Sit Upon the Frozen Heavens
James D. Fawkes

For NaruHina version, see "Chapter X: B-Side".

Chapter Ten: Last Order

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

"To be a traitor," Itachi said calmly, his eyes narrowing slightly, "I would first have to have been loyal to Akatsuki."

Beneath his mask, Kakuzu's face twisted into an angry snarl, "You…"

In his shock, Shikamaru's concentration wavered, something that Hidan noticed as he cried, "He released the technique!"

"Kotetsu!" Asuma shouted, brandishing his trench knives defensively, "Izumo! Fall back!"

Kakuzu's gaze moved, his eyes widening slightly as he caught sight of the sash hanging from the Jônin's waist. Murmuring to himself, he said, "So that one in the center really is…"

He glanced over at his partner, "I see the lure of money's got you for once, Hidan."

"Kakuzu, you handle Itachi," Hidan said, gripping his scythe tightly as a maniacal grin crossed his lips. "I'm going to use these other four for my ceremony! The money is all yours!"

"Works for me," Kakuzu said nonchalantly. "Just don't underestimate them. You'll get yourself killed."

"Like they could pull it off," Hidan scoffed arrogantly. He began drawing a symbol on the ground in his own blood. "If they could kill me, I'd let them."

The design, a circle with a triangle inside of it, was finished, and Hidan's voice had a menacing edge to it, "But that's not happening, is it?"

"What's he going to do with that diagram?" Shikamaru whispered, brow furrowed in frustration.

"Be careful," came Itachi's smooth warning. "After he obtains a sample of your blood, any damage he does to himself while inside that circle will be done to you."

"Aw, you ruin all the fun!" Hidan whined childishly.

"I'll take the lead," Asuma muttered, eyes narrowed. "Shikamaru, when you see an opening, stop him with your Shadow Sewing. If you can keep him occupied long enough, I'll lop off his head and hopefully stop him from interfering further."

"That's too risky," Shikamaru hissed. "This isn't like you!"

"It's the best strategy we've got right now," Asuma said solemnly. Hidan pulled the long, thick weapons out of his body, then swung his scythe into the dirt. "This guy's a hell of a lot stronger than me."

There was a pause, then, at some unheard signal, the battle began. Asuma leapt forward, trench knives alight with deadly chakra. Hidan met his charge and attacked with one of the stolen weapons. It shattered upon impact with the knives, and Shikamaru's shadow dove forward in tendrils, seeking to latch onto Hidan.

The silver-haired man, however, would not be caught, and jumped upward, launching his scythe toward his foe. Asuma dodged slightly out of the way and the three blades dug into the dirt. Hidan pulled the second stolen weapon out and zipped forward along the cord of his weapon. Like its predecessor, the second stolen sword was destroyed easily.

Hidan landed on his feet, tossing a smirk back at Asuma, "You've got some nice knives."

"So, Itachi," Kakuzu started conversationally, "are we going to fight, or just stand here?"

"I'm waiting for my back up," Itachi said calmly.

"Back up?" Kakuzu asked disbelievingly.

"Yes," Itachi replied, still a cool as if he were talking about the weather. "He's blonde, about Asuma's height, with bright blue eyes? Couldn't miss him."

Kakuzu let out a harsh laugh, "The great Uchiha Itachi needs back up?"

"Not really," Itachi said nonchalantly, "not if I don't care about my teammates, anyway. But, you see…Asuma-san and his team are precious to me. Were I to fight now with no concern for their safety, they would most assuredly die."

"Compassion makes you weak," Kakuzu growled.

"Not really," Itachi replied coolly. Without warning, his right hand whipped out, tossing three kunai in the direction of the other battle and knocking Hidan's scythe away from Shikamaru. One of the three blades fell off, sliced away from the whole.

Red Sharingan eyes turned back to face their opponent's teal, the owner's lips forming syllables, "One word, Kakuzu-san…Boom."

Kakuzu had time to slam his hands together as his eyes widened and say just one word in response, "Shit!"

The Itachi standing near Kakuzu exploded in a violent gush of chakra, kicking up a large cloud of smoke that obscured the results. A dark figure flew out of the haze, skin dark and undamaged, but his cloak's sleeves and upper front nearly disintegrated. Stitches covered him all over, dominating the visible portions of his flesh.

Another Itachi appeared from nowhere, standing right behind his former ally. Pushing a single finger forward, Itachi leaned down and whispered in Kakuzu's ear, "That's one."

The finger sunk through Kakuzu's flesh as if it were liquid, letting out a violent spray of blood. Kakuzu collapsed forward, for all appearances, dead. Itachi looked at his bloody finger calmly, murmuring to himself, "Four more to go."

"This isn't looking good," Asuma muttered, scowling. "Itachi can handle that other guy, but if things get too serious, we'll all be caught in the crossfire."

"Then we just take out this guy," Kotetsu said reasonably, as if it were the most obvious thing in the world.

"Easier said than done," Shikamaru whispered gravely. "He's moving too quickly for us to hit him, let alone trap him. To attempt anything particularly ambitious would be tantamount to suicide."

"Shikamaru's right," Asuma admitted. "If we weren't here, Itachi could probably wipe the floor with these guys. As long as we are, Itachi can't pull out his best stuff without worrying about us getting caught in the middle. But if we try to run, it's the same thing. Fighting at his current level, holding back as much as he is, Itachi wouldn't be able to buy us enough time to run away without pulling out all the stops. It'd be a moot point."

"Three years ago, I never thought I'd say this, but," Shikamaru murmured, brow furrowed, "we need Naruto."

"I know he's good," Izumo said, "but what difference could Naruto make?"

"A lot," Asuma said bitterly. "Shikamaru's right. We need someone who has experience fighting guys like these. We need someone on their level. We need Naruto."

"I suppose," a familiar voice chimed in, "if you need me that badly, I could lend you a hand."

A tall figure appeared in front of them, his white cloak billowing around him and the flames printed onto the bottom seeming to move in the wind. His blonde hair was free and spiky, uninhibited by the hitai-ate tied around his right biceps, and, printed on the back of his cloak were the words, 'Konoha no Ryûjin', obscured only by a green sash and a black sheath.

Naruto tossed a smirk over his shoulder, "But you owe me one."

He unsheathed his sword, shouting, "Oi, Itachi! Want to switch?"

The dark-haired Uchiha glanced in his direction, shrugged and replied with, "Why not?"

In a blur, the two of them had traded places and Itachi stood in front of Asuma and his group, speaking to them calmly, "Asuma-san, Kotetsu-san, Izumo-san, Shikamaru-san, please find cover."

"Blonde hair, blue eyes, whisker marks on the cheeks," Kakuzu grinned as he stood, shedding his cloak, "you must be the Kyubi Jinchuriki. Your head is worth even more than that other guy's."

"I like my head where it is, thanks," Naruto said coolly, lifting his sword up. The sky darkened and water swirled up from the blade's hilt, twisting around the sharpened steel like twin snakes. A downward slash released a gigantic dragon that wound forward. Kakuzu raised his hands in a seal again, his skin turning dark, but it proved meaningless as the beast swerved away from him.

Instead, it struck Hidan's legs, washing over him as he swore up a storm and tried to lift himself out of the water, "Damn it! What the hell?"

As the torrent subsided, the sodden clothes Hidan was wearing started to ice over and the wet ground became slick and hard. Kakuzu's brow knitted together as he scrutinized the scene, then turned his inhuman eyes back on the blonde teen grinning at him. In a soft growl, he spoke, "Your target was never me. You washed away Hidan's circle."

"I guess you're the brains out of the two of you?" Naruto said calmly, hair and cloak fluttering in a sudden breeze. He jerked toward the left, taking a step back with that foot and holding his sword next to his hip as if he were about to draw it from a scabbard. Kakuzu raised an eyebrow at this, but merely settled down, prepared to guard against this new threat.

