The Cost of Living

Legacy

13 years later

Uzumaki Naruto, Nidaime Amekage, sat at his desk in the tower which had once belonged to Hanzō the Salamander. Blue eyes skimmed the report held in his hand, a message about Kumogakure's most recent attempt at amassing an army. He crumpled the paper in one hand and tossed it over his shoulder with a resigned sigh.

"You shouldn't just trash everything after you're finished reading it."

Naruto spared a glance at Harō, standing beside his desk with the twin katana Kiba lashed to their usual place on his back. He graced his cobalt-haired friend with a wry twitch of his lips. "Why bother? You know that I only receive copies, and it's not like much ever changes. Eventually, someone will have to go out and scare them back into submission. Honestly, I don't even know why you continue to tell me to save these things."

"Because it's my job," Harō replied, "and because I believe it's important for you to carry on the legacy that Pein-sama began."

Naruto swiveled in his chair and faced the window that had eventually filled the hole Pein had created in the building. Rain pattered a steady beat against it, and the blond was reminded of exactly what had happened following Pein's ultimatum at the Kage Summit.

Pein's prediction about the positions of the Kages had been accurate. Naruto, Fū, and the rest of Akatsuki had been deployed on missions to spy on and interfere with the plans of the major Hidden Villages (the minor ones such as Hidden Frost and Hidden Grass had been approached by some of the more diplomatic members, such as Konan, or been influenced by one of Sasori's spies to accept unconditional surrender to Akatsuki) to ascertain that they would abide by Pein's wishes. Pein had explained that, while possible to simply impose his will upon the other nations via his kinjutsu, it was preferable to simply have the existing Kages bend to his demands by more subtle methods, such as guerrilla subterfuge.

Naruto and Fū were rather grateful for such a decision, as they had little desire to once again experience the excruciating torture the kinjutsu had inflicted upon their bodies.

Though the reaction had been subtle, Naruto thought that Pein had been a little surprised at Akatsuki's agreement to continue with his plans, though each member had done so based on personal reasons. Deidara had been excited at the prospect of being able to cause more destruction via his art, and Sasori had followed in an effort to add to his puppet collection. Kakuzu had stipulated that he would get all money he acquired from whatever bounties he killed (which Pein had no issues with), and Hidan had tagged along because traveling with the taller shinobi tended to provide him with more sacrifices for Jashin. Itachi hadn't offered an explanation, merely stating that he and Kisame would watch over Kirigakure's movements; Zetsu had simply wanted to cause mischief and try new foods.

Out of all the Hidden Villages, only Sunagakure hadn't needed any sort of continuous overseeing, the Kazekage abiding by her decision to support Pein. In fact, not long after the Kage Summit, the Kazekage had requested the assistance of Akatsuki in quelling a small rebellion within the Hidden Sand. Some of the people hadn't been overly happy with her decision to kowtow to Pein's demands, and she had explained that having Akatsuki come in to quash the uprising would more effectively convey her position than potentially starting a civil war within the village by doing it herself would.

Naruto and Fū – both dressed in the black cloak with red clouds of Akatsuki (and how strange it felt, to be wearing that uniform) – had been deployed (Hidan was too violent, Sasori still retained a grudge against Sunagakure, and Kisame and Itachi were too far away) to handle the matter. They had done so easily enough, and to the surprise of both Jinchūriki, the Kazekage had (privately) thanked them afterwards for their assistance and then told them to reassure Pein of her adherence to his demands.

Following that, the two Jinchūriki often left on different bounty hunting expeditions meant to deprive the remaining villages of valuable shinobi, thus lowering their ability to resist Pein's stipulations. They returned to Amegakure frequently to report back to Pein and find out the status of the ninja world, and after having two years to settle into a routine, Naruto's presence was requested by the orange-haired man.

The blond made his way through Amegakure to Pein's tower, having been enjoying a brief rest at the house he and Fū shared, courtesy of the orange-haired man himself. The pair of Jinchūriki had been dating (though the term had a very loose definition for shinobi) since shortly after Pein had exerted his control over the Hidden Rain, and although the relationship had been strange in the beginning, it had settled into something comfortable that Naruto enjoyed being a part of.

His thoughts were derailed when Konan greeted him in Pein's place. She beckoned for him to follow her, and he did so silently, wondering as to the peculiarity when the blue-haired woman led him to the building next door. They climbed up to the top floor, where Konan moved aside and allowed him entrance to a room he'd never seen before. The door slid shut behind her, and in the dim lighting, Naruto could barely make out the distinct forms of what appeared to be six pods. "What is this place?" he wondered.

"My sanctuary," came the reply, the voice sounding strangely tired. Naruto squinted into the darkness, but a light flickered on above him to reveal an emaciated man strapped to a strange machine, limp red hair hanging about his face. "Welcome, Uzumaki Naruto."

