Chapter 72

Jiraiya regretted agreeing to Itachi's proposal every single second after he had seen Konan. It was bad enough that Jiraiya had to face the student he had left in a war zone decades ago, but it was even worse when his student was rolling her eyes at him for wanting to chat.

"Are you mocking me, Itachi, Jiraiya-sensei?" Konan waved her hands and a storm of paper origami flew out of her sleeves. The flurry of papers unleashed a violent breeze that grazed past Jiraiya's face. Quickly, Jiraiya raised a dome of earth around himself, but not before a cut had already appeared on his cheek.

Jiraiya sucked in a deep breath, feeling the chakra gathered in his throat. When the earth dome tumbled down under the attack of endless paper shuriken, Jiraiya blew out the stream of oil from his mouth, letting the viscous liquid cover the shikigami, weighting them down and pushing them back to Konan

"I would never do that, Konan," Jiraiya said, trying to hold back his exasperation. "I meant every word I said, that I came here hoping that we can talk."

To his far left, Itachi popped up from the ground after hiding from the worst of Konan's attacks using genjutsu and a series of simple jutsu for evasion. Itachi rushed through the hand seals and three fire dragons rushed towards the shikigami trapped in Jiraiya's oil.

They had long discovered that Konan's shikigami could survive against normal fire, water, and even lightning jutsu. Itachi confirmed the way Konan coats her shikigami with a thin layer of moving chakra, effectively letting most chakra-based attacks slip past its slim frame if they couldn't pierce through with exceptional power.

But Jiraiya's oil attacks were meant to bind an opponent with a thick, viscous liquid, wrapping another layer of sticky chakra on top of Konan's own. The oil made the ever-flowing chakra shield slow and stagnant, making it difficult for Konan to control the shikigami and fold the origami with the added pressure.

In Creation Ninjutsu, the shape was proportional to integrity.

The fire ignited the oil before the viscous coat could come off, turning some origami that got unfolded into ashes, even setting off some explosive tags that were hidden among the paper shuriken.

A second later, Konan rose from the smoke with paper wings. She stared down at Jiraiya from the sky as the shikigami that survived the oil and fire attack rejoined her body.

"I don't have anything to say to you, Jiraiya-sensei, not in the circumstances we're in," Konan said before her tone turned sharp, "and especially not to a traitor." Her body started to break apart again, disintegrating into sheets of paper, making sure that her chakra circuit was constantly in flux to account for Itachi's genjutsu.

It worked to some extent, saving her from fatal mistakes so far. But the younger man always seemed to find some way to slip in, using the barest of genjutsu to make it annoying for her.

Upon hearing her words, Jiraiya couldn't help but let out a sigh. Honestly, what did he expect? How did he even agree to this preposterous proposal, persuaded by a few words from the Uchiha siblings …

"We're enemies, Konan, I don't deny that. But that doesn't mean I don't want to hear your words." Jiraiya decided to tweak Maiko's words a little so that the psychotic Tobi was not part of the conversation. "The world has enough misunderstanding and untold words as it is, at least let me know your thoughts before one of us dies in battle."

Konan paused a little when she heard his words, her brows knitted together as paper peeled off of her face. Just then, she sucked in a breath as shikigami fluttered around her body. In the distance, Itachi seemed to melt into the background as a flock of crows flew out of his body.

Seriously, Itachi? The fact that Jiraiya was seeing this meant that Itachi, who was supposed to be on his side, had put him under the genjutsu as well. The hordes of shikigami danced in a frenzy as Konan tried to break out of the illusion, but Itachi's genjutsu was never static, they layered upon layer, slipping in and out with calculated grace.

In contrast to Konan's agitation, Jiraiya took a breath and decided to let it be. "He's gone now," Jiraiya told Konan, even if his old student willed a paper chain to attack him. Jiraiya's hair expanded and hardened, meeting the paper chain head-on and slapping it to the side. The explosive tags hidden in the paper were exposed upon contact, but Jiraiya sheathed himself quickly.

Konan narrowed her eyes at where Itachi had disappeared, probably wondering if she had indeed broken the genjutsu or was she still seeing a different reality. Sadly, even Jiraiya didn't have an answer, for he was never bothered by the genjutsu enough to try to break it.

Suddenly, Konan seemed to swallow her irritation as she turned her gaze back to Jiraiya. "Is this his idea of getting out of my sight?" Well, to be fair, she did say that she had nothing to say in the presence of a traitor.

The fact that Jiraiya and Konan were still able to attack each other meant that Itachi's genjutsu merely erased his own presence, for now anyway. Still, shikigami flew around Konan, shielding her from ambushes while planning to shred anyone that dared to come close.

To protect herself from Itachi, Konan had to be constantly on alert. Likewise, to keep up with Konan's evershifting chakra flow and sensory detection, Itachi had to maintain his genjutsu with meticulous precision. Who was to say that Konan wasn't looking for an opening from Itachi?

In comparison, Jiraiya was the last to feel the pressure.

"God knows, I can never figure him out," Jiraiya answered with all the honesty in the world. But Itachi did somewhat establish a dangerous balance between himself and Konan, giving her a reason to calm down instead of lashing out at Jiraiya.

Silence floated between Jiraiya and Konan, getting thicker at each passing moment until it felt suffocating.

"I heard Konoha got rid of Danzō." That wasn't quite what Jiraiya had expected Konan to say, but on another thought, he should have realized the connection. Slowly, Jiraiya nodded, wondering if he'll see anger or mockery on Konan's face. But her features remained impassive as if it was just a random piece of news; as if Danzō and Root didn't have a role in destroying the old Akatsuki as she had known it.

"You don't look surprised at this topic, so you must have known what had come across on that day outside of Amegakure," Konan raised her head a little, examining Jiraiya with the same impassive attitude.

"Only through incomplete records, Konan. Yahiko …"

"Yahiko was killed on that day," Konan cut him off when Jiraiya didn't have the right words for it. "Hanzō invited us for a meeting, to discuss peace and reformation. But what we saw was pure greed. Not just his, but Danzō and his Root as well."

"Konoha never knew of what Danzō had planned with Hanzō. If we had known, I would have never allowed him to do such a thing," Jiraiya couldn't help but say as he tightened his fist. It was just empty words for her, of course, words that probably sounded like a load of hypocrisy.

"That never mattered, Jiraiya-sensei." Konan just shook her head upon hearing his words. "If not Danzō, Hanzō would find others that shared his greed. Sensei, revenge is simple, if you try hard enough, you'll find a way."

Konan seemed to turn her head to the side a little, towards the direction where Maiko and Kisame had left. Suddenly, Jiraiya was reminded of the fact that Danzō's death too, was a product of revenge, and the one who struck the finishing blow was mere minutes away.

"But it never heals the pain, does it?" Jiraiya said all of a sudden and for the first time, Konan's expressionless face seemed to show some emotion - surprise. It was a rare experience for them all, he supposed. Very rarely - more like, never - did one have enough patience with an enemy to engage in such conversation during battle. But then again, Jiraiya wouldn't wish this contradiction on anyone.

