The Cost of Living


Pride – in all its forms – was a terrible thing. It made people take risks they wouldn't normally take just to prove a point, spurred them to do things differently from their routine simply for the sake of it. Arrogance (and the distinct lack of ability to control his temper, though that was quite beside the point) had gotten Kakuzu killed by the hands of those he looked down upon.

The problem was that pride was generally something that was earned. At least, it was in Kakuzu's case. After all, surviving in the ninja world for almost a century tended to make a shinobi confident in his abilities. If nothing else, the old bounty hunter had proven time and again that he was certainly capable enough with his skills to back up his arrogance.

Naruto had never really gotten the opportunity to defend his pride, especially since his time with Kakuzu had been cut short due to the former Taki-nin's Akatsuki-related responsibilities…

Which was why the blond was crouched on a tree bough – on a cliff of the peninsula that was the Land of Birds – looking out over the ocean in the direction of the Land of Water.

"I would like to see you penetrate Kirigakure's defenses with your measly skills. Considering how difficult it is to get into the country, remain inconspicuous, find and capture the target, and get out without raising suspicion, two months is hardly a long time. I expect you will take at least six your first time."

Granted, Naruto had been 11 when Kakuzu had said that, but he figured that age hardly made a difference in the nukenin's eyes. He was going to prove to his wayward teacher that he could surpass the man's expectations for him, all by doing something that was, arguably, incredibly foolish. It was a little sad that most of his motivation was still derived from trying to get Kakuzu to acknowledge him, especially when the old nukenin was unlikely to do so, but Naruto strove to accomplish the impossible. In a lot of ways, he was like a kid trying to earn the attention of his parent by whatever means necessary.

Pride really was a terrible thing.

Still, the blond felt that he was ready for such a venture. He thought that he was strong enough to take on the majority of the denizens within the Hidden Mist one-on-one – notable exceptions would include the Mizukage and any remaining -members of the Seven Shinobi Swordsmen – and had even prepared for the journey accordingly.

Gone were the traveler's cloak and pants he'd been wearing for the past several months. Now he was dressed in blue pants and a sleeveless, backless grey top, over which was a loose, blue-grey (to better blend into the mist), long-sleeved shirt. It was open in the front, with the left sleeve only going down to his elbow. Bandages wound around his left arm from bicep to wrist, and his feet were clad in black shinobi sandals. The slashed Konoha hitae-ate was displayed at a slight angle on his forehead, restraining his wild, blond spikes. Overall, Naruto thought he looked badass.

The knowledge that Kakuzu would surely criticize him for his strange choice in garb was completely irrelevant.

He flipped through the Bingo Book the older thread-user had bestowed upon him, going to the section relegated for shinobi of the Hidden Mist. His fingers stopped at the page depicting the shinobi he had chosen as his target.

Given how outdated Kakuzu's tome was (and why the blond hadn't gotten a new one, he couldn't explain; some modicum of sentiment or symbolism, probably), the boy Naruto was staring at was probably a couple years older than his current age. In the picture, he looked to be perhaps 12 or 13, with shoulder-length brown hair fashioned in such a way that only the golden iris of his right eye was visible. The boy was pale-skinned and wore a laconic expression, but to have achieved the status of Jōnin at such a young age implied that he was likely some sort of prodigy.

And Naruto enjoyed a challenge.

Plus, the Kiri-nin was labeled as a bubble-user, which the blond had never heard of before. He wasn't all that interested in stealing his target's heart – he was still in the process of perfecting how to use Storm Release, though he could at least use it – but the prospect of facing an unknown jutsu was interesting. Killing the strange boy – adult, he reminded himself, taking into account the age difference between them and his recently-passed 17th birthday – would give him plenty of bragging rights when he eventually ran into Kakuzu again.

The 50 million ryō bounty he would collect didn't hurt either.

Naruto leaped from the tree to the ground and approached the edge of the cliff. He groaned as he began to push threads from his back, carefully so as to not shred his shirt. Soon enough, a massive pair of black wings was situated between his shoulder blades. "Look out, Utakata," he warned, sealing the Bingo Book into a small scroll before storing it in his arm, "I'm coming for you."

He dove off the cliff, and moments later, Jiongu carried him high into the sky, where he was lost to the mist.

Naruto stepped on the smoldering remnants of his fire and let out a noise somewhere between a sigh and a growl. He had spent the last month camped out on one of the many islands surrounding the main island which housed Kirigakure, slowly exploring the territory that comprised the Land of Water, and the dreariness and repetition of the place was starting to grate on his nerves.

If this was what it was like to be on a stake-out for a specific target, Naruto could easily understand why Kakuzu had such a hair-thin temper; it had only been four weeks, and his patience was already gone. Decades of having gone through the same motions had probably diminished the nukenin's ability to tolerate annoyances to nothing.

It was a little disheartening to discover that he was actually starting to empathize with his wayward teacher, but the young thread-user tried not to dwell on that realization.

"Well, time to get going…again," the blond muttered. He walked down to the shore and carefully stepped out onto the water, making his way toward the Hidden Mist Village.

Although he wasn't a big fan of the reconnaissance required to successfully infiltrate Kirigakure, Naruto was forced to admit that being cautious had definitely prevented him from stepping into a situation that he wasn't prepared for. Taking on a handful of Jōnin-level shinobi he could handle. Facing down scores of Jōnin and oinin, the Mist's equivalent of ANBU?

Well, that was a little less likely to have favorable results.

That was the situation he would've been forced to face had he tried to just fly into Kirigakure with Jiongu. The truth was that the Hidden Mist was surprisingly well-defended. Even given the haze which seemed a permanent fixture of the country's climate – or perhaps in spite of it – sentry towers littered the ridge of the main island, making approaching it by any means a difficult venture. Given how isolated the entirety of the Land of Water was, Naruto wondered if such precautions were even necessary.

