Chapter 71

I retracted my fingers from the back of the shinobi's neck, where only a scorched hole remained after the Chidori senbon exploded in the tenketsu below his head. A second later, his body fell into the puddle of water with a heavy thud.

There was a moment of silence before I rested my hand on the ground. A thin veil of blazing fire rose up from the ground just before a dozen ice shards flew at me from behind and got instantly vaporized. Despite the sudden attack, I let the barrier drop, having already recognized the person behind it.

"I see that you're doing well in your new village," I said, inviting the boy to step out of the shadow that he was hiding - a silent killer who had quite the talent, at that.

"Miss Rabbit—I mean, state your business near Kirigakure, Konoha-nin," Haku caught himself quickly as he tried to make his voice all stern and serious. Prompts for the effort, I supposed.

"Our Hokage had already sent a message to Mizukage-dono about my visit. If you're unsure, I would request to speak to Tsurugi," I replied. Like a proper shinobi, Haku remained suspicious with his body language. He tilted his head towards the body lying at my feet, silently asking me to explain that part of my action.

"Right, he came in my direction first. Besides, isn't he technically your job?" I asked instead, raising my eyebrows at the young boy. I recognized the shinobi Haku was chasing the moment I saw his face - a missing-nin from Kumogakure, his name and portrait printed on the bingo book.

"I … well …" Haku was lost for words for a moment, unsure of what he should say in this situation. Well, the shinobi he was chasing was a sensor, who was always more difficult to catch. The fact that the Kumo missing-nin was distracted enough to head straight in my direction in order to avoid Haku spoke volumes of the pressure he exerted on the man.

"Rabbit, stop frazzling our new recruit." Behind me, three Kiri hunter-nin appeared on the branches. Instead of animal-patterned masks, Kiri Anbu wore masks with abstract art. Still, I recognized one of them as a Captain-level hunter-nin in the recent sweep operation of Kiri missing-nin.

The hunter-nin stared at us - me, Haku, and the fallen Kumo-nin - for a moment before letting out a sigh. "Another time that you're taking our job when we didn't request it."

"My apologies, but he was charging at me with a sword in hand." I felt the need to make that clear. It wasn't like I got paid for doing Kiri's mission.

"Anyway, I've received orders about your arrival. Please cooperate as we head back to Kirigakure." The hunter-nin bit hard on the word 'cooperate' - which was a bit unnecessary considering my amazing track record in Kiri - and I nodded.

He eyed the fallen missing-nin one last time before telling Haku, "Finish your job, rookie. You don't need supervision for this, do you?"

Haku shook his head in silence as he started working on the body. Without another order, the hunter-nin headed off towards Kirigakure and I followed without any delay.

It had barely been half a year since I dropped Haku off at Kirigakure and Mei had already recruited him into the Kiri Anbu. Then again, Mei was very good at working people to their worth and Haku was a trove of natural talents, at least, in the hunter-nin business.

"Konoha's proposal. I hate it," Mei said the moment I entered her office, not mincing her words at all. Well, to be honest, I'd be surprised if she didn't hate it. If she readily agreed to our convoluted plan that would only complicate Kirigakure without any immediate benefit, I would be worried.

"Did you come up with it?" Mei asked again, raising her eyebrow dangerously, as if my treatment in Kirigakure would depend on what I said next.

"Not exactly," I answered. It was mostly Itachi, I swear.

Upon hearing that, Mei let out a snort. "Be grateful that I haven't kicked you out yet. Let me ask you one last time, is Konoha not going to give me the location of the Akatsuki members near Kiri?"

Konoha hadn't handed out Kisame's location yet and that was the only reason why Mei bothered to meet with me instead of sending out her forces for an ambush. If Kiri had to search by themselves, then chances of alerting Akatsuki would be close to a hundred percent.

"I think Hokage-sama had already explained our intention to you, Mizukage-dono. Please know that we want to get rid of this threat near Kiri as soon as possible just like you do, but Hoshigaki Kisame is our information provider and an ally in our battle against Akatsuki. His role can be better served if you allow us to take him out of the picture discreetly," I answered her warning with patience. However, as soon as she heard Kisame's name, she clicked her tongue in annoyance.

"You're forgoing the easier, more convenient plan so that a spy of questionable allegiance can stay hidden," Mei said as she shook her head. "I don't know how much you think you know Hoshigaki Kisame, but he's not someone that can be controlled with a leash that easily."

Right, there was no way we could have told her about Kotoamatsukami and frankly, I didn't even know how much control Itachi had over Kisame other than his words of assurance.

But I didn't need to know that. All I needed to know was that Itachi was confident enough with the control he had over Kisame to include the missing-nin in his plan. Sadly, that logic wasn't going to convince Mei.

"No, I supposed he isn't. But Itachi is able to control him enough that he'll remain useful." I paused for a second before adding, "You won't find another person in Konoha that frowns upon uncertainty more than he does."

"You're biased, Maiko. He's your brother and he had strung your life along by orchestrating the Uchiha Massacre," I narrowed my eyes at Mei, but she stared back and ventured deeper into dangerous territory. "Admit it, you won't ever question him again because it will rip open your scars and damage the already unstable trust between the two of you."

For a second, I said nothing. I had to be careful with my words because Mei was just looking for any openings from me, to make her point about how unreliable and irrational Konoha's plan was.

After a long stretch of silence, I opened my mouth. "I might be biased in my trust, but I don't make decisions in Konoha. Are you saying that Hokage-sama is also a puppet under Itachi's string that she'll also agree to whatever he suggested without any consideration? Jiraiya the Sannin too?"

I waited for a moment as Mei leaned up and raised an eyebrow at me. "Now who's being irrational, Mizukage-dono?"

Despite the sarcasm and whatnot, I did want to assure her that Konoha had ways to be sure of Itachi's control over Kisame, even if we wouldn't tell her what it was. This proposal was made from Konoha to Kiri, meaning that Konoha would take responsibility to ensure that it was a viable plan that was worth Kiri's trouble.

Mei just needed to trust Konoha, that was the unfortunate part.

"It doesn't mean that I agree with your plan, but just indulge me, what are you going to do with Samehada after you've 'erased' Kisame?" Mei asked after a moment of thought. Ah, I don't think she'll like that answer either. To her, the only correct answer would be 'returned to Kiri', but that wasn't what I was about to say.

