Disclaimer: Naruto and its characters are created by Masashi Kishimoto, but the new plots (meaning the ones you don't recognize!) are mine. This fanfiction had been written for entertainment purposes only and without intention of infringing upon any copyright.

Title: The Contentious Heart

Author: elle6778
Rating: T/PG-13
Genre: Mainly action/adventure, with romance building up over the course of the story.

Summary: It is just another mission, right? But as it progresses, Sakura simply cannot dismiss the growing conflict within her own heart. Little does she know that Itachi is just as perplexed. Itachi-Sakura. Spoilers up to chapter 353 in the manga.

Spoilers: The story follows the canon storyline until the part shortly after the Sasuke vs. Orochimaru battle (approximately chapter 353). After that, I took liberties with the facts, so apologies if it diverges from canon.

A/N: Hi everyone! This is my first venture into the big, scary world of Naruto fanfiction. I'm sticking my toe in just to test the waters, so to speak, and I hope that you will be kind. This story would be long, maybe about 20 chapters because I can't seem to manage short stories. Anyway, I hope you'll like it. All that said, let's move on to the story. Please enjoy…

The Contentious Heart by elle6778 – Chapter 1

It was a normal day in the Hidden Village of Leaf, where the white clouds traveled sluggishly across the blue sky overhead, and the sunlight bathing the buildings in a comforting glow. Urged by the light breeze, stray leafs danced merrily in the air, giving the impression of a lighthearted atmosphere.

Leaning against the large window, a sober Tsunade observed the activities of the shinobi and the villagers down below. Everyone was going about their daily tasks, blissfully unaware of the issues plaguing the minds of those in the Hokage Tower.

Sighing inwardly, she turned to face the two shinobi before her.

Kakashi was leaning against the wall, his nose buried in the latest issue of Jiraiya's Icha Icha series. Shikamaru was standing not far away, his features set in his usual expression of mild boredom. But Tsunade knew that his looks were deceiving, for Shikamaru was now one of her most trusted strategist. Although it had taken him some time to settle into his role, the jounin had proven himself to be reliable when the situation called for it.

Such as the current situation with the Akatsuki.

In the recent months, Konoha had grown increasingly concerned about Akatsuki's activities.

Or lack thereof.

Having said that, there had been the occasional bursts of activities, like the one involving the eight-tailed bijuu, the hachibi. Rumor has it that one Akatsuki member had been destroyed during the capture attempt. But since then, the organization had gone underground. Its silence could mean nothing but trouble ahead.

The fact that they were after the hachibi meant that they would soon come for Naruto. And although he aware of the situation, Naruto being Naruto, had adamantly refused to remain within the relative safely of Konoha. Of course he still tried to carry out as many external missions that he could get his hands on, Tsunade thought darkly.

Anything to escape Konoha, in fact. Not that she really blamed the blonde. No one liked to be poked and prodded on a regular basis, especially considering that Sakura was the one doing it. Each time they had their sessions, the entire hospital building shook with Naruto's shrieks of protests amidst Sakura's threatening bellows.

But as traumatizing as it was for Naruto, those tests had been necessary.

Following Gaara's kidnapping, they had spent the last one year researching the connection between the bijuu and its host, the jinchuuriki. The objective was to attempt to separate the two entities without killing the jinchuuriki. If they managed to remove the nine-tailed demon fox from Naruto, then not only the danger to the blonde would cease, they could also attempt to destroy the kyuubi to prevent the Akatsuki from attaining their goal.

There was a problem with the idea, though. Even with all those tests on Naruto, all they had gleaned so far was only theoretical. And although it should work in theory, no one was willing to subject Naruto to something untested.

Which brought them back to square one. As long as the kyuubi remained in Naruto, Akatsuki would come to them sooner or later, and there was really nothing they could do to stop it.

Shikamaru had pointed out more than once that their main problem was the lack of information concerning Akatsuki, therefore information gathering should be their priority. This was the third time in just as many months that Tsunade found herself facing Shikamaru and Kakashi to discuss the issue and she hoped that the strategist had managed to think of something.

