The Cost of Living


Kakuzu couldn't say for sure where the motley crew of nukenin was heading. The Land of Fire, for all intents and purposes, was an endless barrage of greenery. His sense of direction told him they were heading north-northeast – back towards the Valley of the End – but there was no telling what the group's purpose in venturing that way was.

Not for the first time, the mercenary dug into the inside of the Akatsuki cloak he now wore and pulled out the ring Pein had given him. He had thus far neglected to put it on, unsure of any ceremony involved or what purpose the item even served, barring the fact that it allowed for acceptance into Akatsuki. Still, there had to be something more…why else would each ring have different colors and symbols?

"You should put that on."

Kakuzu's attention was drawn to the masked figure of Tobi, bounding alongside him. Across the other male's back was the unconscious form of Harō, which Tobi had – rather cheerfully – offered to carry. The other Akatsuki-nin had thus far proven to be obnoxiously happy, and with Pein leading the procession, Deidara and his slouched companion flying above the treetops, Zetsu already gone, and Naruto lagging behind with Fū, Kakuzu seemed to be his default conversation partner.

It was not a role the former Taki-nin enjoyed being cast in. "I am well aware of the general procedure regarding materialistic possessions," he ground out.

"…Ah ha ha, Kakuzu-san, you talk funny!"

From ahead of them, Pein intoned warningly, "Tobi…"

"A-ah, sorry, Leader-sama, Kakuzu-san." The masked shinobi fell silent for a moment, as if repenting for his actions, before stage-whispering to Kakuzu, "Zetsu-san told me that anyone who wears a ring is an official member. Each of the rings goes on a different finger, to show that only ten people can be part of Akatsuki at one time." He brought up his left hand to admire the slate blue ring with the character 'kū' placed on his pinkie. "Mm, if I remember what Zetsu-san told me, your ring is supposed to go on your left middle finger. Give it a try, Kakuzu-san!"

Kakuzu ignored the peppiness of the other shinobi, choosing instead to look back at his protégé. Naruto was struggling under the burden of carrying Fū's body while moving through the Land of Fire. Still, the blond was bearing his load in silence, his face a stony mask of seriousness. He must have learned something from his experiences fighting in Konohagakure. Green eyes shifted to stare at the new suture that decorated the blond's chest. The price for power… Kakuzu was almost…proud…of Naruto's achievements and growth – not that he would tell his student that. Truly the boy was growing up per Kakuzu's intentions.

The mercenary returned his gaze to the ring in his hand. If he wanted to stand a chance at postponing and/or preventing Naruto's (and Fū's) death(s), he would need to do so from within the organization. Without a second thought, he slipped the band on his third finger. The dark green gem that composed the core of the ring emitted a similarly-colored light, making the word 'hoku' stand out starkly in comparison. Ahead of him, Pein seemed to tilt his head in acknowledgment of the act.

Apparently, Kakuzu had successfully passed some sort of test.

It took another couple hours for the group to reach its destination, a small grove of trees at the delta of a river. A tag marked with the character for forbidden' was stuck on one of the trunks, but Pein merely lifted up his right thumb – where his ring was placed – and the ground began to rumble. In short order, a staircase that wound out of sight appeared. Tobi set Harō against a nearby tree and practically skipped into the tunnel, followed by Deidara's slouched partner (Zetsu had mentioned Sasori when giving a rundown of Orochimaru's abilities; perhaps this was the Hidden Sand's legendary Akasuna no Sasori?) and then the former Iwa-nin himself. Pein turned his full attention to Kakuzu before the taller shinobi could move towards the opening. "This is for members only. The children stay here."

"For what duration?"

"It will take three days to seal the Ichibi."

Kakuzu nodded in understanding. "You heard the man, brat."

Naruto opened his mouth as if to protest, but then closed it. Kakuzu was not a man to be trifled with, and it seemed as if Pein was even less of one. The blond nodded reluctantly, figuring he could take the time to rest and wait for Fū and Harō to awaken. His teacher gave him a curt head bob before disappearing into the darkness. Pein fixed the Jinchūriki with an intense stare before following behind; the second the orange-haired man was out of sight, the ground shifted back to cover up the hole.

There was barely enough light to see by when the stairs opened into an expansive, but surprisingly empty, cavern. Comparatively, the base Zetsu had led him to before the Chūnin Exams to cement his team's cover was tiny. In the middle of the cavern stood Deidara, his partner, and Tobi in a loose circle around the prone form of the Ichibi Jinchūriki; Deidara's clay owl was nowhere to be seen. Pein moved past him and performed a sequence of familiar seals. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu," he intoned.

A massive rumbling shook the cavern as a gigantic statue rose from the ground. Judging by appearances, it was probably demonic in origin, with shackles cuffing its wrists and a scroll clenched between its teeth. That would explain the enormity of this hideout, Kakuzu observed silently.

"Assemble," Pein ordered. Immediately, multicolored holographic images of four figures – one the telltale appearance of Zetsu, the others Konan, Itachi, and Kisame by process of elimination – phased into existence upon the outstretched, cuffed hands of the statue, taking up the spaces on the left ring and right pinkie, middle, and ring fingers. The people physically present leaped to their own digits, leaving only the left middle and pointer fingers empty. Kakuzu was a second behind in taking his place upon the middle one, based simply on the position of his ring. He watched as Pein continued to form seals, the scroll falling from the statue's mouth as green lights appeared on the statue's fingers, illuminated with the symbols upon Akatsuki's rings. A giant ball of blue chakra gathered in the statue's mouth, and Kakuzu began to concentrate his own chakra in mimicry of the other members. "Fūinjutsu: Genryū Kyūfūjin."

Nine blue dragons – composed, Kakuzu assumed, of the chakra of all the S-class missing-nin – roared from the statue's mouth, descending upon the unconscious vessel of the Ichibi Jinchūriki. Red matter – demonic chakra, perhaps – began to leak from the Sand Genin's mouth and eyes. A sealing technique which seems to separate the mixed chakra of a Bijū from its container…most impressive. Highly complex.

Three days here… Green eyes focused intently on the spiky-haired form of Akatsuki's leader. And then what, I wonder.

Naruto sat against one of the trees which hid the secret entrance to one of Akatsuki's lairs, expression pensive. Fū's and Harō's prone forms lay against separate trunks, cuts and bruises scattered liberally across their bodies. They could probably use a med-nin. He stared at his own hands. Pity I know nothing about the medical arts. The blond wondered idly if Kakuzu knew any, but quickly dismissed the thought. Surely Jiongu could take care of any injuries the older male suffered, limited though they were sure to be.

I wonder… He brought his arm up perpendicular to his body, examining the black tattoo and sutures of Jiongu scattered along the limb. "Can you heal?" he asked aloud.

There was a collection of images and thoughts that passed through his mind, the kinjutsu's strange method of communication giving him pause. No, the threads could really only heal their host's body, but if manipulated properly they could be used for certain other applications. "Alright," he said, "let's experiment." With that, he got to his feet and walked over to Harō.

The cobalt-haired boy had definitely seen better days. Naruto divested the Ame-nin of his shirt, which was smeared with dirt and blood, to better access and assess the boy's wounds. Large bruises decorated Harō's torso, blotching the pale skin with bluish-purple splotches. The blond placed one hand upon his teammate's torso and pressed gently. There was a somewhat crunchy feeling at the spot, and Naruto barely withheld a wince that contained a glimmer of his teacher's sadistic grin. "Ooh, that sounds nasty. Probably a couple of broken ribs…maybe some fractures, handful of punctured organs? Not that I have any idea what I'm talking about," he admitted aloud. "Well, let's see what you can do."

