Greetings.

THERE ARE MANGA SPOILERS EMBEDDED IN BELOW RANT. READ AT YOUR OWN RISK.

It has been a long time, but the current state of the Manga did precious little to inspire me to continue with this fic. I think Kishimoto is doing a good job of overpowering literally everyone while bringing in some long lost 'rabbit goddess', which feels contrived and forced. He hyped up Hashirama's power so much, but in the end even the Shodai fell to a douche like Madara. I mean what the hell? Those idiotic black rods literally had no explanation, except as a plot device to take Hashirama out of the game. Masashi really reduced the most badass character into some idiotic Edo Tensei. He was the mightiest Ninja after Rikudou for God's sake!

That really took the wind out of my sails. turned the 4 Hokage into ineffectual morons, while unreasonably overpowering Sasuke and Naruto. The Sage comes in and gives them power? Just like that? Indra and Asura are Sasuke and Naruto?

WAS MASASHI KISHIMOTO HIGH WHEN HE WROTE THOSE CHAPTERS?

Oh, about that. Indra is the Hindu god representing the Devas(analogous to angels), and Asura is a name for Demons. They guy warped that as well, making Indra hateful and Asura good. It's like me writing a story, writing OP characters called Michael and Lucifer, and saying Michael is evil and Lucifer is good. The warped story would seriously irritate some people. It's his story and all, true, but that particular 'twist' made me want to chuck dung at the guy.

WHAT THE HELL IS THE MANGAKA THINKING?

I have read SEVERAL fanfictions which give a MUCH better story than Kishimoto's. I hate to say this, but Naruto Manga is disappointing me totally. Its devolved into DBZ, where the strongest Kamehameha wins. I remember and long for the days where Naruto was actually the most sophisticated manga around, I really do.

Oh, well, there's always FF.

Please forgive me for the rant. Those were things I really needed to say. And go on with the chapter and also leave reviews. I shall not be this late for the next update.

CHAPTER 21

I know you sent your wood clones to keep an eye on me. Do not worry; I have them with me right now. It is comforting to have your presence with me, even if it is only a clone.

I know I must seem more than a little ungrateful by leaving without a single word after you revived me…after you struggled that much during the last three years. But you must also believe one other thing: I would never put my life above yours. Especially in this world where the only one who truly knows me is you. Your clone told me that you were intent on simply keeping track of me, of seeing that I did not come to harm.

Your maturity is showing, husband. I cannot imagine the immense effort it would have taken to trust in me after the pain you endured the previous three years. I swear to you therefore that I will contact you immediately if I require any help…for with you there is no question of personal pride or ego. Your rebirth is not making things any easier for you, it seems.

Please, I ask you to endure our separation a little longer. I will return to you as soon as I can for I am dealing with a matter that is of great significance to us both. You have always been kind and understanding to a fault and I have been the fortunate recipient of that love. I cannot apologize deeply enough for my seeming desertion.

I beg your forgiveness. Please wait for me a little longer.

Love,

Your wife.

"I will always wait for you", he murmured quietly as they sped through the forests of the Konoha border, hot on the trail of the Ichibi Jinchuuriki Gaara. He carefully folded up Mito's letter, tucking it in the pockets of his long white cloak. With Mito's assurances, he could sleep that much easier at night…his wife never ever went back on her promises.

Bee and Kakashi had taken the lead with Shee, choosing to be the sensors who tracked Gaara. Sasuke, Yamato, Darui, and Yuugao were bounding ahead behind them as they brought up the core; Naruto had chosen to take the rear with Yugito, as they were sensory types almost peerless. "You seem to be suddenly happier", observed Yugito from behind him.

He turned to her and nodded with a smile, "Yes. I received news from someone I care deeply about…it has put my mind to rest", he confessed, feeling lighter and happier than for a long time. Yugito acknowledged that seriously, and Naruto could sense her curiosity flare within her consciousness. She was a beautiful young Shinobi, young but mature in an attractive way.

Coming down from your high hill of morality to join the rest of your cretin race, are you Hashirama? I know you would take the girl in an instant but for all those principles you burden yourself with, the Kyuubi stated. Naruto coughed slightly to cover his incredulity at that particular quip; You have any idea how odd it is for you to be giving me marital advice?, he asked the Fox. But then again, you would know nothing of the sanctity of marriage you depraved fox. You keep telling me how Bijuu are superior to humans, don't you? Well, you aren't.

Oh, look at you. So properly outraged by being adulterous in a marriage that does not even exist anymore!,the Kyuubi mocked. As I understand it, death breaks such bonds. You have already died once, and have been born as an amalgamation of lives. Have you even given thought to other females of your species?

