so, uh... i realise it's been almost 4 months?
sorry for disappearing (again), but i started a 9-5 job in spain in september, so not only did that considerably eat up my time, but, by virtue of having to plan lessons all day every day, opening a word doc with the thought of writing something else just gave me suck visceral NOPE that i physically couldnt bring myself to even map out this chapter until about a week ago.
it's here, it's (arguably) just one, large, extended scene, but we're tying up loose ends and setting the stage for the Final Showdown. from this point on, i expect only around 3-4 more chapters for shippuden, one for resolution, and 1-2 for the epilogue, so knowing my writing schedule, around this time next year we'll probably be done XDD
thank you to everyone for the continued support of this story of mine, the lovely messages and detailed comments and even the incomprehensible keysmash and screeching, i love it all! the detailed explanation of what, exactly, went on this chapter will come in the next installment, when we get sakura and co's POV, and it should, hopefully, be out around new year's!
for now, enjoy this one, and i hope you're all happy and healthy!
"Oops?" Sakura offered, rubbing the back of her head 'sheepishly', though both, the action, and the semi-apology were completely insincere as she was still fighting back laughter at the boys' reactions.
"This- this is not an oops situation, Sakura." Shikamaru exclaimed, pinching the bridge of his nose, torn between disbelieving and exasperated. "I don't know what situation it is, but oops is insufficient."
"I believe that some sort of, ah, explanation would be helpful." Chojuro tacked on, looking a lot paler than he had not five minutes earlier, seemingly cowed by the very big snake watching them all like they were its next meal.
"I-yeah, sure, I can do that." Sakura agreed, finally restraining her chuckles. "First though-!"
She turned to Kiyohime and bowed, ignoring how her heart skipped a beat in that short instance when she dropped eye-contact with the summon before she straightened back up. They may have come to an agreement of sorts the previous day, but they had still been Orochimaru's summons. The trust would take a while to build up.
"Thank you for coming." She greeted the summon politely, offering a small smile when it tilted its head. "The necklace you hold belonged to Uchiha Itachi. Would you be able to track him?"
Kiyohime hissed quietly, tongue flickering out for a second before she inclined her head in a very humanoid nod.
"I would find him even without thisssss." She announced, and Sakura decided that she'd ask about the how and why when she didn't have a very pale, very confused audience. "I can take you to him."
Sakura sighed, relieved. She'd been hoping for that response, but had only been about 30% sure she'd get it.
"Please." She replied, and glanced at Shikamaru and Cho. "We will follow."
Kiyohime lowered herself so her whole body was flush against the ground, no longer towering over them, and set off at a pace much faster than Sakura would've expected from the massive summon.
She hastened to follow, and felt more than heard the boys do the same.
For the next ten minutes, there was silence between them, broken only by the sound of the wind whistling by and the quiet crunch of leaves under Kiyohime's slithering girth.
Then, Shikamaru adjusted his pace so he was running side-by-side with her, Chojuro following suit, and Sakura didn't have to look to know he was looking at her expectantly.
Sakura huffed a laugh, and obliged.
After having presented Suigetsu with Kubikiribocho and Karin with the information she'd so dearly desired, Sakura decided it was time to officially meet her summons.
The rather conspicuous nature of the snakes, added to the fact that Orochimaru and Anko were the only ones who knew of her contract, ruled out most training grounds and, if she was being honest, most of the Village outskirts too. Still, she didn't go far. Though she knew most wouldn't think of the top of the Hokage Monument as the best place to do what she planned to, it proved to be sufficiently remote and removed from the general populace for her needs, so she compromised.
Walking deeper into the forest at the top of the Hokage's heads than she ever had before, she settled in the first large clearing she found and concentrated.
She knew the principle of the chakra transfusion: as soon as she used up all of Orochimaru's chakra that still coursed through her coils, they'd snap back to their original size like a rubber band. The longer she went with the borrowed chakra, the more painful the readjustment period would be – one medical scroll she'd found described it as 'chakra exhaustion that neither sleep nor food could cure' and if there was one thing Sakura was keen to avoid, it was precisely that.
But Chairo had given her a perfect way of expending all that chakra; the 'first contact' with her new summons – and Sakura still wasn't over the fact that she had summons now – so here she was.
Not completely sure how to proceed, she closed her eyes and fell into herself, seeking out the new chakra links she could sense connecting to her core. She imagined grabbing hold of as many of those links as she could, then pulled.
Her chakra – not just Orochimaru's, but a good chunk of her own untouched reserves – and her breath, left her in a dizzying rush.
But when she opened her eyes with a gasp, it was to the sight of half a dozen snakes of various shapes and sizes staring back at her.
