Chapter 68

"She's waking up!" Sakura said in a hushed tone, but the nervousness in her voice could be heard a mile away.

Even before Sasuke opened his eyes, he could hear Naruto shifting in his seat, jumping out of the chair on instinct, before finally remembering that he was too close to the bed as he took a step back.

Sasuke himself took a big breath as he opened his gaze. It fell right on the green-haired girl that was stirring awake. With a light voice, he turned to the shadow hidden near the door frame and asked, "Please inform Commander Hatake that she's awake."

The shadow shook a little, confirming to Sasuke with a nod. Then, Sasuke turned his attention back to the presumed Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki, fresh out of multiple critical injuries sustained just three hours ago.

Sasuke felt his hands tense up when the kunoichi opened her eyes and took in her surroundings. As a Jinchuuriki, waking up in a foreign location, surrounded by heavy gray walls that spoke of confinement, along with dozens of Anbu guarding the hallways … Sasuke figured that if it were him, he'd want to act first and ask questions later.

Thankfully, she wasn't Sasuke.

Sasuke could see the way she hunched her back and tightened her fists into a defensive stance when she sat up on the bed. Her eyes glanced over them as she examined the half-closed metal door, the seals around the walls, and the machines beeping by her bedside. Eventually, her gaze returned to the three of them.

"Where am I, and what do you want with me?" she asked, her words crisp and clear. Sasuke had no doubt that if he didn't give her a satisfactory answer, she would burst out of here by force - she was examining her options earlier, after all.

Silence was also not an option - it bred secrecy and avoidance, all of which the Jinchuuriki wouldn't tolerate.

"You're in Konoha, specifically, an underground facility designed to hide from the public eye." Sasuke answered, "one of our shinobi took you here with heavy injuries, so we treated you."

Sasuke only answered her first question, because honestly, he didn't know the second one for sure. However, it seemed that his answer was enough to make the girl frown at him. Something didn't make sense in his answer, her eyes seemed to say.

"How did I even arrive here? The last time I checked, we were hours away from the Fire Country border." That was the confusion she had, and Sasuke wasn't sure how to explain it.

"It's a space-time ninjutsu. Mangekyou Sharingan tends to be versatile like that." Sasuke didn't have to offer an answer, because someone else already did. Kakashi-sensei walked through the door, letting it swing open naturally.

"What is causing your distrust right now?" Kakashi-sensei asked a question of his own, "Konoha as a village, or our identity as Konoha-nin? If it's the latter, show her, Sasuke."

It took Sasuke a moment to understand what his teacher was getting at. Without a word, Sasuke opened his sharingan just as the kunoichi turned to him. There were very few things that were associated with Konoha more deeply than the Uchiha's Sharingan.

The girl turned silent for a moment as she widened her eyes at Sasuke. "you do look a little familiar." Then, she turned to Kakashi-sensei and said, "Where is … Uchiha Maiko? I seriously hope she didn't give me a fake name."

Their sensei raised an eyebrow at the remark, but he didn't question why the girl would say that. "She's also heavily injured. Alive, but not conscious right now …"

Sasuke still remembered how time seemed to speed up and then slow down when Tsunade-sama reached out and covered the bloodied wound on his sister's neck. She was right, it was the fastest and slowest three seconds Sasuke had experienced in his life.

He heard his own breathing mixed with the pounding blood flow that seemed to rush into his eyes. He wanted to close his eyes to ease the pain, but he desperately kept them open, trying to catch every drop of blood that seemed to seep through Tsunade-sama's fingers.

Between the cold red blood and the warm medical chakra, Sasuke could see a life struggling against the grasp of death.

When Tsunade-sama finally let out a breath of relief, Sasuke could be certain that life had won the tug of war, just slightly. Blood was being pumped in to replace the litres that were lost as broken vessels were being mended.

"... So, it would be really helpful if you're willing to tell us what the hell happened in Takigakure." Kakashi-sensei's voice brought Sasuke's attention back to reality.

Sasuke questioned the viability of being so straightforward, but he supposed that the way his sister held on to the girl even with her own neck sliced open, and the way that the kunoichi mentioned his sister's name as soon as she woke up should have said something.

They were hoping that there was some trust gained in the mysterious time they spent in Takigakure and that it was mutual.

The kunoichi paused a little in thought before she asked, "Konoha sent her to warn Takigakure of a danger towards their Jinchuuriki?" Kakashi-sensei nodded. He didn't close the door earlier, merely letting it hang ajar. Nothing here was restrictive, telling the Jinchuuriki that if she wanted to walk away, she could very well do so without any physical barrier.

"There you have it. We were attacked by the very same danger you mentioned - or at least, that's what she told me." The girl said as she straightened her back and stretched her legs, testing the extent of her injuries as she rose from the bed and landed on the floor.

"How many enemies were there?" Kakashi-sensei asked.

"Many, and I don't think I was conscious all the way to meet them all," the girl answered with a frown. Sasuke didn't know she had a decent sense of humour. "They have … strange eyes, light purple, ring-patterned, very unsettling to the target of their gaze, that's for sure."

"They? Do all of them have the same set of eyes?" Kakashi-sensei caught on to the details immediately.

"Yes." The girl nodded without any hesitation. Judging by the frown on their sensei's face. The news just made things go from terrible to even more terrible.

"So, what does Konoha plan to do with the Jinchuuriki of Takigakure?" The conversation inevitably arrived back at the beginning, at the question that Sasuke couldn't answer.

"We would prefer if you're willing to stay in Konoha's protection, at least, until Maiko wakes up and Konoha sorts things out with Takigakure, about all those rumours and about Akatsuki." Kakashi-sensei raised his head a little before adding, "But what is it that you want to do?"

The girl moved her weight from her left foot to the right. A few hours ago, a metal rod pierced her right thigh, hence the blood-soaked bandage around her legs that Sakura had put on after she healed the worst of it. Yet, she was already able to put weight on it, albeit with some discomfort.

"Personally, I want to go back to Takigakure right now. They're searching for me, but … many were killed by our attackers. Slaughtered, without a chance to fight back, even." The girl said in a light voice, one with calmness and composure, but Sasuke had known pain and regret enough to recognize them when he saw one.

The kunoichi's tone turned sharp as she looked at Kakashi-sensei and questioned, "I'm a moving target, and Konoha is just going to offer me safety and protection even after hearing that?"

"Konoha has its own Jinchuuriki to protect, we're already a target. The fact that Maiko rescued you pretty much speaks of where you are right now." Kakashi-sensei was unfazed. None of them were.

"Okay, so long as you're prepared and I'm not chained." The kunoichi didn't get stuck on questioning their motives. With a slight pause, she asked again, "Am I supposed to stay in this very menacing-looking room? Can I see Maiko when she's healed? Actually, can I send a message to Takigakure …"

Her voice dwindled when she saw the surprised look on Naruto and Sakura's faces. "Oops, that's too many questions too fast, isn't it?" Sasuke supposed that the way she was firing off those questions without a moment of rest was definitely a stark contrast to the composed demeanour she was putting up earlier.

