It's my pleasure to announce that today, August 26, 2008, is the one-year anniversary of Pretense. That's right; it's been a full year since I started this thing, and we've still got a ways to go. 23 chapters in 12 months - not too bad, is it?

Anyway, it's been a pretty amazing year for me in writing, and here's to another one to come. :)

Chapter 23 - Supremacy

"It shames me to admit this," Konan said, smiling slightly, "but I really can't wait to meet these guys."

No stretch of mind or word could give justification to describing Pein as fun, but sometimes, the act of being with him was indeed enjoyable. In a semi-normal way, too; almost a way that ordinary teenagers hung out with their friends.

Konan had decided to give her fight for principles a rest; for now, she was able to bask in the simplicity of her single, wholehearted belief in Pein, and it was a pleasant break from the usual over-thinking that was expected from a ninja. She knew things would complicate soon - whether in a matter of seconds or a matter of weeks, she didn't know. The one constant in Pein was his unpredictability; for her, time was dictated by him. She thought it must be like that for most people around him (not that there were many, but apparently, that was changing).

She would always deny that he brought out weakness in her. He held power over her, yes; but he wielded it with something akin to gentleness. All the choices that she could see laid out before her when she was with Pein were mind-blowing. So she thought of it as a testament to her strength that she chose him over everything.

Pein would have considered himself lazy to have sat in this same clearing for days, if not for all the intense thinking he was doing. He shared the occasional thought with Konan, and found her conversation helpful. Her frankness was clarifying.

"You'll like Zetsu," he told her. After all, if he was anything to go by, she was passionate for what was different. "Sasori is unique. Kakuzu is not likeable. But you will find them all interesting, I assure you."

"Oh, I know," she agreed readily. "They're hand-picked by you, after all, the almighty Leader-sama." He had given her an overview of the previous night's events, and she couldn't help but tease him a little. Not that you could call his new title a nickname.

He wasn't having that. "Call me Pein," he said. "Always." There might be a day when she would be his only lifeline, the only person capable of pulling him back from the rocky cliff of losing himself. He could depend on her for that. He always had.

Konan was surprised; it had been a reprimand, the way he'd said it. Well, if it meant a lot to him, she could handle it. The respect for him would always be there, no matter the name.

The sun was like a warm bath in this pre-afternoon haze, washing over her without searing. The tall, swishing grass with the thick woodland around it had seemed formidable and meaningful in the night, more so when shadowed with the first rays of dawn, but now it was friendlier. Before, with Pein, it had felt like such a private place - a place of darkness, breaking slowly out into personal light. Now, with him again, it was accessible to all comers, to all feelings, to all possibilities. It was the mystery of night and the magnificence of day, and the magic of both.

Almost of its own will, a patch of skin in the small of her back rose up into paper, a slender white sheet floating on the whims of the wind. She had selected it from an area she had judged would be unblemished, and it was; pure, unmarked, perfect. It was so much more sensitive than she was as a whole.

Pein reached out and grasped it carefully between thumb and forefinger as it hovered within arm's length. He brushed his finger down it, and Konan felt a shiver all over; the barest hint, spurring a memory of the euphoria she'd felt that night she'd finally mastered the paper jutsu. Then he blew gently onto it.

The tingle of something warmer and stronger than just air on her cheeks caused something unidentifiable to rise up unbidden; and then, Konan the kunoichi, self-appointed advocate for feminism and independence, was blushing.

Pein must have noticed, because his lips tilted upwards in a surprisingly unreserved smile. He brought the paper up to his mouth, holding it in front of his lips as his fingers deftly began to alter its shape. Konan watched, unspeakably connected to the movement of his hands.

When he was finished, a perfect white rose lay in the centre of his palm. He was amused by Konan's astonishment as she beheld it, her eyes questioning him. "I learned from you," he said, as if it were obvious. He held it out to her.

She couldn't take her eyes off the small craft, retrieving it from him as if it were made of glass, not paper. "You learn well," she breathed. Those hands that had often held a deadly weapon (hands that had often not needed a weapon to be deadly), bloodstained hands, had created this tiny, delicate art. The world was an unfathomable thing.

