The Cost of Living

Bounty

"Listen, brat," Kakuzu began one day during Naruto's morning exercises, "you are old enough now—" and Naruto inwardly wondered how many other people considered 8 'old enough', "—to start pulling your own weight. I am going to teach you how to engage in the world's oldest profession…"

Naruto raised a hand and opened his mouth to ask exactly what that was, but Kakuzu's glare silenced him.

"…Killing." Naruto could tell from the manic glint in his teacher's eyes that he was grinning beneath the mask. He gulped slightly, the prospect of following in Kakuzu's footsteps a somewhat foreboding one. Kakuzu noticed the movement and reigned in his bloodlust. "Problem, brat? As a ninja, you will have to kill eventually; that goes double for nukenin, who hunt and are hunted alike, and especially for bounty hunters."

"But Kakuzu, I'm only eight…aren't I a little young to be doin' this?"

Teacher stared at protégé momentarily before deigning to respond. "Naruto," began Kakuzu, voice deep and throaty. The blond came to immediate attention, Kakuzu's use of his name a clear indication that this was a serious conversation. "I have spent a lifetime engaged in this trade. Thus far, you have been exposed merely to the basics of the shinobi lifestyle…now it is time to get serious. Your focus will largely be on elemental ninjutsu, and only when I deem you ready will I send you out."

Naruto nodded in reluctant acceptance, observing the small twitch of the bridge of Kakuzu's nose that indicated he was smirking. "Good. We shall begin with the basics of bounty hunting.

"The guidelines for hunting other ninja are really quite simple. There are basically no rules for how the deed is done, but you must return the whole body to whatever collection station you go to."

"Why?" asked Naruto, confusion painted across his face. "I mean, can't you just cut off the head and bring that? That should be enough proof that you killed him, right?"

The bounty hunter nodded in agreement. "For any other profession, that would be correct. However, most of the bounties are placed by a missing-nin's home village in order to regain any secrets his body may contain. The secrets of kekkei genkai and clan techniques are a valuable commodity to most villages, and they require the body intact in order to properly dispose of any secrets it may contain."

"…I think I get it," Naruto said slowly. "Like if someone killed you, Taki would want your body whole in order to get that thread-thingy back, right? Hey, what is that? And why did you leave anyway?"

"…" Naruto watched a sliver of emotion pass over the visible features of Kakuzu's face before the bounty hunter turned around, arm extending out briefly before falling back to his side. "…We are done for now," Kakuzu bit out before stalking off, Naruto's gaze in the direction of the taller ninja's apparent frustration.

The bark of the tree that had sustained Kakuzu's wrath was completely splintered; it began to creak before toppling over into its fellows. Naruto gulped…his teacher had done that damage with just his fist, and so fast that it had been all but a blur. He made a mental note to not bring up Kakuzu's past again, lest the tree simply be representative of Kakuzu's temper, and resolved himself to yet another day of solitary training.


Naruto woke up early the next day and began his morning exercises, silently wondering where Kakuzu was. His teacher had not returned after leaving the training spot the previous day, and the blond was silently worried that he'd pushed the taller man too far.

Almost two hours later, Naruto paused as a shadow fell over him. He turned around to find Kakuzu standing behind him, looking none the worse for wear, although numerous splotches of blood covered Kakuzu's normally impeccable cloak and several pink spots decorated his white head covering. The blond knew better than to ask, so he remained silent as the former Taki-nin stared down at him unflinchingly. "Brat," Kakuzu finally greeted, his voice as level as it always seemed to be, "what have you accomplished so far?"

Naruto grinned, the tension from the previous day dissipating. "Just my mornin' exercises so far. You said we'd work on elemental ninjutsu trainin' today," he reminded.

Kakuzu grunted noncommittally in response, his gaze seeming dull with disinterest. "Now your real training will begin," he said, ignoring the blond's statement. "Older and more experienced shinobi will not be taken down by your pathetic repertoire of techniques. If you recall, you have a Fūton affinity, meaning that you are more easily able to utilize wind chakra than the other natures, so we shall begin there." Naruto nodded quickly, his face a picture of excitement. "Hm…perhaps a demonstration."

