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Konoha Central Hospital

Konoha hadn't changed much from when she had last seen it, Tsunade decided.

It had grown, true. There were far more buildings now, and far more people. The telephone poles hadn't been there in the time of the Shodaime, and at least five different restaurants crowded that one corner that had initially been solely Akimichi land. And the children seemed older. That might have been because there wasn't a war going on right now, so they weren't sending all sorts of underaged soldiers out to the front lines. So the children didn't have to grow up so quickly. They didn't die so quickly, either. There was once a time when everyone was given the rank of Chunin once their age hit the double digits regardless of whether or not they were actually ready. Now, two years older, most were lucky to graduate from the Academy on their first try.

But underneath all that Tsunade still felt the tremors of her old village. Growing up among not one, not two, but three Hokage tended to do that to you. Her grandfather, her great-uncle, and her teacher. All of them kindly old men with gentle smiles. All of them able to destroy hundreds, even thousands of lives, with a single order. The weather was deceptively sunny. She knew that for the prisoners underground, it was not.

Even now, she still didn't know how many of those orders had been unwilling or not.

"Tsunade-sama – I am honored – I mean it is an honor – I mean – please to meet with you – I – "

First-year hospital interns. Oh, how cute.

But Tsunade gave the kid her best smile. You're supposed to be on your best behavior, now. No more drinking and gambling and all that fun stuff. "Now, there's no need for such formality. We are all healers here, yes? Every lifesaver is equal."

"Thank you, Tsunade-sama!"

("Was that – was that Tsunade?")

("Yes! And she actually talked to me!")

("Oh my gosh! You have to introduce me, quick!")

She didn't even know the kid's name.

"Well, Tsunade?"

She turned back to her old teacher. "Well what?"

"Is it satisfactory?" the Hokage asked her, gesturing around the hospital.

And it really was. The facilities were shining clean and perfectly organized – not a speck of blood anywhere, thank goodness – and she could tell that the staff were much more well-trained than fifty years ago, when every able body was forced to fight and not heal. She remembered, once upon a time, when the Medical Corps weren't so well-established yet, and bodies upon injured bodies were simply crammed into unsanitary tents, waiting for aid that would never come to them. Overworked and underpaid doctors, with too many patients and too little time. The waiting room was almost empty here, even though the volume of people walking in and out were about the same.

Tsunade wondered what it would look like when war descended upon them again.

"Goodbye, onee-san! Thanks for the band-aid!"

"Be good to your mother, okay?" one of the nurses came out. "And promise to be more careful when training with shuriken next time!"

"I promise!"

They make band-aids with cartoon characters on them now?

"Onee-san! Can I have a band-aid with Princess Yuhiko on it, too?"

"Now, darling, band-aids are only for if you get hurt!"

"Don't hurt yourself on purpose just for a band-aid, though. How about a lollipop instead?"

Lollipops? They hand out lollipops, too?

"It's…" she frowned, trying to find the right words.

"It's…what?" the Sandaime asked.

Tsunade didn't know what to do. On one hand, she was starting to regain that sense of purpose she'd been missing ever since she had left the village; on the other hand, there was a Chunin in room 203 that was bleeding all over the place from a bad slash by a bandit with a sword.

Instinct told her to run and hide and not take Shizune along this time, so she couldn't give their location away. Unlikely, since she sadly relied on Shizune to take care of her hangovers a lot. And so all that remained was loyalty.

"I'll live," she said finally.

"Good." Sarutobi-sensei smiled at her. "Welcome home, Tsunade."

The Hokage's Office

They had arrived home to relatively little fanfare, on his end, at least. Konoha Central Hospital had gone into uproar the moment Tsunade set foot through the sliding doors, which meant that there was little attention left for him, the amazing person who had brought her home in the first place.

Well, at least it had been easier to slip away to go report to the Hokage. Fighting off crowds of shapely, adoring fans was hard work. Talking to the Sandaime? even more so. Jiraiya shifted under his old teacher's scrutinizing gaze.

"Tsunade informed me that Kakashi's treatment was only partially successful."

"Mostly unsuccessful, but better than I could ever hope of," Jiraiya agreed.

The Sandaime frowned. "We need him."

"Yes, I know."

"Can't let that talent go to waste. Not to mention he'd go stir-crazy if we forced him into retirement. I can't deal with his shit, not now."

