Chapter 65

"Please tell me that it's not because of Yamato's advice that you're reading this … self-help book." I eyed the book in Sai's hands, the title 'From Strangers to Close Relationships: 100 Ways to Talk to Others' glared at me without any shame.

Sai actually considered my question, which scared me a little. Eventually, he replied. "Captain Yamato did suggest that I improve my social abilities in real-life practices However, I felt that I'm ill-prepared at this stage. Tsubame suggested that I try reading some guidebooks, and I'm finding it quite informative."

So, Sai, my socially awkward subordinate who had been a Root child soldier until last year, was asking Tsubame, Yamato's socially awkward subordinate who had been a Root child soldier until last year, for advice on how to be socially adept.

"That's all good and everything, but have you actually tried any of this advice on actual people?" I asked, watching Sai lower his eyes in silence. As I figured, the answer was 'no'.

We didn't dwell on the topic of Sai's social awkwardness because the cart we were riding on stopped abruptly. I raised my body from the pile of cargo boxes just in time to see the owner of the cart turn around and wave at us.

"Time to wake up, children. We're almost at the village!" The man - Hirai-san - said as I willed the genjutsu to paint a picture of us waking up to his sound.

The genjutsu I used was mild, just enough to make him think that we were asleep due to the long journey. Otherwise, he would get freaked out when Sai's ink rats ran back to report their findings once in a while - not necessarily because it was made of ink, but just because Hirai-san was in the business of transporting medicinal herbs.

I let out a yawn to match up the last bit of my genjutsu and smooth out the transition to reality. "Thank you, Hirai-san. We wouldn't know what to do without your help," I said to the man as the cart came to a halt.

In front of us, was a village situated at the foot of the large cliff in which Takigkure was built. The giant tree stood tall in the background as a ribbon of waterfall seemed to float in the air as it descended from the cloud of mist.

Catching our gaze of awe, Hirai-san turned to the mystical scene of Takigakure in the distance and said, "Beautiful, isn't it? It's a shinobi village, and they've got stuff that seems like miracles to us." The implication of his words was unconscious, but it was clear that he considered the shinobi and civilians to be of different worlds. And Takigakure, compared to Konoha, was even more exclusive to shinobi.

"Anyhow, you don't need to thank me much, you paid me in herbs. I won't be able to help you more than a ride to Shimizu Village." Hirai-san said as I grabbed Sai's hand and pulled him off the cart.

Right, we were supposed to be orphaned siblings, travelling from a village in Fire Country to Earth country, to find shelter with some distant relatives. We were lucky enough to find Hirai-san, a supplier of medicinal herbs on his journey and bargained our way into a ride with the herbs that we had gathered.

But of course, everything was planned. We know who Hirai was, what he dealt with, and where he would travel to at the exact moment we met him. I also knew that two of his children died in their teenage years, not any older than us. Jiraiya's information network and a few genjutsu were enough for us to understand him as a person.

He didn't need to know that, just like he didn't need to think twice about the different spheres the shinobi and civilians lived in, only intertwining when a case of the commission was issued.

"What are you planning now? It's still quite a journey to Earth Country." Hirai-san asked as he examined the cargo one last time before approaching the village gate, a hint of worry in his voice as he looked at us, probably remembering his own lost children.

"We're thinking of resting here for a while. We saw some medicinal herbs around the village, maybe we can sell the herbs to healers, clinics? Or even help them collect herbs or make deliveries?" I muttered as if I was genuinely concerned with how to get enough funds for a trip to Earth Country.

Hirai-san let out a sigh, but after a moment of thinking, he suggested, "I can talk to one of the healers here that I deal with often. He might be interested in some help. But I need to make some other deliveries first." He didn't ask where he could find me, that part was obvious enough.

With the background Sai and I made up, we could only afford to stay at the stables, where the owners often let passing travellers and merchants stay for a cheap price or labour, if they couldn't afford to stay at an Inn.

The stable was dark, messy, and dirty, but also a place where nobody would care for the whereabouts of its occupants.

"Thank you so much!" I tapped Sai's back, ushering him to say his thanks too. Hirai-san laughed at the scene in front of him, accepting of the fact that Sai was a shy boy.

"Take care of your sister, won't you. As a man of the family, you have to take the weight." The herb merchant waved before dragging his horse forward along with the cart.

"Keep up the pretense, we've got trouble," I whispered to Sai as the red flashed under my hair for just a fraction of a second. I didn't see any chakra signature that was larger than normal, indicating the presence of shinobi. But then again, suppressing one's chakra signature to blend in was a basic lesson.

On the other hand, trouble already manifested itself in the forms of two men, grinning their teeth into a cracked smile as one of them flung the iron bat over his shoulder. I took a step back, hiding Sai with my own body, with hands that trembled with just the right amount of fear.

"Newcomers, I see. Well, the rules are the rules. You want to pass the gates, just a little payment will do," the man in the front said as he rubbed his fingers. Unlucky, these were hooligans that only extort those that were weak and alone.

"We don't … we don't have any money," I said, leaking out the panic in my voice. Sai grabbed my hand tighter, partly an act, but partly a question: should we get rid of them now that there wasn't any shinobi visible? I shook our hands in return, telling him that no, it wasn't our only option just yet. Even a well-placed genjutsu ran the risk of being detected by an exceptional sensor, so I'd rather not use ninjutsu on something as stupid as this.

Shimizu Village was the closest civilian village to Takigakure. Takigakure shinobi might not be a common sight here, but it wasn't nonexistent, making it a perfect place to gather preliminary intel and a foothold to plan our advance into Takigakure.

"Come on, we don't ask for much." The other man laughed, tapping his own iron bat on the ground. There was a rustle to our left and I caught the figure of a boy hiding in the bush in the corner of my vision. The boy looked at us for a second before he disappeared again, probably deciding that he should get out before catching the attention of trouble personified.

"Or, if you're really desperate, a night will do."

Amidst the snickers and the mocking, I had to resist the urge to raise my eyebrows because it sure had been a while since I had heard that line - like, since my last life. Still, my hand went to my chest and clutched onto the collar of my clothes, with just the right amount of anger, fear, and shame all blended in together.

There was a moment of silence before I pulled out a small, flat pouch from inside my belt. "That's all we have," I answered in a voice that was barely audible. Lightly, I placed the pouch on the ground and took a step back, grabbing Sai along with me.

"It wasn't that hard, was it?" The man asked as he strode forward to reach the money bag. Sai and I got ready to run as soon as their attention shifted away from us. They better take the money and let us be, or I would have to resort to using a genjutsu and make life harder for all of us.

It happened quite out of the blue.

Just as the thugs were about to pick up the money pouch, a shadow flew past us, leaving a shade of minty green in my vision. The two men flew backwards and crashed into the ground as a girl landed in front of us, the pouch dangling in her hand as she eyed the fallen figures with contempt.

