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At the same time that Utakata gave the signal, he brought his bubble pipe to his lips and blew, creating a great screen of bubbles that encircled the town square, forcing the Ishigakure shinobi back from a battle that was clearly beyond them—three jinchuuriki and two Akatsuki could level mountains between them, and Utakata didn't want the citizens of this village on his conscience. Dousame was trapped in here with them, but as the village's oyabun Utakata presumed he could look out for himself.

Considering the man was apparently responsible for capturing the Nanabi jinchuuriki—and intending to execute her judging by the weapon he'd held over her—he wouldn't regret the man's death much.

With a tremendous noise like Kami-sama's kettle boiling over, steam blew from the furnace built into the armour on Han's back, and the usually-ponderous man charged.

Dousame Kagami, who had half-turned back toward them in response to Utakata's shout, was instead forced to jump away from the middle of the square, whipping his glass saber around to parry a swing from the silver-haired Akatsuki's three-bladed scythe.

Having travelled with him for some time, Utakata knew that, very much like his speech, Han could be slow to start moving, but almost impossible to stop once he was in motion. As such, when Han smashed into the solidly-built wooden stocks, the latter gave way first, and Han scooped the green-haired girl into his arms before driving his shoulder into the taller Akatsuki's chest with the force of a Snow country train. The man went flying until he reached Utakata's wall of bubbles, which promptly exploded and drove him into the ground.

"Get the fuck up, Kakuzu, you lazy piece of shit!" the silver-haired man screamed, yanking on the cable connecting his scythe blades to the cable in his hand in hope of catching Han in the back.

Han simply leapt backward over them, landing back near Utakata and placing his rescuee back on her feet. He bent down, grasped the bits of wood still sealed around her wrists, and broke them apart with main strength.

With the last of the seals finally broken, the girl rolled her wrists and stretched her neck to the side as two glittering wings burst from her lower back. "Thanks," she said shortly, eyes on the now-named 'Kakuzu' as he emerged from the hole he'd bored into the ground, looking no worse for wear except for a slight darkening of his skin. She bit her lip. "They're the ones who killed me."

"You are not alone anymore," Han said, steam now billowing from under his hat in steady coils.

"So I heard. Lucky lucky. Well met, Han of the Steam Armour and Utakata of the…Bubble Pipe?" she gave a strained grin. "I'm Fuu. I don't know if you've fought them, but I swear I killed them both before they got me. Twice. They just kept getting back up."

"Then we shall have to get creative," Utakata mused. Then he twirled his pipe to deflect a razor-edged disc of glass that Dousame had shot toward him. "Tch. How irksome. Those two will kill your entire village; we only want to leave!" he pointed out angrily, but Dousame only conjured up more discs.

Before he could do more than hurl a shuriken of his own back, however, Kakuzu had rejoined his fellow. "I agreed to let you take the lead, Hidan," he growled. "Because I hoped it would be faster than arguing with you. Stop wasting time and kill Dousame so that we can focus on the jinchuuriki."

Yanking his scythe back to his hands again, Hidan promptly slashed at Kakuzu, face showing his rage. Kakuzu simply raised an arm and blocked it, looking bored. His robe tore under the scythe's multiple blades, but they only struck sparks off his skin.

"He's using some jutsu as armour to harden his skin," Fuu said. "He used just a few jutsu, like mostly one of each element, but they're really strong."

"It appears to be a variant on Iwagakure's Iwa no Yoroi technique," Han said, perhaps unnecessarily. "His skin is diamond-hard. Do not hold back."

"And the other one will try to drink your blood," Fuu finished. "If he does, his jutsu makes any wound you give him appear on you."

"Then he's mine to fight at range," Utakata murmured, carefully opening the lid of the container for his bubble solution and refilling his pipe during the momentary lull. "Han, you shall have to deal with Kakuzu," he added as Kakuzu and Hidan yelled at each other.

They finished momentarily, however, and turned hungry eyes on the three jinchuuriki. Hidan licked his lips and widened his stance, preparing to charge, while Kakuzu merely folded his arms, flat green eyes watching his opponents dispassionately.

We should pre-empt them, Saiken spoke up suddenly.

In full agreement, Utakata caused some bubbles behind the Akatsuki to fuse into a larger one, which drifted forward until it exploded right between them with the force of a bomb.

Let's go.

As their enemies were blasted apart, Utakata called on Saiken's power, a Version One aura cloak forming even as blew a new stream of bubbles toward the mouthy Akatsuki with the scythe. These exploded with less force, but released a highly-corrosive slime. Hidan's screams reached a new pitch as it splashed into his eyes, but he didn't drop his weapon, instead whipping it out toward the last place he had seen the three of them.