"It'll stay with Kisame, while a fake copy will be returned to Kiri to throw off suspicion." Before Mei could actually kick me out of her office - and probably her village - I added. "There is no one that can utilize Samehada's potentials better than Kisame. Only with the sword and him together is he the most useful."

"Useful, you say," Mei said as displeasure oozed out of her voice. "If he is indeed on our side as you claim to be, then I find him plenty useful already if he can contribute to Konan's death alongside our shinobi."

"If you want to hide Kisame's allegiance, then you can't have him turn on Konan, and the chance of us killing her just decreased dramatically." Mei tapped her index finger on the table as she looked at me with a critical gaze. "I will stop questioning you on your supposed control over Kisame - I doubt you're going to tell me the full story - but it doesn't change the fact that you need to explain to me why I should take the risk when I could have chosen a much more reassuring route to protect Kiri from Akatsuki."

"Think of it as a caution against the future, Mizukage-dono." I gave her an answer without any hesitation. "Akatsuki is merely one tool in Tobi's grasp. He finds them useful in collecting tailed-beasts, but as the village becomes more aware of them, we find it hard to believe that it's all Tobi was going to rely on."

Based on the fact that Tobi abducted Kabuto out of his prison, Itachi suspected the reappearance of Edo Tensei. Even then, I couldn't shake off the feeling that he had more planned than what meets the eye.

"'Future' is quite an unreliable word, Maiko. Kiri had been doing its due diligence in the effort against Akatsuki and Tobi, but we have problems that are very present and very imminent," Mei reminded me, no doubt talking about the Chunin Exam and the chaos it could bring if we couldn't handle this problem well. For Kiri, the Chunin Exam was a step to consolidate their livelihood, so I understood how important it was for her as the leader of her village.

"But Three-Tail's rebirth is an inevitable and reliable future, Mizukage-dono," I told her as she narrowed her eyes at me, obviously reminding me that it wasn't a very pleasant topic. Sadly, I was here for Akatsuki, nothing about it was pleasant.

"Tobi and Akatsuki know that we'll be preparing for that moment, so they won't just send any Akatsuki members to take Three-Tail; it'll be something worse. Samehada is special, it devours that chakra that's the basis of a shinobi's life. Only by letting both Kisame and Samehada fade in Akatsuki's memory can it ever be used effectively as a surprise."

Mei didn't need me to remind her again how the inequality of information had screwed us over countless times. With the way she furrowed her brows in silence, I supposed she was re-evaluating Kisame's worth against the risk of letting things out of her control.

Aside from Kisame's allegiance and status, Itachi also wanted to make sure that the specifics of how he turned Kisame against Akatsuki - the extent and timeline of Kotoamatsukami's usage - would remain hidden.

Eventually, Mei let out a deep breath before asking, "You know why the other villages don't like Konoha?" I wasn't sure how I should respond to that, but it seemed that Mei was going to give me an answer anyhow. "It's because you always paint the future to be worse than what one can comprehend."

Couldn't disagree with her there. Konoha had been the harbinger of bad news so far, even to Suna and Kiri.

"But I supposed that it's no use hoping that the future will have mercy on us when we refused to prepare for it," Mei said and from that, I knew that she had relented.

"Kiri will do what you asked of us in your proposal, but I want to make a few things clear." Mei continued her words as she raised a finger. "One, once Kisame has lost his use and the factor of surprise, Kirigakure will move to hunt him and recover Samehada."

I nodded, having expected that much already. I had a feeling that Kisame wasn't really following my brother's bidding out of a sense of redemption, so he would remain a missing-nin no matter what, making it fair game for what Kiri wanted to do with him - so long as they could catch him, of course.

"And two, you, or someone as competent as you in Konoha, will help Kiri retrieve Samehada, effective until Kiri has the sword in its possession." I paused a little at Mei's words, but eventually, I nodded again. She wanted to make sure that this weird cooperative relationship Konoha has over Kisame would end once it wasn't necessary.

Mei gave me a polite smile as if the business had finally reached a level of satisfaction that was barely adequate. Barely, just barely.

"Now, where are Itachi-kun and Jiraiya the Sannin," Mei asked afterwards with a sly curiosity in her voice. "I would very much like to meet your brother who somehow had one of Kiri's most notorious missing-nin tied to a leash."

"They're nearby," I answered, ignoring the second part of her sentences without batting an eye. I had been to Kiri frequently enough that my presence here became normal. Itachi and Jiraiya, on the other hand, did not plan to make their whereabouts known.

Mei shook her head while a smile appeared on her lips as if finding my guarded reaction funny. I had to resist the urge to roll my eyes before pulling out a scroll from my storage seal. "Here's the list of Chunin Exam participants from Konoha. Like always, Konoha looks forward to participating and wishes the event a success."

I placed the scroll at the corner of her desk. It was technically the 'real' objective of my trip here, the official excuse for my entry into Kirigakure. After that, I was dying to take my leave, only for Mei to call me out.

"Not so fast." I stopped my steps and turned around, wondering what else did Mei want with me. "There's one more thing I want you to do. After all, you can't fake the trail of Six-Tail Jinchuuriki without the man itself. I figured that there's no one better to explain to him what's going on than the person who came up with all this … among other things, which I'm sure you can figure out."

Mei didn't give me any time to respond as the door was pushed open with abruptness, revealing none other than Utakata, the Six-Tail Jinchuuriki.

Against Utakata's confusion, Mei greeted, "What a surprise, you're here on time for once."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"So let me get this straight, your brother - who's one of the most notorious missing-nin - is not actually a missing-nin but a spy. Not only that, but he ditched the organization he's supposed to spy on and somehow made Hoshigaki Kisame - who's also one of the most notorious missing-nin - into his spy as well," Utakata said in a tone that made it hard to tell if he was confused or being sarcastic.

"Really, out of everything, that's the part you're focusing on first?" I asked in disapproval, to which Utakata just shrugged.

"So did he massacre your entire clan or not?" Of course, Utakata refused to move on from that.

"... Yes," I replied, having nothing better to say.

