Naruto: Eye of the Beholder

by The SOC Puppet

Chapter 1 – Exile's Elegy

Summary: Naruto, now a 17-year-old Jounin, was sent on a mission behind enemy lines to retrieve a spy who was thought to be losing control. That spy turned out to be Uchiha Itachi – the older brother of Uchiha Sasuke, who betrayed the Leaf and went over to the Sound five years earlier, and who himself had been thought of as a murderer and criminal. Now, they must travel back to the Leaf – if Naruto can keep from attacking the older Uchiha on sight.

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or any of the characters in this story, except for originals that may pop up along the way. All jutsus are also not my property, other than the ones I think up.

" " – Speech

Italics – Thoughts

          Uzumaki Naruto didn't like surprises much, so it would have been no surprise to anyone in the Leaf when they saw the blonde Jounin's reaction to the man he'd come to extract.

          "Whoa, whoa, whoa. No way. Absolutely no freakin' way. YOU'RE the double agent?"

          For his part, Uchiha Itachi looked far less pleased to be going home than Naruto would have expected.

          "I have given you the code phrase, and you see the other half of the forehead protector you were given. What more must I do?"

          "For all I know," Naruto groused, "you Akatsuki guys discovered the real spy and killed him. You're from the Leaf, and you know that proverb. That's all the knowledge you need."

          Itachi's impassive expression did not change with the accusation. Instead, he removed his half of the broken forehead protector, tossing it over to his fellow Leaf-nin, who caught it gingerly between thumb and forefinger.

          "It is true that I could have discovered the spy's identity and the relevant codes. However, I could not have forged what appears on the backs of the two forehead protectors. Place them together, and you will understand."

          Turning the two pieces of metal over, Naruto found characters etched into the metal, an inscription broken into two pieces. Holding the pieces together, he read the words someone had left behind.

          You who read this inscription, heed my words and obey. Uchiha Itachi is a shinobi of the Leaf, here not of his own volition but under my orders. All that he has done to exile himself from the village was part of a plan of my making. I therefore order that he be escorted back to the village, and removed from the rolls of the traitors and criminals. By the authority of my office, as the Third Hokage of the Leaf, so let it be done.

          Beneath the orders was a seal, characters over a family crest.

          Sarutobi, Third Hokage of the Hidden Leaf Village.

          "So if you're a spy, then you didn't really kill your family, right? Somebody else did and they placed you there to fool the Akatsuki?"

          Itachi did not respond for some time. Instead, the former Akatsuki rolled Kisame's body over and took hold of the sword on his partner's corpse, pulling it free and securing it on his back. When he spoke again, it was in a quiet, subdued tone.

          "No. That would not have fooled the people watching me. Everything that I have been accused of, I did. Only my motives were misunderstood – both by the Leaf Village and by the Akatsuki."

          "Why would you kill your entire family, even under orders?"

          Itachi's response sounded irritated, even angry.

          "I will answer your questions as we travel. For now, we should focus ourselves on getting away from here and back to the village."

          Naruto found it odd – for someone who was going home, the elder Uchiha looked distinctly unhappy.

          "Well, you're just jumping for joy. Not ready to go back?"

          "I find it difficult to be happy about going home when I no longer have a home to return to. Moreover, the Third Hokage is dead. Few people will believe that I was a spy and not a murderer without his direct word, especially since my brother has turned traitor as well."

          The blonde Jounin considered his "comrade" and found truth in what Itachi had said. If he hadn't seen the Third's message, Naruto would have had a hard time believing an Uchiha could have been working on his side, and not for someone else. But Tsunade had plenty of respect in the village. Surely…

          "Hey, the Fifth Hokage believes it. Why else would she send me out here? No one's going to mess with you after she tells them to back off."

          "I do not fear the scorn of the Leaf Village. Even the Fifth Hokage's words will not stop people from hating me. You of all people should know."

          The blonde Jounin did know, all too well. There had been nothing fun about the years he'd lived before gaining everyone's respect. By taking the elder Uchiha back, he would be consigning Itachi to the same fate. Worse, there was no Gaara to save Itachi's reputation – the hatred that would be directed at him was for a crime far worse than simply being the Ninetails' vessel. But if the man wasn't worried about that, what was he so anxious about?

