The Cost of Living


"So…what've you figured out?"

Harō fixed Naruto with a curious look. He remained standing as the blond took a seat on the floor of the tower he had led them to, the same tower he'd been using as his base of operations for the past several months. "Not that I'm ungrateful to see you or anything," he began, "but why are you here?"

Naruto put his elbow on his knee and placed his chin in the palm of his right hand. "I'm your backup."

A snort was the response to his glibness. "Some backup you are, needing to be rescued."

The blond muttered something unpleasant under his breath that sounded suspiciously like 'fucking genjutsu'. "Look, Pein asked me to come here and help you gather intelligence and dwindle down Hanzō's forces so that when he comes – which, by the way, sounds like he'll be doing pretty soon – he won't have to deal with any of the small fries."

"…Pein-sama is finally prepared to liberate Amegakure?"

"Apparently. So, if you'd be so kind as to share…" Naruto gestured.

Harō settled down cross-legged. "See that tower over there?" he asked, pointing to a structure in the distance that rose just slightly above all the rest.

"The tallest one? Yeah."

"That's where Hanzō lives. I assume you had a bit of difficulty sneaking into the village because of all the patrols, right?" At Naruto's nod, he continued, "Well, Hanzō's tower is under the same kind of constant surveillance…only more efficient. Even in Amegakure, his paranoia is legendary…he doesn't come out to speak to the citizens, and everyone that goes to see him is checked thoroughly by his guards."

Naruto raised an eyebrow. "If he's so security-conscious and paranoid, how'd you learn all of this? I doubt you were able to just go up to him and ask."

The cobalt-haired male smirked. "You'd be surprised what you hear on the streets when you actually blend in." Naruto grumbled a little, but didn't say anything. "Hanzō's reputation is pretty impressive here in Ame. Not that that condones what he's done…"

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto said, waving off his companion's words. It had been enough listening to Harō preach his beliefs back in the Chūnin Exams; he didn't need a reminder of the cobalt-haired male's zeal for Pein's ideals. He climbed to his feet. "Anyway, since you know more about this place than I do, I'm perfectly content to relegate the leadership position to you. So what's our next move?"

Harō also stood. "If Pein-sama is coming soon, then we should figure out all that we can about Hanzō's security by staking out the tower. Maybe we can get a better grasp of what sort of numbers we can expect, or the skills of his guards."

Naruto nodded. "Sounds good."

Time passed slowly when it consisted of squatting in only a couple of places, trying to get a working idea of how the Hidden Rain's security operated while not getting caught. After five days of little results, Naruto and Harō – sitting in the latter's base, on a break from their routine of watching Hanzō's tower – were accosted by an orange-haired man with a fringe of hair on the right side of his face and the rest held in a high ponytail. The black piercings and ringed, grey eyes were telling, even if the rest of the man's appearance was unusual. "Pein?" Naruto hazarded.


Harō murmured a polite 'Pein-sama' as Naruto gazed at Akatsuki's leader curiously. "What…" he began, wondering as to his appearance, but then shook his head. "You know what? I don't think I care enough."

"I once told you there were many forms of pain," the older shinobi stated. "There are also many forms of Pein." Naruto groaned a little at the wordplay; he hated riddles and the like. "Where is Hanzō?" Pein continued.

"The tower," Harō replied, pointing.


"Four in his room at all times. More on the floors below."

"Hmm…you two will come with me," Pein decided. "While I deal with Hanzō, you will prevent any interference from those loyal to him."

"Cool," Naruto stated, cracking his knuckles as Harō unsheathed Kiba. The two teenagers followed Pein out, and it only took a number of minutes before they were on the building opposite the windowless tower Hanzō housed himself in. "So how do we get in?"

Pein flipped through hand signs and then placed his palm flat upon the roof of their building. The spiky-haired visage of the man Naruto was used to dealing with appeared in a cloud of smoke. Naruto blinked, muttering, "…Right…this makes sense…"

"Perhaps one day you will understand," said the spiky-haired Pein. "Now is not that time." He held out both hands so that the palms were facing Hanzō's building. "Banshō Ten'in," he intoned.

There was a loud screeching of metal that lasted several seconds before a massive chunk was ripped from the side of the structure. Two Ame-nin leaped out of the opening, but Harō crossed his twin katana together and uttered, "Raiton: Raiga." Blue bolts of electricity arced out and struck the two Rain shinobi squarely in the chest.

Naruto was already running through hand signs and inhaling a deep breath of air as the remaining two guards appeared in the hole Pein had created. "Fūton: Shinkū Renpa." Slices of wind at varying angles burst forth from his mouth and entered the tower, making small grooves in the metal as they passed and shedding the blood of the Ame-nin.

Hanzō appeared after a moment, stepping over the corpses of his men, his strange eyes reminding Naruto eerily of Kakuzu. "You," he stated, looking at the spiky-haired Pein. "I had thought you dead."

More ninja were rushing up the stairs to stand behind Hanzō as backup. Pein remained unfazed. "You thought wrong," he returned, "and now your time has come."

Some unspoken understanding passed through the leaders of the two Hidden Rain factions. At the same moment, an instant before they jumped to take their battle deeper into Amegakure, both men ordered, "Kill them."

Naruto and Harō were suddenly left facing a small force of Hanzō's personal army. Lightning crackled in the sky as Harō manipulated one of the weapons of the legendary Seven Shinobi Swordsmen; wind swirled in a deadly storm with Naruto at the eye. The two boys exchanged wry grins, and then let loose their attacks.

"Raitō Jutsu: Rakurai!"

"Fūton: Fūryūdan no Jutsu!"

Blood painted the walls of Hanzō's private tower.

