The Cost of Living

Understanding

Fū bounded through the forest, only partially aware of the increasing density in tree foliage. Per Naruto's instruction, she'd gone around the battle, but had come across a disturbed trail that merited investigation. Hesitantly leaving the blond to his own devices, as he'd requested, she was still in the process of following the trail when a burst of foul chakra rippled across her skin, causing her to shiver. The Jinchūriki stopped abruptly and whirled around, eyes wide. "What…was that?" she gasped.

Her only response was the Nanabi's grating laughter in her mind.

Shaking her head, she returned to her path, trying to focus on the assignment she'd set for herself. She took a deep breath to calm down, thoughts unwillingly roving back to her fellow Jinchūriki and, considering their recent run-in with him, their wayward mentor. It was hard, she realized, to not worry about either of them, even despite the confidence she had in their abilities.

Kakuzu was the epitome of a veteran shinobi, having seen almost a century of how the world worked, and gained an equivalent amount of experience. He was well-versed in the existence of most, if not all, major clans and kekkei genkai, and his mastery of the five main elemental affinities made him a force to be reckoned with. That wasn't even including the power he was granted by Jiongu or the extra lives he possessed.

On the other side of the coin, Naruto easily had the most potential of any ninja in their generation. He possessed the same capacity for nature chakra manipulation and resilience that Kakuzu had because of the same kinjutsu running through their bodies. Even beyond that, he was the container of the Kyūbi, the strongest of the Bijū. His resolve to continue forward in the path Kakuzu had set him on and his growing desire to prove himself capable of following his mentor were impressive and admirable personality traits.

Both were the only people who had ever really accepted Fū. If something ever happened to either of them…well, she really wasn't sure what she would do.

ZZT ZZT ZZT, chuckled the Nanabi, SOMETHING ALREADY HAS HAPPENED…

"What do you mean?" Fū asked aloud, ignoring the wince of pain that always came with speaking to the Bijū.

THAT CHAKRA BURST WAS THE KYŪBI BREAKING FREE.

"The Kyūbi? Naruto!" Fū whirled again, torn by indecision, but then shook her head. "No, I need to trust that he'll be okay."

SENTIMENTAL CRETIN.

Fū pushed forward, ignoring the words of her prisoner and the apprehension that gripped her heart like an icy claw. Eventually, she entered a small clearing surrounded by lush foliage; in the center was a pit of broken rocks. She moved to stand at its rim, staring down at the rubble. "Wonder what's down here…"

YOU HAVE COMPANY.

Fū glanced around to find a herd of deer surrounding her, staring her down. "Okay," she drawled, "that's new." One of the deer charged her, and Fū immediately ran through hand seals and crouched. "Doton: Doryūheki." The stag ran into an earthen wall which rose from the ground to defend the green-haired girl. Three more animals charged her, forcing her to push more chakra into the earth to erect three more barriers, forming a box around the hole in the ground.

Now safe from the deer, Fū settled into a more comfortable position and cracked her knuckles. "Alright, time to get to work. Doton: Doryūha." Rocks and earth rose from the pit in a wave and were deposited as far from the hole as possible. Fū continued to excavate the pit with the Earth Flow Wave, digging deeper and deeper, all the while wondering if Naruto was okay.

Then an arm emerged with a pile of rubble. Fū blinked. "Well, you don't see that every day." She stood up and leaned over the pit, peering into its depths. Far below, buried amidst the rocks and soil, she could spy a head of silver hair, a leg, and copious bloodstains. "Hidan?" she hazarded.

"Who's up there?" A pause, then, "Hey! You're that bitch that was with the blond and Kakuzu! Get me out of here!"

"What the…?" She created a number of earth clones and then jumped into the hole, being careful to avoid the body parts strewn about. "You look like you've seen better days."

"Heh, that bastard from Konoha thought his dogma could trump mine, but Jashin-sama always finds a way to reward his faithful followers! You should consider converting to— OW OW OW, BE CAREFUL!"

Lifting his head by his silver hair, Fū brought Hidan's purple eyes level with her own and stared at him. "You know, I can see why Kakuzu would want to get rid of you."

"That old bastard doesn't understand the tenets of my faith."

Fū yanked on Hidan's hair, causing the Jashinist to emit a yelp of pain. "I'd be careful with what you say about Kakuzu in my presence," she stated coldly, "especially since he's the one who has to sew you back together." Hidan muttered something under his breath, but the green-haired girl merely threw his head out of the pit; Hidan screamed epithets at her the whole while. "Hey!" she called up, gaining the attention of one of her clones. "Finish up here. Bring Hidan to where I am when you're done." Her duplicate nodded in understanding and then Fū was off, traveling underground to avoid the line-of-sight of the deer.

Feeling that she was a safe distance away, she surfaced from the ground and took to the trees, heading towards where she could sense the foul chakra from earlier. "Alright, start talking," she demanded.

WILLINGLY INITIATING COMMUNICATION WITH ME? buzzed the Nanabi idly. WHAT AN AMUSING TURN OF EVENTS.

"Talk, beetle," she growled.

YOUR SENSE OF HUMOR DISAPPEARS RATHER QUICKLY WHEN IT COMES TO THE FOX'S CAGE. When Fū didn't react, the Seven-Tails hummed disappointedly. AS I SAID, THAT EXPLOSION OF CHAKRA WAS THE KYŪBI'S. GIVEN THAT THE BOY HAS NEVER DRAWN ON THAT DAMNABLE KITSUNE'S CHAKRA PREVIOUSLY, SOMETHING MUST HAVE OCCURRED TO MAKE HIM SO ENRAGED THAT HE IS DRAWING UPON IT SUBCONSCIOUSLY. IT IS POSSIBLE THAT THE FOX HAS SOME CONTROL OF THE BOY'S BODY.

"So what do we do?"

The Nanabi's strange laughter echoed in her mind again. WE? IT IS NONE OF MY BUSINESS IF THE KYŪBI INFLUENCES YOUR INFATUATION.

Intent on trying to come up with a game plan, Fū opted to ignore the Bijū's mocking remark. "Don't you hate the Kyūbi? Wouldn't you just love the opportunity to rub it in the Kyūbi's face that you, the so-called great bringer of dust storms, defeated it?"

ZZT ZZT ZZT. CLEVER GIRL, MANIPULATING MY PRIDE IN SUCH A MANNER. YOU TRULY ARE AN INTERESTING CONTAINER.

Fū took that as the Nanabi's agreement to help. As the greenery thinned to nothing and the powerful chakra signature that the beetle had marked as the Kyūbi's grew stronger, Fū grew more and more apprehensive of what she would find. What had happened? Why had Naruto drawn on the Kyūbi's power? Was he okay? And with Hidan around, where was Kakuzu?

