"How long does it take to get to this fucking place anyway? You'd think it wouldn't take so long to get there—"
"Hidan," Kakuzu ground out through gritted teeth, "shut up."
"Eh, bite me, you old bastard."
"One would think you would be more grateful for this opportunity to…spread your religion…to a sect of non-believers. Why do you continue to whine?"
"They will learn of Jashin-sama's greatness through the pleasure that will be our shared pain!"
"Annoying zealot," Kakuzu muttered as Hidan continued to blather on about heathens and repentance.
"We've been walking for three weeks! Are you sure we're goin' the right way? Your senile mind probably forgot which way we're supposed to be go— HEY!"
Faster than Hidan could react, Kakuzu had spun around and launched a blade of wind at the silver-haired man. His left arm now lay on the ground, blood dripping from the gaping wound in his shoulder. "THAT HURT, ASSHOLE!" Kakuzu looked away and continued walking through the Land of Fire's woods, ignoring the plethora of epithets Hidan screamed at him. While the other man's voice was grating to listen to even in the best of moods, the mercenary always felt a little better by venting his temper on his shorter partner.
Besides, it wasn't like the Jashinist didn't deserve whatever Kakuzu did to him.
After figuring out how to mentally contact Pein and inform him of their successful capture of the Nibi Jinchūriki, Kakuzu had queried into their next set of instructions. He had been told that Zetsu would be along shortly to retrieve the girl, but that the sealing would have to wait until Sasori and Deidara finished investigating a lead into a sea monster in the Land of the Sea. Kakuzu had then notified Pein of his plans regarding the high bounty at the Fire Temple, and after Zetsu had appeared to take away the Jinchūriki, he had lured Hidan on the quest with the promise of a religious massacre.
"—put this damn thing back on, and— KAKUZU, ARE YOU LISTENING TO ME?"
That was assuming, of course, that Kakuzu didn't magically find a way to just kill Hidan before they got to their destination.
"Your pathetic bitching is so loud that I would not be surprised to find a group of Kirigakure's oinin listening to you," Kakuzu retorted. "If you would just be quiet for the first time in your life, I will reattach your arm."
Hidan grumbled a low string of curses directed at his partner, but Kakuzu found them easy to tune out. Getting out of the Land of Lightning and into the Land of Fire had taken a little over two weeks – during which Hidan had, quite predictably, complained virtually the entire time – and traversing the forest to where the Fire Temple was located had filled the rest of the time.
Kakuzu released a quiet sigh. He missed the days of traveling to kill people all by himself.
After a short time, the pair walked through a break in the trees to find a winding trail leading up a mountain. The dirt path turned into a wide staircase that begged entrance to an impressive set of metal double doors, statues of demonic figures guarding the temple. Kakuzu gazed up at the structure before them, analyzing it, before turning to Hidan and holding out his hand. "Your arm," he intoned, a tinge of regret in his voice; that had been the most peaceful journey he'd had with Hidan since the beginning of their partnership.
"Ha, I knew you'd see things my way!"
Kakuzu held the severed limb up to Hidan's shoulder and allowed a tendril of Jiongu to stitch the body part back in place. "Do not get the wrong idea. I could quite easily leave you behind in this venture, but perhaps appeasing your insufferable habits will stave off the rather aggravating sound of your whining for a time," he stated pointedly.
Hidan rotated the newly reattached arm in its socket. "Tch, you just don't wanna admit that you need me."
"Hardly," Kakuzu deadpanned. They walked up the stairs, Hidan boasting of his skills while Kakuzu ignored him. When the duo reached the top, the mercenary said, "Before you start your bloodbath, remember that the head monk should remain recognizable. I want to collect the price on his head."
Hidan stared at the giant double doors. "Yeah, yeah, whatever. So how do we get in so I can begin offering my prayers to Jashin-sama? I don't think they're just gonna open these giant-ass doors."
Kakuzu's fist darkened and hardened as he activated Doton: Domu. "We create our own opening." With a single punch, the Fire Temple's renowned Sealed Iron Wall dented and broke, blasting off its hinges.
Then Hell reigned upon the monks of the Fire Temple.
Danzō was not pleased. Considering how well his tenure as the Godaime Hokage had gone thus far, he was probably overdue for something to go wrong; that didn't mean he had to sit back and accept it though.
Things following the invasion of the Sand and Sound had fallen into place surprisingly smoothly. Danzō had tightened a noose around Sunagakure as punishment for their part in the invasion, forcing them to make reparations for any damages incurred despite their decreased economy. The discoveries of the Yondaime Kazekage's death and the Ichibi Jinchūriki's disappearance had further weakened the Hidden Sand's stability and strength. There had been some political backlash when the bodies of the Kazekage's children – Temari and Kankurō – had been found in the forest just outside Konoha's walls, but as there was no proof that the Hidden Leaf had had anything to do with them (and in fact, had had no part in it), the matter had eventually passed over.
Sunagakure was now reliant upon Konohagakure for its continued survival. The Wind Daimyō's outsourcing of missions combined with the Sand's lack of leadership had placed them on the brink of civil war. While the Hidden Sand retained its title as one of the Five Great Shinobi Nations, it was really more a subsidiary of the Hidden Leaf, one which Danzō kept a wary eye on. Even if Suna was weakened, such a situation only made its shinobi more desperate, and desperate people did desperate things. Danzō wouldn't put it past some of the more ambitious ones to try something against Konoha in retaliation.
Granted, given that the invasion of Konoha had been the Hidden Sound's idea (something that had been revealed after much interrogation) – and therefore Orochimaru's – Danzō highly doubted Suna would try anything, but it was better to be prepared for the unlikely than to be caught by surprise.
Danzō's goal of uniting the world under Konoha's banner seemed one step closer to reality with Suna under his thumb.
