Chapter One: Genesis – Big Trouble in Little Ame

Disclaimer: Naruto's not mine. I'm not getting paid to write this, et cetera.

Author's Note: This work is a sequel to Nine Tailed Serpent, and assumes that the reader has completed the previous installment.

"Fucking rain…" A blond-haired teenager grumbled underneath his breath as he stomped along the uphill road, splashing mud about as he walked. "I swear it hasn't stopped once since we crossed the damned border."

His short pants and sleeveless shirt were both sopping wet due to the ceaseless deluge and giving him a rash. The blond reached over to his wrist and whipped out his short jian blade – the peerless Kusanagi no Tsurugi – that was resting within the custom socket on his Konoha ANBU-issue bracer, and used it to hack apart a low tree branch in a pointless attempt to vent his irritation. The action provided him with no happiness.

"Be patient, Naruto-kun," a low, whispering voice murmured a step behind him, almost impossible to hear over the pounding rain. "I believe we're getting close to the meeting place."

The blond, Uzumaki Naruto, living container to the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox – a jinchuuriki, stopped walking and leaned against a tree trunk to allow his companion to pass him. The two were on a mission, and all that Naruto knew was that their goal was to provide assistance in overthrowing the Hidden Rain Village's government – a tall order. The blond had a strong suspicion that his 'partner' knew some additional details pertaining to the task that he wasn't sharing, but he dared not accuse the other shinobi.

'Fuck you, you creepy bastard.' Naruto groused in his mind. 'You're a dry as a bone under that getup.' The other man, Akatsuki member and S-Rank Konoha Missing-nin Uchiha Itachi, strode past him, dressed in a thick black cloak embroidered with red clouds with a bamboo kasa ringed with paper strips resting on his head. Itachi glanced back at him and arched a brow, and the jinchuuriki let out a wince, sensing that the older teenager had somehow read his thoughts. For what seemed like the hundredth time that week, Naruto regretted his choice to leave his village behind and agree to a role in what seemed like an inevitable suicide pact at Itachi's provocation. 'Destroy Akatsuki, indeed,' he despaired. 'Argh, I'm such a fucking moron…'

'No help for it,' Naruto attempted to console his mind as he raked a hand through his spiked locks, wringing out the water as he used the tree as cover against the rain. 'I'm committed now.'

And it was true. Even assuming that Itachi would allow him to return home, which the Uchiha wouldn't, his own treason was no doubt known in his village now. Naruto had vanished without permission on a mission to retrieve the Slug Princess Tsunade, the chosen successor to the retired Sandaime Hokage, with Itachi and Hoshigaki Kisame over a month earlier now, and whether Tsunade had agreed to return to Konoha or not, Naruto's actions would have been reported. Perhaps the village's Hunter-nin were pursuing him even then. He could never return, and he missed home and his people there.

"Oi, Itachi-san," Naruto muttered in a moderate voice, wanting to break the rain's monotone.

The genjutsu master didn't respond, however, and remained standing in his place on the path. The demon vessel blinked and opened his mouth to repeat his address. However, he stopped short, sensing the situation a bit later than his companion. Itachi's head craned back towards the jinchuuriki. Naruto nodded and made a Konoha ANBU hand signal representing 'three,' knowing that the Uchiha, who had once been a captain in Konoha's elite masked assassination corps, would recognize it. Itachi pursed his thin lips and returned a 'seven,' along with another hand sign that indicated that the duo was now surrounded. The blond glowered back, irritated that he hadn't noticed, and more pissed because he knew that Itachi had noticed, but hadn't bothered to do a thing about it.

As though on cue, cloaked shapes began to land inside the trees and crags surrounding Naruto and Itachi, and one materialized in the mud near them. The blond sneered and looked at the newcomer's hitai-ate. The protector bore the Hidden Rain emblem, but had a horizontal line slashed through it, indicating him as a rogue shinobi. Seven or seven hundred, Naruto didn't care. He wouldn't quail against an entire nation, so long as he had Itachi with him. The demon vessel ran chakra through the sword in its hand, and the Kusanagi extended to its proper combat length. The nearest Rain-nin, a kunoichi took a tense step back and palmed the spiked metal whip coiled at her side, and her cohorts likewise prepared to do battle. Naruto made to rush and strike her down in his chronic impulsiveness, but Itachi's hand gripped his wrist, cool and strong. The jinchuuriki looked over into the Uchiha's swirling Sharingan with an indignant expression, but relented.

"This is restricted ground, trespassers," the kunoichi ground out in no demure tone, her hand still on her weapon and her voice altered due to her breathing mask. "Intruders aren't tolerated here." The blond had a sneaking suspicion that these were the Amegakure rebels that he and Itachi were being hired to assist, but he kept his own counsel.

"Please excuse us, ma'am." Itachi murmured in his emotionless voice, releasing his hold on Naruto's wrist and raising his hands in a placating gesture. "This spirited person and I are travelers, on a pilgrimage to meet with God."

Naruto needed all the expert shinobi training that he could muster not to stare at the Uchiha in reaction to what seemed to be a ridiculous comment. The blond averted his gaze towards the muddied ground, as though he were embarrassed about losing his temper. He wasn't, and the cursed seal on his neck pulsed with a malevolent desire to kill the woman barring his path. Naruto hissed under his breath and shoved the dangerous impulse down, cursing the moment that the Sannin Orochimaru had marked him with his juin. The blond sensed a second rebel shinobi landing near him, next to the kunoichi leader, and Itachi's sleeve brushed his arm as the illusionist stepped back closer to him.

"He wears the sacred raiments," the bigger man whispered in a reverent tone, indicating Itachi's cloak. "He must be God's agent."

Naruto was torn between the urge to look at his companion in sheer puzzlement and the overwhelming desire to snort in contempt to the whole thing. He guessed that this whole religious nonsense was a code routine that the client and Itachi had agreed to use, but that knowledge did nothing to change how stupid it sounded.

"No, don't be ridiculous," the kunoichi shook her head in veiled disdain as she reproved her zealous comrade "There's no telling where this stranger might have gotten that clothing. Remember that the heretic lizard's tricks are innumerable, and his spies likewise."

That was enough to validate Naruto's suspicion. He hadn't thought much about it upon hearing about the mission, but there was a chance that he might run against the man who ruled the Hidden Rain, Hanzou the Salamander, in combat. To think that he might have to take on a shinobi who had bested all three Sannin at once, no matter how old he might now be, sent a chill running down Naruto's spine.

"That's not good enough," the leader then turned to Itachi and spoke, and the blond had to wonder whether this bitch realized who in the Hell she was running her mouth to, or whether she even cared. Uchiha Itachi could garrote her and all her cohorts in a mere instant, provided it suited his mood to do so. "Leave this place now."

Itachi remained standing in place, unimpressed with the order, and Naruto grinned and moved into a more prepared stance, placing his back to the older genius's. No blows were exchanged, however. A woman's voice rang out near the gathering, strong and clear.