Deciding that it was time to continue the meeting, Tsunade settled on the chair behind her desk.

"Shikamaru. Have you thought of a plan?" she asked.

The corner of Shikamaru's eyes dipped and he sighed. "Yeah. It's troublesome, but the only way to do this is to infiltrate Akatsuki as a spy."

Lowering his book slightly, Kakashi looked at younger shinobi out of the corner of his eyes. "It's not going to be easy. They are not that stupid. Whoever we send would end up dead."

Shikamaru nodded once. "That's true. But their numbers are dropping. There are only six of them left now. Sooner or later, they would need to fill in the gaps."

Propping her chin on her clasped hands, Tsunade remarked, "In that case, we need to get Akatsuki to 'recruit' this spy. And for that to happen, this person needs to be a powerful missing-nin, someone Akatsuki would find useful."

"Well, one of our missing-nins is already in Akatsuki," Kakashi stated wryly.

Tsunade shot him an irritated look. "I'm sure Uchiha Itachi would betray them. Unfortunately, I don't think any of our missing-nins would be willing to help us."

Head bowed, Shikamaru glanced down at his hands thoughtfully. Tsunade and Kakashi turned to him questioningly, but Shikamaru remained unmoving, his brows furrowed in deep thought. He was obviously considering something.

Finally, the dark-haired jounin lifted his head. "We would just have to create our own missing-nin."

Kakashi raised a brow. "You mean…"

"Prepare one of our shinobi to become a missing-nin and wait for Akatsuki to recruit him?"

Shikamaru nodded. "It's troublesome, but it's the best way. And no one must know the truth because we don't know if there are any Akatsuki spies in Konoha. Whoever this person is, we have to make sure that he plays his part well. The whole of Konoha and the rest of the world need to be convinced that this person is really a missing-nin, which means that this mission might take months, even years."

"In addition to that, this person needs to be powerful enough to catch Akatsuki's eyes," Tsunade said quietly. "This would not be easy. Who fits this profile?"

"It can't be someone too well known," Shikamaru pointed out. "Someone like Kakashi wouldn't work because it would be too suspicious. Maybe those who just passed the jounin exams recently."

"How about Neji?" Kakashi suggested. "He's ANBU now and more than qualified."

Shikamaru nodded in agreement. "Neji is a good candidate. He's got a limit bloodline and he's powerful."

"He's also the Hyuuga heir," Tsunade interjected darkly. "Hiashi will not agree to this."

Kakashi's exposed eye widened. "I thought Hinata was the heiress?"

Tsunade shook her head. "Not since last week. Hinata convinced her father that Neji is more qualified. She doesn't want the position."

Shikamaru slumped. "That's too bad. He would have been perfect."

Raising his hand to scratch the back of his silver head, Kakashi chuckled, "We're out of candidates so soon?"

"We have other options." Tsunade pinned her eyes on Shikamaru. "Your entire Academy group is outstanding, most of them now jounin. And all of them are loyal to Konoha… except Sasuke."

Kakashi averted his face. "That was my mistake."

"No," Tsunade protested firmly. "His desire for revenge is not your fault."

"Back to our Academy group, Hokage-sama," Shikamaru interjected. "How about Shino?"

"Shino is good, but he's not in Akatsuki's league," Kakashi pointed out. "And neither are Kiba or Chouji. Naruto, of course, is out of the question, since he's being hunted."

"You forgot Sakura," Tsunade suggested, her brows drawn into a deep frown. "She is strong. Strong enough to take down Sasori a year ago."

Silence greeted her.

"You want to make Sakura a missing-nin?" Kakashi asked tersely. "Are you sure about this?"

Before Tsunade could say anything, Shikamaru nodded. "It's not a bad idea. Sakura fits the profile, in a way. She's strong jounin, and her medical skills are exceptional. But there's no motive, no reason for her to chose to be a missing-nin."

