Pein backed off, clutching at his bleeding wound with one hand as he destroyed the shadow clone. He was healing himself with his own medical-ninjutsu—already Naruto could see it taking effect as the wounds on his neck closed up, but his concentration on the pressure holding Hinata and Sasuke had been broken. Teams of shadow clones swooped in to shake his friends awake.
Sasuke came around first, pushing off the ground reflexively to escape before Naruto’s rescue team could put a shield up around the group. Hinata stood up more slowly, unsteady on her feet.
“The fight’s still going,” Naruto said, “are you okay?”
“Y—yes,” she said. “Sorry. I’m okay.”
Pein’s other three bodies had broken free on the western side of Rain. Two of them turned off immediately in pursuit of Sasuke, but the steel-wielder rejoined his other two bodies in the town square, lending his considerable strength to their efforts to break through the shield that now protected Hinata.
They kept their distance even as they beat at the layers—too far away to launch another ambush from the inside, but still breaking through the layers much more quickly than Naruto would have liked. Roughly three per second, it seemed—that was 15000 mc/sec being spent just to keep up, not even counting what he was spending on his hundreds of clones and all of their needs. At this rate he’d be exhausted within about three minutes, and the steel-wielder looked like he could happily fight on for a lot longer than that.
Sasuke caught up with one of Naruto’s clones on the outside and quizzed him on the situation, but there wasn’t much to tell him; Pein had taken no lasting damage from their attack, and he had no idea what to do next. The “Shadow Council” had informed the rest of his clones that their plans had extended no further than this point, and that they were going into hiding to preserve whatever information they still had from getting into Pein’s head. They promised that it was not another weird bluff, and Naruto knew he really could trust that promise, from himself. The next plan really would have to come from somewhere else.
The byakugan was at least available again now, unrestricted by any standing orders, and Naruto had an easier time keeping himself from being mind-read due to Pein’s distraction trying to recapture Sasuke, but he had no idea how to save Hinata from the merciless assault of the steel-wielder within the next two and a half minutes.
A few seconds passed with little useful information passing between his minds. Sasuke kept his distance from their two pursuers, and Naruto was reluctant to try to “protect” him when a stationary barrier would just invite more attacks that he couldn’t actually afford to fend off.
If Pein managed to escape he could recover his summoner’s arm, or he could destroy Naruto’s factories—it’d be an easy win for him if he got away. The fact that he didn’t, even after reading Naruto’s mind, suggested that he couldn’t. He had to fight, probably because he couldn’t outlast Naruto’s chakra in retreat, but Naruto had to fight, too, now; he couldn’t let the fight stop—he had to win if he wanted to live.
He couldn’t outlast them on the defense in a shield, and even though Hinata and Sasuke still had all their chakra to draw upon, without a shield to protect them they too would soon be empty.
The rinnegan might have been enough, but he hadn’t been able to steal it from the first one of the six they’d killed, and if none of them were even any more real than the rest he had no reason to think he’d be able to take it, even if they did manage to kill another. If it truly couldn’t be stolen—if even Madara didn’t know how to give it away, then that might actually explain why he’d had to seek his resurrection from a child rather than one of his loyal servants. Maybe Pein had had his own rinnegan, even from birth, and Madara had just made up the story about giving him his eyes, to try to secure his later revival.
Pein’s bodies raged against Naruto’s barriers, steadily depleting his chakra second by second as he waited for some new shadow council to declare itself and hand out an order for him to follow, but the current best candidate was a stupidly reckless plan—nobody seemed to have a single good idea how to proceed. His thoughts were almost entirely quiet, save for the occasional plea for a report—even just a message that some plan was being worked on, somewhere.
One of his clones calculated that their time was already up—it was too late to wait for better ideas. Terrible as it was, if they didn’t start the current best candidate plan now, they wouldn’t even have that sliver of a chance.
The consensus built quickly, and Naruto resolved to make the best of it. He caught up with Sasuke again and asked if he thought he could manage to keep himself alive for another minute or so, on his own.
“On my own? Where are you going?” he asked.
“I’ll be here, but all in the shield,” Naruto said. “Can you handle it?”