The former Taki-nin stopped at the edge of a forest of dead trees, the trunks splintered and broken. Most of them had collapsed under the explosion of some force, a great majority sustaining scorch marks upon their wooden surfaces. Fū stared at the scene, wide-eyed. "What happened here?"

"RRRAAAAAWWRR!"

Fū tried to maintain her balance as the roar's shockwave blew past her. She moved forward cautiously despite her fear of what awaited her, concern for Naruto and Kakuzu overwhelming her sense of self-preservation.

The site that greeted her kept her momentarily paralyzed.

Whole and partial bodies were strewn about a shallow, circular crater that was devoid of any sort of obstacles: trees, rocks, anything. Several of the corpses were garbed in outfits reminiscent of Konoha's ANBU, and blood was splattered liberally everywhere. One of the bodies, Fū realized, a hand coming up to cover her mouth, was the tall, distinctive form of Kakuzu, his usual head and facial coverings absent. She had little time to consider the old nukenin's apparent death, however, as there was a larger problem before her.

Standing on all fours was what Fū presumed to be her fellow Jinchūriki, his skin a mixture of red and black. Vulpine ears stood atop his head, his eyes a blank, unseeing white. Red-orange chakra poured off of him in waves, accenting the demonic appearance granted by his skin and sharpened claws. Four tails waved behind him. SO, THE FOX DID TAKE CONTROL, mused the Nanabi. HOW INTERESTING.

Fū watched as clawed hands of pure chakra erupted from the ground and crushed a cloaked ANBU in their grasp before he could escape. Only a couple shinobi remained in the clearing, and while Fū wasn't interested in their safety, she couldn't say for sure what would happen after Naruto had killed them. "What's your plan?"

THE ONLY WAY WE CAN NEUTRALIZE A BIJŪ IS WITH ANOTHER BIJŪ. UNFORTUNATELY FOR YOU, YOUR SEAL WAS NOT DESIGNED TO ALLOW ACCESS TO LARGE AMOUNTS OF MY CHAKRA AT ANY ONE MOMENT, AND WE ARE UNPRACTICED AT WORKING COHESIVELY.

"So…what? You can't do anything?"

I DIDN'T SAY THAT. BUT YOU SHOULD BE PREPARED TO EXPERIENCE A PAIN UNLIKE ANYTHING YOU'VE FELT BEFORE. PUSHING VAST QUANTITIES OF CHAKRA PAST THE SEAL TO EXERT CONTROL WILL NOT BE EASY…OR PLEASANT.

Fū grimaced but nodded. "You'll go back when this is all over."

I WILL NOT HAVE A CHOICE. WE WILL NOT BE ABLE TO MAINTAIN THIS FORM FOR LONG.

"…You're enjoying this, aren't you?"

IMMENSELY.

The kunoichi couldn't even respond as agonizing pain wracked her body. She screamed as the Nanabi's chakra flooded her system, forming a cloak of bubbling orange chakra around her body. It took on the vague form of the Nanabi, with six wings sprouting from Fū's back and a long, whip-like tail extended from the base of her spine. "EXCELLENT," buzzed the Nanabi as he took control of Fū's body, flapping the chakra wings and rising into the air, "IT HAS BEEN FAR TOO LONG SINCE I'VE EXPERIENCED FLIGHT."

'Hey! Don't waste any time!' Fū shouted in her mind.

"NAG." The wings vibrated even faster, creating a whirlwind of dust that swept into the clearing and engulfed an unsuspecting ANBU. When the twister faded away, there was nothing left of the shinobi. "AH, THE JOY OF ATOMIZING YOUR FOOLISH RACE." Fū watched from behind her Bijū's eyes as Naruto sent out his chakra arms at the remaining two ANBU, and despite their initial resistance, both were eventually torn apart by the Jinchūriki's makeshift claws. "ZZT ZZT, I SUPPOSE IT'S TIME TO STEP IN AND PUT THE KYŪBI IN HIS PLACE…"

A gust of wind blew out towards Naruto, intended to catch the attention of the transformed Jinchūriki. "HELLO, KYŪBI," buzzed the Seven-Tails mockingly as Naruto turned his attention towards him. The boy roared in response, creating a shockwave which came close to blowing the other Jinchūriki out of the air. "COME, MY SIBLING," rasped the Nanabi, "WE SHALL SEE WHO IS MORE POWERFUL."

Chakra arms extended towards the cloaked Jinchūriki, but the Nanabi used his flying prowess to maneuver around the limbs and dive at Naruto. Fū's body slammed into Naruto's, sending the transformed Jinchūriki sliding back several feet. Naruto swiped at the airborne Jinchūriki, but the Nanabi blocked the blow with his chakra wings. The claw tips of the chakra appendage disintegrated, atomized by the contact with the Seven-Tails' chakra cloak. "EVEN THE STRENGTH OF YOUR CURRENT FORM IS NOT ENOUGH TO PROTECT YOU FROM MY ABILITIES," boasted the Bijū.

He called upon Fū's control over Doton, raising a series of earthen spires that angled at Naruto. One swipe of his four tails fractured the stones, leaving rocky stumps behind. Flapping his wings hard, the Nanabi sent a tornado of wind at the transformed Jinchūriki, disorienting him. Flying close to the earth, he stuck his chakra tail underground as Naruto broke through the whirlwind and roared, dividing his chakra into multiple appendages to attack the cloaked Jinchūriki.

The Nanabi wrapped more chakra around Fū's body to protect against the limbs. Using his jailor's body as a distraction, his tail emerged behind the transformed Jinchūriki and whipped forward, the tip driving into Naruto's spine. He roared as the Seven-Tails channeled chakra into his body, disintegrating muscle and tissue that the Kyūbi was forced to regenerate. The Bijū laughed as Naruto's body convulsed. "WHERE IS YOUR BOASTING NOW, FOX?" he gloated.

'…Said the pot to the kettle.'

"YOU SHOULD BE MORE GRATEFUL FOR MY SERVICES. I COULD HAVE SIMPLY LEFT YOUR INFATUATION TO THE KYŪBI'S CLUTCHES."

'…'

"IF YOU DESIRE TO BRING THE BOY BACK, YOU NEED TO REACH OUT TO HIM AND HELP HIM SUPPRESS THE KYŪBI."

'You can't do it?'

"NEITHER OUR RELATIONSHIP NOR THEIRS IS AT THE POINT WHERE WE CAN REACH OUT TO ONE ANOTHER WITH ANY EFFECTIVENESS. WE ARE CLOSE ENOUGH TO MAKE A TENTATIVE MENTAL CONNECTION, AND I CAN KEEP THE JAILOR CONTAINED; HOWEVER, I WOULD RECOMMEND YOU HURRY…THIS FORM WILL NOT LAST MUCH LONGER."

'Will do. And…thanks.'

