Chapter Sixteen:

Neji was documenting the many reanimated ninjas that had been reported by various four-man squads. He'd been traveling with an Anbu team for the past three weeks and instead of fighting he was only issued orders to scout and document. He was frustrated by his inability to physically participate, but he had been strictly prohibited from partaking in combat. If there had been any doubt, the order issued by the Hinata's father Hiashi, the head of their clan left no wiggle room. Basically, if he engaged in any fighting without his life being in imminent danger the curse on his forehead would activate. It could have been an idle threat, considering he was to avoid fighting so that he would stay alive no matter what, but Neji Hyuga was a cautious man.

In the past five days there had been a major change in the war. The Akatsuki numbers had dwindled down to the last pair, but then new members were added including Sasuke and Kabuto. However, now, so many of the dead Akatsuki and the allied ninjas from the past two wars were brought back to life. Or at least, they were reanimated as it was obvious these individuals were not the same.

He worried about Shikamaru's Team Ten. The last he had heard they would be the ones facing off with their old sensei Asuma and it if his facts were right, and they usually were which was why he'd been given his current duties, the personality was still intact in the reanimated corpses. The difference was that they could not control their attacks and were sent on a rampage against the allied ninja villages.

Neji finished up the last of his report and rolled up the scroll. He'd tucked it into the inner pocket of his satchel and then started on his way to meet Sai who now had a habit of talking too much ever since the curse on his tongue disappeared with Danzo's death. The former Root ninja would take the report and convert it to an ink bird and send it to the head of Konoha's intelligence, Shikamaru's father and Ibiki. Neji concentrated on the placement on each footfall upon the tree branches as he ran through the forest at top speed.

He almost lost his footing when he noticed the presence of someone else that should have been dead. Neji regained his balance and focused his byakugan and recognized the chakra pattern of one Itachi Uchiha traveling alongside one of Kakashi Hatake's ninja dogs.

"Uchiha," Neji said coming to a halt and taking up a defensive stance.

"Hyuga," Itachi answered also coming to a stop just out of reach of Neji's rotating defense attack. The large dog at his side gave a happy bark and enthusiastically started to wag his tail. "Calm yourself, Bull," Itachi said quietly. He reached down and gently patted the top of the dog's head and he obediently sat his rump on the ground.

Neji watched the chakra flow of the murderous Uchiha and realized it was slightly different than the reanimated chakra of the others. "Are you in control?" he asked, puzzled.

"I suppose you're not completely useless," Itachi said in a bored tone. He was skeptical over Hyugas by nature thanks to the constant belittlement he'd heard about them from the Uchiha clan in his youth. However, the Uchihas had been exterminated and the Hyuga's remained powerful members of Konoha society-so who was useless after all? And of course, this particular Hyuga held a great deal of promise - more than most. He wasn't a mindless pawn in the Hyuga power struggle. By rights of strength and cunning this Hyuga should be the future clan leader-not one of the girls currently set to inherit that role. In the Uchiha clan the title of leader would have gone to the strongest, not to the child of the current leader.

Neji narrowed his eyes and fought his annoyance. "By the sight of Kakashi's nin-dog I have to assume you are working with the Leaf."

There was no need to hide it anymore. Itachi decided to tell him the truth. Besides, he wanted to trust this one. He had been close to Sakura and before he'd been able to communicate and was a weak ghostly apparition he'd seen a lot of this Neji Hyuga. He was someone he wouldn't mind having on a squad as a teammate, assuming the boy and Sakura didn't get too friendly. "To be honest, I've always worked with the Leaf."

"How is it that you are brought back to life and in control unlike the others?"

"Extenuating circumstances," Itachi answered. "I will find the one responsible for the reanimation and destroy the jutsu. However, you should inform Shikaku Nara that the one known as Tobi is not Madaara, as he may have already surmised."

"And how do you know this?"

"Because Madaara was reanimated as well. It seems the one known as Tobi has enjoyed letting us assume that he was the patriarch of the Uchiha line. He is without doubt an Uchiha, but I do not know his true identity." The fact that Itachi had thought Madaara had helped him slay his clan and had just been proven wrong was disturbing. He had only come to that realization as he had been running alongside Bull Who was his bloody helper? And if he wasn't Madaara then who else hated the Uchiha enough to help with such a dirty task?

"I will relay your message," Neji agreed.

"And stop worrying about Haruno. She's safe."

"How do you know?"

Itachi reached down and rubbed Bull behind the ears. "As you can see, Hatake is aware of the situation. Like me, Sakura is working under deep cover."

"If you've been dead for the past few months how can you know if Sakura is safe or not?"

"Because she's working under cover with Sasuke." Itachi told the lie with ease. Perhaps, the lie might even become the truth one day. Kakashi was most likely to become the next Hokage and if things went as Itachi planned Sasuke would be redeemed and change his foolish mission of hate. Perhaps he could even rejoin his former teammates as a ninja of the Leaf. Itachi felt a twinge of jealousy, but he ignored it. There was no beating heart within his chest so he had no right for wants of his own. All there was and ever would be for him was duty to protect Konohagakure. He'd have to hope that after he was finally gone from the world that Sakura and Sasuke both would use the lessons he'd tried to teach them and live life to the fullest potential. He had no doubt that Uzumaki would become a great Hokage like his father Minato Namikaze.

