Thanks to all of you once again ^^ To know some are still following this… makes me happy ^^

StarsOfYaoi: last chapter might have seemed not so in tune with the ones before it, but it's mostly because I started writing it after three years, and because it would work better read together with the previous ones, actually. I am also sorry for the scene that kind of equals with the manga, but that needed to be part of the plot, as Sai is rather important in the incoming chapters…

That said, please enjoy.


Rating: M (or is it higher?)

Summary: Kyuubi's secret out. Akatsuki attacking. Fighting for strength, and falling for your ex–best friend's older brother. Maybe Naruto will have to deal with more than he imagined…

Warnings: yaoi, boy x boy relationship, angsty, torture, and such. Mental torture as well. Flames will be used to warm up food. OC warning as well.

Disclaimer: Not own Naruto. Masashi Kishimoto does.



Flashbacks, memories, dreams–


Winter Release

Chapter 25: Teamwork

He didn't understand.

Naruto truly couldn't understand –and he was trying. Oh, he was trying.

Team Kakashi (and Sai) had been walking towards the borders of Hi no Kuni for the last three hours, an idea of Kakashi who had wanted to try and build some sort of teamwork going between Sakura, Naruto and their new teammate, Sai, but things had not progressed as their Jounin leader had hoped.

Naruto had tried to hide his dislike for the dark haired shinobi, but it had been quite useless, because every time Sai opened his mouth to speak, Naruto felt his eyebrow twitch in deep distaste.

Every word coming out from him was wrong –even a mild comment about the scenery was taken as a direct insult, and it had taken Sakura more than one slap on Naruto's head to return the blond teen to reason.

Not that Sakura didn't have a hard time with Sai herself –the teen somehow managed to get under her skin with an ease that shocked her.

Even Kakashi, who was diplomatically blocking both parts when the discussions grew too heated, was growing tired of all the bickering.

'What does this guy have? He's got nothing on Sasuke!' Naruto kept throwing glances at Sai, expression darkening more and more. 'He's just an emotionless freak! What if he looks… a bit like Sasuke? It's not a real resemblance anyway, and their attitude is completely different!'

But at least, if Sai kept irking Naruto that much, it could keep him reassured that he was nothing like Itachi, either. Sai was not Sasuke, nor Itachi. Which was good.

'All in all, it's just his hair colour, and his eyes. But there again, they are nothing alike..'

"What is it?"

Shaking himself out from his thoughts, Naruto grunted as he realised he had been staring at Sai again, and now the dark haired teen was glancing at him expectantly.

"Please stop staring at me" Sai requested, still looking blankly at Naruto. "It is rather inconvenient, and keeps your attention away from our surroundings. You truly are weak and defenceless, it seems".

Naruto stepped forwards, glaring "There! There! This is the kind of bad attitude that makes me so pissed off! What is with you and this sudden malice? Do you even act normally at all, instead of go out of your way to try my patience?"

"It is not my intention to anger you," Sai tilted his head, but his expression didn't change. "I am simply trying out such a behaviour to see what reactions I could get".

Naruto growled loudly and stared off in the distance, trying to ignore him. He couldn't focus on this stupid idiot that he didn't even want in his team –what was important was Sasuke.

"Once we get Sasuke back, you'll get chased away from this team –we don't need you, team Kakashi doesn't need you" he muttered, huffing out and breathing out his anger. "You're just filling in for him, it's not like I can consider you one of us!"

'Naruto…' Sakura felt a wave of sadness hit her.

She knew what Naruto was saying, and to a level, she was feeling the same thing as well; without Sasuke, this team lacked something. It was emptier. Sasuke was, despite everything, one of them. Part of the team, and an important part, at that.

But at the same time, Sakura knew that she couldn't go against Tsunade's orders. It was important to keep up a good façade as long as this Sai was with them, and if they were to go along with it, it wouldn't be long.

She hoped Naruto could understand that, too.

"Naruto," Kakashi shut his book close and stared at him, ignoring how Sai's eyes flickered to him. "This is not what I taught you".

His tone was so cold that Naruto froze, looking at his sensei in shock. "Kakashi–sensei…"

"Teamwork is essential for a good team, Naruto. Even if at start you cannot work together, you have to strive to be able to. There might be times you are paired up in a mission with someone you cannot stand –yet, you have to work together until the mission is accomplished. If you cannot do that, you're not worth becoming a Chuunin, let alone a Hokage".

