Before you read this and kill me: I know the time frames are messed up. People are alive when they should be dead and vice versa and such, and some characters aren't even supposed to exist yet. But it was for the sake of the plot... ^^;;

Disclaimer: Naruto does not belong to me in any way. (And it never will :/)

Prologue: Repercussions of Friendship

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"Aw, come on, where is that Kakashi?" Naruto complained. "He's late! He's always late!"

"Calm down, Naruto!" Sakura sounded irritable, and she crossed her arms. "We're going to do our mission, no matter what, so just relax!" She turned away, and saw Sai running up the hill torwards them. She waved. "Hey, Sai! Over here!"

Sai waved back, and smiled in greeting. "Hello, Sakura. Hello,Naruto."

"Geez, you're always so uptight, Sai." Naruto grumbled, looking at him, who in turn looked confused.

"Uptight? Is my shirt too tight?" Sai wondered.

"It's an expression of speech." Sakura explained. "Have you seen Kakashi-sensei, on your way here?"

"He's coming." Sai replied. He sat down with his back against the tree, and motioned for the others to sit down as well. "I have read that a good way to ease boredom among your good friends is to start a game. Does anyone wish to play three way numbers?"

"You got to be kidding me..." Naruto muttered, but he quickly changed his mind when Sakura expressed delight at playing a hand game and grudgingly tagged along. They were about to start when a crow, with a loud caw, burst out of the tree and flew away, startling them. "Just a crow." Naruto said dismissively, then turned to the others. "All right, are we going to play this game or not? And I'm going to be the best, believe it!"

Under cover of the crow's caw, a figure watching the three quietly slipped away before their superior would arrive and soon sense his presence. It was just his luck that the Foundation kid had been distracted, as well.

Moving like a shadow through the city, gliding along rooftops, the member dressed in a peculiar variation of the ANBU outfit, though with the same animal based mask- this one a bear- dropped down and entered through an open window into a small, airy room, which in the middle an old man with a scar on his chin and bandages around his head sat.

"Sir, it is as you feared." The intruder said, and quickly related what he had seen. When he finished, Danzo let out a short sigh.

"His emotions are returning." He said wearily. "The curse seal will prevent him from speaking anything about me, but there are ways around it. The boy is getting too close to the team he has been assigned to and becoming a familiar face around Tsunade. I will not have it. Arrange for his discreet elimination. It will have to be done the first time, properly. And it cannot be done by any of us lest the trail leads back. Hire a missing-nin. No one will question any further if the boy dies in battle."

"But sir, what are we to do should the attempt fail?"

Danzo looked him in the eye. "If the assassination fails, you shall be executed." The Foundation member gulped. "Now, go."

His subordinate nodded and departed.

Danzo sighed once more. "Such a shame." He muttered. "With proper training, the boy might have even achieved A-Rank, and with one of my allies' help S-Rank. I suppose it's a good thing after all that I was planning to teach him the finer points of his art later on in his life."

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"This is all too interesting." The tall figure murmured. They bore an Akatsuki cloak high collar split slightly to show a man's face, about in his twenties, with entirely black eyes, deathly pale skin and messy, pale blonde hair. "I thought Root worked for the good of the village?"

"This is for the good of the village... in some way or the other." The Root member with the bear mask returned. "Now, will you accept the job or not?"

"I accept. It sounds fun." The Akatsuki member shrugged. "Are there any special conditions that I am to know of?"

"Just that he must end up dead, in the end." The bear-masked man's voice was flat as ever. He showed no emotion at all, ever- not even when he was ordering a comrade to be killed. "Your puppet poison- what are the effects?"

"Well, after I enter the victim, they usually go into some sort of spasm, and the poison enters with me. When it reaches their eyes, and allows me to see through them, then the poison reaches their minds and fuses my chakra with theirs. If I am forced to withdraw and retreat, then the poison will continue working its way through their bodies until they die a few days later. Thus why I am just an average fighter by myself, combining my immense stamina and chakra with another person's makes me nearly invincible... this is why I was brought on as an Akatsuki member; they send me after a target working with a team, I can easily use the target to defeat the team and then leave the target to its death. The only ones I cannot seem to control are the Jinchuuriki, on account of the demons within them keeping me out."

