BONUS #23

A deleted scene from this chapter has been posted on the forum.

fanfiction [dotnet] /forum/The-Chiaroscuro-Effect/185326/


Konoha

Itachi Uchiha was a man of few sensibilities, but the ones he had made up for the rest he lacked. For example, he was not candidate-of-the-year for environmentalism, but he loved peace, and if burning down several trees meant fulfilling his duties, he'd do it.

Likewise, he didn't have many rules on his personal code of honor, what with being raised as a shinobi and all, but sometimes he liked to think he was still a good person for fun. Knowing all the death and ruin that had occurred at his hands made that an impossibility, but everyone needed a good joke now and then.

Was it selfish of him, for subjecting his brother to a life of pain in the hopes that he'd be the one to deliver him a pure death in combat?

Sandaime-sama, I hope you got the memo.

"Is it just me, or are there more ANBU around than usual today? And shit, they're really fast," Kisame swore, several meters ahead of him. "They must be really, really paranoid if they've got that type of response time."

Sandaime-sama, I guess you got the memo.

"They are still on high alert after the failed attack by Orochimaru. And today is the final of the Chunin Exams. They mean to impress the dignitaries with their best troops on display," Itachi explained calmly. "I am concealing us with my best genjutsu, and we have made it this far, have we not? I don't see why you are worried."

Kisame stopped and stared at Itachi. "Really? Really?"

"What?"

Kisame pointed to his face. "Itachi, what am I?"

Itachi rolled his eyes. They had done this before. Multiple times in fact. "…You are a fish."

"That's right. I'm a fish. Maybe my mother fucked a shark or something. The point is, I'm a fish, and do you know what fish do in fire?"

"…They fry."

"Exactly. So how about we hurry up and get going before I turn into a giant piece of sashimi – "

"That is grossly inaccurate. Sashimi is served raw," Itachi corrected, a small smile playing at his lips. "I thought you knew that, being from the Land of Water."

Kisame slapped his head. "Shut up, Uchiha." There was another roar as the fire around them spiked even higher. Over the walls of the village, he could see a conglomeration of white masks and green jackets forming up around the gates. "We have to get going. Now."

Itachi nodded in ageement. "Watch my back," he ordered Kisame, and together they stepped into the village to look for Naruto Uzumaki.

To find him would be a difficult task. Itachi knew they would not succeed. And if he had his way, they would never succeed.

Of course, Pein might be suspicious if he didn't leave at least one high-profile person dead or seriously maimed. Itachi sighed and drew his sword.

The things I do for love.


The Chunin Exam Stadium

As soon as Kakashi had seen the ANBU flooding the area, he moved to gather up his team right away. This wasn't just some simple forest fire. Knowing Kakashi's luck, the Akatsuki were here, and they were after jinchuuriki. The high ANBU presence all but confirmed that. The Ichibi was safely tucked away one of ANBU's many underground mazes, which meant that the only one available to them – standing out in the open, along with every other Chunin exam competitor –

Naruto.

He jumped down into the box and grabbed the boy, ignoring his indignant yelps. Then he spotted Ino and Sasuke, and, understanding that they could become collateral damage, if the Akatsuki wanted bait, grabbed her too.

The village had already had multiple contingency plans involving jinchuuriki, even before Jiraiya returned with his disturbing reports of Akatsuki's movements. As Naruto's team leader, it was his duty to know every single one by heart.

"Jonin Hatake, you are supposed to be off-duty," said one of the ANBU. "Please – "

Kakashi gave the ANBU his most intimidating smile. "Shut up."

He didn't bother to wait for an answer. He had more pressing matters to deal with than the stammered apology of a rookie. In the few seconds he had taken to secure Naruto and Ino, the moving crowd had swallowed Shikamaru up completely. Now he had a choice to make – he could either ditch Naruto and Ino, and go looking for Shikamaru, or he could trust Asuma and Kurenai to take care of him.

"Kakashi," Yamato said softly, "take them if you like, but you have to stay with them, wherever you're going." He gripped Kakashi's shoulder hard enough that it was painful. We can't have you out in the field.

