The Cost of Living

Idealism

Pein stood with his back to Naruto, gazing out over the buildings that constituted the Hidden Sound from the top of his tower. Neither male had spoken since the former had insisted that they talk, the younger one merely following his elder up to his lookout spot. Given that he'd done everything asked of him since meeting Pein, Naruto wondered what the leader of Akatsuki wanted to talk to him about.

And when he'd actually say something.

The orange-haired man chose that moment to open his mouth, though he was still facing away from Naruto. "I spoke with Kakuzu after we finished sealing the Rokubi."

Naruto wasn't sure what to say to that. Though he was unsure as to what happened during the sealing ritual, talking one-on-one with a fellow member of Akatsuki was probably rather unusual; Pein wouldn't bother bringing it up otherwise. The fact that he was speaking to Kakuzu…well, the topic was likely centered around only one subject: him. That was kind of funny, since whenever he was in Kakuzu's company, his teacher almost never had anything good to say. Even when he did, it was almost always done in some sort of backhanded fashion; anything the nonagenarian would tell someone else about him was unlikely to be positive. A sort of morbid curiosity overtook him, but unsure where exactly the older shinobi was going, he merely said, "Oh."

Pein spared him an over-the-shoulder glance. "You sound…uninterested."

The younger male shuffled awkwardly; even Kakuzu's piercing stares didn't make him nearly as uncomfortable as a mere look from Pein's unique eyes. "Kakuzu doesn't often have much nice to say about me," he admitted, "and you haven't said what you talked with him about. I'm not really sure what to say right now."

Akatsuki's leader hummed thoughtfully. "Yes, you and your mentor have quite the unusual relationship—"

"Tell me something I don't know," muttered the blond.

"—but he mentioned that you helped him subdue the Rokubi no Namekuji. Tell me," he continued, turning around to face the blond, "what would prompt you to help capture another Jinchūriki?"

"Well, I didn't know he was a Jinchūriki at first," he admitted. "Kakuzu's Bingo Book is so damn old that—"

"You're using his Bingo Book?" Pein interjected. Naruto nodded, and the older man blinked slowly. "Interesting. Continue."

Naruto wasn't sure why Pein would describe what Kakuzu would consider useless sentimentality as 'interesting', but he didn't question it. "Anyway, I was trying to…" he paused, thinking of the right words. Somehow, 'prove to my wayward teacher that he's wrong about me by invading Kirigakure and killing one of its esteemed shinobi' didn't really feel like the right thing to say. "He had a high bounty, according to the book," he finally settled on, "and I wanted to get him. But then Kakuzu showed up and said that Utakata was his, and I didn't just want to let him show me up, so…"

He had started rambling, and Pein held up a hand to forestall the rest of his diatribe. The orange-haired man seemed to have drawn his own conclusion based on the blond's words. "That explains your original motivation, and yet, once you found out he was a Jinchūriki, you still chose to stay and neutralize him."

"I didn't wanna get shown up," he defended. Now that he was saying it, his reasoning sounded rather dumb and…childish.

Pein decided not to comment on it, instead turning around and resuming his watch over Otogakure. "Zetsu located the Hachibi. I sent Itachi and Kisame out to capture the Jinchūriki."

When he didn't immediately continue speaking, Naruto shifted uncomfortably. What was he supposed to say to that? "Oh…"

"Yes," Pein confirmed, and Naruto wondered if the man thought he'd reached some sort of obvious conclusion or if he was just agreeing for the sake of it. "When the Hachibi is sealed, the only Jinchūriki remaining will be you and your associate."

The blond tensed. Did he keep me here to kill me now?

With his back still turned, the motion went unnoticed by Pein. "Due to the nature of the sealing statue, the Kyūbi must be sealed last." Naruto's muscles relaxed at the same time Akatsuki's leader shot him another over-the-shoulder look. "You are safe until such time as we can capture the Nanabi."

Naruto wasn't sure whether that statement was meant to be reassuring or not. It sounded kind of like it, but the knowledge that Fū's death was the only thing standing in the way of his own was not as comforting as Pein made it out to be. …Joy.

"Do you have goals you'd like to achieve?"

"…Come again?"

Pein turned to face him fully and actually strode forward; only a number of feet separated them now. "Goals," he repeated. "Something to strive for."

"I…" Naruto wasn't quite sure what to say. Sure, there were some things that he would have liked to have occurred before he died – receiving Kakuzu's praise was near the top of that list, though the likelihood of that occurring was slim, regardless of the timetable on his death. Most of the other things weren't exactly goals so much as things he would've liked to grow up and try, given the opportunity to become an adult. His mind flickered around for an idea, and finally latched on to the one that had been driving him since meeting Kakuzu so many years ago. "I want vengeance against Konoha," he settled on.

"Hmm…that is a lofty objective…"

"Yeah, I know, but—"

"You did not let me finish," Pein interrupted. Naruto fell silent at the man's words, unwilling to get on his bad side; the other male kind of controlled his fate, after all. "As I was saying, getting vengeance upon Konoha is an impressive goal, but not an impossible one. Nor are you the only one who desires it."

