Iwa was a wreck. The walls had crumbled in dozens of places, and hundreds, perhaps thousands of bodies lay on both sides of the wall, already beginning to stink as the setting sun, even with its weakened light, accelerated their decomposition. But, the village was safe and that, Sasuke had to tell himself, was worth something. It was all he could tell himself.
Sitting in a private corner of one of the many field hospitals which had been hastily set up outside Iwa's walls to care for the dying and try to mend those who might survive, there wasn't much good news at all that Sasuke could see. Sakura, Shikamaru, and Ino were all missing in action. Gaara was dead, Shirai was dead, the leaders from the Noodle, Valley, Fang, and Claw were all dead. The Wind Daimyo had been badly wounded in his desperate attack to regain the ground the Crane had taken back, and Karenna…
Sasuke had been sitting with her for the past hour, though he didn't think she was aware of it. The Kunoichi had, according to the medinin who had seen her, been poisoned with what should be lethal amounts of a rare and deadly neurotoxin. The medinin, an aged and intelligent old man, had said he'd never seen anyone survive the levels of the toxin that Karenna had been exposed to, but she had survived initial exposure so there was no telling what would become of her. The lack of certainty made Sasuke sick. Being with her made his stomach turn but he knew that to leave her would make him feel even worse.
"Sasuke?" a soft voice called behind him.
The Uchiha turned and saw Alicia, the blonde among the Sisters. Her face was covered in dried blood and grime, and several large, hastily patched wounds showed on her exposed shoulders and calves, but she walked as though she were fine. "What is it?" asked Sasuke, not unkindly.
"Trina and the Wind Daimyo just finished their meeting with Iwa's Council. They said they wished you were there but things went well. The final reports look better than we thought." Her voice was quiet with fatigue and heartache, but none of it showed on her face or in her bright blue eyes. Her full lips curled up in a smile. "They say you saved the battle from ruin."
Sasuke laughed one bitter laugh. "I couldn't save your sister," he muttered. "I couldn't save Sakura or Gaara or anyone else. I'm glad the battle went well at least, since I can't think of anything else that did."
Alicia stepped forward and put her hand on his shoulder as he sat in the simple wooden chair beside the hospital bed. "I don't think she'd want you to look at it like that," said Alicia. "I know my sister and for as much of a hard-ass as she can be, she always had a way of looking on the bright side of things. She'd want you to do the same."
Sasuke didn't answer.
Alicia squeezed his shoulder a little bit then let go and stepped back. "With the Earth Daimyo and most of their leaders dead, Iwa's council has agreed to make the Wind Daimyo the commanding general of their forces for the next week. And the Wind Daimyo himself wants to promote you from captain to colonel." She grinned a little. "So you'll be commanding the other captains now."
"What happens in the next week?" asked Sasuke, not taking his eyes off Karenna. "That's not enough time to plan, much less enact a counteroffensive campaign."
"There won't be a campaign," said Alicia, speaking up to be heard over the sounds of the wounded filling the room.
Sasuke turned and looked at her quizzically. "What?"
"Everyone has decided that there isn't time to fight a lengthy war. We don't have the resources so… so it's been agreed that the army is going to move south-east and attack the Rain Village directly before we lose any more strength and before they can recover from the loss here."
"Well," Sasuke said, as much to himself as to Alicia. "I guess that isn't a bad idea given the circumstances, or a least it's the least bad idea I can see. If the Wind Daimyo only has power for a week I'd imagine we'll be moving out quickly. That's barely enough time to come up with a good battle plan and put it into action."
"We're set to leave in the morning, leaving the wounded In Iwa." Alicia nodded. "We're behind you all the way on this one," said the young woman. "We'll break in there, get Naruto free, and wrap this war up nice and clean."
"We'll certainly try," said Sasuke, getting to his feet. "Are you busy right now?"
"Everyone is busy, getting ready to march in the morning," she said, inclining her head a little. "What's on your mind?"
"I was going to ask you to keep an eye on Karenna for me while I go to the Daimyo," said Sasuke. "I've got a promotion to turn down..."
"What? Why would you do that?"
"I'm a Ninja, but I'm also a fighter," Sasuke said, a hint of a grin tugging at his lip. "If I have to be on a battlefield I want to be on the front lines in the thick of things… not back in some stuffy command tent issuing orders that I may or may not have any chance of executing. I'm better as a captain, free to move around the battle as I please and fight wherever things are the hardest." Sasuke clenched one fist. "I'll fight to the death to protect the people I care about."
