There was a loud hiss that came from the woman behind them, a sound that caused a shiver to run up Sakura's spine.
"You are acquainted?"
...yeah, alright, Sakura had to admit it would look pretty bad at this point if they were. The woman didn't know Hidan was a mole yet, and there was a small part of her that was pretty sure Hidan wouldn't have minded killing the Jinchuuriki just for the challenge of it. And then there were the two Kumo patrollers a little ways away…
"We've met once before." She spoke quickly, hoping Hidan would catch on. "He works for a mercenary group that is seeking the power of the Bijuu. Part of my coming here was to warn your Raikage of their intent, and to attempt to dissuade them if we found them here."
"Aww, don't try to dissuade me." Hidan commented, still grinning in a wolfish manner as he leaned against a nearby tree. "We were just starting to have fun."
The woman cursed, using a word Sakura was not familiar with, then spit and hissed in Hidan's direction.
...well, at the very least, it seemed like Hidan had caught on.
It was at that moment that Kakuzu appeared, all at once and so quietly that Sakura had missed him until he'd entered her visual range. For all that Hidan had spoken of the man's power, she was amazed that he was able to suppress his chakra so much, and to move so silently.
She made eye contact with Kakuzu first, and she could see an intelligence there as the man assessed the situation.
"Of course your idiotic fighting style would attract more attention, Hidan." He spoke, in that same deep rumble that Sakura remembered from her time in Plains. "You're lucky our leader wants them dead too."
"I already called dibs on Pinkie, come on." Hidan whined. Sakura had to give him credit for staying in character. He was one hell of a mole...though, of course, she wasn't entirely unconvinced Hidan didn't want a proper spar with her when all was said and done.
"We've already wasted too much time. Finish the Jinchuuriki, and I will deal with the rest."
Crap. Things were progressing too fast. "W-wait, wait!" She insisted, waving her hands and stepping forward to get Kakuzu's attention. "Kakuzu, we have something to tell you that you'll want to hear. All I need is a minute of your time and if you don't like it, we can go back to killing each other."
The look in Kakuzu's eyes seemed to impress that giving her a minute of his time was the last thing he wanted to do, but to his credit, he did not move from his position. Sakura didn't let herself linger. She held up one hand, attempting to show that she wasn't planning on just chucking a kunai at him after asking for a ceasefire, and with the other slowly pulled a small scroll from her pouch. She held it out so that he could see the crest embroidered on the paper.
"This is from Shibuki, the current leader of Takigakure." Sakura explained. She'd been sitting on this scroll for a while, after discussing Kakuzu with the man. "I remembered your headband, so when I visited Taki I had to ask them what they knew about you. Shibuki told me everything. You were ordered to assassinate Hashirama Senju, and when you failed, the village…" She hesitated. She was trying not to piss the man off, so how to word things? "...the village wrongfully punished you and stigmatized you. Hashirama Senju was one of the most powerful shinobi to have ever lived. The fact that you failed to complete your objective should not have reflected harshly on you. When I learned about your story, I, uh, pulled some strings."
She kneeled down, rolling the scroll in Kakuzu's direction. "This is a full pardon and a written apology from Shibuki himself regarding Taki's conduct. It's also an offer. Taki would like to hire you as one of its shinobi once more, at triple the standard jounin pay to start."
Sakura saw Hidan cover a snicker with his hand out of the corner of her eye. Yes she had been paying attention to Hidan's musings, thank you very much, and through his eyes she'd gotten the very distinct impression that money was the one thing Kakuzu valued above all else. She didn't know what Akatsuki were paying him, but...the only way she was getting out of a fight with this man was through his wallet.
Kakuzu reached down to grab the scroll, though he spared a glance towards Hidan as he did. "Something amusing?" He demanded.
"She's got you dead to rights." Hidan answered in turn, no longer able to hide the shit-eating grin on his face. "The fastest way to your heart is straight into your pocketbook and she's got a fat check, huh?"
