Edited this one early. Take that, me!

Anyways, without further ado, hopefully E3 has some cool games. It would really suck if it didn't.


Chapter 97: Betrayal at the Final Hour


"This is East Flank! We're being overrun with over five times the amount of Zetsu we've been faced with before! Requesting immediate aid!"

"This is West Flank! Same here! Requesting – AAAH!"

"South Flank! The Zetsu have made it past us! They're dropping into the city! Contact the reinforcement squads and tell them that–"

As another line went dead, Neji ripped the communications device off of the back of the dead man he'd been listening from and spoke into it.

"This is North Flank!" He shouted, wanting them to, at the very least, know what was happening where he was. "The same things are happening over here! We're falling back to the inside barricade, and we're going to set up–"

He was cut off from continuing to speak as a Zetsu launched itself at his head. He was ever so slightly faster, ducking beneath its blow and striking up at it with 16 of his trigrams. It hit the ground beside him, entirely dead, a second later.

He wanted to finish his report, but, well, on account of the multitude of Zetsu which were very rapidly overwhelming him, he felt he could be forgiven for wanting to flee as well.

Still, he needed to report one last thing.

"Don't send reinforcements here!" He shouted, already backing up as he continued to speak, hanging on the edge of the cords range as he prepared to retreat entirely. "We have very few civilians within the surrounding area, and we have a strong inner barricade we can defend for… for as long as we need to. Send help to more vulnerable areas, like south or either of our side flanks. We can hold here!"

With that, he jumped back, running towards the wooden barricade that'd been erected in the Village's welcoming square, and ran up its side, getting right in the middle and drawing Kunai out, hurling them at the oncoming swarm.

He would have to hope he was right. He would have to hope that they could hold, regardless of what came at them.

Because if they couldn't hold…

Then he'd just doomed them all.

/-/

Jiraiya had seen the plume of white smoke shoot up from just outside the Leaf Villages walls, had known that, right over there, within the third training ground, Naruto, Sasuke, and Sakura had chosen to rest for the night a few hours prior.

He forced himself not to worry about them too terribly much. After all, he'd be there to help them soon enough.

Along the way, he bumped into quite a few who ran along with him.

Zaku, Dosu, and Kin, members of that team from the Sound he'd rescued ages ago, and technically a part of their little assault force that Tsunade had set up the day before as well (well, not Dosu, but it seemed like he'd gotten out of the hospital in the day between the formation and now, or he'd decided he was healed enough to fight, which he wouldn't be arguing with at this point), had been the very first. He'd run into Hinata, Fu, Tenten, and Ino next, who had apparently decided to hang out at Hinata's place the previous night as well.

He had all the faith in the world that, knowing Team 7's location, Anko, Kakashi, and Itachi would all be rushing that way as well. Even still, though…

Jiraiya stared down at the endless waves of Zetsu that knocked at the walls of the Leaf Village, watched as they scaled the walls, not through chakra, which would've bene impossible given the Barrier Jutsu applied to it, but through climbing one another like they were ladders.

He stopped for only a moment, rearing back and channeling chakra into his stomach. He unleashed it in a wave of flame, which utterly annihilated those ones still hanging on the wall, acting as supports for the others. It was all he could spare the time to do, but hopefully, that set back would give those still defending their West Flank the time to prevent the next few Zetsu from setting that same formation up.

Even still, with things as they were, one thing was rather clear.

They were rapidly losing this fight. If things didn't change, they'd be overrun within the day. The Zetsu were quite clearly attacking in full force now, no longer holding back their numbers in order to, at his best guess, bait out the appearance of the One-Tailed Jinchuuriki, that Gaara kid whose seal he'd messed with forever ago.

Now, their full intention was to wipe out the Leaf Village in its entirety, to leave no survivors.

And he hesitated to think of a way they could stop them from accomplishing that goal.

He slammed his hands down, pouring a good chunk of his chakra into summoning both Gamabunta and Gamaken, who both stared his way curiously. He explained the situation and sent them off to either side of the Village. Neither were immortal, neither could even fight off this many on their own without eventually being forced to retreat, but at least this way, he could give their forces at the walls an extra hour or two each.

It was then, however, that he saw a few trees oscillating in the distance. They weren't moving with the wind that all, in fact, they shook against it, as if…

As if affected by people.

He pointed it out to the others, and had Hinata activate her Byakugan, to see just who it was they were dealing with. The girl did so, nodding her head as she focused in. A moment later, her eyes widen, and her skin went pale.