Alicia smiled. "I can see why Karenna fell for you so fast. She's always had a weakness for the cute boys with the tough-guy attitudes." She patted him on the back.
At least they left me some dignity, Naruto thought bitterly. He was still strapped to the metal table with thick leather bands, and the rune etched on the ceiling still made his escape impossible, but he had been afforded with some clothes now. For whatever reason, Madara had made some cheap cotton rags materialize over Naruto's form during their last session of… interrogation. The homespun clothes were hot and they itched terribly, making Naruto wonder if this wasn't some new kind of torture. Nonetheless, having something to wear was itself somewhat comforting.
The door to the dank little room opened, and Madara stepped inside without saying a word. Something about his demeanor was off. Naruto watched him carefully as the old Ninja sauntered into the room and began looking between Naruto and the wall directly in front of the blond Ninja. Naruto somehow felt that the masked Ninja was smiling beneath his warped orange façade.
"Oh Naruto, Naruto, Naruto," Madara laughed suddenly, shattering the silence and making Naruto jump. "Now we can have a good time! The gang's all here so we can finally get this started!"
Naruto grimaced. "What are you rambling about now?" asked the blond Ninja.
Snickering, Madara clapped his hands in front of his face and nodded off to the wall in front of Naruto. "I'm about to show you what a good time, for me, is really all about. I've so enjoyed our time together, but I think that you're getting a little… boring," Madara paused. "The sound of your screaming is nice and al, but it's gotten repetitive… You know, it's routine. I torture you, you scream, and repeat. But now…" he waved his hand and the wall dissolved into glass, affording Naruto a glimpse into another room beyond.
"Oh god," Naruto breathed, his eyes widening.
In the other room, sitting in a chair with her hands tied behind her back and her ankles shackled to a heavy stone block beneath the chair, was Sakura, though Naruto hardly recognized her through the mounds of purple and blackened flesh winding across her face. Someone had beaten her such that her face had swollen to a ridiculous size. Both her eyes were swollen shut and one side of her jaw hung uselessly detached from the rest of her skull. Blood had dripped and dried beneath her nose and from the corners of her eyes, and still flowed from many of the toothless holes left in her mouth.
"What did you do to her?!" Naruto screamed, straining against the leather straps.
"Hmm?" Madara toned quizzically. He glanced at Naruto then looked through the window to Sakura. "Oh, that bloody mess," he said flatly. He waved his hand and Sakura flickered for a moment then, as the illusion dissolved, her injuries melted away and Naruto watched as she transformed into a healthy, though still bound and unconscious, portrait of herself. "I just wanted to show you what she's going to look like in a few days if you don't cooperate with me now.
Naruto felt his heart skip a beat and he dropped his head, exhaling heavily. "I swear I'm going to get you back for this," he said. "Just wait."
"Oh I do so like to hear you say that," said Madara, his mood instantly lightening and growing almost boisterously jovial. "It's a nice break in the monotony of all this." He gestured to the room around him, then snapped his fingers.
Naruto's breath caught as the world around him seemed to shatter into millions of two-dimensional pieces and reform an instant later. He looked around and found himself, along with Madara, in the room Sakura had occupied, though now he was free of the restraints and Sakura lay unconscious and naked in the corner of the room. Madara stood in the center of the room, opposite Naruto.
This might be my chance, Naruto thought, his demeanor suddenly charging with new energy. I'm away from that seal and I could- he stopped short as a crushing weight smashed down on him and pinned him on his hands and knees. Across from him Madara had lifted one hand and held it at waist-level, palm down.
"I wouldn't get any ideas," said the man in the mask. He dropped his hand a little lower and the crushing force became even heavier, slamming Naruto onto his stomach and threatening to burst him open like an over-ripened fruit. "You see I'm still the master here. Even with your strength back you could never hope to beat me on your own. Even if Haruno-san were in any condition to fight, the two of you would be hopelessly outmatched."
"Why are you doing this?" Naruto gasped, struggling to speak under the weight. It seemed to grow even heavier and Naruto was forced to squeak out a hiss of air.
