Shrimpy: So, it was entirely my fault that this chapter took so long. Fry doesn't trust me anymore and makes me back up everything onto her hdd. Honestly though, I only ACCIDENTALLY, and I'd like to point out that it was completely not on purpose, reformatted my laptop on which I kept all my writings, without backing them up. Seriously, it was no big deal. It only had a few months worth of work, and we can REWRITE! Provided that I didn't become a total lazy bum, which would never happen…

So yeah… Sorry about that.

Anyways, thanks to Fry for her awesome beta-ing anyways, and I'd like to point out, that since we had to patch this chapter together from bits and pieces from all over, it was also beta'd in bits and pieces. So, if it doesn't exactly mesh right, we might be missing a scene somewhere, or I was too lazy to rewrite it again.

This is a lot rougher than we'd like, but I figure, this chapter has taken long enough, right?

Er…yeah.

Onto the title which has nothing to do with anything.

(Big smile)

-:- -:- -:-

-:- -:- -:-

-:- -:- -:-

Chapter Four: In the Light of Compassion

"Never." The blonde hissed between clenched teeth. His blue eyes glared upward, glowing insolently in the pseudo-light.

The answering smirk was mocking. Crimson eyes stared down at him with false benevolence. "You should consider the offer." He said softly.

Cerulean eyes burned. "I've already agreed to all your demands! I'm here, aren't I? I'll do whatever it is you need me for, even if it kills me! But I refuse to forget! You can't make me!" The chains tinkled as the boy struggled, pulling the slack taut. His wrists were tightly shackled behind his back, the short leash of the chains keeping him on his knees, not allowing for him to stand nor sit. Yet he still glared up at the taller ninja, fury coursing through him.

The dark-clad shinobi kneeled down, meeting the fuming blue gaze with his on even stare. "It would be easier on you, Naruto." He said slowly, raising a hand to the blonde's chin. His tone was soft, almost kind.

Naruto jerked his chin from Itachi's grasp. "I don't care! You are not messing with my memories!" He glared, baring fanged teeth at his captor.

Itachi stood, blood-red eyes still trained on the blonde's blue orbs. "We shall see."

-:- -:- -:-

"You have to eat." A low voice chided. A bowl was pushed forward. The sound of ceramic scraping against wood was almost unbearably loud in the bare room.

"I'm not hungry." The blonde replied, head turned away.

A low growl made him flinch, blindfolded eyes turning back to face the bowl. "Eat." The deep voice intoned commandingly. Kyuubi never was one for patience, especially when he was worried.

Naruto simply pulled his brown cloak tighter around his too thin form. Kyuubi's aggressiveness would hardly distress him, no matter how much of a threat the youma-made-human could be. "I can't." He said quietly.

A softly growl escaped from the redhead's throat. "It's this country, isn't it. You don't like it here."

Naruto's head lowered. He said nothing.

Kyuubi scooted closer, settling close enough to the boy to rest his chin on the top of soft blonde spikes.

"We will leave soon. There isn't much that they have that we need. But for now, kit, you must eat." He said softly.

He bent his head to growl soothingly into his kit's ear. It didn't matter what Konoha could offer him. They no longer had anything Naruto needed. His kit must have sensed it. The blonde had developed a terrible aversion to the village and its inhabitants, no matter how well he had masked it.

Naruto could remember them to an extent. But the damage had been done. It was irreparable what the Akatsuki had done to him. Yet to the Kyuubi, it was for the best. Naruto did not need Konoha, all he needed was them.

He placed his chin on the blonde's shoulder. "Eat." He said softly, his lips brushing against the boy's neck. "Then sleep. And do not worry. I shall not leave your side."

Naruto could feel the motion of the foxes lips against him, and fancied that more than once he had felt the tips of Kyuubi's fangs on his skin. Kyuubi had always been there for him, ever since he had awoken. Kyuubi would never hurt him, he knew this. So he never feared the beast, even if the beast had bared his fangs at him. He somehow understood that Kyuubi lived for him, no matter what the fox had committed in his past life.

"Okay, mama." Naruto uncurled slowly, his hands slowly peeping out from the edges of the cloak. Thin fingers wrapped about the bowl, bringing it to his lips in one long motion. He sipped slightly at the broth, the salty soup tinged with something red and coppery. It was a familiar flavor that the blonde had become too accustomed to, too quickly.

Beside him, blue eyes watched as he swallowed every drop.

-:- -:- -:-

Itachi was the one to greet him at the doorstep of Naruto's old cabin. He stood, a still statue of darkened marble against the worn dark wood around him. At his approach, he merely held out a hand, awaiting the delivery of the scroll.

Neji stood before him, guardless and alone. The large scroll was strapped to his back. His white eyes narrowed at the missing-nin's assertiveness.

"I want to see him." He said, breaking the silence of the forest.

"He does not wish to be disturbed." Itachi's quiet voice rang out, soft and velvety, and too smooth to be anything but deadly.

"Let me speak with him first, then you will receive the scroll." Neji pressed.

Scarlet eyes narrowed slightly. "This was not a part of the arrangements. We have kept our side of the bargain, adhering to the laws of Konoha throughout. If you cannot obey the same laws, what example will you set for others?" The even tone was mocking and sarcastic, even if the pale face of the Uchiha betrayed no expression.

His extended hand remained unmoving.

Neji met the Uchiha's intense slitted gaze. A moment of wonder passed through his mind. What did the predatory eyes of the beast show him? What could he see through them? Clarity returned.

Neji, in truth, had nothing with which to bargain. The Akatsuki had come, peacefully, on Naruto's request alone. For whatever reason, they had followed so, and had acted as exemplary ninjas. With the scroll safely in their hands, they would most likely disappear once more, taking Naruto with them. He could not let this chance pass him by.

It was something which had worried Tsunade as she had handed him the scroll. He had read her anxiety easily, and had found it odd since the Hokage was not one to reveal such weaknesses. But he had taken the scroll, and the task, silently. He needed to figure out what had happened to Naruto to have changed his memories, what manipulation they were using, and how to break it.

The day Naruto had fled from Sasuke, he had never once felt so much terror from the blonde. It was pure, unmitigated fear. But why would the Akatsuki choose Sasuke to be such a trigger? Was Sasuke that important to Naruto so as to make him leave the village? He hoped not.

