Konan wasn't entirely sure why Pein called her into the office that day. As far as she knew, there wasn't to be another assignment for at least a few more weeks, the base was relatively calm for once, and she couldn't think of anything she'd done to require Pein's personal attention. So what could be the matter?

Upon entering the office, Konan quickly decided that whatever had prompted Pein to enlist her help must have been absolutely crippling to the leader. Pein was slouched incredibly low in his chair with an unreadable expression on his face, hands idly scribbling nonsensical patterns on a blank file that was supposed to be the mission specs for someone's next assignment. "Pein?" she asked, shutting the door behind her. No matter what the problem might be, the origami mistress wanted to help Sir Leader.

Pein looked up from his doodles to watch his partner cross the room, choosing to keep silent until the blue-haired ninja was leaning against his desk. "Konan, do you think I'm old?"

The blue-haired woman quirked an eyebrow at her partner, wondering if this was some sort of test. "No, why?"

Pein sighed and shoved himself back from the desk, tilting himself backwards in the chair to stare at the ceiling. "Do you remember life before the Akatsuki? The open road before us, fresh air all around…"

"The crippling poverty and constant hunger pangs," Konan added flatly.

"Seeing new places, meeting new people…"

"Stealing moldy bread and not bathing for weeks."

"Yup, those were the days." Pein let out a nostalgic sigh, a slight smile tugging at his lips for the briefest of seconds, before reverting to its previous frown. "Now look at me. Stuck behind this desk all day, filing materials and telling everyone else to go out and murder people while I'm sitting here like an old man past his prime." He tilted his head to look at Konan, who had sensed that this was going to be a rather long pity party and had taken a seat on the Rinnegan user's desk. "I need out, Konan. This office is killing me."

"Maybe if you ordered Kakuzu to pay someone to get the asbestos in your ceiling replaced," his partner offered.

The leader scoffed at her suggestion, which quickly turned into a ragged cough. "Don't be ridiculous," he commanded, taking a tissue to wipe a few stray drops of blood from the corner of his mouth and then tossing it on top of the large pile of bloody tissues already in his wastebasket. "I'm a ninja. I belong out there on the battlefield with the rest of the Akatsuki, not locked away here as lord of the manila folders who can't even do field assignments anymore."

"You wanted to control the world," Konan pointed out. "That means doing the field work and the paperwork. Just pretend you're the Hokage or something."

"The Hokage has slaves to do this sort of menial labor," Pein hissed.

"Oh sweetie, they're called interns now."

Pein groaned and looked at the ceiling once again. "I should be happy, I know that. I'm a feared, infamous criminal, I control one of the most powerful criminal organizations in the world, I have a hot partner/love interest-"

"Incredibly hot," Konan corrected huffily.

"But it's not enough," he went on. "Just one more mission, Konan. One more time on assignment, with a scroll in my hand and a plan in my head. That's all I ask."

"Then why don't you keep a solo assignment for yourself?" Konan proposed, thinking that such a course of action should have been the most obvious thing in the world, even to someone as oblivious as her boyfriend.

Pein let out a strangled cry and sat back up, swinging forward so quickly Konan nearly toppled backwards off the desk in her haste to back away. "Are you mad?" he demanded. "I can't even leave this place for five minutes to go grocery shopping, never mind for the weeks a full-blown mission would demand!"

"Pein, don't you think you're overreacting?"

"HA! Remember the time the other members sent us out on a date night, and then refused to explain what happened in the kitchen?"

"Well-"

"Or the time Sasori threw Itachi out the window, and the only explanation we got was that Sasori really hated perverts?"

"Now that's-"

"Or that brief vacation I took a year ago, and when I came back Itachi had adopted that weasel? Any of this ringing a bell?"

"But you were here for most of that," Konan pointed out.

"Exactly! I can't even keep a handle on these people when I'm at home, so why risk going away and letting worse things happen? Or do I need to remind you of our last 'party'?"

Konan winced as she thought back on the alcohol-induced events that had transpired that night, and the absolute joy she'd had the following week comforting Zetsu, since apparently the ficus wanted to break it off (at least he'd had Tobi as a rebound). "Well-"

"And how about the fact that every time these people have relationship issues, they have to revert to depressed teenagers and run off, only for their lovers to drag them back to the base thinking I won't be any the wiser to it, and then do things in their rooms that are clearly intended to see how long the drywall can hold up before finally cracking? I mean really, it gets old after the first dozen or so times. Can't you see, Konan, it's a wonder we're still functioning as it is. I go away, and everything's guaranteed to go to seed."

