I'm sorry this took so long. I'm at a strange time in my life. Thank you for all the reviews and messages with kind words! They kept making me cringe guiltily and remember that I had to get back to this. There are a couple of people who can go lick a lamppost in winter for all I are, but that's just the state of life, I think. In any case, this is a nice long chapter for you guys, complete with at least one heart attack. Seriously, if I don't surprise you at least once before the helpful little box that says 'review', I have completely failed.
Okay, so I dropped a ball in regards to the specifics of Pein's techniques. I had no idea about the range problem that reviewers helpfully brought up.
I sat in a corner for a while and was very sad, trying to figure out how to fix it. I can't, exactly. I just can't, because I'm in love with Nagato's realization that something has gone terribly wrong, and that moment when he first starts to doubt what's going on. I don't want to change that.
But I minimalized the booboo. In the first version of the last chapter, which you've probably all read unless you're really weird or reading this like a year from now, there was the throw-away detail that Konan made off with Nagato's real body to protect him from the Konoha/Suna/whoever nin. That's been taken out. We can all now assume that Nagato is in the vicinity of Konoha, and that Konan is either going to a rendezvous spot or trying to find Pein or other Akatsuki. However, let's pretend for the sake of my sad and meticulously organized but apparently bone-headed plot, that Yahiko's body, as the one that Nagato uses as his face and has given the most totally rad abilities, is more versatile than the rest and doesn't have to be as close to the real body. Hopefully, most of you either don't care or can accept the deviation.
If you can't accept that, then you probably wouldn't have made it to chapter 102 of a violently alternate universe take on Naruto. So I don't really have an option for that opinion. Thank you, attentive and thoughtful readers, for sharing your insights. They make us all better.
Konoha looked like something from a post-apocalyptic movie. Aiko grimly pressed her lips together and tried not to breathe in more smoke than she had to, waving her hand in front of her face to try to get some visibility. It didn't help much.
'I could have picked a better location, apparently,' she noted, trying to figure out the layout of whatever fights were still going on. At least it didn't seem like Konoha had rolled over to die while she'd been gone. That was a little heartening. Orienting was difficult, but she was relatively certain that the massive multi-Kage level shinobi fight she noticed was only slightly north of where she had left Jiraiya and Tsunade. She used subtle clues, like the enormous toad looming through the distant fog and the occasional spout of fire, in order to come to that conclusion.
It didn't require a degree in astrophysics to figure out that removing Pein from the equation hadn't ended the conflict. Tsunade and Jiraiya were still fighting at least one Akatsuki, probably with assistance from Choza, Inoichi, and…
Aiko's heart skipped a beat.
Right. Well, Choza and Shikaku were probably still fine. She firmly steered her mind away from the obvious caveat. She couldn't deal with that now.
Akatsuki was more time-sensitive. That problem could still be affected. Aiko couldn't raise the dead or do more than give platitudes. She could try to take out an Akatsuki, though.
She set off at a careful run for the nearest fight, keeping a wary eye out for an ambush. The caution was wasted. Pein and his cronies had cut through her comrades with what seemed to be vicious efficiency. What activity she could pick out seemed to be desperate and last-ditch, when it wasn't injured survivors scrabbling for cover.
There only seemed to be one more major fight going on. Whether that meant that the Hokage was fighting four shinobi or that some Akatsuki had been killed was up for debate. She passed the still forms of more than one large animal. That might have been cause for celebration, if they hadn't been surrounded by dead Konoha nin. Some of whom she recognized. Not many, though. Aiko pressed on.
'It's almost amazing that a city could be leveled like this in a day,' she thought, biting back tears. She wasn't that attached to Konoha in specific, really. But she'd lived here as long as she could remember. Somehow, it hurt to see that the village would never be the same, even before she figured in the additional grief from losing so many people. Good people, dumb people, young people, loyal people… Just people, really.
Pein really was a monster. She hated him for doing this. How could he? There wasn't even any point to what he'd done. She was almost too tired for her earlier panic, though. That change in attitude might have had something to do with the fact that her head was still bleeding and that white spots veered slowly across her vision whenever she took a deep breath, however.
She had been right at the start. It was unrealistic to think that she could fight Akatsuki. She wasn't an S-class nin. She was a joke with good genes and a few fancy tricks passed down from her betters. At this point, it felt like she was running to one last kamikaze attack.
What else was there to do? Aiko probably couldn't stop them if they wanted to press forward and slaughter the trapped civilians, genin, and other valuable assets trapped inside the safehouses. But if she didn't even try…
Aiko swallowed, hard, and tried not to think of Fukiko lying cold and still. Or Ino, who still didn't know that… Well. Still didn't know the bad news. She didn't deserve to die like that, without even a chance to fight back. No one did.
'Did I just talk myself into suicide by Akatsuki?' Aiko wondered sardonically, slowing down to creep carefully towards the flickering signatures and occasional jutsu of the fight she'd been picking her way towards.
She only saw the combatants once she cleared a ridge formed of bent rebar and drywall. The Akatsuki she found was shorter than both of his opponents, hefty and with his red hair slicked back into a ponytail. The unathletic body type was deceptive, however. He seemed to be doing quite well, keeping either shinobi from hitting him, blocking and dodging with smooth perfection.
Konoha's teams were notorious for doubling up on their opponents and out-maneuvering them instead of getting hobbled by their superior numbers. That training was probably why Yukimasa and Anko weren't dead. Aiko wouldn't claim to know either person's full abilities, but she knew enough to be able to tell that they were both weary and suffering minor injuries.
A more level-headed, detached, and maybe even more intelligent shinobi might have taken advantage of the distraction that they presented to lure the Akatsuki into a trap or attack from the shadows. Aiko saw the earth gape under Anko's feet, and darted forward without thought except of helping.
The rescue was unnecessary, and she barreled into sight without any benefit to mitigate the loss of tactical surprise. Neither of her comrades seemed to care, although they didn't have time to stop and talk. Aiko threw herself into the rote motions of Konoha basic taijutsu with a vengeance, adopting the patterns she had been drilled in for years. Attacks were complementary to the hand combat, not surprises for the team to work around. Anko was in the first position, Yukimasa the second, so Aiko added the third to their set. That addition provided more opportunities to obscure where attacks would be coming from and disorient their opponent.
The relief when she joined her comrades was palpable—with two Konoha nin, they were holding their own against a superior opponent. With three, there should be openings and opportunities to get hits in. Of course, that meant that their opponent would be more desperate to get rid of one of them to restore the previous odds.
What advantage Konoha gained with their polished ability to double and triple-team opponents they lost in predictability. A team that relied on the series of openings and turn-taking that was engendered in the academy couldn't compare to the polish of a team with chemistry and complementary skills. It was no small feat that none of them got caught in anyone else's path, but the Akatsuki seemed to have some level of familiarity with Konoha's styles. They whirled around him, but hardly had a chance to connect. Anko got the first blow- a strike against his arm—and their opponent seemed unaffected.
Something had to give.
'Annoying.' Nagato growled, torn. He was almost to the interlopers in his country. But the damned Sannin were about to kill the Animal path. If he didn't have it summon him back before it fell, then he would be completely removed from Konoha. He had to focus on Konoha. Bitterly and begrudgingly, he stopped running and focused on the Rinnegan connection between himself and that borne by the Animal path.
He stopped seeing the sodden marshland in front of him and started seeing the Human path darting forward, working desperately to keep both Sannin away from the Animal path while he stood still and rushed through a summoning.
The Human path didn't quite succeed, but Pein's favored path stood on a dusty bit of metal in Konoha an instant before Jiraiya's toad oil bullet ruined the Animal body and flung it like a broken doll to lay still on the ground. The Human path's desperate ploy proved to be its last, having gotten far too close to the slug sannin. It too fell, though it was not as damaged. If it were to be healed, it could rejoin the fight.
Pein thinned his lips and sought out the Naraka path. It had backtracked to protect his real body, providing assistance to the Ame genjutsu specialists who had been meant to keep it safe. Apparently, some red-eyed woman had led an attack suspiciously close to the vulnerable body. She was dead now, of course, but she must have communicated to someone else because the Konoha nin kept trickling in that direction whenever they managed to dig themselves out of rubble or put down one of the Animal path's summons. With the animal path out of commission, all the animal summonings failed, leaving Konoha nin confused but free to join other fights and lick their wounds.
The Naraka path was too busy to be called to revive the animal and human paths. They would have to remain out of this fight.
How had events gone so badly? He would still win, of course, though at a terrible cost to himself and possibly to Ame and his neglected organization. All of his bodies but his own broken transport could be remade, but he hated to lose them. They were the result of years of work. He kept his unease off his face, and turned to see the Sannin with his favored path for the first time in a very long time.
The Hokage seemed grimly determined at the sight of another opponent. It was the toad sannin whose hand limply fell open, letting the blade he wielded slip to the ground with a clatter.
"Yahiko-kun?" Jiraiya asked, sounding strangely vulnerable. He took a step forward. "I thought you were dead." The old man looked almost sickeningly hopeful, not noticing the alarm on his companion's face or that he was leaving himself open to attack.
Nagato –and he was Nagato now, not Pein- snarled. "He is, thanks to Konoha!" Knowing that he was wearing his friend's skin fueled his anger, and he moved forward, intent on gutting the old man who had once been his teacher, the old man who had claimed to be their protector and then had fed out information on Ame that had led to a disastrous ambush by Hanzo.
It was the slug sannin who saved Jiraiya, colliding into Pein like a battering ram and knocking him back. Fine. Some things should be said.
"It was through Konoha's intervention that Ame's peaceful revolution failed. Do not look at me as if you do not know my pain!"
He knew that Konan would have rolled her eyes if she had been here. She seemed to think he was overly dramatic when he was upset.
Jiraiya seemed to age a hundred years, slumping slightly. His eyes were still hard, though, and his head high as Nagato stood to drink in the man who had betrayed him and his Akatsuki.
"If you aren't Yahiko, who are you?" Jiraiya had always been clever, Nagato knew. He was a spymaster, and a master of the art of deception. Still, he had no idea how the older man knew to ask the next question, unless it was just hope and blind faith. "Nagato?" Jiraiya slowly held out a hand, visibly pleading with him. "It's you, isn't it? I had hoped, when I found that Konan lived. How did Yahiko die? What is this? Why are you doing this, Nagato-kun?"
"I'm feeling confused," Yamato ventured after several minutes had passed and Karin's furious searching hadn't revealed anything. They had been ready for a desperate last stand that had just never happened. That wasn't a situation one could see coming. It certainly didn't happen often.
