"Are you out of your mind? It's too frequent. Eiko and Kai were sent off less than a week ago." The voice was barely heard amidst the rustling leaves and the brushing wind, but that didn't stop me from filling the blanks by reading her lips.
Fumi-san was trying hard to keep her voice down, but it was clear from her clenched fists that her distaste towards the two men in front of her was immense and she would punch them if she could.
Right, the keyword here was 'could', because the other party in this conversation was none other than two shinobi with their Takigakure headband resting around their necks.
"So, who cares? It's not like anyone is counting. That girl you have is already fifteen, soon, she'll expire." One of the shinobi pushed the words out in a harsh whisper, making Fumi-san grit her teeth in annoyance.
"Miwa is compliant and has a young appearance. She wouldn't think to look anywhere she shouldn't," Fumi-san argued. Right, the older these children grew, the more independent they would get, eventually considering leaving the orphanage and maybe even seeking out their old friends who were 'adopted'. Therefore, they must send these children off in a pristine, innocent, and naive state.
"Look, Fumi, we don't decide when opportunities open up, the client does. It's too late for you to start looking behind your back and regret what you have done," Shinobi #2 said and his words seemed to strike a note within the woman. I could see the way she tightened her fists one last time before relaxing her hands, letting go of whatever arguments she had in her.
I felt the pigeon fluttering its wing above my head as it landed on the branch. Silently, I turned to my right and hid behind the tree trunk adorned by the crown of leaves. Suddenly, a flock of birds passed me by, shaking the leaves with their wings as they rode the wind.
The sound of the howling wind mixed with the fluttering feathers made all three of the participants pause in their words as they turned their attention to the tree I was hiding on. Still, my breathing was calm, not at all bothered by their gaze.
Fumi let out a breath as she realized that it was just a flock of birds making their way through the wind. Without a second thought, she directed everyone's attention back to the discussion at hand and said, "I wouldn't be this paranoid if it wasn't for that girl, Fuu, always making an appearance here-"
However, before she can even finish her sentence, Shinobi #2 gave her a piercing gaze that made her swallow the rest of her words. "Do not concern yourself with her, woman. Let her play 'friends' with the orphans here; she won't think twice as long as you don't give her a reason."
"... I get it, she's the Village Head's ward … I wasn't suggesting anything." Fumi pressed a fist to her chest as she tried to calm her breathing. Well, that explains some things, I thought as I leaned against the tree, observing, but never reacting.
"There might be another option other than Miwa." Despite the slight deviation, Fumi was quick to reorganize her emotions. "There are two orphans who recently arrived here, a girl and a boy, Eiko and Kai's age. They're supposed to stay temporarily and head to Earth Country."
Judging by their expression, it didn't take long for the shinobi to arrive at the same conclusion as Fumi when she first met us, that we would be the perfect 'merchandise' in so many different aspects. It was unintentional for my part; it wasn't like I made up our cover story with their exact criteria in mind.
"Have you taken them into the orphanage yet?" Shinobi #1 was quick to ask, but Fumi shook her head and answered, "the girl is cautious ... like she should be in this world."
Shinobi #1 raised an eyebrow at Fumi's mockery - at herself, at them, at us, maybe, I wasn't sure - as she added, "They'll be staying in the village for a few days before leaving. If only I can get them to spend their nights here."
"Does she have a pretty face that fits the requirement?" Shinobi #2 asked.
"Yes, even better than Miwa. You'll believe me if you see her," Fumi answered in a firm voice. I thought back to the long-haired girl we saw - Miwa, as Fuu later told me - back when Fuu first took us to the orphanage. She had a gentle feature and a meek demeanour. Her eyes curved into the shape of a waning moon when she giggled.
"Even then, this order is tomorrow. If you can't convince her tonight, then she's no good of a replacement for Miwa." Shinobi #2 shook his head despite the tempting suggestion from Fumi.
Just a little bit, Fumi frowned in distaste. She was probably hoping that the shinobi would just deal with us themselves and they very well could, especially when our presence in the village was meant to be temporary. But they used Fumi's orphanage as a cover for a reason so that they were only dealing with things they could control.
It wasn't like she had many bargaining chips to negotiate with the two shinobi in the first place. If things went south - which was what she was afraid of, with the frequent dealings and with Fuu around - she'd be the first one to be killed off to ensure her silence and she knew it.
I saw the Takigakure Shinobi flickering away, towards the village hidden behind the waterfalls. My eyes flashed in a colour of dim red as I examined the surroundings, making sure that it was truly just me and Fumi.
I picked up nothing. Nothing except for the rustling of leaves in the wind and the woman's sigh.
Soft chakra expanded out from my body, like spider threads, they reached towards the woman in yukata as she took down the sheets hanging on the clotheslines and folded them on her arms.
"... it has to be tomorrow afternoon at three … at Seiju Pass … I need to prepare Miwa before that ..." Fumi slips out the words unconsciously as the genjutsu distorted her perception of reality and blurred the line between her thoughts and actions.
Quietly, I retracted my chakra and smoothed her brain circuit back to normal. Fumi didn't even pause in her actions as she packed up the washed blankets and took them inside the residence.
I could feel the humidity that lingered in the air as the wind blew past my skin. It was about to rain soon.
Without another word, I flicked out a kunai and slashed across my wrist.
My feet continued in their steady steps as the memories of the shadow clone returned to me. Takigakure Shinobi, Fumi, Miwa, Fuu, Tomorrow, 3 pm, Seiju Pass … I organized the details in my head as a harsh wind blew past the thin fabrics of my sleeves. Silently, I brushed my loose hairs that fell out of the braid back behind my ear so that they would stop being a mess in the windy weather.
Their exchange tomorrow would certainly be a favourable time point for my plan. The orphans said that Fuu would usually come down every two or three days, and it had been two days already since our arrival. So, if Fuu stuck to that pattern, we would be seeing her soon, preferable before the poor girl got sent off into god knows where.
If not … Well, I'd have to work with the conditions given.
My shadow clone briefly considered using a genjutsu on the two shinobi to extract information about Fuu. However, I didn't know how secretive the Jinchuuriki status was treated in Takigakure - or if they had one, to begin with - nor did I know if they were high-ranked enough to know such information. The fact that the news of Seven-Tail was so scarce meant that their Jinchuuriki probably wasn't rampaging like our One-Tail Jinchuurikri in Suna, who exposed his identity to everyone, both inside and outside of his village.
Moreover, casting probing genjutsu on two shinobi at the same time presented more risks. I'd still try to solicit information from them, but at another time when it was safer. As a general rule, it would always be better and clearer to judge things with my own eyes.
When the gust of wind had finally subsided, I took out the slip of paper from the basket - a reminder written by the owner of the herbal apothecary, telling me where the orders were supposed to go.
Just my luck, 'Shimizu Orphanage' was written at the very bottom, for a batch of herbal relieves for cold and fever. Apparently, children were particularly susceptible to illness at the change of the season.
It took me an hour to get through all the deliveries before arriving at the door of the orphanage. I raised my hand to knock, but before my fist connected with the wooden surface, the door was pulled open.
"Maiko-chan, what a surprise to see you again," Fumi greeted as she gave me a smile.
"Um, yes. I'm here to deliver the herbal medicine you ordered," I answered, crushing her hope that I had a change of mind towards her offer. Fumi's smile hardened for a tiny fraction of a second before her features relaxed again.
With the same gentle smile, she took the package from my hand. "Thank you. Such a determined girl, you must be working hard. My offer still stands, you know. The orphanage can certainly help the two of you for a few days. That's why this place exists, to help the children in need."
Well, I'm not sure about that last part. Regardless of what I thought, I shook my head and gave her an apologetic look. "I'm really grateful for your offer to help, but our parents also told us to always reciprocate others' kindness, and I have nothing to return other than my words."
Fumi looked like she had something else to say, but her words halted when she noticed the presence of another person behind us. I, on the other hand, had heard the sound of his footsteps from the beginning of our conversation.
Acting as I had just noticed Fumi-san's gaze, I turned around and saw Shinobi #2 arriving at the Orphanage's door.