"How could it, when the wrong path had already been determined?" Konan raised one of her hands and a horde of shikigami gathered at her fingertips. "Yahiko's death was not the cause, it was a product - a waking call that the world itself was never on the right path."

Jiraiya slapped his hand into the ground, letting the black lines expand under his palm. In a burst of smoke, Gamabunta appeared under Jiraiya's feet.

"Oil bombs, Gamabunta!" Jiraiya yelled and the giant toad followed his cue without a moment of delay. A stream of oil shot out of Gamabunta's mouth while Jiraiya made the hand seals in front of his chest. Taking a large breath, he blew out a violent rush of wind, sending the mass of clumped-up shikigami covered by oil right towards Konan's figure in the sky.

"Is that what Nagato believes too, Konan?" Jiraiya shouted into the sky. While the mass of oily paper cloaked him from Konan's view, he pressed down on Gamabunta's skin. Familiar with the signal, Gamabunta leaped up just as Jiraiya took out a scroll from his jacket.

Jiraiya rolled the fabrics open, letting the black seals lash out into the air. Like strings, the black lines raced towards Konan as she willed her shikigami to block the paths. Most of the seals got stuck by the papers, but Jiraiya already opened another one with his hand behind his back.

Finally, a black seal managed to wade through the snowstorm of paper as it drilled towards Konan from underneath. With a keen sense, Konan moved to the right, dodging the seal by a hair as it latched onto one of her wings instead.

The moment the shikigami was touched by the seal, it started to fall apart like a crumbling paper mache. Like the oil, it was designed to slow down the flow of chakra, but with a much stronger effect.

Konan faltered as she dropped from the air, but her shikigami was endless, already rejoining her to catch her landing as she discarded the wings altogether. She seemed to take a second to think, before answering Jiraiya, "Perhaps - no, I'm certain, Jiraiya-sensei, that the only one you would be proud of is Yahiko."

Just like that, Jiraiya didn't need a clarification to understand what she meant.

However, as the teacher in question, Jiraiya would like to correct her. "Konan, the pride that a teacher feels for their students has no expiry date." Konan might have sucked in a breath when she heard his whispers. It was hard to tell with the storms of shikigami around her.

Jiraiya was certain that he would never accept Konan and Nagato's justification for what they did, but feelings were never just a series of additions and subtractions. The horror and disapproval that Jiraiya felt for his former students, no matter how conflicting to his core ideals, couldn't just erase the pride Jiraiya had for all three of them - Yahiko, Nagato, and Konan - knowing that they had once grown to be strong leaders and persistent fighters. At least, before it all tumbled down.

Suddenly, Jiraiya remembered what Itachi and Maiko had once said, when they first discussed Pein's abilities and identity, about how Pein continued to use Yahiko's image, elevating him to be the face of Akatsuki, no matter how deformed it had become. Just like that, an idea came to Jiraiya's mind.

Konan would never straight up tell them what Akatsuki had planned for the tailed-beasts - at least, Nagato's version - but Jiraiya could take a guess. Jiraiya wanted to take a gamble on the fact that no matter what their ideology had become, Konan and Nagato were still as stubborn and persistent in their goals - and Yahiko's goals - as they were little.

"You and Nagato still want to bring peace, don't you? But this time, through the overwhelming terror and destruction that the tailed-beasts can bring, so everyone will be in the position and have the same fear."

As soon as Jiraiya made his guess, time seemed to pause around them - not because of Maiko's interference, for once. Jiraiya was no master of deduction like Itachi, but based on the way Konan's attention scattered for a moment, he would say that he had hit the mark.

It was then that a crow with eyes of sharingan flew towards Konan from behind, its beak aiming for the base of her neck that had turned static in her moment of turmoil.

Konan averted her eyes as shikigami rushed up from her side, slashing into the crow with razor-sharp edges. Almost immediately, Konan's chakra pulsed and the world seemed to shatter for Jiraiya.

But behind the shattered glass that cloaked reality, Konan and Jiraiya saw the crow that was being dissected turn into pieces of broken metal. Itachi's body materialized from thin air as the genjutsu broke completely, the tomoe in his eyes swirled violently as he stabbed the kunai forward, right where Konan had pulled the shikigami away for the earlier defence.

Despite all the words that had been spoken, their plan, from the very beginning, was to go for the kill, and Konan was very much aware of that.

Itachi's kunai drew blood as it etched deeper into Konan's shoulder, who took a step back at the last moment to move her neck out of the way. But as soon as Itachi had missed the killing blow, papers started to peel off of her face and body, leaving behind a shell of mashed-up papesr to greet Itachi.

"Gamabunta!" Jiraiya shouted in a hurry when he caught the glimpse of explosive tags between the layers of paper. Gamabunta shot out his tongue just as Itachi flickered back. The tongue caught the younger man in mid-air and dragged him back just as the paper mache bomb exploded. Itachi, of course, flickered back into the smoke and chased after Konan as soon as he got out of the bind.

"Not everyone will be in the same position, the same fear." Jiraiya was surprised to hear Itachi's shouts when he and Gamabunta rushed to catch up. He had given in to Itachi's genjutsu so easily that he almost forgot that there was another pair of ears that were listening in, gathering as much information as he could.

"The one that's in control of the terror - the one that brought the pain and fear - will always be different. Nagato, as the god of this new reality, will always be different!" Itachi voiced the complaint of his own as he split apart a whirlpool of paper snowstorm with a flash of lightning.

"Do not speak of his name, Itachi!" Konan's voice reverberated in the air, but the anger was hard to miss. "What do you know of the pain he had gone through?" Clones of Konan littered across the forest, all made of paper that could explode at a moment's notice, making it hard to traverse the forest, let alone pinpoint her location.

"It's not enough to have gone through the pain. For your ideology to work, everyone must be reminded of the terror and the pain constantly. As the origin of such suffering, Nagato either allowed himself to feel the same fear and pain that he had inflicted upon everyone, or he makes himself free from personal desires and becomes synonym to terror and destruction," Itachi explained, his eyes scanning across the field, disregarding one clone after another without pausing his steps. "How long can he hold out, whether as a reflection of everyone's pain or as a symbol of evil and fear?"

Jiraiya felt like his brain was being pricked by needles as he heard Itachi trying to actually dissect Akatsuki's plan and discuss its viability. At this point, he was too busy delaying the explosions by restraining the clones with his oil to examine the logical progression of Itachi's argument.

But Itachi wasn't saying those things for him to hear anyway. The real recipient that Itachi was trying to address had gone silent, but the other man wasn't nearly finished.

"Even if he planned to bear all that pain and hatred - I never doubt his integrity, don't get me wrong - but how do you know that Tobi and Zetsu would do the same, to hold the power of terror not for their own desire and wishes, but as a pillar of sacrifice—" Itachi's voice got cut off in distortion and that was when Jiraiya realized that Itachi had embedded those words inside a genjutsu, which Konan abruptly shattered a few seconds later.

