Author's Note: Oh my gosh, I am so so so sorry it has taken so long to get this chapter up! The dissertation is done, turned in, and graded (I PASS YAY), I got moved home safely, got a job, and the chapter after this - uh - well, once I get it edited/beta'd (and, er, find a place to split it in half), you'll probably see why it took so long to finish. XD Please enjoy, and sorry again about the wait! I sincerely hope there won't be many more this long, but I can't make any promises...

14. spoke too soon

It was only mid-afternoon when the team reached one of the larger towns close to Konoha; Jiraiya took one long look at the crowds and the banners hanging up everywhere, then said, "Excellent, we're here in time for a festival! Okay, brats, hit the town, I'm going to get started on research - I mean, looking for Tsunade-hime."

Sasuke rolled his eyes. So much for being under Jiraiya's constant guard.

"Hey, pervy sage, does this Tsunade lady really live here?" Naruto asked.

"Oh - eh, no," Jiraiya said, his eyes tracking a pair of girls in short flower-printed dresses. "She usually travels pretty far from Konoha - it's full of bad memories for her... Still, you never know! Have fun, meet me back here by sunset and I'll get us rooms - hey, miss! Do you need an -"

"Is that creepy old man really one of the Sannin?" Sakura said, watching with disapproval as Jiraiya vanished into the crowds.

"He does know some pretty cool stuff," said Naruto, although he looked disappointed at the sudden abandonment. "'S just hard to get him away from girls long enough to show you anything... C'mon, we might as well go look around, yanno! I bet there's lots of good food and stuff, it'll be super fun! Yeah!"

Sakura bit her lip, then said, "Well, I guess it's okay if he told us to... You don't mind, do you, Sasuke-kun? Should we split up, or -"

"No splitting up," Sasuke said; Jiraiya might not have remembered the council's conditions, but Sasuke wasn't going to risk breaking them, especially when this town was probably full of Konoha's informants. "We'll stick together, look around, and see if we can find anything on Tsunade."

"All right!" Naruto cheered, and he grabbed Sasuke and Sakura's hands. "Let's go play!"

Naruto's idea of "play" was almost as exhausting as training; he dragged Sasuke and Sakura all over the festival, trying all the games, getting food at every stall, and buying useless junk or egging them on to do the same. After two hours of this, Sasuke found that he'd somehow acquired a cheap plastic mask painted like a grimacing blue demon, two fans, a giant stuffed horse, an alarm clock shaped like a rooster, and five goldfish.

Shuffling the horse onto his back so he didn't have to look at it, he held up the fifth goldfish and stared at it. It hovered in the water, paper-thin fins fanning slowly, and then darted around the plastic bag in a panic. What the hell was he supposed to do with five of these things?

Sakura hit her third bulls'-eye in a throwing game and laughed. "Sasuke-kun, I did it! Did you see?" she said happily, as the stall-owner groaned and pulled down the strange neon-colored stuffed bird Sakura had pointed at.

"Yeah, good work," Sasuke said, moving his shuriken into another pouch to make room for the goldfish. "Anything about Tsunade?"

"Um..." Sakura hugged the bird and looked up at the stall-owner. "Excuse me, but have you ever heard of a famous medical nin named Tsunade?"

The woman shrugged and said, "Sorry, I stay away from that kind of gossip."

Great, Sasuke thought, that was the sixth person they had asked who'd said the same thing. This place was a bust; the team should just find Jiraiya and make him leave before it was too late to travel much further.

Naruto waved something at him from across the street. "Hey, Sasuke! Let's get Itachi a souvenir!" he shouted over the noise of passing families and couples. "I bet he'd like this, yanno! Maybe he won't be so mad if you get him a cool present!"

"Did you have a fight with Itachi-san?" Sakura asked. "That's a shame - I'm sure it's just a misunderstanding, I'll help pick out -"

"You wouldn't get it," Sasuke muttered, and crossed the street to see what Naruto had found.

It was another mask, clay this time, with a strange design: all orange, in an off-center sculpted spiral that swirled around the single eyehole. "Why would Itachi want a weird mask like that?" Sasuke said. "He's already got a mask for work."

"Well, it's kinda cool-looking, yanno?" Naruto said. "Plus it's all orange, that's an awesome color!"

Sasuke took the mask and put it back on the stall's display. "Not a mask," he said, but the basic idea was good. What was something Itachi would actually like? Maybe one of those tea sets they'd seen earlier, with the cats painted on them...

