The Cost of Living


Sasori – encapsulated in the puppet body known as Hiruko – stared at the massive thing before him and momentarily lamented specializing in Kugutsu no Jutsu. Puppets could vary in sizes, but few were bigger than a human, and given that Sasori's collection was comprised entirely of human puppets, their sizes were already spoken for.

If his laughter was any indication, Deidara apparently found the situation hilarious. "Hey, Sasori no Danna," he called from atop a clay owl hovering high above the former Suna-nin, "better hurry up and capture the Sanbi! I know that you don't like to make people wait, hm!"

Sasori scowled at his partner's mocking. He had expected to fight a Jinchūriki, not the monstrous turtle-like creature before him. Jinchūriki were humans, after all, and that made them susceptible to things like poison and kunai and other booby traps that inhabited his puppets. When he and his partner had ventured into the Land of the Sea two years ago, they had discovered that the sea monster torturing the townsfolk had been some girl who had escaped the clutches of one of Orochimaru's lackeys.

She had, disappointingly, not been the container to the Three-Tailed Giant Turtle, but she had at least been physiologically human. Despite the fact that Orochimaru was gone – and so throwing a monkey wrench into the Sannin's plans no longer held the same sense of vindication – Sasori had taken great delight in killing the girl with his puppets, especially since the trip had been a huge waste of time.

The former Suna-nin sighed. There was little option available but to rely upon his partner for assistance; Deidara's explosions were far better-suited to toppling large targets than his precision-oriented puppets. "This would go faster if you would help," he intoned blandly. It was as close as the puppeteer would get to asking for help without letting his pride suffer by being so blatant about it.

"Hm?" The former Iwa-nin cocked his head to one side at his senior's statement. Then he laughed. "Ha! This is the ultimate proof that my art is better than yours, Danna!" he crowed.

As Deidara wheeled forward on his owl, hands chewing on clay – and making it out of earshot before the older artist could growl a comeback – Sasori ejected himself from Hiruko and sealed the construct within a scroll. He pulled out another scroll, unraveled it, and unsealed its contents, revealing the form of the Sandaime Kazekage. Black granules immediately began to spew out of the puppet's mouth. "Let us begin."


"Satetsu Kesshū."

The Sanbi roared.

Deep in the mountains of the Land of Earth, another Akatsuki member struggled with his own battle. The terrain possessed impressive divots and crags shorn from its surface, trenches dug into the rocky face by streams of water and lava. Hoshigaki Kisame's cheeks puffed out as a torrent of molten lava came flowing towards him. "Suiton: Dai Bakusui Shōha."

Water spewed forth from the former Kiri-nin's mouth, solidifying the lava and swirling into a huge dome of liquid. The renegade swordsman merged with Samehada and entered the hemisphere with a chuckle, his shark-like appearance exemplified even further. "You won't be able to escape my Suirō Sameodori no Jutsu."

Five minutes later, the entire construct collapsed with a huge splash, water falling everywhere. Kisame stretched as Samehada unmerged with him. "Well, that was certainly challenging. Khe he, though I suppose it's my fault for wanting to capture this Jinchūriki by myself." He slung the unconscious form of the Iwa-nin over his sword's tip and began walking, allowing the blade's chakra-absorbing properties to keep his victim unconscious. "Time to find Itachi. Hope he didn't get too bored waiting for me."

Naruto dove behind a tree and pulled his legs to his chest, breath coming in rough bursts of air. No matter how many times it happened, the blond was always surprised at the extremes his so-called sparring partners went to in order to train him.


Fortunately, Hidan had never really grasped the concept of subtlety, something Naruto knew frustrated Kakuzu to no end. The Jinchūriki dropped flat to his belly as the Jashinist's large scythe tore clean through the base of the tree. "Timber!" cackled the silver-haired man as the greenery toppled to the side.

Naruto rolled onto his back to find Hidan standing over him, weapon raised to slash across the blond's body. "Katon: Gōkakyū no Jutsu!" He exhaled the Great Fireball at the former Yu-nin's face, temporarily blinding his opponent and giving the teen a chance to get up and move away. "Suck it!" he taunted.

Hidan charged at him, eyes bloodshot and face streaked with scorch marks. "Bring it, fucker! We can relish in the pain together!" Naruto ducked the sideways slash of the weapon and attempted to sweep Hidan's legs out from under him. Predictably, the former Yu-nin jumped, and the blond immediately ran through seals for a wind jutsu. The strength behind the technique blasted Hidan out of the clearing, but Naruto watched the Akatsuki member throw his scythe into the canopy of a cluster of trees, allowing the coil of metal attached to the end to wrap around a bough; he hung there like an oversized fruit.

Naruto sighed in relief, grateful for the momentary reprieve. Hidan wasn't exactly the most difficult shinobi to fend off – especially taking into account his predictability, preference for close-range combat, and easily-exploitable personality – but his sheer resilience made him a rather tiresome threat. Attacks that would normally down other opponents from either pain or fatal blows affected the Jashinist but didn't stop him. In fact, Hidan often grew more dangerous upon suffering such inflictions.

He was dragged from his thoughts as Fū went flying – literally, two wings sprouted from her back – past his vision. She turned to look behind her, released a short shriek, then took off even faster as a mass of black zipped through the air in her wake, firing condensed balls of air. A foreboding feeling of unease settled in the pit of Naruto's stomach. That…can't be good…

"Hello, brat."

Naruto whirled at the voice, hands already flying through seals. "Doton: Doryūheki!"

"Raiton: Gian."

"Son of a—!" Lightning burst through his hastily-erected earthen wall, forcing the blond to shield his face as shards of hardened dirt exploded towards him.

Kakuzu grunted disapprovingly. "You chose the wrong counter."

Naruto glowered at his teacher. "Earth was the best bet. The only thing it wouldn't stop was lightning."

"True. Yet because I knew what you were going to do, I attacked appropriately. Predictability kills."

The blond didn't respond, instead spreading his awareness to his surroundings. "Couldn't you have kept him busy!?" he shouted as Fū flew back into his line of sight.

"Tried that!" she returned, twisting in midair with her hands held at her sternum. A small pyramid was forming in her hands, the square base facing her with the tip pointing towards the thread-creature zooming in on her position. She released the shape, but the mass that was Kakuzu's wind heart zipped around the assault, forcing Fū to release her wings and drop to the ground to avoid it barreling into her. "Didn't work out too well."