          "If you don't care about being hated, what's the problem?"

          The red-eyed man laughed.

          "Look around us, Naruto. Do you think the Hidden Villages are the only ones with hunter-nins? By leaving the Akatsuki, I will become a marked man. They will stop at nothing to silence me, to keep me from divulging what I know about their goals and capabilities. I never feared the Anbu of the Leaf. They had orders not to actually kill me – only to injure me and then flee – and they obeyed, even if they did not know why. The Akatsuki are a different story. Only a fool would not fear their power. Therefore, I suggest we stop talking and start moving. There will be time enough for questions and answers later."

          Reluctantly, Naruto agreed. But I'm going to get some answers, before I step back into the village and get trampled by the lynch mob that'll be coming for you.

          It was a week before Naruto got the chance to say much other than hurried shouts and battle cries, as he and Itachi fought their way out of Akatsuki territory. More than once the Jounin was reminded of his old days with Team 7, as Itachi used the terrible power of the Sharingan to psychologically (and physically) destroy any foe that took him on. The Ninetails' vessel had to keep reminding himself it wasn't Sasuke before he pulled a weapon and struck down the other shinobi.

          As the attacks began to taper off, Naruto had enough of waiting for his answers. The blonde Jounin glanced at Itachi as he settled down in the temporary shelter of a tree root, blood still spotting his clothes from the last Akatsuki hunter he'd killed. Any other Leaf-nin Naruto knew would have cleaned such a stain off immediately. Not only did Itachi never do so, he seemed to actually enjoy making each Akatsuki hunter's death as gory as possible.

          "Why do you enjoy this so much? You said you were tired of killing back when you offed Kisame."

          Itachi shook his head.

          "I was tired of killing for them. When I eliminate the Akatsuki, it is justified. It is something worthwhile, rather than living a lie."

          "The Akatsuki are a bunch of scumbags; killing them ain't a big deal. But what the hell would make the Third justify making you kill your entire clan?"

          "High treason."

          "What?"

          "I will explain. As you have taken the risk to fight with me, it is only fair to tell you the whole story."

* * *

          "Hokage-sama will see you now."

          Itachi glanced up from his seat, into the face of Raidou, one of the Third Hokage's bodyguards. With the village so seldom under attack, the Jounin's "defensive" duties were almost never needed. That meant the scar-faced man spent most of his time as a simple door guard.

          Seeing such a familiar face didn't lessen the unease the Anbu captain felt. Much like Naruto ten years later, Uchiha Itachi seldom, if ever, met the Hokage without his subordinates being there too. His team hadn't screwed up lately; it had to be something else. Something so secret not even Special Jounin like Ibiki had been able to tell him what might be going on. Anything so secret means nothing but trouble.

          Itachi's theory was confirmed when he saw the expression on the Third's face. It was one thing for the Hokage to look serious; he had to do that most of the time anyway. But right now, the old shinobi wasn't just serious; the Third looked angry, eyes glinting with a hardness that was rarely seen by anyone in the village. Something tells me this will not be a pleasant conversation. If the Third was in this kind of mood, he would brook no wasting of time.  

          "You wished to see me, Hokage-sama?"

          "Tell me, Itachi, who do you owe your loyalty to?"

          "To the village and its people, as the oath we all swear binds us. As the leader of the Anbu, my loyalty is above reproach. Why do you question it?"

          The Third leaned back in his chair and sighed.

          "You're right, Itachi. Your loyalty is not in question here. However, there is some question as to someone you know."

          "I do not understand. My people, all of the Anbu members, are beyond suspicion. Nobody who harbors treasonous intent would be accepted into our ranks."

          "Did I say it was an Anbu member?"

          The Uchiha prodigy stiffened in his seat, chills shooting down his spine. Why do I suddenly feel such dread? Before he could respond, the Third was out of his chair, pacing over to the window that overlooked Konoha.