They paused, and the tone became creepily suggestive. "Would you like a demonstration?"

"I'll have to refuse that offer, sir." The Root member answered, his mask impassive as always. However, he was glad of the mask; it hid just how unsettled he was by the man before him. "Very well then. Make sure you get it done soon. Team 8 is leaving for a mission tommorow. They are heading to the Land of Woods, Raidan. And if the Life Stealer himself can't do it... "

"Don't worry, I will." The person known as Raidan answered. "Now my dear sir, run along and tell your master Danzo that he can look forward to seeing the boy's dead body, and listening to my account of him writhing in pain as the life faded from his body-" His voice became gleeful. "Ahh, Lord Jashin will be so pleased!"

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"Is it done?" Danzo asked.

The man nodded, handing over a relatively new-looking file. "It is done. I gathered some info on him during our chat and compiled it for you."

"Raidan... Akatsuki member... older brother of Hidan, fellow Akatsuki member... Jashinist, a religion with slaughter at its core... Well done, well done. Now, leave an old man to his dango."

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"There have been reports of blitz attacks in the Land of the Woods." Kakashi told his team. "Nearly any travellers through that land end up being attacked- and killed. Our client is basically hiring us to find the source of these attacks and stop them from continuing." His tone was serious. "This could very well be an A-ranked mission, so the most important thing for you to do is stay together and follow orders. If I tell you to run, run. We have little information on these people but that they leave no survivors." His gaze traveled around his team, seeing the serious and determined faces. Sai's face was expressionless- but then again, it usually was.

"So let's get going!" Naruto jumped up.

"Just one second." Kakashi motioned for him to wait.

"What, what is it this time?" He complained, flopping back down.

"The Akatsuki seem to be on the move once again." Kakashi's voice was low. As he had expected, shock appeared on each of his student's faces. Even Sai's eyebrows raised. "A lone figure bearing their trademark cloak has been seen wandering the region, as well. I'm telling this to you now in case we do see them in the Land of the Woods- do not, I repeat, do not go after them. The mission is the first priority."

"Akatsuki!" Sakura breathed. "Kakashi-sensei, a loneAkatsuki member? They always travel in pairs."

"Perhaps they had split up for just a few minutes, and that was when the deer hunter saw one." Kakashi said reasonably. "Well, I can see Naruto can barely restrain himself any longer. Let's head off, shall we?"

"All right, let's go own those blitz attacker mystery dudes!" Naruto shouted, jumping to his feet.

Sakura let out a sigh of exasperation. "You dummy..."

Sai gave a little smile. 'Dummy? that must be one of her favourite nicknames for Naruto.'

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"Is that the last of them?" Naruto complained after taking down seemingly the last bandit in the room.

His team leader glanced around, then looked back at him and nodded. "There's no one else conscious here but us and the Land of Woods ANBU members coming in the front door." 'I thought they said that their ANBU wasn't going to interfere?'Unbeknowest to the others, Kakashi was already on the alert.

"The ANBU still exists in the Land of Woods?" Sai asked sharply. All of his team members turned around to look at him, surprised at the tone of his voice.

"Is there a problem with that, Sai? You're looking kind of..." Sakura trailed off, unsure of what Sai exactly was looking like.

"No... Not at all." He smiled, but it wasn't his real smile. Kakashi glanced at him then looked away.

"Stay behind me, Sai." He said flatly, then started walking off torward the entrance. Sai nodded and followed him.

"Hey, what's going on?" Naruto asked, running up. "Do you know these Woodsy guys, Sai?"

The former Root member didn't answer, just kept walking. They were just exiting the bandit hideout when five ANBU members dropped down and surrounded them.

One wearing a catlike mask with mouse ears came forwards.

"Was the mission sucessful?" A man's voice came from behind the mask.

"The threat is gone, as was promised." Kakashi replied coolly. "Our client will be satisfied by the destruction of the bandits terrorizing these lands."

"Yeah, it was such an easy fight, believe it!" Naruto shouted.

Sakura shot him a look of annoyance and tried to be as professional and cool as Kakashi. She nodded to the intimidating ANBU members. "It was no problem. We took care of them all, so you have nothing to worry about." She tried smiling, but it appeared to have no effect. The ANBU were as cold as ever.

