Madara cackled to himself as he gazed out upon his greatest creation. The ten most vile, most powerful shinobi of the ninja world all stood in their positions, one for every finger of the statue.
“Together,” Madara announced maniacally, his hand clenched in the air in victory, “we shall rule the world! We are ten, that perfect number that guides the actions of all men upon this earth. As ten, we are unbeatable!”
A cough sounded from the left-hand forefinger of the statue, but Madara paid it no mind because he was just getting on a roll.
“As ten,” his voice boomed throughout the newly furnished lair, “we are Akatsuki!”
There was a dramatic pause and then, suddenly, the hacking returned, violently this time.
Madara scowled as his villainous flourish was thwarted, but when he turned his Sharingan to the source of the coughing, he realized things were much, much worse.
Ito, the oldest and cleverest earth jutsu user on the planet, took that moment to keel over from a fatal coronary.
The remaining nine Akatsuki members gawked as Ito toppled off his perch and hit the ground with the thud. Absolute silence followed before Nariko gamely jumped down after Ito and checked his pulse.
“Uh, he’s dead,” she said a bit sheepishly.
Madara’s eyes narrowed to slits.
“But, er, go on. We’re going to take over the world, and…?”
“Fool!” Madara cried out. “With only nine, we are imperfect! With nine, we are flawed!”
The nine most powerful, most evil ninjas on the planet scratched their heads in bafflement.
“Well,” Manabu said thoughtfully next to Madara, “we could always recruit another member to replace Ito…”
Madara pondered this idea for a moment, and it appealed to his OCD. “Excellent,” he concluded. “We shall meet in one month’s time, and do this again.”
The pact was sealed in the blood of their enemies.
“We are ten!” Madara announced proudly one month later, beaming at where Isamu now stood in Ito’s place, his fangs flashing. “We are Akats—!”
Madara froze mid-syllable and glared over at where Yuudai’s bloodline limit had suddenly gone off and speared Etsuji right through the chest. “Is there a problem over there?” he demanded of the right-hand fourth and fifth fingers.
“Uh, no?” Yuudai squeaked in a way that was very unbefitting an S-Class criminal. “We’re fine.” He slung an arm around Etsuji’s suspiciously limp-looking body.
“Hey!” Takeo accused from the left hand. “You killed him!”
“N-No, I didn’t,” Yuudai insisted. “Look, he’s fine.” He surreptitiously raised Etsuji’s left hand in a bad attempt at a wave. Etsuji’s guts spilled out of his torso in response. “Er, oops?”
Madara gritted his teeth. “Next month!” he hissed.
“Finally,” Madara wrapped up yet another rousing, blood-curdling speech, “we are—”
A bang shot through the lair.
“Damn it!” a high-pitched voice shrieked.
Madara’s eyes narrowed on the panic now taking place on the left hand. “Is something the matter, Nariko?”
Nariko meekly held up her fire cannon. “It just went off…”
“‘Just went off’?” Madara repeated in disbelief. “Isamu and Hiroki have holes the size of a cannonball through their chests!”
“So sorry,” Nariko winced. “I promise it won’t happen again.”
Madara’s Sharingan swirled.
“Next month?” she offered hopefully.
“Next month,” Madara spat.
Next month, when Riku accidentally vomited acid all over Manabu, Madara conceded that he might have a problem.
The month after, when Manabu’s replacement Taiki accidentally envenomed Riku, it was almost poetic justice.
However, the month after that, when Takeo’s ooze engulfed Shou alive, Madara started to wonder if maybe Akatsuki was cursed.
The following months – and years…and decades – did nothing to disabuse him of this notion.
Over time, Madara had come to a slow realization. The reason no one had ever created a gang of ten super criminals before was, quite possibly, because ten such individuals could not exist in the same place for more than five minutes without someone ending up dead.
He had seen beheadings in those years, and disembowlings. He’d witnessed arrows through skulls, axes through torsos, and – on one very terrifying occasion that still gave him shivers at night – a katana right in a particularly unfortunate member’s groin. One month, a member would be savaged alive by rabid fruit bats, and the next the rabid fruit bat wrangler would be accidentally bifurcated.
It was all incredibly frustrating.
“What if we just stuck with nine members?” Pain considered thoughtfully as he checked over their current roster.
Pain now held Madara’s old place because Madara had chosen to willingly step down when Daikomaru had refused to join unless his twin brother Daitomaru was given a place as well. Of course, that very meeting Daitomaru had choked on a chicken bone (the boy hadn’t been very bright; hence, why Madara hadn’t offered him a spot to begin with). Daikomaru had then committed hara-kiri in the middle of the room, bereft without his twin, and Madara suddenly had two spaces to fill.
