No, you're not hallucinating, I promise. This is a new chapter. So here's the deal: I'm not really in the Naruto fandom anymore, not to say that I never will be again, but I'm not now. However, due to popular demand, I am going to finish this fic in the coming weeks rather than once I'm really in the fandom again. It's not any great trial for me, and you deserve it for being so patient. I want to thank you for that, and all your support. I will try to update at least once a week until this fic is finished, which I believe will be in roughly five more chapters, give or take. Please, try to keep me honest about that.

Due to not being in the fandom, I've forgotten a lot of the little facts, so if something in this chapter doesn't make sense to you, feel free to tell me. All previous chapters of this fic have been edited to fix the problem with suddenly switching POVs (I can't believe I used to do that!) and to fix minor errors.

Sunrise, Sunset: Part Twenty-Three


The day after Team Kakashi and Hebi had infiltrated Akatsuki, the Leader called everyone into his study. Not all of Akatsuki, of course, but all of those that were in the base at the current time. He paced back and forth, a scroll clenched in his hand as he waited for everyone to gather from the corners of wherever they were, scurrying back to his study, though surely Itachi, at least, could never be accused of scurrying. He had a summon fox at his side, sitting next to him with a fox grin that was all too similar to that of a bloodthirsty wolf's. This one was gold instead of red, which soothed Naruto's nerves, since the last one had flirted way too much considering that it was four-legged and furry and Naruto just wasn't into bestiality.

"So are we all present and accounted for now?" the Leader said jovially. He was way too happy for Naruto's comfort. "Good! We just have one more to arrive and then we can begin."

"What exactly is going on?" Naruto asked Itachi, leaning against him just enough so that his voice would reach Itachi's ears alone. "He's freaking me out."

"He has not informed me," Itachi replied dryly, Sharingan eyes tracking the Leader's every movement back and forth as he paced across the room. "I suspect it has to do with you."

Naruto blinked. "Me?" Itachi stayed silent in reply to Naruto's exclaimed question, just watching as the Leader paced back and forth. "He looks… happy. It's sort of weird," Naruto said quietly.

Itachi didn't reply, as the door had just opened. It took Naruto quite a while to recognize the man that had walked through, but at last, it was the orange mask shoved up over to the left of his head that let Naruto realize who it was.

"Tobi?" he squeaked. The sound, though hardly one that a shinobi should make, was highly applicable to his feelings. Tobi looked over at him, cold and long, and Naruto shut up. His chakra was…. "You're not Tobi."

"So blondes do have brains, despite my previous experience otherwise." His voice was cruel and light, with just the hint of an upper-class Konoha accent, like he was from one of the clans.

At Naruto's side, Itachi was curiously tense, Sharingan eyes spinning wildly. If Naruto didn't know better, he would think Itachi was afraid.

"Shut up, Madara," the Leader said. He stopped in front of Tobi—had he called him "Madara"? Who the hell was that?—and smiled. He had a scroll in his hand still and was tapping it impatiently against his thigh. "Your time is up."

"Already?" Tobi's face, all long, clean lines and thin scars, showed mild surprise. "I'm afraid I have plans, Pein."

Itachi and Kisame both jolted slightly at the sound of the Leader's name. The Leader just rolled his eyes, dark red and the circles of black in them growing darker by the second. "You know what you owe us. You can't do anything. Now stay silent while I speak."

"Or the Elders will revoke their bargain here and now," the gold fox said.

Naruto, needless to say, was very confused. Itachi was probably confused to, but being an Uchiha meant that he generally didn't show that sort of thing to the public. Kisame had no such qualms, and was rubbing the back of his head and squinting, as if that could make the answers to his questions come better into focus.

"Now that we're all here, let's discuss our situation," the Leader said. He stopped in front of the two Akatsuki nin and Naruto, his smile the same as the fox on the floor near his feet. "Do you know what a summon really is?"

