Chapter 62 - Chunin Exam: Guide to Survival

"Orochimaru left behind your father's Mangekyou before he ran away," Kakashi repeated, waiting for Itachi to follow up with more explanation. Of course, he didn't. So with a sigh, Kakashi added, "You want to expand on that a little?"

"What else is there to say?" Itachi asked instead. For the first time, there was some impatience showing in his voice that was always well-mannered.

"He gave up the pair of eyes that easily?" Kakashi prompted, trying not to irritate Itachi and complicate the situation that was already complicated enough.

"You're wondering if we made a deal," Itachi stated as a matter of fact. The glass bottle sat on the table with a pair of red sharingan submerged inside. Under the ceiling light, it cast an unsettling shadow on the mahogany tabletop.

"Itachi … " Kakashi couldn't help but let out another sigh. "You know I don't mean it like that." He hated doing this kind of work, where everything turned out to be some kind of interrogation. But the fear that Orochimaru had implemented in Konoha was not going away, so everything relating to the snake sannin had to be examined in detail.

"Yes, I'm sorry," Itachi replied, but all it did was make Kakashi feel bad. "I keep on forgetting that Konoha has a phobia when it comes to Orochimaru."

That was a diss, wasn't it? Suddenly, Kakashi felt less bad.

"As I said, Tobi teleported Orochimaru to where Sasuke was - whether he did it by deception or by force, that's none of my concern. Rather than taking the easy way out by walking away, he decided to play along with Tobi's plan and stall my time, so that he could see us suffer," Itachi said, his voice as calm as he could be.

Unlike Konoha, who tried to find a logical reason for every one of Orochimaru's moves, a hidden scheme underneath every one of his words, Itachi accepted that Orochimaru did what he did out of hate so easily. Orochimaru wanted him to suffer, and suffering he was.

It had been three days since Maiko had fallen into a coma, and Itachi had done everything he could to reach her consciousness. But not even his own Mangekyou could guide her out. I can't access it, her mindscape is too damaged, he said.

"His body was too damaged, impacting his regeneration to the point that he got threatened by Amaterasu. Of course, I wasn't doing much better then, but at least I was a good actor," Itachi continued to explain, shifting his eyes from the pair of sharingan on the table back to Kakashi.

"My killing intent was real. I wanted to kill Orochimaru and he believed it, that's all," Itachi said, having no problem in revealing his own bloodlust. "I suppose there is a 'deal' if you really want to put it that way: His life and freedom in exchange for the Mangekyou. Unlike Danzō, Orochimaru didn't covet the inferior power of a transplanted sharingan. The Mangekyou was nothing more than a bargaining chip and he'll use it when he sees fit."

Kakashi tried to put himself in the same mindset as Itachi, to try to understand Orochimaru's reasoning. He could see why Orochimaru would choose to go along with Tobi's plan despite being an unwilling participant. Actually, it was probably because he had the eyes in his possession that he had chosen to stay and pester Itachi in his damaged body.

Deciding that he was done with his official duty, Kakashi nodded at the bottled eyes on the table and said, "Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama had examined it. There don't seem to be any problems with it. The solution needs to be changed every three days and kept cold. Although, the tissue needs to be regenerated with medical chakra a few days prior to being used for transplantation."

"Please give Tsunade-sama and Jiraiya-sama my thanks. As for now, I think we can all agree that it will have to be kept in the freezer a little longer." Itachi replied, not bothering to take a closer look at the bottle. Only Tsunade and her medical corps had the means to maintain the eyes. Kakashi had only taken it out here to give Itachi peace of mind.

Of course, he now realized that it was not going to change anything.

"I know that the possible appearance of another pair of Eternal Mangekyou Sharingan since Uchiha Madara is unsettling for many. Not just those that are conservative, even someone who's impartial like Advisor Nara and Advisor Hyūga might err on the side of caution and they have every right to be, considering who provided the last piece of the puzzle," Itachi said, hitting the mark with each and every one of his words.

"But for me, the Eternal Mangekyou is just a reassurance, so that my sister won't be in a coma every time she's doing something only the Mangekyou can do." Itachi eyed the room down the hall. He had decided to take Maiko back to the Uchiha Compound after determining that normal medical intervention wasn't going to help. She hates the smell of disinfectant, he argued.

Silence stretched between them as awkwardness seeped out of the air. Anything that Kakashi could possibly say at this point sounded like a bad idea in his head. How's Maiko doing? Continued to be in a coma. How's your health, Itachi? Still healing, no surprise there. Any news from Akatsuki? He'd tell them when he got something.

That was until Kakashi realized that Itachi was staring at his left eye, looking like he was deep in thought. "Are you sure that your sharingan and Tobi's were originally a pair?"

"Is there another way for our Mangekyou pattern to be the same?" Kakashi asked instead because for god's sake, he was not the expert on sharingan here.

Ever since he made his reports, he tried not to think about how Tobi's right eye was just a reflection of him in the mirror and what that could possibly mean. The options weren't that many, and Kakashi didn't like any of them.

It just so happened that they had a lot of other things to take care of - dealing with casualties and injuries in the Shinobi force, giving explanations to Daimyō, arranging meetings with Suna - that Kakashi could afford to not think too deeply about it.

Otherwise, he would go insane.

"Historically speaking, there were never two pairs of Mangekyou with the same pattern, not even in close kins," Itachi said, crushing the last bit of hope that Kakashi had.

However, Itachi didn't venture into the discussion that Kakashi thought he would. Instead, he continued, "If they are the same pair of eyes, then there's something we might be able to try on Maiko, but it'll strain your Mangekyou."

Kakashi's breath halted at Itachi's words. "What do you need me to do?" He sort of had an idea, but just to make sure.

"The last time I pulled her out of the loop, I didn't need to go into her mindscape. If I had to say, I only knocked on the door to guide her out. However, if Tobi had really gone inside her mindscape to interfere with the taming of One-Tail, then his Mangekyou might have left a deeper anchor," Itachi explained, his glance not leaving Kakashi's sharingan.

"You think the anchor will make it easier for Tobi to access her mindscape again." Kakashi understood the analogy immediately. "Is this why you decided to bring her back to the Compound?"

"For the most part, yes. The compound is better warded; not even Tobi can get in without my notice. But Maiko really did hate the smell of disinfectant in hospitals." Itachi let out a small smile before continuing. "If your Mangekyou comes from the same origin as Tobi, then you might be able to access that anchor and get into her mindscape."

"Of course, as I said, it will strain your Mangekyou. It's not as damaging as using a technique, but it will contribute to the blinding process. Besides, this is just a speculation, so your Mangekyou might not even make a difference." Itachi finished his words, leaving the decision in Kakashi's hand.

To be honest, Kakashi didn't know what was there to think about.

"I'll try it," Kakashi replied. "How am I supposed to do it?"

Itachi wasn't surprised at how fast he answered it. Without a word, he grabbed the glass bottle on the table and walked to the fridge. Kakashi wasn't sure about placing the eyes of your deceased father alongside your groceries, but who was he to judge?

A moment later, Itachi closed the fridge door and walked down the hall. "Please come with me."

Maiko's room looked a lot more lively than his. Her weapons and swords were hanging from the walls, routinely maintained and cared for. Notebooks and stationery were kept on the shelf while photos scattered around the room.

Kakashi thought she was being hypocritical whenever she joked that his apartment was looking too desolate, but it turned out that he was just lying to himself.

After everything that had happened, she made the Uchiha Compound home once more.

Itachi walked over to the girl on the bed, who looked like she was just sleeping peacefully. For a second, it seemed that nothing was wrong, but soon, the beeping sound of the medical machines that regulate the nutrient solutions pulled him back to reality. Gently, Itachi turned on the lamp on the nightstand, as if the light would disturb the sleeping girl.

"When it comes to using the Mangekyou, it's usually not that hard. You just need to follow your instinct and Mangekyou will do the rest," Itachi said to him as he pointed to the chair by the bed, telling him to sit. A moment later, Kakashi heard him adding in a whisper "It's the price that you have to pay afterwards that's the issue."

