From his station just a few feet away Naruto’s invisible shadow clone looked on in horror as every last ally he had in the fight went limp.
For a moment they had struggled against the pressure, but now they were just lying there with their eyes closed, like they’d fallen asleep. Only their heartbeats confirmed they hadn’t been killed outright—Hinata and Sasuke’s transformations had both been exposed when they’d fainted, and his decoys had been revealed too. The force seemed to be pushing down hard enough to have driven them unconscious.
He was the only one left, now. The only functioning clone within miles, watching helplessly as Pein descended on his teammates. The invisibility technique would break the instant he moved—he couldn’t attack or even make more clones without presenting himself for immediate annihilation.
The Akatsuki kept themselves out of the force-affected area for their own safety, sweeping Hinata’s fog away from a distance and bursting all but two of Naruto’s clones. Then, the one with long hair approached the edge of the circle and gingerly put his hand inside, holding his arm by the wrist to support its new weight. He rested it on the head of one of the remaining clones, and with his byakugan Naruto saw the chakra seem to flow into his hand, a little like the one from before who had absorbed their shields.
The Akatsuki’s hand fell through to the ground as the clone burst under his touch. Naruto felt its thoughts disperse, but they came as an unusual jumble of concepts and associations—something not even dreamlike.
The Akatsuki turned to look over his shoulder, and the heads of his four companions moved in sync.
Their eyes fixed on Naruto’s position.
Trained reflexes fuelled by frenzied panic launched him into the sky as the cobblestones beneath his feet were torn apart in a roaring clash of lightning.
His cloud of shadow clones didn’t even have time to orient themselves in the air above the village before Pein started carving open broad swaths in their ranks with great fireballs thrown from the ground.
Every clone knew the danger he was in, and with chakra to spare they expanded exponentially in three dimensions, plugging themselves into every little niche and crevice in the village that could accommodate one of his invisible backups.
Even with Pein’s primary body unable to fight—busy sustaining the pressure that held Hinata and Sasuke captive—the other four were more than capable of defending him from mere shadow clones, and it seemed he was perfectly capable of moving around to dodge Naruto’s attacks without breaking his hold on them.
“I have assimilated the contents of your entire mind, Uzumaki Naruto,” they announced, each body speaking on its own, contradicting any idea of there being one clear “leader”.
“Shut down your ‘chakra factory’ and dismiss your excess shadow clones,” Pein said. “I hold your friends hostage and have knowledge of all your secrets and plans. You can no longer defeat me.”
Pein had read his mind, just like the legend. The rinnegan had given him everything, and now he knew about the factory—he knew about Naruto’s backups, he knew where the find the factory, knew exactly how best to destroy it, by Naruto’s own reckoning. Once the summoner’s hand was healed he could probably just wrench every last shadow clone across the entire continent, and drop them into instant unconsciousness with his pressure technique. There was no chance even to escape. Not anymore.
“You have twenty seconds to surrender,” Pein said. “At that point I shall begin to dismember your friends, and destroy the pieces to prevent their healing. You have fought bravely, but it is they who shall suffer if you succumb now to pride.”
Twenty seconds might as well have been hours, for him.
High above the village square a pillar of shadow clones rained down from the sky, protecting their core with barriers as bodies streamed down into the heart of Pein’s pressure technique.
They burst against the ground like raindrops, aiming themselves between Hinata and Sasuke. They timed their landings individually to the hand-seal chains of their barrier techniques, failing repeatedly, failing countless times every second until finally the forces of probability conspired to grant one of them the safe landing he was looking for, despite all the pressure, and a barrier rose up to engulf his friends once more.
“Five seconds.” Pein announced.
Something should have happened—he knew Pein couldn’t just use his technique through the shield or else he would have done it before they’d even exposed themselves in the first place—but maybe once it was in place the technique could be sustained, even through the barrier? He felt the force of the weight pulling him down again.
From the outside, he watched as the dome fell once more, the clone inside now unconscious.
“Two seconds, little emperor…”
“I will torture her to death if you touch them!” he shouted, frenzied panic flooding his mind. Their deal had specified that any harm would be met with retaliation. Konan was still outside the village; Pein couldn’t get there before every last one of his clones.