She spoke what she'd seen to the rest of them…

And his own face went white.

/-/

"Rasengan!"

The swirling ball of chakra utterly annihilated the Pain it hit, knocking him into the ground below them as it's body twitched ever so slightly, before ceasing to move, entirely inanimate. The one he'd taken out was Pain's ability to Summon, which, while helpful to be rid of, had, realistically, already served its purpose.

He stared upwards at the Gedo Statue, and watched as it let out an aching roar, before it began to move once more, walking in the direction of the Leaf Village. Luckily, as it attempted to make progress, it was stopped by thick vines, roots, and other flora that wrapped around its ankles, halting it in its tracks.

Sakura's face told him that she was over exerting herself to the nth degree, but even so, she was keeping the thing in place, which was just about all they could hope for with how overwhelmingly enormous it was.

He'd tried to summon a toad earlier, either Gamabunta or Gamaken would've done, but unfortunately, both had been tied up defending the Village. Which, of course, was all well and good, except for the fact that he had a feeling the Gedo statue was a bit of a bigger deal than the Zetsu's assault, even if it were, as he suspected from the feelings of the chakra Sakura was describing near the Village, a far larger attack than it'd been the last week or so.

They were beating Pain, surely enough, both he and Sasuke could handle the man with their Mangekyou Sharingan and Indigo Sage Mode both, but now that Naruto knew that the man's bodies were only corpses, well, there wasn't much point in striking him down for good, unless they could come up with a plan to track down the real Nagato.

And he was having a bit of a problem coming up with a plan right now, given the towering giant currently hanging over them all, casting a shadow that seemed to go on forever. It didn't help that a rather scary thought was hitting him at that same time, as he watched an explosion emerge from the walls of the Leaf Village some distance away…

Namely, that his home might be overwhelmed.

Surely enough, they'd been able to hold the initial Zetsu raid. Their opening numbers, along with a handful of reanimated shinobi from Orochimaru's experiments, had attacked them, and been pushed back. Now though… if Sakura was describing it correctly, their numbers had almost quintupled in an instant. They'd been hiding their true powers, just waiting for some kind of a signal to attack them all for real.

He swallowed on nothing as he realized that, even if they were there, even if they could defend as well, it might have no effect.

While he'd been distracted, two Pain's had managed to swipe away the corpse of the summoner and plopped him into the mouth of some horrifying monstrous being. A few seconds later, he'd come out of it entirely fine, alive once again.

So, they can revive one another… in that case, the reviver itself should go first.

He turned to Sasuke and saw in his expression that he seemingly already understood that fact for himself. They coordinated their next attack, charging in as they built up their offensive based Jutsu's; Chidori and Rasengan.

Sasuke channeled the lightning along the sword in his hands, and stabbed it down into the earth, allowing it to flow across the battlefield.

"Chidori Stream!"

He followed suit, focusing his attention on the reviver pain, which had been caught up in that opening blast. His Rasengan was rebuffed as the Jutsu absorber made it to him just in time, and he breathed out a curse as he was suddenly pulled towards Yahiko's body via its ability. He tried to dig in his heels, but it wasn't enough…

Well, wouldn't have been enough, had no one arrived to assist him. Instead, a figure slammed its fist into Yahiko-Pain's body, sending him flying backwards. As it recovered, it looked up, and seemed to regard the new arrivals with an air of cynicism.

"Are you sure you can all afford to be here? Isn't your Village currently under attack from all angles by the White Zetsu?"

Zaku, Dosu, Kin, Anko, Jiraiya, Kakashi, Tenten, Ino, Haku, Hinata, Fu, Itachi and Kabuto stared at the Pain forms in front of them, most seeming not nearly as concerned as Naruto himself. In fact, a few wore confident expressions, as if they knew something that the rest of them didn't.

"Heh, well, first off," Jiraiya spoke, smirking Pain's way. "I left Gamabunta and Gamaken to help them out, not to mention that I have faith in the ninjas of the Leaf and the Sand, but second of all… I think you'll find that we've actually received some reinforcements after all."

Pain's eyes widened, as did Naruto's own, as the ground beneath him rumbled. He turned back towards the Leaf Village, and watched as a massive, towering Stone Wall grew from out of the ground, wrapping around the Leaf Village from even further outside, creating a secondary wall, and blocking both the Zetsu already inside its barricade from escaping, but also preventing those outside from getting in to support them.

It was then that another figure landed in the middle of their clearing, smiling over at him.

