Dammit…I gave in. Here is the last chapter of 2009! It's literally 12 pages long.. Merry Christmas!

--Chapter 16: Glomps and Talking

Kisame was in a very strange situation.

He had been witness to very strange things; vile experiments ordered by the Mizukage on prisoners unlucky and unskilled enough to be captured in battle or Kiri citizens that had put a toe out of line or simply been born into a bloodline clan. Any lesser being would probably puke and scream at the images that haunted his consciousness.

Itachi would probably laugh.

Or at least give the equivalent of laugh and snort, letting an amused light enter his onyx eyes.

Akatsuki, naturally, was a host to odd places and events. Their experiments weren't on par with the Mizukage's cruelness or Orochimaru's level of pure disturbing, but the bodies were pretty gross.

In fact, if he so wished, Kisame thought he could write a book about such weird occurrences.

He didn't know of many other shinobi that wrote though, barring Jiraiya, but his books were full of porn and sappy romance and overused clichés. In other words, perfect for the masses-particularly young or old lonely men. Kisame hadn't heard of a ninja publishing a horror story.

Most biographies were glossed over because so many things were confidential.

Curled around him was a dragon!

Growing up in Kiri, he had naturally heard tales of scaled serpents that dwelled in the seas, causing storms. They were rumored to be able to fly and have a palace beneath the ocean, deep down. Brave warriors were either sent to slay them and rescue a maiden that had been spirited away, steal a bit of the dragon's treasure, or sent as an envoy. Dragons used to respond to pleas, given enough motivation or offered enough gold and jewels.

Or so the stories said.

Her scales, for indeed he had discovered quickly it was a she, were white-silver like before, but not as he remembered them. They didn't hold the same "sheen" and were of duller quality. Some had darkened around the edges. Her scales felt dry, hard, and rough; he could feel them easily enough-she was coiled around him, almost affectionately. She took up the space of the entire room, and several things had been knocked over and smashed.

Driven silver eyes drank him in; Kisame felt like it was a bit disconcerting- her scrutiny didn't last long and her eyes calmed, but something lurked beneath that he might call insanity. She continued to stare though. He noticed they weren't completely silver. Around her pupils (black and slit like a cat) the iris was a brilliant blue like the sky when the sun was out and few clouds blocked the view and only the outer edge was the strange silver.

When she first burst in, he had completely lost composure and gaped like a fish and had only been able to stammer, "You…You..." over and over for six minutes.

This was the exact same dragon he Itachi and the brat had encountered in the plains on the way back the base.

He just knew it, as corny as it sounded, all the way down to his soul. It was a deep journey, but it indeed was there, and full of recognition of the beast.

By now he had calmed down enough (was it even possible to be calm in this situation? He could feel the muscles rippling beneath her scaly armor.) to gain face and start using his brain again. First he'd commanded his body to stop being so stiff and gaping.

Then he set out on another important task: thinking.

The dragon wasn't leaving, obviously, and Kisame didn't think he could make it.

"Keilan." He stopped the imminent jerk and only twitched slightly. Where had the voice come from? Blinking in disbelief, he deducted it must have come from the dragon.

No one else was in the room with him.

"Keilan," she repeated, and this time saw her blinking. He didn't know exactly how she was communicating. Kisame didn't see her snout move, but it clearly didn't sound or feel like telepathy. He just dismissed it and figured it would be better for his mental health if he didn't ponder over the impossibilities of it, and just accepted that it happened. "..my name."

O...oh. Okay. So her name was Keilan. 'And the dragon is talking to me.'

"Kisame." He swore that he didn't squeak. Kisame cleared his throat and said more loudly, "I'm Kisame."

Now what?

---

Naruto wanted to ask where they were going.

Then again, he didn't really care. The point was that he was being included. He couldn't be a pest to the person that had saved him.

Even if he was the one that put him in there in the first place.

Itachi didn't slow down for his weakness. He kept going at a steady pace, turning sharply every now and then. To compensate, the blond half crawled at times, leaning against the wall. He hopped to keep from losing momentum. His muscles were weak and burned.

He kept going anyway.