"I just want you to see how useless your resistance is," said Madara. He stopped, mumbled to himself for a moment, and then said, "Maybe I should put it differently. Your cooperation is like your appendix, you'll never miss it and since I can do whatever I want to your friends you might as well give it to me."
"Fuck you," Naruto rasped.
"Fine," Madara sighed. He dropped his hand and Naruto instantly felt the weight vanish. He gasped in a huge breath of relief and lay motionless for a moment. "You're still insisting on making things harder than they have to be, so I might as well start on Haruno-san." He snapped his fingers and Sakura reappeared in the chair just behind Madara, bound and asleep. "Though Naruto tell me one thing… should I just kill her and lock her soul away or should I torture her? Which would you-"
The Ninja stopped short as the floor beside him began to shift like water. Naruto lifted his head to see what was going on and saw what looked like a strange plant emerging from the floor.
"Zetsu, your timing couldn't really be worse," said Madara.
"Apologies Madara-Sama," said the new arrival, ignoring Naruto. "But-"
"No really," said Madara. "I was just getting to the best part and then you have to show up and ruin the whole effect. And I spent so much time setting up for the next few lines," he continued. "I was going to say something about 'or I could torture her to death and then lock up her soul if you'd prefer.' Oh well. What is it?"
"I," Zetsu hesitated for a moment. "I think it might be best if we were to speak in private."
Madara groaned and dropped his head a little. "Zetsu you're really taking all the fun out of this. But fine. Go wherever and I'll catch up in a moment…"
Zetsu nodded and disappeared into the floor again, just as Naruto started to get to his feet.
"Don't think so," said Madara, snapping his fingers. Again Naruto gasped as some strange jutsu sent him tumbling through space. He reappeared back in the cell with the energy-draining rune carved into the ceiling, though this time there was no metal table, no window, and he and Sakura both were there. Sakura, sitting with her back against the wall opposite the door, opened her eyes and blinked.
"Where?" she began, then spotted Naruto. "You!" she blurted, making Naruto jump. "Naruto! You're alright!" She jumped up and ran to him, throwing her arms around his chest before he could do anything other than raise his arms a little to avoid as much direct contact as possible with her. "Thank god you're alive."
"Um," Naruto stammered. "It's good to see you too." He paused and put her hands on her shoulders and moved her to just short of arms length. "But maybe we should hold off on celebrating for just a little bit."
Sakura stopped, only then realizing that the room was somewhat… breezier that what she was used to. "Oh god," she said, crossing her arms in front of her breasts, turning to one side, and shifting her leg to try and regain some modesty. "Sorry Naruto, I didn't meant to, um, where are we exactly and what's going on?"
Naruto took a breath and sat down, motioning for Sakura to do the same. As the Kunoichi shifted to the ground, Naruto took off the itchy cotton shirt and tossed it over to her, guessing by how loosely it fit him that it would be big enough to keep her decent. "It's a bit of a rough story" he said, trying to come up with a way to tell Sakura that both of them were prisoners in Akatsuki's torture-pit. "And I don't think you're going to like it."
Elsewhere, in a secluded room of the citadel hidden away near the ground floor, Madara appeared from thin air, standing next to a crate in the seldom used storeroom. Zetsu had already arrived and waited for him. "I don't mean to interrupt," said the plantlike Ninja quickly as soon as he saw his master. "But we might have a problem."
"What is it?" asked Madara, sounding uninterested. "Be frank about it. Wait- actually I'd much rather you be Zetsu. Just make sure to say this quickly."
"I believe Itachi has defected," said Zetsu.
The room went silent as Madara stood, and Zetsu waited for a response. At length Madara sighed and reached up behind his head with one hand, staring off into space. "I know," he said quietly. "And before you tell me he's on his way to Iwa, yes I know that also. I'm also aware that he's been sneaking around my private study before you bring that up."
Zetsu's face twisted into an effigy of shock. "How do you know? I only found out minutes ago."
"Simple," said Madara, the orange light from the single candle hanging from the ceiling of the small room casting twisting shadows in the grooves of his mask as he turned to face Zetsu completely. "I've known every move Itachi was going to make since before he was born, since before you were born even. I lied when I told him that my Immortal Sharingan couldn't see the futures of members of the Uchiha clan. Before the First Ninja War, I was aware of the exact number of heartbeats, or breaths he would go through in his life. That's why he thinks he can get away with this when in fact when he returns to confront me after having rescued Naruto and Sakura, he'll only see me for a passing instant before I send his spirit on its way."