"Been a while, huh, Naruto?" Kurotsuchi of the stone regarded him.

He blinked once, then twice, then again, before he let out a confused wail, pointing her way. "What the hell are you doing here!?"

"Hah, well, our intelligence officers reported what was going on here about a week back, and that the Leaf Village would, if things continued as they had been going, perhaps even be overrun and destroyed. Surely, my grandfather was all about that, saying it was what you guys deserved, but… well, not all of us shared that sentiment. I managed to convince him that if the Leaf fell, we'd just be next. He… might not have fully agreed with me, but I begged him enough to give me a full battalion. We made it here as quick as we could to reinforce."

"I… we…"

"'Sides, this way, the Leaf's rather indebted to us, I'd say," Kurotsuchi winked. "In exchange for our aid here, when we're both Kage, Mr. Uzumaki, you can owe me a favor, how about that?"

He found himself smiling as he shook his head, and their group turned back towards Pain, who regarded them far differently now, no longer as apathetic, no longer as assured.

"Hah… doesn't sound too bad!" He said as he slammed his fist into his palm. "For right now, let's focus on defeating Pain! After that, we can worry about helping the village defend itself! Once the threat of the Akatsuki has disappeared, then we can all rest easy!"

They all nodded, even as Kurotsuchi herself broke away, heading back towards the village to help captain the defense. The rest of them charged forward to meet the Six Paths of Pain.

It was as that was happening, though, that a voice called out to him in his own head. Deep and gravelly, it immediately demanded his attention.

"So, Naruto," The Nine-Tails sounded out. "This whole fight against Pain is all well and good, but I have a question for you, if you don't mind."

"Kind of busy right now, but sure, why not?" He scoffed to himself as they managed to catch the reviver Pain, eliminating it. "Hit me."

"Black Zetsu already got a piece of my chakra, and to me, at least, it's pretty obvious that he's not going to bother trying to take the entirety of me and shoving it into that statue of his. So, if I'm not under any immediate threat, why should I keep helping you, exactly?"

Naruto swallowed, having not really thought about that too much.

"I…"

"It's not like I gain anything from this. So, what if the world falls to ruin? If the Ten-Tails' is revived, as long as I'm left alone, I don't particularly care either way."

He couldn't really deny the words of the beast inside his head. Everything it'd said… It was technically true. And yet…

"Well, if you want my honest opinion… at this point, I kinda consider the two of us friends."

He heard more than saw the fox's surprise. "The hell did you say!?"

"I said I kinda consider us friends." He remarked mentally, smirking in a way that he knew was a bit dumb. "Sure, you're a monstrous fox demon. Sure, you've probably hated me since the moment that I was born, but… I don't know, I think ever since you helped me out with Indigo Sage Mode… we've kind of been cool, right?"

His head space was silent for the next 30 seconds or so as he and his friends battled against Pain. At some point (he must've been zoned out at the time) Konan had arrived, or well, a few of Konan's Paper Clones had arrived, it seemed, and were swarming around them, using their unique make-ups to disguise paper bombs among their number.

Finally, as he managed to pound the newest Pain (the one that could suck out souls, and if he were remembering their powers well enough, that had been Zabuza up until recently) into the dirt beneath him with his Frog Kumite, thanks to some distracting efforts from Kabuto and Kakashi, the Nine-Tails spoke within his head again.

"You're a damned weirdo, you understand that, right?"

"Eh, yeah."

The great beast snorted, evidently amused by his easy admission.

"Alright. 'Suppose I'm stuck just putting my faith in an idiot, as per usual. Don't let me down, Naruto, not at the last moment. Finish this, stop the horrid reign of the Akatsuki for good. Quite frankly, if they're not planning on sealing me away, well, the fact that they chased me down for a good half a decade means they've already earned my ire regardless."

He smirked himself. "Same here."

"Then go. Win. End these bastards!"

"Way ahead of you!"

He broke out of the Nine-Tails' trance as he ducked beneath the serrated edge of the weird, multi-headed Pain's saw-blade-like-tail. He channeled a Rasengan into his right hand and slammed it into the chest of the amalgamation. It crumpled near instantly, breaking into multiple parts as the blood within it spilled out onto the ground below.

He watched as Sasuke and Itachi eliminated the one who could absorb Jutsu by striking it with multiple physical hits in a row, just as the Sound Trio took down the healer with their combined efforts.