"Enough, soldiers. You can all stand down." Naruto's head craned over towards the newest arrival as the rebels all abandoned their perches and knelt. A woman with blue hair dressed in an Akatsuki cloak was standing among some trees near a rock hillside, holding a large oil paper parasol in her hand to shield against the rain. From the distance Naruto could glimpse a large white blossom pinned in her arranged hair. This Akatsuki member turned to the demon container and Itachi next and beckoned to the Missing-nin pair. "Follow me, please."

Though her voice sounded perhaps inviting, there was no mistaking that it wasn't a request, rather a command. Thus, Naruto couldn't help being a bit surprised when Itachi heeded the woman's will without the least resistance. For his part, he hadn't noticed her being there at all until she'd revealed her presence, and he knew quite well that the Ame rebels hadn't either. Their surprise seemed too genuine to be an act. Itachi had detected her presence though, no doubt. Naruto peered over at the blue-haired woman with a narrow stare, and then trudged along behind the Uchiha, the rain soaking him again in an instant.

"Remain on alert and maintain decorum at all times, Naruto-kun," the slate-haired illusionist warned in a quiet voice as the two neared the waiting kunoichi. "You will soon meet with Akatsuki's Leader. It would be unwise to insult him."

Itachi gave a warning glance towards the Kusanagi in the teenager's hand. Naruto got the hint but didn't heed it. Like Hell he was going to go walking into the tiger's den unarmed. His mind was racing, ever the more convinced that his companion had led him straight into a trap. Itachi hadn't mentioned a word about this supposed Leader earlier. The kunoichi ran through several hand seals and pressed a hand against a boulder on the hillside. The rock shimmered and dissolved, revealing a narrow tunnel that appeared to lead underground. Naruto took the rear as the trio entered the cave, unwilling to expose his back.

The chamber was dark, as expected, and Naruto had an almost impossible time seeing Itachi and the other Akatsuki member due to their black cloaks. He ran more chakra into his sword, causing the blade to radiate with a brilliant white light, illuminating the whole passage. The Uchiha and the woman both turned back in response to the sudden light. Naruto kept the blade in his right hand, returning the stares without intimidation. The kunoichi took in his appearance with a neutral and callous expression, her gaze trailing his whisker marks, and then traveling down his arm to examine the ANBU tattoo on his right bicep and at last the Kusanagi in his hand. Then she turned to Itachi, dismissing Naruto without a word and appearing to regard the blond as nothing worth considering.

"You were expected long ago, Itachi-san," Naruto picked up on a certain passive dislike in the woman's tone as she addressed the stoic Uchiha. "Your late arrival has slowed our plans to an unacceptable degree."

Her attitude irritated Naruto, and the manner in which she'd outright pegged him as unimportant brought him back to his weak childhood. He'd made Konoha acknowledge him. From the Hokage right down to the lowest villager, some loved him, others respected him and most hated him, but no-one treated Uzumaki Naruto as though he were nothing. 'I'll make you notice me just the same, bitch. Wait and see,' he vowed inside his mind as he stared at a small metal piercing located under the Akatsuki kunoichi's bottom lip, throwing his spiked head back to shake the rainwater loose.

"The weather impaired our travel," Itachi answered her in an unconcerned tone and resumed his measured walk down the passage, taking the lead.

The woman stared at his back and moved on behind him, again sparing Naruto no attention, and the jinchuuriki kept to the rear, his mouth curling into a mulish glower.

More than inclement weather had impeded their trip. Evading all the countless Hidden Rain shinobi patrols had been a serious bitch, not to mention having to travel along the harsh semiarid borderlands between Suna and Konoha in order to reach Ame no Kuni.

From there, the walk continued on in oppressive silence. The path soon widened outward into a large cavern. The Kusanagi's sacred light spread outward around the enormous room, but wasn't able to provide much vision in the larger area. However, Naruto was able to see the gigantic statue standing within, a hellish monster. For some reason, the sight made his stomach churn. Even more unsettling, however, was that Itachi seemed to be on his guard and tense about something. The change was subtle, but Naruto had spent more than enough time in the older teenager's constant presence to be able to detect the minute change in his usual placid manner. The reason wasn't long in coming.

"Uzumaki Naruto," a smooth, charismatic voice then echoed through the cavern. "So, we meet at last. You have kept us waiting."

The blond stopped walking, and looked up to where another cloaked silhouette sat with legs crossed atop the statue's head. Then the man was standing on the ground near to him. Naruto hadn't seen or sensed him move. The Akatsuki shinobi stepped into the Kusanagi's light, allowing the demon container to take a look at his exotic appearance. The man's nose, ears and mouth were covered with piercings and he wore a slashed Hidden Rain protector. However, something else dominated Naruto's attention.

'Those eyes…' He possessed some doujutsu that the blond didn't recognize. From that and how Itachi tensed in his presence, Naruto also realized that this man, whatever his name was, had to be Akatsuki's Leader. The pierced man had a presence about him that screamed danger, even though his demeanor seemed neutral. That it, until he reached Naruto's position, at which point his attitude changed in an instant.

"You're a brave soul, jinchuuriki," the Leader hissed, his tone now cold and harsh as he looked hard at the Kusanagi, "indeed, brave or perhaps stupid, to venture into God's realm with a drawn weapon."

The sudden, murderous spiritual pressure caused the blond to go weak in the knees, and nothing but his iron determination not to look weak kept him standing. Still, even the Leader's malice couldn't begin to match the demon sealed inside his stomach, though it ranked as a distant second still, nothing to sneer at given the other monsters that Naruto had met. The pierced shinobi made both Kisame and Orochimaru seem like children.

He shot a glance towards Itachi, whose lips were pursed into a tight, thin line. The illusionist didn't look back at him. His attention was instead concentrated on the Leader. Naruto should have paid attention to the Uchiha's advice, he now realized. He shortened his weapon and lowered it, sucking in a low breath through his teeth, aware that both the Leader and his kunoichi accomplice were observing him. He hated having to bow, but now wasn't the time to stand on his ego.

"I apologize, Your…er, Godship," Naruto stammered, not having a clue he was supposed to address a lunatic who pretended as though he were God. He didn't dare call the man 'Leader,' as he hadn't been accepted into Akatsuki. At least he now knew what the religious bullshit outside earlier had been all about, again wishing that Itachi had provided a little advance warning. "I meant no insult."

The blond returned his short blade to its wrist socket. The cavern blackened with the light now extinguished, reducing the three cloaked Akatsuki members: the Leader, the kunoichi and Itachi into mere shapes in the darkness. 'Another brush with death,' Naruto realized as he exhaled the earlier breath. Had he not been what he was and crucial to the Leader's agenda, the pierced man would have killed him over the imagined slight.

"Come," the Leader commanded Naruto in a curt voice as the man turned about and began walking through the dark cavern.