The Jinchūriki slowly walked through the room, glancing into the pods as he passed. Each one was occupied by a black-clad figure with orange hair in varying styles, multiple facial piercings, and the strange eyes Pein possessed. He vaguely recognized the body which had met with him and Harō to fight Hanzō, as well as the spiky-haired form of the man he had come to associate with Akatsuki's leader. Konan passed him and came to stand beside the red-haired man. "This place…that body…" his eyes darted to look at the spiky-haired form before returning to the figure before him. "You're the real Pein?"

"You could say that. 'Pein' is merely an alias with which to spread my ideals. I am Nagato…and I have been leading Akatsuki since before you were born."

Nagato's speech was slow and methodical, and combined with his poor physical condition, Naruto wondered how old he really was. "Well…I guess I should thank you, then. You know, for not killing Fū and me."

"Your gratitude is unnecessary, given your continued loyalties. I believe it is I who should thank you for your dedication to my vision." He was interrupted by a fit of violent coughing, and the blond could see a trickle of blood dribbling from his lips.

Naruto almost asked if the older man was okay, but the answer to that question seemed obvious. Konan also appeared visibly concerned – which was a change, given her usual stoic demeanor – standing a little closer than necessary to Nagato and sparing him a worried glance. Instead, the Jinchūriki waited until Nagato appeared settled before voicing the question on his mind. "If I might ask, why did you call me here?"

Nagato nodded slowly. "Yes, to business. I am not long for this world…the consequences of using the Gedō Mazō have reduced by body to the sight you see before you. As such, the title of Amekage needs to be passed on in order to maintain the balance of power amongst the nations. I am appointing you as my successor."

There was silence in the room as both Akatsuki members stared at Naruto, who appeared to be processing Nagato's words. He blinked. "…What?" Then he blinked again, and the message seemed to penetrate the haze pervading his mind. "WHAT?"

"You will become the Nidaime Amekage," Nagato reiterated.

"But…but…I don't know anything about being a Kage," protested Naruto. "I'm a hunter, not a ruler…I'm not even twenty yet! Why me? Why not…Konan?" he floundered, pointing at the blue-haired woman.

"Konan has decided to oversee the populace of Otogakure, which will remain allied with Amegakure," Nagato replied. "She doesn't feel she has the…constitution…to remain here in a position of power." Truthfully, Konan had confided that she didn't think remaining in control of the country her two closest friends had grown up in and died for was something she could handle, and that passing the torch on to Naruto and supporting him from a distance was the best idea. The redhead continued, "In addition, when my…absence…is discovered by the other Kages, Konan's reputation, even as a member of Akatsuki, will not prevent them from rebelling against Amegakure even harder than now. You, as the Kyūbi Jinchūriki, possess such a reputation.

"You also believe in the ideals of myself and my friend" Nagato's eyes flickered over to the spiky-haired body's pod, and Naruto wondered if that Pein was Yahiko, "—making you a prime candidate to uphold the beliefs we have strived so hard to achieve. Your strength and your charisma will continue to keep the people of Amegakure free from strife and war."

"What about the Bijū?"

Nagato shook his head. "You will be unable to utilize the Bijū kinjutsu that was employed to destroy Konohagakure. I will speak to the other members of Akatsuki about their role in the future, but I would not assume their cooperation upon my demise. You will have to stand on your own power in order to maintain peace."

Naruto grimaced a little at that – the losses of half a dozen S-class nukenin and the threat of the Bijū technique were mighty ones – but considered the offer. He hadn't been trained to be a diplomat; the only thing he really knew was how to kill…how to stay alive. Then again, the past two years alone had given him a fair idea of how the other countries operated under Pein's threat, making him aware of what he could expect from them as the Amekage. Plus, he still had Fū and Harō at his side, not to mention Konan for support, and a tentative alliance with Sunagakure…

He sighed, but looked up at Nagato with determined blue eyes. "Fine…I'll do it."

Nagato had passed away not long afterwards, bequeathing the title of Amekage to Naruto in a public announcement so as to assure there wouldn't be another civil war within the Hidden Rain. Konan had left to Otogakure, and with the loss of its leader – not to mention Itachi, who had died some time before Pein due to an illness – Akatsuki had disintegrated.

Rumors had still abounded of the activities of men dressed in black cloaks with red clouds, and Naruto had often received intelligence reports of a potential uprising in one of the other Hidden Villages, only to be followed several days later by the quelling of said uprising, with evidence of massive explosions or missing organs or no visible external injuries decorating the corpses of murdered shinobi. He and Fū had continued to run missions to instill the fear of the living Jinchūriki into the hearts of his enemies, and Harō had become both his adviser and an infiltration specialist (when the situation called for such skills).

None of them had ever run into any of the former Akatsuki members, and Naruto wasn't sure whether to be relieved or disheartened at the lack of contact. In a strange way, he sort of missed his old teacher, though he doubted Kakuzu shared the same sentiment.

