The Cost of Living



The statement seemed to echo in Naruto's dream, chilling him down to his very core. It had repeated every so often, like a haunting memory that Naruto couldn't quite place but knew he had heard before, the voice familiar and yet not at the same time. There was something about the voice that bothered him, but the 10-year-old couldn't pinpoint exactly what it was…just that it seemed to radiate hatred and evil.


Naruto looked around in search of the owner of the voice, but all he saw was an unending darkness. The last thing he could remember wastalking to Shiromari. The giant chameleon had told Naruto to call upon him in a time of need, and then…nothing.

I musta passed out, Naruto deduced. But that doesn't explain what's goin' on here.

The blond noticed that his dream appeared to lighten, casting just enough light to illuminate where he was. He seemed to be standing in several inches of water in what – his nose told him – must have been a sewer. A massive wrought-iron gate stood in front of him, and Naruto took a small step forward in order to better make out the word 'seal' inscribed on a piece of paper far above him. He looked around, but after noting nothing else, turned his attention back to the gate.

Suddenly, two blood-red eyes opened wide, accompanied by the wide, feral maw of some beast behind the gate. "LET ME OUT!" roared the creature, leaking out enough killer intent to make Naruto scream.

"AH!" Naruto shot up, instinctively grabbing for the kunai he normally kept by his bedroll and bringing it defensively to his chest. Kakuzu chose that moment to stroll in through the door – the door? Naruto wondered absently – and loom ominously over the bed. "…You look rather stupid in that position with nothing in your hand," he commented idly.

Naruto realized that the kunai he had attempted to grab was nothing but air, and so he lowered his arm and sat up further in the bed – a real bed! He grasped the blanket in one hand, running his hand over the soft padding of the mattress underneath as if to confirm that it was real. "Where are we?" Naruto asked.

"That is unimportant. Tell me what happened."

"It is important," Naruto insisted. "And I could ask you the same thing: what happened?"

The two made eye contact for a solid minute before Kakuzu made a breathy sound that Naruto took to be a sigh of resigned frustration. "I rented a room for a night so you could recover. You exhausted your chakra practicing Kuchiyose no Jutsu yesterday, especially by summoning the Chameleon Boss. You have been asleep for almost a day. Now, what happened?" he demanded.

The blond was quiet as he collected his thoughts. "I want a sword," he said with finality, ignoring his teacher's question.

"There is no basis for you needing a sword, nor a reason for bringing it up," Kakuzu replied curtly.

"But think about it! How kick-ass would I be if I had a sword?" he rambled. "I could—"

"Your non-sequitur bores me and evades my question," interrupted the older ninja. "Tell me what happened."

Naruto thought about lying to avoid the subject, but then decided against it. Kakuzu could be rather intimidating when he chose to be, and his ire seemed to be rising, a sure sign that screwing around with him was a bad idea. "When I summoned Shiromari-sama," he began slowly, "I thought I heard a voice in my head. It said somethin' about me needin' chakra, and that it would comply for now. Then…" Naruto shrugged, "I was able to summon Shiromari-sama."

Kakuzu began moving steadily around the room, a movement that Naruto would have described as pacing if it weren't for the fact that Kakuzu never paced. He seemed to be muttering something to himself, and Naruto caught the words 'seal', 'chakra,' and finally 'Kyūbi'. His eyes became wide as saucers on the last word. "Wait, what?"

"When is your birthday?" Kakuzu demanded seriously.

"October 10th," he replied. "Why? And what about the Kyūbi? Isn't it dead?"

"So…it is as I suspected," Kakuzu muttered. "You are from Konoha," he stated coldly. Naruto gulped at how tense the room seemed to get at those words.

The blond shook his head nervously, suddenly aware that admitting such a fact was probably not the best idea. "N-no I'm not…"

"Your birthday coincides with the date that the Kyūbi attacked Konoha."

"So? What does that hafta do with anything?"

