It had taken Pein three-quarters of the day to find his subordinates. All of them were badly hurt and the only one without life-threatening injuries – for obvious reasons – was Hidan.
"Is this everyone?" Tsunade asked once Pein had returned to the infirmary with Kakuzu and Hidan.
Pein shook his head, worry on his face. "I can't find Itachi…"
"He's…" Kisame coughed, struggling to breathe as he sat up to face Pein. "…He's under rubble…"
Pein nodded, silently thanking Kisame before leaving to go and find the beloved Uchiha.
Tsunade had made sure that all of the Akatsuki members were placed in the same room so that she could keep an eye of them – it seemed that out of all of her surviving Shinobi, none had been hurt as badly as the Akatsuki. Tsunade supposed that the Akatsuki had just kept taking attack after attack.
Well, whatever the reason, Tsunade and the Leaf owed them their lives.
Pein had returned almost an hour later with a battered-looking Itachi. He was covered in blood, cuts and bruises. His eyes were closed, but his body was shaking – was he conscious or not?
"Itachi-kun?" Pein whispered as he laid the Uchiha onto a hospital bed near Kisame. "It's okay – you're safe now."
Tsunade finished casting Deidara's arm before coming to Itachi's side. The Uchiha flinched visibly.
"Relax, Itachi." Tsunade said. She leant forward, about to put her hands on Itachi, but Pein grabbed her wrists.
"He doesn't like to be touched." Pein said as he released Tsunade. "He'll get angry if you do."
"He needs to be touched because if we don't do something, he'll die." Tsunade shot back.
"Give me a minute with him." Tsunade nodded and left Pein alone with the Uchiha. "Itachi-kun, it'll be alright."
Itachi shook his head weakly, avoiding eye-contact. The last thing that he wanted was physical contact.
"Itachi, think of Sasuke. You need to do this and no one will hurt you. If you won't do it for yourself, do it for Sasuke."
Itachi had thought it over for a few minutes before nodding warily. Pein smiled and got to his feet, heading to the door to let Tsunade back in.
"He's ready for you now." The ginger had said before leaving the room to give Tsunade privacy.
Every member of the Akatsuki had survived – some more easily than others – but Pein was relieved. After checking up on all of his subordinates, he made his way slowly to the Hokage's office.
"Pein." Tsunade looked up from her paperwork once the door to her office had been opened. "Is everything okay?"
"Everything's fine. Hidan is still complaining about having to rebuild the village, though."
Tsunade laughed. "He's a character."
"I've been thinking it over, and… I would like you to come with me and speak with Zetsu."
Tsunade raised an eyebrow. "Zetsu?"
"Yes. He needs to hear what I have to say – and it will be his decision in the end."
Tsunade nodded. She had no idea what Pein was on about, but she followed him to the infirmary anyway.
When they got to the room that Zetsu was being held in, they found both Tobi and Naruto sitting beside the bed. All three turned at the sound of the door being opened.
"Hi, Tobi." Pein smiled. "We need to talk to Zetsu alone for a while. Will you please leave?"
"Tobi is a good boy, Pein-sama." The boy nodded, but Pein could tell that Tobi was upset.
"Yes, you are." Pein smiled again. "Go on now."
When Pein knew that Tobi was out of earshot, he sat down, keeping eye-contact with his subordinate.
"Zetsu…" Pein begun in a soothing tone. "…We need to talk about Tobi."
"What? Why?" Zetsu sat up in such a hurry, he had reopened some of his wounds – but that didn't matter because Tobi was his world.
"Zetsu… You know that Tobi isn't cut out for the Akatsuki…"
Are you hinting at what I think you are…?" Tsunade questioned with a raised eyebrow.
"You're leaving Tobi here?" Zetsu shouted.
"If Tsunade-sama agrees, then yes." Pein sighed.
"No! We don't want to be alone again! I won't let you give Tobi away like this!"
"Zetsu, listen to me…" Pein grabbed Zetsu's face and turned the younger male to look him in the eye. "…If you really care about Tobi, then you'll listen."
"Shh... As you know better than anyone else, Tobi is a very fragile boy. He needs to be with other people and the Akatsuki is a very busy organisation. You've had to leave him alone at the base – sometimes for weeks on end. You know that he isn't cut out to be in the Akatsuki. It's in everyone's best interest to look out for the boy – and the others will tell you exactly the same."
"Tobi's our only friend, Pein…"
"Zetsu, you're being selfish. You know that Tobi won't last long if he remains in the Akatsuki."
Zetsu sighed. He knew that Pein was right. "…We'll… We'll think it over…"
"The deadline is one week, Zetsu. I'm sorry to have to give you such short notice and not much time, but… The sooner the better. We're leaving in a week anyway. Would you like to add anything, Tsunade-sama?"
"If Tobi were to stay here, he'd be very well taken care of and loved." Tsunade smiled. "He'd be treated as a citizen of Konohagakure – he won't have to be a Shinobi any longer if that is what you'd rather. I'm certain that he'll be happy here, and if we were to strike a deal about the Kyubi, you can visit him."
Zetsu nodded, tears welling up in his eyes. This was the hardest thing that he had ever done before.