Once he lost balance. He stifled a small cry (he wasn't weak! not anymore!) as his knees banged against the rock painfully and he skinned his elbows and palms. Naruto attempted to push himself up, and his arms trembled with the effort. The blond feel again and yelped this time-Itachi was nearly out of sight! There was no time to waste, trying to get up! Naruto scrambled awkwardly on the ground. He clawed, not noticing the pain as his fingernails bled from the rocks.

Like a snake he wriggled and hit a small rock.

Itachi had just passed a corner!

With renewed will, he used the rock to help himself stand and then ran awkwardly. It was like one of his legs was numb; it was useless and only slowed him down! Naruto limped and staggered as fast as possible but was careful not to fall again. As he rounded the corner relief filled him-for whatever reason Itachi had stopped and was only ten feet away.

Naruto could make it before he set out again!

It was all a race; he had to do as much as he could to gain favor before Itachi changed his mind.

The blond didn't want to go back. He would be useful!

For once, luck (good luck) was on his side. Itachi remained where he stood until Naruto made it over to his side, and nearly fell into him. Naruto kept his balance though and looked at the Uchiha eagerly. He didn't want to push his luck by crashing into him.

Cold. If he had retained any sense of how things should be, it would have chilled him. Mentors weren't supposed to gaze at their pupils like that. But Naruto was just grateful to be taken out of that horrid pit. Being stuck in there had given him lots of time to think.

He wasn't sure he liked Konoha anymore.

It didn't really matter though, really. Konoha hadn't rescued him, or sent any forces out to do so, as far as he was aware. Not all the citizens had been kind. Naruto would figure out later that he thirsted for a sense of justice. Most would call it revenge. Payback. He preferred to think of it as restoring the balance. The citizens of Konoha were reaping what they sowed and would experience karmatic vengeance.

It was only fitting to be an underling of someone who specialized in revenge.

Itachi cultivated anger as a farmer grew crops.

The look on his face didn't bother him at all. Why should Naruto be disturbed? If Itachi had merely released him on a whim, he doubted he would be alive right now. The blond would be dead. Or maybe he really didn't just randomly decide to release him.

Naruto didn't understand the game he was in.

His eyes gazed without seeing. It applied to both of him. Naruto, in his madness blind. Itachi just unfeeling, cut off and seeing a tool.

Itachi's lip might have curled in disdain, but then again, it could have been a trick of the light.

"Leader-sama wishes to speak with you."

Naruto's eyes widened. An honor! But also disturbing. Someone greater that Itachi deferred to? More powerful than the one who first cast him into terror and then released him from it? It shook his shortly formed world view a bit more.

Akatsuki would have to be careful. They couldn't afford to shatter it one more time. Already a crack had formed.

Attempting to still his trembling, he nodded, only able to emit speechless rasping. "Y..yes." he tried to say. Naruto jumped when he felt a hand on his back. 'Itachi?' he wondered before the hand pushed him, hard. He was shoved into darkness and thrust his hands out to break his fall.

Disoriented, the blond looked up from where he was on his hands and knees as a burning light quickly came on. Blinking rapidly, his eyes adjusted after a few moments of seeing spots.

Like the rest of the place, there was rock everywhere. You couldn't escape it in a cave. It was brownish red and reminded him oddly of dried blood. The shadows it cast in the light were eerie.

Sitting on what must have been a stone thrown (what else would such a powerful person sit on?) was someone he vaguely recognized. It was a man dressed in a black cloak with red clouds stitched on it, like everyone else here with orange hair. Along with the silver and black piercings it set off a memory in Naruto's mind.

"Pein." He murmured. Then he quickly snapped his jaw shut in horror. Naruto hadn't meant to say that aloud! The time in solitary confinement left him more often than not thinking out loud. There was no one to be bothered by it and it was a comfort to hear some kind of voice.

But benevolently, the leader forgave his lapse. "Relax child and please stand."

The blond did as he was heeded, unable to resist the quiet commanding voice. It rung with authority and a strange kindness he couldn't understand. Self-consciously he wiped his hands on his tattered pants.

Did he say anything? Was that what he wanted? Torn by questions he could only stand silently sweating bullets. Finally he couldn't stand it any longer! Naruto couldn't bear any silence, especially now after his ordeal.

"I..." he licked his lips. Naruto didn't recognize his voice which was almost a guttural growl. "I..why am I here?" The blond finally stammered. "What do you want with me?"

