Jiraiya stood with his arms crossed over his chest. His magnificent coat billowed in the snowy blizzard as he imposingly remained still – a rock solid symbol in the face of this blinding gale.
The snow was everywhere. Absolutely everywhere.
Not part of the plan, but far from an impediment for an international ninja such as himself.
Snow or snow jutsu, he had seen it all. Compared to peeking in on the Abominable Snowwoman, this was nothing.
"This is messing with my senses." Tsunade complained from beside him, squinting at the white wall of snow. "It's all laden with chakra, just a little. Enough to be annoying."
"It must be Zabuza's apprentice at work, Tsunade-sama." Shizune informed helpfully.
The three of them were perched atop the main residence of the Daimyo's quarters, overlooking the field.
As much as one could.
"Silent assassin shit." Tsunade scoffed. "I hate that kind of technique."
"Anything that prevents you from having a stand up fight probably pisses you off." Jiraiya reasoned. "Why someone won't go toe to toe with your unfair gorilla punches eludes me my dear."
"Want a taste?"
"No, oh beautiful princess." Jiraiya placated. "Not in the light of day. You can spank me later."
Tsunade affixed the grinning man, still with his arms proudly folded, with a steely blue glare. "I hate you."
"Can… Can we be serious, maybe?" Shizune tentatively asked.
"This is it." Tsunade said angrily. "This is him being serious."
"No, no!" Tsunade cut off. "All those times you thought he was serious, he really wasn't! Somber? The perverted fascade falls away to the hardened ninja veteran underneath? Fuck no! That's what he's like when he's almost serious. This! This is what he's like when he's fullyserious! This shit!" She swore. "This is the shit that I had to put up with in the middle of enemy territory! And you ask me why I drink!"
"Er…" Shizune sweat dropped.
"Now Tsunade, I'm just getting us back into synch. It's been a while since we have had union between our bodies."
"You make it sound gross!"
"Not at all. It was a beautiful joining of biology and purpose."
"Shut the fuck up!"
"To be fair." Jiraiya said with a grin, "you know for a fact that you fight better when you're mad as hell."
"And you fight better when you're driving someone nuts." Tsunade grunted.
"What a pair we make!" Jiraiya laughed.
"It brings back bad memories."
"If it helps," Shizune interrupted, "I located our marks."
Akatsuki members Konan and Kakuzu.
They were – as per the intel gathered from interrogation of the captured Sasori, and further corroborated by the Toad Sage's network – interrimed at the Fire Daimyo's estate for the purposes of a prolonged undercover mission.
Well, semi-undercover. The Akatskuki had no nation. They were blades for hire of the sharpest sort and had, despite their violent nature, a rather good reputation for their business decorum. They always kept their contracts to the word.
A well trusted organization of the most powerful criminals and runaways of all time.
Vice leader Konan and the business savy Kakuzu had found some pretense to bend the ear of the Fire Daimyo.
And under the dual system of fire country, with the nobility and the kage holding equal and conflicting powers, it was a no-go territory on a rather strict basis.
It was actually easier for any other nation's ninja, say sand, to be allowed access to the grounds.
Which worked out just fine if you could find a decent excuse, and perhaps the cooperation of a certain desperate princess, to submerge the grounds in the international chuunin exams.
"You have your proctor badge on?" Jiraiya asked of his teammate.
"Not sure. I can't see my own chest in this blizzard." Tsunade said while fussing with her Haori. "God, my nipples are freezing."
"That's bad!" Jiraiya gasped. "Let me warm your magnificent – I mean –"
"Stay on your side of the roof!"
"As I said…" Shizune pleaded. "The targets are getting jumpy from the storm. They may make a move on the Daimyo if they suspect his involvement. They may even assassinate him."
"Well, we can't have that." Jiraiya said, cracking his knuckles. "The bastard owes me fifty Ryo."
"Well I owe him five thousand, so…" Tsunade hesitated.
"Tsunade-sama!" Shizune, as always, was somehow able to convey an entire scolding through the delicate inflections of a person's name.
"Well…" Tsunade said. "Well, for Naru-chan."
"Dibs on Konan." Jiraiya muttered. "The girl."
"It's not like that." Jiraiya said, sincerely serious as if a switch were flipped. "Really, it's not at all."
Tsunade eyed the melancholy Jiraiya wearily. "… Then don't do anything stupid."
"… Keep me smart, partner."
"Tch. God-Hand, Twenty Percent!"
-=-=-=-=-=-=-==-Inside the Daimyo's Quarters =-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-
With a single shudder, the roof swiftly fell in. And a shaggy white-haired man descended in the howling wind with his own bellowed cry of "Behold! It is I!"