Suddenly, the trapdoor that opened into his office slammed against the floor with a bang, causing the blond to turn around and raise an eyebrow at the panting Ame-nin now in the room. "Amekage-sama," gasped the shinobi, "in-intruder! Tall…bl-black cloak…"

Before anything else could be said, black tendrils emerged from the opening in the floor and wound around the man. He was lifted into the air as a large figure ascended the stairs into the room, an unconscious Rain shinobi wrapped in more tendrils being dragged along behind him. "Hello, brat," greeted Kakuzu. "Your security is lacking."

Naruto sat in his chair with a small grin in place. Speak of the devil… "There aren't many people who can stand up to you, Kakuzu-ojii-san."

WHAM!

"The years apart have not taught you much," Kakuzu growled, retracting his hand from his pupil's scalp and letting the blond raise his head off the desk; a round, red mark decorated the center of his forehead, repayment for the barb at the former Taki-nin's age.

Harō cleared his throat in an attempt to disperse the strange atmosphere in the room. "Ah, Kakuzu…if you could…" he gestured at the two shinobi in the man's grasp. The nukenin released his prisoners wordlessly, green eyes fixed on Naruto. Harō signaled to the single, conscious shinobi that everything was okay, and the man took his cue to leave, doing so in a great hurry.

Both thread-users engaged in a silent stare-down. Finally, Naruto said, "So…what're you doing here?"

"I have come to see if your mediocre skills have deteriorated."

A glint sparked in Naruto's blue eyes. "You're challenging me?"

"Yes, though I doubt it will be challenging."

Naruto stood up from his desk abruptly. "It's on."

Harō resisted the urge to slap his palm to his forehead. Even after over a decade of separation, Kakuzu and Naruto retained the same dynamic they'd had ever since he'd met them at the Chūnin Exams so long ago. The cobalt-haired male hurried after the duo, curious despite himself to see the outcome of the battle.


"So where's your other half?"

Behind his mask, Kakuzu scowled. Despite their animosity towards each other, Hidan had never left his side during his travels over the years. Kakuzu's assumption was that the Jashinist wished to somehow convert him to his religion, though he privately wondered if Hidan hadn't stuck around just to annoy him to death. "With your better half," he retorted.

Naruto grimaced at that, though it was more because the thought of Hidan in his household with Fū was a bad one than out of any animosity Kakuzu's barb was supposed to invoke. After Kirigakure had finally stopped trying to rebel against the ultimatum for peace several years ago (there had never been any conclusive evidence as to why it had stopped, although a mix of rumors involving Akatsuki and the loss of the Hidden Mist's legendary swordsmen and swords had spread like wildfire), he and his wife had decided to try for a second child. Their daughter was only three years old and still very impressionable, and Hidan's religious yammering and cussing would not be appreciated while Fū was watching over their youngest. That aside, Naruto hadn't actually expected such a definitive answer from Kakuzu. "I'm surprised…I thought for sure you would've left Hidan in pieces in a ditch somewhere."

Kakuzu almost laughed. Truthfully, the thought had crossed his mind after Pein had passed away and Akatsuki had been formally dissolved, but the qualities that made Hidan such a nuisance to deal with also made him quite useful in attracting attention. In turn, that made the process of collecting bounties much smoother, as he could reap in larger quantities at a time, and without having to spend time looking for wandering Jinchūriki, the nukenin's funds had increased dramatically. None of that prevented the Jashinist from taking forever with his rituals, or telling Kakuzu that he was going to go to Hell (again) for collecting money, but the former Taki-nin had solved those problems by either leaving Hidan behind to catch up or stitching his mouth shut.

Without any more orders to follow, Kakuzu had been free to once more enjoy the bounties of life, and even with Hidan trailing him everywhere, he had done so with aplomb.

The old nukenin watched his pupil unwrap the bandages on his left arm, noting that the outfit he wore was virtually unchanged from when they had competed over the Rokubi Jinchūriki so many years before. He had been…disappointed, perhaps, when Naruto had chosen to remain in Amegakure with Pein over the life of a free-roaming bounty hunter. Then again, Pein had offered the blond a good life, one that Kakuzu knew he couldn't match; as Itachi had said, Naruto's and Fū's lives were their own now, and Kakuzu's disposition probably made the idea of following in his footsteps an unappealing one to the two Jinchūriki. His original plan of molding Naruto into his second coming had been somewhat successful in execution, but had then stumbled a bit once the blond had taken up the post of Amekage.

The difference, he supposed, was that he lived to kill, while his pupil killed to live.