Kakuzu resisted the urge to growl as Tobi's body phased through yet another attack, Hidan falling through the masked man and getting sliced by the wind from a Fūton: Atsugai. The thread-user would've never guessed upon his inception that, given his personality, Tobi was such an accomplished shinobi (though he supposed that the man had to have some skill to warrant becoming a member of Akatsuki), but the evidence spoke for itself. His mastery of space-time ninjutsu – techniques Kakuzu had written off as all but rumors, barring the Summoning Technique – was beyond impressive, not to mention aggravating. Konan's brief rundown of the man's abilities had only slightly prepared him for what the reality entailed.

He had, rather unfortunately, lost his fire heart to the other shinobi almost immediately after the battle had begun, the thread-creature having been sucked into some alternate dimension while the five S-class missing-nin had tried to work around each other. That, however, had been the only heart he'd lost thus far after choosing to recall all but the wind heart, which was zipping around out of Tobi's reach, too fast for him to catch.

The fight had eventually settled into a sort of cat-and-mouse game between the five Akatsuki members and Tobi. An outsider could tell that the quintet was unused to working with each other, though Hidan's and Kakuzu's teamwork was as seamless as usual, as was Itachi's and Kisame's (limited though it had been thus far). The problem, Kakuzu thought, was that while they were all strong in their own right, Tobi wasn't a shinobi who fought with strength, and there wasn't much crossover in abilities in the quintet. S-class nukenin were, by nature, arrogant and resistant to working together.

Still, they had managed to work out a strategy that, while having no success thus far, gave them the best shot of coming out victorious.

Hidan, with his preferred method of fighting, was serving as a sort of distraction in a very frontal assault, attempting to lure Tobi into an attack. If his scythe ever connected, the battle would essentially be over, but given Tobi's phasing abilities, that outcome was a fool's dream at best. The silver-haired man was covered by Kakuzu (and his thread-creature), who either lashed out with Jiongu's tendrils or expelled bursts of water, wind, or lightning whenever Tobi tried to absorb Hidan into what Konan had only been able to describe vaguely as an alternate dimension. In any other situation, the old thread-user might've been overjoyed at finding a method to rid himself of Hidan, but given the circumstances, he knew it was better to keep defending his partner, hoping to hit Tobi in the moment the masked man was tangible.

Konan was hovering in the air with the aid of large paper wings, sharp eyes keeping watch over the battlefield. In contrast to Hidan's pure offense and Kakuzu's mixed offense/defense, the blue-haired woman was serving as backup to anyone Tobi tried to sneak up on, sniping at the masked man with paper weapons.

Kakuzu found himself grudgingly grateful for her presence, as she'd already protected him and Itachi once each, and Kisame twice. It was difficult to see in the dim light of the cavern beneath Otogakure, where the sealing rituals were normally performed, though the spacious environment and reinforced rock meant that the thread-user could let loose with whatever attacks he wanted and not have to worry about bringing down the place. Kisame – the other offensive fighter – had also taken advantage of the large area by using massive Suiton attacks like the Exploding Water Colliding Wave and the Great Waterfall Technique to change the terrain to his advantage; at least a foot of liquid covered the entire floor of the cavern. Itachi had so far done very little but observe quietly from a corner, though he had stepped in when he deemed it necessary.

The nonagenarian wondered if the Uchiha was waiting for an opening, or if, despite his renowned skill, he just didn't have the massive chakra capacities that he and Kisame boasted. Genjutsu wasn't a particularly chakra-intensive branch of ninja techniques, and Itachi's focus on that art could be explained by a lower-than-average stamina.

Threads speared outwards from his back, preventing Tobi from grabbing him by forcing him to phase through the attack. As the masked man fell through his torso, Kakuzu returned his mind to the battlefield, deciding that trying to analyze his fellow nukenin wasn't a good idea when fighting for his life.

Not to mention the lives of his pupils.

Sharks rose out of the water as Tobi landed. They passed through him harmlessly, through both Tobi and Kakuzu turned their attention to Kisame, who was kneeling, holding one palm to the liquid covering the floor. The masked shinobi ran towards the blue-skinned man, and the former Taki-nin used his control of water to erect several walls of the hardened substance in Tobi's path. While he merely passed through them, Kisame brought Samehada to bear.

Kisame sidestepped Tobi's grab, bringing the bandaged sword through his torso as he did so. Predictably, the masked shinobi allowed the weapon to phase through him. In the silence as Samehada finished sliding through its target, there was the smallest of ripping sounds.

A murder of crows descended upon Tobi before he could recover, giving Kisame a chance to move back towards his partner. "Kisame," Itachi intoned.

"Heh, got it, Itachi," replied the taller man.

Kakuzu pushed down a brief flash of envy at their camaraderie; why couldn't he have gotten a partner that spoke as little as Itachi and could still manage to convey everything that needed to be said? Better yet, why did he have to have a partner at all? Speaking of which…

"Oi, where'd that little shit go?"

Kakuzu glanced back over in the direction of Itachi and Kisame. Sure enough, Tobi had disappeared, probably by turning intangible and melding through the floor again. He wondered if the masked shinobi had decided to flee the battle, but decided that if he hadn't done so yet, then he probably wouldn't at all. Tobi was oddly confident in his abilities, though given what they were, he probably had a right to be. Even multiple hearts wouldn't save Kakuzu from being sucked into some sort of alternate dimension if Tobi managed to lay a lucky hand on him.

"Your attacks are remarkably well-coordinated," echoed a deep voice from nowhere. Kakuzu realized that the speaker was probably Tobi, though the tone was completely at odds with the playful, idiotic disposition the man had displayed throughout his tenure in Akatsuki. It was no wonder Pein wanted to get rid of him, if everything so far had merely been a clever façade. "I admit that this betrayal is quite a surprise. I imagine that Pein put you all up to this task."