The sword slashed in a horizontal arc, sending a thin curve of light shooting forwards at astounding speeds. Kakuzu activated his armor defense and held his arms up in a block. The arc crashed against his skin violently, but was cold and freezing instead of sharp and stabbing. He felt it try to cut through him, but it could not. It was water.

The rest of the beam dug into the ground behind him, cutting gouges into the soft soil. On his arms, and from these new trenches in the earth, ice grew, spiking up behind him and frosting over on his skin. He flexed his arms and the thin layer of frozen liquid shattered like delicate glass.

The sky was still dark and both fighters' breaths came out in little clouds and streams of steam, before dissolving into the air. Naruto's eyes, bright and vibrant, seemed to glow with some hidden power as he reached up and unzipped his vest down to his collarbone. With a little nudging, a luminescent red orb, no bigger than his thumbnail and perfectly spherical, popped out, hanging from a strong-looking black thread by way of a dragon's claw made of pure silver.

"That looks valuable," Kakuzu remarked greedily. He eyed it with a hunger that looked like it would strain his sight.

"It is," Naruto smirked, leaving the pendant to hang innocently, "but you'll never get the chance to learn why."

Kakuzu didn't respond, merely grunting as four creatures detached from his back, standing up as hulking black masses with grotesque masks as their only real identifier. Immediately, one of them melted into a pile of goop. Kakuzu didn't seem bothered or surprised by this fact, so Naruto revised what Itachi had told him and Jiraiya about his opponent.

Kakuzu was incredibly greedy to a fault, often putting money above the objective of his mission. He had five hearts, four of which turned into these mask creatures and were extremely dangerous. The fifth heart stayed in Kakuzu's body, sustaining him. Therefore, one needed to take out all five hearts to kill Kakuzu.

Naruto's smirked widened a bit. And Itachi seemed to have taken care of one of them already, leaving four more to be destroyed.

"Orochimaru didn't exaggerate your powers," Kakuzu said in his raspy voice. The remaining three creatures tensed behind him in preparation. "Your hitai-ate, though, reminds me of the first Konoha ninja I fought. The First Hokage, I mean."

A slight widening of his eyes was all that gave away Naruto's surprise, "You fought the First?"

Kakuzu snorted, "Are we here to fight, or not?"

Naruto grinned, "Right."

A swing of his sword summoned a colossal water dragon that immediately sought out Kakuzu. The man merely stood still, but one of his beasts took over. A ball of fire gathered in front of its open mouth, and was then launched forward like a bullet. It collided with its liquid adversary, exploding upon contact.

The dragon would not be defeated so easily, however, and swallowed the ball of flames before it detonated. Water sprayed everywhere and steam rose in thick clouds from the point of impact, obscuring Kakuzu's widened eyes as he realized that his technique had been halted by mere water.

A rushing sound was all the warning he got before a second dragon came barreling through the mist, red eyes gleaming maliciously. Kakuzu leapt overtop of it, watching as it consumed his lightning mask. He almost let the relief wash over him; it could be salvaged as long as it was intact.

It was dashed nearly as quickly. Naruto appeared in front of the frozen mask beast, sword sinking into the ice as if it were butter. Kakuzu could only watch in horror and rage as the ice was cracked by a thin knife of the same substance and his beast's head was split nearly in half.

Turning around, the blonde unleashed another serpentine monster at him, sending the blue beast soaring upwards effortlessly. Kakuzu silently commanded his Fire mask to unleash another blast to destroy the water dragon and moved his hands into a seal. The instant the small ball of flame was released, Kakuzu's skin turned a dark brown and hardened.

There was another explosion of water and superheated steam as the fire clashed with the dragon. Kakuzu, however, was unharmed as he landed safely on the ground, the earth around his feet forming slight craters as his hardened and denser body came to a halt. He looked up at the boy with a glare that could kill a Genin.

"Two down," Naruto taunted lightly in a sing-song voice.

He received no warning before the Fire and Wing masked beasts launched a combined assault on him. The resulting explosion and flames quickly engulfed him and he disappeared within their depths. A deep sense of satisfaction welled up inside of Kakuzu, bringing a smile the stretched across his face beneath his mask.

The sound of steel cutting through flesh and fabric reached his ears and he turned around as quick as he could, his neck cracking loudly at the speed. The blonde boy stood up from his kneeling position, flicking the blood off his blade with a sharp swipe to the side. His left hand jerked up, a tri-pronged kunai spinning on his middle finger for but a moment before he holstered it again on his left thigh. Belatedly, Kakuzu noticed that, though he was right-handed, his kunai and shuriken holster was strapped to his left leg.

"You…" Kakuzu growled, staring at the remains of his Wind mask.

"It's a very useful technique," Naruto stated neutrally, his face set in stone. "Fast, untraceable, incapable of being copied, and it uses no chakra whatsoever."

Another kunai seemed to leap into his left hand and was promptly thrown into the dirt. He closed his eyes and let out a breath, "I can tell where everyone within twenty meters of this kunai is standing. As long as it has a pulse or has a significant amount of chakra, I can find it."

Glowing blue eyes snapped open, "I'm very lucky I know that technique, or else I would very likely have been torn to shreds by that last jutsu of yours."

"I'd recognize that anywhere," Kakuzu grumbled irritably, eyes narrowing. "Where did you learn the Hiraishin no Jutsu?"

Naruto smirked lightly, "You seem to be forgetting that my father is its creator. Did you really think it impossible for me to know his most powerful technique?"

"Whatever," Kakuzu drawled in his raspy voice. He silently recalled his last beast. "I know when I'm outmatched. You got the element of surprise on me, kid, or else I would have beaten you into a bloody—"

As his final mask moved to rejoin his body, it was intercepted by the blonde teen. With a sickening squelch and a sharp ring, the Fire mask was bisected down the middle by the silvery blade of Hyôrinmaru. Immediately, Kakuzu's rage sprung to the surface again and he began shifting into his most powerful form as he let out a roar.

He never got the chance. Faster than he could track, Naruto's sword had sailed forward and sunk into his chest and through his heart. His final heart. With a gasp, he started to stumble backwards, desperately trying to gather air in his lungs as his vision began to fade. His bare back collided with the soft, wet ground, driving the oxygen from his chest.

His final sight was a shining gleam as the blonde slashed at him and detached his head.

Rolling his shoulders back, Naruto let out a sigh, his eyes closed. He paused a moment, then frowned. Muttering to himself, he said, "Two more, huh? Hidan over there and…that…plant guy over in the trees."

He reached up and tugged at the gem around his neck. It came free rather easily and he held it up, as if examining it, "Guess it's your time to shine."

Clenching it in his fist, he shouted, "Itachi, Minna-san, out of the way!"

Alarmed, Itachi and Asuma's team dodged out of the way, just in time to avoid being swallowed up by a dragon of icy water. Hidan wasn't so lucky and took the full brunt of the attack, suddenly finding himself frozen in place and unable to move. He struggled, but it was pointless. He was immobilized from the neck down, "Damn it!"

"Get as far away from here as you can," Naruto warned his comrades. He held up the gem, which began to glow, "Kimi no na wo yobu…" (I call your name)

Itachi's eyes widened into saucers as he saw the gem begin to glow. Turning to his comrades, he hissed, in a tone that brooked no argument, "Run!"

Immediately, the group of five fled the scene, dashing off into the woods at blinding speeds. As soon as he felt they were far enough away, the blonde let out a sigh and finished his sentence, "…Hyôrinmaru."

There was a bright light and an intense feeling of vertigo as he shot up into the air like a bullet, his feet pressed against hard blue scales and his nose tickled by the cool wind. He opened his eyes and found himself standing atop the crowned head of Hyôrinmaru, the ground several meters below him.

"It works," he breathed. "That old pervert actually made this thing right!"

"Indeed he did," came the answer, but it wasn't spoken aloud.

Naruto took in and let out a deep breath, "This summoning gem of his actually works. So this is what he needed my blood for."

He reached up and replaced the gem. It seemed to zoom out of his fingers and into the three toes of the silver dragon claw, attached snugly. He looked down at the ground below, at the awed and motionless Hidan and felt the two enemy signatures within range. Itachi and the others were long gone.