Kakuzu's thoughts had floated back to the younger thread-user every once in a while, sometimes when he took out some shinobi attempting to fight against the Hidden Rain, other times when he needed something to muse on to ignore Hidan. He hadn't been curious enough to intrude upon the lives of the two Jinchūriki – especially when places he and Hidan had visited often held whispers of destruction wreaked by the blond or green-haired demon containers – but each mention of their power made the nukenin's smirk grow a little wider. It was he who had spurred them to their current level of greatness, and every life they took held some signature of his name on it.

He wasn't sure exactly what the tipping point was, but after more than a decade of roaming the world completely free of responsibility, the tales of Naruto and grumblings about the Hidden Rain's power had piqued his interest enough to want to drop in on his pupil. Naruto might not have followed the path Kakuzu had wanted him to, but that didn't mean that all the lessons he'd been taught had gone to waste. Consider this your final exam, brat.

"This is a fight to the death," he informed his pupil. He unbuttoned his Akatsuki cloak and threw it to the side. "I hope your wife is prepared to be widowed."

Naruto smirked back at his teacher. "Did you kiss Hidan goodbye before you left him? I'm sure he'll miss his partner."

"…I will kill you for that comment alone."

Sitting on a pipe jutting out from a building high above the two shinobi, Harō watched as Kakuzu bent over and unleashed four masses of black threads from his back. The space they were fighting in was essentially a flat rock several hundred feet in diameter, completely surrounded by water and framed by buildings. It was the personal training area Naruto had claimed upon officially moving into Amegakure, and Harō had been his sparring partner often enough to know that the blond's skill was nothing to sneeze at.

Grey eyes flickered back to Kakuzu. Then again, Kakuzu is a powerful shinobi in his own right, and he probably taught Naruto a lot of what he knows. There's no telling what will happen.

Down below, Naruto wound through seals as Kakuzu's threads and masks settled into the strange forms he was familiar with. Four clones materialized, and almost immediately they abandoned their positions as wind, fire, lightning, and water rained down upon them. The blond ignored the varied elements, choosing instead to charge at the older man in a burst of speed.

"Whatever taijutsu you attempt will be worthless," Kakuzu commented. His arms extended in a staggered maneuver meant to catch the blond after he dodged the first fist, but Naruto dropped to his stomach instead.

"You never know," he retorted, sending his fists underground. They popped up with the intent of catching Kakuzu in an uppercut, but the former Taki-nin sidestepped with minimal effort, and the blond could almost picture his teacher rolling his eyes at the futility.

Kakuzu grabbed the tendrils extending from his pupil's forearms, preventing the Jinchūriki from retracting his limbs. He paused for a moment to observe Naruto, as if measuring his worth. "Given how easily you were maneuvered into this position, the outcome of this battle seems apparent. The title of 'Kage' seems to hold no meaning in this age." As he finished his verbal abuse, his fire mask interposed itself between the pair, a kernel of flames already formed in its mouth. "Katon: Zukkoku."

A massive explosion shook the air, and Harō wondered at the strength of both shinobi that he could feel the heat's intensity from his position. Kakuzu's attack was powerful, but the only reason the combustion had occurred on such a scale was because of Naruto.

Practice over the years and possession of all elemental affinities had granted Naruto a virtually-limitless arsenal of techniques. One of the ones he'd practiced with Harō had been the creation of a technique that could form several different types of clones in one movement, each one composed of a different element. The four doppelgangers he'd created at the beginning of the fight had been the result of that time, comprised of water, earth, storm, and wind. With the thread-creature blocking Kakuzu's sight of Naruto, the blond had replaced himself with the latter clone.

The mass of black threads that contained Kakuzu's wind heart flew above the cloud of smoke engulfing the battlefield and exhaled a gust that blew the haze away.

Naruto was revealed to be standing behind a rather large, red chameleon, his hand on the reptile's back. Kamegōka's head was tilted up at the flying thread-creature. "Yōton: Yōyūha!" Several waves of liquid magma erupted from the reptile's mouth, crashing over the airborne wind mask and melting it before it could move far enough away. "What was it you told me?" Naruto questioned, his tone mocking. "'Predictability kills'? You only have so many moves, Kakuzu-ojii-san, and I know all of them."

Kakuzu's brow furrowed in aggravation, though whether it was due to the loss of two of his hearts, Naruto's reference to his age, or the fact that the blond actually had a fair point was unclear. "You learned how to utilize combination attacks with your summons," he noted. "By supplying a chameleon with a fire affinity with earth chakra, you can produce Yōton ninjutsu…" He took a step forward, crushing the remnants of the fire mask that had been destroyed in the earlier explosion. The rest of Naruto's clones had also disappeared, though he remained unharmed due to activating the Earth Spear technique the moment Naruto's tendrils had disappeared from his grasp, signaling the blond's substitution. "And you managed to make a corporeal clone from an element as insubstantial as wind…a Kaze Bunshin…impressive." Green eyes narrowed to slits. "But the time for talking is over. You should have learned that with age comes experience…and you are still decades behind me."