Kakashi quietly sympathized with Yamato's bewilderment, but gritted his jaw to force down frustration.
'This doesn't make any sense. First he was coming here, and now he's just gone? I need to know what's happening. I need information. We can't hold Ame forever without orders or reinforcements.'
But Tsunade and Jiraiya were out of contact. That meant he couldn't trust that any other messenger would be able to get to Konoha. His ninken hadn't contacted him, and hadn't responded to his calls. Something somewhere was very wrong, and he was completely without information. Bleakly, he wondered if it was partially his fault. Had his inability to control his team somehow led to whatever was going on?
Kakashi purposefully turned his face away from Naruto, Sasuke, and Karin, who looked sick with guilt and confusion.
If he pushed himself and didn't sleep or rest more than absolutely necessary to stave off exhaustion, he could make it back to Konoha in less than three days. Yamato and Genma could keep that pace with him. Gai and his little replica were far too injured to accompany them, so their team should stay in Ame. As for the rest of his team… he didn't really want to look at them right now.
"Baki, I'm handing over field command to you," he decided, turning to the oldest and most experienced of their allies present. There was no particular reason that Konoha had to be in charge. "Once the Kiri and Kumo teams get a representative here, my team and I are going to try to find out what's going on. I think it has to do with Konoha."
It had to, or Aiko wouldn't have brought the Akatsuki back out to Ame in the first place. What a mess.
'For such a stocky man, this one is fast,' Aiko thought grimly. All three of the Jounin here were fast, even for their rank. Of course, Akatsuki didn't have 'jounin' level shinobi in their numbers. They had monsters.
Yukimasa made a sweeping lunge, a deviation from their set that called both women's attention. He wanted an opening to use ninjutsu. Aiko felt a flutter of optimism- her captain had an idea. Anko and Aiko moved for the Akatsuki's rear at the same time, Aiko going low as Anko went high with a kunai in her fingers. He whirled around to protect from the greater threat, just as he was supposed to.
Aiko couldn't see Yukimasa flick through handsigns through the Akatsuki, but she knew he was. The two women split apart, Aiko going left and Anko right. They barely evaded the heat of the fire jutsu that Yukimasa had flung.
Soot blinded her for a moment, and Aiko moved blindly to lower her chances of being hit, despite hoping that Yukimasa had gotten a crippling blow. The caution was a good idea. When she opened her eyes, she was privately astounded to see that their opponent was undamaged. His right sleeve was completely burnt away, but the skin underneath was perfectly healthy.
'That means that he used that arm to deflect or block somehow,' she tried to puzzle it out. 'He's immune to fire?'
That couldn't be right, could it? Was it even possible to be immune to an element?
Yukimasa must have had much the same thought. He jerked his head towards her, indicating that the next try was hers. He must be hoping that her water type chakra would prove a good match-up. The change in their strategy was now obvious, so it should have been more difficult to find a second opening for an unobstructed attack. Luckily, Aiko's jutsu were smaller area than Yukimasa's, so she didn't have to make sure her comrades were back. She just had to avoid hitting them.
Aiko bought a full second to ready Sen Tsurara by darting backwards. Ox, dog, jin, monkey, and she waited for the right moment, watching the Akatsuki wait expectantly for the jutsu. She darted inwards. Anko side-stepped out of the way and moved to tangle the Akatsuki's leg with her shin, but Yukimasa used his body to block the Akatsuki's view of her until the last moment, reaching up to secure a hand and tug it out to the side, away from the man's body. Not coincidentally, that meant Aiko only had to watch for one limb blocking her while she went in for the torso. The Akatsuki tore his limb out of Yukimasa's grasp but the moment of forced movement cost him just enough that he couldn't get it back inwards in time to push her back.
Right arm outstretched, Aiko lit her hand up with the now-familiar spikes even as she coated her fingers with a protective glove of water-natured chakra. 'Funny,' she thought, in the last moment before she reached out to force her hand through his chest. 'If I didn't know better, I'd say he was fast enough to get that hand back in.' She blocked his right with her left forearm, deflecting it upward, and moved to pierce his heart. The cloth over his chest burst outward and shredded on contact, exposing pale, smooth skin.
And her technique sputtered, dying as soon as the chakra connected with her opponent, leaving her landing an awkward punch instead of piercing flesh. Aiko's eyes widened as her face jerked up. She thought she saw victory flicker in the Akatsuki's pale ringed eyes, just a hint of amusement curling his lips upward. She had just enough time to note that she had only seen eyes like that on one other person and wonder at their significance. The chakra around her wrist still hadn't fled and she was still pressing forwards and there wasn't time to jerk backwards-
With speed she couldn't entirely see, the hand that Yukimasa had pulled away darted inwards and twisted as it closed, viciously snapping her wrist and something smaller in her hand. The bones slid and gave in an instant.
She shrieked and hiraishin'd backwards, inadvertently dodging the hand that had been coming down for her head to land the killing blow. Tearing her hand away had done further damage, but probably saved her life. Pain was racing up her forearm like licks of fire. It was with a numb sense of disconnection that she observed that her hand was mangled, limp, and twisted in a way that obviously ruled out any chances of making a fist, much less handsigns or holding a weapon.
Anko bellowed something that Aiko couldn't understand through the buzzing in her ears, whipping around and stabbing something deeply into the Akatsuki's side, under the arm that was still raised.
He stepped back and kicked her away, already reacting to Aiko's other teammate.
Yukimasa was too close to the hand he had crippled Aiko with. That meant that the sword Yukimasa pulled off his back and over his head was caught in a casual display of monstrous strength and unreal pain tolerance.
Pain tolerance that Aiko couldn't match. She sobbed, forcing down actual tears and hysteria. God, it hurt more than anything she'd ever felt. She'd had broken bones before, but clean breaks, and not so many at once.
"Isn't it obvious?" Nagato asked quietly, almost incredulous that the man would pretend not to know what he had done, that he would look at Nagato with naked hope and pain on his face. "Konoha is part of a broken system. The shinobi world is one of petty tyrants selling violence for evil men, leaving only despair and pain in its wake. I will change that. I am burdened with a vision beyond compare."
Tsunade all but snarled. "You're wrong!" Her chest heaved with anger. Her hands still dripped with the oddly cold blood from the Human path, who had put himself in her way in one last attempt to delay the death of the Animal path. "Petty tyrants? We protect our own, the people we care about! You as much as admitted that you came here because of your desires, your choices. You're the selfish one."
Nagato eyed her, not letting wariness into his body language but not falling prey to arrogance either. He could kill either of these opponents in single combat handily. Both of them at once would require that he plan.
If he were a coward or had more resources available, he might have called on another path. But the Preta path was busy with two kunoichi and a shinobi, the Naraka path could not be spared, and the Animal, Human, and Asura paths were dead. Konoha was not as weak as he had supposed.
He was on his own. But he did not fear, not for himself. Nagato was torn between the desire to hurry so that he could find out what had happened to Konan and his knowledge that rushing in head-first might end badly. Reluctantly, he chose caution.
"Selfish," Nagato repeated slowly, mockingly. "I am selfish. I do not fight for no one, woman. My concern is all of humanity. I am not bound by your conventions of favoritism. I want everyone to have peace, and I will bring it to this world in the only way possible." He blinked levelly at the woman, registering her dumbstuck expression. "This world only understands fear and violence. Very well." He spread his hands and intoned, "So they shall fear me, and I will ensure that no one ever bands together against the weak."
"You're talking about destroying the shinobi system and villages?" Jiraiya asked lowly, shaking his head slightly. "That's crazy. Nagato, what have you become? You can't force peace through fear. It would never be true. You would only be a tyrant to the people. Their hatred would band them all together against you, even if it meant all of their deaths. No one will live in submission."
"Idealistic," Nagato rebuffed sharply, adjusting his stance to be ready to move if either of his new opponents lunged. He forced down a pang of doubt. Jiraiya was wrong. He had to be. "At their core, people are weak and frightened. That is why they arm themselves and turn to violence."
It was positively infuriating to see disappointment in his old mentor's eyes. How dare he condescend like that?
"Nagato-kun, you don't believe that," Jiraiya said quietly. "Yahiko never believed that. Konan never believed that. I wouldn't have taught you if I didn't know you were all good people, despite the odds against you." Tsunade looked almost mutinous at his gentle tone, but didn't try to stop the white-haired man from trying to reason with the intruder in her village. It was highly illogical, Nagato thought.
But Jiraiya pressed forward, painfully sincere. "I always believed in you, Nagato-kun. I told you once that I thought you might be the child of prophecy, the man who would bring peace to the world." He shook his head, and lowered his voice. "But not like this." Sorrowfully, he looked out over the ruins that had once been a vibrant metropolis. "The boy I knew had suffered as a result of someone else's war in his homeland. He wouldn't want to do that to other children, or to take away people's free will by force. You fought for your dreams with tooth and nail, but you were never a bully, kid."
If Jiraiya took one more step in, he might actually attempt to hug Nagato. The Ame nin took a cautionary step backwards, thoroughly disoriented.
This wasn't right. This wasn't how this altercation was supposed to go. Nothing was going right. He had forgotten how persuasive the older man could be, but that meant nothing. It had to.
"It's your fault," Nagato managed steadily, catching the older man's eye. He managed to work up a bit of anger when Jiraiya had the gall to look confused. "It was Konoha that sold us out all those years ago. Hanzo had backup from Konoha."
He licked his lips, strangely hurt and weary at the prospect of telling this story he had never told. "I had to choose between Konan and Yahiko, and it was Konoha's fault. There was no sense in that. Had you not sold us out for information, he would still be here today. Do not act as though you can lecture me."
Even as he said it, Nagato hated that he sounded like a child defending himself against this man. How did Jiraiya make him feel so small? Was it Jiraiya who had somehow ruined his plans once more- Jiraiya who had arranged for Konoha to invade and subjugate Ame, chasing out Akatsuki? It seemed logical that the spymaster would have been involved in the many subversions of his plans to collect jinchuuriki. He needed them to make the weapon that would allow him to force the people of the Elemental countries into submission.
The Sannin exchanged a confused look. It was Tsunade who spoke. "Konoha didn't send anyone to Ame," she said cautiously. "Sandaime-sama would never have interfered with your failed coup. He didn't care who ruled Amegakure. Konoha had our own problems."
"I was there," Nagato said slowly, outraged that she would deny this.
"Any Konoha nin present weren't ordered there by Sandaime-sama," Tsunade said bluntly. "You were tricked."