Naruto connected the dots almost immediately. "You?"

"Konohagakure has done much to earn my wrath, and it has profited far too much from the tragedy that has befallen others. Seeing it razed to the ground would be quite satisfying." He turned his back to Naruto, walked forward, and beckoned for the boy to approach; the blond found himself standing beside Akatsuki's leader, overlooking the Village Hidden in Sound. "Do you know what Akatsuki's goal is?"

Naruto was slightly taken aback by the question, but he recovered quickly. "Uh, isn't it to use the Bijū to control war and then the world?"

"That is what I would have the other members believe," Pein stated. Naruto's ears perked at the admission, suddenly aware that the orange-haired man was bringing him into his confidence. It was either a sign of his faith in the blond, or an omen of his impending death that Pein could reveal such sensitive information and not fear it leaking.

"So…what's the actual goal?"

"My true intention is to create a kinjutsu that will annihilate one of the Five Great Shinobi Nations, which will set an example for the others in order to discourage them from engaging in warfare. This will create a world where Akatsuki controls the struggle of power that has always existed amongst the Hidden Villages, a world which lives under the same umbrella of fear, of pain…a world where peace reigns."

"You're…fighting for peace?"

Pein spared the younger male a sidelong glance. "Do you take offense to that?"

Naruto returned the look and blinked blankly. "No, I'm just…it's just surprising, that's all. I didn't really expect you to be trying to achieve something so…good."

The orange-haired man returned his gaze to the city below. "Long ago, I used to live in Amegakure. It was a place that was always strife with war because of its location among the Lands of Fire, Earth, and Wind. The Shinobi World Wars created many casualties, including both of my parents and my closest friend.

"It was his desire to become the leader of Amegakure, and then become something more, in order to prevent war from taking place. Only by controlling the world could he instigate and enforce peace. After his death, I swore to continue his dream. To that end, I learned of the existence of the Bijū. By utilizing their collective power, I could control a force strong enough to accomplish the same end as my friend."

The ends justify the means… "…Why are you telling me this?" asked the Jinchūriki, apprehensive of the answer.

"Because we are similar," Pein stated. "Our histories may be different, but we have lived through many of the same experiences. You're also quite intriguing…an anomaly of sorts. I did not expect you to be so useful when Kakuzu advised I speak to you upon his joining Akatsuki. Your dedication to your self-imposed mission is quite impressive." He turned ringed eyes upon the teen. "In many ways, you also remind me of my friend. It's…refreshing. Nostalgic."

"Ah." Naruto wasn't quite sure what else to say. He never would have guessed Pein's real intentions for Akatsuki…they were just too outlandish for such a powerful figure, especially one who portrayed himself as interested in world domination. On the other hand, he also understood why Pein had never shared his plans with the other members; if any of the S-class nukenin found out what their leader's true aspirations were, it was highly unlikely that they would've wanted to remain a part of the organization. And Pein needed them in order to collect all the Bijū so his plans could come to fruition. It was manipulative as hell, but also very clever.

Regardless, Naruto still felt like he was on the wrong end of Pein's objectives.

"Your relationship with your teacher is quite unusual."

And now he was confused; Pein kept switching topics too quickly for him to properly keep track of. "Huh?"

"Your relationship with Kakuzu," the Ame-nin repeated. "It's strange." Naruto thought that that was a mild way to describe how they got along, but the older man apparently wasn't done with his musing. "At first glance, one would assume that you hated each other, given how you converse and interact, but that is a false assumption. Despite the animosity you seem to show each other, your relationship is quite strong. You desire his attention and acceptance, probably due to how he reared you."

"How did you—"

Pein preempted his question. "I am no stranger to the quest for acknowledgment. Additionally, only the strongest feelings of devotion would keep you working near him when he is hunting members of your kind." Naruto huffed and crossed his arms, but didn't deny the claim. "On the other hand," continued the orange-haired male, "I believe that Kakuzu views you as a reminder of how far he has come. It is hard to say, but I think that he considers you to be a younger version of himself."

Naruto, once again, couldn't formulate a response, though this time it was more due to shock. He wasn't stupid enough to believe that Kakuzu didn't care about him – even if it was hidden by indifference and disparaging remarks – but to have someone else point it out was something quite different. Pein had to be a rather perceptive individual to pick up on the sorts of clues that would lead to that conclusion, especially if he was reading them off of someone as emotionally-detached as Kakuzu.

He also wasn't done talking. "I have the distinct impression that he would be highly disappointed if you, at least, were sacrificed on behalf of Akatsuki's goals. Every time I have brought up the topic of your impending death, he has found ways to persuade me to prolong it, though always in a very subtle fashion. Kakuzu is clever, and his methods are very surreptitious, but his tenacity in avoiding the subject of allowing you to die is very telling."

Naruto felt a small amount of gratitude swell in his chest at the notion that his teacher cared enough to fight for his life, even if the old nukenin never showed such sentiment when they ran into each other. "I appreciate you telling me that…I suppose," he added, still unsure where Pein was going with their meeting.

"I've decided," Pein began in a voice Naruto would have considered magnanimous if it wasn't so flat, "that you and your friend are greater assets to me alive than dead."

