Naruto's breath was coming in short, shallow gasps. He and Kakashi had been pulling that freaking cart all day again. They had been on their mission for a week now, and the constant, daily cart-pulling was working on his muscles, as well as his nerves. Nothing had happened the entire time they were traveling, and the constant anticipation and boredom were driving him crazy. Hinata felt more or less the same, although she was still somewhat reveling in just being out there with Naruto.
As for Kakashi, he was having more and more trouble keeping his own nervous energy in check as they traveled. As a result, he and Naruto would occasionally put on a burst of speed, just to keep themselves from going totally stir-crazy. They had just finished one such speed burst, which is why Naruto was breathing hard. Hinata was smiling; those times of speed were fun to ride through.
Hinata giggled, then spoke quietly. "It's a good thing I'm not really blind, or I would probably have serious trouble staying on the cart when you two do that," she said.
Naruto chuckled. "I guess that's true," he said. "Sorry."
Hinata shook her head. "Oh, no, don't worry. It's fun to ride through those," she said insistently.
Kakashi eye-smiled. "You know, I'm starting to understand what you two meant about almost wishing for something to just happen," he said. "This constant nothing really is annoying." Looking around at the trail a bit, he added, "And I think we might just get our wish before too long."
Naruto looked around as well, didn't see whatever it was Kakashi saw, and said, "What do you mean?" Hinata was also looking in Kakashi's general direction with a confused look.
Kakashi pointed to what looked like a random spot on the trail. "That's the border with the Land of Rivers," he said. "If anything is going to happen, it'll probably be there."
Naruto considered this. "Well, I doubt they'll attack us right on the border. That would just be asking for trouble." Kakashi nodded in agreement. "Still, we'd best not drop our guard."
Hinata took that as her cue and activated her Byakugan. Deactivating it after a quick look around, she said, "There's no one nearby. Other than the border guard a bit that way," she said, pointing away from the trail.
Kakashi looked in the direction Hinata indicated. He nodded; there would be a border guard post not far from where they were. "All right," he said after a moment. "We should just stick to the path for now. No reason not to, really."
Within a couple more hours, they were well into the Land of Rivers. The sun was beginning to set, so Kakashi said it was time to make camp. Just as the trio came to a stop in a small clearing just off the trail, two figures came into sight. One was very familiar to the trio. The other...looked like a human shark.
"Hello, Itachi-sempai," Naruto said with a snarl. He had to put on a show at least for the moment of not trusting Itachi. He knew Kisame, the shark-like man, wasn't aware of Itachi's true nature, status, or mission, so, so long as said man was awake, Naruto had to act like Itachi was his enemy. That was the hardest part of this whole arrangement.
Itachi smiled slightly at his old apprentice, then turned to his companion. Kisame looked at Itachi for a split second, then fell over, unconscious. "There. Now we can talk," Itachi said.
Naruto smiled. "About freaking time," he said back. "I was wondering when you'd catch up with me."
Kakashi looked at the two, then eloquently said, "Wait, what?"
Instead of responding to that, Itachi simply said, "Being invisible is easier with a mask, wouldn't you say, Kakashi?"
Kakashi heard himself responding, "A visible mask makes invisibility far simpler."
Naruto gasped. "Kakashi-sensei? You're...an ANBU?" he asked. Kakashi nodded. "I guess that explains a lot."
Kakashi chuckled. "So...what's going on here?" he asked. "I thought Itachi turned traitor."
Itachi sighed. "Should I tell them, Naruto, or would you rather?" he asked.
Naruto turned to his teammate and sensei. "Kakashi-sensei, Hinata, I guess this is as good a time as any to explain this. Itachi isn't a traitor," he said. He then explained what had really happened the night of the Uchiha Massacre and how he and Itachi had been exchanging information ever since.
"I see," Kakashi said, unsure what else to say to all that. "I guess it makes sense. And I already knew about you training with Itachi, Naruto, although I didn't know anything about you being his contact or any of that."
At this point, Hinata spoke up. "So, you're an ANBU, Naruto?" she asked. She hadn't understood much of what Itachi had said, but she had figured out that there was some kind of code when Kakashi gave such a specific response...and she was aware that Naruto had picked up on it. Naruto nodded. Hinata let that sink in, then said, "So...was this just a cover mission for you to meet up with Itachi?"
Naruto shook his head. "Itachi finds me when he can when I'm out of the village. I had no idea he would do it here or now," he said. "And none of my missions is ever a cover. We just use the opportunities when they arise."
