Waiting with Hope

Stalling Tactics

Chapter Seven: Stalling Tactics

With Shikamaru and Temari in tow, Team Gai dashed through the treetops at breakneck speed. Gai had decided that since they were still in the Fire Country's borders and the mission had already technically started it would be best to sacrifice stealth for extra speed. Other than one brief fifteen minute rest to refill their canteens they hadn't stopped all day and were making impressive time. The importance of the mission was underlined by the fact that no-one, not even Shikamaru, had complained about the pace they were setting.

Temari's face had been set in lines of hardened determination for the entirity of the trip so far. Not only had she been keeping up with Gai and Lee, the 'pace setters' of the group, she had actually been pushing them to go faster. Gai looked like he was struggling to hold back another exultation on the 'power of youth' at the speed she was spurring the rest of the group onto, but was just about managing to contain himself.

After several hours of this Tenten was beginning to feel the strain on her muscles, but gritted her teeth and forced herself onwards, maintaining the same punishing speed that she had before. However, the ever observant Neji noticed her falling further and further away from the front of the group and dropped back to talk to her.

"You are clearly tired," he observed in his usual cool voice. "It would be best if we took a short break to enable you to recover your strength."

Panting, Tenten shook her head. "No, I'm fine. We have to get to Suna as soon as possible and I can't slow the team down."

Neji arched an eyebrow at her. "In the long run, taking a break would be less time consuming than continuing when fatigued. It would make far more sense to stop now."

"I've already told you, Neji, I'm fine!" Tenten retorted angrily. "I'm not so weak that I can't keep up, so stop acting as if I'm holding everyone back!"

Neji's eyebrow raised still further as he ducked under a protruding tree branch. "I had no intention of implying that, Tenten. I do not consider you any weaker than either Lee or I. I was merely attempting to increase the chances of success on our mission, that is all."

Tenten's shoulders sagged. "Sorry, I didn't mean to snap at you. But really, it's alright, I can keep going."

A small smile rose to Neji's lips. "In light of your stubborness, I am forced into taking drastic action. I apologise in advance."

"Huh? Neji, what are you –?"

Neji sucked in a deep breath. "Gai-sensei!" he shouted out, startling Tenten. "I feel it would be best if we stopped for a break. Tenten's…" he paused for a moment, not quite sure how best to phrase what he was thinking "… Fires of youth are growing dim, and she… ahem, needs a chance to rekindle her youthful spirit."

The expression on Neji's face as he had said this was as though he had swallowed a whole lemon, but it got its intended reaction.

"Yosh!" came Gai's distant voice, far ahead of the two young ninja. "A short break will be the perfect way to stoke the embers of Tenten's vigour! We shall find a spot to take a short rest."

Neji turned to look at Tenten with apologetic eyes. What he had just done had been cruel, but it had done the trick. Tenten's own expression was outraged, but she was fighting back a smile at the same time.

"Neji! How could you? That was so mean!"

Neji smirked ever so slightly at her words. The self-confident look on his face made Tenten want to yell out in frustration and the way that the smirk seemed to grow in size ever so slightly indicated that he knew it. Tenten growled. He could be so… so infuriating at times, with poise and assurance that bordered on arrogance. She wished that once, just once, she could knock him out of his stride and see that aloof, smug expression of his slip from his face.

Before she could ponder this course of action any further, she and Neji caught up to Gai-sensei, who had dropped to the forest floor in the middle of a small copse of trees. "This will be a fine setting for a short break," he said, looking around the clearing and nodding with satisfaction. "Everyone make sure you perform the standard warm down exercises to prevent cramp. Lee and I will patrol the perimeter and we shall set off again in fifteen minutes."

Lee straightened his posture and gave a smart salute. "Yosh!" he barked out enthusiastically. "Gai-sensei, shall we do the entire patrol on our hands?"

Gai laughed a deep, booming laugh at his favourite student's eagerness. "Patience, Lee. We are on a mission, and must not let our youthful fires burn out of control. But when we return to Konoha we shall run one hundred laps around the village on our hands! And if we are unable to do that, then we shall do five thousand one handed press-ups!"