Information on Oto had been rather scarce for over a year. Orochimaru had been a nonentity for close to 15 months, ever since the invasion had ended, and given his close dealings with the Snake Sannin in the past, Danzō was used to knowing the man's movements. He was tempted to deduce that the renegade Sannin was dead, but knowledge of the man's resilience tempered the impulse to declare it definite.
Still, lack of contact with the Hidden Sound, as well as the disappearance of several of his liaisons sent there, pointed to the fact that Orochimaru was not the one running the (main) village. That was worrisome, but Danzō was unwilling to spend the resources to conduct a raid of the place at the time.
Especially with the situation now presenting itself. "The Fire Temple has been attacked?" he affirmed.
"Yes," conceded the monk kneeling before him. "I had just returned from guard duty when two men wearing black cloaks with red clouds departed with Chiriku-sama in hand. The temple was in ruins."
Akatsuki… Given that the Land of Fire had no Jinchūriki – Tenzō's monthly reports were less than fruitful on that front – Danzō could only assume that the criminal organization was collecting bounties, information he had gleaned from Orochimaru during his tenure as a member. Chiriku was a former member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja and was likely worth a fair amount. "Fetch me Sarutobi Asuma," he commanded to the ANBU hidden in the room.
Fifteen minutes later found the bearded Jōnin standing in front of the Hokage, his usual cigarette absent. "You wished to see me, Hokage-sama?"
"Yes. What is the price on Chiriku of the Fire Temple's head?"
Asuma looked taken aback, but he rallied himself and replied, "30 million ryō." His eyes narrowed in suspicion. "Why?"
Danzō stared the man down, trying to decide the benefit to telling him, if one existed. Finally, he said, "The Fire Temple was attacked by a group known as Akatsuki. Chiriku has been taken; intelligence would suggest that it is because of the price on his head." The Hokage turned his attention to the monk still kneeling on the floor. "I will send out a team to assist at the temple, as well as one to track the attackers."
The monk bowed his head. "Thank you." Then he left.
Asuma immediately leveled the Hokage with a serious look. "Hokage-sama, I would like to take my team to follow the trail this Akatsuki left."
"Your team, Sarutobi, does not have the necessary mission experience to take on this assignment," Danzō informed him. "In addition, there are Jōnin better equipped to track than you. Your request is denied."
Asuma's fist slammed down on the Hokage's desk. "If what you said is true, then we know exactly where they're headed," he stated angrily. "There's an exchange point close to the Fire Temple. If they're after high bounties, I'll be good bait; my head is worth 35 million ryō."
Danzō kept his expression carefully blank as his clever mind finalized the manipulations it had started by telling the man about his friend. Asuma was clearly emotional, which was a dangerous mindset for any shinobi. However, he was also a very talented Jōnin, not to mention the last surviving member of the former Twelve Guardian Ninja, and sadly enough, expendable if things went wrong. "You understand the danger you are putting yourself in." Asuma nodded, and Danzō continued, "Very well. You will follow Akatsuki and gather intelligence, but Team 10 will not accompany you. Do not engage unless you have a clear opportunity to incapacitate them."
"I would like to request that Nara Shikamaru accompany me on this mission as part of my team. His abilities are well-suited to analyzing a situation and collecting data based on even minute details."
The older man considered his underling's request. Shikamaru had proven himself a genius tactician, and had frustratingly remained out of Danzō's reach for recruitment into ROOT. In tandem with Asuma, the Nara would prove to be a powerful asset in the field, and perhaps an opportunity would present itself to finally make him join ROOT. "I will allow this. However, your remaining two teammates will be my choice. They will meet you at the gates in an hour."
Asuma bowed and departed, leaving Danzō alone with his machinations. He didn't trust Asuma to not overstep the bounds of the mission parameters, but with any luck, the outcome would work to his advantage. If things went south, his two operatives would keep to the mission parameters. Sai and Shino possessed skills that would be beneficial for the assigned tasks of tracking and intelligence gathering. The artist's skill was a only a couple steps below Asuma's, and the Aburame had proven himself adept in field assignments after taking well to ROOT's program. Plus, since both had graduated with Shikamaru – even if Sai had been undercover – they would act as effective double-agents to keep the mission on-track and to report the slightest mishap back their leader: him.
Yes, Danzō would get what he wanted from this mission, one way or the other.
Kakuzu glanced behind to find Hidan holding his nose and gagging. He shifted the corpse of the head monk that was slung lazily over his right shoulder. "Problem?"
"This place fucking reeks!"
"It is a bathroom," Kakuzu informed him in a tone that implied his explanation was unnecessary. He knocked on the wall between two urinals as Hidan continued to choke on the stench in an exaggerated fashion.
"You must be too damn old to smell anything anymore. I'll wait outside while you commit your blasphemous acts."
Kakuzu watched him leave the exchange point, grateful for the brief reprieve from his partner. "Ah, Kakuzu," spoke the voice of Zangei, sounding mildly surprised. The mercenary turned his green eyes to the bounty exchange master. "This is quite a surprise. It's been some time."
"I have been preoccupied with other responsibilities."
Zangei nodded and opened the door to allow the taller man access. "Then this is a strange coincidence." The bounty exchange master stepped aside, allowing Kakuzu full scope of the dark room.
Standing by an open cabinet for holding corpses were two figures, one with spiky blond hair, the other with short mint green. Kakuzu smirked. "Well, well…greetings, brats."
The pair of Jinchūriki looked up at the sound of Kakuzu's voice. Even in the dim light of the exchange station, the mercenary could see the widening of his blond pupil's blue eyes. His mouth gaped like a fish's before he found himself able to exclaim, "Holy shit! Kakuzu, you're alive!"
"You sound surprised," returned the former Taki-nin dryly. "Rather, I believe I should be the one reflecting such sentiment."
"And yet…you're not," Fū said.
"Same old Kakuzu," Naruto muttered. "Hey, where's Hidan? Killed him already?"