"Tenzo – "

"My name is Yamato now." No arguments. Keep your children safe. "If you're so worried, I'll go find Shikamaru for you."

Kakashi could only nod. Shikamaru's a smart kid. He'll be okay. In this specific situation, Naruto comes first. He's in greater danger.

The answer should have been obvious, and back in ANBU, Kakashi could make snap judgments like this all the time without feeling the least bit of hesitation. But for some reason, getting a Genin team had eaten away at his many years of cold hard logic, and all he could feel was a massive sense of – somethingnotgood – for leading away two of his kids to safety while leaving behind the third.


ANBU Private Grounds AA9

All of them had protested fiercely at being forced into hiding when they could have been out there, helping, but Kakashi-sensei would have none of it. Nor would he listen to the ANBU who were supposed to take them to their designated safe house. Instead, he took multiple turns through what Naruto knew were supposed to be restricted grounds, from his many forays into the map rooms with Shikamaru and Ino, until they finally reached their destination – an empty field surrounded by a heavily guarded chain-linked fence.

Kakashi-sensei went up the gate, flanked by the few ANBU left that had managed to keep up with him, and whispered a few code words that Naruto couldn't make out. Before he knew it, all three of them had been introduced to a tiny cell, given about no time to compose themselves, and locked behind a slammed door.

It was at this point that Naruto realized, this was no standard safe house.

It was a prison.

Random ANBU #1 noticed this too, and protested, "Protocol says – "

"I know what protocol says; I wrote it!" Kakashi-sensei snapped.

"What – "

"Protocol is wrong on purpose! Itachi Uchiha is a former ANBU; the established safe-houses are the first place they'd look, you morons!" Gone was his normal, mild-mannered exterior. Here was someone who took no nonsense and refused to allow incompetence as an excuse.

He could only sit there and appreciate the horrible brilliance of his teacher's decision, to hide him here instead of – wherever he had originally been supposed to go.

The concept of a jail, that is, to keep someone inside, was so well-ingrained in people's minds that many tended to forget that they were also convenient for keeping people out as well. Just like how Tazuna, the bridge builder from Wave, had been protected from Gato's men by Konoha's prisons, so, too would they be protected from the invaders here.

Unlike the pitch black, dripping dungeons of movies, this prison compound was very well designed. Lit around the clock with bright fluorescent lights, the place had an ultra-sanitized look, and it could have very easily been mistaken for a hospital had it not been for the steel-reinforced doors lining the hallways, and the weird color of paint. It was neither completely black nor completely white, but rather, an off-gray, greenish tinge.

Ino identified it as glow-in-the-dark paint. "It's the same stuff I paint stars on my bedroom ceiling with, except it's stronger. This must be a backup plan for light, in case someone tried cutting off the generators. I can't imagine having to sleep through this, though. It must be horrible."

On the bright side, the facilities were clean enough. Very new and well-maintained, actually. It was an dreary location, but not exactly the torture chambers he'd heard horror stories about.

Who are our neighbors? Naruto wondered. What had they done, to be assigned to such a well-built and better-guarded prison? Condemned to sleepless days and nights, totally isolated from the world, with little hope of their existence being remembered, let alone rescue or escape? He thought of prisoners of war, valuable enough to be used as future bargaining chips, but not valuable enough to be remembered until they were needed. Men who were intelligent enough that they could not be released, but not strong enough to warrant execution on the spot.

Did other villages have similar constructs? Were they better, or worse? How many other shinobi had Konoha also similarly abandoned to enemy villages? The Will of Fire supposedly never gave up a comrade, but there was always the chance that someone who was left for dead by an injured team without the strength or resources to take them back home was instead picked up by foreign scouts before they drew their last breath.

It must have been a horrible existence, to be imprisoned for life when your only crime was being abandoned by a village you fought for.

Naruto leaned back and closed his eyes, trying to think of something else, anything else, that was a little less depressing.