"Pein, you just need to appoint someone else to be in charge while you're away," Konan finally snapped. "Look, you have an assignment coming up next month, right?"

"Well yes, but that's for two people-"

"Sign us up," the origami mistress commanded in a voice that left zero room for arguing. She was determined to break her partner out of this funk, and if a little fighting and bloodshed was what it took to accomplish her goal, then so be it. "It's still a few weeks off; more than enough time to select a temporary leader and fill him in on what duties the job will entail." The woman drew herself up in a rather regal position, a knowing smirk on her face clearly stating that she was sure she'd covered all the bases. "Sound good?"

"Konan, you are an absolute angel."

-sometime later in the office-

"You'll also have to make sure Tobi's fed at least once a day, and don't let Hidan drag his sacrifices into the living room; Kakuzu only budgets for two rug replacements during the year, and it's too early to risk asking him for the money. Any questions?"

"Can I sit in your chair?"

"No." Pein jabbed a finger towards a rusted folding chair in the corner, which was currently being used as a table to hold several scrolls on Fire Country. "You can use that."

"Jackass. We can take it from here."

Pein nodded and rose from his seat, wincing as several vertebrae in his back popped from the movement. Oh yes, he definitely needed to get out of the base, and the sooner the better. "Right. Konan and I will be out of communication with the base for at least a month, possibly two if things don't go according to plan. Until then, you're on your own. And Zetsu?" The schizo grunted in response. "I don't expect things to be immaculate when I get back. But please, try to keep the base in one piece."

"Roger." Nodding in a satisfied manner, Pein hefted his backpack onto his shoulders and strolled out of the room, heart racing in excitement. Finally, he was going back to active duty!

Zetsu had the courtesy to give Pein a full minute to exit the base, before diving into the leader's chair. "So, this is what power feels like," he murmured to himself, drumming his fingers on the padded armrest of Pein's chair. "Cushy."

Konan was pleasantly surprised by how quickly Pein fell back into what she dubbed, "field ninja mode." His movements were precise and calculated, most of their communicating was done through nonverbal movements, and if all but living in a confined office space for the last few years had harmed his physique in any way, it didn't show. The woman was abruptly broken out of her thoughts by Pein jerking his head to the side and disappearing from the tree branches they'd been dashing through. Following his chakra signature, Konan leapt down from the canopy and landed softly on the ground a few feet from her illustrious leader, who'd settled himself on top of a fallen log. "Need a break already?" she joked, albeit from a safe distance in case her boyfriend took offense.

The ginger merely rolled his eyes and extracted a scroll from his pocket. "I thought we'd go over the mission details now that we're out of the base."

Konan nodded at this and seated herself beside the Akatsuki leader, watching as he unrolled the scroll for both of them to see. "You said this was an assassination. Mind telling me who the target is?"

Pein normally kept as many assignment details hidden as he possibly could. That way, in the extremely unlikely event that one of the members was captured by the enemy, they wouldn't be able to provide their captors with very much information regarding the Akatsuki, tortured or not. He occasionally made an exception for Konan, knowing the woman would sooner kill herself than disclose anything that could hurt Pein, and since they were both on this assignment, he saw no reason to hide the finer details of this assignment from her. "As you are aware, we've recently begun smuggling goods and weapons out of the hidden villages with the help of this man (here he pointed to a picture of a brunette man in his late 40s with an eye patch), who goes by the name of Koga. However, there's been a slight discrepancy in his numbers, and we've recently found out that he's been selling some of those weapons on the sly to Orochimaru." Konan chose not to comment on this bit of information; Orochimaru escaping from the Akatsuki with his life had always been a sore spot for the ginger, and talking about the snake was to be avoided at all costs. "That being said, we're off to kill him. He's bound to have kept some of the weapons for himself, of course, but it's unlikely we'll run into anyone stronger than a few moderate level mercenaries."

"So we pop in, off him, and head home?"

"Precisely."

"Sounds simple enough." Pein was briefly surprised as Konan leaned closer to him and batted the scroll out of his hands, allowing it to fall to the forest floor and lie there forgotten. "You know, Sir Leader, this is the first time in I don't know how long that it's just been you and me, miles away from everyone else in the Akatsuki with no one around to bother us." Here she paused in her musings long enough to lean in and nip Pein's ear. "You thinking what I'm thinking?" she practically purred.