Then again, when a country had as many nukenin as Kirigakure seemed to have, perhaps such paranoia was completely justified.

Regardless, approaching from anything other than the water was impossible. Even doing that had proven to be an extremely risky challenge comprised of water-walking atop the ocean, finding some way to get up the cliff face (Naruto had opted to actually use an earth jutsu to just go through the rock), and then melding into the bustle of the village itself. It had taken a week of surveillance to come up with that strategy, after choosing the island closest to the main one to take up temporary residence.

Of course, so far, getting into Kirigakure had been the easy part. Since the natives of the Land of Water were relatively isolated people, Naruto hadn't wanted to play the tourist card to dig for information on his target, especially since a civilian would have no need to know about the goings-on of shinobi, let alone a particular one. That had left inconspicuous eavesdropping, independent research, and simple searching maneuvers as his methods of gathering intelligence. The former was relatively easy given the modified Meisaigakure no Jutsu he possessed, but the citizens proved to be rather tight-lipped about anything Naruto might've found useful.

The Mizukage was clearly a very imposing figure if she could keep such a tight grip on the flow of information in her village.

Once eavesdropping had failed to produce anything useful, Naruto had opted into the remaining two methods. It hadn't taken too long to find out the location of the Mist's bubble-users, though physically finding the building and investigating it had taken a bit longer than the blond had preferred it would. Disappointingly, Utakata had not been there. In the hope that he could find some clue as to his target's whereabouts, Naruto had spent several consecutive nights infiltrating the mission archives for a hint as to where the man might be.

One night, he had finally gotten lucky and found a mission with Utakata's name listed on it. Unfortunately, he had quickly discovered that the bubble-user was the mission.

Utakata was a nukenin, and had been for a long time.

One of the tiny islands far away from Kirigakure had borne his – admittedly childish – temper tantrum.

Naruto honestly wasn't sure if he was angrier at Kakuzu for having such an out-of-date Bingo Book or at himself for still using the damn thing. Granted, it wasn't the older man's fault that he had clung onto the tome with such lingering attachment (and his teacher had at least kept it updated with giant slashes across the pages of his victims), but he still felt rather miffed at the waste of his time.

That thought had given him pause. Utakata was likely still alive somewhere; he had to be to have a search team sent out relatively recently. If that was the case, he was still an available target, one with a 50 million ryō bounty on his head. Naruto had decided he would rather see his original mission through to the end (Kakuzu would likely never let go of the fact that his pupil had 'abandoned' his target when times got tough, if he found out) than choose a new target from the citizens of the Hidden Mist. Kirigakure wasn't going anywhere; he could always return at a different point in time and kill someone, especially now that he knew the method to get in.

The problem was that Utakata could be anywhere. Starting the search from scratch had been an unappealing idea, so Naruto had taken to hiding in the headquarters of the oinin (which had taken a full two days to find) with the Hiding in Camouflage Technique and listening for any promising information.

He was going on five days of no leads, and the lack of any real action was starting to make the threads within his body twitch agitatedly. Yeah, I get it, he griped mentally, crouched beneath an empty desk. Not like this is a party for me, either. But it makes more sense to find some clue as to his whereabouts here, where they're actively searching for him, than roaming the world and hoping to run into him.

Naruto was practically asleep when a man with long, black hair and a scar trailing down over his left eye entered the headquarters, a scroll in hand. Four shinobi dropped what they were doing and approached him. "The previous team assigned to capture Utakata has been found."

Translation: they're dead, Naruto thought with morbid amusement.

"Their bodies were discovered near Tsuchigumo Village," continued the dark-haired male. "We will start our search from there." He affixed the porcelain mask of the Mist's oinin to his face. "Move out."

Naruto mock-saluted the man as the squad left. Sure thing, boss. Thanks for the info.

He snuck out behind the group of hunter-nin and never looked back.

Deciding that stowing aboard whatever vessel the Kiri-nin would use to make it to the mainland was a bit dangerous, Naruto returned to his island as quickly as possible to find a launching point to fly overhead. Even though he now had information on his target, the blond figured it was easier to let the hunter-nin find Utakata and then swoop in and steal the kill rather than exert the energy wandering aimlessly himself. Besides, the Mist shinobi would have a better idea of Utakata's habits and idiosyncrasies than he did, meaning the tracking part of the retrieval mission would go much more smoothly than if he tried it himself.

It might take some time, but at least he was doing something now.

Compared to how long he thought it might take, the Kiri-nin led him to Tsuchigumo Village – located in the eastern portion of the Land of Fire – within a handful of days. Apparently they were as eager to find the missing bubble-user as Naruto was, making berth at a port in the Land of Birds and keeping a rigorous pace across the mainland.

The villagers didn't have much to offer as far as intelligence went when the Kiri-nin questioned them, though one mentioned a rumor that some young shinobi had taken up residence at Mount Katsuragi, the home of the former Tsuchigumo clan leader. When the oinin inquired further as to the location, the villager pointed into the distance, where a tall, rocky structure loomed over the forest.

Naruto opted to follow the lead of the Mist shinobi that evening and settled in for a good night's rest, though far away from their camp. Remaining constantly cloaked under the Hiding in Camouflage Technique in order to evade detection wasn't draining on his chakra, but the unwavering concentration it required to remain active was giving him a headache. To be fully prepared for the upcoming fights against the squad from Mist – which he would have to neutralize – and Utakata, he wanted to be in tiptop shape. With that thought in mind, he summoned a chameleon to watch over him (as a precaution), and then settled down to sleep.