Kakuzu mentally concentrated on the Fūton chakra located within one of the masks on his back; he'd spent so many years honing his abilities that he didn't need to switch around his elemental affinities, but the power behind his techniques were always a little stronger when he did. "Watch," he commanded. He went through several hand seals before intoning, "Fūton: Atsugai." A condensed sphere of wind formed in front of his mouth before he released it into the trees, allowing it to expand from its shape and shred everything in its path.

The gales were so fierce that Naruto was forced to shield his eyes as they started tearing up. He squinted in the direction of the attack, and after a minute was finally able to lower his arm and gaze upon the destruction in a mixture of awe and fear. Trees were uprooted and torn asunder for up to 100 yards in a wide path about 50 yards across. Naruto gazed at Kakuzu with renewed respect. "Are you gonna teach me that?" the blond hyped, slack-jawed.

Kakuzu merely surveyed the damage with a neutral expression. "Perhaps in the future, when I deem you ready," he answered finally. "In the meantime—" here, Kakuzu bent down and picked up a single leaf from the ground, "—your main focus will be using your chakra to cut this leaf in two pieces." Naruto groaned as Kakuzu proceeded to slice the leaf neatly in half while it was held in the palm of his hand. He then gestured to the ground, indicating that Naruto should pick a leaf and begin, before turning around and walking away, leaving the blond to stare despondently at the object in his hand. Sighing, Naruto covered one hand with the other and began to focus all of his attention on cutting the leaf as his teacher had just done.

The bounty hunter observed from afar as Naruto struggled to halve the leaf with just his chakra. He could sense the frustration within his apprentice, but instead of approaching and offering pointers, he merely smirked to himself, pleased with the direction the boy was moving towards.


Over the course of the next year, Naruto slowly learned how to access and manipulate nature chakra. By about the 8-month mark, he could successfully split the leaf in half with minimal effort, and Kakuzu nodded his head in acknowledgment of this feat. Naruto grinned broadly in accomplishment.

From that day forward, Kakuzu had begun to teach him some basic Wind Release techniques. After Naruto had split the leaf, Kakuzu had explained more thoroughly why he was able to; wind chakra was quite malleable, capable of being shaped to be as sharp, thin, forceful, or blunt as the wielder desired. By applying his chakra to the leaf, Naruto was teaching himself how to use his elemental chakra alone to cut something.

His training was fairly routine, involving calisthenics and perfecting any ninjutsu Kakuzu deemed him ready to learn. For months, the days bled together until one fateful morning, when Kakuzu woke him up and stated, "Come, brat, we are going on a trip."

Naruto rose from bed groggily, asking, "Where are we goin', Kakuzu-sensei?"

Despite the fact that his teacher had specifically told him he only wanted to be called by his name – with no honorifics – Naruto had started slipping in the added tag as a way to test Kakuzu. The bounty hunter wasn't a great mentor, often disappearing for long stretches of time following blithe comments and vague instructions on how perform some feat of shinobi prowess. Compared to Ryo, who sat with him and helped him through concepts and problems, Kakuzu's teaching abilities were…lackluster.

He could understand it during the first couple of years; his grounding needed work, and the abilities that he could hone were simple enough to do on his own that Kakuzu's presence wasn't needed, especially since he could always go to Ryo for extra knowledge. Now that he was a little older, with most of his foundation laid and the rest of his ninja career reliant upon a different foundation, Kakuzu's absence was quite noticeable.

He'd once asked why the taller shinobi didn't stick around to help him learn the skills he gave the blond glimpses of, and after a long silence, Kakuzu had answered, "Because the road to self-satisfaction is far more vindicating than the alternative."

Naruto hadn't been satisfied with such a cryptic answer, but calls for his teacher to explain himself hadn't yielded any results, so he'd resorted to other methods…namely, trying to get Kakuzu to actually give him the time of day. The blond suspected that, despite his appearance, the former Taki-nin was actually older than he appeared; the way he talked was a bit archaic, and he could recall Kakuzu expressing some disdain for things being 'old-fashioned', as if he'd lived during those times and moved past them. As a result, his dislike of honorifics probably stemmed from the fact that he didn't like being considered old, so Naruto had started using them as a way to irritate the man.

