The Cost of Living


Pein strolled down one of the narrow hallways of the Hidden Sound's main base. As the head of a rogue, criminal organization bent on what essentially amounted to world domination, he was mildly impressed with how organized Orochimaru's entire operation was. Especially considering that Otogakure was officially little more than a series of secret hideaways spread throughout the (newly renamed) Land of Sound (with lairs in some neighboring lands).

With Akatsuki's original goal having been based around freeing Amegakure from the clutches of Hanzō the Salamander, and later creating world peace, the idea of having a base of operations had always appealed to the orange-haired man. A legitimate base, too, not the hidey-holes, caves, and shack huts all of Akatsuki's members had been forced to live in during the formative years. After Akatsuki had progressed to its current, mercenary group and Bijū collector status, having a base had seemed less pertinent, especially considering its members were almost constantly on the move.

But part of Pein's goal – selfish as it was – was still to free the Hidden Rain from its current ruler. While overthrowing Hanzō was entirely possible with his level of power, such an act would most likely produce a form of civil unrest and unease in a country which really didn't need more of either. So having a place to build an army, solidify his forces, and prepare until he was good and ready to take over Amegakure in one swift, decisive maneuver was high on his personal list of things to do.

That was where Otogakure came in.

Granted, the Hidden Sound wasn't exactly close to the Hidden Rain distance-wise, but that was beside the point. Pein wasn't overly interested in making a move until the Bijū were mostly accounted for, so that his focus could be on the invasion rather than the progress of his mercenary group. In normal circumstances, he wouldn't have even considered going after Otogakure now, but with things with Orochimaru coming to a head, there was no reason not to.

Gunning after the Snake Sannin now served a dual purpose: the man's long overdue elimination from the ranks of the living (something Deidara would have to survive not being able to do himself), and to take control of Oto. The latter explanation was only half the reason that Pein was walking around the main base.

Two shinobi rounded a corner and pointed at him, yelling for him to stop. Pein spared them a glance before holding both hands up, palms facing them. "Shinra Tensei," he intoned, using his control over gravity to propel them against the nearby wall. Both Oto-nin struck the stone hard and then slumped to the ground unconscious.

Pein peered through the next open doorway he came to, stepping inside as the contents piqued his interest. The room looked like a laboratory, lined with rows of short cabinets held together by stone countertops. Jars of different substances – mostly snakes, with the odd frog, lizard, or some other animal or animal part floating in formaldehyde – covered the counters, along with mortars, pestles, containers of pills, and other doctoral instruments. Ringed grey eyes took in all of the tabletop clutter. Ah. There it is.

Nestled among a plethora of glass jars containing snakes was a decomposed left hand, a slate blue ring on the pinky marked with the symbol . This was the lost Akatsuki ring Orochimaru had taken with him after Itachi had removed his hand, prompting his defection. Zetsu had been carefully exploring Otogakure while the Sannin had been preoccupied with his invasion of Konoha. He'd discovered this main base after some time searching, but hadn't quite narrowed down exactly where the ring was hidden.

Not that that was important anymore. Pein slipped the ring off the digit, staring at it for a long moment. After so many years of having the slippery Snake Sannin evade the majority of their espionage attempts (recent ones pertaining to the Chūnin Exams notwithstanding, with Zetsu dedicated almost solely to that task), it was nice to have the object of his desires back. With the return of the ring to Akatsuki's possession, the criminal organization could, for the first time ever, have a full ten members…assuming everything played out okay with Kakuzu and Pein's plans for the man's partner, of course.

Pein retraced his steps out of the base, coming across no resistance in the process. He emerged from the small hole in the ground which served as the entrance to the hideout, spying Konan, Itachi, and Kisame not far away, the blue-skinned man standing slightly in front of the other two, sword drawn. Konan turned to glance at him. "Did you find it?" she asked, her even tone of voice seeming to portray her as disinterested in the answer.

"Yes," he replied, then continued, "Zetsu, report."

The plant-man emerged from his hiding place in a nearby tree, white side laughing quietly. "Kakuzu and his team have engaged Orochimaru and his guards in combat. Deidara and Sasori have also located the Ichibi Jinchūriki and are currently attempting to neutralize him."

Pein nodded. "Good. Things are going according to plan, then."

"Can I eat Orochimaru after Kakuzu-san kills him?"

Akatsuki's leader frowned slightly. "No. Orochimaru's bounty was already promised to Kakuzu…reneging on such a deal would prove disastrous for any future endeavors with him." Zetsu seemed slightly put-off by his response, but said nothing. Pein turned to face Konan and Itachi. "Neutralize all opposition within the base. Keep as many alive as you can…I would like to add them to our forces, if at all possible."

"And if they do not wish to betray Orochimaru?"

Pein's ringed, grey eyes flickered to settle solely on Itachi, who had posed the question. They then drifted over to Kisame – whose head was tilted enough to view the conversation – and then to the extraordinarily pale-skinned, white-haired boy standing across from the former Kiri-nin, holding something long, thin, and white in his hand. "Eliminate them." Kisame's sharp-toothed grin grew even larger as he charged the Oto-nin, bringing his sword in front of him to deflect a series of tiny projectiles. "I expect this base to be under our control by the time I return."

He returned his attention to Zetsu. "Meet me at the rendezvous point." The plant-man melded back into his tree, disappearing from view. Then, with a 'poof' of smoke, Pein was gone.

Thankfully, Orochimaru didn't have a huge lead, so catching up was easy enough. The more frustrating part was that, despite having the Snake Sannin within his sight, Kakuzu wasn't really gaining any extra ground. Orochimaru knew he was there, and Kakuzu knew that Orochimaru knew he was there, meaning that both S-class nukenin knew there would be a showdown. Kakuzu's main question was why his quarry was insisting on dragging out the time until their inevitable meeting.

Perhaps he wanted an opportunity to replenish as much of his chakra as he could? Though he hadn't witnessed the battle against the Hokage, he knew of the man's reputation in the shinobi world and could easily deduce that taking him out wouldn't be easy, Orochimaru's prowess and the Sandaime's age be damned.

Kakuzu was living proof that age determined nothing as far as power went.

A part of him appreciated the chance to regain some chakra. In his zeal to kill off the flies of Takigakure, he had probably burned through a heart's worth of chakra. Not that that really meant much, what with Jiongu's chakra-independence and his huge reserves, but he certainly preferred to use his more powerful attacks when he could. And he had little doubt that he would need them in the coming fight.

He leaped to the ground, tired of running across the limbs of trees. The forest was an irritating reminder of exactly where he was and exactly whom he was hunting. And to be perfectly honest, Kakuzu far preferred fighting in open areas where there was less interference from the surroundings to limit his attacks. Calling upon his kinjutsu's abilities, the fire heart on his back – ironically, the one he had taken from an Uchiha when he had first met Naruto – transferred across his body until it formed as a black mass on his right shoulder, tiger mask protecting it. An orb of fire formed in front of the mask's mouth, and Kakuzu hardened his skin to better withstand the heat.

The fireball was launched, impacting a tree near Orochimaru and causing the surrounding area to burst into violent flames. Kakuzu had a brief moment of déjà vu, the memory of the day he'd met Naruto once again brought to the forefront of his mind. Katon: Zukkoku was truly a magnificent attack; it even helped to eliminate the foliage of the Land of Fire which interfered with his attack style. His reminiscing was cut short by his target's voice. "Ku ku ku, a little excited, aren't we?"

"Enough of this cat-and-mouse game," he retorted. "I weary of your procrastination of the inevitable."

"You seem to have a high degree of confidence in your skills…Kakuzu-kun." The way the Sannin rolled his name around disturbed the older man, but he didn't rise to the bait. "What makes you believe your power stands up to mine?" sibilated Orochimaru with a disturbing grin.

Kakuzu didn't answer. In all honesty, he didn't know if his power would stand up to the other nukenin's. He believed in his own strength, but there were too many unknowns surrounding Orochimaru – even with Zetsu's vague rundown of what the man could do – and Kakuzu had faced a similar situation long ago, where he had gone up against a man whose abilities were somewhat known all because of someone else's orders. The recurrence of the results of such a situation, while unlikely with how much he had grown as a shinobi, was not to be discounted.

Introspection, Kakuzu had discovered, was an ill-begotten hobby developed by far too many years of wandering the world alone.

Almost 94 years ago, Takigakure was founded in the heart of the Land of Waterfalls. Five different groups of nomadic families came together with the singular goal of forming a new village to be better protected from the rest of the world (Kirigakure and Iwagakure had already popped into existence, and rumors abounded of the nomadic clans of the Land of Wind allying to form another Hidden Village). The tribes – one for each of the main elements for which their members specialized in – argued about the hierarchy of power within the village, until it was determined that a council of elders would be formed, one from each family, with the Head Elder being from the larger Tribe of Water.

Leading the village became the least of the peoples' problems upon Takigakure's formation. Hidden behind one of the land's massive namesakes was a huge, white, horse-like creature with five tails. They had intruded upon the home of the Gobi no Irukauma, and the Bijū was quite unhappy about it. Though it took the lives of a quarter of their forces and several of their most experienced sealers, the Five-Tails was eventually sealed into the most newborn member of the village-to-be.

(Kakuzu had discovered the information pertaining to the Gobi only after he had become a member of the Five Elements. Even still, there had been no disclosure as to whom the Jinchūriki was, and he had been disinterested in further research at the time, considering that the rest of the world had been at war. Since then, the topic of the Bijū had only resurfaced because of his initial meeting with Zetsu, and while Taki's possession of the Nanabi was a bit of an anomaly, Kakuzu had found he didn't particularly care for the specifics of how such a thing came to pass; his focus had been more on enlightening Naruto to the career path of a ninja-slash-bounty hunter. All other information related to Takigakure's founding had been taught in his youth at the Academy.)

Just about five years later, on August 15th, Kakuzu was born to a pair of poor farmers from the Tribe of Water, his father the youngest child of the Head Elder, Takahashi Hiroki.

Despite being related to the Head Elder, money was scarce as Kakuzu grew up. Avarice was an influential sin within the Hidden Waterfall Village, dictating the actions of its populace…and more importantly, its leaders. Everything had some sort of worth, though as far as Takahashi Hiroki was concerned, his youngest offspring and fledgling grandson possessed limited to no intrinsic value.