Lee had pulled out a notepad and pencil from a pocket of his chuunin jacket and was hurriedly scribbling something down, with his tongue between his teeth in a look of concentration. "Must… not… let… youthful… fires… burn… out… of… control. I see, Gai-sensei, you are indeed a most wise teacher. I will be sure to take your words to heart."

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

"Lee!"

"Gai-sensei!"

The rapturous cries slowly faded into the distance as Gai and Lee left the group to begin their patrol. There was a collective sigh of relief from the remaining members of the group as the two spandex clad ninja jumped back into the treetops and launched themseves through the canopy with a rustling of leaves.

Closing his eyes, Neji settled himself in a crosslegged, meditative position in the middle of the clearing and Tenten sat down beside him, wincing as she lowered herself. Shikamaru walked to the edge of the copse and lowering his aching body to lie against the trunk of a thick tree with his hands interlocked behind his head, whilst Temari, too agitated to sit down, paced around the open space with a nervous energy.

"Ugh, finally, a break," Shikamaru groaned tiredly. "I'm too exhausted to even watch the clouds – I need a nap." With that, the Nara boy's body relaxed and his eyelids drooped shut.

"You can't just go to sleep!" Temari yelled incredulously at him, face flushed red with anxiety and anger. "We have to get back to Suna right now! We shouldn't even be taking a break at all – we should be going all out to get to the Hidden Sand Village, not taking an afternoon nap!" In her frustration, she raised a hand above her head and brought it down, intending to jerk Shikamaru out of his slumber with a painful blow to the head. However, her fist was caught in midair by one of Shikamaru's hands, taken out from under his head with surprising speed.

"You need to calm down," said Shikamaru, with one eye lazily opened. "I know it must be difficult for you, but I don't think I could have gone much further without needing a break anyway. Tenten and Neji look worn out too. There's no point us getting to Suna if we're all too tired to help anyone."

Temari tore her hand free from Shikamaru's grip. "That doesn't matter! We have to get back as soon as possible! If something else happens whilst I'm not there…" Temari's voice cracked at the end, and it was taking her a great deal of effort not to break down in tears.

Shikamaru rested his hand on her shoulder, which was shaking with the effort of repressing sobs. "Remember what we talked about in shogi lessons," he said in a low voice, trying to calm her down. "If you rush in without having a clear plan of action and don't prepare for every eventuality, you'll make mistakes. The best way to avoid messing up is to think ahead. If you do that, then everything will fall into place." Shikamaru smiled at the Suna kunoichi. "Remember, you're not the only one trying to get Gaara back."

Tenten walked over and placed a confident hand on Temari's other shoulder. "Shikamaru's right. We're all going to do everything we can to track down and rescue your brother – you, me, Shikamaru, Lee, Gai-sensei, Neji. Right, Neji?"

Without speaking, Neji cracked open one eye and nodded his own support. Tenten laughed. "You see, Temari? If we can get a stick-in-the-mud like Neji to go along with this, then there's no way we'll fail to save your brother! When Gai-sensei and Lee return we'll be back on the trail again and we'll try even harder to get to Suna as quickly as possible!"

Temari smiled weakly at the Konoha kunoichi, who smiled back at her. Shikamaru grinned slightly himself, released Temari's shoulder and rested against the tree trunk again, looking forward to some quick shut eye. But suddenly a voice interrupted Shikamaru's rest, coming from right above his face.

"Yo."

Startled, Shikamaru's eyes jerked open to see a small, brown furred dog, with the symbol of Konoha etched into a hitai-ite around its neck, gazing right into his eyes with its face just an inch away. Shikamaru gave an uncharacteristic yelp and jolted upright, scooting backwards to put some distance between them.

"I know you!" said Shikamaru in recognition, focusing on the pug dog's face. "You're that troublesome tracking dog Kakashi-sensei uses. You were called Parky or something. You bit me the last time we worked together!"