"Use your Mangekyou on her. Imagine yourself being projected into her mind," Itachi explained, but it was so vague that he might as well not explain anything. "Try to find the anchor, or search for a landmark. If you can't, then don't bother, just pull yourself out before it consumes you."

Kakashi nodded at Itachi before setting his eyes back on Maiko again. Slowly, he raised the forehead protector that covered his left eye. With one single thought, his eye blinked into the Mangekyou.

For a second, he wasn't sure what to do. Then, he remembered what Itachi had said and decided to just let Mangekyou do the rest. As for the price, Kakashi would gladly pay for them so long as there was a chance that it would work.

His Mangekyou seemed to know exactly what he wanted as he felt himself being sucked into a place that he shouldn't be in. It was cold and dark and nothing seemed to exist. Kakashi searched for the 'anchor' that Itachi spoke of, forcing himself to stay in control in this uncontrollable situation.

He couldn't find anything. He was like an outsider, venturing into a realm he had no business in.

Time seemed to lose meaning in the darkness and thoughts of futile efforts coursed through his mind. But somehow, Maiko's words rang in his mind. It was right after Sandaime told them that he wanted Kakashi to be the next Hokage, right after Maiko gave him back Obito's belongings

She had said, "You don't have to cover it. Not here, at least."

Kakashi shouldn't be the one in control here, the one searching. The anchor, if it existed, would have belonged to his Mangekyou - Obito's Sharingan - and not him.

Slowly, Kakashi gave the control back to his Mangekyou, letting it guide him through the darkness, the cold, and the unknown. He didn't know where it was taking him, but nevertheless, it was taking him somewhere.

Kakashi sucked in a breath, for he just arrived at a place that had seen nothing but destruction.

Jagged stone stitched up the ground, sticking out in various directions. Broken pieces of wooden pillar littered around the slabs of rocks, covered by a layer of burn marks and black dust that made the original colours nonexistent. Kakashi had to squint to make out the shape of a wooden corner that used to belong to a Torii. At every spot of unevenness, sand filled the holes, suffocating the already horrifying landscape.

There was no question whether he arrived at the right place, the aftermath of the battle with the Sand Demon had said enough.

"Maiko!" Kakashi yelled, hearing his voice get sucked into the empty space that spat out nothing in return. Soon, the space turned into an eternal plane of silence, where Kakashi couldn't hear any other breathing than his own.

The dome of darkness seemed to crash down on him, but it also seemed to extend into oblivion at the same time. His left eye started to sting and he wasn't sure if it was because of the strain of the Mangekyou usage, or the desperation that slowly crept up in his body.

What was he supposed to tell Itachi, that there was nothing left here? No sign of Maiko - or just life, in general. Was he supposed to accept that himself?

A light rustle.

Kakashi looked around, turning his body frantically, trying to find where the sound came from. But it passed so quickly that he wondered if it was just his imagination, a hopeful delusion.

A dim noise.

It was real, now that Kakashi was sure of it. He halted his breath in concentration, trying to catch the origin of the sound. Another light rustle, it sounded like the breath of the wind, hitting the stone surface.

Slowly, Kakashi walked towards the sound and finally, he found where it was coming from - a slab of rock that leaned on a pile of debris made of sand, wood, and stone.

Before he could comprehend what it meant, a breeze of wind sailed past him, brushing his body with a refreshing coldness. The wind rushed past the stone slab, creating the rustling sound he heard earlier. The stone slab tilted a little, just a tiny bit, letting out a scratchy noise against the surface behind.

The wind brushed past him again. This time, it seemed to recognize him as a blockage as it curved around him, only leaving him with a touch of coldness before it slammed into the rock again.

It was trying to move the stone, Kakashi realized. But the force of the breeze was so small and limited compared to the weight of the stone slab that just refused to move.

Instinctively, Kakashi moved forward, reaching out for the rock. Just then, the breeze of wind rushed past him, freezing his body in frigid iciness, as if trying to warn him not to interfere.

"I'm … just going to help." Kakashi thought he must be on the verge of insanity, talking to a breeze of wind. Nevertheless, the breeze seemed to hover around him, brushing his body with the cold air, but with less hostility than before.

Kakashi moved forward experimentally and this time, the breeze didn't try to interfere. He grabbed the piece of rock and used all his strength to push. It was heavier than it looked and it was difficult to get it out of whatever jagged holes it was stuck in.

Still, Kakashi pushed it to the side and let it crash onto the ground, exposing even more debris underneath.

Right, he didn't know what he was expecting, just like he didn't know what he was thinking, trying to help a breeze of wind move a piece of rock.

Just then, before Kakashi could let out a sigh, water started to flow out from the pile of debris. It was so clear and clean that Kakashi couldn't associate it with this field of destruction. Even though the water was flowing and moving, there seemed to be a tranquil stillness in its motion.

Kakashi stepped aside to let the water flow past him, soaking through the rumbles and the debris. As much as he tried to move out of the way, the water seemed to spread everywhere and soon, he was ankle-deep in the pool.

It was soothing, Kakashi somehow recognized. It was a source of comfort, a source of healing. Once again, Kakashi felt the brush of wind near his body, but it was much more gentle than before, sparing him of the frigid cold.

Somehow, hope lit up in his chest again as he watched the water flowing across the endless space. It seemed to wash away the suffocating sand, just like it washed away the lifelessness.

But it would take time. Even Kakashi could see that this mindscape had sustained too much damage to be able to recover in an instant.

Nevertheless, it was a start.

Another sting of pain in his Mangekyou reminded him that his time here was ending. As much as Kakashi would like to stay longer and make sure, he knew that he shouldn't owe to his Mangekyou what he couldn't afford.

Just as he was about to leave, the wind swirled around his body, brushing against his shoulder, as if asking him to stay. He figured it must be lonely here, with nothing but remnants of destruction.

"I'll come back," Kakashi said to the string of wind, or whatever was left of Maiko's consciousness at this point, acting on instinct, trying to save itself from a fate of eternal slumber. A moment later, he added, "I promise."

The wind brushed against his shoulder one last time before finally moving away, sailing across the water until it flew somewhere deeper, presumably to a place that it could heal as well.

With one last look, Kakashi willed his Mangekyou to pull him out of Maiko's mindscape. A feeling of nausea assaulted him as the dim lighting at the Uchiha Compound reoriented him back to reality.

Kakashi rubbed his eyes, feeling it fade back to the normal sharingan. Itachi's face appeared in front of him. He heard the younger man let out a sigh of relief after making sure he was alright. Then, Itachi turned to Maiko, half expecting something to happen.

Nothing did and a hint of disappointment flashed through his face before the emotion faded.

"I didn't see her in her mindscape, but some of her consciousness is still there," Kakashi said, choosing his words carefully. "As for her mindscape, it's very damaged, but … I think it's healing, even if it's slow."

It took Itachi a moment to process his words before a faint smile appeared on his face, as if Kakashi's words were the best thing he had heard in three days. "That's good news."

For a moment, the optimism in Itachi's voice scared Kakashi. He opened his mouth, a warning weighing on his tongue. He wanted to tell Itachi that there was always the chance that he was wrong, and he didn't know how long it would take for Maiko to heal something as intangible as the 'mind'.

"You think I'm too optimistic." Itachi saw through Kakashi's worries in a second. With no other choices, Kakashi nodded. "I know that you're not certain, Kakashi. To be fair, none of us can be certain when it comes to the Mangekyou. But I'd like to believe … no, I know that Maiko's soul is resilient and her mind is strong."

Itachi didn't feel like elaborating and Kakashi didn't really need it anyway. After all, he wanted nothing more than to believe Itachi's optimism as well.

They made their way back to the main hall. Kakashi saw Ryuu - Maiko's adopted protege - opening the fridge with a cutting board laid out on the counter. The younger boy's eyes widened in shock when he made sense of what was in the glass bottle.

Slowly, he took a step back and turned to Itachi. "Itachi-san, is this … should I ignore it?"