“I know you are not so spiteful as to harm her for my sake, once this is done, Uzumaki Naruto,” Pein said. “I have seen how you squirmed in your academy classroom at the strangling of mere kittens.”
“Then I’ll fucking precommit!” Naruto shouted. “Read my mind if you don’t believe me—I’ll torture her until I cry, even if I hate every second of it! You know I can make that promise.”
Pein didn’t reply, but twentieth second had already passed without note.
Naruto didn’t want to torture Konan, but if Pein had read his mind he would see the resolve he had inherited from clever Odysseus; the power to carry through on his intent even beyond the point where there was anything to be gained by it, because there had once been something gained in the making of the promise. To be able to cooperate with his other selves spread across space and time, seeking the greatest total benefit even against the individual preferences of his individual component parts—this was a skill he had much training in, now. Even if the cost of it was terrible, he could choose to save his friends—he could give himself that choice, now. That was his nindo.
Pein had no reason to fear the temporary extension of their battle. He was in complete control, and if he felt genuinely threatened at any point he could start to harm Hinata and Sasuke, even knowing the risk to Konan. That included the threat of an endurance battle he might expect to lose. Naruto still didn’t know how much chakra Pein had at his disposal, but he was probably spending a lot just to sustain that technique, and if he ever ran low, he’d have little choice but to force a resolution to the fight, bloody or otherwise. Hinata and Sasuke could die that way, or if enough time passed they might even suffer brain damage, just from being held unconscious so long. He didn’t know how long he had—a few minutes, maybe, but no threat or bluff could stop the forces of nature from taking their course.
“I will not harm your friends when you are gone,” Pein said. “I will allow them to live as they please, in gratitude for your sacrifice. I bear them no enmity, and the cost to me is miniscule.”
Pein kept two bodies assigned to defend his pressure-wielding body as it darted around the square, easily evading every attack made against him. Naruto felt like he was sparring with Kakashi again—Pein was untouchable.
The other two bodies worked together to repeatedly capture fresh clones for mind-reading. Every time he got his hand on a clone it would give away any new thoughts Naruto had had, updating Pein on any newly-conceived strategies that might have be used against him, seeing through every one of his burgeoning ideas before they were even ready for execution. Eventually Naruto was mentally shouting at himself to just stop thinking of anything new unless it was directly related to the problem of concealing the rest of his thoughts.
“I have seen in your mind that you would see this world healed, even at your own expense,” Pein continued. “It is a noble sentiment. Why then do you still resist? You have seen that there are things I can do which you cannot. As the Slug Sage has warned you, the seas must be reclaimed, and I alone am fit to shoulder the burden of rule.”
Now that he thought about it, Pein was actually right, in a sense…
Naruto did have his own kind of power, in the tailed beast, but the beasts could be transferred between hosts; Pein himself was too old to benefit from growing up under the influence of the beast, but he could easily produce a child capable of doing anything Naruto could do, while also wielding the power of the rinnegan, too.
Naruto hadn’t been thinking much about what exactly would happen after the battle—he’d just been fighting to survive, because that was what you did when you were attacked, but… he really didn’t have any reason to think that Pein would harm his friends, once the fight was over.
Naruto could save their lives—he could do it easily, right now, just by giving up. And Pein knew about the sea, and everything else…
Naruto wondered what was he was actually expecting to gain, if he won, other than the glory of being the one on top. Because if that was all it was—if that was why he was willing to torture someone who wasn’t even involved in the fight, then how was he any different from any other ninja, clawing his way up at the expense of everyone else?
If he and Pein had common goals, and Pein was more suited to pursue them, then—
The roof of an apartment building across the square fell in; the walls struck to rubble by some technique. What difference did it make who had thrown it? Someone’s home, destroyed as an insignificant part of the war he was waging—but for what, exactly?
Naruto shimmered back to visibility across the road, near to one of Pein’s roaming bodies.
“Convince me…” he said. “Tell me how you’d do things better than I would… if you convince me, I’ll surrender.”
Pein looked him in the eye.
“…I alone possess the rinnegan,” he said. “Its scope is not for you to know. You are still my enemy. But I have seen in your mind that you understand a part of its potential, at least. This world needs one who is capable of putting himself apart from the perpetual struggle—one who need not devote his entire strength to the problem of merely maintaining his own power—one who has the freedom to act for the good of the whole, because his own position is unassailable. Only the rinnegan can grant such power, and as you have foreseen, my descendants shall possess any powers of your own.”