"I thought I made it clear last time, on what would happen if I see you back at the same old habit," the teenage girl - maybe fourteen or fifteen - said as the two men groaned in pain. I could see the anger boiling in their body, but as soon as they heard the girl's voice, that anger dissipated like mice crawling back into the holes.

"We were just kidding … I mean, welcoming them to the village," one of them had the guts to say and I had to resist rolling my eyes at his shameless words.

"Oh yeah? How about I 'welcome' you by giving you a friendly crack of the bone, I heard that really gets the stress out of your body." The girl didn't buy it. She stomped on the ground and made sure that the loud 'thud' was heard.

"For god's sake, why won't she stop butting into other people's business …" Without another word, the thugs ran off, cursing with what they thought was a whisper, not that it made a difference to the ears of shinobi, like us, and like the girl with the light green hair.

The brown pouch flew over the air and I barely caught it with my hands. "Hi, umm, don't worry, they won't bother you again once you're in the village," the girl yelled as she waved at us, a smile on her face as she walked over.

The tight-fitting clothes, the Takigakure forehead protector around her arm, and the sturdy shoes on her feet, everything about her screamed shinobi, even if she hadn't just knocked two men twice her size into the ground.

"Thank you, we're truly indebted to you," I said, taking a step back at her advancement. The kunoichi either didn't notice my guarded stance or she just didn't care and before I knew it, she was already standing in front of us, looking me over with her curious gaze.

"Don't mention it!" She says, placing a hand on her waist. "Are you new here? Wait, you must be new, how silly of me. What made you guys come here? It's dangerous for someone as young as you two to travel alone, isn't it? Is there someone else with you? Are you waiting for them?"

She asked so many questions in the span of a few seconds that I didn't know where to start.

After a few moments of awkward silence, the girl slapped her own head and said, "I overwhelmed you, didn't I? Sorry, let me introduce myself first. My name is Fuu! I'm a shinobi from Takigakure."

"I'm Maiko and this is my brother Sai. We're from a village in Fire Country." An introduction, I could work with that. Given how common our given names were in the general civilian society, it was unnecessary to come up with new ones.

"We're travelling to Earth Country. Just going to make a stop here and hopefully gather some supplies and funds." My hands squeezed on the money pouch, making the girl realize how empty and light it actually was.

"Ehh, you're travelling that far alone? Your family okay with that?" Fuu asked. A second later, she finally arrived at a plausible explanation. "Wait, I'm sorry."

"We don't have family left in our old village," I said, clarifying the details for her, filling up our blank background with made-up stories. "But maybe in Earth Country, we have relatives there that might take us in."

I didn't sound convinced - just a tiny bit of doubt and desperation, perfectly balanced with hope and determination. This 'Maiko' was sixteen and understood how unwanted children could be a burden even amongst relatives. Yet, she was the older of the two children and had to take care of her brother.

The bush to our left stirred and once again, I saw the young boy hiding between the leaves, only making a sound after hearing my words.

"Right, come out! Troubles are gone now," Fuu called out to the boy. A moment later, I saw the boy running out of the bush, his messy brown hair hiding his face as he stood behind Fuu, trying to let her shadow swallow his body in full.

"This is Shirou, he saw those dumbasses making a fuss and brought me here," Fuu explained as she patted Shirou on the head, a motion that relaxed the boy a little. Right, so that's why he ran off earlier.

I eyed the young boy and gave him a smile, "Thank you." Redness crept up on the boy's face as he shook his head frantically, burying himself deeper in the shadow.

"Oh right! You said you're alone, so if you don't have a place to stay, I can take you to the orphanage in the village. Fumi-san, the Mistress there, is nice, isn't she, Shirou?" Fuu slapped her head as if she just remembered what she was going to say. Behind her, Shirou nodded slowly, confirming her words as well as the fact that he lived in the orphanage.

"Oh shoot, we should go before people gather. Let's talk on the way." Fuu glanced at the far end of the street, noticing the figures dressed in shinobi attires approaching us. Funny, she didn't seem to mind the civilians around the shops as they peeked our way, but not the Takigakure shinobi.

With a wave of her hand, Fuu motioned us to follow along as we tread into the peripheral forest. She didn't give us time to decline her offer, but I wasn't about to anyway.

As the first Takigakure shinobi we had met - one with quite an outstanding personality as well - I wanted to know what her deal was.

I glanced at Sai, seeing the mild confusion clouding his face. I imagined when he was working as an agent for Root, blending into people was not his forte, as compared to blending into shadows.

"Hang tight, little brother, we're just going to check it out, then maybe we don't have to sleep in the stables," I told Sai, the underlying tone being that I wanted him to play along as we take a detour. Then, I turned to Fuu and asked, "Is Takigakure the shinobi village in charge of this town?"

It was a rather basic and harmless question, especially considering our background from Fire Country, where the influence of Konoha was widespread amongst Fire Daimyo's subjects.

"I wouldn't say that Takigakure is in charge. We have our own village over there," Fuu answered as she pointed in the direction of the giant waterfall. "But Shimizu village is close by, so we come down here … occasionally."

I didn't think 'occasionally' would warrant her such deep trust from the boy clinging to her leg, nor did I think she wanted her fellow villagers to know how often she came here, based on her reaction earlier.

"I can't believe you two came here from so far away by yourself! It's a tiresome journey even for shinobi," Fuu exclaimed. It made my mind pause for a fraction of a second as I considered if she had a deeper meaning behind her words.

Was she suspicious of our story? Was she trying to solicit more information? Conversation was an act of reciprocity. She had answered my question earlier, meaning that by convention, an answer from us was to be expected, unless we had something to hide.

"We got lucky and caught rides with the traders on the way," I offered her an answer that could be readily validated if she wished to do so. Then, I told her a piece of more personal information that would show our trust in her. "Our family used to run a Dōjō, so while we're not adept in the martial arts, we are not foreign to tiresome labour."

"Dōjō? Like training civilians to fight?" Fuu turned back and eyed us with confusion. It was clear that the idea that civilians could also engage in conflict-inducing activities never crossed her mind.

"Not the type of miracles shinobi can produce, of course. But soldiers or those who wished to join the army of His Excellency, the Fire Daimyō, would come to train at Dōjō," I explained to Fuu as she listened on with curiosity.

"But our parents passed due to illness and our family Dōjō was overtaken by a competitor from another village. I mean, what can we do? I'm not trained as a successor to the art and Sai … he's too shy; he'd rather draw his painting than fight." All lies that were believable contained fractions of truth. The background we made up was logical given the current state of the Fire Country, delving into the conflict of civilians that shinobi - like Fuu - were often unfamiliar with.

Throughout our conversation, Sai stayed quiet and listened. He wasn't good at socialization, so I made it so that he didn't have to. After all, nobody would question why a child was silent when a great tragedy had befallen him.