"So…" Zetsu said, suddenly very uneasy. "You're not going to let him get away with this betrayal."
Madara shook his head once. "I don't think you understand my thin little friend. Everyone in the world has their job, their own little place in my plan. I need someone to rescue two of Naruto's friends, release Naruto and Sakura, and ultimately serve as one of my most useful patsies, so Itachi still has a role to play… unlike yourself."
"W-w-what?" Zetsu's eyes widened.
Quick as a thought Madara lunged forward, driving his hand into the center of Zetus's chest with little more than a rush of air. No bones snapped, no flesh tore. Madara's hand simply passed into the Ninja's chest like the appendage of a ghost. Before the black and white Ninja could even gasp his yellow eyes faded to grey and all life left them. Madara withdrew his hand, leaving the lifeless shape standing seemingly undisturbed.
"Sorry Zetsu," he muttered, reaching up to adjust his mask. Black fire, Amateresu, exploded from the eyehole and devoured Zetsu's upper torso, knocking the remains of the corpse onto its back. "But if it's any consolation you did your jobs quite well. I knew you would though so I guess it's not that surprising."
He turned away from the corpse and opened the storeroom's heavy door. Stepping out into the hallway beyond, he closed the door and began wandering the Citadel, ambling with a careless demeanor, and even whistling as he angled himself towards the library. "Pain," he called out upon entering the expansive room full of books.
"Sir," six voices all answered in unison from various points within the library as Pain's various bodies heard the call.
Madara waited patiently at the door as bodies in black and red cloaks emerged from the stacks of books, from between bookshelves, and from side passages, until all the Pains were gathered together in the library's foyer. The old Uchiha glanced between them, noting that Pain had already begun preparing for his part to come, painting the faces of his bodies with intricate, chakra-imbued motifs and seals and adding more and more of the black studs in their bodies.
"You've already begun the process of releasing the Vestige, I see," said Madara as the lead body stepped forward and brushed some of his fiery orange hair off his forehead.
The lead pain, his face inscribed with purple lines and designs and perhaps a half-dozen more of the studs, nodded once. "I have," he said in a cadaverous voice. "It should be ready by the time our enemies arrive." Pain glanced around. "What was that I felt earlier, Amateresu maybe? What happened?"
"Good," said Madara. "The Dream Vestige will be a nice little surprise. And to answer your question, Itachi has left."
Pain raised one eyebrow. "He attacked you?" The question was reactionary. "If he had," Pain amended, "he wouldn't be alive, and thusly unable to leave."
"He killed Zetsu on his way out." Madara said flatly. "I thought he might but I wasn't certain. Apparently he's decided to throw himself in with people… less visionary that the two of us."
"That's unfortunate," Pain paused again. "Perhaps 'annoying' is a better word since Zetsu was fairly superfluous anyway. So Itachi's discovered the plan to create the God Realm then?"
Madara shrugged, "Yes."
"All part of the arrangement," said the lead Pain, his voice almost lost in the vast, carpeted, and acoustically muffling room. "Itachi goes to the Coalition, brings them all here to meet the Crane's armies, then while the Vestige consumes all their souls to fuel the Unmaking you and I will kill Itachi, recapture Naruto and Sakura, and convince Naruto that to save Sakura, who will be all that remains of the people he cares about, he has to submit to helping us."
"And then we both get exactly what we want," Madara chuckled.
All six pains grinned to varying degrees. "I can't wait to see it," said the lead body, "though I personally wish that you wouldn't remake the world once you sunder its foundations. All of the destruction and chaos seems too beautiful to waste on recreation."
Madara shrugged. "You'll be too dead to care I assume, unless you'd rather I remake you also."
Pains female body twitched. "No," she snapped. The lead Pain silenced her with a mental command, then refocused on Madara. "No," he repeated calmly as Madara began to laugh. "It will be the height of my existence to see the world, the universe, annihilated, and to stand at the epicenter of the greatest…" he trailed off. "You understand."
"I do," said Madara, his laughter fading away. "But right now I care less about your strange infatuation with suffering and death that I do about preparing for my ascent to godhood. Let's get ready then. We've got thousands of guests to prepare for after all."
"Oh," the old Uchiha said quickly, as if an afterthought had struck him. "I hadn't paid it much attention till now, "but you have dealt with Kakazu, correct?"
