Chapter Twenty-Two: A Lead to Follow

Naruto kicked off another treetop branch and launched himself forward through the upper layer of the thick forest. He wiped away a layer of sweat that was beginning to form on his brow despite the cold. As they began travelling southeast towards the coast of Kiri, the weather drastically changed from the cool rainy climate of Konoha to freezing winds and falling snow. He didn't much like the cold. It made his nose drip and fingers numb. But right now, he wasn't thinking about the awful weather. There was only one thing that concerned him.


Naruto inhaled sharply. Although his body was exhausted from running, he still pushed himself to go faster. They were getting closer to her, to his teammate. To his dear friend. He couldn't stand the thought of her being apart from him any longer, being used by the Akatsuki. Naruto winced at the thought. Why did they take her? What are they doing to her? If they hurt her-

Naruto felt a wave of chakra as hot as fire spread from his core to his limbs. The Nine-Tail's power.

The blonde Jinchuuriki shook his head, trying to rid himself of his anger and stress. Ever since Sasuke left and Sakura escaped Konoha after being condemned as a criminal, he found that the power of the Kyuubi was seeping through the seal, infecting his thoughts and releasing his violence. These occurrences escalated when the pinkette was taken prisoner by the criminal organization. It seemed that Sakura played a major role in keeping the Kyuubi's power at bay. He wasn't sure why. Maybe it was because she used to always be there for him, comforting him and helping him through difficult times.

But now he felt so alone without his friends. He wondered if they missed him too. Surely, Sakura did. But what about Sasuke? Did he ever feel as if he had made the wrong decision, joining Orochimaru and abandoning Konoha and his teammates? As much as he didn't want to admit it, he believed that Sasuke did prefer leaving Konoha in exchange for the power to kill his brother.

Naruto exhaled a shaky sigh and leapt onto another tree branch. The only thought that was keeping him sane at the moment was their eventual reunion with Sakura. Once she was back home with them, once she was safe, then he would feel better.


Naruto heard a shout far behind him echoing through the forest. He stopped running and crouched on a branch, waiting for his companions to catch up.

Through the darkness of the early morning, he could see a shadowy figure bobbing between the trees, getting closer to him with each passing second. As the person approached, they crouched next to the blonde.

"Don't you think that you are running a little faster than necessary?" Kakashi exhaled, sending a small cloud of white over his masked face.

"Why, are you tired, old man?" Naruto tried to joke, but his voice lacked any hint of amusement. He couldn't even muster a smile.

Kakashi shook his head. "It's not me that you have to worry about. Did you forget that we have a non-ninja companion?" The Jounin spared a glance behind him to find no one there. "He fell behind again. You were going too fast."

"Sorry. I was just… thinking."

Kakashi turned to his former student. Naruto attempted to angle his head away from his teacher so he couldn't see his face. The old man had a talent when it came to reading people's faces. Naruto began to think that he should wear a mask too for that reason.

"You can't hide it," Kakashi said, his voice firm but calm, "I feel the same way. Impatient. Anxious. Angry. But you need to control your emotions."

Kakashi placed a hand on his shoulder, forcing Naruto to turn to his sensei. Naruto knew what he meant. If he let his anger cloud his judgment, then the Nine-Tails could break through again. Not only would he be a danger to his squad, but to Sakura as well.

"We will be with her soon, Naruto. Be strong for Sakura," Kakashi concluded.

Both ninja turned when they heard soft footsteps behind them. A bald man in blue and white robes was below them on the ground, running. Once the man caught sight of the shinobi pair, he stopped and put his hands on his knees, breathing heavily.

"Kuma, how are you holding up?" Kakashi called to the monk below.

Kuma weakly lifted a hand to his perspiring brow, managing a small smile. "I'm… good. Just need… to catch my breath. Will only be… a moment. You ninja run so fast…" he managed to say between gasps of air.