"Not by Sandaime," Jiraiya said lowly, looking as though an unpleasant thought had occurred. "Danzo, however, might have interfered if he saw opportunity for profit." He looked a little green.
Nagato didn't see what difference it made. He shook his head, tired of conversation that raised prickles of doubt. "Enough!" He narrowed his eyes. "I will not be dissuaded." No matter that he had been wrong, or that his old teacher was glad to see him, or that he feared for Konan, or that it seemed increasingly possible that his attack on Konoha would be a failure.
More than a sliver of doubt pulled at his heart. When it was all summed up that way… Perhaps it was time to reconsider his actions. Jiraiya was wrong: his motivations were pure and his plan the only one that could work. The Konoha nin were wrong about people, and he would prove it to them. Konoha had only rallied because they had no other choice and they thought there was no option for surrender. If they could bow to his might, they would have. Nagato would prove it, and that would prove that he had been correct in his thinking.
He took just a moment to connect with the Preta path, and nudge the manifestation of his power to move more aggressively. Dimly, he recognized one of the fighters with a bubble of amusement. It was of no consequence, however. Once it had killed those in its way, he would send it to the poorly hidden shelters in the west.
And then they would see who knew human nature.
'I need to get back in there,' Aiko realized distantly, feeling strain under her eyes and that she was breathing harshly.
It took a moment to re-evaluate her strategy to take her injury into account. She wasn't useless, but it would be much more difficult for her to get her own hits in now. That meant she was now support for her comrades, helping them get openings. She should keep her right side away from the Akatsuki as much as possible so that her left was always available for blocking.
She tried to pretend to herself that she couldn't see that her hand was swelling and turning purple. It was just a distraction. Pain was just a distraction. It didn't mean anything, and neither did the fact that she couldn't feel her fingers, or that they looked like fat blue sausages.
"What happened?" Yukimasa grunted, abandoning the professionalism of silence. Aiko understood instantly. It wasn't working as an intimidation tactic and they needed to figure out what had gone wrong with their attacks. It wasn't an immunity to fire chakra or even fire itself, so-
"I think he absorbs chakra!" Aiko called out, hoping the tightness in her voice didn't make her sound too weak. 'Like Kisame's sword. That's how he did it.'
That meant that genjutsu and ninjutsu were out of the running as optimal strategies. He'd endured both direct and area effect attacks. It would have been nice to figure that out another way.
But the man was monstrously strong, more like Gai than anyone she'd ever faced in combat before. In unspoken agreement, all three Jounin reached for a blade, if they hadn't one out already. Hopefully his flesh wasn't so tough that they couldn't pierce it. At this point, she wouldn't be surprised. This Akatsuki seemed optimally suited as a defensive fighter—their numbers weren't the advantage she had hoped for.
She was best with a short sword, and preferred to fight with her right hand, but Aiko awkwardly reached across her thigh to pull out a kunai with her left hand. Her broken wrist hurt terribly, but she tried to ignore it. The limb dangled a little limply when she darted forward—the elbow was curled so that her forearm was across her stomach, but she couldn't seem to do more than twitch her ring and pinky fingers.
Aiko jerked involuntarily, looking around for Pein before she realized that the voice had come from her current opponent. That was positively uncanny.
"I have seen your technique through these eyes, girl. You only touched Pein because I felt you were of little consequence, a fly before me."
Was he seriously saying that the creepy eyes meant he could see what Pein had? Was he connected to Pein? If that was true, she was going to have a seriously hard time touching him. He knew she only needed a tap to move him or hurt him.
An ugly theory made itself known.
'Puppets,' Aiko realized bitterly. 'My favorite thing. These aren't new Akatsuki. These are puppets of Pein's somehow. I bet the others all have eyes like that too, just like the hair is Pein's color. What a vain son of a bitch.'
So Pein was still in Konoha. They were all Pein.
The moment that her hand had been broken, her reaction had been to bury the pain, not begrudge the man who gave the injury. He was her opponent in a fight to the death. There was no point in personal dislike. Hypocritically, that opinion changed in an instant, now that she knew it was that man again.
"You again!" Aiko snarled, near-frantic with the desire to end him or at least make him hurt. She lunged, trying again and again to slash at him, but failing. Pein just moved backwards and to the side, like he was a Jounin teaching an excitable genin. She had fallen out of tandem with her peers without realizing it, and nearly collided with Anko in her haste. The older woman managed to dodge and rally around, trying to intercept Pein, but he ducked under and around, placing her body between himself and Aiko.
Like a child hiding behind an adult at the playground, she thought furiously. He was mocking her. Calling her infantile, showing that she was too slow.
"Fall in!" Anko barked, drawing Aiko back to the real world. She jerked guiltily, realizing that she had been behaving unprofessionally. She didn't get to put her grudge before teamwork. It was seamless to slip back into line, letting Yukimasa lead their pattern. She recognized the move he called for instantly.
They were supposed to separate, and come at their target from three points around him, and whirl counterclockwise, moving downward in a spiral that Aiko had always thought strangely resembled a whirlpool. Yukimasa came in at Pein's right side, Anko behind him directly at Pein's back, and Aiko behind her at Pein's left side. She wryly noted that the maneuver had been flipped so that all three of them would be using their left hands, a concession to her crippled right.
All three of them corkscrewed, Yukimasa taking the lowest position to cut at the front of Pein's shins, aiming to slice the tendons keeping his feet firmly attached to his legs. Anko was sliding her blade through the back of Pein's right knee and around the side. Aiko had the most protected position and the toughest target, slicing at Pein's lower back in an attempt to cut through his spine.
Her blade connected, scoring deeply, in no small part because Pein shifted his weight back slightly so that he could kick Yukimasa back. With a yelp and a crunch of bone, Aiko's captain went flying, hitting the uneven terrain and rolling twice before he managed to flip to his feet. Pein had already turned to Anko, whose blow had missed due to Pein's kick.
Aiko saw it happen but still couldn't do a damn thing. Anko's low positioning put her head only slightly above Pein's hands. She had been vulnerable. The movement they had executed counted on the probability that the three-pronged attack would stun or startle their opponent long enough for them to move outward and upward so that blows couldn't come from above.
They had failed. In one smooth motion, Pein put a hand on either side of Anko's head and twisted. It popped all the way around with sickening ease. The older woman's knees buckled and her momentum carried her forward even as Pein continued to turn to face Aiko, who had both been highest and farthest from his vision. She was in an athletic stance. She could move away. Yukimasa had given her the least risky position.
It still wasn't enough for her to dodge completely. The foot she hadn't seen him raise connected with her right shoulder, shattering her upper humerus and sending the shards to collapse into her acromion. She saw white and only belatedly realized that the force of the blow had toppled her over, sending her rolling. She recovered to push herself further away with her good hand, and nearly screamed when the momentum carried her weight onto her now ruined shoulder. Breathing was all but impossible through the taste of bile and blood in her mouth. Some reserve or reflex carried her to her feet through the pain. She had dropped her kunai at some point and not noticed.
Her eyes met with Yukimasa's through the distance. Pein was in between them, looking thoroughly unconcerned. Distracted, even. He was still turned more towards Aiko than her teammate. Her surviving teammate. Anko was staring up deaddeadead and Pein was better than she was and he was going to kill Yukimasa, he was going to kill everyone and everything that he touched. She couldn't let that happen.
In the moment, the next thought seemed like a perfect idea. Pein was going to kill her. She couldn't survive him. When she died, her body was going to explode from Danzo's seal. She would be taking Pein with her. Unless Pein managed to escape the blast radius—he had to be close. And she had to die suddenly—he might realize what was happening and have time to back away. Or he might just choose to casually fling her away, or let her die slowly. She had to make it count, had to set this up right.
He was turning. Turning away from her, moving to the larger threat. Her captain still hadn't quite regained his balance, on his feet now but not ready to intercept an attack.
Aiko didn't think, she moved. Her good hand jerked up to the side of her face, planting a very familiar seal on her temple just above her cheekbone. An instant kill, and then Danzo's seal would fail in the same instant.
If she'd had more time, she might have had last words. Something poignant, or something heroic, like telling Pein that he couldn't win. But all she was really thinking was a combination of 'save captain' and 'fuck this guy', and none of that was suited for the record.
'I need to work on my insults' crossed her mind ever so slightly before, 'No, I don't' flickered in denial.
It didn't matter. Pein's puppet turned, sensing that she was lunging at him. She had just enough time to savor the slight confusion when he realized that she didn't even have a weapon out and twist her mouth into a parody of a smile before she let her momentum carry her a breath away from his body. He was about to block her, probably by kicking her down.
She snapped one last seal, and wasn't even able to appreciate just how fucking beautiful it was to see blood spray out over the short man's confused face. She certainly wasn't there to enjoy the secondary, much larger boom that rocked the ground, shredding both bodies and scorching a ring into the ground.
Yukimasa was, though. The first thing he did once he had registered the heaviness in the air that proceeded the explosion –after he reflexively scrambled backwards, out of range—was throw up. It might have been the way the force rocked him with nausea, but it was more likely the tiny scorched toe with a painted blue nail that collided with his chest and rolled when it dropped to hit the ground.
"God," he gasped, licking bile off the back of his teeth and shaking. "God."
Iruka's muscles were already so tense that they hurt, despite remaining perfectly still. His students and the other children in the shelter had been getting restless and impatient. He wasn't sure if the fact that they had quieted when distant booming echoed through the tunnels to them was good, although their whispers were much easier to think and listen over than the whining and chatting had been.
'I have no idea what I'm hearing,' he thought with frustration, not for the first time. Fighting had obviously begun, and it wasn't close. That probably meant the village was under direct attack. But there weren't many shinobi he could imagine would be loud enough to hear from such a distance—an Akimichi, perhaps.
At least no one seemed to be nearby. That didn't mean he was relaxing at all. Chuunin instructors were some of the best shinobi in the village because they were entrusted with Konoha's most valuable resources, but he had never specialized in detection of any sort. There was always a possibility that some of the attackers were a distraction for opportunists interested in a few bloodlines.
Those thoughts were why he came shamefully close to throwing a shuriken at the source of abrupt movement. Iruka wheezed in panic, trembling. He'd barely caught the blade between his fingertips in the same instant that he'd reflexively tossed it.
The surprised looking huddle of children who had jerked downwards didn't even notice that there had nearly been blood, though their kunoichi teacher gave him a murderous look.
"Where'd the doggies go?" someone whined plaintively.