Never. Uzumaki Mito will be my wife even if you bring forth Kami's daughter in front of me and ask me to wed her. Now be quiet; you have little clue of what goes on in my mind…you have no idea what goes on in yours in the first place, he replied waspishly. How dare that meddlesome fox suggest such blasphemy to him? He sneaked another glance at Yugito, and found himself admiring her smooth golden braid, her pale and flawless skin, her-

"Is there something on my face?", asked the Niibi Jinchuuriki curiously. Naruto hurriedly shook his head, focusing ahead only. He clenched his hands as the Kyuubi laughed in his mind, no doubt the fox thought all this was enormously amusing. Don't do that again. I am trying very hard to remain true to myself, and you are not helping.

So dense at times. I knew Naruto very well, and I knew Hashirama too. But which one are you? You think you will discover that by aping your old life?

What? I-, began Naruto annoyed, clenching his fists even tighter as the Kyuubi's point validated itself like a splash of cold water. His face fell as he considered: Senju Hashirama and Uzumaki Mito was a couple famous not only for their towering skills as Shinobi, but also for the sublime and pure love they shared for each other. Eighty years ago he would never have thought of another woman except in a generic manner, Mito was all he had ever wanted. What did it say about him now that he was noticing several other women? It was a fear that had been plaguing him for three years now. He knew the onset of adolescence would confuse him but this…this he had not been prepared for. Troublesome thoughts, he decided and drove them away with some effort. He had to focus.

"Did you actually destroy half of Iwa's standing army?", Yugito asked to possibly fill up the silence. Naruto shrugged, he knew he had been lucky more than anything else then.

"Surprise was a major factor. Mokuton they did not expect at all, and were woefully unprepared for it. I think a lot of them would have escaped if they were prepared for it", he admitted. He was not at all in control of his chakra then, simply throwing around chakra and jutsu without his trademark finesse. Now he was confident he could finish an army of that size irrespective of their preparedness; Yugito however coughed disbelievingly.

"Really? I don't think the Wood Release is something anyone can prepare for", she stated. Naruto shook his head in disagreement. "You can prepare for and counter anything if you are careful enough", he stated with firm conviction. Then his eyes widened as did hers. He knew she sensed them too; the motion of their team abruptly ceased, and they communicated via rapid hand-signaling. Within moments they were arrayed side by side as they stared at the same spot ahead of them.

They seem strangely diminished…they are not fully here. Must be that technique of possession they apparently use a lot,they Kyuubi remarked dryly.

"I can sense four chakras, though they are quite diminished in power. Pain is still very strong, he must have used the path-split technique", he said softly and they all tensed imperceptibly. "Itachi is here as well. Also coming are Hoshigaki Kisame, Uchiha Itachi, Pain himself. And wait a second here", he said, "I sense that zombie Kakuzu as well. Pain must have meddled again", he concluded. Pain and his Doujutsu were becoming far too dangerous.

"I sense them too", said Yugito and Shee simultaneously, nodding to each other. Naruto's eyes widened as he felt Pain's chakra mounting from somewhere to their right, and he knew exactly what was coming. The others tensed considerably, drawing forth their respective Kunai and katana in a series of steely whispers. "Defend yourselves, all of you", he whispered softly to them. "I can feel Deva Path's chakra building somewhere around here, and I need to get a lock on him", he said, closing his eyes and searching out the traces of Akatsuki chakra.

"Doton: Doryuuheki!", Yuugao and Kakashi said together, and they were surrounded on all sides by a thick wall of earth. "Mokuton: Mokujuuheki!", Yamato continued, forming the serpent seal. The wall was reinforced by thick bars of wood that sprouted around and inside it, lending it an extremely impressive structural durability. Naruto smiled slightly, even as he pinpointed the locations of every Akatsuki. "They have us surrounded. It is time", he told them quietly as he unsheathed his own blade.

"Very good", nodded Kakashi with satisfaction. "We can carry out the plan with few problems then. Everyone, all at once!", he said sharply to all except Bee, Naruto and Yugito. The five Shinobi formed the tiger seal as one, waiting for Kakashi's signal. They suddenly heard Pain's deep voice speak and acted in smooth concert as they shouted out their technique.

"Doton: Shinju Zanshu no Jutsu!"

Even as they disappeared into the earth, Naruto felt Pain use his gravity reinforced earth wall was blown into smithereens, the almighty push just stopping short of striking them. Pieces of the wall were hurled far into the forested landscape, revealing six Akatsuki ninja surrounding them with grim expressions. Naruto felt Yugito and Bee's focus sharpen considerably, feeling them whip their Chakras into alert. He felt Niibi and Hachibi awaken into readiness, their humongous chakras flaring to life around their Jinchuuriki.

"Kisame, Kakuzu, Itachi…and Pain", he said softly, sampling their diminished chakras simultaneously. This means Orochimaru and the other Akatsuki will be guarding the place of sealing. Kakashi and the others will have their hands full, he deduced with a frown. Pain's chakra seemed to be strong…apparently he had poured more than half his chakra into this Path. Itachi's chakra seemed to be down to about one third of his original capacity, but the Eternal Mangekyo was what made him so terribly dangerous.