Naruto's fingers twitched restlessly. "We can't wait again. Not now when we are so close," he muttered to Kakashi.

The Jounin shot him a stern look. "I know. This is nerve-wrecking. But Kuma does not have the chakra or stamina that we do. He is the only one that knows a safe route into the hideout, so we have to wait for him to show us the way. Once we safely enter the Akatsuki territory, then we can find a way to rescue Sakura."

The Konoha Jinchuuriki reluctantly nodded. The three of them had been travelling for two days already. They would have been at the Akatsuki hideout by now, but Kuma could not travel at the speed of a ninja, so they were often waiting for him to recover. He was a strong and agile man from his monk training, but he was no shinobi.

"How long until we arrive at the hideout?" Naruto questioned the monk.

"We should be at the underground shrine by the end of the day," Kuma answered, straightening his back. "We can leave now, if you wish. I have recuperated," he replied, but his voice was weary. The man was clearly still exhausted.

"If you say so," Kakashi directed towards Kuma, unconvinced. "Lead the way."

Kuma took off again, his strides long. Naruto had to admit; the man was determined and never complained about anything. He would have made a good ninja. Kakashi followed him above the trees, leaping from branch-to-branch as they had been. Naruto stayed behind for a moment, watching the two run ahead of him.

Naruto pulled the hood of dark cloak he was wearing over his head as a strong wind passed. He turned in the direction of their destination, his expression determined and unwavering.

Hold on, Sakura. We are coming for you.

Sakura groaned. She had slipped away from the blissful unconsciousness and was beginning to wake from her slumber.

Even from behind her closed lids, she could clearly tell that it was morning, but she dared not open her eyes. The pounding headache she was currently experiencing would only be intensified by the blinding light. Her first – and hopefully last – hangover was more troublesome than she anticipated.

For a moment, she just lay still, although she had no idea where she was. She gently moved her limbs, feeling soft cotton slip past her skin. She was resting on a bed, she could tell that much. She prayed that it was the inn that she and Itachi were staying at and not somewhere else. She tried to muster memories from the night before, but the last thing she remembered was making the bet with Saburo at the pub. She couldn't recall how she got to where she was now. The pinkette weakly lifted a hand to her throbbing head, mentally cursing at herself.

How could I be so stupid? I've made a terrible decision. I only made matters worse… for myself and for Itachi. He probably doesn't even know where I am.

Her stomach suddenly felt like it had flipped, instantly making her nauseous. She sat up and clumsily climbed out of the bed, sensing that she was about to hurl. She forced herself to open her eyes, but winced as she was blinded by the sunlight streaming through the window in front of her. Squinting, she could barely see that there was a door at the far wall of the room she was in. She stumbled towards the door, hoping that it was a bathroom.

Just as she was about to reach the door, she tripped on something large on the ground and fell harshly on the wooden floor by her elbows. Ignoring the obstacle that made her fall, she quickly managed to scramble to her feet and enter the room. Luckily, it was a bathroom. She spotted a toilet and leaned over it just before her abdomen involuntarily flexed and she retched.

Sakura gasped for air as the last of the contents in her stomach made it into the toilet, spitting several times as she tried to rid herself of the awful taste. She flushed it and hunched over the toilet for a few minutes as her queasiness began to subside. She briefly wondered if Lady Tsunade ever had a hangover this bad.


The pinkette turned her head to see Itachi standing in the doorway of the bathroom, wearing the clothing that she had bought for him the other day. He looked mildly concerned.

Although she knew that she was in a horrible and embarrassing state, for some reason, she was glad that he was with her.

"Sorry, did I wake you?" she asked, still curled into a ball near the toilet.

"It is hard not to be woken when someone steps on you."

Sakura would have laughed aloud if she didn't feel so crappy. The thing that she had tripped over moments ago was Itachi. He must have been sleeping on the floor while she slept on the bed; a very gentlemanly consideration. Then again, she didn't peg Itachi for being anything less than a gentleman, although a conniving one at that.