As he grew older, Kakuzu developed the same thirst for money that pervaded many of his fellow citizens. Working alongside his parents in order to make a living taught him both the value of a coin and that said money made the world go around. So, at the age of seven, Kakuzu enrolled himself in Takigakure's Shinobi Academy, fully intent on becoming a ninja. As a professional shinobi, the green-eyed boy figured he would be able to earn far beyond what his parents made, allowing for self-sufficiency in the future (and maybe, perhaps, he could catch the attention of his hard-to-please grandfather).

School was relatively simple for Kakuzu. Academia – while a bit dry at times – was something that the boy excelled in. Mathematics, science, geography, history (what limited events there were), and writing were all subjects that Kakuzu could bury himself in and try to prove himself. Practical applications of shinobi training were a bit different, but with fieldwork at home to boost his stamina and strength for taijutsu and a quick grasp of chakra, he was still able to catch on rather quickly.

At the age of 11, Kakuzu graduated the Academy and became an official Takigakure Genin, where he was partnered with another two children from the Tribe of Water and placed under the tutelage of a Jōnin with the same specialty. It was easier, the higher-ups had decided, to group together people with the same affinities for joint teaching while they were young, and as they graduated, new teams would be formed with varying skills (for instance, a four-man Chūnin cell would consist of ninja who specialized in four different elemental chakra).

Around the same time, Konohagakure was founded by a merging of the Senju and Uchiha clans (in addition to other families of some renown) in the heart of the Land of Fire. The formation of such a powerful alliance caused tension among the other villages, especially following Kumogakure's creation only a handful of years prior.

Four months passed, during which Kakuzu and his teammates learned a plethora of basic water ninjutsu, chakra exercises, and fighting methods. It was at that point that the Elders decided to announce their strength to the world by enrolling a number of squads in the Chūnin Exams, to be held in Kirigakure. War was looming on the horizon, and the leaders of the Hidden Waterfall wanted to show that they were ready to fight for glory in whatever manner they could, as well as reap the rewards the losers left behind. Five teams went to the Hidden Mist, including Kakuzu's.

Only four students returned to Takigakure.

Through a sheer stroke of luck, Kakuzu had survived the one-on-one match-ups by being pitted against a puppeteer of Sunagakure (even though he had lost), as opposed to his teammates, who had been paired against Genin from the Hidden Mist, all of whom had shown why the nickname 'Bloody Mist Village' was catching.

It took weeks of psychiatric therapy before Kakuzu was deemed fit for village service again. Unfortunately, the damage had already been done. He threw himself into his training, mentally swearing to move past the traumatizing experience and improve himself in order to bring pride unto his village. His mentality became one of brutal efficiency, to try and analyze his opponents quickly in order to find their weaknesses and then exploit them, leaving no room for error or an opportunity to be taken advantage of.

Six months later found Kakuzu breezing through his second Chūnin Exams, this time held in Sunagakure. He was promoted to Chūnin, though small skirmishes among Konoha, Suna and Iwa signified that the increase in rank might have been more to bolster Taki's forces in the inevitable fight ahead than a decision based on skill.

Two months later, the Shinobi World War was officially in motion.

One of the more beneficial aspects of being part of a smaller nation was the fact that the war somewhat bypassed the Hidden Waterfall Village. The natural geography the original settlers had stumbled upon was not only fertile and promising for agricultural and economic growth, but successfully hid the village and deterred opposing forces from invading. Such defenses allowed for Takigakure to prosper while the so-called Great Nations shed blood and lost a generation of mankind.

Not to say that Taki didn't want its own slice of the victory pie, but the Elders were willing to wait until an opportunity presented itself before capitalizing on one of the combatant's moments of weakness. Whispers abounded that they were hopeful it would be Konoha to fall, since it was the youngest, least deserving, and geographically closest (barring the Hidden Rock) of the warring entities.

In the meantime, Kakuzu had continued to train. Five years after his promotion to Chūnin, he was granted the title of Jōnin, a strong user of taijutsu and Suiton ninjutsu. He was often sent out on missions to sabotage certain supply chains headed to Konoha, or sometimes with other Jōnin to intercept small teams of Leaf shinobi and dispose of them. Every slight against the Hidden Leaf helped tilt the war against the denizens of the Land of Fire, or so the Elders believed.

All the while, Takahashi Hiroki observed his grandson's progress, finally taking notice of his flesh and blood's existence after years of ignoring it.

And it was a mere seven months later that Kakuzu stumbled upon one of the village's most closely-guarded secrets.

The Waterfall Jōnin was training in seclusion by one of the country's smaller namesakes, practicing an application of water manipulation that, upon completion, would theoretically expand the element's usefulness exponentially. Water was versatile in its liquid form, ranging from thin streams to powerful deluges, but with a weakness to the hard-hitting and defensive Earth Release techniques, the flowing element really didn't stand too much of a chance. So Kakuzu was determined to find a way to compensate for this deficiency by developing an offshoot of the nature manipulation which could match Doton's brute strength. Rumors of a clan specializing in Hyōton ninjutsu within the Land of Water intrigued him as to the possibilities of elemental combination, but Kakuzu decided that with no other natural affinity besides water, focusing on determining the mechanics were pointless. Therefore, he would find his own solution.

Applying chakra to his feet, Kakuzu stepped out onto the surface of the pond and made his way to the small waterfall. He placed his hands parallel to the water's flow and closed his eyes, gathering his chakra. After a moment, he expelled the collected energy.

All the water above where his hands were placed stopped, leaving an empty space four feet above the surface of the pond where the waterfall normally fell. There was a momentary flicker in the empty space, and Kakuzu's sharp eyes (trained to detect anything suspicious on the off-chance it was an enemy) caught the appearance of a cave as the illusion of rock covering it was dispelled by his chakra burst.

He stood silently as the waterfall resumed its natural course, thinking about what such an occurrence could mean. Tunnels and caves behind the country's namesakes weren't exactly uncommon, but none of the ones he had so far come across had contained a genjutsu to disguise its entrance. Curious, and of the mindset that knowledge was power, he ducked his head and walked through both the pounding water and the rock illusion. The cave proved to be nothing special, but the Jōnin moved cautiously nonetheless, aware that if it was important enough to hide, there could very well be traps.

An hour later found Kakuzu approaching the end of the pathway, looking slightly worse for wear. As he had thought, there were a number of ploys meant to deter the movement of anyone who had discovered the cave's location, one designed to use each of the main elements (in true Takigakure fashion). After dousing jets of fire from the wall and then evading a series of seals built into the walls, floor, and ceiling which electrified the interloper if it detected a pressure difference (overcome by condensing water vapor into a liquid form and carefully water walking an inch above the floor), he had lost his shirt to a sickle of wind which had very nearly bisected him. Compared to those traps, the blocks of stone that erupted from the wall in an attempt to crush him and the continuous deluge of water which he assumed was intended to drown the person were easy to bypass.

Placed on a stone pedestal was a single scroll, not even as long as his forearm. Kakuzu pocketed the scroll, noted a warning inscribed upon the pedestal, and then departed the cave. More power was a boon, but it was likely that a treasure so well-hidden had some sort of negative side effect which he would prefer not to deal with. Besides, gaining power through such a means seemed cheap and counterproductive to his current method of trying to prove himself.

Still, perhaps a day would come when he needed the strength the scroll could grant him. In the meantime, he would keep it safe.

Seventeen months passed before Kakuzu became part of the first generation of Takigakure's Gogyō Go-Kō, an elite group created from the cream of the Waterfall's crop. The decision to create such a team came about from intelligence on the major villages, specifically the Mist's Seven Shinobi Swordsmen and the Cloud's Kinkaku Force. The Elders believed that the formation of such a troupe would lend credence to their effectiveness as a ninja village when the Shinobi World War finally concluded.

To achieve such a prestigious position, Kakuzu had trained himself to the limit, dedicating himself to completing missions with a level of swiftness and competency that was nearly unrivaled. During his time back in the village, he had continued to push himself to find a form of water ninjutsu that could compensate for its weakness against earth ninjutsu. Eventually, he was able to create the secret technique Mizukiri no Yaiba, which utilized hardened water as an attack basis.

Creating the solidified water sword had taken a bit of work, but eventually the Jōnin had stumbled upon a breakthrough. If he was able to condense water vapor back into its liquid form, what was stopping him from taking it a step further? By forcing his chakra to push the liquid water molecules together, he could manipulate the chemical bonds and molecular vibrations and make them tighter than in their liquid form. Instead of producing ice (whose water molecules were spaced further apart than their liquid counterpart), the water compacted enough to solidify and resist most physical attacks, so long as it had enough chakra to stay in that form. Thus a sword; Kakuzu was able to keep hold of it to imbue it with chakra, as well as manipulate it to his will.

Such a talent earned him the title of Hidden Waterfall's first Surging Wave…and the much-sought attention of his grandfather.

Another sixteen months flew by, during which Kakuzu and his elite brethren were sent out on increasingly difficult missions meant to hinder the progress of the Hidden Leaf even further in the war. It wasn't until the time that the Elders received intelligence that Konoha had created its own Jinchūriki upon the defection of founding father Uchiha Madara, all through the capabilities of the Shodai Hokage. Even more disturbing was the revelation that the captured Bijū was the Kyūbi, the strongest of all the Tailed Beasts.

Kakuzu, the most talented and strongest of the Five Elements, was assigned the mission to eliminate the Shodai Hokage in a vain attempt to wrest power from the Hidden Leaf.

After infiltrating the village, killing the ANBU guards, and attempting a stealthy assassination of Senju Hashirama, Kakuzu was forced to flee with the Hokage right on his heels. Dodging the animated trees of the Land of Fire (courtesy of the damnable Senju), Kakuzu fled to the Valley of the End and was forced into a showdown with the wood-user. An intense battle ensued, but the Taki-nin was sorely outclassed and barely managed to escape with his life.

As it was, he used the last of his chakra to produce a water clone which temporarily distracted the Hokage, allowing him to make it back to the Hidden Waterfall. When he returned, half-conscious and on the brink of death, he was brought before the Village Elders and forced to reveal his failure. Despite swearing he would try again when he was fully recovered, his grandfather – with a strange, regretful look Kakuzu had never seen him wear before – announced that there would be no second chances. With that proclamation, Kakuzu was dragged from the room and thrown into a prison cell, arms chained behind him, ankles shackled together, and a black band tattooed on each arm, just below the wrist.