          "Have you ever heard of a group called the Akatsuki?"

          "I cannot say I have. Information gathering is Ibiki's job, not mine."

          The head of the Leaf Village waved his hand in dismissal of Itachi's words.

          "That's not surprising. Even the information Ibiki has discovered so far is scant. However, what little we know is dangerous enough.

          "The Akatsuki is an organization composed both of high-powered missing-nin formerly of the ninja villages, and of high-ranking shinobi within each village. Their ultimate goal is the overthrow of every country in the world, through the overthrow of each Kage."

          Itachi mulled over what he'd heard. The very idea of such an alliance was extraordinary, since the ninja villages were so easily stirred to war against each other. Each of the five villages' philosophies was too different from the others to make any partnership last long.

          "You say shinobi from all of the villages have joined this group. I do not understand how such unity could be possible. We are constantly at each others' throats for the slightest reasons. These Akatsuki are doomed to failure."

          "My boy," the Third Hokage sighed, "you underestimate what desire for power will do to a human being."

          "What do you mean?"

          "The Akatsuki don't just want to take power. They believe only the strong should hold power, and the weak must be led by their betters. If they meant that those strong in their loyalty to the village or desire to protect the people should lead, I could not argue with them. But their idea of power is physical strength alone. That is not the way of the Leaf, what we were taught by the First and Second Hokages. If we followed the way of the Akatsuki, Orochimaru would have been the Fourth Hokage, not Kazama Arashi."

          Now we approach the heart of the matter.

          It was a poorly-kept secret in Konoha that Orochimaru, one of the Legendary Three, had been furious when Kazama Arashi was chosen as the Third's successor, the Fourth Hokage. Even so, it had looked like he'd forgotten about it – until the Third had confronted him in a hidden lab where Orochimaru was doing experiments on the bodies of Leaf shinobi. Living shinobi, in several cases. What happened after that wasn't known to anyone but the Third, but all that mattered was that Orochimaru had gotten away, and gone from being a legendary figure to an S-class criminal. Since he had always been the Third's protégé, the old man wasn't taking it well.

          "I appreciate the philosophy lesson, but why I am here? The Akatsuki have not propositioned me, and I would not accept their offers even if they did."

          The Third shook his head.

          "You said it yourself; your loyalty is beyond reproach. Kagetora's, however, has become suspect."

          Uchiha Kagetora…my father!?

          "You believe my father has joined them?"

          "I can't say anything definite. All we know is that Kagetora and several other elders of the Uchiha clan have been seen in the company of Akatsuki sympathizers. None of them was foolish enough to be seen in with a missing-nin from another village, so there is no concrete evidence that they have turned against us."

          "What do you want of me, then? My father and I do not see eye to eye. He would not trust me enough to bring me in on such a plan."

          "True, Kagetora would not be interested in your aid. The Akatsuki would, however. You are one of the strongest shinobi the Uchiha Clan has ever produced, perhaps equal to Obito when he was your age. Even if your father does not approach you, someone from their group will."

          "You wish for an undercover mission, then, to see if they have joined the Akatsuki."

          The Third sat down heavily, the gravity of the situation not lost on him.

          "I realize it will be difficult, but you're the only shinobi in the village who can do this. And we could always get lucky and discover there are no traitors at all."

          Itachi was silent for some time before he responded.

          "Somehow, I doubt you would have called me here if you did not have a very good idea of whether they have betrayed the Leaf."

          The Third suddenly looked much older, and his voice reflected that.

          "I wish I could say you were wrong, but I can't. God help us all if it's really true."

          "If it is true, my father will need more than a god to help him escape from me."

          "Itachi, my boy," the Third sighed. "Be careful what you wish for. You might just get it."

          Those words continued to echo as he left the Hokage's office, and Itachi did not like the conclusions he was coming to. He had no problems with fighting his own father, if it came to that. Uchiha Kagetora professed not to understand his eldest son, and Itachi felt much the same about his father. However, the Third had been suspicious of more Uchihas than just Kagetora. Would he have to fight every adult in the Clan? Why had his father even brought his Clan into such a dangerous situation?

