Contains spoilers up to chapter 350.
All reviews and opinions are much appreciated.
Chapter One: The Perfect Plan
"Target location identified, three hundred meters northwest," a muted male voice broke the silence.
"Copy. Moving to your location now," replied another voice, deeper and smoother than the first. "The two of us will approach the building and confirm target status. Everyone else stay hidden and mask your chakra. Move to our location on confirmation."
"That bastard better be there this time!" ground out a third voice.
"Keep your voice down, moron."
"Don't order me around, asshole!"
"Both of you shut the hell up!" hissed a fourth voice, this one distinctly female.
Haruno Sakura rolled her eyes as she listened to the hollow, tinny voices coming from her earpiece, silently mouthing a string of curses at her two bickering teammates. Their constant fighting and insult slinging despite the fact they were friends had grown old long ago. She crouched low in the tree branch, drawing her chakra inside herself, moving as little as possible. She was so inconspicuous that the tree's resident squirrel was scurried around not far from her on the trunk, completely undisturbed by her presence.
She tiredly wiped her brow, removing the fine trickle of sweat running down her temple.
After several minutes of silent waiting her mind began to wander to the reason they were here. Sasuke. They were tracking Sasuke. Or rather, trying to track him down and failing.
Sakura entered the Hokage's office, Naruto following behind—still slightly disgruntled from being dragged away from his breakfast at Ichiraku, to find the Hokage gazing out the large window, Jiraiya standing beside her. Both were gravely serious.
She bowed briefly and gave a respectful nod to Jiraiya. Naruto simply stood staring between the two. For once he seemed to pick up on the somber mood and was behaving accordingly.
"What did you want to speak to us about, Hokage-sama?" she asked tentatively.
Tsunade turned around and simply looked at them, unsure how to phrase her words. "Right," she began. "Information has been coming in from other countries. I wanted to discuss it with you."
"Information…?" Sakura had a feeling what this was about, and dreaded what she would hear next.
"What is it?" Naruto asked. The look on his face said he had the same feeling as his teammate.
Tsunade looked to Jiraiya before continuing. Her old teammate's gaze was turned inward, his expression a deep thoughtful frown. "Orochimaru is dead," she said hollowly, as if she wasn't quite sure what to make of that fact.
Sakura could understand the mixed emotions of the two Sannin. Orochimaru was a monster who deserved whatever bad could happen to him, but he was once their teammate and maybe even a friend. The similarities between the three Sannin and Team Seven were uncanny. It was Sakura's greatest fear that they would lose the battle to save their friend like the two older ninja before her. It was Naruto's greatest fear as well.
"It seems Uchiha Sasuke was the one who killed him."
"Really!" asked a shocked Naruto.
Jiraiya seemed to come back to himself. "It's definitely true; my most reliable sources confirmed it."
Sakura's stomach clenched around the implications of that statement. "That's…then…"
"HAHA! I knew that freak wouldn't be able to take Sasuke down!" Naruto cried smugly. "So Sasuke's coming back to Konoha now, right?" He looked back and forth between the two Sannin, who regarded him with unreadable expressions. His smile cracked a little. "Right?"
"Doesn't look like it."
Another stunned silence. Sakura's smile slid off her face like someone had slapped her.
"What the hell do you mean?" Naruto shouted into the quiet office, his face full of disbelief and anger. "Why not? How could he not come back now that Orochimaru is gone?"
"Sasuke was not kidnapped by Orochimaru, Naruto. Nor was he being held prisoner. He left Konoha on his own to seek power. You know that," Jiraiya admonished.
"Sasuke is obsessed with getting revenge. He will try to find Akatsuki so he can kill his brother, Itachi," Tsunade added.
Sakura and Naruto both knew it, and had lived in quiet denial about it since the day their teammate left them. Now they were bitterly forced to accept the hard truth; they didn't mean as much to Sasuke as he did to them. Nothing was more important to him than killing Itachi. He was an avenger.
Looking at Naruto, Sakura could see how hard this was for him. Not for the first time, she thought that no matter how much she cared for Sasuke, somehow it seemed Naruto was truly the one hurt most by his betrayal. His expression was so dark and brooding that he could have rivaled Sasuke at his worst.
"Damn that bastard!" he growled. It wasn't clear which Uchiha he was referring to. Suddenly he snapped into a different mode altogether, bright eyes resolute. "We need to form a platoon and move out right now! The mission to hunt down Akatsuki is still going on right?"