"Depends entirely on what you're thinking," Pein responded even as his hands began undoing the clasps on her cloak.

The blue-haired woman grinned and swung her leg around to straddle the Akatsuki leader. "Let me show you exactly how much this angel 'worships' her god."

-meanwhile, at the base -

Tobi scurried into Pein's office, balancing a triple decker sandwich in one hand and a glass of milk in the other. Zetsu had been hard at work for several days now, and the masked ninja had barely seen the interim leader leave the office for anything, even food. Time to make sure the cannibal was fed. "Zetsu!" he called out after bursting through the door. "Tobi has food for you! Whoa, Zetsu redecorated!"

It was true. The plant man had quickly grown bored of the stuffy, grey motif that Pein had been subjected to for so long and threw out everything but the desk and chair. The inside of the office now boasted a modest leather couch, a glass coffee table, deep magenta shag carpeting and several filing cabinets which contained the bulk of all Akatsuki files. He'd even taken the time to rip out the asbestos in the ceiling, replacing it with thick knots of tomato vines that stretched out towards the light coming from the skylight he'd installed (read: knocked hole in roof of base). All in all, it looked rather nice. Still, Tobi had to question the man's judgment. "Won't Pein be mad about this?"

"Bah, he'll live," the schizo immediately replied as he snatched the sandwich off Tobi's plate. "Unless he doesn't come back from the mission, of course. Hmm…"

"Zetsu?"

"What? Oh, thank you Tobi." The masked ninja bounced out of the room after hearing the thanks, unaware of what was about to befall the Akatsuki.

-several days later-

"Let's go over the details one more time."

Konan sighed in annoyance. This was the fifth time in less than two hours that Pein had demanded to hear the rundown of their assignment, and quite frankly she was more than a bit annoyed at her ginger partner. There was a reason she hadn't been all that upset when Pein started sending her on solo missions whilst he remained tucked safely away back at the base, and she was beginning to remember why that was. "Pein, I'm a professional at infiltration and assassination, so quit treating me like a parrot! If anything, I'm the one who should be worried that one of you will botch this job."

"Konan, I can assure you that all of my bodies are more than capable of handling this job. Furthermore, as your leader, I order you to go over the details once more."

Konan humph'ed at the command; pulling the leader card was completely uncalled for. Well, if he wanted to play dirty, then so be it. "We break into the grounds under the cover of nightfall. Your bodies will set up a defensive parameter to distract the guards, since it's unlikely we'll be able to locate the target without alerting some of the security. Meanwhile, while the extra yous are fighting off the bulk of his armed forces, you and I will sneak in, locate Koga, and execute him. After that, all of us will fall back, continue south for a few days, and then double back to the base. And as the only drop of estrogen in the Akatsuki (when Deidara and Itachi aren't being total bitches, that is), I order you to stop having me recite the mission specs, under penalty of no sex!" Grumbling about evil girlfriends and unfair advantages, Pein agreed to the woman's terms. Konan, in response, gave the ginger a quick kiss before crossing the campsite to stomp out their fire. Dusk would be falling soon, and they couldn't risk anyone seeing their fire or smoke from a distance.

-meanwhile, at the subplot-

For what had to be the billionth time that day, Zetsu exited Pein's office to take a walk around the base. Up until recently he'd envied the leader's luxury of staying home to dole out orders or make alliances with various and sundry underworld characters, while the other members had to actually go out and do the grunt work. Now, however, he was a bit grateful that Pein was the only one permanently confined to a cubicle-like setting; sitting around in an office all day long was boring. It only took him a few moments of lounging behind the desk before he had to be up and about, and though Pein had only been gone for two weeks, he was starting to wish that the task of Akatsuki leader pro tempore had been delegated to someone else.

CRASH

Particularly since he now had to respond to loud crashes and shouts coming throughout the base, instead of just morphing into the nearest wall and waiting for someone else to handle the problem. If nothing else, he needed to get Pein a "world's greatest leader" mug when all was said and done.

The crash emerged from the living room, where Hidan and Kisame appeared to be having a wrestling match as Deidara sat idly on a nearby armchair, watching the battle with mild interest. Apparently, the noise Zetsu had heard was the sound of their coffee table being crushed under the zealot's weight. "Damn it to hell, get off me fat ass!" Hidan demanded as Kisame attempted to put him in a full Nelson.

"Say uncle," the shark ordered, grinning as only a man who has the complete and total upper hand can pull off.

"No!"

"Say uncle and I'll think of not dislocating your shoulder."