Naruto backed away from Kakashi, and closed his mouth shut, paling.


"I remember a time when all you could do as Team 7 was bicker and fight," Kakashi continued, still pining Naruto down with his glare.

Naruto winced and looked away. It was true, though. And at first Sasuke, himself and Sakura had been a horrible team. They had not worked together at all, and it took Kakashi all he had to make them click.

So maybe…

Glaring at Sai, Naruto inwardly rejected the idea –this was not Sasuke. How could they get along?

"Teamwork is what matters now, Naruto," Sakura intervened, placing one hand on his shoulder and looking at his eyes. She tried to convey her feelings to him, and Naruto hesitated before nodding slightly in answer.

"I'm sorry" he muttered. Though he wasn't directing his words at Sai (he meant them for both Kakashi and Sakura), the dark haired shinobi shrugged and stared at him.

"It is not a problem what you think of me, in the end" Sai replied, clearly untouched and uncaring. "I wouldn't want to be compared to someone who betrayed Konoha and ran off to join Orochimaru. That person is weak and unsure, and ended up falling to the allure of power… and truth to be told, I do not care in the least of what you might think about me, either".

"You bastard!" Naruto growled, feeling his anger boil again.

It was clear that Sai knew what to say for it to hurt the most; Sasuke's betrayal… Naruto could understand Sasuke, but Sai couldn't. Sai didn't know Sasuke at all… he didn't know of the pain of having your older brother completely erase the whole family.

He didn't know of that stone, of the Mangekyou curse, of the pain and the feeling of not being strong enough to extract revenge…

Sai didn't know Sasuke, but Naruto did.

He knew what Sasuke had felt, and in a way, he was also guilty, because if Sasuke ever happened to know what had happened between the brother he hated so much and the friend he sacrificed to his goal of revenge, Naruto knew that he would be devastated.

If their friendship mattered so much that Sasuke had felt it strong enough to use it as means towards the Mangekyou Sharingan, then it meant something of it was still living in Sasuke… because Naruto was alive.

Because Sasuke had not killed him, in the end. Not even the second time he could have.

Sai knew nothing, he could not speak of these things as if he understood.

"You have no rights to talk like that about him!" pupils turning into slits, Naruto stepped forwards, ignoring Sakura's hand still on his shoulder. "Someone like you… you know nothing!"

Sakura stepped forwards, blocking him off and tilting his head towards Sai. "Please forgive Naruto for what he's said. You've been with us for a short amount of time, and we have yet to get to know you".


"It is not a problem" Sai smiled again, and Naruto felt a chill run down his back.

The more Sai smiled, the more Naruto remembered the photo of the Uchiha family he had seen back in the Uchiha mansion. With little Sasuke holding onto his brother's hand, and Itachi's smile…

Itachi's smile, just as empty as the one Sai was doing now…

Sakura's fist slamming into Sai's face shook Naruto out from his thoughts, and he widened his eyes in shock, staring as Sai rolled away on the ground, before lifting himself up again.


"Yet, you also do not know us, nor Sasuke–kun, so refrain from speaking until you know what you're getting into," her expression was serious, green eyes darkened in anger, and it caught Naruto's attention and breath away.

Did he have that same face when talking about Sasuke?

"Become strong, Naruto, because we will be seeing each other again, and that day will be the last for our friendship. Now you're not even worthy of my attention".

Facing each other after Naruto had managed to get out from the Akatsuki's lair –Sasuke had changed, but he there was something unchanged underneath that. That Sasuke was…

"I won't be holding back next time you speak ill of Sasuke–kun," she threatened the other teen, moving into an attack stance.

Sasuke had done wrong, yes –he had abandoned his friends, his team, his village… yet they were still up to protect him, because if they didn't show at least this much friendship towards him, what would happen when he came back?

Shunned away?

Naruto would not allow that to happen, and neither would Sakura.

One way or the other, Sasuke was still one of them.

Focusing on Sai in front of him, that same person that he couldn't help but feel angered at, Naruto was almost horrified to see he was still smiling, lips stretched upwards even now that Sakura had punched him.

How could he still force that smile on? What was Sai?

"You can't be cheerful after having been hit, shit" he grumbled, confusion and anger mixing together inside him. "Are you incapable of feeling, or something?" 'Shouldn't the punch hurt, if anything? Sakura–chan's fists hurt like hell!'