Kakuzu snorted. "If only it was so easy. No, he decided to remain outside. His god approves of killing but not reaping the benefits of doing so." He rolled his eyes. "The stupidity of such a dogma is truly astounding." Green eyes narrowed at the two Jinchūriki as Kakuzu placed Chiriku's body in a drawer Zangei opened. "I must admit, I am curious as to what the two of you have been up to."
Naruto shrugged as Zangei flipped through a Bingo Book to check the identity of Chiriku. "We made a deal with Pein to do some bounty hunting for him. In return, we get to stay alive."
"For now," Naruto echoed. "So, we've been going around the world and capturing bounties to fund Akatsuki."
Kakuzu turned his gaze to the body his two disciples stood around. "Weaklings, by the look of it," he observed, scorn coloring his voice. "That man is a Chūnin from Sunagakure, hardly a worthwhile target."
"Maybe someone should've trained us to be able to take on people with more skill!"
"We get by with what we can," Fū interjected, placing a placating hand upon Naruto's arm. "For now, it's enough."
"Hmph. Your standards are lower than they should be."
Before Naruto could retort, Zangei stepped forward with a briefcase and said, "It's definitely Chiriku of the Fire Temple. An impressive catch, Kakuzu. Here's your payment."
Kakuzu thumbed through the money with the ease of practice. "With any luck, I will return within a shorter time frame than this last excursion," he informed Zangei, closing the briefcase. He swung the case over his shoulder and began to head for the exit. "It should not be too hard to trick Hidan into killing a handful of high-level targets. His religion might finally be useful for something."
"Kakuzu!" The bounty hunter stopped at Naruto's voice, but remained turned away. "It was good to see you again," admitted the blond.
"…Stay alive, brats," he intoned, walking out of the exchange point.
"Stupid Kakuzu and his damn money obsession," Hidan grumbled. The silver-haired man was currently seated on the steps in front of the bounty exchange station, waiting for his partner to leave what he considered to be a stink-hole. "We never take side missions to just kill people for Jashin-sama, nooo! They have to be worth something! 'Money is what makes the world work'," he said, pitching his voice deeper to mimic his partner. "Bah, the fuck does he know?"
The former Yu-nin made to stand, but found himself unable to move. "Hey! What gives?"
A long blade of chakra came level with his chest. "You're going to tell me everything I want to know about Akatsuki," demanded a bearded man whose height topped Kakuzu's, "starting with where your partner is."
Hidan's purple eyes focused on the sash around the man's waist, the same sash the monk he had killed had worn. "Damn," he swore, completely ignoring the man's question, "now Kakuzu's gonna wanna stay to hand in your ass, too."
The chakra blade thrummed violently and extended, piercing the nukenin's skin. "'Too'? Where's Chiriku?"
"The bald monk? He was a sacrifice to Jashin-sama's great will! Just like you'll be!"
The blade doubled in length and pierced Hidan's heart. "I don't think so." Letting Hidan collapse on the stairs, the chakra faded from around the man's trench knives as he turned and walked away. "We'll wait for the second one to come out and capture him."
From his supine position, Hidan noticed a thick rope of shadow disconnect from his own, the ability to move returning to him. His hand grasped the handle of his scythe and flung it at the bearded man, a mad cackle escaping his lips. There was a shout of "Asuma-sensei!" and the man spun around, deflecting the scythe with his trench knives. "How are you still alive?" Asuma demanded.
"Jashin-sama rewards those who are faithful to him with great gifts!" shouted Hidan, yanking on his weapon's metal coil and bringing it within his grasp once again. He moved to attack, but his periphery caught the movement of a shadow, and he dodged left to avoid it. Then a horde of insects descended upon him, and Hidan swung at them uselessly with his scythe. "Gah! Where the fuck did all these bugs come from?"
That was when Kakuzu stepped out from within the bathroom's shadows. He took in the sight of Hidan flailing around like an idiot, a strip of shadow angling towards him from the roof, and the tall form of a Konoha Jōnin before sighing. "I see your propensity for attracting trouble has struck again, Hidan."
"SHUT UP, ASSHOLE!"
"Although," Kakuzu continued, green eyes focusing on the sash around the Jōnin's waist, "it seems you lured in quite a big fish. Your religion will finally serve some usefulness. Sarutobi Asuma, one of Konohagakure's elite Jōnin and a former member of the Twelve Guardian Ninja. How fortuitous, to come across a second member so soon after delivering the first. I will enjoy cashing in your head for the 35 million it is worth."
Asuma readied his trench knives, the blue chakra of his Flying Swallow fighting style forming along the blades.
Hidan, rather predictably, thought Kakuzu, decided to interrupt the moment. "Kakuzu, this is my fight! Stay out of it, you bastard!"
The bounty hunter stared at the scene before him. Sarutobi Asuma…an Aburame…a Nara… Intelligent green eyes flickered over the tree line, where he could detect a fourth, muted chakra signature. "Try not to lose your head," he acquiesced, bored. "Oh," he continued, almost as an afterthought, "and you should be aware of—"
A trio of ink beasts – vaguely lion-like in appearance, Kakuzu noticed – erupted from the foliage and assaulted Hidan while he was distracted by the insect swarm. "—the fourth shinobi," he finished idly.
"Kakuzu, you unhelpful BASTARD!"
The former Taki-nin paid only half a mind to his partner's screaming and flailing. It had actually been quite…gratifying…to see his two wayward pupils. Both had grown in the more than a year that they had been apart, filling out as their bodies transitioned from pre-pubescence to teenaged. They were still young, and the effects were gradual, but Kakuzu figured that given some more years, Naruto at least would strike an imposing and powerful figure similar to his father. Fū would probably always remain slight physically, but there were advantages for a kunoichi to be built as such.