"Sorry for the location," Kakashi-sensei's voice wafted through the tiny food slot, "but this is the best place they don't know exist yet." He swore softly. "I knew the Akatsuki were dangerous but I didn't think they'd be foolhardy enough to attack the village in broad daylight like this. The Sandaime said we'd have up to another year at least. Optimistic fool."

Naruto thought about the little whispers Konohamaru had been passing him all this time. He knew what they wanted from him. This is my fault.

Ino put a hand on his shoulder. "This changes nothing. You could be a space alien robot for all I care. A team is a team is a team."

"How – ?"

"We didn't say anything because we didn't want to make you uncomfortable, but if you're in danger you don't have to hide anything around us," Ino said.

"You know?"

Sasuke snorted. Naruto glared at him. "What?"

"Of course she knows. Everyone with half a brain knows. It's the worst-kept secret in Konoha. Adults glaring at you like you murdered babies when all you did was paint a wall? Calling you a demon under their breath? Please." He crossed his arms, grinning. "Like you could be some legendary beast. You're just a dumbass."

"If that's your idea of 'comforting' you need therapy fast," Naruto shot back. He didn't want to hear anymore. He didn't care. He had Kakashi-sensei and Ino and Shikamaru. And Iruka-sensei and Yamato-sensei. He didn't need any of them. If the others wanted to be mean then they could go ahead. Naruto had more than enough friends to counteract that.

"Behave," Kakashi-sensei warned. There was some yelling in the distance. "Stay here. Don't kill each other. I'll be right back." His footsteps faded down the hall.

Naruto leaned his head back against the wall. He was getting antsy. Trapped in a confined space, with nowhere to move…he could only imagine how terrible it must be for the Kyuubi, to feel like this all the time. All he could see in his mind was the sewer, and the cage where the fox lay.

"Hey, fox?"

"The hell do you want?"

The thing was as abrasive as ever. But at least it was responding in something other than threats. Naruto had convinced it to a minor truce – any conversation between the two of them would be carried out with reasonable responses. For Naruto, that meant he didn't have to listen to anymore of the fox's cruel words, and for the fox, that meant not having to talk to Naruto for any longer than necessary.

"I know you hate me, but if those guys come after us, you can't let them catch you, okay?"

The fox grumbled. "I hate you, but I guess I hate those bastards more."

"So we have an agreement?"

"Fine."

"Good."

And just like that Naruto was ejected from his own mindscape again, though with considerably less force than the last few times. If the fox was slowly descending into the territory of a halfhearted toss, then it probably meant he was making some progress.

Now for his other angry cellmate, curled up in the corner away from him and Ino. Naruto opened his mouth to speak, and then closed it. He hadn't talked to Sasuke in awhile, but depending on how things went he could prove to be more or less volatile than the Kyuubi. He was hedging his bets on the latter, seeing as he'd seen the human side of Sasuke after the second phase of the exams, but better safe than sorry.

Conversation, Ino had taught him, went hand-in-hand with shogi. Just like Shikamaru planned out how to move his pieces, one must already know the direction one wanted to take a verbal exchange in before starting.

"You're not as much of a jerk as you used to be."

Sasuke snorted. "And you're not as much of an idiot as you used to be." But Naruto didn't react, so Sasuke was forced to turn to something else to pass the time with. He pulled out a kunai and began stabbing the ground aimlessly.

"Why are you here?" Naruto interrupted.

Sasuke stabbed the ground with a bit more force. "Because that man is one of them."

"That man…?"

"The man who murdered my family," Sasuke clarified. Clang. "The man who ruined my life." Clang. "The man I'm going to kill." Clang.

"Really?" Naruto asked.

"I have to," Sasuke whispered. Steel met concrete. "I can't let this go on. I'm already too much of a liability. I have to get stronger!" Clang. "Back in the maze – when we were attacked by the snake – that was your sensei, wasn't it? Asuma-sensei told me I was only here because someone else took the hit." Sasuke asked. Naruto, seeing no reason to lie, nodded. "See, look at me. Jonin from teams that aren't even mine are getting hurt because of me. And now I'm in here, hiding, when I should be out there, helping…"

Naruto thought of Hinata and Choji. Two more people who knew to be decent human beings. "You care about them, don't you?" Sasuke's eyebrows knitted together. "Look, it's okay to admit it. I care about my teammates, too."