Utakata leapt backward even as Fuu took to the air, but Han took the opportunity to charge at Kakuzu once more. "Futton: Kairiki Musou!" he bellowed, and the Boil Release: Unrivalled Strength left cracks in the stone beneath his pounding footsteps. He drew back a fist for a mighty overhand punch, which Kakuzu blocked with his own crossed arms.

Unhurt, though now sunken up to his knees in the broken ground, Kakuzu snarled, "Raiton: Gian!" and spat a spear of electricity at his attacker. Han coalesced some of the steam around him to draw away the lightning, pulling it along a path of less resistance to ground out away from him.

At the same time, he built up chakra in his chest, converting it to fire in his throat as he drew his mask downward to spit the Katon: Karyuudan directly onto his immobilized opponent. The Fire Dragon Bullet raged, but Han had to quickly stutter-step away from another lightning spear. The flames cleared, revealing Kakuzu pulling his legs out of the ground, looking unharmed except for his mask, shirt, and the top of his robe being charred away.

Han's eyes narrowed. Even through the smoke and steam, he could make out what looked like stitches ranging widely across Kakuzu's darkened skin. It was as if the man had been torn apart and carelessly sewn back together like a ragdoll.

Kakuzu rose to his full height again, idly brushing ash from his shoulder, and stared at Han with his flat eyes. "Your steam allows you to dampen simple flames and divert electricity, even as powerful as my Raiton: False Darkness. You are even strong enough for your attacks to hurt through my Doton: Earth Spear, if only barely."

"I see," Han rumbled. "I shall simply have to hit harder, I suppose. Along weak points like those stitches."

Kakuzu's eyes narrowed. "You don't know what you're up against, jinchuuriki," he rasped. "I fought Senju Hashirama and lived, and I've only grown stronger."

He hunched forward, and Han saw what looked like white bumps bulging from his back.

"Katon: Zukokku; Fūton: Atsugai," he called softly, and with a horrid ripping noise, two of the bumps burst forth, revealing themselves to be masks, which were suddenly attached to bodies made out of what looked like writhing cords.

One had red-painted lips, and its body looked oddly feline, while the other had blue points on the cheeks, and narrow wings on its squat body. They each twisted in midair to land on their four legs, and the masks' mouths contorted as if to roar, though no sound came out. Instead, the red one belched a thin stream of fire, which Han supposed was the fire technique apparently called Intelligent Hard Work. The other seemed to be churning and compressing the wind near it into a small tornado, and was presumably Pressure Damage.

Han leapt backward, but not far enough as the small fireball erupted into a gigantic firestorm. Steam poured copiously from his armour to keep the flames at bay, but before he could move, the wind mask released the tornado-like mass of air, and whipped the fire around him into a hellish inferno. It was far too much for Han's steam to possibly hold back, and the combination would surely overpower any simple Suiton jutsu. There was no way for him to extinguish these flames.

Reining in his killing intent—which he had once been told by Kakashi-taichou felt a great deal like a bijuu's breath on the back of your neck—was always something of a challenge for Naruto, particularly since he rarely felt any except toward those few who threatened his precious people. It was especially difficult when Kurama felt the same way he did, because Kurama's very nature made holding back even more of an ordeal.

But of course, all the bijuu possessed some measure of animal cunning in addition to the sapience that most shinobi had forgotten they had, and for Kurama in particular it was instinct to never let your prey know you were coming until it was too late for them to get away. This, Naruto could agree with wholeheartedly in the current situation.

Both of them, together, had agreed to Jiraiya's plan of capturing Root and Danzo alive—the old Iron country treatise Kouboujutsu put it thus: 'The best thing of all is to take the enemy's country whole and intact; to shatter and destroy it is not so good. So, too, it is better to recapture an army entire than to destroy it, to capture a regiment, a detachment or a company entire than to destroy them. Hence to fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy's resistance without fighting.'

So, accordingly, when the time came to begin their infiltration of the Root hideout in which Naruto had sensed Danzo's life energy, he grinned cheerily back at Jiraiya, reinforced his Kitsune-san henge with nature energy, planted his feet, and then casually broke the sound barrier as he kicked the door in.

The two guards inside the door staggered, blood trickling from their ears, and failed to react to Naruto knocking their masks away and slapping sealing tags on both their foreheads. They collapsed to the floor as Jiraiya appeared out of a shunshin, looking torn between disapproval and amusement.