A beat. For a moment Pein said nothing. The only indication that he heard something was his contemplative look. "I will be frank. Our original intentions had nothing to do with you. Rather, what resided inside of you. Now that isn't' possible." He didn't elaborate further. "Tell me, jinchuuriki what do you think of the world? What do you know of war, peace..pain?"

His words held a deeper meaning; of that much the blond was sure. Naruto felt as if his answer would determine the rest of his future. What course his life took depended upon if he passed the test.

Pain. He knew lot's of things about pain. Like how terrible it was. His childhood was a hellish nightmare, and the pain was a constant companion, never ending. Worse than any physical abuse (though he was occasionally roughed up by bullies) was his treatment as a ghost. It was like he was invisible. Sometimes, he thought that it wasn't the villagers that were wrong, it was him. Clearly that had to be the case; once when he was younger, the blond thought he wasn't real.

"War.." he murmured, musing aloud. Naruto tried to compose himself, and hide his nervousness at failing the test. He rambled anyway. "It was before my time. I knew fighting broke out but I wasn't born yet. They say people die for glory." The blond blinked. "I saw someone die once."

"I see."

Taking that as encouragement, the genin continued with his tale. "Blood…I thought it would be everywhere, ya know? But it wasn't. Not like the corpses of the Uchiha. His eyes just got real big, like he was scared or something, and then his face just froze. He fell down and I saw the kunai in his back..it was hardly bleeding. ..An' then he fell down." His throat was starting to hurt. He took a deep breath, but if anything it made the itching-pain worse. "I went up for a closer look…his body wasn't all stiff yet. I touched him and he was still warm…but his face wasn't like dead people are supposed to look."

Naruto stopped, and refused to elaborate further. He'd been nine at the time.

"Really now? How are the dead supposed to look then? Hmm." It didn't look like Pein was really talking to him. More like to himself. The blond wasn't sure if he should just answer anyway.

Pein gestured to him absently. "I will talk to you later. Go."

Anyone could see the blatant dismissal. The blond nodded automatically and got up awkwardly; his legs were still cursedly weak. His body had seen ill effects due to his confinement.

Painfully slowly he shuffled out.

'Now where am I going to go?' He thought a bit panicked when he realized he was alone, and that he couldn't see anything. "No…no." He muttered under his breath. The blond hugged himself and fell to the ground, huddling in the corner.

Naruto didn't know how long he stayed like that, pathetic and cowardly sitting in the hallway. Eventually he reigned in his terror and made himself get up again.

He had to keep moving. If he just found someone again…

It only seemed logical to find Itachi.

It was all his fault anyway.

'Really? Or is it your fault for being so weak?'

He froze.

Naruto thought that the voice gone.

"I don't wanna talk to you." The blond received no reply. 'Maybe that was just me thinking.' It was scary to think that he was so alien to himself that he didn't know his own thoughts.

Naruto didn't really know what he to do, and continued to wander the corridor. He made his way through sheer will. The stubbornness came in handy after all. Eventually his body would give out and plunge him into darkness; he knew that but didn't want to think about that.

Nightmares would be sure to follow.

By now he was crawling. Really, logic followed that he should stop and rest. Everyone knew your body needed to restore itself and recover. But some part of him was convinced he had to keep coming, lest they catch up. Naruto wasn't even sure what he was afraid of.

None the less, fear as well as partial insanity was a great motivator.

That was okay though; fear didn't have to make sense.

Naruto tripped and felt his body succumb to exhaustion. What happened to all his stamina? Before it seemed as if he had limitless energy and was the blond hyperactivemore than anything. Now nothing made sense.

Which was why he refused think about it.

The rocks cut into his body. Nothing major, just small cuts and scrapes; it was uncomfortable laying on them though. Naruto focused on his discomfort despite the fact, staving off another panic attack.

Someone would find him, eventually.

---

"Father..." he approached cautiously, for fear of his life. Although he wasn't quick to anger, once enraged his temper was a sight to behold.

Both of them had adopted physical bodies rather than communicate in spirit form. His claws clacked on the white stone floor. It was polished and gleamed; if he looked closely he could see his own scaly face and horns.

No real walls existed around them, for they were dragon's of the sky and so should their dwelling be. Unlike their cousins of the sea who had a palace and a habit of kidnapping human maiden's to make wives or servants of them.