Sai glanced at him, wiping a small trail of blood from his mouth, and… his eyes were once again void of everything. If Naruto had truly needed to find a difference between this guy and Itachi, that was it; Itachi looked empty, yes, but Naruto had learned to read between the lines, and he'd soon be able to see that something was burning beneath the surface… be it lust, or the anger Naruto had been the cause of ("What's under the mask?").

But with Sai…

There was nothing inside that Naruto could grasp at.

Was it just that he didn't want to search?

"To get out of trouble, smile. There is nothing as dangerous as a smile," Sai stated, as if reciting from a textbook. "With a fake smile, a person can still trick others into believing anything they want to… that is what I've read in a book once. I thought I could try this theory out, but it looks like I'm not good enough for it to work on the likes of you".

Naruto had the sudden urge to back away from Sai.

He couldn't understand him –reading things in books and wanting to try them out? Did he mean acting? Or did he mean…

In that moment, Naruto had the sudden image of a puppet, held by strings, fingers of wood clacking together as Sai turned fully towards him, ignoring what Kakashi was saying ("Sakura, I thought you would restrain yourself, you're no better than Naruto…"), ignoring Sakura's angered stare, and just –looking at him instead.

Eyes void of emotion, unlike those of Sasuke, unlike those of Itachi.

"Who are you?" stepping forwards and surprising both Sakura and Kakashi, Naruto grabbed the hem of Sai's shirt, holding him closer. "… what are you?"

Sai leaned forwards, smile yet to disappear from his lips, uncaring if he was being threatened.

"You have no name," he breathed out, loud enough that Naruto could hear, but soft enough that he had to strain his ears to, "you have no feelings, you have no past. You have no future. All that exists is the mission".

Naruto backed away, cheeks flushing then turning pale.

Recited words, yet finally, for the first time, something close to an emotion had flickered into Sai's tone, colouring it.

"Naruto –enough is enough!" Kakashi moved forwards, grabbing the blond shinobi's shoulder and yanking him away from Sai, not having heard what the dark haired teen had said, but fearing it had been just another insult, as Naruto's face confirmed. "I told you to behave… you're no twelve years old anymore, and I expect you to keep reign of your emotions for the duration of this mission".

Sai's face had returned once more to its emotionless state, blank eyes looking at the Jounin, and Naruto forced his heart to slow down again.

There was something he had to understand about this Sai, too, even if he didn't like him, and it was better to follow Kakashi's suggestion for the moment, at least until he managed to understand if Sai was a threat for the team or not.

"I… I understand, Kakashi–sensei" he muttered, shrugging the older shinobi away from him.

"Well then," the silver haired man's eye turned upwards, clearly relieved (at least on the outside) "we're almost to the border, let's continue for some more, and then rest for the night…"


Entering one of the many rooms of the hideout, Sasori looked around, locating Deidara close to one of the weapons–cupboards, working on refilling his explosive tags' pouch.

"I have received a message from Orochimaru's lackey".

There was a soft shuffling, then straw blond hair shifted in his direction. "Is that so, un?" standing up, Deidara cracked one shoulder and moved closer to the other figure, who was still clad in his outer wooden shell. "That little boy… Sasori–danna, what did he say?"

With a grunt, Sasori flickered the message towards his partner, and the other grabbed it with one hand, the tongue flickering out to taste at the paper.

"No trace of poison, un" he murmured, a small smirk on his face. "Ah, that is… quite interesting. He's requesting another meeting, so soon after the last one… un, it'll prove to be interesting!"

Grunting in reply, Sasori turned around again. "If you are finished with preparing yourself, I will go meet Leader and then we will leave".

"Eeh? Do I have to come, too?" Deidara looked put off by the situation, and pouted, clenching a small amount of clay in one hand. When he opened his fingers again, a small clay bird was standing there. "I used quite a lot of my arsenal when retrieving the Ichibi Jinchuuriki… I haven't had enough time replenishing it, yet… un".

Flashing a disappointed gaze at the many explosives he still had to store into his cloak and body, Deidara let his lips shift into a pout.

He hadn't had enough fun lately, with the stupid little demon–holder running away like he had done, and Leader not allowing them to give chase, and now he had to follow Sasori to see that other useless puppet–kid, without even half of the usual amount of weapons…

"Move" Sasori growled, leaving the room.

He was followed by a loud whining noise, to which he paid no attention to.