"My name is Pakkun, thank you very much," said the tracking dog disapprovingly. "And yeah, I remember you too. But we can get all nostalgic about the past another time – you're all part of the backup squad sent from Konoha, right?"

"Yes," answered Neji, standing up and stepping to the front of the group to talk to the canine. "Did Kakashi-san send you to deliver us a message?"

Pakkun nodded. "He told me to tell you not to head directly for Suna, but to follow me instead. We've discovered the scent of one of the Akatsuki members, and my nose has tracked them to a lake in Kawa. I'll be your guide."

"Do you know if my brothers are ok?" asked Temari desperately. This was the first solid contact from Suna she had received since the Akatsuki attack, and the urge to find out if her family was safe was all encompassing. "I heard one of them was poisoned by an Akatsuki member – is he alright now?"

"Do you mean the puppet user?" Pakkun asked, quirking his head to the side. "From what I heard the pink haired medic girl on Kakashi's team healed him up and he should make a full recovery."

Teamri slumped to the ground, leting out a shaky breath that that hadn't even realised she had been holding. An indescribable feeling of relief spread throughout her body, like a pleasurable sensation of pins and needles, and some of the weight on her shoulders was lifted. She was still worried, particularly for Gaara, but at least it wasn't outright panic.

Pakkun's nose suddenly twitched. "There are two scents heading this way. I recognise one of them as Maito Gai's. Is he being chased?"

Tenten grimaced. "If the other scent is Lee's, then probably yes. But don't worry about it – knowing Gai-sensei, if he wasn't being chased he'd probably be disappointed."

Pakkun grinned wryly. "Yeah, that sounds a lot like Gai."

At that moment, Gai and Lee dropped from the treetops into the clearing with identical gleaming smiles, their patrol completed.

"Ah!" exclaimed Gai, noticing Pakkun. "In our absence, it seems I have missed the arrival of an old friend! That was most unyouthful of me! Pakkun, the only way in which I can express my remorse and apologise to you is by running two hundred laps around Kono–"

"That won't be necessary, Gai," interrupted Pakkun. "I was telling the rest of your squad there has been a change of plan. Instead of heading directly to Suna, your team will be going to Kawa instead. We believe that's where the Akatsuki's base is located. Follow me, I'll guide you."

"Yosh!" shouted Gai, his smile widening. "How exhilarating! Lead the way, Pakkun, and we shall follow with the diligence of youth!"

Pakkun nodded and the six ninja followed him as he leapt up into the shade of the treetops. Temari balled her hands into fists as she focused intently on the small dog ahead of her, leaping from branch to branch. 'Hold on, Gaara,' she thought, clenching her fists even tighter. 'I'm coming.'

-o-o-

Kakashi, Naruto, Hinata and Chiyo made good time over the steep sand dunes of the desert, setting off in the early hours of the morning and making it to the edges of the barren scrubland by mid-afternoon. The landscape became more and more green the further they travelled, and by the evening they had reached the thick woodland of the forest.

As they travelled, Hinata thought back to the conversation she'd had with Sakura before the group had departed. The medic nin had come to see them off, and Sakura had dragged her away from the rest of the group before she had left to talk to her in private.

Hinata vividly remembered the hurried, anxious voice that Sakura had spoken in. "Hinata," the pink haired kunoichi had whispered, wringing her hands together with worry. "I wish I could go out on this mission with you! I feel so useless staying behind and doing nothing!"

"Sakura-san, you aren't doing nothing. Kankuro-san owes his l-life to you."

"I know, I know! It's just…" Sakura's fists clenched, and she let out a sigh. "I feel like I'm missing out on a chance to find Sasuke."

"F-Finding Sasuke-san?" Hinata asked, confused. "I don't understand… What does Sasuke-san have to do with the Akatsuki?"

"Sasuke-kun left Konoha to train under that snake bastard Orochimaru, right?" Sakura answered, a vein bulging on her forehead as she spat out the Sannin's name as if it was poison. "Well, Orochimaru used to be part of the Akatsuki himself. Which means…"

"There may still be some connection between the Akatsuki and Orochimaru!" Hinata finished excitedly.