He, of course, could have taken a spot himself again, but finding new recruits for all the members who died was becoming a full-time job, and someone had to do it.
Pain was an adequate and level-headed keeper of the right-thumb ring, however, and he’d even brought a replacement for Daitomaru’s post – Konan – who miraculously hadn’t gotten herself killed yet. Of course, that same month Tetsuya had accidentally crystallized himself into ice, so they’d still been one short.
“What did you say?” Madara turned angry Sharingan on Pain. The only reason he didn’t kill him right then was because they already needed a replacement of Shigeru, who’d been swarmed by ferocious bees just last month.
“Maybe ten is just too many. We haven’t even tried nine yet…”
“How dare you?” Madara’s voice echoed ominously throughout the boardroom. “Ten is the perfect number! It is round and even, and even the most foolish child can multiply by it!”
Pain began to sweat slightly. “You do realize that’s just because we arbitrarily use a base-ten counting system, right?”
“Blasphemy!” Madara’s OCD recoiled at the very thought. “I should have you drawn-and-quartered for that!”
“That already happened four years ago,” Konan chimed in helpfully, scanning through the giant heaps of paper that detailed the increasingly lengthy and bizarre list of former Akatsuki members and their means of demise.
“Then how about I use my other bodies to fill in some of the vacancies?” Pain suggested.
Madara let his head fall into his hands. “It wouldn’t be the same.”
“The world isn’t just made of S-Class, rogue missing-nins, you know,” Pain said reasonably. “At some point, we’ll have to compromise.”
“Akatsuki never compromises!” Madara cackled maniacally.
Admittedly, his maniacal cackles had lost a bit of their potency over the years since every member had heard the beginning of his speech dozens of times before they somehow managed to dramatically snuff it.
Pain and Konan exchanged a frustrated sigh.
Madara pondered the idea long and hard, before the brilliant solution finally hit him. “I know!”
“Yes?” Pain and Konan said in anxious stereo.
“We simply need to find immortal, powerful, evil members!”
Pain and Konan winced in unison at the likelihood of that happening.
“Meet our newest member,” Pain announced warily atop the right thumb, “Kakuzu.”
A pregnant pause followed, and then Nobu chuckled. “So how long is this one going to last?”
Kakuzu glared at him, and then Ayaka’s crossbow accidentally went off across the room and imbedded itself right through his heart.
“Wow,” Nobu said, “that was fast.”
Kakuzu staggered for a second and then calmly stood erect once more. Slowly and deliberately, he pulled the crossbow bolt from his chest. The hole instantly closed up with thousands of tiny black stitches.
For one foolish moment, Pain almost had hope.
And then Kakuzu ripped off Nobu’s head and threw it at Ayaka with enough force to rupture her spleen. She hacked up bile for a few seconds before keeling over dead.
“This,” Pain hissed in Konan’s direction, “just isn’t working.”
Konan nodded numbly in disbelief, wincing inwardly at all the paperwork she was going to have to do this time.
“Well, we got ourselves an immortal member,” Pain reported casually. “So far, he’s killed thirty-two other members.”
“Zetsu’s working out quite nicely as well. He’s made it two years as of last week,” Konan added. “Of course, he’s eaten a dozen or so people during that time…”
“And then there’s Kaede,” Pain said thoughtfully. “She exsanguinated someone for over fifty meetings in a row.”
“She shouldn’t be a problem anymore, though,” Konan added.
Madara looked up at her hopefully.
“Because that new kid… What’s his name?” Pain didn’t even bother to remember anymore.
“Sasori,” Konan provided helpfully.
“Right, Sasori. He finally turned her into a puppet,” Pain explained.
And, before their very eyes, the impossible happened. Madara, bane of Konoha, ancestor of the Uchiha Clan, founder of Akatsuki, and bearer of countless other evil and impressive titles, broke out sobbing right in the middle of the boardroom.
“Why can’t we all just get along?” he wailed.
Pain and Konan exchanged horrified looks.
“Uh… There, there?” Konan hesitantly patted him on the back.
“You’re taking this whole number ten thing just a bit too seriously, don’t you think?” Pain offered.
“B-But ten’s such a p-pretty number,” Madara insisted. “I could threaten to decimate everyone, and I’d only have to kill one person!”
“That happens every month anyway,” Konan coughed under her breath.
“O-Or every time we made a new enemy, I could say the odds are ten-to-one against them, and it’d be literally true!”
“First we’d have to actually make some enemies, which is kind of hard given that we still haven’t even managed to complete our introductory meeting…” Pain grumbled.
“And, if we ever wanted to go bowling, we’d have even teams!” Madara insisted. “With one alternate on each side, in case someone gets injured!”
Pain and Konan blinked. “You’ve thought about this way too much,” was the universal conclusion.