"There are two of them," Naruto said calmly, talking to the dragon. "We need to scatter them to the winds."

"Then," Hyôrinmaru started out slowly, "we're going to use it?"

"Yes," Naruto replied. "A Kidô modified to such a level and with such destructive potential that only one name really suits it — Mega Flare."

With a grunt that sounded more like a growl, Hyôrinmaru spread his large, feathery wings and shot up into the sky. Naruto glued himself to the beast's scales with his chakra, kneeling down as the large creature performed various aerial stunts to place himself at an optimal angle for his attack.

Once that angle had been found, the dragon stopped in midair, bobbing up and down slightly as he flapped his great wings. His mouth opened, revealing two opposing rows of dangerously sharp teeth. Between his jaws, an azure blue orb began to form, growing slightly larger with each passing moment.

Finally, as it began to grow too large to contain, the great beast leaned his head back, Naruto holding onto his spiked crown as his feet glued him to his scales. With a sudden jerk, the dragon's head shot forward, as if he were spitting something out. The ball of energy leapt from his mouth, shooting downwards at blinding speeds.

The collision with the ground was a sight to see, as the blue orb pulsed upon impact, but the explosion that resulted was even more magnificent. The azure ball grew in size, quickly consuming the entirety of the bounty station and most of the surrounding area, casting a pale blue glow on the untouched trees and all that was spared its wrath. Then, in a flash of white light, it vanished.

A crater was left behind, however, one that was several meters deep and nearly twice as wide. Pulling out a tri-pronged kunai, he tossed it into the crater and closed his eyes, waiting for it to land. When it did, a couple seconds later, he let out a sigh. He could sense no one, no presence within the range of the kunai.

"Good job, Hyôrinmaru," Naruto said calmly. With a nod, the beast began to fade away. Naruto leapt off of his head, doing a flip in midair as the dragon vanished in a flash of blue. He too vanished in a flash, this time of yellow, and appeared next to the kunai he had thrown, landing effortlessly.

"Deidara, Sasori, Kisame, Hidan, Kakuzu, and Zetsu," the blonde recited as he picked up his kunai. He looked at it, frowning thoughtfully. "That leaves Konan, Tobi, and Pein."

Naruto's glowing blue eyes gleamed fiercely.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

An orange haired man looked up at his partner, both his and her features hazy in the dark tower. Clouds hung in the sky outside, blanketing the entire village in darkness. Blue eyes, inside of which were several thin rings that surrounded his pupils, seemed almost to glow in the dark.

"He's late," the orange-haired man said calmly. His partner didn't respond. "Zetsu is never late."

"Should we assume the worst, then?" the blue haired maiden asked in a soft, melodic voice. It was easy to see why the villager's called her an angel, if the voice hadn't already given it away. She was easily a very beautiful woman, with delicate features unmarred by war and famine and luminescent eyes.

"We cannot be sure what has detained him," the orange haired man said, turning his gaze towards the dark shadows that surrounded them. A small frown pulled at his lips, his eyes narrowing slightly.

"Zetsu is not one to engage in combat," the woman remarked calmly. She didn't seem overly concerned with the supposed fate of her comrade, and neither did the man across from her. It seemed almost as if they were discussing the abysmal weather outside, rather than whether or not someone had died.

"True," the man replied, "but it is not entirely impossible that Hidan and Kakuzu got into another fight that is simply lasting longer than expected. After all, that's what Zetsu does, isn't it? He's our 'lookout'."

"How nice," she said stoically, "it sounds almost as if you care."

He glared at her, her lips quirking into a small smile. With a flash of sudden lightning, however, it was gone, almost as if it had never been there. The man scoffed, turning his gaze back to the shadows of the room as rain pounded against the walls and ceiling.

"Things are progressing smoothly," the man said, changing the subject. "With our recent sealing of the two-tails and Tobi's capture and delivery of the three tails, it won't be long before our plans come to fruition."

"And then, the world will be at peace," the woman said softly.

"Yes," the man acknowledged. "But, before that, we'll have to take care of Madara. We cannot allow him to influence the outcome or else everything could fall apart. As long as he is a factor, we cannot ignore his inevitable clash with us."

"You're right," Konan said calmly, "but he may not be our fiercest opponent in all of this."

Pein glanced in her direction, "You speak of the Namikaze boy? The container of the fearsome Nine-Tailed Fox?"

"Not only he," Konan said warily, "but Jiraiya-sama as well."

"I fear you are right," Pein admitted. "Alone, perhaps we could defeat them. But should they fight together, then one of us could never be enough to have any chance of victory."

Konan looked at him, "Then let us pray that day never comes."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The sun shined brightly, hanging high in the midday sky as it bathed the people beneath it in warmth and light. The streets were bustling with activity, citizens and ninja alike going about their daily business. Vendors called out to passersby, offering their products in a way that might appeal to the average person.

Carved into the front of a large, long mountain, the faces of the five Hokage stared out over the village, watching its inhabitants stonily and casting a solemn gaze over those they had sworn to protect in life. Each wore a stern expression and, despite the large crack in the Sandaime's chiseled features, none of the firmness of their faces was lost to age or wear.

Three people sat out in this sun, their faces and upper bodies protected by the banners of an outdoor restaurant with the words 'Ichiraku Ramen' spelled out on the outside. Two were girls, sitting on either side of a boy with spiky blonde hair, the one who was doing the actually talking. He was reading from a sheet that was written in his untidy scrawl.

"When the war of the beasts brings about the worlds end," Naruto read, "the Goddess descends from the sky, wings of light and dark spread afar. She guides us to bliss, her gift…everlasting."

"Wow," Hinata and Tenten whispered, watching him as he smiled and held up a finger.

"Infinite in mystery is the gift of the Goddess," he continued, reading from a different sheet. "We seek it thus, and take to the sky. Ripples form on the water's surface, the wandering soul knows no rest."

"Loveless, Act one," a voice said. The three turned around, watching as Jiraiya smiled at them and sat down next to Hinata. He cast a glance over at Naruto, shaking his head lightly. Naruto smiled, setting the piece of paper down as his mentor ordered a chicken ramen from the shop owner, Teuchi.

"You remembered," he remarked, folding the papers up and sticking them inside his kunai pouch.

"How can I not," Jiraiya thumped his middle and index finger up against the side of his skull, "when you've beaten it into my head?"

"You are the one who told me to write my own books if I thought yours weren't any good," Naruto pointed out, smirking lightly.

"I suppose I was," Jiraiya conceded. He ate some of his ramen, turning to his godson as he swallowed. "So, how far have you come along with that piece of yours?"

"I'm working on Act two," Naruto told him. "There are a few bits of it that I'm not all that confident of, so it's a slow process, but still quite satisfying. Here…"

He pulled out a sheet of paper, reciting, "There is no hate, only joy, for you are beloved by the Goddess, Hero of the Dawn, Healer of Worlds…"

He trailed off, "I'm stuck here. I can't decide what to put next."

Jiraiya chewed on more of his ramen, then was struck by an idea, gesturing for Naruto to give him the paper. As he did, the older man grabbed the nearest writing utensil and scribbled a few words down, then handed the piece of paper back to the blonde, who read it aloud eagerly.

"Dreams of the morrow hath the shattered soul," he echoed the words on the paper. He scribbled more beneath that line, adding in his own bits now that Jiraiya had started him off. "Pride is lost, wings stripped away, the end…is nigh."

"Wow," Tenten said as Naruto put the paper away, eyes wide. "Where did you guys learn to write like that?"

"I don't know where he learned it," Naruto said, finally turning to eat his own ramen. Through a mouthful of food, he continued, "but I learned it from him."

"That's such a good story, Naruto-kun," Hinata said softly, waiting for her food to cool a little bit before she ate. "It's starting to get a little dark, but the emotion, the feeling…it's so intense."

"I can't wait until it's finished," Tenten remarked as she dug in to her meal. "That one's so good, they'll probably still be reading it a thousand years from now."