"You're…not going to take the Kyūbi from me?"

"No. I've discovered an alternate method to use the Bijū that won't require a complete extraction, though I'll still require access to the Nanabi's and Kyūbi's chakras."

"That's…great!" I'm going to live! Fū's going to live! We can… His thought trailed off, unsure where to go from there. The memory of Fū kissing him was still relatively fresh in his mind, and though he hadn't consciously thought much of it after the initial moment (due to his focus on simply surviving to his next birthday), it suddenly appeared as if he had the time to consider his future…and who that future could contain.

That rather expansive thought process was cut off by Pein. "Unfortunately, I have an associate who will be less-than-pleased about such a course of action. It will take some…persuasion…to sway him." Naruto frowned a little at how ominous that sounded, but decided not to question it. "I would like to ask a favor of you, as compensation."

"Yeah, sure, anything you want," Naruto affirmed, deciding that it behooved him to be gracious.

"It is my desire to free Amegakure from the clutches of Hanzō the Salamander. While I have every intention of taking him down personally—" Naruto noted that the orange-haired man sounded a little vindictive when he said that, "—the less of his forces I have to deal with, the better.

"I would like you," he stated, fixing Naruto with a grey-eyed stare, "to infiltrate Amegakure and create an opening for me to reach Hanzō."

Naruto blinked at the unexpected request. "Oh…well, sure, that seems doable."

Pein nodded once. "Good. There is already an operative of Akatsuki's working on the same mission within Amegakure. You should meet up with him. I expect you two to be able to get me access to Hanzō as soon as possible."

"Anything else?"

"No." He turned and strode away from the blond. "Take the Rokubi Jinchūriki's body on your way out and finish your mission. I wish you luck."

"Yeah, thanks…hey!" he called before Pein completely disappeared into a hidden doorway that had just opened. "What was your friend's name? The one you said I reminded you of."

"Yahiko," Pein replied after a pause. He went through the door and allowed it to shut behind him, leaving Naruto in the building by himself.

Well, time to get down to business.


WHILE IT IS AMUSING TO WATCH THE HACHIBI GET THRASHED BY MERE HUMANS, I WOULD LIKE TO SUGGEST LEAVING THIS PLACE. UPON HIS CAPTURE, YOU WILL BE ONE OF THE FEW JINCHŪRIKI LEFT TO ROAM FREELY, AND I WOULD PREFER NOT TO SHARE THE FATE OF MY BRETHREN.

Fū didn't respond to the Nanabi, choosing instead to continue observing the battle occurring before her very eyes. Given how far away she was, it was difficult to tell what was happening – though the Hachibi's massive size made his movements much easier to see – but judging by the pair of black-cloaked figures, the height difference between them, and the simply massive amount of water the taller one had just conjured, Kisame and Itachi were working to neutralize the Eight-Tails as quickly as possible.

Even if the beetle was worried for himself, Fū wanted an idea of what was going on with Akatsuki, and better yet, how they fought against a summoned Bijū.

It was actually a huge coincidence that had led to her current situation. She had entered the Land of Lightning on a bounty hunt for a blond male with a specialty in Katon ninjutsu after skimming the Bingo Book (she had been rather amused to find a description of Naruto in it) and deciding that her skill in earth ninjutsu stood a better chance against him than a white-haired male who could channel lightning chakra through his sword. Crossing the region had been an interesting experience, given that she had mostly been exploring the veritable wasteland of the Land of Earth, but given that she wasn't on any particular timetable, she hadn't been too worried about taking her time. Finding the man hadn't taken all that long – apparently he was somewhat of a loudmouth – and the green-haired girl had taken great pleasure in shutting him up by killing him.

Honestly, if he had said 'hot' one more time, Fū would've blown a gasket.

The storage scroll that Naruto had bestowed upon her had never been more useful than in that moment; Fū didn't fancy trying to trek back over the mountains that composed the Land of Lightning with a heavy body slung over her shoulders. It was during this journey that the sound of a roar had reached her ears, and the head of a massive reddish-brown, ox-like creature had crested the nearby mountain ridge. Curious but wary, she had decided to find a better spot to see what was going on.

It had been quite a while since Fū had given Akatsuki any serious thought. That wasn't to say that she'd forgotten about them – the threat the organization posed to her life was all too real for that comfort – but she didn't see the purpose in worrying over something that was out of her control. Either Akatsuki would decide that it needed the Nanabi and come after her, or it wouldn't; and if its members did decide to pursue her, she would fight back until her body was broken and immobile. Whether she was strong enough to fend them off didn't really matter. Her focus was on improving her skills for her own benefit, not to meet a certain plateau in power and peak there.

She was well aware of the fact that her actions had little bearing on Akatsuki's decision to keep her alive or not. Naruto was the one with connections to many of the members – Kakuzu, Itachi, Kisame, Pein – and it was him who would make the difference on whether their lives were forfeit or not, not for her lack of trying to be useful, of course.

The green-haired girl reflected on that thought. Things always seemed to return to her blond companion in the end.