"Sorry about that…" she apologized.

"Don't worry, I'm fine. How are you feeling?" he asked her, taking a few steps into the bathroom. His voice was comforting.

"Like shit."

The corners of his mouth lifted slightly at her remark. "I thought as much."

"Did you ever have a hangover like this?" she asked, trying to distract both of them from the awkwardness of this situation.

Itachi smirked – a rare occurrence that she had now witnessed twice – as he recalled. "Once, when I became an ANBU captain several years ago. My best friend stole a bottle of sake and we stupidly decided to drink it to celebrate my promotion. I ended up burning down a bathhouse with fire ninjutsu – don't ask me why, I can't remember. Luckily, no one was hurt and we were never caught. But after that, I swore off alcohol."

Sakura found herself smiling at his story. "Yeah, I think I will swear off alcohol too." She then stood and went to the sink to take a drink from the faucet and wash the bile out of her mouth. She felt Itachi's presence still lingering behind her, watching her.

When she finished taking a drink, she stared at the Uchiha's reflection in the mirror in front of her. "Could you… tell me what happened last night?" she asked quietly, feeling insecure. "Were you there?"

Itachi's expression returned to his usual emotionless mask. "I was searching for you after you left the restaurant and later found you in the tavern, arm-wrestling several men. When I did manage to get your attention…"

Itachi paused for a moment as if to say something else, but he dropped his gaze to the floor, looking slightly… sad. She decided that now was probably not a good time to prod him for answers, though.

"There was a bar fight, and you passed out," he continued, "I had to carry you back here to our suite. You should have heard the receptionist talking about how we were 'the most adorable couple she has ever seen.'" the Uchiha said, rolling his eyes.

Sakura managed a chuckle at his attempt of humor, but then turned gloomy. "I don't remember anything. I'm so sorry, Itachi. It was wrong of me to do that-"

"Sakura. It's okay," the Uchiha interrupted her, his abyss eyes locking with her jade. "No one was harmed. No damage was done. What has happened is in the past. What is important now is that we must continue with our mission."

Sakura nodded. She was relieved that Itachi was being so forgiving. She expected that he would have taken this matter more seriously, scolding her or lecturing her in some way, as he had done in the past. But instead, he tried to comfort her. Had he some change of heart? Did he feel bad for her? Sakura didn't know what happened last night, but something changed him. More specifically, something changed about their relationship with each other. Did she confess something last night? The thought of spilling her secrets to Itachi made her incredibly uneasy. She needed to know.

Suddenly, a shuffling of footsteps was heard outside their suite before someone knocked loudly on the door to their room. Itachi and Sakura turned their attention to the door, their bodies tense. No one they knew of had a reason to be visiting them, especially so early in the morning. This could only mean trouble for them.

"Open the door immediately!" a male shouted from the other side, "We know that you are in there, ninja scum!"

Sakura's eyes widened in surprise. "It's the samurai police force!" she gasped quietly. "What are they doing here?"

But Itachi had already jumped into action, quickly packing their belongings into their travel packs. It seemed that he was expecting the samurai of the village to make their debut. "Let's just say that your actions did not go unnoticed last night," the Uchiha said while throwing Sakura's winter jacket to her.

The pinkette quickly slipped into her coat and grabbed her packed bag from Itachi. The samurai outside attempted to open the door, but it was locked.

"What's the matter, Uchiha? Are you scared that a few samurai will kick your ass?" she quipped.

Itachi threw on his backpack and coat as well before opening the window to their room. "Not really. I do not approve of unnecessary fighting, and I don't want to attract any more attention that we already have."

Sakura shrugged. "Whatever." It was probably best if she didn't fight them anyway, considering it was still likely that she would hurl again.

"Break down the door, men!" the commanding officer barked to his subordinates. The door flexed dangerously as the samurai began to pound the entrance with a large object.