"Wow." Sakura breathed, awed.
The snakes ranged from having bodies the width of her torso and being around twice her height, to thicker than the Memorial Stone and so long, they had to curl around the circumference of the clearing twice to fit; their scales and eyes were a mix of colours, from stark, ivory white, to the darkest midnight and the red of freshly-spilled blood.
In her moment of inattention, they erupted into chatter, curling around her and slithering ever faster and closer.
"What's this?" one hissed, in a language Sakura only belatedly realised wasn't human.
"Death-defier's next project?"
"Chairo says his heir."
"Can we eat it?"
"I'd appreciate it if you didn't eat me." Sakura interjected hastily, drawing the snakes' attention back onto her.
The snake that had asked the last question was blood-red, one of its eyes scarred shut, but the other a gold a few shades darker than the one she was familiar with, and it shone with hatred and distrust.
"I won't summon you if you don't wish for me to, but I have a few things I need to get done and I can't do them from inside your digestive tract." She continued, trying to ignore the fact that the scarlet snake's head was the size of her entire body. "I am happy to compromise, though."
Three ivory snakes slithered to her side, each with its body wider than Sakura's shoulders and easily thirty feet long, their eyes a stunning emerald, ruby and amethyst respectively.
"Do not mind Garada." One whispered in soothing tones, far different from the earlier harsh hissing.
"He isss bitter and distrustful of humans." The other continued in that same lilting hiss, slithering closer.
"His first sssummoner betrayed him." The last finished, rising up a good three metres above Sakura's head and peering at her from above.
With each of the three snakes gazing at her so intently, Sakura felt as if she were caught in a staring contest with a sphinx, sure that one wrong move would end in her swift demise.
"Thank you," she managed to get out past her suddenly-dry throat, "for your counsel." She inclined her head, not dropping her eyes from the snakes. "What do I call you?"
"Do you have…specialties?" she asked hesitantly, trying to assign each name to the eye-colour. Much like with Chairo, she was pretty sure that if the snakes had human faces, they'd have been grinning.
"Ssssame as yours, from what we understand." Amethyst-eyes, or the one Sakura believed to be Tagorihime, announced, before all three chorused an eerie-sounding:
Carefully, Sakura allowed herself to smile.
"Now that," she murmured, reaching out a shaking hand to rest on the neck of the snake closest to her, "is something I can't wait to explore." She admitted, dragging her hand up and down before scratching lightly with her nails.
Ichikishimahime rumbled a deep, pleased sound, and Sakura was willing to bet that if it were feline instead of reptile, its eyes would've been half-closed in pleasure.
(inwardly, she wondered what the snake-equivalent of purring was)
"Are there any of you that specialise in tracking?"
"That," a new voice called out, one that, if it had come from a human, Sakura wouldn't have hesitated to call cultured, but as it originated from a snake about twenty metres long, she could only think eerie, "would be me."
A beautiful, deep-purple snake with onyx-coloured eyes came forward, and the three smaller snakes she had been speaking to respectfully moved out of the way so it could slither closer to Sakura, who stifled the urge to gulp nervously.
"What may I call you?" she asked instead, torn between not breaking eye-contact and bowing, because something about the serpent made her feel small.
"I am Kiyohime. I will aid you in combat and chakra tracking."
Sakura took a deep breath and made a mental list.
Genjutsu, tracking, combat, and sheer power, judging by Geruda's size and demeanour.
All in all, the snakes supplemented her strengths and covered her weaknesses, and, though unwilling to be too hasty in her assessment, Sakura almost dared to feel hopeful.
She took another deep breath to settle her nerves and spoke.
"I admit freely that I am inexperienced with Summoning Contracts, as you are my first. But, for your aid, I vow to never abandon you, betray you, or violate your autonomy. And, if I flounder, I will trust you to correct me." Cursing herself at the sheer stupidity of her next move, she counted to three and bowed deeply, eyes screwed shut. "Please take care of me!"
When she straightened a few seconds later, the air around the clearing was different.
Intrigue had replaced the earlier hostility, and even the looming, vicious-looking Geruda seemed more contemplative than aggressive.
"We will hold you to your word." Kiyohime replied, seemingly the spokesperson of the – tribe? nest? clan? – of snakes Sakura had inherited. "For now, sit and lissssten."
And Sakura did.
"You are," Shikamaru declared, sounding torn between hysterical laughter and exasperation, "the luckiest, dumbest, most troublesome woman I've ever met."
"Hey," Sakura protested with a pout, turning to Chojuro for support, but the other teen looked comparably exasperated to Shikamaru.
