It took a couple days of travel for Naruto and Fū to reach Otogakure. The lengthy trip could be attributed mainly to the lack of direction the two Jinchūriki had with regard to the Hidden Sound Village's precise location. As it was a newer establishment – and placed in a land that neither had previously had any reason to voyage through – it had taken the pair much longer to find the main village than it really should have.
In the end, Otogakure's main base ended up being located in the dead center of the country. A simple archway proclaimed the entrance to Oto, and as the Jinchūriki approached it, they were halted by a pair of guards demanding to know their business. "We're here to see, uh…" Naruto paused, wondering if Pein actually went by that name inside the village, "the leader of Akatsuki?"
One of the men peered down at him suspiciously. "No strangers are permitted to see Kami-sama. State your names and affiliations, immediately."
'Kami-sama?' Naruto mouthed to Fū. She shrugged, but before either could respond, a blue-haired woman appeared in a flurry of paper. The two guards bowed hastily at her appearance, reverently murmuring, "Angel-sama."
"Follow me," Konan intoned. "Pein has been expecting you." Naruto and Fū exchanged glances, but followed the paper-user through Hidden Sound's entrance and into the village proper.
The village itself was relatively unimpressive. Plain brick buildings lined the dirt roads, housing families with no other country to go to. Children frolicked in the streets, overseen by their parents, grime and dust smudged on their faces and clothes. All fell silent as Konan swept across their path, black cloak ruffling in the breeze. "So…" began Naruto, "Pein's a god, huh?"
"Pein is viewed as the savior of this land," Konan stated blandly. "Orochimaru was a tyrant, only interested in serving his own agenda, which focused little on helping the actual citizens of this country. Pein has no such compunctions with regards to helping those who are unable to help themselves. If there are those who choose to view his actions as those of a benevolent deity, then we shall only embrace such accolades."
That's interesting, Naruto mused. Generally, individuals bent on world domination didn't focus on the issues of the little people, often dismissing them as inconsequential. Power was their only aim, in every different facet of its many types – wealth and strength, among others – and it didn't matter who they stepped on to amass it. Orochimaru was a good example of such an archetype.
But this… Helping the civilians of a nation who had, until recently, only been used to further the twisted desires of a madman? Pein's plans didn't fit the stereotypical model of a power-hungry individual set on conquering the known world. Harō's words about how Pein would end the rule of the tyrannical Hanzō in Amegakure floated to Naruto's memory. Perhaps there was a more hidden agenda behind Akatsuki's leader's goals?
If so, it certainly boded well for the plan that Naruto and Fū were hoping would work. Otherwise their lives were about to be cut dramatically short.
Konan led the two Jinchūriki to a tall building which towered over the rest of Otogakure. It was easily several hundred feet high, and looked strangely out of place in the midst of the village's otherwise-level, urban environment. "Pein is waiting for you inside," Konan informed them. Then, without another word, she separated into a storm of paper sheets.
"Here we go," Naruto sighed, pushing the door open and leading Fū into the building. It was rather plain inside, with a series of stairs ringing the interior of the construct and spiraling up beyond the pair's field of vision.
"That seems unnecessary," Fū commented, gazing at the stairs.
"Probably to discourage civilians from reaching their god," presumed the blond, his tone carrying a tinge of sarcasm. "Very tedious, though." He turned to his fellow Jinchūriki. "Wall hopping?"
Naruto pumped chakra to his legs and leapt upon the wall. He rebounded in a back-flip and hit the opposite side of the building, Fū following close behind. The pair jumped from wall to wall, performing a variety of acrobatics until they reached the top. Standing with his back to them, overlooking the Hidden Sound from a large opening, was the orange-haired form of Pein. He turned at the sound of his guests' feet hitting the steel of the top floor. Silence reigned as each party observed the other. "Oto looks nice," Naruto offered finally.
"It has made progress," Pein noted, "but there are still things which require improvement." He stared at the two for a long moment. "I must admit, I'm mildly surprised that you came here."
Naruto quirked an eyebrow in what he considered to be a fair imitation of Kakuzu. "Oh?"
"Yes. Two Jinchūriki coming willingly to the headquarters of an organization they know to be hunting them for their Bijū seems incredibly foolish." Fū tensed, and Naruto moved in front of her slightly, bringing his hands together to more easily form seals. "Such an action speaks volumes of either your stupidity or your arrogance." Pein turned around and crossed his hands behind his back, returning his gaze to the village below. "However, given that Kakuzu does not seem like the type to tolerate a low intelligence quotient, and it is unlikely that you actually believe yourself capable of claiming victory over an opponent immeasurably more skilled than yourself, I can only deduce that neither of those assumptions is correct." He turned to face his visitors. "So why did you come here?"
"Kakuzu said you wanted to speak to us," Naruto replied, mustering up more bravado than he felt. Though it was hard to tell from Pein's words, it was entirely possible he had just led himself and Fū to their deaths.
"Mm, that is true. You must have a great deal of faith in your mentor's guidance to come to a place so fraught with danger."
Naruto shot a quick glance at Fū, as if trying to corroborate what they could say about Kakuzu. "I wouldn't quite phrase it like that…"
"Kakuzu believed it was important that I speak to you before committing to action," Pein stated smoothly. "You see, it is my desire to utilize the combined power of the nine Bijū to create a monopoly on war, and eventually dominate the world through the continued blood and strife. Your sacrifice would not be in vain."
"If that's the case, don't you think you should take advantage of us before extracting the Bijū?" Pein stared at the blond, prompting him to continue. "I know that your organization requires a large amount of funds in order to enact your plan, and you should know that Kakuzu raised us to be bounty hunters."
"You propose to work towards Akatsuki's goals," Pein extrapolated. "However, even assisting in our plans does not preclude you from the inevitable. Both the Kyūbi and the Nanabi are required for my intentions." One orange eyebrow rose minutely. "What sort of reciprocity do you expect to exist from this partnership?"
Naruto shrugged. "Just to live a little longer before our supposedly inevitable sacrifice." A pause, then, "You've recently acquired a bishop and a rook," he pitched, referencing (cleverly, in his own mind) Kakuzu and Hidan, "which means that your main force is complete. Now, in your quest to capture the Bijū, we can either be your greatest opposition…" he let that thought linger, "or two of your pawns. I'm no genius, but even I can see which option serves you better."