Naruto merely gave a bright smile as he followed the door down the stairs, landing on it in a crouch and forcing it back down on top of the Root it had apparently carried down the steps. This one, too, was swiftly tagged, and at a quick signal from Naruto, the two of them took off to their left, down a maze of twisty little hallways, all alike, leaving a veritable wave of kage bunshin to spread out through the rest of the compound behind them.

Alarms sounded, but not very loud—presumably so as not to give away the existence of a secret base below the village—instead they were more of a background buzz, deep enough to rattle the teeth. Naruto supposed, as he tagged another Root, that it was also possibly meant to work as a slight distraction against any invaders, while the Root themselves would be conditioned to battle through it. It didn't slow Jiraiya or Naruto down at all, but it was definitely Danzo's style to leverage any potential advantage, no matter how small.

A good lesson for a ninja, of course, but on the other hand…Danzo took it too far in a lot of ways. This, too, could be said to be the old bastard's style. Not for the first time, Naruto wondered just where the Nidame had gone wrong in teaching Shimura Danzo.

They proceeded down the hallway toward Danzo's office, clearing each room they passed so as not to leave too many potential enemies at their backs. Given the manner in which they'd entered, there was a chance that some Root would attempt to evacuate, but Naruto was still in sage mode and could feel Danzo's life energy still resolutely seated in his office, no doubt overconfident in his troops and traps. Naruto slowly pulled ahead of Jiraiya, since he was able to use kage bunshin to finish securing rooms in which he'd already tagged the occupants.

The first real hiccup came when Naruto slammed open the next door on his side of the hallway and came across yet another Root in the process of gearing up. Turning at the sound of the door before he could put on his mask, Naruto saw dark eyes and handsome features on a porcelain-white face, and he nearly tripped. Shit. The Root dropped his mask and reached for his sword, but Naruto managed to turn his stumble into a scorpion kick.

"No!" The cry came from the other side of the double room, and Naruto saw a blue-haired teen stagger to his feet. He took two steps toward Naruto, pulling his own sword, before he dropped it and fell to his knees, coughing up blood.

"Shin!" the one Naruto had kicked cried, and managed to grab his own weapon before pausing as Naruto took a step out of the way. The pale boy's eyes narrowed, and he didn't remove his hand from the hilt until he crossed to the older boy's side. "Shin, what's wrong?" He asked urgently, using his other hand to pull his companion up and drag him back to sit on the further bed.

The blue-haired boy groaned. "You weren't supposed to know about this…" he paused to cough again, and a few more flecks of blood came out. "There's medicine in the drawer…" He fumbled and pulled it out, swallowing two pills dry. Naruto took another step back toward the door, keeping his hands visible as Shin's ragged breathing slowly eased, hearing Jiraiya slowly catching up on the other side of the hallway. While both boys were distracted, he quickly made three kage bunshin, nodded to the middle one, and left, pulling the door shut behind him. He left another to guard it and waved Jiraiya on, heading for the next door.

Han's instinctive Doton: Dochuu Senkou kept him from being incinerated when Kakuzu's konbijutsu glassed the ground where he'd been standing. The Subterranean Voyage was one of several variants of jutsu long-perfected in Iwagakure, and Han moved smoothly through the stone ground before focusing his chakra again. Doton: Daiurudo Sekijun.

The Great Sharp Stalagmites erupted from the ground, piercing the bodies and masks of the separated 'creatures', while another shattered the beaked mask still on Kakuzu's back. All three resulted in horrid sounds, like a plunger being pulled, and blood ran copiously down the stone spears.

The fourth stalagmite missed the yellow-painted mask, which appeared to have shifted lower on Kakuzu's back, and the stone point merely impacted the Akatsuki's hardened skin and propelled him away. Blinking as he emerged from the ground, Han saw that within each of the masks was, apparently, a human heart.

Interesting. Multiple hearts. Four, Han presumed. And the heart being a vital organ, it was probably necessary to destroy them all, or Kakuzu would get back up, as Fuu's story had warned them. She had killed him at least twice in the future timeline, but she had died at his hand all the same.

More of the strange fibers erupted from Kakuzu's back, one of them forming a bizarrely-proportioned bipedal body for the yellow mask, while the others stitched Kakuzus damaged skin back together, before it darkened to diamond-hard once more. The Akatsuki turned slowly on the spot, looking equal parts murderous and reluctantly impressed.

"You destroyed three of my hearts with one attack," he mused. "Jichuuriki really are in a league of their own. Don't expect to have as easy a time finding my hearts any longer."