"Yes…" Tsunade replied reluctantly.
"To get to Sasuke we need to go after the member of Akatsuki we have the best chance of finding," he said."In other words, we need to find Uchiha Itachi."
Now here they were, three years later. Team Kakashi was given a top secret, S-ranked mission of indefinite length with a single purpose: locate Uchiha Sasuke and return him alive to Konoha by any means necessary.
Sakura was no fool. The Hokage did not take four of Leaf's best ninja off mission rotation to go on a soul-saving quest to rescue their lost friend. The assignment was only sanctioned by the council of elders because Konoha could not afford to lose the Sharingan bloodline. They would convince Sasuke to return with them of his own free will, or they would take him by force and return him to Konoha where they would artificially return the bloodline to the village. Then he would be tried and likely executed for treason.
It was a harsh, but entirely possible truth. The members of Team Kakashi knew this better than anyone. Yet despite it all, they would do everything in their power to save Sasuke from himself. Whatever it took to convince him to return willingly and spare him from a traitor's death he didn't entirely deserve. His extenuating circumstances would save him if he came home willingly, but they would be thrown out if he was brought back as a prisoner. Tsunade had chosen Team Kakashi for this vital mission because she knew they had the best chance of a positive outcome.
Three years they'd been tracking Akatsuki for any information on Uchiha Itachi's whereabouts. They weren't trying to prevent a confrontation between the brothers, they were simply using the fact that if they knew where Itachi was, it was likely that Sasuke did too and they could intercept him. It was a dangerous game; stalking Akatsuki without drawing attention, lurking in the shadows hoping to run into Sasuke doing the same. Team Kakashi had effectively become hunter-nin with a single, unchanging target.
It was relatively simple plan, but they'd had very little success. Whenever they got a lead on Akatsuki activity they would investigate, but it was never Uchiha Itachi or his partner Hoshigake Kisame. They would wait around for a day or two to see if they could catch a chance rendezvous with their target pair, or even for Sasuke to show up on the same dead-end lead. Most times, any Akatsuki that may have been around were already gone, and they were very good at covering their tracks even from Kakashi's ninken dogs.
Sakura sighed in frustration, bored—not to mention cramped—from all the waiting. She wondered how Naruto was faring. Normally, he was the absolute worst person for missions of stealth and reconnaissance, but because of the danger involved, the severity of the situation, and mainly because it was for Sasuke, he was able to keep himself in check. Mostly.
Impatience was beginning to get the best of her and she resisted the urge to fidget. If Akatsuki was in the area they would find her in a heartbeat if she wasn't as stealthy as possible. She realized she had lost track of time during her musing, and chastised herself for losing focus. The sun's position told her that Kakashi and Sai had been gone about twenty minutes; they should have something to report soon. She really hoped they had something to go on this time.
They had staked out several members of Akatsuki before, but they could never catch that damned Uchiha or his fishlike partner. The man was like a ghost, appearing and disappearing without a trace, his name whispered in the dark corners of taverns and always with fear. She hadn't seen him since they were sent to rescue Gaara three years ago. Technically it wasn't even him, merely an advanced clone, but she still remembered his deadly and intimidating presence. On the other hand, his partner Kisame had a habit of looking for trouble everywhere they went, usually leaving a brutal, bloody mess behind him. Yet for all the havoc he caused he was impossible to track as well.
If Team Kakashi had actually managed to stumble across the infamous duo this time it would be a miracle. With their track record it was unlikely. After what seemed like forever, her comm. set activated with a tiny click and Kakashi's voice sounded in her ear:
"The building is empty. Whoever may have been here is gone now. No other information or clues, so I guess that's that." His electronically hollowed voice sounded strained and tired.
"Damn it, not again!" was Naruto's frustrated reply.
"Meet at the rendezvous point."
"Yeah, yeah we know."
Sakura hung her head limply in a moment of sheer frustration. She stood slowly, knees aching from her extended crouch, the tops of her boots leaving pressure marks on the backs of her bare thighs. She stretched her legs, easing cramped muscles. "On my way," she said into the mic at her throat, and launched from the tree branch to meet up with the others.