"Itachi and Pain are my opponents", he told his fellow Jinchuuriki quietly. They both nodded; they knew exactly what Itachi and Pain were capable of, had seen it with their own eyes at the raid of Kumogakure three years ago. Pain spoke to them, the arrogance in his voice apparent to all: "Uzumaki Naruto, you will not foil our purpose, not today. Now!", he barked to his subordinates. Naruto's eyes widened with recognition at how their opponents were stationed; the moment he saw the four Akatsuki at four corners around them he knew what Pain was about.

"Oh no. They are using a barrier technique, probably approaching Hokage level", muttered Naruto with dismay even as he saw them hold up the ram seal in perfect sync. "Shishienjin!", they roared, and the next instant a double layered barrier technique towered high above them while safely ensconcing the four Akatsuki between its two layers. Naruto cursed violently as he recognized the same barrier Orochimaru's lackeys had used during the Chuunin Exams…no wonder these Akatsuki were able to perform it. Pain and Itachi would find such techniques trivial to learn with their advanced Doujutsu, and Kisame's chakra was strong enough to simply force the technique to work. And who knew what tricks Kakuzu had picked up over the decades?

"You are trapped for now. You will not cause any trouble until the extraction is complete", stated Pain sternly from his corner of the towering barrier. Itachi's face betrayed nothing as usual, but Naruto felt a sliver of satisfaction as he saw Kakuzu flinch slightly as their eyes met. Next time don't leave a body to be revived, advised Kurama lazily as he assessed the barrier closely. He himself was quite capable of erecting barriers of this strength or even more, given the presence of four other Hokage-level Shinobi. The problem lay in the fact that he had not spared much attention to the intricacies of sealing techniques – not like Mito who knew how to shatter almost any imprisoning seal. The only way he knew to break barrier techniques was just that: to break them.

"Don't bother", he said with a sigh to Bee who he sensed was in the process of transforming to the Eight Tails. "This barrier is a booby trap as well; even if we destroy it with Bijuudama, we will be incinerated in a resulting flash of terrible heat. We must find another way to exit this technique".

"I've heard of this. Anything that comes in contact with its walls will be set aflame", commented Yugito after looking carefully at the bright red double walls of chakra holding them captive. Naruto disappeared with a Shunshin only to appear where Pain stood between the two walls, and stared right into his enemy's metallic purple Rinnegan. The more he stared into those legendary eyes, the more outraged he became at the current order of the world. What right did a loathsome Shinobi like Pain have to wield the Sage's Doujutsu, what right did he have to claim the power that had originally brought peace to this world?

"Mokuton: Jukai Koutan!", he snapped out of sheer frustration, forming the serpent seal with a slap of his palms. Yugito screamed as a deep forest burst out of the ground with terrible force, its branches twining and twisting in wondrous ways, always seeking to destroy the barrier that held it. Within instants the enormous space within the cuboidal barrier was filled with massive trees and flowering roots; Naruto cursed as he saw the barrier was unbroken by his technique. He flicked his hands and two enormous Rasengan manifested in his palms.

"It is useless. Uzumaki sealing techniques are notorious for their durability. Even you cannot escape this", said Pain with contempt as Naruto slammed both Rasengan into the flaming red barrier. The air turned white for an instant and a fierce wind tore up the inside of the barrier. You could let me out again, Kurama commented idly. Yugito and Bee were firing their own techniques at the barrier, but to no avail. As the barrier flashed white with energy, Naruto sneaked a glance at Itachi from whom he felt the slightest fluctuation in emotion. The Uchiha looked as stoic as ever, his emotions discernible only slightly even to Naruto's senses. The lowering of the prodigy's eyebrow was ever so subtle, forming a wink that Naruto was not quite certain he saw clearly.

Sneaky Uchiha, weakening the barrier like that to help you out. The boy is skilled!,chortled Kurama as Naruto sensed a variation in Itachi's corner of the barrier. Not bad Itachi, thought Naruto appreciatively as he slammed a hand into the trunk of the veritable forest residing within the barrier. "Mokuton: Kakujai Korin!", he said loudly, and the flowers bloomed all at once to release a yellow miasma of pollen everywhere within the barrier. Before the Akatsuki could even notice the discrepancy created by Itachi, the poisonous pollen forced its way out through the flawed corner and engulfed the four Akatsuki holding them captive.

"That should do it", Naruto said with fierce satisfaction as he saw his four opponents fall down to the ground in a heap, taking the barrier with them. A pulse of chakra sent the golden pollen drifting away from them, causing them to merge into the surrounding forest and wind. Yugito was already extending her senses to identify the direction in which Kakashi's team had escaped, and Bee followed her as she shot forwards unhesitatingly in that direction.