"Of course."

There was a short silence as the Sandaime mulled over his tobacco.

"Unfortunately, I'll be keeping you very busy for the next few weeks, Jiraiya. Possibly months. Anko Mitarashi recently came to me with a very interesting proposition regarding Orochimaru, and as sad as I am to say this…I was forced to comply with her demands, because they were simply too reasonable to refuse. You'll find the full specifications of this project waiting for you with ANBU Research."

"Great," Jiraiya snarked. "Anything else you need, sensei?"

"No; that's it for now. Unless you want to check up on Naruto as well. He's starting on mastering the Nine-Tails. Kakashi and I have paired him up with Yamato."

Well, that was new. Jiraiya did a double-take. "What? Really? This soon?"

"We can't afford to leave him untrained, Jiraiya," the Hokage said darkly. "People are already out for his blood regardless. There is only so much we can do to mitigate that danger. There will be a day when he will have to save himself, and I fully intend for him to at least be ready when that time comes."

Training Ground 3

Giving up was something that I normally didn't do.

Leave it be.

But every time I closed my eyes, I could hear Anko hissing in my ears.

She wasn't a bad person, and I knew it. Despite her unnerving personality, I still respected her. But no matter what I did, I just couldn't get rid of her voice. Whatever she had done to make sure of that, it had been a very clever job.

Or maybe it was just me.

Maybe it was for the best. Maybe she was right. Maybe I really did need to leave some things be.

I didn't want to.

But I had to.

There was no doubt, I was still a little shaken from that visit. Maybe it really was me. All I had to do was be careful. That was just my fault. I was going stir-crazy from being bored. You should know the type of person I am by now. Never a moment's rest. If there's no trouble I'll go looking for some, and if there isn't any around I'll make my own.

I barely said anything to Ino and Naruto when they arrived at the training ground. Perhaps it was for the best; they seemed more content to talk about how their training for the final tournament was progressing, and I was more than happy to simply listen.

"Well, don't you look chipper today."

We jumped in place and turned around slowly. Damn, I hated it when Kakashi-sensei snuck up on me like that. "You're early."

"For the second time since we've last seen each other, too!" he grinned. "Wow, you guys are all such lazy slowpokes. I've been here waiting for you guys for nearly a quarter of an hour."

Ino threw her hands up in the air and flopped down onto the ground. "The world is ending!"

"Anyway…You three! You're late!" Kakashi-sensei barked.

"No, we're not!" Naruto yelled back. "You said meet at 9:00 a.m. It's 8:55 right now!"

"Really? My watch says it's ten."

"You don't even wear a watch!"

"I do too wear a watch. I hide it underneath my socks."

"Sensei, you're wearing sandals," Ino pointed out. "Either you're a big fat liar, or you're the special type of abomination who wears socks with sandals."

"I resent that. For your information, my fashion sense is flawless, thank you very much."

I wasn't Ino, but even I had to disagree, and voiced my opinion as such, starting with his hair as an example.

He glared at me. "I have had this haircut since I was born, and let me tell you, I would get fired for telling you children how successful I am with the ladies..."

"Because of, or in spite of everything?" I snorted. Kakashi-sensei didn't answer. "That's what I thought. So. What did you do to get Tsunade to return to the village?"

He tilted his head to the side. "Was it that obvious?"

I crossed my arms. "You leaving with Jiraiya, everyone with vague connections to the hospital in total uproar, Naruto screaming and yelling about some 'baa-chan' that was supposedly super strong – " here Naruto let out a tiny whimper of protest about how he wasn't that loud (he actually was) – "yeah, I'd say it was."

He shrugged. "Gambling addicts do love having their habits enabled."

"You actually bribed her to come back? Out of all the things that persuaded Tsunade of the Sannin to return to the village, it was money?" Naruto asked incredulously.

"Did you expect more from one of the Sannin?" Kakashi-sensei asked.

Naruto scratched his head. "Well…not really…I mean, it's not the money itself. The Sand guys tried to attack us over money, so that didn't surprise me. But she didn't leave because of money, did she? So why would she come back because of it?"

It was a good point, to which Kakashi-sensei simply replied, "We might have also used a bit of guilt-tripping and threatened usage of force if she didn't comply."

Naruto scratched his head. "Oh."