'Oh, that's right,' he realized dimly. 'They were snuggling Aiko's ninken.'
It took a moment for him to connect the dots there. The children using that fluffy dog as a pillow had all knocked their heads on the floor when it had ceased to be in the shelter. It was… No, was it even possible for a ninken who had already been in the human realm to respond to a summoning? Iruka frowned, carefully tucking away his weapon and plastering a bright smile onto his face to avoid letting onto his increasingly dark thoughts. As far as he knew, that wasn't possible. He could be wrong, of course. But it seemed much more likely that the chakra sustaining the summons had cut out.
'Aiko could have passed out from chakra exhaustion,' he theorized. That wasn't a good option by any means, but it was better than the only other explanation that came to mind.
His female colleague met his eyes with an expression of grim understanding before she regained her post, having finished soothing a boy who had gotten a good knock to the head. She had come to the same conclusion.
He really wished he knew what was going on. Iruka had to stop himself from tapping his fingers against the side of his pants. His students knew his nervous tics well enough by now that he couldn't allow himself to forget what his hands were doing. It would do no good to panic them.
Jiraiya threw himself to the ground at the sound of an explosion, half-expecting the attack to be much closer. His reflexes were wasted, however. Whatever detonation that had been had been both large and loud, but the plume of smoke he spotted in the distance showed that it was a good half-mile away. The attack hadn't been for him.
He cursed his paranoia, even as he leapt to his feet and moved to ensure that Nagato-kun didn't manage to hurt Tsunade-hime while he was lazing about on the ground. The shock he saw on the Ame nin's face stopped him in his tracks. Tsunade stepped back, visibly wary of a trap. Katsuya bubbled menacingly, dissolving and dividing into smaller slugs than the large beast that had shielded hime from the last attack.
It was for naught.
"Impossible," Nagato said quietly, turning to stare off at the rising cloud of dust as if he had forgotten he was in a fight. "I… failed. How could I fail?"
Something uncomfortable crawled in his belly, a suspicion that Jiraiya couldn't quite verbalize.
"What are you talking about?"
Apparently, Tsunade wasn't struck by the same sense of cautiousness that told him that anything more than a whisper might break their odd stalemate, because her tone was firm and not entirely pleasant.
"I was going to demonstrate that you were wrong." Nagato blinked, and turned back to the older shinobi, looking a little lost and unnerved. "That your people would surrender to me instead of dying for you."
"It's obvious that they weren't going to surrender," Tsunade rebutted fiercely, frowning at him. "They've been fighting you since you came here."
"I meant the others," Nagato muttered distractedly. "I gave no chance for quarter to your Jounin. The genin and civilians, however, did not have to die."
"What did you do?" Jiraiya asked hopelessly, fearing the worst.
Well, that hadn't been what he had expected.
"I did not have a chance to offer them terms." Nagato slowly shook his head, giving the Sannin a strange inquisitive look. "The last Path I possessed who could go to them is dead. I have no others but the path outside the city. Even if I beat you here…"
He trailed off, but Jiraiya knew what he meant. Nagato would have no clean victory. All three of them were bloodied and battered, but not ready to stand down. Nagato might fall to one or both of the Sannin, and his invasion would fail. Even if he won, he would be weakened. Someone, somewhere, among the Konoha survivors would find him and bring him down. He was no immortal. If he had thought he could take Konoha alone, he would not have brought other fighters.
"Paths?" Tsunade asked, uncertain.
"Like the story of the Rikkudo Sennin," Jiraiya explained quietly. "The Rinnegan is the power from that story. It's real. That's how he did this. The other intruders are him."
He had been all but certain, but seeing Nagato's head nod slightly in agreement hit home. God, when had one of his kids become so powerful? Jiraiya tried not to laugh, because if he did, he was going to cry. He was a failure of the highest order. He had been less of a disgrace back when he thought his students were all dead. His apprentice was still dead, as was sweet Yahiko. Nagato and Konan were criminals bent on Konoha's destruction and the deconstruction of the entire shinobi way of life. Naruto… He could have done so much more for Naruto. But he'd looked at that boy and seen his father's face and his mother's spirit and been torn between drinking away the memories and pushing him away so that he couldn't be hurt again when the boy died.
Naruto had forced his way in past his guard, but that was through no virtue on Jiraiya's part. He was a disgrace to Konoha, a pathetic failure as a teacher, and an utterly worthless godparent. God, he didn't even know what had happened to his goddaughter. He hadn't seen her since the fighting started. Was she dead? Probably. Half of Konoha seemed to be.
Nagato's quiet voice cut through his despair. "It seems that you were correct. I cannot best you." Jiraiya pulled his attention outward to see Nagato looking up at the sky, staring into the distance contemplatively. "I yield, Hokage-sama, Jiraiya-sensei. I was wrong."
"What." Tsunade said ungracefully.
"If your shinobi are willing to blow their very bodies up to keep me from their civilians, I cannot believe that I will find what I thought I would here." Nagato shook his head slowly. "Konoha is not what I thought it was."
"What makes you think I would accept your surrender," Tsunade demanded, half-hysterical, tears of anger welling up and her face twisted in sick, trembling outrage. "You killed hundreds of my people! I want your blood. Why would I let you walk away?"
For the first time, Nagato seemed to really look at her. He shrunk slightly in the face of her obvious grief, apparently shaken by the realization that he had hurt real people and was going to be held accountable for it.
"I can fix that," he said quietly.
Tsunade threw her head back and laughed until she cried, great gasping sobs that shook her shoulders. "You can fix it," she repeated thickly, shaking her head and hugging her chest. Now that the adrenaline had gone and the fight was over, she was falling apart in front of his eyes. Jiraiya swallowed hard, and quietly moved to wrap an arm around her waist. She leaned into his chest and rolled her head to keep Nagato in her sight. "Are you mad, boy? You're going to fix this. What are you going to do, give hand-written apologies to every widow and orphan? Will you rebuild my city by hand?"
"No," Nagato answered, looking her directly in her eyes. He stepped forward seriously, hands curling slightly at his side. "Tell your people to stand down. They are still fighting my last path. I will bring the Naraka path here." He paused deliberately, as if he knew that the next words would be disbelieved. "The Rinnegan has the power over life," Nagato said quietly. "True resurrection, not a perversion or theft from the Shinigami."
Jiraiya felt his jaw drop. That was in the stories, yes, but stories couldn't all be true. It was perfect, it was unrealistic, it was-
"Impossible!" Tsunade breathed, curling her fist into Jiraiya's vest. He couldn't see her face even when she lifted it, but he knew the fury that would be on it. "You mock me."
"I do not." Nagato raised his head to make eye contact with Jiraiya. He met the gaze steadily, torn between disbelief and hope. "Jiraiya-sensei, you know I do not lie. I can do this. The Samsara of Heavenly life technique restores a body to the state it was in before death. I can rebuild what was lost, attach limbs, and breathe life back into damaged tissue. They will not be in perfect health," he admitted honestly. "I believe that there may be remnants of fatigue or imperfections in chakra level, and I do not know what would happen to a man who had lost a limb years before, for example, but I can restore your people to life in penance."
"In penance," Tsunade repeated slowly. "So you're sorry, boy?" She stared at him, coming to a decision. It didn't take long. Jiraiya knew what she would choose. There was only one choice, no matter how angry she was. Their people came first.
"Katsuya-sama, spread out and make sure everyone knows to stand down!" Tsunade ordered hoarsely, not taking her gaze off Nagato. "I'm going to let him try. I'll need your help to heal any injured, however. Nagato. Are you claiming that your technique only needs genetic material to rebuild a body and restore it to life?" she clarified, eyes hard. At his nod, Tsunade took a deep inhalation. "So a body should become as it was meant to be," she concluded quietly, running a hand through her left pigtail and tapping a scuffed, bloody heel against the ground.
A body should become as it was meant to be.
Hope swelled up in his chest, despite the grimness of the situation. Tsunade was obviously disgusted by Nagato, but he didn't feel guilty about talking to him under the new circumstances.
"What happened?" Jiraiya asked quietly, hating that he'd forgotten about his initial upset when his goddaughter had disappeared earlier. She had taken Nagato away—and he was now certain it was Yahiko's body, though he hadn't gotten a good view before—and had never returned. But Nagato had.
His old student gave him a careful examination. "What do you mean?"
"My goddaughter," Jiraiya clarified, oddly surprised that Nagato hadn't known. It seemed so obvious to him. "She- earlier, when we – first arrived"- 'Before Choza and Shikaku and Inoichi died' , he thought bitterly –"the girl who-"
Thankfully, Nagato interrupted his awkward stumbling for words. "Uzumaki Aiko," he clarified slowly.
For the first time, Jiraiya remembered that Nagato was an Uzumaki too. How was he related to his godchildren?
Nagato looked guilty, and Jiraiya's heart sank. Even as he told himself that Nagato would fix it, that he would bring her back, Jiraiya wanted to go see for himself. To find his goddaughter and apologize to Minato for failing him so completely.
"Dead," Nagato admitted. "Although I did not kill her with these hands. She took me out of Konoha, to the land of Rain in hopes of keeping me from the fight. She did not know that the Animal path could summon me."
"Then why is she dead," Jiraiya asked quietly, accusatively.
"That was the explosion."
His legs buckled under him and Jiraiya sat heavily. 'Maybe I already knew,' he realized dazedly. 'That wasn't an explosive tag. That was a big explosion. From something like the seal Aiko took from Danzo.'
Kami, how horrific. But, that didn't answer-
"How did she die," he demanded hoarsely. An explosion would be a monstrous way to die, but the seal was meant to go after she was dead. That had just been her body, not her. Maybe the truth was less cruel. Even as he grasped at straws, Jiraiya knew he was being irrational. She was dead. Dead was dead, and it certainly hadn't been peacefully in her sleep. Knowing wouldn't make him feel any better.
"Suicide," Nagato admitted quietly.
And his heart stopped somewhere between terror and confusion, even as the younger man continued talking.
"I don't know how she did it. One of her companions was dead, and the Preta path moved to finish the other while he was down. I had intended to have him go to the refugees after they were dead and was weary of playing with them. She leapt at the Preta path." Nagato looked oddly disturbed, as if noting a detail for the first time. "She was smiling," he finished quietly. "She didn't even try to reach out. Her head went first, and then-" Nagato cut himself off sharply, as if remembering that shinobi tolerance of gore and grief might falter in the face of such a personal connection.