After a while, Kakashi muttered, "Sasuke."

"I doubt she'll go as far as that to get Sasuke back. Besides, she got over that boy long ago," Tsunade pointed out.

"Well, no one knows except her closest friends."

Sighing, Shikamaru ran a hand over his head. "I guess we could work on the motive angle. It would take some time, but we need a long-term plan, otherwise it's going to look suspicious if she just runs away. And once she becomes a missing-nin, she needs to get herself noticed by the Akatsuki. Since Akatsuki wouldn't trust anyone so easily, they need to approach her instead of the other way round."

"I understand what you're saying, but how are we supposed to achieve that?"

Shikamaru's eyes gleamed suddenly as something came together in his mind. "First of all, the most important thing is to keep this plan between us three and Sakura. And no one else."

"You have a plan?" Tsunade asked.

A small smile tilted the corner of Shikamaru's lips, and then he leaned forward.

Her senses on full alert, Sakura's jade green eyes flicked from side to side as she sprung away from one tree branch to another. Then she stopped abruptly. Stealthily, she swung herself upwards until she reached a much higher branch to hide behind the thick foliage.

A normal person would not have sensed anything, but she clearly detected the presence of four shinobi some distance away. Based on their level of chakra and their speed, these pursuers were most likely ANBU hunter-nins. Were they Leaf shinobi, or perhaps Sound shinobi? Considering her current location, it could only be either. Lips twitching wryly, she wondered if she knew any of them by name.

It did not matter. What mattered most was to make sure that she did not get caught, or this entire mission would be foiled even before it began properly. And especially after the hell she had gone through for the past one and a half year.

Silently, she moved away from her position, streaking away from her pursuers as memories filled her mind.

Shortly after she had passed her jounin examinations, she was summoned to Tsunade's office. Kakashi and Shikamaru were there when she had arrived. It was then that they had sat her down to brief her on a certain solo long-term mission. It was an understatement to say that she had been shocked when she digested the mission brief.

But when everything had sank in, she saw the sense in it, even though she realized then that it would probably be the hardest mission to accomplish, ever. For someone who had spent her early teens feeling weaker than her teammates, Sakura could not help but feel gratified at the confidence Tsunade, Kakashi and Shikamaru had shown in her abilities to pull this mission off successfully.

Ultimately, it had been her decision. Tsunade and the rest did not force her into it. They had given her the option to decline. But she had accepted for the sake of Naruto's safety, for the sake of Konoha's safety. Even though it meant that she had to give up everything she had known her entire life. For there was no turning back once she accepted. She would forever be branded a traitor, a missing-nin.

She had taken a week to consider the implications carefully.

Then she had accepted.

Once Tsunade, Kakashi and Shikamaru were convinced that she was fully prepared to go through with it, her training had escalated at an incredible rate. No one else knew about the mission, so they had to come up with some sort of excuse. She had finally settled on the ANBU angle, stating that she wanted to improve enough to join the ranks of the elite squad. No one had questioned her further, even though they were surprised by her single-mindedness. She had only received compliments after compliments on her progress from everyone she had trained under, and that included Yamato, Gai, Kurenai and several other ANBU captains.

Sakura paused in her thoughts as she scanned her surroundings. Her four pursuers had lost her trail. A small sigh of relief escaped her lips, thankful that she did not have to engage them in battle. It was odd, though, how easily she had lost them. Idly, she wondered if she was really that skilled, or they were just incompetent.

Still, knowing that she could not afford to relax fully, Sakura continued onwards, heading towards the Country of Grass as she resumed her thoughts. She took a deep breath as her hand wandered down her body to a bump at her waist.

The scroll.

Her lips creased in a humorless smile. All she had done to set this in motion was to break into the secured area to steal the forbidden Scroll of Seals, which had been stolen once before by Naruto. Kage Bunshin was not the only jutsu in there, as Sakura had found out since she took it. There were many other useful but dangerous jutsus in there. She had learnt some of them during her intensive training, and the rest she had learnt by heart on her own before she sealed the scroll. She might be a missing-nin now, but she had no intention of allowing outsiders to get their hands on Konoha's secrets. Anyway, it was not as if the knowledge would be lost since Tsunade had made a copy of the scroll.