All of the Pains nodded. "I've decided to use him as the base for the Vestige. His shape-shifting and highly durable properties make him an ideal candidate for the job."
Itachi shook his head. Down in the dirt, on one knee, sifting through seemingly innocuous patches of soil with two fingers, the S-Ranked Ninja might have looked silly to anyone standing nearby. It was however, midnight, and in the middle of the vast expanse of nothing fifty miles east of Iwa, there was no one around to see what he was doing.
The Uchiha frowned as he rubbed his hands together. Standing up and brushing himself down he looked first behind him, then back down at the dirt. "You have wandered quite a ways then," he uttered. "But at least this puts me out of the way of most of the trouble around here." Itachi sat in the dirt, cross legged.
He ran his hands through a quick series of seals, and began fading away into the late-evening twilight until he was little more than a shadow on the plain. "A simple jutsu, but it should work." Itachi closed his eyes and pressed his hands together in an odd seal, then began to perform another series of more traditional symbols with excruciating care. After a several long minutes, Itachi, or more accurately, a translucent image of Itachi, stood up and left behind an opaque shell of the Ninja setting on the ground.
As he got to his feet, Itachi watched as the sky and his surroundings brightened, but washed over with grey as the world all around became fuzzy, as if he viewed it through a camera lens that wasn't entirely focused. "I hate it here," he whispered to himself, swooning just a little at the sudden lightheadedness that always accompanied his modified form of astral projection. He steadied himself as the utter silence around him broke and he heard in the distance a dull clatter and an explosion. Instantly Itachi turned in that direction and began to run, knowing that in this plain time was random and unpredictable.
After covering more than a mile of ground Itachi spotted his objectives. The first was what seemed to be an enormous spider, though the shape was too distorted to be any natural creature, standing atop the crest of a small hill, and the second consisted of the two people he saw attempting to flank the monster. "There you both are," said Itachi, recognizing Nara Shikamaru and Yamanaka Ino.
Itachi bolted forward towards them, closing his distance from the battle to less than half a kilometer before stopping to observe for a moment. He saw plainly that the monster was his old accomplice, Hidan, though now the Ninja was so imbued with the power of his dark god that only the face of his original body remained to be seen, seemingly welded to the underside of the spider-thing's metal abdomen.
Hidan was temporarily immobilized as Shikamaru, straining against the resistance held nine of the monster's twelve legs firmly in the grasp of his shadow jutsu. While Itachi was surprised that such a jutsu worked in a place that technically had no shadows, he didn't let his distraction last. Ino who had run behind Hidan, or as 'behind' him as possible when his suspended metal body could pivot in a dozen different direction on the steel legs, pressed her hands together in a distinct seal and then pointed at the monster. Topaz colored light crackled on her fingertips and then flew like an arrow towards the metal shell, slamming against it like a sledgehammer smashing against an anvil.
Hidan wavered from the impact, but showed no signs of damage. He pivoted and swiped at her with one of his legs, all of which ended in wickedly sharp blades the size of a scythe. The Kunoichi ducked under the attack, dodging by so small a distance that the blade caught the whipping end of her ponytail and cut it an inch shorter.
"They're not doing too terribly," Itachi said quietly, wondering for a second how long this battle had been going on and if they even needed his help to finish Hidan. The Uchiha charged forward then, deciding that he should at least look like he was aiding them. The whole point of this reckless endeavor was, after all, to save people important to the Coalition. Running forward silently and leaping up nearly twenty feet into the air, thusly placing himself level with Hidan's steel body, Itachi spun and slammed the butt of his hand into the monster's shell, filling the air with a resounding clang and the sound of warping metal.
Both bodies recoiled from the impact. Itachi being by far the less massive of the two flew backwards, but flipped in midair and landed with a hint of finesse just beside one of Hidan's shadow bound legs. Before Hidan even realized how hard he'd been struck, much less from where or by whom, he had begun to topple. He lashed out with a free leg to arrest his fall and push himself back completely upright. Even as he tried to right himself though Itachi spun again and smashed his fist into the leg, knocking it out from under Hidan and making him stumble again.
"Don't just watch me," shouted Itachi to Ino. "Do something!"