A tornado of shikigami descended from the sky as the paper clones - the ones not stuck in oil, anyway - fell apart and joined the storm of white, painting a scene like a thousand falling petals, but much, much more deadly. That was Konan's response, he supposed, to Itachi's attempt at sabotaging Konan's trust.

He didn't know if Itachi had planned to do such a thing from the beginning, or if it came spontaneously after he understood Konan and Nagato's future agenda. As Jiraiya said earlier, he could never figure Itachi out.

Jiraiya rushed through the hand seals and slammed his feet on the ground, letting heavy earth walls rise up from the ground to shield him and Itachi. Gamabunta twirled his blade as well, deflecting as many shikigami as he could, ignoring the cuts that manifested on his skin.

Suddenly, the speed of Konan's shikigami seemed to slow for a fraction of a second. Jiraiya had to squeeze his eyes to see the little flickers of orange when a few pieces of origami combusted next to Konan.

Ah, Maiko must have 'killed' Kisame.

Jiraiya only took a second of his attention off of Itachi, and the next time he turned to his left, the younger man had disappeared as his genjutsu seeped in to replace reality.

All Uchiha could cast genjutsu with their sharingan, but the combination of sharingan and genjutsu was truly deadly in the hands of Uchiha Itachi. The sharingan caught the slightest moment of opening - a second of wavering attention, a flash of uncertain thought - and the genjutsu would never miss.

Konan didn't have time to be shocked by the death of her fellow missing-nin. It took her less than a second to realize that Itachi had, once again, latched onto her with a genjutsu and thus the tug of war resumed.

As Gamabunta fired oil bombs one after another, keeping Konan busy as she tried to break out of the genjutsu faster than Itachi could reinforce it, Jiraiya cut his index finger on the edge of a kunai. Locating a piece of paper in his bags - the same size as Konan's own origami, Jiraiya moved his finger across it as fast as he could without losing precision.

The moment Jiraiya placed his last stroke, the red pattern disappeared from the surface. It was a simple technique, connecting an existing seal with an invisibility seal, something he was teaching to Naruto before he left for Kiri. In the blink of an eye, the piece of paper left his hand, getting snatched away as feathers brushed against his skin.

Amidst the shikigami, the explosion, and the oil that tried to swallow everything up, was a murder of crow that rushed in with bravery. Konan's shikigami swirled around her, shredding them indiscriminately.

Before all of the crows could be reduced to nothing under the sharp edges, Jiraiya's hair extended out as he whipped his head around. Needle-like projections flew out of his messy hair and hardened in the process. The needles pierced through the air, deflecting the shikigami away and saving two of the crows while the rest either faded out of existence or fell as metallic parts.

It was then that one of the crows swelled up in size and turned to none other than Itachi himself. Despite the looming kunai that inched closer to Konan's face, she stood her ground and willed her shikigami to bypass Itachi and slashed through the crow that hid under his shadow.

This time, the shikigami drew real blood as the crow was cut into pieces. The small scroll that had just been revealed with the shattered genjutsu fell from the crow's claws, all drenched in blood.

Once more, Jiraiya's hairs tried to deflect the shikigami that curved around and aimed for Itachi's back. Despite the bind that Itachi seemed to be in, all he did was bring one of his hands to his mouth in the form of a hand seal.

Then, a rush of wind rustled Konan's papers, sucking them towards Itachi. Konan's shikigami couldn't be moved so easily, but a piece of paper still got sucked in. It was a piece of paper that got dropped into the air when one of Itachi's crow got dispelled - Correction, the crow had returned to its summoning domain by its owner's will.

Before Konan could react, the insignificant piece of paper plastered itself onto Konan's back, hugging her tight as black lines expanded from the sealing array, finally visible after finding its target. Konan's movement turned sluggish; her shikigami seemed to lose their shape and agility as if all of her was immersed in a pool of viscous liquid.

Itachi swiped his kunai down as his sharingan swirled until a different pattern emerged, ready to follow up with a stronger attack if the first one couldn't finish the job. He knew that he couldn't use his Mangekyou technique carelessly, not when Konan had thousands of shikigami as fodders to block Amaterasu, and especially not when there was the chance of ….

Jiraiya didn't know what to think anymore when a giant mass of white emerged from the ground, like a sapling that broke through the earth, but with a much more creepy shape.

Itachi's kunai got buried by the expanding white mass as a face appeared on the surface. It looked like it wanted to say something, but Itachi never gave it the chance as he halted Amaterasu and blew a large fireball towards the unknown entity.

"That was mean …" Jiraiya caught the distorted whisper that lingered in the air as Itachi jumped back from the burning scene. Konan had long broken out of the seal by overloading it with more chakra than it could take. In the blink of an eye, she disintegrated most of her body into shikigami and started to flee among the snowstorm of paper on the other side of the flame.

It would be a pain to track her down, especially when Itachi let out a series of coughs as he covered his mouth. His back was bleeding from a large cut when one of the shikigami had struck him in the fray

"Itachi!" Jiraiya yelled out with worry, but Itachi just shook his head as he looked over the remnants of shikigami in the far distance. Once again, Jiraiya couldn't tell if Itachi shook his head to tell him that no, he wasn't on the verge of dying, or if it was to lament their failed attempt that was so close yet so far.

"It's just chakra exhaustion," Itachi reassured him when the fire died down, not looking any less composed despite the back of his clothes being dyed red. He cast his glance down on the ground and raised an eyebrow. "Moreover, I think I figured out how Obito had survived the fall of Kannabi Bridge and returned with a Mangekyou that has reduced side effects."

Jiraiya walked over to where Itachi was looking. At the hole where the white mass had emerged from the ground, underneath the pile of ashes, Jiraiya could see the large root that sprawled underneath the forest floor with vitality.

They had just witnessed something akin to Wood Release.

Itachi snapped his attention back up when Maiko emerged from the forest. There was so much blood that covered her body, but none of it was hers. She looked over Jiraiya and Itachi, eventually resting her eyes on the large wound on Itachi's back. The disapproval was clear on her face against Itachi's nonchalant attitude.

"Kisame is dead." Still, Maiko decided to finish the business first.

"Sadly, Konan has fled, with the help of Zetsu, maybe." Itachi didn't sound very sad. Very rarely, was there a hint of uncertainty in Itachi's voice, still, he furrowed his eyebrows as he continued, "He has quite a different appearance from my memory."

"Well, let's get you patched up by Kiri Anbu first, shall we? Ojou-chan will not be happy if you fainted from blood loss." Jiraiya didn't know if the past fifteen minutes was productive enough for Itachi, but he desperately needed to straighten his mind from the fact that his former students thought that plunging the world into a state of misery would be the path to achieve eternal peace.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

"How much do you want to bet that he will attack me the moment I release him?" I asked Itachi as we waded through the water until the sea stacks loomed over us by the coastline. The sounds of waves slapping the rocky outcrops continued to play in the background. One second, it was a cacophony, but the next, they seemed to move in rhythm and strung in harmony.

"It's not a fun bet if both of us want to bet on the same thing," Itachi replied with lightheartedness, even though both of us were feeling the crashes that came after chakra exhaustion. I supposed Utakata did suggest taking a seashore stroll, but sneaking into an obscure coast far off the map in the middle of the night was probably not what he meant.