Hearts, plural. Ah, if there was one in each mask, there was probably at least one more which remained in Kakuzu's body, Han belatedly corrected himself. He had no idea how such a thing could be, but he supposed there were more disturbing jutsu in existence. Edo Tensei, for one. Could there be still more redundancies? Was it just hearts, or did Kakuzu also keep spares of other organs? Kidneys? Livers? Brains? Where would he find the space to do so? The human torso was pretty well-packed.

Do not let your train of thought run away with you, Kokuo puffed. The enemy is in front of us. And still standing..

Han's eyes narrowed. Time to do something about that.

The steam wafting around him began to drift with a sudden purpose, slowly coalescing into the shape of five lashing tails behind him, and five pointed horns on his head. He met Kakuzu's flat gaze evenly. "I—We have only just begun."

The threads exploded from Kakuzu's back, neck, and shoulders, twisting sickeningly into tendrils ending in deadly claws, blades, bludgeons, and points, even as two more extended between his upper and lower arms as they detached at the elbow.

Kakuzu's stitched cheeks stretched in a horrid smile. "Good."

The three kage bunshin Naruto had left behind all leaned casually against the door and the walls to either side of it.

"If you're sick, then you need the hospital–" the pale boy began, but the other overrode him.

"I've looked into it," he sighed, sounding almost normal again. "This medicine eases the symptoms, but there is no cure. It's fatal. And I haven't bothered to tell Danzo-sama. Our final test is coming, and…it's better this way."

"What do you mean, final test?"

Shin's hands shook. "The final test to become full Root is to fight and kill a comrade, to fully deaden the emotions. It's obvious to anyone that you and I would have to fight each other. Soon. I figured my disease would give you an easy victory. I already know I couldn't kill you. Heh. Guess I'm not much of a shinobi after all."

Naruto shook his head. "Being unable to turn on a comrade makes you an exemplary shinobi of Konoha. That feeling, the desire to protect someone you care about—that's the Will of Fire."

Both Root jumped, apparently having forgotten his presence. Both reached for their chokuto, but Naruto raised his hands, spread apart.

"Easy there. I'm not here to hurt either of you."

"There is an intruder alarm sounding," the pale boy pointed out flatly. "You are not Root, to judge by your marked mask. You entered our room unexpectedly and by force. And you attacked me."

"Please, that kick hit your armour at the shoulder," Naruto scoffed. "I also didn't lay a finger on your friend there and got out of the way so you could help him."

Neither Root replied.

"This one's," he indicated Shin, "attitude toward that 'Final Test' tells me he doesn't agree with it. I happen to disagree with a lot of what Root does, so it's going to be reformed by order of the Sandaime."

"The Sandaime doesn't know about Root's continued existence," Shin argued weakly.

"On the contrary, he learned about it yesterday morning," Naruto shot back. "When I delivered to him three Root rendered comatose from an attempted infiltration of the home of the Konoha jinchuuriki. Root's current incarnation is counter to the expressed will of the Hokage, and so I am capturing you all."

"And what will become of us, if you're able to do so?" the pale boy demanded.

"Most likely, once Danzo's curse mark is removed, the majority of Root will be reintegrated as an ANBU branch," Naruto answered easily. "I'll argue for it personally, and my word carries some weight with the Sandaime. I don't blame individual Root agents for their actions, and it's not as if covert and clandestine operations aren't necessary. That's literally what ANBU is for. My issue is that Danzo's goal isn't really the betterment of Konoha, just the placing of himself in the Hokage's seat."

Neither Root contradicted him on that point.

"Danzo-sama's seal can only be removed with his death," Shin whispered. The pale boy tensed.

"False," Naruto said sharply. "I can remove it easily if the agent in question cooperates, and only slightly less easily if I have to use force. Killing Danzo is the fastest way to remove all of the seals, but then we also lose all his knowledge and his admittedly considerable head for strategy. No, Danzo will be taken alive just like everyone else."

He didn't bother to add 'circumstances permitting'. They were all shinobi. It went without saying.

"Anyway, Sai–"

"Who is Sai?" the pale boy interrupted.

Naruto blinked, before remembering that the name had only been given to him by Danzo in the future. "You are."

The pale boy simply shook his head. "I have no name."

"Now you do. And it's Sai."

He opened his mouth to argue again, but Shin said, "I like it."

The newly-designated Sai's jaw snapped shut. He glanced at his 'brother', and nodded shortly.

"As I was saying," Naruto continued. "Sai, I think you should help carry Shin and come with me to see the Sandaime. Tsunade-sama is presently in the village, and she can have a look at him. You can both report what little you can to Hokage-sama, and I will recommend you be placed under another former Root, who I believe was called Kinoe at the time."

"I remember Kinoe," Shin breathed. "He was…good. We were told he was killed as a traitor."