"What are you" Naruto began, but Kakuzu had already blazed through seals, causing a thick mist to sprout into existence. Kirigakure no Jutsu? he wondered, but then a shortness of breath hit him and he went down to his knees, clutching his throat. What…is…this?

Unfamiliar with the technique Kakuzu was using, Naruto switched his wind and storm hearts to extrude the former, allowing it to unleash a burst of air that dispersed the mist in the immediate vicinity. He was able to take a heaping gulp of air before the void was filled, and this time, the blond could feel the vapor burning his skin. Reflexively activating the Earth Spear technique, Naruto looked behind him to find his thread-creature liquefying into a puddle of black goo.

"I believe that my Futton: Nōmu no Chissoku and Futton: Kōmu no Jutsu have proven you wrong," echoed Kakuzu's voice through the vapor, filled with condescension. Blue eyes went wide at that admission; the Suffocating Fog and Skilled Mist Technique were both ninjutsu of the Boil Release chakra nature, a kekkei genkai that was in the possession of only one individual, last he'd checked. His revelation was cut short as a wave of lava cascaded towards him, and he hastily sprouted wings composed of black threads to get airborne.

Jiongu bore him above the mist and allowed him to alight upon the water, well out of the range of the deadly vapor. Even though the evidence pointed to Naruto's suspicion being right, he couldn't stop himself from asking, "You…did you kill the?"

Curved vortexes of water rose to skewer him, and only his continued usage of the Earth Spear technique prevented him from being killed. Kakuzu came charging out of the mist, his remaining two masks placed in the spread of threads on his back that accompanied his change into the long-armed form. Both limbs lashed forward, boxing the blond in, and making him a prime target for Kakuzu's lightning heart to unleash a Lightning Release: False Darkness.

Naruto dropped the earth ninjutsu and encased himself in a Kazekyū, simultaneously negating the incoming electricity and blowing Kakuzu's arms away from his personal space. His earth heart slipped out of his body, and as it dove towards his teacher in a feint, Naruto allowed Jiongu to form around him in a parody of Kakuzu's form; his fire and water masks situated themselves above each shoulder. Bring it on, Kakuzu…this won't be like before.

To his shock, a massive length of black tendrils ripped through Kakuzu's sleeveless top and wound about his thread-creature. The mass containing his earth heart was ensnared within the kinjutsu's grasp and pulled into the yawning hole that had opened in Kakuzu's stomach; it vanished within, and the former Taki-nin's skin stitched itself back together. Naruto gaped openly for a moment before managing to ask, "How did you do that?"

"If you have to ask, then you are undeserving to know," retorted the nukenin.

Naruto scowled at that response – typical Kakuzu – and prepared himself for the next clash. He supposed that because he and Kakuzu were both carriers of Jiongu, which could easily transplant organs, it wasn't too far a stretch to assume that one thread-user could steal hearts – even previously-stolen ones – from another. After all, he remembered, he had transferred a heart into Kakuzu's corpse after the man had died; this was practically the same thing.

Still, it wasn't a move he would've expected. Now he knew to keep the rest of his hearts at his side; not only could Kakuzu steal them if they roamed autonomously as thread-creatures, but they were far more vulnerable in that state, and he was currently down two hearts to his teacher's one.

I can rectify that, he thought, but I'll need a couple seconds to charge, and the minute he sees me making seals, he'll attack.

That meant that he would have to take the offensive and find a way to stall his teacher long enough to get off his attack. He almost snorted at the likelihood of that actually happening, the playfulness and time for exchanging barbs with Kakuzu passed in light of the man's seriousness. Naruto flipped through hand signs, and sure enough, Kakuzu immediately attacked, a bolt of lightning surging forward from the appropriate mask; he summoned a Suiton: Suijinheki and jumped up. The liquid absorbed the current as Naruto sprouted black wings once more and soared over to the piece of land in the middle of the training area, the thick fog having vanished. Kakuzu – standing on a piece of hardened water that hadn't conducted the electricity – turned and allowed the water and lightning masks to shoot out a combination attack at the blond. He blocked with a mass of threads that twined together from his wrists, and then plummeted towards the ground, hardened fist poised to strike.

Harō's eyes went wide just before Naruto reached land with a shout of "Doton: Yurugasu Chijō no Jutsu!"

The cobalt-haired man looked around and found that several other Ame-nin had arrived on the scene to cheer on their leader, all of them watching from different perches on the surrounding pipes and buildings as he was. "Back up!" he yelled, jumping up to the rooftop as the shockwave from the Shattering Earth Technique struck. The rest of the Rain shinobi hastened to obey, and Harō returned his attention to the fight, waiting for the Amekage's successive ninjutsu; the triple attack Naruto was about to employ was impressive enough that the buildings they were all crouched on had only been rebuilt after Naruto had perfected his control of the combination.

