AN: Hey everyone. Still not dead. Fact is, I'm closer to finishing this thing than ever. Please enjoy the following chapter. It's not the entirety of what was planned, but I hope it is something.
Having snuck away from the officious official business, Kimiko was hurrying through the woods outside Kiri. It had been tough, especially with that one-eyed old guy who had been escorting them, but she needed to do this. She had promised dad that she'd focus on getting Kiri on their side but she had to at least see the place where they had clashed with oniisan.
The dark, foreboding woods of Kiri reminded her of the Forest of Death back in Konoha. Maybe a bit wetter, and not quite as many giant bugs everywhere, but the foreboding feeling was still there. Leaping through the trees, Kimiko kept careful watch of her surroundings and occasionally sniffed. One of the things she'd learned recently, with a little help from her "tenant", was how to sniff chakra in the air. It was weird, really weird, but it helped her now as she after a while detected some of that strange, sharp smell that meant "chakra". It was faint but she could tell the source of it was right ahead as she kept moving, actually speeding up.
"What do you hope to find?" A voice spoke inside of her. It was her tenant, the Kyuubi, who was speaking to her. Usually the Kyuubi, or Kurama as its name was, wasn't much for talking. When it was it tended to be mean and nagging. "Your traitor sibling will not have left tracks for you to follow. Surely you grasp that, at least."
"Do you have siblings Kurama-chan?" Kimiko thought in reply.
"What do you imagine will happen?" Kurama continued, ignoring her question. "That he will come out of the woods, regretful and willing to go back? It will not happen and you are deluding yourself."
"Do you have siblings?" Kimiko repeated, not rising to the bait.
"For all your sibling's flaws, at least he had sense enough to know that what you are doing now is futile at best." Kurama continued, unperturbed by what he had said.
"Kurama-chaaaan," Kimiko thought patiently. Approaching it like she was her big brother was something that gave her comfort when she felt pressured or pestered: speak calmly, a bit standoffish and always have a quick response at the ready. "Siblings, do you have them?"
"I do not expect you to comprehend the answer I could give to such a question, whelp. It lies beyond your horizon to grasp such things."
"You mean you don't wanna tell me," Kimiko corrected smugly, "And you throw around big words to make it seem more important than it is. Besides, if you're so awesome you should at least be able to dumb it down for poor little me." The growl that filled her entire being couldn't stop the grin on her face as she just knew that she had gotten one over the Kyuubi.
"Very well then, whelp," the ancient demon's voice said inside of her. "I do, what infantile point will you make of that?"
"Don't you ever miss them?" Kimiko asked as she kept leaping, turning a bit to the left as she seemed to be slightly off course. Kurama's response was a sharp bark of laughter.
"Do you think familial love is common amongst my kin?" it asked her. "A bijuu stands alone, unlike you humans."
"So you don't even know what it's like to love someone and you're giving me crap for it?" Kimiko asked. "Look who's the uninformed one." Playing at being her big brother was really fun at times.
"I still have eyes, pipsqueak, and I use my head." Kurama retorted. "I see your pathetic squirming and what it will lead to. For centuries I have watched humanity: its squirming, its failures, and its irrationality. You walk the same path as so many failures before you."
"I don't believe you," Kimiko told her tenant. "I think you're afraid of what the Akatsuki will do if they catch me and you're trying to stop me from going after him."
"And what if I am, brat?" The giant fox demon asked. "You are so obsessed that even the risk of your own death will not dissuade you from foolishness. Reason fails you there and it is failing you here. I refuse to have lived for this long only to die because my jailer has a brother-complex."
"Whelp, brat, pipsqueak, can't you say anything without throwing in an insult too?" Kimiko asked suddenly. "Seriously, it feels like you can't say a word to me without throwing in an insult as well. We're stuck with each other anyway so couldn't you, like, try to be nice instead? I could do you favors and you could help me, wouldn't that work better?"
"And what favors could you possibly do me?" The Kyuubi asked with a slow drawl in its voice.
"I dunno, you haven't really given me much to work with. Is there some special food you like when I eat? I could eat that… or how about girl foxes? Would you like me to read books with girl foxes in them? Kakashi-sensei and Jiraiya-sensei always read stuff like that. Would you like it if I found some stuff like that but with foxes instead?" Kimiko knew she was grasping for straws, but what else did she have to grasp after?
"…Did you seriously just offer to read fox pornography for my amusement? I did not know you were such a deviant."
"No, I'm not, but if it makes you happy then why not? You're stuck in me and all, but that doesn't mean I can't be nice to you."
"…I refuse to continue this discussion." With that, Kurama fell silent, leaving Kimiko to sigh. She had been sorta serious when offering to do that. She hated having to fight with the demon inside her. Oniisan's training meant she could control Kurama's powers like nobody's business but she still felt sorta bad over it. The fox-demon WAS, after all, imprisoned inside of her and she took its chakra without it having a say. Yeah yeah, ancient evil thing and all that, but Kimiko didn't see why that would let her get away with doing bad things herself. That was not how right and wrong worked in her head.
Making one, final leap, she landed in the clearing where it was obvious that a fierce battle had raged. Craters were everywhere and the marks on the trees were in some cases still bleeding sap or resin. Sniffing the air, Kimiko almost choked as she felt all the chakra still residing in the air. So many different kinds… she looked around and took regular sniffs trying to see what she could find out. There were a lot of "damp" chakra around, probably Kiri, but she after a while found another chakra in a part of the clearing where the smell of blood still hung in the air. There was another chakra here, more potent, and she went down on one knee to smell it more closely.