“Well, if it’s just for a minute, then yeah, probably,” Sasuke said. “Might have to burn a lot of chakra though.”
“That’s okay,” Naruto said. “I think the fight will be finished after this, whether it works out or not.”
Sasuke smirked. “…Good luck then, buddy.”
Naruto nodded. “Yeah… You too.”
Sasuke formed the first seal in the chain of shadow clone technique, his lips cracking a smile as he tore off into the darkening sky.
“Hinata, do you trust me?” he asked.
“I trust you.”
“Are you sure? This is important.”
The reflection of the glowing shields in her pale eyes made it almost look like she was crying.
“I trust you, Naruto…”
“I’m going to need you to do something for me,” he said. “In a second, I’m going to ask you to summon ten shadow clones. I’m actually running out of chakra pretty fast, here. I can’t hold these guys out much longer. You’re going to have to take over holding this shield up for me.”
“You want me to—?”
“I know, it’s crazy,” he said, unzipping the front of his flak jacket, “but listen. While your clones are holding up the shield, I’ll need you to hit me in the stomach, okay? Really hard.”
“I need you to—oh shit, he’s coming. Shit! He’s stopped chasing Sasuke—shit! Summon your clones out!”
One of his clones spoke up as Hinata formed the seals. “We could fall unconscious any second now! Hurry!”
“Okay, Hinata, I’ll—shit, alright clones, drop shields in three seconds! Hinata’s clones: raise your shields up now!”
Her clones raised ten layers with a single hand-seal each.
“Wait, why do I—”
“Keep ‘em up! Keep casting! Watch with your eyes to keep up with him, Hinata—you’ll need at least three every second,” he said.
His extra clones bit their tongues, their shields dropping away from the layers protecting Hinata’s own.
“Hinata, I need you to break in and force my chakra gates open manually. Use your byakugan to—”
“What—wait, no, Naruto—Lee trained for years—”
“I know! Doesn’t matter!” he said, “Quickly, go!”
“We have less than ten seconds before you’re empty!” he shouted. “Do it, now!”
A jet of chakra flamed from the back of her elbow. He felt the wind go out of him as her fist blew through his gut and out one side of his back.
There wasn’t time even to feel the pain.
He looked into her eyes. She was crying.
Blood coated her arm and spilled out around their feet.
“Look at me,” he said, straining to speak with the last of his air, “…break… the gates…”
She clenched her eyes closed, relying on the sight of her byakugan.
He could hardly think, but he saw it in the reflection of her pale eyes when they opened again—the six-pointed star of the mangekyou sharingan he’d taken from Sasuke, transformed now into the concentric circles of the rinnegan. An image like the waves arisen from a single point.
He felt himself fading, weak from the loss of blood.
“H—heal… diamond…” he whispered, barely audible.
She inhaled a quick breath, and released the power of the reserve seal on her forehead. Strength poured back into him as his flesh stitched itself together, healing by the concentrated energy she’d built up in her time with lady Tsunade.
She drew her hand out and laid her fingers against his chest, 6500 millichakra of his own coming back every second, refilling him.
He summoned his shadow clones wordlessly, without the need for any hand-seals. He saw that their eyes were the same.
Perfect chakra control.
A clone put a hand on the shoulder of one of Hinata’s clones as they raised their barriers back into place.
“We’ll take it from here.”
Naruto replaced the bandages over his eyes and stood next to the shield’s surface, to phase himself out through the layers. Under the sustained assault of Pein’s five bodies he still couldn’t afford even a second of delay.
It seemed that Uchiha Madara really had awakened the rinnegan following his battle with the First Hokage, after all, and Pein had been his only chance to revive. The only other person who had reawakened the rinnegan, with the blood of both the Uchiha and the Senju inside him.
Sasuke had said that the Uchiha had an ancient taboo against intermarrying with the Senju, because the two clans both traced their ancestry back to the ninja who had first wielded the rinnegan, and when those bloodlines had crossed again, in Pein, the rinnegan had been the result. Perhaps the original reason for the Uchiha’s taboo was not mere enmity, such as any clan might have for their ancient foe, but rather the knowledge that any child produced in a union with the Senju would possess something other than the sharingan—that they would be the birth of a new clan, not a strengthening of the Uchiha, and thus for the sake of the Uchiha name the mixing of their blood with the Senju was forbidden.