"Your self-preservation instincts…they leave a lot to the imagination, Sakura-chan." he replied to her unspoken question, half-sympathetic, half-chastising.
"Well, I think it all worked out fine." She defended with a grumble, then was saved from having to defend her intelligence or decision-making more when Kiyohime came to an abrupt halt ahead of them.
It was only then that Sakura fully focused on their surroundings and noticed, with no small degree of surprise, that Kiyohime led them to the very edge of a small city in the Land of Tea, if the signs she could see on the outer walls were anything to go by.
Then, she realised why her summon had stopped when she couldn't sense more than the barest hint of residual chakra from within the walls.
"He issss here. Smells like herbssss." Kiyohime announced once they all came to a stop, and after a few seconds of baffled silence, Shikamaru spoke.
"So, teahouse or a hospital." he offered, considering, and Sakura nodded her agreement, then did a doubletake when Chojuro snorted inelegantly.
"S-sorry, I'm sorry," he apologised, waving them off, stifling another chuckle. "I just can't quite wrap my head around the idea of Uchiha Itachi, the criminal mass-murderer, in a teahouse."
Sakura grinned as well, though whether it was from actual humour or the tinge of hysteria she could feel creeping up, she wasn't sure. They really were about to go knock-knock on the secret hideout of a man she hadn't dared make eye-contact with the last time she'd seen him.
"Best place to hide, isn't it?" Shikamaru asked, oblivious to Sakura's inner musings. "In plain sight?"
"A man stopping for tea in a village bordering the Land of Fire doesn't seem like a man hiding to me." She pointed out instead, forcefully pulling her mind away from how she'd react to Itachi with her new…perspective, and pushed the rising panic down and out of mind.
"Less speculating, more planning." Shikamaru steered them back on track, and he reminded Sakura so much of Iruka-sensei in that moment she almost laughed. "What will we do when we actually find him?"
"I don't suppose he'd be open to a pleasant chat over tea and dango, do you?" Chojuro asked wryly, and Sakura realised with a start that she wasn't the only one feeling slightly hysterical at the prospect of what they were about to do.
Somehow, planning to go 'hunt down Uchiha Itachi and ask him some uncomfortable questions' sounded much more sensible when they were in the relative safety of Konoha, feeling invincible so long as they were together.
Yet, knowing that she wasn't the only one freaking out settled her somewhat, and she dared for some humour.
"A man manipulated into murdering his whole Clan, sent to infiltrate the most dangerous criminal organisation known to the Shinobi Nations, having to wait years to testify against the man who orchestrated it all, and then still needing to fake his death to be free of the Village's grasp? No, somehow I don't think he'll be too happy to see us." She snarked, only half-kidding, because, really, it was a genuine possibility.
"Then we have to corner him." Shikamaru concluded with a sigh, sounding as resigned as Sakura felt, and they hadn't even started yet. "Sakura, what's the reach of your compulsive genjutsu?"
Chojuro watched the two Leaf-nin banter with an odd mix of fondness and regret.
Neither of them was the newly minted chunin he'd first met on their mission to Mist, but then again, he wasn't the stuttering, self-conscious baby-Swordsman he'd been then either.
Still, he felt that his growth and change had been subtle. Gradual. Natural. Gaining confidence and experience and skill and red in his ledger at a pace that could be called concerning if not for the fact that he was a Kiri-nin.
Sakura and Shikamaru, though?
It seemed that every time he saw them, they were a little bit scarier than the last.
Actual shinobi skills were one thing. Status was another. Being chosen as one of the Seven when he had been fresh out of the Academy, Chojuro had had both from early on. Then, there was the political power which he'd earned as the Ambassador to Konoha and Suna, and through having his current Kage view him as a son.
Shikamaru also had the skills, the status, political power, and the brains to combine it all into something more; while Sakura had the ruthlessness needed to use the final product unflinchingly.
With his stability and balance, Shikamaru's intellect, and Sakura's cunning, they formed a ferocious unit.
He was glad, deep down, that the powers-that-be had only really been able to put a name to their Bingo-Book page entries at the Kage Summit. Otherwise, he had no doubt that all of them would've been put down like rabid dogs before they ever had the chance to become as powerful – in all senses of the word – as they now were.
But, with the situation they now found themselves in…well. He had known that all was not perfect in the Village Hidden in the Leaves. From that first sabotaged diplomatic mission, to finding out the truth about the Uchiha Massacre, to learning of complicit Elders and conniving Kage, to hiding mass-murderers – he'd used them all to justify Sakura walking the line of respecting authority like a tightrope, and Shikamaru talking of treason as something inevitable.