Clouds swirled about, hiding them from the sight of humans in spite of it being nearly impossible to be seen at this height. Only fellow creatures of magic or great birds of prey saw them.

He and his father lived here and so had his mother, but now...it pained him to think of her demise. The loss had been a hard blow to everyone. And now his sister… 'It's all her fault. If only she hadn't run off and broken the sacred laws.' He thought bitterly.

Despite her current status of a traitor, he loved her. She was family and logic couldn't crush that fact.

"Not only did she dare take my form…but she now is in the company of a human." Anger and disgust mingled. When the queen of all things had spoken and said to watch the small party of humans, he never would have imagined one of the consequences being this.

Shame coursed through his vein's for Keilan for he knew she would not feel it.

'Idiot hatchling.' He couldn't summon feelings of betrayal, only affection.

Every bit of his father screamed of tension and rage. His eyes flashed and were a furious dark grey, like storm clouds. A gale would soon be unleashed if he wasn't careful.

"You forgive her too easily. Even before this she had committed many crimes." His words were harsh and cut to the quick. He knew that his sister had done terrible things; stealing faces wasn't forgivable and neither was causing the destruction of a shrine.

But how could he side with her? Becoming a rebel would only mean death. A true one. His love for her warred with the hate he felt for her crimes. Truly Keilan could incite passion within anyone. Normally they were such calm beings and agents of nature.

"I know, Father." For what else could he say? Anything else would be a lie. His eyes were downcast and he caught his reflection: dark black scales and fierce yellow eyes. He looked more like a dragon of darkness rather than a sky spirit.

---

Jiraiya would face an onslaught of chaos when he returned to Konoha.

First and foremost, the remnants of team 7 were hit hard by the news. Hiashi and Kakashi were sharing the duties of active kage until Jiraiya returned with or without Tsunade. In the latter case Jiraiya would be bound by his oath to take office.

So naturally, they were the first in Konoha to receive news of Naruto's apparent kidnapping by the Akatsuki.

Hiashi was troubled; though loud and an annoyance more than a real ninja the blond was a valuable asset in the power he held. Properly trained he would be devastated. Objectively it was a matter of security that he must be returned! On a personal note he felt the he himself and the Hyuuga clan as a whole owed the boy a debt. Hinata had been inspired by him to train more vigorously and Neji, his nephew no longer held onto his bitterness and was able to resume his duties as Hinata's protector without any resentment.

Kakashi had paled, and in a moment of unprofessionalism bolted, heading to the Memorial Stone.

People he cared about got hurt.

That was a fact; one only needed to look at his broken past filled with death to deduce that. First his mother, then father and Obito's reckless sacrifice. He'd been unable to do his job and Rin had paid for it. Lastly his sensei was dead.

He failed them all. He had failed his team. Kakashi couldn't even guard over one of his small family member's properly! Though the ex-ANBU had denied it, for fear of heart-breaking moments like this, Sakura, Sasuke, and Naruto were like a family to him.

Tears had been shed.

Though he never told anyone, all three of the genin were marked down as his next of kin should anything happen to him on a mission.

Once he gained control of himself and regained composure he'd bowed to the Memorial and then set out to find Sasuke and Sakura. His team needed to be informed. This involved them directly after all.

He trusted Hiashi to hand to shinobi aspect of this. Though haughty, he wasn't a bigot in such matters of this. Let him call the meeting. Set up a search and rescue. Kakashi would be the first one aboard. He wondered if Sasuke and Sakura would be vying to be put on the mission right behind him.

"What is it sensei?" Ah, of course. Sakura was always first. She was the one that asked questions. Always. Her face was filled with confusion and new tough edge that hadn't been there before the invasion.

Sasuke was frowning slightly, as if anticipating bad news.

"There is no easy way of putting this." This put Sakura on edge and only made Sasuke (who was already on edge) warier. "Naruto is missing."

"What?" Kakashi felt sympathy for her. Sakura had a look of shock and a bit of horror. "First mom...now Naruto?" Her mother had disappeared during the invasion. She was merely a civilian, but kind and well ready. Kaede Haruno was presumed dead.

She sat down, hard and stiff. Deep thought had taken over her face.

Sasuke in his own way was upset. The clenched fists and subtle tension gave him away.

