Chapter Forty Three ~ Failure

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Naruto's shadow clone was sneaking up behind the masked Akatsuki member.

There was absolutely no way that it would land a hit, but we would at least be able to study the man's movements and fighting patterns.

I raised my eyebrows in surprise. Or lack thereof. He hadn't even moved, and yet somehow he dodged the  blow? Or was it a clone-- a normal clone, with no physical presence? Naruto's attack had somehow gone right through the Akatsuki member.

"You're too full of yourself!" the man laughed gleefully as Naruto went after him once more. "What's a kid like you going to do?"

Hinata gasped as Naruto hit the water of the river. I ignored her and Sakura's subsequent chiding, instead studying our enemy closely. He might be acting childishly, but his movements were succinct, well practiced, and full of power. He was a strong opponent.

"What now?" the man questioned. "Are you trying to analyze my abilities now?"

"He's either so stupid or so confident that he's stronger than us that he doesn't care what he reveals about himself or his abilities," I murmured. "And I have to say: I'm leaning towards the latter."

"I agree," Yamato nodded. "He easily managed to dodge all of Naruto's attacks."

"It's like he's toying with us," Kakashi added. "But what does he want?"

"He's not attacking us," I replied. "Only defending, slowing us down... for some reason, he doesn't want us to catch up to Sasuke."

Kakashi sent me a sharp look. "But why would an Akatsuki member care about that?"

I pressed my lips together. "My theory? Itachi is waiting for Sasuke, and he doesn't want to be interrupted by anyone."

"We have to get by him," Yamato said.

"We'll split up," Kakashi decided. "There's no way he can stop all of us at once."

Despite his words, he didn't look too sure.

"Alright everyone, we'll go with formation B!" Yamato declared. I nodded. Distract him with an attack, and then try to get by him. It was a good plan. I doubted it would work.

Naruto joined us, wet but determined. "Got it!" he exclaimed.

"Looks like you're getting serious!" the man mocked. "I'll get serious then, too!"

For our sake, I hoped he didn't.

The moment Naruto was thrown I took off, trying to get by the Akatsuki member. With a sinking stomach I watched him dodge every attack, and then listened as he stopped Kakashi, Yamato, Shino...

I jumped to the side before the man could pop out in front of me, smoothly continuing my sprint. "Ahahaha!" The man laughed. "You're a tricky one, aren't you?"

I dodged again, guessing when and where he would appear, but before I could even land to dodge a third time the Akatsuki member popped up from the ground, swiping at me and halting my progress. I landed and retreated back to Kakashi.

"Unless we defeat this guy, he's not gonna let us through," Kakashi observed.

"Obviously," I nodded.

"Damn it," Naruto mumbled, rubbing at where he'd been scratched by the Akatuki member's attack.

"Well well well, what do you want to play next?!"

"Battle formation A," Yamato ordered quietly. I took a step back, choosing instead to observe. I didn't have a part in this attack, anyway. It was all normal until Naruto passed through the man. There was no way he'd replaced himself with a clone; somehow, he could make himself insubstantial to avoid blows.

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