"The hell I-ow, ow, owowOWWWW!"

"Both of you stop," Zetsu commanded.

"Go to hell," the shark and masochist simultaneously responded, before immediately resuming their struggles.

It takes a very special sort of person to be an effective leader over others. Vigor is required, so that the peons may look up to their leader and see them as a pillar of strength in times of uncertainty. Cunning is needed, so that one may craft brilliant plans and execute them perfectly, and because one might also encounter the unexpected, spontaneity is a must. Furthermore, a leader must be resourceful, competent, and willing to persevere towards the goal right until the very end. Above all else, patience is an absolute necessity, both in working towards your ends and managing the impatient and needy masses under oneself. While Pein possessed at least 95% of these traits, 90% if you caught him on a bad day, Zetsu lacked most of these qualities when put under the duress that comes with living in the Akatsuki household, and in that moment, something very delicate inside the already unstable man's brain snapped like the femur of an elderly woman suffering from osteoporosis.

Kisame was more than a bit confused when Hidan suddenly disappeared from his grip, but was snapped out of his musings by Deidara screaming several obscenities in a horrified voice. He looked up and was shocked to see that Zetsu's flytrap was shut and pulsating in a strange manner. It took the shark a few more moments to realize that the pulsating was Zetsu chewing on something, and that something was screaming muffled expletives in Hidan's voice.

Before Kisame could gather himself up enough to add a few choice swears of his own, the flytrap opened once again, spewing Hidan across the room to land on the couch completely encased in a sticky goop that was probably digestive juice. "Stop fighting, and get out," Zetsu commanded in a deadly tone. This time, the other members were quite to respond by fleeing for their lives down the hall. "So, they think they can just ignore me like that? While the parents are away, the kiddies will play? I don't think so. But what to do? Show them that I am a force to be reckoned with. Better yet, show everyone! MWAHAHA!"

-meanwhile, back at the main plot -

Konan raced down the hall after her partner, being careful to monitor the passage behind them in the event one of the guards decided to take this route to reach his boss. She had to admit, for all of Pein's annoying quirks prior to doing their job, he was an amazing ninja on the field. His timing was perfect, his movements flawless and precise, and no attack of his was ever a wasted move. This was the Pein she had been missing for so many months.

The afore mentioned ginger suddenly turned around a corner and halted before the door that led to their target's bedroom. Now to pick the lock, dash in, and-"Someone's been here."

The origami mistress blinked at the words, not sure if she'd heard right. "What?"

"The lock; it's already been picked. Look closely, and you can see the scratch marks around the lock's edges from whatever tool was used to open the door." Pein cast Konan a sideways glance as his fingers slowly curled around the doorknob. "Stay back until I give you the all clear. Should something happen to me, finish the mission and head back to base immediately. Do you understand?" The female nodded, already mentally preparing the jutsus she'd need to use in the event Pein failed. "Good. Now then…" the leader took a deep breath and burst into the room, fully prepared to confront the unknown and beat it down with whatever force might be necessary. Except…"What the hell are you doing here?"

When Konan didn't hear any sounds that indicated fighting after her partner's exclamation, she drew a kunai and followed him into the bedroom, only to be shocked as well. "Oh my."

Standing over their target's bed was Kabuto, a scalpel poised dangerously over the target's jugular.

"Shh!" the teenager hissed as Koga mumbled something in his sleep, and then rolled over to face the wall opposite the sound ninja. "I'm trying to kill this man, if you don't mind."

"You're that Kabuto kid, aren't you? One of Sasori's old subordinates that he gifted to Orochimaru, right?"

"Yes, but how did you-"

"Have to say, Sasori definitely knew his old partner's taste," Pein went on with a mildly disgusted look on his face.

Kabuto flushed a vivid shade of red, but chose not to further inquire into Pein's knowledge of the matter, lest he hear more inappropriate comments. "Why are you here?"

"Shouldn't we be asking you the same thing?" Konan snapped. "This man is waaay out of Sound territory." Actually, that was a bluff; the Akatsuki, for all of their connections and research, had a very hard time of locating Orochimaru's hidden village, as Kabuto had been bound by one of the snake's jutsus not to divulge the location of the hideout to anyone, and most of their other leads wound up being false bases or locations that had long-since been cleaned out and abandoned.

"He's been selling us goods for the past few months, but recently some of the shipments came up a bit short," the double agent explained. He may have been a cocky sadist at times, but even he was smart enough to realize that when standing up alone to Pein and Konan, it was probably not in his best interest to refuse information.