Kakuzu shot him a glance. "You are the Jinchūriki of the legendary Kyūbi no Yōko."

Naruto was stunned. "W-what? No, the Fourth Hokage killed it—"

The blond was interrupted by Kakuzu's throaty laugh. His teacher chuckled for a bit before settling himself imposingly in front of Naruto's bed. "I have been in contact with a representative of several persons who have a vested interest in the Bijū," Kakuzu began with an imperial air. "As a result, I have become acquainted with a good degree of knowledge about them.

"First of all, you have a massive chakra supply, one that will most likely surpass my own once you reach your fullest potential. Secondly, those whisker-like markings on your cheeks are a trait of the Kyūbi within you, which most Jinchūriki possess. And I have already explained the third part…you are from Konoha and share a birthday with the anniversary of the Kyūbi's so-called 'death'. Incidentally, the Bijū are unable to be killed." He paused briefly before concluding, "I believe that that should be enough evidence to satisfy you."

The younger ninja remained silent for a moment, absorbing the information. Finally, "So…the voice in my head…"

"Is the Kyūbi attempting to make contact with you," Kakuzu confirmed.

"What else…?" he asked quietly.


"What else do you know about the Bijū, or these Jin…Jin…"

"Jinchūriki," Kakuzu supplied, "are the human hosts who have a Bijū sealed inside of them." He reached into one of his sleeves and rummaged around, pulling out a photograph and holding it up for Naruto to see. The girl depicted had mint green hair and pupil-less orange eyes, and wore tattered street clothing that covered bronze skin. "This is Fū, the host of the Nanabi no Kabutomushi from Takigakure. One of my contacts took this picture and passed it along to me."

Naruto carefully took the picture from Kakuzu, staring at it intently. After a minute, he folded it carefully and set it on the dresser next to the bed. Teacher and student were silent until the blond could no longer bear it. "Do you…hate me?" he asked carefully, avoiding eye contact.

"Should I?"

"Everyone else did," mumbled the blond.

"I presume that you are referring to the people of Konoha." Naruto nodded, prompting Kakuzu to continue. "From what I have heard, Jinchūriki are often hated and/or feared by the people of their country because they are often reminded of the demon within and of nothing else. Having been unaffected by the Kyūbi's attack, I have no reason to scorn you. You have proven yourself to be a valuable commodity, and I see no reason currently to discontinue our arrangement." After a brief pause, Kakuzu inquired, "I can only assume that that is the reason you left Konoha?"

"Yeah," Naruto replied. "Everyone there hated me. I thought it was because my family did somethin' and then were killed. But now…" Naruto's fist clenched the blanket in anger, "I find out it was because of the Kyūbi, this monster that lives inside of me. I was protectin' them from it!" he insisted.

Kakuzu nodded. "You will discover that the stupidity of people knows no bounds. Your good deeds will often go unnoticed and indeed be scorned, even if it is undeserved."

Angry at having discovered the real reason behind his isolation in Konoha, Naruto wasn't quite thinking very clearly when he scoffed, "What do you know about scorn?"

The statement was like a catalyst.

Naruto choked as Kakuzu's hand shot out and latched around his throat, gripping tightly before slowly retracting towards the bounty hunter. Kakuzu brought Naruto up to his face, strange green eyes as hard as diamonds and staring into Naruto's scared blue orbs. "Do not," he began, speaking low and slow, "pretend to understand what I have been through. I know more of scorn than you ever will," he continued in a dangerous tone, "so do not think that your status as a Jinchūriki makes you special."

Naruto's hands scrambled frantically for purchase on Kakuzu's much larger one, his face starting to turn blue from lack of oxygen. After another few seconds of letting the blond try to pry his hand free, Kakuzu relaxed his grip, allowing his student to collapse to the floor and gulp in great mouthfuls of much-needed air. "You have learned your lesson?" Kakuzu stated coolly. Naruto could only nod, not quite ready to use his voice yet. The mercenary waited another couple of minutes before saying in a voice that left no room for argument, "Tell me of your past."