No… it wasn't her brother. There was something "off" about it, something… mechanical? She didn't know what to call it, but the smells of lacquer, wood, oil and metal was intermingling with the chakra almost down to the core. Was that… what was his name again, that one guy amongst the Akatsuki who used puppets? Kimiko wished that Sasuke was here: he was great with names. Considering how the pungent smell of blood hung around the area it gave Kimiko a sense of relief that it wasn't her brother's smell. That might mean it wasn't oniisan who was responsible for all this bloodshed.
It was now that the wind turned and Kimiko blinked as she felt an eerily familiar smell. Turning her head to further away, she began to sprint as she felt the scent coming from there. About half a kilometer away, in a particularly devastated area, she felt a smell that made her stomach twist in a knot. This was it… her brother's smell. Starting to sniff around, she went down almost on all fours to get closer to the earth.
She had mastered this chakra-empowered sense of smell only a year or so ago, meaning she hadn't ever had a chance to smell her brother's presence before his flight from Konoha, but all the same she just knew this was him. She couldn't put her finger on it and trying to explain how it smelled was a futile endeavor. But here it was… her brother had been here. Her brother and some Kiri ninjas from what she could tell. There was this strange area next to a giant root where the chakra smell was just gone. Not weakened, but completely gone, and Kimiko wondered just what had happened there. It was when she felt another, familiar, smell, that she stopped in her tracks.
Sakura had been here as well! Unlike with her brother, her friend Sakura's scent was one she knew. After her old friend had kicked her ass a few weeks ago the smell was unmistakable and she found it here, clear as day. Sakura had been here too. Her brother and one of her closest friends…together… Kimiko felt how her throat constricted and her eyes welled up. She missed them, missed them both. The memories of Sakura came back again and she thought about all the years they had been such good friends. Having thought about it for a long time, she had realized Konohamaru had a point. All those years couldn't have meant nothing and she had to talk to Sakura-chan: actually talk it out. Maybe there was a way of doing it that wouldn't have to mean Sakura-chan would be thrown in jail back in Konoha. Maybe it was possible to just grab her, really talk it out and let her go. Anything if it meant a chance to really get to the bottom of what had happened between them…
Leaping to the side, Kimiko only barely avoided the ropes of water that lashed through the area where she just had stood. Vaulting through the air, she landed just as another swarm of ropes came flying once again, this time ensnaring her arms and leaving her to cry out in shock and pain as they tightened, hard. Six ropes held each arm with enough force that it felt like they were going to tear them out. Grimacing, Kimiko struggled as much as she could, which wasn't much, as a figure landed in front of her. It was a man, masked and with long, black hair framing the white and red porcelain mask he wore. Kimiko recognized the man as a hunter-nin instantly, the precariousness of her situation becoming all too clear.
"Recklessness seems a trait of the Namikaze," the man said, his voice low and almost listless. "You are still in enemy territory, child," he continued as he took out a long, curved kunai, "The invitation you were given was specific about the conditions under which you would be allowed here, and you violate them in a single day." The hunter-nin placed the knife against her throat right before Kimiko's grimace of pain turned into a grin and she pushed her throat forward, the sharp edge piercing her skin right before she vanished in a puff of smoke. The hunter-nin instantly flung his knife to the side and a sharp clang of metal on metal rang out from where Kimiko, standing on a tree branch, parried it with her own dagger.
"Will you lay it off?!" she yelled. "I'm not here to fight you; I just wanted to find if there were any traces of my brother!" She only barely finished before the hunter nins were up on the branch all around her, striking in perfect synchronization only to find themselves surrounded as well. Mid-strike, they realized that a copy of her had appeared behind all of them and it was only their leader who managed to avoid the blows and land further away. "Seriously!" Kimiko yelled as she stood on the branch, her shadow clones dispersing. "I-am-not-here-to-fight! Yes, you're very cool and badass and all so will you please stop it?!"
"She's right, you're not taking her down. Stand down." a voice said from above them and Kimiko looked up, seeing how a trio of additional people was standing above them. Two of them were masked like the jerk in front of her, yet the one in the middle made Kimiko blink repeatedly. Above her stood the Mizukage herself, staring down at her with a frigid look in her eyes. The attacker stopped now, sheathing his kunai instantly and taking a step back.
Stepping off the branch, the Mizukage landed in front of Kimiko, one eye fixed still on Kimiko. For a second the two stood still, staring each other down. After a while, the Mizukage sighed deeply.
"Is this a family trait?" she asked after a while and Kimiko blinked in response. "Going against your orders and obeying only your desires. You're endangering your father's only chance to normalize relations with me… For three years we've been in a cold war, and now, when it's thawing, you anger us the first thing you do? Your brother described you as an idiot, but I didn't think you were this stupid."
"Hey," Kimiko protested.
"…Yet, it seems you really are," the Mizukage shook her head slowly. "In all that I just said, that's what you picked out."
"…doesn't that make you stupid too?" Kimiko asked after a while, not sure if she was more confused or incensed.
"Excuse me?" Mei asked, eyebrow rising over her visible eye.