Sakura nodded. "Exactly. But I feel like I'm missing a chance to get closer to Sasuke-kun by not being a part of this mission…"

The young medic kunoichi's eyes had looked so downcast that Hinata couldn't help but try to cheer her up. "Ano, Sakura-san? If you'd like, I could try to f-find a link between the Akatsuki and Sasuke-san myself. M-Maybe I will be lucky and discover something."

Sakura's emerald green eyes widened in shock. "Hinata, you'd really do that for me? You'd really try to find any sort of clue as to where Sasuke-kun might be?"

With as much deterination as she could muster, Hinata answered, "Yes!"

Sakura's eyes had grown even wider, before she had smiled tremulously and given Hinata a quick hug. As she released Hinata from the embrace, Sakura's eyes were watery, but she brushed the welled up tears away impatiently. "Thank you Hinata, that means so much to me and I know that Naruto would appriciate it too. Good luck on your mission." Sakura turned and began to walk away, before adding as an afterthought, "Oh, and take care of Naruto as well!"

-o-o-

As the landscape became more rocky, Kakashi eventually found a spot by a small cave that would provide adequate shelter for them to rest the night, and the group settled down beside a small camp fire.

"I think it would be a good idea if two of us keep watch tonight, rather than just one," said Kakashi, scratching his chin lazily. "We're getting closer to Akatsuki territory, so it pays to stay alert."

Hinata pressed her fingers together anxiously, worried that she wasn't doing enough for her team. "Ano… I w-will be one of the lookouts for tonight, if you'd like, Kakashi-sensei."

Hinata couldn't help but feel a tiny bit disappointed that before Naruto could volunteer himself forward, Chiyo spoke up herself. "Then I will also volunteer myself forward, Kakashi-san."

Kakashi nodded his agreement to the arrangement and before long he and Naruto were fast asleep in their sleeping bags. Hinata couldn't help but watch Naruto as he slept, sprawled out across the ground. He looked so peaceful and calm with his tousled hair and closed eyes, quite unlike his usual hyperactive self when he was awake, and as she watched he curled himself up in his sleeping bag like a small child, pulling the material securely around him so that only his head was sticking out. It was almost unbearably cute to Hinata and she could hardly bring herself to stop gazing dreamily at his sleeping form.

With great reluctance Hinata tore her eyes away from the slumbering Naruto, but as she looked up she was surprised to see Chiyo looking wistfully at the blonde haired boy too, a peaceful expression upon her face.

"Ano, Chiyo-baasama?" Hinata asked curiously, watching the elderly woman as she studied Naruto's sleeping form. "I-Is there something wrong?"

"Hmm?" mumbled Chiyo, still gazing at Naruto's face. "Something wrong…" Snapping out of her reverie, she raised her head up to face Hinata and answered quietly, "No, nothing is wrong. Nothing at all…"

"O-Oh," stammered Hinata timidly, blushing at her previous boldness. 'What Chiyo-baasama is thinking is none of my business,' she thought to herself, lowering her eyes. 'I shouldn't be prying into her thoughts like that.'

Hinata watched Chiyo's head droop back to its former position, and the elderly Suna kunoichi lapsed into a brooding silence. Taking a deep breath in an effort to strengthen her resolve, Hinata spoke again, in a quavering but determined voice. "I d-didn't mean to intrude, Chiyo-baasama, and if I did I humbly apologise. I was just c-curious… as to why you were w-watching N-Naruto-kun sleeping, that's all."

Chiyo stayed silent for a moment, her head remaining bowed, before suddenly asking Hinata a question. "Tell me, Konoha kunoichi, you are a Hyuuga, are you not?"

Caught of guard by the unexpectedly direct question, Hinata hesitantly answered, "Um… y-yes."

Chiyo laughed delightedly at her response, rocking her head back and forth. "I see you were serious about being humble! In the Great Ninja War I fought against many Konoha shinobi, including members of the Hyuuga clan, but I don't think I've ever once heard any of them ever say the word 'humble' even once!"

Hinata flushed pink at the Suna elder's words. "My family is… ah, v-very proud."