"It doesn't matter what the village thinks. He is welcome within it's walls as long as his friends draw breath. You're keeping him away from the village." White eyes narrowed.

Something unreadable, yet wholly dangerous flashed behind Itachi's predatory eyes. "You truly believe that, do you?" He snorted. "How like a Hyuuga."

Neji's lips tightened.

"The scroll." Itachi's hand was still outstretched.

The large scroll thumped heavily on the ground from where Neji had swung it angrily around his shoulder. It wasn't like him to be left feeling helpless, but for whatever reason, the Akatsuki seemed to be holding all the cards in a stacked deck.

"Careful now, that scroll is much more delicate than you think." A smooth voice issued from behind the door which Itachi stood in front of.

The Akatsuki member did not so much a blink, but surprise could be read in his posture.

The red clad figure slipped easily from the shadow of the doorway. Before Neji could so much as blink, the figure was in front of him, a clawed hand resting atop the pale hand on the scroll.

All the muscles in Neji's body tensed. A single bead of cold sweat slithered down from his temple.

That…creature before him radiated such an awesome aura. It was thick and icy, clogging his throat and freezing his lungs. Yet his heart burned, that chilling aura causing hot blood to course through his veins. Clear blue eyes met his pale ones, and he knew he had lost.

The scroll was taken from his unresisting fingers.

So close, and Neji could do nothing but watch as that red cloaked man walked gingerly back toward the cabin. Within the shadows cast by the walls, the deep smooth voice reverberated.

"You have three days."

Three days to visit Naruto? Was that all the time they were granting them until they left?

Neji drew a slow breath. Compared to that display of predatory aura, Itachi seemed almost placid in contrast. Still, something shifted in that crimson gaze which reeked of displeasure. He turned his back on the Hyuuga and disappeared into the cabin.

Neji clenched his jaw. He was being dismissed as if he were some lower servant. Rank, status, bloodline, none of it mattered to the Akatsuki. Only power mattered. And apparently, he didn't have enough to warrant any sort of threat, judging by that behavior. It irritated him.

Did they think that Konoha would simply allow them to hold onto Naruto as they had done for the past two years? Things had changed since then.

Either way, come three days, the Akatsuki would be leaving without the leaf-born blonde.

-:- -:- -:-

Itachi re-entered the hut, searching for the diminutive blonde.

He found Naruto sleeping in his room, Kyuubi perched on the windowsill overlooking the bed. One clawed hand rested atop the giant scroll propped up against the wall.

"Why?" The Uchiha demanded softly. Only Kyuubi knew Naruto's mental state better than he, and that fox knew what the presence of Konoha ninjas did to him. So why was that youma giving Konoha three days?

The sooner they left, the better.

Slowly, brilliant blue eyes turned toward the Uchiha. Something swirled deep within those cerulean depths, a fury so unfathomable it was unnatural in such innocent eyes. Hatred reflected back toward the missing-nin.

"It is so that Konoha will lose all hope of ever attaining what they had forsaken." Kyuubi hissed, his voice low, and deep, and seething.

-:- -:- -:-

How long had it been?

The question echoed in Sasuke's mind. It was one that he had yet to ask anyone for he had not realized that so much time had already passed.

To him, it was just yesterday that he laid in the forest, abandoned by all but one.

He lay on his back, arms at his sides, staring up at a blank ceiling.

His arms and legs remained unbound, but the silhouette of bars shadowed his room. Various seals had been placed on different points of his body to not only hinder his use of chakra, but to completely deny him access to it.

He could not perform even the simplest of jutsu's, and in his chakraless form, he suddenly realized how empty he felt. That familiar warmth that swam in his veins, using different channels than blood, yet remaining the steady stream of energy that was a shinobi's power, was gone.

He felt cold.

But that could also be attributed to the feeling of loneliness.

He had never felt so alone before.

Even when he had lost his family and had finished his term at the Ninja Academy as a youth, he trudged forward brushing off the separation he felt from others. He isolated himself from everyone, focusing on a single goal. He had been brought to the brink of death with the shinobi's ideal before his eyes. He had even dived headfirst, plunging blindly after his brother and following after a serpent who whispered such dark promises into his ear. Yet he had never felt as isolated as he did now.

He had given up everything he had held dear to him.

It was a type of solitude that resembled abandonment. He hated that feeling. He shouldn't have needed anyone. He was Uchiha Sasuke. He had lived so many years by himself, never wanting nor needing any other person than himself. He had strengthened his body and mind by himself. He had concentrated on a single goal with hardly a thought of the consequences or the afterwards.

Then some loudmouthed, blonde dobe had waltzed into his life and changed everything. His goal in life, affection for others, even the person he thought about the most, had all been augmented by some shorty in a blinding orange jumpsuit. And what bothered him the most was that he wouldn't have had it any other way.

The fire that had blazed for vengeance within him had burned out. He never thought that the hole left behind would have been filled with regret.

Vengeance was a path meant to be taken without regrets. But he hadn't been strong enough, and had sacrificed someone else in his stead.

That blonde…had looked out for him until the very end. So why had so much changed? It had only been three years, hadn't it?

No.

He hadn't gotten a very good glimpse of the village, but Konoha had looked to be almost completely rebuilt, and some parts more than once. After the barrage of Akatsuki attacks, they had needed time to regroup and rebuild. More than three years had passed. Especially since said attacks were halted only after he had been traded.

Which meant he had to have been in that coma for a few years at least.

Naruto had been in the hands of the Akatsuki for a few years…

He covered his face with his hands.

What had happened to his dobe?

-:- -:- -:-

Neji stepped quickly from the Hokage's office after informing the blonde woman of the Akatsuki's acceptance of the scroll, as well as the time constraint placed on them. He had glossed over the details pertaining to Itachi and the Kyuubi, sticking with only the straight facts.

It unnerved him how Naruto's clear blue eyes could peer out of a face so foreign and strange. They were Naruto's eyes, but the emotions they conveyed were anything but pure.

Wide eyes peered at the sheer amount of blood.

What…had happened? Surely the Akatsuki hadn't reached the cabin so fast. Their attacks had focused solely on Konohagakure. What was this mess?

He leapt gingerly from branch to branch, instinctively sensing the smell of blood. He noted the paths of broken brush and hurried footprints with no small amount of fury.