He awoke the next morning to the chameleon's alert that the Kiri-nin were on the move. Thanking the reptile, Naruto took off in the direction of Mount Katsuragi.

By the time noon rolled around, he'd reached the edge of the forest which opened to the mountain. The team from Mist was already approaching the sheer rock, either avoiding or deactivating the seals and traps meant to protect Mount Katsuragi from invaders. Cloaked in Meisaigakure no Jutsu, Naruto followed them, unsure if the traps were triggered by movement, chakra, or some other mechanism, and unwilling to become a test subject so close to his goal.

It only took a number of minutes to navigate the maze of triggered traps, and by the time the blond reached the Mist shinobi, they were standing before the cliff face, staring at a man in a blue kimono. Naruto compared the features of the man – dark brown, shoulder-length hair and gold-colored eyes – to what he remembered from the Bingo Book. His eyes focused on the pale gold pipe tucked into a band mostly hidden by the kimono, right next to a cylindrical green jug. That looks like it could blow bubbles…

The leader of the Kiri-nin stepped forward. "Utakata—"


"—you will return with us to Kirigakure. Surrender yourself, or we will be forced to detain you."

Aaaand, I think that's my cue. Naruto stepped between Utakata and the squad of hunter-nin, his back to the brunette nukenin. Wordlessly, he dropped the Hiding in Camouflage Technique, taking small delight in the way the shinobi before him started at his appearance. "Gentlemen," he announced, "thank you for your assistance. It would've taken me forever to track this guy down," he added, thumbing behind him to Utakata.

"Konoha nukenin," he heard one ninja whisper to another.

"We have no quarrel with you," the leader informed him. "Step aside and let us do our duty."

That was enough to galvanize Utakata into action, for he immediately leaped to the side and made for the safety of the forest. "Stop him!" commanded the lead hunter-nin.

The shinobi closest to the nukenin formed a whip of water and sent it towards the brunette, but Naruto jumped over them and released a blade of wind that sliced through the weapon, causing it to lose its cohesiveness. "Ah ah ah," he tutted, "you'll have to get past me if you wanna get to him." He bit his thumb and formed seals, slamming his palm on the ground. Kamekoso appeared, now double the size he had been when the blond had summoned him to kill Kidōmaru's giant spider. Naruto jerked his head behind him. "Follow him." The chameleon immediately became invisible, only a burst of wind announcing his departure.

All the Kiri-nin before him tensed. "You'll regret doing that, child." Naruto bristled a little at the insult – he was a teenager, damn it! – but said nothing. "Konoha-nin…always so cocky. You never should have revealed yourself."

"Well, you're partially right," Naruto allowed. "I am quite cocky." While taking victims by surprise vis-à-vis being invisible was strategically smarter, there was far less satisfaction in witnessing them realize they were outclassed…especially when they were as arrogant as this bunch seemed to be.

Idly, the blond wondered if having such a mindset was hypocritical, given what he was doing.

On top of that, he didn't want to have to fight Utakata in a location the other male was familiar with. If he had killed all the Kiri-nin before revealing himself, it was far more likely that he would've gotten into conflict with the brunette at the base of the mountain, where there might still be traps (and support from any inhabitants from above). Making himself visible had given the older male an opportunity to escape to the forest – where Naruto would have an advantage – while he handled the hunter-nin.

Water whips lanced out at him from three of the shinobi. Naruto allowed them to wind around his body, surreptitiously extruding his lightning heart from his back, keeping it hidden under his shirt. "Big mistake," he warned, and the threads rose over his head, blue electricity crackling in the mouth of the mask. It danced down the liquid weapons and zapped the trio of Kiri-nin holding them, overloading their neural functions and dropping them like stones. The fourth subordinate sent a wave of electricity at him, which was dispersed by a blast of air. Naruto inhaled and spat out a Fūton: Shinkūgyoku; the wind bullets punched through the ninja's body, killing him before he hit the ground. "You were saying?"

Though the mask hid the leader's facial expression, Naruto imagined that the man was scowling at him. "Those were good men you killed. They will not have died in vain. Hijutsu: Kirisame."

Mist shrouded the immediate area, accompanied by a slight drizzle. Naruto watched as the Kiri-nin's form wavered and faded into the haze. "A little rain isn't gonna stop me," he informed his surroundings. The blond summoned wind chakra to his arms, but the fog and rain ate at the chakra until there was nothing left. "…Cute trick," he admitted, "but it won't be enough."

Water suddenly coalesced around him, forming a sphere that halted his movements. The hunter-nin became visible, one hand holding up the Water Prison Technique. "You're immobilized and incapable of using ninjutsu…and overconfident. That was your downfall."

Without warning, black threads burst forth from underneath Naruto's bandaged arm, spearing through the orb of liquid and into the Mist shinobi. It was a testament to the blond's control over the kinjutsu and practice that the tendrils didn't shred either his clothing or wrappings. The man gagged at the invasive feeling of threads in his body, his construct collapsing and allowing the Jinchūriki to approach him. "Once again, you're only partially right." With a simple mental command, Jiongu constricted, crushing the man's heart in an instant. "Well," he mused as the mist surrounding him dissipated, "that was far easier than I expected it to be. I guess I'm getting better at this." He turned to face the direction Utakata had disappeared in. "Now it's time to get the main prize."