Naruto swallowed, looking at her eagerly, "Do you really think so?"

"Mmhm," Hinata answered for the other girl. "You really have some talent, Naruto-kun."

"I'm sorry to ruin this little outing," Jiraiya said, suddenly deathly serious. His ramen was completely gone, "but, Naruto, you and I have a mission we're going on."

Naruto nodded as he finished eating, "All right. What should I pack?"

"Nothing," Jiraiya told him. "For this mission, we need to be as inconspicuous as possible. You have thirty minutes. Meet me at the north gate."

Without another word, he stood and left.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Tsunade keeled over and gave a great lurch, emptying the contents of her stomach onto the ground. After a couple seconds of retching, she paused and panted for breath. Then, her back arched again and she tried, in vain, to stop the bile from rising up the back of her throat. She was unsuccessful.

The process went like this for a few moments as the alcohol was purged from her body, landing on the ground with a splash and mixed with her stomach acid. Finally, as her body finished, she stood shakily, still panting as if she had run a marathon. Her drinking partner helped steady her.

"Geez," Jiraiya said, holding onto her as she tried to regain her footing. She still swayed a little, "you're even worse with sake than I am. Let's take a break."

Somehow, the two of them managed to cross the whole village without knocking into anything or tripping and found themselves leaning back against a bench under the bright sunlight. Jiraiya had one hand atop the scroll that he always carried, the other on his knee as he tried to keep himself steady.

"You're dealing with someone who's strong enough to keep Akatsuki in line," Tsunade said seriously, no sign of a slur in her voice. "We have no idea what his power is or how strong he is…and you and Naruto are just going to waltz right into his turf, just like that. You have to be drunk."

"Yeah," Jiraiya looked about to stand, "I guess I should get going, then."

"Come back alive," Tsunade said suddenly. She looked down at her hands, tears welling up in the corners of her eyes. "If I lose you too, I…"

"Are you going to cry for me?" Jiraiya laughed drunkenly. "I'm honored! I don't suppose I'll get as many tears as Dan did, though."

"Asshole," Tsunade muttered angrily.

"All right, how about we put your gambling skills to use," Jiraiya suggested. "You always pick the losing bet. Put everything you have on me dying, and, in return, I'll come back alive and well."

"What?" Tsunade asked quietly, appalled.

"Haha! I'm kidding! I'm kidding!" Jiraiya laughed again. "I'm very grateful to you, you know. Getting dumped always makes a man stronger. And if he hasn't experienced it enough to laugh about it or use it as material, he can't fulfill his duties as a man."

"So it's the man's responsibility to be strong, eh?" Tsunade asked amusedly.

"Pretty much," Jiraiya confirmed. "But, then again, men aren't meant to pursue happiness."

"Bah," Tsunade said, a laugh in her voice, "you men are all alike. Without women around, there'd be no one to reject your advances and toughen you up!"

"Very true!" Jiraiya chuckled.

"Send one of your toads if you get in a tight spot you can't escape from," Tsunade said seriously. "I'll come and back you up immediately."

"I don't think so," Jiraiya remarked. "No matter what, you absolutely have to remain in the village. This place relies on you to keep it together."

"There are plenty of other worthy candidates for Hokage," she said, looking down.

Jiraiya, who had stood up earlier, said, "How are people supposed to be comfortable living here if their leader keeps changing? You're the best person for the job in the village and that's that."

"We've got Kakashi," she said, "and Naruto, eventually."

"Kakashi's a given," he argued, "but Naruto still has a little more improving to do before he's ready, even if you did see fit to give him your necklace."

"You're one to talk," she remarked, "you crammed him full of power. You even taught him the Rasengan!"

"Yeah, and maybe I shouldn't have," he grinned. "It felt like I was teaching Minato again!"

"Namikaze Minato," she mumbled, "the resemblance is uncanny."

"Minato had talent you only see once a decade, at best," he laughed mirthlessly. "No one like him has been born in a while…besides Naruto, anyways. He was such a nice kid, but his guts and his desire to succeed were the fiercest I've ever seen. And, in the blink of an eye, he was Fourth Hokage. I never had kids, so I wouldn't know, but…if he was my son, I'd be bragging all the time."

"Hearing you say that," Tsunade commented, "makes me think of how different they are, too. I mean, he has a lot in common with his father besides his looks, but he's definitely got quite a bit of his mother in him, too. It'd be hard if you made me choose which one he's more like."

"A female ninja of the former Uzumaki no Kuni," Jiraiya said lightly, searching for her name.

"His personality and ninjutsu style," Tsunade began, "are very similar to Uzumaki Kushina's."

"That was her name!" Jiraiya exclaimed, snapping his fingers. "I remember, with that red hair, the constant jabbering, and that tomboyish demeanor, she was just like one of the boys!"

"Kushina became so beautiful as she grew up," she said, "but Naruto does look remarkably like his father."

"That's why I see him in Naruto," he insisted. "I have to admit, I've come to think of him as my own grandson."

He picked up his scroll, "Okay, so I'll be off."

A thought struck him, "Oh, and one last bit of advice. Be careful of Root."

"I know," she assured him.

Jiraiya laughed, "That's a relief!"

As he left, Tsunade couldn't shake the dark feeling that this would be the last time she saw him.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

In the Hidden Rain Village, the weather was much as it usually was: raining. The sky was dark and overcast, puffy clouds indistinguishable from one another as they let loose a torrential downpour that would have soaked the inhabitants were it not for the protective gear they all wore.

Tall buildings reached towards the heavens above, but none were nearly as tall as the one building that mattered most, the building where the leader of the village resided, atop a tall tower with impressive architecture. Most did not often meet with this man, much less see his face and know his true name. They simply called him God.

The only one who had any contact with this man they treated as a deity was his right hand, the one referred to only as 'God's Angel'. All knew her face, and all knew that she was a beauty unlike any other in any other village.

Two figures stepped from their boat, both wearing coats to protect against the weather with the hoods up to disguise their appearances. They walked down the streets, wandering through the many roads and taking in the buildings surrounding them as they went. No one paid them any mind, despite that they looked slightly out of place.

Atop a tower, a man stood out in the rain, his cloak hiding his body and his orange hair defying both the water and the forces of gravity. To the woman behind him, he spoke, "Konan, when I stop the rain, use your jutsu to find these intruders."

"I'll take care of it," she responded calmly.

He flashed through hand seals, saying, as he stopped on the last one, "Here I go."

"Understood," she said, eyes half lidded as she put her hands in a seal.

"Welcome!" the white haired bartender cried jovially as two rain-nin walked into his bar. Off to the side, the blonde haired waiter rolled his eyes.

"It's just the two of us," the bearded one said as he took off his hat.

"So bring us some drinks and side dishes," the scarred one said. As they sat down, he turned to his companion. "Isn't today Sunday?"

"I heard Pein-sama had some stuff to do," the bearded one said. "These days, he might have to go to other countries."

"But to have it rain off schedule," the scarred one muttered, "this has never happened before."

"It must be quite a mission, then," the bearded one said.

"But if it goes on like this," the scarred one whined.

"Hey!" the bearded one exclaimed angrily. "Pein-sama has done quite a lot for the people of the streets. Just bear with it for a bit."

"Sorry to keep you gentlemen waiting," the bartender smiled, clasping his hands together.

"Hey, where's our food and drinks?" the scarred one asked.

"Since it's our grand opening today, we have some special services," the bartender said. He moved his hand into a hand seal. "The two of you sure are lucky today!"

In a puff of smoke, he was replaced with a white haired ninja. As the two rain-nin scrambled away, the ninja leapt onto the counter, grinning at them. The bearded one yelled, "You! Who the hell are you?"

"I'm the one who's going to do the asking around here," Jiraiya said playfully. "And I've got lots of questions!"

The walls around them morphed from wood and plaster into flesh and blood, the door disappearing completely. Before they could react, the soft, cushy walls had engulfed their hands and feet, trapping them. The blonde waiter, now dressed eerily similar to the Fourth Hokage, was sitting on the fleshy floor, waiting.