"Fumi, here's the subsidiary for this month," the shinobi handed a pouch to the woman, who took the items on instinct as she tried to figure out what he was doing here, again, when clearly, she wasn't aware of this delivery. But then again, she was the one who said they'll be satisfied with our 'quality' if only they just take a look.
For a brief moment, Shinobi #2 dropped his gaze on me and I could feel the inquisition in his glance before his eyes moved on. Well, speaking of opportunities.
"Thank you, Kasuo-san. I've been waiting for these. Please relay to the Village Head our thanks," Fumi answered the man without pause. Smoothly, she waved her hand towards me and introduced us, "Kasuo-san, this is the poor girl I was telling you about. Maiko-chan, these are the shinobi that graciously supported us."
"A shinobi from … Takigakure?" I asked, mimicking the bit of uncertainty as the unfamiliar name rolled out of my tongue. "Like Fuu?"
At that moment, my chakra converged onto Kasuo and Fumi, threading itself into layers of lies and fabricated reality as it convinced the two chakra circuits to believe what I wanted them to believe.
For Fumi, just a simple disguised reality that made her unaware of what was about to happen. But for Kasuo, a stronger version of the genjutsu I used to solicit information from Fumi earlier. There wasn't any other shinobi nearby - just Fumi and the children doing chores at the back. Kasuo was also not likely to be a sensor - he didn't have that annoying habit of scanning for chakra signatures before doing something sketchy like the numerous sensors I had known.
So, before the ripple made by the mention of Fuu's name disappeared, Kasuo blurted out what he knew of her unconsciously, "Of course, it's that girl Fuu. God knows why the former village head took her in as his charge and now Shibuki too. Give her some damn missions and send her out of the village, so she'll have less time to loiter around here."
Great, nothing informative. One would think if Fuu was indeed a Jinchuuriki, it would be the first thing Kasuo would associate with her instead of merely complaining. Therefore, either Fuu was not a Jinchuurkiri, or he was unqualified to receive such information from the current Takigakure leader, Shibuki. Unfortunately for me, this didn't narrow down the options for the slightest.
My chakra receded as it covered its own track. Kasuo narrowed his eyebrows for a fraction of a second as he pushed down the intruding thoughts of Fuu. Then, he quickly continued the conversation from where Fumi left off.
"I heard you're travelling to Earth Country. It's far from a safe place right now. Conflicts stir around the border and Iwagakure is getting restless for some reason. Actually, not much of this world is a safe place right now. It's amazing that you even made it here," Kasuo exclaimed, giving me another once-over.
What he said made me frown, as if I was worried about our journey to come. In reality, I was a little surprised. Conflicts around the border caused by Iwa? I wasn't aware of that. So either that was a new development during the days I left the village, or he was exaggerating to scare us off from leaving the village too soon.
"Are you sure you want to leave for Earth Country?" Those were the words I would no doubt hear plenty of times if I were to extend my stay here, from Kasuo, from Fumi, from Fuu, from the apothecary owner, regardless of their intention.
"We have to. It's our destination," I told the shinobi with a determined voice. Kasuo and Fumi exchanged a quick glance, finding my answer to be within expectation. For people with everything taken away from them, sometimes, the hope of a goal was everything they could see. Clearly, they thought that I would fall within that category.
Another bout of harsh wind blew past us, shaking the branches violently as leaves swirled in the background. Naturally, I bid them goodbye, not intending to stay any longer.
Some distance away from Shimizu village, far into the dense forestry, I bit my finger and let the summoning circle expand from the ground. With a small puff, a greyish-brown wolf pup appeared.
"Kosetsu," I greeted as the petit wolfling bowed his forelegs in acknowledgement. He was the son of Hyousetsu, who was merely a pup no bigger than his size just three years ago.
"What would be your orders, my lady?" Kosetsu asked with his quiet voice.
"Deliver this to Okuyama's branch, a little South from here - you know the location and who to ask for." I tucked a paper scroll into his side pouch as Kosetsu gave me a nod. The smaller wolves within Fuyuki's clans were no strangers to the information networks and connections that I had inherited from Jiraiya, given how fast they could travel under the earth to deliver messages for me.
"Thank you. If he has any reply, just bury the letter here and go back. Say hello to Fuyuki and your father for me, would you?" I gave him a pat on the head as his spiky fur shivered under my touch.
"Safe journey." Just like that, Kosetsu dug under the ground and disappeared from my sight.
Sai's finger moved in circles as he tried to trace the shape of clouds above him.
No doubt, the weather was bad today as clouds covered the sun, casting down nothing but an air of humidity and gloominess. But it was exactly because of this that Sai could look up to the sky and observe the dimming glow that tried to burst out from behind the thick clouds without going blind.
To be in Root, one had to be talented. Of course, one had to be talented as well to be in Anbu, but there was a fundamental difference between being 'disqualified from Anbu' and 'disqualified from Root'.
Nobody wanted to be the latter once they were in Root.
Some were talented in Assassination - they were sent to learn the Silent Killing Techniques in Kirigakure. Some were talented in Fuinjutsu - the basis of how those Root secret entrances came to be. Others were talented in a particular jutsu - they always had their uses.
Sai was talented in drawing - a talent that made Elder Shimura choose him as he handed him the training scrolls for Chōjū Giga and told him to learn it, fast. He was glad that his talent manifested in time.
Shin-nii-san was also talented, in a sense. In a place where training to remove emotions and personalities was a common practice, Shin was able to pass all those and remain unchanged. It was the talent to read and understand emotions, and also, Sai came to understand in the recent year, the talent to reciprocate the emotions as others wished for.
Shin-nii-san had a talent that was rare in Root; a talent that was the same as his current Anbu captain. In essence, at least. Sai was sure that unlike himself, it would have been easy for Shin-nii-san to blend himself into a new environment, to converse without raising any suspicion, just like his captain.
But Sai was the one that was left, so here they were.
A harsh howl of the wind brought Sai's attention back to the present. The humidity in the air spelt trouble - his ink creatures wouldn't survive a pouring rain, not when he went for numbers instead of stability.
Knowing that his ink creatures should be on their way back after sensing the incoming change of weather, Sai rolled open two empty scrolls and laid them on the ground. A few minutes later, ink creatures started to gather. Mice crawled out of the forestry and sparrows squeezed past the leaves as they dived into the empty scrolls, spelling out their observations of Takigakure.
Sai worked fast as he hid the scrolls and popped them inside the storage seal pasted to the side of his stomach. It wasn't safe out in the open, without the cover of Uchiha-san's genjutsu. It seemed his caution was correct when he heard the light shaking of the branches a few minutes later.
"Long time no see, Sai!" It was the Takigakure Kunoichi that Uchiha-san suspected to be the Jinchuuriki.
But it hasn't been very long since we've last met … right? It had only been two days. Sai wondered if it was a social convention to exaggerate the time separated - that wasn't in his guidebook. Since he wasn't sure how to answer that, he decided to listen to what his captain told him.
Just nod and stay silent when you're not sure, she said, so Sai did exactly that.
"You're always so quiet," Fuu complained as she dropped down from the tree branch, landing in front of him with only a soft rustle. Again, Sai was confused. 'Always' implied a pattern, but she had only met him twice, which hardly contributed to the consolidation of any pattern.
At least, he wouldn't report it as 'always' if he had only observed his target on two instances.
"What are you doing?" Fuu asked in curiosity, not at all bothered by his silence. She did remind him of Naruto-kun, who would look at his obviously fake smile - as he'd been told many times - and decided that it wouldn't matter as he asked on and on about how he created his ink creatures.
But even more than that, she reminded him of Shin-nii-san, who realized that he was different - talented - from all of them at Root, from Sai, and decided that he wasn't going to dwell on that and continued to bother Sai with his words, his laughs, and his general existence.
Yes. Even after death.
Sai tried to forget about Shin-nii-san, because the warmth and comfort and the existence of something different he had provided were never going to happen again at Root, not with the only one with that talent gone. Unfortunately, before he could, Root was gone in one night, faster than the blink of an eye.