Naruto blinked. "It's…" he hesitated before continuing with, "a summon, that's what it is. Jeez, how am I supposed to know!"

Kisame started snickering. Naruto really hated that damn fish-for-brains.

The Leader snorted. "Well, that's true enough, if a little stupid of you. A summon is a creature from another realm, summoned from that one into this one. Have you followed so far, or should I speak more slowly?" Naruto glared, but the Leader continued on. "Because they don't belong to this plane of existence, your summons require a contract. I assume you remember that part from what you've already done?"

"Stop treating me like I'm stupid!"

"Do you really want me to stop explaining and tear the Kyuubi from your soul, or would you prefer me to continue?"

Naruto shut up, leaning a little closer to Itachi, though not close enough to affect his aim if the Leader tried to kill him. Damn, that man was scary when his eyes narrowed like that.

The Leader sighed and said, "All right, then. Maybe I should make this a little shorter, for those of you with little intellect. Your so-called demons, such as the Nine-Tailed Fox you contain, is a summon fox. An extremely powerful summon fox, one whose contract has gone on for too long and one whose people want him back."

Naruto considered that for a moment. Then he considered it again, and then tried for a third time. "Okay. So why are we talking about this now?"

Tobi shifted and Naruto gulped as a wave of the man's chakra—darker than the Nine-Tailed Fox's, darker than anything Naruto had ever felt before—swept over him. "Because your chakra systems are interconnected, and just as taking the Nine-Tailed Fox from you would kill you, killing you would cripple the Nine-Tailed Fox."

Naruto huffed loudly, still not getting the point. "Okay, so what? I assume you know how to do it now, so who the hell is this bastard that should be Tobi? Because he's not Tobi."

"He is Uchiha Madara." It was Itachi who answered, his voice almost too even. Kisame's mouth fell open, though Naruto wasn't sure why. "He once tried to control the Nine-Tailed Fox, weakening it enough that Orochimaru could summon it to attack Konoha. He is also dead."

Naruto flailed at that and nearly fell over. "What? You're telling me this—this—this guy, over here—" He pointed wildly at Tobi, or Madara, or whatever his name was. "—is some sort of zombie?" He suddenly had the mental image of graying skin and rotting flesh, arms stuck out straight, and his skin crawled.

"I am impressed by your stupidity. Apparently, my previous impression of blonde shinobi was correct." Madara grinned and it stretched the scar that bisected his upper lip. "I am a spirit, not a zombie, sent on the behalf of the fox Elders to make sure that our dear friend Pein gets the job done that he was given to do."

Naruto's brain hurt, a lot. "So why exactly is the Leader working for the fox Elders or whatever, again?"

The Leader smiled darkly, and it was entirely too much like one of the Kyuubi's for Naruto to be comforted by it. "Because I'm a fox."

For the first time in quite a while, Naruto felt the thrash of the Nine-Tailed Fox's tails against the inside of his cage, the growl-laugh that he had when truly pleased, and the low, distant thrum of satisfaction.

The Kyuubi was satisfied that Naruto hadn't managed to figure it out before now. Naruto just wanted to pass out a little bit.

"So… what? All that stuff about world domination was just a cover?"

"More like an amusing pastime that enabled me to obtain missing nin to work with me." The Leader waved his hand vaguely. "It hardly matters now. Endgame has begun. I'm going to separate you from the Nine-Tailed Fox."

Naruto felt sick, and a little dizzy, and kind of like he wanted to throw up. His thoughts wouldn't, couldn't, settle; Kisame and Itachi were entirely silent. He didn't know if this was a good thing, or a bad thing, or what kind of thing it was. If it was anything. But it had to be something, didn't it? Because the Nine-Tailed Fox wasn't going to be a part of him anymore, and wasn't that something big?

"Will I be less powerful?" Naruto finally asked, fastening his gaze to the Leader's.

"No. Not that you could stop me if you were."

Madara laughed at that, low and delighted, and Naruto ignored him because Madara was sort of a creep.