Itachi jumped out of the opened window. Sakura went over to the window and looked down. They were a few stories off the ground, but it was nothing she couldn't handle. She saw Itachi running down the side of the building before landing gracefully on the street below, pedestrians parting in fear when they realized he was a ninja. It appeared that he had most of his chakra back.

The door behind her suddenly gave way and fell to the floor. Six samurai warriors garbed in dark green armor filed into the room.

"There she is!" shouted one of the men, pointing to the pinkette. All of the warriors raised their swords, blades directed towards the kunoichi intruder.

But before any of them could make a move, Sakura mockingly saluted to the samurai men before she jumped out of the window and followed Itachi out of the village.

"I didn't… say anything, did I?"

Itachi's jaw hardened at her question and stuffed his hands in his coat pockets. They were miles away from the village, heading northwest on a small path through a thin forest. White birch trees stuck up from the snow-covered ground like tall twigs. The afternoon sun was high in the sky, slowly melting the snow on the slim tree branches. The scenery was breathtaking, but he could hardly enjoy it.

Ever since they left the village, Sakura had been prodding him for answers about what happened last night at the bar, much to his dismay. He didn't want to discuss about what happened; not about how she confessed her feelings, not about her role in this mission, and certainly not about how she mistook him for Sasuke.

She admitted that she felt like a pawn. Itachi couldn't help but mentally agree with her. He was using her abilities for his benefit, as if she was merely a tool in his plans.

But then she said that she cared for him. Why? He had done nothing but bad things to her. He abducted her, used her, and hurt her both mentally and physically. Yet for some reason, she said that she loved him.

Itachi shook his head at the thought. No, she was talking about Sasuke. She was confessing her feelings to who she thought was her former teammate, not himself. She was not in the right state of mind. There was no way she would have these affectionate feelings for him.

Besides, even if by some chance she was talking about himself, she said that she would force herself to never love again.

… Why was he even concerned if she cared for him at all? It's not like he was in love with her…

"Itachi, did you hear me?"

Sakura, who was walking a few paces behind him, lightly jogged to his side. She had been walking slower, most likely because she was still suffering from the effects of the hangover. Sakura tilted her head to get a better look at his face, but of course, it was expressionless. Although he did indeed feel something, he was better at hiding his emotions, unlike the young pinkette.

The Uchiha inhaled the cold winter air hoping that it would clear his head. "You said a lot of things last night. Be more specific."

Sakura's brow furrowed as she took a moment to rephrase her question. She took a large swig of water from her canteen to rehydrate herself. "Did I say something ridiculous or stupid?"

Maybe if he tried to delay the answer, she would give up. "You were intoxicated, Sakura. Of course you said some ridiculous things."


The pinkette clearly was not going to let the subject drop. "Are you sure that you don't remember anything? Nothing at all?"

"No, I don't. I told you what I remembered. I blacked out before you even arrived! Something must have happened when you found me!" Her voice was rising in impatience with each word she spoke.

Itachi was beginning to become frustrated as well. "If you wanted to remember, then maybe you shouldn't have drunk so much alcohol," he muttered.

Sakura's hands balled into tight fists. "Why the hell are you so uncooperative?!"

Itachi stopped walking and turned to her, his brow arched in rage. "Because-"

He caught himself before he could say anything more. Itachi quickly closed his mouth and continued to stare down at the pink-haired girl. Sakura just glared at him angrily, waiting for an explanation.

Itachi sighed in aggravation. Her stubbornness was going to get them nowhere. He needed to say something. "Why do you want to know what happened yesterday so badly?"

Sakura exhaled as well, releasing some of her anger. "You have been acting… differently lately. Ever since we started this mission, now that I think about it. But this morning, it was apparent. Something must have occurred that changed how you are acting around me. I must have said or done something last night that affected you. Please tell me what happened."