The jinchuuriki simmered, glancing towards Itachi again and seeking some direction. He hated being beckoned like a dog. The Uchiha looked back and then started behind the Leader, tucking his arm inside his cloak. Naruto matched pace with him, knowing that he had no choice but to endure it. 'For now, at least,' he amended in his thoughts with a mental snarl. 'And then when the right time comes…' he allowed his thought to trail.

The pierced shinobi led the group across the pitch-black cavern and into another narrow rock tunnel, which changed into what Naruto thought was some weird techno architecture. The modern corridor had electric lights to provide some dim vision, at least, and emptied into another room. This one had several tube-like structures which were covered with large, opaque sheets that allowed no glimpse as to whatever resided inside them.

"That's…" Naruto breathed out when he reached the exit and looked down the steep mountainside, glimpsing Ame's industrial metropolis, with its steel buildings and pipes. Factories churned noxious silver smoke into the air, where it clashed with the pouring rain. Tall buildings stretched deep into the horizon.

"That," the Akatsuki Leader parroted, "is our paradise, and tomorrow, we will claim it."

He wasn't sure that he'd call it a paradise, but the blond knew that he'd never seen such a place. The largest cities in his homeland didn't begin to compare, and neither did those in Kiri. Konoha was a rustic backwater relative to this urban nightmare.

"Most impressive," Itachi murmured as lightning arced in the skies, illuminating the horizon. He waited to allow the resulting thunderclap to pass, and then continued in his monotone voice. "I wasn't aware that such a place as this even existed."

"This metropolis will serve as Akatsuki's main stronghold," the Leader's azure-haired kunoichi accomplice explained, causing Naruto to look back towards her. "All that remains to be done is to evict the present ruler," she continued, as though overthrowing Hanzou the Salamander were some mundane chore.

For three Akatsuki members, perhaps it was nothing more than that. Naruto remembered how much carnage two pairs had wrought upon his own home village, and this time the Leader would be participating.

"I suppose that's what we'll be doing, then," the blond concluded, though the silence that met his comment made his wish he hadn't spoken at all.

'Bah, I guess I haven't earned the right to voice an opinion,' he groused in his thoughts. 'That shark bastard Kisame was right. The real world isn't like Konoha at all.' To the Leader, he was a weapon to be used and not a person to be respected, it seemed.

"No," the Leader shot at last shot him down with a single word, still gazing into the metropolis below. "I will kill Hanzou alone. You and Itachi will meanwhile assist Konan in spearheading the main assault. A jinchuuriki ought to be suited to such a task." The last sentence was coupled with a challenging stare, and Naruto nodded, knowing that no matter what answer he provided, it would be deemed inadequate.

"Accommodations have been prepared down the hall," the kunoichi, Konan as the Leader had now named her, spoke to the two teenagers as she gestured down the lit corridor nearest their position. "Rest now while there's still time. The operation begins at sunrise."

The dismissal was rather obvious. Itachi nodded and departed, with Naruto marking the illusionist's lead. The blond never looked back, and seemed relieved to escape the meeting with the Leader with his head intact.

"You should rest also, Konan," Pain noted once the two teenagers were gone, his tone lighter. "Tomorrow will be a grueling battle."

"Not with those two around," the blue-haired woman muttered, glancing towards the residential corridor, where Naruto and Itachi had headed. "I hope that jinchuuriki doesn't lose his head out there. I'd rather not have us inherit a scorching ruin."

"He'll behave," the Rin'negan wielder assured. "He wants to be let into our cabal. Provided he does well, I'll consider the idea."

"Better to keep him where we can watch him until the time comes," Konan agreed as more lightning split the dark skies. Neither needed to comment upon what that 'time' meant. "He might even prove to be an asset in the mean. He's got guts enough, at least."

"You were impressed with that belligerent act back there," Pain sneered, though with a little amusement, telling the woman more than asking what she had thought about Naruto's dangerous gamble with the Grasscutter.

"Few people would dare to have the sheer gall to do something such as that." Konan replied with a noncommittal shrug. "Itachi told him that he would be meeting 'the Leader,' I believe."

"Those two do seem to have some rapport," the Leader commented. "Itachi was the person who managed to convince the jinchuuriki to come along. I suspect collusion," Pain continued on in a low murmur, both thinking out loud and addressing Konan. "I'm not quite certain what relationship might exist between those two, but perhaps we can maneuver it to our own ends…"

'Or deal with Itachi if it becomes necessary,' was the unspoken alternative, but both knew it.

"I'll keep a close watch on them both during the operation," the paper manipulator promised. A harsh wind gusted across the mountain base, causing the lights to shudder.

"Please do," Pain responded with a sigh. "Now leave me be and get some rest. I must meditate on tomorrow's battle with Hanzou."

Konan nodded and took her leave. Pain continued staring into the horizon well into the night, never moving or uttering a sound.


Late that night, or perhaps into the next morning, Naruto wasn't all too certain about the hour, he sat up in his cot and looked around the darkened room. Konan had called these miserable quarters 'accommodations,' but such a term rankled with even a rigid minimalist like him. He would have expected at least one bed in the small, barren room he'd been given to share with Itachi, but no such luck. Looking around the room, he noted that the illusionist was no longer there, his own cot abandoned.

'Yep, this is what you abandoned home for,' the blond chastised his rash decision in his mind again, looking around the hole in the rock that he'd been provided, betting that the Leader and Konan had much nicer living quarters. 'You're a real genius, Naruto.' At least Itachi had been made to share his plight, so he knew that it wasn't discrimination. Not that the stoic Uchiha had said a single word, or otherwise showed irritation with the poor 'accommodations' at all. 'Ah, the Hell with it,' the demon container concluded as he rose. 'I'm not getting any more sleep tonight.'

Naruto walked across the room to the wall and considered the article located there. Two new cloud-patterned Akatsuki cloaks had been hanging on a rack there upon his and Itachi's arrival. He reached over and took the remaining one in his hand, squeezing the material, somehow knowing that it was meant to be his. The cloak was strong but still pliable, augmented with thin wire mesh inside the seams to provide additional protection. Naruto then slipped the ominous black and red garment on, leaving his torso bare underneath to let him have unrestricted access to his summon tattoo in the battle that loomed on the horizon.

There was no mirror in the room to let him gaze upon his image, but he imagined that he looked 'badass' enough in the huge Akatsuki cloak, grinning at the thought. The high collar covered his whisker marks, hiding his distinguishing characteristic. He supposed, when paired with a ridiculous hat like those he'd seen Itachi and Kisame wearing, that he would be more or less unrecognizable. The cloak swished a little as he walked across the room again to leave, but he had no trouble moving about in it otherwise.

Naruto slinked down the tunneled corridor, doing his best not to make noise, as though it mattered. The people here would be able to sense his movements no matter how cautious he tried to be. The Leader and Itachi were both S-Class criminals, and the jinchuuriki had no reason not to assume that Konan was the same. Nevertheless, the blond thought it prudent to use stealth. He soon reached the exit that led onto the mountain outside, the room with the strange tubes. The demonic blond peered down at the strange contraptions.