"Hey- you- speak up." One of the members suddenly snapped at Sai. He glanced up at them, but said nothing. Kakashi tensed, and behind him he felt Sai prepare himself as well. Sakura and Naruto were still confused by the tension.

"What's wrong?" Naruto sounded bewildered. "We just completed the mission! That's great, isn't it?"

"No." Sai finally said. Sai appeared emotionless, but out of the corner of his eye he saw a man drawing a kunai. An unusually long kunai, almost at short sword length. His eyes widened, and he twirled around, blocking the strike just in time with his own short sword.

"I knew it." The ANBU who had attacked him breathed. "Those clothes, that same sword, that voice... you're a member of Root, aren't you?"

Sai's eyes narrowed. He slid his blade away and danced out of range.

"Number four!" The leader exclaimed angrily. "Stop!"

"But senpai!" The divergent member protested. "This-"

"You forget that this is a team group from the Land of Fire." The apparent leader answered sharply. "We won't come off free for attacking a subordinate of one of our former comrades."

"Well, well." Kakashi relaxed slightly, but still remained ready in case of any more sudden moves. He sheathed his own kunai. "It looks like this is indeed a meeting of the past." He placed a hand on Sai's shoulder. "Now, if you'll excuse us, we have some other business to attend to, namely returning home in one piece." He looked around. "Naruto. Sakura. Let's go, shall we?"

"Right. Cmon, Naruto." Sakura wisely decided not to argue and tugged the blonde Jinchuuriki along behind her. The ANBU parted silently to let them through, and then took off in the opposite direction, heading over the mountain.

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The firelight flickered over the dirt ground, casting a warm light over Team 8's faces.

"Now, what was that all about?" Naruto looked curiously at Sai. "Y'know, back at the cave with those masked guys." When Sai didn't respond, his voice became musing. "Come to think of it, Kakashi-sensei, you sounded like you knew what was going on, too."

His teacher started. "Huh? Oh, yes, that's right." He turned to face Naruto and Sakura. "Well, you deserve an explanation. I'll tell you what I know. There was a former group of Land of Woods ANBU named the Prajna group. They were known for their aptitude in creating diplomatic solutions and enlightening those who they spoke to or fought with about both sides. I had the good fortune to work with a few of them. In general they were highly sought-after for missions." He paused, and his eye became dark. "Five years ago, they were all discovered dead, with the exception of a few missing."

Sakura looked horrified, and Naruto's voice was angry. "But they were so kind, you said, for normally flat ANBU! Who would-"

Kakashi kept on talking. "Information surfaced from an unknown source- probably one of the few survivors- that an ANBU group from the Foundation had been ordered to eliminate the Prajna group."

There was a very loud silence. "W-what?" Naruto stammered. "Eliminate them? Like, kill them?"

"What else could it mean?" Kakashi sighed. "Anyways, these few survivors still lurk the woods. We met one or two of them today, among the current ANBU group. They remember the attack, and still seek revenge on those that killed their comrades."

There was an even longer silence, but it was quieter. Naruto looked over at Sai. He was sitting with his knees drawn against his chest, staring into the flames.

'Could Sai really have done that?'He thought, and remembered the Bingo Book that Yamato had once found in Sai's backpack, back when he still mostly followed Danzo's orders. All those pictures of people with info on them... All those X's over their pictures...

Kakashi sensed the shift of mood in the air and scooted away from the fire. This was something for his students to resolve. If he interjected, they wouldn't learn part of what he called the shinobi's pact.

"It's strange." Sai spoke up for the first time in ages, startling them. His head rose and he gazed into their eyes. "Should I- should I remember those I've killed?"

"Sai..." Sakura murmured, but couldn't find the right words to comfort him. She wasn't even sure if he needed comforting. He looked emotionless as always.

"Those shinobi back there. They had such revenge on their minds. They were planning to avenge comrades that had died years ago. They still remembered my clothes, my sword, my very voice. Yet I... I don't remember any of those I've killed. It's not even that there are so many. If I had killed that unit from back at the bandit cave, I wouldn't have felt anything. To me, taking a human life is as easy as breathing." He looked down at the dirt. "I don't understand it at all... why don't I feel anything? It seems to be that all this time I've been in the wrong for being so flat about death."