She could have just left undetected that night, but that would have defeated the purpose, wouldn't it? So she had made a little noise. Just a little noise, and in a blink of an eye, she had been surrounded by a team of shinobi on patrol. Ironically, the team on patrol that day included Ino and Chouji, as well as two chuunins. Shikamaru had been conveniently 'ill' that day.

Sakura bit her lips as she recalled the look in Ino's and Chouji's eyes. She had recognized the look.

It was betrayal.

Until now, she still remembered every words of their encounter.

"Sakura?" Ino gasped, her flickering eyes displaying her confusion. "What's going on?"

She simply stared at her blonde friend wordlessly.

Chouji frowned. "Why are you holding the Scroll of Seals, Sakura?"

She forced herself to quirk a brow before she replied, "I think it's obvious, Chouji."

Ino sucked in a sharp breath. "You're stealing it?" she sounded bewildered. "Sakura, do you have any idea how much trouble you're in? Why are you trying to steal it?"

Shaking her head, Sakura allowed a small, genuinely sad smile to cross her lips. "You won't understand."

Ino's voice was grew more desperate as she went on. "You're willing to throw away everything just because of this scroll? I don't understand. You're doing so well, and you're heading straight for ANBU. So why are you doing this? This is wrong!"

"Is it wrong to want to grow stronger?" Sakura asked quietly. "Is it wrong to want something different?"

Eyes widening in disbelief, Ino simply stared at her.

Sakura took a few steps away from them. All she had to do now was to escape from Konoha. Hopefully she would not have to fight her friends.

Chouji's frown deepened as he followed her. "Sakura… I don't want to fight you, so drop the scroll and we'll talk about this, alright? Things can't be as bad as that."

She shook her head slowly. "I'm sorry, guys. But I've to do this."

With that, she sprung away.

Almost immediately, they gave chase. Knowing that she would have no option but to fight, she finally stopped and spun around in a fight stance.

Sakura grimaced as she recalled the furious battle which ensued. A number of conveniently empty buildings had been destroyed during the fight, which was supposed to lend some authenticity to the entire plan. Ino and the two chuunins had not been difficult to defeat. And although he was stronger, Chouji's level were nowhere near hers, especially after her intensive training. Still, even though she had held back, each blow was like a blow to her own heart.

Yes, the battles against her friends were the hardest things she had experienced during this mission. Fighting those she had grown up with, while trying her best not to harm them fatally had been gut wrenching. Ino and Chouji were not the only ones. Ever since she had left with the scroll almost one and a half years ago, she had fought squads which included Neji, Tenten, Lee, Shikamaru, Kakashi, Sai and even Naruto.

Sakura swallowed hard, trying to dislodge the lump in her throat as she recalled her first encounter with Naruto a few weeks after her escape. Kakashi and Sai had also been present at that time.

She was close to the border to Wind Country when they caught up with her.

"Why, Sakura? Why did you leave us?" Naruto asked, his voice shaking uncontrollably. "We are a team."

"I'm really sorry, Naruto. This is just something I have to do," she said quietly, not able to bring herself to say a single harsh word to her friend. "Please, I really don't want to fight with you."

"Is this because of Sasuke? Are you trying to find Sasuke by yourself?" Naruto asked plaintively, his brilliant blue eyes shimmering. "If it's Sasuke, we can go look for him together. Just come back, Sakura!"

She could not lie to her best friend, so she remained silent. He would just have to make his own conclusions. Her eyes rose to meet Kakashi's briefly, but the Copy-nin's expression betrayed nothing. It was as if Kakashi did not know why she was running away. She suppressed her admiration at his flawless acting abilities.