It took a number of days – not that he could tell the passage of time – before Kakuzu regained some level of cognizance. Unfortunately, the chakra-restraining cuffs limited what courses of action he could take, so the elite Taki-nin was left alone with his thoughts, most of which revolved around how to enact vengeance upon his traitorous village. After all, it was the Elders' fault for sending him to assassinate a foe far beyond his level for the service of the village, and now that he had time to think about it, doing so without the backup of the other Five Elements only made sense if they wanted to write him off as a rogue thinker should (when) he fail(ed).

Kakuzu shifted restlessly in his cell. The motion pushed an object strapped to his waist into his side. His eyes narrowed in recollection as the memory of the scroll he had taken from the hidden cave a couple of years ago resurfaced; apparently his jailors had neglected to do more than a cursory sweep of his body to rid him of basic weaponry. Returning to Takigakure in a half-dead state must not have put his threat-level very high.

Such negligence would surely return to bite the higher-ups in the ass, and simply worked in Kakuzu's favor.

His analytical mind quickly assessed his plan of attack. Though he wasn't exactly sure what the jutsu locked in the scroll did, he hoped it would grant him the power capable of allowing him to escape his imprisonment. After that, he would eliminate the men who had sent him on what he now perceived to be a suicide mission, and leave his accursed home to rot.

Wriggling around, Kakuzu managed to maneuver the scroll – hidden under his clothes – to a position where he could grasp it with his hands. Grabbing it, he laid it upon the stone floor and unrolled it, revealing blank parchment, barring a single black ring in the center. Callused, dirty fingers ran over the paper, as if trying to decipher anything hidden. Upon brushing the ring, the black part glowed blue and a single word appeared in the center before a second black band appeared on each forearm, halfway between the wrist and elbow. The Taki-nin barely had time to give the new tattoos a cursory glance before a plethora of threads burst forth from the scroll. They dug into his skin, creating sutures on his body and stitching shut several of his wounds, causing the elite ninja to scream in sheer agony. Suddenly, he was aware that the invasive feeling of the threads was no longer occurring – though he was still in copious amounts of pain – and the scroll had returned to its essentially blank state.

Muddled though his brain was from the union with the kinjutsu, Kakuzu knew that his cries would have alerted the attention of some form of guard. His body contracted suddenly, wracked with spasms that sent him into another fit of physical torment. Between his previous injuries and the introduction of the secret technique – Jiongu, he believed was what had appeared on the scroll – he was barely in a state capable of escaping the village, let alone the prison cells.

Whisperings interrupted his musing, promises of power and grandeur in exchange for control of his body. Release me from here and you can have whatever you desire, Kakuzu swore. His life was essentially forfeit unless he could escape the prison, so there was little purpose in not allowing the black tendrils free reign. The threads reacted with what the man assumed to be unbridled glee before he felt his body move without his direction.

The guard Kakuzu knew would come arrived just as Jiongu broke the manacles on his wrists.

"I desire vengeance against those who wronged me," Kakuzu announced through gritted teeth. He cherished the guard's momentary look of confusion before dozens of threads skewered the hapless man. One of the threads looped around a set of keys and jammed it into the lock, opening the cell door as another grabbed the scroll and stored it on his body. "Versatile," he muttered, then winced. There was no telling how long the threads would be able to control his battered body before he collapsed from sheer exhaustion, but he was willing to ride out the storm of pain until his revenge was sated. Sheer willpower was going to have to be his driving force.

The series of events that had followed was a bit hazy even to this day. He could remember flashes of some shinobi trying to stop his rampage, though they were quickly dispatched with his new powers…stairs…one of the Elders staring at him in unadulterated horror…the integration of a heart, a new chakra element, into his system, four times over…the image of Takahashi Hiroki, traitorous kinsman, bent over a book, scribbling frantically before a series of threads compacted into a point and speared the man through his chest…

In hindsight, Kakuzu couldn't even recall how he had escaped Takigakure. After waking from a long bout of unconsciousness, he had discovered his body's appearance altered to look like a rag doll's, long sutures decorating his arms, chest, stomach, back, and shoulders. The price for our power, the threads had seemed to whisper. Weeks later had left him still struggling to adjust to the power surges of four new elemental chakras and the kinjutsu he now housed, despite poring over the scroll with a careful eye.

Following his defection from the Hidden Waterfall and his eventual recovery to elite shinobi status, Kakuzu had avoided the remainder of the Shinobi World War, only interfering to kill ninja and offer their corpses to opposing villages to make a living. With the end of the war (just under six years after becoming a nukenin) and the publishing of both the internal (for individual villages) and universal (for mercenaries) Bingo Books, Kakuzu took up the mantle of a bounty hunter, making a living by finding and killing other shinobi, occasionally stealing their hearts (or other organs) for himself based on need.

So he had lived, as an S-class missing-nin (international laws dictated that nukenin with kinjutsu, at least, be classified as such), for over 61 years, until he had come across Uzumaki Naruto in the forests of the Land of Fire.

It had been a whim at first, really. The boy possessed what he had thought to be an undiscovered, useful kekkei genkai (and Kakuzu had faced his fair share of useful bloodline limits: Mokuton, Hyōton, Sharingan, Yōton…the list went on). But if he could take advantage of a wandering child with unprecedented healing abilities and no connections to society, there was no way he would pass up such an opportunity. And if the boy couldn't prove his usefulness…well, Kakuzu had no compunctions with disposing a body.

Lo and behold, Naruto had risen to the mercenary's expectations, in spite of Kakuzu's somewhat lackluster teaching abilities. Not that he could really be blamed for lacking such skills; years of isolation tended to strip one of the niceties associated with human interaction. Still, there was something to be said for the fact that the blond brat had wormed his way so thoroughly into the former Taki-nin's life.

The veteran shinobi couldn't even place quite how Naruto had done such a thing. Certainly there was something to be said about the boy's mental state. Psychologically damaged, Naruto craved attention, and with his only consistent contact in his formative years being Kakuzu – who was not easily impressed – the blond sought his elder's approval in every facet of his life. It was a valid method, Kakuzu had found, for keeping his disciple within his grasp and under his thumb. As long as Naruto kept seeking his teacher's approval, Kakuzu could easily manipulate the brat into following the path he chose for him.

Ironically, even without the nukenin's strict guidance, Naruto was already treading Kakuzu's beaten road.

Separated from his village (albeit at an earlier age and under different circumstances), quick and eager to learn, loyal to a cause, talented, desensitized to death, aware of how the world worked…it was shocking just how close Naruto's personality reflected Kakuzu's own (even if the older shinobi had taught his younger counterpart certain aspects). Such similarities had inspired Kakuzu to grant the powers of Jiongu to his pupil in an effort to steer him even further along the nukenin's own path.

As it was – and barring the small hiccup Fū's presence had caused – Naruto was well on his way to becoming Kakuzu's legacy, the man's second coming.

There was no real incentive for rearing a younger version of himself, except for the fact that Kakuzu held an unhealthy amount of contempt for humanity and wanted his loathing to spread.

Theoretically, Kakuzu probably didn't need the blond anymore now that Akatsuki had made contact with him. The criminal organization seemed to have the same goal Kakuzu had for the world (to some extent), plus it was composed of people who possessed power equal to or potentially greater than Kakuzu's own. Logically, there was no reason he needed to keep the child around.

Still, Naruto had his uses, and Kakuzu had already invested so much time in training him that divesting himself of the blond seemed contradictory to his way of life – wasted time was wasted money, and the nukenin couldn't abide the thought of wasting money.

Soon enough, though, he would have to make some sort of decision between his students and Akatsuki; the inevitable collision would probably come to a head shortly after his clash with Orochimaru. It was possible, he supposed, that some sort of compromise that could be arranged, but he would need more information on Akatsuki before proceeding in that vein of thought. Maybe Naruto and Fū could continue to serve as bounty hunters in Kakuzu's stead if the former Taki-nin was reassigned to some other task within the organization? As it was, he still had a job to do. His skin hardened as a snake shot out of Orochimaru's mouth, the sword Zetsu had warned him of heading straight towards him. "Such a rudimentary approach will have no effect on—"

The sword sliced through his heart as smoothly as a hot knife through butter.

"Ku ku ku," chuckled a bemused Orochimaru, retracting the Sword of Kusanagi into his mouth as his opponent collapsed. "It looks as though your skills have been overestimated, Kakuzu-kun. You seem to be…indisposed." He turned around and began to walk away, but a jagged trail of large rocks forced him to sidestep and turn around.

"You should heed your own advice, Orochimaru," hissed Kakuzu, slowly rising to his feet.

The Snake Sannin's eyes narrowed hungrily. "Immortality?"

"Only if you wish to call it that."

Orochimaru's absurdly flexible tongue licked his lips in anticipation. Standing in front of him was a shinobi who had taken a direct hit to a vital organ – as best as he could tell – and lived. Perhaps he possessed a new answer to the former Leaf-nin's quest for immortality. "Then it appears I'll just have to tear you apart to find out!"

Kakuzu hunkered down. "You can try." Then he flexed, and the masks upon his back detached in a mass of black threads.

The fight was on.

Deidara wanted a contract. Or some form of agreement specifying the details of what his job entailed. Because he was pretty sure he hadn't signed up for this.

'This' was a giant demon composed entirely of sand, taking the form of a tanuki and easily towering a couple hundred feet over the treetops of the forest. Its body was twice that length, four times if its namesake tail was included. Deep blue markings covered its tail and body, and yellow irises set in black sclera stared at the giant clay dragon hovering at what was now eye-level with it. So this is a Bijū, hm? I wonder how it'll fair against my art…

The intense stare-down between Akatsuki member and Bijū was interrupted by a bout of insane giggling courtesy of Shukaku. "Heeheehee! I'm finally out! And there's someone for me to kill, too! Fūton…"

Deidara frowned as the giant tanuki raised one sandy claw. Not good. The dragon flapped its wings to gain some height over the Bijū. Its tail shrank by several lobes as it used the clay to create miniature versions of itself in its maw and then fired them at the Tailed Beast. "Renkūdan!" finished the Ichibi in a high-pitched, masculine voice, hammering his stomach with his fist. A giant ball of compressed air shot out of his mouth, driving straight through the smaller clay dragons and exploding them prematurely. The blasts were enough to dissipate the power of the Drilling Air Bullet, but another was quick to follow. That one struck Deidara's giant dragon on its wing and destroyed the appendage. Deidara was forced to hastily spit an owl from his palm, enlarge it, and then jump on it as the C2 Dragon plummeted and was completely decimated by a round of Drilling Air Bullets.