"But you can feel." Sakura insisted. "You were sad about your brother dying, weren't you?"

"That's different." Sai replied. "Yes, I still have... feelings... about that, but I just can't understand why I don't feel anything when I kill people."

"It's how you were brought up." Naruto looked unusually depressed. He was sitting much like Sai, with his hands around his knees, staring gloomily into the fire. "You grew up accepting it. It's just that some others have had too much of it when they were young, and took it an even worse way. They set themselves on the path of revenge, and do anything for power!" His voice became angry. "Even if- Even if they have to break the bonds of friendship and form the bonds of hatred!"

Sai was speechless. He stared at Naruto with his mouth set, his eyes unreadable, prepared for any more of an outburst. But instead, Naruto turned his head and smiled at him. That same smile, from so long ago. "I'm happy you didn't turn out to be like Sasuke." He said. "And I'm happy you're our friend. It doesn't matter if you lack emotion in some areas. You've a heart, Sai, and we acknowledge that."

'Well, well, it looks like Naruto's decided to grow up.' Kakashi thought to himself where he lay in his bedroll. He turned over and looked up at the stars. The voices at the campfire became quieter and he stopped listening in. All danger was past.

"The stars are bright tonight..." He murmured. "They won't stay that way, judging by the smell of the air. We should get on an early morning tomorrow and try to make it out of the foothills before the bad weather comes." Kakashi raised his voice. "Hey, Naruto, Sakura, Sai. Get some rest. I'll be taking first watch, so you all just get some sleep before it's your turn."

"Understood!" They chirped. He smiled to himself as he got up and climbed a nearby tree with ease. It was almost like old times. He'd have never known that Sai would have turned out to be such a good team member, being from the Foundation. He had been skeptical when Tsunade had passed him the news, and still suspicious when he had met Sai for the first time, while he was still recuperating from overuse of his Mangekyo Sharingan. But now... The Copy Ninja peered down through the leaves and at all the peacefully sleeping faces, a slight smile on each and every one.

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"So are you taking on this assignment?" A voice asked, a voice that sent shivers down even Raidan's spine. But he hid it well, just like all the other Akatsuki present at the meeting. Well, present in holographic-like form, only.

"Indeed I am." Raidan inclined his head. "It will provide sufficient funds, don't you think, Pein?"

The one known as Pein nodded. "That it will. But first, give us more about this target of yours. I have reason to believe that he might indeed be useful."

"To us? He's not even a Jinchuuriki." Itachi had a slight hint of disdain in his voice.

"Yes, sir." Raidan spoke quickly. "A long time member of-"

"I don't care about his background. I want his traits and abilities." Pein's eyes narrowed.

"He has very few emotions, at one time none at all. But the longer he is with his team, the more attached to them he gets. That poses problem number One. Next, he has no qualms about murder and assassination, being a long time member of the secret organization Root, otherwise known as the Foundation. We could get some very useful information out of him, information that not even the Fifth Hokage knows, but on the other hand, as you will remember- A Root member that we had once captured bore that cursed seal on his throat, preventing him from speaking anything about the Foundation and its knowledge base. That poses problem number Two.

He infuses ink with his chakra and then paints or writes with it, his jutsu causing whatever he paints to come to life. His creatures are also adept at carrying messages, and can transform themselves into letters. However, though good, he still does not have enough chakra for major things, if that's what you have in mind. His ink creatures do not seem to possess much armour at all, and can be easily pierced or crushed. That poses problem number Three. Last of all, he has friends now, who he would never turn his back on. That poses problem number Four." His words were cool, precise, and very convincing.

The other Akatsuki exchanged glances, weighing his words, and silently agreeing that nothing could be done. All of them, that is, except for Zetsu. He watched Pein narrowly, and saw something click in those hypnotic eyes.

'Here he goes...' Part of him thought. 'Raidan, you fool, you backed up into a trap. Pein is an expert at turning the tables of conversation around, whether it be with facts or fight.'

Pein was silent for a second. "Are you finished?" He asked suddenly, startling Raidan.

'Here he goes...'

The Jashinist stuttered. "Hey- I- But-" At a loss for words, he resided into an aggrieved silence.