          Uchiha Kagetora was no slouch. He, too, had made it into the upper ranks of the Leaf shinobi at a young age, recognized as a prodigy in his generation and in the Uchiha Clan itself. And yet… To him, it is not enough that only some acknowledge him for what he is. I suppose he will never be satisfied unless everyone believes him to be a legend.

          Father and son's relationship was confusing at best. Itachi had spent some sleepless nights as a child wondering if he would ever be the ninja that Kagetora was, and for a time his father had relished training his son towards that goal – until Itachi had actually done it. Not only become Kagetora's equal, but one of his superiors, captain of the Anbu. Then, everything had changed. Why would he only have been angry with me? Obito was as good a shinobi as I am, probably better. Why could my father not direct this venom at him? Itachi pondered that for a while, and then thought better of it. No, Obito deserved that fate even less than I do.

          Uchiha Obito, better known as the "Red-Eyed Demon," had been Itachi's older cousin and an Anbu captain. Along with his crack squads of Jounin, he had terrorized the village's enemies during many of the wars that had gone on before Itachi had become a shinobi. In the process Obito had earned the respect of the Leaf, the hatred of other villages, and the adulation of his younger cousin. Ironically enough, his end had not come at the hands of someone from another country – it had been at the hands of one the Leaf had called its own. The Third was not the only one who had been angry about Orochimaru's defection. Itachi loathed the snake-like man just as much, for Obito had died during the criminal's escape.

          In the end, Itachi could only come to one conclusion: Obito had been family, but he had not been Uchiha Kagetora's child. Kagetora would detest it if a cousin or brother surpassed his talents, but it was at least understandable – did they not have the same blood that ran through his veins?

          Having one of his own children betray his dream of glory, though? That was unforgivable to a man so driven by his own self-worth. A whelp barely old enough to shave was hardly a worthy challenger to his legacy. Yet Itachi was proof that Kagetora's legacy was worth little more than the paper he would have written his glorious memoirs on. His father knew it and hated it, although he kept a tight lid on those emotions. Why not, when doing otherwise would only make the village love his son more and him less?

          Had his father's foolishness come to betraying the village? For what? If the Akatsuki failed, Kagetora was doomed to become a missing-nin himself, constantly hunted and sought after, the Anbu always on his tracks.

          Very much unlike him, Itachi barely noted he had strayed from the normal path home, and into the forest around the village. The sound of shuriken streaking at him from behind, however, quickly snapped the Leaf-nin out of his funk. Fool! Worry about your father later! While you're charged with a mission, that takes priority! Leaping aside, the young Jounin heard a taunting voice from above.

          "For a prodigy, you sure have slow reflexes!"

          Itachi snorted, drawing the straight blade of the Anbu from the sheath on his back.

          "Boast when you have defeated me, not before. Now come out of the trees and fight, unless you want me to go in after you."

          Leaves rustled as the enemy shinobi dropped down to the ground. Immediately, the Leaf-nin's eyes were drawn to the forehead protector on his opponent's head. The mark of his village has been crossed out – definitely a missing-nin. The Third was right; they have come to seek my aid.

          Dropping his attention down to the other ninja's features, Itachi noted the beady black eyes and gill-like things on the man's face. I am in the presence of infamous company.

          "Hoshigaki Kisame, is it? What does one of the Mist's most wanted traitors think he will find in the Leaf? I assure you we do not shelter your kind."

          The shark-faced shinobi just laughed.

          "You sure about that? Not everything's as black and white or good and evil as you think."

          He no longer knew what to think. Hating his father for personal reasons was one thing, but even Uchiha Itachi had been unwilling to believe his flesh and blood would turn traitor. Seeing the smug grin on Kisame's face, he knew that the Third's "rumors" were far more than just talk. He believes he is safe here; someone protects him. No missing-nin would be fool enough to act this way unless he had an ironclad guarantee hunters from his village would not be allowed to pursue him.

          "I catch on slower than most people. Then again, it does not matter that you are being protected. The guidebook lists you as an S-class criminal, and a criminal's fate is to be captured and destroyed. Prepare to die."