"That's …. That must be hard," Fuu fumbled in her words as she tried to find something appropriate to say. There wasn't much to say, which was the goal, I supposed. Thankfully, she was being saved from awkwardness by a group of children calling out her name as they rushed towards her.

"Fuu!" "Fuu! You're here again!" "Fuu! We missed you!" A happy chorus of shouts overwhelmed us as half a dozen children, ranging from tiny kids to teenagers around our age, appeared in our sight. The younger children rushed over as their bodies slammed into the kunoichi for hugs. The older ones - two girls around the age of fifteen - looked more composed, but their happiness to see Fuu showed clearly through their smiles.

"Hold on, hold on, I'm going to fall. Have you all grown taller?" The young kunoichi teased as she rubbed the children's heads one by one.

"It's only been a week. We don't grow that fast," One of the younger girls complained, trying to get Fuu's hand off of her head as if it would make her shorter.

"Sure feels like ages," Fuu laughs, her eyes searched around, but confusion appeared on her face when she couldn't find what she was looking for. "Where are Eiko and Kai?"

"They were adopted yesterday. Fumi-san sent them off to their new family already." One of the older girls with long hair answered Fuu as the other one with short hair muttered, "I wish I can get adopted soon, but then I won't be able to see Fuu and everyone again. I'm already missing Eiko and Kai."

"Eiko is already fifteen. Fumi-san says that the older we are, the harder it is for us to get adopted, we should be happy for Eiko and Kai," the long-haired girl said, a longing in her voice seeped through despite her best effort to sound light-hearted.

"Speaking of Fumi-san, I want to take Maiko and Sai to see her." Fuu waved at us, drawing everyone's attention towards us. "I found the two of them by the village gate. They're travelling alone and probably need a place to stay."

"Alone, just the two of you!" The girl with the long hair exclaimed as she examined us with curiosity, much like all the other children around Fuu. With nothing better to do, I gave her a smile, making her do the same in return.

Arakawa Fumi introduced herself as the housekeeper of the orphanage at Shimizu village. The orphanage itself was sponsored occasionally by Takigakure as part of its charity work, as Fuu mentioned on our way.

Fumi-san was a woman of tall stature, with her hair tied into a bun and her yukata neatly kept. She paused a little when she saw Fuu behind the children, but soon, she greeted the kunoichi with an elegant smile.

"Children, you shouldn't bother Fuu so much, She's a kunoichi, they have important things to do." Fumi-san scolded the children clinging onto Fuu's waist with a light tone as she ushered them back into the residence. Fuu looked like she wanted to disagree, but soon realized that if she did, she would be admitting the fact that she didn't have much important shinobi stuff to do.

"Your poor thing, so young to be travelling such a distance alone." As expected, that was the first thing Fumi-san said after Fuu explained our circumstances and why she brought us here. The woman laid her eyes on me, examining my face and body with a practiced gaze, before moving on to Sai.

"Your family ran a Dōjō?" She asked and I nodded, seeing a small glint of disappointment flashing through her eyes, so brief that I might have imagined it.

Suddenly, I felt the need to test something, so I said to her, faking the regret in my voice, "But we're not very good practitioners. I wasn't taught the art and Sai's talent is elsewhere. If only we're better, and our family Dōjō wouldn't have been lost with us."

My answer seemed to hit the right mark, as the fading interest Fumi-san had in us reignited in her eyes for a brief moment before she hid it with a smile and kind words. "It's too heavy of a burden to be placed on your shoulder, my girl."

"Are you certain you want to travel to Earth Country? It's such a long and treacherous journey. I'm sorry to say this, but what will you do if the situation isn't any better over there?" The woman asks, voice full of worry. That, I shouldn't have an answer for and she knew.

"Where else can we go?" I asked instead, just for appearances' sake.

"You can stay here, if only during your rest here as you decide where to go next. Eiko and Kai are off to their new homes now, so we have spaces at the orphanage," Fumi-san suggested, turning her body a little to show us the plain but comfortable space in the residence.

It would have been a tempting offer for children of our background, but not right now.

"Thank you for your generosity, but we can't just take advantage of your kindness. We have to work to gather funds for our travel, so we won't be able to help out with the work at the orphanage. It wouldn't be right for us to stay here without giving anything back." I could see the weaving machine and the basket of sewing supplies in the background. It was common practice for the children at orphanages to help out with chores and crafts so that the orphanage could get extra income to cover for themselves.

I was clear in my words, that our plan was to leave for Earth Country as soon as we have the money.

"There's no rush, the door will always be open for you." After that, Fumi-san said nothing more, knowing that teenagers my age were stubborn - but not unable to be convinced.

"Thanks, Fumi-san, I'll walk them back to the village. Say goodbye to the kids for me!" Fuu said with a wave.

"You don't have to entertain them, Fuu. Shinobi have busy work, we're thankful for the village's help as always," The older woman says with a sigh, making Fuu rub her head and laugh.

"It's not much trouble at all! I enjoy their company," Fuu made a passing remark as Sai and I followed her out of the orphanage. The young girl didn't notice the slight furrow of the woman's brow as annoyance flashed across her eyes.

"You don't have many friends your age, do you?" I asked Fuu before we parted near the staple.

"Ah, what gives?" Fuu answered with a curt laugh. "Not in Takigakure, that's for sure. But here, the children at the orphanage get along well with me." Sadly, the children here were only temporarily, as the Mistress of the orphanage found adopted families for them.

"See you around, Fuu," I said to the young kunoichi, seeing a bright smile appear on her face. We would also be temporary, two passing faces in her life, but she was used to that and did not mind a single bit.

Dim light flickered from the candle hanging by the stable door - the only light source for this entire stable at night, where the sound of animals mixed with the sound of humans, tired and exhausted and fast asleep. I let my chakra drizzle outward, until it enveloped the entire space, veiling everything in a thin layer of genjutsu.

Under the veil of my genjutsu, Sai dipped his brush into the ink and glossed the tip across his scroll. Tiny rats materialized out of the fabric and scattered into the holes around the corners. To be fair, rodents were definitely not out of ordinary, but just for simplicity's sake, we didn't want anyone to be woken by the hordes of black rats mobilizing outward like the plague.

"Scout and map Shimizu village, but don't worry about the details. I'll handle those during the day," I ordered Sai, seeing the boy give me a nod as he rolled the scroll shut. Hirai-san kept his words and convinced a small pharmacy to hire me to collect medicinal herbs around the village and to deliver medicine. That would give me a nice cover as I memorized the village's layout, in case we needed to hide or escape.

Our mission here shouldn't turn into anything with animosity, as long as everything went according to Tsunade-sama's plan. But just in case, if things were wrong.