A handful of threads slithered forth from his tattoo and wormed their way into Harō's body. Naruto observed the proceedings with mild curiosity, noting how the kinjutsu was merging with the Ame-nin's body in a more cautious manner than he'd seen it do with others in the past. Through his connection with the tendrils, the blond could somewhat sense the layout of Harō's body, as well as achieve a better understanding of the boy's injuries.

Black threads wrapped tightly around a number of Harō's broken ribs, detaching from the main mass to bind and set the fragmented pieces to ensure a proper and quicker healing. They wormed their way throughout the Ame-nin's body, stitching a small puncture in one lung and a number of perforations in the kidneys. "Man," Naruto observed, trying to take note of what the threads were doing and only half-understanding the images he was seeing, "did you get a number done on you. Musta pissed off that fat guy something fierce."

The tendrils withdrew from Harō's skin, leaving no trace of their entry. Naruto moved over to Fū, intent on giving her the same treatment, but paused.

Somewhere in the back of his mind, the blond recognized that what he was about to do was wrong. Not in the sense of being bad – he was trying to help a friend, after all – but that the situation he was about to enter was…inappropriate. Fū was not Harō…the idea of removing her clothing invoked a strange feeling of impropriety.

Of course, the difference was obvious: Fū was a girl. Females, he knew from lessons and lectures with both Ryo and Kakuzu, didn't possess the same physiology as males.

Naruto's hesitance in his present situation was understandable given that, barring the limited time he had spent with his fellow Jinchūriki, his experience with women was nonexistent. Kakuzu made a point to avoid interacting with people as much as possible, and aside from the basic biological differences taught to him for the simple sake of being educated, elaboration upon the topic of the opposite sex had been and still was completely unnecessary. After all, he was still only 12 – though close to his thirteenth birthday! – and thus not driven by hormones. That wasn't even considering that Kakuzu absolutely seemed like the type to advocate his pupil's disinterest in engaging in relationships with the opposite sex.

None of those thoughts really registered in the Kyūbi Jinchūriki's brain. All he could say for sure was that some deeper instinct felt that there was some line he was about to cross that he should know about, and yet didn't. Social protocols hardly existed in the world of a rogue shinobi.

Carefully, Naruto removed the girl's top layers of clothing and placed them upon the strange red cylinder she always carried around with her. The tanned smoothness of Fū's flat abdomen greeted his vision, a sight he remembered from her usual attire. Thankfully, a series of bandages was wrapped around her chest in a display of modesty he was intuitively grateful for. He released a sigh of relief he didn't know he'd been holding, the niggling feeling of awkwardness dispersed from his system.

The facts that Fū was only 13, owed Naruto her life, and was as flat as a board never even crossed the blond's mind.

He went through the same process he had with Harō, allowing Jiongu to burrow into her system and fix any irregularities it could. The threads bound a couple of ribs and repaired a small problem with the liver before leaving her body. Apparently Fū had suffered similar injuries to Harō, though with a smaller degree of damage. Her shoulder looked offset, but with no real medical knowledge, Naruto wasn't about to try to correct the injury. He re-clothed his companion and then settled back into his original spot against the tree, pensive again.

The question of where to go from here burned in his mind. Kakuzu, his mentor, was now a member of an elite organization focused on capturing the Bijū, which he and Fū, his only real friend, contained. Even assuming that Kakuzu didn't actively pursue and/or betray them, Akatsuki still had plenty of other members who could easily find and restrain the two Jinchūriki. They could possibly escape for a little bit, maybe build up their strength and hope to take on Akatsuki, but every road he could imagine eventually ended in them getting caught.

So where did that leave them?

Their other option, Naruto supposed, was one of those insane, albeit crazy-enough-to-work ideas. Basically, he and Fū could work alongside Akatsuki – potentially even aiding the syndicate in achieving its goal – and simultaneously use the closeness to exploit any weaknesses within the organization. By gathering information on what each of the members could do in terms of skill, as well as their personalities, idiosyncrasies, and other details, evading them and prolonging his and Fū's capture became easier.

Naturally, all that was theoretical, but it wasn't like he had much in the way of options. Stay, and either buy time and gain valuable intelligence and resources, or get captured (and most likely killed) immediately; leave, get no resources, and be captured at some indeterminable future point in time. The decision seemed relatively simple, even considering the risk.

Naruto maneuvered his body to better watch Fū, studying the rise and fall of her chest with strange intensity. For some reason, the idea that some random ninja had been able to do so much damage to her didn't sit well with him. Fū was strong and capable, and beyond that, someone who knew what it was like to walk in every aspect of Naruto's shoes. To lose her was unacceptable.

With that, the blond's decision was made for him. He would have to play his cards right, hope that Kakuzu – in his strange helping-in-roundabout-manners methodology – would stick by his pupils, and pray that he was lucky enough that Akatsuki would rather make use of two wayward Jinchūriki who could do them a fair amount of good in the short-term rather than kill them, but he would do everything in his power to protect Fū and simply survive.

In the meantime, he still had the better part of three days before he could even put his plan into action, so he settled back and allowed his eyes to close as a wave of tiredness washed over him.

The prone form of the red-headed Ichibi Jinchūriki fell to the cavern floor, breaking the silence of the ritual. A pupil appeared in one of the statue's eyes, and the mercenary could only extrapolate that the Bijū had been extracted to the statue, leaving its host dead. The other members released their seals, prompting Kakuzu to do the same, and he resisted the urge to stretch his stiff muscles after three days of non-movement.

That was when Pein began speaking.

"We have annexed the Land of Sound from Orochimaru, and the treacherous snake has been disposed of," he announced in a grand monotone. "As such, our base of operations will be moved to Otogakure, and all our future movements shall be coordinated from there. I will be there shortly to oversee the transition," he directed to Konan.

He looked around at the rest of the organization. "In the meantime, the rest of you will continue with your assignments. There is still much to be done before our ultimate goal is achieved." Ringed grey eyes turned to focus on the tall nukenin. "Kakuzu, stay."

The four holographic projections fizzled and disappeared. Deidara leapt from his perch and threw out his miniaturized clay owl, which promptly multiplied in size. "Better get a move on, Sasori no Danna!" he crowed. "You haven't fulfilled your quota yet, hm!"

"Impudent brat," intoned Sasori, jumping to the floor and landing with a heavy clunk. "The best masterpieces take time," he stated warningly, shuffling towards the exit. The pair's bickering voices could be heard echoing around the space as they departed. Kakuzu's green eyes watched them go, flickering briefly over to catch Tobi wave a farewell and disappear as silence engulfed the remaining two.

He descended to the level of the orange-haired man. "You wish to speak with me?" he prompted.

The shorter man studied him carefully while Kakuzu did the same. For both, it was a measure of the other's character, a test of their mettle in the face of another powerful presence. Kakuzu was sure that the younger male had some knowledge of what he could do, and while Pein's abilities were still an unknown, the fact that he led an organization composed of other S-class criminals spoke highly of the strength and respect he commanded. Still, Kakuzu was not one to be subordinated so easily, and he refused to succumb to Pein's scrutinizing gaze.