The blond bounded in the direction of the forest, putting a little extra pep in his step in order to make up the time lost killing the hunter-nin. Kamekoso, though invisible, had made sure to leave his summoner a rather clear trail to follow, as broken branches and bark burned by acid littered the path ahead. As the minutes passed, Naruto noticed that the amount of markings for him to follow was decreasing. I hope that's a sign that I'm catching up…

His musing was answered when the blue-robed male's figure became visible in the forest just ahead. Utakata's breathing appeared labored, and there looked to be a small spot of red on the white bandages wrapped around his chest. Kamekoso was nowhere to be found, and the blond deduced that he had returned to the Bankakyu Forest after Utakata had stopped moving. "Hello there!" Naruto called out, a bit too cheerfully considering what he was there to do. "You don't look so good."

Utakata glared at him. "What do you want from me?"

"The bounty on your head," the blond responded easily. "I already took care of the oinin that were on your tail…we had conflicting interests." He cocked his head to the side. "You know, in a way, you should be grateful to me…who knows what those guys would've done to you once you were back in Kirigakure."

The brunette remained silent. Naruto took a step forward. "So, are we gonna do this the easy way, or the hard way? Personally, I was hoping you'd put up a little bit of a challenge, but considering your condition…"

"Neither," Utakata returned. Naruto suddenly became aware of the amount of bubbles surrounding him. "I'm done with you." He snapped his fingers. "Suiton: Hōmatsu no Jutsu."

The entire array of watery spheres exploded. Naruto barely managed to activate the Earth Spear technique as a failsafe defensive maneuver, and even then, he was blown back several yards by the concussive blast. He jumped onto a thick branch of a nearby tree. "So, this is the type of stuff you can pull off with Shabondama ninjutsu, huh? Interesting…"

Utakata didn't bother responding, instead jerking his head and expelling an arc of water that soared for Naruto's neck. "Suiton: Mizukiri no Jutsu."

"You're not much for banter, are you?" Naruto muttered. He tried jumping away from his perch, but found his foot stuck to the branch by dark green slime. What the…when did he… His eyes focused back on the incoming Water Cutter. Questions later, protect from decapitation now. The blond crossed his arms before his neck protectively and once more hardened his skin.

Water broke over the impenetrable defense of the Earth Spear technique, the elemental advantage of Naruto's jutsu serving to further block the liquid. When he lowered his arms, a wave of greenish-tinged water was already on its way to crash over him. Not liking how different it looked from normal Suiton attacks, the blond undid his sandal and slipped out of it, retreating to the ground as the wave washed over the tree.

The plant vanished with a sickening hiss, melting down to the earth and leaving a small divot where it once stood. Naruto frowned. Acid…he can mix a powerful acid into his ninjutsu. Plus, he can cause explosions with his bubbles and create some sort of sticky substance that's difficult to escape from…and that I likely won't be able to get away from again, he thought, sparing a mournful glance to his bare foot. He undid the other sandal and pulled it off, tossing it away into the bushes. And he's smart. Man, do I know how to pick 'em or what?

Another field of bubbles floated into his vision. He spared a quick glance at Utakata and found that the older male hadn't moved from his original position. Fine…let's take the battle to you then. The Jinchūriki leaped into the air and corkscrewed, using chakra to manipulate the surrounding air. This time, when the bubbles exploded, Naruto was safely ensconced in his Kazekyū, a protective sphere of wind that was partially inspired by Hyūga Neji's Kaiten. Descending from his jump, he performed hand signs and then threw his palms forward with a shout. A powerful Great Breakthrough ripped through the woods, blowing away any of Utakata's attempts at a follow-up assault.

As the winds from his jutsu blew past, Naruto raced forward and engaged in a taijutsu battle with Utakata. The former Mist shinobi was no slouch, even injured, using his surprisingly-durable bubble blower to block several hits. Fed up with the weapon which seemed to cause him so much trouble, the blond commanded several threads to pop out of the suture near his wrist. He had a moment to revel in the bubble-user's look of surprise as his kinjutsu twined around the bubble blower and yanked it from the male's grasp. With the instrument in his possession, the Jinchūriki hardened his fist and crushed it.

Instead of the sound of crunching bamboo, there was a slight 'pop'. Naruto's eyes widened slightly as Utakata became suddenly transparent and then promptly exploded.

The force of the blast sent him flying backwards out of the ensuing smoke cloud. He was mostly unharmed, though his clothes were severely rumpled and the bandages wound around his left arm were smudged with dirt and unraveling. Naruto was suddenly grateful for how resilient Jiongu made his body; small cuts were normally stitched close within seconds, and his possession of the kinjutsu had altered his body structure so that bleeding was a relatively rare occurrence.

Blue eyes roved around the area warily. "You're good," he commented, loud enough for his target to hear him from wherever he was. "Using a bubble clone to flesh out what I could do while also going for the kill…gotta admit that this is more of a challenge than I thought it would be." When it became apparent that Utakata wasn't going to attack him, Naruto slowly began to form hand seals.

If the bubble-user wasn't going to show himself – and honestly, that was probably the smartest strategy – then Naruto would just have to flush him out. He had finally started to take Kakuzu's words about creating his own 'ultimate techniques' to heart, and had opted to begin with the element his body was best attuned to: wind. Despite the fact that he could use the technique through Jiongu, he preferred to keep his wind heart safely secured inside his body so as to use a wider range of techniques; not to mention that Utakata's apparent tendency toward explosions meant that, on their own, his thread-creatures might not survive alone in battle. The threads were hardy, but only to a certain point.

That was okay, though. He wanted to see what his wind jutsu could do by his own power. Inhaling deeply, he paused for a moment to collect the required chakra and finish the last seal. "Fūton: Kussaku Kūkidan!"

A large sphere of wind burst forth from his mouth, approximately the size of his head. It tore through the forest directly in front of the blond, digging a shallow trench in the earth as it moved. Naruto watched with some pride as any trees in the Drilling Air Bullet's way were uprooted and turned into splinters.