Should he tell her the truth? He didn't want to, but she deserved to know. Besides, wasn't he lying to her enough already? Or would this lie just be another insignificant fib compared to all of the other truths he was hiding from her?

Itachi was silent for a long time, but Sakura waited patiently for him to continue, her jade eyes searching his black.

He gave in. She should know what happened. But he would be selective about the truth. The less she knew the better for his plans. "Very, well. I shall tell you. But you should know that you are too intelligent for your own good," he eventually said, responding to her previous observation.

Sakura smirked at his compliment. "I know."

"Last night," Itachi began walking again, the girl following him. "You mistook me for my brother."

Sakura's face immediately showed her shock and horror as her gaze quickly shifted to the ground. She fell a few steps behind him, deep in thought. Itachi wondered what she was thinking so hard about. Maybe she was trying to remember what happened last night, or maybe he exposed something she would rather forget.

"I'm so sorry," she managed to choke out, her voice strangled. "I didn't mean to do that. I had no idea…" Out of the corner of his eye, he noticed that Sakura suddenly seemed fidgety and nervous as she brought a hand to her face and tugged on a few locks of hair. Itachi found her reaction puzzling. Why was she acting so uneasy at his mention of Sasuke?

"It's okay," Itachi tried to reassure her. The pinkette nodded, but she still seemed upset. Itachi decided that he should question her further. "Why are you so distraught?"

Sakura turned her head away from him. "I don't want to talk about it."

The Uchiha clenched his jaw, not in anger, but in thought. Sakura was usually so open, speaking her mind without a care of what anyone else –including himself – thought about her. Was it because he was Sasuke's brother, destined to battle him to the death in the near future? For some reason, he desperately wanted to know what was going on in her head.

"Sakura," he said, trying to get her attention, but she refused to meet his gaze. "Please, tell me what is bothering you. I won't be offended, I promise."

After a while, the medic kunoichi glanced at him from her peripherals, but her head remained lowered. Itachi gave her a comforting half-smile and her expression became softer. "I… must have said some stupid things last night if I thought you were Sasuke," she admitted, "I was – well, I still am – angry at your brother. I must have been really mad at you yesterday."

"You did try to punch me in the face," Itachi confessed.

Sakura rubbed the back of her neck with a slender hand. "Um… yeah. Honestly, I am not surprised. I guess I should explain."

The pinkette inhaled the cool air before beginning the clarification of her actions. "I don't know what you know about me, but your brother used to be my teammate in the past. I… I was in love with him."

Itachi nodded, but said nothing. He already knew that Sasuke and Sakura were on the same squad as Genin from reading her ninja profile. Yesterday, he learned that Sakura had loved Sasuke before he left Konoha. But he waited for the pinkette to continue speaking, hoping that she would reveal more about how she felt.

Sakura's expression turned gloomy. "But then he left Konoha to train with Orochimaru. I was completely heartbroken. He betrayed his village, his team, and his friends for power. How could someone give up everything meaningful and hurt people for something so worthless?"

Itachi found himself frowning. That all happened because of him. He was the one who told Sasuke to seek power if he ever wanted to avenge the clan. Never would he suspect that his brother would leave everything behind and seek Orochimaru's guidance. "I am to blame for Sasuke's actions," he said, his voice low, "I apologize."

Although her eyes still showed her sadness, Sakura laughed lightly. "I thought that we decided that apologies won't fix the past?"

"Maybe not," Itachi agreed, "But they can make the present more bearable."

Sakura eventually nodded in agreement. The atmosphere around them seemed to change. The bleak forest was exposed to the sun's rays as they penetrated through thick clouds and shined down below them. It seemed… fitting.

Sakura continued with her story, appearing happier than before, despite the subject they were discussing. "I don't know why I even fell for him in the first place. I guess it was because he was a handsome and a skilled ninja. But now I realize what a jerk he was." She quickly put a hand over her mouth, but took a moment to stutter an apology. "Ah! I'm sorry! I didn't mean to say that-"

Itachi waved her off, resisting the urge to laugh at her manner. "It's fine. I admit that the men of our clan tended to be a bit haughty."