Itachi spoke up then. "It took us a while to figure out how to snow Kisame over there," he said. "I had to come up with a genjutsu just for him, more or less. He's now convinced that Naruto can use the fox's chakra way more than he really can, and he's pretty much afraid of him, although he would never admit that."
When Itachi mentioned the fox, Naruto cringed. Hinata spoke up before he could get too upset, though. "Don't worry, Naruto, I figured that out a while ago," she said. Naruto looked around at her in surprise. "I saw you using red chakra one time during one of your training sessions, and I put two and two together."
Naruto was surprised at this. "You saw that?" he asked. Hinata nodded. "And you're still my friend?"
Hinata laughed. "A scroll isn't a kunai just because there's a kunai in it," she said. Naruto took a moment to consider that, then laughed gratefully. Hinata gave him a small hug and said, "Besides, if you were the fox, I think you would have done something to hurt the people in the village long before now."
Itachi smiled at the two Genin. "It looks like you found yourself a really good friend, Naruto," he said proudly. Naruto nodded. Turning his attention to Naruto and Kakashi, Itachi continued, "I guess I can pass my information to your whole team from now on, then."
Naruto chuckled. "Yeah, you can. We're a team, so I would have eventually told them anything you tell me, anyway," he said.
Itachi nodded. "I figured you'd feel that way. All right, so, I have new intel on some members of the Akatsuki." Naruto nodded. "I finally recognized another member. He is Sasori of the Sand, known for his insane mastery of the puppet-master jutsu. I believe he even made the Third Kazekage into a puppet, although I can't prove that." Naruto and Kakashi took a moment to take that in, not sure what to say. Itachi continued, "He's been paired with the explosive-style user, Deidara. With them, I think we've figured out the identity of all but a couple of the members of the group, at least."
Naruto nodded. "So, we've got Deidara, Sasori, that dude in the mask, the guy who can sew stuff, some guy with a weird scythe, Konan the paper-user, you two, and that guy with the rods in his face, right?"
Itachi sighed. "You're never going to be good with names, are you, Naruto?" he asked. Naruto shrugged. Itachi continued, "Well, yes, basically. The guy in the mask claims to be Madara, but he also goes by 'Tobi', so I think it's best to just call him that. The guy who can sew calls himself Kakuzu, but since that's the name of a ninja who once fought the First Hokage, I doubt that's really him. The one who uses a scythe is Hidan, and he claims to be immortal. And the one with the rods calls himself 'Pain'."
Kakashi asked, "So, who is it we don't know then?"
Itachi sighed. "Well, the true identity of Tobi and Kakuzu aren't certain. And we really have no idea who 'Pain' is. All I know is Konan sticks to 'Pain' like glue, so I think that's a hint. Maybe you should ask Jiraiya about that. He knew Konan a long time ago, from what I gather, so I suspect he might know who 'Pain' is, too." Itachi took a moment before deciding to add one last thing. "I also discovered something new about him. His eyes always looked weird to me. They're gray and have these circles in them. Apparently, that's called the Rinnegan. That might be a good hint to who exactly he is."
Kakashi gasped. "The...Rinnegan?!" he asked. Itachi looked at him with a question in his eyes. "The Rinnegan is the legendary eyes supposedly held by the Sage of Six Paths!"
Itachi looked surprised at this. "Oh, I see," he said. "So that's why he made such a big deal out of that. So...how would we be able to deal with that?"
Naruto took a breath. "I'm not sure," he said. "Have you come up with anything in terms of what exactly the Akatsuki is trying to accomplish?"
Itachi sighed. "That's the one thing no one seems to be able to answer. I would imagine 'Pain' could tell me, seeing as he's kind of the de-facto leader of the group, but I can never get him to talk to me. He's very reclusive. So far, all we've been doing is working as mercenaries."
Naruto nodded. "From what you've said, that's probably making 'Kakuzu', or whoever he is, plenty happy," he said wryly.
Itachi chuckled. "Yeah, he's having the time of his life, more or less. He loves money, seemingly more than just about anything."
Naruto nodded. "Well, I guess the next thing we need to figure out is what the hell the Akatsuki is after," he said. "I hope you can figure that out for the next time we meet up."
Itachi nodded. "Please report what I have figured out to the Hokage next chance you get," he said. Naruto nodded. He then created a clone, who nodded and ran off into the woods, headed back to the village. Itachi chuckled. "You and that freaking jutsu. It's just your thing, isn't it?" Naruto chuckled and rubbed the back of his head.