Finally, he saw people that were equally as talented as Shin-nii-san - those that could read, feel, understand, and even manipulate emotions - and he was forced to interact with them. Shin-nii-san wasn't the one that was different. It was Sai who was out of place.
"... I'm collecting herbs," Sai answered, remembering his supposed cover as a boy who was shy and socially awkward, but not mute.
"To sell to the pharmacy and clinics right. How's that going?" Fuu finished his sentence for him. Sai closed his mouth, only to have to open it again because Fuu's question was never-ending.
"It's going well … Nee-san is delivering herbal medicines, if you're looking for her." Please go look for her, Sai tried to suppress the urge to say that out loud because that would mean that he couldn't even complete the only job Captain required him to do - to fade into the background.
"Oh, I wasn't particularly looking for her. I mean, I was hoping to see you guys, but I don't really have anything important that would warrant bothering her when she's working hard …" Fuu went on without any pause in her breaths. The speed at which she was pumping out her words suffocated Sai.
He remembered that chapter from the book - not the one he was reading right now, but the one before, titled 'The Art of Conversation'. It talked about how to deal with people that didn't know how to take a hint. The pages gave a lot of examples that one could use to reinforce their point in a gentler manner. But at the very end, when everything failed, the undeniable suggestion was to go straight to the point and cut your losses.
Sai didn't know a lot, but he felt like this was one of those instances where the last resort would apply.
"How is it possible that you're so noisy?" Sai muttered before he could stop the words from coming out. Fuu paused in her monologue as she covered her mouth with her hands while red crept up on her ears.
The advice was effective, Sai gathered. Now he just needed to deal with the part about 'cutting one's losses'.
"Sorry, I've been told that I don't leave a lot of room for others in the conversation," Fuu apologized as she lowered her head, to the point that Sai would see the top of her light green hair, all frazzled up in the harsh breeze.
Sai shook his head, feeling the confusion building up in his chest until it was bursting through his lung because nothing ever worked as he imagined - or as his books suggested.
"We just met two days ago, and we'll be leaving in a few days, never to see each other again," he said, biting into the syllables until each word was crisp and clear. "Why do you even bother taking the time to talk to us?" Why do you even bother trying to form a relationship - is that what this is - that will expire soon?
Now, it was Fuu's turn to be confused as she raised her orange eyes and stared into Sai. "Not all connections and friendships are meant to last, are we supposed to stop trying just because of that?" Sai considered if he should give an answer, but a beat later, he realized it was just a rhetorical question.
"Everything is temporary; nothing ever lasts forever - well, almost nothing, I don't know, maybe there is an exception. I mean, the world is supposed to be really big, not that I know anything since I can't really leave-" Fuu clasped her mouth shut again and Sai's hand tensed a little. Did she accidentally spill out something she shouldn't? Will she perceive me as a threat?
However, all Fuu did was let out a sigh and say, "I did it again, didn't I? I blabbed so much that you don't even get to say anything." The kunoichi scratched the back of her ear and added, "That's not how a conversation is supposed to go."
Like I know how a conversation is supposed to go, Sai thought in the back of his head. Nevertheless, he replied, "I don't want to say much anyway."
"Great, I mean, not 'great' as in I want you to stay quiet … whatever, you know what I mean." I really doubt it, Sai thought as Fuu shook her head and moved on. "Anyway, my point is, just because some meetings are only temporary doesn't mean they're not worth the time. When you and Maiko leave for Earth Country, maybe you'll remember me, maybe you won't. I hope you do though, just in case we meet again in the future. I know I will."
"Do you remember all those you've met at the orphanage, even those that have left?" Sai asked all of a sudden as curiosity grew in his stomach.
"Of course," Fuu answered with such confidence as if she had never considered the other possibility. Somehow, Sai hoped that she would forget her meeting with them - this temporary encounter that was not just fleeting, but full of fragile lies as well. He doubted that if they ever met again after this, it would be a pretty scene.
Sai must have been silent for too long as he stared at the herbal plant in front of him, catching the way its leaves were being weighed down by the growing humidity ever so slightly. Like Shin-nii-san had told him, he had a talent for painting and came with it, was a keen observation - with objects only, not people.
"... What are you staring at?" Fuu whispered beside him, her eyes catching onto his gaze until they arrived at the unremarkable plant in front of them.
"It'll rain soon," Sai answered. A moment later, he thought he should explain the basis of his observation, so he added. "The leaves look different when it's about to rain … I used to draw them a lot."
"Really?" Fuu asked in curiosity as she bent down and leaned towards the plant for a closer look. "I don't see anything different, but maybe I just don't have the eyes. You must be really talented at drawing if you can notice such little details, man, I really want to see some of your drawings …" She glanced at Sai and saw his deadpan eyes, " … but I figured art supplies are not very essential during a long journey, so maybe in the future, hahaha."
Sai didn't bother with a reply as he picked the herb from its root, careful in his touch as not to harm the stem. Suddenly, he remembered a quote he had read on the cart to Takigakure: gifting is a common practice to extend goodwill and will surely set off an amicable tone for the start of a new relationship! The exclamation mark glared at Sai when he first read the sentence - much like many other sentences in that book - as if it was something worth celebrating.
"It's good for soothing the pain around cuts and scratches," Sai said as he held the plant out to Fuu. "Shinobi gets hurt easily, right?" To be fair, the injury that shinobi usually get wouldn't really benefit from medicinal reliefs as weak as herbs. But 'Sai' was not supposed to know that.
"Yeah, you got that right. Thanks." Fuu didn't correct him on how herbal medicines were essentially outdated with medical ninjutsu. Instead, she took the herbal plant with a smile and tucked it in her shinobi pouch.
"Ah, Maiko's here." Fuu noticed Captain's footstep from quite a distance away, not that Uchiha-san was hiding her trace anyway, not when she was playing the role of a civilian girl so diligently.
"Fuu, it's nice seeing you again," Captain said as she greeted the kunoichi with a smile - gentle, harmless, light on the heart. Just like that, Sai felt like a weight being taken off of his shoulder as someone else could finally be the centre of distraction.
"Maiko, I see your plan's going well. You'll be able to reach your destination in no time!" Fuu waved at her with excitement.
"I sure hope so," Uchiha-san replied as she took out a bundle wrapped in clean clothes from her basket. "Here, these will help get rid of the bruises and ease the pain. I found them by the riverbanks north of the village. Soldiers at our former Dōjō found these useful after a long session of training."
"Ah, you don't have to. The riverbank is far out from the village, isn't it." Fuu said in a hurry, but she still stretched out her hands so that Captain could give her the bundle of herbs.
"I got it on the way, don't worry," Captain answered as she let out a shrug, easing the burden Fuu may have towards her gift.
"I didn't even help that much," Fuu muttered, making the older girl let out a burst of soft laughter.
"I would say helping us keep our travelling fund is a pretty big help," Captain said. A moment later, she tilted her head to the side and added after a moment of contemplation. "Well, I want to ask you, if you'll be here tomorrow?"
Fuu perked up at her words as she continued. "The apothecary told us that Seiju Pass usually has a wild growth of medicinal herbs, but the terrain there is tricky to navigate. I want to see If we can make some extra money by going there, but …"
The dilemma was left unspoken, but nevertheless, Fuu's eyes lit up in understanding. However, she soon crunched her face as if she was debating something. Captain noticed that instantly as she said, "Please don't feel any pressure. It's not an essential trip."
"No, I just … I don't usually come down here too frequently, but I can come with you guys tomorrow. Seiju Pass is tricky to traverse; you might even get injured, especially if you're unfamiliar with the area," Fuu said as words bounced out of her mouth one after another as if she was trying to convince herself of the plausibility of her plan.
"Thank you. Then, tomorrow afternoon, it's a date then," Captain smiled as Fuu nodded. Then, she turned to him and said, "Sai, the weather is getting worse, we should go back and give the herbs back to the apothecary."
As if on cue, drizzles started to fall from the sky, hitting their skin with frigid stings. In the span of a few breaths, heavy raindrops splattered onto the ground, splashing up the mud with drumlike cacophony.
"Oh crap, the laundry I hung up this morning is still there!" Fuu shouted in a panic as she bounced onto a tree branch. "Will the two of you be okay?"