When she had still been a member of Takigakure, Kakuzu had been her idol simply because of the reputation he carried. Humanity had spurned her existence, just as it had done to Kakuzu generations before. The nukenin had embodied everything that Fū wished she had in order to escape the hellhole that was the Hidden Waterfall and be free to do as she desired. And so, when Naruto had arrived and given her the opportunity to fulfill her dreams, it had been the greatest moment of her short life.

Reality, however, was very different from fantasy. Fū had held no illusions that Kakuzu was a nice person; in fact, she would've been somewhat disappointed if he had turned out to be one. He was a cruel man with a penchant for giving priority to the object with the most value.

That object, apparently, was Naruto.

Kakuzu's expectations for her had been very clear; she was a tool meant to spur Naruto to bigger and better things. That hadn't put her off from reaping the benefits of being the nukenin's tool, though it had started a slow shift of perspective on who her idol should really be.

While Kakuzu was a superb shinobi and a good mentor when he truly put forth the effort, Naruto had slowly become her motivation to keep moving forward. When that had turned into infatuation…well, Fū honestly hadn't been all that surprised. She was still a girl, after all, and the only males in her life were Kakuzu and Naruto. Given the former's personality and age versus the latter's understanding and kinship forged from being a Jinchūriki, her interest in the blond had really only been a matter of time.

How far those feelings extended was still questionable. It would've been easy to say that she loved him, except that she had no measure for what constituted love. How was she supposed to know what the difference between casual interest and love was without any other friends or associates to compare against? Kakuzu didn't count…he was a statistical anomaly when it came to such matters.

Still, she knew she felt something for her fellow Jinchūriki, and those feelings had culminated in the simple desire to show him some form of affection – the kiss. She had already decided previous to that moment that it would be wiser to split up. Kakuzu's training had given both of them enough of a power boost that venturing together would be more of a hindrance to their respective safety and future profitability than a boon. Fū knew that, if Akatsuki should decide to seal the Nanabi and Kyūbi, she would be the first one targeted, either because of necessity or because Kakuzu would subtly prod Pein into keeping Naruto alive for as long as he possibly could. Naruto, after all, was more valuable.

It wasn't necessarily the possibility of never seeing him again that had spurred her into kissing him, though she would've been lying to say it hadn't played a small part in her decision. The knowledge that Naruto had done so much for her, some things even without his direct awareness, combined with her desire to let him know that there was a life beyond simply bounty hunting and trying to survive Akatsuki, had galvanized her into at least attempting to show him how she felt.

Of course, whether or not he actually returned her feelings was another matter entirely. Judging only by how little he had responded during the kiss, she would've had to guess that they weren't on the same wavelength, though that could have been chalked up to shock and inexperience. She had tried not to focus on Naruto's opinions of her during their time apart, choosing instead to put a great deal of effort into making herself enough of an asset to Akatsuki that the organization would decide to keep her alive.

It was probably a futile gesture, but it wasn't like she had anything better to do anyway.

Fū was distracted from her thoughts as a brilliant flash of yellow light drew her attention and eroded the mountain next to the one she was on. Wow…

THE POWER OF THE BIJŪDAMA IS QUITE IMPRESSIVE.

No kidding. Orange eyes returned to watching Itachi and Kisame battle against the Hachibi, the former exhaling fireballs at the beast's head while the latter used his sword to drain chakra from the Bijū's thrashing tentacle-tails. Fū began to form hand signs before she was even aware of what she was doing.

The Nanabi, however, took notice. WHAT ARE YOU DOING? He sounded almost apprehensive about the way his container's fingers twisted around each other.

"I'm tired of sitting back and doing nothing," she muttered, holding her hands out in the classic position required for using Jinton.

FOOLISH GIRL! This time, the tinge of panic in the beetle's buzzing was quite audible. WHILE I HAVE NO ISSUE WITH PUTTING THE HACHIBI IN HIS PLACE, HIS CAPTURE BRINGS US ONE STEP CLOSER TO DEATH!

"They'll eventually capture the Hachibi, with or without my help," Fū shot back, sweat beginning to trickle down her face. "Kakuzu said that Itachi and Kisame are the strongest pair within Akatsuki…they wouldn't have been sent if they couldn't do the job."

THEN LET THEM DO IT! YOU ARE RISKING BOTH OF OUR LIVES BY INTERFERING!

"I don't care. What will be, will be." If nothing else, Kakuzu's pragmatism had certainly rubbed off on his female pupil. "Now shut up…I'm trying to concentrate."

Fū had discovered that it was easier to manipulate the form the atomizing powers granted to her by the Nanabi took after summoning them in the geometric shape described by the scroll Pein had given her. It was too difficult to focus on the tri-elemental nature manipulation and the shape manipulation simultaneously, so after creating a square pyramidal base of Dust Release in her hands, she could change the form to something more useful to the situation. Unfortunately, it was still an art in the making, requiring some measure of concentration, and the Seven-Tails' buzzing panic wasn't conducive to what she was trying to achieve. After another several moments, the technique was straining against her hold on it; she released it with a powerful burst of chakra.

"Jinton: Chiriryūdan no Jutsu!"