Emotionally, Kakuzu couldn't decipher from their brief contact if anything had changed. Naruto still seemed brash, but given how (intentionally) antagonistic their relationship was, such a reaction was probably more of a reflection of Kakuzu's presence than the boy's mental state. Fū, at least, appeared to have retained a level head, not to mention a rather simplistic method for calming her fellow Jinchūriki. The nukenin wasn't sure how to feel about such a relationship between the two, if Naruto was even aware of it, but their performance seemed unaffected, so he let the thought slide for the time being. There wasn't anything he could really do about it, anyway.
Their interaction had done nothing to show Kakuzu what sort of skills the two Jinchūriki had picked up during their separation, though the fact that they were bounty hunting – no matter the skill level of their opponents – boded well for what they had learned on the job. The fact that neither was dead…well, considering how badly a vast majority of shinobi outclassed them (Jinchūriki status or not), it was definitely an impressive feat.
Perhaps just as impressive was the knowledge that Pein had listened to his suggestion, and then agreed to it. Granted, there was sure to come a time when Naruto and Fū would be more useful as sacrifices than bounty hunters, but until then, the two Jinchūriki could hone their abilities. There was a miniscule part of him that almost regretted not properly overseeing their training up until their separation; at least, not in the capacity that a normal tutor would have, anyways.
Not that he was the epitome of a normal tutor in any sense, but he certainly could have done more than he did.
The 'fend for yourself' ideology worked to a point – he was a good example – but he had also escaped his village at the age of 20, giving him plenty of time to work on his abilities in a somewhat safe environment beforehand. Naruto had not had such a luxury, given that there was no one but Kakuzu to practice with and he had tried to distance himself from the blond's training as much as possible.
Of course, Kakuzu had also thought he had plenty of time to sadistically train-slash-guide-slash-torture the blond into a fighting fit shinobi. Being blackmailed by and joining Akatsuki so unexpectedly had essentially foiled those ideas, resulting in Naruto's training being cut short. It would be such a waste to put so much effort into that brat, only to have him die. The former Taki-nin wondered if there was a way to guide the boy without being particularly obvious about it.
"Kakuzu, bring me my body!"
The ex-Waterfall shinobi's musings were cut short by Hidan. …Of course. "I told you not to lose your head."
"VERY FUNNY, ASSHOLE! Are you gonna help me or not?"
"Hm, I suppose. Perhaps I should start charging you for my services."
Asuma, badly burnt and kneeling on the ground, groaned. "Shino, Sai, Shikamaru…keep your distance, but try to restrain the tall guy."
Kakuzu watched blankly as a swarm of insects emerged from the Aburame's coat and a pride of lions leapt from the artist's scroll. He casually exhaled a fireball at the bugs, incinerating them on contact, then commanded Jiongu's threads to shoot out from his forearms and rend the ink creations to splotches. Jumping around the shadow streaking towards him on the ground, the S-class shinobi extended his arm to pick up his partner's head and landed next to his body. Without any effort, he lifted Hidan's form and held the man's severed head up to his neck.
Suddenly, he felt his own body stiffen, and he glanced over to find the Nara on one knee, hands together in the Rat seal and panting hard. "The fact that you think you can hold me in your current state is laughable," he commented. He flared his chakra, sending the Nara reeling and forcibly breaking the Shadow Bind Technique. One of his threads slithered out and reattached Hidan's head. "You can finish off the cash cow while I take care of the others."
"Ha ha, fine by me!"
Hidan split from his partner, hurling his scythe at Asuma and surreptitiously positioning himself in his curse symbol. Kakuzu watched his two opponents – the Nara appeared to be incapacitated by chakra exhaustion – with a bored expression. Feeling something wrap around his legs and crawling up his torso, he looked down to find ink snakes slithering around his body. He hardened his skin, boosting his strength, and flexed, splattering the reptilian constructs. "Your antics are no longer amusing." Kakuzu pushed a solid wall of air at the two boys, one collapsing into ink, the other dispersing into the Aburame's kikaichū. "Clever…but it will not be enough."
His arm extended into the bushes and grabbed the Aburame by the throat. As the bounty hunter reeled in his capture, his green eyes scanned the area. "Should you not rescue your associate?" he goaded blandly, waiting for the artist to show himself.
Hidan's insane laughter split the air, followed by the Nara's scream of "ASUMA!"
Kakuzu looked over to find the Jōnin face down in the dirt, blood seeping into the earth. "Hn, he did something right…for once."
"Hey, Kakuzu, aren't you done yet? Can I kill the rest?"
"Do what you will." He snapped the boy's neck, but he just dissolved into bugs again and swarmed Kakuzu from head to foot, trying to suck out his chakra. "Annoying gnats. Katon—"
[Hidan, Kakuzu, it is time.]
"Son of a bitch! We were just gettin' to the good part!"
"Hidan, shut up. It is imperative that we follow our orders."
[Sasori and Deidara's venture to find the Sanbi was unsuccessful. We will seal the Nibi now. Find someplace to hold up for the three days it will take.]
"We will be there shortly," Kakuzu affirmed, threads creeping out from his skin to disperse the kikaichū. Green eyes shifted to spy Naruto and Fū exiting the bounty exchange station. "Brat, pick up the prize," he ordered. Naruto appeared startled at being addressed, let alone finding Kakuzu still in the vicinity, blue eyes taking in the scenario spread out before him. "Come, Hidan, let us depart."
"Fine, but we're coming back to continue the sacrifice." Then both were gone in a Shunshin.
Naruto quickly assimilated the lay of the land. "That's Sarutobi Asuma from Konoha," he pointed out, "and I recognize those guys from the Chūnin Exams."
"Sai, Shino, come on!" shouted the boy with a pineapple-style hairdo. "We've gotta get Asuma-sensei back to Konoha!"
Naruto and Fū leapt to surround the downed Jōnin. "Oh, I'm afraid I can't let you do that," announced the blond. "See, he's worth a fair amount to us," he continued genially, before his eyes hardened like diamonds, "and we would be remiss to let him just…escape."