"Well, enough of that. Since we've been apart for so long, I thought we'd run through a few training exercises as a team again."

And he brought out the bells.

At our stunned collective silence, Kakashi asked, "What?"

"Again? Really?"

"Of course!" he replied, catching Naruto in the forehead after a failed tackle. Naruto flailed against Kakashi-sensei's grip, but as his arms were too short, he was stuck windmilling in the air like a brain-damaged swimmer. "I didn't even say 'go' yet."

"Ninja," Naruto shot back. Kakashi-sensei let go. Naruto fell flat on his face.

"As long as I make the rules I can just say it didn't count," Kakashi said, smirking.

"By that logic, you can make up all sorts of rules to say that it didn't count, even when we do get the bells for real," Ino whined.


We glared at him.

"Come on, guys. I can barely do even the most basic jutsu. This should be a piece of cake for the three of you."

"Fine," Naruto huffed, and formed the hand seals for his shadow clones. "We can totally – "

He never managed to finish his sentence, however, because the moment the field was filled up with his clones, the entire ground collapsed underneath his weight in a giant cloud of gravel and dirt. Where there was once solid earth, now there was nothing left but a massive sinkhole, as if someone had just spent a quarter of an hour doing nothing but digging around underground like a giant mole, shifting all the soil into large and unstable air pockets in the process.

That was, in fact, exactly what had happened.

Kakashi-sensei surveyed the damage and winced. "Is this a bad time to mention that I was practicing the Headhunter jutsu earlier?"

"YES," Naruto yelled from beneath the rubble.

"Oh. Um." He looked around wildly, and then suddenly pointed behind us at nothing in particular. "Look! A distraction!"

None of us fell for it in the remotest sense, but that didn't stop him. Before we could physically apprehend him (or the bells) he had vanished in a swirl of leaves.

"Hasta la bye bye and don't forget to clean up the mess!"

And so we were left to stand there in stunned silence as we took in the level of damage he had done to Training Ground Three.

"You guys," Ino said, looking around, "I think he might actually be trying to sabotage our chances at a promotion."

Naruto walked calmly into the middle of the rubble and collapsed face-down in the dirt. "Now that's just silly."


"Whoa! So Jashin-sama can make you immortal?"

Hidan gave a toothy smile. "Yep!"

"Can Jashin-sama bring people back to life, though?"

Hidan clicked his teeth. "Not heathens! So that means your precious master is out of the running, unfortunately. But if you join, and sacrifice yourself to the great Jashin-sama, he'll − "

The girl in the group crossed her arms and attempted to push past the group of people to the door. "Well, thanks for nothing, jackass. If you're not even going to try to help Orochimaru-sama then this was all a massive waste of time!"

"Tayuya! That was impolite."

"Fuck impolite, you snob, she insulted Jashin-sama!" Hidan roared, grabbing his scythe.

This was the scene that assaulted Pein's eyes when he walked into the room. Beside him, Konan looked on, as impassive as ever.

"Hidan, what are you doing?" Pein interrupted. "Who are these people, and why are they here?"

"Oh! Heeyyy…Pein-sama…" Hidan grinned impertinently. "I thought they were converts, but it turns out they were just heathens like all the others."

"Let me see them," Pein sighed.

The children brought before him were nothing special on their own. They were of decent strength and skill. Perhaps, with proper training, they would be ready to work with the Akatsuki in a few years' time −

− But then the Rinnegan saw the markings on their bodies…and Pein knew…

…They were not his. They would never be his. Because they already belonged to someone else.

Someone who was a traitor to their cause.

"Orochimaru," he spat underneath his breath.

The thin one with the white hair stepped forward. "We thank you for your hospitality. I am Kimimaro, and these are the Sound Four. You knew Orochimaru-sama?"

"Orochimaru-sama," Pein spat in disgust. "Is that why you followed Hidan back here? You wish for us to help you revive your master?"

The fools in front of him nodded.

Pein truly pitied them. Such talent, such promise, and all for what? Wasted, wasted, upon worshipping a cowardly, traitorous snake. He would help them, had it been possible, but he had seen Orochimaru's mode of work. Once he successfully sunk his fangs into something, it was impossible to escape.