The theory of the technique was actually quite simple: the sphere of air was made entirely of slicing wind chakra, which gave it the cutting quality necessary to tear a long path in anything in its way. After a short swath of destruction was carved, the Drilling Air Bullet would release its shape, sending a veritable wall of cutting air out in a wide area. In a lot of ways, it was similar to Kakuzu's own ultimate wind technique – it was difficult to not do so, given that, with little exception, many ninjutsu had the same effect – but the initial, compact size of the attack made the follow-up explosion of air unexpected.

I'm gonna hope that hit him, thought the blond, though my luck so far would indicate that to be unlikely.

He was proven right when another flurry of bubbles came at him from his left. Naruto erected an earthen wall for them to pop against harmlessly before placing both palms against the hardened soil and pushing, sending it in the direction of the assault. It slammed into the nearest tree, which creaked and toppled backwards. Utakata jumped to the ground, bubble blower held at the ready. There was a tense moment as both combatants stared at each other, waiting for the other to make a move.

The whistling of wind caused both shinobi to turn in the direction Naruto had launched the Kussaku Kūkidan. A gale-force tempest swept through the area, picking up the pair and throwing them into a tumble with a pile of broken bark and branches. Naruto groaned and rubbed his head as he picked himself out of the debris of wood. "Nngh…damn…I already took out the Kiri-nin. There shouldn't be any Konoha-nin this far out in the Land of Fire right now…who the hell else would interfere with my business?"

"Heheh, check it out! It's the little blond shitstain!"

Naruto felt his eye begin to spasmodically twitch. No…no fucking way…

He looked up and saw the telltale black cloak with red clouds of Akatsuki. "Astute as usual, Hidan," came the dry retort. Kakuzu's strange green eyes focused intently on Naruto. "Hello, brat."

Kakuzu would admit to being surprised at running into his blond pupil; the world was vast, and the likelihood of actually encountering his legacy considering their current assignments was small to be sure. The sheer irony that they were both chasing the same target was a huge coincidence, though massively amusing.

Judging by the expression on the younger thread-user's face, Naruto did not share such sentiment. "What the hell are you doing here?!"

Kakuzu smirked behind his mask, distinctly aware that he should feel insulted, yet more entertained by his student's ire. "Hunting."

Naruto's blue eyes shifted briefly to the pile of tree debris that Utakata was – presumably – buried under before returning to stare at his teacher. "No you don't! That bastard is mine!" he declared, pointing in the former Kiri-nin's direction. "And how did you even find this guy, anyway?"

The former Taki-nin remained unaffected by Naruto's anger. Truthfully, Pein had contacted him a number of days ago with some information about the Rokubi while he and Hidan had (again) been venturing across the Land of Frost. Apparently, one of Sasori's spies in the Hidden Mist – and Kakuzu privately marveled at how expansive and well-developed the puppeteer's spy network was – had filed a mission which detailed the departure of a squad of oinin to the Tsuchigumo Village, where a previous team of hunters had disappeared. Based on that, he and Hidan had immediately headed for the Land of Fire to ascertain the veracity of the claim.

Of course, the bounty hunter had no intention of letting his protégé know any of that. "Talent…something which you apparently still lack."

Naruto's lip curled a little at the insult. "I swear…" he started, lifting his finger towards his mentor, "I will fight you over this, Kakuzu. I already owe you one for putting me in the Bingo Book…this guy's mine."

"Heh, I'd like to see you try, blondie," Hidan interjected, removing his scythe from his back.

"Your attempt at fighting us would be quite…amusing," Kakuzu agreed, skating over his pupil's accusation, "but I would prefer to save my energy for an actual challenge." He tilted his head to one side curiously. "I am mildly surprised to see you looking as well as you do."

"Why?" Naruto asked, suspicious. "This guy's pretty skilled, but he's nothing I can't handle."

Kakuzu, for once, chose to ignore the setup Naruto had (unknowingly) given him. "…You have no idea who he is, do you?"

The blond arched one eyebrow. "Utakata, bubbler-user of Kirigakure, worth 50 million ryō."

There was a loud roar, followed by a wave of foul chakra and then the hissing of something disintegrating. Naruto looked over to where Utakata was supposed to be buried to find a vaguely-humanoid form covered in red-black skin, six oblong tails protruding from the base of its spine. "He is the Jinchūriki of the Rokubi," Kakuzu intoned, "and it appears that he can excrete a sort of acidic substance which burns anything which it comes into contact with. Interesting."

He took a step towards the transformed Jinchūriki, but Naruto's protesting shout caused him to stop. "Hey, I told you that he's mine! Jinchūriki or not, I found him first, and I'm the one who's gonna get the money!"

Kakuzu spared him a dry look. Part of the danger (and aggravation) Naruto posed was that he was nothing more than a child in an adult's/adolescent's body; take away his toys, tell him not to do something, let an idea that he couldn't do something (take vengeance upon Konoha, for instance) fester long enough, and he would do anything to prove the naysayer wrong. "Do not challenge me, brat. Find a target more suitable to your skill level…a Kusagakure Chūnin, for instance." Naruto growled and charged the man, tired of his teacher's insults. Simultaneously, a stream of bubbles exited Utakata's gaping maw.

The bounty hunter blocked his pupil's first strike and punched him in the solar plexus with the other hand. He grabbed the blond by the neck and spun, launching him into the air above Utakata. As the transformed Jinchūriki looked up, Kakuzu went through hand seals, causing his wind heart to appear on his shoulder and launch a Fūton: Atsugai in the boys' direction. The approaching bubbles popped instantly, sliced by the sharpest element, and Utakata slid back a number of feet.