If young Kabuto had contacted him to request a meeting, it meant that Orochimaru had gathered some information he wanted to share with them in hopes to channel Akatsuki's attention somewhere convenient to him, allowing him to roam free elsewhere.

The Scorpion of Akatsuki knew of Kabuto's new allegiance, but also knew how to read between the lines. If Orochimaru had something worth knowing, Sasori would easily distinguish what was important in the lies and half–truths Kabuto would feed him.

The snake might have taught Kabuto everything he knew, bringing him up to be the perfect spy, but nothing he knew could ever beat even a single member of the Akatsuki.

Sasori didn't quite care about it –Sasori cared nothing about most things, after all– but if it proved to be a hindrance for Akatsuki, the Leader would demand him to dispose of their former comrade, and having been paired up with Orochimaru, Sasori would surely be allowed to have the main part in that.

At least that –killing the old snake– would bring some excitement.

A low chuckle reverberated through the shells of Sasori's cover, echoing strangely down the corridor, the last of its vibes swallowed by the darkness, just as haunting as his expression, hidden beneath the wooden mask, was.

As he finally entered in the main hall where the Leader was residing, he noticed someone else already present; Sasori stared with no interest as Uchiha Itachi stood in front of the seat the Leader was on, silently listening.

Itachi's eyebrow twitched slightly, probably out of annoyance, and Sasori inwardly wondered how long the young man would stand to be in the presence of their Leader.

Clashing against each other, Sasori had no interest on which would gain the upper hand, but only of which one of them he could use as his next puppet, which one would linger forever, turned into a wooden doll for him to kill with.

Just like others had…

Itachi's eyes narrowed, their crimson colour spinning around, then he turned around and left, unmindful of Leader's lips curling in disdain as he exited the room, and Sasori took the opportunity to stare at the dark haired shinobi as he left, noticing how his forehead was wrinkled in annoyance.

He could feel the tension almost like a jolt on his arms, even though they were not of real skin and flesh anymore, and the crackling of chakra in the air was symptom of a barely avoided conflict.

Yes, he had surely been reprimanded by Leader for something.

That meant Leader was in a good mood.

Curving his body forwards, Sasori slid inside the room, allowing the darkness of his surroundings to hide the effective shape of his outer cover as he stopped right in front of his Leader, looking up at him.

To his eyes, the figure of the Akatsuki leader appeared unfocused, almost blurry between layers of darkness that seemed to curl and twist around his frame, leaving nothing to be seen except those white eyes, that had the power to make even Sasori shiver with… something.

"What is it?" deceptive, low –Leader was looking at him, staring straight through him, without seeing him.

As unsettling as it was, the Leader's blindness had yet to be an impediment to him, and Sasori was deeply aware of that; the Uchiha kid surely knew that as well, yet that had not stopped him from opposing their Leader again and again.

Whether he had a death wish, or he knew his own limits and strength, Sasori didn't know, nor did he care in the least.

As the Scorpion explained the reason he was there, he observed the way the man's lips twitched slightly in amusement, more of a sneer than a real smirk.

"I see" after a long pause, Leader tilted his head to the right. "For Orochimaru to willingly try to contact us… the information you will gather from this meeting will definitely be interesting. It might be that Orochimaru is still going to be of use to us".

With a small gesture of his hand, the Leader turned around, taking a few steps towards the centre of the room, away from Sasori.

Taking this as a sign of dismissal, the Scorpion retreated, still not taking his eyes away from the other man.

"Do not kill him".

Sasori grunted in displeasure at the Leader's last command, but nodded his consent and shifted backwards and away from the other man.

Leader was still careful with his actions, it seemed.

As for the two remaining Jinchuuriki, well…

Everything would come with time, Sasori thought as he moved out of the room. There would also be time later to extract some sort of amusement from Orochimaru… the thought was satisfying enough to appease him.

Behind him, the darkness shifted back in place again.


Sliding down into the onsen's water, Naruto threw grating glances around, muttering under his breath and shifting until he was completely submerged up to his mouth.

They had successfully reached the borders of the Hi no Kuni, probably slower than they could have had, and Kakashi had deemed it better to stop for the night instead of continuing some more –probably because of the friction between Naruto and Sai, that was still palpable.

Naruto hoped that a good bath could relax his sore muscles and allow him to stop thinking about the prick –who, unfortunately, was standing next to him, and was keeping his eyes on the surface of the water.

The heat warmed his body up, and Naruto closed his eyes, ignoring both Sai and Kakashi and forcing his body to relax.