Noticing a movement, her eyes snapped towards Sai. Extracting his equipment from his pack, the ANBU Root member inked something on a scroll and then released the jutsu. A black snake instantly shot towards her.

Reacting quickly, Sakura flicked a pair of shuriken towards it, pinning it against a tree. Then the snake melted into a harmless puddle of ink on the forest floor. "Is that all you can do, Sai?" she asked levelly.

Sai regarded her wordlessly, no doubt plotting his next move.

Naruto tried to dart towards her, only to be restrained by Kakashi. The Copy-nin's voice was stony when he said, "Do you realize what you're doing, Sakura? You're a missing-nin now, and you'll be hunted until you're captured. Come back with us and we'll talk to Tsunade on your behalf."

An act. It was all an act. But it needed to be convincing. Clenching her fists, she took a step backward away from them. "Kakashi… sensei. Thanks for the offer, but no thanks. I prefer to be out here."

Naruto's head snapped up and he stared at her in disbelief.

"Sakura, you cannot win against all three of us," Sai pointed out blandly. "Give yourself up now."


"Damn it, Sakura! You're being stupid," Naruto yelled.

Sakura clenched her fists. "Just let me go, alright," she gritted out.

Right before her, Naruto's eyes hardened in determination. His hands clenched into tight fists as he took a step towards her. "I will not let you leave like Sasuke!" he hissed. "Even if I have to beat you unconscious."

Alarmed, she sucked in a sharp breath. Naruto was dangerous when he was in this mood. She had to run, because there was no way she could make herself harm Naruto. Provided of course, that she could even manage to lay a single finger on him. As skilled as she was, she was not convinced that she could defeat him with his kyuubi-enhanced strength.

One of the ANBU captains had taught her something, just in case she ever found herself outnumbered. And she knew that now was the right time to use it. Stealthily reaching into her pouch, Sakura's fingers closed around a small object and pulled it out.

Naruto continued to advance towards her, his expression uncompromising. His voice was hard when he spoke. "I don't want to do this, Sakura, but you're leaving me with no choice."

Sakura gulped as Naruto's eyes bled red.

Swiftly, she performed a substitution jutsu.

While Naruto attacked the substitute, Sakura opened her palm and quickly activated another jutsu over the small round casing. She had sealed some of her spare chakra within those insects inside the casing a few days ago, and they should last long enough to give her a good head start.

Leaving the substitute log behind, Naruto darted towards her. By that time, her latest jutsu had already taken effect, leaving Naruto to face three replicas of her. Unlike the usual bunshin, these would continue to fight until her chakra ran out.

Knowing that they would die soon, Sakura mouthed a silent apology to the insects before she disappeared away from the scene.

A deep rumble in the distance broke into her thoughts. Sakura immediately grimaced at the sound.

The rain started to pour down shortly after she crossed the border into a minor country lodged between Waterfall and Field Country. Since it was a country without its own shinobi, she would be able to relax a little before moving on to find the next job.

She cursed under her breath, wondering how much longer she could carry on like this. This entire mission was basically an extended test of survival. But at least she did not have to worry about money anymore.

Not knowing how long it would take, Tsunade had given her enough funds to start with and had hidden some in various locations for emergency. But the money was not meant to last her that long anyway as they knew that she had to take jobs to build a name for herself.

She had taken small jobs at first, and then bigger and more dangerous ones as her reputation grew. Unlike those missions she had taken part in during her Team 7 and Team Kakashi days, her current jobs were anything but legal. She tended to avoid assassination missions, instead taking on those which were relatively high profile and paid well. The pay from one she had just completed just a few days ago would last her a few months alone. In fact, she was so obscenely well-financed that she probably did not need to work for more than a year, if not for the fact that she needed to continue building her reputation.

Her heart twisted slightly when she recalled all the blood she had spilled in Lightning Country a few days ago. No one had died in her attack, but many had come close to it when she single-handedly destroyed the daimyou's stronghold and took off with their prized jewels.

No matter what, she always tried to make sure that no one died. It did not mean that she always succeeded, though.