Kakuzu didn't answer, but he did open the scroll, albeit warily. Sakura saw the skin on his arms blacken as he opened it, and she vaguely recalled Hidan mentioned the man had a jutsu that hardened his body to protect it from blows. Wise, she supposed; she could have booby trapped the scroll. But the contents were legitimate, and not even Kakuzu could deny the signed seal of Shibuki himself.
"Amusing." Kakuzu admitted, though nothing in his eyes suggested the shinobi was actually amused. "And do you have a little seal from 'God' to get Hidan to shut up?"
"Something like that." Sakura mused.
"Clever. And a pity. In another decade, you could have been worth quite a bounty."
The scroll was neatly tossed back to her, and Sakura felt her heart sink as she realized Kakuzu wouldn't be so easy to sway as she'd hoped. "Won't take it, huh? Damn."
"It was a decent offer." Kakuzu admitted. "But I don't find myself forgiving my old village for their trespasses in my lifetime."
"That's saying something." Hidan added. "Seeing as you're already old as shit."
"The Jinchuuriki, Hidan. I'll deal with Haruno." Kakuzu settled into a fighting stance, and Sakura realized that the man was...actually giving her a second to prepare herself. She didn't expect him to be honorable, but perhaps her efforts to sway him had earned some sort of respect in his eyes.
She didn't want to have to fight him. But unfortunately it seemed she had no choice.
She pocketed the scroll and drew her three-pronged kunai. Behind her, she heard the rustling of Gaara's sand and the unfurling of one of Sai's scrolls. There was a scraping sound too, perhaps the Jinchuuriki woman sharpening her claws. In front of them, Hidan shifted, his scythe at the ready.
Their eyes met, and Hidan winked.
He lunged, and no doubt Kakuzu was used to Hidan charging in first, but clearly hadn't expected Hidan to swing his scythe directly into his back instead of at the Jinchuuriki. Sakura immediately caught the scent of blood, saw the blades of the scythe poking out through Kakuzu's chest, and was impressed to see the man somehow still standing despite the brute of a weapon that he'd just been impaled on.
"Oops." Hidan said with a grin. "I forgot to mention that Sakura gave me that little 'seal from God' ages ago."
"You?" Sakura heard Kakuzu gasp, how the hell was he still talking?, and winced as Hidan removed his scythe with a visceral tug.
"Me." Hidan confirmed. "I'm the traitor. Kind of funny, huh? You always talk about how I'm too crazy to be involved with any espionage. It was kind of touching how you always vouched for me. It's almost going to be a shame to kill a godless heathen like you."
It was with an almost comically casual air that Hidan strolled over to Sakura's side, lazily spinning his scythe to bring the blades back to a ready position. "It's about time the two of us got to fight side by side." He announced. "And Kakuzu's been shitting on our religion long enough. One heart down, four to go."
Sakura couldn't process it as anything else at first. She saw a heaving mass of black tendrils spreading outwards, and several small white spots that she eventually realized were...masks? One of them, however, was completely severed in two, and it was spit out from the rest of the mass into a pile on the ground. Somewhere deep in the mass, Sakura caught a glimpse of Kakuzu's face.
"Yes?" Hidan answered.
"I'm going to fucking kill you."
There was a sudden burst of red hot flame, blocked quickly by Gaara's sand rushing to the forefront, though despite that Sakura could feel the air heat up around her rapidly. It was probably the most powerful fire attack she'd ever seen, bar none.
"He's pissed." Hidan commented.
"No, really?" Sakura groaned. "And what do you mean, four hearts?"
"He collects them. He gets elemental affinities out of them and extends his lifespan, and he's not going down unless you take out all of them. I was hoping to get two but he's moved them since I saw them last, so my aim wasn't great." Hidan moved to pull something from his cloak: his long obsidian knife. "Still, I can get one more if you give me some cover for a minute."
Sakura's eyes glanced to Hidan's scythe. Right. He'd gotten blood. "Gaara, keep providing cover." She ordered, already moving to grab a flashlight from her pouch. "Sai, I need you to escort the Jinchuuriki home."