The former Iwa-nin swerved on his owl, trying to come up with a strategy to defeat the Ichibi. His explosive clay was certainly powerful, but even so, he had been prepared more to take on the Jinchūriki – a human – not some demonic beast which instilled nightmares in children. That left him with what exactly?

Just under a pouch of clay, a number of Doton techniques taught to him by his former teacher (the Sandaime Tsuchikage), and his kekkei genkai. And he had his ultimate technique, C0, but if he was ever going to use that, he would rather achieve something impressive with it, like killing the Uchiha bastard.

Come to think of it, the Uchiha bastard had probably never defeated a Bijū before. After all, Akatsuki only had one of the Tailed Beasts – the Gobi – so far, and since the Sharingan-wielder was assigned the Kyūbi, the blond teen highly doubted it had been he who had captured the Five-Tails. That meant that if Deidara could take down the One-Tail here and now, he would have beaten Itachi to his goal and proved that his art was superior to whatever the damn Uchiha could do.

Motivation came in all sorts of forms, apparently.

Hm? What's that? The blond adjusted the scope affixed to his eye, zooming in on the middle of Shukaku's forehead. Set dead center, like a tiny zit, was the red-haired, slumped figure of the Sand Jinchūriki. The boy appeared to be asleep atop the Biju's head. Thinking back, the bomber realized that the demon hadn't appeared until the boy had activated his strange technique. Perhaps waking the child up would reverse whatever he had done to bring out the Bijū. "Worth a shot, hm," he muttered.

First he needed to see what would be effective against the Ichibi. From his dwindling supply of clay, the blond produced two birds. These, unlike his others, were streamlined for speed, even possessing an extra set of wings to further enhance their agility. The projectiles were quickly deployed, evading a couple of Drilling Air Bullets before exploding against the sandy surface of the demon's right rear leg. Sand sprayed outward from the area of impact, but there was no other visible sign that the bombs had done any harm to the giant tanuki. Shukaku giggled once more, a drunken, high-pitched sound. "You'll need to do better than that to entertain me!" he squealed.

Unfortunately, the Demon Sand Spirit was right. Deidara's C1 clay appeared to be essentially useless against the creature's defenses. Not that the Akatsuki member had all that much clay left to do any real damage with it anyway, but still…

He did have enough material left for one giant bomb, his to-date most inspirational piece of art yet: C3. Quickly formulating a plan of attack, Deidara fed the rest of his clay into the mouths on his palms. They chewed furiously to pump the bomber's chakra into the malleable material, enough to fuel the powerful C3. All the while, Deidara was careful to remain far above Shukaku's reach and Renkūdan bursts.

Eventually, it was ready. Deidara cupped his hands together as clay came out of both mouths, melding together into a one-foot tall figure. It had a rounded bottom which tapered up to a pointed tip, an open-mouthed screaming face set within the conical top. Two wing-like appendages crisscrossed in front of its body, as if protecting its decency. All-in-all, it didn't strike an overly imposing figure, but looks were deceiving. This was Deidara's most explosive masterpiece yet.

The Akatsuki member gained altitude, positioning himself high above and directly overhead the tanuki. Below, Shukaku was thrashing among the forested area, cackling with unrestricted glee at his freedom and ignoring the blond who couldn't even keep his attention. Now was the opportune time to strike. He released the clay doll, exponentially increasing its size with a single hand sign as it plummeted to its target below, Deidara following in a steep dive just outside the bomb's blast radius. Just as the masterpiece was about to hit, he brought his hand up once again. "KATSU!"

A giant fireball engulfed the rampaging Bijū, accompanied by the demon's shrieks of (presumably) pain. Deidara swooped through the resulting smoke, hopping off the clay owl and watching his creation fly off as he found purchase on the uneven surface that was Shukaku's skin. As the haze from his bomb cleared, a large crater could be seen in the middle of the Ichibi's back, which prompted Deidara to grin gleefully. Granted, his C3 hadn't done as much as he had hoped, but the damage to the demon was impressive nonetheless. Besides, it was merely a distraction…albeit an artistic one.

The blond moved across the Bijū's head (apparently he had landed in the vicinity of the demon's neck), his target being the Jinchūriki protruding from the Ichibi's forehead. Sand swirled around his feet and crawled up his legs as Shukaku giggled, "And where do you think you're going?"

Reluctantly, Deidara activated a ninjutsu he had learned from his former teacher. Reminders of his previous home and especially of the art-hating Tsuchikage were not pleasant thoughts for the blond, though he would choose survival over pride in this particular scenario. "Doton: Kaseki no Jutsu." Immediately, the sand creeping up to crush him petrified, turned to stone by the earth ninjutsu.

Unhindered by the sand – though annoyed with Shukaku's screeches of fury – Deidara caught sight of the Jinchūriki ahead of him. He gathered chakra into his fist in a manner nostalgic of his younger years. Before he had gotten the mouths on his palms, he had served as a member of Iwagakure's Explosion Corps, and though it had been a long time, the blond still remembered the theory for the techniques he had used before his mouth-palms. With a smirk, his fist connected with Gaara's back – the slightest touch was all he needed. "Bakuton: Jiraiken!"

Pale teal eyes flew open as the silicate which comprised Gaara's sand armor disintegrated into particles and floated away from his body, blown away by Deidara's Explosion Release: Landmine Fist. The Genin gasped soundlessly before lapsing into unconsciousness as Shukaku shrieked and began to collapse into sand, his form destabilized by the interruption of the Feigning Sleep Technique. Deidara's owl returned, allowing its creator to leap aboard before grabbing the body of the Sand Jinchūriki with its tail. The blond had a moment to reflect in idle disgust at the fact that his art had failed to take down the Bijū, but the job had been completed, and that was all that mattered at the moment.

As the owl descended to below tree level, Deidara called out, "Hey, Sasori no Danna, what'd you think, hm?"

The hunched form of Sasori stepped out from the shadows of a grove of trees. "You certainly took your time, Deidara. You know how much I hate waiting."

Deidara snorted. "Like you could've done better, Danna. Your 'everlasting art' would've done nothing against a Bijū, hm. True art is a bang! That fleeting moment when—"

"We have to go, brat," interrupted Sasori. He jumped behind his junior on the owl. "Save your bragging for someone who cares. Leader is expecting us."

"Killjoy, hm." The owl wheeled around and headed deeper into the Land of Fire. Their mission was over.

Contrary to popular belief, Naruto actually did absorb some of the things Kakuzu taught him. One such insight was the ability to analyze a situation carefully and assess what to do next.

As it currently stood, Naruto did not like his odds.

Tayuya and Kidōmaru had both undergone hideous transformations, multiplying their chakra and giving them grotesque appearances in the process. The spider-nin's skin was now a deep cocoa color, his hair bushier and grey-white to match. Two stubby horns grew from his temples, complementing the spikes that now jutted out along his arms. As if that wasn't enough, the Sound shinobi was crouched upside-down atop the form of a rather large black and grey spider, two orange streaks decorating its body. Beady red eyes stared unflinchingly at the blond as the arachnid released a loud roar.

Kidōmaru's red-haired companion also possessed the same dark skin color, though wicked white horns had sprouted from the side, top, and back of her head. "The ninth verse, the Turmoil of the Pandemonium!" Tayuya cackled. Suddenly, the stitches closing her summons' mouths burst open, releasing translucent streams of many-mouthed, worm-like creatures. The array of enemies standing before Naruto left the blond staring in wide-eyed awe.

One of the other things the blond had picked up from his S-class nukenin teacher was a slew of curse words and the appropriate time to use them.

"Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit, SHIT!"

Each word was punctuated with a different evasion of one of the multitude of opponents, from the Doki's worm-like extensions to the giant spider's sticky silk and Kidōmaru's golden weapons. From the corner of his eye, Naruto managed to catch sight of a worm spirit passing through Kamegōka's hiding spot. The red chameleon disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Well that's not good. Apparently the Doki's extrusions seemed to eat or absorb physical manifestations of chakra, if the immediate dispersal of the fire-breathing chameleon was any indication. Definitely don't wanna let them touch me now. No telling what'll happen. What to do…

Naruto needed a distraction…rather desperately. Handling four different summons plus their drastically-altered summoners while waiting for his own summon to get into position (most chameleons had limited mobility) was a little beyond what he thought he could handle at his current level. But if he could take down one of the Sound shinobi – Tayuya, preferably, with her extra summons and genjutsu specialty – then neutralizing the other should be a relatively simple task. Which begged the question: how.

His foresight was cut short as a rain of spiders descended upon him from above, connected by threads to a massive silk cocoon. "Oh, come ON!" he whined, hastily throwing out a Great Breakthrough to blow the descending arachnids off-course. He sank into the ground, hoping for a moment of reprieve, but a sudden pounding sound caught him off-guard. The repetition of the noise and its accompanying quakes gave him a headache, so Naruto moved away and arose from the earth. The Doki wielding the club was slamming the weapon into the ground, which explained the noise and vibrations. "Finally, a moment of peace," he muttered, rubbing his temples. "Damn ugly ogre thing, ruining my concentration." Kneeling, the blond took a deep breath and tried to come up with a quick solution to his problem.

A golden arrow whizzed by overhead, lodging deep into the foliage behind Naruto. "Damn, missed. Oi, Tayuya! He's at one o'clock! Immobilize him so I can take him out already!" shouted Kidōmaru.

Naruto's eyes went wide while the female ninja yelled back something derogatory. "Holy shit, they're not fooling around." Blue eyes turned steely. "Fine then, let's do this for real." Help out only if it's necessary, he commanded Jiongu. "Summoning number three…Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" This time, the chameleon that appeared was twelve feet long, with gray-green skin and a snake's head for a tail. The unusual addition marked the reptile as a mutant among his relatives, but Naruto found his usefulness far outweighed his appearance. "'Koso, I need you to distract spider boy and his pet over there," gestured the Jinchūriki. The chameleon's right eye shifted to gaze in the general direction of his summoner's hand before he nodded and vanished. Despite his mutation, Kamekoso still retained the camouflaging ability that made the chameleons so valuable, in addition to being speedy and his tail acting as a prehensile limb. And he wasn't even fully grown yet; Naruto couldn't wait until the reptile got bigger.