Kakashi, true to his self, was covering his face with a towel, keeping just his eye out, and whilst usually Naruto would have gone a long way just to see what was underneath the towel, now he didn't care.

'I'm going to see Sasuke again,' he thought, feeling the water gently lap against his body 'Kakashi–sensei said we shouldn't fight unless provoked, but I don't think Sasuke is going to stay put… besides…'

Once again, Naruto found himself thinking about someone else –Itachi.

Despite the fact that he had other things to worry about, mainly seeing the snake bastard and Sasuke, Naruto couldn't stop the thoughts still lingering through his head.

He hadn't seen Itachi in… a long while.

Not that he was missing him or anything, or at least he hoped he wasn't… but he found himself strangely more worried about finishing this mission and going back to Konoha.

Visiting the Uchiha compound again had to be postponed because of this mission, and now he felt antsy about it –as if something was going to happen, and he wouldn't have enough time to search for…

For what, exactly?

Itachi was not as important as Sasuke! Why was he messing up with his priorities like this?

'Damn it! It's not that I want to see Itachi again!' shaking his head, Naruto tried to concentrate on Sasuke, but both of them were melting together in his mind –black hair and crimson eyes– and he could not relax.

Yet, if he stretched his imagination a bit more, he could almost feel the smoothness of silken hair through his fingers.

There were still so many things he wanted to find out about Itachi. Reasons, answers… would them help next time he met with the older Uchiha heir? Understanding him… what could he possibly have to offer, in any case?

Had Itachi acted differently with him? He could not know. It was foolish to even hope that Naruto, in some way, interested the older shinobi; he wasn't even sure why he was hoping to interest him.

Naruto had already felt what it meant to be under the interest of a deathly ninja, and that had not ended well for him.

'It's not like I want Itachi to be like Zabuza, in the end… right?' Naruto fidgeted again, lazily shifting in the water. 'Even if I understand why he killed his family… I can't expect Itachi to regard me as an equal, either way.'

"Naruto? Is everything ok?"

Startled out of his thoughts, Naruto jumped up from the water, waving his arms at Kakashi and smiling. "O–of course, Kakashi–sensei!"

"You seemed awfully quiet, though" the silver haired Jounin observed, a flash of worry in his visible eye.

"Ha! I'm perfectly fine, I was just–"

"Hmm… so you do have something between your legs".

Turning around in a flash, Naruto glared at Sai, who was staring right into his face, that empty smile almost mocking him.

"Why do you always have to think about penises? Who are you, a pervert? Don't go looking, damn it!"

Standing out from the water, Naruto raged against Sai, who remained completely neutral despite having a naked shinobi screaming at him, until Kakashi had to forcefully grab Naruto around his waist and push him back into the water.

"I'm off, be nice kids" he chanted after a while, "or you will have to face a very angered Sakura when you get out from here".

Naruto froze and glanced at the division between the male side of the onsen and that of the females. Loud giggles had reached his ears when he'd yelled against Sai, and now he felt embarrassment and a vague sense of impending doom.


Kakashi left the onsen, and it was only after Naruto let his body flop back into the water that he realised that the only other person in there was Sai.

Stiffening, Naruto shuffled away from him, stealing glances at the motionless dark haired shinobi. As he picked up the noises of the females splashing on the other side, he realised that maybe this was the perfect moment to inquire more about what Sai had said to him.

"Say," he paused. Those black eyes were now on him, awfully penetrating, and he suddenly didn't know what to say.

Sai pissed him off. Truly. He didn't remember if Sasuke had pissed him off like this back then, nor if Gaara or Neji had managed to annoy him just as much… but the thing was, he didn't want to be friends with this guy.

'But I have to get along at least until Sasuke is back with us –hopefully enough, really soon' with that thought, even ignoring Sai's attitude and words could be bearable.

"Are you going to keep staring at me, or are you going to use what little brain power you possess to make your mouth work? It seems quite the easy feat, considering how much you talk during the day…" Sai trailed off.

Naruto twitched, but managed to keep himself from retaliating or attacking the other.

"This –the way you speak, as if you cannot feel anything, as if you're…" he didn't know how to explain it. "What you said before, about how only 'the mission' exists…"

"That is how I have been trained," once again, Naruto was able to see a slight change in Sai's eyes. Something small, but it was there. "Are you not going to ask what this is about?"