Haku, Ino, Fu, and Hinata, took the Summoner, eliminating it again, leaving them with only the main Pain.

Yahiko's dead eyes stared at them, cold and lifeless.

"So, Nagato." Jiraiya smiled his old students way, stepping up towards him and cracking his neck. "Mind telling me exactly where your real body is? It has to be close, right, in order for you to channel chakra into these receivers," He spoke as he pulled one out of the corpse of the Jutsu Absorber as he stepped over it. "And for you to be able to accurately control them."

Nagato said nothing. The major Pain's form took a few steps back, and was reinforced by a few of Konan's clones, which began to hiss and steam, the paper bombs within their cloaks beginning to activate.

Before they could make another move, both had been crushed by massive vines which rose from out of the earth. He turned to see Sakura smiling over at them, before grunting as she went back to holding the Gedo Statue as close as she could to still. It was definitely managing to move, even with her trying to hold it back, (and it'd been given a little bit of leeway as she helped them with Konan) but it was far from the Village, even so.

"Nagato… I understand you're not exactly keen to listen to me, hell, I wouldn't be either. I left you all behind, I abandoned you when you needed me the most. For that… I can understand if you'd never forgive me."

As always, Yahiko's eyes didn't even flinch.

"But…" Jiraiya spoke as he took the black rod, and, without much worry for his own condition, stabbed it into the palm of his hand. "There's something I need to say to you in person. And so… Ah…" His head turned towards a massive tree in the distance, one which Naruto only just realized he didn't think he'd seen before today. "So, I plan to face you head on, Nagato."

The main Pain took a few steps back before it made a few hand signs and slammed its palms onto the ground below it. Initially, Naruto had suspected that it would be summoning some sort of creature, but a moment later, the Gedo statue which hung above them suddenly roared, and began to strain far more heavily against Sakura's hold of it, using its hands to rip and tear at the fibrous tendrils.

"Shit! The Gedo Statue… it's breaking free of Sakura's vines!" Anko shouted from Sakura's side. "If we don't hold it…"

Naruto found himself considering something as he turned back towards the group. "Everyone, focus on stopping the Gedo statue as your number one priority. Jiraiya and I will worry about tracking down Nagato and bringing an end to this!"

No one complained, though Sasuke and Sakura both shot him a longing look as he and they turned opposite ways.

"Just… stay safe, you two!" Sakura called as she slammed her hands into the ground once again, using the roots of the countless trees surrounding them as further bindings along the Gedo Statue's ankles, and running up its legs. "If either of you were hurt or… I wouldn't be able to forgive myself!"

"Don't you worry your heart, little missy," Jiraiya smirked as he patted Naruto on the shoulder, passing in front of him and signaling the both of them forward. "I won't let any harm come to him, hell, not to myself either if I can help it."

A few in the group let out quiet, anxiety-filled chuckles at the man's quip, and, without much more ceremony, they were off.

Jiraiya charged for the looming tree hanging off in the distance, which, along with the Gedo Statue itself, blanketed the forests around them in shadow. As they got closer and closer to it, Naruto was able to identify that the 'bark' that made up its trunk were actually millions and millions of pieces of paper.

"This is it, Naruto." Jiraiya spoke as the two of them stepped up towards a section of the outer shell. "Once we're inside here… Would you mind if I did the talking?"

He smiled his master's way. "Not at all."

"Thanks… Alright. Let's move."

"Mhm."

Jiraiya ran his hand along the 'bark', pulling open an entrance for the both of them. Naruto himself went in first, And Jiraiya followed behind him not too long after.

They entered into a fairly large chamber. There were no lights inside of it, and the only thing that really allowed Naruto to see anything at all was that Jiraiya had brought a small bit of fire into his right hand, holding it up so that it illuminated the room as best it could.

And they got their first good look at Nagato.

"Jiraiya sensei." The man cocooned within a set of machines spoke, sounding… so very weak. "It's been an awfully long time since I've seen you with these eyes. I suppose I could welcome you, but…"

Jiraiya nodded. "Wouldn't be much point, would there be?"

Konan stepped out from behind the massive machine Nagato was hooked up to, she herself seeming… uncertain. Naruto got the feeling that this was no Paper Clone. This was her real body.

"Ah, and Konan's here too, excellent. I've been meaning to talk with the both of you, so that's convenient."

"Oh?" Nagato coughed as he spoke, Konan looking up at him in concern. "And what exactly is it you have to say?"

"Well first, I had a question, if you don't mind me asking it."