A massive dragon erupted from her hands, opaque and grayish-brown in color. It roared through the air and crashed through two of the Hachibi's tentacles, disintegrating them upon contact.

Fū almost wished that she was close enough to see the surprise on Kisame's and Itachi's faces…well, if Itachi had the capacity to display emotion, anyway. In the back of her mind, she hoped that her assistance in the capture of the Hachibi would be noted and added to her list of useful qualities as a reason for Akatsuki to not kill her.

The diversion apparently did its job, for Itachi took the Bijū's lull in attacking to cause great swathes of black flames to erupt all over the Hachibi's skin. Simultaneously, all the water in the area rose up and encompassed the Bijū, trapping it in what Fū guessed to be some sort of enlarged Water Prison Technique. Strangely, the black fire continued to burn the beast's skin, despite being underwater.

Though it was difficult to tell what was happening, Fū watched as Kisame stepped into the bubble of water, and soon enough the Hachibi was shrinking down in size. Water splashed down into the valley of mountains as the forms of two humans became distinguishable: the Hachibi Jinchūriki and Kisame. NOW THAT YOU HAVE ASSISTED THE ENEMY IN ACCOMPLISHING THEIR TASK, rasped the Nanabi acidly, PERHAPS YOU WILL FINALLY HEED MY ADVICE AND LEAVE.

Yeah…I think it's time to go. Bounties to turn in, after all, she thought, patting the side of her cylinder, where the scroll containing a plethora of sealed corpses was hidden.

FOOLISH GIRL…YOU WILL COME TO REGRET THIS MISTAKE.

We'll see. Then she took off, crossing the mountains as quickly as possible.

Blood-red and beady yellow eyes followed her path as she left. "Should we follow her?"

Itachi was silent for a long moment. "No," he replied at last. "She is not our assignment." Unspoken, the Uchiha mused that Fū's escape would prolong the amount of time he had to work up a plan to save Naruto from an unnecessary death. Missing-nin, who roamed the world by their very nature, were far more difficult to track down than shinobi belonging to villages, such as the Hachibi Jinchūriki. The amount of time it had taken Kakuzu to find the Rokubi Jinchūriki was proof enough of that. All he could hope was that Fū and Naruto could endure until he could arrive at a solution. "Come," he intoned, "we should contact Leader-sama and have Zetsu bring the body to base before he awakens. I have no desire to restrain the Hachibi a second time."

"Heh, as you say, Itachi. Personally, that was the most fun I've had in awhile."

The raven-haired male didn't respond – Kisame's definition of 'fun' had always been a bit peculiar – blood-red eyes flickering once more in the direction Fū had disappeared in. Survive.


Naruto sat at one of the many round, wooden tables in the bar, back to the rest of the patrons. Mildly irritated, he took to stirring his tonic water with his straw, ears pricked for any indication of interesting or informative conversation. Even if he could drink alcohol – he was still underage, though a quick Henge would render that fact inconsequential – he would rather remain sober by not imbibing. Keeping his faculties about him was important while deep within enemy territory.

Despite having eagerly agreed to Pein's request, Naruto had become extremely grumpy since infiltrating the Hidden Rain, a task that had been surprisingly difficult to accomplish. Years of warfare and invasion had taught the citizens to be wary of any outsiders, and the borders of the small nation were under constant surveillance. Hanzō's legendary paranoia probably lent some explanation to the heavy guard as well.

Eventually, he had opted into using Mizugakure no Jutsu to slip into one of the drainage streams leaving the Hidden Rain. Travel against the flow of liquid had been slow-going, but he'd managed to slip into the village undetected after some effort. That had led to him wandering the village in an attempt to get any relevant information to accomplish what Pein had asked of him.

Most of his irritability stemmed from the simple misery that Amegakure exuded. Aptly named, rain never seemed to stop falling in the village (or the country, for that matter), and the relentless downpour made roaming the streets an unpleasant venture. Displeased with the climate, Naruto had walked into the first shop he'd found (after taking off his slashed hitae-ate and using Henge to alter his hair color) and bought a rain slicker to toss over his clothes. As he had continued to meander around the Hidden Rain, he'd wondered why Pein would even want to liberate a place that was so steeped in despondency.

He took a quick sip of his drink in an attempt draw his thoughts away from something so depressing. Perhaps that was exactly why Pein wanted to take over Amegakure – to provide a better opportunity for the people of his homeland.

Not that he knew exactly what the orange-haired man could do to improve the lives of the denizens of the Hidden Rain, but it certainly seemed logical. He could sort of empathize with that feeling.

Before he had left Pein's tower in Otogakure, Konan had approached him with a small book. She had informed him in a rather bland voice that continuous combing of Orochimaru's archives had revealed a small source of information on the Uzumaki clan, and all of it was contained in the text now in his hands. Naruto had left the Hidden Sound with a quiet but appreciate thanks for the blue-haired woman, blue eyes already delving into the history of the family he had never known. His reading had revealed Uzushiogakure, the former home of his clan, and in a decision driven more by curiosity and emotion than sensibility, he had opted into a detour to the land of his ancestors (after receiving the bounty on Utakata, of course).

