I'm sorry it's taken so long to update. I've explained everything on my profile page, so if you're curious, go ahead and read it there. Onto the chapter!

Chapter Twenty-Seven: Diplomacy

She was irritable. The sand kept getting in her eyes, this cloak was too damn heavy and she couldn't take it off, even though it was unbearably hot, this extra bundle was causing her front to be drenched in sweat, her arms were tired from holding said extra bundle- who knew Hajime had become so heavy? - and these past three days had been nothing short of hell. Besides, who wouldn't be constantly pissed off in her situation? Not only was she traveling through the desert with a baby, but she had to leave right in one of the most crucial moments of her entire life. Her house had just been burnt to the ground! She had so much she needed to do.

Wiping a hand over her brow, Sakura forced her feet forward. Sand was in her eyes, her ears, her hair, her mouth, in every article of clothing, and she was so damn hot! Not to mention, walking through this sand was a bitch. Her foot kept slipping and if it wasn't for her chakra, she would have gone down in a heap a long time ago. Furthermore, she was ridiculously exhausted. Besides the regular tiring three day journey to Sand, she couldn't even sleep during her breaks. Instead, her mind worried about her house- or lack, thereof- and about all what she had to buy when she returned home.

Granted, all shinobi were insured by the village by attacks that damaged their personal belongings, so it wasn't like Sakura was super worried about the money aspect (and besides that, she was one of the highest paid shinobi in the village, and to her knowledge, Itachi was the highest paid ANBU Captain in the village, plus he had the entire Uchiha Clan fortune to access; it wasn't like they were overly worried about the cost) but it was just the idea that she had lost everything. Her pictures, her clothes, her mementos- so much were precious to her and it was all gone.

Before leaving for Suna, Itachi, Sakura, Naruto, Sasuke, Sai, Ino, and Hinata had gone through the rubble. Her entire basement was safe- nothing had been damaged in that. She had searched through her room rubble and could only find a few salvageable items. All of her clothes were gone, the majority of her pictures and books, and most of her make-up and jewelry. Her Team Seven photo had been damaged slightly, but it was still okay; her forehead protector was burnt pretty badly on one side, but the actual metal was safe; there were a few books that had remained untouched; two photo albums were a bit burnt, but still legible; and Hajime's baby book was mostly unscathed, besides a bit of water damage from their jutsus. Itachi's old forehead protector had remained in perfect condition, and the few pictures he had managed to find and keep from his old house were also in prime condition. Apparently, nothing had been damaged on Itachi's side of the room. The only other things Sakura was able to save were her weapons- they were quality made, so none of them were unusable, just a bit blackened with ash.

Of course, the lack of clothes for both of them was sort of a problem. She didn't have enough time to buy a new wardrobe (Naruto had offered to force the shinobi-clothes clerk to open his store early for Sakura, but she declined) so she had borrowed several outfits from Ino for her trip. It sucked not being able to dress professionally in her jounin vest or medical uniform when she was going on a diplomatic mission to such an important ally, but it couldn't be helped.

Itachi, Ino, Hinata, and Sasuke were supposed to be moving in what items they could to one of the Uchiha Compound buildings. Sakura had managed to see the house they would be living in before she departed- and it was beautiful. It was strikingly larger than her old house, with at least three bathrooms, nearly ten bedrooms, a ridiculously large kitchen, a separate dining room, and three living rooms. Sakura and Itachi had agreed to allow one of the living rooms be turned into Sakura's office and personal laboratory; another of the living rooms would be turned into a play area for Hajime and any future children, and then the last one would be used as a living room.

The house was apparently Shisui's old home; Sakura was worried Itachi would feel antsy living in the house of his deceased best friend, but Itachi seemed to relish in the familiarity of it. Of course, considering Itachi hadn't killed Shisui (it was more like an assisted suicide), this was probably the one house that he didn't feel guilty in living in. Neither Uchiha boys enjoyed visiting their old home, despite the fact that it was the biggest of all the houses in the Compound. Sasuke had admitted that he would probably move into that house upon his marriage. Itachi, however, wanted nothing to do with that home. Too many painful memories, he had told her. But, Shisui's home seemed to be the second biggest house in the clan. She had asked Itachi about that, and he told her that Shisui was third in line to run the clan, should he or Sasuke have died. Because Shisui's father was Fugaku's little brother, they were in the direct line for running the clan. So, of course, they would have the second biggest house in the Compound. They were the second most important family.

"Hey, I see the gates." Sakura snapped out of her thoughts, gleefully looking up. She squinted through the sand and smiled wearily.

"It's not a mirage this time?" she asked her comrade hopefully.

"No, no mirage. It's real." She took a deep breath, releasing a long, thankful sigh. "Is Hajime going to be all right, by the way?" Sakura glanced down, but realized it was pointless considering she could only see a mop of black hair. Hajime was safely tucked underneath her cloak to protect him from the sand. However, she could feel his steady, deep breaths and knew he was fine.

"Yeah. I'll wake him up for good once we've settled into a room. I hate to keep knocking him out like this, but it's better than letting him get hurt through this heat and in this desert."

"How are you keeping him cool?"

"Chakra." She did hate to keep forcefully putting him to sleep with her chakra. But there was no way she could stop in the middle of the desert and nurse him. Not to say she hadn't fed him in the past three days- of course they stopped at night for her to nurse, and at certain times during the day- but she couldn't feed him every four hours like she usually did. Her breasts weren't happy about that, considering they were aching and leaking, but Sakura had to buck up and sacrifice her comfort.

They fell back into silence, walking towards the gates. As each step brought her closer, Sakura could only dream of taking a long, cool shower. It would be heaven. Her mouth was practically drooling at the idea. Besides, putting Hajime down would be a relief. He was seriously becoming a strain on her arms. This was why kunoichi mothers went on a long-term maternity leave after having children. At least a year, if not more. It wasn't practical to carry around a baby on missions. Plus, considering the fact that most kunoichi married/loved/dated other shinobi, the father of their child would be on just as many missions as the female. It was even more of a reason to give the mother a longer maternity leave.

They made it to the gates, and Sakura slumped against the wall, relishing in the shadow from the wall around the village. "Passport," the Suna guard remarked tonelessly, hardly glancing down at them. He looked pretty bored. Sakura had an odd sense of déjà vu, her mind recalling her previous mission to Suna three years back. Smirking lightly at the memories, she gestured for her partner to deal with the documentation. It was too hard to try and struggle for scrolls when carrying a child.

"We're from the Hidden Leaf Village. I am Sai and this is Sakura Haruno. We're here to meet with the Kazekage." As Sai spoke, he held out two different scrolls for the guard to inspect. However, upon recognizing Sakura's pink hair, he straightened up. Apparently, Sunagakure shinobi held her in high esteem. Not that she was complaining, though. Hopefully it meant that she'd get a faster shower. Seriously, she was drenched in sweat and sand.

"Of course, of course. Give me one second; I'll have someone escort you to the Kazekage immediately." He turned around to gesture to the other guard beside him. The man nodded and took off running into the village.

She snapped out of her daydream about showers, processing the guard's words. "Immediately?" Sakura couldn't hide the groan. The guard frowned at her, seemingly just noticing the extra-large bump underneath her cloak.

"Yes, he requested to see you as soon as you arrived. Miss Haruno, what exactly are you… holding?"

Her mood was now soured. Even more than before. "My son. You can peak down the cloak if you want to confirm it, but I can't take him out in this heat. He's just an infant." The guard cautiously looked down Sakura's cloak, and seeing the tuft of black hair, nodded. Sakura could still see the hesitation in his eyes, though, and knew he was debating on asking her to show him her child or not. Protocol would dictate that he search her and make sure it was not some package that could harm the village. However, this was Sakura Haruno, a personal friend of the Kazekage and Kankuro; and the teammate of the Sixth Hokage. He couldn't be rude.