"Send some ink creatures to infiltrate Takigakure, that will be the main part of your job. We'll need to familiarize ourselves with the layout of Takigakure and plan for escape routes if necessary." Following my words, Sai proceeded to draw a dozen of birds - small, inconspicuous, and able to cover the high ground - and sent them out the window.

There was a moment of pause before Sai spoke up, "That Takigakure kunoichi, are we supposed to continue to associate with her?"

The hierarchy in Anbu demanded orders to be followed without question so that commands could be carried out efficiently. However, it was also the Anbu Captain's job to train their subordinates to think on their own and to understand the reasoning behind every order.

"She's an interesting shinobi. Her skills are proficient - the way she is able to control her chakra with precision speaks of her practice. Yet, she doesn't seem like she gets a lot of missions outside of this little protected space," I told Sai, watching him give me a nod, telling me that he had gathered that much himself.

A flash of sharingan was enough for me to see that the timing and precision of her chakra control were impeccable, despite the immense chakra reserve in her body.

Rather than raw strength, she used enough chakra to make an impression and protect her own muscle, but at the same time, she controlled the output carefully. Otherwise, those two men would not be leaving with just a painful shoe print.

Takigakure itself was hidden behind the marvels of nature, but they functioned as a mercenary village, taking on missions all around the continent. Yet, she lacked experience with the outside world and was infinitely curious about our outside story.

"Young, skillful, naive, and protected. Does she remind you of someone?" I asked. A moment later, Sai widened his eyes and whispered, "Naruto-kun."

"They do resemble each other in personality, don't they?" I said with a chuckle. "I don't know if she is the Jinchuuriki, but she holds a special place within Takigakure. Not necessarily a good one, but just 'special'. It's worth looking into."

"I think our team is cursed," Sai said with a sigh. First the Six-Tail in a random region in Water Country, then a strange girl right outside of the village gate.

"You can say it. You think I'm cursed." Sai stayed silent, but he didn't deny my words. "Well, to be fair, we're actively looking for the Jinchuuriki. It'd be more tragic if we couldn't find them."

"What's the plan to confirm her identity then?" Sai asks a moment later and I gave him a look that told him to think it over himself first. Two minutes had passed and Sai shook his head with nothing to propose.

"Jinchuuriki power leaks out in times of great danger or great emotional distress. Obviously, we can't imitate the former - we're trying to distinguish ourselves from Akatsuki. The latter, then, might be more viable. So, what does she care about?" I prompted, and Sai had the answer to this one.

"The children at the orphanage."

"It costs a lot to run an orphanage, and the cost increases with each additional child. Even with the charity funds from Takigakure, Fumi-san would have been a real saint to want to take us in with no benefit." Even Konohagakure's orphanage suffered from funding issues, which was why Danzō was able to coerce Yakushi Nonō by withholding subsidiaries.

"But she does have reservations," Sai mentioned, it seemed he had noticed as well, how Fumi-san was hesitant after hearing our background.

"It's because we told her that our family runs a Dōjō. Her problems with us are gone the moment I told her that we've learned nothing substantial," I explained. "She wants children that are easy to manipulate and control, without any surprises."

More likely than not, children grew into adults in the orphanage and took on jobs nearby to support themselves and the orphanage. Yet, Fuu had experienced the departure of many children from the orphanage as they got adopted and that rate was practically a miracle, even if this orphanage was the only one in the entire region.

Sai furrowed his brows as she made sense of what I was suggesting. Yes, I was suggesting the worst-case scenario, but given everything, it was not that unlikely. At this point, even his blank expression cracked as disbelief appeared on his face. "Is it even possible? It's right under a hidden village's nose."

Sai was not foreign to displays of evil as he worked in Root, but that was mostly limited to the world of shinobi. Civilians weren't considered a threat, and their conflicts and punishment were not brought to us unless it came in the form of a mission. Perhaps a few more years in Anbu and he would have seen a lot more.

We were all just mercenaries, some just had more pride and structure than others.

"Maybe they never bothered to look, or maybe some shinobi also had a part in it." The orphanage received funds from Takigakure, meaning that it was at least under their radar. But records were always easy to hide, especially if no one bothered to look. Fumi-san had to spend most of her time in this village, managing her 'business' at the orphanage, so her web of clientele had to be established somehow.

"Again, I'm just suggesting a worst-case scenario and it needs more validation. But if it's true, then she'll come for us again during our stay here. After all, we make the perfect 'merchandise'." Sai and I were at the perfect age for whatever part of the business she was running. We had no families and were foreign to this part of the continent. Moreover, we already had a destination planned out that she could use as an excuse for our departure.

After all, the existence of 'Maiko' and 'Sai' was meant to be transient.

"Whoever is involved, Fuu knew nothing, otherwise, the Mistress wouldn't be annoyed with her closeness to the children. Therefore, we just need to let her discover it herself." With that, I concluded my plan.

Manipulating the emotion of others, especially that of a Jinchuuriki, was treading on a line of danger, but it was the easiest way for us to confirm her identity without putting her and us into a situation of grave danger.

We were supposed to talk to the Takigakure leader after we had our answer, peacefully, as Tsunade-sama emphasized. Sneaking into the village and nosing around, or drawing their Jinchuuriki into a battle of life and death was definitely not so easily explained, if they even give us a chance to explain.

As for why we were hiding our identity in Shimizu village, that could easily be explained away by saying that we wished to make ourselves inconspicuous to avoid exposing our trails to Akatsuki.

Then that left us with …

"If she is the Jinchuuriki, she will know that we're fake," Sai mentioned, his hand hovering over the self-help book momentarily before he packed his supplies away, erasing everything that would relate him to a shinobi. "It says here, a relationship that starts with a lie never ends well."

Look, for once, a piece of useful advice in his guidebook.

"Maybe she'll feel cheated, maybe she'll hate us. But as long as she's warned and remains safe, that's our mission. Don't worry about the rest, let me handle it," I told the boy and he gave me a nod.

Relationships confused Sai, but even he could feel the genuine care Fuu had put in her interaction with us. Unfortunately, as he said, everything about us was just a lie and it was never meant to be hidden forever.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"Don't knock him out. We need someone to interrogate." Sasuke yelled from the tree branch as Naruto punched a Kusagakure missing-nin into the tree. A chakra seal was stuck to his chest, reducing the shinobi to a little more than a punching bag.

"What about the missing-nin you're dealing with … oh, never mind." Naruto paused mid-sentence when he glanced his way and saw the unconscious man under Sasuke's feet with burn marks covering his outstretched arms.

"Um, it's a little late for this one as well." Naruto pointed to the shinobi he just punched. True to his words, the missing-nin hit his head on the tree trunk and flopped down with his eye white showing.

Sasuke let out a sigh as he turned his attention to Sakura, who was in the process of healing the broken skins on her own fist as she jumped down from the branch. She supplied a punch earlier that broke through an earth spike summoned up by Naruto's opponent, allowing Naruto to activate his seal in that moment of surprise. The scratches on her skin, unfortunately, marked the need for improvement on her method.