Ino, Hidan, and Shikamaru all turned briefly to see who the new arrival was, and all three gawked. "Itachi!" shouted Ino as Shikamaru refocused his attention on simply holding Hidan in one place, a difficult task given that the Nara was also having to duck and weave to avoid being hacked to pieces by the monstrous blades at the end of Hidan's free legs. "What the hell are you doing here?" the Kunoichi yelled as she whirled on the new 'threat.'
"Less chatting," said Itachi, jumping at Hidan again and blasting his shell with Amateresu, heating the metal to white-hot temperatures, then kicking it with the force of a hammer. Again the air filled with the sound of shrieking metal, but this time a rift split down Hidan's shell from one end of the heated section of metal to the other.
Hidan's human face twisted in pain as a plume of black smoke belched out of the breach. "What do you think you're doing?"
Itachi landed on the ground, sweating profusely already. Damn, he thought. All of my chakra is still in my physical body and my spirit doesn't have enough energy to do that again. "Hit the breach!" he shouted at Ino.
Ino's eyes flickered between Itachi and the obviously wounded Hidan and turned away from Itachi in an instant. She pressed her hands together again and struggled visibly to throw as much chakra into the jutsu as possible. Sweat breaking out on Shikamaru's brow as he ducked under yet another attack in the myriad attempts Hidan had made to cut him in two, he shouted for her to hurry.
"Here!" Ino yelled, jerking one hand back and pointing the other, now glowing with an intense violet light, towards Hidan. The spider wrenched his body around and tore loose from Shikamaru's hold just as the searing bolt of energy exploded from Ino's hand and rocketed towards him. The sizzling javelin slammed into Hidan's shell less than the width of a finger from the edge of the breach, detonating like a thunderbolt. Hidan's shell around the blast blackened, twisted, and warped but remained intact even as black acrid smoke poured from the wound he'd already been dealt.
Hidan reared back and swiped straight down at Shikamaru who rolled to the side with barely enough time to spare. The ground where the Nara had stood less than a second before split and spat up debris as Hidan's claws made contact.
"Shit," Itachi and Ino both cursed in unison.
"Can you do that again?" Itachi asked Ino at the same instant she said that she didn't have the chakra for another attack that powerful.
Hidan lost interest in Shikamaru and turned on Itachi and Ino, hacking and slashing at both as he advanced forward. "I don't know what you're getting at," said the immortal. "But it stops here." He leaned back on his hind legs and exposed his human face just in time for Itachi to see his cheeks swell up as something welled up in Hidan's mouth. The Akatsuki Nin growled and vomited up a column of some green and highly pressurized concoction that blasted at Ino and Itachi in a conical pattern.
Itachi vanished, reappeared by Ino, grabbed hold of her, and they both vanished again as the frothing mixture splashed the ground all around where they'd both just stood. It bubbled, and clung to the ground, hissing and smoking like acid. The two Ninja appeared a stone's throw away from the action as Hidan whirled on Shikamaru again. Itachi dropped to his knees.
"How long have you two been fighting him?" asked the Uchiha as he caught his breath.
Ino hesitated for a split second, not sure what to make of Itachi's arrival and help, then sighed quickly. "I don't know. It feels like a long time but-"
"So you're out of heavy attacks?" Itachi cut her off.
Ino nodded, ignoring his lack of civility. "We've been using all our energy just to hold him off and that last attack before you arrived was going to be our last ditch effort."
My initial assessment was off, Itachi chided himself. It doesn't change the fact that these two are worthless though. And cut off from all the chakra in my body there's not much I can do.
"What are we supposed to do?" asked Ino as she turned to watch Shikamaru try to hold Hidan's attention for them. "Nothing we throw at that shell of his does any real damage and he's too quick to hit the break in the armor."
Itachi paused and looked between Ino and Shikamaru. "I'd hoped to finish him quickly with a surprise attack," he said. "Since that didn't work, I'm going to transfer all my remaining chakra to you and you're going to hit him with that missile of yours again while I try to get his attention on me."
Ino opened her mouth to answer but waited for a brief moment. "Why are you helping us?" she asked.
"I can explain once we're out of here," he said curtly. "Just don't miss this time." Itachi reached out for Ino's hand which she gave him, twitching as he grabbed her fingers. Ino felt a jolt of cold energy burst through her fingers while at the same time Itachi seemed to wither and became almost transparent.