Kakashi-sensei shook his head and replied, "Those are valid questions. Unfortunately, this is the most secure quarter we can find. Once Maiko wakes up - might take a while, she doesn't have a Jinchuuriki's healing - we can discuss the details of your stay here again. We're planning to send a letter to Takigakure, you're welcome to write your message. Whether they'll believe it, that's debatable."

There was a pause before he turned to the three of them. "You three will be in charge of keeping her company in the village until then." It was a tactical choice, he supposed. They definitely looked more friendly than the masked Anbu posted in the shadow and it would help them take their mind off of things.

An order was an order, so Sasuke nodded alongside his teammates.

When Kakashi-sensei left, the door let out a small 'clink' as it hit the frame and then bounced open. Again, no indication of any locks or restraints. The Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki was given freedom here in Konoha, but not without Anbu's observation at every corner.

They all knew that and that was why the air was growing increasingly awkward as the seconds passed by.

"So … who are you all again?" the green-haired girl asked as she eyed each and every one of them.

"That's Sakura, she healed your wounds." Sasuke nodded to Sakura as she gave their guest a wave of the hand. "Well, I didn't have to do much. Your innate healing was doing most of the work."

"Oh, don't belittle your work. I was pierced by a tree branch, among other things. Even I don't heal from those that easily," the kunoichi muttered with a shake of the head before looking her in the eyes and saying, "Thank you."

"I'm Naruto. That's Sasuke." Naruto did the rest when the girl's attention turned to them. "We uh, were there when you and Maiko-nee fell out of the portal at the village gate." They didn't reveal Naruto's Jinchuuriki identity because Kakashi-sensei didn't. Naruto had gone through enough to know how to keep a secret.

"Must be quite a surprise. Sorry about that." the girl had enough sense of humour to say that.

"A terrifying surprise, more like," Naruto muttered under his breath.

"I haven't told you my name, have I?" the young kunoichi remembered all of a second. "I'm Fuu."

As an afterthought, she tilted her head to the door and asked, "Who was that, by the way."

Sasuke thought about it, before he answered, "That's Konoha's Jonin Commander. His name isn't very important."

Sakura widened her eyes at his answer as if she couldn't believe what he just said. It was about time that she got used to Sasuke's rudeness. At least Naruto followed up a laugh.

"Umm, I'm a little hungry. Healing takes a lot of energy," Fuu said. At the same time, Sasuke heard a growl in someone's stomach.

It was Naruto's stomach that grumbled. Sasuke gave him a look that said, 'really?' and Naruto immediately yelled back, "What, she has a point." Yes, of course, you would know, but you're not the one that had to heal from critical injuries.

"Let's go, I know the perfect place to get dinner, and you can see Konoha's streets as well." Naruto stood up as he pushed back his embarrassment amidst Fuu's questioning look. When he pulled the door open, he turned to Fuu with a smile and said, "You'll see, Konoha is a nice place."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

Maiko woke up with a gasp. Her chest heaved up and down as her breathing turned frantic. Immediately, Kakashi gave the Anbu at the door a sign, telling him to go get Tsunade-sama.

Itachi already placed a hand on her head, trying to calm her down with his touch. "Calm down, relax, you're safe." Maiko's breathing slowed as Itachi combed her hair with his fingers. Still, her eyes darted across the room in vigilance, taking into the spotless white walls and streaks of sunlight that reflected on the windows, before landing on Itachi and Kakashi.

A soft sigh escaped her mouth as she closed her eyes. The calm rest only lasted for a second before she tried to speak, only for a wave of pain to wash over her, making her scrunch her eyebrows when no coherent sound came out.

"Three broken ribs, one broken arm. A stab wound in your stomach, another one on your left shoulder. Finally, a laceration on your neck that almost cut your vocal chord. So yes, everything will hurt like hell, including speaking," Tsunade-sama explained, as she walked into the room with hurried steps. "So don't even try."

Maiko moved her left hand a little - the one that wasn't in a cast - and she shrugged, seemingly finding the pain bearable. She made a sign with her hand that asked, 'How long?'

"Two days, you woke up faster than expected," Kakashi answered her, knowing what she meant immediately. Maiko took a moment to process his words, before raising her hand again and signed, 'the girl …"

"Fuu is in the village, alive, doing much better than you." Even before Maiko finished her signs, Kakashi found the answer for her. Upon hearing that, Maiko let out a sigh of relief.

'Any enemies …'

"No one else has followed you out of the Kamui, nor has Tobi come looking. Whether it's because he can't or he doesn't want to, we can discuss that later, when you can actually speak." Kakashi cut off Maiko's endless signs, and the girl couldn't do anything but glare at him, because he had indeed answered her questions.

"Kakashi is right. Fuu had supplied us with some information about the … multiple enemies you've encountered. Sai also came back with what happened in Takigakure. You've woken up faster than I thought, that's a welcoming surprise, but you're far from healed." Tsunade-sama said as she walked over to the girl's bedside, the glow of the healing chakra already in her palms as she hovered her hand over Maiko's neck.

"Your healing is on track." Tsunade stood up a moment later as she retreated to the walls. "So unless you have very dire information to share, don't make my job busier by pushing it off the track."

Silently, Maiko nudged Itachi, pointing at the spare notepad and pen on the nearby table, used by doctors to write notes for their patients. Itachi grabbed her what she asked and Maiko forced herself to sit a little straighter. Soon, the room was filled with the sound of a pen scratching the paper.

They waited until Maiko was done writing before she raised the notepad and showed its words to them.

'It's likely that Fuu's information about Pein is limited, so I need to pass on what I know too, sooner rather than later.'

Maiko seemed to realize that things might be harder to explain when she didn't have her sound at her disposal. After a moment of silence, she wrote the name 'Yamanaka' down on the page and pointed a finger at her head.

"Okay, that is a terrible idea." Itachi would indulge her in most circumstances until it got too crazy. "You've been around enough Yamanaka to know that it strains the person being probed, both mentally and physically."

Maiko fought back, of course, by turning another page and writing furiously on her notepad. A moment later, she shoved the paper in front of them.

'It's better to see for yourself. Trust me, you'll want to see it. Fuu would have been captured and I would have been killed if we hadn't gotten lucky with Kamui. It will happen again, if we don't figure out what Pein is.'

The word 'what' was bolded, because Maiko had pressed the ink into the paper and repeated the strokes multiple times. So much pressure was being put in that word that Kakashi could practically smell the tinge of fear and anger that mixed with the scent of the ink.

Tsunade-sama narrowed her eyes at Maiko. She had been in Anbu for enough years to gain a high tolerance to both pain and drugs, meaning that painkillers wouldn't work unless it was strong enough to come with side effects that would put her to sleep. However, it also meant that such dull recurrent pain would elicit no more than a few frowns from her.

"Fine, get changed. I'm calling Jiraiya and let's pay a visit to the Intelligence Division."

The Intelligence Division had a chakra-infused crystal sphere that could allow memories to be cast on it, with a Yamanaka as a conduit, of course. Regardless of what Maiko was really feeling, she was well and stubborn enough to walk there on her own two feet.