"You want me to heal them?" Sakura looked stunned when she realized what Sasuke was thinking. "That's not how concussion works. Just because I can heal the damage doesn't mean they'll wake up right away."

"Fine, let's just secure them and bring them back to the outpost." Sasuke had to admit that Sakura had a point. Still, it was a pain as Sasuke and Naruto dragged them by the collar and made their way back to the sentinel outpost.

"Welcome back. I see that you've brought some guests." Kakashi-sensei spared them a glance as he squatted on a branch by the outpost gate.

"You dare say that you didn't follow us along?" Sasuke shot back instead as he dropped the missing-nin on the ground. The guy was heavy and his arms were feeling sore from carrying the baggage.

This was supposed to be a simple C-rank mission, to deliver supplies to the shinobi outpost stationed at the border. Attacks from bandits were possible, which happened yesterday when those clueless idiots took their young age as an indication of weakness because Kakashi-sensei was nowhere in sight.

But then again, Sasuke supposed that the fact that Kakashi-sensei went with them should be an indication of something more. Whether he came to keep an eye out on Naruto or to perform his duty as Team 7's leader, it was naive to think that he would waste time on just a C-rank errand.

Two hours ago, Hatake threw them a mission scroll and a bingo book, telling them to deal with the two missing-nin sighted in the area.

"You didn't kill them." Kakashi-sensei ignored his accusation and instead turned his attention to the unconscious shinobi littered on the ground, their chakra sealed and their limbs tied. "I'm pretty sure that the bingo book marked them as 'kill on sight'."

"That's Kusagakure's remarks. They are low-ranked shinobi who are hunted because they ran from duty, so they hold nothing of importance to Kusa. But I want to know why they're here and what they're doing near Fire Country," Sasuke defended his choice - and his teammates' choice - despite knowing that they were likely to be of no importance to Konoha as well.

These Kusagakure chunin had left their teammates to die so they could save their own lives. But once that got found out, they defected from Kusa and ran away, pillaging merchants and travellers near the borders. No matter what information they get out of these traitors with mediocre skills, their fate wouldn't end in anything but death.

"Fine, I'll accept that judgement," Kakashi-sensei said with a shrug as he jumped down from the branch. He walked to Sasuke and patted him on the shoulder. "After you're done extracting information, you can leave them with Sensei and I'll deal with the rest."

As for what 'the rest' entailed, they all figured out an answer, based on the strained expression on Naruto and Sakura's faces.

"It's our mission, we should follow it to the end," Sasuke managed to push the words out of his mouth. His fingertips brushed the sharp edge of the kunai in his hand, and immediately, a thin line of blood appeared on his skin. It was then that Sasuke was reminded of how sharp his blade was and why exactly he had sharpened his weapon with care.

"It's your choice - all of your choices. So long as you remain a shinobi, this can't be avoided, so no need to rush into something that's inevitable," Kakashi-sensei replied and before Sasuke could say anything else, he turned to the fallen figures and reminded, "They're waking up, by the way."

Suddenly, a loud screech sounded from above as a hawk descended from the sky. Sasuke caught the smudge of red on the wooden holder tied to its leg as some shinobi stationed at the post ran out.

It was a signal of 'Emergency'.

"Naruto, knock them down again." Sasuke reminded his teammate as he smacked the Kusa missing-nin on the back of his neck, knocking him back to the realm of unconsciousness before he had fully left it. Naruto did the same a moment later. So much for interrogation, he supposed.

Kakashi-sensei let the hawk land on his arm as he pulled out a scrap of paper carried by the wooden holder. Just by the jagged edges on the letter, Sasuke could already tell that it was written in a state of emergency.

"It's Asuma's team, they're being hunted by Iwa-nin."

Sasuke blinked as he tried to make sense of Kakashi-sensei's words. He understood every single word, but it didn't make sense when they were put together in the same sentence. Team 10 was still a team made of genin and their Jonin sensei, so their mission was not supposed to be dangerous enough to bother shinobi from another major hidden village.

"Iwa-nin? For what reason? Konoha doesn't have any major conflicts with them in the current times," one of the chunin posted at the station asked in confusion as Kakashi-sensei shook his head. "They didn't say. Asuma only left a location and a direction."

It only took a second for Kakashi-sensei to take charge and relay orders. "Every shinobi posted at the station, keep watch for possible intruders. Relay the message to Konoha immediately, and also send a hawk to inform me of any changes."

"Understood, Commander," the shinobi didn't waste as they returned to their post. There weren't many shinobi here in the first place, so they had to ensure this location was safely monitored if Iwa-nin started to act out of line for no reason.

"As for Team 7, we're the reinforcement for Asuma's team. Move along to the location noted. I'll catch up shortly." Kakashi dropped the paper in Sasuke's hands and his brain registered the location marked immediately.

"Let's go," Sasuke said to Naruto and Sakura as he jumped up the branch, facing the direction Northwest of them. His teammates followed along without any question, trusting Sasuke to lead them towards Team 10's path.

It was only when Kakashi-sensei appeared behind them again with a faint scent of blood that Sasuke realized why he had stayed behind for a moment. It was to finish off on the Kusagakure missing-nin.

"The fact that Asuma was pressured to send help meant that they're likely facing multiple enemies with Jonin-level skills. Focus on providing distractions to help Asuma's team escape," Kakashi-sensei warned as they rushed through the branches. "Iwa-nin's sudden hostility comes without any explanation, so expect surprises on the way and do not hesitate to strike back."

"What mission were they originally on?" Naruto asked, which was something that Sasuke was wondering as well.

"C-rank, escorting a merchant's caravan to a town between Earth Country and Fire Country. Given their location, they should be on the way back from their mission," Kakashi-sensei answered.

"It could be an attack of opportunity rather than a premeditated act to target Team 10. Otherwise, why wait until their mission is complete when they don't have to spare attention for their clients," Sasuke analyzed, gaining him a nod from their sensei.

"They probably caught traces of Team 10 during their mission and only decided to strike recently. Now, let's hope Iwa-nin didn't have much time to plan out their assault with care."

It took them half an hour to see Team 10. Couldn't miss it, really, when Chouji's human yoyo crashed through the forest, sending broken branches into the sky.

Under the gaze of the sharingan, not much could hide. Sasuke counted twelve attackers cornering the Ino-Shika-Chou trio and their sensei. Asuma-san had taken most of the fire, drawing the attention of the enemy with his wind jutsu that cut through the terrain like a knife to the butter, rendering the Iwa-nin unable to hide behind obstacles.

"Naruto and Sasuke, go help the genin break free from their pursuers. Sakura, hide yourself nearby. We'll need your medical ninjutsu later," Kakashi-sensei ordered as he raised his headband, exposing the swirling sharingan. In the blink of an eye, Kakashi-sensei completed a series of hand seals and a flash of icy-blue zoomed across the battered landscape, straight into the heart of a shinobi that appeared behind Asuma-san.