"That was well done. You took them out really neatly", Yugito praised him, but her emotions told Naruto she suspected what had actually happened. But it could not be helped. Naruto inwardly thanked Itachi for his help with that barrier…why on earth couldn't Madara have been more like Itachi? That would have solved every issue they were facing right now. "Thank you. I believe we are nearing the place now", he said grimly, as they covered several miles within minutes. They found themselves facing a large cave-like structure with an enormous stone blocking the entrance. As they stopped in front of the obstructing boulder, Naruto spied Kakashi and the others appearing alongside, obviously somewhat out of breath.

"What happened? Why isn't Gaara rescued yet?", he asked with frustration. He thought they would have finished with the mission by now. He could only sense two moderately strong Akatsuki within the cave, and the humongous lifeforce of what he thought was Gedo Mazo. The extraction process was already complete, and he felt Gaara slip away every second they wasted here. "Who have you been fighting?", he asked them, noticing the agitation in their chakras.

"More Akatsuki possessed bodies, and shapeshifting white things that can mimic our abilities attacked us after we removed the four-season seal upon the entry stone. I had to burn them off with Amaterasu", said Sasuke, rubbing his eyes. Naruto glanced at the forest surrounding the stone, and the heavenly flames were indeed raging fiercely at several places. Kakashi too was rubbing his left eye…obviously even the Copy Ninja had been forced to use his Mangekyo. Pain had gone to great lengths to interrupt them, and now they had failed in their quest. Shukaku is sealed away, I can no longer feel his chakra. The Jinchuuriki is gone too. That stupid barrier delayed us, and these inept fools you call teammates don't exactly cover themselves with glory.

Naruto did not respond, nor did he show the fury he was feeling within him. He was not used to failing missions as Hashirama Senju, and he would not start now. The two Akatsuki within were not moving at all, and he could sense the sheer desperation of their emotions. They were afraid of him…good. It was time to make an example of the two villains within. "Why is no one removing the rock in our way?", he demanded mildly, but his furious gaze jerked the grief-struck Shinobi into action. The next instant, the poor stone was hit by three different lightning techniques and two major fire techniques, blowing it inward with a humongous explosion. Not waiting for the dust to clear, Naruto strode into the cave briskly with his team flanking him on both sides. Yugito hissed in anger, and the cave seemed to fill with the sadness, horror and grief of the Konoha/Kumo team.

Sitting casually upon the husk of Gaara was the Akatsuki member Deidara, behind him stood the hunched form of Sasori. "Why, why…look at this, Sasori-sama. Namikaze Naruto is here. Can you believe this fellow is the one who's been pulling the leader's pigtails? Why, my art can finish him within a blink, yeah!", he said enthusiastically, eyeing Naruto with disdain. Naruto said nothing, his entire attention focused upon the dead teenager upon whom the scum was sitting. He had lost many people especially in his previous life, and enough in this one…but something about Gaara's death was heartbreaking to him. Perhaps it was the forlorn emotions that had persisted in the Ichibi Jinchuuriki since the first time Naruto sensed him, or perhaps it was the fact that he felt that Gaara was his responsibility. The extraction was probably very painful. He died in terrible agony, I fear,said Kurama in a solemn voice.

"Bee-san, Yugito, take him back to Sunagakure. Only a Jinchuuriki can understand another Jinchuuriki sorrowful life and death, and Gaara deserves to be buried by those who trained him", he said sadly, and looked at Deidara who seemed outraged at being ignored so completely, and held out his palm. "Fuuton: Rasenshuriken", he said quietly. The cave was lit with bright light as wind chakra coalesced smoothly into a shuriken-shape, with a sky blue sphere of energy shining in the center. Deidara screamed with fear as Naruto hurled the jutsu right at his face, and dived out of the way with all the speed he could muster. But he was not fast enough to dodge completely, and his screams elevated to sickening levels as his left arm was severed from his body. The blazing chakra shuriken flashed through the space of the cave in a second and cut through the stone wall like a hot knife through butter. The cave shook violently as the force of its explosion outside reached them, and they had to shield their eyes momentarily from its light.

"Take him, and go. I have a few things to do here", said Naruto grimly to Bee and Yugito, who unhesitatingly accepted Gaara's body from him. As they left the cave without a backward glance, Naruto turned to Kakashi and Yamato who were grimly facing off against an almost curious looking Sasori. "Please take care of these two fools while I take care of something quite important. Pain has to be taught a lesson right here", he said, and began walking towards the Gedo Statue, which to his senses was blazing with supreme lifeforce and the Chakra of the Ichibi that was just fed into it. Thousands of poisoned Kunai filled the air as he moved towards his target…apparently Sasori was trying to intercept him.

The sounds of steel striking steel split the cave as Kakashi, Yamato, Sasuke and Yuugao appeared smoothly before him, parrying away the volley of Kunai expertly even as the Cloud Shinobi chased a fleeing Deidara out of the cave. "What the hell are you doing, Naruto?", shouted Sasuke as he leapt into the air and slashed his Katana to send a Kunai right back at Sasori. Walls of wood sprung up to the ceiling as Naruto walked casually towards the Gedo Statue, shielding him from the lethal Kunai Sasori had hurled. Standing in front of the massive statue, he felt for a moment the awe at the sheer lifeforce it exuded. Behind him, he heard the four ANBU engage Sasori in earnest. He had no doubt they were strong enough to overwhelm one Akatsuki.