As she made her way to the rendezvous point, Sakura found herself thinking about her team and how much they had changed over the years. They were a far cry from the mismatched, reckless group they were when they were younger, though they could still be dysfunctional. That was what she loved about them. Even Sai, insensitive jackass that he was, had helped their team grow and change.
When they were reclassified to their current mission, they realized they needed to be on par with their intended targets or they wouldn't stand a chance. Sai and Kakashi taught them every trick used in ANBU and them some. Sakura and Naruto contributed the many things they'd learned as privileged students of two of the legendary Sannin. After several grueling weeks of intense training, Team Kakashi was hardly recognizable in its team dynamics and deadly, precise functionality.
Sakura had changed on a personal level as well, into a confident jounin. After Team Seven fell apart, she realized she needed to get past the silly preteen melodrama that had been her life until that point and learn to stand on her own. After easily making chuunin with her teammates nowhere in sight, she came to conclusion that their unnatural strength had intimidated her and quite possibly held her back. After all, a sapling cannot grow in the shadow of a mighty tree. Or three trees, as it were. It was likely she was never all that weak, except for her tendency to let emotions rule her judgment. When held next to the great Copy Ninja, the Kyuubi jinchuuriki, and the prodigious Uchiha, she had paled in comparison. But next to anyone else she had always been exemplary.
At eighteen, after six years of growing and learning on her own, apprenticed to the most powerful kunoichi in the world, Sakura was a force to be reckoned with. She held up against her extraordinary teammates just fine, and in fact, sometimes they were a little intimidated by her temper and freakish strength. Jiraiya hadn't called her a mini-Tsunade for nothing.
Naruto was already at the designated rendezvous point, looking thoroughly irritated. Sakura dropped down from the trees into the small clearing, and he grinned warmly and moved to her side, throwing an arm around her shoulders and thunking his head against hers in acknowledgement of their shared frustration. Sakura could feel how tired he was. They were all tired. This seemingly hopeless mission was wearing on them, but they refused to lose their determination.
Moving away from him, she removed her pack from her shoulders and dropped it carelessly on the ground, grabbed her canteen and walked to the small creek near the clearing just as Sai dropped silently from the trees. He nodded at her before setting his pack down and walking off again.
Sakura removed her gloves and knelt down at the stream. The cool water felt wonderful on her hot skin as she washed her dirty hands and face, then splashed some of the refreshing liquid on the back of her neck before bending down and drinking from her hands. She felt Kakashi's presence moments before he entered the clearing, but didn't look up as she was busy refilling her canteen.
"What now?" Naruto asked him.
"We rest here until nightfall, then we move out." Kakashi dropped his own pack and sat down next to it, tugged his mask down and began rubbing his neck to work out the kinks.
Glancing at Kakashi and his woeful attempt at self-massage, Sakura returned her canteen to the side pouch of her pack. She moved behind him and knelt, swatting his gloved hand away from his neck as she placed her hands on his shoulders and began to work out the knots. He immediately relaxed under her expert touch, sagging as the tension drained from him. "You're amazing Sakura-chan," he sighed, leaning back into her. "What would I ever do without you?"
"Die a painful death due to your own stubbornness and refusal to seek help or medical attention."
"Hmm, you're probably right," he conceded, leaning back further, forcing her to widen her knees to accommodate him. Sakura gave an exasperated laugh and playfully smacked the back of his head.
Sai came back from wherever he'd gone off to, eyeing Naruto as the now shirtless blond dunked his entire head in the stream and came up for air, shaking his sopping head like a wet dog. Sakura squeaked as a spray of water hit her in the face. Kakashi chuckled; he had predicted Naruto's idiocy and raised his hand to block the spray. He could have blocked her from it as well, but hadn't because he thought it would be funny. She pinched down on his nape in retaliation, which only made him laugh at her more. Sai turned his attention to them and observed the little massage session. He said nothing and looked away.
Not one to miss an opportunity to ruffle his teammate's feathers, Naruto turned toward Sai and mimicked Sakura's movements, wagging his eyebrows suggestively. He was rewarded with a slightly revolted look from the artist, and all three of them laughed. Sai merely grabbed his pack and, steering clear of a snickering Naruto, sat against a tree and took out his sketchbook.
Naruto put his undershirt back on, but threw his jacket over the top of his pack as he sprawled out on the ground and tucked it under his head, intending to nap in the late afternoon sun like a cat.
