The Cost of Living


"For as intelligent as Orochimaru is renowned to be, one would think he would have imparted some of his genius upon his subordinates," groused Kakuzu. Having already activated Doton: Domu, the man's fist easily plowed through the chest of an attacking Oto-nin, killing him instantly. Harō, standing mere feet from him, hit several pressure points in another ninja's leg, causing him to recoil in pain. Kakuzu took the opportunity to loose his arm at the man, the threads of Jiongu burrowing under his skin and pulling out his heart. "Idiotic Oto-nin," he snarled, more threads ripping through his shirt from the shoulders and spearing two leaping opponents in midair, "can they not see that we have no affiliation with Konohagakure?"

Harō shrugged, unsheathing the twin katana Kiba from his back. He channeled a small amount of lightning chakra through them, just enough to paralyze the enemy trying to sneak up on the duo long enough for Kakuzu to kill him. Despite holding several soldier pills – something he preferred not to rely on but found necessary given the uncertainty of the inevitable battle ahead (in which he would rather not become a liability due to chakra exhaustion) – the cobalt-haired boy was trying to conserve as much chakra as possible. "At least they're not particularly strong," he offered.

"Another point against the Sannin. Konohagakure is renowned as one of the strongest of the Five Great Shinobi Nations. Sending the second string in to fight its populace – whether a large quantity is asleep or not – was a foolish endeavor."

The bounty hunter had a point. All over the stadium, Konoha's elite ninja were fighting back against the combined forces of the Sand and Sound. Harō supposed that the invasion would have been more of a success had Sabaku no Gaara actually been able play his role properly (whatever that was). As it was, the might of Orochimaru's village in conjunction with the Hidden Sand was proving to be more of a nuisance than an actual threat.

That held especially true when your partner was an S-class nukenin with a powerful kinjutsu at his disposal. "Enough!" roared Kakuzu, black tendrils multiplying from seemingly nowhere to ensnare a handful of enemy ninja.

And a powerful temper… It certainly worked to their advantage that Kakuzu had rage issues, especially considering that they were the only two conscious ninja in their section of the stands. It made them an obvious target, if a rather senseless one, since defending Konoha wasn't on their list of priorities. Good thing Kakuzu's on our side. He's taking out most of these guys single-handed.

Several snapping sounds from Kakuzu's direction brought Harō back to attention in time to duck a kick from a Suna-nin. He crossed his two swords together so that the tips touched the man's legs and sent enough lightning through his body to fry his brain. The boy glanced down to see two small figures – one possessing Fū's telltale mint green hair – engaged in battle with five other figures, a sixth person standing nearby. "Hey, Izo-sen—"

"Stop calling me that," Kakuzu snapped. "We no longer need to keep these ridiculous aliases, our cover is no longer important."

"…Alright. Well Kakuzu, I think Naruto and Fū are in trouble."

The mercenary's head twisted so quickly, Harō was surprised that he didn't hear the crack of vertebrae. Kakuzu's unusual eyes narrowed at the sight in the arena, and the Rain rebel heard him mutter, "That damned little shit," as a Suna-nin tried to lodge a kunai into Kakuzu's spine. The knife hit the hardened skin of Kakuzu's Earth Spear technique, and the Sand shinobi's eyes widened in surprise. They glazed over in death as the former Taki-nin grabbed him with threads from his shoulder and ripped out his heart. "We need to finish this quickly," Kakuzu stated seriously. Harō wasn't entirely sure why the older male suddenly sounded so dire now of all times, but he wasn't about to question it.

"If you say so."

Unbeknownst to the boy, Kakuzu had noticed a detail about the ninja assaulting the two Jinchūriki that Harō wouldn't have been able to identify. That mask… He knew that mask…nearly a lifetime ago it had belonged to him, a symbol of pride for the handful skilled enough to earn it. His two pupils – talented though they had proven themselves to be – weren't prepared for one of Takigakure's Five Elements, no matter how pathetic the Waterfall's soldiers were.

Once I dispose of these gnats, I will show those fools the true mettle of the Gogyō Go-Kō!

Sai leaped to the ground from his bird as four different Sand Jōnin launched a wall of wind at him. Ink succumbed to gravity as his drawing was destroyed, falling down in black puddles around him. The opposing ninja alighted near him. "Take him out," ordered one of them, and the other three moved forward to do the man's bidding.

They froze mid-movement, and from behind him, Sai heard a muttered, "Kagemane no Jutsu, complete." Buzzing filled the air as insects descended upon one of the Jōnin, and Sai capitalized on the moment by binding the other two with hastily drawn ink snakes. The remaining Suna-nin's face contorted into a frown.

Sai glanced behind him, confirming that Shikamaru, Shino, Ino, and Neji had arrived as back-up. The shadow-user was on one knee, and as the ink-user watched, his shadow disconnected from the three enemies and shot towards the fourth. The Suna-nin back-pedaled away from it, waiting until Shikamaru gave up trying to bind him. "A Nara," he noted, eyes darting to the other boys, "a Hyūga, an Aburame…and two others." The Jōnin shook his head. "Five Genin catching us unaware. How sad. Still, it won't happen again."

"It is five against one," stated Shino in his bland voice. His kikai moved from the fallen form of their target to begin surrounding the last man. "Whether we are Genin or not, we have felled your comrades."

"True," admitted the Jōnin. Then he whistled, and a score of men wearing the clothing of Suna and Oto appeared from the surrounding trees and bushes. "And now you're outnumbered and outclassed."

Sai formed a loose ring with his peers. Though his rank was being underestimated, the Jōnin had a point. As a member of ROOT, Sai was sent on mostly solo missions (after his 'brother' had died anyway), where the odds of running into multiple opponents – let alone the number currently facing him and his comrades – were slim to none. The mission to track Sasuke was going to have to be put on hold temporarily, at least until they could bypass this current obstacle.

"Ino," Shikamaru prompted.

"Right," returned the blonde, before forming the specific hand sign of her clan and shooting her consciousness into one of their bound targets.

"This will still be troublesome," Shikamaru muttered as Sai released the captive Ino had taken over. And then there was no time for thinking.

"He's mine to kill," rasped Gaara, clutching his head with a hand. "Get in my way and I'll kill you, too."

Sasuke watched as a protesting Temari and a nervous Kankurō stepped away from their brother. Gaara's teal eyes were locked onto his form, and Sasuke felt inexplicably apprehensive. 'You have the same eyes as I do…the eyes, filled with hatred and death, that long for strength…' It was what Gaara had said to him while he was training with Kakashi before the Chūnin Exam finals. Somehow, the words seemed much more appropriate and intimidating when those eyes were staring him down, the promise of death looking him in the face and no elite Jōnin around to defend him.

Then Death changed form. Sand coalesced around Gaara's face and right arm. A massive clawed limb – as long as he was tall – seemed to grow from the gathered particulates, inscribed with blue, vein-like designs and tipped with black claws instead of fingers. The redhead's face was affected as well, the strangely-patterned sand overtaking his right eye, down the side of his nose, and around his mouth. Drool leaked out from the orifice in a representation of Gaara's insatiable bloodlust, and his normally teal eye was now a demonic golden-yellow with a black, four-pointed star for an iris. "Come, Uchiha Sasuke! Let me prove my existence!"

He shot forward, and Sasuke was momentarily taken aback by the other boy's increased speed. The Uchiha jumped to the next tree as Gaara crashed through the spot he had just vacated, splintering the plant's trunk. He screamed his rage to his surroundings as his prey hunkered behind a separate tree, steadying his breathing. "Do you fear me, Uchiha Sasuke? Mother is thirsty, she wants your blood!"

Sasuke's eyes bled into the crimson of the Sharingan as he went through the hand signs for the Chidori. Never again would he allow himself to be considered a coward, not after that man had destroyed everything he had once held dear. He was no longer a defenseless Academy student, quivering in fright in the shadow of his family's murderer; he was an Uchiha, the elite of the elite, and he wasn't going to bow down to some other ninja, especially one whom he had previously held an advantage over.

The Leaf Genin stepped out from behind his perch, using the bough as a fulcrum and propelling himself towards Gaara. Laughing maniacally, the redhead mimicked the charge, monstrous arm extended forward. Lightning split Gaara's sand limb as easily as it had punched a hole in the defensive shell earlier, and Sasuke smirked.

Gaara screamed again, though Sasuke detected a tinge of masochism in the sound. "Pain!" Gaara screeched. "This is why I must kill you…to end the life of the person who causes me pain!" The sand from his shoulder merged with that from his gourd, sprouting into a long, thick tail with the same blue, veined pattern and black-tipped spikes as his arm.

Using the Sharingan, Sasuke managed to see Gaara's reckless dive in almost slow-motion, the Suna-nin somehow moving even faster than before despite his added bulk. Gaara's clawed hand exploded in different directions, and the Uchiha only managed to dodge thanks to his kekkei genkai. He shot a Great Fireball at the boy, but it dispersed upon contact with the sand.

The only thing that affects him is the Chidori, he realized, and I'm already at my limit. Damn it, what can I do? An image of Itachi – his older brother, the murderer of his clan – flashed through his mind. 'You lack hatred,' intoned the ghost of his past, the single reason for his existence, 'and that makes you weak.'

"I. Am. Not. Weak!" he growled. Orochimaru's Cursed Seal burned brightly, spreading its flame-like marks across the entire left side of his body and giving him the strength to activate a third Chidori. "Haaahhh!" he cried, charging forward again.

This time, he cleaved off Gaara's entire arm just below the shoulder, ending on a tree branch just behind the boy. He smirked once at his success and then collapsed face-first where he stood, drained of chakra from the Cursed Seal.