Sighing, she felt a twinge of guilt for placing him in such a rough spot. "Sai, open my cloak; you, stand close to look. I don't want Hajime injured by this wind or sand." Sai did as she asked and the guard gently placed a hand on Hajime's back, feeling him. Sakura could feel the slight chakra probe he used to make sure that Hajime was not a clone or elaborate genjutsu of some sort. Nodding to himself, he withdrew his hand, muttering a small apology. Sai closed Sakura's cloak while Sakura shrugged off the apology. Rules were rules. She understood.

They waited for a few more minutes before someone ran into sight. Sakura was actually expecting Matsuri or one of the other mundane Suna shinobi, and was genuinely surprised to see Temari. The wind mistress gestured for the two to follow her. Sai and Sakura did as she wished, and Sakura noted with growing resentment that they really were going straight to the Kazekage Tower.

Once inside the tower and away from the sand, Sakura sighed in relief at the cool air. She immediately shifted Hajime to one arm and shrugged out of her cloak. Her top was soaked in sweat, her hair matted to her neck, and sand was covering every inch of her in some way or another. Sai wasn't looking too much better, either. Temari finally seemed to look over them, noting their haggard state, but shook her head.

"We don't have enough time to let you two wash-up; I'm sorry. Gaara has to see you two now, before the next meeting starts. Follow me." It didn't take long to make it up to Gaara's office. Temari knocked once and then let herself in without waiting for a reply. Sai and Sakura followed her.

As always, Gaara was looking composed and elegant—though there was a small furrow above the bridge of his nose. That his was only noticeable sign of frustration, and it immediately disappeared once he looked up at the group in his office. His perfect emotionless mask fell onto his face and he nodded his head in greeting at the three.

"I know you are exhausted from your journey," Gaara began, his eyes flickering down to Hajime and then right back up to Sakura's face, "so I will make this meeting quick. Within the next hour, I must meet with my council. They have already submitted a treaty proposition between our two villages. It is preposterous with the amount of fees and demands they want from your village. However, it would seem strange if I declined the proposition without a significant reason other than, 'That's not good for Konoha'. If you, however, were to decline this treaty now, it would force them to re-write a new one that is more reasonable. This will save us much time in the long run—if this one is submitted as the official treaty proposition we give to your village, you'll have a much harder time trying to argue through the clauses." Sakura nodded, following along despite her muggy brain. "So if you would be willing to look over this scroll and cross out which things you think are too extreme, it will give the council a better idea as to what to plan for." He held out the scroll to Sakura.

"Hold Hajime, Sai," Sakura commanded, shoving her sleeping baby at her teammate. Sai frowned, swallowing hard. "You're not going to break him. Just hold him against your chest. Gently now." He took the infant, staring down at the sleeping child. Sakura, seeing her baby in no immediate danger, glanced down at the scroll in hand. Her eyes skimmed over the words quickly; as she read, she took an ink-brush from Gaara's desk and began to mark out clauses.

"They want that much from us? Per month?!" There was a swift, thick black line through that. "Immediate response to any crisis. Hm, we'll have to discuss that. But it's pretty reasonable. I'll circle it." She was biting her lip in thought as she read over the scroll. A few more times, she drew black lines through things she didn't like, and other times, she circled parts of the scroll. If there was anything she didn't understand, she would underline it and place a question mark beside it. It took her about ten minutes to finally finish reading the scroll, but finally, she passed it back to Gaara, smiling.

"Thank you, Kazekage-sama! You're a real lifesaver, you know."

"Just Gaara, Sakura. And it is the least I can do after your village, and Naruto, has helped us so much. I have no desire to take advantage of our relationship."

"And neither does he. He wants this treaty to be as beneficial and fair to both of our villages. That's why he sent me! I'm much too honest for my own good…" Sakura admitted, frowning in self-contemplation. She shook her head, smiling back up at the red-head. "I don't mean to be rude, but is that all you needed from us? We'd really like to wash up…"

Gaara's lips twitched in amusement as he nodded for finality. "That's all I needed. I'll be meeting with you soon enough. Temari will take you to your rooms. And Sakura," Sakura turned back around to face him, cocking her head curiously, "I trust that your journey went well? You were safe?" She nodded, biting her lip. "I will be watching out for you. I will not let anything befall you, or your son, when you are in my village." She smiled, knowing Naruto must have sent him a message explaining the attempt on her life. That boy was always looking out for her.

"Thank you, Gaara. I appreciate it." With that, Temari escorted the two nins out of the building. Sakura realized they were heading towards Gaara's personal home and began to protest, to which Temari waved her away dismissively.

"Would you not put me up in Naruto's personal home? You're just as important to this village as I am to yours. Besides Shikamaru, you're the official Suna liaison from Konoha. And a personal friend to this village." Grinning, Temari made an off-hand comment, sure to make Sakura blush, "Besides, if you hadn't hooked up with that dashing ANBU member and had his son, I'm sure there would have been a proposition of marriage between you and Gaara. To 'strengthen' ties and whatnot. Gaara wouldn't have minded, I'm sure." Sure enough, Sakura's face erupted into flames.

"Temari, I seriously doubt Gaara would have ever wanted to marry me! He has a plethora of Sand kunoichi to pick from. And I know many of them devotedly love him. Like Matsuri!" Temari rolled her eyes at the name.

"Just because Matsuri loves Gaara doesn't mean that Gaara loves Matsuri. Gaara is much more attracted to strength—both physical and of character. Matsuri is lacking in both categories." She opened the door, holding it open for the two Konoha nins. Sakura and Sai walked through, looking around Gaara's grand mansion. "Your rooms are on the second floor. Follow me." They walked behind Temari, still taking in the sights.

After a few seconds of silence, Sakura continued their previous conversation: "So you mean Matsuri and Gaara have no chance in the future?" Temari grimly shook her head.

"While he always appreciated her devotion, he never returned her feelings. It eventually led to an explosive confrontation a few years ago; Matsuri demanding to know why he didn't love her. Gaara sent her on a long-term mission in response to it. Matsuri hasn't been back to Suna for almost two years now. Ah, this room is yours, Sai." Temari gestured to the door beside Sai's. "That one is yours, Sakura. Gaara's room is on the other side of yours. My room is across the hall. And Kankuro's is beside my room. Every room has their own personal bathroom attached. One of the maids will bring up supper when it's done."

"I'm sorry to hear about Matsuri, though." Temari shrugged. "Are we to meet with Gaara again tonight?"

"Probably not. He'll simply talk to you when he gets home. Kankuro and I have a mission tonight, so I won't be able to escort you around like usual. We'll send a genin or a chuunin over if you need something, though. But you remember most of the locations in this village, right?" Sakura smiled and nodded. "Good. You two should be fine. I'll let you rest up; but when I get back after my mission, I want to be properly introduced to your son. He looks adorable."

Sakura beamed, looking down at Hajime. "Of course. Good luck on your mission!" Temari smirked and shook her head.

"No luck needed! Be good and have fun!" Sai and Sakura retreated into their respective rooms as Temari disappeared down the hallway. Taking a deep breath once the door closed, Sakura laid Hajime down on her bed, making sure he was still asleep. Then she withdrew her sealing scroll, and unsealed her bag of clothes and diaper bag.

She wrinkled her nose at seeing Ino's clothes—geez, she hated sharing underwear, even if Ino swore that she had never worn those specific ones before—and withdrew an outfit. At least Ino had given her clothes that didn't seem too out of character for her to wear. The shorts, a bit shorter than what Sakura usually wore, were black, and the tank-top was white. Ino had even packed her some mesh tops to go over the tank-top. She couldn't complain. Still, she didn't have a jounin vest, which would probably look pretty odd. Maybe Sai had packed a spare one she could borrow... Sighing, Sakura ran a hand through her hair, her lip curling into a snarl as sand fell out of her locks and landed on her clean clothes. She promptly turned on her heel, heading to the bathroom.

The bathroom wasn't super big, but it was decently sized. Sakura wasted no time in climbing into the shower and washing all the sand, dirt, and grime off of her. Once she felt clean again (after using about a half a bar of soap), she dressed in her clothes and walked back to her bed. This time, she woke Hajime up with a small touch of chakra, and gently carried him to the sink to be washed. Her son watched her with large, black eyes. However, he made no sound—not in pleasure or fear—as the water brushed against his sweaty skin. After bathing him and changing him into a spare outfit that had been stored at Ino's house, she finally sat down to nurse him properly.