The blond jerked in surprise before staring at his teacher with wide eyes. "Do not assume I care for your background," Kakuzu told him in the same cold tone, "I am merely curious."

"…I don't really remember much," Naruto admitted quietly. "There was an orphanage that I stayed at, but I was always ignored by the people in charge, and the other kids never really hung out with me.

"I remember a lot of hatred," he reminisced softly, "but I could never figure out why. I snuck into the library when I could to try and teach myself to read and write, and sometimes to figure out why everybody hated me, but I didn't get far and couldn't find anythin'. The shopkeepers always glared at me and chased me out, and most of the ninja ignored me. I remembering deciding that my family must've done somethin' really bad, gotten removed from all the books, and that I was the only one left. That's when I left…and met you."

Naruto lapsed into silence after his tale, and Kakuzu seemed to stare right through him as he digested the boy's story. At length, the bounty hunter said Naruto's name. The Jinchūriki looked up at his mentor, reading nothing on Kakuzu's face. "You remind me of me," he said finally.

Naruto inhaled sharply at this. "What?"

"When I was an elite Jōnin," Kakuzu began, "the elders of Takigakure assigned me a special mission. I was told to kill the Shodai Hokage."

Naruto's wide blue eyes grew larger at this pronouncement. "What?!"

"You heard me," Kakuzu said. "Now be quiet, brat." Naruto fell silent at this demand, and his teacher took a moment to recompose himself before continuing, "I snuck into the village proper and attempted to assassinate him, but I failed.

"I led him on a chase to the location known now as the Valley of the End. We clashed there, just the two of us, but despite my prowess in Suiton techniques, intelligence, and relatively large chakra reserves, I was soundly defeated by Senju Hashirama and his powerful Mokuton techniques. A unique kekkei genkai that allowed him to manipulate wood," he clarified, seeing Naruto about to ask. "It made him the most powerful and feared shinobi of the day.

"I returned to my village after attempting to complete this impossible task, and what was I greeted with?" Naruto remained silent, sure that this was a rhetorical question; he was proven right a moment later when Kakuzu roared, "SCORN!", his ire raised by the reminder of his past. Threads erupted from his body in a display of his brief lapse in control before he calmed down, returning to the stiff, rigid man Naruto normally saw him as.

"My village believed that I did not try hard enough and punished me for failing in my objective. For years, I had served that village faithfully and with complete dedication, taking any task that was asked of me. This blatant disrespect for all of my servitude infuriated and offended me, so I left. But I did not go without prizes," he added with an unseen malevolent grin.

Kakuzu held out his right arm, pulling back the sleeve to reveal dark flesh embroidered with sutures. Something wriggled underneath his skin like live snakes before popping out of a large stitch on his forearm, revealing themselves to be black threads. "I stole Takigakure's most precious treasures: the kinjutsu Jiongu…and the hearts of the Village Elders, who did not appreciate my service to their precious village," he hissed sadistically. "This," he concluded, pointing at the slash across his Waterfall forehead protector, "was the final separation between me and my village. That is when my current life truly began."

His narrative finished, Kakuzu waited for Naruto to digest the tale before speaking again. "Naruto," he stated, "do you understand why our histories our comparable?" The blond nodded slowly, prompting taller shinobi to continue. "It is up to you what you will do now."

"What do you mean?"

"We have been associated for five years now. Now that you know my history, what will you do with that knowledge? Will you return to your village – or any village – and attempt to capitalize on this information, or will you stay here with me? You do not yet have a name among nukenin, and it would be understandable if you wished to regain some semblance of a normal life, though if you spoke of me I would be forced to kill you"

"I'm stayin'," Naruto told him firmly. "I'm not afraid of your threats. You're the first person to ever take the time to teach me anything…sometimes…and I still have a lot more to learn. Besides," he added darkly, "if Konoha didn't want me, then I don't want it. I wanna show everyone there that they should be afraid of me."