Naruto, airborne, was picked up by the gale-force winds and hurled far into the surrounding trees.

Kakuzu watched expressionlessly as his student fell away. "Stay back, Hidan," he warned. "The rights to this Jinchūriki belong to me."

Naruto returned to alertness after several minutes, distinctly aware of how uncomfortable he was. Kakuzu had pressed some sort of nerve in his neck which had caused him to temporarily black out, and his body had landed in a tree, limbs splayed awkwardly across several different branches. "I hate him," he muttered, knowing it wasn't true but feeling vindicated regardless. No matter what Kakuzu did, Naruto would always find himself in the man's debt for rescuing him and helping him to grow. Each put up with the crap the other dished out…it was just how they operated. The blond just happened to be on the receiving end more than his teacher.

None of that prevented him from being pissed at his mentor for taking over his fight, but that was quite beside the point.

In the distance, Naruto saw a bluish-white, rounded head crest the treetops. He squinted at the figure. Is that…the Rokubi? Way to go, Kakuzu, he thought sarcastically, rolling his eyes.

It only took a moment to right himself and descend to the ground. "Alright, here's what's gonna happen…I'm gonna let Kakuzu wear him down, and then, when he least expects it, I'll swoop in and steal his thunder, just like he did to me. Yeah…victory and vengeance…I can't wait to— HEY!"

Wood sprouted from the earth and boxed in the blond, trapping him in a solid cube with no slits or air holes. "Of course," he sighed, voice resounding in the enclosed space, "the party wouldn't be complete without you, Tenzō."

"Greetings, Jinchūriki," he heard the man say.

"How'd you find me?"

"I felt a Bijū's chakra being emitted, and so followed it here. I had thought it might be you, but…" The Konoha-nin trailed off, and Naruto imagined that he was perhaps gazing in the direction of the Rokubi. "Hokage-sama would probably find two Jinchūriki more useful than one. With a limited supply of air, you will eventually succumb to oxygen deprivation, allowing me to restrain the other Jinchūriki. You will not be able to break out of my Mokuton ninjutsu."

Naruto knew his enemy was right; his head was already starting to feel a little fuzzy. Previous experience had taught him that the man's Wood Release affinity was extraordinarily durable and that cutting through it with something like wind chakra was out of the question. Not only would Tenzō have reinforced the prison holding him due to his prior escapes, but as a dual-element, Wood Release would be stronger than either Earth or Water Release separately.

Fortunately, he realized with sudden clarity, he also had a dual-element Bloodline Limit at his disposal. Even better, the lightning element of Storm Release was strong against the earth portion of Wood Release, and the water parts would cancel. Naruto had the advantage.

Cramped as he was in the cube, the blond decided he would have to activate the technique on his own power instead of Jiongu's. He used the threads to resituate the appropriate heart in his chest, and immediately he could sense both the prickle of lightning and fluidity of water. Forming seals, he channeled chakra until a nimbus of glowing energy formed around his hands. "Ranton: Hikari Taihō!"

A blast of blue-white light – two feet in diameter – exploded from his hands and gouged a hole through the front wall of his prison. When the Storm Release: Light Cannon ended, Naruto wriggled his way out of the wooden construct and somersaulted to his feet. "That was pretty cool," he admitted, admiring the trail of destruction that disappeared into the forest. "Now, where'd that bas— ah!"

Tenzō melded out of the earth before Naruto, his right shoulder and bicep missing a piece of sleeve and bearing a burn mark. "You're skilled," the ANBU told Naruto, or more specifically, the blond's head; he had just been buried up to his chin in dirt. "At the very least, your mastery of the elements is…quite impressive." He withdrew his sword from its sheath and held it so the handle was facing Naruto, then brought it down in a swift movement to knock him out.

A wall of earth rose in front of the blond's head, catching the ANBU's wrist before it connected. The ground began to quake, and in short order, Naruto was free from his confines, sitting atop his earth heart thread-creature. "I know," he stated a bit smugly. "You should tell my teacher you think so." The thread-creature broke Tenzō's wrist, but the man's form became wooden and immobile. "Moku Bunshin no Jutsu…damn, this guy's good." He took off his second shirt and looped it around his waist so it wouldn't get lost or ruined. "But I have a fight to get back to and a teacher to piss off, so…" The bandages around his arm were completely shredded as both limbs extended, the masks for his fire and storm elements becoming situated in the spread of threads to either side of his head (his wind heart now residing in his chest); in the process, his earth heart remerged with his body. A tongue of tendrils slipped out of his mouth, forked like a serpent's. "Come and get me," he hissed.

Wooden tendrils arced towards him from the left, and Naruto jumped to the right as his storm mask released a thin beam of light that spliced through the attack. The blond performed hand signs, exhaling a blast of wind right after his fire mask unleashed a wave of flames, turning the surrounding foliage into cinders.

Tremors shook the earth, forcing Naruto to use his elongated limbs to stretch for an intact tree and hang there while the ground split open. He swung over the chasm Tenzō's technique had created and found purchase on a bough on the opposite side, where the Leaf shinobi's initial attack had come from. Blue eyes searched the landscape for any sign of an approaching assault.

They widened in surprise when his periphery caught Tenzō emerging from his tree's trunk, mere feet away, hands formed into some sort of massive wooden mallet. The man brought the makeshift weapon to bear, and Naruto found himself immensely thankful to Jiongu, whose threads came from around his back to take the brunt of the blow. Still, the force of it sent him plummeting to the ground below, where earthen spikes awaited him.

Naruto called upon the threads to encompass him, and they jumped to do his bidding, encasing him in a sphere of black that, hardened by his chakra, cocooned him from Tenzō's trap. When the tendrils returned to their previous state, the blond found himself surrounded by the broken remains of rocky stalagmites.