'Hmm…' He was curious to see what was inside, but at the same time, he was sure the Leader would notice. He decided that it would be better not to be too inquisitive. He'd poked the man with a sharp stick once earlier, and dared not chance a repeat. The Leader might not kill him, but Naruto was quite certain that the Amegakure rebel commander had other, likewise unpleasant punishments, and the blond was within the man's power here.

'Speak of the devil,' the jinchuuriki groused in his thoughts. Down the main hall, in the massive cavern with the statue, he could sense the Leader's menacing presence. 'And, so much for that idea,' he decided to abandon his walk around the compound, not in the least caring to have a moonlight rendezvous with 'God.' Instead, he looked towards the route leading outside. The downgrade was rather steep, almost a sheer drop down the mountainside. There was no beaten path regardless. Not a problem at all.

Naruto hopped outside and molded chakra beneath his sandals to catch on the mountain rock, still wet and slick due to the downpour earlier in the night. For once, the skies were hushed, and the moon shone bright overhead. The blond ran around seeking a suitable place to relax, and soon stumbled across a small plateau that held some grass and trees. He leapt down onto the level ground and reclined against the nearest tree trunk, content to lounge about until sunrise. The jinchuuriki cracked his neck and looked up. Two glowing red lights peered back down at him in the darkness.

"Hello, Naruto-kun," Uchiha Itachi droned, crouched upon a twisted tree limb above the blond demon vessel's head.

The jinchuuriki recoiled in surprise and almost tumbled over the mountain's edge. He managed to catch his momentum in time and rolled back over to his previous position. Itachi's cloak was draped over the branch near him, leaving him dressed in the sleeveless combat suit that he wore underneath. The blond could see that he had a shuriken in his hand, and seemed to be threading shinobi wire through the central hole.

"Don't do that," Naruto began in a low hiss, but Itachi quieted him with a hand motion.

"One moment, please," the slate-haired shinobi murmured in response, reaching towards his cloak.

He produced a second shuriken, lined with wire in the exact same manner, and then reached into his equipment pouch with his other hand to retrieve a smoke grenade. The illusionist looked over the edge and glanced around the mountainside, and then ripped the pin on the canister loose and chucked it towards a thick bush lower down the slope. A loud rustling and squawking accompanied the bomb's hissing explosion. A dark shape rushed into the air, and Itachi hurled the shuriken at the same instant.

The two shinobi stars whizzed past the shape, and Naruto glanced over at the Uchiha as he tugged on the wires in his hand. The shuriken arced back around, and a second later, a huge, plump cock pheasant landed on the grass with a dull thud next to the jinchuuriki. The dead bird was bound tight within the coiled wire, twin shuriken imbedded deep into its heart and severed spine.

"Daaamn," was all the response that Naruto could muster, awestruck at Itachi's peerless marksmanship. He doubted whether Tenten back home, who devoted all her training time to working with weapons, could have nailed a shot like that in the dark. He knew that he could never have done so. The older teenager didn't acknowledge the praise, whether or not it pleased him.

"Time to eat," was the emotionless answer, as the Sharingan master again reached into his cloak, this time retrieving a thin storage scroll that contained the pair's stocked provisions, as well as their cooking and eating utensils.

Naruto cleared a spot in the grass, now accustomed to their dinner ritual. An important rule in Itachi's camp was that he who didn't work, also didn't eat. He'd learned that one night in the River swamps, when he'd sat back on his rear and let Itachi and Kisame prepare their supper. He'd been quite surprised when he hadn't received his helping. He'd grasped his lesson, and had made sure to do something to assist the next morning. Though Itachi had dragged him along on this mad enterprise, the other teen wouldn't pamper Naruto, which was something that the blond jinchuuriki appreciated.

"Er, Itachi-san," he ventured, and received a blank stare in return. "There's something I needed to ask."

"Here," the Uchiha deadpanned and retrieved several items inside the scroll, tossing the lot onto the grass as he reeled in the pheasant. "Prepare those, please." Naruto glanced at his part: an onion, three withered carrots and several wild potatoes that Itachi had managed to dig up on the road. He reached inside his cloak into his equipment pouch and pulled out a kunai, taking up the bowl and small chopping board that the Uchiha had also provided.

"Right," he said and began to peel a potato, "but about the Leader. I wanted to ask about his doujutsu."

"His Bloodline Limit is known as the 'Rin'negan,'" Itachi replied in a meticulous lecturing tone, as though he'd been expecting the question all along. "I don't know too much about it either," the genius acknowledged, "except that the doujutsu was said to have once belonged to the Rikudou Sennin."

'Rikudou Sennin,' Naruto echoed in his thoughts, dropping the peeled potato onto the board and starting to dice it into little cubes. 'The Six Path Sage, and the father of modern ninjutsu.' Like all kids who had ever stepped into a shinobi classroom, he knew about the man, the original shinobi, whose true name had long since been lost to the ages.

There were some who believed that the Six Path Sage was still the greatest shinobi to practice the art, but Naruto was inclined to disagree with them. Ninjutsu was a never-ending work in progress, like all martial arts tended to be. Each new generation was, then, superior to the last.

Konoha could be used as an example. The Shodai Hokage and his brother, the Nidaime, brought the isolated regional clans together into one united village. The two brothers then mentored their successor in the Sandaime, Sarutobi Hizuren, who was on the whole superior to them both, despite lacking the First's Mokuton abilities. Sarutobi taught the Sannin, who all would grow to be at least equal to him. From those three, the Toad Hermit Jiraiya in particular, would come a man named Namikaze Minato, the Yondaime, who all acknowledged as the greatest shinobi that Konoha had ever produced.

'Father,' Naruto's heart turned bitter as his thoughts turned to the Fourth, who had made him into a scapegoat. No matter how pure the man's motivations might have been, it was hard to pardon the man who had cursed his own son in order to protect those nameless ingrates in Konoha. For him, at least, who had been made to bear the consequences. The rest were quite content to love him in ignorance.

"Forget it," the blond muttered and shook his head when his companion looked over with an arched brow, noticing his sudden anger, "it's nothing."

'That's right,' he soothed his roiling mind, 'nothing at all.'

"Madara once told me that Pain's Rin'negan allows him to manipulate his chakra's nature however he chooses, to master all six incarnations," Itachi then went on without having to be asked whilst butchering the cock pheasant with practiced ease, unaware or perhaps uncaring that he'd revealed the Leader's name to Naruto.

"There's got to be more to it than that," the demon vessel commented. Free chakra nature manipulation, while an impressive talent to be sure, didn't seem to be enough to be the Leader's exclusive power, not given what he'd seen some other subordinate Akatsuki members do during the Missing-nin organization's raid upon his own village.