Once he was fed, both mother and son quickly fell asleep, too tired to play or think of anything else.

"Itachi, Sasuke, how is everything going with the house?" Naruto asked casually, looking down at a few scrolls on his desk. It was a wreck—scrolls and folders were spread out everywhere, stacks and stacks of paper beside his desk and on the corners. There was a half-eaten bowl of ramen balancing precariously on the edge of the desk—apparently, even Naruto was too busy to eat, sometimes. Sasuke had to sidestep a pile of scrolls on the floor to even get to Naruto's desk; and even then, he was forced to push another stack of reports out of the way to even see the blonde.

The two brothers shrugged in response to Naruto's question, though Sasuke went ahead and answered, "We're making progress. Ino and Hinata helped pick out some new clothes for Sakura, while Itachi and I focused on furnishing the house. We just hope Sakura likes the decorating. We've finished moving all her belongings from the old house and we've gotten an entire new wardrobe for Hajime. We've all scrubbed everything and dusted and whatnot. We're pretty much done, except maybe a few more personal touches from Sakura, like painting and stuff. But it's now completely habitable. We even bought food and have appliances working."

"Good. Then would you be adverse to the idea of going on a mission? Both of you, I mean." They frowned and Naruto glanced up, pausing in mid-stroke of signing something, seeing their hesitant expressions. "You'll be back before Sakura gets home, if that's what you're worried about." It seemed to be the right thing to say as both brothers nodded. Naruto grinned, nodding enthusiastically. "Awesome! Okay, well, remember that jutsu trade thing?"

"How could we forget?" Sasuke dryly replied.

"Well, we got a reply back from the message Itachi sent. Apparently, they have some sort of notification base in Earth Country. I want you two to go check it out. This scroll has the coordinates where it should be. You two are to do nothing more than reconnaissance. If you find something worthwhile, report straight to Sand and deliver the message to Gaara. He has all the information about the jutsu trade now. We want the report as up to date as possible." Both brothers nodded. "I expect that there should be no problems from the two of you, but just in case, Itachi is Captain on this mission. Since he does rank higher than you, bastard," Naruto snickered, his eyes glinting at Sasuke in a challenge.

"Shut-up, dead last."

"Ah-ah," Naruto tsked, waving his ink brush in Sasuke's face (nearly painting the bridge of Sasuke's nose in the process), "you can't say that to me anymore. I'm the Hokage. I am your superior in every single way. Hehehehe," he cackled. Sasuke glared, as he pushed the ink brush away, scowling when Naruto still managed to get some of the ink on his face.

"When are we to leave?" Itachi interrupted, getting the two back on track. Naruto sighed, switching gears.

"Yeah. Leave tomorrow." He nodded to himself, as if confirming the date in his mind. "Yup. Definitely tomorrow. At dawn, preferably." Sighing, he leaned on his palm, frowning. "You see, this jutsu trade thing is becoming a bit tedious. We've been investigating it for over two years. Yet we still can't seem to pin them down. Every time we get close, they just disappear. That's why it's become an international issue between the other villages. We know they're planning something big, that they have some sort of super awesome jutsu, but we just can't find out what it is. We're pretty sure it was stolen from Mist, though… So you two," Naruto perked up, grinning, "do something good and get me some awesome information! All right, that's it. Here's the scroll. Now get lost!" he said this last statement with a smile and a laugh, sticking his tongue out at the two brothers. Sasuke gave a mock glare, while Itachi quirked an eyebrow but gave a small half-grin at the Hokage's antics. He picked up the scroll and left the room first, Sasuke following behind him.

Once outside the building, Itachi turned towards his brother. "I expect you to be ready at the gates tomorrow at dawn. We shall leave and make this mission fast. Needless to say, I'd like to be home before Sakura returns to Konoha."

"Of course, Captain," Sasuke responded sardonically, rolling his eyes. Itachi ignored his brother, turning his attention elsewhere. Sasuke followed the direction of Itachi's eyes to see his genin team approaching them. He straightened up, stopping to talk to the three. After all, they rarely sought him out (usually, they went for Sakura, considering she was far nicer out of the two of them). Fuuka, Hideyo, and Akihiko stopped before him, frowning in thought.

"Sasuke-sensei," Fuuka began, oddly hesitant, "we've been working on our teamwork like Sakura-sensei told us to, but…"

"We're still having problems. Can you help us train?" Hideyo finished. Sasuke gazed up at the sky taking into account how much time he had left in the day and how much time he needed to prepare for his mission. He figured he had enough time to spend a few hours with his team. After all, they were going to be participating in their first Chuunin Exams within two months. And he absolutely would not allow any of his team to fail. That was completely unacceptable—it would make him look like a failure as a sensei, and Sasuke Uchiha never failed.

That made his mind up. He still had enough time to give them one last impromptu training session. "Yes. I will only be able to train for a few hours, though, because I have a mission in the morning." The team nodded, breaking out into smiles. Itachi, who had been watching the interaction silently, turned to Sasuke.

"I will help you train with them," he finally spoke. Sasuke immediately frowned, expecting Itachi's motives to be less than helpful. He assumed his brother was doing this as a way to judge and criticize his teaching methods. Itachi saw this in his brother's expression and shook his head. "Sometimes it is good to have another instructor to help. A new teacher can provide a new perspective that they might not have thought of before. Besides, it can only help them to face an elite shinobi." Sasuke grudgingly agreed, still frowning. His team looked both ecstatic and apprehensive at the extra help.

Their training grounds were empty and Sasuke gestured for his team to form up. He looked at Itachi, raising an eyebrow. Itachi stood across from the team, his pose relaxed.

"Sasuke, watch their movements and look for their weaknesses while I spar with them." Sasuke glowered, disliking how his brother was taking over the training. He was feeling extraordinarily insecure with his brother breathing down his neck—but then he remembered all the times he had wanted his brother to help him train. Maybe this was Itachi's way at making up for their childhood. Sasuke's tense shoulders relaxed at that thought. Itachi noticed, and sent Sasuke a tiny smile, and then turned towards the three genin. "Are you ready?"

"You're Sakura-sensei's boyfriend, right?" Fuuka blurted out, chewing on her lip nervously. Itachi blinked, but nodded lightly. "So you're Hajime's father… You're Arata Genji…"

"Yes. We've met before," Itachi replied, giving a polite smile. However, the three seemed suddenly petrified at the thought of going against him.

"You're Naruto-sama's personal guard. You're an ANBU. We don't stand a chance… Sakura-sensei can't even beat you…" Akihiko remarked, swallowing hard.

Itachi sighed, shaking his head. "Your goal is not to defeat me. Your goal is to perfect your teamwork and to try and predict your opponent's movements. I outrank you; however, as shinobi, you will often find yourselves fighting an enemy that is far stronger than you. Sometimes the goal is not to win or defeat your enemy, but to simply survive and escape. You cannot accomplish this without calmly evaluating your enemy." The three gave a hesitant nod, clearly nervous, but they lowered themselves into fighting positions. Itachi asked them again if they were ready; this time, they nodded.

Itachi moved first, vanishing out of sight. His speed was incredible. Fuuka panicked, automatically throwing her arms up to guard her face. Hideyo tackled her to the side, being the one to expect Itachi to attack her. Akihiko used the time to try and execute a jutsu against Itachi. However, the skilled shinobi appeared in front of the Akihiko, swiftly bringing his kunai down in what would usually be a killing strike. Akihiko's pupils dilated at the blade grazing against his jugular.

Fuuka, having recovered her senses, attacked Itachi with a kunai, deflecting his kunai to the side. She was the fastest out of the bunch; even Itachi was decently surprised at her speed. However, he wasted no time in knocking the blade out of her hands and kicking her to the ground. Hideyo and Akihiko attacked from both sides, trying to distract Itachi's attention.