Naruto’s own position had seemed pretty unassailable too—at least, it had before he’d encountered the rinnegan. Without knowing how exactly it worked he couldn’t be sure which was stronger.
“And the water?” Naruto asked. “You’ll drain the oceans?”
“Yes. The world of the ancients will be ours, again.”
“How do you plan to resolve the succession?” Naruto asked. “That seems like the main obstacle, once you’re gone. There’ll be a hundred times more land to govern once the oceans are dealt with—how will you prevent your state from fracturing, without you?”
“The rinnegan shall suffice, of course. Its rule shall be indisputable.”
“Yes, but—I mean, will you have only one child with the rinnegan, and then just hope that they don’t get ill and die before they make an heir of their own, or will you have a bunch of kids to be safe, and hope that they can all agree which one of them gets to be in charge? It seems important, is all.”
“Very well…” Pein said, “The firstborn candidate shall of course have priority, or the next eldest, if he should die young, but once the world has tasted peace I doubt there shall be any desire for renewed conflict between brothers,” Pein said. “If any conflict did arise, they would fight amongst themselves, and the strongest would succeed to rule. There is no difficulty in succession.”
“But, why would be resolved with total victory?” Naruto asked. “Why wouldn’t the empire just split into two parts, or three, or nine? The rinnegan is a unique power right now, but if it can be passed down to your children by blood then it’s just a weapon like any other, and more importantly there are nine tailed beasts to draw upon—that’s potentially nine separate people with infinite chakra, if the knowledge of how to do it gets out even once, ever, in the future. The scale of the destruction in a war where both sides wield infinite chakra is almost unimaginable.”
“I shall place my trust in the wisdom of my descendants, which is all one can ever hope to do,” Pein said. “Needless to say, your position would be no different. Are you not yet satisfied?”
“This stuff is important,” Naruto said. “It sounds like you aren’t even interested, though. I’m not stalling, you can read my mind for that, but these problems have to be figured out at some point, even if they’re hard. Especially if they’re hard—we can’t just hope for the best when the default outcome is for everything to be destroyed.”
“You are young, and it is in your nature to struggle. There are times when all we can do is trust in others to have the wisdom we lacked.”
“We can still try! There’s no reason to expect a perfect last-minute solution from anyone else. We have to try.”
“I see it in your memories—you have sought before to resist your death, and it was only luck that saved you from destroying your friends in the attempt. Wise you were to regret your folly, but has the taste of power dulled your memory?”
Naruto felt a growing sense of frustration. “Fine, maybe I’m just too naïve to see what’s obviously true, but at the very least I can say you’re not doing a very good job communicating. I’m going out of my way to listen and understand you, just in case I’m wrong to fight, and you’re—”
“We often fail to listen, even when we might think we are trying.”
“Well you might be failing too!” Naruto said. “These questions matter, these silly little mechanics and rules that determine how everybody behaves. I don’t have a perfect solution, yet, but if you don’t even think it’s a problem, or that it’s not possible to figure out any more than we already have, then—then that sounds like the kind of stupid resignation to fate that I had back in the academy, and I wouldn’t trust a person like that to actually improve the world even if they were the strongest person alive.”
“Such matters are not for the weak to decide.”
“Maybe not, but you’ve reminded me of something important—something I think I might have forgotten lately, with all this focus on getting stronger… It’s not enough to be strong, even if you do need a lot of strength to get anything done. You’ve still got to figure out what should actually be done, and whoever ends up with the power to fix things is going to have to deal with a lot of big questions, because we don’t understand even a fraction of what the ancients knew, yet, and I don’t think I can trust you to navigate a situation that requires regularly acknowledging your own ignorance. Maybe I am just being stubborn, but I make a thousand mistakes before breakfast every morning, and I’ve hurt too many people with my own stupid decisions to ever think very highly of my stupid little thoughts. I’m terrified that I’ll screw up once I start changing things, and if you’re not, then that’s a weakness I can’t accept in a leader. So I’ll just have to beat you and do it myself.”