After a long moment, Pein blinked, breaking the spell cast between the two. "You know of Akatsuki's goals?"

"I know enough," Kakuzu replied easily. He couldn't say with certainty that he knew every aspect of the organization's plans, but he could piece together what he did know and draw conclusions from there. The mercenary would not cede any weakness – whether physical or mental – in front of this man; the more it appeared he knew without being told, the more respect he could garner from Pein because of his knowledge.

Even if some of said knowledge was a bluff.

The orange-haired man nodded. "Your assignment is the Rokubi no Namekuji. Last we heard, it was within the possession of Kirigakure, but that was years ago and the Bloodline Purges may have resulted in the Jinchūriki's demise. According to what limited records we have found, the Rokubi is rather intelligent and reclusive. This is why I have assigned it to you."

That made sense to Kakuzu; send a bounty hunter to find someone who was good at hiding. He inclined his head and turned to leave, but Pein's voice cut him off. "Akatsuki members work in pairs."

"…I work alone."

"You have been in the company of another for many years now."

"Extenuating circumstances. He is…valuable."

"I am well aware of the Kyūbi Jinchūriki's 'value', as you put it." Kakuzu turned around slowly to face Pein, face betraying nothing. "Uzumaki Naruto, container of the Kyūbi no Yōko, sealed within him by his own father, the Yondaime Hokage, Namikaze Minato. I also know that you have more recently taken the Jinchūriki of the Nanabi under your wing."

He is well-informed. Of course, Kakuzu had already been threatened with the loss of Fū before by Konan, but the fact that Pein knew of Naruto – while not completely surprising – was still bad. It was like an intricate dance where both people were trying to lead, and Kakuzu was quickly losing ground. "If you know so much, then you must know of my…tendencies."

"If you're referring to your sadism and temper, then yes, Zetsu has informed me of such. I have found you the ideal partner, though attempts to recruit him have been unsuccessful thus far."

Kakuzu arched an eyebrow skeptically. To have planned so far ahead as to find me a partner before I even joined…he has impressive foresight. "Then how exactly is this person going to become my partner?"

"You have a quality I believe he will find…tempting. Here," he stated, throwing a slim folder at the newest member, "information for you. Finding this man is your first priority. I will contact you when he has joined our ranks."

"And you will know of this how?"

Pein tossed a small object at him, which Kakuzu caught easily. He turned it over in his hand, studying the ring with the character 'san' inscribed on an orange gemstone. "That will be enough," Pein said. Kakuzu nodded and turned to leave, but apparently the orange-haired man wasn't done. "The Jinchūriki…what are your feelings towards them?" When the mercenary didn't immediately respond, Pein continued, "You know that this process kills the Jinchūriki." Kakuzu's green eyes flickered over to Gaara's corpse. "They will eventually be sacrificed for Akatsuki's goals."

"They are outside, weakened and outnumbered. Why not just capture them now?"

"…The time is not right."

Hm. Perhaps there is an order to the sealing that prevents the higher Bijū from being extracted too early. "The children are of little consequence to me," he responded flippantly. "However, I believe it would be prudent to speak to them before committing to any decisions. They have a propensity for being…profitable." Kakuzu took Pein's lack of response as his cue to leave, headed for the stairs. Before he moved completely out of earshot, Kakuzu stated smoothly, "I will be taking the children with me on this mission. The experience will be useful, should you decide to implement their talents into your plans."

Kakuzu's footsteps seemed unnaturally loud in the quiet of the stairwell as he ascended. The monotonic sound offered him little reprieve from the many thoughts bouncing around his mind. There was little doubt that he was walking a thin line between trying to keep the Jinchūriki alive and abiding by Akatsuki's wishes. At some point in the future, Naruto and Fū would have had to survive on their own merit anyway, but Kakuzu had hoped to ingrain more survival instincts in them before that day came. Now, his time to do so seemed to be severely constricted. Even more frustrating was the lack of an exact timeframe he had to impart such wisdom to them. Kakuzu's process was slow and methodical, training while seeming to not really train at all. Time constraints hindered that process. While he could stall on the capture of his Bijū, that would draw suspicion towards him, and as the newest member and the one most connected to Naruto and Fū, he was probably already under scrutiny. He would have to make his moves carefully.

The bounty hunter emerged into muted sunlight, the canopy providing a shield to the harsh mid-afternoon sun. Green eyes blinked slowly in the limited light before Kakuzu turned to look for his pupils. Naruto was standing next to and slightly in front of a sitting Fū, whose back was against a tree, bandages wrapped around her torso. Opposite them was Zetsu, in the process of melding out of a tree. Both Tobi and Harō stood between the two parties, an innocently curious tilt to the former's head. The former Taki-nin cleared his throat. Naruto's head swiveled towards the noise, his expression lighting up as he exclaimed, "Kakuzu!"

Said mercenary ignored the rather exuberant greeting and turned to face Zetsu. "Zetsu," he greeted in a monotone, "to what do we owe this…pleasure?"

"Ah, Kakuzu-san, don't be like that!" White Zetsu offered cheerfully. "We have only come to return your belongings from the other base." The plant-man held out a bundle of clothes, and Kakuzu took the proffered head and mouth covering and slashed through hitae-ate. He put them on with disguised haste, more comfortable in his usual garb with the facial stitches and hair hidden beneath cloth. Fully garbed, he watched as Naruto hesitantly grabbed his and Fū's clothing, the blond's blue eyes never losing their cautious skepticism. Zetsu stared back unblinkingly.

Kakuzu cleared his throat again. "Anything else?"

"No," Zetsu replied, shifting his normal eye to look at Kakuzu. "We're going to take Harō with us. Good luck with your mission! Come, Tobi." The plant-man remerged with the tree as Tobi grabbed Harō and waved a cheery farewell before disappearing into a vortex of swirling energy, not even giving the cobalt-haired boy a chance to say goodbye.

Naruto and Fū watched in mute shock. "…They're fucking weird," commented the blond at length. "I might miss Harō, though."

Kakuzu mentally agreed that the blond's first statement was accurate. "Come," he motioned, moving north, "we have work to do."

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki helped Fū to her feet. He slid on the shirt and vest Kakuzu had given him long ago, relaxing into the fit of familiar clothes. "We?" he asked, curiosity piqued.


When the mercenary didn't elaborate, Fū piped up. "What are we doing?"

"Searching for someone."

Naruto scowled in frustration. "Could you possibly be any more vague?"

Kakuzu lowered his voice, though it retained his gruff register. "Here is not the proper setting with which to discuss such information." Naruto glanced behind him, spying Pein standing at the entrance to the hideout, watching them depart. He opted to stay quiet after that, Fū walking beside him as they followed their teacher.

They plodded along at a rather sedate pace for a number of hours, despite the urgency Naruto felt Kakuzu should have had to get away from Pein. As evening fell, the ex-Waterfall shinobi had them stop to set up a small camp in the middle of the forest. When dawn broke the next day, Kakuzu kicked them awake and set off without another word, forcing his students to follow behind. The blond remained in a dour mood the whole trip, irked at Kakuzu's easy dismissal of his previous questions and refusal to elaborate. The fact that the older ninja would merely get some sort of sick satisfaction from denying him access to information he wanted – their destination and goal – helped prevent him from asking again. Only Fū's warm hand in his own kept him from actually lashing out at his teacher.