Sakura moved back from Kakashi as she finished working out the last kink. "Better?"
"Much," he replied quietly. She made to move away when he made a circular motion with his arm, indicating for her to move around in front of him. She couldn't believe he was actually offering to return the favor, but she wasn't about to refuse. He grabbed her arms and scooted her backward with him until his back rested against the tree. He set one leg on either side of her with knees bent and set to work on her tense muscles.
Six, four, even two years ago she would have been shocked as hell to be in this situation, but a lot had changed within their team over time. Sakura knew she was one of the only people allowed in the aloof Copy Ninja's personal space. Kakashi's strong fingers hit a pressure point and her mind was suddenly wiped blank. A soft moan escaped her lips and she slumped against him, all of her tension draining away under his touch. Her involuntary reaction caused Sai to pause in his sketching, and Naruto cracked an eye open in their direction briefly before returning to his catnap. Kakashi merely smirked and continued. Sakura was only mildly embarrassed at her little slip. She was very comfortable with all of her boys, as they were with her.
There were people in Konoha, mainly the village elders, who thought that Team Kakashi was a little too close, that their team dynamics were borderline unprofessional. Tsunade, however, knew that turmoil was what brought people together, and their team had endured plenty. After all they had been through their bonds were permanent and unbreakable. It was the key to their magic. Despite their grumbling, even the elders couldn't deny that Team Kakashi was one of the most highly skilled and well-rounded teams in Konoha.
Sakura couldn't care less what those people thought. She learned a long time ago that maintaining a professional bearing was merely an external behavior and didn't change the way one actually felt. Naruto had never followed that shinobi rule, and after some time Sakura decided that, at least with the people close to her heart, she wouldn't either. Sai and Kakashi held the same belief, though in different degrees. They knew what they were to each other. Everyone else could piss off.
The late summer sun had just begun its afternoon descent; they had about two hours until nightfall. Sakura let herself relax fully against Kakashi as he continued to work out the knots in her neck and shoulders. It was peaceful in the small clearing, listening to the lulling music of the forest, watching her teammates relaxing and enjoying the afternoon after the long, trying day.
The first time Kakashi removed his mask in front of them, Naruto could barely contain himself and gaped unabashedly at his newly revealed face for hours. Even Sai had to fight the urge to stare. Sakura had stared too, but women are much subtler about things like ogling. She had always known Kakashi was a handsome man. His mask was formfitting, after all, and you could see the outline of his features if you paid close attention. His good looks were probably one of the reasons he wore the mask, as he didn't like the attention. Other than his willingness show his face, his outward appearance hadn't changed much in all the years she'd known him. He still wore the standard black jounin uniform, still had gravity-defying silver hair that looked like it was never brushed. Sakura had tried brushing it once, but his hair was as stubborn as he was and refused to go any direction besides up.
Naruto was beginning to emit small snoring noises, and she watched him a moment. He was sprawled haphazardly on the ground, taking up as much space as possible, his shirt riding up to bare his abdomen. The dark coloring of the Kyuubi seal around his navel stood out in stark contrast on his sun-kissed skin. It had been a while since he'd had a haircut and his golden hair hung over his hitai-ate, partially obscuring the whisker-like marks that the Kyuubi sealing had left on his cheeks. He was more mature these days, so much more thoughtful and perceptive that she sometimes wondered what happened during his three year absence from Konoha to make him grow up so much. There was no doubt in her mind that the goofy, hyperactive young man currently flopped on the forest floor like a well-fed dog would be the next Hokage.
Sakura turned her gaze to Sai. He felt her eyes on him and looked up, gave her a small smile and returned to his drawing. Sai had probably changed more than anyone else. His pale, handsome face was still rather expressionless, but only if you didn't know him. He'd learned that fake smiles and nicknames you didn't mean didn't have the effect on people the books said they would, so he stopped doing it. Sakura couldn't imagine the atrocities done to the children of Root to turn them into such severely repressed, psychologically damaged soldiers, but Sai was slowly pulling himself out of it with their help. His smiles were rare but genuine, and although he would always be slightly emotionally stunted, he did feel things, and expressed them in the little ways he knew how.
Watching the aloof artist and trying to figure out what he was thinking reminded her of the dark haired man he resembled: the missing member of their team. Yes, they still considered Sasuke a member of their team, and probably always would. Even Sai, who had only met him once under less than favorable circumstances and had only learned about him from his teammates, still felt a strange connection to the misguided Uchiha. They were a family and Sasuke was the wandering stray, their black sheep.