And then the jerk was back again. "Shut up, Naruto."

"You don't have to hide around me. I get it, okay? Being alone for so long, and finally having other people in your life you can trust…you don't want to see them get hurt."

"Shut up!"

Naruto kept going. "But if you want to protect them from people who might hurt them, you need to start with yourself!"

CLANG.

Sasuke slammed his entire blade flat into the wall, right by Naruto's face. "I swear on my dead family, Naruto. Shut your mouth, or I will shut it for you – !"

"I thought I told you not to kill each other."

They jumped. Naruto shot Sasuke a look.

"It was nothing, Kakashi-sensei! We were just messing around – "

"I can hear sharpened metal on concrete. That's not messing around," Kakashi-sensei said dangerously. "Put. The weapon. Away."

Fuck. He's not joking.

Sasuke must have felt the same murderous vibe, because he hastily shoved his kunai back into his pouch with terrified obedience. "I'm sorry. It won't happen again. Thank you for saving my life before, and for sparing it again."

There was a long silence. And then the murderous voice gave way to something else. "Please be safe. Including you, Sasuke. I mean it."

He's scared, Naruto realized. And worried.

Why is that surprising? He's human, too. Maybe that was what was expected of a Jonin sensei – always calm and self-assured. Or maybe Kakashi-sensei was always supposed to be one step ahead, and seemingly strange situations were in fact under his control. Or maybe that fear was always there, and it was Naruto who was getting better at reading the mask.

The rest of their confinement went by in total silence.


The Chunin Exam Stadium

It was no secret that Asuma had never felt like his father's son, even after their reconciliation. Oh, he was a skilled Jonin in his own right, but he would never be Hiruzen Sarutobi. He had not been born with a blessed mind; no matter how hard he tried, he could never keep up. When surrounded by legends and prodigies, one could easily feel lost, everything just barely out of his short reach.

ANBU were shooting silent orders over his head left and right. Asuma could make out a few of them, but very poorly. Nine…two…one-one…he was sure they were numbers, but he had no idea what the hell they meant. The point of those complicated codes was to make sure that no one but one of their own could understand them. His father, being the Hokage, had forced him to learn a few, but they rarely stuck.

There was a tug on his sleeve, and he looked down. "We have to go," Shikamaru Nara said. His eyes seemed oddly blank. "Konoha is being invaded." Before Asuma could even answer, he had already jumped his way to the top of the stadium walls, not even bothering with using the stairs, and Asuma had no choice but to follow him.

"How – "

Shikamaru pointed at the ANBU, flashing hand signs faster than a blink of an eye. Asuma sighed in exasperation. Leave it to Hatake to teach his kids black ops signals. He wanted to be jealous, that he hadn't been picked to teach the genius Nara, but really, what could the boy learn from him? Better to give him to a man who could actually challenge him. Asuma was doing well enough with two dojutsu and three noble clans; he could hardly complain.

All around them, civilians were following the exit procedures in an orderly, amused fashion, commenting on the splendid organization of the village and the impressive display of ANBU communication.

They thought it was just a forest fire. They honestly thought it was just a forest fire.

"I thought we took care of those traitorous Sand bastards," Asuma hissed, as he spotted a sign for foreign village. And another, Sharingan. It was the last one he saw before they exited the stadium, and then they were running for their lives through Konoha's alleys, though from what Asuma was still trying to figure out.

Sasuke…

"Orochimaru's supposed to be dead, though," Kurenai said, and Asuma nearly missed the flash of I-know-something-you-don't on Shikamaru's face.

"It's not Sand," Shikamaru told him. "The hidden village in question was Rain."

"What does Rain have to do with this?" Kurenai snapped.