Naruto rolled his eyes behind his mask. "Hardly. He was recruited by Hatake Kakashi and rejoined ANBU proper. Exactly as I hope the rest of you will."

Shin nodded slowly. "I will agree, for…Sai's sake." He coughed again, but only a tiny amount of blood dripped from the corner of his mouth. "Let's go."

Apparently accepting his older brother's decision, Sai dragged Shin's arm over his shoulder and stood. The main Naruto and one of the other clones exited the door on either side of them, leaving only the last one to secure the room.

"Oh, hey, hang on," said the latter, and the lead clone glanced back in time to catch a book tossed his way.

Sai's sketchbook, the lead clone thought, and immediately passed it to its owner. "This looked important. No sense grouping it with the weapons and such."

Sai merely looked at him for a long moment, before Shin nudged him.

"He means, 'thank you'," Shin said softly.

As they made their way out into the daylight, the backup clone pulsed its chakra in a specific pattern, which only a few people still alive would know in this time period. It then promptly popped, unable to maintain its existence anymore.

Before long, two more nin appeared, in the standard field dress of an ANBU and a jonin respectively.

"Senpai?" the ANBU asked, looking from the cracked-open Root base and the trio in front of it to the jonin. "I felt your signal… I thought it was you."

Kakashi shook his head, running a hand through his hair. "And I assumed it was you," he sighed. "Since no one else should know that signal. I guess it makes sense you would, though, Kitsune-san."

The lead Naruto clone shrugged. "It seemed like the easiest way to get the attention of you two, specifically. Would you kindly escort the three of us to see Hokage-sama? And preferably Tsunade-sama, if she can be spared."

Kakashi's sharp eye flicked over the Root armour of the two accompanying him, and the kicked-in door behind them, before he shrugged languidly. "Maa, I suppose it'll be a novelty to visit the hospital without being admitted to it for once. Tenzou, if you'd bring them to the tower?" He flickered away without another word.

Tenzou gave a small sigh himself. "Do you need help carrying him?" he asked Sai, but the pale boy merely held his brother tighter.

Shin rolled his eyes and squirmed free of his little brother's grip. "I'm fine to roof-jump."

Taking him at his word, Naruto hopped up, Shin and Sai quickly following him. Tenzou brought up the rear, his posture still screaming his ill-concealed bafflement.

The silver-haired man really wasn't much of a fighter, Utakata mused as he ducked yet another wild slash of the rogue's scythe. His physical strength was impressive, but not tremendously so, his speed was nothing impressive, his weapon technique was sloppy, and he overcommitted to every swing, leaving himself constantly off-balance for Utakata to take advantage of, fighting back with kunai, pipe, and bubble.

The kunai would sink in and slow Hidan momentarily until he ripped them out and unceremoniously dropped them, starting the cycle again. The bubbles' explosions, at least, kept the fanatic off-balance by continually perforating his eardrums and splashing acid repeatedly into his eyes and face.

None of which changed the fact that he was apparently a damned immortal.

"Stand! Still! And! Fucking! Die!" the Akatsuki screeched, punctuating each word with another swing that Utakata twisted away from. He was taking Fuu at her word, that letting the immortal take his blood would be unwise. Instead, he continually danced away, scooping up kunai and hurling them with one hand while the other blew ever more bubbles.

But simply continuing would just end with Utakata getting tired and making a mistake, his calculating mind warned him, and so a different approach was needed. His mouth twisted as a brutal idea came to him, but nothing less seemed likely to stop the maniac.

Calling on more of Saiken's power, the cloak of chakra around him thickened, and all six tails reached out after Hidan's next swing. One of them caught the scythe, and four more each caught one of the screeching immortal's limbs. The sixth smacked his head before wrapping around his neck. With a mighty wrench, all four limbs went flying in different directions, to be encased in different bubbles that floated apart. Next, he inflated a sixth bubble to contain the torso and get it out of the way.

The Akatsuki's head, which he had been holding up with one of his chakra-tails, continued to swear sulfurously. Shaking his head, Utakata made a point to fill that bubble with acid, carelessly tossing the head into it and inflating a second bubble around it to deaden the sound.

He turned to see if his companions needed help, and found Dousame unconscious on the ground with Fuu kicking him repeatedly in the ribs.

He cleared his throat, and she glanced up, looking unapologetic. "What, he's a jerk. He was gonna kill me, you know." Another halfhearted kick. "And you, for that matter."

"He can't feel that while he's unconscious," Utakata felt the need to point out.

"He'll feel it when he wakes up," Fuu shot back, folding her arms and pouting. "I only wish I could be certain he'd learn from it not to mess with us."