Pein mentally scoffed at Koga's foolishness. Shorting both the Akatsuki and Orochimaru? It was a wonder how this man could sleep so soundly at night. Speaking of their target, he was still breathing, and that was definitely not all right with the leader. "We can take it from here," he informed the boy in a voice that may as well have said, "Get out now."

"Much as I'd love to turn him over to you, Orochimaru's expecting me to kill him," Kabuto answered, completely composed despite his less than ideal situation. "If he hears that the man was murdered in a style irregular from my methods, he may become suspicious."

"…Dibs."

Konan and Kabuto were equally sure that they'd misheard the leader, who was looking rather smug now. "I'm sorry, could you repeat that?" Kabuto requested.

"Article 4, Section 28, Subsection 448-A of the International Agreement of Ninja-Wielding Nations stipulates, and I quote; in the event of a disputed territory, person, or item, when less than a dozen persons are involved, all persons directly related to said dispute are hereby granted the right to invoke dibs on the afore-mentioned territory, person, or item, to which the other parties are obligated to comply, under penalty of a quick and merciful death following hours of insufferable torture."

Konan blinked once, twice, three times at her boyfriend. "You're making that up."

Kabuto frowned at the Akatsuki leader. "I've never met someone daring enough to invoke dibs."

"Wait, this is real?"

"Including yourself, I imagine. Now since you didn't call dibs at all, you're unable to dispute the claim and challenge me for him, so kindly beat it before I decide to kill you as well."

"That law had to be written because of a drunk bet. There's no other explanation," Konan murmured, lost in her own world as Kabuto skulked out the door.

"Don't complain," Pein ordered as he slit the target's throat, the only sound from Koga being his gargled last breaths. "We'll have to talk to Sasori about Kabuto when we get back; something about his mild-altering jutsu seemed a bit off…" the leader shook his head, as if to dislodge the thought. There would be time for that later, after they'd escaped and made their way back to the Akatsuki base.

-mm-

Unfortunately for Pein, his conversation with Sasori was going to have to wait a bit longer than he'd originally anticipated, because once they'd arrived back in the heart of Akatsuki territory, the leader and his partner were met with a sight that demanded their immediate attention.

The small hamlet that rested some odd miles from the Akatsuki's mountainside base was in shambles. Most of the houses had been reduced to rubble, and the villagers were running back and forth between piles of rock lying about the town and some sort of monument that was being erected in what until recently had been the town square. From what the two could see from their hiding place in the woods, whatever had hit the town had come swiftly and caught the village completely unaware.

The sight was more than enough to make Pein grimace. The Akatsuki needed basic food and medical supplies at all times, which they typically acquired from this village. He'd worked out a deal with the local government that, in exchange for the locals pretending to never have even heard of the Akatsuki, much less seen the members, the organization would stimulate their economy by purchasing supplies in the town, and ensure that any marauders or bandits that dared to enter the area would quickly and quietly be disposed of. Last he'd heard, the hamlet had one of the lowest crime rates in the country. Thus, aside from wondering exactly what had caused this post-Armageddon disaster, the leader had one immediate question on his mind; where the hell was the Akatsuki?

"Pein! Thank Kami, un!"

Pein and Konan spun around to see a ragged Deidara running up to them, branches and leaves covering his whole body and making him look like he'd just gotten into a brawl with several trees and lost. "Deidara, what happened here?" Konan demanded.

"I'll tell you on the way back to headquarters, un. C'mon, it's not safe out here." Without offering any further explanation, the blond darted back into the woods with Pein and Konan on his heels. They were going to need to take the scenic route back to the base, meaning he'd have plenty of time to fill the two in on what had transpired in the nearby town.

"I don't understand," Pein thought aloud as he raced behind Deidara. "Zetsu should have sent a few of you down to the village as soon as it was attacked."

Deidara snorted at this assertion. "Zetsu's the one that attacked it, un!"

"What?" Konan gasped.

"You heard me. One minute he's walking around the base, fine and dandy, and the next thing we knew he was burning the town to the ground and enslaving all the townsfolk. That pile of rocks back there? He's making a fortress before turning the rest of the hamlet into a garden or something, un."

"Why would Zetsu-"

"Danna says he's gone on a power trip and wants to conquer everything," Deidara offered. "Or he ate some special brownies and wants to get plant rights for his garden. It could be either one at this point, un."

"See Konan? I go on one little mission, and everything goes to seed. Literally!"