The Akatsuki hadn't done this. They would have been neater and cleaner, leaving behind no trace of themselves. The tracks left behind was messy and unskilled. No person with ninja training would ever have left behind such clumsy, heavy tracks.

This was done by civilians.

Anger burned within him then. The stupid fools. Too stubborn and pig-headed to understand. The ninjas were the one who braved the front lines to protect the village and their citizens while civilians sat at home, far from battle, and unaware of the blood the shinobi shed, nor the strain they suffered. They were the sheltered people the ninja's were supposed to protect. But it wasn't a one-sided relationship. In turn, the villagers were to show the ninjas proper respect, for it was thanks to them that the villagers could live peaceful lives.

It was in that aspect that the villagers of Konoha failed one of their strongest shinobi. They did not understand Naruto's true role or his true strength.

It infuriated him that much more when he finally entered the blonde's cabin.

The inside was cold and unlit. The stench of blood was overpowering. Furniture lay broken on the floor. Windows were shattered, shards of glass strewn about. Curtains had been ripped down, and angry colors stained the walls.

Blood was everywhere. He felt his shoes slide as he slowly walked through the cabin. Fury coursed through him for being too late.

He had seen Naruto during the battle, but only for short moments. The blonde had disappeared as soon as it was over. He had never once set foot inside Konoha's walls though, choosing to remain outside as a defensive force against the few members of the Akatsuki who had come.

They had always traveled in pairs, and as Neji had watched Naruto attempt to fend off one of the cloaked shinobi, his Byakugan had actively searched out the other. The one Akatsuki, a blonde pony-tailed member seemed engrossed in toying with the whiskered ninja rather than a serious battle.

More often than not, the Akatsuki released figures of clay toward Naruto, which exploded around him in close proximity, but not enough to seriously hurt the fox's vessel. Naruto had sensed the playful attitude as well, and with a cry, had rushed forward, propelled by the explosions behind him, and thrown a palm-full of whirlwind chakra toward his opponent, upping the game.

With the two blondes engaged in a more heated battle, Neji had finally sensed the presence of the other member, and hunched shadow scaling the walls of Konoha. He had gone to intercept, seeing other ninjas appear as well, before another cloud-pattered cloak appeared within his range.

There were two pairs this time, the battle becoming only more serious.

He left Naruto, hoping to return to the blonde's side once the battle had finished.

They always had wounds to tend to after each encounter with the Akatsuki, and knowing the loud-mouthed blonde as well as he did, Naruto would no doubt let his wounds go untreated.

He had hurried back, but it hadn't been fast enough. The signs were obvious. A handful of civilians, no doubt armed with homemade weapons had invaded Naruto's home soon after the blonde had returned, and when he would be at his weakest.

With their poor reasoning, they had placed all of the blame of Konoha's current state on him, despite the fact that many other civilians had done close to nothing the help matters.

When he had found the blonde, a muscle in his jaw tensed. As always, Naruto was unwilling to involve civilians in battle, even if they were the ones to instigate it. So he had done nothing as they attacked. The younger boy was a mess. Clothes torn and blood splattered everywhere. It dribbled down the walls as larger spatters had reached the ceiling.

Neji bent, checking over Naruto's swollen face and body for signs of trauma and internal injuries. Besides a few broken ribs and deep lacerations, there seemed to be little damage. The burns and bruises inflicted by the Akatsuki paled in comparison to the beating Konoha civilians had given him, and it sickened Neji to realize that.

He hastily bandaged the blonde and searched for a room untouched by the gore. Naruto's was a small cabin, so there was little more he could do than to move a rug out of the way from the middle of the room, and lay down thick cloths he had found in the closet. He placed Naruto on that and proceeded to clean his numerous other wounds.

He covered the blonde's body with more cloth, and awaited the boy's awakening, wondering the entire time how common villagers could have found the genjutsu-hidden cabin.

Neji's eyes snapped open, hardly remembering that he had closed them. He found himself standing outside the complex which Sasuke had been imprisoned. His ANBU status had gotten him through most of security, so no one had stopped him as he had approached.

He glared at the building. What was he doing there? He had nothing left to say to the dark-haired nin, and he certainly hoped that the Uchiha would not learn that the Akatsuki had granted "visitation rights" to Konoha for the blonde.

To have so much control of a village through one person may have made Konoha seem weakly. But when it compared to that power of influence that one person possessed, it was far from the truth. Naruto could change the way any person thought through his will alone. It was just too bad that the stupid or the purposefully ignorant chose to ignore Naruto's gift.

He shifted his weight from his heels to the balls of his feet and leapt backwards, intending to make his way toward the Hyuuga compound, but a flash of red halted him. The familiar silhouette of a short ninja, dwarfed by an enormous gourd, made its way through the forest.

Knowing what kind of animosity the redhead from the sand held for Sasuke, he was surprised to see the Kazekage heading toward the Uchiha's cell. Guards warily halted the redhead, knowing of the sand nin's status and reputation. However, the sand nin simply produced a slip of a paper, a kind of tag the Hokage had given him, and the guards let him through. The sigh of relief from the guards did not go unnoticed by either Neji nor Gaara.

Neji smirked, and followed after the Kazekage.

-:- -:- -:-

Iruka was up, his hands grasping firmly at Kakashi's shoulders. "We can see him!" He exclaimed excitedly. "We can see him!" He all but shook the bed-ridden jounin.

Kakashi gave a lazy blink. He was still recovering from his improvised chakra exchange, and it had drained him more than he was willing to admit. Despite the nurses' protests, he had tried to get up and leave the hospital several times, only stopping when Shizune herself had stormed in and threatened him with a pain worse than castration. The poor medic-nin was up to her ears in stubborn and disagreeable shinobi. Many having tried to clamber from their beds before their wounds had even begun to heal after that brief 'Akatsuki attack.' More than not the injuries had come from that blast of unprecedented chakra, one that the Hokage had yet to explain.

Many of the bed-ridden shinobi had chakra burns from exposure, or worse, their own chakra had been sent off-kilter by the blast. A few Hyuuga's had been called in to help correct their chakra pathways.

In the meantime, Kakashi was attempting to deal with an overly exuberant Chuunin without revealing how truly out of it he was. It had taken him precious moments to figure out what the other man was so happily raving about, when he would have normally processed it before the chuunin had even burst through his door.