"THAT GRATITUDE WILL NOT LAST LONG."

Fū was too busy focusing on a method to reach Naruto to pay attention to her Bijū. Due to the Nanabi taking control of her body, she had essentially been relegated to sitting in her mindscape and watching what was happening. Now, eyes closed, she focused on the implicit connection between Jinchūriki and Bijū, trying to extend it to Naruto like they had back in Konoha after meeting Gaara. She strained to feel some sort of bond between her and her fellow Jinchūriki, her partner-in-crime and savior. "Naruto!" she called, praying for a response from the darkness. "Where are you? You need to get control!

"NARUTO!"


Naruto felt like he was asleep. There was no real awareness of where he was or what he was doing, only the vague knowledge that his body was moving without his say-so. Coursing through his veins was a strange bloodlust, one that he wasn't used to feeling.

"Naruto!"

The blond tried to open his eyes, tried to look around, but the unusual lethargy that had seeped into his bones made the actions impossible. Somewhere in the recesses of his mind, he recognized the voice as familiar, feminine in pitch with a distinctly-urgent undertone. He struggled to move, fought to gain some semblance of control over his body, but only the darkness of his eyelids greeted him.

"Where are you? You need to get control!"

'I'm trying!' he wanted to shout back, but his mouth wouldn't open, vocal chords struck dumb. Every aspect of his body felt restrained, shackled by chains or glued shut. The lack of control over his own body frustrated him, making him feel even more helpless than when…

…when what? There was a block on his memory, as if everything that had happened recently and was happening currently was covered by a film. Vague images and shapes danced in his mind's eye, practically mocking him with their nearness and his inability to distinguish them. The knowledge that he should know these things and yet didn't was even more galling than the fact that he was unable to move. He struggled against the invisible bonds keeping him restrained, wanting to know what was going on, who and what he couldn't remember—

"NARUTO!"

The blond's eyes snapped open. Fū!

He sat up like a shot, wide blues eyes taking in his surroundings. Water dripped off his body and from his blond locks, creating ripples in the shallow liquid he was already seated in. "Pleasant," he muttered, lifting an arm and watching the water flow to his fingertips and then off them. This is…my mindscape… His gaze drifted to the wall where the web of Jiongu hung, eyes narrowing at the lack of masks that represented his Doton and Suiton hearts. "What happened?" he wondered.

"DAMN THAT GIRL AND THAT ACCURSED INSECT!"

Naruto winced at the volume of the voice, his head throbbing. He got up and turned slowly to meet the bloodshot gaze of the Kyūbi. "What did you do?" he demanded.

"I DON'T ANSWER TO YOU," snarled the beast.

Throwing caution to the win, Naruto stepped forward and rapped his knuckles against the iron bars of the cage. "I think you do."

The Kyūbi growled at him, a low reverberation that echoed around the mindscape. Then the fox's deep chuckling rang out, confusing the blond slightly. "YOU'RE SO QUICK TO PLACE THE BLAME ELSEWHERE. I ONLY TOOK ADVANTAGE OF YOUR OWN EMOTIONAL TURMOIL."

Naruto rubbed the bridge of his nose; dealing with the fox was a taxing effort. "Will you stop speaking in riddles and just tell me what's going on?"

"I'M A LIVING MASS OF MALEVOLENCE AND OTHER NEGATIVE EMOTIONS. WHEN YOU BECAME ENRAGED, YOU SUBCONSCIOUSLY DREW UPON A COPIOUS AMOUNT OF MY CHAKRA." The fox paused, allowing another amused chuckle to escape. "THIS IS JUST FURTHER PROOF THAT YOU ARE INCAPABLE OF CONTROLLING MY POWER. IF THAT DAMNED BUTTERFLY HADN'T INTERFERED, I WOULD BE ON MY WAY TO KONOHA BY NOW."

The Kyūbi rumbled in such a delighted way that Naruto was tempted to call it a purr. "THE FEEL OF FLESH AND BLOOD BETWEEN MY PAWS…THE FUTILITY OF THE ANTS AS THEY TRIED TO FIGHT BACK…AH, HOW I MISSED IT ALL. IT'S TRULY A SHAME THERE WEREN'T MORE VICTIMS TO CRUSH. HOW DARE THAT INSECT INTERFERE WITH MY FUN!"

"Tragic," Naruto muttered. "You won't get another chance to take over my body again," he warned his tenant. "I don't need your power. I'll rely on my own strength and the abilities Kakuzu gave me." He turned and walked away from the cage.

"YOU'LL RETURN FOR MY POWER ONE DAY, BRAT," called the Bijū. "YOUR MENTOR WAS UNABLE TO WIN WITH HIS OWN STRENGTH, AND YOU WOULD BE DEAD WITHOUT MINE. REMEMBER THAT."

The fox's words echoed in his mind as Naruto's consciousness returned to the real world. Blue eyes blinked open slowly, adjusting to the vision of the open sky. A loud and obnoxious voice immediately made itself known. "—him up! I want my body back so I can sacrifice that heathen to Jashin-sama!"

"I'm not a medical expert, Hidan, I can't just control when he's going to wake up!"

"If that bastard Kakuzu had just prayed for Jashin-sama's forgiveness, maybe he'd still be alive to do this! Now I have to wait for this blond weenie to wake his ass up—"

"Kaku— AGGGHH!"

"Naruto!" cried Fū, leaning over him. The blond was convulsing on the ground, his body wracked with spasms from sitting up too quickly because of Hidan's announcement. Every nerve in his body screamed at him simultaneously, feeling like they'd been set on fire. "You might want to take it easy," Fū cautioned, wincing herself. "Accessing the Bijū's chakra apparently has some negative repercussions for anyone who uses it."

I DID SAY THAT YOU WOULD REGRET THANKING ME. ZZT ZZT ZZT.

Naruto watched Fū's movements with a careful eye. His companion seemed to be going through controlled motions, unwilling to move more than absolutely necessary. He slowly reached out a hand to her, but stopped when his own appendage came within his range of vision. Instead of the tanned flesh the teenager was used to, his skin was a bright red, almost as if he'd stayed in a hot spring for far too long. "What…happened to me?" he managed.

Fū looked distinctly downcast as she thought about how to respond. "You…were like some sort miniature Kyūbi. Four tails, claws, ears… I…had to use the Nanabi's chakra to restrain you." She rubbed a hand over an arm self-consciously. "It…came with a price."

Looking closer at the girl, Naruto could make out the barest hint of a scale pattern on her arms. He clenched his fist tightly, gritting his teeth against the pain shooting through his arm. Nnnggh…damn it all. Everything's screwed up. What would Kakuzu do?

Kakuzu… "Where's Kakuzu?"

Fū gestured to the side. "I'm not sure how, but he managed to escape all the fighting. His body's over there."