Growling in the black haired shinobi direction, Naruto shrugged. "What is the point? You've joined my team because of the Council, you're not going to tell me about your private life or your 'mission' just because I ask".

Besides, Tsunade had already explained that maybe Sai was there to dispose of the Uchiha. Naruto wasn't going to tell the other that he knew of that, though.

"It is not that I have a private life. I have no life outside of my mission," Sai explained. "You seem to be bothered by it far more than you should. This is why you're so weak".

"Stop saying I'm weak. I just don't understand it," he shook his head, sliding back down in the water, not looking at Sai as he spoke. It was easier not to get angry at him if he just kept his eyes somewhere else. "How can someone be unable to… feel?"

"I don't understand your fixation with the Uchiha kid either," Sai replied. "Why care so much about someone who hurt you and betrayed the village you serve for? Isn't it better to let him go?"

"He's my friend. I will do anything to make him come back to Konoha" Naruto grumbled, bringing his knees up to his chest. "Besides, I don't serve my village. I love my village. There is difference".

"In the end, if you die for your village, whether you do it out of loyalty, out of servitude or out of love, you still die".

Naruto stilled, and didn't look up when he felt Sai lift himself from the water and walk away.

As the sliding door closed behind him, the blond shinobi was left to wonder if Sai, with all his comments about being unable to feel, would even understand if he'd told him that all that mattered, in the end, was how you were remembered.

If you died out of love, out of loyalty, like the Third and the Fourth had died –it was with admiration you were remembered.

Love created more love. Loyalty tightened bonds of loyalty.

What kind of memory could there be if you were trained to die? Other than duty, what teaching, what example would be left for others if there was no feeling in the actions you did?

That true shinobi had to cut themselves from their feelings?

Without feelings, a great ninja was simply an empty vessel, and wasn't the greatest strength brought forth by wanting to protect something?

Naruto sighed. He didn't feel quite as angry at Sai anymore.


Two figures advanced quickly through the forest, similar to shadows hiding in the darkness of the night with a clear direction in mind.

Fast, without stopping, the two moved on.

"On the move again, feels good to be finally doing something, hah, Itachi–san?"

Kisame inwardly sighed when the only answer he got was a soft, disinterested hum. Once again, he expressed his irritation by stomping down on the closest tree, leaving a dent shaped as a foot on its bark.

"Stop doing unnecessary things, Kisame," Itachi didn't even look at him, eyes fixed on the path in front of him. "Dispose of the tree now, we are to leave no traces of our passage".

Kisame winced at the obvious mistake and stopped, fingers coming up in a seal; water surged up from nothing to envelop the tree in a jutsu, the shinobi muttering under his breath as he did so.

After the Leader called in Itachi, the Uchiha shinobi had been in a bad mood, and Kisame, whilst doing nothing to attract Itachi's attention, had still taken the brunt of his irritation; having one of his members clearly disregarding his actions and coming close to openly attack him was preposterous for the Leader, and he would soon have to take precautions towards the Uchiha man.

After all, and Kisame knew this very well, Itachi didn't do well under someone's control, no matter who this person could be.

He just didn't want to be caught in the middle of whatever show of power was going to happen between the two of them.

As it was, though, Itachi was still part of the Akatsuki, and the moment he would stand up to end this was still distant. Kisame tried to take solace in the thought that by then he would have enough of a warning to get away before things got too far.

In the meanwhile, Leader's orders were quite clear –move to Konoha to keep an eye on the Jinchuuriki.

Maybe Akatsuki still didn't know what to do with the remaining two Bijuu that they could not yet extract, but if there was a way to get around that, they needed to keep the vessels intact and alive, and the Kyuubi host had the nasty habit of getting himself in rather dangerous situations all the time.

Not that Kisame cared. All he wanted was to be able to kick someone's ass for a bit.

"What about the spy?" he asked loudly, jumping on top of a rock and quickening his pace to reach Itachi. "Did something happen to him since we didn't receive the monthly report?"

The dark haired shinobi didn't turn around, grunting in reply, but right when Kisame had given up on receiving an answer, Itachi spoke, voice low and glacial.

"Our main spy has been killed during a mission," he stated, cloak flapping around when he jumped particularly high to avoid a fallen tree. "I will have to resort to the secondary spy".

Kisame frowned. "We have a secondary spy?"

Crimson eyes sharply looked towards him, and Kisame abruptly backed away, not wanting to further enrage Itachi.

"I planted a second spy our last trip to Konoha, over three years ago".