With a strong and gentle grip, he eased the chuunin's hands from his shoulders and pushed him back to arms' length before he settled himself comfortably, or as much so as he could, into his hospital bed.

"When?" He asked simply, his lips curving into an easy smile.

"Ah…" Then Iruka fell into incoherent babbles. "Um…well, as soon as possible. But I don't want to surprise him. It's been two years. I don't know how he is, how he's been. There's so much to catch up on." Then his head was bent, hand behind his head, eyes lowered, and cheeks flushed in embarrassment.

"I suppose I'm troubling you, Hatake-san," he began formally.

Knowing the apology that was to follow, Kakashi held up a hand. He wondered if the younger man realized how unnerving it was to him to be addressed like his father. "Not at all. I'll be up and about soon, anyways."

"Ah!" The blush darkened. "That's not what I meant. You need to rest and-"

"-you're looking for someone to visit him with." Kakashi interrupted. He shifted on his bed, experimentally feeling his limbs. He'd be pushing it if he'd said he was fully recovered. His arms felt like lead weights, and he highly doubted that his legs could support his weight.

It was embarrassing, really.

But then again, as Shizune had politely informed him, before Tsunade could bite his head off doing such a stupid thing, he had blown away over half his chakra and the pathways had been shot to smithereens. His body was trying to rework the routes themselves, and as many medic nins were treating the less stupid shinobi, he was left to wait for his own healing process to complete on its own, under supervision of course.

Still, it was better than what could have happened. His body could have been smashed to bits had Tsunade actually taken her anger out on him. He had speed-healed a missing-nin yet to go on trial, using a jutsu meant for destruction, not restoration, and rendered himself useless in an event he would have been valuable in.

Yet he understood how nervous the other man was. Iruka had looked on Naruto like a surrogate son, if not a younger brother of sorts. Then, catastrophe had struck, and Iruka had no idea how to cope. With the boy's sudden return, even if he was different, the Umino simply sought some sort of comfort, even if the presence came from another of the boy's teachers.

Particularly a teacher that he thought made his students take unnecessary risks.

Kakashi didn't once think that Iruka had ever forgiven him for pushing the kids into the Chuunin exams. He didn't blame the other man. Even if their skills and mentality had advanced due to the experience, the results of the exam were not what anyone could have expected.

So, he flexed a leg and smiled, his laid-back grin falling into place like any mask. "Tomorrow morning. Eight o'clock on the bridge." He said.

Iruka nodded, almost fervently. His mind was obviously elsewhere. He left with a respectful bow and a word of gratitude.

Only once the chuunin was far from the hospital did Kakashi's expression fade. He didn't pity Iruka, but he felt sorry for how the man must be suffering for his mistakes. No one could ever have thought the village would let it get so far, or that the council could have become so desperate that Hokage would lose her protective hold over the boy.

Iruka's mind was preoccupied on the boy's well-being currently. He hadn't allowed it to meander back to what the boy might have experienced under the Akatsuki's command, nor what he would have thought during it. Tomorrow, he'd face the fact that Naruto had grown up without him, and it was time to see what kind of man he was becoming.

-:- -:- -:-

Long pale fingers were threading themselves through soft locks, so much silkier and fluffier than they first appeared. It was like stroking sunshine, and he couldn't help but marvel at their color and texture as it flowed through his fingers. Naruto's head was resting comfortably in his lap, the boy's body curled in his sleep.

Blue eyes remained trained on that rounded face. It still bore the appearance of youth, but invisible lines of experience had drawn themselves into his body, woven deep into powerful limbs and wiry muscles. Even if he still looked like a child, the way he moved and spoke, the way he replied and considered, even breathing and eating, it all spoke of instinctual deliberation on survival and strength.

This was a body that none could take by surprise, and one day, it would tear the world asunder with its might. He just needed to feed him correctly.

That artificial youma would do the trick nicely.

But first…

His hand slid from the boy's hair to his neck, stroking the soft flesh there. Imbuing a small amount of his fiery chakra, intricate patterns began to snake out from under his fingertips. A series of thirteen complex seals painted themselves against pale flesh in languid strokes, spreading from the neck down his chest and back, across his shoulders, and even curling onto his sleeping face. The mark of the Akatsuki, the collar and chain they used to bind his kit.

A clawed hand slid down his shirt, tracing his spine and absently traced a particular seal just to the right.

"This one will be the first to fade." He murmured.

Before him, Itachi materialized from the darkness, peering at that particular seal. "Deidara's?" He questioned, a brief moment of puzzlement as to why it would not be Kisame's seal.

"They are too similar." Kyuubi added by way of explanation. "He will destroy what is closest to him first." He looked up, glowing sapphires meeting predatory scarlet. "Your seal will most likely be last. It will be a lucky thing if you survive it." He hissed, baring fangs in a mockery of a grin, his expression anything but benevolent. A soft growl from his throat seemed to ensure that even if the seal was broken leaving the Uchiha unscathed, Kyuubi wouldn't allow him to remain so.

Fine-boned fingers closed over the clawed hand resting over the seals, effectively stopping the gentle flow of chakra. The seals faded from sight.

"When it comes to it." He said quietly, as if uncaring of his life. But his eyes burned brightly, assuring the fox that if he would have to combat the fire youma in the end, he would not allow it to be an easy battle.

Kyuubi chuckled lowly. He tilted his head slightly, inclining it toward the over-sized scroll leaning against the wall. "It contains nothing that we don't already know. I believe that it's true secrets can only be obtained by my little one." He stroked Naruto's head gently, smiling to himself at the way the Uchiha unconsciously tensed at his possessive tone.

Wordlessly, the dark cloaked ninja made his way across the room. He took the large scroll between his hands and began to unroll it, scarlet eyes traveling up and down the columns of complex kanji. With such a short ninja, the overly large scroll looked almost comical.

Kyuubi grinned again, knowing what the Uchiha would read; poetic nonsense and drivel about ramen. It hadn't taken long for Itachi to wind the scroll back up, with an almost impatient twist of his wrists. Since the Fourth had sealed it at his child's birth, none other than Naruto himself had ever read the scroll. It was impossible to guess what it truly contained, when it was so heavily protected. With only a piece of Naruto within the fox, some of the kanji had transformed before his eyes, revealing a sort of story. But he couldn't get beyond the beginning. Somehow, he believed that it was Naruto's will, if it so matched that of the Fourth's, that would unlock the scroll in it's entirety. Kyuubi was simply too bloodthirsty for the scroll to talk to him.