"Ah, just ignore it, Ryuu. It'll be gone soon," Itachi said, a little apologetic. Ryuu nodded as he turned his attention back to the fridge, forcing himself to ignore the bottle of sharingan and went for the food instead.

Quickly, Itachi took the bottle out of the fridge and handed it back to Kakashi. "Like I said, please ask Tsunade-sama to keep it safe." Kakashi nodded, deciding that he was going to ignore all the weirdness in this household as well.

However, it turned out that the weirdness was not done. The caw of a crow drew their attention to the back porch. Without a word, Itachi walked out and looked up at the sky. A moment later, a black crow landed in front of him with a dying fish caged in its claws

Under their watchful eyes, the crow tore the fish apart with its beak and claws, exposing the inside of its flesh until a note could be seen in its stomach. Ignoring the blood and the carcass, Itachi picked up the note and rolled it open.

"It's Kisame. Akatsuki had captured and extracted Four-Tail." Itachi said, dropping the bomb without warning.

After the disappearance of the first Anbu team they had sent to track Four-Tail, Konoha did send another team of Anbu to investigate their death, However, they found nothing and they didn't have more resources to spare with the Chunin Exam right at the corner.

"I'll pass the information to Hokage-sama," Kakashi said as Itachi burned the note with a small fireball. The crow had long landed somewhere in the backyard with its fish and was in the process of enjoying its meal.

It was naive of them to think that Akatsuki would only focus on one goal at a time. While they were busy protecting One-Tail, sacrificing quite a bit in the process, Akatsuki had already moved on elsewhere.

"The negotiation with Sunagakure is in three days, isn't it?" Itachi asked and Kakashi gave him a nod. Anyone who was not a fool could see that this matter was too much for just Konoha and Kirigakure to handle. Then, the post-invasion negotiation with Sunagakure became more and more critical.

"See you soon, Itachi," Kakashi said as he left the Uchiha Compound, the bottle of sharingan was still in his pocket.

"Take care." Itachi gave him a small nod before walking back.

In the end, they didn't talk about what it meant for Tobi to have Obito's other eye. But all in due time - especially when Maiko woke up and could describe her encounter with Tobi in more detail - the conversation would surely come up.

Until then, Kakashi was given the last bit of time to say goodbye to what he used to remember and believe.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"These are for morning, and these are for the evening. Please instruct him to rest up!" Shizune-san warned as she placed the bag of medicine in Sasuke's hands. Was it his imagination, or did these packages get heavier since the last time?

Then again, he usually wasn't the one who had to pick up Itachi's medications.

"Thank you," Sasuke muttered as he cradled the bags in his arms. Shizune-san let out a sigh when she heard how dead his voice sounded.

"I know it's not what you want to hear, Sasuke-kun, but take care of yourself too. Maiko-chan is just healing, none of us know when she'll wake up, but it's progressing towards the better," Shizune-san said with a gentle voice as she patted him on the back. For a second, Sasuke was out of words, so he just nodded.

She was just trying to comfort him, that much he recognized. So no matter how crappy he was feeling today, he shouldn't let it concern her more than it already did.

Sasuke shifted the bags onto his hand, feeling the weight settle into his palms as he walked down the hospital hallway. Before he could disappear into the corner, he caught the mob of blonde hair walking towards him. Without thinking, he turned around and walked back, pretending that he was just a random passerby.

What the hell is he doing here? Sasuke thought he had been discharged long ago with his Jinchuuriki healing.

"Sasuke!" A yell sounded behind him, making him speed up. "I saw you already!" Sasuke felt a weight on his back as Naruto pushed himself onto his shoulder.

"What are you, three?" Sasuke growled in annoyance as he shook Naruto off of his back. "Let go, I got it." Finally, the weight on his shoulder was gone. He had to stretch his shirt back into its original place before turning around, seeing his blonde-haired teammate and the red-haired girl that followed a step behind.

"Why are you avoiding me?" Of course, Naruto had to be the observant one when Sasuke wished he wouldn't notice.

"I'm not avoiding you," Sasuke lied, not even pausing in his words. "Aren't you supposed to be showing your … family around the village? Why are you at the hospital?" He hardly thought that this dreadful place full of disinfectant counted as a 'must-see attraction' in the village.

"Ah, Karin-chan was curious about the hospitals in Konoha. She said she spent most of her life in Kusagkure's hospital," Naruto answered as he looked back at Karin. Karin nodded in confirmation before greeting Sasuke with a slight bow. "Wait, did you just try to change the topic?"

Sasuke rolled his eyes, wondering why Naruto's short attention span had to fail him now out of all times.

"What's that you're holding?" Naruto asked as he eyed the bags in his hands.

"Groceries and none of your business," Sasuke answered, turning around and walking towards the exit.

"Groceries in the hospital?" Naruto sounded skeptical.

"I'm also picking up something from Shizune-san," Sasuke answered. At this point, he wasn't even trying to patch up his lies. To Sasuke's disgust, Naruto was pouting from his indifference.

Just as Sasuke thought that Naruto would finally let go, the boy turned to Karin and said, "Karin-chan! Can you wait for me here for a little while? I'll be back soon!"

It only took Karin a moment to understand Naruto's whims. "Of course, Naruto-kun, take all the time you need!" Before Sasuke could say anything, Naruto wrapped an arm around his neck and pulled him into an empty room.

"What the hell, idiot? Now that you've finally found your family, shouldn't you be focusing on her?" Sasuke yelled in rage, putting his bags of medicines down by the wall so that his hands were free to punch Naruto in the face.

"Fine! You don't want me to get into your business, I get it! It's me who needs your help, okay?" Naruto shouted back, making Sasuke pause in his decision to punch him.

"What do you need help with?" Sasuke could feel his anger deflating as seconds passed. Goddamn it, he couldn't, and probably could never say no to Naruto's problems, and it was infuriating that Naruto was using it to his advantage without actually being conscious of it.

"I heard Gaara's One-Tail went on a rampage as well," Naruto said, his voice automatically turning to a whisper. Sasuke had the time to glance at the door - good, at least Naruto had the brain to close the door.

"... I want to see him." Sasuke's breath stopped at Naruto's words and before he could recover, Naruto continued, "You know, after all, he and I are the same."

Bump! Naruto's eyes widened in shock as Sasuke shoved him to the wall, hitting his back against the hard surface.

"You two are not the same, Naruto. Don't you ever say that again," Sasuke pushed the words out of his mouth, feeling his deflated rage being built up in an instant. Gaara was a slave to his bloodlust, who had killed a dozen Anbu and would have killed more, if Maiko-nee didn't sacrifice her sanity to stop him.

Naruto was … Naruto.

"But he's a Jinchuuriki just like me, Sasuke. We don't always get a say on what the beast inside of us wants!" Naruto argued back, defending the boy who had sent Sasuke's sister into an indefinite coma.

"At least you care about hurting the people around you, do you think Gaara does?" Sasuke asked instead, tightening his hand around Naruto's collar. "All throughout the Chunin Exam, you've been trying to contain the tailed-beast, only relying on yourself. What was Gaara doing? Letting the sand control him as soon as he suffered a little humiliation."

Finally, Naruto fell into silence. He couldn't deny how Gaara had acted in the Chunin Exam. Lee was still in the hospital, and Sasuke would have been too, if Kakashi-sensei hadn't gotten him out of the way when Gaara transformed. "So, why are you wasting your time with him?"

Why are you wasting your time with him, when Karin is waiting for you.

Sasuke didn't want to see Naruto because he knew that he would have been in a crappy mood. But Naruto just found another member of his family. Sasuke could see his excitement from a mile away as soon as he was cleared from the hospital.

Naruto earned it, after all his hard work holding on against Nine-Tail until Orochimaru's poison ruined it all. Karin enjoyed Naruto's company just like Naruto enjoyed hers. Sasuke didn't want to ruin it for Naruto just because he was suffering over the fact that Maiko-nee might not ever wake up again.