Kakuzu looked to be regaining his equilibrium on the choppy water when the liquid parted into two towering waves that loomed over him momentarily. He surveyed the incoming deluge impassively, sparing his student a brief glance before forming seals. "Doton: Iwa no Hinansho."

Earth rose up and encapsulated him in a hemispheric shell as Naruto called out, "Suiton: Tsunami no Jutsu."

All the water that had been held up by Naruto's chakra crashed down upon the earthen dome, battering it relentlessly. Naruto, already aware that Kakuzu would survive, was preparing the third ninjutsu technique, wind whipping around him in a violent twister and picking up the surrounding water. As soon as Kakuzu surfaced – one hardened fist punching through his own defense and allowing him to utilize chakra to rise up – Naruto unleashed the wind and water assault, announcing, "Fūton: Taifū no Jutsu."

The twister surged forward and sucked Kakuzu into its vortex. Before the former Taki-nin was drawn too far into the technique, he laced his hands together into the sign of the Snake and intoned, "Doton: Kajūgan no Jutsu." He dropped like a stone through the tempest, falling into the water and releasing the technique to buoy back to the surface. Wet tangles of dark brown hair hung before his eyes, and he realized that somewhere in the slew of attacks, he had lost his forehead protector, head covering, and mask. "A rather ostentatious combination, but ultimately ineffective," he informed his pupil.

Not quite, Naruto thought, hands clasped together with a nimbus of bluish-white energy formed around it. Taking one last second to concentrate on what he was doing, he took a breath and released his hold on the technique. "Ranton: Reizā Sākasu!"

Beams of light erupted from the halo of energy that surrounded his hands, all of them targeting Kakuzu. Over time – and with a library of information Pein had recovered from Orochimaru – the blond had eventually learned the actual secret to utilizing the Storm Release kekkei genkai effectively. Split into separate beams, the Laser Circus technique wasn't exactly strong at killing humans – the Light Cannon did that job plenty well – but then again, Naruto's target wasn't Kakuzu himself.

Kakuzu raised a wall of water in a vain attempt at stalling the attack, but the energy simply penetrated the liquid and slammed into his body. The areas they struck burned slightly, but aside from that, there wasn't any real damage. It was only when a cracking sound emitted next to each ear that he realized the true targets; the sight of his lightning and water masks crumbling to the ground merely confirmed his suspicion. "So," he stated, returning the surrounding threads to his body and regaining his human form, "it seems your skill, meager though it was, has improved somewhat."

Naruto didn't bother responding.

It appears he is taking this seriously…good. Kakuzu's lips twitched minutely. Let us see who will emerge victorious, now that the endgame has begun. He collected chakra in his chest, feeling the roiling torrent of the fire and earth elements mixing together; if Naruto wanted to utilize his stolen kekkei genkai to get ahead, then Kakuzu would oblige his student by doing the same. "Yōton: Shakugaryūgan no Jutsu," he muttered.

Lava spewed forth from his mouth, forming into countless, flaming orbs. Naruto raised a thick wall of earth to protect himself from the Lava Release: Scorching Steam Rock Technique, but the miniature meteors smashed through it as if it was glass. The blond crossed his arms before his face and allowed the Earth Spear technique to absorb most of the impact, though every collision still jarred his body. When the assault finally stopped, he glanced up to find that a thick mist was obscuring his vision. He immediately recalled the two masks sitting on his shoulders back into his body and shifted them so that his water heart was in his chest; unsure as to how powerful the vapor's melting properties were, he summoned an armor of rock to cover his body, dropping the Earth Spear technique.

Silence reigned for a long moment, and then Kakuzu appeared out of the mist and delivered a brutal punch to Naruto's chest, shattering the stone covering with his strength. The blond grunted at the impact, skidding backwards a fair distance, and before he could completely recover, Kakuzu appeared in front of him and shot his hand into the opening he had created. Naruto realized the ploy for what it was just as threads began to creep around his heart. "I will take Kumogakure's vaunted Ranton kekkei genkai," Kakuzu informed him matter-of-factly.

This isn't Futton, it's just Kirigakure no Jutsu, Naruto concluded. Kakuzu's real goal was to assimilate another one of his hearts into his own body. Fuck that. He commanded his own kinjutsu to wind around the same heart his teacher was prepared to take – his water one – and squished it as a mask popped up over his shoulder, an orb of bluish-white light forming in its mouth. "Try…again…" he gasped, moving his fire heart to displace the ruined water one; so much simultaneous, internal body manipulation required focus, even taking into account Jiongu's sentience and his twenty years of experience with it.

Kakuzu's green eyes narrowed in aggravation at being denied his prize, and he jerked sideways to avoid the Storm Release: Light Cannon that erupted from Naruto's mask.