Jiraiya bowed his head, feeling a despicable failure. He didn't even care when a tear drop hit his knees. "And you can bring her back?" he asked quietly. A body that had been the fuel for an explosion like that… half of it might be outright gone as ash, the rest scattered. Was it even possible to restore full function after something like that? Would she remember the experience? It must have been a horrible way to die. It might be kinder if she didn't have to count such an experience in her recollection.
"I can bring her back," Nagato promised solemnly. "And then…" he paused uncertainly, probably knowing that it was a terrible time to ask favors, but unable to resist. "What happened in Ame?"
Surprised by the question, Jiraiya had to blink three times before he made the connection. He'd pushed that affair back in his memory in his current preoccupation. It just didn't seem important at the time. But of course Nagato would be interested.
"I don't know much," Jiraiya admitted. "A toad came to me asking what was going on while I was fighting before you came back and told me that Naruto was actually in Ame, but I don't know when the situation changed. If there was a message from the borders about an excursion into Ame, it either hasn't made it here or the messenger abandoned their post to join in the fight."
"I see." Nagato seemed troubled. Jiraiya could sympathize.
"Who are we waiting for exactly?" she asked crisply, pacing a small circuit.
"My last remaining path," Nagato said quietly. "I should probably make you aware that there are also four Ame shinobi present. I took our strongest team in order that someone might protect my actual body. In any case, the Naraka path is channeling a power that will allow me to perform the Samsara technique of heavenly life."
"And will this kill you?"
Jiraiya recoiled, but Tsunade was matter-of-fact. The question made sense. Most kinjutsu had a heavy price to pay. Life for life seemed fitting.
"I may die in the attempt," Nagato admitted. "I doubt it, however. I have a path left to aid me and a great deal of chakra still." He met her gaze for a moment. "I will use as much as it takes," Nagato said quietly. "I have not used this technique before."
"Why didn't you?" Tsunade asked suspiciously. "If this friend of yours is dead, why didn't you bring him back?"
A flash of pain crossed Nagato's face. "I had not mastered the technique," he said bluntly. "And by the time I had, it was far too late. I cannot bring back those who are long dead without dying myself, and Konan would not have forgiven me if I attempted the technique and failed. When I suggested it, she felt that the risk of failure outweighed the possibility of having Yahiko back, and that she would not choose between us."
'She didn't want to be alone,' Jiraiya realized sadly. Konan had always been a sweet girl. Skilled, clever, but not a leader herself. No wonder she had clung to her surviving companion.
They waited in unhappy silence until the 'path' came to them, impassive and dull-faced. Nagato directed it to stand nearby and took a deep breath. "Tsunade-sama, I can do nothing for your injured," he warned a final time. "It is still possible that any who are trapped under rubble will perish after I have performed this technique. They will remain lost. But if we delay, those who have perished already will be out of my reach."
"I understand," Tsunade said quietly, obviously pained. "Save as many as you can. I'll set them to searching for survivors and heal them with Katsuya's help."
'I'll never get a chance to see anything like this again,' Jiraiya knew when Nagato raised his arms slightly and began channeling a truly godly amount of chakra. 'I should pay attention so I can remember the way it looks.'
But it was all he could do to hold his old teammate's hand and try to soothe away her shaking as they both silently prayed that this would work.
The sky was blue through heavy overhanging dust, and her neck was hurting. She moved slightly, and the jagged rock that had been poking her flesh up rolled over to a blunter side.
That still wasn't great, but it seemed like as good a solution as any.
It took a moment for the realization that something was not right to set in. Cataloguing her senses took some time. The stinging in her eyes wasn't pleasant, but it didn't set off the danger alarms. Nothing did, until she forced herself to sit up and realized that she was completely naked.
She was naked, and she wasn't alone. Eyes wide, she crossed her arms over her chest convulsively and brought her knees up to shield some small part of her dignity.
'What's going on? Where am I?'
She couldn't even bring herself to question why she was naked, because she couldn't imagine an answer that wasn't terrifying. She didn't even see discarded clothes nearby. The situation didn't look good. She was sitting in a field of rubble. A starburst pattern of blood painted the grey and white stones. That was a lot of blood, but she didn't see where it had come from.
Is it possible to have your heart convulse so fast that it bruises your chest? Because that's what it felt like.
The man walking toward her split his face in an enormous grin, widening his hands in some gesture she didn't appreciate. The hair that fluttered behind him was white, where it wasn't red or dusty.
So, this was someone who had been involved in whatever had happened to her, she grimly judged.
"Aiko-chan!" At this distance, she could see that his face was tanned and faintly lined. It was also filthy, with slightly cleaner lines blurred downward where he had obviously been crying at some point in the day. He was older than his macho, careless body language and pleasant voice implied. That advanced age didn't correlate to physical infirmity. Strength was obvious in the casual grace of his movement and his enormous frame. "Shit, girl. That was stupid of you. But we're all alright now. Tsunade-hime's got almost everyone rounded up." He sounded oddly relieved to see her.
And he wasn't respecting her personal space. Face burning, she scrambled backwards, watching warily.
This seemed like a situation she should remember getting into. Blood that didn't seem to belong to anyone, broken buildings, hot scorch marks… it looked like she'd been in the middle of a fucking battlefield.
'Nice place you have here,' some irreverent part of her murmured, rather unconvincingly fronting nonchalance in the face of her fear. She couldn't make the words come out, though. Her mouth was too dry.
And the stranger was still looking at her. His grin made her very uncomfortable. In another situation she might have identified it as boyish or playful, but it felt distinctly predatory right now. Her right foot slipped on a jutting nail in her retreat, and the soft uncallused heel split open like a ripe fruit. She flinched, curling her leg inward. His smile slipped as he glanced down at the liquid that was warming the underside of her foot.
"Is something wrong?" Even as he spoke, he was slipping the oversized scroll that hung off one shoulder onto the ground. She tensed, but all he removed was the coat he wore. It was filthy and sticky against her bare flesh. But when he tossed it to her; she hastily wrapped it around her body and held it closed with one hand.
She still hadn't responded.
"Aiko, talk to me." The stranger's brow furrowed. He moved in slowly, as if trying to be unthreatening. She should reply. She wasn't convinced of his benevolence, but manners never hurt. "Are you dizzy? You look disoriented."
Her voice was raspy, but she managed words. "Where am I?"
Tired and uncertain, Tsunade allowed Nagato to leave, the one path that had survived escorting him.
"It's strange," she said quietly, not turning to look at her apprentice. Shizune had been a little frightened and jumpy since she had been revived, but doing her best to hide it. For her dignity, Tsunade pretended not to notice and tried not to break down and cry when the girl crept off to a corner to recover her composure.
Finding her apprentice wandering disoriented among the rubble had been terrifying as it had been a relief. Shizune had been equally streaked with tears and blood, clutching her torn kimono shut and all but incoherent. She hadn't been told what had happened. And Tsunade hadn't dared to ask. If Shizune wanted to talk about it, she would eventually. But now, they needed to pull together and take care of the village as best as they could.
"That he left the Ame team behind?" Shizune asked, not making much effort to falsify her usual bright tone.
"That, and something he said before," Tsunade acknowledged thoughtfully. "I think he's planning on seppuku." She turned away, disinterested in watching that man walk into the distance.
He could kill himself, but it wouldn't erase the memory of what he had done. It would make sense, though. Seppuku was historically used to erase disgrace and restore honor. His personal honor was beyond repair, but he still cared for Ame and Konan.
They hadn't managed to contact the other nations yet, but she thought she knew what international response to this whole mess would be. No one else had been battered nearly as much as Konoha, but that didn't mean anyone would accept the continuance of Nagato's unofficial reign as the kage of Ame.
No, he had to either die or be executed for them to have anything resembling a fresh start, no matter what Jiraiya thought. She suspected that he intended for Konan to take over as Ame's kage, actually. It sounded like a poor plan to her, but it wasn't her village to worry about.
Nagato had postured, as if he was attempting to convince her that he had something important to say. That seemed doubtful. Now that she'd finally heard from her people in Ame, it seemed clear that Akatsuki was taken care of. Whatever he was withholding could be found in another way without having to condescend to deal with that Konan woman until it was clear there were no other options. Tsunade wouldn't be an instrument in a plan to strengthen Konan's authority by acknowledging her as Ame's representative.
'Why am I wasting time thinking about these people?'
Disgusted, Tsunade wished good riddance to bad rubbish and took a moment to wonder what Jiraiya was up to. She had lost track of him in the hours that followed Nagato's resurrection technique and then her impromptu healing. It was all a long, dirty blur of digging and searching and trying to convince shell-shocked, traumatized shinobi to pull out of their personal sorrow and phantom pain to help her save everyone else before being trapped under rubble killed them again.
And Sarutobi-sensei was dead, permanently dead. She tried to shy away from the memory of finding him—breathing perfectly well, but the man she remembered was not inside the cage of flesh. When she took into account that he had apparently traded his life to the death god to destroy a path, Tsunade wasn't surprised that it had been impossible to revive him. She was miserable and sick with grief, but not surprised.
At least the digging had revealed that all was not quite as lost as they had thought. Downtown had been hit the hardest, but only several blocks were completely unsalvageable. Most of the city was broken and buried, but the infrastructure was still there. With work and time, it could be restored to something usable.
'It doesn't hurt to have an extra four sets of hands, but I'll need more than Ame nin to get this done before the Tsuchikage thinks to take advantage of our weakness,' Tsunade thought grimly. Everyone would have to be recalled from Ame. They couldn't afford to waste the manpower on a foray that wasn't even making money.
"Tsunade-sama? May I be excused?"
"Hmm?" She actually turned at that. "What do you mean, Shizune?"
"I would rather be working in the hospital," Shizune said quietly.
Her brow furrowed. It didn't seem like the best allocation of one of her best administrative resources. There were so few wounded… Well, physically wounded, in any case. There were more than a few instances of phantom limbs, cases of short-term memory loss from stress, confusion, and panic attacks, and a few who were still sleeping off whatever trauma they had endured that Nagato's resurrection couldn't rectify. Shizune was vastly overqualified to deal with the physical injuries present, and under-qualified to do anything about the sudden rash of psychiatric needs.
But she wouldn't deny her apprentice anything, and certainly wouldn't push her past her breaking point. Shizune wouldn't have asked on a whim.
"Of course," Tsunade conceded. "I'm sure you know the evacuation team is leaving soon. You'd better go join them."
The relief visible on her apprentice's face erased any regret she had. Impulsively, Tsunade reached out and pulled Shizune into a hug as she hadn't in years. She breathed in deeply, nose tucked into lank, dirty hair. "I love you kid," she murmured. "You know that, right?"