He was willing to bet that it would seem like even less to the Uchiha, who possessed no part of the Uzumaki, and could be even crueler than himself.

The story it had shown Kyuubi was the one of himself and Konoha. He found it laughable.

When his little kit awoke, he would place the boy's hands on the scroll, and answer at long last the questions that had plagued him about the fallen Hokage.

Mercy was a thing rarely granted in the world of shinobi. For the Yondaime to consciously choose not to kill him was unfathomable. It merely showed him to be a fool. But in doing so, the Fourth had also chosen to sacrifice his newborn son, a trade hardly worth the cost. The Yondaime had to have some assurance about his child, even if it was blind faith, to so warp a soul-consuming jutsu to not kill.

He wanted to know what the Fourth had used to barter his soul with, for two souls were required in the Shinigami's summon.

-:- -:- -:-

Deidara was bored. The cabin was far too tense an atmosphere for him to remain sane in. With that testosterone pissing contest that the two powerhouses, Itachi and Kyuubi, had gotten themselves embroiled in, he decided that the further away he was from them, the better.

He holed himself up in the forest, sitting on a tree branch with his back to the trunk. One leg hung lazily over the edge. His hands were busy rolling a ball of clay. Every once in a while his fingers would sink into the clay, and the ball would be encompassed by his palms as his dexterous appendages shaped the ball into an intricate shape. He had just finished a flapping bird when he sensed another presence.

He sent his little bird whizzing toward it, and wasn't surprised to see it cut down before it exploded.

"Oi!" He called, leaping down from his branch to meet the other. "You're no fun if you do that. Even destruction is an art to, you know." He commented, miffed by his partner's lack of artistic appreciation. He looked down at his sliced bird. "Waste of good clay." He muttered, bending down to retrieve the pieces and brushing off the dried leaves and dust. He waved a hand over it, and the clay returned to it's original spherical shape, clean and devoid of dirt.

His partner ambled out between the trees, his form low and crouching, almost crawling along the ground like an enormous spider. Sasori was using his old-man suit again.

Deidara shook his head. It wasn't like it mattered at this point. The leaf-nins had already seen his face. But Sasori only took this form when there was nothing threateningly near their own level of power. So, the blonde surmised that the puppeteer must have been bored as well. There was nothing interesting to do in the surrounding forests of Konoha. It was too peaceful, even with the underlying current of tension.

Going to town would have been a bore, with the villagers all silent and glaring. It wasn't a surprise that the Akatsuki weren't welcome faces in Konoha.

Deidara shrugged it off. The Konoha people were simply too soft. The Country of Leaf had been spoiled by their peace, and they had paid for it.

"Do you feel it?" The soft and raspy voice which issued from the aged Sasori sounded like scratching of dried leaves over the ground. Already familiar with both the smooth youthful voice, and the current guise, Deidara merely shrugged, instead of shivering like many were prone to do.

"Depends." He replied flippantly, looking more concerned with his ball of clay. He pressed it between his fingers again, and the clay began to take on flame-like shape.

Beady eyes that were sunken into a beaklike face stared hard at the blonde. Deidara sighed and rolled one shoulder in an irritated gesture. "You mean that like twang in the air?" He asked after a moment.

He could almost hear the creak in the well oiled neck of the scorpion-shaped puppet as Sasori nodded once.

"So?" Deidara questioned, not taking his gaze off the clay. He was re-rolling it back into it's ball shape, his hands still calm, but moving a bit faster than before, a sure sign of rare annoyance, since he was usually the one being annoying.

Slowly, the body shifted, lifting and standing a bit taller. "I overheard that fox talking." He began quietly. "He said that your seal would be the first to fade."

Deidara didn't look up from his rolling. His fingers paused and prodded at the clay, shaping it again. "Oh?" He asked, his voice quiet but tense.

"He said that the order of the breaks will based on the personality of the seal-caster." The rasping voice explained.

"Hn. Then why not Hidan's seal?" Deidara asked, his tone petulant, eyes trained on his clay.

"Probably because you do not thirst for blood like that religion-monger." Sasori replied.

At that answer, Deidara's eye glittered. "That will change." He muttered, smirking to himself. With a sigh and a stretch, his clay disappeared into the folds of his cloak, and he leapt up back to his previous position on the tree. "I've been keeping an eye on our favorite jinchuuriki, you know." His legs swung over the side as he stared down at his partner. He knew that speaking from above was one of the quirks that annoyed the puppet-wielder, because it then required the man to adjust himself to view the speaking persons. So he made sure to do it often, sometimes even from his perch on his floating paper birds.

Sasori's body clicked softly as the well made gears shifted so he now looked up at his partner. Though the sculpted face was unreadable, Deidara could sense the annoyance in that flat gaze.

"Frankly, with how the little leaf-boy's been changing, I don't think I'll have to face that power first. I think he's got more in common with the other leaf-nin." He grinned. "He's beginning to develop a taste for blood."

-:- -:- -:-

Green eyes peered impassively at the dark shadow across the room. Sand snaked around metal bindings and up the metal bars. The cold steel bent easily beneath the strength of the chakra infused sand.

Neji started, almost taking a step forward. What the hell did Gaara think he was doing? Even if he now bore the title of the Kazekage, there was no doubt that this one sole action would cause internal and external strife for both Hidden Villages involved. Tsunade was hardly one to take such actions sitting.

"I know." Gaara murmured, his tone answering the mental questions of both the Hyuuga and the Uchiha, but giving no explanation. "Tomorrow, after the sun has set, at Uzumaki's cabin." He stated emotionlessly toward Sasuke. They would simply meet at Naruto's cabin at the appointed time. If they were to go together, Neji was sure that there was something about Naruto that none of them could handle by themselves. He wondered what the Kazekage wanted.

Then Gaara turned to Neji. "Undo the restraints." He said quietly.

White eyes narrowed. Kazekage or not, Gaara was hardly a person to order him a around. Yet as the sand slipped into the lock around the bars, he said nothing, only listening to the slither of the sand grains. The lock protested only once, a low metal whine, before bursting.