"You do offer an intriguing proposition," Pein allowed, taking a measured step forward. "But tell me," he continued, slowly raising his hand – palm facing the two Jinchūriki – and using his power over attractive forces to pull the children towards him. Naruto and Fū struggled against his power, bending their bodies to resist the intentionally-diluted strength of the Banshō Ten'in, but slid forward regardless. "What is stopping me from capturing you here and now?"
Naruto grunted as the force of Pein's technique increased, pulling him closer to the man. Instinctively, he activated the Fūton: Reppūshō, but the Violent Wind Palm did nothing to halt his movement. "Okay!" he shouted. The tug on his body faded after a couple of seconds, and he placed a hand over his heart in an attempt to slow its violent pounding. Behind him, Fū was also breathing heavily, and Naruto spared her a look that indicated Pein's abilities were far beyond anything he had imagined. "Absolutely nothing," he deigned to reply, solemn. "Only the fact that you didn't kill us when you had the chance before we left to find Hidan made me think that you couldn't…or maybe didn't want to."
Pein continued to eye Naruto with an expressionless façade. "If you so desire," he said at length, "then I have no issue with utilizing your talents for Akatsuki's resources. In return for allowing you to maintain your freedom—" 'and your lives' went unspoken, "—half of all proceeds you collect will go to Akatsuki."
After a moment's hesitation – 50% of all profits was a fairly hefty sum, especially considering the quality of targets he and Fū could actually kill at their current skill level – Naruto nodded. "You won't be disappointed."
"I certainly hope not."
Really, there was no other viable option considering what he had just gone through. The somewhat-ramshackle building he had taken refuge in was apparently haunted, if the hoarse voice from nowhere and random whip-like things were any indication. Such a combination had driven him to a sort of nervous breakdown, and he had quickly abandoned his shelter for the night in favor of camping outdoors.
Far, far away from the spooky building.
A block of earth zoomed past his shoulder, and he turned to unleash a blast of wind at his presumed pursuer. Gazing at the path he had traversed, the light of the moon only revealed a smoky trail of dust swirling in the breeze. Paranoia's grip tightening around him even more, he dashed further into the thicket of the Land of Grass, using wind to boost his speed until he was panting laboriously.
So caught up in running, he was unaware of the low-hanging vine which blended perfectly into the darkness. It looped around his neck, snapping it almost effortlessly before he could even question its existence. His body crumpled to the ground.
Uzumaki Naruto jumped from the tree he had been perched in, a long thread of Jiongu unwrapping from around his target's neck and disappearing back under his skin. Fū appeared in short order, crouching next to their victim and poking him with a finger. "That was surprisingly effective," she commented. "I can't believe this guy fell for such an obvious ruse."
Her blond companion merely shrugged. It was rather shocking just how many nukenin were labeled as such for the most minor infractions. Naruto had expected the majority of them to be powerful shinobi with the capacity to handle themselves in most situations. This one – like several of the others he and Fū had tracked down and killed over the past several months – was merely a Chūnin whom his home village had discovered trading intelligence to foreign entities, and had escaped before being jailed. Information was powerful, but it also lent credence to the idea that most spies were not ideally suited for combat scenarios. "We definitely got the right guy," he assured, pulling out a flyer he had nabbed on their recent trip to the Hidden Sand. "Ishikawa Hiro, formerly of Sunagakure. How he rose to Chūnin, I'll never know."
"The better question is how he escaped from Suna in the first place."
"Ever since the failed invasion of Konoha, Suna's been struggling to recuperate from their losses. With the Kazekage and his family dead, plus the loss of the Ichibi, Suna's been so embroiled in inner turmoil that it would be simple for any level of shinobi to leave the village." The blond pulled a scroll from his pocket as Fū lifted the body, allowing him to unravel the scroll on the ground. A series of circles was inked into the parchment, several of them inscribed with names. Fū laid Hiro's body over the next empty circle, and Naruto performed a few quick hand signs before placing one palm upon the corpse. It disappeared in a cloud of smoke. "How's Kamegensō?" he asked, referring to the chameleon – one of Shiromari's sons – who had posed as the secluded building.
"He's fine. Disappeared as soon as the target was out of sight."
"Good." He wrapped up the scroll and placed it back into his pocket. The scripture was a remarkable example of Orochimaru's genius. Pein had given it to them before they had departed Otogakure, claiming that it was something he had found in one of the Sannin's labs and that it would be useful for their undertaking. It was a sealing scroll designed specifically to hold corpses, inscribed with extra seals to prevent decay of the contents sealed within. "We should visit an exchange point soon. I wanna see how much profit we've turned."
"Sounds good." They took to the trees, heading for one of the small tree forts they had created throughout the Elemental Nations for the purpose of having bases of operations.
Both were caught unaware by the attack.
A block of wood shot out from the trunk of the tree Fū was jumping from, catching her in the side and punting her deep into the forest. Naruto turned at her yelp, but the branch he was on wound around him and threw him violently to the ground. He landed with a muffled 'oof' but only managed to lift his head before wooden pillars sprouted from the earth and encaged him. "What the hell?" he muttered. "Fū!"
"Your companion is preoccupied," spoke a voice from the shadows. "You're the only one I'm interested in…Kyūbi Jinchūriki."
Naruto blanched at that. Few people should know that contained the Nine-Tailed Demon Fox, let alone want to target him for it. He briefly toyed with the idea that Pein had reneged on their arrangement and sent one of his flunkies after him and Fū, but then discarded it. Only Pein, Tobi and Zetsu had abilities that Naruto was unaware of, and even though manipulating trees could be something the plant-like Zetsu might be able to do, the voice which had spoken didn't sound like either half of the plant-man; nor did it sound like either of the other two. Besides that, if it was Akatsuki, they certainly would've been interested in restraining Fū as well, which this person apparently had no intention of doing.
That meant there was a new player in the game.
Great, Naruto huffed mentally, just what I need. Someone else interested in me. Like a group of S-class nukenin wasn't enough. Kami clearly hates me. He rapped his knuckles against one of the pillars of his prison and started in surprise. No way… It can't be… "Who are you?" he demanded.