Chiyo chuckled. "That is how I remember them, certainly. But as to what you just asked…" Chiyo trailed off into silence, and Hinata began to wonder if she had chosen not to answer the question, or even if she had fallen asleep, when the older woman clapped her hands together. "Where was I…? Ah, your question, of course. I was looking at that boy because he reminded me of my grandson."

"Oh, I s-see… sorry, I didn't mean to invade your privacy."

Chiyo's eyes softened at Hinata's meekness and she smiled gently at the Hyuuga heiress. "Don't worry, I understand. My grandson had a very difficult life. His parents were both killed by Konoha shinobi in the Great Ninja War when he was just a child and I raised him myself. He left Suna several years ago, and I haven't seen him since…"

"Oh," Hinata said softly, gazing at the deep wrinkles in Chiyo's face, made even more pronounced by the darkness. The elderly Suna kunoichi's eyes were downcast, and Hinata couldn't help but empathise with her. "You said you f-fought in the Great Ninja War yourself, didn't you?"

Chiyo nodded shortly. "Yes. It was brutal and bloody. You are too young to have fought in a full scale war, aren't you? I hope for your sake that you will never have to… And that my grandson won't be followed by more innocents having their lives unravelled."

Hinata shivered as a burst of cold wind whistled through the cave's entrance. "I don't want to fight either…" she said quietly, drawing her jacket closer to her body to fend off the chill, "But as shinobi we don't have a choice when it comes to war. I think, unless things change, there will always be anger and hostility somewhere. So if there's n-no other choice it's important to have s-something to fight for." Hinata looked back across to Naruto, still sound asleep. "That's what I b-believe…" she finished, her cheeks tinged with pink.

"So what is it that you fight for?" Chiyo enquired curiously. This girl was strangely shy and honest all at the same time, and the Suna village elder didn't quite know what to make of her.

"M-Me?" Hinata asked. "Ano… I suppose I fight for my family. I f-fight for my teammates. I fight for my sensei. I fight for the people precious to me… because…" Hinata drew her back up straight, glancing over at Naruto again. "Because that is my nindo."

"Hmm…" frowned Chiyo thoughtfully, scratching her cheek with one hand. "That's an interesting nindo you have…"

Hinata tried to think what Naruto would say in this situation. He was always so sincere, no matter who he was talking to, and the Hyuuga heiress was certain he would know how to cheer the older woman up. "I l-learned it from s-someone v-very special to m-me, who w-wanted to spread his n-nindo," she stammered, heat rising to her face. "M-Maybe, if you see your grandson again, you could t-tell him that you fight for him too?" Hinata prodded the tips of her index fingers together nervously, uncertain whether she was saying the right thing.

Chiyo considered these words for a moment, then smiled serenely, thinking back to her grandson in his youth. "Thank you, Hinata-san. When I next see my grandson, I will be sure to tell him that. And…" the elderly Suna kunoichi paused for a moment, rubbing her chin slowly. "If it's not to late for me, I think I may begin using that nindo myself."

-o-o-

"We have a problem."

"Problem?" asked Pain in a monotone, continuing to watch as Gaara's limp body floated in the air, a red haze surrounding him. "Elaborate, Zetsu."

Zetsu's plant-like appendages surrounding his head cracked apart ever so slightly, revealing the Akatsuki member's eyes. "Two teams of Konoha ninja are approaching the hideout at rapid speed. One team is led by Maito Gai, and the other is commanded by Hatake Kakashi."

"Hmm…" Pain thought for a second, his silvery eyes glowing in the murky darkness of the cave. "How long do you expect until they arrive?"

"Before we have completed the ritual."

Pain frowned. That made things a little more complicated than he had expected. It seemed that precautionary action would have to be taken. He spoke carefully, making sure to seem completely unruffled by this news. After all, a leader had to remain strong in front of his subordiantes. Especially when those subordinates had some of the most devious minds in the ninja world. Any sign of weakness would surely be pounced upon. "That is… unfortunate. It seems we will have to use that jutsu in order to complete the ritual in time."