The crashing of trees alerted the boy to the arrival of the Doki. He doubled back towards where Tayuya was, following the sound of the flute. From his periphery, he caught the sight of Kidōmaru's giant spider writhing and roaring as it was attacked by the invisible Kamekoso, though the Oto-nin himself seemed intent on tracking Naruto's movements. He went to take another step, but found that he couldn't move. What the—

Naruto found his entire body restrained by ropes, arms held perpendicularly out to the side uselessly. No background was really determinable – though he was clearly not in the Land of Fire's forest anymore – but he quickly became distracted by the sight of his flesh melting off the bone. He began screaming in pain, even with the knowledge that he was merely trapped in another illusion and unable to escape.

A sudden pain in his arm – unrelated to the genjutsu – broke him out of the illusion, and he glanced at the limb to find that Jiongu had taken things into its own hands and stabbed him. "Thanks," he offered, before a dull thunk sounded out and his face paled. The Jinchūriki glanced down.

Straight through his chest was a ragged hole where one of Kidōmaru's arrows had just punctured, embedding itself in a tree trunk behind the blond.

It only took a second, though it felt more like years, for Naruto to comprehend what had happened. Death, he realized with sudden clarity, was a rather abrupt experience, occurring with the startling swiftness of a lightning strike. Strangely, it wasn't as painful as Naruto had thought it would be, though perhaps that was because Jiongu tempered the effects with its infestation of his body. He had noticed a higher pain tolerance since the kinjutsu had been introduced, the actual merging process notwithstanding. Whatever the reason, the Jinchūriki remained cognizant of his surroundings despite the fact that he had just been dealt a fatal blow.

He mouthed wordlessly and fell over backwards as Tayuya and Kidōmaru began exchanging a mixture of bragging rights and curses. Jiongu quickly assimilated the Suiton heart on his back into his body, even as multiple poof sounds indicated the dispersal of his opponents' summons. Screw this…do what you need to do, he informed the kinjutsu. But let me take my shot first. Naruto sprang up from the ground without waiting for a response, eliciting shouts from the two older shinobi. Tayuya lifted her flute to her lips, but Naruto was already running through seals for his oldest wind technique. Even without his original heart, wind was his body's affinity; the motions and techniques were second nature to him. "Fūton: Reppūshō."

Wind blasted out in Tayuya's direction in a continuous stream. Sound, Naruto realized, required a medium to travel through – in this case, the air. If he disrupted the path of the air to his ears by blowing it back at the flute-user, then none of her sound-based techniques would affect him. Granted, keeping the Violent Wind Palm going was not an ideal use of chakra, but his original plan could probably be enacted at last. "NOW!" he yelled.

A long pink tongue shot out from nowhere and wrapped around Tayuya's flute. Surprised, she was unable to react as the instrument was yanked from her grasp, disappearing into the maw of a now-visible chameleon. The reptile disappeared in a burst of smoke, taking the Oto-nin's weapon with it. Tayuya was cussing fluently – the gist of the curses aimed at Naruto – when the blond appeared next to her.

She tried to throw a punch, but black tendrils wrapped around the wrist and prevented it from moving. They slithered to her other wrist and bound it, forming a pair of mobile manacles. "Fucking piece of shit," she snarled. "I'll kill you!"

"Interesting proposition," Naruto returned idly, more relaxed now that the tables were turned. "How 'bout this instead?" He leaned in close, as if preparing to divulge a particularly juicy secret. "You can take your little curses and your fucking genjutsu…and just shove it up your ass." Wind swirled around his right fist, a rough cylindrical shape forming with sharp winds covering a blunt inside. "Now die. Fūton: Senpūken!" With that, the Jinchūriki drove his fist into the Oto-nin's body with poorly-concealed vindication.

The results were spectacular. The cutting quality of the outermost wind sliced through Tayuya's darkened skin easily, followed by the blunt pounding of the Whirlwind Fist's interior. In the end, the redhead was left with a gaping hole six inches in diameter where her stomach and other innards had been, blood and lacerated organs decorating the forest beneath the pair. …That felt good, Naruto thought. "And then there was—"

Suddenly, his left arm fell off.

Naruto blinked at the sudden displacement of his limb, staring at his body in mute fascination. To say his arm had 'fallen off' was not entirely accurate. More specifically, in an arcing trail from his clavicle to the bottom of his ribs and crossing over his pectoral, his body was split, the left side connected to the rest by a pulsing mass of black threads (apparently the splitting of his body by Jiongu had shredded his shirt in addition to saving his life). Further inspection revealed a neat hole in the spot where his heart probably would've been had the kinjutsu not intervened. Already, the threads were converging to fill in the spot. The two parts of his body reconnected, a suture forming along the line of separation. So this is what happens when Jiongu takes control, huh? Useful…though not exactly inconspicuous. He ran a hand over the stitches, examining them almost self-consciously, before turning around to face the direction the arrow had come from. "Time to settle the score."

He leaped from the branch, heading towards where Kidōmaru was. Another golden arrow zoomed through the treetops; Naruto, in midair, forced Jiongu to wrap around the nearest branch and pull, moving him away from the trajectory of the projectile. There was a low curse from nearby, causing Naruto's head to swivel towards the sound.

"Come out, come out, wherever you are!" he sang, swinging up to perch on the tree bough. "I thought you liked games. What's wrong? Not having fun anymore?" Silence greeted him, not that he expected anything else. The blond went through seals, gathering chakra along the length of his arm. "Fūton: Kazekiri!" he shouted, making a horizontal slashing motion with the limb. A slicing blade of wind mowed down the nearest two hundred feet of foliage within his sight, cutting neatly through anything in its path. Amidst the sound of trees toppling over, Naruto watched with satisfaction as Kidōmaru jumped from his hiding place to a branch unaffected by the Wind Cutter technique. The Oto-nin immediately started to vomit out another arrow. Naruto moved.

Jumping from his perch, he activated another Fūton: Reppūshō, pumping an exorbitant amount of chakra into the technique. Once, he had used the Violent Wind Palm to slow his freefall from the castle that was Shiromari. This time, he was going to attempt to fly.

Or at least soar a short distance. With enough power behind the wind technique, Naruto figured he could theoretically propel himself through the air and take his enemy by surprise. Angling his hands down and away from his head, the Violent Wind Palm blasted him forward and straight towards Kidōmaru. The spider-nin began to notch his bow, but Jiongu proved to be faster. Threads erupted from the new stitch on Naruto's chest, wrapping themselves around all of his adversary's wrists and holding them far apart.

Naruto was led along the path of his kinjutsu, landing on top of the other shinobi and knocking him on his back. The blond panted – partially from exertion of the two super-powered Fūton ninjutsu, partially from his midair flight and collision – as Kidōmaru sneered at him. His cheeks bulged before a piece of webbing was spat right in the blond's face. Naruto scowled in disgust. "That was unnecessary," he informed the Oto-nin.

"Maybe you've got me trapped, but how do you expect to get past my Nenkin no Yoroi?" Kidōmaru taunted. Already the golden material that composed the Oto-nin's weapons was seeping out of his skin, creating a shiny, protective film. "It's completely impenetrable, the perfect protection."

A single black tendril separated from the rest and dug into Naruto's kunai pouch. It grabbed one of the knives and handed it to the blond, who spun it by the ring on one finger. "There's plenty of jutsu in this world that are vaunted as being impenetrable…perfect," he echoed blithely. He thought for a moment about Kakuzu's Earth Spear technique, or even about how useful Jiongu was, despite the cost to use it. Shaking his head – and irked at the silk loogie still stuck on his face – he gripped the handle of the kunai with both hands. "Defend against this." Shoving more wind chakra than strictly necessary into the blade, Naruto stabbed downward.

Straight into Kidōmaru's uncovered third eye.

The spider-nin wasn't even able to scream as the blade's imbued wind chakra rammed through his brain. Naruto released his grasp on the kunai as Jiongu unwound from the corpse's joints. "Phew." He swiped the back of his hand across his forehead and began to peel off the webbing. "That was…" he paused and tilted his head. What was that noise?



The branch – partially sheared from the wind chakra which had extended through Kidōmaru's skull – hit the ground and splintered underneath the combined weight of Naruto and the Sound shinobi's body. "Nnngh…" groaned the blond, his body splayed over the dead one. He scrambled to get off the corpse, then announced heatedly: "Nobody saw that."

Fū swallowed a gulp at the sight in front of her. Sakon and Ukon now sported red skin, as if they had stayed out in the sun for far too long and been badly burned. Their hair was longer – past their shoulders – and snow white in color, a large horn protruding from their foreheads at an angle and accenting their rather sharp facial features. To compound the pair's hideousness, one half of their bodies were composed of black, overlapping scales, from shoulder to foot, with several spikes jutting upward from the shoulder. The Nanabi Jinchūriki shuddered at the brothers' grotesqueness. "Okay, that's nasty."

Apparently the looks came with increased chakra, for Sakon easily yanked himself free of the swamp with a loud slurping sound. He walked over to his brother and asked, "Ukon, you okay?" Fū was almost awed at the display of sympathy, but then realized that they were brothers who lived inside each other, and such concern probably had a basis in self-interest. She knelt down and prepared another Wind Release: Cannon Shot, hoping to hit the pair while they were distracted.

Ukon coughed up a mixture of blood and bile. Truth be told, he had forced himself and his brother to go to Level 2 of the Cursed Seal because the girl's wind attack had done a number on his internal organs. Both of his kidneys and his liver had been damaged by the dispersal of the wind throughout his body, the blunt force of the ninjutsu changing into wind's lacerating element upon making contact. By upgrading the Cursed Seal, Ukon had increased his body's durability and sent a subtle signal to Sakon to stop horsing around. "I'll need to merge to heal, brother," he coughed, spitting up more blood. The older sibling was quickly assimilated back into Sakon's body. "Kill that bitch." Sakon nodded, turning around in time to dodge Fū's second attack.

Beady golden eyes stared down Fū's half-surprised, half-scared expression. Sakon sneered at the girl and then disappeared. The Jinchūriki looked around for any inclination of an attack, and was caught off-guard when the Oto-nin flashed in front of her and punched her. He sneered at the startled expression on her face, but was shocked when her figure burst into a cloud of dust.

Fū hid behind a tree, wincing as Sakon's scream of rage echoed around the area. Replacing herself with a Chiri Bunshin had been a last minute decision to test the transformed boy's abilities. At the very least, he was fast. Way beyond what she could keep up with.

