[A/N: Hey guys! If anybody got a weird update notification last night, that was me trying to upload this chapter and then deleting it because the site wasn't working properly and kind of ate it. Anyway, I hope you like the chapter! After everything needed for the next arc is settled, a few things will be rearranged in the last couple chapters, although the content will stay pretty much the same. This chapter picks back up where Chapter 15 left off.]
Chapter 17: Breakaway Point
Holding his blade only a few centimeters above Gaara's chest, Sasuke looked briefly to where Sasori and Deidara stood watching before locking gazes again with Pein's transmitted image. Sasori had moved back to where he had been on the statue's finger for now, and Deidara hadn't moved at all; he didn't look a bit pleased with the way things were going. Sasuke wasn't surprised by that. Since he and Deidara were teammates, if Sasuke turned traitor and defected Deidara was likely to come under suspicion as well.
"What's brought this on so suddenly?" Konan said in an appeasing tone, the first time she had spoken since her image appeared in the cave. "You never were so urgent about it before."
That's because Itachi hadn't been calling out for me in my dreams before, Sasuke thought, frustrated at how long this was still taking even though he should have been recognized as having the upper hand by now. "Is three years really so sudden? Come on, tell me!" he continued, resting the point of his sword against Gaara's tunic. "You're making me impatient."
"Very well," Pein said coldly. "I will tell you where your brother is, but don't come back crying if you find he isn't as wonderful as you always believed."
"And what is that supposed to mean?" Sasuke demanded. "Stop talking in riddles!"
"Your brother has gone to serve Orochimaru."
Sasuke's breath caught as the meaning of Pein's calm statement settled in. "You're lying!" he exclaimed. "Itachi wouldn't do anything like that!"
Even as he voiced the protest, however, Sasuke could feel doubt beginning to press at him. After all, the last time he had seen Itachi was only a short time before Orochimaru's forces had attacked Konoha during the Chuunin exams. Itachi had been acting strange then; he had left Sasuke without giving him any good reason why, and besides all that there was the dark chakra Sasuke had felt on him and the fang-marks on his wrist.
Still, considering what he had heard of Orochimaru during his stay in Konoha (as well as some more from Sasori, since Orochimaru had been a member of the Akatsuki in the past), Sasuke couldn't imagine Itachi associating willingly with someone like that.
"Do you really imagine you know him that well?" Pein continued in the same hatefully calm voice. "He already murdered your family, after all, so why shouldn't he join another traitor to Konoha?"
"What?...You don't possibly think I'll believe that about him, do you?" Sasuke argued, trying to hide how shaken he was at Pein's new revelation. He's lying. He's got to be lying. There's no way it's true. Itachi wouldn't do that. Would he? I won't believe it. He couldn't possibly...
"You tell me," Pein retorted. "You know the sort of things he did to support the two of you. You know he never told you what happened to the Uchiha. You know—"
"Shut up!" Sasuke shouted. "Enough of this, I'm done. I'm done with all of you, I'm through!"
"Suit yourself," Pein replied with a shrug. "But since it looks as if you feel like leaving anyway, I'll do you one last favor. You'll find your brother in one of Orochimaru's outposts, outside the northern border of Fire Country. Well, if he hasn't already left to attack Konoha, that is. It seems he wasn't satisfied with your family and he's going after your friends now…"
By this point Sasuke couldn't suppress his anger any longer and flung a spread of kunai at Pein's projected image, but it vanished before the weapons reached it, leaving him unsatisfied. The images of the other members faded in turn, leaving only Sasori and Deidara standing on the statue, as well as Gaara still lying unconscious at Sasuke's feet.
Well, Sasuke thought, looking down at his one-time friend, I can't leave the Akatsuki on much worse terms than I already have, so I might as well make the most of it.
"Come on, Sensei, why can't we just go in and take them out?" Naruto whined.
"I told you, Naruto, that's not what our mission is," Kakashi reminded him. "We're observing and waiting for the Suna shinobi to arrive, then we will hang back and let them handle it because if Tsunade find out I let you within three miles of the Akatsuki she'll probably demote me to cat-catching for a year. And you too, probably, for sneaking out and joining us even though you knew you weren't supposed to."
Naruto shuddered at the thought. "Observing it is, then. Those Suna people better get here soon, though, or else—"
Naruto and Kakashi paused to look at each other in confusion as a series of tremors rocked the tree they were perched in. "What was that?" Naruto said, looking back at the blocked-off cave in the river canyon just as a series of explosions blew it open, revealing three figures in Akatsuki cloaks.
"Ssh!" Kakashi commanded quickly, leaning forward in the tree and pushing a branch aside so he could see better.
Looks like the Akatsuki aren't all getting along so well, he realized as he took in what was going on. Two of the Akatsuki—the blond one he'd met before in the library raid, and a red-haired boy he didn't recognize—were chasing a third, who was slightly hampered by a heavy, fabric-wrapped bundle he was carrying.
"Hey, that's Gaara he's got!" Naruto whispered a bit too loudly in Kakashi's ear.