Oh no. You can't possibly be thinking of doing that. Getting engaged in a tug of war of chakra with something like that statue is not very wise, Hashirama. Unless you want to go back to Mito in a body bag, and want me to join dear old Shukaku, don't try it.

No one else can do it. Thus it falls to me. And there is a good chance Pain will come running if I start playing with the Gedo Mazo, said Naruto intently. Fine, do as you wish. Even your Yang chakra isn't equal to the Gedo Statue's, at least not yet. Perhaps you can come close…but even you will die in a contest of lifeforce. So, I've decided to help you out if you need it,said the Kyuubi self-importantly. Naruto grinned slightly at the Fox's offer even as he sent it his assent. He may well need the help if he was to go head on with the strength of the Juubi's shell. No time like the present. On alert, Kyuubi, he said, and formed the ram seal. The battle with Sasori raged fiercely behind him, and he could feel what felt vaguely like manipulation of metal behind him. The cave was falling around everywhere due to the ferocity of the battle, but he did not care. His walls of wood held the section of the Gedo Statue stable, and shut him off completely from the ongoing battle.

"Mokuton: Mokuryuu no Jutsu!", he said loudly. The earth shook and rumbled as his enormous Wood Dragon burst forth, coiling and spiraling forwards towards the Gedo Statue. You have no idea how much I truly hate that thing, grumbled Kurama as the Wood Dragon coiled itself around the Gedo Mazo's shoulders tightly, twining itself so that it horned snout was directly opposite the statue's still open mouth. Brace yourself, Kurama. It's going to get a little tricky now, warned Naruto as the Wood Dragon roared, the terrible sound threatening to causing gravel to fall from the high ceiling of the cave.

And then, it clamped its jaws violently upon the open mouth of the Gedo Statue. Seriously? You made that dragon kiss the statue?, sniggered Kurama. Naruto ignored the annoying fox, suppressing his own amusement at the situation even as he released his chakra. A small misstep here would guarantee his death, and the Kyuubi in the hands of his enemy. Bright white light burst through the open mouth of the Dragon, and into the innards of the Gedo Statue, and Naruto probed deep within the demonic statue to find Ichibi's chakra. Kurama wordlessly joined him in his quest, and he felt the enormous awareness of the Bijuu surge through him into the wood Dragon itself. The Wood Dragon shone red as the Kyuubi's chakra mingled with his, and shot into the Gedo Mazo.

Disengage the Dragon! I have hooks into Shukaku's chakra. We have to pull him out now!, shouted Kurama and Naruto immediately slammed his palms together. The Wood Dragon reared back with a mighty heave, and he saw shining brown colored chakra connecting the mouths of both his statue and the Dragon. The Ichibi's chakra was too tightly bound within the Statue, and he yelled as he exerted his full might. The Wood Dragon writhed in response, and arched back even further to pull out more of the recently assimilated One-tail Chakra from within the statue. It flowed out like a continuous stream of sinuous brown light, pulled out like a leech from the statue's mouth. The one open eye of the Statue began closing as the Ichibi almost came into the open.

You actually did it,observed Kyuubi dryly as he began panting with exertion. Wrestling in a contest of chakra with the statue was no mean feat, and even he felt the exhaustion as he pulled out the last of the Ichibi's chakra into the open. The wooden walls he had erected to separate himself from the Sasori battle rattled hard, and he could faintly sense several high level techniques being used behind it. Apparently, Sasori was giving everyone a hard time. There. It's almost out, he panted as the last threads of the Chakra exited the statue's mouth. That was a lot harder than I thought. Your help made it easier, Kyuubi. Thank-

"SHINRA TENSEI!"

He had the warning of only a fraction of an instant as Pain appeared at the right end of the chamber and unleashed his gravity technique. The power was so vast, so overwhelming that the entire cave exploded as the world rippled outward with Pain as the epicenter. Naruto felt several shards of wood pierce his body as he was taken by the surprise attack, and flew through the air for several seconds amidst a storm of bodies, stones and sand. He dimly saw his Wood Dragon literally blasted high into the sky, and glimpsed Pain redirecting the Ichibi's chakra carefully back into the maw of the Gedo statue. The chakra he had drawn out with such effort, all that was for nothing.

All thought fled from his mind as he collided with the ground with terrible force, and felt his broken and bleeding body break even more. Consciousness was almost fleeing, but he somehow managed to hold on with the tolerance of a Shinobi his stature possessed. He could sense the others, very much alive, but in need of medical attention. As the dust cleared, he saw them strewn at various points, with Kakashi and Yuugao groggily getting up. Sasuke and Yamato were out cold, presumably taking the brunt of the blast like he had. Get up. I won't have the Shinobi who conquered me groaning like a leper just because he took a hit, ordered Kurama.