They hadn't seen him for three years, and she couldn't help but wonder what he looked like now. Was he still beautiful? Most likely. Was he still brooding? More than ever, of that she was certain. Was he tall or short? Muscular or lean? She didn't have a clue since she had none of his relatives to judge by, and she was too young and scared the one time she'd seen Itachi to make a comparison. She'd heard they looked a lot alike, but she hadn't looked at his face that time for fear of being caught by his eyes. Would Sasuke have that same deadly aura around him? It worried her to think so.
The sun was below the horizon, the sounds of the forest changing as the nocturnal creatures awoke and came out of hiding. The trill of crickets and the feel of Kakashi shifting behind her brought Sakura back to her senses, and she got that odd feeling of waking without knowing you'd been asleep.
She had fallen asleep with her back against Kakashi's chest, effectively trapping him against the tree. She looked over her shoulder at him. He'd pulled out Icha Icha at some point, and had propped his elbow on his knee for leverage to read. He felt her shift against him as she woke up, and he closed his book before tilting his head toward her. "Nice nap?"
"Sorry," she murmured sheepisly, sitting up. "Why didn't you move me?"
"You were keeping me warm."
She blinked. "It's hardly cold."
He gave her an affable smile and shrugged. Sakura rolled her eyes at the cryptic man and stood, stretching out. Naruto did likewise with a full-throated yawn. Sai closed his sketchpad and returned it to his pack. Kakashi stood as well, returning Icha Icha to his pocket before brushing the dirt and leaves from his pants.
Naruto shook the forest debris from himself and his jacket before putting it back on, walking out of the clearing as he zipped it up. "I gotta take a leak," he graciously informed them.
"How do you pee without a dick? Do you squat like a girl?" Sai hadn't said a word in hours, but apparently couldn't resist an opportunity to tease him. Maybe it was payback for the massage joke earlier.
"Man, what is it with you and your obsession with dicks? Go play with your own and stop thinking about mine, you freak."
"At least I have one to play with."
Naruto just stood there for a moment, gaping at Sai as if he couldn't believe this subject was still being brought up. Then he stomped back into the clearing, stopped right in front of Sai and began to unbuckle his pants. "I'll show you who's dickless, motherfu—"
Sakura couldn't believe the idiot was actually going to whip it out right here in front of her! She launched forward and was about to pound him in righteous indignation when Kakashi stepped in and grabbed him by the collar just as he reached inside the front of his pants. Sakura was about to whack him anyway for standing there practically fondling himself, when Kakashi grabbed her from behind. "Knock it off."
"He started it," Naruto groused.
Sai gave him a flat look. "What are you, twelve?"
"Shut up, asshole."
"Both of you shut up. You're making too much noise." He let go of Naruto, but held on to Sakura for a moment to make sure she wasn't going to try to hit him anyway. "Naruto, hurry up and finish your business. Let's get moving," he finished with easy, well-practiced authority. He finally let go of Sakura and donned his pack.
Naruto huffed and stalked out if the clearing, shooting Sai a dirty look as he went. Sai stared back, amused, before shouldering his own pack and leaping onto the nearest tree.
Sakura couldn't help but laugh. They were all so different, but somehow still the same. She loved them all, and wouldn't have things any other way. Except for one thing, and that was why they would return home and wait for any information on their missing piece, then set out to try again.
Kakashi was busy erasing any signs of their presence. Sakura retrieved her pack and Naruto's, tossing it at him as he came back into the clearing. He caught it midair and effortlessly slung it over his shoulder.
"Let's hurry; the sooner we get back the sooner I can see Hinata-chan!"
"I don't know how you got her, what with you being di –"
"Sai," Kakashi warned tonelessly.
Naruto rolled his eyes and took off into the trees.
Sakura jumped onto the same branch as Sai, shoving him playfully with her hip and giving him a reproving look. He smirked at her, then leapt away in the direction Naruto had gone. Kakashi jumped soundlessly onto the branch beside her, and they shared the understanding smile of the only two relatively normal people in their group. He pulled his mask up over is nose and motioned with a tilt of his head for her to move out. She silently leapt away into the forest, Kakashi followed behind, and the four Leaf ninja vanished into the twilight.