"You pretty much declared war on my dad because he was stabbed by my brother. Now you're trying to get things back on track with him, and you're attacking me. If I'm stupid, then that's stupid. And I'm not stupid…" she added sourly.
"Then what are you?" Mei inquired, standing with her arms folded.
"…desperate," Kimiko admitted silently after a while, leaving the Mizukage standing there, staring her down in silence.
"There are times when I stop up and consider the strange roads my life has taken me down," Naruto admitted evenly as his hands traveled over the exposed intestines of the corpse in front of him.
"What brought this up?" Sasori asked from the other side of the table where he stood, analyzing the corpse himself. They were both standing in a dinghy room, having paid an exorbitant sum for this corpse. Naruto's scalpel moved through the preserved corpse, cutting through skin and muscles with practiced ease as he was working to flay the man in order to study the man's tenketsu closer.
"I am standing in a secret corpse-store in a backwards country, fiddling around in a pile of random intestines to try to determine something nigh-inscrutable in my quest to wipe out the very knowledge of chakra use," Naruto explained dryly. "What happened, Sasori-san?" he continued after a second. "Are we not scientists? Are we not meant to uncover the truths of the world, not wipe them out?"
"You've certainly gone on a philosophical bender," Sasori commented. "We still learn. We sit at the foot of the most powerful man of all, and when the world collapses around us, we will be like god-kings, the sole keepers of knowledge."
"Or we are slaughtered last of all," Naruto muttered. "And then what happens with our knowledge?"
"When we die, it would have died anyway," Sasori said, his dagger-like tail helping to remove the skin off the bones, finalizing the flaying of the corpse as Naruto began to draw seals on it with ink to help them in their gruesome analysis. "I'd rather sit at the feet of god and master my craft to a greater extent than draw it out and rot away."
"Does it die though?" Naruto asked. "Isn't its non-death what we take on apprentices for?"
"It's non-death, or its degradation?" Sasori said. "I did not build my art to perfection to see it degraded by a collection of bumbling fools. I've yet to meet one who can come close to master it as well as I have. And yes, that includes that little waif Haruno."
"Do you like Orchids?" Naruto asked, out of the blue, and Sasori stopped to look up at him.
"If this is some remark about smelling flowers I will not be amused," the puppetmaster growled.
"It is not," Naruto said. "The Orchids are considered king of flowers. They are delicate, hard to grow, but their beauty is unmatched. They are wonders of specialization… yet there is one type of orchid which specialized beyond any other. It, somehow, could shape itself so that the flower looks like a female bee of a certain species. When the male bee would land to mate with it, it would pollinate the flower. Yet the bee is extinct, and the flower has resorted to self-pollination. It is slowly dying, because its specialization, its perfection, went too far."
"Just sum up whatever two-bit platitude you're trying to shove down my throat and move on," Sasori growled.
"Perfection is a myth," Naruto said bluntly. "The world changes and our knowledge must change with it. Though we die, our legacy remains and when those bumbling fools take up the path we walked, they stand on our shoulders. We are the giants, the honored ancestors who created all. That's my immortality."
"So you'd rather give up the struggle to claim eternity as your own without even trying?" Sasori asked. "How defeatist."
"You mean I don't fear death?" Naruto countered. "We all die. You will too. Maybe you earn a hundred more years, maybe two hundred, or three hundred, but in the end you die. What if, in that time, humanity finds other paths, other tools or discoveries, which make your puppeteering obsolete? You have no guarantee of that they won't, nor that you will truly live forever. I don't either and I accept the fact."
The room became silent now, Naruto finishing the seals before putting his hands together to form a snake seal. Sasori stood silent for a while before wires came out from under his cloak, attaching to the corpse and bringing it back to some strange facsimile of life. As Naruto's hands began to glow and the corpse began to writhe, the tenketsu lit up all over the corpse's body. Before them an entire history played, showing the residual chakra in the corpse, the ways it had been shaped and used. While little more than flickering, Naruto and Sasori could read it perfectly, and as time slowly went past more and more became evident for them. In the end Naruto nodded slowly.
"Very interesting…" he said. "It seems my first guess was correct."
"The warden dies, and with him the seals," Sasori agreed.
"How do we proceed?" Naruto asked, deciding to defer a little to Sasori.
"We infiltrate," Sasori said. "And I have just the candidate…" he added, looking to the corner of the room where Sakura stood, waiting for them. "Girl…" he said, Sakura snapping to attention. Naruto furrowed his eyes behind his mask, wondering what Sasori was planning.
Guren slowly bowed her head, keeping her eyes closed as she listened to the priest's chanting. It was as comforting to be here as always for her: away from all the struggles, all the uncertainty and all the stress. Her visits were brief, all things considered, but the few hours she could be here, meditating and receiving guidance, filled her with confidence and more importantly, peace. Opening her eyes, she took an incense stick she had brought along and lit it in the sacred fires before placing it in the holder in one of the small side chapels of the giant Temple of Fire.
"Some of the acolytes made a joke about you," a deep voice said behind her and she looked back, bowing her head to the senior monk, a kindly old man by the name of Banzai, as the man came up to her. "They said that the temple had no need for a calendar: that we could count the time after certain visitors. They all agreed that Thursday should be named Guren." The man smiled slightly and Guren couldn't help but join in. "You, however, are a newcomer," Banzai said as he turned to the giant of a man who had been standing silently close to Guren.