She wasn't an expressive woman. The thought of losing the girl she had raised had curdled her blood and made her regret every day where she hadn't made that perfectly clear.
"I know," Shizune sniffled in return, embracing her firmly. "I love you too."
Tsunade pulled away, holding Shizune at arm's length to drink her in for a moment before tiredly joking, "All the feelings in here are making me uncomfortable. Go on now, you'll miss your group."
She didn't have to cope with loneliness for long. Twenty minutes after Shizune left, her surviving teammate stumbled into her requisitioned office in a bank (of all the things) that had survived the destruction.
"You look terrible," Tsunade said bluntly.
Jiraiya couldn't quite muster up a smile. "It's been a long day, hime." He looked at her with something that wasn't quite fondness and wasn't quite sorrow—a desperate, grateful look that made her uncomfortable enough that Tsunade turned her face down.
"It has," she agreed quietly. After a moment, she cleared her throat. They'd never communicated about their feelings much, but if there was a day to express concern, this was probably it. Tsunade opened her mouth, and then closed it uncertainly. "So… Did you find-"
"I don't want to talk about it," Jiraiya cut her off sharply. At her shocked look, guilt crossed his face. He slumped, enormous shoulders curling inward. His enormous physical presence couldn't be diminished to something comparable to another man's, however. Even at his lowest like this, Tsunade looked at her teammate and couldn't see the scrawny boy she had grown up punching. He wasn't quite foreign to her, but sometimes when she looked and saw a man where she expected an irritating tween, it threw her for a loop.
"I'm sorry," Jiraiya apologized, glancing up at her through pale lashes ringed with soot. "That was bratty, wasn't it?" He heaved a sigh, apparently not needing a response. The kunoichi watched him warily, wanting to help but not sure what to say. "Yeah, I found Aiko."
"Was she…" Tsunade started cautiously.
Her teammate shook his head. "No, she's not dead," he said bluntly.
Tsunade avoided the impulse to say, 'that's good, right?'. He didn't seem happy.
Jiraiya inhaled deeply and looked up to the tacky gold-leaf ceiling. "She's not right, either." His lips twisted into something ugly. Tsunade found herself holding her breath, not sure what might set him off. "Didn't recognize me, or know where she was."
The Hokage winced. "Well, to be fair, she has a right to be shaken," she tried to say diplomatically. "And Konoha doesn't look much like itself right now."
That hardly explained why she wouldn't recognize Jiraiya. It wasn't like he had a particularly common face. That failure was hardly a good sign. Something could be severely wrong in her head. Nagato did say that there might be some complications… She couldn't know without some idea of the physical damage, though. She did have the presence of mind to know that it wouldn't be diplomatic to ask Jiraiya for the gory details so that she could form a working hypothesis as to the problem.
Tsunade did have suspicions as to what had happened. There were other instances of what appeared to be serious brain damage in shinobi who had been posted along the wall, where that horrific ray had burst through. What were the odds that Nagato's technique was absolutely perfect enough to reconstruct and attach brain cells that even the best doctors didn't understand? She chewed the inside of her cheer unhappily. Even if the cells were all perfect, the electrical connections between them were the result of years of signals being transmitted in very individual ways. Could that really be rebuilt from scratch?
'I'll have Shizune send me an update,' Tsunade decided. Now that she was curious, she wanted to know. Actually, she should remind Shizune that there was likely to be an incident. It wasn't uncommon for shinobi waking up in hospital to lash out, but the medic nin could usually take care of themselves. With all the civilian nurses and doctors that would be helping out, it might be a good idea to exercise extra precaution…
Jiraiya noted the obvious exclusion, and gave her an amused look that told her he hadn't been tricked into thinking nothing was wrong. She gave him a queasy smile. It wasn't like she was going to lie to him.
"I must be even worse than I thought," Jiraiya sighed, scratching his filthy neck depreciatingly. "My godkid didn't recognize me. She was scared of me, hime," he stressed, voice going up a little.
A deep sadness pulled at her chest. Unthinkingly, Tsunade crossed the distance and pulled her oldest friend into a slow hug. She wasn't a particularly small woman but she felt petite when her forehead rested against his pectorals. "We're a right pair, aren't we?" she murmured. "I always said I didn't want kids, but here we are. If Shizune and Sasuke aren't my brats, I don't know what they are." She tightened her arms protectively. "You did a good job with those kids," Tsunade stated firmly. "They're old enough to understand why you couldn't take them in, and it's obvious that you care. You did what you could. Naruto thinks the world of you, you know."
He gave an aborted laugh that expanded his chest enough that Tsunade's grip nearly slipped. "Not for long," Jiraiya joked uncomfortably. "I may have sent a toad or two to spy on him after everything calmed down."
Tsunade was surprised into a laugh.
"Hey, it's not that funny," he grumbled with a pout.
She shook her head and drew back, poking his chest. "It's not that. Katsuya is with Sasuke now. Great minds think alike, I think." She'd sent her summon to her student as soon as a dirty, yelping dog had limped his way to her after the fight. The note attached to the poor thing's collar had been illegible, but the blue vest marked him as one of Hatake's. When she'd seen it, Tsunade had discovered a new capacity to feel ill. She'd instantly assumed Sasuke was in trouble. Of course he wasn't, though. Hatake had apparently managed to rout Akatuki and snatch Ame… Which she needed to sit down and have a long debriefing about, apparently. Tsunade made a mental note.
"Paranoid old coots think alike," Jiraiya countered amiably. He didn't even wince when she whapped his chest. Instead, he took the blow with a smile, and rubbed the spot her palm had connected with. "I'll continue to be creepy tonight, I suppose. I don't want to scare her again, but I'd like to see that she's alright. Shizune isn't going to tattle on me if I come by while she's sleeping, right?" The expression on his face slipped slightly.
'He probably doesn't want to find out it wasn't a fluke that she didn't recognize him,' Tsunade assumed quickly, averting her gaze. 'It's not real if he doesn't deal with it, in a way.'
Politely, she pretended not to notice the drop in his composure. There was no point in mentioning it. He was hardly going to fool anyone who knew them into thinking that he was really alright, and crying was hardly going to get what needed done or help keep the village in line. "I doubt it," Tsunade said wryly. "Not if you ask nicely."
Jiraiya was being a bit of a coward, but he probably wasn't wrong. It might be best not to surprise Aiko with too many new faces in a day, Tsunade figured. Waking up in the hospital would be overwhelming enough. She was hardly a mental health specialist who knew how best to approach someone best after an incident like yesterday's.
'Shizune probably already knows to contact a civilian specialist,' Tsunade decided. 'Probably several specialists, actually, since our worst casualties appear to be psychosomatic or otherwise non-physical.'
They didn't have the capacity for so many mentally compromised shinobi at the best of times. When their own specialists were among the injured, the lack was profound. Already making plans, she turned back to her work.
When she next woke, it was to the feeling of rough sheets under her bare legs, and some sort of strap over them. It felt much like the ones around her wrists. She tensed instantly, bewildered and frightened.
'What is going on—Where am I? Why am I tied down?'
"Aiko, are you up?" A female voice called out from somewhere behind her. Quick steps crossed what must be a hard floor. "I'll loosen those in just a minute. Sorry about that, but when Jounin last remember being in combat conditions and wake up to the sound of people moving around, the first reaction is hard on medics, to say it lightly. There's a lot of civilian nurses around helping and no one wants to get skewered."
'There's that name again,' she thought, mystified. Aiko, Aiko, Aiko. It didn't mean anything to her. That was supposed to be her name? At least it was inoffensive. She supposed it could belong to her.
The word Jounin, though, that was familiar. That was an upper-level ninja. She was an upper level ninja?
Funny. You'd think she'd remember a thing like that.
"We're actually in Otafuku Gai," the woman blathered on. Aiko cracked one eye open uncertainly to discover that a relatively young woman with short dark hair and a purple kimono was at her side. She flinched away, but all the woman did was reach out to tug on her restraints, fiddling with some type of buckle.
And god, she just wouldn't stop talking.
"Our hospital is in pretty poor condition, having been downtown. Tsunade-sama thinks that some of the lower level is salvageable, but it's obviously not anything approaching a sterile condition right now."
Did she ever get tired of hearing her own voice? If not, she could at least say something useful. Although that name was familiar. The grinning man had mentioned that name as well, before he'd gone tight-lipped and called for a medic. That had seemed like a good idea, until the split-second when she realized she was being put under with that irritating glowing palm technique.
"You'll be glad to know that there's very little in the way of casualties to speak of," the brunette chattered, pushing a bit of hair behind her ear as she finished freeing Aiko's hands. Aiko pushed herself into a seated position, warily keeping an eye on the older woman as she pulled a clipboard off the wall and settled down gracefully on a folding chair. "Nagato-san—oh right, you missed that part, but it turned out that the six Akatsuki were actually was one shinobi, Jiraiya-sama's old student Nagato-san from Ame."
'Well, that clears everything up,' Aiko thought dully. She was beginning to suspect that this woman wasn't going to be any help at all. At least she didn't seem dangerous, other than maybe dangerously crazy.
"Anyway, Nagato-san used a forbidden jutsu that brought back anyone who had died in the fighting, because he realized that destroying Konoha wasn't going to help matters. Tsunade-sama and Katsuya-sama did their best with the injuries, of course, because Nagato-san's technique didn't do anything for anyone who wasn't actually dead. There's… well there's one death." The chatty nurse- at least, she was probably a nurse- glanced down, looking a bit depressed.
Maybe she wasn't actually particularly talkative, Aiko judged. It could be that this nurse was going a bit stir-crazy from loneliness and was taking the chance to update someone as a break from work.
"How about the injured, then?" Aiko asked cautiously.
As she'd thought, the older woman seemed to need someone to talk to. Her face brightened a little, but she still looked more worn than her youth should have allowed. "For an invasion, it's without precedent," Chatty Nurse confided. "There's a lot of damage from smoke inhalation and broken bones, but other than that, the biggest problems we have are psychosomatic." She gave a sharp glance at Aiko's face that seemed to be searching for something, and her tone gentled slightly. "It's very traumatizing to remember losing a limb or dying."
Aiko nodded politely. That did sound traumatizing.
Something about her reaction must not have been what Chatty Nurse was looking for, because she frowned slightly and looked down at her clipboard. "How are you feeling? Any dizziness, aches, or disorientation?" she asked clinically.