"What's the matter?" asked the Kunoichi, as the cold energy warmed and seemed to release a tension stored up in her muscles. "You look like a ghost."
"I'm not actually here," said Itachi. "My body is back in our world and I sent my spirit here to deal with Hidan but all of my energy stayed back with my body. That's all you need to know, now go." Ino nodded and turned on her heel as Itachi charged forward and raced passed her. She would wait there until an ideal moment opened up.
The ghostly Uchiha seemed to appear beside an unnoticing Shikamaru as Hidan struck again. Shikamaru felt himself topple over as Itachi shoved him out of the way. Itachi jerked with a spasm of psychic pain as Hidan's scythe like arm passed through his arm and left a space of emptiness between his elbow and shoulder. The gap closed up instantly, leaving Itachi whole though he seemed dimmer now than he had before the attack.
Shikamaru only then noticed the Uchiha, but had to roll out of the way as Hidan brought his claws down yet again, and followed up with a blast of acid. "Why?" was all Shikamaru could ask before he dove again out of necessity.
"I can't die here, you can," said Itachi. "And I need both of you to live."
Shikamaru threw Itachi a wary glance as both retreated several meters back for breathing room. "Fine," he managed.
Ino watched the action like a hawk, making sure that none of it would be directed at her as she had elected not to conceal herself with a jutsu to save energy for the attack. Her hands were already glowing purple in as a sign that she could strike at a second's notice, though she suppressed the light to try and remain as inconspicuous as she could.
God damn that Yamanaka whore, Itachi cursed to himself, his form having become even fainter from the second attack he'd taken to help Shikamaru avoid harm. When is she going to-
Hidan reared up on his hind legs again and Itachi's eyes narrowed in anticipation as the monster raised his forelegs high over his head to get them out of the way of some new technique. "Hold him!" Itachi barked at Shikamaru even as the Nara saw the same opening and rushed his hands through a frenzied jutsu's seals.
A shadow congealed at Shikamaru's feet and raced forward, jetting up the spiderlike legs and wrapping around the arms Hidan had brought back, locking them in place. Hidan flinched in surprise, looking to his right as a loud crackling filled the air, and saw Ino's burning hands pointing directly at him. "You're dead too then," he spat, turning to Shikamaru as a the human face in his steel abdomen bared its teeth and opened its jaw to a size that would have sheered a normal human skull in two.
"Bad," Itachi growled, leaping to the side and watching as a deep blue light glowing in the back of Hidan's mouth.
The violet missile exploded from Ino's fingers and rocketed towards Hidan at supersonic speed, but not before an orb of chakra that seemed to darken the air all around it. The shadows around Hidan's joints disappeared as the ball of energy passed through Shikamaru, continued passed him as though he weren't there, and flew through the ground behind him.
Booming like thunder the missile shot through the breach in Hidan's shell and exploded against the opposing side, expelling scraps of what looked like twisted metal components and more organic innards out both the entry wound, and the subsequent exit wound blasted through his shell.
"I got him!" Ino shouted, jumping up with a cheer as Hidan's seemingly lifeless shell toppled over and fell to the ground with a grating crash. "I got him! Shikamaru did you see…" she trailed off and the smile faded from her face.
Across from her Shikamaru lay pale and sweating on the ground, curled up. He shivered and gasped for air as Itachi approached him and Ino ran forwards. "Shikamaru!" she shouted as she neared. She couldn't reach him before the grey world all around began to fade into a dark, though sharper and more colored one. Shikamaru and Ino simply materialized where they were, but Itachi's ghost vanished all together.
"Shikamaru," Ino gasped, dropping down on her knees beside him. The Ninja still shivered but he didn't respond when Ino called his name. Neither did he react when she put her hands on his shoulders to try and rouse him, nor when Itachi materialized above him out of a whirl of leafs. "What's wrong with him?" she turned to Itachi.
Itachi walked a little closer and stood over Shikamaru. His Sharingan focused on the Nara and then he turned to Ino. "I have no idea," he said without any illusion of feeling. "He's dead though, or he will be in a moment or two."
"What?" Ino yelped.
"There's nothing I can do for him," said Itachi. "And I'm fairly certain you lack both the skill and the chakra to save him so given how quickly he's fading I'm assuming he'll be dead in under a minute." Itachi knelt down by the paling and sweating Ninja. "I might be able to glean some useful bits of information from his memories if he doesn't die too quickly though." He reached down and straightened Shikamaru out quickly, making no effort to be gentle about it.