Kakuzu shot a look Hidan's way, fully expecting the silver-haired man to reply to that. Surprisingly, the Jashinist didn't respond, instead glancing around warily while holding his scythe in a defensive position. Hidan must be taking this task seriously, to not even be uttering the drivel he usually does. That was good…idle hands were more likely to be useless and die. His wind heart was zipping around above his partner's head, ready to defend him, and Konan was tensed in midair with several paper projectiles formed around her.

"If any of you are willing to renounce your allegiance, I would be willing to offer you a niche in my new world," Tobi's voice resounded. There was silence for a long moment, broken by the man's rhetorical, "No takers? Very well…I suppose it is time to do away with all of you."

Tobi appeared from the ground before Kakuzu, reaching out a hand and grabbing the taller ninja by the throat. Instead of retaliating, Kakuzu allowed himself to feel the tug of being pulled into another dimension. When it appeared as if his entire torso was going to disappear, his form lost cohesion and turned into water.

Kisame took the time his fellow nukenin had granted him and held out his hands, the heels of his palms held close together, fingers bared like claws. "Suiton: Daikōdan no Jutsu!"

A monstrous shark made entirely of water was thrust from his hands, its maw opened to close over Tobi. The masked man activated his phasing ability to allow him to pass through the liquid creature, but part of the way through, it became apparent that he was being carried along by the fish's momentum.

Simultaneously, orange-red chakra flared to life around Itachi, encasing him in the form of an ethereal warrior. A blazing yellow sword appeared in one of its right hands, and as Kisame's shark splashed down, the weapon lanced out and pierced Tobi's midsection. "You possess the Sword of Totsuka?" he gasped. "How…?"

"Your space-time ninjutsu uses chakra to make your body immaterial," Itachi intoned. "This became apparent when Samehada passed through you, but absorbed enough chakra to make a rip in your cloak at the end. Kisame drained your chakra with his ninjutsu, allowing me to stab your now-tangible body with the Totsuka blade. Now you will live in an eternal genjutsu, and your machinations will no longer affect the world."

Tobi couldn't say anything else as he was drawn into the gourd in the warrior's second right hand. The flames of chakra disappeared from around Itachi, and he subtly wiped a trail of blood away from his eye. "He will be of no concern any longer," he informed the others, watching Kakuzu rise from the water covering the floor.

"I will inform Pein that our mission has been accomplished," Konan stated, withdrawing her wings and moving towards the exit.

Hidan made a noise of disappointment, kicking at the water around his feet. "Not even a fucking body to sacrifice to Jashin-sama."

Kakuzu rolled his eyes as his wind heart returned to him. He picked up his cloak – which he had tossed aside at the beginning of the battle – and wrung the water from it, throwing it over his shoulder. "Come, Hidan," he beckoned, following Konan out, "I feel rather…charitable. Perhaps you can find enough sacrifices to appease your god at the Konoha outpost we will visit." I need a new fire heart, anyway.

"Ha! I knew you'd come around eventually, Kakuzu, you old bastard!"

The thread-user waited for Hidan to go ahead of him before addressing Itachi and Kisame. "Your help in this matter was greatly appreciated." He wouldn't admit that without the chakra-absorbing properties of Kisame's technique, or the sealing ability of Itachi's, he, Hidan, and Konan would've been unlikely to actually beat Tobi by themselves.

"Keh heh, Fishbait's an interesting kid. I'd be interested in seeing how far he's come since our last fight."

Itachi merely nodded at Kakuzu before adding, "His life is his own now."

How very true, Kakuzu thought, leaving the pair behind.

Pein returned to the tower that Hanzō had formerly inhabited through the hole he had blown in the side, using the Deva Path as his representative once again. Naruto and Harō stood stiffly at attention, and if either one was interested in commenting on the fact that Pein was back to using the spiky-haired body, neither mentioned it. "Amegakure is free," he announced.

"Congratulations, Pein-sama," Harō murmured, bowing slightly.

The orange-haired man inclined his head in acknowledgement of his subordinate. "There are still things to be taken care of, but there are some other matters which require attending first." Ringed eyes fixed Naruto with an unwavering gaze. "Zetsu found your associate crossing the the Land of Earth border into the Land of Stone. I would like you to bring her here. She will be more receptive to your presence than his."

Naruto didn't doubt that. "Sure thing." He left as Pein's attention swiveled to Harō, discussing what needed to be done while they awaited his return, which included cleaning the tower of the blood and corpses of Hanzō's followers.

Its proximity to the Land of Rain and small size meant that it took only a half-day to actually get to the Land of Stone and begin searching for Fū. Naruto summoned a couple of chameleons to hasten the process along, sending them out in different directions with the order to find his fellow Jinchūriki, but to return to the Ame-Ishi border in two days regardless of what they found.

The blond was disappointed when he didn't find her, but upon rendezvousing with his summons, found Fū in the company of Kamekoso. "Hey," he called, lifting a hand in greeting as the reptiles dismissed themselves. A smile alit upon his features of its own accord.

Fū returned the gesture with a tentative curve of her own lips. "Hey." There was a moment of silence as the two just stared at each other, the memory of the last time they were together surfacing in their minds. "You wanted to see me?"

Naruto blinked, the spell broken. "Oh…yeah. Pein wants to see us. We've gotta get back to Amegakure."

"Um…isn't that bad?"

The blond paused for a moment before a snort of laughter escaped him. "Oh, right, you didn't hear. He's not gonna take the Bijū…he found a way to achieve his plans without killing us."