Despite everything, Sasuke considered his life to be blessed when compared to Naruto's. Throughout his life, his family tried to protect him. His parents excluded him from the Uchiha Rebellion to protect him. Itachi killed their entire clan and faked his whole existence to protect him. Maiko-nee was a constant shield for him, shielding him from Danzō, from a path of no return, and a future with only revenge.

In comparison, Naruto never had that benefit. But not anymore, and Sasuke wasn't about to ruin it for him.

"But Sasuke, you felt it, right, when One-Tail rampaged out of the village," Naruto asked all of a sudden. Tentatively, Sasuke gave him a nod because any shinobi with adequate training felt that enormous amount of chakra bursting in rage. "I was awake by then, and I felt One-Tail … no, Gaara's sadness."

There was a pause before Naruto spoke up again. "He was sorrowful, you know, I think that's why he lost control again." Gently, Naruto pried Sasuke's hand off of his collar and said, "We are just human, Sasuke. I lost control when I thought Haku had killed you during that mission to the Land of Waves. Truthfully, I didn't know what would happen then, if a little more chakra had leaked out."

"That's different. You didn't know about Nine-Tail inside of you. Gaara knew all along." Sasuke stood his ground, refusing to get beaten by Naruto's argument.

"If he knew it all along, then he might have also suffered all along." Naruto stared into his eyes and repeated, "Gaara and I are not that different, Sasuke."

To think Naruto was defending Gaara, Sasuke could feel the rage swell up inside him as it travelled up his body and … "Your eyes, Sasuke!" Only when Naruto yelled in surprise did he realize that his sharingan had opened by the surge of emotion.

Fine, if it comes to this. Sasuke raised his head and stared back at Naruto as well, his red sharingan into Naruto's blue ones. "Do you know what the Sharingan could do against the tailed-beast, a Jinchuuriki?"

"... Genjutsu? Wait, no, Kakashi-sensei said that a Jinchuuriki is two entities combined, allowing them to be immune to genjutsu." Naruto cocked his head to the side as confusion filled his brain. Eventually, he looked back at Sasuke for an answer.

"At its highest evolution, our eyes can tame the tailed-beast with force, suppressing them back into the host or send it in to a wild rampage." Sasuke watched Naruto's eyes widen at each and every one of his words.

"We Uchiha are born to be an enemy to people like Gaara. The tailed-beast inside of him would hate us forever and wouldn't hesitate to kill us at every opportunity. Therefore, to stop the rampage, our mind and sanity would suffer, if not our survival. So no, I don't want anything to do with Gaara. If you think that's selfish and unfair of me, then so be it."

As soon as the words left Sasuke's mouth, he felt all the strength in his body being sucked out. He had to take a few steps back until his leg hit something. It was the bags of medicine he had placed on the wall.

"Then what about me?" Suddenly, Naruto yelled, rushing up to him, slamming him into the wall behind, making the bags at his feet crunch up at the pressure. "What about me? I'm also a Jinchuuriki, I also have a tailed-beast inside of me. Are you going to be my enemy as well?"

"I told you, you're different!" Sasuke yelled back. For god's sake, how many times did he have to repeat that?

"And I also told you that's not true!" Naruto pushed his hand into Sasuke's collar, pressing him into the wall, forcing him to see his reasons. "I'm also human, Sasuke, I have emotions! One day, I might lose control over Nine-Tail when I don't mean it. I might hurt people and I'll beat myself up for it for the rest of my life. Are you going to be my enemy then?"

With a little pause, Naruto asked in a shaky voice, "Will you hate me then?"

Sasuke opened his mouth, but all he could repeat was "You're different, Naruto." At that moment, Sasuke realized how bad of a person he truly was. His heart only had the capacity for those he cared about, those that he deemed to be 'worthy'.

"You're destroying my groceries," Sasuke said after a moment of silence, making Naruto let go of him. However, Naruto narrowed his eyes on his bag. From this angle, the content was barely visible.

"Those are medicines. I see the same wrapping and labels all over the hospital." Naruto called out his lies in an instant. "Are you hurt?" There was a hint of worry in his voice, but Sasuke couldn't explain the existence of Itachi to him, or much of his life, apparently.

"No," Sasuke answered, knowing full well that it will just raise more questions.

"Then who … wait, Sasuke. I haven't seen Mai-nee-chan ever since the Exam ended. You said that the Sharingan can tame the tailed-beast … then is that how Gaara's tailed beast was tamed?" Naruto's speculation was so right, yet so wrong at the same time, so much so that Sasuke's mind went blank for a moment.

"Is she okay? Is she hurt?" Naruto asked. Sasuke's expression must have said it all because the next thing he felt was a punch to his face.

"Why didn't you tell me?" Naruto shouted at him as Sasuke rubbed his face. Fine, he started it. Sasuke was dying to punch back anyway, so he did exactly that.

"How would that help? Turn one person's suffering into two?" Sasuke yelled back as he blocked another punch from Naruto with his arm, before returning it with one of his own.

"That's not how suffering works! I worry for her, I worry for you!" Naruto jammed his knuckle in his shoulder as Sasuke kicked him in the stomach, making him stumble back. Still, Naruto yelled while clutching onto his stomach, "Why are you always trying to deal with everything alone?"

"Because you're supposed to be happy! Your family who's waiting for you outside that door, remember?" Sasuke ignored the pain in his shoulder and punched Naruto again, making him fall on the railing of the hospital bed. "You shouldn't be wasting time with me or Gaara. Treasure your family when you still have the chance, you idiot!"

Sasuke felt something hooking onto his leg and swiped him off balance. "You're the biggest idiot here! You and Mai-nee are also my family!" Naruto shouted as Sasuke fell to the ground.

For a second, Sasuke just sat there, while Naruto leaned on the hospital bed, panting hard from the loss of breath. Then, Naruto spoke up again in a smaller voice "Even before I found Karin, you're my family, you know."

Quietly, Naruto crawled to him and sat down by the wall next to him. "I'm sorry for punching you, but you deserved it!" To that, Sasuke just rolled his eyes.

"I know Gaara hurt Mai-nee-chan and that's why you hate him. I get it … but I just can't sit still knowing that I could become like him and he could become like me if things are just a little different," Naruto finished his explanation, Saying the words so fast that Sasuke never had the chance to interrupt him. "But that sorrow, it's exactly why he is still a human, not a beast."

"It doesn't matter, Naruto. I know Gaara wasn't all there to blame for Maiko-nee's injuries, but I don't care about him enough to let it go, I'm just selfish like that," Sasuke said, turning his head to look at Naruto, realizing that Naruto did the same.

"It's fine, you don't have to care about others on my behalf," Naruto said as he gave him a smile. "And it's never selfish to care about your family. You said it too, treasure your family when you still have the chance, you know."

Sasuke closed his eyes. Even at this point, Naruto still didn't realize what it meant for Sasuke to say that he was different.

It meant that Sasuke was willing to break all his standards for him.

"Tsunade-sama and Kakashi-sensei are busy with village affairs, so it's better to try talking to Jiraiya-sama instead," Sasuke spoke up, startling Naruto a little. "Ask him about what really happened with Gaara, and he'll tell you if you're mature about it. After that, if you still think he's worth your time, then Jiraiya-sama has enough influence to make it happen."

"You have to be fast though. Suna won't be letting their Jinchuuriki sit here in Konoha forever. They would be sending envoys to negotiate Gaara's return if they hadn't done so already." Suddenly, Sasuke moved closer to Naruto's face and warned, "Don't even try sneaking in. Anbu security isn't a joke and I'll drag your ass back myself if you dared to do that."

" … I won't! What do you take me for?" Naruto reassured him, but the little pause in his sentence told Sasuke otherwise. Ugh, whatever, Sasuke decided to give up.

"Ahh, your medicine!" Naruto yelled as he stood up in a rush. His arm slammed into a metal tray hanging over the shelf, making it fall onto the ground with a deafening 'clunk'.