"I agree," the illusionist whispered. "However, I've never had an occasion to observe Pain or Konan in combat until this assignment. I shall learn their secrets soon enough," he commented, seeming rather pleased in his strange, impassive manner. "Not even the Leader will be able to keep his powers in reserve against Hanzou the Salamander." The need to know his abilities was dire, as their suicidal mission to neutralize Akatsuki would require them to kill the Leader, Pain, sooner or later.

"Yeah, well, he knows that too," Naruto muttered, remembering Pain's insistence on having an exclusive duel with the Hidden Rain's aged dictator. Perhaps that was the reason behind the order, that he didn't want his underlings to glimpse his abilities. "He isn't gonna let us in close enough to watch him, and we've got our own work to do."

"Leave that part to me," Itachi insisted in a calm voice, but the hastened spin in the Uchiha's glowing Sharingan warned the blond that he was treading on thin ice. The Konoha Nukenin disliked being second-guessed, and having his skills called into doubt.

"Fine then, whatever," the demon container grunted and returned to his prep work, now peeling and dicing the carrots.

That ended the conversation. Itachi valued his quiet time and seldom made small talk, something that had bothered Naruto to no end on the desolate road. Entire days had passed on occasion without so much as a word exchanged between the two shinobi, with precious little else to break the oppressive silence. Kisame, asshole though he was, had at least spoken more than an isolated sentence now and then about issues unrelated to work. The blond jinchuuriki hadn't thought that he'd end up missing the blue bastard when their paths had diverged.

Naruto skinned and minced the onion in silence, and emptied it into his bowl with the remaining ingredients. Itachi was done preparing the meat, and was now rigging their metal all-purpose cauldron on a camping stand. He tapped the storage scroll again, and a large burlap sack materialized in his manicured hand. The illusionist emptied the remaining rice into the pot without care, which struck Naruto as odd, knowing how rigid he'd been about rationing it all through the trip. The Uchiha then ran through a couple hand seals, too quick to allow the blond to read the sequence, and touched the cauldron, making water materialize inside.

"Fire, please." The jinchuuriki grimaced, not having noticed the older teenager looking at him until he'd spoken.

He nodded but said nothing, placing his right arm down on the grass. A medium-sized red snake poked its head out and slithered along the ground, and then coiled up against its master's wrist. Naruto reached over and stroked its head in a gentle manner. The serpent's maw opened wide, and the summoned reptile then spewed its scorching hot breath against the iron cauldron, heating the water and rice within. Itachi stirred the mixture with a wooden spoon as the stew pot reached a simmering boil. The blond noticed that the swirling motions were in exact time with the older shinobi's Sharingan.

'Creepy bastard,' he thought with a shudder, but Itachi paid him no mind as he cooked his rice in silence.

Then the pheasant and other ingredients went in, and the blond continued to observe the illusionist while the latter labored over the cauldron. The aroma caused his stomach to rumble a little bit, a less than subtle reminder that he'd never eaten supper the previous night and was starving. He would stop stirring and taste the stew now and again and put more seasoning into the pot as needed using the basic herbs and spices that he kept in the provision scroll.

This was another thing that Naruto couldn't do, cook a good meal. Itachi was talented in multiple things, it seemed. The blond meanwhile was a 'genius' in the killing arts, but as helpless as a babe otherwise, with zero extracurricular skills. Take his chakra, and he'd never be able to survive in the world. Then, he supposed that it was a good thing that his inner reservoir was near to limitless, thanks to his Bijuu.

'Damned fox,' he cursed the vulpine monster nonetheless, holding the demon in no less hatred than the Yondaime.

"Let's eat now," the long-haired Uchiha then said, thrusting over a bowl that was loaded to the brim with pheasant stew. "Please be quick. There's something important that we need to go over once we're done here."

"Thanks," Naruto replied, meaning it, as he reached over to grab a spoon and took a bite.

The stew was piping hot and delicious. The rice in it was a little bit overcooked, but Naruto didn't notice it much. He ended up eating two bowls without pause, and started to reach over to prepare his third when he noticed Itachi's painted nails tapping against the metal pot. He remembered that the Sharingan master had wanted to 'go over' something.

"So," he drawled in a casual manner, to hide his embarrassment at not recalling earlier.

"Not out here," the Uchiha murmured, seeing right through the poor act as expected. "I'd much rather we not raise an alarm." He placed a lid on the cauldron and returned it to the paper scroll, where the remaining stew would keep until later.

"Er, alright," Naruto replied, a tad puzzled now.

"I have developed a particular technique that should prove valuable in the battle ahead." Itachi baited his hook without expression. "For me this jutsu has limited usage, due to its high chakra requirements. You, however, should be able to put it to better use than I can."

Naruto understood his meaning, knowing that perhaps the Uchiha's single weakness was his chakra reservoir, which amounted to little more than an average Jounin's. Not that it mattered much, as he couldn't imagine an opponent surviving against a serious Itachi long enough to ever let stamina become an issue. He was interested in the older teen's proposal, though he also considered it strange that the stoic Missing-nin wanted to teach him something. Men like Itachi were supposed to guard their jutsu like priceless treasures.

He didn't question, however, knowing that doing so might aggravate the sometimes unpredictable Uchiha and would serve no other purpose. 'Better to follow along,' he decided, shrugging his shoulders. 'Besides, it won't be my ass in a sling if we get back late because of it.'

"There's still time enough until sunrise to do this," the illusionist said, his lips quirking into a tight smile, leaving the jinchuuriki to wince, thinking that Itachi had somehow read his mind. "The outcome will be well worth the minor risk this time, Naruto-kun."


The 'good' weather lasted into the morning hours. Three cloaked caricatures stood on a low point on the hillside, lurking as close to the Rain's industrial capital's outer limits as possible while also maintaining their desired vantage point.

Minutes earlier, the Amegakure rebels' advance detachment had made their initial incursion into the capital's central industrial district. The attack was to occur in waves. The vanguard was to make some noise, draw Hanzou's supporters out into battle and then pretend to retreat, at which point Naruto, Itachi and Konan would engage and do their business, and wipe out whatever reserves showed up to assist, then branching outward to rout the rest. This would skew the odds to give the outnumbered rebels an advantage. The large main detachment would sweep in last and mop up, securing the metropolis one zone at a time, while the Leader tracked down and dealt with Hanzou. Killing the dictator would end the civil war in one decisive stroke.

'A good plan,' Naruto thought, 'assuming that Hanzou bites on it. If not, this is going to get ugly in a hurry…'

The blond had his doubts. Hanzou the Salamander was no idiot. He couldn't be, to have risen to the position that he was in and remained there. He wouldn't commit all his resources to one rebel attack. Naruto wouldn't have cared much about the mission under normal circumstances, but he needed to make an impact on this mission to secure his place in Akatsuki.