The only downside was that Kakuzu always retaliated, and the bounty hunter didn't believe in restricting punishment. Still somewhat tired, Naruto wasn't able to dodge the fist aimed for his head.

"What have I told you about honorifics?" Kakuzu growled. "As for your question, we are heading for the Land of Lightning. There are rumors of a rogue Kumo-nin around, and the best way to learn anything is by example.

"It is time to take you bounty hunting," he finished, and just by his tone of voice, Naruto knew he was smirking.

It took five days for the duo to reach the border of the Land of Lightning. Naruto was a bit tired by the end of the journey – Kakuzu had kept them moving at a steady pace with minimal sleep, stating that it was best to get there early so no one else could take the bounty. "Stay watchful and be careful," Kakuzu cautioned his pupil. "This man is a Jōnin, and you are still learning simple moves." Naruto nodded in understanding.

It took the better part of the day before the pair managed to find any sort of clue to the target's location: the embers of a hastily doused campfire. Kakuzu had them follow the trail for several hours before stopping for a short rest. After that, teacher and student began moving again, finding more signs of recent activity along the way, clues that indicated fear was driving the shinobi to be sloppy, according to Kakuzu. Naruto figured that his teacher took some sort of sadistic pleasure in knowing that.

They ended up stumbling upon the renegade about mid-morning of the sixth day. He possessed unkempt crimson hair and narrow honey eyes, clothed in the standard Jōnin outfit of Kumogakure. He stood up as Kakuzu approached, taking a defensive stance. "Who are you?" he asked.

Kakuzu released a mental sigh; sometimes it got a little tiring being asked that question. It was fine to take credit where it was due, but with his focus shifted in several different directions since becoming Naruto's caretaker, bounty hunting had become more of a method of stress relief than recreational activity, and now he often preferred just fighting to the verbal boasting he had employed in the past. Instead of replying, he went through the appropriate seals and muttered, "Fūton: Atsugai." The nukenin dodged the condensed sphere of wind that was formed, but Kakuzu kept up the assault – he could apparently control whether or not the wind expanded into the torrential gusts Naruto had been witness to after it was launched.

The blond observed the battle from afar, awed by Kakuzu's talent. His teacher stuck with using wind element tactics throughout the battle, for both Naruto's sake and the fact that – as he'd explained during the journey – his opponent had a lightning affinity. Moving in close, he engaged in a short-lived, brutal taijutsu match with the missing-nin, before using a Fūton technique Naruto had not yet been taught to slice neatly into the Kumo-nin's body, which immediately crumpled to the ground. Kakuzu motioned for Naruto to move closer; a bright slash of red stained his dark cloak. "You need to get used to and accept the sight of the dead," he stated dispassionately.

Naruto did as he bade and simply stared at the body, waiting for some sort of emotion but feeling nothing. The Kumo-nin didn't mean anything to him except as a means to make a living, and he realized suddenly that this was Kakuzu's intent all along – to both desensitize him to the death of other ninja and to show him why it was necessary. He admired Kakuzu's handiwork for another minute before looking up at the taller ninja, waiting for further instructions. "Good," Kakuzu said, "now come. We have a long trek ahead of us." Grabbing the dead renegade and slinging him over his back, the former Taki-nin started to walk, his apprentice following not far behind.


Ten-year-old Naruto leapt from treetop to treetop in an attempt to catch his quarry. The year following Kakuzu's brutal capture of the former Kumo-nin, Naruto had been even more devoted to training than he had previously. It had taken a year – mostly because Kakuzu had continued to disappear for long periods of time, and Naruto wasn't supposed to leave without the man's say-so – until the bounty hunter had deemed his pupil ready for his first mission. It had started a week ago, when Kakuzu had walked into the tent and kicked Naruto awake…

"It is time," Kakuzu growled. By the time Naruto's eyes were open, the taller man had already departed their living quarters, leaving the blond to dress quickly and follow his mentor out.

"Time for what?" he asked, confused.