"You said Maito Gai was one of the ninja closing in?" asked Kisame, a hint of malicious excitement in his voice. "I'll volunteer – I still have a grudge against that man, after he fought against me back in Konoha."

Pain inclined his head. "As you wish. Does that mean you will also be a subject of this jutsu, Itachi?"

Itachi's red eyes were burning coals, set against a hollow, lifeless face. "If that is your decision, Leader-sama."

Pain made a few hand seals, maintaining his focus on the extraction of the Ichibi. "For this jutsu to be successful, I will require approximately thirty percent of each of your chakra."

Kisame and Itachi complied, letting their chakra build, and Pain skilfully siphoned the required amount off. "That will be enough. Maintain your focus on the extraction process; your new bodies will act independently."

Kisame grinned, licking his grey lips. "If our aim is just to stall them, that means I get to play with my food before I go in for the kill… I'm going to enjoy this."

-o-o-

Jumping from tree branch to tree branch, Kakashi mulled over the progress the group had made so far towards the Akatsuki base. He was satisfied with the pace that the group had been setting – Chiyo hadn't slowed them down at all, despite her age, and the terrain had been fairly easy to negotiate. Making some quick calculations in his head, the copy nin estimated that they should reach Kawa in an hour or two and the Akatsuki's base not long after that. He wasn't certain if Pakkun had reached the backup team from Konoha yet, but he was confident in his team's abilities regardless. Naruto and Hinata had shown their skills in his training exercise on the way to Suna, and Chiyo was well known for her exploits in the last ninja war, both on and off the battlefield.

Kakashi's thoughts were cut short, however, by Hinata's raised hand from the front of the group. Her Byakugan was active and she looked concerned about something. Raising his own hand, Kakashi signalled for the rest of the team to halt, and they dropped to the forest floor. "What's the problem, Hinata?" asked Kakashi authoritatively. "Are we being followed?"

"N-No," Hinata stammered, pushing her fingers together worriedly. "There's a man up ahead with developed chakra pathways. He's blocking our r-route forward. What should we do?"

"Developed chakra pathways?" Naruto repeated, puzzled. "Does that mean he's a ninja?"

"Most likely," answered Chiyo, rubbing her chin thoughtfully. She turned to Hinata. "Those eyes of yours are very useful, girl. Can you see what he is doing?"

Hinata blushed at the praise and nodded hesitantly. "He's standing in a clearing about half a mile ahead. I think he's w-waiting for something, as he isn't m-moving… could it be for us?"

"We must assume so," Kakashi replied, frowning. "If he isn't moving, release your Byakugan for now, Hinata. Hopefully we can just avoid him by taking another path if he's dangerous." The masked jonin pulled aside his hitai-ite from his left eye and activated his Sharingan. Who on earth would be out here in the middle of nowhere? Could it be a trap of some sort, set up by the Akatsuki to prevent unwanted guests from discovering their centre of operations? Focusing his Sharingan eye, Kakashi quickly spotted the man that Hinata had warned them about and felt a chill of dread pass through him as he saw who it was. The last time they had crossed paths he had put the silver haired jonin in hospital.

With a sigh, Kakashi deactivated his Sharingan, a disturbed expression written across his face. "Well, we can't elude this man, that's for certain. He's much too strong for us to pass by unnoticed. In fact, I'm almost positive that he knows we are here already."

"Huh? Who is he?" Naruto asked, face scrunched up in confusion.

"Uchiha Itachi."

Hinata gasped as she heard the infamous name and Naruto's face went stony. For just the briefest of moments the Hyuuga girl could have sworn that Naruto's eyes flashed crimson. The blonde headed ninja looked absolutely furious – Hinata didn't think she had ever seen him this angry, not even when he had been fighting Neji in the Chuunin Exams. Although she didn't know the full story of the Uchiha massacre that had taken place several years ago, she knew that Sasuke was the only survivor and that Itachi was the murderer. A man cold blooded enough to ruthlessly slaughter his own family… Hinata shivered, gazing at Naruto with sympathetic and worried eyes. She knew of his friendship with Sasuke and this man had been the cause of the younger Uchiha's quest for power, and thus his decision to leave the village. 'How will Naruto-kun react when he faces the person that Sasuke-san wants revenge on?' she wondered fearfully.