A flock of ink birds erupted from the forest as a stream of bugs buzzed towards the pair. Fū spat globs of mud at the incoming insects, catching them and weighing them down. Naruto performed hand signs and expelled a volley of condensed wind chakra bursts. "Fūton: Shinkūgyoku," he stated, the spray of air bullets piercing through the ink flock.
While Sai bombarded the duo with ink creatures, Shino came to kneel beside Shikamaru. "While tragic, Asuma-taichō's death should not result in the rest of ours. Our chakra is low and these adversaries are fresh. It would not be advisable to attempt recovery of the body considering our present circumstances."
Shikamaru gave Shino an angry glare. "I'm not going to just leave him here to— un!"
Sai looked at his fellow ROOT member, hand reaching for his ink brush after knocking out the Nara. He created a large ink bird and helped Shino lift Shikamaru onto it. "Danzō-sama has plans for the Nara. It is important that we bring him back alive." Shino nodded and Sai instructed the creature to take off.
Naruto and Fū watched them go. "Should we…?" Fū tried.
"Go after them? No. They're not worth anything right now." Naruto's gaze went to the body of the bearded Jōnin they had protected. A shiver went through him, an ominous feeling of unease wracking his body. Ignoring it, he looked at Fū. "Let's turn this one in and get back on the road."
Danzō sat behind his desk, hands folded on top of it. Sai, Shino, and Shikamaru knelt before him, having just finished relaying the outcome of their mission to him. The latter looked emotionally disturbed, unsurprising considering the news Danzō had just been delivered. "Konoha will mourn the loss of one of its most talented and loyal shinobi," he stated. "Sarutobi Asuma's name will be inscribed upon the Memorial Stone for his service to the village. You are all dismissed."
Sai and Shino left with respectful inclines of their heads, but Shikamaru remained behind, rising to his feet and staring with intense ferocity at Danzō. The Hokage met his expression with a flat, emotionless look. "Something you require, Nara?"
"I want to know what you plan to do about this threat," Shikamaru demanded, voice even but laced with frigid politeness. "These two Akatsuki assaulted and killed a Konoha shinobi within the Land of Fire's borders. You can't simply let this action slide."
"Nor do I plan to. However, I fail to see what my retaliatory plans have to do with you."
"I want to be included in them."
Danzō leveled the Chūnin with a predatory look. "Your teacher said the same thing before he left on the mission which killed him. I have long held the belief that emotions only lead to bad decisions and sloppy results. What makes you think that I'll permit you, a mere Chūnin, to allow your desire for vengeance to get you killed?"
Shikamaru placed his hands on the edge of the Hokage's desk and leaned forward so he could look the elderly man directed in his eye. "Because I know how to neutralize Hidan. You need me.
"Shino and Sai are good observers, but they can only tell you what they saw. But defeating an enemy requires keen analysis of their speech patterns, movements, tactics, and so on."
Danzō passed the boy over with a shrewd eye. "And you did that?"
Shikamaru said nothing.
The Hokage leaned back in his chair, lacing his fingers together. Shikamaru was smart and stubborn, and far more useful to him as an ally rather than an enemy. Even if was emotionally compromised, he had a much better idea of what he would be up against than Asuma had.
In all honesty, the elderly man had foreseen this outcome as a possibility, even likely. The loss of Asuma was tragic, but the man was also one of Shikamaru's closest associates, not to mention his teacher. In order to bait the Nara, something truly terrible would have had to happen to make him blind to the Hokage's machinations. This has played almost perfectly into my hand. Just one more step… "When you return from this mission," he began slowly, "you will become a member of my ANBU."
The Chūnin didn't even hesitate. "Fine."
Danzō allowed a crooked smirk to cross his lips for the barest of seconds. And so the last fly comes into my web. "Before you dissect every facet of the targets' abilities, I would like to bring someone in to hear what you have to say. Terai," he barked, and a cloaked ANBU dropped from the ceiling, "find me Inu."
Ten minutes later, an ANBU in standard uniform, silver hair defying gravity over a dog mask, appeared in the room. After the death of Uchiha Sasuke, the 'promotion' of Sai to Chūnin, and Haruno Sakura's return to civilian status (normal people really weren't cut to become the ideal shinobi), Hatake Kakashi had rejoined ANBU and almost immediately had been granted the title of ANBU Captain. Danzō had been slightly disappointed that he couldn't rope the man into joining ROOT, but having him under his thumb as the Hokage's personal soldier was good enough. "Inu, you'll be leading an assault team on the two targets Nara here is going to describe. He will also be a part of the team."
Kakashi nodded, which Shikamaru took as his cue to speak. "The shorter one is a man named Hidan. He wields a large triple-bladed scythe attached to a long metal coil, and has at least one retractable pike. His main ability seems to be some form of immortality that makes him immune to what I can only assume is all forms of physical trauma."
Danzō raised an eyebrow. "You assume?"
"He took a lethal blow to the heart and was able to talk during and recover from a decapitation, though his body retains no autonomous movement during that time. While other forms of trauma were not attempted, surviving those extremes seems to suggest that any other method would also be moot. Hidan uses his immortality and a curse ritual to link the wounds his body takes to that of an adversary whose blood he has taken. However, the ritual is limited by a symbol he draws on the ground to complete it. Removing him from the symbol nullifies the link between him and the target, provided he remains away from it."
"You said he can survive decapitation," Danzō prompted, "but your phrasing would indicate that he is incapable of recovering from such a debilitating injury on his own."
"Yes. His partner is tall man he called Kakuzu. He was able to reattach Hidan's head to his body through black threads that also grant him the ability to extend his limbs to great lengths. In addition, he displayed an affinity for both Katon and Fūton chakra natures, though the extent of his mastery of those elements is indeterminable based solely upon my observations."