Utakata sighed. "Little chance of that," he agreed. The ground trembled, and he glanced over to see Han weaving around several sharpened stalagmites as he charged at the disgusting form of Kakuzu and some sort of monster made of threads once more, each of his steps shaking the earth. "Come on, let's finish this."

With the last few doors along their path cleared, Naruto and Jiraiya regrouped before the door to Danzo's office. Naruto's sage mode was running low, but a quick mental command to one of his clones gave him a fresh supply. He paused for another moment to balance it properly so he wouldn't turn to stone, and to reinforce his henge with nature energy once more. It wouldn't do to suddenly revert to a twelve-year-old while fighting Danzo and his guards. He still hadn't fully adjusted to his old height, and frankly counted it a miracle he hadn't tripped right onto his face or blades at any point during the Chunin exams.

"Ready?" Jiraiya asked softly, all his usual joking attitude gone in the face of the mission.

"Mm," Naruto hummed, cracking his neck. "Danzo usually kept a Yamanaka and an Aburame as his personal guards. The Yamanaka has a trick with a puppet that traps his victim's mind so he doesn't have to struggle against them with the clan technique." And man, that had been a bitch and a half in the other timeline, during the brief period when Danzo had acted against the Allied Shinobi Forces openly, before Sasuke killed him. "He's also a Sensor, so they know we're here. The Aburame has developed a touch-transferred nanoscopic kikaichuu variant that eats living cells, so you should probably leave him to me. I can't feel anyone else inside."

Then let's not waste any more time, Kurama rumbled.

Nodding, Naruto once again took the opportunity to revel in the simple things as he kicked the door in. It was so much fun, and so damned underrated.

Focus, the Kyuubi chided him.

Yare, yare, Naruto gave the mental equivalent of a stuck-out tongue in return, even as he activated the same jutsu he had used to clean himself up after killing the Oto genin team.

His Fuuton: Kokikeana wasn't usually much use in combat, as it simply caused a constant stream of wind to blow from the five million-odd pores on the human body. The upshot was that his clothes billowed unceasingly, at the cost of a chakra drain that would kill an average ninja in a matter of minutes.

But, he thought, it might keep the nano-kikaichuu from devouring his flesh quite as fast as they normally would. The less he and Kurama had to regenerate, the better. Especially since any really severe damage would probably break his henge, even through the nature-energy reinforcement, and he was trying to keep the identity of Kitsune as separate from Uzumaki Naruto as he could for the time being.

Danzo's personal guards were well-trained, he had to admit that much. The Aburame was on them from the moment they entered, gloves already off and sleeves rolled up to reveal his insects, just barely visible as a writhing purple tinge to his skin due to their immense numbers. Increasing his jutsu's output, Naruto charged in front of Jiraiya to meet him head on, spinning into a Konoha Senpuu and making an effort to keep the Aburame at range using his thick boots.

Jiraiya, hovering back, whirled through hand seals and spat several mouthfuls of mud toward the Yamanaka, breaking his line of sight with Doton: Doryūdan until the Root's entire body was all but walled in with the mud. A quick Katon baked it solid, and Jiraiya darted in before the Yamanaka could free himself, slapping a knockout tag onto his forehead.

Glancing back to his own opponent, Naruto saw the Aburame tear off his shirt to expose more bugs, but Naruto only whipped out a tag of his own, releasing it to flutter in the air. The remaining Root guard seemed to suspect a flashbang, and covered his eyes, but Naruto simply timed a thrust kick to catch the tag flat on his boot, and planted it in the center of the Aburame's chest. The Root slumped, unconscious, beside his partner, and without further instructions his kikaichuu retreated within his body.

Naruto took a moment to kick his boots off, incinerating them with a Katon to be safe. Only then did he turn to Danzo, still sitting calmly behind his desk, his visible eye narrowed.

"Shimura Danzo," Naruto said. Then he sighed. "…If I thought you cared, I would reassure you that none of your Root have been permanently injured during their capture today. As it is…" He shook his head. "You are under arrest."

"On what charge?" Danzo asked calmly.

Naruto cocked his head. Well, if he wanted to go there…

"On charges of forming and maintaining a private army, issuing illegal missions in the name of Konoha, multiple sanctioned and ordered attacks on Konoha shinobi, and conspiracy to usurp the seat of Hokage. If pressed I'm certain I could come up with evidence linking you to a number of murders and further crimes. Do I need to continue?" He unsealed and flicked a set of chakra-suppressing manacles to land on the desk. "Please put on the cuffs and come quietly."