He allowed himself to be "distracted", whirling around and kicking Hideyo in the chest, then ducking Akihiko's fist. He grabbed the boy's leg, tossing him into Hideyo. Fuuka rose up, trying to regain Itachi's attention. He kneed her in the stomach, the force practically knocking her unconscious, then grabbed her shoulders and threw her away from him. Fuuka rolled across the ground several times, gasping for breath.

Hideyo and Akihiko had struggled to their feet, both panting. However, they seemed to have formed some sort of plan as Hideyo's hands glowed with a chakra scalpel (Itachi gave a mental grin, the move reminding him of Sakura) while Akihiko began to form seals for a jutsu. Itachi immediately recognized the Earth Style hand signs and, while he did know some Lightning Style jutsu that would be able to disable their moves, decided to counter with his own jutsu. Flaming shuriken flew from his mouth, and for once, the team did not freeze in surprise. Immediately Fuuka leapt to her feet, throwing an array of shuriken and kunai to deflect Itachi's projectiles.

While she was able to deflect several of his shuriken, she could not stop all of them. Hideyo, however, used his chakra blades to knock the rest of them away from Akihiko. This gave Akihiko enough time to finish his jutsu. Slamming his hands to the ground, he turned the ground into mud. Itachi nimbly dodged the jutsu, practically flying into the air. Yet, once more, the team had surprised him. They had thought out their moves and finally seemed to be thinking one step ahead. Fuuka was flung upwards by Hideyo's chakra-enhanced strength (a technique that seemed to leave him winded) and a Chidori sizzled in Fuuka's hand as she came spiraling towards him. He glanced down at Sasuke, giving his brother a nonplussed look for teaching his student the jutsu. Sasuke smirked in response.

If the team were fighting against other genin, the combo would surely be effective. But Itachi was no genin and was able to nimbly avoid the jutsu, twisting his body in mid-air. At the same time, he turned far enough to kick Fuuka in the back, sending her spiraling to the ground. The Chidori crackled and fizzled out of existence as she plummeted downwards. Akihiko managed to break her fall, catching her limp form. Hideyo knelt down, trying to concentrate and heal her. Akihiko was left to defend the two.

Itachi landed on both feet gracefully, gazing calmly at the panting and weakened team. He brushed a strand of hair away from his face; that was the last move Akihiko registered before Itachi was in front of his face, a kunai gently sliding against his cheek. Immediately, the boy broke out into a cold sweat, though he locked eyes with Itachi fearlessly. His jaw was clenched and Itachi could see him swallow hard.

He closed his eyes and attacked the older man, trying to push his kunai away. Itachi retaliated and stabbed the boy (shallowly, barely sinking the blade in) in his shoulder, making sure not to hit any serious muscle. His eyes glazed over in pain as he staggered a few steps, finally falling to his feet. Itachi was relentless, though, and wanted to give them the feeling that everything was hopeless. It would be the best strategy to make them work together and get creative in trying to defeat him. He quickly kicked Akihiko across the field, knowing he had to have bruised a rib or two in the boy. Akihiko groaned weakly, curling his fingers around his sides, holding his ribs.

By this point, though, Fuuka and Hideyo were back on their feet. Both looked weary, but glancing at their other teammate, Fuuka nodded for Hideyo to go and heal Akihiko. She was left to face Itachi alone. She charged at Itachi, drawing a kunai. Even without his Sharingan activated, Itachi could still see the light glinting off the strings tied around the edges of her kunai. He knew what she was planning and waited for her to try the attack. As he expected, she began to toss kunai around him, all of which he easily avoided. The kunai, though, seemed to have some sort of chakra implanted within them causing them to return to her hands. She continued to toss the kunai around and around him, finally smirking when the four kunai were back at her side.

With a few hand signs, she sent electrical charges surging through the lines. If he hadn't expected the move (after all, it was clearly a move from Sasuke), it would have been devastating. However, he had made sure to stay out of the wires and once the jutsu started, it was a simple task to cut one wire and slip away from the electrical cage she had created. Itachi was impressed with the ability she had with her elemental jutsu—most genin were not so skilled with an element—but it was not enough to save her.

Itachi rushed towards her, kicking her up into the air, then appearing above her and kicking her back into the ground. Fuuka landed with a rough crunch, groaning. Her teammates stumbled to her side, trying to protect her. Akihiko was pale and sweating from pain. Hideyo had been able to heal the stab wound, but not fix his teammate's injured ribs completely. The amount of healing had seemed to take its own toll on Hideyo. He was breathing heavily, his chakra blades flickering and wavering with weak chakra. Fuuka was struggling to get back to her feet, though with the way her legs were trembling, she would not be standing long. This fight was nearly over.

The three looked at each other, seemingly wanting to make one last stand. All three began a series of hand seals. Itachi knew he would easily be able to stop them from their jutsu, but decided he wanted to see what their final jutsu would be. So he waited, watching them carefully. The seals were not something he recognized, so he could only assume that the team had created their own jutsu. That was usually pretty something dangerous—but he was confident enough in his and Sasuke's abilities that they would prevent any sort of damage caused by a faulty jutsu.

Sure enough, they had created a new jutsu. Akihiko was the first to finish, aiming his hands in a triangle shape as he focused on Itachi. An Earth Style jutsu formed in the triangle, brown mud gathering into a tiny ball that steadily grew larger with each passing second. He continued to focus, while Fuuka seemed to begin the next phase of their jutsu. Electricity gathered at her fingertips, making them glow a pale blue. Finally, Hideyo seemed to be the spark they needed. His jutsu was clearly a genjutsu of some sort. Curiosity getting the best of him, Itachi let himself be lulled into the illusion.

It was carefully weaved, made to look as if their jutsu was failing and had backfired on them. Now understanding what the purpose of their jutsu was, Itachi dispelled the genjutsu, watching as the three finally combined their attacks. Akihiko sent his earthball flying towards him, with Fuuka shooting the electricity out of her fingertips like long threads, weaving around the ball. Hideyo seemed to be following up behind them with his chakra scalpels.

In all honesty, it was an impressive technique. If the genjutsu succeeded, there would be no way that any other team could deflect the other blows. The three shinobi would hit their targets in succession, easily defeating their opponents. However, if the genjutsu didn't work, then the move was simply a waste of chakra. In this case, it was a waste of chakra. Itachi dodged the earth ball and electric threads, quickly appearing behind Hideyo and disabling the medic. Hideyo fell to the ground with a thump, unconscious. As Itachi went to simultaneous knock Akihiko and Fuuka out, he was again surprised to see that their jutsu had other tricks attached to it. The earth ball did not stay on one path, but instead, the electric strings seemed to control it and allow it to swing around towards the target.

Using this fact to his advantage, Itachi led the jutsu towards the two kids. They were too focused to realize what he was doing and once they realized, it was too late. Their jutsu made contact, blowing both of them back into the ground. As the dust settled, Itachi had appeared back at Sasuke's side.

"They are much more skilled than I expected. They have quite an array of jutsu and techniques."

"We try to keep them well-rounded," Sasuke replied. They waited for all three to regain consciousness; it took quite a few minutes, but Sasuke and Itachi passed the time by discussing what the other had noticed during the fight. Finally, the three genin stumbled in front of them, all leaning on one another. Sasuke nodded at them, sizing each one up in his mind. Itachi's face was carefully blank, as always.

"I'll start with each person and then move on to teamwork. Arata will make his own comments after I do." Sasuke's piercing black eyes focused on Akihiko. "Your jutsus are powerful; your reaction time is good; and you have a good endurance and stamina. However, your hand signs are too slow and too easy to read; you leave yourself open when you're performing any jutsu; and you don't plan quickly enough or plan far enough ahead." Sasuke turned to Fuuka next.

"You're speed is fairly exceptional for your age and rank. Your Electric Element jutsu is powerful and you have an array of techniques. You also are able to plan enough to try and trap your opponent. However, you are quick to panic in any situation; you are limited to solely electric jutsu, so if you were to face a Wind Element user, your jutsu would be useless; and your other skills are poorly lacking." His eyes shifted to Hideyo.