"From your seemingly low standards and mannerisms," Jiraiya said, "I'd guess you're the bottommost of the cannon fodder, right?"

"Where the hell are we?" the bearded one demanded.

"Inside the belly of my frog," Jiraiya stated plainly, as if he were speaking of the weather.

"You…You're that Sennin!" the bearded one shouted. "And that waiter! He's the Ryûjin, isn't he?"

"I thought I told you that I'm the one doing the questioning here," Jiraiya pulled out a soft black feather. Naruto winced lightly, rubbing at the back of his right shoulder, "didn't I?"

"What are you going to do with that feather?" the scarred one asked warily, eyeing it nervously.

"It's for tickling!" Jiraiya said excitedly. "If you don't want to get tickled to death, you better answer my questions like a good boy! Now, about your leader…Pein…"

The blonde teen stood up, walking forward, "I've got a better idea."

He leaned over the bearded one, closing his eyes halfway and propping himself up with his right arm. He leveled his strongest glare at the man, the atmosphere around him growing heavy and thick with malice as the air was driven from the ninja's lungs. In the darkest growl he could manage, he said, "Talk."

Stuttering nervously the man cried out, "Pein-sama resides within the tallest of the western towers!"

As Naruto backed away, the scarred man asked, "Are you…with the rebel Amegakure faction?"

"Rebel?" Jiraiya asked, blinking. "I thought this country was in civil war."

"I'm not surprised, considering how isolationistic this country is," the bearded man smirked. "The civil war is over…and we won! Pein-sama…he destroyed the former Amegakure single-handedly!"

"Impossible," Jiraiya muttered. Frowning, Naruto glanced at him. "No matter how strong this 'Pein' is, Amegakure's leader, Hanzou the Salamander, is renowned to the point that every shinobi everywhere will recognize his name!"

"That's right," the bearded man said. "Hanzou was not only very powerful, he was also highly cautious. Approaching his side is a feat in and of itself. Guards were stationed in 24 hour rotations and even children were searched before being allowed to see him."

"And how was Hanzou killed?" Jiraiya asked, face set in stone.

"That's just it," the bearded one laughed, "we don't know!"

Jiraiya let out a sigh, "I can't believe it…Hanzou, defeated? By one man?"

"This is a god we're talking about," the bearded one giggled insanely, "his jutsu are quite fearsome. But the true horror…the true horror of Pein-sama lies in his heart of steel! Those who might threaten his ideals are crushed mercilessly. Men, women, children, it didn't matter. If they knew Hanzou, they were exterminated. It was judgment."

A grin grew on his face, "Exactly like that of a God."

Pein raised his hands to the sky and the rain suddenly stopped, though dark clouds still rumbled far overhead. Without turning, he commanded, "Do it now, Konan."

"Yes," she replied, hands still in a seal. Her body peeled apart into countless pieces of paper, scattering to the winds and shaping themselves into thousands of little butterflies that fluttered outwards, searching for the ones who dared disturb the peace and harmony of the Hidden Rain Village.

As a frog surfaced from the river, it opened its mouth wide. From inside its belly, two figures pulled themselves free. The first was the bearded man, who turned around to address the frog as the scarred man picked saliva off of his clothing, scowling, "Hurry back to the Leaf Village. Find Ibiki. He'll know how to handle that guy."

"That's disgusting, you know," the scarred man said, lip curling in a sneer as the frog disappeared.

"Shush," the bearded man said. To himself, he muttered, "I really hope they fall for this."

He laid a hand against one of the pillars, walking forward with his partner and trying to act like he fit in. Neither of them noticed the paper butterfly as it fluttered on by, vanishing behind one of the corners and slowly forming into a beautiful woman with dark blue hair and an origami rose tucked above her right ear.

Standing atop a tower, and orange haired figure looked out over the city. Behind him, sheets of paper formed into a woman, who said, "It's Jiraiya…"

"Jiraiya-sensei?" the orange-haired man asked, his long hair pulled into a ponytail. "That takes me back."

"…and Naruto," Konan finished. Pein was silent, so she ventured. "What do we do, Pein?"

"Kill them, obviously," Pein said stoically, "and take the Nine-tails from the boy. I hold no love for our old sensei, and I did bring this body out to kill an intruder. Tell me where he is."

"As you wish," a piece of paper broke off from her body and folded into a paper airplane, gliding in his direction. Her body started to fall back apart. "I'll hold them off until you get there."

"Don't mind me," Pein said. "If you can handle it on your own, do it."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

Jiraiya and Naruto, disguised as the ninja they had captured, looked up as thousands of sheets of paper fluttered down from the sky, taking on a life of their own. As one, they managed to say, "What the—?" before it wrapped around them and trapped them in a prison with only their eyes free.

In front of Jiraiya, a woman formed, holding a spear made out of paper. As she poised it for his heart, however, and made to strike, the real Jiraiya rose from the shadow his full-body cast had made, taking a deep breath. He blew out, releasing a ball of fire, "Katon: Endan!" (Fireball)

As the paper caught fire, the cast that contained Naruto collapsed inwards and released a puff of smoke. All it had trapped was a Kage Bunshin. The woman frowned thoughtfully, staring at the white-haired man emotionlessly, "That can only be your toad silhouette technique."

"I always thought you were dead," Jiraiya remarked as he stood, Naruto appearing next to him with his sword drawn. "But, all this time, you were just a bunch of paper scattered to the winds, eh, Konan?"

"Y-you're," the bearded man stuttered as he stumbled away, "God's angel!"

"Now you're an angel?" Jiraiya teased. "A 'Messenger of God', as it were?"

"Leave now," she said to the bearded man, ignoring the other two.

With an anxious nod, the man leapt away frightfully. Naruto turned to Jiraiya, "Who is she, sensei?"

"An old student of mine," Jiraiya muttered. He raised his voice, asking Konan. "Who or what is Pein?"

"You don't need to know, sensei," she said calmly. She cast a glance at the blonde boy. "You seem to have forgotten about us anyway."

A pair of angelic wings formed on her back, composed of paper, and lifted her high into the air. Jiraiya gave her a disappointed stare, frowning sadly, "You really think you're an angel, don' you?"

"I must kill you," she said. From her wings shot hundreds of papers, each one folded into a point at one end. "It is the will of God."

Jiraiya rolled out of the way, cheeks bulging as he went through hand seals at light speed. Naruto thrust his right palm out, energy glowing around the skin as he called out the name of his counterattack, "Hadô no Sanjuuichi: Shakkahô!" (Red Flame Cannon)

A ball of red energy shot forwards at blinding speeds, engulfing a large section of the spear-like pieces of paper and incinerating them as if they weren't even there. Using his hand as leverage, Jiraiya spun around and spat a huge ball of oil at the woman, soaking her and her precious paper through.

Like a snake, Jiraiya's hair whipped out and wrapped around her as he cried, "Your paper can't unfold if it's soaked through!"

He gave her a look, "You always did love your origami. I remember you were one of the kindest out of all the kids. What happened to the other two? The rumors that they're all dead are lies, aren't they?"

She looked down but didn't respond. Jiraiya frowned, "I knew it. Pein was one of them too, wasn't he?"

"What do you hope to accomplish by revealing yourself to us again?" she asked stoically. "You've practically delivered the boy to us on a silver platter."

"Not what you think," Jiraiya said, "especially considering you're part of Akatsuki. I'd heard you were all dead. To think that this is what really happened…"

"Sensei?" Naruto asked quietly, looking unsurely at the older man.

"Just pay attention to the conversation," Jiraiya hissed back.

"You must be thinking, 'if only I had just listened to Orochimaru'. But you didn't. You chose to save us instead," Konan told him. "And now…we act to make his plans a reality."

"Then Pein," Jiraiya concluded somberly, "must be him."

He met her gaze steadily, "A few years after I left, I started hearing your names come up occasionally. Anytime there was trouble, whoever opposed your side would wind up dead."

"You have no idea what happened after you left," she spat angrily, the paper beginning to ruffle.