Fortunately, the movement saved him from taking the attack directly through the heart. However, the beam – only a couple of inches in diameter, formed smaller in order to catch Kakuzu off-guard – tore through the right side of his chest, blasting the mask containing Naruto's pilfered earth heart to smithereens. White porcelain crumbled to the ground as the Ranton heart returned to Naruto's body, the blond melding into the ground and resurfacing several dozen feet away to give himself time to regroup.

Kakuzu felt the spot where the energy beam had gone through, feeling more than seeing the threads of Jiongu stitch the wound close. Intelligent, to not allow me access to his hearts in order to replenish my own. The brat has certainly grown smarter…

Similarly, Naruto ran a hand over the spot Kakuzu had inserted his hand, failing to repress a shudder at the invasive feel of his teacher's kinjutsu in his body. There was something distinctly wrong about what had just occurred, and though he wanted a long shower to rid himself of the feeling, he knew that his focus had to be entirely on what the old bounty hunter was planning next. Kakuzu was unlikely to give up on trying to get at least one of his hearts in order to gain the upper hand.

But… he could take advantage of that moment, he realized. After all, in the previous exchange, both had lost a heart, but Naruto was still up one heart on his teacher. If he could maneuver the former Taki-nin into a position where his greed for a heart would override his other impulses, then the blond could do another one-for-one trade-off and still emerge victorious.

He finalized his decision just as Kakuzu finished a series of hand seals, and suddenly the water surrounding the flat rock they were on began to bubble and boil, steam rising off it in waves. Naruto could feel the heat emanating from the pool of hot liquid from his position far from the edge of the rock, and he wondered if people possessing advanced chakra natures such as Boil or Lava Release were born immune to the sweltering temperatures incited by their bloodlines.

The water level began to slowly rise, and Naruto knew he needed to put his plan into action immediately in order to stop whatever tactic his teacher was trying to employ. Wind swirled around him to materialize into a trio of Kaze Bunshin, all of whom charged at Kakuzu to engage in a taijutsu battle. They wouldn't stand too much of a chance, because the older male was far better with hand-to-hand combat than he was, but they merely needed to stall for several seconds.

With Kakuzu temporarily distracted, the Kyūbi Jinchūriki sprouted black wings from his back and took to the air, rising above the man and extruding his fire heart, leaving his storm one in his chest cavity. An orb of flame formed in the mask's mouth, and Kakuzu seemed to know what was going to happen, for he immediately ran through seals. A hollow pillar of magma erupted from the earth with him at the epicenter, aimed to engulf the blond.

There was a huge buffet of air as Naruto's Wind Clones were dispersed by the technique. Instead of using slicing wind, the blond had created these doppelgangers with blunt air, and Kakuzu – eyes on his pupil – was blown off his feet by the force of the currents. From his position on his back, he observed Naruto's fire thread-creature sacrifice itself to his Lava Release: Eruption Technique, the blond releasing a full-body Violent Wind Palm to propel himself towards the ground.

As Naruto descended upon him, years of instincts had his skin take on the dark discoloration of the Earth Spear technique. Whatever plan his blond pupil had, there were only a handful of techniques that could actually break through the hardening maneuver, and – given the blond's propensity for wind jutsu – he doubted his protégé's idea took that factor into account.

A second later, the former Taki-nin was surprised when he felt the threads of Jiongu pierce his hardened flesh. Naruto knelt over him with numerous black tendrils extending from the stitches in his forearms, the blue-white lightning crackling down their lengths giving them the appearance of live wires. The kinjutsu had perforated his legs, arms, and torso, keeping him pinned to the ground, and one more was quivering a hair's breadth from his last heart. Clever, Kakuzu allowed, channeling chakra through Jiongu in order to negate the defensive properties of Doton: Domu.

"Predictability kills," Naruto told him quietly. His blue eyes were hard with resolve, and Kakuzu met them with a measured gaze.

After a moment, he laughed darkly. "How true," he granted, closing his eyes. So, it appears as if the pupil has surpassed the master. He has exceeded the expectations I had for him. Naruto was no longer the young boy he'd taken from the forests of the Land of Fire, nor was he the childish adolescent fighting for his mentor's approval and the destruction of a village which had slighted him; he was an adult, the ruler of a nation (and the world, in a way) and, apparently, the stronger shinobi. The old nukenin waited for the final blow to come, but when it didn't, he opened his eyes. His pupil was staring at him with a curious expression on his face. "You have yet to finish me off. Do not tell me you are so weak as to be unable to take my life."

"You want to die?"

Kakuzu fixed the Amekage with an unwavering look. "If you are prepared, there will not be any sorrow. I came here with one of two outcomes in mind: either you would die at my hand and be judged unworthy of being my successor, or I would die and my legacy would continue through you. This sentimentality is unbecoming of a hardened bounty hunter."