          Kisame unlimbered his giant sword from the sling on his back.

          "Die? I could use a little exercise, but I ain't dying today. Gimme your best shot."

          The nerve of this fool! Brazenly strolling into my home and flaunting the protection of traitors! Itachi rarely indulged himself in anger; it distorted his perception and made him unfocused. But now rage was surging within him, all of his feelings towards his father and the other traitors rising to the surface. The time for reason had passed – his enemy must be destroyed!

          The Anbu captain seemed to vanish, streaking towards Kisame with sword upraised. His enemy stood there impassively, sword still wrapped in cloth.

          "If you wish to die standing there like a fool, I will grant your wish!"

          "Promises, promises."

          Expecting to hear the sound of metal slicing into flesh, Itachi's eyes narrowed when he merely heard a dull thud. Somehow the ex-Mist shinobi had gotten his sword in the way, the rest of the long blade dangerously close to the Leaf-nin's arm. A fitting performance for a master of the Mist's sword style.

          "Best be careful, kid. I'd hate to have to kill you because you underestimated me."

          The irritating smirk Naruto would later come to hate from Sasuke sprang up on Itachi's face.

          "That day will never come, fish-man. Worry about your own problems."

          "That so? Then you won't mind if I just maim you a little, huh?"

          What? Itachi gathered his feet to leap backwards, but it was too late. Even as he tried to parry Kisame's blade, the flat of the wrapped sword glided across his arm – followed by the nauseating sensation of his flesh being torn apart. Sliding to a stop across the clearing, Itachi grabbed at his left arm, applying pressure to the wound. He looked over to see odd spikes on the enemy's sword, dripping blood where there had only been cloth before.

          "So the rumors were true. A sharkskin blade that tears and shreds, rather than cuts and stabs. You have caught me off guard. It will not happen again."

          "For your sake, kid, it better not. Come on, do your worst. I ain't got all day."

          "Neither do I. If I cannot destroy you with a blade, there are always other ways."

          Sheathing his sword, Itachi brought his hands together in a sequence of hand seals, ignoring the agony it caused in his arm.

          "Katon: Housenka (Fire Element: Mythical Fire Flower)!"

          Once again, his expectations were dashed. Even after he had completed all the seals, nothing happened. I may be angry, but I have not lost my mind! What is happening?

          "Oops. Guess I caught you off guard again. Look, I'm a nice guy, so I'll spell it out. Good ol' Samehada (Sharkskin) here ain't just a sword. It also eats chakra. So all of them flashy fire jutsus you Leaf punks have are about as useful as spitting at me."

          Gritting his teeth through his rage and pain, Itachi snarled out his reply. Useful? We shall see. I will drag every bit of information you have about these traitors out of you before this is over.

          "Very well. I will show you something more…useful."

          The Anbu captain's eyes opened wide, their odd reddish color evident in the sunlight, three dots circling each iris.

          "Mangekyo Sharingan: Tsukiyomi (Kaleidoscope Sharingan: Grasping Moon)."

          Kisame's vision of the clearing disappeared into a dark void, all of his senses going dead.

          "I agree, you are strong. Finding safety from the hunters gives you confidence, a joy in fighting, while I am simply trying to survive. But now you are the one who must try to survive. In the world of the Grasping Moon, I am in control. All of Space and Time bends to my will."

          The Mist missing-nin snarled.

          "So kill me then, if you're so hell-bent on doin' your duty."

          He felt the cold touch of steel on his throat. Itachi's voice was so quiet Kisame could barely hear anything.

          "Why should I make it that easy for you? Besides, what you have said…intrigues me."

          "What the hell are you talking about?"

          The blade disappeared, Itachi's voice getting louder.

          "You speak of being safe in the Leaf, even though you are a traitor to your village. If a person could break away from restrictions and rules, the system that binds him, he could travel the world, and gain great power. He could be the master of all shinobi.

          "The Leaf speaks of its goals and its ideals, and ignores strength. They pushed one such as Orochimaru aside, thinking that he was unsuited for the title of Hokage. And why? He only desired to know everything there was to know. Their fear of him is detestable. I, too, seek to be the greatest, but that cannot be done in this place."