"Tsubaki Juugo," Juugo said uncertainly, bowing his head to the man all the same. Banzai returned the favor, introducing himself.
"A family member?" the monk asked and Juugo nodded.
"A…nephew of Guren-sama," Juugo said. As the Tsubaki clan had grown more and more tight-knit, they had formalized their familial bonds. Many, like Juugo, had asked to be considered nephews or nieces of Guren, while some had asked to be considered her children. Guren had not said no in any cases. The important thing for all of them, however, had been that however you sliced it, Guren was the absolute matriarch of the family. It was from her all family lines emanated and the Tsubaki clan, who had few friends in Konoha, preferred to have a clear line of succession.
"You are welcome in either case," Banzai said, clasping his hands behind his back. "I am, however, sensing uncertainty with you. Know that we're here to offer whatever advice and answers we can, so please do not hesitate to ask." Guren listened approvingly, stepping back now to let the two talk without her interruption
"I… am not a very spiritual person," Juugo said hesitantly, scratching the back of his head.
"You are not alone," Banzai smiled. "Please, do keep talking. You are still here."
"Yeah I… I learned long ago that you had to look at reality as it was, that which was, was, and which wasn't, wasn't. The… person I learned that from said that…" he trailed off now, Banzai only smiling.
"Please," the old monk said. "I've heard much in my days, and I will not take offense."
"He said that religion and other fairy tales existed to help the ignorant fake an understanding of the world, and that it was a delusion at best, an opioid for the mind." Juugo finished, clearly uncomfortable with saying it.
"An opioid for the mind…" Banzai mused. "Ah, for its anesthetic properties, right?" he said. "That is a good one, I must remember that," he said approvingly. "I take it the man who taught you that was a very cynical man."
"Yes but…" Juugo began.
"He is entitled to his opinion, and I will not claim it false," Banzai said calmly. "I would, however humbly, like to contest the claim that what we do is provide false answers. Would you be uncomfortable speaking as you thought that person could answer?" he asked.
"Okay…" Juugo answered. "He was a scientist, very keen on figuring out the world." Banzai nodded.
"Ah yes, the scientists," he said, "Humanity's greatest warriors in the battle against ignorance, to be sure. Yet, a core principle of science, if I am not mistaken, is that for every single thing you learn, you discover five new things you do not know. And in a situation like that, when the goal of absolute knowing only moves further and further away, what does a scientist aim for?"
"I… I don't think that he would care about that. Every single thing you learn is a victory in and of itself." Juugo answered.
"Yes, there is goal and meaning in our path - but it's the way that is the labor's worth." Banzai said, the way he phrased it sounding as though he was quoting something. "I would say that your friend seems to have had a very spiritual attitude towards his craft. Being content with performing it, doing it well and reaching new heights, even if the final goal is never going to be reached is the mark of the enlightened."
"I guess…" Juugo said with a voice showing clearly how uncertain he was.
"Science is important, vital even," Banzai hastened to add. "And your friend plays an important role in the world. But science cannot tell us how to approach the unknown, or decide what is right and wrong. It will give us the tools to execute our decisions, but what we actually do is a deeper question, one that we seek to answer." Smiling, he stopped in his little sermon. "Take your time to ponder what I said. And do not uncritically accept it: I doubt your friend would be pleased with that."
"I… I will…" Juugo said, nodding. Some more confidence had come back to him. "I will, thank you," he repeated, bowing his head to the old monk, who returned the favor. Guren smiled at the exchange, unable to contain it. Juugo had been restless and uncertain for a long time. Not just about his place in Konoha, but his place in the world overall. Guren had, after some coaxing, managed to get him to come with her to the temple, reasoning that it could not hurt. She wanted Juugo to find peace, and in this temple she had found it herself.
"How about you then, Guren-san?" Banzai continued, turning to Guren. "How do the days find you?"
"Well, thank you," Guren replied glancing to Juugo.
"I'll take a walk," Juugo quickly said, bowing his head before retreating to leave them alone.
"A fine young man," Banzai commented. "And through his worries I sense a gentle soul."
"He is," Guren agreed sincerely. Juugo was a person she was overjoyed to have as part of her family. His calm and his gentleness was an invaluable asset in her family of misfits. He listened and he didn't judge, unlike Kimimaro whose zeal to keep the clan together made a lot of people uneasy around him, even with sweet Haku having mellowed him out so much. "He's… like an uncle to most of my family."
"How is your family doing?" the old priest asked, beginning to slowly walk down the temple, hands clasped behind his back. "More specifically, how is Kidoumaru doing?" Guren smiled. Banzai met many people every day, and yet he remembered every detail about her family and the struggles they faced.
"Not much has changed," she admitted. Kidoumaru had never felt like he belonged in Konoha and indeed even resented it at times. He's withdrawn from duty three years ago and rarely, if ever, left the Camelia district. "He still spends all his time on those projects of his. He made these…" Raising her hands, Guren showed the bracers she was wearing. Light and strong, they were made out of spider silk and, Guren admitted, quite good looking.
"And he still interacts with his fellow clansmen?" Banzai asked and Guren nodded.
"Yes, he has no problem with any of us, but whenever he meets someone who isn't part of the Tsubaki he clams up and withdraws."
"Maybe it would be for the best to leave him to it," Banzai suggested. "If he does not feel comfortable among the people of Konoha, there is little point in forcing him. He still interacts with those he feels comfortable around, and his craft aids your clan."