Lifting one eyebrow, Kisame fell silent, deciding that asking for any more information would get him killed.

Itachi inwardly appreciated the following silence, scanning the surroundings with his Sharingan active. Straining his eyes continuously with his Doujutsu weighed down on his sight, but he was utterly uncaring about it.

They were approaching the village quickly, and his attention was solely focused on the Jinchuuriki; of his mission, Itachi cared nothing. His interest was on the person hosting the demon, and not on the demon.

It would be the first time meeting with the blond teen ever since their failure to extract Shukaku from the Kazekage, and the dark haired shinobi idly wondered what he would find. The Kyuubi's chakra would have healed him of the horrible wounds he inflicted on his own body to escape, of course, but what about that inner fire? If Itachi had to be truthful with himself, he was even curious as to what the blond kid was doing.

Was he still as obsessed over his little brother as before?

His sparkle of interest was still there, and despite his annoyance at the Leader, he was satisfied the mission to go back to Konoha to spy the Jinchuuriki had been assigned to him.

The image of that kid, eyes burning in anger and defiance as he held up the fallen Kazekage on his back, tail–shaped Kyuubi chakra twirling around his battered yet still standing frame sent a small shiver run down Itachi's back.

An occasion to see how that leaf was doing, if anything, was a priority in his mind.

The remaining of the trip was done in silence, the sound of their footsteps the only sound echoing in the night, and when they finally got over the surrounding wall, and the few taller buildings of the village appeared in front of them, Itachi stopped running, feet coming to a soft halt.

Kisame missed his tempo, advancing a few more steps before screeching into a sudden stop, hunched forwards; he turned around, grimacing, and was about to speak up again when he noticed Itachi flashing his hands in a series of seals.

Swift, fluid movements, then a small burst of chakra, so low even Kisame had trouble picking it up, and Itachi's eyes flaring a deeper shade of crimson, giving the shark–man an eerie feeling of foreboding.

"He's coming," he murmured, hands disappearing once again inside the sleeves of his cloak.

Motionless, the two Akatsuki members waited in the darkness, observing the shadowed faces of the past Hokage on the giant mountain above them.

Somewhere in the village, a pair of eyes snapped open in response to the call.


"We are here," Kakashi unrolled a map and pointed at a spot close to the borders of the Hi no Kuni.

Sai, Naruto and Sakura leaned forwards.

They had rested for a good part of the night and had prepared to leave at the early hours of the morning, making their way Westwards for some time. The landscape didn't seem that different, as both Hi no Kuni and the neutral area were similar in geography, and so far they had not encountered anyone, either.

"We have been travelling through the unclaimed territories for a while –I want you all to keep paying attention to your surroundings. Anything out of place… and I mean anything… will be reported to me. There are rogue ninja scouting ahead, and part of our mission is to retrieve information on them as we move to the location of Orochimaru's hideout" Kakashi put the map away and looked closely at Naruto's face.

The teen had been strangely calmer during the morning, restraining himself from looking at Sai and ignoring his jokes, and Kakashi felt rather proud of his student.

Even when Sai had spent the ten minutes of rest to draw, attracting Sakura's attention, and the two talked a bit without malice, Naruto hadn't commented at all, simply listening to their short exchange with a small frown. Kakashi hadn't paid attention to what they said, other than a passing comment about a hand–sketched book belonging to Sai's brother.

Still Naruto had been decent, and it was a step forwards… Kakashi was not going to force things through.

He noticed Naruto's eyes harden up at the mention of Orochimaru, though, and inwardly sighed. "That's all. Let's continue".

They continued exploring the forest and the meadows, and Kakashi made them slow down the pace twice, eye scanning the foliage as they moved through the trees for any kind of trace.

Tsunade had been rather explicit about the extent of danger that rogue shinobi scouting the borders were, and that she didn't think they were just missing–nins, and Kakashi was not about to wave away the Hokage's feeling like this.

Konoha was slowly returning to its previous strength after years of hard work, and if some other Elemental Country was trying to look for ways to invade, then it was not a matter to be taken loosely.

Scattering away from each other, Team Kakashi and Sai explored carefully a good few miles, but only found some carefully–hidden traces that were older than two, three days.

Signs of camping for a small group of three people that looked made by civilians on the surface was actually a clever cover for a ten–man team, and only Kakashi's summon of Pakkun managed to tell them exactly what had happened there.