Kakuzu remained silent as a slow smirk stretched across his mouth; it was fortunate that the blond had chosen to stay, because the alternative would've resulted in his pupil's death, Jinchūriki or no. He couldn't have anyone going around spilling his secrets, after all, and the boy's body would fetch a high price if his death was necessary. He will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. How amusing. "Then it is time to create another link between us. Come here."

Naruto stepped forward as the bounty hunter remained stationary. After several seconds of doing nothing, the blond noticed a large bulge moving from Kakuzu's upper arm to his forearm, finally reaching the stitch in his forearm before slowly being expelled by several black threads. Kakuzu grabbed the object with his left hand, pulling it out and revealing it to be a small scroll. The tall man bent down and placed it on the floor, unraveling it to reveal an older parchment with a black ring inscribed in the center. "Do you trust me?" Kakuzu asked.


Kakuzu nodded. "Simply place your palm within the circle," he ordered.

The 10-year-old gulped nervously, but nodded in understanding. He knelt down to place his right hand directly within the black ring; it glowed blue momentarily, and the kanji for Jiongu appeared in it as Kakuzu took several large steps backwards.

That was when a veritable mass of black threads erupted from the black ring and between his fingers, shooting upwards in a seemingly endless stream. They seemed to hit a peak, stopping in midair only to angle downwards with Naruto as the focal point. The blond almost stepped backwards, but Kakuzu's commanding bark of "Stay still!" stopped him.

The next thing Naruto knew, someone was screaming. It took a moment to realize that it was him screaming, the sound continuous and wracked with pain. The threads were burying into his body, completely bypassing his clothing and tearing into every inch of skin available below the neck.

The entire process only took a minute, but to Naruto it seemed to last an eternity. When it was over, he laid in a ball on the ground, body spasming and voice hoarse from screaming. Kakuzu stepped forward and rolled the scroll back up, allowing the threads within his body to wrap around it and pull it back into hiding.

"I would have warned you, but I believe that experience is the hallmark of learning," Kakuzu announced from above him, and Naruto could practically hear the sadistic glee dripping from the bounty hunter's voice.

Kakuzu bent down and lifted Naruto's left arm, pulling back the sleeve of the grey shirt he wore to reveal a thick black band inked into the boy's skin, halfway between the wrist and elbow of each arm. "This is the sign that you now possess Jiongu," Kakuzu declared. "This is Takigakure's most precious technique, greater than even the fabled Hero's Water of old, and you are now the second person to be granted its power. You have a year to gain control of it, and I will not train you how to use it. Like me, you will struggle to understand its power, but I believe that you have the potential to utilize it successfully. If you cannot use it by the end of a year, I will strip it from you, a process which may kill you. Take the time to recover while you can…I have to meet with someone." With that, he left the room.

The mercenary wandered past his and Naruto's normal training grounds, entering the forest and walking to where Shiromari had been summoned the previous day. Upon reaching the spot, he held his arm out, allowing one thread to wriggle free from his body and deposit something into his hand. He stared at the object – a tiny black seed – for a moment before channeling his chakra into it and letting it fall to the ground.

It only took 15 seconds to get the response he was waiting for.

"What do you want?" spoke the dark voice of Zetsu from behind him. Kakuzu turned around slowly, no longer surprised at Zetsu's strange ability to merge with and meld out of anything and everything.

"You told me I could contact you when I deemed it necessary by pushing my chakra into this seed," Kakuzu intoned. "I am slightly surprised to find that it worked," he added as an afterthought.

Zetsu snorted. "You still doubt my abilities, after all this time. If I give you information, you should trust that the information is accurate. Now, what do you want?" he repeated.