'At least my legs didn't get broken', Maiko wrote on her little notepad. Itachi didn't find it funny, and neither did Kakashi and he made it known. "You know, if you throw up because Inoichi-san's mind probe makes you feel sick, I will laugh at you for a year."

Maiko had the gut to give him a soundless laugh. Still, she flipped another page on her notepad and started to write something down. It wasn't long before she held the pages up for them to see.

'My memories at the end get hazy, I don't know if it's because I was losing a lot of blood, or because I used Kannon Bosatsu on myself. But I need to see it better so I can understand everything that has happened.'

'I'm the one who needs help.'

For a second, Kakashi got the urge to ask what happened that gave her so much pain, fear and anger. But the call from Inoichi-san reminded him that they all would be seeing it soon.

"Just try to focus on when you want the memory to start. I don't need to remind you of how it works, do I?" Inoichi-san asked as he strapped Maiko to the chair - nothing personal, they tended to struggle when their personal spaces were invaded, even if they didn't mean it.

Maiko shook her head obediently - somewhat rare these days - and let the Inoichi-san place his hands on her head. This room was usually filled with dozens of shinobi from the Intelligence division, monitoring the barrier and connecting the patrols. Yet, with everyone cleared out except for those invited by the Hokage, it didn't get less suffocating.

The scene started when Maiko sent Sai away. It was a peculiar time point that she had chosen to start the memory, but it was her decision to show this point to Inoichi-san as a clear landmark, giving him permission to start digging and exploring, showing the things she had remembered, whether she realized or not.

The younger Anbu had left without any delay like he was trained to do and of course, the Takigakure kunoichi showed up next, all actions before words. It would have been pretty confusing to watch if Sai didn't relay back what happened in Takigakure beforehand.

Nevertheless, their story filled with cute little banters would have ended there, if Maiko was able to leave Fuu to the care of her village; if those beasts with the frightening Rinnegan didn't show up.

Maiko's hand shook a little, rattling the straps around her arms. It was the beginning of a nightmare.

Replaying memories with accuracy was difficult, especially memories of an ever-shifting battle where details got muffled by the splash of blood and the clash of blades. Images distort based on what the individuals would see. But Maiko's sharingan remembered everything, even if she couldn't process all the information in time.

"The hell …" Jiraiya let out a sound of disbelief when not one, not two, but four robed figures showed up, all with the same copy-and-paste Rinnegan. Another loud rattling sound - Maiko was struggling. Unconsciously, she opened her mouth as if trying to scream something, but no voice came out.

It was only when they saw the revived figure of Number 3 - convenient naming, he supposed - that Kakashi understood that it was a warning that Maiko wanted to let out earlier.

This retrospective investigation put emphasis on the details in Maiko's memory, but it also made it difficult to watch for people that weren't used to the constant visual stimulation of the sharingan. Even Kakashi felt the wave of nausea that seemed to stir in his stomach when the scene shifted at a lightning speed as Maiko was flung across the forest.

"Wait a second." Jiraiya took a step forward when Number 5 and Number 6 showed up in Maiko's memory. His brows furrowed tighter and tighter as he stared at the sphere without so much as a blink, but the flow of memory waited for no one, not the spectator, not the owner.

The scene seemed to shake ever so lightly as if it was about to shatter. Inoichi-san's control over Maiko's mind was slipping. She was rejecting the breach of privacy, which also meant that the worst was about to come.

Kakashi heard drops of sweat hitting the ground as Inoichi-san struggled to reign in the control. A dull thump - Maiko tightened her fist and slammed the armrest before she forced her hand to relax. She wanted a way out, but the logical part of her reminded her that she had an important reason to be here, to subject herself to this.

"Not even the Susanoo," Tsunade-same shook her head when Maiko's armoured giant failed not once, but twice, against Number 3's chakra absorption ability. It went wrong from the very beginning, when she didn't know that there were more than four enemies. From there, the priority and order got messed up. By the time she managed to correct that fatal mistake, they were already overwhelmed.

Ah, Kakashi thought in his head, this is where the pain, the fear, and the anger came from. The scene in front of them shook violently as Maiko's summoning wolf died in front of her. But surprisingly, everything calmed down right after that - Maiko, her shaky memory, and the vision in it.

Wake up, Kakashi wanted to scream when Maiko just watched as Pein Number 1 threw Fuu towards her until they collided. He could feel his fingers digging into his arms when he sensed that tiny pause in Maiko's action that said she wanted to give up.

It was just a passing thought that lasted no more than a fraction of a second, he was sure - time scale in memories was always inaccurate due to the subjectivity - otherwise, they wouldn't even be seeing Maiko alive right now.

As expected, Maiko's breathing turned frantic when Tobi showed up and the memories started to shake again. Ah, she hated him so much, from that time in the Chunin Exam, and from now. Her rage towards Tobi - or Obito, whatever - piled up and Tobi happily encouraged it with his frivolous words and actions.

'Tsk' Tsunade-sama clicked her tongue in irritation and she saw how much trouble Inoichi-san had in reigning in Maiko's emotion-filled memory. It was unstable from the start, an explosion waiting to happen.

In the short seconds that she was debating, the memory had already moved on. Time seemed to slow when Maiko caught Fuu's silent words in her sharingan, every shape, every movement was etched in her memory. Her emotions calmed themselves, relieving the pressure Inoichi-san had.

She wanted to see. She really wanted to see.

Maiko's hand was steady when she pressed that kunai on Fuu's neck. It came naturally for her, knowing which angle to stab, which vessel to slice and she rarely messed it up. If Kakashi hadn't known the outcome, he would have wondered if she was going to do what was asked of her.

For the first time, Kakashi saw what was in the space behind his Kamui and it was as unattractive and inhabitable as he imagined. He narrowed his eyes when he saw the black shadow that stirred in Tobi's sleeve and raced towards the centre of Maiko's vision with screeching screams that came out of its clenched teeth.

Beside him, Itachi, who rarely reacted throughout this whole ordeal, took a step forward.

Then, it was the flash of a kunai that made its way past the wobbly black flame. Without any exception, Inoichi-san, and all of them, by extension, were booted out of Maiko's mind by the giant Mangekyou that seared itself in all of their visions.

"For god's sake, you could have told me to get out without the Mangekyou," Inoichi-san complained as he rubbed his temple, having to take the brunt of Maiko's unhappy struggle.

When Maiko got out of her restraints, her Mangekyou was still open as she stared into the ceiling. It was hard to say if she had seen what she wanted to see, or what she was even trying to rewatch in the first place.

Maiko raised her left hand and covered her eyes. A second later, her hand left her face as she made the sign for 'sorry' to Inoichi-san. By then, her Mangekyou subsided back to the dark pupil, like it was never there in the first place.

Her hand fumbled for the notepad until she found it on the ground. A few seconds later, she held up her page that said, 'We didn't even see the real Pein. Everything we had been fighting was just his puppets.'

"What do you mean?" Jiraiya asked amidst the endless writing.

'Those black rods are transmitters of some sort. They allow Pein to transmit chakra to the bodies they pierced, alive or dead. Probably.'

"So he controls … six bodies to do his biddings, each with different usage and skills, it seems." Kakashi counted with fingers.