“Even now, you hope to triumph? Trust my word; you have lost your reason. The battle is over.”
“Your word hasn’t earned any power over me yet, and while I may not have your rinnegan, yesterday I didn’t even think the rinnegan was real, so I should probably consider this a stroke of good luck. Maybe when we’re done I’ll have a chance to rob your eye sockets through trial and error.”
Pein’s voice boomed. “Fool of a child. These eyes cannot be stolen,” he said. “Your actions today have yet to accomplish anything; I hold your friends captive, and time itself will soon consummate your failure. I have already won.”
“That was four minutes ago,” Naruto replied. “I can get a lot of thinking done in four minutes.”
<Attention. Attention all shadow clones. Thinking this thought constitutes your acceptance of the divine authority of The Shadow Council. All clones are to trust their Shadow Council, and to unquestioningly obey any orders received. Use of the byakugan and whirlpool techniques without dispensation is henceforth forbidden with priority levels four and three, respectively. Maintain clone density and await further instruction.>
The “orders” had come in as the final thoughts of some intermediary clone. It had been dispelled without personally knowing the full contents of whatever this “Shadow Council” was planning, but he had seen where they had secluded themselves, up in somebody’s attic, not far from the town square. A number of Naruto’s other clones had looked directly at them before realizing what they’d done, and once that location had been dispersed in him it was impossible to conceal it again.
Pein barely wasted a moment between reading the next clone’s mind and sending one of his bodies toward the house in response, destroying it from a distance with an explosive ball of fire.
He felt around in the spreading thoughts of the ones who had been hiding inside, curious as to what the shadow council had been planning.
Haha, what a moron. He actually fell for that.
The clones inside had apparently been pulled off the street by some other clone, and told to wait there and look serious. The one who’d given them the instruction was lost in the crowd, now.
<Attention all shadow clones. Attention. Any clone who really believed The Shadow Council could have been defeated so easily may be suffering from an acute deficit of self-esteem. Report to be whipped into shape when the battle is complete. All other clones pick a number between one and ten and await further instruction.>
Naruto saw one of his clones laughing on the other side of the street. As long as the “Shadow Council” could avoid their own discovery, and give their orders through intermediaries, they could sidestep Pein’s ability to read minds. All they’d have to do next was figure out how to actually win.
<Attention. All clones who chose a number three or lower are instructed to move to the western end of Rain village, and to form a shield-igloo surrounding the block of houses with the red-roofed building in the center. Whether or not this is another decoy is none of your concern. If you are tempted to speculate, try instead to not think about a pink elephant, which you will find is impossible. If you manage somehow to see something you shouldn’t have, you should turn invisible and wait for your betters to win the fight without you. Numbers four through ten: maintain 60% of present density and await further instruction. Number ones: gather around the base of the igloo and do not resist mind-reading.>
Naruto caught himself before delving too deep into his instinctive curiosity about the potential reasons for the plan. If he figured anything out and then got dispelled by Pein at some point, everyone else would find out immediately, and then when the next clone had their mind read, Pein would know too.
Pein sent two bodies to western Rain before the igloo had even been completed—one of them was the mind-reader, sent in case there really was something for him to learn, there. It cost him little to investigate, whether or not it was another decoy, when any one of his bodies could easily defend itself or the pressure-wielder against anything Naruto had been able to throw at it.
Pein broke through the single-layered wall of shields with a single strike rather than going over the top, and began tearing through the block of houses, beginning with the red-roofed one in the middle.
A few doors down he uncovered a large shield dome, thick enough to be opaque, and thus necessarily containing at least a few clones with special orders, whether or not they were the ones ultimately behind the instruction of the council. Naruto caught himself before thinking it through any further; he was supposed to think of a pink elephant instead. Or to think of something other than a pink elephant. Anything other than the plan. Or, no—anything other than a pink elephant.
Pein’s two bodies started breaking through the layered shields they’d uncovered. It might have just been his imagination, but Naruto thought they might have been moving a little more brashly, now. It must have been frustrating to be tricked, when he had the power to read minds. Especially with such a large audience openly mocking him for it.