Nagato actually seemed amused. "Why not, I suppose?"

"What made the Akatsuki go from a group of freedom fighters to what you are now?"

Nagato's gaze narrowed, even as Konan stared at the ground below them, seeming desolate.

"Do you not already suspect the truth?"

"No, I'm fairly sure I already know, I just wanted to hear it out of your own mouth."

Nagato shook his head, letting out a quiet sigh a moment later as his lips parted. "Yahiko died. It really does just boil down to that. Hanzo of the Salamander and Danzo of the Leaf conspired to eliminate us before we could 'become a threat' to either of their organizations. In order to save Konan's life, who'd been kidnapped at the time, Yahiko was ordered to kill himself, or for me to kill him. And… without even giving me a chance to say anything, Yahiko buried himself upon my blade."

Jiraiya sighed out, the flame in his hand dimming somewhat as Nagato continued to speak.

"After that, it was like my Rinnegan went from a dormant state, to being fully awakened. I became the most powerful ninja on the planet. A veritable god in all but name."

Naruto watched the expressions of all three currently trading barbs. Nagato seemed… conflicted, but confident. Konan seemed simply conflicted, as did Jiraiya, but within his master's gaze, he saw a determination that wasn't fading.

"A god, huh… that's funny, you were always the kindest one whenever we trained, Nagato." Jiraiya smiled. "Always willing to help the others, always willing to put in the extra hours… you were the best student I could've asked for, Nagato. Seeing you like this… it hurts deep."

"And?" Nagato looked at the man, seeming entirely unaffected. "Do you expect me to apologize?"

"Nah, I'm not that naïve." Jiraiya laughed, rubbing the back of his neck with his left hand. "But y'know, Nagato… I don't think you much agree with your current course either."

Naruto watched as Konan's gaze faltered, and Nagato's lips pursed together. He seemed to think about how to respond to that for just a bit too long, for Jiraiya had already opened his mouth and continued to speak.

"Yahiko's words… y'know, they even rocked me to my core, and I have a decent feeling they didn't have half the effect on me that they did on the two of you." Jiraiya smiled up at them, paying close attention to the way both of their jaws tightened. "You're not villains, you're fighting to bring peace to the ninja world. Wasn't that what he said?"

"Regardless of Yahiko's words, that doesn't stop the fact that we have a mission to complete, one we've dedicated our entire lives to overseeing. I did not hesitate back at the base to bring it down on top of you. I will not hesitate now to kill you where you stand."

Breaking Naruto's expectations, Jiraiya actually laughed. "Wait, you expect me to believe that you bringing that base down on us was you trying to kill us?"

Nagato's eyes widened slightly, but he did not interrupt as Jiraiya continued to speak.

"If you'd really wanted to kill us in that base, you could've simply used that same technique you had on Orochimaru's to carve out the entire thing." Jiraiya argued, and Naruto watched as both of the opponents they faced suddenly went almost entirely silent. "Instead, you merely collapsed it in on us. Hah, you might as well have let us go scot free. We even managed to get the Jinchuuriki out safely and had more than enough time to escape before the base fully collapsed around us. Sure, it was close… but it shouldn't have been. We should've died, end of story."

Nagato stared hard at the ground beneath him.

"What would you have me say? Would you have me give up the world that Yahiko fought for, died for!?"

"Yes. Because I cannot believe what you think Yahiko died for is truly what that boy would want the two of you to pursue. In the end, he said it best, did he not? He wants the two of you to continue working toward a world filled with peace and justice. Destroying it… I fail to see how that would help accomplish Yahiko's goal at all. In fact… I think the only person whose goal would be accomplished from that… is your own, Nagato."

The Rinnegan's in the man's eyes were obscured by his eyelids, which narrowed as he glared at his former master.

"I believe that deep down, Nagato, you already know that your actions are wrong. I don't think that's what's making you do this. I believe it's your hatred of this world that's causing you to rebel against it. Because you cannot accept a world where Yahiko was killed, and others get to live on entirely blissfully, never once knowing his struggle… Never once knowing his Pain."

"You…"

"Am I wrong, Nagato? If I am, then feel free to tell me. But don't lie. You've been lying to yourself, to those around you, to everyone in this world for far too long now."

"…And so, what if you're right?"

"What do you mean?"

"I simply fail to understand what you're trying to prove. So, what if my reasoning to destroy this world is that I hate it? Does that somehow make it something I should not attempt to do? If anything, that should only bolster my resolve. I hate this world because of what it did to the people I care about, and because of that, I will end it, and in doing so teach it the ultimate lesson… I will show this world Pain, just as you said."