Again, he was struck with a strange sense of awkward foreboding at the gesture. It was nice to have someone around who could placate his temper – especially since getting into anything with Kakuzu was bound to have disastrous (and painful) results for him – but he felt that there was some significance to the hand-holding that he was missing. What did it mean, the simple clasping of hands? Was he really okay with Fū being able to read him so easily?

…Yes, he allowed after a moment of thought, perhaps having his fellow Jinchūriki know him so well was a good thing. It certainly prevented him from raising Kakuzu's ire unnecessarily and taking a beating. Still, was there something more he wasn't able to read into?

Over the past three days, he had noticed a trend in his pattern of thinking related to the green-haired girl. When Harō had, surprisingly, regained consciousness first, Naruto had immediately pressured the boy into assessing Fū's condition. The grey-eyed male had done so with tired reluctance, only Naruto's wordless guarantee of pain if he refused rousing Harō to action. After wrapping her torso in bandages to set her ribs – a precaution, Harō had stated after Naruto had explained what he had done with the threads – he had reset her shoulder, forcing Fū to emit a low moan of pain. Naruto had tensed at the sound, but then relaxed when the other boy had turned back to him with a weak grin. The blond had offered his temporary teammate a brief word of gratitude before letting the Ame-nin settle into a peaceful slumber. Somehow, even knowing that Harō wouldn't hurt Fū intentionally, the idea that he could have didn't sit well with the blond. When the Nanabi Jinchūriki had awoken some hours later, she had graced Naruto with a tentative smile that had both soothed his mind and sent him off in search of something for all of them to eat.

The fact that he was worried about such trivialities related to Fū – especially when he knew that she could take of herself – made this vein of thinking even more frustrating to consider and not fully comprehend.

His roundabout musings were cut short when Kakuzu stopped abruptly and turned to face his two disciples. They were standing on the edge of the forest, a landscape of steep mesas and sparsely-foliaged flatland paving the way ahead. Naruto quickly disentangled his hand from Fū's, settling his face into a picture of annoyance. "Now what?"

If Kakuzu had noticed the physical contact between the two Jinchūriki, he said nothing of it. "Here is where you will begin to lead."


"Lead where?" Fū asked. Kakuzu threw the folder Pein had given him at the green-haired girl, who snatched it out of the air. Orange eyes skimmed the contents before she passed the file to Naruto.

He flipped through the first couple of pages, analyzing all the details he could from the photos within. The man depicted looked short for an adult, with slicked-back silver hair and an ungainly-large, triple-bladed scythe slung across his back. Naruto briefly wondered why someone would use such a ridiculous weapon, let alone how he carried it around while shirtless with no harness, but decided not to ask. There were several large coils of thick cable wrapped around spools attached to the man's pants – which perhaps explained how he lugged the scythe around – and what looked to be some sort of necklace hung low on his chest, dangling below his hitae-ate. "Lead to whom," Kakuzu corrected smoothly, jarring the blond from his scrutiny.

"His name's Hidan," Naruto noted, perusing through some of the handwritten notes.

Kakuzu nodded. "Yes. It is our goal to find him. He is to become…" here, Kakuzu scowled in distaste, as if he had smelled something particularly malodorous, "my partner."

Naruto hid a snort of amusement with a choked cough, exchanging wry glances with Fū. They'd been "partners" with Kakuzu for years, and the mercenary barely seemed to be able to tolerate them. How was this man supposed to manage, even if he was an S-class nukenin? "So why are we looking for him? Seems like something you should be doing," observed the blond. Fū slipped the folder from his grasp, scanning the information with renewed curiosity.

The tall shinobi shot Naruto an irritated look. "You are doing this to gain experience in tracking, a skill highly important to a bounty hunter. One which you are lacking in," he threw in snidely.

"And who's to blame for that, I wonder," Naruto remarked quietly to Fū. A moment later, his head was against the ground in a mock bow of deference, Kakuzu's hand gripping his shirt collar.

"I am old, not deaf, brat," growled the former Taki-nin. He released his pupil, allowing the boy to stand up and rub the dirt off his forehead, muttering quiet obscenities. Kakuzu smirked behind his mask. "This," he proclaimed suddenly, "is your final test.

"Both of you are capable shinobi hardened by experience and tutoring, albeit prone to lapses in judgment and competence. You have been trained to be apathetic killers, desensitized to the pain and death of others. Though you are young, you have potential." He paused to look into the distance of the landscape. Naruto would have thought he was getting emotional, if the idea wasn't so ludicrous. Kakuzu turned back, green eyes intense. "Do not squander your gifts. In the real world, there will be no one to watch your backs…to protect you. You will be forced to make your own way, survive on the fruits of your labors. After this, there will be no more guidance."

There was silence among the trio as the two Jinchūriki allowed their mentor's words to wash over them. What Kakuzu had said wasn't exactly new, but it seemed very profound despite that. It almost sounded like he was warning them of what was to come, that they needed to grow up and survive, but to also exercise caution. They were the parting words of a teacher to his students, because after this…

Kakuzu belonged to Akatsuki.

Naruto lifted his head to meet Kakuzu's hard gaze. "They know, don't they. About me?"


There was another long moment of silence, Naruto lost in thought and Kakuzu waiting for some other query or outburst. Fū was the one to break it. "This says that Hidan originated from Yugakure," she pointed out, referencing the folder in her hands. "I've never heard of it before."

Kakuzu snorted in disdain, though the Jinchūriki felt that it wasn't aimed at her. "That is to be expected. Yugakure is a minor village, even among other minor Hidden Villages like Kusagakure and Amegakure. It disbanded its shinobi program in recent years. Apparently he was quite unhappy about it," he stated, nodding towards the file, "which is unsurprising. Shinobi do not take kindly to being snubbed by their village." No one pointed out that Kakuzu was a prime example of that particular ideology.

"Went on a rampage, killed his neighbors, left the village," Fū summarized. "That was less than two years ago, but I guess we should check it out, see if there're any clues to his whereabouts. These notes say that every time Akatsuki made contact, they were close to Yugakure."

"Deft analysis," Kakuzu granted. He spread an arm before him, indicating the vast expanse. "Welcome to the Land of Hot Water, home to Yugakure," he continued dryly.

"Let's go then," prompted Naruto, striding past the other two. He paused a handful of paces ahead of Kakuzu's position and looked behind him, a sheepish grin in place. "Uh, where exactly is this village?"

Kakuzu resisted the urge to face-palm, instead moving past Naruto with a sweep of his cloak. "This way. Once we reach the village, you two will take over. There will be no more hand-holding." Neither Jinchūriki asked for clarification on whether he was referring to their previous physical contact or him leading them through their quest, though Naruto had to bite his tongue to not make a snarky comment about how Kakuzu had never used hand-holding as a teaching tool.

His piece said, the mercenary took off, both Jinchūriki following close behind. The journey was quiet for a long while, everyone lost in their own thoughts. After a couple of hours, Naruto decided to act on them. "Hey, Kakuzu…what, um…" he scratched his head nervously, "what do you know about Akatsuki?" When the mercenary didn't reply, he continued, "You know, like, who are the members and what are they capable of? I figure we should know what we're up against when…" he trailed off uncomfortably.

