Disclaimer: I didn't own Naruto or any of its characters way back when I started writing fanfiction, and I still don't.

Warning: Major manga spoilers ahead!

The Statue

The statue of Pain in the center of the plaza was carved out of black marble, and stood nearly fifteen feet tall. The statue didn't really look anything like Pain, but that was only because the artist who designed and carved it had no idea what Pain looked like. Then again, nobody in Rain knew what Pain looked like, so you couldn't really blame the sculptor for the statue's inaccuracy. Plenty of people had opinions about Pain's appearance—many of Rain's shinobi had fought beside him, after all. The trouble was that these accounts conflicted. Some said he was short and heavyset, with dark hair. Others claimed that he was tall and thin, with blond hair. After trying to sort out the differing statements, the artist had finally thrown up his hands in despair and just designed the statue based on his own imaginings of what Pain looked like.

The one thing everyone agreed on was that Pain always wore a black cloak with red clouds embroidered on it. So the statue of Pain showed him clad in a long, flowing cloak with the outlines of clouds carved lightly into it. One arm hung by his side, and the other was held straight up, with the hand pointing a katana towards the heavens.

The village children spent a lot of time playing tag in the plaza, and they had declared the statue to be "Home Base." Anyone touching the statue was immune to being tagged. As a result, anyone sitting on the benches set into the statue's pedestal was likely to be periodically disturbed by a small child clambering up beside them, smacking the statue's foot, and yelling, "I'M SAFE!" loudly enough to be heard in the Mist Village.

Amegakure was a notoriously isolationist place, and outsiders were rarely allowed within its borders. If, however, a visitor had ever been permitted inside the village, he might have asked why Pain was so special that the villagers had built a statue of him in their central plaza. The answer would have been simple: "Because he saved us."

The children who played tag in the plaza were light-hearted and carefree, for they had grown up in a time of peace. The adults of their parents' generation weren't so lucky. The woman in her late twenties who currently sat on a bench at the base of the statue, for example, remembered the civil war that had torn the Rain Country in two. She remembered the tearful goodbyes to family members who were in the nation's shinobi army, as they left to report for duty. She remembered her grandfather returning from battle with his left leg missing from the knee down. She remembered being herded into the basement of her school with her classmates when enemy forces attacked her hometown. (The teachers, like the students, were civilians, but she would never forget the determined looks on their faces as they stood guard at the basement doors—they would die to protect the children if they had to.) She remembered wrapping her arms around her best friend as the girl sobbed into her shoulder on the day both her parents were killed.

She remembered the fear and the despair—and she remembered that it was Pain who had brought those things to an end. At first, his name had been whispered in rumors and hearsay. People spoke of a young shinobi with astonishing abilities. They said that he had taken down an entire squad of enemies by himself. They said that he had an advanced bloodline even greater than the legendary Sharingan and Byakugan of Konoha. They said that he was a born leader, the kind of person that men would follow to the gates of Hell if he asked them to. And no one could agree on what he looked like.

People said that Pain, like so many of the village's children, had been orphaned by the war. They said that he, along with his friends Konan and Nagato, had been trained by one of the Leaf Village's Sannin. The young woman sitting by the statue hadn't believed such stories when she first heard them—they seemed too extraordinary to believe. But there was definitely something unusual about him.

"Grandfather's hurt! What happened to him?"

"He was injured in a battle against Hanzou's forces. He…won't be able to fight anymore, but he'll live."

"Don't cry, Akimara-kun. At least he came back to us alive. We have Pain to thank for that."

"That's right. Hanzou's men would have murdered his entire squad if Pain hadn't shown up and saved them."

The eight-year-old girl named Akimara bowed her head and prayed silently. Spirits of my ancestors, thank you for letting Grandfather survive. Watch over the man who saved him, please. Protect him, please, and help him to save all of us. Looking back on that moment years later, all she could think was that someone, somewhere, must have heard her.

Over the years, the stories about Pain became more than mere rumors. Along with Konan and Nagato, he was hailed as a hero of the Rain Country's rebel faction. Whenever he went up against Hanzou's men, he inevitably won. Slowly, the tide of the war began to turn, all thanks to one man.

And then the unthinkable happened.