The debris was of no immediate danger to those within – two s-class nin, the daimyo, and the daimyo's honor guard were all capable of sheltering themselves adequately - but the suddenness of this visit was somewhat alarming.
It could be said that Kakuzu was a miserable, pessimistic sort, and a hardened warrior.
But he had just not had the roof fall in with such wonderful precision before.
Of all the avenues of attack, he would think – the main door, the obviously secret passageway, the less obvious one, or even springing out from under the gigantic bed that could easily hide two squads – caving in the roof?
How pointlessly thematic!
So he was somewhat unprepared.
Konan, on the other hand, knew who it was before she even looked up. "Jiraiya-sensei." She groaned.
The two Akatsuki turned around to be on guard.
During Jiraiya's probing into their organization, they had of course spied back. They were aware that he was after them, and why. And it was a large part of why they now moved strictly in two man teams.
While this was happening, one piece of veered off course a little oddly, swerving around the honour guard and smacked the Daimyo in the head.
In that one brief moment, Tsunade released her transformation (for she had been that debri), transformed into the likeness of the Daimyo, and with a tap, casually tossed him under his enormous bed.
This was an academy level trick. A schoolyard type of 'switcheroo'.
But the speed of this simple sequence of jutsu was rather more alarming.
It was one thing to explain away her monumental power through her equally monumental and pinpoint control of her chakra. But the explosive nature of her punches said another thing.
She could simply accelerate jutsu to completion faster than anyone on the planet.
Not by much. Simply shoving more chakra out, in a practiced jutsu, could take you almost to the limit.
No, she was just a fraction of a second faster than the others.
That fraction was something, like the roof, Kakazu and anyone else was not prepared for.
And in addition to this, she was quite good at transformations.
Really, quite good.
She had some experience with being not as she truly was.
The honor guard blinked.
Tsunade tapped a finger to her (now his) lips.
"Not here about your debt then." Asuma, part of the honor guard by coincidence, discreetly asked through hand signals.
Meanwhile, a firefight was in place.
Jiraiya, knowing his ex-student Konan to be a woman with an origami bloodline, equally knew her weakness.
He was also quite good at exploiting this.
Fireballs the size of small houses span throughout the room in a dazzling display.
Kakuzu, wide-eyed, had resorted to disengaging his heart beasts almost immediately.
Kakuzu was an old veteran, who had become so disenchanted with his profession of larceny and killing (ie, shinobicraft) that he had come to value only the monetary side of it. He attained joy only from money. He attained sadness only from money.
And he began to see value in everything. Above all in the opponents that almost killed him.
And he assessed them to the tenth of a Ryo, and hating to see that value go to waste, created a means to devour their hearts and fuel his beasts with them. Kakuzu was an amalgomous man, with hearts for every type of jutsu under command of the masks he kept sewn onto his back, and the beasts they became when flung out in control of wraith like black threads.
And it made him happy.
His body had to be worth at least five normal men, now.
He had a heart to supply him with every jutsu affinity, and a full person's chakra supply, and even their life.
But at the moment, he would have traded four of those hearts in for just a second water affinity.
"I can't keep this up!" He gasped, his water mask gurgling as it flailed about like a loose firehose. It's broad stream of water could barely be said to keep Jiraiya's pyrotechnic mania at bay. "Do something!" He cried to his partner for this trip.
Konan clicked her tongue. "I'm waiting for him to make his move."
"What do you call all this?!" Kakuzu asked desperately. His water mask was almost tapped dry.
Without the absolute type advantage, he wasn't sure he could handle this level of heat. At this level, earth turned to lava, sand turned to glass, wind was gobbled up for fuel. The fire jutsu was simply too far beyond him.
"It's a spectacle." Konan said blandly. "Isn't it, Sensei? You like to introduce yourself, always, with a spectacle."
"Konan." Jiraiya stopped. He stood in the large, scortch-marked room, and let Kakuzu catch his breath. "Calm as ever."
"After training under you, everything seems simple and quaint, Sensei."
"But I was happy."
Jiraiya sighed, running a hand through his shaggy white hair. "You make it sound like you aren't happy, anymore. If you were, Konan… if you were at least happy spearheading the group I had to call enemy – that I had to kill – we'd have something. We'd fight, and you'd try to kill me, and I'd try to kill you, just the same as now – but I would have been proud."
"And what are you now?" Konan asked, hands dissolving into a fluttering mass of standard A4 document.
"Confused." Jiraiya admitted with a frown. "Disappointed."
Tsunade wasn't a great actress, but she was very good at Henge. This meant that she had to get taken hostage asap, before her poor theatre skills came back to haunt her.