Something flashed in those pupil-less green eyes, something animalistic and raw, and all together inhuman. With a jolt of realization, Neji understood that it was not Gaara who had commanded him, but Shuukaku. And that was something different entirely. A youma was not a force he could undertake himself.

Somewhat reluctantly, he stepped forward as the sand wound about the bars, the door already loose on its hinges, but looking for something to destroy anyways. He briefly wondered what in the world the ANBU guards were doing out front with all the commotion within. Certainly they should have felt that spike of chakra in such close proximity. And as this was one of the higher-security sectors, something like an increase of chakra would never go unnoticed, no matter how small the fluctuation.

Still, something akin to fear moved his hand. He opened the now unlocked door and slipped into the cell. Blank black eyes met his, and he found it easy to believe that those eyes were as unfeeling as they appeared, that the body behind those eyes possessed no soul. He frowned, the corners of his lips pulling downwards in the barest of motions.

"Don't move." Neji muttered, and secretly hoped that the Uchiha would be indignant and stubborn, and move so that his fingers would miss and hit something more critical, more damaging.

The Hyuuga initiated his bloodline limit, throwing the Uchiha's body into his now chakra-precise vision. He could see the blocks, wire-thin cinches around his main chakra channels, and a distortion around the gates. Instead of his chakra funneling in select areas to be used, it flowed out of his body uselessly. A very well made seal, but it wasn't something he couldn't undo with a bit of effort.

His focused eyes narrowed on the cinches. If he undid those first, his chakra channels would literally explode from the build up behind them, something like a hose left unchecked on full power.

He'd have to remove the distortion at the gates, but that was the difficult part. He didn't recognize it at all. It wasn't a chakra blocker, as he could see chakra flow into it. But, there was no outlet, it looked as if it were absorbing the chakra. Hesitantly, he called up a bit of his own chakra and jabbed sharply at the point. With a hint of satisfaction, he noticed the Uchiha elicited a slight hiss of pain. The distortion swelled slightly at the foreignness of his chakra. With a bit of provocation, he could easily overwhelm the distortion but…

He smirked. "This will hurt." He murmured.

-:- -:- -:-

Iruka was nervous and jumpy, and though he didn't outwardly show it by bouncing on the balls of his feet or wringing his hands, the air about him was wire-taut and tense and almost visible in his anxiety. At least, that was Kakashi's first impression on seeing the Chuunin waiting for him at the bridge.

The man had no doubt risen at the crack of dawn and plodded over to the bridge, early, to wait for the perpetually late Jounin despite his reputation. Scratch that, Kakashi eyed the Chuunin, taking in the look of a quick shower and freshly pressed clothes, but lack of that refreshed look after sleep.

He doubted that Iruka had slept at all and had probably gone home for only a shower and a change of clothes. It was the standard ninja garb; chuunin vest, black pants, and sandals, with the typical skin tight underclothes. So very…standard. The only thing that set it apart from every other set of uniform garb was the worn look. The clothes had been well taken care of, but his sharp eyes could easily pick out the slightly frayed edges and the signs of skilled stitching where the uniform had been torn and repaired.

It was old and fraying, and the seams had been re-stitched a few times. There was a large slash down the back of the vest that was impossible to conceal, and left a sort of scar on the fabric. Basically, it was something that should have been thrown away years ago, and Kakashi wondered what had possessed the clear-headed, if not overly emotional sometimes, Chuunin to wear that outfit on this particular day. But he didn't outwardly question it, instead opting for his traditional greeting.

With one hand in a pocket, and another raised in a wave he grinned. "Yo."

Iruka had been staring at the water so hard, his eyes almost completely shut, and his mind drifting far away and racing back, trying to find a peaceful medium in his fear and panic and hope, that when that one word came to him, he jumped and all but screamed. Iruka spun around hard, hands at his holsters with the rings of two kunai at his fingertips. His body landed low and crouched and his muscles were pulled taut in an instinctual reaction that had been pounded into him for years--to go on the defensive until the situation could be analyzed and an offensive position could be taken.

Mechanically, his body moved and when Kakashi stood, hand still frozen in greeting, he stared a bit longer before he realized what he was doing. He straightened quickly, the kunai slipping back into the holster, his hands falling to his sides. "Uh…good morning." He replied belatedly, the beginnings of a blush working its way up his cheeks.

He looked down and raised a finger to scratch his nose in his habitual nervous gesture, unable to look up and meet the Jounin's gaze.

Kakashi, in turn raised a hand to the back of his head, stifling his laughter. "Sorry I'm late. A family of tanuki's had taken residence in my closet so I had to go out and buy new clothes and the morning crush was unbelievable," he grinned.

He grimaced inwardly. In truth, the Hokage wasn't exactly too keen on letting him go visit Naruto just yet, at least before she got her shot. But just as she was preparing to go down herself, a team of ANBU had rushed in with a report that could not be ignored. And though she had put Kakashi under supervision, he had escaped as soon as the opportunity had presented itself. Injured and chakra-weary or not, he had been the Silver Wolf.

"Oh, was it?" Iruka replied distractedly. His brows knit and his concerned expression told Kakashi all he needed to know about how his attempt at normalcy had failed.

Kakashi gave a shrug and a tilt of his head and Iruka looked up and nodded. It was time to head to the cabin.

-:- -:- -:-

Naruto awoke to the feeling of long delicate fingers threading their way through his hair. It was a familiar gesture that he awoke to often when Kyuubi had something important for him to do. Though his eyes were hidden by the blindfold, the fox had felt his heartbeat increase and the slight change in rhythm of his kit's breathing. When the blonde shifted lightly, he grinned.

"Wake up, little one." He murmured softly.

Naruto uttered a little noise as he stretched. His muscles, coiled even in sleep, lengthened as he moved, stretching out arms and back, and finally his legs. He curled up again on the bed, his head resting on the lap of his guardian. "Mama?" He called out softly.

Some what pityingly, the Kyuubi brushed his clawed hands through blonde locks. The child, never growing up with any sort of parental care, could not distinguish between the different types of affection he received. To the boy, he was 'motherly,' ever since he had fallen into Akatsuki hands. Though, the fox admitted to himself, that was his own fault.

With a broken mind, the body's consciousness often receded back to the earliest time of comfort. Naruto had regressed to an almost infantile state with his memories scattered and a mindset that was far from stable. He only kept two things steady in his mind, focal points for everything else, it was the fox itself and the elder Uchiha.