"That we know of so far," Tsunade warned. "He might be able to summon up more bodies for I care."

"Maybe, but I think six main bodies might be the number that he's most comfortable with. Otherwise, he would have pulled more reinforcement to block Maiko's attack on Number 5," Itachi suggested from the side, gaining him a nod from Tsunade-sama.

She cast a glance to her right as she kicked Jiraiya in the leg and asked, "You had your jaw opened like an idiot the entire time, what is it?"

"Ahh … I've met those people before - the bodies being used by Pein," Jiraiya muttered, his eyes travelling down to the ground as if it was him that was being trapped in a trip down the memory lane. "Number 2 was … a shinobi from the Fūma Clan; Number 3 was a Kusagakure shinobi; Number 4 was … but they weren't like this before; they didn't have orange hair. It's like Pein had transformed them into someone completely different."

'Even 'Yahiko'?' Maiko held up her paper.

"No, not 'Yahiko'. He looks the same, more or less," Jiraiya said, but not before adding in a hurry, "but the way he speaks, that coldness in his voice, it's not the Yahiko I know, and it's not the Nagato I remember as well."

Too late, Maiko had already written down another sentence: 'Then, I think Pein is likely Nagato.' As if expecting Jiraiya's words, she flipped the page, revealing another sentence: 'He only treats 'Yahiko' as a person.'

Jiraiya was out of words for a second as he took a deep breath. "Elaborate for me, please."

"She means that Pein treats the body of 'Yahiko' as more than a tool for his Rinnegan. Pein had made 'Yahiko' the leader and face of Akatsuki, letting 'Yahiko' replace his existence and authority, all with Konan's approval, if not support," Itachi replied for Maiko. Their eyes met for a second and Maiko nodded in confirmation. "His action told us that he wants 'Yahiko' to still be there, leading Akatsuki and achieving greatness."

There, even Jiraiya couldn't deny that there was no one else other than Nagato that would fit all the checkmarks for Pein.

Well, Kakashi supposed that the answer was on the tip of their tongue when they first heard about Konan and Pein's Rinnegan. But like himself, Jiraiya would rather explore all the sketchy possibilities first than face the one that hurt the most.

"Regardless of who he is, we need to come up with plans to deal with him, especially now that we have two Jinchuuriki in our protection." Tsunade-sama had enough of Jiraiya's denial and sulking, so she brought the topic back to something more practical.

"Since none of them are the real Pein, we need to set up a sensory unit to track Pein's chakra signature," Tsunade-sama suggested. The idea was simple, they were hoping that with the chakra Pein transmitted through those black rods, they'll be able to backtrack to the origin. "Meanwhile, we must be able to deal with the bodies he controlled."

"We have to deal with Number 5 first," Kakashi said, and Maiko drew a checkmark on her notepad as an agreement. "But of course, he'll be protected by others, so we need ways to contain the rest so that they can't gather together."

Number 2 was a summoner that lacked personal defence, so he was paired with Number 3 often who could absorb chakra-related attacks. Number 4 offered background fire to drive opponents away. All of them served to protect Number 5, who regenerated their broken bodies. Number 1 … he was self-sufficient. His attractive and repulsive forces created deadly openings if not careful.

Each one of Pein's bodies served a purpose. They covered each other's weaknesses and accentuated each other's strengths. It was almost as if they belonged together as a single person.

If they wanted a chance against such a well-coordinated group, they needed to break the cogwheels down one by one, all the while occupying the rest of the group to prevent them from reaching their full potential.

Maiko flipped her page and wrote the number '2' along with a big exclamation mark next to it. Itachi understood immediately. "Right, their shared field of vision will be worse to deal with when there's more of them around, and those summoning creatures are destructive, especially with more shinobi in the fight."

"And there's Number 3 that absorbs chakra." Jiraiya tapped his foot in annoyance. "I wonder if it has a limit, or a restriction on the types of energy he can absorb … but anyway, with him, there's definitely someone we could try."

"Gai." The answer came to Kakashi immediately. Maiko managed to defeat Number 3 with speed and taijutsu, both of which were Gai's strong suit even without the use of chakra.

"What about Number 6, do we have any information on him?" Tsunade-sama asked, remembering that fleeting figure who did nothing more than be a human shield for Number 5.

Maiko shook her head, but she still told them through written words, 'Perhaps skills not suited for traditional battle, maybe for utility.'

"If that's true, then he'll be sacrificed again in the process of protecting Number 5. But it doesn't hurt to be careful, we should eliminate him right after Number 5," Itachi proposed and nobody objected. If Maiko's battle had taught them anything, it was to be open for surprises. The more unknowns they could eliminate, the better.

"Kakashi, come up with proposals for battle plans and I'll review them," Tsunade-sama ordered and Kakashi bowed his head slightly as a confirmation. "We need to distribute them to our forces. I'll also have to warn Suna and Kiri of what we know. Now that all of the Jinchuuriki were either captured or in a hidden village's protection, who knows where they'll strike next."

"Moving on from Pein, what the hell is that black thing at the very end?" Tsunade looked around the room, looking for answers, mostly from Itachi.

"Zetsu." Itachi's answer was curt, but it almost made Jiraiya choke.

"A member of Akatsuki is living in Tobi's sleeve?" Jiraiya asked with a few coughs.

"His voice sounds familiar, minus the panic and the neuroticism, of course," Itachi replied. "I used to think that Tobi might be using Akatsuki to achieve his goal, but after this, I'm quite curious about who's using who."

'Mr. Black Shadow has some degree of influence over Tobi. He's not an average Akatsuki member.' Even Maiko raised her notepad. 'Mr. Black Shadow' was crossed out and replaced with 'Zetsu' upon the arrival of Itachi's confirmation.

"No, Zetsu used to be paired up with Tobi for information gathering. I don't know a lot about his abilities except that he is very good at his job. Quite a convenient combination for scheming, I imagined." Itachi narrowed his eyes, finding it interesting that Akatsuki's internal web of relationships became more complicated than it already was.

"One last thing, I supposed, before I send the patient back to her leave of absence for injury. I don't think Fuu, that Jinchuuriki girl, wants to stay in underground containment for the entire period of her visit here. Can I send her to the Uchiha Compound?" Tsunade-sama asked, making both Maiko and Itachi fall into a weird silence.

"Well … we don't have a lot of rooms left in the Main House," Itachi replied after an awkward silence.

'He means that we have no empty room left.' Maiko added while holding up a page from her notepad. 'But she can stay in my room, if she doesn't mind sleeping on the floor.'

"Futon, we have a futon," Itachi quickly explained when he saw the way Tsunade-sama raised an eyebrow. It was clear that Tsunade-sama was trying to improve Fuu's perception of the village, not making it worse.

"Good, that's settled." Tsunade-sama decided not to dwell on it any longer, lest she wanted to get more headaches.

It only took a blink of an eye for Maiko to escape her room in the hospital. Kakashi remembered closing the door and letting out a sigh, and the next second, the icy smell of snow and fur filled Kakashi's nose. By the time he opened the door, Maiko was gone.

'Be back soon.' The note she left behind was pissing him off even more. He handed the note to Itachi, who shook his head and said, "No wonder she made me get her a jacket and a scarf."