The Akatsuki were not very close with one another, not with cruel and selfish men like Hidan and Kakuzu within their midst, but it was a general rule that defection was not an option. He particularly hated traitors. The concept of lying about a promise made had been especially traumatizing to him in the past – in more ways than one.


Orochimaru was a traitor. Orochimaru deserved to die. And now that he was dead, one of his slaves was asking for assistance in bringing him back to life.

"Unfortunately for you," Pein whispered, "Orochimaru is no longer our friend. We shall not do as you ask. However, now that you are here, we are interested in your services to us," he added on, because he was merciful, and wished to give them an opportunity to prove themselves. Perhaps there was hope for them yet. Perhaps it was still possible for them to let go of their past loyalties to Orochimaru.

But it was not meant to be. "I cannot do that," Kimimaro responded. "If you are not a friend of Lord Orochimaru then I cannot work for you. I apologize for bothering you, and shall find another person to perform my request. Good day."

Those words, as polite as they were, angered Pein more than any swears. Such audacity! Walking before him, demanding his services, and thinking he'd allow them to leave without paying the price. Seeing their cocky, complacent faces made him want to teach them the true meaning of pain.

So he did.

"I am afraid I cannot let you leave," Pein told him coldly. He signaled the other members, and the one exit to the room was blockaded by a wall of bodies. "Now that you know where we are, you are a security danger to us."

The crew of five frowned.

"Execute them," Pein ordered.

To call it a slaughter would have been an understatement. The children were powerful for their age, but they were no match for the Akatsuki.

A shriek ripped through the air, and Pein did not have to turn his head to know that Samehada had found its first victim. There was a sickening splatter and a snap of bone. And then another. And another. And another.

"Look, kid, it's nothing personal. I'm trying to make it quick, all right? If you stop fighting back, I can promise you it'll hurt less," Kisame said placatingly.

"Go…to…hell…" Defiant to the last, that one was.

Kisame shrugged. "Your fault for having an excessive number of arms." The sword came down in a wide arc, and when it came up again it was coated in blood and large, leathery strips of skin. It was almost like watching a spider get stuck to your roll of newspaper after you slapped it, except instead of a spider it was a human, and instead of crushed exoskeleton it was glassy eyes and punctured lungs and fragments of ribcage pointing in the air like the toothy open maw of a shark. Pein could see his exposed organs, the rise and fall of his diaphragm clearly, in time to his pulsing heart, as he made his last gasps.

Regrettable, that they would never experience true pain. Not really. True pain was not being blinded by poisoned needles, or feeling steel pierce flesh. True pain came from feeling, and these children were former minions of Orochimaru. They did not know the feeling of loss. Not like he had. They had been taught to be cruel and uncaring to each other. They had been taught to sacrifice their emotions. Just like their master.

Would they know pain, if he killed one twin and not the other?

He would never know now, Pein thought clinically. Kakuzu had already gotten to them. Both of them. More pulp for the Shinigami.

The pungent stench of blood filled his nose, like so many dead bodies, dripping from the air and smothering them all like a thick wool blanket on a burning summer day. On the other end of the room, Itachi held up the limp corpse of the lone girl in the group. Her little metal flute lay in three pieces on the floor, and her head lolled around loosely on her shoulders, courtesy of a snapped neck.

That was Itachi. Neat and precise to the fullest. He was always cleaner compared to the others. Pein sniffed at the growing mess on the floor, and was glad that Itachi's chosen method of dispatch resulted in less to clean up.

A blur of white flashed in the corner of his vision. Pein raised his hand, bored.

"Shinra tensei."

The piece of bone flew away from him with a high-pitched whistle. It collided with the opposite wall with a loud snap, and bounded back to embed itself in the back of his attacker's kidney. The young man was sent sprawling to the floor, and Pein thought that might be the end of him. To Pein's pleasant surprise, however, he did not remain kneeling.

A valiant and noble fighter, Pein thought. Yahiko would have liked him.

"Perhaps we should eliminate him quickly," Itachi suggested. "If the seal on his chest is allowed to grow unchecked, he may pose a bit more trouble than he is worth."

"I will not allow you to impede Orochimaru-sama's – "

Hidan swung his scythe, cutting him off. Steel met bone in a bright wave of sparks, and the twin curves of the red blades and jutting ribs interlocked with each other like the alternating teeth of a Venus flytrap.

"FUCKING BASTARD – " Hidan snarled, trying to pull his weapon free.