But he still never thought they would once end up here, on a self-assigned mission to discover whether Uchiha Itachi had struck a deal with Konoha's kage for his freedom, their only justification that of 'finding out whether Itachi knew anything about the Sharingan-wielding shadow-leader of the Akatsuki', which was a smokescreen so flimsy even Chojuro couldn't fool himself with it.
"What are you thinking?" Sakura's voice brought him back to the present and he frowned – though he hadn't had the chance to catch up with his partners since the Kage Summit, he thought Shikamaru's question about the compulsive genjutsu to be fairly obvious.
And unlike the boy he'd been when he met them for the first time in Mist, this time, they were equals, friends, and comrades, so he didn't hesitate to voice his thoughts.
"Finding a shinobi who'll likely be stifling his chakra in a sea of civilian signatures will be like finding a needle in a haystack." He pointed out to Sakura, drawing both their attention, and noting the pleased gleam in Shikamaru's eyes. "So, burn all the hay. Get the civilians out of the equation."
"Precisely." Shikamaru agreed, and shifted slightly, so Chojuro was part of the group rather than on the edge of it. "Get the civilians out of the village to protect them and help us isolate Itachi's chakra at the same time. Could you do it?"
Chojuro privately thought it amusing and more than a little touching that Shikamaru had immediately assumed it to be something Sakura could, in fact, do, and only thought to ask after she didn't immediately jump to the same conclusion.
This stalwart, unshakeable faith in Sakura's competence might explain at least part of the complete lack of hesitance to commit treason with her.
Chojuro wasn't sure whether it was admirable or alarming.
"A whole-Village genjutsu that's subtle enough that in its compulsion that it won't cause the civilians' brains to haemorrhage or permanently damage something vital by forcing chakra where it's not used to being?" Sakura asked sceptically, and Chojuro knew even before she opened her mouth what her answer would be. "No, I can't do that. I don't think even Itachi himself could do it. But…"
Where Shikamaru had frowned at her admission, he perked up when she bit her thumb and bent down, then jumped when three enormous snakes appeared around them, making the previously-spacious clearing feel nigh-claustrophobic with their size.
"Tagitsuhime, Tagorihime, Ichikishimahime." Sakura greeted with a shallow bow, which the snakes mirrored. "I have a favour to ask of you."
Itachi began growing suspicious when he felt a wave of chakra, not unlike an aftershock, sweep overhead. Then, when the half dozen or so customers at the shop all stood up and began filtering out as one, not a word shared between them, he could admit to mild unease.
While he was far from keeping up with the customs or traditions of the little civilian town he'd escaped to, he was confident that he'd have heard if there was some big festival going on. This, in turn, meant that the sudden exodus was from an outside influence, and that meant a genjutsu user. A strong one, at that, if the zombie-like horde he could see moving down the main street was anything to go by.
His suspicions were confirmed when the door to the tea shop opened and three figures walked in, chakra carefully, and masterfully stifled, but their movements and formation screaming shinobi.
If not for the height and healthy skin pallor, he'd have thought the middle figure was another one of Orochimaru's incarnations, but when the henge dropped and sharp emerald eyes rose to meet his own, he was forced to reconsider.
This wasn't Orochimaru. This was someone worse.
"What I wouldn't give for a camera right now." The girl mumbled under her breath, eyes raking over Itachi's apron-clad form, the remark drawing a snort from the teen on her left. A Nara, undoubtedly, even if his Konohagakure headband was nowhere in sight.
Then, like a mask falling into place, the earlier humour was completely banished from the girl's expression, replaced with a blankness comparable to what Itachi was used to seeing in the mirror; the fact that it was a feat only Black-Ops were usually capable of only reaffirmed what Itachi remembered reading in her file.
"Uchiha-san." She greeted, and at this point, Itachi had no doubt as to who he was speaking to. "Our apologies for coming unannounced. But, you see, it's a bit difficult to be considerate when you're hunting a ghost."
Years at Akatsuki playing double-agent, years spent constantly watching his every word even around Kisame, who, in another life, Itachi may have even considered a friend, meant that his discomfort didn't show when he spoke, nor did he hesitate.
"You say hunting a ghost, and yet you're here. Would you show some consideration now and tell me why?" he kept his voice even and his words polite, though in reality, he was feeling anything but.
The girl offered a bland smile but stayed silent, letting the Nara at her side pick up the conversation, which he did seamlessly.