"How are things back at the base?" Konan inquired as though she hadn't heard her boyfriend.

Deidara actually laughed at the duo this time. "You're kidding, un. We lost the base over a week ago, and we've been hiding out in the woods ever since, un. The only reason I'm out is because we've been running patrols by the village to intercept you guys when you got back." The blond refocused his attention on their path now. "Speaking of, we're here!"

The temporary Akatsuki base was little more than a series of tents protected by several booby traps in a sealed off area of the forest. As they approached the hideaway, Pein could see Sasori pacing the edge of the campsite as Kakuzu roasted some sort of stew over an open fire. He could only assume the other members were hiding out in the tents. The trio had scarcely arrived at the site before Deidara was heralding their arrival, prompting Tobi and Hidan to emerge from their tents. Pein felt a bit of pride swell in his chest when he noticed brief looks of relief appear in the eyes of his subordinates. Apparently he was good for something after all.

Hidan was the first to demand that their leader come up with a solution for their current dilemma, and the others were quick to follow. "I'm working on it!" Pein snapped. "We just got back from a two month assignment, and forgive me for not knowing my evil organization was reduced to this-wait a minute, where are Kisame and Itachi?"

Everyone except for Konan seemed to shift nervously about at the leader's question, and it was only after Pein repeated his inquiry that Kakuzu extracted an envelope from his cloak sleeve and stepped forward, handing it to the leader. "This should explain everything," he stated, before retreating to a safe distance. Curious, Pein opened the letter and began to read its contents.

"Sir Leader:

If you are reading this, then Itachi was right in his premonition and Zetsu has gone bananas. Anyway, he pointed out that the two of us have a lot of vacation time saved up, so we're taking a two-week break to an onsen in Tea Country. Please don't try to find us until everything is sorted out, although if the Akatsuki is defeated/destroyed/unable to continue functioning as an organization, send us a message and we'll prolong our vacation indefinitely.

Sincerely,

Kisame and Itachi

P.S. Itachi wanted me to remind you about Article 4, for some reason."

"So basically, those two miscreants got the hell out of dodge," Pein mused as he calmly refolded the letter and tucked it away in his own cloak. "One more question; did Zetsu snap after trying to eat Hidan, or punching Itachi in the face?"

"Er, the bastard tried to eat me, but how the hell-"

"All right, I have a plan. First things first; Hidan, I need you to go into town and tell Zetsu I call dibs on the base."

"You what?" the zealot shrieked, mouth agape at the order.

"You heard me. The rest of you, follow me back to the base."

"He can't be serious. That Jashin-damned Pein in the ass can't be serious," Hidan moaned to himself.

"It's a legitimate strategy," Konan offered, as though that were any consolation.

"Who gives a shit? That psycho tried to eat me last time he saw me, so why the hell do I have to talk with him?"

"Being eaten won't kill you," Konan explained, before racing off after the other members on their way to the base. Hidan, to his credit, only cried a little bit on his trek back to town.

-mm-

"Sir leader, not to be rude, but would you mind telling us exactly why we're in your office?"

"I need to find a file, Sasori," the ginger answered as he took in his surroundings. "Crap, he reorganized everything. This is going to take a while." Shaking his head in acknowledgement that nothing could be done about his current predicament, the leader yanked open one of the drawers on his new filing cabinets and began flipping through the papers.

"What kind of file?" Kakuzu demanded. He wasn't too happy about Hidan running straight into the mouth of the lion (or cannibal, as the case may be), and felt that after Zetsu going off the deep end, Pein's eccentric behavior ought to be accompanied by a damn good explanation.

"A long time ago, I figured that one day, someone in the Akatsuki would get sick of the organization and mutiny on me. Therefore, I drew up multiple files for every possible mutiny scenario that can be done on this plane of reality and logged them away for safe-keeping. We have to find the scenario where Zetsu's left in charge, loses it because of something Hidan did, and then interns all the citizens nearby on his quest for a global empire." It appeared the leader was getting close to finding what he was looking for, because he began extracting files by the handful from the drawer and flipping through them at a slower pace.

"Oh come on," Deidara cut in. "You cannot expect us to believe you thought up every way things could go wrong."

"Try me."

"Sasori and I make a bet to see who can overthrow you the fastest, un."

"Case file #84."

"Um, Kakuzu decides it would be more fiscally responsible to get rid of you-"

"#76."

"-but he pays out of town mercenaries to do it, un!"

"#77."