"Akatsuki is an organization comprised of S-class criminals," Danzō revealed. "I would expect his mastery of the elements to be as complete as yours, Inu…potentially greater. You said you had a plan?" he asked, returning his attention to Shikamaru.
"From my observations, I believe I can neutralize Hidan, provided his partner is kept occupied."
"Very well. Inu, you will lead a team to find and intercept these Akatsuki members. When you find them, eliminate them."
Kakuzu stood up slowly and cracked his spine. Sitting around for long periods of time didn't agree well with his advanced age, no matter how fit he was. Replacing organs was one thing; bones were an entirely different matter. Beside him, Hidan rose and rubbed a hand across the back of his neck, rolling it around to stretch the muscles. "Man, sittin' around for three days doing nothin' sucks," complained the silver-haired man. "Why's that ritual take so damn long?"
The taller shinobi tossed him a flat look. "You have no room to talk, Hidan," he deadpanned. Only five seconds to start bitching…it must be a new record…
"Eh, fuck off, Kakuzu. If I don't offer my respect to Jashin-sama, I might become a damn atheist like you."
"There are worse fates. I believe it would be an improvement over your current personality."
"Hey, that really hurts, ya know? Besides, you— HEY, where are you going!"
"As we are within the Land of Fire, we might as well begin exploring it for the Rokubi Jinchūriki."
"What about those bastards at the bounty exchange station? They were ripe and prepared to become sacrifices to Jashin-sama!"
Kakuzu craned his neck to stare at Hidan. "…You really are an idiot. Why would they stay around there for three days? No, we have our assignment. If we come across any Konoha-nin, you can deal with them."
"Ha HA! I knew you'd come to see things my way. Now, if you'd give up your blasphemous habit of killing for money, you might have a chance at getting within Jashin-sama's good graces!"
As Hidan continued to ramble about his god, Kakuzu rolled his eyes. Truly, the cost for appeasing the stupid was a mighty sacrifice.
The Violent Wind Palm blasted away the rain of needles descending from several airborne umbrellas. Naruto spat out the wind pellets of a Vacuum Sphere, riddling the instruments with holes and making them unusable. "Anything else?" he asked, returning his gaze to the man across from him.
His opponent – a somewhat-feminine looking man with teal-colored hair and purple eyes – scowled at him. "You think you've got me beat? Ha! I still haven't used my greatest weapon!" He reached behind his back and brought forth what looked to be the hilt of a weapon. "Behold! The—"
"Raijin no Ken," Naruto finished, bored, "the Nidaime Hokage's great sword."
"H-how do you—?"
"Know what it is?" Naruto finished, enjoying the panic his prey was experiencing. I wonder if this is how Kakuzu feels whenever he sets his sights on a target. "Well, I know everything about you, Rokushō Aoi. Defected from Konoha after you had your pupil steal the Raijin no Ken, then joined Ame and eventually became a Jōnin. Kinda pathetic, all things considered, having a Genin steal a precious artifact in your place. The rest of your past is rather mundane."
"It doesn't matter," Aoi professed. "You're still going to die here."
Naruto cocked his head to the side curiously. "Oh? That's interesting. I admit that I was a bit surprised to find you in the Land of Fire, but since you're here, I think this'll be a good test of my abilities against a former Konoha shinobi." He paused, eyeing the sword, then continued, "Surprisingly, Konoha is willing to pay more for the return of that sword than your body. I'm not one to really help it…but I am rather interested in money."
Aoi brought the sword to life, creating a long blade of electricity. Naruto sighed. "I guess we do this the hard way, then. Jiongu: Sōdo Fōmu," he said, holding out his right hand and letting the threads twine together into a blade. He dove forward as Aoi did the same, the two swords clashing against each other. There was a brief stalemate before the lightning of Aoi's sword pierced the black threads and severed the end of Naruto's makeshift blade. The blond leapt back and stared at the stub of his weapon. "Well, that's problematic."
"Take this!" Aoi shouted, waving his sword and creating an arc of lightning that swept towards Naruto. The blond held up a palm and blasted away the shockwave with another Violent Wind Palm. "I'll kill you!"
"Uh huh," yawned Naruto, "so you said." He ran through a quick string of seals and then held his hands parallel at chest level, palms facing each other, leaving a small space between them. "Fūton: Kaze Jōgo."
A strong suction built up, with the space between Naruto's hands serving as the focal point. Aoi could do nothing as his body was pulled into the vortex of the technique, the electricity from the mad swipes of his sword overpowered by wind's elemental superiority to lightning. When the Rain Jōnin was near enough, threads erupted from the sutures on Naruto's forearms and speared into the man's body, the pull of the Wind Release: Wind Funnel proving too much for Aoi to escape from. Naruto released the technique, allowing the Jōnin's body to drop to the ground.
Fū jumped down from her perch on a tree bough high above the battlefield. "That was impressive," she commended, moving to pick up the hilt of the deactivated Raijin no Ken. She examined it, running a finger over the relic. "Are we really going to return this to Konoha?" When no response was forthcoming, the Jinchūriki looked over at her companion. "Hey, are you okay?"
Naruto tried to settle the uncomfortable knot of tension thrumming throughout his body, his gaze locked into the distance. "Yeah," he responded, almost mechanically, "we need the money more than the sword, and it's too precious an antiquity for Konoha to ever use it against us." He turned an unusually serious gaze upon the Nanabi Jinchūriki, the same foreboding feeling from three days ago haunting him. "Let's seal the body and get a move on. Something's not right…"
Fū raised an eyebrow, but did as she was bade. Then they took off, silent as wraiths, destination unknown.
Kakuzu was the very definition of 'pissed off'.