"Three reasons, really." he admitted, casual as could be, and Itachi would've been fooled if not for the eagle-eyed way the thus-far silent swordsman was watching him. "One, because we were curious as to your continued survival, and whether your relative freedom was due to sheer dumb luck or a prior deal. The latter, of course, would mean that the kage or someone high-up is colluding with international criminals while in an international alliance, and as Ambassadors, we can't be seen to let that tid-bit slide." He shrugged in a clear 'what can you do' way, but Itachi didn't let the blasé attitude detract from the seriousness of his accusations.
"Two, because new intelligence has been uncovered about the real leader of your old organisation, and we were wondering whether you'd be able to shed some light on the matter. And three, because, frankly, a war is coming. For all your questionable motivations and martyrdom, you would be much more useful on our side of the war than as the enemy."
Itachi wasn't sure why he felt a stab of disappointment when he realised that their presence in his safe haven really could simply be justified by the age-old proverb of 'the enemy of my enemy is my friend' and nothing more. But that bizarre reaction didn't affect his practised blankness, nor the biting commentary he offered the Nara.
"As an established Ambassador to two countries, I'd have expected some more consideration in the presentation of your arguments." He murmured, feeling the first spark of irritation when all his words served for was making that irritating lazy grin grow. "As it stands, I feel no more persuaded to help you than I did when you first walked in. Less so, in fact."
At that, the swordsman finally moved, and over his years in Akatsuki, Itachi had heard enough tales from Kisame about the requirements for one of the Seven to be able to justify the way his chakra stirred at the barest twitch from the blue-haired teen. But he merely turned to the other two, a hint of a wry smile playing around his lips as he spoke, just loud enough for Itachi to hear without even straining,
"I think it's genetic."
The Nara raised an eyebrow, visibly amused, as if he already knew what the swordsman was going to say.
"Do share?" he requested, and Itachi had the weirdest feeling like he was playing for an audience.
"The Uchiha penchant for underestimating their opponents. It must be genetic." Then, that narrow, watchful glare turned back on him, and Itachi hadn't realised how oppressive it truly felt until it was back. "You mistook an attempt at misdirection for an attempt at persuasions, Uchiha-san."
"Misdirection?" Itachi repeated, doubt colouring his otherwise bland tone. "And what, exactly, did you hope to misdirect my attention from?"
At that, the Nara grinned, wide and unrepentant and predatory. "From the fact that you're a sitting duck. Look around you, Uchiha. Really look."
Itachi's Sharingan blazed to life before the teen had even finished speaking, and he cursed inwardly.
The Nara wasn't wrong.
The walls were lined with kagenui, a writhing, near-sentient mass, using the shadows cast by the setting sun to mask their eerie movements. Pure chakra coated the floor and the ceiling, the former originating from the rosette, the latter from the swordsman in a truly excellent display of teamwork and control.
He was… trapped.
Narrow Sharingan eyes turned to the trio, but all three had the sense to not let their gaze reach higher than his nose.
"Did you come to talk, or to fight?" he asked tightly, having grown unused to such odds when facing opponents below S-Rank.
"To talk, Uchiha-san." The girl replied, and while the Nara had affected a façade of humour and schadenfreude and the swordsman was watchful and snide, she just seemed…tired. "But we're aware the questions we want to ask are far from pleasant, and we couldn't risk spooking you."
"Spooking." Itachi echoed, flat and disbelieving at the audacity of these children. "Speak, then."
"What do you know of Uchiha Obito's abilities?" she asked, and Itachi could officially admit to having lost the thread of the conversation.
"Uchiha Obito died as a genin." He denied before his brain quite caught up. But the look on the Nara's face, torn between satisfaction and resignation, made him reconsider. Then, as he kicked his brain into gear, he stilled.
Uchiha Obito died as a genin…but his body was never recovered. And they wouldn't be asking if it wasn't relevant. 'New intelligence has been uncovered about the real leader of your old organisation' he'd said. Obito was crushed by a boulder. He'd have been…mangled. Even if he'd survived-! He froze, feeling his Sharingan morph into the Mangekyo.…Tobi never took off his mask. The teleportation…it's not too far-fetched to presume it to originate from the Mangekyo. Obito. Tobi. I…It can't be.
But it could be.
As if reading the realisation on his face, though Itachi was certain his expression never changed, the girl offered a tight smile.
"We are almost certain Uchiha Obito survived, and is, in fact, the real leader of the Akatsuki, and the member who once went by 'Tobi'. Seeing as he was once your clansman, we thought you may be able to offer some insight as to his goals and motivations."
"I…" Itachi rarely hesitated, but now, he was struck by the memory of a masked man with long hair his teenage self had believed to be Madara, a man who helped him wipe out his Clan without batting an eye, then disappeared. To think that…to think that that was Shisui's Uncle Obito, a man who, in the stories Itachi had been told as a child, had been a clutz, a pariah, yet with mental fortitude not unlike that of Uzumaki Naruto… "I had help, the night I killed my Clan." Was what he found himself saying, at last.