"Oh," Shikamaru muttered, and swore under his breath. He skidded to a stop, and Asuma followed suit. "Everything."

Asuma looked up and saw red clouds on black.


At first, Kisame had been confused as to why Itachi insisted that the two of them stand on disks of fire – especially after how vocal he had been about his aquatic lineage before. But then he remembered the Nara clan, and decided that he'd rather suffer dry feet later than get cut off in the middle of a fight.

Kisame smiled. "Hello, friendly people of Konoha. We are looking for a little boy with blonde hair and blue eyes; any idea where we might find him?"

He was supposed to be in Safe House #9, according to the ANBU they interrogated, so either the Tsukuyomi wasn't as jumped up as Itachi made it out to be or someone didn't follow protocol. Now, how the heck were they supposed to predict the actions of an opponent when said opponent didn't even follow their own rules?

Just like playing a lucky beginner at poker, Kakuzu would say if he were here. Idiot doesn't know how or when he's supposed to fold, but none of that matters if he has the highest hand.

"Don't be silly, Kisame. They wouldn't know," Itachi replied. "The Kyuubi's Jonin minder lied about the rules on purpose. I do miss his little mind games," he added, almost as an afterthought.

"Kakashi isn't here," the Jonin of the group said, drawing a set of strange blades. Wind chakra. This is the Sandaime Hokage's son. "We don't know where he is."

"We don't know, either," Itachi said. "But we know where he will be." He took a step towards the Nara boy.

They say before every fight there was always a still moment, an air of calm. That was a complete lie. They were shinobi, and shinobi were practical if anything. Kisame earned first blood before Itachi ever finished talking.

From there it was nothing but a whirlwind of death and organs. He couldn't help himself. This was all Kisame had been born to do, so he might as well do it properly. The world faded out, and then all he could hear was Samehada's call for meat, pulsing in his ears in time to his heartbeat.


What do we do? Kurenai panicked.

It had been Asuma's scream of pain that yanked Kurenai out of Itachi Uchiha's paralyzing genjutsu. She woke to Kisame Hoshigaki standing over him, sword raised above his shoulder, preparing for another swing, like a horrible nightmare, only real.

What everyone in the world does when they see an Uchiha, Kurenai reminded herself. Go straight for the eyes.

This man was infamous for a reason. It was one thing to get stabbed or incapacitated, but to see flesh actually ripped off like a thresher – it was horrifying.

The sword came down. Asuma rolled over, barely holding his guts in. The sword made contact. Another sickening crunch. She heard bones break. Blood bubbling. A low gurgle.

Kurenai could only describe her own scream as the most terrifying sound she'd ever heard herself make. She had always preferred painless, silent kills. She'd never thought she was capable of wishing so much terror-anger-MURDER on someone – until now.

Have no fear.

She could only imagine thick vines wrapping themselves around Kisame Hoshigaki's neck and squeezing until his eyeballs burst from their sockets…tightening until the thorns punctured his jugular…she wanted to see his blue face turn purple, wanted to see sand and ash clog his orifices, wanted to see him burn and freeze simultaneously, wanted to see his blood on the ground for once –

The feeling of glass shattering in her face brought her back to her senses.

Asuma. On the ground, broken, bleeding out. The Monster of the Hidden Mist was staring at her with an unreadable expression, his hand bleeding.

Who cut him?

Nobody. He cut himself.

Why?

The things she imagined earlier…

Nothing is imaginary to a genjutsu master.

But what was the point? What was the point of any of that? Asuma was dying, Itachi Uchiha was nowhere to be seen, and the boys –

She felt a glob of cold goo sink to the bottom of her stomach.

The boys were gone.

Kakashi is going to kill me.

Then she felt a million scaly spines pierce her stomach. The last thing Kurenai remembered was trying in vain to choke the life out of one of the world's most infamous criminals with her broken fingers.


"She is a ferocious woman, isn't she?" Itachi Uchiha asked me, glancing at Kurenai-sensei.