"Clearly." He stared at Kakuzu, who returned the gaze evenly, arms held behind his back. Why hasn't he done anything yet? And why are his arms…shit! He jumped aside to avoid his teacher's hand as it burst forth from the ground, threads pulsing with one of the man's hearts.

Despite the belated awareness of what Kakuzu was doing, Naruto managed to completely evade the black tendrils of Jiongu. He had an instant to be proud of this accomplishment before the man's fingers clasped around Fū's ankle. The realization that he hadn't even been the thread-user's main target was further proven when the nukenin stated, "You should enjoy Hidan's company," and flung her away. Fū managed to right herself in midair by sprouting the Nanabi's wings again, but Hidan came plunging out of the sky with a mad cackle, scythe's tips angled to impale her. The green-haired girl dodged, but she was blown away by a blast of air from Kakuzu's returning thread-creature. Naruto almost called out to his companion, but then decided he had more pressing issues to deal with and turned to face his teacher. "A wise decision," commented the mercenary. "Now come."

That was a familiar statement. Naruto had honestly lost track of how many times Kakuzu had uttered those words – the taunting beckon, not the half-praise regarding his decision – over the past two years. And what a time it had been.

Two years ago, Naruto honestly would never have expected any sort of assistance from his wayward teacher; they had, for all intents and purposes, gone different ways following Hidan's recruitment to Akatsuki. Kakuzu was Naruto's past, and while he would always have a role in the younger male's life, the black and white of it was that the two were on different sides of the fence (ignoring the fact that Naruto was working for Akatsuki, of course). Even disregarding that, Kakuzu's rather indirect teaching methodology and his words about Naruto learning to control Jiongu on his own had pretty much guaranteed that Naruto would be forced to teach himself to get stronger.

Yet here they were, traversing the area far west of the Lands of Earth and Wind, currently in the Land of Demons, with Kakuzu (and a rather reluctant Hidan) training him to be as strong as he could be.

Naruto wasn't sure what brought about the sudden about-face in Kakuzu's attitude towards his training, and the one time he'd mentioned it – not long after their departure from the Hidden Sound – the older man had remained tight-lipped. Knowing his mentor's personality, Naruto hadn't asked again; if the former Taki-nin didn't want to reveal anything, there was nothing the blond could do to make him spill. So he had taken everything in stride, trusting in the fact that Kakuzu wouldn't steer them wrong.

It was apt to say that Kakuzu definitely knew what he was doing. Unfortunately, the man's hands-on approach to training was brutal. There was time to rest and eat, because the necessities kept all shinobi aware and in peak condition, but most of the other remaining time was spent practicing.

The things that the two Jinchūriki learned, though…Naruto almost couldn't believe how much information Kakuzu had at his disposal.

Fū's reservoir of Doton techniques had increased to include every earth-related jutsu Kakuzu had learned in his 92 years of life. While her aptitude for pure wind manipulation had remained a bit lackluster, her collection of personal Dust Release techniques had expanded to compensate. Even more impressive was the self-taught manner in which she had learned the true version of Jinton, and had proceeded to begin integrating the atomizing power of the Nanabi into her dust jutsu. It was a taxing effort, given the amount of shape manipulation required for the actual Jinton, and removing that aspect while keeping the same overall effect and incorporating it into her modified dust techniques was apparently beyond difficult.

Beyond that, Kakuzu had pushed her into drawing on the Bijū's chakra, little by little, until she could utilize the Nanabi's chakra cloak up to five tails – without asking for the beetle's assistance – or materialize two solid tails as wings to fly. According to Fū, the Seven-Tails had been surprisingly helpful during the training, answering any questions she had about his chakra and what her limits were.

Naruto wished the Kyūbi was as amicable, but he had undergone his own intense training regimen even without the Bijū's assistance.

Kakuzu had rescinded his idea to let Naruto learn the intricacies of Jiongu on his own, instead tutoring the boy in how to bring out the kinjutsu's full strength. His body had paid the price for such power, obtaining long sutures across his chest, back, and at intervals along his arms, but the benefits far outweighed the costs. Naruto could now access the long-armed form that Kakuzu admitted to defaulting to after losing two hearts, as well as the long-range form his mentor had died in, albeit on a smaller scale. On top of that, Kakuzu had told him how to extrude his hearts into masked creatures capable of autonomous destruction.

That, Naruto thought, was perhaps the best part, especially since he'd finally claimed all five affinities at Kakuzu's behest. He'd grasped Raiton relatively easily, finding the element as easy to call upon as his Suiton ninjutsu – which was strange, he considered, given his body's natural inclination towards Fūton – but learning Katon had been as big a struggle as Doton. Despite the difficulties, he'd become well-rounded in each of the nature manipulations with Kakuzu's guidance, and his kinjutsu's autonomy meant that he could, say, call upon his fire heart to attack for him without worrying about collecting the chakra in his chest perfectly for exhalation into actual fire attacks.

The bounty hunter had even given him some taijutsu lessons to complement the unique body structure granted to him by Jiongu, but had made sure to emphasize that with his chakra capacity, ninjutsu was his ace-in-the-hole to a fight (Naruto's interpretation, not Kakuzu's exact words).

Of course, all of that had been the comparatively easy part. The true challenge had been using the new skills in practice.

And Kakuzu was apparently under the belief that dangerous situations bred more impulse and creativity, as Naruto and Fū were forced to repeatedly spar against him and Hidan.

Naruto wasn't exactly sure where his and Fū's skill levels were with respect to the worldwide listing of shinobi classes, but he did know that Kakuzu and Hidan fully deserved their labels of S-class. Hidan, rather surprisingly, had more moves than just swinging his scythe around in seemingly-aimless patterns and screaming like a banshee, though using them didn't give him as much pleasure as the close combat method of fighting did.

As for Kakuzu…well, his teacher was, quite simply, a beast.

The revelation wasn't exactly a new one. Certainly, Naruto had been aware of Kakuzu's skills for years, the knowledge of what the mercenary was capable of always in the back of his mind. But knowing of it and living it every day for two years was a huge difference. Fighting with his teacher day in and day out, the blond wasn't even sure how he had been killed by the Konoha ANBU, outnumbered or not; the man was just that ridiculously powerful.

And he liked to prove it. Both thread-users ran through seals, masks popping up on their shoulders with elemental techniques prepared. "Katon: Zukkoku."