"Damn, all of you are messed up," Utakata said. Even if he was right in that regard, I would appreciate it if he didn't mention it out loud. "I'm somewhat glad that the subject of my inner turmoil was already dead, so I never have to face them again."

"Do you have anything useful to say about the current event?" I tried to redirect the topic. Utakata turned toward Mei - who was watching our exchange with interest - and nodded in her direction.

"What's there to say? It's the Mizukage's decision, after all." Yeah, I figured that Utakata wasn't all that respectful towards his captor, but at least Mei looked like she was used to it.

"That's uncalled for, Utakata. I've never made you do anything other than ensuring that you're under Kiri's protection." Mei tilted her chin a little and continued. "I thought we had an agreement that you would respect Kiri's effort to keep you safe from Akatsuki. Otherwise, I've never made you fight for Kirigakure's interest."

To Mei's words, Utakata fell silent, merely turning his head away. After an awkward silence that had stretched too long, Utakata said with a sigh, "I'll do what Kiri and Konoha ask. Happy?"

"Good, I'm glad that I have your cooperation," Mei said with a smile before she waved us in the direction of the door. "Aren't you always complaining that you're tired of Anbu masks? Why don't you go chat with our friend from Konoha - she still has the mask, but at least it's a different brand of pattern - while you still have the chance.

Utakata did not look happy at the patronizing tone Mei had for him, as if she was an adult that had to deal with his temper tantrum. Letting out a deep breath that calmed his anger, he replied, quite sarcastically, "With your permission, Mizukage-sama."

Without looking back, he opened the door to Mei's office and turned left in the hallway. Just as I was about to follow him out, Mei called out to me and said, "Don't forget our deal, all three parts of it."

With a small nod, I bowed towards the Mizukage, both as required by etiquette and as a sign of understanding.

"You're out of the binding seals," I said to the man that had his gaze outside the window as I followed him into a spare room and closed the door. "But it doesn't look like much goodwill has developed between you and Kiri."

Utakata's silence was more than enough of a confirmation. He pointed a finger upwards and told me, "There are Anbu above us, around us, everywhere." True, I felt their presence too, just barely, which spoke a lot about their skills in the art of silent assassinations.

"What deal did you make with her that made her act so weirdly?" Utakata asked as suspicion brewed in his eyes. "I don't think I'm the right person to give diplomatic tours."

"The first two clauses, those are between Konoha and Kiri," so they don't concern you, "The last one, well, I supposed she wants me to make you more receptive towards Kiri. I never promised that I'll succeed, of course."

Utakata snorted upon hearing that, but he had grown out of the days where he would make bold claims such as 'I'm never coming back to Kirigakure'. Hah, look how that turned out.

"So, what are you right now, exactly?" I asked out of genuine curiosity. "A prisoner, a Kirigakure shinobi, or something else?"

Utakata lowered his gaze as he leaned by the window, deep in thought as he contemplated my question. After a few seconds, he said, "someone who had lost, stuck here redeeming my sins, that's all."

"So that's why you're keeping a peaceful pretense in Kirigakure; you lost to your own guilt," I concluded, hearing Utakata let out a tsk of irritation.

"I did kill dozens of Kirigakure shinobi that were sent to retrieve me. They tried to be peaceful at first but I never bothered to give them the benefit of doubt," Utakata told me, his brows furrowed deeper as he went on. "Tsurugi told me that I should do well to live my life so their lives weren't sacrificed in vain and I don't plan to run from that. So I promised Mei that I will do my best to protect Saiken from Akatsuki, including being a prisoner in Kirigakure."

"I don't think Mei wants you to be roaming freely when Akatsuki is still around, but I doubt that she wants you to be just a prisoner either," I said as I found a chair to sit down. I wasn't sure what Mei thought I could do. Many times Jiraiya had expressed that I didn't make the best conversations, which I would not deny.

"No, of course not, she wants me - or Saiken - to be Kirigakure's weapon." Utakata laughed as he pointed at his abdomen, where the tailed beasts were sealed. "I owe it to the shinobi I've killed to not let their effort be in vain. But after the crisis with Akatsuki had passed - if I'm still alive then - I don't owe it to Terumi Mei or Kirigakure to become their weapon."

Then, he tilted his chin towards me and said, "I'm thankful to you for preventing Saiken from rampaging through my body, but if Mei thinks you're going to make a difference, then she must be grasping for straws."

"Then what are you planning to do in the future, run away from Kirigakure and return to the life of a missing-nin?" I paused a little before adding, much to his dismay, "You don't particularly have an aptitude for it."

"You don't have to say it out loud." Utakata eyed the ceiling, reminding me of the Anbu surveillance. Nevertheless, he didn't deny my accusations.

"Just to clarify, by 'aptitude', I meant the aptitude to betray your standards and morals, not the aptitude to be a shinobi," I said after some thought.

As expected, Utakata gave me a strange look and answered, "of course, when I started training to be a shinobi, you weren't even born yet."

Oh come on, you're not old enough to be using that line on me, I thought as I rolled my eyes. Still, I tilted my head to the side and asked, "Really? Sometimes I feel like you don't want to be a shinobi anymore."

Utakata wanted to escape the life of shinobi. I got that part from the first time we met in the outskirts of Water Country. He clenched onto his battered and blood-soaked yukata like it was a symbol of a different life he wanted to escape to. Not just me, I'm sure that Mei realized that too, and she simply could not let such an important entity to Kirigakure go without trying to cash out his worth.

I thought such aversion was because of what happened between Utakata and his shishou, but that was resolved for him, more or less, so there must be something else that made Utakata, who was raised to be a loyal shinobi from a young age, to want to escape.

"What's wrong with casting away bad memories? Don't you want that too?" Utakata managed to say as soon as he got over the shock of hearing my words.

"I suppose there's the appeal, but I'm able to do a lot of things because I'm a shinobi," I replied. "I'm able to protect the ones that I cared about because I'm a shinobi."

"Ah, that's right. A shinobi must have something that they're willing to protect using violence." Utakata let out a short burst of laughter as if finding my words to be both hilarious and sad. "I don't find anything that I can protect."

How terribly lost he sounded when he said that.

"Well, that sounds like Mei's problem, for not doing a good job of showing you the appeal of her village," I said with a tone of nonchalance. Still, I noticed the way he turned his body to face the window, where the sunlight, the colours, and the noises of Kirigakure's streets seeped into the barricaded room like morning mist.