Sasuke let out a sigh of exasperation as he stood up as well. Not even a second later, the door was flung open, revealing a shocked Shizune-san and a panicking Karin, who was trying to stop anyone from entering and clearly failing.

"What in the world is going on here?" Shizune-san trailed her eyes from Sasuke's face, where his cheek was still swollen from Naruto's punch, to Naruto's stomach, where Sasuke's shoe print was still visible.

"The two of you, out! Fighting in the hospital, who gave you the guts!"

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"So, Sasuke and Naruto had a fight in the hospital. Jiraiya-sama had to come and pick up Naruto and Karin, while Ryuu had to come to get Sasuke," Kakashi said as he sat on top of a rock slab.

He didn't know exactly how it started, him trying to brief Maiko on current events even though she probably won't understand them. It was probably when he realized how awkward it was to stay in Maiko's ruined landscape with nothing but a streak of wind.

"I don't even know why they're fighting, and they sure don't look like they want to tell," Kakashi said, not expecting any replies whatsoever. "But at least they're made up now, however that happened."

A breeze of wind rushed past his shoulder - a response to his voice, but that was all he was going to get. He couldn't tell if that breeze wanted him to keep talking or shut up, it could really go either way.

Kakashi decided to go with the latter route, just in case his chatter was an annoyance to the healing process of Maiko's mini streak of consciousness.

However, after a prolonged moment of silence, the wind rushed past him again, this time, with more force, sending a wave of chill down his body. Alright, he supposed that she was unhappy with his silence.

"The meeting with Suna's envoy is tomorrow. It's set at a location outside of Konoha, about an hour from the village," Kakashi spoke up again, desperately trying to find a topic that was interesting, even though it shouldn't really matter.

She just wanted to hear his voice, any voice, he figured. It was so quiet here when he arrived as if the meaning of time had been erased and along with it, the meaning of existence. Even then, she only turned to his company because he helped her remove that slap of rock, not because of who he was.

"Gaara … he's kept at the old Root base under the Eastern forest, pumped full of sedatives and marked full of suppression seals, of course," Kakashi said tentatively. He wasn't sure what effect bringing up Gaara would have on Maiko's streak of consciousness. After all, he was partially the reason why she was like this.

Thankfully, nothing happened in this broken landscape, just him, the water, and the stir of air currents as the breeze swirled around him.

Sometimes, it seemed ironic to Kakashi that after all the sacrifices they had to make to suppress Gaara and take him to captivity, their goal was always just to 'keep him safe'. Konoha wouldn't get any appreciation from Suna, nor would those who died in One-Tail's rampage get any revenge in terms of the boy and the beast.

Kakashi didn't realize that he had fallen silent again until a chilly breeze brushed against his arm. "Sorry, I'm not a good talker." After all, it just sounded like he was dumping news, each piece worse than the one before, into Maiko's mindscape as if it was a trash yard because she wasn't conscious enough to be bothered by it.

"The negotiation with Suna will be tough. They probably suspect that we are colluding with Orochimaru and planned all this, so we can lead them into a trap and kidnap their Tailed-beast. After all, they had lost far more than us in this invasion."

And who's to blame for starting it all? Kakashi let out a cold laugh. Konoha even released all the defeated Suna-nin after the battle, allowing them to go back to Sunagakure and deliver the messages. Yet, such action of good grace would be viewed as arrogant and suspicious.

"Let's hope the remains of Sasori's puppets would be enough evidence to convince them of Akatsuki's existence. It's not like you and Itachi left a lot behind after the battle." As soon as Kakashi finished his words, he was assaulted with a rush of coldness.

"Sorry, I didn't mean to complain about your methods," Kakashi said, half hoping that his words were the reason for her reaction - it would mean that she was recognizing something, anything. However, when another blow of iciness hit his legs, he realized that it wasn't because of his words that Maiko started to act up. She was just trying to get him to stand up.

Kakashi stood up from the pile of debris as he was instructed, hearing the splash of water that flowed to his ankle. A few moments later, the pile of debris he was sitting under seemed to melt into the water and the dark sky that surrounded them, starting to disintegrate.

He hoped that it was a good thing, in the sense that her mind was cleaning up the damages, the scars of the previous battle, little by little. The breeze pushed against his back, and Kakashi interpreted it as a sign to walk forward.

He did, following the guidance of the streak of wind, until it led him to a small, empty space surrounded by jagged outcrops and piled-up rubbles. Kakashi stepped into the clear area in the centre. Almost immediately, he realized what made this space special.

Kakashi bent down and touched the floor, letting the water cover his wrist in the process. The ground was solid and strong, giving off an aura like it could support anything. It was a sharp contrast to the rest of the field where the ground was jagged and stitched together like a jigsaw puzzle.

Now, more than ever, Kakashi was sure that Maiko's mind was healing.

Just then, Kakashi's left eye gave out a mild sting in warning, telling him it was time to go.

"Next time, then." The breeze brushed against his shoulder in acknowledgement before it rushed off into the unknown.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"I won't betray my village," Temari said all of a sudden as they approached the zone of truce, where both parties promised not to engage in conflicts and leave behind the hidden forces they've brought.

"Nobody's asking you to," Kakashi replied as he waved his hand towards the side where four Sunagakure Council members had gathered. "I'm not even restraining you, you can go to them if you wish."

"Why are you letting me go?" Temari asked, surprise and suspicion mixed in her eyes. The question of 'what does Konoha want from me' was probably in her mind always.

"To tell the truth of what you saw, that's it. For your brother's sake, for all of our sakes," Kakashi answered. Temari gave him one more look of confusion before running towards the Suna envoy. As Kakashi said, nobody had tried to stop her as she reached the Suna council members and was met with a barrage of questions.

Tsunade didn't rush as she walked up to the centre, giving Suna all the time to question Temari on Gaara's treatment in Konoha. Kakashi and Jiraiya followed behind her, while Itachi strolled at the very end, with a cat mask over his face.

Itachi asked to be here, and for the same reason, Tsunade-sama agreed. If their prediction on how this negotiation would go were correct, then Itachi's presence would be necessary.

"Elder Ebizō and Elder Chiyo, I'm glad you've decided to accept our proposal for a meeting." Tsunade greeted the two council members at the front, who were obviously going to be leading the negotiation.

"Hokage-dono, it's not like we have a lot of choices," Elder Ebizō replied in a calm voice, holding Suna's position despite their lack of Kazekage.

"Konoha's White Fang …" Kakashi thought he would have never heard that name again, much less with such menace, but indeed, Elder Chiyo was looking at him when she called out his father's name.

"Clear your eyes, sister, White Fang had died long ago. That man is the Jonin Commander of Konoha." Ebizō placed a hand on Chiyo's shoulder, calming her agitation. Kakashi bowed towards them, acknowledging Ebizō's words, acting as if he really had no relation to the White Fang, not that it would matter here.

"Moreover, Hokage-dono, things would be a lot easier if Konoha just releases Gaara back to Suna," Elder Ebizō said, turning his attention back to Tsunade-sama.

"Quite demanding of Suna to say that, considering you're the one who broke the Treaty and attacked Konoha," Tsunade raised an eyebrow, waiting for the elder to explain himself.

"It is our regret that the Yondaime Kazekage had been tricked by Orochimaru and his scheming tongue. Chiyo had examined the bodies you've sent to us and she confirmed that the Kazekage had died days before the invasion. Was it not true that Orochimaru was present at the Chunin Exam?" Elder Ebizō spoke calmly. This speech was not a surprise for the ones representing Konoha, but for Temari, the implication of his words hit a few seconds later.

To put it simply, Suna planned to pin the blame all on Orochimaru and in the process, they had to acknowledge the incompetence of their dead Kazekage. What was the reputation of one man who wasn't even alive to defend himself, compared to the wellbeing of the whole village, even if that man used to be the strongest, most revered shinobi in Suna?

Temari tightened her hands, arguments already at the tip of her tongue, but with one look from Elder Ebizō, she swallowed them all down and remained silent.