"Okay," Naruto said.

And that was that.

Initially, the Leader said, he had thought that he would need a full party of Akatsuki who bore rings. He had needed it for the other Tailed Beasts. What he was doing now was different, though. The Kyuubi and Naruto would still be able to draw on each other's power. Naruto would still be alive, so a large portion of their link would still be active.

Itachi noted that in his explanation and his set-up for the ritual-jutsu, the Leader had never mentioned how much it would hurt Naruto.

Naruto was screaming. His hair was plastered all over his face and cheeks; his clothing clung and stuck to him, where he wore it, and the skin on his torso was inflamed red. His muscles were tense because he refused to fall further than his knees, sitting there with his fists clenched on the floor and his body trembling in fear, and in pain.

Naruto was in so much pain, and Itachi realized that he hated it, which wasn't a good thing at all. A shinobi couldn't care this much—it would affect this decisions, his allegiance to his patrons, everything. Seeing Naruto in pain, though, none of that mattered.

The Leader and Madara were standing in front of and behind Naruto respectively while Kisame and Itachi guarded the edges of the room. Kisame was grinning—he had always liked the pain of other's a little more than Itachi's tastes could bear—but Itachi frowned and felt a niggling, writhing feeling in his chest that he suspected was concern. He hadn't felt it in so long that he barely recognized what it felt like, but he knew it now. More than recognizing it, he knew it.

Chakra lashed out of Naruto's body in ropes and streams, a full nine of them streaming behind him like tails. He screamed even louder at that, tears streaming down his face that Itachi was sure he didn't know were there. And then, all at once, the chakra boiled out of him and up, forming a fox so large that it barely fit in the room. The tails lashed again, knocking books and scrolls to the floor. The wind whipped up around the Nine-Tailed Fox and suddenly, Naruto stopped screaming.

Itachi's heart nearly stopped.

The Nine-Tailed Fox looked as if it had disappeared, but of course it hadn't. Standing in the middle of the room was a tall man with orange hair, one that better fit into the room than the Kyuubi's true body had. Itachi could just see the edge of its face and it was staring at Madara with disgust.

"Uchiha Madara," it said, voice like the rumble of a storm. It stalked over to Madara, who was bearing a look of mild concern on his face. Then it wrapped a hand around Madara's throat and pulled, taking something out of him that did not bear Tobi's face but one more similar than not to Itachi's own. He left the body to crumple on the ground.

Effortlessly holding the struggling spirit by the throat, it looked over at the Leader and the fox at his feet. "Finally broke me out? Took you long enough, Pein, Fier."

The fox, Fier, bowed. "Yes, it did. It was complicated. Ready to go home, my lord?"

"You have to ask?" The Nine-Tailed Fox stared down at Naruto's body and, taking the spirit with him in movement that looked painful for Madara, crouched beside Naruto. One clawed hand reached out to touch Naruto's forehead very lightly, and it—or rather, he—looked up at Itachi and grinned. His face looked just like Naruto's. "Oh, he's alive, Uchiha. Don't worry. Coming, Pein?"

The Leader shook his head shortly. "You go ahead, my lord. I need to tie up loose ends here."

The Nine-Tailed Fox grinned, dark and wild and out of control. "Don't be too long, Pein. Come, Fier." In a burst of fire, the three of them, the two foxes and the spirit, disappeared.

The Leader looked at Kisame and Itachi for a long moment, then down at Naruto. "You're going to have questions, I'm sure, but let's wait for Naruto to revive, shall we? Otherwise, you'll have to explain for me after I've gone."

Kisame took a half-step forward, hand clenching around the hilt of Samehada. "You're really leaving?"

"I have to."

Beside Naruto, Itachi sank to his knees and pressed a hand to Naruto's cheek. He was burning hot, but though unconscious, a grim, satisfied smile curled on his lips.

Itachi would have to take that as a reassurance that Naruto would be all right. He didn't, truly, have any other choice.

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