Kakashi spoke up then. "So, did you teach him that, Itachi?" he asked. Itachi nodded. "I assume you told him about the memory transfer?"
Itachi had the wherewithal to look embarrassed at this. "You know, I never thought about that. I figured he'd pick up on it eventually on his own."
Kakashi had to use every bit of his ANBU training to not face-palm. "It's Naruto. You should assume he won't figure out anything on his own."
Naruto humphed. "I figured out about the fox on my own, I'll have you know," he said back.
Kakashi looked a bit surprised at this. "You did?" he asked. Itachi and Naruto both nodded at this. "I see. I guess I need to stop underestimating you, don't I?" Naruto nodded. "Still, did you know about the memory transfer aspect of the clones?"
Naruto raised an eyebrow. "What do you mean?" he asked.
Kakashi sighed. "Have you never noticed that when your clones dispel their memories come back to you?"
Naruto laughed. "Oh, that. Yeah, I figured that out a long time ago. Actually, one of the earliest meetings I had with Itachi after the Massacre, I sent a clone," he said back.
Itachi was shocked. "You did?!" he asked. Naruto nodded. "Why?"
Naruto laughed. "I couldn't get away from the village myself one time. And I knew you wouldn't hit me unless we sparred, which I made sure the clone wouldn't do, so I knew it would be fine. And once it dispelled after you left, I was able to report your intel to the Hokage just fine."
Itachi rolled his eyes. "You could have told me you figured that out, you know," he said.
Naruto laughed. "What, and ruin the surprise?" he asked back.
Hinata giggled at this. Everyone turned to her in surprise. She had been so quiet they had almost forgotten she was even there. "It figures Naruto would hold onto something like that," she said. "He is the Leaf's master prankster, after all." She smiled at him.
Naruto patted Hinata's back. "Yeah, she's right. I am," he said with a goofy smile.
Itachi smiled at them as Hinata's face turned bright red. "Have you told them yet?" he asked Kakashi.
Kakashi chuckled. "Nah. It's too much fun watching them," he said back.
Naruto and Hinata both looked at the two, confused. Neither one was forthcoming as to what the hell they were talking about, however, so the two Genin just shrugged it off.
Itachi turned his attention to Kisame. "He'll be waking up soon, so we better get out of here. I'll catch up with you when I can," he said. He then picked up Kisame's unconscious body, and the two of them vanished in a swirl of smoke.
"Well," Naruto said. "That happened."
Kakashi chuckled. "That certainly explained a lot about you, Naruto," he said.
Hinata gave Naruto a small hug. "I always knew there was more to that business with Itachi," she said. "If you trusted him, I knew he couldn't be bad."
Naruto smiled at his teammate and sensei. "I'm glad you guys are okay with all this," he said sincerely.
"Of course we are," Hinata said with a smile. "It doesn't change who you are."
Kakashi eye-smiled. "She's right. You're still Naruto," he said.
Naruto laughed. "You're right. Come on, let's get camp set up," he said, trying hard not to let them see the tears in his eyes.
Hinata activated her Byakugan for a moment, saw no one was around, noticed Naruto's tears, then set about helping set up camp. She steadily got closer to Naruto. "Are you okay?" she asked once she was within speaking range.
Naruto jumped slightly at the sound of her voice. "Yeah, I'm fine. Why do you ask?" he said back, trying to be casual.
Hinata took a breath to brace herself. "I saw you had tears in your eyes, so I was worried."
Naruto froze for a moment, then said, "You were using your Byakugan, huh?" Hinata nodded. Naruto knew she wasn't spying on him, just checking on the area around them. "I'm fine. I was just so relieved you guys weren't angry at me over this stuff with Itachi."
Hinata rested a hand on Naruto's shoulder. "Even if Itachi had gone evil, we wouldn't be angry at you," she said with a small smile. Naruto smiled back. "You can't judge a person by what their teacher does, after all."
Naruto smiled wider and gave Hinata a hug. "You're amazing, Hinata," he said. Hinata blushed. "And you're freaking adorable, too." Hinata blushed even deeper. Naruto laughed then pressed a small kiss to Hinata's cheek. His eyes were twinkling with mischief as he did this. Hinata stood stock still for a moment, her face getting even redder, then she simply fainted. Catching her easily, Naruto chuckled at just how adorable Hinata was, then said, "Never change, Hinata."
A/N: And there we go! A bit of a shorter chapter this time, but I hope you guys enjoyed it anyway. I just felt like this was the best time to have the whole Itachi thing come out. Next time, Naruto and crew arrive in the Sand Village.