Fū remained skeptical. "How do you know he's telling the truth?"

"I don't," Naruto shrugged, "but the only reason I found you is because Zetsu found you first, so I think if he wanted to capture us, he could've done it already."

That was a pretty fair point, Fū considered, continuing to stare at her friend. Naruto was simply standing there, waiting for her to come to a decision, and though she felt a little bad for her apprehension, she knew that this choice was the equivalent of walking into a lion's den covered in meat. The blond peered at her, a solemn look in his blue eyes. "Don't you trust me?"

Fū sighed to herself…it really wasn't fair that he could do that. Of course I do…

The return trip to Amegakure was filled with conversation of the adventures each Jinchūriki had undergone since their split. Neither wanted to dwell on the idea that Pein would betray them, or what was potentially between them when the future wasn't yet set in stone.

Pein and Harō were waiting for them when Naruto led Fū to the tower that Hanzō had kept himself isolated in. The massive hole was still there, and Naruto couldn't resist commenting, "You clearly haven't redecorated yet."

Neither of the grey-eyed males offered a response, though the blond thought that he saw Harō roll his eyes. Pein turned around and walked towards the back of the room, where the steel walls of the tower were untouched. "There have been higher priorities," he mentioned. "Come." The two Jinchūriki exchanged glances before moving forward and coming to a stop just behind Akatsuki's leader. "If you would like to complete your quest for vengeance against Konohagakure, I require your assistance."

"With what?"

Pein glanced at Naruto. "The jutsu I have crafted utilizes the chakra of the Bijū to create mass destruction. Unfortunately, while controllable with only some of them, it becomes more potent in direct proportion to the amount of Bijū being used to power it. Therefore, I would ask you to sacrifice some of the chakra of your Bijū to help facilitate Konohagakure's destruction. I also believe it would be more…satisfying…for you to personally contribute to the annihilation of the village which has caused you so much grief," he added, catching Naruto's gaze.

"And how would you do this?"

The orange-haired man reached into the opposite sleeve of his cloak and withdrew a foot-long black rod with a metallic sheen. "These are capable of siphoning the chakra of your Bijū and transmitting it into the sealing statue. It is a way to feed the statue the required chakra without a complete extraction."

The two Jinchūriki exchanged glances again. "Okay," Naruto assented, "we'll do it."

Pein nodded and motioned for them to position themselves with their backs to the wall. Harō, curious, came forward to stand beside his leader. "I will warn you that you will feel an excruciating pain unlike any you have felt before," Pein intoned.

"I think we can handle you putting those in our bodies, right?" Naruto asked Fū. The older girl merely nodded.

Pein stared at him for a moment, the tip of the first black rod poised over the boy's abdomen, where the seal holding the Kyūbi at bay was located. "That was not what I was referring to." He slid the rod into Naruto's skin with ease, like a hot knife through butter, and to the blond's credit, he only winced slightly at the sensation. More rods were carefully inserted into his upper and lower arms, as well as his thighs and calves; the same process was repeated with Fū.

He took a single step backwards and peered at the girl before uttering, "Ah," as if struck by realization. Taking a step forward, he untied the slashed Waterfall hitae-ate from her right bicep, wrapped the cloth around the metal, and then commanded, "Open." She did as he bid, and Pein slipped the forehead protector into her mouth; she bit down on it reflexively. He approached Naruto and went through the same motions. "A precaution," he assured them. To Harō, he said, "Watch them. Make sure the ritual remains uninterrupted." The cobalt-haired boy nodded, and then Pein left.

Minutes passed, forcing Naruto to wonder when Pein would begin activating whatever technique it was that he had come up with and why he had to leave to do so. Fū's muffled screaming cut off his train of thought. His own body began to heat up, as if fire filled his veins instead of blood. The Kyūbi's chakra – as much a part of him as his own chakra, blood, organs, and flesh because of the seal – was slowly being sucked out of his body. Were he capable of forming a cohesive thought, he would've been forced to admit that Pein had been right – it was the most excruciating agony he had ever been forced to endure, even surpassing the pain Jiongu had caused him.

Across the Hidden Rain, the sound of two Jinchūriki having a part of their very being pulled from their bodies echoed in the ears of the newly-freed citizens.

Danzō was in a rather foul mood, though he refused to let it show outwardly. Tenzō had missed his last two scheduled check-ins, a feat that was unheard of in the man's ANBU career. It could only mean one thing.

He was dead.

It was a horrible, frustrating conclusion to come to, given Tenzō's skill and special abilities. The loss of Hyūga Neji some time before that had been regrettable, though not as lamentable as the loss of the wood-user. Now, Danzō's one surefire tool to overcoming the Jinchūriki of the other Hidden Villages – the few that remained, anyway, given what limited information he had received on Akatsuki's movements – was gone, and without even the recaptured Kyūbi Jinchūriki as compensation.

Tenzō's death and the Kyūbi Jinchūriki's freedom didn't bode well for either Danzō or Konoha. The boy was clearly strong enough to defeat an elite ANBU, apparently without even having to draw on the Kyūbi's chakra, given that suppression of the Bijū would have significantly weakened him. For the boy to have left Konoha and never returned spoke of either severe distrust or dislike of the Village Hidden in Leaves. Danzō would have to begin drafting some more secure defensive measures than those already in place in order to prepare for whatever might come.

A massive pulse of chakra disrupted his thoughts, right before the windows of the Hokage's office exploded in a shower of glass. Danzō managed to replace himself with a chair on the opposite side of his desk, using the wooden construct as a shield to protect himself from the shards. One of his ROOT agents leapt down from the ceiling and knelt beside him. "Danzō-sama, are you injured?"