A fist slammed through the trunk she was leaning against. "Found you, bitch!" snarled Sakon. Panicked, Fū melded into the earth as Sakon tried hitting her again.

Now underground, Fū fought to steady her breathing. It was one thing to go up against Genin, or Naruto, or even Kakuzu, people who she knew couldn't or wouldn't kill her. But this was clearly different. Sakon was out for blood, and even though she was used to Kakuzu (who was often of the same mindset), Fū wasn't used to such outright hostility; despite his threats, the renegade Taki-nin never really seemed to want to kill either her or Naruto. She was unprepared to counter the Oto-nin's brutal assault, and it left her slightly unbalanced as to how to react.

Calm down…work through this. Kakuzu's counting on you. Naruto's counting on you. Taking a deep, steadying breath, Fū found herself more easily able to focus. She was underground, temporarily safe from the Oto-nin currently cursing her out up above. …That might work, she realized after a moment of thought. She searched for Sakon's chakra signature and positioned herself directly underneath it. Doton: Shinjū Zanshu no Jutsu, she thought. The green-haired girl reached up and grasped Sakon's foot, dragging him down into the earth until only his head was visible before rising to stand on solid ground once again. "Hi down there," she said, almost cheerfully. "I'd love to stay and chat, but…well, plans and all that, you know?"

"Not particularly, no," sneered a voice to her right. Shocked, she stumbled backwards and fell on her rear, staring blankly at Ukon's head now protruding from her own body. "Surprised?" he jeered rather sarcastically. "Now that we're in Level 2 of our Cursed Seal, our kekkei genkai can be used on more than just ourselves. We can enter an opponent's body and alter any of their cells or proteins in any manner we desire, and then leave and reform outside their body." Ukon laughed darkly. "It's the perfect assassination technique!"

Fū wasn't sure what she could do. Rearrangement of microscopic matter was not an ability she knew how to counter, let alone defend against while the enemy was connected to her own body. Frantically wracking her brain for some sort of answer, the green-haired girl came up short.

Fortunately, she had an ancient demon sealed into her body with a high sense of self-preservation. MY VESSEL NEEDS NO NEW PARASITES, buzzed the Nanabi irritably in her mind. Fū felt a sudden dryness as the Bijū's chakra began to flood her body, channeled towards the spot where Ukon's body was invading her own.

Ukon screamed suddenly and detached himself from the girl's body amidst the Seven-Tails' rusty, humming laughter. Fū's eyes widened as they took in the reason for the Oto-nin's agonized cries.

Where the Sound shinobi had once possessed an arm, there was nothing. Even the shoulder was gone, as if the limb had never even existed in the first place. In answer to her unspoken question, the Nanabi rasped, YOU HAVE YET TO REACH YOUR TRUE POTENTIAL. MY POWERS EXTEND FAR BEYOND WHAT YOU HAVE THUS FAR DISCOVERED. THEY ARE NOT THE ONLY BEINGS WITH THE ABILITY TO INFLUENCE THE MICROSCOPIC…NOR ARE THEY THE STRONGEST. NOW KILL THESE FOOLS AND STOP WASTING TIME.

Fū almost thanked the beetle for the save and the pep talk, but decided against it. Doing so would be inviting nothing but trouble, as well as acknowledging a debt to the Bijū, neither of which would put her in a good mood. Sakon – free of the Double Suicide Decapitation Technique – ran to his brother and quickly absorbed him again, shooting Fū a scathing look. "You've lived far longer than you should've, you bitch, and now you're gonna die for hurting my brother!" He rushed forward in a burst of rage-induced speed and delivered a crushing uppercut to her chin, sending her flying.

The girl performed a Kawarimi, throwing a nearby rock into her place as Sakon drove home another fist. She set up a series of Tsuchi Bunshins to buy time to think of a strategy. Whatever trick the Nanabi had used to make Ukon's arm disappear was not an option (especially since she doubted the beetle would even tell her what he did), which left her with Jinton and Doton. Sakon – or at least his brother – had proven to be rather resilient and durable to her attacks, so she would need to bring out one of her limited finisher moves…all of which took some time. She needed a distraction.

"Chirigakure no Jutsu..." A thick screen of dust shot up, blanketing the area in hazy brown. Fū absently felt one of her earth clones slump into mud as Sakon killed it, and started to carefully perform seals. While rushing through them would have been preferable, the particular technique she wanted to use was one of those she had to devote her entire concentration to in order to perfect. Hence the smokescreen.

Another clone demolished. How many did she even have left now?

Unfortunately, there were two main differences between her Hiding in Dust Technique and the Hiding in Mist Technique used by Kiri-nin. One of them was that she was untrained in the art of silent killing that the shinobi of the Mist were renowned for, so the cover afforded by the dust did nothing to augment her offensive capabilities. The other was that the dust obscured everything, including her own vision, leaving her just as blind as her opponent. It was mainly a stall tactic in preparation for a widespread attack. The Oto-nin could find her, but he would be forced to search through the haze and hope to stumble upon her position. Almost done…

Sakon was suddenly right in front of her.

A powerful kick sent her flying into a tree, her back impacting it with a sickening crack. Fū wasn't sure if that was the sound of the collision or of something breaking, but she decided to ignore it in favor of completing her plan. She slumped to the ground and coughed up a globule of blood. "Still alive, you worthless bitch?" Sakon crowed. "I don't think you've experienced enough pain yet!"

"No, I'm pretty sure that did a fair number," she muttered. One shoulder was dislocated at least, and performing the last few hand signs was doing nothing for the pain. Working through it, she finished the last seal and slapped her hands to the ground. "But this'll probably do one better."

Her chakra flowed into the earth, creating a deep fissure as the land split apart. Sakon shouted angrily from within the dust haze as pieces of the ground disappeared and he fell into the hole. Then, with the crashing of rock, the gaping chasm closed in on itself, crushing the brothers. "Doton: Chikaku Batan. Not bad…huh…you damn bug."


The Nanabi's words went unheard, for Fū was already unconscious from the strain of the fight and the Earth Release: Tectonic Slam technique.

Harō couldn't formulate an opinion about Jirōbō's transformation. While the Oto-nin looked less ridiculous in this form than in his normal one (a sad thought, to be sure), the increase in chakra and change in appearance was certain to come with bad repercussions for the cobalt-haired boy. Jirōbō now sported a full mane of orange hair, with a mottled red-brown skin tone, and tiny bumps and markings on his face and arms. "Tokken," grunted Jirōbō, rushing forward and ramming his shoulder into Harō's sternum. Harō gagged as the force of the blow sent him through the tree that was supporting him and into a large dirt clod.

Opinion settled. New form is dangerous.

The thought was oddly Naruto-sounding, and Harō had to bite back a snort at the idea. Clearly he had been spending far too much time around the blond. Perhaps he had taken a few too many heavy hits from Jirōbō, too…he felt a bit light-headed.

A series of rocks heading towards him brought the Ame-nin back to a vague state of awareness. He crossed the swords he wielded together and channeled chakra into them. "Raiton: Denji Shōheki," he gasped. Electricity crackled into existence, forming a barrier which protected him from the onslaught of earth. That was followed by another huge boulder bearing down on him, which the Rain rebel was forced to blow up with a Raikyū.

Harō rose unsteadily to his feet. If he stayed too long in one spot, the orange-haired male was likely to capture him in the chakra-draining dome of earth again, and depleting his chakra by blasting through it again was not something the Ame-nin wanted to repeat. Of course, that left him on the wrong end of a fight he should have an advantage in. His taijutsu was useless in this situation, and Jirōbō's powerful blows had clearly caused enough physical damage to make his vision disoriented and put his body in a fair amount of pain. Even standing up hurt.

There was one idea that might work. Because of his practice with targeting pressure points as a fighting style, Harō had a fair knowledge of the human body and its workings. If he could paralyze Jirōbō, he could find enough time to fire off an attack that would actually pierce through the Oto-nin's tough body and kill him. Therein lied the problem, though – he had to actually paralyze his opponent. The surest method, what with Jirōbō dodging his bursts of lightning – was physical contact. But with Harō's body in its current state, he wasn't sure he could get close enough to tag the older male. Which meant…

This is going to hurt.

Harō started gathering chakra as he began to hobble away. He would need to time this perfectly. Fortunately, Jirōbō was already stalking up to him, a fierce look upon his face. Focus, chanted Harō mentally, preparing himself for what was to come, focus, focus…

"Gangeki," Jirōbō announced, throwing a heavy punch into Harō's midsection.

NOW! shouted the cobalt-haired boy to himself. In the single moment the fist connected, Harō discharged a flood of lightning chakra into the other male's body. Immediately afterward, he found himself flying backwards, the crunch of bones telling him that several ribs had broken from the force of the blow. It took him a number of moments to figure out where he had landed and what was going on, but eventually he was able to focus on the important matter of killing the Sound shinobi.

Harō popped the last of his soldier pills and felt his chakra return, having used most of it to make sure his opponent couldn't move. Speaking of which…"What did you do to me?" growled Jirōbō.

The cobalt-haired boy smirked from his downed position. Somewhere along the path his body had taken, the twin katana Kiba had fallen from his grasp, leaving him weaponless. Instead of replying, he slowly began moving through hand signs, wincing with each one. Lightning crackled around his hands as he finished the seals. "Rai Zenkai!" he cried, placing his hands to the earth and allowing the chakra to flow.

Nature's electricity tore through the spot Jirōbō was rooted to, engulfing the bulky male. His strangled shout was cut off rather abruptly, allowing Harō to relax and shut his eyes in satisfaction. "Two Oto-nin toasted with the same technique," he mumbled. "Watch out, shinobi of Amegakure…you're next."

When a shirtless Naruto arrived a little later with an unconscious Fū hefted in a fireman's carry over his shoulder, he could only groan. "I'm tired of finding you unconscious," he informed the prone body of his teammate. He formed an earth clone, which promptly fetched Harō's weapons and then grabbed the boy himself. "Come on, we have to see this through to the end." He stumbled slightly as a resonating explosion rustled the trees and peaked high above the canopy. Staring at the source of light and sound, he could only mutter, "Real subtle, Kakuzu."

Then the group of four disappeared into the forest, both Narutos trudging wearily in the direction of the humongous attack.