Deidara was clearing starting to lose confidence in his ability to come up with scenarios now, and paused for a moment to think up a doozy. "All right, I decide I'm sick of the Akatsuki, so I seduce Hidan to do my bidding and take you out! Itachi rushes to your aid, only for me to blow him up, which sends Kisame into spiraling depression so he takes out the entire base in one final suicide attack, allowing Tobi enough time to let out years of oppression and angst as he decapitates you with one of Konan's paper dolls, un!"

"That's scenario #9. Now would you please make yourself useful and move these files?"

"Wait, why would you seduce Hidan?" Sasori demanded.

"Because you ran off to Fire Country a year before to focus on your art, it's here in the file if you want to see," Pein snapped as he thrust the manila folder at the artists.

The others immediately clambered around the folder as Deidara opened it, and read the details of scenario #9 in silence until Deidara let out a low whistle. "You really thought of everything, un."

"Here we go!" Pein called out triumphantly as he held up a new file for all to see. The others shoved their way closer to read over the leader's shoulder as he began skimming the page before him. "Zetsu snaps…enslaves townsfolk…blah blah blah…got it!" Plan made, he slammed the file shut and tossed it over his shoulder. "Tobi?"

"Yes?"

"I feel at this point, I need to inform you that Zetsu has been hanging around the ficus more than usual."

If the others were confused by the leader's remark, they were completely taken aback when Tobi screeched, "That whore!" and bolted out of the room.

"The hell was that about?" Deidara queried.

"In about twenty minutes, Tobi is going to exit the base," Pein informed them. "Kakuzu, I need you to be in the garden at that time. Wait for Tobi to calm down, and then tell him it's two o'clock."

"O…k?"

"Konan, you're with me. Sasori and Deidara, clean out my office, and get rid of these damn filing cabinets. I want my cardboard boxes back. I swear I just organized this room…" And as Pein trudged out of the room with Konan on his heels, Sasori and Deidara looked at each other, hoping the other could supply some answer as to what the heck just happened.

-mm-

Zetsu drummed his fingers on the arm of his throne, picking up a goblet from the table beside him and sipping. Conquering this hamlet had been far too easy, and now he was bored. If he had the other Akatsuki members under his control, he could think about conquering some of the neighboring towns as well. Maybe threatening to eat all of them hadn't been in his best interest after all…"Um, sir?"

Zetsu glanced down at the brunette peasant who was currently serving as his end table. "Sir, my knees are sore. Can I please go home and start rebuilding my house?"

Zetsu sighed and set his drink on top of the peasant's head before propping his feet up on an ottoman that was also made of peasants, this time two blond girls no older than twelve. The only interesting thing that had happened all day was Hidan showing up to call dibs on the base, and then running like hell before Zetsu could attempt to eat him again. What to do, what to do.

The answer came in the form of a messenger running up to the schizo and announcing that a man by the name of Pein had arrived and was seeking an audience with the plant man. "So, he's back," Zetsu mused as he rose from his seat. "This should be interesting."

Konan followed behind Pein from a safe distance as the ginger walked closer and closer to the citadel Zetsu was constructing in the center of town. She had no idea what the leader was thinking by this point in time, and as he'd yet to divulge any details about the plan to her, this felt like they were walking straight to their deaths. "Pein, you better know what you're doing."

The duo halted at the entrance to the citadel and looked up to see Zetsu standing on the ledge above them, giving his former comrades an appraising look. "So Pein, we meet again. You here to overthrow us? We'll accept your unconditional surrender."

"Zetsu, do you remember what I told everyone about their partners?"

The schizo frowned, confused by the inquiry. "We're responsible for making sure they don't do anything reckless or stupid. What the hell does that have to do with anything?"

-meanwhile, back at the base-

Kakuzu looked at his watch, tapping his foot impatiently as he waited for Tobi's appearance. It had been eighteen minutes already, and if the masked ninja wasn't out here in another two he was going to disregard Pein's orders and go looking for his AWOL partner. The miser was pulled out of his mutinous thoughts by Tobi racing out of the base and sobbing madly. "T-That ficus is n-n-not a g-good plant!" he whimpered.

Now more confused than ever, Kakuzu's brain went on autopilot to deliver Pein's message. "Tobi, Pein wanted me to tell you it's two o'clock, whatever that means…"

"Oh!" Tobi's sniffling subsided ever so slightly at the message. "T-that's right, Zetsu does the p-pruning at two. Tobi helps, but since Zetsu is gone, T-Tobi will do it himself."