"Suiton: Suijinheki."

Kakuzu hummed thoughtfully as the attacks clashed and cancelled each other out. "Your intuitiveness has improved."

"That almost sounded like a compliment," Naruto jested. "Did I earn the right to learn it yet?"

Kakuzu's deadpan stare was his only response. The blond gave an internal sigh of resigned acceptance.

There were only two things Kakuzu had absolutely refused to teach him. One was the secret to creating and manipulating hardened water, which Naruto was okay with not learning given his original affinity for attacking with air.

The other was the collection of 'ultimate techniques' the former Taki-nin had created for each of the elemental chakra natures: Raiton: Gian, Katon: Zukkoku, Fūton: Atsugai, and some water one that Naruto had never seen, but had been assured was equally as powerful. Doton: Domu, apparently, was a technique that had been recreated from an existing earth jutsu, and not something that Kakuzu kept closely guarded.

When the blond had originally asked about learning Wind Release: Pressure Damage – wind was still his go-to element of choice – Kakuzu had merely replied in the negative and stated that he would have to come up with his own ultimate techniques. He had been disappointed, but then excited at the prospect.

Inspiration so far had been slim, but Naruto retained hope for the future.

"I admit that you have come a fair way," Kakuzu intoned, "but considering where you started, such a feat is not as impressive as it sounds."

Naruto stopped the scowl from spreading over his features. As Kakuzu had dedicated his time to teaching him, and as Naruto had grown both physically and mentally, the blond had learned to choose his battles with the taller man with greater care. They still bantered back and forth, trading flat insults and deadpan ripostes – the verbal sparring was practically a given with their relationship – but much of the anger and antagonism Naruto had heard in their past exchanges had dissipated. Kakuzu's put-downs, he noticed, carried far less venom than he had thought when he was younger. "Ah, so you admit I've made improvements," quipped the teenager.

He could practically imagine Kakuzu rolling his eyes in muted aggravation. "If you consider yourself so improved," Kakuzu stated, "then perhaps you should show me your skill with Jiongu."

The blond couldn't repress the shudder that ran down his spine of its own accord. Every time he had tried utilizing the kinjutsu's power against his teacher – whether by summoning the thread-creatures or by using one of its forms – Kakuzu had proceeded to beat him down even more viciously than usual, normally by using his control over the threads to do so. Naruto thought that it was perhaps the former Taki-nin's nonverbal method of communicating that even if the blond had a new trick up his sleeve, Kakuzu was still the superior shinobi. "Yeah, I think I'll pass," he commented, forming seals. "Raiton: Jibashi."

Kakuzu watched the incoming wave of electricity with his usual disinterest. Before he could decide how to counter the attack, Pein's voice sounded in his head. [Kakuzu, Hidan, it is time to perform the sealing of the Sanbi and Yonbi. It will take six days total to do both. After the ceremony is over, you will return to your usual assignments.]

"Understood," Kakuzu replied, relishing in Naruto's look of surprise as his wind heart returned from behind him and negated the Lightning Release: Electromagnetic Murder. "Your beatdown will have to wait, brat," he directed towards his pupil. "It seems that Hidan and I have been recalled to our duties."

Naruto schooled his features and nodded, following Kakuzu as the old nukenin went to track down his partner. As they trudged through the greenery of the Land of Demons, Naruto thought back to everything that he owed his mentor. "Hey," he mentioned quietly, watching as the former Taki-nin's shoulders shifted to indicate he was listening, "thanks…for doing all this. I know it's not really your style, but I really appreciate it."

Kakuzu remained silent, not that Naruto had expected anything else. The man had never really been one for gratitude or other emotional platitudes, what he deemed to be 'sentimentality'. So when they reached an open area where Hidan and Fū were dodging one another's attacks, Naruto was surprised to hear Kakuzu start talking. "The world is a dangerous place. Most shinobi do not get to experience the hardships of old age, as they are often cut down either in or shortly past their prime. Jinchūriki are statistically less likely to reach such an age, given the apparent propensity for nations to use them as weapons in war." He paused, considered his words, then continued, "It has been decided that you deserve the opportunity to break from that cycle…and as I am likely one of the oldest active shinobi in existence, if not to have ever existed, it would be remiss of me to not grant you every possible advantage.

"All you can do now…is endure. Endure until the time when you lack the fortitude to continue on." He glanced at the blond boy. "At that point, I would come kill you myself. I would expect you to have quite the bounty on your head." His piece said, Kakuzu turned his green eyes to settle on Hidan. "Hidan, you heard Leader," he addressed the Jashinist. "It is time for us to depart from the children."

"Tch, and just when it was gettin' interesting, too."

As Kakuzu and Hidan began to walk into a more sheltered area of the Land of Demons, the bounty hunter tossed one last tidbit of advice at his disciple. "Naruto…always remain aware of your surroundings." And then the duo was gone.

Fū walked up to him as Naruto mentally interpreted Kakuzu's parting words. 'Akatsuki is on the move again. Be prepared for any eventuality. You are still a target.'

Message received, Kakuzu, he thought. "So," he said, turning to Fū, "where do we go now?" The green-haired girl didn't respond, instead keeping her gaze focused on the ground, a pensive expression decorating her features. Naruto quirked an eyebrow. "Fū?"

She looked up at him, orange eyes filled with resolve. "I think it's time we split up," she announced.

Naruto blinked. "What?"

"We should go our own ways," she reiterated, voice growing more determined. Naruto got the distinct impression that she had given this idea much thought. "Akatsuki's going to eventually come after us. It's better if we're separate so that capturing both of us is more difficult, and they won't be able to find out where the other is if they do get one of us."

Naruto opened his mouth to object, to say that sticking together gave them a better chance for survival, but then closed it when he realized nothing he could say was going to make a difference. Fū clearly wasn't going to back down. "Fine," he agreed, "we split up from here." A sudden idea springing forth, he reached into his pocket and grabbed the scroll used to contain corpses. "Here," he said, tossing the object to his companion.

Fū caught it with a questioning look. "Don't you want this?"

The blond's mouth broke into a wide grin. "Oh, I'm not going to need that for what I'm going to do. You take it and continue to collect money…I have a different goal in mind."


When Fū continued to stare at him unsurely, Naruto raised an eyebrow again. "Something else?"

"I…" she started, taking a measured step forward. The space between them was minimal, and Naruto found his bubble of personal space distinctly encroached upon. "You saved me from a horrible life a long time ago—"

"This isn't exactly the lap of luxury, you know."