The destruction that had greeted his eyes hadn't been all that pleasant to view; the Village Hidden in Whirlpools was nothing but collapsed buildings and flowing water. Naruto wondered if it was strange that the sight of his ancestors' homeland didn't stir up any feelings in him, but then chalked up his apathy to a lack of attachment to his clan. The name 'Uzumaki' didn't really mean anything to him, merely serving as a surname; Fū had never revealed her family name and Kakuzu had renounced his, so what should he care for his?

Still, he had thought, sparing one last glance for Uzushiogakure, maybe with his newly-offered potential for a life after Pein's plans came to fruition, the Hidden Whirlpool would have something to offer. It might be nice to have a base of operations for him and Fū to live out of…

Naruto jabbed his straw into his glass harder than strictly necessary, ridding himself of the memory. He was getting ahead of himself again, and he had a job to do.

The scraping of chairs behind him alerted him to the fact that the two shinobi he had been eavesdropping on were leaving. He waited a moment before throwing several coins on the table to cover his drink and then followed them out, immediately pulling the hood of his rain slicker over his head as he left the bar. Disappearing into an alley, he cloaked himself in the Hiding in Camouflage Technique and took off after the pair.

Amegakure, aside from being rainy all the damn time, was also a very confusing place. Metal skyscrapers were built practically on top of each other, all with twisting mazes of pipes trailing from top to bottom along their sides. Combined with the constant downpour, the dull grey metal of the buildings only added to the dreariness that the Hidden Rain emanated. The closeness of the skyscrapers also created thin streets to walk on, and there was little in the way of awnings to escape from the rain; dark corners and slim alleyways were commonplace, providing a plethora of hiding places for anyone willing or able to squeeze into them. If he wasn't a ninja, Naruto might've been worried about getting mugged.

The blond scowled slightly as he walked along. Though Pein had told him there was someone for him to connect with already in Amegakure, he had neglected to give any more information, and Naruto had forgotten to ask. Finding the man had been his priority, but with nothing to go off of, achieving that objective was as likely as finding a needle in a haystack.

Naruto released a strangled gurgle as a kunai was buried into his chest. "What…?" he managed, the Meisaigakure no Jutsu fading around him as he collapsed to the ground.

"You might be invisible," spoke an Ame-nin, his form wavering into place from the surrounding rain, "but the water droplets are still hitting you. It's easy for any trained shinobi to notice when a certain area isn't being pelted by rain in Amegakure. We don't take kindly to strangers here."

Okay, didn't think of that, Naruto admitted. Damn new terrain…who the hell wants to live here, anyway? He could already feel his earth heart moving to take the place of his ruined wind one. Distantly, he could hear the same Ame-nin ordering some others to check for any sort of identification or partners, as well as the Bingo Book for any outstanding bounty on his head. Ugh, and wouldn't that be an ironic end?

He ran through a mental tally of what he could do in his head. With all the rain, he was unlikely to be able to use his fire jutsu effectively, and the metal structures and lack of wide space eliminated earth jutsu as well. Given the destruction Storm Release was likely to cause, that was also out. That left lightning, water, and wind, not to mention Jiongu. Subtly, he formed hand signs beneath his body, channeling his chakra into the puddles sitting in the cobblestone path. Suiton: Mizu Kamikiri!

An arc of water rose up, ready to bisect the Ame-nin, but there was a shout that alerted him to the Water Release: Rising Water Slicer, and he dodged at the last second. He gave Naruto a hard stare as the blond climbed to his feet. "You should be dead."

"You'll discover it's a lot harder to kill me than that," the Jinchūriki returned, yanking the kunai from his chest and letting it clatter to the ground. As Jiongu stitched together the wound, he noticed that there was a distinct lack of civilians around, though he was surrounded by a dozen Ame-nin. …This seems familiar, he thought, uncomfortably aware that Kakuzu had been killed in much the same fashion.

Apparently, the shinobi of the Rain were more businesslike than he had assumed, for they all disappeared in a wavering haze without responding. …Freaking genjutsu, he snarled, remembering Itachi's lessons. He immediately set about dispelling the illusions, but for every one that he managed to release himself from, two more popped into existence. Meanwhile, he could feel a variety of different blades biting into his skin, and he activated the Earth Spear technique reflexively to protect himself from the nuisances.

Water swirled beneath his feet, and the blond found himself suddenly restrained by eight thick tendrils of liquid that twirled around his neck, arms, legs, and torso. It was highly reminiscent of the way he had killed many people in his adventures, and he felt a momentary pang of empathy for his victims. This kinda sucks.

"Suiton: Takohoryū no Jutsu," whispered the voice of the same Ame-nin. Based on how quiet the voice was, Naruto noted that he was smart enough not to get too close, a fact which caused his respect for the shinobi of the Hidden Rain to rise marginally. "You'll be unable to move and cast jutsu."