Konan somehow knew that this rose was never going back into her skin; but scar tissue would form over the hole, and that didn't mean it couldn't stay on her. She lifted it to her head and slipped it onto her hair, the paper crinkling crisply and her indigo strands rustling softly. Both sounds were audible to the two pairs of ears intently listening.

It was very symbolic; a part of her, shaped by him, returned to her but never the same. Pein took relentlessly, but what he gave was beautiful.

She watched him sideways as she lay sprawled idly on the grass, her head propped up on one elbow. He ran his thin fingers through his hair, its russet colour slightly darkened by its oiliness. Rogue shinobi like them rarely had the opportunity to stop and wash their hair; they had to do it on the run when they passed a body of water, or simply live with the dirt. Konan had never really been bothered by that. She wasn't vain, and she wasn't some hygiene freak either.

"Itachi sounds a bit uncertain about the Akatsuki," Konan noted after a time. "Because of his family, probably."

"Maybe," Pein said vaguely. To him, it had looked as if Itachi were purposely trying to detach himself from the Uchiha clan, making an effort not to think of himself as one of the family. Was it because he was leaving them? Or something worse? What was so much worse than leaving them?

"He's so young, and he hasn't been a rogue-nin for any amount of time yet," Konan said slowly. "It might help him if...he had someone...a partner, or something of that kind."

"I considered partnerships," Pein said, nodding. "You think they would be helpful, Konan?" It was strange, having this kind of business talk with Konan, but it worked. She had a good ear for his thoughts, and a good mind for ideas.

"Yes. Especially for certain members."

"Kakuzu," Pein determined. Wealth should be motivation enough for the greedy Waterfall-nin, but it would be wise to pair him with someone who could steer him towards the goal and not just towards the money.

Konan straightened. "Orochimaru," she said, scowling as the name crossed her lips. "That snake. I don't trust him; put him with somebody you do. Remind me why you chose him?"

Pein was a bit bemused. He wasn't sure what Orochimaru could possibly have done to make such a horrendous impression on Konan; he was the first person he'd ever seen her act openly antagonistic towards. He hadn't been present at their first meeting, but obviously it hadn't gone very well. He knew Konan wouldn't do anything to the snake ninja while Pein forbid it, but he still figured he'd have to be wary of their disagreements; while he valued Konan's opinion, he only truly trusted his own.

"Orochimaru is useful, Konan. Akatsuki has its share of skill, intelligence and malice, but Orochimaru has pure venom. He has something to offer that no one else can; that's why I chose him."

Konan gave him a respectful but challenging look. "I know you always have your reasons, Pein. But so do I."

He returned the look, but as always, dropped his gaze before it could quell her defiance entirely. He liked that she was willing to stand up to him, that she had a backbone. Or maybe he just liked that she wasn't afraid of him. "Orochimaru is part of Akatsuki, Konan," he said mildly. "You'll have to learn to live with him."

He paused to let this sink in firmly, then continued in an almost conciliatory tone. "However, I think your suggestion of providing some members with a partner is an excellent one. Who would you recommend for Orochimaru?"

She sat up, not entirely appeased on the subject of 'the snake', but moving on as she realized he was actually consulting her on important matters of the organization. "Someone observant who can stand their ground without violence. Orochimaru should be watched and kept in line, but he wouldn't be intimidated by someone aggressive."

Pein considered. "Sasori." The Sand-nin was young, but his cunning was nearly equal to Orochimaru's, and unlike Orochimaru's, still had room for development and fine-tuning. The two had similar mannerisms, even similar desires. They were both alike and different enough for a selfish but more or less harmonious coexistence.

"And who for Itachi?" Konan inquired.

"If he decides to join," Pein rectified.

Konan looked at him thoughtfully, stroking the warm grass with one finger absently. "You seem to make more of an attempt to relate to Itachi than you do with most people," she noted. Pein didn't answer, and she didn't voice her opinion; that Pein and Itachi had a lot in common. Both very talented, very mature for their ages - you could say too much so. Both unendingly pursued by inner and outer conflicts they were unwilling to share with others. She was sure Pein was well aware of the parallels and what she would make of them.