She took a deep breath and brought her knees up to her chest, idly noting the ugly off-white hospital gown she was wearing. "I'm a little confused," Aiko admitted readily.
That was an understatement. She had no idea what the hell was going on and was feeling more than a little lost.
"Oh?" Chatty Nurse's eyes sharpened, and she looked up. "Do you not remember the fight, then? That's perfectly normal," she assured. "Sometimes, the brain protects itself by forgetting especially disturbing things."
'What, like my whole life?' Aiko thought bemusedly, not thinking much of this woman's analysis. Her skepticism must have shown, because a flicker of exasperation crossed the older woman's face.
"Jiraiya-sama said that you were disoriented. Do you remember that? I think he was the one who found you."
Aiko cocked her head to the side. "Who, the old man who gave me his coat?" she asked curiously.
The smile froze on the older woman's face. "Aiko-chan, do you know who I am?" When she slowly shook her head, Chatty Nurse took a moment to respond. "Alright then," she added lightly. The tenseness in her neck and the intensity in her eyes were completely at odds with her professional, warm tone. "Nothing to worry about. I'm Shizune, Tsunade-sama's first apprentice, and Sasuke-kun's senpai. As I said before, temporary memory loss is not an unheard-of side effect of encountering something a bit scary or overwhelming. Let me just run a few tests."
She didn't seem to have much choice. Aiko was beginning to feel more than a bit frightened, despite Shizune's assurances that things would work out. If that were true, she probably wouldn't keep repeating it.
"How many fingers am I holding up?"
That wasn't hard. Three. Thumbs aren't fingers.
Despite her cautious optimism at that victory, Shizune was surprisingly hard to read when Aiko tried to gauge her for clues. That seemed especially odd for someone who had initially seemed so bland and inoffensive. The other questions were harder. Aiko shook her head helplessly, feeling lost and confused when asked the year or the current Kazekage. Shizune's lips thinned ever so slightly. Then the tests she performed after that had more to do with running unnervingly chilly fingers over Aiko's scalp and talking about things that didn't make much sense.
Frankly, she had no idea why it would matter that the proportions of her spiritual and physical chakra weren't matching those of her old records. Shizune didn't seem to understand how that could happen. She seemed outright confused herself when her tests didn't show any signs of swelling or torn tissue in the brain or anywhere else.
"Don't worry," Shizune said unconvincingly. "Your chakra will probably stabilize itself given time. That might not be related, anyways. Retrograde amnesia isn't usually totally permanent." She fussed with the bedsheets, apparently very concerned that Aiko's feet might get cold. Aiko curled her toes in and tried to sink back into the bed. "If it doesn't come back on its own in a few days, then it can probably be triggered." She glanced up at Aiko with a reassuring smile that did nothing for the nerves roiling in her stomach. "Familiar people and things should help you start to remember."
Aiko made a noncommittal sound, biting the inside of her cheek.
'If that's true, why wouldn't I remember you? I'm seeing you now.'
That was paranoid. Wasn't it? Maybe. She didn't really have any reason to believe anything this woman said. She'd woken up in a place she didn't recognize after what had obviously been a fight… and then woken up again, tied down. That wasn't something you did to a person you trusted. What evidence indicated that she was who Shizune said she was? Maybe it was a mistake.
Or worse, maybe it wasn't. Aiko gave Chatty Nurse a queasy smile, feeling vaguely nauseous.
The older woman took some pity and left her alone for a while.
'A while' stretched into a day. The facility seemed quiet. It was apparently more of a clinic than a hospital—the civilian town she had been re-located to while unconscious wasn't prepared for mass injuries, apparently. A civilian nurse fed her and –mortifyingly- promised to help her bathe later despite protests that she didn't need to be supervised. But that was her only visitor and excitement in between Shizune's short visits. The older woman appeared busy and distracted, definitely not in a mood to indulge her questions.
It was terribly, coldly, horribly lonely.
That meant that she had an awful lot of time to do nothing but think. Try as she might, she didn't remember anything new. She was pretty used to her name now, but she didn't really feel a connection to it. None of the people that Shizune talked about –Tsunade, Jiraiya, Sasuke—jogged any connections. The scenery out her window was uninspired as well as unfamiliar.
'Is anyone looking for me?' She wasn't allowed to leave the room, but she couldn't stand to lie in bed all day. So she paced, feeling trapped and lost. Shizune had said she knew her. So someone would be coming for her. They would be familiar to her and things would be alright and she would know what was going on.
Even her body was foreign. Aiko spent hours staring at her hands once the cold from the tile floors seeped into her feet and forced her to curl up under blankets. She puzzled over why her hands seemed so odd to her. Carefully, she placed the tips of her fingers against her cheeks and rubbed, marveling at the sensation the movement elicited. They were ridiculously soft and smooth, with rounded nails and short fingers. Was that so strange?
'There's no callus,' she recognized, cataloguing an obvious deviation from the nurse's claim that she was a shinobi. Shouldn't she have callus if that were the case? The toes she wiggled were equally delicate-looking, but she couldn't find a trace of the scrape she remembered getting when she'd first woken up somewhere outside. So maybe she was just completely nuts and that was a false memory. She hoped not, and held onto it. It wasn't like she had many others.
The observation that she lacked callus was hardly a nail in the coffin of the story she'd been given, since she didn't fully trust her mind. Distrust in her perception was only fueled when she glanced at her upper arm in the shower, and had to blink twice at the pale skin. Once she realized that she had expected to see a tattoo, she knew her mind wasn't terribly reliable. Still, she'd scrubbed at the flesh as if hoping to uncover ink that would reinforce what her mind had expected. All she ended up with was sore, pink flesh and a loofah being gently pried out of her fingers.
She did have scars, which she counted as a point towards Shizune's story. When the light had been turned off and she was still alone and afraid, Aiko traced the curved imperfection below her ribcage curiously through the thin fabric of her hospital robe. She'd discovered that while in the shower but didn't have any more ideas about its origin than she did about the uglier, larger scar on her opposite hip.
Morning would bring answers. It had to.
But it didn't.
The side of her face was on fire. The skin was swelling and peeling open like a stepped-on grape and she knew her cheekbone would crack under the force and the pain was unimaginable, unbearable, unrealistic, rippling down to her lips and across her nose before she shattered entirely. And then Aiko woke up gasping.
She struggled for air, disoriented and still frightened. Until she realized that the dim red lights were from hospital machinery, and the slow tick outside in the distance was a hall clock.
"Just a dream," she whispered, curling her fingers into the messy sheets and resisting the urge to reassure herself by touching her face.
But what an odd dream. Where had her mind come up with the idea of her body bursting in slow motion? More than a little disturbed, Aiko slipped out of the covers and paced. She didn't dare turn on the light, knowing that there were probably nurses walking nearby on rounds. That meant that she stumbled and stubbed her toe in the dark, but it was better than getting scolded by some impersonal stranger.
As lonely and scary as it was to just wait for something to make sense or someone to come help her remember, she would have to be far more desperate for human company to intentionally coerce nurses for company. They didn't know her. They didn't want to spend time with her. They were doing a job. She wasn't that desperate.
'Not yet, anyway,' Aiko thought glumly. Maybe she would be not too long from now.
But no. 'I can't think like that. Shizune says she knows my friends. When I see her tomorrow, I'll ask. Maybe names will help.'
Still. She couldn't help but doubt. If someone cared she was here, where were they? Was the old man she'd seen when she had first woken up someone important to her? Aiko didn't remember feeling any connection to him. He'd definitely known her, though. Or he knew of her, at least. Maybe she should see if she could talk to Jiraiya.
Shizune didn't seem to think that was plausible when she came by.
"I'm sorry," she apologized, leaning over to adjust something on a machine that was totally foreign to Aiko. "He's with Tsunade-sama. I've been left in charge of the hospital affairs while they deal with Ame and coordinate restoration efforts. I already sent notification that you woke up, but I'm not sure he'll be able to come right away."
Shizune closed the door behind herself quietly, and tried not to feel guilty about lying. Jiraiya had met with her last night, actually, and taken back hospital reports to Konoha proper.
'He's not ready to actually talk to her,' she justified to herself. 'That's understandable. Jiraiya-sama has been throwing himself into his work, but he'll come around soon. Pressuring him to come too soon will just be a stressor for both of them."
There was nothing dignified about having his single remaining (and much diminished) path propel the wheeled chair that carried his body out of Fire Country. At this point, Nagato wasn't sure that he deserved dignity, but he was still quietly thankful that the Hokage hadn't cared enough to force him to bring his actual body into Konoha.
'It's a little hard to believe that's the woman that Jiraiya has been in love with since he was twelve,' Nagato mused. 'I had imagined someone a little less emotional and grudging.'
Not that she didn't have cause for upset, of course. He had done more than a bit of harm to her city and her people.
Bitterly, he laughed. It turned into a cough. Yahiko's lungs had been full of smoke and acid for a rather long time. 'Konoha hasn't been good to me either. I was wrong about their part in Yahiko's murder and our betrayal. But I'm sure they were the ones behind the rout in Ame.'
It hadn't been in terribly good faith of him since the surrender had been his own initiative, but he'd withheld information. When it had become clear that he couldn't have a true victory, he'd had to turn his thoughts to his responsibilities. Even if he had managed a pyrrhic victory, he would have left his followers to the meager mercies of Konoha's allies.
Nagato had overestimated himself. He had begun to believe in Pein on a literal level. It had seemed so straight-forward at the time. Konoha did not have any fighter of his caliber, so he had believed himself invincible.
'Foolish,' he cursed himself. 'A few shinobi who were as skilled as individual paths and a great deal more who were suicidally determined to stop me proved sufficient.'
That was why villages banded together, after all. Many weak worms could writhe in an ugly mass and accumulate the weight of a higher being.
Nagato tried not to frown when he caught on to the bitter tone of his thoughts.
'This childishness is below me.'
He thought that, but it didn't change that he had refrained from telling the Hokage anything about Uchiha Madara. That had been a bout of immaturity unworthy of him, but it was already done.
Konan would take care of matters. He was leaving everything to her.
"How long do you plan on watching me?" Nagato asked mildly. He hadn't been alone since he had passed out of Konoha's immediate border patrol route. If he were truthful, he was mildly surprised that his stalker had waited this long to show himself.
It wasn't possible to express a glower from behind a candy-colored mask. Somehow, Uchiha Madara accomplished it regardless. "Pein," he all but rumbled, clearly irritated.
"Nagato," he corrected mildly.
It was fairly obvious that Madara wouldn't care if he chose to call himself Princess Buttons.