Kakuzu turned to look at him. "Your initiation," responded the mercenary. "Your skills should be sufficient to hunt a low-level Chūnin, so we shall test you." He pulled out a photograph and held it up so that Naruto could see it. The man in the photo had short brown hair and luminescent golden irises. A forehead protector emblazoned with the mark of the Hidden Grass Village kept back his longer bangs.

"This is Takashi," Kakuzu continued. "He was a contact of mine within Kusagakure, but was recently kicked out for siphoning funds from the government. A man after my own hearts." If Naruto didn't know any better, he would've thought Kakuzu regarded the man with some fondness. "His usefulness to me has become nonexistent due to this, and your mission is to kill him and bring his body back to me. As he is only a Chūnin with basic skills, his capture should be easy, but do not be stupid. Here is a scroll for you to bring the body back in," he added, tossing the blond said object.

Naruto caught the scroll, followed by the second one Kakuzu threw immediately after. "What's this one?"

"Open it," Kakuzu replied gruffly. Naruto unfurled the scroll and set it on the ground, placing his palm upon it and applying chakra. There was a brief 'poof', and the blond waited for the small cloud of smoke to disperse before looking at the contents: a pair of black cargo pants, a long-sleeved charcoal grey shirt, and a dark blue vest with multiple pockets.

"For all intents and purposes, you are now a Genin," Kakuzu explained. "As such, you will wear appropriate shinobi attire and carry equipment with you at all times." When Naruto looked up with the beginning of tears in his eyes, Kakuzu turned away. "Get rid of those tears, brat. I did it for my reputation as well as yours, not because I care. Now get changed and leave before your sentimentality gets you killed."

Naruto had changed and quickly left after that remark; he doubted that Kakuzu would carry through with his threat, considering how often his teacher made it (and especially since it seemed like he couldn't really die thanks to his supposed kekkei genkai), but there was no point in pissing him off when he seemed to be in a relatively giving mood.

Unfortunately, the mission had so far gone not nearly as smoothly as Naruto had hoped. The minute he had come within a half-mile of his quarry on the border of the Lands of Grass and Earth, Takashi had quickly fled, moving west towards the Land of Birds.

That had been almost three days ago. Predator and prey had steadily passed through the Land of Birds and into another small nation; all the while, Naruto had been triggering Takashi's traps, tripwires, and exploding tags. The blond was merely thankful for his amazing stamina; constant movement and chakra expenditure for several days was no mean feat, and he was sure Takashi was using soldier pills to stagger on.

The chase couldn't last much longer.

After another 20 minutes of tree-jumping, Naruto landed in an open field, a huge, foreboding castle erected before him. Looking around but seeing no one, he decided to approach the building. He opened the giant front doors and stepped through, taking a moment to allow his eyes to adjust to the gloom. Behind him, the door swung closed with an ominous sound, and immediately after turning to look at it, Naruto ducked to avoid the shuriken that were thrown at him from the darkness. They embedded themselves in the solid wood of the door, and Naruto inspected them briefly before muttering dryly, "Well, I guess he's here."

"W-who are you, and w-what do you want w-with me?" stammered a terrified voice from the dark.

"I am…" began Naruto, "your executioner." He paused briefly, a bright smile lighting up his face. "I've wanted to say that for so long!" Kakuzu always had a strange way of intimidating people just by speaking his name, though the blond supposed that his physical presence and deep voice helped with that; a kid's appearance and voice would only get him so far.

"You sound like a kid," came the voice again, this time closer and more confident. Naruto looked up and saw Takashi on the second floor, leaning over the railing. His brown hair was unkempt and dirty, and his golden eyes glinted strangely from within sunken skin. "You are just a kid!" he exclaimed. Then he began laughing. "They sent a kid to take me out? Oh, that's rich!" He was stopped abruptly as a shuriken made a small cut on his cheek.

"Next one won't miss," Naruto promised. "Kakuzu wanted you taken out, and I'm gonna do it."

Takashi suddenly grew serious. "Kakuzu? And he sent you after me? He's severely underestimating me," he finished with a laugh. The rogue Kusa-nin then leapt from the balcony straight towards Naruto, kunai in hand.