"How can you be so cold?" asked Ino, standing up and stepping away, knowing that she wouldn't be able to stop the Uchiha.
Itachi didn't answer immediately. He put his hands on either side of Shikamaru's head as his palms began to glow with a tinge of blue light. For a moment everyone sat, or stood, silently. Ino waited as patiently as she could be expected to, and wrapped her arms tightly around herself. During the past days she'd been strong because it was a necessity. When she'd heard of Naruto's capture she'd wanted to break down and scream, feeling that she'd lost him again. She hid it though behind a perfect façade for the sake of everyone around her. Now however there was no one around about whom she cared enough to hide it, and she didn't fight as the tears welled up in her eyes.
"I want Naruto," she whispered. Her breath caught in a quiet hiccup of a sob as she squeezed her arms tighter.
Shikamaru stopped breathing a minute later and Itachi stood up, the aura around his hands fading to nothing. "I can be so cold," said Itachi, "because I simply don't care. I know where we are and thanks to his," he gestured at Shikamaru's body, "memories I know where we can intercept the Coalition. If we don't stop for anything we can get to them within an hour and a half." Itachi started to take off running, but stopped a few strides later when Ino hesitated. "I'm not asking you if you want to come along," he said.
"Right," Ino muttered, taking a step as Itachi turned away and began running again. A second later, Ino caught up and followed just behind him. She glanced back at the body they'd left unceremoniously on the ground, wiped a tear out of her eye, then refocused her attention on simply going on.
It was a restless sleep at best. Sasuke tossed and turned on the lumpy mattress and it seemed like every move he made, or was forced to make to compensate for the bumping and shifting of the rickety carriage in which he rode, rolled him over on a sharp spring sticking out of the fabric. It was no help at all that Karenna's condition hadn't improved at all and that she'd been left in Iwa under intensive care.
"Intensive care," Sasuke said bitterly. "That's a joke." There had been over two thousand people from both sides who'd been badly wounded in the battle between the Coalition and the Crane, and Iwa's authorities had insisted that treatment be administered to anyone who was injured regardless of affiliation. The result had been a complete overload of all the medical facilities in the village and while Sasuke had arranged for Karenna to be admitted to an actual hospital and an actual Intensive Care Unit there was no guarantee there would be a doctor there should she need one.
A knock on the hatch atop the carriage roof broke his concentration on recent events. "What is it?" asked Sasuke, getting up from the mattress and quickly putting on his shirt and pants. The hatch above him opened and Trina poked her head in as Sasuke bent down to lace up his new set of black shoes.
"Good," said Trina, "you're dressed. The Wind Daimyo is requesting your presence immediately. He's in his private carriage at the rear of the column."
"Is something wrong?" asked Sasuke, trying to force the grogginess from his mind as Trina leaned back and he jumped up atop the moving carriage, quickly surveying the surroundings. The marching column was one of three that had been assembled upon departing from Iwa. The first column, consisting of the freshest, or at least the least exhausted troops, had departed the village almost five hours ago, only shortly after the battle was over and the decision to attack the Rain was made. Sasuke's column had left two hours ago, following the first column. The third column, the troops who had taken the most battering in the fight and needed the most rest, would depart Iwa within the hour if all went according to plan.
"Not wrong per se," said Trina, her red hair almost black in the gloom of the early morning. Her voice sounded uneasy. "Umm… Ino is back. She managed to beat one of Akatsuki's last generals-"
"That's good," interjected Sasuke.
"-with help from Itachi," Trina finished.
Sasuke froze and eyed the Kunoichi warily as the wagon rattled along beneath them.
Trina paused for a moment and then went on. "Itachi is meeting with the Wind Daimyo right now and they've asked that you be there to discuss something."
Sasuke took a steadying breath but neither answered nor moved.
AN: Yes, I know that, given recent developments in the Naruto manga, Pain seems a little ooc, but frankly, when I started this story no one really knew anything about Pain, and as I mapped the plot out during that period, I didn't incorporate anything about cannon Pain. And I'm not going to go back now and mess with it since I kinda like my Pain better than the one in the manga. (Nagato is a completely failed attempt at a dynamic character and dismal one at that. Granted, mine isn't particularly great either but I like him better than Nagato lol)