An enormous barrier sprung up around Pein’s two bodies, enveloping both of them and some of Naruto’s shadow clones too. It was quickly reinforced by dozens of extra layers, far beyond the point of complete opacity. Through the dying memories of some of the clones caught inside he saw the inner shields beginning to expand outward, just as those on the outside began slowly constricting inward. They had been too far away to be ambushed from inside, like before, but maybe they could be crushed.
<Attention. The Shadow Council is having a hard time believing he really fell for this again. Number twos: please bite your tongues to confirm this is not just a weird dream.>
He couldn’t see much without his byakugan, and Pein must have stopped killing the ones caught inside with him, knowing they were for a finite resource for as long as his mind-reader remained trapped. But at this rate, with two of them trying to break out, his chakra… no, he wasn’t supposed to think about that.
<Attention. All remaining shadow clones in western Rain are to protect the outer shield from the steel-wielder! Do not allow him to break his friends free.>
Naruto could see that one coming in from the east, batting away any clones that got into his path to slow him. He was the hardest and fastest hitting of the bunch, menacing with spikes of steel, and a bladed tail that cleared the air around him.
All their attacks scarcely seemed to make a difference—within moments he was knocking against the outside of the shield walls, beating them down almost as quickly as they were coming up, ignoring them as they sprung up behind him in the interest of breaking his way in, first, to help the others escape. Dozens of shields rose up to envelop him, uncontested, but as another mind inside was killed, its mind read, he could see that the steel-wielder was still a while from breaking through—there were too many layers built up between them.
<Just kidding. Now three of them are stuck. No way could we afford to crush these dummies. Condense on the town square for a full assault on the pressure-wielder and his escort. Fives and sixes: assemble on the north side, sevens and eights: east, nines and tens: south. Byakugan restricted at priority level: five, Whirlpool priority: two, elephant priority: pink. This is it, guys.>
A clone caught Naruto’s arm as he was heading back into the town square.
“Special orders,” he said, “grab ten more; wait on the roof of the building with the broken pole jutting out, next to the square.”
Naruto nodded as he leaped off to rejoin the crowd. He grabbed the closest clones he could find.
“Special orders,” he said, “follow me.”
A small group of shadow clones were already waiting when he got there.
“Form a ring around us,” one said. “Put up a shield and hold it if he hits. Keep it opaque. Face outward and do not turn around. Priority five.”
The ten of them nodded and formed into a tight circle, facing outward across the square as their barriers rose up.
<Just kidding again, ha-ha, this was not “it”. Steel-wielder has abandoned the other two to be crushed, just as planned. Commence phase twelveteen and prepare to attack. This is the bluff.>
Naruto had no idea how many other teams there might be pursuing whatever other angles and covering strange contingencies. Without his byakugan he could only see the sharp glow of the shield in front of him, and the other clones on either side, out of the corners of his eye. Whatever was going on behind him would have to remain a mystery. He was curious, but he’d have to find out from his own memories, later.
He heard a pair of hands clap together, and a sound like the summoning of a shadow clone.
“Alright, we got her! Drop the shields!”
“You ten, drop the shields!”
Naruto almost reflexively turned around on being addressed, but he closed his eyes in time, dropping the shield, as instructed.
<All clones in the square: attack!>
As the barriers around him disappeared and exposed him to the world, Naruto allowed himself to turn around and see what had been hidden.
Two of his shadow clones stepped out from the circle with their kunai pressed up against Konan’s neck, leading her forward against Pein as a kind of human shield.
Two thoughts went through his mind before he could think to stop them. Firstly, that this was a terrible plan, and it would probably get Hinata and Sasuke killed, and secondly: how the heck had his clones managed to summon somebody?
The clones swarmed into the square from all sides, a thousand bodies once again making their attempt on the pressure-wielder and his lone defender. Pein spotted the two clones approaching from the air with Konan out in front of them and a whirlpool in either fist.
He didn’t even pause for an instant before landing a strike on both of them with pinpoint accuracy, freeing her from Naruto’s clutches.
Her momentum carried her forward into Pein’s pressure-wielding body, but he managed to catch her with one arm, without losing control of his technique. She put her arms around him, holding on tightly as she drew a kunai from her sleeve.
It was only then that Pein realized she was just another shadow clone, disguised by a transformation technique that quickly faded as she cut violently into the back of his neck.