"Good." Pein seemed satisfied. "Your first objection is easily satisfied. Take him away before any further bonding can occur. The second- seals can be removed. You possess that knowledge, correct? Perhaps Hidan might be better for this assignment, but then again, as your Lord Jashin's faithful subordinate, you were taught how to destroy the seals that prevented your victims from being sacrificed. You should know more of your Lord Jashin than I do, Raidan." His words, though in as mild a tone as ever, cut like a whip.

"Hmph!" A voice snorted. "Brother wouldn't know Jashin if he took a shit on his head! He doesn't even use the proper ritual!"

"I have different ways of honoring our lord, you brat." Raidan snapped at his brother. "As long as the target is dead in the end, does it really matter if I have some fun while I finish the task?"

"You must share their suffering with the lord, perverted creep!" Hidan insisted.

"Well, he's looking up at us from his hot seat, he can see for himself!" Raidan shot back.

"Enough, you two." Zetsu's voice was dangerous but weary. The plant-like Akatsuki gave a short sigh. "I'm tired of your constant bickering about this religion of yours. Let Pein finish what he was going to say."

"You don't know half of it..." Kakuzu muttered under his breath.

Pein gave Zetsu a little wave of thanks and continued. "The third problem is also easily satisfied. You will infuse your chakra with his. It also can solve problem number Four. Should he resist any further than the third stage, you will just take him over completely."

"Hey, hey, Raidan, if that happens you'll be stuck wandering around as a scrawny git forever!" Hidan laughed. "The funny thing is..." His tone became provacative and he leaned forwards suggestively. "You'll be much better looking for it, you bug-eyed bastard."

"You snake-tongued son of a bitch-" Raidan's entirely black eyes gleamed murder, and he looked like he was about to lunge at his foul-mouthed younger brother, but restrained himself at the last moment and blew out a huge breath.

"I've long since learned it's no use arguing with you." He said, his voice flat. "You haven't even surpassed the larval stage of your development."

"Why you-" Hidan seemed to struggle with himself as well, then subsided. "Go eat a dick, 'cause you don't have one." He muttered, folding his arms. "Jashin-damned bastard that you are."

Kisame remained silent through the whole exchange, his pointed teeth bared in an amused grin. The two brothers had been such fun ever since they were reunited. It looked like it had been the right decision after all to allow Raidan into the ranks of the Akatsuki. Perhaps none of the others were ready to admit it, but it was funny, their fights, and he didn't want to lose that anytime soon.

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"Aww, come on!" Naruto complained, looking at the sky. "Clouds gathering already? Its like, seven in the morning! So much for travelling in bright sunshine, Sakura, you idiot!"

"I never said we would be skipping happily along our way!" Sakura retorted.

Kakashi sighed in exasperation, and to his surprise Sai caught up to him.

"They get very silly sometimes, don't they, senpai?" The boy asked.

Kakashi looked at him then at the road ahead. "That's right." He chuckled softly. "But it's in their nature. They're almost like an old married couple."

Sai gave him that weird little smile of his. "I doubt that they ever will be."

His team leader gave him another side glance, then seemed to make up his mind about something. "You need to work on your smile, Sai."

"Hmm?" Sai was confused.

"Any enemy would be able to see right through it. You must develop more than two types of smile, and be able to use them accordingly." Kakashi told him, then turned around, holding up a hand for the others. "Naruto!" He announced. "You're always begging me to teach you new jutsus, correct?"

"Uh- right, but Kakashi-sensei, is this really the time for training?" Naruto looked puzzled.

"I assume you want to learn this new secret jutsu or not?" Kakashi asked flatly.

"Right! I do! Go ahead!" Naruto exclaimed eagerly.

"Now, then. I shall demonstrate the training first on Sai- the thousand smile jutsu!" Kakashi proclaimed.

Naruto was puzzled for a second, then his face split into a wide grin. "Hey, good one Ka-"

"Good example, Naruto!" Kakashi interrupted. He turned to Sai, who was standing with a slightly nervous look on his face. "Now, it's your turn."

"Do I need any hand seals?" Sai murmured, getting into a ready stance. Kakashi temporarily lost his Gai-like vigour and fumbled for words before recovering.

"None. Let's see how you do."