"Fine, you get him something else," Naruto said, picking the mask up again, "I'm gonna get this! Hey, mister, how much -"

Someone brushed past them and knocked Naruto's shoulder, and he dropped the mask. Sasuke caught it before it hit the ground and snuck it back onto the display; Naruto turned around to yell at whoever had bumped him, and ran nose-first into the man's chest. "You brat," the man growled, "aren't you going to apologize for running into me?"

"No way, you're the one that ran into me, jerk!" Naruto said, scowling up - the guy was a good two feet taller and well-muscled, but he didn't look shinobi-trained to Sasuke's eyes. "You almost broke Itachi's present, you oughtta apologize first!"

Sakura pulled Naruto back just as two more men loomed up behind the first. "Please don't listen to him, sir," she said, smiling nervously, "of course he's sorry - aren't you, Naruto?"

Naruto looked anything but sorry; one of the other men leered as he said, "Why don't you let your little boyfriend say sorry himself? Oh, but he looks like he'd rather fight, doesn't he? Maybe you should give him a little kiss to calm him -"

Sasuke caught Sakura's fist before she punched the asshole and glared at the men, wishing he could pull the sharingan on them. The last thing they needed was a fight, but damn, these guys made it tempting. "Back off," he said. "You asked for an apology and you got one, so drop it."

The first man cracked his knuckles like an amateur. "Hah, you think you're a real little tough, don't you?" he said. "Lemme tell you, brat, you don't want to mess with me. I'm Matsumoto Jin, see, the sub-boss of the Awakusu group, and when little brats mouth off to me, well, that gets me in a real bad mood - I might do anything..."

The other two men cracked their knuckles, too, and Sasuke saw that the nearby civilians had all backed off, leaving a wide empty space on the street around them; Naruto was grinning in a way that gave Sasuke a bad feeling. "Hah, you think you're so tough," Naruto said, "but I bet we can beat you easy!"

"Naruto, stop it," Sasuke said, "we can't get into fights here," even though he desperately wanted to. He could almost feel Danzo's eye on him, however, and they couldn't afford this kind of stupid trouble.

Then Matsumoto reached for Sakura, saying, "Well, if you're too scared to get your clothes dirty - hey, sweetheart, why don't you dump those little scaredy-cats," and it was over.

"Don't touch me, you pervert!" Sakura shrieked, and her punch knocked Matsumoto down the street and into a food stall.

The thugs looked back at him as he pulled himself up, blood running down his face from his smashed nose, and he pointed at the team and shouted, "Geddem!"

The taller of the two swung at Sasuke, and Sasuke dropped and swept his leg around to cut the man's legs out from under him. The man jumped just in time - not a shinobi, but still a fighter - and Sasuke barely dodged a kick to the face. It took all his willpower not to let the sharingan kick in; one or two earth jutsu and these bastards wouldn't be a problem, but he'd promised and he dodged another punch, jumped, and smashed his heel into the side of the thug's head.

The man staggered to the side, almost falling, then shook his head and charged at Sasuke again. Sasuke grabbed for his shuriken pouch, felt only squishing plastic - damnit! The goldfish! - and then Sakura crashed onto the thug's back, driving him into the ground. "Don't even think about hurting Sasuke-kun, you jerk!" she yelled, and when he tried to get up she hit him in the throat with her elbow.

Sasuke started to say, "Good job," and an arm wrapped around his throat, choking him. "Don't move, you little monsters," Matsumoto snarled, and Sasuke felt blood drip into his hair, "or your leader gets it, see - yeah, you'd better back off, just like that..."

Sakura reluctantly got off the tall thug's back, though he stayed down; Naruto, who'd been pummeling the other man with the help of three shadow clones, released them and stepped back, and the man immediately punched Naruto in the gut, doubling him over.

Anger flashed through Sasuke and he had to shut his eyes and repeat no sharingan, no sharingan, no sharingan - he didn't even need sharingan for scum like this, but as he prepared to strike back at Matsumoto the arm around his throat disappeared.

He spun around and saw Matsumoto struggling against Jiraiya's grip. "Well, well, isn't this a shameful sight," the sage said. "Three grown men picking on my cute little apprentices, and it's the grown-ups winning..." Sasuke nearly choked again, this time with rage. Jiraiya shoved Matsumoto past him, back towards the thugs, and said, "But you know, I really don't like bullies, especially the kind who'd pick on a girl, so -" He held up one hand; a knot of swirling chakra appeared in his palm, humming ominously. "- I think you'd better get out of here before I do something you'll regret, hm?"

Matsumoto wiped blood off his face and said, "I'm not scared of you, old man, so just -"

"Whoops, wrong answer!" Jiraiya said, and thrust the ball of chakra against Matsumoto's chest.