"Kisame," she said suddenly. "Kisame and Itachi. They're already a bit familiar with each other. And Kisame is, well, loose, in almost every way; he won't care too much about Itachi's age, or what clan he comes from."

Pein could have sworn he heard her follow up with a mutter of, "Not like Orochimaru." The snake-nin did seem to have a fixation on the Uchiha prodigy (not Itachi himself, Pein suspected, but the abilities and attributes that came with him), and Pein couldn't afford to turn a blind eye to that, but he was reluctant to cause extra tension at Akatsuki's beginning by delving too deeply into personal matters.

Kisame was a good choice, it was true. He disregarded details like lineage, and would doubtless consider the Sharingan no more useful or potent than his own Samehada, and would therefore have no vested interest in it. Kisame was comfortable in any environment with any companions as long as he was promised a good fight. "That will be satisfactory," Pein approved.

For the first time, Konan felt truly and certifiably happy about staying with Pein. It felt right, talking about things like this and having her say accepted. Somehow, it seemed to her as if both of them were in their element here. She was closer to him this way, rather than trailing him trying to guess where his next footstep would be so that she could calculate how far behind him she'd be then.

"So that leaves us with Kakuzu and...Zetsu?" She was doubtful.

"They don't quite seem to fit," Pein agreed, amused. "No, I think it's best that we allow Zetsu to function on his own; Nature can be his partner, as I'm sure it has been all his life. Kakuzu, however, could use the occasional firm reminder. I'll look into it."

Konan nodded, straightening automatically. She became serious-faced as she grew serious-minded, thinking about the future, which seemed to have suddenly sprung upon her with the sudden, vicious power of a patient, stalking predator. It would have been overwhelming to her if she'd allowed it to be, but she regarded it as a nice change from dwelling on the past.

She was looking at Pein sideways out of the top corners of her eyes, and from this angle it seemed as if he were smiling. She hoped it wasn't just distortion.

As for himself, Pein was enjoying that interesting mentality in which he could appreciate the actual feeling of the cool, moist lips on his face, the snug fit of his eyeballs in their sockets, the soft brush of his hair on his scalp. It was a simple pleasure, so simple that people rarely discovered it.

Then a sound overrode everything. A faint, unobtrusive crunch, like... like a foot stepping on a twig.

Pein was on his feet and facing the opposite direction in a flash, taking in the implications in a moment. His senses were on constant alert. If he hadn't detected any kind of living signature much, much earlier, what did that mean?

"What?" Konan demanded, leaping up reflexively after Pein. But there was no need for an explanation from him.

Five metres away stood a man. He had a thick, spiked mane of jet-black hair, completely covering his right eye and nearly entirely obstructing the Leaf insignia on his forehead protector. He had an extremely handsome face, with impossibly smooth and unlined skin, a shapely nose and lips which were rather full for a man's. His left eye contained a perfect black pearl iris. He had no weapon in sight, but he did wear strange, bulky armour. It was reddish and rusty, a contrast to the rest of his immaculate appearance.

None of this threw Pein in the least, but something else did. It was how very ordinary this man felt. He didn't look ordinary physically, but he lacked the extraordiness of a ninja, or indeed any living person; there was absolutely no power emanating from this man.

None at all. Nothing. Zero.

Pein was staring at him, mind racing frantically with questions and options. Possibility one: this man was not alive, as he had no life aura. Possibilities two, three and four: he had a type of Chakra that Pein could not sense, or it had been completely depleted, or he was hiding it with incredible skill. Pein had never encountered a Chakra that was beyond his senses, he was fairly sure that the man wouldn't be standing so steadily if he was completely depleted, and although he'd heard of jutsu that summoned dead bodies back to lifelikeness, he was certain he would have felt the Chakra of the jutsu's user. Then again, he had never met a Chakra shield this effective...

Konan, wary and confused but not so taxed with wonder, asked first, "Who are you?"

The man smiled at her. It was a genuine smile, but it diminished his handsomeness. He closed his visible left eye, then reopened it. Instantly on guard for an attack, Pein ordered harshly, "Don't look at him!" Konan immediately cast her gaze to the ground, while Pein met the eye squarely.