But whatever, we weren't here for sightseeing anyway.

Giving my brother a nod, I placed my hand on the sand and let the summoning array expand to its fullest. With a puff of smoke, Zansetsu appeared as he rolled something towards us with his forepaw.

"Thank you," I said to Zansetsu, who just give me a snort before leaving, no doubt judging me in every aspect for leaving the immobilized-but-not-yet-dead body of one Hoshigaki Kisame in his snowy realm and polluting the scenery. Still, he had done what I had asked, transporting Kisame away using the reverse summoning as I had covered his body with the hand of the Susanoo under the veil of flames.

"I hope you had some time to reflect and get on the same page, but I doubt it will make a difference," I whispered as I pressed my hand on the back of his neck - all covered in dried blood - and searched for the markings that I had left behind.

Soon, I found the tips of the senbon that I had used to send him into a state of false death. With a deep breath, I pulled out the senbon with a smooth motion and the needles slid out without any resistance.

There was a moment where nothing happened, until Kisame swung his hand up and went straight for my neck. Calmly, I grabbed his arm and twisted it back down with no mercy. The shark-like man let out a series of painful grunts as I pinned him down with my knee.

"You're already strong enough to be moving, impressive," I said as Kisame stopped his struggle. It would take a normal hunter-nin a day to regain strength for movement after the senbon were removed, and three to five days to fully recover from weakness. Yet, Kisame's attack would have left a nasty bruise on my neck had it hit.

"What can I say, I'm built differently," Kisame had the energy to joke despite the coarseness in his voice.

Knowing that he had given up on any attacks, I let go of him and returned to Itachi's side. Slowly, Kisame pushed himself up from the ground, rolling his joints to wake up his limbs. Finally, his hand arrived at his own neck, where a thick layer of dried blood had caked, but there was no injury more serious than a shallow graze underneath.

When Kannon Bosatsu had taken effect, I pushed in the senbon at the base of his neck before taking out a special seal that was pasted inside my wrist. It was a storage seal made especially for blood, like a less conspicuous blood bag. I slashed the seal instead of Kisame's neck to release all that blood and hid the remaining piece of evidence in my fist afterwards.

"What the hell, Itachi?" Kisame asked with a wide grin on his face, but the rage was seething out of his clenched teeth. "You seriously just pulled this shit on me without telling me anything?"

"It won't be convincing if you knew. Besides, our communication method is less than ideal for complex details." Itachi wasn't at all fazed by Kisame's threats as he explained his decision. For a second, it looked like Kisame was on the verge of losing it, but the next, he was letting out a burst of laughter until he was choking on it.

"Fine, let me ask again. Why did you bail me out of Akatsuki with a fake death? It couldn't be that you've grown soft towards me, could it? That you're rescuing me before Pein could find me out and rip me apart for being a traitor?" Kisame asked, biting his words with contempt, as if Itachi even showed an ounce of agreement, he would personally rip him apart.

My brother narrowed his eyes at his former colleague but otherwise said nothing. Pity was poison to Kisame, he sure made that clear.

"You're not useful anymore in Akatsuki, that's all," Itachi said after a stretch of silence. "We have eyes on all the remaining Jinchuuriki so I don't need someone to monitor Akatsuki's progress anymore."

Upon hearing that, Kisame cocked his head to the side, asking my brother to go on, so he did. "As for you, time to let your existence fade in Akatsuki's memory so that when you resurface, you make the most of your worth."

This was the first time I had seen my brother interacting with Kisame. I had no idea how this relationship worked before and it was safe to say that I still didn't. But hey, there were stranger things that could happen.

"Most of my worth, you say? Then I'm going to need something else." Just like that, Kisame's anger subsided and was quickly replaced by an interest in chaos. Perhaps this was indeed just entertainment for him; my brother simply offered him some excitement and amusement when Akatsuki failed to keep up.

The shark-like man looked at us expectantly and I took out the scroll with Samehada. With some reluctance, I threw the legendary sword back to its wielder.

"There, I'll be sure to make a splash when I show up again," Kisame didn't bother to examine the scroll before tucking it in his belt. He rolled his arms while assessing the extent of his recovery, accompanied by the sounds of joints cracking. I wasn't sure what his standards were, considering that he had just suffered an injury that would put a shinobi out of commission for a few days, but he seemed to find it satisfactory enough.

"Itachi, remember what you promised me when I decided to betray Akatsuki for you. To me, only with that deal is your existence more interesting than your corpse and Akatsuki's chaos," Kisame reminded my brother as he turned away from the coastline and walked towards the sea.

"It might take you years and decades to observe me through. Won't you get bored in life?" Itachi asked instead, making Kisame pause as ripples expanded from where he stopped in the water.

"I'll be the one who decides that," the Kiri-missing-nin answered as he bared his teeth. As a second thought, he turned to me and said, "the next time we meet, you better kill me for real if you don't want to die."

I raised an eyebrow at his words, but it wasn't like he was looking for any particular response either. Rest assured, if we managed to get through this and all three of us - Kisame, myself, and Mei - survived, you bet that I would be tasked with hunting down Kisame and retrieving Samehada for Kirigakure.

Kisame walked deeper into the ocean until finally, he dived into the water headfirst. The water splashed up and he disappeared into the sea. Soon, there was nothing to be seen except for the slow tide and the swaying moon that got reflected on the water.

"Want to take a walk with me?" I called out to my brother all of a sudden. With barely any hesitation, Itachi nodded.

"Did you really use Kotoamatsukami?" I asked as we walked along the seashore, where the jagged outcrops seemed to shield us in a space of isolation from the solid, concrete land.

"I did, but just to be safe, I never put all my hope on it. Striking a deal with Kisame was simply to make it easier for the technique to take effect." That was a very logical answer from Itachi. I didn't need to know what exactly that deal entailed to know that it was a wager of life. Missing-nin didn't have much else to put on the table, anyway.

There was a long stretch of silence as Itachi lowered his eyes. I could just imagine the thoughts that were going through his head, wondering if I would be angered by the omission of a clearly not-so-healthy pact that he had with Kisame and moreover, how he could placate my anger and amend his mistake.

Just before he could say a word, I spoke up. "You don't have to tell me what it is that binds Kisame to you. It's okay to keep some secrets, we all do."

Talking to Mei was a taxing business, but she was right in some things. I never wanted to question Itachi ever again, and for that, I unconsciously held him to the expectation that he would tell me everything, big or small, no lies and no omissions.

As for Itachi, no one felt the instability of our trust more than he did, and thus, no one had stricter expectations than what he had for himself.

"Really, I just want a warning, in case I need to help you hide Kotoamastukami from Konoha," I added, hoping to reassure Itachi. It really didn't.

"I never meant to keep it from you, but old habits die hard, Maiko, and it just never came up again," Itachi said with a sigh escaping his breath. "It's nothing I can't tell you, albeit, it's a little embarrassing."