The ball exploded.

After a moment, Sasuke got up from where he'd hit the ground and gave Sakura and Naruto a hand up. Jiraiya was dusting his hands off, looking pleased with himself; far, far down the street, Sasuke could just see Matsumoto and the two thugs sprawled out on the road, apparently unconscious.

"Holy crap, that technique's awesome," said Naruto, his eyes shining. "I gotta learn that!"

"I guess he knows what he's doing, after all," Sakura said, though she still sounded doubtful. She dusted herself off and said, "Sasuke-kun, are you okay?"

"Fine," Sasuke said, trying not to snap at her. He'd been relying on the sharingan too much lately; he'd have to train a lot without it while they were out of Konoha, or he'd end up falling behind even Sakura.

Meanwhile, Naruto had pounced on Jiraiya. "Hey, hey, pervy sage, what's that technique called? I wanna learn it, yanno!" he said. "You're gonna teach it to me, right? Right?"

"Hmm, well, it might be something you can all learn," said Jiraiya, "but let's get out of here first - looks like we're attracting a bit too much attention."

The festival crowds had begun gathering again already, staring and chattering, and Sasuke saw more than one angry stall-owner among the throng of curious faces.

"Okay, okay," Naruto said, "I just gotta get one thing! Hey, mister -"

The inn Jiraiya chose had a fountain filled with fish; Sasuke took the opportunity to dump all five of his goldfish into it, and while the team settled into their shared room, he hid the rest of the festival junk under one of the beds where he could conveniently forget it when they left in the morning.

Naruto bounced on the bed while Sakura laid her stuff out neatly on the other. "This is gonna be so great!" Naruto said. "Traveling with my friends, learning cool techniques, then we get to go home and be heroes for saving the Kages... Best trip ever!" He bounced a little too hard and almost brought the bed down on Sasuke's head; Sasuke shoved the stuffed horse a little deeper, backed out, and kicked Naruto onto the floor so he could take over the bed.

Naruto just climbed back up and wrestled some room for himself, then dug through his pack and pulled the orange mask out to admire it. "So cool - Itachi's gonna love this," he said happily.

"It's hideous," Sakura said, and shoved her folded clothes into a drawer in the nightstand. "Sasuke-kun's right, why would Itachi-san want something ugly like that - Itachi-san is refined, you should've gotten him something nice!"

Refined? Sakura had obviously never been present for one of Itachi and Anko's snack food fights. Sasuke didn't want to feed the argument, though, so he started to tell her to knock it off when Jiraiya flung the door open, one arm full of water balloons. "All right, who's ready to start training?" he said.

"Me me me! I'm ready, pervy sage!" Naruto yelled, and he jumped off the bed.

"I'm ready, too - I think," Sakura said, eying the balloons.

Jiraiya tossed each of them a balloon, then said, "What about you, Uchiha?"

"I can't," Sasuke said, looking away.

"Oh?" said Jiraiya. "Oh, right, right... Well, go downstairs then and -"

"I can't do that either," Sasuke snapped. How big an idiot could the old man be? Sakura and Naruto were giving Sasuke weird looks; he'd have to explain the conditions to Naruto later, sometime when Sakura was distracted.

"Hm - then just turn around and cover your ears for a few minutes," Jiraiya said, and Sasuke did, seething with resentment. He could still hear Jiraiya's booming voice as the sage began talking, so to keep from listening in Sasuke went over old school lessons in his head: the shinobi rules, the current daimyo of all the major and minor countries with their wives and principal advisors, some basic math equations, the names of every Uchiha he would one day avenge...

During the list of second and third cousins he was interrupted by a tap on the shoulder, and he twisted around to see Jiraiya, who said, "We're done for now," loudly enough for Sasuke to hear. Sasuke took his hands away from his ears; Sakura and Naruto each had a water balloon in their hands and were concentrating on it.

"All right, you two keep working on that," Jiraiya said, "I'm going out to get us dinner - Uchiha, you're with me."

Sasuke was still irritated as he followed Jiraiya downstairs, and he wasn't listening very hard as the sage started babbling about something or other until he heard, "- did pretty well today, after all."

"What?" Sasuke said.

"I said you didn't do too badly today," said Jiraiya, and held the inn's front door open for a dark-haired woman who gave him a vague smile and hurried on. "Ah, what a cool beauty... Anyway, you behaved, so looks like I won't be sending you back to Konoha."