          "Whaddaya think I can do about it?"

          "You know the source of your protection here. There must be others scattered throughout the world, people with like minds. Tell me of them and I will let you live; I may even join the cause. Say nothing and you will not leave this place alive."

          Kisame narrowed his eyes, looking around in the darkness for his opponent. Damn. If I didn't know any better I'd say ol' Red-Eyes is actually serious about this. But then that was the whole point of testing his skill here.

          "Let's just say something like that exists, and they're lookin' to recruit. How do I know you're not a plant? Some undercover spy?"

          Itachi's laughter was grimmer now, a mocking undertone faintly present.

          "I am the captain of the Anbu, the elite assassins of the Leaf. We are supposed to be loyal to a fault. If any of us were even suspected of treason, we would be killed. There would be no hearing, no trial. I am putting my life at risk just by speaking to you."

          Once more, Kisame felt a chill descend upon him. This time, the young Leaf-nin's blade rested on the back of his neck, almost like an executioner.

          "Do not doubt for a moment I will take your head if you think to breathe a word of this conversation to anyone."

          Hoshigaki Kisame hadn't survived this long outside the Mist Village without being smart – and very protective of his life. As much as his orders said to keep quiet about important things, his instincts told him Uchiha Itachi was dead serious about every word he'd spoken. Time to get talkative.

          "Look, I'm just a part in a big machine. We work in cells, maybe twenty or thirty people at most, and no cell knows what another's doing. Someone else gives the orders; that's the only guy I can take you to."

          "Seeing that dead-fish face of yours, it is hardly surprising. You live, for now. Take me to the one you speak of."

          "Yeah, sure, whatever you say. Just let me out of this freaky-ass place."

* * *

          "Fool! Were you not told to keep your mouth shut, even on pain of death? What is the use of having you as anything other than an assassin? As an operative, you are a lost cause."

          Kisame had taken Itachi deeper into the forest, stopping abruptly when he saw a hooded, robed figure standing in front of him. Now Itachi looked at the man who had spoken, trying to figure out who it might be.

          "Do not blame your underling. I did not give him much choice in the matter."

          Itachi felt the hooded man's eyes turn on him.

          "Those who are weak, be it in mind or body, do not deserve a place in the Cause. They endanger our security, expose our secrets, and bring no glory upon their fellow fighters."

          Itachi's eyes narrowed. Their focus is simple but effective. Those who seek personal fame can find it with the Akatsuki. They know defeat will not be tolerated, and it spurs them on to greater deeds. They are survivors above all; truly a dangerous group.

          "Sheltering missing-nins for personal gain is hardly a cause."

          The unknown man turned back to Kisame.

          "How much does he actually know?"

          The shark-faced man shrugged.

          "What am I, a mind reader? All I told him was I ain't scared of all them hunter-nins he was threatening me with, and he jumps to all sorts of weird-ass conclusions."

          "Apparently you have a brain after all. He knows nothing vital, although I suppose you did your best to spill all the knowledge you had."

          "Gee, I guess I oughta be flattered. Asshole."

          The other Akatsuki member laughed coldly.

          "Curse all you like. That is all the power you have over me; the sooner you realize that, the sooner you will advance within the Cause. Then again, having a lout and fool for a servant is not all bad. One less threat to my position."

          Itachi watched the scene impassively, his conversation with the Third coming to mind. Among such a group, each member seeks his own path. The only thing that keeps them united is their desire to possess ultimate power. When they have it, they will fight amongst themselves for the right to be the last one standing. Until then they will slay all who hinder them, without any shred of mercy. I must find a way to stop this.

          "If you are done bickering, I would like to know what this so-called 'Cause' is, other than a collection of squabbling children."

          The hooded man snorted.

          "The ignorant mock what they do not understand. We have many names, but our founder's name is most appropriate. We are the Akatsuki (Dawn). Our purpose is to bring the dawning of a new age upon the world, where strength and ability are the measures of greatness."