"You were the one to make most of the plans, which were all decent. Your medical ninjutsu is extremely valuable as you were able to keep your teammates conscious. Your genjutsu ability is above average, as well. However, you lack speed and dodging ability—skills that are essential for a medic. You were also not able to place your genjutsu on undetected. Finally, you do not have enough chakra reserves to do multiple healings and still fight. You strain yourself quickly." All three nodded, while Sasuke turned his gaze towards Itachi. He said nothing. Sasuke frowned lightly, but turned his focus back to his team.

"As for your teamwork, it has greatly improved. However, you three still have a tendency to either attack one at a time, or two at a time. You need to coordinate your attacks with each other and attack at the same time. Furthermore, your team jutsu needs desperate work. It leaves all of you open to attack and it takes too long to execute, besides the fact that it's very obvious as to what you're doing. All of you have unique skills that can be highly useful if executed properly. Fuuka, your Electric Element jutsus are what you are best at. Hideyo, your medical scalpels and genjutsu are also your best techniques. Akihiko, you are very well-rounded and able to defend and attack. You three should plan a way to coordinate your techniques in such a way to use your strengths to your advantage, while trying to compensate for your weaknesses."

"How do we do that, though, Sasuke-sensei?" Akihiko asked, frowning in contemplation.

"I may be able to help," Itachi interjected before Sasuke could open his mouth. "Sasuke and I will demonstrate some jutsu to help you, and give you exact pointers on how to arrange yourselves in your teams. We can also show you an example of wordless teamwork—though, in all honesty, the best team in the entire village is Team Seven. So you should probably ask Sakura and Sasuke to demonstrate their team dynamics at some point. But, I am willing to teach you some jutsu that you may find useful." All of them nodded, eager to learn more from the ANBU member.

They worked for hours with the team. It was well after sunset when Sasuke finally called it quits and told his team to go home and rest. However, their progress was astounding. The three had been extremely attentive and responsive to the new jutsus. Itachi had aided Fuuka in manipulating her weapons with chakra strings, while keeping her speed fast and aim accurate. Sasuke had helped her manipulate her electric chakra into nets and thinner wires, able to shoot off tiny sparks of electricity up to a five centimeter range.

For Akihiko, Itachi had given him pointers on his taijutsu, teaching him several new combos. He had also taught him speed up his hand signs so that it would be difficult reading the signs without any sort of eye jutsu or bloodline limit, assuming that Akihiko continued to practice. Sasuke had also helped Akihiko increase his speed and reaction time, and instructed him on how to execute jutsu without leaving himself defenseless and in the open.

As for Hideyo, since neither man could use medical ninjutsu for offensive purposes, they focused on Hideyo's other skills. Itachi aided him in creating different genjutsu and taught him how to execute them faster, without dropping his guard. He even taught him how to cause a person to enter into a genjutsu with a single touch and no hand seals, though it was a relatively simple genjutsu. Sasuke and Itachi also focused heavily on increasing his speed, flexibility, dodging skills, and reaction time.

Finally, they aided the team by helping them communicate with each other without the need for words. They showed them how to stand and defend one another when one of their members was performing a jutsu; how to defend Hideyo and his patient, should one of them be injured; how to execute their team jutsu faster and not out in the open; and finally, taught them several taijutsu combos to perform all together. When the extra-long training session had ended, all three genin were barely able to stand on their feet. They were drained of chakra, covered in bruises, and had cramped muscles. Sasuke told all of them to go home and rest; he told them the next training session would take place once Sakura returned home and until then, they were to practice everything they had been taught. As one last assignment, Sasuke told them to go to the library and study tactics and make mock plans and situations to help them improve on thinking on their feet and their planning ability.

With the genin gone, Sasuke and Itachi both made their way back to the Uchiha Compound. Sasuke was the first to start the conversation, asking Itachi: "Have you ever thought about taking on a genin team?" Itachi shook his head, frowning lightly.

"Not at the moment. I often feel that my skills are more useful elsewhere. However, since I do have a son now, maybe it would be a smarter and safer choice to reduce the number of dangerous missions I partake in. I have no desire to leave Sakura a single mother."

"If either of you were to die, who is supposed to take care of your son?"

"Despite the fact that you are not Hajime's godfather, direct care would fall to you. Being a master of the Sharingan, you would have to train him when he became of age. If you were to die, the responsibility falls to Naruto. After that, I believe Sakura has arranged for Ino to raise him, while Kakashi would train him. This is the way it would be for all our children. And you?"

"The same. You and Sakura would get care of my children, and then Naruto. After that… I suppose Kakashi." There was a grim twist to Sasuke's face as he pondered the idea of Kakashi raising his children. He clearly did not like to picture it. "Well, this is where we split. I've got to get everything together for the mission tomorrow."

"Of course. Good night, Sasuke."

"Good night, nii-san." The use of the familiar title that Sasuke had called him as a child drew a small smile to Itachi's face. Before they could turn completely away, Itachi poked Sasuke's forehead with two fingers, his grin growing as Sasuke pouted and rubbed his forehead. The two brothers split ways, heading towards their separate homes in the deathly quiet Uchiha Compound. However, despite the fact that the Uchiha Compound's stifling silence typically disturbed Itachi, he did not feel that way on this night.

For once, as he walked, he kept his small smile. If he closed his eyes, he could practically feel the past, happy times at his fingertips in this place. He could remember the warm, comforting smells, the cheerful voices and greetings, the bustling activity. He could almost hear Shisui's grinning voice as he flickered into existence directly in front of Itachi, demanding to know his cousin's newest mission. He could almost smell his mother's delectable food, waiting for him as he stepped through the threshold of his door. He could practically taste the steaming green tea she always made specifically for him, to help relax his aching muscles. He could nearly see his younger brother barreling towards him, throwing himself around Itachi's waist. He could virtually feel his family beside him—Sasuke gripping his hand and dragging him towards the table; his mother brushing back his bangs while asking how his latest mission went; his father's hand on his shoulder as he nodded in approval at the sight of no injuries on his son's person; and Shisui's fingers clasping around the back of his shirt, tugging for him to come closer so Shisui could whisper some dirty joke into his ear.

It all seemed so close, so real, that when Itachi slid open the door to Shisui's old house and saw none of that, he felt as if he had just had cold water splashed on him, waking him from a deep sleep. Closing the door behind him, Itachi padded into the house, desperately wishing for Sakura to return home quickly. He needed her bubbly personality to warm this place and help him forget the tantalizing views of the past; to help him forget the sins he had committed.

Sakura opened the bedroom door, grinning when she saw the red-haired Kazekage standing outside in the hallway. He looked rather tired, but he greeted her with a small smile and a polite hello. Sakura returned his sentiments, asking if he would like to come in. Sai was already in the room, sitting on her bed with Hajime, staring confusedly at the baby. Gaara acquiesced, seemingly feeling slightly awkward about being in the bedroom with her, but walked in, standing across from her bed.

"What's up?" she asked him, settling down on the bed next to Sai. He withdrew a scroll, handing it to her.

"I'd appreciate it if you could read over this scroll before tomorrow. This is the new drafted version of our treaty with Konoha. Tomorrow, we'll speak over all the terms and come to a concrete agreement. It'd be better, though, if you had a good idea of what things you want to keep in this proposal, and which things you'd like to change." Sakura nodded, opening the scroll and scanning over the words.

"This looks a thousand times better than the previous treaty."

"I thought you would say that," Gaara gave a small smile. "Tomorrow, we'll be in meetings all day, though. I would appreciate it if you could come to my office by seven-thirty. I'd like to discuss everything with you beforehand so that we are on the same page. It'll be better that way when we face the elders."

"Of course. May I bring my son with me?" She could see the twitch of hesitation flicker on Gaara's face. "He's very quiet," Sakura continued. Part of the reason she had even brought her son was to play on the emotional strings of the Sand elders.

"As long as you can keep him quiet, it is acceptable." Gaara paused for a second before asking a hesitant question: "…He is Itachi's son, yes?" Sai's eyes widened in surprise at hearing Gaara speak about the true identity of Hajime's father. Sakura smiled lightly, nodding. "Of course, that is not something publicly known, is it?" Sakura shook her head, a cloud of emotion sparking in her eyes. Both Sai and Gaara noted her hardened expression. Her lips thinned as she opened her mouth to explain something, but hesitated, frowning.