"Yeah," shouted Hidan, "boo-freaking-hoo and all that shit. Now put my body back together!"

"Shut up!" snapped both Jinchūriki. They exchanged wan smiles. "Must've been channeling Kakuzu," Naruto wisecracked.

"Yeah," Fū agreed. She glanced at the body of their mentor. "What do we do?" she whispered.

"Get over your fuckin' self!" Hidan yelled. "Put me—"

He was cut off abruptly as Naruto's arm extended and grabbed his head around his mouth. The blond reeled the immortal's head in, bringing their eyes even. "You talk too much," he commented, commanding a thread to weave Hidan's lips together. "Much better," he sighed, tossing the head away amidst the man's muffled threats.

Naruto pushed himself to a sitting position, ignoring the feeling of raw skin being stretched and the pain that came with movement. Pieces of his flesh were already starting to reappear, slowly, spurred forward by the Kyūbi's regenerative powers. "We move forward," he resolved. "I think…that's what he would want. You know," he smiled wryly, "if he wasn't such a tremendous prick."

Both Jinchūriki grew momentarily pensive, honoring the memory of their fallen instructor. At length, Naruto managed to get to his feet, the aftereffects of the Kyūbi's chakra a dull ache. "Well, guess I should help Hidan. Maybe Pein will appreciate the favor. Wanna help?"

Fū offered him a smile that was partially contorted by a grimace. "As much fun as that sounds, it hurts if I move too much. My body wasn't meant to use so much of the Nanabi's chakra at once."

Naruto offered her an apologetic gesture. "Thanks though." He looked around at the clearing they were in, noting the lack of trees, various holes, and puddles of blood. Bodies were spread throughout the area, some halved at the torso, others missing arms or legs or heads. So…this is what happens when the Kyūbi takes over, huh? The blond moved to kneel beside the nearest corpse, missing an arm and possessing a fist-shaped hole through his chest. Pretty gruesome. His eyes hardened. They deserved to suffer…

Staring at the corpse filled Naruto with a sense of vindication, knowing that he had properly avenged Kakuzu despite not being fully in control of his actions. His hand reached out of its own accord and gripped the porcelain white mask decorating the body's face. He removed it to see the insignia of the Hidden Leaf etched into the man's forehead protector. Konoha… Again, the Hidden Leaf haunted him, perpetually spurring his hatred and desire for vengeance. The blond was filled with a sudden compulsion to take the item, so he ripped the hitae-ate from its place and pocketed it. There would be time later to digest all that had happened; right now, he was needed.

He turned away from the scene and walked over to where Hidan's body parts were stacked in a pile. "You've certainly seen better days," he commented, unknowingly echoing Fū's earlier words and picking up an arm. That was stitched back into the shoulder, the opposite one following with a suture just below the elbow. He worked his way through the rest of the pile until all that was left was the head. Watching Jiongu reattach Hidan's head to his neck, Naruto was struck by inspiration. I wonder… Can Kakuzu's body accept a heart?

The idea was a bit radical. Corpses certainly weren't meant to function by arbitrarily shoving new hearts into them and hoping they would just come back to life. Heart transplants were lengthy and in-depth operations that required careful planning and understanding of the cardiovascular system.

But that applied to normal humans. Jiongu, by its very nature, had altered Kakuzu's body to become adept at switching out organs with startling ease, even replacing hearts autonomously after the previous one had failed. Based on that, it wasn't so outlandish to believe that an implanted heart from another Jiongu-user could theoretically bring Kakuzu back to life. There was nothing to be lost from at least trying.

He limped over to Kakuzu's body and kneeled beside it. Reaching for the Doton heart stored on his back, the blond was surprised to discover that he couldn't feel the power of the Earth Release chakra nature flowing through his body; a second feel revealed the lack of his Suiton affinity as well. Interesting, he mused, thinking back to the empty web in his mindscape, did the Kyūbi's chakra destroy the hearts? Naruto shook his head. There was time for speculation later. Right now, he needed an extra heart. Not wanting to move, he called, "Hidan, I need you to bring me someone. Alive," he clarified. When his only response was the purple-eyed man glowering hatefully at him, the blond sighed. His arm shot out and touched the man, mentally commanding the thread binding Hidan's lips together to unweave. "Body, if you would be so kind. Chop chop."

"Tch, you and Kakuzu are exactly the same—"

"Perish the thought," Naruto muttered.

"—forcing me to become blasphemous traitors like you! It's a sin to leave a sacrifice alive!"

Naruto stared at him. "Let me make this simple," he said, a tinge of frost entering his tone, "find me a damn body, bring it to me alive, or I'll undo all my work and have Fū put you back in whatever hellhole she found you in, in pieces. Got it?"

Hidan laughed. "Like you could. Just look at the sorry shape your ass is in."

"If you do this," Naruto began after a moment of thought, deciding that threats wouldn't work, "Kakuzu will end up being in your debt."

The former Yu-nin paused to consider the implications of that statement. "Ha ha! Then he'll have to allow me to give my respect to Jashin-sama without complaining!" He walked past Naruto to pick up his scythe, which the blond was surprised to find undamaged from the turmoil of his assault. "My lord will be most pleased with my renewed dedication."

"…Sure, right," agreed the blond. Hidan's yammering didn't make much sense to him, but agreeing with the man seemed to be the best option in getting him to do as Naruto wanted.

Hidan immediately went on some tangent that Naruto instinctively tuned out. How Kakuzu had managed to travel around the continent with Hidan for over a year baffled the blond. Five minutes with the Jashinist was enough to drive him crazy. "Do you ever shut— crap!"

Wooden beams erupted from the earth around Naruto and Hidan. The Jinchūriki activated a hasty Violent Wind Palm aimed at the ground and ended up blasting himself into the air and onto a tree bough as the prison finished erecting itself. If the yelling was any indication, Hidan had not been fortunate enough to escape. Tenzō stepped out of the shadows. "Well done, Kyūbi Jinchūriki."

"Are you kidding me?" Naruto exclaimed, resisting the urge to scream in a mixture of pain and frustration. "How did you even find me?"

"I am highly attuned to the amount of chakra thrown off by the Bijū. The output that I felt coming from this area made it easy to find you."

Fucking fox! Naruto snarled in his mind.

YOU HAVE ONLY YOURSELF TO BLAME.

"Come with me, Jinchūriki, and I will let your friend go free," offered Tenzō.

"Oi! That little pansy and I aren't friends!"

"Couldn't have said it better myself," Naruto muttered. Still, regardless of the definition of his and Hidan's relationship, the former Yu-nin was the blond's best chance to escape. Naruto was in no condition to fight; just activating the Fūton: Reppūshō had brought about a surge of agony. How do I free Hidan? Those wooden pillars are practically indestructible. He glanced to the side to find Fū gone from her original position. So I have to distract him, huh? This'll be…fun. "If you want me, come get me," he taunted.