You're right, said Naruto, and stood with considerable agony. A surge of concentrated medical chakra caused the wooden stakes piercing him to fall out of his body with a clatter. His body glowed green as his wounds mended themselves, his bones setting back to shape and skin knitting itself to perfection. Within seconds, he was as good as new; he stared directly at the direction of the Gedo Statue, and rage filled him. "Fuuton: Atsugai!", he proclaimed, and a great gale of wind swept the obscuring curtain of dust away like a hand wiping away mist. Standing quite a distance away was Pain, his back to Naruto as he sealed the Ichibi chakra back into the Statue.

He looks to be quite the opponent. This will be as bad as fighting Madara, thanks to the way you depleted your chakra in drawing out Shukaku, said Kurama warningly. Naruto acknowledged the point, sheer rage filling him as the Akatsuki leader turned to face him. "You conceal many secrets, Uzumaki Naruto. I did not expect you to be able to draw out a Bijuu once it is sealed within my Gedo Mazo. I did not think it was truly necessary to fight you until all the other Bijuu were gathered, but this ability of yours makes it paramount that you are neutralized", said Pain in that grave voice of his.

"So this is the real you, Uzumaki Nagato", said Naruto grimly, as he walked towards the very healthy looking Uzumaki man in front of him. Kakashi and Yuugao took Sasuke and Yamato away respectively, retreating away a safe distance as they sensed this was not a fight they wanted to be a part of. Naruto felt no hesitation in fighting an Uzumaki…those alliances were as dust anyway. And Pain deserved to die by his hand. "We meet properly now, unlike when I was talking to Yahiko's corpse. Where is the third of your group Jiraiya told me about? Konan, I believe her name was", said Naruto coolly. He loathed having to use such base tactics, but he was a Shinobi of Konoha before all else. It was his job to finish the enemies of the Village by whatever means necessary.

"She means nothing to me. No one does", said Pain impassively. But Naruto had caught that telltale flicker in the Akatsuki Leader's emotions, and he would play upon it. If he could break the opponent's composure even a little, the battle was in his advantage.

"Really? Then what would you do if I sought her out, drained her of her chakra and left her broken body lying before the gates of Iwa?", he asked coldly, and now he let the rage within his heart flare. "Just like you did to Uzumaki Mito, who was actually your kin. What would you do then, Pain?", he demanded. The air was still as Pain met his eyes with the legendary Rinnegan, and Naruto could feel Pain's own anger like a hot miasma leaking into the air. I never knew someone as vanilla as you could actually fight dirty,commented the Kyuubi dryly. Watch out. He's going to do something drastic.

The Kyuubi, it seemed, was quite right. Apparently Naruto had goaded Pain too effectively, and the Akatsuki Leader slammed his right palm forcefully into the ground. "Kuchiyose: Gedo Mazo!", Pain yelled out. Naruto watched with awe as the shell of Ten Tails clawed its way out of the earth in a tearing of rock and ground, its monstrous body blocking out the light as it stood on two feet. I used to live in there, the Kyuubi observed, as Naruto smiled tightly at Pain's summons. The Akatsuki leader had totally lost reason…he must really hold this Konan precious if he responded to simple taunts like this. He was actually attacking Naruto with the container of the Ichibi.

I will get Ichibi back if I have the chance, he resolved and felt the Kyuubi groan. Tug of war again? How do you intend to incapacitate Pain and the Statue long enough to perform your Kiss of the Dragon again?, demanded the Nine tails angrily. Kiss of the Dragon, huh? Good name, Kurama. Well, I will do what I do best. Contain both of them with one of my most powerful bindings. It should hold Pain and the statue long enough for me to release Ichibi, said Naruto calmly as he concentrated upon nature chakra even as Pain established full control over the monstrosity he had summoned. Crimson arcs appeared upon his face, and the two concentric circles on the center of his brow as he entered Sage Mode.

I need Sage Mode to do both the extraction and confinement, especially with all the Chakra I dissipated earlier, he said by way of explanation to Kurama. It was not often he was pushed to this point, but the technique he was going to perform needed it. It was the only thing he was sure could hold down the statue and Pain for any length of time at his current level of strength.

"Die, Uzumaki Naruto!",shouted Pain as the Gedo Mazo rushed towards him. The earth trembled as the behemoth brought down its enormous fist to smash Naruto to smithereens, and the air screamed in response. Naruto totally ignored the statue as he focused solely upon Pain while forming the seals. He had used this technique exactly twice, and both times were when he had been learning it. It was a pity he had to show it this soon…just like Madara, he had a notion of using force proportionate to the situation. The Gate of the Great God was totally unnecessary to this situation if he had reached the same strength as his old self. He could have simply held down the statue with Jukai Koutan. Dismissing his meanderings, he uttered his technique even as the enormous fist of the Demonic Statue blocked out the light in its path to smash him.