"Incompetence is not a valid excuse for an invasion, just like flawed judgements is not an apology for the damage that had occurred. Konoha lost lives in the invasion, where Suna brilliantly judged that it's appropriate to set a Jinchuuriki loose during an event as important as the Chunin Exam." Tsunade wasn't going to give them a pass just because they acknowledged that they were stupid. The intention to invade was already there, otherwise, no amount of talking by Orochimaru would have forced them to that decision.

"What does Konoha want then?" Elder Ebizō asked instead, raising his head against Tsunade, warning her to make her demands reasonable. That was the point of negotiation, after all. Despite everything, Konoha didn't want to go to war with Suna and they had picked up on that as early as when Konoha had called this meeting.

"Repayment for property damage, first of all," Tsunade said and one of the Suna Councilman's eyes twitched a little. Of course, more financial strains on Suna, who had decided to invade because of financial strains. "As for the second point, I think we should first make sure that we are on the same page."

Tsunade turned her attention to Kakashi, and under everyone's watchful eyes, Kakashi rolled open a scroll on the ground, showing them the standard storage seal written on the fabric. With a puff of smoke, a mass of broken puppet parts materialized in front of them. These were some of the most complete puppets left on the scene, with the character for 'Scorpion' carved on their surface - an identifier for Sasori's work.

"These are … the work of Sasori," Elder Chiyo muttered in shock as she took a step forward, attracted by the remains of the puppets.

"I'm sure you've had time to examine the body of Sunagakure Jōnin Baki that we had sent back. Traces of poison remained in his system, proving his death by the Suna missing-nin Sasori." Kakashi explained, pausing a little before turning to Temari, "The Kazekage's children were there too if you need further proof of the existence of a third party."

"Speak what you saw, Temari." Elder Ebizō prompted the girl, who looked uncertain as to what exactly was allowed to be spoken. At this point, no one could give her an answer except for herself, about what she considered to be important.

"Baki-san rescued Gaara from the Arena and we are running towards the sentinels posted near the border. However, on the way, we were attacked by two men dressed in black robes with patterns of red clouds. One of them is Sasori and the other I don't recognize." Taking a deep breath, Temari continued, "they made their intention to abduct Gaara known and killed Baki-san as he tried to defend us. However, soon, two Konoha shinobi came to our aid."

There were probably quite a few details that Temari omitted, either deeming it unnecessary or unfit to be spoken in the public. But nevertheless, she got the point across, adding to the final piece of the puzzle that unveiled the existence of Akatsuki.

"Konoha has identified the existence of an organization of S-rank missing-nin called Akatsuki, who planned to collect and extract the tailed-beasts for reasons unknown. Sasori and Deidara - the other attacker with him, previously a missing-nin from Iwa - were two of its members. So was the man who dropped Kazekage's body in the battlefield and threw the One-Tail Jinchuuriki into a rampage." Tsunade's eyes glanced at Temari for a fraction of a second, before moving to face Elder Ebizō. "This is a threat that not only concerns Konoha but all of the villages that have a tailed-beast."

"With all due respect, this sounds like a fantasy," Elder Ebizō wasn't sold, not that they expected him to. "How come Konoha gained such … unprecedented information while the rest of the Shinobi villages had heard nothing?"

"What can I say, Konoha's information network is doing its job," Jiraiya chimed in from the side, "Besides, it's not like we have known their existence and goal for long as well." That was a definition left up to debate, technically, one year could be considered either long or short, depending on how one looked at it.

"With the way Konoha handled this with precision, I'd say you know more details than passing rumours," Elder Chiyo spoke up, raising her head from the broken puppet to Jiraiya. "If Akatsuki truly is an organization made of S-rank missing-nin, my mind can't help but make the connection between Orochimaru and such an organization."

Ebizō followed his sister's line of questioning without a pause, "If Orochimaru indeed provided information about Akatsuki to Konoha, then I must question the involvement Konoha might have had on Orochimaru's trickery on Suna."

Once again, Orochimaru was ruining Konoha's reputation in every single possible way, like a stench that they couldn't get rid of no matter how hard they tried.

"Orochimaru has nothing to do with Konoha, I assure you. That man wants nothing but seeing Konoha's destruction, and we hold the same attitude towards him." Tsunade said with a cold laugh as if the mere thought of Konoha colluding with Orochimaru was insulting.

"Then how did Konoha gain such in-depth information towards this … Akatsuki?" Ebizō pressed on, refusing to take any chances. It was understandable that Suna was paranoid. They had suffered much at the hands of Orochimaru, even losing their Jinchuuriki due to their carelessness. However, Konoha, who was supposed to be equally screwed by him, seemed prepared and composed, even having the time to deal with the threat from a third party.

Of course, Konoha had many resources at its disposal, allowing it to avoid the worst of the worst, one of which was …

"I provided the information about Akatsuki to Konoha." Behind them, Itachi took off his cat mask as he took a step forward, revealing the face that was printed and reprinted on Konoha's Bingo book year after year.

"Uchiha Itachi!" the Suna Councilmen muttered in shock, finally remembering the existence of another S-rank missing-nin associated with Konoha, the one that had faded into people's memory after the initial slaughter that made his name.

"What is the meaning of this?" Elder Chiyo questioned as her body tensed up defensively.

"To answer your question, of course," Jiraiya said, raising an eyebrow as if they were all just overreacting.

"Itachi has been a spy for Konoha in Akatsuki, only until recently, he has returned to the village," Tsunade announced a moment later. It was after much consideration that she had decided to reveal it to Suna, to gain their trust and cooperation.

Using Itachi's words, his identity and connection to Akatsuki couldn't be hidden much longer. As Konoha tried to gain more allies, they needed a way to convince them of the validity of their information. Rather than letting their mind wander to Orochimaru, Itachi seemed to be the better option in most circumstances.

Terumi Mei more or less knew already; Sabaku siblings had already seen Itachi during their confrontation with Sasori and Deidara. Therefore, it might be better if they offered the information upfront.

"Then, the Uchiha Massacre …" Elder Ebizō furrowed his brow, but he was interrupted by Tsunade at the moment's notice.

"That is not of concern to what we are discussing here," Tsunade said, pulling their attention back. "Konoha has revealed its source of information and we trust our source. The fact that we were able to caution Akatsuki during their abduction of One-Tail had said much. Do we have an agreement on the fact that Akatsuki's attempts to steal the tailed-beasts must be stopped?'

Silence ensued as the Suna Council members remained quiet. The air seemed to go stale as the silence stretched on. Finally, before the tension in the air could be snapped like a rubber band, Elder Ebizō let out a sigh.

"Hokage-dono, I assume that the second part of your demand would be for Suna to enter into an alliance with Konoha, to face the common threat known as Akatsuki and to protect our respective Jinchuuriki." Elder Ebizō's reputation of being wise had spread outside of Suna for many decades now, and he lived up to his reputation, seeing through what Konoha really wanted in the span of a few sentences.

"Yes, Elder Ebizō. You are as wise as they say," Tsunade nodded. Finally, they were on the same page.

"You flatter me, Hokage-dono, 'wise' is just another word for my old age," Elder Ebizō said, but his expression was as serious as ever. "However, if the situation is as grave as you make it out to be, an alliance between Suna and Konoha alone wouldn't make a difference. After all, our two villages hold only two out of nine tailed-beasts."

"No, it probably wouldn't. But Akatsuki is a matter that no one can avoid so long as their village possesses a tailed-beast," Tsunade said, not planning to avoid Ebizō's concerns. "Suna and Konoha won't be the only ones in it. Kirigakure has also been informed and has agreed to the same terms."

Ebizō's eyes widened just a little bit at the mention of Kirigakure before the emotion got hidden by his wrinkles. But clearly, his wavering decision had just been solidified a little, knowing that two of the major hidden villages had already taken action.

But a hidden village's decision could never be made simply based on what was right, what was wrong, and what needed to be done. Suna had just come out of a crumbling catastrophe, and whether they had the bravery to face another one would determine the outcome of this negotiation.