He and Hidan had been…well, the closest to being ambushed that Kakuzu could recount in decades. The Nara had led the charge, 19 ANBU agents flanking him. Dodging the boy's Kagemane no Jutsu had been impossible with all of the other people distracting him, but by releasing his hearts to run interference and keeping the earth one for Doton: Domu, Kakuzu had been safe from most offensives.
Until hidden ANBU #20 had shoved Hatake Kakashi's trademark Raikiri through his defense.
That had destroyed his earth heart.
Somehow – and Kakuzu honestly found he couldn't be overly surprised, given Hidan's stupidity – the Nara had separated the two Akatsuki members, leaving Kakuzu to take on 20 ANBU agents. Given how badly he had been outnumbered (five-to-one, counting his three thread-creatures), the former Taki-nin had kept up quite nicely against Konoha's vaunted elite, though the fact that they could cover each other's weaknesses and blind-spots meant that killing them had proven more difficult than he would have expected. He found it a bit unusual that about half of them were garbed in cream cloaks and the others wore standard ANBU outfits – and that the latter ones were more defensive of their comrades than the former ones – but in a battle to the death, such trivialities hardly mattered. They all needed to die, regardless of what they wore or how they acted.
Then, a stabbing pain had exploded in his chest. Somehow, somehow, he'd figured, Hidan had cursed him.
That had destroyed his water heart.
After that, he had recalled all of his hearts in order to protect them. Unfortunately, his opponents had taken advantage of his thread-creatures' single-mindedness and captured one in a giant earthen construct. It had then been turned into an oven, roasting the autonomous threads to cinders.
That had destroyed his wind heart.
Now, Kakuzu stood with only his lightning and fire hearts left, both settled within his body. His ultimate form was locked to him, inaccessible since he had last used it to seal Orochimaru. The bounty hunter remained motionless, glaring at the overwhelming number of Konoha-nin still before him. Cowardly, spineless shinobi of Konohagakure! To even stand a chance against me, they must amass seemingly-insurmountable odds…but I will not fall here. I survived against the most feared shinobi of the ages, Senju Hashirama…these no-names will not succeed! It was embarrassing enough that so many had survived as long as they had and were giving him what could only be described as trouble; he was, after all, S-rank, and more than worthy of the title. "You will all rue the day you came to confront me!"
Black tendrils ruptured from his back, spreading out and forming thick tentacles twice Kakuzu's height in length. Seven of the thread-limbs surrounded him, tendrils connecting them together to create a spider's weave at his back. More threads spilled forth from his mouth, knocking off his head covering and mask, and forming an eighth limb disconnected from the rest. A bushel of tendrils converged to create a stubby 'tail' of sorts at his back. "Die!" he hissed, and the limbs went forth, giving the bounty hunter the appearance of a twisted octopus grappling for prey.
Five limbs dove for targets: two struck the closest two shinobi and skewered them before they could react; one ANBU dodged the third limb, and another cast a Kawarimi to escape the fourth; the fifth used a massive tree trunk as a shield, but the threads split and caught him in a pincer attack. Unable to escape, he set his body aflame as ANBU operatives were instructed to do.
Kakuzu scowled. In his rage, he'd had a slight oversight regarding the ability to restock his hearts with the ones from these shinobi. Jiongu's long-range form sacrificed the extending abilities of his arms and other useful grappling options for brute power and destruction. It was a bit more difficult to control the kinjutsu's organ-stealing ability with such huge masses of tendrils.
The two tentacles that hadn't attacked wound around him protectively, shielding his body from an incoming burst of flames. The bull mask that housed his lightning heart appeared in the center of the web of threads, firing a Raiton: Gian straight up. The Konoha-nin trying to attack from above was speared through the side, a clean hit through his liver; he burst into flames a moment later.
That was the seventh…13 left. He glanced up to find a portal of mud about to dump on him. Jumping, he recalled his limbs and, using them as wings, sailed away from his previous position. Kakuzu landed, the tentacle emerging from his mouth digging into the earth and revealing a shinobi underneath. The threads wrapped around him, burrowing underneath his skin and reaching for his heart—
The earth closed with a resounding boom, crushing the ninja before Kakuzu could capitalize on his capture. Green eyes glanced around, irate. Most of the remaining Konoha-nin seemed to be garbed in the cream cloaks. "You would rather sacrifice your comrade than see him fall into enemy hands. Callous…brutal…intelligent…" Three tentacles of his threads lanced back at a shinobi coming in from Kakuzu's blind spot. The ANBU was rent limb from limb, but an invisible force slammed into Kakuzu's back, shattering the bull mask. A skilled enough Fūton-user that his attacks are undetectable…and a complete disregard for his own life. These ANBU are truly dangerous opponents… "But I will not be defeated here!"
Seven tentacles lashed out, seeking the remaining 11 shinobi. "I will kill you all and restock my hearts, and then your village will burn," he seethed, completely enraged. One of the tentacles angled at a stockier ninja, but the man's hands grew to large proportions and caught the threads within his grasp. Kakuzu sent a second tentacle at him, but he caught it with his other hand. The tendrils wriggled in his grip, driving into his hands and drawing blood, but the ANBU held on.
A third tentacle rushed to spear him through the stomach, but another ANBU stepped forward and spun, creating a dome of chakra Kakuzu recognized as the Hyūga's Kaiten.
Kakuzu glanced around to find more of his thread-limbs being restrained. A fourth had a loop of shadow wrapped around it, restraining it. Another was being held at bay by two ANBU shooting bursts of fire and wind in tandem, and a sixth was being boxed in by continuously thicker walls of earth. The nukenin growled, but was momentarily caught off-guard by a shinobi appearing directly in front of him, hands flashing through seals. His last mass of threads – the one from his mouth – lashed out and wound around the ninja, reaching for his heart—
He disappeared, an illusion in the wind. A distraction! Kakuzu realized, craning around to find the dog-masked ANBU he suspected was Hatake Kakashi a mere foot away, hand crackling with lightning. The bushel of tendrils comprising his 'tail' speared into the man.