“I don’t care,” Madara pouted. “Find me a new tenth member. Almost half the posts are semi-permanent now. Maybe we just needed to wait for the right team from the beginning.” He smiled hopefully up at Pain and Konan.
Pain and Konan both debated killing themselves then and there. After all, it would be in proud Akatsuki tradition.
“All right,” Pain snapped angrily. “Are we all good to go this time?”
“I ate beforehand,” Zetsu promised.
“I’ve been meditating all morning,” Kakuzu agreed.
Sasori looked up from where he was still trying to escape from the Chinese finger-trap Pain had given him earlier that day. “I will defeat this deadly challenge,” he promised.
Orochimaru just grunted from where he was he was flipping through the boys’ section of a JCPenney catalog.
Konan gave Pain a hopeful smile. That took care of all the members who had taken to surviving meetings lately.
“Very well,” Pain sighed wearily, “let’s begin. This month we welcome our newest member…”
“Aaaiiiieee!” a screech suddenly came from the right fourth finger.
“God damn it!” Pain yelled. “What now?”
Kaito had a sword easily twice the length of his body sticking straight through his chest. “Uh, little problem here…” He raised his hand, then died.
Pain put his hands on his hips angrily. “All right, who did it this time?” he demanded testily.
“Huh?” Orochimaru blinked up from his magazine, then flipped the page and licked his lips at the new boy-flesh that was revealed.
“I am Zen,” Kakuzu was muttering under his breath. “I will not murder, I will not maim. I am Zen…”
Zetsu’s stomach grumbled. “I think that civilian I ate gave me acid. Are you sure I can’t eat Akatsuki? They’re much better quality meat…”
“I am a child prodigy,” Sasori insisted, trying to yank his forefingers apart. “No trap can defeat me!”
Konan just shook her head.
“Uh?” a very nervous, squeaky voice sounded from the other side of the room.
“What?” Pain demanded. His eyes narrowed when he noticed the tiny figure – barely more than a boy, really – was now holding the giant sword that had cleft Kaito in two.
“Sorry!” the boy peeped, his voice half breaking on the apology. “It’s my first day!” He tried to smile and just ended up exposing rows of shark-like teeth.
Pain sighed wearily. “You’re Kisame?”
“Yes!” the boy agreed happily.
“Welcome to Akatsuki. Here’s the drill: we keep doing this every month until we can finally get through a meeting with ten members and no one dying.”
Kisame frowned. “Why can’t we just finish the meeting with nine members?” he asked reasonably.
The eight very powerful, very evil ninjas around him all sweated with embarrassment at the same time. “Don’t ask,” they said in perfect unison.
“And,” Konan added not unkindly, “if you want to stick around, it’s probably a good idea to keep swinging that sword around like a maniac.”
Kisame grinned and hugged his sword like it was an oversized stuffed animal. How the boy could even wield that thing when it was three times his size was beyond Pain.
“Konan!” he hissed angrily.
“Are you going to say it’s not true?” Konan retorted.
Zetsu licked his lips. “I need something to settle my stomach.” He eyed Kaito’s corpse.
“Fine, he’s all yours,” Pain grumbled. “Meeting adjourned. Again.”
“I’m very confused,” Kisame said.
“Welcome to the club,” Sasori agreed, desperately trying to yank his fingers apart.
“I have a good feeling this time,” Madara insisted. “With this line-up, we will be unstoppable!”
“You’ve had a ‘good feeling’ about every line-up for the past twenty years,” Pain retorted. “And look where that’s gotten us.”
“But this one is different. This one is the proud bearer of the Mangekyou, the fruit of my loins!”
Konan nearly choked on the tea she was drinking but, miraculously for an Akatsuki member, survived the incident.
“You did not just say ‘fruit of my loins’,” Pain winced.
“Silence, you fools, and do as I command!” Madara snapped.
“Maybe we should just kill him,” Konan muttered as they left the meeting.
“I just don’t see what’s wrong with nine,” Pain ranted for the millionth or so time. “There are only nine Jinchuuriki anyway. Will someone please tell me what’s wrong with nine?”
“Today,” Pain said disinterestedly, “we welcome our newest member, Uchiha Itachi.”
“Hey,” Kakuzu complained, “how come his family name got announced, and mine didn’t?”
“I’m under direct orders.”
Kakuzu scowled at him.
“Apparently, it’s an Uchiha thing. Don’t ask.”
Kakuzu swore under his breath. Apparently, his meditative calm was already giving way to murderous rage. Those anger management classes just weren’t working.
“Can someone just get murdered so we can go home?” Orochimaru said, glancing up from his magazine for the first time. “I found a lovely young boy in—” He set eyes on Itachi for the first time, and Pain could almost see the hearts suddenly surrounding his head. “Here…” Orochimaru sighed blissfully, fluttering his eyelashes at Itachi.