Naruto reached into one of his pockets and pulled out several shuriken. He threw them deftly with his right hand before performing hand seals. "Fūton: Reppūshō," he muttered. Holding out both hands – palms forward – a gust of wind rushed from them, propelling the shuriken forward at a much faster velocity.

Takashi angled his neck slightly, letting the shuriken pass right by him. "Ha! Is that all you've got, kid? You'll need more than that to defeat…me?" A spurt of blood erupted from his neck, and the missing-nin dropped to the floor, hand clasped to the wound. "What…you…?" he gurgled.

Naruto walked up to him, making sure to stay far enough away that he wouldn't be caught off-guard by any tricks. He held up his right hand, the one that had grabbed the shuriken. Attached to three of his fingers were thin, nearly invisible strands of ninja wire. "These were attached to the shuriken I threw at you. Ninja wire's pretty good at conductin' chakra, so I channeled my wind chakra through the wires into the shuriken. Even though you dodged the actual weapon, the wind meant that you weren't gettin' away from me," he explained.

The blond watched as Takashi struggled to say something and failed, the light fading from his eyes. "Hmm, that was kinda lucky…wasn't even sure that'd work. And a nice catch with the jugular," he congratulated himself. Kakuzu had told him that his size and age would make others underestimate him initially, and taking advantage of that moment was key.

As much as he hated to admit it, his teacher had been right. He removed the scroll Kakuzu had given him from his back and opened it on the floor. "Time to seal you and get outta here."

"DEVOUR."

"Eh?" The 10-year-old turned around, confused.

Then the tongues erupted from everywhere.

Naruto had to back-flip quickly to avoid being hit by one of the tongues. Another one tried to hit him, forcing him to duck quickly. A third tongue scooped up Takashi's corpse and disappeared through an open doorway. "HEY!" Naruto protested indignantly. "He's mine!"

The distraction cost him. One tongue flailed wildly and caught the boy a hard blow upside the head, knocking him out. It rolled Naruto in its grasp and disappeared from where it came, along with all the others. The room was left empty and silent, a splatter of blood on the floor the only sign of any disturbance.

"DEVOUR."


"Oooohh…"

Naruto blearily opened his eyes, grasping his head with both hands as a searing pain rent through his skull. "What hit me?" Sitting up slowly, he looked around to take stock of his situation. He appeared to be in some sort of fleshy hallway that extended in both directions endlessly. The only things he appeared to be missing were the sealing scroll and…

"…Crap. Now I have to find that stupid body." He looked left and right, opting to go left. "Hope I chose the right way," he grumbled, setting off on the path.

It took half an hour of wandering down the hallway, but he finally came across Takashi's corpse, nestled in a small crook of the fleshy wall. "Finally," he sighed. Naruto walked up to the wall and took out a kunai, digging into the material binding his bounty.

"DEVOUR."

The blond turned around at that voice, wary. Last time, tongues had shot out of the walls…he wasn't taking any chances.

A pale green mist began to emanate from the wall behind him, and Naruto, curious, threw his kunai at it. It promptly melted, causing Naruto to blanch. "Acid?! Oh, come on!" He brought out another kunai and applied wind chakra, lengthening it and sharpening the blade. Cutting swiftly through the fleshy wall freed his bounty, causing Takashi's dead weight to fall completely upon him. He shoved it off and chanced a glance behind him, noting the acid hovering mere feet away. Panicked, the blond clasped his hands together and threw them both out perpendicularly from his body, shouting, "Fūton: Reppūshō!" The acid was blown away a fair distance due to the amount of chakra thrown into the technique, but began advancing quickly again.

Plan B, Naruto thought. Tiger, Ox, Dog, Rabbit, Snake! "Fūton: Daitoppa!" he yelled, this time pointing his hands up at the ceiling. A large blast of wind – sharper, denser, and stronger than the Violent Wind Palm – flew from them, hitting the ceiling and cutting a circular tunnel out. Naruto immediately picked up Takashi bridal-style and jumped, arriving on the first floor of the castle before the hole slowly knit closed behind him.