"Then don't. Sometimes I don't want to tell you stuff that I'm embarrassed about, you get to do the same," I repeated my point again. "I trust that you know what you're doing, but if you did get yourself into a mess after falling out with Hoshigaki, however that happened, I'm going to kill him before he kills you."

Despite the somewhat disturbing topic, Itachi nodded with a faint smile on his face. "That's reassuring to hear."

"Itachi, we always go from one extreme to another. In the past, you kept everything from me and now, you forced yourself to keep nothing from me," I said, dipping my hand into the chilling water to wash away the dried blood. "I mean, the transparency is helpful, but I don't want you to feel like you're walking on eggshells, as if you have to do everything to carefully maintain the trust between us."

Utakata called us messed up, which I couldn't even deny. So many topics had become a forbidden zone between us - The Uchiha Massacre, the Rebellion, Mother, Father… that it felt futile to disturb the balance that was being set up.

Perhaps time would smooth out the cracks, but what was the indication, how would we even know that? So, one of us had to reach out, to let the other know that maybe we had healed, somewhat.

"I'd like to think that our trust is not that fragile. Maybe it was before, but not now, I hope, so be at ease." I shook the water off of my hand and turned around. Carefully, I reached out and pulled him into a hug - It wasn't like I knew of other ways to comfort people. I remembered to wrap my arms around him loosely so that I wouldn't put pressure on his back where the wound was still healing.

Maybe we would quarrel more often, about things that might seem trivial to Itachi but would completely piss me off, or maybe it was the other way around. I didn't really know what I wanted, because turning our relationship back to 'normal' was never a viable option. But perhaps we could afford to feel less burdensome, to feel less like we were walking on glass.

Soon, I felt him returning the embrace as he patted my back. Taking a deep breath, I rested my face on his shoulder and whispered, "After all, I have secrets that I've never told you and probably never will."

Itachi and Sasuke were the last people in this world who knew for certain that my sharingan opened at birth. The people outside of my clans, Kakashi, the Hokage … for them, the circumstances of my birth had faded into nothing more than a rumour, something that my clan thought they could use to pave ways for a prodigy but eventually had to give up because I turned out to be nothing special, not with Itachi and Shisui around.

It was difficult for a non-Uchiha to truly understand what it meant to open the sharingan, what had to have occurred and what had to be experienced. The fact that my sharingan opening at birth was called a miracle implied that it should be impossible. Somehow, I found it hard to believe that someone as observant as Itachi was never suspicious of the clues.

"It's alright, you can tell me when you're ready." Itachi's voice sounded as I pulled away. "Or never, if you never want to."

"Really, you're never curious about how I opened the sharingan at birth?" I raised my head and asked, completely aware of the fact that I was being immature and taking advantage of Itachi's immense tolerance towards me.

"Um, do you want me to?" Itachi asked instead as if he could most definitely go for the other response as soon as I said the word. Every time we talked, I couldn't help but be reminded of his gentle nature and I immediately felt bad for acting like a child.

"Nah, forget it. It's not very interesting anyway," I said, turning around and ready to walk away. But Itachi held onto my hand, making me turn back.

"Of course, I want to know, Mai. Even if I could ignore everything else, the activation of your sharingan is quite a big anomaly. Shisui used to pester me all the time as if I knew anything, and I had to tell him to shut it." There was a pause before Itachi continued, "Of course, I want to know, but it doesn't really change anything if I don't know."

"Huh, you should have told Shisui to ask me directly, and I would have wiped the floor with his face." My words sent Itachi laughing and a moment later, I joined him in the chorus of laughters.

"I'll tell you one day, maybe, when I'm ready." And it'll either blow your mind or leave you asking, 'that's it?'.

"Sounds good." Itachi nodded as I pulled him along until we stepped out of the wet sand.

It was time to report back to Konoha about our newest development with Akatsuki, which I was sure was the reason why Jiraiya was sighing every thirty seconds.

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

I opened the door to the front porch and felt a speck of iciness that fell on my forehead. In late January, Konoha was greeted by its first winter snow.

A rush of frigid wind assaulted my skin, making me grab a haori hanging by the entrance. While just the flow of chakra was enough to ward a shinobi from cold weather, especially for those with an affinity to fire chakra, it did have its limitations.

I made my way to the front gate, leaving behind one footprint after another on the pristine white snow. I just wanted to check if the snow had piled up enough in front of the gate to warrant any removal - by fire ninjutsu, of course. However, what I did not expect was for a girl to crash forward the moment I pulled the gate open.

"Ahh!" The red-haired girl let out a scream before I caught her by the arm.

"Karin, slow down!" Sakura yelled as she arrived at the gate just a second later. She let out a breath of relief when Karin didn't face plant into the snow. Then she turned to me and said, "Maiko-senpai, we're so sorry!"

"Sorry, I didn't think the gate would open so suddenly. It's just so quiet and serene here," Karin said as she steadied herself, a hue of redness was already creeping up the back of her ears.

"Umm, it's all good, but to what do I owe this visit?" I asked, a little confused. I thought Sakura's new team went to Kirigakure for the Chunin exam which would end … ah, now it made sense. I imagined the exam was finally over and they were excited to share the good news.

"Well, I just want to let you know that we've all passed!" Sakura said as a bright smile bloomed on her face, with both a little hint of pride and a little hint of relief.

"All of you?" I asked, raising my head to look beyond the compound gate. Indeed, my little subordinate was just outside the walls, followed by the silver-haired Jonin-sensei that temporarily led their team.

"Senpai," Sai greeted me with a slight bow of his head, careful not to use the word 'Captain'. He didn't look as excited as his teammates for gaining the Chunin title, but then again, he never seemed excited about anything, really.

"Congratulations, Sakura, Karin, and Sai. You all worked hard to earn it." I moved my gaze through each of them as I congratulated them, even giving Sakura a little pat on the head. More than physical strength, all of them had grown so much mentally since the first time I had seen them - even Sai.

"And Sai, what would you like to do now, extend your leave for a little longer, or return to your post?" I turned to the young boy next, waiting for his response as he lowered his head in contemplation.

I gave him a leave of absence to attend the Chunin Exam, and it was well within Anbu's policy for Sai to make the leave a little longer, to change up the environment and experience something different in the normal shinobi force. In fact, it was encouraged for former Root agents, it just never had much appreciation from the said population.

Despite the hopeful gazes from Sakura and Karin, Sai shook his head and told me, "I would like to return to my former post. Thank you for giving me the opportunity."

Upon hearing that, I nodded in understanding. I was glad that he had taken the initiative to find teammates for the Chunin Exam, to integrate himself into the world. It was never about what path he had chosen, but the fact that he had chosen it for himself.

Still, the young boy turned to Karin and Sakura and said, "Thank you for being my teammates. It was a … really memorable experience."

"You're the one that said we'll make a great team, of course, we'll have to live up to it!" Karin shouted as she gave Sai a pat on the shoulder, looking as if she was suppressing some tears.

I never thought the Uzumaki girl to be the emotional kind, considering how timid she was when Naruto first brought her out of the last Chunin Exam, but boy, I was wrong. Whether it was genetics or just from Naruto's influence when they lived together, Karin had absolutely no shame in expressing her emotions.