Itachi blinked once, very slowly.
“Evil organization, blah-blah-blah,” Pain had long since given up on reading his speech in full. “Ten members…” He looked around nervously.
“Hey, Uchiha,” Kisame said curiously. “How do you feel about the number ten?”
“It is the most perfect of numbers,” Itachi said calmly. “Round, even, and the basis for all numbers as we know them.”
“Oh, god,” Sasori winced. “It’s hereditary!”
Itachi might have looked confused, except for the fact that all Itachi’s facial expressions were completely blank so it was really hard to tell.
“Don’t worry, Itachi-kun,” Orochimaru cooed, sidling over to him. “I love you anyway.”
Itachi would have looked disturbed, if he were physically capable.
“And so,” Pain continued to rush through his speech in the background, insanely hopeful now that he was nearing the end, “we are Akats—oh, bugger!”
At that moment, Orochimaru reached out and pinched one very perfect Uchiha butt cheek.
Itachi’s eyes widened a whole one-hundredth of a millimeter.
“I can’t even look!” Pain buried his face in his hands.
Itachi proceeded to Mangekyou Orochimaru’s ass, except not literally because if Itachi had actually done something with Orochimaru’s ass, Orochimaru would have been ecstatic. Instead, Itachi forced Orochimaru to live 72 hours in a parallel world where all his prepubescent boy porn had been replaced by naked pictures of Sarutobi.
By the time Orochimaru came out of the Mangekyou, he was on the floor in tears. “I would have made it good for you!” he pleaded to Itachi.
“No touching,” Itachi hissed.
Orochimaru proceeded to run from the lair, sobbing.
“Well,” Konan said hesitantly, “that was…different…”
Pain ventured to peek out from between his fingers. “Does that mean no one died?”
“Except for the part where Kakuzu just beheaded his partner, and Zetsu’s eating his.”
“My am mop!” Zetsu tried to argue, but the toes of his old partner’s foot were still protruding from his mouth, making it impossible for him to annunciate.
“You are too!” Kisame pointed an accusing finger at him.
“I hate my life,” Pain sobbed.
“This isn’t quite how I pictured Akatsuki,” Itachi said blankly.
“You and everyone else, kid,” Kisame sighed.
“Okay,” Madara announced, “we’re having a pre-first-meeting meeting.”
“Is that even possible?” Sasori wondered.
Madara banged his arch-enemy’s bleached skull on the board table to bring the meeting to order. “We have a problem.”
“No, shit,” Pain grumbled. “Orochimaru’s run off in the mother of all hissy fits, and he took his ring with him.”
“We may have to…” Madara winced to think about it, “only have nine members.”
“Halle-fucking-lujah!” Hidan held his bloody fist up in the air.
Kakuzu sliced him in half again, but the top of Hidan’s body just crawled over to the lower half, and they fit themselves back together. Hidan, obviously, was a very necessary addition to their roster.
“What?” Itachi hissed. He’d been informed that the fact that he only had one facial expression was a bit of a problem, so he’d been working hard on developing a second one: mildly constipated. He used that now. “That wasn’t what I signed up for. When I joined, I was informed there would be ten members, that perfect, even number that governs all of mathematics.”
Madara sniffled a little at Akatsuki’s loss. “Without the tenth ring, it is but a pipe dream,” he said sadly.
“What’s with these rings, anyway?” Zetsu’s white half complained. “They don’t even do anything!” his black half added.
“What I want to know is why we all have to wear purple nail polish,” Kisame spoke up. “Seems a bit fruity to me…”
“The bells on our hats do seem strange,” Itachi added thoughtfully. “I would think they’d be counterproductive to stealth.”
Madara’s left eye twitched. “It’s all necessary!” he exclaimed. “Now, shut up, or I’ll decimate you!” Then, he whimpered, “Except I can’t because there are only nine of you!”
An epic ‘sluuuuuuuuuuuuuurp!’ sounded from the back of the room.
All eyes turned to Zetsu.
“Sorry,” he blushed. “I was hungry.”
“Okay, that’s it,” Pain decided. “No more partner for you.”
Madara wiped one single, perfect, crystalline tear from his cheek. “In one month’s time, then,” he said morosely, “the new nine members of Akatsuki will convene.” Something broke deep inside him just saying it. Itachi rested a sympathetic hand on his shoulder and led their broken leader away.
The rest of Akatsuki threw a party as soon as they were gone.
“We,” Pain announced proudly, newly reinvigorated for the first time in many years, “are the about ten members of Akatsuki!”
“‘About ten’?” Deidara blinked in confusion.
“You don’t want to know,” Konan assured him. “You really don’t want to know.”