The story was that Madara drank the blood of his Senju enemy, the First Hokage, but Sasuke’s blood had done nothing for Naruto. That would have disproven the theory, only he couldn’t understand why Madara would have even wanted to drink the blood of his mortal enemy in the first place.
Stories morph over time—they shift between tellers as facts are forgotten or changed to suit the occasion. One clear possibility had come to mind; that Madara had been low on blood, wounded in the fight, and had transfused Senju blood into his veins to survive. With his chakra gates blown open by the injury, that foreign chakra had intermingled with his own, and accomplished what was otherwise possible only by the mixing of the bloodlines in a child. But Naruto already had a source of Uchiha chakra to mix with what was produced by his own Senju flesh; the sharingan eye that had been Sasuke’s gift. He had only been able to guess, and to hope that the reason it hadn’t already done anything for him was that he needed to break open his own chakra gates first, too, and not that the Uzumaki branch were simply too far removed from their ancestors to count.
Senju and Uchiha—their ancient bloodlines had recombined now, in him as they did in Pein, to reawaken the third eye. And as the outermost shields fell away Pein saw him coming into view, phasing out through each layer as it was destroyed, his eye concealed behind the bandages.
Pein backed off, momentarily, as Naruto raised his hands in the air, moving slowly as the final shield was removed from the inside to let him out.
“I want to negotiate a conditional surrender,” Naruto said. “Will you let Sasuke get inside my shield so he’s protected while we talk?”
Pein paused for a moment, cautious, but finally nodded his assent. It could only be a stroke of luck from his perspective to allow Sasuke to trap himself alongside Hinata in that single shield again.
Pein had no way of knowing that Naruto didn’t mean to shield Sasuke from him.
Sasuke returned to the town square, seeing Naruto’s gesture from the distance. Once he was in range the shadow clones enveloped him with their barriers, and brought him gradually inside.
“Alright, here’s my offer,” Naruto said. “You agree to tell me everything about the rinnegan, and then you destroy your eyes so that you’re no longer a threat. If you do that I may be able to let you live. Otherwise—and this isn’t a bluff, I promise—otherwise I really am going to defeat you.”
Pein regarded him dispassionately. “Are you under the impression that you have something with which to threaten me?”
Naruto knew that real negotiation would be fruitless without revealing the rinnegan, and he didn’t want to give up the advantage of surprise, but some part of his conscience had demanded he at least make the offer. It wasn’t inconceivable that Pein could have understood—that he could have understood from Naruto’s memories what a promise meant to him, and just—just believed him. Naruto didn’t want to have to kill him. Pein was as much a victim of this world as anyone else, and he at least had sought to improve it.
“I’m willing to entertain your counter-offer,” Naruto said, approaching him at a walk.
“You shall dispel all your shadow clones, save two. I will read the mind of one to confirm you have done this, and then take your final body away with me. You will not suffer, and your friends shall live long and happy lives.”
Naruto shook his head. “Look at the memories you saw in my mind, Pein. You know I would never break a promise. I promise I’m not bluffing. Are you sure you won’t surrender?”
“I had a kind of respect for your integrity, until now, Uzumaki Naruto,” Pein said. “It saddens me to see it sacrificed for the sake of one final gambit. I would have remembered you fondly for dying with your word intact.”
Naruto came to a halt and folded his arms beneath his cloak, judging now that he was close enough. “That’s not what I’m doing,” he said. “I promise. I really, really promise.”
“If you mean to threaten that you will release the tailed beast again, I know already that you could never allow it. You cannot leave this world to drown, without me,” Pein said. “It is to your credit that you are not predisposed toward spite. Would that all jinchuuriki were so level-headed.”
That was probably the only reason Pein even bothered with underlings in the first place—he didn’t want to risk his own life against enemies who might self-destruct with that kind of raw power.
“Now,” Pein said, “will you surrender, or will you make me break through those shields myself, as your own calculations predict I must?”
A stream of chakra began to flow from the palm of Naruto’s hand, concealed by his cloak as it circulated in the familiar pattern of his whirlpool technique.