Danzo looked him over for a long minute. "Who are you?" he asked finally. "There are no shinobi in Hiruzen's ANBU who share your height, build, and red hair. And there are very few Konoha shinobi who would willingly wear the mask of a fox."

"I'm sorry, Shimura-san," Naruto said sardonically. "I'm afraid the identity of ANBU agents is classified." He folded his arms. "Put on the cuffs, or I will put them on you."

Danzo studied him for another moment, then transferred his gaze to the manacles. "These are not standard ANBU restraints," he observed.

"You are not a standard prisoner. Put on the cuffs, Shimura-san," Naruto repeated. "Or we will have a problem."

Danzo's eyebrow rose. "I was a student of the Nidaime Hokage, infant. Do you think I will be so easily cowed?" he barked.

Naruto shot back. "Now, you have ten seconds to put those cuffs on, or I will take it that you are resisting arrest." They glared at each other for another tense moment before Danzo spoke again.

"We will see what Hiruzen has to say about this," he said at last.

He reached out and took the manacles, slipping them over his wrists, and Naruto heard Jiraiya give a quiet sigh of relief behind him.

That was too easy, Kurama growled.

I know, Naruto thought back. But we were right to think that Danzo would surrender if he thought he had a better chance getting breaking out of jail than winning a straight fight. And he'll have a hell of a time pulling anything with those cuffs on.

Kurama huffed an agreement, but added in a warning tone, Don't underestimate the old and wily, brat. Nin who live to his age do so because they have plenty of tricks up their sleeves.

Naruto sighed internally. Don't I know it?

The stone ground cracked asunder beneath Han's tread as Boil Release: Unrivalled Strength reached new heights with the strength of Kokuo's Version One release. Han himself shot forward faster than ever, lowering his head to ram with Kokuo's horns. Kakuzu whirled aside, but in doing so fell for the feint. Han completed his charge at the yellow-masked beast.

Another lance of lightning shot from its mouth, piercing Han's left arm, but he had succeeded in staggering the creature. It stumbled back into Fuu, who had manifested her own Version One cloak, complete with her rhinoceros beetle's horn. The Yellow Mask creature's legs folded under Han's assault, and she simply reared back, raising the creature off the ground with her horn. Bending over backward, she suplexed the beast into the ground, the mask impacting the rock, and Utakata drenched the beast's entire upper half in acid, dissolving it.

The mask clacked to the ground as Kakuzu screamed in fury, and from elsewhere, the threads melted away to reveal a blackened heart, which Utakata promptly stabbed.

Han, meanwhile, had brought his charge around to face Kakuzu himself, again. Unnervingly, the Akatsuki seemed almost calm.

"Perhaps I have begun to rely too much on the basics," he mused. His eyes were a mixture of fury, calculation, and almost-undetectable fear. "I haven't bothered with kekkei genkai, because there was always the danger of a clan noticing I'd gained such a power, but perhaps I should take Dousame's heart before I turn in his body."

"You are going to die," Han informed him flatly, Kokuo's whistling voice underlying his own. "Here. Now."

"You have come closer to felling me than anyone since Senju Hashirama," Kakuzu conceded. "But you haven't killed anyone today. Dousame is unconscious—not unexpected considering his cowardly nature—Hidan will survive once I stitch him back together, and this body is still invulnerably hard."

Cover your eyes! Kokuo barked suddenly.

Han, startled, glanced back to see Utakata covering his own eyes, and he hastened to follow suit. He felt, rather than saw, Fuu dart past him, and then was nearly blinded even despite his closed and shielded eyelids.

How did you know? Han asked as the light died down.

We are bijuu, Kokuo replied, as if that explained everything.

As the brilliance finally became tolerable, Han squinted through his lashes and saw Fuu standing before him, now with six wings and a small whipping tail sprouting from her back. Kakuzu had fallen back a few meters, clutching at his own eyes. Whatever had happened, Fuu was responsible, and the Akatsuki was very effectively blinded.

Wasting no time, Han leapt forward, raising the ratio of Kokuo's chakra in his steam until it was almost too hot even for him. Which, of course, made it well past scalding for anyone else. He threw his hands forward and engulfed Kakuzu in it, and the Akatsuki screamed again.

"Your skin may be invulnerable," Han grunted. "But you still breathe, and right now you're breathing steam heated to two and a half thousand degrees and climbing. And furthermore–"

Han raised his arm once more and drove his fingers into one of the stitched fissures in Kakuzu's chest. The stitches tore, and diamond-hard skin cracked and crumbled, pebbles becoming gobbets as they fell away.

"–hardness goes down as temperature goes up."