"I know…" Guren said, not able to explain what truly bothered her. Three years had passed since Naruto's flight from Konoha, and while Guren initially had been half willing to let Konoha burn, she had seen how so many of her clansmen still built connections, built a life, outside the district walls. Her clan was tangled up in Konoha, even if the relationship between her and Minato was cold as could be.
And yet, too many of her clan had instead distanced themselves, Kidoumaru the most. The clan was all but tearing itself apart these days and Guren was desperate in her struggle to tie the separatists to the clan, lest it all came apart. If half her clan left Konoha, she couldn't imagine that the other half would be allowed to stay. If, kami-sama forbid, that came to pass, everything they'd built since Oto would be gone.
Coming out of her reverie at the sound of a small cough, Guren looked to Banzai with an apologetic look on her face. "I am sorry," she said. "It's… there's a lot on my mind."
"I cannot advise you if you are not truthful with me," Banzai said softly, Guren sighing. How could she admit it? How could she admit that she had been ready to foster treason among her clansmen and now was looking for a way out?
As it turned out, she did not need to reveal it as a loud crash echoed through the room. The entire temple shook and Guren almost lost her footing as her head snapped to the side. Staring towards the now shattered gates, she saw men come running from it and heard distant shouting. Someone was calling for Chiriku, the head of the temple and a man Guren never had spoken to personally.
"What the…" she said. Those gates… weren't they meant to be impenetrable?
"Oh dear…" Banzai said quietly. "Guren-san, head for the back doors. Whoever is here, it is not your fight." Guren reached out, holding up a hand to cut the man off at this.
"Whoever is here, I'm the clan leader of the Tsubaki. I don't abandon those I call friends." Her voice was calm as she slowly began towards the gates. She loved this place, held it incredibly dear, and whatever little shit was trying to hurt it had some harsh discipline coming their way. Stepping out onto the stairs, she pushed her was between the monks that stood on the stairs, heart almost freezing as she saw who were there.
Two men stood in the temple courtyard, one silver-haired with a giant, triple-bladed scythe, and the other a masked man with pupil-less eyes. What more: both of them were wearing black cloaks with red clouds upon them.
"Uuuh, what the hell is this Kakuzu?" the silver-haired man said as he put his scythe over his shoulder. "Did that head monk become a transvestite or something?"
"Guren… Tsubaki Guren these days isn't it?" the other man said. "How about you get out of our way? We've no business with you, and your Bingo Book entry isn't nearly big enough to interest me."
"Akatsuki…" Guren said quietly. "There are no bijuu here. Why have you come here?"
"We're here for a monk." The masked man growled in response. "Get lost and you won't become collateral."
Guren couldn't help but consider the offer. The Akatsuki were brutal, she remembered their attack on Konoha and the damage they'd wrought. She didn't think that she would be able to take on even one of them, and especially not two. And yet… this temple was important to her, very important, and she had no illusions that the Akatsuki was truly looking to minimize damage here. They were indiscriminate, and more likely than not they'd level the entire temple.
"That monk you seek is me, is it not?" a deep voice said behind her and Guren glanced back, seeing how Chiriku, head of the temple, came walking down the stairs. He looked to Guren, nodding slightly to her. "Tsubaki-dono, feel no need to get involved. The temple is more than capable enough to defend itself."
"You monks and your selflessness," Guren murmured, not moving but instead looking back to the two Akatsuki members. As Chiriku addressed them, telling them to leave and being greeted by the masked man's slow, drawling statement about Chiriku's value in the Bingo book. Guren, meanwhile, looked them over as she tried to decide on how she would attack. She could have given anything for some Intel on these guys. The silver-haired ass relied on his scythe by the looks of it. You didn't walk around with something like that for show. The masked one was more mysterious though. No visible weapons and the cloak hid most of him.
Then, suddenly, the two men charged towards Chiriku, the silver-haired man, who Kakuzu had addressed in passing as Hidan, dragging his scythe along the ground to kick up a storm of dust behind him. Guren moved almost out of instinct, leaping up into the air and slapping her hands together. The seals came naturally to her and within a second two massive crystal dragons flew through the air, swooping down towards the two attackers with guttural roars. The two men's charge was cut short as the crystalline beings smashed into them, sending dust flying up into the air as the ground trembled.
The monks behind her were crying out in shock and surprise as the dust whipped past them.
'Impossible!' one of them yelled, Guren hearing how one of the older monks spoke up as silence settled over the field. 'That is the power of Konoha's foremost…' Guren heard the man said, 'Tsubaki Guren, the Crystal Queen.'
Then, in the next moment, Kakuzu came leaping out of the clouds, his skin now dark black and gleaming, as he threw himself at Guren with a roar. Guren was about to meet the man with a crystal blade to the eyes yet just as he got within range a massive fist crashed into him, sending him flying backwards again as Juugo landed by Guren's side. Standing up straight, the orange-haired man transformed his hand back to its regular shape.
"Friends of yours?" he asked, hands raised and at the ready as the smoke cleared, revealing the two Akatsuki members. They looked mostly unharmed and annoyed more than anything else.
"Fuck's sake, another freak," the silver-haired man said, cracking his neck. "I'll take this carrot-demon, you take the bitch."