Then, there was pain as the ANBU took on a blue sheen and discharged electricity throughout Kakuzu's entire body, Jiongu's tendrils acting as a conduit. A Raiton Kage Bunshin… Paralyzed, the bounty hunter could only watch as the real Kakashi popped up from the ground, hand alight in the Lightning Cutter. So this is how it ends, he thought as the Raikiri pierced his chest, beaten by mere children.
Kakuzu felt surprisingly at peace as his body jerked, the fire heart failing him. As his awareness of what was happening around him dimmed, his green eyes scanned the area, landing on a head of blond hair on the outskirts of the dead forest. Perhaps…my legacy…will finish…what I have started…
Kakuzu's body hit the ground, and he thought no more.
Naruto led Fū through the Land of Fire's forest at a fast clip, the leaves present on the trees thinning out significantly as they kept moving forward. He couldn't explain it, but there was an ominous pull in his heart, as if something was about to go horribly wrong. Fū had tried asking what was going on, but the blond had ignored her, focused instead on pumping chakra to his feet just to get there faster.
It was only when the greenery disappeared entirely, to be replaced by the barren skeletons of trees in their decline that he began to actually feel the trouble. "Stop," he commanded, taking his own advice and halting on a bough. Fū stopped beside him, her face a mixture of concern, confusion, and patience. "Something's going on over there. Circle around and see if you can get a better vantage point. Don't interfere unless it looks like I'm in trouble."
Fū looked ready to protest, but she closed her mouth and just nodded. Without a word, she disappeared. Naruto took off right after, the ominous feeling settled firmly in his belly, making everything seem cold despite the sweat beading on his brow from racing through the Land of Fire.
Naruto burst into a clearing full of activity, surprised blue eyes immediately focusing on his teacher. Kakuzu was surrounded by close to a dozen ANBU members, Jiongu's threads compacted into eight long limbs which fanned out from his body. With his mask off and one of the thread-masses sprouting from his mouth, the blond became aware of just how terrifying his mentor could be.
Just as he began to prepare a jutsu to help the man, an ANBU in a dog mask appeared and shoved his lightning-covered hand into Kakuzu's chest.
The Jinchūriki's eyes widened as all the threads surrounding Kakuzu shuddered violently and withdrew into the former Taki-nin's body with a series of sickening slurps. When the mercenary's form could be seen, his green eyes were wide with disbelief, the shock clear on his naked face. He pitched forward suddenly, and then he began to fall.
To Naruto, time seemed to slow down to individual microseconds as gravity took hold of his mentor's body. Could Kakuzu be…had he just…been killed?
"There is no such thing as immortality," Kakuzu informed him one day when he had gotten curious about his teacher's prolonged lifespan, "merely methods to inhibit the decline of the human body into death."
But Kakuzu couldn't die. He was old, sure, but he was strong and wise in the ways of the world—
"The most important rule you will ever learn is this: money is everything. The world revolves around money; even Hell runs on money…"
—knew how to survive, knew the tricks of the trade for staying alive in a dangerous environment—
"My village believed that I did not try hard enough, and punished me for failing in my objective. This blasé disrespect for all of my servitude infuriated and offended me, so I left. I stole Takigakure's most precious treasures: the kinjutsu Jiongu…and the hearts of the Village Elders, who did not appreciate my service to their precious village."
APPARENTLY NOT WELL ENOUGH.
—had taken Naruto in when everyone else had hated and scorned him—
"I have never done this before, but your ability to heal and withstand my attack is an intriguing one. If you would like, you can come with me, and I will teach you to properly harness this power."
—raised him, trained him—
"You will learn one of my most useful ninjutsu, a move which may come in handy against the Hyūga you are supposed to fight."
—given him purpose—
"I am going to teach you how to engage in the world's oldest profession: killing."
YOU WOULD BE NOTHING WITHOUT HIS TUTELAGE.
—spurred Naruto to become greater, despite his unsympathetic, detached ways—
"There is a reason why you are the only other individual to become imbued with Jiongu."
—endured his very existence—
"I have tolerated your foolishness far longer than I should have, and this childish wordplay and immaturity will cease immediately. I expect you to act like the ninja I have trained you to be."
CLEARLY HE IS ENDOWED WITH FAR MORE PATIENCE THAN YOU THOUGHT, CONSIDERING THE EFFORT HE PUT INTO SUFFERING THROUGH YOUR CONTINUED PRESENCE.
—and had inspired him to become a great shinobi.
"And that," Kakuzu stated wickedly, driving the Watercutting Sword through his target's heart, "is how you overcome an elemental disadvantage." He turned to face Naruto. "Do not let the potential fear of a handicap hinder your decision to kill those who are beneath you."
YOU CLEARLY STILL HAVE A WAYS TO GO.
Kakuzu had watched over him when he had always thought the man couldn't care less.
"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?"
NO ONE ELSE WOULD WANT SUCH A TASK.
He was honestly the closest thing Naruto had to a father…
AND NOW HE IS DEAD…BY THE HANDS OF KONOHAGAKURE, NO LESS.
YES. EMBRACE YOUR ANGER.
How could Kakuzu die…?
"Naruto." Kakuzu threw his Bingo Book at the blond, who caught it with both hands, and then offered the duo a slight incline of his head.
HUMANS ARE WEAK CREATURES, HIGHLY SUSCEPTIBLE TO DEATH.
KONOHA HAS NOW TAKEN EVERYTHING FROM YOU. IT IS TIME FOR YOUR VENGEANCE.
KILL THEM ALL.
Kakuzu's body hit the ground with a muffled thud. The sound seemed to echo ominously in Naruto's ears. From his throat ripped an ear-splitting howl of anguish.
The last thing Naruto was aware of before blacking out was the dark laughter of a voice inside his head as malevolent chakra violently exploded from his body.