Kakuzu wasn't sure whether to be excited at the level of his opponent's caliber, or pissed that the man simply would not die. The thread-creatures that used his lightning and wind hearts descended to his level as he called upon the fire heart within his own body. "Sanmiittai Kōgeki!" Simultaneously, he fired a Katon: Zukkoku along with the hearts' Raiton: Gian and Fūton: Atsugai.

There was a massive explosion at the junction of the three ninjutsu, reaching hundreds of feet above the treetops and engulfing a wide area inclusive of where Orochimaru had been standing. Kakuzu withheld his gloating triumph until he was sure that the tri-elemental assault had done its job.

He and Orochimaru had been going at it for some time, neither gaining any upper hand against the other (though the former Leaf-nin's antagonizing chuckles had steadily fueled Kakuzu's ire). After losing his water heart to the sword and releasing the fire, wind, and lightning hearts to freely attack, the former Taki-nin was careful to avoid his opponent's blade.

That left him with trying to blast the Snake Sannin to death with a variety of elemental ninjutsu, but Orochimaru's serpentine movements allowed him to effectively avoid any pinpoint attacks Kakuzu tried. Not only that, but mercenary's powerhouse counter-taijutsu style wasn't able to strike the other nukenin for the same reason. Orochimaru's body modifications – however he had integrated them – allowed him to slither and flow around Kakuzu's blows with the greatest of ease.

Such evasion hardly left Kakuzu scrambling for offensive maneuvers, but having his options limited was frustrating nonetheless.

Using Jiongu, Kakuzu had managed to keep his prey at a distance, launching his fists across the battlefield and underground, and mingling the attacks with wide-range ninjutsu. As a result, the earth was completely torn up and upended, matching the charred foliage and destruction of what was once the Land of Fire's luscious forest. The devastation was a testament to how expansive and dangerous the fight between the two S-class nukenin really was.

Not that the fight hadn't had some spectacular results. At some point, Orochimaru had used a rather devious ploy of playing possum with his upper half buried under rubble, only for his head to pop up from the ground and spear Kakuzu through the heart – his earth one – with the Sword of Kusanagi again, forcing him to recall his fire heart. On the other hand, the mercenary had already forced his opponent through two of his specialized Kawarimi, significantly draining the Sannin of his chakra (according to Zetsu's information), which meant he had also killed his prey twice.

The dust and debris from his Trinity Attack cleared to reveal a demonic stone gate – or, at least, the rubble of it – and the supposedly charred form of Orochimaru. Kakuzu felt proud at the destruction of Orochimaru's defense – the Rashōmon gate had blocked a couple of his earlier assaults – but remained wary. Orochimaru had so far proven he was nothing if not resilient.

Sure enough, the former Konoha-nin rose from the scorched earth, shedding his half-melted skin like the serpents he used. He opened his mouth and spewed forth a horde of hissing snakes, all of which surged forward to overwhelm Kakuzu. The mercenary expelled a swath of flames which spread across the ground and torched the reptiles. "Your defenses are useless," he intoned, sounding almost bored, "and your life is forfeit. Do not drag this out unnecessarily. I can make your death painless."

"Ku ku ku…you're quite amusing, Kakuzu-kun, but I believe you're either overestimating your skills or underestimating mine. You see, I've discovered the secret to your jutsu. Those creatures are extra hearts which you've used to extend your life, and when your own heart gives out or is destroyed, you assimilate one of the others to take its place. It's a cute trick, but it only shows that you have yet to discover the secrets of immortality…unlike me."

Kakuzu snorted. "Immortality? Such a thing does not exist. Hide behind your pretenses…you will still die here today."

Instead of responding, Orochimaru slammed his palms to the ground and chuckled, "Doton Soseijutsu: Shishi Dojō." Ninja – dressed in the flak jackets native to Konoha, with skin tainted a pale blue and eyes a blank white – rose from the earth and began to stumble towards Kakuzu. His wind and lightning thread-creatures took off in different directions, both firing their attacks and decimating the zombie shinobi, but for every one that was neutralized, another took its place. Kakuzu frowned, but decided that whatever the Earth Release Resurrection Technique: Corpse Soil assault was – surely some sort of kinjutsu, with its desecration of the dead – killing its user would certainly stop it. "You'll learn just how wrong you are, Kakuzu-kun," Orochimaru gloated.

The Snake Sannin's maw opened impossibly wide, allowing something long and white to escape. It barreled into the thin, bipedal form of the lightning creature with crushing force, smashing the mask to pieces and destroying the construct. Kakuzu resisted the urge to scowl in irritation as Orochimaru's sibilant laughter echoed around him.

Orochimaru was now a ridiculously long serpent, his scales individual white snakes which hissed and undulated in tandem. Spiky black hair covered a pale, pointed face, accompanied by slit green eyes and several rows of teeth. "This is my true form, the secret to my immortality," hissed the serpent with amusement. "What will you do now, Kakuzu-kun?" he asked, the snakes that composed his body shooting out towards the former Taki-nin.

Kakuzu's wind heart zipped back towards its master and merged seamlessly with him. Threads immediately sprouted from his back, forming a thick spread that was double the mercenary's own impressive height. His arms split into three segments, connected by the kinjutsu's tendrils, and a foot-long tongue of threads emerged from his mouth. Among the mass on his back, on either side of his head, appeared the wind and fire masks. Despite having the fire heart integrated into his system, Kakuzu could still channel chakra through Jiongu and shoot attacks from the mask. As it was, the tendrils shot out and wrapped around the snakes to halt their movement, even as more threads separated from the main body and strangled a number of advancing zombies. "You have become quite the nuisance," allowed an aggravated Kakuzu.

In retaliation, Orochimaru sprayed a shower of acid at the older nukenin. Kakuzu bounded away, allowing the liquid to wash over the restrained zombies and threads, melting them on contact. "How annoying," Kakuzu observed, scrutinizing the corroded ends of the black tendrils.

"You can't defeat me," hissed the Sannin. Even more snakes stretched out from his body, fangs extended to bite Kakuzu. A Fūton: Kazekiri sheared their heads from their bodies, and the former Taki-nin began to move towards a couple of the remaining trees, away from the snake and his crowd of resurrected shinobi.

"You are not the only one with an ultimate form…" Kakuzu informed his opponent, flexing. "Nnngh…WWWRROOOOAAHH!" Even more black tendrils – innumerable, far more than should have been able to fit in his body – erupted from his arms, forming thick ropes of writhing threads. The kinjutsu curled itself around two sturdy tree trunks, hoisting Kakuzu's body into the air. More threads thrashed around him, resembling spastic, extra limbs, while an even longer, twitching thread-tail extended from the base of the nukenin's back. While this form was indeed powerful, it was also very painful to access, and Kakuzu's control over it was limited.

The problem with kinjutsu like Jiongu was that it couldn't truly be mastered. After all, there was no way to exert control over something that had its own mind, even just a little. Decades later, Kakuzu could use the threads for most tasks while retaining dominance, but the higher forms – which utilized higher quantities of the tendrils – often resulted in an internal struggle with the threads. It was why he didn't like using the more complex transformations, except in the most dire of circumstances.

The battlefield had turned into a clash of monsters.

Orochimaru glided forward with the intention of swallowing Kakuzu's main body before his extensions could interfere. Several of his undead minions were crushed beneath his giant form as he veered in between the pillars of slicing wind and bursts of fire that were shot from Kakuzu's masks. The smaller 'limbs' that surrounded Kakuzu's form dove forward, intent on stopping the serpent's advance. Orochimaru dispatched a number of larger snakes to wrap around the thrashing threads and hold them in place. With a victorious cry of "You're mine!", the Sannin hurtled himself through the air, jaws opened wide to devour Kakuzu.

He stopped short with a choked gurgle. Black tendrils were jutted into and through his throat, extending from Kakuzu's tail, under the ground, and then piercing upwards. "You are overconfident, Orochimaru," intoned the thread-wielder, "and you ran through too much chakra in your fight with the Sandaime Hokage and then myself. This 'immortal'—" he spoke the word mockingly, "—form of yours only provides a bigger target for me." With a thought, the threads multiplied and sharpened, rending the snake's head from its body. Blood oozed from the wound as the tendrils being held by the other snakes turned on their captors and skewered the reptiles. "As I said, there is no such thing as immortality."

Kakuzu turned his attention to the resurrected Leaf shinobi, who continued to crawl towards him in droves. A Katon: Zukkoku seared the frontrunners in blazing orange-yellow fire. Curious, he thought, that the jutsu is still active. Green eyes narrowed in suspicion. The threads quickly formed a wide shield in front of Kakuzu, protecting their master from a vile spray of acid.

An amused hissing sound made its way to the mercenary's ears. "Ku ku ku, you were saying, Kakuzu-kun?" Said nukenin looked at where Orochimaru had been decapitated, only to find that the two pieces of the body had reconnected. "I am immortal," sibilated the Snake Sannin, rearing back to prepare for another strike.

Kakuzu snorted. "It appears as though physically separating your body will not work. I will just have to try another method. Jigoku Arashi!" The fire mask expelled yellow-white flames at Orochimaru, while the wind mask blew out a massive cyclone. Both elements combined to form a swirling vortex of fire, which, due to the wind element, quickly expanded to encompass an area hundreds of feet in diameter. It engulfed Orochimaru and remained burning for several minutes. When it dissipated to nothing, the charbroiled body of the Snake Sannin could still be seen smoldering.

Something shot out from the snake's mouth, and Orochimaru's obnoxious chuckling resounded in Kakuzu's ears again. The white snake looked unharmed, and Kakuzu's analytical eyes watched as the shod skin dissolved into tiny pieces of ash. "When will you learn, Kakuzu-kun?" taunted the serpent.

That mocking tone of familiarity of his has become unbelievably irritating. As the fire and wind hearts continue to unleash bursts of their elements intermixed with jabs by Jiongu to keep Orochimaru on the defensive, Kakuzu considered his options. Through whatever means, Orochimaru appears impervious to any form of physical assault. It could be another facet of his specialized Kawarimi, but judging by my own reserves, he should be unable to utilize it. The only conclusion is that it is some aspect of his so-called immortal body…and without any information from Zetsu as to this form's weakness, I only have one option. Kakuzu grimaced at the thought. It is fortunate that I reviewed my alternatives during the brats' exams…though I will have to demand my money from Akatsuki for this service, since there will be no body.