"Thank you as well, Hatake-san." Sai was diligent in his manners as he gave Kakashi a bow too. "I'll take my leave, Senpai." Seeing that he had absolutely no more reason to stay, the boy left in a few body flickers, probably heading towards a hidden Anbu entrance.

"Well, if you want to stick around, might as well come in so we don't get buried by the snow." I returned my attention to the two kunoichi, inviting them inside. But to my surprise, Sakura and Karin just shook their heads.

"Karin and I will report to the Chunin Corps soon. I just wanted to drop by and say that I'm really thankful for all your help, Ryuu-kun and Sasuke-kun as well," Sakura said as she opened her bag and took out a small pouch sealed by strings. "Also, I want to give this to you, a souvenir from Kirigakure."

The pink-haired girl handed the small pouch to me. In addition to the soft fabric, I felt something solid inside the pouch. At this point, Sakura's ears were already covered by the redness and it wasn't because of the cold. Without further chatter, Sakura and Karin gave me one last wave of the hand as they left the isolated Uchiha Compound and headed for the more populated area of the village.

With the pouch still in my hands, I turned to my only remaining visitor and asked, "And you? Would you like to come in and sit down?" The fact that he was still here after all his former genin charges had left meant that he still had unfinished business. The real question was if that business could be concluded at the gate.

Kakashi glanced at my haori, where the lower ends were being soaked by the melting snow. "Let's go inside, so you don't ruin a haori that costs more than a B-rank mission." I almost rolled my eyes at his words as I turned around. God knows how he distinguished the price of the haori with just a look - and he was correct. My clan wasn't exactly lacking in leftover clothing articles, and we had our pride as a Noble Clan in the selection of fabric and craftsmanship.

"By the way, where's Itachi?" Kakashi asked as I led him into the living room.

"He went to see Shizune-san for examinations," I answered as I hung the haori on the shelf to dry. Even though Itachi's health had somewhat stabilized, allowing him to perform much more intense battles, Tsunade-sama was still very strict on her prescribed treatment regime, making sure that the aftermath of his battles would not add more damage to his body. "Do you need him to be here?"

"No, I suppose it's fine. I'm just here to relay some updates. You can fill him in afterwards," Kakashi said as he sat down by the table without an ounce of discomfort. Well, he had come here enough to know everything there was in this room.

"Right, the Chunin Exam. Did Tsunade-sama meet with the Raikage and Tsuchikage?" I asked, already having guesses about what could possibly be interesting enough for him to make a trip here.

"Yondaime Raikage did come to watch the Tournament, although, you've probably guessed, he was definitely avoiding the topic of Jinchuuriki," Kakashi answered with a rare hint of frustration in his voice. "If it weren't for the Daimyo, Tsunade-sama might have punched something to get her point across."

"Well, if he's avoiding the topic, then maybe he is cautious about their situation," I said, trying to find the silver lining in Raikage's uncooperative attitudes. It was understandable, given all the recent turmoil and accusations over Iwa's Jinchuuriki and the involvement of Akatsuki, that Kumo would be reluctant to share news of their Jinchuuriki to other hidden villages.

"That's the best hope, really. I didn't think Raikage would feel enough trust to tell us Kumo's plan for their Jicnhuuriki, especially not when the other three Kage or village representatives on the scene were obviously on the same side." I paused a little at Kakashi's words. The other three, meaning that …

"The Tsuchikage didn't even bother sending their genin to the exam, so he certainly wasn't there." As if reading my thoughts, Kakashi answered without any delay. Well, there went our chance to have a peaceful conversation with the Tsuchikage, not that a conversation would have helped regardless.

"Ever since your confrontation with Konan and Kisame in Kiri a month ago, there hasn't been any news on Akatsuki," Kakashi reminded me. Konoha's Anbu and Jiraiya's information networks had returned nothing, and neither did Kiri and Suna. After a moment of thought, he said, in a joking tone, "Perhaps they were busy sorting out internal conflicts after Itachi's little speech."

Right, Itachi did sort of suggest to Konan that perhaps Tobi and Zetsu were just using them to fulfill his own agenda. From the looks of it, Konan wasn't very receptive to his speculation, but at least, Itachi was able to raise a seed of doubt. Too bad she cut him off before he could fully flush out his argument.

"As much as I hoped that's true, I doubt that any internal conflict would be brewing so soon. Akatsuki might be a weird and incoherent organization, but they had been working together for years," I told him, the disappointment in my tone was hard to miss.

"So you and Itachi do believe that Tobi and Pein are after different things." Of course, Kakashi caught the hidden assumption in my words. Itachi's action could be taken as a last-ditch effort to drive a crack between Akatsuki's members, but he did think that Tobi and Pein's agendas were very different.

"Rather than 'believe', I'd use 'strongly suspect'," I corrected him. "It's hard to put into words, but Pein's goal was to bring peace through fear and pain, to change the world through terror and destruction. As for Tobi, while he also lost faith in this world, I … get the feeling that he thought the world was unsalvageable precisely because of the pain and suffering in it."

Kakashi waited patiently as I tried to come up with the right words, to explain something as subjective as intuition for another to hear. "When he tried to kill me by the hands of One-Tail, he wanted to make Itachi feel despair and suffering so that he would see the world for what it is. But if it is a world full of suffering and pain that he finds unsalvageable, I don't think he would want to follow Pein's plan to fully turn the world into nothing but misery and fear."

I looked at Kakashi, asking silently, 'Am I making sense?'. He nodded a moment later, but his brows remained furrowed as he digested my words.

"At this point, I don't know what's worse. Pein's plan to bring peace through horror and destruction, or Tobi's unknown plan to rid of the broken aspects of this world as he saw it." Kakashi commented as he shook his head, and I couldn't agree more.

"Either way, this … ominous silence from Akatsuki can be both a good and a bad thing," Kakashi told me. "It gave us - particularly Suna - some breathing room to reorganize and consolidate our forces. But at the same time, it won't give Kumo enough pressure to stay alert of their Jinchuuriki."

I knew what he meant. If Akatsuki melted into shadows and made no moves, it would remain a myth in the eyes of Kumo. It didn't help that Kumo had always been confident of their Jinchuuriki's abilities and saw them not as someone to be protected, but someone that could be claws and shields of Kumo. Eventually, their caution over their Jinchuuriki would lax - hell, the same psychological complacency might even befall Konoha, Suna, or Kiri if given long enough.

It was a question of whether Kumo's caution would hold until Akatsuki was forced to strike again. Unfortunately, both of those entities were out of Konoha's control.

"On a lighter note, the final winner of the Kiri Chunin Exam was someone you're familiar with." Kakashi changed the topic as soon as the depressing parts of the conversation were over.

I thought about it for a second before answering, "Haku?"

"Yes, that boy had won with a spectacular show of skills. Mei would be happy with how successfully Kiri had advertised its strength to the Daimyo," Kakashi added. At least Mei got what she wanted - to revitalize Kiri's reputation and consequently the economy through this event. Maybe it would soothe her bad mood from having to give up Samehada.