A figure stepped forward from the shadows. He wore grey chest armor over a sleeveless black bodysuit, complete with arm guards and black gloves which went past his elbows. Across his back was strapped a sword, and a white porcelain mask – with a vaguely cat-like design – with red and green markings covered his face, leaving tufts of brown hair sticking up above the mask as his only visible, physical characteristic. He was gripping his right wrist with his left hand, the right one held palm-out to Naruto with the character for 'sit' inscribed on it. "You may call me Tenzō if you so desire."
Naruto's eyes narrowed. "ANBU…Konoha ANBU." Tenzō said nothing. "Even so, this should be impossible. With the exception of Tsunade of the Sannin, the Senju line is extinct, and she doesn't even have the kekkei genkai of the Shodai Hokage. Mokuton shouldn't exist!" The brunette remained silent, and the Jinchūriki mentally cursed the mask the man wore. It was frustrating to never see Kakuzu's facial expressions; not being able to see this man's was even worse. "I'm right, aren't I? There's no other ability in the world that can manipulate trees and produce wood from nothing."
"You're quite astute," was all the ANBU said.
Shit. Naruto was well and truly screwed. If Kakuzu, who was who-knew how much stronger than him, hadn't been able to defeat the might of the Shodai Hokage's Wood Release Bloodline Limit, what chance did he have? That wasn't to say that this Tenzō fellow was as strong as Senju Hashirama – that was highly doubtful – but he was still in possession of an otherwise extinct kekkei genkai, and was good enough to be in ANBU.
The odds really didn't look to be in his favor. Experimentally, he formed a blade of wind along his arm, the tip extending a couple inches past his fingertips – he had thus far neglected replacing his wakizashi, though he had recovered his Fūton and Suiton hearts – and slashed it across one of the wooden bars.
A mere splinter was carved from the prison.
Naruto released a strangled gurgle at the lack of damage the sharpest of the elements did to the legendary Mokuton ninjutsu. "You won't be able to free yourself from my Shichūrō no Jutsu through conventional means," Tenzō informed him. "It's now time to return to Konoha."
"Not until I'm ready to destroy it," snarled the blond, opting for a different method of escape. By some stroke of luck, Tenzō had neglected to create a floor of wood. If they ever met again, he would certainly not forget to do so. With a quick application of chakra, Naruto slipped underground via Doton: Moguragakure no Jutsu and began to tunnel a path away from the ANBU member. Sucker.
The ground around the blond immediately began to quake before splitting apart to create a series of chasms and fissures. Naruto was hit by the cool night air as his hiding spot was revealed. "Holy shit," he managed, wide-eyed.
"You're resourceful, but you're not going to escape from me," Tenzō stated. "Mokuton: Mokusatsu Shibari no Jutsu." His arm transformed into a wooden block and promptly split into a series of malleable wooden tendrils which diverged to surround Naruto.
"Well, you're certainly not making it easy to do so," he conceded. The wooden tendrils reminded the Jinchūriki of his own flexible kinjutsu, and he quickly called to the threads within his body. Forming the signs of the Dragon and then the Boar (more out of habit than actual necessity), he hissed, "Jiongu: Shīrudo Fōmu, Jiongu: Sōdo Fōmu." Threads burst forth from stitches on both arms, the ones on his left interlacing to form a small shield over his wrist while the ones on his right wound together to create a sharp blade which protruded a solid two feet past his hand. It was hardly a sword in a practical sense, but it worked for Naruto's intentions.
He began to fend off the animated wood with the threads, barely managing to escape their grasp. "This is really getting on my nerves," he griped. "Get 'im." More threads sprouted from the sutures on his arms and zipped towards the ANBU agent.
Several of the tendrils were blocked by their wooden counterparts, but those that weren't were immediately halted by a half-shell wood wall that formed in front of Tenzō with a series of interlocking clicks. Naruto scowled; he hadn't exactly expected that to work, and that wooden wall was probably twice as solid as the blocks Tenzō used for attacking, meaning his odds of penetrating it were unlikely. This guy's gonna be a pain in the ass.
"Chirigakure no Jutsu!"
Fū… A thick cloud of dust rose into the air, covering the wide area that encompassed Naruto and his aggressor. Several threads slithered out of the tattoo on his forearm when a gentle hand came to rest on his bicep, working their way up to twine around the new appendage. "We need to go," Fū whispered, "now."
Naruto let her lead him through the Hiding in Dust Technique, opting not to drop Jiongu's Shield and Sword Forms until they were safe, though the threads wound around his partner receded. "What happened to you?" he asked.
"Got attacked by a Konoha ANBU wearing a cat mask," she replied. "He could turn his limbs into wood."
"Yeah, he must be some sort of lost descendant of the Shodai Hokage." Quickly, the blond gave his companion a rundown of what he had gone through. "Since he was after me, you must've been fighting some sort of clone. How'd you get away?"
"Same way I got you away – Chirigakure no Jutsu. Good thing I've practiced how to move through it, huh?" She glanced behind them. "If he's ANBU, we're not gonna be able to outrun him."
Naruto nodded. "Right." He bit his thumb and performed seals. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu." A large chameleon – the same type as Shiromari, if a fair size smaller than the Chameleon Boss – appeared in front of them. "We need to hide, 'Gensō."
"No problem, Naruto," rumbled the reptile. He opened his mouth and allowed both Jinchūriki to climb in. When they were inside, he shut his maw and his form rippled. Seconds later, Kamegensō was disguised as a copse of trees in the middle of the forest.
Five minutes later, Tenzō passed through the area without any notion that his quarry was nearby.
"Naruto, you can't do this."
"Sure I can."
"…Alright, you shouldn't do this. You know how dangerous he is. Even Kakuzu—"
"Kakuzu's not here. We haven't heard from him in six months." He took a deep breath at Fū's mildly hurt expression, trying to rein in the bite in his tone. "Sorry. I know what we were told, but don't you see that that's why I have to do this? He's my best chance at fixing this problem."
"It's not that big a problem."