Kyuubi bent down to nuzzle the blonde, his nose buried in golden locks. "Time to get up. You have visitors."

He felt the young body stiffen slightly.

"Mama?" He called out again, questioning and tinged with a note of panic.

"Don't worry. It won't be for long." He stroked his kit's head, claws dragging slightly downward toward the neck and back. "Do you not want to see them?" He asked, somewhat amused and curious.

Naruto paused. "I…do…" He straightened, nodding. "I do. I want to see them." He said, softly, but more confidently than before.

"All right then." He patted the soft blonde head. "They'll be here soon. You can feel it, yes?"

Naruto nodded. That familiar chakra, two signatures he knew rather well. The tiniest sliver of worry threaded its way into his chest. He had missed Iruka-sensei.

One small hand reached out to clutch at red cloth. Kyuubi marveled at it for a moment. Such power and ability flowed through such a fragile looking hand. He smiled. The Akatsuki had created a beast that they would soon lose control of, he just needed a meal.

But that artificial youma was a far away thing. It was coming. Kyuubi could feel those faint tendrils, chaotic and disorganized, some distance away. That creature, the false Kyuubi had rampaged far from the Akatsuki compound, in the opposite direction of the Fire Village. But it would soon be heading toward them, if only to come back to the source after which it was structured.

With hardly a coherent mind of its own, nothing but raw instinct and just a hair below sentient, the creature would seek him out. One that was stronger and of its kind, it would search for him and be invariably drawn to the power of the original. Then, Kyuubi would loose his own kit upon it, and the shinobi world would meet the pinnacle of their creation. The perfect ninja; power, stealth, agility, and unlimited chakra housed within one being, and loyal only to him.

He ran his claws once more through that soft golden hair. "Come now, we must get you ready." Gently, he lead his kit up with his other hand and eased him toward the outer room.

-:- -:- -:-

Sasuke was hunched over as he perched on the outer walls of Konoha. There was no point in concealing his form. No one could see him anyway. Whatever that Hyuuga had done to him, it had made him invisible to those who did not wish to see him. He was quite surprised to find that many higher ranking shinobi had such a wish, for he had been able to slip past them with ease.

The ability was quite temporary, but it had allowed him to escape Konoha without difficulty. He was supposed to meet the Kazekage and Hyuuga after dark, but he paid that little heed.

Neji had given him an extremely brief summary of current events, but only after Gaara's sand have begun to wind about everything and everyone, heedlessly. It was more than a bit disconcerting. For whatever reason, Gaara had wanted him to be well-informed, even if no one knew Gaara's, or Shuukaku's, reasoning behind it.

He would see Naruto with or without anyone's consent. He didn't care. Something had happened to that perpetually cheerful blonde to blot out his brilliance. Sasuke refused to believe that the blame rested solely on his own shoulders.

With the mark of the Akatsuki continuously shadowing Naruto, he knew that it was something to do with Itachi.

It was always Itachi who took away what was dearest to him. Always.

He crouched low against the wall before slipping off, disappearing into the shadows with all the grace of a predator on the hunt.

-:- -:- -:-

Nervousness and trepidation were feelings that shinobi learned to block out at an early age, or at least, should learn to block out. Apparently, no one told the young teacher of the ninja academy that.

Kakashi watched, somewhat amused, as the Chuunin all but bounced on the balls of his feet, shifting slightly from one to the other, as he tried to come to a decision.

The moment had finally happened, Iruka was going to visit Naruto!

All he had to do was knock on the door, and with a shaking fist, he did so.

Or almost did so for the door opened just as he moved his wrist to knock. Naruto, looking very small in his brown cloak that draped to the floor, beamed up at him.

Iruka gasped. It had been the first time he had seen Naruto in nearly three years. The boy was shorter than he should have been, and thin, very thin. Time with the Akatsuki had aged him in how he spoke and greeted them, even how he held himself. What had startled Iruka the most though, was the blindfold. He had heard with bated breath first and second person accounts of Naruto. But the people who had come across him most directly had said nothing but how he was back, and yet different.

Then Naruto grinned.

It was a very familiar grin and Iruka almost released a sigh of relief. He had hoped and prayed that Naruto would not be too damaged from his experience with the Akatsuki. He would never forgive himself if it had. As it figured, he was still trying to figure out ways to make it up to Naruto, all the time he hadn't been there for him.

"Iruka-sensei!" Naruto cried out brightly. "I heard you from the forest, Kakashi-sensei too!"

Kakashi wondered why Naruto had greeted them as teachers. He hadn't recalled the blonde calling him that last he'd seen them, but he didn't dwell on it too long.

Instead, he studied the youth of his former student. Naruto was skinny as a rail, but what remained of him was all muscle, corded and wiry, if what he could see of Naruto's shoulders was anything to go by. If anything else, Naruto was simply a boiled down version of what he had been before. But with the major difference of all the cheerfulness of childhood being burned away to leave a small adult, experienced in the cruelty of the world from both sides.

Naruto had killed.

Kakashi's sharp gaze caught the telltale signs; kunai calluses on the hands, long strong fingers, well muscled forearms, and thick skin on the insides of the fingers on the first joint. That was the proof of someone who killed with their hands. The calluses were from the way one would hold a kunai if they did not aim to cut or stab, but to kill. Fingers and forearms were essential for a strong grip, growing brawnier over time as one grabbed at throats and wrists, strangling and crushing. The skin on the insides of the fingers could only have been made by garrote wire, pulled tights between the fingers, a common assassination method.

It made him wonder somewhat if perhaps, the Akatsuki took on shinobi missions for money.

His musings were broken, however, as Naruto, with something akin to disbelief, added "and you're not late either!" With wide eyes and an astonished expression.

Kakashi let out a chuckle. He pointed to Iruka. "I don't think he would have let me." He said cheerfully.

"Uh-un." Naruto agreed, bobbing his head and agreeing whole heartedly. "One time, when I was at the Academy still, I slept in late. Next thing I know, Iruka-sensei is looming over me and yelling!" Naruto waved his arms for effect.

Iruka blushed as Kakashi laughed, and after a few minutes, worked out an invitation to ramen which was eagerly accepted.

Kakashi went along, grinning and joking when appropriate, but couldn't shake off the feeling that he was being watched. He knew he was, but it was so intent that he figured that it didn't come from Akatsuki eyes.

