The last chapter is here!! It is dedicated to the people who read/reviewed this story, the communities this story was added to, and anyone else who in any way contributed to the making of this tale (namely Masashi Kishimoto, who created these wonderful characters in their wonderful world with all of their wonderful quirks).

Yeah, I chose the corny title...come on, let me have my satisfaction! Besides, the story couldn't be complete without this one - it's what all of the previous chapters were leading up to. Anyway, enjoy this to the best of your abilities - I know I did while writing it.

Chapter 8 - He Loves Them

"I'm going to bed," Hidan said, standing abruptly.

"This is ridiculous, yeah," Deidara agreed. "What time is it, anyway?"

"Seven minutes past three AM," Itachi voiced tonelessly. His partner Kisame searched him over for a watch but found none, and looked nonplussed.

"Hell, this is just stupid. Why don't we all go to sleep?" Hidan asked.

"An excellent idea," Blue supported him.

"You aren't moving," Kisame pointed out.

Blue eyeballed him, her gaze dangerous. Her temper was fraying, thanks to a combination of weariness, stress and a naturally peppery disposition. "Want to make something of it?" she challenged. Kisame edged over as far as he could on the couch without bumping Itachi. No sense in tempting Fate.

"Anyone else coming, yeah?" Deidara inquired, now waiting at the door. "First ones back to their rooms get to take showers, yeah!"

No one even twitched. Itachi sat stiffly on the sofa, completely ignoring all activity around him, with Kisame fidgeting next to him. Hidan had seated himself again in a red armchair (the one that Deidara had just vacated), and looked too lazy to get up. Kakuzu, perching rigidly on a stool they'd brought in from the kitchen, merely looked irritable. He was probably still agonizing over the business deal he'd let slip through his fingers that afternoon. Tobi's soft but persistent snoring, from his spot on the carpet, wasn't helping his nerves settle either. Zetsu was carrying on a quiet conversation with his two personalities, and seemed content to stand. Blue was easily and gracefully balancing herself on the windowsill, and stared intently out into the night. If it had been anyone else, the seating location would have been unseemly, but Blue somehow kept her dignity intact.

They all knew what, or rather who, she was watching for, but none of them mentioned it - it would only worsen her already black mood. She looked utterly absorbed and distracted, but appearances were misleading, as Deidara found out when he approached the only remaining available seat in the room. It was hard-backed, but had a red cushion to provide more comfortable accommodation for backsides. The wood was a deep, elegant mahogany.

Immediately, Blue's head snapped in his direction, and her eyes narrowed as they flickered from the chair to the offending Deidara. The self-proclaimed artist backed away. He would have put up a fight if it were someone else, but not her. Especially after what had happened last time he had displeased her.

"I get it, yeah, I get it," he intoned hastily, raising his hands in placation. "That's Leader-sama's seat. No touchy, yeah."

Her glare was relentless, and he could feel dampness slowly seeping into the sides of his shoes. For some reason, his feet were always the first part of him to sweat under pressure. "He - he stole my seat, yeah!" Deidara blurted, pointing accusingly at Hidan, who opened one eye indifferently.

The glacial fire in Blue's face faded, to Deidara's everlasting relief, and she replied scathingly, "Sit on his lap, then." She turned away, no longer interested in further debate.

"Don't even think about it, bombshell boy," Hidan growled. Deidara cringed, although more because of the mental images Blue's suggestion conjured up than Hidan's threat. With a scowl, he plopped down into a cross-legged position on the floor, demanding cantankerously, "Will someone remind me what we're doing wasting our valuable hours of rest, yeah?"

"Er, pulling an all-nighter?" Kisame offered. "Those can be fun. They're better with s'mores, though..."

"Do we look like we're having fun?" Kakuzu sneered, before slumping back into his gloomy reverie of the financial opportunities he'd missed out on.

Zetsu's black half chuckled darkly, for no apparent reason. Perhaps he was remembering some past "fun". All of the occupants of the room shuddered collectively at the implications of this thought.

Itachi, unexpectedly, provided an opinion. "Waiting for tomorrow." Everyone considered this and tried to figure out if it actually meant something, or if it was just some kind of weird Uchiha philosophy. Finally Hidan shrugged and asked, "Anyone got anything better?"

Tobi, who had woken just recently, lifted his masked head a few inches from the floor and said sleepily, "We're staying up until Leader-sama gets back. He starts the day, so it should end with him too."

Kisame started to laugh, an automatic reflex, then broke off. "Wait a sec...did Tobi just...?"

"Holy crap," Hidan said, jerking upright in his chair.

Deidara shook his head frantically, as if by denying it fervently enough he could erase it from ever having happened. "No way, yeah!"