"Those threads are very durable," echoed Tenzō's voice, "and versatile."

You have no idea. Based on observing the man's actions, he had an idea for a trap that would end the fight. He fully extruded his fire and lightning hearts (the fifth one still stored on his back, underneath the threads) and had the creatures start scouring the forest, unleashing ninjutsu to force the ANBU out of hiding. While his enemy was (presumably) distracted, Naruto slipped his earth heart out from his back and into the ground via the Hiding in Rock Technique.

Eventually, the flashes of lightning and fire that were tearing through the forest ceased, and Naruto was fully prepared when a wooden beam sprouted from the earth and twined around his body. It stopped suddenly at his hips, and then the ground shook and exploded upward in a shower of soil.

The thread-creature that housed his earth heart had Tenzō trapped within its body, tendrils of Jiongu holding his arms to the side in a sort of crude crucifixion meant to prevent the Konoha-nin from forming seals. Naruto remained where he was, but recalled both his fire and lightning hearts, and allowed the kinjutsu sprouting from his body to bury under his skin, returning his appearance to normal; the masks took their rightful places on his back. He continued to stay motionless, waiting to see if Tenzō had some sort of way out and was waiting for him to become more vulnerable to enact it. When that didn't happen for several minutes, he took a step forward until he was only feet from where the man was restrained.

"So, it's come to this. You've been a bit of a thorn in my side, you know? But I guess I should thank you. After all, because of you, I'm about to get my hands on one of the most powerful kekkei genkai the world has ever known." He paused, then tilted his head to the side, as if considering an interesting curio. "I guess Konoha has done more for me than I originally gave it credit for. My thanks," he finished sardonically, pretending to doff a hat. Then he held out his arm, and Jiongu's threads reached out to writhe into his enemy's body.

There were only so many rules in ANBU, but the chief one was that, if an operative got caught or was mortally wounded, said person destroyed his body. It was unforgivable to allow any secrets of the Hidden Leaf to fall into the enemy's hands. That rule was even more important for Tenzō, who was the only inheritor of the Shodai Hokage's famed Mokuton bloodline. Most ANBU were taught a seal to perform to do so.

Tenzō had been ordered to create wood clone after wood clone and have them die in order to make sure he could perform the action seal-lessly.

His body burst into blue flames, and soon there was nothing left of the ANBU known as Tenzō. Naruto gaped openly, eventually using a mild water jutsu to put out the fire on the thread-creature possessing his earth heart. It returned to his body like all the others as the blond bemoaned the loss of such a powerful kekkei genkai.

Then he turned to face the area where the roundish figure of a blue-white blob could still be seen. At least something still has the potential to go right.

Kakuzu jumped back as his wind and water hearts expelled their respective elements, creating a powerful barrier against the wave of acidic fluid that barreled towards him. He was in a mid-range form that utilized his remaining elemental masks without putting his actual body in jeopardy (unlike the long-armed, two-hearted form, which used the limbs' reach to attack the opponent).

The old nukenin had decided to disallow his useful thread-creatures to roam free when his fire heart had been vaporized in a stream of alkaline solution emitted by the Six-Tails.

Now the former Taki-nin had a sort of shell of threads sprouting from his back and protecting as high as his neck (his Akatsuki cloak had been discarded to the side long ago). His water, lightning, and wind hearts were fixed in the spread of threads over each shoulder (the latter two over the right one); otherwise, he looked much like he usually did.

Jiongu on its own had proven to be surprisingly ineffective against the Jinchūriki-turned-Bijū, as the massive slug possessed a layer of viscous slime that made anything it touched dissolve upon contact. In addition, the creature's body was rather malleable, making it semi-impervious to both taijutsu (not that that was really an option, due to the slime) and other physically-reliant attacks, such as any Earth Release ninjutsu the bounty hunter had tried to use.

Hidan had also proven to be, predictably, rather useless, even after disregarding his partner's warning to not get involved. Unlike the Nibi, the Rokubi wasn't made of chakra he could collect, and his triple-bladed scythe couldn't dig into the slug's squishy skin.

Kakuzu was grateful for his massive chakra capacity and the wide variety of ninjutsu in his arsenal, because otherwise the battle wouldn't have been going nearly as well as it was. Still, he needed some sort of method to actually inflict damage on the Rokubi; large reserves aside, Kakuzu had little doubt that a Bijū could outlast him in the chakra department.

"Utakata's MINE, Kakuzu!"

A powerful beam of bright light accompanied this shout, striking the Rokubi's back and causing the massive blue-white slug to unleash a gurgling shriek. Naruto used the moment of distraction to rush past the Tailed Beast and confront his teacher, a nimbus of glowing energy surrounding his hands. Kakuzu eyed the unusual chakra with his usual detachment. "You took far longer than I expected to return," he noted. "Your skills have become even more mediocre than I imagined possible."

Naruto ignored the slight. "I had some interference…but nothing will prevent me from claiming what's mine." Blue eyes glinted with steely determination. "Not even you."

"Yes, so you have said," returned the nukenin dryly. Another wind and water collaboration held off another attack from the Rokubi, allowing Kakuzu to consider his options. The former Taki-nin would prefer not to fight both the blond and the Bijū simultaneously, as the massive slug would require most of his concentration to bring down. But if his pupil wanted to stake his claim to the Jinchūriki, perhaps there was a way to manipulate his legacy into helping him… "I would like to propose collaborating to provide a mutually-beneficial conclusion."

"…You want to work together? You?" The blond paused, considering the idea. A smirk suddenly came over his features. "You can't take that thing on by yourself," he realized.