"I don't get paid enough to be your therapist and it won't be the top of my list of problems if the new Kirigakure, rebuilt in the last three years and just started to thrive, got reduced to ashes when Pein comes for you." I saw the way Utakata twitched at my words as a stream of anger rose up to his eyes, so I had to finish the sentence, "better Kiri than Konoha."

"I know what you're doing. It won't work," Utakata told me in a tone full of warning as our eyes met. "Of course, I will deal with Akatsuki should be they stupid enough to come here, that's my debt to repay. But after that, Kiri is not so weak that it can't handle itself without me."

"You know, when someone is trying to leave something they care about, it's usually one of three things. One, they had a change of heart; two, they think they'll break it; and three, they don't think they deserve a place by its side." I paused to give him a moment to think, before asking, "Which category do you think you'll fit in?"

There was a moment of silence before Utakata took a step back as if my mere presence was creeping him out. He looked at me, no doubt with all the unpleasantness of our last meeting flashing through his mind. Eventually, he asked, "Does the sharingan read hidden emotions and desires?"

"Wouldn't it be nice if that's true?" I answered with a smile. How things would be easier if the sharingan could decipher something as volatile and complex as emotions and desires. "But no, the sharingan is just good at picking up visceral reactions and I've gotten good at guessing."

"I think that instead of being Kirigakure's weapon, Mei would rather you be Kirigakure's shinobi," I said when Utakata had remained silent. "A weapon never chose to become a weapon, but a shinobi chose to become a shinobi."

"That's her favourite mode of operation, isn't it? Always making it seem like she's giving out a choice," Utakata commented and I couldn't help but agree. I wondered how the Anbu would feel hearing us complaining about their Mizukage, but Mei might take it as a compliment.

The wrong choice might lead to some pretty awful consequences, but at least it made people feel respected when they made the right choice as they enter into a path of mutual beneficence - according to Mei, at least.

"You really don't have the aptitude for a missing-nin, Utakata. You're haunted by guilt, which will only get worse as you confront more Kirigakure hunters." If Utakata refused to become Kirigakure's shinobi, then it would be Saiken that got treated as the weapon. Mei would do what it takes to extract Saiken and place him in another more cooperative host, starting by hunting Utakata, who by all means, would not just sit there and let it happen.

But the core reason why Mei had even bothered to let me converse with their Jinchuuriki was that she saw the trait she was looking for in Utakata. "Moreover, you still want a place to belong." It was a trait that could bound him here forever. Unfortunately, Utakata would surely hate it more if she was the one who pointed it out.

"I left the old Kirigakure because I killed my Shishou. In this new Kirigakure, I've already killed plenty of its shinobi," Utakata said as he shook his head as if his path was already determined the moment he spilled the blood of Kirigakure.

Again, I couldn't help but let out another sigh. I really didn't get paid enough for this. "Have you ever tried, you know, to understand Kiri's thoughts, whether their shinobi think you're unforgivable? Because the fact that Mei forced me to be your … counsellor said that she wants you to be alive, as a Kirigakure shinobi, instead of finding another host for Saiken."

Utakata looked like he wanted to disagree with me, but I wasn't a professional counsellor, so there was nothing to stop me from cutting him off before he could say a word. "If Kirigakure and its shinobi find you as unforgivable and the thought of you as a shinobi in the same village disgusts them, then fine, run for your life and your freedom. But if not, at least do your part and fight for a place to belong."

"… you must be really tired of giving me therapies." Good, at least Utakata understood that from my tone of frustration.

"You're just ... so stubborn and full of yourself. It's already painful enough to be an advocate for Teru— I mean, the Mizukage, and you're making it worse," I said. For a second, Utakata looked like he wasn't sure which he should be more offended by, the fact that I called him 'full of himself' or the fact that I lumped him together with Mei.

"You're going to have to cooperate with Kiri Anbu to fake your trail of escape. So work with them and see if they'll accept you. Since you've already decided to repay your sin by defending Kiri against Akatsuki - which won't end anytime soon - it's too early to decide your future yet." With that, I made the closing statement.

"Tell Mei that I did my part and I hope Kiri does the same," I said to Utakata or countless other Kiri Anbu that were recording this conversation.

"Oh, for tours around the village, I recommend a stroll near the seashore. It has a quiet and peaceful scenery," Utakata added just before I exited the room.

I laughed when I heard that. "I'll keep that in mind when I actually come for tourism"

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"How sloppy. They must be getting exhausted, both Kirigakure and the Jinchuuriki," Kisame said as he swung Samehada forward and knocked against the tree trunk. The layer of mud that caked on the barks fell off like dried paint, revealing a large patch of the burnt surface.

It wasn't the same kind of burn as caused by fire, but rather, it looked as if someone threw a splash of acid over the tree trunk and let the liquid corrode the wood to its heart's content.

"The mud layer hasn't fully settled yet. It must have not been long since they fought here." Konan wasn't about to engage Kisame on the topic of Kiri's incompetence, despite the visible disappointment on the man's face.

She didn't know how things worked when Itachi was still Kisame's partner and she didn't care. But based on how chatty Kisame was, Itachi probably indulged in Kisame's urges to criticize his old village with his encouraging silence. Too bad Konan wanted to keep things on track.

"And the Six-Tail Jinchuuriki too, have some guts, for god's sake. Fight back like the beast you are!" Kisame shouted, expressing his dissatisfaction without any care. If the Six-Tail Jinchuuriki unleashed the power of the Tailed-Beast, then it would light up in their sense like a beacon, saving them the trouble of having to track down the scene of violence while hampered by Kirigakure's cover-up.

"Not every Jinchuuriki wants to use their power," Konan reminded Kisame. "And even less thought of massacre as a way to solve everything."

"My bad. I'll be sure to listen to the one that has more experience," Kisame said as he swung his sword over his shoulder. Just like that, Konan knew that he wasn't going to listen.

Konan was with Pein when they found the Five-Tail Jinchuuriki, Han, and beat him to the point of having exhausted all his tailed beast power. Shortly after that, she and Tobi did the same to the Four-Tail Jinchuuriki, Roshi.