Send him back to Konoha? "You didn't forget about the conditions at all," Sasuke said, his irritation heating back into anger. "You were just -"

"Hey, what kind of idiot do you think I am?" Jiraiya said; Sasuke bit back the obvious answer. "Look, kid, I've spent the last three days hearing what your brother thinks of you, what Danzo thinks about you, what the council thinks, what Anko-chan thinks - they even wheeled young Kakashi out of the hospital to talk about you. I wanted a chance to see for myself what you're made of, and you're all right, so lighten up a bit, hm?"

That was easy enough for Jiraiya to say; he didn't have someone like Danzo out for his head. Better to let the good impression last as long as possible, though, so Sasuke kept quiet until Jiraiya found a noodle place he liked the look of and ordered them both yakisoba. "So," Jiraiya said, after the food had arrived, "indulge an old man a little - what's my ex-teammate like nowadays?"

Sasuke considered all of his encounters with Orochimaru - the taunts, the threats, the deadly techniques - then said, "Evil," and Jiraiya snorted into his noodles.

"Ha! You're a blunt one, aren't you?" he said once he'd recovered. "Well, it's not like I expected a different answer..."

Sasuke picked at his yakisoba, hungry but not feeling like eating. "Why'd you ask, then?" he said. Orochimaru was the last thing he wanted to talk about, not counting Itachi.

"Hmm - it's a complicated thing," said Jiraiya. "I guess old history wouldn't interest a brat like you, but we were genin together with Tsunade-hime, and a team for years after that... That's the kind of thing that doesn't just die, you know? You never forget your first comrades."

What a load of sentimental crap. "Even the ones who experiment on babies?" Sasuke said.

Jiraiya froze for an instant, then laughed too loudly. "I see Anko-chan's been scaring you into behaving," he said, "and she's certainly got plenty of stories to do it with - just goes to show, sometimes you really don't know the people you think you're close to. He was always a cold one, but I never realized just how cold..." He stared off into the distance at nothing in particular; there was an odd look on his face, like pain and nostalgia that with time had become a single feeling. "I thought we were friends, once. Not so different from you and Naruto, at least when we were young."

Sasuke's blood ran cold at the thought. "I'm not - I'm nothing like Orochimaru!"

"Hm, you're not?" Jiraiya said. "Bright, ambitious little genius, no family - well, besides that Itachi - bit of a loner, always working to get stronger..."

"I'm not the same," Sasuke insisted, "I wouldn't betray Konoha." He might not be in love with the village like Itachi or obsessed with being Hokage like Naruto, but he didn't hate Konoha. Most of the time. At least not the way Orochimaru did, talking about how everyone was soft or weak or disappointing. "Besides, science is boring."

That made Jiraiya laugh again, and he said, "You're not too bad, kid. Oh - hey, miss, could we get another two plates of yakisoba to go? Ah, with the way Naruto eats, better make that four - thank you, you're as kind as you are lovely."

Sasuke forced himself to eat the rest of his dinner while Jiraiya flirted with waitresses, and stayed quiet as they carried boxes of noodles back to the inn; even after Sakura and Naruto were asleep he lay awake, mulling over Jiraiya's words. So there were people - Jiraiya, at least - who thought he was like Orochimaru... That was bad; he'd thought that he had done a good job keeping his goal secret, that Itachi had fallen for his good little brother act, but maybe he hadn't been that convincing after all. Damn. If he tried to make up for his slip too much he'd only seem more suspicious, and if he didn't suck up at least a little that would seem suspicious, too... Sasuke almost growled.

He'd been too impatient, he could see that now. Yes, he'd needed Orochimaru's information, but if he'd turned Orochimaru in to ANBU and kept his head down, he could have eventually have worked his way to a position where he could get into classified files and find the same information, all without Itachi suspecting a thing. Damn, damn, damn - well, he just wouldn't make the same mistake twice, then. Killing Itachi without being suspected was more important than information; he wouldn't forget that again.

Naruto rolled over and sprawled out, one arm flung across Sasuke. Sasuke shoved his arm off and yanked at the sheets - the idiot always hogged the sheets - and turned over to look at Naruto. Naruto was snoring, of course, and his breath smelled like yakisoba and toothpaste, and he was so obnoxious and noisy and disgusting and such a total idiot and Sasuke was never going to leave him behind, never make him look the way Jiraiya did when he talked about Orochimaru. However far into darkness Sasuke had to go to kill Itachi, whatever he had to do, he wouldn't abandon Naruto.