"Those who need to know who Hajime's father is, know. Everyone else is under the impression that it is Arata. Of course…" she stopped, biting her lip.

"Eventually, they will realize that it cannot be the case," Gaara supplied, looking down at the infant. Hajime was awake, his black eyes gazing restlessly around the room. Though Gaara had not been able to get a close look at the famed Itachi Uchiha during the few times they had met (typically, he was always in his alter-ego disguise), he could tell from the baby's eyes that he had inherited his father's legendary gaze. There was something in the obsidian orbs of the child that screamed "prodigy". They were the same black Uchiha eyes that would eventually bleed crimson, thus illustrating his true birthright.

Sakura spoke softly, "You are correct." Her finger slipped into Hajime's hand, which immediately curled around the digit. "Soon enough, he will activate his Sharingan and then there will be no hiding the truth that he is an Uchiha." The same tightness of Sakura's face was present again as she looked down at her son. She could only wonder which parent was doing the wrong thing at the moment. Was she wrong for wishing for her son to be able to embrace his heritage without shame, to be raised without any doubt that he was the heir to the prestigious Uchiha Clan? Or was Itachi wrong for wanting to spare his child the unbearable fate of being raised as an Uchiha, for wanting to keep his child from being associated with the clan of hate and lies and blood? Sakura was trying to prevent all of their reputations from being ruined before Hajime activated his Sharingan. Once that happened, everyone would automatically assume that she had slept with Sasuke. Their reputation—hers, Sasuke's, Itachi's, even Naruto's—would be damaged. And her son would be teased for being a love child and a bastard child and…—she couldn't let Hajime face that sort of bullying.

But Itachi was always five steps ahead of everyone. He had already thought of this, she knew, and was withholding his identity for some other purpose that he was refusing to tell her. Maybe it was because of the other Kages. Or maybe it was due to his previous association in Akatsuki. It could even be because he knew his son might be mistreated because, even if everyone knew that Itachi killed his clan under orders from the village, it didn't change the fact that he had slaughtered his entire clan. Hajime could still be ostracized for that.

"In due time," Gaara began softly, staring down at the boy, "everything will work out. With your son, with Itachi, and with this jutsu trade. I have learned that no matter the situation, there is a solution at the end. It may be brought about with pain and hardships, but it is well worth it at the end." Sakura frowned, wondering about Gaara's words. Sure, he was right, but the way he reduced everything to such simple terms didn't make it any easier to stomach.

Of course, Gaara had lived a much harder life than she could even imagine. From being so severely hated and neglected as a child, to being raised as a blood-thirsty killer and weapon as a teen, to eventually rising to the ranks of the Kazekage in three short years, then having his one-tailed beast ripped out of him in an excruciating process that led to his death, to eventually becoming Regimental Commander of the Allied Shinobi Forces, and again nearly dying at the hands of Madara Uchiha during the war… He had fought, and lived through, his share of hardships. And he was the same age as her. But he had lived through so much more than she could even begin to imagine.

Maybe she did have something to learn from the red-haired Kazekage. His words did hold depth and meaning in them. Gaara was right. Her situation would eventually turn around, some conclusion would be drawn with her child, she would have some closure with the entire situation between her and Itachi—it was all a matter of waiting and going through whatever was to come. Sakura could handle that, though. She could bear it all if it meant giving Itachi a fulfilling and happy life. Wasn't that her original goal when she revived him? A second chance? She still had that goal, and she had promised so long ago that she would never force him to reveal his true identity if he didn't want to.

Matters were slightly more complicated now that they had a child in the mix, but the general principle stayed true. She would never make him to reveal what he didn't want to. Sakura had to remain true to her word.

"You're right," she softly spoke, smiling at Gaara. "Yes, you're right. Everything will work out in the end. No use fretting about it when there are more pressing issues to attend to. After all, it'll be quite a few years before Hajime ever activates his Sharingan." She withdrew her finger from her child's hand and turned to Gaara, causing him to turn to her and give her his full attention. "About this jutsu trade, when would you like to discuss that? I have quite a bit of information from the Hidden Leaf surrounding the criminal activity." Gaara nodded.

"If you would like, I will take your scroll for now and begin to compile it into one solid document. We will not discuss the jutsu trade, though, until we have worked out our treaty with Konoha." She smiled and nodded, withdrawing the scroll from her bag, handing it to Gaara. He nodded gratefully, pocketing it into his vest.

"Remember, seven thirty tomorrow in my office. Have a good night, Sakura." He slipped out of the door, leaving Sai, Sakura, and Hajime alone in silence. Sakura glanced at her partner, who was now gazing at her. His eyes were narrowed and she could feel him thinking something about her. As it was, Sai was the man, besides Itachi, who knew more about her than anyone. They had always been close—in a way that she wasn't with Naruto. Naruto was her best friend, no doubt, but she had a special relationship with Sai. It was possibly based on the idea that no matter what she did, she knew he would always see the truth in her actions. He always saw what she wanted no one else to see.

He was the first one to realize her destructive training habits when she was depressed. He was the one to take her virginity. He was the one to spur her to try and stop Naruto from catching Sasuke when they were younger (she inwardly winced at that, remembering that painfully fake love confession she had made to Naruto afterwards). Sai always saw everything.

"What is it?" Sakura asked, trying to keep the wariness and defensiveness out of her voice. She just had that feeling that he was going to tell her something she was not going to like.

"I've been thinking over this during our journey to Sand, and I believe that you have been pressuring Itachi into revealing his true identity to the village." Sakura visibly flinched, swallowing hard. "Despite the fact that it was agreed upon at the time that you revealed his identity to us that he would have the final choice in whenever he chose to reclaim his former life." She felt her jaw clench and her hands tighten into fists that turned her knuckles white. "I've also been musing over the fact that Itachi was raised in a very strict clan with high moral codes."

"So?" Sakura replied tersely. Sai's eyes flickered towards Hajime and then back at Sakura.

"As a clan heir, especially, he would have been raised to be married before ever having a child. This leads me to the conclusion that he has tried to marry you in the past and you have rejected his proposals. And knowing you as I do, you have every desire and intention to marry him. Meaning the only reason you are refusing his marriage proposals is because you wish to have him reveal his true identity before you wed." She knew she had turned pale, knew that her hands were clenched so tightly that her fingernails were probably going to draw blood soon, knew that the small trembles in her body gave her true thoughts away to Sai.

She tried to deflect the subject, retorting, "How is this any of your business?" No one, not even Sasuke, knew about Sakura rejecting Itachi's marriage proposals. Everyone assumed that they had both agreed not to wed yet because of Itachi, not her.

Sai shrugged, leaning back against her pillows. "It's not. However, as I have done in the past, I will point out something if you're causing pain to another person. Much like Naruto's promise to you that caused him so much pain, this is very similar. If you're not careful, you'll drive him away. No man is infinitely patient." Sakura looked down, having no words to defend herself. Sai was, of course, right. But the last time she had tried to fix these sorts of problems, she just made it worse.

"…I'll think about it," Sakura finally said, running her hands through her hair. "I… I can't just abandon my reasons so quickly. I want to marry him, but I want to make sure our son is raised in a healthy environment without constant lies. Lies grate on a person and I don't want that with my son." Sai nodded, standing from the bed.

She looked up at him, looking quite worn around the edges. Sai sighed quietly, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder. "It is between you and Itachi. You two will have to talk about it soon enough. But now that you're living in the Uchiha Compound, maybe it'll become easier for him to embrace his past identity, and maybe it'll be easier for you to embrace the pain he's trying to ease himself from. Give him time, Sakura. He has his own share of problems to work out and, speaking from experience from being a former Root member, it takes time to adapt to a new lifestyle." She nodded.