'It doesn't really matter,' he decided. 'We've got the power here. That old lizard's going to die today, no matter how many others have to burn with him.' The rebels' side had Akatsuki, and the Salamander's didn't. The rout was inevitable. Perhaps it'd serve Naruto even better to have the attack not speed as planned. He'd have more chances to make his presence known and steal the whole damned show then.

"You seem distracted, Naruto-kun," Itachi glanced over and admonished the blond in a low murmur. "Focus."

"I was thinking," he replied with the slightest smirk, tipping his Akatsuki kasa back on his head a little. "This'll be a good morning."

For some reason, the insinuation that a violent, blood-drenching war would be a 'good morning' seemed to irritate Konan. Her outward expression revealed nothing, but the minute change in her spiritual pressure revealed her anger, and she made no attempt to hide it either. Naruto had assumed that Akatsuki's elite ranks were stocked with murderers and sociopaths all around. Furthermore, Konan and Pain seemed to be the ones masterminding this rebellion, and so it was strange that she would have a problem with her own coup attempt. Perhaps there was something that he wasn't getting.

'Fuck it,' he grunted in his mind. 'We'll kill her eventually anyway. It's all in the plan.'

"There's our signal to advance," the blue-haired kunoichi spoke out in a cold and imposing voice. "Don't lag behind."

The last comment was directed at Naruto in particular. The blond jinchuuriki had to repress the heated urge to snap back at the woman, but had no time to make a comment. The two Akatsuki members were gone in an instant, moving into and through the metropolis at speeds that the demon container had to exert his utmost to keep pace with. Naruto had little choice but to resort to his cursed seal to gain a boost to his speed, as much as he hated to use the vile thing over something so mundane. He shuddered as the polluted curse chakra slid through his inner coils like oil. His Akatsuki cloak at least managed to conceal the telltale markings on his skin, though he imagined that Itachi and Konan could sense the evil power regardless.

Neither commented, however, and the blond had no trouble matching their speed with his increased power. The explosions and battle sounds grew louder as the trio approached the industrial sector. Naruto couldn't help but think about the last time he had been in this position, when Akatsuki had attacked Konoha. And here he was now, helping those same people to wreak similar havoc upon someone else's home. The three arrived at the battle zone moments later. The rebels' advance unit was outnumbered, trapped, and being picked apart in the streets. Hanzou's supporters were winning the skirmish.

"Hn," Itachi grunted without emotion, "our adversaries appear to have been better prepared than anticipated."

Even as Itachi spoke, an Ame rebel was hit with several incoming shuriken, and then a Hidden Rain regular completed the kill with a short sword. Another rebel was blasted to pieces via a ninjutsu burst, while a third managed to wound the swordsman who had killed his comrade, but three other Rain shinobi leapt on his back and impaled him with kunai. The blond demon vessel said nothing as he watched and instead drew the Kusanagi and extended the blade. He let that action speak in his place, and glanced at the Uchiha, who nodded back, removing his kasa and reaching over to part his cloak collar.

"This was a planned ambush. There must have been a traitor somewhere in our ranks…" Konan grated out, her voice like ice. The woman then looked over towards Itachi and Naruto, appraising them both with a suspicious stare, but at last she said, "Kill them all."

The three ominous shinobi leapt down into the crowded street in unison, and the largest lightning bolt that the blond had ever seen tore through the air upon their landing, marking their arrival. For a moment, the ongoing battle halted as the resulting thunderbolt rocked the ground. The seven remaining rebel shinobi, who were all wounded, and the hundred or more Hidden Rain shinobi all turned to regard the new arrivals. Naruto removed his bamboo hat and tossed it to the side, and then began the massacre without preamble, sending his sword screaming through the air at the nearest Rain-nin.

The man prepared to dodge the attack, but the Kusanagi began to glow and its speed increased several times over. Naruto's weapon gored straight through its victim and hurtled on to lodge into a second Rain shinobi's throat. Naruto then created three replications with a manic chuckle, and he and his clones somersaulted over the shocked horde towards where the Kusanagi had ended its travel.

The other two moved into action as soon as Naruto had launched the sword. Konan leapt high into the air as she dissolved into countless paper sheets, which then twisted together in midair into two long throwing spears. The twin lances both darted towards a single Rain-nin, both lodging into the person's chest. Their damage done, the spears unraveled into their component sheets again, which then spread out and spiraled towards the dead man's surrounding comrades, dicing and shredding them in a paper storm. The bloodied paper sheets recombined into the human Konan, who stared down without remorse at the mutilated shinobi around her.

"Fools," she whispered in a harsh voice, as even more paper emerged into the air through her sleeves. The new sheets came together to create pure white wings on her back. Konan rose into the air, looking down upon the battle as though she were an avenging angel on high, her stare cold and pitiless. "Mere mortals cannot hope to withstand God's Will."

Uchiha Itachi meanwhile strolled over towards the nearest group in the street, pulling out his steel tanto with an impassive expression, as though the scene bored him. He met an incoming shuriken barrage with an idle stare, and then threw his own to knock them aside. Itachi sidestepped a kunai swipe and lashed at the wielder with his short sword. The Rain regular ducked the apathetic attack, and the Uchiha drilled him with a crushing thrust kick as he attempted to rise again, turning his ribcage into gravel and sending him into a power pole, where he collapsed unconscious to the ground. The illusionist then brought his tanto over and pivoted to intercept a sword slash. The same swordsman who had killed the rebel shinobi moments ago now glared at Itachi through their crossed weapons. The Uchiha's lips quirked into the slightest grin, and his Sharingan glowed and spun.

Then, without warning, the Ame swordsman broke the deadlock and turned around and impaled his incoming comrade in the shoulder. The wounded kunoichi and the other two Rain-nin who were attacking with her all halted in surprise. Itachi pointed at one who happened to glance in his direction, and he in turn swiped at the shinobi next to him with his kunai. The Uchiha genius continued in this vein, and soon enough over two dozen Hidden Rain shinobi were either slashing or hurling jutsu at imagined phantoms, or locked in combat with their own comrades, believing them to be rebel supporters.

Meanwhile, Itachi was more or less content to stand back and observe the spectacle. A Rain-nin closed in behind him, and he reached back to catch the man's wrist. He snapped his opponent's limb with a simple twist, and turned about to sock the shinobi in the gut. The man slid down onto the pavement, knocked out cold, and the illusionist then returned his attention to the mock battle he'd started. His human puppet show came to a tragic end, however, when countless sharp paper bolts rained down onto the ensnared shinobi and turned them all into human pincushions.

Itachi glanced up into the air, where Konan hovered, looking down at her dead victims with her arms crossed. The kunoichi noticed his attention and looked back, her expression hard. Neither had the occasion to speak, as a massive explosion rocked the entire industrial district and seemed to shake the earth to its core. The monstrous blast sent Konan reeling back in the air, where she almost collided with a building, but managed to regain her bearings in time. Itachi staggered back a step, throwing up his arms to shield his sensitive vision, hair whipping out behind him.

