Chapter 11 - The Burdens We Carry

Lifeless. That word described how Naruto felt at this moment. Naruto, Itachi, and Kisame had made it through Ame's gates and Naruto still wasn't himself. Every question or comment Itachi or Kisame made to get Naruto out of his depression was met with indifference or a short answer. Itachi was getting worried, though it wouldn't physically show: he knew that if Naruto wasn't pulled out of his current state, he might not be salvageable and everything Naruto had worked for would be undone. As they climbed the stairs, Naruto kept his mask on to hide his pain. He didn't think about it, but it was almost like his was back when he was a genin. He was once again wearing a mask, literally this time, to hide how he truly felt underneath. However, this thought was the farthest thing from his mind, blocked by the image of his dead former friend. As they made it to the main room, Naruto glanced up and saw Nagato, Konan, and Hinata were conversing with one another. Hinata appeared tired, showing that she and Konan had just done some training. Hinata turned to see Naruto, Itachi and Kisame walk into the room. She smiled at her lover, but was met with a mask glance before Naruto walked over towards his room. That got Hinata worried.

"Naruto-kun?" called Hinata only for Naruto to ignore her as he walked down the hallway.

"What happened?" asked Nagato, when he also took note of the blonde's weird behavior.

"We found the Yonbi and Gobi jinnchuuriki. We have their backing, but to get it we had to clear some bandits out of a local village. It was simple enough, until..." said Itachi, sighing before speaking again. "...until we ran into some Konoha shinobi, one of them being Rock Lee, one of Naruto's old friends. Me and Kisame dealt with the three unknown shinobi, but Naruto fought Lee... and killed him."

Hinata gasped upon hearing the news. Lee was dead, and by Naruto's hand no less. She could only imagine what was going through his head.

"Gaki's been like this ever since it happened," said Kisame, glancing at the direction Naruto left at.

"What should be done? We can't leave him like that," said Konan. As she had grown to actually befriend Naruto she didn't like to see him in such a state.

"Maybe I should try to talk to him," said Hinata, but felt a hand on her shoulder, which, surprisingly, belonged to Kisame.

"You should probably let me handle it. I think I can get through to him," said Kisame, giving a small toothy grin to the Hyuuga.

Hinata nodded, albeit with clear reservations, before Kisame walked toward Naruto's room down the hallway.

"Is it a good idea to have him talk to Naruto-kun?" Hinata asked the others. Itachi sighed again before speaking.

"Kisame was forced to kill many of his own comrades more times than any shinobi should ever have to before he joined us. As of right now he's probably the one who knows what Naruto is going through better than anyone," Itachi pointed out.

The four shinobi now waited for the discussion to play out.

With Naruto...

Naruto blocked out all noise as he walked into his room in Ame. Closing his door, Naruto let a tired, weary sigh as he felt his his shoulders slump over. He sat down at the foot of his bed and hung his head as he looked at the floor. His hand slowly reached up to remove his mask, revealing an emotionless face and red, swollen eyes, signs that Naruto had been crying. Naruto set his mask down on the bed and then ran his hands from his face through his hair. He then rested his arms on his legs.

'This is not how I thought this would go. Everything was so much easier when I ran this scenario through my head. But, seeing Lee die and knowing that it was done by my own hand, it wasn't nearly at all what I wanted. Kami, can I really lead a charge to my old home? I thought I was ready for the burden heart but now... I just don't know anymore,' thought Naruto as he struggled with his inner thoughts.

"You can't be doubting yourself now, kit. I know that it's hard and it wasn't nearly what you expected, but now is not the time for self pity. This group needs you focused and ready or everything that we've been working on will be for nothing," said Kurama, trying to will his vessel back to life.

Naruto heard his comrades words and try to in mind, but it wasn't enough to bring him back. Naruto could feel the sorrow rising back up when he heard his door open. He looked up to see Kisame shutting the door as he entered the room.

"I think we need to have a talk," said Kisame, as he leaned his back onto the nearest wall.

"You're going to give me a pep talk? This aught to be good," said Naruto looking back at his feet.

"I know. I know, I'm not the type to talk to people about their problems but just hear me out," said Kisame, while Naruto merely shrugged. "When I was still in Kiri and hadn't taken Samehada yet, I was sent on a protection mission. The others I were with were carrying vital information that needed to be guarded at all cost. Everyone there pretty much treated me like an outcast: with my blue skin, sharp teeth and all. One girl offered for me to join them, but I declined, keeping focused on the mission at hand. Eventually, we were surrounded by enemy forces and we knew that we couldn't hold them off. So, as the protection of this group I had two choices: either I fight off the forces and possibly get killed, letting them take some of our group for interrogation and get the information or I kill my comrades and keep the information out of enemy hands."