"No, but I want to know what that was." He stood up and looked outside the broken windows, and the sight before him caused his one visible eye to widen considerably.

An enormous bipedal, wooden-looking statue was rampaging through Konoha, though that appeared to be the least of the village's problems. Bijū – Danzō didn't know exactly how many, though he could see at least five different creatures – were wreaking havoc upon the Hidden Leaf, chains of golden chakra linked around their necks and leading to the strange statue. As he watched, a head of red fur spewed lava over the Konoha Hospital while a bluish-white head expelled a wave of greenish-tinged liquid at the Academy building; it was dissolved within seconds.

Danzō jumped from the Hokage Tower just as a burst of wind struck it, vaporizing the upper levels instantly. The aged man looked up to find a gigantic blue and green beetle with six wings and a whip-like seventh tail hovering overhead. Unlike the other Bijū he could see, this one seemed to be composed more of chakra than an actual, physical form, though he had little time to ponder on the difference before he was forced to move.

Konoha was a loss, he realized. Given his lifelong goal to unite all the shinobi in the world under Konoha's control, the thought was a rather depressing one. With Tenzō, it might've been possible to restrain a handful of the Bijū and maybe contain them, but without him, the likelihood of Konoha's forces being able to scrape together and fight off what appeared to be the entire armada of Tailed Beasts was practically zero. The Kyūbi's attack a little over 17 years ago had only been halted because of the Yondaime Hokage, and while Danzō was a more-than-capable fūinjutsu specialist, crafting so many seals within such a short time span while evading the Bijū and expecting to survive beyond the first one was impossible. His best option was to retreat and regroup his forces after Akatsuki – and he could safely assume that this was Akatsuki's doing – finished its business.

He began to undo the bolts on the braces of his suppressor seals, knowing that he would need to use Izanagi to even retain some hope of escaping. The process was cut short by an orange-red paw of pure chakra, and Danzō looked up to find the visage of the Kyūbi staring down at him. Chakra arms rose from the ground and caught the elderly man, and Danzō was forced to sacrifice Shisui's eye to escape and run away.

The chakra form of the Kyūbi pursued, and after a brief chase that prevented him from undoing the braces on his arm, Shimura Danzō, Godaime Hokage of Konohagakure, was no more. Clouded over in death, his visible eye was blind to the sight of the remaining eight Bijū crafting black spheres of pure chakra and launching them at the village he had tried so hard to protect, razing it to the ground.

Pein returned to the inner sanctum of Amegakure's tallest tower to find Harō watching over the forms of Naruto and Fū. The cobalt-haired boy bowed respectfully to his leader, though his face held a healthy amount of concern for his companions. "Pein-sama…"

"Yes, I know." Ringed, grey eyes observed the two Jinchūriki passively. Both were pale and sweating profusely, inhaling air through their noses in short, ragged bursts. Heads of blond and mint green were hung in exhaustion, and as he watched, the forehead protectors that had been placed in their mouths fell to the floor; saliva dripped slowly from the mouths of Kakuzu's two pupils. "Your resilience is most impressive."

"Hah…hah…yeah," rasped Naruto without ever looking up. He chuckled weakly, but his amusement quickly broke off into a long series of hacking coughs. Beside him, Fū only groaned.

"Your sacrifice was most appreciated," Pein informed them. He asked Harō to fetch some food and water before approaching the wall the two Jinchūriki were pinned to. Black rods were pulled out of flesh and dropped to the floor with a clatter; both teenagers followed when all the rods had been removed, landing gracelessly on hands and knees. Fū allowed her entire body to slide into a boneless heap, laying belly-down on the cool metal. Naruto tried to lift himself up, but moaned at the effort and instead flopped onto his back, eyes closed. Harō returned with a bowl of water, some ration bars, and a second bowl of fruit, all of which were set before the two Jinchūriki. "Because of your cooperation, I have finally achieved a goal three decades in the making."

"Konoha?" Naruto panted, twitching his fingers in search of food; Harō unwrapped a ration bar and put it in his hand.

"Reduced to rubble."

Naruto allowed a tired smile to grace his features. His original goal had been to enact his own form of revenge against Konoha by killing its shinobi and then…well, he honestly hadn't planned that far. Konoha had a rather large population, and one man diminishing its forces a couple of people at a time would take a long while to actually hurt the Hidden Village.

But this solution…well, though he hadn't directly destroyed the Hidden Leaf, he had still played a large and intricate part in its downfall. That didn't even include all of the Konoha-nin he'd killed over the years as part of his initial plan.

He suddenly felt…satisfied. Lighter. For years, he had resented the citizens of the Leaf for how unfairly he'd been treated in his youth, and now that his vengeance was complete, the burden he had placed on himself to actually do something was lifted. Though, he acknowledged with a wince, there was something to be said for how painful the mechanism to do so had been.

Pein's voice caught his attention. "We are not yet done."

"We're not?" Fū mumbled. She sounded like she wanted to do nothing more than take a very long nap.

"No," reasserted the orange-haired man, "the destruction of Konoha was only the first phase of my plan." Naruto opened tired blue eyes and gazed at Pein's upside-down form; Akatsuki's leader was staring down at the pair of Jinchūriki placidly. "The second phase involves making sure that the world embraces peace."

Naruto licked his lips, and Harō tipped some water from the bowl into his mouth before moving over to Fū and doing the same thing. The blond wondered absently whether his cobalt-haired companion resented being asked to act as a nursemaid. Then again, in his own silent way, Harō seemed inordinately pleased about the recent turn of events. Perhaps he was too happy that his leader had finally managed to free their home nation from the rule of a paranoid tyrant to really question any new tasks (temporarily) assigned to him. Naruto gave his head a slow shake to return to the matter at hand. "And how do we do that?" His tongue still felt thick from screaming, but the water had given his parched throat enough relief to eke out more than one word at a time.