"You're absolutely right, I don't," Jiraiya admitted shamelessly. "But there's no doubt in my mind that what Akatsuki is doing is wrong!"

Konan opened her mouth to reply, but before she could get a word out, Naruto's sword went sailing through the air. It disappeared into an area between the pipes that surrounded them, followed shortly by a twin gasps. The woman fluttering above their heads donned a look of surprise, then vanished into nothingness as the paper that had constituted her fluttered to the ground.

From the area Naruto's sword had flown in, a petite figure stumbled forward past the pipes, her body covered in a cloak decorated with red clouds. She looked up at them, blue hair in disarray and her eyes widened in shock as blood slowly stained her hands, which were held up to her chest. Hyôrinmaru lay there, embedded through her heart. With a final step forward, she fell to the ground in a thud.

Quietly, Naruto retrieved his sword, flicking the blood off it before sheathing it. Jiraiya looked at him, just as shocked, "Naruto…you…"

"All of Akatsuki must die," Naruto whispered shakily as he met Jiraiya's eyes. He looked away, down at Konan's body, unsure. "All of them…"

"So, you killed Konan," a voice called. The two of them looked up to see an orange-haired man with his long locks tied up in a ponytail, save for the strip that traveled down his right cheek, framing his eyes. Rage smoldered in his gaze, but his countenance was calm. "I suppose I have to kill you, then, too."

"You've changed, Nagato," Jiraiya said, frowning.

The orange haired man didn't give a verbal response, instead clapping his hands together and flying through hand seals. Naruto and Jiraiya tensed as a summoning array drew itself onto the wall of pipes behind him. A large, crab-like creature burst through it, sharp pincers aimed at the two ninja in its path.

"Nadegiri!" Naruto cried, slashing at the air twice. Two thin arcs of water leapt forward, one vertical, the other horizontal, and bisected the large beast twice. The pieces vanished in a puff of smoke.

"So you've perfected it," Jiraiya remarked, glancing at his partner. "Nadegiri, I mean." (Slaying Several with One Sword Sweep)

"I had to do something during my two weeks off," Naruto retorted, eyes glued on his enemy. "After all, Tenten-chan and Hinata-chan had obligations to their team and the village. They couldn't be with me the entire time, could they?"

Jiraiya smirked a little, but it dropped as he turned his attention back to their opponent, "Nagato…there are so many things I want to ask you. Where's Yahiko?"

"I do remember someone by that name," Pein said stoically. "He's been dead a long time."

"Nagato," Jiraiya marveled quietly, shocked and horrified by what that could mean. "What happened to you? You used to be so…"

"Nothing happened. This is just another fight," Pein said easily. "Too many people have died here. Their pain has helped me to grow."

"What's that supposed to mean?" Naruto growled at him, eyes narrowed angrily.

"Even the most ignorant child will eventually grow up as they learn what true pain is," Pein responded. "It affects what they say, what they think…Eventually, they become real people."

"That's not true!" Naruto shouted. "People grow up by learning to care for others! Someone who knows only pain…can cause only pain!"

"Do you really think that abandoning the love for your friends is the right way to become an adult?" Jiraiya demanded of the orange-haired man, his face set in stone.

"The both of you…you're still just normal people," Pein said, a slight laugh in his voice. "But I, living in the center of an infinite universe of pain, have grown into something more."

"What?" Jiraiya asked slowly.

"That's right," Pein leered. "I've grown from a person…into a god. As a god, what I say, what I think, become the laws of a god. You two…you're still just people. I don't really expect either of you to fully comprehend what I'm saying."

"I can't believe you're the same child that I met so long ago," Jiraiya muttered.

"Things that I couldn't comprehend as a human are crystal clear now that I'm a god," Pein continued. "And, by the same token, I've noticed there are things I can do as a god that I could never even dream of doing as a human. To put it simply, I have evolved."

"This guy is…" Naruto murmured disbelievingly.

The white-haired ninja scowled, "What are you trying to accomplish?"

"I'm going to put an end to this pathetic world and its wars," Pein said arrogantly. "It will be an act of God."

"Then to what end are you chasing the tailed beasts?" Jiraiya asked.

"I suppose I can tell you, since both of you are going to die anyway," Pein replied, blue eyes frosty. "Using the tailed beasts, I will create a new forbidden technique. A technique that will eradicate an entire country in less than a second. It will be the ultimate technique, a weapon of unprecedented power and scale."

"How can you even think of something like that?" Naruto exploded, knuckles white. The air was steadily getting colder. "Violence of that kind could never stop wars!"

Pein turned his eyes over to Jiraiya, "When countries quarrel with one another, what is the quickest way to end the dispute, sensei?"

"Answer Naruto's question," Jiraiya stated firmly. "Stop dodging."

"I will give my ultimate weapon to the warring nations," Pein stated. "After all, people who have a weapon will inevitably use it."

"What are you trying to say?" the Toad Sage's eyes narrowed.

"Hundreds of millions of people would die in an instant," Pein declared, eyes gleaming victoriously, "and the survivors would be terrified. All the people…All the world…will learn what true pain is! My technique will breed fear and serve as a deterrent, and wars will quickly cease. One might say this world of ours is still growing and becoming more balanced.

"Pain will quicken the world's growth, as it did mine. Our world is still in infancy, but the hand of god has come to guide it down the path of maturity."

"You want to teach the world what pain is, to help it grow up faster," Jiraiya repeated, summarizing. "And you think that this is your responsibility?"

"I do," Pein answered. "I am a God of Peace, after all."

"If you are a God of Peace," Naruto stated slowly, his voice even but thick with emotion and his sword drawn. Waves of power swept away from his feet, a bluish aura glowing around his body, "then I will become a God of War!"

A flash of light blinded both Pein and Jiraiya, forcing them to shut there eyes. There was a soft rustle, then a gasp. As Jiraiya's vision came back, he looked up to see Naruto had moved across the room, his sword stabbed through the orange-haired man and wings of ice spread wide.

"Bishamonten Hyôrinmaru," Naruto whispered, eyes narrowed.

There was a crack, then a puff of smoke. Pein vanished, replaced by a thick log with a hole in it from the stab and a long crevice in it, reaching from the top and bottom of the sword impaling it. It split in half a second later, engulfed in a thick layer of pale, unbreakable ice.

"Over here," Pein called, standing atop a large, chameleon like creature.

"Is that another one of your summons?" Jiraiya asked.

"To me," Pein stated, "you're little more than an insignificant child whose growth has been stunted."

Jiraiya laughed, going through hand seals, "A kid telling me to grow up? That's rich!"

When the smoke cleared, Jiraiya stood atop a large toad carrying a shield and a club that looked vaguely like a tuning fork, "No time to waste with this guy, Gameken!"

He bit into his hand, using his fingers to wipe blood on his face and make the design beneath his eyes more elaborate. He looked up, suddenly serious, "I'm going to use Sage Mode."

"What?" Gamaken shrieked. "Are you…?"

"Yes," he replied, "I'm going to summon the Ni Dai Sennin. Stall him for a little while, yes?"

"Got it," Gamaken murmured.

Pein jumped on the lizard's tongue and was taken into the beast's mouth. An instant later, they vanished from view, invisible. Jiraiya looked around, "He's gone! And… so is Naruto? Damn. Since he's gone, we can only defend."

Gamaken's only response was to life his shield. Going through a few hand seals, Jiraiya jumped, slamming his feet against his summon's head. Instantly, a transparent barrier was erected and spread out, covering the area.

In response, it seemed, a seven-headed dog leap out of the wall high up, diving towards Jiraiya and Gamaken, both of who were too shocked to react immediately. They didn't have to, however, because a dragon of water appeared from nowhere and slammed into the beast, knocking it into the wall and freezing it in the gigantic hole it made there. It seemed unconscious, then vanished.

Creating a hole of their own, Gamaken and Jiraiya escaped into the city outside. Immediately, they were besieged by what looked to be a crow summon, which attacked them with its large beak. Gamaken swung his gigantic shield around, clocking the beast right in its jaw and sending it flying. It vanished in a puff.