As Tobi and Naruto sat around the dinner table that night, the boy seemed much happier after having seen Zetsu again. He was talkative, smiling and laughing, and Naruto had even heard the boy joke a few times.
Naruto couldn't help but be curious of Tobi's relationship with Zetsu.
"So…" Naruto smiled. "…Why are you so close to Zetsu?"
"Oh, Zetsu-san saved Tobi! Tobi's old village was bad to Tobi but Zetsu-san was coming back from mission and saw leader of Tobi's village hitting him! Zet-san told leader to leave Tobi alone but he didn't listen! So Zetsu-san picked Tobi up and told him he would live with Zet-san!"
Naruto smiled at Tobi. He had never thought that an Akatsuki member would ever do something so nice. "You must be very close to Zetsu, Tobi."
"Oh, Tobi is! Zet-san was even there when Tobi had his operation!"
"Tobi's village gave Tobi brain damage! Zetsu-san says Tobi has been dramatized by it!"
Naruto laughed. "You mean 'traumatised', Tobi – I think."
"Yeah! So Pein-sama asked some members to do operation on Tobi's head cause it always bled lots and really hurted and make Tobi be un-awake all the time! So Tobi had his operation to fix Tobi's brain! Zet-san stay with Tobi and held his hand!"
"He sounds like he loves you a lot, Tobi."
"Oh, he does! Tobi love Zet-san, too!"
The week passed like a day to Zetsu and he still hadn't made his decision.
"Well, Zetsu?" Pein asked as he stepped into Zetsu's hospital room.
"Please…" Zetsu begged. "Just a little more time!"
"Pein sighed. "We are leaving today…"
"Just give us until we go! Please!"
Pein pinched the bridge of his nose in frustration but nodded anyway. "I see how hard this is for you, Zetsu. But no longer. If you still haven't made your decision when we're out of the gates, I'll make it for you."
Zetsu nodded, trying his best not to cry.
Night had arrived and the Akatsuki were at the gate, saying goodbye to Tsunade. She and Pein had struck a deal about the Kyubi, coming to an agreement to find an alternative together, no matter what.
Pein nudged Zetsu, nodding his head at Tobi. The boy was saying goodbye to Naruto. Zetsu sighed, walking to Tobi and putting his hands on the boy's shoulders.
"Tobi." Zetsu said in a heavy voice. "We want you to stay here."
"What…?" Tobi whimpered, tears spilling over already. "No… Tobi stay with his Zet-san!"
"Stay here, Tobi." Zetsu said, a little more forcefully. "You can't come back with us, Tobi."
"Has Tobi been a bad boy again…?" The kid whimpered, quivering. "Tobi promises to be a good boy, Zetsu-san! A good boy!"
Zetsu, tears of his own falling, shook his head. "It's not about that, Tobi, it's … Kami… Tobi, we don't want you anymore! You have a choice! Stay here where you have a friend or go back to your old village!"
Tobi cried harder, clinging to the plant-nin. "Tobi only wants Zetsu-san!"
Zetsu allowed his tears to fall faster, pulling his hands from Tobi's shoulders and walking back to his group. Halfway there, he felt arms wrapping around his midsection, feeling Tobi's face pressed into the small of his back.
"Tobi." Zetsu whispered, turning around in the embrace and hugging Tobi tightly. "We love you so much."
Tobi began hiccupping, his tears falling faster. "Tobi love Zet-san more."
"... We know you do. But you're safer here than you are with us... We promise to come visit you every chance we can. Just... be a good boy, and... stay."
Tobi snivelled, tightening his hold on Zetsu momentarily before pulling away with a sad smile.
"Only for Zet-san." The boy whispered, stepping back a little.
Zetsu smiled, kissing Tobi's forehead.
"Goodbye, Tobi." Zetsu whispered back, turning around once more and finally making it back to the other Akatsuki.
Tobi heard Pein whispering soothing words to Zetsu, watching him pull him into a hug and telling him how he did the right thing. Tobi felt his heart speed up - it felt great knowing that the Akatsuki cared so much for him.
Tobi wiped his tears away, waving furiously at the others.
"Bye-bye, everyone!" Tobi called. "Bye, Zet-san! Look after everyone, Pein-sama! Tobi will miss everyone!"
Pein and the others waved back until they disappeared into the distance, and Tobi wiped fresh tears away.
Naruto came up behind Tobi, hugging him tightly and planting a kiss on Tobi's temple. He smiled at the younger boy.
"Wanna go get some ramen?" he offered softly. "My treat."
Tobi nodded, smiling through his tears at his second-best friend. "Sure!"
As they walked back into the village, Tsunade stopped Naruto. She told Tobi to continue on and didn't speak until he had left.
"What?" Naruto asked.
"This is going to be very hard for Tobi," Tsunade began. "I'm almost certain this is the only time he's ever been away from the Akatsuki for long, but this time will be much harder because now he knows he won't be going back. I'm sure the poor boy had been thinking every day that the Akatsuki would show up take him back home and that's how he lasted this long. But now he's going to feel very confused and lost, and probably lonely; he's used to the company of almost a dozen other people at all times. Now he's just got you. Watch out for the poor boy until he settles in properly."
"Of course I will! He's gonna love it here! Believe it!"
To be continued...