The shinobi fell forward with a searing hole in his heart, alerting all Iwa-nin of Konoha's reinforcement. One of the Iwa-nin slapped his hand on the ground, raising a forest of stone spears from the ground, creating obstacles for Kakashi-sensei's jutsu no matter who he decided to target.

Sasuke flickered next to Ino, stabbing his lightning-infused kunai into a stone spike raising from the ground that threatened to pierce her back. The stone column cracked under the wild lightning just as Sasuke turned to block an incoming sword aimed for his neck.

His kunai shook under the pressure as the Iwa-nin reached forward. Suddenly, Sasuke raised his head and imprinted his swirling sharingan into his attacker's pupil. His genjutsu took root immediately, sending the shinobi into vertigo as he stumbled back. On instinct, Sasuke blew a great fireball directly into the shinobi.

In hindsight, Sasuke should be prepared when he smelt the burning flesh as the shinobi screamed in agony. It wasn't foreign; he used his fire jutsu on Suna-nin during the invasion, injuring them as fire grazed their skin and made them drop their weapon in pain, followed by a stream of lightning that paralyzed them.

It was just the first time that Sasuke realized that he had the power to incinerate a human being as the fireball crashed into the shinobi's body and face with full force.

"Sasuke-kun!" Ino's yell brought Sasuke back to reality. What a fatal mistake to be distracted in battle. Clones popped around them as Naruto sent shadow clones and took hits for Chouji and Shikamaru. The small cut on Sasuke's finger stung, but it also allowed Sasuke to focus on something else other than the smell of burnt flesh.

"Retreat onto the trees. We need to break out of their encirclement," Sasuke yelled out to Shikamaru's team as he and Ino jumped up onto the branches. It was clear that there were masters of Earth Releases amongst their enemies, making the very ground they stood on a bed for deadly traps.

Their instincts were correct when the earth below seemed to turn into a puddle, catching Chouji's leg - who didn't make it out in time - as mud started to claw onto him, tighter with every struggle.

Where is the owner of that jutsu? Sasuke scanned their surroundings as he sent a handful of shuriken into the air, knocking the projectiles from the enemies that aimed at Chouji who was immobilized by the sinking ground.

Finally, his eyes caught the track of chakra as thick traces led from the liquid ground to a hidden spot ten metres away. Chakra pulsed from the Iwa-nin's body, feeding into the ground, pooling into the mud 'lake' below.

"Ino, connect our minds," Sasuke didn't ask if she could and he didn't need to. Ino made the special hand seal in front of her face and Sasuke felt his mind being connected to a vast space.

Without wasting a single second, Sasuke relayed the position of that particular Iwa-nin to Naruto and Shikamaru. This way, he wouldn't alert their enemy with his voice, giving his teammates a chance for a surprise attack.

'Shikamaru, hold'em down for me!' Naruto's voice was so loud even in their minds. Sasuke felt like his mind was being slapped by the sound wave and he wasn't the only one.

'How troublesome. And you don't need to yell when Ino is using the Mind-body Transmission,' Shikamaru complained, but his shadow already reached out the moment he heard the location from Sasuke.

The shadow stretched across the distance in a second, hiding its path using the messy landscape. Naruto jumped across the tree branches, heading straight towards where the Iwa-nin was hiding, trying to make it before Chouji could sink into the ground fully.

With a slap of the explosion tag, Naruto broke through the earth dome around the Iwa-nin. Before the Iwa-nin could relocate, he found himself restrained as Shikamaru's shadow connected with his.

Naruto crashed down like an orange cannonball, slamming his palm into his chest. The chakra-suppression seal was activated the moment it got stuck onto Iwa-nin's body. The enemy shinobi fell in surprise, his strengths were pulled from his body as his chakra froze like an icy river. The next second, Naruto already kicked him down, knocking his head against the ground.

In front of him, Sasuke saw the chakra dissipating from the ground, allowing Chouji to push himself out of the sinking pool of mud.

A light sound of liquid hitting the ground tingled Sasuke's senses when the Mind-Body technique broke, but not before Ino sent out the locations of the shinobi she had sensed. Sasuke turned around and caught the droplets of blood dripping down Ino's nose. Right, she was used to connecting the minds of only three people, at maximum, four. Five would be pushing the limit.

"Run." Sasuke dragged Ino along with him as she wiped the blood from her face and reoriented her senses. "Find Sakura in the Southeast Direction, she'll heal you. Use your sensing ability to avoid enemies." Ino was the most heavily injured genin out of the three. A large slash ran down her arm, making her lose blood by the second.

"What about the rest of you?" Ino asked with worry after she examined the direction Sasuke told her, already pinpointed Sakura's location.

"We have to lure some of Iwa's forces away from Sensei." Shikamaru should already be leading Naruto and Chouji away through the small openings they had created. Now that the Iwa-nin realized that the children were not just there for the numbers, they'd have to reorganize and adapt to the changing situation.

Changes create confusions, and confusions create openings, his Jonin-sensei used to say, and Sasuke was hoping it was true.

With a nod, Ino retreated into the forest and Sasuke took a turn as he caught the chakra signatures that were bleeding in and out of his vision as obstacles came into view.

Sasuke raced across the branches to converge with Shikamaru's gang. Water bullets pierced through the air and narrowly missed his face as Sasuke dodged to the side. Still, the water bullets turned the branch under his foot into wooden splinters.

Sasuke's arm acted on its own, shooting out a shuriken tied to ninja wire towards another branch above and swung himself up. The Iwa-nin with a blade arrived a moment later, slashing through where he would have been if he had fallen from the branch.

With a turn, Sasuke swung himself back down and slammed his leg into the shinobi's back, crashing her into the ground. This Iwa-nin was heading towards Ino and Sakura, so she must be stopped at all costs.

The shinobi shut her eyes, already cautious of Sasuke's sharingan. However, before Sasuke could take advantage of that, a stream of water shot out of Iwa-nin's mouth, forcing Sasuke to jump back unless he wanted to get his brain smacked by the pressurized water.

The Water Release covered the forest ground with a thin layer of water, soaking Sasuke's legs as iciness spread throughout his body. Without hesitation, Sasuke jumped up onto the branch, controlling the chakra on his feet so that he would stick to the slippery branches.

Sasuke didn't even get a chance to catch his breath before mist started to rise and suffocate him. The Hidden Mist Technique was a trade of Kirigakure's shinobi, but it didn't mean that they were the only ones who could use it. It was a useful technique that would serve multiple purposes, making it a must-learn for all Water Release users - Itachi's words,

In this particular instance, the dispersed chakra in the thick mist rendered Sasuke's sharingan useless in detecting the enemy.