"Senpou: Myoujinmon!"

The Gedo Statue fell crashing to the ground in a huge explosion of dust, its neck immobilized completely by an enormous red Torii gate that crashed down from the heavens. Without pause, the Demonic statue's arms, legs, and trunk were also captured completely by successively enormous Torii gates that fell out of the sky in great number. It could not even twitch, no matter the chakra an irate Pain exerted to make it free itself. As the dust cleared, the Gedo Statue appeared to be splayed out on the land full length, its limbs or body unable to move thanks to the enormous maze of Torii gates piled upon it in a dizzying symmetrical formation. Naruto huffed slightly in exhaustion, and turned to Pain who seemed to be hurling enormous gravity techniques at his Myoujinmon in an effort to free the statue.

"It's not that easy to beat this technique", he called out to Pain. Even as the Akatsuki Leader's attention turned to him, Naruto smoothly formed the Ram seal and called down one last enormous Torii gate. The earth shook as the massive red Torii dropped out of the sky, and fell upon Pain with mind numbing force. "Good. That should hold you for a while, and keep you from making any more interruptions", he told the fully immobilized red-haired Rinnegan user, who was groaning at the force of the Gate's fall on him. Nicely done, complimented the Kyuubi, making him grin.

I don't bring these techniques out too often, but when I do they usually get the job done, he said lightly to the Nine Tails as he appeared in front of the Gedo Statue's mouth. "Mokuryuu!", he called out once more, and the enormous Wood Dragon was born out of the earth and curled around the Torii immobilizing the Statue's neck. Once more the Wood Dragon arched, and clamped its jaws violently upon the Mazo's open mouth. This time his chakra was enhanced by Sage Mode, and the power was enough for him to wrench the still distinct Ichibi chakra from the statue's mouth. A faint silver sheen erupted around him as he exerted the full force of his legendary chakra, and in response the Wood Dragon lashed backwards, drawing out the Ichibi's chakra steadily as before.

"I will not spare you or your village for this", Pain called out emotionlessly, unable to move or make seals thanks to the crushing weight of the Torii imprisoning him. "Leave the Ichibi's Chakra, Uzumaki, and I will spare you retribution the likes of which you have not seen before. You have no idea what I can do if pushed", warned the Akatsuki Leader as the Wood Dragon pulled out even more shining brown Chakra from within the Gedo Mazo. Naruto didn't care for Pain's words…in fact if it weren't so urgent to pull out the Ichibi immediately; he would have finished Pain off by now. He blithely ignored the enormous blasts issuing continuously from the imprisoned Rinnegan wielder, the gravity techniques having no effect upon his Myoujinmon. But he was not certain the Gates would hold forever, not at his current level of strength.

But it did not matter, for the Dragon responded to his chakra and with a final ear-shattering roar pulled out the Ichibi completely from the helpless Gedo Mazo. Naruto grinned tiredly as the massive Chakra of the Ichibi took form once more to become the giant one-tailed Raccoon, Shukaku. He felt four presences behind him, and turned to face his ANBU teammates. Kakashi was giving him a thumbs-up, and Sasuke was staring hard at the captured Gedo Mazo and the awe-inspiring Torii gates confining it.

"Um, I think you have forgotten what the Ichibi can do, Naruto-san!", pointed out Yamato diffidently, and Naruto turned with a curse to see a rage-filled Ichibi forming a Bijuudama. "I'll take care of this", he reassured them, and formed the serpent seal. Within moments the Wood Dragon was upon the crazed Ichibi, and had twined around it in increasingly convoluting patterns. The one-tailed beast roared as it fell to the ground at the onslaught of the Wood Dragon, struggling futilely even as its coils tightened. Turning its head to Naruto, it shrieked shrilly, its golden eyes filled with insanity and bloodlust.

"It's you! Why the hell can't you just remain-"

Shut him up, or he'll blabber secrets,Kurama snapped. Before the Ichibi could rat him out, another Torii fell out of the sky to crash with stunning force upon the beast's head, formed perfectly enough to shut the beast's mouth up firmly. "It is done", he said firmly, feeling more than a little satisfaction at the work done. It was well worth the stupendous amounts of chakra he had expended, he thought, as he saw Pain, the Gedo Mazo, and even the Ichibi captured completely by his techniques. "If you'll wait for a few minutes, I'll gather enough Chakra to subdue Shukaku completely", he said to his teammates.

"No, you won't."

They whipped around to face the new arrival. Standing in the midst of the captured Mazo, Bijuu and Pain was an Akatsuki, his face obscured by an orange spiraling mask. One eyehole was cut out in it, and Naruto immediately recognized the Sharingan. It's him! I'll tear him apart!, roared the Kyuubi, and Naruto didn't even hesitate. Yet another Torii fell from the sky as Naruto utilized Sage Mode again, but as it crashed onto the intruder it seemed to simply pass through him. Space-time Ninjutsu. This is obviously that impostor, snarled Naruto even as Kyuubi's roars of rage threatened to break his focus.