Despite the very different circumstances that those two Jinchuuriki had - Han had run away from Iwa and Roshi was permitted to leave Iwa on a pilgrimage to control the Tailed-beast power - one common trait they had was that the Tailed-Beast power tended to be their last resort.

Despite having such great power at their disposal, none of them turned to its destruction until their body had been broken and their chakra had been drained. Such aversion towards the Tailed-Beast power inside of them meant that the burst of power that came with its release was wild, untamed, and unrefined.

They just needed to survive the initial wave of transformation where the destruction was the most unpredictable and desperate, and the scale of victory would tilt to their side naturally.

"How ironic, Shinobi greedily fought for this power. They killed their enemies and sacrificed even more of their comrades to turn it into a weapon under their command," Tobi once exclaimed. His voice distorted as he, Konan, and the unconscious Jinchuuriki got sucked into the whirlpool that originated from his eye. "Yet, they still fear the power of the Tailed-Beast, curse it, blaming it to be the source of their pain and suffering."

Kisame wrinkled his nose before taking a large breath. "I taste blood, so many kinds mixed together," the man said with joy as if he was savouring the metallic scent that lingered in the mist. "Perhaps we should wait until the Jinchuuriki has their fill. It's rude to interrupt a massacre."

"Let's catch up to them before they take the fight somewhere else." Konan didn't even bother arguing with Kisame before she rushed through the mist-filled jungle, towards the direction where the scent of blood in the mist grew thicker. Kisame let out a sigh of annoyance, but he followed her without any dissent.

The burst of menacing chakra that accompanied the metallic scent seemed to send shivers down Konan's body as her origami birds fluttered in the distance. It was wild and unrefined just as she imagined.

But Konan felt something strange as the mist thickened around her. The mist. Konan paused in alarm, feeling the confusions that her paper messengers had relayed back as they lost their direction in the thick fog

If the Kirigakure hunter-nin were doing everything they could to restrain and capture their Six-Tail Jinchuuriki, then how did they have the energy to reinforce the mist to such a level?

"Che, we were taken for fools." Kisame caught on to the situation just as Konan felt her origami messengers being destroyed - incinerated - all within a fraction of a second. Normal fire couldn't touch Konan's paper, but the heat waves emitted from the wall of flames that was travelling through the forest said otherwise

Kisame slapped his hands together into a hand seal as a vortex of water dragons rose in front of them. The water dragons swam forward and slammed their bodies into the expanding blaze. Meanwhile, sheets of paper peeled off of Konan's body and reforged into wings behind her back. Regardless of the traps that were laying in wait for them, the tailed-beast chakra was real.

However, before she even left the ground, two fire arrows blazed through the air and pierced toward her paper wings. Konan focused her chakra on the surface of her origami, trying to ward off the fire, but the arrow paid them no attention as it seared holes into the sheets they touched.

With no other choice, Konan dissipated the wings into separate sheets that flew around her. The shots were fired as a warning, to prevent her from following the Tailed-beast chakra.

Still, Konan had other ways to leave and Kisame had just devoured the wall of fire using Samehada. Sheets of paper began to flutter on Konan's body until tens, hundreds of thousands of them were dancing wildly in the air, covering both of them in a fake snowstorm.

Konan nodded at Kisame, reminding him of their priority with a critical glance. Kisame clicked his tongue at the prospect of having to run from such blatant provocation, but nevertheless, they started to flee under the guise of the paper whirlwind.

What responded to Konan's dramatic measure, was a circle of black flame that rose around them. Just like Konan's origami, Kisame's water sharks that used to ride the paper snowstorm with frenzy now disintegrated into the void the moment they touched the black flame. There was no sizzling of water vapours, no form of struggle, simply a return to nothingness.

Despite the aura of terror it brought, the black flame seemed to calm everything down. Konan caught the figure standing on the other side of the black flame, her red Mangekyou bringing the glow of colour that couldn't be ignored.

Konan felt the rush of chakra that seemed to drill into her mind. Genjutsu. Abruptly, she changed the chakra circulation and forced the shackle around her mind to break before it could taint her mind an awful mixture of red and black. The girl didn't seem surprised when her genjutsu was broken; it probably wasn't something she was betting on anyway.

"Long time no see, Uchiha," Kisame recognized her immediately.

"It's only been a year and a half," Uchiha Maiko answered as if she didn't just attack them and trapped them here. The Uchiha girl wouldn't have known, but Konan had 'seen' her through her origami when she was sneaking around Amegakure.

Looking back, Konan let her go because they had more important things to do and she wasn't worth their time - back then. But only a year and a half later, Tobi made sure to put her on Akatsuki's 'Top priority hit list', alongside Itachi and Orochimaru, with importance just below that of capturing Tailed-beasts.

They just needed to stall her and her fellow Konoha-nin a little longer, and she would have perished along with the old Amegakure. But alas, that was no more than a lament of the past decisions.

"I'm glad you remembered because I'm dying to finish what was started," Kisame said as bloodlust oozed out of his voice. He swung his sword towards the wall of black flame that burned around him with composure. Samehada woke up from its lethargy the moment it touched the black flame.

The giant sword shook - in anguish, or in joy, it was hard to tell - as it slowly devoured the flame. Kisame flickered through the opening faster than one could blink and Konan was doing the same.

But before she could escape the encirclement, she saw the red irides that focused on her. Instinctively, Konan took a step back, barely avoiding the rush of an ink-stained blaze that expanded from the side and closed the gap.

Konan caught Kisame's fleeing chakra signal. Despite what he said, he was putting the capture of the Jinchuuriki as the priority … and the Uchiha girl just let him.

With one last look in Konan's direction, the girl left to catch up to Kisame who was already disappearing into the distance. Konan tensed in uneasiness. So many of her behaviours didn't make sense - separating Konan and Kisame, allowing Kisame to leave … If she concentrated a little harder, she could sense the glow of the Tailed-Beast chakra that seemed to be stagnant in the distance.

Then, it all started to make sense when the chakra signature of Tailed-Beast disappeared from her radar. At the same time, the circle of flame around Konan finally extinguished, but the only thing she felt was the anger of being mocked and tricked.