The surprise he'd been expecting…wasn't there.
"That would've been obvious to anyone who dared look past the harrowing nature of that night as a whole." The Nara pointed out shrewdly, not at all perturbed by the news. "With all due respect to your genius, Uchiha, you were, what, 12? 13? Even with Naruto's Shadow Clones, you'd have struggled to kill your whole Clan, and undetected at that."
It was the swordsman who voiced what Itachi couldn't bring himself to.
"You think the person who helped you was this 'Obito'." He guessed, eyes narrowed behind his glasses, and Itachi nodded mutely.
"He knew the Uchiha Style, had the Mangekyo and wielded a gunbai. I assumed…"
"-that he was your presumed-dead, eighty-something year old ancestor?" The Nara asked, tone bland as ever, but the words sharp and sarcastic.
"Not all Uchiha manifested the Sharingan." The girl spoke up before Itachi could, her gaze trained inexplicably on Itachi's arm. "Fewer still the Mangekyo. I think there were less than a dozen recorded cases, and that's including Uchiha Madara and his brother. As a preteen who's just been ordered to massacre his entire Clan, it's not that ridiculous of an assumption to make." She shrugged, as if her all but defending Itachi was no big deal, then her eyes rose to meet his, no longer seeming to care about his Mangekyo being active. "But, more importantly: you no longer bear my seal."
Itachi blinked, and he wasn't the only one thrown off by the non-sequitur the girl had just delivered.
"Seal?" the swordsman asked cautiously, eyes flickering between Itachi and his friend.
"When Orochimaru attacked, I went into the T&I cells and broke out Sasuke and Uchiha-san." Haruno divulged, her gaze never leaving Itachi's. "I intended to use them as cannon fodder against Orochimaru. I put a seal on both of them, the same chakra-restricting seal that I had helped Genma redesign after Sasuke's trial. There are only four people apart from me who know how to or have the skill needed to remove that seal safely. Genma and Kakashi are two. Then Tsunade-sama. And lastly, Jiraiya."
Itachi felt like she was leading up to something, but it still took him by surprise when the Nara spoke and revealed what.
"Your deal was with Jiraiya, wasn't it." The Nara asked, though it wasn't really a question, proving that the beliefs about the Nara Clan were more than just hearsay or exaggeration. "And I would hazard that Tsunade-sama didn't actually know you'd survived."
Haruno nodded in agreement, the blankness on her face giving way to a thoughtful expression. "Tsunade-sama is a good kage, but she is not always a good person. Your usefulness as a shinobi far outweighs any guilt she may have felt at using you again and again and again. She'd have called you in the moment we realised an Uchiha is the Akatsuki's leader."
With his secret all but discovered, Itachi stopped caring.
"Jiraiya owed me." He said simply, and then it was as if the dam had finally broken, and all his anger came pouring out at once. "The Third promised to look after Sasuke. He failed. Jiraiya promised to use the intelligence I provided him to keep the Village safe. He failed. Then he promised to protect my brother from Orochimaru. And he failed again. Keeping my continued survival a secret, giving me the chance to live a life I'd nearly thrown away for a Village which would never let me live there in peace was the least he could do."
For the first time since barging in, the trio before him looked taken aback.
Then, the Nara frowned, shooting Haruno a meaningful look.
"One man keeping secrets on this scale to ease his guilty conscience?" he murmured, an unreadable expression on his face. "We can use that."
Itachi didn't ask 'what for'; he was tired. Instead, he added:
"Pein and Konan, the shinobi who attacked Konohagakure… they were once Jiraiya's students. He found them when they were orphans and raised them, taught them the ninja arts. If you want something to use against Jiraiya, use that."
With how intently he'd been monitoring the reactions of the Konoha duo, he momentarily forgot about the swordsman, and wasn't prepared when he suddenly spoke.
"You truly don't care anymore, do you?" the teen asked, looking torn between concerned and satisfied. "You'd really see the Village burn from within, just so you can have your peace."
Itachi shrugged. "I have no reason to care anymore. I owe the Village nothing. My brother has found his place at Orochimaru's side; there is no Uchiha left in Konohagakure, and I will never be able to live there freely because of what I was made to do."
Something in his tone must've caught the rosette's attention because she shot him a measured look. "That apathy is a slippery slope to something else entirely, Uchiha-san."
Itachi bit back a snort. He was well-aware of just what she meant, and for once, he didn't bother censuring himself.