Jiraiya shook his head, evidently unsatisfied with his former students response. "Let me ask you another question, then, Nagato. Is that what you want to do?"

"…What? Did you not hear what I just–"

"No, I want to hear the words out of your mouth. No grandstanding. No hamming up your reasoning. Tell me to my face if you truly desire to end this world or not. If you say that you do, and I can see the conviction in your eyes…" Naruto turned to see on Jiraiya's face a look of abject seriousness, one that contained not an ounce of mirth or joy. "Then know that I will strike you down with everything I have. It is my duty, as your former master, as your former family, to do such if you've strayed so far."

"Then know this, master…" Nagato spoke, leaning forward in his machine so that his Rinnegan seemed to glow in the dim firelight. "I will fight to destroy this world with all that I am."

Konan looked between the two of them sadly, before drawing herself into a combat stance. Naruto felt that same melancholy hanging about him as Jiraiya let out a deep, aching sigh, sounding like he was aging more in those few seconds than he had for years.

"Alright, then, Nagato… Konan…" A massive ball of glowing chakra, a Rasengan as big as Naruto himself, spun in Jiraiya's hands. "You leave me no choice."

But there was something about that sight, something about seeing his master preparing to kill his former students that struck Naruto as so incredibly wrong. Before the three could come to blows, before this entire place became a battlefield…

He stepped between them.

"What the – Naruto!?"

"The Nine-Tailed brat…"

"You…"

He turned to Jiraiya, resolve set in his features, intent to prevent this disaster before it could happen.

"Don't, Pervy Sage!" He shouted, shaking his head as he felt the room still at his words. "I know… I know Nagato seems awfully set in his beliefs, but you can't! Don't you remember!? You promised that Yahiko guy, didn't you!? That no matter what, you wouldn't give up on them!"

Jiraiya's eyes widened, and the chakra that had been like a hurricane within his hand dissipated almost immediately. He slumped somewhat, even as he heard both Nagato and Konan take a few breaths.

"…You're right, Naruto." Jiraiya said, laughing a bit sadly. "I… Thank you. For stopping me."

He nodded, before clearing the way once more. In that instant, a black rod shot out of Nagato's device, but before it could pierce into Jiraiya, he caught it mid-air, throwing it to the ground as he glared at the man trapped in his machine.

"I suppose Sage Mode would grant you such reflexes… Why do you not utilize them? You are arguably stronger than anyone else in this room. You could've defeated both Konan and myself by now, surely."

"Because this isn't my fight." He spoke, shaking his head. "This is a conversation between master and student… not anything for me to be butting my head into."

Nagato regarded him coldly as Jiraiya himself stepped up towards the two, sighing as he rubbed the back of his neck.

"Damn… here I am being weak, now. I suppose that makes all of us, huh?"

"Weakness? No, I have no such weakness. Unlike you, I am a god."

"Yeah, yeah," Jiraiya almost laughed. "Sure, kid. Listen… I'm not going to lie; you're getting on my nerves a little bit with that whole 'I'm a god' thing. Whether or not you actually believe that doesn't really matter, though. It doesn't change what I have to say."

"Oh? And just what is that?"

Jiraiya took a deep breath, before steadying himself and continuing to speak as he walked towards their enemies without a care in the world.

"During the Second Shinobi World War… After I left the both of you, and Yahiko as well… I received news that you'd been killed from a trusted source. To hear that… to know that by abandoning you, I'd let you all die… It shook me to my core. I couldn't handle that knowledge, and so I simply focused in on trying to fulfill my destiny, to trying to find the real child of prophecy. But… even then, I don't know if I was actually trying to find them at all. Really… I think I was trying to find Orochimaru, trying to rebuild one of the few connections I'd lost that I could still rebuild, could still repair."

The man sat down in front of Nagato's machine with a casual air, ignoring the way that the device which had fired off that rod was pointed right at his head.

No… not ignoring it. It was like, by sitting right there, uncaring of what could happen, he was almost daring Nagato to try.

"To bury my guilt. That was what I was trying to do. Anything else was nothing but a superficial excuse. I wanted to try and forget about the three of you. And so, I buried myself in alcohol, I buried myself in women, and stories, and so many other things, all in an effort to… I don't even really know…"

Nagato stayed entirely silent, as did Konan. It seemed no one in the room dared to move.