"—and I really appreciate that. I don't know what my life would be like if you hadn't come to Taki and rescued me…hell, I might've been killed by Akatsuki by now…and I just…" She broke off, and Naruto opened his mouth to prompt her to continue, but she didn't give him the chance, closing the gap between them and kissing him soundly.

Blue eyes widened in surprise at the unexpected contact. Before he could even really comprehend the situation, Fū disconnected their lips and took a step backwards. Naruto met her orange eyes wordlessly as the female Jinchūriki whispered, "Thank you," and then disappeared in a swirl of dust.

Naruto would admit to being unbelievably confused. His best friend had kissed him not two days ago and then left to go off on her own adventure. For all he knew, he might never see Fū again.

Given that he had never before encountered such a convoluted situation, his perturbation was rather unsurprising, even understandable.

Now he at least had an explanation for some of the stranger expressions and actions that Fū had often graced him with. Not that he knew what to do with this new information…

He was 16 now, and far more aware of the opposite gender than he had been two years ago. Given, that wasn't saying much since his lifestyle left little room for personal interaction with anyone, let alone females, but Fū had always remained a constant in his life. It would be a lie to say that he hadn't considered his fellow Jinchūriki attractive, but with the main focus of his attention on Kakuzu's training regimen, the blond had merely written off such thoughts as fleeting fancies.

That, apparently, had been a mistake.

Fū possessed a certain appeal that Naruto found entreating. She was lithe and slender for her almost 17 years of age, with only an inch of height over Naruto's growing 5'5" frame. Despite Kakuzu's comments on how she looked like a 12-year-old boy, Fū still retained an unknown quality that Naruto discerned as alluring.

Perhaps it was the fact that there wasn't really room for romance on the road, and puberty had caused him to latch on to the nearest female form. Or maybe it was that Fū was a Jinchūriki who had experienced much of the life Naruto had while working with Kakuzu, and thus knew of the dangers associated with the road ahead of them. Plus, it was unlikely that many people would want to be romantically involved with a demon container when – Naruto refused to think if – he could finally settle down somewhere. There were too many similarities between his and Fū's personalities and pasts to not make them an ideal pairing.

Of course, none of that actually meant that the blond knew how to react to Fū kissing him. Especially since she hadn't really given him time to try discussing with her what the hell she was thinking. "Women," he muttered, abandoning the slog-ridden marshes of the Land of Demons for the craggy wasteland of the Land of Earth. Why did they have to be so damn confusing?


Wonderful, Naruto thought irately. The Kyūbi was deciding to make his opinion known; like he needed a bigger headache. "And why not?" he asked, not even considering the implications of arguing against such a statement.


"But if I was interested in a Jinchūriki 'tainted' by any of the other Bijū, you'd be okay with it?"


Naruto smirked to himself. And the point goes to me. "Besides," he mentioned, "I'm 16. This is hardly the time to be considering…reproduction."


The teenager opened and closed his mouth wordlessly, trying to banish the images the Kyūbi's words had conjured in his mind. "Just…shut up."

Laughter echoed in his mind, the fox clearly finding amusement in one-upping his jailor. YOUR INADEQUACY REGARDING A CONCEPT SUCH AS INTERCOURSE IS HIGHLY AMUSING.

Naruto shook his head in an effort to ignore the Bijū. There was no point dwelling on something that he couldn't do anything about right now anyway. Fū was off on a solo bounty hunting adventure, leaving him with a jumble of confused thoughts and emotions regarding her.

And his own goal.

Now that he was well-trained in the ways of Jiongu and capable of utilizing all the different elements, the blond felt confident enough to start exacting his vengeance upon the Hidden Leaf.

It was going to be fun.

Naruto jumped behind a rocky outcropping as several figures became apparent in the distance. Soon enough, a group of eight Iwa-nin came to a stop not too far from his position. "Which way?" asked one of them.

Another one took a moment to close his eyes and focus on his surroundings. Naruto melded into the ground, as if such a method would help him from being sensed. Luckily, it seemed as if the group had a specific target in mind and the blond found himself going unnoticed. "Over there," the ninja stated after a moment.

"Let's move. Akatsuki already has a head start on us, and we can't let them take Rōshi like they took Han. Iwagakure needs a Jinchūriki to match the might of the other Hidden Villages."

Naruto rose from the earth, ears pricked as the squad of Hidden Rock shinobi moved out. Someone's gonna have some company real soon. A giant grin stretched across his face as a thought occurred to him. "Oh, Pein is so gonna owe me for this," he snickered. He bounded after the octet, extruding his earth heart and commanding the creature to go on ahead of him. The mass of threads immediately burrowed underground to cut off the shinobi per Naruto's instructions.

Several minutes later, the blond heard his quarry shouting in surprise as a massive stone wall rose in their path. "Gentlemen," he announced, drawing their attention as he alit on a crag and used chakra to glue himself to the slanted surface, "I'm sorry to inform you that your journey is for naught." He paused, cupping his chin thoughtfully. "Actually, I stand corrected." A wicked gleam shone in his blue eyes. "I'm not really all that sorry."

"It's just a kid," observed one of the shinobi.

"Hey, kid, if you don't leave now we'll be forced to take you out," another one informed him.

Naruto stared at them blankly. "…Man, death threats just roll right off you idiots." He massaged his forehead with the fingers on one hand and shook his head sadly, muted chuckles escaping his lips. "Great, now I sound like Kakuzu. Arrogance and insults all in one."

"Don't say we didn't warn you, kid." The man Naruto assumed to be captain addressed the rest of his squadron. "Finish this quickly."

"Oh, I will," Naruto assured them. Jaws of earth erupted from the ground and clamped down on one of the shinobi while all attention remained on the teenager, Naruto's earth heart directing the soil from underneath the surface. When the remaining men turned at their comrade's scream, the Jinchūriki propelled himself forward in a burst of wind, the Fūton: Senpūken swirling around his right arm. He slammed his fist into the leftmost ninja's abdomen, shredding organs and sending blood flying outward in a spray of red. "You were saying?" he mocked as the corpse of the second Iwa-nin hit the ground.