"Kiri's doing well, isn't it?" I whispered. It seemed that every time I went to Kiri, they were doing a little better. There were small steps, but they all added up eventually. Suddenly, I saw the pouch that Sakura had given to me on the table. I picked it up by its strings and observed the beautifully sewn patterns on the fabric - a picture of plum blossom, fitting for the season.

"What's this?" I asked Kakashi. There was no way that Sakura's movement could have escaped Kakashi's attention, not when his duty was to watch over the genin in a foreign village.

"Why don't you see for yourself. She was excited to give it to you," Kakashi replied instead and that definitely got me curious.

Carefully, I loosened the strings at the pouch's opening and poured out the content. To my surprise, I found two small pearls, crafted into a set of earrings. I held up one of them against the rays of the winter sun. The shades of ivory and gray mixed together to create a unique glow on the surface of the pearl, bringing a sense of familiarity as past memory resurfaced.

"These are pearls from … the Land of the Waves?" I asked, a little uncertain simply because of how far back in time my memory was. But I had once seen the same kind of pearls, as a gift as well, from someone whom I held dear.

"After the Bridge that connected the Land of the Waves to the Water Country was built - they named it Naruto Bridge, by the way - it seems that commerce and trade have become easier and more accessible. These pearls were abundant in the Land of Waves; while they're not particularly expensive or seen as prized jewelry, the Land of the Waves were able to gain profits by supplying them to merchants in Water Country, who crafts them into accessories or souvenirs."

With Kakashi's explanation, I understood why Sakura would be happy seeing these pearls. No matter how frustrated or terrified she was during her first C-rank mission at the Land of the Waves, seeing these pearls being traded and sold as commonplace items must have reminded her of the fact that something good came out of that mission, that something positive came out of their role as a shinobi.

"I like them," I decided. Sakura even made sure that these were small and light to wear. I touched the piercings on my earlobe - I didn't even remember how I got it except that it was when I was still living in the Compound before my own Chunin Exam.

Unfortunately, I didn't have a habit of wearing earrings unless they were for disguise, but I was sure they'll find their occasion, like the one that Shisui had given me. For now, I placed them back in the pouch they came with.

"Perhaps it's a good thing that Akatsuki is not stirring up trouble right now. It gives these children more time to grow and develop," I said as a passing thought, making Kakashi nod in agreement.

"Speaking of which, how's my other student doing in Anbu?" It seemed that we have devolved from calamity-related news to simply small talks now, which was fine, any day of peace was a day to be cherished.

"Sasuke is … acclimating to the new environment. You know how it was in the first few months." Just then, I heard a low rustling sound from down the hall, resembling the sound of windows being opened and closed. Just the boy we're talking about, "There, he's back, but I don't think he wants to have a conversation yet."

"No, doesn't look like it." Kakashi looked amused at the state of my household. I was pretty sure that Sasuke went for the window instead of the door precisely because he didn't want to see or interact with anyone right now, not when the bed was tempting him after a long, exhausting mission.

After that, Kakashi and I exchanged some words on a few other topics while keeping in mind our volume.

We talked about Naruto, who was diligently training in Mount Myoboku. I thought he'd be complaining about boredom after a few weeks in that repetitive environment, but according to Jiraiya, his drive to improve was immense enough to rid him of distractions. While his control over Nine-Tail chakra was not at the level of Fuu yet - after all, Naruto could only access the chakra that had naturally leaked out without incurring the wrath of the Nine-Tail Fox - he had already gone far.

We also had a few words about Fuu, who had managed to alleviate her boredom at the Uchiha Compound by meeting Naruto in Mount Myoboku. While she admitted that she hardly knew what she was doing when sparring with Naruto, Naruto's mental - and physical - strength of steel somehow made it work and slowly turned it from one-sided beatings to a more helpful training session.

After Kakashi left, I noted the time and left for the training ground. At the exact three-hour mark after Sasuke got home, I returned to the main house and found my brother flopping up from the bed, all his sleepiness gone as alertness came back to him. Well, it would take some more time for the effects of the initiation training to go away.

A mask rolled to the ground because of his abrupt movement and landed by the door. I picked it up and saw the paint strokes made to resemble the pattern of a heron.

"You should be a little more careful with your stuff. Technically, we're not supposed to let others associate our masks with our identities." I said, handing the mask back to Sasuke, who stuffed it back into his storage seal without a pause.

"Does anonymity even exist with the sharingan and all?" Sasuke asked, resisting the urge to roll his eyes as he flopped back down, trying to get more sleep despite his body screaming 'get up!'. That was a very good question indeed, for which I had no answer.

"Well, if you can't sleep, you might as well get up and have some breakfast–" There was a pause when I remembered what time it was "–or lunch. Itachi should be back from the hospital soon."

"We'll see," Sasuke mumbled as he buried his head back into the pillow. Shaking my head, I left his room to prepare the meal.

As expected, not even five minutes later, I heard a grunt of frustration coming from the room down the hall. Sasuke opened the door, working hard to suppress his anger at being woken up - by his own biological clock, no less - and said, "I'll have the lunch."

(づ。◕‿‿◕。)づ fuwa~fuwa~desu~~~

With the warm breeze of July, Fire Country was once again in the embrace of summer.

Shun stayed focused as he maintained the connection between his mind and that of a fellow shinobi, sent to spy on a particular Bounty Exchange Point situated in the border region between Fire and Lightning Country.

Months after Akatsuki made a mess out of Konoha and Iwa's relationship, all news of Akatsuki seemed to fade into the background.

On the surface, life moved on unhindered, even for those allied villages of Konoha. Suna was regaining its economic foothold as the new trade route between Fire and Wind Country gained usage. Kiri had been capitalizing on their popularity with the Daimyo after their last display at the Chunin Exam.

In contrast, Konoha seemed like the paranoid one as they sent out Anbu after Anbu, trying to gather any information they could find on the whereabouts of Akatsuki. Even shinobi of the Yamanaka Clan like Shun got called to spread around the country, serving as the node of communication between agents, allowing Konoha to gain more coverage with more efficiency.

Patience was being stretched thin, whether in Konoha or in those villages - just Kumo and a very, very bitter Iwa, at this point - that were watching to see if Konoha's claim of imminent danger would turn into reality.

But Godaime-sama's determination remained strong. At least, they sort of had a direction. Kakuzu was known to be a missing-nin that valued his pay as much as his life. According to Itachi - god, it takes some time to get used to, Shun thought, as one of the privileged few who got the news straight from Maiko - the Takigakure missing-nin couldn't go on for a week without exchanging some heads for bounties

Of course, that was an exaggeration, otherwise, they wouldn't be stuck spying on active Bounty Exchange Points for weeks without any results.

'Shun-san, Lynx reporting here. There's nothing suspicious at Exchange Point 23, nobody has deposited any bounty, nor did any individual with characteristics matching our description come into view.' One of the agents connected to Shun's Mind-Body Transmission relayed. With the amount of Yamanaka that got recruited to work along with the Anbu, it would be quite confusing if they called him by his last name.