"I am perfectly capable of doing such a thing," Kakuzu retorted, a bit testily, "but given your…desire…to continue your quest, this seems the most prudent course of action. Otherwise I can just neutralize your pathetic hide and go about this laborious task myself. Take it or leave it."

Naruto waffled for a moment before acquiescing, though his expression was sour. Even if he truly wanted to take down Utakata – or the beast he had transformed into – by himself, he was smart enough to acknowledge that if Kakuzu was having problems, he would have the same issues; despite all his blustering, he was aware of the fact that Kakuzu was still stronger than him, though admitting it chaffed horribly. "You've been fighting this thing, so…what's the plan?"

"The Rokubi is covered in an acidic slime that makes its body resistant to most attacks," Kakuzu explained. "I believe that a strong fire attack would take care of it and make the Bijū vulnerable to an assault."

"Well, why haven't you tried that yet?"

"My heart was destroyed," explained the older shinobi, scowling, "and while I can perform the required techniques without it, I might as well take advantage of you being here."

Naruto didn't bother responding, instead running through seals, biting his thumb, and slamming his palm onto the ground. Kamegōka appeared in a cloud of smoke. The chameleon inhaled as the blond began to run through more seals. "Ready?" he asked his teacher, holding the Tiger seal; Kakuzu merely snorted in response. "Katon: Hibashiri no Jutsu!"

Streams of fire came out of his mouth and raced along the ground, creating a ring of flames that surrounded the Rokubi; simultaneously, Kamegōka released his own breath of fire that joined his summoner's. Beside him, Kakuzu performed hand signs and the wind mask opened its beak to reveal a spiraling mass of air. "Fūton: Atsugai."

The addition of the Pressure Damage technique to the conflagration already around the Bijū caused the flames to rise into a blazing inferno. Both thread-users could hear the high-pitched burbling of the massive slug from inside the whirlwind of fire. "Attack," Kakuzu intoned, forming more hand signs. "Uzumaki no Jutsu."

It took every ounce of self-control Naruto had to not say something about his teacher's technique. He twisted his fingers through the seals for the Ranton: Hikari Taihō as a combination of wind, water, and lightning from Kakuzu's three hearts pierced the wall of flames and assailed the Rokubi; the bluish-white energy beam followed shortly thereafter, resulting in an increase in the Bijū's wailing.

It took several minutes for the vortex of fire to taper out, and when it did, the blue-white form of the Rokubi had also disappeared. In the slug's place was a red-skinned and unconscious Utakata, his blue kimono absent and his black pants charred. "You know, we make a pretty good team," Naruto mentioned, blue eyes staring at the immobile form of his quarry.

Kakuzu grunted, absorbing the tendrils of his kinjutsu back into his body and allowing his masks to settle on his back. "Do not get used to such an event. I am already forced to put up with one moron…I would prefer not to make a habit of getting involved with another."

Naruto waved a hand to dismiss both Kamegōka and Kakuzu's comment and peered around the area. "Hey, where is Hidan, anyway?"

The older thread-user picked up his Akatsuki cloak and put it on. "He was interfering in my assignment, so I was forced to…get rid of him."

"You killed him?"

"If only. He is simply indisposed." Kakuzu walked over and picked up Utakata, hefting the adolescent over his shoulder. "Your help was…appreciated," he granted slowly, as if the word was distasteful. "Now, I must find my…partner."

Naruto withheld a snort of amusement at the disgust in his teacher's voice; clearly his opinion of Hidan hadn't improved. "Hey, wait." His teacher stopped and rolled his shoulder to indicate he was listening. "Let me take him to Pein. I still want the bounty on his head."

Kakuzu seemed to consider his offer for a moment before – in a gesture that surprised the blond – dropping Utakata on the ground. "I will be contacting Pein to let him know of your impending arrival."

The blond blinked; he hadn't really expected that to work. "Uh…thanks."

"Your platitudes are meaningless."

"Of course they are," he muttered. He opened his mouth to say something to the taller nukenin about how old his Bingo Book was, or how he hadn't appreciated being added to the Bingo Book himself, but then stopped. On a day where Kakuzu was being strangely amiable (at least in this moment), the blond was better off not pushing his luck. He could silently curse his mentor for what he had done – regardless of the fact that he had received the Ranton element due to him – but Kakuzu would probably turn it around on him and make a snide comment that was likely to break their temporary moratorium. Perhaps he was just better off leaving with his prize while he still had the opportunity.

Besides, somehow, Kakuzu always seemed to have his best interests at heart, even if the way he showed it was rather…unconventional. "Thanks," Naruto said again, not quite sure what he was referring to; his gratitude seemed a good thing to offer to cover the blanket of things his teacher had done for him. Kakuzu merely inclined his head and left to go (presumably) find Hidan. Naruto bent down and slung the other Jinchūriki over his shoulder before taking off to Otogakure.

Zetsu ran into him part of the way back to Otogakure – probably at Pein's behest – and took the Rokubi Jinchūriki, stating that it was better to seal the creature before the male awoke. Naruto took his time returning to the Hidden Sound, making it back in a little more than a day. In an effort to wait out the sealing ritual, the blond merely wandered around town until the time came for him to return for the bounty.

He was leaning against the inner wall of Pein's tower when Konan eventually appeared from a hidden stairwell two days later. The blue-haired woman walked past him and out into the village, and after several minutes, Akatsuki's leader appeared. Pein stopped and stared at him with his strange, grey eyes. "You may take the body at your convenience," he intoned.


The blond made his way for the stairwell, but Pein's hand on his shoulder stopped him. "Before you do that," he began, "we have things to discuss."

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