"Your thoughts are too deep for a dead man," Neji said. "Hurry and finish your business so you can acquire your much deserved rest."

Itachi nodded in acknowledgement and then vanished in a swirl black raven feathers with Bull gone with him.

Neji turned off his byakugan and took out the scroll to add what Itachi had just shared. He had just finished scribbling the post script when Sai entered the area on an ink bird. Neji rolled up the scroll and prepared to hand it off.

"You did not meet at the rendezvous point," Sai said upon landing near Neji. "Did something happen? You didn't engage in a battle did you? It was strictly prohibited for you to engage in battle unless you were in imminent danger."

"It's in the post script," Neji answered. Ever since the curse had been removed from Sai's tongue the young man didn't ask awkward questions all the time, now he just asked every sort of question all the time. It seems that once he was no longer limited in his topics of conversation he became much more loquacious. "And I'm acutely aware of my orders. I don't need you to remind me."

"I'm just trying to be helpful," Sai said with a smile. He took the scroll and started to work his jutsu to transform the message into a bird that would find its way to headquarters. "What's this part on the bottom? Sakura and Sasuke are working deep under cover?"

"That's for Shika's eyes only," Neji snapped annoyed.

Sai raised his eyebrows. "Of course I would read it as well. I'm the one transposing your message into an ink creature."

"I suppose you are."

"It's not like I cannot keep a secret. Even without the curse on my tongue I can still keep quiet about important things. I am a ninja of the Leaf after all. I was just saying this to you, because obviously we both know what you wrote and I'm just a bit relieved to hear that Sakura is on a mission. I was worried about her."

Neji's expression softened just enough that he wasn't scowling quite as much. He could understand Sai's concern. They both cared about the kunoichi. "I'm glad to hear you've forgiven her for knocking you, Kiba, and Rock Lee out."

"I didn't say I had forgiven her. I just said I cared about what happens to her. Besides, I've been working on my vocabulary so that when I do see her next we can have a livid fight! I won't be like Naruto getting punched in the head. We shall have a verbal sparring and when she becomes violent I will fly away!"

It sounded like the ink artist had put a lot of thought into the fight fantasy with Sakura. "Then let us hope you don't meet up in the middle of a battle so you can have your verbal attack."

Sai frowned. "I've worked hard preparing what I'll say. I really hope I see her outside of a battle."

Neji rolled his eyes and wondered why in the world he was having this conversation. He was grateful that with his milky eyes no one could tell if he was rolling his eyes. "Just finish transcribing the message."

"I already have," Sai said with a final flick of his brush. The scroll Neji had given him had been transformed into an ink bird. It flew off the paper and made off for Shika's location. He handed over the blank scroll. "You might as well recycle."

Neji took the blank scroll. It wasn't a bad idea to reuse the scroll. Supplies might be few and far between in the future depending on how bad things became. And if what Itachi had said was true, things would be getting very bad indeed.

"Let's head back to camp. You can practice some of your verbal sparring with me," Neji offered.

"Really?" Sai asked excitedly falling into step with Neji.

"No, of course not, but you can practice on Kiba. He'll probably give you a similar reaction as that of a short-tempered pink-haired kunoichi."

OoO

"Shouldn't we head back to Akatsuki headquarters?" Sakura asked. They had left the village and started in the direction of their rendezvous with Tobi, but then Sasuke took a detour. Since Sakura was supposed to be proving her loyalty to Sasuke and thereby Ataksuki she followed after him. She grit her teeth at the impulsive Uchiha and greatly missed Itachi's guidance. She didn't like being a double agent and still couldn't comprehend how Itachi had handled it.

"I have an errand I must run first," Sasuke said glancing at her over his shoulder. "You're welcome to head on without me, but then you'd be failing your mission."

Patience had been a hard lesson to attain and Sakura utilized the skill now. She observed their environment and noticed that they were drawing to the edge of Lighting and closer to the Land of Iron. It didn't take long to realize Sasuke's goal. Near the border Sasuke's Hawk teammates Jugo and Suigetsu waited with an unconscious Anko tied up in ropes and chains between them. Sakura almost didn't recognize the fierce jonin, but when she noticed the trio of commas marking her neck she realized she'd been cursed by Orochimaru.

"Hey, Sasuke! I see you upgraded from Karin to a fine kunoichi," Suigetsu jeered. His body seemed to drip and be mostly liquid like a melting ice cream cone.

"Where's Karin?" Jugo asked. Unlike his watery Mist teammate he was concerned about the missing redhead.

"You've brought the host," Sasuke said ignoring both teammates.

"What is it you're planning to do, Sasuke?" Sakura asked.

"Why, I'm going to resurrect my teacher."