Gaara let out another burst of insane laughter as his sand arm reconnected with his body. Using his tail, he jumped towards the fallen Genin, claws extended in a grab. The digits wrapped around the Uchiha's body and hoisted him into the air, where he could clearly see the Suna-nin's lolling tongue and insane, golden eyes. "Goodbye, Uchiha Sasuke!" The sand covered the Konoha-nin's head and compacted.

There was no sound for a long moment. Temari and Kankurō were frozen in shock, waiting to see if the raven-haired boy would somehow appear and retaliate. A trickle of blood leaked out from the sand casing, and Gaara began to laugh shrilly. "He's dead!" he crowed. "Finally!" So absorbed in his personal celebration, he was caught unaware by the explosion which blew off half his sand arm. It reformed quickly, but unable to find the source of this new enemy, Gaara screamed his rage to the sky.

Out of sight from the Sand Siblings were two figures. One was crouched on a thick tree limb suspended a little over 50 feet above the ground. Underneath the straw hat upon his head, he fiddled with a complex scope affixed to his left eye. Below him sat a stooped person, the black robes, mouth-cloth, and conical hat keeping his hunched figure completely concealed. "So that's the power of the Ichibi, hm," stated the person in the tree.

"You better not take forever," replied the other figure gruffly. "You know how much I hate waiting…Deidara."

The first ninja threw off his hat, revealing long blond hair held erect in a partial ponytail and lengthy bangs which completely hid his left eye (and the scope) from view. "No worries, Sasori no Danna, hm." He withdrew his other hand from a pouch attached to his waist, opening the appendage to reveal a mouth in the center of the palm. It opened to spit out a small off-white bird, which the blond tossed into the air. His hands came together to form the sign of the Ram, expanding his creation with a small application of chakra into a size that could carry humans. He jumped atop the creature with the ease born of practice. "This fight'll be just like my art, a fleeting piece of work!" With that, he wheeled off towards his target, giving Sasori no time to retort.

"Impudent brat. His impatience will get him killed." Sasori shuffled off, using the path his partner had flown off on as his general heading. "If he dies, I'll have to complete the mission myself. I wonder how the Sandaime Kazekage would fare against the Ichibi Jinchūriki…"

Fighting Jōnin was far more challenging than taking on other Genin or even Chūnin…even if said Jōnin were from a smaller Hidden Village like Takigakure. It shouldn't have surprised Naruto as much as it did. Standards for rising to Jōnin were probably high no matter what village a ninja belonged to, so they would obviously have to be more skilled than a mere Genin, even if Naruto's and Fū's talents were actually around Chūnin-level.

Still, they were being targeted by the nation which had produced Kakuzu – though the man would certainly deny how influential the Hidden Waterfall had been in building his current strength – and Fū, people Naruto respected for their power. It at least partially explained why he and the Nanabi Jinchūriki were having trouble getting the edge over the five Jōnin. That and they were outnumbered. No wonder Kakuzu likes hunting bounties removed from civilization. It's a lot easier when there are no other distractions to interfere with the kill.

And it helped more when the enemies weren't coordinating their assault in a tailored format to bring him down.

"Katon: Hōsenka no Jutsu."

"Fūton: Reppūshō."

"SHIT!" Fueled by wind chakra, the small fireballs swelled to uncontrollable, and unavoidable, sizes. Confronted with the approaching flames, Naruto quickly laced his fingers together into the seal of the Dragon, arms extended out and pinkies pointed down. "Jiongu: Shīrudo Fōmu!" he shouted. Threads burst forth from his sleeves, twining together into a solid web in front of his body.

Two of the five fireballs struck the barrier squarely, dispersing upon contact but burning away the tips of some of the threads; the third went just a little too wide and missed him completely. He jumped back, allowing the fourth to hit the ground where he had just been standing, and the fifth clipped the side of the threads, passing by Naruto's arm close enough that the blond felt its heat.

The Shielding Form was the latest manipulation out of the handful Naruto had thus far invented with the kinjutsu, inspired by Jiongu's resiliency to most outside attacks and Kakuzu's Doton: Domu (before he had fully understood the Earth Spear technique). It was more convenient than the ninjutsu because the boy could more easily access and control it, but revealing it in a fresh battle would probably forfeit any advantage of surprising an opponent with the threads (or so he theorized…a practical application had yet to be tested). Since he was being targeted because of the forbidden technique, though, he didn't see the harm in fully utilizing it to his advantage.

Something burning caused Naruto's nose to twitch in irritation, and he looked down to see that the last burst of flames which had only grazed the makeshift shield had caught the edge of his scarf. Naruto unwound the cloth from around his neck, throwing it away with a curse. "Honestly, why do they wear something that could so easily kill them?" he complained aloud.

"Suiton: Haran Banshō."

Suddenly, the flaming material was the least of the Jinchūriki's problems. A deluge of water fell from the sky and battered him down, stifling him under its weight. Pounding at his skull, the liquid forced Naruto's mental processes to slow, and it took him an extra moment to figure a way out of the torrent.

He silently activated Doton: Moguragakure no Jutsu to slip underground, the water following him as a trickle instead of a veritable flood. There was no telling how much time he had to build a strategy before he was found, but he knew that it wouldn't be long.

The Waterfall Jōnin were well-organized, he would give them that. They had split up the two Jinchūriki upon the Elder's attack command, a synchronized pair wielding Katon and Fūton affinities cornering Naruto. The Kyūbi's jailor grudgingly admitted that it was a smart move, since wind only enhanced fire, which nullified any of his own Wind Release techniques (if they knew he actually specialized in them) and boosted their firepower. From his periphery, the blond had caught Fū fighting at a massive disadvantage against Raiton and Doton specialists.

Then there was the masked Suiton expert…he bounced between the two battles, capitalizing on every opening either Jinchūriki presented and defending his comrades against any counterattacks. He seemed to be on a different level than the other four, a caliber enough above them that he was able to read into whatever plans the blond made. It made Naruto glad that the man wasn't focusing his complete attention upon either himself or Fū, because otherwise neither might have still been fighting.

If the Suiton-using Jōnin wasn't around to interfere with his retaliations, Naruto thought that he could at least do something against the pair of Taki-nin assaulting him. Following his victory against Neji, his confidence in his own skill had risen. Though beating the duo was questionable (because all things held constant, he was still sorely outranked and being double-teamed), he felt that some of his endeavors could have been more successful than what he was currently experiencing.

Also playing against him was the fact that they had seen his battle against the Hyūga, making them wary of getting within (their presumed) range of Jiongu. He decided to look at his present scenario as a potential worst-case situation for the life of a shinobi – bounty hunter included – gone awry.

Time's up. He popped up from the Hiding Like a Mole Technique, tantō drawn and ready to cut down one of his opponents with applied wind chakra and subterfuge.

"Suiton: Mizu Teppō," called a voice, and Naruto wasn't even able to blink before a powerful stream of liquid caught him in midair. He hit the ground hard, tumbling head over ass from the force of the ninjutsu.

Sopping wet blond bangs tickled his forehead, and Naruto felt his scalp, concluding that the covering he had worn for the entirety of the Chūnin Exams had been blown off. "Not that I need it anymore, anyway," he muttered, blowing the strands away with an upset huff. Giving the gesture up as futile when the tips fell back down, he shook his head like a dog, ridding his hair of the excess moisture. He gave the masked man a dirty look. "You know, I'm really tired of you," he stated.

"Then perhaps we should end this," returned the Taki-nin. He performed several hand seals, manipulating a geyser of water to burst from the earth and form a concave shell around Naruto. The liquid almost entirely surrounded the blond, even covering the top and forming a thin layer beneath his feet, leaving only a two foot wide opening in the front.

Naruto tried touching the barrier to manipulate it, surprised to find it solidified but not frozen. "What the hell?" he murmured. Then the tag-team Jōnin appeared in the slim space in front of him, both preparing jutsu. Blue orbs widened minutely, and he tried activating a defensive water technique Kisame had taught him – Suiton: Suijinheki; Water Release: Water Encampment Wall – only for the liquid to, once again, prove unresponsive. "Son of a—"

His curse broke off as the masked Taki-nin's head swiveled to the stands and back – sensing a portent of things to come? Naruto wondered – and the other two ninja finished their seals. "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu."

"Fūton: Kaze no"

There was a loud crack as a giant man appeared behind the wind-user and grabbed his head, twisting it with one fluid motion. The Jōnin fell to the earth, motionless, and Naruto found he honestly couldn't remember a time when he was as grateful to see Kakuzu as he was at that moment. Then he remembered the giant fireball still bearing down on him.

Kakuzu apparently had that covered too. Three hand seals, a punch to the ground, and a grunt of, "Doton: Rokkutoreiru," prefaced the eruption of a jagged mass of boulders on a path perpendicular to the fiery attack. The conflagration struck the rocks, scattering against the defensive maneuver.

Naruto heaved a sigh of relief. "Thanks, Ka—"

"Save your own miserable hide next time," snapped Kakuzu, turning to show the blond his ire. The Jinchūriki was momentarily taken aback, not by the words, but by the fact that Kakuzu didn't have anything disguising his face; both the rebreather and the full head covering were gone, revealing dark, shoulder-length hair, his half-stitched mouth, and a square jaw.

Arakawa Daisuke took advantage of the interruption to step forward with assistance from his cane. "Takahashi Kakuzu," he began, voice a sibilant caress, hatred lacing the name.

"Do not call me that!" seethed the mercenary. "I renounced that name when your damnable village left me to rot!"

"You will die here today," continued the Waterfall Elder as if Kakuzu had not interrupted, voice becoming gleeful, "in reparation for the sins which befell our village because of you. Jirō, take him out."