The pinkette was still smiling, but he could tell that she wanted to get off the subject of talking about the Uchiha past with the person who murdered the entire clan. Itachi could see that she was uncomfortable.

"Well, after he left," Sakura began speaking again, "I vowed to never love again. To never feel that pain. It's better that way. No one can hurt or manipulate you by using love. Love is a weakness."

Itachi's expression turned serious once again. "I am no romantic, but I'm afraid that I have to disagree," he found himself saying. "Yes, love can sometimes seem like a weakness, but overall, it is the greatest strength."

Sakura turned to him and smirked. "Oh really? And how would the impassive Itachi Uchiha know about love?" she questioned jokingly.

Itachi looked at the ground as he felt a sharp pang in his chest. Past memories flashed in his mind, back to better days that quickly escalated to bloodshed by his hand – memories that haunted his dreams, his nightmares.

Her smile… he could never forget her smile…

Sakura brought him back out of his dark thoughts. "Itachi? Are you okay?" she asked, staring at him with a concerned expression.

Itachi banished his memories… for now. "Yes," he responded, "I'm fine."

The pinkette nodded and was silent for a long moment. He could tell that she still suspected that something was bothering him, but she didn't want him to feel obligated to discuss it. But he had been holding onto these painful memories for years. He wanted her to know. Only she could know his burden, someone who understands and feels the same way he does.

"I know a lot about love," he stated unexpectedly, causing the pinkette to perk her head up in interest. "I have witnessed it. Seen how strong and unbreakable it is. How it is a powerful force, both the greatest gift and most destructive curse. I was once in love, too."

Sakura raised a delicate eyebrow and smiled. "And who were you in love with?"

Itachi paused. He had never spoken to anyone about this before, but he was glad that he could confess his memories to Sakura. She would understand. "I will tell you later tonight."

Sakura pouted childishly in response. "You sure do like to be all dramatic and suspenseful, don't you, Uchiha?"

The corners of his mouth lifted into the smallest smile. "I guess so."

They walked in silence for a long time after that. Strangely, Itachi felt content. Never had they gotten along so well before. This was probably the first day that they had gone without arguing with each other. He rather enjoyed it. He wondered if Sakura was enjoying herself too.

After a few peaceful minutes, Sakura suddenly spoke. "Oh! Before I forget, I didn't say anything else last night, did I?"

Then he remembered. There was no way that Sakura could be happy while she was with him. She admitted it all to him last night. He frowned at the thought.

You said that you felt as though I was using you as a pawn, and that you hated me for everything that I did to you.

"… No."

Naruto stared numbly at the scene before him. The sun was setting over the horizon, turning the sky a bright orange color. The calm ocean waves below the cliff glittered against the sunset while the shadows of the forest trees stretched longer as the sun retreated. They had arrived at the Akatsuki base. But what they discovered troubled him greatly.

Before him, large chunks of crumbled earth stuck up at every angle and even some trees were uprooted. It appeared as if multiple mines were set off underneath the ground and exploded all at once, causing the earth below to cave. It was not the sight he was expecting when Kuma told them they had arrived at the underground shrine.

They approached the area with extreme caution once the monk signaled their proximity to the criminal base. The three of them surveyed the area for an hour, not daring to rush into the complex without a secure plan of action and escape routes. But when they risked to venture close enough to the hideout, they were stunned to find that the shrine had collapsed and the area devoid of Akatsuki.

Kakashi still wanted to take precautions. It took another hour of him inspecting the desolate hideout before he allowed Kuma and himself to enter the area. They were instructed to find an entrance to the destroyed base, but so far, the results of their search was unsuccessful. None of them could find a way into the shrine.