Suddenly. Earth spikes rose from the ground, stabbing towards Sasuke's figure on the tree. He managed to jump onto an adjacent branch at the last second, but the jagged rock still made a large cut on his thigh.

Sasuke was surrounded by more than one shinobi and at least one of them had ninjutsu skills that rivalled a Jonin. Moreover, they had set up the Hidden Mist to counter Sasuke's sharingan.

Sasuke's plan to lure attackers away from Kakashi-sensei and Asuma-san worked, alright. Just not the way he had planned.

At this point, he would be dumb if he didn't realize that the enemies had decided to target him instead.

Fire boiled in Sasuke's throat as he blew out a stream of flame around him with all his might. With the humidity all over the forest, his fire jutsu wasn't going to work very well, but it was enough to evaporate the mist in his vicinity and prevent his enemy from getting too close to him without warning.

Still, waves of shuriken rained down on him, flying through the waves of flame, forcing him to halt his ninjutsu to parry the projectiles aside.

"Ahhh, Sasuke, move!" Sasuke didn't have time to be stunned by Chouji's sudden scream, because the human yoyo was already rolling toward his direction. Sasuke jumped to the side and ran as Chouji in the form of a cannonball rolled himself through the mist, mowing the trees down as well as destroying whatever formation the Iwa-nin had.

"Ah, my head is dizzy. The precision sucks when Ino's not here!" Chouji yelled his complaint while his teammate wheeled him back using his shadow. Shikamaru must have realized that the shinobi that were supposed to be chasing them decided to switch his target to Sasuke.

"Wait, did you hit Sasuke?" Naruto asked as he glanced around and the next second, Sasuke landed beside them.

"No, I'm fine." Not when you yell out your attacks beforehand. Sasuke decided to swallow the last part of the sentence down because technically, they did get him out of a bind. "But if I can dodge it, it means that the Iwa-nin are unlikely to be hit as well."

"This is seriously troublesome," Shikamaru muttered as he locked his hands in a seal, ready to strike whoever it was that decided to step out of the mist.

Sasuke saw the truth in Shikamru's words. "Don't step into the water." As soon as he said the warning, Sasuke shot a shuriken into the water-logged forest floor and sent the lightning chakra down the wire.

The electrifying web rushed through the layer of water, jumping up to catch the mist left in the air. Sasuke heard grunts of agony in the background and he smelt the scent of charred flesh.

Still, his muscles refused to relax. He knew full well that he might have whittled down the enemy forces, getting rid of the weaker chunin that lacked the experience and agility, but the Jonin-level attackers were unlikely to be caught by his attacks.

Nobody was really surprised when the earth rumbled and cracked open, shooting out spears made of stone. This was getting old, but nevertheless, they couldn't do anything against such large-scale ninjutsu except to scatter and dodge.

Sasuke made the hand seals as soon as the earth spikes pushed them apart. The enemies' target was him - for reasons unbeknownst to him - and he hadn't forgotten about that.

Chains of flame dragons raced across the forest, pushing the two Iwa-nin off-course as Shikamaru trapped the third one with his shadows. Naruto managed to slap a chakra suppression seal onto the Iwa-nin trapped by Shikamaru before racing to help Sasuke.

Sasuke flicked the blade in front of him to the side as he swung his leg up in a kick. The Iwa-nin ducked his body and pressed his hand onto the ground. Suddenly, Sasuke felt his leg being caught by the ground below as mud crawled up his shin.

Immediately, Sasuke charged his kunai with lightning and stabbed it down near his leg, shattering the earth bindings. He felt the sparks of electricity on his own leg - unavoidable collateral damage that he had no choice but to accept.

Numerous Naruto crashed down on the Iwa-nin in front of him, covering his vision and restricting the enemy's movement. The Iwa-nin tightened his stance as he avoided Naruto's attacks. It wasn't so much as Naruto's taijutsu, but the fact that he could slap a seal on the enemy with one well-connected hit and he had plenty of opportunities to try with his expendable shadow clones.

It was funny, Naruto learned this from his battle with Neji, that in a thousand attempts, only one needed to connect.

Sasuke let his chakra trickle towards the Iwa-nin, hiding its presence behind Naruto's shadow clones that seemed to be endless. His genjutsu worked earlier because the Iwa-nin was surprised, which resulted in him being burned to-

Right, Sasuke tried not to think about that.

However, now that his sharingan was exposed, it would be a lot harder for his genjutsu to work again on enemies that were wary. But Itachi could do it, so why couldn't he?

His chakra hid itself amongst Naruto's ever-shifting chakra as clones got raised and dispelled. All he needed was a moment of distraction, a moment of distress where the Iwa-nin's attention was occupied … Now.

Sasuke's genjutsu attacked without mercy, seeping into Iwa-nin's mind like needles, freezing his senses in a short second. It wouldn't last long but Sasuke trusted Naruto to make the moment count. As expected, Naruto appeared behind the Iwa-nin and slammed his fist into his back, activating the seal as thick black lines layered over the enemy's body.

However, the shinobi didn't falter like his fellow Iwa-nin earlier. Just like Sasuke's genjutsu, there was no reason to think that the enemy wouldn't be cautioned against Naruto's seal after it had been revealed once.

A sword flashed in Iwa-nin's hand as he turned around and caught Naruto with thick killing intent. Naruto's seal only took away his chakra, but not his movement nor his skill with weaponry.

Sasuke's mind went haywire as he charged forward, chirping lightning already gathered in his hand. He felt like the world was flashing in his head like images stitched together, starting from the scene of Iwa-nin raising his blade to the moment when Sasuke drove Chidori through the man's back, piercing his chest from the behind.

Despite everything, Sasuke had enough rationality to think, now, where's the other Iwa-nin that went after me?

Tendrils of water answered his question as they drilled towards him from behind. A thick wall with sculptures of dogs raised behind Sasuke, blocking the attacks at the last second. Then, a rumble of lightning descended from the sky with a deafening roar.

When the wall dissolved, Sasuke saw an Iwa-nin on the ground, her face remained frozen at the moment when Narukami struck her from above, marking the last second of her life.

Sasuke saw Kakashi-sensei appear from a few meters away, walking towards them with half of his vest soaked in red - probably not his blood. He was beyond mad, Sasuke realized as the bloodied body slipped off of his arm and hit the ground with a thud.

It was only then that Sasuke turned towards the corpse of the shinobi he had just killed. The hole in his chest stared back at him as screams of the shinobi burning in fire suddenly filled his head.

He felt waves of nausea rising from his stomach as he clenched his teeth to push it down.

"Don't look anymore. It won't get prettier." Sasuke felt a hand over his eyes, covering his vision and the sharingan alike.

"Kakashi-sensei, did you …" Sasuke asked, but the word 'kill' just couldn't leave his tongue.