Slabs of rock rose from the ground and attempted to crush him, but a quick Kawarimi with some loose stone allowed him to avoid the assault. Naruto tutted disapprovingly at the remaining Iwa-nin. "Well now, that won't do at all," he said. In moments, he was in Jiongu's long-armed form, his lightning and fire masks situated in the spread of threads at his back. "Much better," he hissed sadistically through the tongue of threads sprouting from his mouth.

Soon, there was nothing left in the area but a bunch of corpses. "Well, that was fun," he commented, allowing his body to come back together and the earth heart to return to its place on his back. He turned his head to face southeast. "Time for the real trials to begin."

With that, he took off in the direction of the Land of Fire.

"Hey Naruto."


Surprised by the appearance of a small green chameleon on his shoulder, the teen was caught off-guard as a massive purple projectile flew at him. Instinctively, he leaned backwards to avoid the object, but, combined with the shock of the reptile's sudden arrival, lost his footing in the liquid his feet were entrenched in and fell on his back. The reptile moved a bit higher on Naruto's shoulder to avoid getting ensnared by the fluid. "You don't seem to be very good at this."

"Kamesata," spluttered the blond, "what are you— how are you—"

"Ojii-san wants to speak with you," the chameleon informed him.

"What, now? I'm a little busy here!"

Kamesata's eyes roved around the forested area. "So I see." Then his right eye focused on Naruto's face. "Hurry it up."

Naruto resisted the urge to snatch the diminutive creature up and strangle him. He had been living in the forests of the Land of Fire for about a month, picking off any team of Leaf shinobi that crossed his path. The bounties on their heads were irrelevant (though Kakuzu probably would've had a series of heart attacks if he knew that); Naruto was more focused on depleting the village's forces and punishing it for its citizens' scorn in the early years of his life.

And the taste of vengeance was like honey.

Unfortunately, his most recent targets were proving to be more…annoying…than the others he'd come across up to that point. Two of the four Chūnin had gone down easily enough, but the remaining two worked well in tandem and had manipulated the terrain to their advantage. One of them – a brunette with long bangs covering his right eye – had spat some weird Suiton ninjutsu over Naruto's feet which possessed the viscosity of syrup and made moving highly inconvenient. His partner – a dark-haired male with a weird scar on his chin and a strip of bandage crossing from ear-to-ear over the bridge of his nose – had summoned a giant purple mace with the vague appearance of a conch shell. He had proven to be surprisingly adept at wielding the monstrosity, though it hadn't proven overly effective given Naruto's use of Doton: Domu. While he could've unleashed his full power from the get-go and just wasted everyone, he had developed the rather sadistic habit of toying with his victims and enjoyed watching them die one at a time.

The idea that he was acquiring more and more of Kakuzu's quirks was something he accepted with much chagrin.

Naruto lifted an arm out of the viscous fluid, grimacing in disgust as it thickened and held the limb in place. He suddenly regretted never getting a shirt to replace the one that had been ruined shortly after the training trip with Kakuzu and Hidan had begun. It had become pointless to wear one after learning how to extrude the hearts from his body – since the process would rend the garment to shreds, which explained Kakuzu's weird, backless top – but he felt highly exposed wearing only the standard ninja pants.

The dark-haired shinobi leapt at him, mace in hand to smash it down on his unmoving body. Okay, no more screwing around. The long suture stretching from clavicle to side – a permanent reminder of his fight against the Oto-nin years ago – opened up, allowing a stream of black threads to burst forth and spear towards the Chūnin. He brought his massive weapon forward to absorb the brunt of the attack, allowing the threads to crash harmlessly into the conch's reinforced shell.

That was fine, though…all Naruto needed was a way to stop the man from getting too close so he could have a few seconds to work.

A pulsing mass of threads appeared in the opening in his chest, forming a rough approximation of a mouth. Lightning surged forward as his relocated Raiton heart unleashed a massive pillar of electricity. The attack rose high above the tree canopy, a brilliant flash of blue light.

That's gonna attract attention.

"Kotetsu!" shouted the other man as his comrade was consumed by the attack. When the technique faded away, a blackened corpse fell to into the viscous liquid at Naruto's feet. "You…I'll kill you!"

Yeah yeah, thought the blond, rolling his eyes, like I haven't heard that before. It was slightly unfortunate that he couldn't actually see what was happening as he was stuck, but he supposed it didn't really matter. In a matter of seconds, the lightning heart had replaced his wind heart as his body's primary one, allowing the latter to emerge from the hole in his chest as a roughly bird-shaped amalgamation of threads. The thread-creature opened its approximation of a beak and expelled a rush of slicing wind that carved into the charging Konoha-nin.

He collapsed to the ground, bloody gashes covering his entire body.

As the threads returned to his body and his hearts resituated themselves, Naruto let out a brief huff. "Well, that was tedious." He shifted his attention to Kamesata, who had remained silent throughout the battle. "Now, what do you want?"

The chameleon released a noise of annoyance. "I told you already, Ojii-san wants to talk to you."

Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Why?"

"Does it matter?" retorted the reptile.

He glared at his summon, releasing an annoyed sigh when it didn't seem to affect him. "Yeah, well, I'm a bit stuck at the moment. Can you give me a minute to get out of here?" Before the ANBU show up? he added mentally.

"Don't worry about it." Naruto was about to ask what the reptile meant when Kamesata stood on his hind legs and began forming what the blond could only assume was hand signs. Before he could comment on the absurdity of the chameleon performing the signs, let alone trying to pull off a jutsu, he disappeared.

When the ANBU showed up 20 minutes later, all they found was a pool of viscous liquid and the bodies of four of their Chūnin.

Meanwhile, Naruto found himself in the midst of a myriad of trees, all varieties of types known to grow in the rainforest. However, instead of a dense canopy of green, the Jinchūriki was surprised to see that the foliage was a plethora of hues. In fact…the leaves seemed to be shifting colors, changing from red to orange to green to purple, and every shade in between. So mesmerized by the unusual sight, he almost missed Kamesata saying, "This is the Bankakyu Forest. C'mon, Ojii-san is this way."

"Yeah…right," he replied automatically. He was still too busy admiring his surroundings to pay more than a cursory glance to where the chameleon was directing him.

Eventually, they arrived at a gigantic stone temple, shaded by equally-large trees. Kamesata led Naruto inside as the blond looked around the building, awestruck. A grating voice brought him from his thoughts. "WELCOME TO OUR ABODE, UZUMAKI NARUTO. HMM…YOU SEEM TO HAVE COME FROM SOME SORT OF BATH."