Kakuzu let out a derisive bark of laughter at that. Naruto, watching the scene play out with morbid fascination, briefly toyed with the idea that Kakuzu was afflicted with some sort of bipolar or multiple personality disorder; his mood shifted with disturbing alacrity. "You think that one of your pathetic lackeys can kill me? In case you were unaware, that mask used to be mine…he cannot defeat me with skills that I have had decades to master. But come," he motioned, "I need a warm-up before my real target. Let us see what the current Nami no Kōtō of the Gogyō Go-Kō can do against the original."

Naruto wondered if part of the reason Kakuzu had renounced his affiliation with Taki was because the village came up with names as poor as the Surging started looking around, a sudden realization occurring to him. If Kakuzu's here, then where's Harō?

A bolt of lightning, all but invisible if he hadn't actively been searching for something, crossed in front of Naruto's vision. Long and thin in the shape of a lance, the elemental weapon speared into one of the men fighting Fū. He dropped like a stone.

Naruto blinked before he remembered that Harō was a self-proclaimed sniper. "So that's what he meant." Naruto shrugged. "Works for me." He became aware of the fact that – still encased in the water 'cage' – he hadn't yet been attacked. The fire-using Jōnin just now seemed to be recovering from the fact that Kakuzu had appeared, let alone that his partner was now dead. He slipped outside of the hardened water 'cage', posture much more relaxed now that the Suiton-user was busy fighting his teacher and the Fūton-user was dead. "Let's dance."

"Katon: Hōsenka no Jutsu!"

No wind added to the flames meant he could counter the attack as he normally would, with an equally strong water jutsu. "Suiton: Mizurappa." The Violent Water Wave showered over the miniature fireballs, extinguishing them with steaming hisses and forcing the Jōnin to dodge the rest of the liquid. Naruto raised an eyebrow. Or completely overwhelm it. That's interesting…

Water trumping fire was a natural part of the cycle of elemental manipulation, so the fact that Naruto's attack beat the Taki-nin's wasn't overly surprising. The more intriguing part was that he – a Genin-slash-Chūnin – had easily overpowered a Jōnin-level man's attack without even putting his best effort into the counter. Anomalies like that triggered one of Naruto's more masochistic personality quirks.

As an analytical shinobi, Kakuzu often preached the concept of never rushing into battle unprepared, to never assume that his opponent didn't have any hidden tricks up his sleeve. Though not always able to abide by that rule – both overconfidence and rashness were fickle acquaintances of the blond – Naruto had developed a peculiar tick for experimenting with his adversaries. By putting his body (which was mostly impervious to damage in the long-term anyway, thanks to the Kyūbi) on the line, he could more accurately flush out his enemy's abilities so he would know what to expect.

A loose stream of fire was shot towards him, and this time Naruto successfully used Suiton: Suijinheki, calling up a vein of water from underground to defend him. The two techniques canceled out, coating Naruto in vapor. He manipulated the air surrounding him to push the evaporated liquid away. "I have a hypothesis," Naruto stated with a growing smirk. "I think that your Jōnin status and strength came from your partnership with your dead friend over there."

The fading pallor of the man's skin tone prompted Naruto's smirk to grow into a full blown grin. Oh, this'll be too easy. Take away half of the duo, and the 'Jōnin' is revealed to be a Chūnin. Using wind manipulation was still a no-no, of course, because no matter his rank, Fūton versus Katon was still a terrible idea for whoever was utilizing the former.

That was fine, though, because if there was one thing Naruto possessed, it was variety. He spewed a large amount of water around the field with the Violent Water Wave, dousing the area in a fine layer of fluid. The stream cut off, allowing the blond to swallow thickly. There seriously has to be a better way to bring water to the field than just overpowering that, he mused with a scowl. I should really learn Bakusui Shōha. Pushing that thought aside for the time being, he began building his chakra for (what he hoped would be) the final move.

One of his arms shot out at the Taki-nin, interrupting what was sure to be another fire jutsu. The man dodged left, prompting Naruto's other arm to also lash out, roughly boxing in the man within two thick series of tendrils. Gotcha! His hands – now placed strategically behind the other man – came together, forming seals and utilizing the chakra he had prepared. Suiton: Suigadan!

Too busy watching the writhing threads of Jiongu slowly encroach on his position, the fire-user wasn't aware of the rotating fangs of liquid until it was too late. Four different spouts pierced his body in varying areas. He cried out in pain, a signal the threads around him took to converge on his form and wrap him up tightly. Naruto mentally damned the sentience of the kinjutsu as several of the black tendrils fought their way out of his control, burrowing deep into the Taki-nin's body and ensnaring his heart.

They yanked, pulling out the muscle and ensuring that if the Suigadan hadn't killed the man, they certainly had. The kinjutsu twined around the heart, preparing to integrate it into Naruto's chakra network. No, he ordered firmly, not this time. The threads seemed to defy him, insisting that it would be good to have this new organ.

Naruto couldn't argue with that; adding a third extra heart (his fourth in total), would increase the variability of techniques he could access when in battle. There were two unfortunate problems: the first, and smaller one, was that Naruto wasn't sure he had enough room on his back for a third heart; he was still a kid, and not exactly a big one at that (which rankled to admit).

It was the second issue that had him fighting his own kinjutsu's desires. Unlike Kakuzu, who had exchanged hearts (and other organs, he was sure) who knew how many times over the decades and thus was used to the process, integrating a new heart into his own system (if the first two times were any indication) was a process that involved pain and random fluctuations of elemental chakra. Considering the situation he and his teammates were preparing to run into, Naruto needed all of his faculties fully intact if the mission was to be successful.

Through the bond he held with the threads, Naruto felt their hold on the heart slacken. His arms retracted and reconnected to the rest of his body, a single thread re-stitching each limb back in place. Soon, he placated, you can do what you want in a little bit. Almost petulantly, they agreed to abide by their master's wishes.

Temporarily, at least.

Naruto turned his attention to Fū, who appeared to be struggling against her remaining opponent. Another lightning bolt streaked through the atmosphere and struck the Taki-nin, but this time it didn't do anything. The man stuck a kunai, crackling with lightning, into and through an earthen wall separating him from Fū, causing the structure to shatter.

The blond's mouth formed an 'o' in understanding. Fū's remaining opponent was the Raiton-user, so Harō's sniping attacks wouldn't do much to assist her in ending the fight. And Fū's talents were focused more intently on Earth and Dust Releases, which explained why she was having difficulty retaliating.

Fortunately, Naruto possessed enough raw aptitude with Fūton ninjutsu that nullifying the last Waterfall ninja should be easy. "Oh, she is so gonna owe me," the blond commented to himself. He disappeared in a Shunshin as the Taki-nin dove forward with another lightning technique.

Naruto reappeared between Fū and her opponent, right pointer and middle fingers held up just below his mouth, one in front of the other. A breath of air was exhaled, infused with his chakra; the lightning the Taki-nin was using dispersed. The technique wasn't anything offensive, merely a way for Naruto to eliminate the sparks and prove Fūton's superiority over Raiton. "Yeah, you're screwed now," Naruto taunted as the man stared blankly.

There weren't many times when Naruto was able to so easily flaunt his superiority. His only real associates were an S-class missing-nin and a Jinchūriki who – whether she meant to or not – often one-upped him. Even he would admit that he was still more a student than a master (though it would hurt his pride to say so to anyone else), so the opportunity to show off and just beat the ever-living shit out of someone else was just a boost to his ego.

Kakuzu would say that he didn't need any more pride than he already had, but Naruto felt that that was like the pot calling the kettle black. Of course, his teacher had his own ways to diminish the blond's self-esteem, whereas all Naruto could do was annoy the man. They quite honestly had the worst give-and-take relationship he could ever imagine existing.

But there were more urgent matters to attend to than focusing on his strange student-teacher bond with the ex-Waterfall shinobi (and boy, would that require a lot of analysis). Topping that list was protecting Fū from her former home. Lightning crackled around the Taki-nin's fist, forming a bluish-white sheen over his knuckles shaped like claws. Wind whipped around Naruto's own clenched hand as he prepared the Fūton: Senpūken.

Both males punched at each other, their fists meeting in a collision of wills. Naruto's Whirlwind Fist overrode whatever lightning jutsu his opponent was using, the slicing winds shredding the man's hand and arm. Just like they had against the fire-user, Jiongu's threads erupted from his body and skewered the man before he could react, reaching for his heart. No! he ordered the tendrils, and the kinjutsu withdrew back into his body; the blond got the feeling that it was reacting like a kicked puppy. "Thank you," he said aloud, feeling slightly foolish for doing so. The gratitude seemed to appease the threads, for they suddenly felt less…tense. "I will never get used to that," he muttered. It was just too weird having a sentient kinjutsu in his body which either wanted to take control of his faculties or sought approval from him.

It was no wonder Kakuzu was as deranged as he was. Screw psychological disorders, he's just nuts from dealing with the threads for decades on end.

A groan from behind him reminded Naruto of Fū's presence. "Ugh, being earth-natured against a lightning-natured opponent sucks," she lamented, rubbing her arms.

"You owe me," he bragged, pointing a thumb at his chest proudly. "I saved your ass."

"Yeah, my hero," she retorted with a roll of her eyes. "I'm sure I'll return the favor someday soon, considering how much trouble you seem to get yourself into."

The Kyūbi Jinchūriki huffed – he most certainly did not pout – at the brush-off. "We'll see." He paused, then, "You're okay, right?" She nodded, and he suggested, "Well, now that this has been taken care of, maybe we should continue with the plan?"

"Tell that to Kakuzu."

Naruto glanced up to see Kakuzu exchanging blows with the masked Taki-nin. "Oi, Kakuzu, aren't you done yet?"

Kakuzu would grudgingly admit that Jirō was more talented than he initially gave him credit for. Granted, the Taki-nin's skill wasn't going to be enough to defeat him, but it was impressive nonetheless. Unfortunately for Jirō, there were two main factors working against him. One was the obvious age difference, which gave Kakuzu an extra 60 years of experience over his successor.