Naruto panted in a mixture of fear and exhaustion, quickly locating the scroll he had left behind earlier and sealing the Kusa-nin's body into it. He picked up the scroll in time to observe a man walk out from one of the doorways leading to another room. He wore dark pants, a light grey, long-sleeved shirt with a red breastplate over it and green shoulder guards, as well as a tall blue helmet that was strapped under his chin. "What the…?" Naruto began as the man walked past him. The man was suddenly surrounded by an ethereal blue glow, and Naruto fell silent as he walked slowly up the stairs. Entranced, the blond slipped the scroll containing Takashi's body into a holder on his back and followed the other man upstairs.

After several flights of stairs, Naruto arrived at what he surmised to be one of the castle's many towers. He blinked rapidly and looked around, realizing the man was no longer in front of him. "Huh…well, time to go…" he started, right before his blue eyes spied something on the other side of the room. "Hm? What's that?"

On an altar was placed a scroll that looked worn with age, which Naruto promptly unrolled. Across the top and bottom was an artistic border of some type of lizard, though what kind Naruto couldn't specify. The middle portion contained names and the fingerprints of people imprinted in dried blood. He stared at the scroll blankly until something Kakuzu had once told him caused a wide grin to split his face.

"Some shinobi have the ability to summon animals to assist them in a fight," Kakuzu lectured. "These shinobi are typically part of a clan who has a contract that it passes down through the generations, and when its members are old enough, they are allowed to sign the contract and summon the animals in a method comparable to summoning weapons from a scroll. Konoha's Sannin – Jiraiya, Tsunade, and Orochimaru – are perhaps some of the most notable possessors of Summoning Contracts in recent times, able to call upon the toads, slugs, and snakes, respectively. That said, Summoning Contracts are rather rare, so I do not expect you to have to deal with them often, if at all, but you should be aware of their existence."

Kakuzu had never mentioned summoning again because they had never had a situation arise where they needed to talk about it. But even from his teacher's vague description, it was entirely possible that the scroll before him was a Summoning Contract.

"DEVOUR." With that word, acid began to seep from the walls into the small room.

Naruto didn't even think. Copying the example of the people before him, he quickly bit his index finger hard enough to draw blood and wrote his name in the next blank spot on the paper, following it up by biting the rest of the digits on his right hand and pressing the entire appendage to the page. "STOP!" he shouted, eyes tightly closed.

It took but a second for the acid mist to stop advancing and slowly begin to dissipate. Ten seconds later, the room was clear. Naruto opened his eyes. "Um…good," he said, surprised. "Now…go away." There was a small delay, followed by a rather loud 'pop' and a cloud of smoke, leaving Naruto suspended hundreds of feet in the air, scroll in front of him. "AHHHH!" he screamed, body plummeting towards the ground. "Fūton: Reppūshō!" he shouted, aiming his hands at the ground. The Violent Wind Palm slowed his descent enough that he released the technique 10 feet above the ground, landing nimbly in a crouch. He plopped to the ground with a sigh, summoning scroll in front of him.

Naruto exhaled heavily, the recent slew of events catching up to him. "What a day," he muttered. He stood up and picked up the contract, tying both ends to a piece of rope he had on him. He then slung the scroll over his back, where it knocked against the one containing Takashi's body. "Wait 'til Kakuzu sees this haul." The blond walked toward the tree line at a sedate pace; upon reaching it, he jumped for a low branch and disappeared into the foliage, leaving the Land of Neck far behind.


It took over a week to return to Onanji, the blond moving unhurriedly after his harrowing adventure. When Naruto found Kakuzu meditating at their usual spot in the late morning, the bounty hunter appeared severely disgruntled. "You were gone longer than I anticipated," Kakuzu noted with practiced blandness, opening first one eye, then the other.

Naruto reached back and rubbed the back of his head embarrassedly. "Eh heheh, Takashi led me on quite a chase…and his hidin' spot proved to be really dangerous. Here's his body," he added, removing the scroll with the Kusa-nin sealed inside.

"Good," Kakuzu stated, climbing to his feet and taking the scroll from his pupil. "That is one less headache I must deal with." Then his eyes caught sight of the other object strapped to Naruto's back. "Why do you have an extra scroll?"