Her thoughts receded when the village she was seeking finally came into view. Sakura's lips stretched into a smile. Uncaring that she was dripping wet from the rain, she made her way to the nearest inn and walked in. It was a simple establishment, most likely run by a family. It did not look like one which would be frequented by her kind, she decided with relief. She would stay there and rest for a couple of days.

The elderly man looked up from the reception desk when she called out a greeting.

"Do you have a room?" Sakura asked with a smile.

Returning her smile, the elderly man nodded. "Single?"


Soon she was led to a small but clean room and left there after being bidden a goodnight by the elderly man. Sliding the door shut behind her, her eyes landed briefly on the thick futon before she took in the rest of the simple furnishings. There was a small table at the corner with a cushion by its side. The shoji screen at the end of the room most likely led to a small bathroom.

Pleased with her room, Sakura dropped her pack and stretched. Quickly extracting the items she needed from her pack, she undressed and then made her way to the bathroom to clean up the grime from her travel. Washing her clothes quickly, she hung them on the rail to dry. She dressed herself in a fresh set of clothes which was similar to what she had worn back in Konoha, only this time, the attire was black and grey.

When she walked back out of the bathroom, her eyes landed on the hitai-ate on top of her pack. Kneeling down, a suddenly surge of sadness welled up inside her when she traced her finger along the slash cutting across the Konoha Leaf emblem. She had done it herself right after she had escaped intact from her second encounter with Naruto and Sai.

It was fitting, though.

Because she, Haruno Sakura, an eighteen-year-old ex-Leaf-jounin, was now a missing-nin.

Shaking away the gloomy thought, she tied the hitai-ate over her head like she had always done. This was her mission, and she was doing this for the sake of her country and her friends, no matter how much it hurts sometimes, and how lonely she was for her friends' company. It did not matter that no one knew about it except Tsunade, Kakashi and Shikamaru. All that was important was that she made it into Akatsuki.

Her expression turned into a scowl. Shikamaru had warned her that this would take a long time because it was not easy to set up such a thing. That it needed to be real for Akatsuki to be convinced. But what else did she have to do to catch their attention? She was already in the Bingo books of all major and minor shinobi countries. Not to mention that nowadays, her reputation always preceded her when she took jobs.

It had been more than a year, damn it!

What if Akatsuki did not take the bait?

How long more did she have to live like this?

As soon as the thought occurred to her, Sakura was struck with the sudden realization that despite her internal grumbles, things were not that bad. Sure she had to rough it out sometimes, but whenever she was not being pursued, the freedom was something she appreciated greatly. The variation of jobs she had performed over the last year had also given her a better sense of her skills. Unhindered by rules, she had developed more than she could ever imagine, sometimes even frightening herself.

She gritted her teeth when another disturbing thought occurred to her.

Was she actually getting used to life as a missing-nin?

She quickly shook the unwanted thought away from her mind. Getting used to it or not did not matter. All that mattered was her loyalty to Konoha and her ultimate mission.

Taking a deep breath, she walked towards the window and pushed it open. A light breeze filtered into the room. Closing her eyes, she tilted her head to welcome it. Wind, after all, was her main element, her secondary one being earth. Naruto's image instantly came to mind. He too, was predisposed to the wind element. And at that very instance, she missed her friend acutely.

No, she should not think about Naruto.

Eyes snapping open, she sat down in front of the window and collected her thoughts, forming words in her mind. Bringing her hands up, she formed a series of hand seals. Instantly, a gentle thread of wind curled itself around her, speeding up slightly when she infused the words from her mind into it.

"Tsunade-shishou," she whispered wistfully.

Then the wind uncurled itself from her and swept out of the window, taking a message south-east to Fire Country, to the Hokage's tower.

"Progressing as usual. Still no contact. Watch over everyone for me. Take care."

A dim light flickered in the corner, barely illuminating the occupants of the dark cavern. Six flickering figures stood in loosely in a circular formation, all regarding each other silently.