"We give the remaining Kages a reason to fear us. I would like for you two to accompany me."

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki blinked. "We're not exactly in any condition to travel."

"Agreed," Fū added. Harō tipped some more water into her mouth, and she murmured, "Thanks."

"You will recover soon enough," Pein assured them, "and your presence will make a greater and better-received impact than if I brought other members of Akatsuki with me."

Naruto rolled over and then, fighting against every instinct that urged him to remain in his current position, slowly maneuvered himself into a seated position. He grabbed an apple from the bowl Harō had brought, took a massive bite, and began to chew. Though it was phrased oddly, Pein was actually asking if he and Fū would be the ones to continue to see his plans through to the end.

Blue eyes met grey. "Give us a day."

Mifune, samurai and general of the Land of Iron, surveyed the incomplete semicircle of leaders arrayed before him. To his right was Ē, the Yondaime Raikage, a dark-skinned, muscled man with white-blond hair, a pointed beard, and a tiny mustache. He was cloaked in the white robes of his position, though they were left open in the front to reveal his prominent abdominals. Large, golden bracers decorated his wrists, and by the way his fingers beat a staccato rhythm on the tabletop, as well as the scowl on his features, Mifune could tell that he was impatient for the meeting to begin. The man's two subordinates – a dark-skinned man with white hair and a bored expression, and a pale-skinned platinum blond – flanked him on either side.

The Sandaime Tsuchikage, renowned as Ryōtenbin no Ōnoki, was to the Raikage's right, his small stature seeming even smaller next to the hulking giant of both his own bodyguard (a chubby man with a yellow scarf around his neck) and the Raikage. He was mostly bald, but retained a topknot of snow white hair, matched only by his thick eyebrows, a handlebar mustache with pointed ends, and a triangular beard only slightly longer than the Raikage's. His expression was one of irritated grouchiness, a stark contrast to the semi-amused smirk his other bodyguard – a short, dark-haired woman with pupil-less pink eyes – wore.

On Mifune's left sat the Godaime Mizukage, Terumī Mei. Her long, auburn hair was styled in a herringbone pattern, accented by a short topknot and two sets of bangs, one which framed her face and covered her right eye, the other which draped down her collarbone and drew attention to her ample bosom. She was clad in a blue dress that hugged her upper body, with fishnet sewn into the hems. From his angle, Mifune could see that there was a long slit in her dress, revealing fishnet-clad legs. Facial expression as indifferent as the Raikage's white-haired bodyguard, her own accompaniment – a slight boy with misty blue hair and rectangular glasses, and an older man with slightly darker blue hair arranged in a spike and a patch over his right eye – looked nervous and serious, respectively.

Next to her was the Godaime Kazekage, a brown-eyed, bored-looking woman that Mifune only knew by reputation – Pakura of the Scorch Release. Her dark green hair was styled in a bun held together by a single senbon, two orange strands framing her face. She wore a dark, sleeveless top and lavender arm warmers that went almost all the way to her shoulders. Both of her guards – a stern-looking man with cloth covering the left side of his face, and a younger woman with purple facial markings reminiscent of the Inuzuka clan and a cloth heading covering – appeared as bored as their leader. Mifune wondered how much of their collective apathy was a ruse, given the event that had facilitated the meeting.

He hadn't been in charge of the last Kage Summit as he hadn't been the leader of the Land of Iron way back when it had taken place, at the end of the Third Shinobi World War. The purpose of the meeting was clear, the empty chair of the Hokage – between the Tsuchikage and Kazekage – giving the room a stark separation. Mifune stood to gather the attention of the collective shinobi. "I believe it is evident why this gathering has been called," he announced. "The recent destruction of Konohagakure, one of the Five Great Shinobi Nations, is a worrisome event."

"It's the damned Akatsuki!" roared the Raikage, rising to his feet and slamming a fist upon the table. Both of his bodyguards tried not to flinch as the all-too-familiar sound of splintering wood reached their ears. "If the rest of you had heeded my summons when Kirābī had been captured, this could have been prevented!"

"Hmph," snorted Ōnoki, "you're the one who has always preached about countries being able to survive on their own power. If you couldn't keep your Jinchūriki safe, what concern was it of ours?"

Mei nodded in agreement. "You are not the only one who lost your weapons, Raikage-dono, but none of the rest of us felt it necessary to gather all of the Kages together."

"That," spoke a new voice, "is because the rest of you have been using our services instead of your Jinchūriki to augment your power."

Mifune had to turn around as all the Kages' bodyguards took up defensive positions around their leaders. Standing before him was a man possessing multiple facial piercings, with spiky orange hair and ringed, grey eyes, though his most prominent feature was the telltale black cloak with red clouds that symbolized a member of Akatsuki. Flanking him were two shinobi no older than teenagers, one a spiky-haired blond male, the other a shorter female with mint green hair and pupil-less orange eyes. There was a slight gasp from the Iwagakure shinobi, but Mifune paid it no mind.

"AKATSUKI!" bellowed Ē. "I'll have your head for what you did to my brother!" He blurred forward faster than Mifune could track, fully intent on killing the other shinobi.

The orange-haired man was apparently ready for such an assault, as not a second passed before the Raikage was sent hurtling backwards, breaking off the back of his chair in the process. "I have not come here looking to start a fight," intoned the man, "though I would be willing to oblige if you insist. However, I must warn you that, as a god, you mere mortals, Kages you may be, do not stand a chance against me."

Mifune spied the Raikage's bodyguards helping the dark-skinned man to his feet from the corner of his eye. Returning his full attention to the man before him, he asked, "Then why are you here?"