"Who?" Sasuke asked curtly.

"It's believed that he was kidnapped." Kakashi said cautiously.

"What? Why..? Who would want…want to kidnap that idiot?" The insult was filled with fondness. Whether she wanted to admit it, they were friends. Both of them were her boys.

"Who?" The Uchiha repeated, louder this time. This time to anger was clear in his voice. Someone was going to get hurt.

Kakashi knew the blow up was coming. It was made infinitely worse, because he knew who had done it and Sasuke would personally tear him apart. He knew it would be impossible now to dissuade the raven from his quest of vengeance.

"Akatsuki." Puzzlement filled the two genin's faces at the foreign name. "They are a group of criminals…and your brother is a part of it."

Shock. Anger. Rage. Wrath.

"Itachi!" he hissed. First his mother, father…he'd destroyed his family. Now his best friend? Could Sasuke not grow close to someone without having them get hurt? Was his brother that bent on his misery that any family or close bonds he made were to be torn apart?

Sakura was almost more alarmed by the darkness that overcame her crush's face. But the news pushed back the scary, feral look Sasuke-kun had adopted. It was like a sucker punch. That idiot, captured by some crazy evil organization? Sakura knew the world wasn't split into good guys and bad guys, heroes and villains, but it sure felt like it right now.

"Why?" She asked, not really wanting the answer. But someone had to ask; Sasuke-kun seemed beyond reasoning in his current state. To her surprise, her voice broke when she spoke.

Kakashi sighed. "The secret isn't mine to tell." He muttered under his breath. But a flimsy excuse wouldn't satisfy his team. Technically as acting kage, he had the right to tell them…

Sasuke snapped and roaring lunged at Kakashi. Sakura, still stunned said nothing, but that was when tears of her own started pouring. "SHUT UP!" Angrily he grabbed his sensei's flak jacket. Unable to deal with his emotions, he snarled and struggled when Kakashi grabbed his wrists.

He continued to struggle and lash out, while Sakura cried in the background.

They were both upset and were showing it in their own way.

Sasuke expected a reprimand of "Calm down." and was planning to ignore it.

That didn't happen.

Instead, Kakashi pulled him closer and into a hug. That made his anger spike. "I don't want to be comforted!" he stiffened and tried to kick Kakashi on the shin to no avail. "I don't want to be lied to and told "It'll be alright."! Because it won't be!"

Another unexpected thing happened.

Kakashi nodded. "I know Sasuke. I know it hurts." That was when Sasuke returned the hug and tears came despite him willing them away. Sakura looked so lost and confused on the ground, like she didn't know what to do. "Come here Sakura." Kakashi ordered softly.

It was the team's first group hug.

And Naruto wasn't even here to witness it or tease them about it. The irony wasn't lost on Kakashi, who remembered how he'd pushed the blond away (glomps were scary!) saying he didn't want to get slobber all over his vest.

"D..damn it." Sakura cursed softly. It came as a bit of surprise; usually she wasn't inclined to be foul-mouthed.

Then again, none of the team usually expressed themselves in such a dramatic way.

They understood though, somewhat. Sakura was upset, just like the rest of them. Sasuke could relate to frustration and anger and hurt. Kakashi knew what it was like to lose a teammate, one you didn't even like, that ended up being a cornerstone of your world.

It almost seemed cruel to break it to them. But he didn't tell them the truth of Naruto's jinchuuriki yet. That could come later. Right now, they were all working out there grief.

Kakashi never knew what it was like to be fatherly. Yes, they were like kin to him, but he preferred to think of himself as the weird uncle or eccentric cousin. This was different and kind of nice, even though it hurt. It was scary to know that such trust was being put into him.

For a while, the trio stood like that, Kakashi in the middle, the strong one. Sasuke finally letting go and putting down all the barriers, just let himself feel grief. Sakura clutching on tight. The two genin thought they might fly away if they let go. He felt like a protector for the short space of time.

A real one, not just a guard on a mission.

No one kept track of the time, but eventually the tears dried up and though they were still upset, both Sasuke and Sakura felt as if the worst of it were gone. Sasuke felt lighter than he had in years and Sakura felt near the same but a cloud hung over the entire team now.