The man's eye was turning into...what was it turning into? For the eye was no longer there at all, nor were Pein's surroundings. He was falling away from all that, into a different plane entirely, a dark plane with white shadows. No, he thought, this is a genjutsu. I cannot let it trap me. He focused, summoning all the power held in his own eyes, and a deep red iris re-emerged from the smudged darkness that had begun to engulf him.

It was red, and inside the red was a bold, black three-point star with a hole in the centre. Its three points were connected by swirling arcs of black. The entire ensemble was spinning, inside Pein's head, not just his vision, and he was being pulled down and away once again...

He struggled. He had to hold on to that true image, to that eye and not what was trying to absorb him behind it. A focal point...a focal point...the red. Dark, deep, crimson. He held onto the colour, but the red wasn't enough. He had to fixate himself more strongly on it. Blood. Blood was red. Blood...

He could think of nothing but blood now, caught in the clutches of those twirling depths. But it was working - he was seeing the man's whole face once again, the trees behind it, returning to reality.

The man blinked, effectively releasing him. Pein blinked too, gathering his own thoughts again, and the red was gone. Thankfully.

"My, my," the man said, smile intact, "you are talented."

Pein had never been caught in a genjutsu before. Never. His special eyes had always prevented it. But he had almost been ensnared by this one - would have been, if the man hadn't ended it. Not to mention that that red was familiar. Familiar, yet different from the one he remembered. "You're an Uchiha," Pein stated. It was the Sharingan - but not. That three-point star formation was not the normal Sharingan.

"Uchiha Madara, at your service." The greeting lost most (all) of its politeness when he didn't bow. "A flicker of recognition, perhaps. But no more than a flicker. Understandable; I'm sure many of those in positions of power through the ages, Uchiha included, have made a valiant effort to play down my part in history. A bit insulting, really, after all my achievements." He placed a subtle emphasis on the words 'power' and 'achievements', as if mocking the concepts they represented.

The best strategy, Pein decided, was to attempt an intensive Chakra probe. That genjutsu, some extremely lethal mutation of the Sharingan, had to mean that the man was a ninja. He would feel the probe, of that Pein was certain; but it couldn't be helped. "What do you want, Madara-san?"

"Oh, nothing much, Pein-san ." Madara tossed his courtesy politely back into his face. "Just a pass to the goings-on of your intriguing brainchild Akatsuki I've been watching you, and I must say that the development of your inspiration has been quite fascinating to see. "

Konan, who had raised her head by now, had been stunned into speechlessness. She had never heard anyone interact with Pein this way. And Pein was being extra careful, so careful it was setting her nerves on edge. This casual remark, however, prompted her to open her mouth.

"Of course, I don't expect it to be free," Madara headed her off smoothly. "I would be most willing to negotiate and cooperate with you for mutual benefit."

"Explain, please," Konan said coldly, taking her lead from Pein, who was still concentrating on reaching Madara's expertly-masked Chakra.

"Certainly, Konan-san," he agreed, obviously taking pleasure in knowing things that they wished he didn't, such as their names. His mouth shaped the words with relish. His eye was black but bright, akin to the glint in a magpie's eye when it spotted a shiny object below. "Uchiha Itachi."

"Uchiha," Pein repeated, "Itachi?" His voice was so soft you could have missed it under the sound of the sky, but it was as layered as his bluish, blue and bluer eyes. Pein and Madara were breathing and speaking fire. Pein was handling it with care; Madara was playing with it. Between them, Konan could barely breathe, her throat burning with the heat of their conflict.

"You heard me correctly," Madara confirmed. His straight, relaxed posture hadn't shifted at all since they'd seen him; he was showing off a flawless picture of composure and casualness. He doesn't fear me at all, Pein realized. There's nothing about me, in his eyes, that can pose a threat to him. Pein was discovering a major weakness in himself; he was accustomed to facing those who were so much weaker than him they could hardly be counted opponents, and now that he was confronted with someone more powerful, he had little experience to draw on. Even the Akatsuki members, every one dangerous ninja, regarded him with wariness and respect. This Uchiha Madara was not wary of him, did not respect him. He knew exactly who Pein was, knew his capabilities, and it made no difference to him.