Naruto gave her an 'are-you-kidding-me?' look. "That last nukenin killed me." He rubbed his chest uncomfortably at the reminder, adding 'get a Suiton heart' to his mental to-do list. "When we were chasing Orochimaru, that stupid bitch from Oto got me, too. If it wasn't for either you or Jiongu, I'd be screwed. And now with Tenzō out there…" He let the thought hang; even though they hadn't run into the Mokuton-user since their initial encounter, the blond knew the ANBU member wouldn't give up on finding him. "I swore to fix this problem, and I will…no matter who I have to go to. I've been putting it off long enough."
"No," he asserted, "I'm doing this."
Fū was silent for a long moment. "Fine," she sighed.
Naruto offered his fellow Jinchūriki a wan smile. "Don't worry, I'll be fine. In the meantime," he pulled out the scroll they used to seal bodies, "here. You should keep up with our assignment while I get this whole thing worked out."
She took the proffered item and dropped it into the cylinder on her back. "You'll be careful, right?"
"Of course." Naruto grunted as Fū threw her arms around his neck and captured him in a hug. He patted her back awkwardly, unsure of what to do in such a situation. "Hey, it'll be alright," he assured her quietly, as if trying to convince himself of the same. "Take care of yourself," he added when she pulled away. "I'll meet up with you once I'm done with my training."
"I'll hold you to that." With one last look at him, Fū turned and disappeared into the trees. Naruto watched her go before making his way into the nearby cave.
Uchiha Itachi was many things to many people. The terms 'prodigy' and 'genius' had been used by both his family and the higher-ups in the Hidden Leaf during his youth. After the massacre of his entire clan – barring his younger brother – he had acquired the titles S-class nukenin and member of Akatsuki. He was often described as being intelligent, emotionless, and dedicated. But one thing Itachi was not was easily surprised.
Which was why, when Uzumaki Naruto entered the cave he had been using as a hideout while Kisame was out performing his own mission and asked for the Uchiha's assistance with breaking genjutsu, the former Leaf shinobi was caught flat-footed.
That wasn't to say that he showed such a reaction – years of acting like he had no personality had taught him to temper any impulse to react outwardly – but the mere fact that he was surprised was an impressive feat in and of itself. And he wasn't quite sure how to respond to such a request.
Itachi had plans. Or, perhaps more accurately, he had had plans. Not one of which involved training a recently-turned teenage boy in the illusionary arts (even if it was how to dispel rather than cast them). But then, things hadn't quite turned out as well as the stoic man would've liked.
The destruction of his flesh and blood had certainly not been an assignment he had ever thought he would receive upon joining ANBU. It wasn't something he regretted – he had had quite enough of what war he had seen in his short life, and his family's planned coup was sure to start another – but it also wasn't something he had enjoyed carrying out. Even then, he had had one stipulation to the heinous act of massacring the Uchiha clan – that his little brother Sasuke would be kept safe. That, he could admit, was a somewhat selfish request on his part, given that he had planned on having the younger Uchiha kill him somewhere down the line.
Given the habit Itachi had gotten into after becoming a renegade with referring to his younger sibling as 'foolish', he was almost embarrassed at how easily his agenda had been derailed. Hindsight was always 20/20.
Such a phrase was especially ironic when the referred-to party possessed the Sharingan.
Itachi had accounted for any internal conflicts he had thought would accost his brother. The Sandaime Hokage had given him his word that Sasuke would remain safe. Danzō had been threatened and blackmailed to leave Sasuke alone. The villagers' adulation of the Uchiha clan would ensure that Sasuke wanted for nothing while within Konoha's walls.
And despite all that, Uchiha Sasuke, last of the loyal Uchiha, had been killed by external forces. By a Jinchūriki no less, one of the targets Itachi's organization was hunting. Irony struck again.
Itachi wasn't entirely sure how to respond to the news. When it had been reported during the Ichibi's sealing, all heads had turned to him in expectation of a reaction. True to form, Itachi had given them nothing, but that wasn't to say he was unaffected.
All of his plans for his younger brother – for his family's retribution – were for naught. Everything he had done thus far – massacring his family, protecting Sasuke, planning his own death – had been derailed. The only thing that was going right was his protection of Konoha from Akatsuki; more specifically, from Madara. And now, such a goal was meaningless. Konoha had not upheld its end of the bargain and protected Sasuke; what reason did Itachi have to continue actively defending Konoha?
Itachi gazed at the blond in front of him with an outwardly disinterested gaze. Sasuke was dead. There was nothing he could do for his beloved younger brother except hope that he was at peace. The way that Naruto had asked for training reminded Itachi of the days when Sasuke had done the same thing.
Perhaps he couldn't help his brother, but this boy was different. From what he had observed during the blond's training with Kisame, he had great potential. Naruto was also the Kyūbi Jinchūriki, which was (ironically) Itachi's target. Training him to be stronger meant that he had a greater ability to defend himself, which meant that Madara would have more difficulty getting his hands on all the Bijū. While supporting the Hidden Leaf was no longer a priority on Itachi's personal agenda, anything that inhibited his ancestor's plans – which were sure to have negative repercussions the world over – could be considered a correct course of action. Cause and effect, Itachi thought.
The situation looked to be win-win.
Uchiha Itachi had failed to protect his family, failed to save Sasuke…failed to give his flesh and blood the retribution they so deserved.
He would not fail Uzumaki Naruto.
"Let us begin."
Naruto brought his hands together into the Ram seal as a gigantic ball of fire descended upon him from the sky. "Kai!" The conflagration vanished as his chakra interrupted Itachi's own.
"Good," stated the Uchiha, inflection its usual monotone. "Magen: Jigoku Kōka no Jutsu is a good example of a destructive, if obvious, B-rank genjutsu. However, you would do well to remember that some of the more dangerous illusions are far more subtle."
The blond nodded, trying not to let Itachi's words go to his head. Kakuzu had never really given him blatant praise, and even though Itachi's voice never wavered from its flat delivery, Naruto took the man's simple statements as pride in his improvements.
Idly, he wondered how weird it was that he could somewhat understand the subtle idiosyncrasies of emotionally-stunted individuals.
"Are you ready to continue?"
"Very well. Nehan Shōja no Jutsu." White feathers drifted across Naruto's vision, causing the blond to start suddenly. Even as he recognized the technique as the one used during the Chūnin Exams, his limbs began to feel heavy and leaden.