A large, ox-like summon was pitted against them next, marred by several studs pierced through its head and body. Leaping forward at the beast, Jiraiya cried out, as he did hand seals, "Gamaken, go back! It's my turn!"

The beast rammed into him, throwing both the white-haired ninja and its own head into a wall and creating a large hole there. There was silence for a moment, then a loud, annoying voice called, "Brat! Why do you always summon us in places like this! No wonder he's always angry!"

"Ah, don't say that, Ma," a patronizing voice answered. "Little Jiraiya was forced to do this…"

"Pa, shut up!" the annoying voice called back.

"I apologize for meeting you here," Jiraiya's voice said, "eldest and big sister."

"But, brat," Ma asked, "didn't you say this would chase away girls? That's why you disliked it!"

"No choice but to dislike," Jiraiya said. "My opponent is the Rin'negan."

"Whoa," Ma's voice echoed, "Rikudô's eyes? I didn't know they still existed!"

"They do," Jiraiya said. "So, let's go."

A different looking — toad-like — Jiraiya stepped out of the hole in the wall. On each shoulder sat an old-looking toad, one male with sparse white hair, the other female, wearing what looked to be a shower cap. The male spoke up, "So, where is this guy, anyway? I don't see him."

"It's not your fault," Jiraiya said, a goatee formed on his chin. "He's hiding inside a summoned animal that can blend in with it's surroundings. Naruto has performed a similar feat, it seems."

"Something like a chameleon, you mean?" Ma asked. She threw her webbed hands into a seal. "I'll find him in no time!"

"By the way, Jiraiya-chan," Pa asked, "I realize you need us because this guy's so tough, but why are you fighting him in the first place?"

"He's a former student of mine," Jiraiya said simply.

"I ain't heard nothing about no other student of yours!" Pa exclaimed, looking shocked.

"He's the destined child?" Ma concluded. "Then why are you fighting him?"

"He didn't grow up to be the man I hoped he would," Jiraiya summarized.

"Well, whatever the case, if he ain't turned out right, we have to kill him!" Pa said.

"Found him!" Ma cried, turning her head to the left. Her tongue shot out, wrapping around midair and revealing the chameleon. With what seemed to be ease, she lifted the large beast off of the ground and threw it back into the harsh earth. Pa spit out what seemed to be a beam of pure energy, slicing through the wall above the beast and sending it tumbling down onto the scaled creature. In a puff of smoke the lizard vanished.

"That's the Rin'negan, eh?" Ma asked. "There definitely the eyes described in the legends."

The orange-haired man stood stoically amongst the wreckage around him, staring calmly at the great Jiraiya. He could not sense the boy who had been with him, no doubt a display of the child's amazing prowess in the ninja arts and his own special abilities. Slowly, he raised his hands and made the correct seals, "Kuchiyose no Jutsu."

Two more orange-haired men, both wearing identical cloaks, appeared at the original's feet, kneeling. Jiraiya took notice, but merely reaffirmed his resolution, "You're the one who's going to destroy the world…and it's my duty as your teacher to stop you."

In a flash, the one with long, unbound hair leapt forward, attacking. As it came near, Jiraiya lashed out with a vicious kick and sent him back towards his fellows. He crashed into the ground, the earth beneath him cracking on impact. Smiling slightly, the original comment, "Very nice."

Jiraiya didn't have time to respond. A dragon leapt down from the pipes and engulfed the downed body in water, splashing all over the place. The two others leapt away to avoid being caught, landing a safe distance away. As the water froze into ice, a figure dropped down from above, plummeting like a rock.

Naruto landed with a loud crash, driving his sword through the heart of the frozen body with his crystalline wings spread wide and far. The ice cracked and split, crumbling into pieces beneath both the force of the landing and the pressure of new ice creeping outwards from the attack.

Spinning around as he stood, Naruto swiped his sword, unleashing three more dragons that clambered over one another like vicious wolves trying to best one another for the first bite. Even as the dragons bore down on the other two bodies, Naruto swept through more hand seals. As the remaining enemies ducked under his beasts, the splattering water began to take on a new form.

"Sensatsu Suisho!" Naruto cried, the creatures of water twisting into thousands of needles. At one, the tiny projectiles flew towards their targets, who dodged out of their path with ease. Still Naruto made seals, and the splashing needles reformed yet again. Several drill-like spikes of water lanced forth. "Suiton: Suiga no Jutsu!"

The original body managed to escape, but the rotund one wasn't quite so lucky. His left leg was sliced from his body, throwing him off balance. Naruto threw a kunai at the empty air, crying, "Sensei!"

Taking his cue, Jiraiya leapt up, grabbing the thrown weapon as he did, and threw it with all his might at the falling body. The sheer force behind the attack drove it straight through the man's skull, killing him instantly. He crashed against the ground with a dull thwack, motionless. Jiraiya landed seconds later, feeling satisfied.

Sensing an impending attack from behind, Jiraiya lashed out with a kick, sending the original body back into the wall, stunned. Naruto flew forwards, flashing through even more hand seals as he called back once more, "Sensei! I need some oil!"

Jiraiya and the two toads on his shoulders grinned, leaning back as their cheeks bulged and their chests puffed out. Naruto suddenly halted, behaving similarly as he brought the fingers of his free hand up to his lips. The three of them unleashed a torrent of oil, soaking the orange-haired man to the bone. Even as they continued, Naruto blew out a blazing ball of fire. Jiraiya recognized it as "Katon: Karyuu Endan".

Mercilessly, the original body was consumed. Jiraiya seriously doubted that the man could possibly have survived that, "God" or not. They had won. Against all odds, against a foe that seemed to get stronger and stronger each minute, they had managed to defeat him. But something was still bothering him. If Pein was Nagato, then what happened to the black-haired boy he remembered? He didn't see anyone that even looked remotely like that.

Still, they had won. To the burning corpse, he spoke, "I taught you a long time ago, Nagato, to never underestimate your opponents."

He turned and sighed, closing his eyes as the transformation of Sage Mode began to fade. Behind him, a voice whispered in his ear, "Didn't you just remind me not to underestimate my enemies, Jiraiya-sensei?"

Jiraiya was a little unsure what happened. The moment the voice had whispered in his ear, he had spun around, a horrible dread settling in his stomach. He was sure he was going to die, but Naruto appeared in front of him as if from nowhere, wings and the shield on his arm raised defensively. Frighteningly enough, those had all but crumbled under the incredible might of the blow.

From there, it was pretty straightforward. The force behind the attack had been diminished enough by Naruto's defense that no serious damage was dealt by the initial impact, but it had still sent them crashing through the pipes and onto the lake on the other side. Jiraiya landed on the water, fine but a little shaken. Naruto landed as well, but his Bankai had vanished and he was panting. It was a mark, Jiraiya thought, of Pein's strength that Naruto had to use up so much energy to defend one attack.

Another thing Jiraiya noticed was the scroll tucked in the back of Naruto's pants, blood splattered along parts of the white. He was impressed, "You…"

"I managed to seal up the two that we killed," Naruto said between breaths. "I didn't think the charred one would be of any use."

"Good job," Jiraiya muttered.

He didn't get the chance to say anything else, as, standing in the hole their departure had made were four men. Two of them were new faces, though both had at least one piercing on their face and matching orange-hair, and one of them was the supposedly charred corpse they had killed a few moments before.

"Pein," he muttered, "what are you?"

"The name Pein is shared by all of us," the final one said, glaring.

"You," Jiraiya stuttered as he recognized the face and hair style, "you can't be…! Yahiko? But…he just said that you're dead! And…you can't have the Rin'negan!"

"You can still see Yahiko in me? How funny," the final man remarked. "I suppose only his teacher would be able to see what remains of Yahiko. But, make no mistake, he is dead. The man standing here now is Pein, no one else."

"Enough of your bullshit!" Jiraiya shouted. "Are you Nagato or Yahiko?"