Other than that, nothing looked out of place; even the small, ancient shrine dedicated to the Ta no Kami that they passed on their way was untouched and silent.

"Shouldn't we continue on, Kakashi–sensei?" after a good four hours, Sakura was starting to feel antsy.

Their cover mission had been going on for too long in her opinion, and the location of Orochimaru's secret hideout was still far enough for her to be rightfully worried; Sasuke was so close, finally, and she was brimming with energy.

At her side, Naruto looked equally tense, unable to understand the reasons why they were still sticking around close to the borders.

Kakashi turned to look at the two, senses stretched to include Sai, who was using that pause to lazily trace abstract patterns on his notepad.

"There is something wrong," he stated.

"What? Why?" Naruto moved forwards, eyes wide "there is nothing here! Maybe the missing–nins that were found around here before have finally gone back to wherever they belong… why are we wasting time checking their old traces, then?"

"Exactly because of that," he replied, shaking his head. "There is nothing here to warrant an inspection. Ninja mapping the borders to keep control on a country… it's normal. By the reports we received, there should have been something that attracted enemy shinobi here, and traces of their passing by should have been sniffed up by Pakkun, yet… nothing".

"A diversion?" Sakura looked around, suddenly alarmed. "But for what?"

Kakashi once again shook his head.

"There is nothing we can do, at this point. I will send a report to Tsunade–sama, and then we will continue on" he stated. "Just keep your eyes open".

The three younger ninja nodded, and as Kakashi wrote down a small note and gave it to one of his summoned dogs, Sai stood up and pushed his papers and scrolls back into his bag.

"Let's continue onwards," Kakashi ordered.

They moved away, running through the forest at a good pace; unnoticed behind them, a small black lizard, dripping lines of ink from its body, slithered quickly under a bush, moving in direction of Hi no Kuni.

"There is still some time before we reach the hideout," the silver haired Jounin commented as they proceeded forwards. "We can't prepare a plan without having observed the location, but it won't be bad if we prepare ourselves for what will happen".

"If Orochimaru, Kabuto and Sasuke–kun pass through to their next lair, and we can't provoke a fight, how do we go about it?" Sakura asked, glancing at Sai and trying to be inconspicuous.

"We need to create a diversion and try to separate them in groups. If they have a storage room, they will surely need to collect a few things from there, so we can stage a robbery," Kakashi looked back at them. "If we manage to at least separate Sasuke from Orochimaru, some of us can keep the Snake occupied, and the rest…"

"Will talk some sense into Sasuke's thick skull" Naruto completed, a smirk on his lips. He clenched a hand into a fist. "Leave that to me and Sakura–chan!"

The pink haired Kunoichi smiled at Naruto's determination, her fists tightening as well. "We'll take him back this time!"

Sai turned his emotionless gaze to the blond shinobi. "I find incredibly hard to believe that simply because of some weaklings demanding his return, Sasuke will think back about his revenge and just follow you back to Konoha like a puppy".

Naruto glared at him, but his lips were still fixed in a smirk.

"Don't underestimate us –we devoted our training to that sole purpose, and we will not give up on him" he exchanged a fond look with Sakura.

This was something nobody would understand, in the end; Shikamaru and Kiba had more than once demanded to know why he was still so fixed on the younger Uchiha, why he kept striving so hard to get him back… they had stopped asking after a while, because his answer never changed, yet they still didn't understand.

"He's part of Team 7, and we're not complete without him. What kind of shit would we be if we were to abandon a friend in need?"

Sai looked unconvinced (not that his face ever showed anything at all) but did not comment, whilst Kakashi hid a proud smile under his mask.

A mere second later, the Jounin shifted his pace to move from his position in front of the group back to Naruto's side; the blond teen glanced at him and nodded, his senses stretched out. Kakashi looked at Sakura, who was already cracking her knuckles, then at Sai, who had his brush twirling through his fingers, face still blank.

They had all felt it –the flicker of chakra alerting them of an ambush.

"Prepare yourselves, we're about to be attacked" Kakashi murmured, hand inconspicuously lifting the hitai–ate from his eye. The Sharingan flared out, giving him a distorted look of the forest, chakra fluidly indicating him where a few of the opponents were.

As soon as he did that, a sea of kunai rained down on their heads.

"Let's go!"


StarsOfYaoi: I promised you things would happen, did I? well, things are going to happen. I hope you liked it ^^

Doujutsu – special techniques of the illusion and hypnotic type, using eyes.