Pein gritted his teeth behind closed lips. If this confrontation came down to a fight, he couldn't win. He and Konan could not beat this man. He needed to concentrate harder, reach this man's Chakra, arm himself against this menace, or fall.

Madara was speaking again. "You must have noticed that Uchiha Itachi has a few matters on his mind. I'm sure he wouldn't object to a visit from the greatest Uchiha leader of all time. He could certainly use some advice from someone who is familiar with his situation." Pein wondered if the dark inflection cast on all his words was intentional, or simply the natural tone of his silky voice. "And of course, if my advice should happen to lean in the direction of Akatsuki..."

He was recalling his history textbook from the ninja academy in Rain; there had been something about an Uchiha Madara there. Madara... yes, the leader of the Uchiha clan who had fought the First Hokage of Konoha at the Valley of the End in one of the most epic battles ever. Although, now that it came to his attention, for a supposedly epic battle it was not very thoroughly covered by any lesson plan.

Konan had remembered too. "You aren't Uchiha Madara. He was killed by the First Hokage." Her jaw was set hard, masculine-like, and Pein realized that she actually held an advantage over him in this circumstance - being less prolific in her abilities, she was more used to being really challenged, and was less awed by the difference in skill between herself and Madara. She could treat him as simply another opponent.

"I was believed dead," Madara agreed pleasantly. He didn't seem disturbed by the mention of his own death; then again, if this was the real Madara, he had certainly had long enough to get over it. That battle had taken place many, many years ago; indeed, he should have been dead, from old age if nothing else. But this Uchiha looked young and strong. "It was a useful thing, really."

He smiled at them, calm but animated. "Pein-san, Konan-san," he said, formally but not politely, "let me show you who I am."

He blinked, and this time Pein didn't even see the red before the world was gone.

Pein looked down at himself. He was completely black, the lines in his skin and the folds of his robes blended into a smooth, solid blackness. He twisted his head around, and a spot of sharp white jumped out at him, a patch on his shoulder. He realized with a start that it was the old bloodstain on his cloak, obtained an eternity ago.

He looked the other way and saw that Konan was right beside him, although he could feel no life radiating from her. He could feel nothing anywhere, and he was standing on, or in, a red nothingness. Konan's eyes, outlined in white, met his. The rose he'd given her was like a dollop of whipped cream on her black hair.

He knew he was caught inside Madara's unusual Sharingan, and was surprised to feel the extent of his frustration. Apparently this genjutsu magnified emotions, perhaps to make the victim suffer more as they discovered they could do nothing about their torturously strong feelings.

More figures appeared in front of them on the red backdrop, all in black-and-white relief but vividly recognizable. Pein saw what must have been a very young Uchiha Madara, his mane of spiky hair sticking out behind his head, that look of smugness present in his eyes. He was quickly surrounded by a myriad of others, also obviously Uchiha, young and old. One of them stuck close to his side, resembling him; his brother.

There was no sound when the characters seemed to speak, but there were many sound effects. Pein was watching a brief overview of Madara's upbringing, hearing the clash of kunai as he fought and trained, the huff of his breaths when he faced a difficult enemy. Pein watched him grow stronger, bigger, more arrogant, more determined. He saw the enemies become more numerous, saw Madara struggle along with his family to fight constantly, his brother always at his side, their Sharingans flashing and swirling.

Then he turned on a member of his clan, a boy his age, and Pein heard his panting as he drove the kunai into the chest, blood running over his hands, blood that was the same as that which ran in his own veins. Madara fell to his knees, and when he stood, his eyes, and his brother's, bore a different white formation in the centre of their Sharingan, that strange mutation of the bloodline that Pein had seen. Mangekyou Sharingan, Madara's voice breathed into his skull.

Madara was older, harder, towering over the other Uchiha. His mouth moved as he yelled, though the battles raging around him were all that were audible to Pein. Another man came into the picture - just as tall, just as dangerous, but evidently on the opposite side of Madara. Pein recognized him as the First Hokage, Senju Hashirama. Future First Hokage, in these memories.

Suddenly all the others disappeared, leaving only Madara and his brother, taking centre stage in Madara's mind. Pein saw the brother bow his head with a smile, saw Madara reach out towards his face - then, for a moment they both vanished, and when they had reappeared, blood dripped from the empty eye sockets of Madara's brother, and Madara's eyes, marvellous, powerful, ensnaring, ran with white tears.