Barely a few seconds had passed. This was just like Orochimaru all over again. Only Itachi Uchiha was smarter, and even more dangerous.

I couldn't move. Itachi Uchiha stared at me curiously. The fires still burned beneath his feet. I did not have the luxury of using the same tactic as I had in the maze. I did have more advanced shadow jutsu to draw upon, but there was too much light around. Their effects would be negated. Nor was I stupid enough to engage Itachi in a ninjutsu battle.

"They call you a genius, too," Itachi purred, strolling in a circle around me. "A prodigy, perhaps with the capability to surpass even me." I could see Choji, also frozen under the effects of his genjutsu. "Well? Show me what you can do, Shikamaru Nara."

I did not let his false praise flatter me. Strategy was one thing, but combat with bloodline limits was another. They're only here because they couldn't go after Naruto directly, I reminded myself. Kakashi-sensei and Ino must also be safe. Though the timing itself was a surprise, the Akatsuki were not. So this is actually better than Orochimaru. We were prepared this time. They are all safe.

What about them? I thought, looking back at Itachi. What the hell is he thinking? His choices made absolutely no sense. There were a million better ways to catch us off-guard than attacking in the middle of a large event, where security was already tighter than normal. Why not wait for the jinchuuriki to go out on a mission of some sort, when he didn't have the protection of the entire damn village, and capture him there?

Instead, because of this botched operation, the entire world knew that they were here. And from now on, every mission Naruto went on would be doubly secure. They had just ruined their chances of an easy picking.

There was no way a supposed genius like Itachi wouldn't have realized something like this was going to happen –

"…I'm speaking out loud, aren't I?"

Itachi Uchiha tilted his head to the side. "Fascinating. Most people don't ever realize they are spilling themselves to me. They feel the paralysis; they believe that is the end of the technique. Not as effective as the Yamanaka, I'll admit, but more accurate and less expensive than getting a man drunk."

I rolled my eyes. "Are you quite done? Or would you like to sit here and explain why you've deliberately done things the hard way? Because I can't imagine someone of your reputation making a mistake as crass as this."

His voice took on a dangerous tone. "Careful, now. You've crossed into dangerous territory." He took a step forward. "Some truths aren't meant to be known. Now I can't let you leave."

There was only one thing to say to that.

"Shadow Possession complete."

Flames leave behind their own shadows, too. Very small ones. It had been that intimidating step forward that allowed me to take advantage of that. Manipulating my shadow while unable to move my hands to form seals was challenging, true, but –

"Monologuing," Itachi Uchiha tsked.

And then I saw black pinwheels on a sea of blood.

The sky turned red.

Crap.

"Shinobi prodigies never live happy lives," he said, a strange look of regret on his face. "You, Shikamaru Nara, really are too smart for your own good."

I was strapped down to a slanted table. Itachi Uchiha stood over me, his colors inverted in a strange mockery of himself. In one hand he held a bucket of black water, and in the other, a red cloth. "I can see your soul, Shikamaru Nara. You're afraid of drowning. A reasonable fear, but we all must learn to face our fears, do we not?"

He leaned over me, so close our noses almost touched.

"It's nothing personal. You remind me of myself, actually."

The cloth went over my face. The bucket dangled in the air.

"Before everything went so. Horribly. Wrong."

And then −

I CAN'T BREATHE I CAN'T BREATHE ICANTBREATHEICANTBREATHEICANTBREATHE –

How much time had passed? One minute? Two?

OH GODS I CAN'T BREATHE

OHGODSIMGOINGTODIE –

The deluge of water stopped. The cloth was yanked away from my face. Air. I gasped and retched, not caring about the bruises where the restraints had dug into my ankles and wrists where I had struggled too hard, only that I have air the black water is gone I'm breathingbreathingBREATHING again −

"That," he said, "was one second of the Tsukuyomi."

The cloth went back over my face.

Oh no oh no ohgodsno

"Only two days, twenty-three hours, fifty-nine minutes, and fifty-nine seconds left to go."


A/N: This looks like a good place to end the chapter.