I feel like I'm gonna regret that.

Despite the cat mask that hid Tenzō's face, Naruto had the distinct impression that the ANBU was scowling at him. The man performed seals, and Naruto jumped off the tree branch as a block of wood grew from the trunk. He looped several threads of Jiongu around the limb and vaulted himself to the next tree, wincing slightly at the impact. Your help might be appreciated, he told the Kyūbi.

YOU COMPLAIN ABOUT THE EFFECTS OF MY CHAKRA, AND THEN YOU BEG FOR MY ASSISTANCE. WHAT HAPPENED TO NOT RELYING ON MY POWER?

Don't need your power, just your healing ability.

I PREFER TO WATCH YOU SUFFER.

Bastard! He weaved through the tree trunks as a series of wooden blocks chased after him, all growing from Tenzō's arm. All he needed to do was stall the ANBU agent until Fū could free Hidan.

Meanwhile, the green-haired girl was staring at the Akatsuki member through the wooden bars of the man's prison. Hidan, apparently, was unsatisfied with her lack of progress. "Are you gonna just keep lookin' at me, or are you gonna do something, you stupid bitch?"

"Yeah, yell at me, that'll help." Ideas? she prompted the Nanabi.

ONE. TELL THE LOUDMOUTH TO MOVE TO ONE SIDE.

"Hidan, move." She was surprised when the Jashinist obeyed without protesting.

PREPARE YOURSELF. Fū grimaced as the Nanabi pushed its chakra through the seal, creating a pair of wings that sprouted from her spine. She vibrated them quickly at the Bijū's behest, sending out a burst of his chakra before the wings dissipated. THAT SHOULD DO.

The cage keeping Hidan contained was now half the size, a concave shape carved out of one end. Hidan walked out of the opening, twirling his scythe expertly with one hand. "Where's the masked fucker?"

"Not far," Fū gasped, bent over on hands and knees.

"He'll become a sacrifice to Jashin-sama!" Then he was gone, cackling madly.

Fū struggled to her feet, breath coming in labored pants. Allowing the Nanabi to squeeze out that last bit of chakra had tolled her exhausted body to its limit. She limped over to the wooden prison and leaned against it, trying to control the sharp throb pounding in her head and resonating throughout her body. How do we get out of here?

Naruto stumbled into the clearing then, tumbling head over feet and ending up on his rear. He shook his head and got up slowly. "We need to go," he said. "Hidan's keeping Tenzō busy."

"You trust Hidan?"

"Not particularly, no," admitted the blond. "But every trait that makes him a nuisance also makes him a good distraction. Besides," he continued, walking over to Kakuzu's body, "all else aside, Hidan is still an S-class nukenin. He can handle himself. We need to worry about us. Let's go."


Carrying Kakuzu was hard, Naruto realized. Granted, the man was over a head taller than him and weighed at least 40 pounds more, so the awkwardness of trying to travel with him was understandable, but still…Naruto was not cut out to be a pack mule. Especially not in the condition the Kyūbi's chakra had left his body in.

Damn the fox! he cursed mentally, adjusting the placement of Kakuzu's body on his back. Without either of his other hearts, his ability to produce solid clones was nonexistent – unlike Kakuzu, he couldn't yet use chakra natures other than wind without the hearts – which was unfortunate given how useful they would be in the current situation.

Struggling forward with his mentor weighing him down, Naruto glanced behind to check Fū's progress. His fellow Jinchūriki trudged in his footsteps, pained flinches accompanying every step. We'll never make it like this, he realized sourly. Oto is too far, and neither of us are in peak health. Working his mind furiously for a solution, Naruto almost slapped himself as he landed upon one. Dropping Kakuzu's body to the ground and ignoring Fū's half-formed question of what he was doing, the blond ran through a set of familiar hand signs. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu," he uttered wearily, feeding what chakra he had recovered into the technique.

Kamegensō appeared in a cloud of smoke. One black eye rotated so it could stare at the blond. "Hello, Naruto," greeted the reptile.

"Hey 'Gensō," returned his summoner. "Sorry to ask this of you, but we kinda need a ride."

The chameleon's other eye roved from Fū – clutching her shoulder in pain – to the prone form of Kakuzu. "No problem." His tongue shot out and stuck to Kakuzu, bringing the corpse into his mouth with no questions. Naruto and Fū were quick to follow. "Where to?" he questioned, maw still open.

"North," Naruto replied, "to Otogakure." He gazed cautiously at the surrounding area, paranoia gripping him. Hidan was nigh indestructible, and Naruto supposed his skill was decent, but ANBU were tenacious, and the Jinchūriki didn't fully trust the silver-haired man to keep Tenzō at bay for long. "And if you could be camouflaged, that'd be great."

Kamegensō rumbled unintelligibly and closed his mouth, activating the ability of the chameleons to turn invisible.

From inside the reptile, Naruto and Fū tried to find stability with each step Kamegensō took. The chameleon's gait was slow, and the blond was sure that the trip to Oto would take some time, but it was better than trekking even more slowly by foot. He leaned against the wall of the summon's mouth and closed his eyes, allowing the monotonous movement of the chameleon's walk to lull him to sleep.

Naruto wasn't sure how much time had passed, but the chameleon's rumblings stirred him from his slumber and into groggy wakefulness. "Wha?"

"There are men out here threatening me if I don't stop."

"Ah." Troublesome gatekeepers. I suppose it's good that they're doing their job. "You can go now, 'Gensō," he said. "And thanks for the help."

"It was my pleasure, Naruto." He disappeared, leaving the blond to drop 10 feet to the ground. Naruto landed gracefully between the 'thud' of Kakuzu's body hitting the ground and Fū's muted groan of pain. Apparently she had still been asleep.

He waved to the guards. "Tell your Angel that Uzumaki Naruto has come to call on her god."

The guards held a whispered conference before one of them disappeared. Naruto sat down in the dirt and waited patiently for a response. Konan arrived in a flurry of paper almost twenty minutes later, an emotionless expression plastered upon her face. "Come," she beckoned.

Naruto hefted Kakuzu's body over his shoulder again and followed the blue-haired woman, Fū beside him. Konan was apparently not one for small talk, for the journey was made in relative silence. The blond wondered if she actually knew what had happened through some method privy to the full-fledged Akatsuki members, but was shaken from that musing by her divergence away from the path he remembered Pein's tower being. "Where are we going?" he asked.

"Hospital," was the curt reply.

Naruto's eyes narrowed. "Did he know about this? That Kakuzu and Hidan were in trouble?"

"Pein is aware of everything."