The other was the fact that Kakuzu was, quite simply, pissed off. And getting in his way when on the warpath was generally considered a surefire ticket to one's untimely death.

There were three root causes for Kakuzu's current wrath: the Hidden Leaf, the Hidden Waterfall, and Naruto. His ire with Konoha stemmed from his loss to the Shodai Hokage at the Valley of the End nearly a lifetime ago. It was a defeat he had never entirely recovered from, a lesson well-learned on foreign shinobi.

Ninja from the Hidden Leaf believed in the Will of Fire, an intangible force which somehow seemed to grant them strength beyond what Kakuzu thought they could normally achieve. The Will of Fire and his encounter with the First Hokage had turned not venturing into the Land of Fire a habit he wasn't particularly fond of. He could count on both hands the number of times he had willingly entered the giant land and stayed for an extended period of time in the decades before he had met Naruto. Despite the number of tantalizingly high bounties within Konoha's walls, he felt no need to experience a potential repeat performance of the mission that had caused his exile so long ago (even though the odds of someone having obtained the Senju's legendary kekkei genkai and sheer talent seemed incredibly low). Besides, the other Elemental Nations still possessed plenty of high-ranking ninja for him to hunt and test himself against; 'quantity over quality' seemed to apply itself quite well to his situation.

Understandably then, the mercenary was quite frustrated with not only being in the Land of Fire, but actually within the main village. Especially since he hadn't been able to actually do anything until Orochimaru had started his thrice-damned invasion. Reading old books and scrolls – while an informative and time-consuming pastime of his – could only hold his interest for so long while cooped up in a hotel room inside a village he hated.

But alas, Konoha was getting its just desserts, even if he wasn't the cause. He could take out his irritation with the Leaf Village by killing Orochimaru; the mercenary could easily pretend that the Snake Sannin represented the village, even though the man no longer held any allegiance to the Leaf. Ironic, that to rid his frustration of Konoha, he was going to do away with one of its biggest traitors, but life was funny that way.

On the other hand, Takigakure was a grudge well-deserved and long overdue for retribution. Much like he had with the Land of Fire, Kakuzu had avoided the Land of Waterfalls even more stridently, though for entirely different reasons. Being spotted by a citizen of the Hidden Waterfall would mean the village could confirm the fact that he actually was alive; and while the idea of killing any Taki-nin sent after him was a pleasant one, dealing with said pests would detract from valuable time spent hunting worthwhile bounties.

So hateful of his former home was Kakuzu that he had always forced his one contact within the village – Tamura Tadao, the man who had been killed by Naruto for trying to blackmail him – to meet him far removed from Takigakure proper, normally within the Land of Grass.

It was really Takigakure's fault that Kakuzu was being presented the opportunity to exact some form of vengeance against it though. …Well, Taki's and Naruto's, but the blond would reap the consequences of his actions soon enough.

Takigakure was greedy, plain and simple. The village wished to obtain anything it could get its hands on: power, wealth, information…the list was rather endless. At the very least, the seed that had grown into Kakuzu's avarice had been sown in the early years of the Hidden Waterfall's history. Topping that list was the Village Council's goal: to be considered one of the Great Shinobi Nations. To achieve such a prestigious title – to even hope for a chance at the opportunity – Taki always sent one of their Elders to the Chūnin Exams with the purpose of gathering intelligence on the other Hidden Villages, always seeking an opening to rise to greatness. Any weakness in the infrastructure or upbringing of their 'allies' could be exploited, or so thought the Elders. It hardly mattered to them that success had been nonexistent since the village's founding; they were too opportunistic to not take advantage of any opening provided to them. The Chūnin Exams were always a good time to reinforce that mindset, especially since Taki was currently a neutral nation and the risk of spectators being in danger during the examinations was minimal.

Such greed was the reason Kakuzu had been sent on the mission which had led to his defection in the first place.

Still, after having suffered through more than a month of being stifled within Konoha – a village he hated – and then being confronted by Taki – a village he absolutely loathed – Kakuzu felt that his rage, the nagging homicidal urge which caused him to lose sight of other things, was justified. If Naruto was lucky, the nukenin's temper would be sated with the death of the current Gogyō Go-Kō member.

His current headache with the blond was more based on the fact that if he hadn't felt the need to show off, the Waterfall ninja currently attacking them would have been none-the-wiser to their presence. Half the time, it felt like Naruto purposely disobeyed orders just to rile the mercenary up. On some occasions, it took far more control than Kakuzu thought he possessed to not just (try to) kill the blond and scrap the years put into raising him. But then his pupil would do something impressive or unthinkable – finding a 50-year-old Summoning Contract, or stealing a Jinchūriki from her village without a fight, for instance – and Kakuzu would remember exactly why he put up with the Kyūbi's jailor.

The boy had too much potential to not be steered in a direction Kakuzu could make use of. He would be the bounty hunter's second coming, a reminder of the horrors which inhabited the ninja world. Naruto and Kakuzu were already far too alike for the man to not be curious as to where his disciple would go with his strength.

None of that meant that the little blond shit was going to get off scot-free for causing this mess, though.

"Oi, Kakuzu, aren't you done yet?"

Kakuzu allowed his left arm to fall off his body – connected by only a single thin thread – to avoid a jet of water shot by his opponent. "Wait your turn, brat," he snarled. "Unless you would rather come over here and say that to my face."

"…I'm good, thanks."

Another stream of water was heading for Kakuzu, and the mercenary chose to dodge it. Naruto could be unbelievably frustrating when he chose to be, and Kakuzu was already trying to prove a point to his opponent—

"Can't you just use Doton: Domu or any other earth jutsu to finish this? Why are you dragging this out?"

—which was that he was the superior Suiton expert. "Cease your incessant talking or I will make sure that your death is as excruciatingly painful as possible." With no response forthcoming, Kakuzu returned his attention to Jirō, eyes narrowed. "As annoying as it is to admit, my student does have a point. Your time has come…it is truly a pity that the only shinobi Takigakure produced who is worth something is me."

"If that's what you want to believe," commented Jirō, forming seals. Water erupted from the ground, surrounding Kakuzu and encasing him in the same solid shell Naruto had been stuck in, except this time there was no opening; the hand signs continued. "I've been the only Nami no Kōtō since you to master using hardened water. And I've taken it to levels beyond a mere sword. Goodbye, Kakuzu."

Whatever it was Jirō expected to happen, it wasn't the collapse of his water 'cage'. Kakuzu smirked at the slight slump present in his enemy's shoulders, his hands held with palms out before him. "You seem disappointed. Surely you were aware that as the creator of hardened water, I would know how to disable it." The man's silence was answer enough for the bounty hunter. "This has been amusing, but I tire of this game. Suiton: Bakusui Shōha." Kakuzu spewed a torrent of water from his mouth, controlling it so that it flowed directly towards Jirō.

Naruto was silently impressed by the display. Whereas Kisame typically vomited a flood of the liquid and then rode the cascading waves to attack his opponent – as Naruto was well aware from experience – Kakuzu seemed to bend a more controllable amount of water to his will, forcing it to do as he wanted; in this case, using a powerful river of liquid. The difference probably arose from the two men's combat style – Kisame often followed up the Bakusui Shōha with ninjutsu that required volume – but seeing Kakuzu's manipulation was pretty cool, especially considering most of the nukenin's favorite attacks were other large displays of power. Maybe he was as skilled with the element as he professed to be.

Jirō held out his hands, swiftly turning the leading water into a hardened version of the Suijinheki; the rest of Kakuzu's attack flowed around the barrier. Kakuzu rushed forward and punched the shield, shattering it as if it were ice. Spikes of hardened water stabbed him through the chest, but he collapsed into the liquid – a Mizu Bunshin. Jirō ducked instinctively, narrowly avoiding the decapitating slice of Kakuzu's Watercutting Sword.

The Taki-nin placed his hands on the ground, calling up a box of hardened water to surround his predecessor. Knowing Kakuzu would escape, he jumped back and began running through seals. Water rose and swirled around his arm, hardening into a drill with his arm in the center. The box surrounding Kakuzu collapsed, the nukenin already starting his own set of seals. "Suiton: Mizu Kamikiri," he intoned as Jirō charged him. A jet of water burst forth from the ground, and Jirō was forced to jump to avoid being bisected by the Rising Water Slicer.

Kakuzu smirked. "Fool. Suiton: Daibakufu no Jutsu." The water surrounding Kakuzu from his earlier techniques rose up in a vortex, moving towards the airborne Jirō. He manipulated the hardened water around his hand, quickly turning his drill into a convex shield which he held out in front of him. His shield absorbed the majority of the blow as Kakuzu directed the Great Waterfall Technique at him, completely drenching him and following an arced curvature directly into the ground.

As the pounding of the deluge stopped, Kakuzu stepped forward slowly. Jirō was bent on one knee, gasping in great breaths of air, his mask floating beside him. Standing out of the man's reach, Kakuzu lengthened his arm and allowed it to grab the porcelain sign of the Gogyō Go-Kō. His arm came back, allowing him to turn the object over in his hands. "Did you know that wearing this was once a symbol of pride for me?" Kakuzu mentioned loftily. "Striving to achieve the title of the first Nami no Kōtō drove me to risk everything for my village.

"And for what? Imprisonment. Betrayal. Exile. Your proud Elders turned their backs on me in my time of need…and now look where they have left you. The chain has come full circle, and now you sit here, serving a council which has all but signed your death warrant with its greed. Tell me, how does it feel to walk in the shoes of the most reviled man to have come from Takigakure?"

"I'm nothing like you!" spat Jirō. "Takigakure Ryū: Aian Meiden!" Two halves of a coffin – spikes lining the interior – rose as hardened water and closed around Kakuzu. A moment later, the spikes jutted out the front and back of the iron maiden, having grown and completely impaled its inhabitant.