"Escort?" The woman hissed. "If you think I need a damned escort-"
"I need you to go inform your Kage that a mercenary group threatened one of his Jinchuuriki." Sakura insisted. "And to bring us some backup. Kakuzu isn't going to be easy to subdue. Hidan got a lucky shot, but I don't think any of us here are equipped to deal with whatever the hell he has going on with the black...tendril things."
"And you expect me to just forgive this one?" The woman gestured to Hidan. "He initiated this!"
"Maybe he did, but we can deal with that after we've gotten Kakuzu down, right?" Sai thankfully stepped forward to take the conversation from there. "Right now, the best tactic is to call for aid. We don't want any of your comrades to walk into this battle without all the details."
The woman spat again, but did not protest. "Fine. And how do we pass this mess?"
"With tactical verticality." Sai answered, a smile on his face as he activated his chakric ink. A large bird came into existence beneath him, and he offered a hand to the woman to help her up. She didn't take the hand, instead crawling up on her own, but Sakura was grateful that the woman could see reason. She was Akatsuki's target, and Sakura didn't yet know if there were any other members here to make their life difficult. And backup against a shinobi that was as old as her village would be more than welcomed here.
Hot air changed to static, a heavy lightning current hitting Gaara's sand with such impact that it actually briefly gave way. Thankfully, Hidan was nearly finished with his ritual, skin blackening as nature energy coursed through his body, and Sai and the woman were ready to take to the air.
"Just tell me when." Hidan called out. "I've been looking forward to making him suffer for months now."
"Ready." Sai announced. Without any delay, Hidan stabbed his obsidian knife deep into his own chest, laughing maniacally as he did so. Though Sakura had been expecting it, it was still visceral to watch a man essentially kill himself, let alone witness him celebrate the act of doing so. There was an ebb in Kakuzu's lightning strike, as well as a guttural roar that indicated Hidan had succeeded in nailing a second heart. Sai didn't hesitate, and his bird was up in the air and away before Kakuzu could respond. That just left her, Hidan, and Gaara, but Sakura felt a little better knowing the Jinchuuriki was safe and that Kumo would at least be informed about their trespassers. Whatever happened here, Kakuzu wasn't getting out of this with a victory.
Hidan was lost somewhat in the haze of his ritual, but Sakura knew enough to know he'd be battle ready after a minute to compose himself. "Can't you just keep doing that?" She questioned. "You have his blood, just keep poking until he stays down."
"I, uh, don't know if that works, actually." Hidan admitted, removing the knife from his chest with a sound that made her squirm. "See, normally, when you stab a person in the heart, they stay dead. The ritual's never been used on the same person twice in a row. Also, can you, uh…?" He gestured to the hole in his chest with an awkward grin, and Sakura realized he wanted her to heal him up. Great, now she got to experience Kakuzu's agonizing 'heartburn' firsthand.
"Well, if we can't put him down, we just have to delay him." She decided, stepping behind Hidan so she could place both her hands on his back. "Gaara, let's try 'timeout' strategy and see how that goes?"
"Right." Gaara nodded. 'Timeout' strategy was a new one they'd concocted, where instead of encasing his teammates in sand, he encased the enemy in sand instead to restrain them. Sakura saw Gaara begin to pull pieces of gold from his underarmor to mix with his sand. Smart. Nullifying Kakuzu's elemental chakra would make it easier to contain him. As the sand moved to surround the black mass in front of them, Sakura focused on her own power, pulling nature chakra into her body and connecting to Hida-
She hadn't healed a death wound since her fight against Danzo, and even then she'd been too panicked to really feel the effects of the wound. Connecting to Hidan now, she wasn't sure how the man was still standing. The connection broke as swiftly as she made it, and she gasped as the pain of a dying heart left her.
"Oh come on, don't be such a wuss." Hidan griped. "I thought you'd been practicing this!"
"Idiot!" Sakura pounded a fist against his back. "How the hell was I supposed to be practicing on death wounds?"
"Don't you remember what I told you? This pain is Jashin's teaching! Be grateful you get to share it with me!"