Although they could not enter, Kakashi's analysis stated that the Akatsuki base had been destroyed only a few days ago by some sort of explosives placed underground. He assumed that the Akatsuki had destroyed their own hideout when they somehow heard of their potential invasion and immediately relocated elsewhere. Although his theory explained the coincidental timing of the hideout's collapse and their arrival, it failed to explain how they caught wind of their coming.

But the details didn't matter. They needed to find where the Akatsuki repositioned to. Wherever the Akatsuki was, Sakura was sure to be. At least, they hoped. Although no one outright said anything, there was the possibility that Sakura was dead. She was, after all, the reason why this all happened. She sent the message to Konoha and helped Kuma, their bounty, escape. She disobeyed the Akatsuki.

But Naruto was more optimistic - if anything, for the benefit of his sanity. Even after years apart, he still knew her. She was smart, strong, and determined. She could have escaped in the frenzy of the hideout's detonation. Maybe she was still the Akatsuki's prisoner and was relocating with them. But she was alive. He knew it. There was no way she was going to give in so easily.

And there was no way that he was going to give up on her.

After a fruitless search for any possible entrance, they decided to find anything that they could link to Sakura or the Akatsuki's whereabouts. But Naruto knew that they were also looking for his teammate's body. It explained why Kakashi was acting a bit frantic and why Kuma looked so grave.

But Naruto was calm - a bit eerily, he might add, but probably better for their squad considering the Nine-Tails – and a bit frustrated at their situation. A few hours ago, he was ready to rush into an unknown hideout and face a group of dangerous S-ranked ninja rouges to save his dear friend. But instead, they were picking through rubble to find a lead to their next destination. He was so close to regaining a part of his life back, yet it slipped through his fingers like sand.

Luckily, Naruto was extremely determined, or he might have mentally fallen apart by now. He was still clinging to the thought of Sakura still being alive, and that seemed to help. She was still waiting for them to rescue her despite this unfortunate setback. And they will.

Just hold on a little longer, Sakura…

"Hey, I found something!"

The blonde whipped his head back to face his companions. Kakashi had summoned his ninja hounds and they were currently sniffing through the caved ground for scents, but Kuma was waving to them a few meters away, leaning over something he found in the ground. Naruto quickly rushed to his location, and Kakashi also stopped his search to join them.

Naruto's excitement at Kuma's discovery deflated when he saw what the monk had found. The monk pointed to two slabs of packed earth that had fallen over each other, but a small hole the size of a watermelon was between them. Naruto sighed, a bit disappointed. He was hoping that the man found something more useful than a freaking hole.

Kakashi seemed a bit more patient with the monk's discovery. "I don't see anything in there…" he stated, trying to peer into the small opening, but it was consumed by shadows. "Does it lead somewhere?"

The monk shook his shaved head. "It could lead into the hideout," Kuma indicated. "We might be able to find something down there."

Naruto grimaced. Kuma was the type of person that tried to help everyone, but just made everything worse. He was wasting their precious time, time that they needed to find and rescue Sakura. Even if he was impressively strong for lacking chakra and had decent navigation skills, he couldn't help but feel that the monk was more of a hindrance than an asset to the Sakura Retrieval Squad. It was not Kuma's fault that he wasn't part of their ninja world. "Even if there is something down there, it's not like we can go get it," the blonde pointed out, "That hole is way too small for any of us to crawl through."

"I'm afraid he's right," Kakashi agreed, "Even if I tried to use Earth Style to move the terrain, there is a high possibility of the ground caving in completely and anything down there will be absolutely inaccessible for us to use, or I would have tried already. But we are not taking that chance since our progress depends on finding something we can use to track the Akatsuki with."

"No, that's not what I meant," Kuma explained and pointed to the left, "I am saying that your little dog can fit through the hole."

Naruto raised an eyebrow. That was actually a smart idea. Maybe he should give the guy more credit.