"And Gaara?" In the end, the conversation came back to where it started.

"Suna can have him back, as soon as Konoha knows that Suna has the necessary precaution and resources to protect him. My shinobi went to hell and beyond to protect him from Akatsuki, I won't have that effort be invalidated," Tsunade said, with a sharpness in her voice that could cut across the air.

She wasn't threatening them with Gaara's indefinite captivity in Konoha unless Suna agreed to Konoah's proposal. Right, totally.

One of the Suna Council members looked like he had something to say to Tsunade's blatant threats, but before he could, Elder Ebizō raised his hand and silenced him.

"We have to discuss this first amongst ourselves, Hokage-dono. But rest assured, I have heard your words loud and clear. In a few days, Suna will send more reinforcements to guarantee Gaara's safety and by then, I expect Gaara and Kankuro to be released back to Suna unharmed. Sunagakure will also have its decision by then," Elder Ebizō said, replying with a threat of his own: Gaara's release was non-negotiable, no matter what.

"I await Suna's decision then," Tsunade replied without a flinch.

Suna had been sabotaged, with their leadership assassinated and their spirit crushed. Under such circumstances, their decision-making would be cowardly, turning to safety and conservatism, rather than mustering up the courage to face another unknown threat.

Suna needed a push, and Tsunade-sama was not afraid to give them one.

In all likelihood, even if Suna had decided to pretend that the threat of Akatsuki wouldn't reach them so long as they sheltered themselves from the rest of the world, Tsunade-sama would still release Gaara and Kankuro to Suna instead of going to war with another hidden village.

However, whatever happened to Suna and their Jinchuuriki then, would be beyond Konoha's concern. Konoha was already busy enough as it was, they didn't need an ally that could only run away and hide.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Suna would have fallen into disarray now, if Elder Ebizō wasn't there," Kakashi said into the darkness as he sat down on the solid platform. "At least their temporary leader sees reason. Let's hope that the Suna Council sees farther than immediate circumstances."

Kakashi lowered his head, reflecting on the amount of arrogance in that sentence. Of course, Konoha could say that now, because they had the energy to see past the present and caution against the future.

Suna didn't have that luxury. Konoha probably wouldn't have that luxury as well, if the invasion at the Chunin Exam was successful. Just Orochimaru and the Suna-Oto army would have caught them by surprise, leaving damages that would take much longer for them to recover.

"Supposedly, a new trade route was being sanctioned between the Wind and Fire Daimyo. If Konoha would propose to the Daimyo to let Suna share the project with us, then it would help alleviate their financial strain a little," Kakashi mentioned, remembering how the Fire Daimyo was actually impressed by how organized Konoha was in the face of an invasion.

The current Fire Daimyo was bold, and the militarized Konoha with its display of power fit right into his taste. The making of a new trade route would open up a lot of commissions, where shinobi would be hired to scout the area and clear bandits with more efficiency. Moreover, it gave the village a head start to familiarize itself with the path, making it more appealing to the traders that would be using the route later.

"But Nara-san had mentioned that it might be better if we wait a few days, let them think about the threat of Akatsuki first, before throwing out the temptation. I agree with that. I don't want Suna to enter into an alliance for its benefits, without actually considering the graveness of the threat."

It had been nine days since the Chunin Exam ended, and this was the third time Kakashi entered Maiko's landscape. He'd like to think that he was getting better at chit-chatting, or perhaps a better word would be 'giving one-sided speeches'.

Compared to four days ago, the small, empty platform had expanded to three times its size. Kakashi could visibly see the lessening of debris and rumbles in his field of view. Now, he didn't know when the healing could be considered sufficient because the wasteland seemed to be endless.

Just now, a pile of jagged rocks disintegrated into the surroundings as it got smoothed over by the water.

Like always, the breeze brushed past his body, reminding him that his silence was boring. But he was a boring person by nature and he was running out of things to say. "Would you remember anything if I recite verses of Icha Icha Paradise to you instead?"

The answer was probably no, but Kakashi supposed that he had morals and standards. So that idea was a pass.

A moment later, he finally found something to say. "Naruto asked Jiraiya-sama about the circumstances and events surrounding Gaara's rampage. I'm not very surprised that he felt empathy towards a fellow Jinchuuriki who is close to his age, but I'm kind of surprised that he actually took the time to gather intel first, before rushing to make demands."

"Tsunade-sama will probably relent in letting Naruto see Gaara. Like you said before, Naruto is no longer a child who knows nothing. Who he wants to interact with, who he wants to understand, who he considers worthy of mercy ... it's all his decision now." Kakashi let his voice rang out in the desolated field, hearing it get sucked into the boundless void.

Once again, Kakashi's Mangekyou reminded him that it was time to go. As if knowing what was about to happen, the streak of wind swirled around him once before flowing away.

"Until another time."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"The weather is crappy today," Kakashi said, remembering the rain that poured down from the sky as if Heaven itself was weeping.

He came back after paying respect to Falcon - or Keishi's family, as the anonymity got weaved upon his death.

Kakashi knew long ago that Keishi only had an older sister left in the world. His civilian sister and her husband were understanding of his work as a shinobi, so they welcomed Keishi's shinobi coworkers as they arrived at their house to pay their respects.

Every Anbu was asked to write a will and update it frequently, in case their death was untimely, which it usually was. Sometimes they write letters to their family as well, which would be kept in the Anbu archive and be sent to the recipients upon their death.

Keishi had written a will and a letter to his sister, and they were given to them some time ago. However, he also had written a letter to Maiko, which was sitting in Kakashi's storage seal right now, waiting to be delivered to the recipient as soon as she had woken up.

"Sorry, I don't have anything interesting to tell today," Kakashi muttered as the wind nagged him with its cold touch, forcing him to find something, anything to say.

Somehow, Kakashi couldn't bring himself to relay this event to Maiko, for the slightest chance that she would recognize what his words meant. It would be the first death she had under her wing, the first Anbu teammate that had died under her watch. The first always felt worse, not that the ones that came afterwards were any better.

It was not the time yet, nor was it the proper way of informing her. As horrible as it sounded, the past thirteen days had probably been the most rest Maiko had gotten since their knowledge of Akatsuki had arrived - free from life and death decisions, free from fighting and conflict, even if it was not by her choice.

This peace was fake, and Kakashi was reminded of that every time he saw how Maiko desperately tried to repair her mind. To his left, the blackened layer of a broken wooden post had started to peel off, allowing him to see the vermillion colour underneath.

"I'll come back in a few days. By then, the negotiation with Suna should be done."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

On July 23rd, Sasuke grew older by another year.

"Ojii-san! Add an order of char-siu to Sasuke's order. It's his birthday, he needs to get fed!" Naruto shouted after hearing Sasuke's plain and boring order.

"It's Sasuke-kun's birthday? Why didn't you say so earlier? The toppings are on the house today, order anything you want to add!" Teuchi-san said in a loud voice as he slapped the table, startling Sakura a little.

"Really? Thanks, Ojii-san! Can I get another serving of char-siu and naruto?" Naruto asked, not passing a single chance of eating more char-siu.

"You bet! And your teammates?" Teuchi-san turned to Sasuke and Sakura.

"Thank you, Teuchi-san. Another serving of boiled egg and seaweed please," Sasuke answered after some thought. Sakura ordered another serving of char-siu as well. Both of them had come to Ichiraku Ramen often enough with Naruto that it seemed rude to refuse Teuchi-san's kindness.

"Happy birthday, Sasuke-kun. Eat more and grow up strong, you hear?" Teuchi-san gave him a big thumbs up before rushing to the kitchen to make the orders.

When the ramen was served, all of their attention was turned to the piping hot food and the delicious scent it gave off at every whiff. The food here was good, even Sasuke, with his picky taste, had to admit.

This was Naruto's gift to Sasuke, a meal at Ichiraku Ramen, paid by him using his own hard-earned commissions. Kakashi-sensei had given him a set of handguards earlier in the day. Itachi bought him a new set of training clothes, each shirt is sewn carefully with the Uchiha insignia, making them one of their kind. Even Ryuu, the adopted brother he never really talked to, gave him a storage seal that he could wrap on his arm under his clothes.