"Yes, go save your laundry," Captain assured Fuu as she gave the kunoichi a wave as a goodbye. Giving them a nod, Fuu darted across the trees, disappearing in their sight in the blink of an eye.
Captain let her hand drop as she took a step to her left, so she stood under the shadow of a thick branch, protecting herself from the worst of the rain. Her smile had faded into that of an impassiveness as she scooted over, leaving the space for one more. Without a word, Sai joined her under the tree branch.
"So it's true," Sai asked. His captain had clearly set her plan regarding Fuu and the orphanage in motion by raising a demand that was out of the ordinary. She wouldn't do that unless she was certain that her speculation was correct.
"Yes, and two Takigakure shinobi were involved, as far as I had observed. Tomorrow, another girl would be sent off, to the red-light district, maybe, or as a bride for purchase, based on their criteria," Uchiha-san explained in a calm tone as she leaned back on the tree, her sharingan glowed red with just minimal chakra to caution against their surroundings.
"One of the shinobi 'kindly' provided me with the information that Fuu is the ward of the former - and current - Village Leader, but he doesn't know anything about her Jinchuuriki's status, which means that we still need to check for ourselves." 'Kindly', right, but hey, they didn't need to focus on the details.
Sai paused a second as their conversation with Fuu flashed in his memory. Abruptly, he looked to the older Anbu and asked, "Did you influence her to agree to your invitation?"
Now that he thought about it, the gift of herbs that grew near riverbanks far out from the village nagged Fuu, making her want to obey the rule of reciprocity. It was at that moment that Uchiha-san had offered a solution - an effortless trip for a shinobi, but a matter of great help to them.
"Small hints here and there might have helped, but it's mostly just luck. We're lucky that Seiju Pass is close enough to Takigakure that she's familiar with the place. Otherwise, she'll get suspicious of my request and find it too risky." She paused a little in her words before adding, "Well, Fuu probably still has some suspicion - whether she's conscious or unconscious of it - but it works out so she's not unprepared for surprises."
"What if she declined, what if she can't be here tomorrow?" Sai found himself asking in a moment of impulse, despite already knowing the answer. It must be Uchiha-san's influence. The older Anbu made it clear that he was allowed to have opinions and ask questions - so long as they were of appropriate timing - and so far, she kept true to her words.
"Then we'll need to set up something for another time." She didn't have to say it out loud, but the implication was clear. The girl that was about to be sold off tomorrow would be a lost cause. They couldn't get involved without risking their cover - their cover of helpless, powerless orphan children.
"Are you okay with that?" Sai asked. He didn't know what answer he was expecting when his captain turned to him and let her eyes bore into him. Suddenly, Sai felt like she had seen through everything - his thoughts, his expectations, his desire to understand others, namely, the older Anbu who was here at the moment.
"No," Uchiha-san said as she narrowed her eyes on him. It took Sai a moment to realize that she was answering his previous question. "I can't do anything in our current state, given our responsibility, but at some distance away from the village, someone else might be able to do it better than us."
Sai must have shown his confusion clear on his face. With one look, the older Anbu knew exactly what he was thinking - the nearest Konoha Outpost stationed with shinobi was near the Fire Country border and they had no reason nor resources to thin their sentinels for a mere civilian girl.
"Not all jobs are for shinobi. Someone once told me that 90% of the world revolves around things that seem mundane and insignificant to shinobi, so clearly, we're less important than we'd like to think."
Tentatively, Sai nodded at his captain's words. She gave him a smile before raising her head to glance at the sky. "The rain has lessened. Let's make our way back. I assume your ink companions returned usable information?"
"Yes, they did." Sai didn't understand a lot of things, but in the area that he did - the area that he was talented in - he was clear on his part of the job.
"Have Team Kū and Team Kei replied yet?" Kakashi asked as he stared into the map of the continent with pins scattered around the border region of Fire Country that faced Iwa.
"Team Kū's reply had just come in; they've arrived at their designated location," Asuma answered him as he fished out a message from the pile of paper slips on the side. "As for Team Kei, they left eight hours ago, but there's no update yet."
Upon hearing Asuma's words, Kakashi moved a pin on the map, placing it near the Fire Country Border so that it connected with the rest of the pins, shaping into a line of blockage that was slowly materializing.
Kakashi and Asuma's teams hadn't left the outpost yet, and they couldn't, not until Kakashi got the border defence into a better shape.
As expected, Tsunade-sama was informed of Iwa's anger even before Kakashi's message arrived. Her actions were immediate - reorganizing the border forces facing Iwa, making sure that Konoha was vigilant and prepared in case Iwa wanted to do something out of desperation. She mobilized Anbu forces so that the border was better stationed and monitored, both for Iwa's potential attacks and for Konoha shinobi stranded on missions - like Asuma's team.
Until then, Team 7 and Team 10 were to provide extra personnel at the border outpost. Even if they had four Clan heirs and a Jinchuuriki here, they were, no doubt, qualified shinobi that needed to pull their weight when it counted.
"So, are you just going to ignore them or what?" Asuma asked as both of them raised their heads from the map and glanced at the door. Well, someone needs training on how to spy on people, Kakashi thought as he shook his head.
"Might as well come in, the two of you. I can hear your breathing," he called out and a few seconds later, the door opened slowly, revealing Sasuke and Shikamaru, the former cast his eyes to the side and the latter was gazing into the ceiling.
"Well, do you need a formal invitation?" Kakashi said when he saw the two boys stay frozen by the door as if the act of stepping into the room would kill them. Sasuke let out a 'hn', clearly displeased by his sarcasm, as he pulled Shikamaru into the room while the latter looked like he regretted coming here in the first place. "And close the door." Sasuke shut the door before his words were finished.
"Anything to report on border patrol?" Kakashi asked.
"Nothing unusual. We also didn't get any emergency messages asking for assistance," Sasuke reported, already switching to the role of subordinate-commander from that of student-teacher. No message could mean that Iwa hadn't found any suitable targets yet, or it could mean that it was too late to help - not every team had the time to send out messages like Asuma.
"Good work," Kakashi replied as he waved them closer so that the boys could see the map in detail. "For your next patrol, reduce your parameter by half and stay inside this line." Kakashi pointed to the blockade made of Konoha Anbu that was slowly being filled.
Sasuke narrowed his eyes, already realizing that the job of surveillance was being given to the newly stationed Anbu teams. However, he pointed to a gap in the line and said, "Not even here? Those teams haven't arrived yet, have they? We can cover that area."
"The nearby Anbu will converge in and cover that gap," Kakashi answered. Before Sasuke could argue, he continued, "It's not about distrust in your abilities; it's merely a cost and benefit now that we have more options. The Anbu are hidden and do not have a visible target on their back like the lot of you. This doesn't just apply to you and your classmates, but to Asuma as well."
Asuma gave the boys a nod in confirmation of his words, having already received his updated assignment from Kakashi earlier. Eventually, Sasuke and Shikamaru nodded and said no more. Kakashi didn't mind the differing opinions - in fact, he welcomed them. It meant that the boy was thinking and examining the orders given to him using his own brain.
Aside from Kakashi and Asuma, Sasuke and Shikamaru were the de facto leaders of their respective teams, so Kakashi trusted them to relay the plans to the rest of the children.
However, Sasuke and Shikamaru exchanged a glance between them and none of them made any indication that they planned to leave. Kakashi figured that they had questions - all of the kids, not just these two - which was why they were being creepy outside of the door earlier.
"Might as well ask away while you're here," Kakashi said. It was Shikamaru who posed the first question.
"Do we know who is responsible for the kidnap of Iwa's tailed beast?" The young Nara asked, but there was a certainty in his tones that made it sound more like a statement than a question.
The 'we' in his sentence meant Kakashi, Asuma, and the other Jonin in league with the Hokage, and the boy figured that Konoha wasn't as clueless as one would like to think given how quickly everyone moved to action.
"Yes. They're an international organization of S-rank missing-nin who called themselves 'Akatsuki', hell-bent on collecting all the tailed-beasts so that they can harvest their power for a goal unknown to us." Kakashi didn't beat around the bush. Shikamaru looked like he had swallowed a fly and Kakashi had no doubt that he was cursing his own curiosity.