Anger boiled slowly in the pit of Naruto's stomach, but he restrained himself from saying anything else, instead focusing on moving forward with the burden of his mentor's weight. They reached the hospital soon enough, and Konan directed them towards a secluded room with grey walls and surgical equipment. "Wait here," she commanded before disappearing.

Naruto laid Kakuzu down on one of two beds while Fū sat on the other, body slumping in relief. "Was it really wise to come back here?" she asked.

"Do you have a better idea?"

Fū looked down. "I suppose not. I just…" She trailed off as a powerful presence became noticeable in the room.

Both Jinchūriki looked up to see Pein standing in the doorway, face expressionless. The orange-haired man stared at them, like they were specimens under a microscope. Finally, he said, "I believe it is prudent that we speak."

Naruto fought down the surge of anger directed at Pein, instead raising his head slowly to look the older man in his ringed, grey eyes. "Get me a heart…a shinobi's, a civilian's, a prisoner's for all I care," he stated in a dangerously calm voice, "and then we can talk."

Pein bore the boy's flat expression without any change in his own. After a minute of intense staring, he nodded, mentally contacting Konan and telling her to bring in a prisoner from the cells. The blue-haired woman appeared several minutes later with a man bound and gagged; he was forced to kneel before Naruto, hatred burning in his eyes.

The blond's own blue eyes were cold, glittering like ice in the light of the hospital room. There was no mercy present in those orbs as black threads wriggled out from his forearm and dug into the man's skin. Moments later, his heart was torn from his body in a spray of blood, the organ pumping solidly in Naruto's hand. He turned to the bed and placed the heart on his mentor's chest, directly over the long suture running from his clavicle to his pectoral. Jiongu pried open the stitch and deposited the organ inside before withdrawing back into its wielder.

Naruto waited with bated breath to see if his long-shot idea would work. Each second that passed felt like a lifetime, but finally, Kakuzu's body convulsed once, a rattling gasp escaping his mouth. The nukenin's threads stitched shut the opening on his chest, and Naruto bowed his head in silent relief that his teacher was alive. Konan walked over and felt the man's pulse before hooking him up to a variety of machines. "Heartbeat is slow but steady," she reported, "although brain function is minimal." She turned to Pein. "I belief the trauma of dying may have placed him in some sort of vegetative state."

"What?"

Pein placed a hand upon Naruto's shoulder and gripped it tightly. "Come with me," he ordered. "It is time for us to have a conversation."

"But Kakuzu—"

"You have done what you could," Pein interjected, "unless you have extensive knowledge of the medical field." He exchanged glances with Konan, who immediately swept out of room. The grey-eyed man turned to lead Naruto down the hall, but paused in the doorway. "I found this in Orochimaru's library," he mentioned, reaching into his sleeve and pulling out a tightly-rolled scroll. He tossed it behind him towards Fū, who had remained quiet throughout the entire ordeal. "I think you might find it interesting." Then he walked out, and Naruto had no choice but to follow.

The blond trotted to catch up to the taller man. "What did you give her?"

"Information," Pein replied, "which I can only assume Orochimaru managed to obtain from the office of the Tsuchikage many years ago."

Naruto opened his mouth to ask for specifics, but Fū's piercing shriek of "WHAT DO YOU MEAN JINTON USES KATON?" interrupted him.

Pein turned to find Naruto glancing back down the way they had come. "Tell me," he began, causing the younger shinobi to whip his head towards him, "what it was like to lose your mentor."

The blond's face morphed into an expression of rage. "You knew," he accused, "you knew that Kakuzu was gonna die."

"I did not."

"Don't lie!" snarled the Jinchūriki, marching up to Pein and getting in his face as best as he could.

"I trust my subordinates to be able to fend for themselves," stated the orange-haired man. "They are shinobi of repute who are not easily overwhelmed."

"You let him die because you thought he could handle himself?"

Akatsuki's leader stared the Jinchūriki in his blue eyes. "Tell me…do you think Kakuzu would have been pleased to be rescued?" Naruto took a moment to consider that idea, some of the anger leaving his system at the thought of his mentor's reaction to being saved by another. "I thought not." He turned away from the blond and continued walking. "By the time I had become aware of the situation, it was too late to do anything. His death would have been an unfortunate event if you hadn't returned him to the world of the living."

"Zetsu can pop out from trees!" Naruto retorted. "He could've gotten there in a flash! Don't tell me it was too late to do anything!"

"Zetsu is not a frontline shinobi. I prefer to minimize casualties." They turned a corner. "Now you understand the true definition of pain."

Naruto was confused by the abrupt subject change. "I…what?"

"There are many variations of pain. Physical pain, such as the loss of a limb or the breaking of bones; emotional pain, experienced through the loss of those we are close to; spiritual pain, often felt through empathy. Humans are, on the whole, a pathetic and fragile race of creatures. Yet, despite all these different types of pain, there is only one true pain." Ringed, grey eyes turned to the blond. "You have felt it."

Naruto thought back to the forest of dead trees, of watching the one person who had given him a chance fall to the ground and lay there, unmoving. The knowledge that Kakuzu, the closest thing he had to a father-figure (sad as that was), had died had given rise to such feelings of hatred and agony that he had called upon droves of the Kyūbi's chakra and morphed into a miniature version of the Bijū.

The blond turned blue eyes filled with comprehension towards Akatsuki's leader. "You have realized it," Pein intoned. "People, by nature, cling to others and create communities based on these connections. They experience sadness when people they know die, but there are others to help them move on, to fill the void. But for those who don't have such a network, the loss of a parent or a friend is keenly felt. As a Jinchūriki, you have a good grasp of what this is like.

"The death of the only person you are close to…that is true pain. And this foolish world and its wars know nothing of that." There was a lull as Pein allowed Naruto to consider his words before he continued, "You are fortunate. There are not many people who can claim to have experienced such pain and then get a chance to talk to the person who passed. You should take advantage of such an opportunity."

Pein began to walk away, but Naruto's quiet call of "Wait," stopped him. "What…when did you know the true meaning of pain?"

"Konoha-nin invaded my home during the Second Shinobi World War and killed my parents, who were civilians. That was the first time." He paused. "Years later, my motivation to fight for peace died doing what he thought was right. He saved my life and inspired Akatsuki's goals."

"It's hard, not being able to tell someone how hugely they've impacted your life, isn't it?"

Nagato thought of how Yahiko only lived on as a puppet, serving as the Deva Path of the bodies known collectively as Pein. He could only hope that wherever he was, Yahiko would be satisfied with the ultimate plan he had put together to bring peace to the world. "Yes," he said at last, "it is."

"Hey!" Naruto called as Pein started walking again. "You know that Hidan's lost somewhere, right?"

"Of course. I know everything."

Left alone in the hallway, Naruto found himself ruminating on Pein's dialogue. He reached into his pocket and withdrew the Konoha hitae-ate, gazing at the metal thoughtfully. After a moment, a tendril of Jiongu slipped out from underneath his skin and, with a tiny application of wind chakra, scored the headband.