Itachi glanced around impassively, noting that everyone was present. Their numbers had certainly dwindled over the last three years. Sasori had been killed right after Shukaku's extraction. Shortly after that, Hidan and Kakuzu had been foolish enough to allow themselves to be slain by Leaf shinobi. And just a few months ago, Zetsu had been killed in a confrontation with the eight-tailed bijuu, the hachibi. Now, aside from him, Pein, Konan, Deidara, Tobi and Kisame were the only ones left in the organization.

The astral projection of Pein clearly displayed his displeasure. "There are two more bijuu to go. It is about time we captured them. Are their locations known yet?" he asked pointedly.

Unperturbed, Itachi replied quietly, "The kyuubi is not required yet. Our priority should be the hachibi."

Addressing no one in particular, Pein asked, "Since Kakuzu's death, has anyone picked up the hachibi's trail?"

"He will be found sooner or later," Kisame replied.

"We need to make it sooner than later. He needs to be captured before the end of two months," Pein told shark-faced man, his tone leaving no doubt that failure would not be tolerated. "There are only so many places the eight-tailed bijuu could hide."

Itachi glanced sideways when a cheerful voice broke into the gloomy atmosphere. Unsurprisingly, it was Tobi. Not for the first time, Itachi wondered why was such a character allowed in the organization. There must be something more to Tobi than his perpetual cheerfulness.

"How long does it take to extract the hachibi?" Tobi asked through his orange mask, sounding excited. "It'll be my first time, you know. I can't wait!"

Obviously irritated by his partner, Deidara muttered something under his breath.

"We took three days to extract Shukaku without Orochimaru. And that's only a one-tailed demon. With six of us, and taking into consideration that the hachibi and kyuubi are much stronger, I'd imagine it'll take a lot longer," Konan, the only female member in Akatsuki, explained.

Pein nodded. "I've taken that into consideration. The continual loss of our members is a concern, but I've tracked down Orochimaru's ring."

Itachi glanced at Pein, wondering why Orochimaru's ring was so crucial. After all, if one needed a spare ring, Hidan's or Kakuzu's rings would serve the purpose since Zetsu's ring was nowhere to be found. Unless, of course, there was something in Orochimaru's ring that he was not aware of.

Kisame asked, "Where's the ring?"

"Orochimaru's servant, Kabuto has it," Pein explained. "Once we get it back, we can initiate a new member."

"Is Kabuto joining us?" Tobi piped up curiously.

"Kabuto is loyal to Orochimaru, even in his death. No, Kabuto is not ideal. Besides, I have someone else in mind."

Itachi frowned, disliking the entire idea. "Introducing a new member at this stage could be risky."

"It would be almost impossible to extract the hachibi with only six of us, let alone the kyuubi," Pein explained. "Though I understand your concerns."

Deciding that he had made his position clear, Itachi simply nodded. It was not his problem if the latest member turned out to be incompetent. Still, it did not matter as long as the new member would be partnered with someone else other than him.

Deidara spoke out loud for the first time, "If we're recruiting, it'd better be fast, yeah. Who knows how long it'll take to induct the kid into Akatsuki?"

Pein inclined his head. "Konan has been working on this. She'll approach the target."

Itachi raised a brow, but said nothing. He had expected Pein to give him this task. After all, the Mangekyou Sharingan made it easy to 'persuade' one to join. Why would Pein send Konan instead?

Perhaps there was difficulty in tracking this particular target that required Konan's particular skill.

"Itachi. Kisame. The two of you will retrieve Orochimaru's ring and bring it back to Rain Country. Kabuto is currently hiding in Kumogakure."

Itachi nodded.

Pein turned to Deidara. "You and Tobi will locate the hachibi and then report back. Remember that the hachibi is not alone. Do not make the same mistake as Zetsu." With a sweeping glance around the chamber, Pein said, "That's all."