Naruto looked down at himself, grimacing at the goopy liquid stuck to and dripping off his body, as well as his half-naked appearance. "Ah, my apologies, Shiromari-sama. I was…preoccupied when Kamesata found me."


Naruto inclined his head in a sign of humble acceptance. It was one thing to be rude to Kakuzu, who deserved Naruto's snide remarks and often seemed to thrive on the blond's feistiness; it was quite another to be ungracious to a creature who could literally squash him like a bug, especially after how helpful his tribe had been on Naruto's journeys. "If you say so, Shiromari-sama. May I ask why I've been summoned to your home?"



The blond merely grinned in response.


Danzō slammed his fist on his desk in frustration. He had lost count of how many reports had been delivered to him with the same general message.

Another team of Konoha-nin had been found within the borders of the Land of Fire, dead.

The deaths of shinobi were not exactly uncommon occurrences, but it was strange to have so many of them occur while in friendly territory and not during wartime. Most of the teams were squadrons of Chūnin or the occasional Jōnin-led teams of Genin, but one or two times he had lost a well-trained group of Tokubetsu Jōnin or higher-level ninja sent out on solo missions.

Danzō didn't really mourn the loss of those people – shinobi were tools to serve their leader, after all – but it was getting rather aggravating to have to act more cautious with his mission assignments. As there was no real pattern to the attacks with regards to direction, he couldn't determine if the situation was caused by one of the other nations trying to create a weak point in Konoha's defenses, or someone else's personal vendetta.

Lack of follow-up attacks on Konoha directly and reports from Tenzō suggested the latter.

The loss of the score of ANBU he had dispatched two and a half years ago had been documented in a letter by Tenzō, who had stumbled upon the scene after getting a fix on the Kyūbi's chakra. Though he couldn't say for certain whether or not the Jinchūriki had been responsible for the carnage, the wood-user had claimed that many of the corpses littered about the area bore signs of being torn asunder by animalistic claws. The fact that the blond boy could eliminate an entire platoon of ANBU – one containing Hatake Kakashi, who was a well-known and feared figure throughout the shinobi world – was worrisome, and seemed unlikely unless one took into account his tapping into the Kyūbi's power, something Tenzō could confirm.

If Tenzō was a regular ANBU, Danzō would've been concerned about the likelihood of him capturing the Kyūbi Jinchūriki. However, Danzō was counting on the wood-user's ability to nullify the Bijū's chakra once activated, which would exhaust the Jinchūriki in the process and make him susceptible to acquisition.

Of course, that required Tenzō to actually find the boy, and while he had traced multiple uprisings of demonic chakra over the time succeeding the ANBU massacre, every clue ended in a dead end. It spoke of quite a high skill in the prey's tracking and evading abilities to so continuously elude the ANBU member.

Assuming the Jinchūriki's involvement in the killings of the Leaf shinobi, it also offered an explanation as to why so many of the more recent attacks seemed to occur without any of the Konoha-nin aware of being assaulted until it was too late. It was almost as if the attacker was using an impressive cloaking technique, like Meisaigakure no Jutsu, only close to a level that hadn't been seen since the days of the Second Tsuchikage.

Danzō scowled at that thought. If the Kyūbi Jinchūriki was truly behind these recent attacks, then his skills were beyond what even Tenzō had informed him of from their limited confrontations. That was problematic, and left the Hokage with very little options. He could either wait for the boy to screw up in some measure, or…

"Ome," Danzō uttered, and an adolescent male with long, dark hair and a bird's mask appeared before him, one fist to the ground and head bowed in respect. "There is a shinobi or group of shinobi targeting Konoha-nin. Find them, and, if possible, bring them here. Otherwise, dispose of them."

"As you command, Danzō-sama," said the shinobi, and then he was gone.

Danzō smirked slightly. It probably wasn't advisable to send a single shinobi out on a mission to incapacitate someone who was likely to target him, but that was the genius of sending Ome. Whatever evasive abilities the shinobi killing his tools was using wouldn't work against his ROOT member.

Jinchūriki or not, Ome would disable the Leaf's enemy before said person knew what had happened to him.

Naruto couldn't resist the excited grin that spread across his face at the sound of somebody rushing through the woods. He was crouched at the juncture between a tree's low-hanging bough and trunk, cloaked in Meisaigakure no Jutsu.

Things were just way too easy now.

His training with the chameleons had gone well enough. Most of their techniques held a basis in their ability to change forms at will, such as Shiromari's long-term tenure as the Kubisaki Castle. They were also very adept with genjutsu and other illusion-related tricks, such as their infamous ability to camouflage seamlessly into their surroundings.

As a less-than-proficient genjutsu caster, Naruto held very little interest in any of the techniques related to that field his summons were willing to teach him. He had informed them of such in as polite a manner as possible, which had elicited a rumbling laugh from the Chameleon Boss. They had bypassed any of the illusionary and transformation jutsu and gone straight to the other traits the chameleons were well-known for: elongating the tongue, focusing the eyes on two separate points…

But the trick to learning camouflage had definitely been the most useful, and despite its partial basis in genjutsu, Naruto had insisted on learning it.

Meisaigakure no Jutsu normally involved using chakra to alter how light was reflected around the body, simultaneously erasing the user's scent and shadow to further make him even harder to detect. However, the chameleons' version of the Hiding with Camouflage Technique was rather different. It required the user to shroud himself in natural energy – something Naruto had never even heard of before – in order to blend seamlessly with his environment. The technique retained all the positives of the original jutsu with the added benefit of being even more difficult to detect because the chakra being used to cloak the individual didn't actually belong to the user and matched the environment the user was hiding in.

The ease with which it had allowed him to sneak up on unsuspecting Konoha-nin and kill them without them being any the wiser was absolutely ridiculous.

A Konoha-nin wearing an ANBU mask and a cream-colored cloak landed on the ground almost directly beneath Naruto; by the way the shinobi moved, the Jinchūriki guessed his adversary to be male. The blond flexed his fingers in anticipation as the man beneath him twisted his head to observe his surroundings. Jiongu squirmed beneath his skin, itching for the opportunity to wriggle into a body and pierce, strangle, rip, until there was nothing left but a corpse. Naruto leaped from the tree, silent as a wraith, and descended upon the unknowing man.