It would be his permanent reminder that the Hidden Leaf would pay for all the pain it had caused him.


Fū was as close to seething as she had ever been. "I've been using it wrong the ENTIRE TIME?"she screeched.

"OBNOXIOUS GIRL," the Nanabi buzzed irritably, "SHOULDN'T YOU BE IN TOO MUCH PAIN TO BOTHER ME?"

She had cracked open the scroll as Naruto and Pein had left the hospital room and started perusing its contents. It was apparently written by the second host of the Nanabi, the brother of the man who would become the Nidaime Tsuchikage. And it had labeled Jinton as a combination of Doton, Fūton, and Katon affinities.

Outraged at this new revelation, Fū had immediately entered her mindscape to confront the Seven-Tails. "Why didn't you tell me?"

"DON'T YOU HAVE BETTER THINGS TO COMPLAIN ABOUT? YOUR SCALES, FOR INSTANCE."

"I knew there would be consequences to using your power when I agreed to let you take over," she snapped. "What I didn't think was that you would keep information from me that would risk my life…YOUR life." Arms crossed, she tapped her foot impatiently, glaring through the honeyed bars of the Bijū's cage. "Now, are you going to start talking, or am I just going to have to read this scroll?" she asked, waving a conjured image of said object in front of the demon's sight.

"…WHAT AN INTERESTING CONTAINER YOU ARE," rasped the beetle. Fū rolled her eyes; that seemed to be the Nanabi's go-to phrase whenever she managed to surprise him. "FINE.

"MANY YEARS AGO, I WAS CAPTURED BY THE SHINOBI OF IWAGAKURE. THEY SEALED ME INTO A HUMAN, BUT SEALING METHODS FOR THE BIJŪ WERE NOT WELL-CONCEIVED AT THAT TIME, AND I BROKE FREE WITHIN TWO AND A HALF YEARS. OF COURSE, IN THAT TIMEFRAME, THEY CAME UP WITH NEW ONES, AND I WAS IMMEDIATELY SEALED WITHIN MY SECOND HOST.

"HE WAS…ADEPT. HE CAME TO UNDERSTAND MY POWERS AND FOUND A WAY TO CHANNEL THEM INTO AN ADVANCED CHAKRA NATURE THAT HE CALLED JINTON. DURING THAT TIME, HIS BROTHER MŪ SPIED ON HIM AND MANAGED TO RECREATE THE JINTON CHAKRA NATURE FOR HIS OWN USES. HE BECAME THE NIDAIME TSUCHIKAGE…AND HIS BROTHER, MY JINCHŪRIKI, WAS TRADED TO TAKIGAKURE AS PART OF A UNIVERSAL PEACE TREATY FOR MY SIBLING, THE GOBI. THEY APPARENTLY BELIEVED THEY COULD KEEP THE STATUS QUO BY CONTROLLING A BIJŪ WITH MORE TAILS, ESPECIALLY SINCE IWA ALREADY POSSESSED THE YONBI. REGARDLESS, THE TAKI SHINOBI IMMEDIATELY EXTRACTED ME AND SEALED ME INTO MY THIRD CONTAINER. YOU ARE MY FIFTH."

"Quite a colorful history," Fū commented. "So, you said that this second Jinchūriki created Jinton by channeling your powers. What's that mean?"

"I AM RENOWNED AS THE GREAT DEMOLISHER. EVERY BEAT OF MY WINGS HAS THE ABILITY TO ATOMIZE PEOPLE, TO MOLECULARIZE OBJECTS, TO DISINTEGRATE THE VERY MOUNTAINS INTO HEAPS OF DUST!"

"More boasting…what a shock," muttered the Jinchūriki. "Didn't stop you from getting captured in the first place, now did it?" The Nanabi buzzed angrily, the vibrations of his wings slamming against the bars of his cage. "So that's what happened when I fought that guy from Oto during the invasion," she realized, recalling how the teenager had exited her body without an arm. "Why did you never tell me this? I've been wasting all my time with this half-assed version when the real Jinton sounds incredibly powerful."

"YOU MADE AN ASSUMPTION. YOU WERE WRONG. I FOUND YOUR NEW METHOD TO BE…INTRIGUING. IT POSSESSED POTENTIAL, AND YOU MADE IMPRESSIVE STRIDES IN ADAPTING IT TO YOUR WHIMS. FOR A HUMAN, ANYWAY."

"Your arrogance isn't very becoming."

"REGARDLESS, THE BASTARDIZED VERSION OF JINTON YOU CREATED BECAME USEFUL. THE REAL VERSION IS HIGHLY CHAKRA INTENSIVE AND REQUIRES A GREAT DEAL OF TIME TO PREPARE. IN ADDITION, IT IS NOT EXTRAORDINARILY CONDUCIVE TO YOUR CHOSEN PROFESSION OF BOUNTY HUNTING. NO BODY MEANS NO PAYMENT."

"…Did you just make a joke?"

"…YOU HAVE PROVEN TO BE AN INTRIGUING JINCHŪRIKI," noted the Seven-Tails somewhat-reluctantly. This time, it almost sounded like a compliment rather than idle musing. "I LOOK FORWARD TO SEEING WHERE YOU GO WITH THIS NEW KNOWLEDGE."

"Thanks for being helpful this time," Fū said before returning to the real world.


"Hello, Hidan-san!"

"You!"

"You look like you've seen better days."

"Aw, shut up, plant-bastard."

"Aren't you gonna tell us what happened?"

"Some Konoha asshole resisted being sacrificed for Jashin-sama's great will. Cowardly bastard ran off after attacking with a bunch of trees."

"So you weren't able to kill him? How embarrassing."

"SHUT UP! What're you here for, anyway?"

"Follow us. We're here to take you back to meet your partner."

"So the bastard survived, huh? Maybe now he'll have a greater appreciation for Jashin-sama."

"…No wonder Kakuzu doesn't like him. He's obnoxious."

"HEY! I'm right here, asshole!"


Kakuzu woke up on the third day of their stay in the Hidden Sound. He was a bit disoriented and extremely grouchy, but Naruto was too happy to see him alive to care about his personality.

Then the mercenary went and commented on how pathetic it was for him to be so emotional, and Naruto remembered exactly why the man was such a pain to deal with. In a way, it was almost nostalgic.

That was when Hidan entered the room and proceeded to mock the former Taki-nin, resulting in an insult match between the two. Naruto sighed somewhat-exasperatedly. Some things never truly changed.

Very little had occurred during Kakuzu's bout of unconsciousness. Fū had remained hospitalized for a solid day, alternating between sleeping and reading the scroll Pein had given her. Even after recovering from her overuse of the Nanabi's chakra, she had pored over the parchment with a fire in her orange eyes, trying to absorb the knowledge like a sponge. Sometimes she had disappeared for stretches of time, though she had always returned muttering incredulously about ratios and three elements.