"Him…" Naruto hissed under his breath, almost to himself. Without another word he started striding purposefully forwards, a fiery intent flickering in his eyes.

"Naruto, wait!" ordered Kakashi, laying a hand on the spiky haired boy's shoulder. "Let's think things through before doing anything reckless."

The blonde haired ninja paused for a moment, his entire body quivering with emotion. Naruto's voice was thick with barely controlled anger, but he managed to reign his fury in. "Sorry. I didn't mean to lose my temper… it's just…" he clenched his fists so hard that his skin went white.

"I know Naruto, believe me," Kakashi said seriously, squeezing the orange clad boy's shoulder. "But if we're going to be fighting someone as strong as Itachi, we need to stay cool. Flying off the handle at a time like this is not only going to put yourself at risk, it will endanger the lives of your teammates too. Remember that."

A look of guilt settled on Naruto's face like a raincloud, sending a pang through Hinata's heart. She could see how much it was hurting the boy she cared about, but she didn't think there was anything she could do to help him. This was to do with Sasuke and she didn't really know how to help Naruto with something that she wasn't a part of.

"Ok," Naruto sighed quietly, releasing all his pent up tension. "I understand."

Kakashi smiled approvingly at his pupil, before turning to include Hinata and Chiyo. "Everybody, please listen closely. I have experience in fighting Itachi in the past, so I know a little about his techniques. Firstly, make sure that none of you look at his eyes. His Sharingan can unleash powerful genjutsus onto anyone that makes eye contact with him. Secondly, when fighting him using taijutsu you can't risk catching his eye, so focus on his feet and body to predict his movements. Finally, remain close together at all times. If Itachi does manage to capture you in one of his genjutsus, another person can break you out of it by disrupting your chakra flow with their own chakra."

Chiyo nodded at this last point. "Since there are four of us, it is unlikely he will be able to trap all of us in a genjutsu. If even one of us avoids the technique they will be able to attack from the rear or free their teammates and we will have the upper hand."

"Alright then," said Naruto, features set in grim lines of determination. "In that case, let's take him head on!"

After pondering for a moment, Kakashi voiced his agreement of this strategy. "We don't have anything to gain by attempting to remain hidden and a full on assault would be the fastest way to break through. Keep in mind what I told you all and good luck!"

-o-o-

Tenten leapt over a dried out desert shrub without breaking her stride. Neji and Lee were either side of her, with Gai and Pakkun out in front and Shikamaru and Temari bringing up the rear. The terrain had become craggier and dustier as the group had progessed into a steep sided valley. Looking around, she supposed that there must once have been a river here that carved such a path into the rock face, but it had long since dried up under the harsh, unforgiving sun.

Suddenly Tenten stumbled, just as Pakkun's nose begn to twitch. The kunoichi frowned. The ground had vibrated under her feet and knocked her off balance, she was sure of it. Was it an earthquake?

The ground began shaking again, more violently this time. Tenten steadied herself and the other members of the team tried to keep their footing too. A low rumbling noise began, faintly, but becoming louder and louder. Pakkun's nose quivered again. "Something's coming from the rear!" the little dog announced, turning his head to look behind him in the direction they had just come from, where a small dust cloud was approaching rapidly.

Neji activated his Byakugan, veins at the side of his eyes bulging. "There is a man approaching at rapid speed…but he's coming from underground!"

Sure enough, the earth behind the group was fragmenting at an alarming rate. Tenten saw something white sticking out of the ground moving towards them before the swirling dust blocked it from sight. As the ground continued to cave in, Gai shouted an order and the team fell back, jumping onto large outcroppings of bare rock to avoid the tremors.