Everybody gaped, slack-jawed, at Tobi, who looked around dozily and smiled brightly at them. The impossible had come to pass. Pigs could now fly. Was the world about to end? They waited with bated breath for an earthquake, a burst of divine light, something to commemorate this most momentous of all momentous moments.

Nothing happened. Except that the silence became almost painful, wearing down on the ears of the rapt listeners.

Eventually, Hidan broke the uncomfortable stillness with, "Who else votes to pretend that Tobi did not just say something that may or not be, believe it or not, the truth?"

"Me, yeah," Deidara said without hesitation, looking freaked out. Kisame, Kakuzu and Zetsu echoed the sentiment soon after. Even Itachi blankly raised his hand in affirmative. Hidan was relieved. "That's a majority," he said. "That comment was never spoken, right?" If Tobi was suddenly found to be capable of logical thought and intelligence, they would have to initiate him into Akatsuki all over again. It would be like accepting an all-new member. It was so much simpler just to act like it never occurred.

The only person who didn't vote yes was the sole female agent of the organization. Tobi's words were the bare truth, without needing to be whittled down. She recognized that, and wasn't about to give up a rare snatch of enlightenment so quickly.

Pein was the sun of Akatsuki. He rose every morning, and they rose with him. He was their dawn, just as he would be their dusk. Blue felt the burden of worries she hadn't known she'd been bearing lighten by a few hundred pounds. It had all begun with him, and it would end with him, when the sun set into a bright red moon. There was nothing to fear.

Because they weren't even close to midday yet.

Pein was hurrying, pushing his body harder than was perhaps wise. He could take it, and the speed was unmatchable, but his legs wouldn't thank him for it tomorrow. He wished he would stop thinking ahead, but he was made that way. For once, it would be nice to ignore the consequences. Even nicer not to have consequences.

But he was Leader. That meant he was the responsible one.

At the moment, he gave himself permission to forget about tomorrow. For now, he would concentrate on getting back to headquarters as quickly as possible. He had been badly delayed by a particularly wily target. Of course, even smoke couldn't slip through Pein's experienced fingers when he was determined to catch it, but this one had been annoyingly elusive.

Blue wouldn't be happy.

She always held that he should be perfectly punctual. She didn't insist on this with any of her other comrades, but with him it was a necessity. Unfair. But she did have a right to expect more from him than from the others. And now he was bordering on five hours late. Sorry.

"Sorry" was something he never said to Blue, at least not out loud. But he would look at her, and no matter what came out of his mouth, she would know what he meant. And her reply notwithstanding, he would know she forgave him. This time it would be no different, or at least he thought so. After all, Blue did like routine.

It would be good to get back. He wondered who would still be alive to witness his return. He had only been gone for a day, but when you had two people like Deidara and Hidan in the same building, their patience already tested by the infuriating antics of an orange-masked "good boy", without a competent mediator (also known as someone strong enough to beat all three of them to a pulp), disaster was inevitable. But he trusted Blue to keep them out of trouble. Or out of catastrophe anyway, since anything more was wishful thinking.

As he rounded the last ridge and soared above the trees, Pein smiled, a rare moment in the life of a usually solemn young man. It was easier to smile when no one was watching. Easier to smile, too, when you were watching something that meant everything to you, appearing in front of your world-weary eyes.

The night's darkness couldn't hide Akatsuki headquarters from its founder. To him, it was like the lighthouse on the edge of a rocky, treacherous cliff. It was the single ray of light peeping through the clouds. It was the glint of a ring against his dull skin.

To put it simply, it was home.

They all watched Blue. She was the closest thing to Leader-sama they had right now, and they secretly hoped for orders, something they could obey and not think about. Even Hidan was finding that being bossed around was preferable to some things, like slouching in a chair, too alert to fall asleep and too lazy to get up and perform a ritual. He tried to bug Kakuzu, but his multi-hearted partner was proving difficult to bait tonight. He considered bugging Blue...but he wasn't that desperate. Yet.

Hidan had just about decided to make a sexist comment (having found that these triggered irritation in even the most placid of kunoichi), when a thin, long-fingered hand blocked his mouth. It didn't actually touch his lips, but its presence, a few centimetres away from his face, was sufficient to make him swallow his sentence, out of surprise if nothing else. His eyes followed the hand up the arm it was connected to, and then stayed riveted on the well-known young face and its serious, ringed gaze. It told him silently now, Trust me, you don't want that kind of pain.

Hidan muttered something about never being allowed to have any fun as Pein moved away from him. "Leader-sama, yeah!" Deidara exclaimed. "Finally," Kakuzu said under his breath.