"Neat work you have done here, Naruto. I myself couldn't have imagined Konoha hiding one as you, but here you are. You have subdued Pain, his Statue summons, and the Shukaku all at once and are still standing reasonably strong. A pity you are wasted on the losing side", said the orange-masked man in a deep voice. Yamato yelled out a wood-prison technique, but Naruto saw the futility as the Akatsuki simply walked out of the wooden stricture as if didn't exist. Even Amaterasu seemed to pass through the man, and Kakashi's water Dragon as well. Never had he seen such advanced space-time techniques, not even from Tobirama.

"Tobi, you are here at last", Pain said, a minuscule amount of relief in his voice. "Free me from this godforsaken imprisonment. I need to teach Uzumaki the real meaning of loss", he snarled, and his Rinnegan fixed upon Naruto. It heightened Naruto's wariness to know he had well and truly stoked Pain's rage today…it was obvious he would have to train harder than ever to reach his old level. The man called Tobi laughed darkly and turned to Pain.

"Look at you. All your arrogance means nothing…the Uzumaki has beaten you today. Did you know that the others of the Akatsuki are watching you even now? How will you save face with them, Pain? You who have never lost a fight till now…how will you explain being constrained by that technique?", asked Tobi amusedly, ignoring Kakashi and the others as they took up strategic positions to attack him if needed. Naruto shook his head with frustration…it was a little hard to hit someone who could not be hit. More analysis of the masked man's ability was needed; not for the first time he wished Tobirama were here. His brother could have provided a complete analysis in a jiffy, or perhaps even Mito could. His knowledge of Fuuinjutsu was practical and broad, not deep.

"Free me, Tobi, or else-"

"Or else what. What can you do?", asked Tobi and turned to Naruto. "Well, good job on Pain, Naruto. You really did show us what we were facing today. I never thought anyone could pull a Bijuu out of the Mazo once it is sealed inside, but you did it. Extraordinary", said the man, shaking his head. "But I cannot allow you to continue with this. We have risked too much to be thwarted here", he continued, and Naruto's eyes widened as the air spiraled from the man's eye. Out came a large pot he recognized very well.

"Don't let him use that! Hotei No jutsu!", he yelled out even as Tobi broke the casket and proclaimed: "Fuuin!". His teammates responded immediately even through their tiredness, and huge spheres of fire and water joined his enormous wooden fist in the attempt to stop Tobi. But even as the earth shook and dust clouded, Naruto knew it was futile. He could sense the Amber Sealing Pot's potency reach out, and steal the Ichibi right from the Wood Dragon's grasp. He shouted with anger as he was denied a second time, but Tobi did not stop there. The Gedo Mazo disappeared completely, and the power of the relic in Tobi's grasp was evident as the statue itself was sealed into the pot.

"You need some time to contemplate on your startling weakness, Nagato. Let me free you as promised", said Tobi in a deceptively mild voice while completely ignoring the wooden fist that beat on him futilely, passing through him as if he didn't exist. Naruto hurled a blazing Rasenshuriken at Tobi, and he barely had time to acknowledge Sasuke as the Uchiha lit the chakra-shuriken with Amaterasu in an incredible display of skill and timing. The Rasenshuriken which was afire with the black flames flew towards where Tobi calmly sealed Pain himself into the Amber Sealing Pot. He looked calmly at Naruto as the highly destructive technique passed through his body, colliding with the ground with a jaw-shattering explosion of light and fire. The Myoujinmon at the lower levels which had already taken an enormous beating from Pain's assaults broke at the explosion, sending the whole stack tumbling down to the ground in a dirge of terrible sound.

"There we go", said Tobi as if he had just finished an invigorating walk. "See you later, Uzumaki Naruto. Congratulations on helping your lady wife recover from my hospitality", he added, and Naruto sent a stake of earth flying towards the masked man even as he disappeared with a spiral of air. Don't go flaring your chakra uselessly now. You have precious little as it is,said Kurama wisely as he began to do exactly that. Kakashi and the others took one look at his face and did not attempt to utter lame consolations. Never had he failed this utterly at a task. Gaara was dead, he had been denied twice in acquiring the Ichibi and above all Pain was not dead. That angered him more than anything.

"The Akatsuki got away though we managed to wound him badly. What happened here? It looks as if Deidarabotchi used this place for a dancing ground", said a voice from behind him. Naruto ignored Darui completely as he tried to master his own frustration. He saw Kakashi discreetly make frantic signals to the cloud Shinobi, presumable asking them not to antagonize. I can deal with my own incompetence later, he thought harshly to himself as he gained a measure of control and turned to his waiting teammates.

"Let us head back to our villages and brief our separate Kages. We have failed at this mission."