He looked past Naruto at the other bed, where Sakura was asleep with her hair spread out on the pillow, and reluctantly decided he wouldn't leave her, either. She wasn't strong like Naruto, or even a friend in the same way, but... You're my teammate, she'd said, even before saying she liked him, and she trusted him, and maybe Jiraiya'd had a point after all with his sentimental nonsense about teams.

Sasuke kicked Naruto's feet away from his side of the bed and went to sleep.

They traveled for a week, wandering from town to town across the Land of Fire with no apparent plan. Sakura and Naruto kept working on the water balloon training while Sasuke practiced on his own, usually far enough away that he couldn't accidentally pick up on what they were doing but still within visual range of either them or Jiraiya, depending on where they practiced. It could have become a pleasant routine, except that with every hour that passed Sasuke felt the weight of the Kages' lives growing heavier on his shoulders. Supposedly both Kages had been stable when the team had left, but that could change at any moment - poisons were unpredictable, Orochimaru's poison might be doing damage the medics didn't pick up on, or a nurse might make a mistake with the medications, or Orochimaru might come back to finish the job, and then Sasuke would be - what was taking Jiraiya so long?

On the third day they were camping out rather than staying at an inn; Naruto and Sakura were training with Jiraiya on one side of a clearing in the forest, and Sasuke was on the other side, studiously ignoring them to work on using earth jutsu without the sharingan, when he heard one water balloon pop, then another burst against a tree. "I'm sick of this!" Sakura yelled. She sounded close to tears; Sasuke risked looking over and saw Naruto frozen mid-victory dance, while Sakura was red-faced. "Why can't I get it right? I've been working just as hard and it doesn't take that much extra chakra but it just won't work!"

"Hmm," said Jiraiya, chin in hand, "I suppose - what's your chakra affinity?"

"Huh?" Naruto said, and Sakura said, "I don't know - I was never tested."

"That could explain things," Jiraiya said, and he started rummaging around in his pack.

"What's a chakra affinity, pervy sage?" Naruto asked. "Hey, what is it?"

Jiraiya didn't answer right away; instead he called across the clearing, "Come on over, Sasuke - no, don't start, this isn't really training. You two, have a seat - damn, was sure I had some left - where are you..." When Sasuke had sat down between Naruto and Sakura, Jiraiya said, "Your chakra affinity is what element your chakra's in tune with. So Naruto, yours is almost certainly wind - Sasuke, do you know -"

"Fire," Sasuke said. Uchiha were usually fire.

"Good, good - and Sakura, we'll test yours once I find that stupid little - hah! Gotcha!"

"But what's that mean, huh?" Naruto said. "Can I only learn wind techniques or something?"

"Of course not, don't be silly," Sakura said, and Jiraiya nodded.

"She's got the right of it," he said, shaking out the crumpled piece of paper he'd found. "Just means wind techniques will be your strongest ones and the easiest to learn, like Sasuke's will be fire techniques. Good combo, there. You can master other elements, of course - jounin and ANBU usually have to have at least two - but at your level, it's better to concentrate on the one for now." He handed the paper to Sakura. "Right, feed a little of your chakra into this paper, and that'll tell us what your affinity is."

Sakura held the paper up, frowning at it, and after a moment it crumbled.

"Earth! Excellent," Jiraiya said. "Well, Sakura-chan, the rasengan isn't really a wind technique, but it's easier to master if you've already got a wind affinity, I've found - why don't you work on earth techniques with Sasuke for now and I'll keep teaching Naruto."

Sakura punched the air gleefully as Naruto groaned, and Sasuke resigned himself to holding back in training again.

Sakura surprised him, however. Her taijutsu was still slow and weak compared to his and Naruto's, but she was getting more inventive to make up for it, and she picked up the earth jutsu he knew quickly; she couldn't put as much power into them as Sasuke could, but she could control them more precisely and without wasting chakra, and soon they could spar on an almost equal level.

Four days after testing Sakura's chakra affinity, they entered the largest town they'd been to yet, a place called Hato near the border with the Land of Grass. It was a busy place, full of merchants and traders and, more importantly, their guards, so Sasuke stuck close to Naruto and Sakura, hoping to avoid another incident like the one in the first town.

Jiraiya was looking for an inn and telling some unbelievable story about the toads of Mount Myoboku when they passed a pair of tough-looking women, and Sasuke heard them talking. "- believe our luck!" the stouter of the two was saying. "The legendary sucker's in town - we'll get rich off her, if we work it right."

"Only if she's got the cash on her - you know what they -"

Their conversation was rapidly buried in the general noise, and Sasuke was already putting it out of his mind as useless chatter when Jiraiya stopped in the middle of the street and said, "All right, kids, this is it! She's here - well, that's the easy part over with."