"Welcome home, Leader-sama," Tobi said cheerily, though too tired to jump up and blunder towards him with arms outstretched for a hug, for which Pein was thankful.

Blue got up and walked over to Pein. For a moment he though she was going to slap him, and her hand certainly twitched in a way that indicated she was inclined in that direction. But she kept her cool and said flatly, "We can all go to bed now."

"Excellent!" said Kisame eagerly.

"Amen to that," Hidan added.

Zetsu let out a low, rumbling laugh that reverberated throughout the room and sent shivers up even Pein's spine. "It appears that we stayed up all night waiting for Leader-sama, only to succumb to sleep upon his arrival," his white side said, highly amused. His dark half muttered something that sounded like, "I'm hungry..."

"Crap, he's right," Hidan voiced what they were all thinking, disgusted. "We're all freaking idiots."

As they ruminated on this disturbing discovery and Pein determinedly fought back a laugh (and won, as always), Tobi yawned hugely and curled up on the floor, giving himself up to peaceful slumber. Deidara imitated him, saying, "For once, I'm going to follow Tobi's lead, yeah. I'm way too zonked to move, yeah."

No one else could even summon the energy to agree, but it was clear that they did from the way they settled themselves into their respective locations and shut their heavy eyes.

"Don't fall asleep yet," Pein said abruptly. He nodded toward the window. "Dawn is breaking."

And it was. But it seemed odd to call it "breaking" - it looked more like the world was piecing itself back together from the ruin of yesterday, in slices of pink, red, orange, yellow and white. And up through the construction rose a brilliant ribbon of blinding gold, the essence of a brand new day, only to be torn apart all over again.

Pein almost sighed. Of his subordinates, only Blue and Itachi had even glanced at the sunrise, and they didn't seem to absorb its warmth and novelty like he did. But he straightened as he drew the curtains closed, shutting out the brightness. After all, the sun would rise again tomorrow, and the day after, and the day after that. As long as he watched the sky and wanted it, the dawn would come and go in its fleeting beauty. And looking around, he realized that he wanted all this for a while yet. Akatsuki still had a road to pursue, and he would lead the way, avoiding obstacles as much as possible, leaping over the ones he couldn't, and climbing the winding, forever uphill path.

He left the room and returned with a pile of blankets and pillows. He dumped most of them on his sleeping followers, and arranged the rest on the floor tiles to act as makeshift beds for himself and Blue. She thanked him quietly and lay down, not seeming to find any more appeal in the thought of sleeping in their room tonight than he did.

Pein crossed over to the door, where the light switch was located. There he paused, and let his gaze drift over the sight before him. He knew his members too well to allow himself to be fooled, but Tobi looked positively angelic as he rested there tranquilly, dreaming happily, and even Hidan and Deidara appeared misleadingly serene. The wrinkles on Itachi's worn face were smoothed out, and in him Pein saw with some sadness the child a mother had once loved. Kisame seemed to be envisioning something which gave him pleasure, judging from his wolfish grin. Only the closed eyes of Kakuzu were visible from his resting position, but they looked less harsh and condemning than usual. Zetsu slept just as expressionlessly as he did everything else.

None of them looked remotely like killers. And yet, they were seven of the greatest sinners on this Earth. Wasn't life sad that way? And wonderful, too? Funny how people could hate them for who they were and what they did, and he could love them for the same reasons.

Pein flicked the light off and settled back down on the floor. His body brushed Blue's through the blankets as he crawled in next to her, and he saw her face reflecting back at him. He knew she had been awake the whole time, watching him and making what she could out of his actions and expressions.

Her eyes, dark and mysterious as always, questioned his intentions as she stared at him. What am I to you? they asked. What are they to you? What is Akatsuki to you?

He automatically reached up to touch his facial piercings, but Blue's hand restrained his own gently. There was no reason to be self-conscious about this question - not when it had been in need of an answer for so long.

Pein's lips turned downwards a little, then up further than Blue had ever seen them go. He permitted his fingers to interlace with hers. He didn't reply to her inquiry out loud, for fear of disturbing the still slumber of the warm bodies clustered around them, but his mouth moved soundlessly. Even in the dark, Blue could identify the word it formed.


- The End -

Well, that is the all-powerful End, the three-letter word that no writer or reader can stand up to. Once again, a thank-you the size of the continent of North America goes out to everyone who helped make this story what it is - readers, reviewers, I thank you all, from the very darkest depths of my heart, where the light never shines; except at rare moments like these, of course. If this story meant even a quarter as much to you as it meant to me, that's enough to give me a smile. :)

If you want, check out my profile and try some of my other stories. If you don't want to, then I won't begrudge you it - I am an amateur, after all. :P Thanks to everyone for everything!