"We are Pein," the man responded in a menacing tone as they all leapt from their perches. "We are GOD!"

One of them landed right in front of the blonde, hitting him hard enough to send him back several meters. Jiraiya grew concerned, turning to look for his pupil, "Naruto!"

The Peins used the opportunity this presented, taking Jiraiya by surprise as they converged on him. Before he could do anything, he found himself impaled on three long, black objects. The pain followed quickly, and then came the realization that he wouldn't survive this encounter.

"Sensei!" Naruto's voice called. With renewed strength, he struck the one that had hit him, knocking it back and stunning it for a moment. He came upon one of the bodies attacking the white-haired ninja, poised to strike. Jiraiya could see, from the corner of his eye, the last body, the one that Naruto had just hit, look up.

A second later, all three Peins moved away from Jiraiya, one turning around to block Naruto's attack. The other two flanked him, weapons positioned to stab. That's when Jiraiya realized it. The bodies could see from each other's point of view. That meant that, as long as one stood back and observed, all the others could see everything.

Sword still defending, Naruto leapt up over the strange black objects, lashing out with a kick to each of their faces. The both of them went flying, and they didn't look like they'd be getting up any time soon. With some fancy swordplay, the blonde sliced off the third one's hand, sending the weapon tumbling down to the water's depths. A punch took care of that one, temporarily.

As the final Pein came up behind him, Naruto seemed to be expecting it. He twisted his sword into a reverse grip and, with both hands holding tight, jerked it backwards, past the right side of his stomach. With a squelch, it became embedded in the chest of the Pein he and Jiraiya had charred earlier.

With all of his opponents, taken care of, Naruto rushed over to the white-haired man, crying, "Sensei!" over and over.

"Naruto," Jiraiya said somewhat weakly, "I'm not going to make it."

Alarmed, Naruto looked around, spotting a small strip of land far enough away to buy him a little bit of time. Grabbing a firm hold of his mentor, the both of them were teleported over to that spot with naught but the sound of a fluttering curtain to follow them. As the original laid the man back against a large lantern pole, two clones popped into existence and began chanting as they sat down.

Instantly, a large, rectangular barrier was erected, glowing a bright golden color and translucent enough that it could be seen into. Immediately following it, a second barrier of slightly larger size was made, completely transparent and covering the first. A flash of light reflected off of it, then both Naruto and Jiraiya seemed to disappear.

"I've set up Kyômon and Danku," Mirror Door and Splitting void, two of the most powerful barriers. Naruto pushed thoughts like that away. "I don't know how long they'll hold."

"Naruto," Jiraiya stated firmly. Ma and Pa were silent. "Pein can see from all of his different bodies' perspectives. What one sees, they all see. Secondly," — he coughed violently, red blood tainting his lips as his Sage Mode left him more and more — "the secret to the true Sage Mode, the secret to perfecting Ryûjin no Torai…is to separate yourself from the dragon within you."

"What?" Naruto asked, bewildered.

"You must draw on his power," Jiraiya elaborated, "but you must control it — harness it — instead of merely accepting it as it is. Only then can you truly advance to the level needed to defeat Pein. The real one, the real body behind Pein, isn't there, Naruto. Nagato…Nagato wasn't there. Tell that to Tsunade for me."

"Okay," Naruto said solemnly.

"And Naruto," Jiraiya wheezed. He seemed to be struggling to get the words out, "I've got…one last…last order…"

Naruto leaned forward, hanging onto every word. His eyes were beginning to water, but he didn't dare let the tears fall just yet. "Live…"

"I understand," Naruto whispered.

Jiraiya let out a sigh of relief, "I could…really…go for…one of those apples…"

With a final exhale, Jiraiya died, and all was quiet for a moment. Ma and Pa disappeared silently, but the soft puff the made didn't even faze the blonde teen sitting next to the body of the legendary Jiraiya. Finally, at length, he spoke, "My friend, do you fly away now? To a world that abhors you and I? All that awaits you is a somber morrow…"

He stood, hefting Jiraiya onto his shoulders, and whispered to the air, "No matter where the winds may blow…"

In a flash of yellow, they disappeared.

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

The sun hung low in the sky, casting an orange glow down upon the village. The last vestiges of daylight, of sunlight, flittered around the streets and atop the trees and buildings, casting shadows that danced across the ground and the walls. A soft wind blew through the alleyways, thousands of voices lost to its tender mercies.

Five great faces loomed out from a large mountainside, overlooking the village with stern gazes and hard, stony features that would make any Hyuga proud. A crack marred the third face, but it took nothing away from the harsh and protective countenance of the young third Hokage.

The streets were deserted, which was odd for the time of day that it was. Night had not yet set in, so several people should still be out. But an ominous air hung over the village, driving all who could feel it indoors and away from whatever could be the cause. It would make things easier on one person.

A blond appeared in the middle of the street, walking solemnly towards the five great faces. An arm was slung over his shoulder, and his other shoulder and back were supporting the weight of a motionless white-haired man, whose head drooped and whose eyes were closed. Jiraiya of the Sannin hung limply over his student.

"I remember, there was this great big apple tree up there," Jiraiya said, gesturing with his arms to give his student an idea about this tree's size. "Now, normally, that isn't all that strange a thing. But these apples were very weird."

He pulled one out of nowhere, holding it up for Naruto to see. It was apple shaped, it looked like an apple…but it was pure white instead of red or green. Jiraiya grinned, "This is an apple plucked from the largest apple tree planted atop the Hokage monument. That is the only place in the whole world where you can find white apples."

And indeed it was. In all of the places the older man had taken Naruto and his entourage, none of them had ever been gifted with the strange Kyakko Whites. That had surprised Naruto greatly. What made Konoha and the Hokage monument so special that Kyakko Whites only grew there?

"When I die," Jiraiya said suddenly, his tone serious, "I want to be buried at the base of that tree. I want to be able to look up at those apples, so round, so beautiful, so delicious, even in death."

"Where's this coming from all of the sudden?" Naruto asked uncomfortably, trying to lighten the mood back up.

"Plus, you'll probably bring your lady friends up there for a romantic evening of raunchy steaminess!" Jiraiya grinned perversely. Naruto snorted, throwing one of the special white apples at the man. It hit him and his head jerked back, but he righted himself a moment later to reveal that he had caught it in between his teeth.

Shaking his head, Naruto laughed quietly, "What am I going to do with you?"

"Naruto," a voice called softly. The blonde stopped walking, but didn't need to look behind him to know who it was. He didn't need to look behind him to see Tsunade standing there, trying her best to be strong and nonchalant and failing just barely. He didn't want to see it.

"It was Pein," Naruto said hoarsely. "Jiraiya said…He said to tell you, 'The real one isn't there'. He said to make sure that you knew…that you knew that Nagato's real body wasn't there."

"Real body?" Tsunade asked quietly.

Naruto pulled out the scroll with one hand and tossed it to her, saying, "That should answer your questions."

"Where are you going?" it wasn't a question, so much as it was a demand to know.

He was silent for a moment, then started walking again, "To bury him where he wanted to be buried when he died."

"And where's that?" came the follow up question.

Naruto looked up at the Hokage monument, at the sun setting just behind it, and answered her with more finality that he thought he could muster at that moment, with his voice as harsh and raw as it was from crying.

"Under the Apple Tree."

— o.0.O.O.0.o —

To be continued

Disclaimer: I don't own Naruto or Bleach (and Loveless comes from Crisis Core: Final Fantasy VII)

This chapter dedicated to Zack Fair, SOLDIER, First Class, who gave his life for his best friend. Yes, Zack, you became a hero.

Several things delayed the writing and release of this chapter, but, as I know I never do, I doubt any of you really want to know what those things are. As of right now, there will be approximately thirteen chapters to SUTFH, give or take one chapter. That leaves three more, one of which is the epilogue (which is more of a tool to transition into the sequel).

If all goes well, we should be done by early to late March, maybe April.

Embrace your dreams…

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes

James Daniel Godric Alan Fawkes(Signature best viewed in Wendy Medium font style)