He fought the drowsiness that overcame his body, telling himself that it was just the pull of the illusion, that the sluggishness wasn't real. Forcing his arms to move, Naruto brought his hands into the Ram seal. "K-kai," he muttered. Nothing happened, and he forced himself to tighten his focus. "Kai!" Still nothing. His chakra flared wildly as he struggled to break free of the genjutsu. "KAI!"
The feathers disappeared, the lethargy left his body, and Naruto became aware of the fact that he was sitting on the floor. Itachi looked down on him impassively. "Not the most judicious application of chakra I've ever seen, but it will suffice," Itachi said. "Congratulations. You now have the capacity to dispel genjutsu."
"That's it?" Naruto asked, moving to stand. He could hardly believe that the past two and a half months of struggling through one illusion after another had finally reached a conclusion. His major weakness was no longer a liability.
"For the most part," affirmed the raven-haired shinobi. "That was an A-rank genjutsu. Despite your initial struggle, you managed to break it. The next step would be S-rank genjutsu and kekkei genkai-induced illusions, neither of which you are likely to run across."
"Except for you."
There was a pregnant silence as Naruto's words were digested. The fact that Itachi was designated the one to track and capture Naruto had been an understood weight between the two of them, though neither had brought up the topic until now. "Yes," Itachi granted at length, "except for me.
"I will warn you," he continued, much to his companion's surprise, "that the genjutsu abilities of the Sharingan are unsurpassed. Should you find yourself in confrontation with any S-rank genjutsu-users or kekkei genkai similar to the Sharingan, I would suggest fleeing. Such ninja have ways of making you question the very fabric of your reality. Also, be aware that you broke these illusions with the knowledge that they were placed upon you; in the heat of battle, you will not be so lucky. The opponent will not allow you to have foreknowledge of the fact that you are ensnared in an illusion…or several."
Naruto nodded in understanding. He bowed slightly to Itachi before turning to leave the cave, but then twisted his head to glance at his temporary tutor. "Tell me," he prompted, "do you actually use any of the genjutsu you used against me?"
"No. Those are all more commonplace illusions that you might come across in your travels." There was the most miniscule upturn of his lips that Naruto thought might be Itachi smirking. "My personal collection of genjutsu has a…certain flair to it." Before the Jinchūriki could ask what that meant, the Uchiha separated into a murder of cawing crows.
The blond watched the birds fly away. He whispered a grateful, "Thanks, Itachi," to the cave, and then walked out.
From the darkness of the cave's corner, Itachi watched his temporary pupil leave. Naruto had come a long way in his training, going from a highly illusion-susceptible ninja to an adept dispeller. That he had been willing to approach a known adversary to correct his most glaring weakness spoke volumes of his desire for personal growth, to prove himself.
Naruto was no substitute for the Sasuke that Itachi had grown up with and loved – the Sasuke he had forced to hate him, to come kill him, who had died – but perhaps that was okay. Itachi was now a different person from the one his brother knew, and Naruto was another person unto himself, incomparable to Sasuke. He had been given a second chance to oversee the growth of another young mind, to make up for what he couldn't be to Sasuke.
Sasuke shouldn't have died.
Naruto didn't deserve to die.
Itachi would do everything in his power to prevent that from happening.
It didn't take long for the blond Jinchūriki to find his female counterpart. Fū had apparently taken a more relaxed approach to bounty hunting during his training period, staying in the nearby vicinity and capturing whoever crossed her path rather than actively seeking out targets. Naruto wasn't sure Kakuzu would approve of such a methodology, but perhaps that was okay. Kakuzu had more than one screw loose, and any differences that he and Fū had contrary to their wayward mentor was probably more of a boon than a loss in the long run.
He wasn't sure how to react to this new hugging phase Fū had apparently entered, though. Physical contact was not something he was very used to. "Um…"
The green-haired girl released him and took a step back. "Sorry," she offered sheepishly. "I just… I was worried that you might not come back…"
"You should have more faith in me!" Naruto exclaimed. The extra dose of bravado wasn't necessary, but truth be told, the blond was slightly surprised that he had left the Uchiha with all his faculties intact. Still, there was no point in worrying Fū needlessly with that tidbit of information. "So where to now?"
"I figured you should choose, since you've been cooped up for so long."
Naruto mused that offer over with a quiet hum. He was still missing his Suiton heart, which was a bit of a hindrance in the grand scheme of things, considering how adept he was getting with the liquid element. "How about we find someone so that I can restock?"
"Sounds good. Water again?"
Fū began flipping through the Bingo Book. "How come you never want a Katon or Raiton heart? If it were me, I'd definitely want to have one of the more destructive elements."
"It's not that I don't want them," Naruto admitted, "but our situation means that we've gotta survive with what we know. I don't really have the means or time to learn to use either of those elements right now." Even Naruto wasn't so blind as to dismiss the fact that, while Kakuzu hadn't done a very good job of training him outright, the former Taki-nin had at least set the groundwork for Naruto's nature manipulation abilities. "Maybe in the future I'll be able to master them, but for now we should stick with perfecting our current bags of tricks."
His companion nodded her understanding. A devious grin worked its way onto her face; Naruto briefly entertained the idea that Kakuzu often wore the same expression underneath his mask when he was being particularly sadistic. "Wanna go to Taki and wreak some havoc?"
"Someone wants to take a chance."
Fū shrugged. "Might as well live a little, right? And they've got plenty of Suiton hearts to take. We can consider it an early birthday gift in Kakuzu's honor."
"Really early, since his birthday will still be two months away by the time we get to the Land of Waterfalls."
"We'll make a party of it." There was a brief pause, followed by the quiet admittance, "I miss him."
…So do I. "Let's go then. We've got some traveling to do."
Kakuzu now knew, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that when he eventually died – and it was when, not if, given that Kakuzu didn't believe he was immortal – he was going to Hell.
And not for any of the obvious reasons, either. It wasn't because he enjoyed inflicting pain upon others, or that he hunted and killed people for both sport and lifestyle choices. Nor was it due to his complete lack of regard for human life, going so far as to take a young child and guide him along a path to become his carbon copy, tainting his innocence in the process (though those were all good reasons).
No. Kakuzu was going to Hell because to have been paired with Hidan on a permanent basis, all other karmic deities had to have abandoned him. It was as simple as that.