"Are you out of your mind?" Suigetsu asked, he started perspiring bullets of sweat. "If we had known that was the purpose of our mission we'd have never left your side! Where is Karin? Orochimaru was the one that planned to take possession of your body. You were lucky the first time when you defeated him!"

"And Itachi was there to remove the rest of him from my person," Sasuke added. "It was a premature act on the part of my brother. And it's not your place to question me."

Sakura moved to stand between Sasuke and the unconscious Anko. "Don't you think Itachi had a good reason to do that? What possible benefit could you get from the snake now?" Sakura demanded with her arms outstretched.

"He was my Sannin master. I have questions and he has answers," Sasuke said. He tried to push Sakura aside, but she stood her ground with her feet firmly planted using chakra. She shook her head at him. "Move."

"Don't be a fool! Orochimaru was blinded by his quest for power. How could he possibly help you now?" Sakura said reaching out and blocking Sasuke's hands as he tried to shove her again. She grabbed hold of his wrists and with chakra enhanced strength held him tightly.

"Not that its any of your business, but I need to talk to Orochimaru. He has information that I need. He knows the truth behind Konoha's corruption. Why else do you think he left?" Sasuke said pulling his hands but without success. He brought his head forward for a vicious head-butt, but Sakura stepped back and out of the way though the proximity caused her hair to fly back with the force.

"Oh, I don't know. He probably left so he could pursue his dream of immortality and absolute power?"

There was a rustling in the nearby forest and a massive chakra had arrived. Jugo and Suigetsu pulled out their swords and stood with their legs spread wide. Sakura recognized the attack when two large puppets careened toward them. There was only one person who could control such a massive amount of power-and he was dead. She recognized the puppets as the first two kages of the sand village.

One of the puppets collided with Sasuke's two teammates and they fought hard to keep up. The other went for Anko. Sakura went around Sasuke and rammed her chakra laced fist into the ground causing a fissure to separate the two kunoichi from the attack.

Sasuke drew his sword and then moved to stand back to back with her. "What is this?"

"It's like we're being attacked by Sasori, but he's dead. Granny Chiyo and I defeated him more than a year ago." Sakura held her fists up ready to destroy anything that came near them.

"That you did," Kabuto said stepping out from the woods. "However, I needed him so he's been brought back. Why in fact your dear brother, Itachi, was recently resurrected. However, because of you I haven't been able to bring back Master Orochimaru," he said with a slither. His pale reptilian skin glimmered in the evening light. "Give me back the woman."

"I say we just blow them up!" Deirdara said swooping in on a large white clay bird and avoiding the fissure. He threw a bomb towards them and Sasuke went one direction and Sakura and Anko went the other.

"Now, now, ease up you two," Kabuto soothed Sasori and Deirdara. "These are fellow members of Akatsuki. Our goals are the same. There should be no conflict here."

Sasori stepped out of the shadows and he was not inside his precious puppet tank. His short red hair stood in stark contrast to his pale flesh and from his fingers the faint sight of chakra puppet strings glimmered. The sharp look in his eyes that Sakura remembered at his defeat was dulled and his expression slack. "I am surprised that you, honorable ninja of Konoha, would side with Akatsuki. How did you lose your way?"

Sakura opened her mouth to deny the assumption. Sasori continued to stare at her, his puppets were stationary around them.

"I need to finish my art," Deirdara grumbled. "Can't I blow up the Uchiha? He's the one that took my arm. Besides we've got Itachi and Madaara. Why would we need the whiney one?"

"I'm partial to the whiney one," Itachi said as he landed upon the back of Deirdara's flying crane. "And it looks like that arm grew back. Should I remove it for you once more?" Bull ran quickly along the ground and moved to stand between Sakura and Kabuto in a defensive stance. His fur stood on end and he began to growl viciously.

"It looks like the calvary has arrived," Sakura said. She couldn't help but be overjoyed at Itachi's return. She'd feared that he'd been lost. And having Bull was another reminder that Master Kakashi was never too far away. Best teacher ever. She should get him a placard when this whole war thing was over.

"We're on the same team," Deirdara said cowering back from Itachi. Fear from his previous life remained vivid.

"I do know that the leader of the Akatsuki does not wish for Sasuke to die," Itachi answered doing some basic ninjutsu and misdirecting Deirdara's bomb to fall to the nearby body of water.

"I don't understand how you're acting on your own," Kabuto said with a frown observing the fight. "The impure world resurrection technique should have negated that possibility."

Sasori sent one of his puppets flying to intercept Itachi and knock him off Deirdara's transport. Itachi burst into a murder of ravens and dispersed. He materialized in front of Kabuto.

"How about you tell me more about this impure world resurrection technique?" Itachi asked, unlocking the powers of his Sharingan. He could force Kabuto to share the secret to the jutsu and shut it down.

The white haired snake medic flicked out his tongue nervously. "You can't kill me. Even if I die, the technique will continue." He narrowed his eyes as if this was information he didn't want to share.

"I don't have to kill you, but when I'm through you'll be begging me to end your life," Itachi promised.