Kakuzu didn't say anything for a time. Naruto almost lost hope in trying to get any inside information when his teacher spoke up. "There are supposedly only ten official members of Akatsuki at any one point. You are well-acquainted with several of them." He reached into one sleeve of his long cloak, pulling out the thick Bingo Book Naruto was accustomed to seeing his mentor peruse. Where he kept it, Naruto could only guess; probably safeguarded within his body by the black threads. The mercenary flipped through the pages, then stretched his arm behind him with Jiongu so that Naruto and Fū could view the entry while they walked. "Hoshigaki Kisame," he intoned, more for Fū's benefit than Naruto's, "a member of Kirigakure's Seven Shinobi Swordsmen, extraordinarily proficient in kenjutsu and Suiton ninjutsu. It is said that he killed his former master, Suikazan Fuguki, part of the strongest generation of the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen, to earn his rank among them."

Fū's eyes roved over the picture of Kisame depicted in the book. "Creepy-looking," she commented. Kakuzu grunted noncommittally, unwilling to offer an opinion on the aesthetics of another given his own appearance.

"He's strong," Naruto added. "Most of his techniques seem to revolve around sharks, and he likes using a lot of water to overwhelm the opponent." The blond shuddered in remembrance of his own spars against the blue-skinned individual. "I'm sure I only saw part of what he was capable of."

"Most likely," agreed Kakuzu, retracting his hand and flipping pages again. When he showed the book this time, the picture on the page was of a black-haired, crimson-eyed individual with prominent facial lines under his eyes. "From Naruto's stint with Kisame, we know that this is his partner…Uchiha Itachi. Graduated from the Shinobi Academy at age 7, Chūnin at age 10, ANBU Captain at age 13; he possesses the Sharingan, which is capable of copying all jutsu it views. A short time after that, he killed his entire clan, an impressive feat for one so young," he admitted. "It can be presumed that, like his brethren, he is extremely talented in genjutsu and Katon ninjutsu, though his abilities are probably far more varied and cannot be accurately summarized so succinctly."

"I think he's stronger than Kisame is," Naruto stated slowly. "Kisame seemed to take instructions from Itachi."

"This would not surprise me," Kakuzu acknowledged. "Separately, both are powerful shinobi. Together…they are beyond dangerous." Unspoken went the words, 'you should avoid them at all costs'. Fwip-fwip-fwip went the pages again. This time, the image the Jinchūriki were presented with was of a child Naruto guessed to be their age, blond hair in a high ponytail with a long fringe covering one eye. "Deidara, prodigy of Iwagakure's Happa clan and the youngest member of the Explosion Corps in decades. The Happa clan is known for its kekkei genkai, the Bakuton chakra nature. It is highly destructive," he deadpanned.

Naruto rolled his eyes. "Gee, really? I wouldn't have guessed."

The older shinobi disregarded his pupil's sarcasm. "Deidara was taught by the Sandaime Tsuchikage, and can be assumed to be quite competent with Doton ninjutsu. It is rumored that he stole a kinjutsu from Iwagakure which allows him to infuse his explosive chakra into clay creations. Judging by the size of the bird he arrived on, these rumors have merit. After he left the village, he became a terrorist bomber for hire, though his activities lessened in frequency a couple of years ago. I can only surmise that he was recruited to Akatsuki around that time."

"You seem to know a lot about him," Fū commented.

Kakuzu grunted. "He piqued my interest some years ago. Unfortunately, I was rather preoccupied with keeping tabs on the brat."

"Oi!" protested Naruto. "Whaddya mean 'keeping tabs'? You went off gallivanting around the world and left me alone to—"

"Did you ever wonder," Kakuzu interjected icily, "how you went so long without ever being discovered by any shinobi? Did your feeble mind ever consider how we stayed in one location, under the noses of the foolish Konoha-nin you escaped from, without ever running into a single one of them?"

"I…I…" Fū shot him a curious glance when he couldn't formulate a cohesive response. The blond swallowed, thinking over this new information. It was true that while living in Onanji, Naruto had never run across any other shinobi, despite the fact that, with the hindsight that he was a Jinchūriki, they would certainly be looking for him. And Kakuzu, while neglectful with his training, had also never put him in a dangerous situation without considering him ready to handle it. Plus, the mercenary had been gone an awful lot during his younger years. Naruto had originally written it off as bounty hunting expeditions, but… Could he have…? "Did…did you…were you protecting me?"

The slow turning of pages was his only answer. Naruto resisted the urge to rip the book from his teacher's hands and demand an answer. That had 'bad idea' written all over it.

Another short interlude of quiet confirmed that Kakuzu would never actually admit to looking after or caring for the blond. Lost in the circular debate of whether the older shinobi was bluffing or not, Naruto was practically slapped in the face by the Bingo Book. He recovered in time to hear Kakuzu begin talking. "Although unconfirmed, I believe that this is Deidara's partner: Akasuna no Sasori."

Unruly red hair framed a face with oddly pale skin for someone who grew up in the desert. Laconic brown eyes stared out of the page, appearing completely disenchanted. "He looks so young," Fū wondered. "I mean, I know that we're young for nukenin, and Deidara's only a teenager, but still…"

"Hn. Well, he should. This picture is almost 20 years old." Both Jinchūriki stared at the back of the former Taki-nin's head. If Kakuzu noticed, he let it go. "Sasori defected from Sunagakure a little more than 17 years ago, in the middle of the Third Shinobi World War. He was hailed as a genius puppeteer, the greatest master of Kugutsu no Jutsu since its creator, Chikamatsu Monzaemon. However, after he became a nukenin, Sasori became untraceable. His physical characteristics, abilities, strength, jutsu arsenal…they are all unknowns. While Akatsuki's Sasori shares none of the traits depicted here, the real Sasori is a puppeteer—"

"Meaning that the body he's using could be a puppet," Naruto finished.

"It is likely." The Bingo Book snapped shut with a resounding clap. "Zetsu, Tobi, Konan…none of them are listed as nukenin from any village. Based on observation, Zetsu has the ability to phase through and merge with solid matter, though I am unsure of his limitations. Tobi can disappear into thin air with an ability similar to a Shunshin, and Konan has some sort of control over paper. Their leader, Pein – an alias, I am sure – is also an unknown, though the strange pattern of his eyes would seem to imply some sort of dōjutsu, albeit one I am not knowledgeable of."

"Well," Naruto stated after allowing the information to sink in, "that's more than we knew before. Now we have a bit more a fighting chance."

"That was rather gratuitous of you, Kakuzu," Fū pointed out. "I don't suppose you plan on helping us—"

"Whatever scheme you have planned will have to be executed by your own hand," Kakuzu interjected. "Information is an open source for those who know where to look. I merely provided you with data any good bounty hunter should know."

Fū opened her mouth to say something else, but a restraining hand on her shoulder stopped her. The green-haired girl looked to her left. Naruto shook his head, his hand returning to idle by his side. He recognized the note of finality in his teacher's tone. Kakuzu was not going to give out any more information than what he had already offered. Truthfully, it was a boon they had gotten that much from the former Taki-nin.