Pein had a rather sick sense of humor if he considered Hidan his 'ideal partner'.
During the 14 months of travel with the silver-haired man, Kakuzu had been driven to the brink of insanity and back. Multiple times. Objectively (a view Kakuzu was finding harder and harder to maintain), the Jashinist was a good complement to him, tactically-speaking. Hidan was quite obviously a masochist, which matched well with his own sadism, though the fact that the younger male also took pleasure in his own pain somewhat dampened the joy Kakuzu took from it.
Unfortunately, that was about the extent of what Kakuzu could tolerate about the man. Hidan was annoyingly talkative, dissolving into zealous rants about Jashin, angry tirades about Akatsuki's slow progress, and heated condemnations regarding Kakuzu's obsession with money with little to no prompting. The former Taki-nin had used the man's inability to be quiet to his advantage, learning about the origins of Hidan's technique throughout their long journey, in spite of the fact that he found his partner's lengthy diatribes rather annoying.
Apparently, Hidan's abilities stemmed from a successful experiment archived in some ancient Jashinism scrolls. As long as he had a sample of his target's blood, the pain and damage from any wound Hidan was inflicted with was shared with his opponent. It went well with the man's masochism and made dodging attacks less of a necessity, but otherwise the practicality of it had struck Kakuzu as somewhat lacking. When, in the middle of a battle, would Hidan have time to form the Jashinist symbol on the ground with blood and then get more blood from the opponent to pull off the cursed ritual?
Kakuzu chose to pointedly ignore the fact that his partner had already pulled off the technique against his pupil.
The ex-Waterfall shinobi was secretly shocked at how often Hidan successfully trapped someone in his curse. Then his surprise always changed to annoyance at the length of the man's postmortem rituals. Kakuzu viewed those as nothing more than a huge waste of time.
Even worse was the Yugakure nukenin's continued touting of his immortality, as loathe as Kakuzu was to use the word. Unfortunately for his personal philosophy, as it stood, the old shinobi had no other explanation for Hidan's extraordinary resilience. Even discounting the evidence that Hidan repeatedly 'killed' himself when in the midst of his curse or rituals, Kakuzu's own attempts to permanently silence the man had proved fruitless.
They were accidents, of course (most of the time, anyway) – after all, how was he to be blamed when Hidan's eccentricities pushed him into a blind rage? – but the thread-user had tried everything. Burning, drowning, decapitation…he had even yanked his partner's still-beating heart from his chest. Nothing worked.
Pein was truly a twisted man. Kakuzu was tempted to take a crack at the man just to enact some form of vengeance for the hardship of putting up with Hidan, but being on Akatsuki's leader's shit-list was counterproductive to his own position, not to mention Naruto's and Fū's.
Naruto… Kakuzu hadn't given his student much thought in recent months. For all he knew, both Jinchūriki were dead, and had been for a long time. Kakuzu's life for the past 14 months had been a repetitive cycle of bounty hunting, turning in corpses, and traversing the Elemental Nations looking for hints as to the whereabouts of either the Nibi or the Rokubi. Hidan's caterwauling (as Kakuzu had taken to thinking of it) – while lacking the distinctive finesse and wit of Naruto's – had nonetheless filled in some of the space the blond would have if they were still traveling together. All told, the silver-haired man was, personality-wise, a decent stand-in for the Kyūbi Jinchūriki, if a more obnoxious one.
Though the fact that Kakuzu could use all of his powerful ninjutsu without having Hidan die or bitch about watching his aim (as Naruto would have been wont to do) was an upside. The oxymoron that was the mercenary's series of traveling companions was truly baffling.
"Oi, Kakuzu, are we there yet?"
Speak of the devil…
The former Taki-nin looked up from his map. He and Hidan had been wandering the countryside of some of the lesser countries in the hope that they would come across the rogue Rokubi Jinchūriki – assuming that he was still alive – while also searching for the Nibi Jinchūriki. The Lands of Sound (Orochimaru had apparently gotten the daimyō to rename the country, the damned egoist), Hot Water, and Frost had all been thoroughly scoured for any clues as to the whereabouts of the two Jinchūriki (though Kakuzu had been forced on at least a half-dozen different occasions to stop Hidan from rampaging throughout his former home, citing the lack of any worthwhile bounties as a waste of time). The bounty hunter thought that if the Rokubi vessel was in hiding, a lesser country would have been the most logical place to look. Any Jinchūriki still alive and loyal to their village was more likely to belong to one of the Hidden Villages of the Five Great Shinobi Nations than to one of the smaller ones (Fū being the exception rather than the rule).
Which had led the pair north into the Land of Lightning.
Kakuzu had been somewhat reluctant to enter the major nation, knowing that remaining inconspicuous (especially with Hidan as a companion) was far less likely the closer they got to Kumogakure. He wasn't afraid – the idea was rather laughable, especially after surviving Orochimaru – but information-gathering required a far more subtle touch than the 'come, seek, kill, leave' stratagem that was bounty hunting. After weighing the pros and cons and deciding that traversing the Land of Lightning at some point was inevitable, the pair had entered the nation's western border with the Land of Frost. It hadn't been long before they had come across an outpost village, which Hidan had quickly proceeded to ravage.
At the mercenary's behest, Hidan had stopped short of massacring the enter village, leaving a single Kumo Chūnin alive to interrogate. The Jashinist's curse ritual had come in handy then, with Hidan torturing the man with his masochism until the Cloud shinobi had cracked. Kakuzu had considered it a stroke of luck that the Nibi Jinchūriki was actually a Kumo-nin, with a personal sanctuary located not comparably-far from their location. The man's cooperation had been rewarded with a swift death.
Apparently, Hidan found the five-day trek unbearably lengthy. His whining made Kakuzu actually miss the companionship of his blond student. …I must be getting senile, to wish for that brat's company, he realized dourly. He crested another of the Land of Lightning's innumerable mountains and looked at the landscape below, Hidan lagging behind him. "Yes, Hidan," he stated, "we have arrived."