In a vast, dark cavern hidden in the cliffside of a large ravine, nine shadowy figures materialized silently out of the ether. Their dark silhouettes flickered strangely, non-corporeal, and an ominous aura filled the air as they stood motionless, waiting.
The presence of one dark figure stood out above the rest. His cold, ringed eyes—the only part of him distinguishable from his cloaked shape—rose slowly to acknowledge the eight who had appeared before him. He cast his gaze slowly over each of them before speaking.
"It is time to begin the final stages of our endeavor. What we anticipated to take three years has taken seven, because we underestimated the individual power of the jinchuuriki. However, we have succeeded in capturing and extracting eight of the bijuu. All that remains is the Kyuubi, and then our power will be absolute. The Nine Tails will be the most difficult to obtain, as it is the most powerful. As you all know, the Kyuubi resides in Konoha and is well protected by the Leaf. Several attempts have been made to capture the vessel before now and all were…unsuccessful."
Crimson eyes narrowed in the darkness, and several more pairs of eyes looked in the owner's direction.
The Leader continued, "Despite their reputation for being softhearted and weak, Konoha shinobi have been responsible for the deaths of three of our comrades in the past. The Leaf is not to be taken lightly. That leads me to other, relevant information. Zetsu."
The deep, raspy voice of the plant man echoed through the cavern. " Uchiha Sasuke has been seen again, traveling the towns and countryside with two companions. After Orochimaru died we figured Sasuke would be a hindrance to our plans, especially if he rejoined the Leaf. But after three years it seems he is not the threat we thought he was. Though he is still most likely after Itachi."
"The capture of the Kyuubi is of utmost importance," Leader spoke again. "The extraction process has taken far too long and it is only a matter of time before the seal becomes unstable. Itachi is assigned to the Kyuubi, and any outside interference at this point will prove problematic. Deidara."
"You and Tobi are closest to Itachi and Kisame's location." It was not a question.
"You will rendezvous with them and cooperate in the capture of the Kyuubi jinchuuriki."
Ice blue eyes glanced at the shadowy duo in curiosity. His voice barely concealed his aversion to the order. "…Understood."
"That is not necessary. We can capture the vessel without assistance," Itachi's voice rang out quietly, a hint of irritation in the smooth tone.
"Yeah, we don't need any help," Kisame echoed, not bothering to hide his distaste for the idea.
"So far that hasn't been the case," Leader reminded them coldly, and all eyes shifted to the pair being put on the spot. "The four of you will rendezvous and work out a plan of action. That is all."
The dark shapes began to shuffle and vanish one by one, their holographic projections flickering out like candle flames.
"Itachi. Kisame," Leader's voice echoed out to two of the remaining figures.
Both the large shadow and the smaller one turned to regard the Leader. Eyes of the departing shadows lingered in their direction briefly before flickering out, until only three figures remained in the vast cavern.
"Do you even know where the jinchuuriki is?" Ringed eyes, cold and grey as steel, empty of all light and emotion bored into the cloaked pair. His displeasure filled the air around them.
"We do not," answered the smaller shadow, his voice as smooth as the leader's was menacing.
"If we did we would have said so when you asked the first time," added the larger shadow, beady silver eyes staring balefully at the tall figure.
The air seemed to chill around them, and the cold eyes of the Leader narrowed dangerously at the giant shape of the shark-man. "You may want to mind your tone, Kisame. The two of you have already tested the limits of my patience."
The shark tempered his voice before continuing, "The Kyuubi vessel was taken into hiding six years ago by the Sannin, Jiraiya. We were unable to locate him at the time. Even if we had, battling a jinchuuriki and a Sannin at the same time would be foolish. We encountered him again three years ago, but he was extremely well guarded then too, and it was in the middle of the Ichibi extraction. Our clones weren't able to defeat the little bastard's entourage."
"I have grown tired of your excuses." He turned to regard the smaller man, who returned his gaze with impassively. The Sharingan user was one of the few who could look him in the eye for any length of time. "Itachi. You are one of the best, and you have my trust, which is not given lightly. I assigned the most powerful of the Bijuu to you for this reason. It has been nearly seven years and you have continued to fail in this task. Your family issues are causing too many problems for Akatsuki, and you have been unable to deal with that as well. You are beginning to disappoint me, and that is not a wise thing to do. Uchiha Itachi does not fail. Do not make me begin to think otherwise."