Konan and Nagato were Pain's companions. They completed the three-person squad that he led. Wherever he was, they were never far away. You couldn't say one name without thinking of the other two.

But one day, Nagato was killed.

Hanzou's forces had known they couldn't kill the Three (that was how everyone referred to them by now) when they were together. Their only hope was to separate them and take them out one by one. By means of an elaborate ruse, they succeeded in drawing Nagato away from the other two, and they killed him.

The war had raged for years—by this time, Akimara was thirteen, and she wondered if it would ever end. When Hanzou's men killed Nagato, they unknowingly brought about their own destruction, and thus the end to the years of continuous warfare. Pain and Konan swept down on Hanzou's forces with the wrath of a god and an avenging angel. The flames that engulfed Hanzou's stronghold could be seen from miles away. Akimara's grandfather said it was the first night in years that he hadn't been plagued by phantom pains from his lost leg, and tears welled in her eyes when she saw the tears of joy shimmering on her closest friend's cheeks. As a child, she had prayed for the spirits to help Pain save the entire Rain Country. On the night when Hanzou finally died, she knew that her prayer had been answered.

When Pain and Konan returned to the village, they were greeted as heroes. (And still, no one knew what Pain truly looked like, because his appearance seemed to change from day to day. It must be an advanced form of Henge, everyone said.) Akimara shoved her way through the crowds lining the road as the two triumphant shinobi passed by, desperate for a glimpse. Pain had gray eyes with rings around the pupils, spiky auburn hair, and seven piercings in each ear. (She counted them, and then counted again, certain that she had been mistaken. Surely no one could have so many piercings?) Even more striking than his appearance, however, was the aura of sheer power that surrounded him.

Then she saw Konan, and almost forgot that Pain was even there. Konan's hair was blue, and she had a metal stud in her lower lip. As with Pain, she radiated strength and confidence. As she passed, she glanced in Akimara's direction, and the teenager's breath hitched. This woman was so sure of herself, held no uncertainties about where she was going in life. If she wanted something, she pursued it without hesitation, and she never, ever failed. I want to be like that! There were white roses growing on a trellis beside the front door of her house, and she pulled one off the vine, heedless of the thorns. She'd heard that Konan always wore a white flower in her hair, but that flower was absent today—perhaps it had been lost or destroyed in the battle.

Akimara ran out into the road, into Pain and Konan's path. Nervously, she extended her hand, offering the flower to Konan. "Thank you for saving us," she whispered, staring resolutely at her feet. Because her gaze was directed downward, she didn't see the tiny smile on Konan's lips as she took the flower and fixed it in her hair.

Over the course of the next month, almost every teenage girl in the village—Akimara included--got their lower lips pierced, and a significant number dyed their hair blue. Their parents were annoyed, but couldn't bring themselves to be too angry. After all, if your daughter was going to emulate someone, who better than a savior of the country?

It is a well-known fact that stories tend to become exaggerated over time. A man who catches a four-inch-long fish in the morning will claim in the evening that the fish was eight inches long. By the next day, he will insist that it was a foot long, and a week later the fish will have grown to the size of a whale. But the tales of Pain's victory were spared this sort of exaggeration, because there simply was no way to make them more remarkable than they already were. It was stark fact that Pain had killed Hanzou and all his bodyguards singlehandedly. It was also indisputable that Pain and Konan had then proceeded to destroy every single person who had been loyal to Hanzou, leaving only the members of Amegakure's rebel faction alive. Those rebels turned to the task of rebuilding their shattered society, but quickly found themselves with an insurmountable problem. With Hanzou and all his men dead, there was no one to unify the people of Rain, to bring order to their nation as they began the monumental task of restoration. There would almost certainly be power struggles, and there was a risk that the nation which had just gained its freedom would destroy itself in chaos. Seeking a leader, the citizens of the Rain Country naturally turned to Pain, whom they viewed as their hero and savior.