"My name is Pein, and as you might have inferred, I am Akatsuki's leader. I have come here as a diplomat, to have my piece heard by all of you. I have even abided by the two-bodyguard rule." Ringed, grey eyes explored the room. "If I had any interest in killing you, rest assured I would have brought the entirety of my forces."

"Very well," Mifune granted at length, "we will hear what you have to say."

"YOU CAN'T BE SERIOUS!" the Raikage roared, his mustache bristling. "This man is responsible for—"

"The destruction of Konohagakure," Pein interjected seamlessly, "which was merely a demonstration of my power…perhaps Kumogakure would like another look?"

"He is here as the rest of you are," Mifune stated, "as a neutral party. If he truly desired our demise, I am sure his entrance would not have been so obvious…he could have merely attacked this summit in the same method as he did Konohagakure. Given that he did not…" he trailed off, letting the gathered shinobi draw their own conclusions. "Your fellow Kages have managed to restrain their outbursts despite their unease…please sit down, Raikage-dono." Ē did as he was bid after a long moment of glaring, his abhorrence clear on his face. "Would you like a seat, Pein?" The lack of an honorific – and thus, respect – wasn't lost on anyone present.

"No, I shall remain standing. I trust the gathered parties as much as they trust me." Mifune nodded and returned his gaze so he was staring once more at the four Kages.

"Why are you here?" Mei asked frostily.

"Despite many of your villages using Akatsuki for your own purposes in the past," Pein began, "you lack understanding of what our goal is. We are not a mercenary group for hire, nor are we a method to bolster your forces during war…we are the solution to war, a method to create peace."

Ōnoki snorted again. "Your way of spreading peace is certainly backwards. You've destroyed one of the Five Great Shinobi Nations."

"Konohagakure received what it deserved," Pein returned, a tinge of coldness in his voice. "It has started and been embroiled in the most wars, and has wreaked more destruction than necessary. Do not pretend to be sorrowed by its destruction, Tsuchikage…Konohagakure inflicted grievous injuries upon your forces in the Third Shinobi World War. Sunagakure also benefits from its disappearance…reparations have been costly, have they not, Kazekage?"

"Not having to live under the thumb of Konoha relieves my village of a great burden," Pakura stated calmly, speaking for the first time since her contingent's arrival. "Additionally, Akatsuki's removal of Shukaku from our possession has allowed my people to live in less fear of being killed by one of its own."

"You sound like you condone Akatsuki's actions, Kazekage-dono," Mei said.

"The actions of the previous Kazekage left Suna in shambles," Pakura replied, her tone bland. "We have been neither as prosperous nor as strong as we were during the days of the Sandaime Kazekage. If Akatsuki has a solution to this issue that betters life for my people, I am open to suggestions."

"You propose listening to this lunatic?" Ē spat.

"You will all listen to me," Pein said, raising his voice slightly. "While Konohagakure had the most infractions against it, all of your villages have ravaged the land with your war. I will not tolerate such action to continue now that I have the power to stop it. All of your Bijū, your weapons, are within my possession, and I have no compunctions about using them against you if my requests are not met."

"…And what are your requests?" Mifune asked.

"Amegakure will take Konohagakure's place as the fifth of the Five Great Shinobi Nations. It will be a place of refuge for anyone willing to comply with its rules. In addition, there will be no more war. The world will be a better place with peace ruling…people need not experience pain ever again."

"Your proposal all but disintegrates the need for a shinobi system," Mei said.

Pein turned his gaze to her. "Perhaps, though I have little doubt that there are other ways to make shinobi useful. Nukenin from your villages still roam the world, do they not? Without focusing on methods to usurp the powers of the other villages, you can devote more energy into tracking down these threats to peace. In addition, shinobi have prowess which normal civilians do not…they could offer their services for the betterment of your village."

Ōnoki squinted at the orange-haired man. "And if we refuse to comply with your demands?"

Grey eyes focused on him. "Then your village will be destroyed," Pein responded flatly. "Konohagakure is now rubble…I can do the same to any of your villages. In addition, Akatsuki is comprised of nukenin from most of your homes…Deidara…Akasuna no Sasori…Hoshigaki Kisame…" he stated, turning from the Tsuchikage to the Kazekage and Mizukage in turn. "They are just a couple of the members within my employ…and I can learn all the secrets of your villages that they know." Ōnoki's hands gravitated towards each other, a spark of his legendary kekkei tōta forming between them at the implied threat. Lightning flashed around the Raikage, and the area around the Mizukage began to become distorted with heat. "If that still does not appease you…"

Fū stepped forward, the beginning of her own Jinton technique appearing in her palms. Naruto was right beside her, a nimbus of glowing energy encircling his clasped hands. "You should be aware that the last surviving Jinchūriki work for me," Pein finished.

Much of the fight seemed to go out of the room at that announcement, Ōnoki's Dust Release dissipating into nothing. "She can use Jinton?" he gaped. Beside him, the Raikage was exchanging heated words with his dark-skinned guard.

Pein placed a hand on each of his subordinates' shoulders, silently telling them to relax; both released their prepared techniques. "The Nanabi no Kabutomushi is the originator of your vaunted kekkei tōta," he stated, "and the skills of the Kyūbi Jinchūriki are even more impressive." He almost added 'you can test them if you'd like', but opted to let the fact that two Jinchūriki were allied with him speak for itself.

Mei fixed the pair with a hard stare. "You would work for this man, knowing what he has done?"

"Yes," Fū responded without hesitation. "His goal is a noble one, and he's offered us a place in his new world."

"I can offer you more."