When dusk fell upon them, the trio made camp at a location Kakuzu estimated to be a couple of hours away from Yugakure. Lacking any camping equipment, Fū erected simple earthen constructs for each of the renegades to take shelter in. Their teacher absentmindedly lit a small fire and retired shortly thereafter, leaving the two Jinchūriki sitting across from each other on sturdy stone seats Fū had created. For a time, the only sounds were the crackling of the fire between them and the calls of the nocturnal animals. Naruto tapped a finger against his cheek rhythmically, chin resting in the palm of his hand, elbow propped on his knee. "Prodigies," he murmured at last. "Prodigies and masters and geniuses."

Fū nodded sullenly. "Things don't look too good, do they?" Naruto made a noncommittal noise. "Are we gonna die?" she whispered, as if afraid someone would overhear her trepidation.

Naruto offered her a sad quirk of his lips. "Not without a fight, we're not. And," he continued, pausing to collect his thoughts, "I think we still have time." At his companion's questioning head tilt, he elaborated, "Think about it. They had us right where they wanted us, outnumbered, outclassed, and tired. But instead of taking us then, we were allowed to leave with Kakuzu. What does that tell you?"

The Nanabi Jinchūriki thought about it for a moment. "They either want to make use of us," she replied slowly, "or…they can't take the Bijū from us yet." Naruto nodded. "Which do you think it is?"

He shrugged. "Dunno. We don't know enough about their operations or their plans to make an accurate prediction. For now, we play by their rules. We find out exactly what each of the members can do, get stronger, and stay on their good side. If we get really lucky, we won't have to fight for our lives."

Silence reigned after that, the two Bijū containers allowing Naruto's last statement to echo in their minds. When the fire died out some time later, the two young ninja went to their respective shelters with quiet bids of 'Good night'.

Naruto woke up earliest the next morning, moving on a mixture of restlessness and nervous energy. Hungry, and looking for something to do, he scoured the vicinity for something edible, eventually coming up with a couple of groundhogs. Kakuzu was awake when he returned, and the older ninja rekindled the fire from the previous night without a word between them.

Today we reach Yugakure, Naruto thought between bites of roasted animal. At that point, Kakuzu would turn the reins over to him and Fū to find Hidan, no matter where the man currently was. It was almost as if Kakuzu was passing the baton to the two of them, and the success of their future lifestyles depended on the outcome of the search for Akatsuki's newest member. Blue eyes narrowed with steely resolve. I won't let you down. Fū woke shortly thereafter, and after eating the remaining meat, she demolished the earthen shelters and the trio took off again.

They arrived at the entrance to Yugakure after a couple of hours. As they stepped through, Kakuzu scoffed, "Not even a guard. Pathetic."

Naruto and Fū exchanged looks, the former rolling his eyes. "What a shock," Naruto muttered. "Kakuzu holds disdain for something." Fū let out a short giggle, prompting a small grin from the blond.

"Make yourself useful, brat," interrupted Kakuzu, "and tell me where our target is. Otherwise this poor excuse for a Hidden Village will not be the only thing I regard with disdain."

"Yeah, yeah," Naruto dismissed, walking ahead of his teacher with Fū slightly behind him. "Like I'm not already on that list."

"Maybe we should do something productive," Fū suggested. She walked up to the nearest villager – an elderly woman – and asked politely, "Excuse me, obaa-chan, I was wondering what you knew about a man named Hidan?"

The woman's face immediately crumpled into a terrified expression. "Ooh," she moaned, "he's a terrible man! Coming here and slaughtering our citizens, with no reason other than the fact that he likes it. He comes by every couple of months to destroy another section of our beautiful village, ranting and raving about some person. Josheen, I think? We've tried hiring shinobi to protect us, but none of them have ever returned to the village. And just last week, my daughter-in-law was…was…" The woman burst into tears, overcome by sorrow. Fū patted her back gently, if a bit awkwardly.

"We, uh, offer our condolences," Naruto tried, fumbling over the awkwardness of being kind to a stranger, "but could you perhaps tell us where the incident last week took place?"

Sniffling, the old woman pointed down the road, further into the Hidden Hot Springs. "It's not too far down the road from here. Construction's already being done on it, you can't miss it." Naruto offered her a slight incline of his head before motioning to Fū to follow the instructions. As the green-haired girl withdrew her hand and began to tread after the blond, the elderly woman looked up and asked, "Who are you?"

Fū offered her a tentative smile. "We're here to…rectify your village's crisis. Thank you for your help."

"Clearly neither of you has issue with human contact," Kakuzu deadpanned once they were out of earshot. "The manner with which you interacted with that woman was nothing short of embarrassing."

Naruto shrugged his teacher's sarcasm off. As Jinchūriki, both he and Fū had not been privy to the kinder side of humanity, and thus had none to few experiences with personal interaction. Living with Kakuzu's influence for so long had nullified whatever need there was to actually try and be polite; the bounty hunter was nothing if not blunt. Almost disappointed with his student's lack of a reaction, Kakuzu goaded, "Subtlety is an important aspect of the hunt."

"Yeah, 'cause a six-foot man covered head to toe and wearing a black cloak with red clouds is the definition of subtlety," retorted the blond. Kakuzu smirked behind his mask, glad to see his student's vim and peppiness intact. Naruto would make a fine legacy someday.

Assuming he survived whatever Akatsuki had planned for him, of course.

The sound of a deep-voiced man yelling caused Naruto and Fū to run ahead, banking right at the next path. Kakuzu reached the intersection at a more sedate pace, opting to remain behind and study his students' methods. Analytical green eyes took in every detail of the surrounding area.

Huge stacks of lumber were piled everywhere, in close proximity to a series of buildings which were all in various states of disrepair. Villagers donned in hard hats milled about the area, carrying wood, tools, bricks, and a variety of other infrastructure materials from one location to another. Ants, Kakuzu thought with scorn. All of them scurrying around like tiny insects. Pathetic. Some of the buildings held scorch marks, the residue from some explosion or Katon ninjutsu, he deduced. Rust-colored splotches along the walls and on the ground provided evidence as to a large amount of bloodshed. Hmm…

Naruto and Fū came jogging back shortly thereafter. "The foreman confirmed what we already knew about Hidan," Fū stated. "He was a loyal ninja of Yugakure until the village disbanded its program and became a tourist destination."

"Then he went bat-shit crazy," Naruto jumped in. "Slaughtered his neighbors and left the village. Apparently he's been returning every so often since he left. Kills some people, razes some buildings…he likes to cause destruction. But his visits are sporadic; they range anywhere from three weeks to three months."

"Trying to prove a point," Kakuzu muttered, "or acts of retribution? Hmm…how curious. Anything else?"

"Bloodstains," Fū replied, "all over the place. We can only assume Hidan's the cause."

"There's a trail that goes out from behind that building and leads deeper into the Land of Hot Water," Naruto gestured. "Just judging by the size of some of the bloodstains, I'd guess that he's wounded. Hard to tell exactly how old they are, but Hidan doesn't exactly strike me as the type to care about being subtle enough to cover his trail."

"Lacking subtlety and brains," Kakuzu mulled. "Sounds like an older, more dangerous version of you." At Naruto's affronted glare, the mercenary smirked to himself, then continued musing, "Though the fact that he is injured is…intriguing, considering that there are no Yugakure shinobi in existence anymore, let alone ones who could harm a supposed S-class nukenin."

"Yeah, well, now what?" griped Naruto.

"That should be obvious."

"We follow the trail," Fū supplied.