With nothing better to do, they placed the note back to where it was and closed the door, pretending nothing had happened. Tsunade-sama definitely didn't need to know this.

"So, how is Takigakure's reply?" Itachi asked as they walked down the hallway.

"They didn't send any," Kakashi answered. The letter they sent to Takigakure, along with Fuu's writing, received no response. "Iwa probably pressured Takigakure into silence, after they found their dead shinobi alongside those of Takigakure."

With the way Takigakure was, they couldn't stand up to Iwa and Kakashi wasn't sure that they wanted to, not after their Jinchuuriki went missing and the bulk of their forces was annihilated. Letters were easy to fake, it was understandable if Takigakure had reservations on if the letter truly came from Fuu, or was it just another ploy from Konoha?

To them, Iwa, as another victim, seemed more trustworthy than Konoha as of now.

"If Pein's abduction on Fuu worked as intended, then Iwa would be the first place that Takigakure went for help. By then, Iwa, and Kumo by extension, will have another reason to think that Konoha had something to do with the missing jinchuuriki," Itachi added from the side. Quite a chilling thought, now that they considered it.

"But it didn't work. Fuu trusts Maiko, and Konoha to some extent. If only we can get in contact with Takigakure without Iwa's biased interference," Kakashi said. Things were still salvageable if they dealt their cards right.

They couldn't release Fuu to Takigakure, not in the near future. Takigakure wasn't Sunagakure, who still had much power and reputation left even after a devastating event. Furthermore, with what Tobi had just pulled, making Konoha a threat in the eyes of Iwa, it would be counterintuitive for Akatsuki to barge into a Major Village so soon, announcing to the entire world their intention to take the Jinchuuriki. But the moment Fuu was outside of Konoha's protection, Pein would get her again.

So, Konoha needed to explain why they were keeping the Seven-Tail Jinchuuriki in their village if they were not intending to keep her power. Sounded easy enough, as if.

As if seeing through Kakashi's headache, Itachi said, "To be fair, between Iwa and Konoha, I doubt that Takigakure likes one over the other. Iwa would want to get their hands on Seven-Tail too and Takigakure knows it." There was a pause before he added, "At least Fuu likes Maiko."

That's the weirdest but also the most valuable thing out of all of this, isn't it? Kakashi thought as he answered, "True, we don't have to be trustworthy, we just have to be a better choice than Iwa."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

It had been a while since I had seen a scenery as beautiful and majestic as the snow-covered mountain rising and falling beyond the horizon.

It never failed to amaze me. Not even the chilling wind that seemed to pound needles into my body could change that.

A stream of wind escaped into my mouth and it felt like my throat was being shredded by the coldness and my lung being frozen with ice. Silently, I pulled the scarf around my neck tighter.

As if noticing the way my body shivered once in a while - from the cold, from the pain, it was hard to tell - Kosetsu brushed his fur against my leg. I rubbed his head, telling him that it was alright. Kosetsu could only pause for a second anyway before his father rushed him along the line.

The line that led to Fuyuki's grave, even if there was no actual body buried in it.

They waited for me before they held the funeral. They let me see the little mound of snow that they made for Fuyuki, for every one of their clansmen when they died, from old age or illness, from accidents or injuries.

Zansetsu carved Fuyuki's name onto the plaque of ice that was buried inside the mound. I had asked Fuyuki before, why they buried the name plaque inside and one wouldn't be able to differentiate one grave from another.

"Once we die, everyone's the same, young pup. But those who remember will always remember." Her words rang in my head, mixing in with the howls of the wolves as they grieve for their leader, their family.

The funeral ended once everyone paid their respect and carved into their mind whose mound it belonged to. Just then, I heard the clattering of armours as Zansetsu walked to my side. Without any explanation, he lowered his body - an invitation for me to get on his back, which I was sure he hated.

"Get on. I didn't bring you here just for the funeral." Zansetsu said as he slammed his tail on the ice with some impatience. You didn't? Well, I supposed I didn't ask. I summoned him after I finished my duty to Konoha and he answered. He teleported me here and I followed him. It was just that simple.

Carefully, I climbed onto his back and held onto his armour with my left hand. Without any more explanation, he started running.

I didn't know where he was taking me. I didn't ask, and he didn't explain. Along the way, I saw the unchanging white, covering the sides of our paths, the front, and the back. The mountains rose and fell around us as Zansetsu galloped across the glacier that stretched beyond my gaze. Soon, His gray and red armour become the only flashes of colour in my vision, occasionally joined by the passing winter plants and wild animals.

It was breathtaking, how vast and unrelenting this land was, swallowing me with the howling wind and burying me with the pure white snow. But this was the everyday life of a snow wolf, what they see and breathe every day.

"Long time ago, before Fuyuki or I was even born, our ancestors were said to have made a contract with the land itself." Zansetsu's deep voice rang in my head as he continued to race across the ice. "We were given sanctity and longevity. In return, we were bound to this land, feeding it with life and order."

"Fuyuki probably mentioned it before, but Kazehana used to be our summoner before you came along. There were others before that, passed down from tales of our ancestors, humans who had stumbled upon this land and formed a bond with us. We fight alongside them and they serve as our conduit for the outside world."

I opened my mouth and tried to speak, but the sharp pain down my throat reminded me that I probably shouldn't push it. Very slowly, I dragged my finger across the exposed skin below his neck, writing down what I wanted to say.

'Why do you really seek the outside?' I asked with my fingers. When I asked Fuyuki that, she would always just say that it got boring quickly, seeing the same white over and over again. But she never told me what it was that she wanted to find from the outside world I summoned her to.

Something different? Excitement? Or just a change of scenery? Were they worth it, for all the danger I exposed them to?

"Nothing ever changes here, as you can see," Zansetsu answered me. "The snow never thaws; the white is endless. The wind today remains the same as yesterday, and tomorrow's wind will be the same as today. Fuyuki, like all our past leaders, believed that we will lose ourselves if we never adapt to changes; if our days were mended together as one that can't be separated, until we're reduced to nothing more than another snow-covered mountain in this landscape."

After a long pause, I wrote on his back, 'she wanted to feel alive.'

Zansetsu let out a rare burst of laughter when he finally registered my words. "Ah, I suppose that's one way to put it. Yes, we want to feel alive. We want to see changes occurring around us and feel like we're a part of it.

"Fuyuki welcomed the summoners, she taught them with diligence, like with you. Not all of them are honourable, of course, some treated us as tools and many of our clansmen suffered injustice. They thought they could cheat the contract, but they all died horrible deaths, one way or another." Zansetsu let out a snort as contempt oozed out of his voice. There was a pause before he continued with a serious tone like it was meant to pound the words into my brain.

"Make no mistake, Maiko, we do not fear death and we blame no one for honourable deaths in battle."

I felt my hand tighten around the rim of his armour. He must have felt that too, because he let out another tsk of annoyance and said, "I don't want to hear those words from you, the words that nobody likes, not you, not me, and certainly not Fuyuki."

I knew what he meant, but I couldn't help it, when I buried my face in the back of his neck and mouthed without a sound, I'm so sorry. If he had felt that. He didn't let it show.