People keep telling me that…I wonder if I just have a face that doesn't scream 'I have a powerful kinjutsu that makes all your restraining techniques completely ineffective'. The blond pondered that for a moment before shrugging it off as unimportant, focusing instead on breaking free of the bindings before the Ame-nin decided to break his neck. Ah well…pity I won't be able to see the surprise on his face when he's proven wrong. A pair of black whips burst out of each sleeve; imbued with wind chakra, they sliced through the watery grasp of the Octopus Hold Technique and rotated perpendicular to his body in an insidious impression of a buzz saw. There was a scream of pain, though Naruto was a bit let down to note that that timbre of the voice wasn't the same as the Ame-nin who kept talking to him. Shame.

Still unable to see his enemies because of whatever illusions they kept putting him under, Naruto opted to let Jiongu seek out his enemies and destroy them. It wasn't nearly as gratifying as accomplishing the deed himself, but he needed to get away and reestablish some modicum of cover as soon as possible. Hanzō would undoubtedly try to scour the entirety of Amegakure in lieu of the loss of his forces, and the blond needed a place where he could hunker down and wait for an opportunity to return to his mission. There were two more yells as his kinjutsu located and eviscerated opponents; Naruto briefly considered taking one of their hearts to replace his wind one, but then decided he didn't want to go through the hassle while in the middle of such a predicament.

Suddenly, Naruto's eyes were drawn to a thin, almost-invisible surge of blue-white light that flashed past his field of vision and lanced into the thin air thirty feet to his left. An accompanying scream was the only notice that it had passed through an Ame-nin before electricity arced out in several directions from the still-invisible body, creating a web of what he recognized as lightning chakra with him at the center. When the lightning disappeared, Naruto found that the illusions were all gone, and the dead bodies of a dozen Rain shinobi littered the ground, only a couple leaking blood from where he'd sliced into them with wind chakra; the red liquid was quickly becoming diluted by the constant downpour and growing puddles of Amegakure. He was distracted by the sound of someone landing behind him. Black tendrils snapped to attention, but Naruto paused in his assault when he took in the appearance of the person.

The male before him wore the black pants and slate-grey, long-sleeved shirt of an Amegakure Jōnin, bandages wrapped around his wrists and ankles; a lighter grey scarf was looped around his neck, and the four vertical lines denoting a member of the Hidden Rain decorated his hitae-ate. Cobalt blue hair fell around his ears, but his bangs barely tickled his eyebrows, leaving stormy, grey eyes clearly visible. Naruto noted with some amusement that the other teenager was now an inch shorter than his own height of 5'8", and looked even paler than the last time they'd seen each other.

Harō gave the blond an amused smirk, replacing the twin katana Kiba to their holster on his back. "Hello, Naruto…or perhaps I should call you Shinobu? Still getting into trouble, I see."

Naruto rolled his eyes good-naturedly. "You have no idea."


Nagato was grateful that it took very little concentration to actually keep both the Gentōshin no Jutsu and Fūinjutsu: Genryū Kyūfūjin active. Both were essentially self-sustaining techniques after the initial activation as long as chakra was fed into them…or, perhaps more accurately, as long as there was chakra to be fed into them. For the most part, both techniques just siphoned chakra from the users over the duraction they were kept active. Either way, it allowed for his mind to wander – and simultaneously ignore Hidan's inane rants, Tobi's nattering, and Deidara's proclamations about art – and focus on the decision he had made regarding Naruto as the Hachibi was sealed within the Gedō Mazō.

Naruto was truly an intriguing individual. In many ways, the boy was a sort of kindred spirit to himself, not to mention a slight reminder of Yahiko. Aside from Konan (who knew it well from the keen loss of Yahiko), he was one of the few people Nagato knew of who had experienced the true definition of pain. Such a quality was so rare that sacrificing him for the statue was practically counterintuitive to the message he wanted to send the rest of the world.

Not to mention that, in spite of himself, Nagato was a little curious to see how far his family member – no matter how distantly-related they might be – would go in life.

It was truly unfortunate that, out of all the people in the world, Naruto had been the one to be saddled with the burden of the Kyūbi. Then again, for the boy to have turned against the village he was born in and then work with people who could be considered his enemies was a true stroke of fortune. Given the results, Nagato's decision to keep an eye on Kakuzu as a potential recruit to Akatsuki all those years ago had turned out to be a very good one.

Nagato wasn't stupid or naïve enough to believe that the core members of Akatsuki would remain as such once his true plans came to fruition. They were all S-class missing-nin, and with the exception of Konan, all of them were far more interested in murder, mayhem, and destruction than in world peace, no matter how it was achieved. Hidan would return to trying to spread his religion, Sasori would continue to pull strings in all the villages and collect more humans to increase his puppet collection, Kakuzu would go back to bounty hunting for profit…the most logical conclusion was that everyone would return to what they were doing before joining Akatsuki.

But Naruto (and Fū, to a lesser extent) was different. The boy clearly held an attachment to Kakuzu, and it was possible that he would follow in his mentor's footsteps if allowed to live. However, given the former Taki-nin's personality, the likelihood of the two thread-users traveling together seemed small. Naruto understood some aspect of how Pein operated and thought, and it was possible that after his revenge against Konoha was sated, he would be willing to work for the benefit of Amegakure (once Hanzō was dead, of course). It was this that made him and the girl (who was likely to follow him) valuable. While sealing the Nanabi and the Kyūbi into the Demonic Statue of the Outer Path would certainly grant Akatsuki more power, keeping two trained Jinchūriki with their respective Bijū bolstered Nagato's forces immensely more than killing them.