Naruto tried to fight back a wide grin but failed. "Oh, this?" he asked coyly. "Just somethin' I picked up on the trip. I was hopin' you'd be able to explain it more clearly."

Kakuzu quirked an eyebrow as his apprentice removed the scroll from his back and laid it on the ground, unrolling it slowly. His eyes widened slightly when he saw what it was, but he quickly schooled his features back into a neutral expression. "It appears that you have stumbled across the long-lost Chameleon Summoning Contract of the Kubisaki clan."

The blond boy bounced excitedly on his heels. It really is a Summoning Contract! "I found it in an old castle that tried to eat me after chasing Takashi for three days," he told his teacher.

Kakuzu digested this information and then nodded. "Takashi must have led you into the Land of Neck. Fifty years ago, the Kubisaki clan, who ruled that area, was deeply embroiled in war. Outnumbered, the remaining Kubisaki members were forced to retreat into their castle. It was rumored that Kubisaki Kōza, the Clan Head notorious for his chameleon-like techniques, summoned a giant beast before his death and told it to destroy anyone that dared enter his domain. The aggressors were never heard from again…though the Kubisaki clan has also never been heard from, either."

"Well, that explains the repetitive 'devour' I kept hearin'," Naruto mumbled. "So how does this thing work?" he asked aloud. "I signed it 'cause I was in a bit of a bind, but I don't really know how to use it. Can you teach me?"

The bounty hunter snorted. "There is little I do not know. As I told you before, summoners have a blood-link with a specific animal that they can call upon to aid in battle. The amount of shinobi who use summons are small, though, as many of the more useful ones require vast amounts of chakra…not that that is a problem for you," Kakuzu added dryly.

"The hand seals for the Kuchiyose no Jutsu are: Boar, Dog, Bird, Monkey, and Ram. It is a requirement to make a blood offering when performing the technique, so most shinobi tend to bite their thumb before they perform the signs. Then you just need to place your palm on a solid surface and call the summon you want."

When Kakuzu didn't continue, Naruto asked, "Is that it?"

Kakuzu shot him an annoyed look. "Would I not tell you if there was more? Now you just need to practice."

Naruto didn't bother saying it would be just like his teacher to withhold information, instead biting his thumb hard enough to break skin and performing the required seals. "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!" he yelled, slamming his palm to the ground. The inky whirls of a seal spread out from his palm, and a poof of smoke accompanied it before a tiny chameleon, no longer than Naruto's finger appeared. Naruto stared at it blankly while Kakuzu fought down an uncharacteristic bark of laughter.

"You obviously need more practice," Kakuzu said as the lizard disappeared in another poof of smoke. "I shall return later."

Dusk had fallen by the time Naruto made any headway on the new technique. As sweat dripped down his face, Naruto performed the seals once more and panted, "Kuchiyose no Jutsu!"

When the smoke cleared, a small chameleon – roughly the size of Naruto's forearm – stood in front of him on all fours. He was a bright green color, a few white spots sprinkled over his body, and a cylindrical brown container strapped to his back under his belly. His tongue flicked out experimentally, his left eye focusing on Kakuzu (who stood a short distance away) while his right eye stared at Naruto. "What is it?" he demanded haughtily, voice shrill with youth.

For his part, Naruto stood there, completely flabbergasted. Finally he gasped, "I did it!" He laughed heartily before blinking stupidly. "Wait…did you talk?"

The lizard scoffed at him, focusing his left eye on Naruto as well. "'Course I can talk. Th' name's Kamesata." He eyed Naruto carefully, and the blond repressed a shudder as both eyes went in different directions. "Whaddya want?" he repeated.

Kakuzu chose that moment to step in. "Kamesata, inform the one in charge that we would like to speak to him."

Kamesata's left eye swiveled back to Kakuzu and appraised him quietly. "Fine," he agreed finally. "I'll let ojii-san know he's wanted. Didn't even get a long time back," he grumbled. With that, he disappeared in a puff of smoke.