Once again, the fact that Sasuke was blessed by love was more clearly felt than ever.

At the end of their meal, Sakura handed him a carefully wrapped gift bag. "It's dango, Sasuke-kun, happy birthday." When Sasuke had fallen silent, she added in a panic, "I saw you going to that shop often, so pardon my assumptions …"

"Thank you for the gift, Sakura. I do buy from them often," Sasuke answered, making the girl breathe out in relief. Eventually, Sakura waved them goodbye as she left for her house, leaving just Sasuke and Naruto standing on the street.

"Come to my house," Sasuke said as he walked towards the Uchiha Compound, not bothering to explain anything more.

"Ahh, okay …" It took Naruto a moment to process his request, even if his body followed Sasuke on its own without a pause.

Sasuke pushed the front gate open, letting Naruto in, before closing it again. The clicking of the lock meant nothing, really, for shinobi anyway. But being inside this locked space made Sasuke feel safe. It made him feel at home.

"... Sasuke, I know you don't want to hear it, but I met Gaara yesterday." Naruto just had to bring it up as they walked up the front porch. Well, at least he had the sense to hold off until they're off the public streets.

"It's fine," Sasuke said. Gaara was unimportant to him and as soon as he realized that, controlling his emotion was a lot easier. "And?"

"He's angry at life," Naruto said, basically summing up everything in a sentence. "He told me that Nine-Tail would overwhelm me one day, just like One-Tail did to him, until it's all that's left in my world."

"Well, tell him to shove it down his throat," Sasuke proposed without a care as he sat down on the porch, making Naruto do the same as well.

"I did," Naruto said, now that surprised him a little. He thought Naruto wanted to form a relationship with Gaara, not trying to piss him off - that was Sasuke's wish.

"Ero-sennin had told me that Gaara went on his second rampage because he saw the body of his father. But before that, he had already decided to return to the village peacefully along with his siblings," Naruto said, looking up to the night sky. "I thought he cared for something."

"Did he?" Sasuke was skeptical, but then again, he was beyond biased on this matter.

"He did, he asked where his siblings were, even if it's just a passing thought," Naruto said. The fact that he got Gaara into a conversation was shocking already, but Naruto always had his ways. "But it's painful to care for something that you think you'll destroy, and it's also painful to care for those that won't care for you back, you know?"

"What are you going to do then?" Sasuke asked. Gaara would be sent back to Suna soon, supported by the fact that the Konoha shinobi force wasn't told that they would be going to war. So what was Naruto even trying to find? A person who shared a similar background? Another perspective to understand? Another him, if things were a little different?

"I can't save him from his personal hell," Naruto said in a whisper, making Sasuke pause. It was rare for Naruto to just give up like that, which made it worrying. "Only he can do that for himself." Just like that, Sasuke's worries were dispelled.

"So I'm going to write to him, tell him to have more hope in life, more hope in his siblings!" Sasuke raised an eyebrow at the sudden jump of thought processes.

"He'll burn all your letters. I know I would, if a condescending brat like you told me to live my miserable life a little better," Sasuke said without an ounce of mercy.

"Hey! I'm gonna pretend you didn't just call me that!" Naruto waved his hand, looking like he was going to punch Sasuke and Sasuke just swiped his flailing arm to the side. "It's fine if he burns them. As long as one letter remains, it might make a difference, you know."

"Better start saving up money then. Inter-village communications are not cheap," Sasuke said, deciding to give his idiot friend some practical advice. Soon, Naruto started counting how many bowls of ramen he'd have to give up each month to pay for those letters, making Sasuke roll his eyes.

"Come on, let's go see Maiko-nee," Sasuke said as he stood up from the porch. As soon as Naruto heard that, he jumped up, barely able to hold himself back. "Calm down, there are others in the house. Don't be an annoyance even if Maiko-nee can't hear you."

Naruto nodded, shutting his mouth promptly. Sasuke led him into the main hall, catching the figure standing by the back porch. Right, he did make a decision earlier today and Itachi complied.

"Oh, by the way, my brother Itachi is back," Sasuke mentioned with nonchalance as he pointed to Itachi's direction, but god knows how loud his heart was beating when he said those words.

"Ah, your brother." Naruto greeted Itachi with a bow on instinct and like the idiot he was, it took him a whole second to understand the implication of Sasuke's words.

"Wait, that Itachi?!"

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

On the eighteenth day post-Chunin Exam, Kakashi came back to Maiko's mindscape with lots of news.

For one, Suna had come to their decision. Sunagakure, represented by Elder Ebizō. Would enter into an alliance with Konoha and Kiri. On that same day, Konoha released Gaara and Kankuro into Suna's protection.

On a note that was closer to home, Sasuke told Naruto about Itachi and the truth behind the Uchiha Massacre. Sasuke, being Sasuke, didn't inform Kakashi and the Hokage until after the deed was done. Itachi said nothing, going along with Sasuke's whims.

Not that Tsunade-sama would stop him - they had worse things to worry about at this point - but she did note that it would be nice if Sasuke and Itachi had given her a heads-up first.

So yes, Kakashi had a lot of news to talk about, so that the temperamental streak of wind wouldn't chill him with every brush.

However, for the first time since his time here, Kakashi felt immense pressure as he entered Maiko's mindscape. He looked up and saw the red hue that seemed to veil the dark sky.

This time, things were different.

Kakashi's breath halted when he saw the origin of the red hue - the tri-petalled Mangekyou pattern that hung from the sky. The colouring was dim and the pattern was barely recognizable, but it exerted its pressure and sovereignty over this space all the same.

He moved his eyes down to the wasteland, still far from being cleared of debris. However, in the direction where he used to go - the starting point of the restoration process, Kakashi saw the giant Torii gate that stood tall on the newly built platform, its vermilion glow fully exposed now that the charred layer was peeled off.

Underneath the wooden structure, stood a girl that placed her hand on the wooden pillar, examining the energy and life that radiated out from the vermillion gate.

Maiko turned to him, surprised by his presence like she was seeing him for the first time. The next second, she disappeared from the gate and appeared in front of him - after all, it was her mindscape, a manifestation of her will.

Instinctively, Kakashi held out his hand and Maiko grabbed it. He pulled, feeling his consciousness retreating from Maiko's mindscape, along with something else important.

Kakashi sucked in a breath as he returned to reality, startling Itachi, who was keeping guard next to him. Before Itachi could ask him anything, Kakashi nodded towards the figure on the bed.

After eighteen days of coma, Maiko opened her eyes. She blinked a few times, trying to make sense of the environment. With careful movements, she raised herself from the bed, locking her eyes with them.

Time seemed to stretch forever as they watched Maiko try to focus her gaze on them. To be honest, after seeing the wasteland that was in her mindscape, Kakashi couldn't confidently say that everything returned the same.

"Kakashi?" Maiko asked with uncertainty, her voice a little dry due to lack of usage. "Can someone move a little? It'll really help with my current eyesight."

Itachi let out a laugh when he heard that. It was Maiko alright, nothing was missing, save for dying eyesight that was probably seeing them as blobs of silver and black blending into the background.

Itachi's laughter seemed to confirm their identity for her. She stretched her lips into a faint smile and whispered, "I'm back."


A/N: And the resolution chapter (part 1) for Chunin Exam. Things will move a little slower now as we move into some interlude period of peace and reflection. Sasuke and Naruto are still headstrong children that are in the process of shaping and reflecting on their values and standards. Also, Sasuke is emotionally constipated like every Uchiha here. I don't know how it happened, but be it Obito, Maiko, Sasuke, or even Itachi, their ideas of love and emotions range from 'a little extreme' to 'very extreme'.

And no, nobody will be having amnesia, I don't have enough energy and emotional capacity to stretch the plot that long. Maiko is just going blind, she's just trying to distinguish blobs of people from blobs of background and it wasn't very successful.