"How do you know, huh?" Naruto said, fidgeting with the rubber ball that had replaced the water balloons as part of his training. "You haven't had time to ask around or anything!"

"All I had to do was listen," said Jiraiya, and then he chuckled, sounding both like and unlike Orochimaru. "Didn't I ever tell you? Tsunade-hime's not just famous for her medical skills, you know. She's also well-known as -" He paused to take a breath. "- the worst gambler in the world!"

Sasuke quietly decided that whoever had named Jiraiya's team the Sannin hadn't been thinking of their skills so much as their ridiculous personalities.

"Anyway, they won't let kids like you in where she's likely to be," Jiraiya said, "so you lot go back out to the woods and practice - they're not so fond of shinobi in Hato these days, had a nasty incident with a missing-nin a few months back. I'll be - ah - out looking for her..."

Sakura waved her hand in front of Jiraiya's face to break his stare at the curvy redhead walking by, and said, with remarkable patience after putting up with this behavior for a week, "Then where will we meet you later?"

"Ah, right - give me your packs and I'll get us rooms - hm, there," Jiraiya said, pointing at a rather shabby-looking inn across the road. "Don't rush back - she might take a lot of, erm, convincing. Naruto, don't forget what I told you about focusing!"

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto grumbled, "I remember," tossing the ball back and forth between his hands; he did that all the way out of Hato, uncharacteristically quiet. He'd been oddly bad-tempered the last few days, and Sasuke had no idea why.

The three of them found a good-sized clearing in the woods outside of the town and settled in to practice, Naruto on one side and Sasuke with Sakura on the other. They warmed up with taijutsu kata, moving from slower and simpler forms to the more complex ones, and Sasuke watched Sakura with more than his usual consideration. She was steadily improving, and had been since the mission to Iwa; her stance was firmer, her blows stronger, and though she'd never exactly been the kind to crumple after a hit, she seemed more determined and resilient lately.

He blocked her last strike in the final form, and they stepped back from each other to make the sign to begin the real sparring. Sakura struck first, throwing shuriken; Sasuke jumped out of the way easily, landing on the side of a tree, and stuck his feet to it with chakra. He blew a fireball at Sakura, but a wall of earth shot up and blocked it. He leaped over it and Sakura was gone.

Sasuke listened for her and dodged a kunai, sank into the earth with one of Orochimaru's techniques, and waited. When he felt her land to retrieve her kunai, he made a quick set of seals, and a rock dome surrounded her. Sasuke climbed out of the ground silently, letting his eyes get used to the dark and listening for Sakura.

Sakura made no noise to give away her position; he was wondering if he'd only caught a clone when the ground inside the dome suddenly heaved up, and the ceiling cracked enough for sunlight to stab inside. For an instant all Sasuke could see was the light and its purple afterimage, then he felt the air move and twisted out of the way of a punch. He grabbed Sakura's arm and tried to swing her into the dome's wall, but she dug her heels in and grabbed his shirt, and her left hand came up with the kunai. Sasuke let go, dropped down, and drew a kunai of his own as he dodged away.

The sun beating through the cracked dome made it more difficult to see, but Sasuke was done sparring anyway; he waited for Sakura to strike, blocked her, and before she disappeared into the haze of light and shadows again he said, "Do you still want me to trust you?"

"Sasuke-kun?" she said, her visible eye wide in the streak of light across her face, and then, "Yes, of course - more than anything! What is it? Is there -"

"You can't tell anyone about this," he said. "Naruto's the only other one who knows - if you can't keep it secret, I won't tell you."

"I'd never tell," Sakura promised. "I'm good at keeping secrets, I won't tell anybody, not Haku-san or Ino-chan or Kakashi-sensei or anyone!"

"You're sure," Sasuke said, not feeling very sure himself; this was a terrible risk, but he was tired of lying to her, and if he could have both of his teammates on his side...

Sakura hesitated, then said, "I'm sure. I mean, I haven't told anyone else that Naruto's the host for the Kyuubi."

Sasuke lost the balance of the kunai-block and had to jump back, and Sakura sheathed her kunai and held her first two fingers out in the signal to end the spar. After a moment, Sasuke did the same, and said, "How did you find that out?"

"Well, it wasn't that hard to figure out, after he went all strange fighting Haku," she said, dusting herself off. "He said it was a bloodline limit when I asked, but if it was really a bloodline limit he'd brag about it all the time and he never talks about it, so I knew that wasn't it... And you know, I didn't really notice it before, but people say some really awful things about Naruto behind his back! And if you don't get caught listening, they'll almost always start talking about the night the fox attacked, and that wouldn't make any sense unless Naruto's connected to the Kyuubi somehow."