The trio raised their heads and simultaneously turned to the pug that was sitting on the rock a distance away, surveying the area. The brown and black dog lifted its ears upon hearing the last part of their conversation.

"Pakkun, we need your assistance," Kakashi beckoned the pug over.

Said dog growled and mumbled something inaudible, but obeyed his master's command as he hopped off the rock and made his way to them. "What do you want?" he grumbled.

Kakashi pointed to the hole. "We need you to investigate."

Pakkun grimaced, less than interested in climbing into the hole. "You don't understand, Kakashi. I'm not the kind of dog that likes to dirty his paws," he tried to object.

"Please don't be difficult. You are the only one that can fit. Do it for Sakura."

The pug rolled his eyes, but gave in. "If she wasn't such a sweetheart, then I would refuse."

Pakkun made his way to the hole, but stopped for a moment to investigate how deep it was. Kuma suddenly chuckled aloud, causing the dog to turn to him.

"What's so funny?" he questioned the monk.

Kuma blinked a few times and cleared his throat, clearly not used to having a conversation with a dog. "You are a bit, er, fluffier than I thought. Is there another dog that can do this?" he commented quietly. Naruto sighed and shook his head. The man was implying that Pakkun was fat.

The dog picked up on his hint at his weight. "Look hotshot," Pakkun growled, "I have more talent in my tail than you have in your entire body. So unless you want me to shed a few pounds for you so you can risk your life and go down there, then I will be more than happy to assist. Until then, keep your mouth shut."

Kuma raised his brow, but his smile remained. It seemed like nothing could upset him, not even insults from a canine. "I never expected to be belittled by a talking dog," he remarked before bowing his head in apology, "I am sorry for offending you."

"You should learn some manners. It's not polite to insult your superiors," Pakkun instructed.

Kuma raised his head and nodded. "I guess I am more of a cat person."

Pakkun harrumphed before managing to squeeze into the hole after much effort of pushing his "fluffy" body through the small space. The trio waited for the pug to return with some sort of evidence of Sakura's whereabouts.

After several minutes of waiting impatiently, Pakkun appeared. He pushed himself out of the opening and flopped on the ground, breathing hard and covered in dirt. He then spit an object out of his mouth as he tried to regain his breath.

"Good thing I'm not claustrophobic. That was a tight squeeze," he exhaled, "And that has nothing to do with my fluffiness!" he aggressively mentioned, eyeing the monk.

Kakashi took the object that Pakkun retrieved. At first, Naruto thought it was just a strip of cloth, but when the Jounin turned the piece of fabric over, a metallic plate reflected in the sun, the leaf insignia carved into the surface. The blonde's cerulean eyes widened. It was Sakura's old headband that they gave her when they found her several weeks ago!

Kakashi brushed away the dirt on the headband and stared at it for a few moments, clearly pleased. Naruto smiled as well. They could track Sakura's scent as they did last time using the headband and Kakashi's ninja hounds.

Naruto could tell that Kakashi was smiling by the way the skin at the end of his eyes crinkled. Kakashi raised his chin confidently and faced his other two companions. "Looks like we have a lead."

A/N: So, Itachi admits that he had once been in love… and to clarify, his first love was NOT Sakura, since they didn't even interact several years ago and Sakura had her sights on Sasuke at the time. I think it was mentioned in the anime (or maybe it was the manga, but I only follow the anime) that Itachi killed his lover during the Uchiha clan massacre, but I don't think that there was any explanation on who this person actually was. So I am going to write my take on this and will reveal this person in a later chapter.

Thanks as always for the follows, favs, and reviews! They make me feel like this story is actually worth the effort I put into it! I have a decent number of favorite-ers/followers, but a majority of these readers do not review at all. Please, if you like this story, leave a comment every now and then, even if it is brief. And of course, to my frequent reviewers, you guys are too kind to me! Your words do not go unappreciated!

Thanks for reading, and please review!