"Suicide by my brother's hand? I have considered that already, Haruno-san. But I don't want death. I want to live. So, in answer to the third reason you gave me for your presence here, no, I will not be joining the war effort."
But as he spoke, before he even had the time to take in the trio's reactions, the window to the teashop slid open and dozens of paper cranes fluttered in, coalescing into a familiar, if dreaded, shape.
Yet, the moment Konan's feet touched the ground, the shadows that had previously been lining the walls sprang, wrapping around her and immobilising her before she had a chance to take in her surroundings.
But Konan didn't make it as Pein's right-hand for so many years by being easy to catch off-guard – she burst into paper yet again, though this time, Itachi could see that the edges were lined with chakra, and hundreds of chakra-sharp paper cranes flew at the trio.
Instantly, the chakra that had coated the floor and the ceiling moved, and in an remarkable show of reflexes and coordination from both shinobi, the floor-chakra turned into a shoulder-height Earth Wall, while the chakra from the ceiling formed a barrier of water at least half-a-foot thick. The end effect was not only impressive in terms of the sheer control needed to perform both jutsu with no hand-signs nor prior warning, but also mesmerizing, and Itachi was grateful for the Sharingan's attention to detail as he admired where the jutsu joined and merged.
After all the cranes were deflected or blocked, the duo cautiously dismissed their techniques and Konan reformed again, one hand raised in the universal 'wait' sign.
"I mean no harm to you." She told the three shinobi calmly, though Itachi noted that she looked ragged and bruised. "But if you attack me, I will defend myself."
"Who attacked whom?" the Nara grouched under his breath, but made no move to initiate another stand-off, and Konan turned her attention to Itachi.
"You're a hard man to find, Uchiha." She informed him flatly, a hint of humour in her amber eyes, though it was almost swallowed by the weariness writ into every line of her face.
"Konan." He greeted tightly. "You've looked better."
A sharp snort at that, and a raised eyebrow greeted his words. "Had a run-in with Tobi. The fake-Madara. Or Obito, as he's calling himself now." Itachi shot a discreet look at the three ambassadors, but found minimal surprise on their faces. Clearly, the 'almost' in their 'almost certain' was only there for pretend modesty. "He wasn't most impressed when I declined further collaboration."
That was not surprising, so Itachi moved onto the next point of importance. "How did you find me?"
Konan sent him a measured look that told him precisely what she thought of his question. "A mass genjutsu on a civilian town, and Orochimaru's snakes at that? It had to be an Uchiha."
While that analysis wasn't entirely wrong, Itachi still felt inclined to point out; "It could've been my brother."
But Konan, forever unruffled, even with a singed kimono sleeve, mussed hair and deep scratches on her exposed cheeks and hands, merely tilted her head. "I was hoping for him, actually. But you will do just as well, if the rumours regarding your double-agent status are true."
It was incredible how Itachi had felt more unsettled and on-edge in the past half an hour than he had in the last half a decade. "What do you want?" he finally demanded, keeping his voice carefully neutral even as his patience was running thin.
"To warn you. Or your brother. Tobi wants Orochimaru's Edo Tensei to help him bring back the real Madara, and he needs Zetsu for his army. Though he still needs the Eight and Nine-tails, that isn't much of a comfort considering he can control the Kyuubi." More than even the proof that Tobi really was Obito, Itachi was more concerned by the reaction of the Konoha shinobi, who both paled considerably.
"Does that mean Obito is going to Oto?" Haruno asked sharply, a previously-unheard urgency in her voice. At Konan's nod, she swore, so ugly and vicious Itachi almost winced. The two boys at her side did, though they looked comparably disquieted.
"Explain." Itachi demanded, aware by now that there was something big he was missing.
"The Kyuubi and Hachibi containers are in Oto." The swordsman explained tightly, eyes trained on the two Konoha shinobi, as if unconcerned by the two S-Rank criminals also in the teashop. "It was decided at the Kage Summit as the best place to hide them."
Konan blinked, looking as flabbergasted as Itachi felt at the news. "They…sent the Konoha jinchuuriki and the only hope of the shinobi world to the man who invaded Konohagakure twice?"
"Would you have expected it?" Haruno asked, the panic on her face replaced with an almost defensive expression. "If you had still been hunting the jinchuuriki?"
"That's not the point." Itachi denied, eyes narrowed. "Where is Zetsu?"
"In Konoha." The Nara replied, and Itachi could see his brain working in overtime, trying to solve the problem.
"So he'll likely go there first, then to Orochimaru. And if he finds the jinchuuriki there, that'll be it." Konan summarised, looking far from pleased. "Fantastic. We lost the fight before it even truly started."