          The Leaf-nin would have rolled his eyes if the other man hadn't been watching. In other words, he who can kill the most men and survive shall rule supreme. No wonder his father had joined these people so quickly. These people were essentially the same as Uchiha Kagetora. Wonderful. I have to infiltrate a group of walking egos.

          "I will tell you what I have told Kisame. In the Leaf, people like me are persecuted. We are not allowed to pursue true strength, merely a shadow of it, hampered by ideals and rules. I grow tired of being held back because others fear my skills and dreams. If you can show me a place to gain true power, I will gladly do whatever you ask to be worthy of it."

          "Such a thing is not given lightly. The Cause does not simply shelter any missing-nin that comes along. Our purpose must remain secret. Any ties you have – be they family, romantic, or friendship – will be broken forever the moment you become one of us."

          Itachi waved that warning off with a lazy flip of his hand.

          "Power is a great aid in making new friends, especially when combined with money."

          "Wisely spoken. You may be of use to us. However, I will not be the judge of that. The decision is up to those even more powerful than me, and I will go and present your case before them. If you are worthy, you will become one of us. If you are not, you will be silenced – permanently."

          Uchiha Itachi threw his head back and laughed. It was the first time he'd felt truly amused all day.

          "You are welcome to try. Just try not to be too disappointed when your people come back missing some vital body parts."

          The hooded man turned to leave, but not before tossing off one last remark.

          "We shall see. Act normally until I return; if you are heard giving away any of what I have told you, worthy or not, I will kill you myself."

          Itachi watched the unknown shinobi leave, Kisame shuffling along behind him. I have already betrayed my people as I was ordered to do. If you think I fear death any longer, you are sadly mistaken.

* * *

          "So that's it? You were in just like that?"

          Naruto looked at Itachi over the campfire as the other Leaf-nin stopped speaking. The former missing-nin ran a hand through his hair tiredly before speaking again.

          "No. They required me to undergo a test first. Call it an initiation. I can only imagine how they decided on something so twisted."

* * *

          "That's a laugh. Another Uchiha willing to join? That's like saying another perfect-looking woman suddenly wants to climb in bed with you and the one you already had there. Too good to be true."

          The hooded man who had spoken to Itachi in the forest now stood in the center of a darkened room. To anyone who could have seen him, his body language betrayed no sign the mystery man was worried about the lack of light. He knew why it had to be this way. Just as I conceal my identity, the leaders of the Cause hide from each other. Voices can be disguised, but faces are harder to mask.

          "Too good, perhaps, but this is a chance we cannot miss. Uchiha Itachi is stronger than anyone in his Clan, a fitting match even for some of us in this room. If he is sincere, we must accept him."

          "But he must be tested."

          "Of course. Even sincerity can be faked."

          "And if he passes, by all means pair him with Kisame. That idiot's mouth will be the death of him someday."

          The hooded man nodded.

          "There will be time enough for that once I have tested him. What do you wish for him to do?"

          A voice from above them all responded, slowly and with the unmistakable confidence that comes with true power.

          "As you have said, he is the greatest of the Uchiha Clan. Kisame's mistake is reminder enough that our security is always at risk. Uchiha Kagetora and his petty desires have served their purpose. The worthiest member of his Clan will join the Cause.

          "The Uchiha Clan is now expendable. They must be silenced. That is the test. I have spoken."

          Light flooded the room as the members of the Akatsuki's High Council left, shining down on the figure in the center, who let down his hood to reveal a youthful face.

          "Prepare yourself, Uchiha Itachi. If you would enter our world, you must first pass your test."

          A mad grin split the face of Orochimaru, before he too left the room, to deliver the message that would change Itachi's life – and the Leaf's destiny – forever.

AUTHOR'S NOTE

Well, the Uchiha Clan gets to live one more chapter. The bloodbath is coming in all its gory glory next time out.

For those of you who wondered why Itachi didn't recognize Orochimaru in the forest, in the anime when Orochimaru reveals he's in a new body, he tells the Third he's on his second new body. For the purposes of this story, in the chapter he was in his first new body using a new voice and face.