"Now that you know, what do you think should be Konoha's next step?" Kakashi asked a question of his own. He had heard about the smart, but laid-back Nara from Asuma. The avoidance of trouble meant that the boy would want to do things with efficiency, picking the route that caused the least amount of trouble.
"Avoid conflict with Iwa at all cost," Shikamaru said without any hesitation. His next sentence, though, seemed to require some deliberate thinking as the boy furrowed his eyebrows. "What can we provide Iwa with this … Akatsuki? Their locations, numbers, abilities … other Jinchuuriki victims?"
The goal of Shikamaru's first solution was simple: Redirect Iwa's attention elsewhere and leave Konoha out of it. Providing them with details of Akatsuki would increase their validity, giving Iwa enough to lead their own investigation.
"Locations unknown; number, we have an estimate; abilities, vague descriptions; other Jinchuuriki victims, failed attempts, maybe, but as far as we know, their victims have only been those Jinchuuriki in Iwa," Kakashi answered the boy's question and young Nara sucked in a breath of pain.
"Oh man," Shikamaru sighed, realizing the problem immediately. Just like Suna was salty of the fact that they were the only one getting the short end of the stick in the Chunin Exam invasion, Iwa would also not accept that they were the only village losing here. It sounded too much like a coincidence, that out of all the Jinchuuriki, theirs were the only ones being kidnapped.
"More than one Iwa Jinchuuriki?" Sasuke caught onto Kakashi's wording immediately. "You don't happen to know their status, do you?"
"Once the tailed-beast is extracted, the host will die," Kakashi answered, confirming Sasuke's suspicion, and revealing the fact that they had enough inside knowledge to follow what happened to the Jinchuuriki.
"So much for trying to rescue them as a sign of good faith," Shikamaru muttered under his breath. "I see that Konoha knows quite a bit." The boy said before turning to Sasuke with a look full of betrayal, "and so do you, it seems. You could have told me and we'd save a trip here."
"I only know bits and pieces and you'll get more questions than answers, which means that instead of saving you a trip, you'll have to spend extra time talking to me" Sasuke answered without batting an eye. Having seen the truth of his words, Shikamaru let out another sigh.
"Either way, it will be difficult for Konoha to convince Iwa of our innocence and the involvement of Akatsuki right off the bat, especially with their anger at its strongest. Nevertheless, we will still try. So, meanwhile, what else can Konoha do?" Kakashi asked again, waiting for some answers from the two boys in front of them.
"Konoha … should play defensive at the border and if possible, avoid creating more casualties on both sides." There was a little pause in Sasuke's words as he seemed to remember something, but he quickly picked up his words again. "We should survey the situation from the shadows, and make sure that Iwa doesn't have any target to unleash their anger on. Iwa is probably not crazy enough to start a full-scale invasion just yet … right?"
Sasuke gave Kakashi a questioning look, who nodded to confirm the boy's thinking. At this stage, Iwa wanted leverages and information against Konoha. Their Tsuchikage - Ōnoki of Both Scales - might be furious at the loss of their Jinchuurirki, but he was not senile just yet.
"The Anbu assigned here will be under a lot of pressure. They essentially have to act as decoys, distractions, guards … whatever they need to dispel any threats that come too close but also to calm their urges for conflicts. They are ghosts, if you'll call it that. For that, exceptional abilities, cohesive commands, and a lot of reinforcement will be required," Kakashi supplied at the end, translating the vague ideas these children had into actual application.
The saying went that the one who struck first would have the advantage, but the first move didn't always have to be offensive. The Anbu teams pulled here were designed to act as a cushion to absorb Iwa's hostility while monitoring the situation, so that Iwa would feel like they were punching a wall of cotton, unable to ignite any flames or find any more reasons for conflict.
Everybody just needed to calm the hell down.
"If other hidden villages with Jinchuuriki got wind of this as well, then Konoha would need to reassure them and set the record straight, as fast as possible, so that Konoha is not as a disadvantage in terms of narratives," Shikamaru added a moment later and Kakashi gave him an appreciative nod.
Despite not knowing the whole picture regarding the deals struck between the major villages, Shikamaru raised a very sound point to consider. Their entire approach towards Kumo depended on them having a solid reputation, and Iwa accusing them of Tailed-Beast abduction certainty did put a bummer on that plan.
Iwa and Kumo were different from Suna and Kiri - the former was still rebuilding from a disaster and the latter was just starting to get a hold of themselves as they dealt with remnants of genocide. Iwa and Kumo were strong, solidified, and militarized. Suna found an alliance of Kiri and Konoha reassuring, but Iwa and Kumo would rather question if such a secret alliance had a hidden hostile agenda.
At the end of the day, they hadn't witnessed Akatsuki's destruction and ambition and they had too much pride to consider such mishmash of missing-nin as worthy opponents, as opposed to other major villages.
Konoha knew that, and so did Suna and Kiri, so they would need to twice before standing up for Konoha, lest they want to aggravate the situation and make themselves a target of Iwa's suspicion as well.
Well played, Obito.
No wonder they couldn't find traces of the first Anbu team sent to warn Four-Tail, dead or alive. Given Tobi's ability, Kakashi was almost certain that he played a part in setting up this farce to throw the hidden villages into chaos.
"Congrats, you've just peeked into Konoha's next steps, some fine-tuning needed, of course, with additional detailed taken into consideration," Kakashi said, curving his eyes into a smile of validation, not that they needed it, given the distrust on Shikamaru's face and the annoyance on Sasuke's.
"You may go now - not you, Sasuke." Sasuke paused just before he was turning towards the door. Shikamaru gave him a look of pity - for having to suffer through another lecture - before getting the hell out of the room.
Kakashi waited until the look on the boy turned into that of impatience, then he asked, "Do you still see blood on your hands that you can't wash off?"
Sasuke froze for a second before he clenched his fists. He opened his mouth, a rebuttal already on his tongue, but a moment of thinking made him swallow it down. He was too old to be lying because he felt ashamed.
"I don't regret anything, the two Iwa-nin I've killed," the boy said, not denying Kakashi's words. "The first one was an accident, any decent shinobi should be able to dodge a fireball that obvious … if he didn't get caught in my genjutsu. But the second one, I know what I was doing."
There was a moment of pause before Sasuke reaffirmed his words, "I don't regret anything. I just need what my eyes remember to agree with me."
Maiko used to say it all the time: Sharingan always remembers. Kakashi hated how true that was.
"To be fair, I'm surprised you didn't puke your gut out when the battle ended. I know Asuma did, back in the old days," Kakashi said and by the look of it, neither Asuma nor Sasuke appreciated his ill-timed humour.
"Aversion of death is not a sign of weakness, Sasuke. It's a sign that you care about the weight of life. But I'm sure that you, better than a lot of shinobi, already know that there's no shame in placing some lives over others - our hearts only hold room for so many people, after all." There was a moment of silence as Sasuke stayed quiet, allowing Kakashi to contemplate his next words. "Now, who're you trying to impress with your tough shell, Maiko, Itachi?"
"I'm not!" Sasuke yelled, like a cat with its tail stepped on, furs all puffed out as it hissed through its fangs. Yeah, right.
"Just because you don't see them struggle doesn't mean they don't," Kakashi said. He could practically visualize Sasuke's undying desire to match up, to help out, to be someone that could contribute instead of being protected. All in good faith of course, but it was also taxing on the boy's mind.
Kakashi tilted his head up a little as he tried to pull out those distant memories. "When Itachi first joined Anbu, he's as green as you were a day ago. In Anbu, your first mission always involved elimination. I had no complaints against Itachi, he completed his job. But even he had a period of time where he habitually placed enemies into genjutsu before he dealt the finishing blow."
He remembered the young boy - freshly made a Chunin - who would always look into the eyes of his victim as he changed their reality, no matter if they were conscious, screaming, incapacitated, or begging. Only then, would he slash the sharp blade across his victims' necks.