Nestled among the feet of several tall peaks was what Kakuzu presumed to be some sort of shrine. From their distance, it was hard to make out any details, but atop the building was the rough design of a blue cat head. "We should exercise caution," Kakuzu warned. "We are unaware of how well the Jinchūriki is guarded, and it would be unwise to—"
Kakuzu could only stare as Hidan slid down the mountain, scythe dragging behind him and dislodging rocks and debris. Dust was kicked into the air as the silver-haired man descended upon the shrine. "…incur unnecessary trouble," finished the former Taki-nin needlessly. Hidan cannot die, you have tried before with no success, he cannot die, he chanted mentally, trying to quell his temper.
…I am going to kill him.
He leapt after his partner, long arms trailing behind him. As he got closer to the ground, he could already see Hidan preparing to engage a couple of Kumo-nin in battle. Kakuzu performed three quick hand signs. Katon: Zukkoku! The Cloud shinobi immediately scattered to avoid the scorching blaze, but Hidan, with his back to his partner, was quickly engulfed in flames. His angry screeching could be heard from even where Kakuzu was, causing the tall nukenin to chuckle darkly. Whoever said revenge was a dish best served cold clearly had no affinity for Katon ninjutsu.
By the time he reached the shrine, Hidan had already returned to swinging his scythe aimlessly, screaming expletives while doing so. Kakuzu shot his arm out at a shinobi sneaking up on the silver-haired man, grabbing him by the throat and reeling him in. "Is the Jinchūriki inside?" he intoned coldly.
"I'll tell you nothing!"
Kakuzu snapped his neck with barely a thought. "Shinobi with principles," he remarked, disdain dripping from his voice. "I applaud your dedication, but your lives are forfeit." Hidan was standing in one spot, preparing his ritual; Kakuzu rolled his eyes. "Such a waste of time. Katon: Hibashiri." Streams of fire raced along the ground, encircling the Cloud shinobi and rising to prevent them from escaping.
"Kakuzu, you asshole, these heathens were going to be sacrificed to Jashin-sama!"
"I could care less. Your target is most likely inside. Fūton: Kamikaze." A massive gust of wind blew through the area, catching the flames and swirling them into a fiery vortex. The Running Fire/Divine Wind combination was a watered down version of his Jigoku Arashi, usable when Kakuzu was too lazy or felt it unnecessary to drag out the wind and fire hearts from within his body. "The sooner we capture the Jinchūriki, the sooner we can move on to other goals."
"You mean collecting money!" his partner accused. "All I wanna do is spread the tenets of Jashin-sama. How long 'til this fuckin' plan of Akatsuki's takes effect, anyway?"
Kakuzu didn't respond. Instead, he watched the blazing whirlwind he had created die down, leaving the charbroiled corpses of the Kumo-nin visible on the ground. In all honesty, he was still unsure as to the timeframe of Akatsuki's plans, let alone what the organization's actual endgame was or how it would take place. Still, he was supposed to be the smarter, senior half of this pairing. He wouldn't be able to live with himself if Hidan figured out that his partner knew only marginally more than him. "Come," he ordered instead, moving towards the shrine's entrance, "I have other things on my agenda."
"You just wanna go on one of your godless money hunts. Without dogma, existence is meaningless!"
Kakuzu sighed silently. This was one of the repetitive, cyclic arguments he and Hidan frequently engaged in. It was mind-numbing and aggravating, nothing like the stimulating (and dare he say, amusing) banter Naruto and he exchanged. Once again he was struck with the thought that he missed his blond disciple. Pushing that introspection to the back of his mind, he opened the shrine's sliding doors forcefully just as a set of doors opposite him did the same.
The kunoichi standing across from them possessed dirty blonde hair held in a ponytail of bandages. She wore a black and lavender top with a cloud design on the right breast, and deep blue, borderline-black pants with the same cloud design on each leg. A red sash adorned her waist, and bandages were wound around her arms from bicep to wrist, ending in black, fingerless gloves. "Who are you?" she demanded, posture defensive.
"This her, Kakuzu? The Nibi bitch?" The kunoichi across from them tensed at the title of the Bijū. Kakuzu's eyes narrowed at the motion.
"It would seem so," he affirmed in a bored voice. "Let us see your dogma reward you when you are not allowed to kill your target."
"Aww, c'mon Kakuzu, what'd you hafta go and say that for? Jashin-sama doesn't appreciate blasphemy. He requires death and destruction. You know that tellin' me I can't do somethin' just makes me want to cast aside our instructions and go on a fuckin' rampage."
"Our objectives are everything, Hidan, and they are clear. The Jinchūriki must be captured alive."
"I don't know who you guys are," interrupted the kunoichi, "but I swear on my name, Nii Yugito of Kumogakure, that you will die here today for your transgressions."
"Feh, she clearly doesn't know the tenets of Jashinism. The only sin I must repent for is not killing her. If she came along willingly, then—"
"Hidan, shut up and look."
Yugito was crouched on the ground, blue and black flame-like chakra spewing forth from her body. It settled into the form of a giant cat with two tails, eyes – one green, one yellow – staring at the pair over a mouth of razor-sharp teeth. "I guess that's a 'no' on the negotiations, then."
"Do you even have brain cells?" Kakuzu deadpanned testily.
"HEY! I thought we were supposed to be fighting the Jinchūriki, not this thing. What gives?"
"Apparently she has the ability to transform into the Nibi." The former Waterfall shinobi stared a moment longer before turning to his partner. "Have at it."
"Oi, you're not gonna help me?"
"The Nibi no Nekomata is your assignment. Besides, you frequently whine about my interference in your ritual. I am only heeding your desires."
"THAT'S NOT IT AND YOU KNOW IT, ASSHOLE!" The Nibi's giant flaming paw came down on Kakuzu, crushing him and shattering the wooden floor. "You deserved that, you money-grubbing bastard. Uh-oh," Hidan uttered as the Two-Tails turned its attention to him and exhaled a massive fireball. He skipped back through the door and shut it behind him, setting the scythe defensively in front of him.
The shrine exploded, sending Hidan skidding a fair distance backwards, his weapon's blood-red tips scoring the ground. "Heh, I might be in some trouble here. Oi, Kakuzu! Get up! You couldn't have died that easily!"