Ten feet away, the ANBU whipped around, palm thrusting out. Something invisible slammed into Naruto with deadly precision, immediately stopping his heart and causing him to fall to the ground in a boneless heap, the Hiding with Camouflage Technique fading. As Naruto's body assimilated his earth heart, his mind whirled with disbelief at how he had been found out.

"Hakke Kūshō," intoned a voice, and Naruto instinctively hardened his skin to protect himself as another invisible force blew his body backwards. "You might as well get up," continued the ANBU, "I can see that your chakra system is still active."

Naruto rose to his feet, brushing a hand through his blond locks to dislodge any dirt. "Can you now? Quite an interesting trick. Considering that and your Hakke technique, you must be a Hyūga." He flexed his hands. "Haven't gotten into a fight with one of your kind for some time."

"I'm not sure how you survived that strike to your heart, but rest assured it won't happen again." He raced forward, palm extended in a Gentle Fist strike for Naruto's heart. The renegade twisted around the blow, unleashing a flurry of threads to bind the Konoha-nin and reap his heart. Just as the tendrils wound about the ANBU's body, he became aglow in a shroud of chakra. "Jūkenpō Ichigekishin," he stated, and the kinjutsu was forcibly repelled from its target. The ANBU member jumped away from Naruto, and for a moment there was silence until he hissed, "It is you"

Naruto raised an eyebrow. "Me?"

"I suspected…" Whatever had caused the ANBU's break in control was lost in the next instant, his voice returned to its flat tone. "Danzō-sama desires you captured alive, but if you resist, your body will be enough compensation."

"I feel like I'm missing something," Naruto pondered, tapping a finger to his chin thoughtfully. "You seem to know me…why don't you reciprocate by removing the mask?" The ANBU dove forward with another series of Gentle Fist maneuvers, though he seemed a bit more hostile with his attacks this time, forcing the blond to practically dance to avoid the strikes. "I'll take that as a 'no'…"

Performing a quick Kawarimi, he watched from a tree branch as the Hyūga's palm thrust demolished the replacement log into splinters. "You seem angry," he observed. The ANBU tilted his head up and sent two more chakra-laced, compressed air bullets at him. "Most unbefitting of an ANBU," he noted, swinging down to dodge the attacks. Curiosity killed the cat, he thought, hands moving through seals, but I've really gotta know…

"Suiton: Haran Banshō," he announced, water falling from the sky in a torrential downpour. The Hyūga immediately spun himself into a Kaiten to repel the deluge, and Naruto used the excess liquid to form several water clones to surround his enemy. They lunged for the ANBU as he came out of his rotation, and Naruto snaked his arms into the battle as the Hyūga dealt with the doppelgangers. Despite the Byakugan's near-360 degree vision, the Hyūga couldn't do anything about the hands reaching for his mask without letting his guard down to the clones.

Several palm strikes dispersed the water clones, leaving Naruto to face the full brunt of the ANBU's glowering white eyes settling on him. "Hyūga Neji," he realized, recognizing the features of his long-ago Chūnin Exam opponent. Then he laughed. "You're an ANBU now? I guess you became worth something after all!"

"I suspected it was you. Your chakra system is still clouded with those threads, Shinobu of Amegakure…or not," Neji noted, eyes flickering to the slashed Hidden Leaf hitae-ate on Naruto's forehead. "Mock me as you will," he informed the blond before settling into an advanced Gentle Fist stance, "but you're within my field of divination."

Naruto didn't even have time to curse before Neji was upon him. "Hakke Hyaku Nijūhachi Shō."

The first several blows landed before Naruto regained some semblance of awareness and had the capacity to order Jiongu to counterattack. When Neji's fingers lanced forward for the next series of strikes, threads burst forth from the suture on Naruto's chest and wrapped around the Hyūga's wrists before they could connect. "I'm sure you remember these," he smirked. With a quick motion, the tendrils snapped the Konoha-nin's joints, rendering his prized taijutsu style useless.

Neji showed remarkable restraint for having his wrists broken, merely hissing in pain. His body began to glow with chakra again for another Gentle Fist Art One Blow Body, but the mask containing Naruto's lightning heart appeared on his shoulder and fired a burst of electricity which paralyzed the other male. "I believe that's two times you've lost to me now," Naruto mentioned blithely.

The Hyūga didn't respond.

Naruto hummed thoughtfully. "Your emotional control has gone up since we last met. Not that it matters all that much. Now, I believe you owe me a heart."

"Whatever you hope to gain by continuing this crusade against Konoha will not come to fruition," Neji stated, venom lacing his tone.

The blond merely laughed in response. "You're a fool. My goals stretch no further than killing the people of your village, which is exactly what I've been doing. There is no deeper purpose. Now, go meet the rest of your comrades." More threads squirmed forth from his chest and dug into Neji's, causing the Hyūga's pale eyes to widen. Moments later, the tendrils withdrew, their pumping prize clutched in their grasp. "Much better," he sighed, depositing the heart in his chest, "though I probably enjoyed that far more than I should have. Kakuzu has definitely rubbed off on me." His attention was drawn to the Konoha-nin's corpse as the seal on his forehead glowed green and his eyes were burned from their sockets. "Ah, so that's how the seal activates…interesting."

He lugged the body upon his shoulder and began walking to the nearest bounty exchange station. "Well, Hyūga Neji, let's see how much you're really worth."


"Uzumaki Naruto."

"Hair color?"

"Bright yellow."

"Eye color?"


"Other distinguishing features?"

"Three whisker-like markings on either cheek."

"Former village affiliation?"





"70 million."

The man looked up at the large amount and raised an eyebrow, but didn't comment on the price. "Does the shinobi have a kekkei genkai or known kinjutsu?"


Another raised eyebrow, but the man scribbled down the response. "He will be listed as an A-rank nukenin. Is there any other information you can add?"

"He is adept at Fūton ninjutsu."

"…And?" prompted the man when the other person didn't continue.

"That is all the information I have."

"Do you have a picture?" The person shook his head. "Very well," nodded the man. "We will list Uzumaki Naruto in the next edition of the Bingo Book. Thank you for your report."

The Konoha-nin nodded and left. When he was far enough away from the building, the Henge around him dropped.

Kakuzu smirked behind his mask. Naruto would raise hell the minute he discovered what the older shinobi had done, but he would eventually come to appreciate the favor Kakuzu had done him. By being listed in the Bingo Book with such a high bounty and such rudimentary skills, he would quickly become the target of both other mercenaries and the Hidden Villages alike. Given that the former Taki-nin had neglected to give the editors information about Jiongu, Naruto's Jinchūriki status, or the fact that he could freely control all of the elements, Naruto would quickly start accumulating the bounties of people chasing him instead of the other way around.