Itachi caught Kakashi looking at him, assessing his ability as well as his mental state, and all he did was nod at him, accepting of his judgement but also determined in his own method. That period in Itachi didn't last very long.
As for Maiko … Kakashi didn't know her enough back then to care about what she was thinking after she avenged her teammate and killed the shinobi responsible for his death.
"As a shinobi, you'll see crappy things and you'll have to do crappy things. It's a process of building and reaffirming your beliefs as you understand what motivates your actions. Nobody who has decided to take responsibility for their choices is immune to that process. Unless, of course, you decide that 'life' is just a number that you care nothing about."
As expected, Sasuke let out a cold laugh full of disdain as he replied, "Like hell I'll take that easy way out." With a smaller voice, he added. "I told you, I know what I was doing and I don't regret it. I need to be sure that I can save Naruto, save myself."
It was clear that his words were more for himself than for Kakashi to hear, and it was not the last time he would be saying that in his head. But as Kakashi had told him, the process was unavoidable so long as he still respected death and placed weight in life.
"Go take a rest with your teammates. Hopefully, we'll be heading back to Konoha by the evening," Kakashi said, deciding that he was done with his lectures for this mission.
"You're not staying here to command the Anbu teams?" Sasuke asked, somewhat confused.
"I did say that cohesive commands are needed here. While I can fill the spot in emergencies, I've left Anbu for more than a year now. For commanding large-scale operations in the Hokage's absence, we have an Anbu Commander for that, who, hopefully, will arrive soon," Kakashi explained.
To be fair, the Anbu Commander was a position with an unremarkable reputation unlike those in the light. When his position wasn't needed, he was just an ordinary Anbu Captain, running jobs under Hokage's orders. But in times like this, he was the most suitable person to stitch the separate Anbu teams together under a unified command, having supervised the Anbu from its recruitment, training, and team assignment as the Hokage's most trusted eye.
Sasuke nodded as he exited the room, always remembering to close the door even without being prompt.
"You know, all the Jonin had a vote once, right before these rookies graduated, and you had the most votes - almost unanimous - for 'who do you think wouldn't want to teach rookie genin even if their life depends on it?'. But look at you now, damn, I wish they could see this right now," Asuma said as he shook his head, the dramatism in his voice made Kakashi roll his eyes.
"Yes, I was there, thank you," Kakashi said with a deadpan expression. "It would have been unanimous if you took away my vote."
"Wait, you're there?" Asuma raised an eyebrow. Right, they were quite drunk, and Asuma was busy flirting with Kurenai, so Kakashi doubted that his memory was at its finest. "Who did you vote for then?"
"... Maiko." Kakashi had truly debated between himself and Maiko. But Maiko wasn't there - out on a mission in Kiri - so he said 'screw it' to his conscience, not that it made a difference in the overall poll.
"Back to the problem at hand, why would Akatsuki stir this up now? Didn't our Anbu team go missing months ago?" Asuma asked the question that was on Kakashi's mind ever since they had learned of the imaginary 'crime' that Konoha had committed from that Iwa-nin.
He didn't pretend to understand the 'Obito' part of Tobi, not after being absent from his life since Kannabi Bridge, nor did he pretend to understand the 'Akatsuki' part of Tobi, so he could only take a guess.
"You know the one advantage we have against Akatsuki?" Kakashi asked, moving his finger from the Northwest border of Konoha to the Southeast part of the continent, where the Island of Kirigakure resided. "No matter what plan they had for Tailed-beasts, it can't move forward until Three-tail have been rebirthed and gain the corporeal body."
"And that's still at least a year away." Asuma followed his line of thought immediately. God knows how Yondaime Mizukage managed to die with the Three-tail still inside, but that bought them some time to catch up to Akatsuki's plan, especially with the return of Itachi.
"That's our last line of defence and we'll definitely give all we have if it comes down to it. I'm assuming that Akatsuki doesn't want to see our alliance expand before then. Suna lost a lot in the Chunin Exam, but the same can be said to Akatsuki, with Sasori and Deidara killed." Kakashi analyzed, trying to think the way Itachi did whenever he channelled his missing-nin energy.
In the very beginning, Akatsuki was fearless because they didn't believe that the villages could be united. But Konoha had managed to bring Kiri and Suna onto the same boat, albeit the ship was definitely on shaky water.
As arrogant as Akatsuki seemed to be, they were not stupid. Kakashi doubted that they could sit still after the conclusion of the Chunin Exam. If it were him, he'd want to drown the ship, or at the very least, prevent more from boarding.
"It's time for them to stall our progress," Kakashi concluded. He was honoured, really, to think that Akatsuki had finally thought of them as a worthy threat to their unstoppable plan of greatness.
"And here we are, a diplomatic disaster that befell upon us out of nowhere," Asuma mocked with quite an accurate description.
A diplomatic disaster was all they could foresee at the moment and against his better judgement, Kakashi sincerely hoped that this was all there was.
Seiju Pass was a winding road on the backside of the mountain. I turned my head towards the direction of Shimizu Village, and all I could see was the stone hill casting a shadow onto us.
"Do you see those plants that grew on the cracks between rocks, the ones that have purple veins on their leaves?" I told Fuu when she tilted her head and followed my gaze up the mountainside.
"Uh-huh, what are they for?" The girl asked with curiosity.
"They're good painkillers, and they help with inflammation as well," I answered as Fuu nodded in awe. While medical ninjutsu rendered all medical treatments near-miraculous, we didn't always get the luxury of having a medical-nin nearby on missions. Herbal remedies that focused on alleviating pain and preventing infections became bandaids in the most desperate times.
"Oh, do you need me to go pick those up? It will only take me a few minutes." Before I could say anything, the girl was already stretching her arms, looking like she was ready to go at any moment.
"Be careful, please. The rocks are still slippery from the rain," I told Fuu as she waved her hand at me with nonchalance.
"That's no problem at all for shinobi. We learned to focus our chakra - the weird energy that I don't know how to explain - and use it to stick to surfaces from a young age." Define young. Fuu's words reminded me that I had serious questions about Konoha's academy education. Apparently, Sakura had not even heard about tree-talking until she had graduated and became a genin.
"I see. Sai and I will go down the road. We saw some herbs down under," I told Fuu as Sai followed me along. Before she could argue, I added, "The terrain is quite flat in that area, we'll be fine. We still need to do some work, you know."
"Okay, just call me if anything happened." I nodded at Fuu's words as she jumped up and latched onto the side of the hill with ease.
We didn't stop at the field of herbs. My shadow clone had scouted the terrain carefully yesterday, finding the crevices and turns that were hidden by the sun. Right after Fuu's view of us was blocked by the hill, Sai and I went off course from the dirt road and headed towards the paths hidden in the shadows.
Seiju Pass wasn't a popular path because it was difficult to traverse, especially during violent weather. But years of corrosion by the precipitation and the flood carved out paths that were half-buried inside the mountain, connecting the forest near Shimizu village to the main road leading from the mountain pass, blending into the travelling route eventually.
"I heard sounds," Shinobi #2 said, probably referring to the commotion Fuu made when she went for the hillside plants. I supposed that Fumi did introduce him as Kasuo to me, but I didn't care for him enough to distinguish him by his name.
"It's probably a traveller. Don't panic, for gods' sake, it's not like Seiju Pass is completely abandoned," Shinobi #1 whispered as he sent glares to Fumi, who was undoubtedly unnerved by the presence of another.
A wagon rested near them, already half-filled with hays while more spread around the ground. A man - the wagon rider - rubbed the horse to calm it down. I caught the slip of fabric that draped from the back of the wagon before it could get buried by the remaining haystacks.
The timer in my head continued to run, it should be about … now. I picked up a stone from the ground and let it drop from above. The stone made a loud splash as it landed in the mud puddle, telling everyone that the intruder was closer and they had assumed.
At the same time, Sai released an ink rat that he had created earlier from his sleeve, letting it slip towards the wagon as we ran backwards, splashing up mud under our feet as we scrambled along.
"It's you." To no one's surprise, Shinobi #2 caught up to us in the blink of an eye. He narrowed his eyes on us, examining the herbs in my hand and the mud on our shoes. With an icy tone that demanded the truth, he asked, "What did you see?"