The hand was lifted from his eyes as Kakashi-sensei patted him on the head and answered. "The Iwa forces are all taken care of, thanks to all of your help. We left two Iwa-nin restrained, Asuma is watching them back there. We need to interrogate them to see why they attacked Asuma's team and why they're targeting you."

Kakashi-sensei sent a light jolt of electricity down the neck of one of the Iwa-nin captured, shocking him awake. He first saw his teammates beside him, still unconscious and being restrained both physically and with a chakra suppression seal.

Then, he saw the blood-red sharingan on Kakashi-sensei's face.

"Are we going to do this the hard way, or can you just tell me why Iwa is attacking Konoha-nin and save us both the pain?" Kakashi-sensei asked, not wasting a single second. Despite the current danger being dispelled, none of them know if Iwa would go insane again and send more shinobi after them.

Right now, Sakura was doing all she could to heal her fellow shinobi's injuries so that they could be ready for more surprises. Kakashi-sensei also had a cut across his shoulder which he promptly ignored in favour of interrogating the Iwa-nin.

"In your dream," the Iwa-nin spat out without a moment of hesitation, No surprise there.

"Figured, Why do I even bother?" Kakashi-sensei let out a sigh as his sharingan pulsed, forcing his chakra through to the Iwa-nin's mind despite the resistance.

"I'm never … don't think that you … screw you …" The Iwa-nin yelled in broken words as Kakashi-sensei pushed the genjutsu onto him without any care for delicacy. There were many ways to interrogate using the Sharingan genjutsu, but one of the surest ways, as its users had come to discover and perfected, consisted of a combination of three layers of genjutsu.

The first layer evoked pain and torture to overwhelm the enemy's defence. The second layer screwed with their memories, priming them to think about the interrogator's question over and over again. Finally, the third one messed with their perception of reality, making them slip the words out when they thought the words were only in their mind.

It wasn't easy and it was taxing on the users - Sasuke himself was still working on it. But Kakashi-sensei didn't have time to waste, even if it might drive him closer to a state of chakra exhaustion.

"I won't … It's … Konoha must pay … for what they've done to Iwa's Jinchuuriki … for their abduction …" Kakashi-sensei widened his eyes when the Iwa-nin mumbled his thoughts out loud. Clearly, no matter what he was speculating based on the secrets only privy to the Jonin Commander, this wasn't one of the scenarios he had considered.

"Oh shit," Asuma-san couldn't help but curse as he sucked in a breath.

"You don't say," Kakashi-sensei grabbed Iwa-nin's head and slammed him into the tree, knocking him unconscious again.

"What does that mean? What is a 'Jinchuuriki'?" Shikamaru asked. He might have hated the trouble that came from curiosity, but he knew that there was no point running from the trouble that already knocked on their door.

Behind him, Naruto lowered his head and Sakura held her breath as if the mere sound of their breathing would give things away.

Asuma-san glanced at Kakashi-sensei, silently asking what was allowed to be told in this unprecedented situation.

"Let's move back to the border outpost, I'll explain on the way. Konoha needs to hear about this as soon as possible," Kakashi-sensei said, waving them along as he and Asuma-san carried the unconscious Iwa-nin and flickered onto a tree branch.

"I'm sure you've all heard of Nine-Tail and saw Gaara's transformation. Konoha isn't the only village that keeps tailed-beasts and seals them within human hosts, known as Jinchuuriki. A well-trained Jinchuuriki can access the vast chakra and power of their tailed-beast, making them an important weapon for the hidden villages," Kakashi-sensei explained as they raced back to the sentinel station.

"So Iwa thinks that Konoha abducted their Jinchuuriki and stole their tailed-beast," Shikamaru summarized and their sensei nodded. "Well, did we?"

Asuma-san turned around and gave his student a look that said, 'really, you have to ask that?', to which Shikamaru defended, "Hey, just making sure. We did keep Gaara captive for a while and I'm sure Iwa heard that too."

"Hey, we returned him! Unscathed, with the tailed-beast untouched," Naruto argued, finding it ridiculous that Iwa would suspect Konoha based just on that.

"In short, we didn't steal their tailed-beast, but someone else did, and they probably made it seem like we're the one responsible." Kakashi-sensei brought the conversation back on track.

"That's even worse than if we did steal their tailed beast," Asuma-san added from the side, confusing everyone except Sasuke and Shikamaru.

"Ne, Sasuke, why is it worse, aren't we innocent here?" Suddenly, Naruto whispered in Sasuke's ear. A little less self-restraint and Sasuke would have punched him off the tree branch for doing that.

"And Iwa will believe us if we tell them that?" Sasuke retorted. "They'll want us to return their Jinchuuriki but we won't have anyone to give back and this will agitate them further."

"Great analysis, Sasuke. Want to also explain why they attacked Asuma's team?" Kakashi-sensei said while Sasuke glared at him.

Still, Sasuke continued. "They probably want to capture them for information and keep them as hostages to force Konoha to return their Jinchuuriki."

"Exactly. Asuma might not look like it, but he's one of the more famous Jonin of Konoha and Sandaime's son. His team is made up of the heirs of three major clans in Konoha." Kakashi-sensei added, turning to Sasuke next. "And you, Sasuke, you're an even better target than all of them."

"You're an Uchiha - one of the most important clans in Konoha. It won't take a spy much work to know that your sister is trusted by Godaime-sama. Furthermore, rumours of the Sharingan being able to manipulate the tailed-beast spread far amongst the hidden villages. If I were them, I'd try to abduct you too."

Gee, thanks, Sasuke felt much better, knowing that they had reasons to attack him other than to gouge his Kekkei Genkai out, which usually was a common motivation.

"They attacked us on our way back, a day after we finished our commission when we're already close to the Fire Country border. I'd say it's not very long since they came to the conclusion that Konoha stole their Jinchuuriki," Asuma-san supplied helpfully.

"No earlier than a few days, most likely. This means that when we get back to the village, Hokage-sama will most likely hear from our spies about Iwa's hostility towards Konoha. But we're not the only hidden village with spies in Iwa, so soon, everyone - Kumo, Suna, Kiri, smaller villages - will know that Iwa is mad at Konoha and why." Kakashi-sensei let out a laugh, but there was no humour in it.

"That's really bad, isn't it?" Shikamaru asked, but it was more of a statement.

"You have no idea."


A/N: Um, I don't know Fuu's age and I don't think we know her exact age, so I'm going to take creative liberty and say that she's a little older than Naruto, so maybe 14-15 right now. I happened to like her personality and her tailed-beast Chomei; she, Naruto, and Killer B really balance out the edginess of Gaara, Utakata and Nii, bringing the score to 50/50 (?)

Shikamaru and co. don't know the exact term of 'Jinchuuriki', but they do know an example in the form of Gaara. Sai is around 13, so still a small, strange boy confused about life in general.