"We're here," Zansetsu announced suddenly as he slowed to a stop. I was confused when I saw the same whiteness and the same snow-covered mountains around us. I couldn't tell what was different from before.

Carefully, Zansetsu reached his claw forward, but soon it hit something invisible. Ah, so this was what he meant when he said that they were bound here.

"You can try it," he said as he turned his body sideways. Tentatively, I reached out my left hand. It was strange, nothing was in the air, but my hand was stopped by an invisible barrier, preventing me from reaching forward no matter how hard I pushed.

"Because of the contract, it recognizes you as one of us," Zansetsu explained. A little distance away, we saw a snow hare sniffing its way out from behind a rock buried in snow. Zansetsu bared his fang and growled and immediately, the hare ran off in a panic, crossing the invisible barrier without a problem, racing into the distance until not even my sharingan could catch its silhouette.

"Maiko, your contract is with all of us, not just Fuyuki. With her death, I became the next leader." Zansetsu's voice served as a reminder for me, along with everything he told me and showed me today. A reminder of what Fuyuki had expected me to do when she signed the contract with me, and what he and the rest of his clan expected me to continue to do.

'I can still show you the outside world, that doesn't have to change,' I wrote on his back after a long silence. You just don't have to put your lives on the line for me again.

My unspoken - or unwritten - words would have pissed Zansetsu off. I expected him to throw me onto the freezing snow without a second thought. But all Zansetsu did was shake his head slowly.

"Some pursue the preservation of eternity, but others find beauty in transience. You can't decide how we live our lives, Maiko, even as our summoner. You can't decide what's important for us, for Fuyuki, just like you can't decide how we put meaning into our lives."

No, I supposed I couldn't.

'I understand. You don't have to remind me again.' After I wrote those words, I rubbed the back of his neck. I used to do this with Fuyuki when she let me ride on her back. Zansetsu, though, probably didn't appreciate this in the slightest.

"Don't overstep this, girl." As expected, Zansetsu warned with a growl of irritation, but he still didn't throw me off. "I allowed you on my back because you look like you have so much weight in your steps that another one might break your bones. So don't expect this to be a recurring event."

'Thank you for carrying me along then,' I wrote again and Zansetsu let out a 'hmph' in response. Without another word, he started racing back to where we came from.

On the way, I rested my body against his back. I was tired and my body felt like it was falling apart, but not unbearable though, much better than what I was feeling when I first woke up. I felt the wolf slowing down in his steps as he changed to a pace that was more peaceful.

At the very end of my stay, I brushed my finger along Zansetsu's skin and wrote, 'I really do love her.'

When I was thirteen, Fuyuki crashed into my world - or maybe it was the other way around, considering how Kakashi and I stumbled upon this land - like an accident that spelt disaster. The first impression was indeed disastrous though, for me, anyway.

Yet, at some point in our meeting, I found comfort in knowing that her natural lifespan would extend many years still, even after mine had expired. Without me realizing, I hoped that she would stay 'forever' - what 'forever' meant for me, at least.

I wished for her eternity, but she lived for my transience.

Zansetsu said nothing as he activated the teleportation seal that would send me back to Konoha General Hospital. But when the world started to break down and shift, I heard his voice in the frigid wind.

"I know. Me too."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"He had asked for Uchiha Maiko." Itachi remembered Tsunade-sama's words when he walked into the lowest level of the Intelligence Division, where Konoha's interrogation unit dealt with the toughest minds that they had yet to fully crack.

Tsunade-sama thought Maiko was resting, when in reality, she was somewhere in the snowy realm of her summons, dealing with grief. Either way, the end result was the same, Itachi was sent instead.

Yakushi Kabuto asked to speak with an Uchiha. He would get one, alright.

"It's … interesting to have you back," Ibiki said as he opened the door for Itachi and lead him down the hallway. He supposed that 'interesting' was a milder way of saying 'what the hell'.

Like water leaks, the knowledge of Itachi's return had slowly seeped through the shinobi force in the village, first just the Hokage's circle, then the Anbu captains, and now, even prisoners, apparently.

"It's an interesting experience indeed," Itachi muttered under his breath. He couldn't stop the spread of his existence and came with it, the inability to hide with genjutsu and lies. "It's good to see you again, Morino-san."

"He asked to speak to Uchiha-san - the other one - all of a sudden and he wouldn't tell us why." Regardless of how he really felt, Ibiki explained the situation with diligence. "He's like a fort of information, with every layer cracked, more is revealed. Yet, he keeps reminding us that there's always more hidden inside."

Jokes aside, there was a reason why Kabuto survived Root - both when it was still alive and when it tumbled down - and gained Orochimaru's favour. Tsunade-sama allowed Itachi to reveal himself in front of him not because he asked, but because more likely than not, Kabuto had already heard about Itachi from Orochimaru.

Even before Itachi took off his cat mask, Kabuto had already switched from a look of confusion to one of understanding.

"Itachi, what a pleasant surprise," Kabuto said as he leaned back on the chair. "I supposed I asked for an Uchiha. But where's the other one, out on a mission, injured, dead?"

"Mimicking Orochimaru's speech doesn't suit you, Kabuto, is it?" Itachi was unfazed as he placed the cat mask on his lap and took a seat as well, on the other side of the barrier. "You have neither Orochimaru's skills nor his assets; it just makes you sound like a wannabe clown."

Kabuto's blank history lacked much critical information, but nevertheless, Itachi was adept at finding clues to a person. Kabuto's expression froze for a brief moment as Itachi's words pierced through the barrier and straight into his ears. But the crack disappeared as quickly as a melting snowflake as Kabuto tilted his face and stared into Itachi.

"My bad. You have to admit, Orochimaru-sama is a standard that's quite hard to match, isn't that why Konoha had trouble getting rid of him?" That was true, Itachi supposed, but he wondered why it was Kabuto's problem.

"But my time as his aid did have its benefits. While not yet complete, I do have access to many of his … innovative research theories." Kabuto's words surprised Itachi, not because he questioned their validity, but rather, he didn't expect the man to tell him what he wanted in such a straightforward manner.

"I'm willing to offer all that to Konoha if I'm allowed to continue his research," Kabuto said his piece, laid out his bargaining chip, and it was time for Itachi to respond.

"What in the world makes you think that Konoha wants anything to do with Orochimaru's research?" Itachi was truly curious about his thought process. He seemed to think that Konoha hadn't been able to get rid of Orochimaru because it desired his knowledge, not because of its incompetence, which arguably, wasn't that much better.

"Konoha can take a backseat for a moment. I simply think that I have something of interest to you, or the Uchiha, specifically." Ah, the Mangekyou, here we go again, Itachi thought in his head when he heard Kabuto's words. Still, he raised an eyebrow, silently asking the man to keep going simply because he wanted to see what other direction Kabuto could take it.

"Why do you think Danzō could sustain the strain of multiple transplanted sharingan? It's the Hashirama cells." There was a blinding sense of pride when Kabuto mentioned his work - or rather, Orochimaru's work. "The Sharingan usage strains the nerves and cells around it, the Mangekyou destroys. But the Hashirama cells heal."