Kakuzu took a moment to note that Zetsu's white half was unusually silent, theorizing that the seed ability was perhaps unique only to Black Zetsu…which meant that the two halves could actually function independently. Suddenly Zetsu's usefulness and power became even clearer. "I require your assistance in finding someone. I believe that Akatsuki's contacts trumps mine in sheer quantity, meaning you have a better source of quality at your disposal for information."

"Who are you looking for?" Zetsu demanded, cutting straight to the chase. Kakuzu told him, and a sinister smile spread over White Zetsu's lips, the only motion he had made thus far. "I know just the person you want to find," Black Zetsu told him, the mirth evident in his voice.

Kakuzu wasn't kiddin' when he said it would be a struggle to understand Jiongu, thought Naruto. It had been three months since the former Taki-nin had bestowed the kinjutsu upon his student, and the first week had been spent in a struggle with the pain caused by the technique. Kakuzu had moved them out of the hotel room after that first night – "A waste of money," he commented dismissively with a wave of his hand – and Naruto had spent that next week trying to use the technique and collapsing in agony. All the while, his teacher had watched him mutely.

The bounty hunter had also been serious when he said that he wouldn't train Naruto in the ability. Arguably, it wasn't all that different from his regular teaching methodology, but Jiongu was also far more difficult to understand than the basics of taijutsu or elemental ninjutsu. Naruto was all on his own as far as a training schedule and what to practice, which meant he didn't have to hear Kakuzu's mocking sneers and dry sarcasm with respect to his talents and progress…though he wondered if that wouldn't have been preferable to the silence.

So far, Naruto had done very little with respect to using the black threads now within his body, though not really by choice. They seemed to retain some semblance of autonomy, almost sentience, and so he had spent the past three months attempting to find a way to control them. He was currently standing in front of a tree, shirtless, with one arm outstretched in front on his body. Focusing intently upon the tree, several threads shot out from the bands on his arms and pierced the trunk in places that Naruto imagined were vital spots on the average human male.

"You seem to be making progress, brat."

Naruto turned around to see his mentor standing behind him, arms folded across his chest. "Yeah?" he asked, excited. "How long did it take you to do that?"

"I would prefer not to embarrass you on such a prolific occasion," returned the hunter idly. When Naruto scowled, Kakuzu unfolded his arms and stepped towards the blond. "I came to let you know that I must venture out to find someone. I do not know when I will return."

"That's…unusually vague," Naruto commented, eyebrow quirked in suspicion. His teacher normally gave him an idea of where he was going, or who he was hunting, or…something. To hear none of that was…strange.

"It is," agreed Kakuzu before turning away, elaborating no further. "And there was one more thing…" Before Naruto could ask what it was, Kakuzu had spun around and launched his hand forward, grabbing a kunai from the pouch on Naruto's thigh and bringing it in an upward arc at Naruto's arm. The blond didn't even have time to react as Kakuzu used a combination of his monstrous strength and wind chakra to cleave straight through his arm, just below the elbow.

His deed done, Kakuzu dropped the kunai, leaving Naruto staring at his arm on the ground. The blond attempted to say something, yell at Kakuzu, scream in pain, but nothing came out. He remained mesmerized as, in the next second, threads popped out from the end of his arm on the ground and the stump of his arm still attached to his body. They mingled together and pulled the severed appendage from the forest floor to Naruto's forearm, disappearing under his skin; a band of stitch marks – an exact replica of the location of one of Kakuzu's – was the only thing left to show that the arm had ever been detached in the first place.

Naruto looked up to either yell or thank Kakuzu (he wasn't entirely sure which), but the other ninja had already disappeared.

It took about a month and a half of Kakuzu's precious time, but after following Zetsu's directions, he finally found who he was looking for.

"I have a request to make of you," he told the taller of the two men in front of him. The giant of a man listened to Kakuzu's request with a bored expression, but by the end he was grinning broadly.

"You've got yourself a deal, newbie," accepted the other man, his evil smirk revealing row upon row of sharp teeth. "I'm always up for fresh meat."

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