Even Madara could not bear to relive the exact moment of atrocity and gain.

But something different was happening now. Madara, anger burning, was shaking hands with the First Hokage, his brother's wasted body in the corner. He wore a Konoha forehead protector.

Things moved fast from there, in flashes of furious images. Hashirama, dressed in his official Hokage robes, Madara fading in and fading out, blacker each time. The other Uchiha drawing away from him, until he stood alone, facing down the First Hokage.

Once again, the tumultuous noise of battle, and the rushing of a waterfall, filled Pein's ears as he witnessed the strength and wrath of Uchiha Madara, clan leader, versus Senju Hashirama, First Hokage. There was a deafening snarling, and suddenly a flash of orange whips and saliva-dotted teeth. Then, again, nothing but the red blanket that carpeted Madara's remembrances.

The Kyuubi? Pein wondered. Madara could control the Kyuubi... then, that later attack on Konoha had been...?

There was no warning when Pein suddenly found himself back in the clearing, in the light and all the natural colours of day. None of them had moved at all, including himself, although Madara's smile was tight, his lips thinner.

"I hope you enjoyed story time," he said, self-satisfied, a mocking touch of acid permeating the silkiness of his tone.

Pein said nothing, digesting what he'd seen. He was actually reassured, now that he understood a bit more. Konan was profoundly disturbed, however - her breath came out in a mingling gasp of shock and huff of outrage. Her emotions were running high after that intracranial experience, and she could barely locate words. This was like nothing she had ever seen from anyone. Even Pein.

"It's..." she pulled herself together, forcing herself to be strong as she finished with, "...true." It had to be. She had never heard of the Sharingan's ability to do something like this, but she could no longer doubt this stranger. The reality of what he'd forced her to bear witness to was making her shake, sweat wetting her hair at the roots. "But it ends there. Where have you been since then?"

"Why, you said it yourself, Konan-san," Madara nodded to her. "Dead, of course." A sinister chuckle escaped him.

"Except for the occasions when you took the liberty of controlling the Kyuubi," Pein spoke up. Madara's darkly amused gaze swung towards him, apparently surprised but not fazed by his challenge. His eyes quickly widened in realization of Pein's cryptic accusation.

"Oh, I see, you think I am responsible for the Konoha attack." He chuckled again. "I'm terribly sorry to disappoint, but I had no part in it. It was, as you say, a natural disaster. And it had natural consequences for the Uchiha clan."

"What do you mean?" Konan asked slowly.

"I'm afraid it wouldn't be my place to answer that, my dear Konan-san," he replied easily - deviously. "As I was saying before, however, I would be happy to assist you in matters concerning Akatsuki, now that you believe my claim to fame."

"How do you propose to influence Uchiha Itachi in my favour?" Pein asked calmly. He had not abandoned his attempt to get past Madara's Chakra barriers, but he remained unsuccessful.

"Really, Pein-san," Madara drawled, smirking. "You think that I couldn't influence Uchiha Itachi, a worthy descendant of mine, any way I should desire to? I know his struggles. I can give him the eyes that made me so powerful. After that, what is there that I couldn't do with him?"

"You would convince him to join Akatsuki, then," Pein reiterated. Madara obviously liked to talk; that was a potential advantage for Pein. Make virtually unnecessary statements in the hope that Madara would let drop more information. He had already slipped several things which Pein had carefully filed away, probably on purpose, but that didn't mean they weren't helpful.

"That would be my end of the deal, yes," Madara confirmed smugly.

Konan decided her distrust and dislike of this man were a million times stronger than those she felt for Orochimaru. "And our end?" she inquired frigidly.

"I'd like to join the fun of Akatsuki as well." He smiled handsomely. "In a more prominent way than some members, of course."

He'll try to usurp leadership, Pein thought. He will take over, not quickly, but surely. He'll allow me to gather power, he'll add to it himself, and then he'll take it. All of it. It left a toxic taste on his tongue and a sick churning in his stomach, but he had no choice. "Very well," he agreed impassively. "It's a deal."