Itachi did not reply; he was not expected to. The clench of his jaw was hidden by the darkness around them.
"I know that you are both highly capable—you would not be in this organization otherwise. You captured the Yonbi with no problems. I realize that as the most powerful, the Kyuubi is the most difficult to obtain, and the jinchuuriki who hosts it is sure to be even more powerful now than the last time you encountered him. I am also aware that unlike most other vessels, this one is actually cared for and protected by his people. That is why I am sending Deidara and Tobi, who have no priority objectives at the moment, to assist you in the capture of the vessel Uzumaki Naruto. You have six months. If at the end of those six months you two have still not captured the vessel, I will be forced to reevaluate your usefulness to this organization."
"Understood," replied Itachi, toneless as ever.
Leader said nothing more, merely fixed his hawkish gaze on each of them in turn and nodded once before his image flickered out.
The two remaining figures stood perfectly still for a moment before they too vanished, and the vast, empty cavern was enveloped in blackness once more.
Under the large rock outcropping they occupied, Uchiha Itachi opened his eyes from his meditation and fixed his cold, crimson gaze on his partner.
Kisame opened his own eyes a moment later and immediately a scowl fell across his shark-like features. He shot a disturbed look at his stoic partner. "Well that's it. We're fucked."
"Calm yourself. Your outburst is not helping."
"Calm myself? You heard what he said. He's going to kill us both if we don't catch that little shithead Uzumaki in the next six months." Kisame reached for Samehada and stood up, began pacing in frustration.
"I understood his meaning as well as you did."
"I know you're pissed about the things he said to you."
"I do not get 'pissed.'"
Itachi didn't dignify that comment with a reply. Kisame continued pacing while his partner remained unmoving and expressionless. "This isn't good. You may be the mighty Uchiha Itachi, but Leader can still rip you a new one."
"I am aware of that, Kisame."
"How the hell can you be so calm?"
The shark-man groaned in frustration. "And now on top of this, your goddamn brother's on the loose and looking for you. We ain't got time for distractions from that fucked-up little reject."
"Your observations are pointless."
"Well you're the genius; you think of something." Kisame seemed to finally run out of steam and sat down roughly on the ground.
Itachi remained silent, his brilliant mind working to come up with a solution. The Kyuubi vessel and his brother were connected, so the best solution would be one that would take care of both problems, possibly even at the same time.
He recalled everything he knew about Uzumaki Naruto and his relationship with Sasuke. Both from Konoha, therefore both driven by the heart rather than the mind. Easily manipulated by emotion. Sasuke tried to pretend otherwise, but Itachi had proven the vulnerability of his brother's feelings time and again. Uzumaki was an obvious bleeding-heart type and could be driven to reckless and irrational behavior by even the smallest things.
Sasuke was actively hunting him, but hadn't been able to find him. He never would, unless Itachi deliberately made the trail easier to follow. He knew that capturing Naruto would bring his brother to him faster, but it was getting ahold of the Kyuubi vessel in the first place that was proving difficult.
Suddenly Itachi was struck by an idea. He would take a page out of Orochimaru's book. The snake Sannin had lured Sasuke away from Konoha by manipulating him with something he wanted very badly, driving him to the point of recklessness. Itachi knew he was his brother's ultimate goal and extra manipulation wasn't necessary. If only he could push Naruto in the same way, bring him out and drive him straight into his trap.
There had to be something that connected the two, something that would make them both come running straight to him. They were childhood friends, former teammates under the guidance of the Copy Ninja. But he couldn't use Hatake Kakashi in his plan. His brother and the Kyuubi were going to be enough to handle without bringing him into it. Besides, he didn't think it would be enough incentive for either boy.
No, there had to be something else, something precious to both of them, something…
It hit him suddenly what that something was: the kunoichi. The little girl on Hatake's team.
Sakura. That was her name. All he knew of her now was that she had become a medic. Of course she had. She was exactly the kind of softhearted, simpering waste of air that foolish, overly hormonal idiots with hero complexes like Uzumaki and his brother sacrificed themselves for. From what he had witnessed, she was a pathetic excuse for a ninja that should never have been let out of the academy. She was the ideal incentive to lure his prey.
They would be furious, and they would come for him like rabid dogs. Yes, the pretty little kunoichi would be the perfect bait.