"No," Kakuzu said, growling. "That one – and his heart – is mine." As the spoke, Chiriku came up next to the two of them.
"Both the temple and I will be in your debt after this," he said, raising his arms and taking a stance. Guren gave him a quick sideways look and a wry smile. This really wasn't why she came to the temple she thought as the two Akatsuki members charged them.
"Get your fucking hands off me you shitrags, I'm going to fucking kill all of you, you fucking…" the scarred man snarled as the two shinobi guards dragged him out of the cold, almost sterile reception room. His flailing, as foul-mouthed as it was, was impotent too, and the warden watched it in silence before turning back to the large, bearded man in front of him.
"This is highly irregular," Mui, master of Hozuki castle, said with his hands clasped behind his back. "This prison usually does not accept bounty hunter prey in this manner, mister Gatsu," he told the massive bounty-hunter that stood in front of him."
"I know," Gatsu answered, "And that's why I hesitated before taking this job," he said, holding up the letter in front of him. "My client was adamant that this guy was thrown in Hozuki castle to rot. Half my pay came from the added risk of just waltzing up here and asking for an audience."
"Really now?" Mui asked, eyes narrowing in suspicion as he looked to his aide. "Make sure he is thoroughly examined, down to the depths of every cavity," he ordered, his aide nodding and leaving the room at a brisk pace.
"Huh?" Gatsu asked, furrowing his eyebrows in confusion.
"Few know of this place, and if someone wanted that man to be planted here it may well be for a purpose."
"Yeah, the purpose of having that person rot in hell," Gatsu said, shrugging. "No one's ever escaped from here, right? Then whatever they put him in here for I can't imagine that two-bit rapist will amount to anything."
"I don't deal in imagination and possibilities," Mui said, walking over to the window. "You can leave now, your job is done."
As the bounty hunter departed, Mui looked out across the landscape, pondering just who had hired this man. Yet, as Gatsu had said it seemed highly unlikely that this man would be any kind of threat. Not when his chakra was sealed away.
Roughly, the man was thrown into his cell and groaned, rolling around before getting to his knees.
"You… cock-suckers…" he growled, wild-eyed as he stared down the guards who currently were closing the heavy door.
"With that attitude, you'd think he was an Akatsuki member," one of the guards said. "What is he in here for?"
"Six cases of murder, eight rapes, robbery; that stuff," the other guard said and the first guard scoffed.
"You'd think that a knife through the jugular and a few shovels of dirt would have been enough for this trash," he said as the prisoner inside the cell came up to the bars.
"Oh yeah, I'm trash?" he sneered. "You got a sister?" he asked, leaning against the bars. "You look kinda like someone I face-fucked to death!" He yelled at the two, his hands now holding onto the bars. That turned out to be a mistake, however, as the first guard grabbed his hand, pulled his arm out between the bars and shoved it to the side. The man's elbow collided with the cold steel bars and yet the guard just kept shoving, leaving the arm to snap with a loud, ugly sound akin to that of firewood breaking in half. With a loud scream, the man began to pull back, trying to escape, and yet the guard only took the now broken arm and twisted it, making the broken bone rotate almost ninety degrees before letting go and leaving the man to stumble back into his cell, clutching his arm.
"Quick tip junior," the second guard said as he watched the panting man. "You're in Hozuki now, and whatever status you had out there counts for shit here. That attitude will have you become the prison bitch before you even know what happened. Pack that in, or start trading your food for lube." With that, the two guards walked away, leaving the prisoner to sit by the wall, clutching his now broken arm and cursing.
Later, as the night fell, the man was still sitting there, the pain of his now broken arm distracting him too much to be able to sleep. Instead he sat there, stewing in anger and resentment, imagining all the ways he'd get back at those guards when a sudden ache hit his stomach. He clutched it with his unbroken arm, feeling as though something was moving inside it. Retching, he clutched his hand into a fist and began to punch his stomach, trying to stop it, and yet he only felt how it crept upwards. Panic hit him at this point. What was happening to him?! The feeling left him to retch again as he collapsed to the side, moaning dully as the rising feeling pressed up through him, harder and harder, as it pushed the very air out of his lungs.
Then he felt the rising surge of bile in his throat and the pain exploded through his gut as the feeling rose through it, up his throat which felt like it was ripped wide open before the first surge of vomit came. The last thing he saw, as the rising feeling hit his throat and made it bulge, was that he had puked blood. Panic, pain and tension pressed tears out of his eyes as his mouth stretched wide open, his jaw popping wide open as his eyes rolled into the back of his head. Wider and wider his mouth stretched and in the end, the sound of ripping flesh filled the cell as something surged forth out of his mouth, rising out of it in a gush of blood and bile and fluids.
Obscenely, the figure rose out of his mouth like a dolphin leaping out of the water, completing its arc through the air and landing on all fours on the ground without a sound. The only sound that came was from the man whose body now fell down limply to the floor. Blood and fluids streamed from the impossibly distended mouth that now seemed to take up half his face. His limbs were twisted at unnatural angles and his eyes were blank. Meanwhile, the thing that had come out of him rose up to stand straight.
Haruno Sakura swept her oil-slick hair out of her face, looking around the cell with cold, dead eyes as she assessed the situation. Reaching into her clothes, she took out a small plastic bag and opened it to retrieve a small, nub-like thing which she put into her ear and pushed onto it.