Sasuke watched her fidget, his heart racing.

"I wasn't completely sure, though," she went on, "until Haku-san told me about fighting Gaara - I don't know if he knows or not, but as soon as he said what Gaara really was, I - I knew Naruto had to be the same. Well, a lot less creepy, but you know what I mean..."

She'd been looking at the ground, letting the shadows and the hair loosened by the spar hide her face, but now she turned her face up and the dusty sunlight lit up her eyes. "I haven't told anyone else, I swear," she said, "I'm only telling you because I know you must have figured it out, too. Please don't let Naruto know, it's okay if he doesn't want to tell me yet - after the things I've heard people say, I wouldn't want to tell anyone who didn't know, either."

"I won't tell him," Sasuke said, and he leaned against the dome to think. So she'd found out about Naruto before they'd left Konoha, but she hadn't acted any differently around him or let any hint of her knowledge slip - that was a good sign, she'd probably be able to fool Itachi as long as she had time to prepare.

"Sasuke-kun, I don't want to pry, but what's so -"

"It's Itachi," he said.

As he told her what he knew, her eyes grew wider and wider; he ended with the stories he'd heard from Orochimaru, as untrustworthy as they were, and it was a full minute before Sakura said, "That's - oh, Sasuke-kun, I never -"

"Hey, what're you two doing in there, huh?" Naruto yelled from outside the dome, his voice muffled by the layers of earth. "Are you, like, stuck or something? You're taking forever, yanno - you're not kissing or -"

Sasuke rolled his eyes and hit the side of the dome, ending the jutsu; Naruto crashed down between them - the idiot must have been on top of the dome - but popped up again immediately, his face smeared with dirt. "Hey, hey," he said, "what were you guys talking about, anyway?"

"I told her about Itachi," Sasuke said.

"What about - oh!" A grin split Naruto's face, the first real one in days. "Sakura-chan, you're gonna help us find out stuff about Itachi? That's totally awesome! I bet you can find out lots of things, yanno!"

"I - I'm not sure," Sakura said; her eyes darted between Sasuke and Naruto, and she bit her thumbnail. "It's just - Itachi-san's always seemed so nice, I don't know - I just -"

"If you don't want to help," Sasuke said, "don't. But stay out of our way and don't tell anyone, or -" He didn't finish the threat.

Sakura held back a moment longer, still looking between her teammates, then said, "I'll help! I said I'd do anything, and I will - I won't tell anyone else, not even Ino-chan, I'll just tell her scary stories about Anko-san till she finds some other guy to like - but I'll help!"

Naruto whooped with joy and tried to hug her as she pushed him away - "Ew, get off! Seriously, Naruto, you're filthy, don't touch me!" - and relief loosened the tension in Sasuke's shoulders. They were finally a real team; they were his team, and together they'd bring Itachi down.

After Sasuke found out the truth, of course.

They went back to town late in the evening and found that Jiraiya had gotten the promised rooms at the shabby inn, but there was no sign of Jiraiya himself; they got dinner on their own, and after waiting for a while, gave up on Jiraiya and went to bed.

Sasuke woke at the sound of the door swinging open, elbowed Naruto out of the way and reached for his weapons, but it was just Jiraiya. The sage was leaning on the doorframe, and the light from the hall showed his silly grin and flushed cheeks. "Good news, my cute apprentices!" he said brightly. "The princess is comin' back to Konoha - jus' took a lotta drinks talkin' her into it..."

Sakura was still asleep - she could sleep through anything - but Naruto was yawning and rubbing his eyes. He swung his legs out of bed and went over to Jiraiya. "That's great, pervy sage," he said, yawning again, "but it's late, yanno?" Sasuke checked the room clock and saw that it was past two in the morning.

"Not so late," Jiraiya grumbled, "night's young yet - young like me... And that Tsunade, she's still a babe with that jutsu of hers. Wonder what -"

"Dude, go to bed already," Naruto said, and pushed Jiraiya down the hall towards the other room. Jiraiya staggered along, humming something, and when he'd gone into his room Naruto shut the door and flopped back on the bed next to Sasuke. Sakura hadn't stirred at all. "Stupid old drunk," Naruto said into his pillow. "Why's he gotta be like that..."

Sasuke could sense whole new worlds of awkwardness opening before him, and searched desperately for something to say that would make the awkwardness go away; he settled on, "Does he do this a lot?"