"Naruto," Kakuzu began, "this will require a lot of chakra. You will need to gather as much as you can – more than you think yourself capable of – and push it all into the technique. But first, follow me." Kakuzu took off into the woods, Naruto following until the bounty hunter stopped in a clearing Naruto identified as the place where the Wind Release: Pressure Damage technique had been demonstrated two years prior. "We are far enough from the village and it is dark enough that there should not be too much of a disturbance."

Naruto nodded in compliance and closed his eyes to collect what little chakra he had remaining. More, he thought, still more.

Deep within Naruto's mindscape, an eye – pupil slit and red – the size of a grown man opened. The creature to which it belonged released a deep chuckle. YOU NEED CHAKRA, EH, CHILD? VERY WELL…I SHALL COMPLY…FOR NOW. BUT THIS IS MERELY THE BEGINNING. The eye closed again, but a foul orange-red chakra emanated from the creature and disappeared into the mindscape.

Naruto was already part-way through the hand seals when he became shrouded in an orange-red cloak of chakra. Kakuzu's eyes narrowed slightly, but he did nothing but observe as Naruto slammed his palm on the ground and roared, "KUCHIYOSE NO JUTSU!"

A whirlwind of wind and smoke exploded from under where Naruto stood, and when it cleared, he was standing a hundred feet off the ground. The creature Naruto had summoned was massive, easily as tall as the castle Naruto had been in earlier, and several times as long, including its curled tail. Its skin was a mottled green, each foot possessing wickedly sharp claws; the head was decorated with three horns: two smaller ones – twenty feet long – between its eyes, and a forty-foot one protruding from its snout. "KŌZA?" asked the chameleon, voice coarse like sandpaper and distinctly masculine. His eyes swiveled all around, finally focusing upwards, where Naruto stood in the middle of the triangle of horns. "NO…YOU'RE NOT EVEN A KUBISAKI. WHO ARE YOU, BOY?"

Naruto gulped but managed to eke out, "My name's Uzumaki Naruto, and I'm the newest summoner…I guess."

The chameleon grumbled, "KAMESATA COULD HAVE AT LEAST MENTIONED THAT. I AM SHIROMARI, THE LEADER OF THE CHAMELEONS OF THE BANKAKYU FOREST. FOR WHAT REASON HAVE YOU SUMMONED ME, UZUMAKI NARUTO?"

The blond looked at Kakuzu helplessly, who sighed in defeat. "I asked that you be summoned, Shiromari-sama," the mercenary stated with a slight inclination of his head. "Propriety dictates that the boy should take time to become properly acquainted with the leader of his new potential partners."

Shiromari watched Kakuzu with one eye and kept the other on Naruto. After a long moment – which included Kakuzu standing completely stationary and Naruto fidgeting restlessly – the chameleon grunted. "SINCE YOU HAVE THE CONTRACT, I PRESUME THAT IT WAS YOU WHO SAVED ME FROM THAT WRETCHED EXISTENCE KŌZA TRAPPED ME IN. FOR THAT, I AM GRATEFUL. MY FAMILY AND MYSELF OWE YOU A GREAT DEBT, UZUMAKI NARUTO…WE ARE HUMBLY AT YOUR SERVICE."

"Really? Cool!"

The Chameleon Boss eyed him for a moment. "YES…WELL THEN. IF YOU DON'T MIND, I'D LIKE TO SEE MY FAMILY…LOTS OF CATCHING UP TO DO, YOU UNDERSTAND. DO NOT HESITATE TO CALL IF YOU NEED ASSISTANCE, UZUMAKI NARUTO…WE OF THE CHAMELEON TRIBE WILL RESPOND." Then Shiromari disappeared in the same poof of smoke and whirling wind he had appeared in, and Naruto fell to the ground.

Kakuzu caught him just before he impacted. "Do not say that I have never done anything for you, Uzumaki Naruto," he groused, the subject of his ire resting sleepily against his back. Accursed brat causes too much fucking trouble…

Naruto floated on the border between consciousness and sleep, the week's events finally catching up to his 10-year-old body. As darkness overtook his vision, the blond had one last thought:

Was there a voice in my head right before I summoned Shiromari-sama?

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