"Well I'm starting to think Jashin might be out of his mind!" Sakura stubbornly thrust her hands onto Hidan's back again. She needed to be able to do this if they were going to work together, it was just pain, just in her head, just in her head-
Shit, shit, shit.
It was probably rushed, and she was grateful Gaara had already moved to restrain Kakuzu while she worked it out. She prided herself in her chakra control, her anatomical knowledge, her ability to soothe injury without leaving so much as scar tissue behind. She'd trained hard at the Enclave, and then here Hidan was with his stupid immortality-
"Sakura, he's breaking out!"
Gaara's urgent voice prompted her to finish the job. She disconnected, relieved, and watched as Hidan rolled his shoulders and poked at his chest.
"Decent." He admitted. "Still kind of wish you hadn't been a shitty Joshi Sai though."
"I can put the hole back if you want."
"Ha! I do love that attitude of yours."
As Gaara's sand was blasted off of Kakuzu, Sakura watched Hidan ready himself, distinctly keeping his body between her and Kakuzu. It was traditional Jashinist strategy: the Hageshisai acted as weapon and shield, while the Jushisai healed and kept them alive. Hidan was immortal, but Kakuzu could still tear him apart...but as long as Sakura stood, she could stitch Hidan back together. Plus, they had the advantage of Gaara's sand to act as a true shield. Against a normal shinobi, their victory would already be in the bag.
But as she saw the monstrosity that was Kakuzu pour out into the woods around them, Sakura already began to doubt if they could hold the line until backup arrived.
"...my name is Sai. What's your name?"
The best way to establish good relations was to begin with an exchange of names and pleasantries. At least, that was what Sai had read in a book he'd found on 'Making Good Friendships'.
This woman, however, did not seem to have read the book.
She glowered at him, eyes narrowed and full of distrust. She was an older woman, but still youthful, perhaps around Kakashi's age if he had to place any bets. Her eyes were catlike with slit pupils, and even away from immediate danger her nails ended in sharp chakra-enhanced claws. She wasn't going to let down her guard around him, and Sai could respect that. He was a stranger, after all, taking her away from an even stranger situation.
"I apologize for the distress our ally put you through." Sai decided to continue speaking, not particularly fond of the awkward silence. "He's been acting as a plant within Akatsuki for some time. I believe he was not intending to kill you, but rather to push you in our direction so that we could redirect Kakuzu."
"Then why did he kill our patrol?" The woman demanded.
"...I'll be honest, I don't know."
"Tch." The woman huffed. "I knew Sand shinobi were insane. This shouldn't surprise me."
"We're not Sand shinobi." Sai corrected. Had it been Gaara's sand that had set her mind? Not necessarily a bad deduction. "We're an unaligned group intending to open positive communications between villages. We came to speak with your Raikage about joining a multi-country alliance."
"Wait...you?" The woman frowned. "B had mentioned this...why come to us? You have three others already."
"I think four is distinctly better than three, if the numbers are what matters."
The woman went quiet, brooding for a moment before her next answer. "You think you are humorous."
"Is this situation not serious to you?"
"It's extremely serious. But I've found that lightening the mood helps people think more clearly." Sai replied. "I'm not sure why, but humor seems to detract from negative mindsets such as panic."
"Hmm." To Sai's surprise, the woman nodded. "Yes. Perhaps there is wisdom there. I think I have come to understand something I did not before."
"A comrade of mine employs a similar tactic. I had merely thought he was nonsensical, but perhaps he is smarter than I realized."
Someone similar to him? Sai found himself excited at the thought. It was too bad any further relationship building would have to be put off until after Kakuzu was dealt with.
"So...which direction is Kumo?"
"You have been flying us without knowing your destination?"
"Well, I know it's north…"
"I have changed my mind. You are foolish, actually."
Sai chuckled, and despite it all, the woman corrected his aim and pointed him in the direction of her village. Once the course was righted, she even blessed him with an answer to his first question.
"I am Yugito. Yugito Nii."
"Nice to meet you." Sai replied with a smile. "Now, let's go get backup before my friends get themselves killed."