There were ways around their death, of course. As a wielder of the Rinnegan, Nagato could simply use Gedō: Rinne Tensei no Jutsu to revive both Naruto and Fū after extracting their Bijū, but there were issues with that. For one, the Samsara of Heavenly Life Technique required a simply ridiculous amount of chakra and energy, and Nagato was already in poor health as it was. He didn't think it would outright kill him to bring back a mere two people, but given his already-shortened lifespan, that option was less than optimal. Not to mention that the reincarnated Jinchūriki would be short their Bijū, and thus less powerful and less useful than they could be otherwise. And while there might be ways to reseal the Bijū into their hosts from the Gedō Mazō, doing so seemed counterproductive; keeping Naruto and Fū alive was just easier and more sensible.

But keeping them alive had its own problem – namely, Uchiha Madara, the man beneath Tobi's mask.

Neither Konan nor Nagato trusted the supposed co-founder of Konohagakure; he was simply providing them a means to an end with the Bijū. But now that the grey-eyed man had come up with an alternative method of enacting his own plan, his and Madara's goals were at odds. The man hadn't explained why it was vital that all of the Bijū be sealed within the statue, but Nagato knew that there was no way to dissuade him from that objective. It made him highly suspicious of the Uchiha's motives, especially since he had pitched the idea of a kinjutsu that could do all they desired without sealing the Nanabi and Kyūbi, and Madara had shot it down. If his true goal was aligned with the fake one Nagato had set up for the other Akatsuki members (or even his own goal), then there should have been no reason for the Uchiha to reject the proposition. After all, if he had accepted, they could have used the kinjutsu almost immediately after sealing the Hachibi.

But given that Madara had insisted on the remaining two Bijū and Nagato knew they weren't needed, the Uzumaki finally had a reason to go against the other man's plans.

The body of the Hachibi Jinchūriki hit the floor of the cavern with a dull thump. Pein blinked his ringed eyes once. "Our task is almost completed," he announced. "Zetsu, find the girl and report back when you've done so…the Nanabi must be sealed before the Kyūbi."

"We're so close! Celebrate later. We have work to do."

The plant-man's image fizzled out. "The rest of you, continue on with gathering funds." There was a brief curse from Hidan about how blasphemous such an action was, but Pein ignored it. "We will reconvene when the Nanabi is ready to be sealed." The other members took that as a sign of dismissal, their projections fizzling into nothingness.

Konan's image remained lit. "You're sure you want to do this?"

"Yes. It is clear that our ideals no longer align, and we are a mere step away from completing our objective." Pein focused and reactivated the Magic Lantern Body Technique, making sure to resonate the jutsu with only a handful of rings.

In short order, the multicolored forms of Kakuzu, Hidan, Itachi, and Kisame were standing in their respective positions upon the Gedō Mazō's fingertips. "What the hell?" Hidan voiced in irritation. "Why are we back here?"

"I have a special assignment for the four of you and Konan. There is a member within our ranks whose views no longer agree with Akatsuki's, and he must be eliminated."

"Who is the target?" Kakuzu inquired.

Grey eyes flickered over to him. "Tobi."

"Khe heh, I'll almost be a little sad to see him go," Kisame snickered, sharp teeth bared in a smirk. "He brought a bit of light into this gloomy organization."

"Where are the artist fags?" Hidan cut in.

"I don't believe they have the same stake in this mission as the rest of you do," Pein responded. His eyes once more met Kakuzu's, and the bounty hunter inclined his head in understanding. Pein knew that the taller shinobi would fight for Naruto's right to live, and Hidan would fight alongside him simply for the opportunity to shed blood (and not have to collect money). Trusting Itachi and Kisame was a bit risky, but given that both had taught the blond at different points, he was relying on the two having forged some sort of connection with Naruto to motivate them to fight against Tobi. Deidara and Sasori had no such history with the boy.

From his periphery, Pein thought he caught the slightest narrowing of Itachi's blood-red eyes. The Uchiha was even more difficult to read than Kakuzu, his body language and vocal intonation giving nothing away. It was impossible to tell whether he was insulted at the prospect of having to take down a fellow member of Akatsuki or excited for the opportunity to once more measure his capacity. "You will all have to remain close to Otogakure in order to be prepared to partake in this assignment. Konan will be in charge of coordination, and she will brief you all on what to expect."

As the blue-haired woman began to talk, Nagato once more allowed his mind to drift. He was doing the right thing. Naruto was too much like both himself and Yahiko to just die when he had the potential to be so much more. He could only hope that, while he freed Amegakure from its current leader, the combined might of Konan, Kakuzu, Hidan, Kisame, and Itachi would be enough to destroy the entity calling himself Uchiha Madara.

Meanwhile, Uchiha Itachi listened with only half an ear to Konan's explanation of Tobi's abilities, one distinct thought in mind.

Finally.

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