Naruto found he didn't quite possess the brevity to ask if she had finally succumbed to insanity, and so left his companion to brood in peace.

Hidan, surprisingly, had shown up not long before the end of the first day, talking loudly and complaining about 'wood-fuckers' and 'plant-assholes'. The blond had guesses about the Jashinist's irate mood, but decided that not engaging Hidan in conversation was a better idea than any of the alternatives.

Konan had appeared each day to check on Kakuzu's condition, and Pein had returned once to drag Hidan away, offering to explain Akatsuki's plans in full to the silver-haired man. Naruto had been grateful for the reprieve from the immortal's voice.

Despite the strange urge to maintain a bedside vigil on Kakuzu the entire time (the mercenary hardly needed protection, he thought sarcastically), Naruto had opted to roam the Village Hidden in Sound and explore what it had to offer. The feeling of tranquility the village exuded had calmed the tumultuous mixture of emotions the blond had experienced over the past several days. Otogakure possessed a homey feel that Naruto – a wanderer with no permanent abode – found oddly relaxing.

That hadn't prevented him from popping in to check on Kakuzu's condition every so often, but otherwise the rest of his time had been spent planning his next steps. Frustratingly, 'wait for Kakuzu to wake up' had remained the constant priority, his only anchor to not leaving Oto at a moment's notice.

Now that the man was awake, though, Naruto felt a weight lift off his chest. He sort of missed his teacher's sarcastic ripostes and snarky commentary.

Kakuzu's green eyes settled their stoic gaze on his blond disciple, sliding wordlessly over the scored forehead protector he now wore and settling into an intense gaze into his pupil's blue orbs. "You revived me," he stated questioningly, "using Jiongu."

Naruto nodded. "Yeah…"

"…Intriguing." Then his gaze hardened into something akin to scorn. "Your sentiment will be the death of you someday."

Naruto spluttered, outraged. "My sentiment will be my death? You died from your arrogance! AND I SAVED YOU!"

"Out of attachment," Kakuzu snorted, "not necessity. Resurrecting the dead is a fool's errand."

"YOU COULD AT LEAST THANK ME!"

"Hardly."

"Hey, Kakuzu," Hidan interrupted, "what was Hell like? A blaspheming bastard like you definitely went there. I bet your wrinkled old ass got roasted!"

"I would like a word with Kakuzu," interjected a different voice before Kakuzu could retort.

All eyes turned to the doorway to find Pein standing there, face expressionless. The former Taki-nin rose in bed so that he was upright, back leaning against the pillows. Hidan snorted. "Tch, fine." He pushed past the orange-haired man, his grumblings echoing down the corridor.

Naruto glanced between the two men. "Go, brat," Kakuzu dismissed. "We shall talk later." The blond hesitated, but then bobbed his head and left. Kakuzu waited until he was sure they were alone before saying, "What business would you like to discuss?"

Pein shut the door and then moved to stand at the foot of Kakuzu's bed. "Your student was rather worried about your condition," he began conversationally. "He demanded that I get him a heart to revive you." He paused, turning his gaze to the closed door. "Such dedication is…impressive."

"Foolish would be a more apt term. Immortality is a falsehood. The dead should remain such."

"Hm." Pein returned his attention to the bedridden man. "How dedicated are you to Akatsuki?"

"I am a member, am I not?"

"Yes, but men of your caliber – of Akatsuki's caliber – all have personal agendas. At first glimpse, one would believe that yours follows whichever path proves most profitable. However, I don't belief this to be the case. At least, not in its entirety. So I ask again, how dedicated are you to Akatsuki?"

Kakuzu stared at his superior, considering his options. In his current condition, there was certainly nothing he could do to stop Pein from killing him, though he sincerely doubted that was the man's intention. That meant that he had to engage the orange-haired man's word game and hope to give the appropriate answers. Finally, he settled on saying, "I have actively pursued our targets and have not hindered Akatsuki's progress."

"And yet you would prefer that the two Jinchūriki remain alive rather than see Akatsuki's plans come to fruition."

"…I dislike wasting valuable resources," replied the former Taki-nin slowly, "but if their deaths are a necessity for our plans, then I will not stand in the way."

"Hm." Pein's grey eyes flickered towards the door once again. "They have proven themselves quite useful," he commented tonelessly. "Far more useful than I would have originally anticipated." Kakuzu managed to reel in his surprise at what he thought was the shorter man praising the two Jinchūriki. "They have become interesting assets to this organization."

Kakuzu's eyes narrowed. "That is…positive."

Once more, Pein's gaze turned back to the former Taki-nin. "You should be commended for how well you trained them."

"I would refrain from phrasing it in such a manner. My students would argue that my teaching input was minimal at best."

"How would you like a second opportunity?"

This time, Kakuzu couldn't contain the shocked widening of his eyes, though they quickly settled into a suspicious gaze. "…What exactly are you implying?"

"I'm curious to see how far their loyalty extends. They have shown a strong attachment to you despite your current affiliations, and have been working for Akatsuki as long as you have despite knowing what our intentions are. Perhaps we can continue to capitalize on their usefulness…but that is only possible as long as they continue to live."

"Your plans have changed?"

Pein shook his head. "No. But there may be a way to enact Akatsuki's ultimate goal without killing either of the Jinchūriki. It would require research, but the benefit of having two fully-trained Jinchūriki on Akatsuki's side outweighs the risk. This is why I would like you to continue training them."

"And if they become stronger than you?"

"The likelihood of that occurring is miniscule." Pein paused, then continued, "This is not a guarantee that they will live." He walked to the door and opened it. "You should leave when you've recovered. And take Hidan with you…his voice has become irritating to hear."

"Preaching to the choir," Kakuzu deadpanned. "Wait," he continued as the grey-eyed man made to leave the room, "what made you change your mind? This is a rather abrupt shift in attitude."

"Some qualities people possess are rare and invaluable," Pein replied at length, lingering in the doorframe without turning around. "To deprive the world of such a person before he's had the chance to fully understand himself…would be a travesty, don't you agree?" Then, without waiting for a response, he was gone.

Kakuzu was left to ponder the cryptic words of Akatsuki's leader in silence, analytical mind working to decode just what exactly Pein had seen in Naruto that had caused him to reconsider killing both Jinchūriki.

Two days later found the mercenary healed, though in dire need of restocking his supply of hearts. With a moderately-confused Naruto and Fū in tow, and a whining Hidan bringing up the rear, Kakuzu and his troupe departed the safety of Otogakure heading west.

Ringed, grey eyes watched them leave, communicating a silent bid of fortitude for their journey ahead.

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