Kakuzu nodded. "Clearly the brains of the pair," he muttered, drawing another scowl from his blond protégé. "Yes, as any good bounty hunter would, we follow the trail. Now, lead." Growling obscenities under his breath, Naruto stalked off in the direction of the construction, leaving Fū and Kakuzu to follow him. Unable to resist a parting shot, Kakuzu added, "Not that a good bounty hunter would ask for information, anyway…shinobi procure their knowledge by merit of their stealth and espionage abilities."

The blond's ravings about sadistic, temperamental, child-hating bastards could be heard clearly as the trio trekked out of the village.

A month and a half in the wilderness with only Kakuzu and Fū for company was a long time. Granted, Naruto had spent longer periods of time with only Kakuzu or Kisame (and Itachi) for company, but after having to be around people for the Chūnin Exams, the isolation of the outdoors was a strange contrast. He had never really considered the difference between living with and without the assets of the city life.

Toilets, for instance.

The good news, he supposed, was that Fū was around. Without her, and with Kakuzu's reawakened sadism, Naruto was sure he would've gone crazy trying to survive with only the older shinobi to interact with. That said, the former Taki-nin had also mellowed somewhat; at least, compared to what Naruto had expected from his teacher's behavior. Aside from that fact that the blond thought Kakuzu would've flipped his lid at the amount of time tracking Hidan had taken (and he thus far hadn't), the missing-nin had also proven to be quite helpful, even more so than during the Chūnin Exams.

During the month and a half of movement, Kakuzu had proven himself adept as a tutor, if not a snarky and sarcastic one. In between trying to retrace Hidan's movements through the Land of Hot Water, Kakuzu had imparted the wisdom of some of his techniques upon the two Jinchūriki, though true to his word, he had revealed nothing of the intricacies associated with mastering Jiongu. Naruto had all but mastered Doton: Domu with Kakuzu's (snide) assistance, in addition to weaseling Suiton: Bakusui Shōha and Suiton: Suiryūdan no Jutsu out of the original Surging Wave. Fū had been granted a series of increasingly powerful Earth Release techniques, as well as inspiration for new Dust Release ninjutsu.

The newfound attention to the training regimes of the two Jinchūriki was unusual, though not unwanted by any means. Kakuzu, in his strange, detached way, was practically parenting them, preparing the duo for life outside his realm of influence. At least, that was the explanation Naruto preferred. It was sentimental in a way, though the blond had no intention of voicing that opinion aloud.

It had probably also helped Kakuzu's mood that they had run into a renegade Kumo-nin who had resupplied the thread-user with a Raiton heart during their journey.

Now, six weeks after initially setting out to find Kakuzu's new partner – six weeks of grueling walking, tracking…inspecting every tree, branch, and bush for a new clue whenever the trail went cold – they had arrived at the end. They had traversed the Land of Hot Water's western border (cautiously, since the Land of Fire was its neighbor), down to the tip of the country, and then up the eastern coast. Kakuzu had grudgingly admitted that Hidan was perhaps smarter than he had initially thought after the trio had followed two different old trails to dead ends and then been forced to double-back. Then, on the second turnabout, they had come across a freshly-ravaged village which had been in perfect condition when they had passed it the first time.

Following the day-old trail had been stupidly easy, even for a rookie hunter like Naruto, whom Kakuzu had taken to describing as 'so inept at tracking that he could not find water if he fell out of a boat'.

It was at those times when Naruto wished he had a different role model.

Still, they had done it. The trio was currently standing in front of a very large rock bearing no significant features. Naruto would have likely passed it over as another formless boulder in the sea of the Land of Hot Water's dull landscape if Kakuzu hadn't called a halt, claiming he sensed a chakra signature somewhere below them. "So…" Naruto began, staring at the rock blankly, "suggestions?"

"Hmph. Useless," Kakuzu intoned. "We knock." He rolled up the sleeve of his right arm, revealing the telltale darkening of the Earth Spear technique. With minimal effort, the mercenary punched the rock, breaking it into a plethora of smaller pieces and revealing a hole in the ground which the stone had been covering, a winding series of earthen steps leading into the abyss. A back-draft of foul chakra washed over them, causing the two Jinchūriki to shudder and Kakuzu to peer into the darkness with hidden curiosity. The feel of the chakra was ancient, centuries old at least, and the ex-Waterfall shinobi was intrigued as to its source.

Naruto broke the silence that had overtaken the trio in the wake of the chakra. "So who wants to go down the dark, creepy hole first?"

"There is no need," Kakuzu informed him. "Our host is coming out to greet his guests." He leapt backwards, putting some distance between himself and the hole. Fū and Naruto scrambled to follow as an obnoxiously loud voice started to become audible.

"Who the hell dares to intrude upon the entrance to Jashin-sama's temp— you again? I already told that plant fucker that I'm not interested in joining your shitty organization."

"Crass," Fū observed.

Naruto nodded in agreement, analyzing Hidan's full profile while he stood in front of them instead of from the file's pictures. Silver hair was unchanged from the photos, looking too bright against pale skin. Wearing only a pair of maroon-colored pants and with bandages wrapped around his abdomen, his physique was well-defined, pointing towards a ninja more adept at taijutsu, though he seemed shorter than Naruto would have expected, especially with the size of the scythe clinging to his back. It was a dangerous-looking weapon, red with three wickedly-curved blades, each of them decreasing in size and topped in a streak of silver; bandages were wrapped around the handle, which ended in the thick coil of cable Naruto recognized from the pictures, carried in spools attached to Hidan's hip. Around the man's neck was a slashed hitae-ate – the symbol of three diagonal lines – and a necklace, the pendant bearing a circumscribed triangle.

Kakuzu also remained silent, though for a different reason. The source of the chakra was not Hidan, although there was a taint of it emanating from the silver-haired man. Just like with the Uzumaki clan, he found himself busy racking his brain for the inkling of familiarity Hidan's words had triggered. Jashin…Jashin… The name sounded much more familiar than when the old woman in Yugakure had blundered it, though not enough to recall anything substantial. Shaking it off as something that would come to him in time, Kakuzu stated, "Our leader asks that you reconsider. He believes that your views coincide with Akatsuki's and that you will be a great asset to the organization."

"Hell no," was the immediate response. Purple eyes narrowed in gleeful delirium. "And since you heathens can't seem to understand that, it looks like I'll have to teach you a lesson!" He grasped the handle of the scythe and brought it forward, twirling it experimentally with surprising deftness.

Behind Kakuzu, Fū tensed. The mercenary immediately hardened his skin in preparation for Hidan's assault, but Naruto stepped forward and cracked his knuckles. "Don't bother, Kakuzu," he advised, unusually serious. "I want him."

"You stupid brat," Kakuzu groused. "He is an S-class level shinobi. Your skills are nowhere near his." Naruto rushed forward to meet the charging Hidan, completely ignoring his teacher. "…Fine. Let the consequences of your foolhardiness rest on your shoulders alone." Kakuzu rubbed his forehead in a vain attempt to dispel the headache his blond student tended to cause. "This will be…tedious."