"When I heard, though, that the three of you might be alive… What I heard that you were captaining the Akatsuki, a criminal organization, but alive nonetheless…" Jiraiya actually let out an almost giddy laugh. "It meant the world to me. I didn't care what you'd done, not really. I wanted to see you all again."

"But then… of course, we ran into you in the forests just beyond the Leaf, when you'd been responsible for Zabuza's death, when you'd chased my newest student away from the Sound, when you'd uprooted an entire Hidden Village, spawn of Orochimaru or not… I started to think I couldn't just let that go. I had to take you entirely seriously, I had to treat you like an enemy. To eliminate you. That was all I could do."

"So, what changed your mind? From what you're saying, that sounds like an awfully decent reason to attack me, to want me dead. So why won't you?"

"Yahiko's words." Jiraiya answered as if it were the most obvious thing in the world. "The same thing that's currently ripping away at your psyche, Nagato."

The Rinnegan-user glared.

"And you as well, Konan," He turned to the woman, smiling a bit sadly. "You're a lot less in control of your emotions than Nagato, so… well, it's even more obvious on your face than it is on his. You've never really gotten over Yahiko's death, have you? Neither of you have, to be fair, but… it was more personal for you, wasn't it?"

Naruto had no way of classifying what the look on Konan's face was. A mixture of grief and…

Nostalgic happiness, somehow.

"I was in love with Yahiko, yes. I still am, even now" Konan nodded, not all trying to hide it. "Time dulled the wounds his passing has had on me, led them to scar over, but unfortunately, they were ripped open very recently."

Jiraiya nodded.

"And Nagato… Don't pretend like that doesn't apply to you as well. Sure, you may be able to hide your emotions a bit better than Konan, but even still, they're rather obvious. Your 'apathy' has been coming off a lot more like feigned indifference lately."

The true Pain said nothing.

"There was something I heard recently, after Itachi Uchiha briefed us on all of you using the knowledge he'd given us from his days under your organization… he said that each of you bore a weakness, one that you, instead of trying to overcome, had instead indulged in. For Sasori, it was that he couldn't conquer his parents deaths. For Obito, it was that he couldn't handle a reality where his love had died…"

"For you, though… I think I've finally been able to identify your weakness of heart… It's that even after all this time, even after everything you went through together, you could never allow yourself to accept that Yahiko died still hoping for a brighter future after everything you all experienced…"

Nagato took in a bit of breath rather sharply, glaring Jiraiya's way.

"I get it now, why it hurt so much for you to see him again. You'd begun to delude yourself, hadn't you? You'd begun to tell yourself that Yahiko would've believed in the same cause that you yourself were seeking. You told yourself that he would've joined the Akatsuki that you'd created yourselves, that he would've agreed with your actions, seen them as 'for the greater good' or other such nonsense… and then, to see him revived in front of you, to see him reiterate your goal from so long ago… it was like a blow to the gut, wasn't it?"

Nagato couldn't meet his sensei's eyes.

"…What do you want me to say?"

"I want you to, for this moment, at least, admit that what I'm saying is the truth, y'know, since it's rather obvious and all."

Naruto himself couldn't help thinking that statement from his master, true or not, was quite a bit pettier than most.

"Alright, so it is true. Now what?" Nagato asked the man, seemingly seething with anger for his former master. "So what, Jiraiya sensei!? What do you want me to do now!?"

"Isn't it obvious?" Jiraiya spoke, tilting his head as he smiled over at the man. "I want you to do what your heart is telling you to. I want you to abandon this foolish venture, and act in the interest of the Akatsuki you and Konan created with Yahiko all those years ago."

Nagato bit down on his bottom lip as he shook his head, seemingly trying to deny the truth of those words. "You…"

"Do me a favor, Nagato, ask Konan how she feels about that before you make your mind up."

"…"

"I think you'd be surprised at her answer, between you and me."

Nagato stared at the woman at his side, before sighing wearily at seeing the terribly broken look on her face.

"No. It wouldn't surprise me."

Jiraiya's eyes widened somewhat, well, up until Nagato continued speaking.

"It's been subtle, but… Konan has been trying to talk me out of doing this for last week or so. Never overtly, never directly to my face, but…"

Konan looked away, shame on her features, but Nagato shook his head.

"Do not cower, Konan. You've done nothing wrong."

His partner looked back up at him rather confusedly, to see a small, almost absent smile playing with the corners of Nagato's lips.