"So it is," Kakashi agreed, recognizing the 'bundle' for what it actually was now. "Okay, new plan: I'll go see what's up. You stay here and make a report to the Suna trackers."
"Stay," Kakashi ordered again before dropping down from the tree to get closer to the canyon where the three Akatsuki were fighting.
The two pursuers were mounted on a large white bird, which Kakashi recognized as a Deidara clan clay technique. While he didn't know the other one, he had some idea who they were chasing, which made him a bit reluctant to go too close. Still, all of them seemed too occupied with what they were doing at the moment to take any notice of an observer.
The fugitive Akatsuki was afoot, but making relatively good time even burdened by carrying another person. The canyon was criss-crossed with a large number of fallen trees, and while these made it hard for those in pursuit to make headway, the logs both shielded the runaway and served as stepping stones for him to make quick progress.
Kakashi was still positioned well ahead of the Akatsuki, so he worked his way closer to the edge in order to get a good vantage point before they passed. The tall grass and scrub lining the top of the canyon made it easy for Kakashi to hide himself, but while he was moving through it his view of the canyon itself was cut off.
Once Kakashi reached his vantage point, he pushed the grass down in order to see, only to realize that while there still looked to be the same number of people in the canyon, he could tell with the sharingan that one of them had been replaced with a clone in the short time he'd not been looking. And of course it would be the one I least wanted to lose track of, he grumbled to himself as he scanned among the logs for a sign of the missing person. I really hope he's still down there instead of—a crunch of grass interrupted Kakashi's inner monologue and he sighed inwardly. —right behind me. Well, that's just great. I was really fancying having another mental breakdown right about now anyway.
Taking out a spread of kunai, Kakashi whirled around into a kneeling position, flinging the blades at where he had heard the crunch in the same motion.
The boy (Kakashi was fairly sure it was a boy now, judging by what he could estimate was under the Akatsuki cloak) ducked all but one of them cleanly, and half-dropped Gaara to grab the last before it could slice through the fabric strips that dangled from his hat and hid his face.
"Hello again," Kakashi said, uncomfortably aware of the disadvantageous position he was in but making sure not to show it. There was only the canyon behind him and very little room to move, and he knew from experience that his adversary needed very little opening to use whatever technique he had last time. "What's this all about?"
The boy took a step back as Kakashi stood fully. "Creative differences," he said curtly, in a slightly husky tone as if he was trying to disguise his voice. "I'll leave this with you," he added, laying Gaara on the ground in front of Kakashi and beginning to turn away.
"Sure," Kakashi said in some confusion at the sudden lack of animosity from the stranger as compared to the last time they had run into each other. "Who are you?" he asked finally. There are plenty of people who might hold a grudge against me. A relative of Rin's gone renegade, maybe? Or someone from Iwa with bad memories of the war?
Half-turning, the boy looked back at Kakashi through the screening fabric falling from his hat, and for a moment Kakashi thought he might actually get an answer. Then the moment was broken as a bright orange blur left the tree cover and threw several shuriken at the Akatsuki fugitive.
"Leave Kakashi-sensei alone!" Naruto shouted, but there was little meaning in it since the Akatsuki boy had already vanished, leaving Kakashi wondering whether he had been there in the first place or engineered the entire encounter through genjutsu.
"I told you to stay out of sight, Naruto!" Kakashi snapped.
"But I didn't want you to get hurt again—" Naruto began.
"That's my job," Kakashi reminded him. "But right now, your job was to stay out of sight and you didn't do it, did you?"
Naruto looked a bit surprised at being spoken to so harshly, and Kakashi quickly softened. "Look, if one of us is going to get hurt I don't want it to be you. Now take Gaara and let's get away before the other Akatsuki realize what just happened over here."
Naruto obediently picked up the Kazekage—who was unconscious but looked otherwise unharmed—and followed Kakashi back into the cover of the trees.
So, that's Gaara taken care of, Sasuke thought as he leaped back into the canyon, now well behind the clay bird being ridden by Deidara and Sasori. Those two should be occupied by my clone for a while, so I guess I'm done with the Akatsuki now.
It felt a little strange to be free of the organization he'd worked for for three years so suddenly. While he had certainly planned to cut ties with the Akatsuki at some point, he hadn't thought it would be so soon or under these circumstances. Running into Kakashi yet again had also shaken him a bit, as had Naruto's sudden appearance. It had been years since he had seen his former teammate, and when Naruto had burst out of the trees Sasuke had barely kept himself from calling out a greeting. Of course that wouldn't do, so he had used a genjutsu to divert the two Konoha ninjas' attention while he got away.
"No more reminiscing," Sasuke told himself as he headed north, back up the canyon. "I have something more important to do now: find out whether Pein was lying about Itachi and Orochimaru."
Of course he was lying, Sasuke told himself, although not as confidently as he tried to convince himself he was. He had to be. He had to be. If he wasn't—
Sasuke wouldn't even let himself consider what he would do if it had been the truth.