Kakuzu raised a brow as the masked ninja extracted safety shears from his cloak: a giant, neon green monstrosity made of plastic that looked like it couldn't even cut through Play-dough, never mind a shrub. "Tobi, I don't think-"

"AAAAAAAAAAAAH!"

"Holy shit," Kakuzu breathed as the cut on Tobi's hand spewed blood all over the garden. The pruning shears soon lay discarded on the ground beside Tobi, who sat on the ground and started sobbing all over again. "Right, I'm gonna go find Hidan. Come get us when things go back to normal."

-mm-

"I'm telling you this because apparently you need a reminder," Pein snapped in an authoritative tone. "Or did you decide to neglect your duties while I was away?"

Zetsu turned the accusation over in his head for a few moments before finally seeing what Pein was insinuating. "Is this about Tobi? I swear, if you touched one hair on his head-"

"He talked with the ficus and thinks you're having an affair, so he's trying to kill himself," Pein deadpanned.

"That's it," Konan thought. "This is a dream. This has to be a dream. There is no way in hell that any of this is happening."

Both halves of Zetsu paled at the comment, and in the blink of an eye he'd vanished from sight. "That takes care of that," Pein mused, clearly satisfied with the most recent turn of events. With that, he turned to look at Konan and asked her to gather up the townsfolk.

-one month later-

Things were finally starting to return to normal for the Akatsuki. Pein had lent out his extra bodies to rebuild the hamlet, and after many apologizes and financial reimbursements had been able to patch up things with the locals (they were somewhat used to the inexplicably insane antics of the Akatsuki by this point), with the understanding that Zetsu would not be allowed within fifty feet of the village for at least six months.

Kakuzu had been forced to track Hidan for a good twenty miles before he finally found the Jashinist hiding out in a cave in one of the nearby mountains, and after reasoning failed was forced to decapitate Hidan before he could bring the man back to the base, and even then Hidan still avoided Zetsu like the plague.

Zetsu, for his part, had immediately dashed off to the base after hearing Pein's lie, and upon discovering Tobi immediately feared the worst. If Sasori and Deidara's account of events that followed were to be believed, Zetsu had patched up the wounded idiot, cussed out the ficus, begged for Tobi's forgiveness on bended knee, and finally filed a restraining order against the ficus. By the time everything was said and done, Zetsu had given up his quest for world domination as quickly as he'd formulated it, since attempting to rule the world would interfere with the much more important task of keeping Tobi safe.

Kisame and Itachi showed up a week later, looking rather smug in Kisame's case and rather sunburned in Itachi's. Their initial story was that Itachi had had another premonition that it was safe to return, so that's what they did. However, a few nights later a rather intoxicated Kisame bragged to Kakuzu and Sasori that he and the Uchiha had actually been trying some new techniques in bed, when tragically the maid walked in on them and had to be institutionalized, ensuring the duo was kicked out soon afterwards. Needless to say, Itachi was not very happy about that bit of information getting out, and revoked Kisame's sex privileges indefinitely.

Sasori and Deidara finished cleaning out the office and went back to their normal routine, with little more than a few shakes of their heads and an unspoken agreement to never talk about this chapter in Akatsuki history ever again. This brings us to Pein and Konan.

Konan was still unsure as to what had happened over the past few months, and had taken to testing their food and water sources for traces of LSD in her quest to find an answer. "Konan, why are you so worked up?" Pein inquired, safely tucked behind his desk as he read over a message they'd intercepted from a Konoha ninja.

"Don't pretend everything's fine," she snapped while testing her iced tea for any traces of hallucinogens. "You and I ran off on a mission, acted like dibs was a legitimate legal force-"

"It is."

"-came back, only to find our resident psycho had gone more insane than usual, called dibs again, and somehow managed to return everything to normal in under an hour, which, by the way, I'm still trying to figure out how you pulled that off. That's not normal, even for us."

The leader could only shrug in response. "I've been through worse." This statement was followed by a thoughtful sigh as Pein closed the report. "But you know, all in all it wasn't too bad, being out in the field and leaving the base behind. I really shouldn't have worried about it as much as I did. In fact, I'm thinking about taking on another job soon, provided we can leave someone else in charge this time; maybe Kakuzu, or-Konan, what are you doing with that two-by-four? Konan?"

WHAM

"OWWW! Son of a bitch!"

"Oh my, Pein, it appears your kneecaps have suddenly and inexplicably shattered. Looks like you'll be staying here at the base for a long, loooooong time."