"Right. Yeah. You're right." Knowing he had left her with enough to think about for the night, he nodded his farewell to her, and then slipped out of the room with a quiet "goodnight". Sakura was too lost in her thoughts to properly respond. Instead, she cuddled up to Hajime, rocking the baby to sleep. Knowing she would get a mostly sleepless night, she read over the Konoha-Suna treaty and tried to escape from her thoughts on Itachi and his proposals and the future of her son.

They both scanned the area, one pair of bright crimson eyes and one pair of seemingly glowing purple-blue eyes. One hand silently rose and gestured to a point far in the distance. The blue eyes narrowed on the building being pointed at, finally nodding. Both men jumped from their perches on the tree, going separate directions without any need for communication.

It took about four minutes for both to reach the building; it took another three for them to take out the guards on their respective sides, and two more minutes for them to meet each other after carefully examining their sides of the building.

Again, no words were necessary as both brothers slid into the stone building, warily gliding through the hallways, alert and tense for any type of movement. The few guards they met were swiftly knocked out silently, and the two continued as if shadows. They avoided all traps, thanks to their eyes, and when they finally found a hallway filled with nothing but locked doors, they knew this was probably where all the information they were looking for was stored.

They split ways to investigate each side of the hallway. It took a few minutes and several doors before one of them found something worthwhile.

"Sasuke, come here," Itachi called, holding several folders in one hand. "I have information." He handed the folders to Sasuke, who opened one folder and began scanning over the papers. Every sheet of paper had nothing except coordinates and cities listed, with small numbers beside them. It took him a few seconds to realize that the small numbers were how many members of the jutsu trade group were stationed in that area. But they now knew exactly where all of the group's bases were located. The second folder had lists of jutsus with areas of where to obtain the forbidden techniques. Some were crossed off the list and others had small notes written beside them, like: "Destroyed", or "Lost".

"No member or spy information, though?" Sasuke asked his older brother. Itachi shook his head, having already examined all the other files in the room.

"Still, this information is relevant enough to warrant a visit to Sand to report it to the Kazekage." Itachi looked at Sasuke, frowning. "You should, however, go to Konoha. Your presence is still not widely accepted, especially in Sand. They still remember your past actions rather vividly." Sasuke frowned, but nodded. "You will report to Naruto and I will report to Gaara. Now, we will finish searching the rest of these rooms and the base and report anything else we find." It was about twenty minutes later when they reconvened. Neither had found anything else of importance, which both decided was strange. As they exited the base quietly, the two talked in low voices as they dashed through the trees. Despite the high winds rushing past their ears, they were still able to make out what the other person was saying with little difficulty.

"Didn't you find it odd that there were very few guards in that building?" Sasuke asked his brother, frowning. Itachi nodded, having been mulling over that very fact since he had entered the building. "I don't understand what's going on. It seems too easy to have just gotten this information, and then enter into a base that was practically empty, but yet… this was the only information we could find. This is rather priceless at that, but it was so… easily found." Itachi nodded, having already come to the same conclusion Sasuke was drawing. "So… it means that this was staged. They wanted us to find their bases."

"That is what I have concluded," Itachi responded. Sasuke frowned, staring hard into the distance.

"…But why?" Sasuke asked. "Do they want something that we have? Are they trying to lead us somewhere and trap us?"

"Very plausible. It could also be fake information. Or it could be a way to evaluate what we know." Both men fell silent, going over every angle and reason for the easily accessed information. Neither was satisfied with their thoughts, nor the reasons for their enemies leaving behind the critical information. As night fell and the two continued their trek towards Sand and Leaf, they knew that whatever this group was planning, it would not bode well for them.

"…cannot imagine why our allies would disapprove of such a condition. It is surely the best for both of our villages!" She wasn't even sure what they were talking about anymore. Was this about the exorbitant fee they wanted Konoha to pay; the request to have two of Konoha's secret jutsus; or the one where they wanted personal training from the Hokage? Whatever it was, it was ridiculous.

Sakura groaned, letting her head fall against the table. The Suna elders paid her no mind and continued to bicker, slowly drawing the ire of their leader. She knew it would be a few more seconds until Gaara exploded.

Four… three… two… one…

"Enough!" A strand of sand whipped around the table, rubbing roughly enough against the back of the elders heads to give them a warning. They all fell silent, turning their gazes towards their Kazekage. Gaara, despite his angered tone, looked relatively bored and annoyed—not murderous. "We have already gotten more than our fair share from Konoha. Sakura has expressed what terms the Hidden Leaf is willing to work out with our village, and the terms are more than beneficial to us. To refuse would be foolish. We can also agree to the desires of the Leaf. They are our strongest ally, much as we are theirs, and to do anything to stress that relationship is putting us at a disadvantage. There are many villages salivating at the chance to get on Naruto's good side and be his right-hand ally. He has chosen us. We have chosen him. Let us not forget the bond our villages share." Sakura smiled, perking up at Gaara's speech.

Grinning, she clapped her hands together, drawing all of the attention back to her. "Gaara is right! Leaf values the relationship with the Hidden Sand more than any other village. You ask any Konoha shinobi who they would like to be beside them on the battlefield, nine out of ten will always answer with Sand. We want our relationship to remain strong and little disagreements about this stuff in the treaty won't do that relationship any favors. I can't make too many more concessions without putting the entire treaty in danger of not getting approved by my village. So let's agree on adjusting the shared shinobi patrols and…" Sakura stood up, leaning over the table to point at the treaty, as she continued to speak. The surrounding council listened intently as Sakura mustered every ounce of diplomatic ability she had to try and convince them to sign the stupid treaty she had been working on for over a week.

Having Hajime with her had worked. She had received many concessions rather easily—many things that related to aid to the village and receiving refugees and help with food in times of crisis—without having to give Suna too many rare jutsus or promises to send their strongest shinobi to train Suna shinobi (at one point, they had demanded she stay at their hospital and whip it into shape; another time, they wanted the Copy Ninja to teach jutsus to their Academy students; a final request was to send in one of the Hyuugas to stay in their village) in return. The council men had almost melted when they first saw Hajime. Gradually, though, his charm wore off, and now, with the treaty in its final stages, it was no longer necessary to carry her baby around at every moment.

So at the moment, Temari was watching Hajime. She was camping out in Gaara's office, gleefully babysitting the infant. Sakura had almost put Sai in charge of her son, but at seeing the blonde, happily changed her mind and asked the woman to watch her baby. Sakura did love Sai and trusted the man with her life; however, she hardly trusted his babysitting skills. It seemed much more probable that the older sibling of two troublesome little brothers would have far more experience in watching a child than an emotionally stunted, ex-Root ANBU member.

As she finished her last point, Sakura leaned back from the treaty, watching the elders mull over her words. Gaara leaned back in his seat, locking eyes with her. He nodded slightly, confirming that he would approve the treaty if his council would. After a few moments of intense discussion in loud whispers, the seven Sand elders finally looked up and met Sakura's eyes.

"We are willing to agree to your conditions." Those eight words felt like music to her ears. Sakura almost sagged in relief. Finally. After nine days, they had finally come to a consensus. She could finally send the treaty home to get Naruto to look over it and approve it. Then once he sent back his reply, she could share the message with Gaara. And then, then, she could go home. Once Gaara and Naruto confirmed the treaty, they would have to have an official meeting to sign it together and shake hands and all those other formalities. But the hard work was now over. The treaty was made and ready to go.

…Unless, of course, Naruto decided that he didn't like something in the treaty. Then she would be stuck here for who knows how long as she tried to haggle with the Sand council again.

"Are you all in agreement?" Gaara asked, leaning his cheek on his hand. Sometimes, his mannerisms reminded her so much like Naruto. The red-head was in the same position that Naruto always took when he was bored with meetings. The two were so similar in some ways, it was scary.

"Yes, Kazekage-sama," his elders chorused. Gaara nodded, finally straightening up. He used his sand to pull the treaty into his hand. Quickly, he signed his name at the bottom, rolled the treaty up, and handed it over to Sakura. She nodded, knowing that he was entrusting her to code the treaty so that no one would understand it, should the carrier be intercepted, and then to safely get it to Naruto.