He decided to put it out of mind. Sasuke wouldn't do something too foolish when he was still out of chakra and limited with information. Sasuke was too smart for that. Instead, Kakashi focused on the fact that Naruto seemed so normal. Despite the blindfold and change of clothes, Naruto acted as he had before the Akatsuki attacks.

It wasn't right for things to be going so well, not when the intelligence of the Akatsuki was behind it.

Even with Tsunade's word, the jounin still distrusted the Akatsuki. They were too much like himself, never straightforward with anything.

-:- -:- -:-

Kyuubi bent over his young charge, worried and frowning.

He had been forced to turn away all of Naruto's visitors shortly after he had returned from his visit with that Academy instructor and former team leader. It was a lucky thing that not too many showed up at once, else he wasn't sure what he or Itachi would have done to them. They both became rather edgy whenever Naruto showed signs of ill-health, which was, thankfully, rarely.

Naruto curled up on the floor, every few minutes turning to retch into a bucket that was placed beside him.

Truly, Naruto should have known better.

But now, he stroked the boy's back soothingly as Naruto's body rejected everything he had consumed that day. Kyuubi merely shook his head and brushed back those blonde locks.

When Naruto had given one last shudder and lay on the ground, chest heaving, Kyuubi settled in beside him so they were side-to-side. He wiped at Naruto's face with a damp cloth.

Naruto was curled in on himself, turned away from the bucket.

Kyuubi lifted the boy to lay half on his lap. "I told you that you could not digest human food any longer." He said softly. "What made you think that you could eat those noodles?"

"It made him so happy." Naruto replied after a sniffle.

Kyuubi was silent a moment. Naruto still cared for the teacher, of course he would. Iruka had been the first father or brother figure that Naruto had ever had. But the boy should not have gone through such lengths to please the man. Naruto knew his limits and should have abided by them, instead of suffering to please another.

He had thought that fact had been ingrained into the boy long ago. After all, Itachi had been quite the skilled instructor.

-:- -:- -:-

Naruto screamed and screamed, blood tricking from his lips as his throat tore. He fell to the floor hard, clutching his head, and writhing.

Itachi looked on, dispassionate. This was how it always began.

Suddenly, Naruto's back arched and then he was on all fours, body pulled as tight as a bowstring. Eyes bright with bloodlust and madness, Naruto rushed at him from a crouch.

Itachi dodged, sidestepping and turning to keep his eyes on Naruto at all times.

Even in a frenzy, the blonde ninja was deadly if he got even one chance at Itachi. He had seen those teeth, sharpened to a razors edge, bury themselves into the throats of others. Naruto only tried for the areas that would kill.

He held a heavy chain between his hands, a sickle and weight at their respective ends. The weapon was held completely still until Naruto moved to attack. One arm arced suddenly. The sickle snaked out, rapping sharply against Naruto's head. The blonde winced and growled, but let out no other indication of pain.

Blood coursed from the inflicted wound, but just as suddenly as it was made, it welled up and healed.

It was amazing, the effects of the demon's chakra when it was allowed to run rampant.

From low to the floor, Naruto glared at him, eyes feral, hungry, and angry. Fury resonated from that small body, holding itself so closely to the ground.

Teeth bared and mouth frothing, Naruto leapt again.

Pity made him hesitate, but once more that sickle cracked loudly against the blonde's bare body, his shirt having fallen to tatters long ago.

Itachi watched as Naruto crashed to the floor, only to pull himself into a crouch and leap once more.

"It would have been easier if you had forgotten." He murmured, almost sadly, as the sickle fell unforgivingly against that hard flesh, made tough by ferocity alone.

This time the blade had slashed his chest open from hip to shoulder, cutting through muscle to bone. Naruto fell down, hunching, one arm covering the wound for only a second. Before Itachi's eyes, the deep laceration scabbed and healed over within moments. It was truly remarkable.

Naruto made a half-circle around Itachi, eyes burning and yet trained on sickle. At least he was learning, if this mass of instinct and energy could learn. He was to shape this raw power into a tool, if he could, but as long as Naruto fought against them, as long as he still remembered, it was all futile.

They needed Naruto to trust them wholly and completely if the binding jutsu was to be a success. It mattered not if his mind was broken and his body was shattered. They just needed him to deny his memories. But he would not, clinging stubbornly to them and never giving an inch about it.

Time would change that.

For now, they worked on his body, honing it with lessons that resembled torture.

The blunt end of the sickle flew forward, striking Naruto on the forehead. Naruto merely growled, and Itachi was privy once more to witness Naruto's startling healing ability.

With a cry that rebounded off the walls, Naruto surged forward, a single clawed hand finally penetrating Itachi's defenses and slicing his chest. Naruto leapt back just as quickly, a wolfish style of fighting, blood dripping from one digit. He grinned his feral and foxlike grin and licked the blood from his finger.

Itachi frowned. Bloodlust was so unbecoming of the boy. But as long as he withstood the mind wipe, they could do nothing but train his body.

He swung the sickle toward him, watching as Naruto bounded over the blade. He struck out with the weighted end, hitting the blonde square in the gut. He heard the air escape the boy in a rush. He frowned once more.

He greatly disliked this task. Even for the merits of training, attacking an opponent who couldn't fight back was meaningless.

As he watched the chain sail forth, he willed Naruto to trust them.

Sasuke wasn't worth remembering.

End Chapter Four

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Fry: Progress is slow with many trips into the inane. Sorry if I missed many mistakes. This is the first time I've seen this chapter all in one piece, and we were both too distracted for a final final check. This chapter was riddled with things that changed as we did different things. At one point, I was reading The Hobbit, which added some strange elements to this that it didn't need. Near the end, I must apologize for Shrimpy since we were playing Guily Gear XX. She likes to play as Axl Low, hence the chain-sickle, at least this one wasn't double ended. I know, it has nothing at all to do with Itachi. But we never really see him wield a weapon, so it may not be totally OOC...

Mayhaps we play a mite too many games...

Eddie FTW!

As a last note, the two flashbacks take place at different times, so they do not follow one right after another. A few sequences happen in between which will be revealed later.

Thank you for all of your lovely reviews. We love them and thank you for your patience with this endeavor. We've never done a joint before and it's still rather rough. We tend to play more games than actually write or anything.