The technique he was preparing to use was dangerous in the extreme, even considering the kinjutsu housed within his body. It was a sealing jutsu, detailed in the Jiongu scroll as risky in the best of situations for the user as far as long-term effects went. Basically, it used the kinjutsu to bind and suppress the target before absorbing him or her into the user's body, in the same fashion all the tendrils of Earth Grudge Fear existed within the body. However, it apparently required a tremendous amount of willpower – as well as sacrificing some of Jiongu's sentience and mobility – to keep the other person restrained permanently. If Kakuzu ever wavered in keeping the Snake Sannin repressed, Orochimaru could theoretically be released into the world again (and would most likely kill Kakuzu in the process). On the other hand, if the mercenary died without releasing his prisoner, Orochimaru would die alongside him.

From what Kakuzu had read, it almost sounded like a method to seal a Bijū into a human, though obviously altered somewhat. Really, it had been a last resort – a failsafe, so to speak – on the off-chance Orochimaru proved to be too much for him to handle. The fact that he had to use it…well, it spoke volumes of the Snake Sannin's ingenuity and skill. It was little wonder that he was hailed as a genius.

"Ku ku ku, have you given up Kakuzu-kun? My my, how disappointing."

"Hardly," Kakuzu grunted. His tail whipped around and wrapped itself around Orochimaru, numerous threads piercing into the snakes that made up the nukenin's scales. While the Snake Sannin tried to shift around to create space with which to escape, Kakuzu finished his final seal. "Jiongu Fūin: Man Sureddo no Ketsugō…" Every thread connected to his body glowed blue, his tail curling even more tightly around Orochimaru's serpentine form and smothering the Sannin, cutting off his hissed protests of rage.

The threads constricted and shrank, eventually withdrawing into Kakuzu's body with barely a sound. All the remaining tendrils followed suit, flowing back into their master's body and returning his form to its ragdoll-like state; the wind heart traced the stitches across his back, settling into its original position as the tiger mask which had housed his fire heart fractured and broke, its purpose nullified with the conclusion of the battle. With no more support, Kakuzu dropped to the ground, falling to one knee and panting hard. A black ring – identically to the one Jiongu had marked his forearms with so many years ago – decorated his waist, just above the hem of his pants, a permanent sign of his use of the Earth Grudge Fear Seal: Binding of 10,000 Threads technique. He fingered it idly, tracing its path from one side to the other with the presumption that it encircled his back as well. Glancing around, he noticed the lack of zombie ninja and the general devastation of the area.

A low whistle caught his attention. "Boy, Kakuzu-san, you made a mess here."

"Zetsu," growled Kakuzu, hiding a wince. His ultimate form and the sealing technique had put a fair strain on his body, and looking weak in front of another S-class missing-nin was not the best idea. "What are you doing here?"

"I got bored waiting for everyone!" chirped the white side cheerfully as he stepped out from one of the trees still standing in the area. "You sure took a long time. Where is Orochimaru's body?"

"Obliterated," replied the older nukenin curtly. If the plant-man hadn't seen the Snake Sannin being sealed into Kakuzu's body, the thread-user wasn't about to reveal such sensitive information. "I still expect to be compensated for my labors."

"You will have to talk to Leader-sama about that," returned Black Zetsu. "Your students are approaching."

Sure enough, two Narutos entered the clearing, one with Fū and the other with Harō slung over their shoulders. What Kakuzu presumed to be the original whistled in sheer awe. "Damn, Kakuzu, what happened here?"

"A clash of titans," he responded easily. Teacher took in student's appearance, noting the new suture that ran from the blond's collarbone to his side. "They say mimicry is the greatest form of flattery," he stated idly, "though I am currently hard-pressed to feel such sentiment."

Naruto scratched his head nervously. "Oh, ha ha, you mean this? Yeah, kinda ran into a little bit of trouble. No worries though!"

"If you had died, you would not have been worthy of inheriting Jiongu. That mark on your face looks absolutely ridiculous," he continued, noting the web-like pattern across Naruto's visage.

"While stimulating," interjected Black Zetsu sarcastically, interrupting any retort Naruto was prepared to give, "we have a schedule to keep. Follow us!"

Zetsu began to move among the trees, popping up in random places so Kakuzu and Naruto could keep track of his position. "We require haste," Kakuzu said. "Give me the boy." The earth clone passed Harō to the older shinobi and crumbled, prompting both thread-wielders to take off.

After what felt like a fair amount of travel, the quintet came across a small gathering of people. Kakuzu's eyes narrowed at the strange company.

Atop an off-white bird – clay, he presumed, from knowledge of the person's deeds – was a young blond with a slashed Iwagakure hitae-ate: Deidara, a terrorist bomber. That was where his knowledge ended; none of the other people were listed within his Bingo Book. Seated behind the blond was a hunched figure covered almost completely in an Akatsuki outfit. Zetsu's black and white face peered out from the trunk of a tree, next to which stood a dark-haired man in a swirl-patterned, orange mask. Off to the side was an intimidating man with spiky, orange hair similar to Naruto's, ringed, grey eyes, and various piercings all over his face. The aura he exuded marked him clearly as Akatsuki's leader.

"Ah, Zetsu-san, Zetsu-san, you're back!" waved the masked shinobi.

"Be serious, Tobi. Don't be mean, Tobi is a good boy."


The single word uttered from the mouth of the orange-haired man was enough to make the clearing fall silent. Impressive, Kakuzu thought. The leader continued, "Tobi, the cloak."

"A-ah, here you go, Leader-sama!"

The orange-haired man turned his attention to Kakuzu. "You took care of Orochimaru?"

"Yes, though there is no physical proof given the…extreme measures I was forced to utilize."

The other man studied him for a moment before nodding imperceptibly. "Very well. You will be paid through funds Akatsuki has collected in compensation for Orochimaru's bounty, to be used at your discretion." He turned his attention to Deidara. "You collected the Ichibi?"

"Yeah, hm. Took some effort, but he was no match for my art!"

"Good. We must conduct the ceremony before the Jinchūriki regains consciousness. Here," he said, throwing the Akatsuki cloak and a ring with the word 'hoku' imprinted on a dark green gemstone to Kakuzu, who caught both with one hand. "Tobi," he added, tossing a second ring – the one he'd gotten from Orochimaru's base – at the masked male, who fumbled with it briefly before sliding it upon his left pinkie finger.

"Welcome to Akatsuki."

"Uchiha Sasuke is dead."

The line was delivered without emotion, as shinobi of ROOT were taught. Sai was knelt on one knee in front of Danzō, who was currently seated behind the Hokage desk, the red and white conical hat with the symbol for 'fire' placed atop his head. The hat's angle kept most of the aged man's face hidden from view, so Sai was unable to read any reaction to the news…not that Danzō would probably have one anyway.

"An unfortunate loss," Danzō replied at length, "but not an irreplaceable one." Danzō fell into contemplative silence, analyzing the consequences of such information. After being assigned to massacre his family, Itachi had made Danzō and the other two Elders swear that Sasuke would both come to no harm and remain unaware of his clan's true intentions for overthrowing Konoha's government. Sasuke's death, while not a byproduct of anything he had done, might still have negative repercussions for Danzō. What those were would remain to be seen. "What of the Genin who accompanied you?"

"Aburame Shino, Hyūga Neji, Nara Shikamaru, and Yamanaka Ino," Sai clarified. "Cooperatively, we managed to incapacitate over a score of Otogakure shinobi, ranging in rank from low-Chūnin to mid-Jōnin, according to preliminary interrogation. Based on skill, I would instead say they ranged from Genin to high-Chūnin.

"All four Genin are currently hospitalized for a variety of injuries, including ruptured eardrums, chakra exhaustion, various broken bones, a concussion, and a lacerated liver. Those are all based on observation. The medical staff should have a full report for you by the end of the day. There is…promise among them," he concluded.

"Interesting," mulled the ROOT leader. "I shall have to investigate the matter of their skills personally. In the meantime, you're dismissed." Sai bowed stiffly and exited the room, left hand clutching his right shoulder and a slight limp to his gait. Danzō watched him go with mercilessly indifferent eyes. The boy was a good operative, and smart enough to get himself healed properly. His age and undercover experience with the peers in his 'graduating class' would give Danzō an edge in potentially swaying any or all of the four Genin to ROOT.

Not that the elderly man even needed ROOT too badly anymore. With Sarutobi Hiruzen dead at the hand of his former student, Danzō had been elected to the position of interim Hokage, soon to be officially recognized as the Godaime. With the position came authority over the ANBU, which Danzō had partially modeled ROOT after.

Still, the aged leader felt more comfortable utilizing the shinobi he had personally looked after and trained, finding their lack of emotions more effective for mission success than the average ANBU. While keeping the Black Ops program up as the Hokage's official soldiers, Danzō would continue to run the covert ROOT program and convert new additions where he could to breed better shinobi.

It was finally Shimura Danzō's turn to rule Konohagakure, and he was going to make sure the village was strong. Certainly nothing like the invasion of the Sand and Sound would happen during his reign.

There was still something to be taken care of, though. During the third round of the Chūnin Exams, Danzō had noticed the blond hair and crystal blue eyes of a Rain shinobi fighting against a couple of Taki-nin. The features were oddly reminiscent of Konoha's lost Jinchūriki (not to mention bearing a striking resemblance to the Yondaime Hokage).

Over the years, ROOT members had been dispatched to search for the Kyūbi's host (along with the more incompetent members of Sarutobi's ANBU), though they had turned up nothing, and many had never returned. The day the boy had been discovered missing was a sore reminder of how lax the Sandaime's rule had been. Sarutobi had accused Danzō of the blond's mysterious disappearance, and although the idea had crossed the man's mind more than once, he had decided to abide by his rival's (foolish) wishes and leave the child alone. With the boy gone, Danzō had lamented the loss of such a powerful weapon. But now, here appeared a young male with similar features to the Jinchūriki's, not to mention the fact that he seemed to be of the right age.

Danzō wanted his weapon back. The boy had displayed an impressive amount of skill, which meant that he had clearly found a teacher (or been kidnapped and brainwashed). While it would take work, the aged leader could manipulate the child's mind back to serving Konoha, which would grant the Hidden Leaf a huge power boost when Danzō's plans eventually came to fruition.

However, there was no telling how skilled the Jinchūriki was with the Bijū's power. Tracking and restraining him without killing him would require abilities and finesse his ROOT shinobi didn't particularly excel in. He pressed the button on his desk which linked him to the secretary outside and uttered into the speaker:

"Find and bring me Tenzō."

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