"You're getting a bit overzealous, Naruto-kun," the illusionist muttered, his lips twisting into a smirk, as though he'd planned on it.

"That careless idiot," Konan hissed, staring down at Itachi, who she knew had showed Naruto the technique he'd used. "I knew this would happen. He'll reduce the entire metropolis into ruins at the rate he's going. You're responsible, Itachi."

The Uchiha didn't deign to respond, striding over the carnage near him towards where Naruto was causing a minor catastrophe down the street. Itachi tucked his arm back into his cloak, which looked as good as new, no blood staining it at all despite the battle raging around him, and looked as calm and stoic as ever as he traversed the rubble.

Naruto took the Kusanagi, which was still impaled in its target's bleeding corpse, into his hand as he somersaulted through the air. The jinchuuriki then swung towards his right as he landed amongst the Rain shinobi, decapitating one and going on to bite deep into his neighbor's neck. The blond whirled and stabbed another in the chest, and straightened his hand as he sensed a shinobi charging at his back with kunai in hand. He pointed towards his newest victim, while pushing his sword deeper into the last.

Four blood red serpents lanced out through his robe sleeve and coiled around the incoming arm holding the kunai, binding it into place. The snakes bit deep and the poor Rain-nin choked out a tortured scream, venom ripping through his bloodstream. The kunai clattered to the ground as the man went into convulsions, and Naruto tossed him into an approaching unit. The whole group staggered with the impact, and the clones moved in to surround them all.

"Boom," the jinchuuriki sneered and detonated the clones using Itachi's Bunshin Daibakuha technique, showering him with blood and gore, staining his cloak so that the patterned red clouds were almost impossible to distinguish in the blast's wake.

Not that he would have noticed. The explosion's concussive power sent the blond hurtling back down the street, where he landed with a thud, rolling back several times. Concrete and asphalt rubble rained down onto him as he sat prone in the bloodied street.

"Ergh," he groaned as he struggled to stand, noting that the Kusanagi was still somehow in his hand. "I might've overdone that one a little…"

Naruto could now sense Itachi and Konan coming in behind him, which returned him to his own senses. He took his sword in both hands and leapt into the clearing smoke, rushing back into the battle and unwilling to let the other two beat him there.

The remaining Rain-nin were still regaining their balance, and were unprepared when Naruto set upon them again. The blond came down with a demonic hack and cleaved one into halves, and then turned and bisected another at the waist with a spinning slash, while his shadow snakes darted out to bite out a third's throat. He parted his Akatsuki cloak and pressed a bloodstained thumb to his summoning tattoo, then slamming his palm onto the ruined pavement as the whole lot attempted to counterattack with weapons and jutsu.

An enormous golden serpent materialized in smoke to intercept the massed barrage, its metallic scales rendering the kunai and shuriken harmless. The ninjutsu meanwhile tore into the beast's side, and it hissed in pain and snapped down at the shinobi in response.

"Hah, useless," Naruto crowed, allowing his shadow snakes to drop their previous target and open their mouths, while he created additional shadow clones behind his summoned monster's cover.

The Rain-nin were too preoccupied with the huge attacking serpent to heed the smaller ones, which unleashed their scorching breath on command. Four identical Grand Fireballs plowed into the distracted Ame detachment, incinerating several. Their screams were like sweet music to his addled ears.

Naruto's clones then approached on the other side, but were noticed and dispersed. The real blond mouthed a curse and leapt onto the golden serpent's head, sword in hand, leering at the reduced horde. Their numbers had been reduced to three dozen or so between his attacks, and Itachi's and Konan's. There had been over a hundred to begin with.

"He…he can't be human," a scared Rain Genin exclaimed through the chaos, taking an intimidated step back. "He's a monster!"

His appearance did little to dissuade the notion. Naruto parted his bloodstained Akatsuki cloak even more, to reveal the monstrous scar over his heart and the tribal, glowing curse marks crisscrossing his muscled torso. He grinned showing pointed demonic teeth and gripped his weapon, visible crimson youki and purple curse chakra swirling around him in a horrible mixture.

"…Jinchuuriki. There's nothing we can do against a power like this…" a more experienced shinobi leader muttered. "Damn that rebel scum to Hell, bringing this horrid abomination into our motherland." The older man turned towards his comrades and ordered, "Retreat, we'll regroup with our comrades at the command center."

The Rain-nin then started to withdraw, some with Shunshin and the less capable ones running down the street. Naruto made a shadow clone and handed the Kusanagi over.

"Tch," the blond hissed at their retreating backs, leaping back to the ground and then running through several high-speed hand seals. "You miserable cockroaches can't escape me," he roared at his enemies, "now, die! Katon: Karyuu Endan!"

Naruto's dragon rushed down the wide street, overtaking those who were too slow to make their escape in time and incinerating them. Few among them, however, were caught in the massive blast, adding to his rising irritation. The jutsu continued on and plowed into a large industrial building when the road split, causing another raucous explosion.

'Oh, but the fun's not over yet, fuckers,' Naruto vowed, retaking his sword and preparing to mount his serpent again. 'I'll chase you all down and squash you like the maggots you are.'

"Naruto-kun," a voice spoke, causing the blond to whirl around, swearing death to the person who had dared to interrupt him. That resolve dissipated when he saw that it was Itachi, who still looked immaculate despite the bloodshed all around him. "There's no need to pursue stragglers. You've done enough."

He knew, on some level, that the Uchiha was right. However, he was powerless to stop his pounding, raging bloodlust. He couldn't repress the need to continue until none remained alive. His cursed seal was throbbing, pouring more and more power and malice into him, pulling on the demon's vile power and presence in addition to its own.

"The orders were to kill them all," Naruto snarled back, daring to talk back in his heated rage, "and that's what I plan on doing."

"You're being irrational." Itachi wasn't impressed with his petulance, and made Naruto look into his glowing, spinning Sharingan.

His violent urges began to subside, as some power that surpassed his own control repressed his rage. Naruto likened the experience to the time when his old ANBU captain had once pushed down the evil inside him using the Shodai Hokage's skills. He didn't know how the man who has known as Yamato had possessed those precious skills even now, but Itachi was managing the same outcome without them, using his own bloodline power instead. The jinchuuriki slumped over, exhaling a shuddering breath as his juin markings retreated into their seal and the demon's tainted presence dissipated inside him, leaving him unharmed and with more than enough chakra to use, but somehow drained nevertheless.

Meanwhile, Konan levitated in the air above them, regarding the pair with an unreadable look. Naruto stared back up at her, both exhausted and bored, as though seeing her hovering in place upon white paper wings didn't interest him in the least, which it didn't. He'd seen stranger techniques and he could take to the air in his own right, when needed. The blond then smelled moisture building in the air as a harsh wind gusted over the metropolis, and he knew that rain was imminent. Their good luck had run out at last

The winged kunoichi sensed the change as well, and careened to the ground, landing in a low crouch, her paper appendages melting into her back. Konan's parasol seemed to materialize in her hand, and the downpour began as soon as she opened her umbrella. For Naruto, the cold water seemed to cleanse his lingering anger, and also restore his vigor.