Itachi watched as Haruno closed her eyes and dropped to one knee, and a moment later, he felt the net of chakra that had been blanketing the town disappear. From the corner of his eye, he noticed Konan start in surprise, likely not having expected the girl to be the anchor for the mass-effect genjutsu, but he kept his attention on the pinkette.
She took a deep breath as the genjutsu dropped and let it out slowly, then flashed through some familiar seals and pressed her right hand flat against the wooden floor. A tiny brown snake appeared once the smoke cleared, no longer than two feet in length, at its side another, slightly larger snake, this one around five feet in length. He watched as the girl took out a small notebook from her pouch, ripped out three pages and began hastily scribbling. When she was done, she rolled up two of the papers and tied them to the smaller snake with murmured instructions that chilled Itachi's blood.
"To Orochimaru and Anko-senpai, please." And the third piece of paper she gave the bigger snake with a quiet 'for Tsunade-sama's eyes only'.
Once the snakes vanished, she straightened and met Itachi and Konan's eyes unflinchingly.
"Uchiha-san. Your brother had his Sharingan taken away before he left for Oto. His one weapon against a man who can convinvingly masquerade as Uchiha Madara is no more. He's with Orochimaru, who, until not that long ago, wanted to wear him like a meat-suit, Jiraiya of the Sannin, who you yourself admitted had failed at protecting him in the past, and two jinchuuriki, who are trouble beacons for any who come near. Are you willing to keep hiding with your head in the sand, or are you going to help your brother?"
Itachi didn't reply. He couldn't reply. But it seemed the girl had said her piece, as the finally let all the tension he hadn't even noticed in her posture drain out, and now she just looked tired.
The swordsman stepped forward, an earnest expression on his face, eyes trained resolutely on Konan.
"Ma'am," he addressed, and Itachi stifled a disbelieving snort that threatened to escape. Konan, it seemed, wasn't faring much better, but her surprised silence gave the teen the time he needed to say what was on his mind. "I realise that it's probably the last thing you want to do, but would you be willing to come with us and explain what you've just told us to the kage? I believe it'll greatly affect the planned strategy for the Alliance."
This time, Konan snorted openly, the most inelegant sound Itachi had ever heard come from the woman in the near-on decade of knowing her.
"In case you have forgotten, I am an international criminal, who, not that long ago, had helped invade Konohagakure. I will not be welcomed." She replied cuttingly, but the teen was undeterred.
"If you waltzed in by yourself, you're right, you'd likely have been killed on sight." He agreed, perfectly blasé, and Itachi realised that there was something fundamentally wrong with all three shinobi before him. "But that's why I asked you to accompany us. We may not look like much, but we have enough political power in our respective Villages and in this Alliance to grant you at least some degree of protection."
"And you think they'll listen to me?" Konan asked sceptically, then her eyes narrowed. "Why are you listening to me? You have no reason to trust me."
"What do you gain from lying to us?" the Nara shot back, a challenging glint in his eyes. "Besides, I am from a Clan of strategists, Sakura is one of the Village's top trouble-shooters, and Chojuro has spent the past half a decade at the Mizukage's side. Changing and adjusting plans in response to new information is basically in our job description."
Konan stared at them for a few seconds, an inscrutable expression on her face, then sighed, a wry quirk to her lip. "You're insane." She declared at last, then sighed. "But I have nothing left to lose. Though if you betray me, know that I will kill you."
"Understandable." The swordsman agreed, the tiniest of smiles quirking his lip. "Uchiha-san?"
Itachi met the rosette's eyes and held her gaze for a few seconds, weighing up every possible response and scenario, then sighed, feeling grudgingly amused. "May the gods have mercy upon us if the rest of your generation is like you."
Anko read the scribbled note, then read it again, panic rising up within her.
Uchiha Obito confirmed leader of Akatsuki. Coming for Zetsu because he needs him for a 'Zetsu army', then to Oto for Edo Tensei to raise real Madara. Unlikely to win: kill Zetsu, then run. And remember – not today.
"Ibiki!" she yelled, jumping to her feet and heading for the stairs into the lowest cells, trusting the man to follow her chakra. But no sooner had she reached the lowest floor did the T&I building shake with the force of an explosion, forcing her off-balance and making the walls crack.
Ibiki reached the lowest floor mere seconds after her and she launched the note at him, biting her thumb and swiping it hastily against the seal on Zetsu's cell door.
She slammed it shut behind her just as another explosion shook the corridor just outside, where Ibiki was standing, and she had a second to take in a swirling orange mask before she turned, meeting eerie yellow eyes and palming a kunai.