"Where is the Tailed-Beast?" Konan asked as two new figures - all too familiar to her for the wrong reasons - appeared from the shadows. The genjutsu that covered their presence was finally released when the target reached a realization. She must have been caught in it under the disguise of the girl's failed genjutsu from earlier.

"Not here anymore," Jiraiya-sensei answered her, looking over her with awes and wonder as if he was merely taking into the appearance of an old friend he hadn't seen in a long time.

Then, he took a huge breath as a faint smile appeared on his face. "Long time no see, Konan. You've grown into quite a beauty, I see."

"Jiraiya-sensei," Konan greeted without much emotion. The moment that Konan had decided to follow Nagato into the new Akatsuki, she had already decided not to dwell on those memories of happiness that appeared in her childhood - no matter how little and how precious they were.

She paused a little before addressing the other intruder. "Itachi. Kisame would be disappointed that you avoided him."

Konan avoided Itachi's gaze, knowing the danger of his genjutsu. Still, she could imagine Itachi's nonchalance as he replied, "Maiko will keep him entertained, I'm sure."

"You're here to kill me," Konan stated as a matter of fact. Upon hearing that, Jiraiya let out a sigh, as if it was quite a tragedy that things had to come to this

"I'd rather we have a talk first, Konan. There's a lot to catch up on, isn't it?" Konan usually wasn't the one to get affected by others' words, but even she couldn't help but snort in disdain. Without a moment of rest, a snowstorm of paper flew out from her body, hiding the explosive arrays in the never-ending flutter of origami wings.

"I think the action will speak for itself, Jiraiya-sensei." Paper was the medium that allowed words to reach others; origami was the embodiment of wishes and prayers. If it was a chat for the old-time's sake, then Konan couldn't find a better way to deliver the message.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"I never took Konoha to be the kind that's big on individual heroism." Samehada slammed down from above as I raised my tantō to block. The thorns on the sword expanded with Kisame's words and I didn't waste a single second as I wretched my blade away before it could get stuck.

Samehada cleaved through the air as I dashed away. Kisame easily twirled the sword in a circle just before it could smash the ground, showing his impeccable skill in using a sword that many couldn't even balance.

"Individual heroism, you say?" I couldn't help but raise an eyebrow at that.

"Am I wrong? Did they not leave you behind to clean up their mess?" Kisame said as he slugged the giant sword on his shoulder and formed a half-seal with his other hand. In the water-logged field beneath our feet, half a dozen water sharks started to rise from the surface, encircling Kisame slowly with a blood lust directed towards me.

I moved just as the sharks accelerated towards me. Ever since the Kiri Anbu teleported Utakata away using the seal supplied by Jiraiya - it was usually reserved for retrieving criminals, but beggars couldn't be choosers - and retreated afterwards, Kisame was left with two options, run away or stay to fight.

Despite all the violent tendencies that I had heard regarding the infamous missing-nin, he had his priorities straight. When it was clear that they wouldn't be able to obtain Six-Tails, Kisame didn't hesitate when choosing the option of escape.

Too bad, I wasn't planning to give him one.

The sharks stirred in the water, shaking up giant waves that dwarfed me with their elevation. Under the sharingan, I saw the spectacle of chakra that seemed to assault me from every direction, truly living up to his reputation of 'the Beast With no Tails'. Still, I weaved between the sharks as they tried to halt my footsteps.

One of the sharks pounced at me as my foot touched the water surface, opening its giant mouth filled with translucent teeth. It snapped its jaws without any mercy, but it bit into nothing but a mouthful of electricity. Just then, a red lotus bloomed from below the water, quickly swallowing the water shark and reducing everything nearby into a mess of vapours.

"I'm not here to clean their mess. I'm here to finish what they started," I arrived next to the fleeing missing-nin in the blink of an eye. Kirigakure and Utakata spent weeks faking the trails, planning the route meticulously, spilling blood in their own volition.

The teleportation array required the target to shed any ounce of resistance - voluntarily or involuntarily - which meant that Utakata must be able to control the urges to destroy when he released a part of Saiken's chakra. Furthermore, Kirigakure must trust Utakata to be able to maintain his consciousness, and Utakata must trust that Kirigakure would not teleport him straight into confinement - like what Konoha had planned to do with Orochimaru during the Chunin Exam.

Kiri, Utakata, us … Everyone had a role to fulfill, everyone had a job to do. Individual heroism was the farthest thing on our minds.

Kisame wasn't fazed as he swung Samehada towards me at lightning speed. I ducked at the last moment, feeling the cry of wind that sliced just an inch above my head. The water beneath me stirred, but before water tendrils could materialize, I dipped my hand into the muddy and poured my chakra into the ground.

Half a dozen scattered lotus rose from the water, dispelling the water tendrils easily with its heat as the flowers bloomed even brighter beside Kisame's feet. Lightning chakra coursed through my body and at the same time, the pond of flowers expanded into a cloud of blazing flames, enveloping the Kiri-missing-nin in the span of a breath.

The leaves swayed a little as I landed the branch, watching the fire devour everything in a five-metre radius. Still, I doubted he'd be taken down so easily, not with Samehada in hand.

As expected, when the smoke cleared, Samehada was raised in front of Kisame's body. The spikes on the giant sword seemed to move with a rhythm, expanding and contracting as if the sword itself was breathing.

"Thanks for the meal," Kisame said with a grin on his face, even if half of his robe was burned off, revealing burnt skin on his legs and arms. "Since you're so determined to make me stay, I won't refuse your hospitality, Uchiha Maiko."

"No more running away?" I asked and the shark-like man shook his head. Itachi did say that Kisame wasn't the one that took provocation well, especially when there was no one to stop him.

"I've decided that killing you is more important," Kisame replied, with an underlying tone that almost spelt out 'screw Akatsuki, I'm doing it my way.'

See, this was why Mei was having a hard time believing that Kisame could be a useful addition to the war effort. If it wasn't for Itachi and Kotoamatsukami, I wouldn't have trusted any promise of 'cooperation' from someone as volatile and chaotic as him.

To think that Itachi said he was one of the more predictable missing-nin in Akatsuki.

Either way, Itachi did not fill Kisame in on the details of our plan, so he certainly wasn't going to help in our scheme to fake his death. As of now, we were truly enemies, aiming for each other's heads. Only this way could we fool those that were watching, whoever they were.