"There is something you should know." Kakashi started slowly. He would hate if the bond they just forged and the unspoken vow of loyalty would be broken. "The Akatsuki aren't really after Naruto."

Confusion marred both genin's faces. They were too emotionally spent to work up a racket over the revelation, and just let Kakashi continue.

"I'm probably breaking a million laws by telling you this, and might end up dead. Naruto has a powerful spirit inside him; Naruto is a jinchuuriki more commonly called a "demon jailer" and hold's the Kyuubi no Yoko within him."

"But..Naruto's not a demon." Sakura said. She didn't quite grasp what Kakashi was telling her.

"How?" was what Sasuke wanted to know.

"You're correct, he isn't." Kakashi motioned for them to sit. "Think of it as that ramen he loves to eat." A pang of sorrow hit him at the reminder, "Naruto is the bowl and the Kyuubi is the ramen. Does the ramen make the bowl ramen as well?"

"No." Both murmured.

"As for your question Sasuke, no one quite knows the full details of it. Naruto was born the night the Kyuubi no Yoko attacked the village. The Yondaime used a seal to imprison the demon within Naruto at the cost of his life." He said solemnly.

"Can Naruto use its power?"

He glanced at Sasuke. "To a limited extent." Why was it not surprising that Sasuke was concerned about using the beast rather than the horror of his teammate housing a demon-spirit?

Sakura connected the dots. "Is that what the A..Akatsuki took him for?" Another thought occurred to her. "It can't get out can it? Or..or control him?"

"Yes. No one knows there true agenda." He'd already thrown out one S-class secret, why stop there? "Obviously they want to amass a great amount of power, given Naruto's kidnapping. And don't worry Sakura, if the fox could gain control, we would already be dead by now."

That was a white lie. No one really knew what would happen if the Kyuubi found a flaw in the seal or if it cracked from stress. Kakashi didn't share that with them though; he had faith in his sensei.

"I see." It obviously put her mind at ease to be reassured by an adult.

Sasuke didn't contest what Kakashi said. Right now, his own personal safety was the farthest thing from his mind right now.

"They aren't going to let us go, are they?"

Sakura blinked and tilted her head. "Go? What are you talking about, Sasuke-kun?"

"On the mission to get Naruto back."

"You're right." Kakashi confirmed without preamble. "As much as you may wish to go, you'll only get yourself killed. These are S-class nuke-nin we're talking about."

Sakura paled. "That high level?"

Even Sasuke seemed taken aback.

"They aren't 'wanna-be's' playing at being a ninja." He turned to Sasuke. "You're brother wouldn't associated with just any riff-raff, Sasuke. I thought you would have realized that. Only high level ninja would even dare to take a jinchuuriki right under the nose of a Sannin."

"Do other villages have jinchuuriki?" Her curiosity was peaked despite the circumstances.

"Yes. They often play major roles in wars." He gave them part of the puzzle and it looked like they wanted all of the pieces now. "But they are often kept secret and are a village's ace in the whole, so to speak." Kakashi adopted a lecturing tone. "They are revered for having awesome powers and are deadly on the battle field."

The team lapsed into quiet contemplation; absorbing the facts they'd been given.

"That Gaara." Sasuke said, breaking the silence. "Was he one too?"

It made sense to him, if that indeed was the case. The crazy sand power, and the tanuki of sand he had become. Could the "mother" he kept rambling on about really have been a demon?

Kakashi wondered if he should stop at some point. 'Well, I picked a secure place for a reason.' "Suna has been in possession of the tanuki "Shukaku" for a while. It is fitting that they have a host to a desert spirit given where they live." It was strange and almost cold to be talking of jinchuuriki with such a casual air.

He abruptly cut himself off short. "We can speak more of this later." The jounin really should be talking tactics with other elites, not indulging his genin team. "I'll give you more news later."

Sakura and Sasuke saw they were now talking to a jounin now, not their sensei.

"Hai, sensei."

----

Words: 5, 143

Yeah! Wrote this in three-freakin-days! Hopefully I didn't lay it on too thick in some places.. Please let me know what you liked, or if you even hated something. Only way to get better is to fix mistakes.. Yeah, I was gonna be mean and make y'all wait til 2010..but I gave in. Did y'all like another 5k? It's getting easier to write bigger chapters-before this would have wiped me out.

12/22/09