Nagato repressed a sigh, having his path stop walking. Obediently, Yahiko's body stood silently and waited. He had known as soon as it became clear that he had failed that he had to die to open the way for Ame to forge a new path. It was the only way left that he could be of use.
He hadn't planned for that death to come at Madara's hands, but he was hardly surprised either.
Obito scowled, resisting the urge to shake the little bottle until the eyes inside pulped into jelly against the clear glass.
All those years of squirreling into Nagato's idiotic graces, manipulating the useless baka, and keeping him alive were wasted now. Nagato's only use had been that he had the one kekkai genkai that would make it possible for Madara to be raised from the dead to participate in the Eye of the Moon Plan. That was one of the most important steps.
Not for the first time, he thought longingly of forgoing the pretense that he was Madara's servant. He was an Uchiha too, and powerful in his own right. Obito could do it. The Rinnegan were powerful beyond all reason. In his hands, they would be far more fearsome than anything Pein could have dreamed up.
He couldn't get the job done alone, however. Obito would need help. His most dedicated helper, Zetsu, was only his ally because Obito was pretending to work towards Madara's interests. Without a chump to eventually play the role of the sacrifice (even if Obito never actually let matters deteriorate to that point) Zetsu would act against him.
The obvious answer was that Obito should find another disposable body to put the Rinnegan in. The disposable part was not a terribly difficult criterion. When he would be able to revive everyone with the ultimate genjutsu, there wasn't such a thing as a true loss. The more difficult conundrum was selecting the body. It was highly unlikely that he would actually let them raise Madara, but he had to act as though he would. That meant picking a viable target, someone who could actually use the Rinnegan properly.
Preferably, it would be someone he could easily control. Obito could use Sharingan mind control on anyone but another Uchiha, if matters became desperate.
It was a pity that the Rinnegan could only be wielded well by one of the sage's descendents. That ruled out the vast majority of the living population. Obito wouldn't have used Itachi in any case, petulant and paranoid as the boy was. He didn't need to be more powerful. But Sasuke would have been a reasonable substitute. Of course, he couldn't be reliably controlled with the Sharingan into compliance, and Obito couldn't afford another loose cannon with the Rinnegan. That lesson had been learned.
'Besides, I would have to pry him away from Senju Tsunade,' Obito noted with no small taste of amusement. No, thank you. That woman was more than a bit imposing.
She was another poor option, despite being the last of the Senju. Controlling a medic-nin renowned for her perfect chakra control and detail-oriented personality would be a risky proposition. That ruled out the two families directly descended from the Sage. Leaving only the family that Nagato had belonged to.
Obito left two mangled corpses and a broken metal chair on the road in favor of safely hiding away his newly acquired prizes. The Sharingan he had were valuable for both practical and sentimental reasons, but the Rinnegan were irreplaceable and one of a kind.
'Life goes on,' Obito thought wearily, not allowing himself to wallow.
Aiko sat up straight fast enough to make her a little woozy. She peered suspiciously at her closed door with pursed lips.
She smelled something that made her heartbeat speed up. It didn't even occur to her to wonder at the fact that she detected a change in the scent of the hallway a fair distance away, or even realize that her senses were far keener than they should be. Why shouldn't her senses be sharp? Of course, Aiko didn't know what she was smelling, either, so she was all-around clueless. Whatever it was, it was familiar somehow.
'Should I go look?' Uncertain, she lingered with her toes dangling to the floor for just a moment longer. That gave the man outside time to push her door open.
Her first look didn't give her any particular feeling. Not attachment or fondness or even the fear she had known at the sight of the last (and only other) man she remembered seeing. It was just a man—quite a bit taller than her, with fairly broad shoulders, dark hair, and a relieved look on his face.
She blinked, checking that her first impression had been right. Yes, it looked like relief.
"Aiko-chan," he breathed, one side of his mouth curling up ever so slightly. The other stayed stiff and still. "I suppose you don't remember me. How are you feeling?"
"Um, okay?" she half-asked, giving him a shy smile. Her first visitor! Shizune had said that someone would come. Relief bubbled up in her gut. She wasn't alone. No matter what the nurse had said, it had felt that way when no friends had conveniently welled up to greet her or take her home.
Honestly… She'd started to seriously consider that the woman had been lying. It begged disbelief that anyone and everyone who cared about her just happened to be absent from town for two whole days. Well. A day and a half, but still.
But here someone was, happy to see her and actually asking about her well-being. Besides, he obviously knew about her forgetfulness, and wasn't making her feel nervous or apologetic about it. He probably had answers for her.
"What's that?" Aiko asked curiously, pointing guilelessly at the paper that her new/old friend was clenching in his left hand. They were awfully wrinkled.
"Your medical information," he explained, oddly amused for some reason. "I didn't think it was a good idea to leave it here. We need to go."
At that, she paused. "Go where?" Aiko asked uncertainly. Could they really just check out? It seemed like something she would need Shizune's permission for. On the other hand, he seemed like he knew what he was talking about. That was probably how he got her information, come to think of it. He must have already talked to Shizune.
His eyelashes were long and pretty, she realized when he blinked slowly at her. Though there was something strangely asymmetrical about the way the skin on one side of his face moved when he smiled. "Do you trust me? There's a lot to tell you, but here isn't a good place to be."
That was an understatement, not that she knew it. He'd hypnotized Shizune in the nurse's station down the hall. Someone was going to notice that eventually, even if she didn't wake up on her own. Obito's hand shook imperceptibly as he slowly held it out, fingers splayed slightly.
The situation was perfect. Almost too perfect. Nervous energy had him nearly on the verge of fidgeting. Some kami had clearly sped his way. He'd been given a second chance to keep his plan on track, despite the loss of his decoy organization and most valuable chump. If he could just convince Aiko to trust him, he wouldn't have to genjutsu her into compliance. She would be an excellent decoy for his ambitions. She was the only option, really, and not only had she survived what appeared to have been a near-apocalypse in Konoha, but she was as vulnerable to a new worldview as a person could be.
He was doing an excellent job of not lingering on the guilty knowledge that Minato-sensei's children really deserved better. It was for a good purpose.
His eyes met hers, and Obito tried not to look too eager. He drowned out the sense that Madara was mocking him, ignored Tobi's chatter, and tried to look unintimidating. He all but sparkled with his obvious good mood, not a bit bothered by the blood on his sandals from his recent scuffle or the fact that he could sense a very familiar chakra signature far too close for comfort. All she had to do was say she trusted him.
Aiko took a deep breath, glanced down at her bare feet, and clearly struggled with indecision. But just for a moment. She peered up at him shyly and reached out one pale little hand to rest against his callused palm. Obito grinned.
"Hold on tight," he warned good-naturedly. "You don't like this technique much."
And then they were gone from the little trading town on the outskirts of Fire Country's foremost military power, only minutes before the alarm went off downstairs.
Medical Note to Show This is Not Being Pulled From My Butt
I was referencing something set up in the 'prequel' section of chapter two, now. Yeah. That's old. If you know what I'm talking about, internet high-five! Speaking of which, I pulled the prologue out of there and put it in ch 1.
Ribot's Law :
French psychologist Theodule-Armand Ribot was among the first scientists to study amnesia. He proposed Ribot's Law which states that there is a time gradient in retrograde amnesia. The law follows a logical progression of memory-loss due to disease. First, a patient loses the recent memories, then personal memories, and finally intellectual memories. He implied that the most recent memories were lost first.
That's off the Wikipedia page on amnesia, the italics are mine. Disreputable source, I know, but I never studied psychology in depth and that's what I found. That's not exactly the theory I'm working with for what's happened here, but it's something I used to help me understand how the brain works in instances of memory loss.
Another Author's Note. You'll Want to Read This One.
Surprise, guys. This was the last chapter. It's done. Over. Fin.
No, that's not a joke. I'm both genuinely apologetic and laughing at my keyboard hysterically. The ending is both completely perfect and something that only a complete jackass would write. I'm one of the cruelties of life, I guess.
Quote from the first person to read this chapter, a ridiculous amount of drafts ago:
"You are evil. I'm pretty sure I hate you right now? WHY IS THIS THE END?"
I think she might have reached through the internet and slapped me, were it possible. Quite fairly so, to be honest.
Yes, I know. You probably do hate me, if you're not sure. I'm sorry to do this to you guys. I can be truly sorry while I giggle.
Oh, I'm seriously kind of sad. This story got me through my senior year. I spent a whole semester on this. And now it's over.
It's getting difficult for me to navigate this enormous thing. As I was trying to condense my outline so that I could finally finish this and regain a small piece of my sanity, it was pointed out that what's coming up seems like a whole different story. And I realized, 'Shit. It is.' And I had to go to my sad place for a while and think about my life and my choices. Turns out, they're not great choices.
If it's any consolation, there's a sequel, which is largely outlined. Don't feel bereft. Basically, it's going to be the same story in a new document because I'm tired of seeing this million page monstrosity. It will begin where this one left off (or slightly before the last scene, actually, if all goes as planned, from Tobito and Kakashi's perspectives so you know what you missed).
I'm making no promises on speed or length or that I'll come up with a better title for this one (I do seem to be terrible at that). My sister is really pushing for "Eyes on the Prize: Obito gets a story arc", or "The Tobito-ing". In her worldview, every chapter should feature Obito at least once, even if it's just a drabble of him kicking his chair under the table in a board meeting or sitting on the can or something. If I have no inspiration, you'll probably be seeing "The Tobito-ing" come up on your alerts later. (My life, my choices, they are so bad...)
My laptop is doing this fabulous thing where it dies immediately if taken off the charger. I didn't even know that was a thing that could happen. It's like having a desk top, only I don't have a reason to have a desk top. So I sit around in public places not writing, when I could be writing. Yeah, it's weird. Since I wrote this note, it has also decided to turn itself off and refuse to go back on every half-hour or so. I have no idea why. I just try not to throw it when it does that to me.
That got way off topic. I would like to say that this has been a hell of a ride, guys, and it was awesome for me. I hope it was fabulous for you too. If it wasn't, you have some serious fucking issues with flagellation, dude, because you just read almost 700,000 words of something that you thought was just 'ok' or even worse. What, do you like being sad? Well, I guess that's ok. I'm not here to judge. Continue being happy or being unhappy (whichever you prefer) until we meet again, I suppose.
Please review, I would love to hear from you. :3 But not with, 'Why would you do this to me, you heartless bastert'. Because I feel I already answered that query up above: I'm a heartless bastert and Vapors is just too damn big, that's why.