Naruto returned the gaze evenly for a long moment, not saying anything; despite what the bounty hunter said, he wasn't sure whether Kakuzu would've actually killed him or not, but he knew that he was tired of trying to meet his teacher's expectations. Finally, he said, "You know, Kakuzu, you taught me a lot of things over the years. Taijutsu, ninjutsu…how to survive…granted, your methods were a bit unorthodox, but I appreciated the fact that you took the time out to teach me the things you'd learned from your considerable experience." He grinned a little at the emphasis on the nukenin's age, enjoying the jab at his teacher while he retained the upper hand. Kakuzu had taken so many potshots at him over the years that it felt good to return the favor. "But even through all that, I think the one lesson you taught me that I always paid attention to was the value of a person's life. And I think you're worth more to me alive than dead."

The ex-Waterfall shinobi felt the threads holding him in place withdraw; he sat up as they finished disappearing beneath his pupil's skin. Green eyes gazed around at the conglomeration of Ame-nin that had steadily appeared over the course of his fight with the younger thread-user. He scoffed as two familiar heads – one mint green, the other cobalt blue – jumped down from the assorted gathering and approached them, two smaller figures in tow. "Your time serving as Amekage has made you tender-hearted if you consider any previous relationship we once shared 'valuable'."

The blond shook his head as Fū and Harō came to stand beside him, the former holding a girl with hair a shade paler than her mother's, the latter putting down another blond who immediately ran to Naruto's side. Kakuzu estimated him to be 10 years of age, though his attention quickly returned to his pupil when Naruto said, "You misunderstood me. I think you could be a great asset to this village, if you want to join. Maybe you could even become Keizo's teacher," he added, patting the blond boy on the head. "And if not…" he shrugged, "well, I'm certain there are other ways you can repay me for sparing your life."

Kakuzu snorted at the offer – and at the fact that the Jinchūriki's son was also named after a shōgi piece, a trait meant to honor him, he assumed – though there was a strange appeal to teaching his student's progeny the ways of the world. Still… "I would no sooner join a Hidden Village than you would abandon yours."

Naruto grinned a little, seeming to have been expecting such an answer. "Fair enough. We can work something out, I'm sure." Ignoring his teacher, he turned to address Fū. "Where's Hidan?"

"Sleeping," she responded in a tone that implied the Jashinist had been forced into the activity. "Thanks for that, by the way," she mentioned to Kakuzu.

The bounty hunter hummed carelessly, ignoring her dryness. Naruto interposed himself back into the conversion, prompting, "So, the Mizukage, huh?" Kakuzu made a noncommittal noise in response. "You know, we were having a lot of issues with Kiri…and then, after rumors of Akatsuki showing up there sprouted, there were no more issues"

"I did not do it for you, if that is what you are implying," snapped the older thread-user. "She was a lucrative, challenging target, with two kekkei genkai to her name. Any repercussions of her demise were merely coincidental."

"Sure, sure." A beat of silence, and then, "I might have to go confront the Raikage soon…he keeps pushing for an alliance with Iwa in order to wrest power from Ame. But I hear he's guarded by a lot of people with pretty hefty bounties on their head…"

Kakuzu didn't even try to conceal his interest. "How intriguing…" He appeared contemplative for a long moment, and then allowed the suture holding his chest together to unweave, revealing a pulsing mass of darkness. One hand reached in and then withdrew seconds later, a small scroll clenched tightly in its grip. As his chest was stitched back together, he tossed the object at his pupil. "This is for you."

Naruto stared at the object for a moment, stunned. "This is"

"Yes. I have no reason to keep it. Consider it an acquired kekkei genkai for your…lineage." The word 'family' was too distasteful on his tongue. He stood up and moved to grab his Akatsuki cloak, which was waterlogged, dirt-smeared, and possessed a plethora of rips and holes; heedless of the condition, he shrugged it on and closed the front. Keeping his back to the small group, he stated, "Naruto…you have grown into an impressive shinobi. We have not always seen eye-to-eye, but it is gratifying to see that you became some semblance of the man I intended you to be."

The blond nodded solemnly, and though he knew Kakuzu couldn't see it, he thought his teacher could sense the motion regardless. To have the old thread-user acknowledge him by name and praise him…it was the sort of thing he'd sought for most of his life. "Thanks, Kakuzu…"

Kakuzu pretended not to hear him. "I will take Hidan with me…he may yet prove useful in Kumo." He began walking away, offering a departing intonation of "Harō…Fū…Naruto…until the next time our paths cross."

The family of four plus Harō watched the bounty hunter disappear into the distance with a myriad of expressions. Naruto looked down when he felt a tug on his pants. Keizo was glancing up at him curiously with blue eyes. "Dad, who was that?"

Naruto placed a hand on his son's head. "That was my old sensei, Kakuzu, the greatest bounty hunter the world will ever see…and the closest thing you'll ever have to a grandfather."

Keizo absorbed this information silently before asking, "Will we ever see him again?"

The older blond looked into the distance where his former teacher had vanished. "I don't know," he admitted, "but I hope so."

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