As I said, everyone had a role to fulfill. His role was simply to continue being the missing-nin he was - violent, bloodthirsty, unrestrained - and the rest was my problem.

Despite Samehada's strange shape, it was one of the seven legendary swords of Kiri. Its wielder, then, must be someone with worthy swordsmanship. Kisame slashed the sword in a diagonal line, hitting away my ninjatō with a metallic 'clink'.

It took him a moment to realize that the only thing left in front of him was the sword that was slapped away and hit the tree. By then, I had already flickered behind him with the other blade gripped in my fingers.

Clack! The Kiri missing-nin brought up Samehada behind him at the last moment, blocking the blade that would have stabbed through his neck otherwise. Samehada's spikes expanded the moment it caught my blade, threatening to pierce my arm. One scratch and I was sure that it would have sucked out my chakra like a starved animal.

Swiftly, I switched my grip on the sword and slid the blade out of the jagged spikes. An upper swing followed quickly, cutting into a spark of lightning. At the same time, I landed on the tree trunk and grabbed the ninjatō stuck to the wood, before dashing into the forest.

Behind a tree, I made a seal with my hand, allowing a thick circle of fog to cover the jungle, but not the immediate vicinity near Kisame and Samehada. In the middle of the clearing, Kisame looked amused at my action.

"What is a shinobi without chakra and ninjutsu, am I right?" Kisame yelled out as I calmed my breathing and tried to blend into the fog. He didn't mind the silent treatment, merely continuing with his speech, "but at least we still have the identity of 'assassin'."

Mist hovered in the air as if someone had placed a sheet of opaque silk on the world. The humidity seemed to weigh down on my skin, but the man in the center remained unconcerned, not even bothering to move his sword, despite the complaints of hunger that Samehada made.

"When I started training to become a Silent Killer of Kiri, you weren't even born yet," Kisame said, his grin widened, hiding the layer of contempt underneath. "And when I started killing Kiri's assassins, you hadn't even crawled out of Konoha's greenhouse of an academy."

Without another warning, water serpents bursted out from Samehada, larger and stronger than the ones before. The giant serpents crashed into the nearby forestry, including the tree I was hiding in, like a tsunami. With a twist of its tail, the tree trunks snapped under the whipping force.

Samehada was a sword that would 'eat' chakra and ninjutsu, nobody knew that better than Kirigakure. Yet, Kisame continued to evade their hunters until finally, the losses were too grave for the war-infested Kiri to continue their pursuit.

I wouldn't be the first one to try to bypass Samahada and assassin Kisame, but so far, none of Kiri's assassins had succeeded. Kisame himself was a top-notch assassin from Kiri, after all. Nobody knew how to counter the silent killers better than him. The simplest step was to crush them with sheer power before they could even get close.

I bounced off a branch as one water serpent dived headfirst into the tree trunk, turning every tree in the close vicinity into splinters. Even with Jinrai, a few drops of water still fell on my clothes as I tried to avoid being splashed. Just like a mark of ink, I saw the glow of chakra in those liquids fade like a dying firefly. Almost immediately, the other water serpent whipped around and its thick body slammed towards me.

Lightning gathered in my sword as I avoided a few water tendrils from behind. It was incredible, the amount of chakra that Kisame had to continuously use those water jutsu. What made it even more maddening was that some of it came from my own jutsu that got devoured by Samehada. Still, the reality remained that without any jutsu, I wouldn't be able to survive, let alone peel open a crack amongst Kisame's attacks.

The electricity made the crackling sounds as it concentrated on the blade until finally, three dragons danced across the metal and raced towards the water serpent. The lightning dragons dug into the construct made of water, sending the serpent into a state of anguish as it flopped down. The giant serpent broke down into a mass of electro-charged water as I slipped past the messy scene.

The electricity travelled along the water until it reached Kisame's ankle. But all Kisame did was swipe Samehada into the water and the sword sucked in all of my remaining chakra with its gluttonous hunger. As if returning the meal I provided, Kisame slapped his hand into the knee-deep water. A wave rose up to cover the skyline, right before it crashed down in my direction.

I didn't stop moving, even though it was futile to run in any direction. It wasn't about how fast I could go, but the fact that to attack, I would have to pierce through the wall of waves that surrounded Kisame as it expanded into a tsunami. However, I wasn't about to make it easy for him to predict where I was.

The lightning chakra faded from my circuits as I paused for a moment. Quickly, balls of yin-chakra fire materialized into the air as I pulled my hand back like notching an arrow. The little clusters of ruby fire seemed to stretch with my hand as they thinned into sharp quills.

Just before the waves could crash down, I released the quills, letting them fly through the air. Like the evil-banishing arrows that were to rip through the demons, the blazing quills tore through the falling wave like a sheet of plastic.

Yet, I knew that Kisame had the skills to block them. So the moment I released the jutsu, I forced the chakra to circulate in my body again until a stream of electricity seemed to flow through my veins. Racing against time, I dashed forward, crossing the opening in the wall of water that was created by my arrows and had yet to heal.

For a fraction of a second, I felt the smouldering vapours that seemed to sear through my skin, but I clutched the swords in my hands tight.

Just as Kisame had spun Samehada in a wide arc, slicing through the ruby quills in a fluid motion, eating up whatever chakra it had touched, I sailed above his head, flipping down from the right as I stretched my arm and reached for that spot on the neck that opened up from his movement.

"I figured you'd go for that spot. That's where all the good assassins would aim." I heard him saying as a droplet of blood rolled down the edge of my blade. Just an inch away, a line of red decorated Kisame's neck. Samehada locked my ninjatō in place, pushing it away from my opponent's neck with an immovable force.

"Tobi warned us about your speed that couldn't be traced without the Sharingan. But it's not so scary when I can predict where your blade is heading," Kisame said as he twisted his sword, forcing me to let go of the ninjatō and sending the blade into the sky. "I'm starting to get the hang of it."

The two of us moved at the same time. I moved the other blade in front of me just as Kisame swung the sword down in a sharp motion. Against the gigantic sword, my tantō only managed to tilt it to the side, but just enough for me to avoid being slashed in half.