"Let me guess, you beat the odds and killed all the enemy, right?" asked Naruto, forcing a sarcastic tone into his voice.

"Nope. I killed every single member of my group," said Kisame, getting a shocked look from Naruto.

"You did?!" asked Naruto, surprised that Kisame would have chosen that route, "Even the girl who was nice to you?"

"Yes, even her," said Kisame, putting his hand on Naruto's shoulder.

"You see Naruto, sometimes doing what needs to be done means you might have to cross some lines you're not prepared for. The pain will be there and it may stay for a long time, but if you learn to accept whats happened and press on, it does get better. The pain didn't last long with me because I knew it was the right move. When you choose a path like the one we have, your hands will be stained with the blood of those you once called 'comrades'. That's just how things are in our line of work. I understand where you're coming from kid; the people in that squad, they weren't the only people I once fought side-by-side that I then had to kill. It might be easy, it might not be... but if there's one guarantee it's that it's going to happen. That's just how it goes for us, wouldn't you agree?"

"Heh, says the guy who enjoys any kind of slaughter," said Naruto, seeing Kisame chuckle at his words.

"You got me there," said Kisame, before looking at Naruto sympathetically, "Like I said, I know what you're going through but understand something: we need you, gaki. You made all of this possible but the job's not over yet. Harden your heart, get back on your feet, and know that you got a lot of people behind you."

With that, Kisame got up and left Naruto alone with his thoughts. Naruto stared down at his hands, now open and palms up. Once again, Lee's body appeared in his mind. After about an hour or two of deep thinking and soul searching, however, Naruto forced the memory to the far reaches of his mind, clenching his fist and closing his eyes.

'I'm sorry for what I did to you, Lee. You were a good friend, a strong ninja... and you stood up for me, for what was right, to the very end when not many people did; your death was just a waste, a pointless, terrible waste. I won't forget the time we had as friends... but I have to move on,' Naruto thought to himself as he buried his feelings of remorse, buried it so deep that the image in his mind started to disappear.

He wasn't forgetting the memory, but was now treating it like a causality of the conflict being waged. And, while he knew this might come to haunt him later on, he decided to use it as fuel for the flames of his hatred towards Konoha: if the council hadn't banished him, he wouldn't had been forced to kill Lee or any of his old friends. This was their mess, and when Naruto and the Akatsuki finally made it to Konoha, he would find the council after he and his comrades killed and/or evacuated everyone else, bring them to a spot where they could see the destruction of the village and tell them one thing before he killed them, with the flames of Konoha bursting into the sky behind him.

"This is your fault; this tragedy, and everything that led to it, was an end of your own creation. Know that before I damn you to hell for all eternity," said Naruto, opening his eyes.

Naruto took a deep breath, having reset his mind and emotional state. He felt like his old self, maybe a little angrier than before he fought Lee, but still like his old self. He got off the bed to leave the room. Upon entering the main chamber, he was greeted by Hinata, Nagato, Konan, Itachi and Kisame looking at him. Hinata walked towards him, the concern showing in her eyes.

"How are you?" asked Hinata, worry present in her voice.

"I'm better. Still a little angry, but I'm doing alright," said Naruto, giving a reassuring smile.

"It's good to see you back to normal," said Konan, smiling at the blonde.

"Well I'll be... maybe Kisame has a soul after all if he managed to get you to listen," Nagato chided.

"I wouldn't get your hopes up, Pein-sama," Kisame joked back.

"Please, just call me Nagato. (he turns to Naruto,) Anyways, I think you should take a couple of days off just to be sure you're ready for the next part of the plan," said Nagato, wanting Naruto to be sure that he was ready.

"I appreciate it, but we still have much to do and I can't be on the sidelines," said Naruto, before everyone turned to see Zetsu coming into view.

"I got some news. Sasuke's just defeated Deidara. At least he went out with a bang," White and Black Zetsu said, respectively.

"Oh, dear, we lost another one. That makes three losses. Good thing we got a new recruit and most of the jinchuriki on our side or this could've been a problem. So where is Sasuke?" Kisame said.

"Sasuke managed to get himself out of the explosion's radius, but still needs to recuperate from the fighting. He is currently held up in a small house with three other people," said White Zetsu, while the group of six shared their shocked gazes amongst each other. Itachi looked at Nagato, and Nagato knew that look.

"Itachi, we still-," started Nagato, before Naruto interrupted.