Madara's smile broadened into a smirk. He stepped forward, extending one arm. Konan tensed; Pein resisted the urge to.

Knowing what was expected, Pein also stepped ahead, reaching out to shake hands with the legendary Uchiha. He compared himself to the Madara he'd seen while in the Sharingan's clutches, smouldering with rebellion as he declared a peace treaty. He was doing a better job of hiding his displeasure than Madara had, but that was his one meagre source of consolation.

Madara shook hands very gently, not attempting to crush Pein's fingers. As they released hands, however, he very quickly stroked a thumb over Zero - the movement was so fast Pein would have missed it had he not been paying the most extreme of attentions to his opponent-now-supposed-ally, and had Zero not suddenly turned ice cold for a moment. The opposite of the usual burning-hot sensation, but even more unpleasant.

The freezing feeling travelled up his body, filling his lungs with ice that cracked into air, up into his eyes. Unable to bite back the power (and not particularly wishing to), Pein let them snap at Madara at full force.

The Uchiha's smile vanished and he jerked his neck violently, dispelling the momentary hold Pein had on him. He stared back at Pein, too taken aback to activate the Sharingan.

You will be wary of me. You will respect me. Pein had not survived all these hard years for nothing. Underestimate me at your own cost, Uchiha Madara. The Uchiha clan may be masters of fire, but if you continue to play with it, you will be burned.

He could tell Madara understood, as the Uchiha smiled widely and briefly lowered his head, the first real acknowledgment he'd given Pein that even bordered on something like esteem. "I will keep my word, Pein-san," he promised. "Itachi will be under your authority very soon. And I will return to you as well, although perhaps not quite like this."

Suddenly he was behind both Pein and Konan, impossibly fast. "It's been a pleasure meeting you, Pein-san, Konan-san. Your attempts at unmasking my Chakra have been most entertaining, Pein-san. I will reward your efforts, although you'll have to wait until I have sufficiently distanced myself from you." He was gone before Pein could even discern the expression on his face, although he could imagine the superiority that would have been written over every suave feature.

"Sufficiently distanced himself from us?" Konan repeated. Pein made no response.

He tried, but he could still feel no aura from Madara. Konan's pulsed steadily beside him, but...

Without warning, he was hit by an enormous surge of Chakra, an onslaught of power to rival the Kyuubi's, and it was right in his face. The strain was unimaginable - his blood coagulated in his veins and thrashed against his skin, his internal organs expanded into the bones encasing them, his brain threatened to combust inside his skull as his being struggled to make room for the invasion of a Chakra large enough to swallow Konoha whole. It was hot, blistering, rushing in steaming tidal waves that washed up into pools of poison.

Pein gave up all thought, fighting simply for breath and the ability to remain standing.

The Chakra vanished. Pein had dropped to one knee, overcompensating for the feeling of suffocation by sucking in huge breaths, sweat pouring down his face. He was dimly aware of Konan in something near the same condition, kneeling beside him and gasping.

Simply unleashing his Chakra signature was enough to severely incapacitate me, Pein thought, relaxing for a moment to erase the shakiness in his legs before rising on both feet. From so far away, as well. He has immense Chakra reserves. He didn't doubt that Uchiha Madara was the most powerful ninja in the world right now, perhaps even the most powerful ever to have existed.

Recalling the torture, Pein sent out his thoughts to the person who was about to receive more trouble than any one ninja was trained to handle.

All the best, Uchiha Itachi.

A/N: I can't believe I'm saying this, but I actually find myself feeling sorry for Madara as I write this. I guess I believe he did love his brother and did it all for the sake of the clan, and if you think about it, neither of them got much of a reward for their dedication, did they? Seriously, the Uchiha should definitely have solved their own problems, of which there were many, before attempting some stupid rebellion. Obviously Sasuke inherited the let's-go-after-power-while-our-own-world-crashes-down-around-us gene. I'm running short of sympathy for that boy.

So you guys got yourself a PeinKonan moment this chapter, as well as a new development. And I know I made Madara a total "clich├ęd bad guy" and probably a teensy bit too powerful, but hey, he's the next greatest supervillain.

Thanks for reading and celebrating this anniversary with me, and please don't forget to review!