"Nothing," I said without a moment of pause, and the Takigakure shinobi snorted, clearly finding my answer too obvious a lie.
"Consider it bad luck then. Who knows, maybe I'm doing you a favour. It'll be painless, better than a trip to Earth Country with no future." He slipped out a kunai from his pouch, pointing its blade at us, determined to eliminate any deviation from the plan.
It was then that a high-pitched neigh broke through the quiet background, drawing all of our attention to where the wagon was hidden. The horse raised his forelegs and shook his body violently. Under its hooves, Sai's ink rat dissipated into the muddy background after being stepped on by the horse.
A rush of frigid wind brushed against my skin, warning me of the shinobi that slashed his blade forward. Despite the sting of danger that pricked my skin, I stayed still, counting the fractions of a second of peace before the kunai arrived at my neck.
Sparkles of dust fell in front of my eyes as a shadow of orange flashed past my vision.
The kunai never arrived. I blinked once, calming down the urge to open the sharingan and casting a genjutsu.
"What are you doing, Kasuo-san?" Fuu stood in front of us as she eyed the kunai in her fellow shinobi's hand. Shinobi #2 let out a curse as he shook his shoulder, trying to alleviate the dumbness that resulted from Fuu's kick.
"You shouldn't be here," Shinobi #2 muttered before falling into silence. It was then that Fuu turned around the caught the restless horse that was inching closer to them, if not for the tight leash Shinobi #1 and the driver had it on.
Miwa's unconscious body lay among the haystacks. Despite Fumi's desperate attempt to cover up, the cloth that had disguised her as a part of the cargo had fallen off slightly, revealing her face for Fuu to see.
"Please give me an explanation, Fumi-san," Fuu said in a shaky voice as a mix of confusion, disbelief, and anger filled her face, sending Fumi in a fit of panic as before she ran out towards them and fell on the ground, sobbing.
"They forced me to do it … I … I have no choice. You have to understand, they threatened me with my life … and, and I can't say no. I'm just a civilian, I'm nothing compared to a shinobi!" The amount of tear she was able to conjure up at the moment's notice was impressive, I had to admit.
"You cunning little piece of-" Shinobi #1 yelled in anger as he raised his kunai, but he didn't get to finish the sentence, not when Fuu had shot out a chakra web from her palm, forcing the shinobi to flicker away from the woman as the net glued on the stone surfaces and separated them.
Hope flashed in Fumi's eyes as she cried out, "You believe me, right? Fuu, you've known me for such a long time. Please, save me from them!"
"Fumi-san, I'm inexperienced in life, not stupid." Fuu's words made Fumi's expression freeze. "You know that I'm the ward of Takigakure's leader, yet, in the years that we've known each other, you never asked me for help."
"All you have to do is ask for me help, and I would have believed you," Fuu said, her voice cracking ever so slightly as if she couldn't fathom why Fumi would turn to such a method. Even if she was forced into it in the beginning, she became a willing participant, seeking to reap profit in the process.
Fuu moved her eyes to the wagon driver as the man screamed, "I just got paid to drive, I don't know anything!" I somehow doubted that he missed the very obvious victim loaded onto the back of his cart, and Fuu thought the same too, with the way she flickered to his side and knocked him unconscious.
Danger loomed upon me as Shinobi #2 reached out for my shoulder, planning to use me as a hostage. However, Fuu was one step faster, returning to me as flickering wings seemed to manifest from her lower back, aiding her movement as she jabbed her knuckle into the shinobi's rib, making the man let out a gagging sound of pain.
"What's the plan then, huh? You're going to kill everyone here, including me?" Fuu asked, anger fuming through her voice. "How many children from the orphanage did you send out - no, sold - against their will, lying to them that they'll finally have a home? How many!"
That was when the air of menace leaked from the green-haired girl. Even without the sharingan, I could see the dense aura of chakra that bubbled from her body, veiling her insect-like wings as they shined an iridescent light.
This was it, we found Seven-Tail's JInchuuriki. There was no other chakra that could emit such fear and desperation quite like the tailed-beasts, freezing everyone's mind, sending a civilian like Fumi limp on the ground as she fainted.
I let out a gasp as I pressed down on my chest to calm the erratic heartbeat - it wasn't so much acting as it was letting go of the inhibition and truly feeling the malice in the chakra of the tailed beast.
Fuu noticed my reaction and suddenly, the tailed-beast chakra was gone, withdrawn back into her body, including the iridescent wings.
"They're orphans! They won't matter to anybody! Just because you're lucky enough to be taken in by Shibuki doesn't mean they all have the luck. It's nothing personal against those children, but some are just unlucky." Shinobi #2 yelled against Fuu's accusations, trying to make her understand his twisted ideology in a last-ditch effort, which, in all likelihood, just made things worse.
"Maiko, Sai, close your eyes. I'll protect you, I promise." Fuu whispered to us as she brought her hands to her mouth and held it steady.
In hindsight, I should have done what she asked instead of peaking at the cloud of bright scale powders that blinded my vision. Tears came out automatically as pain erupted in my eyes. Seriously, I hoped that I never had to fight against her, not when she had such a technique that made the visual acuity of the sharingan backfire on me.
The battle didn't last very long. As I said, Fuu was a talented and highly trained shinobi, let alone the fact that she seemed to have great control over her tailed-beast power.
It was kind of a rare experience, where I got to sit through the brunt of the battle while someone else took care of all the fighting.
When the blinding dust had disappeared, I saw the two shinobi on the ground, unconscious, of course. "They are …"
"Sedated. My poison is not lethal … at least not at this dosage." Fuu explained as she turned her attention back to us.
Fuu stared at me, her orange eyes clearer than ever. I wondered if there was something that I should do, something I should say, that would make us seem more … normal, more ordinary. I had answers ready if she wanted to question why we strayed from the path, and why I happened to pick such a location and time, which those shinobi and Fumi just happened to be conducting their business.
She opened her mouth slightly, words already bouncing on the tip of her tongue, but eventually, she didn't ask anything. Suddenly, I felt like any acting on my part was unnecessary.
"I introduced you to Fumi … that woman when you first arrived. Thank god, you're too determined in your goal to be fooled by her," Fuu whispered after a long stretch of silence.
"It's not your fault, any of their doings," I couldn't help but say, knowing that Fuu would take to heart the tragedy that happened under her eyes. She was a powerful Jinchuurirki, unrivalled in strength in her village. But even great power couldn't help her see through the undercurrent of evil that was disguised by fake smiles
I had plenty of experiences with the feeling of futility and regret that came with being unable to do anything, despite all the ninjutsu I knew. Fuu was just getting started. Tentatively, I reached out and wiped off the droplets of tears that ran down Fuu's cheek. I hoped that my sleeve was clean, but it looked like Fuu didn't really mind.
Fuu shook her head, whether that was to agree or deny my words, that was left uncertain. "I'm going to go find them, Eiko, Kai, those that had been sent away. I don't know what I'll find, but I have to try."
I nodded at her words as Fuu looked up in the direction of Takigakure. "Takigakure Shinobi will be here soon, drawn by the commotion I've made. You and Sai should return to Shimizu Village. This problem belongs to Takigakure and me."
"We'll leave Shimizu Village soon, maybe in three days. We'll have enough travelling funds by then," I told her after some thinking. It was time to draw a conclusion to this.
"That's good," Fuu answered, "I'll remember to come down and say goodbye."
I should have told her that it was unnecessary, but instead, I just nodded before grabbing Sai's hand and running towards the direction of Shimizu Village.
In the aftermath of that event, Takigakure temporarily took over the control of the orphanage, no doubt with persuasion from Fuu. Even then, they couldn't do it forever. They didn't have the time nor resources to keep a civilian orphanage up and running, especially after what two of their Chunin had done.
It was then that the passing caravan belonging to Haneda Instrument took in Miwa and another boy, giving them a chance to work for their living, even a potential future as an apprentice instrument maker. Following their lead, some other businesses took in some children as live-in apprentices.
There were rarely any free lunches that didn't come with a hidden price, but not everyone in the world was as cold as stone.