"I'm inside master," she whispered.
Outside, far beyond the walls of the prison, Naruto and Sasori waited in a small cavern by the sea. They were sitting by a small fire, watching it in silence as the message came in. Naruto pushed the button on his earpiece.
"You know what to do," he said evenly, silently worrying. This plan of Sasori's, to have Sakura hitch a ride inside a prisoner like this, was gutsy and it had paid off. And yet, if Sakura was discovered they would have to storm the place by force. Neither he nor Sasori were an optimal choice for something like that. He silently knew that he had to trust Sakura. She had exceeded his expectations time and time again, so with that in mind he would just have to trust her. And yet… he silently thought of the moment they had shared before heading towards Hozuki castle and the jutsu he had placed on her. It was a safeguard, a worst case backup, and if the worst case came to be…
"So, when are you going to tell me about your plans to get rid of that maniac we have to call master?" Sasori asked suddenly. The out of the blue question left Naruto look to him, surprise evident on how he had reacted even as his face was hidden behind the mask. "You've been working me over for a year by now, and you're only getting more blatant about it," Sasori continued dryly. "Are you going to tell me any time soon?"
Eventually, Naruto smiled. It seemed Sasori was more open than he had thought.
The swarm of Konoha ninjas leapt through the treetops at top speed. The man at the lead, Uchiha Itachi himself, was setting the pace and he sat it high. When a messenger from the fire temple had shown up, panting and telling them the temple had been attacked, Itachi had been placed at the lead of this group that now moved at this breakneck pace. The fire temple was almost in Konoha's backyard, and its destruction would be a devastating loss to the entire nation.
Leaping out from the treeline, the shinobi all flew through the air like eagles before landing in front of the temple. The giant gates were smashed, craters littered the courtyard and the stairs were broken in several places. Two of the pillars were torn down and the walls were savaged. War had come here... and yet beyond this place the temple was mostly unscathed.
Itachi led the group as they ran into the courtyard, noticing suddenly the crystals that sat everywhere. Be they small shards or larger crystalline structures, the pink formations were everywhere and Itachi realized something. Tsubaki Guren had been here during the attack. He was unsure if that was a good or a bad thing, but as he saw the figure sitting atop the broken staircase, hands clasped and head bowed as she sat deep in thought, he silently admitted that it must have been a good one.
"Uchiha-san," Tsubaki Guren said, looking up to his group. "Sorry we didn't save anything for you," she said, no mirth in her voice.
"What is the situation?" Itachi demanded as he and his group came to a stop.
"Akatsuki attacked," Guren said, her voice hollow. "We stopped them… one of them died during the battle, the other is in there," she added, nodding towards one of the large crystals. Looking to it, Itachi realized that it was one of the Akatsuki, Hidan, who was frozen inside the crystal, face locked in a manic shriek of anger. A victory, then? And yet Guren's attitude made Itachi worry.
"Casualties?" he asked her quietly.
"That man used some kind of jutsu to link himself with Juugo," Guren responded. She seemed utterly exhausted. "He stabbed himself in the heart, and Juugo got the same wound. He managed to keep himself alive by transforming himself. The monks are doing what they can."
"Saru, go aid them," Itachi ordered the monkey-masked ANBU that had accompanied them and Saru instantly moved into the temple. His entire group fanned out, searching the area. "Where's the other one, the man who died?" Guren silently reached to the side, pulling up something that was resting there. It was a severed head of a masked man… Kakuzu.
"His body is over there somewhere," Guren said, nodding towards the forest before putting the head down. "Excuse me…" she added dully before her body went limp and she fell to the side. Itachi moved in an instant, coming up to her side and catching her before she hit the stone flooring. Quickly checking her pulse, he realized just how exhausted she was. Looking around himself, he couldn't blame her.
"Head back to Konoha," he told one of the Shinobi. "Tell them Tsubaki Guren and Tsubaki Juugo defended the temple. Have them prepare intensive care for Tsubaki Juugo. Also…" he said, looking to the frozen Akatsuki member. "Tell them we've got a live Akatsuki." He looked at the frozen shinobi cultist, silently realizing that the woman he held right now had won them a prize that may well be the breakthrough they had needed for all these years.
Six times she had struck, and six times the guards, moving in pairs or solo, had been overwhelmed and taken down before they could even react. She had choked the life out of them or broken their necks in order to leave no blood on them. Ensnaring them with her puppet techniques, she made the reanimated corpses continue on their patrol routes as she crept closer and closer to the aviary. If anything happened, the prison would dispatch messenger eagles around the world in moments, and that couldn't happen.
Therefore she moved up the tower stairs towards it with the intent to cut them off before any messages could be sent. She had used illusions to make herself into a guard as well and as she knocked on the door a small hatch in the door opened. A man's face appeared in the doorway.
"Warden's kicking up a fuss," she said, her voice that of a grizzled old man. "Something about a message to Kusa." She held up a small piece of folded paper. It was empty, but they didn't know that. The guard on the other side of the door closed the hatch before opening the door and letting her inside. Glancing around, Sakura took stock of the situation. Six people… could she act in time? Would some of the birds be scared and fly away? She needed to be subtle…
Suddenly, she sneezed, loudly, and the people inside the aviary looked to her with tired looks on their faces.
"Sorry," she said, looking around. "There's something going around…"
"Sneeze near me and I'll rip your face off," one of the women tending to the birds said, Sakura waving one hand.