He had been thinking a little, lately, about some of the theoretical stuff Jiraiya had said about chakra and the four-color theorem—the rule that said you couldn’t fit more than four mutually-touching elements into a single technique, because of some philosophical rule that even the ancients had known was true. Because he’d come across that word again, not very long ago. “Homeomorphic.”
He’d found it when he was reading through the library of Sound, in a faded old book about a weird branch of mathematics that not even jounin had any real use for. It was called topology, and it had all been right there in chapter one. Homeomorphic was a technical term that referred to how you could theoretically stretch and bend a certain shape to become some other shape—a ball could turn into a cube, for example, or into a long noodle, but no amount of twisting could ever turn it into a ring, for example, without first having to break the surface of the shape somewhere, which wasn’t allowed, by these rules. That’s where Jiraiya had been wrong.
Naruto still didn’t think he understood it all, yet, but not all shapes were homeomorphic to all others, and the two dimensional surface of a ring was not the same as the surface of a ball, no matter how you stretched and squeezed it. For that kind of strange and ancient math, and for Jiraiya’s four-element limit, it was the number of holes in the surface that mattered, and if you were drawing colors on the surface of a ring then the open hole meant that the number of mutually-touching colors you could fit was not merely four, but seven. And his whirlpool drill—with its hollow center around his hand, a hollow reaching all the way up to its narrow open-point—his drill couldn’t have been made from a sphere no matter how you squished it, not without breaking the surface somewhere. The whirlpool technique wasn’t homeomorphic to a sphere, but to a ring.
Seven colors came alive on the flesh of Naruto’s wrist; one for each of the five elements, plus the yin and yang chakra that could only be handled in isolation, before the rinnegan. The ideas from the book had been purely theoretical until now; something he’d intended to mention to Jiraiya when he got back. The only ninja he’d thought it might have ever been relevant to was the Third Hokage, before he died, but even he couldn’t have hoped to wield more than five of the elements.
The colors flowed in streaks across the surface of his vortex, each making contact with every other, spreading and combining, multiplying their powers from the twofold base of an elemental technique, doubling again to fourfold with the joining of the second element—already reaching the power of a competent jounin, and then again, eightfold, to a level any Kage would be glad to wield.
He remembered the story of Odysseus, stuck between six-headed Scylla, and the sea monster Charybdis, and he recalled his despair at the uncaring force that seemed to have swallowed the world, but he saw through it now. He saw the solution—to become the monster, he would become Charybdis, the ocean-drinker—Charybdis who forms whirlpools—and he would consume six-headed Scylla in his vastness, to open the way for Odysseus to finally return to his long-neglected home.
Sixteen-fold, his power reached the level of Jiraiya’s greatest work and surpassed it in an instant as the fifth element combined to multiply its power thirty-two-fold—Sixty-four-fold—
One hundred and twenty-eight-fold power seared his fingertips, a whirring drill of blinding white that screamed with potential as the very air was torn to shreds in its presence.
There was another story Naruto had read, hidden away in a book of old myths; a story about a flooded world, and the evils that had supposedly brought its people such destruction, but despite all that had been lost or drowned the waters did ultimately recede, and the thought of it brought to mind a fitting name for his new technique.
He pulled the cloak away to reveal the white light of seven colors combined, as he drove his blazing fist into the earth.
The square of Rain village erupted, earth and stone flaring around him as his drill tore the foundations asunder. Rock turned to dust, destroyed in an instant as entire buildings dissolved like windblown vapor in the storm. The five figures of Pein disintegrated to ash as they were caught in his blast radius.
An army of shadow clones kept Hinata and Sasuke safe behind countless layers of barrier techniques—enough to neutralize the force even as the ground beneath them was blown away.
They dropped a short distance, and rolled into the middle of the crater, the clones in the center jostled until they burst, dumping the two of them unceremoniously on the ground by his feet.
The clone who had stood at the eye of the storm was the only one left, now.
Pein was gone, along with much of the village.
Only an empty pit remained, which would in time be filled with falling rain to form another lake where once the great and clever ancients had lived.
But that didn’t seem to matter so much, now.
He would just have to fill it back in.