Reaching behind her back, Temari unfurled her fan and swung it round forcefully, blowing the stinging, blinding dust away in a gust of wind. As the air cleared, a tall, grey skinned figure with slitted cheeks became visible standing on top of the rubble, and Gai's eyes widened in recognition, his bushy eyebrows rising together. "You! I've seen you before… Who are you?"

The man laughed mockingly, and hefted a large sword onto his shoulder with a careless flick of his hand. "Oh, you don't remember me?" he asked playfully, a feral smile stretching across his mouth. His teeth seemed to glint in the sunlight. "Perhaps I should refresh your memory." With that, he threw his massive sword high into the air and performed a few quick hand seals. "Suiton: Bakusuishouha!" He inhaled sharply, cheeks bulging, before blasting out a jet of foaming water upwards in a gigantic, cascading wave. Tenten gasped. It was as though a building had just uprooted itself from the ground and launched itself towards her, such was the size and speed of the raging torrent. The arcing mass of water seemed to block out the sky for a split second, before plummeting down towards the members of Gai's team with a thundering roar.

-o-o-

Itachi stood completely still in the middle of the clearing, making no effort to hide himself. That wasn't the plan – his orders were simply to stall Kakashi's team, not ambush them. Briefly, he wondered if Kisame would be quite so mindful of their leader's orders when facing his opponents. The Sharingan weilder almost smiled. Somehow, he doubted it.

Using his kekkei genkai, Itachi could clearly see that Kakashi and the rest of his team had spotted him and were huddling in a group, obviously discussing how they would attempt to fight him. Itachi wasn't worried though. This was still wasting precious time and he was confident he would be able to stall them for long enough. However, he was slightly surprised to see the group, rather than attempting to split up and bypass him, were actually staying together as a single team and heading straight for the clearing themselves. Interesting. They must have came up with some sort of strategy they thought would be able to neutralise him.

Kakashi's team walked through the trees and into the clearing, lining up purposefully alongside each other. Itachi scrutinized his enemies thoroughly. Hatake Kakashi, the well known copy nin and a dangerous opponent. A girl with the Byakugan eyes, clearly a Hyuuga. An elderly woman in a black tunic. And Uzumaki Naruto, the Jinchuuriki container of the Kyuubi. Itachi remained on his guard, but was not overly concerned. Not that he ever was, no matter who his opponents were.

For a few long seconds no-one spoke, the tension in the air rising further and further. Eventully, Naruto broke the silence.

"You…" he growled, hands clenched into fists and teeth grinding against each other.

A ghost of a smile flitted across Itachi's lips. "Hello, Naruto-kun, it's been a long time. I wonder, have you become stronger since we last met?"

Author's Notes: Ok, that's Chapter Seven down! I was tempted to keep on writing at this point, but this chapter was starting to get a little long and I thought it would fit more neatly into another chapter, so you'll have to wait for the Itachi and Kisame fights. Sorry! The review from Schnookums (who has given me a lot of input so far, which I really appreciate – thank you Schookums!) was an interesting one. I'm trying to buid up Naruto and Hinata's relationship slowly, but yes, Naruto is just starting to get an idea of her feelings for him, though not their extent, yet … and I haven't really picked out any pairing for Sakura yet, though I have an idea of where I want things to go with her, so if anyone has any suggestions I'd at very least listen to them. But Sakura and Kankuro is pretty much a no go, sorry – a lot of the story isn't going to be set in Suna and so won't involve Kankuro all that much. and some of the character interaction in this chapter was really tricky. It took me a while to get the Neji/Tenten and Hinata/Chiyo dialogue up to the level I wanted, but I think it's of a satisfactory quality now. If not, or if you think any other part of the chapter is crap, don't hesitate to drop me an angry review! Or, y'know, nice reviews would be appriciated too. Anyway, thanks to everyone that's read up to this point, I hope to update again soon. Until next time, ciao!

List of Jutsu:

'Suiton: Bakusuishouha' = 'Water Release: Bursting Water Collision Surge' (thanks again to Chewie Cookies, who had to correct me on this one)

Joke Corner: Teabags aren't really bags, seeing as you can't put anything in or take anything out of them. They should be renamed 'tea-cushions' instead.

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