Naruto didn't respond, though whether that was because he chose not to or he couldn't hear his mentor was up for debate. He fired a quick Suiton: Mizurappa at his advancing opponent, but Hidan used his scythe as a shield to block most of the stream. Despite the slight loss in momentum, the former Yu-nin was on top of Naruto in a manner of seconds, swinging his scythe with reckless abandon. Naruto ducked the weapon and tried a sweep kick, but the silver-haired man jumped back and brought the scythe down again, laughing all the while. In an unfavorable position, Naruto was forced to activate the Earth Spear technique, batting the large weapon skyward with an earth-reinforced arm. He dropped the defensive ninjutsu and began signing for the Whirlwind Fist; the downside to using Doton: Domu was that he couldn't use other ninjutsu while it was active.

He was taken by surprise when Hidan yanked on the weapon's thick metal coil, bringing the triple-bladed scythe plummeting down towards him. The blond immediately cut off his offensive and dove to the side. A low hiss escaped his mouth as the longest blade made contact, tearing open his sleeve and leaving a long gash along his upper arm. "Son of a—"

"HeheheHAHAHA!" Hidan cackled, his pitch rising with unbridled glee. He reached behind him and withdrew a small black object from his waistband, which telescoped into a lengthy pike. Without flinching, he stabbed himself in the stomach, allowing his blood to spill freely and soaking the bandages there. His feet moved to draw a replica of his rosary's symbol on the ground in stark red. "Prepare to have judgment passed on you! Jashin-sama, please accept this sacrifice in your great name!" Then he licked the tip of the scythe.

Hidan's skin darkened to the deepest pitch, leaving a pattern of white that gave him the appearance of a skeleton. Fū, in a moment of surprise and terror, latched onto the nearest thing to her: Kakuzu's arm. "Kakuzu," she whispered, attempting to keep the tremor from her voice, "w-what is he doing?"

The bounty hunter glared at her until she released him, then turned back to the (rather one-sided) fight without responding. He was on the verge of solving the mystery that was Hidan, the answer sitting on the tip of his tongue.

"Screw you!" Naruto shouted, getting to his feet. "You and your lord can suck it! Fūton: Kazekiri!" The blade of air soared across the distance between the two and broke diagonally across the laughing nukenin, cutting deep into his flesh. Naruto relished in the satisfaction of landing a blow on the S-class shinobi for only a moment before he let out a loud gasp and sank to his knees. Blood began to soak into his shirt from a cut on his chest identical to the one Hidan had just received. "W-what?" he gasped as Jiongu began stitching closed the wound.

"Gehahaha!" shrieked Hidan, purple eyes bloodshot, pupils dilated with madness. "You've been cursed, and Jashin-sama has deemed you unworthy! Prepare to die!"

The retractable pike seemed to move with startling slowness towards Hidan's heart. Fū shouted something. Naruto launched his fists in an attempt to stop Hidan. The silver-haired man's eyes widened further in anticipation.

Kakuzu drowned out all of that, focusing all of his thoughts inward. Jashin…Jashin…a triangle within a circle…sacrifice… Green eyes snapped open as the pike dug through flesh and Naruto clutched his chest, gaping like a landed fish. "The God of Destruction," he muttered, the name finally striking a familiar chord.

"Kakuzu, DO SOMETHING!" Fū shrieked.

The mercenary paid her no mind, choosing instead to focus upon Hidan. Jashinism was an ancient religion, something he had once read about long ago from a scroll crinkled with age. Even then, Jashinists were a secretive lot, practically a cult, and the information he had obtained was minimal. Jashin was the God of Destruction, and as such, the religion's followers were expected to rain death and carnage upon all who crossed their path. Anything less was considered blasphemy. Of course, none of that explained either the curse or the ritual that Hidan seemed so very proud of, but then again, Kakuzu was half-impressed that he had remembered that much about the religion. Jashinism had been considered an extinct religion even during the mercenary's heyday. "The stupid brat brought this upon himself," he said at last.

"The pain…is amazing…" Hidan practically purred. "Who's next, Jashin-sama? The masked asshole…or the little girl?"


"Naruto!" Fū cried.

"D-damn," muttered the blond, "there goes my safety net." He scratched his chest, mildly unnerved that he had just lost his Doton heart so quickly. "Just gotta be more careful then. Let's go, round two," he directed at Hidan.

Hidan was, for the first time, absolutely speechless. He managed to find his tongue after a moment, wondering, "Another immortal who can spread Jashin-sama's will for all eternity…?"

'Another immortal'… Pein's words suddenly floated to Kakuzu's mind: "You have a quality I believe he will find…tempting." Quick as lightning, Kakuzu's hand shot out and closed around Naruto's mouth before the blond could say anything stupid. "The child's…immortality—" the word was still rather bitter on his tongue, "—is an inheritance I granted him." He waited a moment for the meaning of his words to sink into Hidan's head. Despite the fact that Kakuzu didn't consider himself immortal, if such a trait attracted the shorter man to Akatsuki and ended their farce of a mission, he would play the part of the undying.

"You serve a deity who teaches you to embrace destruction," Kakuzu continued. "Akatsuki's endgame is world domination, entire villages and countries wreathed in flames and ravaged in blood. Allying yourself with us would go a long way towards upholding your god's dogma, would it not?"

Hidan seemed to consider the taller ninja's words, the black and white pattern fading from his skin. "Alright," he agreed, "I'll join your shitty organization. Working with another immortal should be interesting."

Kakuzu allowed the reference to being immortal slide with growing ease. He retracted his hand from Naruto's mouth – and the blond remained blissfully and surprisingly silent – and dug into the pocket of his cloak, coming out with the ring Pein had given him. Recalling the sealing positions in the cavernous hideout, he tossed it to Hidan and said, "Place that upon your left index finger."

Almost immediately after the ring was put on, Pein's commanding monotone echoed in Kakuzu's mind. [I see you were successful in your mission.]

"The fu—"

"Yes," Kakuzu replied smoothly, cutting across Hidan's half-confused, half-angry curse. "Our leader," he assuaged the Jashinist.

[Hidan, your assignment is the Nibi no Nekomata.]

"The what?"

[Report back when you have a lead.]

"We shall."

"Oi, what the fuck does a cat have to do with world domination?"

Both Kakuzu and Pein opted to tune out Hidan's ranting. [One more thing. Send the Jinchūriki to Otogakure. I wish to have words with them.]

The bounty hunter glanced at his two pupils, watching as Fū fretted over Naruto and the blond merely waved her off with a laugh and a healthy dose of bravado. "…Understood." The presence in his mind disappeared just as suddenly as it had arrived. "Brats," he stated in a voice that brooked no argument, "come here." When they were standing in front of him, the tall shinobi continued, "You have been summoned to Otogakure to meet with Pein."

Naruto and Fū exchanged quick glances before the blond nodded. "Alright. I guess we better go then."

There was a long moment where the trio did nothing but stare at each other, kids against adult, as if trying to decipher something in the other's posture that belied what they wouldn't say. Finally, the two Jinchūriki turned around and began to head northwest to the Hidden Sound. Just before they reached the treeline, Kakuzu called out, "Naruto." Both children immediately about-faced. The mercenary stared at them both a moment longer before reaching into his cloak and withdrawing his Bingo Book. He threw it at the blond, who caught it with both hands, and then offered the duo a slight incline of his head. Naruto turned around and smiled so Kakuzu wouldn't see. It was as close to a nod of respect as he thought he would ever get from the detached nukenin; the bequeathal of his Bingo Book spokes volumes as it was.

With nothing left to say, the pair took off, neither they nor their temperamental teacher knowing when – or if – they would cross paths again.

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