be lured there naturally," Jiraiya concluded before he downed the searing alcohol. Maiko was right, Mei definitely wouldn't like what they were suggesting.

"And? What do you plan to do with Konan and Kisame? Since you went through all this trouble to keep Kisame's allegiance a secret, I assume you don't want it to end in Konan's escape with the knowledge of Kisame's defection." Jiraiya was doubtful of Kirgakure's ability to kill Akatsuki members. It was one thing if Six-Tail was indeed at stake. But once Konan realized that it was a ruse, she'd had no reason to stay there and it would be much harder to kill an S-rank missing-nin that was hellbent on escaping.

Perhaps they could ensure Konan's death with Kisame's cooperation - a sword to the heart from behind, that could work. Either way, Konan had to die.

Jiraiya wasn't the one to sympathize with the enemy, especially with the pain that Akatsuki had caused for Konoha and the destruction that they had yet to cause if left alone. But Konan … Jiraiya often wondered, when his rationality softened at the edge of sobriety and drunkenness, if things could have turned out differently if he had just gritted his teeth and taken them back to Konoha.

Jiraiya wasn't sure if Konoha would accept orphaned shinobi children from Amegakure when it was also battered by war. He wasn't sure if he would be a suitable guardian with the way he was - flimsy in the heart and quick to ditch responsibilities. Hell, he wasn't even sure if he could have convinced the three of them to come with him, still tiny in size but already full of ambitions to make Amegakure a better place.

But perhaps there was something that he could have done.

"No, in our plan, Kisame will die for Akatsuki's cause," Itachi said, turning to his sister. "Maiko will 'kill' Kisame and fake his death. Kisame will be removed from the picture until he's needed again."

That was not the answer that Jiraiya was expecting, but he supposed that it was one way of keeping the cards hidden: death as the finale. In terms of Edo Tensei, it was usually the trademark of Konoha's enemies, but it also would mean that …

"Ojou-chan, I assume that you have a plan to make Kisame's death and the destruction of his remains look natural?" Jiraiya asked and Maiko gave him a nod.

"Dust to dust, ash to ash. That's quite a common ending for a Kirigakure missing-nin," Maiko said with a shrug, already more than familiar with Kiri's tradition. "Besides, Itachi assured me that Kisame has a mortal body, so that's already an improvement to what I have to work with."

"And Konan?" Jiraiya asked again. Itachi clearly didn't want to put the success of his plan on the condition of Konan's death, so that either meant that he wasn't sure if she could be killed, or he had something else planned. In all likelihood, it was both.

"About that, I was wondering if you'd like to have a talk with her."

Jiraiya almost choked on the mouthful of sake. If Itachi had just said it one second earlier, the liquid would have gone down the wrong pipe and Jiraiya might even call it attempted murder.

"You know, Itachi, working with you is always so stressful. Definitely not for the faint of heart," Jiraiya couldn't help but say as he rubbed his neck. "Is this your idea of a final closure?"

One last talk to make Jiraiya's heart harden, to make the notion that there was no going back concrete. At least they had asked for his opinion before going to the Hokage, meaning that if Jiraiya declined, they could pretend that this part of the plan never existed.

"Besides, I doubt that she wants to talk to me," Jiraiya added with a bitter laugh. "Compared to me, she and Nagato had plenty of time to let it sink in their mind that we will be enemies until death."

"Well, Tobi and I will try to kill each other the next time we meet, but that hasn't stopped him from sharing his propaganda to me," Maiko said, effectively draining all sorts of melancholy that had filled Jiraiya's brain along with the alcohol.

"Okay, that example is a little extreme," Maiko added after a moment of thought. "Our point is, Konan might share something that was trivial for her but important for us."

"While naive, a discussion is the best way to know our enemies. Nothing reveals a person's history and motivation quite like their own words," Itachi said, his eyes remaining calm and emotionless. "Obviously, we'll do what we can to eliminate her - while she does the same to us - but If that's difficult, then a chat might be the next most useful thing."

"You want to do the same thing as you did with Orochimaru before." Jiraiya finally caught up to the situation, remembering how Itachi did the equivalent of strolling up to Orochimaru's lair and knocking on the door with a kunai. It sounded ridiculous, but that one conversation gave them more information than an entire abandoned base.

"People have an innate desire to share their ideologies, to make themselves understood by others. I don't think Konan will consider Akatsuki's ideals as something shameful to utter, especially if it's to you, Jiraiya-sama." Itachi looked at Jiraiya, placing the decision back in his hand.

Jiraiya considered Itachi's words, wondering if his presence would truly make a difference to Konan. Despite everything, he did want to understand what she was thinking - what Nagato was thinking - when they changed Akatsuki, a Dawn full of hope, into something full of desperation.

This was the world of shinobi, where right and wrong were subjective. Jiraiya had no right to judge or reprimand them, not after quitting as their teacher decades ago. But he would sure like to understand them before they engage in a battle of death for gaps that couldn't be breached.

"One last thing, what do you hope to understand from this … potential conversation, from hearing about Konan's views and beliefs?" Jiraiya asked Itachi and Maiko, who always seemed to have an idea of their own.

"That's hard to say, considering we're just fishing for scraps here. But if we have to say …" Maiko let her voice fade as she searched for the right word. "Discrepancy, we're looking for any discrepancy in Akatsuki."

"Akatsuki is not as straightforward as they seem. There's clearly a discrepancy of knowledge in that organization and perhaps even a discrepancy of agenda, ever so slight. While Pein appears to be the leader, Tobi and Zetsu know - and hide - more than they let on. Konan, on the other hand, represents the one closest to Pein," Itachi expanded the explanation.

"Know thy enemy, they say, and we're still trying to catch up even to this day," Itachi said as he shook his head. Then finally, he downed the cup of sake for the first and last time during this meeting. "It might amount to something, or it might amount to nothing, but we don't lose anything for trying."

"Both of you want to come?" Jiraiya asked and the two Uchiha children nodded - well, not quite children anymore. Itachi had just crossed the age of manhood and Maiko was following not far behind.

"Yes, which reminds me, can Fuu stay at Mt Myoboku for the duration of our leave?" Maiko asked. "She's well adapted to fighting with her chakra coat. I think Naruto might learn a thing or two from her."

"Would have suggested it myself. Naruto could use an example in utilizing tailed-beast power, just so it doesn't seem like an impossible task." Jiraiya agreed with Maiko's request without a second thought. Then, he was reminded of what Maiko had said when she first walked in.

"Now, we'll just have to see if our Hokage can convince the Mizukage to let us play around in the vicinity of Kirigakure, right as they prepare for the Chunin Exam."

A/N: A little look at how Suna and Kiri are doing, through the eyes of some of my favourite female characters in Naruto. Our favourite shark man will make an appearance soon so that he stops living in Itachi's flashbacks. My brain is not very big, so I probably butchered the inter-village scuffle and scheming and I apologize for that. The basic gist was that through their blood-filled history of inter-village wars, it's much more comprehensible for them to perceive other major villages as threats than a group of missing-nin, especially when they haven't confirmed it for themselves. I mean, the kages were pointing fingers at each other during the Five-Kage summit, until Sasuke decided it was a good idea to attack them all and Tobi declared war in the most dramatic flare.