Pain proved to be just as adept at leading in peacetime as he had been during the war. He promoted a doctrine of self-sufficiency, impressing upon Rain's people that they needed no one but themselves to succeed. He also encouraged the development of technology, and industry flourished under his reign. He staunchly protected the recovering country from the other shinobi nations, who saw Rain as an easy target after its long civil war. And still, even after all this time, no one knew what Pain truly looked like. All his decrees were delivered by Konan or some other subordinate, and on the rare occasions when Pain showed himself in public, his appearance was different each time. Only the black cloak with red clouds remained constant. Some said that Pain had actually died during the civil war, and that Konan was trying to conceal this fact from the populace. Others claimed that "Pain" was not actually one individual, but rather a ruling council that chose to act under a single name. All anyone knew was that Pain had brought the devastating conflict to an end, and that their nation was flourishing under his rule. And he had to exist in some form, because any foreign shinobi foolish enough to attack the Rain quickly ended up dead.

Because Pain was such a mysterious figure, people gradually started to think of him in an abstract way—he was less a real, solid person than a force that watched over the country and protected it from all its foes. Occasionally, he would be glimpsed fighting off some enemy or ordering the execution of a traitor. Mostly, though, he stayed hidden in the shadows, content to let his subjects debate about his identity. His word was law, and his power was legendary. People whispered that anyone strong enough to destroy an entire village on his own couldn't be fully human. Anyone that strong must be a child of the gods—or even a god himself.

And so, over time Pain took on the status of a god within the Rain Country—an omnipresent, omnipotent figure about whom little was known but who laid down the laws by which the citizens lived their lives. People even began to refer to Konan as "Pain's Angel", since she acted as an intermediary between him and the people of Rain.

It had rained lightly that morning, but now the clouds had parted and the sun was shining. Akimara sat at the base of Pain's statue and sketched in her notebook. On the day thirteen years ago when she had seen Pain with her own eyes and offered her flower to Konan, she had vowed to do what she could to rebuild the nation they had saved. One of her uncles was an architect, and she had apprenticed herself to him. Under his tutelage—and later, after becoming a professional in her own right—she had helped to repair the massive toll that a decade of war had taken on Rain's infrastructure. She had been proud to watch as piles of rubble were replaced by houses, shops, restaurants, and dojos. Their country had hovered on the brink of death for a long time, but now it was coming back to life.

Akimara frowned at the design taking shape in her notebook. It wasn't quite right, somehow. She rubbed at the stud in her lower lip, trying to figure out exactly what was wrong with it…

"SAFE!" bellowed a young girl who had just climbed up beside her on the bench, hitting the statue's leg triumphantly.

Akimara set down her pencil, her train of thought having been effectively derailed by the shout. She saw that the girl's companions weren't paying any attention to her—they had apparently gotten tired of tag and were engaged in an argument about what game to play next.

The child blinked, apparently confused by her friends' lack of interest in her having reached home base. "Oh!" she exclaimed, seeing Akimara watching her. "I didn't mean to bother you!"

"It's okay," Akimara smiled.

The girl looked up at the sky. "It looks like it's gonna rain, but that can't be right because it never rains in the afternoon. My mama says that Pain-sama decides when it's gonna rain and when it's not."

Akimara shrugged. "Maybe he changed his mind and decided to make it rain in the afternoon today."

The girl turned to gaze up at the statue that towered over them both. "Why's he got a statue?"


"Well, my mama says that Pain-sama makes it rain and stuff. That's cool and all, but lots of shinobi can do stuff with rain and water. Why's Pain-sama so special that he gets his own statue?"

Akimara looked down at the girl's upturned face. It was trusting and eager—the face of a child who had never known significant hardship. Because he's the reason why you're not growing up the way I did, with fear and violence all around you. Because he made us so much stronger than we were before. Because whether you know it or not, he's watching over you, and me, and your friends over there, and everyone. Because our country would have destroyed itself long ago if it weren't for him. Akimara wanted to say all those things, but didn't, because she knew that such a young child wouldn't be able to truly understand them.

So she gave an answer that was simpler, but which still encapsulated all these truths. "Because he saved us."

A/N: Wow, it's been a while since I've written anything, hasn't it? My Akatsuki fangirlism is still going strong, though.

So, I've seen two different spellings for Pain's name: Pein and Pain. I have no idea which one is right, and they seem to be equally prevalent among forum posters/fanfic authors/manga translators. Does anyone out there know which one is actually correct?

Reviews would be greatly appreciated!