"It's the perfect balance of destruction and regeneration like they're meant to be together." Kabuto leaned forward as he said each and every one of his words with seriousness and confidence. At least it was a different sales pitch than the one used by Orochimaru.

"So, you think that Hashirama cells can negate the damaging effects of Mangekyou usage," Itachi summarized for the man as he made a comment of his own. "But as far as I could remember, Orochimaru doesn't have a pair of Mangekyou that is constantly sustaining damage, making your theory remain just a theory."

"That's the thing about science, isn't it? You have to do research to prove your theories." Kabuto was far from fazed by Itachi's criticism. It was the process of research that he was bargaining for, after all.

"You do know that the current Hokage is Senju Tsunade, right? Proposing such a thing right under her eyes …" Itachi paused a little to find the right words. "Do you need it that bad to survive as a human, the worth from completing something that even Orochimaru didn't get to finish?"

Kabuto sucked in a breath as his entire body froze, as if Itachi had lifted the curtain that covered his entire room and forcibly shined a light on it.

Everyone had obsessions and emotions they couldn't let go of. When Kabuto was appealing to Itachi's obsessions, he had unknowingly revealed his own.

"Yes, not even Orochimaru-sama could prove that theory because he didn't have the tools." Kabuto let out a laugh full of mockery as he latched his gaze on Itachi and said, "But I can, Itachi. I can save your Mangekyou, your little brother's Mangekyou, when he inevitably gets it, because let's face it, shinobi are bound to die. When the time comes, is he going to accept your Mangekyou for transplantation like an obedient child? Unlikely, isn't that why you were running far and wild to hunt Orochimaru-sama to retrieve your father's Mangekyou?"

"And all I need to do is to convince the Hokage for you, right?" Itachi's voice was calm, a sharp contrast to the intensity of Kabuto's voice at the end of his speech.

"You're mocking me." Good, he understands the sarcasm. He overestimated Maiko's influence and underestimated her standards.

"Say what you want, Itachi. There are no more spare Mangekyou left in this world, I can tell you that. Orochimaru had the honour of examining all the bodies of your clansmen - left behind by you - and he took the only pair of Mangekyou, that of your father's, as an object of interest to study," Kabuto said without an ounce of wavering doubt. "All I want is a little time to conduct research, and everyone should be happy."

He looked up into the ceiling and said with a feigned confusion in his voice, "Hashirama cells can save lives, it can be so much more than being a taboo of the past. Besides, isn't it about time for Konoha to pay their due to the Uchiha?"

Ibiki was down the hall, listening to the conversation, writing down their exchange for the Hokage. For a second, Itachi couldn't tell if Kabuto was genuinely making a plea for himself or if he was just trying to screw with them by driving a wedge between the Uchiha and Konoha.

Both were probably valid to some degree.

"Word of advice, if you want to obtain some meaning for your existence by defecting to Konoha, you should try appealing to the Hokage, not me or Maiko," Itachi said. But his avoidance of the topic seemed to please Kabuto as if he had finally won something against Itachi. "But by all means, make yourself worthwhile, I'm all ears."

"Orochimaru's Edo Tensei, I know how it works," Kabuto said all of a sudden. He is just dancing on the landmines, isn't he?

"You don't just know the mechanisms behind it, Kabuto, you also know that it's incomplete and you want to improve upon it, is that right?" Itachi didn't need to wait for Kabuto to finish to guess the rest.

With the way Kabuto's mouth twitched, he wasn't planning to make the latter part known. After all, the knowledge of Edo Tensei, fine, Konoha might be willing to keep it alive for a rainy day. But researching on Edo Tensei required far more human sacrifices than what Konoha would allow.

"I'm curious, though, what made you decide to strike a deal now, after all these times?" Itachi thought that they were more or less done here. It wasn't him that would decide what would happen to Kabuto after this, it would be the Hokage. He was just a means to an end.

"Enlightenment? I've finally seen the right way to exist?" Kabuto answered with a laugh. "Who knows, maybe tomorrow I'll die and poof, there goes the way to heal your Mangekyou. After all, shinobi are bound to die."

"We'll see if you die tomorrow." Itachi closed the conversation as he left Kabuto to his silence and joined Ibiki at the door. With a heavy clank, the door to the interrogation unit was locked and sealed.

"You might want to search his mind again, he's an interesting piece of work," Itachi told Ibiki as he put the cat mask back on his face, covering himself with unidentifiable features once more.

"Oh trust me, we never stopped searching," Ibiki answered with a sigh. There was a pause before he spoke up again. "And Itachi, I'm glad to see you back."

Itachi opened the cupboard above the stove and what he saw were boxes and boxes of tea. Maiko kept a continuous supply of tea in the compound and she was dedicated to maintaining it so she would never run out.

Itachi brewed himself a kettle of tea and he dumped spoons of sugar into the teacup to wash away the bitterness. Maiko would be abhorred by the way Itachi drowned any flavours of tea with sweetness, but Itachi found it just right.

Now, it was just a waiting game.

He didn't have to wait for long before Maiko strolled into their living room, looking like she had taken a road trip to the Land of Snow, which she more or less did.

"Tsunade-sama let you out of the hospital?" Itachi asked as he pushed the tea kettle forward. He had everything ready on the table - a teacup, a notepad, a pen, and no sugar - so that Maiko would be compelled to sit down.

Maiko did sit down as she started writing. A moment later, she slipped the notepad forward and showed him her words.

'She said that all I need is rest, which I can get from home as well.' The fact that Tsunade-sama let her out so soon meant that she didn't discover Maiko's spontaneous trip to the other side of the continent.

She flipped the page and showed him her next sentence: 'You talked to Kabuto? What does he want?'

"He said he can negate the damage from the Mangekyou usage with the regenerative properties of Hashirama cells," Itachi said with nonchalance as Maiko's hand shook a little, spilling some tea from the kettle. "Oh, he also said he knows how to perform Edo Tensei."

Slowly, Maiko put the kettle down and wrote on her paper, 'Is he trying to secure his defection, or is he trying to get himself killed by Tsunade-sama?''

Itachi thought about it, before he answered, "There were probably some intentions for the former, but the execution needs work."

"But his theory did give me an idea. We never understood why Tobi seemed unaffected by Mangekyou's side effects. One possible answer could be an Eternal Mangekyou, another possibility, well …" Itachi shrugged, but what he was suggesting was quite obvious to Maiko.

'So while his eyes are being damaged by the Mangekyou, he's also being healed by the Hashirama cells?' Maiko wrote on the notepad 'When did the cells of Shodaime become so prevalent?'

"Who knows? It's just a theory," Itachi said. There was no cost to wrong guesses, at least not at this stage. "But given what Kakashi told us about Obito's circumstances, there are very few things that can pull a person that close to death back to the realm of the living."

A person's past was tightly connected to a person's present and future. Tobi's past was shrouded in mystery, and it made it hard for them to see through his present being.

Itachi didn't have anything else to expand on this topic, so he moved on to a different one. "Did you find closure in the realm of your wolf summons?"