Of course, that would be an easy task for her. She would implant the coded scroll into one of her slug summons, and then borrow one of Itachi's summons to transport the slug to Konoha. Itachi hadn't exactly given her complete control over his crow summons, but he had given her permission to summon them and use them when necessary. The crows were all ordered to listen to her, though they always reported back to Itachi with whatever her command was. She couldn't really use them to fight, but they were amazing recon units and messengers. Granted, he had only given her permission to use his smaller crows. And only three max at a time.

He had permission to use her slug summons, though, too. He couldn't summon the full, huge form of Katsuyu, but her tiny slug forms were accessible to him. He could use them to heal or to transport things and communicate with her and Tsunade.

"With that, this meeting is dismissed. Sakura-san, before you go to code that scroll, I'd like to talk to you about other matters." The rest of the council filed out of the room, leaving Gaara and Sakura alone. From underneath his robes, he withdrew another scroll, laying it out on the table.

"This is the compilation of information from all of the other villages about that jutsu trade organization. You gave me your information, which has been added to this scroll. This specific scroll is for you to take back to the village. However, I figured you would like to look over everything and tell me what you think." Sakura smiled, nodding and leaning over to look at the scroll. As she was reading, a messenger knocked on the door. Gaara sighed, standing to take care of it, while Sakura continued to read.

From the doorway, she could hear the messenger say, "Sorry to interrupt, Kazekage-sama, however, we have an ANBU from the Hidden Leaf. He says he has important information that had to be delivered to you immediately." Sakura perked up, looking up curiously. It wasn't very often that Naruto sent ANBU members to Gaara. Something had to have happened. Her pulse began to race as she hoped that nothing had happened to her village.

"Send him in," Gaara replied, his face becoming stony. He had also realized the oddity of the situation and knew whatever the message was, it would not be good for them. Sakura closed her eyes, checking her chakra bond with Itachi, hoping that he was not injured. She could usually tell if he was fighting. Of course, since Itachi had been revived for almost three years, she was not nearly as sensitive to the chakra link as she once had been. The little inflections of chakra she had used to feel had become so diluted and common place that she no longer recognized them unless straining to feel them.

Sakura's eyes snapped open as she realized that she could sense Itachi easier than usual. And then, seeing that familiar porcelain mask appear in the doorway—well, she could have sworn her heart jumped into her throat. Why on earth was Itachi here? Had something horrible happened? She bit her lip, rushing around the table to meet him, but stopped short, letting Gaara and Itachi talk. Technically, Gaara didn't know who he was.

"Kazekage-sama," Itachi greeted, bowing. Gaara nodded back. "I was sent on a mission to investigate a lead we received with the jutsu trade. I have acquired information and Hokage-sama ordered me to report to you first before returning home because you are compiling a scroll with all of the information to send out to all of the other villages."

"That is correct. Actually, we are currently discussing the information that all of the villages have received. Please, join us. I am sure you know Sakura-san." She met Itachi's eyes and smiled, feeling her cheeks heat up at seeing him.

"Very well," Itachi responded. She was sure he was smiling underneath her mask. Gaara nodded, still unaware of the ANBU member's true identity. Itachi unrolled the scroll containing his information, letting Gaara read over it, as Sakura continued to read over the other scroll. Gently, Itachi placed a hand on her lower back, trailing his fingers underneath the hem of her shirt. She shivered and smiled up at him, looking back down at her scroll when he removed his hand.

They remained silent for several minutes, until Gaara finished reading over Itachi's information. "This is quite new information. While we have discovered several of their bases, we do not have such a comprehensive list. Of course, if we cross-check this list with what members they are known to have, we may have several leads as to where the spies are coming from in each village. This may give us the insight into where these people come from."

Sakura ignored their continuing conversation, instead letting her eyes drift down towards the bottom of the scroll. She saw several names and brief descriptions of the shinobi supposed to be in the group. As she read the short list of names of members known, she felt her heart stop. Her mouth went dry as she read and re-read the names. Her eyes flickered to the physical descriptions and though she tried to tell herself that it could just be a coincidence, deep inside, she knew it wasn't.

Her finger came up to trace the familiar letters. Then she closed her eyes, feeling faint. She felt like she would throw up because she just wished this was all a horrible mistake. She hadn't felt something like this since the time she had discovered the truth about the Uchiha Clan Massacre so many years ago.

"Gaara," Sakura called out, interrupting his and Itachi's conversation. Both men turned to her. "In a note, it says that you have pictures of some of these members. Do you have any of these two?" Gaara looked down to where her finger pointed and nodded.

"Surprisingly enough, yes. They were two of the three pictures we were able to get. Apparently, Cloud had a long-term mission involving this group and these were the only two operatives they managed to snag pictures of. Here, the seals to release the pictures are Dragon, Dog, Dog, Ox." Sakura did as he commanded, feeling her hands tremble as a poof sounded, three pictures appearing on the surface of the scroll. One picture she ignored; the other two she picked up, praying with everything in her that what she thought was a horrible, horrible coincidence.

And then she dropped the pictures, turning stark white and wondering where the closest trash can was so that she could vomit.

"Sakura?" Itachi asked her, reaching out to steady her. "What's wrong? Do you know them?" She closed her eyes, painfully nodding. "Who are they?"

She looked down at the pictures, knowing that even if she hadn't seen them in six years, she would recognize them anywhere. Even if they had used slightly different names (her mother's maiden name and their names, just with the letters rearranged), the physical descriptions matched.

Yeah, and the woman still had that bright blonde hair and green eyes, while the man had that faded pink hair and bright blue eyes. They were older, of course, and she could hardly believe that they could be doing something like this, but there was no denying it.

"…They… they're my parents."


I am so sleepy. Editing this chapter was just annoying. It seemed to take forever. Ughh...

I think I had a few things I wanted to talk about in this chapter. Let's see...

1. Gaara seemed, to me at least, that he was like bending over backwards to make sure the treaty would be a good deal for Konoha. I tried to make it clearer as the treaty was talked about more that Gaara was annoyed with the stupid demands his council was making (like wanting Kakashi to come and train their shinobi). Suna got plenty of concessions in the treaty, stuff like getting a medic to come and train their hospital staff (just someone who isn't Sakura), a joint Leaf-Suna shinobi exchange program where both villages send shinobi to train students and other ninja; and there would have been exchanges of jutsus and other information trades. So Suna and Konoha both got good ends in the treaty.

2. Sakura and Sasuke's genin team are kinda powerful. But they are about the same age when Sasuke, Naruto, and Sakura were being trained by the Sannin. So their abilities aren't too farfetched. Hideyo doesn't have as good as chakra control as Sakura does, but he has more chakra reserves than she had. Also, when it says he uses chakra-enhanced strength, it's not the super smashing crater punches that Tsunade and Sakura have, but simply using chakra to boost his strength, so that he can lift Fuuka. It's the same thing Sakura would do when she drags patients around. Also, Itachi decides to help train the kids because he's bored and he doesn't want to return home just yet. Plus he wants to spend time with Sasuke.

I think that's it. If you have questions, just be sure to ask. I'll do my best to respond in a (somewhat) timely manner. I hope.

Next Chapter:

Sakura comes face to face with the truth that her parents have been a part of the jutsu trade. To label them as traitors, she knows will be the end of them. Desperately, she hopes this is all a big mistake. Hajime can't have two sets of traitorous grandparents... at least, she hopes.

Chapter Twenty-Eight: Shadow

I'll try for timelier updates. On another note, before I go, I'd love it if you guys would check out my profile. I have a personal blurb about a guy I met and I'd love some relationship advice about it. I'm really thinking about being extremely honest with him and doing something like, "Yo. I like you, more than just a friend. How do you feel about me, dude?" Not so bluntly, of course. Might try to just work it into a conversation all nonchalantly ("Yeah, I like you. Wanna go see the new Superman movie?") These last two sentences will make much more sense after you read the background story on how I met this guy lol

Gawds, I'm almost 19 and I still can't figure out boys. Help a girl out, would ya? PM me or give me advice in a review; I would appreciate it so much! But even if you don't want to offer any hints, I hope you still enjoyed the chapter! :D Peace out. See you (hopefully) soon!