Naruto's eyes widened at the swiftness of the man's brutality. Kakuzu…

The sound of laughter caught everyone's attention. Kakuzu rose from the water as a liquidy mass, quickly solidifying into his human form. He clenched and unclenched his right hand, as if testing the fingers. "Hm, an interesting expansion of the style. That certainly would have killed me, was I not years beyond your experience."

"You escaped that?"

Kakuzu snorted. "You sound surprised. I already informed you that you are nothing compared to me."

Truth be told, Kakuzu didn't like the fact that his successor possessed as much talent with his former specialty as he seemed to. In a battle where he wasn't trying to prove his superiority, Jirō would've already been dead, taken down by Jiongu, Raiton, Doton, or some combination of the three. As it was, limiting himself to only Suiton caused Kakuzu to play things a bit more cautiously, abusing the Water Clone and Hiding in Water Techniques to lure out any surprises that he would normally just allow to be triggered with his active Earth Spear technique.

It made him immensely glad that it was only his replica which had been killed in his opponent's Iron Maiden technique and not him.

"Look at you, forced to go up against a man far your superior and now facing death. You are more like me than you realize. Unfortunately for you, I already have an apprentice who will walk in my footsteps." He performed two seals, causing a spike of hardened water to rise and spear toward Jirō from the front. Tired, the Taki-nin flopped sideways to avoid it, but a second spike behind him tore through the base of his spinal cord and out his stomach. "Die as you lived, you wretched fool, blind to your own ignorance. To think you believed you could actually kill me…the arrogance of Takigakure never ceases to amaze me." There was no response, but then again, he didn't expect one.

"Well it's about time, Kakuzu! Here I thought— hgrk!"

Kakuzu reeled Naruto in close with his extended arm, his fingers digging into the blond's throat. "Give me one good reason not to kill you, you little shit."

Naruto thrashed about in his teacher's grasp, facing slowly changing colors. His finger pointed to a spot at Kakuzu's 8 o'clock position. "Getting…away…" he rasped.

The nukenin placed one of his hearts within his arm, completely detaching it at the bicep and letting it scuttle over to where Arakawa Daisuke was trying to hobble away. It knocked away the man's cane, grabbing his ankle and allowing the threads coming out of the severed limb to wrap around the Elder's body. Without even turning around, Kakuzu said, "His retribution will come. You, on the other hand, single-handedly jeopardized our mission with your wanton desire to win a match against a Genin for a promotion which you will never receive. So I ask again, a reason not to end your pathetic existence?"

Naruto's face was already a mottled blue from lack of oxygen when Fū stepped forward and suggested, "Maybe you should let him go so we can use him for the mission?"

Kakuzu looked at her and then dropped the blond. "You are fortunate that at least someone finds you useful." Naruto, flat on his back and catching his breath, decided the appropriate response was to flip his teacher the bird; Kakuzu walked past him and stomped on his stomach, causing a spluttering gasp to escape the boy's throat. "You never learn," he droned, a sadistic grin playing along his lips.

"And now we're even," Fū whispered to Naruto as Kakuzu moved over to Daisuke.

The bounty hunter soon found himself standing before the elderly man. He held out the stump of his arm, allowing the limb to reattach to his body. "Esteemed Elder," he mocked, "you seem to have taken a mighty fall."

"You killed my grandfather!" Daisuke hissed violently.

"The deaths of gnats mean absolutely nothing to me."

"Your retribution will come one day, Takahashi Kakuzu, mark my words!"

Kakuzu laughed violently at that proclamation. "You sicced your loyal dog on me, one of the 'elite' Gogyō Go-Kō, and he could not touch me while I limited myself to only one chakra nature. What do you expect the rest of the village to do against me, assuming they even realize it was I who killed you? Rest assured that if my time does come one day, it will not be by your hand." He held out his hand, creating the Watercutting Sword. "When you get to Hell, give your back-stabbing grandfather my regards." The nukenin chuckled darkly as he swiped the blade perpendicular to the ground, severing the man's neck.

All of the angry tension Kakuzu held suddenly disappeared with the man's decapitation. It was almost cathartic, the murder of influential people from his former village, even if their generation hadn't done anything against him directly until this point. The last time he had truly enjoyed killing someone for the sake of it – not for money, but simply for himself – had been a very long time ago. His laughter – low and dark, sadistic and mocking – was not an oft-heard sound, simply because Kakuzu found few people who said or did something which truly amused his peculiar sense of humor.

Even Naruto's antics rarely stimulated Kakuzu's funny bone, though he did find some of the blond's more spur-of-the-moment barbs and retorts an ironic mixture of amusing and frustrating, if only because he chose the worst times to incense his ire.

Kakuzu looked up at the main watchtower. "The barrier is gone," he noted as Harō appeared from the stands. He shot Naruto a dirty look. "This distraction has cost us. There is no telling what sort of lead Orochimaru now has." The bounty hunter paused, scanning the three disguised Rain Genin. "When we find him – and we will find him – hold nothing back." His unusual eyes focused a bit more intently on Naruto when he said that. "Either give it your all, or be prepared to die."

Naruto cracked his knuckles. "Awesome." This was the opportunity he was looking for to finally use his entire arsenal of abilities. Limiting himself during the course of the Chūnin Exams to more easily keep their cover was rather annoying, and he was looking forward to actually showing his teammates and teacher just what he could do. "So," he said, bending his knees to jump off the ground, "you really are good with Suiton ninjutsu."

"I was not the first Nami no Kōtō for arbitrary reasons."

"…That's a terrible name. You really need to stop saying it. Unh," he grunted as Kakuzu punched him in the back of the head, causing him to lose his balance mid-jump.

"You should learn not to antagonize your betters."

The porcelain mask of Takigakure's Surging Wave lay on the ground, all but broken in half from when Kakuzu's water clone had been caught in the Iron Maiden technique. Kakuzu cast one last glance at it, wondering if it was more symbolic or ominous. He pumped chakra to his legs and sped forward, only uttering, "Catch up when you can," to his subordinates as he moved onward.

Orochimaru had not lived for half a century by taking risks. Certainly there had been times when his life had been at stake because of his own arrogance, but for the most part, he had things planned well enough in advance that all eventualities could be accounted for. Even then, all those times could essentially be summed up on one hand.

The fight against Hanzō the Salamander during the Second Shinobi World War with his two teammates Jiraiya and Tsunade could be considered one of his failings. There was little doubt in his (or his two teammates') mind that if it weren't for Hanzō's…generosity…he would be dead. It was then and there that his team had been bequeathed with the title of Sannin, and also the time when he had decided to begin research into immortality.

The discovery of his secret laboratory by his sensei had also been a bit of a loss, though a relatively small one because he had taken into account being found out at some point. That had led to his defection from Konoha and his initiation into Akatsuki, where his dreams had started to come to fruition.

Then he had gotten blindsided by his ambition to learn all the jutsu in the world and had tried to take over new recruit Uchiha Itachi's body for its kekkei genkai. That had been a massive failure, forcing him to abandon his affiliation with the criminal organization and switch into a new body to regain the use of his left hand. Again though, he had been able to turn that into a positive with the addition of the more-than-capable Yakushi Kabuto to his staff and the founding of Otogakure to further his experiments, research, and expansion of power.

So when the time had come to finally enact his plan to destroy Konoha, Orochimaru took no chances. He enlisted the aid of Sunagakure to increase the invasion's forces, as well as making sure that Gaara, the Jinchūriki to Ichibi no Shukaku, would play an intricate part in causing mayhem, thus distracting a large portion of Konoha's soldiers. His personal guard, the Sound Four, would box himself and his former sensei within the Shishienjin – the Four Violet Flames Battle Encampment – to ensure that the Hokage's death at his former pupil's hand was an uninterrupted affair. He had even gone so far as to kill the Yondaime Kazekage and assume the man's position to both guarantee the unquestionable cooperation of the Sand shinobi and to get closer to the Hokage.

It was rather shocking to discover just how badly the best laid plans could turn out.

Kabuto, at least, had played his part perfectly, knocking out the majority of Konoha's forces (though most were citizens) with Nehan Shōja no Jutsu. That, perhaps, had been the only part of the plan that had gone off without a hitch. Gaara had prematurely tried to summon Shukaku because of Sasuke (and here Orochimaru was unsure whether to feel blessed that his vessel-to-be was so strong or frustrated that the boy had ruined his invasion), which had resulted in him being removed from the stadium by his siblings. Then, after being caged within the Shishienjin, he had failed to revive the Yondaime Hokage alongside the Shodai and Nidaime.

That in itself wasn't too terrible, simply because while the Yellow Flash was indeed an amazing shinobi, Orochimaru didn't believe that Sarutobi – at his advanced age – could stand up to his two predecessors and himself. But again, the Snake Sannin had been surprised when his former teacher had activated a jutsu he – him, the searcher of all jutsu! – had never heard of.

Orochimaru cursed his own arrogance and foolhardiness as the technique activated. The darkness cast from the Shodai's Kokuangyo no Jutsu was disappearing, which could only mean that the man had somehow been defeated. How, Orochimaru didn't know, since Edo Tensei was supposed to be an unbeatable technique (for all intents and purposes), but he was not willing to risk his life to see what it was.

He lost a grip of the legendary sword Kusanagi in an exchange of blows with the Sandaime, but restrained Enma the Monkey King with a well-timed Sen'eijashu. That opening allowed the Hokage to grab and restrain him. "No!" he hissed. Moving two of his fingers, he gestured Kusanagi from where it lay.

Levitating the blade out of the reach of Enma as the monkey grabbed for it, the Kusanagi sliced cleanly into and through the Sandaime's heart. There was a moment where the old man looked at him, slightly stunned…and then he coughed up a globule of blood and fell over, dead. Enma disappeared along with the snakes entangling him, and the Sannin breathed a silent sigh of relief. The feeling of…cold…and death…permeated his stomach where something – the jutsu, he presumed – had dug in.