"We still haven't heard from Yugito about Kumo's involvement in our plans; until we get word from her we'll have to wait to see what she and Killer Bee, the Habichi jinchuriki, will do. In the meantime, I can send a shadow clone with Kakuzu to locate the Utakata, the Rokubi jinchuriki, and recruit him. Meanwhile, Itachi can finish his business with Sasuke, with me and Kisame providing back up. Sound good to everyone?" asked Naruto, looking around everyone.

"...*sigh* Very well. Itachi, go with Naruto and Kisame and finish up with your brother. Naruto, make sure you send that clone with Kakuzu and find the Rokubi. Dismissed," said Nagato, leaving the group.

"Hinata, we should continue your training. If we keep going at our current rate you should be ready to fight by the time both Sasuke and Utakata have been dealt with," said Konan, getting a nod from Hinata before the Hyuga turned to face Naruto.

"Be safe," said Hinata before kissing Naruto goodbye.

Naruto smiled at her as she smiled back and left with Konan. Naruto turned around and looked at Itachi, who was giving a grateful smile, albeit a small one.

"Thank you Naruto," said Itachi, while Naruto put his hand on Itachi's shoulder.

"No problem. Anyways, I guess it's time for you to settle things with Sasuke," said Naruto, as he, Itachi, and Kisame left once again, but this time to end a sibling dispute, once and for all.

Back in Konoha...

"Tsunade-sama, my request has not changed," said Gai, with Neji and Tenten standing behind him.

Ever since Team Gai had come back with Lee's body and given Tsunade the news of the Akatsuki, Gai had requested, no DEMANDED, that Tsunade send him and his team after the Akatsuki to avenge Lee. Each time he received the same answer from Tsunade, that is to say she keeps denying their request, and each time he and his team were getting more livid with each refusal.

"Gai, as I've told you, I can't send you after the Akatsuki. We don't even know where their main base is located and, even if we did, I'm not sure I would send you to their base," said Tsunade, understanding how upset Gai and his team were over Lee's death, but also knew that she couldn't risk them.

"With All due respect, Tsunade-sama, I have more stake in this than just Lee. Hinata-sama is still being held captive with the Akatsuki. She's been with them too long, and if they kill Lee with no mercy, I fear what they'll do to her... or what they've already done to her," said Neji, conviction showing in his face that he was not going to be deterred.

"I understand that Neji, and Hiashi has made it very clear he wants his daughter found as soon as possible. However, until Jiraiya comes back with some news about where they are, no one is going anywhere," said Tsunade, now starting to lose her patience with the group.

Gai was about to press the issue until Jiraiya entered the room via window. One look around the room and Jiraiya knew something was up.

"Thank Kami," Tsunade muttered before speaking, "Jiraiya, please tell me you've found something."

"I'm close, my contacts finally have a solid lead. Given them a few more days and we'll have the exact location of the Akatsuki's base of operations," said Jiraiya, smiling at his teammate.

"And when you find them, you're taking us with you," said Gai with his student's nodding in agreement.

"Gai, I've already-," Tsunade started when Jiraiya spoke up.

"Gai, I know you're angry, and I'm really sorry about what happened to Lee, but I need to do recon on my own so no one else gets caught up in an ambush or the like," said Jiraiya, trying to diffuse the determination.

"You don't let us come with you, we'll just tail you and get there any way. It's that or taking us with you," said Tenten, with her teammates waiting for a decision.

Jiraiya looked at Tsunade, who sighed in response while rubbing her temples. She knew no matter what they were going after the Akatsuki. Hell, she could suspend them from duty but they would sneak out first chance and be off in an instant. With all that in mind, Tsunade looked at the trio.

"When Jiraiya's intel comes in with a location go to the gate and wait for him there and all four of you will go to the Akatsuki's base. You are dismissed," said Tsunade, as the trio bowed and departed from the room while Jiraiya looked at Tsunade.

"Are you sure about this?" asked Jiraiya, seeing his teammate laying back in her chair.

"No, but you and I both know that they would have gone no matter what the decision. Just keep them under control," said Tsunade, while Jiraiya smiled at his teammate.

"You got it. Well, might as well get something to eat while I'm here. You want to come?" said Jiraiya while he headed to the door.

"You know what, I think I'll join you on that," said Tsunade, getting up from her chair.

"Finally agreeing to go on that date with me?" asked Jiraiya, smiling at a now frowning Tsunade.

"Don't push it Jiraiya," said Tsunade, who couldn't help but smile as Jiraiya chuckled at her reaction and left to grab dinner with her teammate... unaware that Lee's death was only the start.

(A/N: Wassup! So here's the next chapter, and it is basically a set up for what's ahead. Special thanks to Rocker1600 for looking over this chapter and finalizing it. I still haven't decided if I'll write the next chapter for this story or for Fox's Justice next. Oh well, a decision for another time. Cya!