The Kiri-missing-nin turned his body and used the momentum to strike again. The sword in his grips was already expanding out its spikes, closing the gap between us. Furthermore, a horde of sharks appeared behind me, leaping towards me from various directions, blocking my path of escape.

Quickly, I channelled chakra down my legs and a veil of scarlet red rose from the ground, enveloping both Kisame and myself in a circle of a flame barrier. There was no time to waste as I redirected the flow and properties of my chakra, allowing it to expand from my body in the form of a silver ribcage.

A lot of things happened in the span of a second. The sharks ran into the Uchiha Kaenjin and evaporated amidst the sizzling sounds. An arm sprouted out of the partial Susanoo and slammed into Kisame, pushing me backwards in the process. I passed through the Kaenjin unscathed, thanks to the silver armour, leaving the other shark man behind as the barrier collapsed in a roar of flames.

I withdrew the Susanoo as soon as I was some distance away to conserve my chakra. By then, I saw the chunk of the silvery hand that got eaten by the gluttonous sword. Any ninjutsu that couldn't kill the man before he could react would be devoured, which, given the offensive and defensive properties of water jutsu that he mastered, pretty much described all of the attempts so far.

Once again, the shark man broke out of the flames with the laughs of a maniac. At this point, Samahada was already more than twice the size compared to the beginning of our meeting. It seemed to weigh like a boulder, but Kisame swung it with ease and precision as the sword crashed down from above.

Water splashed up from the ground as I took a step to the side and slashed the tantō down towards his wrist. But my opponent reacted in time and blocked my arm with his own. Before Samehada could spit out the water vortex to shred me, I was already out of the fray. Using a broken tree as a foothold, I dashed in again with electricity roaming through my body.

"Such a well-trained assassin you are - but then again, they all were. Does that woman know you've been stealing Kiri's techniques?" Once again, Kisame predicted where I would strike - that exposed region just between his ribs where a well-angled hit would stab through the heart - and pushed my blade away with force as soon as my blade entered his skin. Blood soaked through his robe, but he was as haughty as ever with his words.

"Do you always have so much to say when you're fighting?" This time, I replied. "No wonder Itachi complains about the noise pollution." I wasn't sure which word was it that triggered him - 'Itachi' or 'noise pollution', likely both - but the bloodlust thickened around the man as Samehada wailed in exhilaration, sensing the violent desires of its owner, asking for even more chakra and blood.

This was the tipping point. While it seemed like his ninjutsu couldn't hurt me, my chakra in the form of ninjutsu was being siphoned away every time we clashed. Kisame seemed confident that he could defend against Jinrai with nothing more than superficial injuries.

He was getting more and more used to my attacks. That meant it was time to break up the rhythm.

Kisame slashed Samehada through the water underneath his feet and the small artificial lake seemed to shake. Thick layers of water rose up from around me, invigorated by a large amount of chakra supplied by Samehada and Kisame. It was a water prison that, once formed, would trap its opponents until all that was left was lifeless bones.

Do not falter, you have time. I had to remind myself as I made the hand seals and immersed my hands under the water, all the while the water sphere was swallowing me up. Just before the water sphere could close like an aquarium of doom, a field of lotus bloomed between Kisame and me, mostly concentrating around the missing-nin and creating a path made of red petals despite the wall of water that separated us.

They burned like the bloom of a lifetime.

I figured Kisame must have thought that it was the same old trick when I managed to escape the water prison through the holes the lotus burned through. The liquid closed behind me, almost catching me by the hair. But hey, surprises were built on the fact that there was already an expectation.

For the umpteenth time, lightning wrapped around my body as I disappeared in Kisame's naked eyes. Just a little more electricity, just a little bit tuned up than before so that I could see the way his arms and sword were moving, from absorbing the fiery blossoms to defending where he thought I would strike - and he was correct.

He was a great assassin - and a killer of assassins - indeed, knowing exactly what openings his body had at any given moment and which one would produce the success.

Therefore, I just needed a little more time, just a bit more time than what Jinrai had obtained for me.

In midair, remembering all those lectures from Tsunade-sama, I rid my body of the electricity and replaced it with a different flow without pausing. The petal in my left Mangekyou pulsed, and the world in front of me was stripped of its time.

I needed one sure hit, not to kill Kisame, but to kill his existence, in a way that was too shocking and sudden for him - or those paper origami on the sidelines and whatever else was spying in the shadows - to react and comprehend.

On such a large area of effect, Kannon Bosatsu would only last for a second, just enough for me to press my left hand against his neck and bring my right arm around his head. There were a lot of things that I had to check off the list in that one second, just to arrive at the end results.

I slashed the tantō across his neck just as the time prison expired, releasing everything back to its original course as a fountain of red sprayed out in front of my eyes.

Kisame's body dropped down into the water as thick blood smeared his body and continued to dye the pool of water red. I squeezed my fist tight as the red liquid painted my hand and dripped down my skin. Samehada flopped down as well next to its owner, for a second, it looked sentient enough to be confused by what the hell had happened.

Suddenly, I turned my head and narrowed my eyes at a spot hidden behind the forestry that had survived the earlier battle. 'The show's over,' I mouthed, knowing full well that those origami birds would relay everything back to its owner.

Without any more interruptions, I let the Uchiha Kaenjin rise around me in a large radius, almost circling the clearing. Susanoo enveloped and protected my body just as the concentrated yin-chakra fire collapsed, spreading inward and outward alike, concealing reality with a blanket of flames, and incinerating everything that wasn't being protected.

In the end, all that remained amongst the dust and ashes was the legendary sword, still trying to devour the remains of my ninjutsu with unsatiated hunger. It looked like it wanted to eat me too, but I just threw a scroll on it and the binding seals lashed out and dragged it back into the scroll. After all, the sword did belong to Kiri once upon a time and they had everything prepared for its containment.

In the far distance that Kisame and I had come from, I could see the dots of chakra that flew in and out of my vision, signifying another battle - one that was much different in nature than mine - that was still underway.

A/N: Ummm, very busy recently from my school and work, so, unfortunately, didn't have much time to write, but I did manage to finish this chapter that's overdue. Kisame is not dead or incinerated; he's not doing great, but still alive, trust Maiko's work ethic. On to Konan and Jiraiya's reunion next chapter.