"No, no," she said, "it's not that, more that…" At this, she sneezed again, loudly, and when she recovered she gave up an explosive sigh. "Damn it all, not enough that I'm stuck here, now I'm catching something from these rats we're guarding," she said, making a large, sweeping gesture out to the side to indicate the prison below the tower.
"Look, we're all very sympathetic with your plight but can you send your message and then beat it?" one of the guards asked, Sakura spinning around to look at the person.
"Hey," she said, tossing her hand up in the air in an offended gesture. "Some sympathy would be nice over here! I'm stuck on a shit island in the middle of nowhere. We all are! Can't we at least try to be nice to each other?"
"Well you ain't getting it!" the man snapped. Sakura grunted before looking to the woman further away, the one who had warned him against sneezing. Walking up to her, she hugged her from behind
"What about you?" she asked. "You can pity me, can you?" she asked only to have the woman elbow her in the head. Stumbling backwards, she groaned as she shook her head and sighed again. "No sympathy from any of you!" she said, flailing her arms in frustration.
"Wait…" another guard said slowly. "Who are you?" he asked, Sakura stopping now. Smirking, she let the henge fall and appeared in front of them in her actual form. The guards all recoiled, eyes wide as they reached for their weapons. Sakura, however, only shook her head.
"Too late," she said, her voice finally her own again. "You're good to ask that question, but it's too late," she said as the people around her began to wobble on their feet. As Sakura had walked around them, flailing and sneezing, she had managed to spread a toxin in the air, one that now made their limbs heavy and their movements sluggish. Moving between them with quick, small instant steps, Sakura threw an extra dose of toxin in each of their faces, leaving them to slowly fall down to the ground with consciousness rapidly fleeing from them.
Walking over to the windows, she closed them and turned around to look at the birds in their cages. Some of them were flapping their wings in agitation; others didn't understand what was happening. Sakura reached into her pouch, taking out more of the poison, she walked over to their food trays to begin slipping them a lethal dose each. As master had said, poison was either the most subtle or the least subtle of all weapons. The amateur would flail and make a huge mess; the master would apply the precise, exact dose to cause a swift and in some cases imperceptible death. It was an art, and as she began to end the birds through their very food, one after one, she reminded herself of this.
It made it easier.
Chaos reigned throughout the prison. The aviary was burning, the gates were destroyed and the warden's mangled corpse was nailed to the now burning tower of the aviary. The guards were rapidly being overwhelmed by the prisoners who now flooded out of the prison gates. The chaos was complete. Yet, Naruto and Sasori had found one place that wasn't filled with death and mayhem: the depths of the prison caverns.
Deep inside them, past seals and locks, Naruto had found something that had left him standing silently in front of it, staring at it as he hardly believed his eyes. Sasori and Sakura flanked him. The puppeteer and his apprentice were both equally silent.
"Did you plan this?" Sasori asked after a while, Naruto shaking his head.
"No, I did not," he told his colleague. "I could not have. This thing is meant to be a myth, a legend only, a way for the human mind to personify the idea of a Deus Ex Machina, no more real than the sandman…" Naruto trailed off at this point, not finding the words.
"And yet if this really is it..." Sasori began, walking up to the giant thing in front of them. It was a cube, several meters tall and equally wide, with demonic faces carved into the sides. He twisted inside his puppet, stepping out of the scorpion-tailed hunchback form and into his natural one. Reaching out, he trailed a hand over the side of it. "Will not this be the trump card we need?"
"I wonder…" Naruto said, "Summon Hebihisui," he said, looking to Sakura. "Ask her what the snakes know of this thing… the Box of Ultimate Bliss." Sakura silently obeyed, summoning the snake that had been her companion for three years now. The snake had grown from a mere foot to the size of a giant anaconda and as she appeared she was curled around Sakura, resting its head on her shoulder.
"You have been ignoring me, Sssakura," the snake hissed amusedly as it appeared, Sakura reaching out to stroke Hebihisui's head.
"I'm sorry Hebihisui," Sakura told the snake, for a moment focused not on her master but on her friend. Naruto wished she'd summon Hebihisui more often; it would have given her an outlet, a source of solace in her situation. Sadly, Sakura viewed her personal issues as not worth the snake princess' time. And yet now he needed to speak with the snake, so he cleared his throat.
"Greetingsss… ally of my father," Hebihisui said in response now, looking to Naruto lazily. Naruto almost saw a hint of antipathy in the snake's cold gaze. Or maybe he was just projecting…
"The thing in front of us is supposed to be a myth," he said. "Evidently it isn't. What do the snakes know of it?" In response to his question, Hebihisui hissed, tasting the air with her tongue, and turned to look at the thing.
"Imagine the thing you want most of all. And yet, imagine that you don't want to work to have it. You think it's impossible, you think you are too weak to get it…"
"And this box is the good spirit that gives you it, no effort required," Sasori said from where he stood, closely studying the box. Hebihisui looked towards him idly.
"It's a lie," she told Sasori, "The box feeds off people's desires. When it is opened, its puppet Satori comes out to drag anything and everyone it can, kicking and screaming, into it. It's a venus flytrap for the desperate."
"Or the insanely ambitious," Naruto concluded, not just smirking but grinning to himself as a plan formed in the back of his mind. It was insane, but it just might work.