"Suiton: Bakusui Shōha!" A wave of water taller than the Nibi crashed into the Bijū from the direction of the temple. Amidst the evaporating hisses of the ninjutsu against the cat's flaming chakra, the sound of the Bijū yowling in surprise could be heard. "I was going to leave the challenge of subduing the Jinchūriki in your less-than-capable hands and enjoy observing the outcome," Kakuzu intoned, irritation clear in his voice, "but this situation calls for a more refined hand than you are capable of." Although the mercenary's cloak was rumpled and possessed several rips and scorch marks courtesy of the Nibi, a quick activation of the Earth Spear technique had saved him from any real harm.
"I could take this thing," boasted Hidan, "but you're just gonna fight it 'cause it stomped all over your ass."
"…Your mindless posturing is aggravating me. Shut up before I kill you."
"Tch, like you could." Hidan ducked to avoid a swing from the Nibi's paw which would have decapitated him. "Whatever, let's just get this over with already."
"Says the one who requires assistance." Kakuzu raised a wall of water to intercept a series of flaming, rat-shaped projectiles. He immediately turned the liquid into an offensive form, activating another Suiton: Bakusui Shōha to draw the Nibi's attention to himself. "Hurry up and make yourself useful."
Hidan finished disconnecting the lower two blades of his scythe and overlaid them upon the largest one. Now the blood-red curves were stacked from largest to smallest at the end of his weapon, creating a thicker, single blade. He twirled the scythe experimentally as large earthen walls rose up to box in the Nibi. There were very few situations where this form of his patented weapon was useful, but it would come in handy here. "Now that I'm prepared, I'll show your wrinkly ass the power Jashin-sama grants to his most faithful."
"Your god should give you powers that take less preparation time."
The Nibi broke free of its confines, sending masses of earth flying in all directions. Kakuzu, expecting something like that to happen, was ready with his arms crossed in front of his face and the Earth Spear technique active. He grunted as two flaming paws crushed him in their grasp. Hidan laughed. "Maybe you should have powers that don't suck!"
Kakuzu spat a Suiton: Mizurappa into the giant cat's face, causing it to screech in anger and release him. "Maybe you should do something to prove you have some worth," he growled at his partner.
"Fine, fine, I'll save your worthless ass." The silver-haired man jumped into the air and swiped at one of the Bijū's writhing tails with his scythe.
A yowl split the air as the single blade of Hidan's weapon sliced through the appendage. In its triple-bladed form, the Jashinist's scythe was designed for drawing blood from a human opponent. However, the scythe had been crafted with a number of tricks for a handful of more unusual situations. By combining the blades into a single, stacked form, the weapon was capable of cutting through chakra as easily as it normally cut through flesh.
Indeed, a small piece of fiery, blue and black chakra flickered on the tip of the curved blade. Hidan landed on the ground and brought the scythe to his mouth, swallowing the Nibi's chakra. The skeletal outline of his cursed form appeared as his skin turned pitch black. "This was too easy!" he cried gleefully. "Jashina-sama, accept this sacrifice in—"
"Hidan!" Kakuzu snapped, hands flying through seals. The Bijū had turned its attention to the Jashinist, but Kakuzu's chakra forced the water from his previous attacks to rise up in a geyser and douse the fiery feline before it could maul his partner. "You talk far too much! Quit wasting time and use your damn ritual before I leave you to fend for yourself!" Words I never thought I would speak.
As Hidan withdrew his retractable pike and stabbed himself to get the blood required for his ritual, Kakuzu unbuttoned his cloak and threw it far to the side. He would need to run interference to keep his partner from becoming the Bijū's target, a position he could fulfill much easier with more adversaries for the Nibi to fight. With a thought, the Fūton and Raiton hearts were extruded from his back and went to work firing their respective elements at the cat.
While Kakuzu kept the feline distracted, Hidan was busy forming the Jashinist symbol on the ground. Against his normal opponents, the silver-haired man would target bodily locales that would hinder movement, cause copious amounts of pain, or were immediately fatal. With chakra serving as a stand-in for blood, the cursed ritual didn't cause pain, but instead released the opponent's chakra from whatever point Hidan hit.
It was a rather useful ability against a creature made up entirely of chakra.
The ritual complete, Hidan spun his pike between his fingers and then stabbed into his thigh, avoiding the bone. In front of him, the Nibi screeched as the chakra composing its hind leg dispersed into the air temporarily, causing it to collapse. Hidan laughed maniacally as his partner took advantage of the Bijū's weakness and fired a water/lightning combination attack at the cat. He stabbed into the other leg as the Nibi climbed to its feet.
It took several minutes of constant self-mutilation for the Bijū's form to shrink as its chakra was siphoned away, leaving only the panting Yugito in its place. Despite her exhaustion, her nails sharpened into longs claws and she turned to stalk towards Hidan. Kakuzu Body Flickered behind her and caught her in the Water Prison Technique. Unable to face her captor, she glowered hatefully at Hidan. "I would prefer to not hold this jutsu for an extended period of time," Kakuzu stated dryly as his wind and lightning hearts returned to his body.
"Aw, quit your bitchin', Kakuzu." Hidan plunged the pike through his stomach until it poked through his back. Inside the sphere of water, Yugito collapsed as the rest of her chakra reserves left her body.
"It is done," Kakuzu observed, releasing the ninjutsu and allowing the girl's body to hit the ground. "Now we can move on to more important— what are you doing?"
Hidan twisted his head to glare at his partner from his flat position on the ground. "I must beg for Jashin-sama's forgiveness for leaving the bitch alive. You should consider repenting for all of your godless money hunts."
Kakuzu stared at Hidan as if he had gone insane – which, for Hidan, probably wasn't too far off the truth. "…I will do no such thing." Hidan, engaged in his prayers, didn't respond. The former Taki-nin released a long-suffering sigh and sat down on a nearby rock. He would contact Pein through the rings and report their successful capture of the Nibi Jinchūriki, and then he would plan their next course of action.
Hidan released a long moan of what Kakuzu presumed to be pleasure. Maybe he should attack a temple next, to vent his frustration with religion? The Fire Temple was said to be run by a monk formerly of the Twelve Ninja Guardians. He would be worth a hefty fare, and would hopefully provide an interesting challenge in combat. Decision made, he prepared to send a mental missive to Akatsuki's leader, but then paused.
He was going to attack a temple and kill a monk. A ninja monk, but a monk nonetheless.
There was no question about it. He was definitely going to Hell.