Some things were far too close for comfort.

Orochimaru signaled the Sound Four to drop the barrier, allowing the ANBU waiting outside it to rush them. Kidōmaru shot a web of chakra-enhanced netting at them, ensnaring them within its confines as Orochimaru withdrew his sword from the Hokage's corpse. "Ku ku ku. Foolish old man…first you fell, and now your village will be next. Come," he beckoned to his subordinates, "we should find Gaara and bring him back to properly continue with the plan."

The quintet took off, leaping from one building to the next and avoiding the triple-headed snake that was wreaking havoc upon Konoha's infrastructure. Orochimaru smirked at the thought of the ruin his former village would be in once the rest of his plan finished playing out. Aside from the Hokage (dead), the other two Sannin (neither of whom were in the village), and potentially Danzō (and who knew where he was), there was no one in Konoha who could stand up to the Snake Sannin.

So when he sensed the presence of a powerful chakra signature approaching from behind at a fast pace, he was…curious. Outrunning the source was a possibility, except that at some point the Sannin would be forced to stop to restrain Gaara, allowing his pursuer to catch up. Orochimaru preferred to fight on his own terms, so he signaled his subordinates to halt and then waited.

Only a minute passed before Orochimaru and the Sound Four were confronted by a large man with shoulder-length brown hair, a partially stitched mouth, and eyes that reminded the Sannin uncomfortably of Hanzō's. "Orochimaru," intoned the man.

"Ah, so you are aware of who I am…how intriguing," he replied with a quiet chuckle. "Tell me," he continued, noticing the color of the flak jacket worn by the man, "what does a lowly Jōnin from Amegakure think he can do against the likes of me?"

The man stripped off the Jōnin vest and the long-sleeved black shirt he wore under it; Orochimaru's serpentine eyes narrowed at the stitch-like markings that decorated the man's bare torso and arms. "I belong to no village," he corrected. "My name is Kakuzu, and I am here to kill you on Akatsuki's orders."

"Ku ku ku, so my former partners have finally seen fit to eliminate me, have they? And yet, your lack of ring implies that you're not even a member. How amusing you are." Kakuzu frowned internally at the brush-off. It would've been unrealistic to expect the former Leaf-nin to show some form of fear at his presence, but such an easy dismissal of his intention implied that the man was completely unconcerned with his presence. The bounty hunter couldn't say for sure whether Orochimaru actually knew of him – he tried to keep his presence hidden from the majority of the world, but the underground was a completely different place – but the fact that Akatsuki had sent him should have at least instilled some form of hesitation in his prey. After all, Kakuzu's strength was nothing to sneeze at.

A wicked grin crossed Orochimaru's features. "Kill him," he ordered before turning around and leaping into the trees. Kakuzu said nothing as the four shinobi serving as the Sannin's guard surrounded him. They looked to be getting into formation for some sort of barrier jutsu, and the former Taki-nin had to stop himself from rolling his eyes.

"Fūton: Daitoppa!"

Kakuzu stood his ground as a great burst of wind swept through the area, throwing three of the four Sound shinobi off their feet (the orange-haired one was apparently heavy enough to withstand the gale). "It took you long enough," he stated without even looking back.

"Yeah, so sorry about that," griped Naruto. The blond landed behind his teacher, Fū to his left and Harō to his right. "Have you ever tried keeping up with you?"

"The idiocy of that statement deserves no response," Kakuzu replied curtly. "Orochimaru took off already. Take care of his minions while I land the big prize." With that, he disappeared into the forest before any of the Oto-nin could catch him.

Naruto watched him go, intent on proving to Kakuzu that he was an asset, even if the older man wasn't around to witness it. His gaze then turned to the four shinobi opposite his team. The closest to him was a heavy-set boy with an orange mohawk hairdo. Behind him was a red-haired girl with a black cap, a dark-skinned boy with six arms, and a pale-skinned boy with bluish-grey hair and some sort of deformity – which looked strangely like a second head – sprouting from his neck. All of them wore clothing of a neutral color, accented awkwardly (in Naruto's opinion) by a ridiculous purple bow tied around their waists. Taking the initiative, he shouted, "I call the fat one!"

Almost simultaneously, that Oto-nin knelt to the ground and lifted up a massive oblong piece of earth, uprooting a number of trees in the process. Naruto watched with wide eyes, mentally trying to figure out exactly how such a feat was even possible.

Then the huge stretch of earth was thrown at them. "Trade!" he yelped, leaping away.

There was a discharge of lightning that bypassed Naruto and struck the earth jutsu, blowing a hole in the center of the dirt and causing it to explode into large – but more easily avoidable – chunks. Much of the surrounding foliage toppled over as a result. The blond glanced backwards to find Harō staring down the Doton-user. "It looks like I'll have the advantage in this fight," the Rain rebel informed him. "I hope you can handle two of them."

"Sounds fair," Naruto replied with a grin, sufficiently over his momentary panic. After being saved by Kakuzu in his prior two-on-one (two-and-a-half, technically) fight, the Jinchūriki was eager to take on the same challenge with a more positive outlook. And if he didn't have to fight the fat boy – Jirōbō, judging by the bickering between him and the redhead (Tayuya, apparently) – the more power to him. Naruto wasn't stupid enough to believe that he had the advantage in that fight after witnessing the uplifting of the land, what with his chakra affinities being unsuited for the battle and his physical strength nowhere near the Oto-nin's. Harō at least had the benefit of being elementally superior to Jirōbō.

A quick peek to the left showed that Fū was squaring off against the pale-skinned boy with the weird protrusion, leaving him with the multi-armed boy and Tayuya. "Let's see what you two got," he commented with a grin.

"Fucking piece of trash," shot Tayuya. "Kidōmaru, if you can't take care of him while I prepare my melody, you're even more useless than the fatass over there."

"Heh, no worries. It'll be game over for him while you're busy fooling around," smirked the multi-armed boy. "Let's play a little game, blondie." Then his cheeks bulged. "Kumo Shibari!"

Naruto pointed at the large web as it was emitted from the Oto-nin's mouth. "Ew," he whined, "that's just disgusting." He used the Kawarimi to escape out of the netting's range by switching with a nearby rock from the fat Oto-nin's first assault.

"Oh, a mobile opponent, eh?" mused Kidōmaru. "I guess we'll up the difficulty level a bit. Kumo Sōka!" This time, instead of a wide net of spider silk, the multi-armed boy spat out conical-shaped webs at a rapid rate, forcing Naruto to dance around to avoid them. He was doing fairly well until the projectiles seemed to multiply in midair. With one of them heading straight for his chest – and unable to effectively dodge thanks to the surplus surrounding him – he withdrew his wakizashi, applied wind chakra, and sliced downward.

It passed right through, causing the image of the webbing to fade away. Genjutsu! He quickly brought his hands up – dropping the blade tip-first into the ground so as to not stab himself – and focused on stopping his chakra. "Kai!" Half of the spider webs disappeared. "Hah! I broke through one by myself!" His victory was short-lived when one web wrapped itself around his left leg, another plastering his clasped hands to his chest. "Son of a— I hate genjutsu!"

"Ha, looks like you're not even a main character," taunted Kidōmaru. He reached into his mouth and pulled out six strings of golden spit, which he proceeded to bite off. They formed into spikes of hardened material, one end curved into a wicked tip. Kidōmaru grinned wickedly. "Game over."

"Not yet," Naruto muttered through clenched teeth. With no other recourse forthcoming, Naruto was forced to put his faith in his kinjutsu. Help me, he willed of the threads, I can't do this by myself.

'Finally', the kinjutsu seemed to agree. As the first golden spike neared him, Jiongu's threads popped out of the markings on his wrists, forming a net pattern in front of his body which caught the projectile. Naruto heaved a sigh of relief, which caught in his throat as the next five barbed spikes impacted the thread barrier. It was nice to know that the forms of Jiongu he used could be called upon without the specified seal, but it required relinquishing his control over the threads and leaving them to their own devices. That was another item he would have to add to his growing list of things to work on in the future…right now, he had bigger issues.

Struggling against the bonds of the webbing, the blond channeled his chakra along the threads, directing it to cut through the binding silk. He was a bit surprised at the effort it took to sever the spit-turned-spider-webs. Normally, his wind affinity was enough to cleanly divide any material it came into contact with. The resistance could only be caused by chakra in the silk, making it strong enough to put up a fight against the sharpest of the five elements. Note to self, he thought as the webbing finally gave way, avoid getting caught again.

"Fucking useless spider-shit, can't you do anything right?" leered Tayuya.

"I don't see you doin' much," retorted Kidōmaru.

Now! Naruto ran forward, picked up the wakizashi he'd dropped when his hands had been bound, and leaped into the trees. With a burst of speed and a short Shunshin, Naruto found himself right next to the spider-like boy. One application of wind chakra to the blade of his weapon and a slicing motion later found the Oto-nin's head separated from the rest of his body.

Or at least, that's how Naruto had pictured it going. What he hadn't expected was for the top six inches of his blade to break off from the rest and soar in a tall arc above his head. Stunned, he only caught the words 'Nenkin no Yoroi' and 'impenetrable' before two fists sent him flying through the air. Instinct told him to move, so he twisted, activating a Fūton: Reppūshō directed upward to shoot him towards the ground.

A long skewer of golden metal – the same as the spikes – passed through the area he had just blown himself from.