"Is there a way that she'll never find out who we actually are?" Sai asked me as I fastened the Anbu mask on my face. I paused in my motion as I turned to the boy. He was staring at the mask in his hand and the Moth patterned drawing stared back at him emotionlessly.
"You'll have to keep your mask on all the time then," I told him. Immediately, he put the mask on him as if he was determined to never take it off again, at least not in front of Fuu.
I told her that we'll be leaving … right about now. In about half an hour, when she realized that we wouldn't show up, she would find out from the apothecary that we had already left, catching the caravan of a merchant heading towards Earth Country.
"I want to enter the Chunin Exam," Sai said all of a sudden as we flickered towards Takigakure.
"You really have no coherence in your conversation, do you?" I exclaimed. It was partially my fault, I supposed. I did encourage him to say what he was thinking, so I didn't have to guess all the time what his Root-entrained brain was confused about.
"For real, this time?" I asked and Sai nodded. "Fine, I'll let Hokage-sama know. The next one will be held in Kiri in three months. You should find some teammates by then."
"Halt!" The moment we made our appearance at the entrance of Takigakure, we were stopped by the shinobi guarding the gate. "Shinobi, state your origin and business."
'We're from Konohagakure. I came bearing an important letter from our Hokage. I would request that this letter be read by your leader, as soon as possible." The delicate scroll with the insignia of Konoha popped out of my storage seal as I held it out for the shinobi.
The shinobi's eyes widened when he heard 'Konoha'. Cautiously, he took the scroll and nodded to his comrade. "Please wait here while I deliver the message." With that, he ran into the village, leaving the other shinobi to watch us.
I could see the way his fingers tightened on the sheath of his sword, muscles tense with nervousness. Really, did Konoha shinobi elicit this much fear from minor villages? I thought we were on the more peaceful side compared to villages like Kumo and Iwa, although not by much.
"Shibuki-sama will like a word with you." The first shinobi came back ten minutes later. He eyed the swords attached to our belt. Without hesitation, I took my blades off of my belt and dropped them inside the storage seal so that it would stay out of sight. It was more of a demonstration of goodwill than an act of actual utility, but asking diplomatic envoys to seal their chakra was crossing the line.
Takigakure's current leader, Shibuki, was younger than one would have imagined, just a teenager that had just crossed into the age of adulthood.
He swallowed in nervousness, barely noticeable, before greeting us. "Welcome, Konoha shinobi. I have read the letter from Hokage-dono, and I have to admit, the threat she spoke of is very concerning, yet, also very difficult to believe. But first of all, how did Konoha know that we have Seven-Tail among our shinobi?"
He didn't pretend that we made a mistake, that Takigakure did not know of the existence of Seven-Tail. He realized that when Konoha made such a claim about the danger their Tailed-beast was in, they wouldn't come here without proper investigation.
"We have our information network, Shibuki-dono, the same network that identified Akatsuki as a major threat to all shinobi villages with tailed-beasts," I answered. Shibuki nodded and didn't expect us to answer any differently.
After some thinking, I added, "I'm sure you've heard of the commotion during the Chunin Exam. It wasn't just a conflict between Suna and Konoha, Akatsuki's meddling created chaos for both of us. Konoha detained Suna's Jinchuuriki, not because of retribution, but to protect the Jinchuuriki from Akatsuki that had attempted to kidnap him during the chaos. We've released the boy afterward, unharmed, and I'm sure Takigakure has ways to corroborate that."
Takigakure wasn't very big, but it was skilled enough to have spies established in major villages, keeping them updated on the news and conflicts around the continents.
"That is indeed what we have heard," Shibuki said, but the tension in his body never left, if anything, it had become worse. In fact, I felt the strained air in the room, like a boiling pot with too much pressure to be contained, ready to explode at any moment.
I heard a sizzle of electricity, so light that I could barely pick it up, if not for my years of training in lightning chakra.
Immediately, I tapped my hand on the floor, letting the red veil of fire chakra raise up as half a dozen electro-charged water whips converged at our position. Explosions filled my ears as the Uchiha Kaenjin repelled the attacks, sending sparks and vapours into the air
"I wasn't aware of anything Konoha did that would warrant us such treatment?" I asked as iciness filled my voice. I looked up as my eyes blinked red, swirling into the threatening Sharingan to show them exactly how bad of an idea that surprise attack was.
However, as soon as Shibuki saw my sharingan, determination seemed to solidify in his eyes. "We've also heard that Konoha was responsible for taking Iwa's Jinchuuriki. It's nothing personal, but I … Takigakure can't take any chances on this matter, especially not when Konoha had sent an Uchiha with the Sharingan."
Konoha, taking, Iwa's Jinchuuriki. You know, I understood every one of those words, but it was the fact that they were somehow in the same sentence that confused me.
"I don't know how you, or Iwa, for that matter, came to that conclusion, but Konoha has never done such a thing," I tried to explain, but it was then that I realized that what Shibuki wanted was reassurance rather than empty words.
"Then surrender and allow us to seal your chakra!" Shibuki said as the Takugakure Jonin under his command formed a blockage around us. "We also promise to mean you no harm, as long as we have investigated that you, or Konoha, are truly no threat to Takigakure's Jinchuuriki. But before that, we can't risk having you run free."
Takigakure's only advantage against major villages like Konoha was the fact that it was inconspicuous. Nobody had known that they too, had a Tailed-beast, and as long as no one ever knew that, they would remain out of sight. Unfortunately, Konoha just had to come and expose them.
"We can't do that," I replied. I didn't know how the situation had come to this, but I'd be damned if Akatsuki, namely Tobi, wasn't behind this. With them around, I couldn't allow Sai and I to become defenceless in a foreign land, with chakra seals on our bodies.
So, what the hell have you done, Tobi?
I could almost hear the sigh that came out of the young man's mouth, before he mustered up the courage and said, "Then we have no choice."
I didn't wait until he finished his sentence before I gathered the lightning chakra into a wave of senbon and let the needle-thin electricity rain down on the Takigakure shinobi around us.
I knocked a shinobi to the side with the flat of my swords before flickering forward, leaving a flash of electricity at where I disappeared. I managed to weave through the thick crowd and knock down a shinobi that was hidden in the back, in charge of setting up the barrier to prevent us from fleeing.
Catching that moment before the barrier could be raised, Sai summoned a giant bird made of ink as he jumped onto its back. I arrived on its back a moment later, just as the bird made its way for the sky.
"Just keep heading for the outside," I told Sai as I turned around, catching the projectile that we were aiming towards us as shinobi climbed the roofs to get us within their reach. I brought my fingers to my mouth as I blew out a dozen of Hōsenka, engulfed the shuriken with flame and sent them back to the ground.
An arrow made of electricity pierced through the sky as I raised my own blade against it. The lightning chakra on my blade disrupted the integrity of the arrow, but the remaining electricity bounced wildly, some crackled on the wing of the ink bird, forcing Sai to steady the bird as we crossed the village walls.
It was then that a web of chakra dropped down on us. At the last moment, I blew out a fireball and pushed the sticky web away. However, before I could set it aflame, a strand at the corner of the net stuck onto my mask, pulling it off as the net fell from the sky like a shooting star.
I saw the green-haired girl hovering in the air, her iridescent wings vibrating behind her back. When our eyes met, Fuu halted in her flight as her hands froze in the seals she was about to make. For a moment, she paused in her pursuit as the bird flew above her and headed towards the forest without any delay.
With the screaming alarm in the background, summoning Takigakure shinobi to catch the runaways, I broke my gaze and repeated to Sai, "Just keep moving."
Maiko: Murphy's law . jpeg
Sai: Anti-social teenager. jpeg
Fuu: I thought we're friends . jpeg
Tobi: hehe . jpeg
And it all ties together ehhh. This arc is taking longer than I thought, but I do want to spend more time writing about Fuu. I do believe that there is a thing called natural attraction. Maiko is attracted by Fuu's personality, just like how Fuu is attracted by hers, albeit it's not entirely real, but not entirely fake either. Also, indeed, what the hell have you done, Tobi?