So she played to her strengths, so far as acting a role went.
She started swearing at Jiraiya.
" You perverted, deviant, two-faced, incontinent, frog-haired son of a bitch!"
The Tsunade-turned-Daimyo cursed.
Jiraiya frowned. "Incontinent?" He asked, seeming hurt.
"You wrinkly gray-haired motherfucker! Are you here to direct your perverse ambitions against my daughter once more?!"
"You knew about that?" Jiraiya gasped.
"Akatsuki! Protect me from this man!" The fake Daimyo demanded imperiously.
"Protect you…" Kakuzu worked his jaw. "From him…"
To be clear, his mission today had been a largely diplomatic one.
The thing with an organization like Akatsuki: Yes, it was a small group of hyper-competent warriors. And one might think that everything was solved with their incredible S-rank jutsu – just walk into a town and slaughter everyone.
But that wasn't how life worked.
It was a company. It was a business.
Yes, he had a dream that the Leader had enticed him with.
But bills had to be paid. Bribes had to go out.
Oh yes, bribes on top of bribes.
It was, like with so many other aspects of ninja life, largely theater.
Could Itachi Uchiha walk through the front gates of any town, knocking out mere chuunin level guards with merely a look?
Unless some chuunin happened to be blind, or from a clan of anti-eye-jutsu specialists, or was just too shy to make eye contact.
What if there was a jounin undercover there? Or he was just there to hang out with his chuunin friends?
It became complicated all of a sudden.
And it's easy to say that any member of the group should have the raw talent and power to tear through this level of obstacle.
And they could.
Unless they ran into that one guy.
That one, inexplicable, soft faced peon that crawls up out of the hole you buried him in, because he has an endless sea of love in his heart – or some such fucking trite thing – and then proceeds lock you in place while he calls down the full alert of the entire nation on you.
He had kept that heart around for a few years, just to try to figure it out.
The point was that behind all the flair of violence was a sea of bribes and careful information gathering.
The easiest way to do both was to go through the soft underbelly of the nation. That is, the Daimyo's Court.
Kakuzu had control of every element due to his heart capture and stitch techniques, but his most powerful jutsu was just business itself.
The spearhead that could pry open the national defense.
"That's right." The fake Daimyo said imperiously. "Kick his perverted ass."
A smile bloomed on Kakuzu's face.
It was a disquieting sight.
The facts flashed by in Kakuzu's disbelieving mind.
Jiraiya had caved in the roof, and blanketed the room – the Daimyo's private quarters – with intense firepower.
And Kakuzu had shot every fireball down.
He stretched out his arm for a handshake, his masks still flailing about to give konan the support fire she so desperately needed against a sannin.
Of course what he really wanted to do was grab the Daimyo, put the old man in front of him as a shield, all while proclaiming himself a retainer on soverign territory.
A high profile and nation loving man like the toad sage would…
His collarbone was grasped instead of his hand.
Kakuzu looked down.
Really, not even the collar of his cloak. His actual collarbone was pinched between bony fingers.
He looked into the up into the cool eyed beauty of Senjuu Tsunade.
"Shit." He said.
"You look like someone that thinks too much." Tsunade judged.
"Konan, you're on your own!" Kakuzu hollered before being slammed into the tile floor repeatedly.
Konan was, indeed, on her own.
The problem with her teacher was that he had always followed a simple philosophy.
Don't be a well rounded person.
No matter what you do, don't fall into the trap called normalcy.
And where you are weak, be exceptionally weak.
Thus you will dictate the terms of the fight.
And where her teacher was strong was in his raw stubbornness and quality of jutsu.
Where he was weak was in his openness to being tricked, and mental jutsu.
But that was also a trap now. Turn your weakness into bait. Turn your strength into an iron net.
Entrap your opponent in their hubris.
The Toad-Sage style.
"Well then." Konan said. "Let me at least show you what I've learned, sensei."
She snapped her wrist and the fluttering paper around her coalesced into a fan. With one broad sweep, she swept the room into a generous current.
They had been having a firefight until now, so this was an unepected tactic.
Of course, Konan had a wind affinity. Jiraiya knew that.
The high ceiling and liquored wood of the Daimyo's quarters were vaguely being eaten away by the flames which had fallen aside in the crossfire of his fireball barrage and the enemy's water jutsu.
But with this simple application of wind – something Jiariya himself had considered doing – the room erupted into flames.
An orange light suffused the battlefield, the flickering fires clawing their way up the ornate tapestries.
Jiraiya frowned at his student.
A paper woman, throwing herself into flames.