With a final grunt, he tore open Kakuzu's chest, and found more threads wrapping around the last shriveled, blackened heart, pulling it away from the opening and down toward his leg.

Fuu was too fast for him, however, and plunged a kunai through the threads and into the heart. An instant later, the exploding tag wrapped around it detonated, and blood began leaking from every seam on Kakuzu's suddenly still form.

"So. You win, jinchuuriki."

"The jinchuuriki are not behaving as expected."

Konan blinked at Nagato's—Pain's—abrupt statement. "What do you mean?" she asked. "Has something happened to Kakuzu and Hidan since you sent them to apprehend the Nanabi?"

"They are dead," Pain replied flatly. Seeing Konan open her mouth, he clarified. "Or rather, Kakuzu is dead. Hidan is simply as near to death as he can get, and not healing."

Konan frowned. "One jinchuuriki couldn't do that. Especially one weak or careless enough to be captured by Ishigakure."

Pain's brow furrowed slightly, a sign of consternation he wouldn't show to anyone else. "Normally, I would agree, but it is unwise to underestimate the bijuu or their containers. Nonetheless, I suspect she had help, possibly from some of the others."

"Which of them are unaccounted for?" Konan asked. "I only received the report that the Nibi and Hachibi remain in Kumogakure."

"The Yonbi returned from his self-imposed exile and convinced the Tsuchikage to visit Konoha," Pain droned. "The Ichibi and Kyuubi have been sighted together in every major nation in a span of mere weeks, with no indication of how nin so young travelled so quickly. The Gobi and Rokubi have vanished entirely, and our spies cannot find them. And Tobi reported that the Sanbi broke his control before apparently dying."

Konan barely suppressed a jerk of surprise. Any one of those pieces of information was worth considering. All together, they painted an alarming picture. "Are they acting in concert?"

Pain seemed to consider it. "Uncertain," he pronounced at last. "But perhaps we should assume they are, and that we will meet organized opposition. Schedule a sooner meeting."

Konan bowed her head. "Should we recall the teams?"

"No. From their last report, Itachi and Kisame are nearing Orochimaru." The Rinnegan seemed to glow faintly. "Whatever experiments our former comrade is performing, I can feel it upsetting the veil between life and death. And his ring must be retrieved. As must Hidan's and Kakuzu's."

"Perhaps Tobi can discover who defeated them and what became of the rings?" Konan suggested.

There was a short silence.

"I will ask," Pain said finally, lip curling at having to request rather than order. "I have no doubt he can retrieve them. And we have a common purpose, at least, in collecting the bijuu. We will need to watch him more carefully though, Konan. I will not have either of us made into mindless pawns as I've Seen."

"I understand," Konan said, reflecting on the dreams she had mentioned to no one but him. Nagato rarely slept, but even he had complained of visions of some sort, afflicting his real body.

"Send the message to meet in one week, Konan," Nagato ordered, and she bowed, and swept from his presence.

A/N: Ugh, schedule shifts and overtime made this a week or so late. Need to work on that. As far as I can tell, Sai didn't look any younger during the flashback to his fight against Shin than he did at the beginning of Shippuuden, so I'm guessing that two-ish years before that, Shin was probably still alive. Their fight to the death might be anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple years away, but Shin knows it's coming.

I hope the fight scene(s) were worth the wait. Does this still count as 'canon-typical violence'?
Tailed beast telepathy (Shinsou Shinri) appears to be unblockable and more or less 'always-on' as long as the bijuu and their jinchuuriki are fully in sync. As I understand it, they can always (but only) speak to each other this way. I'm not sure if distance is a factor, but I'm probably going to limit it to only when they're close by.
If you're wondering, there really is a rough correlation between hardness and melting point, since both are based on the strength of molecular bonds and their resistance to thermic vs mechanical destruction. Citation: www (period) gly (period) uga (period) edu (slash) railsback (slash) Fundamentals (slash) HardnessMeltingPlot06 (period) pdf

Edit: Fixed link. I cannot believe we've all just blithely accepted FFN's bullshit hyperlinking policy. This is the internet, dammit. Let me post a fucking hyperlink. ‹/rant›

Kouboujutsu is pretty obviously the in-universe version of Art of War. I first invented the name over in Harry Potter and the Secrets of Konoha, which I really should get back to one of these days. Mmm.
Kagami Dousame of Ishigakure and his Glass Release (玻遁 'haton') kekkei genkai, I have unapologetically stolen from the excellent story Kaibunkage by djghostwriter18. So, go read that, if you haven't.

Special thanks to my patrons Gade, Ran, and Cody!