Maiko paused in the middle of taking a drink. Still, she finished her cup of tea and placed the empty cup back onto the table, before she signed with her hand.

'I don't know.'

Right after that, she expanded with her writings: 'I don't know if I ever will.'

'Fuyuki was important to me. She was my companion, my friend, my teacher.'

Maiko rested the tip of her pen on the paper until an inkblot started to gather. Then, she wrote the words she was struggling to admit.

'In a weird way, she was like a mother to me. Sort of.'

Itachi didn't know what to say to comfort her, and Maiko never expected him to. Griefs were never meant to be completely shared with another, anyway.

'I'm a little tired. I'm going to rest, as per Tsunade-sama's order.' Maiko wrote the last bit of her words before she retreated back to her room and closed the door to the outside, leaving Itachi to finish the rest of the tea, all the while filling his cup with a sickening amount of sweetness.

Itachi thought his day would just end like this, but apparently not.

Ryuu rushed into the Uchiha Compound late at night, avoiding all the traps and alerts on reflex. He saw Itachi by the porch, but before he could shout out whatever news he was supposed to deliver, Itachi placed a finger in front of his lips, warning him to lower his volume.

"Maiko is resting. What is it?" Judging by the fact that Ryuu was in his Anbu attire, he was probably here to deliver a message from the Hokage.

"Yakushi Kabuto went missing from his cell," Ryuu said in a hushed tone. "No signs of struggle were found or heard, he just disappeared between inspections."

Itachi furrowed his eyebrows as he processed the situation. Kabuto was usually kept in Anbu Confinement with chakra seals and chakra-suppressing handcuffs. But he wasn't considered dangerous enough to be kept in an environment that cut off all forms of chakra flow.

It might seem impossible for Kabuto to escape on his own with his restraints, but it was certainly possible if he was rescued by someone, let's say, Tobi.

With two Jinchuuriki in the village, Kabuto certainly wasn't on the priority list to enjoy the anti-Tobi measures that Jiraiya and Itachi had worked on, which were still very rough around the edges.

Ryuu was just here to deliver the news on the Hokage's order - it went without saying that everything that could possibly be related to Tobi and Akatsuki was Itachi's business - right after that, he had to return to his Anbu duty.

As Itachi sat on the back porch, staring at the moon that was hanging high up in the sky, he thought about why Tobi would want someone like Yakushi Kabuto.

Information and skills, it was usually one of these two. In terms of skills … Itachi remembered the bold claims Kabuto made in front of him today, particularly the one about Edo Tensei.

Ah, that would be troublesome, Itachi thought. While he managed to force Orochimaru to release that jutsu once before using Tsukuyomi, it was heavily reliant on luck - as in, he was lucky that he knew Orochimaru so well.

Kabuto? Itachi didn't know him well enough for his Tsukuyomi to serve the same purpose and he didn't like that copious amount of uncertainty, not a single bit.

The crow on Itachi's shoulder cawed once, before Itachi rubbed the feathers on his head, telling him to bear the silence with him and not to wake up Maiko and Sasuke. The crow was intelligent, it understood what he meant.

Nevertheless, the crow cocked his head to the side and he stared at Itachi with Shisui's Mangekyou. The red glow from the eye was strong and ominous and it reminded Itachi about the first and last lie he ever told to Maiko after he returned to Konoha.

Well, calling it a lie might have been a little harsh. It was more like … he omitted an amendment to his previous statement.

He still remembered that day when he decided to say goodbye to his cover in Akatsuki. It was raining heavily, washing away the stains of blood and the smell of murder.

"Ah, this is the best kind of weather to complete an assassination," Kisame said as he pulled out Samehada from his victim's chest. Then, he turned to Itachi who was sitting on a rock nearby, watching him do the work.

Kisame didn't mind. It was easy and he enjoyed it much more than Itachi ever did.

"You've been quiet these days. Your body finally breaking down that you're losing your voice?" Kisame asked with a grin that showed his teeth.

Itachi thought about his future, and he thought about the plans he had in his head. He asked Kisame, "Do you still think that this world is filled with nothing but lies?"

"Yeah?" Kisame let out a snort as if finding Itachi's behaviour to be hilarious. "Nothing has changed since the last time we had a heart-to-heart talk, so yeah, I still do." Calling it a talk might have been overreaching, considering it was just Kisame talking about himself and making assumptions about Itachi.

"This world has no place for the existence of 'truth'," Kisame confirmed for Itachi, like countless times before.

Itachi let out a small laugh - which was shocking to Kisame - before he said to his soon-to-be ex-partner, "I can show you a 'truth' that will never change. I have never betrayed that 'truth' and I never will."

Kisame was silent for a moment as he processed everything Itachi had said. Then, he started laughing uncontrollably. "What could possibly be true about you, Itachi? Your life is a tale of betrayal!"

After a few seconds, the laughter died down as Kisame returned to all seriousness. "But do tell, what does such a 'truth' look like. I would hate it if it disappoints me."

Itachi glanced at Samehada, hungry for slaughter still, especially after feeling the bloodlust from its owner. "I would never joke on this matter. Agree to do things on my terms, Kisame, and I'll show you what a 'truth' looks like."

Itachi paused a little, before adding the final piece to his offer. "If I ever betray this 'truth', my life is yours and you're welcome to come and take it, however you see fit. I won't lift a finger to resist."

"So, let me get this straight. If you abide by this … 'truth' you spoke of, for the entirety of your life, I become your dog, instead of Akatsuki's. But if I ever find you to be lying and betraying that 'truth' - which, Itachi, your track record is working against you - I can let Samehada drink your blood as it shreds you to pieces. Am I correct?" Kisame said as he leaned on his beloved sword. Itachi could see the sparks of interest sprouting in Kisame's mind.

His partner had always been an odd one. Kisame had accepted his life to be nothing more than a wasted corpse walking, which made him quite easy to please, in terms of the standards of an S-rank missing-nin anyway.

"One last detail about that offer you proposed, what is this 'truth' that you spoke of in the first place?"

"I'll tell you if you agree," Itachi answered without really answering. Itachi let the crow materialize from his collar. Fabrics of reality bent and stretched until the crow was standing on his shoulder, hiding the swirling Mangekyou using Itachi's shadow.

"Deal." A switch was flipped, much lighter than Itachi had expected - well, he did bother to do those work beforehand. "Now, tell me the 'truth' that you'll never betray, Itachi. I can't wait to see how this will end."

Five minutes later. Itachi was on his way back to Konoha, trying to make it before the passcode expired.

Kisame let him go as he laughed and laughed uncontrollably in the rain. He was beyond satisfied with the 'truth' that Itachi told him, it seemed.

A/N: Ehhh, last chapter of 2021. Happy New year! Things always turn philosophical at this time of the year and so is my writing. We'll see more of Fuu and the kids in the next few chapters and we'll have more happiness, I hope.

Again, my take on Kabuto and Kisame's personality, creative liberties, stuff like that. 'Truth' in this context is probably not the most complete translation, since the concept was supposed to be from '真实' (It's Chinese, cause I think in Chinese and English about 50/50), which also has the added connotation as being 'real/not fake', or the opposite of being illusory.