'Just one more hour, Lynx, and then it's time to rotate,' Shun said, knowing how boring and taxing it was to stare at the same spot for hours, examining every change with the worst speculations.

'Oh man, really? Finally! If it's not for the mortician that occasionally comes up for a smoke, I thought I had crossed over to the limbo with all the silence,' Lynx said in his mind, dropping the whole serious act immediately. Shun had gotten to know Team Rei quite well over the past few days. While they were shinobi of the highest calibre, most were simply young shinobi who wanted to use their talent for the good of Konoha. They were just human.

'Lynx, can you not pollute the connection with your overly loud voice? Keep it to what's important and don't make Shun-san work more than necessary.' Crane, the Captain of Team Rei, chastised the younger man, who apologized right away. Shun would have told them that it was fine, but Crane had the best intention in mind.

After another forty-five minutes of nothing interesting, Crane announced through the connection, 'Everyone, start preparing for the switch. Lynx and Elk will return to the resting spot. I will head for Exchange Point 22, Jackal to Point 21, and finally, Heron to Point 23."

A chorus of agreement sounded in Shun's mind. Rustling noises sounded behind Shun as Jackal and Heron started getting ready for the rotation. Using this method and the long-distance communication provided by Yamanaka, a team of five or six Anbu would be able to cover three to four Exchange Points.

Shun turned around and laid his eyes on Heron, who had opened his red sharingan to examine his surroundings. Maiko was right, anonymity was dead for any Uchiha who joined Anbu.

Just then, Shun felt a crack in his Mind-body transmission. 'There are—' The voice was cut off and it was from … Lynx.

'Lynx, are you okay?' Shun asked in a hurry as he tried to regain the connection. Heron and Jackal paused in their movement as their bodies tensed up at the sudden change. However, no matter how hard Shun tried to reach Lynx, the transmission between them severed like a string being snapped in two.

When that happened, it usually meant that the person Shun was trying to connect with was dead.

'Lynx is attacked. He's likely dead.' Shun didn't waste a second, giving out the worst possible outcome without any euphemism. If Lynx was killed, then his attacker might be nearby. Shun concentrated his sensory range, trying to locate any chakra signature around where Lynx was stationed. The map of chakra dots seemed to unfold in his mind and he just had to reach a little farther …

Shun felt his brain being smashed apart as flashes of blood and pure maleficence filled his vision. The Mind-Body Transmission snapped as he clutched onto his head in pain. Blood dripped down from his nose and hit the ground with a splatter.

"Shun-san!" Jackal yelled in worry, noticing how the Mind-Body Transmission was cut, but Shun just wiped the blood off of his face and shook his head, telling him that he was fine. Immediately, he concentrated his chakra and made the hand seals again to re-establish the connection.

Familiar chakra signatures were being strung together and tied as Shun connected the rest of Team Rei one by one. Without wasting any time, he said, 'I tried to locate and restrain the possible attacker, but their chakra and mind were emitting a sense of evil that I had never felt before. There might be more than one attacker, but the details I got were messy.'

'There's a high likelihood that we have finally caught Akatsuki - even if it isn't, this level of threat cannot be allowed to slip unnoticed.' There was a second of silence as Crane made his judgment. 'Everyone from Team Rei will converge with me towards Exchange Point 23 and we will track down Lynx's attacker. Stay alert and treat this as S-rank danger.'

'Shun-san, please provide us with communication until we gather. Also, please relay the event back to the Commanding Station. If you can, search for any vacant Konoha shinobi in the area, level Chunin and above, with at least one Jonin in charge, describe the possible danger and ask them for help in tracking. The attacker must have realized that we're watching their movement through spies, therefore, we need to do all we can to catch them before they can slip away.'

Shun joined in on the chorus of agreement from the rest of the Anbu. "Stay safe, all of you," he said to Heron and Jackal just before they were about to leave.

"You too," Jackal said and the young Uchiha gave him a nod as well. Just like that, they flickered into the dense forest without any wavering thoughts.

Shun managed to connect with another Yamanaka further into the Country. This chain of communication would continue until it had arrived back at one of the Commanding Centres for Anbu operation. The commanding officer there would organize and send for reinforcement immediately, but as Crane had said, the moment those attackers discovered Lynx, they would know that they were being marked.

Shun expanded his sensory field and searched for any recognizable chakra signature. To his surprise, the first one that registered on his radar was someone incredibly familiar.

'Ino.' It was the mind of Shun's younger cousin, the daughter of his Shishou and Clan Head.

'Shun-nii-san?' Ino sounded confused. Shun knew for a fact that she wasn't serving as one of the nodes of Anbu Communication. It had only been half a year since she gained the Chunin title, still so young and trying to gain experience.

There was a moment when Shun wondered if it was a good idea for him to drag her into this. But the memory of Sasuke in his Heron mask reminded him that it would be selfish for him to decide that.

'Anbu Emergency. Ino, state your mission, status, and personnel at the site,' Shun bit down the unease in his chest and asked.

Ino didn't waste any time as soon as she realized the direness in Shun's voice. 'B-rank mission: investigating the assassination of a Fire Country business magnate. Status: partially complete. Personnel: four Chunin - Shikamaru, Chouji, Sakura, myself - and one Jonin - Sarutobi Asuma.'

'Connect me with Sarutobi-san.' Shun ordered and the young girl did what he asked.

Like Crane had asked, Shun explained what had occurred and what was being asked of Asuma and his Chunin subordinates, including the danger involved when dealing with Akatsuki, even if it was just suspicion at this stage.

As expected, there was silence as the seasoned Jonin processed the information and formed his judgment. 'Our mission is mostly concluded, so my team and I will coordinate with Team Rei and help in the tracking.'

'Thank you for your help, please stay safe,' Shun replied before ending his transmission. Ino was more than capable of connecting her team with the Anbu. For now, he needed to focus on passing information between the Commanding station and Team Rei.

Paranoia or not, Hokage-sama made sure to drill into the heads of every one of the shinobi - Anbu or not - the danger and terrifying uncertainty associated with Akatsuki. After all, they couldn't make Maiko and Itachi do all the work, hoping that they would always be at the right place for the right time.

It was reassuring, knowing that Konoha had those with the prowess to not only survive against but defeat an Akatsuki missing-nin. But Eternal Mangekyou or not, there was only one Maiko. If they didn't make any moves until Maiko - who probably was also camping out at one of those Exchange Points with her team - came along, then it defeated the purpose of setting up an Anbu network all over the country.

It was never the responsibility of one alone, that was what Konoha believed.

A/N: So umm, Jiraiya having a mental meltdown. Maiko is slowly being elevated to the status of an idol in the eyes of Sakura. Sasuke is a cranky teenager because he didn't get enough sleep. In case it's been too long (like 60+ chapters and five years) and no one remembers, Shisui gave Maiko a necklace once with a pearl picked up from the Land of the Waves. Team Rei is the team that found Sai near Takigakure, but that's not important. Shun is also making a minor appearance ever since chapter 51. They are the closest thing to wireless communication at this stage, I supposed.