Naruto laughed, though the sound was far darker than it should be coming from someone so young. "Yeah, sure," he replied cynically. "The Sanbi, formerly sealed within your Yondaime Mizukage, was found in the wild because you had the Jinchūriki killed when it was discovered he had been manipulated by a genjutsu." The Mizukage looked momentarily surprised that he had such knowledge, but quickly schooled her features; Naruto was suddenly grateful he had gleaned some interesting tidbits of information from Pein (who had received his own information from the other members of Akatsuki) about the status of his fellow containers before they had been captured. "And the Rokubi Jinchūriki had been declared a nukenin from your village for who-knows how long."

The blond turned steely blue eyes upon Pakura. "Your Jinchūriki was a certifiable head case who believed killing people was needed to prove his existence." A slight shiver ran through Fū at the memory of Gaara, causing Naruto to scowl. He turned to Ōnoki. "You sent a measly eight shinobi to try and track down your Jinchūriki, who had been all but exiled from your village and was living in the mountains; I know because I killed them. And your other Jinchūriki…well, from what I heard, you didn't even bother going after him, and he was the first one Akatsuki kidnapped.

"She," he stated, thumbing towards Fū, "and I were mistreated and spurned for things we never had any control over in our villages. Once we were free to do as we wanted, we could finally live our lives the way we wanted, and Pein offered us the opportunity to create a world where such inequality wouldn't exist. And you think that we're stupid enough to ally ourselves with one of your villages? Don't make me laugh," he scoffed.

"Kumo treated its Jinchūriki fairly!" the Raikage barked.

"Yeah," the blond drawled dryly, his tone rife with cynical disbelief, "you apparently seem to be the exception rather than the rule on many accounts. We're not joining you either, though."

"You may try to sway them to your side, but your villages' treatment of Jinchūriki is common knowledge," Pein intoned. "Your breath is wasted. You have two options…submit to my demands, or resist…and perish."

Silence reigned in the small building as the assembled Kages and their bodyguards weighed their options. Ē still looked enraged, and beside him, Ōnoki had a troubled expression on his face, trying to come to terms with the knowledge that, not only was there another living person who could wield Jinton, but that a teenager who looked remarkably like the Yellow Flash, Iwa's bane, was standing before him. Mei still appeared coolly indifferent, though the heat emanating off her belied her true feelings.

"I accept Pein's terms."

All eyes shifted to look at Pakura, whose face was placid. "You mean to side with these cutthroats and anarchists?!" roared the Raikage.

"What you perceive as anarchy is merely a clash of our ideals with yours," Pein interrupted. "Your wars have ravaged my home—"

Pakura held up a held, and Pein – curious to hear what she would say – inclined his head in a modicum of respect. The green- and orange-haired woman turned her gaze to the Raikage. "You are too blinded by the loss of your brother to see the big picture. For one thing, Akatsuki – which until now has been thought to be comprised of mercenaries – has rather unnecessarily followed the rules of the Kage Summit in an attempt to fill in the vacuum left by Konoha's destruction. In a world where this man—" she gestured towards Pein "—controls the most powerful forces we are aware of, such an action is not indicative of someone bent on world domination.

"Kumo has also not experienced what it is like to deal with a Jinchūriki who is hated and feared by its village in many years. To have swayed two Jinchūriki bearing such pasts to his side, Pein must have some measure of charisma that they respect. In his quest to create peace for the world, he has removed the concept of Jinchūriki from the nations' possession, thus creating a more equal balance of power among the remaining countries. This will exclude Ame, but given that it already controls the remaining Bijū, having two active Jinchūriki will make no difference. Perhaps when the Jinchūriki pass on, the Bijū they possess will be sealed in the same fashion as the rest?" she posed. Pein inclined his head once more in assent, if only to offer some reassurance to the woman. Pakura continued on, "Given that Pein has already reduced Konoha to nothing, he has the power to destroy anything he deems appropriate. As he is proposing a solution which does not use such a devastating methodology, it would be foolish to go against it.

"I do not necessarily agree with how he went about instigating his idealism, but he has achieved something that the world has yet to see…assuming the rest of you choose to do the intelligent thing and submit. With Konoha no longer restraining our growth, Suna can once again become strong. We appreciate this opportunity," she directed at Pein. "You will see no trouble from us."

Pein nodded at her before passing his gaze around to the other Kages. One by one, the rest of them acquiesced to his demands, though only Pakura's expression remained free of any sourness or hatred. "I will take my leave now," he intoned. "Know that I have no interest in the Land of Fire, and you may divide up the land as you like, peaceably. I will be watching for any breach of our contract." With that, he turned and swept out of the building, Naruto and Fū on his heels.

They walked through the dozens of fallen samurai, all knocked unconscious on the trio's way into the Kage Summit. "They actually caved in to your demands. So, now what…Amekage-sama?" Naruto asked, a teasing note in his voice.

"The Kages are not so easily persuaded," Pein informed him. "The Kazekage's intentions seem sincere, but I do not trust the rest of them to retain the same goodwill. While Amegakure becomes strong, Akatsuki will keep an eye on them from the shadows."

"And if they step out of line?" Fū posed.

"Then they will regret doing so."

The trio continued on their way in silence. Naruto couldn't believe the position he was in. Over a decade ago, when Kakuzu had stolen him out of the Land of Fire and began the tedious process of imparting his knowledge unto the blond, he would've never expected this to be the outcome. Now, with his vengeance against Konoha complete and the world forced to bow to Akatsuki's will, he wasn't sure quite what to do next. He shot a furtive glance at Fū, suddenly quite aware of the fact that they now had their whole lives ahead of them and the unresolved feelings of a kiss they had shared to discuss.

I wonder how things'll change…

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