Jiongu lashed out, wrapping around the gold material and allowing Naruto to swing to a low-hanging tree bough. "Okay, this is clearly not going as smoothly as I thought," he admitted, looking despondently at the hilt of his blade. He would need to get a new weapon at some point now, something he was sure Kakuzu would look at as a waste of money. "I just can't catch a break." Through his bond with the threads, he felt them offer the equivalent of agreement. Though he could feel they wanted to truly let loose and wreak havoc, they stilled, waiting for his command. He silently placated them for what felt like the umpteenth time that day, knowing that he would probably need the kinjutsu's assistance to beat the two Sound shinobi.

Naruto glanced up in time to see the smoke surrounding his opponents dispersing. When did that happen? Blue eyes widened in shock as they took in the new arrivals. All three were at least 30 feet tall and barefoot, with the same fashion-senseless purple bow tied in varying methods around their waists. One of them was bandaged from head to waist, armless, with its head seemingly inverted on its body and full of long, needle-like injections; it wore calf-length brown pants and its mouth was sewn shut. The second one wore a dark bodysuit with brown, leather-like material protecting its ankles, wrists, and groin; its face was completely covered by long grayish-brown hair and a giant, partially-bandaged metal club was slung lazily over one shoulder. The last one was a shirtless, hulking figure with a blindfold tied around its eyes and a stitched mouth like the first one. Bandages were wrapped around protective spiked gauntlets on its wrists, one spike protruding along its arms and reaching its shoulders, two others curving over its hands. It was clothed in black pants and a brown skirt-like piece set over shin-guards; the most disturbing part was the vein-like scars covering its bald head, a long, thin goatee and even longer sideburns accenting its oddity. "My Doki will be the last thing you ever see, you filthy piece of trash," crowed Tayuya. She lifted the flute – Where the hell did that come from? – to her lips. "The third verse, the Rampage of the Forsaken!"

"I really can't catch a fucking break," Naruto moaned. He threw the broken remnant of his wakizashi at Tayuya, but the one Doki's club came up and blocked it. Music made its way to his ears, and then the three creatures moved. The blond dropped to the forest floor as the armless one headbutted through the branch he just vacated before performing a back-flip to avoid the spikes of the bald Doki's gauntlet. He was underground in the next instant via Moguragakure no Jutsu, barely evading the club of the third creature. Well, this could be better. Time to change my strategy.

Naruto popped up from the ground several dozen feet away from his previous position, already flashing through seals. Focused on his task, he took a golden, kunai-shaped weapon to the shoulder. Grimacing, more from surprise than pain, he vaguely registered Jiongu pulling out the weapon before swiping his thumb across the wound and slamming his palm onto the ground. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

Beside him appeared a five-foot (eight, including the tail) bright red chameleon, its bumpy skin mottled with yellow spots. His name was Kamegōka, and unlike the majority of his clan, he lacked the rather useful ability to camouflage and transform himself. But Naruto was okay with that, since the red chameleon had a far more interesting trait which the blond had discovered years ago upon acquainting himself with his summons.

Kamegōka could breathe fire.

And Naruto was naturally wind-natured.

Game on, bitches. The chameleon exhaled a stream of fire at his surroundings while the blond performed more seals. "Fūton: Tsuyoi Kaze Hadō!" A wide blade of chakra-tinted wind slammed into the other elemental attack.

Everything exploded in flames.

Naruto grinned as he wiped more blood from the wound on his shoulder and used another Summoning Technique. The collaboration with his Wind Release: Powerful Wind Wave, while powerful and exhilarating to behold, was merely a decoy to hide his actions from view…which it was successfully doing, if the wide swath of flames was any indication.

Another chameleon appeared, this one smaller than Kamegōka, its length closer to Naruto's height than anything else. The Jinchūriki whispered to it (awkward, considering chameleons had no ears…how did his summons hear him anyway?), and the reptile immediately became invisible.

The iron club of Tayuya's summon smashed through the wall of fire in front of Naruto. "Better back up to the trees for now, 'Gōka," he advised. The chameleon didn't argue, moving onto a nearby trunk and ascending into the higher branches as fast as he could.

Naruto took a second to glance at his surroundings. Most of the surrounding foliage was burning, smoldering, or charred, leaving him on the edge of a half-dead clearing. Kidōmaru had moved further away to escape the collaboration assault, though Tayuya was unmoved, flute still at her lips.

He was glad to see that practicing his timing with Kamegōka had paid off. While he appreciated the simplicity and variability of both the Reppūshō and Daitoppa – staples for Wind Release manipulation in his book – the Tsuyoi Kaze Hadō was in another class entirely, using a broad sweep of sharp wind chakra that the other two techniques didn't utilize. Now that his team wasn't trying to remain inconspicuous, he could let loose with some of his more…destructive maneuvers. Even the kinjutsu within his body was itching to unleash its full potential. "Bring it on, you pansies!"

"Heheh, so the challenger wants a stronger opponent, eh?" Kidōmaru mocked. His middle two arms formed a small web between them as the Oto-nin bit his thumb and went through the same hand signs Naruto had just performed twice. "First to kill him wins the grand prize, Tayuya! Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

The smoke cleared to reveal the multi-armed boy sitting atop a giant spider. "I'm not interested in your games, spider-shit," spat Tayuya. "Let's just take out this fucking kid." Dark markings crawled along their skin and their chakra spiked.

Then they began to metamorphose before Naruto's very eyes.

There were times when Fū wished Doton was more of an offensive element.


"Doton: Doryūheki!"

Not that it wasn't keeping her alive against Sakon, as several fast punches plowed through the hastily erected wall and sent her skidding backwards a number of feet. Really, she appreciated how subtle earth manipulation was, what with its ability to both augment offense (Kakuzu's use of the Earth Spear technique was enough evidence of that) and create a solid defense. And of course she knew that Earth Release had its own form of truly offensive attacks – hard-hitting ones too, what with boulders and rocks being the primary usable items in head-on assaults – but still, was it too much to ask for an element with the reputation of Raiton or Fūton?

Granted, she did have some Wind Release affinity, but her talent with it arose from the Nanabi's presence and was only a little better than Naruto's current aptitude for Earth Release ninjutsu. She supposed that her biggest offensive arsenal came from her mastery of Jinton, but that was based off of water's flowing form, which, aside from Doton, was the least 'offensive' element (Kakuzu's skill with the liquid be damned…water still held no candle to fire, wind, or lightning with respect to raw, destructive power).

Needless to say, she was a bit frustrated with her current predicament. It was one thing to go against Genin in a one-on-one fashion with mastery over an element (which was more than most of them could say); it was another to fight someone of unknown rank with skills more practical for a supporting role than a front-line fighter.

She would have to work on that. Fighting independently was something she would have to get used to. Something her opponent – correction, opponents, plural – firmly did not believe in.

If nothing else, Sakon liked to talk. Apparently, the weird protrusion at the base of his neck was the head of his brother, who lived inside him per their kekkei genkai. Fū wasn't entirely sure she'd be comfortable with such an arrangement, but it seemed to work for them. Their Bloodline Limit allowed the merged brother to send out his body parts from anywhere on the other sibling's body, providing multiple punches and kicks where only one could be used from a regular opponent.

On top of that, it created few openings for Fū to take advantage of in a taijutsu battle. Even when there were opportunities, Fū's fighting style was completely negated by the Oto-nin. And then there was Sakon's speed, which clearly outclassed her own.

It left her on the wrong end of a fight that was far too much close combat for her liking. What she needed was some sort of massive turning point.

Sakon was charging her again. Fū's mind went blank, but her hands moved. "Doton: Yomi Numa!" The ground in front of her turned into mud, which the Oto-nin ran straight into. Curses flew from his mouth as he tried to trudge through the Swamp of the Underworld.

Then again, maybe Doton wasn't so bad after all…

"Damn it, Sakon, I've warned you about playing around." The green-haired girl froze as a pair of shoulders, then arms, then a back emerged from Sakon, all attached to the second head.

"Sorry, Ukon, you know how I like to play with my food."

"It's okay, brother. I could probably use the exercise anyway." Ukon – identical in almost every way to Sakon, barring the part of his bangs and the lack of a necklace – smirked wickedly at Fū. Using the stuck sibling as a springboard, Ukon jumped over the Swamp of the Underworld and landed in front of Fū. "Boo." The Jinchūriki brought up her arms to block as the Oto-nin connected with a punch.

"Nngh." On the one hand, Fū was grateful that it hadn't been the three or four hits Sakon had been capable of while Ukon was still merged with him, but on the other hand, once the former was free from the swamp, it would be two on one. She focused on gathering dust particles in the air as Ukon practically danced her backwards. Once she felt enough was surrounding them, Fū ducked a high kick and then placed her hands together, calling out, "Jinton: Hai no Chissoku!"

Ukon clutched his throat and began to flail about as a cloud of dust swarmed his head, laboring his breathing. Fū Body Flickered away from him, sliding the red cylinder from her back and emptying it of umbrellas. Dust Release: Suffocating Ash was not exactly an offensive technique (and in fact could be considered more of a genjutsu with how exaggerated the effects were in comparison to what it actually did), but its main purpose was to stall.

She mounted the cylinder on her shoulder, open end facing her opponent. Despite her lack of ability with Wind Release, she had perfected one somewhat powerful technique. It required a short time to fully prepare, and the distraction afforded by the Suffocating Ash was definitely a favorable element. Chakra tinged a pale orange built up in the empty space of the cylinder. She closed one eye to take better aim. "Take this! Fūton: Taihō ni Uta!" A ball of wind chakra was blown out of the cylinder, targeted on a straight path for Ukon.

Unlike Naruto, who preferred to use his skill with wind to make it sharp and slicing, Fū preferred the blunt, pummeling force of 'solid' air, like the Great Breakthrough technique (when she used the element). It matched the style of Earth Release much better, which was her comfort zone. Wind Release: Cannon Shot essentially took all the blunt power of a Great Breakthrough and condensed it into a single orb. It didn't come close to covering the same area as the other ninjutsu (which was why the distraction was necessary, to actually hit the target), but it packed a much harder punch when it hit.