Really, it was quite a time-saving and profitable deed he had just done his pupil.

And if Kakuzu got some twisted satisfaction out of pissing the blond off…well, that was just a bonus.

Naruto narrowly dodged a burst of fire and then activated the Earth Spear technique, bringing his arm up to block a sideways swipe of a Kumo-nin's sword.

Something was wrong. Naruto couldn't decide exactly what that something was, but some sixth sense was telling him that the natural order of the world had been violated. Granted, the fact that he was being attacked by a group of shinobi wasn't all that unusual, considering his profession…

But it was strange that the group of Cloud shinobi had initiated the assault…

Especially since he was in the Land of Grass.

This has Kakuzu's fingerprints all over it. I don't know how, but every time something bad happens to me, it's normally because of Kakuzu.

He hardened his body again as the first Kumo-nin exhaled another burst of fire at him. The blond almost smirked as the flames died out, but a gasp escaped his lips instead as a katana crackling with lightning was shoved from behind into his heart. "The dossier said that you were only proficient in Fūton, but that hardening technique of yours definitely has its roots in Doton," whispered a voice in his ear. When he fell face-down to the ground, the sword came free with a schick, and its wielder stated aloud, "We've disposed of the nukenin Uzumaki Naruto. Our mission is complete."

Not quite, Naruto thought, burrowing his hands underground via Jiongu. He had been killed enough times over the past several months to know that falling with his hands under his body allowed him to take his enemies by surprise.

When the swordsman knelt to pick him up, Naruto acted. Both hands erupted from the ground in different spots, catching two of the Kumo-nin with uppercuts to the chin. As they were sent flying, the fists opened to grab them each by an ankle. The threads connected to each appendage immediately retracted, bringing both shinobi hurtling towards the earth at an impressive speed. Their heads struck the ground, and then they were motionless.

Man, that never gets old, the blond snickered.

The swordsman, who had turned to his men at the sound of Naruto's fists coming out of the earth, immediately whirled back to the younger male. Too late! the Jinchūriki crowed mentally. His wind heart burst forth from beneath the traveler's cloak he wore to conceal the masks on his back and fired a bullet of air that punched a hole in the Kumo-nin's chest before he could react.

And now for number four, he thought, rising to his feet and recalling the threads. Just as he finished standing, a series of bluish-white beams slammed into his chest. He was pushed back a fair distance, the cloak he'd taken to wearing gaining several holes as the beams scorched through it and burned his skin. "That's…new," he remarked.

Naruto looked up at the remaining Kumo-nin, finding both of the man's hands clasped together, a halo of the same bluish-white light surrounding them. An attack that retains some of the piercing abilities of Raiton, but flows like the water of a Suiton technique… I wonder…

Kakuzu had lectured him on the different kekkei genkai in the ninja world. The lessons had also included a rundown of some of the advanced chakra natures the bounty hunter had come across in his travels. The rarity of such abilities was one of the reasons Tenzō's possession of the should-be extinct Mokuton techniques had taken Naruto completely by surprise. Barring Tenzō, and potentially Fū, the blue-eyed boy had never really come across any of the other advanced chakra natures.

But that strange beam attack definitely seemed to fit Kakuzu's vague description of Kumogakure's rare Storm Release.

Another armada of beams began homing in on his position, forcing the renegade to manipulate the air before him into a dense shield. His blue eyes widened as the attack simply bent around the barrier and converged on his location.

Naruto took the attack and came out with a severely-tattered cloak and several more burns for his trouble. Fortunately, while the attack seemed to be quite versatile, it lacked a lot of the raw destructive power of the Lightning Release element that composed it. He raced forward, forcing the Cloud shinobi to release the seal for his technique and bring forth a katana crackling with lightning.

That was fine with Naruto, who immediately held out his right hand and allowed Jiongu to twine itself into its Sword Form, glowing blue with wind chakra. Steel met the makeshift black blade, causing the Kumo-nin to grimace as the wind chakra began to bite into his weapon, negating the electricity running along the blade. He reached out with his other hand to shock the blond into submission, but Naruto met that with a modified Whirlwind Fist. "Ah ah ah," Naruto tutted mockingly, "I'm a wind specialist, remember? Now, would you like to tell me why you attacked me?" When the man didn't respond, Naruto sighed theatrically. "Well, how about that strange ninjutsu you used…what's your secret to that one?"

Again, the blond was greeted with silence.

"Ah well," he continued, "guess I'll just have to find out for myself." Threads tore through the front of his cloak and dove into his opponent's body, wriggling under the skin and aiming for his heart. Naruto relished in the brief moment of shock on the man's face before the tendrils resurfaced with his heart in their grasp. They returned to the blond's body, displacing his wind heart to his back and depositing the new one within his ribcage. The spasm of pain that accompanied acquiring a new element shuddered throughout his body, causing Naruto to simultaneously grimace and grin. He felt for the elements the organ was aligned with, feeling the soothing calm of Suiton and the fierce prickle of Raiton. "My thanks to you," he addressed the body of the Kumo-nin, releasing it and letting it fall to the ground.

He flexed his hands, trying to summon some modicum of Kumogakure's Ranton bloodline, with no effect. "Huh…this might be trickier than I thought." Then he shrugged. "Oh well, plenty of time to learn. Now let's see…" He knelt down next to the Kumo-nin's corpse and rooted through his belongings, but found nothing of interest. "Hmm, maybe your leader then?" he mused.

Naruto dragged the body over to the one who had stabbed him – the wielder of the Storm Release ability might be worth something at a bounty station, even if Naruto had his heart – and searched his person. He discovered a mission scroll and immediately unraveled it, a frown etching his features as he read it. "Find and kill Uzumaki Naruto and claim the bounty on his head. Bounty?" Then he growled. "Kakuzu… I know it's him. Damn him! What did he do, put me in the Bingo Book?"

He took a deep breath. "Calm down…he probably knew I'd react like this, which is exactly why he did it. I just need to stay on my guard, figure out a plan—" he looked down at his cloak, "—get some new clothes…yeah, let's start there." Naruto sighed, hefted the body of the Ranton-user on his back, and began walking.

Ten seconds later…


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