"Please do not use those words. My name is Kimimaro, and it would be polite to refer to me as such," the boy sighed, drawing an improvised bone-sword from his arm.

"I'll call you what I damn well please," Hidan grunted. "Little bitch."

"Shut the hell up, Hidan."

"Don't tell me what to do, Kakuzu!"

"Hidan, behave!" Pein snapped, already extremely bored of the entire situation. It was not enough that they had to come here unannounced and make a mess of his property, but also waste his time. Hidan, missing his chance to witness any further bloodshed, grumbled and sulked in the corner. Pein ignored him and turned back to their target. "As for you – "

"I understand now that you do not like Orochimaru-sama, and that coming here was a mistake. I apologize for offending you," their captive stated. "But I will not apologize for serving Lord Orochimaru. I respect him because he saved me. All my life I have been worth nothing, and he took me above my past self. There is more to him than you realize. Men are more complex than sheer good or evil, and while he has hurt you he has also helped many others, like me. Please listen to me. He – "

" – was a traitor and a brute, and I do not wish to hear you sing any more praises of him," Pein finished, though Kimimaro would never hear his words, for Kisame had also chosen to end the speech at the same time, in that charming Mist fashion of his.

Drowning on land. Water was a useful element, indeed.

In his life, Pein had learned that while all men came in different shapes and sizes and strengths, their innards were all equally weak.

Mortals ate. Mortals bled. Mortals died.

Kimimaro, at the end of the day, was just another speck of dust among grains of sand. He was fast, and he was strong – even more so when he attempted to use his curse seal to transform. But apart from his special technique with his bones, he knew no other skills. He was neither particularly intelligent nor well-versed enough in elemental transformations to figure out a way to escape. And though he tried to attack back, it hadn't been enough. Kimimaro could not control his own position, nor could he see where any of his attackers were.

Regeneration did not help combat a lack of oxygen.

Had Kimimaro known how to perform an air jutsu, he might have bought himself enough time to escape. Had Kimimaro known how to perform an earth jutsu, he might have stopped the water attack altogether. Had he even thought of something as simple as Kawarimi, he could have just run off. They would have chased after him and caught him quickly, of course – the combined strength of the Akatsuki was more than enough to take him down – but the point was that he might have lived just a little bit longer.

Of course, the fact that he was also under the influence of Itachi Uchiha's genjutsu as well might have had something to do with his lack of reaction.

There had been no struggle. Just a glassy reflection of red and black commas – and then – blessed silence.

Pein was not Orochimaru. He was nothing like Orochimaru. He was a merciful god, who worked for the good of the world and not himself. He did not cause suffering because he enjoyed it. He had given these children a noble death in battle.

Had they remained with Orochimaru, they would have only been used until their worth had run dry. Once that happened, they would have been killed, or abandoned and left to die. And the betrayal of their supposedly "great" master would have hurt them even more. That was how he worked – Orochimaru only ever thought about himself. The rest of the world, to him, was expendable. Hanzo the Salamander was another one of them.

Pein despised people like that. Selfish manipulators who only pretended to care about others. He mildly disliked Hidan and Kakuzu, but at least neither of them acted as if they were anything other than themselves.

"Sasori, have you any need for the corpses?"

Sasori shook his head. "Maybe the bones one, though I doubt his regeneration powers would hold up well in a puppet. The others, definitely no."

"What about you, Kakuzu? Do you see any use for them?"

"Just the heads," he sighed, reaching for a knife. "Though, they weren't that well-known in the first place. All the Bingo Books I checked only offered a pittance for their deaths."

"Very well."

With Kakuzu's work done, the cadavers burst into flame.

Pein watched the cremation with a mild, amused sense of detachment. It was so sadly simple, Pein decided, to rob a human of his life. He did not like to, but it was what he had to do. Funny, how easy it was to die, compared to how hard it was to live. If only the rest of the world would be so willing to see it in the same way as he did. If only everyone was as willing to sacrifice themselves for his perfect ideal as he was. It would certainly make his task at hand much easier.

The crackling of the flames slowly died down to darkness, until finally all that remained of Orochimaru's little minions were tiny fluttering feathers of ash.

Nothing remained of them except silence.

A/N: To be fair, when I said that the Sound Four would have their own storyline, I never specified how long it was.