"Tenshi-sama," a man's voice called out in the rain, as a rebel shinobi landed via Shunshin on the ruined pavement and addressed Konan, kneeling next to the austere kunoichi. "I've come with a report, and to request new orders."

'Angel,' Naruto thought about the name, realizing that it suited her earlier appearance. 'Pain thinks he's God, and Konan is His angel…' At that moment, he understood that the Leader and Konan shared some relationship that ran much deeper than a designated partnership in Akatsuki. 'I'll have to be more careful around her,' he reasoned, cursing his earlier mistake, knowing that challenging her would be the same as challenging Pain.

"Proceed with the report," the woman ordered, her stare still concentrated onto the two cloaked teenagers.

"Hanzou's remaining supporters have been routed," the nameless shinobi said as he launched into his combat report. "Most are abandoning the Hidden Rain, but those who hold onto the will to resist us, some dozens in total, appear to be reorganizing near their leader's residence to make their last stand. I've been ordered to request directions as to how to proceed next."

The blond was sure that he would be ordered to participate in the next attack, and didn't have that much desire to do so now. Konan crossed her arms beneath her chest like Naruto had seen Uzuki Yuugao, his teammate in ANBU, do on occasion when thinking. His stomach tightened at the recollection. He missed the plum-haired kunoichi more than most other people back home.

"Have our soldiers blockade their position, but with strict orders not to engage," Konan replied in a commanding voice. "Fighting such a desperate group head-on will result in high casualties, and we will need our people alive and strong to establish control in the metropolitan districts."

"Ma'am," the shinobi acknowledged and withdrew, again via Shunshin.

Moments passed, with the three standing in silence, Konan under her parasol and both Naruto and Itachi getting soaked in the rain. Massive chakra signatures appeared in the horizon, and the blond knew that it had to be Pain and Hanzou beginning their battle.

"Seems like the main attraction's getting started now," Naruto commented, wishing that he were there to watch the epic showdown.

Itachi glanced over but said nothing, though Naruto knew that the illusionist agreed with him, having said as much during their meal. The Uchiha had also stated that he had some method through which to accomplish that mission, but the blond knew better than to ask.

"He can handle Hanzou without our help," Konan said without the slightest doubt or hesitation, which Naruto thought naïve given the Leader's opponent. "Meanwhile, our next assignment will be to neutralize the last holdouts. Expect a much tougher resistance."

"These shinobi will be better organized," Itachi added, emotionless. "This time, our presence will be expected."

Naruto raked a hand through his hair, a little bit irritated with the two others patronizing him with their words, as though he'd never been in a perilous situation. The jinchuuriki knew what he was headed into. During the previous engagement, even though Hanzou's men had known about the attack, Akatsuki's presence had been a surprise. Those who lacked the courage to die had run, leaving behind hardcore patriots who were willing and prepared, and indeed expecting and even desiring, to perish protecting their home and leader against the rebel hordes. These were the men and women that he, and Itachi and Konan would be up against. For Akatsuki members, even, this meant extreme danger.

His hand trailed to his heart and the twisted scar there, remembering his battle with the Oto-nin Kimimaro, Orochimaru's most devoted servant, who had gone to war despite an illness that was set to claim him. Naruto had been killed in that battle. His unique powers had allowed him to come alive again and win, but never had he come so close to meeting his end. He knew, perhaps better than his two associates, what it meant to do battle with a person who had nothing remaining to lose, and how hazardous such a person was.

'Hazardous, yes,' he admitted, 'but I've got a trump card this time around.'

"There's no reason to risk our heads," Naruto ventured. "Listen, I've got an idea that might resolve this mess in one shot…"

Naruto waited, pleased that the two more experienced shinobi seemed willing to hear his proposal without apparent contempt. He then explained the general stratagem that he'd pieced together while listening to the earlier rebel messenger's report.

"That's," Konan allowed her sentence to trail, racking her brain over the right word.

"Brilliant, I know," Naruto smiled, pleased with his 'genius.' "Much appreciated."

"Perhaps," she admitted, "but revolting was more what I was seeking." The blue-haired kunoichi's voice was laced with a neutral aversion. "You hold more in common with Orochimaru than mere summoning techniques." Konan exhaled a short breath, and then continued, "Your 'plan' is something that I might've expected that contemptible snake to have concocted."

"Like I said," his eerie grin widened a bit. "Brilliant."

Naruto hated Orochimaru, to be sure, and had more than enough valid reasons to do so. However, he would acknowledge that the man was a diabolical mastermind, and he also knew through Itachi that the snake man's last scheme had killed two Akatsuki members.

"His plan is a shinobi's solution," the Uchiha droned, Sharingan aglow as he considered. "Ruthless, but it carries the greatest reward coupled with the least risk."

That equated to glowing, vocal praise in Itachi-speak. The two then looked towards Konan, both requesting and demanding her approval. Neither was willing to place their lives in more peril than the assignment necessitated, and both were quite willing to place Naruto's 'brilliant' idea into motion with or without her. Konan was trapped. She realized her dangerous position as much as her two male associates, and didn't seem to resent the matter. Not much, at least.

"I still maintain the opinion that it's a vile scheme." She demurred while shaking her head, but then moved on to comment, "Regardless, however, I'll acknowledge that this plan will give us the best odds to succeed, whereas a direct attack won't. Let us proceed."

The agreement reached, Naruto and Itachi both created several shadow clones, which milled about the carnage in preparation to do their assigned parts. The three shinobi meanwhile waited, and concentrated on attempting to read the battle between Pain and Hanzou in the distance, impossible though such a thing was. Time passed, and the metropolis seemed to quiet, as through the sole battle raging was the duel between the leaders. The blond wondered whether, and hoped that, the holdouts would abandon their positions to aid the Hidden Rain's beleaguered dictator.

'It'd damned sure make our job a whole lot easier,' the demon container groused.

"I think that ought to be enough," Itachi's monotone voice interrupted, as his Sharingan regarded the shadow clones, both Naruto's and his own. Neither the blond jinchuuriki nor Konan disagreed with him. The preparations were all set, and in quick time.

There was no need to voice an order to move out. The three cloaked shinobi leapt into the raining air and onto the nearest building, leaving the clones behind to accomplish their mission and bring the plan to its brutal conclusion. Destination: the last battleground.

End Chapter One

Next Chapter: The last sparks burn the brightest. Naruto's 'inspired' plan comes to light in battle, while Pain takes on Hanzou the Salamander. The cycle of life continues, as the Hidden Rain's violent death brings about something new. God's Kingdom is born into an uncertain era. And perhaps, some crucial events occur in Konoha as well.