Satisfied that he was no longer needed, Itachi closed his eyes performed the jutsu to propel his consciousness back to his body. When he opened his eyes again, he found himself sitting beneath a secluded rocky outcrop with a slightly blurred Kisame not far from him. The morning sun bouncing off the rocks did not help, making him grimace at the reminder of his less than perfect eyesight. Still, it was not bad enough to detract him from his tasks.

Itachi stood up and allowed his gaze to touch upon the landscape before them. They were in the south of Earth Country and it would take them several days to cross a few smaller countries before they arrived at Lightning Country, where Kumogakure was situated.

Kisame turned to him. "We're heading towards Kumogakure then."


As they began to leave the relative security of the rock outcrops, Kisame remarked thoughtfully, "I wonder why Pein didn't just use Hidan's or Kakuzu's rings."

Itachi glanced at Kisame out of the corner of his eyes. "I wondered the same thing."

"Maybe the ring suits the new member best." Kisame chuckled. After a short pause, he added, "Since we're already in pairs, one of us will probably end up being a threesome."

Itachi frowned. "Perhaps." That would certainly change the team dynamics. He worked well with Kisame and he fervently hoped that the newcomer would not be assigned to their team.

They continued to journey east, not taking a break until the crossed the border from Earth Country to Waterfall Country. Pinpointing Kabuto's exact location would be time-consuming, and they would need to hurry.

With no encounters, they managed to cross over the entire country and then into another one. By the time they found a small village, the sun had already set. There, they decided to procure two rooms, one for each of them, and then settled down to rest for the night.

All refreshed after her two days rest, Sakura smiled to herself as she swung her pack onto her back. It was time to move on to her next destination, the Earth Country. It was one of the five countries that has its own hidden village. And this one housed the Hidden Village of Rock, Iwagakure.

Her eyes gleamed. It would be dangerous, but if she managed to make her presence known in a place like this, there was a better chance of catching the Akatsuki's attention. Sure it meant getting chased all over the country by hunter-nins, but she was fairly used to it.

Yeah, that should do it.

Anticipating the oncoming excitement, Sakura quickly left the inn. She needed to stock up on some supplies first. Although was less than happy at the thought of dehydrated food, she did not have much choice in the matter, seeing that she was running low on of soldier-pills. Maybe she could get some of those when she got to Earth Country. Being a shinobi country, it should be quite easy to find those pills there.

As she crossed the street to the nearest store, a faint presence made her steps falter.


There were two of them some distance away from her. She did not expect to meet any here, but maybe they were just traveling like her. This country was a peaceful one and she would hate to fight here.

Forcing herself to remain calm outwardly, she continued to the shop without looking back. The faint traces of their chakras told her that they were not in pursuit. So long as she remained casual, they should not suspect anything.

Quickly, she purchased what she needed from the shop and left. The density of the buildings thinned as she walked further out of the centre.

When she reached the outskirts of the village, she paused and expanded her senses again. This time, she sensed nothing. The only movement around her was the lazy swaying of trees dotting the landscape surrounding her as she stood next to a gurgling stream.

They must have left, she thought with an inward shrug.

Her relief was short-lived, for at that very instance, the fine hair at the back of her neck stood on its end. Tensing, she spun around. Her eyes immediately widened at the sight of the two figures before her, both dressed in black cloaks decorated with red clouds.


They said nothing as they stared at her.

Damn it, it was the Akatsuki and she had almost walked away from the opportunity. She just hoped that they could not hear the erratic thumping of her heart. This was the moment she was waiting for. After all this time, she finally came across the Akatsuki. It was no time to panic. Stay calm, Sakura, she told herself. Yes, they would expect her to be wary, but not panic like an unseasoned genin.

As she watched cautiously, they removed their bamboo hats, revealing their faces.

Sakura inhaled a sharp breath.

Uchiha Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame.

(to be continued...)

A/N: I'm incredibly nervous about this, because this is the first chapter of my first Naruto fanfiction. So I'd be eternally grateful if you could leave me a review to let me know what you think of it so far. Then at least I'll know if I should continue or simply delete this story!