"Yes, sir." Sai said seriously. "Thousand smile jutsu!" There was a short pause, in which his lips twitched oddly, the end result being a sort of grin that resulted when a cat meets a mouse.

"This is going to be harder than I thought..." Kakashi mumbled, but outwardly he tried to be encouraging. A friendlier Sai would induce better teamwork, and thus better team results. "That, Sai, is the kind of smile you would use to intimidate an opponent when you have the upper hand." He smiled in a friendly way. "Try for a kinder light in your eyes."

"A light in my eyes?" Sai looked even more confused.

"Forget it, Kakashi-sensei." Sakura said dissmisively, then smiled at Sai as well. "Sai can be such a dummy sometimes."

Now the Root member was really thrown off balance. 'She called me a dummy, like she calls Naruto! According to a book, then once your friends start calling you by a nickname in a joking manner, then they have truly accepted you and have given you a name for everyday use!'

"Thank you, Sakura." He returned politely.

"Any time, Sai." She answered.

Another hour passed. It began to drizzle very slightly. Kakashi looked over at Sai again.

"Sai." He said quietly. "Can you create an ink clone and go scout overhead using a bird?"

"My ink clones don't cooperate with the birds I draw." Sai responded. "I'll have to go myself."

"You should be fine." Kakashi replied. "Scan the area ahead in a circular 1-mile radius while we stop and take a break. I want to ask Naruto a few questions on the Kyuubi."

"Of course." Sai replied evenly. He knelt down, took out his scroll and drew the brush across the paper. Kakashi watched with veiled interest at how quickly the art took shape, and how detailed it was. The life-like drawing arose out of the paper and took on colour and life-size. It saluted Kakashi and he nodded to it. Next came the bird. The feathers were light, smaller brush strokes, created with a delicate flick of the finger-tips, designed-

"Hey, sensei, what's up?" Naruto asked, running forwards. He saw Sai mounting his ink bird and taking off, then looked at the clone. "What's the double for?"

"Sai is doing some quick surveillance while we stop for a rest." Kakashi answered. "The ink clone will relate information to us if needed."

"The ink clone can hear you." It interjected, copying Sai's trademark fake smile perfectly. "Perhaps I am not to be known as 'Sai' for this mission, but I would enjoy being refferred to as something other than 'the ink clone'."

"Sure!" Sakura sounded cheerful. "How about..."

"We don't have time for naming right now." Kakashi interrupted. He waved at the ink clone. "Sai number two, keep a lookout but not too far; you can hear this too." Settling down, he began talking. "Now, on the way back, here's the new plan: if Sai comes back with a sighting of Akatsuki, we're going to have to change route- to avoid them."

"But-"

Kakashi held up his hand. "Then, when we report back to Lady Tsunade, we could very well be assigned the mission of following them."

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Sai flew over the trees, standing up on the ink bird. It was nearly as feathery and fluffy as a real one, but the footing was much better, and he kept his balance well. The rain began to pour down harder, and he silently thanked his backpack for being waterproof. His scrolls were waterproof, but his book wasn't. Snapping to the mission, he peered down, piercing the trees. It looked like an average forest scene...

Lightning flashed. He frowned and his bird swerved to avoid a jagged streak. Flying conditions were becoming dangerous. There was another flash, and then in the blinding aftermath a figure appeared in the sky. His eyes widened, and he moved to dodge the faint metallic streak-

Screee! The bird cried in unison with Sai as his foot slipped and the shuriken cut through his side. The bird exploded into ink. The figure had vanished. He was falling, falling...

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"Heading back, we should-"

"Kakashi," The ink clone interrupted sharply. He gazed around. "But is it?.." His voice trailed off, then suddenly he gasped, clutching at his side. "No... I can't have..." Then he dissipated into ink, quickly washed away by the pounding rain.

Sakura's face paled. "What happened?"

"I don't know, but it's nothing good." Kakashi replied shortly. He got to his feet. "Everyone, stay by me in arrow formation. We need to find Sai."

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Not too bad, right? I dunno. This was originally supposed to be just a one shot but things snowballed.

Edit: I disliked how I wrote this chapter many months ago, so I took the liberty of editing it, sprucing things up. It's still not so great, but I did the best I could.