"I… I am a fool, I'm afraid. When Yahiko died… I retreated within myself. I used my great power as a shield to try and block out the hurt I was feeling… and more than that, to try and project that Pain onto the world around me. I wanted everyone in the world to have to hurt just as much as I was… Perhaps more. When that man, when Obito Uchiha provided me with a reason to use my power, a reason to strike out against the world… I took it without a second thought. Because it was what I wanted to be doing, regardless of what Yahiko would've wanted from me. Now… all I can feel is shame for my actions then."

Jiraiya seemed content now to simply listen, the roles of master and student having swapped.

"And when Black Zetsu took over Obito's body… I still simply followed behind. Because even though he was trying to bring about the end of the world, he still promised me a world where I could push that Pain I was feeling onto as many others as possible. And I… regardless of Konan seeing right through that hazy illusion, fell right into it. No, it is more as if I jumped straight in purposefully, despite the warnings I'd been given."

He sighed, even as Konan placed a hand on his shoulder, trying to steady him.

"And now… Now here we are. At the end of it all. No more charades. No more tricks or lies. Just… that boy and girl you once met from the Rain, and the student you raised far beyond us." Nagato looked up at him, and he could tell then that something about his general demeanor had changed. "You three… somehow even past the darkness in my heart, past everything… you've managed to bring me back…"

Jiraiya smiled widely, and Naruto couldn't at all blame him, for the expression on his own face was rather similar.

"So… then…?"

"Yes, master, I…" Nagato shook his head, before a small, almost pained smile rose up onto his features. "I believe I've had enough of this myself."

Naruto giggled a bit absent-mindedly, even as Konan and Jiraiya exchanged similar expressions, reveling in the way Nagato's face lit up with color, even past his paleness.

"Konan, help me out of this machine. I've used my power to bring the Gedo Statue close to us, it will arrive any moment. But I'll need my hands free to unsummon it away from here."

Konan nodded with a smile, reaching over, and beginning to unlatch the first of Nagato's massive 'gauntlets' that had him hooked in.

Right before a black rod emerged from the floor beneath Nagato and embedded itself straight through the man's chest.

"No, I don't think that'll do at all."

Naruto's eyes widened to immense degrees, even as Konan and Jiraiya both erupted with screams of the man's name. Nagato coughed horribly, his body wrenching forward as the figure who'd stabbed him rose from out of the floor, sighing apathetically.

"To think that I would arrive back within so little time," Black Zetsu, attached to the body of Obito Uchiha, and utilizing Kamui to have snuck up on them, spoke in a triumphant way. "Just to find my only remaining allies have betrayed me. How dull."

Nagato coughed up blood as the 'man' pulled the rod out of his chest and shook his head.

"Pesky human weakness. To think it would overcome even the Rinnegan brat. Ah, well, no matter. He's given me everything I need, regardless."

Jiraiya's face morphed into one of the most furiously enraged expressions Naruto had ever seen as the man brought twin 'Giant Rasengans' into both his hands. Konan followed up as well, her body morphing into a mass of paper that began to surround the final Akatsuki's body.

"YOU BASTARD!"

Black Zetsu turned away from them both rather casually, allowing the Sannin, and Konan's attack, to phase through him with Kamui.

"I must say, that truly does never get old. I understand Obito's little power trip quite well now. Alas, I've no time to play with the four of you any longer. As, well…"

The ground shook beneath them, even as a massive hand ripped apart the 'bark that made up the paper tree around them, and Naruto looked up to see the Gedo Statue that Nagato had just summoned hovering above them, as if awaiting instruction.

He reached behind him, and, almost effortlessly, ripped out one of Nagato's Rinnegan. The man wheezed in pain, though Black Zetsu didn't seem to care as he implanted it inside of his empty left eye-socket, and began to rise in the air, as if already adapted to the Rinnegan's effects.

"Now, with the chakra of nine, with the blood of the Rinnegan, with the world on its knees… COME!"

The final two, unopened eyes on the Gedo Statue opened as he placed the final pieces of chakra, and the Gedo Statue let out a hollow, ceaseless roar. It's eyes were bloodshot, slowly becoming more so as it grabbed at its head, and writhed as if in intense agony.

"Come back to us, Ten-Tailed Beast!" Black Zetsu screamed, as their group, trying to help Nagato as they were, could only watch.

"Come back to us…"

"Mother."

End Chapter 97


Next week, more fights, more action, more thrills... and all that jazz.

Yeah, anyways, three more chapters to go. See you then!