Fū wasn't entirely sure what effect it would have on a human, since Harō had dodged all of her attacks while she had been practicing it, but it had punched through at least four trees before she had lost sight of it, which Fū chose to take as a good sign.

As it was, the ball of wind chakra drove into Ukon's stomach with all the force of a sledgehammer, carrying him over the swamp his brother was trapped in. The Nanabi Jinchūriki withheld a cry of success as Sakon shouted for his sibling.

Fū's victory was cut short as Ukon stood unsteadily, a trickle of blood leaking from his mouth. Either Sakon and Ukon had thick skin, or humans were a bit more resistant to the blunt effects of wind chakra than trees were. Whichever the answer was, Fū was not happy to see Ukon still alive. "Clever bitch," snarled the Oto-nin, "but now you're gonna die! Sakon, go to Level 2!"

The former Taki-nin could only stare in growing trepidation as the brothers' chakra multiplied, their skin overcome by evil, orange-yellow markings. Something tells me this wasn't the turning point I was looking for…

Harō did not like straightforward combat. He was trained more for reconnaissance and long-range assassinations, and while he could strike – and kill – with pressure points, it wasn't his preferred method of fighting. Case in point, his fight against Jirōbō was not going as well as he would've liked.

His pressure point taijutsu style was proving to be ineffective against the Oto-nin. Part of it was probably the boy's bulk, which gave him an advantage against the pinpoint strikes of Harō's fingers, but the cobalt-haired boy thought it was more than that. After all, the first strike he had landed had worked as it should have. But following that, the next several strikes had proven ineffective, and Harō had taken a powerful knee to the gut for his trouble.

The Oto-nin's sudden resistance to Harō's taijutsu had only one real explanation: he was negating the blows. Kyūsho-jutsu could be blocked, for lack of a better word, by flexing the targeted area at the right moment. Judging by Jirōbō's talent with taijutsu – which looked vaguely like Fū's style, if smoother (and perhaps was the only reason Harō was able to avoid it as well as he had thus far) – it wasn't a completely farfetched idea to believe that he could read Harō's attacks. He was actually mildly impressed.

It was bad, of course, but impressive regardless.

About the only thing working for the Ame-nin was his elemental advantage. He was trying to dispense as little chakra as possible with his lightning techniques, but Jirōbō was making that rather difficult with his arsenal of large (and thus unavoidable) earth techniques. Harō had already resorted to eating one of his soldier pills, having been forced to blow through some sort of chakra-draining earthen dome.

The plus side, he guessed, was that since they were both having little luck with taijutsu, Jirōbō was burning through his chakra with ninjutsu as quickly as Harō was. Except that Harō still had two soldier pills to supplement his reserves, while the Oto-nin did not (he hoped). That just left formulating a strategy to actually kill his opponent.

He blasted through another large boulder with a Raikyū. In front of him was a flat wall of earth, so the boy channeled chakra into his swords, firing a beam of lightning straight through it and hopefully through his opponent. When the wall collapsed, Harō saw only a large hole in the ground. Grey eyes widened in surprise, and he whirled around—

"Hōshō!" Jirōbō grunted, thrusting his palm forward into Harō's stomach.

The cobalt-haired boy gagged at the impact and was sent soaring backwards. His back hit a tree and he coughed blood. Wincing, Harō pulled himself upright with help from his swords, firing a burst of lightning at the slowly-approaching Jirōbō, which was avoided. He swallowed the second of his three soldier pills, relaxing slightly as his chakra was replenished. Now, I need a plan…

"I'm getting hungry," Jirōbō muttered, "and this is taking far too long. If I don't finish you now, there'll be nothing left to snack on. Prepare to die, trash."

Harō watched in dread as markings overtook Jirōbō's form and the Sound shinobi's chakra flared with evil intent.

Deidara wheeled on his clay owl, narrowly avoiding another Fūton: Mugen Sajin Daitoppa expelled from the Jinchūriki's mouth. He threw out a series of clay spiders before making a one-handed Ram seal – his method of controlling the detonating clay that was his main jutsu repertoire. "Katsu!" A chain reaction of explosions went off, obscuring his view of the boy-turned-demon and allowing him to survey his grounded partner.

While he and Sasori certainly couldn't consider each other 'friends' (and in all honesty, when you were an S-class missing-nin renowned as a terrorist bomber for hire, friends really didn't exist), Deidara was grateful that he had been assigned as the puppeteer's partner. His service with Akatsuki wasn't exactly voluntary – his defeat at the hands of Itachi still stung something fierce – but if he was stuck with the criminal organization, at least the man he was forced to deal with on a daily basis was also an artist.

Albeit, an artist whose views were completely wrong, but an artist nonetheless.

Deidara had arrived to find a partially-transformed Jinchūriki destroying the forested surroundings in a blind rage, courtesy of his initial bombs. The only orders the 16-year-old terrorist had been given by Leader was to capture the Jinchūriki alive. Initially, the blond had thought that a bit problematic, considering how…destructive…his abilities were.

However, after a fair amount of time battling the Ichibi's sand-based jutsu, Deidara could see that killing the boy accidentally would not be as problematic as he had believed. Of course, that was assuming that the other two children – one using a puppet, the other wielding a giant fan – would stop interfering in his damn mission!

Since he had started assaulting the Jinchūriki, the two children (though the blonde girl with the fan looked to be about his age) had been prematurely detonating his works of art before they could reach the intended target. Some of his masterpieces-to-be had still gotten through as he had increased the quantity sent out, which had helped to feel out the Ichibi's abilities, but for the most part they had done nothing but irritate the Jinchūriki.

The annoyance had, unfortunately, done something, since the Jinchūriki had quickly become encased in even more sand. His entire body was now coated in the coarse tan material, a wicked tail protruding from the base of his spine. An insane, demonic grin overtook his visage, making him look more bestial than human.

But with Sasori's arrival mere moments ago, the other two kids' attentions had been drawn to the grounded puppeteer, leaving Deidara free to complete his task. As it was, his C1 clay was looking to be only minimally effective against the One-Tail's defenses, and the blond was thinking of upping the potency of his next attack to his C2 Dragon.

Sasori, for his own part, was thoroughly bored. He had followed his younger partner's trail only to come across two would-be ninja interfering with the teen's mission. Deidara, he knew, would inevitably keep him waiting through a prolonged battle with the Ichibi's host, and Sasori hated waiting. So if he could both kill time and eliminate the pests meddling in Deidara's affairs, he would do so. Sasori was nothing if not a pragmatist.

His Akatsuki cloak was ruffled by slicing winds from the fan-wielder, numerous rips appearing in the material. If his body was actual flesh and blood – if he hadn't turned himself into a human puppet, as well as had a preferential tendency to travel within Hiruko – that attack probably would've done some damage. As it was, he wasn't even fazed.

Uncoiling from beneath his cloak, his tail – composed of chains of iron, tipped with a deadly point and coated in poison – lashed forward with untraceable speed. The girl blocked the appendage with her fan, and Sasori was mildly surprised the giant weapon didn't tear. A hail of senbon came at him from the opposite direction, and he swerved his tail around to block them (rather needlessly). Hiruko's beady, bloodshot eyes darted to the side to spy the source of the needles: a four-armed wooden puppet.

Another sweeping wave of wind drew his attention away from the puppet and back to the blonde girl. "You're annoying," he growled, "and I'm wasting time on you." The tail lashed out again, but he used its mobility to dodge around the fan and slice cleanly along the girl's leg. She hissed in pain, tried to attack, but then grabbed her leg.

"What did you do to her?" shouted the boy.

Sasori turned to face him. Poisons were a specialty of his, aside from human puppetry, and he always enjoyed seeing the results of a new mix. This one was meant to be swift, starting with a burning sensation around the point of contact before spreading throughout the body and eventually constricting the heart. It would only be a matter of minutes. "The same thing I'll do to you," he answered.

His opponent apparently didn't like that response, for he sent the puppet flying towards Sasori. Again the tail rose to action, this time stabbing straight through the puppet's chest and splintering the entire construct. The boy fighting him looked stunned, then pained as the tail jabbed into his stomach. "H-how did you…?" he gasped.

"A puppet is only as strong as its weakest joint," Sasori informed him gruffly, "and unfortunately for you, I am well-acquainted with every facet of Karasu's construction, being its inventor."

"Y-you're…Akasuna…no Sasori?"

"Yes, and while it is flattering that a mere child like you knows of my reputation and uses my tools, I tire of this exchange." It was habit that Sasori didn't say goodbye to his victims, instead simply dismissing them. Normally, if the bodies weren't required for bounties per Akatsuki's needs or didn't possess interesting bloodlines for human puppetry uses, the Scorpion of the Red Sand would just leave them behind to die from poison. This time, he felt he owed it to the boy who used his legacy to watch him die. It only took a minute or two for the boy's eyes to glaze over, and then Sasori turned his attention back to his junior.

Deidara was atop the head of a giant dragon, which was firing miniatures at the forested area where Sasori could only assume the Ichibi Jinchūriki was. Sasori decided to shuffle out of the way of the impending blast range of his partner, which the puppeteer was sure would increase as the blond's frustration grew. "Don't screw this up, Deidara," he muttered.

The former Iwa-nin zoomed in on his target with his scope, trying to see if the increased power of his C2 was weakening the sand covering the Jinchūriki. He managed to catch the demonic boy forming the sign of the Ram, then the guttural crow of, "Tanuki Neiri no Jutsu," before he slumped forward. Sand immediately exploded forth from his body in massive amounts and began to coalesce into a more solid form.

Deidara's visible grey-blue eye widened minutely. "This could be trouble, hm," he murmured, wondering just what he had gotten himself into.

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