"Nah," said Naruto. "Well, sometimes, mostly he's just faking, I think. He's pretty badass, yanno?" He punched his pillow up and rolled over. "Just - he's a really different kind of teacher from Iruka-sensei or Itachi, and you get to train with Sakura-chan all the time and I have to train by myself, and it's really boring, and - I dunno, this trip's not what I thought it'd be like, I guess."

"It's almost over, though," Sasuke said. "At least, if Tsunade really has agreed to come back. Go to sleep, we'll be on our way home soon."

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto said, with another yawn, "an' we'll be heroes - no more rumors, or..."

Then he was snoring instead of talking, and Sasuke tugged Naruto's fair share of the sheet up to cover Naruto and tried to get back to sleep himself. He couldn't stop feeling bothered, though, if only because it was so unlike Naruto to be bothered about anything. That stupid Jiraiya, ignoring Naruto and not teaching him right - once they got back to Konoha and Sasuke wasn't bound by the stupid conditions anymore they'd train properly again, everything would be fixed once Tsunade had healed the Kages.

Sasuke still brooded over it until the light of dawn began seeping through the room's one cracked window, and then it was time to start prying a hungover Jiraiya out of bed. Sakura grumbled about it almost as much as Jiraiya did, but Naruto was back to his usual noisy self, which reassured Sasuke a little.

Tsunade met them on the road out of Hato, accompanied by a dark-haired young woman carrying a pig; Tsunade herself was tall and blonde and appeared completely unimpressed by the team trailing behind Jiraiya. "You're a pitiful lot," she said, crossing her arms and looking them over. "What did you drag them along for, Jiraiya? Planning to bum booze money off them?"

Sasuke heard Jiraiya mutter, "Wasn't my idea, damnit," and then he said loudly, "Now, Princess, don't jump to conclusions - this is a pretty good team! An Uchiha genius, a kid who's aiming to be Hokage one day, and -"

"Only a fool would want to be Hokage," Tsunade said, and Naruto's face reddened. Before he could start shouting she turned her attention to Sakura. "And what about you? Planning to grow up a little and wrap old perverts like Jiraiya around your finger to get their secrets out of them, like a good kunoichi?"

Sakura twisted her fingers together nervously, but she said, "Actually, I - I've been reading some scrolls on battle tactics in my spare time, but I'm more interested in - in medical jutsu..."

"Hmm," said Tsunade, but she didn't sound displeased. "At least you've got some ambition to you. All right, Jiraiya, let's go - the less time I have to spend on this fool's errand, the better."

She took the lead with Jiraiya, who immediately started chattering at her, while the team walked behind them and the dark-haired woman took the rear.

"I can't believe we came all this way for a rude old bat like her," Naruto said, falling into place beside Sakura and tossing his rubber ball from hand to hand. "She's as old as the pervy sage, yanno, she's just hiding it!"

"So what? It's not your business if she wants to look young," Sakura said. "Anyway, she's not rude, she's cool - I've read about her, she's invented some amazing -"

"You heard what she said, she said being Hokage is for fools! I can't stand someone who doesn't respect the Hokage, yanno!"

"Well, she was talking about you, that's just being accurate."

Sasuke tuned out their bickering with the ease of long practice. They weren't far from home; Hato lay near the border of the Land of Grass, a day and a half running or two and a half going by the road like they were, so they'd be rid of Tsunade soon enough. He'd have to watch Sakura to make sure she didn't give them away, and tell Haku about Itachi since he was suspicious already - it would be strange, having people other than Naruto helping in the investigation, but Sakura was good at overhearing things, and even people who should know better would talk to Haku, so if nothing else they could probably figure out which parts of Orochimaru's stories were true...

Sasuke looked ahead, past Tsunade and Jiraiya, and stopped suddenly. There was something off about the road in front of them. Without the sharingan he couldn't see if it was a genjutsu, but whatever the wrongness was, it had to be a trap - something to get them lost, maybe, or some worse illusion.

Jiraiya had turned around to lecture Naruto about his training; Tsunade was still walking ahead, directly into the trap, and Sasuke started forward, Sakura at his heels. "Wait," he said, "there's a -"

"Hold it, Uchiha," Tsunade said, looking back and frowning at him, and she was right by the line between the road and the wrongness - the wheel ruts don't line up, that's it, they're off from the real ones by a fraction - and Sasuke thrust his arm out in front of her. Her eyes narrowed at that, and she said, "What do you think you're doing?" Sasuke opened his mouth to explain, but Sakura grabbed the back of his shirt, pulling him off-balance.

His foot slipped across the line of the genjutsu, and the road exploded.